Okay, if you just want the cover and blurb, scroll down till you see the cover. There aren’t any spoilers in the following (other than a very rough clue about the kind of ending it has), and it’s all talk about how and why I put the story together the way I did.
This was an amusing story to write–it’s a test run for a new plot structure that I picked up from Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. I stripped this down as much as possible, because I wanted to write a short test story. I wrote a middle-grade because I have a captive test audience that I can watch read this stuff, so I can see how it goes over moment by moment. Cruel and manipulative, I know, but that’s my job, and I love it.
Here are the plot steps (according to Story Engineering, which is based on playwriting structure), so you can follow along and judge how well I did, if you care to do so:
- Setup (first 25%) – while there are problems in this section, the full extent of what’s going on is not yet revealed.
- First Plot Point (at about 25%) – the problem is first fully revealed (note: the sample stops right here).
- Reaction (second 25%) – the protagonist reacts to the problem (try-fail cycles center on reactive tries).
- First Pinch Point (at about 37.5%) – the problem hits the protagonist as hard as is possible at that time.
- Midpoint (around 50%) – the context of the problem changes to the extent that the protagonist knows that proactive steps must be taken.
- Action (third 25%) – the protagonist actively attempts to solve the problem (try-fail cycles center on proactive tries).
- Second Pinch Point (at about 62.5%) – the problem hits the protagonist in the worst possible way.
- Second Plot Point (at about 75%) – the protagonist knows now what must be done and how; final battle commences.
- Resolution (last 25%) – the protagonist carries out the last, do-or-die try/fail cycle.
I was talking to Annie MacFarlaine about how or whether this plots out to the Joseph Campbell cycle, and we didn’t come to any real conclusions.
In My Mom Ate My Homework, I didn’t focus on the protagonists’s interior journey at all; one, I was going for as short a story as I could reasonably pull off, so I could test it on Ray (and it still ended up over 2500 words), and two, I was afraid I’d overthink it if I did. Annie was talking about some things I could have done to make the character have more of a journey…and honestly, the more I thought about it, the more I’m glad I didn’t.
Aside from just messing with this as a technical exercise (to see if I could yank Ray’s chain, really), I have to respect my kid readers. When I write these kids’ stories, I’m writing the things that it’s not okay for kids to say or think, and giving them a way to express them. Like fairytales. The more you tone them down, the less effective and memorable they are.
This is a story expressing the fact that the mom has become irrational about cleaning things. As a mom, you know there are days when you cross the line, when you take your frustrations out on your kids (or your house, or whatever you’re cooking, etc.) rather than deal with them in a healthy way. There are OCD days when you think, “Oh, if only everything were clean, it would really mean something.” Okay, maybe some moms don’t, but having been raised in a culture where most women are taught to think that they’re supposed to be The Domestic Goddess and that all other functions in life are kind of secondary, I’m pretty sure most moms can relate. Most women? Not necessarily. But most people who identify themselves as moms.
So. What we have here is a horrific scenario where housecleaning gets out of control, where that becomes the most important thing in your life. And you know what? When that happens to people, it’s pretty horrific. I don’t want to give the protagonist kid a full character arc–I don’t want them to feel like things are fully resolved or good. I want my kids to be a little disturbed by the thought that the same thing that happens here might happen to their moms (or, someday, to them).
“The monster isn’t dead yet!” endings in the Freddie horror movies always cheesed me off. And now I think I know why–there’s this whole completeness, this resolution, and then the monster jumps out. Whereas you get An American Werewolf in London, and it just freakin’ ends. As a writer, it drives me up the wall to watch that movie. But…that’s how it’s supposed to end, with a non-ending.
