When Two Writers Taught Their Kids About Writing: A True Horror Story

By J.J. Hensley

We watch as each of our daughters hold up their respective animal skins and evaluate their grim trophies.  Although the girls are just four and five years of age, Tom Sweterlitsch and I know we could not put this moment off any longer.  As both of us write crime fiction and contribute to The Thrill Begins, we are all too aware of the dark aspects of human nature.  Deep down, we know that our children need to accept these harsh realities at an early age.  The things we obtain in this world cannot always be picked off a shelf at a Walmart.  The possessions we cherish are not created by magic and sometimes we have to get our hands dirty and take part in the process of living.  As difficult as it is to watch our innocent children assess the empty shells of creatures they have never before seen, Tom and I know we have done the right thing.  Perhaps they will one day decide to delve into the world of fiction writing and this is an invaluable lesson for both of the girls.  The selection and handling of the skins is just the first stage.  There are more stations laid out in front of us—a gauntlet of barbaric displays.  Next will be the stuffing of the animal.  Some entrails already lay on the ground.  The dressing of the animal will come later.  Some who pass through here will have the nerve to assign a name to their quarry.  Before our children leave this place, they will have taken part in a process that will teach them about both life and novel writing.  The experience is not a unique one, as evidenced by those standing in a line that snakes back and forth behind us.  If Tom and I had any reservations as to whether we were doing the right thing by bringing our families to this place, those are erased when our children hold up their animals and beam with pride.  They do not even realize they just learned a process for how to write a book.  All they know is that they really love being at this Build-A-Bear store on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

There are multiple stations guiding the uninitiated through the process of creating a plush bear (or horse, or cat, or unicorn, or Star Wars character), and everything is laid out in a specific order.  These stations are sequenced in a way similar to how many people write novels.  Amazingly, the process of building the stuffed toys is faster than constructing a novel, even with preschoolers controlling the pace.  By walking you through the Build-A-Bear stations, I will now illustrate the similarities between writing and building a cuddly Minion.

Station One:  Choose Me

You must choose the toy you are going to create, much like a writer will start off by choosing a genre and general concept for a story.  This is the skin of the book, so to speak, and will be how people categorize the work.  Choose wisely, or you may end up heading home with an Ewok and later regret that decision because you would have been happier making a Care Bear. 

Station Two:  Hear Me

It is time to choose the voice and tone for the work-in-progress.  Will your story growl?  Will it scream?  Will it purr?  It is up to you!  This is also your opportunity to put your unique author voice into the creation for all to hear.

Station Three:  Stuff Me

Here you fill the creation with substance and that empty shell with which you began comes to life and becomes recognizable.  As a bonus, you put a heart inside the creation after making a wish—for world peace, or maybe a Thriller Award

Station Four:  Stitch Me

Time to patch up the creation and make sure there are no broken seams.  If done correctly, none of the stuffing will pop out when it gets tossed around a bit.  While it seems we are never truly finished editing and making fixes, at some point we have to close things up and hope for the best. 

Station Five:  Fluff Me

With the stuffed animal, this means putting it under a device that blasts it with air and makes the creation more presentable.  It is the same with a manuscript.  You have picked your premise, supplied a story of substance, and stitched away with editing.  Now, you have polish it up one last time and make sure the formatting and font are correct throughout the novel as you pay attention to the submission standards of agents and publishers.

Station Six:  Dress Me

How are you going to describe the book in a query letter?  Do you have a synopsis ready?  What is your hook?  These are the accessories that are essential for a presentable bear—I mean book.

Station Seven:  Name Me

By now, you probably have a title for your creation.  But, how much thought have you really put into the name.  Does it convey what you want it to convey?  Has the title been used by other authors in the past?  Do you have second and third choices ready in case an agent or publisher insists on a new title?

Station Eight:  Take Me Home

It is time to bring this thing home and send it out to the world.  Will everyone like your creation?  No.  But, you built this.  This is your creation and nobody can take that away from you.  While many people may have followed a similar process, the result is yours alone.  The final product is a culmination of deliberate choices you made along the way.  Do not be afraid to hold up your creation with the pride of a four-year-old, show it off to the world, and scream, “LOOK AT THIS!  LOOK WHAT I HAVE CREATED!!!!”

And then leave.  Because it turns out Mall Security does not tolerate that kind of behavior.

J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Chalk’s OutlineMeasure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.

To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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