Publishing, Writing Craft

Get to Work! Make me Care about your MC

Hey there!

Sorry for the aggressive title today but I think many of you can use that reminder. I actually need it myself sometimes too! On the blog last week, I said that publishing is just crazy sometimes. It’s slow. It’s fickle. It’s unpredictable. But really, what business isn’t? And we all need to remember that publishing is a business. It’s not a book group or a hobby convention. Publishers are trying to produce the best books for their intended audience. Literary agents are trying to choose books that publishers will buy. As a writer, neither of these things are in your control. Likewise, once you do have a book deal, you have no control over how many people read your book or what they think of it. And all of that can be so frustrating.

Remember that saying, you can’t please everyone? The same is true with books. Not every reader likes the same book. Not every agent will be wowed by the same book. Not every editor or publisher will see the same potential in a book.

So the truth is, the best way to ensure that a literary agent chooses your book, a publisher chooses your book, a parent, teacher, bookseller, librarian, or reader chooses your book is to write a good book.

And even still, there are no for sures in publishing.

I love the Caravel series by Stephanie Garber more than I like the Harry Potter books. Does that mean anything? Not really, just that books are subjective. I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard before. But what I will say is that if you’re trying to get your manuscript published and eventully into the hands of readers, then get back to work. I know, I know. You’ve been working on it for two years–maybe three. Well, maybe you need to work on it more. Have you been querying it for six months with no interest from agents? Not even one? Then look at it again. Something probably isn’t working and it’s not the agent. It needs more polishing. It needs something.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing tips on revision. We all know we need to revise, but sometimes we forget where to start. Both new and seasoned writers need to look for the same things, and whether you’ve written half a manuscript or twenty, it’s easy to overlook the basics when a newly finished draft is staring back at you. One of the most basic tips I can offer is this:

Make me care about your main character.

What does your MC want the most? What will happen if they don’t succeed? Are the stakes clear? Are they dire enough? Is your MC likeable? Will the reader route for them? A reader will follow a character through almost any journey if they care about them. Is your MC trying to save the world or find a hidden carrot? Who cares as long as we feel for your character and want them to succeed. Bottom line: make the reader care!

There are so many points to look for when revising your manuscript, but creating a MC that your readers will want to read about is one of the most important. So this week, get back to work on your MC. Read your first several chapters with fresh eyes. Would someone else feel for them? Would they turn the page to find out why achieving their goal is important to them? If the answer is no, maybe you need to up the stakes. Maybe you haven’t dug deep enough and shown how it will impact their life. Or maybe your character just isn’t likable. If they come off as brash or unrelatable, your reader won’t cheer for them in their quest. But if they are, their quest will become your reader’s quest. They’ll read on to discover what happens to them.

In Spin the Golden Light Bulb, eleven-year old Kia Krumpet wants to win a Golden Light Bulb. It’s pretty simple. But unless the reader understands why (in her mind) her whole life will fall apart unless she wins one, my readers won’t keep reading. I mean, a Golden Light Bulb is a pretty shiny trophy and all that, but it’s what the trophy represents, what winning represents, that make readers want to (hopefully!) stay up past their bedtime to read Kia’s story.

That manuscript took me four years to write—four years to get right. It may not take you that long, but remember, there are no shortcuts to writing a good book. You have to put the work in. You have to do more than just dream of seeing your book on a bookstore bookshelf. And believe me, I spend quite of bit of time doing that too!

So make your readers care about your main character this week. It will pay off so much down the road, in making your publication dream come true! I did that very thing earlier this week. I received copyedits for Pop the Bronze Balloon from my editor. But as I read through the manuscript, I used the opportunity to look at Kia through fresh eyes. I asked myself, Is her goal clear? Are her stakes clear? My readers have followed her through two books already and now for this final installment, I had to be sure that they still care about her and her quest. Will she finally get what she wants? Hopefully my readers care enough about her to find out!

I should have news on the updated release date for Pop the Bronze Balloon soon, (yay!!!) so check back for that! I’ll be posting it on social media as soon as I know. BTW, if you aren’t following me on Twitter or Instagram, please do! I’d love to connect with you. And if this post was helpful, please leave a comment. Interacting with other writers makes this whole community feel closer so if you’re here, let me know!

