Thursday, March 29, 2012

Are you writing a book that your readers are going to want to read?"

Did you know author Sara Zarr has started a podcast? She's been interviewing other young adult authors about the creative process. How cool is that? And it's every bit as thoughtful and intelligent as one might expect from Sara Zarr. Yay!

In her first episode, she interviewed author Tara Altebrando. And there was this bit which really got me thinking. Tara was talking about her husband, who was questioning her work in progress:

"And he said, Why does it have to be a 'novel in stories'?

"And I said, I want to write something that challenges myself.

"And I think he said something like, Nobody cares if you're being challenged except you. Are you writing a book that your readers are going to want to read?

"And that was a really interesting question for me to then sit down the next day and think about because there were elements of the way that book was going to come together... you know, I started thinking about my readers and, not like I'm trying to predict what they want, but wanting to write a book that teenagers are going to want to read. Not that librarians and teachers are going to want to read, and are going to think is a good book for a teenager to read, but trying to remember what kind of stuff I really loved to read when I was fifteen, sixteen...

"Nick is the kind if person who asks questions like that... he says things like, Challenge yourself to tell a better story or to make sure every line is better. You don't have to challenge yourself in this high-concept 'novel in stories' way."*

Nick is pretty wise, huh?

Every so often I stumble across a children's book so perfectly pitched to its age group that it sends me spiraling back through time, remembering exactly how it felt to be so young. Isn't that what we're aiming for? Obviously we have to rely on ourselves, and dig deep inside to find a book that we want to spend years on. And I thoroughly believe in stretching kids' minds, and questioning their limits. But I think Tara (or rather, her husband) is absolutely right. At the end of the day, we need to make sure our topic, our structure, our language, everything we do is relevant to teens. Otherwise, we might as well work on our Pulitzer winning adult novel, right?

"Are you writing a book that your readers are going to want to read?" should be an obvious question, but for me it's one I need to ask myself with every project.

Does it strike you, too? Have you ever been guilty of only writing for yourself?

*This transcription is mine and may contain some errors.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When writing is hard work (redux)

What do you do when you need to get to work, when someone is expecting revisions, or when you're on a tight deadline, but even the thought of turning on the computer makes you feel like running outside screaming? Not to mention, it's a glorious, sunny day, the kind that tempts writers to fly kites and play barefoot in the grass.

My first thought was, I should write a whiny blog post about this and ask for advice. Then, my second, wiser thought was: I think I've written about that before.

Sure enough, after a bit of searching, I dug up my previous post: When writing is hard work. Unfortunately I didn't provide myself with much in the way of answers. But YOU did. The comments on that post are a goldmine!

Here's what you suggested:

1. Break the work down into manageable, less-intimidating goals.

2. Tell others about my goals, so they can hold me accountable

3. Push myself to write only one sentence, in the hope that I'll get sucked into the work in spite of myself.

4. Revising what I wrote the day before might also suck me in.

5. Take frequent breaks as rewards. Go for a walk.

6. Focus on how good that end will feel.

7. Read for inspiration.

8. Chocolate.

Goodness, I have brilliant readers! Thanks, y'all. I'll update you on my progress.

In the meantime, any other suggestions?

Now back to work!

*The image is mine, from the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Using familiar tropes to create unique stories

On Tuesday, I posted on how some writers (and marching bands) rely on "kits", ie pre-packaged familiar stories and characters.

But of course all writing is inevitably predicated on what came before. And I believe by studying stories' commonalities, we can help ourselves to tell better stories (whether by following the expected path, or diverging from it).

During my MA in Writing for Young People, a tutor assigned writing a contemporary, realistic adventure story, with a female protagonist, for ages 9-12. But before we started, we discussed the adventure story trope: distant lands, hot climates, pirates, armed natives, resourceful men, high tech gadgets...

Then the tutor asked what challenges are inherent in writing a contemporary, realistic adventure story for children. Well, if it's going to be a high-stakes situation, you're going to get the children away from their parents, as well as their cell phones. And what kinds of high-stakes adventures could happen in the UK? And how can children possibly (and realistically) be the heroes?

I loved the idea of thinking about these story challenges before getting knee-deep in the writing, mired in an unworkable plot. Since then, I've developed this thought-process into a habit before I start any project. I watch movies in my genre, read books, list the challenges these storytellers encounter, and how they solve them. Then, with a little help from all that's gone before, I can chose my unique path.

Course, when I still end up knee-deep in the writing, mired in a seemingly unworkable plot, I only have myself to blame (and that's the point where I start dreaming about those kits...).

Do you use other books and movies as jumping-off points? Or do you prefer to work as independently as possible?

*The picture is mine, from Bristol's SS Great Britain. It's as good an illustration as I have of Anne plotting her own little sea-faring adventure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Storytelling: DIY or buy the kit?

My brother-in-law is a high school band director, with a special love for marching band. While I don't get home very often, and have only seen his band march across the football field once, I regularly hear friends and family gush about his talent and how he's transformed his school's program.  They brag bro-in-law doesn't just buy the kits for his marching band, but rather designs their routines from scratch.

Impressive, huh? Actually, I have no idea. Having spent most of my life as an orchestra nerd, I know next-to-nothing about bands, and even less about marching.

But I know my bro-in-law is super smart, and I can imagine some of the difficulties involved in choreographing an entire band with a homemade script. It makes me think of cooks who dare to ater recipes, or even create their own. Or writers. Ah, you see where I'm going now?

Plenty of writers use "kits", in one form or another. They use existing folklore, monsters, and cultures. They use a formulaic plot (have you ever noticed that every single PD James mystery has three deaths?), or common storytelling tropes, or stereotypical characters.

Of course, no piece of art is entirely unique. Everyone is using a kit of some sort, as we build on stories that were told before, or tropes that play out in our world, or even our world itself as a backdrop.

But in commercial fiction, kits are much more common. Publishers like known tropes because they're more predictable and marketable. Readers like kits for many of the same reasons; they're familiar, and therefore comforting. And for writers, it's certainly easier to invent a zombie using George Romero's template, or a paranormal romance using Stephenie Meyer's plot points. But of course, you know Romero and Meyer's names because they didn't follow a kit themselves, but rather did something unique in their storytelling.

So as I'm agonizing over the rules of Project Demo's world once again, trying to make everything consistent and logical, I think it would certainly be easier to buy the kit. But my artistic (and stubborn) self continues to insist on doing it the hard way. Actually it occurs to me, perhaps that tension between kit and individuality marks the best writing.

Regardless, do you ever wish you could just buy the kit?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Anne Has Some Favorite Books By & About People Different From Her

For roughly the past month, in an effort to support diversity in children's literature, as well as to enjoy some amazing stories, I've been reading books by and about people different from me. I still have at least one more to go (and will continue to read them even when this month is finished), but wanted to provide an update on two I've especially enjoyed.

I've snuck Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter into several of my recent posts, so it shouldn't be a surprise how much I enjoyed it. As I said previously: "It's a fabulous read, and even though getting a grasp on all the political intrigues can feel a bit overwhelming at times, I've become absolutely enraptured by the rich historical and setting details, and the opportunity to have a front row seat while history is played out in front of me. Plus I love Shecter's imagining of Selene's position, trapped between her Egyptian and Roman heritage, gods, languages, and customs."

It was unexpectedly epic for a children's book, covering almost a decade of harrowing historical events, but this was a plus in my mind, as I was desperate to know what would happen. Even better, I finished the novel and listened to an interview with Shecter, where she revealed that most of the facts in the novel are historically accurate. WOW! How come I never knew that Cleopatra had a daughter? How come hardly anyone seems to have known this wonderful story? I'm so glad Shecter found out, and decided to bring it to light.

While I've been busy with my Reading Experiences series, I've neglected to mention another book I enjoyed: Ashley Hope Perez's What Can't Wait. I felt immersed in Perez's world, seeing everything through Marisa's eyes. And Marisa's life was so different from my own, coming from a family where money, marriage, and family commitments matter much more than academics. As Marisa struggles to pass the AP Calculus exam and get into an engineering program in Austin, her teacher struggles to understand what's holding her back, as Marisa seemingly fulfills the stereotype of a lazy Mexican immigrant. I loved the idea that sometimes even the "heroic teacher" character doesn't understand, and while Marisa has a super-sweet boyfriend, Marisa has to find courage within herself to lead the life she wants. It felt a very true story, and one I haven't encountered much in children's literature. Though fittingly, I just saw this article about a community project in Chicago to provide housing away from families, alongside other students, for Latino college students to complete their degrees.

That's what I love about reading, and especially reading diverse books. When I read that article, I thought of Marisa, and felt I had a greater understanding of some of the issues those students are going through.

I have one other book on my list for the month: Hidden by Miriam Halahmy:

"HIDDEN is a brave debut novel tackling the complex issues of immigration and human-rights laws, through the eyes of teenage Alix. A literary coming-of-age novel dealing with courage, prejudice, judgement, and the difficulty of sorting right from wrong. Challenging, charming, compelling."

