Teachers Write 7/23/13 Tuesday Quick-Write with Joanne Levy

Today’s guest author is Joanne Levy, whose funny and sweet book for tweens, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, was released from Bloomsbury in 2012. A survivor of the corporate world, Joanne is also a virtual assistant, providing admin services to busy authors via www.jlauthorservices.com. Joanne lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and a lot of pets, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio. For more about Joanne, the author, check out  www.joannelevy.com.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Back when I was dipping my toe into the writing pond, I took some writing courses at my local college to see about getting some info on the basics. I’d always loved to write, but I knew nothing about craft and how to make an okay story into a GREAT story; I needed help. I learned a lot in those courses, especially as they were workshop based and I could get feedback from my peers (one of the great things about Teachers Write!) but a couple of pointed lessons really stuck with me.

One is that you have to kick the crap out of your main character. Repeatedly.

“Noooooo,” you say. “I love my character! I want only the best for her. Sunshine and light and all things rose-smelling.” But if you’re writing a story, no matter if it’s a short or an epic tome, you need to kick your character a few times. You need her to grow, thrive and shine* and it’s only through overcoming high-stakes obstacles that she’s going to triumph.

So think of the worst that can happen to your character. And then make it happen.

My very favorite example of this is the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Give it a watch (you can call it research!) and see how many times poor Tom gets kicked. Hard. And the way he gets kicked is brilliant, too, in that good news/bad news way:

Good news: You survived a plane crash, bad news: you’re stuck on a deserted island, by yourself.

Good news: You found new shoes that you desperately need, bad news: you have to take them off the corpse of your buddy.

Good news: You get the shoes off, bad news: they’re too small (some kicks are big, some are small, but they all still count).

And it goes on and on. But through hardships we grow and show our true colors—these are life’s pivotal moments. These are the kinds of things that make your character human and sympathetic. You love them more for what they have overcome, right? It’s hard to love a character who has everything handed to her (and makes for a boring story). Where’s the grit? The strength, the stuff that makes you root for her?

So today for your quick write, take your character, thinking about her most debilitating fears or faults, and make the worst possible thing happen.

Is your character a terribly shy introvert? Force her to do a speech in front of 1000 people.

Is your character deathly afraid of snakes? Put him in a pit full of them (remember Indiana Jones?).

You get what I mean. Kick the crap out of your character and see what happens. I bet you’ll learn a little something more about her that you didn’t know before—maybe she fails miserably or maybe she can succeed and come out the other side stronger.

And when that happens, you know what to do–kick her again.

Good luck! Feel free to paste some of your writing below; I’ll be hanging out as much as I can today.

*Some characters don’t grow, thrive and shine, but fail and come apart when faced with hardship. But I’m going to assume that many of us are writing for kids where there is a positive or hopeful, if not happy, ending. If that’s not the case, for a character to fail and fall apart, they still have to face hardship, so this exercise is still valid, you’ll just have a less than positive outcome.

We’ll be giving away a signed copy of Joanne’s SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to one lucky commenter today!

57 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/23/13 Tuesday Quick-Write with Joanne Levy

  1. There are things my grandparents share and there are things they do not share. Like the matching coffee cups in front of them this morning.

    I only know that these are called Corell Ware cups because grandma showed me one day how they are unbreakable. She tapped the cup on the counter holding it by its thin, curved handle. She tipped the cup over and showed me the name on the bottom of the cup. I’ve been checking the bottoms of our plates and dishes since for the name and I feel safer washing the dishes knowing that many of ours are Corell Ware brand dishes. This makes me feel safe.

    But their chairs are on opposite sides of the table. And these chairs are outside of their separate bedroom doors. The table is a bridge between my grandma and grandpa. I come over later in the morning after both of them are already awake, but I imagine their separate doors opening and them coming out to sit at the table like a fancy clock striking the top of the hour.

    From my usual place at the table, I have often seen the inside of my grandmas room. I see the quilt on her bed. The dark paneling of the walls. The small window that brings in a small amount of light.

    But the inside of my grandpa’s room is a mystery. I’ve never seen the inside of his room. I wonder about the mysteries inside.

    The things he keeps inside that room are probably the things of a dog keeper, a fisher, a hunter.

    There are probably pictures of him with the big catch on his dresser. A tall canister of Christmas candy. Maybe a small collection of coins he has collected. Maybe a small black comb like the ones they give us on picture day at school, but this one is his.

    The things that you might collect while becoming a man.

    Sometimes, I try to stay in my chair a little longer, thinking he will have to get up eventually to go into that room and I will be able to get a little peak through the open door in this world. But, I have never seen inside his room, and on this particular morning all that I can tell about being a man I only see in his eyes which raise like two small planets over the ridge of a Corell Ware coffee cup.

    No one is talking at the table at the moment, the only sound in the room is grandma’s spoon circling lazily around her own cup. And the light drumming of my grandpa’s fingers on the table.

