Category Archives: Writing

Take an Umbrella, It’s Raining – The Overarching Conflict in MG

Whether we’re reading, writing, or recommending a middle grade story, conflict typically comes in at or near the top of the Important Elements list. But with regard to the specifics of conflict in MG — Single conflict or layered? Internal or external? How much is too much? — there’s a lot of different advice out there. Click five results after Googling, and you’ll get five different takes on middle grade conflict. For example:

  • One source might recommend a single line of conflict with only minimal subplot problems; another will say middle grade audiences can absolutely handle “richly layered” multiple struggles.
  • Some in the publishing industry define middle grade by not only protagonist age and content, but also by the conflict, which (they say) should be external (outside things cause trouble with which the MG main character must deal). However, others say MG characters can certainly be roiled by internal conflicts appropriate to their age, and that these internal conflicts drive actions, thereby sparking the external conflict.
  • Depth of recommended conflict depends greatly on maturity of intended audience…and calendar age of a child doesn’t always match developmental age. So one fifth grader may have a high degree of comprehension for and interest in a classroom bully story, but may or may not be quite ready for a book set during the Holocaust, like her friend in the same class.

So…it’s probably safe to say that, as with many topics in middle grade literature, there is no formula, no simple categorization system. There’s just no easy answer on conflict, in other words.

To me, this is a beautiful thing. The MG writer is free to let his or her particular story vision grow and change through different styles and intensities of conflict. And the MG reader is free to enjoy an amazing variety of stories, made inherently different by their conflicts.

But for the purpose of writing, teaching, or sharing thoughts on a middle grade novel, another way to talk about the character’s struggles might be helpful: the overarching conflict.

The notion of overarching conflict helps me understand theme and purpose in MG books that I’ve taught, and has helped me through the latest revision of my middle grade historical. An overarching conflict is like an umbrella that covers all other conflicts in the book—big, little, internal, external, resolved, unresolved. They’re all under there because, in some connected way, every smaller problem turns out to be a part of the bigger overarching problem.

This idea of overarching conflict is easiest to see with some series. Harry’s overarching conflict with Voldemort carries through all seven novels that comprise his overall story. So while each book’s plot offers its own main conflict plus multiple sub-conflicts, we also see Harry’s escalating succession of wins and losses against his biggest enemy as series-long conflict building blocks, culminating in the final epic battle that resolves the overarching conflict.

You can apply this overarching conflict idea to a stand-alone MG work, too. There are many ways to state an overarching conflict for a book; this is what I came up with for a few examples:

The overarching conflict in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars: How can Annemarie help to keep her friend Ellen safe in situations of increasing danger? When the overarching conflict helps align the MC’s objectives scene to scene, it’s easier to see how the internal conflict (Annemarie’s struggle with bravery) and the external conflict (Nazi occupation and oppression of the Jews in Denmark) exist in a two-way, fluid relationship, each affecting the other (instead of one driving another). This overarching conflict also helps bring together other conflicts (the death of Annemarie’s sister; trusted adults lying) that might at first seem disconnected, but prove by the book’s conclusion to be important parts of Annemarie’s attempt to help her friend.

The overarching conflict in Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy: How can Bud find not just a home, but his home? In this excellent quest adventure, individual conflicts arise one after another as Bud makes his way toward the home he hopes will welcome him. His mini-conflicts (the Amos family, the mission, Hooverville, Lefty Lewis) are resolved each in turn as he proceeds, each in some way giving him a piece of knowledge or inspiration moving forward, until he finally has the chance to solve his overarching struggle.

The overarching conflict in Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak: How can Serafina learn more about her past while living hidden from the world? As the external conflict with the man in the Black Cloak and his evil crimes intensifies, Serafina seeks answers about her mother, her background, and her own mysterious talents. Disagreements with her father and her new friend Braedyn create additional conflict layers. The author skillfully brings together the resolutions of Serafina’s external, internal, and layered conflicts in an exciting battle scene, and all work together to supply an answer to the overarching conflict.

