Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gail Carson Levine - Sweat and Magic

Gail Carson Levine

These are my notes from Gail Carson Levine's keynote speech at SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Plot and suspense. Not all stories need a crisis, but every story needs a shape. Need growth of experience. Reader is satisfied.

Joan Abelove “Go and Come Back”. Not a great deal of tension. You can make it work. So much is possible. GCL's books are plot driven. When she thinks “This is boring” she writes lists of possibilities in her notes. No idea is stupid.

Turning a pumpkin into a cart won't work, but don't give up. Have courage. Plot usually arises out of a situation. Eg: The Little Engine That Could – what if the engine was pissed off or depressed? Where would the plot go?

Concentration camp - GCL relates the story of a man killed by a Nazi guard because he was argumentative and resented authority.

One character could ask another character 'What are you thinking?', which might start major warfare.

Time - make time pressure loom. Dialogue, worried thoughts can convey this. If the character worries, the reader worries.

Distance – Travel toward a destination (looming). Chapter headings (eg. 4 stops to go).



Separation (from the problem)

Main character flaw (eg. Marty in Back to the Future can't tolerate being called a coward)

Secondary character flaw (eg. Boyfriend of main character)

Isolation (wanders away alone from others – gets into some danger)

Expectation – (Eg. mum expects son to be a brilliant student – creates tension. High expectations of self. Also a character flaw.)

A test

A disaster

Something is lost (and it's necessary – or main character thinks it is).

Prompt: think of something very tense that could happen as you go through your day.

Predictability. Is it really bad? You can walk a fine line. Adrian Monk episodes – you know who the baddie is but you're not sure how it will pan out.

How to surprise?

Confound expectation

Ask your characters

Avoid easy morals

Surprise yourself

Make a list


Workshop it

Choose wisely where you will introduce 'out there' ideas like dragons landing on earth. It works at the beginning because the reader is ready for anything. It may not work so well to introduce this half way through the book.

Set yourself a goal: eg. I will write 12 ideas. Don't fall short.

Don't stress about getting a moral across. You can't control what the reader will get out of the story anyway.

Prompt: Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Does it lead to disaster?

Gail Carson Levine starts with plot, not character. Characters don't come fully formed. We have to be with them for a while.

Character development: (*apologies - somewhat incomplete notes here...*)


Grow in the writing


Thoughts and feelings

Speech – Reminds the reader about the character's personality. Eg: “Look at me!” or “Get out of my face!”


Movement (character touches someone's shoulder – why? Caring? Dominant? Character looks at shoes – tells us something about him/her).

A nickname can tell you a lot.

What's in his pockets?

What's in his bag?

How does he relate to his friends? Does he set things up? Follower? A hanger-on?


Loves to...

The character shouldn't always be saintly. The reader does a great deal of interpreting the person because you can't describe all the layers of a person.

Characters may interrupt – but for different reasons. Reveal the reasons.

A character may use certain expressions often.

Speech mannerisms. Eg: “You know what...” for one character is likely to be followed by “This sux!” or “You're an idiot!”

Three characters get ready for school. How does each one prepare? Reveal their thoughts...

People do things differently (eg. Pack a suitcase) – can reveal something about them.

Prompt: Re-read your story/stories and consider what meaning they may have for you. What are you telling yourself? Do you have themes that you often go back to? Are your characters very obedient / cowardly / worry a lot?

Much of this information is on GCL's blog. Comment and join in.

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