For Writers

The Life of the Party: Setting Is Where the Action Takes Place

As I was driving with my tween, she made a comment about the high school parties she’s seen in movies. In each one, something awful occurred, making her a little wary of wanting to go to parties when she’s older. As I thought about it, I realized that parties and school dances in movies do often feature a horrifying event unfolding . . . just think of the prom scene in Carrie.

I started to think about how parties and school dances are portrayed in middle grade books. Even my own novel has the big climax scene happen at a school Halloween party. It occurred to me that my thoughts were worth sharing with fellow writers and teachers (who, I hope, will share them with their middle graders): What is the power of the setting?

Often we think of setting as where the story takes place. We are taught that it helps the reader gets a sense as to what the scene looks like (which, of course, includes the concept of time: year, season, time of day, etc.). A well-developed setting is also crucial to ground a scene and prevent the “floating in air” phenomenon that I have been accused of when I give no mention of where my characters are.

But the setting can have an even bigger role in the story. Here’s where the party scene comes in. Most stories have more than one setting: school, home, the dentist’s office, etc. This helps to keep the story interesting but allows us to focus on the character and their actions. However, if you also take your reader somewhere out of the ordinary, such as a school dance, something monumental had better happen there, such as an argument that’s been building up, the character’s first kiss, or the mom showing up and dragging the character out. You can’t just have a school dance scene where nothing unusual occurs or where the plot doesn’t move forward.

The setting can be closely linked to the plot parts: In the exposition, it helps us learn more about the main character. Where does the opening scene take place: on a soccer field? In the main character’s bedroom? At an arcade? This gives us a window into the main character’s life and interests. Of course, we can add an extra layer if the main character does not like where they are. If the setting is on the soccer field and the main character is groaning and wishing the game would just end already so he can get out of there, we glean some details about who the character is.

A muted setting is also used to help us focus on what the characters are saying. I have found that just about every movie has a tooth-brushing scene for this purpose (watch for it in live-action films and animated films, even those with animals as characters). Two of the characters chat while one or both are in the bathroom brushing their teeth. They discuss the problem or give some details we need to know about the characters. In your own story, where does this scene take place? Maybe over dinner at the kitchen table? Or in the main character’s bedroom?

A unique setting is a great place for the climax to occur. If the scene seems a little off or needs more pizazz, is it possible to rewrite the scene somewhere else? In my novel, the story needed one extra push with the main character and her soon-to-be-friend. It was suggested to me that they get lost in the woods—this was great for my non-outdoorsy main character. This added scene ended up being a turning point in the book, because the main character faced one of her biggest fears.

As for rising action and falling action, it’s often where the upcoming setting is mentioned—such as a school dance the character or characters plan to attend. Here is where the reader can also get excited about the imminent scene and feel the importance of the event to the character(s).

Finally, the setting can make the resolution scene pop. I’m picturing that first kiss at the school dance that we, the readers, have all been waiting for. Or maybe the opposite is true—the scene would have more punch if it happens somewhere more common. Playing with this can really change the impact of the action.

Teachers: When you’re working with your students on finding the setting in a novel, help them see how the setting is more than just where the story takes place. How does it impact the action? What if that climactic scene took place somewhere different? [Writing prompt: rewrite that scene with a different setting.] Was there any growth by the main character shown through how the setting is described?

Writers: I hope this made you think about your own setting; and teachers: I hope it gets your students to notice the importance a setting can make within a story.

And may the parties you attend be less eventful than the ones we’re creating.

Here are some books that have a dance or party scene.

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
Book Scavenger: The Unbreakable Code by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Bug Girl: Fury on the Dance Floor by Benjamin Harper & Sarah Hines Stephens
Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker by Rachel Renée Russell
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl
by Rachel Renée Russell
Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel
Hoops: Elle of the Ball by Elena Delle Donne
In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart
Jessica Darling’s It List by Megan McCafferty
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Sorry You’re Lost by Matt Blackstone
Take Your Best Shot by John Coy
The 12th Candle by Kim Tomsic

How to Conquer a Blank Page

October is almost over, but even with the scariest ghosts and goblins getting ready to beg for candy in the US, a blank page is way more terrifying. The possibilities are exciting.

But…

*What if the words turn out wrong?

*What if this awesome new idea is a flop?

*What if the murky middle sucks the plot in like a pile of quicksand?

Take a deep breath. You can do it!

Here are some helpful hints.

Challenges

Challenges can be extremely motivating, and you’re in luck—because NaNoWriMo starts on November 1st. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel by the end of November. They have motivating posts, a supportive community, and a fun way to track your daily and overall progress.

If your novel ends up being less than 50,000 words, you can still win. Start a second novel! Or see what’s missing from your first draft and add those scenes in.

*Teachers—there’s a fantastic program to use with young writers!

 

Word Wars

You can have word wars with others or challenge yourself. Put aside an hour (or half hour) and do your best to have uninterrupted time. It helps to jot down what you hope to cover in the next few chapters ahead of time, then write, write, write! No editing allowed—there’s plenty of time for that later. This helps word counts soar. Plus, it’s amazing how many gems pop up that might not have been discovered if an internal editor butted into the draft.

