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Brewhaha Book Cafe

For Writers, Readers & Tea-drinkers

Month

June 2016

Tug-of-War

I don’t know about you, but writing the middle of a story has always been the hardest part for me. There’s just SO MUCH of it! It can be tough filling the gap between the beginning and the end with enough material to make a full-length book. If anyone comes up with some handy hacks, let me know!

I think one of the best things to keep in mind when you tackle the bulk of your story is that it’s all about escalation. Small things happen, then bigger things, then the biggest, then a mind-blowing finale.

Again, let’s use Harry Potter as an example. Mez pointed out to me that despite my many uses of it as an example, I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, but I can’t quote it like I can Pride and Prejudice. I just figure it makes a good example because most people know the story.

Now, Harry Potter is long. Like crazy long. Seven books, totaling over a million words long! But for now, let’s focus on the beginning of the first book for a rather silly but fun example of escalation: getting the Hogwarts letter to Harry.

J.K. Rowling could have just let Harry read the first letter and find out he’s a wizard that way. Instead, she turns it into a fascinating game of tug-of-war between Hogwarts and Uncle Vernon. Let’s make a chart!!

Hogwarts vs. Uncle Vernon

Let the match begin!

Hogwarts sends one letter through mail slot Uncle Vernon intercepts it and burns it
Hogwarts sends another letter Uncle Vernon gets it again and decides to sleep in front of the mail slot
Hogwarts sends 3 letters Uncle Vernon nails shut the mail slot
12 letters arrive pushed under the door and through a window Uncle Vernon boards up every crack he can find
24 letters arrive…in eggs! Uncle Vernon complains to post office and waits anxiously for Sunday—no post!
Dozens of letters arrive via the fireplace Uncle Vernon packs up the family, drives erratically for hours, before finally stopping at a random hotel
A hundred letters arrive at the front desk Uncle Vernon rents a shack on a island and buys a gun
Hogwarts sends Hagrid to hand deliver a letter Uncle Vernon forced to give in

And BOOM! Hogwarts wins!! Cheers all around!

Anyway, this fun little episode is a great example of escalation in a story. Hogwarts wants Harry to get the letter, Uncle Vernon doesn’t want him to have it. There’s the conflict, and as one side tugs, the other side tugs harder, and then the other side tugs harder still.

Isn’t that a lot more fun than Harry just getting the first letter? Watching Uncle Vernon go to extremes is hilariously entertaining.

The entire Harry Potter series is also a great example of escalation.

Voldemort wants to rule the world. Harry isn’t about to let that happen. Thus, conflict!

Voldemort starts out weak and dependent on others, while Harry is an eleven-year-old thrust into a world he never even knew existed.

Things happen, and they both get stronger. Their battles become fiercer with higher stakes.

Then someone dies. Traitors emerge. Harry and Voldemort both become even stronger.

More people die and the battle is no longer just between Harry and Voldemort, but affecting the entire wizard world.

Until finally, Voldemort is at full power and Harry is now a seventeen-year-old, full-fledged wizard. Instead of a battle of wills (like the end of the first book), there is a huge magical battle between two wizard armies and the entire world is at stake.

Talk about escalation.

Of course, there are lots of subplots going on as well: Quidditch matches, the competition between the houses, Harry falling in and out of love, Snape’s antagonism, etc. All of this adds length to the novels, as well as more tension and escalation. The reader isn’t just worrying about Voldemort, but whether Harry is going to do well in his Quidditch matches, how his exams are going, how Snape is going to mess with him, and whether he’s ever going to get the girl! It’s a wonder we aren’t all nervous wrecks by the end,

So think about how escalation applies to your own story! How can you raise the stakes to keep the tension up and your reader on the edge of her seat? And also think how you can turn the simple act of delivering a letter into several pages worth of fun and tension. Don’t just hand your hero stuff. If he needs information, make him work for it! Judy in Zooptopia could have just run a license plate through the police system and had it in seconds. Easy. Instead, she had to wade through a DMV full of sloths, wasting hours as her deadline ticks closer. Much more fun. So don’t make things easy for your hero. They can rest when the story it over.

Good luck and keep writing!

Wednesday Writers’ Cafe

Welcome to Wednesday & our new weekly meme, Wednesday Writer’s Cafe!

Bri & I share the opinion that writing is the greatest profession in the world. But we must admit, it can get a little lonely at times. And we know in those lonely or frustrating moments how lovely it is to know you’re not alone! Others like you are out there, juggling jobs & writing time, scanning bookshop shelves, & searching for better ways to do what we love: write stories!

