Story Bite #11: This Builds Character!

How many times have you been forced to do something that wasn’t a lot of fun and were told, “It’s good you did that! It builds character!”

I think this is pretty common, whether it’s going for a hike in the pouring rain, going camping when the ground is frozen, having to speak in front of a crowd and being ready to pass out or throw up…and while none of these things are necessarily fun in real life, they create fantastic problems for your characters.

When you’re writing fiction, one of the most important things you need to do with your story is ensure that your character has something very basic and human that causes problems. Call such things “challenges” if you like, or “conflicts,” but at their core, they’re problems that have the potential of making your character miserable.

Time for a picture:

Model of Walter Scott and his nursemaid Janet

This is part of a display at Smailholm Tower, a wee castle on the Scottish Borders. This case shows a scene from the life of Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist who popularized the genre of historical fiction. He visited this region as a child. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s a model of Sir Walter Scott as a boy when he was visiting his grandfather’s farm, back in the early 1800s. Young Walter had been quite ill, and the thought was that he’d feel better being in the fresh air of the Borders, and well outside of Edinburgh (cities during that time had pretty foul air). I read that young Walter got tired easily and had trouble getting around. I’m going to imagine a bit more: Perhaps he couldn’t eat a lot without getting sick, and so he was pretty weak. And perhaps one day his Aunt Janet went for a walk with him and forgot him on the hillside when she drifted off to meet a friend. There he was, sick, needing a crutch to get around, faced with the task of having to get back to his grandfather’s farm on his own. And then it started to rain.

Does this build character? It creates drama and tension. And loading the problems upon poor young Walter will show a lot about the kind of person he was.

Will he curl up on the ground and wait for someone to come looking for him? Will he try to get back to the farm? If he tries, does he walk carefully—and does he get soaked and even more sick as a result?—or does he try to rush back—and does he fall down and get badly hurt?

Try this:

Write about either young Walter or a character of your choice. Put that character into a situation, and think of how to make their life difficult.

  • Are they alone? Are they with people they don’t like—or who don’t like them?
  • Are they on a hillside? In the woods? In a city? In a boat on the water? Do they know where they are, and is there something wrong or dangerous about the place? Or are they in an unknown place?
  • What’s the weather? Sunny and hot? Rainy and cold? Spring? (My husband is allergic to grass pollen, so being in a field in early summer can be a big problem for him.)
  • How are they feeling? Did they not have enough sleep last night? Do they have a cold? A fever? Are they just nervous?
  • What happens? What’s a little thing that could occur to make your character uncomfortable or nervous? (For instance, a dog starts barking nearby.) What’s a bigger thing that you can add onto this? (The barking dog starts snarling, and gets loose.)
  • How does your character react?

Your story bite should be a paragraph to a page, describing your character’s situation, then an action, and then a reaction—what your character does in response to the action.

I’ve seen in some of my recent school visits that writing a paragraph can be hard, so I’ll let you in on a trick that a lot of professional writers use: Try drawing this scene instead: as a comic, a single panel, or something else. (Stick figures can do a lot!)

When you finish, ask yourself: Has lobbing problems at your character helped you build them?

Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Student Book Awards

I love student book award programs: They encourage kids to read, and especially to read books they might not have discovered on their own. When I volunteered in my son’s elementary school library, I shelved the Maine Student Book Award (MSBA) nominees and admired the wide variety of choices the committee picked. These weren’t only the wonderful issue-driven realistic fiction that populates most lists, but also adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, and quirky books. I shelved MSBA books in a big clear plastic bin—or on the Hold shelf. From when I was querying my first book to agents to when it had first come out in print, I dreamed a wee bit about seeing Drest’s face in that bin (or on that Hold shelf). But you never know if such things will happen.

Well, they did happen! The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is officially on the Maine Student Book Award list, and I could not be more chuffed! And then to make life even sweeter, I heard that Drest’s first adventure is also on the the 3rd through 5th grade master list for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award!

I don’t have a picture of the clear plastic bin (or Hold shelf) at my son’s former elementary school library, but here’s a snap I took at the Maine’s Reading Round Up conference in April of the whole MSBA collection (which includes some of my favorite recent books):

Drest is five rows down…you can just see her glaring eyes. And she gets to sit next to Frances and Prince Sebastian!

