Thursday, May 30, 2013

Annie: A masterclass in writing

Annie and I have a rather complicated relationship. See, I was 4 when the movie premiered, frequently called Annie, and had a mop of curly blonde hair to boot. Over the years, people would often compare me to Annie, give me gifts of Annie-related merchandise, and assume I must love her. I distinctly remember a Little Orphan Annie pillow with those freaky empty eyes--at some point in my childhood I colored in her pupils.

But of course I did love Annie... plucky heroine with a dog, great musical numbers, and living her wildest dream. How could I not? And last week, while searching for books and movies similar in plot to my new work-in-progress, I ended up re-watching Annie for the first time in decades.

Some of it hasn't aged well, the stereotypical portrayals of Mr. Warbucks' Asian bodyguards (Punjab and The Asp), the cultural references, that ridiculously long "Let's Go To The Movies" Radio City Music Hall number. But mostly, I was absolutely delighted. My husband will tell you. I've been singing the rest of the soundtrack for the past week.

But even more amazing? Watching Annie was a complete masterclass in writing.

Firstly, think of the setting, which ranges all over New York. There's the busy, poverty-stricken neighborhood of the orphanage, Mr. Warbucks' mansion, a radio studio, Radio City Music Hall. Even the orphanage is like a fun house, with rows of beds, multiple stories, ornate staircases in between, with sheets, laundry carts, and kids singing and dancing. Mr. Warbucks invites Annie on his personal helicopter to visit FDR in the White House. The climax is on a precariously high railroad bridge.

I've been warned in the past that too many settings can make a story feel disjointed. But all these locations simply felt as if they belonged, were part of the whole, and showed New York in full, fun detail. Further, each setting illuminates the characters: Annie's impoverished world, and Mr. Warbucks' wealthy, but ultimately empty world.

I was even more impressed by Annie's use of ever-escalating tension. Take the scene where Annie's imprisoned in the orphanage's office closet after her foiled escape. Grace, Mr. Warbucks' personal secretary, arrives to pick out an orphan to stay for a week at the mansion. Annie's able to mime all sorts of details to Grace, so Grace will pick Annie, and Annie will finally be able to escape for real (yay!). Then Miss Hannigan announces that she won't let Annie go (rats!). Grace argues with Miss Hannigan, convinces her to let Annie leave (yay!). Then Annie's dog appears (rats!), and Annie has to start all over again, convincing Grace to let her take Sandy as well. This pattern, of Annie's excitement, followed by dashed hopes, was repeated in almost every single scene, making for fast, tension-filled storytelling.

I could say much more, about the movie's rapid pace, the interweaving of themes, the reliance on a child's point of view... but I'll stop for now. I'll leave you with my favorite song, from the star of the movie (of course, not Annie but the inimitable Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan!). Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Immersing myself in story

I'm at that funny place in the writing process where I mostly have a story. I can talk about it, make it sound like a story. I've even got an entire plot outlined. I know my characters, I've been through almost every chapter of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story (my bible for story creation). But there are still holes. And my brain is tired. Rather than just filling holes and moving forward, I find myself pacing around the holes, secretly hoping they'll magically fill themselves.

So I've spent most of the past week not writing, but reading voraciously. I've been seeking out young adult and middle grade books similar to my own, and outlining their plots, analyzing their symbols, and pondering their characters. I even found myself happily watching the movie version of the musical Annie the other day.

I'm a little worried I'm just killing time, treading water until I have enough energy to move forward with my work. But every so often as I'm reading, I end up scrambling for my notebook to scrawl down a difficult question, or grabbing my computer, so I can type an observation. I like to think, as my mind processes all this story, somewhere in a back room wheels are turning. At least, that's the theory.

Do you ever have to immerse yourself in story to move forward?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Auditioning characters: NESCBWI Conference 2013

I spent most of author Lisa Papademetriou's NESCBWI Conference session on The Art of the Outline scribbling like a fiend. Not only was her presentation lively (there were jokes! Musical interludes!), it was full of valuable information, from story format, to scene structure, to numerous tips about how to craft a plot. Seriously, looking back through my notes, I need to type these up, because I'm not sure otherwise how I'm going to hold onto all of these gems.