The Wednesday Writer’s Cafe is here to help! Each week, we will pose a question for all you writers out there (be you hobbyist, amateur or pro) specifically about your life as a writer. The hope is that through your comments, together we’ll spark a conversation, create a writer’s community & inspire one another with great new ideas. So join the chat & comment below!

Today’s Question: What does your writing routine look like?

Do you set aside a certain time each day? Have a special playlist or drink by your side? Go to a special writing spot that inspires you?

Basically, how do you get the job done?

Now over to you! Comment below OR feel free to post in your own blog & link back to us.

…and they lived happily ever after.

So, technically I suppose I should talk about middles before I talk about ends, but it’s the end of my day, so that’s what I’m going with. I apologize to all of you who are OCD.

And not to worry, this post shouldn’t be as long as some of my others!

For the purposes of this post, by ‘end’, I mean everything after the climax of the story. The part where the prince marries Snow White, Harry Potter after Voldemort is dead, and after Chihiro from Spirited Away has saved her parents. The wrap up.

There are really only two points I want to focus on in this post about ends.

First, remember to tie up all your loose ends! This can be easier said than done, especially if you know your story inside and out. After all, you have all the answers in your head! It can be incredibly difficult to separate what you know in your head and what you have put on paper. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Have you revealed all your secrets to the reader? Why a father hated his son (as in Academy 7) or why Pongo let 97 puppies enter Cruella’s house and destroy her furs, despite the danger (read it to find out why!). If you kept something from the readers to increase suspense (or just to mess with your poor characters), make sure everything is revealed!
  • Are all of your characters accounted for and shipped off to happily ever after? I don’t mean everyone, just the ones the reader cares about. In Beastly, the end and the epilogue are not only about what happened to the main characters, but also the supporting ones (the ones who stayed with Kyle while he was a beast). The epilogue of Harry Potter also gives a good overview of what became of all our favorites, from Harry to Neville to Tonk’s and Lupin’s son.
  • Do all the character motivations make sense? Why the witch felt sorry for Kyle in Beastly. Why Edward saved Bella instead of letting her turn into a vampire in Twilight. Make sure your reader knows why everyone acted the way they did!
  • And, of course, does everything make sense to your reader? In a lot of movies and books, you will see the characters get together to hash out some of the stuff that happened, helping to explain things to the reader. Beastly again! Kyle and Linda have a discussion on the roof with the witch who cursed him, ironing out anything that might not have been clear. In the end of Breaking Dawn, Edward explains exactly why the confrontation with the Volturi ended the way it did.

Second point! Please, I beg you, make your endings satisfying. I don’t mean happy (though I prefer happy. Always. Telling everyone now, if I ever get published, know the end of any book I write will be happy. Things might be horrible though out, but the end WILL BE HAPPY!).

Sorry.

Back to topic.

We’ve all read those books with endings so great, as soon as you finish, you want to start it all over again just to read the end again. And I think one of they keys to an ending like that is the reader is satisfied. The villain is thoroughly vanquished, and in such a way the reader wants to cheer (take that, Cruella!). The hero has whatever he was trying to get the whole story, or something even better (Kyle from Beastly not only is no longer a beast, but is happier than ever, and a much better person). It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy (I only read happy books, so I have no example), but it needs to leave the reader satisfied. Best word I can come up with. I wish I could explain it better, but most of us have something that comes to mind when we think of a story with a great ending! I love reading the endings of The Chronicles of Narnia, Academy 7, Spinning Starlight (hey, that one’s a bit sad at the end!), and Speak. Find some of your favorites and try to figure out what it is about them that leaves you with that feeling of having read the perfect ending.

Well, that turned out longer than I thought! My tea is done and I’m tired. Night everyone!

Once Upon a Time…

I’m going to start out this post by saying, no, I’m not a published author. But I do love stories. I love movies, books, manga, fairy tales, anything with a beginning, middle, and end that transports me to another place. I’m one of those people who watches movies or reads books over and over and over, and it’s as if I’m reading or watching them the first time; I get totally into them.

But once I’m done, I also really like analyzing them. I like knowing what it is about the story that made is so good…or what made it annoy me.

So the following post (and a couple after) are just things I’ve gleaned from reading, watching, writing, and studying how to write books. Take what you want, ignore what you don’t.

