Writing is just like life…even when it’s fiction

Late last night I finished reading the novel, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  It was better than amazing and it inspired me to get on the ball and write about something I teach to all my writing students, which is this:  The way we approach the writing of a story is the same way we approach our lives.  And I don’t just mean working on a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I feel like most people think of life has a series of big pictures with a lot of little pictures and occurrences along the way.  Maybe your big picture extends no more than getting through one school year at a time (don’t let anyone ever tell you that is as easy as it sounds), or it could be a bit bigger and maybe you group your years at one school into a big picture.  Some kids I have known (though not many) have an idea of what they want to do as an adult or even go through periods of changing their minds about it, but they are still seeing the path to adulthood or actual adulthood as the big picture.  Regardless of where you are in your big picture, it is there nonetheless.  A writer sees this as the plot with a setting and some known characters.  Once the story has begun though, the setting and characters are apt to change because just like a character, you grow and change and new things happen and people come and go, sometimes when you least expect it.  Stories and lives have a lot of inevitable occurrences no matter who you think is in charge – you in your life or the writer of a story.

As a writer, I hear over and over again, that the story – aka big picture – starts with a day that is different.  As a kid, you have a never-ending supply of those!  It could be a move, a new sibling, a new grade or school, or even something unexpected like a new friend or an accident with an outcome that is long enough to be a story of its own.  The interesting thing about a day that is different in real life is that sometimes we realize it is one of those days and sometimes we don’t.  That can be as exciting or as frustrating as whether or not we even understand how the story will unfold.  The story is instigated by an event and moves forward through our decisions that follow.

I have heard Mo Willems speak a couple of times and I love his thought on choosing what to write.  He said, “Don’t write what you know.  Write what you want to know and spend your story figuring it out.  Otherwise you are just regurgitating.”  Hearing this made me feel more freedom in choosing what to write than anything else I have ever heard.  It also gave me more peace of mind as a person making choices in my life.  It changed the pressure I put on myself to anticipate what is going to happen next and let me focus more on how things in my life were unfolding.  In the end, I feel like I am more focused on the big picture in both my life and my writing.

If you have been struggling with how to start a story, think of it like your life.  You won’t sit there and wait for something to happen.  You go and do something and see where it takes you.  Try thinking about your character’s big picture and what kinds of things will he/she do?  Maybe you have an idea for a day that is different and you want to write to see how it will all pan out.  Maybe you’re a planner and you think of the end game and want to back track to see how you got there.  (This can be tricky though because a lot of times the story ends up feeling forced.  Remember this is just a way to get started.  Don’t be afraid to let your story unfold naturally.  After all, plans don’t always turn out the way you expect and that is part of the excitement!)  Or maybe you have a question about something you’ve read and if you take a chance and write it down, maybe a character with something to say will start to offer some ideas.

A great example of a story that grabs your attention and gets you involved in a character’s big picture is the book Okay for Now.  Doug Swieteck moves to a new town and brings a whole lot of “baggage” with him.  He didn’t see this change coming and the story of how he works through the struggles of having to bring his problems with him has it’s own correlation to life in the form of the story in some art that he comes across in the last place he ever expected to be…a library.  Gary D. Schmidt does a wonderful job of jumping right in and letting us tag along as Doug’s life unfolds.  It is a great example of what I’m talking about here.

Whatever you choose to do, the important thing is to put your words on the page and see where they take you!

Happy writing!


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You Have the Right to Write

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of being on a school district’s committee that was reviewing textbooks to purchase for the upcoming year.  Although I don’t teach full time anymore, I still guest teach writing, and I looked forward to being among others who shared my love of teaching.

As the school year came to an end, a small group of people was chosen from the committee to make the final decision and I was part of that group.  We visited while waiting for our last meeting to begin, and I was happy when the instructional specialist from my daughter’s elementary school sat down next to me.

I didn’t know her very well, but had spent the first half of that week teaching writing in my daughter’s classroom and she had attended my class each day, taking notes on the lessons I was doing.  Each day, she thanked me and told me she loved what I was doing, but we never had time to sit and visit.  When she sat down next to me at the meeting, she commented on my work that week and told me what a wonderful job I was doing…then came the kicker.

She says, with a sad look on her face, “I would give anything for us to have time to teach that kind of writing.”

Now, I don’t ever advise judging people from a single comment, but I have heard this one so many times, that what was to follow was pretty predictable.

Innocently, I ask, “So, what kinds of writing do you teach?”

Pause:  I must confess that there was really nothing innocent about my question.  I asked it on purpose even though I already knew the answer, and I knew she wasn’t really sad about not having time to teach creative writing.  In her case, it wasn’t really a guess because I knew how our district worked, what our elementary curriculum was, and had worked with several people in the building on this very topic.  The thing is, sometimes people just don’t get it, and sometimes it is so much more than that.  This lady happened to have a direct impact on both of my girls’ education, not to mention all of the other kids at that school.  I just couldn’t let it go.

