Teachers Write 7/22/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Good morning! Is everybody ready to write? Guest author Jody Feldman joins us today for a prompt that will help you raise the stakes for your characters.

Jody blames her 7th grade English teacher (justly or not) for turning her away from writing, yet the world mysteriously led her back. Her middle grade novels—The Seventh Level and The Gollywhopper Games series (all from Greenwillow/HarperCollins)—have won a number of honors including the Georgia Children’s Book Award, the Grand Canyon Readers Award, and the Show-Me Best Book Award. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri or online at www.jodyfeldman.com and on Facebook (Jody Feldman Author) and Twitter (@jodyfeldman).


Upping the Stakes

If you’re in a position to teach or lead or otherwise speak with some measure of authority, wouldn’t you play to your strengths? Wouldn’t that be normal?

I suppose I’m not always normal.


With this Quick Write, I am playing to my weakness. Before you click this off and revisit a different exercise, let me explain.

I was lucky to be born into The Nice Family. Think June & Ward Cleaver, but with loads of personality and a little bit of bite. That translates this way: When I write stories, I care about my characters and don’t really want anything bad to happen to them which pretty much defeats the possibility of an exciting plot. And so I have spent much time thinking about how to up the stakes or otherwise get my characters into trouble.

Maybe you can deal out death and destruction (or worse, embarrassment) to any character in any situation, but I’ve needed to disassociate myself from my feelings for these imaginary people. With my plot in mind, I generate generic lists of what bad things can befall otherwise good beings. Usually they land in following categories (and I’ve added some bonus examples):

I Shouldn’t Have …

*borrowed her bicycle

*said that snarky comment

*opened his locker

*loosened the rung on the ladder

*eaten the last taco

*eaten the taco that fell on the floor

*given the taco that fell on the floor (which the dog sat on) to that girl




*Hammered finger instead of the nail

*Airbag broke nose


*Was tripped

*Was tripped which tore my best pants and bloodied my lip and got gum in my hair which is how I looked when I went on stage to ask 300 classmates to vote for me for Class President only after I grabbed my Sequoia tree report from my locker instead of my election speech



*The picnic got rained out

*The raccoon stole my backpack

*The snow storm left me stranded

*Lightning knocked out the electricity

*Lightning knocked out the electricity which caused a power surge that fried my mother board and left it impossible to access the 20-page report that’s due in 14 hours which is not only 50% of my grade but is half the project for my partner who’s the dreaded Connie L.


Other categories that have worked for me:

That Dirty, Double-Crossing #@%$^ (When antagonists do bad things)

I Didn’t Pull the Fire Alarm On Purpose, I Swear (When protagonists do bad things fully- or semi-unintentionally)

I Don’t Understand (Miscommunication, misinterpretation, and other mishaps)

The Truth (When s/he discovers a fact—emotional, familial, physical—about him/herself)


Just a couple more tips…

*Before you grasp onto your first idea, make sure there are no others that can better sync with character, plot and theme development.

*Escalation is often the key. When you layer your woes, when an unfortunate situation gets naturally worse, your story will be more effective than if you pile on several disjointed, anecdotal situations.

And now you can choose to:

A). Take a scene from your current WIP and edit it to further complicate your character’s life; or

B). Using a situation from the list above, afflict pain upon your own character or on a character borrowed from a favorite book.

I’ll be nosing around in hopes you’ll share any scenes or lists or thoughts. Have fun. And don’t get into too much trouble.


Note from Kate: Feel free to share some of those unfortunate situations in the comments today. This will be fun!

68 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/22/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

  1. My main character learned he was moving the afternoon before they packed the truck and left. He had always struggled because his father was a preacher. It wasn’t bad enough they moved. I threw this at him.
    Jacob helped carry in and put away the groceries. He headed to his room to set up his bed. If he could unpack quickly enough they might let him go exploring a little bit. He still needed to call Jesse. He had been unable to reach him from the minute he found out they were moving. This was just not like his friend. He set up his bed and unpacked his books. Sitting on the edge of the bed Jacob tried calling Jesse’s number again. He heard a click and someone on the other end of the line.
    “Hello, Jesse?” he was met with silence. He tried again. “Hello”? He heard a sniffle. “C’mon Jesse this isn’t funny. You’d better say something before I come back up there and kill you.” Someone on the other end was sobbing now. “Who is this?” The line went dead. He quickly dialed Jesse again. This time the voice on the other end answered.
    “Hello Jacob. This is Jesse’s mom.”
    “Oh hi Mrs. Conrad. Is Jesse there? I’ve been trying to reach him since before we left for Florida.” The line was silent except for some muffled sobs. “Mrs. Conrad, is everything okay?”
    “Oh Jacob I’m so sorry. Jesse isn’t here,” she said.
    “Oh that’s okay Mrs. Conrad. Can you ask him to call me when he gets home?”
    Jacob could hear sniffling and coughing. Then Mrs. Conrad spoke again. “I’m sorry I can’t do that Jacob. Jesse had an accident two days ago. He rolled his car coming home from the game and wrapped it around a tree. He was killed instantly. I thought your dad told you.”
    Jacob held his breath. It couldn’t be true. “My dad knew about this Mrs. Conrad?”
    Mrs. Conrad struggled to answer. “Of course he did dear. He came over to comfort us and recommend someone to perform the funeral since you were moving. Jesse was so heartbroken when he learned you were moving. He couldn’t understand why you didn’t tell him. He figured you were too broken up when you found out that you didn’t know what to say to him. It’s tough for us Jacob. I can’t imagine how you feel. You two knew each other since kindergarten. Please feel free to call and talk to us any time you want. You were such a good friend to him and just like another son to us. Goodbye.”
    The line went dead. Jacob sat and looked at the phone. He was numb. He and Jesse had been best friends since they were five years old. Now he was gone. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to him. A sudden realization hit him. If his dad had not grounded him for talking back he would have been with Jesse in that car. Maybe he could have done something. Then again, he might have been killed along with his friend.”
    The numbness turned into anger. His dad knew about the accident and didn’t tell him. Jesse knew they were moving. Maybe he thought Jacob didn’t care. No they had been friends for too long. How could his dad be so calloused and uncaring.

