Saturday, January 30, 2010


When we selected Geektastic for our January book, we found the story behind the book on editor Alvina Ling's blog, Bloomabilities. Did you know that when the project went to auction, Alvina submitted her geek-creds in a formal resume?

Given Alvina's clear enthusiasm for the project, we asked her to share her thoughts on writing and editing short stories. Alvina's responses to our questions follow:

1. As an editor, what do you look for in a short story versus a novel?

Well, as GEEKTASTIC was the first short story collection I've edited, I can't profess to being an expert, but I will say that I look for almost the exact same things in a short story as I do in a novel: strong voice, compelling plot, fascinating characters-just in a shorter form!

2. What nugget of advice would you offer to our readers interested in writing short story collections?

To be perfectly honest, if you're looking to be published in the Young Adult or children's market, short story collections are not the best way in! They're really tough sells, especially in the trade (bookstore) market, and most publishers aren't actively looking for them. In the case of GEEKTASTIC, however, it had such a strong and obvious hook. The title itself says it all. If you're writing a short story collection, I would make sure you have a very clear hook/theme. Some good examples are 21 Proms by David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft, and Grl2Grl by Julie Anne Peters.

3. What craft elements do you consider critical for short stories as compared to longer works?

Again, I don't profess to be an expert with short stories, but I would say that short stories need a tighter, simpler plot with fewer back stories and side stories: the story will need a beginning, climax, and end, the same thing that a good novel needs, but all of this must happen within a shorter word count.

4. What is different for you in terms of editing a short story collection vs. editing a novel?

Well, in this case the collection was edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. The way we decided to handle this was that Holly and Cecil would work with the authors until they felt that the story was final, and then I would edit it. Because of this, by the time the stories reached me, for the most part they were in really good shape. Plus, all the authors are pros! So I actually did very light editing. In a few cases, what I mainly did was suggest places to tighten and cut for some of the longer stories.

5. Were you surprised by the direction of any of the stories in Geektastic?

To be perfectly honest, I didn't know what to expect, so once the stories started coming in I was pleasantly surprised by all of them! But to name two that I was probably surprised by most: I loved that Lisa Yee's story turned our definition of "geek" upside-down. I also loved Kelly Link's story--we had specified that we didn't want genre stories--so no science fiction or fantasy, etc. Kelly's story had a bit of fantasy in it (or shall we say, an alternate reality?), but we were happy to let that slide because the story was so awesome.
Thank you, Alvina, for taking the time to answer these questions!

Alvina Ling is senior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. In addition to being editor for Geektastic, she was also the editor of Grace Lin's middle grade novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which won a Newbery Honor earlier this month.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Dear Allyson and Heather,

What Heather wrote about unity in “The Truth About Dino Girl” also pertains to “This Is My Audition Monologue,” by Sara Zarr. Rachel’s consistent references to the theater in general (“actory personalities” of other students) and to the audition monologue parameters in particular (“the time limit,” the “audition form”) connect me to the character and anchor me in the setting of this story.

But it’s the stunning first person point of view written in direct address that immediately pulls me into this story. Like Billie in “Secret Identity,” Zarr’s protagonist addresses a specific “you,” but unlike Billie, whose medium is written (consistent with her geeky passion for the internet), Rachel’s medium is speech (consistent with her geeky passion for the theater). Billie’s object of direct address isn’t physically present as she writes to him, but Rachel’s monologue is written with an eye to direct person-to-person delivery. And it kicks right off with the title.

In fact, the story begins with the title itself--“This Is My Audition Monologue”--a complete sentence, which also serves as a comprehensive first line that clearly establishes the main character (an actor), the setting (a theater), and the point of view (first person). The first line of the story--“I wrote it” (p. 319) -- even includes a pronoun which refers back to an antecedent (audition monologue) in the title. So we are plunged headlong into the fast pace of this amazing story--er, audition monologue--right at the get-go.

In discussing point of view, Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft says:
the story may be told to another character, or characters, in which case we, as readers, “overhear” it; the teller of the tale does not acknowledge us, even by implication....We are eavesdroppers, with all the ambiguous intimacy that position implies. (pp. 209-210)
Rachel speaks directly to Mr. P., and in doing so, Rachel’s voice is so unique, so strong, so cocky, so funny, and so relentless, that in just a few pages I feel like I’ve glimpsed her directly, by hiding in the wings--eavesdropping--and listening to her audition monologue.
As I mentioned and as you can see, I do not have a lot going on in the cleavage department.... (p. 323)
Zarr illustrates that direct address is a great tool for voice--her protagonist gets to expound nonstop from start to finish.
The funny thing is I thought drama would be a place where being not like the others was okay, but it turns out you have to be not like the others in a way that is exactly like the others who are not like the others. (p. 325)
Rachel also offers a vivid portrayal of her antagonist, the director who doesn’t remember her name, even after three years of tryouts:
I’m not trying to embarrass you, Mr. P., but you’ve had trouble remembering my name since I first started auditioning freshman year. (p. 319)
Direct address also emphasizes dramatic conflict--Rachel ramps up intensity by addressing Mr. P. periodically throughout the monologue:

You don’t know this about me, since you’ve never taken the time to know anything about me, but I use humor that way. (p. 320)

What I’m saying is I know you don’t know what to do with me. (p. 325)

and finally, her parting shot:
This time you’ll remember my name. (p. 328)
In reading “This Is My Audition Monologue,” I was especially impressed with how Sara Zarr was able to integrate backstory while sticking to the limitations of direct address. And she drops the backstory bombshell at the beginning of the “official” monologue:
You can start timing
Scotty King got electrocuted while running the light board. (p. 320)
Now THAT grabbed my attention. I want to find out WHO Scotty is, HOW he got electrocuted, and WHY Rachel kicks off her audition monologue with this information. All of these questions are answered during the course of the monologue, as the backstory is sporadically filled in, while Zarr maintains Rachel’s breezy voice and her sidelong comments to Mr. P. In addition to answering the Who? How? Why? questions about Scotty and his death, we learn what his death means to Rachel. She announces that his death is a sign to her to “Stop being willing to stay behind the scenes when what you want is to be in the scenes” (p. 327).

The monologue rolls on to an unresolved conclusion--at the end we don’t know whether Rachel will get a part or not. What we do know is that Rachel will no longer stand in the shadows, as a “backstage kind of character” (p. 324).

While there are novels for young readers written entirely in direct address, such as Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, more often novels are written partly in direct address and partly in 3rd person narrative, as Deborah Wiles’ Love, Ruby Lavender, in which Ruby’s letters to her grandmother are an important structural and dramatic element. In both “Secret Identity” and “This Is My Audition Monologue,” Kelly Link and Sara Zarr demonstrate the power of using direct address in writing entire short stories.

StorySleuths Tip #43: Consider using direct address, especially in short stories, to create vivid characters (both protagonist and antagonist), to clarify setting, to emphasize dramatic conflict, and even to add backstory, all in the voice of the speaker.

Monday, January 25, 2010

UNITY: Geektastic

Hi Allyson and Meg,

Most of the tips we’ve found so far in Geektastic apply to fiction writing in general, whether short stories or novels. Today, I’d like to focus on unity as a craft element that may be more relevant to—or at least more evident in—short stories vs. longer fiction.

In Between the Lines, Jessica Page Morrell says

A unified story unfolds seamlessly without needless digressions, extraneous characters, and unnecessary scenes, and leads to an inevitable conclusion and an enduring sense of reality (p. 11).

Barry Lyga’s story “The Truth About Dino Girl” provides an excellent example of story unity. Katie, the protagonist, is a high school freshman whose passion for dinosaurs and paleontology pervades every aspect of her life, from how she attempts to understand the behavior of boys to the way she views her social status in school.

At its heart, “The Truth About Dino Girl” is a story about an impossible first crush: Katie, our paleontologist-to-be, develops a crush on a boy in advanced biology, Jamie Terravozza, a junior on the baseball team. Jamie, of course, barely notices Katie’s existence; besides, he is dating the captain of the girls’ soccer team, a gorgeous junior named Andi Donnelly.

What makes “The Truth About Dino Girl” different from any other first crush story is the way Lyga uses dinosaurs as a unifying effect. Dinosaurs are Katie’s passion. She spends her free time reading Scientific American, sketching fossils, and hammering rocks. As proof of Katie’s expertise, Lyga incorporates plenty of dinosaur details into the narrative:

I am uncoordinated. If there is a piece of furniture in the room, trust me to stub my toe on it. I’m sort of like an allosaur or a T. rex—they could move somewhat quickly but only straight ahead. The saurischian hip structure isn’t designed to swerve from side to side… (p. 294).

As in the example above, dinosaur details become metaphors. Dino facts also infiltrate the way Katie and her best friend Sooz speak. They even swear in dinosaur:

“Coprolite!” [Sooz] said. “This is just one big piece of coprolite!” (In second grade, I made the mistake of telling Sooze the scientific term for petrified dung.) (p. 289)

These examples, along with the many other dinosaur comparisons, facts, imagery and vocabulary sprinkled throughout the story, reminded me of a talk on voice that Kirby Larson gave several years ago at our local SCBWI. She recommended looking at a character’s “frame of reference” or “world view” to develop unique metaphors and vocabulary. Larson said that a boy who loves insects might compare a ballet teacher to a daddy-long-legs just as in Lyga’s story, Katie and Sooz refer to Andi as an apatasaur. “Apatasaurs had a terrible brain-to-body-mass ratio” (p. 291).

