Let's talk about interactive children's entertainment, children's literature, and magic

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October 18, 2010

Outlining A Childrens Novel

There are a lot of ways to outline a story, but I thought I'd share mine with you because so many of the writers I meet at conferences and writers groups are writing without one. 

I can't tell you how vital I think it is to write off an outline. If you don't, your plot goes out the window.

In screenwriting, a feature length script is often broken down into 8 sequences, two for the first and second act, and four for the 2nd. In a well structured story, specific things happen in each sequence. Of course there's tons of variation, but it's a great guide.

I mapped out a little guide sheet while getting my MFA in screenwriting from USC. You can download it in the tools section of my website. When I begin to outline a story, I print it out and write notes, scenes, and major events in the various columns, eventually typing them up in an outline doc with individual sequence headings. Later, these sequence descriptions are broken down into scenes and such.

October 16, 2010

Flourishes and Mechanics in Writing and Magic

In Magic, a flourish is essentially a visible and impressive demonstration of skill:

On the other hand, you have mechanics. Mechanics involve a skill that achieves something needed for a particular effect. I don't know if I'm the first to use this term or make this differentiation.

A flourish can often work as a mechanic, but it doesn't have to. Most mechanics are not flourishes because they are meant to go unnoticed.

The great Dai Vernon preached that flourishes shouldn't be a part of magic at all. You don't want the audience to know how good you can handle a prop--the magic should just happen in your apparently regular hands. Using flourishes to show off dexterity and skill  reduces the impact you have on an audience because. They think "I'm not surprised he can do that, he just did that flourish thing!"

My favorite card magician, Jon Armstrong, embodies the concept beautifully. He just seems like a regular, funny, disarming guy, he almost seems as stunned as the audience when  the magic happens. Jon's mechanics are perfect because they are totally invisible. I never see a single one in his work.

The relationship between flourishes and mechanics play an important role in writing too. When writers use long, windy sentences, elaborate vocabulary and complicated metaphors, they're showing off their skill while seldom achieving as much as prose that puts story and character first. I'm not sure if minimalists like Ernest Hemingway are good examples for mechanics-only writing, but he does come to mind when you look at everything he cut away.

In my last writers group meeting, I submitted a chapter with an action scene that failed to bring my readers in, and they related a technique writers sometimes employ for scenes of action and suspense. Three short sentences are followed by one long sentence. It was a great guideline, and I think it's a perfect example of a literary mechanic. Readers don't notice it, but it's working to convey the suspenseful atmosphere.

I use flourishes in magic, but I think Dai Vernon was right. I'm coming to see my flourishes as a crutch--in magic and writing.

Opening Paragraphs of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A while ago I was talking about childrens literature with a friend of mine. Salman Rushdie's "Haroun And The Sea of Stories" came up in conversation-- I've been studying how children's stories begin and these first two opening paragraphs struck me as particularly beautiful:

"There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

"In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I'm told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news."

How could a fairy tale that starts in such miserable Sadness go anywhere but Beautiful?

October 15, 2010

Wordle, the ultimate bad habit killer for writers

The power of Wordle has been discussed  all over the place, but I just don't think it can be mentioned enough, because every time a writer discovers it, they gain a new and powerful tool.

Copy all the text from your manuscript and paste it into wordle. Out comes a picture like this:

Of course this isn't what you would see exactly unless you were Edgar Allen Poe and you pasted The Raven in there, but anywhoo, you're looking at a graphical representation of word frequency in your doc.

The importance of this can't be understated. By analyzing the results of your Wordle image, you can see what words you are using too much--most likely because theyre 'go-to' words. Some of my bad habit words are:

  • turned
  • thought
  • even
  • around
  • know
  • just
  • something
  • see
  • like
  • seemed

....and my worst habit word of all: LOOK/LOOKED

When I went back and highlighted each of these words, one by one, I was horrified to see that some of them came up on almost every page.

My advice? Print out your wordle and paste it over your monitor. You'll think twice about using them from now on, and hopefully break a bad habit.

Agent Search Spreadsheet

How do I find an agent?
How do I submit to agents and agencies?

This is a tool I created to streamline the process of submitting to agents and keep track of the details.

I created an excel doc (available in the tools part of my links section on my website) to keep track of contacts. I pooled possible contacts during the two years I took writing my book. By the time I was ready, I had a giant list and no idea how to keep track of everything. Without this spreadsheet, it would have quickly gotten out of hand.

