Chekhov's Nerf Gun

nerf gunsOkay, so Chekhov never mentioned a nerf gun, but I’m a children’s writer—I prefer darts to bullets. What he had to say about shotguns, however, changed the way I write descriptions.

If a shotgun hangs on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the last act. -Chekhov

I couldn’t get this quotation or its implications out of my head. Descriptions have been a sore spot for me, an area I’m actively trying to improve. But, I struggled to understand which description were necessary, which painted a picture for the reader, and which created a distraction and made the reader want to flip a few pages forward to get back to the action.

gunsChekhov’s shotgun hit me right between the eyes. My lists of trees and shrubs, hair colour, and weather patterns had to go. Every word needed to have meaning and move my story forward, especially my descriptions. And if they didn’t, well, that’s what the delete button is for. For me, it also opened up a new world of symbolism, foreshadowing, and anchors to the past. A description could be a thread woven into the story at the beginning that mingles with the other fibres, hidden in some places, but always present, and in the end explodes into a rich and intricate tapestry.

The question was no longer what does he look like? But, what is it about him that is important to this story? So when I told you in my first scene that my character runs on the sunny side of the street or that the house next door is for sale, I told you because it matters, not only in the present scene but in all the scenes that follow.

◊ ◊ ◊

Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Two days + One Word = 48 Hours of Frustration.

tabloidI spent two days on one word: tabloid. The word made it to my third draft and as I toiled on that fourth draft the word grabbed me. It’s a fine word if you’re a thirty something mother of four, an example of me intruding on my protagonist’s story. She’s a seventeen year old girl and she hated the word. It’s not something she would say. I thought back,back, back to when I was that age. I wouldn’t have said tabloid either. My mom used to read romance novels; my teen self called them “mom’s kissing in the wind books.”mcmullet

I decided to consult the experts. I started with my in-house target audience: my daughter. “What would you call those magazines about celebrities in the grocery check out? She looked at me like I was nuts. She’s always sceptical when I approach her with odd hypothetical questions. She knows it’s for a book. “I don’t know.”

Well, that was unhelpful, so I went to my second source. My husband’s work requires him to have an ear to the ground for youth culture. I threw the question out to him. He informed me that teens don’t read those magazines. They get their “news” online and talked about a flat world. Ah, yes. Israel invades Gaza. News. Kim Kardashian leaves her husband. News. But, it’s not my protagonist reading the tabloid, it’s her mother. And she thinks they’re low brow (also not a term she’d use), but I was still left with the question: what would she call them?

I played with different ideas–synonyms, antonyms, and an internet search to find names of different tabloids and still nothing seemed quite right. After two days of thought I finally found the phrase I was looking for. What is it? It’s something unique to my character, it’s how she thinks and in the words she thinks in. I’m on the hunt for more of these words so I can toss them. Hopefully they all won’t take so long to resolve.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Katniss Vs. Bella

katnissA couple of years ago I stumbled across a heated online debate and I can guarantee that if you read YA fiction you’ll have an opinion. Who is the better role model for teen girls; Katniss from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Bella from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight? The question irritated me and not because I couldn’t decide between the two. It made me question my role as a writer. Is creating role models for teen girls my job? Should I be concerned about the example my characters set?

These questions split me down the middle. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I want her to read books with characters who set good examples. But the writer side of me screamed, “No way!” I want to develop characters who are real people and real people are flawed. Real teens make mistakes. They shoplift, smoke, and do drugs. They fall head-over-heels for boys who aren’t good for them. They lie, they sneak out at night, and they ditch school. They drive too fast and they post pictures online they should’ve kept private.bella

Let’s look at sixteen year old Bobby— an excellent student, star of the basketball team, and always obedient to his parents. A great role model, but where’s the story in that? In fact, my teen self hates Bobby and his perfect life. If I tell you one day perfect Bobby snapped and set fire to the school gym—now we have a story. Bobby wasn’t so perfect after all.

As a writer I also need to create change within my characters. My characters need to learn and grow as the book progresses. They will  revel in their successes and suffer for their choices. I refuse to preach to my readers; I allow my characters to live with the consequences of their decisions—good and bad— and let my readers draw their own conclusions. I pose questions and it’s up to my readers to answer them.

My best Katniss impression. I manged to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I'd starve.
My best Katniss impression. I managed to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I’d starve.

At the same time writers don’t let their characters get away with much.  Perfect Bobby wouldn’t be an interesting story, neither is Bobby taking the devil’s lettuce every lunch hour, getting expelled from school, and then living happily ever after. Again, no story. At least not one with any conflict and writers are all about conflict. I’m not a public service announcement, but Bobby’s decisions are going to have radical consequences that the reader will live with him.

Finally, I’m not into creating characters who promote a political agenda. Who decides who is a good role model and who isn’t? Maybe you like that Katniss portrayed a strong woman. That’s nice, but most of us can’t nail an adversary through the heart with a bow and arrow from 100 yards out. Most of us girls harbour insecurity and self-doubt, so when we write about girls, some girls are going to appear “weak,” but don’t we all have our weaknesses? Doesn’t it give us comfort that there are others out there like us?

So, no, I do not create my characters to be role models. It might happen they show admirable courage or turn their lives around in a way that’s sets a good example, but it’s not what I set out to do. I set out to stay true to the character and the story she needs to tell.