So let’s start with your beginning, the once upon a time. Here are two very general ways most novels (and movies) start:

  • The main character is happy with their life, and the author ruins it
  • The main character is unhappy with their life, and the author gives them a chance to be happy

Seems simplistic, right? Bear with me.

Battleship. A great movie, and a good example of a happy character about to have a majorly bad day. If you haven’t seen it, spoiler alert!!

In the first 20 minutes or so (forgive me, I didn’t time it) we learn Hopper has a pretty great life. He has a job in the Navy, is close to his brother, and has a pretty girlfriend. But in those first few minutes, we also learn Hopper is arrogant, immature, and selfish. Not a bad guy, but he just needs to grow up.

Now, this could be a movie about how his life continues to be great. He marries his girlfriend, gets a promotion in his job, yada yada. Boring. Instead, his life takes a 180. A huge change happens.

His reckless actions get him reprimanded by his commanding officer (who just so happens to be his girlfriend’s dad), kicked out of the navy, his brother disappointed him, and his girlfriend upset.

Okay, now things are more interesting. But the movie doesn’t stop there. Then aliens land, cut off all of the Navy except for three ships, and blow up two of those ships, including Hopper’s brother. Now, the fate of the entire world rests in Hopper’s hands. Time to grow up.

If you can stop watching the movie at that point, I either greatly admire or pity you.

Beastly by Alex Finn, Frozen, Spirited Away, Spelled by Betsy Schow and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens are great examples of this. And note, most of these also have main characters with character flaws they must fix in order to get their lives back in order. Hopper had to grow up. Elsa had to learn to love herself. Scrooge had to stop being a miser and start helping others. Basically, the true story is about them changing for the better.

Harry Potter is a perfect example of an unhappy character about to get a chance at happiness. Most of us know the plot, so I won’t go into too much detail! When we first meet Harry, you can’t help but like him and feel a bit sorry for the guy. His normal is sleeping in a cupboard and getting beat up by his cousin. Strange things happen around him, and though he can never explain them, he’s punished for them. Nevertheless, he’s spunky and a fighter.

In short, Harry is an underdog, and most of us love rooting for underdogs.

Then the change comes in the form of a letter, inviting him to attend a school for wizards, and Harry’s entire world is turned upside down. For the first time, he has a chance at happiness. But it isn’t going to be easy; he has to fight to keep the chance.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, Annie, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and Matilda by Roald Dahl also have this type of start.

This group of characters, instead of having major flaws, often are lonely or feel as if they don’t belong. Annie was an orphan who longed for her parents. Matilda is unlike the rest of her family and longs for friends. Bella feels alone and out of place. Here, the true story is often about these characters finding where they belong and gaining family.

Of course, some novels don’t fall neatly into either category. In The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, Pongo and Missus have a ruined day (getting your puppies stolen will do that!) but they don’t have character flaws that need to be addressed. On the other hand, Ralph in Wreck-it-Ralph is unhappy with his life and is given the opportunity to change it by winning a medal, but he has to learn to put someone else’s needs first in order to really be happy.

I can hear you now: What’s your point??

When starting your book, figure out which way your story is leaning. If your character is going about her life, happy as a lark, how are you going to mess it up? Be mean! If he is a spoiled, snooty, blue blood, don’t just throw him out of his house, toss him all the way into the sewer (Flushed Away). Are there any character flaws you can give her, something she must overcome? One reason Spirited Away is such a great movie is the way Chihiro changes from a whiny brat who is easily upset to a brave girl who risks her life for her friends.

If your character is unhappy with her normal life, what kind of chance are you going to give her to be happy? And make her fight for it! Rapunzel in Tangled has a chance to fulfill her dreams and see the ‘floating lights,’ but she has to take major risks. She has to choose to leave her tower. Harry has to go with Hagrid. Bella has to take a risk with Edward.

Anyway, I guess I’ve rambled long enough. Here’s the sum up: Show us your hero’s normal, happy or unhappy, then make a change in her world. The rest of the novel is about how she deals with that change, and whether she herself changes and finds a happily ever after.

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Mez & Bri

In The Beginning There Was A Goat Named Blue

I love it when Mez’s posts segue perfectly into what I’ve been thinking about! I would say great minds think alike, but I think it’s more like crazed, fantasy writing obsessed minds think alike, and that doesn’t sound quite as flattering. Oh well, at least it’s honest!

Mez posted some great tips on getting your creativity going, and I’m going to go from there. So let’s start from the very beginning…your very basic story idea. This is where observation and the ‘What if’ question comes in. We all get our ideas from different places since we are all different, so I’m just going to tell you where I got some of my ideas, and maybe that will give you some inspiration where to find yours!