She responds, “Well, we teach essays and opinion pieces, how to write a business letter and how to write a report on a researched topic.  You know, the kind of writing they will actually use when they grow up.”

And there you have it.  Exactly what I predicted, except I got a bonus.  The rest of the teachers at the table had a pause in their conversations and happened to look our way.  The one sitting across from me had an opinion of her own.  I smiled.  Not because I hoped for support, but because I had heard this lady’s opinions before and had never seen her receive any respect from her peers at the table.  I smiled because I was morbidly curious.  (Look that up if you need to, it is a fabulous word!)  She did not disappoint.

Genius says, “I can’t even imagine cramming that into my schedule when I think about all the stuff these kids actually need to know.”

Here, I actually did pause.  I was completely offended on behalf of children everywhere that this woman was so limited in her ideas of what children, people, needed, and I didn’t want my passion and beliefs on writing to sound mean.  So I tried to temper it with a question.

Me:  “So, children don’t actually need to know how to write anything other than for the business world?”

Genius:  “Well, it’s not like their all going to grow up to be authors.  We have to teach them the skills they need to be able to get jobs and function as adults.”

Me:  “So you’re teaching solely based on what they will grow up to be?”

Genius:  “Of course I am.  That’s what school is.”

Me:   “So I assume you believe that you teach math to every single student because you believe every single student will grow up to be have a job using higher math, such as an accountant?”

(Yes, I fully admit that I was no longer being nice.  This lady was an extreme case of misguidedness.)

Genius:  “Well, no.  That’s ridiculous.”

Me:  “Then why do you teach math?”

Genius:  Silent.  And becoming greatly aware that everyone else at the table is also silent, watching her, and not jumping in to help her.

Me:  “Maybe I can help.  You teach math to every student because it is complex and you never know what parts of it will be helpful to any given child.  You teach it because it is full of logic and teaches kids that there is an order to things and many times, order makes all the difference.  And that when there is an unknown – and there is often an unknown – you have practiced the logic, problem solving skills, and understanding of order that will give you a greater chance at finding what it is you’re looking for.”

Genius:  Still nothing.  This actually makes me think she might be listening.  Stranger things have happened.

Me:  “I don’t teach creative writing because I think they will grow up to be authors, although I hope some of them will.  I teach creative writing because nothing holds more possibility than a blank page.  It gives children the opportunity to take all of the things they have learned about people and the world around them and create something that didn’t exist until their minds thought it and they put it on paper.  It teaches them that life is exactly like a story.  They each have a beginning, middle, and end, and the actions in them have events followed by logical consequences and outcomes.  It gives them a chance to be something different, or try something new, and use everything they know to figure out how it will end or what will happen next.  We read to be part of something we might not ever experience otherwise and we write for the same reason.  Experiences make us human.  Make us better humans.”

Genius never responded to what I said, but she didn’t look angry either.  She looked curious and I guess for me, it looked like a start.  I did however, feel better when the other teachers smiled and one even winked at me.

I have heard many statements like the one that teacher made over the years and I look forward to the day that more people realize the value of life experiences, including the ones being played out on a page.  It scares me even to think how different our history and the world of science might be if people had not put importance on asking questions, creating scenarios in their minds and seeing what would happen.  If you ever take the time to look through the writings of people who have affected our world – Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, etc. – you might be able to come up with your own story about what our world would be like if they hadn’t put their thoughts to the page, if their minds hadn’t created things that didn’t exist until the moment they thought them.

It isn’t just scary.  It is unthinkable.

You have the right to write.  To be introduced and instructed on the art of taking the wonders in your mind, pulling them out, and setting them free to be something more than just a thought.  If you have a teacher who is still trying to figure all of this out, stay tuned here.  I’ll try to give you some advice and a good start.

Now while I’m all about reading, it’s time to stop now.  Don’t you have a piece of paper to find and something new create?

Happy writing:)

P.S.  If you are a teacher reading this and think this is a pipe dream, I want you to know that it is not.  I taught in an underprivileged school in the Dallas area with over 90% free and reduced lunch students.  We did not teach “to the test.”  We taught them the curriculum and through that, over 90% of them passed the test in reading and math.  In writing, we taught the forms they needed to know to pass the writing test and we taught creative writing right alongside it.  Our students were as amazing as the teachers I was privileged to teach with.  If you would like any ideas about how to make this work, feel free to contact me.

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Author Extraordinaire – Tim J. Myers

I love the way nonfiction writing has changed over the years from strictly factual to entertaining while educating, and Tim J. Myers, author of the new book Rude Dude’s Book of Food, is a master at it!  I was lucky enough to get to interview him and here’s what he has to say about writing great books.