And do I want my daughter to be like Katniss or Bella? Neither. I want to encourage her to be herself, to live in her own story, to be strong in her own character. As a parent I’m still the number one influence in her life; I want to teach her to make wise decisions and I want to have discussions about the books she reads and the characters therein. They should be discussion starters. What were Katniss’ or Bella’s flaws? How did they deal with them? What were the consequences of their decisions?

I know, I know, even as you read this in the corner of your mind you’ve been deciding– Hmm, Katniss or Bella? Go ahead and share your opinion, better yet, tell me what role you feel the writer plays in bringing forward characters who set good examples.

◊  ◊  ◊

Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Vertical, Horizontal and Other Writing Habits

Early in my writing career, I discovered Perkins.   Life was complicated then.  I was a full time teacher with a young family and hardly a spare minute.  To add writing to the mix meant that I had to squeeze an extra hour or two from an already crowded day.  So I started getting up earlier than normal, well before my wife and kids, and designated that time for writing.imagesCADIP4L2

Each morning for the first week, I brewed a pot of coffee, slipped into an empty room, and stared bleary-eyed at a computer screen making little progress.  The house was too quiet, the air too still, and there were oh so many distractions far more interesting or important than writing. And then I discovered Perkins, and a routine that made all the difference.

Frustrated by my lack of progress at home, I headed to a nearby Perkins restaurant early one morning.  The place was just a few blocks away and open 24 hours for my convenience.  There the tables were large, the coffee hot and plentiful, and the restaurant was mostly deserted, save for five grizzly men, all retired I assume, who had gathered to debate politics and life’s sad state. I chose a table near a window far away from them, and soon I was lost in a caffeine-fueled world of my own.  There, with the comforting hum of voices in the background, with few distractions to impede my progress, I sat at my adopted desk and, for the first time in a week, made some headway.imagesCAPZIKIV

For over 20 years now, I’ve started each morning in a similar way.  The nearby Perkins closed a few years ago so the venue has changed but the routine hasn’t varied.  Seven days a week, even on vacations, I find a cozy cafe or restaurant, and immerse myself in writing for an hour and often more.

My routine isn’t for everyone, but I can’t help but think that for serious writers some kind of routine is important.  From what I can tell, the greatest writers of all time had their own well-honed, though sometimes quirky practices, so maybe I am on to something.

Like me, for example, American poet Sylvia Plath started her writing day early, up at 4 a.m. and writing feverishly until her children demanded attention. John O’Hara, on the other hand, wrote between midnight and 7 a.m. and then crawled into bed for the rest of the day.

For others, it was water that beckoned the muse. Benjamin Franklin liked to write while immersed in the bathtub.  So did Ann Landers, the famous columnist, Edmond Rostand, the French playwright, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. I am not sure how they kept their pages dry, but for them it worked.

Truman Capote wrote best in motel rooms and called himself ‘a horizontal writer’. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lying down, too.  Not so for Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway who all wrote standing up.

Virginia Wolfe wrote in a converted basement billiards room, surrounded by old files and stacks of books. J.K.Rowling famously wrote large portions of Harry Potter aboard a train, soothed by clattering wheels and swaying cars.  Stephen King, one of the most prolific of writers, works at the same desk every morning, surrounded by familiar writing tools, keeping butt in the chair until he reaches his target of 10 pages.images

It seems to me that one secret to a successful writing career is not that we all have the same habit, but that we have habits of some kind that work for us – a place, a time, a favourite pen, a comfortable chair.  Habit can induce consistency, offset writer’s block and lead to productivity, be it a paragraph a day or Stephen’s King’s enviable 10 pages.

For me, the habit is early morning coffee at a place nearby.  What, I wonder, is yours?

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for youngsters.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Two Audiences

“The adults were crying and the children were laughing.”

I'll love you foreverI heard Canadian children’s author Robert Munsch speak at an education conference in the early 1980’s.  He was developing a new story called I’ll Love You Forever.  He told us his method for getting a picture book ready for publication was to tell the story to dozens of audiences. He evaluated their reactions and then adapted the story accordingly till he thought it was ready to write down. By the time he had finished telling his I’ll Love You Forever story at the conference, the hundreds of teachers in the audience were all in tears.

Robert Munsch thought he had a winner with I’ll Love You Forever because he often told the story to groups that included adults as well as children.  When he got to the last section where the son rocks his mother to sleep, the parents and teachers would be crying and the kids would be laughing. The story drew a strong emotional response  from  both age brackets in the audience.

you can write children's books by tracey dilsI am currently reading You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils. She says since teachers, grandparents, librarians and mothers and fathers are the ones who buy books for kids, our stories need to appeal to adult emotions and sensibilities. Adults may choose to buy a children’s book because they find it artistically, philosophically or nostalgically appealing. 

In her blog post The Dual Audience For Picture Books writer Darcy Pattison reminds us that adults are gatekeepers for children’s access to books. We need to think about whether parents would enjoy reading our story to their child or whether a teacher  might choose it because it fits with a school curriculum topic.

Robert Munsch got it right with I’ll Love You Forever. He has sold more than 15 million copies of the book.  The secret to his success was writing a story that appealed to both adults and children. 

If you enjoyed this post you might also like……..

Leaving Them Cliffhanged

Writing For Children Not As Easy As I Thought

MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.
%d bloggers like this: