Outlining a New Story

To see if I could do it and have students feel they’ve learned something about writing their own stories, I’m leading a class at the Pamlico Community College in their “Cultural Enrichment Program.” At the first session, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted out of the class. Several of them wanted to learn how to structure a story.

So, even though I’m a “seat of the pants” style of writer, I set about doing an outline for them. Actually, I’ve done two different outlines. This is the second one. Please let me know what you think.

Plotting Structure outline:

First off you need to have at least have an idea in your head of what you’re writing about.  A memoir? A short story? A poem? History? A scientific treatise? A blog? A play?

The structure of your story is the same whether you’re writing a scene or a book. So, I’m using a scene as a more succinct example of making an outline.

  1. Purpose of the Scene: First scene should set up who the main character is and what’s happening.

A: Physical description:

  1. Age
  2. Sex
  3. Location (In the kitchen? In a car? In the woods? On a boat?)
  4. Is the person alone?

B: Action:

1.Waking up? (Why?)

2. Cooking? (What? And Why?)

3.Driving? (Where? And Why?)

4.Walking? (Where? And Why?)

  • Character’s thoughts. (Anxious? Calm? Frightened? Angry?)

C: Reason for the scene:

1.Going to work?

 2.Meeting someone for dinner?

 3.Grieving?

4.Getting married?

5. About to murder someone?

  1. Arc of scene: Every scene should have a beginning, middle and end.

A: Beginning:

1. Does the alarm go off?

a. Does this awaken the character?

b. Or was he already awake? (Why?)

2.What’s her reaction?

  1. Does she pop out of bed? (Why?)
  2. Does she groan? (Why?)

B: Middle:

1. Character takes a shower:

a.She shampoos her hair, but as she starts to rinse it, the water goes cold or quits running

  • How does she deal with this?
  • She’s finally out of her bathroom.

C:  End:

1.Dressed and fed, she leaves her abode

a.What’s she thinking about?

b. Does she stride out the door with bold, confident steps?

b. Does she pause and listen?

2. What happens when she heads toward where she’s going?

                      a.  Car won’t start?

b. Or the bus is late?

c. Or the heel breaks off her

                          shoe?

d. The bad guy shoots at her?

  b. (Here you leave your reader hanging and solve the    

                          problem in the next scene. Or keep building toward the story climax.)

If this is the end of your book, of course you do complete the scene. The main character rides off into the sunset on his favorite horse.

In the next scene, conclude the immediate problem—She jump-starts her car, calls a cab, etc.—then give your reader time to breathe and cogitate on what’s going, however make sure your scene ends on a compelling note, with a hook at the end.

What I Learned

The first thing I learned is the usefulness of going to conferences even if you think you know it all. Guess what? There’s always more to learn.

Besides, there’s no way I thought I knew it all before I went to this year’s SCBWI-Carolinas conference. (For those of you who don’t know what SCBWI stands for: Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.)

I always go to the Friday morning Intensive where the speaker spends four hours delving into a subject. Vickie Selvaggio gave us an in depth look at books from the past and present that have been successful. Which reminded me to look to the future, but remember the past.

Highlights for me were visiting with long standing friends and meeting new people. It was sad to bid Teresa Fannin farewell as our stalwart leader, but she has trained a good replacement group of Donna Earnhardt (a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa), Kelly? who hit the ground running and Elizabeth Rawls. Nary a hitch in the proceedings was noticed.

I attended a delightful presentation on what is one’s voice and how do we know when we’ve found it. Not to worry, it’s been there all along. Sadly, this turned out to be Robyn Campbell’s last speech on this earthly coil. She died on Sunday. But I’m quite sure she’s regaling the Heavenly Hosts with her humor and her unique voice.

Of course, the annual “First Pages” session was delightful and inspiring. I think it’s safe to say that the rhyming picture book about things would or would not eat was the hands down favorite. The final pairing of the part that Alan Gratz read was a rhyme of moon pie with cow pie.

And speaking of Alan, his closing keynote speech had everyone in stitches as he talked about who he is and was. Athletic prowess was not prominent in his list of attributes.

No matter what type of writing you do, be sure to go to at least one conference that covers the genre. If nothing else, you’ll come away with new friends and an energized look at what you want to write.

Writing Speeches

My thoughts on speech writing are that one should be concise, but informative. However, there’s no reason not to have a humorous tone even if the speech is of a serious nature. I’m not talking slapstick or nonsensical humor, but I’m of the opinion that your audience is going leave you, if not physically at least mentally, if you drone on.

For instance, a group of us are presenting a forum on our globally changing climate. We have, we hope, people coming who might not agree that our climate is changing or who believe God takes care of the climate. This, I think, makes gentle humor in my introductions even more appealing.

The first speaker’s talk is about how to deal with atmospheric changes, such as more ferocious hurricanes and more variances in rainfall amounts from year to year. For him, I’m going to say: You might say he’s seen the clouds from both sides now. (For you youngsters out there, that’s a reference to a folk/pop song written by Joni Mitchell, but made famous by Judy Collins.)

The second speaker is an expert on rivers and we have a delightful picture of him sitting in a row boat holding a container of greenish-brown river water. He’s grinning as if he’d just got a fish for dinner or pulled up Black Beard’s treasure. But his tag line on his emails is a quote from Mark Twain. For him I plan to say: So, what better job than surveying rivers and teaching other people about them. Plus, he quotes Mark Twain.

            The third speaker is a retired Marine colonel who is telling us about how the military has to deal with climate changes. For him I’m saying: How can you not like a guy whose nickname is Otter?

The final speaker is a wildlife specialist who is telling us about the changes in animals and their migratory patterns in eastern North Carolina. His introduction include my statement: He gets great joy from showing the people what lives around here.

I could have just recited their technical bios, but don’t you think people are going to be more receptive to what’s being said if they have more warm and fuzzy feelings about the speakers?

I’m writing this now after the fact, and am thrilled to say that the forum was an overwhelming success largely due to our four dynamite speakers, but also because of the way we set it up. And, she says with not a smidgen of humility, because I added humor into my introductions and because my co-leader started us off with a song.

Thanks for reading. Hope to hear from you. Next week I’ll get back fiction writing or reviews. Sarah

It’s a Dark and Stormy Night…

     Writing the perfect opening is hard work. I’m reading a spy novel at moment because that’s the only way to learn a genre. I’m not a big fan of the author’s style of writing, but this is not the first book I’ve read that uses this format.

     The book is Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich (2009, Doubleday/Random House, ISBN 978-0-385-52407-0) and is the second in a series about a doctor named Jonathon Ransom, who actually isn’t spy, but his wife is.     

     Anyway, the opening scene is a news announcement on Reuters news service of a car bomb explosion, then the action centers on Jonathon Ransom for a couple of pages.

     And then the reader goes to Chapter 1, which describes in great detail an exclusive apartment building in a ritzy part of London, where the reader follows the intrigue of an intruder into one of the apartments. The owner of the apartment is murdered by intruder and then the detective who investigates what is considered a routine suicide determines is actually a murder.

     Then we jump back to Jonathon and along the way get a detailed description of the workings of a ultra-secret spy organization in the U.S. In my view, there are a great many details that could have been left out, making this a much tighter and compelling read.

    But I’ll continue to read so that I can understand what sells in this genre and how not to fall victim to this style of writing.

    In the meantime, I have to figure out what’s going to work for my young adult spy/murder/romance historical fiction book set in 1942. At the moment, the title is EARTHQUAKES because it’s set in Los Angeles and my Jonathon has nightmares about the devastation an earthquake can cause. But also because of the metaphorical earthquakes Jonathon is experiencing in his young life.

     The family has just learned their maternal grandfather died on Corregidor, Philippines and their father is now missing. Both men are Marine Corps officers and Naval Academy graduates. There’s one earthquake.

    Earthquake number 2 is finding their next-door neighbor stabbed to death in his house. Plus, people keep breaking into Jonathon’s house to find some secret message.

    I’ve tried several openings, such as having Jonathon wake up one morning from yet another earthquake nightmare and have to rush to get ready for school. First, though, he’s feel pressure to calm down the daily fight between his older brother and their mother about why he should or should not quit college to enlist in the military to save America from the invaders.   

