Characters are Fictional

The skeleton of a story.

The skeleton of a story.

I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars. I’m sure you’ve read it, I think everyone has. I really enjoyed the book, I almost loved it. I wanted to love it. But here’s what stopped me. At the very, very beginning of the book John Green asks us to remember the characters are fictional and the story is made up.

I wish he hadn’t done that.

I know why he did it, or I think I know why he did it, after I finished the entire story. It makes sense when you think about what he put his characters through in his story. But for readers like me, being reminded that the characters are fictional isn’t what I want. I want to believe in them, for the short time that I am living in their world. I want to be driven to go to the library with my friend and hunt through stacks of National Geographic magazines looking for photo credits for Robert Kincaid.

But being reminded of the characters are fictional definitely had me reading parts of this book as a writer, not just as a reader. It was very clear what the main character in the story wanted, and how she was in a knot. I was curious how the author would build the story, which is different than being curious about what the character would do. I never used to read like this. I would let my mind travel the path the author laid before me. Now I think about character arc and narrative structure and the internal struggle and the external struggle and the new normal. I feel like I’m dissecting dead things in a lab when that happens.

Was I reading passively before? Am I reading actively now? Is one more valuable or useful than the other?

An interesting point in The Fault in Our Stars stimulated some discussion with my husband and I’m still pondering the concept. One of the characters questions the idea that you need pain to feel joy because knowing how broccoli tastes has no impact on the wonderful taste of chocolate.

In the same author’s note at the beginning of the book, Green also asserts that remembering characters are fictional doesn’t mean they don’t matter. That even made-up stories have value, and that’s a foundational concept for our species.

I already believed that made-up stories mattered. I think some part of me, the part that most adults call childish or naive, always thinks that even the most outlandish stories are probably true sometime and somewhere. I just don’t want authors sticking their fingers in my face and saying, “remember, this is made up. Now try to love these people like they are real while you remember that.”

Just let me suspend my disbelief, for a little while! Let me drift along with your characters!

But I also want to write stories and write them well enough, that my special readers can’t help but love my characters as much as I do. So maybe I do need to start reading like a writer. Somehow I can’t help but feel a little sad at the thought of that. Is there any way to have it both ways?

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

What’s Wrong with Cookies?

Have I gone too far? What’s wrong with cookies?

apple

The original temptation

Every Friday, our daycare hosts Cookie Friday. Kids who are old enough to eat and enjoy cookies know all about it and rush into the atrium to grab a cookie and munch it down on the way home. Sometimes they grab two cookies. Or three. Every Friday.

But two weeks ago I stopped in the office and suggested the daycare staff switch things up and offer Fruity Friday.

A handful of grapes, apple slices, a ripe red strawberry…doesn’t that sound delicious? And a lot healthier, right?

I think it’s a good idea but I wonder if I’ve gone too far. What’s wrong with cookies? Nothing if you only eat them every once in awhile. But I learned from a recent webinar from Action for Healthy Kids that small treats add up. For instance, “when a student receives just one mint per day…Over the course of the school year, that adds up to over 2 1⁄2 cups of additional sugar and 3,600 extra calories.”

The suggestion to change Cookie Friday to Fruity Friday is just part of my overall trend to support healthier choices for kids in all parts of my community. Earlier this winter I emailed our community soccer league about offering healthier snacks for sale in the snack bar. Why should our boys and girls follow excellent physical activity by consuming awful junk food like sugary Hugs drinks and ice cream bars?

And of course last week was the first ever Healthy Food Challenge at our elementary school. It was a huge hit in terms of participation and kids even showed me how they added fruits and vegetables to their lunches so they could vote. But I still saw lots of kids eating lunches from school and home that had no fruits or vegetables at all.

I believe good habits start early. And I think Fruit Friday is the foundation of a better habit than Cookie Friday. But I know some parents will disagree.

So what’s your opinion? Are you all for fruit? Or do you think what’s wrong with cookies? 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Last week I was invited to participate in a writing process blog tour by my friend Vanessa Bernard. Please check out her exciting writing!

As part of the blog tour I need to answer four questions about my writing process. Here we go:

1) What am I working on? For clients, I’m doing an annual report, a monthly newsletter, and a year-long marketing campaign. For myself I’m finishing a flash fiction story for a contest and trying to get my young adult novel whipped into shape (still) to submit to agents.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? My work for clients might include a little more humor than they would think to add. My fiction work usually includes strong mothers and characters who enjoy running.

