Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wednesday Writing Workout: Putting Together the Pieces of Your Story

Today I'm pleased to share a Wednesday Writing Workout contributed by the inspiring and talented author Margo L. Dill.

I first met Margo some years ago at an SCBWI-Illinois writing conference. I believe she'd already sold her first novel, the middle-grade historical Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg (White Mane Kids), but it hadn't been published yet. With today's post, we join Margo's blog tour celebrating the release of her second novel, Caught Between Two Curses (Rocking Horse Publishing), a YA light paranormal romance novel about the Curse of the Billy Goat on the Chicago Cubs. Margo has two more books under contract--both picture books--one with High Hill Press and the other with Guardian Angel Publishing. Besides being a children's author, she is also a freelance editor with Editor 911: Your Projects Are My Emergency! and she is part of the WOW! Women On Writing e-zine's staff. There, she works as an editor, blogger, instructor, and social media manager. When she's not writing, editing, or teaching online, Margo loves to spend time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and crazy Boxer dog, Chester, in St. Louis, Missouri. You can learn more at Margo's website.

Here's a summary of Caught Between Two Curses:
Seventeen-year-old Julie Nigelson is cursed. So is her entire family. And it’s not just any-old-regular curse, either—it’s strangely connected to the famous “Curse of the Billy Goat” on the Chicago Cubs. Julie must figure out this mystery while her uncle lies in a coma and her entire love life is in ruins: her boyfriend Gus is pressuring her to have sex, while her best friend Matt is growing more attractive to her all the time. Somehow, Julie must figure out how to save her uncle, her family’s future, and her own love life—and time is running out!
As a die-hard Cubs fan, I'm really looking forward to reading Margo's new book. (I'm hoping the main character solves not only her problem, but the Cubs' curse too!)

And now, here's Margo's three-part Wednesday Writing Workout.

Wednesday Writing Workout: Putting the Pieces Together

Writing a novel is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my daughter. I’ve been teaching her to do the edge pieces first and then fill in the middle. This reminds me of writing a novel because writers usually start with an idea, maybe a plot or an interesting character with a problem—in other words, our border. We build our foundation for a story by piecing together our ideas. But sometimes, that beginning border, even with a few pieces filled in the middle, is not finished or even sturdy. Here are exercises I use with my WOW! Women On Writing novel students to add more pieces to their puzzle and come out with a strong, final product—a finished, publishable novel! (These can also be used with short stories and picture books.)
1. Create characters with internal and external problems.
The characters I remember best are the ones that struggled with both internal and external problems. What’s the problem your character has that he must overcome in the novel? Trying to raise money for a new bike? Figuring out how to deal with a sibling? Tired of moving around and always being the new kid at school? These are all external problems, and the ones that our plots are built on. 

But your character also needs an internal problem! In Caught Between Two Curses, Julie has to break two curses; but while she does this, she also struggles with her self-esteem and confidence as well as what love means. These are her internal struggles. While she rushes around to save her uncle, the events in the novel help her grow and work through her internal problems.

Just ask yourself these four questions either before you write your novel or even during revisions:
     a. What is your main character’s internal struggle?
     b. How does he or she solve it?
     c. What is the external problem in the novel that affects the main character?
     d. How does he or she solve it?

2. Brainstorm problems
If you find yourself with a strong border for your novel—an exciting beginning and an ending that will leave readers talking for years, but you are stuck in the muddy middle, make a list of 10 problems that a person can have that’s the same age as your main character and in the same time period. For example, my novel’s main character is 17, lives in Chicago in present day. Problems she can have are: pressure to have sex, temptation to do drugs, failing classes, negative body image, disloyal friends, etc. 

Once you have this list, are there any of these problems that you could turn into a subplot for either your main character or a minor character or sidekick? Subplots can often dry up the muddy middle and keep readers hiking to the end.

3. "Then what?"
The last exercise asks a simple question, “Then what?” Each time you answer, make the problem or situation worse for your main character. You don’t actually have to use all of these horrible situations in your book, but they may help you push your main character a little harder. Here’s an example:

     Julie learns a curse is on her family.
     Then what?

     The curse makes her uncle fall in a coma.
     Then what?

     Julie’s grandma says her uncle will die before he is 35 if the curse isn’t broken.
     Then what?

     He is 35 in less than 5 months.
     Then what?

     She has no idea what to do to break the curse.

Using these writing exercises while you are piecing together your novel will give you a complete story in no time! 

Thanks, Margo, for this terrific Wednesday Writing Workout. Congratulations on your new novel. I look forward to reading it.

Readers, do let us know if you try these exercises. If you'd like to read about where Margo gets her inspiration, check out this blog post. And if you haven't already done so, be sure to enter our current giveaway for a chance to win The Poem That Will Not End: Fun with Poetic Forms and Voices (Two Lions). See April's interview with the author, Joan Bransfield Graham, for complete details.

Happy writing!


Margo Dill said...

Thank you, Carmela, and the rest of the Teaching Authors for allowing me to do a Wednesday Workout on our blog! :)

Carmela Martino said...

We're happy to have you here, Margo!

Jill said...

Wow, excellent advice! I'll be returning to this post again and again.

Margo Dill said...

Jill, thank you so much! I hope it's helpful for your writing. :)

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks for sharing a WWW with our readers, Margo!
It goes without saying: I sure hope Julie figures out a way - and soon! - to lift that Curse on my Cubbies.

April Halprin Wayland said...

I'm late to the party, but Margo Dill's advice is definitely worth saving. It condenses so much in just a few words. Wow--thanks!