Thanks for stopping by the blog. 🙂 Have a fantastic day, everyone. I’ll be back again next week!

Book Nook, Voice, Writing Craft

Permission to Read

So, I was sitting in the snack bar at the hockey rink last Saturday, waiting for my son’s game to begin. Normally I would be catching up with the other hockey moms, or hanging out with my daughter. But my daughter was off doing teenager-y stuff and my hockey mom-friends were, I guess, running late. So what’s a girl to do with say a half hour of free time on her hands? Well, I pulled out a book and read, of course! But what I was reading may not have been so logical apparently. The conversation I had with one of my hockey mom- friends a few minutes later went something like this:

“Why are you reading that?” my hockey mom-friend asks, disturbing my bliss, laughing like my book has three heads growing out of the pages. (It didn’t. It wasn’t a fantasy book, duh.) I look at the cover, forgetting I’m reading a middle grade book—with a bright purple cover no less.

“Oh, I read middle grade books all the time—you know that well, um I’m a writer? Well, this is the age group I write for, so it’s sort of like research I guess.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes. It helps to have a feel for middle grade language and tone and voice….” my own voice trails off.

“Oh, okay. Doesn’t it feel like you’re copying the ideas in there?”

“No! I’m not actually trying to copy what’s in the book. It helps to immerse (is that a word?) yourself in the head of middle school kids so you can write in language that appeals to them. You know, write in age appropriate style.”

“Oh, I get it.”

I bet she doesn’t. Conversation stops until I change the subject. Yeah. See, that happens to me all the time. Can you relate? So, even though my non- writer friends and family (except for my supportive husband and kids, who live amongst the chaos of MG and YA books) don’t understand why I spend my free time on purpose reading books in my genre…I still do it.

I do it because I genuinely like these books. If I didn’t, I really shouldn’t be writing them. And neither should you or any other writer. Reading books in the genre you write is essential to writing an authentic story. Through reading, not only will you learn the proper language of your audience, but also proper pacing and dialogue. I read mostly contemporary middle grade books and now speculative fiction or light fantasy stories because that’s what I write. It helps me to know my target audience and to know them well. It feels like I gain a better understanding of the genre with each book I write.

Just last weekend, I read a fabulous debut middle grade novel by Jen Malone, AT YOUR SERVICE. Not only was the story fun and well written, it taught me a bit more about voice. (Yeah, voice…uggh). In case you missed it, my Monday post this week was about voice and a trick you can do to find yours. Well, that trick came to me after reading that book! Chloe’s voice is everywhere throughout the story. And it got me thinking. What if Chloe weren’t so Chloe-ish? What if she weren’t so capable? How would she talk? How would she act given her circumstances? In essence, I gained a better understanding of the skill of voice by reading in my genre.

I also recommend reading across genres. A lot can be learned from reading a mystery novel for instance. Plotting needs to be precise in those books. I mean how Rebecca Stead created the puzzle that is WHEN YOU REACH ME, I will never know. I can merely just kiss the ground she walks on when she walks by me (sometime). Let’s not even talk about the mad world- building skills of J.K. Rowling. I’ve been practicing my curtsey for years on the oft chance I will run into her (someday). It’s also a good idea to read in other age groups too, thank goodness, like YA. THE HUNGER GAMES is one of my favorites and taught me how important it is to have big stakes in your story.

So there you have it. If you’re a writer, I give you permission to read as much as you want, especially in the genre in which you write. It will make you a better writer and you’ll feel like you’re on an adventure while you’re doing it. How great is that? Looking for suggestions? Check out the To Be Read or Book Nook– Middle Grade or YA tabs. I’ve added some new titles to the pages. I know, I know. The YA page is a little bare. I’ve been so bad about updating it. I do have more titles to add to it though and I will try my best to get on that this week. Thank you again for stopping by my site. I hope it’s been a worth- it use of your time! Have a fantastic end of the week and weekend. Hopefully many of those days will even include one of your new favorite books!

Grammar, Writing Craft

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!! 🙂

Voice, Writing Craft

Let’s Hear Your Voice!

There’s more to writing a story than just the words you say. There’s also how you say them. Yes, your story consists of the words you choose. But in order to catch your reader’s attention, it also needs to tell the reader something about your character too.

That’s called writing with Voice.

Voice can be described as the way an author chooses words and strings them into sentences -all in order to ensure the reader really gets to know the character. After reading just a few sentences or paragraphs, if an author is good at creating voice in their writing, the reader will know something about the character’s personality.

So how do you get good at writing with Voice?

Writing with voice is tricky- mostly because there’s no instruction manual on how to do it. Not really. There are some tips that can help, but writing with a real memorable voice only happens by practicing. It takes time to write this way.

Confused? To make it clearer, here’s an example of two passages—one with very little voice and then another with good voice.

I saw a bug crawling down my bedroom wall. I put it into a tissue and flushed it down the toilet.

I saw a bug crawling down my bedroom wall. I flew to the stairs and screamed for my brother. No answer. I screamed for him again. Nothing. Uggh! He’s the one who’s supposed to kill bugs for me. Where is he? I raced back to my room. The creepy stink beetle was now traveling dangerously close to my pillow! I knew it was up to me to get rid of it but ick… it’s so gross! I took a deep breath and grabbed a tissue. I smashed it over its disgusting shell or whatever it was, and ran into the bathroom in like two seconds flat. The flush of the toilet was the best sound I heard all day.

In the first passage, the author gives the facts. We know there’s a bug crawling down the main character’s wall and we know she kills it with a tissue and flushes it down the toilet. However, we don’t know anything about her. The author uses verbs that have no voice at all like saw, put and flush.

In the second passage, we know those same facts, but we also learn more about the main character. We know she’s petrified of bugs. We know she thinks they’re disgusting. We know she relies on her brother to kill them for her. We know that when she finds herself in a crisis, with no one to come to her rescue, she can find the strength to overcome the obstacle. We also know a little something about her personality.

Wow! That’s a lot of information.

So how did the author show this? She showed it by word choices, descriptions, and by showing the world through the character’s eyes instead of her own. The author’s job is to use words the character would use, and use them with the character’s own particular flair. She does this well by using words like, ick and gross and disgusting! Her verb choices show voice too like flew, raced, grabbed and smashed.

Voice is a tricky writing skill to master. It takes awhile to find your own. It takes practice and it takes really knowing your character. What words would she use in a situation? How would she react? Would she react calmly or would she freak out? Would she scream or would she take matters into her own hands with confidence?

Refer to the Scribble Tips tab on the site. Read Scribble Tip # 4 about Fifty Facts. It’s a great way to get to know your character. Check it out and then try using it to write with Voice.

And on a side note…
Our Short Story Showcase is coming! (Check out the tab for details.) If you have a short story that you’d like to see up on the blog, send it in! I’m hoping to have a few stories to post by April 30, so please email yours to swirlandspark@gmail.com and tell your friends!

Setting, Writing Craft

Set it Up!

When I think about my favorite books, I realize that every single one has something in common. They have a cool setting. There’s an actual place inside the author’s world that intrigues me. I actually want to travel there! I want to live there or take a vacation there or hang out there.

In the Last Song by Nicholas Sparks, the story takes place along the coast of North Carolina- much of it in a small beach house that belongs to Ronnie’s dad. The house and surrounding beach are described so well that I can see myself spending the summer there, listening to the crashing waves and watching the baby turtles scurry through the sand. Nicholas Sparks has created a setting that draws the reader to it.

In the middle grade novel, Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu has imagined a forest so magical, the characters practically pull you into the story with their bare hands. They’re fanciful and scary and sad and I want to see it all for myself! In The Prince of Fenway Park, cursed creatures actually live underneath the pitching mound at Fenway Park, the stadium where the Boston Red Sox play baseball! There, the sights and smells and sounds are so real any respectable fan would trade their most prized baseball card for a chance to see it for them self.