I haven't read many (any?) British novel this past month, and Miriam is a fellow SCBWI member, so I'm really looking forward to it. Plus, LOVE the cover!

Have you read anything good lately? Any favorite diverse book suggestions?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reading experiences: More on ebooks (and the power of samples!)

In the past few years, my reading experiences have broadened to regularly include graphic novels, ebooks, and audiobooks. As someone who can't even remember not knowing how to read, and who gets twitchy when I don't have a book in hand, this feels like a substantial shift. How did it come about? Can stories in different formats have the same effect on me? And how might these new formats change my reading habits?

So far I've shared my thoughts on audiobooks and my latest toy, Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch. Today I want to talk about another aspect of the ereader experience: samples.

As I'm sure many of you realize, before purchasing a book on an ereader, a buyer is frequently able to download a sample of the first 10-50 pages of the book (of course, these samples are also often available online or as pdf downloads, on publishers and authors' pages, as well as Amazon). As a regular and critical reader, I've come to love sample reading. Perhaps a little too much.

On the one hand, sample reading encourages me to really consider whether or not I want to purchase a given book. Perhaps I've heard good reviews, and friends have enjoyed it, but the subject matter isn't really my thing, or the topic seems interesting, but my book buying budget has been depleted. If I absolutely love the first pages, and can't wait to read more, I'll go ahead and buy it (book budget be damned!). But if I find I don't really care what happens next, why should I spend approximately $10 on the book?

I mostly think this is a good thing. Books can find readers who will truly love them. Readers can try out books they wouldn't necessarily have bought on word-of-mouth recommendation alone. 

One the other hand, I've gotten a tinge obsessive about my sample reading. It's great fun to download loads of samples, and to peek into loads of books. But I've found myself rejecting almost as many. Perhaps the sample is only 10 pages, and I'm enjoying myself, but not riveted. Should I purchase the book or not? What if it gets good? But what if it gets worse? Of course everyone from agents to publishers to readers makes decisions on a book depending on those first few pages. But does this sample fetish of mine mean I'm passing over books even more quickly? Perhaps automatically rejecting those with slower, gentler beginnings? I suspect so.

Has anyone else out there developed a sample fetish? What does it take to convince you to buy a book?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reading experiences: ebooks (Nook Simple Touch)

In the past few years, my reading experiences have broadened to regularly include graphic novels, ebooks, and audiobooks. As someone who can't even remember not knowing how to read, and who gets twitchy when I don't have a book in hand, this feels like a substantial shift. How did it come about? Can stories in different formats have the same effect on me? And how might these new formats change my reading habits?

Last week I shared my thoughts on audiobooks. Today I've tried to corral my complex emotions regarding ebooks, specifically my latest toy, Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch.

Steve Kovach, Business Insider
In many ways I am the demographic for ereaders. I'm young(ish), I read a lot, travel a lot, and my living situation is temporary, so I try to avoid accumulating too many physical books. However, for many years I put off buying an ereader. Not for the usual reasons. I don't believe ebooks herald a society of impermanence or the end of storytelling as we know it. Rather it was about accessibility and money. I borrow most of my books from the library, so I wasn't sure I'd use an ereader enough to justify its purchase. And until just a few years ago, all but the most popular children's books weren't available as ebooks. 

But the tipping point struck last summer, when I hauled five books overseas for a vacation, and yet still ran out. An ereader had to be more convenient.

Indeed, my Nook has definitely added a richness to my reading life. For example, for my recent diversity series (Anne Reads Books By & About People Different from Her), a majority of the books I've read are American, and as yet unpublished in the UK (I was able to purchase them through my Nook, as it's connected to an American bookstore (Barnes & Noble). Of course this opens a whole other can of worms about copyright and regions. While I have strong opinions on the topic, I'm not exactly knowledgable, so I'll leave those discussions to the experts). For years I've relied on infrequent trips back to the US and the Book Depository to access American books, so book availability alone has been a huge plus for me.

As an avid reader, I'm also happy to report that my Nook is comfortable. It's thinner than a book, so not only does it fit into even my smallest purse (barely!), it's also easier to hold (some of those hefty hardcovers can get awfully tiring to prop up!). And it's true what everyone says about e-Ink. My Nook doesn't feel like a computer screen, it doesn't tax my eyes. 

So I love it, right? Well... this is where things get a little complex. While there's a lot of things I love about it, and while I'll certainly use it regularly, it hasn't yet won my heart over.

