Friday, June 23, 2017

Kill the villain? Or save them? by Joanna Roddy

For my last post, I talked about villains and the layering of roles often seen in kids lit: rivals, agents, and the true enemy. I want to continue that discussion and talk about what we as writers do with our villains in the end. 

Disney (and for that matter, most traditional story-telling) tells us that the villain needs to die. Especially the true enemy, especially if they are powerful through magic or supernatural ability. They're too dangerous to live. Lesser villains, like agents, need to be punished, and rivals and bullies need to be humiliated. It's often and eye-for-an-eye system in which just deserts are served up to satisfy the viewer's sense of fairness. In these narratives, good is good, though it may be flawed or misguided; and bad is intentionally bad. The hero must vanquish evil. Ultimately, these stories have a power struggles as the central conflict and the story ends when power ultimately resides with the protagonist. 

Other story-tellers, like Japanese animated fantasy film-maker Hayao Miyazaki, show us villains who are unquestionably bad and clearly set against the protagonist, but the hero's path to overcoming that villain isn't through violence or a show of definitive power. This is because the hero has a different skill-set altogether. Where traditional heroes need to harness their power in physical or magical battle, these alternative heroes are equipped with empathy, loyalty, and kindness. They will still need bravery and perseverance, but the result will be something far different than vanquishing the villain. Rather, the villain can be saved. 

Take for example Spirited Away, Miyazaki's 2003 Oscar-winning film in which the ten-year-old hero, Chihiro, defeats a monstrous spirit feeding on people's greed by simple indifference to its offers of gifts and gold. After returning it to its benign form, she befriends it, taking it as a traveling companion. Later, Chihiro is able to win her freedom from a witch, Yubaba, who is holding her and her parents prisoner, through her wits and monopolizing Yubaba's weak spot: her devotion to her bratty son. Does Chihiro hold the son hostage or threaten him? No. She earlier made friends with him, transforming his selfishness into compassion that then is leveraged in her favor. The story is left with the possibility that Yubaba's love for her ennobled son will lead to her own transformation.

Another example: Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea. Based on Irish folklore, the villain in this film is Macha, the owl witch. She steals people's emotions, keeping them in glass jars while the people themselves are turned to stone. We learn that she does this because her son's broken heart was too painful for her to witness, and, thinking she was giving him mercy, she turned him to stone. Now she is determined to do the same for everyone, including herself. The child protagonists break the jars and the emotions all come flooding out. Macha realizes that allowing oneself to feel things, even great emotional pain, is preferable to feeling nothing and being barely alive. In the end she becomes their ally and her relationship with her son is restored. 

The only irredeemable villains in these films are destructive forces. Miyazaki presents war and pollution again and again in his films as true evils that must be resisted. Moore's Song of the Sea offers only time and the rules of magic as the heroes' greatest enemies. 

I find myself torn. Evil is real. Just look at the news. Kid readers understand this in a pure and simple way, often overlooking the nuance and splitting the world into good guys and bad guys. I think the longing to see justice for wrongdoing is innate. But as writers, I feel we owe it to children to represent the world as it truly is: seemingly evil people have complicated motives, and no one is completely irredeemable. Our choices have power and the possibility to choose good is always there. Some villains will never choose good--that's the power of free will too. 

Typically our heroes destroy the villain in a final showdown in which good prevails against all odds. The hero seems ill-equipped and powerless until that last moment when what is needed to overcome impending doom finally arrives, and they win. But what if instead the thing that arrives against the odds is that elusive magic--the kind we all wish we had--that gives the hero the exact key to unlock the villain's heart and return them to a path of love? Everyone wins. What if we told stories like that, and instilled the belief in children that maybe there's something inside them that can transform the world through love instead of violence? Through peacemaking instead of division. 

Maybe that's idealistic, but doesn't our world need those kind of heroes now more than ever? 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Writing About the Writing by Caroline Starr Rose

I write historical fiction, so the idea of keeping a notebook to gather my research and questions about a new project isn’t a new one. But over the years my notebooks have expanded into something other than just a collection of historical tidbits. They’ve become an on-going private conversation where I can noncommittally explore the fragile beginnings of a new idea or work out troublesome knots once the story’s under way. 

In other words, my notebooks are teaching me the importance of writing about the writing.

My novel Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine didn’t yet exist when it sold as part of a two-book deal. For a few weeks I was thrilled with my good fortune, but then panic settled in. I pulled out my notebook and scribbled down my worries: I’m not very good at plotting and have never created with a deadline. There’s pressure knowing I’ve sold something I haven’t even begun. Then I made myself try and answer these worries, to the best of my ability. Plot comes, I wrote. It can be discovered in character development and drafting. My agent and editor believe I can do this. If I can’t see this in myself right now, I can borrow their belief. I returned to this page in my notebook throughout the drafting process any time I needed a little courage.

