Storytelling: Finding your “And then…”

MaxRobbiePlayground2017Some writers complain a bit when summer vacation arrives and they suddenly have their kids underfoot to entertain, cutting into their writing time. Me? I’m a teacher, so I’m rejoicing in summer vacation right along with them. Sure, tagging along after two boys is tiring, but life is what brings us the experiences we write about, especially when you’ve got kids.

Today we visited “Planet Playground,” an excellent playground complex in Exeter, New Hampshire. The last time I took the boys there, a few years ago, I spent the whole time running around making sure I knew where they were, that they were playing nicely, etc. This time, I looked forward to catching up on my reading and just letting them run around. The weather was gorgeous, I had a shady bench, an iced coffee, and a good book (my brother’s new novel, Never Alone).  Needless to say, I was a little frustrated to have my reading interrupted, but taking interest in your kids is far more important, so I wandered over and found myself at the adorable wooden puppet theater. Each boy took turns telling me their stories, with their hands as finger puppets, then it was my turn.

As I was retelling one of my latest manuscripts from memory, I realized what an awesome writing exercise this was.  I’ve heard editors say that you should throw out your first draft and simply write the second from memory. I even once read an anecdote by Stephen King that he lost a manuscript and rewrote it from memory– of course if you do that, you’ll live life feeling that your new version can never hold a candle to the original, but it’s probably not true. The fact is, when you are retelling from memory, you are forced to include only the most important parts.  And when you’re storytelling in front of an audience, you quickly learn what holds their attention and what doesn’t. You learn which bits of repetition are boring and which give your work that very slight predictability that kids love.

It’s the “And then…” which drives your story forward. It’s not the beautiful description of springtime flowers. It’s not the sparkling and witty dialog. It’s what happens after someone is hit and falls down. It’s what happens when the main characters are lost in the woods, or when grandma is eaten by the wolf.  Storytelling live in front of little kids forces you to focus on the “And then…”

I also learned that there are essentially 4 types of storytelling with kids:

  1. The straight re-tell:  Max told us “Little Red Riding Hood.” It had a little of his personality, but he was basically practicing how to tell a story. That’s fine, especially if you aren’t comfortable talking in front of an audience. Most kids love hearing familiar stories. (One of my most popular requests when my kids were young was a re-tell of a favorite Spongebob episode. I did not make it my own, but they still loved it. Over. And. Over.)
  2. The “punched up” re-tell:  Robbie told us “The Three Little Pigs.”  It was essentially the actual story, but he added in a lot of snarky side comments about the three pigs’ choice in materials, highlighting the superiority of the third pig who kept chiding the others (“Really? You’re using wood? It’s going to leak, I tell you!”). The first two pigs got eaten, probably as payback for their lack of good building sense. This version is great if you’re telling stories to kids who appreciate a good subversion of the expected paradigm, and it’s a good way to take off the storytelling training wheels.
  3. The “test kitchen”:  Ok, storytellers, get out there with some new material!  No manuscript handy, just me and the stories that have been living in my head, I dove in with two of my latest picture book WIPs, “Fat Banana” and “Hortensia, the Angry Cat.”  My boys had heard them both, but I got at least one passerby kiddo to stop and listen as well. I chose “Hortensia” for the second story and got the little girl listening to make all the cat noises which was a huge hit. Of course then she asked for more, which is when the next type of storytelling comes in…
  4. The “audience participation” story: This little girl wanted another animal story. I didn’t happen to have any in my hat that seemed to work, so I prodded her a bit more– what kind of animal? A cheetah. My son decided it would be a cheetah and a triceratops. No, she insisted. Just cheetahs.  So together we came up with a story about a cheetah who had to outrun a forest fire to warn the other animals. No prior preparation, maybe not a Newbery winner, but all participants were satisfied.

So, next time your kid says “Tell me a story,” try out one of the above storytelling techniques– maybe you’ll end up finding a whole new story idea, or figuring out that spot in your work in progress that has been needing attention. And even if none of those happens, I guarantee your later writing will be better for the practice, and you’ll all be richer for the quality time.

Your turn…Game play as writing inspiration

gamepicMy sons got several games for Christmas and I bought another one at a recent after-Christmas sale. We love playing games at our house, and I realized during our gameplay this vacation that not only am I spending awesome quality time with them, but I can also consider it an important writing exercise. While strategy games like chess or Parcheesi may not be particularly inspiring linguistically, there are plenty of games which exercise the imagination.

Our newest game, “Pickles to Penguins” is an excellent example. This game is played with a huge deck of double-sided cards containing photos of everyday objects such as a kitchen sink, a lion, or a beach ball. Two cards are face up on the table and each player has a stack of their own cards. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards by drawing connections between one of your cards and one of the cards on the table.

For example, in the photo shown, one of the “community” cards is a playground slide, and one of “my” cards is a banana. I could say “Sometimes people slide on a *banana peel* like they slide on a *slide.*”  You are not allowed to make the same connection twice (such as stacking animals on top of each other) or to connect things by simply their starting letter or background color. The remaining cards before me in the photo are “polar bear,” “ball,” “cello,” and “tiger.” Which of those can somehow connect to “banana” or “earrings”? The easy play is probably “ball”, the same round shape as the circles on the earrings…but you can see how making connections with words quickly leads to innovative thinking!