Part of the problem is that I've grown up with books, and my love for books is definitely in part physical and sensory. I love the smell of books, touching pages, even a hardback's unwieldy heft. So while my Nook is comfortable, and easy to read (I can even change the font and type-size), it doesn't yet have the same magic as book reading for me. And there's things I can do with a book that aren't as easily accomplished with my Nook. For example, flipping pages. How many pages until the end of the chapter? Wait, how did Part I end again? Let me check that glossary in the back... The Nook has a search feature, and I can bring up the Table of Contents with a single click. Yet, going back to my original place gets tricky. I suppose I could bookmark my spot anytime I want to flip, then un-bookmark the spot when I return... it all seems much more tedious than just sticking a finger in my current spot, though.

Also, there's something about the Nook books that makes them feel less accessible. Perhaps because all my titles are hidden away on a hard drive, and can't been seen at a glance at my (real life) bookshelf, I keep forgetting I own all the books I've bought, and that I can consult them and outline them just as I do the "real" books on my shelves. 

But of course, these are little things... in time I'll figure out better tricks, and become more accustomed to my Nook. And of course the technology will get better. Just last week I figured out how to check the time on my Nook while in the midst of reading. And already I wish that feature were available in paperbacks! Not to mention the single-touch dictionary feature!

Speaking of technology, I'd love a way to share ebooks, just as I share paperbacks (I understand that's in the works, although with much dispute between publishers and booksellers). I'd love a way to mark-up pdfs (for critiquing others' writing, or analyzing my own). And the black and white, grainy covers are depressing! I know I bought the cheapest Nook possible, in black and white, but surely the publishing industry can figure out a way to still let readers enjoy beautiful cover art. Likewise, I've already encountered one ebook, by a small but well-known publisher, that was incorrectly formatted. Shameful and embarrassing! Especially considering I paid $10 for the book.

I realize I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said many times before about ereaders. But it's definitely been interesting experiencing all of this for myself. And I'm eager to hear from you. How much do you love your ereader? How long did it take for you to get used to it? Or, if you haven't taken the plunge yet, what's holding you back?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Threading together a manuscript

I often think of writing a novel as weaving, incorporating various colors and threads into a loom, and watching in amazement as the unified whole forms, stich by stich. This would be a completely imaginary metaphor, since I don't sew, let alone weave, at all. But it makes sense to me, and helps me to comprehend all the disparate parts that go into my writing to make a compact, hopefully beautiful, whole.

A few weeks ago, I received an insightful, detailed, and very smart critique of Project Demo. I had thought to move on to Project Fun in February, but the vision this reader presented me with was so exciting. She got exactly what I had been trying to achieve, yet was also able to pinpoint a way to condense the plot and ramp up the tension. Even though days before I had been eagerly planning to escape Project Demo, I couldn't help but dive into revisions (yet again).

But figuring out how to incorporate these changes has been overwhelming. I can easily imagine them, but figuring out how to make them part of my existing structure is another issue entirely.

So last week, in desperation at tying together all these different threads, I grabbed some scrap paper and started making lists. I listed the highlights of the main character's journey. Then I started in on her friend's arc, then her dad's, then the antagonist's. I ended up with six different plot threads.

Then I made myself a cup of tea and started cutting my scrap paper into thin strips, a strip for each scrawled line. I arranged my plot threads across my dining room table, line by line, completely intermixed.

Is it perfect? No. I had to add several more lines as I thought of them, and I'm sure I'll continue to tweak the structure, and rearrange slips of paper. But I had in front of me a visual representation of my plot, including every major character, turning point, and revelation, from start to finish. All of a sudden, my plot changes seemed tangible, and even better yet, like they could be tackled.

Any tips of your own for tackling complex revision suggestions?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Matilda the Musical

Matilda; the face of a new stamp!
I told my husband last fall that I knew exactly what I wanted this year for my Christmas and birthday presents: a ticket to Matilda the Musical, which premiered on London's West End last November. And of course he came through! With five star reviews from the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and numerous other papers, along with countless theatre awards, Matilda was selling out like crazy, so we booked two tickets for the end of February to make sure we could get them.

Matilda is my favorite Roald Dahl book. Perhaps one of my favorite books, period. I can visualize my dog-eared copy, read over and over throughout my childhood. On the way to London last Saturday, I recited some of my favorite Matilda lines to my husband (what a patient, generous man he is!).