Being an Award-Winning Author

There are some lovely huge moments in an author’s life: the moment you hold your first book, the first time you read from your first book aloud to an audience, the first time a student tells you how much your work has meant to them…and sometimes formal recognition of other kinds as well. I had one of those huge moments of formal recognition on April 25, 2019, when the Maine Library Association awarded my debut novel, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, with the Lupine Award. This is Maine’s big award for children’s literature, I received it for the Juvenile/Young Adult category.

And so now, I’m officially an award-winning author! This is a very meaningful award for me, being from my home state, and I’m deeply touched and honored.

Here I am receiving a hug from Jill Hooper, a school librarian who chaired the Lupine Committee. Photo: Maine Library Association

Story Bite #10: On Finding Your Idea

At a school talk I gave last month, I asked students to tell me their thorniest writing problems. What made writing hard for them? Was there anything I could do to help? One student told me that she loved writing but always had trouble starting: She struggled to find what to write about. She had a poetry unit coming up, and wanted to be able to launch right into it.

My last story bite was on how to write that very first line, or few lines, of your work. In this story bite, we’re going to step back for the student who asked me that question and for any others who look at a blank page during Writing Workshop and feel completely helpless. We’re going to talk about how to find your first idea.

Here’s a pic to help us all relax: a library, a place full of the potential for ideas.

Jesup Memorial Library

This is one of the balconies at the Jesup Memorial Library, Bar Harbor, Maine, a place where I conjured ideas—and the beginnings of several novels— as a tween and teen writer. credit: Diane Magras

An idea needs to interest you most of all. Yes, you’re writing for readers (usually), especially if you’re doing writing for school. But when you’re starting, march into your velvet throne room, close the door, and take your bejeweled royal seat. You’re the one who matters most at this moment. Forget the others.

Now pick an idea-finding technique.

One: The Stream-of-Consciousness Technique

Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Try to relax.

Open your eyes. What’s the first thing you were thinking about?

  • Minecraft? Fortnite?
  • A book you were reading or vid you were watching before school?
  • A friend who’s angry at you?
  • Wanting to go to sleep in your bed?

There are potential ideas in every one of these.

For the first, start with a description of what you saw in the game the last time you played (or your skin and armor). And then say what’s going to happen. Tell the story of your game. And tell it like a story. (For instance: “NightMage23’s diamond sword broke just as the zombies swarmed upon her. There were spiders and husks coming closer. Skeletons were shooting in the distance. She had only three hearts left. It was just a game, but NightMage23’s heart was pounding. Not just a game. ‘Anna! Dinner!’ called Dad from downstairs. That’s not my name, NightMage23 thought, and quickly switched her diamond sword to a lava bucket and watch the gelatinous bright orange lava flow out around her character, boiling the zombies. It was a good thing she was wearing fire-resistant diamond armor.”)

Use a similar technique for one of the others thoughts: Describe something that’s going on right then, link it to how you’re feeling, and then let your mind wander and write whatever comes to mind. (For example: “I picked up a pencil, then put it back down. I had no idea what to write. My friend wasn’t talking to me, and I wasn’t about to write that. But what if I wrote about him as a three-headed snake sitting in his chair, and suddenly everyone noticed that he was a giant green snake and not a kid? Okay. So he’s a giant three-headed snake with venom dripping from his fangs. And he had no idea, until people began looking at him strangely.”)

For something like sleeping, describe what it feels like to be in your bed. Do you have more than one pillow, and is your pillow or are your pillows soft or firm? Do you have blankets or a comforter or both? Does everything mound around you in bed? Do you feel warm? Comforted? As if you’re in a den? As if you’re protected from all the world? Now think of something that could interrupt your sleep, and what you do, and how you feel. (An example: “I’m in bed. My bed has four pillows, and they’re soft. It also has two blankets and a quilt, and they’re warm. I feel safe and sleepy, and I’m about to drift off…when I hear something at the window. A tapping. It’s dark out. I don’t know who—or what—it could be. Should I  get out of bed to find out? Or should I wait here mounded in all my blankets? I grab my gecko flashlight with the mouth that opens and pinches, and start to get up. I’m pretty angry at whatever that is tapping at the window because I want to sleep.”)