    My editor says that publishers reject stories that start with dreams or with the protagonist waking up.

    Also, I shouldn’t start with the first word being a sound. In this case “whump,” because his brother is pounding on the kitchen table below Jonathon’s bedroom.

     One of my critique group women wants me to have a real earthquake described in the first page or two, but that’s not what I want. I want to focus on the metaphorical aspect.

     At the moment I’m stuck, but I’ll keep mulling it over in my head and it will come to me. In the meantime, I’ll working on making the rest of the novel perfect. Or as close as possible.

     I think the first paragraphs in my other two novels are good and compelling set ups. Terror’s Identity starts out with:

                        At sixteen, guys are supposed to tough, right? But when Mom

pounds of the stairs to our bedrooms shouting, “Aidan! Maya! This is it! We’re leaving…now,” tough is not what I feel.

     My second novel, a middle-grade horse book, Emily’s Ride to Courage, starts out with:

                        Usually, the sweet scent of just-mowed grass and the

                        growl of a tractor cutting a hay field perks me right

                        up. Not this time. This time I only feel dread.

I hope those make you want to read further. Thanks for reading. And, as usual, I’d love to hear from you. Sarah

What a Way to Teach Young Ones to Read!

Interested in writing for beginning readers? This series strikes me as a good model. Especially if you can include very appealing photos. The ones in this series are stock, a.k.a. uncopyrighted, photos. Who knew there were photos out there of a bald duck growing in its adult feathers? I didn’t. The series is about baby animals and is entitled Animal Babies. Well, what else would you call it? The series focuses on several different types of animals, from mammals to birds. The pictures of the bald eagle are especially interesting. The series lends itself to a teacher adding on concepts such as what is a mammal. So pick up the whole series for your classroom.

Animals Babies: Bunnies

Kelsey Jopp

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby rabbits, bunnies, and has a picture of newly born rabbits with its eyes closed and pink skin. There is something to learn every day no matter how old you are. The vocabulary words the reader is to learn, such as eye and ear and nest and mother and fur and tail and grass are pointed out by an arrow in the text and, a photo in the glossary. Different colors of rabbits are shown, giving the new reader an understanding that not all bunnies are the same.

BIBLIO: 2020, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95/ school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-747-5

Animal Babies Chicks

Kelsey Jopp

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby chickens, a.k.a. chicks, and has pictures of newly hatched chicks, all fluffy and cute. The vocabulary words the reader is to learn, such as feathers and legs and feed and beaks and coop,are pointed out by arrows in the text and with a photo in the glossary. Even when they’ve left their mothers, chicken live in groups. Most of the chicks shown looked to be your basic backyard, chicken-coop residents, but some of the more colorful breeds are included.

BIBLIO: 2020, Focus Readers/North Star Editions,

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 9781641859516

ISBN: 9781641858823

ISBN: 9781641858137

Animals Babies: Ducklings

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby ducks, a.k.a. ducklings, and has pictures of newly hatched ducklings. The vocabulary word the reader is to learn, such as feathers and wings and nest and grass and seeds, are pointed out by arrows in the text and with a photo in the glossary. The photo of the duckling growing its adult feathers is gross, but fascinating. Talk about an ugly duckling.  Even when they’ve left their mothers, ducks live in groups.

BIBLIO: 2019, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95 library & school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-745-1

Animals Babies: Eaglets

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby eagles, a.k.a. eaglets, and has pictures of just hatched eaglets with fluffy white feathers. The picture of the mother catching a fish is stunning. The vocabulary word the reader is to learn, such as feathers and mother and nest and wings,are pointed out by arrows in the text and with a photo in the glossary. Different colors of eaglets are shown, giving the new reader an understanding that not all eagles are the same. When they leave their mothers, eagles live alone. The series focuses on several different types of animals, from mammals to birds.

BIBLIO: 2019, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95 library & school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-7436-8

Animals Babies: Foals

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby horses, foals, and has a picture of new born foal with its eyes closed. Did you know a foal’s eyes are closed at birth? There is something to learn every day no matter how old you are. The vocabulary words the reader is to learn, such as eye and leg and hooves and body and grass are pointed out by an arrow in the text and, a photo in the glossary. Different breeds and colors of horses are shown, giving the new reader an understanding that not all horses are the same. The mare and foal shown at the beginning have the distinctive dish face of an Arab.