    These quiet sounds are the only ones breaking the fragile silence in the kitchen this morning. I try to breathe quietly because I want to hear inside this little room. . .as much as I want to see inside of his room.

    1. I really like the way you show your grandparents’ “kicking” each other through objects and setting. I could feel the tension and quiet indifference that they have for one another. The mystery of what is in the grandfather’s room skillfully portrays the enigma of the grandfather’s character.
      Well done!

    2. What an evocative piece, Paul. I feel the tension between the grandparents and definitely want to know what’s in that room–so much more than trinkets. I want to follow your character as he figures out a way in and the secrets he uncovers… Thanks for sharing!

    3. I really liked this piece. It says so much about the grandparents, the distance between them, and the MC. There is so much suggested without being said. I also like the way you use objects to evoke emotions. There is a lot of depth here, and it makes me want to read more.

  2. Joanne,
    I’m going to need to go and write for awhile, but I have to say how much fun it was to read your intro. today! I love it! Once I stop laughing I’m going to go and tackle my character straight to the ground. She’s scrappy. She may pull out of it!

  3. Nice post, Joanne! I’m also from Ontario and I’m wondering you took your writing courses and who your teachers were. Sounds like they were very helpful to you. Congrats on the new book!

    1. Hi Susan, I took courses at both Mohawk College (Instructor: Rachael Preston) and Sheridan College (Lynda Simmons)–both were some years ago, but I think Lynda might still be teaching. Rachael now lives out in BC. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Such good review of your book on Amazon, can’t wait to read it!
    Here’s my character getting kicked:

    Kasni pressed her back into the cool metal of the gate
    so she was within its shadow. She was out of sight
    as long as she was in the shadow of the gate. Her breath
    was quick and came in shallow gasps. How had she
    gotten herself into this predicament? She could hear footsteps
    coming closer and peered into the fog holding her breath.
    Suddenly they turned and walked the other way. She let
    her breath out quietly but did not relax. Relaxing could come
    later when she was safely indoors. For now she did not move
    from her hiding place. She methodically began to plan what
    she should do next. Edging her way along the fence, she used
    her hands to scrabble her way down the chain links to the end
    where she could through a space between the fence posts where the fence was

    1. This was the wrong copy of what I wanted to post: At the end she her clothes get caught and she is stuck in the opening of the fence.

      1. And then what??? I want more!
        Great tension here, Kristina. You have some great sensory stuff here–lots of showing. You also have some telling, that I think slows it down a bit. But great start and I like how you have a lot of variety in your sentence structure. Nice job!
        (and thanks for the nice words about my book!)

  5. Here’s the end scene to a short story I’ve been working on for the Ct Wrtg Project. Poor Cassaday. She really gets kicked here.
    (Sorry about the formatting, all the indents went MIA when I copied!)
    Granddaddy steps out the other end of the barn just before I come in. I pause before entering. I want to say thank-you to Cliff. Alone. I bite the tip of my thumb to settle the shakiness I feel all the way down in my gut. It’s all flippy floppy again.
    I step in, let my eyes adjust to dark barn light. Cliff is working on the hayrake. He looks up. My entrances are forever loud. “Hey, Cassaday. You put your chick – er, uh… You get your Lady Grey all settled in?” He moves around to the rear of the rake using his rag to clean bolts and put them back. We’d be haying soon.
    “I did.” I nod dumbly. I bite the tip of my thumb again and move closer. “Umm, Cliff…”
    He looks up, wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, leaves a streak of grease. I want to touch it. “Yeah?”
    “I just want to… that is I just want..”
    “Cassaday, you okay? You’re looking kind of red. You ain’t got the scarlet fever have you? Do you need to sit down?”
    “No, I…,” I shake my head. This is going all wrong. “I just wanted to say…”
    “Cass! Cassiday!” Beth Anne’s voice carries straight into the barn and ruins my moment for the second time that day. “There you are, Cass. Grandma needs you in the house. It’s your turn on the butter.”
    “And you’re supposed to take the clothes off’n the line!” I nearly shout back at her.
    She flinches a bit; Cliff looks more startled. She’s a quick recovery though. “Already done.” She smiles at Cliff and leans against the wall by the hayrake, Marilyn-like. I’ve lost my chance.
    “Cliff,” she says before he turns back to his nuts and bolts. “That was an awfully nice thing you did for Cassiday, buying that gimpy little chicken.” She smiles. I can almost believe she is sincere. She crosses her arms under her breasts, and tilts her head. “Why’d you do it?’
    Cliff’s grinning and wiping, wiping the inside of a ratchet. He leans down to begin working on the bolts again. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave a lady in distress, now could I?” A little eyebrow lift, just for me. I can’t help it. I grin from ear to ear and rock on my toes.
    Lady. He called me a lady.
    He shrugs his shoulders. “Besides. She’s like my little sister, couldn’t stand to see her hurtin’” he looks back over his shoulder at me. “Cass is one of the best kids I know.” He looks like he’s giving me the greatest compliment in the world and goes back to his tinkering. His smile goes from ear to ear.
    I am frozen to the spot. Kid? Kid? But… you smiled.. at me…
    I must have paled because Beth Anne, of all people, pushes off the wall, is by my side in an instant. My knees start to give way.
    “Maybe we best get you inside. You’ve had enough of a shock for one day.”
    I nod numbly. Cliff turns toward us, confused. He steps forward to take my arm, but I pull away. I seize with sneezing. Going past my usual three I don’t stop until five. I am rocked by more than just my sinuses.
    “Cassaday, you okay kid?” He’s peering down at me, brows furrowed, his eyes alight with worry. His palm is warm on my shoulder as he scans my face. I can see the pale stubble on his chin and upper lip, beads of sweat making it all moist. His breath is sweet, like hay.
    For a moment I think I understand King Henry. After the loss of each love he ripped her name and symbols out of every tapestry, piece of fabric, and carving. Silly man. Each time he interwove their names with his own.
    I shake my head in response to his question. I can’t look at him. I just can’t look at him. My insides feel like they’re being sliced, and his hand is slow December fire, warming.
    His voice is full of worry as he speaks to Beth Anne. “She alright? What happened?”
    He’s so clueless. That hurts the worst.
    “Nothing,” says Beth Anne.
    She’s right. Absolutely nothing happened.
    Beth Anne walks me out of the barn. Her arm around my shoulder she says, “I’m sorry, Cassaday,” in a much softer way than she ever has before. She doesn’t say he is too old, she doesn’t say he is a fool, doesn’t say this will pass, just I’m sorry. Maybe a lady understands more than I think.
    I lean into her shoulder, like a sapling from the wind, and cry the tears I should have cried for Grey.

