September 28, 2010


There are lots of good posts about goals, motivation, and conflict, including an excellent one on today's Adventures in Children's Publishing blog.

As much as I enjoy discovering these ideas, my fallback is a strategy I used in the classroom during reading instruction:  Somebody-Wanted-But-So (SWBS)*.  In my version, the goal is present tense:
           1.  Somebody (a character)
           2.  Wants (has a goal)
           3.  But  (something stands in the way)
           4.  So (s/he tries to overcome it)

It's simple, succinct, and flexible; you can apply it to an entire book, or break it down by chapter and/or scene. When applied to each character, it helps summarize the overall conflicts within a story.

Take the Big Bad Wolf. He wants to eat the Little Pigs, but they won't let him in, so he blows down their houses and gobbles them up. When he can't level the brick house, he tries to sneak in via the chimney, only to fall into a vat of boiling water.

Why does he fail? Because the smartest of the pigs has his own SWBS: he wants to thrive in a hostile world, so he builds a secure house, but when the wolf finds another way in, the pig figures out a way to thwart him.

THE WIZARD OF OZ is a great example as well. The characters are memorable not just for their personalities, but because each one has a clearly defined SWBS.

For my own story, I used this approach from page one. My MC wants to meet the Mermaid Queen, but her parents refuse to bring her along on their monthly visits, so she devises a plan to sneak aboard their boat with the help of a dazzling jewel, a scheme that backfires in ways she never imagined.

So there you have it: goal, motivation, conflict, and resolution, all in an easy-to-use formula.

Sound good?

*This strategy is attributed to MacOn, Bewell & Vogt, 1991. For a template of SWBS, go to and click on the chart link.

September 21, 2010

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

(All you sinners out there know what that means.)

I’ve been terrible about responding in a timely manner to people who’ve tagged me, so today I begin to make amends.

But first, I want to alert you all to a fabulous 1,000-follower contest over at Angela Ackerman’s blog, The Bookshelf Muse. If you haven’t seen Angela’s wonderful thesauruses, get thee hence! While you’re there, sign up for a chance to win critiques or a three-month mentorship. Good luck!

The most marvelous VR Barkowski tagged me with "5 Questions". My answers:

Question 1 - Where were you five years ago?
1. Teaching second grade.
2. Hiking in Maui (spring).
3. Wondering what possessed me to buy an accordion (summer).
4. Recovering from a car accident caused by a woman talking on her cell phone (fall).
5. Contemplating early retirement so I could focus on writing.

Question 2 - Where would you like to be in five years?
1. Living closer to my hometown, San Francisco.
2. Agented and successfully published.
3. Improving with each book I write.
4. A better musician.
5. Swimming with the manatees.

Question 3 - What's on your to-do list today?
1. Revising my MG fantasy.
2. Blogging.
3. Exercise (balance ball and yoga, most likely).
4. Reading more of Catching Fire.
5. Refilling the bird feeder and birdbath.

Question 4 - What snacks do you enjoy?
1. Nachos.
2. Dark chocolate.
3. Organic apples with white cheddar cheese and Ak Mak crackers.
4. Walnuts.
5. Peanut butter on saltines.

Question 5 - What five things would you do if you were a billionaire?
1. Buy a huge parcel of land, build a good-sized main house and lots of cottages, then invite writers for all-expenses-paid retreats (transportation, bed, board, and stipend included).
2. Hire personal trainers and masseuses for myself and my friends.
3. Employ a driver to shuttle me everywhere.
4. Travel first class or bypass the airlines altogether with my own jet.
5. Start a college scholarship for deserving students.

Now it’s time to pass the tag along on to five bloggers I think you might enjoy:
1.    Catherine A. Winn
2.    Rahma Krambo
3.    Icy Sedgwick
4.    Rachna Chhabria
5.    Gretchen McNeil 

And thanks again to VR, whose blog is always worth a visit.

September 14, 2010

We Are the Message Bearers

I don't usually write about politics, but a recent visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. reminded me how easy it is to manipulate public opinion with carefully chosen words and images.

I was in town when the Museum featured an exhibit dedicated to Nazi propaganda. Hitler owned every media outlet and had a huge bureaucracy devoted solely to communications: publishing, airwaves, and film. He commissioned children's literature to demonize the enemy. Every household was given a radio so no one would miss his speeches. His newsreels flooded movie houses. In other words, he totally controlled the message.

Imagine how he would have used the social media available now. Scary.

Why should we care? Because we are today's message bearers, especially when it comes to writing for children:

- When we create characters and pit them against every imaginable foe, we encourage triumph over adversity.
- When we bring diverse cultures to life, we remind readers how much they have in common with others around the globe.
- When we breathe life into women and men seeking justice, we reveal a world where even the downtrodden have champions.
- When we craft stories that help children and young adults navigate various stages of life, we offer hope.

And in doing so, we take a stand against the small minds that would divide us.