BIBLIO: 2020, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95/ school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-747-5

Animals Babies: Kittens

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby cats, a.k.a. kittens, and has pictures of new born kittens whose eyes and ears are closed. The picture of a mother cat washing her sleeping kitten is sweet. As the kitten grows, its eyes and ears open and it grows teeth. The vocabulary word the reader is to learn, such as tooth and mother and eye and ear and tail and leg, are pointed out by arrows in the text and with a photo in the glossary. The photo of a kitten chasing a butterfly will endear the reader to cats.  When they leave their mothers, kittens generally adopt a human. Though the book indicates that all cats live with humans, but that’s not always the case.

BIBLIO: 2019, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95 library & school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-748-2

Animals Babies: Piglets

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about baby pigs, a.k.a. piglets, and has pictures of new born pigs whose eyes are closed and are born in a bunch. The picture of them nursing blissfully with their eyes shut is delightful. The vocabulary word the reader is to learn, such as eye and nose and mother and leaves and roots, are pointed out by arrows in the text and with a photo in the glossary. Different colors of piglets are shown, giving the new reader an understanding that not all pigs are the same. Even when they’ve left their mothers, pigs live in groups.

BIBLIO: 2019, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95 library & school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-743-7

And finally, but not least:

Animals Babies: Puppies

Meg Gaertner

This book, as the title indicates, is about puppies and has pictures of new born puppies whose eyes and ears aren’t open. Did you know puppies’ ears are closed at birth? There is something to learn every day no matter how old you are. The vocabulary words the reader is to learn such as ear and eye and tail and teeth and food are pointed out by an arrow in the text and with a photo in the glossary. Though the mother with her fluffy, blond pups is a golden retriever, different breeds and colors of dogs are shown, giving the new reader an understanding that not all dogs are the same.

BIBLIO: 2019, Focus Readers/North Star Editions, Ages 5 to 6, $24.20 list/$16.95 school.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Beginning Reader

ISBN: 978-1-64185-750-5

Now don’t you want to read with young children and cuddle each of the babies in these books? No? Where’s the farmer in you?

What’s Changed in Publishing over the Years

Like most writers, I’ve been a reader all my life. Some of my earliest memories are my mother reading to us. I even have taste and things connected in my mind. When I was two years old or so, Mother read a picture book about Siamese cats and she gave each of us a translucent sky-blue mint candy to suck on. To this day, seventy-six years later, if I see a Siamese cat—especially a seal point—I can taste the sharp mint flavor of the candy. And I have one of those mints, I visualize the cat. But some of the stories I loved as a child haven’t fared as well. I recently read a Five Little Peppers story and was not at all impressed. The writing was stilted and the characters not anywhere near as endearing as I remember.

Last Sunday, my handsome devil and I went, as we usually do, to the semi-annual New Bern Friends of the Library book sale. We go on Sunday so we can load up on a paper grocery bag full of books for $5! What a deal. True to my lifelong love of horse stories, I picked up one entitled, Fury and the Mustangs, by Albert G. Miller. It is part of series about Joey Newton, an adopted boy, who lives and works on a western horse ranch and has tamed a beautiful black Mustang stallion that won’t let anybody else ride him. The story has all the elements of suspense and intrigue that a modern novel has, but it is written in a bland style. The thing that bothered me the most though, was the lack accuracy that most modern publishers would not allow. Especially the lack of attention to knowledge of horses and other animals. Part of this is because I tend to like accuracy, so I’m more inclined to notice incorrect details such as how a rider encourages a horse to change speed. One doesn’t “slap the reins,” one taps his heels against the horse’s barrel. But more serious errors were having this young boy, who would seem to be around fourteen or fifteen years old judging by the amount of strenuous work he is expected to do, throw temper tantrums and run away from home when he gets upset. Still and all, the book did keep me engaged for the most part. And I’ll forgive a lot if animals are involved. Plus, the illustrations were nicely done drawings by Sam Savittt. The story may originally have been made for television.

