Thursday, July 17, 2014

Style: not just for the runway

Here are my notes from week two of the writing workshop I'm teaching. This week we discussed style--and worked on some pretty advanced ideas for a group of teens, but they--as I expected--were amazing. Try the exercises and see just how difficult they are, and you'll get an idea of why I was so impressed.


Week Two: STYLE

Last week we discussed character, because I see character as the heart of any story. Today we’re going to turn from the heart to the hair, the externals: style.

Style is as individual as any one person’s fingerprint; but just as fingerprints are made up of standard combinations of curves and whorls, good styles are made up of accepted combinations of good writing.

The purpose of style is two-fold:
First and foremost, it serves the purpose of telling a story.
Second, it’s pure art--it’s using words in a beautiful and individual way.

Never let style get in the way of a story. This can happen by sliding over the edge of making the writing too flowery and “purple-prosy” but it can just as easily happen by making the writing staccato or dull.

EXAMPLE 1: Here’s a bit of dialogue from Louisa May Alcott’s The Inheritance--she wrote this when she was seventeen, and there’s a clear reason it didn’t get published then. “Neither knew the other’s secret, till Walter, our Lord Percy, heard his brother whisper the dear name in his sleep, and then he nobly put away his own joy and strove to win for his younger brother the heart he loved so tenderly himself, and he succeeded. The young lovers were married, and none knew why Walter’s cheek grew pale or why he stole away when the happy couple told their joy and tried to cheer his sadness. None save his mother ever knew the sacrifice her noble son had made.”

EXAMPLE 2: Here’s a great example of some purposely dull (and then interesting) writing: Gary Provost’s “This Sentence Has Five Words”

The things is, it’s a good idea to practice going over either of those edges so you know when you have to pull back. Most especially, you want to be able to “write gorgeously” as Ursula K. LeGuin puts it, because there will be moments when just a touch of that gorgeous writing is going to convey the emotion of your story through style alone.

Also, keep in mind that if you have to have one of these problems, it’s better to be melodramatic. Why? Because if you have a sense of drama and beauty, you can easily learn to tone it down. Without it, you’ve got your work cut out.

EXERCISE: Being Gorgeous, p. 26 of Steering the Craft: “Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect--any kind of sound you like--but NOT rhyme or meter.”

EXERCISE: Now to swing to the other extreme, try writing a paragraph with as sparse language as possible. Keep the sentences short. Shun adjectives. Keep it simple. (If you’re stuck for a plot idea, go back to last week’s exercise of having your character up in a tree with rocks being thrown at them.)

Further reading:
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin deals with the subject of style in several of her chapters.
Your favorite books! Re-read the books whose style has inspired you, and analyze what the author did to create that style. I like to study Jane Austen’s punctuation and Shakespeare’s repetition and Mark Twain’s dialect and Neil Gaiman’s bits of gorgeousness at just those perfect moments.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Creating Characters

My summer took a turn for the amazing when I was asked to lead a Creative Writing workshop at our local library. Let me tell you...it's a humbling experience. These young writers are leagues beyond where I was at their ages; they're funny and clever and talented, and it's a complete honor to be working with them.

So they don't have to bother with note-taking (it's summer vacation, after all), I'm putting the key points of each week's workshop here. Perhaps you experienced writers will discover something helpful, too!

Week One: CHARACTER

First of all: quick exercise. Quickly introduce yourself, sharing one interesting fact that will help us know “the real you.”

For example: I’m Faith. I’m the middle of 5 kids, and I gave my big brother the only 2 black eyes he’s ever had.
 
What you just did was the basis of any story.

Stories are about people--or bugs or mice or aliens--but people all the same: characters. Every person is worthy of being a character, but the key is to find the interesting points and sharing them with your audience. Many amateur storytellers forget this, and they present half-baked characters who aren’t interesting to follow; or sometimes they just forget to reveal the intriguing bits early enough to make their readers care. (I’ve been guilty of that.)

In my opinion, the character itself is the most important hook a writer can use--the hook being the element that will make a reader want to keep reading. A unique description will instantly evoke a character that I can’t help wanting to follow.

