Monday, December 30, 2013

Steering Toward Normal: An Analysis and ARC Lend-away!

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck who won a copy of Ann Eisenstein's book, Fallen Prey. Rosi's blog is a treasure trove of giveaways and information for writers. Check it out!

This past fall I took two writing courses which focused on plot. You have heard about the first one, Plot and Structure taught by Bethany Nuckolls through the Center for Writing Excellence. The second was a weekend workshop led by Rebecca Petruck applying the beats of Save the Cat to writing a novel. The two courses overlapped--all novels have a Beginning (Act I), middle (Act II), and End (Act III)--but each included different plot points and complemented one another. (Save the Cat was written for screenwriters but Blake Snyder's points have been applied by many novelists.)

Since I've shared some highlights of Plot and Structure I thought I'd give an overview of  the Save the Cat beats by analyzing Rebecca's debut middle grade novel, Steering Toward Normal. When I told Rebecca my plan for reviewing the ARC she said, "That's funny. I wrote the book before I learned this model!"

I'll define each beat in italics, using Save the Cat, and then provide the appropriate example from Steering Toward Normal. Sit back and relax, and let's see just how well Rebecca did!

1. Opening Image: "The opening image is also an opportunity to give us the starting point of the hero." It is the "before" snapshot. (p. 72)

Steering Toward Normal opens with Diggy Lawson preparing to welcome the calf he will raise this year. He is mentally preparing himself not to get attached to the steer by naming him.  He knows that in just over a year the steer would become steak. "He was an experienced cattleman now. No names, no tears. An eighth-grader shouldn't cry." (p. 2) Despite his resolve, he names the steer "Joker."

2. Theme Stated: "Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie....This statement is the movie's thematic premise." (p. 72)

On p. 13 of Steering Toward Normal, a fellow eighth-grader, Wayne Graf, gets dumped on Diggy's driveway by his drunk father. Wayne's mother died three weeks ago; Diggy's mother abandoned him on Pop's doorstep when he was a baby. Diggy's dad  (Pop) approaches Wayne as if he is a spooked animal, 
"Wayne looked up at Pop, his face intent. 'Did you know my mom?'" 

3. Set-up: "...the first ten minutes [of a movie] 'set up' the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story..." (p. 75)

In the first 10 pages of Steering Toward Normal, the reader meets Diggy and discovers his over-arching goal to win Grand Champion at the State Fair. His crush, July, won it the previous year and is expecting him to follow in her footsteps. He pledges to win it for her.  

4. Catalyst: "It's the opposite of good news, and yet by the time the adventure is over, it's what leads the hero to happiness." p. 77

When Diggy's father, Pop, tells Wayne to come inside the house, the boy demands more information about his mother. "Wayne jerked away. 'My dad's type A, and I'm B!" he shouted like an exclamation. Diggy barely heard Wayne add, 'He says you're my dad, and I have to live here now.'" (p.14)  From this point on, Diggy wonders if and when his life will return to normal.

5. Debate: "The debate section is just that--a debate. It's the last chance for the hero to say, This is crazy. And we need him to realize that. (p. 77) ...The debate section must ask a question of some kind. (p. 78)

I think Diggy has two debates going on in this opening section. On one level his debate is about how to accept the fact that Wayne is his half-brother:

After a while Diggy couldn't stand it anymore. "You're letting him stay."
[Pop answers,] "We have to." (p.57)

But a deeper debate which continues throughout the book, is Diggy's question about Pop: "Did that mean he would have chosen Diggy too, if the choice hadn't been made for him?" (p. 49)

6. Break into Two: (or, in other words, the character enters the new world.) The act break is the moment we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is upside down from that." (p. 79)  

On p. 76, after a heated discussion with Pop over Wayne staying, Diggy hoses himself down. He wants to cleanse himself from his father's touch; and escape from Wayne who has been thrust upon him as his half-brother. But he can't run away--he's in a new world now. 