Sometimes there’s a place I read about that I don’t want to visit though. At all. Like the setting of the Hunger Games arena. That’s one place I will gladly stay away from. But… even that arena and the District 12 setting and the Capitol setting still intrigue me. District 12 is desolate and poor and depressed. Food and safety are luxuries that none of the residents there take for granted. The Capitol district is just the opposite with its over- the- top carnival atmosphere. Residents live well. The hairstyles and makeup are colorful and the food is presented as works of art rather than nourishment. Suzanne Collins describes just enough detail to let the reader use their imagination but still reveals sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes that make you feel a part of the story.

And that’s what great storytellers do. They use all five senses to describe a scene. They create a place where readers want to go. Whether it’s a house or a barn or a stadium or a town, great story tellers make those places come alive. They make the reader wish that it was a real place. They set up the story and make it feel very real.

When you’re writing your story, strive to do the same thing. Create a place that your reader would love to go…if only they could! Maybe one day the setting you create will be a place readers think about long after the story ends.

So what about your favorites? What are some of the cool places you’ve read about lately?

Plot, Writing Craft

Give Your Character a Surprise!

I love surprises. I love being surprised. I love surprising other people. And this past weekend, I pulled off a good one- I threw a Sweet 16 Birthday Party for my little girl (who’s obviously not a little girl anymore) and it was a huge, fun surprise! It was fun for me to plan, and fun for my daughter and her sneaky friends who were in on the covert scheme!

The expression on her face as she walked through the front door was priceless- filled with shock and confusion upon hearing her friends shout, “Surprise!” Her face lit up at the sight of them all gathered together- just for her. It was a take your breath away moment. A moment I’m sure she won’t ever forget.

Everyone should feel that kind of moment at some point in their lives. And I think your characters should feel that way too.

So how exactly do you create that take your breath away moment? A moment that catches your character off guard? Something so surprising or shocking that not only is your character surprised, but your reader is too?

Well, if you know your character, it should be easy. Think about what she loves. Maybe for Anna it’s kittens and hot fudge sundaes. Or think about what she wants. Maybe she wants to get the lead in the school play or a new clarinet. Or think about what she really needs like warm winter boots that don’t leak through the soles. Maybe there’s something that she really wants and needs. For example, maybe she wishes that her dad who’s been stationed in another country for many months could finally come back home for good.

Now that you have some ideas, decide what you want to surprise your character with. And make it big. Even if the surprise is small, you can write about it in a big way. For example, if you’re going to give Anna a hot fudge sundae, turn it into a big deal. Set the scene. Write about Anna’s banged up knee that happened from a fall off her bike. Write about her tears and her broken handlebars. Then, just when your reader feels awful for Anna, write about the table that Anna’s mom has filled with every topping you can think of. Add all her favorite flavors of ice cream and all her favorite sauces. Write about Anna’s walk into the kitchen and the smile that slowly creeps over her face when she sees the ice cream display before her. Write about her dried up tears and the hug between her and her mom. It may be just a little surprise, but for Anna it’s a big deal. And for your readers it will be too.

So how can you make the surprise for your character an even bigger deal? Choose something you know about her that’s even bigger- like missing her dad. For example, your readers are already aware already that Anna’s dad has been gone for a very long time and they know also that Anna misses him very much. Imagine the surprise they will feel (right along with Anna), when her dad shows up at the school auditorium, right before her big stage debut as the lead in the school play! Picture that surprise. 🙂

Our daily lives are full of big surprises and little ones. So if you want to create a story that keeps the reader turning the page, be sure to include a few of both in your character’s life too!

And remember…

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths that we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  ~Hilary Cooper 

So good luck with the surprises you’re planning and the amazing story you’re writing too!

Odyssey of the Mind, Writing Craft

Throw Obstacles in the Path

Obstacles are no fun. They get in the way. They block the road or the path or your dreams.

Obstacles can be small like the time when little Patrick couldn’t finish building his tower because he used up all his wooden blocks. Or the time Jenna couldn’t color the grass green on her picture because she lost her green crayon. Those obstacles proved easy to fix. Patrick dumped out his Lego bin and used Lego blocks to finish his masterpiece. Jenna learned that when mixing yellow and blue, the color you get is green. She used both crayons to color the grass and the result was a shade of green just right for her picture! 

