Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Book Pick -- A Dog's Way Home by Bobbie Pyron

I love books that are contemporary yet have the feel of "timeless classic," and A Dog's Way Home certainly fills that bill. I also like "Incredible Journey" stories (blubbered over the 3-part, I think, "Lassie's Odyssey" episode on Lassie when I was 10 or 12), and though not a dog-lover per se, think shelties are very cute.

Abby, 11, and her sheltie, Tam, are Dog Agility champions. After another contest win in Virginia, her family is in a serious accident on the way home to small-town North Carolina. Abby ends up in the hospital, and Tam's cage, which was in the back of the truck, flies out and lands in a stream. By the time Tam escapes the cage, he's many miles from the accident scene. Abby, released from the hospital, is determined to find Tam again, and Tam is every bit as single-minded about getting home to "his girl," although he has 400 miles to go. The chapters alternate between Abby, in first person, and Tam, in third. 

As I said, I'm not a dog lover. But I found the sheer loyalty of Tam powerful, and, humbling -- there's really no other word. Yet Tam is an animal, and during his months-long odyssey, through the companionship of a small coyote, he learns to live wild. He forgets his name. He meets people and animals he both can and can't trust. He ends up in a shelter and is almost adopted. Somehow, though, he always remembers himself and resumes his journey, whether it's because his potential new owner names him "Sam" and that rings a bell, or because he's driven off, assumed, in his emaciated state, to be rabid. Reading, I had the distinct feeling that dogs are created for loyalty, and I found that wonderful.

Abby, too, never gives up hope that Tam will return. Of course, everyone in her life tries to help her face that her dog is gone, but she will not give in to such thinking. It's a great compliment to the writing that Tam's story, with its inherent adventure component, doesn't take over the book. Abby's chapters are absorbing, too. Besides efforts to locate Tam, there's an unexpected move to Nashville when her dad's band gets its shot at a recording contract, and a surprise friendship with the weird girl in her new school, who turns out to be the daughter of Nashville's hottest new country star, and whose brother's mapping expertise helps push the search for Tam to a new level. In other words, Abby doesn't waste away pining for her dog, which adds weight and respect to the "never give up" message.

Because some kids will not want to read a story in which the dog dies, a recommendation of a book like this almost requires a spoiler: The dog doesn't die; the pair IS reunited. And the dog doesn't just fight to return to a girl who passively waits; both girl and dog are instrumental in finding each other.

This is a just plain good read. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts each month. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Sunday, July 31.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Monday, August 1.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not as Broad as it Sounds: First Person, Chronology, and Theme :)

I usually write in third person rather than first, although two of my published novels are in first. Here are some things I think/thought I knew about first person that make it different from third:
  • A story in first person must maintain that narrator's voice 100% of the time.
  • The first-person narrator must have a clear, plausible reason for telling the story; we have to believe he'd do it, and telling the story is going to "solve" something for him, which means...
  • The first-person narrator is the MC even if he appears not to be (yes, I'd argue Nick Carraway is the MC in The Great Gatsby). He has a stake in this story's telling that nobody else has, or they'd be telling it.
  • Using a first-person narrator is no excuse for skimping on action and dialogue in order to let the narrator yak, yak, yak. In other words, a weakness of first person is that it tempts one to tell secondhand instead of show firsthand.
  • A striking advantage of first-person narration is ability to maintain POV.
  • Your MC's personality plays a large role in whether you use first or third person. Some characters wouldn't tell their own story to save their lives; others insist on having the floor.
But here are a couple of newer thoughts I'm chewing on, arguments I've come across in my study of the subject: 
  • First person can, and should, open up lots of structural possibilities besides straight chronology.
It's that should that snags me. John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, argues that the storyteller device (of which first-person narration is probably the most popular form) is superfluous, just a frame, if used for a simple chronological story. That kind can be dramatized without the narrator. But in a first-person tale, you have the narrator's entire memory and agenda to play around with. What does she want you to know first? What does she forget and have to tell you later? Both of my first-person novels are chronological. They are mysteries, which also figures in, but yeah--if and when I tackle another first-person book, I'll definitely think about how that might lead into a more creative structure.
  • The theme in a first-person story is more concerned with artistry, truth, beauty, creativity, and so forth, than with heroic action. 
Whoa. I never thought of it that way. But with a bit of thought I can see it: The storyteller, even if relating a story of war, fights, explosions, and heroism, is primarily creating art in telling the story. He's more concerned at that moment with relating what happened than with even the happenings themselves. The theme lies in what the act of storytelling does for the MC, not in what the story itself did for him. But when the story's in third person, with the MC doing exploits but not himself interested in recounting the events, the theme will relate directly to that action and heroism.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What would you add?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Soapbox Series #4 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Nonfiction is True, Fiction is False.""

In days of yore, I worked at the public library. One day, an odd young man came in (he had, on a previous visit, used the library phone [small town, long time ago] to cold-call a dude ranch and blurt, "Can I get a job there?" which had caused me to flee the circulation desk and hide in the stacks to laugh), pointed to the A-Z shelves and asked, "Um, fiction...that's fake, right?"

I don't remember exactly what I said. I do remember that laughter, unless maniacal, was not one of the responses I considered. I also remember that, being in my place of employment here, I kept my mouth shut for several beats. No Mount Vesuvius of righteous indignation. I suppose it's possible I said "WHAT?" although not that loudly. Eventually, I did manage to burble that yes, nonfiction was the factual stuff with the Dewey decimal numbers on the spines, and fiction was imaginative story, invented by the writer.

I don't really want to segue into discussing the worth of fiction, as suggested by questions and comments we've all probably heard: "How am I supposed to get anything out of stuff that isn't real?" "Fiction is all lies." (For the record, I can't stand when writers say fiction is lies.) "Fiction is just made up, it's indulgence, not worth my time." I want to stick to the definitions. IS fiction lies, fake, false, untrue? IS nonfiction anything that's 100% factual, or "happened just that way"?

It ain't that simple.

I've seen stories that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue, accompanied by a note saying the whole incident happened "just like this," so it's nonfiction. Nope. To any editor or reader seeing it, it's fiction based on a real event, and could probably use some changes (fictionalizing) to make it an even better story. Unless you have clearly signaled that this is a personal experience essay, say, or an anecdote meant to illustrate a point you're going to discuss, this "true story" material wants to be, and is, fiction.

I've seen articles that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue to teach history or nature lessons, in which kids ask questions like "So why is the sky blue, Mr. Jones?" and Mr. Jones answers, "Why, Billy, the sky is blue because of the way Earth's atmosphere scatters sunlight," accompanied by a note saying this is fiction. Nope. There's no dramatic or emotional arc. This is a presentation of factual material about how the Earth's atmosphere interacts with light. The goal is to inform. Though it's not written in a style likely to sell today, it's nonfiction.

Is fiction false? Never -- not so long as it puts its finger on the way life and relationships work, the way actions have consequences, the way emotional journeys and character growth come about. Is fiction "made up"? Not all of it. Plenty of events and places occur in fiction that were drawn from real life.

Is nonfiction true? Not if it contains errors. Not if it's simply the best understanding of the day, liable to be proved wrong 10 or 100 years from now. Not if it's solely the opinion of an op-ed writer. Like fiction, nonfiction is filtered through writers who have a particular world view, and that makes a difference. Is nonfiction factual? Yes -- to the best of our knowledge and belief. But if it's found not to be factual, does that make it fiction? No. It makes it bad nonfiction.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject goes like this: "Nonfiction is facts; fiction is truth." But fiction not only has truth in it; fiction has facts in it. Often lots of them. Historical fiction may spring first to mind. But plenty of contemporary fiction, from legal thrillers to police procedurals to books that delve heavily into any pursuit (horse racing, the space program, zookeeping, fashion, whatever) are filled with facts that make the story plausible. Just as you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by simply living and being exposed to this or that, you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by entering a good piece of fiction and being exposed to this or that.

Fiction presents a character with a weakness, a need, and a conflict, and takes him or her through struggles to a decisive battle and an outcome, saying something about life in the process. Nonfiction is (usually) direct writer-to-reader attempt to teach, inform, express, inspire, or persuade.

Good nonfiction, and good fiction, are both true.