EXAMPLE: “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her pack. She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere.” (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler)

EXERCISE: Introduce us to your character. (If you don’t have one in mind from a current project, make one up!) You can either phrase your introduction like the dust jacket of a book, or the first two or three lines from a story. Don’t worry about plot here, just about sharing something intriguing about your main character. You might do this with humor, drama, the presence of difficult circumstances, conflict--or just something simple that we all can relate to, that’ll make us say, “Oh, me too!”

Sometimes it takes a while to find out the interesting things about your character.

TRY: Interviewing your character (here's a helpful form); journal entries in character’s voice--preferably from incidents before the beginning of the story; writing short passages that involve putting your character in a variety of situations (even if--especially if--it’s something they won’t encounter in your story). (What would your character do on a blind date? Or caught in the middle of an angry mob? Or forced to appear on Jeopardy?)

EXERCISE: There’s a saying that to tell a good story, you put your character up in a tree and throw rocks at him or her. Take this “literally” and write a passage with your character up in a tree with someone throwing rocks. Think about: who’s throwing the rocks? why? is it deserved? how does the character respond? (Credit goes to my friend Betsy Devany for this exercise.)

Further reading:
Second Sight, by Cheryl Klein, the chapter titled “Quartet: Character”
For a more advanced (but amazing) analysis, read Chapter 2 of Adam Sexton’s Master Class in Fiction Writing, which explores how the master Jane Austen handles character in Sense & Sensibility.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kitchen Table Chat with Jessica Lawson, author of The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher (Part 2)

Here's Part 2 of my chat with Jessica Lawson--go here to see Part 1!

Faith: I apologize if this sounds rude, but I've been reading throughout this conversation--must have been hiding the book under the table. :) I finished Becky's story and I loved it! I really think what makes it stand out is that it more than lives up to its hook; the retelling element is excellently done, but it's a beautiful story in its own right, with a lot of emotional depth and plain old fun. I'm so grateful that you stuck through all the days when writing it must have been difficult. How do you get through those times?
 
Also, I loved Mark Twain's appearance in the story, and how you wove that into the plot. Can we talk about Samuel Clemens/ Mark Twain a bit? He's one of my favorite people. As you mentioned in the story, he suffered many tragedies, but he came through them by giving us what are arguably the funniest stories by any American. Reading his biography by Sid Fleischman (The Trouble Begins at 8--I highly recommend it to any eavesdroppers here who haven't read it yet), I realized that maybe the saying that artists have tragic lives is only partially true; maybe it's more accurate to say that everyone has tragic lives, but artists are the ones who bring beauty to the world out of that tragedy. Just now, reading your response regarding your brother-in-law, I was struck by the fact that you've done just that, too.
 
Have you ever been to Samuel Clemens' house? It's about half an hour away from where I live, so you should totally plan a book signing there and come really have a meal at my house! For now, though, how about some virtual homemade ice cream? What's your favorite flavor?


My actual kitchen--in case you needed help picturing it.
Complete with dishes on the counter and a book lying around.

Jessica: Do you happen to live near Hartford, CT? Because I'll be visiting the Mark Twain House & Museum for the first time on July 24th for their annual ice cream social. Care to come and have some real ice cream with me (I'll take a scoop of virtual mint chip, coffee, or cookies & cream while I wait, though)?
 
I'm glad to hear that Twain is one of your favorite people! Mine, too. In addition to being hilarious, I think his stories are so wise in their approach to social commentary. Painful truths and critique were being served underneath heaps of lively characters, snort-in-your-milk dialogue, and clever/fun plots that could make a dog wag its tail with satisfaction.
And yes, Mark Twain had a lot of tragedy in his life. Humor can be a mask, hiding deep feelings, but it can also be an amazing source of healing and catharsis. The fun parts of my book were a blast to draft and polish, but yes, some of the more emotional parts really hit home. It broke all of us when my brother-in-law passed away. It was the most tragic thing that's happened in the history of our family and it's still difficult to process. I think of my sister and nieces and Jon every day. My sister has incredible strength and she's raising her daughters to know exactly how special their dad was.