    1. Kimberly – I appreciate the tension in this piece. Your character is getting her heart smashed and I’m now curious about how she recovers (and about what happens if she ever tells him about her feelings). The tidbit about King Henry is good, too. Is that true? Is your story set in that time? Thanks for sharing your writing.

      1. The story actually ends there – but she’s a survivor! It is set in the 1960’s, on a farm. Cassaday named her flock of hens after ladies in Henry VIII’s court, and yes. Henry really did do that with each of his wives symbols.
        Glad you enjoyed it!

    2. What a lovely piece, Kimberly. Oh, poor, poor Cassaday–I so feel for her and this definitely brings back memories of my own experiences with these feelings. Ahhh, youth… 😉 Great job with this.

  6. Just began reading your book last night. Also, love the idea of kicking your character…it makes so much sense. I just never thought of it that way! Thanks for sharing that piece.

  7. Jacob dreaded the first Sunday in a new church. His dad always required the family to join him at the pulpit. Jacob’s mom would talk about the groups she would start for the women. Jacob would be required to enthusiastically talk about the benefits of being a Christian teen. It was just one more way of getting teens to avoid him. His dad just didn’t see it that way

    “Jacob, come into my office.” Jacob knew his dad was going to tell him all about his expectations for Sunday’s Service. “Things are going to be a little different this Sunday. I am going to ask you and your mother to stand so that I can introduce you and then you’ll sit back down.”

    Jacob let out a breath of air. “Thanks dad, I always felt awkward standing up there talking. After all that’s what you get paid to do.” He chuckled.”

    “I decided it would be better if you and your mother talked with the Sunday Schools instead of the entire congregation.” Color drained from Jacob’s face. “I met with the board last night and we all agreed that it would be best if you talked about what it means to be a Christian teen in today’s wicked world.”

    “But dad I don’t want to teach anything to my class. You’re the preacher.”

    “You don’t have to speak to your class.” Jacob looked relieved. “You’re speaking to the entire youth department.”

    1. Ouch. When the reader and character expect that the kick’s *not* coming, the eventual delivery ends up feeling even crappier. Like how you pace these ups and downs, Sandra. Thanks for sharing.

      1. I agree that when you back it off and then bring it back, it seems even worse–nice job with that. Careful not to do too much telling–maybe break up your dialogue with some more showing–how is Jacob standing in front of his father? Is he fidgeting while waiting for him to speak? Avoiding eye contact? Just little details to show how he’s feeling.
        Great start here, Sandra! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Joanne, patient signer of bookmarks, thank you for being here today. I was wondering if you think this exercise works better from a particular point of view…First person? Third?

    1. Hi Kim! That’s a very good question. I’m not sure it matters so much for this exercise–your story will dictate what POV you use. I’m so deeply entrenched in using first these days (a personal preference for what I’m writing) but I think either would work. Why not try a bit of both and see what you feel works best for your story?

