It started out as a search for notes from a workshop that I attended this summer. I wanted to re-read something that I was certain would rescue me from feeling like my revising had gone flat and dull. But, instead, I found notes from other summer workshops. I poured a cup of java and went through my notes – for days. Stepping away from my keyboard and allowing myself to be a student was exactly what I needed!
Here’s what I learned:
Black hole: The moment in a novel when everything collides; the worst moment for the main character.
The Captain Happen character: The troublemaker, narrative enabler, change agent and shaker-upper who directly influences the protagonist’s journey. MG and YA fiction is full of Captain Happens. Examples: Gus in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Lara Jean’s friend Chris in the P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU series.
A character’s psychic wound: Explained by YA author Sara Jade Alan at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, “a psychological blow that strikes/struck a character in childhood. It may be part of the inner workings of your main character, such as Harry Potter’s loss of parents…something an adolescent main character attempts to work out and causes h/her to make misjudgements.” These misjudgements are great for building complexity into the character’s inner and outer life, plus characters with psychic wounds engage our sympathies.
Evergreen articles: Stories that are timeless, always relevant and stay “fresh” forever – much like the way evergreen trees retain their leaves all year around.
Flash fiction: Also called short shorts and postcard fiction, it is a very short, super-concentrated story ranging from one sentence to 1,500 words. The writer quickly gets into the story, establishes setting and character, sets up the conflict, fills in critical backstory, and then heads faster than a speeding bullet toward the climax and resolution. Aesop’s Fables are considered the oldest flash fiction.
Heart and re-readability factor: Explained by Sylvie Frank, Senior Editor at Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster at a SCBWI workshop: “We talk all the time at editorial meetings about this (heart)…that a picture book manuscript that we’re reading fits everything – good writing, plot, etc. – but it doesn’t have heart, doesn’t raise a question, doesn’t leave a kid thinking about something, wondering… We call it heart; we call it theme, the so-what, and, we also call it the re-readability factor. It’s not enough for a picture book to have a good character and plot. For someone to fork over $16.99 for it, they have to feel confident that the book will be worth reading over and over. Each time that book is read, the reader should find deeper meaning and more nuanced characters.”
High concept book: The premise of this type of book will get attention before anyone sees even one word of your writing. A title alone can be high concept. Example: Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. The title of book #1 alone is high concept – I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You.
Logline: A 1-3 sentence description of the story arc and themes that pique interest and leave an agent wanting to know/read more. Shorter is better. Explained by children’s author Julie Hedlund in a SCBWI webinar, “a logline should be the second paragraph of your query letter and concisely answer: who is the hero and what does s/he want, who or what is standing in their way, what is the takeaway or theme?”
Mentor texts: Books that writers study with a purpose to inform their own writing. Explained by children’s author Denise Vega, “I have a very specific process for using picture book mentor texts. First, I look at the type of book I am writing – narrative (character with a goal/problem) or non-narrative (story does not have a protagonist with a goal/problem). Next, I look for books that are similar not only in type, but in tone – humorous, warm, silly, etc. With a narrative, if my character has a growth arc, I look for books like that.”
Pressure cooker: Explained by author Rebecca Makkai at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, “Build a pressure cooker for your main character and others. Put your character in uncomfortable situations, put h/her through their worst fear and you’ll see what your character becomes capable of by the end of the novel. Look for ways that your character is shocked by their own actions. Go into your main character’s thought process, which is different than going into their thoughts.”
Theme: It is the juice of the story, our why, the electricity of our story, our elevator pitch. According to children’s author Sarah Aronson, “it’s when I am connected to ‘the why’ behind my story, then my character knows where to go.”
Writer’s doors: Defined by author Eleanor Brown, “Writers come into their story through three doors: plot, character or theme. It’s helpful to identify which way you enter, access your stories. That door is your writing strength.”
Writer’s perception: Defined by YA author Lowry Pei, “it is habits of mind, like being on alert for details, close observation, curiosity, ability to get intrigued, readiness to be engrossed. A writer needs to be receptive to strangeness…willing and able to see the unexpected, to put aside your habitual expectations about the world around you. Rather than perceiving what you “know” (i.e., assume) is out there, you perceive with the assumption that you don’t know all that is out there.”
Perhaps, I need a class on getting organized. Nope. I’d rather enjoy the search, the randomness, and the discovery. I love the spontaneity of re-creating workshops in the comfort of my studio.