NYTimes Author Alan Gratz talks about REFUGEE and BAN THIS BOOK

Three gutsy protagonist, three continents, three different time periods. How’s that work? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer to discover how middle-grade author Alan Gratz weaves these interconnecting stories together in a way that Kirkus Reviews has called a “feat nothing short of brilliant.” REFUGEE hit bookstore shelves in July 2017 and made it to the NYTimes best-sellers list for middle grade fiction twice in August. BAN THIS BOOK released on August 29th!

We are delighted to talk with Alan Gratz about REFUGEE, BAN THIS BOOK, and writing.

 

AmazonBarnes and NobleGoodreadsIndiebound  |  Malaprops (ask for a signed copy!)

Welcome, Alan! Tell us about your inspiration for REFUGEE.

The idea for Refugee came from a number of different places, over the course of many weeks. It began with the story of the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story when my family and I took a vacation to the Florida Keys, and we woke one morning to find a raft on the beach that refugees had used to come to America. We had no way of knowing where the raft had originated, or if the people who set out in it had made it to safety, but it got me thinking about how so many people are risking their lives every day to have what I and my family have.

I wanted to tell the story of the MS St. Louis, but now I also wanted to write something about Cuban refugees coming to America by raft! And then—this was in early 2016—we came home every night to reports on the news and the Internet about the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees coming to America, and now I wanted to write a book about the plight of Syrian refugees! Finally I realized—what if I wrote a single book about all three, linking the families across the ages and across the globe? That’s how Refugee was born.

You often write about young people tacking adversity head on. What do you hope readers will take away from REFUGEE?

I want young readers to see refugees. My family and I knew refugees were risking their lives to come to this country officially and unofficially every single day, but because we don’t live on the front lines of that struggle, we didn’t see it every day. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft on the beach in Florida did for me and my family: make the invisible visible again.

I also hope that young American readers understand that, unless their family is Native American, we are ALL immigrants. Whether their families came over on the Mayflower, or came here on a raft last year, we’re all Americans, and it’s that immigrant melting pot that made this country great, and continues to do so.

Whew! In 2015, 2016, and 2017 you’ve released two middle-grade books each of those years? How?? Magic, time turning? You’ve gotta share your secret. Okay, maybe you don’t have to tell us, but you’ve obviously figure out some strategy to getting words on a page. What tips do you have for us on making time to write?

Did I? Oh, wow. I guess so! Pardon me while I go pass out… Seriously though, I’m not happy unless I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot more school visits of late—I think I did more than a hundred last school year!—which also takes away writing time. So the first thing I had to do was say no travel for six months out of the year: December through February, and June, July, and August. (I still break that rule all the time, but I do TRY to hold to it.)

Then, for those six months, I’m working on new books all the time. For my historical novels, I do about a month of heavy research for each, where I’m doing nothing else during my “writing” time but reading books about my subject and taking notes. Then once I’ve got enough research to build a rough story, I’ll start working up an outline. I’m a big proponent of outlining. It takes me another month to create a detailed outline, where I lay out what happens in every single chapter.

During this time, I’ll also work on character creation and do fill-in research for parts of the story my first round didn’t cover. Then, once all that pre-writing is done, I can usually write a first draft in about a month, at the rate of about two chapters a day. That’s my three month block! I turn the book in, and my terrific editor takes over. She’ll get the book back to me while I’m on the road visiting schools again, and then I’ll begin the revision process when I get back.

All the traveling I’m doing now may knock me down to one book a year, but that’s probably better for my sanity in the long run. But I learned to be a disciplined writer doing non-fiction advertising and marketing work before I was a novelist, so when it’s time to get writing done, I just sit down and do it!

Your other 2017 middle-grade novel, BAN THIS BOOK has a main character, Amy Anne, who is a girl after my heart. Tell us something about the story that will make us want to add BAN THIS BOOK to our Must Order and To Be Read ASAP List.

Well, I’ll give you the elevator pitch first: Ban This Book is the story of a fourth grade girl who goes to a school where a parent start banning and challenging books. As a protest, Amy Anne takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other students in secret as a Banned Books Locker Library. And all the kids’ books that are banned in the story have actually been banned in the last couple of decades in America! It’s (what I hope is) a funny, heartfelt story about the issue of book banning, as well as my love letter to middle grade novels.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

When I visited Japan seven years ago, I met a man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded in 1945, toward the end of World War II. He told me that the Japanese Army pulled him out of school, lined him up with the other middle school boys, and gave them each a grenade. Their instructions: go off into the forest and don’t come back until you’ve killed an American. That’s the first chapter of the new book I’m writing, which I’m calling Grenade. That will be out in late summer/early fall of 2018.

Buckle up for the…Lightning Round (*hands you a slice of pepperoni pizza for strength)

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Super speed! The Flash is my all-time favorite super hero.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Always wooden. I never got the hang of mechanicals.

Coffee or tea? Coca-cola!

Sweet or salty? Always salty! If I could live on French fries, torilla chips, and popcorn, I would. Or maybe I already do…?

Dog, cat, or other? I’ve had both, but the answer is dog. Mine’s name is Augie. He’s a rescue mutt.

Plotter or pantser? Plotter! (As you now know!)

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

You’ll hear this from a lot of professional authors, but that’s because it’s true: talent matters, but what really gets you published is persistence. I’ve met so many writers who give up after one or two rejections. You have to keep sending your stuff out, and keep getting rejected until someone says yes. And while you’re sending out one book, start writing the next. And the next. And the next.

I was still subbing (and getting rejection letters for) the first two YA novels I’d written when I wrote Samurai Shortstop, which would ultimately become my first sold and published novel. I’ve never sold those previous two manuscripts—they just weren’t good enough. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit, and get better at what you’re doing with every attempt. Then, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll break through.

