Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The elusive HOOK

A few months back a writer pal of mine sent this video of author Erin Dealey’s The Writer’s Rap to me. If you’re not familiar take a look! I love this for so many reasons (you will be singing it all day), but it brings up one of those writing terms for me that sometimes feels a little sketchy (not unlike edgy) - having a hook.

What is “having a hook” exactly? The one sentence blurb that makes you want to run out and buy the book? The artfully done cover? The idea? Voice? The magic combination of it all?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because the last two books I read didn’t “hook me in” immediately. I wasn’t sold on the opening paragraph or even the first page. I’m not even sure I was hooked after the first chapter. I committed myself to reading the books as a bit of an experiment. Could I stay with them, put myself in the writer’s hands and experience their vision?

The first book, Lynne Rae Perkins’ 2006 Newbery winner Criss Cross, did NOT hook me in from the first page. It intrigued me and the writing, in a word, was mouthwatering, but I didn’t have trouble putting it down. I did however look forward to picking it back up. For some reason it took me awhile to finish it. While reading, I couldn’t really answer the question “where is this going?” but I didn’t care because I truly fell in love with the voice. And I trusted this voice would take me to a place that would be satisfying. And it did. Can I tell you in one sentence what the book was about? No. I loved it anyway.

The other book, Tombstone Tea by Joanne Dahme also did not hook me from page one. I was intrigued, for sure, and the writing was superb, but I didn’t feel the need to tear through it. Again, I can’t tell you in one sentence what it was about, but I would certainly recommend it to a tween who enjoys reading paranormal stories.

Hook seems to be one of those agonizingly subjective terms. What hooks one reader, editor, or agent might not hook another. And while you might think a hook is great – teen vampire falls in love with clumsy, ordinary girl whose blood he can’t resist – there’s probably another person who could care less. And if you can’t put a hook into a one sentence sound byte – does that mean there is no hook at all? And while we’re at it, just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

Kidding aside SCBWI homies - I’d really like to know, what’s your definition of hook? And is it something you think about before, during or after you sit down to write?

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: TIME TO PRAY by Maha Addasi

Maha Addasi's Time to Pray, published by Boyds Mills Press, is set to hit bookstores on September 1st. Maha is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Art's MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and although that is how I know Maha, it is not why I decided to review her book here, although it didn't hurt. I am pleased to review Maha's book because it is beautifully written, lusciously rich in culture, and (dare I say it?) educational, at a time when we all need to be more educated.

Time to Pray is a beautiful picture book aimed at children ages 7 to 9, which tells the story of Yasmin's visit with her grandmother, Teta. Not only is this an endearing story of a loving relationship between a girl and her grandmother, it is a primer on the traditions of Muslim prayer. The story follows as Teta makes Yasmin her own prayer clothes, buys her a prayer rug, and teaches her how to prepare herself to pray five times a day. When Yasmin returns home, she finds Teta has sent along a special gift which reminds her, not only of the mosque near her grandmother's home, but also the time to pray. It is a story of prayer, but also a story of burgeoning spirituality, of family traditions, and family love.

What Addasi does particularly well is draw the reader into this world, even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with a world of morning cinnamon buns, bustling market places, delicious upside-down rice, and the calls of the muezzin. Addasi's simple text and Gannon's lush illustrations create a believable and loving relationship between Yasmin and her grandmother, which should be familiar to any reader regardless of their cultural roots. Additionally, Addasi provides an explanation of prayer times at the end of the story, which explains some of the traditions of Muslim prayer and the five daily required prayer times. The corresponding Arabic translation, by Nuha Albitar, provide yet another layer to the depth of an already complex picture book, even if one can only admire the looping calligraphy.

This picture book would make an excellent gift for any Muslim child who is curious about the traditions of her own faith as well as for a non-Muslim child who is curious about other faiths.

Let's share our favorite multi-cultural books: What are they and why do you like them?

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Triumph and Tragedy

"Every now and then - maybe two or three times in a decade - a book comes along that's so good you want to buttonhole strangers on the street, show it to them, and say: 'Read this! It will fill you up and make you glad you're alive!'" Stephen King.

" . . . a good half-dozen of the richest fictional characters I've encountered anywhere . . ." Richard Russo.

Wow! What praise! What a triumph for the author! So where's the tragedy?

Beverly Jensen, the author of THE SISTERS FROM HARDSCRABBLE BAY, the book eliciting such praise, died at forty-nine of pancreatic cancer in 2003. She never saw any of her work in print.

Beverly's experience as a actress helped her produce crisply defined characters on the page. "She liked to say that if a character carried a purse but never opened it, the actress still needed to know everything inside." (A familiar idea, writers?)

A collection of stories covering seventy years, the novel features Idella and Avis Hillock, who escape their stark childhood on a barren, wind-swept Canadian homestead. As Idella, dutiful and cautious, and Avis, combative and wild, seek economic security and affection, their lives diverge.

Idella marries the first man who courts her and in spite of Eddie's affairs, sticks with him. Avis, the prettier sister, attracts a series of flashy lovers and grifters and lives "big and loud" before marrying Dwight, a nonentity. Idella, quieter and thoughtful, plays peacemaker among her dysfunctional in-laws, and when threatened with a hold-up, befriends the armed and desperate boy.

Scenes between the sisters spotlight their differences, but they're linked forever by haunting childhood memories of their mother's early death and their father's drunken unhappiness. A brother, Dalton, is hopelessly scarred by his time at home after the girls leave.

Hilarious - Idella and Avis at the opera, or getting drunk on cherry cider. Heartbreak - Idella declaring she'll no longer iron the shirts Eddie's mistress gives him, or Avis serving jail time. And then there's the densely emotional story that begins with, "Good God Almighty. We've lost the damned body." Avis and Dalton are transporting their father's body by train back to Canada, where Idella waits with relatives and neighbors - held captive in the church by an ice storm.

Okay, okay, I know, this blog's about kidlit, but have you ever postponed reading the end of a book because it's so beautifully crafted you wanted to laugh and cry with the incandescent characters a little longer? I did with this one.

Has this happened to you lately? Which book was it?

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why Do You Write For Children?

Did anyone else catch Pamela Paul’s terrific article in The New York Times Sunday Book Review about the growing ranks of grown-ups who are hooked on reading YA? She cited the stat that nearly 20 percent of 35-to-44-year-olds say they most frequently buy YA books…for themselves.

I loved some of the reasons her interviewees gave as to why they’re YA addicts…

1. “Adult literature is all art and no heart.”
2. “Good YA is like good television…there’s a freshness there; it’s engaging.
3. “YA authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or disappointed people.”
4. “…YA is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.”
5. “….the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn’t bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy.”
6. “There’s an immediacy in the prose.”

This got me wondering: Are these similar to the reasons why I choose to write for children? I’m not sure I agree with number 1, but I’d definitely add numbers 2 through 6 to my list.

I have other reasons, yes, but they’re not nearly as interesting as those given by Isaac Bashevis Singer, when he accepted the National Book Award in 1970, which I found online.*

“Why I Write for Children” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.
Number 1. Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
Number 2. Children’ don’t read to find their identity.
Number 3. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
Number 4. They have no use for psychology.
Number 5. They detest sociology.
Number 6. They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegan’s Wake.
Number 7. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
Number 8. They love interesting stories, not commentaries, guides, or footnotes.
Number 9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
Number 10. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.

Some list, huh?

So, Paper Wait readers, I’d love to know: Why do you write for children?

*Reprinted in Nobel Lecture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Through the Muddle of a Middle

First things first-- The Paper Wait readers are incredible!

A few blog posts ago, when I was sitting there intimidated by the very idea of starting a novel, people gave me the most amazing encouragement. And it worked! I got started and I had a great time writing my novel's opening chapters.

But then life intervened and I lost some of that wonderfully inspiring momentum. Now I'm staring ahead to my muddle of a middle and I'm getting nervous again. It feels like I'm a sprinter trying to run a marathon.

With a picture book, I would be revising by now. With a novel, I'm barely started.

I'm trying to remember to take it in small chunks. To aim for fifteen minutes a day (and I'll usually end up writing more). And, most importantly, not to think about the enormity of it all.

But maintaining momentum through the many, many twists and turns that are needed to make up a novel is still a challenge. So, I'm asking for advice again. How do those of you who write novels keep your momentum going through the muddle of a middle?

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Get to the Point, Fast!

In today's story telling, we don't have the luxury of the long, spun out tale. In movies and TV novellas, the action has to splatter onto the screen in the first five minutes. Daddy's left the family, or murderer is lurking close by, or lover is already lurching toward someone else. All right up front. It's the same in books; no more delicious descriptions of scenery, no languorous chapters detailing the daily lives of the characters before trouble bubbles up. So I have to get with the program, like it or not.

But something can be learned from earlier authors. I am presently reading Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" (1948) and am studying how she introduces backstory. She uses the device of a teenager's journal. An early entry describes how they came to live in the castle. In "Bridge to Terabithia," Katherine Paterson inserts salient background facts throughout the first chapter, where the plot is prompted by a new family's move into the neighborhood.

Backstory is problematic in my novel now under revision. As the book is heavy on family history, I need to insert more of it to explain the tension between the main character and the supporting characters. Why is the main character so frustrated with the supporting characters? Why does she react the way she does? I've experimented with changing the voice, but that's not going to solve the problem of motivation.

One solution might be to have the first chapter take place at an earlier time, maybe five years before the plot actually begins. In this chapter I think I will introduce the two characters who ultimately give my main character the most grief, but who will be, in fact, part of the solution to her problem, which, I know, I know, she must really solve herself.

And I know, I know, I've got to stop planning it and get to the point of writing it down!

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Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of Character

In college, I acted in a production of Luigi Piradello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. I played the Child, the youngest member of a rather disturbed family searching for an end to their story and hoping to find it within a certain theater company. While I had no lines--the Child is mute--others in the family had plenty to say, especially about character development. They complain that the actors don't look like them and get the story wrong. When the Manager refuses to allow the Stepdaughter to tell the story of her affair with the Father, she is enraged. Her story can’t be told without it. In the final tragic act, the characters moan that the actors cannot possibly recreate the proper emotion.

As I work on my second draft of my YA WIP, my characters are as insistent as Pirandello’s that I listen to them and get it right.

My first drafts are very heavy on dialogue and not so much on inner thoughts and real character development. When working on first drafts, I try to stifle that inner editor and just get it down. I chop away in my second draft, losing more than fifty percent of what I originally wrote. I lose even more in later drafts.

But what I add in second drafts is character development. I look for places to let my MC think and feel. To give voice to what is deep within him. I’m not too focused on my secondary characters yet, but I find that in deepening my MC, I find additional motivation for those around him. Once I feel a true emotional connection to my MC, the rest of the work flows much more easily.

Right now, my MC still asks me for more. To dig deeper. To get down to the raw, real feelings he bottled up a long time ago. And unlike the six characters in Pirandello’s play, I hope my characters will be satisfied with their conclusions.

Characters become so real for the writers creating them. Have you ever, like Pirandello’s Manager, felt the truth was too powerful for your story? Particularly in writing for children and teens, have you ever felt the need to tone it down?

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