November 03, 2009

Writer Interview - Lori Z. Scott

In writing, there are thousands (if not millions) of different audience groups. The first story I read by Lori Z. Scott was from the science fiction anthology, Infinite Space, Infinite God. After exchanging e-mails with Lori, however, I discovered that writing science fiction isn’t her first love. What is? Writing for children!

What are the similarities and differences between writing for “grown-ups” and writing for children?

All good stories share certain elements. No matter what the target audience age, stories must have a compelling (or at least entertaining) plot with believable characters. In addition, writing must be tight, well-crafted, and engaging. Dialogue has to move the story forward. And humor almost always sells.

Also, the takeaway value of a story is important. I have seen both adult and children’s stories tackle complex topics, such as death. Writers may use different words, images, or viewpoints, but both help their readers empathize or cope with the issue.

One difference between writing for children and writing for adults is the complexity of the story. Simply stated, an adult novel can tackle a major plot and several subplots whereas a story for young children works best with one central focus.

Another area of difference can be found in writing technique. Children’s authors often employ tricks not often found in adult writing, including writing in rhyme (like Chicken Soup with Rice), using alliteration (as in A my Name is Alice), writing in patterns (as in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) writing a circle story (as in If you Give a Mouse a Cookie) and grouping events in sets of three (as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears).

In some sense stories for children hold an edge over adult stories, for a well written children’s story transcends age. Many adults regularly read (and treasure) books geared for children. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is a prime example. In fact, I regularly choose to read YA novels over adult novels.

When you first started writing, were your first works targeted at children or adults?

My writing journey is somewhat atypical. I taught elementary school for nine years before retiring to raise my kids. It was during this hiatus from teaching that I got into writing. It started when I saw a flyer for an amateur science fiction/ fantasy writing contest. I entered and won second place. Encouraged by my success, I tried MOPS International story writing contest…and WON! After that, I tried most anything that caught my fancy—science fiction and fantasy, short story fiction contests, personal essays, poetry, and devotions…all geared for an adult audience. I never really zeroed in on one particular genre until I wrote my first children’s story for a contest. I think the things I learned about writing early on helped me be a stronger writer for children. Plus I discovered all my years of teaching gave me an edge in the children’s market. Many poems, puzzles, and short stories later, I penned my first full children’s chapter book, which eventually led me to a contract with Standard Publishing for the Meghan Rose series.

Where did Meghan Rose come from and how has her series impacted your writing?

LOL. This is a long story I have told many times. When my daughter was in first grade, her teacher started reading the Junie B. Jones books in class. Since Meghan liked them, I picked up a few copies.

I enjoyed the humor in those books, but didn’t like the name calling, grammar slips, and bad attitudes. Then Meghan started acting and talking like Junie B., and I started looking elsewhere. I thought there had to something better—a book that was just as funny, but had a better role model. I simply SCOURED the Christian bookstores and talked to MANY store managers begging to find THAT BOOK. They carried Bible stories, devotional books, and picture books for that age group, but no chapter books.

At the time I did all this searching, I had already started publishing children’s stories, poems, and puzzles for magazines. So when my daughter--Meghan Rose, BTW--finally got fed up with my hunting and said, "Mom, you're a writer. If you can't find what you want, then YOU write it for me!!!!!!!!!" I did. LOL. I wrote the book I couldn’t find—a book just for her. I put in everything she wanted—an interesting story filled with giggles and characters worth rooting for—and everything I wanted—good moral values (but with nothing preachy about the story at all). (I hate preachy, I love amusing.)

I was preparing a VBS program to pitch at a writing conference when my bookstore conversations came back to mind. Almost on a whim, I wrote up a proposal for a whole series based on the book I wrote for my daughter. After all, I knew there had to be an untapped market because I WAS part of that untapped market.

I see now that bringing that proposal along was God’s leading. All the writing I had done up until that point—the short stories, puzzles, poems, articles—prepared me for that moment when the contract came.