 

Photo credit: Wes Stitt

What an inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! And best of luck with both of your new books!

Alan Gratz has been putting kids in fictional danger since 2006. You can find out more about Alan and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting Alan’s website.

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology will fund scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. 

 

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The Unicorn in the Barn: Review/Author Interview with Jacqueline Ogburn

Today we welcome to The Winged Pen the author of one of my all-time favorite picture books, THE MAGIC NESTING DOLLS. Jacqueline Ogburn is the author of ten picture books and, in just a few short days, the world will be able to read her beautiful debut middle-grade novel, THE UNICORN IN THE BARN.

 

… the presence of the unicorn and other magical creatures adding just a touch of whimsy to a story about very real emotions. A sensitive, moving debut.-Kirkus reviews

Eleven-year-old Eric Harper lives on his family’s farm in Chinaberry Creek. Due to his grandmother’s illness, they’ve sold her home to a new veterinarian in town to help pay bills. The veterinarian takes care of the many wild and unusual animals that live in the area around the Harper’s land. One day, Eric spots a lame unicorn and the veterinarian invites him to work with her and her young daughter to treat the animals. As Eric learns there are magical creatures that live in their woods, he also discovers family secrets that will change his life forever.

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN is both deeply imaginative and real at the same time. It deals with family death in a tender way for young readers. It is a coming-of-age story fully of whimsy, appropriate for ages 9-12 and would make a great read-together book. Rebecca Green’s black-and-white illustrations beautifully compliment the simple and heartfelt prose.

 

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN goes on sale on July 4th, 2017  at your local indie or here:

Goodreads

Amazon 

Barnes and Noble  

IndieBound

 

Welcome to The Winged Pen, Jackie! Reading THE UNICORN IN THE BARN was like a walk down memory lane for me, hanging out on the farm and playing the mysterious woods near my home. Does the fictional Chinaberry Creek represent an actual place from your childhood?

JO: Yes, the setting is based on my grandparents’ farm in Cabarrus County, in-between Concord and Albemarle. I would spend at least week there every summer.  When I was little, they still had cows, chickens, barn cats and for while goats, as well as several Chihuahuas that were house pets. Several of my cousins lived in houses and land that used to be part of the original farm. The house is a rambling two story and there are lots of smaller buildings clustered around it—the tractor shed, a couple of chicken houses, a potato house, corn crib, and of course, a barn.  I moved things around a bit, as the barn was in a pasture down the hill, not next to the house. There are still a lot of woods around and a creek and a pond in the pasture.  I named the nearby town Chinaberry Creek, because my mother loved Chinaberry trees. 

 

It’s interesting how the story seems so simple and innocent, yet deep and moving. I think this may be related to your experience as a picture book writer. How was the process different for writing a middle-grade novel different from writing a picture book?

Novels have so much middle!  A picture book I could figure out the structure and characters in my head, then write a draft that would be very close to that.  I tried outlining this, but as I wrote, the number of scenes and chapters kept expanding.  I knew the beginning and the end, but the rest of the novel, all the middle, kept growing, as I realized more things had to happen to get to the end.  Novels also require a lot more description of the setting and action.  Even though this book ended up with a lot of illustrations, I couldn’t count on the art expressing those things.

While I love fantasy, I wanted this story to be a contemporary fantasy, for it to be as realistic and matter-of-fact as possible.  Moonpearl isn’t a rainbow sparkle unicorn, she needs someone to muck out her stall and pick the burrs out of her mane.

 To achieve that, I did some interesting hands-on research. For six months, I was a volunteer at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, and did most of the same chores Eric did – sweeping, mopping, cleaning out cages, washing dishes, fixing food and water.  That’s how I met Bobby Schopler, the vet who read the manuscript for me and now works at the Duke Lemur Center. I read dozens of books by vets and visited a couple of horse barns to make sure the physical details were well grounded.

 I knew early on that if I was going to have a story about healing, that there also had to be loss. At one point, I called a writer friend nearly in tears because I realized that I had to include the death of an animal for the story to be properly grounded.

 

From the story, it’s obvious that you care deeply for animals. Can you tell us about your how your real-life experiences turned into this beautiful story that is partly a love letter to animals?

The book is a lot of wish fulfillment for me. I did love animals as a kid and read tons of books about them, especially horse stories. We only had one dog, Rusty, when I was growing up. He was a sweet red-brown Chihuahua. I also kept lots of caterpillars and grasshoppers in jars, and had goldfish and guppies. Fish are nice to watch, but not very cuddly. My mother had enough to do with raising five kids, and as a farm girl, she was less sentimental about animals.  Her brother, my Uncle Jackie, adored them, and there is a lot of him in Eric.

Now I am a cat person. Our tuxedo cat, Java, likes to sit on my chest, just under my chin while I read in bed.  I spent about a year in between cats while working on the book and it made me realize how much I like having a nonhuman companion. They deserve attention, affection and respect as much as people do.   

 

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I have a few chapters on a sequel, where Allegra is the main character. She’s more complicated and prickly than Eric. Timothy the Cheshire cat and Prissy the goose are still around, but there will be other magical creatures as well.

 

Lightning round (hands Jackie a cookie, for strength)!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Flying

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden

Coffee or tea? Hot coffee, but ice tea

Sweet or salty?  Salty

Dog, cat, or other?  Cat

Plotter or pantser?  Both. Even when it’s tightly plotted, like a picture book, there are surprises and detours along the way.

 

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

Read widely, not just in the genre that you love, but other things, including nonfiction. Curiosity is an important trait for a writer, to wonder “what if” and then to be driven to find out the things that could and would happen after that. 