7.  B Story: The B Story is often a love story and involves characters that are "the upside down version of those characters who inhabit Act One." (p. 80)

Rebecca helped me figure out this one. I had thought the B-story was Diggy's crush on July. But she said it's the off and on relationship of Diggy's 4-H friends, Crystal and Jason.  The fact that they finally choose one another as girlfriend/boyfriend reflects how Diggy and Wayne will end up choosing to be family. 

8. Fun and Games: "It is the core and essence of the movie poster...the trailer moments...We take a break from the stakes of the story and see what the idea is about." (p. 81-82)

In Steering Toward Normal, the fun and games include Diggy's obsession with rocket building, Diggy and Wayne playing pranks on each other and on Pop, and the boys staying up late and watching B-movies. Woven throughout is their grooming and training their calves in preparation for the county fair. 

9. Midpoint: Half-way through your story, "is the point where fun and games are over and it's back to the story." (p. 84). It's either an "'up'" where the hero seemingly peaks or a 'down' when the world collapses all around the hero (although it's a false down.)" (p.82)

In Chapter 14 (pp. 126-136 out of 317 pages), Wayne raises the stakes by thumbing through old yearbooks in their school library. He finds pictures of Diggy's mom and begins to demand that Diggy try to find her. 

10. Bad Guys Close In: "The forces that are aligned against the hero, internal and external, tighten their grip. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. He is on his own and must endure. He is headed for a huge fall..." (p. 86) 

Wayne persists in trying to get Diggy to contact his mother's family. Diggy wants to be angry with him but empathy for Wayne is growing and Wayne is making him see things he has ignored. 

"She could have left you with her parents," Wayne said.
Diggy squinted at him.
"She chose Pop for you. She can't be all bad." (p. 174)

11. All is Lost: "...even though all looks black, it's just temporary. But it seems like a total defeat. All aspects of the hero's life are in shambles. Wreckage abounds. No hope." (p. 86)

Wayne's father comes to Diggy's house and is angry that Wayne won't come back to live with him. "But Wayne lived with them now. When had Diggy gotten so used to Wayne's being around that it was weird to think of him not being around?" (p. 209) 

But then... Wayne admits that he's tried to contact Diggy's maternal grandparents and Diggy blows up. "Haven't you noticed, Wayne," Diggy sneered, "you only care about finding my mom when your dad screws up?"

12. Dark Night of the Soul: "It's the point...that is the darkness right before the dawn. It is the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. (p.88)

After Diggy tells Wayne to stay away from him and avoids him in the barn, Diggy's surprise rocket display at July's birthday party goes dangerously awry. Wayne's grandmother wants to take Wayne home and suddenly, "Something in Diggy's gut dropped. He had felt bad before, but now he felt almost sick. He had wanted Wayne to go home for a long time, but hearing Mrs. Vogl talk about Wayne's being without family...Diggy felt like she was wrong, even though she wasn't, really. Was she?" (p. 234)

13. Break into Three: "Both in the external story (the A story) and the internal story (the B story), which now meet and intertwine, the hero has prevailed, passed every test, and dug deep to find the solution. Now all he has to do is apply it. (p.89)

At the county fair, Diggy is a pile of nerves but Joker wins Grand Champion. Afterwards Diggy reflects on the fact that everyone-including Wayne, Pop, and Graf helped him groom Joker--despite the fact that only immediate family was supposed to  help him.  

After a few weeks of more nervous preparation, he is ready for the State Fair. Although Wayne tried to invite Diggy's mother to the fair, when Diggy looks around the grandstand he realizes that his mother isn't there but, "He had found the ones that mattered." (p. 309)

14. Finale: "It's the turning over of the old world and a creation of a new world order-all thanks to the hero, who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down, antithetical world of Act II."  (p. 90)

After the State competition, the boys discuss Wayne's pursuit of Diggy's mother. Diggy says, "Finding my mom won't bring your mom back."

Wayne breathed deeply. When he looked at Diggy, he had tears on his cheeks. "I wish it could."

Diggy sighed. "I know." (p. 312) 

In this interchange, Diggy empathizes with Wayne and shows true compassion and acceptance of his half-brother. 

