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Mile Marker

Writing Road Trip | Mile Marker | Lisa BullardNot too long ago, I had a fan­tas­tic time doing a week-long school vis­it at an ele­men­tary school in Ham Lake, Min­neso­ta. I hadn’t done a school vis­it for a while, and I’d for­got­ten about the ques­tions. Not the “how long have you been a writer?” or “what is your favorite book?” ques­tions — but the “no adult filter yet in place” ques­tions that stu­dents so casu­al­ly ask me on first meet­ing:

  • How much mon­ey do you make?
  • Are you mar­ried?
  • How old are you? (Now that I think about it, I got this ques­tion a lot more than usu­al this week. Note to self: get some rest!)

And then came one that was new to me: How much do you weigh? I admit, I was tak­en aback. I’m what you might actually call a “sub­stan­tial” per­son, so I can under­stand this boy’s curios­i­ty. But I’d nev­er had a stu­dent ask me that before. I explained that I was going to decline to answer because it was some­thing I’d rather keep pri­vate.

He nod­ded and grinned, unfazed by my refusal. “I weigh fifty pounds,” he said proud­ly.

I instant­ly real­ized that I had made a false assump­tion about the inten­tion of his ques­tion.  He wasn’t try­ing to probe into infor­ma­tion most adults would label out-of-bounds. He just want­ed to share the fact that he’d reached the fifty-pound mile mark­er him­self — big news for a kid his age — and had deter­mined that the polite thing to do was to ask me if I want­ed to share my weight before he took his turn.

It remind­ed me of two things:

  1. I love kids. That’s why I chose to write for them.
  2. Assump­tions” cause mis­un­der­stand­ings in life, but they can be a handy tool for writ­ers.

Here are just a few of the ways I’ve used “assump­tions” as a writer, so you can share them with your writ­ing stu­dents:

I chal­lenge assump­tions.  I often dis­cov­er I’ve fall­en into the trap of assum­ing cer­tain things must be true about my char­ac­ter, his or her moti­va­tions, what the antag­o­nist is real­ly up to, or what has to hap­pen next. When I shake things up and chal­lenge every assump­tion I have about the sto­ry, it grows more sur­pris­ing and intrigu­ing.

I have my char­ac­ters make assump­tions about oth­er char­ac­ters. As I repeat­ed over and over this week on my school vis­it, conflict is the thing that keeps read­ers turn­ing pages. And there’s noth­ing like mis­tak­en assump­tions to cause conflict between char­ac­ters.

I assume that there’s some­thing that I haven’t made clear in my ear­ly drafts.  It’s like­ly clear in my head, but not yet clear on paper. So I seek out trust­ed ear­ly read­ers. I tell them their job is to be hon­est with me about any­thing that con­fus­es them in the sto­ry, because I need to revise and fill those holes before a broad­er read­er­ship sees the piece.

That school vis­it helped me pass a mile mark­er: I was remind­ed of the impor­tance of assump­tions.

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