Guest Post: Surprise Me by Sarah McGuire

Continuing to highlight the Egmont Last List, here’s my friend Sarah McGuire and her book — which comes out tomorrow!!—Valiant. More information on it below.

The first day of school.

I have textbooks neatly stacked, and syllabi neatly stacked, and the little forms where I write down which book went with which student are on top of . . . you guessed it . . . the appropriate stacks.

I will probably never be more organized than that first day. The students will probably never be more quiet.

And there’s this moment where they’re looking at me, and I’m looking at them, and we’re sizing each other up.

I suppose they’re trying to figure out whether I’ll take a cell phone away the first time I see it, whether I’ll answer a question during a test, whether I’ll accept late HW. Where my breaking point is.

And me? I can look at them a thousand different ways. The kids who are prepared, who have notebooks with dividers for each class, and know exactly where to put the paperwork I hand out. The students who will struggle, who already look scared. The class clown. The quiet ones. The girls who will try to take selfies during class if they finish an assignment early. The students who don’t care that this is a class with state standards testing. The students who care too much.

There’s a lot of looking.

And if I’m not careful, I can stop looking after those first weeks. It could happen for a thousand different reasons. Perhaps I stop because I’ll think I’ve seen everything I need to know. Probably, I’d stop looking because I stay busy. I have over 100 students, six classes, late nights, and not enough coffee.

Never enough coffee.

But I know the moment I stop looking, the student fall into easy groups: successful, unsuccessful, easy to teach, troublemakers. They become caricatures of themselves. And while I am determined to thoroughly teach the content, I also feel strongly that one of my main roles as a teacher is to see my students as more than a number in my gradebook.

So, over a few years, I developed Question of the Day. I use it in all my classes, the math classes and creative writing. After attendance, we start with a random question like:

What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
What movie or show scared you as a kid?
You have a bowl of vanilla ice cream. What three toppings will you put on it?

It doesn’t always happen the first class, (Yes, I start question of the day the very first day), but early on, a student will give an answer, and someone from across the room will agree For instance, when someone says that Courage the Cowardly Dog scared them as a kid, someone will ALWAYS agree. Always. They might even mention the episode.

Anyway, you get these moments of surprise and then recognition between students, between them and me. There’s the student who can actually work as a blacksmith, or the quiet one who raps, or the football player who admits his favorite smell is when you first open a can of tennis balls. (And I think to myself, He’s right! That’s an awesome smell!)

Good teachers get to know their students a million different ways, The Question of the Day is my way of doing it.

It’s my way of saying to the class, Surprise me. I want to know you better. I want to see those parts of your life that I wouldn’t normally see if I didn’t look for them.

Surprise me.

I’m convinced that if you want to write good secondary characters, you need to be saying the same thing. Now, to be honest, secondary characters won’t be people that your readers know as deeply or as fully as your main character.

But if you look closely enough at your secondary characters, if you treat them as people and not props, you’ll be surprised. And when your readers are surprised by something a secondary character says or does, they’ll feel like they’ve encountered a living, breathing person. So I would encourage you to look closely, to search for those moments when a character:

  • is wiser than you thought
  • is more naive than you expected
  • is brave
  • is startled by something that doesn’t scare anyone else
  • makes an observation that is absolutely true but rarely stated outright
  • notices something no one else does
  • likes something you never thought they’d care for
  • is angered by something that doesn’t bother anyone else

I’d argue that you haven’t written a properly developed secondary character until they’ve surprised you at least once. And the fun thing about this approach to secondary characters is that it doesn’t take much space. It’s not an extra chapter or a flashback. It’s just that moment when you (and your readers) realize that there is more to this person than you expected.That moment of seeing someone else–of being surprised by what we find there– isn’t that what we want? As readers and people?

So go ahead, look a little closer, and as you’re writing, whisper to your characters, “Surprise me.”

And they will.

Valiant_JKT_toprintReggen still sings about the champion, the brave tailor. This is the story that is true.

Saville despises the velvets and silks that her father prizes more than he’s ever loved her. Yet when he’s struck ill she’ll do anything to survive–even dressing as a boy and begging a commission to sew for the king.

But piecing together a fine coat is far simpler than unknotting court gossip about an army of giants, led by a man who cannot be defeated, marching toward Reggen to seize the throne. Saville knows giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.

Then she meets them, two scouts as tall as trees. After she tricks them into
leaving, tales of the daring tailor’s triumph quickly spin into impossible feats of giant-slaying. And stories won’t deter the Duke and his larger-than-life army.

Now only a courageous and clever tailor girl can see beyond the rumors to save the kingdom again.

McGuire, blog hopSARAH MCGUIRE loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems. Valiant is her first novel.


2 Responses to Guest Post: Surprise Me by Sarah McGuire

  1. Alexa S. Apr 27 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    I absolutely adore this post, Sarah! I think it’s such a thoughtful way of talking about secondary characters since, as you’ve pointed out, the best secondary characters always manage to do/say/think something that will catch us off guard. Can’t wait to read your novel!

    • Sarah McGuire May 4 2015 at 10:11 am #

      Thank you, Alexa! It’s been a fun way for me to think about secondary characters. 🙂

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