 

Excellent advice and thanks so much to Jackie for stopping by to talk with us! Want to see unicorns in the real world?. Follow Jacqueline Ogburn on Instagram, and you can also find out more about her here!   

And click here for a special limited-time Instagram giveaway!!!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

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Hiding in the Closet (and other tricks to find writing time in the summer)

Shhh. I’m in the closet with my laptop. Should I mention there’s no air conditioning in this closet. And it’s at least 90 degrees outside. I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. And the air smells like teen boy sneakers.

Why am I torturing myself? I just want uninterrupted writing time. My kids have been out of school for a whole week already. Every three minutes I’m bombarded with a steady stream of questions.

Does mollusks have one “l” or two?

What color are prison uniforms in Japan?

Did you buy banana peppers?

What time will Dad be home?

Where’s my bathing suit?

Who ate all the ice cream?

Why is there a lion in the front yard?!!!

Yeah, that last one got me moving because believe it or not stranger things have happened in our neighborhood and who’d give up the chance to see a lion prancing through their yard. This time, it was a trick just to swipe some of my chocolate stash. Rrrrroooaaarrr!

The point here is that I’m desperate to be ignored. Is that too much to ask? I’ve EVEN TRIED GETTING UP EARLY. My kids have been waking up before 8am.

“You’re teenagers. GO BACK TO BED!”

I have no choice. I’m running away with my laptop AND ALL THE CHOCOLATE in our house (because I am EVIL). But first, I decided to ask my resourceful friends at The Winged Pen for their best advice on squeezing in writing time.

Jenny (5 and 8): Buy out the entire supply of water balloons at Walmart. Bribe them with food. Lock them in their play room (mostly kidding). Discover that the PS4 game they’ve been fighting over weeks has a multi-player option. Ship them off to grandparents because really that’s the only answer!

Kate (8 and 11): Wear them out! A long walk in the woods or a visit to the pool, water park, or trampoline park in the morning guarantees a few blissful hours of writing in the afternoon while they rest and draw, play with Legos, or read.

Karin (9, 12, 14, and 15): Child labor: Give them jobs/chores and pay them, such as weeding (all four), painting the fireplace bricks with white wash (artsy 15 yr old), walking dog (all four), older ones entertaining wild 9 yr old.

Gabby (9 and 13):  Start their own crafty business. Jewelry making, beading, sewing, bake sales/lemonade stands.Write and illustrate their own book! Could offer to have it bound at the end of the summer.

Julie (11 and 12): Early morning was my only opportunity last summer. I can usually get the two of them going on a board game, a craft project, or some outdoor time and sneak in a little writing time. The good news is that they’re both big readers, so I often write during their reading time too!

Halli (11 and 14): This year I am sending them to a one-week drone day camp. Now that they are older they don’t want to be campers. They are counselors at karate camp, but I’m there too. So it looks like I’ll get one decent week of writing done this summer. Sigh….

Kristi (8, 9, 10 and 12): We just got new beds for the kids and even my 10 and 12 yo have been pitching in creating stuff with the boxes– For us, taking away electronics and giving them challenges like build the tallest thing, etc, has been key this break (it’s only one month for us, so maybe after a few weeks the chaos will break out?)

Rebecca (12 and 14): I don’t need to entertain them. In fact, I’d like to do days at the lake or a museum or the shore, but I already know I’ll just get, “School’s finally done! We just want to relax!” My challenge is that I’ll start writing and need to remember to get my son off the computer, get my daughter to put down the book, and push them out the door for some fresh air and exercise.

Richelle (10, 12,  and 14): We are instituting non-screen hobby time at our house this summer. I told them they need to cultivate interests and I will get them supplies. My oldest is going to teach herself to sew, the 12-year-old is going to paint, and the 10-year-old is baking. My main purpose was to get them off their devices, but I’m hoping it leads to them having their own practices that they enjoy enough to leave me alone for a while!

Gita (15): Sleep-away theater camp. For three weeks.

*All our jaws drop. We turn green with envy and frantically google last-minute sleep-away camps for all our kids.

Sussu (9 and 13): My teenager and my tweenager are learning Autodesk. It’s easy and free and there are lots of tutorials online. They get to model their own Lego kits. The reward? We’ll 3D print the kits when they’re done.

Gita wins for best summer plan, and Sussu wins for most industrious kids. And now I’m feeling even more like a slacker. Thanks to the inspiration from my friends, I’ve figured out where I went wrong. We don’t have a routine. Instead of running away, I’m putting together a plan. On the weekends, we’ll make a schedule for the week and buy any supplies we need. So here’s my routine for the rest of the summer:

  • Get an hour of writing time before they get up. See this post for details!
  • Take them on a short hike or walk
  • Lunch together
  • Reading time/Personal activity time (another hour of writing time for me)
  • Bonding (kid-kid) activity/challenge each day, like a major chore that takes two, or making dessert, helping a neighbor, etc
  • Afternoon game time (me plus the kids), followed by dinner and family time in the evening

Hopefully something in this post will spark you with an idea for how to wrangle some writing time and keep your little darlings busy, and maybe even inspired.

Leave any suggestions you have for keeping kids busy in the summer in the comments, PLEASE!!!!! (Just in case, you know.)

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

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LORD of MONSTERS by John Bemis

Do you like books with monsters and magic? Heroes and epic journeys? On June 6th, 2017 at a bookstore near you, one of the most imaginative books I’ve read in a long while will be released into the world. LORD of MONSTERS is the 2nd book in the OUT of ABATON series, and this Pinocchio retelling is sure to please.

Goodreads   |     Amazon     |     Barnes and Noble  |    Indiebound

Those of you who read THE WOODEN PRINCE will remember that it ends with Pinocchio transforming into a real boy. In the LORD of MONSTERS, Pinocchio must learn to adapt to being human at the same time as he’s figuring out his new responsibilities as a ruler (prester) of Abaton, along with his friend Lazuli, daughter of the former leader of Abaton, Prester John.