The ultimate impact was to give focus to my writing. While I still love science fiction, my passion is, and perhaps always was, for children.

What resources have you used over the years to help hone your writing skills? What resources do you use now?

The best move I made as a new writer was to join a local writing group. That group not only gave me support and encouragement, it pointed me to potential markets, helped me critique my work, and kept me motivated. I also took a free online writing course, which proved helpful, and joined an online writing group, The Writer’s View. (I was part of the original TWV group which later split into two groups, one for beginning writers and one for more advanced writers.)
Writing for magazines is great for honing skills. It forces you to write tight, meet deadlines, and (often) address a theme. I also enjoy short writing exercises. You can often find these challenges online for free. It’s a great way to wake up the muse...and fun! Sometimes these exercises will even lead to a publishable piece of writing.

What advice would you give novice writers, particularly those interested in writing for young audiences?

I wrote an article that addresses this very question! It’s online at

So, science fiction…how did that happen?

I love reading science fiction and fantasy. Ever since my fifth grade teacher read The Hobbit to our class, I couldn’t get enough of it. Of all genres, it’s my favorite. That’s why, I think, I was originally drawn to it when I began my writing journey. But even though I started with sci-fi, I believe I am a better children’s writer. My years of experience as an elementary teacher has given me a deep understanding and appreciation of children so it’s easy for me to write in a way that connects with them.

On a sidebar, a few years back, I had the privilege of working at the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois. The center holds most of C. S. Lewis’s original works plus the wardrobe that supposedly inspired the story The Lion, the Witch , and the Wardrobe. The Wade Center also houses works of C. S. Lewis’s pals, including J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. I got to transcript recorded interviews of people who knew C. S. Lewis!

What’s one question you wished others asked about your writing? What’s the answer to that question?

Someone actually did ask me this question, but it’s not one I’m often asked and I think it’s a good one. She asked, “Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?”

Whether or not I have a real person in mind when I create a character—and I often do—there’s still a little bit of me in all of them. In the Meghan Rose Series for example, a lot of my personality is reflected in the teacher, Mrs. Arnold. Another character, Ryan, shows the jokester side of me, and Kayla reflects my goofy side. Lynette shows my stiffer rule-following, show-off side. Yeesh! The Meghan character herself is about 80 percent of the “real” Meghan, 10 percent of me and my creative musings, and 10 percent total fiction.

September 16, 2009

Writing = The Exploration of Truth?

I rarely take the philosophical route. I'm usually more of a "logic" guy. But today, I'm offering up a recent thought that I had in regards to writing. If it's terrible and you hate it, tell me why. If you love it and want to endorse it (re-tweet, maybe?), tell me why. I'm sure it has been said before, whether by a lunatic or a genius, I don't know. But, the thesis for the day is:

Writing is an exploration of Truth.

Yeah, I'm throwing the capital "T" Truth out there. As writers, isn't our goal to replicate life? Even ridiculous stories featuring talking toys or cartoon animals attempt to draw inspiration from real life. Don't writers, then, seek to understand life in such a detailed way that it becomes a pursuit of the Truth? We draw intricately crafted character bios and backgrounds. We research setting, culture, and history. We walk readers down a plotted path that must be, if not logical, feasible. Right?

If a character murders another character, don't we have the obligation of explaining the factors that led up to the killing (if not through the main story, at least through the backstory)? What Truth led to the killing? Perhaps jealousy? Perhaps anger? Perhaps spite?

Take jealousy, for example. Do all jealous people kill? No. What factors in a person's life would lead them to kill out of jealousy? Once we move down this path, aren't we exploring the Truth behind human emotion and the implications of human behavior?

I think we are. The Truth might be stated in the negative (as in the jealousy example), or it might be stated in the positive, but either way, we are exploring Truth, right? Aren't we exploring principles that would lead us down a path that quests for the underlying Truth?

What do you think? Is there any truth (pun intended) to this idea? If so, does this apply to any other forms of art? If not, then what are we doing? What is writing all about?