Katie’s passion for dinosaurs extends beyond language alone. The story’s crisis, theme, and climactic action all evolve out of Katie’s dinosaur frame of reference when she realizes that, “In this world, you’re either predator or prey” (p. 309).

Katie takes action against Andi, first ambushing her like a T. rex and then crushing her in a shockingly vicious act of revenge.

Rust Hills, author of Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says “there is a degree of unity in a well-wrought story… that isn’t necessarily found in a good novel, that isn’t perhaps even desirable in a novel” (p. 3)

He then explains:

In a [short] story everything’s bound together tightly. The theme in a successful story is inseparably embedded in the action taken by the characters—and indeed is implicit in all the other aspects, even the language. In density of language, in multiple use of the sound and sense of words, the short story is comparable to lyric poetry. (p. 3)

Lyga uses Katie’s passion as a way to weave together theme, characterization, language, and action for a unique and unified story that leaves a lasting impression.

StorySleuths Tip #42: Look for ways to unify a short story through voice, theme, subject, characterization, action, and language. Use the character’s frame of reference to find fresh metaphors and vocabulary.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

SUMMARY: Geektastic

Dear Heather and Meg,

I loved Heather’s recent post about scene where, following a terrific quote by Jordan Rosenfeld, Heather made the point:

scenes are moments of action, shown to the reader, not told. Each scene has a purpose (the Goal), conflict (Obstacles) and an ending (the Disaster).

This got me thinking about juxtaposition in a short story or a novel. Is it always scene after scene after scene? Is there any kind of glue that holds those scenes together? While closely reading M.T. Anderson’s story “The King of Pelinesse” in Geektastic I looked at each discrete chunk of story to see whether they met the definition of a scene as described by Rosenfeld and by Heather. Was each a moment of action shown not told to the reader? Was there a clearly discernable purpose? A conflict? An ending?

It became clear to me that a story is more than just a string of scenes. In between those moments taking place in the now I saw that Anderson interspersed bits of summary, telling rather than showing. These summaries felt like an opportunity for the writer to take a breath and either reflect on events that have led to the current moment, or set up what is about to come.

I looked to see what Janet Burroway had to say on the subject, and here is what I found in her book Imaginative Writing: Elements of Craft. Burroway talks about the difference between scene and summary, and the roles each play in a story. She defines these two elements thus:

A summary covers a relatively long period of time in a relatively short compass; a scene deals at length with a relatively short period of time. (p. 276)

This makes sense to me. Scene is in the moment, it is now. It is the actual unfolding of events. Summary, on the other hand, is just that, a summation of what has led to or resulted from moment.

Burroway explains that summary is often necessary, and is useful, but is not essential. Scene, on the other hand, is essential, because it is scene where users have the opportunity to experience the story as it is happening to the character. She points out that an error beginning writers make is to rely too heavily on summary, denying the reader the opportunity to experience significant moments through the characters’ senses.

Anderson uses scene far more than summary (no beginning writer, he!). Even when flashing back, a typical use for summary, he gives just the briefest summary to set the scene, then drops the character into the moment, allowing the reader to be there with him.

Here, on page 118, Anderson uses summary to set up a bit of backstory about how the main character came to be in Boothbay Harbor:

I had looked up the address on a map, and I had drawn a little version of it on a piece of school paper. It didn’t look like it was far. I walked out of the town center, and along a road that led past ridges of some kind of needly tree, like pines or firs or spruce. I don’t know the difference between them. A couple of years ago I tried to find out the difference from a book, but all the pictures looked exactly the same.

Consider the differences between this and a piece of a scene:

I pointed my foot at a wicker chair, and asked if I could please sit down.

He said, ‘Kid, I’ve got Caelwin tied to a pillar, with a pterodactyl shrieking and coming to feast its unholy beak upon his numbles.’

I went over to the wicker chair anyway and sat. I stared at the floor. I felt very weak. (p. 120)

The scene is here and now, we are with him watching things unfold through his eyes and experiencing his emotions. It is showing. The summary covers a greater passing of time—it is telling.

Characters grow and change through the action that takes place in scenes. Summary, on the other hand, is used as a stepping stone between scenes, a mechanism to bring the character to the time and place when those changes will occur, with the reader fully present.

StorySleuths Tip #41: Use scenes to show action and emotion happening in the now, and summary to describe (tell) occurrences that transpired over a longer period of time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

GUEST POST: Greg Leitich Smith

Greg Leitich Smith is the author of NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO and its companion book, TOFU AND T.REX, in addition to co-writing SANTA KNOWS with his incredibly talented wife, Cynthia Leitich Smith. Greg and Cynthia collaborated on the short story The Wrath of Dawn for GEEKTASTIC, and Greg shared with us some insights about that process.

The Making of The Wrath of Dawn

Cynthia and I suffer from that most traumatic of impediments to marital bliss: an “intergeek” relationship. She is a big “Star Wars” fan, while I have always been inclined more toward “Star Trek”. It took a great deal of patience and forbearance to overcome. Of course, we knew we were meant for each other when we realized that both our favorite episodes of “Fantasy Island” were the ones with Roddy McDowell as the devil.

