Friday, July 31, 2009

Characters Offstage

I recently attended a rehearsal at a professional theatre where I learned that Actors' Equity, the actors' union, insists that the theatre provide actors with a place to rest or to "be" when they are not onstage. It's called the "Green Room."

Now, in looking at my fictional work, I am thinking about where my characters go or what they are doing when they are not "onstage." They've got to be busy doing something; they are human, after all. Perhaps if I pay more attention to their "offstage" activities, they will burst, sneak or run into the scene, sweaty from an activity they have just completed. Maybe they'll show up with sticky hands or smelly feet. Maybe they'll have hayseeds in their hair or track mud in the house. And my "onstage" characters will react - better.

It's something to consider.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Vacations ~ Seeds of Inspiration

Just as we bring books on summer vacations, vacations also bring books to us - novel ideas popping up for plots, characters and settings. As we record notes in our journals while on vacation we find new detail and color from our new settings and from the characters we meet - including the thunder storm that drives you off the beach, the wind that forces you off the mountain or the interesting individual taking the desk clerk to task at the hotel.

So suddenly you have a new scene in your novel - your main character struggles though a physical or emotional storm only to be confronted with a raging opponent as irrational as the hotel guest. Or your new poem holds the beauty of an unexpected pleasure that you accidentally discovered when you took the side lane past the cliffs or the trail off the main path.

Often the writer is not conscious of the experience that prompts the inclusion of some wisp of memory into a conversation or character's thoughts into her novel. At times, it's a conscious design.

Many of our group's manuscripts or published books seem to leap from vacation and travel jaunts. Gale's wonderful picture book, PAJAMA LIGHT, set on the coast of Maine, where her family has summered, is all about summer, memories of families and the sea, and a lullaby about watching for the lighthouse's lamp to turn on, the signal for children to go to bed. Robin's YA novel whose main character learns and grows during a summer at the Jersey shore, where Robin spent summers, is about accepting yourself and your families with their warts and all, growing up, and summer at the beach with the boardwalk, popcorn and cotton candy. Judy's MG novel for boys centers on summer and the baseball stadium as Carson strives to win the big prize and help his family too.

The inspiration for my book, CANYON, grew each time we toured and hiked a different and glorious canyon in the American southwest. Meg's fascinating historical novel of late medieval England was sparked by her time living in London and the long history that permeates that city. And Janice's intriguing sci fi MG novel is set on a distant planet - a magical place. Perhaps we should include it in our travel plans?

How do you capture the seeds you might glean from travel and vacation and how do you nurture these seedlings of new material into your writing?

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - MFA Program in Writing for Children & Young Adults

I recently returned from my first 10-day Residency as part of my work at VCFA's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What an experience! If you read this blog regularly you'll remember that I was in a bit of a panic - mostly about sharing a dorm room, trekking down the hall to use the bathroom, and showering with a crowd. I shouldn't have been. Somehow, believe it or not, I survived dorm living and actually enjoyed it (well, "enjoy" might not be the right word...let's just stick with "survived"). This is my side of the dorm room. Trust me when I say my roommate's half was neater.

But surviving dorm life is the easy part of the 10-day residency. Surviving the Rez, as it is fondly called by us fortunate enough to be a part of the VCFA community, is truly an achievement. It is ten days packed, jammed, crammed, crowded, loaded, stowed and stuffed with "stuff". I learned more in the 10-day Rez than I have learned in my previous 10 years of writing. How is that possible, you might ask? It's magic...

In the opening lecture, Tim Wynne-Jones compared Rez to Brigadoon, a magical place that rises out of the mist every 100 years. VCFA rises from the mist of Montpelier, Vermont every six months. It truly is a magical place.

While Tim spoke of magical places and trusting your inner genius, Alan Cumyn spoke of what makes a good story and cheese sandwiches. Cynthia Leitich-Smith lectured on mysteries where good triumphs over evil, brains are better than brawn, and life is sacred. Louise Hawes spoke about the communion between writer and reader, and Rita Williams-Garcia spoke about finding archetypal experiences in refreshed images. Sharon Darrow spoke about digging deeper into our emotions and the emotional baggage carried by writers and readers alike. Through these lectures and the others I found myself amazed at how much I had to learn, and wondering how I had ever thought I was writing stories before.