For the stream-of-consciousness technique, let your mind wander and write whatever you’re thinking. Know that you can go back and cut, add to, or change it. Just get the idea out. Sometimes you’ll have a writing prompt to start with. Think beyond the obvious. (One prompt that my son had earlier this year was “Write about something exciting that happened to you.” He wrote about going for a walk and seeing a porcupine in his path, and how he had to decide: to go on and try to avoid the porcupine, or turn around. I loved the way he described his feelings—and also the porcupine itself, its quills and its nose—in this piece.)

Two: The Place Technique

When I’m about to start writing a scene, I ask myself: Where am I? (Or, rather, where are my characters?) I need to know the setting, the time of day, and the weather to start. But sometimes I start with an image, and I weave characters and stories from that. Here are two options for you to consider.

A view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island. credit: Diane Magras

The top of a mountain can be an isolated place. Any part of nature can prompt that feeling too. When you have a picture of nature to start with, ask yourself how it feels to be there: Lonely? Cold? Hot? Happy? Scary? Give yourself permission to imagine how bad things could be. Or how beautiful.

You know how you feel. Now who is your character? Someone who’s climbed the mountain and has paused, exhausted, to look out at the view? (Is it a kid? Was the kid dragged along by a parent? How does the kid feel? Happy after being reluctant for the hike? Resentful and hungry and tired?) Is it a kid who’s wandered away from their family, seeking a moment of quiet? (What is their family like? Is someone unkind to them? Smothering? Just too loud? What does the quiet mean?) Is the character a villain with an nefarious plan, and this is a view they’re looking at before they go off to do their deed? (Is this peace important to help the villain ground themselves before they do something unkind? Is there something in this scene that’s part of the villain’s plan? What’s about to happen, and how is the villain thinking about it?)

Nature is full of potential ideas.

Here’s another picture to spark a different kind of idea:

salvage tug

This is a model of a salvage tug named Bustler. The original ship was built in 1942 in Leith, Scotland, by Henry Robb Ltd. This model is at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. credit: Diane Magras

A salvage tug’s purpose provides an instant story: It’s a military boat that tows damaged ships, rescuing them in situations of war. Bustler was built in 1942, which would put its use directly during WWII.

Picture how this boat might have been used. What was the captain thinking, motoring out to rescue a ship? What about a young person working on the tug? Were they scared? Were they focusing? Were they worried about not finding the ship? What did they think when they found the ship that needed help? What did it look like? Was it sinking, with the water churning, slick with oil around them? Did Bustler put down its rescue boats for people in the water?

Your story could also take place in the National Museum of Scotland. A kid could be standing in front of this model, thinking about stories they heard from their great-grandfather about being on Bustler or another salvage tug, or being on a rescued ship. What does the kid feel, looking at this model? What stories does the kid imagine? Does the kid feel annoyed at the people who rush past the exhibit without looking at it? Or does the kid feel sad, knowing that most people aren’t thinking about how this tug affected many lives?

When you look at a picture to give yourself an idea, ask yourself these questions: Who is in this picture, and why are they there? What are they feeling in general? What is making them uncomfortable? That should start an idea, and, with any luck, you can fill in your idea with description and more ideas will follow.

Good luck! I hope these two techniques help inspire your ideas.

Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Blurbs!

Blurbs are a lovely part of an author’s life: Another author reads your work, and writes something kind about it. It’s especially meaningful when the blurbs are from authors you admire. And these two for The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter (which will be out on March 5 this year) are incredibly meaningful to me for that reason (hence I arranged them on cool backgrounds):

Story Bite #9: On Character-Driven Beginnings

Happy New Year! For this story bite at the start of the year, we’re going to talk about one of the most important—and the most challenging—aspects of writing creative fiction or nonfiction: the beginning.

Here’s a pic to start us off: my cat Flora, who is beginning (LOL) to fall asleep.

credit: Diane Magras

Beginnings need to hook your reader. They also need to introduce your characters and world (for fiction) or topic (for nonfiction) and, for both, the mood of your piece. Beginnings lead the writer down a pleasant path, or a rocky and challenging one. Raise your hand if you’ve written a first sentence and then been stuck, unable to write the next sentence. I suspect that every published author (myself included) has been there more than once.