September 03, 2009

Comics vs. Novels

Today's topic: comics...or novels? Statistics, which I don't have references for, tell us that the predominent readers of novels are...middle-aged women. I haven't seen the same statistics for comics, but if you've ever visited a comic book store, I think a quick visual poll reveals that it's mostly younger males.

Much of that spread likely has to deal with the way women and men function. Men are generally more visual. Women are generally more of (for lack of a better term) "feelers." Women can immerse themselves in the words while men like to be "Oooo-ed" and "Aaahhh-ed" by steriod-injesting men and well-endowed women. Again, we're speaking in generalities. Of course men like to read novels, and of course women read comics, but I'm just speaking in overall terms.

So, I have two questions for you...
  1. What do you primarily choose to read? (and let us know your gender - we'll do a quick pole)
  2. If you also write, what kinds of implications do these (vague, unproven, and untested) statistics have on your writing?

As an aside, here are some suggested reading materials/people to follow/places to visit. Enjoy!

  • Jospeh Petro's "Standing Next to History" (an excellent memior about his time as an agent in Ronald Reagan's secret service detail)
  • Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing" (a great, thought-provoking exploration of the writing process)
  • (and follow @pulptone on Twitter)
  • People to follow on Twitter: @nscheck (illustrator for @pulptone (creator of Sergeant Zero) @bobbynash (writer) @jamesscottbell (writer)
  • And of - new episodes every Monday and Thursday!

July 27, 2009

Character Development is Difficult

You've got this great character, right? She's spunky, a recent law school graduate, and she loves her Friday night writing engagements. Her only hope in life? That she'll meet the man of her dreams (preferrably, a firefighter), and live happily ever after.

Cool, interesting character. Now what? She has to grow, right?

Growth, in its most realistic state, is something that happens over fairly long periods of time. We have to experience life, react to it, process it, and then learn from it. Someone doesn't go from spoiled schoolgirl to serious, intentional scholar overnight. That's where the writer steps in. Our job is to tell the most compelling moments in a character's life. Compelling moments that build up to growth (whether positive or negative).

Sounds easy, right? Not particularly. We're suddenly called to be psychologists, in a way. We draw up characters so rich that they must behave as real people might when facing a similar situation. That means that we're required to analyze behaviors, motivations, and even thought processes.

It's not easy, but it's what we do. At least it's fun, right?

July 16, 2009

A Good Premise?

I'm working on a comic book with Nathan. We're just in the conceptual stages. He's working out what the illustrations will look like, and I'm playing with ideas for the story. Grabbing Mr. Egri's work (The Art of Dramatic Writing), I'm trying to come up with a premise for the story.

Where do I start? It's got to be something I'm passionate about. Makes sense, right? Writing about something I'm not passionate about is likely to come out dull. Characters need to come alive. I need to care about their struggles. I need to either root for them or against them. What's the point of writing about people that I don't care about, right?

I started my journey by looking at lists of virtues and emotions. To start, I'm not interested in creating a story in which the lead character tears himself apart. There is certainly merit in those types of stories, but I'd rather stay on the positive side of things. I want to showcase someone dragging themselves out of the gutter to succeed.

I started to hone in on some of the following virtues that resonate strongly with me: "Faithfulness," "Honor," "Honesty," "Integrity," "Justice," "Diligence," "Discipline," etc., etc. What next then? I need some sort of conflict and then a resolution.

Here's what I came up with:

Diligent pursuit of the truth leads to freedom.

What do you think?

July 15, 2009

"The Premise" is not just a theme!

Just had a great discussion with another writer regarding "theme." I had been using the term "theme" to describe what Egri calls "the premise." My fellow writer was quick to point out that a "theme" in and of itself cannot stand as a good story. Character and plot must be worked out first. Only then can the theme work in context.