We first became involved in Geektastic when Cyn received an e-mail from Cecil and Holly describing the project and inviting us to submit a story based on a chosen “geekdom.”

So, that weekend, Cyn and I decided to sit down and do some brainstorming. We needed to pick a geekdom, and, really, we wanted to work out at least a broad plot outline. We headed out to lunch at a restaurant called The Oasis, located on a cliff overlooking Lake Travis (I think every city has a place like this: adequate food and spectacular views). Of course, in all of Austin, The Oasis is probably the restaurant least likely to be associated with the term or concept of “literary salon.” But somehow that seemed thematic.

Now, since we were writing the story together, we of course had to come up with a joint geekdom. “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” would’ve been a bit too obvious and, besides, we might’ve come to blows (Also, Holly and Cecil already had a great Trek/Wars story in mind :-)). And then Cynthia mentioned “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which we are both tremendous fans of.

For some reason, conversation got around to the character of Dawn and the fandom’s reaction to her: we’d recently gone to a Buffy Sing-Along with some writer friends and had been a little taken aback at the visceral hatred directed toward her (We were never particular fans of her, either, but the hoots and hisses and catcalls were surprising).

So, we discussed, why do some people hate Dawn? What is it that engenders such fierce hostility? We hit on a few reasons: she whines and she acts a lot younger than her age, which could be kind of charming except that, oh yeah, she whines. Also, in first season “Buffy” the characters were sophomores in high school and way more on the ball than when Dawn was similarly aged. Part of it, too, from what I understand, is that the actress who was cast for the role was significantly older than the character was originally written. For some reason, they didn’t rewrite for the older girl.

But Dawn was also part of a couple of more common phenomena that we touch on in the story: the annoying child character, usually a sibling, who is sprung on the audience and brought in to TV shows relatively late in their runs (generally to up the “youth-audience” identification factor) and, of course, the equally annoying science fiction child genius (of whom Wesley from ““Star Trek”: The Next Generation” is perhaps the most odious example). In fact, it became clear that many of the most annoying attributes of Dawn were shared by Wesley.

Now, it was all very fun to talk about examples and how much we loathed, say, Jason Todd Robin or Dr. Z from “Galactica 1980”, but we didn’t actually have a story. So one of us (I don’t remember who) hit on the idea: what if there’s this girl named Dawn, who’s younger sister in a blended family and who goes to a Buffy Sing Along and encounters the Dawn-hostility? What happens next?

I took a shot at the first draft, and when I was satisfied, gave it to Cyn. We had a couple back-and-forths with a complete draft, until finally we were both pleased. (I have to say, though, that she did take out a few of my best lines…grrr). Once we got the editorial letter, it was Cyn’s turn to start over with a new “first” draft, and then we exchanged again until we were happy with it.

Now, if we could only get someone to buy “Dawn II: The Vampire Strikes Back.”

Thanks so much, Greg, for sharing with us! We'd like to close with a tip:

StorySleuths Tip #40: When writing collaboratively, try brainstorming together then taking turns drafting and revising.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Congratulations to WHEN YOU REACH ME: StorySleuths' Consolidated Postings

Congratulations to Rebecca Stead, who won this year's Newbery Award for When You Reach Me!

We loved Stead's story about Miranda and friends when we read it in November. The book sings with examples of great writing, from the way Stead develops her characters to the structure of the plot.

In honor of the Newbery award, we've consolidated all of our postings on When You Reach Me here. We invite you to read our files for clues on what makes When You Reach Me such a distinguished book.
  1. Chronology: When You Reach Me
  2. Narrator Reliability: When You Reach Me
  3. Secondary Character Arc: When You Reach Me
  4. Minor Character Significance: When You Reach Me
  5. Larger Social Issues: When You Reach Me
  6. Mystery Plots & Clues: When You Reach Me
  7. Second Person POV: When You Reach Me
  8. Chapter Titles: When You Reach Me
  9. Tense: When You Reach Me
  10. Title and Cover: When You Reach Me
(Note: If you haven't yet read When You Reach Me, bookmark this page and come back later! Some postings include spoilers. Besides, the book is fun, fast-paced, clever and suspenseful. Read it first. Then come back and tell us what you think.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

PRESSURE: Geektastic

Dear Allyson and Heather,

Here’s a question I have for you--do we qualify as card-carrying geeks because we’re passionate about writing for children--obsessed with the language, the vision, the structure of story? If so, then we’re in mucho good company. I for one have thoroughly enjoyed the company of the writers who contributed their stories to Geektastic--so varied, so entertaining, so gripping. And what makes a story gripping?, I find myself wondering.

