I picked up the Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks from the library last night and have already worked through it and the select exercises provided within. I found it to be a great book because it’s practical, pragmatic, and from the viewpoint of an agent who knows what it takes to make a good story.
There were four exercises in particular that I found helpful: Historical, Emotional, Rebellion, and Wanted.
The Historical exercise was all about picking an era and writing a short blurb about someone during that time. Since I’m working on a Civil War book set in my hometown of Columbus, OH, this felt like it should have been a natural fit. I think because I assumed it should be easy, I think I made it difficult! Here is what I came up with, unedited:
It’s just after the Civil War and a teenage girl has been helping with the effort. A staunch Unionist surrounded by Copperheads at school, she despairs of ever fitting in. When she stumbles upon a wounded soldier, she helps him home to take care of him. His memories are gone, but little by little she realizes he might be a Confederate prisoner escaped from Camp Chase.
Something about this felt super flat. But it was more important to get the idea out there, so I went with it.
Then I tried the Emotions exercise, where you were tasked with taking some emotions you remember from your teenage years, and applying them to a character. This is the result of that exercise:
A Unionist teen is rejected by her Copperhead friends now that the war is won. She buries herself in preparations for Lincoln’s funeral procession [to avoid wallowing in sadness] when a wounded Confederate soldier falls into her lap, forcing her to confront ideas of what’s right and fair as she nurses him back to health.
This feels like it has a little more meat to it, if only because it feels more… human. There are emotions involved, people hurt and needing help, and you get a hint of the protagonist’s personality.
The Rebellion exercise was interesting because it is a lens where you think of a time when you tried/felt like rebelling against your parents…
Forced to stop associating with people she considered her friends, ______ resents her father for breaking her apart from them. She hates these people for following the new rules even while she makes excuses for them. She feels alone, betrayed, unheard, discarded, trapped, rejected, and yet somehow, aloof to it all if it will help her deal.
I didn’t really like that one. It felt kind of whiny.
Want Ad Exercise
The Wanted exercise was fun because it’s all about writing a want ad for your protagonist…
Average-looking, gangly 18-year-old female, unaware of her ability to make anyone feel at home. Questionable manners, average command of English, with a twang from childhood living in countryside. Staunch Unionist, but former friends with Copperheads. Logical-minded. Annoyed by inconveniences. Caring, but clumsy about showing it. Tendency to speak bluntly. Only daughter with younger brother, expected to be responsible and calm while mother fights illness and father returns from war.
I don’t know. Writing all of this out makes me realize how much work I have to do to really get back into writing. I’m fighting my looming frustration and sadness, trying to stay positive about this new book attempt and that I’m not a terrible writer. I have a lot of doubts right now, and as long as I don’t think about them, I can write. As soon as I think of my readers, however, I seem to freak out!
Anyway, feel free to send me your thoughts about these exercises! Email me, comment on Facebook, or here at the blog.