      1. I was thinking that first feels more authentic for conveying the feelings, but I like the idea of trying both. Thanks again!

  9. I’m not a teacher, but I needed to jump in, speak up and confess. This is, by far, the hardest thing for me to do in my writing. Your lesson, Joanne, gets printed out and pasted right next to my computer.

    Jody, the too nice

    1. Hi Jody! I used to be too nice, but now I live to torture and humiliate middle-graders. In writing only, of course. 😉
      Thanks for your nice words and I’m so glad this is helpful! Good luck with your own torturing!

  10. I am super excited about this post. I was struggling with where to go with my WIP because I felt like I was being too hard on my main character and I knew I was planning on being even harder on her, really knocking her down, so that by the end she is almost all alone and desperate. I was thinking I was doing it wrong and needed to rethink my whole story. This post gave me a leap of joy in my writing mind! I feel like I can keep writing my story now and I just need to do a bit of research before I write this next part of her getting knocked around. Hopefully I will get it done today so I can share! Thanks!

  11. She sits; her gangly frame perched atop the washing machine, her pale skinny legs dangling into the deep utility sink. “This should do the trick,” her dad says as he unscrews the lid on the dark brown glass bottle retrieved from the high wooden shelves overhead. The pungent aroma strikes her nose immediately. Her dad’s official family cure-all: Absorbine Junior.

    The upright freezer hums softly in the background as she ignores the sting of the liquid being applied to her raw itchy shins with the bottle’s squishy sponge-tip. The excess liquid runs down her legs, leaving trails in the dust on her bare feet. She focuses her gaze through the window, past the big shade tree just beyond which the peeling white paint of the old gate beckons her back outside to the steep hill with the poison ivy patch. Dangling between the two tall trees at the fence line is a vine as thick as her arm, and she can’t wait to get back to it. It is one of her many favorite hideouts on this, her own hundred-acre wood. Gently swaying on that scratchy bark swing gazing past the old smokehouse and the red barn to the surrounding fields and woods fills her with such peace. Peace that is seldom found in her day-to-day existence of ugly custody battles and a drunken stepmother. Bob Whites call to her. She tries to mimic their cries in hopes of getting a response.

    I feel like my descriptions are too wordy, but I like the way I’ve juxtaposed the ugly family situation with the serene natural setting. Being pretty new to this, I’m definitely open to some suggestions.

  12. Hi Kathryn, thanks so much for sharing this. I think your instincts are right on–it does feel a bit wordy. Try to scale back a bit on the adjectives, keeping the most important ones and see if that flows better. I do think this is a very great start–very evocative.
    p.s. I just looked up “Bob White” because it threw me off and it looks like it’s “Bobwhite” you mean. I thought you meant a person here and it was a bit confusing. 😀

    1. Oops! Thanks! The bird sound is two distinct noises so I tend to forget that it’s spelled as one word.

  13. Thank you for this advice! It made me rethink a scene where I had described something that had happened that was hard on the main character. I am going to go back and rewrite it in present tense so the reader can experience it along with the character. Your advice was just what I needed to rethink and readjust this scene. Thank you!

    1. Okay, here is a snippet from my rewritten scene:

      Luckily, my bag was all packed. I passed Tyler over to Mom and darted onto the sun porch to grab it, and was ready to climb aboard when the bus reached my stop. I found an empty seat by the window and looked down at Mom and Tyler.

      “Have a great day,” Mom and Tyler waved to me as the bus drove away. I waved back.

      “Wow,” I heard a voice behind me. “You’re not too much of a loser, are you?”

      I looked back. A girl with mean eyes glared at me. “Your mommy took your picture and waved goodbye on your first day? What are you in kindergarten?” she asked.

      “Shut up,” I said and turned back around.
      She pulled my hair. She actually pulled my hair. Isn’t that assault?

      “Don’t say ‘shut up’ to me. No one tells me to ‘shut up,’” she growled.

      Well, they should, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. I just got up and moved my seat.

      “Hey!” the bus driver yelled. “You stay in your seat while the bus is moving, you understand?”

      I nodded as I slid into the only other empty seat I could find. It wasn’t far enough away from my tormenter. My eyes grew moist.

      “Watch out you don’t cry,” hissed the mean girl. “You’ll ruin your drag queen makeup.”

      Okay, I thought. This is not a great start to my first day at my new school. But I will fix things. I will make it better. And I will start with you, Mean Girl. You’re first.

      1. Hi Kristin! Oh the bully on the school bus–I think we can all relate to this. This is a great start, but I want more from this scene. I want you to dig a bit deeper, like at the beginning, instead of saying “Luckily, my bag was packed.” How about something like, “My bag had been packed and unpacked for the whole week leading up to the first day of school. At the last minute before the bus was to arrive, there was no turning back. I handed my brother off to my Mom and grabbed the backpack, slinging it over my tight shoulders.”
        That might be a bit much (it’s hard to write in this tiny box!) but I want more about how she’s nervous and doesn’t know anyone. And the other empty seat? Make that worse. Maybe she sits in a puddle of apple juice (that’s why it was empty in the first place)–see what I mean? Go a bit further.
        Love the last line–it has some mystery about it and a promise.
        Great start!

