Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some elements of good writing

I've been trying so hard to write lately, and I have ideas crowding my head and rising up in my insides and wanting to get out. But at the same time, it's that pre-school runup where schedules are insane. So instead, I've been taking notes on good writing as I read in waiting rooms and run from one kid event to another. I'm really eager to get back to my WIP! But in the meantime, I'm jotting down a few things that I keep seeing when I read that stand out as Very Good Things to Do in Your Book:

1. I think I have a fairly well developed sense of justice. So one thing that makes me really like a character is if they are essentially decent people in a world that isn't. If they quietly do their good thing without complaining, and let me, the reader, complain about injustice on their behalf, I'm hooked. Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. Sam in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Harry against the Dursleys or Umbridge or Voldemort or Snape. I'm pretty sure this is a personal thing, but I am much more sympathetic to these kinds of characters than the Bad Person Who is Misunderstood/aka Hot Bad Boy. Regardless which kind of character you like, though, standing two very different characters against each other can help saturate their colors a bit, and make them for vivid and memorable.

2. The use of weaknesses to solve the ultimate problem. I like a character with weaknesses. Someone likeable who still has something to struggle against. And I love it when they find a way to use what seemed a weakness as a strength. Brandon Sanderson's characters do this quite a lot. And even if it's not exactly a weakness, I notice this kind of "seeding" happening in other books, where the pieces crop up as the book goes along, seemingly unconnected, and then--the final piece falls into place and the MC realizes that this--THIS--is how to solve the unsolveable problem. There's a fantastic kickboxing scene at the end of The Knights of Crystallia (Alcatraz) that pulls a bunch of threads together quite awesomely. No less interesting is the way the ultimate solution in Shiver is laid out. I like this sort of thing because I like to be able to be surprised and at the same time reread and see how it was inevitable.

 3. Nouns and verbs. Specific nouns and verbs that show what kind of thing your focal character pays attention to and cares about. I still remember wanting to eat Elizabeth Bunce's book A Curse Dark as Gold when I read it the first time. I'd spent nearly two years in Germany, and while I speak Germany, my reading lags. Being me, I had a library card and checked out books all the time in German. But it was still slow going. To get a book that was in my own language, and to have such LOVELY language...well, I didn't eat it, but I came close. :) The thing with language is, it doesn't have to be all sunsets and purple. It just has to fit the character, be specific, and surprise your reader with new ways of looking at things.

4. Just as you lay in the pieces of the plot solution, you should lay in reasons for meaning. In The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith, the actual on the ground plot is slight. Two people get on an airplane. They talk. They get out at the other end, and one goes to a wedding and the other to...well, not a wedding. The thing that makes the book work is all of the investment the author made so we know the meaning of the events. The MC is scared to fly. Her dad was the one who helped her over that fear. Except it's her dad's wedding she's going to--to a new wife, the woman he left their family for. So when this total stranger (but very nice! See #1) helps her through her flying fears, the whole action takes on tons more meaning. In Shiver, we get a bit of backstory about something the characters went through earlier in life. Then in the Now, we get a similar situation--only, the stakes are higher this time. We already have a clue how that character will react, which heightens the tension, because we know how much more is at stake in the Now. In Harry Potter, we have been amply shown--over pages and volumes and bucketloads of story--everything Harry stands to lose if he acts. But we've also been shown why he can't NOT act when he walks into the forest.

What about you? What have you learned about writing from reading good books?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Learning from other media (Disney's Frozen)

I'm always fascinated by the different processes people take to tell a story. Sometimes readers get offended by film adaptations because oh no, the filmmakers changed something. How dare they!! I think they'd be surprised to know just how many things change with any movie, not just a book-to-film adaptation. I saw Frozen recently, and since then my house has been full of kids listening to the soundtrack. We found outtake tracks on Youtube, and I've seen a few interviews with the filmmakers/voices/songwriters. Making a movie (especially an animated musical) involves SO many more people than a novel does--but to some extent, novels are still somewhat collaborative. You have an editor, an agent (maybe), you have an illustrator (maybe), and you possibly have experts who you consult for factual details. You have critique partners and/or beta readers. So...it's sort of similar, except on a smaller scale (and you play most of the parts).