15. Final Image: "...the final image... is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it's real." (p. 90) 

The book ends with the boys teary-eyed as they load the steers on the packer's truck.  Wayne announces that Graf wants him to come back home and Diggy is surprised that he doesn't like the idea. But, Wayne will come back--he's going to keep next year's steer on Diggy's farm. The boys hug awkwardly and Diggy says....

Sorry,  I can't tell you. You have to read the book to find out!
Although Rebecca's beats don't come exactly where the Save the Cat system would put them; we'll give her some slack--remember she hadn't learned it when she wrote the book!

But to really find out how Rebecca magnificently weaves a humorous yet touching tale of two  half-brothers dealing with the loss of their mothers and learning what family really is---you have to read the book. And here is your opportunity to do that BEFORE the book is released!

I will pass my ARC along to a reader who promises to read it, abide by Rebecca's "rules" which will be tucked inside, and then pass it along to another reader--preferably someone who lives in a state which hosts a state fair and who also agrees to pass it along.  

1. If you leave me a comment WITH your email address if I don't know it I'll enter your name once.
2. If you post this giveaway on social media or become a new follower of my blog I'll enter your name twice.
3. If you live in a state outside of North Carolina I'll enter your name THREE times since I want Rebecca's book to travel far! (or if you PROMISE to send it to a friend outside NC that'll qualify too.)

Good luck. Contest ends January 3. So, what are you waiting for? Get busy posting!

By the way, if you are interested in using this format for plotting your novel, you can download a "Save the Cat" worksheet here.

Let's all support Rebecca's debut novel by pre-ordering her book! You know I will!! 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ann Eisenstein and a Giveaway: Fallen Prey

Congratulations to Linda Andersen who won a copy of "Call Me Oklahoma!" on last week's blog.

Before I introduce this week's guest blogger, I want to tell you about a writer's service: is just what the name says it is--an online plagiarism and grammar checker; and proofreader. I tried it out and was amazed to find the number of errors in one sample chapter. I think using Grammarly's Plagiarism check would keep me from hearing an editor say, "Hmmm...this sounds familiar..."  My worst nightmare!


"I am dedicated, determined and desirous to empower, enable, and encourage children."  Ann Eisenstein

Ann is a psychologist, consultant and teacher; she has been trained by the FBI Citizen's Academy, is a recent graduate of the Richland County Sheriff's Citizen Academy, and a presenter for NAMIAfter retiring, she decided to take a stab at writing. At the time she was mentoring a young fifth grade boy who she calls "G". 

Ann says, "G’s class was in the FBI Junior Special Agent Program. The main focus of this program is to help students improve their performance and their attendance in school.  Through his involvement in this program, I began to witness a change in G’s behavior. He became more involved in school, his work, and our relationship. He also became more outgoing with his peers. I was so proud of him!

"A germ.  A seed. A nugget. Planted. It took root, and inspired, I decided it was time to start writing. I chose an main character, Jamie, and titled the book Badge Boy. I stared at the page – it was pretty blank. 

"But I had an idea: I called the Special Agent in charge of G’s JSA program, told him I was writing a book and asked if I could interview him. Surprisingly, he agreed. I was on my way to the FBI. Gates, guns and grit."

In this way Ann combined her love for writing and all things detective! 

Following Hiding Carly, her first book in the Sean Gray Junior Special Agent series, Ann's second book Fallen Prey was released this fall from Peak City Publishing. Here is the blurb:
Twelve-year-old Junior Special Agent Sean Gray is in a race against time. Could there be a connection between his testimony in the trial of an international child kidnapping ring and his mysterious accident?
While the sheriff’s department and the FBI are investigating, his new friend, Gabby, gets caught in the web of an online predator and disappears. She’s been missing for more than 48 hours, and the authorities have not been able to find her.
Sean goes undercover to bait the mysterious hunter. But when he becomes the prey, how will he rescue her?

I'm hooked! Don't you think a young reader you know would be also?  Here's your chance to win this book:

1. Leave me a comment with your email address (if you don't think I have it).
2. Post this giveaway on your social media of choice for two chances to win. Tag me/and or let me know which you did.
3. Enter by December 27!