Me: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain about writing!  First, I love to see how books start out.  I know you have a love of history and food, but at what point did you decide to turn the interesting information your mind collected into a book?

Tim:  I love this question, since as a writer I can’t help but wonder about what makes us write, both in general and on a specific project like Rude Dude.  As human beings, we all have our interests, but what tips the scales to the point that you choose all the work involved in writing a book?  A big part of it for me was my equally intense love of stories – I began to read stories that really interested me.  But the biggest single thing was that I began to hear Rude Dude’s voice in my head and realized I had to scratch that itch.  And of course along with that came the realization that I might be able to make food history fun and interesting for young readers.

Me:  I hear from so many authors that they can hear their characters’ voices and I know I hear them when I write.  Rude Dude’s voice is certainly energetic along with knowledgable!  While it seems the stories just role off your tongue, I know how much research is involved in writing nonfiction.  How did you choose the topics that ended up in the final manuscript?

Tim: I wish I could give a serious and official-sounding answer, but the fact is that I simply chose foods I really love!  Holy cow – I let my stomach lead me rather than my brain!  I should add, though, that I also knew that all these foods are super-popular on a global scale, so I figured I could find amazing facts and fascinating histories associated with them.

Me:  I can tell that you love what you write and I think that is why your book is so fun!  I know that there are other things though, that you have to consider when making a book, like making sure it isn’t too long or too short.  Are there any topics you wish you had included?  Will they possibly show up in a “next book” or do you just file them away and move on to what your mind is working on next?

Tim:  That’s an insightful question – you seem to know how my mind works!  I’ve actually collected a fair amount of research on other foods – corn, bananas, cookies, sugar, etc. – that interest me.  I don’t mean that I did specific research, but I kept whatever I encountered that seemed as if it could be part of a second Rude Dude book.  And who knows?  Maybe someday there will be one.  I do a lot of that – filing things away – in actual file cabinets – while I’m working on other things.

Me:  If Rude Dude makes another appearance, I will be the first in line!  You wrote the book in such a way that you could expand the concept (and narrator) into teaching and entertaining us with many more aspects of history.  Do you see a different kind of story in Rude Dude’s future?

Tim:  I appreciate that comment and question!  Yes – definitely yes.  It’s an open-ended format, and maybe I’ll get the chance to do more with it.  That kind of thing generally depends on factors beyond my control – like what editors are interested in, what the public seems to want, etc.

Me:  As a writer, you are all over the map.  Nonfiction, poems, picture books, songs, and much, much more.  What would you say is the common element in your writing that you want to reach your readers?

Tim:  I love this question, mainly because I think the answer is somewhat mysterious.  Many artists, it seems to me, are motivated less by thoughts than by impulses, by some vague but powerful sense of interest in something or desire to shape some as-yet-not-fully imagined idea or story.  And that’s certainly true for me.  In one sense, there’s no specific thematic unity in all I do, since I’m interested in and compelled by lots of different topics and literary forms.  On the other, I’d have to say that my core impulse is to both explore and celebrate the wild, beautiful, sometimes terrible reality of life in the world, including the astonishing nature of human beings.  All of which is to me a very sacred thing.  So if I can help kids laugh as they’re learning about the complexities and amazements of food history, I’m actually serving that core impulse, even if only in a smaller, specific way.

Me:  There’s no “smaller way” about it – you have jumped in with both feet!  Another way you spend an enormous amount of your life helping people is as a senior lecturer at Santa Clara University in California.  Most writers I know also have a “day job” and must try to find a balance between that and their writing.  How do you balance the two?

Tim:  Yes – finding that balance is an ongoing challenge!  I love teaching, and see it for the crucially important thing it is, so I give a lot to my students.  But I also need to write.  There are a couple of great “tricks” for making it all work out, but they’re hardly magical!  One is simply working very, very hard.  Another is time management; I’ve learned how to squeeze my time for maximum efficiency.  For example, I sometimes write or do other work in my head as I’m riding my bike to work.  And since I do a lot of different things, nothing ever feels boring or tiresome, and that keeps my energy and interest up.  I also try to stay healthy.  But I’ve learned too to listen to my body and mind when they’re overworked and just need a rest.

Me:  I completely agree!  I get some of my best ideas and problem solving done for my stories while I am resting or taking a break from the fast pace of life.  I get to rejuvenate and go back rested and ready to make great progress.  Tim, I can’t thank you enough for sharing all of your insights about writing and for going the extra mile to make sure readers everywhere can have access to Rude Dude’s fascinating finds!  I can’t wait to see what you do next!

For more information on Tim J. Myers, please visit his website …timmyersstorysong.com

Happy reading!

