Plot vs. Story

Yesterday was the last day of school for my kids. Yippee! Hooray! Time to do a happy dance. My kids skipped through the door and tossed their backpacks. They did the happy dance. Okay maybe they didn’t skip, and maybe they didn’t do the happy dance either, but they did toss their backpacks. They are teenagers after all. I could see the excitement on their faces though. And that’s a look I treasure because I remember that feeling… the feeling of anticipation for summer vacation.:)

Every year on this day though, I wonder if I’m the most excited person in the house. I’m the one who actually does the happy dance. I’ve watched my children complete another school year. I feel a sense of pride at their accomplishment. I love the feeling of freedom the last day brings. I love the idea of a lighter schedule with the endless days of sunshine, swimming, bike rides, and ice cream.

But still, I feel a little melancholy…

School is a journey for all kids. They begin a new school year with a certain number of academic skills. Throughout the year, they learn many new skills, and by end of the school year, most kids have mastered the skills required to complete their grade level. These skills can be tested. There is physical evidence that they have made the journey through their grade level.

School is also a journey of character. Kids begin a new school year with certain social and emotional skills. These are harder to measure, but by the end of the school year, most kids have changed and grown and developed social and emotional skills that show they have made the journey through their grade level too.

It’s exciting to watch your children learn and grow into smarter and more complex version of their past selves. So at the end of the school year, yeah…I do a happy dance!

While dancing today, I realized the journey kids take throughout the school year is very similar to the journey a character takes throughout a novel.

But how?

Do you know the difference between Plot and Story? They might seem like the same thing, but they’re not. In fact, if you can determine the difference, you’ll find it much easier to structure your writing. Everything you write will be simpler.

So what’s the difference?

Plot is your main character’s physical journey.
Story is your main character’s emotional journey.

The plot moves your character from a starting point (physical location) to an ending point (a new physical location). There may be obstacles along the way, but the physical part of those obstacles is the plot.

The story moves your character from the person she was at the beginning, to the person she becomes at the end. There may be struggles along the way, but the emotional part of her struggle is the story.

Another way to think of plot and story is it is action and reaction. In your novel, some action happens (plot) and your character reacts to what happens (story).

Plot is action, so if things are dragging or feel too slow, add more action. But if things are moving way to fast, add more of the character’s story. This will slow things down. A novel needs to have a balance of both plot and story (actions and reactions). They work together and when done well, your novel will be stronger. Many writers don’t know about plot vs. story. It’s a trick I learned in my research for revising my own novel for kids. I hope it can help you. It’s definitely simplified things for me!

Have a great week of writing and reading and maybe even dancing…just be sure to do it in the sunshine. Summer is here after all, and where I live, we have to enjoy every minute of it- without the backpacks!

What Age are You Today?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately…mostly about writing them with an authentic voice. You know what I mean. Making them read like a real person.

In addition to the middle grade novel that I’ve been working on, I’ve begun another story, one that’s completely different. It’s a story for adults! Whereas my children’s novel centers on a group of five eleven year -olds, this new story will be centered on three adults. Yeah, like as in grown-ups.

I’ve never written a story for adults before. Sure I’ve included grown- ups in my middle grade books. I’ve even written them with an authentic voice. But that’s different. They’ve never carried one of my stories before. They’ve never been the focus. In this book they will be.

I’m not writing this book to get it published. But I am writing it for professional reasons. A client is looking for a fictional story based around his business. Pretty cool, huh? So, I’m writing this story and I need the grown-ups to sound real. The reader needs to care about them. That’s my job. And it will be a challenge. I’m up for it, but it has me thinking a lot about how to write about a group of adults who are my age.

How do I do that??

Well, I do know a thing or two about myself, my friends, my siblings, my colleagues and many others who are around my same age. I’d say that makes me qualified to write about a character my age. The trick for me is getting inside the head of a person I know or have met, or even a few people, and use this information to create a completely made up character. It’s not much different from creating a completely made up eleven year- old.

So, in my quest to really understand the way grown-ups think, my fourteen year-old son came home from school today with an interesting comment from his teacher.

She told his class that they were not just a bunch of fourteen year-olds. They were a bunch of kids who were fourteen but who had also already been one and three and five and ten and now fourteen years of age. They were in fact all their previous ages including their current age rolled into one.

Huh?

That’s what I said too.

She said that if you’re fourteen, you’ve already been thirteen, and also twelve, and eleven, and ten, and nine, and so on. She said that you are now a mix of the experiences you had when you were each of these ages. Then she gave the kids an example of what she meant.

