Thirty Thursday: 30 Signs You’re a (Children’s) Writer-Parent

I’ve had so much fun writing—and had such a great response to—the my recent list posts , I’m considering whether to make them a regular blog feature. I kinda like the sound of “Fifty Friday”…but I’m not sure I can come up with 50 useful tips or ideas on a variety of topics. “Thirty Thursday”, maybe? We’ll see…


Meanwhile, have fun with today’s list. I hope it makes you laugh as much as I did!

30 Signs You’re a (Children’s) Writer Parent

  1. You lose an important field trip permission slip—only to rediscover it covered in story notes.
  2. You still read picture books at bedtime, although your kids are in middle school.
  3. You’re adept at writing in the midst of chaos.
  4. You spend orchestra concerts taking notes on the characters—I mean, children—on stage.
  5. You spend soccer practices and play dates scrawling in notebooks.
  6. You’ve learned to write in 10 minute increments.
  7. You not only eavesdrop on the kids in your carpool; afterwards, you write down their conversations.
  8. You’ve looked up from a writing session to discover—horror!—an hour disappeared and you we supposed to leave 10 minutes before to pick up your child.
  9. You compare favorite books with your kids and their friends.
  10. When you visit the library, people mistake you for the children’s librarian because you give so many book recommendations.
  11. When you try to buy a book for your child’s birthday, you convince someone else to purchase the last copy for *their* child, instead.
  12. Your family keeps track of book release dates instead of movie release dates.
  13. Your kids know to say "don’t blog about this!" when they do something particularly embarrassing.
  14. Your kids assign you new story ideas to pursue.
  15. Your smart phone devotes more memory to ebooks than to music.
  16. You’re practiced at writing with one hand while stirring spaghetti with the other.
  17. Your family knows to provide their own dinner when you get "that look".
  18. You calculate how long it will be until you can write about your child’s latest misadventure without him running away from home.
  19. Your child’s baby book lacks details of height and weight, but it’s stuffed with everything they’ve ever written.
  20. You’ve come home from errands with an idea written on your arm.
  21. Your kids have strong ideas about how authors could improve their books—especially if that author is you.
  22. You have to ask your critique group members if you can share their latest work-in-progress with your youngsters, who heard you laughing and now want to read it.
  23. You have to ask your kids to stop asking important questions during those moments you’re too absorbed in your work to do anything but mumble “sure”.
  24. When your teen says you don’t understand what it’s like—you can point them to your books, where you’ve probably thought more about what teen life is like than they have.
  25. When the other parent offers to edit your daughter’s English paper, she just rolls her eyes; obviously, she wants the expert to help.
  26. You filled your preschooler’s days with research expeditions instead of play dates.
  27. You buy more children’s books for yourself than for your children.
  28. Your dinner table conversation includes discussion of sentence diagramming, authors, plot twists, and Newberry award winners.
  29. Your kids know about ARCs. And they know that you, as a writer, can occasionally get your hands on one. And they beg you to get them the next book in a series before it’s actually published. Please?
  30. Your house may be messy, your cupboards disorganized, and your meal times chaotic, but your house is filled with a love of books and the people who create them—especially when that person is you!

I must admit, I write most of the above from personal experience. Luckily, my family still lets me write :).

Have a fun addition to this list? Leave it in the comments!


Finals! (and Other Teenage Troubles)

bookwormFINALS. They have descended on our kids—and, therefore, on the entire household, a week of exams preceded by what seems like two months of building stress, final projects, deadlines, and kids with too little sleep. It brings back memories of my own high school career—the intense emotions of being a teenager coupled with the stress that comes with knowing that what I did mattered, like, for the rest of my life. Teens are in that awkward middle place where they want to be in charge of their own lives—and yet, at the same time, they don’t. Being in charge is scary. Being grown-up is scary. The stakes are starting to get higher.

I often wonder if today’s teens face a more difficult transition than I did. In today’s world, you don’t just take your SATs; you have to take a class first in order to be competitive. You don’t just deal with friends and classmates (and bullies) face-to-face; you also deal with them online, on Facebook, MySpace, blogs, and email. You don’t participate in activities and sports solely for enjoyment; you pack your schedule to overflowing to round out your college apps. grads

But beneath all the surface specifics, I also wonder if the difference between being a teen today and being one ten, twenty, thirty years ago is smaller than it appears—because even if the world has changed, people haven’t.

Here’s what I mean: have you ever been super stressed out? Way too many appointments, meetings, and after-school activities to juggle, maybe, or a rush of work deadlines just before a big trip coupled with sick kids, or…fill in the blanks with your own overload experiences? During the stress experience, the cause (whatever it is) can seem huge and overwhelming.

But fast forward to another memory, one that goes beyond ordinary stress—a death in the family, a friend in the hospital, a cross-country move, a wedding. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when life hits me with the Big Stuff, all the day-to-day stressors fade into the background. The house is a disaster, the lawn needs to be mowed, the refrigerator is empty, the bills unpaid—and those don’t even register on my stress-o-meter, because they really aren’t that important in the big picture of life. When the Big Stuff resolves, I always get a few happy weeks when I remember that all the stressful details of life aren’t actually nearly as big a deal as I usually make of them.

That’s why I wonder if being a teen today is, ultimately, very much like it was twenty years ago, or even a hundred years ago. The things we stress about change; the stress experience does not. The experiences of uncertainty, fear, confusion, first love, bullying, dealing with parents, and figuring out who you are—those stay the same. And that’s why I write for them—to explore those experiences and, hopefully, help them to make sense.

What do you think: is being a teen today more difficult than when you were a kid? Is the pressure more intense, or just different?

