Saturday, August 30, 2014

Huzzah, huzzah

"How about a story? Spin us a yarn,” says Grams. And so Sharon Creech does in Walk Two Moons. And it’s a thumpingly good one, as the main character Sal would say.

Writers should read, we’ve been told that. They should be literary carnivores. According to author Roz Morris, “reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. …there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience.”

Elmore Leonard says writers should decide which books they like and study that author’s style. Then, you should take that author’s book or story and “break it down to see how he put it together.” The thought was echoed by Jennifer Nielsen at a recent 2014 Professional Writer’s Series event at the Pleasant Grove Library. 

Fine, I’ll do that. Since I want to write like Carol Lynch Williams, Matthew J. Kirby, and Sharon Creech, placing Walk Two Moons under the microscope is a good place to start.

What works so well in this story? Quite simply, everything. 

Creech has plot, two of them in fact. Sal is traveling with her grandparents to Lewiston, Idaho to learn why her mother abandoned the family and went there. Along the way, she shares a story of her friend, Phoebe, whose mother also has disappeared. Sal admits that uncovering Phoebe’s story was a lot like discovering her own. The road trip to find her mother becomes a journey of acceptance and understanding for Sal.

Plot involves characters. Creech delivers not just Phoebe and Sal, but a multitude of others, each richly drawn, each deserving of a book of their own. Sal’s mother had her reasons for leaving. Phoebe’s mother is multi-layered with a lot of stuff going on. Other memorable people include Sal’s father, Mrs. Cadaver, Mrs. Partridge, Ben, and Grams and Gramps. Creech seamlessly weaves all of them into the story without any sense of it being clunky. It’s most definitely a character-driven plot. But there is so much else going on in this book.

The title is from the Indian saying about not judging another man until you walk two moons in their moccasins and the metaphor is used effectively. Creech layers numerous subplots. Inspirational, secret messages, including the one about the moccasins are left on Phoebe’s doorstep and come into play throughout the story. Phoebe’s wild imagination conjures up lunatics and ax murderers. There is a kiss just waiting to happen. Creech twists and turns the story arc over upon itself revealing the multiple layers. She wraps up every loose thread and ties it with a bow. And she keeps you guessing, keeps you hoping, even though she drops hints along the way. It is masterfully told. 

To better understand the craft, I revisited this story over the summer. I read it as a writer but still managed to get choked up about it, even after sharing it multiple times with students when I was teaching.

Huzzah! Huzzah! The story works on so many levels.


What works have inspired you?

(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Antagonists

The next project is a rescue. This flat story that has sat in writer purgatory for a few years, waiting for motivation to do something about it, longing for the inspiration to remedy it.

I’m there ready to take it on, its finding the cure that is the problem. Thus, it is back to basics. Characters, stories are about characters. Check. Plot, protagonist wants something, antagonist keeps him from it. Wait, that could be it. I don’t have an antagonist, at least not in the traditional sense. 

John Truby (The Anatomy of Story: 22 to Becoming a Master Storyteller) is my go-to guy at a time like this. He says the hero, of course, is important. So, too, is the opponent along with the rest of the cast. Truby focuses not on the main character in isolation, but looks at all the characters as part of an interconnected web. Writer’s Digest this week had a quote by mystery writer Elmore Leonard who says “the main thing I set out to do is tell the point of view of the antagonist as much as the good guy.”

Hmm. Good points, but I still don’t have a traditional antagonist. There is no detective and no criminal to pursue, my Harry Potter has no Voldemort. My protagonist has only his own shortcomings to trip over. Truby doesn’t directly address such a thing. He does illustrate his points with story examples from movies. The likes of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, andTootsie, don’t have traditional antagonists. 

Another valuable resource, KM Weiland, discusses an “antagonistic force” and says, “nowhere is it written that your story has to have a bad guy (or girl, as the case may be).” She says there are several non-human antagonists. They include:
-Animal - King Kong and Jaws comes to mind
-Self - the age old existential quandary of man as his own worst enemy in which the MC must overcome his own problems before he can deal with the external one
-Setting - survival stories in which the hero goes up against nature. Cast Away is a good example. Weather related tales are an offshoot of this.
-Society - dystopia is the extreme example here, but simpler themes in which the protagonist faces poverty or inequalities of some sort
-Supernatural forces - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be of this sort.
-Technology - a lot of sci-fi uses overarching technological forces as antagonists.

Non-human antagonists can be anything that throws obstacles in the way or the hero getting what he or she wants. They could be a thing, an idea, or any inanimate object that the protagonist must overcome to reach the end goal of the story. As long as you have conflict (to have a story is a must) you have an antagonist.

Weiland says one mustn’t limit themselves to just one antagonist and most stories will use a combination of several.

Think Sharknado.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writing Is Like Chili

I love chili.

I love eating chili. I love smelling chili. I love cooking chili. I know a thing or two about chili, I like to think. In fact, I know enough about chili to know better than to call myself an expert, because there's always going to be somebody else who is a bigger expert, even if only in his or her own mind. That's because we chili-heads are passionate about our chili and can argue for hours about which of the many styles of chili is the only kind of chili that counts. It's kind of like pizza or barbecue that way.

Or like writing. A lot like writing, actually.

When I make chili, it's a long-term, complicate procedure. Why? Because I throw in a ton of ingredients to try to achieve a complex, interesting flavor. Chili doesn't have to be complicated. There are very easy recipes that satisfy a chili craving just fine.

But when I cook it, it's an event. If not for the consumers, then for the chef. Because I never make it the same way twice. People have asked me for my recipe, but I don't have one. I just do stuff.

I've been known to combine as many as 12 different kinds of chile, as well as other spices and ingredients, in a single pot of chili, because each ingredient adds a unique element to the complex formula.

One of the most important elements for a good pot of chili, I believe, is time. When I want to go all-out on a pot of chili, I think about it for a while. I let it cook in my mind for a while while I figure out what this particular batch is going to be made of.

There's a lot to consider. I consider the chili I want to make, first of all, the experience I want to create for my own benefit as a chili artist. I'd love to cook exactly the chili I imagine. See, I like my chili hot. Hot is not the right word. Scorching. Explosive. Intense. Even violent. I want the chili to be an experience as much as a meal. But searing heat alone is boring. It is only effective when combined with those complex flavors I mentioned. Problem is, if I make it exactly like I would for myself, I'll be the only one who eats it and I'll be stuck with a big pot of chili, because a small one is not possible. I have to think about my audience. I have to tone down the heat and be somewhat moderate in any experimentation because, ultimately, I want to see my audience enjoy and appreciate the end result of all the work I put into it.

So, once I figure out what I'm going to put in my chili, I start making it. Making a good pot of chili is an exercise in constant tweaking. I want to get the flavors just right, which means constant tasting and adjusting, realizing that with every adjustment, the end result will be different than it seems the moment I make the change, because the flavors change and deepen during cooking.

Which brings me back to time. To meld all those flavors requires time. I believe in cooking my best chili all day. Again, there are plenty of recipes that can be prepared quickly and many of those are tasty. But if I cook mine quickly, all those spices will still be separate because they need time to come together for the rich, deep, flavor I crave. It's as much about patience as it is about the right mix of ingredients.

Of course, not every chili is as successful as every other. That's the risk of making it differently every time as I try to learn to be a better chili cook. I can accept that. I don't think I've ever made a bad chili, and my audience has always seemed appreciative, but as the person who made it, I can be tough on myself, dissatisfied by the smallest things.

Finally, I want my chili to stay with my audience after they've eaten it. Sometimes, people remember it as something that, if not life-changing, at least improved their lives for a little while. Other times, the chili stays with them in other ways, which probably don't need to be discussed here. My chili has sometimes kept me awake all night, contemplating each and every ingredient. If you know what I mean.

And that, you see, is how writing and chili are very much the same.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

You Have to Write Crap



I’ve discovered over the years how much being a teacher’s pet was detrimental to my writing habits. The majority of my teachers from third grade on all fawned over and praised my writing even when I put little to no effort into what I turned in. This quickly taught me that I didn’t have to put effort into my writing. I could write whatever I wanted at the very last minute, not even bother to do a quick edit, and pass with flying colors.
College changed that a little bit. Surrounded by other people who were capable of stringing two good sentences together, I started to have to actually pay attention to what I wrote and do a least some cursory editing. Even then, I found I could get away with a lot.
But, when it comes to my novel writing I know that if I have any hope of even trying to get published, I need to write something that will hold up against some of the best writers in the world—at least enough to be placed in the same bookstore. I have to admit it—more often than not that idea totally paralyzes me. I was trained from too young of an age that I didn’t need to put any effort into my writing to be successful (in the classroom), so the idea that I could put all my effort into my writing and still not be good enough makes the idea of trying almost too much.
In school, you write to please your teacher. You write each essay with your professor in your head, taking what you’ve learned from their lectures about their opinions and preferences and you write accordingly. That’s what I’m used to doing.
When it comes to writing my novel, I’ve learned that I can’t do that. I have to forget the possible editor, agent, or bookstore shopper who may one day read these words. Thinking about them—at least in my first draft—cripples my writing. Whatever I do get on the page is stifled and self-conscious. So, I have to forget them. I have to write as though I’m the only person who is ever going to care about what is written. I have to just let the words come out of me and not analyze them, not worry about how good or bad they are, but just enjoy the process of getting them on the page. That’s the only way I can ever get my first drafts written.
As a student, I wrote without caring because I knew I could get away with it. I knew my least effort would be good enough in my high school where people struggled to understand the function of a paragraph. As an amateur novelist, I have to write the same way because that’s the only way I can write. That’s the way I’ve learned how.
Afterwards, I can deal with cutting out all the crap.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

MG or YA?

My “next” project that I’ve been working on forever has been giving me fits. One of the dilemmas is what age to make the characters, and therefore, who the target audience will.

I’m an MG kind of a guy. I’ve spent a career teaching fifth and sixth graders. I know how they operate, what shenanigans they think they can get away with, and the cocky attitudes they employ to pull it off. And I’m smart enough to realize they probably got away with a few things I wasn’t aware of. They’re as capable as teenagers of scheming wild ideas, just not as aware of when the silly notion won’t work.

Earlier this week, Julie Daines said to listen to your gut, our writer’s intuition that is our friend should we choose to listen. I think my friend is telling me to take it MG. But the first time I did that, I overshot my audience. What to do, what to do?

Then a timely article arrived this month from Writer’s Digest.  In “The Key Differences Between Middle Grade Vs. Young Adult,” agent Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency helps clarify the two. She sees a lot of queries of manuscripts with “an MG/YA identity crisis.” She rejects many of these simply because the writer did not know the basics of the age group they thought they were writing for.

In a nutshell, the differences boil down to a few areas:
Age of readers
Middle-grade does not mean middle school. MG is for readers ages 8-12 and 13-18 for YA. While there is no “tween” category, middle school libraries tend to have shelves for both. There are upper and lower MG as there is in YA.
Age of protagonists
Kids “read up” so your characters should be on the higher end of the age of the readers. Thus a 10-year old hero would be ideal for a lower MG, 12 or even 13 for upper MG, and 17 or 18 for YA. Your YA character can’t yet be in college.
Manuscript length
30,000-50,000 words is the norm for MG while YA starts at 50,000 and goes up to 75,000. These are not set in stone, but a good length to shoot for. Fantasy novels can exceed that due to the world-building necessary.
Voice
YA is usually written in first person while third person is common for MG.
Content
There is a difference in what is allowable in each. While there is no profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality in works for younger readers, they are acceptable for YA,  the exception being erotica. In a recent Writer’s Digest webinar, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency says a few “Hells” and “damns” are okay for MG, but the harsher curses should be avoided. MG heroes can have romance, but it should be limited to a crush or first kiss. Generally, MG novels end on a hopeful note while that isn’t necessary of YA works. Marie Lamba says there are gatekeepers between you and your middle-grade audience - parents, teachers, librarians - who may discourage the book. That ultimately could affect a publishers’s choice to print it. This isn’t as much an issue for YA, though gratuitous sex, numerous F-bombs, and extensive violence could mean the book may sit in fewer schools.
Mind-set
This is a biggie, the one I missed when I originally wrote the book. MG focuses on friends, family, and the character’s immediate world and their relationship to it; character react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection. YA characters discover how they fit in the world beyond their friends and family; they reflect more on what happens and analyze the meaning of things. Jennifer Laughran says that MG kids test boundaries and have adventures “finding their place within a system” whereas YA teens do the same, while “busting out of the system” and find themselves.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Once you have the writing chops of J.K. Rowling, you, too, can write a 200,000 word tale. But even Harry didn’t kiss Ginny until they were teenagers.

So I’m listening, gut, my quiet friend. I do wish you would speak louder sometimes.


(This article also posted at http://writetimeluck.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Stories Collide

Last week I wrote about finding stories through the simple act of taking a walk. I said there are stories all around us. All we have to do is open our senses and find them.

Two days later, a possible story hit me in the form of an unusual person acting in a slightly unusual way. Now, I was in San Francisco on business, a town where unusual people are all around, but this one man and the way he was dressed and the way he moved through a crowded street struck me as though he were from another time and place.

I've already been thinking about setting a story in San Francisco. I grew up near there, and I spend a lot of time there, and I enjoy studying the city's relatively short but very interesting history. I was a little hesitant, though, because one of my writing group partners had recently set her own story in San Francisco. I didn't want to step on her territory.

Of course, San Francisco has many stories. Many have already been told, and there would be many more, and my story would be nothing like my friend's. So I let myself play with this idea in my head. I often have to let an idea simmer in my mind for months, even years, before a story emerges, so I was letting it hang around and occupy a part of my brain where I would leave it alone. No need to bother it. It's not hurting anybody.

That story idea was just a situation, a what if. Many of my ideas are. The what if itself isn't a story. There's no real conflict or plot, and only sketches of characters who have not formed themselves yet.

The new idea is a character. Who was that man I saw? What was he doing? Why did he act in such an unusual way? Why was he in such a hurry?

I saw him on Friday, and he's been haunting my mind for the last five days. I was thinking about him last night, wondering if he could fit into the situation I was already contemplating. At first I thought he could, but as I continued to think about it, it felt like a square peg in a round hole. That's not necessarily bad. Many great stories are about a peg that doesn't fit a hole.

But this felt forced. Two story ideas had collided, and I didn't see a good match. Combining these ideas could spoil the story I was contemplating if I tried to include too many things.

So I thought about it some more. The situation idea I had came about because I wanted to write about a specific time in the city's history, and this what if question would let me do so while combining it with an even earlier idea I had been contemplating. I had forgotten about that. Two stories had already collided. Maybe that's why the new character didn't fit.

But then a situation for the new character popped into my head. So now I was dealing with four ideas. Looking back at the earlier ideas, they were really just an excuse to use this city that I love so much in a story. So why couldn't I take some of the ideas from the old idea and adapt them to the new one? That's when things began to click. Maybe this collision of ideas wouldn't be a disaster after all.

I'm already working on a story, making revisions that I hope will bring me to a finished manuscript soon. It's difficult to juggle two stories, especially when it's already hard enough to find consistent writing time. But maybe I need to take a break for a day or two and see if there is really a story in this new character I found and his collision with a previous setting and situation.

When I have a new idea, I have a number of things that I do. The first is, I jot it down and let my mind work on it. That has worked for me before, but often the idea cools down and fades away. If it does that, I probably wasn't passionate enough about it to spend the time required to turn it into something.

Sometimes, especially if the idea is a scene, I write it in detail. Sometimes, that fires my imagination and turns the ephemeral thought into something tangible. I've shared a few of these with my group. When that happens, I store the idea in my mind and let it work itself out. But other times, I don't feel the excitement. I don't find the story that has to be told. I put those away in my files, and scan through them once in a while when I want to find a story and see if maybe it grabs me again. It usually doesn't. The heat of the idea is gone.

And sometimes I'll whiteboard or mindmap the idea to see if the rest of the story appears. That has worked for me before. I end up with characters and conflicts and plot points. In other words, a story.

I don't know yet what I'll do with this new idea. I'm thinking I'll make some time to write a scene based on the moment when this new character entered my life. I'll see if he grabs ahold of some of the other ideas he collided with and takes them for himself. I know there's a story in this character. The question is whether he wants me to tell it.

I'll spend some time with him and find out.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Pacing: Listen to Your Gut

By Julie Daines

I'm not much of an outliner. I've tried it before, and it just doesn't seem to work for me. I wish it did because it seems like a much better way to write. But no. For me, I just can't.

So, I'm constantly asked, how do you work out the pacing of your novel?

Good question.

I am now going to divulge my secret and never-before-spoken-out-loud trick.

I listen to my gut.

Here's how it works:

I'm writing a scene. It's going great. The dialogue is fun, the action intense, and the conflict building. Then suddenly, I get this wrenching, panicky feeling right in the middle of my stomach. It says, "Oh my gosh, this is getting too long. You're dragging it out. Something new has to happen. You've got to move on." My blood races and my fingers shake unsteadily on the keyboard.

"MOVE ON!" it screams.

I listen. I wrap it up and move on. On to the next scene and the next plot point.

Is this a scientific method? No. Will you find it on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat beat list? No. But it works--for me.

Our guts--our writer's intuition--can often be our best friend if we take the time to listen. Feed back from critique partners, from beta readers, pacing, character names, character reactions, almost any part of our novel will speak to us.

Take a moment, consider carefully all sides, and listen to your gut. It is your friend.

When have--or when do--your writerly instincts kick in and help you?