Saturday, December 27, 2008

How to write a book by your favorite author in ten steps or less

I love it when I read a great book and then find another book by the same author with a similar plot. Sometimes I get so familiar with an author that I can predict the plot of a book before I open it.

Here's an example:

Basic Harry Potter Plot Summary

  1. Harry is at the Dursleys for the summer and he’s miserable.
  2. An event happens before Harry gets to school. After it’s over, Harry visits Diagon Alley (or Mrs. Weasley visits it for him) and takes the train to Hogwarts.
  3. Harry arrives at Hogwarts and finds out who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is (who is always someone Harry’s met before school started).
  4. Harry gets a lot of homework and Quidditch practice and games happen.
  5. Major events occur on Halloween and/or Christmas.
  6. Harry, Ron and Hermione are trying to solve a mystery.
  7. Harry and friends study for exams. In the afternoon after the last exam, the answer to the mystery is suddenly discovered.
  8. The climax of the book occurs and something terrible or miraculous happens. Harry meets Voldemort and narrowly avoids death. The climax lasts all evening and takes up several chapters of the book. At the end of it, Harry ends up in the hospital wing.
  9. Dumbledore explains it all.
  10. Harry deep in thought about whatever happened during the climax, takes the train home and dreads another summer with the Dursleys.

Of course, there are deviations to this structure in various books. Harry doesn’t take the train to Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets, he doesn’t meet Voldemort in Prisoner of Azkaban (although Voldemort is discussed during the climax), he doesn’t play Quidditch in Goblet of Fire, etc. But basically, if you think about it, the events listed above happen in Books One through Six.

**Begin spoiler alert. Don’t read the comment below unless you’ve read the Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.**

One of the things I love in Book Seven is that Dumbledore STILL explains it all. He doesn’t let a minor thing like death stand in his way of summing up the entire plot and explaining every mystery that’s happened during the book.

**End spoiler alert**

Stock plot summaries can work for lots of books. Take a look at this one:

Basic Amelia Bedelia Plot Summary

It only takes five steps.

  1. Mrs. Rogers gives Amelia Bedelia a list of things to do and then leaves the house.
  2. Amelia Bedelia bakes a pie before she starts working on the list.
  3. Amelia Bedelia does every item on the list and takes each task literally.
  4. Mrs. Rogers comes home to find that the house is a big mess and that Amelia Bedelia hasn’t done anything correctly.
  5. Amelia Bedelia’s pie makes everything better again.

This always makes me wonder. Hasn’t Mrs. Rogers figured out by now that Amelia Bedelia is an incompetent maid? Why doesn’t she hire someone else? Amelia Bedelia can open a bakery and contract on the side with Mrs. Rogers to bake pies.

And it's not always plot devices. Some authors seem to have lists of characters that often appear in their books. Here are several reoccurring characters from one of my favorite authors:

L.M. Montgomery's Stock Characters

For those of you who have just read Anne of Green Gables series, believe me, these characters surface in nearly every other L.M. Montgomery book.

Primary characters

  • A female ingénue who is deeply in love with the house she lives in. She often has a teaching degree and sometimes a college degree (unusual for the time period). She has a creative imagination and writes stories and sells them to magazines for a small profit. She is usually (but not always) an orphan. The story is always told for her point of view.
  • A handsome, perfect male who grew up with the female ingénue. He crosses signals with her multiple times and moves away (a letter is usually lost or destroyed.) But he always manages to come back three pages from the end of the book at the perfect moment and declare his undying love.
  • An older female who takes care of the ingénue in a strict and no-nonsense way. She is usually not the ingénue's mother.
  • An older man who falls in love with the ingénue. He proposes and is engaged to the ingénue, but she only sees him as a friend and she eventually breaks the engagement. (Not in the Anne books, but in many others).

Secondary characters (optional, but usually included)

  • A wonderful housekeeper that the family couldn’t live without who has a mother that occasionally gets ill.
  • A gossipy female neighbor who does beautiful needlework and feels there's a enormous difference between Presbyterians and Methodists. (Presbyterians are always favored.)
  • A female friend who's had a rough life and only opens up to the ingénue.
  • A female friend or sister that dithers for years over which of two identical men she should marry, and then falls in love with a third man and marries him immediately.
  • A rich, crotchety elderly woman who dies and leaves her fortune to the ingénue.
  • Small children who have big imaginations and provide amusing stories about adventures and local people. (The stories are typically the same from book to book.)
  • A town doctor who makes house calls. (In the Anne books, he’s a primary character).
  • A town minister.


