Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidents' Day Wisdom...

Happy Presidents' Day!


I'm going to temporarily go along with the mainstream trend of conveniently forgetting that Presidents' Day is supposed to celebrate Washington and Lincoln, and share with you some writing advice from a different great man: our second president, John Adams.

“...I am resolved not to neglect my time as I did last year. I am resolved to rise with the sun, and to study the Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors. This is my fixed determination... May I blush whenever I suffer one hour to pass unimproved. I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention; I will stand collected within myself, and think upon what I read and what I see; I will strive, with all my soul, to be something more than persons who have had less advantages than myself.” (From his journal, July 21, 1756)

(I must insert: the above passage is worth reading for the masterful use of semicolons alone...)

“But I must stay more at home, and commit more to writing. A pen is certainly an excellent instrument to fix a man's attention and to inflame his ambition. I am, therefore, beginning a new literary year in the twenty-sixth of my life.” (From his journal, Friday November 14, 1760)

I found these quotes in Carolyn Yoder's John Adams, the Writer; A Treasury of Letters, Diaries, and Public Documents. And I must say that the word “treasury” is accurate, for the treasures I have found there are boundless. (Hmm...I seem to have picked up a more advanced vocabulary than I generally use. Blame John Adams!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Great and Powerful Plot and its role in "Character Books"

I must start by confessing that I'm a plot addict. I'm not one of those lucky people who can write without an outline. My first manuscripts had very clear good guys trying to get something good and very clear bad guys trying to thwart them. For a long time, that was the way plot operated in my mind. You know...Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring—Sauron wants to use the Ring to dominate the world; Luke wants to become a Jedi Knight—the Emperor wants to use Luke's power to...um...dominate the world. Even more ambiguous plotlines, like...Harry wants a family and friends and love—Voldemort wants to rid the world of things family and friends and love (and dominate the world)...were ok, because there was still a flesh-and-blood bad guy that Harry had to fight in order to get what he wanted.
But recently an idea took seed in my mind that I couldn't get rid of. (Pesky idea weeds...) It was for...gulp...a “character book”. I've always loved character books, but for the life of me, no matter how many I read and how much I read about them, I could never fully grasp how they worked. Or rather, why they worked. Where were the Saurons and Darth Vaders? Who was the bad guy?
Finally after weeks of scratching out outlines and charts and lists—and reading lots of wonderful character books and eating several bars of chocolate—I had an epiphany.
(Note: please don't laugh at me if everyone in the world knows this already. Maybe it was something I just had to discover for myself...)
There is a bad guy in every character book. It might not be flesh-and-blood, but it is real and scary and nearly tangible. It is the character's Greatest Fear.
Here's what one of my figuring-this-out charts looked like as an example:

Who/What is the bad guy in Because of Winn-Dixie?
     Well...who does Opal think is the bad guy? Who is she afraid of?
          She's afraid of losing her dog.
          She needs his help to make friends...is she afraid of losing them, too?
          She struggles every day with her mother's abandonment.
          She shares the pain of her friends who have touched death and loneliness and loss.
               So...the bad guy, the thing Opal needs to fight is...Loss. With a capital L.
                    Opal “wins” when she overcomes her fear of Loss.

I asked the same questions for as many middle grade character books as I could think of, and while the answers were varied, in every case the main character's greatest fear served as the plot equivalent of the evil villain. Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables has to fight Rejection. Damien in Millions has to fight Death. Claudia in From the Mixed-Up Files (etc....) has to fight Being Average and Overlooked. Millicent in Millicent Min, Girl Genius has to fight Being Better than Average and Overlooked.
Just like in a bona fide “plot book” these villains have their sidekicks. There are other fears to be overcome, until each story becomes a melting pot of obstacles to overcome—and maybe that's why the real bad guy can be so hard to identify. I guess if a writer didn't make the fight subtle, it would just be a poorly-crafted issue book.
So finally (finally!) I could fill out my outline and get ready to write a story. In the meantime, I'm fighting my own bad guy: Fear of Getting Up at Ungodly Hours so I can actually get pages written...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is it true that there aren't enough "boy books" out there?

