Thursday, April 23, 2015

Chris Eboch on Conflict in Short Stories

I’ve taught article and short story writing through the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL) for about seven years, and I also work with private critique clients on both short and long works. The number one problem I see in fiction manuscripts is not enough conflict. In fact, I’d say half of my beginning students turn in initial short story lessons that:

  • Don’t have any conflict (slice of life stories), or
  • Introduce the conflict too late, in the second half of the story

Another quarter of the students have a conflict solved by somebody other than the main character (usually a parent, grandparent, or teacher, but sometimes a fairy godmother or other magical being). In children’s stories – all stories, really – the main character should solve her or his own problem. It’s not as satisfying if somebody else rushes to the rescue.

Problems of conflict don’t only happen to beginning writers, though. I see the same problems in manuscripts I critique for more experienced writers – weak conflict or conflict that is introduced too late. And, I must admit, I sometimes see it even in my own work.

I worked on one story for years. It was sweet and funny, with an interesting nature lesson, so why wouldn’t anyone publish it?

After I’d been teaching through the ICL for a couple of years, telling student after student that they needed conflict in their stories, I finally got it. My story lacked conflict.

I rewrote the story with a small but important internal conflict for the main character, and sold it to Highlights – a magazine that had previously rejected the story. “One Froggy Night” (click the title to read it online for free) was published in April 2010. (In the original version, the child went happily outside; in the revision, the main character didn’t want to leave the cozy house but was later glad for the adventure. Conflict can be that simple.)

For more advice on adding conflict (in stories or novels) and making sure it’s connected to your main character, read my essay on “Characters in Conflict“ on my blog. The essay is also in Advanced Plotting, along with many more tips on strong plotting.

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power.

Chris’s book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her newsletter:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

REACHING UP by Joanna Roddy

Photo by Charles Sharp, courtesy of wikimedia commons

You've heard it before: writing is a solitary endeavor. 

Except that it doesn't have to be.

I mean it's true--no one but you can sit in that chair (or walk on that treadmill, if you're Paul) and write all the words. But don't the great story-tellers sit vigil with us when we do? Don't great lines, great moments in treasured stories echo back to us, even as we create something new?

Yet there's something to be said for reaching out to flesh and blood writers who are further along the path. Call it reaching up. 

My first experience of this was when a member of my writing group met a local author and pitch expert and invited her to meet with us. The author did a pitching clinic, shared her writing journey, and offered writerly advice. We paid her for her time and brought yummy snacks, but we definitely got the better end of the deal. We've done this several times now with local authors who've crossed our paths. They've always been thrilled to do it and the experience has always been invaluable.

When I hit a wall with my first novel, I gathered my courage and asked a couple of authors I know (one a friend, the other an acquaintance) if they would be willing to point me toward good resources. Both kindly offered to meet with me and talk things out, and both took time to close read some of my manuscript. I was blown away by their generosity. The perspective they offered both from their own journey as well as the experiences of other authors they knew set me off in new directions that breathed life into my work and my discouraged writer's soul.

I know that these examples sound a little like lucky happenstance, but I think you can cultivate these opportunities. How?

-Keep your eyes open:  Brainstorm the sage wisdom you already have around you. A beloved writing professor from college? A local author? A friend of a friend? What about the worthy organizations in your area, like SCBWI or a local Writer's Association? Not only do many of these groups offer critique circles, they have seasoned writers at the helm who are passionate about bringing writers together! Even Craigslist can have writing group opportunities.

Joy had an article a few weeks ago discussing the power of mentorship and the willingness of this Middle Grade community to support each other. Don't underestimate the power of your online world to connect you to people willing to take a personal interest in your work. Look for places you might be able to submit your query or first page for critique, or reach out to a favorite blogger. 

-Be ready, be brave: The second step is being open to reach out to these people when the opportunity or the need arises. The danger for many of us is to assume that we would be a drain on the other person, so we shut down the idea before we've even asked. We must be brave and mentally open before the chance meeting or the deep dark funk, otherwise we'll hesitate and miss it. 

-Don't act entitled: On the other side of things, we need to be careful not to accost someone for their expertise. Utilize tact and respect for their time. Don't assume, demand, or make the other person feel obligated. A key phrase to use: "Can you point me to a resource who could help me with ___?" (whatever your need may be). This gives them a chance to offer to help you if they can, or to kick the ball down the field a bit, but still get you closer to someone who can help you.

-Be willing to pay: It should go without saying that people like literary agents, book doctors, and professional editors should not be approached for personal input unless you are their client--be willing to pay them or query them through their preferred channels. 