Faith: Yes! I'm very close--I'm marking my calendar now! (Here's a link for anyone else who's interested!) In case you're not aware, Harriet Beecher Stowe's house is right next door to Mark Twain's--also very cool.
Your sister sounds like an incredible person. I'm so sorry to hear that the saddest part of your book is inspired by real life; at the same time, it makes it that much more meaningful that your sister and all your family have the courage to live life joyfully. I know this can sound so hackneyed, but I mean it sincerely: I will keep all of you in my prayers as you heal.
 
Now, I don't want to take up too much of your time, as I'm sure you have a gazillion and one things to get to. But is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Jessica: Not today, but I reserve the right to start another chat with you in the future. One of my favorite things about books is that each reader's relationship with a story is unique, but common love for certain books can bring people together and create instant friends, as in:
 
"You love Anne of Green Gables and Little Women? OMG, I ALSO love those books! And you love the Katie John books? That's it, it's decided, we're kindred spirits, bosom book friends, birds of a feather! Got any book recommendations for me?"
 
Thank you so much for the chat :)

Faith: Absolutely; and you're welcome! It's been my pleasure. I knew there was a reason I liked your book right away. :) Must be those instinctive feelers sent out by the Race that Knows Joseph. 
 
The only question I have left is this: once January and the ALA roll around, do you know where I can get a little gold or silver sticker for my copy of your book? I have a feeling it's going to need one...
 
Thanks for stopping by--and for the yummy pizza!--and feel free to drop in anytime. Here's a bag of snickerdoodles for the road.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Kitchen Table Chat with Jessica Lawson, author of The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher (Part 1)

Today, help me welcome Jessica Lawson, author of the newly-released (and just-as-good-as-it-sounds) The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. Instead of a traditional interview, we sat down at our keyboards for a virtual "kitchen table chat" so we could get to know each other better in a more relaxed way. (I think Becky Thatcher would approve.) I hope you'll stay and join the conversation in the comments--and help yourself to some iced tea or lemonade while you're here! :)
 
 


Faith: Welcome, Jessica! Pull up a virtual chair--have some lemonade and a snickerdoodle. I just started reading The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher this past weekend, and I'm kind of in love. Well, that's not entirely true; only the second part is. I really started reading it two or three years ago when I read an earlier draft of Chapter One that you posted at WriteOnCon, and thought it was the best thing I'd read the whole conference. Becky's voice is so clear and unique, and the setting pulled me right in--not to mention I'd jump at anything related to Mark Twain like the celebrated jumping frog might. It's stuck with me ever since, and that doesn't happen often with things I read that long ago. How did you happen to start writing Becky's story?


Jessica: Thank you so much for your kind words about the book (and thank you for the lemonade and snickerdoodles~ I took three, hope you don't mind). I can't believe you remember the excerpt from WriteOnCon!
 
I got the idea for the story years ago while doing a bad job of dusting my bookshelves. I was reading the spines of our books and my eyes fell on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of my favorites. It's one of those books that fills me with a yearning for my childhood. I was fortunate enough to have a particularly golden time between the ages of 6 and 12: lots of time outside, a friendly/safe neighborhood, lots of love, and lots of encouragement for independent and creative activities. After the age of 12 or so, my peers started to develop crushes and started to care about things that I just wasn't ready to care about. I honestly think that when everyone started "growing up," it kind of broke my heart. Maybe that's the reason that the "love story" part of Twain's book didn't resonate with me quite as much as the relationship between Tom and Huck. I remember thinking that if I were Becky, I'd want to join in the adventuring fun, too. And I think that idea stuck with me and that's how it happened to pop into my head on that particular dusting day. I remember making some very brief notes and then letting the idea sit for quite a long time before I got around to writing the story.
 

Oh, look at that, it's after lunch and I didn't even offer you any homemade pizza (East Coast style since my hubby's from Philadelphia). What kind of toppings do you like? :)

Faith: While dusting! Proof that being a writer and being a homemaker are complimentary vocations. I've had some great ideas while washing dishes or gardening...maybe I need to actually, um, dust a little more often. :)
 
I think what you just described is part of the reason I do remember your excerpt and identified with it so strongly. When I was a kid, I was a lot like your version of Becky Thatcher. (Just ask my poor mother.) I got into trouble a lot, ran away from home (all the way down the street) a few times, and gave my big brother the only black eye he ever had. I also had this old, Fisher Price cassette tape dramatization of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that I listened to almost every night. I wanted tobe Becky--but in my daydreams, Becky ended up with a little more role in saving the day. I cried when that tape snapped from overuse--and read the book a few times to comfort myself.
 