“If you are fourteen years- old today, you may feel anxious about your Social Studies exam. You may also feel excited about your baseball game tonight. And…you may also feel nervous to talk to the girl you’ve had a crush on since fourth grade. Your reactions to these things are reactions of you as a fourteen year- old. You may try to calm yourself down about the exam by studying. You may play music right before the game to get into the zone. You may walk right by the girl you like because you’re afraid she’ll ignore you.”

“Sometimes though, you may revert back to your five year old self. You may sit real close to your mom on the couch during a thunder storm because that’s what you always did as a five year-old when you were scared and it always made you feel better. You may cry when you fall off your bike and break your arm. That’s what you did as a three year- old and even though now you’re fourteen, sometimes nothing else seems to work. Crying is the best response. Just like when you were three.”

I think that theory is really interesting. In fact, it explains a lot of things about me. Namely, is that why I like pop music meant for fifteen year-olds? Because I liked pop music when I was fifteen? Is that why I like writing for twelve year-olds? Because I loved middle grade books so much when I was young? Is that why I like to write for younger kids? Because I can still remember being in sixth grade like it was yesterday? I can remember my first crush and how it felt when he liked someone else instead of me. I can remember how I felt hanging out with my friends and riding my bike free as a bird. I can remember wanting to crawl into a hole until the world sucked me in when my best friend talked about me behind my back and said stuff that wasn’t true.

I can remember those feelings clearly. I can remember other feelings from when I was other ages as well. I bet you can too. And so my son’s teacher’s comment about us being the age we currently are, plus the ages we have already been may sound weird, but it may also be true. I am the person I am today because of the experiences I’ve had at every age of my life. The same is true for you.

But what does that have to do with writing? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It might be the key to creating characters that are believable. How did you feel at ten years- old? How about sixteen? Or even at thirty? If you can tap into those feelings, you’re well on your way to creating characters the rest of us want to read about.

So what do you think? What age do you remember most? Which age do you identify with? Tell us in the comment box below. Mine is ten. And also twelve. And sixteen. Oh and also seventeen, the year I went away to college. But wait, I got married at 26 so I can really remember that age too… 🙂

The Wonder of the Writing Group

I’m a pretty lucky writer. My city has its own writing group. It’s an amazing organization of about 70 writers (both published and unpublished) who meet on a regular basis to talk about all things writing. I first joined several years ago- shortly after I began writing my second novel for kids. I was at the point in my writing career where I was marginally better than a beginner but not by much! I knew I needed help to improve my writing.

I signed up for a one day writing conference which focused on basic skills. It was run by SCWBI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) If you haven’t heard of them, I encourage you to check them out! I learned so much that day, but not just about skills that would help me improve my writing craft. I learned a bit about the publishing industry and gained useful tips to help me navigate a career in writing. I met amazing people (some of whom have become my closest writing friends), and left the conference inspired and motivated to keep working towards my dream of becoming a published writer!

By far, the most important thing I took away from that conference though was information about a local writing group…a chapter of SCBWI right in my own city! I joined the next day and began attending monthly meetings with other writers who were just like me- sponges soaking up any and all information about writing children’s books.

I realize now that was the turning point for me. Those meetings helped me to stay motivated month after month. I loved commiserating with other writers who understood what I was going through. I loved celebrating the successes of writers who were much further along in the process than I was. I loved being in the environment of so many creative people! Throughout the years now, I’ve met writers who’ve published several books. One of them even won the prestigious Newberry Award! I have also met fantastic writers who are as of yet unpublished, but write with such flair and beauty I know it’s only a matter of time before an editor or agent changes all that!

At my very first meeting though, I was encouraged to join a critique group. And so I did. I joined two in fact- one group of four writers who had been reading and offering each other feedback on their chapters for several months, and a second group which consisted of three other writers, all brand new to critique groups. I learned much from the first group as they had all been writing much longer than me. I owe so much to each of those talented writers for taking me under their wings! The second group provided an entirely different experience. We fumbled our way through the process in the beginning but eventually developed a system that worked for us. And it really did work for us. We each developed as writers as the months and years went on. To this day I call those crit partners, not only great writers but great friends too.

So here’s the thing… writing groups are wonderful because they help you become part of a writing community. Yes, being a part of one will help you improve your writing. Yes, being a part of one can foster amazing friendships. But most importantly, becoming a part of a writing group can keep you involved in the creative, magical, special world of people who write and teach and encourage other writers to become the best they can possibly be at the art of telling a story, in whatever form that may be.

And so if there’s one writing tip I can pass along to new or not so new writers, it’s this…Find a group of people, two or three or ten who share your passion for writing. You may find them in your town or on line or at school. Connecting with them will do wonders for your writing. Try it and you’ll see!

