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How I Write: Dissecting frogs (or starting a new story)

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And what a timely subject for me. (Stars are aligning as I write.)

Sorry, I’m not going to give you in-depth details on what I normally do. I can say that so far, I’ve done the usual – the idea, researching, plotting, outlining.

But I’m not starting to write. I refuse to jump into a new story without bringing new skills to it. I want to figure out how I can improve.

My weakness? Structure and pacing (And yes, I’ve read great craft books, but, somehow, that doesn’t always translate.)

So, this time around, I’m choosing middle grade stories and dissecting them like a seventh grader would a frog in science class.


How to dissect a story:

  • Pull out your scalpel, and throw your head back for your best maniacal laugh.
  • Jot down what happens in each chapter as you read.
  • After reading, break the story into: Act I, Act II, Act II climax (big twist), Act III, story climax, resolution.
  • Record major plot points or clues.
  • Record the logline (found in the front of the book).
  • Record what you did and didn’t like about it.
  • Wipe the bloody ink on your lab coat and toss in the wash.

Four books have passed across my laboratory table. The next two are waiting nervously in a spare room. I could tell you the amazing things I’ve learned but it probably won’t do you any good. You will learn best hands-on.

Check out Alexandra Sokoloff for the break down of story structure. After all, I’m following her suggestion.

So, how do you start a new story?

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How I Write: Do I need to read a 1,000 word text book or not?(Stages of research)

Idea Creation, plotting,  (Click on the banner for other blogs!)

Welcome to our blog series: How I Write! Feel free to join in the fun.

Okay, so I guess I gotta figure out how I research. Here goes nothing. I wrote a time travel to an ancient civilization. It required a lot of reading. But since I loved learning, it wasn’t a chore.

 Stage One  (I’m not writing historical but one of my characters is a history buff or he’s into magic tricks or she’s into skateboarding.)

  •  Google the topic. Unofficial websites aren’t for bibliographies but it’s a way to get your feet wet.
  •  Read children’s nonfiction – again, not for a bibliography, but it will give you an idea of what is covered for different age groups.
  • Read historical fiction on the topic.

Just these three simple steps might be enough to spark your plot and add depth to your characters.

Stage Two (I’m writing a time travel or a historical fantasy)

  •  Go to and type in your subject matter. Once you click on a book, you’ll find other books on the topic. Read the reviews. Pick out several current ones and order through interlibrary loan (if your library doesn’t have it).
  •  While waiting for your books go through the steps of Stage One.
  •  If you think a book on loan will be extremely helpful – order your own copy. (Seriously, the 1,000 page college text book was an incredible resource.)
  •  Look in the bibliography of a non-fiction adult book for further resources.
  •  As I read, I wrote down fun facts and snippets of description on index cards (along with the page number and resource) and filed them away in a box under headings: people, clothing, food, war, religion, economy…etc.
  •  At some point, you’ll feel like you have a good enough grasp on your research that you are ready to start writing or plotting (depending on how your write). After your first draft you’ll see where you need more specific research.

 Stage Three (I’m writing about an ancient civilization and need primary resources! Help!)

  •  Look at the bibliography in the back of those big nonfiction books.
  •  Go to college libraries and ask the reference librarian for help.
  • Often times, during your research, you’ll read about a primary source. For the ancient Maya it was a book written and translated by a Spanish priest during the Inquisition. Incredible! That’s all I can say.
  •  Another primary source is a book on the art of that time period. One book I read had pictures of Maya art and the author interpreted their dress. Primary source.
  •  Often these humongo books are written by college professors who are still alive and kicking. Google them and you might find an email or number to set up an informal interview.

Of course, the best research is to visit the country, state, town or time period. So when I’m not writing or researching, I’m working on a time travel machine in my basement made out of popsicles, paperclips, root beer and Mentos.

Your turn. You tell me. What topics have you researched in the name of writing? Any tips? Look in the comments for a book I read that used history in a unique way but wasn’t historical fiction.

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How I Write (You mean I have to have a plot?)

Well, technically, yeah. You need a plot. You know the whole character wants something and can’t get it and tries multiple times until he succeeds? Yeah. That.

 Recently I experienced an epic total pantsing failure.

 I tried. Honestly. I said, okay, I have an idea. I have a title. I’m just going to go with it. I wrote 6 chapters. And though there are some funny moments, touching moments, and okay dialogue – it was missing a backbone.

 My story was a gushy, mushy, gelatin-like substance with nothing solid to hold it together. But I still had my idea and my title.

 So I started plotting. And it was as good as eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

 How I plot:

  1. I open a document and start free writing a bunch of What if and What then questions.
  2. I let it sit a couple days. I research. I let my brain work on it while I do other things. I dream. I think about the story I would want to read.
  3. I go back and pull out what sounds good. I write a logline. And then a paragraph summary. And I build from there. This might change drastically over the course of the story. My first idea is never my best.  
  4. Then I’ll work out the structure according to the 3 acts. Inciting force. First act climax. Middle of story twist. Dark moment. And then I build scene by scene toward the climax.
  5. And I’ll write a scene by scene outline.
  6. Finally, I start writing the first draft.

Does my outline change? Yes. And I adjust from there.

Constantly through out the outlining and writing I ask: How can I make this scene bigger or better? How can I make things worse for my character? How can I add emotion?

Click on the banner to find out how other writers plot! How do you plot? Any tips or tricks? Plotter or pantser? Share. 

Have you entered my magnficent middle grade give away?

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How I Write: Where the heck did you get that idea? (And my dirty little secret.)

Welcome to our new summer series about how I write. You might learn more than you want to know. You might find something useful. You might just want to join in the fun. All credit for the idea and outline of topics goes to Ansha Kotyk.

You read a book or a great premise and say to yourself – it should be easy to come up with an idea like that.

What not to do:

  1. Sit at your computer staring at the blank page hour after hour.
  2. Eat bags of jelly beans hoping the sugar rush will spark an idea.
  3. Do yoga while listening to classical music to usher in the muse. (Okay that might work for some people.)
  4. Let discouragement take over because you can’t seem to come up with your next great idea.
  5. Put pressure on your brain to create.

 I’ve tried a couple of those, and trust me, they don’t work.

 I’ve come up with ideas several different ways.

  1.   Research a topic of interest and often real stories and events will spark an idea.
  2.  Take two things I love and mash them together.
  3.  I’ve had one dream about a character and a situation but I’m so not ready to write about it. Someday.
  4. Walk past an amazing, unique setting or situation and immediately think, book idea.
  5. Take a real event in my life or my children’s life and exaggerate it, twist it around, shake it up, stretch it out, take it dancing – and see what happens.
  6. My friend says something about her tween daughter and whamo – perfect idea.
  7. Rebellion against trending subject and plots.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is take pressure off my brain. Read. Watch movies. Do dishes. Clean my kids’ room. Exercise. Be social. Because even brains needs a vacay.

And now for my dirty little secret. I write middle grade. But it’s really hard for me to find a contemporary middle grade book I absolutely love. 

And that’s why on Friday, I’m giving away some middle grade books that I absolutely enjoyed reading. Two book packages. With two great authors. Stay tuned.

Check out how my crit partners get their ideas. Fabulous crit partner Ansha. Fabulous crit partner Kris. And fabulous crit partner Jen.

Helpful posts on generating ideas here and here and here.

How do you get your ideas? Share!

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