AND you can say you heard it here first: The third and final book in this series, Deadly Exposure, will be released in Spring, 2014! Yeah, Ann!!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Call Me Oklahoma! and a Giveaway!

Congratulations to Donna Koppelman who won Carole Weatherford's book, Birmingham, 1963 in last week's giveaway.

As promised, I have another book to give away this week. Follow the instructions at the end of this blog and you could win an autographed copy of Call Me Oklahoma for a favorite young reader.
When Paige Turner enters fourth grade, she decides it's time to be different, like her cousin Cordelia. Her one-year-younger cousin cartwheels instead of walks, climbs doorjambs like a spider, and isn't afraid of bullies. 

On the way home from visiting Cordelia in California, Paige decides that the way to becoming more unique and gutsy will be to adopt a new name. She tells her family, friends, and even her new teacher to "Call Me, Oklahoma!" and with that, Paige's adventures begin. 

She weathers her older brother's teasing; as well as name-calling and jinxing from her arch-nemesis, Viveca. She thinks her new name gives her courage to stand up for herself. The test comes when Viveca invites her to be a part of The Milkshake Club, the new classroom club. To do that means turning her back on her best friend, Gavi. When she realizes that her friendship to Gavi matters more than being a part of the "in-group," she happily reconnects with Gavi, performs in the class variety show as Paige, and learns to value herself over being someone else's side-kick.  

Miriam Glassman told me that Call Me Oklahoma! recently made the NYPL's list of Best Children's Books for 2013. Yee Haw!
Here's your chance to win this fun book for a second through fourth grade girl. Leave me a comment by December 19 and I'll enter your name. For two chances to win, either post this on your social media site of choice, or become a new follower of my blog. Remember, if I don't have your email address, please leave it for me in your comment. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Birmingham 1963 + A Giveaway!

I'm taking a break from my blog series on the writing class I took this fall to highlight (and give away!) two books for children. I thought they'd make great holiday gifts for some fortunate student, child, grandchild, niece or nephew.

This week I'm hosting Carole Weatherford as she shares wonderful insights into her new book, Birmingham, 1963.

Why did you decide to write this book?
I don’t want young people to forget the sacrifices made in America’s freedom struggle. I’ve written a few books with that mission. In Birmingham, 1963, I offer an elegy to the four girls who were killed in the church bombing: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Discuss your research/creative process.
After writing Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins, I wanted to tackle another watershed event in the Civil Rights Movement. I chose the church bombing because, at the time, there was not children’s book devoted to the subject. The death of the four girls turned the tide of public opinion against white supremacists and the systemic racism that they avowed.

I began research using primary sources in the Birmingham Public Library collection. I read newspaper accounts of the event, viewed news photos, and read responses by President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. An article that interviewed the girls’ families helped me to humanize and personalize the victims.

From the start, I used poetry to tell the story. My early drafts in third person, however, lacked immediacy. So I decided on historical fiction and created a fictional first-person narrator with whom the readers could identify. To layer the plot a bit, I set the action on the anonymous narrator’s tenth birthday. For rhythm and resonance, I employed repetition: “The year I turned ten…”; and “The day I turned ten….” What would have been a childhood milestone, she remembers instead for violence.

Why did you use poetry to tell the story?
Most of my books are poetry or are a hybrid genre blending poetry, biography, fiction or nonfiction.  Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.

Why did you choose historical fiction and create an anonymous narrator?
I did not want names of fictional characters to stick in readers’ minds or to take the focus off the real victims. Also, the narrator’s anonymity draws readers even closer to the action. In this scene, she struggles to get out of the church after the blast.
Smoke clogged my throat, stung my eyes.
As I crawled past crumbled plaster, broken glass,
Shredded Bibles and wrecked chairs—
Yelling Mama! Daddy!—scared church folk
Ran every which way to get out.  

Why did you set the tragedy on the narrator’s birthday?
In the eyes of children, turning ten is a big deal, a childhood milestone bordering on a rite of passage. The bombing actually occurred on the church’s Youth Day. To compound the irony and up the emotional ante, I made the bombing coincide with the narrator’s tenth birthday. The main character is looking forward to singing a solo during worship service and to celebrating her birthday. Instead, she survives a church bombing and mourns four older girls. That setting dramatically juxtaposes birthday candles and the bundle of dynamite which sparked the explosion.  The milestone resonates like a mantra, beginning as The year I turned ten and building to The day I turned ten.