The word “writing” is sometimes a heavy load for me to carry. My mind fills with word counts and productivity — the opposite of how my projects often progress. I’ve allowed myself to replace “writing” with terms that don’t hold so many expectations. Now I explore. Create. Discover. Tinker. Wonder. Practice. 

This might mean figuring out what’s working with a premise and what isn’t. Or creating a list of historical details I need to further study. Some days it includes questions I have about a story’s timeline and plot or notes on characters — their secrets, their fears, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world — and their relationships with others. My notebook becomes a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect.

There was a particular scene in Jasper that I just couldn’t get right. Each time I’d turn it back in to my editor she’d point out what wasn’t working. One day I set aside the manuscript and returned to my notebook. I needed to hear from the characters in that scene — how their lives before this moment had influenced how they saw themselves, how their experiences had shaped their choices. Using first person, I wrote quick character sketches of both men. I realized one felt cheated, like he was owed something. The other was guarded and afraid. Knowing this opened up the scene in an entirely new way, allowing me to see how these two would interact and how they’d treat Jasper, the kid who’d stumbled in on their conversation.

In going back over my notes, I witness a book slowly taking shape. Each page records challenges that I eventually find my way through. Writing about the writing becomes a promise that someday my book will come together. Though it might be hard to believe in the moment, I hold the proof my story has made it this far, that it will reach the end. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chris Eboch Asks: Does Plotting Take Away the Fun?

We talk a lot about writing process on this blog. (You’re welcome.) It’s always interesting to see how other authors work. In general terms, we are often broken into two groups – plotters who plan things out in advance, and pantsers who make things up as they go (writing “by the seat of the pants”).

One statement I’ve regularly heard from pantsers is that plotting would “take the fun out of writing.” Today I got wondering… Is this something people know from experience, or is it an assumption? Possibly a false one?

Let me give you an example from my current work in progress. This is a mystery novel for adults, but the process would apply to middle grade as well.

I started by developing a main character, some family members, and a mystery premise. I knew “whodunit” but not much else. At a recent small writing retreat, we sat around talking about our WIPs (works in progress) and people tossed out reactions and feedback. This gave me some great new ideas. I brainstormed additional ideas and wrote down everything on scraps of paper. (I hadn’t brought index cards, which I would normally use for this kind of thing.)

Then I shuffled the ideas around until I had a plot I thought worked well, alternating quieter investigation moments, such as interviewing people, with more dramatic action scenes, and weaving in subplots. Finally, I wrote this up as an outline.

Now that I know “everything” that happens, did I remove all chance for spontaneity and surprises in the writing?

No way!

Let’s look at my upcoming scene. First, some background: Kate is a conflict journalist who has returned to her childhood home to recover after a serious injury. Her mother is in an Alzheimer’s care unit, and the director there – an old acquaintance of Kate’s – asks Kate to quietly look into some suspicious deaths at the Home. Besides the two deaths, one woman had a mysterious illness but recovered. Here is the description of the scene I’m about to write, from my outline:

Visit woman who got sick while [the woman’s] family is there. Discuss the symptoms of her illness. A family member makes the comment that it would be better if she had died.

Does this look like there are no opportunities for creativity or surprises in the scene? Here are some of the things I don’t yet know:
  •         Where should the scene take place? In the patient’s room, or a common room? What is the room like? How can I describe it vividly with a few specific details?
  •         What is the elderly patient like? What’s her appearance? How does she behave? She’s in an Alzheimer’s care unit, so I may want to watch some videos of Alzheimer’s patients.
  •         What are the family members like? How many are there? What is their relationship to the patient? How do they behave?
  •         How does the scene play out? How does Kate asked questions without revealing that she’s investigating?
  •         Kate has a strained relationship with her sister, who is also present but doesn’t know about Kate’s investigation. How does the sister react to what’s happening? Can I create more conflict between the two of them?
  •         Kate’s father has recently learned what she’s doing and wants to help her. What can he do in this scene? What about Kate’s mother and other secondary characters?

As you can see, having an outline doesn’t mean you don’t have flexibility, creativity, or surprises. Besides the questions above, I may come up with a new twist or a way to drop in a clue that I hadn’t anticipated.

What Works for You?

I fully believe that when it comes to writing technique, there’s no one right answer for everyone. If you have a process that’s working for you, congratulations! Keep at it! If you feel there’s room for improvement, you might want to try some different things.