    1. Poor Jacob. The realization that he didn’t get to say goodbye seems so realistic, coming after the shock of what he has learned. Definitely an escalation of Jacob’s problems and I wonder how he will overcome these emotional burdens.

    2. I love the subtlety you used to add that additional layer of what’s basically deception, that it appears Jesse knew Jacob was moving even before Jacob, himself, knew. That does a tremendous job of socking Jacob (and us) in the gut AND propelling your story along several related paths. Good job, Sandra!

    3. Great escalation. There is so much pain, betrayal, and agony over a missed good bye. Looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

  2. This is a shock on so many levels and every level must feel like another pitcher of ice water in the face to your character! Jacob is betrayed by his father time and again (the move, the loss of his best friend, the now inherent loss of trust in his father). How in the world will he face his dad, the preacher? But more importantly, where does Jacob go from here? I am intrigued and sympathetic…well done!

  3. Thanks for a great writing challenge today! I usually write nonfiction, but here was my quick write attempt at writing fiction, focusing on upping the stakes:

    She sat by the pool’s edge, stringy strands of matted brown hair hanging from her face, drenched with chlorine and sea salt from her swim in the ocean just a half hour before. Her toes casually skimmed the surface of the pool water as her legs pumped forward, rising and falling, the repeated action mindlessly keeping her body active while her eyes watched the boy.

    He was watching her, too. He saw her enter the gated door, rinsing the sand off her feet, immediately catching her eye, glancing away with embarrassment. He knew his cheeks were still flushed from the moment and yet he couldn’t resist watching her again.

    He played in the water with his little brother, splashing and laughing, all while sneaking glances at her. She looked to be about his age, 15, but he wasn’t sure. She sat near him along the edge, legs in the water, and it was apparent she was looking at him as well. Should he say, “Hi,” or smile when their eyes connected? Would she know he had been watching her all this time?

    She heard laughter. Giggling. Turning her head, she saw a little boy, no older than five, making his way out of the pool, water dripping from the inflated water wings adhered to his arms. “I’m gonna get you wet,” he shouted as he made his way to the diving board. The boy and the girl both watched as the younger boy climbed the steep steps leading to the high dive.

    “No! Kyle, come back! You can’t jump from that high!” The boy frantically swam to the edge of the pool, reaching for the metal stairs beside the girl. She scooted to the side, but she was a distant memory, the panic frozen on his face as he pulled himself out of the pool.

    Before he could take two steps, they heard the crack. Time moved in slow motion as they both saw the younger boy’s fingers slip from the rails, his tiny body falling backwards. No one was there to catch him as the blood trickled across the white concrete.

    Water wings only work in water.

    1. I could picture the boy with his water wings, which makes the last line sting all the more. Thanks for sharing, Tamara.

    2. I think there was a good build up of suspense here. I kept waiting for something to happen to the little boy, but I thought it would be drowning so as a reader I was a little shocked at what happened. Great way to evoke emotion!

    3. First off, I love the way you use the rhythm of your words and phrases and sentences to convey the undulation of the waves earlier which also translates into a sort of calmness and serenity. And that made it all the more jarring at what happens with brother. Because of today’s topic, we figured something would, but an unsuspecting reader would be utterly shocked.

      Just a thought to ramp up the reading experience even more: You may consider mixing up the rhythm of the sentences, using more staccato strokes at the very end of the passage to get our hearts beating even faster. Your last line is fabulous, Tamara!

      1. Great suggestions! I wasn’t even thinking about the tempo of word choice. Love the idea of staccato revision to make the heart beat faster. Genius! Thanks again!

    4. What a powerful last line. I felt the tension in this scene, especially after the little boy headed for the high dive.

    5. Tamara,
      I absolutely loved this piece. To me, you could polish and publish this. The imagery is stunning, with the little water wings, the crack that resonated off the page, and the final words which made me cringe. You upped the stakes, and accelerated my heart rate in the process. Bravo!

      1. Thanks for your feedback! This was definitely a stretch for me, writing outside my comfort zone of Pollyanna positivity. I appreciate your encouraging words, as well as those from others, regarding today’s quick write. Where would one publish short stories? The publishing aspect has me completely baffled. Thanks again for taking the time to leave feedback!

    6. Tamara, wow! Your last line was so powerful. I did not see him falling backwards as you wrote through the scene. It was so unexpected and jarring for me as I once had a nightmare where I watched my adventurous son jump from a platform despite my pleading. Before I woke up breathless and crying, I saw his limp body hit the concrete. Were you in my dream. Great work. Keep going. Michele

    7. I really liked this–great buildup and a total shock. Lovely details and language. Even if you say this isn’t your comfort zone, I think you’ve got a knack for it.

  4. Borrowing from real life, upping the stakes incrementally in this excerpt — perhaps *too* incrementally as I reread… Need to think about a bigger bang to which this is building.

