Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who do you think I am?

Last Sunday, the sermon at my church was about a time when Jesus asked different people “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a Bible story I was very familiar with, but it struck a chord with the storyteller part of me. Jesus didn’t ask, “Who am I?” The question was more subtle and more loaded – it was specific for each person asked. “Who do YOU say I am?”
On the drive home, my mind was busy relating this to fiction and story construction. It made me think about the ever-challenging Point of View aspect of writing. Will you write your story in first person, as if you are speaking for the main character? Or will you rely on limited third person, telling the story from a further distance? Will you see events through their eyes, or will you leap to an omniscient third person point of view and see into all characters thoughts – see events from multiple sets of eyes?
But beyond the POV you’ll choose as a writer for your novel or story, think about this: how do your characters see one another? What are the different points of view within your story?
Take a step back, and let your main character ask his supporting cast, “Who do you say I am?” What kinds of answers will you get? Is your main character fleshed out and well-rounded enough for the others to each have a unique view of him?
I happen to be reading Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion this week, which is a lucky thing. It is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
The main character, Matt, grows from a young child to a young adult throughout the story. He is a clone, living in a fictional, futuristic country built on the out of control drug trade along the US-Mexico border. He embodies the outsider. He is both different from everyone around him, while simultaneously being exactly the same.
If Matt pused within his own story and asked, “Who do you say I am?” to characters at various points in the novel, he’d hear answers like:
·         Orphan
·         Child
·         Monster
·         Pet
·         Clone
·         Brother
·         Son
·         Friend
·         Prisoner
·         Promise of youth
·         Livestock
·         Hero
·         Enemy
·         Killer
·         Runaway
·         And student

Nancy Farmer helps readers see her main character through the eyes of others – allowing Matt to have more flesh, more body because the reader can see how others view him.  As the points of view change – as Matt grows in both age and in maturity – the answer to the question shifts.
Are your characters so well developed? Have you considered how your cast of characters sees one another? Could you answer on behalf of your various characters, “Who do you say <name of main character here> is?”
As if point of view, all on its own, wasn’t hard enough to tackle, right? I suppose I’m only now learning there will always be a nuance of writing to discover while driving down the highway or a storytelling skill to learn when you least expect it.
Think of it as a version of “job security” for writers. We’ll never stop learning how to tell a story better, will we?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It's that time of year again...

My kids are getting ready to start the school year again – which means we are all about school supplies at our house. Pencils, paper, flash drives, binders, sketch books…you name it, we’ve got it stacked in the hallway or already packed neatly in new backpacks just waiting for the journey to school on the first day.

In a third grade classroom I explored this week, I found boxes and shelves and bins full of books. (Good sign!) Some titles I recognized, and others I didn’t. Some looked on the newer side, and some were dog-eared and well-loved with creases in the corners of pages and ratty edges on the paperback covers. Either way, it always makes me smile to see a well-stocked classroom library. My kids are in for a year of exploration and literary “newness” that comes from a teacher suggesting books to read instead of mom doing the suggesting.

My third grader is still in love with the How to Train Your Dragon books by Cressida Cowell. Together, we’re reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. I find myself explaining some of the language and we end up having discussions about government leaders, alliances, and why countries go to war between chapters, so I’m glad we’re reading that one together. He’s a book lover (like his mom!), so I’m looking forward to seeing what choices he makes from his teacher’s stash of books.

In his soon-to-be classroom, I noticed books by Mary PopeOsborne and Beverly Cleary. I also saw books with titles and authors I didn’t recognize – which made me want to explore the bins and shelves a little longer, myself. In addition to math handouts, science experiments, social studies assignments and gym class – I hope my son comes home excited about new authors and new stories, gives new writers a try and maybe even models some of his own stories after a new author he’s read in third grade.

I’ve been trying to remember books from my third grade classroom – but they’re all a blur! I know I read a lot. I was always that kid with a book in her hand even on the playground… but specifics of titles and authors run together from my elementary school years. Certainly, I read my fair share of Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, and others. When I was in elementary school, I’d lose myself in novels for hours at a time only coming up for air when I got hungry or too sleepy to keep reading. Of course, I also loved shopping for new binders and pencils – couldn’t wait to get my shiny new supplies all sorted out and organized, tucked neatly into my desk, new pencil box or binder.

Ahh…the first day of school!

What books would you like to see in your child’s classroom? What books to you remember finding (Loving? Hating?) in classrooms when you were a child? What books do you hope to introduce to your kids/teachers/classmates?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Have you told your story lately?

I was at a professional conference last week, and had the honor of listening to the story of a wounded warrior.  This woman – a leader from our military – lost her right arm in an attack on her humvee in Iraq.  Now, she is a leader for the Wounded Warrior – an organization dedicated to helping support wounded veterans and their families.

She received two standing ovations from the crowd of well over 1,000 in the audience – one when she took the stage and another after she told her story.

She spoke simply. She spoke with humility and grace. She told her story honestly. We needed, at some level, to hear what happened to her; and not only that – but we needed to hear her voice tell it. We wanted to hear not only the events, but how she felt, how she changed, how her story didn’t end – but continues to this day.

She told us about what the moment of attack was like – the sound of gunfire and the bright flash of light as a weapon tore her vehicle and part of her body to pieces. She told us about lying in the dirt waiting for transportation to a military hospital, and how her fellow soldier (a man under her command) bled into the earth next to her and asked her to tell his children he loved them. She talked about the dozens of surgeries it took to rebuild her body and her journey to becoming a leader and business entrepreneur.

She is strong. She stood up on stage, under lights and microphones, to tell us her story. And her story made me tingle. Brought tears to my eyes when I heard the pain, the calm reaction to such terror, and ultimately the deep desire to continue to tell her story to those who would listen.

There is power in story. There is power in stories as dramatic and heart breaking and inspiring as hers. But there is also power in YOUR story.

Have you told your story lately?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wanted: Escapism, pure and simple

In the midst of these crazy (and HOT) days of summer, I found myself looking not only for some escapism in my reading, but also for the feeling of returning to an old friend. I needed to curl up with a story I knew and loved – one with characters I felt at home with and places I could see in my dreams. I put aside my stacks and piles of unread middle grade and YA novels for the last few weeks, and turned, instead, to an old standby.

Two of my favorite stories -- Outlander and Voyager -- are about time travel, history, Scotland, war, love, intrigue, and large red-headed heroes who always (ALWAYS) say and do the right thing at the right time. Gotta love that going back again and again to the story of Claire and Jamie Fraser is sort of like coming home to my favorite, soft blanket and a mug of English Breakfast tea.  

Diana Gabaldon is a most prolific writer with talent for not only characters who seem like they could walk right off the pages of her novels, but also for time and place. Her settings are historical and redolent with detail. When I read her stories, I feel like if I tilt my head just right, I should be able to see the stretch of the Scottish highlands where Jamie escaped from prison after Culloden. If I close my eyes and inhale, I should smell the herbs hanging from the rafters in Claire’s surgery at the clan castle.
So…instead of working on my own books or writing blog entries or studying my genre – I’ve been goofing off. I’ve been using my reading time (and writing time) to escape to the highlands for a bannock or two and a glass of ale with my friends, the Frasers.

Do you have books you return to time and again? What about them – the characters? The setting? The storyline? – makes you snatch them up when you need an escape?

As writers, what can we learn from these books?

Or…perhaps we should just find a beach chair or a hammock and read. Escape. There will be time for learning and writing tomorrow.