Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Children's Book Writing Class #1: Complete!

Believe it or not, my friends, I have actually done some writing in the past month. Not nearly as much as I should have, but I wrote 11 all-new pages (shhhh, it's a lot for me!) and have been doing some good brainstorming. I'm also preparing to do a character tree/bio for Anna, the protagonist of my work in progress. My momentum may not be as quick as I'd like but it's getting there slowly.

I also began my writing class this week. It was all too terrifying and anxiety-ridden but the first session went pretty well nonetheless. (I also seem to have acquired some sort of ability to act the class clown, breaking the ice with silly jokes and comments. Who knew?)

My instructor is a children's book writer and freelance editor--very nice, very smart, and clearly very creative. I'm looking forward to getting to know her a bit, hear about her process and get some advice. As I kind of expected I didn't necessarily learn much that I didn't already know as an editor, but it's always good to recap and remember the basics. Plus, in a lot of ways, children's books are horses of a different color than the adult fiction I'm most familiar with, so I'm more than willing to listen and learn the specifics of that particular publishing branch.

Teach (as I will refer to her from now on) gave us several writing exercises, spattered throughout the class. I'd never really had that in a creative writing class before but I guess that's the whole "writing workshop" bit--you actually have to write off the cuff on occasion. It was scary for me, putting words down like that without having sufficient time to think them through and edit them again and again, but it's good practice. I'm just grateful she didn't force us all to read them aloud. I'm definitely of the mind that "writers write so readers can read." :-p

Anyway, I thought I'd share some of the exercises with you all, start getting back up on this strangely colored horse and what not. You're welcome to do them along with me if you'd like!

Writing Exercise #1: Write down two statements--one true and one false, in no particular order, regarding something extraordinary that happened to you or you did as a child. The class (or I guess, bloggers :-p) then must guess which of the two statements is the true one. This short practice gets you focused on writing believably.
1. I spoke my first full sentence when I was nine months old.
2. By the age of seven, I could do a back handspring in a balance beam.

Writing Exercise #2: Teach asked up to write about something frightening that happened to us in first elementary school, and then middle school/junior high. We had about five minutes per "story." She told us afterwards that this exercise is to practice writing for different age groups--mine kind of sound the same LOL
The wind slapped my skin as we sat underneath the enormous pine tree in Abigail's front yard. Sneaking out of the house at night was always a little exhilarating but with a storm coming and only a single flashlight and a book of ghost stories between us, it was beyond "exhilarating." As Abigail took her turn, reading aloud about the girl who heard noises in her attic, I felt for a moment like I was that girl, but I was lost in a forest of my own making. Footsteps lightly padded outside our evergreen hideout. Surely Abigail's dad would make more noise with his 200-pound frame barreling toward us. I expected him to push through the branches any second, my heart racing faster the longer he didn't appear. And then, a groan. And silence. Before my brother screamed and shook the tree, scaring me out of my wind-slapped skin.

As I swung back and forth on my makeshift parallel bar, I felt like I was flying. I was something I did often, practicing for my next meet or just driving my mother crazy. A tension rod chin-up bar was not the safest substitute for gymnastics equipment. Nor was a cement floor appropriate in place of a padded mat. But I swung anyway, enjoying the rhythm and imagining myself soaring from bar to bar. At least until the bar began to slip, that is. In that brief moment, I remembered my mother's warning: "You'll break your neck!" and I instantly pictured myself twisted on the hard floor, unable to move, neck disfigured, paralyzed forever. As my back hit the cement, my head following it in a quick staccato, I exhaled. Phew. My neck was in tact. My head, however? Not so much.

Writing Exercise #3: This one was our first real children's fiction writing exercise to practice laying out the plot skeleton. Teach asked us for plot components in quick succession and we had to write down the first thing that came to our minds.

Name of protagonist: Sally
Name of antagonist:Paul
Relationship between protag and antag: classmates
What does the protag want?: for Paul to stop teasing her
What are two things the protag tries to do (and fails at) to get what he/she wants?: Sally bakes Paul cookies. Sally hides from Paul.
How does the antag respond to protag efforts?: Paul takes a bite and spits out the cookie. Paul looks for her and waits till she comes out so he can tease her.
What does the protag do to finally achieve his/her goal?: Sally kisses Paul on the cheek.
How does the antag respond?: Paul blushes and is left speechless.
What happens at the end of the story to indicate a change?: Paul waves to her the next day from across the playground.

It's silly, I know. It just sort of popped out. And then more had to pop out because Teach asked us to write one of the scenes we just described. Eek.

With a play of cookies balanced in her hands, Sally walked over to Paul.
"What's that smell?" Paul asked his friends. "It's like a skunk!"
The boys snickered, pointing at Sally as she approached.
"I thought you might want a cookie," Sally said to Paul. She held out the plate.
Paul paused, rolling his eyes, but then reached out to pluck one away.
Sally smiled, sure she'd made a successful peace offering. But Paul caught a glimpse of her joy and the yummy sound he was ready to make turned into a sputter.
"Yuck!" he spat out along with the half-chewed cookie. "That's the grossest thing ever!"
Sally's face fell, he eyes cast down toward her toes as the boys laughed and ran away. Sally couldn't see though that Paul had popped the rest of the cookie in his mouth, a little grin spreading across his lips.

BLECH. So bad. But I did it. I wrote something. Homework for the week includes coming up with three story ideas (protag, goal/desire, and three sources of conflict that will get in the way of the goal), picking one of our ideas, and writing the beginning to the story (about 500 words) up to and including the inciting incident. Story ideas are not my forte, but I'll give it a whirl.

We also have to read a practice piece to workshop next week, a middle-grade short story written by a friend of Teach's. That part should be easy. I'm good at giving feedback...I did it for a meager living for three years, after all. ;)

And the final assignment? I have to bring in pages to be workshopped in class #3. Lucky me, I get to be one of the first three writers on the chopping block. Double eek.

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