    Todd’s three friends sip wine or beer around the kitchen island as he begins pulling vegetables from the fridge.
    “What’re we having tonight?” asks Stacey, a confirmed vegetarian as far as Todd knows from when they used to date.
    “An Asian-y salad,” Todd says. He’s thin and wears an apron printed with ‘Real men don’t use recipes.’
    “I’m allergic to peanuts,” Stacey says, which Todd doesn’t know. “Are there peanuts in your salad?”
    Todd pauses at his pantry, reaches past the peanuts to a jar of sesame seeds. “Nope. Sesame seeds okay?”
    “Yes, just peanuts are bad for me. Not like my-throat’s-closing bad, but bad enough to avoid when I can.”
    Todd takes a bag of the freezer and tosses it on the counter. Stacey’s green eyes – the color of soybeans, Todd notes to himself – widen just a little.
    “You’re using edamame?” she says.
    “Uh huh,” Todd says. “Even vegetarians needs protein.”
    “But I don’t eat soy any more.”
    “More allergies?” Todd asks, tilting his head sympathetically as if comforting a child who just shared a boo-boo.
    Stacey tells him, “No, I decided last year not to put genetically modified food in my body.”
    For a moment, the conversation roars like a fire, everyone taking sides, but the flare quickly dies, doused by civility.
    Todd throws the bag back in the freezer. “I’ll cook some soba noodles to bulk up our salad instead,” he tells the group.
    “Soba, that’s wheat, isn’t it?” Stacey’s sister Jen asks. Her already squeaky voice squeezes out an even higher pitch. Next to her, Stacey winces.

    1. Oh my gosh, I feel so sorry for this guy. It seems like he can’t get any of it right. The harder he tries the more he flounders. I feel so sorry for him and at the same time wondering will he become even more upset with all of the demands on his cooking? Great job. You can feel the tension building in the kitchen.

    2. I like the way the tension is building here. It makes me wonder what else is going to happen for poor Todd, and maybe when he’s going to lose it.

    3. Oh, this is funny. And so true to life, Brian! You just know this girl. And the poor guy!

      I think you\’re right about this building to a big payoff. I\’d love to see what that is. Meanwhile, you have the opportunity to layer it even more in a less linear fashion. In addition to Stacey\’s nixing of all the ingredients, have Todd scrambling a bit more. Get us more personal with him. Does he only have three more options in his pantry or before he has to turn to a recipe? Is it late or a holiday? Does he not have a 24/7 store nearby? Also give us a clue as to why this is important to him to please her. Is that merely his personality? They used to be dating, so does he want to rekindle? We don\’t need full backstory. Maybe just a comment by another person there or a telling aside on Todd\’s part or a sentence or two of internal dialogue. The more we know about him, the more we can empathize and the more any little thing hurts. Keep going!

    4. I kept waiting for someone to have a fatal allergy attack, and was pleased to see it was a realistic struggle of “What can I make for lunch to please the masses?” I was curious if the characters’ body language changed as the tension rose… Does the main character eventually have an outburst or push the rising frustration deeper to explode at another time? Great illustration to show a man truly “caught in the middle.”

    5. All I could think, reading this, is ‘My poor mother in law’. My husband and I are vegetarians (ovo-lacto). Her other son is lactose intolerant. Her son in law is Muslim and doesn’t eat ham, but does eat everything else, and her daughter has decided to only eat whole wheat products that she makes herself.

      I’m not sure if it works for your story, but a holiday meal and a few difficult relationships makes this especially charged.

      I love how your hero keeps trying to work with everyone so gamely! Good luck to him! (After the disaster that is destined, of course.)

  5. Good morning, Quick Writers as well as those of you who just want to gather around the watering hole. I’ll be hanging around all day if you have any questions or just want to chat. We are off to a great start. Well, you are. I was delayed this morning, but can’t wait to read what you’ve written so far. Glad you’re here!

  6. Thanks for the great tips, Jody! Upping the stakes is something I struggle with too. Here’s a scene I wrote about my main character, Ayla, a girl who is struggling with panic attacks and anxiety, (Rebecca is a girl she is developing a friendship with as they plan at a birthday party for Rebecca’s little sister Olive. Whisper is a dog Ayla was helping to foster.) Sorry if this seems long, I tried to space it out to make it easier to read.

    The Dollar-O is not one of my safe places. Last time I was here with Dad, I had to leave. And now I don’t even have Whisper’s calming magic to go home to. I take a deep breath and follow Rebecca into the store.

    There aren’t too many people in here. I can do this. We head down an aisle crammed with birthday loot: little cars, animals, glow sticks, marbles, party hats, noisemakers, birthday signs.

    “What about these?” Rebecca’s voice jolts me out of my mental inventory. She’s holding up a bag of rubber mice. “They’re perfect for our Mouse Trap obstacle course.”

    “Great,” I mumble.

    Rebecca moves on to a row of craft items. Popsicle sticks. Pompoms. Buttons. Beads. Glitter glue. My lips move as I silently review the item names. Something brushes my arm and I look up, startled. A woman and her little girl are staring. I can’t do yoga poses in the Dollar-O. I try another slow breath.

    Now Rebecca is looking at me funny too. “Are you okay?’

    “Totally fine.” Except for the fact that my heart is using my chest as a trampoline.What was I thinking, coming here?

    “What do you think about these pipe cleaners for the puppy craft?” Rebecca is saying. “They have packs of white or bright colours. Do you see any brown ones?”

    I point to a package of markers.

    “Yeah, maybe they could markers to colour the white ones,” Rebecca says. “Oh wait, this pack has brown and black.”

    She loads pipe cleaners and mini-markers into her basket. She asks about some cute fish erasers and I nod. My chest is tight and I don’t trust my voice.

    Rebecca moves on to the food and candy aisle. I grab a puppy shaped note book to show her, but then that little girl is there and her mom, both of them looking at me again like I don’t belong. I back away, right into a display. Jam jars crash to the floor. I scramble to pick up the unbroken ones, glass crunching under my sneakers. Rebecca’s eyes are wide, her mouth open in shock. A lady in a green apron barges over shoo me away.