And just in case I haven’t convinced you, I have a story to tell you that might…

Six years ago, when my daughter was ten and my son was eight, they formed their own writing group-with their eleven year- old twin cousins. The four kids came to me one day as I was working on the draft of my second middle grade novel. They asked me what exactly a critique group was. I explained that my critique group was a group of writers who met once a month to read each other’s chapters and offer each other suggestions about how they could make their writing and their story better. Clearly excited, the kids told me they wanted to write a book all together. They didn’t know how a critique group could work for them. We talked it over for quite awhile and finally they can up with an idea. They would think up one story. Then they would divide the story into chapters. Each one of the kids could pick which chapters they would write. They would write the chapters at home on their own and then meet a few days or weeks later to read their chapters to each other!
I was amazed at the thought that went into their plan, and so inspired my their motivation! I encourage them to keep their writing meetings positive using the sandwich method:

1. After the writer reads their chapter, say one good thing about it.
2. Then, give them an idea for how they can make it even better.
3. Finally, tell the writer at least one more thing you liked about the chapter.

The kids worked for months and months and months on their book. They met whenever they felt like working on it. They even created a special writing nook in my sister’s attic for their meetings, complete with pillows and mattresses!

I noticed something that year that my kids and nieces learned to write creatively and share their ideas with each other. We are never to young (or old) to share our passions and encourage each other along the way! To this day I am so proud to have been a part of their young writing group. It is, in fact what has inspired me to write this blog and try to reach as many new writers (both young and not as young) to write and share their stories!

My first writing group was the key to my growth as a writer. Today I know how lucky I am to have had that opportunity. I hope you can be as lucky in finding your own wonderful group of writers! Maybe you’ve already found that wonder. If you have, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear about it. 🙂 Tell us all about your group. What method works for you? Has it helped you to improve your skill as a writer? How did you meet up? How often do you get together? I could keep going but you get the idea!

Until next time, I hope this week brings out the wonder in your writing and in your summer days too! 

Scrub Your Story

I have a secret weapon. I store it inside my revision tool box. It’s called my Sophistication Scrubber. Really. That’s what I call it. 🙂 I pull out my Sophistication Scrubber when I’m revising my story for polish. More specifically, I use it when I want my manuscript to sound more sophisticated. Like a professional writer!

Here are a few of the problems that the Sophistication Scrubber can help me get rid of.

ing words. Also known as gerunds, phrases containing –ing words weaken your writing. 

               Ex. Pulling off her hat, she turned to face him. A stronger way to say this is: She pulled off her hat and turned to face him.

ing words and as phrases can often show an action that’s physically impossible because both actions can’t happen at the same time.

               Ex. Walking through the doorway, he took off his shoes. Instead try: He walked through the doorway and took off his shoes.

               Ex. As he whistled, he called over to his son. A better way would be: He whistled and then called over to his son.

–ly words. Also known as adverbs, -ly words weaken your writing. Use a stronger verb instead.

               Ex. She set down the mug angrily. Instead, try it this way: She slammed down the mug. (This way you’re showing not telling.)

Cliches. A cliché is a stereotyped expression, usually a common, overused thought that has lost all its originality. Avoid these in both dialogue and characterization because overuse can create a cartoon instead of a character.

               Ex. She was as quiet as a mouse. Instead try:She tiptoed through the kitchen, barely even breathing.

               Ex. The science teacher wore a lab coat and black glasses. Instead try:The science teacher wore shorts and a sweatshirt. 

Exclamation points.  Let your descriptions convey the emotion, not your punctuation.

               Ex. “Mom, I want some ice cream!” Instead: “Mom, I’ll clean the garage if you buy me some ice cream.”

               In both sentences the boy wants ice cream, but the 2nd sentence shows it without telling.

You can use the Sophistication Scrubber on your story too. Here’s how…

Take out a highlighter and mark all your –ing words, phrases with as, -ly words, clichés phrases, and exclamation points. Get rid of them and replace them with stronger words. You may find some are necessary, and you’d like to keep them. A few are fine. Just remember to keep them at a minimum. Your goal is to polish and scrub your story of less than sparkly words and phrases.

So that’s my secret weapon. I’m happy to share it with you! So, whether you’re 8 years- old or 38, give it a try. By the time your work is done, your words will sparkle and you’ll have a polished story!

 

Have a great week! I hope you can have some fun in this warm June weather. Take a walk. Ride your bike. Play tag. Then grab your sophistication scrubber and get to work!! 🙂