        1. What fantastic advice, Joanne! Here is what I did with it:

          Luckily, my bag, which I had obsessively packed and repacked all week, was set to go. I passed Tyler over to Mom and darted onto the sun porch to grab it, and was ready to climb aboard when the bus reached my stop.

          I found an empty seat by the window and looked down at Mom and Tyler.

          “Have a great day,” Mom and Tyler waved to me as the bus drove away. I waved back.

          “Wow,” I heard a voice behind me. “You’re not too much of a loser, are you?”

          I felt a tug at my backpack felt a pull as it unzipped.

          I looked back. A girl with mean eyes glared at me. “Your mommy took your picture and waved goodbye on your first day? What are you in kindergarten?” she asked.

          “Shut up,” I said and struggled to take my backpack off so that I could zip it back up.

          I felt a burn on my scalp. She pulled my hair. She actually pulled my hair. Isn’t that assault?

          “Don’t say ‘shut up’ to me. No one tells me to ‘shut up,’” she growled.

          Well, they should, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. I just got up and moved my seat.

          “Hey!” the bus driver yelled. “You stay in your seat while the bus is moving, you understand?”

          He slammed on the brakes and I fell, nose first, onto the floor. My bag toppled over into the aisle and released a flood of notebooks and pens, newly sharpened pencils, erasers, and my new calculator.

          “No one can be out of their seat when the bus is in motion. Do you understand?” he hollered.

          I scrambled to collect my belongings, but my calculator remained tightly beneath the foot of my tormenter.

          “You want this back? You got to say sorry for telling me to shut up,” she said.

          “I am terribly sorry for telling you to shut up,” I said. “I cannot tell you how truly sorry I am. I could apologize all day and I still couldn’t fully express my utter regret at telling you to shut up. Words cannot describe my lament at having suggested that you stop talking, or rather decline to begin talking, which is what the command “shut up” recommends or requires that you do.”

          I could have gone on all day like this, but she was getting tired of me and her friends were starting to laugh at her a little bit, so she kicked the calculator in my direction and just said, “Good.”

          I slid into the only other empty seat I could find and discovered that it was empty because the others had noticed the huge wad of gum planted on the seat before they sat down. I didn’t make this discovery until I it was too late.

          My eyes grew moist.

          “Watch out you don’t cry,” hissed the mean girl. “You’ll ruin your drag queen makeup.”

          Okay, I thought. This is not a great start to my first day at my new school. But I will fix things. I will make it better. And I will start with you, Mean Girl. You’re first.

  14. Hello there dear friend! So lovely to see you this summer. I spent a great part of my year recommending your book to fifth graders who adored it. So thank you for that gem. I loved telling them I knew you and that you sent me swag AND a signed book. I showed it to them as proof. They swooned. 🙂

    Here is my piece. It’s not geared at kids, but it’s what I needed to write today. Great writing assignment by the way.

    She pushed the button on her phone which disconnected the line and dropped the receiver to the floor. Looking out the window, Anne tried hard not to move any part of her body. She dared her self to stop blinking. Any tiny movement would make her feel real or alive and that could not be permitted. Her grown son who had been paying for everything in her life since he was only 25 years old had just closed the cash drawer.

    “What happens to people who don’t have family with money? Why am I supposed to pay for you forever? There is NOTHING wrong with you. You just don’t want to do anything! I’m done. Don’t call because there’s only one reason you dial my number.”

    Anne sat in the jade green silk wing backed chair for three hours. Her father’s old clock rang once at the half hour and then the appropriate amount of times at each hour. The breeze blew the white sheer curtains in to the room. She didn’t have to move her head to watch them dance. But eventually her legs ached and she knew she’d have to get up to stretch them. She rose, but felt her knees give way. This was bad. This was really bad. She had fixed things before but she was really worried this might be it. She couldn’t even go out to get a bottle of wine because it was the end of the month and her money didn’t come in until closer to the 3rd. She stood up and went to find her Filofax. It would make it easier if she could just find someone who might listen to her.

    1. Kimberly,

      You just kicked your character, but I’d like to kick her some more, even though I’m feeling a little bit of empathy for her. Addictions are so easy to fall into and SO difficult to overcome.

      I love your phrases about feeling real could not be permitted and her son “had just closed the cash drawer.” The description of Anne’s house makes it sound lovely to me — the green silk wing backed chair and the white sheer curtains. I’m wondering how someone who seems to be immobilized by her alcoholism can have such a lovely home? And I wonder who will listen to her.