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Part Two: Manholes, tow trucks, and lonely silverware…

Okay, so I chose to tell you about my quirks not just because of characterization, but because there happen to be three of them and they happen to go nicely explaining the rule of three in stories (a coincidence, but I’ll get to that shortly).  When we read about a character, I don’t imagine it would be much fun if a problem presented itself and the character solved it on the first try.  While that happens often in real life (otherwise we would be completely exhausted from having to make three efforts to solve every single issue we face) one of the reasons we read stories is to be able to see what happens when things don’t go the way you think they should and the character still doesn’t give up.

This is where the rule of three comes into play.  In stories, the rule of three simply cements what a lot of people think about oddities or events in their own lives.  If something happens once, it was a fluke.  Twice, it was a coincidence.  Three times?  Well now, that must mean something.  When you combine this within a story that has strong characterization, you get a page turner that is authentic.

Now, how to incorporate characterization without it feeling like a setup for your three obstacles?  Consider this.  How boring would it be if I were a character in a book and the writer told you about my three quirks in an effort to help you get to know me as more of a real person, and then used only those three quirks as steps in the obstacles I was about to face?  PREDICTABLE!  That’s when your character goes from a well rounded person, to a set up.  Sometimes it’s hard to see it in our own writing, but avid readers can spot it in a heartbeat.

I just finished reading the wonderful novel Rain, Reign, by Ann M. Martin, where the rule of three and characterization are perfectly combined.  In this book, the main character, Rose, has three favorite things: words (homonyms), rules, and prime numbers.  Throughout the story, Rose has difficulty connecting to other students because of her extreme affinity for these three things, but there is so much more to her as a person.  Because of these other aspects of her life and personality – the relationship with her aide that helps her stay focused in school and find good conversation starters, her love for her dog, Rain, her amazing problem solving and organizational skills, and the comfort she feels in routines and structure – you don’t even see the plot twist coming when one of her favorite things creates a heart wrenching decision that only Rose can make.  It is completely authentic and a must read!

Warning – here is a personal example hidden in my ramblings…

When I told you about my three quirks, I mentioned a couple of hints that there was more to the story.  One of the hints was the word “consciously” when I talked about walking over a manhole.  I stick by that.  But sometimes things happen when you aren’t looking out for them.  Sometimes, you find yourself walking down a back street in Mexico where the road opens up and you suddenly realize that there is the most amazing waterfall right in front of you.  You can’t believe you found this incredible sight, and though you feel a quick sting of pain in your legs as you turn to make sure your friend is as awestruck as you are, you find yourself pausing to ponder why her knees are where her face should be, and it still takes you a moment to process that while you were completely distracted, you walked over a manhole…and fell in!  Seriously, I am not making this up.  The one time.  Fluke, or common sense proven true, I know not.  But what I do know is that Mexican manholes are smaller than my hips and thus I am alive to tell the tale.

The tow truck was another matter entirely.  I actually chose to do that.  A few years after the manhole incident, I would still often laugh at that story with my friends, and it made me consider the possibility that my fears could possibly be odd.  (Feel free to judge me – someday when you’re famous and your autobiography comes out, I’ll be happy to return the favor:))  So one day, I find myself driving on a three lane road, alone, except for the tow truck in front of me.  At a light, he had turned onto my street and into my lane, and when my light turned green, I decided to stay where I was.  I decided it was time to conquer this ridiculous fear and I wasn’t going to change lanes for a silly reason.  Not two minutes later, I noticed that the SUV on the back of the tow truck was wobbling more and more.  I couldn’t be certain, but it also looked like it was getting closer to the back edge of the flatbed.  I convinced myself that it was paranoia, but decided to give just a bit more distance between my car and his truck.  This was lucky, because as I increased my distance, a chain snapped and the SUV slid right off the bed in front of me!  Sheesh!  My caution and the gain in distance saved from an accident, but it was a crazy feeling.  And I had to ask myself – Is this just a coincidence?

Well, I sure hope so, because if I ever open up my dishwasher and find a solitary piece of silverware crying from loneliness, I will know that my fears coming true is not a fluke and not a coincidence.  It was the certainty of the rule of three.  Just as certainly as if I had told you more than just these things about myself (like I have dived into sharkish waters to repair a boat before we drifted out into the ocean, been chased by an angry herd of goats, slid down a mountain only to be saved by getting stuck in the one cactus plant, been knocked out of a canoe going at high speed by a tree, etc.) I would have the making of a well rounded character…and just maybe, a story.

So the next time you are creating a character or devising a plot, make sure to show the reader that there is a lot more to the story than just the nuts and bolts.  There are well rounded people with quirks, habits, fears, and secrets that can most certainly get in the way of what they are searching for.

Happy writing!

Some books with great characterization:
Rain, Reign By: Ann M. Martin
The Mysterious Benedict Society By: Trenton Lee Stewart
Theodosia (a series) By : R.L. LaFevers
Tanya and the Magic Wardrobe By: Patricia Lee Gauch
The Missing Series By: Margaret Peterson Haddix

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Part One: Manholes, tow trucks, and lonely silverware…

I love the title of this post because it highlights the true strangeness of my irrational quirks and it also makes me want to go read a Rick Riordan book.  Mr. Riordan’s books make me happy even if I only get a chance to read one of the tables of contents, but I digress.  It is my strangeness that is on the menu for today.

