Friday, December 24, 2010

Things look different depending on who is doing the looking…

Strangely, in this week before Christmas, I’ve been reading a lot about dystopia. (I’m hoping there isn’t a connection there, but who knows? The coming of Christ…a whole new world… hmmmm.)

Of the two different dystopian worlds I’ve read about in the last week or so, I’ve been sort of fascinated with two choices these writers had made: verb tense and point of view.

 It struck me that both writers used present tense throughout their stories. Just interesting, isn’t it? They chose to use present tense to describe a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. I wondered if that was consciously influenced by their plot and subject matter. Is it best to speak about a created world – one that supposedly results from our own culture and society -- as if it is happening right now? Will readers invest themselves more readily in these worlds of despair and struggle? (Because, if you haven’t read much dystopian fiction lately, it is ALWAYS a world of despair and struggle.)

I haven’t taken the time to look at more adult fiction of this vein to see if those writers, too, present their stories in present tense… But I have Cronin’s The Passage on a shelf upstairs. I should look…

In Unwind by Neal Shusterman, for example, are we more in the action during this scene because it is told in present tense?

A nurse blots swat from his forehead. “Relax, I’m here to help you through this.”
He feels a sharp pinprick in the right side of his neck, and then in the left side.
“What’s that?”
“That,” says the nurse, “is the only pain you’ll be feeling today.”
“That’s it, then,” [he] says. “You’re putting me under?”
Although he can’t see her mouth beneath her surgical mask, he can see the smile in her eyes.

Would you feel differently (see the scene differently) if it was told with “saids” and “saws” instead? Would you have the same visceral reaction to what is going on with this character? Maybe…maybe not. I’m not sure. Perhaps it is up to each reader.

Each of the books I’ve read this week also chose a different point of view.

I’ve struggled with point of view with many of my own projects, and I know a few writers who have started a project in one POV, only to change their minds part way or all the way through, and rewrite the whole work from a different viewpoint.

In Unwind, Mr. Shusterman used alternating third person, sometimes called third person multiple vision. Each chapter was told from a different character’s point of view, focusing mostly on the main three characters, but with some minor ones thrown in for certain pivotal events. After all, things look different depending on who is doing the looking, right?

From a reader’s perspective, I found this constant switching around to be a little distracting. It made me feel a little uncomfortable with the narrative; it was harder to follow than a more traditional third person single perspective or even first person strategy. But again – I now find myself wondering if Mr. Shusterman chose this as a strategy. His story is all about discomfort. His story is about the aftermath of a civil war fought over reproductive rights and the resulting society where abortion is forbidden, but where children can be “unwound” after the age of 13. Discomfort, indeed. (You’ll have to read his book to find out what unwinding involves…no further spoilers here! But trust me – it is uncomfortable, to say the least, to read about it let alone immerse yourself in his dystopia.) So was the flitting back and forth between different views – different perspectives on events unfolding in the story – a conscious decision to transfer the tenuous sense of survival to the reader? Interesting thought, right?

The second novel – one which I haven’t finished yet, but will admit to being completely caught up in despite my initial hesitation – is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Also told in present tense, this one is told from first person POV. We learn about the settlement on a planet (not Earth) and the impact of a mysterious disease loosed on the settlers by another alien race. We see this world, society and the unfolding events of the plot through the eyes and voice of the main character, Todd Hewitt.

Told in this POV, we only know what Todd knows. We don’t glimpse any of the knowledge that might be held by other characters – older settlers who witnessed war with the other alien race, for example – until they decide to tell Todd what they know. The history of the settlement prior to Todd being old enough to remember his own life is just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Todd. For us readers – this leaves us with more of the unknown and maybe  more of a relationship (I think) with our friend, Todd. We are on this ride with him. He is our narrator in a way that characters in third person stories never get to be.

The other benefit of first person (again, in my opinion) is that we hear the main character’s voice throughout the story. Well – I guess that depends on the skill of the writer, doesn’t it? At any rate, told from the “I see..” or “I ran…” or “I heard…” point of view, we hear the Voice of the character with every sentence. It isn’t limited to just dialog, as it is with other story structures.

So what do you think? Conscious decisions to help the dystopia come alive for readers? Or maybe decisions made based on the skill or tendencies of the authors? Either way – I’d say both strategies made for effective storytelling.

I did get out my Gotham Fiction Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction, The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School to see if they had a chapter on POV. Yep. They do. A pretty good one, too, in case you are looking to do a little light reading on craft over your holiday vacation.

Here’s a thought: Take a chapter or scene from a story you love. Pay attention to the POV. Rewrite it from another character’s POV or change the POV altogether. If the author wrote it in first person, you rewrite the events in third. Or vice versa. I did this once as an assignment for a class taught by the talented Lisa Klein, and it was a fantastic, thought-provoking exercise…A step toward making very conscious decisions in your own stories about how the POV will help or hinder your readers as you take them on a journey.

Happy Holidays, everyone! And Happy Writing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Beauty of the Season and Beauty on the Page

It’s snowing here. Has been for a few days now. It is really lovely -- gentle flakes, floating around outside my window. Just enough to make me think we might have a white Christmas. And enough to make me wish for a fireplace (we don’t have one) and a hot mug of chocolate.
I stumbled upon two gems this week. One of them made me think about what it means to me to write and the other  had me pondering what role books have played in my life. Both touched my heart with  beautiful language, so I want to share some of the most stunning prose with you.
The book is A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. She has a new release this season called Revolution. I haven’t read that one yet, but you’d better believe it is on my TBR list now!
Here are some of my favorite passages from the paperback (Harcourt,  Inc., 2003).
Page 11 A description of the main character’s sister –
Our Abby is a sprigged dress that has been washed and turned wrong side out to dry, with all its color hidden.
Page 17 Describing the neighbor, Emmie—
As I tried to figure out what I could say – to find words that weren’t a lie but weren’t quite the truth, either – I thought that madness isn’t like they tell it in books. It isn’t Miss Havisham sitting in the ruins of her mansion, all vicious and majestic. And it isn’t like in Jayne Eyre, either, with Rochester’s wife banging around in the attic, shrieking and carrying on and frightening the help. When your mind goes, it’s not castles and cobwebs and silver candelabra. It’s dirty sheets and sour milk and dog shit on the floor. It’s Emmie cowering under her bed, crying and singing while her kids try to make soup from seed potatoes.
On page 37, the main character is reacting to some pretty harsh criticism from a less than talented teacher. (Mattie is a writer, but at a time when girls and women weren’t supposed to be anything but wives and mothers. Her teacher wants her to write about “beautiful thoughts and fine words.”)
I’d seen all the things she’d spoken of and more besides. I’d seen a bear cub lit its face to the drenching spring rains. And the silver moon of winter, so high and blinding. I’d seen the crimson glory of a stand of sugar maples in autumn and the unspeakable stillness of a mountain lake at dawn. I’d seen them and loved them. But I’d also seen the dark of things. The starved carcasses of winter deer. The driving fury of a blizzard wind. And the gloom that broods under the pines always. Even on the brightest of days.
It’s really that last line that gets me: the gloom that broods under the pines always. Beautiful, right?
Page 149 Describing the main character’s uncle and his stories  (I liked this particularly considering the many descriptions of her father and how you know from this one passage how different – foreign, even – her uncle is to her and her sisters.) –
They were whoppers, my uncle’s stories, every one. We knew it and we didn’t care. We just loved the telling. My uncle has a beautiful North Woods voice. You can hear the dry bite of a January morning in it and the rasp of wood smoke. His laughter is the sound of a creek under ice, low and rushing.
The other book I gobbled up was a middle grade novel called Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan. It touched my heart in a different way – with a brief, quiet story of fourth grade children learning how words can be powerful and learning that we can, all of us, be writers if we let the words come to us…word after word after word.
Have you read any passages that made you sigh this week? Dog-eared any pages so you could find that one sentence again or remind yourself that words have the power to take your breath away? If so, I’d love to know about it…

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Growth and Development....a la Rose Hathaway

Richelle Mead’s sixth and final book in her Vampire Academy series came out this week. I got my hands on a copy of Last Sacrifice on Thursday and tore through the latest chapter in this saga – finally finishing while curled up on the couch this afternoon with a down blanket and a hot chocolate for company. (Rose has a weakness for sour cream and onion potato chips and candy bars…I thought the hot chocolate was a fitting tribute.)

You know how a traditional story arc and character development “rules” say that the main character (well, heck…all characters, I guess) should change throughout the story? They should show growth, learn from their experiences, and in the case of YA fiction – perhaps even grow up a bit on the inside as well as on the outside during their adventures?

It is hard to do! At least I think it is. Often, I find myself knowing more about how I want my character to act – who I want them to be – at the end of the story. Backtracking to allow for that change and growth is just darned difficult. I think we tend to grow and change at an alarmingly slow pace as real live people compared to the accelerated development of a character written on the page. It takes 10 years (give or take a few) for a child to grow through adolescence into adulthood. But your MC…Well, he or she has to cast off childish things in 300 pages or so.

Granted, your MC isn’t going to tackle everything real humans do…BUT she needs to have problems and lessons that are realistic enough that your readers will connect with her. Her issues, her growth need to be believable. In a word: honest.

Enter Rose Hathaway. Of all the young women in YA lit today, I’d most like to braid hair and pain nails with Rose. She’s sort of my hero. Or maybe Ms. Mead is really the one I want to hang out with…Either way – popping popcorn and bonding with either of them sounds like it would help my writing career along!

If you’ve read the Vampire Academy series, I’d love to hear what you think of Rose (and Lissa, Adrian, Dimitri, and the others) as characters. And if you haven’t read Ms. Mead’s contribution to modern vampire lore – then I’d suggest that you can read them with a writing lesson in mind: Character development.

Rose begins the series as a child. An impetuous, bold, leap-before-she-looks girl. I don’t want to give away any points of the story, and Ms. Mead’s work can certainly speak for itself, but I will tell you that Rose transforms throughout the series. She is a different character in Last Sacrifice than she was in the beginning (Vampire Academy).  She grows, develops, changes – from student to warrior, from girl to woman, from idealist to realist. Her character is honest in her growth. She makes mistakes. She slides backwards and then has to run twice as hard to make up for lost time. She tries to protect everyone around her, and forgets to save some protection for herself. And in the end, she is different. She’s still Rose – but in a way that lets Rose the woman shine.

Not only is she a great example of character development and growth – but she’s a strong girl, a beautiful character, and something many readers might find unexpected in a story about a school for vampires: she is a role model.

So girls: Be strong. Be warriors. Be lovers (eventually). Grow up – but make mistakes along the way.

And Writers: Be strong. Be warriors. Be lovers (always!). Help your characters to grow up and make their own mistakes along the way.

Go forth and tell stories! We need more strong girls and strong writers in the world today.

(If you'd like to read another Carpe Keyboard post that talks about Rose Hathaway and the Vampire Adacemy, click here.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Patterson's Pacing and Less than Purple Prose

One of the criteria for writing for young adults seems to be a fast pace. Events need to happen and happen quickly with very little down time in between the action sequences. (At least that’s what I’ve read and been taught in my toddler-aged career of writing for kids.)

The pace – or the speed with which the reader moves through the story – needs to be rapid. Long periods of contemplation, descriptions of static scenes, or rambling soliloquies are all verboten unless you have a VERY good reason that your story can’t exist without them.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to like description. (I like to write it as well as read it.) I’m in love with the adjective. I drool over a well-turned metaphor and smile slyly when sighting a singular simile. I bat my eyes at visceral descriptions that make me smell and feel, as well as see, the characters and setting.

Alas – I read “adult” fiction for those things. I’m not saying that all YA authors avoid similes and descriptors; however, I do think you are much more likely to find even the humble adjective used (overused?) when reading a novel written for a more adult  (less young) audience.

This week’s book that has me thinking about pacing and description? James Patterson’s third episode in the Maximum Ride series: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports. Patterson has over 140 million books in print in forty languages. He’s right up there with Mr. King as a top-seller worldwide. He knows how to put a plot together and has the fast-paced crime novel market pretty much cornered for the adult book-buying crowd. He took his rapid-fire plots for his crime novels and skinnied them down – sped them up – for his first series for younger audiences.

These novels aren’t short – no. This one weighs in at a hefty 405 pages (paperback). But the pacing and writing style are such that I can sit down and read one in only a couple of hours. (Granted, I read like a crazed biblio-maniac hopped up on chocolate covered espresso beans…but even a normal YA reader could whip through one of these in an afternoon.)

So here is what I’ve observed about how these books move so quickly for the reader.

1.      Short (and I mean SHORT) chapters. 133 of them. Most of them max out at 3 pages long. They start part way down one page and cover maybe another page and a half – leaving lots of white space at both the beginning and the end of each chapter. All that white spaces does a few things: Pulls the reader forward (leap-frogging over the blank stuff to get on with the story) and forces the reader to literally turn pages quickly. The faster you turn pages, the faster you get to page 405, right

2.      A plethora of dialog. Patterson’s action is conveyed, in many cases, through the first person narration of Max, or…the smokin’ fast dialog between the kids who make up the “Flock.” (Yeah…flock. Think a gang of good kids who can fly. With wings. Like birds. Apparently, Patterson decided younger readers need a little fantasy in their thrillers.)

3.      And tons of dialog leads to very short paragraphs. The pages are chopped up into one or two or three line paragraphs. Even those that aren’t dialog are short. Again, let me point out how that creates white space for the reader and keeps your eye moving along.

4.      Finally – there may be a lot of chapters and a lot of dialog, but there is a decided dearth of adjectives and description. In fact, there are so few, that it sort of turns me off of the books altogether. For someone like me who enjoys the way a juicy description can make me feel, the stark style of Patterson’s stories is sort of … well… annoying, actually. In fact, I was so distressed by his lack of description, I started counting adjectives.

(Go ahead. Roll your eyes. If you’ve read much of this blog, you should already know I’m a geek! Get over it!)

# of Adjs.
New, experimental, limited
Cool, another, send
Bird, lousy, blue-uniformed

You may want to call me a geek, but you have to admit – not the juiciest of word choices, huh? I mean, seriously. If you are only going to use 3 adjectives on a page, couldn’t one of them be something other than cool or new?

But I digress. Patterson is such a prolific writer and sells so many gazillions of books, that his formula – short paragraphs, short chapters, tons of dialog and a (sigh) shortage of description – certainly works for him.

Perhaps we writers should take a page from his book. Literally. Here’s a challenge: Write a page of fiction with no paragraph longer than 3 lines and with no more than 5 adjectives on the whole page. Or take one of your works in progress and pull up a random page. Take a look at how chopping out some non-vital descriptors and adding some white space might change the pace.

Go forth, ye writers, and quicken your pace. But don’t forget to tell your story along the way!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And the Winner is...

The winner of Seize the Story is...


If you send your snail mail address to me at, I'll be happy to put the book in the mail to you as soon as I can.