3) Why do I write what I do? I write for clients to strengthen my professional skills and to make money to fund my fiction writing activities. I write fiction for the 14 year girl I once was.

4) How does my writing process work? An idea about a unique character in an awkward situation hits me while I am running. Or showering. Or sleeping. I jot it down on scrap paper or into a voice memo on my iPhone. I return to my laptop and capture it furiously while trying to tell my kids to “just wait a minute, Mom’s almost done. We’ll have dinner soon!”

There you have it. Next week you should visit my writing friends Melissa Firman at writer.reader.mom and Ceil K. at That’s All She Wrote for their perspectives on the writing process.

And now I’m heading out for a run!

 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Help Kids Write Essays

Kid writing essay

Some kids are more eager than others.

Looking to help kids write essays?

I remember an essay I wrote in eighth grade about a specific chapter in Gulliver’s Travels. My English composition teacher adored it and praised it through the roof. I also remember another one I wrote as a senior about Jane Austen for a contest. It received an Honorable Mention, but only because there were four entries and mine didn’t nearly come close to the quality of the other entries.

Writing essays is a learned skill. Some of us feel more confident right from the start, but we can all learn helpful steps to take when writing essays.

I recently tackled an essay contest for kids with all three of my boys. If you’re a regular reader of my site, you know I already believe there is a strong connection between physical activity and creativity. That’s why I encourage my children to get involved in sports and games and this winter we are doing Kids of STEEL for the first time. It’s a non-competitive running club for kids organized by the team at Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon.

help kids write essays

Help kids write essays and gain lifelong skills!

The essay contest was optional but I felt it was important for my boys to write their 100 word essays on their favorite healthy snacks. But they needed a little help writing their essays.

A good way to help kids write essays is to coach them on how to write, but not what to write. That’s one of the hardest things to manage when you need to help kids write essays. The idea is to coach kids through some useful exercises that will lead to the essay without telling them exactly what to write.

It can feel a bit painful, and it’s certainly easier to write it for them. Some kids will take longer than others and need more coaching than others. But think long term here! The idea is not to just finish the essay, the goal is to help them learn how to do this for themselves…unless you are really eager to continue doing their school assignments for them all the way through college.

Here are some ideas that I shared with my boys and that I learned from other parents.

Brainstorm your essay topic

  • Make a list of your favorite snacks
  • Imagine how your favorite snack smells
  • Describe the colors of your favorite snack
  • Start with a photo or draw a picture of your favorite snack

Writing the essay

  • Start with a joke
  • Make an acrostic or a fun rhyming poem
  • Describe instructions on how to make the snack
  • Convince another kid to try the snack

As one of the moms organizing the essay submissions from our school, I was really excited to see the wonderful variety of snacks and writing styles. Most of the essays were typed but it was obvious the words were straight out the kids’ mouths. There are prizes for this contest, but the real prize in my opinion is giving my children more practice in picking a topic, brainstorming an opinion and then expressing their opinion in writing. That’s a skill that will always be needed.

There are more ideas on my Pinterest board Writers’ Resources for kids and adults.

Did you write essays as a kid? Do you remember one that went particularly well or just plain awful?

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Twitter and Women: The Right to Vote

Before Thanksgiving, I was excited to be a panelist at a meeting of the International Association of Business Communicators of Pittsburgh. The topic was “Applying Traditional Communication Skills to Social Media.” I do love using social media and I’m a firm believer that skilled communicators of any age can be effective on many different social media platforms.

Being a panelist was fun, but I was more excited to hear the questions from the audience. Other people’s questions spark some interesting ideas in my brain. Sometimes I blurt out those interesting ideas. And I did that at the IABC event.

A gentleman in the audience asked, “What historic events would have been different if we had social media when they happened?”

Before anyone else could answer, I said, “If we had Twitter, women would’ve gotten the right to vote a lot earlier!

Here’s why I think that.

Twitter and Women

Women and men like using social media, but trends show that women use it a bit more than men. A colorful info graphic on socialmediatoday.com states that 71% of women use social media sites. 62% of Twitter users and 58% of Facebook users are female. The ladies would totally rock the vote using these platforms, but especially Twitter.

