Friday, December 31, 2010

Plotting and Structure

Over the last few weeks, I've been pondering plotting and structure. In November, I went to the annual Prairie Writers' Day, hosted by the Illinois SCBWI chapter. One of the speakers discussed the importance of looking at your book--whatever length--in terms of its plot and structure. She used this classic diagram to help describe how structure works in an effective story.

I've read some great books over the years on this very topic, including my favorite (modestly titled): How to Write a Children's Picture Book by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock. In this book, Bine-Stock describes the necessity of looking at pacing and the "beats" a repeated phrase or refrain can lend to a book. She does so by examining classic picture books, like The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Bill Martin Jr.'s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and shows how they work effectively through their structure.

For example, each story is expressed in what she calls acts, like in the acts of a play. A "three-act book" would work in this way:

Act 1 - Introduce character and conflict
Act 2 - Show developing conflict, leading to its ultimate climax
Act 3 - Quick denoument, resolving the conflict

The great thing is that any story can easily fit into this format. Even a saga like Tolkein's Lord of the Rings could be broken down in this way:

Act 1: Introduction of Frodo, the ring, the conflict--the great need to destroy it
Act 2: The journey of getting to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, rising to the climax of its destruction
Act 3: The restoration of Middle Earth, the coronation of the king, the departure of Frodo

Of course, in this trilogy, Act 2 comprises most of the text, with mini stories (with beginnings, middles, and endings) throughout the rising action. For example, their journey through the Mines of Moria is a mini story, within the larger plot of the book.

All of this is in the back of my mind because I am currently working on a project with a very short word count, which would be a young picture book. I imagine this targeting the 2-4 year old range. The stories focus on a toddler who begins to learn how to solve his own problems. What is so much fun for me is to see how short they can be, while still preserving that natural story arc. I'm striving for no more than 400 words total, and telling three little stories in which each one has its own beginning, middle, and ending, with the character figuring out how to solve his own problems. It's been a fun and challenging project, which is almost ready for submission.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The simple joys of work

Yesterday, our plumber came over to take a look at the drains in our upstairs bathroom and the garage. After he cleared out the bathtub drain and watched the water going down, he said, "Look at that great swirl!" The water was moving so fast down the drain that it created that familiar little vortex when the pipes are wide open.

It got me to thinking about those little joys we have in our day when our work pays off, when we see results, like the water swirling down a bathtub drain.

So, I thought I'd list some of my favorite "pay-offs" from a good day's work.

- a clean, shiny kitchen sink
- an empty dishwasher
- a well-stocked refrigerator
- clean laundry neatly folded in dresser drawers (can you tell I'm catching up on my housework?)
- a box of books, newly published, with my name on the cover

There are so many small joys in the course of our days that sometimes we overlook. Take time to think about your little payoffs, like the swirling water down the drain and cherish the blessings of work. What are some of your simple joys?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Justice and Hope

I've decided that it's time to read a book on Martin Luther King, Jr., not only because of his worthy cause of social and racial equality, but because I want to immerse myself in his incredible use of language, imagery, and persuasion. 

I recently heard a quote that he paraphrased from its original, which I'd never heard before. (How did I miss this all my life?) The MLK quote is about the moral arc of the universe, though long, ultimately bending toward justice, which is paraphrased from the original by Theodore Parker in the 1850s: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." (Apparently, there has been some controversy over the origin of the quote, which you can read about here.) I love this image of the moral arc of the universe. And I say yes to it--though it may be a slow fight, justice will ultimately succeed. That is what we hope, isn't it? 

Natural law, deep within human nature, fights against injustice in the world. We've all had that experience when we hear about an injustice and our immediate response is: "It's not fair!" Kids are great at this. They demand equal treatment. Siblings must get the same gift, the same treatment, etc. But adults are good at it too. When friends hurt us or treat us as we don't deserve, when an employer shows favoritism, or when we are punished for things we didn't do, we too rail against the unfairness of it all. We demand justice. 

On this Christmas week, I am thinking about Dr. King, moral arcs of the universe, justice, and a situation that was not fair at all. A baby, a manger, a young pregnant woman--shut out in the bitterness of that Christmas night. What would it take to right the wrongs in the universe? What would it take to fix the injustice of it all?

It would take an infant, a small, helpless infant to bring us back to God. It would take a sacrifice to fix us, broken, hurting, and in need of restoration. It would take someone to heal the broken and to balance the injustice. It would take a child who would become a man to seek the suffering and take that suffering to the cross to ultimately bring about what is good and whole. It would take Jesus.

That man did not deserve a painful, humiliating death. It was not fair, but it was perfect. It was not just, but it was good. God, the author of justice, the maker of goodness, knew just what we needed: a Savior, who came, wrapped in swaddling clothes, a baby crying in the night. What we received was perfect love, forgiveness, and hope from this unassuming child, tucked away in a Bethlehem stable. That moral arc of the universe bent toward the stable on that Christmas night. We got something better than justice: we got what we did not deserve. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Picture Books live on!

