Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Conversation with Lisa Klein, author of the upcoming Cate of the Lost Colony

By way of introduction, I'd like to tell you all that Lisa Klein is a fantastic writing teacher and I am lucky to have had the chance to learn about YA lit and writing with her. A former English Lit professor, Lisa is now writing full time and cranking out fantastic historical fiction. Here is an interview with her on the eve of the publication of her fourth novel, Cate of the Lost Colony. (Go pre-order a copy!)

Carpe Keyboard: We first met when I attended a class you were teaching about writing for young adults.  You asked us to read Uglies by Scott Westerfeld as one of the class texts, and I remember talking about how dialog gives life to the story setting. Your historical characters in Lady MacBeth’s Daughter and Ophelia sound just like they stepped out of their time period. How do you do that?

Lisa Klein: Thanks, I consider that a great compliment!  A testimony to my psychic channeling powers…Seriously, how I do that is by reading lots of Shakespeare.  He writes terrific dialog.  It’s ALL dialog, in fact!  From him I try to pick up the rhythms of speech and some particular idioms—though it’s important to choose the ones that still make sense today.  But you’ll notice I don’t use “thee” or “thou” or “asketh” etc.  Shakespeare himself was using very contemporary language, and I want to make his “old” language still sound contemporary, alive.

I’ve recently learned (the hard way!) that the editing process is where a huge part of the art of writing happens. I think some writers would argue the magic is in the act of writing the first draft. What do you think?

I agree with your distinction—there is more magic in the first draft, more of the inspiration that pours out uncontrolled.  So drafts are necessarily messy.  The art, the shaping of raw nature (to use a very Renaissance-y idea!) comes in the revision and editing.  To me, pruning that wild tree, giving it a shape, is very satisfying.   There’s very little magic in it, just hard work and the ability to detach yourself from all those wonderful pages you wrote, half of which should probably be deleted!

I happen to know you don’t like to read books about “how to write books,” yet you have a knack for choosing great examples of literature to teach your students about craft. I’ve written some posts on Carpe Keyboard discussing how I’ve learned about voice by reading John Green, for example, or learned about pacing from Cassandra Clare. Do you have any authors or books you’d recommend reading to learn about specific story elements or aspects of craft?

You know, now and then I do read those “how to write” books, if only to learn how to talk about writing or to help make me aware of the process and the choices I make often without realizing it.  But it is far more useful to me to learn by reading the fiction of others.  John Green is great for voice, so is Laurie Halse Anderson.  Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate Wars” helped me learn 3rd person narration.  Michael Grant (the “Gone” series) is great at juggling many characters and perspectives while keeping the plot rolling forward.   And don’t forget those authors who just do wonders with language, either as masters of tone (Edith Wharton, believe it or not)  or description, because  attention to language enriches any story, raises it to the next level.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

Whenever I’m not delightedly carpe-ing chocolate or a book, or more reluctantly carpe-ing a vacuum cleaner or steering wheel…I write during the day when the kids are in school, from about 9 to 3, and even then with frequent interruptions.  I’m a rather slow writer.  So much of the process occurs “offstage” so to speak.  I’m lucky, very lucky, to write 3 pages a day!

Your next book, Cate of the Lost Colony, is coming out soon, right? What’s the hook? And what’s your next project?

The hook, ah yes!  The agent/editor’s favorite question.  If you don’t have a hook, you don’t have a book.   Cate of the Lost Colony imagines an answer to that great question of history:  What really happened to the English colonists who landed on Roanoke Island in 1587, and were never seen again?  It’s an adventure, a romance, and not a tragedy after all.

What’s next is another Shakespeare-themed book, a comedy this time, though not based on a particular play.  That’s all I can really say about it, because this one I’m writing by the seat of my pants—after carefully planning out the other ones.  Let’s see how long this takes me!  And who knows where it will end up, because my Will Shakespeare character has a mind of his own already.

Good luck, Lisa, with Cate and the work you are doing on the new Shakespeare novel. Can't wait to read them both! Here's to big sales, inspired prose, and continuing with the writer's life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What do two penguins, a light bulb and a sweet, juicy fruit have in common?

Banned Books week started Sunday, and with it has come a wave of what my husband would call jackassery.

Did you know Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was challenged in a public library because it "glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism?" I read that on one of the lists I’ve seen today online. Did you know that Roald Dahl's classic James and the Giant Peach promotes drug use? Here’s one of my personal favorites on the list for 2010 – It is a picture book called And Tango Makes Three about two penguins who adopt a baby penguin. The two adults happen to both be male, so somebody somewhere decided that it was inappropriate for children. Yikes. Boy penguins raise a chick! I’m shocked!

Of the top 10 most challenged books in the list for 2010, 8 of them were described as being “sexually explicit.”

I got news for you, folks: Kids know about sex. Certainly teens know about it. (Shhhh. I think they might even know how to DO it!) Is there a time and a place where a parent and child could/should decide to wait to read a story? Absolutely! Might some topics or subject matters in fiction be misunderstood by an audience? Sure. Is there language written in novels that I don’t want spoken aloud in my home? You betcha!

But here’s the rub: I want to choose. I want to be the one to say, “No thanks, I’ll have my kid wait on that one.” Or maybe say, “OK, kiddo – you can read it, but let’s talk about it too, ok?” For me – for my children—for my friends, neighbors, family and strangers I might bump into when crossing the street. I want us all to have the freedom to read whatever we want, whenever we want and to help the young people in our lives read carefully, read with intent, read for pleasure (of course) and read to understand. I want my children to read tough stories and TALK about them with someone they trust.

I’ve said it before in some comments on other blogs this week: pay attention to what your kids are reading. Read it with them. Talk about the stories – whether they are “sexually explicit” or encourage them to break dishes instead of clean up (another crazy reason Silverstein has been challenged). 

Shocking, I know … but sometimes reality confronts us with language we don’t like or situations we think are offensive. Wouldn’t you like to talk to your child about those things as encountered in a story before little Billy or Mary Jane encounters them face to face? Wouldn’t you like to give your kids tools to help confront racism in their school because you’ve read and talked about To Kill a Mockingbird or Huck Finn together?

Freedom. Freadom. Pay attention.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Believing in Beginnings…and what Follows

I’m having a very writerly problem. I can’t seem to get going on my YA novel manuscript. See – I put it on the back burner to attend to some edits on a middle grade project for my agent. You’d think once the edits were done and the manuscript turned over, I’d just pick up where I left off, right? Ha. No so much.

With the finished manuscript in capable hands – and lots of waiting and nail-biting to do – I started this blog. And as some of you know, blogging is addictive. So it is easy to keep putting off working on RLR (my code name for The YA Novel That Is Languishing On My Laptop).

Confession: Even thinking about opening the file makes me a little queasy lately. I get a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and my mind jack rabbits to about 32 other things I should/could/ought to be doing. Folding laundry. Walking the dog. Hounding a kid about homework. Washing my hair. Planting geraniums in neat little rows in someone else’s back yard.

The good news: I think I’ve managed to identify part of the problem. I read like a maniac – sometimes as many as 3 or 4 novels in a week in addition to all other necessary activities (see above) – oh, and a full time job. And lately, I don’t think I’ve read a book I haven’t liked. And even if I didn’t LOVE it, I still found things to learn from the author about craft. Each time I put down a novel I’ve really enjoyed, I think RLR will never be that gripping. Or funny. Or beautiful.

I know…I bet most writers have these evil, self-defeating thoughts. I’m not unique in this problem. I need to get the heck over it.

And I’m not going to let READING become the reason I’m not WRITING. (Shaking my head and rolling my eyes at myself.)

So here’s what I’m doing tonight. I grabbed a stack of random MG and YA books that were sitting around my kitchen. And I’m going to read the first sentence – just the first – and write it down here. I’m going to prove to myself that beginnings are possible. That even if the first sentence I have in my manuscript right now isn’t perfect (truly – it pretty much sucks) that I can overcome and write a beginning equal to these random authors. And what follows beginnings? Well, the rest of the story, of course.

Wish me luck!

I remember the day the Aluet ship came to our island. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell, 1960.

Once when I was in ninth grade, I had to write a paper on a poem. (first line of the prologue) Blood Promise, Richelle Mead, 2009

Until the age of twelve, I led what most people would consider an unexceptional life. Kiki Strike Inside the Shadow City, Kirsten Miller, 2006

“You don’t look much like your sister,” Chip said, bouncing the basketball low against the driveway. Found, Margaret Peterson Haddix, 2008

Zach Freeman woke out of a deep sleep to see his butt perched on the ledge of his bedroom window. The Day My Butt Went Psycho, Andy Griffiths, 2001

It’s a perfect night to run away, thought Fadi, casting a brooding look at the bright sheen of the moon through the cracked backseat window. Shooting Kabul, N. H. Senzai, 2010

So – there are a couple I really like, and a few that aren't gripping or funny or beautiful. Which means – I should suck it up and just write. And quit fussing. And …um…believe in my writing. Yeah. Believe. It’s a beginning.

PS -- There are no psycho butts in my book. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Into the Fray…Talking with a Fifth Grade Teacher about Books

I’ve had a recent exchange of emails with a long-time fifth grade teacher in my local school district. She has agreed to share with us her insight into how children’s lit is used in classrooms, as well as other observations about books. So…I give you part one of an interview about children’s literature in classrooms with a fantastic and talented teacher of “middle graders.”

Carpe Keyboard: You teach 5th graders and I know you are a fan of good books. My daughter always said, “Mrs. Jordan picks the BEST books, Mom!” Do you get to choose the books you use in class, or do all of the 5th grade classes in your school read the same stuff?

Doris Jordan: There are some author studies that I have no choice and some model picture books that I am encouraged to use.  At one time we were told not to use books that upper grades would be using.  There was a list of books that were specifically "sacred" for each grade level. 
Our district was divided in that opinion.  Some teachers claiming that no matter how many times you read a book, you can find more depth each time you read it.  And on the other side of the fence, teachers insisted that reading a book ahead of time took away from the predicting aspect.  I find that no matter what I choose there is going to be somebody who has already read it.  I work around it and that student feels confident and even special because he is in on the "secret."  So you can see that I belong to the first camp.   

So for the most part I choose my own books.  I am somewhat limited by multiple copies but in Hilliard we are so lucky to have many books to choose from.  Not all schools are so lucky.  I remember tracking books down at libraries just so I had enough.  Now we have a plethora to choose from.   

CK: I would guess that there is a wide range of reading skills for fifth graders. I’ve seen some kids in my neighborhood carrying around Harry Potter, and some that are still reading less complicated stories. How do you handle that?

DJ: Books are leveled now, and it is important to pick books that fit your student.  The reading level of the student is the most important aspect.  It is such a balancing act to choose a book that is not too hard and not too easy.  Independent books should be easy for a student to read, but not boring.  The student is usually the best judge of that by the time they reach fifth grade after some training from the teacher. 

 CK: Who are your favorite children’s authors? Do you like to read children’s literature?

DJ: First let me answer the question about why I find so much pleasure from reading children's books.  When I went back to school to work on my master's I couldn't think of anything better to do than read children's books.  Can you imagine that being my homework?  I used to sit outside reading, while my children splashed around in their kiddy pool.  My mother, who lived with us, would come to the door and say, "So and so is on the phone for you."  I would say, "Tell them I'll call them back.  I'm doing my homework." 

It was here where I found out about the talent of children’s' authors.  They were about the simple pleasures in life that all kids can find.  Life is not just about the extreme pleasures of romance or about violence. Life is the day to day problems, joys and inspiration we find in ourselves and our loved ones. If we can teach children to find the simple joys, maybe they won't spend their whole lives waiting to win the lottery! 

This is when I fell in love with Sharon Creech and Patricia McLaughlin.  Of course, I also enjoyed the historical fiction authors who came out of the woodwork to make the once upon a time, boring subject of history come alive with real characters.  And I cannot let this go without confessing my first love, which is Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I read her books as a child and still find comfort in her tales of family love.  I have traveled to visit a few of her homes and openly bawled when I saw Pa's fiddle. 

CK: I know when my daughter was in your class, it seemed like all the kids were very “into” Harry Potter. And with Twilight showing up everywhere, it seems like fantasy is big with all kids lately.   

DJ: I am not a big fan of fantasy, but I am always happy to see anything that children find so compelling to read that they will work and work in order to bring themselves up to the level in order to read those great big thick books. 

I made myself read a Harry Potter book and the first Twilight book but it was enough to know that it was not for me.  That doesn't mean I would discourage a student from reading one, or all of them, as long as they could understand them.  Some children will try to read them before they are capable and then I think they do more harm than good.  The student feels frustrated, yet compelled to say they love it because of peer pressure. 

Yes, there is great peer pressure to read the most popular book. I believe that all children should be exposed to many genres.  I still feel that way as an adult and push myself to read things that challenge my interest.

Stay tuned for more from Mrs. Jordan. Part 2 of my interview will appear in another post soon… In the meantime, go buy a book, will ya?

Monday, September 20, 2010

So the Banning Begins... And the Idiots Speak

In all my years as a student, I was never aware of any controversy around banned books in my schools. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I just didn’t know what was going on around me.
Now that I’m a parent with kids of my own in elementary and middle school – I’m appalled by the idea that there are small groups of adults who think they can control what every child in their community has access to in the library or classroom.
Appalled. Disappointed. Frightened. Sickened. Every year, these stories hit me anew and make me angrier and more frustrated than I was the year before. I think the fact that I’m a writer in addition to being a parent makes me that much more frustrated.
Laurie Halse Anderson, one of my favorite YA writers, has a post about how her award-winning novel Speak was called “soft core pornography” by a professor at Missouri State University.
A PROFESSOR. A man who has dedicated his life, supposedly, to learning. Yikes. Makes me nauseous.
Plus – if you’ve ever read Speak, you know that the idea that this man would categorize the main character’s rape (or any rape!) as pornography is simply disgusting.
I first encountered Speak not as a teenager, but as an adult in a class taught by author Lisa Klein about writing for young adults. It sparked conversation and discussion in our classroom about literature and how powerful it can be for the reader. We talked about how beautifully written Speak is, how well drawn the symbolism is, and how inspirational it is not only to writers, but – we were certain – to kids who read it and experience the moment when great stories touch your heart.
This book deals with issues and events that would not come up in daily classroom conversation. And for that alone, it is to be commended. Enabling our young people to confront violence of any kind, but especially violence against girls and women, is heroic on the part of the storyteller. Halse Anderson should be congratulated for allowing groups of kids to talk about the events in Speak.
Another book I’ve written about here on Carpe Keyboard, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has also been in the news as banned already this year.
Here’s the thing: I’m convinced that these people who make a big noise over banning books – any books, not just these two – are really out for something completely different. They are all about drawing attention to themselves, not about protecting anyone. And even more disturbing…I usually find that their comments expose the fact that they HAVEN’T EVEN READ THE BOOKS they are trying to ban in the name of morality and religion. And if they have read them, they certainly missed the point of the stories entirely.
Shame on them.
Since these bans usually come packaged up with religious indignation, I asked myself “What would Jesus do?” In the case of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak – the Jesus I know in my heart (and I believe in with all of my soul) would want to sit down with the readers and talk about her character’s pain. Feel her pain along with her. Because He would certainly understand that not only is the character in crisis, but that there are REAL GIRLS AND BOYS who are also in crisis and are alone in their suffering.
I’m sure in my heart of hearts that Jesus would NOT bury her story where no one could ever hear it. Where it would be ignored and her pain and the pain of others like her would go unnoticed and unrecognized.
If you haven’t read Speak or the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, go get a copy. Read them in support of the kids who are being kept from the art. Being denied valuable literary experiences. And being “protected” by unreasonable control-freaks.
Speak out. Pay attention to what people are trying to do in your own community. And just as importantly – talk to your kids about what they are reading. Let conversation be the centerpiece at dinner or take the place of TV in your  living room. Read the books they like (or dislike) and talk about why. Great books teach great lessons. Stories help us learn and heal and explore events we hope to never experience in real life.  
Stories make us better people. But only if we allow each other the freedom to read them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Coffee, Toast, and a Side of Setting: A Writer’s Saturday Morning

I started a new novel today. Reading one, not writing one. A few posts back, I mentioned David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson), but hadn’t read anything else he’d written. So, this week, I made a point to pick up his critically acclaimed Boy Meets Boy from the library.

Sipping coffee and with the whole grains from my toast still stuck in my teeth, I found myself enthralled with not only Paul and Joni and Noah – but surprisingly, with the town they live in. I don’t think Mr. Levithan ever gives it a name, but we do know from a description of a serendipitous train ride that the town is close to NYC. (He mentions Paul going to the Strand – a pretty amazing bookstore, just in case you’ve never been there.)

Here’s the thing: This town, although the setting for what I’d call a realistic, contemporary young adult novel, is really sort of a fantasy. At least compared to the towns I know and those I’ve visited over the years. No dragons or (gasp!) vampires. No mystical events or magical portals, unless you count the trap door to Noah’s attic art studio.

This town, and the high school that is pivotal to the setting of the story, are accepting of each person’s differences, peaceful about issues that haunt many places in the real world, and …well…sort of whimsical, in a way. Because Levithan removes any of the expected cultural strife and conflict in this love story about gay boys, he opens up the real heart of the matter. His love story can be a love story, and not become overshadowed by the drama, hate, homophobia, and just plain meanness you might expect from a high school crowd.

It is the setting, at least in the first 75 pages of the novel, that helps create this world in which Noah can bring flowers to Paul the first time they meet on a Saturday – and Paul’s parents welcome him in for pancakes. It is the town and its clear, crisp details that make Infinite Darlene the perfect and popular cross-dressing first string quarterback for the football team. (Tiny Cooper, look out!!) It is a town where an Old Queen and a Young Punk regularly occupy a park bench, reminiscing about Broadway in the 1920s or agreeing that Sid and Nancy led the birth of a revolt.

In this town, it seems challenges that Noah and Paul will face won’t be gay-bashing, fear of being outed or the kind of hate that sometimes tucks itself into kitchen corners or under living room couch cushions. So far (again, only on page 75, people), I love the idea that these boys and their entourage of high school friends can step out of the “expected reality” and deal with the more basic – sometimes more heart wrenching – shit that happens when you first fall in love.

Here: Let me give you some examples of the language and description that struck me this morning, even before my second cup of joe.

Paul’s Room: “I worry that it’s not whimsical enough. Instead, it’s the museum of my whole life, from my Snoopys with their wardrobes to the mirror ball my parent’s got me when I graduated from fifth grade to the Wilde books still open-winged on my floor from last week’s English report.”

At the park: “…we head to the paddleboat pavilion. A lone duck greets our arrival. To our right, the skatepunks swoosh-ride on a ramp made of hemp, speeding to queercore thrash and the sound of their own bodies merging with the wind. To our left, a posse of Joy Scouts take guitar lessons from a retired monk. (We used to have a troop of Boy Scouts, but when the Boy Scouts decided gays had no place in their ranks, our Scouts decided the organization had no place in our town…”

And on a walk down main street: “We continue our tour through town, and everything is new to him: the I Scream Parlor, which shows horror movies as you wait for your double dip; the elementary school playground, where I used to tell the jungle gym all my secrets; the Pink Floyd shrine in our local barber’s backyard. I know people always talk about living in the middle of nowhere – there’s always another place (some city, some foreign country) they’d rather be. But it’s moments like this that I feel like I live in the middle of somewhere. My somewhere.”

I’m going to get another cup of coffee, hope my kids find friends to play with so they will turn off the darned cartoons, and curl up with page 76 and beyond. Here’s hoping the town lives up to my expectations for the rest of the novel.

What are you reading this morning?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

She Said, She Said: Collaborating to Write Dialog

Writing dialog is my albatross. The thing that I am convinced will drag me under the foaming waves with every story I try to write. I love to talk, for heaven’s sake…but, honestly…I’m completely intimidated by writing what my characters need to say.

 Maybe not completely intimidated. But pretty close.

Which leads me to one of the benefits of working with a partner when writing. I hesitate, backspace, sigh a lot and generally feel like I’m doing the writer’s equivalent of stuttering and stammering just to type the stuff between the double-quote marks. But my co-author, Sayantani, sends me chapters with funny, smooth dialog that I’d give my left arm to be able to write as a first draft. (No, not jealous or anything, girlfriend!)

OK…just so you know I’m not totally insecure, I will tell you that there are plenty of things about my own writing that I’m confident in and think are just the bomb. But that’s for another post…

Back to dialog writing: I’d do my best, which in the beginning of our project, took ages just to stutter my way through the scenes where dialog was key. I’d send my file to Sayantani (crossing my fingers that it really wasn’t as stilted as I thought). She would tweak and re-write and put notes in the margin about word choice and generally teach me how to get better. Yep. You heard me. She poked me along until, by the middle of our project, I was writing dialog more fluently. It may not have turned out great just yet; however, the point is that I was writing fast. Putting words between those damnable double-quotes without over-thinking or backspacing my way to frustration.

To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure she knew how much she was teaching me at the time. Maybe she did…but regardless, she was one of the best teachers of dialog I’ve had simply by pushing me to keep going. By setting deadlines and continuously giving me honest feedback without fail.

Now, just so this doesn’t turn into a whole post of me telling you how fantastic my partner is – I want to make it clear that you, too, should try to find that writing partner in your creative life. Maybe not someone who will embark on a long-term project with you and commit to sinking tons of free time (and a whole lot of not-so-free time) into reaching a goal with you. But you can seek out an honest critic. Someone who will read your work and give you honest, kind, helpful feedback. (KEY: Be open to it!) Maybe it is a teacher. Maybe a sibling, friend, writing group member, neighbor, co-worker… ask around! Look for people who are READERS. Those are the folks who will have experience with the sinking into the story I’ve talked about before. They’ll let you know where you stutter and stammer.

 Oh, and tell them thank you. A lot! (Thanks, Sayantani!)

And while you are at it, check out the dialog pacing, flow and word choice in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. I’d love to hear what you think. The first few pages left me frustrated with the vocabulary and somewhat stilted speech patterns. But the longer I read and the deeper I got in Westerfeld’s dystopian world, the more I appreciated how his intentional choices with dialog helped create the foreign world of forced plastic surgeries and bubbly thinking and disdain for anything not “pretty.” Those strange speech choices began to make sense and taught me a bit more about how dialog can have a bigger job than just recording spoken words for characters. Westerfeld used his dialog to help support setting and theme. The dialog was pivotal to how the world of the Pretties and the Uglies was created. Not that I’m trying to form your opinion for you or anything. Really.

Read it and tell me what you think. Or let me know where you have learned valuable dialog lessons.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Three Musketeers of Voice: Alexie, Green and Levithan

One of the best things about reading a great story is sinking into it -- disappearing for a while, living with the characters and escaping from my own living, breathing, everyday reality. Moving into the world spoken by the narrator and…oh, yeah…written by the author.

Disagree? Nope. I didn’t think so.

This usually happens to me before I realize it. I find myself so deeply into the story that I feel like I want to call up the characters and hang out. Get a cup of coffee with them. Text them about Friday night plans. Borrow their favorite DVD. Sit up late at night and talk about God and love and sex and justice.

Or in the case of some of the stories for the middle grade set – maybe play ball or ride bikes until the streetlights blink on and we know we are going to be late getting home.

Although you know that I’m not a huge fan of “how to write books” books, I did find a helpful chapter on this mysterious effect in the Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2003). Hardy Griffin contributed the chapter called Voice: The Sound of a Story. He defines voice as “what readers ‘hear’ in their heads when they’re reading. Voice is the ‘sound’ of the story.” I also liked this from his chapter – “…the voice of a piece is what makes it special, what sets it apart and makes it feel lived.”

I like that – the thing that makes a story feel lived. That, in my mind, is what pulls us in as readers.

I’ve lost myself in two novels recently – both YA – that are fan-freakin’-tastic examples of voice.

This week, I finished National Book Award Winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (I tend to pick up anything with one of those glittery award stickers on the cover. Doesn’t even matter what it looks like, what it’s about, or who wrote it. I figure if it won an award that merits a glittery sticker, then I can learn from it!)

Junior’s voice is the narrator’s voice. This story is told from Junior’s point of view – and we alternately float on the current of his bravery and try desperately to keep our heads above the sadness and grief of his loss. There is no sinking into this story – it is all about the struggle. Ands sometimes about treading water until we catch our breath. Junior’s voice carries us along brilliantly. He is funny, self-deprecating, and above all – honest. I wanted him to break free of the struggles of the rez. But I also found myself rooting for him to return to his family with his whole self somehow intact, despite his sense of being sometimes half-Indian and other times half-white. And I cried when even he couldn’t, for the losses he endured.

How the heck can I hope to come up with a voice for my own characters as poignant and true as Junior’s? Sigh…

Another example that I keep within arm’s reach (face-out, believe it or not, on my bookshelf next to my official reading chair) is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by the inestimable John Green and David Levithan. (I don’t have an adjective for Mr. Levithan simply because I haven’t read enough of his work yet. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is my HERO. Go get any book he has written. And read it. Now.)

There are two Will Grayson’s in this book (surprised, aren’t you?) who have distinct, human, true voices – each unique, each so real you can’t help but want to either smack them for the real and stupid things they say or fist-bump-high-five-wahoo with them for the moments when they “get it.” When they find themselves despite the odds.

And don’t even get me started on the “massively fabulous” Tiny Cooper. He may be a supporting character, but he steals the story with his own personality, struggles and truth. In a word: his own voice.

I don’t think I can ever learn enough from writers like Alexie, Levithan, and Green – so I’ll keep hunting down their slots in the Borders book store shelves and doing a little jig of joy when I see a title I haven’t read before. And then I’ll try to learn from them – take some of their skill with voice and somehow reinterpret it into my own characters. Make my own voice heard, so a reader someday will sink into my stories, too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nephilim and Warlocks and Demons -- Oh my!

Today, over a semi-warm burrito in the cafeteria at work, I finished racing through Cassandra Clare’s newest book, Clockwork Angel: The Infernal Devices Book One.

The first thing you should know is the cafeteria at work is NOTHING like the caf we remember from high school. First of all, it smells better. Secondly, everyone tends to keep their voices down. Strangely, there is still a table of the brainiac boys playing some mysterious game with glass marbles and references to wizards. But then, I work for a software company. Probably all the boys in this cafeteria once sat at the geek table as teenagers. I digress...

You should also know – in the interest of full disclosure – that despite a luke-warm attraction to all things fantasy, I fell in love Clare’s first trilogy (The Mortal Instruments) about this world of angel boys and werewolves, gay warlocks and first-love-that-has-incest-potential. I know, I know. Sounds weird. Maybe a little creepy? (At least the incest part does, and it made me go eeeewww more than once. But can I just say – WORTH IT!) So I was waiting with bated breath for this prequel to arrive on bookstore shelves.

What could I learn as a writer from this Clockwork Angel and Cassandra Clare? There are two things I’d recommend you look for in Clare’s book:

1. Pacing. She knows how to set up a fast paced scene/chapter/novel. Her action leaves you breathless as you race along with the Showdowhunters through the streets of Victorian London, charge fearlessly into battle with bloodthirsty automatons, and hide in the shadows of a witches’ dungeon.

I’d love to give you an example or two – but I don’t think I could do it justice with small clips or quotes. Let’s just say there are scenes that involve one of the heroes cutting a coach harness off of a horse so he can leap on bareback and ride to the rescue. There are battles with Downworlders leading into scenes of treachery, followed by harrowing chases…and on it goes.

And here’s a trick – Clare also knows just when to slow it down. You ease into scenes that are quiet and still in this book, too. A certain scene in a certain attic comes to mind… You’ll just have to check it out yourself to see if you agree.

2. Imagery and description. Clare uses juicy words at just the right time to describe the horror and mystery of her world. An example from page 23 of the US hardback edition:

The Change shattered like glass. With a cry Tessa fell to her knees, the torn little bow falling from her hand. It was her hand again – Emma had gone, like a cast-off skin.”

Another example from later in the book (character names removed to prevent unwanted spoilage):

“…XXXX saw the whole scene frozen, as if it were a painting – the open door, the clockwork automaton, the one with the stripped bare hands, still in the same worn gray jacket. And still, dear God, with XXXX’s blood on its hands, dried red-black on the dull gray flesh and the strips of copper showing through where the skin had been scraped or pulled away…”

Lovely, isn’t it? Made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention as I munched on that mediocre burrito. And again – eeeewwwww!

So think about imagery, description and pacing in your own story. Is it fast enough? Can you juice it up a little with the word choice? Will your readers shrink from the villain and feel the thrill of the chase in the pit of their stomachs as they read?

And for heaven's sake -- read A LOT to find out how other writers do it. Where have you found examples for imagery and pacing? I’d love to hear what you have found.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lessons Learned: Adverbs Suck

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.” --Stephen King, On Writing

One of the best lessons I learned while collaborating on a middle grade mystery novel was one that I should have learned from reading Stephen King. Nope – nothing to do with evil clowns, pet cemeteries, possessed cars or even girls named Carrie. This was a writing lesson from one of the most prolific writers of our lifetime. If I’d only remembered what I had underlined and studied from his book On Writing…perhaps I would have saved my partner and I the time it took to perform the dreaded adverb-ectomy.

After months of writing and a couple of “finished” version of the manuscript, I had a vague recollection of Stephen King’s admonishment on the horror of the adverb (see quote above). And if anyone knows about horror… it would be the man from Castle Rock.

I sat down at my kitchen table to perform the all-important surgery. I needed to seek out the evil adverbs, and then do something about them.

It took hours to perform the adverb-ectomy on nearly 200 pages of our novel. Then the rinse-repeat part of our edit cycle meant Sayantani spent more hours reviewing my changes. Honestly, though, I learned a lot from that exercise. Rewriting sentences to avoid adverbs was…well…kind of fun (in a geeky, writer-playing-with-words sort of way). It was also a huge step toward making our manuscript stronger and more marketable.

If you don’t know how to use the search feature in Word (or whatever word processing software you use), figure it out. Search for any word ending in –ly. You won’t find all adverbs that way, but it will catch a bunch of them. When you find one, get rid of it. Delete. If the road to hell is paved with them, don’t be afraid to create some great big pot holes! Take a hard look at the verb that little sucker was modifying. See what you can do: make it stronger, use a different verb, punch it up a little. You can do it. Don’t be timid. And if you don’t have a writing partner, find someone from your critique group to look over your work. Ask your spouse, partner, friend, neighbor… I promise they will tell you it is better; you just made your story stronger.

And whatever you do—please, oh please! – don’t use adverbs when attributing dialog. He said wonderingly…She grunted dubiously….They shouted deafeningly…

Seriously. Don’t do it.

If you don’t believe me, go read Mr. King’s On Writing. Excellent resource for any writer – beginning or otherwise.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Swap. Edit. Rinse. Repeat.

My partner, Sayantani, and I figured out this collaboration thing as we went along. We had no idea how to collaborate on a work of fiction; but, we did know we had a story to tell. And we trusted each other. We also both have a firm faith in The Story as a valuable, effective, healing, teaching necessity. So between our belief in our story and each other, and our excitement to jump into a project together…we just started writing.

Our process, after two years of working together, now looks something like this:

1. Brainstorm. This is where we would talk on the phone, Skype, or (when we were lucky enough to be in the same room) sprawl across the couch and fling popcorn kernels at each other. (OK – I admit it. I think the popcorn flinging was really when her son and I were watching a movie together on that couch…but you get the picture.)

2. Agree on “homework.” We each took responsibility for a hunk of the plot. After we’d been at this for a while, we usually broke up the assignments by chapter. She’d work on 7 while I worked on 8, for example.

3. Write. Accomplish the goal. Create the action. Do the art. (Need more explanation? Nah…)

4. Swap. I’d send Sayantani my chapter. She, in turn, would send hers to me. We’d read through.

5. Edit. We would read the other’s work looking for things like plot points, character consistency details, dialog…anything that we felt in our gut that should be different. We would “track changes” in Microsoft Word as we worked, so we could always go back and see the original text as well as the edits.

6. Rinse. Repeat. Or Swap and Edit again. Now we would have our original chapters back, with edits from the other writer. We’d edit some more, this time approving or clarifying and making more of our own changes. (This could go on for a long time, let me tell you! I’m not exaggerating when I say there are some chapters that we probably swapped more than a dozen times over the course of the project.)

7. Put it to bed. This became our phrase for when we were both ready to accept all changes in a chapter and call it done….for that moment in time. Usually, this would entail tacking it on to the end of a longer manuscript file in preparation for a longer read-through and … yes… another edit cycle.

As we moved through the process, we would catch each other's bad habits and strengthen each other's work. Always. I can’t remember a single instance where the chapter we were working on was weaker or less enticing after a few rounds of edits.

Here’s another thing: I also can’t tell you now who wrote what. Our styles blended so well over the weeks and months, neither one of us can identify chapters or paragraphs that were written by our own hands. Probably because we collaborated so thoroughly—and our process grew organically-- there isn’t any part of the novel now that we haven’t both touched. Can’t get more collaborative than that.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Embrace the Herd. Share the Pie.

For me, writing alone was a challenge. Desire, guilt and pleasure all rolled into one. It was a little bit like getting up at 6am on a Saturday to sneak the last piece of homemade chocolate cream pie before my sister got to it first.

There was the mouth-watering anticipation – gotta get to the darned pie first! (Oh, I can’t wait to have the time to sit down and write!) This was quickly followed by the nervous sneak - sneak down stairs, careful to let the dogs out quickly before they could wake anyone else up. (I’m heading to the coffee shop with my laptop and a notebook…the clock is ticking! Almost ready!) If I actually got to the pie plate first – and Dad had left the last piece there, ripe for the picking – I’d grab a fork and dig in. Who needs a plate? Glass of milk? No time! Must gobble and snarf, scrape the last of the baked meringue from the edges and use a damp fingertip to pick up every last crusty crumb.

Then the realization of what I’d just done – looking at the empty pie plate with the slightly-upset-stomach feeling of having wolfed down the chocolate-y goodness before I was even really awake – would hit. I’d be disappointed. I’d feel like I should have enjoyed it more and savored it, as a sign of…well…of respect for the pie.

And so it was with this writing thing – I’d gobble and snarf my way through thoughts that were already bouncing around in my head. Or – worse yet – I’d end up with a blinking cursor in front of me and a desperate slightly-upset-stomach feeling of not knowing where to begin. In either case, I’d end up disappointed. I’d get to the end of my coveted block of time and look at the page or screen before me – wondering why I didn’t enjoy it more. Wondering if I was missing something – if, perhaps, I needed to learn to respect the act of writing more so I wouldn’t end up with this strange feeling of emptiness and anticlimax when I packed up my laptop to go home.

At the urging of a lifelong friend, I decided to go out on a limb and take a one-day writing class. It was very informal, conducted in a local community center, and attended by almost all women about my same age. We learned a technique for writing practice. And from that class, a weekly writing group was born.

We called ourselves the Quills and would spend at least two hours, sometimes more, in Stauf’s Coffee Shop in Grandview Ohio. We would write. We would talk. We would read what we had just written – no editing and no ego allowed. Just write it and read it. Share it. Respect the words, the process, and ourselves enough to let the words out. As a group, we were able to support each other’s instincts, encourage each other’s style and listen – really listen – with respect, fascination, laughter, and sometimes tears.

So the solitary act of writing became a herd activity. Well…that’s probably taking it too far. We did write by ourselves. The words on the screen or in our notebooks came from only one of us. The thoughts and ideas recorded went from one brain, through one set of hands to one place…only then to be shared and validated and appreciated by the rest of us.

We wrote crap. (We will all still, to this day, admit that freely!) But we also created art. And often, the art came not from the solitary act of putting words on paper. But from the collective act of listening. The collective act of respecting what the others had the courage to write and to share.

This experience of writing with a group opened up my head and my heart to write with a level of freedom and pleasure I never experienced when I kept it all to myself. It made me a better writer. And prepared me for the next steps in this writerly journey – more classes, fleshing out characters, struggling with plot, participating in critique groups and the biggie: collaborating on a novel. Oh yeah…and writing my own stuff…all by myself, too.

Advice: Join a writer’s group. Take a class. Find others who will listen to what you have written and listen to them. You will learn more about craft and style and expression than you can imagine. You will be a better writer.

If you are in need of some creative juiciness or a little nudge in the direction of freeing up your respect for your own writing process…find Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and read to what she has to say.

In the meantime, I’m still going to dream of that last piece of pie. Remember with the fondness of childhood the silky feel of the chocolate and the fluffy meringue first thing in the morning… But if and when I ever honor my mother’s memory by making this very pie myself, I will be sure to treat that last piece with the respect it deserves. Maybe even let someone else have a bite. Maybe.