Monday, August 19, 2013

Peanut Butter Cups and Peer Pressure

On Sunday mornings, you can usually find me volunteering with the children's ministry program at my church. It's not a typical "Sunday School" program. There's air hockey and Foosball, loud music and videos, games and interactive lessons. The 4th and 5th graders I work with actually want to go to church.

Last week, the large group lesson contained an experiment that kind of blew my mind. It affected me as a YA writer, so I thought I'd share.

The large group leader (we'll call him Mike) introduced a game called Mike's Match-tastic Extravaganza! With a stellar name like that, he had no problem getting 3 volunteers to play the game. We'll call the volunteers Joe, Chris, and Adam.

The secret? Joe and Chris weren't really volunteers. Earlier in the morning, Mike had asked them to "volunteer" and told them exactly what to say.

The game consisted of three questions. If the boys' answers to the questions matched, they would get a prize. Said prizes would escalate through the three rounds. If the answers didn't match, no one would get any of the prizes.

The reward set for the first round was one Reese's Miniature. The sound tech played a clip of a thunderstorm, then Mike asked if it was loud or quiet. Predictably, all three boys said "loud."

The prize for the second round was a Reese's Big Cup. Mike had each boy taste something, then asked if it was salty or sweet. All three boys correctly said "sweet." Easy!

The last and final prize was a highly coveted, sugar-high-inducing Reese's King Size.

Mike showed the boys a whiteboard with two lines drawn on it. Line A was obviously longer than Line B. 

Mike went to Joe (secret "volunteer") and asked which line was longer. Without hesitation, Joe said that Line B was longer.

Next in line was Chris (the other "volunteer"). He was also adamant that Line B was longer.

Last was actual volunteer, Adam. When Mike asked which line was longer, Adam hesitated. I could see the wheels turning in the kid's head. Line A was longer! But if he said that, no one would get any candy! And if Joe and Chris said Line B was right, it couldn't really be wrong, could it?

A set of bright stage lights shone on Adam. At least 100 pairs of eyes watched from the audience. Mike's microphone waited for his answer.

And what did Adam say?

Line B.

Adam succumbed to peer pressure and the lure of chocolate-covered peanut butter candy.

Maybe this isn't startling because the consequences were relatively low and kids really like candy. But if you would have asked me the outcome prior to the game, I would have put money on Adam saying Line A. The correct answer was so obvious. Adam is so sweet and smart. And yet...he made the wrong choice.

So the next time I'm writing and wondering, "Would a teenager really do that?" I'm going to be more likely to say "Yes!" (Especially if peer pressure and/or candy are involved.) On occasion, kids and teenagers make dumb decisions. They suffer the consequences. Then they make even dumber decisions and suffer even worse consequences. But eventually they learn. And they grow. And they change. And isn't that what YA is all about?

(PS - Adam is totally fine. He quickly admitted that he knew Line A was longer, but didn't want to lose the game. He left with a lesson learned and a chocolate-covered smile on his face.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Real Writers Don't Do Math! (Or Do They?)

If you've been around the writing blogosphere, you know there's an ongoing debate regarding when you can be considered a Real Writer. (When you're published! When you sell x copies! When you get an agent! When you write! When the wind is blowing from the north and the day of the month is odd, but only if it's not raining!)

Ambiguous much?

Being a math-minded person, I'm convinced there must be a formula to calculate whether someone is a Real Writer or not. So, if x is the number of words you write and y is the number of cups of coffee you drink and z is the square root of pi multiplied by the number of query rejections you've received, and the product of x, y, and z is equal to the derivative of...

Um, yeah. I like math, but not enough to remember calculus.

Scratch the formula idea.

But I'm still convinced that math will not fail me. There must be a way. Some kind of system in which melding numbers and words creates the definitive Real Writer distinction.

Something like WRITER POINTS.

You know, the points you gain when you do writerly things. And the points you lose when you do decidedly non-writerly things.

Something like this:

100 points for every 500 words
100 points for every 10 pages
Wearing clothes that cannot double as pajamas
– 20 points
Having a cat
400 points
Having multiple cats
4000 points
Drinking a cup of coffee or tea
10 points per cup
Having a day job
– 200 points
Having multiple day jobs
– 2000 points
Brushing your teeth before noon
– 50 points
Not leaving the house for a full day
300 points
Sending out a query letter
1000 points
Receiving a rejection
5000 points
Having a conversation with someone who is not one of your characters
– 40 points
Watching “Honey Boo Boo”
– 300 points per episode
Making an entire meal out of Skittles/Starburst/jelly beans
50 points
– 10 points
Getting an agent/book deal
3000 points

*Not an exhaustive list.

So, what's the magic number? When are you a Real Writer? When you hit 10K points? 50K points? Any time your Writer Points balance is greater than zero?

Well...that's something you have to decide for yourself.

Because ultimately, being a Real Writer is more about how you feel than about anyone or anything else, including math. It's about writing and living the life you love and defining success the way you want to define it and then writing some more.

That's it.

But hey, if you hit a million points, let me know.

I'll probably send you a gold star.

(And remind you that showering every once in a while is a good thing.)