A Pirate's Blog

How to Become More Specific

I recently shared how being specific was a way to set limits and create focus, and, generally, to communicate clearly. With limits and a focus, the reader doesn’t have to work very hard to visualize and engage with the story.

Want to help your student learn to be more specific?

Here are three specific ways (there are many more in exercise 2 and beyond in
A Pirate’s Guide): Have them choose a noun (a character, a place, an object). Ask them to describe the noun with adjectives. Then ask them to add details about location - where is that object? Finally, you can add an activity. How’s that for simple? For example - let’s say the thing our student wants to make more specific is the town the story takes place in. They can add adjectives - festive, rural, run-down. They can add location - in the middle of America, or on the brink of a mountain peak, or hidden inside a glass bottle. They can add an activity - a town that is celebrating its centennial, or hosting a marathon, or being buried in an avalanche. This kind of brainstorming can lead to all kinds of interesting combinations. We might end up with a run-down town, located on the brink of a mountain peak, that is being buried in an avalanche. Or a festive town that is located in the middle of American and is hosting a marathon. Or a rural town that is celebrating its centennial, all inside a little glass bottle. Each of those would lead to a very different story, a very different image in the mind of the reader, and a very specific focus for the writer.

Being specific in this way - about ANY and EVERY thing in our stories - will help the writer to have limits and focus, and give the reader a vivid picture in their minds. And as they practice this skill (in writing, or in the exercises), you might find that it spills over into other areas, bringing greater clarity and description to their lives.

(These are just a few ideas to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what it means to be specific in exercise #2, and pretty much every exercise after that!)

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Communicating Clearly with Specifics

One of the greatest skills, in general, that A Pirate’s Guide teaches - something useful across the board of their education and life - is being specific. It’s so important, in fact, that is the second exercise in the book, and actually lays a foundation for all the remaining exercises. Why is this? And how do we help our children become more specific?

To illustrate, let’s imagine a character together. Let’s say that the character is a boy. If you asked a group of 10 people to draw a picture (and of course, we are assuming everyone has perfect drawing skills) of that character, you’d get 10 totally different boys. Some might be 3, others 10. Some might be tall, others short. Some might be… you get the idea. So let’s be more specific. Let’s say the character is a 10 year old boy, 5 feet tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. If we ask everyone to draw him again, the pictures will be closer, but we’ll still have 10 different versions of that boy.

But I want my reader to be thinking of the same boy that I am - seeing the same boy that I see in my mind. So I need to become very specific indeed. I need to describe his clothing, his hair style, how he smiles, which backpack he wears (and how he wears it), etc. If there was a room full of 10 year old boys, 5 feet tall, how can I describe MY boy so that you can pick him out of the crowd? That’s specificity. It’s helping the reader to see what’s in the author’s mind.

Being Specific is a way of setting limits and creating a focus. Being specific communicates an idea more clearly to the reader. And clear communication is a worth goal not only in story-telling, but in life. The more specific the writer is about ANY aspect of their story, the more the reader will understand what the writer means.

So, how (specifically) do we help our writers become more specific? More on that in the next post.

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Interest Vs. Praise

So, you’ve got a creative child, who’s churning out story after story, or piece of art after piece of art. Or maybe you have the opposite - your child painstakingly creates something once in a blue moon. And then they show it to you. What do you do??

Most of us dive right into PRAISE. Oh, you did such a good job. I love it. It’s beautiful. You are so creative.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We want to encourage our kids to keep creating, so we praise them and tell them they are wonderful, and their art is wonderful. But growing research demonstrates that this kind of praise actually backfires. I’ll leave you to google all of that, and focus here on what we can and should do to actually encourage our children and their creativity.

It’s simple really. We want to engage and connect with them. The art becomes the context for that. When it comes to interacting with our child about their creation, we want to have an openness with them. If what we say shuts them down, we want to avoid that. We want to open them up, and get to know THEM better, have a conversation with them. Typically, the creator - of a short story, a painting, or a model car - is interested in their own creation. Something sustained them through the entire creative process. In sharing it with you, they are hoping that YOU will now be interested in their creation.