Anyway. From what I watched, it looks like they had a concept, and chose some actors for the voices. They had scenes in mind, but they did a lot of playing around, doing rough sketches of scenes with the actors to develop the characters. (Instead of the actors just reading an already-finished script.) The songwriters said they had daily conversations with the director and producer for a year and a half before writing songs. That was to really settle the emotional core of the story, and to understand the characters. And even then, there are so many songs that didn't make the final cut--not just ones that would have been redundant, but ones that would have taken the story in different directions. (There were songs about a pageant when Anna and Elsa were little, and about a troll prophecy, and about a sword sacrifice--which didn't end up in the film at all, not even hinted at. And I think it was a good choice, because it gave the characters freedom of choice and a lot more ambiguity, instead of following a prophecy they couldn't escape.) Once they had music and script, the animators could go in and start drawing. And the actors said that the drawings in turn influenced their own body language as they voiced their lines. Oh, and the artists? They actually went to both Norway and to Wyoming for real-life experiences with the setting. With ice and snow and all the many ways they can look.

The last thing that stuck out to me was a little comment about comedy that the director and producer shared:
“Everyone can recognize the flaws in the characters, and that’s what makes them funny.”

So, what does a novelist get from that?

1. If you bump up your characters' flaws, you can safely laugh as an insider because you know just how that feels. And it’s a sharing moment for the audience/readers.

2. Going on location is great for sensory accuracy. I love writing about the places I've lived because all that research is as close as walking outside the front door. Not just sights, but colors, echoes, wind, culture, smells... all of that. If I were writing about North Dakota, I wouldn't have to stop at "it's cold." (It is.) I could also note the pink and blue and gold of a sunrise over snow, I could describe all the different textures of snow and ice that fall, and what they're like after a day of thawing or a hard freeze. I could tell you about the smells (either extreme dirty exhaust, or the almost old-blood smell of the sugar beet plant across the river). You can't get that from a photo of the town. On location is great.

3. Don't get tied into the one and only rendition of your book and think it can never be different. Just...let go of that idea entirely. Your story is not fixed in stone! And I don't mean changing a little word here or there, either. Be prepared to scrap and change whatever you have to to serve the overall story.

4. Look at all that time they spent developing characters and finding that core song or whatever to understand them. Maybe, just maybe, the plot springs from understanding your characters on a deep level, and then putting them in a room and setting them loose. What characters want, need, and lack create the plot.

So, what are readers going to take out of your book? What scenes will they still be "singing" a week later? What points are going to make them smile because they recognize their own shortcomings  in the characters?And what other things have you learned from studying film (or other creative productions)?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What makes a good book

(Forgive the blog absence; I've spent the past six months dealing with moving. But now I'm back! And have more writing thoughts.)

There are big books and there are small books, and one is not "better" than the other. There are times when I've wanted a sweeping novel that I carry with me my whole life, and other times I just need the right light, small thing to brighten my day, and only that will do. But that said, I think there are seven things one of those stick-with-you-forever books has:

1. Heart. Something in the book directly hits a core emotion.
2. Humor. Even if it's a serious book. A little humor goes a long way.
3. It's specific. Sometimes to be universal, you have to be specific. It helps with immediacy, it helps heighten both humor and pathos, and it helps a reader really know the characters.
4. There's something real in it (see #1) but there's also something exotic in it that the reader just isn't likely to experience in real life. That's the high concept element. It could be an exotic setting, a pitting of two extremely opposite personalities together, or an extreme situation where someone has to sink or swim and CAN'T push off the challenge. (Dystopia, mystery, saving the world from an evil overlord, etc.) Readers want to escape into that world, but they want ties to what they know is true at the same time.
5. Depending on the age group, probably some romance. In any case, there are characters (yes, plural) that the reader will love. INCLUDING THE MAIN CHARACTER. No blank slates!
6. A main character who is a bit of an underdog. Flawed, but trying so hard.
7. In MG/YA especially, a sense of immediacy and psychic closeness that lets the reader live inside the main character's head. Adult fiction may be completely different, but if you write a book looking back nostalgically on the character's youth, you will lose your audience nine times out of ten.