Discuss the book’s “In Memoriam” section.
The book has two sections: a longer opening poem with a first person narrator is followed by four short “In Memoriam” poems—one about each of the four girls. The tributes read like incantations. I could not have written this book without honoring Cynthia, Denise, Carole and Addie Mae. I tried to show not only who they were but who they might have become. In May 2013, the four girls were posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

Several of your books pair poetry with historic images. Why?
So many children ask me whether racial injustices really happened.  Children just can’t believe that grownups allowed such wrongs. Documentary photographs confirm for young readers that this history is indeed true. Years ago, I dabbled in darkroom photography. I still love black-and-white photos and find picture research engrossing. Birmingham, 1963; A Negro League Scrapbook; Sink or Swim: African-American Lifesavers and Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People are all illustrated with vintage prints and photographs. Just as childhood innocence confronted racial hatred that Birmingham Sunday, stark news photos contrast with snapshots of girly toys and trinkets in Birmingham, 1963. Powerful pictures speak to me. I hope that the images will affect young readers as well.

What is the purpose of the red marks as a design element?
The red marks are the conception of designer Helen Robinson. On their meaning, she is mum, but she allowed me this interpretation. The random red marks evoke broken glass, the shattering of innocence, and the shedding of blood. What do you think?

Do you have a favorite passage from the poem?
The last stanza is my favorite.
The day I turned ten,
There was no birthday cake with candles;
Just cinders, ash, and a wish I were still nine.

What kind of response has the book received?
So many teachers have told me that they were deeply moved by the book. Some even cried after reading it. The book has won several awards:
Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award
The Jefferson Cup Award
Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Books for Older Readers Honor Book
Kirkus Reviews' Editor's Choice list
Best Children’s Books of the Year, Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry Honor Book
Best Children's Books of 2008 — Christian Science Monitor

What was Birmingham like in 1963?
In the 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. While civil rights protesters pressed for equality and integration, the staunchest racists resorted to violence to resist change. Racists had set off so many bombs in Birmingham’s black neighborhoods that the city was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the hub of the city’s Civil Rights Movement, known as the Birmingham Campaign. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed after marching from the church on April 12, 1963. And the historic Children’s March took place on May 2, 1963 in downtown Birmingham. 

What effect did the bombing have on the nation?
The bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the Newtown, Connecticut of its day. Both tragedies seared the collective conscience. Just as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School rocked our nation and roused support for gun control, the 1963 hate crime both shocked and shamed America into confronting historic racial inequities.  During the Cold War, America offered itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. Yet, segregation was the status quo and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African-American citizens. These moral contradictions were exposed by the church bombing that left four girls dead.

Wasn’t 1963 a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement?
In April 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther  King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The next month, Birmingham was the scene of the Children’s March that police met with brutality. September 1963 saw the horrific church bombing. And on August 24, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew a record crowd to the Washington, D.C.  Television brought these events into Americans’ living rooms. There was a public outcry for change.

Is the bombing still relevant today?
Nowadays, racism is usually more subtle and less definitive. Even hate crimes are more difficult to pinpoint and to prove.  In 1998, James Byrd, an African-American man, was dragged three miles to his death by three white men (two white supremacists) in a pickup truck. And in 2006, nooses were hung in a tree on a high school campus in Jena, Mississippi, after a black student tried to sit with white students at lunch. As long as racism persists and this nation exists, stories from the African-American freedom struggle will remain relevant.

Do you recall the bombing?
My earliest recollections of televised news—besides the space race—were in 1963. I can remember watching the March on Washington and hearing the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  I also recall President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.  

