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Carol’s Homework Assignment Post-WIFYR (Yes, I said “POST”)

The assignment is to read the first chapter of 50 books in the Middle-Grade and Young Adult venue. They can be sci-fi, fantasy, or into whatever genre they fall. I am to read them from a writer’s perspective, paying special attention to: intro to main characters, plot development, intro to other characters, anything useful that points to why these books start out well and, as a result, get published.

So here is the first book. “Edgar Allan’s Official Crime Investigation Notebook” by Mary Amato. Middle-Grade. 140 pages.61K7EpEI-qL

From the School Library Journal:

The kids at Wordsmith Elementary School get a lesson on poetry when a thief stages a series of classroom thefts, leaving behind small poems at the scene of the crime. Edgar Allan keeps notes in his crime journal and writes some verses of his own as his classmates compete to solve the mystery. He thinks his home life is strange with his parents both employed as clowns, but when he learns more about the thoughts and personal lives of his classmates through the poetry they write, he gains a deeper understanding of himself and his community. With characters named Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and a teacher who drinks Tennyson Tea, readers will get thinly veiled lessons describing alliteration, meter, and metaphor. … A good springboard for introducing poetry units.

Opening paragraph shows the reader the crime of stealing the class goldfish.

Characters introduced:

  1. Edgar Allan (MC)
  2. Ms. Herschel (teacher)
  3. Kip (a skinny boy whose leg was jiggling against his desk)
  4. Taz (the class clown)
  5. Maia (the person who gave the fish to the class)
  6. Gabriella (the new girl)
  7. Destiny Perkins (Another classmate. I’m guessing she’s going to be an important character later. She’s the first character given both names)
  8. Patrick Chen (Edgar’s nemesis)

Eight characters introduced in the first four pages. One complaint about my storyline was the introduction of five characters in eight pages. Apparently too many characters are not always an issue. Further study on this will be necessary.

It’s a fast beginning. The theft, the discovery, several theories of who did it, and Edgar and Patrick’s competition to discover the culprit before the other are all laid out by the end of the first chapter (page 6). Fast paced and quick. That part I get.

One comment in a review section said, “It’s a little slow paced as the story progresses and sometimes Edgar seems to think older than a fifth grader.” To people who consider that fifth graders must sound a certain way and be only so intelligent, I divert your attention to “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”

I had similar complaints that my characters sound older. They sound like I sounded at 14-16. My friends were, for the most part, the same way. We were avid readers and had been for a decade or more by that age. Nerdy kids who read a lot don’t sound like kids who don’t. They don’t think the same way either. I may try to tone it down some, but if I do it too much, the characters will lose their personalities.

I’ll definitely finish Edgar Allan’s Official… It has the makings of a good ride.


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Thinkin’ on Thursday: Picture This!

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

At times in the past, I have modeled characters’ looks, fashion sense, even personality on unknown models in magazines. I’ve even cut them out and then built characteristics for that person on the same page or on a 4×6 card. Or I’ve envisioned an old time actor (or a current one, for that matter) as my “hero,” “villain,” “sidekick,” or whomever.

I’m going to suggest another way to utilize pictures of unknowns from magazines or books to help your writing (and the above paragraph has some good ideas too: if you’ve never tried it, give it a go and see what you think). Look through a magazine or illustrated book, preferably one you haven’t read already, or an old one you’ve forgotten all about. Find a picture with at least two main “characters” on it. THINK of these two as major characters in a story you haven’t yet thought through.

Just allow them to begin interacting with each other. Don’t “plan” ahead (this will be a good one for all of us ‘pantsers’), because this is designed to give us practice in a more “organic” method of plot construction. Just start “recording” the story’s events and let them spin out in front of you. Pay attention to other props or objects that appear in the ad or picture. If there are other people in the picture, ignore them for the moment. See how or why the two might interact with the props, objects, bits of scenery, in the picture with them. Record items and events as faithfully as possible without thinking about the “rules” of story plot structure.

Once you’ve recorded the scene, note whether your characters interacted with or used any of the props, etc., given them by the picture. What did they do with items there? Twiddle nervously with papers on a desk? Pick up a coffee cup and look for a refill? Grab a hammer or bucket of paint, intending to use it as a weapon?

How did your characters interact with each other? Were they friends or strangers at the start? What relationship was forged during the scene: adversarial? Conciliatory? Pleading? Helpful? and so on.

Go ahead. This is just a writer’s PLAY ground. Have FUN in it ! ! !

(And, at the end, is there anything salvageable there? Can it be incorporated in your current WIP? Is it the beginning of a short story? An article? An editorial? A children’s book? Even a brand‑new novel?)