And if you’ve always assumed that brainstorming and outlining would ruin the creativity and fun, please don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Here are some posts on plotting and process from other Project Mayhem authors:

Plus a few more plotting resources:

Also, my book Advanced Plotting offers a tool for outlining and analyzing your plot, along with articles on fast starts, developing middles, plot points, cliffhangers, and more advice on making your work stronger. Get the paperback or e-book on Amazon.

Get The Plot Arc Exercise as a free Word download you can edit at my website.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for young people, including The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure (FREE at all ebook retailers!) follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town.

Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: POISON IS NOT POLITE by Robin Stevens

About Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: I have been taking part in "Marvelous Middle Grade Monday," the brainchild of author Shannon Messenger, for years now. I usually post on my other blog, Middle Grade Mafioso, but couldn't resist introducing this series to our Project Mayhem readers!

About the "Wells and Wong Mystery" series: Back in 2015 I was a first round panelist for the Cybils awards and read the first book in the series, Murder Is Bad Manners. I found it delightfully funny and engrossing, and even though the rest of the judges (who, alas, had not themselves been raised in English boarding schools as I had) failed to buckle under to my pressure, I was a fan. You can read my review and interview with the author, Robin Stevens, HERE.

About POISON IS NOT POLITE: Book One took place at Deepdean school. Book 2 takes place at Daisy Wells' country house, Fallingford, during the school holidays, which is also the occasion of Daisy's 14th birthday. Daisy has invited her friend, Hazel Wong, to stay--as well as a couple of her other chums. During the birthday tea, one of the adults staying there--who also happens to be a bounder and a cad--is poisoned. It's up to the girls to discover who the murderer is. Unfortunately, the signs all seem to point to a member of Daisy's family.

Why I Liked It:
Book 2 was a bit darker than book one. Daisy's mother is enamored with the caddish Mr. Curtis and the girls see them kissing in the library. Also, the poisoning is described vividly. But the relationship between the aristocratic Daisy and the Hong Kong born Hazel has deepened to become more a relationship of equals. (In Book 1, Daisy appears to appreciate Hazel as someone she can boss about. In Book 2, she has come to see Hazel as being level-headed and organized--the perfect foil for her more impetuous self.

Set in the 1930s, every description and behaviour seems spot on. Americans took to Downton Abbey in droves, and mysteries are ever popular. I can see a middle grade reader who likes history, mystery, and humour gobbling these up. (Did you spot the British spellings? Done in honour of the series.)

About the Author:
Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life.

When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction. Robin now works full-time as a writer and lives in London with her bearded dragon, Watson.

You can visit her website HERE, or follow her on Twitter @redbreastedbird

Credit: Alexandra Dao

Thursday, June 8, 2017


On Saturday, April 8, I caught a 7:19 am train from Philadelphia to New York City to attend the annual The Color of Children’s Literature conference hosted by Kweli Journal.  According to Kweli’s website, the all-day conference promised to be “an excellent opportunity for writers and illustrators of color to learn, get inspired, and network with others in the industry.”  Kweli delivered on this promise.

The first person I met when I arrived was the publisher of Tu Books (the imprint of Lee & Low Books that is publishing my first middle grade novel).  I learned from her that my publication date has been moved up, so that was exciting news.  We later had lunch together, where she introduced me to a number of writers and editors, including my editor.  So, networking with others in the industry: check.

Three authors and one author-illustrator started off the day by speaking on a panel entitled “Why We Create Now.”  While their experiences were varied — for example, Karuna Riazi shared that she has encountered Islamophobia her whole life and wants her books to help those who are discriminated against feel welcome; Traci Sorell explained that there are many different Native American tribes with different cultures and beliefs, and she hopes her books show that Native Americans should not be put in a box — they were also universal.  Every community has families, and everyone is ashamed of something.  The speakers (in addition to Riazi and Sorell, the panel included Cozbi Cabrera and Zoraida Cordova) encouraged us to tap into those universal themes when we write our specific stories.  Later in the day, keynote speaker Cynthia Leitich Smith spoke about the need for “authentic diversity” in children’s books, the fact that “silence speaks” when certain communities are underrepresented in literature and in history books, and how any kid can be a hero everyone cheers.  Inspiration: check.

The conference also included many simultaneous workshops on craft and marketing.  They covered topics on: writing picture books, plotting, developing multidimensional characters, writing process and revision, submissions and queries, worldbuilding and structure, nonfiction, and many others.  Learning: check.

I have a full time job that has nothing to do with writing children’s books, and sometimes I slip away from my writing and get consumed in the other parts of my life and work.  Attending a good writing conference every now and then can be the spark I need to get me to start a new writing project or to delve into revisions of an existing one.  The Kweli conference was just what I needed, and I look forward to attending again next year.

What about you?  Is there something that helps you get back on track when you’ve gotten sluggish in your writing routine?