  • A farm on Prince Edward Island near a small town, where everybody’s primary occupation seems to be keeping track of the entire life histories of everyone else.

There are a few obvious exceptions. The Blue Castle is the only book that is not set on Prince Edward Island. And the male hero and the ingenue are together and happy for half the book and not just the last three pages. And Kilmeny of the Orchard is an exception because it's told from the man's point of view, not the woman's.


I love these kinds of books when they're written by a favorite author. Sometimes it's great to find many variations on the same theme. And just because stock characters or basic plot points are used, doesn't mean the books aren't original and delightful.

Also, it makes me intrigued about an author's life and when I see obvious patterns, I like to research them. A lot of it tends to be based in fact as authors frequently write what they know.

Compare the stock characters to L.M. Montgomery's actual life. Her mother died shortly after she was born and she was raised by farm on Prince Edward Island by her grandparents. She had both a teaching license and a college degree. She fell in love with the perfect boy- someone she had grown up with (her cousin) but didn't marry him and married an older man who was a Presbyterian minister instead.

Unfortunately, though, I'll never get to read a Harry Potter book again for the first time. And after a trip to Prince Edward Island and a careful search through tons of used bookstores there, I think I've exhausted all the new-to-me L.M. Montgomery books. But, by knowing the formula, I can also appreciate departures from it. I love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Blue Castle, precisely because they break the mold.

And sometimes, only one book really rises to the top. I liked The DaVinci Code and read other books by Dan Brown. I was disappointed that not only were they all the same, but The Da Vinci Code (which still had flaws) was the best.

A Plea

If you found this post by googling "Anne of Green Gables characters" or "Harry Potter plot summary," please don't use what I've written above for any kind of informational purposes. They're just generalizations, and I hope that you read the books discussed above if you haven't before. Despite what I said, each one truly is unique and I've enjoyed every one. (Some more than others, of course).

Your Turn

How about you? Is there an author whose plot summary, typical setting and stock characters you know even before you start reading one of their books? Post it below. If you chose to write your own post about it, I'd love to see it and please include the link in the comments.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Which children's book author would you like to meet?

In the past few weeks I've gotten a change to hang out with Emily Gravett and Jennifer Holm, two of my favorite children's book authors. Stay tuned for details... including how long it took to write and illustrate Orange Pear Apple Bear and the name of the newest (and yet to be published) Babymouse book.

This got me to thinking. Due to a lucky combination of working in book stores, attending conferences, being active in the Kidlitopshere, and founding a book club, I've had the chance to meet many amazing authors and illustrators in the last few years. And, I hope to meet many, many more.

This leads me to ask a few questions.

1. Which authors\illustrators have you met or talked to via e-mail? Which experience were the most meaningful to you?

2. Which authors\illustrators would you most want to meet or to e-mail you? (Caveat: they have to be alive, so that it would actually be theoretically possible to meet them or receive e-mail from them).

I have to mull about my answer to Question 1 a little longer.
Question 2 is easy though. J.K. Rowling, of course.

How about you?

Monday, December 8, 2008

An Annoucement/ Plea for Help

I'm delighted to finally be able to share some very exciting news. Starting in mid-January, Jen Robinson, MotherReader and I will be working together on a children's book blog for PBS! Topics will include getting kids interested in reading, early literacy and reviews across a variety of genres.

It's really an amazing opportunity and I'm so honored that PBS wants me to be a part of it. None of it would have been possible without Gina Montefusco from PBS and Jen Robinson who have been the driving forces behind this project.

We're trying to come up a terrific name for the blog. Got any good ideas? Please, please, please send them my way. I'm usually good about this kind of thing, but this time I'm drawing a blank (probably because it's PBS and a lot of people will see it). I know you creative folks out there in the Kidlit world can come up with something perfect.

P.S. This blog isn't going away because I'll be writing for PBS only once a week. And yes, I promise, I'll start updating Wizards Wireless again. Sorry for the long drought.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Happy Beedle the Bard Day!

You've flown your Firebolt to the nearest bookstore.

The owl has tapped on your window.

And now…

you have the Tales of Beedle the Bard in your hot little hands.

You open it, see how big the font size is, and dive right in.

You're finished in less than an hour.

WAIT! Don't do that.

Read slowly. One story at a time. Savor it.

When's the next time you're going to get a chance to read original J.K. Rowling stories set in the Harry Potter world?

Not anytime soon, I can tell you.

After you've enjoyed the book, come back and tell Wizards Wireless what you think.

I'd love to hear your opinions, even if you've only read part of the book.

And be sure to take the new poll on the sidebar.