Joyce Sweeney Rocks the Clock

image of a Goddess sculpture on Capitol Hill

Photo: Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. by J. Wilder Bill

Artwork: Clio by Carlo Franzoni, Clock by Simon Willard

Authoress, Joyce Sweeney, lives the hero’s journey with her writing. She flourishes as an author by winning the first Delacorte Press Prize for Outstanding First Young Adult Novel, the Silver Medal in the Florida Book Awards, and the Nevada Young Readers Award. She has a book named a Top Ten Sports Pick by Booklist, four times her books are named Best Books for Young Adults, and four additional times are Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.

Within the writing industry, she is appreciated for co-creating with Jamie Morris, the four act Plot Clock. Like so many great dramatists, her life mimics her art.

At the initial stage of Joyce’s life as a writer, she fulfills the elements of the Plot Clock’s Act I, by dissecting horrific scenarios through young adult novels. She forces teens to embark outside their nests due to dire circumstances that even grown-ups could hardly handle. The pressure to outsmart life’s enemies is coupled with dysfunctional families and self-inflicted obstacles; yet, Sweeney plots her characters’ paths without judgment as to whether the high drama they confront could have been avoided.

J. Wilder:

Joyce sets forth nurturing overtones in her narrative, along with realism in her characters and their conflicts. Do you create dramatic intensity by writing narrative with an unbiased opinion about the characters or by steering the readers to see the world your way?

Joyce:

I think in every work of fiction, every character is an aspect of the author. So even with the antagonists, and this is where the hard work comes, I have to have some sympathy, some understanding and some guilty association with what they feel. Without that, you aren’t building a true world, you are just grinding your own axe. But then layered on top of that, is the point of view. The main character can have much different feelings from me the author, and should. And we can both be wrong! In Players, I have sympathy for Noah, Corey has sympathy for Noah but a different character, Luke, is the one who is right about him.

J. Wilder:

A signature of a Joyce Sweeney novel is the significance of strong friendships. Are functional relationships as crucial for character development as those dysfunctional families authors consistently embellish?

Joyce:

Absolutely. You have to have the dysfunction or you have no conflict, no story. If you’re in a place in the main character’s life where no one is challenging or testing them, you are in the wrong place. But I am a very social creature myself and very aware of relationships and how much help I get on a daily basis from those around me. So my characters always have those support systems as well.

J. Wilder:

During Act II of her writing accomplishments, Joyce develops her skills like a warrior preparing for the final battle through the exercise of teaching others her trade secrets. In what ways did your writing transition as a result of you mentoring others?

Joyce:

I started teaching classes around 1990 and I think one can easily see a jump forward in quality in my own writing around that time…between Tiger Orchard and Shadow. My earliest books are good too, Center Line for instance, because I was in graduate school studying craft. In the middle, you forget, you lapse, you make mistakes. As soon as I was reviewing the principles of craft to my students, I was reviewing them for myself and my work got much tighter.

J. Wilder:

At the end of Act II of her dynamic career, Joyce is dealt a low in life, symbolized by the death of her dearest companions. Her artistic expression of those unlocked emotions most of us avoid digesting shifted her craft to an authentic poetic form. In what way does poetry develop writers’ descriptive signatures of emotions and settings?

Joyce:

For me, there was a period that covered a double blow in life. My mother’s Alzheimer’s and subsequent death followed very fast by my friendship with Irene, which ended in her suicide. During this entire dark period, I didn’t have the energy required to process my feelings into fictional stories or put on any kind of dramatic mask. I could just cry out my feelings first person and raw and real. That’s poetry. Poets are courageous beings. They come onstage with no makeup or props. Now that I’m feeling better I see I went back to the safe haven of fiction.

J. Wilder:

In synch with Act III, Joyce brings stories into three-dimensional time and space by directing and producing theatrical works in South Florida. This physical form of storytelling leads to her climatic endeavor to release a multigenerational fantasy saga set in Atlantis. What elements of character development are crucial for creating the complexities of relationships over several generations? 

Joyce:

Well, this is brand new territory for me. Until this Atlantis book came to me, I wasn’t even a fan of generational sagas or long timelines…one reason I loved YA is that it covers one character very intensely through a short timeline. But since I’m still in the middle of this process, I don’t honestly know why I suddenly wanted a bigger cast and a bigger canvas. You link it to theater…I’m not sure. Could be. Theater is a very collaborative art compared to writing, so it may be that my ‘camera angle’ has widened.  Stay tuned!

 

Joyce Sweeney breaks down readership barriers by understanding the reader’s perspective in relating to his world at each stage of life. Regardless of the genre, Joyce Sweeney consistently presents protagonists searching for a way to accomplish seemingly unachievable goals, thus serving readers as a nurturing life coach. Joyce Sweeney can be reached via www.SweeneyWritingCoach.com.

Wacky Wheeler Hooks

image of painting of manatee by J. Wilder Bill

Photo & Artwork: Manatee by J. Wilder Bill

Picture book authoress, Lisa Wheeler, hooks youngsters and their adult readers with snappy poems and ironic plots. With two-dozen published books and international sales, she delivers energetic hip-hop with jazzy beats.

Energy bursts from her prose. She spreads happiness in millions of lives by the use of her words. But, where does her creativity come from?

Sniffing began Lisa Wheeler’s writing career. She smelled her way into a passion for the old fashion paper-kind at her school library. As early as fourth grade, her natural shimmy received recognition by earning first place in a Halloween themed writing contest, but it wasn’t until after Lisa married and raised three children that she decided to build her talent into a career.

Success embraces Lisa. Consistently, she devises imaginative storylines with endearing characters. But, what about Lisa makes her unique?

Lisa’s most notable physical features are her exceptionally long thumbs, which makes sense. After all, thumbs separate man from beasts – reasoning intelligence from animal instincts. And it takes abundant brainpower to control her extra-lengthy phalanxes.

For writers who don’t have the ability to lengthen their thumbs, Lisa shares her insights.

J. Wilder: By including the scent of books with your reading, you boost a passive activity into a physical experience. Do you apply all your senses (feeling, hearing, touching, seeing, smelling, tasting) to devise engaging characters?

Lisa: I am a kinesthetic learner. So I get my best ideas when I am moving. The act of walking, driving, biking, or even swimming sets all my gears in motion and ideas come to life. In a sense (no pun intended, this time) perhaps that can be construed as touching—not sure—but motion is very sensory.

My ideas sometimes come to me with a voice. I hear a character speaking in my mind and I know I have to tell their story. So perhaps that is hearing?

Sometimes my ideas come from a word or a line that enters into my head. If it is an exceptionally delicious line or word, I run with it. Tasting?

I truly cannot take credit for creating terrific characters as I think the characters come to me fully formed. I just have to introduce them.

J. Wilder: You imagine an endless range of topics. A Hispanic family shares “I love you.” An African American family dances a jig. A cow becomes a sailor and a cricket refuses to perform chores. What inspires your creativity? Did you think about puns and irony before you began writing?

Lisa: I don’t really think about puns before I start writing. Since my humor tends toward ‘punny’, my brain takes me there when I am in the midst of a story.

And like many writers, everything inspires me. I rarely have written directly from real life, even though things from real life inspire my work. For instance, a noisy cricket that lived in the bush outside my bedroom window became Old Cricket. When my niece spit a piece of gum out of a moving car window I made note of it and that later became Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum. I believe that everyone can look at the same situation or object or animal and walk away with a different story. It’s all in how we are wired.

J. Wilder: Despite your varying themes, all the stories connect with children. What are the core elements?

Lisa:  Hmmm. . . I never think about these things before I write, so I had to give this some thought.

When I look at my body of work, I see themes repeat themselves. Love and friendship are at the heart of many of my books and I think that my universal message is “Let’s get along.” You see that message of community in many of my books, including Sixteen Cows, Ugly Pie, Porcupining, and even Boogie Knights. We are all reaching out to each other. I don’t write sentimental books, but once you strip away all the silliness and wordplay, I think that my message is one that we all can relate to.

J. Wilder: You invent original rhyming patterns with snappy page-turners in several books such as Mammoths on the Move, and Jazz Baby. Do you have any tips on how a “tune-deaf” writer can develop her inner ear? Listening to music? Reading quality poems? Modify a classic?

Lisa: I never understand why non-rhymers desire to write in rhyme. It is much harder to sell! But since you asked, I’ll try and give some tips.

First of all, study Mother Goose. The rhymes there are very simple and some of them have perfect meter—like Mary Had A Little Lamb.

Second, a pre-school teacher taught me something interesting. When my daughter was in her class, she would have them recite rhymes. As the kids sat in a circle, she would walk around and pat out the rhythms gently on their shoulder. She said that feeling the beats physically as one is reciting rhyme, helps develop that ‘ear’ for rhythm.

Also, I joined a poetry group in my community. We met twice a month and read poetry aloud. The head of the group was a retired English teacher and a stickler for meter. She drilled it into us, giving lessons as we went along. I came away from that group with a much better ear for rhyme. More education is also a key ingredient. And if one does all of the above and still can’t make their meter work, then I suggest you write in prose.

