The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

The Waldorf Philosophy and the Middle Grade Reader

I homeschool my children using the Waldorf philosophy. It’s a beautiful education filled with art and music and delayed academics. But part of the philosophy has really helped me understand what a middle grade book should be. And it is the philosophy of the seven-year stages.

waldorf middle grade.png

In Waldorf philosophy, there’s this idea of the seven year stages of childhood. The first seven years (0-7) are all about the “will.” This is when a child is really learning how to use their body. They are full of energy and constantly moving and exploring and learning new ways to move. Everything from walking, to skipping, to doing the monkey bars. Movement and play is the most important part of this stage.

The stories that are supposed to be brought to kids at this age are simple stories, full of repetition. Which explains why picture books need to have a rhythm and some kind of repetitive quality to them. Children at this age see the world in black and white with no gray area and the stories Waldorf tells them at this age reflect that. In Kindergarten and grade 1, it’s all fairy tales. And think about how fairy tales work.

The princess is beautiful and good and gets a happy ending.

The witch is ugly and evil and gets her just punishment.

Good is beautiful and rewarded. Evil is ugly and punished. The end. Like I said, no gray area.

And this worldview is perfect for that stage of childhood. It makes children feel safe. It makes their world feel ordered.

But then we come to the next stage of childhood. The years from 8 to 14. In the Waldorf philosophy, these years are called the “feeling” years. They are when the child really learns to start seeing outside themselves. They begin to have empathy, to think more consciously about how their actions can affect others. They understand that everyone has feelings. And they start to become more aware of their own emotions, able to talk about them more, name them, and control them.

It’s during this stage that children start to see some of that gray area that was missing from the first seven years. They understand that sometimes good people make mistakes and that “bad” people can do good things. They are beginning to see that their parents are not infallible and grown-ups don’t always know everything.

The stories brought to this age group in the Waldorf philosophy reflect that growing awareness and complexity. In grade two, they learn the stories of Saints and great heroes to help them see the potential people have for goodness. And they also learn fables, to see the potential people have for folly and selfishness. This continues in grades 3, 4, and 5 as they learn the stories of the Old Testament and the great mythologies of the world. Who better to show children that greatness AND selfishness can lie in the same person than some of those Greek gods?

This idea of gently introducing children to the goodness within people and the not-so-good things within them is really what middle-grade literature is all about. MG lit opens up the world to the young reader. It shows them that life can be hard, but they can overcome. That endings can be bitter but also sweet. It helps them see a world that is complex and not really full of bad guys and good guys. But like Jem says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “I think there’s just one kind of folks—folks.”

What a great privilege and responsibility, to bring life with all its ups and downs to this budding reader. To teach them empathy, introduce them to hard subjects, and then fill them up with hope and courage and send them into the next stage of childhood.

I think when we truly understand this idea of where the middle grade reader is in their development, that we can truly honor them with fantastic stories that are what they need for their worldview. Middle grade readers need stories that don’t talk down to them but also still honor their innocence. They need stories where the adults don’t know everything and are flawed characters, but that also show there is always an adult who is dependable and safe. They need stories without a true “bad guy.” They need to learn empathy for the victim AND the bully. And most of all, they need to have hope. I think these words from Anne Frank really sum up where the middle grade reader is when they look at the world, even in the worst of circumstances.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

This idea is what you need to honor most in your books.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Landing the Plane

From a physics standpoint, flying a plane is pretty straightforward. Because a plane is designed the way it is, all you really need to do to take off is to apply enough forward thrust, and then gently pull back on the stick. The Bernoulli effect kicks in and creates lift, and you’re up, up, and away. And once you’re in the air—barring any major problems—maintaining level flight is relatively simple as well. Shoot, planes basically fly themselves. The real challenge isn’t in the takeoff or cruising, but in the landing. Pilots will tell you that landing a plane is always the most challenging part of any flight, and it’s not hard to understand why. After all, you’re trying to wrestle a giant metal tube with wings traveling several hundred miles an hour down to the ground without crashing into a giant fireball.

Writing can be likened to flying in this regard. You have the takeoff, the flight, and the landing. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t have a problem coming up with story ideas. I have a whole folder on my computer filled with great beginnings to stories that I’m constantly adding to. I see a sad news headline about police arresting a woman who was pushing the body of her dead toddler on the swings, and I see the beginning of a horror story or mystery novel. I read on Wikipedia about the “Dancing Plague” that occurred in Strasborg in 1518, where hundreds of people suddenly and mysteriously started dancing for days on end, and my mind starts sparking with ideas. Just the other day I thought up the opening scene to a crime thriller based off the recent “Pokemon Go!” game that’s so popular at the moment.

So yeah, I’m awesome at story beginnings. The story I’m currently working on is a good example. I had a solid idea and got the plane in the air with very little problem. And I’ve been cruising along smoothly for a while writing the middle parts. It’s ending the darn thing that has turned me into Ted Stryker sweating buckets in the cockpit while trying to land the plane.

You know the feeling, I’m sure. Once you’re up in the air, so to speak, your story will only end one of three ways. One possibility is that because you’re not sure how to end the story, you’ll putter around in the air until you just run out of fuel and crash. Another possibility is that you’ll do something terribly wrong during the ending, and you’ll crash. Neither of those options are acceptable, and your readers will never forgive you if you ruin their flight by crashing and burning the ending. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an amazing story that kept me on the edge of my seat with suspense, but fell apart in the last ten minutes. Lord of the Flies was all but ruined for me because of the very last line of the book. TV shows such as Castle, How I Met Your Mother, and LOST are other examples of otherwise excellent storytelling being hijacked by weak and/or terrible endings.

To avoid these same kinds mistakes, let me suggest a few ideas to help you land your story in one piece.

It’s all about conflict. 

Your story’s ending should be a natural extension of the primary conflict. It’s the answer to the question the story has been asking all along. Will the homicide detective catch the murderer? Will Alan finally get up the courage to confess his love for Stacy? Will Blast Ironsteak find a way to save the world from the nefarious schemes of Dr. Darkbad? That question is the reason your readers have been following along, turning pages with ever increasing speed. If the ending doesn’t answer the question the story has been asking, then there’s going to be trouble.

In the story I’m currently working on, I was having a difficult time trying to figure out the ending. I went through draft after draft of unsatisfying endings before I made a stunning realization. I hadn’t introduced the primary conflict early enough in the narrative. I had stuck it in towards the end, and the story literally was ending two paragraphs later. The story was starting off well enough, but then was just in a holding pattern for several thousand words until I decided to essentially say “and then this happened, which was bad, but it was okay, because they did this, and everything was okay. The end.” I had written the equivalent of the Snow White ride at Disneyland, which sets up the story, building tension as you ride along the darkened corridors, culminating with a huge mural showing Snow White and the dwarves on a cliff during a thunderstorm. Action! Suspense! Peril! And then you turn the corner and see “And they lived happily ever after!” painted on the exit. Lame.

Begin with the end in mind. 

This is related to knowing your conflict. If you’re having trouble finding a satisfying ending to your story, it could be that you aren’t clear what the conflict truly is. If that’s the case, you might consider where you want the story to end up at, and work backwards from there. If you know you want to end with a kiss on a beach at sunset between two reunited lovers, then you have to figure out how they got to that point. What kept them apart initially? How did these two crazy kids get back together? Who or what stood in their way? When you can answer those questions, you’ll begin to see where the path begins as well as ends. This sort of structuring can be difficult for discovery writers like me who run scrambling to the airplane at the first inkling of an idea, and are airborne before we know what to do next, but it can really help you not get lost along the way.
This is also why a truly satisfying ending hearkens back to earlier events in the story. A great ending will cause the reader to remember clues that have been scattered all throughout the story, so that when they look back from the ending, it will be obvious this was the only possible way this story could have ended. Think of the film The Sixth Sense. Clichéd twist ending notwithstanding, that story left a solid trail of crumbs all along the way so that the viewer says, “Of course! I should have seen this all along!”

You need a resolution. 

Every story needs an ending, yes, but to be a satisfying ending, it needs to be a resolution. It’s when the solution is presented, the loose ends are tied up, and the questions are answered. Cinderella gets her prince; Parzival foils the Sixers’ plans; the Spooky Spectre is unmasked and shown to be Old Man Carruthers (who woulda gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!).

I saw a YouTube video recently where someone edited various Pixar films to end at the sad parts. The results were horrifyingly funny. Jessie is abandoned in a box to the strains of Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me,” only to smash cut to the end credits and “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.” Mike and Sully send Boo’s closet door through the shredder and never see her again. Bing Bong fades away into nothingness, and then we get the Tripledent Gum jingle over the credits. Those endings are jarring because nothing gets resolved.