Writing is hard and often lonely, but most successful writers will tell you they had key players who helped them along the way. You won't know who yours are until you're willing to reach out and find them. 

I'd love to know: Have you experienced helpful input from other writers and how? 

What kind of help would you most like to see our community offer? Query/ first page critiques? Mentoring opportunities? Local meet-ups? We'd love your ideas! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Swamps, Memories and The Murk (Plus a Giveaway!) by Robert Lettrick

When I was 6 or 7 my family moved into a shoe box of a house located 30 yards from a small basin of stagnant water. 
It was a swamp. On our property. And it was all mine. And sometimes my sister's, I guess. 
I loved that swamp and all the precious, slimy life that lived inside it. Filling approximately one acre of land, it was practically a puddle. But at that age, at my size, even a tiny swamp meant big adventures. For example, there was the time a huge snapping turtle crawled into our yard to lay her eggs. Possessing a beak that could snap a broomstick in half, she let us know it was in our best interest to leave her alone, so we did. And then there was the animal hospital I founded with my sister when we discovered the abandoned baby rabbits along the bank trail. Of course, I’ll never forget the frogs. So many frogs with their bubble eyes watching us from the safety of the water line. They were fast, but on occasion I was faster. Catch and release was the law of the land, and still is today. 
Found this one on a lawn the other day and relocated him/her back to the water. Be safe, baby turtle!
A few years ago, I went canoeing with my brother on the Waccamaw, a shallow blackwater river surrounded by wetlands, home to alligators and snakes, and other nefarious critters. We came across low hanging branches and attempted to push them out of the way so we could glide past them. We lost our balance, accidentally rolled the canoe, and plunged into the cold water. I was completely submerged. I remember seeing the watery sun above, wondering if I'd ever reach the surface. It was probably the most frightening fifteen seconds of my life, which is approximately how long it took to right the canoe, climb back inside, and check to make sure I still had all of my limbs. 
We retrieved the oars before they could float away, then we paddled around for a while, giving the sun time to dry our clothes, sparing us the embarrassment of arriving at the public dock soaking wet.

Then there was the time I took my niece to Alligator Adventure (home to a wide assortment of reptiles, including 18' long Utan, King of the Crocs). Every day, approximately fifteen minutes before feeding time, the alligators begin slowly drifting toward the feeding station where a park employee will appear to toss them chunks of chicken. Somehow the reptiles instinctively know when it’s time to eat. They cluster around the elevated platform, heads raised, mouths agape for easy access. This was the day I learned that alligators can use their muscular tails to propel their bodies straight up into the air like a rocket. I wish I'd know that beforehand, I might have warned the poor gull that flew too low over the feeding area. A gator launched out of the water, snatched the bird from the air, and dropped like a stone below the surface, taking the gull to its watery grave. Who needs to wait for the Chicken Guy when the whole world is your buffet?
Jump ball!
It’s amazing how our memories can shape our writing, even when we’re not consciously aware of it. For example, I never realized how much lingering affection I had for swamps until I wrote The Murk. 

The Murk, my new middle-grade book from Disney-Hyperion, debuts today. It’s set in the Okefenokee, the biggest blackwater swamp in the United States. It’s a story that’s near and dear to my heart, for the above mentioned reasons and more. While writing, I tapped into cherished memories: Angry turtles, legions of frogs, swarming gators, the earthy smell of mud and dead plants, beautiful flowers, black water, carpets of algae, and most importantly, siblings sharing adventures. It's all there. 

To celebrate The Murk's release, I’m holding a giveaway. First a little bit about the book:
With jacket and classic nude.
In the Okefenokee Swamp grows a rare and beautiful flower with a power unlike any other. Many have tried to claim it-no one has come out alive. But fourteen-year-old Piper Canfield is desperate, and this flower may be her only chance to keep a promise she made a long time ago. Accompanied by her little brother, Creeper, her friend Tad, and two local guides, Piper embarks on the quest of a lifetime. But there's a deadly predator lurking unseen in the black water, one nearly as old as the Oke itself. Some say it's a monster. Others say an evil spirit. The truth is far more terrifying. 
Piper's task is simple: find the flower . . . or die trying.

School Library Journal said: "Fans of “Goosebumps” looking for something with a little bit more substance will enjoy this action-packed adventure filled with plenty of fun and a few scares...The Murk is an excellent action adventure that will have readers burning the midnight oil to finish...The Okefenokee swamp setting is so well written that it becomes an additional character—a dangerous character with something up its sleeve at all times...A good choice for readers who like action, adventure, and horror."

