Wednesday, September 5, 2012

For Writers

While I recover from company,  review the copy edits of my book, and try to think of how I'm going to get all twenty one windows in this house clean by Halloween, I thought you might enjoy this article from my files. One of the first I ever wrote - only slightly edited.

An Image, A Notion, A Story 

I looked up the word idea in the dictionary. Among several definitions these popped out at me; mental image or fanciful notion. That’s just the way a story starts isn’t it? Think of how often you get a brilliant flash of insight, your mental image, while doing something completely mundane like folding laundry. Or you may let a fanciful notion carry you away to some delightful land where all boundaries are liquid and strange magical things happen. What type of stories do you like to write? Let’s flesh out some categories and see what we come up with. This is a short list to get you started.

  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction
  • Young Adult
  • Picture Book
  • Mystery

Ah, Fantasy. It implores us to leave our present reality and wander off into the world of what if and far out imaginings. Science Fiction, on the other hand, wants us right at the edge of reality. That way when the bizarre thing happens, it has shock value. Young adult fiction forces us backward and sometimes bids us re-visit painful, half-forgotten scenarios that nonetheless offer great insight into what our young characters might be thinking and doing. Picture book writing can be the most fun of all because you get to be a little kid again. It’s one of my favorite writing forms. And then there’s mystery. Start with the murder (so to speak)…then work your tangled web around it.

Whatever would we do without picture books? Ask anyone who loves them and you’ll almost always hear how picture books affected them when they were growing up. When I was five, my poor mother had to read Cinderella to me every day at naptime. I never tired of it. A well-written picture book is a direct transport back to Mom’s, Dad’s, or Grandma’s lap; a temporary safe haven from life’s often harsh realities. All the key elements of any other book must be there; engaging characters, plot, conflict and resolution. Think up the problem and then let your character or characters have a ball solving it – in 800 words or less.

Fantasies, such as Lord of the Rings, will always hold a place in my heart. I’ve read Tolkiens’ trilogy three times – so far. The world that is created in a fantasy must be so inviting that the people who read about it should want to go there. You, the author, must bid them step through the mirror and with your deft hand, lay before them a realm where dragons, spaceships, wood sprites, goblins, blue fairies or any number of magical creatures and adventures lie. Give them a reluctant hero, a rib-tickling sidekick and a quest and you might wind up richer than the queen of England too.

I’ve written exactly one children’s mystery. It was hard! It required a sort of backwards thinking or a ”start with the murder” scenario. I knew how I wanted it to end and working backwards was a whole new kind of torture in my writing experience but I rose to the challenge. The story has intrigue, odd behaviors, clues and broccoli. Yup, broccoli. The ‘murder’ in this case was the madcap boiling and gobbling up of the bright green veggie that kids, and many adults, love to hate.  I started there and built my mystery around it.

You’ve heard it before – read, read, read in your chosen genre (which simply means sort or type). I agree with that to a point. Please don’t do it to the detriment of your own writing. Stories that others have skillfully crafted are wonderful for IMT, inspiration, motivation and technique, but eventually you have to get serious and put your own stories out there for all the world to read.

Pick a genre, one that you love. Become it. Let it seep into everyday occurrences and conversations. Be silly with it. Be awed by it. Talk to children about it. In other words immerse yourself. I’ll never forget a pivotal point in one of the battle scenes in LOTR. I was so stirred by the description of a battle and its surprising outcome that I actually leaped out of my chair, one fist thrust into the air and yelled, “Wahoo! Good for Arwen!” To say I was immersed would be a major understatement. Fortunately I was alone in the room! 

Go to the library. Load up your arms with picture books, fantasy books, mysteries or whatever strikes your fancy. Take them home and read them. Edit them…yeah…go ahead. Think of how the author might have improved on this plot point or that snippet of conversation. Change the ending. Read them out loud. Then take them back to the library so the other kids can borrow them and go to your keyboard and create. Imitate the good story telling intent of what you’ve read.
Don’t let any good notion or story idea go untested. Who would have every thought, for instance, that children would love a character that lives underwater and looks alarmingly like the sponge you wipe the bathroom sink with? Talk about fanciful notions. Remember, an idea is simply a mental image or notion, fleshed out, enriched and hopefully for you, becomes a wonderful full-fledged story – one an editor will love.

Image: Free Digital Photos


  1. Jennifer Brown BanksSeptember 7, 2012 at 11:16 AM

    Good info. Thanks for sharing this, Sue!

    1. Share is my middle name, Jennifer. Love it when you chime in!