Especially in kid books, readers read to figure out who they are, how they fit in the world, and what they'll fight for. Kid books stay with you forever; they get into your DNA and bolster you when things get rough in the real world. They provide not only information but also hope. So build those books well! Because you're not just building books.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Art that's true

My area hosts a pretty major youth ballroom competition every year. Between my friends whose kids compete and my kids’ friends who also compete, my girls and I go to watch every year. We aren’t a particularly athletic family, dance included, but someone needs to be the audience, right?

This time, we stayed for about four hours, catching younger divisions of dances like swing, cha cha, tango, and samba. No matter what their age or how long they’d been doing that particular dance, you could tell instantly who had years of dance behind them, even if it was “only” ballet. They were at home and at ease with what they were doing. All of them, however, even the relative newbies, had confidence pouring off of them. (Not cockiness, though. When they walked off the stage, I didn’t see a single kid acting like they owned the world, or like they thought they were better than anyone else. I’ve lived in a lot of places around the world, and that’s something I consistently notice where I live now: high levels of art + low levels of ego.)

Between the newer and more advanced categories were the national youth cabaret championships. Cabaret, at least in this context, is kind of like figure skating, only with more of ballet and gymnastics and less of icy floors and sharp blades strapped to your feet. Cabaret is the dance with all the lifts and balances that make you gasp. Unlike when you dance a few minutes of say, the cha cha for judging purposes, the cabaret is a dance with a plot to it. The dancers in this competition were excellent—their steps were difficult and graceful, and watching made you feel like somehow you could do that, too. Maybe your body couldn’t, but your soul could. Not to mention the pure enjoyment of athletics raised to art, a similar feeling I get when watching the Olympics. Beautiful bodies expressing something beautiful inside all of us.
That said, my prediction on scoring turned out to be accurate for every couple. The top two were my favorites. The second place couple had the most challenging moves, with a lot of lifts and complex turns that could have resulted in some serious injury had they not been so perfectly executed. It was technically perfect. The first place couple was slightly less flashy, but there was something…something about their performance that made you know that they were the winners. Controlled grace. The spotlight in cabaret is on the female dancer who’s flying through the air, etc. etc. You expect her to be graceful. But I’ve never seen a guy dance as gracefully as this—I can only assume he had just as many years of ballet as she did. Their choice of music and even costuming/color was perfectly suited to their routine. They made it all look easy, as if of course anybody could do this. I was never worried about “what if they fall,” because of course they wouldn’t. It reminded me of long-ago Nadia Comaneci’s perfect Olympic gymnastic performance—that natural and graceful. And because of it (or maybe the reason for it), there was a lot of emotion to the dance that felt like they were taking you behind the everyday fa├žade to show you what they were really thinking and feeling.

And that’s what a good book does. With any book, whether you’ve written one like that before or not, you can tell if an author has put in long years of unappreciated or unseen work beforehand. It’s all those years of ballet before taking up ballroom. All those half-finished or trunked stories, all those rejected manuscripts where you opened a new file and started a new story the next day.  Beyond that, there are books that are technically flawless. Books that are as flashy and “hooky” as you can get, with extreme tension and plot turns that make you gasp and a voice that pushes to the limits. A lot of these get published. But the books that you love, the ones that say something to your soul that other ones don’t, have that something extra that this winning dance entry had, too. It gives everything to the art. It opens up all the doors and windows we like to keep closed for fear of exposing ourselves too much. It tells the truth in the most naked and vulnerable way, and in that, it links us to the things that are most human in all of us.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Showing and Telling and Feeling

I get the impression from all the many writing books out there that most people have the opposite problem here, but in case you are like me and getting this kind of feedback, I'm going to post a few things I've learned here about showing, telling, and making feelings clear in a book.