So what’s up for grabs?
1). An autographed copy of The Murk.
2). I'll draw an original sketch inside the book.
Sample drawing.
3). An autographed paperback Frenzy.
4). A trading card featuring painter Mark Fredrickson's amazing cover artwork for both Frenzy and The Murk. 
5). A mystery gift from Mergo, the book’s monstrous antagonist.

Enter to win at Goodreads and please add The Murk to your "Want To Read" shelf. The winner will be notified by email. Thank you to Project Mayhem and to our readers for allowing me the opportunity to celebrate the debut of my new book. Happy Reading!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Murk by Robert Lettrick

The Murk

by Robert Lettrick

Giveaway ends May 04, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to Win

Monday, April 20, 2015

There Are No Secondary Characters by Jim Hill

I have so much to add to the story if you'll only listen.

Sometimes writing is all about the pre-writing. What has to happen in this scene to move the story forward? What's driving that secondary character's arc? Who has the magic, and what are they going to do with it? Who's going to be pissed off at the result?

When you can answer those questions you've got a ball game.

These are the questions that have bedeviled me this week, as I tuck into the final scenes of my WIP. More specifically that one about the secondary character. You see, the secondary character that I’m dealing with hasn’t been in the story for a couple of hundred pages, and I kind of forget what was driving him. That’s a problem. I mean, who wants to read a story with an unmotivated character? Fortunately, I had some tools that helped me get a handle on him.

The first tool is simply understanding the role of the secondary character in the story. That is, what do I want him to do? That’s a question I can answer:

  • Act as a rival to my MC
  • Help reveal aspects of my MC through scene work
  • Make my MC’s life miserable in small ways while the rest of the world makes it miserable in big ways

There’s more, of course, but those are the high level motivations for the story to function the way I want it to unfold. What those points don’t address is what this character wants, because if you took him out for a cup of coffee you’d find out that he thinks he’s the hero of his own story. Maybe even this story, the one that already has a main character.

Hey, look at that! That’s the second tool in your Writer’s Toolkit – allowing those other characters to turn the tables on your plans and tell you what they want. This is also where writers start to sound a little crazy, but if you’ve read this far you’re down with that. Let’s list a few ways to draw out those secondaries. Sometimes you can't stop them, other times it takes a little work to get them to open up so it helps to have a few angles of attack.

All of the tactics below fall under the category of pre-writing, side writing, or as I call it “that collection of text files, Post-Its, doodles, and half-formed thoughts left on my phone at 3:00 AM.” In the thick of a draft it’s often easy to forget about these breadcrumb trails you’ve left for yourself, but trust me, they aren’t just breadcrumbs. Sometimes they’re solid gold nuggets (I may have twisted that metaphor one turn too far…).

Jim’s Three Favorite Side Writing Tactics
(Buzzfeed Friendly Sub Headline!)

1) Have your character write you a letter telling you about themselves, and whatever else they want to talk about. You’ll be surprised.

This one really gets you into the head of the character. When done with total commitment–and how else are you doing it? You’re awesome–it requires you to discover their voice and their motivations. The inner quiet yearnings, and the louder outer ones all come out into the open. Let them confess, let them rant, let them whine. Heck, they might even threaten you if they’ve got a dark side. Did you even know they had a dark side when you started the letter? Maybe, maybe not.

2) Take them out for that metaphorical cup of joe. Or something stiffer if it’s in character. Come prepared with a list of interview questions and grill them harder than Terry Gross during pledge week. Promise them a tote bag if they come clean.

This technique is good for loosening YOU up, especially if the first tip felt a little too free-form for your style. If you get good, surprising answers you can stop here, or challenge yourself to circle back to number 1. Maybe your secondary character just isn’t comfortable talking during an interview. The letter angle might free him to elaborate on something that struck a nerve in this step. I did say this is where writers sound nuts, right? Good, I thought so.

3) Show it from their side. I saved the best for last. It helps to know facts and background information from the other steps, but it is by far the one that turns the dial to eleven for me. Ready? Forget your main character and write some scenes from the secondary’s point-of-view. Now she really is the star of the story, and not just brooding in the background desperate for attention.

Why does it work? Even when two characters are on the same side they still have conflicting goals when it comes to their personally desired outcome. Ask Ron Weasley if you don’t believe me. And if they’re rivals, or have hidden agendas, this is where you’ll get to take those things out for a spin to see just how far you can push them. And how much havoc you can cause your main character. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Oh, it’s the best.