Herland feminist utopia

Imagine if women could read this as an e-book.

I’m a historian by training and the Progressive Era was the focus of my studies. I know how hard it was for women to organize, travel and communicate back then. We’re seven years away from the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and it’s still hard for women to organize, travel and communicate. But social media makes it a lot easier for women – whether at home, at work, wherever- to share ideas with other like-minded women and to get educated. I like to think there would’ve been tweets like “Fed up with the federal gov’t! Suffrage Now! #SenecaFalls” and “The U.S. doesn’t yet include US #Suffrage.”

Twitter users tend to have higher levels of education and higher income. I’m not saying that makes them better than non-Twitter users, but I do believe it’s likely they’d have more free time and financial resources to begin the organization and advocacy for the right to vote. And women working their butts off to make ends meet wouldn’t be able to take off work for marches and sit-ins and fancy conferences, but they’d also be able to engage in the debate, send tweets to elected officials, get donations, and raise awareness through social media.

So there are a few simple reasons why I think Twitter would’ve lead to women getting the vote quicker. I also think that Twitter would’ve made it harder for suffragists to jettison African-American’s right to vote. While many women fighting for the vote back in the 1920′s argued that giving white women the vote would counteract giving black men the right to vote, 25% of Twitter users are African-American and there’s no way their equality would be undermined if Twitter was a part society back then.

So what historical events do you think would be different if social media had existed when they happened? 

 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Apps for Freelance Writers

apps for freelance writers

Don’t lose that thought!

Here is a quick review of three apps for freelance writers that make my life easier.

  • Voice Memos – There are lots of audio recording apps out there but this one is included on your iPhone so you had better be using it! I use it to record ideas that pop into my head while driving but don’t hesitate to use it during interviews or while you’re exercising for inspiration. It has also come in handy when I read manuscripts as a part of the great Facebook group Readers Aloud.
  • Easy Release - Many editors want you to include photographs with your story ideas and photographs mean you need photo releases. This app costs a little bit of money, but a lawsuit costs a lot more.
  • Square – I have three self-published books and host workshops, attend events and network. And I never have cash on hand. So I make it easy for potential buyers to become actual customers by always carrying my Square card reader. I can take payments anywhere and never have to worry about providing change. There is a fee per transaction, but for me, if someone didn’t have cash I wouldn’t sell a book at all, so I’ll take the fee.

[Update about Square: If you have upgraded to iOS7 you may need to adjust your microphone in order to swipe payment cards with your card reader. The steps are: 1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone 2. Turn on the Square Register slider 3. Relaunch Square Register and swipe away!]

If you don’t have a smartphone and you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, the cost of the phone may seem prohibitive. But I have found that my smartphone makes it easier for me to make money and better serve my clients. I do contract work that would not be possible without my RingCentral and Dropbox apps. I use my camera all the time to snap photos of magazines I want to query, possible sources I want to interview, or something that inspires a fiction piece.

I’m not claiming you can only be successful as a freelance writer if you have a smartphone and rely on technology but I do think there are serious benefits.

There are many other apps for freelance writers that are useful. What app do you use the most?

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Kids Lunch Box Ideas (by kids)

Do you frequently look for kids lunch box ideas? Do your food choices differ from what your kids would choose?

For a school assignment my six-year-old had to draw what he would pack in his lunch box if he were in charge:

kids lunch box ideas

A pretty healthy lunch!

When he explained his drawing, I was pleasantly surprised. He ‘packed’ a Nutella sandwich, rice cake, square pretzels, a green apple and a water bottle.

I love these lunch box ideas.

My husband and I enjoy the convenience of the school lunch but I prefer to have a little more input on what my boys eat, at least until I can really can an understanding of how healthy our school district’s lunches are. I’m learning more from Let’s Move Pittsburgh about how to understand what is offered by our school’s food services program.

But for now, I want our boys to pack more often than they buy. After seeing this drawing, I feel like my effort to teach them about healthy food choices is having some good results. I like that when they are told to make their own choices, the choices include at least one fruit! That’s not too bad! I feel like I can give my boys some input on their lunches and I can continue to present them with good options.

I’m hopeful that we are building healthy kids lunch box ideas!

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Favorite Bedtime Books

I recently joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and my first few meetings have me thinking about my favorite bedtime books. I have a quite a few. In fact many of my favorite bedtime books have no words! But instead of making a list of which books I love, I am actually going to discuss a style of book that I don’t really care for from the perspective of a parent at bedtime: the list book.