So it’s crucial to write a beginning that will engage you, the writer, as much as the reader. It needs to post questions, introduce a conflict, or just be plain fun.

For this story bite, we’ll work on beginning a piece of fiction using character.

Let’s start with some questions.

Do you know who your character is and what they’re up to?

If so, skip down below the pic.

If not, pick a character and a conflict:

I. Flora the cat (pictured above) who is a) plotting to steal a pen from this author’s desk, b) worried that someone is about to start vacuuming, or c) wondering why her family is in Scotland while she’s at home with the cat-sitter.

or

II. The stone unicorn (pictured below) in the fountain at Linlithgow Palace (Linlithgow, Scotland), who is a) trying to pick the right moment to burst out of its stone after hundreds of years of imprisonment, b) angry at having been turned into stone only yesterday by a cruel fairy and is plotting its revenge, or c) in love with an umbrella and trying to figure out how to express its affection the next time the umbrella and its owner draw near.

stone unicorn

credit: Diane Magras

Do you have your character and your conflict. Then ask yourself these questions:

What does your character feel physically?

Sun on their nose?

Carpet or stone or something else beneath their feet or around it? (For the statue, does it feel the stone that it’s made of?)

Write down your answer.

(If it helps, write it down like this: “The [whatever your character is: cat, statue, alien, kid] felt [what: sun, cold, rain, snow; stone, carpet, wood] beneath/upon/around him/her/them/it…” So, for example, “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face…”)

Now, what does your character feel emotionally?

Anger? Eagerness? Fear? Pick a strong, tense emotion; starting a story with sleepiness or boredom might bore you and your reader.

Write this down.

(And if you want a structure, try this: “…a [pick one: swell, rush, wave, tower, pool, whirl] of [emotion: fury, eagerness, terror, sorrow] [pick one: rose, sank, consumed, lit…or come up with your own verb]” and for my example: “…a swell of sorrow consumed it…”).

Now combine the two in one sentence.

For my example: “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face, though a swell of sorrow consumed it.”

Can you think of a sentence to follow? Why is your character feeling the way they’re feeling?

Continuing my example: “The stone unicorn felt sun upon its face, though a swell of sorrow consumed it. The green plaid umbrella was on the other side of the courtyard, and might not be coming back. But if it did, the unicorn would confess its love. Only if it could speak.”

How did that feel? Did your first sentence give you ideas of what to write next? If not, consider rewriting your first sentence. Switch around what your character is feeling (emotion first, then physical, or even cut one and write more about the other). Or move around some of the other text you wrote. I might, for instance, change mine to:

“The green plaid umbrella was on the other side of the courtyard, almost out of sight. Please, my darling, thought the stone unicorn, don’t disappear. The unicorn couldn’t move its head, though it tried. And so it waited, the sun burning upon its stone face and horn, sorrow swelling in its heart.”

If you end up rewriting your beginning, know that you’re following a proud tradition of authors everywhere! I rewrote the first line of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter at least twice for each draft (and there were five drafts). Give yourself time, be patient with yourself, and try to have fun.

I hope this was helpful. I’ll offer other ways to begin a story or a piece of nonfiction in future posts.

Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Year-End Writing Tips

These tips (which I first posted on Twitter tonight) are meant for people writing middle grade fiction. They come from discussions that I’ve had with my son about the books we’ve read and the books I’ve written. He’s an avid reader of middle grade fiction, and the first reader of every one of my books, and his criticism has been incredibly helpful in my editing process. I thought it might be useful for other writers to hear some of our top writing tips.

1. To start, let’s talk about the beginning. Make the beginning snatch the reader’s attention. That first page, and the first chapter, need to clearly introduce a character (ideally your MC), pose a meaningful conflict, and ramp up the tension. Answer this: What’s this about, and why should I care?

2. Second and third chapters need to keep it going. If you’re writing for middle grade readers, don’t slow the tension or they’ll put the book down. Weave in the explanations you need to introduce. Show characters by their interactions with others. Just keep your story humming.

3. Give your reader a chance to breathe. Let your characters have a chance to think, not just to act. And while you want your readers to be unable to put this book down, remember that sometimes they just have to go to school or sleep. Give the tension a wee lift here and there.