While we're on the topic of favorite childhood things, what were some of the other books you loved as a kid?
 
(Oh, and I'll definitely take a slice of pizza; I'm fond of ham and pineapple or jalepenos.)

Jessica: Wowza, sounds like you kept your mom busy! I never ran away, but I went through a phase where I hid a lot when I was 5 or 6. One time the babysitter had to call my parents because she and my sisters couldn't find me~ I was tucked in the back of my parent's closet, chuckling away. That poor babysitter. I love that you listened to a cassette of Tom Sawyer! We had a Fisher Price record player and I used to listen to Dr. Seuss stories on it.

Favorite books of my childhood (other than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) were Katie John, The Boxcar Children, All-of-a-Kind Family (extreme love for that family), The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, The Chronicles of Narnia, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Hobbit, The Sign of the Beaver, My Side of the Mountain (and its sequel), and anything by Roald Dahl (I cried as a 10-year-old when I found out that he died because there would be no more Roald Dahl books). And, of course, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. How about you?

Faith: I don't think I've ever talked to anyone before who had heard of Katie John! I loved those books; as a matter of fact, I just started reading the first to my daughters, and they proceeded to explore our entire house looking for secret passageways or hiding spots under the stairs. Nothing so interesting as Aunt Emily's dumb waiter turned up, but they did decide to turn the cupboard under the stairs into a playhouse. Now that I think of it, your Becky reminds me a bit of Katie John. Character inspiration?
 
We must have had very similar childhood reading experiences--I read and loved all the books you listed except All-of-a-Kind Family, which I've been meaning to read for a few months now. Did you ever read the Betsy-Tacy books? I loved those. One of my favorite things, too, was to discover other books by my favorite authors. I always liked Rose in Bloom the best of Louisa May Alcott's books, and as much as I am strictly devoted to Anne, I thought the Pat and Emily series were amazing.
 
I'm curious now; many of the books you listed feature large families, and Becky's love for her brother is a major theme in your book. Do you have siblings and were you close to them? I have kind of a theory that just like romance is often at the heart of a good YA story, family relationships are a big factor in meaningful, satisfying MG books.

Jessica: I love that theory! Yes, Becky's love for her brother and the way she and her family process his loss is a major theme of the book. The brother character, Jon, was named after my own brother-in-law who passed away shortly before I started to sit down and actually write the story I'd been thinking about. Becky's brother is the reason she wears overalls and loves adventure--she admired him above all others and he influenced her heavily, as older siblings tend to do.

I have two older sisters who I was very close to while growing up. I admired them so much and still do. They were my role models for  school and sports and I'm sure that, as the youngest, I annoyed them to no end. We're still close, though they live states away and we only get to see each other once a year or so. I wish we all lived closer.

I haven't read the Betsy-Tacy books; I'll have to check them out! And yes, the dumbwaiter in Katie John! I also liked when they accidentally put powdered dish/laundry detergent in the lemonade by mistake :)

Faith: The whole detergent in the lemonade reminds me of when a friend of mine made banana bread with powdered sugar instead of flour...just a little less edible. :)
 
(There's plenty more fun--and some ice cream--to this conversation, so stop back Wednesday for Part 2!)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Newbery!

The first Newbery Medal was awarded on this day in 1922 to The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon. They've come a long way from that first long-winded, racist winner...

You may remember, I had a goal to read all the Newbery winners; since setting it, I've read 4 more, going from 54 to 58. This year's, Flora & Ulysses, was an easy addition and a new favorite, but it's just a little pathetic that that was my only improvement, huh? Let's just say I was reading all the books that deserved Newbery medals. :)

I am metaphorically sitting on my fingers to keep from typing you a list of all my favorite Newbery winners...because that might bore some of you. But perhaps you'll indulge my list-love by listing your favorites in the comments?