But thanks to some fortuitous timing, I was working on developing my characters the day after the conference, so I was able to take Lisa's character exercise for a test drive. I already take notes on my characters' weaknesses, my characters' needs and desires. But Lisa asked a few extra questions which I had never heard before:

How could your character's flaw lead to her downfall?
How could your character's greatest strength save her? 

I imagined it as an audition, each character moving to the center of the stage, looking down at me while I sat there asking my questions, my feet perched on the seat in front of me, notebook at the ready. There weren't any surprises when it came to my main character, but all of a sudden I was seeing some of my supporting characters in an entirely different light.

One of my girls dreams of being a fashion designer. I was jotting down all her talents, her organizational ability, her eye for color, her mean ability with eyeliner, and suddenly she was telling me how she didn't really have a strength, as such, nothing that could save the world, but she could create some excellent disguises.

I practically leapt out of my chair, grabbed my imaginary character into my arms, and screamed, "I want this one!"

I'm not yet sure how the plot is going to play out, but I know there will be masterful disguises.

Sometimes these tools, character questionnaires, outlines, scene storyboards, can feel like a waste of time. But every so often, something essential leaps off the page. Lisa started her presentation by defending structure. She pointed out that even improv acts will ask for suggestions from the audience before they start a performance. A little structure, a little framework, doesn't have to curtail creativity--it can embolden it.

I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog: Jeannine Atkins on using setting to create structure, Kate Messner on mystery and making time for research, and Gail Gauthier on time management

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Using setting to create structure: NESCBWI Conference 2013

I'm a setting girl. I love traveling and the outdoors, and frequently my stories are inspired by place. So when author Jeannine Atkins' session promised to use setting to create structure (something I always sorely need), I signed right up. And I wasn't disappointed! Her session was full of brilliant prompts that helped create several scenes, in the beginning, middle, and end, for my current work in progress.

We started off by brainstorming a character's favorite place. And not just listing this place, but truly describing it, its sights, smells, objects, people, emotions. Jeannine had us do the same with a place a character despises, a place she misses, and a place that makes her furious.

Then Jeannine told us to put our character in her despised place, and have her think about the place she misses. Could that be our beginning?

I was blown away, because the scene I had jotted down actually could begin my whole novel. It starts in the midst of action, as my main character struggles to survive in a place she can't stand. It also throws her desire into the mix right away, as she yearns to be some place else.

Jeannine continued to challenge us with mixing these places. What if something terrible happens in my character's favorite place? What if something wonderful happens in her despised place? Take a setting element from the first scene and try connecting it to a setting element in the final scene.

 I don't want to reveal all of Jeannine's secrets, but this intermixing of settings and emotions spurred three solid pages of notes, ideas, scenes, and even a beginning and climax for my work in progress. For me, it's such a new way of thinking about both setting and structure. I know this is a set of prompts I'll return to again and again.

Also, it's got me thinking... are there any other elements of writing that I love that I can combine with aspects that are more difficult for me? After all, every piece needs to work to make the novel an organic whole. Intriguing...

I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog. Last week I posted about Kate Messner's session on mystery, and making time for research, and also Gail Gauthier's session on time management.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Time Management: NESCBWI Conference 2013

One of the best surprises of the NESCBWI Conference was author Gail Gauthier's talk on time management. See, I don't consider myself someone with time management issues. I'm generally hard working, I've got too much of a guilt complex to do much procrastinating, and I don't even hang out on Twitter when I should be writing. Between you and me, I only signed up for Gail's session because I couldn't find anything more relevant in that time slot. And I figured a little time management help couldn't hurt.
Not only was Gail a riot (surely her session was the only one that involved a drinking game?), she was organized, thorough, and very convincing. By the end, I was totally reformed, and have actually spent the past week and a half attempting to put her time management suggestions into practice.  How practical is that?

