Going in Circles

Next week I’m going to lead a kids’ book writing workshop near Scranton, PA, at The Gathering, a readers’ and writers’ conference for adults or almost-adults (high school at least).
The theme is “There and Back Again: Time, Place and Story.” I want to tie my workshop in with the theme, so I started thinking of stories and novels that circle back to where they began. Here are a few: Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” The Great Gatsby (for grownups), Job, Peter Pan. Two of my books fall into this category: The Wish and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. I’m sure there are a zillion more by other writers. A circle is a satisfying shape.

Setting takes on special importance in these tales. For example, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” would lose much of its magic without the three avenues of trees (silver leaves first, then gold, and finally diamond); the little boats, each bearing a prince; and the island where the princes and the princesses dance. In Gatsby, New York in the 1920s is intrinsic. If you change these settings, the story itself is altered.

Along circular story lines, I’ve come up with three prompts that workshop participants, and you, too, can choose among. Any of them can be written at any level, from picture book to young adult, or even old adult. Here they are:

• Your main character sets out, taking his or her dog (or other animal or creature) for a morning or evening or after-school walk. What happens? What sets off the adventure? How does he or she get home again?

Consider where your main character lives. In a city? On a farm? In a suburban subdivision? If you choose a city, dog-walking in Los Angeles is going to be different from dog-walking in New York City. What if your main character’s parents work and live in Disneyland? What would dog-walking there be like? If this is a fantasy, your main character could be walking a young hydra from rock to rock in a swamp inhabited by I-don’t-know-whats.

Also think about period. Nowadays, people in many places are required by law to pick up after their dogs. That wasn’t always true. Dog-walking itself is probably a relatively new activity. I suspect people in the middle ages didn’t do it. I can’t imagine George Washington walking his Pomeranian (if he had one), but maybe he did.

• Something terrible (serious terrible or funny terrible or fantastical terrible) has happened at your main character’s school. The event could have happened to everyone or just to the main character or another character. The main character has to return to school afterward.

What kind of school might this be? Private or public? 300 students or 3,000? A high school? Elementary? A martial arts school? I’m trying not to write these words, but they’re fighting their way out: A school for wizards?

When is it? Today? 200 years ago? A school of the future? A particular period in the history of an invented world?

• A run of upheavals has upset your main character’s household. They could include the death of a pet, the removal of a grandparent to a nursing home or a grandparent moving in, an elder sibling going off to college, or anything else. The main character wants to return things to the way they were. How does he or she go about achieving this? What happens?

This one is different from the others, because the main character, rather than the author, sets out to make the circle. Maybe it won’t go that way. But maybe you can try to get it there and see what happens, which should be interesting. Again, think about setting and period . Also, think about the kind of family your main character is part of.

Although a circular story ends where it began, the main character is usually changed by what happens in the middle. Frodo, for example, is quite a different hobbit when he returns from Mordor. But your main character may not change, and the story can still be wonderful. If she isn’t transformed, she may be stuck in whatever character flaw set the story in motion. Nothing has budged her out of stasis, and this may be a tragedy. Or she may be a character the reader wants preserved as she was. Wendy changes by the end of Peter Pan, but Peter doesn’t, and we don’t want him to. We love him as he is, conceited and lighter than air.

If you try one of these prompts (or more than one), and your story doesn’t want to circle, don’t force it. Go where it takes you. I never thought about the circularity of The Wish until I started preparing for the conference–

which has always been great, with interesting ideas and people and good conversation and excellent food, although the accommodations are a little Spartan. It’s late in the day, but if you want to come, slots may still be available. I’d love to have you in my workshop, even though you already know what we’ll be doing. There are other fascinating workshops as well. Here’s the link to the conference website: http://www.gathering.keystone.edu/

Anyway, if you try the prompts, have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I would looooove to go to one of your workshops. I hope the people who get to go realize how lucky they are!

    (I'll still be teaching Summer School myself.)

    Take Care,


    P.S. I find this blog very fascinating and thought provoking!

  2. I have been reading several of your books lately and you have now become one of my favorite authors. You also have introduced me to a new style of writing and inspired me to write my own story. I love your books!
    I await your next book!
    Your greatest fan!

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