Some stories start right at the beginning, and run clear to the end, as if there is another hand writing a little ahead of mine, leaving a trail of invisible ink that my hand, my pen, will unknowingly follow.
More often, being I’m the kind of writer who starts off with one line in mind, hoping this will turn out to be a story, i'll come to a breathless finish halfway through.
Even when a story writes easily for ten pages or twenty or thirty, I have a stopping point at which I take a breather, and ask myself, what have I got here? Often that stopping point comes as a place where I can’t think what happens next. Or maybe I feel my energy ebbing, and I need a day off from producing, I just need to be grateful for what I’ve got so far. But, knowing that tomorrow is another day, and it will surely come. . .
I make a list of the characters and their apparent roles in the story. Not just a name, age, and family position kind of role, but an archetype. Are they my hero(ine)? Who or what is he in conflict with?
Is there a hero’s ally? Are they the kind of ally who carry bad news and good ideas, and offer them up just before or after the hero steps into a deep hole? Or are they the kind who appear at first to be an antagonist? The kind who changes life for the worst before it becomes amazingly better? Who might even be there at the end, saving the day?
Who is the mentor in this story? What kind of role do other frequent players take on? Are parents part of the central story, and if not, who takes their place in a kid’s life?
Once I’m finished, I wonder if there are any two characters doing the same thing, thinking or saying the same things. A good time to merge them into one more effective character is now, before I have too much rewriting to do.
I think about the kind of roles this individual story probably needs, the kind of secondary character my main character probably needs to help him through the hard parts--the kind of decision I’m going to base on stories I’ve read before, whether or not they share subject matter or any other similarities. It’s possible one more character can spice things up.
I look at what appears to be my emerging plot. What conflicts are in play? What events or characters are driving the plot forward? Is it a simple plan, something that allows me to show characters in the deep true nature of their relationships, Can I say anything about the human condition and how we might improve it? Can I offer the reader an emotional range that keeps her turning pages?
Or has the plot become a convoluted game of chess that distracts me from the reason I write in the first place? Not that some people can’t do both, keep us on the edge of our seats with question marks front and back, and still give us a character we’ll remember for a long long long long long LONG time. But I know my personal plotting limits. I look at the character flailing around in the midst of this story and ask myself (with a mean little grin): What could make their lives worse? And I make it happen!
That’s when I begin to think about the themes I’m working with. Theme is tied to the characters, of course. Who is helping, who is hindering, what does it all mean? Why are these people acting this way? What are their motives, and what fears and failures have shaped them? What are their goals and aspirations? I try to think about them in a bigger picture way. What kind of impact does each character have on another, how might that impact play out in this story. Is there an easy label to put on any of these characters: underdog, pretty but sly, shy but sneaky—like that. I think of ways I can use that label, maybe turn it upside down to surprise the reader or make them laugh.
Theme also shows up in the environment of the story, weather or landmarks, contrasting values, and maybe whatever shortages of something valued has already become part of the story. What repeated symbols, remarks, ideas, motifs, or contrasts show up repeatedly, seemingly without my having intended it? If it doesn’t quite make sense to me, I ask other people what those things mean to them. I can get so close to a story, I can’t be the one who knows what it means. But once I’ve got a good sense of where the story is headed, I can add passages, or strengthen what is already there, to make it clearer to the reader.
Best of all, this period of getting to know my story from the outside in, rather than the inside out, helps me plan where it's going.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
by Kirsti Call
Last month I wrote about 5 ways to make the most of your library card. This month, I decided to interview my favorite children's librarian, Kimberly Bears. I first met Kim in the children’s section at my local library 5 years ago. I’ve never known a more cheerful, helpful and engaging children’s librarian. I still go to night readers, a tween and parent book club that she leads. I’m delighted to have her perspective here on Children’s Book Academy.
Kirsti Call: Why did you choose to go into library science and focus on kidlit?