If you read the About Us page, you know I raise dairy goats. Here’s how to get a fantasy story from goats! I have a cute little goat named Shining Bluestar. I just call her Blue. That’s her pictured above. Forgive the bad photo; she doesn’t stand still for more than a nanosecond! So Blue and I were going through our nightly routine, which goes something like this:

Me: Come on, Blue, time to get off the milk stand!

Blue: But I’m still hungry!

Me: Blue, there is water outside for you to drink. Come on.

Blue: But I want THIS water!

Me: BLUE! Come ON! Your sisters are already outside. LET’S GO!!

Blue: Hey, what’s that??

You get the idea. Since this is a nightly routine, my mind was wandering (a great thing for a mind to do!) and I got to thinking about Blue’s name. I’ve heard of lots of animals named Blue, but I would never name a goat Yellow or Orange, and I was wondering why that was. Then I backed up and wondered what a human named Blue would be like. The idea intrigued me, so while I milked my next group, I imagined a girl named Blue. Like my goat, she would be small but a force to be reckoned with. Like me, she would like fantasy animals, so I decided she wanted to be a cryptozoologist. A quick check on that told me it wasn’t what I thought it was (Big Foot and Nessie, not fairies and unicorns) but I liked the idea so much, I kept it.

By 2:00 AM (NOT a good idea, by the way) I had a pretty good idea who Blue was: a 17 year old blonde with blue eyes, not even five feet tall, who wants to be a cryptozoologist when she graduates, despite the fact her teachers discourage her. I knew her backstory and the guy she is going to fall in love with. What’s going to happen in Blue’s story? I HAVE NO IDEA!! But I have a character ready to go on an adventure because I asked “What if” in a completely random way.

Here’s a little exercise for you using “What if.” Open a document on your computer or turn to a blank page in your journal, and get ready. Imagine you’re sitting somewhere, maybe in a doctor’s office or a coffee shop, and you look over to see a small girl talking to her stuffed bear. Not just talking to it, you realize, but having a full on conversation with it.

So here’s your “What if.” What if the teddy bear is actually talking to her? What if she isn’t pretending, but having an actual conversation? How is this possible? Write down the first idea you think of.

Got it? Good! Now write down nine more. Go now, fast! Be creative, silly, scary, random, not even possible, just get down nine more ideas as fast as you can. If you have to, set a timer for 2 minutes and get those ideas down in that time. If you get stuck, look around. I find looking away from my screen or page helps!

If you are like me, the first five are easy. The next two are harder. The last ones get weird. But the very last one I came up with is the most interesting. I could definitely make a story out of it. I’ll post mine in the comments, feel free to post yours to!

There are things happening all around you that can inspire a story as long as you are looking for them and willing to ask “What if.” And to think way, way out of the box!

I also look to other books and movies for inspiration. Note, I am not talking about using other people’s ideas. But sometimes there is just a certain aspect of a book that resonates with you. I read a book years ago, and I found I really liked the idea of a werewolf guiding a girl through a forest. Random, right? But that idea led to another story I am working on now. It looks nothing like the book I read. (If anyone knows what book I am talking about, please tell me, I can’t remember! It’s got two simultaneous stories going on, one in our world, one in a fantasy realm. The real world story has a girl looking for her brother and the fantasy has a girl looking for a kidnapped dragon baby with the werewolf helping. I read it almost 10 years ago and really liked it!)

Anyways, back on track, while that book inspired me, I made sure my story was mine, not a variation of the book I read. I love rewriting books and movies in my head, and sometimes I realize what is in my head is no longer anything like how it started.

So here’s another exercise! Pick a movie or a book. What would you change about it? I usually start by making sure the main character is a girl, but that’s just me! Was there a certain scene in the book you absolutely loved…if only the author had done this instead? Write it the way you would have done it. You may not be able to use any of this, but follow the rabbit trail. If you change that scene, what else changes? Keep going and you may eventually find you’ve created a whole new story. I want to reiterate, plagiarism is bad! But take inspiration where you can get it.

One last one! Sometimes all it takes is a phrase or a sentence. Something you just like the sound of. I read a book about a girl trying to save her family home, a crumbling castle. I finished the book, opened a word document, and wrote this sentence:

I live in a castle.

Simple, right?

For some reason, I tend to start writing in first person, present tense, and end up writing in third person past tense. I’m weird. Anyway, I had the mysterious ‘I’ describe the castle a bit. Then tried to figure out who ‘I’ was. The princess? Nah, not feeling it. A servant? Cliché. So my next sentence was written.