Take, for example, “Secret Identity,” by Kelly Link. Now that’s one I couldn’t stop reading, on the one hand, and didn’t want to end, on the other. I just fell in love with Billie. After all, she’s a writer, too, working out her conflict about Paul Zell, "dear Paul Zell," through--you guessed it--writing.

This story gripped me by the throat and didn’t let go. Scene after relentless scene, character after surprising character. Because Link’s story felt to me like I was watching a screenplay unfold, I wondered what McKee would have to say about developing character in the context of his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. In the chapter on structure and character he says,
“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature” (p. 101).
Link puts Billie under pressure, then turns the screws. Although as readers we know that in the end Billie survives, since she is after all writing the letter, it’s clear that she is under pressure from the first sentence:
“Dear Paul Zell is exactly how far I’ve gotten at least a dozen times, and then I get a little farther, and then I give up” (p. 223).
The letter writer is already under pressure. Her first choice is between writing the letter and not writing the letter. She chooses not to give up, even though she’s wanted to--at least a dozen times. That’s her first choice--to keep writing. How does this choice under pressure reveal her character? She’s determined.

But the irony is that writing the letter adds more pressure. Billie’s second choice is to lie or not to lie as she writes the letter. She informs the reader that she’s going to pretend. She’ll pretend she’s not writing him a letter. She’ll pretend she doesn’t know him. She chooses pretense. But then she informs Paul that she’s “more or less” a liar: “Everything I ever told you about myself is more or less a lie,” which makes her a reliable narrator, in one way. Under pressure she’s decided to opt for honesty.

McKee continues:
“The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self” (pp. 106-107).
The pressures on Billie mount up, each one providing a decision point for Billie: Will she take the ring from the jeweler’s box in Paul Zell’s suitcase? What will she do when he is an hour and a half late to meet her for dinner? How will she react when she opens the minibar in the hotel room and finds miniature bottles of alcohol? When faced with brutal violence, how will she respond? And can she reach out to the girl who was mean to her when that girl is mistreated? How will she make amends for the mistakes she has made, and at the same time try to compensate for the cruelty of a bully? And how has she grown and changed over the course of the story? Each new situation ramps up the pressure, revealing Billie’s inner core, her “true nature,” by the choices she makes.

StorySleuths Tip #39 --Put your character under pressure--as Robert MeKee says, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” Then keep raising the stakes, “gradually revealing [your characters'] true natures, even down to the unconscious self.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

GEEKTASTIC: StoryChallenge

We at StorySleuths learn so much from gathering tips from our reading, but truly, the only way to improve as writers is by writing. That is why we are so excited to announce our new StorySleuths StoryChallenge.

Inspired by the fun and fabulous stories in this month’s featured book, Geektastic, we want to encourage everyone to write their own Geektastic-inspired short stories.

Here’s the challenge: leave us a comment to let us know you’re ready to take action. Then write your own Geektastic story—imagine that you were invited to submit a story for the anthology. What story would you tell? (Come on, you know you have one!)
Then, by midnight on January 31, 2010, leave us a comment with a summary of your story and your thoughts on the process. We will do a random drawing of participants. One of you will win your very own StorySleuths magnifying glass!

  1. How long should the story be?
    The word count for a short story ranges. Short-short stories can be as little as 50 to 100 words. Longer stories can go up to 10,000 words. For this challenge, we encourage you to write as long or as short as you like. The purpose of the story is to take action and put your writing skills to work.
  2. No, seriously, how long?
    If you really need a word count, then in the spirit of the new year, why not shoot for no longer than 2,010?
  3. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a geek. How can I write a Geektastic-inspired story?
    a. Take the broadest view possible of geek: Wikipedia says that there are many kinds of geeks. A geek can be a "person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who passionately pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance.”
    b. Alternatively, use Tracy Lynn’s “One of Us” story as a model and imagine a story where a non-geek interacts with characters who are geeks.
  4. Will you review and judge the stories?
    No. Our goal is to encourage writers to play with the short story form and to experiment with different writing skills. To be eligible to win the StorySleuths magnifying glass, you just need to leave us a comment by midnight on January 31, 2010, with a summary of your own story.
  5. What if I don’t finish my story by January 31st?
    That’s ok. Even though short stories are, well, short, they still take a long time to write and revise. We hope you’ll continue working on your story if you like where it’s going, and if not, that the process of experimentation was helpful in improving your writing skills.
The Rules
  1. Leave us a comment to let us know you plan to participate.
  2. If you like, add our StorySleuths StoryChallenge badge to your blog. Scroll down for instructions.
  3. Write a Geekstastic-inspired short story.
  4. No later than January 31, 2010, leave us another comment with a short summary of your story and your experience writing the story.
  5. Include your email address or link to your blog so we can contact you. Then you will be entered into a random drawing to receive your very own StorySleuths magnifying glass (U.S. Residents only).
  6. The winner will be announced February 2, 2010.
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Happy Writing!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

SCENE: Geektastic

Hi Allyson,

Thanks for starting off the conversation about Geektastic. Today, I’m going to focus on the second story in the collection, “One of Us” by Tracy Lynn.