But my joy was edged with doubt. I'd never even seen the movie version of Matilda, as I was so afraid Hollywood would mess it up. So despite my complete love for musicals, and all the positive reviews Matilda had garnered, including a ringing endorsement from one of my Bath Spa tutors, I was anxious. After all, this blog isn't called Critically Yours for nothing. And ruining a beloved childhood story would really sting.

Check out this set!
But my relief began to fade away even before the show started. As we climbed upstairs to our seats (this may have been a Christmas / birthday gift, but the tickets weren't cheap!), the walls were lined with child-centric colorful chalkboards and hand-drawn signs. I recognized several quotes from the book, like Mrs. Wormwood's timeless, "Dinners don't microwave themselves."

Then the set! Oh my. The stage was lined with letters, in a crazy, random joy, like something out of a Tim Burton movie. But the longer I looked, the more I began to see words forming: "Phenomenon," "Malice," "Acrobat," "Escape."

Matilda & Mr. Wormwood
Needless to say (since I'm clearly blogging with such happiness), the musical fulfilled all my expectations. It was wildly fun, funny, joyful, sweet, and rebellious. In many ways, it felt like the book come to life, with most of the actors looking like life-size replicas of Quentin Blake's illustrations, along with numerous lines straight out of the book. But it had been ever-so-slightly modernized (with lasers and cctv videos) and of course streamlined, but other than a slightly rushed and glossed-over beginning, it barely diverged from the text. The music was a fun addition, and I've had the lovely tune "When I Grow Up" stuck in my head for the past few days. I didn't think the music was anything unique or truly memorable. But it didn't need to be. This is a musical where story dominated everything.

Matilda tells her story to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian
Even the special effects were hardly whizz-bang, but rather in thrall to story. Matilda holds her local librarian mesmerized with her ongoing story about the Escapologist and the Acrobat, their love for each other, and desperate desire for a child. Only at the end do the Escapologist and Acrobat appear, and their finale is played out in a beautiful shadow puppet film. But even then, Matilda's words are what capture the audience. Though I have to say, for those familiar with the story, not to worry. The chalk does float all on its own in the climatic scene with Mrs. Trunchbull.

Mrs. Trunchbull dances,
with Miss Honey in background
And speaking of Mrs. Trunchbull, she (rather he; for Mrs. Trunchbull is played in drag by actor Bertie Carvel) was marvelous, a beastly headmistress, yet completely over the top and funny. The actress playing Miss Honey had a gorgeous voice, and managed to look totally awkward when I'm sure she is anything but. And Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood were hysterical. But of course, the best were the kids. What amazing amazing children. Not only Matilda, but the boy playing Bruce had my sides splitting with laughter as he danced, and the girl playing Lavender had the audience in the palm of her hand with her hilarious aside. As my husband pointed out, there wasn't a single weak link. The set, the choreography, all the actors, everything was there.

I'm not much of a cryer, but even so, I gushed tears at the curtain call. I know, the play was over! But I was so struck by the little girl playing Matilda (Eleanor Worthington Cox that night, though the role is shared amongst four girls). She stood alone on the stage and accepted her thunderous applause. How often do you see that? It was so perfect, after a story all about rebellion and girl power and standing up for yourself, to see a stage dominated by a pre-teen girl. It reminded me of being young, and all the children I have taught and continue to write for.

Then I got to thinking about how unique Matilda is in that regard. And not only Matilda, but almost all the main characters in the story are female: Mrs. Trunchbull, Miss Honey, Mrs. Wormwood, the librarian. Sure, the current children's book market is dominated by stories about girls. But I believe Matilda is Dahl's only female hero. And how many young girls have the leading role in movies? TV? Not to get too political about it, but did you see this study showing that American Sunday newscasts in the month of February (a month heavily dominated by discussions of contraception) had 52 male guests and 4 female guests? All of that is why I bawled at the curtain call.

And why I want to add my voice to the chorus of people applauding Matilda the Musical (and check out the website for more photos and music samples). Seriously, go see it! Even my husband, who has never read the book, and has no interest in children's literature (outside of all my babble about it, of course!), loved the show. And we were surrounded by adults. Plenty of kids, but even more families. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, singles, couples, teenagers... it seemed people were ostensibly dragging the kids along, but they couldn't wait to see it for themselves.

It was hard to leave. Like a movie, I wanted to stay in my seat and watch the whole thing play out again. Maybe next Christmas.

And for all you Americans, I hear arrangements are in process to bring it to New York in 2013. I really think this is a show that will be around for many years to come.

In the meantime, some lovely clips from the show:

*All photos and videos are courtesy of the RSC's Matilda the Musical website