See you next for Saturday’s Spellbinder!

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Tips on Tuesday: I Dare Ya!

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

I wanted to share with you the introduction to a fabulous book: No Plot? No Problem! A Low‑Stress, High‑Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by the originator oChris Baty founder of NaNoWriMo in his Berkeley apartment.f the National Novel Writing Month [NaNoWriMo], Chris Baty. Here’s how he explained his “in the beginning” . . .

The era, in retrospect, was very kind to dumb ideas.

The year was 1999, and I was working as a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, drinking way too much coffee and watching the dot‑com boom rewrite the rules of life around me.

Back then, it seemed entirely feasible — nay, inevitable — that my friends and I would spend three tiring years in the workforce throwing nerf balls at each other and staging madcap office‑chair races. And then we’d cash in our hard‑earned stock options, buy a small island somewhere, and helicopter off into blissful retirement

It was a delicious, surreal moment, and in the middle of it all I decided that what I really needed to do was write a novel in a month. Not because I had a great idea for a book. On the contrary, I had no ideas for a book.

All of this made perfect sense in 1999.

In a more grounded age, my novel‑in‑a‑month concept would have been reality‑checked right out of existence. Instead, the very first National Novel Writing Month set sail two weeks later, with almost everyone I knew in the Bay Area on board.

That the twenty‑one of us who signed up for the escapade were undertalented goofballs who had no business flailing around at the serious endeavor of novel writing was pretty clear. We hadn’t taken any creative writing courses in college, or read any how‑to books on story or craft. And our combined post‑elementary‑school fiction would have fit comfortably on a Post‑it Note.

My only explanation for our cheeky ambition is this: Being surrounded by pet‑supply e‑tailers worth more than IBM has a way of getting your sense of what’s possible all out of whack. The old millennium was dying; a better one was on its way. We were in our mid‑twenties, and we had no idea what we were doing. But we knew we loved books. And so we set out to write them.

I’m here to tell you, what Baty and his cohorts began in 1999 is alive and well. Internationally. On every continent. With thousands upon thousands of participants. Not to mention the school programs NaNoWriMo has instituted: free materials for teachers at both elementary and secondary levels. His organization is mentoring children and teens, and the program continues to grow.

The book, from which part of the intro you read above, is hilarious and inspiring. They now also run Summer Camp programs a couple of months in addition to the regular November effort.

If you want a quick and fun read to find out “how” to do this, go ahead: read No Plot? No Problem? But that’s not why I’m saying all this.

You don’t need to DARE to write a novel. Maybe you want to write a short story, or a poem, or lyrics to a song whose tune won’t leave you alone. Maybe you want to visit all 50 of the states in this great country. Take up knitting. Learn to speak a foreign language. Tour the British Isles and parts of Europe on a mo‑ped! Go ahead! (I did THAT one, way back in the late ’60s.)

What I’m saying, what Baty was saying, is DARE. Dare to be your most authentic self. Dare to make your life what you want it to be. I know all about stability, family, circles of friends, responsible jobs. I get it. Been there, done that. But don’t let all that keep you from being the best, most evolved and satisfied YOU!

What’s your “pipe dream”?

Go ahead and just do it: I DARE YA ! ! !

See you next for Thinkin’ on Thursday!

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Tips on Tuesday: Writers to Readers and Back Again

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Now that I’ve had a few days at home after attending the WIFYR (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers) week‑long workshop, I can begin to reflect on all I heard and learned. As tired as I was, my last session gave me life again. That’s what happens when you get to hang with an outstanding Writer/Reader/Book Person like A.E. Cannon. Ann writes books, writes a regular column for the Salt Lake Tribune, often writes book‑oriented articles or interviews outside her own column, and also works at my favorite local bookstore: The King’s English.

In that last WIFYR session, Ann tackled the subject “Learn to Hone Your Skills While Reading Works by Other Authors.” While doing so, she mentioned a few writers worth paying attention to — some of them from Utah or with ties to us: Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One — where she showed us how to set the stage in only 4 sentences, complete with a sense of place. She also recommended authors like Beverley Cleary and Judy Blume (ironically I won a book by Judy Blume during the closing ceremonies an hour later!). She suggested reading (or re‑reading) books like Where the Wild Things Are, Frog & Toad, Strange Case of Origami Yoda, and afterwards trying to write in the style we’ve just read. A great idea.