“But before they can get comfortable in their thrones, a fancy dinner at the palace is interrupted by an unwelcome guest-a monster! And this isn’t just any monster; it’s a manticore, a beast that was imprisoned centuries earlier. Desperate to locate the prison and make sure none of its other monsters were able to escape, Lazuli, Pinocchio, and their Celestial Brigade set out to save Abaton from these ancient beings.

Their journey requires intelligence, strength, and a dash of the magic only presters control. But when Pinocchio tries to use his powers, they have an unintended effect: he is turning back into a wooden automa. And if he’s not careful, he may lose his human form forever.

The second book in the Out of Abaton series continues John Claude Bemis’s reimagining of Pinocchio in an action-packed adventure that celebrates friendship, tolerance, and the power of being yourself.” –Goodreads

Sounds amazing, right? It is!

Two things set this story apart. The incredibly imaginative cast of characters and plot devices are unparalleled.  Also, themes of inclusion and tolerance are crucial to the climax. For me, this is an easy two thumbs up!

And now, it’s my pleasure to welcome John Claude Bemis to the blog!

LORD of MONSTERS has many unique characters (glowing aleya bubbles, a superfluous worm, mushroom men, …) and plot devices (thunderseeds, sleeping sand, an underground forest, …). Could you pick a few of these and tell us what inspired the idea?

John: Thank you! I had so much fun exploring the strange world of Abaton and all its fantastical inhabitants. I like contrast in characters, especially secondary characters. I knew I needed a misfit team of knights for Pinocchio and Lazuli and liked the idea of a pair of them being opposites. One small, one big. One gregarious and the other half comatose. Goliath, who is of a race of diminutive mushroom people, is feisty and fast-talking. While Kataton is a physically intimidating reptilian chimera who’s slow and lethargic. Something about this combo just seemed funny and ripe with possibilities and surprises.

The superfluous worm came about as a plot device honestly. I needed a way for the characters to communicate across long distances in Abaton, but I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen in other fantasy stories. So I invented Riggle, this worm who can be chopped in half and becomes essentially two Riggles. Whatever one Riggle hears, so does the other. So Pinocchio has one Riggle and his father Geppetto has the other and they can pass messages along through Riggle (er…Riggles). It also cracked me up to have a character so amiable about being severed in two. My sense of humor skews weird at times.

One thing that stands out in LORD of MONSTERS is the rich world-building. Will you share a few tips or tricks for creating these well-developed worlds that capture readers and pull them inside?

The trick to fantasy world-building is grounding it in reality. It needs to follow particular rules, even if the reader is unaware of the rules. I think Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Limits are an artist’s best friend.” I established in THE WOODEN PRINCE that the magic of Abaton revolves around the four elements. So in LORD OF MONSTERS, the various cultures needed to reflect how the magic of air, water, fire, and earth would affect cities, transportation, rituals, and everyday life. Also since Abaton is located in the Indian Ocean, I tried to give the world a feel that was connected to south Asia and east Africa with the food, geography, architecture, etc. It’s funny how much research you can do as a fantasy writer. You’d think we could just make it all up from our imaginations, but I find pulling from reality makes the most magical worlds.

In THE WOODEN PRINCE, Pinocchio transforms from an automa into a real boy. In LORD of MONSTERS, Pinocchio explores what it means to be human. What do you hope readers will take away from Pinocchio’s discoveries?

I feel very connected with Pinocchio’s journey. He just wants to understand what it means to be alive in the world—what it means to have friends and family, to handle adversity in an admirable way and to experience all the joys the world has to offer. His discoveries are, in a way, all our discoveries; they’re just amplified a bit because the world is so new to him. In the new book, Pinocchio wrestles with what it means to be given this gift of life and to have it potentially taken away. Once you’ve seen the other side, who wants to go back to being a dull automa? That’s heartbreaking. And breaking hearts makes for good storytelling in my opinion.

In addition to being an author, you also teach writing at various workshops and retreats. Where can we sign up?

I love getting to work with writers of all ages to help them deepen their craft and create stories that are singular to their artistic vision. My favorite writing workshop that I lead is at Table Rock Writers Workshop every August. The attendees are so talented, and we have plenty of time to dig in deep to what makes powerful stories for young readers. Also students get lots of individual feedback on their writing, so that makes it fun to see writers walk away at the end of the week with a whole host of new ideas for what to do with their characters and stories.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I’ve been developing a couple of new stories, which I’m sorry to say I’m real hush-hush about. But one is a middle-grade novel being shopped to publishers. The other is a YA sci-fi that I’m in the thick of revising. They’ve both been so much fun and are different from what I’ve done in the past. I promise I’ll be getting back to Abaton soon.

Lightning round (*hands John a brownie for strength):

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Teleportation, for sure. I’d pop over to Venice after dinner every night for a cup of gelato on the Strada Nova.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Mechanical. I’m practical that way. But honestly, I’m most partial to the Pilot G-2 pen. I buy them by the dozens.

Coffee or tea? Tea first. Then midmorning, coffee.

Sweet or salty? I’m salty for sure.

Dog, cat, or other? Cats

Plotter or pantser? Unapologetically, a plotter

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? Don’t just think of writing as sitting in front of your laptop. Just as important is the time you spend thinking. So discover where you do your best creative thinking. For me, it’s taking long walks in the woods with a backpocket notebook. I call it my thinking walks. (It took my wife forever to believe that this was real work.) Having time on the trails to be deep in my imagination is where I hatch all my best character, plot, and setting ideas. Make time for it—wherever you can—ever single day. You’ll be rewarded with surprising story insights.