    I didn’t mean it. Gasping for breath, I stumble past the mess to the door.

    “Hey, that kid didn’t pay,” someone says.

    The clerk starts towards me.

    “Please return to the cashier to pay for your merchandise,” a loud speaker blares.

    I look at my hands and they are still clutching the puppy face notebook. I drop it and run outside, fumbling for my phone. Leaning against the wall, I close my eyes and wait for Dad, wait for my heart to stop thumping, wait for the pain in my stomach to go away. But I can still hear the crunch of glass and smell the sweetness of strawberry jam.

    Warm fingers on my arm make me jerk.

    Rebecca says, “Hey. Ayla,”

    “I wasn’t…stealing,” I choke out.

    “I know.”

    “I can’t do it,” I say.

    “Was it the strawberry smell? Are you allergic? Should I call 9-1-1?”

    Now she’s all panicky too. I shake my head.

    “I’ll call my mom,” Rebecca says. “We can get the party stuff another time.”

    “I called Dad.” I hold up my phone. “You go. Get the stuff.”

    “I can’t just leave you here.”

    “I’ll be fine. I’ll wait.” It’s all I can manage, but it works.

    She edges back towards the door. “You’re going to be okay, right?”

    I nod. She goes back inside to pay. But I’m not okay. I lean against the dirty wall and feel the sun on my face and I know that I can’t go to Olive’s party. I’m not getting better at all. I have to tell her. I have to.

    I close my eyes and pretend I’m at home. I chant my power words. And I think about how “This feeling will pass.” And how brave Whisper stood up to the big, black dog.

    The door to the Dollar-O jingles. Down at the end of the parking lot, Dad’s green truck is creeping slowly along the road.

    “I got everything,” Rebecca says. “Are you feeling better?”

    “I can’t do it,” I whisper.

    “What?” Rebecca stands there looking confused and feeling sorry for me, exactly like she did when she first met me, and I couldn’t go into art class.

    My legs start to shake. “I can’t come to the party.”

    “But you’ll be better by then. It’s a whole week away.”

    “I can’t.”

    “But…we’re not having strawberry. I can’t run the whole party by myself. It’s OLIVE.”

    My heart is pounding. I’m a terrible friend. Dad pulls up. I rush to the truck before he can get out.

    “I’m sorry,” I say to Rebecca and jump in.

  7. This post is super helpful! I hadn’t really realized it, but I am the same way…I am afraid to let bad things happen to characters because I am emotionally invested in them. I don’t want to go through what they will have to go through…especially when I’m bringing it on myself by creating it for them! I love the idea of keeping a running list of misfortunes and challenges. This will help me so much when A character needs a misfortune or bad decision. Thank you!

  8. I can completely relate to Ayla. I suffered from panic attacks once upon a time, and am so grateful those are in the past.

    You did a really good job, Andrea, of setting up the scene then having the symptoms escalate as Ayla goes through the store. I\’m thinking, though, that while you\’ve had the attack reach a crescendo for her, you might be able to use a few more tactics to make sure is similarly escalates for the readers, so that someone who has never experienced a panic attack understands how debilitating and consuming they are. You may already do this early on in the story. If so, you\’re right not to overly describe everything again. But if you haven\’t yet, make sure to take us through the physical part. While she\’s taking inventory of the items on the shelves, she can also be taking inventory of what\’s happening inside of her: how colors are fading to black, how the pressure is crushing her chest, how the smell is making her brain tingle, and so on.

    The other thing you can do (and I mentioned it in a previous comment) is to change your sentence structure whenever she\’s slipping into panic mode. Shorten the sentences. Possibly cut sentences off in the middle. Use quick phrases. Single words. Mimic the fast breaths. Perhaps by doing that, you can further convey how some attacks can come on a little more gradually before they hit. Pow! Then recede again. And when they go away enough and the breathing is back to normal, your sentence structure can reflect that. Thanks for sharing this, Andrea. And no worries about the length. You needed it to show the scene.

  9. Thanks for the exercise. When I started writing, I though the bad news would be about Gigi, but as I started writing, I realized it was about Mia’s sister. Thanks for the exercise. 🙂

    The moment unfolded in snippets: frames progressing like a book of animation. First came the phone call, then the silence, then the shriek, and then the thud.

    I ran to the kitchen and found my mother heaped on the floor.

    “What happened?” I yelled but she didn’t move. Her lips couldn’t form words.

    “Mom, who was that? What happened?”

    I knew it was about my grandmother. It had to be about my grandmother. My father was taking her to the doctor for a check up; maybe they got bad news.

    “Was it about Gigi?” I asked again, this time panting, staring at her folded up into a fetal position.

    “Mom, talk to me!”

    But she just sat there, still, lifeless: a ragdoll tossed on the linoleum floor.

    I crossed the kitchen. A pot boiled over on the stove above her. Red tomato sauce hemorrhaged down the side of the metal. I pushed it away from the heat, turned off the burner and fell toward my mother.

    “Mom, is Gigi okay?” I asked once more, this time grabbing her hands, trying to shake her back to life. A hazy glaze clouded her blue eyes and trembled like child.

    I grabbed her phone, checked the scroll of recent calls and hit redial.

    “Dad, what happened?” I screamed.

    Mom and I were both shaking and clammy cold.

    “Is Gigi alright?”

    He paused a little too long; my heart raced and my throat closed.

    “Yes,” he said. The word hung in the space between us: as thick as clouds of evaporated sauce, as heavy as fresh garlic.

    “Gigi’s right here, Mia. Gigi’s okay.”

    But he paused again after he said it, choking on the pungency.