      Thanks for sharing!

    2. Hi Kimberley! Great to see you here, and thank you for your lovely words about my book. I re-watch your video review every so often because it always brightens my day!
      This is a great piece that has a lot of wonderful stuff going on, but I agree with Diana–I want some more. I want more emotion from this woman and maybe some hints as to why she’s been a mooch off her son for so long. Does she feel entitled? Did she support him while he built his life doing whatever it is that made him rich? Where is the son’s father? Did he walk out on her? I kind of want her to feel sorry for herself, fight with her son, defend herself (even if her defense is irrational). Make her fight a little or we’re not going to care what happens to her.
      I do love the part when she sits in the chair–what a vivid scene, someone who just sits and waits for her fate.
      Go a bit deeper, make her desperation more visceral, raw. What is she going to do now? Manipulate someone else? Blackmail her son?
      Great beginning, Kimberley–thanks for sharing!

  15. Jackson didn’t mean to watch Maya now as she changed out of his borrowed t-shirt. He just happened to be facing that way and it was quick and unexpected. Before he knew it, her arms were crossed and raised over her head and her pale shoulder blades were pronounced by the black x of her swimsuit. His dark green t-shirt was stark against her white skin and wet magenta hair. Without thinking, and more because it was already in his hand, Jackson took a picture with his cellphone as she paused mid-reach.

    At the sound of the fake shutter, Maya froze and then turned towards him in slow motion. She held the t-shirt in front of her protectively, as though covering nakedness.
    “What did you just do?”

    “Nothing, I. . .” Jackson started, fighting the urge to hide his phone behind his back.

    “Did you just take a picture of me?” Maya dropped the shirt, forgetting her self-consciousness and moved towards Jackson. She skirted the bed. “Give it to me. Give me your phone.”

    “What? It’s no big deal. It’s just a picture.” Jackson wasn’t sure why he felt defensive. It had been stupid. Why couldn’t he just say it was stupid?

    “Jackson, give me the phone. What the hell? Why would you do that?” Maya was practically on top of him now, her small body reaching across him, angling for the phone which he held out of her reach for some insane reason like it was a game. Maya was insistent, and he found himself instinctively pushing back. Touching a cool, smooth shoulder. She smelled of sunscreen and chlorine.

    “Chill, Maya. It’s nothing. Calm down. I’ll delete it.”

    She was making weird breathing sounds now as she continued to try and get to his phone. It sounded like she was crying. Was she crying? Why was she crying, for god’s sake? And then it hit him. Oh.

    “Maya. I got it. Chill.”

    “Delete it. Delete it right now.” She stood in front of him arms crossed, red in the face, vibrating with energy.

    Jackson looked down at the screen of his phone and pushed a few buttons. The picture had been crisp and well focused, nicely framed even. It was almost abstract, and he thought, quite beautiful. Jackson resisted the urge to show it to her, to reassure her, remind her that she was fully clothed.

    “Done.” He showed her the phone, image erased.

    Maya grabbed it without looking at him and scrolled through his gallery. Convinced it was gone, she swallowed hard, turned, and flung the phone down on the bed as she passed. It bounced a few times before settling against a pillow.

    “You. Are. An. A*%@.” She leaned to grab her own t-shirt from the ground, swiped her bag from beside the door and let the door slam behind her.

    1. Wow, Jen. This is a very powerful scene. I got chills reading this and absolutely believe Maya’s panic over the photo. The only thing I might want a bit more of is his reason for taking the picture (even if it’s not obvious to him) –like the curve of her neck or how the light hit her shoulder just right. Just a little something more.
      And ‘weird breathing sounds’ didn’t really work for me–how about ‘panting’ or something that implies panic. What you have is a bit vague. But like I said, great scene-nice job! Thanks for sharing. 😀

      1. Good points, thanks! The breathing was bothering me, too! I’ll rework. Thanks for the prompt, time, and expertise today!

  16. I love this exercise! This exactly what my WIP needs in the first section–more kicks. I think I feel so bad for my MC, I’ve only wanted to kick her in flashbacks. But she needs kicks now. Thank you!

    Even though Miranda was long past an age when they could be smacked, the backs of her hands tingled as she approached. She tucked them under her legs as she sat. What had she done? Across the room, Reva’s embroidery needle pricked and pricked.

    Lady Catherine smoothly pulled out a leather-bound book. “Does this look familiar to you?”

    Her sketchbook. How had she found it?

    “I’m sure it does. Tell me, is this how you try to improve yourself? Gamboling around your father’s estate, ruining your complexion and drawing pictures of creatures like this?” She held up a sketch of a mantis, which Miranda noticed with a pang was crudely out of proportion. “You had no interest in landscapes, in watercolors, in anything might actually make you more appealing in polite company. Two art tutors—completely wasted.”

