Archives: Writing Craft

NerdCampJR: Choreographing an Action Scene

I’m on the road today, heading back to Maryland from NerdCampMI. One of the best parts of NerdCamp happens on Day 2 in the afternoon, nErDCampJr. That’s when the kids arrive and have mini-sessions with authors.

Because my new book, TAKEDOWN, is about a boy and a girl on a competitive wrestling team, it is full of action. Unlike my first middle grade novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, I had to create believable action scenes.

What a challenge that was! I had to relearn the lingo of the sport, study moves a middle school athlete would know, watch wrestlers in competition, and think about how the characters’ bodies move in space and interact with each other. In other words, I had to choreograph action scenes!

This year, the focus of my session with 6th grade NerdCampers was how to create an action scene with words.

The materials for this mini writing workshop are: A pair of Nerf swords, two willing volunteer actors, writing notebooks, and our imaginations.

One important rule we followed as we tried out these scenes comes from the sport of fencing: All practice blows with the sword had to fall between the shoulders and the hips. No swiping at people’s heads or below the belt — not even for play.

Before we got started composing our scene, the kids and I talked about how an author helps a reader picture action in their imagination.

We agreed on: action verbs, descriptive adjectives and adverbs, naming specific body parts as they move, and using the five senses. Oh, and dialogue was a key element in each group’s scene.

Each set of kids was about 20 people. We broke into groups for the initial writing — about six kids in charge of the scene’s beginning, six in charge of the middle, and six writing the end. The actors and one or two additional 6th graders wrote the dialogue. If they needed information, groups were allowed to send “spies” (really, emissaries) to ask what the other groups were coming up with.

This group exercise was a lot of fun. A surprise to me — it turned out to be a good lesson in revision! First, we wrote down ideas. Next, we tested those ideas out on our sword-wielding actors. Then we realized we had to make a few changes, use more specific language, or move a line of dialogue. We rewrote and ran through the scene with two new actors, to see how well it was working.

Here are the fight scenes that my three groups of sixth graders choreographed, wrote, and enthusiastically acted out in just 20 minutes!

Group 1: MM (5:30-5:55 pm)

Felicia:  “You may be rich but you cannot buy skill!  You will never defeat me!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia with her sword, but it’s a fake out. When Felicia goes to block the sword, Skylar punches her in the shoulder.  Felicia falls to the ground.

Skylar:  “I may not have skill, but I am much smarter!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia, but as she does so, Felicia does a roundhouse-kick to Skylar’s sword. The sword goes flying.

“What am I supposed to do?  Fight with my feet?” yells Skylar as she kicks Felicia in the stomach.

Felicia stabs Skylar in the stomach. Skylar falls over and dies.

***

Group 2: LL (6:00-6:25 pm)

There  is a brother and sister on the roof of Knight School.

Brother: “Why are we up here?”

Sister: “I’m through with all this nonsense of boys are better than girls.”

Brother: “That still doesn’t answer my question why are we on the roof.”

Sister: “Enough talking. En garde!”

The girl lunges, slips, and falls to the ground. The sword falls.

Sister: “Oh no! My sword.”

Brother: “Not all boys may be better than girls. But I know I am better than you!”

The brother stabs her in her foot and she dies.

***

Group 3: KK (7:30-8 pm)

There is a fencing tournament at Medieval Times. When Brent steals Macy’s lucky cape, she challenges him to a duel.

Macy: “You stole my cape, give it back!”

Brent (holding the lucky cape behind his back): “You’re not getting it back!”

Macy tries to bribe Brent with a fake cape.  She holds it out and as he goes to get it from her, she reaches around to grab her cape.  She holds it up in the air, then lunges and stabs Brent in the shoulder.

Brent fake lunges at Macy. She tries to block the blow and he punches her in the belly.

Macy falls. Brent stands over her with an evil laugh but she pops up in surprise and stabs him in the collarbone.

He falls to the ground and breaks his back.

Brent: “You cannot hurt me, I’m a god!”

***

Thanks to volunteers Pernille Ripp and Brittney Bones for helping everything run smoothly with my groups. Couldn’t have done it without you!

