The Middle Grade Magic of Stranger Things

First, a disclaimer: The Netflix series Stranger Things may or may not be suitable viewing for your middle-grade-age child. That’s totally your call. The aim of today’s post is to highlight the winning elements that Stranger Things and middle grade fiction share in common.

If you haven’t yet seen or heard of Stranger Things, it’s a sci-fi/horror television series that has won over millions of fans. A boy named Will goes missing in a small town, and his three best friends are determined to find him. They’re aided by a mysterious girl called Eleven, who possesses supernatural powers. Viewers learn that Will has become trapped in a terrifying alternate world called the Upside Down. Set in the 1980s, the show is awash in nostalgia. A constant thread of tension runs through every episode thanks to a gripping story, heart-pounding action, and plenty of atmosphere. Season 2 premieres in October.

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The series was created by the Duffer brothers, twins Matt and Ross. Through a recent TV interview I learned that their creation was largely inspired by the 1980s films and books they were exposed to as kids, including classics such as Ghostbusters, E.T., and Poltergeist, as well as the stories of Stephen King. They began making their own amateur movies as early as the third grade.

These stories captured their hearts and imaginations at a critical age. Many of my all-time favorite books and movies are the ones I fell in love with between the ages of 8 and 13. In these formative years, perhaps more than any other, such influences help shape who we will become—our heroes, our values, our likes and dislikes, fears and interests.

Middle grade has been called the “golden age” of fiction because it’s often full of magic and adventure, without being weighed down by some of the more serious issues that older readers face. I find it fascinating that the creators chose to tell the story mainly from the perspective of kids who are around 12 years old. Granted, the series does include more mature themes such as violence, teen sex, and drinking (all involving older characters). But the kids have to solve their problems as real kids would. They get around town on their bikes. They deal with bullies. Parents are often absent, distracted, or otherwise occupied (including Will’s mom, who is fighting her own demons while trying to get her son back). And as the adults initially try to solve Will’s disappearance through traditional explanations, the kids are more open-minded and willing to consider other possibilities. They are brave, resourceful, and frequently hilarious.

Well-crafted middle grade fiction requires authenticity. It should be rich in both plot and characters. It needs a great hook, tight pacing, at least a little humor, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Characters are meant to explore and test their limited independence. They get a taste of the wider world, with both the freedoms and dangers it possesses. All of these elements are present in the superb artistry of Stranger Things.

In the end, no matter the audience, it all comes down to good storytelling. Stranger Things is a source I plan to return to again and again for examples of how to get it right.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.</div

The Art of Self-Discipline

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about self-discipline. Specifically, my severe lack of it. So many goals have come and gone with noble intentions but feeble follow-through. I vow to go to bed earlier, get up earlier, read more, eat less, obey the speed limit, and a thousand other things large and small. Broken resolutions are, unfortunately, part of being human.

I get mad at myself. But I also tend to laugh it off and turn it into a joke: “Ha ha, another resolution bites the dust,” or “Whoops! There goes the diet. Maybe I’ll try again next week.” It’s a coping mechanism, I suppose, to make myself feel better. But when a goal repeatedly goes unrealized, at some point I have to do something different to get a different result. I can’t keep setting the same goal without taking proper action to see it through.

Consider the following quote by Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

When I think about the times I truly made a lasting change in life or accomplished a major goal, it took a special brand of persistence: the kind that requires sacrifice, sheer stubbornness, and a willingness to work every day, even when I didn’t feel like it.

No, it’s not always fun.

Yes, it gets results.

Every time I finish or revise a manuscript, I reach a point in the process where it seems too hard—even impossible. Where I want to chuck it all in the garbage and give up writing forever. Sometimes it’s my own self-doubt that gets in the way. Other times it’s just life: work, family, health issues, and more.

So how do you overcome that temporary paralysis? How do you work around the many demands on your time, move beyond self-doubt, and get the thing done?

Forward progress is the key. A chapter a day, or a page. Even a paragraph.

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Someone once told me that time will pass whether you’re working toward your goal or not. A year from now, would you rather have a finished manuscript or a pile of excuses and regrets? Easy to say and harder to do, I know, but here are a few simple methods to help you stay on track:

Accountability

Have a friend or loved one check in with you once a day, once a week—whatever suits your writing pace—and ask how things are going. A supportive confidant can offer words of encouragement, monitor your progress, or be a sounding board for new ideas.

Reminders

Writing programs, apps, a simple alarm clock, sticky notes—choose one method or several that will remind you to get working and encourage you to keep at it.

Rewards

For every chapter finished or every thousand words written or every page revised or –insert goal here-, reward yourself. Eat a favorite treat, take a walk outdoors, buy a new notebook (my favorite), or choose another reward that is personal and meaningful to you. Some writers even use sticker charts or other fun trackers.

