Continuing my tradition, I now present to you Part 1 of my report on BYU's Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference!
How, you may ask, can I possibly give you the first installment when the conference was ONLY TODAY? Because this year I got smart and took my laptop to the conference, so my notes are already electronic! Yay for me!
I will not, however, present them all to you at once. No, I will give you a little tidbit at a time.
This year I am in Louise Plummer's Advanced Novel workshop. I warned her that anything she said can and would appear on my blog. I don't think she believed me. She'll learn . . . And besides, it serves her right for thinking that that picture of me shows me SLEEPING. It does NOT. It shows me READING. TELL me that the rest of you picked that up--please?
But I am not going to give you Louise's class first. Today I will give you Lael Littke's class. I want to do her first because of how tickled I was that she quoted my friend and sometimes-blog-reader Stephen Carter! And she quoted him more than once! Yay, Stephen! So from here on out, the voice is Lael Littke's.
"The Story Question and Other Good Stuff" by Lael Littke
If you get the good foundation, you’re off and running.
Storytelling should start with a story question. Someone with a problem. (A journey is always good—character has to make a journey of some kind and encounter difficulties.) We have a destination, a personal problem (internal), and a lifeline that will save her at the end.
Then figure out what the obstacles are, opposing forces or villain.
Story must start near the beginning with a story question. There’s a difference between idea for story and story question.
Stephen King in On Writing—good story ideas come from nowhere. Your job is not to find them, but recognize them as they show up.
How do you recognize them? I don’t know.
How do you start the book after you got an idea? Hemingway says as soon as he gets an idea, he cleans the refrigerator. I mop the floor. Someone else tells herself that if she doesn’t write, she has to iron.
I once got a great first line (“It was raining on the day I died”, but didn’t know what to do with it. I started asking what if. (Formula for creating a story: what if?) So I asked, “What if she only had a mild case of death?” Which led to a near-death experience story.
So I had an action level. Then I had to figure out an emotional level, a psychological level (internal problem, as Martha said). Mine: Will Janeen, who has always been known as a good girl, come to realize that each of us is made up of good and bad.
My teacher, Helen Jones, made us write the story question in one sentence—good exercise.
Stephen Carter: “Just as there is a craft to engine design, architecture, and artificial sweetener formulation, there is a craft to story structuring.” [Go, Stephen!!!! You got authors quoting you!]
Rules for writing a novel:
1. Be able to state story question in one sentence. (Ex: Gone with the Wind: will Scarlet get Ashley? Charlotte’s Web: will Wilbur survive? 3 Little Pigs: will the wolf eat the pigs?)
2. The stakes have to be high.
Story is really over when we see the answer to the question.
3. What’s the theme? the nugget of truth we get from the story? Aha moment. What did the character learn? This doesn’t need to be stated in the book—better to show than tell. (In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte states it herself near the end, about lifting up her small life by helping someone else. 3 pigs: build strong. Build your character strong and the wolves of life won’t be able to hurt you. Gone with the Wind: you can spend your whole life chasing something you don’t really want.)
What editors don’t like: bad beginnings, too long to get there, wordiness, poor plots without freshness, undeveloped characters, no point or meaning.
I used to get stories back with the notation, “too slight.” They lacked a point, didn’t say something.
Helen Jones: Every story should contain at its core a reason to be. Editor: “A story should add up to something.”
Stephen Carter, “The Author Bunny Exposed,” false idea of waiting for the bunny to leave a story for you.
Lael: apply the seat of your pants to your chair and work.
How do you go about setting up story question?
Your character wants something. Set up obstacles to keep them from getting it. A friend of mine uses the term DESPITES: “Will the little engine be able to pull the train DESPITE the fact that the other engines have refused the job and the little engine is considered inferior?” Your story must have enough DESPITES to get through the middle. Middles sags without enough despites.
What could the DESPITES be? A personal trait that holds him back. A circumstance. Nature. Antagonist. (I once heard an editor say, “Your story is no stronger than your villain.” Nietschze: what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. Purpose of antagonist: to help main character grow through struggles.) Time (Maybe character needs to accomplish something before time runs out=Suspense).
Rules can be broken if you write well enough. Helen Jones used to say, “You have to understand your structure, and then you can depart from it if you wish.” Example: Sausage story: incidents that are connected but don’t add up to anything (example: Diary of a Wimpy Kid).
Isaac B. Singer on why I write for children: “Children read books, not reviews. They don’t . . . . They love interesting stories. When a book is boring, they yawn openly.”
Helen told us stories should deal with one of 7 basic needs:
1. Live and be healthy
2. Love and be loved
3. think well of oneself
4. to be well thought of by others
5. to belong
6. to feel secure
7. to have something to look forward to.
Make sure your book deals with one of those basic human needs—becomes stronger and has more tension.
Cast your character into a boat without oars; include a lifeline.
Give your character an important problem.
End: your character has achieved the goal or come to realize something about it. (These are 2 basic kinds of stories.)
Helen’s rules you can’t break:
1. Character must solve his own problems. (No deus ex machine.)
2. Kid readers don’t want to look at the forest; they want to meet the bear.
Cartoon, Snoopy has written, “Suddenly, a shot rang out.” Lucy: “It’s important to choose right words. Is suddenly the best word?” Snoopy corrects: “Gradually, a shot rang out.”
Story of developing a story in a tough high school. She had come up with an idea (what if escalator kept going). Asked, where would it end up? (Hell) What kind of character would you put on it? (Murderer. No, that’s predictable for Hell. What’s unpredictable? How about a sweet little old lady?) Why is she on there? What did she do? (murder! No, that’s predictable. What else? Shoplifting.)
My best writing advice: PERSIST. PERSIST. Stephen King: READ READ. I say, WRITE WRITE.
Quote from Ann LaMott in Bird by Bird.