People-Watching with Purpose: Twenty Tips

I’m a huge fan of people-watching. The more we watch, listen to, and try to understand real people, the better we’re able to get inside the heads of our characters. 

I wrote earlier this week about the mix-and-match art of character creation and how you can collect details from friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, and strangers. Once you’ve collected a nice selection of show-stopping specifics, you can play around with them the way you might play around with a Mr. Potato Head, popping in different eyes, glasses, financial crises, psychological profiles, crazy relatives, and so on.

People-watching can yield other types of inspiration as well. It’s a fantastic way to get past first draft plot snags and a rich source of ideas for complications and surprises and…well, you get the idea.

The next time you need to replenish your pool of creative ideas, take yourself someplace with people, grab a latte, and enjoy some quality time with your idea notebook. Here’s a list of people-watching possibilities to get you started—use these as a jumping-off point, if you’d like, but above all pursue the details that inspire. Enjoy!

Twenty People-Watching Tips

  1. Choose a location your character would normally frequent and observe the people there—or choose a location your character wouldn’t normally frequent and observe.
  2. Choose a crowded location for your people watching foray: a busy shopping mall, a fairground, a festival, a city street…or pick an isolated spot away from crowds and craziness.
  3. Choose a noisy location, like a concert or McDonald’s play place…or pick a spot that’s quiet. How does the noise level affect different individuals?
  4. Take a ride: people-watch on a bus or train.
  5. Look for people who look out of place. What is it that makes them stand out? Their physical appearance—cleanliness, type of clothes, age, gender, ethnicity? Or is it something more subtle, like the way they stand or fidget or look around? Capture the details.
  6. Look for people who fit in. Why do they “fit”?
  7. Identify emotions: pay attention to nuances of facial expression and body posture.
  8. Apply a stereotype: using your first impressions, identify people who (at first glance) fit stereotypes such as ditz, brain, druggie, geek, theater lover, popular kid, overbearing father, grumpy teacher, harried mother.
  9. Got some stereotypes in your line of sight? Good. Now identify what physical traits made you jump to the stereotypic interpretations.
  10. Flip the stereotypes: imagine how the real person might be completely different from the stereotype you just assigned. Look for surprises and contradictions.
  11. List what different people are doing. Interpret their actions, assigning both an obvious motive—he’s parking the car so he can go grocery shopping—and a less obvious motive—he’s parking the car because he’s evading the police.
  12. Now assign the most outrageous motives you can imagine.
  13. Imagine what criminal act each person could commit. What would drive them to that act?
  14. Search for relationships: discover how people relate to each other. What gives away peoples’ connections?
  15. Search for tensions. What relationships might be wearing thin? What are the signs?
  16. Search for happy interactions. What are the signs?
  17. Eavesdrop on arguments. What body language goes with it? Do they try to disguise the disagreement?
  18. Write down what people are saying: turns of speech, dialect, word choice, unusual conversation topics.
  19. Notice physical characteristics of voice: high, low, throaty, too loud. Take notes on any that inspire.
  20. Observe how different people interact with their environment. What bothers them? What do they enjoy? How much do they try to control the world around them?

I’m sure you have some creativity-inspiring questions to add. I’d love to hear them!


Mix-and-Match Characters

I played with a cool “puzzle” as a kid: three blocks stacked on top of one another, with a rod threaded through them so they can rotate independently. The result is a 3-cube stack with a different picture on each of the four sides. The top third of each image shows a head, the middle third a body, and the bottom pictures the legs and feet.

Line up the images, and you have four simple characters: for ex., a cartoon tiger, alligator, hippo, and monkey. You can also twist the blocks to connect the monkey body to the hippo head and alligator legs, or connect the alligator body to a tiger’s tail and a monkey’s head. (Now, of course, this puzzle is available as a smart phone app….)

Sometimes I think character creation works the same way: you borrow the geeky appearance of one person, add in the always-in-motion high energy of another, mix in a quirky turn of speech you overheard in the elevator and the girl-next-door’s fluorescent pink high tops…and pretty soon you’ve pieced together your protagonist.

Okay, maybe it’s not so simple, but the principle is valid: assuming that each character you create is a collage of people you’ve met, observed, heard about, or read about—with liberal application of exaggeration and creative interpretation—you can improve your character-creating ability by increasing the number of “puzzle pieces” you can choose from.

This is why people-watching is such a great skill to develop—the real world offers an endless supply of character inspiration that can be much stranger than fiction. Here are some categories of character details you can collect for your inspiration file:

  • Appearance. Go beyond standard eye color, hair color, height and weight to more memorable details—look for unusual features and play with unusual comparisons to create the image you want. “Skin the color of ditch water”, for instance, is a heck of a lot more interesting than “brown”.
  • Carriage. I like to study the kids in our local orchestras to see how they sit, stand, and move. One teen boy has dark hair that falls past his nose; during a concert, he looks half-wild as his hair whips around his face. Some kids slump; some sit at the edges of their seats; some slouch as if embarrassed about their heights. Pay attention both to how people carry themselves and what that reveals about their characters.
  • What they carry. This can say tons about a person—and spark a story or three along the way. I’m still wondering about the guy I saw riding a motorcycle with an upright vacuum cleaner strapped to his back….
  • How they speak. Do your characters tend to all sound the same? This is a great way to collect interesting expressions and ways of speaking.
  • Personality. Pay attention to the nuances—people aren’t stereotypes, and the most interesting details are often the most surprising. Search out the contradictions.

I’ll write more about people-watching on Wednesday. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you: Where do you get inspiration for your characters?