Monthly Archives: March 2011

Visit to Lake Travis Middle School

You know, children astound me. Every time I visit a school I half-forget what I came to impart and just stand there in stupefied awe at the kids’ imaginations. Then I cleverly disguise my stupefication with more talking.

Every year (for the past four, anyway…where does the time go?) I’ve had the good fortune of visiting Lake Travis and Hudson Bend Middle Schools out in the Lakeway area. Every year the kids blow me away a little more. Both schools do a lovely annual project in which the kids in the eighth grade language arts classes all have to create their own picture book. For first graders.

Hence, my visit. They have me come out to present about the industry and the process of creating a book. Part of that presentation is demonstrating the creation of a sample storyboard. The entire room participates. It is quite fun, and ranges from ridiculous to somber to epic. For this portion, I stand at the front of the room and draw what the kids come up with:

We break it down this way: that basically every story on Earth—from Jane Eyre to Macbeth to The Hunger Games to Harry Potter—is about a character with a problem, and the story is about the resolution of that problem. So in my visits, we first come up with a character. Then we give him/her a problem.

On Wednesday, the kids dreamed up the following characters and their problems:

*Paul the hybrid genie/vampire. Problem: doesn’t fit in with the genies or vampires (can’t sleep upside down, and wants to bite the kids he’s supposed to be granting wishes to. I forgot to take a picture of him, unfortunately.)

*Gretchen the half-octopus girl. Problem: wants to be a girl scout, but Daddy Octopus thinks she should stay in the ocean.

*Fabio the boy with a devil tail, scythe, and high heels. Problem: identity crisis.

(That’s Fabio in a beauty pageant and trying to get his scythe through the airport security line.)

And so forth. The kids all chimed in, even the ones convinced a few minutes prior to beginning the presentation that they possessed no creative capacity at all. (Which is baloney, by the way. I believe no such thing about any human.)

And THEN, the lovely librarian at LTMS, Joyce Lloyd, showed me some of the kids’ books from last year. PEOPLE. These blew me away.

Here we have a former eighth-grader who cut his illustrations out of construction paper. Note the forshortening, detail, and so forth (not to mention the intricate language in the text):

That couch! It amazes me!

And also:

That purple thing is a snapping hand, people! Bent fingers and all!

Interior drawings from another eighth-grader’s book. The characterization would make Quentin Blake proud:

Check out the action! The angles!

That’s always my favorite part of these visits—seeing what the kids come up with. Hearing a child who claimed five minutes ago that he/she possesses no creative ability, only to belt out rip-roaring ideas. Ideas that show what an imaginative, unique intellect was brewing in there all along.¬†Never never underestimate the talent, ingenuity, resourcefulness, or observational capacity of kids, people. They amaze me.

So that was it. I look forward to TLA coming up very soon.

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Where Do Stories Come From?

People want to know this. As hard as this traditionally is for writers to answer, I am going to try to demystify the process for you a bit.

Story ideas are triggered by random things. These triggers then trip the Writer’s Personal Vault of Interest. The WPVI is where the writer (often unconsciously) stores what is of particular interest to them—say, where their heart lies. One writer may have elephant migrations in Northern Africa in their WPVI, and another might have suburban dysfunction in the 1980’s tucked in there. Either way, they are themes the author returns to again and again. Often a writer will wrestle with these under different guises over the course of a lifetime, churning out a body of work that will reveal their WPVI in its idiosyncratic glory.

In my WPVI, I have psychology, odd gadgets, what the heck we’re doing on this planet, dystopian scenarios, imperfect and bumbling heroes, and my own entirely made-up theories on evolutionary neurology (far less on-point than the real thing, I’d wager.)

I must also add that for me everything begins and ends with a picture. I’d do a full series of pics here but that would get time-consuming. So I’m going to do one at the end of each scenario instead.

A typical story-idea-origination-process:

Me (looking out my window): Wow, look at the neighbors mowing their lawn. Lawnmowers…hmmm. Wonder if one day they will be as vintage as phone booths. And windows….hmmm. Wonder what it’ll be like to look out your window in 100 years. (Dog wanders into the room.) Wonder if we’ll have bred all the canine ferocity out of dogs by then and they’ll just be like doughy fluffy lumps. Wonder what would happen if someone secretly kept breeding Rottweilers in a world like that. A rogue dog-breeder. Or what if there was a whole society of underground people who refused to bend nature to our will like the rest of us weakened, atrophied humans, but that the rogue animal breeders sometimes had to sell a highly prized Original dog or cat to survive? And voila:


Me, looking at postcard from friend: Weird how Megan’s handwriting is evenly spaced, very controlled, and still pretty. Wonder if there’s any truth to graphology (is that even what it’s called?) Wonder what happened to us humans, from an evolutionary perspective, when we started to write? Wonder if in the future we’ll be able to tell far more about a person by their handwriting? What if there were two warring factions: people who want their children to learn to write because they believe the act of writing creates an emotional link to self-expression, and the Utilitarians, who purposely keep their kids from writing so they can be soul-less who minions who carry out evil deeds? And voila:


Me, driving in Austin: What if all of us drivers in Austin are in fact like roaches and survive the apocalypse, merely due to our buoyant obliviousness on the road? What if “ignorance is bliss” applies to us in this grand scale? What if, among the charred post-apocalyptic wreckage of our planet, we keep cruising around in our broken-down jalopies, smiling serenely? And voila:

So you see, you have a pretty good idea of what goes on in my WPVI. No matter what the trigger, it led me down to my vault, chock-full of thoughts of the future of the world, how people get along and what they prioritize, and so forth. The last of these about Austin drivers I suspect is something of a coping mechanism.

Anyway….that’s as minutely as I can break down the story-idea process, I’m afraid. Anything beyond that is nuclear fission.

I’m dying to know: what’s YOUR process? How do you come up with stories? What’s in YOUR WPVI?

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