Obstacles can be very big too, like the time when Adam and his friends couldn’t make the curtain of their theater set open up just days before the big show. Or the time when the town of Candy Catropolis was about to lose its Candy Factory due to a shortage of sugar. These obstacles proved harder to fix but not impossible.

Adam and his friends connected the rings of the curtain to a string. They attached the string to a weight and then when it was time for the curtain to open, they dropped the weight to the ground. The curtain opened perfectly on cue! And as for Candy Catropolis, the townspeople built a conveyor belt that ran across town and into the town next to them. They made a deal with their neighbors to send extra chocolate their way, in exchange for sugar!

Obstacles can be a pain. Many times they make it difficult for a character to get what they really want or need.  But they’re very necessary. In fact, the more obstacles you throw in their way, the better. Readers don’t want to read about people who always get what they want. That’s boring! They want to see people work for it a little bit…and maybe even a lot.

We, as readers tend to root for the underdog. If you can throw obstacle after obstacle in the path that your character is walking down, we’ll feel sympathy for him. We’ll begin to cheer him on-even when he falls or hits a roadblock.  And eventually when he does succeed, we’ll cheer louder that almost anybody! So don’t be afraid to throw some obstacles in the path of your characters. Remember, the bigger the obstacle, the bigger the celebration at the end.   

And if you find yourself hitting an obstacle some place- a problem that’s getting in the way of you reaching your dream, don’t give up. Not on your tower or your picture or your story.  Do like my Odyssey of the Mind kids do…  Work through it. Brainstorm it. Find a different way to solve it. And then watch what happens… 

If you can imagine it,

You can achieve it.

If you can dream it,

You can become it

So go on out there and make your dream come true.  And don’t let the obstacles stop you! 🙂

Writing Craft

Do You Have Rhythm?

Some people have rhythm. And some people don’t. And I’m sorry to say, I’m one of those people who don’t. I try to have rhythm. Really, I do. I hear a great song on the radio when I’m driving so I tap my hand on the steering wheel or bob my head back and forth. Sometimes I even dance along with my kids and nieces and nephews during our family dances parties.  I mean so what if the dance parties are for the kids? Who can resist dancing to old Hannah Montana songs or Cotton- Eyed Joe?

And so I dance and sing along to my favorite songs, even without rhythm. And that makes me very happy. 🙂

But there’s one place where I do have rhythm—in my writing. In fact, rhythm is important to any good piece of writing. It can help your words flow in an easy pattern.

Here are a few tips for writing with rhythm:

1.Vary your sentence length

In each paragraph, use both long sentences and short sentences. This makes the paragraph easier to read and gives it a smoother flow. In the following sample, notice both the long and short sentences.

My sixth grade class has gathered in the amphitheater, all five hundred of us squished together shoulder to shoulder. The sun is scorching the back of my neck. My ponytail even feels hot. The sound we’ve been waiting for thunders through the speakers. The Piedmont Challenge theme song. I bite my pinky nail. The signal should be coming next.

In this sample, not only do the sentence lengths make the passage easier to read, they help to convey what’s happening in the story. The first sentence is quite long. The main character seems calm, like she’s simply telling the reader where she is.  As the story unfolds though, the author uses shorter sentences. You can almost feel the main character getting more and more nervous as the song plays and she gets ready for the signal to come.

2. Read Your Sentences Aloud

How do your sentences sound? Sometimes the key to creating a nice flow of sentences is simply hearing how they sound. Do they sound choppy? Maybe you’re using to many short sentences all in a row. Do you lose interest in what you’ve written? Maybe your sentences are too long. Separate them into smaller ones. If you try to put to much information into one sentence, an important point may get lost. 

3.Match Rhythm to the Mood

If you’re trying to describe a setting—a  countryside filled with beautiful flowers and cascading waterfalls–longer, more elaborate sentences will work well. But, if you’re writing an intense scene in a mystery novel, short sentences with bursts of quick, simple words will work better.  

Here’s an example: 

The main character, Connor has just missed his curfew time of 10:00pm. He walks through the front door, to find his Father waiting in the kitchen. He panics, knowing he’s about to get into trouble. Notice the long sentences he uses as he tries to explain why he was late.

