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Writing Christmas -- Kelly Ann's Christmas Story Serial

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Posted 10-13-2010 at 12:57 PM by jimmyolsen

Kelly Ann is doing something very cool with her mmc blog. She's writing fiction. In particular, she's writing a piece in tune with the Christmas season.

Like every writer I've ever met, Kelly Ann has hit a snag in the plot of her story, and she's wondering what comes next.

She's set the scene. We have a family, they're a bit pensive, there's a threat of snow, and now they're in the car.

Already she's made some great choices.

First, she's chosen to tell her story through the eyes of a child. At Danny's age, the world is still a strange and magical place. But we see he's on the cusp of losing that sense of wonder. He's more into his DS than the family Christmas outing.

Important point, that. Why? Because it shows us her POV (point of view) character is at a crossroads. He's about to choose a path that will have a lot to say about the person he becomes.

Second, she's dropped him in a car.

What's so cool about a kid packed in the back of a Chevy?

She's pulling him out of his element. She's transporting him away from home to a new place. And any day we're sucked into a strange environment, there's the potential for conflict.

Conflict is the seed from which your plot grows. Conflict makes things happen.

Your plot--the cause-effect sequence of events--is the framework of your story. It harnesses your conflict and gives it direction.

But conflict is the steam that turns the engine.
Best case scenario, you have internal and external conflict, and the two are intimately related.

Internal conflict: "I need to pass my math exams. Dan Schwindler game me the answers. Should I cheat?" That's a moral dilemma, a crisis of conscience, and something a character has to resolve in his head.

External conflict: "If I do fail my math exams, a troll will eat my sister." This is external. The troll will have be dealt with. Possibly via a very big stick.

It's a dance, really. You weave the internal and external conflicts, letting each have its turn to lead. And you build on each step, making your character's life more complicated:

"If I'm caught, my math instructor will lock me in the Hall Closet of Eternal Custodial Cold...I promised my granddad on his deathbed that I'd never dishonor the family name. Loved granddad. Don't care so much for my sister. Or closets. Or cold. But she was about to say something just before I left for school..she gave me a look. She was worried about me, I could see it. Then the troll blasted through our picture window, overturned the kitchen table. Took Jessica, and a gallon of skim milk. What was she trying to tell me? What?"

And then there's the last line Kelly Ann wrote, which is my favorite.

The line about rumours of family kept secrets. Things he'd overheard, but about which he dared never ask.

Love this.

As a reader, lines like this make my eyes widen. I stop breathing for a bit, and wait to see if the writer will drop more hints. I hope she does, and I hope she doesn't, and as a writer, that's right where you want a reader to be: torn.

If you can do that, the reader is yours.

And finally, Kelly Ann started with action. She dropped straight into the story, gave us what we need to know, and away we went.

So Kelly Ann, now you're into Act I and a bit flummoxed. No worries. Sometimes, in order to move forward, you need to step back, and take a moment to ask yourself some questions.

Here are some thinking points:

1) What's the family secret? Do you know? Don't tell us if you do--I don't want to know. Obviously, this is part of your conflict--the thing that makes your story go.

2) Danny has to grow. As your protagonist/point of view character, we're going to learn through his eyes. So what is it he needs to learn? Possibly something about the value of family (remember the DS and his attitude toward the holiday) or tradition.

3) What kind of story are you writing? Is it all "real-world"? Is there magic? Are there ghosts? A mystery of sorts? Answers to these questions will open and close options for your conflict and plot.

4) What kinds of stories do you like to read? Chances are, that's what kind of story you're writing. By reading heavily in a genre, you soak up its conventions, and learn the best and worst of it. Can you apply those things you've learned as a reader, to this story, as its writer? I'm betting you can.

So. Find your conflicts, find your family secret, find your hero's flaw, and you'll find the steam that drives your story's engine.

How do you do that? You go for walks and look at the wall. You talk to yourself and your cat and the squirrel out the window that your cat so desperately would like to have in for a play date.

And you play a lot of "What if?"

What if granddad's place in Boston has been in the family for a very, very long time? What if there's an attic? What if things are hidden there? Maybe wonderful things. Maybe dark things.

Maybe Danny's granddad learned a secret in a place far away that he's obligated to pass down. But Danny's dad won't accept it. Won't let it happen.

Because of what it did to him.

What are the consequences if granddad tells? If he doesn't?

I'm approaching the what-ifs from a mystery point of view, because that's how I build stories. You can take any approach you like.

Ask questions. Find conflicts. Take bundles of notes.

Most importantly, enjoy. You'll never find a more thrilling, wonderful, frustrating ride than the one you're taking now.

Thanks for the topic, Kelly Ann. And good luck with your story.
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