Everyone has quirks.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  Maybe you line your shoes up alphabetically by type, refuse to eat food that is touching what is next to it on the plate even though you like both things, or have to have the toilet paper facing the right way on the roll.  (Honestly, I think not eating foods that touch shouldn’t be a quirk, but more of a sense of good manners, but…tomato, tomato.)  I happen to have three such quirks that have plagued me for most of my life.  Here, I tell them in reverse order, but they will align by the title in my next post.

First, I have a thing about loading the silverware in the dishwasher.  I think the silverware should be loaded in pairs in the same compartment, until each compartment has a pair and then you may add more silverware however you wish, trying not to obviously overload any one section.  It’s insane.  I am aware of this fact.  Especially at age, 42, when my mother comes to stay at my house and refuses to follow this simple request, and when I gently remind her of how lonely they look and could she please, please, please skootch one over…I get this look like maybe she wishes I was adopted instead of the possibility of me having a direct link to some of her own strange quirks.  (Trust me, they are doozies.)

Anyway, that quirk, unlike the other two, doesn’t contain the life or death threat.  The next one is easy.  Tow trucks.  I have seen tons of cars loaded and attached to tow trucks and have never seen a job that wasn’t thorough.  That being said, a secure and complete job (not unlike a good story) is only as strong as its weakest link.  Can a car be held in place on top of a bouncy vehicle, in traffic, with turns and hills, stoplights and highway entrance ramps, and rush hour traffic by a super strength set of chains that is only fastened to said tow truck by a couple of bolts?  Really?  Well, I prefer not take my chances and have only driven directly behind a tow truck once…in my entire life.

The last of my quirks is equally frightening (and don’t laugh, because someday your best friend might decide to tell your quirks at a gathering of friends and I doubt they are any less strange) yet scientifically (supposedly) safe.  But still.

Here goes.  Manholes.  Or really any kind of lid or screen that covers a street or walkway and leads to an unknown, potentially dangerous and disgusting underground world that would have me make a surprise entrance through a faulty door (manhole) followed by a seemingly bottomless dark hole.  I know, you want to laugh, but in part two of this post I will tell you why you should never completely ignore a fear.  It could come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

I have to admit though, that while this fear is consistent, and I NEVER consciously walk on top of a manhole, I am still able to guffaw at the scene in Mr. Peabody and Sherman where the manhole in France is popped into the air and then falls directly back through the hole to rescue them.  Manholes are circular because it is the only shape that cannot be turned in any direction to go through the same size/shape opening, thus making it safe.  But quirks are irrational, and even sound science only has the power to make me see the issue with this phenomenon elsewhere, not walk on the dreaded, secret door to the underworld.

Anyway, as a writer, you are developing your character and you want to make him/her feel like a real person.  So instead of just telling what they look like and who their friends are, you give them quirks, habits, fears, secrets…the things that make us deeper individuals than just the basics.  It will not only make your character feel real but it plays a major role in how he/she responds and interacts with the world and ultimately is what drives your story.  When you do this, you must also consider how predictable (and unexciting) your book will be if you give them characteristics and then ONLY give them problems that challenge those things.  Some things you show about your character must be part of their journey as a person, not just to set the reader up for the plot.  (You don’t want to go crazy, though, and bore the reader with details, so what you are looking for is a balance.)

A very good example of this is Caitlin in the book Mockingbird.  There is so much insight into her struggle to connect with and understand the world around her, and most of it comes into play as characterization and the reader understanding her connection to the issues she faces as a person, not as setups for the plot.  In one specific scene, Caitlin is on the playground and is trying to block out the overwhelming amount of colors she sees.  The scene is showing you (this is not a spoiler alert!) her ability to cope with and adapt to the things in her world that cause her stress.  Because the scene is complete, and actually revolves around another event that happens, I would not have been surprised to see a larger obstacle come up that involved her having to deal with overwhelming colors to overcome that because it felt like subtle characterization in the first scene.  (Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for?!)  It doesn’t end up coming up again, but this is just an example about small tidbits of knowledge that are planted so that it isn’t so glaring when you choose to use it as a bigger issue later in your story.

If I were to write a story about my self, I would want to tell you much more about myself than just the three quirks in this post.  Especially if I intended to use them for major events. If I only tell you about these three things and then I end up having to overcome obstacles that all happen to revolve around just these three things, any reader will be able to tell you that it was a setup.

When I read books, I love to predict.  I love to make guesses at what will happen next or later in the story based on bits of information, and I don’t really care if it pans out or not.  I just love the guessing, and it’s even more so when the ending happens and not only was I wrong, but looking back over the story I can’t believe I missed it because the clues were so cleverly hidden within an amazing story and detailed characterization.