Does praise (“you did a great job”) pronounce interest or judgment? Interest isn’t expressed in statements, but through questions and dialogue. Asking questions is, generally, what we do when we are interested in something. “How did you think of that?” “The colors you chose are interesting, what inspired you?” “This is an unusual word, what made you think of it?” Note that we are not asking leading questions - we do not want to have a yes or no answer, as those don’t lead to conversation. So, using the interest we have in their work and their process and, ultimately, THEM, we talk with them. We ask about their process, their experience, their creation. And hopefully, they want to talk about it.

Just because we ask a good, conversation starting question doesn’t mean our child will answer. They may feel shy with their work, or have been burned when someone criticized it, or just feel, well, moody. Don’t give up. Don’t press them, but demonstrate your interest with real questions, and let those seeds fall where they will. When they answer, gently keep going. When they don’t, gently back away, and hope to do more in the future. Don’t give up!

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Expressing Interest through the Right Questions

I wanted to write a quick follow up to my post on praise versus interest. Hopefully you were encouraged to look for new ways to communicate your interest and care in both your child and their creativity/creation. My own daughter is in the process of writing a short story for her homeschool class, and so I had opportunity to put into practice my own advice, and I was so surprised by the results.

I stink at it.

I learned that asking truly interested questions requires not only interest (though without it, it’s nearly impossible - more on that in a later post), but also a retraining of my way of asking questions. Even when I was most interested - I truly cared not only about the piece of work she was creating, but also her - I struggled with asking questions that opened up conversation. Too often, I ask leading questions. A leading question, in case you don’t know, is a question that is leading towards a certain response. In a court room, a leading question is a question asked to get a specific answer, often a yes or no answer. “That short story took you a long time to write, didn’t it?” is a leading question - it is likely to only get a yes or no answer, and then, well, the conversation stops. “How long did it take you to write?” isn’t much better, though it will get an answer that is hopefully more than one word.

The weird thing about leading questions is what they are really doing. Open ended questions allow the person answering to tell their story - to share something they want to share. Leading questions, on the other hand, allow the one asking questions to direct the story. It gives a subtle control of the conversation to the question-er, rather than opening up conversation. Since I want to know others better, I want to open up that conversation, not shut it down . . . Even if it means that I am not “in control” of where the conversation is going to go.

So I’ve begun to listen to my questions before I ask them, and make sure that they are opening the way to more conversation, not leading my daughter (or anyone) to follow my lead. It sounds silly, but it’s proving to be surprising effective (despite my awkwardness in doing it). Take a look at the questions you are asking, and hopefully your own conversations will be richer for it!

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Characters - Who are they?

Describing our main characters should be a fun aspect of building a story. A Pirate’s Guide has exercises to help brainstorm the different ways we can create well-developed characters, using characterization. Characterizations describe things, defining who or what a character is through specific details. You want your characterizations to give a fuller picture of who the character is. This might seem obvious at first, but make sure your child gets this - the specific details about a character teach the reader about who that character is and begins to tell us what they want and how they will act. It makes the character believable.

Before actually brainstorming about their specific characters, ask them to think of a favorite character. Let’s say, Luke Skywalker, just for fun. Have them describe their character: he’s young, good looking, not very strong physically, energetic, sad about his parents and angry at the stormtroopers. He talks very fast. He wears simple peasant clothing at the beginning, but at the end is in a Jedi suit. That’s a simple start. Then ask them to imagine, for a moment, that one of those features changed. Let’s make Luke be really old and blind. How does that change who he is and how he interacts in the story? Quite a lot! Some changes might not matter, some might totally change the nature of the character. That is the importance of characterizations.

As always, we begin this process of characterization by brainstorming. And we can most easily brainstorm by asking ourselves questions and giving ourselves permission to have fun coming up with all kinds of possible answers! Some questions for a writer to ask: what does my character look like (eyes, hair, height, weight, … )? How does my character walk and talk (do they limp? Are they always running? Do they have an accent?) What does my character wear?