BIBLIO: 1960, Grosset & Dunlap/Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., Ages 8 to 13, Price unknown

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Middle-Grade

No ISBN

Being Friends and Helping Others

I keep trying to come up with a fool-proof way of making sure I don’t bore you by repeating reviewed books, but I’m not sure I’m there yet. So, forgive me if I repeat. This collection of books all had good messages about love and compassion in them.

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People have a way of deciding that certain things go together and other things don’t. As a child I remember being told that blue and green shouldn’t go together. And I believed those who told me that. After all they were my teachers. Then I realized the sky is blue and trees and plants are green. Look how well they go together!  Anyway, I remember also hearing that dogs and cats don’t get along well. Only if you don’t let them. The first story is about a dog and cat.

Felipe and Claudette

Mark Teague

Illustrated by Mark Teague

Each time a group of animals is lined up for adoption at the adoption center, Felipe and Claudette hope they get adopted, and sadly they are left behind. Felipe is sure it’s Claudette’s fault because she’s always barking. Which, of course, is not true. Sometimes she runs in circles or bounces balls or tears the stuffing from her toys. Enough to make any cat or human cringe, thinks Felipe, especially if the person were to see the dog dig holes or roll in the garbage. Claudette doesn’t see any harm in what she’d doing. After all, she is a dog. And, finally, she is adopted, even with all her faults. Guess what? Felipe misses her and Claudette misses him. She won’t play with her new owner, so he brings her back to the shelter, where the owner adopts the two of them. A sweet tale about love and acceptance. And the illustrations are downright adorable.

BIBLIO: 2019, Orchard Books/Scholastic, Inc., Ages 3 to 8, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Picture Book

ISBN: 978-0-545-91432-1

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We all need a little help in remembering the best way to behave and thrive and here’s the book to help you understand the rules of the road.

Super-Hero Playbook: Lessons in Life from Your Favorite Superheroes

Randall Lotowycz

Illustrated by Tim Palin

A bit on the long winded side, this book does give good examples on how to be a better human being. The illustrations are cute, though on the cartoony side. Children will relate to them. Superman shows how to be a role model by being truthful and helpful. The definitions that are put forth in this book are well done and the examples understandable. In addition to Superman, the author uses Black Panther, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, the Teen Titans, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Swamp Thing and many more. All give examples of good behavior either individually or as a team. Did you know that in addition to Captain Marvel, there is a Ms. Marvel who is not related and highlights flexibility? Some superheroes didn’t start that way, but learned what was good and what was not. The last hero is called Squirrel Girl. She eats nuts and kicks butts! Teachers could use the stories in their classrooms to emphasize behaviors they want to encourage.

BIBLIO: 2019, Duo Press, Ages 6 to 9, $11.95.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Chapter Book

ISBN: 9781947458765

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Well, there’s nothing wrong with retelling a classic fairy tale and giving it a modern twist. Enjoy this version.

The Three Little Superpigs: Once upon a Time

Claire Evans

Illustrated by Claire Evans

We all know the basic story of the Three Little Pigs, right? How they had to deal with the mean old wolf who wanted them for a snack. This version adds the idea of the pigs wanting to be superheroes. When Mother Pig has had enough of their mess and sends them out on their own, they end up in Fairyland where they meet none other than Little Red Riding Hood. She warns them of the mean old wolf who steals Mary’s lamb, and sheep’s and various grandmothers’ clothing. Each of the pigs builds his own little house and, as we all know, two of the pigs don’t think it out well, plus they just want to play. So, they make easily destroyed houses of straw and wood. Of course, the prudent pig builds his house out of bricks and ends up saving everyone’s bacon. We all know how the story ends, in this case with the Fairyland people all proclaiming the pigs to be Superpigs. The drawings are cute and the story is as endearing as ever.

BIBLIO: 2017, Scholastic Press/Scholastic Inc., Ages 4 to 8, $14.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Picture Book

ISBN: 978-1-338-24548-6

Hope you all have been enjoying your summer, but are looking forward to a brand-new season. For those heading back into the learning realm, what fun to be ready to learn or teach new things. Enjoy. Sarah