The main thrust of Gail's presentation was to suggest working for 45 minutes, and then breaking for 15. Apparently human productivity lasts, on average, 45 minutes before it starts going downhill. Maybe I'm above average, or used to writing for long stretches, because as I've been setting my timer this past week, 45 minutes feels quite short to me. But it's been a great motivation to regularly stand up and stretch. Plus because I know I'm only working for 45 minutes at a time, and then get 15 minutes free time, I'm much better able to resist the constant urge to check my email (or Tom & Lorenzo, my absolute favorite distraction). So I've probably been accomplishing a lot more in those 45 minute stretches than I used to.

Another benefit to working in these 45 minute chunks is that I can squeeze 45 minutes into almost any day, no matter how crazy. Sometimes my schedule gets all turned around, when I have to go to the doctor, or drive my husband to the airport, or the two thousand other things that get in the way of my writing time. Before I might have thought, "Right, there's the whole morning gone, guess I'm not getting any writing done today" (or, as Gail called it, the What the Hell Effect). Now I can still plan, in advance, to get in at least one 45 minute chunk even on bad days.

But beyond challenging me with a totally new way of working, Gail also offered one of my favorite take-home messages of the whole conference: there's nothing to be ashamed of in using a crutch.

Lately I've been trying to get back into the habit of starting my work in the morning before checking my email. I kept getting frustrated with myself for not having enough will power to make it through a whole hour. But why should I rely on will power alone? Why not just unplug the wireless router?

See? Simple stuff, but crazy useful! I'm glossing over a lot of details, so if you're interested, please do check Gail Gauthier out. She blogs regularly at Original Content, and provides time management tips every Tuesday.

I'm going to keep playing with these 45 minute stretches of writing, and see how it works out for me. I'll let you know.

How do you make the time to get writing done? Anyone else struggling? Trying something new? Have any of you experimented with this 45 minute chunk routine?

For the next week or two on the blog, I'll be recapping some of my favorite events at the recent NESCBWI Conference. Tuesday I posted about Kate Messner's session on mystery workshop, and making time for research

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Making time for research: NESCBWI Conference 2013

One of the reasons I've been crazy busy lately is a good one: at the beginning of May I had the opportunity to attend the New England SCBWI Conference. I got to meet in person some amazing online friends, enjoy time with Amherst critique group friends, and thoroughly enjoyed not being the only weirdo in the bunch! But all that knowledge gained, hours of workshop after workshop? Exhausting!

So I wanted to use the blog not so much to recap my favorite events, but to remind myself what I got out of them--and also to share that information with you.

First up: Kate Messner's mystery workshop, Whodunnit? and How to Do It, When It Comes to Writing Mysteries for Kids.

I don't actually have a mystery in mind for my writing, but I grew up on Harriet the Spy and my dad's battered old copies of Agatha Christie. The idea of writing a fun kid mystery has always been in the back of my mind. And I adored Kate Messner's The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and have long-admired her teacher background (we both taught 7th grade language arts!) and her varied and productive career (she's written everything from picture books, to dystopians, to non-fiction writing guides!). However, the one thing I didn't expect of Kate was how organized and research-focused she is.

Like me, it seems she had always wanted to write a mystery, but realized she had no idea how to go about it. So she read a ton of mysteries to figure out how they work.

I know that sounds really obvious, but this was an illuminating moment for me. I think sometimes as writers we're encouraged to dive right in, to write 1000 words a day (more is better), to finish a novel in months, etc. But how can you write a mystery without implicitly understanding all the conventions of the genre, and the challenges? It would be so much easier to have a template to work with.

And this is basically what Kate presented: her template. Writing a mystery involves kid sleuths, with a motive to solve a crime (no professional detectives here!), a perpetrator, with a motive to commit a crime, and suspects, also with motives and fake clues. She's laid all of this information out in her presentation, which is available online here.

She also told a hysterical story about contacting the curator of the Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and asking how one might steal it, that culminated in a family trip to DC, and a curator suddenly less skeptical and buzzing with possibilities (though stealing the flag is a little more complicated in real life). People really do love to talk about what they do for a living!