J. Wilder: Your stories place readers in the action. How can writers draw the child into the story? Do you make sure to include the Where, What, When and Why?

Lisa: I make sure to include active verbs, interesting characters, and picture book elements such as wordplay, repetition, onomatopoeia. I make sure the stories have lots of forward motion—no staling—and a tight word count. I often add elements of surprise to delight the young reader. But most of all, I make sure to tell a really good story.

J. Wilder: Your knowledge about rhyming, tempo, and creativity earns you well-deserved praises. What are your top three suggestions for how writers can attain publication?

Lisa:

  1. Read, read, read. Read children’s books in the genre you want to write. Study them. Dissect them. Ask yourself whether they were satisfying. Why or why not. I feel that for every book we write we should read 100. If the last children’s book you read was written more than 10 years ago—get to a book store and see what is being published now.
  1. Write, write, write. You will write and fail. You will write and get rejections. You will write stories no one will ever read but you. That is the point. Not every story hits it out of the ballpark. But I had many ‘practice’ stories before I wrote the one that finally sold. As a matter-of-fact, I received 225 rejections before I sold my first book. Guess what? I still get more rejections than acceptances. But unless you are writing consistently, you can’t get better or stronger. Those unsold stories are not failures. They are the steps to writing the one that makes it out of the slush pile.
  1. Join, join, join. Join SCBWI and get involved. Join a critique group. Be sure that your group is made up of writers who are writing in the same genre as you. I recommend that picture book writers form a group in and unto themselves. Same for mid-grade novelists and non-fiction writers, etc. The reason I recommend this is that in all my failed critique groups, the dynamic was based on what the majority of members were writing. So if there are 2 picture book writers in a group of YA novelists, I have seen unhappiness result. Plus, if you are all writing the same genre, you learn from reading each other’s work. I am sure there are exceptions to this bit of advice, but in my experience, it always ended badly when genres were too widespread in one group.

J. Wilder: Thank you for your priceless insights. Your compositions brighten homes, provide bonding time for families and fill holidays with love. You spread happiness and elevate moods by devising peppy lyrics.

For any writers interested in learning more about Lisa Wheeler, her website is  www.lisawheelerbooks.com.

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Clarify the Scenes

image of Harry Potter coffee cup

Photo: Harry’s Vanishing Teacup by J. Wilder Bill

A stimulating plot consists of twists and turns, ups and downs, highs and lows – all accomplished by variety in the types of scenes.  Intentionally distinguish the purpose of each scene to avoid repetition in the pacing of your storyline.  The following are a selection of scenes you can incorporate in the foundation of a well-crafted storyline.

Opening Scene:  There will be one opening scene and it serves a critical purpose.  Introduce the protagonist to the reader and establish the mood of the story.  Inner thoughts or immediate action aid with revealing the mindset of the character.  Make clear the underlying question of the overall story.

Conflict Scenes:  It is no secret that conflicts are critical to a story.  Conflicts results in attentive readership.  After developing the protagonist with the opening scene, reveal what is at stake.  Introduce a critical event.  Conflict surfaces when two characters desire a different outcome.   Emotions are peaked and character flaws exposed; however, make the reactions fit the personality types of the characters.  Don’t force the characters to respond in a way that will justify having a conflict.  Allow the conflict to develop over time and subtly by mentioning the resistance or negative thought prior to the conflict scene.  The conflict can be internal and unjustified.  The only requirement is for a struggle to warrant more than one possible result.

Setup Scenes:  Provide background information during setup scenes to orient the reader within the setting.  Use the past to establish the intentions of the protagonist and evoke empathy regarding his current circumstances.  Setup scenes link together the elements of the plot and give depth to the characters.  Insights about the characters’ past provide their motivation to take action, thereby propelling the plot forward.  Include family and economic background of the characters to spark readers to care.

Confirmation Scenes:  Following each setup scenes, the movements and thoughts of the characters confirm the background information by revealing the results of the past.  If you mentioned that your protagonist’s mother died in a car wreck, take time to describe her reaction to a traffic jam due to a jack-knifed 18-wheeler.  Make sure you confirm previously provided information about the characters at a point in the plot that will provide the most impact.  For instance, don’t talk about the car wreck after she takes a shower and before she gets in the car.

Time Warp Scenes:  Pacing the plot invites the protagonist to think of his past or even wonder about his future.  Time warp scenes supply critical information the reader must know before understanding what is to follow.  Make the time change obvious, whether it goes into the past or into the future.  Keep the reader oriented as to the place and when the situation occurred.  To justify the lull in action, only shift to a different time when the past or future is more intense than the current situation.  Do not remain in the time warp for a long.  Remember that shifting to the future thrusts the reader out of the story.  Consider beginning the story at the point of the flashback, thus making it a current event.