Show, don't tell. That's what you've always heard, right? And it's true. Put your reader in the action. Don't tell about it after the fact. Don't jump us five minutes later, even. Let the scene unfold in real time as the reader gets to it. Give us sensory impressions--how it smells like long-forgotten lunches in front of the lockers, how it sounds when the goodbyes of kids with friends slam against the metal of the locker doors. How small and clear and sharp the pupil of the bully's eye is as he looms over Our Hero. Show.


You have to tell, too. Just a little bit. You have to give us Our Hero's reaction. That can come in internal reflection (owie kazowie!!), in watching him gasp, in his dialogue, OR in setting up his reaction and/or fears of that very thing BEFOREHAND, so that when the worst happens, we know, we KNOW what it means for him. It needs to be personal--not just the obvious fact that someone hitting you hurts. The blows can feel like payback for every time Our Hero let someone down. Or maybe as he lies there on the floor, he can worry about not being able to meet the cute girl who finally started talking to him when and where he promised. Whatever it is, you've got to have a reaction, and it should be as specific to your character as psosible. It is not enough to leave it all to the reader. The reader might form an opinion, but you have to let them know how close their opinion is to the character's.

I think sometimes we are overly influenced by the screen. In movies, we aren't inside a character's head. All we have to go on is what we read from the outside. If an actor shows us expressions we associate with certain feelings, then we make an interpretation. And writers do this--we describe our character's external, physical reactions. But movies have visual camera shots, they have color (or not), they have great, swelling music and drums and SFX. Writing doesn't. We are both trying to get to the same thing in the end--that gut emotion--but we use different media, and have to use different ways to get there. The inside of your character's head is the most important place because it's what gives all the action of your story meaning. Don't leave it out!

When you do this kind of telling, you let the reader into the mind and heart of your character. That means you let your reader feel. Since I believe in fiction, anyway, (as opposed to a nonfiction manual on air compressors), the most important thing about strong writing is to make your reader feel, this is the key point for your book, no matter what it's about.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing male characters if you're female

Firstly, let me direct you to a recent post by agent Mary Kole on reactions. She says that reactions are the MOST important part of interiority--they tell the reader how they are supposed to react to a situation, and pull them into what the character is experiencing. I love this advice, because it's something concrete. You can go through your manuscript and make sure you have the appropriate reactions for each significant exchange or event, and noticeably strengthen your book. I love love love this post, and have notes all over my draft to revise for this specificially.

Secondly, I'm finally starting to look at some of the material from this summer's Writeoncon.com. They always have such good information! I liked this video by author Jessica Martinez, which is supposed to be about writing sexual tension in dialogue, but which is really more about paying attention to the subtext of a conversation and also about writing believable male characters if you're female. She points out that sometimes female writers create male characters who behave like they wish they behaved, when no real guy would actually talk like that. They are not going to sit down and just share all their feeeeeeeelings. Her advice: if you can't honestly see your spouse/brother/significant other saying this, it's a good clue a character guy shouldn't be saying it, either. So my additional thoughts on male characters are these:* guys don't play a lot of mental emotional gymnastics. They aren't going to overanalyze the intricacies of what someone said and what they may have been saying underneath, etc. Yes, guys can read (or send messages) between the lines, but most guys I know are not going to spend hours trying to go over conversations to pick out emotional messages about relationships. Also, face is kind of important to guys, you know? As in, they want to be seen as cool and competent. Girls might bond over sharing mistakes and embarrassing moments, but I think guys would rather keep their private humiliations to themselves. Of course all guys are individual, but when writing them, especially middle grade and adolescent ones, they are going to be a mix of clueless, trying not to look clueless, and occasionally, almost accidentally, dead center on target when it comes to doing the right thing or being there for someone emotionally. I've read some rather fancifully fictional guys, but I've also read some really excellent ones that are funny, vulnerable, endearing, but still "real." Some great examples, IMO, are Bobby from Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen (because of his excitement and work into solving his invisibility problem), Ledger Kale in Ingrid Law's Scumble (he is trying soooo hard not to be a failure, but he holds some of it inside, too, you know? He still wants to keep face.) Jeffrey in the Penderwicks series feels like a real boy--he does have deep thoughts (about music, about his father, even wondering about getting married someday), but he doesn't sit on the couch all day, eating cookie dough over it, either. Percy Jackson (and Harry and Ron, for that matter) is a great example, because he's awkward and sometimes insensitive (but not intentionally!), and good-hearted as he tiptoes over the minefield that is understanding girls.