Think about what’s often missing from your first drafts. For me, it’s usually sensory details. So during word wars, I concentrate on adding in as many as I can. A bunch get streamlined or deleted…but I also find amazing details that I love. Ones that might not exist without this fun challenge.

 

More tips and tricks:

*If you get stuck, think about the worst thing that could happen to your character. I learned this from author Bruce Coville at a conference years ago, and it’s always been a huge help.

*Brainstorm! Set a timer for 10 minutes and type or write all the possible things that can happen non-stop. Don’t edit yourself, no matter how silly something might seem.

*Have your main character write a journal entry and see if it gives you more insight into wants/needs/conflict. It also works great with secondary characters.

*Let your internal editor know they aren’t allowed in your first draft! They can be stubborn, but there are ways to trick them.

-Write when your internal editor is too tired to butt in (it might be late at night or early in the morning).

-Signal your brain that it’s time for creativity—not your internal editor. Some people do this with one scented candle for writing and another for revising. Authors like Bruce Hale have a writing hat and an editing hat. Play around to figure out what works best for you!

 

Blank pages are scary—but take a deep breath and remember the fun and excitement of writing as you plunge into your novel. Your page won’t be blank for long!

Happy writing. 😊

I’d love to hear your tips for tackling a blank page and shushing your internal editor.

Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers

Ever read the title of a book and know instantly that you must find out more about the story?

When I first saw the title of our next spotlight, I couldn’t help being filled with all sorts of questions. What’s up with this mole rat? Why did the day have to be saved? And how does he do it?

And wait! A mole rat?

Haha! I know. I’m being a little overly dramatic, but this goes to show how much value a title can hold. Let’s meet this mole rat.

Can Kit’s super-weird superpower save her world?

Kit-with-a-small-k is navigating middle school with a really big, really strange secret: When she’s stressed, she turns into a naked mole rat.

It first happened after kit watched her best friend, Clem, fall and get hurt during an acrobatic performance on TV. Since then, the transformations keep happening—whether kit wants them to or not. Kit can’t tell Clem about it, because after the fall, Clem just hasn’t been herself. She’s sad and mad and gloomy, and keeping a secret of her own: the real reason she fell.

A year after the accident, kit and Clem still haven’t figured out how to deal with all the ways they have transformed—both inside and out. When their secrets come between them, the best friends get into a big fight. Somehow, kit has to save the day, but she doesn’t believe she can be that kind of hero. Turning into a naked mole rat isn’t really a superpower. Or is it?

“A warm coming-of-age story populated with a cast of memorable characters.”
—Kirkus Reviews

The book releases on October 15, 2019 by Algonquin.

 

It’s wonderful to have you visit us here again, Karen. Welcome!

Kit is such an intriguing and endearing character. What characteristics did you know you had to include within her?

Kit, like most of my characters, came to me fully formed as herself, right from the beginning. I knew she had to be stronger than she knew, but I also knew that she was going to have occasionally overwhelming anxiety herself, that would be secondary (in her mind) to her mum’s more paralyzing version. I also wanted her to be brave, in particular brave to be herself, even when others might think it’s “weird” (to rollerskate, to believe in magic, to tie ribbons to trees in the park, to blow bubbles). And I knew she would be funny, of course.

Just hearing you describe her in your own words makes me like her even more.

We all know how important it is for young readers to relate to the characters they read. How will young readers relate to Kit?

I think a lot of kids around the age that kit is in the book are on the cusp of young adulthood, while also still wanting to stay kids. Kit very much wants to hold on to her kid-like qualities. I know some kids like this, who feel like they are being left behind because their friends are more like teenagers already, even when they aren’t quite ready.

That’s a very important reality during the transformation between tween and teen, and it’s not talked about enough. Glad you’ve mentioned it here. What is your favorite part of the world you’ve created for Kit and why?

I love the magic more than anything — all of it, from the literal to the metaphorical. I also love the way both kit and Clem find their power in surprising ways. Both of them are exploring the scarier, darker sides of their realities in these brave and surprising ways.

Was there anything about Kit that surprised you?

When I started writing, I didn’t realize that sometimes she was going to be angry or that she was going to show her anger on the page, that she could be unforgiving. I happen to have a twelve year old of my own now (although she was younger when I was writing this story) and this ability to flip back and forth between joy and fury turns out to be very real. It felt true on the page, too, but I hadn’t necessarily anticipated it.

Would you have been friends with Kit as a middle schooler?

Oh, definitely. She’s kind and fierce and funny and loyal AND she roller skates!

She definitely sounds like fun! What’s the most important element from this story you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

That everyone has something going on beyond the version of themselves that they present and that you see at school. You don’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to realize that we all have many, many layers. You never know what someone else is going through, and you definitely can easily underestimate what they are capable of if you forget to look beyond their outward appearance. And of course it’s also a book about forgiveness, about acknowledging that not everyone always does the right thing.

Another hidden truth during those middle grade years. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Kit and Clem’s story and for helping young readers explore who they are through them. All the best from your Mixed-Up Files family . . .

Karen Rivers’s books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usu­ally be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, and two birds.

Find her online at karenrivers.com and on Twitter: @karenrivers.