Obstacle Scenes:  Instill complexity in your plot by preventing the characters from attaining their desires during several obstacle scenes wherein a physical force prevents him from moving forward.  Emotional impact rises when outside forces prevent the character from reaching her intended outcome.  Give the protagonist a morsel of his desire and then replace his advantages with difficulties without losing momentum in the storyline.  Obstacle scenes intensify the plot with suspense.  Allow the protagonist to believe she is reaching her goals and then reveal that she is on the wrong path.  The more setbacks, the more heightened the resolution becomes.  Make sure the obstacles are unique for your circumstances.

Pivotal Scene:  Allowing the protagonist to overcome the obstacles, show his suffering from mistakes, and resolve any misunderstandings in his relationships, then slap him with a sense of having no solution to an even greater problem.  Only one pivotal scene will be in each novel.  This bleakest moment provides greater impact than the obstacle scenes.  Sensationalize the impact with an uncontrollable force the protagonist is unequipped to handle.  It could be making the wrong decision or having a fallback to prior destructive behavior.  The solution of the pivotal scene invokes disharmony and additional suffering.  Follow the pivotal scene with several more obstacle scenes and then one final, blow-out conclusion scene.

Climax Scene:  The plot guides the reader to one climax – the moment the obstacles are resolved and the desires are fulfilled.  The peak of the plot is the most significant moment in the protagonist’s life of the novel.  Her mental state rises above the outstanding issues and inner conflicts.  A love scene can climax as a man vows to remain with a woman even if they never resolve their differences.  The end of a chase or resolution to a question other ways to reach a climax.

Conclusion Scene:  At the end of your story answer open-ended questions and fill in the blanks.  Ease the reader out of the story instead of providing a jarring halt to the events.  Provide a sense of contentment like a flavorful desert to clear the pallet.

It takes a flavoring of the different type of scenes to satisfy the reader’s senses.  Keeping track of what types of scenes you have guarantees your plot will be balanced.  Clarity of mind sparks the imagination.  An easy way to keep up with the types of scenes you have created is by underlining the text in a color you have selected for each scene type.  The colors provide a visual as to whether you have provided the right amounts of each element to your storyline.

Rounded: Weekly Photo Challenge

A Humdinger Ending

image of tribute to authors who stayed at Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans

Photo: Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans by J. Wilder Bill

Endings can make or break an entire story. We’ve all heard about the protagonist’s motivation dictating his actions. His motivation shapes the plot and determines the big finale of the story. Whether you’re a plotter with an outline, or a panster with a completed first draft, once you’ve decided on the resolution, revise with a mind to bolster the ending. Set up the elements before you reach the final chapter.

  1. Say It Like You Mean It

Gossip, gossip, gossip. We’ve all been victims. We’ve done our share of spreading seedy details about others, too. It catapults a person’s reputation from dreary housewife into conniving diva. The neighbor who wears high heels with a pajama top to walk down the driveway and pick up the morning paper becomes headline news.

Embellishing the facts is delicious. Tension sky-rockets every time a character expresses a strong opinion about the antagonist.

“He’d kill a kitten in a playground.”

“That woman cheated on her husband and then took his entire savings while he was away in the war.”

  1. Spread the Dirty Laundry

Readers love to hate and they love to find a reason to hate. A great excuse to disapprove of a person comes from casting judgment on him.

Exposing the dark secrets of the antagonist’s past does wonders for turning readers against him. Character traits we, as a society, can’t forgive include, harming our neighbors, abusing pets and children, and showing a lack of respect toward the environment. The antagonist loses supporters when he only thinks of himself. The reader yearns to find fault where the antagonist deserves his up-commence.

The anatomist beats his dog.

He refuses to share his cookies with his mother.

He chews out a cashier at the grocery store.

  1. Sock It to Me

As long as the scenes prove the protagonist has a right to defeat the antagonist, the ending can be outlandish. Develop the story so that the protagonist must win in order to overcome personal obstacles, protect others, and survive another day.

Give plenty of examples where the protagonist gets kicked around. All the while, the protagonist takes the higher road. Her only wish is for a better life where she receives her well-deserved recognition.

The protagonist spends sixteen hours a day for two years training for the Olympics.

She blows out her ankle and knee replacement surgery.

Her mother’s dying wish is to see her baby win.

  1. It Can’t Get Any Worse

Let your characters be pessimistic about the odds the protagonist will reach her goal. We want the gory details to be stated loudly and clearly.