But I do not recall the church bombing. I was just seven years old at the time. If I had known about the tragedy, it would have frightened me. I suspect now that my parents kept the news from me. That was how black parents shielded their children from the sting of segregation. So, I tried now to imagine how I would have mourned then. The child in me connected with anonymous narrator.
Did you see yourself in the four girls? How much of you is in the anonymous narrator?
In 1963 I was seven years old and had already written my first poem. I grew up in Baltimore and did not experience the degree of discrimination that they did in Birmingham. But In many ways, I was those girls.
Like Addie Mae Collins, I drew portraits, played hopscotch and wore my hair press and curled.
Like Cynthia Wesley, I was a mere wisp of a girl who sometimes wore dresses that my mother sewed. I sang soul music and sipped sodas with friends.
Like Denise McNair, I liked dolls, made mud pies and had a childhood crush. I was a Brownie, had tea parties and hosted a neighborhood carnival for muscular dystrophy. People probably thought I’d be a real go-getter.
Like Carole Robertson, I loved books, earned straight A’s and took music and dance lessons. I joined the Girl Scouts and was a member of Jack and Jill of America. I too hoped to make my mark. We are both Caroles  with an “e.”

Did you learn anything about that tragic day that gets forgotten?
Yes. Two African-American boys died in the violent aftermath of the church bombing. Sixteen-year-old James Robinson  was short in the back by police after a rock-throwing incident with a gang of white teens. Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was shot by a white boy riding a moped draped with a Confederate flag.

You wrote Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. Both invoke God. Of course, Birmingham, 1963 is set in a church. Is this book religious?
The tragedy occurred at a church, so prayer, psalms and religious songs go with the territory. That said, the freedom struggle is a battle of good versus evil. My grandfather was an activist preacher and I wonder if I’m channeling him when my writing wades into spiritual waters. Though not overtly religious like Moses and The Beatitudes, Birmingham, 1963 would nevertheless be at home in a Sunday School lesson.

What happened to the Klan members who bombed the church?
In 1965, the FBI named four suspects in the bombing, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked the evidence and no one was charged with the crime. Finally, in 1977, Robert Edward Chambliss was found guilty of the bombing. In 1988, while dying of cancer, Fary Tucker Admitted his part in the crime. The convictions of Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry followed in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The case was closed 39 years after the bombing.

Links to Classroom Resources
Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine)-- Mighty Times: The Children’s March andAmerica’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice

Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections -- Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) – For Teachers

Teachers Guide Primary Source Set – Jim Crow in America

Photographs of Signs Enforcing Discrimination (Library of Congress) --

Carole's publisher, Boyds Mills Press, is generously giving away a copy of this book to one of you! Please leave me a comment by December 13. If you share this on your favorite social media, I'll enter your name twice!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Tackling Tension, Horizontality, and Verticality

In this series about my online writing class, Plot and Structure, through the Center for Writing Excellence, I last posted definitions and examples of horizontality and verticality in What Happened to Goodbye. Our next assignment was to play around with creating tension in our own work. Here are some samples from Chapter 2 of Half-Truths.

In the lesson on tension, Bethany Nuckolls said, “Tension is simply a byproduct of pacing and manipulating time.  Conflict in a story can be heightened or diminished by how fast or slowly you narrate it.  Slowing a scene down and writing longer sentences builds tension… Speeding a scene up and writing shorter sentences gives the reader a sense of movement.  This is particularly effective in action scenes where the character is reacting instead of preparing to react.  This kind of tension is less suspenseful and more shocking.”

In this writing sample I created tension by using short sentences:

"Kate felt a tightness in her chest, like a band pulled taut so she could hardly breathe. No way was there enough space here for Eileen. Or for Speckles. Or for her. How could she ever feel like this was home?"

Bethany commented: “Choppy sounds great.  It's closer to the rhythm of her nervous heartbeat, or her thoughts jumping from one worry to the next.”

In this second sample, I created tension by using verticality (multiple events or times present in the same narrative moment). In this passage Kate jumps backward and forward again in her mind:

"Brave. She tried the idea on as if it was a new pair of riding boots. Took some breaking in, but would fit if she stomped around in the notion long enough. Kate kissed Eileen on the snout and squared her shoulders.  If she’d been brave enough to help birth Eileen in the middle of a hailstorm that threatened to flatten the whole county, she was brave enough to face Grandmother Dinsmore and all her rules and plans.  And hopefully brave enough to walk into Alexander Graham Junior High and make friends with a bunch of snobby, rich girls."