I don’t mind these books during middle of the day quiet time, car trips, in waiting rooms, etc. But I do mind their lack of plot, story arc, characters, and most importantly the lack of an ending. At bedtime, I need stories to end. That’s one main reason the Can You See What I See and Where’s Waldo books – while fun!- are not approved bedtime reading, at least with me.

Reasonable Bedtime Book

a good bedtime book

An example of a good list book

Some list books are great. For example, Richard Scarry produces the absolute best and manages to incorporate a gentle, funny storyline that guides readers through his adorably illustrated pages.

Here’s an inside spread from The Best Word Book Ever. I love breakfast, so I chose this particular page showing Kenny Bear waking up and enjoying a hearty meal to start the day. Delightful!

Scarry’s other books, especially Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, do a nice job of combining huge lists of recognizable objects and easy words for children to learn with an entertaining and light-hearted storyline. If I were so inclined to write a list book, this would be the style I’d choose.

Ridiculous Bedtime Books

Here are two examples of list books that drive me crazy:

children's bedtime book about cars

Don’t touch the flaps.

not my favorite bedtime book about cars

Sparkle no substance.

In the first book by Fisher-Price, we get to see toys in action in a little town. There’s barely any text but there are lots of flaps to lift, pull and tear. My kids do rip the flaps and then cry and beg me to repair them but later they pick at the tape and tear them again. Also, struggling to open the flaps prolongs the agony of reading this list book at bedtime. (And I absolutely cannot help my child lift the flaps or they freak out because they want to do it themselves!!)

The second book is irritating to me from the perspective of an aspiring writer. Some publishing company out there (more than one, truthfully) churns out these books and sells them to kids and grandparents who can’t resist the sparkle and cashes checks. While many writers I know work hard to get their excellent writing  recognized. And writers like me wonder if there is any hope for a good storybook in today’s market.

My favorite bedtime books don’t just keep kids busy and they don’t push learning shapes, colors and numbers on kids – but there is a place for those kinds of books. Just not at bedtime.

Truly, my favorite bedtime books capture the imagination but also speak to what a child really knows and feels in their world. It’s an art and it’s magic and it sends them off to sleep and dream, while I head off to write and dream!

Are there books you absolutely won’t read to your child at bedtime?

 

 

 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Will Wine Help? For Writers, Cooks and Moms

flow chart, wine, moms, writers, cooks

When in doubt, check this chart.

 

A toast to Moms (and dads)!

Something funny today! I offer this light-hearted look at some of the tasks that require both creativity and inspiration – and are made easier by an excellent glass of wine! I’m not talking about drinking to get drunk here.  I’m talking about stimulating the parts of our brain that delight in something complex, about appreciating the transformation of multiple ingredients into a new creation, about sharing in traditions passed down from generations, and about taking time to savor the beauty of the world around us.

As a mom, a writer and reluctant cook, wine represents all of those and more to me. I’m partial to reds myself. You?

 

 

 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.

Piano Practice

One of my children loves piano practice. My middle child often whines when I mention it. But when my middle child has played a particular song very well, he relishes the feeling of success.

To help my children practice piano more, and get that great feeling, I often use behavior charts to encourage them to do the desired action (practice) and get the desired results (a feeling of pride) and that helps build the new habit. You can download the pdf of one of the two versions we use – free!

New Habits

It’s not easy to develop a new habit – whether it’s exercising, eating healthy, or using manners! Many times, the best way to build a good new habit is by rewarding yourself for practicing.

We work hard to help our children acquire good habits. Just recently, we saw some reward for our hard work when our somewhat picky eater asked – unprompted – “what does mustard taste like?”

We were thrilled! This showed us that our consistent, positive practice of asking our kids to try new foods was starting to sink in. He doesn’t have to love everything, but he should be able to try. Each new food that goes in his copy of My Food Notebook results in two rewards: pride in himself and praise from his parents.

I’m pretty sure my kids won’t be concert hall musicians, but they still need piano practice. Because it’s not about whether they play like a pro, but whether or not they can work hard at something, get good results and be motivated to try.

 

About Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Writer, Author, Social Media Coach, Reader, Runner, Triathlete, Wife, Mother.