Once you’ve got these more physical/outward characteristics of your character, you can ask other questions about who they are inside. What are some activities my character loves to do? What kind of personality is my character (friendly, funny, mean…)? Does my character have special skills or experiences? Who would my character want to spend time with?

Try brainstorming lots of different possibilities - don’t stop with the first one you think of. Many times creativity takes awhile to get flowing, and after we try a few things on, we find something that is really perfect, not just “yeah, that works.” Think about how different choices make your character a slightly different person, and how that might affect your story.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into who and what your character is in exercises #11, 12, and 13).

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Setting - where to begin?

Simply put, setting is a location where a group of characters live and act and where their stories take place. It includes both time and place - though in some stories, each aspect is more or less important. A story about space cowboys is generally set in space, and likely in the future - both time and place matter to the focus of the story. But another story might be more thematic - about love, for example, and it could be set in any time or place and still have, essentially, the same story line.

One way to help you student think about setting is to ask them to name a favorite story (one they know very well). Ask - what are some of the physical places in this story? Then - in what time does this story take place? Their answers should not only help them understand what setting means, but how/when it is important to the story. For example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe takes place in England, in the Professor’s house, in the wardrobe, in Narnia… and it takes place during two time periods - WWII, and during the rather timeLESS time of Narnia (where time is passing, but doesn’t seem to have a direct relationship with our time). These are important details. Having talking animals in the professor’s house wouldn’t make sense - the setting of that part of the story needs to be somewhere like Narnia, where that is normal. You can ask them what would happen if they moved the story from England to Africa? Would the story change? How? Why? What if instead of during war time it took place during a peaceful summer? Would the story change? As they grapple with these thoughts, they will begin to see how changes, big and small, make a difference to the story.

Once time and place, and how they are used in a story, are understood, then your student can brainstorm what time/places will give their story meaning. Based on their story, it might be just a context for the greater story, or it might be central to the understanding and meaning of the story. Asking open questions can help them think through these larger issues and will strengthen their story overall - but remember, thinking through these things is hard work, and won’t necessarily come easily or be “fun.” They may want to keep the first place that comes to their head, and that’s okay. Keep it light, make suggestions, and then step back and allow them to be creative in their own way.

(These questions and more are found in exercise #3 of
A Pirate’s Guide t’ th’ Grammar of Story.)

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Characters - What do they want?

Once we know who the characters are by describing their characterizations, we’ll want to ask the next big Character question: What do they want? Identifying a character’s desires helps the author know who their characters are and what they will do.

What is a desire? Anything the character wants. They could be hungry and want food. They could be lonely and want a friend. They could be angry and want to fix a problem. They could be mean and want to steal some candy. There are all kinds of desires - and brainstorming can help you find out what your character wants.

To begin brainstorming Character Desires, we can always ask questions and let our imagination and ideas run wild. Another really effective way to brainstorm Character Desires is to take the characterizations that you have created for your character - describing who they are through specific details (see
this post for more on that) - and use those to find desires that grow out of their characterization. As always, you can use your child’s favorite character as a way to help explain this. Luke Skywalker is an orphan - that is a characterization. What might being an orphan cause him to want? He might want parents. He might desire to grow up and have a family of his own. It might make him want to join the Jedi’s so he can have the big family he never had. For each characterization, an author can brainstorm many different things the character might then desire.

Another way to brainstorm is to take those same characterizations, and ask “what might she desire in opposition to that characterization?” Leia is a princess, and her desire might be to just be an ordinary girl that no one notices. Or Chewbacca is a hairy Wookiee, and he desires to play at the beach and not spend a month cleaning sand out of his hair.

As your child begins to figure out what their characters might want, they will find it important to be as specific as possible. What does this look like? Suzy is an only child. She wants to play with friends. That’s a desire that comes out of her characterization. But which friends, what kind of friends, when? Becoming specific looks like “Suzy wants to go to summer camp and live in a cabin with a group of friends for a whole week” Or “Suzy wants to have a friend she can rely on and get to know really well, and who will come play at her house every Thursday afternoon.” Those are two different very different Specific Desires that come out of the simple desire (to play with friends) that comes out of her specific characterization (only child).