In these examples, articulating the overarching conflict can help connect all the struggles for the MG main character, and it can demonstrate his or her constant, steady objective through a sequence of other misadventures. Indeed, maybe the greatest benefits of the overarching conflict are the depth acquired in the story without muddying the plot, and the invisible cohesion it provides.

Thanks for reading! Glad to be a new part of this great group, and eager to hear your thoughts on conflict in MG.

The True Value of Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers used in the publishing of multicultural books have been in the social media conversation recently.   A sensitivity reader, sometimes called a cultural consultant, reads a manuscript from a standpoint of membership in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or spiritual community and evaluates the story for authenticity and makes revision recommendations.
It’s all very Captain Obvious that writers should be checking their cultural research and using a member of that culture to do so. But it’s easy to overlook the deeper value of a sensitivity reader when we employ them only at the end of the process, and only when we are writing outside our racial or religious culture. I have used cultural consultants to help me understand the culture of military families and maritime professions. And I have used cultural consultants to help me more fully understand characters who share my own ethnicity and religion. Membership in the race, ethnicity, or religion of your characters doesn’t automatically
make you an authority on your characters particular situation. There are a multitude of life experiences and ways to live within every racial or ethnic group. Don’t short change yourself in the research just because you are writing from a home culture.
Here are three benefits to consulting a sensitivity reader early in the process of writing a book.
  1. Gain access to research materials 
The best thing you can ask at the beginning of a book research process is “what should I read, see, hear, taste, study, and visit in order to fully understand this aspect of the culture.” A good consultant will know. For example an early consultant for The Turn of the Tide suggested, since a trip to Japan was out of my budget and my questions were ecosystem specific, that I talk to the horticulturalist at the Japanese garden about the flora in my Japanese setting. I could have just read a field guide but seeing and hearing and smelling the trees made all the difference. I’ve made valuable personal connections through research consultants and I’ve gained access to unpublished research and off-display museum materials which did much to round out my understanding of a culture. And because I used a consultant early in the process, I could efficiently make the necessary changes.
  1. Embrace the need for substantial change in your story 
Sooner or later you will come across a topic in your research that stymies you. Written resources don’t mention the information you are looking for. People you interview give vague or wildly disparate information. Suggested contacts don’t return your queries. And sometimes a sensitivity reader will recommend explicitly that you leave an entire topic alone.
Listen. Seriously. Listen.
And change your story accordingly. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a culture, but there are things within a culture that simply do not belong in your story. And your reader is not making this suggestion to make you fail. She is actually hoping you will succeed and trying her best to help you do so. It can feel like a defeat but really it’s an opportunity to reimagine your story in a way that will make it more respectful and also more robust in its narrative structure.
  1. Open your heart to a change in your world view. 
The joy and challenge of writing fiction is the opportunity to submerge yourself in another person’s experience. If you enter into that work wholeheartedly it can change you. If you have the assistance of a good consultant it can change you for the better. I had a real gem of a consultant for The Turn of The Tide. She is a Japanese language teacher and initially I just asked her to check the Japanese words to make sure I was using them correctly. But we ended up having a much longer conversation because my main character is biracial & she is raising biracial children. And she is from an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She had much to say about the contemporary experience of Japanese American students and the impact of the tsunami not just on the land but upon the broader Japanese culture. I was truly touched by her words and have thought differently about Japanese culture and many global issues, particularly the impact of rising oceans on indigenous peoples in the Pacific, ever since. As for the story, I went back to the beginning with my biracial character and reexamined every bit of internal and external dialogue to make it more reflective of what I’d learned about the grief particular to a tsunami survivor. I didn’t need to change any major plot points but I did uncover the soul of the character in a way I hadn’t before.
So after all that work do I have a bullet proof story?
Nope!
And if you think using a sensitivity reader will exempt you from criticism for the cultural representation in your story, you are going to be disappointed. Because there is no single correct representation of a culture. If I had consulted with a different Japanese person I would have gained a different perspective and made different edits. In my opinion a writer is better served by letting go of the goal that nobody will ever be critical or offended by your story in favor of the goal of deeper, and more specific cultural understanding in order to write your characters and story bravely and whole heartedly.