Takedown: Source List

Hello, friends and readers.

One of my favorite things about being an author is doing research. When my children were in elementary school, I worked part-time as a features writer for Baltimore’s Child magazine and my local edition of The Baltimore Sun. As a newcomer to Maryland, the job helped me get to know my new community. It also taught me how to interview people, visit an event or location and catch interesting details, and how to write on a deadline.

As a fiction writer, my sources tend to come from four main places: non-fiction books, newspaper articles, personal interviews, and personal observations (sometimes called gonzo research — either going to or participating in an event related to the story). Documentaries and YouTube videos are another go-to resource.

Takedown is about two middle school wrestlers, Lev and Mikayla. It will be published on June 19, 2018 (Random House Kids).

In order to be transparent, I am going to create a list of sources I use for my books, beginning with Takedown.

Takedown is a wrestling story. When I started drafting the book in fall of 2015, it had been several years since my son put on a singlet, headgear, and wrestling boots. I had a lot of research to do in order to relearn the sport.

TAKEDOWN: Sources and works consulted
(I’ll be adding to this list periodically as I look through my notes. It’s going to look informal at first. I’ll come back and use standard formatting later.)

Videos and Documentaries
“Helen Maroulis used lessons learned in London to win gold,” NBCOlympics.com
“Helen Maroulis’ mantra: ‘Christ in me, I am enough’,” NBCOlympics.com

Articles
“Zaccardi: Helen Maroulis’ takedown of a legend has been years in the making,” NBCOlympics.com
Akinnagbe, Gbenga. “A Metamorphosis on the Wrestling Mat,” The New York Times, 3/3/2012.
Smith, Tim. “Focus on NFL, injuries makes ‘X’s and O’s’ a timely entry at Center Stage,” The Baltimore Sun, 11/15/15.
Stein, Betsy. “Editor’s Letter: Lessons learned on being a supportive sports parent,” Chesapeake Family, September, 2016.
Stein, Betsy. “Parenting Plays from the Pros, Touchdown Tips to Help Young Athletes,” Chesapeake Family, September, 2016.

Books
Ditchfield, Christin. Wrestling (True Books: Sports), Grolier Publishing, NY, 2000.
Ellis, Carol. Wrestling (Martial Arts in Action), Marshall Cavendish. Benchmark, NY, 2011.

More sources coming soon!

Craft Talk: Multiple Point of View Novels

A question came up in one of my kidlit groups the other day: Can young readers handle books with more than one narrator?

No surprise, there was a debate among the members. Why make books harder for kids to read by writing in more than one voice? Isn’t that confusing?

While I don’t think multiple POV books are everyone’s cup of tea, kids and teens are more resilient readers than we give them credit for. They are still forming opinions about what they like and don’t like in a book, which makes them less resistant to novels that play with form, structure, and voice than an adult reader might be.

One of my favorite authors of multi-voiced books is children’s and YA author Mary Amato. Her middle grade novel PLEASE WRITE IN THIS BOOK is a big favorite at our house. Last fall (2016), Mary and I led an intensive workshop on voice at the SCBWI MidAtlantic annual conference. Since I had recently survived writing a book in the voices of 18 fictional fifth graders, I was curious about how other multiple POV authors do it. What’s the process for writing a book when the reader shifts from one character’s viewpoint to another?

To find out, I conducted a survey of authors whose books have two or more speakers. Thanks to Jeff Zentner (THE SERPENT KING), Mary Amato (OUR TEACHER IS A VAMPIRE AND OTHER (NOT) TRUE STORIES), Ava Jae (BEYOND THE RED), Caroline Starr Rose (BLUE BIRDS), Jeff Giles (THE EDGE OF EVERYTHING), and Dee Romito (THE BFF BUCKET LIST) for answering my questions and giving me permission to share the survey below.

While I was working on THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, I couldn’t have kept track of the 18 characters, when they spoke, how often they appeared in each section of the book, without my color coded spreadsheet.

