Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Six Lessons from Toy Story 3


I went to see the new Toy Story movie on my birthday. I loved it! It’s deserving of all the hype it’s been getting and you should definitely check it out if you get the chance. In the mean time, here are some lessons I learned about writing courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.


It’s been eleven years since the last Toy Story movie. It takes time to create something wonderful. Don’t be so caught up in “getting something out there” that you don’t spend the time to make sure it’s something worth having out there.

Keep your audience in mind

One of the things that makes Toy Story work (well, most of Pixar’s movies) is that it appeals to both kids and adults. Even though we may be writing for kids, we need to keep in mind who’s buying our books. This is especially true if we’re writing picture books.

Respect your audience

Kids are smart and often come with a better (and more mature) sense of humor than we give them credit for. Everyone loves slapstick but even young readers can appreciate a thoughtful story.

Pick substance over flash

The animation of the Toy Story 3 is stunning. But what makes it truly great is the *story.* You can have all the flashy tricks in the world going on it your book or following the latest trend. But if you don’t have a quality story, the work will ultimately fall flat.

Good characters are essential

One of the reasons the Toy Story franchise has been so successful is that it has memorable characters. They are clever, kind, smart, dedicated, loving and yes, flawed. We can relate to them and find their world believable.

Show, don’t tell

There is a scene in Toy Story 3 where all looks bleak for Woody and the gang. I won’t tell you what it is, but I will tell you that the characters simply begin to join hands. Without saying a word, these characters tell us so much about their love for each other. It’s amazingly moving. It’s also great writing.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Fall 06.23.10 at 3:31 pm

I heard there was a completely different script for this movie about Buzz getting recalled. Then Pixar decided it wasn’t good enough, scrapped it, and started over. CARS originally had a different script too. I admire their willingness to throw stuff out if it isn’t working.

Christina 06.25.10 at 7:25 am

Great list Carmella! Knowing the audience is really important. And I agree that having unique and interesting characters is necessary. I’m reading a book right now where I don’t like the MC and I’m having a really hard time getting into the book.

Rebecca Ryals Russell 06.27.10 at 2:52 pm

Isn’t it funny how after you begin writing, anything you read, watch or hear on audio tape is automatically analyzed in writing terms? Toy Story 3 also verified the definite need for strong characters, as you said.

Summer Reading Assignments

by KATE FALL on JUNE 12, 2010

Hey! It’s quiz time for my daughter and her friend, which is what they get for sitting around my den on Saturday instead of doing something productive. I have two 11-year-old girls here. What do they plan to read this summer?

M: Plans to re-read the Warriors books by Erin Hunter and is looking forward to the newest Warrior release; wants to read the fifth Percy Jackson book; wants to read more Madeline L’Engle and more of the Sisters Grimm series.

K: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer; wants to finally read the 13th book of Series of Unfortunate Events; wants to start the Warrior series.

Series are definitely the winner here! I haven’t had the courage to delve into Warriors myself, but the other books are great choices.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet 06.13.10 at 12:16 pm

Those all sound like good choices. I hadn’t heard about Sisters Grimm so I’ll be checking those books out.

A series I recently discovered and could not put down is the Tales of Terror series by UK author Chris Priestley.

Kate Fall 06.16.10 at 8:19 pm

Thanks, Janet, I’ll look for that one!

Christina 06.25.10 at 12:38 pm

Interesting! I like series myself. I had a hard time getting into the Warrior series. Maybe it’s the animals? I did like the Twilight books but I have to say it wasn’t until half way through Twilight that I was interested. I almost didn’t finish the book but I decided I had to read it since it’s such a success in the YA market. I’m glad that I did because I learned a lot about what made that book so successful.

Re-reading Old Favourites

by ANDREA MACK on JUNE 11, 2010

After reading Jennifer Hubbard’s post on re-reading, I got thinking about books that I re-read and the reasons why. Even though almost nothing gets me more excited than finding a wonderful new book to read (except maybe solving a challenging issue in my writing), sometimes I just want to pick up an old favourite. Why?

  1. It’s comforting, like spending time with an old friend or family member without having to talk.
  2. When I’m feeling tired, sometimes it’s easier to read something where I already know what’s going to happen.
  3. The story is compelling and, even though it’s different than reading it the first time, I want the experience of reading it again.
  4. I want to share, so I read it aloud to one of my daughters.
  5. I admire the writer’s skill and want to get a feel for their writing techniques again, or I want to research how the writer handles a particular element of writing. Even when this is my purpose, I often get caught up in the story!

A few of my favourite books to re-read:

  • The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (or any of the HP books)
  • These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

– Andrea

{ 1 trackback }

Favourite Books You Read to Bits | J.L. Martin
06.11.10 at 3:11 pm

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Carmella 06.11.10 at 7:44 am

I love to reread books! I’ve read Stephen King’s The Stand several times. Ditto for To Kill a Mockingbird. Some more of my favorites:

Turnaround (Margaret Peterson Haddix)
Savvy (Ingrid Law)
Harry Potter series (JK Rowling)

Kate Fall 06.11.10 at 7:19 pm

I reread a lot, for all 5 reasons you mentioned. Often I read a very exciting book so quickly the first time through to find out what happens, I have to reread it to understand what happened! I love to reread anything by Terry Pratchett especially. I’m looking forward to reading my son the Harry Potter series in a couple of years.

How writing is like middle school


There’s been a lot of talk about the Student of the Year award around my house lately. It’s a special recognition that each team of teachers at my daughter’s middle school give to one student each year. My daughter was really hoping to be chosen and was crushed when she learned someone else got picked. She cried for hours and there wasn’t much I could do but tell her *I* think she’s amazing.