Here is something you might try to help you see what I am talking about.  Get a book that you love – and own – and read it again.  As you are reading, mark all the sentences or passages that contain characterization.  When you finish the book, go back with a different color or notation and mark only the ones that were detrimental to the plot.  It will give you a good idea of balance, subtlety, and a well rounded character.

Happy reading!

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The death of a genius, and a lingering question…

When I was young, I never really thought about what careers or jobs I wanted to have when I grew up. At least if I did, I don’t remember any of them. I thought more about experiences I would like to have (I wanted to spend a couple of years in the Peace Corps) or what kind of person I wanted to be. Might sound cheesy, but it’s true.

One of these ambitions has wandered around in my mind several times over the years and has recently taken a permanent seat as I sort through what happened to its source this past August. This thought, this goal, came one night while my parents were watching a comedian performing his act on TV. He truly was a genius, even at that young age, knowing everything from politics to religion, history to current events, pop culture to passing trends, and he could whirl them all into a high speed barrage of jokes and hilarious skits while the comprehension of the audience was just trying to keep up.

And I didn’t get a single joke. Not one.  My parents laughed hysterically, along with the TV audience, but all I could do was sit there and try to find any little piece of it that I could understand. When it was over, I went to bed and tried to play the show over in my head, but could remember so little. That’s when I knew one thing I wanted to be when I grew up – and it was not a brilliant, talented, comedian…I wanted to be smart enough to understand that guys jokes. I wanted to have as much fun as the audience was having and in order to do that I had to be smart enough to understand every genius thing he said.

As I did grow up, I watched the public life of that comedian as he starred in a popular TV show and many, many movies and I started understanding more and more of his jokes.  I also learned some things about his real life.  The story of his real life is not so funny.  There were no jokes and it didn’t take a genius to understand what an incredible effort it must have taken to play the roles that entertained millions.

As of this past August, the role he played in his real life ended, and along with my sadness of his death, I am thankful for his life.  Not for all of the decisions he made in his life, but for making me look at what a role model really means to me.  Sometimes, I think it means doing your absolute “best” at any given moment, even if your “best” can fall short.  When you look up to someone, it can be difficult to admire an amazing part of someone without over-idealizing the rest of them, and I can’t imagine what kind of pressure that must be like.  All I can hope for is that he felt as much of the joy in his own life that he brought to so many of us.

In my life I have admired many people and even more roles, all of which led me to be the writer I am today.  All the years I spent, trying to be smarter, funnier, kinder, more adventurous, more mysterious, and a whole host of other things (it is always a work in progress!), gave me more dreams and ambitions than I think I could ever put into action.  Being a writer gives me the chance to create an infinite amount of characters who play roles that my mind is still trying to understand.

A couple of years ago, I heard Mo Willems speak and he had some interesting advice.  He said, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to figure out.”

So my question for all you writers is the same question I ask myself everyday…what else do you want to be when you grow up…what roles do you want to play?  And if you’re not ready for that question, how about one of these:  What roles inspire you?  What roles frighten you?  What roles do you think are just dreams?  What roles can you not imagine living without playing?

Now, write that story!

Robin Williams  July 21, 1951 – August 11,2014
You will be forever missed…

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May 19th came and went, and I must assure you that I have not forgotten the winners!! While I didn’t post the winners here (until now), I met with all the contestants and announced the winners in person. The imagination and creativity that went into the stories I was lucky enough to read was remarkable, and so were the contestants themselves.

When the top ten stories were pulled into the final group, I had a very difficult decision – so difficult in fact, that author Lauren Smith was asked to help choose the top winners! She was so wonderful that not only did she help with choosing the winners, but was kind enough to give valuable writing advice throughout each of the papers she read. A big thank you goes out to her and to Mrs. Sharen Swagerty of Jenks East Intermediate for their help and their contagious enthusiasm for writing!

Enough said about that though! Here are the winners of the 2014 writing contest:

First place – Chloe, Jenks East Intermediate
Second place – Camille, Jenks East Intermediate
Third place – John, Jenks East Intermediate

Honorable mentions went to:
Brooke, Jenks East Intermediate
Sam, Jenks East Intermediate
Natasha, Jenks East Intermediate

I want to congratulate everyone that participated in the contest. There were almost forty contestants, encouraged immensely by Mrs. Swagerty, a teacher who knows that writing plants the seeds for the growth of imagination, and with imagination, all things are possible.

This contest was so much fun, and I learned so much, that I will hold the contest again next spring. I hope you will enter! In the mean time, I will be posting lots of new thoughts, ideas, challenges, and strategies as I continue to learn along my journey as a writer.

Happy writing!

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Entries are in!