Prompting Writing: Re-energizing a Draft

At some point in the middle of a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a full-length manuscript, I invariably hit a slump. Given the number of publications, workshops, tools, and challenges out there, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

Here are some tools that might be useful to you in moving a recalcitrant manuscript forward.

Books

Of course we all read books about writing. Every writer has their favorite dog-eared copy of certain books.

One that continues to inspire me to create writing that is filled with my own spirit is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K LeGuin. How could LeGuin NOT write a really great book about writing? Working through the exercises in this book has taught me how powerful a change in point of view, length of sentence, or approach to paragraph structure can be in “waking up” a manuscript that has become predictable. More than one of my Mixed Up Files buddies recommended exercise just like these when I asked for help. I’m listening!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, helps simply because I can open it and find something to inspire me, to reassure me, or even to push me to try something with more abandon.

A friend just pulled this lovely little book off her shelf, remembered how helpful it has been for her, and got me my own copy for my birthday. I can’t wait to dive in to Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, as I work and re-work this manuscript to make it even better.

Workshops and other in-person learning opportunities

Shortly after I inherited my father’s publishing company, I attended Write on the Sound, a local writing conference, after years of wishful thinking. It was just right for me – small and welcoming and not too scary as I dove headlong into the world of writing and publishing.

What I discovered was the gift of deep inspiration and commitment that can be found when you encounter a really good instructor. The lessons I learned about historical fiction from the lecturer were powerful tools I share with students today.

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Another favorite workshop introduced me to exercises based on author and creativity coach Deb Lund’s  fun deck of cards called “Fiction Magic.” These provocative questions, prompts, orders, magic tricks can be used in a variety of ways. It was really fun to play with them in person with their creator and a room full of enthusiastic writers.

Of course there is my local SCBWI chapter to turn to for inspiration and help – amazing meetings, drink nights (which are often sketching/noodling/doodling and writing nights, too), and also the meet ups with other authors that have come about because we discover like interests or common writing hangouts. I learn much from doing exercises on the page, but I learn even more for getting together with other people and talking about the process, the ideas, the struggles…

Challenges

I love deadlines, too. They motivate me. At least, they usually do!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several years running, which for the uninitiated is a month-long sprint challenge in which writers all over the world attempt to finish a manuscript draft of at least 50,000 words. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, and requires a huge commitment. For getting the bones of a new book onto the page, it’s fantastic. And the fancy certificate you get at the end (along with discounts from a wide variety of writing-related vendors.

For the most part, I prefer my challenges in more manageable chunks; though NaNo is something I look forward to each year, I can’t always give up the month of November to hide in my writing cave.

Here are two shorter ones I’ve used with good success in the revision stages of my work, when it’s easy to put other things first (since I edit for others as well, I often put my writing at the bottom of the list. Small challenges help me to put it in the spotlight in reasonable ways).

WFMAD- Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Laurie Halse Anderson

WFMAD – Day 1 – Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

All you need to do is read these posts from 2013 and you will be able to create your own challenge. Invite your friends to join you. This series comes with great stuff to do beyond writing for 15 minutes- it really is an invitation to examine your writing and get over being afraid to just DO it.

Write Daily 30 – Linda Urban

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Middle Grade author Linda Urban has offered this challenge/support several times, where you sign up on a shared spreadsheet and post your progress. You create your own goal and the others in the challenge prod you and hold your hand. I’ve presented my own a couple of times since, without the spreadsheet, just daily tweets with the hashtag #WriteDaily30 for 30 days. I’ve made tremendous progress on projects by having the accountability to check in frequently and cheer for others.

I happen to be subbing in Middle School writing lab as I put finishing touches this post (I’ve been encouraged to use my own writing practice to set a good example for students). They are calling on their classmates for inspiration and using images to jump start ideas, and I’m watching.

What tools do you use to move your writing forward?

 

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Herean online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.