    “It’s not Gigi, Mia.”

    My pulse quickened.
    “It’s Charlotte, Mia. It’s Charlotte. My poor baby Charlotte.”

    1. Laura,
      This scene is galvanizing. I love the action of Mia thinking to turn off the pot of sauce (showing her attention to preventing an accident or a mess), and her level of panic is great. I agree with Jody’s comments below. I would be checking to see if the mother is ok, wondering if she fainted or had a stroke or heart attack or some other medical issue. And I would edit out the two sentences before the action starts and see how that reads. I like it!

      1. Wendy,
        Thank you so much for reading my piece. I really appreciate your feedback. 🙂 Good advice. I will play around with it, as this is my first draft and this scene hasn’t come up yet in my WIP (I jumped ahead).

  10. What happened to you, Laura — it’s my second favorite writing happenstance. I love it when you start down one road and the story, on its own, veers down the hidden path.

    How tragic, this scene. It’s solid as it stands, and you definitely “go there.” And your first line is strong.I’m wondering, though, what might happen if your reveal happens with a little more padding. Does Mia wonder if Mom, herself, is okay? Is Mia certain that Mom isn’t sick? What else might be going through her head so that we may be as puzzled as Mia is in the middle?

    It may not work with such additions, but you never know whether you can make it even stronger unless you try.

    Good work!

    1. Thank you, Jody. I am sorry for the delay. I checked earlier in the day, but did not get the chance to check again until now. I love your suggestions and I will play with them as I revise. Thank you!

  11. Dear Jody-
    This was incredibly timely. I’ve been struggling with the fact that my hero has not struggled enough. I don’t like conflict. I avoid it. Giving my characters any kind of conflict does not come easily for me. So this gave exercise gave me a place to start. Thank you!

    “You’re it!” Owen took off running, splashing through the pool and across the yard.

    Franny squealed. “Hey! No fair!” and chased him, pausing only to snag Christopher as he leaped through the sprinklers again. “Tag! You’re it!”

    The dogs and Christopher charged after the running kids, twisting around each other and splashing through the water. Hard packed dirt turned to mud and cut grass stuck to their legs. The twins joined in, surprisingly fast, screaming and taunting Christopher. Owen was tagged and the chase reversed direction, as if a wave of children and dogs were returning to the ocean.

    Molly fled up the steps to the deck, her flip-flops snapping against her heels. Owen bounded after her, snagging her arm, “I got you!”

    Her foot hit a puddle. Molly hurled backwards, legs flying, knocking over the table, pulling down Owen, kicking Little Bit, and slamming them both against the deck.

    A whirling ball of fur, Little Bit screamed and tore into Molly.

    Owen hadn’t known a dog could scream.

    He hadn’t known the damage even a dying dog could do to flesh.

    1. Laura,
      This scene is galvanizing. I love the action of Mia thinking to turn off the pot of sauce (showing her attention to preventing an accident or a mess), and her level of panic is great. I agree with Jody’s comments below. I would be checking to see if the mother is ok, wondering if she fainted or had a stroke or heart attack or some other medical issue. And I would edit out the two sentences before the action starts and see how that reads. I like it!

      1. I’m not sure what happened above…

        I love the descriptive action in this scene. I can see, hear, and smell all that is going on. I’m really loving this story. Nice job.

    2. Well, your characters will definitely need to struggle after this scene, Terry. It’s so true how life can turn in a second.

      Now that you’ve actually put the kids in such a difficult situation, I hope you can rip off the Band-Aid again. Keep going!

  12. Hi Jody, Such a useful post. Your suggestion to improve a scene are helpful. My character, Sue is traveling with her family from Minnesota to Texas. The caravan of the family vehicle and the UHaul depart on a sub zero, cold winter day in January 1973. I will use your suggestion to complicate the day big move by being standed in a snow storm. I will work on that scene now. Thank you for your encouragment to make my writing better. ~Suzy Leopold

    1. Great idea, Suzy! Do remember to not only up the ante with the external, but also with internal conflict. Not only with the grandness of a snow storm, but also with its potential effects … a tooth knocked out by a wayward snowball. Or an icicle piercing a car window. Or how such a weather event dredges up some difficult memories.

      Good luck!

  13. Thank you, Jody! I loved this writing exercise. I put my main character, Sammy Sports, into a very sticky situation. A situation that he would most likely not find himself in. Here’s what he did:

    I’m awakened by the heavy slam of the door and the lock latching into place. Where am I? I look around at all of the shelves of books that surround me. I must have fallen asleep. The last thing I remember is researching the effects of air pollution. No wonder why I feel asleep.
    I close up my books and walk across the library to the main door, the only door. I pull on the door. Nothing happens. I push on the door. Nothing happens. I see the key lock and look through the crack in the door to see the bolt slid perfectly into place. No way! I am locked in the library.
    I panic. This is the last place anyone will look for me, including Mom and Dad. They will never believe that I was working in the library. They will check the practice fields or the gym, but never the library. None of my friends know I am here. I didn’t want to tell them in fear that they would pick on me for the rest of my life. What am I going to do?
    I know. I will stand by the window until Ms. Dean walks by. I think that she sleeps here. She is here when I come back for concerts or basketball practice. She is here when I have to come back because I forgot my homework. She is here on Open House Night. She is ALWAYS here. In fact, I think most of the teachers sleep here. I always see my second grade teacher, Ms. Smith, in her room when Mom and I are walking back to the car after soccer practice. I will wait by the window.
    One hour passes…
    I bet all of the teachers are in a meeting with Principal Case. They are probably working on some new methods for the Common Cold that everyone says teachers need to follow. I guess I will look around while I wait.
    I walk towards the “Non-Fiction” section. Wow! They have a book on the history of the World Cup. I will take this one out and take a look. Wait a minute. They have a book about LeBron James. I will take this one out too. No way! They have a book about the history of lacrosse. Why didn’t I know that these books were here?
    I am walking towards the big table in the middle of the library when something catches my eye in the “Fiction” section. So awesome! They have a whole series of stories about sports. I will take these ten books out and take a look. I have a lot of reading ahead of me.
    Two more hours pass…
    The grumbling in my stomach is distracting me from my reading. I look around the corner of the bookshelf to see the clock. 7:00. What? What happened to the last two hours? I didn’t hear any teachers. Was I reading this whole time? I can’t let any of my friends know. Reading for two hours. Only my brainiac sister would do that. Ugh!
    Am I going to be trapped in here all night? I am going to starve. I might die. I NEVER thought my life would end in a library. I really would like to read a little more about the story of the baseball player trying to help his team win the championship.
    One more hour passes…
    I hear keys jingling. Could someone be here to save me? The door opens and there is my mom standing in the doorway with a look of relief on her face.
    “Sammy, are you alright?”
    “Mom, I was researching for a school project that is due on Friday and I got locked in the library.”
    She peers at the table with her mouth open. “Were you reading these books?” she asks.
    “Yeah! I had no idea our library had all of these cool books. The librarian, Mrs. Booker, is like hundred years old, so I just thought she bought books about knitting, best places to eat dinner before four o’clock, Bridge, and shuffleboard. This library has a ton of sports books.”
    She smiles. “I am just glad that you are okay. I must be honest, this is the last place Dad and I expected to find you.”
    “Promise me you won’t tell any of my friends about this.”
    “I promise.”
    “Mom, you know that there is this guy named Matt Christopher that has a ton of sports books. Why haven’t you ever got me any of them?”
    “I have. They are collecting dust in your bedroom.”
    “Oh. I didn’t realize that you bought them to collect dust. No wonder my room isn’t dusty. Would you mind if I read them?”
    She is still smiling.

    Sorry so long, but I had to share. Thanks again!

    1. I enjoyed reading your work! What a great idea! You’ve developed a believable main character who has an interesting problem. I also appreciated your word choice: “grumbling in my stomach,” “keys jingling,” “look through the crack in the door to see the bolt slid perfectly into place.” The character’s dialogue with himself was also spot-on. Thank you for sharing this!

    2. No worries about the length, Andy. Scenes and such are as long as they need to be. My guess is that once you go over this again, you can tighten much, but you’ve done a really good job of putting Sammy into the middle of a no-win situation, at least no-win for the moment.

      You may even be able to ratchet this up a notch for him and the readers. Does the library have windows? Could he realize that, if worse comes to worse, he can throw a chair through one and escape that way? Or can he pile books onto a chair, hoping to make himself tall enough to reach something that might help him out of his situation? Or can he devise other schemes that make the reader worry about the consequences of some potential action?

      Also, might you want to draw out the rescue part of this scene by him hearing footsteps or voices in the hall then rushing and calling from back corner, but no one hearing at first?

      You’ve set a great scene, ripe with potential. I hope you’re able to actually use it. Yay!

  14. The challenge my MC faces is the slow revelation that she has suppressed a traumatic childhood memory and that memory is slowly forcing its way out. This is Lauren’s first inkling that something is amiss.
    I watch Jordan scramble around the intricate tunnels, slides, and ladders that connect the various sections of the playground equipment together; I catch another glimpse of the boy I noticed earlier. He has dark brown hair that has soft curls framing his face. Why does he seem so familiar to me? I start to scan my mental rolodex containing the faces of younger siblings of my friends, of my cousins, of anyone who may resemble this kid—nothing surfaces.
    I shrug my shoulders and return my attention back to Jordan who is completely enthralled by spider web of the jungle gym she is currently playing on.
    A memory flashes through my head and my chest tightens making it hard to breathe. I’m light headed and clammy, and the breeze that kicks up makes goose bumps prickle on my skin. I stumble backwards saved by a bench from tumbling to the ground.
    The playground spins around me so I close my eyes, hoping when I open them the spinning has stopped. I open my eyes moments later relieved to see everything is stationary once again, but I still feel woozy and unfocused. I close my eyes again and take a few deep breaths. I try to hang on to the memory, but I can’t. I open my eyes and it’s gone.

    1. Nice, Micki!
      This is so easy to relate to. Who hasn’t had a glimpse of memory — on a test, with someone’s trivia question, or with a person or incident as you’ve described — that was just beyond reach?

      As good as this stands right now, I see here the opportunity for you to sharpen this even more, maybe not for Lauren, but for us as readers. When you say, “A memory flashes through my head,” it would make it more real for us if you say, for example … The sun glints off the bottom edge of the slide. The color, the curve, they cause a memory to flash through my head. (Not great, but you get the idea.) It would be especially powerful if you could, as suggested, have the memory also triggered by a physical something (other than the curls) which leads her further into her memories. And then when she makes that important self-discovery, as readers, we can see why the curve of a slide caused the beginning of whatever memory she associates with a sloping curb, for example.

      I hope my rambling makes sense. 🙂

      P.S. Just a small thing you might want to consider. I was a little jarred by the Rolodex mention. If the MC is younger than 40 or has had some Rolodex experience, not sure she would use that reference. I do love it, though. Oh! And if you change that reference to something else related to the incident, leave it for the reader as a little crumb, that would be even better.

      1. Jody! I love the idea of linking the rolodex reference to a memory. It’s perfect, and I know just how to do it. Thank you!!

