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.