Wednesday, April 16, 2014 Writers’ Workshop: Judo Juan

image  Every once in a while, people email asking if I’ll take a look at their story.  I thought it might be fun to run this as an occasional blog feature, so I asked one writer’s permission to have his story and my suggestions appear here on this site.

Rick was gracious enough to allow me to share his work, and I’d be thrilled if any of you would like to offer your comments as well in the Comments section below.

It’s an interesting concept, of a boy who starts taking martial arts, but the true potential of this story doesn’t shine through.

Martial arts is a creative, fun way to channel aggressive impulses.  Lots of parents, teachers and principals know that.  It would be a fun idea to create a kids’ book that would share this idea with children on their own level and perhaps make them eager to try martial arts for themselves.

I identified four factors that could really help this story succeed.

  • Punching up the language – careful line editing
  • The dojo as a whole new world – making the main character’s entrance into the new world of martial arts more dramatic
  • Adding a longer middle – the story needs to be longer, with more action
  • Finding the story / character arc – more emphasis on the takeaway

Punching up the language

Unfortunately, in his first draft, the writer does a lot of telling, not showing, and the language not only

needs tightening up, but it needs colour and vibrancy to make it stronger. Let’s take a look at my hands-on edit, along with suggestions for building and strengthening the plot.

Here’s the original version as Rick sent it to me:

The language is a little murky – lots of telling instead of showing, a common beginner’s mistake.  I’ve tried to clean that up on the first page only, just to give Rick an idea of how he can improve the entire story.


Here’s what the first page looks like after my line-by-line edits to tighten the language and make it a little more fun.  (click image above to see my marked-up version)

(Reading it now, I probably could have punched it up a bit more, replacing tired verbs along the way, but I think it’s a lot better at this point.)

The dojo as a whole new world

I also had a few more comments for Rick about the way the story unfolds.  Juan is a little too passive – for instance, why does his mother have to tell him he needs to buy a gi? 

My comments to Rick:

It would be fun to have Juan find this out directly from the instructor – ie show him meeting the instructor and finding out what he’ll need in an interesting way. You could probably make this section longer as Juan discovers all the new things he sees when he first walks into the judo class.

Also, we’re not shown the purchase of the uniform – I think it would be far more interesting to have Juan go unprepared to his first class and finding out firsthand not only what he needs to buy but how to behave in the dojo (martial arts studio). 

My comments to Rick:

Here, he suddenly has a white belt – when was the uniform purchased? Maybe he can even be embarrassed at the first class that he’s just wearing gym clothes instead of the right uniform? And then he can tell his Mom afterwards, rather than the other way around. Stories are always more interesting when kids take the initiative.

Adding a longer middle

The section where Juan is shown at his first class should be made longer, ie stretch out over several weeks and many classes, to give the writer a chance to show how his character is developing and changing.  We get a sense of the suddenness of the plot as it stands when he is instantly “flexible enough to throw punches and kick as high as he could without pulling any muscles.” 

Wouldn’t it be more fun to show him trying and failing a few times first?

I was also put off by the scenario where the sensei (teacher) sends the judo class home to practice their moves.  I doubt any sensei worth his salt would send a kid home to put his sister in a headlock. “Homework” in martial arts involves practicing movements, building strength and flexibility, not picking fights.

Finding the story / character arc

Even though the “Karate Kid” story has been done over and over, I think there’s still lots of room for a kids’ picture book that introduces martial-arts concepts in a fun way – and shows how it can influence a restless, overly-agressive young boy for the better.

Here are my final comments to Rick:

There is definitely the core of an interesting story in here. It needs to be longer, which I think you could accomplish through a series of judo lessons in the middle instead of just a single lesson.

Since the teddy bear is part of the climax and resolution of the story, you will need to set things up by introducing it a little earlier. You could perhaps show him wrestling with Missy in the beginning of the story in her bedroom, and having him come close to tripping over the teddy bear, which prompts her to say something like, “Hey! Be careful – don’t hurt my teddy bear!”

Of course, you’ll also need to show that he thinks of the teddy bear as an ogre earlier on as well.

I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying when I think about what the message of the story is.

Is this the story of a boy who stops picking on his sister because it’s more fun to pick on a teddy bear? Or, in the end, does he learn how to appropriately channel his aggression? It would be a better story – in terms of creating a compelling character arc – if you could show that he is no longer tempted to wrestle his sister.

Besides being a form of exercise, the world of judo and martial arts involves a lot of values, including not picking on people and not using martial-arts skills to fight outside the dojo. I would like – by the end of the story – to see that Juan has absorbed something of this code of honour as well.

Perhaps instead of wrestling with the teddy bear at the end, or after a fake practice-wrestle with the teddy bear, he goes somewhere at night with Missy and she discovers she’s scared because there are lots of shadows everywhere. And Juan can walk along at her side (maybe even holding her hand), ready – with his new judo skills – to defend her against anyone who would try to attack HER.

That would definitely show that he’s changed and overcome his aggression, since that seems to be his main problem in the beginning of the story.

So – to sum up: you have a good story idea, and kids DO love martial-arts books. However, you need a bit more of a “character arc” – ie a change in the main character (Juan) between the beginning and the end of the book.

Let me know what you think – I’d be happy to look at a future draft.

Did I miss anything major?  What would you fix about this story if you could???


  1. Dear Jennifer,

    I think that your comments are quite good, and your revisions improve the story.

    When I lived in a dangerous area of Chicago, I took a Chimera course for adult women in self-defense, and the instructor did tell us to practice with other adults outside of class. As in any sport, one has to practice various moves and actions until they become natural, fast, and effective. Becoming good at self-defense may save a person's life.

    I would also like to know whether the sister of Juan is older or younger. The story does not make this clear. If she is older, it is appropriate for him to practice his judo with her if she agrees to cooperate. Also, I would prefer to have Juan convince his parents to let him take judo himself, rather than relying on his sister.

    Best wishes for the spring!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of three poetry books, a scholarly book, and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, hardback--2006, paperback--2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition--2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app--2012)
    Website is

  2. Thanks for your comments, Janet. You're right, I had just assumed that the sister was older (perhaps being an older sister myself). Better to find out somehow. I appreciate your comments and hope they help the writer as well.


As always, I love to hear from you.