  15. I’m coming in late tonight, so I understand if people have moved on. I struggled with this, not because I have a hard time inflicting pain on my MC, but because she suffers from so many problems it was hard to choose. Here’s what I have.:

    “Where ya goin’? It’s colder than the dickens out here. Where’re your shoes?”

    “I left them at the orphanage. The fire…”

    Concerned, Sam turned to look down Dodge Street. “Lord, have mercy” he whispered. “That’s bad. You gotta go back! The sisters will be lookin’ for ya.” He grabbed her arm to draw her toward the home. Lily yanked away.

    “No! I’m not going back there! I…I have to find my mother!” She turned and trotted toward Jefferson Street again. Tears formed in her eyes.

    “Your mother?” Sam was at her side, keeping pace. “What you mean? You don’t even know she’s still alive. You haven’t seen her since before that influenza hit.”

    Lily stopped. She turned toward Sam with a hard, determined look on her face. Sam stepped back, as if he’d been hit. “My mother is alive. I know she is. She came to see me, Sam. I heard her voice. She came to see me, and no one would let her in. Mother Superior told her to go away. Sister Mary Rosanna said she was never there. But I heard her. I heard her.” She was nearly crying now. Sam reached out his hand to calm her.

    “You can’t go anywhere like that.”

    Sam’s comment brought Lily’s attention back to herself. He was right of course. She’d never make it across town without shoes or a coat.

    “But I can’t go back for clothes.”

    “You don’t have to. I have five brothers, remember. We can find you a coat, and maybe some boots or something. Come with me.”

    The two made their way back down the icy sidewalk to Sam’s house. They crept across the crunchy snow to Sam’s back door. “Wait here while I make sure it’s all clear.”

    Lily nodded her head in compliance, shivering beneath her thin clothes, her breath shuddering through her chattering teeth. She wrapped her arms around herself trying to get warm as Sam disappeared inside. Lily glanced around the yard, which wasn’t really much of a yard to benefit five children. But then they never had much time to play anyway. The children were always working to help their Ma, their neighbors, or the families they were currently farmed out to. Lily wondered how the mother managed to feed those mouths. But then Sam’s father was fed two meals by the nuns for the work that he did for them. Still, this was no way for a family to live, separated and working just to survive. No way to live. But at least their parents didn’t give them up to an orphanage. A cry caught in Lily’s throat.

    “Here ya go!” Sam emerged from the house holding something to his chest. “I got a shirt, pants, some boots, and a length of rope to hold everything in place!”

    “Thanks, Sam.” Lily worked the clothes on over her own, cinched the rope around her thin waist, and tugged on the boots. “I appreciate you doing this. I’ll never forget it. You’ve been a good friend.” She turned away from Sam.

    “I’m going with you.”

    “What? No, you can’t do that.”

    “Why not?”

    “Your Ma needs you. She’ll miss you and worry.”

    “She’ll already be too worried about my Pa to worry about me. I’m coming. Besides, you don’t know your way around the city.”

    1. I am totally caught up in Lily’s plight. Then when Sam decides to go with her… Ripe for so much to happen.

      You’re right, Wendy, that with so much gone wrong for Lily already, you don’t need much more. In your case, I think it’s mostly about taking the opportunity to highlight the little things (like being cold or skinning a knee or forgetting a birthday); events that, in the scheme of things, wouldn’t mean much hardship. I think you do that here. Good job!

  16. I’ve been focused on professional writing, but decided to take a chance and post the following. It has been a long time since I’ve written fiction, so here goes:) Amazingly, I have a whole other page that follows this, but I thought that this paragraph was enough for my first post of a WIP.

    She just doesn’t like me. No matter what I do, she looks at me like I have three heads. That look she gets when I raise my hand could freeze ice cubes at the Equator. I don’t know why she doesn’t like me. I don’t talk all the time like Julie. I’m not the class clown like George. I don’t have a messy desk like Phillip. I try to do my best, even though some things, like math, are hard. I thought that fourth grade was going to be a great year, but so far, it looks like it’s going to be the worst year ever!

    1. Jennifer,
      It looks like your professional writing has done nothing to harm your creative side! I love the line, “…could freeze ice cubes at the Equator.” So good! And speaking from experience of having two kids around this age (one going into 6th the other into 4th), your MC’s voice is authentic. I’m guessing this is a girl, correct?

      I’d love to see more.

      1. Thank you for your comments:) I appreciate your kind words! I’m so glad that my MC’s voice is authentic-that was a huge worry for me! My MC is a girl, but I haven’t named her yet-I’ve tossed around a couple of ideas, but nothing has seemed quite right, yet.

    2. Your chance paid off, Jennifer!

      I love the way your character feels so self-conscious yet so invisible at the same time. Very realistic! I’d be turning the page to what’s coming next for (him/her?) this MC, especially with that last line.

      If you’re an experimenter, though, you may want to see what develops if you were to add something physical before that line.

      What I mean is, after the math comment, what if your MC turns to some sound and knocks his/her bottle of water over (which s/he forgot to re-cap). People briefly react in uncomfortable (to the MC) ways, THEN you hit us with that realization about 4th grade. It could be that the storyline you already follow this up with makes that awkward, but who knows? Maybe you can tweak the next part if you add a new bit.

      Anyway, just a thought on a great beginning. Thanks so much for being brave on my watch.

      1. Thank you for your kind comments:) I also appreciated your suggestions, especially for introducing the physical aspect-I think that is perfect and will incorporate that into my draft. I have learned so much from this experience!