An inspiring speaker and entertaining performer, John Claude Bemis is the author of Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince and Lord of Monsters, the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Flora and the Runaway Rooster. He received the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education for his work in the schools as an author-educator and served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate in 2013. John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC. You can find him at his author website, on Instagram, and on Facebook.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Leah Henderson’s ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL

This March, I had the pleasure of meeting author Leah Henderson at a writing workshop. When she described her debut middle-grade book set in contemporary Senegal, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Eleven-year-old orphan, Mor, struggles to keep the promise he made to his dying father to keep his young sisters safe and to keep their family together. His aunt comes to take them away from the village they call home, and Mor begs for the opportunity to prove that he can care for himself and his sisters. But finding work and food for his family isn’t easy. To make matters more complicated, a gang of boys from a nearby village, the Danka boys, threaten to take the little bit he’s saved and his opportunity to keep his promise to his father. Mor is faced with a tough decision: do whatever it takes, even if it goes against his principles, to keep the family together or do what is right.

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In ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, the sights, culture, and customs of Senegal are delicately woven into the story, giving the reader the unique experience of understanding what present-day life is like in Senegal. ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL beautifully shows the power of determination and the importance of family, friendship, and community. It would make a great classroom read for grades 4-8, ages 10 and up.

I invited Leah to chat with us about her story. Welcome to The Winged Pen, Leah!

Thank you so much for hosting me today. I’m excited to be here.

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL is a story about family, resilience, and determination. It feels lushly intimate, especially the scene where Mor recalls the happy memory of playing soccer with his baay (father). Do bits of the story come from your own life?

I hesitate to say no because in many ways I think I draw from my own life experiences in everything I do, but the scenes in this story are completely fictitious. Though I will say growing up I always loved playing soccer with my dad and watching him compete and coach. And there are definite glimpses of people I’ve met sprinkled within many of my characters. I think that is what helped bring Mor and the individuals populating his world to life for me—a smile I remember, the gut punch of an unkind word, the sunshine behind someone’s laughter—you know, the kinds of moments that fill our days. These experiences can’t help but find their way into my stories.

What do you hope young readers will learn from Mor and his sisters?

I hope they will learn about a tiny fraction of the beauty Senegal possesses and that they will want to discover more about this country and many others around the world that they are unfamiliar with. I also want young readers to consider that when faced with what they might believe are insurmountable obstacles that there is almost always a way to the other side. It may not be easy, but with hope, determination, and help, they can attempt to overcome the difficulties set before them.

In this interview with The Brown Bookshelf, you mentioned your inspiration for ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL came from seeing a boy sitting on a low beach wall while you were traveling in St. Louis, Senegal. His story came to you as that image replayed in your head while you wrote a short story for a MFA class. With encouragement, it developed into a full novel, but you were hesitant to write this story. Many writers struggle with the question “Is this my story to tell?” How did you overcome your internal resistance? How do you feel about the story now that it’s about to be shared with the world?

Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m completely over my “internal resistance”. My hope at this point is that I haven’t done harm and that a story like mine will not only be an enjoyable read, but that it will make people more curious about the larger world we live in and the varied lives that inhabit it.

I think my true turning point came when my father reminded me that this was possibly one of the first opportunities a cast of characters like mine might be seen by a wider audience or more importantly, by kids that mirror these experiences. And was I really going to deny them the chance to see themselves? A question like that left no room for turning back. There was nothing left to do but keep going. I tried to forget about myself and my apprehensions and focus on the characters and the people I modeled them after. I tried to tell the most heartfelt story I could.

As far as how I feel about sharing this book with the world, I am both nervous and excited (mostly nervous) that in a matter of weeks it will be taking a journey that I no longer have any control over (not that I ever really did)! But mainly I wonder if the little boy on the beach wall saw it would he be able to see glimpses of himself in my writing, and if so, would he smile . . .

After reading ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I have a greater appreciation for Senegal and its people and, thanks to the rich imagery, I can almost image what life might be like there. Did you do much research as you wrote, or were the details about life in Senegal active in your mind from your travels there?

So the story I tried to tell in my book only captures a small piece of the complexity, richness, and hospitality of that country. The majority of my time in Senegal is spent in cities, in marbled-floored homes with striking courtyards with entrancing scents and gorgeously attired friends and acquaintances, so this side of Senegal, the side I assumed the young boy was from, was a huge departure for me, and cause for much worry. So I tried to do as much research as I could. I was really starting from a place of not knowing.

At first, I could only assume what the life of that boy might be like, and we all know how simple assumptions can quickly turn into stereotypes and untruths if we aren’t careful. So I took trips, watched, listened, tasted, touched, and breathed in everything around me. I asked tons of questions of those who knew this world. I did not pretend to know anything and hesitated to make things up when I didn’t know the answers. I was open to learning and tried to remember every moment I experienced. As an avid traveler who loves to traverse unfamiliar, less trodden paths, I was open, curious, and excited about it all.

Nice! What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I have a great love for middle grade, so I am busy working on two new stories which are both very different from this, but still center around determination, family, and discovery.

Okay, Leah. Buck up your seat belt for the Lightning Round! *hands Leah a cookie Fun!

If you had a superpower, what would it be? The power to heal (or the power to truly understand motivations, desires, and dreams).

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden pencil

Coffee or tea? Tea, definitely tea!

Sweet or salty? Depends on the day or minute and the possible sweet or salty option. =)

Dog, cat, or other? Dogs are my heart, especially mine.

Plotter or pantser? I’m a bit of both.

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? Sure, if this is truly what you love to do, don’t give up. Keep writing the stories you want to share with the world, not just because you hope someone will see them, but because you have to get them out of you. Write because you love it. Everything else is simply a brighter sunshine!

Thanks again for having me. It’s been fun to share a little more of my story!