4. If you’re pounding your characters, be sure that you give them a hand up too. It’s no fun to keep reading a character who is treated horribly and feels no joy, page after page. Just a tiny bit of kindness or warmth (say a delicious meal, even) can make a big difference.

5. Be sure to know all your characters, especially your major characters, not just your MC. Give them their own stories, and great dialogue. If you do this, you’re giving readers many options of characters to love most. It doesn’t have to be the MC.

6. Take care how you kill off a character. Yes, you sometimes need to. Be aware that your middle grade reader may be really upset with a literary choice that removes a favorite character, which may make them not eager to read another one of your books. Just be humane.

7. Don’t waste the middle of your book. Start weaving together the tensions of the early parts, and introduce a few new elements to shake up your MC’s life. Middles can be hard, and can bog. Keep your middle tense and busy.

8. Know how you want to end the book. Most middle grade readers want a happy sigh ending: Some sadness is okay, but overall things are good. And make that last chapter matter. Even in a series with a cliffhanger, something should be solved, or just feel right.

9. One more: It’s fine to write what you feel middle grade fiction should have, but write for your kid audience, not just for yourself and for other adults. Most of us MG authors want to pack our books with Big Themes and Powerful Stories. But they won’t be of any use if no one reads them.

Because I love examples, here’s a book to highlight each item on the list (taken from the incredible list of books that my son and I have read this year):

1. Stellar Beginning: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart. A nice kid is dropped off at a youth prison on an island for a crime that maybe he did commit, but something’s fuzzy about it, and something’s clearly wrong on that island, and oh, my, you can’t stop reading.

2. Great Secondary and Third Chapters: Takedown by Laura Shovan alternates characters, which is a great way to keep your reader hooked, but this story also loads up the tension for each MC with expectations, nervousness, and pressure from peers and family.

3. Letting Your Reader Take a Breath Without Dropping Interest: Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret shares a few mysteries and a few secrets in a new world to the MC, right between massive bouts of action (with snakes and demons!!!).

4. Being Kind to Your MC: Kelly Yang’s Front Desk pounds its poor MC from the start (though nothing keeps her down for long). But the kindness of her neighbors, and her parents’ own kindness to others, show that this world, while hard, isn’t all bad.

5. Creating Fab Secondary Characters: Kat Yeh’s The Way to Bea has wonderful secondary characters. Will and Briggs are so engaging, lighting up the story each time they come onto the page. I wouldn’t be surprised if either one of them are readers’ favorites.

6. Killing Characters Kindly: Pádraig Kenny’s Tin kills off *sob* a wonderful character in the most beautiful, humane manner possible. And this is fiendishly hard to do right. I can’t say more without spoiling the story! (BTW, Tin will be out in the U.S. on March 26, 2019.)

7. A Tight Middle Section: Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith hits its stride so perfectly in the middle, where the superhero story rises, and the other important story of two male friends is reaching some of its most tense peaks.

8. Happy Sigh Endings: While we agree that it’s a cliffhanger ending, my son and I also agree that The Forgotten Shrine by Monica Tesler ends well. It’s a tense moment, and things aren’t solved. But two important characters are together and that lets the reader get that sigh.

9. Writing Big Ideas for Kids: It’s hard to pick just one, but Mae Respicio’s The House That Lou Built has family struggles, a MC who disobeys her mom, brilliant engineering idea, friends conflicts, identity questions, and grief and happiness rolled up in a fun, deep story.

I hope this list and the examples I’ve shared from my son’s and my 2018 reads are helpful. These are certainly writing tips that I need to keep in mind myself, and it’s heartening to have so many great books around to help me remember how to follow them!

Teacher’s Guide

I’m thrilled to share my Teacher’s Guide for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I hope this guide will be used in many classrooms, especially once the paperback comes out (which will be on February 12, 2019).

I love inspiring students, and I’ve read a lot of educational literature, so I had an idea of how to put this together. But special thanks to Anne O’Brien Carelli (my fellow debut MG author this year, as well as a former teacher) for pointing me toward great information about Common Core Standards and proofing this for me.

I’m offering the guide as a free PDF. I’d love to know if you’re using it in your classroom. By the way, if you are and would like some bookmarks to go with it for your students, contact me and I’ll send you a batch as long as I have any left!