Kimberly Bears: I have always loved going to and working in the library. I think in the back of my mind I always wanted to be a librarian, but was side tracked by meteorology first. Anyway, I was taking a Ch. Literature course in college and one of the projects I chose to do was do a story time. I remember it vividly…it was on my birthday, and I chose to do a Halloween story time (you were allowed to do that back then ;) I dressed up like Dorrie the Witch and shared the book Dorrie and the Witch’s Imp. It went so well!! I left the room knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life…be a Children’s Librarian…and I am still doing it.
KC: What was your favorite book as a child?
KB: My favorite book as a child was The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff by Paul Galdone. My first grade teacher read it to us and I immediately went home and told my family all about it. My Dad said he would take me to the library that weekend to see if we could borrow it. I can still remember him showing me how to look it up in the card catalog and how to ask the librarian where to find it. I was hooked from then on! (Luckily the book was in…or who knows where I’d be now…lol.) Can you even believe that I was in first grade before I actually went to the library for the first time?
KC: Who is your favorite children’s author and why?
KB: Oh man…this is a tough one…so many levels of books, so many genres…I honestly can’t pick just one! How about if I give you my favorite one for today…I just read Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle and I loved it!
KC: What types of books do you need more of in the children’s room?
KB: Oh this is easy…no pun intended…easy readers!! I find that beginning readers is a tough area. Publishers rate them by Level 1, 2, 3, and 4 which is great, but unfortunately they all have a different idea on what a Level 1, 2, 3, and 4 book actually is!!! So frustrating! There has to be a way to write some beginning readers that not only strengthen a child’s ability to read (ie: repetition, phonics…yes I said it…phonics) but still have some “meat” to it. Oh, and I say it all the time, we really could use some good picture books on unicorns, and mermaids too! Kids are always, always asking!
KC: If you could meet any children’s book author, who would it be and why?
KB: Neil Gaiman!! I love this man! He has such a talent and imagination…and he genuinely LOVES librarians and what we do and stand for!
KC: What is your favorite thing about your job?
KB: Everything! I know this sounds cliché, but it is so true. No two days are alike, no two children are alike, and I have the honor of introducing them and keeping them invested in books and reading. I am so lucky to be doing what I know I was put here on Earth to do! Get kids excited about books, reading, and their dreams and ideas! My college friends still tease me when we get together because I am the ONLY ONE who loves my job!
KC: How much time to you spend reading children’s books?
KB: Never enough! LOL. I try to read an adult novel, then a children’s novel, an adult novel, then a children’s novel…I listen to audio books the same way. As for picture books, I read them every chance I get. I love nothing more than sharing a good picture with both children and adults! (Here’s a secret…I always try to include some little something for the adults who attend my story times. I am a huge believer in the idea that you are NEVER too old to be read to!) (Or to read a Children’s novel…Night Readers ;)
KC: What is the most important message you think kids need to hear about reading?
KB: I tell every child that I give a new library card to…”This is the most important card you will EVER have in your wallet! Cherish it!” Reading is as important as breathing. It can take you places you have never dreamed of, it can teach you things you have never thought of, it can make you feel things you never knew you could feel, and it can heal.
KC: Thank you Kim! Kidlit writer's should always remember your message to kids as they are writing: Reading is as important as breathing. It can take you places you have never dreamed of, it can teach you things you have never thought of, it can make you feel things you never knew you could feel, and it can heal.
Kim Bears is a graduate of Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science and is currently working as a part-time Children's Librarian at the Memorial Hall Library in Andover, MA. She is the former Head of Children's Services at the Stevens Memorial Library in North Andover, MA, and the Leach Library in Londonderry, NH. Kim also served as the President of CHILIS, the Children's division of the New Hampshire Library Association, and has been published twice in School Library Journal. Kim currently resides in Londonderry, NH with her husband Paul, her two sons Michael and Danny, and her beloved yellow lab Koda who loves to be read to before bedtime. Kim s a huge New England Patriots fan, hopes to one day live in Paris, and would to love to follow Bruce Springsteen on a worldwide tour. Read On!
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out in 2013 with Character Publishing. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus and co-coordinates Reading for Research Month, a challenge for picture book writers who use mentor texts to improve their writing skills. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading or writing. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
If the first hurdle to writing a book is to tackle that first blank page, then the next hurdle is to do it day after day after day. Every page in a book was once a blank page.
This year, I’m turning a messy two-story garage into a space for another kind of mess—play dates with my paints (among other things). The past couple of weeks have been about emptying the space (or coming close), replacing a garage door with found glass doors , repairing the floor,
,removing half the upper floor and installing windows
( trapezoidal at Restore, $10 ! ), buying mortar paint to whiten the dirty gray walls, then realizing I still haven’t gotten the obsolete vacuum cleaning system off the wall (it’s like the word in a manuscript you can’t see anymore).
. I’ve noticed this work is like the grass growing, there's never a blank page. What needs to come next is always clear to me, the ultimate goal being a clean, well-lit space, and always, always,always at the end of day. . .
I'm somehow successful. Not finished, not by a long shot, but something I started out to do is done.
Knowing that each day there is a blank page to be filled, there’s a kind of friction to starting. That's always true of writing. Coming to it after half a day in the garage, friction looks more like a series of speed bumps. I’ve had to think about the way I get myself going, and I’ve had to be more deliberate in my methods. It’s not enough to read for fifteen or twenty minutes (achieving an alpha mind state) before I begin
to daydream about my own work, which leads to writing by hand or on the computer. Lately, it’s not enough to read the last page I wrote yesterday to know what I need to write next. The creativity trickle, always ongoing in all of us, isn’t thinking about this character’s problem, it's thinking about how to get that vacuuming system off the wall without calling somebody who wants $65 an hour to do it. So I’ve got a method for jump starting the kind of creative energy I need for writing.
See if it won't work for you:
At the end of each writing period, I do a word count, so I have the number of pages (or paragraphs) I actually wrote.
Write a summary of those pages, for your eyes only. this step helps me to know if I moved the story along, or if I just did the thing Steve Martin says makes writing so easy—just put down any old word (he says it charmingly in Pure Drivel). I’m asking myself, what just happened here in terms of an event? Who drove this scene (and, is it a scene with a setting and dialogue, emotions expressed, but also drawn from the reader—good work, or is a character just telling what happened—a section that will need to be revised?)
This is the moment to put down any thoughts that come to mind. Things like: this somewhat lazy character is turning out to be fairly good at getting someone else to supply what he needs—I can present this as a good thing or a bad thing, which one works for the story? That introverted character negotiates social events too well to be really introverted--is that character hiding something?
Think of what might logically come next—a reaction to a challenge, responding to an embarrassing or ambiguous situation, an answer to a Big Question. I try to finish on a small turning point in the story, so that something fresh might present itself tomorrow.
‘Label’ the scene that needs to be written ‘the wedding,’ ‘the confrontation between student and teacher,’ ‘help little brother find his lizard,’ whether or not it comes next in the story line. Most of the time we have an upcoming scene we know will turn the story, or maybe we know only the working parts. I think it helps to keep those in mind (so the vacuum system solution isn’t all that’s flowing when the creativity trickle springs a gusher). Of course, I write down any details, any dialogue, that comes to mind. I write down as much as comes, even if it’s only a debate of the purpose of that scene.
The next day, I concentrate on what I thought should come next (unless I come to the table with a scene that appears to be writing itself, and not one word is vacuum). In this scene-wanting-to-be-written situation, I write that scene. Then I move on to the work I planned for that day.
At the end of the writing day, I do a word count. I write a summary of those pages I wrote today. In other words, I start all over at the beginning of this list.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore. audreycouloumbisbooks.com
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