I’m not the princess or a servant. No, I’m the castle…

In an effort to figure it out, I started listing everyone who might be in a castle. Guess what I went with! The castle cat. Yep, ‘I’ was a cat. And from that first short sentence, a trilogy was born. Crazy!

So keep an ear out. Sometimes you hear or think of something that would make a wonderful first sentence. I didn’t keep any of the stuff I wrote at first, but doesn’t matter, I had the idea. And make sure you write it down. It is beyond frustrating to come up with a sentence perfectly phrased, then realize you can’t remember the exact wording!

So there you go, some weird ways I came up with story ideas! Stay tuned for my next few posts. I’ll write about some ways to start your stories, end them, and maybe even how you can get through the hardest part, the middle of a story.

Write on!

Part III: The Art of Asking ~ putting the ‘quest’ back in ‘question’

Only the curious have something to find. – Nickel Creek, ‘This Side’

Think of the most creative person you know. That person who always sees shapes in the clouds and pulls stories out of thin air. That person who sees the world, not as it is, but as it might be. That person who’s ever filled with wonder & bursting with imagination.

Were these creative souls simply born with it? Perhaps. But then aren’t most children born with a sense of awe, a readiness to absorb information &, most notable of all, a billion questions on their lips? The problem with many of us struggling artists is not a missing ‘creative gene’, but rather a loss of our childlike sense of life as a grand adventure. Thinking we’ve seen it all, we stop looking (see Part II on the Art of Observation). Not wanting to appear ignorant, we stop asking questions. We become jaded, & our imagination just doesn’t work like it used to…But what if we could revive that lost art that comes so naturally to children? The Art of Asking, that is.

There is a direct correlation between Curiosity and Creativity. The one fuels the other, so if you let Curiosity dry up, you can bet your Creativity will sputter out & wind up rusting in the junkyard of your busy, uninspired mind. Unless you choose to embark on a quest that can reverse the hands of time & get your Creative mind banging on all cylinders again.

The Quest for better Questions

In his book for cooking up Creativity, Five Star Mind, Tom Wujec explains the revitalizing power of asking questions:

Inside the word ‘question’ is the word ‘quest’,  suggesting that within every question is an adventure, a pursuit which can lead us to hidden treasure.

Asking questions excites your mind out of its drowsy state by laying an open road before it. Just like Bilbo Baggins startled from his stupor by a troop of adventuring dwarves, your brain secretly longs for a mystery to solve, a quest to fulfill. Asking questions is an invitation for the brain to step out of its routine & into an adventure.

Asking questions gets your brain moving. Wujec explains that a question puts the brain in a state of irresolution, a bit like an itch that demands scratching. And believe it or not, your brain LOVES this irresolute state! If you don’t believe it, just look at the masses of Sudoku & crossword puzzles sold in your local bookstore. The brain sees the challenge & sets right to work to scratch that itch. Before you know it, your creative mind is on fire!

Irresolution is a potent fuel, a source of energy & motivation. – T. Wujec

Asking questions gives you a target & helps you aim. Here’s where you can apply the Art of Asking directly to your writing, & especially when you feel utterly & hopelessly stuck. Asking the right kind of questions can be the hand up you need to get you unstuck & on your way again. So just what are the “right kind” of questions? 

The best questions drive us to see the bigger picture, not just the immediate problem. For example:  Instead of “Why is my protagonist so BORING?!”

Try “What do I already know about this character?”  -or- “How might this character respond in another situation?”

Also, the best questions are open-ended, inviting not just one answer, but many possible solutions.

For example: “In what ways can I make my protagonist more interesting? or more believable?”

It is only fair to mention a Caveat here in bold: Your questions may not lead you to a final resolution… They may even lead you to ask yet more questions!

But that’s OK! In fact, that’s the point! For the creative writer, it’s not the answers but the Art of Asking that counts. Merely asking keeps the creative mind in motion & childlike wonder alive. Mastering this art will take practice-so much unlearning to do before we can have the humility to learn afresh! But the pay-off is enormous. Just consider all the books on your shelves that began with a simple, silly question:

“What if you fell down a hole in the ground & landed upside-down in a fantasy world?”

“What if you walked into a wardrobe & found yourself in in a winter’s wood?”

“What if an ordinary boy discovered he was actually a wizard?”

Do you dare to begin the quest? Who knows where your questions may take you…

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