                 ”Dad, I know I missed curfew again but I have a really good reason. See when the movie was over, I was about to walk to the car, you know to drive straight home so I wouldn’t be late again, but then some of the guys challenged me to a game of air hockey and you know I’m the King of Air Hockey so I knew you’d understand if I was a few minutes late because you really like air hockey too!”

                His dad holds up a hand to silence Connor. “Enough. I don’t want to hear your excuse!”

Notice the short response Connor’s angry dad gives.  And see how effective matching the rhythm of your sentences to their mood can be!

Rhythm often happens automatically. But it can happen even more effectively when you pay close attention to it. So give it a try. Add some rhythm to your writing. You’ll be amazed at how much better it will flow. And then go on and sing or dance to your favorite song. Even if you don’t have any rhythm at all! 🙂

 

Writing Craft

Basic Beliefs

We all want to create interesting characters for our stories, right? I sure do! One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is to give your character a Basic Belief.

A Basic Belief is something your character believes to be true. 

Here are 2 examples of characters and their Basic Beliefs:

• Tori believes if people are nice to each other, everyone will be happy.

• Jason believes people should only do something for someone if they get something in return.    

Now that we know what Tori and Jason believe to be true, how can that help us turn them into interesting, believable characters? It’s easy…put them into a situation where that Basic Belief is tested. 

Let’s say that Tori is your main character. She and her friends are building a fort in her bedroom.  When her friend, Molly tells their other friend, Jenna that her idea for building the fort is stupid, Jenna wants Tori to kick Molly out of her room. So what will Tori do? Will she take Jenna’s side and kick Molly out? Will she side with Molly and tell Jenna that her idea really is stupid?  Probably not.

But why?

Tori wouldn’t do either of those things because it would go against her Basic Belief. See, Tori believes that if people are nice to each other, everyone will be happy. Knowing that, we can guess that it’s important to Tori that everyone IS happy. So it would make more sense that instead of siding with either of her friends, Tori would encourage them both to be nice to each other.

In this example, writing about how Tori would react to this conflict is easy because we know her Basic Belief. When her Basic Belief is tested—when the girls begin to fight, Tori will encourage her friends to be nice. Why? Because she’s hoping that if her friends are nice to each other, everyone working on the fort will be happy!

So what happens when she tries it?

If Tori, encourages her friends to be nice to each other and it doesn’t work, the girls are still fighting, Tori may decide that her Basic Belief isn’t really true. She may think that just because SHE’S being nice, everyone else is NOT happy. On the other hand, if Tori encourages her friends to be nice to each other and it works…everyone working on the fort is happy, she will probably continue to believe in her Basic Belief.

See how that works?

But what about Jason? What happens to him when his Basic Belief is tested? Let’s say that Jason is a really good basketball player. Every day at recess, he takes shots from the foul shot line. He makes basket after basket. In fact, he hardly ever misses.  What happens when the other kids want Jason to help them improve their shots? Does he offer to give them shooting tips? Does he agree to practice with them until they get better? Of course not! That would go against his Basic Belief.

Remember, Jason believes that people should only do something for someone if they get something back in return. So instead, Jason agrees to help each of the kids play basketball—only if they pay him $1.00 every day he helps them. Since the kids agree to the deal, Jason probably thinks his Basic Belief is a good one.

What happens though when his Basic Belief is really tested?

Let’s say Jason is playing basketball outside in his front yard. He wants Billy to play with him but Billy is next door raking leaves at Mr. Abbot’s house.  Jason runs over to see if he can help Billy. Surely Billy is getting paid to rake the leaves and maybe Mr. Abbot will pay him too. But when Billy says he’s not getting paid, he just wants to help Mr. Abbot, Jason decides not to help Billy after all. That makes sense right, because Jason doesn’t believe in doing something for someone if he doesn’t get something in return.

Jason may think of it another way. He may offer to help Billy even though he won’t get paid. Why would he do that? Because even though he’s not getting money, Jason may think that the sooner Billy finishes the job, the sooner he can play basketball. This decision still fits in with his Belief because even though Jason is not getting money for helping, he’s getting to play basketball with Billy. So really, he is getting something in return.

