Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing Workshop Session 1 - Children's Picture and Chapter Books

So tonight is the first of a five-week writing workshop that I put on for the press that I work for during the day. Here is a run down of what I'll be discussing:
  • How do you take a concept and make it into a story?
  • Who is your audience, and how do you determine?
  • Creating a story problem and characters
  • Beginning, middle, and end
  • The all important Hook
  • Working with the story problem/plot
  • How do you develop believable characters
Since I have soo much to say, I'm only going to tackle a few of the ideas posted above.

So, how do you take a concept and make it into a story?
We all have great story ideas, but it's hard to actually turn those ideas into a storyline that is engaging to readers. But there are good ideas and bad ideas. An example of a bad idea would be the following story:

There was a little girl who wished that there would be snow on Christmas.
She wished and wished, but still there was no snow.
She went to bed on Christmas Eve and asked Santa to bring snow.
When she woke up, there was snow.

Okay, so that's pretty lame. You can say it; it won't hurt my feelings.

What's lacking in the above story is a believable story problem. Sure, a little girl wants snow and she thinks that by asking Santa for snow, she'll get snow.
But is it really engaging? No.
Is it believable? Nope.
Do we have all of the mechanics of a story - story problem, beginning, middle, end, dialogue, action, point of view? No, no, no, and a big fat NO!

We can all agree that the above four lines are not a story in the publishing world.

Could we make the above into a story? Sure. I guess. But we're going to need a beginning, middle, and an end. Most of all, we need a central problem or question and believable characters.

What is a story question/problem?
This is the whole meat of the story. Here are some examples from some of the most recent NPM books:
  • Will a new student at school be able to shed his bullying-type behavior and adopt The Promise?
  • Will a new addition to a family be able to learn about bucketfilling and bucketdipping?
  • Does a person's clothes/accessories represent their true identity?
By reading the above, you get the idea. I challenge you to take a few books from your bookshelf and write out the story problem. They could be books that you've written or read. But go ahead and do that. Now. And yes, really. I'll wait.

Oh, you're back. What did you find? Were you able to figure out the story question?
Here are what I think the story question is for a two books I've read recently:
Hunger Games: Will Katniss, and her family, survive?
The Graveyard Book: Will Bod find out who killed his family and leave the cemetery?

Obviously, these are very simplistic story questions (what I wrote out above, not what the author used to create the story), and both books actually have more themes/concepts running through them. But in simple terms, these are pretty much the heart of each story.

When you come up with a story idea, take the time to figure out what will be the obstacles that the MC will need to overcome. By doing this, you'll automatically begin to develop your story question.

Another topic that goes along with story question/problem is audience. Who do you see reading your book? That person/reader is your audience. With the audience in mind, the writer needs to be aware of word choice, character development, setting, and their story problem. If you're writing a picture book and the main character is eight, the dialogue should match an eight-year-old (unless another character is speaking.) The eight-year-old MC wouldn't be smoking, dangling from an open window on a high rise, or driving a car in a high speed chase. Also, the MC wouldn't be telling people they have "tenacity" or that they'd "prefer to eat liver and onions with capers".

Your audience needs to be able to identify with your MC. They need to be wanting the MC to win the race, make the team, or be accepted by a new friend --> whatever the story problem.

With knowing who your audience is, the writer will be able to create more believable characters who will then be highly identifiable with the reader. See the circle?

Although the writing workshops tend to lean toward writing for children, the same concepts are used in writing for adults.

Next time I'll talk about The Hook.