Thanks so much to Leah for joining us!

The artwork by John Jay Cabuay for ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL is absolutely gorgeous. Find him on Twitter and more details about it here.

You can find out more about Leah Henderson at http://www.leahhendersonbooks.com and on Twitter.

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING Movie vs. Book (no spoilers!)

My 13yo daughter and I arrived at a movie theatre Tuesday night as excited as two people could possibly be about getting a sneak preview of the EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING movie based on Nicola Yoon’s book by the same name. But excitement wasn’t the only thing coursing through my veins as I stood in line to take my seat…

Anyone who knows me well, knows that EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is one of my all-time favorite books. I mean, it’s got EVERYTHING going for it. It’s a love story (swoon) about a mixed-race relationship, but it also has a dramatic twist. It’s full of feels, yet light on words making it a quick read, perfect for reluctant readers. The illustrations in the book were drawn by Nicola Yoon’s very talented husband, David Yoon, making it a love story mixed into a love story.  So yeah, I LOVE THIS BOOK!

AND I had the pleasure of riding next to Nicola Yoon on an airplane on my way to a writing workshop she was co-teaching about Writing Cross-Culturally back in March. Like me, she’s a scientist and a writer, and the word “worship” comes closest to describing my feelings for her.

BUT here’s the problem.

I normally dislike movies based on books I adore. That something else coursing through my veins was ANXIETY. I didn’t want to hate this movie.😧

 

 

 

 

BUT THE MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I LOVED it! ❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️

 

 

Unlike many adaptions, the movie is very close to the book. The acting is top-notch. Amandla Stenberg play the lead-role of Maddy, and she is STUNNING to watch. Her smile is like sunshine. She melted me over and over and over… The chemistry between Amandla and her co-star Nick Robinson (Olly) was excellent. The sweet, sweet love story plays out well on the big screen, and the twist is handled well. (There were many gasps in the audience!) Some of David Yoon’s illustrations were included in the movie too, which was definitely like a cherry on top. And the soundtrack is as swoon-worthy as the movie!

My Daughter’s Verdict: “I’m going to go see this with each of my friends individually so I can see it a bunch more times.” She’s talked about this movie nearly every day for months, and she was not disappointed. She loved the movie and book equally. Her favorite thing about the movie: “I really enjoyed seeing Rue (from Hunger Games) playing Maddy’s role.” Her least favorite thing: “I wish they had done the scene when Maddy and Olly first touch in the movie the same way it was in the book.”

My Verdict: I still love the book more, but I love the movie too. The only negative I have to report is the movie is too short. (I wanted MORE!) EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is a great movie to see with your daughters and a great date movie for teens! (Yes, all romance should be this sweet!)

If you haven’t read the book and you like love stories, you will probably enjoy the movie. (I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that you will want to read the book too).

If you have read the book and loved it, you will be PLEASED!

Select showings begin on May 18th and the full release is May 19th! Go see it! Here’s a handy link to Fandango so you can find it in a theatre near you! Want to know more? Here’s the EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING movie website and Twitter.

What are your favorite movie/TV adaptions of favorite books? Feel free to share in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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MYC: Developing Supporting Characters

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Developing Main Characters. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Supporting Characters.

The Supporting Characters’ Job

The purpose of a supporting character is to add depth to the protagonist by helping the reader understand how the main character interacts with others and reacts to situations. Also, supporting characters help move the plot forward.

What types of supporting characters do you need for your story? Well, that really depends on the goal that your main character must achieve.

Types of Supporting Characters

The Villian/Antagonist: Every story needs one! Often, the antagonist is a person (but it can be a disaster, technology, society, or even a main character) who fuels the conflict that the main character must solve to achieve her/his goal.

The Love Interest: This character adds tension and may be directly involved in the conflict. It also can serve some of the same functions as the antagonist and the BFF.

The Mentor: This character encourages the main character to develop the skills she/he needs to achieve her/his goal.

The BFF/Sidekick: This character may be needed to help the main character achieve her/his goal or may be around to help us understand the main character and her/his motivations.

Extras: Characters who would normally inhabit the main character’s world or who are needed to complete scenes. You may need many of these or none depending on your story.

Examples of Extras:

1) A child main character would normally have parents/a guardian.

2) In a classroom setting, there would normally be a teacher.

3) In a fight scene, there would normally be many fighters.

Often, these EXTRA characters only need minimal development and a minimal/no arc. But the other characters in your story need much development!

Next Step

After you’ve chosen what types of characters you need, you’ll need to interview the most important ones (the ones who must move the plot forward) using a process like the one in our previous post about Building Main Characters.

It’s often useful for your secondary characters have strengths related to your main character’s flaw.

Examples:

1) Your main character may have a supportive family that they don’t appreciate. A supporting character who comes from a broken home can help the main character see the error in her/his thinking.

2) Your main character may be very popular, but has superficial friendships. A supporting character who is more introverted, but a true friend, can help the main character understand what’s missing in her/his life.

I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus for fleshing out the relationships between characters. The front matter in both thesauri is extremely helpful for developing good characters that work together to make the story come alive.

 

Tips for creating good supporting characters:

  • Give each supporting character a defining characteristic. (Appearance, skill, quirk)
  • Make sure their voice is distinctive from other characters.
  • Don’t give characters similar names and avoid names starting with the same letter.
  • Main supporting characters should be layered and detailed, but do not take too much attention away from your main character.
  • Focus your writing about supporting characters on how their actions, traits, and what role she/he plays helps or hinders the main character from achieving her/his goal.
  • Limit your characters to those who are necessary to move the story forward.
  • Please give careful consideration to race/skin color when you write supporting characters. Stories with white main characters and darker-skinned support characters who do all the work (or even worse who are villians/bad guys) are not representative of the real world. Please consider every reader who might read your story and avoid stereotypes. (More on this in the post on Building a Main Character.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss using this character development to start working out plot!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Shannon Hale Interview: Real Friends

GIRL TROUBLE––friends one day, enemies the next.

