Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lessons Learned from Scott O'Dell--Well, Sort of...

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is a story of survival. Twelve-year-old Karana finds herself alone on an island when most of the tribe to which she belongs  is killed and the rest leave. I was thinking about this book as I worked with my editor revising Breathing on Her Own. You’ll see why. But it also made me think about a few lessons in storytelling I learned from Scott O’Dell. Well, sort of.

   Lesson #1  Remember what you already wrote.
A few weeks ago my editor wrote a note along the side of one of my manuscript pages that made me laugh out loud.

Let me set the scene. I had written a description of the house where my character lives. In the scene I drafted for this particular chapter I wrote something like –“…, when the children were upstairs washing their hands for dinner.”  Nothing particularly bad about sending the kids upstairs to wash their hands. Except Bethany Kaczmarek+, who doesn’t miss anything, asked, “Why did the kids go upstairs? I thought they had a half bath on the main floor.”

What does this have to do with Scott O’Dell?

For years I read Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud to my primary aged students. We would reach the part where Karana decides to build a house. Resources on the island are scarce. O’Dell makes a big deal of it. Before reading on, I would ask my students to come up with ideas for building Karana’s house. Year after year they would suggest rocks and mud, or using the bushes or roots to construct a dwelling. O’Dell himself had Karana use the ribs of whales for a fence and constructed her house against a rock cliff.

Then came Lisa. She was a smart cookie and a good listener. She loved the survival story of a young girl left alone on an island. When I posed my question to the class, she had a better solution than Scott O’Dell.

Only two chapters previous to this predicament, Karana had gone to where her village people had stored canoes. There were four of them, all made of wood. Karana took the smallest one to try to leave the island. Lisa suggested Karana retrieve the wood from the three remaining canoes and build her house. Not bad for a six-year-old.

   Lesson #2 It is possible to write in first person. But if that doesn’t work, get as close as you can.
Of course I knew this. I have read novels written in first person before. Not often. O’Dell brought me so close to Karana, I could feel her muscles tense or smell the sea water.  I think that is why I am so intrigued by “close third person.”  (see my post dated 8/21/13 ) I want my readers to experience the same emotions I put my characters through.

   Lesson #3 Know where the story is going and make sure it won’t be a cakewalk to get there.
I know where I am heading with my story before I write it. Yes, I may add to it and I will certainly refine it as I go, but I think it is important to have a storyline mapped out complete with plenty of tension. I want my characters to experience a few problems along the way.

O’Dell threw us into one crisis after another from the start. I wasn’t prepared for all of it. Actually, the first time I read the book was to a group of second graders. I failed to read it for myself first. Early in the book, Karana’s brother Ramo is killed by wild dogs. I couldn’t believe it! I started crying and struggled to get through the chapter. By the time I finished, I had twenty seven-year-olds surrounding me, patting me on the back and offering words of comfort. “It’s okay, Mrs. Waters. It’s just a book.”

I was prepared the next year when I read it to my children. As I said earlier, I read this story for many years to children in my class.

The school librarian once said to me, “I can always tell which fifth graders had you for first or second grade. They all want to read Island of the Blue Dolphins for themselves.”

   Oh…And Lisa? She's now a  high school physics teacher. Like I said --one smart cookie. 

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