Having several characters see how bleak matters are for the protagonist gives credibility to their predictions. If it’s only the protagonist’s mom who says she has no chance, the reader will dismiss the comment. Once three or four people in the story have the same sense of foreboding, the negative viewpoints become a hardcore fact.

“No one’s ever made it through the Death Valley pass on foot.”

“You’d have to get a perfect score on the C.I.A. exam to make up for your terrible performance.”

“He’s never dated anyone from the office.”

  1. Put All the Eggs in One Basket

As the story progresses, slam every door in the protagonist’s face. Let him reach a point where there is only one shot for him to reach his goal. If he doesn’t come through with this one thing, there is absolutely no way he will win.

Lay out the foundation by letting the protagonist think of every possible mishap. He trains. He studies. He abstains from what he loves. Then, when all the bases are covered, remove his one opportunity.

The protagonist must use a special cupcake recipe to pull the hero out from amnesia. She finds the recipe. She saves money to buy the equipment and rare ingredients. She practices. In the final hour, she arrives at the train station with the cupcakes on a silver platter as the hero boards to leave forever. A dog attacks the protagonist and eats the cupcakes.

  1. The Golden Chalice

Lucky charms, precious heirlooms, and customized tools give the protagonist a boost over his rivals. Whether you call them superstitions or magical charms, the protagonist relies on one relic. Without it, he fails.

Place his hope to accomplish his goal on his crutch. Harry and his magic wand. Indiana Jones and his leather whip. Jack Sparrow and his compass. The Prince of Persia and the dagger.

In the final moment, remove the golden chalice. Destroy it. Give it to the antagonist. It doesn’t have to be fantastical. Losing that particular item raises the stakes.

The protagonist must have his mother’s pendant for his dream girl to recognize him after an accident disfigures his face. The antagonist melts the pendant and the protagonist has nothing.

  1. Giving It Up for Your Love

Throughout the story, give the protagonist something she can’t live without. One craving, object or activity must fuel her life. The world can collapse, but as long as she has this one thing, she rallies and keeps her wits.

It could be her alone time in the woods, her incredible job, her diamond comb or a violin she’s played ever since she learned to walk. At the critical hour, the protagonist voluntarily gives up the one thing that keeps her sane.

She quits her job to care for her crippled husband. She sells the only valuable possession she has, a comb she inherited from her grandmother, to purchase a present for her husband.

She’d rather have her fingers cut off and never play the piano again in exchange for staying with her one true love.

The protagonist is a race car driver. Her car is reliable and serves as her savings account. In the end, she crashes her car into the river to prevent the hero from falling to his death.

  1. Captain Underdog Rules the Day

A great strategy is for the antagonist and the protagonist to have equal chances of winning throughout the story. At the climax, shift the skill levels of the characters. Give that nasty antagonist a huge advantage. Let his strengths outweigh the capabilities of the protagonist.

With the new circumstances, the protagonist must think faster, find a unique resource, and change gears. He must devise a new solution.

Both women vying for the same man are beautiful. The antagonist gets promoted and wins the lottery. The protagonist rallies through her sincerity and amazing cooking to aid the hero in overcoming his fear of heights.

  1. Change a Leopard’s Spots

Readers love figuring out the ending before the characters do. They stick with the same genre because there is comfort in predictability.

We aren’t here to coddle our readers. Instead, shake their books off.

Set the stage for the typical outcome and take time playing it out. Build the story so that the protagonist craves for the likely ending. Then, deny, deny, deny. Don’t give the reader what he wants.

Three times, show the protagonist lose against the antagonist in chess. Establish that if the protagonist makes the Klondike Crush move, she’ll win every time. Let her botch the first step but then recover. She sees how to make the move, but the antagonist pulls out a gun and holds it to her grandmother’s head before the final play.

  1. It’s a Matter of Perception

At her last breath, the protagonist needs to change the way she perceives life. She demonstrates her new take on life by having a different reaction to a repeated situation.

Throughout the story, show the protagonist responding the same way to similar experiences as the story unfolds. Again and again, the protagonist has the same extreme opinion. Finally, once the dust is stirred, the protagonist doesn’t respond in her typical fashion. She feels the opposite from how she did at the beginning of the story but with an equally strong conviction.

In the beginning, the protagonist loves a nice smoke. She inhales the fumes deeply. At every opportunity, the protagonist lights up. She gets angry when people tell her it’s unhealthy. In the final scene, someone ridicules her for taking a light. She throws the smoke away and gives him a hug.

Think of the big finale as the main element of the plot. Focus your motivation and storyline on the final scene. The setup of the resolution escalates your protagonist’s problems. Elevating the purpose of the ending gives the protagonist a humdinger resolution!