Early on in her presentation, Ann mentioned a book I’d not seen before: Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I hadn’t seen the title before (though now I’ve sent for it – still available from Amazon), but I really knew the name: wa‑a‑a‑a‑ay back, I took a writing class at the U of U from Francine Prose, a visiting professor. I had fun digging out my old handbook, printed by Kinko’s under the category “Professor Publishing.” It’s really just a thick, spiral‑bound, 159 page tome containing stories by many of the greats: Frank Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, etc.

Just a few of Ann’s lessons to be learned by a reading like a Writer might include:

What things to watch for as you read

Word choices that jump out at you

Sentence structure (long, short, varied, a good mix); why some work of them and others don’t

Sense of place, a stage set for action


Ask why and how something works . . . or doesn’t

If you gave up on a book, why could you not finish it?

Do you make the same mistakes?

Listening to audio books can also help you “hear” how to set your story up

(my thought on this last: listening also helps develop your sense of rhythmic words)

In this rapidly changing publishing world, we writers need to pay attention and keep up with the changes. It also behooves us to look to the greats of the past, see what their methods were, and which ones will still work.

See you next on Thinkin’ on Thursday!

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Thinkin’ on Thursday: Thinkin’ Up More Mayhem

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Did you try it? What??? Writing tense, exciting, possibly even mayhem-filled chapter endings?

This past Tuesday, I suggested that you do so and gave you examples of several books which used this technique to carry you past the last line of a chapter and into the next chapter — whether you wanted to go there or not!

I also quoted a number of ideas which ending each of many chapters in his The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner. This set was literally a group of three books you could not put down at the end of a chapter. And THAT’s how to keep your reader, well . . . READING!!!

Here are more of Dashner’s examples ‑‑‑ but hopefully, no spoilers. I’ll name several types of events at chapter ends — not in order and not telling you which of the three books they’re from. Additionally, I’ll keep them as general as possible. Think about what you can dream up to do to your characters that will hurt them the most, that will keep the reader going, even if it IS time for dinner, or bed, or (maybe) even homework! If you end each chapter with ideas like these, you may have a real page turner, or even that page burner:

  • a kid wakes up, in a huge “elevator:” NO memories of any past life (I know, I gave this one Tuesday too, but I sets the stage)
  • a kid fighting a losing battle with a mechanical monster is caught in a lightning storm which morphs into an invisible power field leaving him vulnerable to a white heat
  • a kid is promised a place of safety, but when a group gets there, they are met with only a sign that this is the right place: nothing else is there.
  • a kid is told that all current test subjects may be given their memories back; they must choose to participate or not; then choice is taken away
  • a kid discovers a small insect‑like device which spies on all of them in this strange place — meaning someone is watching them, probably 24/7
  • a kid in the midst of battle is hit with a burning power equal to 1,000 bolts of lightning, falls convulsing and with a total loss of vision
  • a kid finds out survivors have to go back to the beginning where they all met, were challenged, tortured, intimidated or even killed
  • a kid is frequently dazed by a rapid changing of loyalties among friends: who can he really trust?
  • a kid, after horrendous battles and fatigue, is warned in a dream state that things are “about” to get bad for him
  • a kid sees that everyone who’s been here for a while picks on the newbies ‑‑ even a sweet little kid who becomes his only friend
  • a kid is made to choose which of two friends will die immediately: he chooses, knowing the enemy will do the opposite — only he doesn’t
  • a kid is attacked, seriously injured by another boy who seems to have gone completely crazy
  • a kid, in an audience of survivors, is told that the rampant disease affecting and eventually killing much of the population also affects many of their number
  • a kid notices frightening sounds and smells, confronts a mechanical monster with the fate of another boy in his hands

If you didn’t try to write compelling chapter endings before, get to it!!! (And how do you accomplish this kind of angst in romance? Or fantasy? Or historical? Etc., etc., etc.?)

See you next for Spellbinder Saturday!

Key words:


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Tips on Tuesday: What We Can Learn From Dis-HOPE-ian Books

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Like dystopian writing? Or are you all dystopianed out? They say the popularity is beginning to wane ‑‑‑ publishers want something else, something “new”.

Here’s what the dystopian pieces I read did for me: I started with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I don’t normally read horror and/or gruesome kinds of books. This was about as “edgy” as I could stand. Yet I found myself going through radiation treatments for a second bout with cancer when I started the first one and kept turning the pages no matter what. Read them in the waiting room, when I was angst‑ridden, when I needed to be someone else for a while. Couldn’t stop: exciting, nerve‑wracking, challenging, never a dull moment!

Immediately thereafter, I started reading the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I found this dystopian world to be compelling: exciting, nerve‑wracking, challenging. Well, a little more trouble with the third volume, but not enough to make me give it up.