    With a slow motion, but without dropping her eyes, Lady Catherine tore the mantis from the book. “Shall I add this to your trousseau? Because I’m sure you are likely to attract a very eligible husband with skills like this.”

    She let the book fan open. “Plants, seed pods, and a particular study of weeds. You’ve developed quite a hobby for yourself. We’re finding lots about the hidden depths of Miranda today. I had hoped there was more to you, if I could only draw it out. Sadly, what’s been drawn out is yet another thing we’re going to have to prune back.”

    And with a look of utter disappointment and disgust, Lady Catherine threw the book into the fire.

    1. Hi Miranda, this is a great scene–love the idea of a hidden book being found out. And then burned! Yikes.
      I’d love to see a bit more about why her sketchbook is so important to Miranda, but maybe that’s in another part of your story.
      How does Miranda feel when the pages get torn from the book? The barbs from Lady Catherine?
      Great scene, thanks for sharing!
      p.s. I love historicals! 😀

  17. Joanne – I thought that I would explore a character kicking them self. Portraying a character’s inner conflict proved challenging. Thanks for the prompt and the opportunity for growth.

    Sam’s hands shook as she pulled the worn orange journal out of her underwear drawer. She placed it by the computer and flipped it open to the story written in purple ink – the story that was almost hidden by words crossed out and then replaced. A knock, and without a pause, the door opened.
    Sam’s Dad stepped in and said, “It’s late Sam – it’s already 11:00, what are you still up for?”
    “Just homework” she mumbled as she quickly opened up her math book and covered up the orange journal.
    Sam could barely hear her father shut the door and say “Goodnight” above the rain now pelting on the window. She immediately booted up the computer. “I’m going to do it – I’m going to enter this in the National Allstar Creative Writing Contest by the midnight deadline” Sam thought. She had said almost the same thing to herself every night that week but never did hit the SEND button. All week she had written and rewritten “The Flashing Stop Light”; tonight she was going to be done with it. After almost an hour of typing, Sam punched the final “d” of “The End .” A loud crash banged so loudly it seemed like it was right outside the window. All the lights went out and the screen went black.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing this!
      Gah! Did she get it in on time? Or was it too late?
      If she didn’t make the deadline, what does that mean for Sam? Merely disappointment? or are the stakes higher? Did she make a pact with her best friend that they’d enter together? Is it her life’s dream to enter (and win) the contest like her father did before her (I’m just throwing ideas out here, but you get what I’m saying–I’d like to see a bit more of why entering the contest is so important to her). 😀

  18. In my WIP, the main character, Cora, has already found out that her Dad’s fire company is going to be shut down to save on taxes. She’s devastated by this news, because the fire company is an institution in her family and the basis of all of her friendships. As an added blow, I attached this smaller problem to the main conflict. I have not done any revising yet on this section, as I am still working on the draft. All critiques are greatly appreciated!

    “WHAT?! NO!” Cora cried. “Mom, I was really looking forward to being in Miss O’Malley’s class! Why isn’t she my teacher anymore? What does this mean?”
    Cora’s mom had a basket full of clean laundry in her hands. “I don’t know for sure, honey. Come help me fold this laundry, and I will call the school as soon as we’re done.” Cora, with the stack of mail clenched in her hands, followed her mother up the stairs.
    In her parents’ bedroom, Cora started rapidly tossing undershirts into her father’s top dresser drawer. “Cora, honey, please do it right, or I’ll have to fold it all over again, and that will only take longer for me to make that phone call.”
    Cora sighed heavily, and refolded the undershirts more neatly. Who cared if undershirts were wrinkly? Nobody sees them! They go under your regular shirt. But Cora knew better than to try and argue with her mother right now. If she wanted this phone call made, she had to play by mom’s rules.
    After twenty painful minutes of folding and waiting, Cora’s mom hung the last polo shirt in the closet and sat down on the bed. She re-read the letter before picking up the phone and making the call.
    “Hello, this is Mrs. Christine Campbell calling. I’d like to speak with Mrs. Trundall about the letter we received regarding a change in fifth grade teacher assignments…OK, thank you!”
    There was a pause. Cora imagined the secretary, Mrs. Miller, pushing one of the numerous buttons on her big, cream-colored telephone to transfer this call to the principal’s office.
    “Hello, Mrs. Trundall, how are you?” “I’m fine, thank you.” “Yes, Cora is having a very nice summer.” Cora’s mom looked up and smiled at her.
    “The reason I’m calling is just for a little more information about the letter we received in the mail today. Can you please give me more details about why Cora cannot be in Miss O’Malley’s class next year?”
    Cora, sitting next to her mother on the bed, strained to hear snippets of her principal’s voice. She heard words like, school board, money, and furlough, which was a word she’d never heard before, but she couldn’t make anything from these tiny snippets.
    “I understand,” Cora’s mother began speaking again. “I appreciate your taking the time to explain it to me. Have a great summer!”
    Cora’s mom hung up the phone and turned to her.
    “I’m afraid I have to be the bearer of more bad news, Cora.” Cora realized her shoulders were tense, and her hands were balled up into fists.
    “The school board has been trying to find ways to save money. Just like a fire station, schools cost a lot of money. They have to pay the teachers, pay for the heat and electric, pay for school buses and bus drivers, and gasoline for those buses. Since your class has a smaller number of students than a lot of the classes ahead of you – only fifty-eight students this year – the school board has decided they can save some money by furloughing Miss O’Malley and splitting your class up into two classrooms instead of three.”