Unlike most of the stories in Geektastic, One of Us features a non-geek main character, Montgomery K. Bushnell, a blond cheerleader whose boyfriend, Ryan, is quarterback on the high school football team. Ryan, we learn, loves Star Trek and other elements of geeky culture. Montgomery would like to understand him better, so she hires “the four most prominent members of SPRInGfield High’s Genre and Nonsense club (SPRIGGAN)” to tutor her about video games, science fiction TV and movies. In true nerdy fashion, Ezra, David, Mica and Ellen set up a tutoring schedule for Montgomery, kept on Google Calendar, as well as a final exam at the upcoming Locacon sci-fi convention.

Not only is the use of a non-geek protagonist a nice, unexpected twist, but the placement of this story so early in the collection is genius. Any readers concerned about their geek-cred will learn the basics of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, manga, and Buffy the Vampire alongside Montgomery.

What really struck me about “One of Us,” though, was the way Lynn structured the story into scenes. When I first began writing, I understood scenes conceptually but I didn’t understand how to craft them or even how to identify them in my own writing. I printed out the draft of my first novel and tried to mark scene transitions. My goal was to create a list that would give me a high-level view of the work. But I struggled. Where did this scene end? And what was the point of this next scene? And was that one actually a scene?

The first time I really understood how scenes work and, more importantly, how to structure them, was after a workshop led by Kirby Larson, Ann Whitford Paul and Mary Nethery at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. When planning or analyzing a scene, Nethery said, look for three components: a Goal, Obstacles to that goal, and a Disaster. (The follow up to a scene, FYI, is a sequel, which consists of a Reaction, Dilemma and Decision. The Decision then propels the character forward into a new scene with a new Goal).

Lots of times, when I’m reading early drafts of my own work or of other writers, I find scenes that are fragmentary, meaning missing out on one or more of the three scene components, or writing that tends to blather on and on without an ending in sight. (This last, in particular, is my tendency. Some of my scenes ramble endlessly like phone calls where neither person hangs up despite several “I should get goings” and “Oh, I forgot to mentions…”).

“One of Us” features fourteen scenes, plus a fragment, in just 29 pages. That means, on average, each scene is two pages long. Several are longer, of course, and several are quite short. Each one gives examples of how to build a scene as well as how to end it.

Let’s start with a definition. In her book Make a Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld says,

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time. When strung together, individual scenes add up to build plots and storylines” (pp. 5-6).
In other words, scenes are moments of action, shown to the reader, not told. Each scene has a purpose (the Goal), conflict (Obstacles) and an ending (the Disaster).

At five pages, the first scene in “One of Us” is the longest. In it, Lynn introduces the primary characters, sets a clear story goal (Montgomery’s desire to learn about this “stuff”), and introduces some obstacles. It ends with a withering comment from the SPRIGGAN club’s only female member, Ellen, who clearly doesn’t like Montgomery. “’Sports metaphors,’ Ellen said, rolling her eyes. ‘How typical’” (p. 25).

Lynn does not include a sequel to this scene. We do not read about Montgomery’s thoughts following this conversation. If she considers backing out of the tutoring, we don’t know.

The next scene jumps ahead in time to Montgomery’s first tutoring session, led by Ellen. This scene is one-and-a-half pages long and begins,

“All right, let’s start with the basics,” Ellen said, marching back and forth in front of the blackboard. She clasped a yardstick behind her back like a nun or a commandant, just waiting for a chance to strike (p. 25).
From here, dialogue and narrative take us through the lesson. Two-thirds of the way through the scene, Ellen attempts to give Montgomery positive feedback. The cheerleader, in return, praises the color of Ellen’s shirt.
“You should really wear light colors more often. With, um, better shoes” (p. 27)

The scene ends in the next eight words:

“The yardstick almost broke in Ellen’s hands. Almost” (p. 27).
What strikes me about this, again, is what’s left unsaid. Lynn doesn’t detail the rest of the lesson. She accomplished her goal of showing the two girls trying to find common ground and ultimately failing. On to the next scene.

(Note: Tracy Lynn includes a longer version of this scene on her website. Compare it to the printed version. While the Star Trek details are clever, I would argue that they are unnecessary to the scene’s purpose: the interaction between the two girls.)

Somewhere, at some SCBWI conference along the way, I heard the advice to start scenes late and end them early. I flipped through my notebooks to see if I could remember who said this. I searched online and found several people attributing the quote to writer William Goldman. Supposedly, it goes like this (sorry I don’t have a direct source):

“Start every scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible.”
The Star Trek 101 scene described above achieves this goal.