Next I took on James Dasher’s excellent The Maze Runner trilogy. More of the same. In fact, if anything, even MORE of the “more of the same.” Admittedly, I did have to put it down after book two to read something else — but I think that was because it was #8 of 9 in a row of dystopian. I needed a BREAK from angst, excitement, plot twists and all the rest of it.

It was literally a set of three books you could not put down at the end of a chapter. And how it’s done.

Let me give you some of Dashner’s examples ‑‑‑ but no spoilers. I’ll name some types of events at chapter ends without doing them in order or telling you which book they’re from. And I’ll keep them as general as possible.

Contemplate what you can do to your characters that will hurt them the most. If you end each chapter with ideas like these, you may have a real page turner, if not a page burner.

  • a kid wakes up, in a huge “elevator:” NO memories of any past life (you may guess some facts if you know ANYTHING about it, but I did need to set the stage)
  • a kid loses the one he most cares about, the one he promised to save
  • a kid is incarcerated in a small cell for nearly a month with NO human contact
  • a kid loses his ability to trust when he’s betrayed by a true friend
  • a kid feels responsible for leading friends and foes into overwhelming trouble
  • a kid is berated and beaten for failing to keep an unknown “promise” to a friend
  • a kid finds out he’s trapped by enormous, rock walls that close every night, with no escape
  • a kid finds out his allies are setting explosives to bring down the building they’re all in
  • a kid watches, helpless, as a sick, demented person is run down by the vehicle he’s in
  • a kid is given a secretive note, told he must swear only to open it when the time is “right”
  • a kid shoots a true friend in the head on purpose ‑‑‑ and suffers terrible guilt
  • a kid races away from a deadly mechanical creature, only to confront three more
  • a kid sees that a friend’s sacrifice still leaves everyone else in jeopardy

What are YOU writing? “Go, thou, and do likewise.”

See you next for Thinkin’ on Thursday!


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Tips on Tuesday: Find a Character Voice

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

On March 25, 2014, I wrote a blog about a lesson in “kid‑speak.” After hearing praises for Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones stories, I finally broke down and read one. Then seven, seven more, and another ten. So I’ve read all but 2 or 3. I mentioned how the author nailed the sounds and thought processes of a child. Hilariously!Junie B

Now, as an example, let me share a line or three:

“Just then the bell rang and Mrs. (that’s what this kindergarten kid calls her teacher) marched out the door. Then everybody else marched out too. Except guess what? I didn’t.”


“. . . First, I got the sponge from under the sink. Then I made it soaky wet with water. I pointed it at the target. “Ready…aim…fire!” I said. Then I throwed the sponge with all my might.”


“Peekaboo. I see you,’ I said. Then I laughed and laughed. ‘Cause I’m a laugh a minute, that’s why.”

In just a few words, Park demonstrates how a young child substitutes a title for a name, constantly asks questions like “guess what” and answers them herself, slips in grammar mistakes while she’s still figuring out how English is constructed, thinks of her place in her world, and picks up phrases she hears “grown-ups” commonly say ‑‑‑ not to mention the “logic” a child applies to actions an adult will take as being “naughty.”

Any of the old Eloise books by Kay Thompson, do much the same with a more “affluent” flavor.

Percy jackson 1bToday, I’ll also show how Rick Riordan manages much the same thing for a slightly older hero (and readers). If you ever devoured mythology like I did, and you haven’t read his Percy Jackson series, this will give you a lesson in “kid speak” as well as in the thought processes for an adolescent. And a lot of laughs. Start with The Lightning Thief and the table of contents:

1. I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre‑algebra Teacher

2. Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death

7. My Dinner Goes Up in Smoke

11. We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium

13. A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers

Clever, funny, somewhat mysterious chapter titles . . . and you’re almost guaranteed to remember what the whole chapter was about by just reading the titles, even days, weeks or months later. And that’s a Good Chapter Title!

Here, try the book, and study the level of kid‑speak, as well as the adolescent perspective:

“See, bad things happen to me on field trips. Like at my fifth‑grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon. I wasn’t aiming for the school bus but of course I got expelled anyway. And before that, at my fourth‑grade school, when we took a behind‑the‑scenes tour of the Marine World shark pool, I sort of hit the wrong lever on the catwalk and our class took an unplanned swim. And the time before that . . . Well, you get the idea.”

The ideas, the thought processes, the choices of vocabulary all combine to help create memorable characters. And besides, what a great way to study “kid‑speak”: The laughs, the lessons in mythology, the imaginative stories ‑‑‑ they’re all just icing on the cake!

See you next for Thinkin’ on Thursday!


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