Or is it simply that at some point, it becomes "uncool" for a boy to be seen reading a book?

I won't go into another long discourse, but I think it's the latter. I've been surrounded my entire life by guys who love reading...and they never lacked for a book to pick up. But their friends liked to read, too; many of them were from families where everyone read, many were homeschooled--and I can tell you from personal experience that while homeschooling does not lack peer pressure, the things pressured are a lot different: "You mean, you haven't read the Silmarillion yet? What are you reading, man?"

But that kind of social influence doesn't exist in most places. So...how can we change culture and perception?

I'm really curious to hear what you all think about this. It's been tossed about my brain so much I'm getting dizzy...yet I can't get away from the questions.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Networking vs Connecting

(Alternately: “The Most Important Thing I've Learned from Writing Historical Fiction” or “The result of watching 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' for the first time in almost 20 years and then thinking too hard...”)

Once upon a time—oh, say, any time before the 1990's really—there was a world whose inhabitants were forced to rely upon each other. They had to go to stores and interact with cashiers if they wanted to buy something. They had to ask a librarian to request a book for them, instead of filling out a form from the convenience of their home. Most of their days, probably, were spent with or among other people.

"The Good Samaritan" by Rembrandt
A little further back, people had to rely on each other for things as basic as entertainment. There were no such thing as video games. Going to see a movie was something that brought you closer to your neighbors—and a few years before that, going to the theater was something which enabled you to watch your neighbors in the very act of creating art as they interacted with their audience.

The further back in time you look, the starker the contrast to today. By the time we get to the 1700's (at least in America)—and then back on through time—you relied on your neighbors for pretty much everything you needed. Women quilted and sewed and knitted together for efficiency, using yarn and cloth they had made, from cotton they and their neighbors had grown or wool from sheep they raised. Men built houses and barns together—using wood cut from local forests by local lumbermen.

People needed each other.

People still need each other.

But instead of relying on actual communication and interaction, we have the very dangerous world of “networking.” Now, obviously, I don't think the internet and the paths to connecting it opens are bad—this blog being the proof of that. Though I'm not “on” Facebook, I don't have a problem with it in itself.

But... I do think it is very sad when the medium of the internet is used as a disguised replacement for what we as humans really need. It's easy to check up on your hundreds of Facebook and blog friends without giving them a second thought later in the day. It's easy to meet thousands of people and lump them together mentally into a group of practically nameless, blurry faces or symbols. Do your internet friends really need you? Do you need them? Hundreds of years ago, humans were forced to be much more tolerant of each other and giving of themselves—because life, welfare, entertainment...everything depended on it. Now, how easy it is to write off our next-door neighbor—we'll never need to ask to borrow an egg or butter, after all, because it's become easier to zip out to the store and go through the self-checkout lane without having to look at or speak to a single soul. It's something to think about...

Enough negativity, though. :) I want to thank all of you who read this blog, who comment here, and whose blogs I enjoy, for making the networking world of the internet one in which actual connection is involved. Thank you for writing about things you care about, for caring about the things I write about, for caring about me. It makes me so happy to see a comment in which someone asks for prayers or support—I will always give them. And the prayers and support I receive from you have boosted me through some of my difficult days—my most sincere thanks for that.

I like the idea of the blog world having the potential to become a renewal of the sort of medieval village where people turned to each other. Maybe it's that writers and readers and artists tend to steep themselves in the past a bit, anyway, but that is what I can find here, with a little bit of searching.

(On that note, if anyone has any handmade yarn lying about, I'm in the market. :)

Ok, I'm done here. I was going to include the text of Luke's Good Samaritan parable, but it's longer than I thought.... Anyway, if you happen to read it soon (it begins around Luke 10:25), it is interesting to think of the words “Who is my neighbor?” in this context...