Routine

If you are a creature of habit, try to write in the same place at the same time every day. A strict routine leaves little room for procrastination. Or, if the sight of your office or writing space is killing your creativity, try a change of scenery. Change up your routine by writing at the coffee shop, library, or other public space. I tend to get a ton of writing done when surrounded by strangers.

Self-discipline, I believe, is more art than science. It takes trial and error to find a style that works for you. For some it comes naturally; for others, it’s a daily struggle. But it’s a necessary skill for any writer whose end goal is a masterpiece in the form of a finished, polished manuscript.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Capturing Authentic Childhood Moments

Writing for children is both a joy and a challenge. As with any work of fiction, no matter how fantastical, characters still need to be grounded in more mundane, true-to-life experiences to build a relatable connection with readers and establish emotional resonance. Kids look for themselves in the books they read; they crave characters who are struggling with similar doubts and fears, trials and triumphs.

While I find it much more exciting to write about ghosts and magic and epic adventures, I’ve realized the importance of including plenty of smaller, more personal moments that explore a character’s complexities and vulnerabilities.

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Some experiences, though not necessarily unique to childhood, truly shape a child’s world. A change in family dynamics, friendships, home or school life, etc. can cause that whole world to shift, creating ripples that color every choice, every reaction. Even small events can have a powerful impact if they trigger emotions such as joy, pride, sorrow, fear, or embarrassment.

Think back to the moments from your own childhood, both good and bad, that are seared into your memory—the ones that influenced the things you love, the things you fear, the person you’ve become. Some memories are magical, others awkward or painful. Perhaps you can still feel the grass beneath your bare feet as you play hide and seek on a warm summer evening. You may still hear the sound of your parents fighting, or the buzz of the dentist’s drill as you had your first cavity filled.

As you invent experiences for your own young characters, here are a few possibilities to get you started:

  • Losing a beloved toy or comfort object
  • Fear of the dark
  • A visit to the doctor/dentist/orthodontist
  • First day of school/attending a new school
  • Moving to a new town
  • A best friend moving away
  • Evolving friend groups
  • Mean teachers—or exceptional ones
  • Homework or school projects
  • An embarrassing moment in front of peers
  • Bullies
  • First pet
  • First crush
  • Saving up money for a coveted item
  • A new baby in the house
  • Coping as the oldest/middle/youngest child
  • Parents divorcing or remarrying

It can be easy for adults to brush off the worries of children as simple or “no big deal,” because we forget. We lose perspective. That’s why it’s critical to talk to kids, observe, read, and create connections with their reality, their problems and struggles. Kids are masters at detecting authenticity—or the lack of it. We, as writers, can’t simply fake our way through. We have to get it right.

It’s too important not to.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Building Blocks of Character, part 2

This is the second installment of a two-part series on creating strong characters, based on principles discussed in the The Art of Character by David Corbett. Part one focused on:

  1. Sources for character inspiration;
  2. The protagonist’s driving need or end goal; and
  3. Using our own emotional lives to better understand our characters.

Now, in part two, we’ll cover three more essential elements: physical traits, psychological profile, and a concept known as the tyranny of motive.

Once you’ve identified your protagonist, remember that he should be the one with the most at stake in the story. As your main character, he is the one who feels the strongest motivation to act and “elicits deepest empathy from the reader.”

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Establishing the stakes is critical: what the character wants, why, and the risks he’s willing to take to get it. Your protagonist should engage in “meaningful conflict,” showing both vulnerability and strength along the way. A rich, layered portrayal of both physical and psychological traits helps readers connect with your character and makes the struggles on the page feel true to life.

Physical Traits

Some writers prefer to leave a character’s physical description to the reader’s imagination. Others envision—and portray—their characters down to the finest detail. Between these two extremes, identifying at least some physical attributes is necessary to flesh out how a character engages with the world around her. Consider how age, height, race, gender, health, and a host of other factors influence a character’s day-to-day choices and interactions. Physical traits serve a purpose beyond simple descriptors. Corbett poses three key questions:

-How does her outward appearance reflect her inner life?

-How does her appearance affect her behavior?

-How does her appearance affect others’ reactions to her?

He further urges writers to envision physical details not as a list on a page but scenically, i.e., how does each trait shape the story itself?

Psychological Nature

Your character’s inner world includes “her emotions, her feelings…her passions, her fears, her abiding loves, her poisonous hatreds, her hopes, her shame, her reservoirs of swagger, her echoing doubts.”

This is territory well beyond eye color and shoe size. Human beings are complex, fascinating creatures. Your main character (and secondary characters) should be, too. Explore the rich potential of your character’s psyche. Examine friendships and family relationships. Envision dreams, disappointments, slights, and successes. Even if every detail doesn’t end up in print, your readers will forget that this character is not a living, breathing person. They will identify with her, root for her, and keep turning the pages until they learn her ultimate fate.