Her point is excellent, which is why I believe Egri chose to call it "the premise." Why? Because the premise is made up of character, conflict, and resolution. Better said, theme, the characters, and the plot are all intertwined in what Egri would call the premise.

A writer writing about "love" as a general theme won't get very far without a solid plot and good characters. A properly formulated premise, however, will capture all of those things:

Love, unrequited, results in heartache.

The premise reveals what the characters must embody while it also reveals how the plot must be driven to its finish: heartache (which, you'll note, is the resolution of the premise!).

Man #1 loves Woman #1, but she loves Man #2. We can now hone in on our characters knowing that we have the basis of our framework. We also know the conflict (namely, that love will be unrequited), and how we wish to resolve the conflict (heartache).

What other examples might you think of?

July 08, 2009

What are you passionate about?

That's one key question for someone seeking to develop what Lajos Egri calls "the premise." It's that undergirding message that flows through your work. It's not something you stand on a soapbox and preach to your audience, but it is something that reflects the science of human nature.

Why is it essential? For one, because people naturally gravitate toward works that say something. Maybe it's simple, like "Good triumphs over evil," but at least it's something. The premise allows you to set characters in motion and watch them play out exactly what it is you're trying to get across.

So, how do you create one? Egri gives us a simple formula: character + conflict + resolution = the premise (all right, so that's my interpretation of his work). Start with something that you're passionate about. I like to slog through a huge list of virtues or emotions, things like: diligence, faithfulness, honesty, ruthlessness, jealousy, etc. Select the most meaningful one you can.

Now consider that virtue (or emotion). What result would that have if played out in a certain scenario? Let's take jealousy. Okay. What's the result of jealousy? It blindly destroys love! It festers until it destorys the jealous person and sometimes even his or her lover...

Guess what, you've just defined the premise of Othello: "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its desire."

I think Mr. Egri is onto something, don't you?

July 01, 2009

Breaking Down a Writer's Task

I mentioned in the last post that I'm reading a book by Lajos Egri. I know what most of you (if not all of you) are thinking...who is Lajos Egri? I didn't know, either. In fact, honestly, the only reason I own the book is because a college professor made me buy it for a class (thank you, Dr. Esselstrom - the book is awesome!).

The book? The Art of Dramatic Writing. Mr. Egri focuses in on playwriting, for the most part, but the principles of this book are rooted in storytelling, which is what makes it so compelling. It's a look into human nature. An examination of life. Sounds like reading a psychology book, right? It's not far off.

As a writer, it is critical that we understand human nature. That we identify those things that make up life. Behaviors, emotions, connections. Those may be identified in some intense melodrama (e.g. Shakespeare) or they may be hinted at in action-adventure (e.g. Die Hard). Either way, you must identify those things.

I highly recommend Egri's book. It breaks down how a writer must behave in order to tell a compelling story. And, if we don't intend to tell a compelling story...why are we writing?

I'll be exploring my learnings more in the next few weeks as Nathan and I struggle through some of these questions in relation to all the Timeslingers items that we're working on. Stay tuned!

June 24, 2009

It's Official

All right, we've got an official launch date for! If you've been dropping by the "online time travel adventure series" from Nathan Scheck and I, you've noticed that we launched the "preview episode." Well, as of July 6, 2009, all the other ones are coming. We update the site every Monday and Thursday.

As we talked about before on our podcast, the new installments take less than 5 minutes to read (most people get through them in less than 3!). Nathan's illustrations are bigger as well.

Please drop by when you get a chance!

Also of note:
  • I just finished reading a book by Alan Moore (popular comic book author and very strange dude) titled, "Writing for Comics." It was an excellent book on writing in general with some specificity into comics. I'll be discussing it more here when I get the chance.
  • I'm currently reading a very good book on writing drama by Lajos Egri. I'll also bring some learnings to this blog.
  • Nathan and I are also considering publishing a comic book, so we'll let you know how that's going.
  • And...I've got posts from Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (more in the series I was running) and Lori Z. Scott (an interview).