I have had such a wonderful experience putting this contest out there and working with writers! Thank you so much to all the students who entered. I have already begun reading the entries and plan to post the winners by May 19th.

I can tell you through my visits with some of the writers that many things impressed me in the stories that were discussed. For one thing, it is interesting to hear how many people like cliffhanger endings in their various forms. I have always been a fan of a mystery left in the resolution that keeps me wondering how that little thread panned out, but a full on cliffhanger can be a lot of fun as well. The tricky thing to remember is that a cliffhanger is a well planned event in the story, not simply leaving out important information at the end. I am excited to see if any stories actually ended up using them and how they played their role in the story.

I have to say, too, that I was surprised (and happy!) at how dark some of the subject matter sounded. I like a wide variety of story types, and scary is certainly right up near the top, so it is a curious thing to see how a young writer’s mind works when creating frightening or sinister situations. I must say I am looking forward to the thought of getting scared to pieces:)

The topic that came up most often, though, is subject of outlining. When I was young, I shuddered at the thought of extra work, and to me, that’s exactly what outlining felt like since you didn’t see it in the final product. Now, however, I have had a lot more experience with them and have a lot of ideas that I think will be helpful in future writing projects. So stay tuned for my next post which will give lots of things to think about and try!

For now, I am off to read entries! Good luck to all of you who participated and we will soon have some winners!

Until then, happy writing!

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Contest Time!

Hello writers!  It is contest time and I am very excited!
(Contest rules are at the end of this post.)

Last month, I went to a writer’s conference and was very inspired by one of our speakers, Tricia Lawrence.  She talked about creating characters and how to turn a stereotype into a unique person you actually want to read about.  If you read a lot, and you probably do if you are a writer, I am guessing you like characters that are new and surprising rather than the ones who turn out to be exactly as you could have predicted.

Characterization is a main component of this contest.  I am looking for characters that I would like to meet, that make me feel like life would be different if that character existed in my world.  If you have never put a story on paper, but are thinking you might give it a try, let me compare the creation of unique characters, to you.

Everyone is a writer, most people just don’t know it.  I don’t say this because I love my profession and I think that everyone should do it, I say it because everyone is.  Every day, every hour, every minute, you are writing the story of your life.  You have goals, you have dreams, you make decisions, and you take chances, all of which come from your own experiences and your own values.  You are 100% an original, unique character, not to mention the main character in the story of your life as you live it.

During the years you are in now, you are trying to figure yourselves out just as much as you’re trying to figure out everyone else and the last thing you need is a bunch of books filled with stereotypical characters that read like a menu for personality identification.  NO ONE fits those molds and I have a hard time believing that anyone would even want to.  Books have come so far in giving us unique characters, and writers need to be able to step up to the challenge of creating a character that we haven’t seen before.

One way you can toy with characterization is to choose three of your favorite characters from books you’ve read recently.  Get a piece of paper and put each name at the top of a column and under each one, list every personality trait, quirk, belief, goal you can think of.  When you are done look at the list and circle the descriptions you only wrote once – the descriptions that are unique.

Now take these descriptors and see how some of them might fit together.  Remember that real people have many different layers, so don’t be afraid to put some together that don’t seem to match.  You might also have some traits that come out differently depending on who your character is with, where they are, or the emotional intensity of an event.  I think a great example of the subtle, but powerful, change in demeanor is in the final scene of Harry Potter.  (Don’t worry, I never spoil endings!)  After seven completely nerve wracking books, what happened, happened and it is the first time you get to see the characters pondering something different.

So try this characterization exercise a few times, or anything else you think might help, until you find a character that interests you.  The character doesn’t have to feel like your best friend, but they should intrigue you.  They should feel like they have a story to tell and that you must listen to it.

Here are some examples of characters that are authentic yet multidimensional with the many different people they encounter in their stories:
Harry Potter – with the Dursleys, at Hogwarts, with the Weasleys, his friends, the people who see nothing outside of him being the chosen one.
Artemis Fowl – with Butler, the opponents in his schemes, his mother.
Joy (The Joy of Spooking) – with her parents, her brother, other kids, at home, at school.
Caitlin (Mockingbird) – This is unique in an opposite way, because Asperger’s has made her personality completely consistent in all situations and is therefore unique by its unwavering sameness.

When you have created a character that interests you, spend a few days visiting with them in your head or in a journal.  Ask him questions, tell him about your day and ask how his was, figure out what his biggest secret is and what are the worst/best things he’s ever done.  You must get to know your character.  If this sounds completely new, try it first with a character from a book you’ve read and see how it goes.  When you’re ready, try it with your own.

And chances are, as you are figuring out what’s in your character’s head, what makes him tick, you’ll find a story lurking.