I learned about psychic distance, extended metaphors, pause button violations, and the ever elusive objective correlative. A lot of this is instinctual, but now I can imagine how much better my writing will be now that I am aware of what I am doing. And I've only finished the first Rez! I have four more!

There are 18 students in my class. We range in age from 23 to...well, let's just say to way past 23. We come from all walks of life and from all over the country, plus one Brit. Some of us are published, some of us are not. Some of us are new to writing, some of us are not. Some of us are teachers, some of us are not. What we all have in common, what everyone at VCFA has is common, is our love of children's literature. With this single thread to bind us together we forged new friendships - friendships built on trust and respect.

I was never so happy to come home to my own bed, my own bathroom, my own cooking, as when I came home from my first Rez (if for no other reason than my face broke out immediately upon moving into the dorm, as if it knew it was in a place built for adolescence). I am ready to get to work, to push myself to produce the creative and critical work for each of my "packets", due every four weeks. And I am already counting the months until I return again to Brigadoon to see what magic is worked on me then.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When Good Characters Go Bad

Revisions for my middle grade novel are finished. Queries are out to targeted agents. I regularly check e-mail and stalk my mailman. And I am diving back in to my WIP. Right back in to the murky middle.

When I last left my beloved MC, he had just discovered a shocking truth—information that should serve as a catalyst for change. And that’s good, right? Every good character needs monkey wrenches thrown their way. It’s what makes readers keep reading.

So why am I having such a hard time with these changes? Why is it so difficult for me to let my MC make some really bad mistakes? He does, after all, exist only in my head. He’s not real. Yet I feel for him. Instinctually, I want him to do the right thing. But sometimes, good characters need to be bad.

But I’ll push forward. I’ll let my MC hurt people he cares about and be hurt in return. I know my MC will grow and change from the events I write about, but until I actually write them, I won’t know all the twists and turns his emotions will take.

I know how his story will end, but that is the physical plot. The emotional arc of the story is something entirely different. And I hope I can fight my instincts to protect my MC and let his actions lead to truthful conclusions.

So is it just me and my Catholic school upbringing? Or does anyone else fight the urge to make characters do the right thing?

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

You Can't Please 'Em All

Recently I read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. This highly acclaimed (Newbery Honor, National Book Award nomination) middle grade novel pits three animal protagonists against a bone-chilling human villain. But that plot summary doesn't do the book justice. Her rhetorical storytelling deals with the enduring themes of loss, love, loneliness, and redemption, giving the book a mysterious, myth-like quality. Some would call it magic realism.

I loved the book and would recommend it, but I have one small idiosyncratic quibble.

Anaphora is a rhetorical device in which a word or phrase is repeated in successive sentences or clauses For my taste, anaphora was used a little too often in The Underneath. Some examples:

"Do not trust a living soul. Do not." pg. 144.

"Do not get in front of the man and the rifle. Do not." pg. 232.

"Wrong was everywhere. She look around. Found Ranger astir. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Found Sabine, fur electrified. Wrong. Something was wrong." pg. 73.

"Something was wrong. Wrong was here. Wrong sat on the ground in front of her. Wrong kept the birds from singing. Wrong." pg. 168.

"A knot formed in his stomach. A knot of revulsion. A knot of fear. A knot of anger." pg. 279.

I liked that last use of anaphora, but some of the the others I found distracting. Go figure. Readers' tastes are difficult to analyze.

Are there other rhetorical devices that either appeal or don't appeal to you as you read with a writer's eye?

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer School

This summer I've had three grandchildren ages ten to sixteen in the house, along with their summer reading lists. I was determined to read all those books with them, and did. The experience will shape my writing from now on.

With the sixteen-year-old I read All Quiet on the Western Front and The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. He's a challenged reader and struggled with the often arcane figurative language. When I got him to slow down and explained to him (image by image) how the authors were using the imagery he understood. His face lit up and he said, "Oh, I get it."

I'll now work harder to write in a way that will capture the attention of a struggling reader.

The thirteen-year-old put aside Twilight and breezed through To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace and The House on Mango Street. In the meantime she picked up The Prince, read most of it and said, "This has some good stuff in it." Her school requires her to keep a detailed journal as she reads each book, making note of passages that she feels are important to the story and recording her interpretation.

I now understand the necessity to keep the reader engaged, moving the action along but pausing to emphasize the theme at appropriate points in the novel. More importantly, I will no longer be afraid to use words that might challenge a young reader. How else will they increase their vocabulary?