A few weeks ago, The New York Times printed a front-page article stating that picture books were on their way out for good. There were lots of irritated authors, publishers, agents, librarians, teachers, parents, etc. who disagreed with much of the content. Apparently, some of those quoted in the article felt their comments were taken out of context. So, I really appreciated this nice article from Publishers Weekly with a response. Bottom line: just because The New York Times says it's so doesn't mean it is.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Various movie reviews

So, here are some movies I've watched recently and my random thoughts on them:

The Road with Viggo Mortensen, the fabulous king-in-hiding in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the surface, this could be the most depressing movie ever made. It's set in a post-apocalytic world, where all of the trees are either a) on fire, b) dead, or c) randomly exploding and/or falling down. No animals exist. Food is scarce. Most of the population is dead. We don't know what causes this armageddon, but it's bad...real bad. So, Viggo is the father and he and his son are wandering through this wilderness, trying to survive. I promise. I will never, ever take green grass or standing trees for granted again. Or food.

Okay, so on the surface it's totally depressing. It's bad. But then, I thought about it a bit more, and with Viggo as a Christ figure it makes a lot more sense. There seems some purpose to it. He gives up everything in order to make sure the child is cared for. So, while it's a pretty bleak picture, there is some hope. A father cares for his son--no matter what. And when the inevitable happens at the end, his sacrifice gives the son everything he needs.

Lessons learned: Don't take grass for granted.  Enjoy canned pears. Keep a stash of emergency food in a bomb shelter. Know that life has purpose. 

Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. This movie is cute. It's a light spy-thriller movie with lots of fun little humorous elements. Pop some popcorn and enjoy.

Lessons learned: Life gets serious. Goof around a little bit.

This next movie, A Perfect Getaway, was a perfect surprise! This seemed like the average thriller/suspense movie, but it actually had so many interesting twists and turns in the plot that I was totally engrossed. Sometimes with a little persistence, you can find those gems while mining through the boring rock pile of average movies. (There is some bad language in this movie, so parents of young 'uns should be aware.)

Lessons learned: Don't judge a movie cover by the thousands of others made like it that suck pretty bad. 

Also, I watched The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio recently. This one is a bit (okay, more than a bit) bizarre. There's some supernatural-ish stuff going on, as well as some hippie commune stuff, some pretty nasty violence and a beautiful, perfect beach. Eh...probably not worth it, but the images and the concept behind it were kind of cool. Everyone longs for that perfect beach getaway. (This one is definitely not for kids.)

Lessons learned: It's probably not a good idea to get off the beaten path when traveling in Thailand.

For those of you who know me fairly well know that I have never really liked horror movies. But when I had the opportunity to go with my husband, my son, and my son's girlfriend to see Paranormal Activity 2, I decided to suck it up and do it. Spoiler alert: Freakiest scene #1: in the kitchen when the cabinets open (those of you who have seen it know what I'm talking about). Freakiest scene #2: when the baby starts being sucked out of his crib. Not good. The good news is that I didn't have nightmares, and didn't even get freaked out until some (literal) bumps in the night woke me up. Weirdly, these movies scare my husband and son more than me.

Lessons learned: Don't make pacts with the devil. Seriously. Don't.

So, those are the ones I can think of recently. Any good ones you've seen lately?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

I hope you are all enjoying your chocolate coin cookies or whatever other goody that may have been left in your shoe this morning! I wrote about the story of St. Nicholas because of a suggestion from a close friend of our family, Todd Peperkorn. About 12 years ago (or so) at a Christmas party, we were discussing St. Nicholas. "Why isn't there a story about the real St. Nicholas?" we wondered. That little conversation, as well as my own thinking and learning about Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, led me to put together his story in a book called Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, published by Concordia Publishing House.

The thing, of course, that is remarkable about Nicholas was his wonderful generosity, and what a wonderful virtue that is to promote--on Dec. 6, at Christmas, and all year long. 

Friday, December 03, 2010

The tricky balance...

...between pursuing creative ventures that might earn a paycheck and those that definitely do. These days, I am finding myself knee-deep in grading English composition papers without much time for writing. I'm frustrated, but working and earning actual money. So, I find myself asking the question: is it better to have the financial security or the extra time to pursue those free-lance projects that may or may not pay off.

The good news is that when teaching writing, I can give back. I can share what I've learned from writing instructors through the years. I can give the gift of sharing my experiences with others.

The not-so-good news is that I'm not progressing as quickly as I'd like to with the 5 or 6 projects on my writing to-do list.

I liked this image because the rocks balance each other out. So, maybe I have a couple of weeks when all I'm doing is lecturing, grading, and answering student emails. But hopefully that will be balanced out by some time after Christmas to write and be more creative.

But, it's all a gift, and I'm thankful for the opportunities I have to work--in whatever form that may take.