Now on to the Rules of the Contest:

1.  I am looking for between 1,500 and 4,000 words, but I don’t usually word count when a story takes my breath away.
2. It must have a title, centered at the top, with proper spelling/grammar/punctuation throughout the story, and must be in a font that is very easy to read. I like Times New Roman the best, so don’t stray far from that.
3. Must be fiction.
4. Must have a unique character, and must have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
5. Must be believable. I like watching the most ridiculous sci-fi movies out there, but it irks me when they change the “rules” to save the day at the end. If you set up “rules” for your story – stick to them. The ending should flow with the way you run your story.

That’s it! I am posting this on April 10 and would like your entries emailed to writerchristybuckner@yahoo.com no later than Monday, May 12th. My goal is to write at least two things that work well in your story and two things you might want to think about. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Good luck and happy writing!

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Wish Chips and Shooting Stars

What you believe in makes all the difference.

As I said in the About Me section of this site, I think that saying wishes out loud gives them a greater chance of coming true, and I really do believe that. When I was little, though, not so much. I would wish on the first star I saw at night, birthday candles, and eyelashes, but always kept them secret – per the strict rules of wish making, if you tell a wish then it won’t come true.

I realized at the age of twelve, though, the folly of that system when I mentioned to my parents that I wanted a dog (a wish I had been making silently since birth) and they thought that was a great idea. What?!

We adopted a puppy a couple of months later and I never kept a wish to myself again. Now, I know, not all wishes that get spoken aloud come true. But some do, and in this case I didn’t even have the power to make this one come true by myself anyway, so sharing the idea was my only hope.

Since then, I have been an avid fan of making wishes and sharing them out loud. Not only does it keep my mind on my goals but many times, I need a little help, and keeping them to myself cheats me and the wish.

Now that I have children, I have passed on the love of wishing and we have enjoyed many kinds of wish making (for some reason we especially love making them at 11:11), sometimes making up our own quirky systems.

One of these quirks came into play when my daughters and I were eating nachos from Taco Bueno for lunch one day a couple of years ago. My older daughter, a few months earlier, said she thought it was lucky to get a tortilla chip that looped and folded back over on itself and that it in fact felt so lucky, we should make a wish whenever we found one. My younger daughter, never one for bothering with details, only managed to hear the part where you could make a wish, not the part where her sister made it up. So, here we are eating lunch, and my youngest is confirming the wishing status of any chip that might possibly be able to grant her a wish, when my older one gets distracted and stops answering her. It happens to be at the same moment a particularly questionable chip is discovered.

“Sissy, is this a wish chip?”
“Sissy, is this a wish chip?”
“Sissy, is this a wish chip?”

Back from lala land, Sissy says very casually, “Sure, it can be a wish chip.”

“What do you mean it can be a wish chip? Is it or isn’t it?”

“Well, it’s just for fun, so you can wish on whichever ones you want. You decide.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s just for fun’?!”

“You know, kind of like wishing on a star, it’s just for fun.”
Pause: Now she says this very kindly to the sweet little face that is beginning to scrunch up in the middle, but the tone doesn’t matter. The statement has been made and my older one and I realize we had had no idea what had been swirling in her head until that very moment. The tight face, the pinkish skin, the welling tears. She had not been making wishes ‘just for fun’.

“What do you mean ‘just for fun’?! You mean I wasted all of those wishes? For nothing?” Dreams were dashed, trust was smashed, and tears flowed.

I did not know what to say. I thought of all the times I had seen her, eyes squeezed shut, lips moving with no sound, hands clasped together, and I realized how familiar it felt. There would be no fixing what had just happened. But there could be a change for the next time she made a wish. I told her the story about the puppy when I was little, and the important thing that situation taught me about making wishes. It isn’t about the asking, it is about the decision to do everything I can to make it come true.

We hugged, wiped faces, made our apologies – and got out a piece of paper. On that paper we made a list. A list of all the wishes she could remember (the important ones never really leave your mind). We said them all out loud and found a safe place for the list, where it would be ready the next time the opportunity presented itself.

Now this story may not seem connected to my thoughts on writing, but it defines a big part of the reason I became a writer and how I think through the stories I create.

Here is a list of how this story relates in some way to my writing:

*If you really want something to happen, you have to believe in yourself to make it happen.
*Take something common (like wishing on a star) and give it your own special twist.
*Don’t let disappointment slow you down. Sometimes “when one door shuts,” another doesn’t open. You have to get off your keister and open it yourself.
*Believe in your characters. If you don’t believe in them, no one else will either.
*Make lists of ideas when you think of them. Creative minds are always thinking of new ideas and there is nothing worse than a good plot or character that you just can’t remember.
*Your character must grow. They must be different in some way at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. They must always be moving forward.

I have a lot of fun when I think of a story in my past that is important to me and see how it relates to the person I was then or the person I am now. Those small memories add up and make us who we are. Can you think of a story in your life that tells a lot about who you are, who you were, or who you want to be? Write it down!!!

Happy writing!

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