Friday, December 26, 2008

Are You SURE You Don't Like Change?

How often have we heard it, thought it, said it, recognized it: "I don't like change." You can even tell some people that you do like change and they don't believe you, maybe because they don't want to believe you've somehow conquered this bugaboo that they haven't. And while it's true that change for the sake of change isn't always best, that constant overwhelming change can turn practical daily life into chaos, and that routines and tradition-building have their place (especially in the lives of kids and kitty-cats :)), change is good. I like change because: (1) "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting." How many of us think certain aspects of life couldn't be improved? Without changing what we're doing, that thinking is only wishful thinking. (2) When you stop changing, you start getting old. One of the most concrete (if not necessarily the most important) signs of this is a person's refusal to learn new technology. Not that one has to or should buy every new gadget that comes along, but when a major shift in how a task is handled or a goal reached comes along, and someone in effect says, "That's it, no more, I'm not going there," they've begun the process of opting out and making themselves obsolete. (3) I love to learn, and the essence of learning is change. Think about it. If you truly learn something, the very least you do with it is admit that piece of information into your knowledge base. That's change -- your knowledge base now contains something new. And with most learning, the change is more extensive than that. "I don't like change" = "I don't like to learn." Horrors.

Maybe another reason I like change is because I write fiction and in a successful story characters have to change. But not just any change will do. How do we create meaningful, believable change for our protagonist, as opposed to change that doesn't ring true because it seems to be what the plot needs (never mind if it suits the character), what the particular genre requires (a happy ending for a romance, say), what we've determined from the beginning is the proper moral or religious stand, or what we ourselves want to shoehorn in? I do it by asking myself what the character has learned. Not that you want your story to preach or teach some big lesson, but certainly the character has learned something, made some kind of adjustment, no matter how subtle, to the events of the story. That is the change to bring out in your ending, the change that's true to the character, and the change that will suggest your theme.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Wordplay Today

I have two favorite things about writing. First, by means of making squiggly lines on a surface, one can tell a story or convey information to another. I will never tire of the fascination in that. Second is the words themselves, how they sound, create rhythms, connote and denote, carry greater or lesser power according to their arrangement in a sentence or phrase. Because of this word-love, I love language devices for two reasons: they bring to life a piece of writing, and they are themselves called by such fascinating names, the use of which is fun for the tongue and makes us sound intellectual in the bargain. :)

Most of us learned about metaphor, simile, and personification in junior high. Alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds, is also a pretty familiar concept. But do you know about anaphora (a-NAF-er-a)? This is repetition of initial words in a series of phrases or sentences. A prime example occurs in The Beatitutes in the biblical book of Matthew. Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; Blessed are the meek . . ." And so on. With this construction, we can't fail to notice that all of the people mentioned are blessed, blessed, blessed.

Then there's the opposite: epistrophe (ee-PIS-tro-fee). Here the repetition of words is at the end of the phrases or sentences. Again, the Bible gives a well known example: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." The result is that the reader grasps the important concept that love overcomes all things.

Now here's a cool word -- epizeuxis (eh-pi-ZOOK-sis). This is simply the repetition of one word for emphasis, which means it's not that hard to be able to claim, "Look, I've used epizeuxis!" For example: "Alone, alone, all all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

A less highbrow use that comes to mind is the real estate industry's "Location, location, location."

Finally, let's look at antimetabole (an-tee-meh-TAH-bo-lee), which repeats the words in a given phrase in reverse order. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" (Benjamin Franklin). I really like the "food for thought" quality of this device. Antimetabole seeks to show just how often our thinking is the opposite of what is sensible, helpful and true. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (John F. Kennedy). "You can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy."

These four devices dealing with the effects of repetition are only the tip of the rhetorical iceberg. For writers, there's such richness in both story-craft and word-craft. The funny thing is, inadvertent repetition can sound clunky and boring, but purposeful, crafted repetition sounds strong, clarifies meaning, and gives our readers that resonance we want them to take away from our work. Do you have any favorite rhetorical devices?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Paper Towns by John Green has gotten plenty of buzz, as any new novel by John Green will. And it deserves most of it. Brilliant "guy" dialogue and LOL-funny antics abound. Either Green had a very colorful youth, or you can make this stuff up. If you're John Green. Of course, there are spoilers below.

High-school-senior Quentin Jacobsen has known fellow senior Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were two, and loved her almost as long. Margo is adventurous, mysterious, uattainable, curvaceous, a frequent runaway, and in Q's life when she chooses to be. And the night she cooks up eleven jaw-dropping (and hilarious) acts of revenge on her cheating boyfriend, her cheating best friend, and assorted others while she's at it, she chooses to be. She needs Q's help. And his wheels. And to throw out hints all over the place that this night is a grande finale before she says goodbye to this paper town -- this unreal, artificial Orlando. Maybe for good.

Sure enough, Margo isn't in school the next day. Or for many days after. A series of clues leads Q through a number of abandoned new subdivisions to find her. These, too, are "paper towns," in a sense, started and not finished. Fearing that she has killed herself and wants him to find her body, just as the two of them discovered a dead body as children, Q and his sidekicks search through several creepy places, and Green does a good job of making readers fear that Margo may truly be dead. But when they discover the most interesting meaning of "paper towns," the hunt for Margo takes a new turn. That turn leads to a breathtakingly funny and somewhat crude road trip from Florida to New York in 21 hours.

Paper towns are non-existent towns that mapmakers put on maps for the sole purpose of catching copyright infringers. Only the original map will contain the paper town; the infringers won't know to include it because it doesn't exist. Green explains in the author's note that he learned about paper towns when he and a friend found one -- or didn't find it -- on a road trip. This is a great example of using a fresh and different personal experience to inspire a novel.

Now for my misgivings: First, Margo. She isn't only an enigma to Q, she's a bit too much of one to this reader. There's an awful lot of deep conversation between the two when they meet up again at the end of the book and determine who they are, who they aren't, and who they can't be to each other, and I found my eyes glazing over in parts. And I love the introspective and the deep. I found I didn't really care if I understood it all, because I didn't care enough about Margo. I found her a reckless, troubled, self-absorbed girl who needs healing and counseling, too much for Q and their other friends to handle. Second, isn't this story kind of Looking for Alaska meets An Abundance of Katherines? On its own terms, Paper Towns is a memorable book, with funny, likable (other than Margo), totally modern teen characters. And did I say funny? But within Green's body of work -- I hate to say it, but this book seems to me evidence that he may be falling into the trap of writing the same book over and over. I hope his next novel is a definite departure from what he's already done. I'll give this book its due, but An Abundance of Katherines is still the best in my book.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Plot Begins with W

As this blog advertises, we have a smattering of math today in the form of triangles and line segments. And they say writing and math are strange bedfellows! :) Let me explain: In my writer's library is a helpful volume called Writing Fiction, Nonfiction, and How to Publish by Pat Kubis and Bob Howland. (Yes, it's pretty comprehensive, though not that thick a book.) The one piece of advice from this book that I've never forgotten, and have now gone back to revisit, is the section on plot structures, particularly the "classic plot" described by Aristotle, discussed and interpreted by a number of others, and diagrammed like the above. Using several specific examples (such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire) Kubis and Howland make an excellent case that many strong plots follow a pattern in the shape of a W. Basically, the line segment AG represents the main character's overall goal. AB, a downward line, is the first major obstacle that stands in his way. BC is an upward turn caused by the character's attempt to overcome this barrier. Things are looking up, and CD represents a high point -- it looks as if success is at hand. But in DE, disaster strikes. The trouble gets worse, and EF shows the slide to catastrophe, the black moment. FG is the resolution, in which the protagonist finally achieves his intent, although it may or may not have happened in the way he expected, or even be as worthwhile as he thought.

Multiple characters in a book often have their own W diagrams, and the book itself, separate from any one of its characters, can have a thematic one too. The segments of the W can be different lengths. For example, point F, as the lowest point in the book, might be shown as lower than point B, making the whole DF line segment longer (filled with more action than some of the other parts) and the climb up to success (FG) steeper and more arduous. The endpoints of the line segments are the pivotal events that define each phase and signal the switch to the next. For example, what event, exactly, is your high point (your point D)? What event causes the slide down to E? What scene in your book is your point F? The W diagram can be really helpful in making sure that your plot actually has such moments.

Ever since I first read this, I've been creating W diagrams as part of plot and character development. Since the segment AG represents the character's conflict or goal, and the line segments of the W show what action the protagonist is taking to get there, the W concept really helps show how character and plot develop hand in hand. As it's often been stated (to my great relief, because I prefer character development) "Character is plot."

Monday, December 8, 2008

In the Writer's Library, The Plot Thickens

When I was a newer writer, I belonged to the Writer's Digest Book Club. Most months I'd squeeze at least one book into my modest budget, and after four purchases earn enough points for a freebie that I'd select with great glee. I bought books on nuts-and-bolts basics like plot, POV, and setting; quite a few on novel writing; basic plot patterns and how to use them; most of the offerings specific to children's writing; plotting; creative nonfiction; the writer's life; and did I mention plotting? I read them, marked them up, talked to them in the margins, got a good education and built a decent writer's library this way.

Time passed. And the books aren't as new as they once were. But they're still on my shelves, a library of writerly wisdom. Wouldn't it be exciting to delve into them again? So I picked up the book called -- this will shock you -- Plot by Ansen Dibell. And found a treatment for what ails me in a chapter called "Early Middles."

My novel is begun. It is SO begun, that it's been begun for a year. I have my research (LOVE that research!), my characters, my MC's initial problem and a bang-up complication, and my first 50 pages. I have promise, potential, and critique partners who want to know what happens next. But forging into the middle is hard. It really makes me plot, you see. And it's so much easier to remain in the land of potential and promise than to battle on into the thick of the story and possibly fall on my face. And I've noticed that after really getting that beginning perking, a sort of fatigue sets in.

Guess what: I'm normal! Dibell calls this "fiction fatigue," and has developed the following tenet: "Every plot will try to go wrong after the first big scene." Take a two-day breather, move into your middle, and leave your beginning alone, she says. Because you're tempted to go down a wrong path after the first big scene, if you start fiddling with your beginning right after you finish it, when the wrong path is beckoning, you're likely to make changes based on this wrong-path thinking. Which means most of this second-guessing will be wrong. And I've noticed one thing about my own writing process that corroborates what Dibell is saying: If I feel a slow-down coming on, it's important to stop and listen. What's usually wrong is that I'm about to make a mistake. Stepping back from that portion of the story temporarily to view the whole and to give my mind a rest can keep me from taking a wrong fork in the road.

And then she speaks my words of affirmation for the day: "I think more stories have collapsed from premature tinkering than from any other single cause." Yes! Not only should the writer refrain from revising too soon, but from having the work critiqued too soon. (How you deal with the latter, when you belong to a group and want to remain a member, may be another topic.)

Dibell speaks directly to me when she says, "Fiction fatigue: expect it, and don't let it ruin your story." Now to see what she has to say about "gearing up for the special tasks that middles involve."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Can You Write a Children's Book? Let Us Count the Ways . . .

It's something children's writers run into all the time -- the general public equating "children's book" with "picture book." But of course there are many genres, age levels, and types of books. I don't know about you, but I benefit from a review of categories and guidelines every now and then, because these things DO change. I've done some research as a refresher for myself, and found that there are no fewer than eleven children's and YA book categories. Let's take a look.

1. Baby Books -- These are for infants as the name suggests, and may be nursery rhymes, lullabies, books that picture and name common objects, or even wordless. Sometimes these are made of plastic rather than paper or cardboard, are very small in size, and viewed as "toy books" more than "real books."
2. Toddler Books -- Here is the beginning of simple stories of a child's everyday experiences or nonfiction topics such as colors, shapes, and so forth. Format branches out to include board books, pop-ups, or novelty books (those that make sounds, have die-cuts, scratch-and-sniff, etc.) Lengths usually top out around 300 words.
3. Early Picture Books -- For ages roughly 2-6, big sellers in this category may find a double life as board books. For example, Good Night, Moon. These books are shorter than 800 words, sometimes closer to 500.
4. Picture Books -- This the category most people mean when they use the term "picture book." These books are for ages 4-8 and traditionally contain 32 pages, although sometimes they have 40. Word lengths are usually around 1000 words. (The older 48-page format, at least for fiction, is pretty much dead, as is the longer "picture storybook" format that might extend up to 1500 words or so; you can still find the latter at a few publishers.) Topics, types of stories, and writing styles really start to branch out here, yet the pictures still tell at least 50% of the story. Most Caldecott-winning titles fall into this category. Nonfiction picture books can run maybe 2000 words, and may have that 48-p. length.
5. Easy Readers -- These books for about ages 6-9 have a more "grown-up" size and shape, but still generally have fewer than 2000 words and can be a lot shorter than that. They may be divided into "chapters" that are often self-contained episodes. Sentences must be grammatically simple -- simpler than in picture books, perhaps -- and usually written in a "ragged right" style, in which each line ends at a natural pause to aid comprehension. Publishers often subdivide this category into early, middle, and advanced easy readers.
6. Early Chapter Books -- Also aimed at about ages 6-9, these are written like easy readers yet are longer and reduce the illustrations to one every few pages instead of one per page or spread. A typical ms. for a book like this may run 20-30 pp. Plots depend on action and dialogue, not thoughts or psychological content.
7. Chapter Books -- Both age level and ms. length are growing -- about 7-10 and 45-60 pp. for these. Plots gain some complexity, but are still action-based. These books begin to employ cliffhangers at chapter endings. Chapter books are NOT middle-grade novels, which are described next.
8. Middle Grade Books -- These are traditionally for ages 8-12, and ms. lengths suddenly jump much higher. Largely because of Harry Potter, the general 25,000-word and 100-150 pp. in ms. length are now "floor figures" in the opinions of some. Lengths can and do get considerably longer. One or more subplots figure in. This is the age at which kids begin to fall in love with characters rather than just the action, and it's the age most likely to determine whether a child will become a permanent reader. Genres expand to include the gamut: historical, fantasy, especially humor; and nonfiction will cover just about anything a kid can be curious about. Most Newbery winners fall into this category, and a look at those will show you the sudden jump in sophistication level between MG novels and chapter books. Middle grade novels are NOT chapter books, which were described prior.
9. Upper Middle-Grade -- Also informally called "tween," this is a fairly new category aimed at kids ages 10-14. While there've been books designated for this age range for decades, the category is catching fire in the marketplace. Some Newbery contenders definitely straddle this category; think anything by Gary Schmidt, for example. As we might expect, kids who feel they've outgrown mid-grade but aren't quite ready for the "coming of age" and psychological/emotional concerns of YA readers will gravitate here. These readers want a peek into teen life, but from a bit of a distance yet.
10. Young Adult -- These books, usually for ages 12 and up, tend to deal with coming of age and the MC's inner feelings. The MC might be 15 or 16 years old and is likely to speak in first person. Nonfiction for YAs can cover subjects studied in high school or supplement it, typically in the broad areas of science or social studies.
11. Older YA -- For ages approximately 14 and up, older YA often crosses over with adult fiction these days. Some of these plots are grittier and carry the older teen protagonist, who is often 18, out from under the parental roof. Most restraints on adult behavior are lifted, and readers are assumed to understand a story on the same level of comprehension as an adult could.

Now -- I feel positively organized after all that! :) Which category is your favorite?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

In which I discuss A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson and issue a spoiler alert. At seventeen, Zoe's childhood-that-never-was is gone, swallowed up in role reversal as she takes care of her alcoholic mother. From the beginning we learn that "it's always been about Mama," and gradually other details unfold: Mama has never been there with such simple things as a hot meal and a kiss on the cheek, Mama never wanted her to begin with, Dad died in a drunken stupor of his own in a hotel bathtub in what may or may not have been a suicide. Zoe's younger brother has found a home with an aunt and uncle, but "there isn't room" for Zoe there. Outside of being addressed by her mother as "Sugar," especially when Mama wants something, Zoe is an abandoned child, clinging only to her father's story of naming her Zoe when she was still in the womb and her mother didn't want her, because Zoe means "life." And clinging to the tantalizing fact of a room for rent, a room on Lorelei Street.

The house on Lorelei Street is owned by a sweet but eccentric old lady with a "can do" attitude who has long since stopped caring whether anyone thinks she's weird. In this respect, the book falls into the "eccentric old neighbor who just needs a friend" cliche that shows up frequently in children's lit, though mostly in younger stories. Predictably, the two unlikely friends connect and supply each other's needs: increased income and human contact for the landlord, a healthy adult role model and encourager for Zoe. But Zoe's only source of income is her waitress job at a diner, and financial trouble can't be far off.

Quicker trouble erupts in the form of a visit from Grandma, who knocks at her door and hollers about what a horrible girl she is for moving out. Suddenly we learn about a whole family we didn't know Zoe had: Mama is Grandma's youngest and favorite child, and Grandma denies that Mama's alcohol problems are killing her. Zoe almost gives in to Grandma's insistence that she move back home, then refuses. Taunting her that she isn't real family, will not be welcome at her brother's birthday party, and will certainly "come begging and crying" to be taken back, Grandma storms off. And Zoe determines she will never go crawling back. Though this portion of the novel does the very important job of putting Zoe between a rock and a hard place, I found the sudden introduction/acknowledgment of so many new family members jarring. I think some hint of their existence should have been given earlier.

Pearson's greatest success is the compassion for Zoe that she evokes in the reader. Zoe is an understandably and believably tough girl -- she swears, smokes, has looked for love in several wrong places, tends to run afoul of teachers, and yet our hearts go out to her. She represents youth's desperate search for direction, meaning, purpose, love, someone to have a care what happens to them. We understand why she flirts with death, often balance-beaming across an aqueduct with other daredevil kids, although others have fallen in and drowned.

I must say, I was disconcerted to find a 4th-level Accelerated Reader sticker on this book. The seventeen-year-old MC, abundant use of four-letter words, taken-for-granted teen sex, a quick "ewww" snapshot of the drunken mother with a lover, and Zoe's ultimate sex-for-pay with a diner customer when she is desperate for rent make this an upper YA title. The word "prostitute" is never used, but Zoe realizes after only the one episode that she is now too much like Mama and Daddy for comfort -- she who would do anything for the room, the same way her parents would do anything for a drink. In the end, she is off to stay with one of Grandma's other daughters for a while -- the one who distanced herself from the drama early -- "as long as there's room."