Corbett asserts that the most revealing psychological factor is fear. In most cases, our reaction to fear is not something we can consciously control. It exposes hidden personal truths that we cannot suppress or manipulate. Your character’s fears are the clearest path to her strengths and weaknesses. “The measure of every act of courage,” Corbett writes, “is the fear it overcomes.”

The Tyranny of Motive

Tyranny of motive is defined as the urgency of what a character wants, the “vibrant way her craving and need defines her. It demands obedience—and inspires rebellion.”

As discussed in Part One, the protagonist’s driving need dictates the story’s momentum. It’s critical to the narrative. As authors, it’s our job to both serve and challenge this motivation. In other words, your characters must be given the freedom to act against expectation. They should be allowed to reveal themselves as the action unfolds. We may be their creators, but fully formed characters should surprise us with their choices, their failings, and their triumphs.

Above all, do not judge your character. Instead, make every effort to understand his motivation. Then, as you’re writing, keep in mind that “Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.” Consider the times you’ve written out an entire inner dialogue or bluntly described how a character is feeling. This veers into the territory of show vs. tell. Instead, use action and dialogue whenever possible to show us what makes your protagonist tick.

To close, I’ll share my favorite quote from The Art of Character: “This balancing act [between expectation and surprise] requires creating an initial impression of the character that feels coherent or whole, then shoving her through a doorway toward the unknown, into a gauntlet of trials and reversals, revelations and confusions, that will shred her familiar, coherent sense of self and transform her utterly.”

I learned more from this book on craft than from perhaps any other to date. It’s a resource that I will return to with every new project as I attempt to bring new characters to life.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

For the Love of Story

Part two of my Art of Character post will appear in May, mostly because I need a little more time to complete my own character revisions! In the meantime, today’s topic was inspired by a recent experience at Salt Lake Comic Con/FanX.

This was my first-ever fan convention. It was one of my bucket list items. I rented a table in the author area of KidCon, where kids could play quidditch, attend a princess tea party, or navigate a dragon obstacle course. I talked to children, parents, grandparents, librarians, burgeoning authors, and random conference goers. People were happy, polite, curious, kind. And their costumes were to die for! There were hordes of Hogwarts students, plenty of superheroes and supervillains—even a group of aliens from Galaxy Quest. My very favorite was The Man in the Yellow Hat.

When I had time to explore the vendor floor, I was blown away by the massive turnout, the merch, and the absolute, unabashed enthusiasm for favorite fandoms. More than once that day I commented out loud, “These are my people!”

What drives all these passionate people? I believe it’s the shared love of story. It’s like we were all walking around going, “You like stories? Hey—I like stories too!”

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Story provides an endless supply of positive benefits, including inspiration, escape, exploration, knowledge, and understanding. You get heroic characters to idolize, the thrill of vicarious adventure, and the possibility of recognizing yourself in the pages of a book. Stories examine the human experience. They ask questions about who we are, who we could be, and the things we share in common.

How amazing is it to be a part of the storytelling community? To create something shiny and new where nothing existed before? No matter what genre you write or what audience you write for, there is a reader out there who will connect with YOUR words. Authors have many different reasons for writing. We have different goals we hope to achieve. But that promise of connection is something I think we all aspire to.

That day at the convention, I met a tween who had read my book and who came over to tell me how much he loved it. The moment was a true bright spot in an already memorable day. Words on a page forged that connection. It reminded me not only of why I write, but how important is it for there to be lots of writers and stories out there—to fill that vital human need for story.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Building Blocks of Character: Part 1

Building Block pt 1

This is a middle grade manuscript. It has Issues.

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Based on feedback from a recent round of submissions, its characters are getting a makeover.

Of course there are plenty of other Issues I could tackle, but for this revision I’m focusing on making the main characters more well-developed and relatable.

art-of-character-200To research this topic, I’ve been reading THE ART OF CHARACTER by David Corbett.   It’s a fantastic resource, but I’m only about halfway through because it’s absolutely packed with expert advice and spot-on writing exercises. So today’s post will be part one of a two-part series on the building blocks of character, based on what I’ve learned from Corbett’s work. That should give me plenty of incentive to finish the book (and my revisions) by early April.

(And don’t forget Friday’s excellent post by Rosalyn Eves about creating strong characters.)

Where do characters come from? Most do not simply waltz onto the page, fully formed. Corbett writes that characters typically stem from five main sources:

  1. The story
  2. The unconscious
  3. Inspiration from art, music, or nature
  4. Real people
  5. Composite characters

Each source has pros and cons, so it’s common for writers to use some combination of these. But it’s more than a matter of throwing traits at the wall to see what sticks. There should be thought and purpose behind who a character is, and why. We must tread carefully when it comes to common character tropes, e.g. the angry loner, the self-centered jock, the bookish nerd. A character will not feel real or relatable unless we as writers look beyond the usual stereotypes to create more layered, nuanced portrayals. And while it may feel innovative to write a character who’s both devastatingly handsome and painfully shy, or a picky eater who’s also a master chef, keep in mind that readers will cry foul when a character rings false or strains credibility.