In both examples, Jason stays true to his Basic Belief.

But do characters ever go against their Basic Belief? Of course! Let’s say Jason felt bad for Billy. Here he is sweating and tired because raking leaves is hard work and Mr. Abbot has a lot of leaves! Even though Billy has to go straight home after he finishes, and Jason knows that he can’t play basketball with him today, he may offer to help him anyway.

 But why would he do that?

Sometimes characters decide that their Basic Belief is not a good one—or at least not a good one all the time. Jason may have realized that in this case, helping a friend is better than getting something in return.

That decision can make Jason a more likable character. In this situation, Jason is forced to think about the way he acts and the decisions he makes. In the past, his Basic Belief has always worked for him. He had no reason to change the way he thinks.  A good story will push a character to really question his Basic Beliefs. He will have to think about the type of person he wants to be, or about the way he wants to live his life.

Sometimes he will decide that his Basic Belief is a good one. Sometimes he will decide his Basic Belief is not a good one and instead choose to live by a new Basic Belief.

There is no right or wrong way for your character to act. It’s up to you as the author to determine this, but a story is always more fun to read when that Belief is put to the test!  So why not give it a try? First create a Basic Belief for your character. Then write them into a situation where that Belief is tested. You’ll be amazed at how great your story will be. 🙂   

Good luck! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this…or your questions. So as always, leave a comment, if you have one!

Writing Craft

What’s at Stake?

As long as you write stories, there will be people out there, like your family or your friends, who will ask you,

                “What is your story about?”       

And when they ask you that question, what answer will you give them? You could say something like, “I’m writing a story about a girl named Samantha who makes jewelry.” Or, “My story is about a boy, named Van who loses his puppy.”

Your friends and family will probably say something like, “Oh, that’s sounds cool.” They may even sound like they mean it. But why don’t they sound more excited about what you’re writing? Why don’t they get that the story you’re writing is going to be amazing?? Probably because you haven’t told them anything about the plot. You’ve described to them a situation that your main character is in. And that’s not enough for a story. A situation is not a plot. Your story needs more.

 It needs stakes.

But what are the stakes? The stakes are what will happen to the main character if he doesn’t get what he wants or what he needs. Here’s an example:

Samantha is a teenager who makes her own jewelry. She plans to give away her handmade earrings to a group of sick children in the hospital on Christmas Eve. But when she loses the box of earrings, Samantha fears she won’t have any to give away to the children, and their Christmas will be ruined.

In this example, the stakes for Samantha are clear. She doesn’t want to disappoint the children.  The story you write will describe exactly what Samantha will do to be sure the children don’t get disappointed. Of course we don’t know whether or not Samantha will succeed…until we read your story!  

Here’s another example:

Van is a boy who loses his puppy. While he searches the neighborhood, he finds a magic marble with a clue attached to it. The answer to the clue will tell Van how to use the magic marble to find his puppy, but if Van can’t figure out the clue, he may never see his puppy again.

In this example, the stakes for Van are clear also. He may never see his puppy again. Here too, the story you write will describe what Van will do to figure out the clue and find his puppy. Again, we don’t know whether or not Van will succeed…until we read your story!

In Charlotte’s Web, the author, E.B. White gives us another good example of high stakes. Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer. Charlotte attempts to spin messages on her web in praise of Wilbur in order to convince the farmer to spare his life. But what if she can’t do that? What will happen to Wilbur? Wilbur will get slaughtered and all his friends on the farm will be devastated.
Those are the stakes of the story.

Can you see why the stakes are important? They’re important because if your readers care about your main character, they’ll care about the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. In fact, the bigger the mess, the better. That’s what makes your story interesting. Your readers want to see if your main character will succeed. They know what’s at stake if they don’t. That’s what makes them turn the page and keep reading!

So when you’re thinking up a story to write, be sure you know what’s at stake for your main character. And when your family and friends ask you what your story is about, be sure to tell them what’s at stake too. This time when they hear what your story is about, I bet they’ll mean it when they say, “Oh, that sounds like a cool story!” And I bet they really will want to read it too! 🙂