Wanting to be recognized for our hard work is simply part of being human. I think, as writers, we are keenly aware of that. But here’s the thing: looking outside of ourselves for validation and recognition rarely ends well. It’s taken me a long time and many years in the writing business to realize this.

Here are a few of things I shared with my daughter. (I was a little more subtle with her; 13 year-olds are not known for listening to Mom!) See how many of them also apply to having a manuscript rejected:

Someone else succeeding doesn’t mean you failed.

You can do your best and still not win.

There were lots and lots of other people to choose from; the decision probably wasn’t personal.

You don’t know how well other people did.

Don’t do the work because you want something. Do your best because it feels good.

You can only control what you can control. Let the other stuff go

Success is not a pie with a finite number of pieces; there’s enough to go around. Your turn will come.

After the initial sting of disappointment, my daughter pulled herself together. I think she’ll be okay. After all, like Tom Hanks once said, “You learn more from getting your butt kicked than you do from getting it kissed.”

Learning from Critiquing a Novel

by ANDREA MACK on MAY 28, 2010

Every week, I critique a few chapters or sections of stories, but recently one of my critique buddies and I did a full novel exchange. Although I try to keep the full novel in mind when I critique chapters (if possible), a full novel critique is very different. You want to focus on the big picture, rather than line by line details. What I discovered:

1. If you read through as though you’re reading a regular book, you can give a “first impression” of the book as a whole, e.g. loved it, hated it, something in between.

2. You can think about the overall strengths of the story. What parts (scenes or chapters) are really good? Does the story hold your interest all the way through?

3. Characters make overall impressions too. Try thinking about the question: Which characters did you like and why? I liked being able to see how characters fit into the whole story.

4. Pacing: It’s easier to get a handle on the pacing—which parts are moving too slow or too fast? Where does my mind wander? Would I skip over this section, impatient to get to the end?

5. Does the ending work? It’s a lot easier to judge whether the story has a satisfying and believable ending when you’ve just read the rest of the novel.

6. Small things sometimes stick out. In an individual chapter, a detail may seem unimportant, but when you read the story as a whole, you can see where the puzzle fits together. On the other hand, if something small happens consistently, like an oft-repeated word or phrase, a scene too reminiscent of a scene earlier in the story, it stands out.

One downside of doing a full novel critique is the time it takes. But the feedback makes it worth it. Plus, it gave me a new perspective on critiquing.

– Andrea

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Fall 05.28.10 at 6:39 am

It takes a really, really long time to critique a whole novel! When I’ve done it, I’ve kept a log of possible revision points in front of me. Then if things change, I can cross them off my list. Like if I have a revision point like “It’s chapter 4 and I haven’t met your main character’s father yet,” the reason for that might clear up later in the book. Maybe I’m never supposed to meet him, or maybe it is something the author can move up to earlier in the book. By the time I’m done with the novel, I have a few notes on the father relationship. I’m sure other people have tips on how to critique a whole novel. I seem to be dreadfully slow at it.

Andrea 05.30.10 at 1:55 pm

Kate, I like your idea of taking notes of possible points and crossing them out (or adding to them) as you go along. I’ll have to try that next time!

Christina 05.31.10 at 2:21 am

I like doing both novel critiques and individual chapters. Chapter critiques you can get down to the details.

But a novel critique is more big picture stuff. It is a lot of work to read a full book, but I like to get the full flow of how things are put together and I also feel like it stretches me as an author too.

I found doing our swap so fun! I love, love reading a good book.

Permission to suck


When I first starting doing martial arts, I struggled with insecurity next to more experienced belts. I felt like, no matter how hard I worked at it, I’d never be that good. Everyone else seemed to pick up on things sooner and their techniques were so much more graceful than mine. A black belt gave me some great advice. She said that whenever I was tempted to compare myself to someone else, I should tell myself “I’m a white belt; I don’t need to know that yet.”

It was great advice because it *allowed* me to suck. My only job was to keep showing up and keep practicing the skills I’d be tested on next. Sure, I could aspire to be as confident and effective as those black belts I saw. But it was going to take time. And lots of bruises, tears and sweat. In the mean time, the joy was in the process and in the leap of trying something new.

I need to take this advice to heart these days. My work-in-progress is stalling out (curses, you monstrous middles!) and I find myself wondering if I’ll ever be good enough to pull it off. I look around and see so many others finishing their drafts, landing agents or publishing books. And here I sit – unable to get through my lousy rough draft.

But, hey, my job right now is to just keep showing up. Every day. Ready to fight with all my heart and to the best of ability.

I may not be new to writing, but I *am* new to writing fiction. So say it with me, “I’m a white belt; I don’t need to be brilliant yet!”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna 05.25.10 at 12:53 pm

Excellent advice! One of my writing buddies has a similar mantra: “I’m allowed to write utter poo.” Words to live by when you’re writing a first draft! You can always clean it up in revision. :-)

Andrea 05.25.10 at 2:04 pm

I love the “don’t need to know that yet”. In writing, there’s such a tendency to want to do everything the first time you write it down, but it’s pretty impossible. Some things you might not even realize you need to do until you finish your draft. You can always go back and work on character or setting or whatever it is that was lacking — when you’re ready to tackle it.

Kate Fall 05.25.10 at 7:35 pm

I like “it’s my job to show up.” That’s my new mantra. It’s not my job to win a Newbury on the first draft. It’s not my job to write my book faster than anyone else. This is my job: open the Word document. Type. Repeat.

Love the training. Trust that the training will work. (And that’s the hard part for me!)

Christina 05.31.10 at 2:24 am

Love this! You are sooooo right. Writing in so many ways is like the belt tests. You start out at white being totally clueless and learning as you go. But even when you get your black belt, you can keep training, keep getting better.

Thanks for this. I really needed this image!