This doesn’t mean that in order to be a satisfying resolution, the ending must be a happy one. There are plenty of stories that end on spectacularly dark terms. Many of William Shakespeare’s best-known works, including Macbeth, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet are virtual slaughterhouses where most, if not all, of the main characters die. But they’re satisfying endings because the issues within the story have been resolved. Similarly, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist is WAY darker than the original story (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but . . . dang), yet King is on record saying he likes the darker ending better than the one he wrote. And dark as it is, it works perfectly for the story. It’s an emotional roundhouse kick to the gut, but it works.

The main character has to earn their ending. 

Ideally, your story’s ending will grow out of the choices made by the main character along the way. Whether it’s a happy or sad ending you envision for your main character, they’ve got to demonstrate along the way through their choices that they deserve the ending they’re headed towards. Frodo has earned the right to sail off into the Undying Lands because of the choice he made to take the Ring to Mt. Doom. The Blues Brothers go to jail, but it’s okay because they got the band back together and saved the orphanage. And Hamlet has to die because he chose the path of revenge.

Conclusion

In the end, all the fancy flying in the world won’t mean much if you can’t stick the landing. Your readers will be angry, and won’t likely trust you to tell them a story ever again. But by following these suggestions, you can avoid all that by carefully crafting an ending to your story that leaves them satisfied. You goal should be to write an ending that makes your reader want to turn around and read the story again. But first, you have to land that plane safely. And as the author, you’re the only person who can. So my parting thought to you is what Leslie Nielsen’s character said to Ted Stryker in Airplane!: “Good luck. We’re all counting on you.”

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults. Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers. Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Revision Tips: Revising for Plot

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably known the incredible high that comes from finishing a writing project. Few things are more satisfying than typing “The End” on the last page of a first draft.

But for me, as exciting as that moment is, the real work of writing doesn’t happen until the next draft. And the draft after that. And the draft after that.

I tell my students that first drafts are for them–but revisions are for readers.

Still, as important as revision is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by *all the things* that need attention: voice, characterization, setting, scene shifts, pacing, plot, formatting, and more.



VanDusen Botanical Garden maze”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VanDusen_Botanical_Garden_maze.jpg#mediaviewer/File:VanDusen_Botanical_Garden_maze.jpg

For me, the only way I can deal with this overwhelming sense that everything needs to be fixed at once is to tackle issues one at a time as I move through drafts. Obviously, if I notice an unrelated but glaring issue on a revision pass, I’ll address it. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to worry about voice or punctuation in a scene that might not make it past the second revision.

I’ve passed the last seven or eight months in varying degrees of revision exaltation/distress. Some days I’m excited for the obvious improvement to my MS–other days, I’m convinced I’m only writing aimlessly in circles. But I’ve settled into a revision pattern that seems to work for me:

1. Revise for plot.
2. Revise for character (sometimes parts of this have to happen along with revision #1–if I don’t know my character motivation, it’s hard to make the plot work).
3. Revise for scene and pacing.
4. Revise for voice.
5. Revise for polish: format, grammar, word choice, etc.

That’s not to say these are the *only* revisions I do. Sometimes I have to repeat a step. Sometimes I do additional revisions based around beta feedback. I’m about to dive into my eighth time this MS–after some recent beta feedback, I decided I needed to tackle the plot again.

So I’m offering up some tips on revising for plot.

Tip #1: Goals. Make sure the character has a goal that drives the entire plot. The goal can change, but the character has to want something, and has to be willing to endure some kind of opposition to get it. If the character is just doing one thing after another with no forward progress, that’s not plot.

Tip #2: Structure. Try reverse-plotting your story against a common plot structure. Make sure that your story hits all the important turning points. In my case, I realized that too much time elapsed between two critical turning points, which slowed down the story for readers.

Here are some I’ve found useful, both as I plan my stories and as I revise.

    • Dan Well’s 7-point story arc
    • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat sheet (though written for screen writers, there are lots of useful adaptations for writers. I love Jami Gold’s downloadable form. Read her explanation too–it’s terrific.
    • If the thought of multiple plot points is intimidating, Janice Hardy has a useful description of the three act story structure on her blog.
    • The Cockeyed Caravan also has some useful questions to ask about structure, as Part 3 of the Ultimate Story Checklist

Tip #3: Readers. Outside readers, both critique partners and beta readers, are critical for identifying parts of the plot that aren’t working. Beta readers might have an edge here, because they see the story in its entirety, rather than in pieces. If you’re like me, that initial advice that the plot doesn’t work might sting–and after fuming for a day or two you’ll realize that they’re right.

These aren’t the only  methods for revising for plot, but these have been the methods that have helped me the most as I muddle through my revisions.

What about you? What resources have been most helpful for you as you revise for plot?