Who doesn’t yearn for a real friend––one that gets you, always has your back, and someone that you can admire even in their darkest moments?

Author Shannon Hale has captured the essence of friendship struggles girls face in her new graphic novel memoir REAL FRIENDS releasing on May 2nd.

Girl relationships are difficult. And for the sensitive girls out there (like me) who just want to be true friends without all the drama, it’s a lot easier to just give up and read books or use your imagination. In REAL FRIENDS, Shannon is just that girl. She wants to have fun with friends, but at the same time she wants to stay true to herself and not get involved in the girl games. The world is not on her side, though, as she deals with persistent bullying and isolation leading to stomachaches and some OCD behaviors. Add to that her difficulties at home with her four siblings, especially her very grumpy older sister, and you’ve got one stressed out girl.

This is a great graphic novel for ALL girls. Sensitive, imaginative girls and girls who have ever been bullied or left out will identify deeply with Shannon. Other girl readers (who aren’t like Shannon) might see themselves and their actions from a different perspective. Shannon Hale deftly pulls back the curtain so we see the person behind each girl in the story, making us aware that even bullies struggle with their own flaws and insecurities.

Thumbs up for LeUyen Pham’s beautiful, emotive illustrations that really pull the narrative together in this candid graphic memoir about a young girl navigating the ever-changing and confusing world of relationships. This would make a great classroom book for ages 8-12.

We are thrilled to chat with Shannon about REAL FRIENDS and what we can look forward to from her next!

Welcome to The Winged Pen! In your Squeetus blog, you mention that REAL FRIENDS is your heart. I really felt that as I read the novel, but could you expand on that a bit for us?  I’ve never written about myself before, let alone myself at my most vulnerable age. This story required me to open my heart and ask readers, can you care about this weird little girl who will always be a part of me? And hopefully by extension, can you also be compassionate with yourself?

What do you hope young readers will take away from REAL FRIENDS?   I hope they take from it whatever they need from it. Gene Luen Yang said recently that the more specific you make a story, the more universal it becomes. I hope that by telling my true story, readers can find in it whatever they’re missing now and feel more whole for it. That’s the magic of story. I don’t have to teach a moral lesson. I just have to tell something true.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?   My husband and I are writing a sequel to our novel THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL: SQUIRREL MEETS WORLD. She’s a Marvel superhero with the proportional strength, speed, and agility of a squirrel. I love writing comedy.

Okay, buckle your seatbelt for the lightning round. *Hands Shannon a smoothie for strength.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Besides squirrel powers? Probably to stop time so I can get done everything I want to do!

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden. I love the smell.

Coffee or tea? Mint tea.

Sweet or salty? Salty. And sweet. Just feed me everything please.

Dog, cat, or other? There’s not an animal I don’t love, but we recently adopted two cats. I have four kids. Taking care of a dog as well is beyond my capabilities.

Plotter or panther? I’ve done both. Plotter definitely when co-writing. Pantsing it is fun when I’m writing alone with nothing under contract.

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? Read. Write. Focus on developing your skill. Remember that like a musician or athlete, you need years of practice before you’re likely ready to go pro. Allow yourself to take those years, and take them seriously. Your stories deserve that.

So true! Thank you, Shannon, for stopping by! To learn more about Shannon Hale and her latest endeavors, check out her website or find her on Facebook or Twitter. Better yet, order REAL FRIENDS from your favorite Indie or using one of the following links.

Goodreads    Indiebound   Amazon   Barnes and Noble

SHANNON HALE is the New York Times best-selling author of more than fifteen children’s and young adult novels, including the popular Ever After High trilogy and multiple award winners The Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days, and Newbery Honor recipient Princess Academy.  She co-wrote the hit graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack and illustrated chapter book The Princess in Black with husband Dean Hale. They live with their four small children near Salt Lake City, Utah.

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MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

MYC: Build Your Main Character

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the Big Idea to Querying. Last week, we covered the Big Idea and using Creativity to help you Create Loglines. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Main Characters.

Character development is critical to your story’s success and one of your most important pre-writing activities. You can probably begin writing your story with only a sketchy plot, but if you start writing without “knowing” your main character(s), it will be difficult to create a memorable story that connects with readers.

Task: Create a main character that readers are willing to root for throughout your story.

Within the first few pages, you must find a way to make the reader care about what happens to your main character. How do you do that? Develop deep, multilayered characters. Even if every detail doesn’t make it to the page, knowing your character as well as you know yourself will make your story stronger.

To create an interesting main character the reader will care about, you need to know the answers to these questions.

  • What makes your character special (talent, ability, difficulty)?
  • What’s your character’s weakness/flaw (what must she/he overcome for the conflict to be resolved)?

To answer those questions, consider the four main layers that make a character whole.

The Layers That Make Up a Character

Think through all the layers of your character before you begin to write. Often my main character comes to mind almost completely formed. Sometimes, it takes more effort. In both cases, I often fix a pot of tea and interview my main character(s) early in the prewriting process.