So not only do I feel like I have another tool in my writer's toolkit, this one for writing a mystery, I also feel like I've gotten a well-needed smack on the head, and a reminder of how important research is to the writing process. I can easily imagine forgetting to pepper my mystery with false clues, and suddenly realizing my child sleuths have no reason to suspect the baker BECAUSE HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING and I need to throw out large sections of my manuscript and start over. It's worth taking the time to get it right.

Oh, and curious how one WOULD steal the Star Spangled Banner? You can read Kate Messner's Capture the Flag to find out!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Disappeared by C. J. Harper

Author C. J. Harper tried to woo me into loving her debut novel, The Disappeared. As it's not published (yet!) in the US, Candy (as I know her), mailed me a copy from England. Not only is the cover a thing of beauty, even more so in person, Candy signed the book for me, along with a lovely message. And then, as the final straw, she included a postcard, sure to tempt me!


How well she knows my every weakness!

Thankfully, I LOVED The Disappeared. I'm sure poor Candy was on pins and needles waiting for me to let her know. Due to finishing Project Fun, and travel, and moving plans, it's taken me forever to get to, and almost as long to blog about. But between you and me, I wasn't worried. I saw this book grow up as I worked alongside Candy for our MAs in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. I read now-deleted scenes, listened to Candy agonize about how it was all going to come together. All along, I've been enraptured by this story. And the final, published version does not disappoint!

Here's the official book jacket blurb:

"Jackson's life is perfect: he's top of his class, wants for nothing and is destined to be part of the leadership that runs the country. But when a violent incident leaves Jackson badly beaten and his best friend dead, everything changes. Suddenly, his teachers claim not to know him, his records are deleted... Jackson doesn't exist anymore.

"Dumped in an Academy, where teachers are kept in cages and being a good fighter is all that matters, Jackson realizes that to survive he needs to adapt, and fast. And as he learns the Academy's terrible secrets, Jackson discovers his whole life has been based on lies; the leadership is corrupt tot he core and they're coming after him.

"Time is running out. Can Jackson destroy the man at the heart of it all before he makes Jackson disappear for good?"

The beginning of The Disappeared is chilling--I still clearly remember reading it as a rough draft years ago! Jackson's whole life is turned upside down in minutes, as people he's known forever stare at him blankly and swear they've never met him. And Jackson's reaction is so understandable: he races about his school, looking in his bedroom, at his desk, trying to find some way to prove he is who he says he is. But of course, that's the whole point: he's trusted the adults around him his whole life, and is only now discovering that they have thrown him to the wolves.

However, while the plot as a whole was full of twisty-turny reveals and heart-pounding action sequences, I have to say, my favorite bits were the quieter scenes, the big questions, the heart, and the LANGUAGE. See, even though the kids of the Academy have been denied a proper education and any cultural access, and are treated more like animals than humans, they're not dumb. And the way they use language, stringing together simple words to form complex thoughts, is so clever. This scene left goosebumps on my arms!

"'I tell you what, Kay. One day I am going to take you for a burger,' I say, suddenly.

She laughs. 'That's a can't-won't. I'm going to stop hearing you; you put bad thinks... I mean, bad thoughts in my head. But you make me laugh.'

I puff out my breath. I know the Leadership wants us to equip ourselves to fulfil our potential, but what does that really mean? Would it matter if Kay learned Algebra? And why shouldn't she have a burger?...

'What work do the Learning Community brainers do?' [Kay asks]

'They're employed by the Leadership.'

'All brainers are working for the Leadership?'

'Well, yes, but you could do lots of different things. Be an adviser, run a department, be a local leader, head an industry--'

'I don't know those things. Is it all for the Leadership?'

'Yes.'

'So no choice-ing for the brainers, too.'"

The Disappeared is such a rich, immersive experience, in a chilling, yet totally believable dystopian future. And I do love a good revolution! I can't wait for the next book! And I'll be SURE to let my American readers know as soon as a US edition is available.

In the meantime, while she doesn't (yet!) have a website (Anne glares at Candy), you can follow the hysterical C. J. Harper on Twitter.