Sorry about those fish getting in the way. Working on that.

I listed important info, such as date contacted, status, submission guidelines, and also used highlighting to weed out contacts that rejected my work or were no longer viable for some other reason.

The doc was mostly red by the time I finished, but the patches of blue kept me going.

Hope it helps

Update (1/18/2011): The GogleDocs version is available here if you don't want to download a file from another website

Getting Charlie Into The Factory

A surprising revelation about Dahl's masterpiece

While researching my first MG Adventure, I took a really close look at the structure of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which Dahl was apparently  inspired to right by his childhood experiences as a chocolate tester at school. I can't tell you how surprised I was to find that, out of my 155 page version of the book, Charlie doesn't enter the factory until page 57.

The book is 30,644 words, typical for a MG story. If you only had 30,000 words to tell a story, would you spend the first 10,000 dealing with the main character outside of the real setting of the story?

The traditional 3 act structure of a story typically tells us that a character is locked into the world of his story by the end of the first act, which typically takes up the first quarter of a story (the second act is typically twice as long as the first and third). In other words, getting the character to the story is usually a priority. So how does Dahl's story work like this? How can he spend so long outside of the factory when the book is all about the factory? The title says it all!

The answer is that Charlie's character is vital to the story (he does come first in the title after all), and in order to put the reader in Charlie's miserable shoes, we have to feel like we might never get out of his miserable life to the same extent that he does.

The first 57 pages are all about Charlie and how miserable his life is. The misery is taken to the Nth degree, with leaky roofs, shared beds, terrible food and widespread discomfort. We also learn that he's the nicest boy you ever met.

By the time Charlie gets his chances to receive a golden ticket, boy do we want to get him out of that miserable life. The extra time Dahl takes to build the suspense is worth every word, because by the time it finally happens and Mr. Wonka shows up, we want to get in there just as much as Charlie does. And Dahl doesn't let us down once we do.

At the end of the day, the answer is in the title. Charlie is just as much a part of the story as the chocolate factory, because his life is as sad as the factory is wonderful. Spending just a little too long in such a bad place makes the factory that much greater.

October 14, 2010

I Want To Eat You Up

Love as Consumption in "Where The Wild Things Are"

In "Where The Wild Things Are," a young boy named Max goes on a fantastic adventure to an island of monsters. During the brief evolution of Max's relationship with the monsters--the book is only several pages long--Max threatens to 'eat' the monsters, and the monsters threaten to 'eat' him as well. What does it all mean?

Is it not hard for children to understand love? Not in an instinctive sense, but as a concept. One might say that children understand it better than adults. Regardless of the answer, we can be sure that describing and communicating love is no small task for a child. Adults fall into many cliches, and listen to many love songs, and hear many sad or wonderful stories about Love--yet a child has never experienced these expressions.

Max's story begins after an argument with his mother. We know that Max loves his mother, and that she loves him. She sends him to bed without his dinner, yet brings him food out of sympathy. I do not believe it is too far a stretch to say that food--and therefore the act of Eating itself--is an important symbol of the love between Max and his mother, because the very act of eating seems to be Max's primary means of expressing his love in the story as a whole.

Surely the monsters that Max threatens to eat, and vice versa, represent some aspect of Max's mother. Max and his mother love each other, yet they are forced to be at odds because as a parent, Max's mother is an authority figure. It seems logical then, that Max would express his love with a symbolic act that is indeed scary and threatening.

To threaten to consume another is a threat, but also a deep expression of love. As a child, Max is looking for the most simplistic way of expressing his love because he is too young to express it in any other way. To love someone so much is to want to become them, and thus if the saying is true that 'we are what we Eat,' eating the loved one would be the simplest way to go about doing it. I want to Eat You Up. I want to consume you. I want to take you apart and digest you so that everything you are becomes a part of me.

Joseph Campbell mentions two important items related to the process of eating, the first being dismemberment--the act of bodily deconstructing the hero before undergoing his spiritual metamorphosis--and the belly of the whale: the unconscious, non-physical world the hero goes to in order to experience his transformation. In both cases, the act of being eaten symbolizes the same kind of spiritual adventure in the non-physical, subconscious realm that Max himself experiences.