Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!
A few weeks ago, Laker phenom, Kobe Bryant, announced his retirement from basketball. While I was not a huge fan of the sport or even the player, I am now. Kobe wrote a lovely tribute to his passion in a goodbye poem published on a sports website. (Of course, he's not the first athlete to put pen to paper. Check out this book.)
I shared this poem with my writing students as they viewed highlights of his career. They were equally impressed with the man's words.
Then we wrote our own goodbyes to past-times, passions, or activities in our world that we will soon give up. For them: middle school, friendships, sports, hobbies, habits. A girl wrote goodbye to horse tournaments, another said so long to a K-pop musician, a quiet boy wrote a moving tribute to cross country.
This week, I continue a month of writing exercises. Today's is inspired by a professional athlete.
we part ways.
Time for a
You offer me
Once, we cried together
over MASH, the goodbye.
with the Wonder Years.
Sitting with my dad and Marlin Perkins
we marveled at
animals in the Wild Kingdom.
Now my time
Not with you.
Thanks for the memories.
What will you say goodbye to?
Share yours below.
What happens when you have nothing to say but you've committed yourself to saying something?
That's when you write crap.
That's when you need to write like you're at the edge of a cliff, like you're scared, like you're about to die, like you don't know what's going to happen next.
This isn't about writer's block. This isn't even about finding your muse. This is about unleashing your passion, firing up your writing, releasing that sludge of unimaginable creative juice clogging your critical writer's mind.
However you do it, whatever you call it, every artist--writer, poet, painter, sculptor, etc.--needs to find a way to stick his hand down his throat and withdraw that hairy, slimy, gritty clog of filth that's blocking the juice of his work.
Try it. Close your eyes. Shut out the world. Hide inside a closet. Drive to a remote patch of dirt far from lights, sounds, people, animals. Crawl inside a cave. Whatever you can manage. Get there. Go there. Now.
Are you there?
Did you bring a journal?
No. No. No. Where we're going, we don't need any journals.
Sit inside your proverbial cave, melt within the darkness, shut out the world. What do you most fear? See it. Smell it. Go further. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Go deeper. Get pissed. Fight for your life. Fight for your family. Fight for what you love. Curse, yell, scream, punch, spit.
Keep your eyes closed.
Unmelt. Find a light inside. Who is it? What is it? Feel its warmth. Offer your gratitude. Sense a peace. Let this love, warmth, and calm wrap around you. Feel yourself as whole.
Open your eyes.
Find your way back to your writing place. Tell your story to you. It may be a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a page or more. It may be a poem, scraps of sentences and words, or an essay. Structure and form are unimportant. This is for your eyes only.
Now go back to your project. Who wants this energy? Who needs it? Let your experience breathe new life into your writing. Don't judge. Don't expect. Let it have its own path.
Make this part of your writing ritual.
Share your journey.
This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
Share your thoughts here.
This week, I respond to Charli Mills' invitation to answer the question: Why do I write?
As the summer winds down and another new school year nears, I feel the shakes begin. My summer morning break of dawn habit is about to die out, hibernate for another 9 months, lurk and twist beneath my itching derma. My writing habit must quiet and slow.
It's not how I want it; it's how it must be. I will certainly try to wake a half hour earlier, in the predawn darkness of my warm bed, slither out onto the floor and feel in the blackness for my one-eyed blinking laptop. Some days will merit worth, others will succumb to the nurturing folds of that maternal duvet.
I write because it is my soul's path.
Back in the 70s when I was a school girl, I'd lay across my bedroom floor's pink shag carpet and scribble out verses and stories and diary entries. Any school assignment that required writing, I could do it in my sleep. (Math lessons left me in fits of tears at my father's feet.)
I write because it fills my being with joy.
As that same girl, I would also spend summers in the pool. When not in the pool, I'd be on my bike pedaling to the library. Reading filled my imagination, connected me to worlds I hadn't encountered, drew me into lives of wonder. Fueled by the ideas of Judy Blume, E.B.White, Roald Dahl, I soon found myself bursting with my own tales to pen. When my English teachers encouraged my work, there was no stopping me.
I write because it helps me make sense of a senseless world.
Navigating through adolescence is never easy. It's the theme of most of my books. Again, my path cleared with the help of writers: Austen, Salinger, Lee, and the Bronte sisters. I soon understood that writers had a greater purpose. Writers help us find connections to ourselves and others. They provide us with a foundation when the ground beneath us is cracking. Writers open us up to worlds unknown and offer personal portals to the very confusing world we live in.
I write for the same reasons that I breathe. Without it, I'd cease to be.