Look through the rest of “One of Us” to see how Lynn propels readers forward from scene to scene. She weaves together a variety of settings, new characters, cultural information, and conflict in short, concise scenes. The pace is quick. Appropriately for a short story, Lynn does not waste a single word on unnecessary detail, and yet she creates memorable characters who show true growth at the end.

Author Susan Breen noted in “What short-story writers and novelists can teach each other” (The Writer, December 2007),

“… so much of short stories is about nuance. Because you don’t have the time and space to explain everything, you have to suggest more to the reader and let her think for herself…. [That] teaches short story writers that the reader is smart” (p. 37).
Lynn respects her readers through her short, focused scenes.

StorySleuths Tip #38: Keep scenes on target by including goals, obstacles, and disasters, and follow William Goldman’s advice to “Start every scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Before I begin a conversation about Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, I should make a bold admission: I am not a geek. However, I married one and gave birth to his two clones. I am mired in geekdom, which served me well reading this collection of short stories. In her blog, Alvina Ling who edited this book for Little, Brown says, “Sure, some of the stories speak mainly to hard-core geeks, and non-geeks might not get all the references. But that's kind of the point. This is a book for geeks, by geeks; but it's also a book for past geeks and future geeks.” 

So there were references I did not get, but with assistance from my trusty coterie of resident geeks, I was able to figure most things out, and who knows? Perhaps I am a future geek. Since reading the book I have invested in a DVD collection of the BBC’s original Dr. Who. It’s a start.

But on to a discussion of craft! The story I’ll focus on here is the first one in the book, “Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way,” which was written by the brainchildren behind this book, who are also its editors, Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci.This is the story of a forbidden romance between Arizhel, a Klingon warrior and Thomas, a Jedi knight, who meet at a sci-fi convention. It is written in two first-person viewpoints, and those characters are distinctly different from one another right from their opening lines:

“I awake tangled up in scratchy sheets with my head pounding and the taste of cheap alcohol and Tabasco still in my mouth. The spirit gum I used to attach my nose ridge and eyebrows sticks to the sheets as I roll over. Immediately, a wave of nausea makes me regret moving and I try to lie as still as I can until it passes.” (p. 1)

“A Jedi is never supposed to give over his passions; he is always supposed to be in command. But last night, at some point between Coke Pluses, Master Sven must have spiked mine with a little bit of rum. My being such a lightweight might be a contributing factor in the mess I find myself in this morning.” (p. 4)

When writing in multiple viewpoints, the writer faces an additional challenge—that of making the multiple voices ring true and clear and different enough from one another that the reader always knows who’s head she is in. I would argue that the reader should be able to close her eyes, pick a page at random, and by reading no more than a sentence, be able to identify which character viewpoint is the active one.

Perhaps it is easier to create distinct first-person viewpoints when writing as co-authors. Look at books like Armageddon Summer, by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan (also a Geektastic contributor) and Rachel Cohn, in which the team of authors have succeeded in creating two clearly distinguishable character voices.

Easier, perhaps, but there are plenty of examples of extremely well done multiple viewpoint stories written by a solo author. I think of books like Witness by Karen Hesse, or the fabulous picture book Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne. In both cases, the author creates a cast of easily recognizable characters through the use of language, character attributes, gesture – all those things that combine to create voice. In Browne’s case, visuals add to the distinctions between character perspectives, but in the end, even without those things, the story would succeed because the voice of each character is clear and sharp and different from all the others.

Why, you might ask, am I even discussing this? Isn’t it obvious that the characters in a multiple viewpoint story must be distinct? Yes, but I have read stories, both published and unpublished, where the voices are so similar as to become indistinguishable. As the reader, I get lost, because the uniqueness of voice is what grounds us in a character and keeps us firmly rooted in his story. If the voices are too similar, the characters start to seem like one person and the story becomes confusing.

It is not enough to have greatly different details about each character–-hair color, eye color, gender, problem. The way each character speaks, the essence of him, must be different from every other character in the story for a multiple viewpoint novel, or short story, to work. Not sure yours is working? Flip to a random page, read a sentence, and see if it is instantly clear whose head you are in.

StorySleuths Tip #1: When writing in multiple viewpoints, be certain that each character’s voice is unique and distinct.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 Consolidated Storysleuths Tips

To our StorySleuths Readers,

Here are all 36 StorySleuths Tips that we put together October - December 2009. We have had a lot of fun reading and researching, and have learned quite a bit along the way--we hope you have, too!

We look forward to kicking off 2010 with Geektastic, Stories from the Nerd Herd, starting later this week.

Happy reading and writing in 2010!

Allyson, Heather and Meg

StorySleuths Tip #1: The first line and first page need to shine, shine, shine and call out to the reader, “Get ready, you’re in for something special.”

StorySleuths Tip #2: Read the story you have written and ask yourself: Is my storytelling voice fresh and unique?

StorySleuths Tip #3: See the world through your character’s eyes.

StorySleuths Tip # 4: Backstory and slower pacing can lead up to and heighten important dramatic action.