So, here, if you read the story–there is an ending, because of that whole writer thing. But the ending isn’t really a resolution in that it makes everything magically all better. It’s a moment of cognitive dissonance, where the characters act like everything’s magically all better, but you can tell it isn’t. Because the real situation, when you strip off the fantastical elements here, is the same way–people act like everything’s okay, when it isn’t. And that’s something I want kids to be able to have a way of talking about.
by De Kenyon
This story was inspired by Ray’s recent testing of the “how much can I get away with” thing with regards to leaving her crap all over the house and putting off cleaning it up as long as possible. And homework. Dawdling for hours over her homework. I was feeling kinda nutso about having to discipline her, too. Like–you’ve been through all this before, and I thought we’d worked it out already kind of thing. But I know, as Ray develops mentally, that this is exactly what I have to expect, and should be worried about if I don’t see: it means she’s approaching situations differently, as she tries out new ideas.
To make a long story short, it’s better. And she did enjoy the story, bouncing and yelling and laughing and more. But she was very disturbed about a few details that I copied from our lives. She could accept that the main characters weren’t us…but the mention of her green bat socks. That threw her.
We agreed that Lee should never give me a vacuum cleaner.
Aya’s mom just told her to pick up her stuff for the 1,001th time…she was almost going to pick it up for reals, but then her mom gets turned into a cleanicidal vacuum cyborg. And now Aya’s almost late for school…
Aya held the big box of Fruit Loops in one hand and The Best Cereal Bowl Ever in her other hand, ready to pour. The Best Cereal Bowl Ever had two sides: one side for the crunchy and delicious cereal, and the other side for the cold and delicious milk, so you could scoop out a scoop of cereal, dunk it in the milk, and eat it at the moment of best coldness and crunchiness.
Unfortunately, Aya’s mom chose exactly that moment to stomp up to the table so hard she made Aya’s spoon rattle. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!” Aya’s mom yelled. “Pick up your trash!”
Aya looked around the kitchen. Okay, so most of the table was stacked with her folded laundry, and her homework was all over the floor under the table where she’d been working on it last night while Mom cooked, and maaaaaybe she’d left a few candy wrappers under her pillow, and okay, so her computer desk had two soda cans and a pile of tissues on it, and, um, okay. But she was seriously hungry.
“Can’t I wait until after I eat breakfast?” she asked.
“No!” her mom yelled. “I told you to clean yesterday morning, and you didn’t. And then I told you to clean after you got home from school yesterday, and you didn’t. And I told you to clean before you went to bed last night, and you didn’t. And today is my birthday, and you know what’s the worst birthday present ever? Having to clean up your daughter’s mess. So now I don’t care if you starve at school today—pick up your traaaaaash!!!”
Mom yelled so loud that Aya’s hair streamed out behind her and her mother’s coffee-smelling spit splattered onto her face. Mom was so gross. After a few seconds of glaring at her, Mom stomped into the living room, saying something mean-sounding under her breath.
Aya sighed, put the cereal box down, and wiped her face with a napkin. “That makes it a thousand and one times.” She picked up an armful of her clothes and started carrying them back to her room.
From the living room, Mom’s new vacuum cleaner started running. Dad had bought it for her birthday, so she wouldn’t have to vacuum anymore: it was a self-driving vacuum cleaner that would vacuum the carpet and even wash the kitchen floor to pick up any mess from spilled food.
Aya was about to shove all her clothes in her top drawer when suddenly she heard her mother scream, “Help, Aya!”
Aya dropped her clothes on the floor, jumped over her toys and books and dirty clothes, ran down the hallway, and jumped down the two stairs into the living room.
Mom wrestled with her new vacuum cleaner, a loud, gray machine that had all kinds of tubes and cords coming out of it that wrapped around her arms and legs. The back end of the machine spat out black, stinky smoke that covered the ceiling and made Aya cough.
Mom held a pair of scissors that she used to stab the machine, but the cords just wrapped tighter.
The machine—it had to be Mom’s new vacuum cleaner—suddenly sucked down Mom’s arm with the scissors, while an electrical cord climbed up her arm and plugged itself into her nostril.