  • Outside identity:  age, name, gender, race, skin color, quirks, physical features [eye and hair color, birthmarks, teeth, height, body size, voice, teeth (crooked, missing, braces), health status, outstanding features (lazy eye, big nose, ears that stick out, mole, scar, birthmark, lost limb)]
  • Inside identity:  personality, traits, religion, values, sexuality, intellectual ability, gender, fears, mental health, beliefs
  • Frame (what makes up the character’s world):
    • family structure (parents happily married? birth order? dysfunctional family? traditions?)
    • house rules (no opposite sex in the bedroom? shoes off at door? anything goes in this house? strict parents?)
    • foods (ethnic? home-cooked meals? take-out? packaged foods?)
    • Economic status: rich, middle-class, poor
    • Social status: popular, community-minded, philanthropic, troublemakers, elitists, reclusive
  • Voice: How your character communicates the story. This will overlap with all the above and we’ll be focusing more on voice later in the series, but here are a few ideas to jumpstart your character into a bit of dialogue.
    • Consider these together:
      •  Age and birth order: these help shape personality which give your character a unique perspective
      •  Maturity: this will influence your character’s reactions and attitude
      •   Sense of humor: fart jokes or Shakespearean pun
    • Now, consider how your character communicates.
      • Writes notes, letters, poetry? texts? face to face? avoids others?
      • Type of words: short and to the point? flowery?
      •  How does your character convey their message: sarcasm? jokes? direct? indirect?

Final Important Tips About Your Main Character

1. Avoid Stereotypes!

If you chose to ignore this advice (don’t do it!!!), turn the stereotype on its ear or balance the stereotype out by adding many details to give your character depth.

Examples:

  • nerdy smart person (balance: very friendly and outgoing, loves riding dirtbikes)
  • troublemaking poor person (balance: who makes trouble for all the right reasons)
  • sassy black girl (balance: with high values that she’s willing to stand up for)

More tips for avoiding stereotypes: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-ten-ways-to-avoid-cliches-and-stereotype

2. Show/Don’t Tell!

Page after page of descriptions is a sure way to turn off readers. You definitely will need some telling, but try to convey details about your character through action or comparison.

Examples:

1. Character is an atheist (using action instead of telling)

Tell: She’d been an atheist from the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

Show: Even though her family still said grace before dinner, she’d given up on God the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

2. Character is white and artistic (using comparison instead of telling)

Tell: She was a white girl who loved to draw.

Show: She peeked into the classroom door to check out the other students before she walked in. Was she going to be the only white girl in the drawing camp?

I’ll end this post with a few resources. Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Supporting Characters!

Resources: Tips and Worksheets on Building Character

https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/character-questionnaire/gotham

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/14-tips-for-building-character/

http://fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment.tumblr.com/post/50825149893/character-sheets-and-character-creation

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Creativity to the Rescue: Finding BIG Ideas

As a piggyback to last week’s BIG IDEAS post in our Master Your Craft Series, it occurred to me that many of our readers may still be struggling with their concept not being quite BIG enough to commit months or maybe years to writing a story. Or maybe you’ve only got a small nugget of an idea. So what do you do?

First let’s break concept down into bite size chunks.

Inciting Incident: The “what now” that sets your story in motion! This is the scene where something happens to cause the protagonists to change course.

Protagonist: A main character with specific characteristics.

Goal: What must your main character achieve in your story?

Stakes: What will happen if the protagonist don’t achieve his/her goal?

If you have these four ingredients, you can write a logline.

Standard logline: When/After {INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS}, a {PROTAGONIST} must {GOAL}, or else {STAKES}.

But what if you don’t have all those ingredients? Well, it’s going to be difficult to write a story! You need a creativity boost!

There’s been much written about how to maximize your creativity. Basically, you need a method for opening your mind to jiggle loose new ideas. Physical Movement often helps or sometimes a nice long bath does the trick. Sometimes we get ideas through serendipity, like from dreams or watching people, or by cross-pollinating ideas by watching the news or enjoying art. Writing prompts can help too, but sometimes you have to go grab creativity and force it to work for you.

Creativity tricks for writers:

  • Apples to Apples Game: No, I’m not asking you to play it! But you can use the game cards to help you generate ideas. There are 749 red noun (person, place, thing, or event) cards, 249 green adjective cards, and some blank cards.

Example: Say you’ve got a main character {a quiet young boy who’s ignored by his busy family}, but that’s it.

Easy! Pull out three adjective cards and three noun cards and start making some connections. Let’s pretend you get Demi Moore, The Great Depression, and NYPD for your nouns and Scary, Mysterious, and Hard-Working for your adjectives.

So obviously, a story where Demi Moore is the goal, inciting incident, or the stakes is a little bit too weird. But you see the words scary and mysterious and you might remember that Demi Moore was in the movie Ghost. Then your mind starts to pull the other words together to form a bigger idea. Let’s try inserting some of this into the standard logline structure.

After {moving into an old house in New York}, {a quiet young boy who’s normally ignored by his family} must {convince his family that their new home is inhabited by a ghost}, or else {STAKES}.

Okay, this isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t pitch it to an agent, but it’s got your brain working, which was the goal. I ran out of steam with those cards. I didn’t use them all and some of them were just used to generate other ideas (Demi Moore=ghost, NYPD=New York, The Great Depression=the time period just before their house was built). Also, I’m not done. I don’t have STAKES yet. So pull another set of cards and see what you come up with for the stakes. If you completely hate the idea, start over and draw more cards or move on to another trick.

  • The Dictionary: Just turn to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word. Repeat this until you have an assortment of words to work with and fill in the blanks just like you did with the Apples to Apples game.
  • Magnetic Words: Every writer has those magnetic words that speak to them. (Heck, one of my favorites is the word “magnetic.”) Keep a list of your magnetic words in a handy spot (like a favorite journal or an easily accessible file) and use those to fill in the blanks just like we did with Apples to Apples.
  • Misfortune Tellers and Tarot Readings: Author John Claude Bemis has great creativity exercises on his website that can be used to help fill in the blanks for your logline.
  • Talk it out: Once you’ve used the ideas above to come up with your best possible BIG IDEA, talk it out with a friend or family member. See if they think you’ve come up with a BIG IDEA, or maybe they can help you make it BIGGER!

Happy Writing!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.