So, there are plenty of things going on here! Check back soon for more! And check out Timeslingers!

PS. If you're a writer and you're on Twitter, check out the Twitter Fiction contests (yeah, you've got to be brief!) at Book View Cafe. Cool stuff! And, I tied for second place in the last, obviously, I'm a fan.

May 27, 2009

It's Time to Vote

We're coming down to the wire with the preview of the new Nathan has been doing a ridiculously good job with the site, so we're almost good to go.

While I wrestle with character development for the final few episodes, I ask you to help us wrestle with something else. Our tagline. What should the Timeslingers tagline be? Here are the options we're considering. Please vote on your favorite:

Shadow Phase: The chaos begins.

Shadow Phase: Chaos rising.

Shadow Phase: The order undone.

Shadow Phase: History undone.

Shadow Phase: Insurrection

Shadow Phase: The past is about to change.

We appreciate your support!

May 12, 2009

It's Been a Little While...

Okay, I apologize for the lack of content coming from Constructing Stories! I got married in late March and bought a house (closed escrow the day before the wedding), which means more work and less writing. But, it's been a great experience, and I appreciate the support of friends and family!

Now for the writing news...

  1. is now on Twitter! We'll be letting you know how our progress on re-releasing the site is going, and then we'll transition into story update notices when is live again. Sign up today at by visiting
  2. I signed a contract last month so that my story (if all goes well) will be included in Infinite Space, Infinite God II. I'm very excited about that. Special thanks to Karina and Rob Fabian.

Hopefully, you're all doing well. We'll get back to the podcasts and the blogging soon! Thanks again!

February 21, 2009

Serendipity - On Being a Professional Amateur

Maya's series continues this week with some thoughts about plotting (or a lack thereof). I love this post, because at one time or another, this happens to every writer.

Serendipity (or Writing by the Seat of Your Pants)
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: Baldric concocted a cunning plan to scare the killer lawn gnome into staying away from the cave entrance so he could sneak in.

Writers sometimes use expositional sentences like this to cover plot holes. We’re writing by the seat of our pants—making it up as we go along. We’re stuck for a way to keep the bad guy out of the cave and we got nothin’. Instead of using the opportunity for some clever plotting we wing a cunning, but undisclosed plan.

It’s a form of deus ex machina. Sometimes it’s a magical mechanism or previously unknown power or ability that saves the day. The weapon or talent the hero wields to kill the rogue lawn gnome does not exist until he needs it. The magic horse is simply there when the prince is stranded someplace nasty. The pebble in the heroine’s shoe was just a pebble until it became more convenient for it to be a magical pebble.

Ultimately, the reader wants to be able to divine from action and dialogue and story arc a set of subliminal rules that help him predict what might happen and to whom. Plot twists only really work with those rules in place. Why? Because if the writer just makes stuff up as she goes along, the reader can’t tell a plot twist from the other gyrations the writer is putting him through.

“Just ‘cause” explanations, convenient objects or talents and repetitive changes in direction not only lose the reader’s trust, they wear the reader out. Any plot device that is important to the main thread and resolution of your story needs to be carefully worked out at least in part onstage, where the reader can watch.

No, you can’t think of everything up front. Sometimes you have to ad lib or you have an epiphany that results in a new plot twist, but then you need to go back and lay the ground work for it in the earlier portions of your manuscript so that it is appropriately built up and foreshadowed. If you provide the hero with a magical, singing sword of hoary legend on page 250, the reader needs to at least get wind of the hoary legend somewhere around page 75.

And if your hero needs to slip into the cave unmolested by that rogue lawn gnome, impress the reader by having him come up with a cunning plan worthy of showing off.

Exercise: Look at your own fiction or at fiction you've recently read—do you see signs of what I describe above? See if you can’t come up with a dynamite plan to sneak your hero past the lawn gnome—then let the reader in on part of your (hero’s) thinking. It will not only engender trust, it could prove pretty darned entertaining.