Any other well-written guy characters you want to mention? Any other elements of capturing the essence of a real male adolescent on the page?

*Source of my observations: my husband, three sons, their friends, the teens and kids I've worked with at school and church, and observing the bus line that forms outside my living room window.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Voice, character growth, and Daddy Long Legs

I just finished reading Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, published in 1912, to my girls. The story: Jerusha "Judy" Abbott is an orphan. A trustee of the John Grier Hall finds her snarky high school essay on trustee visiting day at the home amusing, and on a whim, decides to send her to college. He's done it a few times before for boys, but never girls. His conditions: she will write a monthly letter, letting him know how things are going and what she's learning. He will pay for college and send her money, but will never reveal his name or anything about him. She is to call him Mr. Smith. All Judy knows is that he's rich, he apparently dislikes girls, and he is tall (she saw his shadow around the corner as he left that day). So she calls him Daddy Long Legs, and writes funny letters about what she's learning, the extent to which she tries to hide her true origins (because in 1912, the girls who are in college are definitely not people who came out of foundling homes!), and her hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Her attempt to conceal her orphanage past among some rather wealthy friends eventually gets her into trouble, though, as you can imagine.The voice in the story is simply lovely--funny, wise and naive at the same time, and sometimes heartbreaking, too.

There's a recent musical based on the book that uses many lines from the book, but also shows the other side of the stamp, ie what "Mr. Smith" Daddy Long Legs is thinking as he reads these letters, and what happens to him. Umm...if you're planning to read the book first, don't listen to the music until you're done, because there are spoilers. But two things really stuck out to me after listening to the music, things that are just very well done, and useful to study for writing.

Firstly, the voice. There's this great song called "Like Other Girls," where Judy says she just wants to be like other girls (ie without these weird gaps of knowledge and social errors, and without the fears she brought with her from the orphanage). So she sings things like, "I just want to be like other girls--bake lemon pies, cure diseases, win the Nobel Prize--like other girls." Um. Maybe her peers want to bake lemon pies and wear pretty shoes, but I'm pretty sure that not all of them want to win the Nobel Prize. There's just this lovely sense in the whole song that even in all her wanting, she still doesn't really understand what it means to be like other girls. It's this funny mix of her individual perceptions of the world against what the viewer knows is the real reality that gives her such a lovely voice and personality. So think about that with your characters. We all see part of the mysterious elephant, and believe that is the total reality. What part does your character see? How does s/he describe it? That's a part of that character's voice.

Secondly, character development. Early in the show, Daddy Long Legs sings about charity. He's rich through no effort of his own, but since he's come into this amazing wealth, he doesn't think he should keep it. He's very happy to share it with the less fortunate. And there's really nothing wrong with that. He's not "bad." He doesn't love wealth more than anything--he has a basic virtue, and it's charity. But he really only has a theoretical understanding of charity. But the letters--they force him out of being a casual observer. He who doesn't like people is forced to get to know them--and realize that he was lonely before, and now he's starting to get filled. Later in the musical, he realizes that his anonymity has created enormous obstacles to his own happiness, and extricating himself from the situation he's created is going to require other people's forgiveness. And now--he realizes that charity isn't just thoughtless passing around of money, but something you give to someone that they cannot do for themselves. And he realizes that he needs the charity that is forgiveness, too. It's a lovely, lovely example of character growth. You don't have to have your character be horrible at the beginning to grow. You can have them basically good, but untested, naive, with basic but rather shallowly understood good intentions. And then they live it, and understand what they once gave lip service to in a very real way.