I'd like to introduce you to three other writers whose pen has touched my heart. Please visit them. I'd love to hear your comments, too. Why do you write?
Natalie Corbett Sampson Natalie Corbett Sampson lives in Hatchet Lake, Nova Scotia with her husband, four school-aged Munsters and a menagerie of pets. Her day job is a speech language pathologist where she loves helping children improve their ability to communicate with the world around them. When she’s not working, writing or sitting in a hockey rink Natalie loves reading, photography and drawing. You can learn more about Natalie and follow her publishing journey on her blog: www.NatalieCorbettSampson.com.
Ruben Castaneda is a Los Angeles native and former award-winning journalist for the Washington Post. His first book, "S Street Rising", chronicles his time covering the 1980s and 90s crack epidemic in our nation's capital while battling his own addiction with the drug. Ruben mentored me on the Los Angeles Herald Examiner where we covered the outbreak of gang violence and innocent victims caught in the crossfire.
Samantha Williams's first novel is due out later this year. She is the co-founder of PageCurl Publishing, a group of writers who publish and promote indie writers.
Something different this Sunday. My first ever young adult writing contest.
June Writing Contest for Teens
School’s out, so now it’s time for your own assignments. When I was a teen, I loved the freedom from homework in the summertime so I could write. I kept a journal for my own wonderings and observations, but summer allowed me to write poetry and short stories. I didn’t submit them to anyone. I wrote them for myself, typed them and glued them into my creative writing journal (which I still have).
The unstructured sunny days allowed me to take the time to ponder, observe, fantasize and dream. My writing blossomed in summer because there wasn’t anyone telling me what to write. It was all me.
I’d like to give you that chance.
Here is the first ThisGirl Summer Writing Contest.
In 200 words or less, describe a best friend. Could be your real BFF, or it could be a fantasy. In prose or poetry. No other restrictions than the word count. Oh, and you must be 13 to 18 years old. Submit your entry by June 28.
Paste your entry or link below. The winner will be featured on this site’s homepage and receive acclaim on Twitter and Facebook. Each monthly summer winner will be in the running for a free signed copy of “This Girl Climbs Trees” in September.
UPDATE: CONGRATULATIONS, EMILY REEVES OF TENNESSEE FOR YOUR BEAUTIFUL ODE NOW FEATURED ON THE EXTRA BITS PAGE.
Kids love to share memories. Nothing beats a 10-year-old saying, "When I was little...". Memory defies time; even though as we age, we define our memories by time.
When I was a kid...
Last year, I remember...
This reminds me of when I was in college, and...
Memory defines us. Memory is experience, emotion, friendship. It is the collection of moments that form who we were and who we have become. There is an importance to memory.
So it shouldn't really surprise me when a young child wants to share her memories. Memories connect us.
This past month, I've been fortunate to spend several hours visiting and reading to elementary students. I have shared various chapters from my middle grade narrative, "This Girl Climbs Trees". In one class, I was moved to laughter and tears as students shared memories of trees in their lives. One girl told of a beautiful lemon tree that sat in the yard, from which they did not remove the fruit but which offered a place of shade and beauty until her father cut it down. Another boy told of a tree at his former home that the neighbor insisted be removed due to its invasive roots and dead leaves on their property. This injustice troubled the boy, and he insisted his family's next home have a tree further from any neighbor's yard. They just planted a Birch.
They have a wide front yard.
The students' stories inspired me. I had no idea that Eliza Mills (the central character) had so much in common with real live kids. I made up Eliza. I made up the entire story. Yet real children (and adults) continue to share with me their memories of a favorite tree.
So I'd like to offer this challenge: In 150 words or less, write a memory of your tree. How did you connect with it? What do you now observe as the importance of this tree, this memory? Post your short passage here or on your own site. Paste a link in the comments below so that we can read it.
You might be surprised what comes up as you explore the importance of memory. I'll post mine this week. You have forever, but I will shout out my favorite on Twitter next Sunday. Please connect with me there and leave your Twitter handle here. If you are under 18, please let me know so you can get your own awesome shout out!
Thanks! Good luck.
My father keeps sending me pictures of his garden. He's retired, and he finds great joy tending to his rocks and shrubs. Since he lives in a drought sensitive zone, he plants only drought-tolerant flora. He calls his garden a "moonscape". It's true. The variety of cacti and rocks create a lunaresque impression. My father takes great pride in his creations.
You should also know that my father is a real rocket scientist, so a lunar landscape in his own backyard means something more to him. It's his chance to sit within an environment that 50 years ago he could only imagine. At 78, he has created his own life on the moon.