  17. It took me a day to digest this prompt. Sorry for the long post. I couldn’t stop…
    I sat in the sterile classroom watching the rain crawl down the windows. It was the third day of Nursing orientation and my mind, not to mention my butt was numb. The Nurse Educator was droning on about charting and my stomach was growling. Another look at the clock shows only 3 minutes and 27 seconds closer to lunch break. My attention drifts back to the window.
    We have only been in Milwaukee for 7 weeks but it seems to be a lifetime of wishing I was home with my baby. It also seems like one poor choice after another. This is my second round of hospital orientations since our relocation and I am NOT excited about this one. But I couldn’t take another week of the night shift, critically ill and dying children, miserablly unhappy family and chronic self-doubt that seemed to dog that first job.
    As I try to snap my attention back to the presentor I notice the courtyard out the window is rapidly becoming a swamp. It seems odd to see this kind of rain in August. In Omaha, where we have spent the last 5 years August was oppressively hot, humid and cloudless. My memories of Wisconsin did not include this monsoon-like weather. What else don’t I remember about this city I brought us to?
    Over lunch, the table of new orientees buzzes about the weather. We can hardly make ourselves heard over the drumming rain on the skylight above the cafeteria. The concensus is that it’s so miserable outside we might as well be sitting in boring lectures. They are payiing us for all this fun after all. They shuffle us off to an interior classroom for a CPR video and review.
    Why educators always feel compelled to show coma producing videos right after lunch is a mystery of the universe. We blink like moles as we exit the dark, windowless room and stumble to the restrooms. I step out and join a couple of peers standing at the side door watching the deluge of rain continue to fall. It has been 2 hours since lunch and the landscape is almost unrecognizable out there. The puddles in the parking lot have become ponds and the cars on the streets shoot geysers as they plow through inches of standing water.
    As we walk back into the classroom a group of Educators are gathered at the front, engaged in a rather heated discussion. They look up and indicate we should sit quickly. Apparantly, they have arrived at the conclusion that we are in the midst of a weather crisis and the stimulating lecture on Infection Control can wait for tomorrow. Class Dismissed.
    Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! An extra 2 hours early. There are just not enough hours in the day to spend with my darling baby boy and they just gave me 2 free ones!! I race to the car and squeal out of the parking structure. Now it is my car that shoots geysers as I head towards the freeway. In the 7 weeks since moving here I have learned how to get to three important places; Children’s Hospital downtown, St. Joes on Burleigh and Children’s World Daycare. This new hospital, St. Joes, is lots closer to our apt and I can get on the freeway further north, avoiding the nighmare construction at the Zoo Interchange that has hampered my commute to the first job. I whip up the entrance ramp and slam on my brakes. The cars are standing still in front of me. Seriously, it is 2:15 what is with this kind of traffic. Slowly we creep forward until I can see the next underpass. Whoa! I see the problem. The freeway appears to be water, no a river as far as the eye can see. Cars are stopped at the edge of the water, some are obviously stalled with water over the tops of their tires. The only thing seemingly able to move are the semi-trucks with their engines above the level of the water. What now? Every car around me is starting to perform sharp U-turns and head back down the entrance ramp the wrong direction. What should I do?? I only know the freeway system. I haven’t had the time or reason to explore these side streets. Well I don’t see much choice, how hard can it be. I will head in a general north west direction and I will eventually hit the spot right? I manuvear the u-turn and start negotiating the chaotic streets.
    I have now been at this for 2 hours. It took almost 40 minutes just to get turned around and back onto a main east-west road. I have hit roads and towns I have never heard of before. Every street I think will carry me through to Menomonee Falls is either washed out or angling me further from anything I know. It is now 4:30 and I have no idea where I am and I am no closer to the daycare and my baby. So much for extra “mommy time” I may not even make the 6:00 daycare closing. What happens then? What do they do with babies left behind. Ohmigod I am such a horrible mother. Where am I??
    5:54 and I pass a Welcome to Menomonee Falls sign, I must be close. I have 6 minutes. The daycare is going to kill me, I have no idea how Tom is faring trying to get home, and my poor baby must be wailing by now. This road is so rural. I know Children’s World is on a road packed with strip malls. Where is this road in relation to where I need to be? Suddenly, the houses are very spread out, the water is so high I can’t even get walked to their mailboxes, the grey soaking day is turning dark. I think of all the stalled cars I have past this afternoon and I know that I am going to very likely ruin this brand new car we couldn’t afford. I think of Tom and wish I could call him, I think of Andy, my precious baby,hungry and alone at the daycare, I think I will never get there and the tears streaming down my face match time with the rain. I must plow on through, the water laps over the hood of my car, I have no idea where the road ends and the ditch starts except for the sparsely placed mailboxes with their little heads valiantly poking their heads over the flood….

    1. Lucky you, Janet! I love it when I can’t stop.

      You certainly made things difficult for your character.

      In your editing of this, keep an eye toward making sure she doesn’t come off as a full-time whiner. It may help us to like her more if, in the beginning in orientation for example, you show us some positive characteristics, sacrifices, outlooks and/or attitudes. Maybe the move to Wisconsin was a hard, but noble choice. Maybe she has a passion for one type of nursing, and this hard route is the only way there. (Hard route to goal + hard route home = parallel story construction. Just something to ponder.)

      What I’m saying is, if you give us someone to root for, any bumps in the road are that much more significant to our emotional involvement within the reading experience.

      I hope you keep going with this. You’re off to a solid start!

  18. I did something a little different with the challenge. Instead of applying it to my WIP (still working on that challenge!), I apllied today’s strategy about “escalating challenges” to my life. It is a lengthy post, so I put it on my blog instead.

    Setting the Bar on Fire: Crafting Your Story


    1. Love it, Greg! Though I am totally exhausted just reading. All my best for your running and your writing and your pushing forward with new challenges.

  19. Hi Jody,
    I love the lists of bad things that can happen. I’m behind this week, so I will try out your ideas and post later. Thanks!