Bethany agreed that the hailstorm was an example of verticality.

In this third sample I created tension by using horizontality (narrative that moves chronologically):

 "Grandmother crossed her arms and scowled. Her eyes traveled from the wisps of hair that had escaped Kate’s braid all the way down to her mud-covered loafers."

Playing with sentence length helped me realize that I tend to write run-on sentences. Breaking them up added oomph and made the narrative more present to the reader.

Bethany summarized this to another student when she said: “There is no ONE rule to apply to all situations.  Rather, this is about realizing how sentence length can change the mood in a scene, and be willing to exploit that fact to your advantage.”  
Horizontal or Vertical: which appeals to you?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Discovering Tension in "What Happened to Goodbye"- Part II

If you live in the Carolinas and are a Christian writing either for the young adult or children's market, please note that registration for Write2Ignite! 2014 is now open. This is a great opportunity to learn more about your craft, meet knowledgable professionals in the field at a very reasonable price. Please go to for more information. 

In my ongoing blog series about the writing class I'm taking through the Center for Writing Excellence, I learned two new ways to produce tension: Horizontality and Verticality. 

Horizontality, as Bethany Nuckolls instructed,  "refers to narrative that moves chronologically."
Verticality "happens when multiple events or times are present in the same narrative moment."

Our assignment was to find examples of tension in our reading novel.  McLean, the protagnoist in What Happened to Goodbye? is both drawn to her next-door neighbor, David, but also afraid of getting involved in any type of lasting relationship because she and her father always leave town. This passage comes immediately after a scene in which he is close enough to kiss her but doesn’t; the talk and action subsequently turns to basketball.   

Here is the passage I chose; my analysis follows.   

  He sat up, choosing to ignore this. “You know, you talk this tough game and everything. But I know the truth about you.”
     “And what’s that again?” I said, getting to my feet.
     “Secretly,” he said, “you want to play with me. In fact, you need to play with me. Because deep down, you love basketball as much as I do.”
     “Loved,” I said. “Past tense.”
      “Not true.” He walked around my deck, grabbing a broom there and using the handle to fish around beneath.” (Horizontality) “I saw how you squared up. There was love there.”
     “You saw love in my shot,” I said, clarifying.
     “Yeah.” He banged the broomstick again, and the ball came rolling out slowly, toward me. “I mean it’s not surprising, really. Once you love something, you always love it in some way. You have to. It’s, like, part of you for good.”
     I wondered what he meant by this, and in the next beat, found myself surprised by the image that suddenly popped into my head: me and my mom, on a windy beach in winter, searching for shells as the wave crashed in front of us. (Verticality) I picked up the ball and threw it to him.
     “You ready to play?” Dave asked, bouncing it.
     “I don’t know,” I said. “Are you going to cheat?”
      “It’s street ball!” he said, checking it to me. “Show me that love.”
       So cheesy, I thought. But as I felt it, solid against my hands, I did feel something. I wasn’t sure it was love. Maybe what remained of it, though, whatever that might be. “All right,” I said.
“Let’s play.” (p. 273)
I think this is the original cover; I like it best!
Analysis: Dessen probably used the verb “fishing” purposefully to describe David’s action of getting the ball out from under the deck. This fits in nicely with McLean’s flashback of her and her mother at the beach, searching for shells.  Horizontality is shown in his three chronological actions of retrieving the ball.

I think verticality is achieved when there is something about David’s words about love that trigger her memory of her mother. Although McLean is trying hard to distance herself from her mother, memories of pleasant and loving times keep popping up. Her mother, like it or not, “is with her for good,” as the rest of the novel attests to.

Tension is created because it takes McLean the entire page to decide if she will play basketball with David. Her slow deliberation over what he has said to her intensifies the conflict for the reader (who of course wants her to say “yes!”).

The chapter ends with a cliff-hanger letting the reader know that McLean is indeed, allowing herself to “play” and get involved with David.
Now you try it. Has an author you have read included tension in her novel? How have you included it in your own work?


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