    1. Hi Kerri, not being in a favorite teacher’s class is a HUGE deal–I remember this thing happening to me and I was absolutely devastated. This presents a wonderful opportunity to see into your character, but I think you’re focusing on the details more than Cora here. We see her angst at the beginning, but the rest is showing an unnecessary conversation between her mother and the Principal. Take out most of it, and you lose nothing. I would rather see Cora have an argument with her mother about making the call in the first place. Mom doesn’t see it as a big deal, Cora disagrees, nags mom into calling the school. Mom resists. Cora pleads her case–WHY it’s so important for her to be in that class. Is she separated from her BFF? is the other teacher an ogre? Perhaps the explanation is elsewhere, but I do believe the phone call goes on overly long and isn’t necessary. Your conflict is in your first line and then fizzles from there. Great start on the scene!

  19. My “writer’s block” is broken! Yippee! Here is an excerpt from what I wrote today.

    Grabbing “Wicked Girls”, I brace myself for a book of verse. Not my absolute favorite style of writing, but it will have to do. I need to read about the witch trials and this could be a different way of looking at it. Becca said that this book is a quick read and tells the story from the girls that are “bewitched”. Hmm, this could be interesting. Everything else is told from a third person point of view. Listen to me, now I’m starting to sound like Ms. Bishop. Great.

    Once I finally have myself cozily arranged in my favorite chair, I crack open the book. I hope this book does something for my project.

    I flip through the info about the characters at the front and start the first poem. It seems that each girl is going to tell their story through poems. This might not be so bad. I wish I grabbed a cup of tea, books are always better when I have my tea and blanket. Oh well. Burrowing further into my chair, I dive into the story.

    As the poems keep going, I notice it’s getting cold in my room. What happened to the heat? Wonder if the furnace went out again? I grab my blanket and keep reading.

    The voices seem so real, alive even.

    That’s when I notice, I’m not in my room anymore. I can see Ann and Margaret whispering to each other. Rubbing my eyes, I realize this is real. The girls don’t notice me standing in the middle of the room. They don’t hear my heart beating out of my chest. The heat from the fire is not enough to push back the bitterness of the winter wind sneaking past the cracks in the windows. I hear Margaret say, “You don’t suppose that folk magic game of yours what called up that coffin—“, and my hands start glowing. I look down to see I’m still holding the book. Margaret says that in the book! I flip to the page – 51. I don’t need to read what happens next. Ann starts in a furious whisper about how Margaret was the one who wanted to play fortunes.

    Not happening, not happening. Quickly I will myself to slam the book shut. With the crack of the pages, I’m surrounded by my room again. My hands aren’t glowing anymore, just shaking. Deep breath, relax, that didn’t really happen. They are long dead, you aren’t magic, you can’t transport yourself back in time, and the book is fiction!

    I try to shake the vivid images out of my head, but they won’t go away. It’s freezing in here. Maybe I should get that cup of tea after all. Shivering I get up and head towards the kitchen.

    1. Hi Renee, this has a ‘train of thought’ feel to it, especially at the beginning. Maybe it’s the present tense, but I think it works here, because it feels kind of ethereal, though I’d be careful at the beginning where it feel like there are slightly too many details that slow down the pace of the story. I’d like to see a little bit more of her in the room with Ann and Margaret to give a good sense of what’s going on and to amp up the tension a bit more, but I do think this is a really interesting scene. Good luck with it and thanks for sharing!

  20. Just a tad bit of the kicking that my MC is facing. She’s getting it from all sides, being a middle-aged wife, mother and daughter. This is but one of her challenges:
    The morning dawned with the promise of sunshine and summer breezes. It should have, would have, been the perfect day to take the kids to the local state park. Instead, everything was wrong. Connie wouldn’t be heading to a park any time soon. She swallowed the last of her coffee, knowing that it was the end to her peace for the day. The hospital and her elderly mother were waiting, and she needed to get there. This all could’ve been avoided, she thought. If only the folks in the “high-end” rehab facility hadn’t ignored her spiking and plummeting blood pressure all those weeks after the surgery. Fighting her resentment, Connie prepared herself for the arduous drive into the city, knowing she would face reckless drivers and too much traffic. She hated the city.