The ten-year-old had an appetite for just about anything, including Twilight. Encouraging her to read less sophisticated (and scary) books that she could enjoy was the challenge here. If You're Reading This, It's Too Late was her favorite, but she found the 1944 Melendy series equally interesting.

Mystery is important to this age group; how does a writer keep a secret until the end, all the while planting clues that won't give it away?

Thanks to this summer vacation, I'll return to my writing with renewed interest and the determination to create, with a novel, the opportunity for a young mind to travel to a different time and place.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Write...Tips from Those at the Top

You may have heard some of these tips before, but when they come from a collection of big-name writers, they resonate a little louder.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Perfect Endings

Quick question here: How many times have you polished the opening page of your latest manuscript?

If you're like me, and many other writers, the answer is probably, "Too many times to count."

As writers, we are always told how important those opening pages are to catching a reader's (and an editor's!) attention. Whether we're at a "First Pages" session at a local writer's conference or reading Noah Lukeman's excellent book, "The First Five Pages," we get the idea of how critical that perfect start is to our current wip.

But what about that perfect ending?

In my opinion, not all published manuscripts live up to this even greater challenge. But when I read one that does, that sense of perfect completeness is incredibly satisfying.

Recently, I finally got around to reading Gennifer Choldenko's excellent middle grade novel, "Al Capone Does My Shirts". I could easily write essay after essay about the many fine examples of the writers' craft Choldenko provided me with in this wonderful story. But, what stood out for me most was the absolute perfection of her ending.

I'm going to quote the last 3 perfect words below:

Done, it says.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But for me, it was perfect. (And, if you read the book, I'm guessing you might have thought so too.)

I'm curious, what endings have you loved?

P.S. As an extra special ending for today's post, I just wanted to make sure everyone knows about Cynthea Liu's exciting auction. There are incredible prizes up for bid (think editor and author critiques!) and all the money earned through the auction goes to buy book boxes for kids at a Title 1 Elementary School. The auction deadline has been extended until July 8th, so take advantage of the extension to get your last bid in!

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Staying Focused

A number of years ago, in what now seems like a completely different life, I was having dinner with a friend at a local restaurant. We were feeling glum because it was 4th of July weekend and we were among the few people in town who weren’t driving on the GSP over the Driscoll Bridge to go “down the shore” as we say in New Jersey. The waitress commented how slow business was that evening, but then reminded us how lucky we were to be enjoying a meal and sharing a bottle of wine instead of being stuck in the shore traffic.

My friend and I raised our glasses to toast each other. Who needs the beach, the surf, the sun, the fun, the lifeguard eye candy? We’ve got grilled chicken and a bottle of Zin. What more could we want?

Okay, who were we kidding? It sucked being stuck in town and we knew it.

This is how I feel about posting at the moment. Who sits at their computer on 4th of July weekend? Surely my post will be met with crickets.

Shhh...don’t you hear them?

If you’re still here, thanks.

I love the summer. I like all seasons for different reasons, but the summer has always been special to me. I don’t know if it’s natural or learned to sort of “let go” in the summer. Summer to me meant endless days of playing manhunt, climbing trees, chasing down the ice cream truck, staying in the pool until my lips were blue and my eyes were bloodshot, catching fireflies, pulling our mattresses into the one room with air conditioning in our house and falling asleep while we told each other stories. Not much in there about writing, right?

While all of the above had to do with my childhood, inside me still is the internal “It’s Summer” alarm and I instantly want to let go. I still climb trees and go to the pool (great place to observe teenage angst firsthand) I love to read the fun stuff during the summer – the juicy, lighthearted romps that are sometimes surprisingly full of emotion and complex characters. My birthday is in the summer, and that must always involve chocolate. And summer wouldn’t be summer if it didn’t involve at least one trip to the beach. Again…where is the writing?

I know what I should say – the writing is right here. Every day I commit to X amount of words, no matter what. Well…I haven’t been doing that just yet. I have been working – I’m looking for an agent, but that involves a different kind of writing, or at least a different part of my brain. I have a piece entered into a contest. I’m meeting with my critique group. And I’m reading a lot. Whenever I find a moment to sit down and work on my WIP, my mind pulls a lock down and I think of all the things I could be doing. And while I know that’s part of it – to tame your mind and gently call it back to the work, the lure of summer is so hard to resist.

So how about you? How do you keep your focus on writing when the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer roll on by?

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