Using Characterizations to brainstorm Character Desires - things they want because of their characterizations, and things they want despite their characterizations, will give an author lots of different desires to play with as they get ready to have their character take ACTION.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what your character wants in exercise #17).

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Finding Your Focus

This week in my daughter’s short story class, they are to choose a story focus. In the case of her curriculum, I understand “story focus” to mean what the author focused on in order to make this a short story, and not a long one. But what does that really mean?

It’s a great question, because regardless of the length of the story, an author has to have a focus, which gives them guidelines (and boundaries) for making decisions about what is included and what it is not. This is important if one wants to write a good story. This is particularly necessary if one is writing a good short story.

In one sense, this is related to theme. If the theme of your (short) story is love, then you will choose to focus the attention of the reader onto those details and moments that illuminate that theme, and you will (sadly) have to let go of other ideas that would distract from it. Choosing a story focus requires that she decide how the author make a conscious choice to define what their story is about, and stick to it. It’s not easy.

As always, helping our child find their story focus will require helping them brainstorm and make decisions based on what they care about. Asking questions can help them think of different ways this can happen, without imposing our own thoughts onto their story. Our student needs to choose how she is going to express the story focus - what she will focus on in order to tell the story. Will it be a single character? Or group of friends? A family or a town? Will it be the setting? Will it be a single event? A moment in time? Or all the little events that led up to a single, important moment? Once we ask these questions, the next task is making the decisions - which of these will help the story stay in focus and not go down a rabbit hole?

As they make these choices, their story will become more focused and have more meaning and value.

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How to Choose

Let’s say your child needs to write a short story for class. They’ve brainstormed a bit, and now they have to choose ONE story from their brainstorming sessions. For some kids, this is simple - they only managed to brainstorm one or two stories, and one made sense, they pick, and voila, they are off. For others, this produces an entirely new set of anxieties!

So, how do you pick ONE story idea to write about? You (well, your student) should choose the story idea that interests them the most. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Your student will be living with this story for however many weeks it takes to write the story, so the most valuable thing is that they care about their story.

Yup, that’s it. They pick a story idea they care about - that interests them, that they want to think more about, find out more about, play around in. It doesn’t matter if, at this stage, it doesn’t make sense, or isn’t a “complete” idea, or anything. Have them look at their story ideas, and find one that they want to spend the next ten weeks with. And go with it!

As an aside, this method of “choosing” by interest and what they care about, works for many other decisions they will have to make over the coming weeks. How do they choose which characters to put into their story? Think about who they’d want to spend time with - because they’ll be spending a lot of time with them. Focus/theme - what’s something THEY care about? Want to think more about? Location - where would they like to go? Of course, this is by no means the only way to make choices, and in lots of instances, it isn’t the best way, but for these starting points, finding what interests your students, something they care about, will help all the future moments of diving into this story again and again something they are interested in and excited about doing.

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Coming up with a story idea

Remember back in the day, sitting in English class, and the teacher says, “this week, you are going to write a story. It needs to be two pages long, and you have to have an illustration. Go.” How did you react to that? Maybe you were on the of the few who jumped up and down, got out a new notebook and a box of #2 pencils, and went. to town. More likely, you were one of the kids who panicked. Write a story? What about? How do I do that?

Too often, our students are asked to do something that is too big. “Come up with story ideas!” Too big. I’m sure the intention is that having no restraints means greater freedom, but reality is that boundaries are freeing! So if your student is panicking at the idea of “coming up with a story idea,” help them out. Give them some boundaries.

Start smaller. Ask for 5 locations. 5 genres. 5 character types. 5 problems. Make it just 5 of whatever (and honestly, if 5 still overwhelms them, ask for 3). Use A Pirate’s Guide for ideas of different elements about which they can mindstorm 5 ideas. Then use that raw material - put them together in different ways, and start brainstorming these into story ideas.

The whole idea is to help your student find what’s already inside of them. What the specific ideas are matters less than helping them open up and be creative.


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