Next, characters require a driving need, desire, or end goal. Especially the main character. Without one, your story will languish without momentum or urgency. Readers want to care about your protagonist and her journey, whether it’s across the ocean or across the street.

The obstacles that stand in the way of a character’s goal(s) create richness and texture on the page. Hidden traits come to light as the protagonist tackles these challenges. As writers, Corbett counsels that we must allow our characters to develop organically as the story unfolds. They must be allowed to surprise us—and ultimately the reader—with the choices they make.

Finally, Corbett maintains that in order to more fully understand our characters, authors need a measure of self-awareness. That is, we need the ability to view our own emotional lives through an objective lens: to analyze our desires, our weaknesses and disappointments, and then be willing to explore, embellish, and expose them on the page in the form of fictional characters. Easy, right? While it may sound daunting, the end result is that elusive realism and relatability that we all work so hard to achieve.

One simple tip that resonated with me was to use photographs to create a more fully formed picture of a character in your mind.

I happened to have a stack of antique photos purchased from a yard sale, so I dug them out of storage. They are fascinating in their own right, but even more so when viewed with the purpose of picking out a face to use for my main character, Milo.

Here’s the photo I chose:

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After the pic sat on my desk for a few weeks, staring at me with those knowing eyes, I realized this boy is not Milo. He’s Charles, the protagonist for my next middle grade book, which I’m also working on as time permits.

Though it took me by surprise, I didn’t mind this little wrinkle at all. Inspiration is inspiration, and by its very nature is unpredictable.

I still haven’t found just the right photo for Milo, but I’m always keeping an eye out. In the meantime, I’m trying to more consciously gather material for both current and future projects. Every note, every photo, every observation becomes a potential building block for creating memorable, relatable characters.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Sharpening Your Focus

Life gets crazy. It’s not uncommon for me to go several days without having time to write. And then, when I do sit down with plans to churn out several thousand words, I find myself unable to concentrate. My attention wanders all over the place, because I’m out of practice.

Concentration is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. I’ve tried most of the usual techniques, with varying degrees of success.

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Eliminating Distractions

These are commonsense, quick-fix steps, such as finding a quiet place to work, turning off the wi-fi, hiring a babysitter, or clearing your desk of clutter. In theory, they all sound perfectly logical. In reality, I’ve been known to find all new distractions to steal my attention. Suddenly the furniture needs dusting, or the books on the shelf need to be reorganized by color.

Taking Breaks

Take a brisk, ten-minute walk. Vacuum the living room. Start a load of laundry. All valid and reasonable ways to get the blood flowing and reset your wandering mind. But I find that if I get up from the computer, even for five minutes, once I sit down again (if at all) it takes me another half hour to settle back into work mode.

Meditating

This is an ideal way to clear your mind. It works for me every time. Puts me right to sleep.

If the most obvious solutions aren’t working for you, consider this: the four most common obstacles to a productive work environment are boredom, stress, lack of sleep, and hunger. The trick is to know yourself and your patterns, so you can initiate proactive prevention. If you get the munchies while you write, keep snacks close at hand. (Although I’ve found that the best snack for keeping me on task—peanut M&Ms—is also the absolute worst thing for my waistline.) Getting enough sleep the night before is important, but not always possible. Try a 20-minute power nap, if you can squeeze one in. And music is an excellent way to fight boredom, as long as you choose something that inspires you without disrupting your concentration.

Stress, I believe, is a more complicated problem. Maybe your mind is spinning and you can’t seem to let go of your worries. Or, in the opposite extreme, your mind is blank, the screen is blank, and you can’t think of a single thing to type. Engaging with another human being is often the best way to snap out of both scenarios. Send a text to your spouse or email a writing buddy, just to get your concerns out in the open. Even if they don’t respond right away, you have freed up space in your overactive imagination for more creative pursuits.

For another perspective on how to increase concentration, I went looking for research-based articles that explore less conventional techniques. According to the Wall Street Journal, for example, doodling can actually help boost memory and creativity.

Don’t you love the idea of doodling away distraction? I plan to give it a try this week, lack of artistic talent notwithstanding.

And the Atlantic has a fantastic article from 2013 about how certain “brain-training games” can improve cognitive function and fight the natural effects of aging on mental engagement.

Even crossword puzzles and memorization games can sharpen your focus. Maybe all those hours I spend playing Scramble with Friends aren’t a waste of time, after all!

Whether we like it or not, the ability to focus for long-ish periods of time is an essential skill for writers. Finding the best way to improve your attention span may require some trial and error, but the increase in productivity is well worth the effort.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.