The other day, after viewing another digital photo, I realized something about my father's garden. Not only was it actually quite beautiful, it was also simple. Simple beauty. There was space between plants, and there were plants placed together that didn't really seem to go. But they did, in an odd exquisite sort of way.
Like I said, my father's a rocket scientist, not a gardener. He called in experts, landscapers, professionals to share their advice. He played with their ideas and mixed in his own creative design. Through some kind of symbiotic pairing, my father created this lovely lunar landscape where he can sit and reflect and simply be.
So it got me thinking about my writing. What can I learn from my father's garden? How is tending a garden like writing a novel?
I came up with a list of words that represent his process and results:
Simple. Time. Love. Joy. Pride. Creativity. Advice. Experts. Sharing.
I realized that writing is like gardening. You begin with love. You infuse creativity. You seek advice from experts and share with others. In the end - or even during - you feel a sense of joy and pride. All of this takes time. But most importantly, writing - like gardening - thrives with less. Simplicity is key.
Why do you write? How is your time writing like tending a garden? Or does another life task serve as a metaphor for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please share.
Lisa Reiter is an amazing and brave woman. (You’ll need to visit her website to learn why I believe this to be true.). She is also a creative writer who is generous enough to invite us into her world and share our memories.
Friday, May 2, Lisa initiated a weekly writing invite on her site called, BITE SIZE MEMOIRS. Lisa wants us to spend a few moments reflecting on the past and recording those thoughts to share with the world. Telling your story is soul-cleansing.
Northern California Author Anne Lamott has spent nearly her whole life writing about her family and self. Kind of like running a marathon on a treadmill – you race hard but never reach a finish line. It can be exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne says: “Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” (Lisa asks us to be kind and leave out last names; she doesn’t want to deal with libel at all).
I’ve taken up this week’s challenge: Using the theme SCHOOL AT SEVEN, write 10 lines of “I remember” or 150 words. Check the website for the official unofficial rules. Whether you choose to share with the Lisa and us or not, you will enjoy remembering your childhood and all the crazy nonsense that comes along with growing up.
“School at Seven” by Ellen Plotkin Mulholland, b. 1963, California, USA
I remember my long blue flowered dress with the gathered bodice.
I remember swinging higher than my best friend.
I remember hearing the f-word from ginger-haired Tommy Something.
I remember creating Barbie towns and using our shoes as cars.
I remember recess and the large expanse of black asphalt, the kickball zone, the sandpit.
I remember sitting in rows, alphabetically.
I remember the green chalkboard and waiting for my turn to clap dusty black erasers on the pavement outside after school.
I remember waiting for my big brother and little sister at the chain-link fence.
I remember walking home and not taking candy from strangers and worrying about strangers and slow moving cars.
And I remember wanting to be 8 because that would be better than being 7.
If you are alive and breathing, you will have come across the plethora of quizzes saturating your favorite social media sites. “If you were a character from a Jane Austen novel, who would you be?” “Which sister are you in LITTLE WOMEN?” “How many of these great novels have you read?” and on and on. The question remains: are we reading the classics? Or, are we simply sticking to the 140-character count headlines, quick blogs by Joe Blow and Jane Idunno’s?
Who’s reading great literature?
If you are over 35, you recognize the literary connections, and you’ve probably read 25 or more on that list (Dickens, Vonnegut, Austen, Salinger, Updike, etc.). If you are in high school honors English classes, you will read ten or more of them before you graduate. If you are in general classes, you might read six or so of them. You will still read good books. You will be reading!
Unfortunately, most of us won’t pick up a Hemmingway or Toni Morrison or old Russian lit classic unless we find ourselves in a rented bungalow on the beach with no Internet.
That’s sad. It’s not that everyone’s missing out on great stories. It’s more that we are missing out on the evolution of the written word. How we write stories today varies dramatically from our high-minded predecessors. (For the most part.) We don’t sit with the beauty of a sunrise for ten pages. We don’t take half the book to reveal our character’s major defect.
Instead, many writers deliver fast-food lit to quell the short attention span of today’s multi-tasking reader. Whatever happened to the old adage, ‘stop and smell the roses’?
Today’s reader wants action now, answers yesterday, solutions quickly. Today’s reader is missing out on the gentle transformation of our hero, the slow transmogrification of the antagonist, and the sweet sweeping flow of plot in time-lapse spectrum.
If you’ve not read Hemmingway or Bronte, if you avoided Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky, if you slept through Shakespeare or Wilde, take a moment to step back in time. Return to your carefree 20s; buy, download or borrow a classic piece of lit, and find a quiet window seat, warm layer of beach sand, or shady patch of green, and simply read.
Read to fall in love, to despise, to anticipate, to question, to immerse yourself in another world, time and place. Read because you can.