How — and why — do other authors tackle writing a book in multiple points of view? Click through this slide show to find out. (Be sure to click the picture to expand the images.)

 

What do I love about reading stories told from more than one point of view?  A story with more than one narrator asks the reader to stitch together different takes on the book’s events — much like piecing Caroline’s quilt — in order to build meaning.  This active style of reading builds empathy because it helps readers understand something profound: Even though we share experiences, everyone — in fiction and in life — uses their individual experiences as a lens through which they view the world.

Bullet Journal Your Revision Notebook

Writing is a messy process. For an organized person like me, revising a novel can feel overwhelming.

There is so much to do: Develop flat characters, adjust the plot, review feedback from critique partners, check for overused words (“just” is my bugaboo). Not to mention detail work! If a character is described as wearing braces, how often do the braces have to be mentioned throughout the book? Should that detail be cut?! Her bands are red and black in Chapter 3, but purple in Chapter 12. Ack!!

A moleskin journal wasn’t going to do the trick for this revision! I used a great big 5 subject notebook. Having sections helped keep me organized.

This describes my state of mind in February, when I started a major rewrite of my next middle grade novel. The whole project like too much.

Then, inspiration struck. For a few months, I’d swapped out my personal to-do lists for a bullet journal. And while I didn’t follow #bujo techniques to the letter, the journal was cutting back on my list-writing time and helping me stay organized. Why not apply these techniques to my revision notebook?

This Saturday, I’m running a workshop for our local SCBWI chapter, “Bullet Journaling Your Revision Notebook.” You can find details and RSVP here.

My colored pencils and markers are packed. I’ve got stickers and rulers. I’m excited to share ideas with other authors.

This workshop and the resources in this post are for everyone, whether you:

  • have never heard of bullet journals;
  • are #bujo curious;
  • use a bullet journal for day-to-day, but haven’t tried one for writing;
  • or you’re are a literary bullet journal master.

My favorite YouTube videos for simple bullet journals:

How to Bullet Journal
*Short explanation from bullet journal system creator Ryder Carroll

A Dude’s Bullet Journal Walk-through
*Great for the basics

Easy Ways to Decorate Your Bullet Journal
*If you want to learn simple hand-lettering technqiues and embellishments

Bullet Journal for Writers
*Not for perfectionists! I love this bullet journaler’s inspiration page based on Lord of the Rings.

Check out these website and blog posts about bullet journals, especially for writers:

BulletJournal.Com
*Where the whole craze started

Something Delicious, “Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers”
*Lists collection ideas for WIPs (Works in Progress)

BoHo Berry, “NaNoWriMo Bullet Journal”
*Ideas for setting up a new project

Writer’s Edit, “The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers”
*Includes tips on tracking submissions and feedback from publishers

Page Flutter, “Inside My Writing Journal: The Ultimate Study in Craft”
*Our local SCBWI events coordinator, Sarah Maynard, found this amazing resource. Includes photos and explanations of color coding, and great journal page ideas/spreads for writers: 7 Key Elements of Fiction, The Hero’s Journey, and Three Act Structure.

Confessions of a Bullet Journaler by picture book author Marcie Flinchum Atkins
*There are some great page ideas for writers here: Mentor texts by category, “Book of Stars” — which is a “well-done you!” spread.

Peek Inside Kate Messner’s Bullet Journal
*Even famous authors use #bujo. It’s fun to see some of this beloved children’s author’s journal pages.

The Mixed-up Files Middle Grade Blog
This post has an extensive list of resources for writers who want to try bullet journaling.

The biggest tip I can share is this: Do what works for you.

My favorite bullet journaling tool is the Index.

I had a three-week window to complete my revision and turn it in to my editor.

My revision journal is profoundly lacking in calligraphy, embellishments, and colorful flourishes. But it has an index (the single most helpful bullet journal tool) and helped keep my thoughts organized as I was re-writing.

 

 

 

Daily word-count goals don’t work for me. I found it was easiest to list the chapter numbers and cross off each one as I revised. This page also has a simple to-do list.

My everyday bullet journal has a few pages dedicated to book notes, including this one, decorated with a doodle.