StorySleuths Tip #5: Questions build suspense, whether they are posed by a character, or the situation begs that your reader ask them.

StorySleuths Tip #6: At the outset of the hero’s quest, raise the stakes by setting risk or danger directly in his/her path.

StorySleuths Tip #7: Chapter headings can serve as an invitation to your reader that they cannot resist--please keep reading!

StorySleuths Tip #8: Adult characters can assist your protagonist, and can offer advice and wisdom, so long as the main character stays directly involved in the action.

StorySleuths Tip #9: Promise your readers “something next” to keep the action going.

StorySleuths Tip #10: Use different approaches--such as another point of view, action without words, and dialogue devoid of action--to develop characters and explore the relationships between them.

StorySleuths Tip 11: To quote Ellen Jackson, “When thinking about your secondary characters, think quirky.”

StorySleuths Tip #12: Sprinkle your text with tidbits of wisdom.

StorySleuths Tip #13: Literary and cultural allusions, and references to familiar and famous people, can give authenticity and depth to your characters and your story.

Storysleuths Tip #14: Be consistent with your characters maturity level and sensibility and you can get away with a lot

StorySleuths Tip #15: Introduce the unexpected to propel a scene forward.

StorySleuths Tip #16: Share wisdom with your readers--offer them new strategies for learning from challenges in their own lives.

StorySleuths Tip #17: Make sure that, like the entire story, each chapter has an arc.

StorySleuths Tip #19: Accent important points with one repeated word, which can be its own sentence.

StorySleuths Tip #20: Stop worrying about the first chapter. Let your character tell his story, and then you can figure out how and where that story should start.

StorySleuths Tip #21: Don’t be afraid to play with chronology as a means of enhancing your story.

StorySleuths Tip #22: Creating a reliable narrator by making him or her feel real to readers will pull them into your story.

StorySleuths Tip #23 (a): To write effective secondary characters, give them a story arc all their own, complete with a beginning, middle and end.

Storysleuths Tip#23 (b): Even minor characters can (and perhaps should) trigger significant events.

Storysleuths Tip #24: Don’t be afraid to broach larger social issues in your work, but when you choose to do so, avoid narrative. Instead, create scenes which demonstrate how your characters’ lives are touched by these issues.

Storysleuths Tip #25: Use mystery plots and subplots to hook readers, then keep them reading by dropping clues judiciously in bits and pieces. But make sure to tie up all the loose ends.

Storysleuths Tip #26: “when used intentionally and with a full understanding of its effects, the second person viewpoint provides MG and YA stories—any fiction actually—with an intriguing, necessary, character-revealing viewpoint.”

Storysleuths Tip #27: Use chapter titles to hook readers to continue reading, to emphasize an important element of the story, to focus on the passage of time, and to foreshadow or reinforce important themes. Sometimes chapter titles can accomplish several of these objectives at once, but never give away the punch line of a chapter in the chapter title.

Storysleuths Tip #28: Specific time setting descriptions at the beginning of a chapter, and the judicious use of past and present tense, can be enormously helpful when establishing for the reader where they are in the chronology of the story.

Storysleuths Tip #29: Play with titles until one pops up that’s catchy, memorable, different from anything else out there, and, most important of all, fits the story. Then be open to suggestions and input from the editor and others who’ll be responsible for marketing and selling the book. Fighting for a title you love is OK, but ultimately the decision may be up to the folks who will promote and sell your book.

Storysleuths Tip #30: A picture book telling a Hero’s Journey type story must, just as with a novel, have an arc which begins with a problem, has rising tension and ends at a solution which is both surprising and yet inevitable. Along the way the character must grow and change over the course of an emotional arc which mirrors the arc of the story’s action.

StorySleuths Tip #31: Focus on the power of language--make conscious word choices. Read the story out loud. Particularly for picture books that will be read aloud, strive for fluent rhythm in an oral “storytelling” voice. Don’t be afraid to break conventions to get the sound right. Choose words with awareness of how they sound—words that are fun to say and that convey personality and mood, and/or foreshadow plot, and/or have emotional overtones.

StorySleuths Tip #32: To deepen a readers experience with a story give them opportunities to figure things out themselves by alluding to things rather than pointing directly at them.

StorySleuths Tip #33: Think beyond setting alone. Paint a broad landscape for readers by including unique individual settings, concrete details, fresh imagery, and references to the time period and place.

StorySleuths Tip #34: I cannot say it any better than Rick Riordan does: “Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never.”

StorySleuths Tip #35: Solicit feedback from others. If something seems potentially offensive or insensitive, ask whether the questionable part is integral to the story. Review the CIBC guidelines. Brainstorm other options for achieving story goals.

StorySleuths Tip #36: Pay attention to language on every level, from word choices and sentence structures to sections and chapters. Don’t be afraid to include poetic language and rich imagery.