February 10, 2009

Podcast #2 - Serial Story Lessons Learned -

I hope you're enjoying Maya's series of posts about amateurish writing. Intersperced throughout her series, we're also running a number of podcasts about the serial story that Nathan and I are working on. "Blogging" a serial story every week can be really fun, but we've learned some lessons that you may find helpful, particularly if you're considering a similar storytelling strategy.

Last podcast, we discussed the concept. I encourage you to check that out. It's a little over 5 minutes. Today's podcast focuses in on why we're updating the site, why it's currently on hold, and what we're doing to improve it.

Links mentioned in this post: (NOTE: as stated in the podcasts, is currently on hold while we update the site)

February 04, 2009

Amateurish Writing - by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Last year I ran an interview with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and then posted a series of articles she wrote on amateurish writing. The series was very well received. She has a knack for addressing topics in an interesting and engaging way. So, when I heard that she had written more articles on the same subject, I jumped at the chance to include them here on Constructing Stories. Let me (and Maya) know what you think!

Barney as Narrator
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

More often than I'd like to tell I see manuscripts that read as if they were written for children, regardless of who the target audience is. Partly this is the result of what the writer chooses to tell the reader, partly it's how the writer tells it.

Sample paragraph:

Queen Amelia looked at the new ambassador. He looks familiar, she thought. What she didn't realize was that the new ambassador was a disguised Lord Roberto.

"I am your new ambassador, Majesty," announced Lord Roberto in his disguise.

What’s wrong with this perfectly grammatical set of sentences?

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the paragraph, although "announced Lord Roberto in his disguise" makes it sound as if he's saying the line up his sleeve. But it has other problems:

  • It's juvenile-sounding and awkward.
  • It gives the reader information the point-of-view character doesn't have.
  • It repeats the fact that the Queen has a new ambassador three times, and the fact that it's Lord Roberto in disguise twice.
  • It repeats certain words in the same or different forms: look, ambassador, new, disguise.
  • The dialogue tag ("he announced") tries to inject false excitement into the scene.

In most writing suffering from the "Barney Effect," the characters rarely say anything. They shout, yell, bellow, scream, shriek, squeal, exclaim and cry their dialogue. The writer thinks he's injecting excitement into the prose when, instead, he's creating something that reads like those old Dick and Jane books we had to slog through before we got to read something with a plot.

How do you avoid Barney-isms?

Two simple changes will help a great deal:

  • Don't make your characters shout unless they're trying to attract someone's attention across a crowded room, or scream unless they're absolutely terrified, or cry out unless they're shocked and amazed. Have them simply say things.
  • Don't pause to inform the reader of what the hero doesn't know. (Unless asides to the "audience" are part of the "schtick" of your story.)

Exercise: See if you can make the Sample Paragraph above sound like it belongs in an adult book of fiction. Embellish at will!

January 18, 2009

Exciting News

I hope you guys enjoyed the podcast. There's definitely more to come from Nathan and me in that department as we continue to refine TimeSlingers. But, I do have some additional news that I think everyone will respond favorably to: I'm finalizing some details with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and then I'll be posting more from her series on "Amateurish Writing"!

I'm excited about that, because Maya has a lot of experience and her posts are always very well received. So, I'll be running two series concurrently, the podcasts about TimeSlingers and Maya's insights on how we can avoid some of writing's pitfalls.

Also, as a plug for something new Maya's been working on, check out The Book View Cafe. I think you'll enjoy it, so I'm adding it as a permanent link on this site.

Stay tuned!

January 12, 2009

The First Podcast - TimeSlingers Concept

My friend and illustrator/story consultant, Nathan asked if I'd like to try a podcast. Who wouldn't, right? So, my series about writing for TimeSlingers continues, only instead of reading my writing, you can actually just listen to Nathan and I talk. Something about that seems strange since this is a writing blog...but I think it's fun, so let's try it out...


Links mentioned in this post:
Infinite Space, Infinite God