Give it a shot. Let the secondary characters take center stage for a bit. You might discover a star who’s been waiting in the wings since chapter three, and develop a Robert-Altman-worthy ensemble in the process.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spending Time in the Mine by Steve Bramucci

Tenderfoot Clemens had a strange taste in hats.

Before Sam Clemens became Mark Twain, he was a miner. A failed miner in fact—because he never did take a liking to actually doing the work involved in prospecting. He did manage to strike it rich once, however, when he and his friends discovered that gold coming out of a claim called "Wide West" was not actually a part of that claim's rock veins, but contained within a separate "blind lead".  Therefore, the three men were able to stake it as their own. For exactly ten days, Clemens and his two partners basked in the glow of their soon-to-be fortunes. They spent money on credit, they visited friends, they savored their celebrity, but they failed to make any improvements on their claim. 

Thus, according to Nevada law, the claim was forfeited. The rule was: you must spend time in the mine. 

It was not the last fortune Clemens would lose, but it was the last one he lost as a miner. Shortly thereafter, he gave up prospecting to write stories of the west and, eventually, he became the Mark Twain that we all know. 

Those are the eyes of a man who knows what it feels like to lose millions.
Though Twain didn't continue as a miner, the lesson of losing a valuable claim by failing to improve it seems to have stuck with him. As an author, when he was hot on an idea, he would mine it for all it was worth, following it to see if there was gold contained therein. When he cooled on a project, he would allow himself to switch to something more promising. In this way, he actually left and returned to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a number of times. He didn't always know the way to proceed with that book, but he knew there was gold hidden somewhere. He trusted his instinct.

The metaphor of writer as a miner is one that I like. We are digging in the sediment of our brains, hoping to connect with a golden idea, voice, or character and lug it up to the surface for all to see. In order to do so, we must first explore the frontier to find a good claim. We must imagine. We must dream up ideas. When we find ourselves fussing around someone else's tailings, trying to pick over what has already been done, we have only one directive that can help us: venture further, into the unknown. 

Once we do strike something promising, the writer must spend time in the mine. We have to improve our claim. We have to dig deep and scrape away anything that does not hold value. We have to constantly look at our findings away from the musty confines of the mine shaft to see how they hold the light of the sun, trying our best to divine whether they are pyrite or the real deal. If they're found to be false gold, we have a choice (which we have to trust our instincts on): dig deeper or pack it up and find a new vein. 

There is one major difference however between the miner and the writer: gold is gold. It will always be gold. It can be confused with other substances, but to an assayer it is unarguable. The writer is in a far more merciless profession (one that we have chosen, one that we have tirelessly chased, one that we have sacrificed comfort for). In our business what is gold to us is not always gold to others. Agents, editors, reviewers, readers might all look at it and shrug. They might say, "nothing special."

We might come to them with our gold and they might disagree about it's value.

The moment of truth.

It happens to everyone (if it hasn't happened to you, for God's sake don't tell anybody!). And when it does happen, or when the difficulties of the writer's life get too punishing to bear, we have a choice just like Clemens the miner did: pack it in or keep digging. 

Now, I have read all of the brilliant articles and controversial articles and click-bait articles on what "makes" a writer. I have heard self-styled purists say that writing can't be taught (if so, it is the only human activity in the history of time to hold this distinction). In my time as a writer I have taken risks, I have succeeded, and I have failed. I have had days where I thought I was holding the most brilliantly gleaming gold know to humankind, and I have had days in which I was sure—dead-set certain—that I'd given my life over to dredging up the lowest form of muck. 

And after all that, I have only one conclusion about what actually makes a writer: it is simply the willingness to wake up, cook a can of beans over the fire, pick up your worn out tools, and clamber back into the mine. 

Because, for all the hardships, it invigorates us.
Because, no matter how many times we consider getting our real estate license instead, we know that nothing else could provide such a rush. 
Because if we could give it up, the way Clemens gave up mining, we really might. 

But we can't give it up (just as author-Twain wrote to the very end). Even if it means working a second full time job to keep us in "writing money". Even if it means waking up before the kids in order to sneak some words in. 

We are writers. Hoping to strike gold in the metaphorical (and, in our moments of bold fantasy, the literal) sense, in love with the synapse-electrifying feeling that such intoxicating hope brings. We can tweet about the industry, or promotion techniques, or how it's getting more and more difficult and rare to strike something that truly shinesbut when the dissection of an un-dissectible industry is over and done there is only one thing to do. 

Get back in the mine. 

I'll see you down there friends. I'm staking a new claim today. Feels promising. 

Hopefully, unlike this photograph, the mines we writers explore aren't filled exclusively with white, bearded men. #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS