Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Painful and Embarrassing

Paula Danziger definitely had it right.  She knew how to create a truth-telling world.  This is the draw-you-in-immediately-make-you-laugh-sob-and-wet-your-pants-all-at-the-same-time kind of telling the truth.  

Wonderful to read, but not so easy to write.

But once you actually get down to adding that emotional layer--once you are actually laughing, sobbing, and wetting your pants while you are typing, it's going to be the most satisfying kind of work you can do.

My editor, Reka Simonsen, used to say to me, "Dig Deeper."

So that's my challenge for you this week.  Think of things that make you cringe and write down exactly what you are feeling.  Then give that feeling to one of your characters.  Drum up that embarrassing moment--you know which one.  Then pass it on to one of your characters.  Go ahead.  You got this.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is Your Character Driving the Bus?

 “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.” --Alice Walker

With your first few lines, you are inviting your readers into the lives of your characters.  You want your readers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping and somehow getting privileged information that no one else has.  You’re allowing them to sneak into the house with you --to hide in the corner or to be a fly on the wall.
Now you as the writer need to be the fly on that wall.  Listen to your characters.  What are they saying to each other?  Are they angry?  Afraid?  --Maybe even terrified?  And, of course, ask yourself why?

What are your characters worried about?  Has someone in the room caused those worries?

What does your character truly care about?  It has to at some point in the story seem almost unattainable.  Almost. 

I leave you today with a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  “Many people believe that stories are told to put people to sleep.  I tell mine to wake them up.”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Razor Blades and Pencil Sharpeners

Lewis Carroll once said, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”

As middle-grade and young adult writers, we owe our readers those pictures and conversation.  They are the toughest audience around.  Right around third grade, they start to form very strong opinions.  Each day in my third grade class, I would get a round of critiques, with their observations, all of their up-and-downs.  They would watch to see what I had on my desk, what I’d put around the room, how I might be reacting to the fact that Owen is taking all the razor blades out of the pencil sharpeners, and Anna has brought her cell phone to school and is showing it off in the cubby room. 

Kid readers see and hear and feel everything with the sharpness that hasn't yet had the edges buffed or smoothed.  So it is our job to make them see and hear and feel every last bit of our story.  We have to provide the pictures and conversation.  We have to drop those kids into our book from the first page, from the first sentence, or they are going to turn around and leave.  Remember, we’re not there to teach; we’re there to entertain.

They need an equal amount of action, description, and dialogue.  Not one word should be there that doesn’t drive the story forward.  Give them something to wonder about on the first page.  Give them someone to worry about or cheer for.

Novelist Andre Gide said, “The poor novelist constructs his characters; he controls them and makes them speak.  The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them.”

So today, go do a little eavesdropping.  Watch, listen, and wonder.  Color a few pictures.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where in the World Are We??

I have always been partial to anything that is broken-down and decrepit or unusual, because such things always spark a story for me.  I can't help but imagine:  Who lived there?  What went on in that place over the years?

Some people feel that in order for a place in a story to feel authentic, it has to be a very familiar place -- a place the author has experienced in great detail.  But I don't necessarily agree.  We can add details in a such a way that it becomes real and familiar.

And I think that setting is very subjective.  We experience setting in the same way that we experience people.  We all see and notice different details around us.  Think about giving someone directions, for example.  Some of us will deliver what I call the MapQuest version, using strictly mileage and left and right turns, while most of my writer and illustrator friends will use color, shape, and landmarks.

The details of settings add emotion to the story, because we can actually have strong emotional reactions to places, especially when we have our own history there.  Certain elements may spark vivid memories, both good and not so wonderful--your childhood home, for example.

The setting is the holder of the large details, and more importantly, the tiny, sharp details of the character's world.  The writer is coloring the picture for the reader.  I always hope that my reader will feel as if s/he is eavesdropping -- as if s/he is a fly on the wall of the setting.  Your unique setting allows the reader to crawl into your story.

My invitation to you writers out there:  Notice a detail of a place as you are out driving or walking.  It stands out to you in some way, but you may have no idea how or why this is.  You do know that you can completely picture your character there.  Write it.  Do it now.  See where it takes you...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Talk to Strangers

I am cross-posting over at Smack-Dab-In-the-Middle today ... and I am looking at the frozen New England tundra of my back yard, with serious doubts that anything will ever grow there again.  I'd much rather think about growing characters.  I can't make the dirt-streaked snow melt, but I can do whatever I want with my characters.

E.B. White said, "Don't write about man.  Write about man."

I love that quote, because it reminds me that a well-drawn character takes a story to a completely different level.  If a reader does this well, she can make her reader laugh, or cry -- or both.

By creating real characters, a writer can bring out raw emotion in the reader.  I'm not only talking about realistic fiction, either.  I'm talking about creating a character so real, that without even noticing, the reader invites that character into his life.  Well after he has put the book down, he is quoting the character, or saying things like, "That sounds like something Bilbo Baggins would do." ...or..."I'm more of a Gryffindor than a Hufflepuff."

So to create real characters, you have to go out and look at real people.  Eavesdrop and study mannerisms and quirks.  Don't keep to yourself.  (Change out of your pajamas and get out from behind that computer screen.) You need to mingle--to be nosy.  You need to talk to strangers.  Strike up a conversation with the least likely person.  I'm not asking you to go chat up the meth dealer on the corner, but talk to someone who you think is the least like you.

Then write down what those strangers say-- and not just what they say, but how they say it.  How do they stand, sit, move?  What are they doing with their hands? 

Write it down.  All of it.  Take a piece of one person, and a phrase from another.  Add.  Water.  Prune.  Your characters are beginning to grow...I can't wait to meet them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Beware the ides of March


Watch out!

Heed my warning!

We can always exercise a little caution in our lives.  But can we be too cautious as writers?

Sometimes we need to ignore the caution flag and step out of our comfort zones.

I'd be willing to bet that you have at least one idea that's been lurking around in a back out-of-the-way mind cavern.  It may have been stashed away eons ago, because it's a little out of the ordinary or too away from the mainstream.  Maybe someone tried to convince you that nobody was buying/reading (blank) right now. 

Ignore the soothsayer's warning and uncover that idea.  Peel off the layers and let it grow into a story.  It's hung around for so long for a reason, don't you think?

Monday, February 2, 2015

One Letter at a Time

Amira, just twelve years old and in the midst of civil war-torn Sudan, wants nothing more than to learn to read and write and to attend school.  I fell in love with little Amira from Andrea Davis Pinkney's first word in her stunning new novel, THE RED PENCIL.

I was reminded of how words and teachers have made me who I am as a person, as a third-generation teacher, and as a writer.

I most likely wouldn't be here if my grandmother hadn't been allowed to stay in school.  She was born to a family of several children and would have been required to quit school early on and help on the farm and care for her younger siblings.  An education wasn't considered important for a girl.

She was born without fingers on her left hand.  Her father thought she would never marry.  He knew she would need to be able to support herself, so she was allowed to go to school.  She graduated and became a teacher.  She and the man who would become my grandfather wrote long letters back and forth before they were married.  He had lost one of his legs when he was run over by a cart in Ireland.

I wish I had those letters, but I was lucky enough to have my grandma in my life until I was twenty.  I loved that hand of hers, especially when I was a little girl.  Instead of holding my hand, I held hers.  It fit perfectly in my kid-sized hand.

I remember exactly what her watch looked like on her narrow wrist.  But what I remember even more clearly is her voice.  She couldn't carry a tune at all, but she sang out loudly from the church pew.  I can remember the rise and fall of that wonderful voice as she recited her favorite poems to me.  Poems she'd learned in school.

Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me the power of letters and words.  And thank you, Andrea Davis Pinkney, for the power of The Red Pencil.