When I played with my 11 year old, we kept the pace relaxed and basically took turns, but the game could easily become frenetic with more equally matched competitors. (And if you try to make a connection which is too far-fetched, your opponents can penalize you!) Meanwhile, it was great mental gymnastics for me as I tried to force myself to make creative connections, and it was an equally useful learning experience for my son, who went from “they’re both animals,” to “they’re both mammals,” to “They’re both things you use on vacation.”

The title “Pickles to Penguins” might remind you of another classic party game which involves making creative connections:  “Apples to Apples.” Aside from being pretty hilarious, a few rounds of that game is bound to remind you of ways you can combine nouns with unexpected adjectives to make your writing more fresh and less cliché. Even a quick look at a finished Scrabble or Bananagrams board is a good way to brainstorm a new story or plot twist.

There are many other lesser-known games which can inspire writers, however. Some of my favorites are those with inherent story-telling characteristics. Three great examples to look into are “Rory’s Story Cubes,”  “Nanofictionary,” and “Once Upon a a Time.” In all of those games (which I highly recommend you check out), you create a story using elements on cards or dice either cooperatively or competitively. And of course, there’s also the world of Role-playing games (probably worthy of a separate post entirely), which are by their very nature, cooperative storytelling and a phenomenal way to work out a story. Dungeons & Dragons is one example, but there are many, many other systems out there to let you create just the kind of story world you would like to immerse yourself in.

So, don’t feel guilty about game night! Get out there and spend some quality time with friends and family– just think of it as another form of professional development!

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It’s all for the Kids…

12991099_10208984902678164_7437406162389299255_nHere’s the thing: like most women I know, I work multiple jobs. I’m a mother, a full-time teacher, and a writer. There are probably folks who think I’m not truly serious as a writer since I have a “real job,” but since I’m not independently wealthy, and my husband isn’t a real estate mogul, I do have to pay the bills.  Besides, I became a teacher because I love teaching, so even if I wake up tomorrow and become J.K. Rowling, I’m not likely to stop.

The downside is, while I love all three of my jobs, it can leave me a little scattered. Take Twitter, for example. I started my account while I was at a teaching conference and intended to use it for connecting with other language teachers. Then I found out about “Twitter Pitch” contests and met scads of amazing writers online and now I follow a combination of teachers and writers. That’s ok for me, but it’s not so great for establishing a consistent platform. So, I now concentrate my writing tweets (and the occasional life observation) under @FrauDrK  and tweet about my German teaching at @YSDGerman (a new account I started for our district this fall).

The upside?  Synergy. While I have to be careful not to bore my teacher friends with talk of my writing, and vice versa, the triad of teaching, writing and parenting provide me with a constant feedback loop of inspiration. Take my kids, for example. Both have social and behavioral challenges which can be frustrating. But having studied behavioral analysis in graduate school and working daily with kids who have IEPs in the classroom, I am much better equipped to deal with them. On the flip side, when I am dealing with those students in the classroom, I have much more empathy for their situation and how I can help them to be successful because I know what works with my own kids. And both of those experiences feed into my writing.  I’m currently working on a picture book manuscript about a girl who refuses every invitation from her best friend– amusement parks, baseball games, sleepovers, you name it. She’s modeled on my younger son, whose first instinct to every new situation is “Not going.” I shared the story with one of my students at school — a girl who also struggles with anxiety– and she identified with my son’s struggle and gave me some insight I couldn’t get from a seven year old.

It’s been a long two weeks transitioning from the carefree summer, when I could spend much of my time focusing on writing, editing and feeding my creative soul with trips to the beach or the lake with my kids to the chaos of teaching high school full time.  I have been frustrated that I haven’t had time to send many queries to agents and publishers, and haven’t written a new manuscript or even a poem in two weeks. If you’re a writer with a full-time job, you’ve probably been where I am. But the kernel of hope in the chaos is that the busier life gets, the more material you are ultimately building for future use. I’m pretty sure I am going to get a killer idea pretty soon and then I will have to just make the time to get it written.

Speaking of killer ideas, I’m going to have to start getting inspired soon, because there are two major picture book writing events coming up! #PBPitch (another twitter pitch fest) is coming on October 27 (pbpitch.com for more info!) Then of course, November is NaNoWriMo for the novel writers in the world, but PB author Tara Lazar hosts “PiBoIdMo” (Picture Book Idea Month) which I participated in last year and hope to do again this year. I’ll be coming up with a book idea every day for a month! Inspiration, do your stuff!

Even before I got married and had children, I was a big fan of the animated kids video series “Veggie Tales.”  I can appreciate the values, and there’s some great music as well as some nerdy and quirky humor (If you are a Tolkein fan, you might just appreciate “Lord of the Beans.”) The creators have a photo of their children in the opening credits with the caption “Why we do what we do.” In the end, all three of my jobs are all about the kids.

How does your day job intersect with your hobbies and/or parenting? I’d love to hear in comments!

 

 

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