Friday, February 26, 2016

Some Thoughts On Plotting and Publishing and Aha Moments

Went to see Victoria Schwab and Rachel Hawkins at Blue Willow Books this weeks and as happens when a bunch of readers meet up with awesome authors, talk turned to writing and plotting and origin stories and the like. Victoria described how she saves up plot points like a chipmunk saving nuts and when she has enough, has those 10 or 15 key moments that will make up a novel, she basically connects the dots. "I'm not a plotter or a pants-er," she told the crowd. "I'm a connect-the-dots-er"

For the most part, this describes my process as well. Oh, I do full-blown outlines of the skeleton draft variety when I'm forced to. And certainly I almost always have to know the end and keep it in mind as I write. In fact I write at least a sketch of that final scene early on, trying to encapsulate the emotional beats, giving me something to aim at. It helps the story arc develop. It helps keep me true to the emotional arc I've envisioned for the main character. It gives me focus. But as for keeping tight to outlines, that's a bit troublesome for me. So much of novel writing for me comes with the freedom to explore and shift and tweak the story during that exploratory first full draft.

The business end of publishing sometimes stymies this process, although I'm sure that's not its intention. Agents need a full outline to sell a proposal and sample pages. An editor may come back to an author and say, I need to know exactly what happens all the way through. Which is easy to tell her or him when the book is finished. Less simple when you've only written act 1. I always know the plot in general. But I have to leave myself room for the characters to discover things that I do not yet know. Yes, I know that sounds a bit twee and precious and but it's true. Shit happens when you write. That's the miracle of creating something out of nothing. That glorious moment when the 'oh that's what this is all about' reveals itself to you like some sort of writer's Mt. Sinai and you're gobsmacked and cheering and you think yes, yes, THIS is why I am a writer. Because of this! Because something layered and complex has revealed itself through the act of telling the story, one of those glorious grey areas about life that hang out in the fringes of your brain waiting for you to realize oh! That's why I was writing this. That's what this character is all about.

It's a crazy wonderful way to try to earn a living, isn't it?

Watched part of a documentary on the great stage and screen director and improv comedian, Mike Nichols. (whose improv partner Elaine May created and starred in one of my favorite obscure 70s movies, a New Leaf, about a wealthy guy who goes broke and decides to marry this dingy wealthy lady botanist and then kill her on the honeymoon, only she finds this undiscovered species of fern and things go wacky and ultimately in a different direction from there)  Anyway, Mike Nichols ( who directed The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Barefoot in the Park and many other films and plays) believes that there are only three types of scenes: Negotiation, seduction, or fights. I'm not sure if he meant this specifically for stage plays and film or for all story telling but now it's stuck in my head and I'm going to see what I can do with it. Basically, his theory is that if a scene isn't moving forward, or if it's boring, probably it isn't doing one of those three things and if you can tweak it so it can, things will work just fine.

So how do you plot a novel? What are your tricks and secrets?

Monday, February 22, 2016

RIP Harper Lee: Thoughts on Reading and Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s hard to count how many times I’ve taught the now late Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird. It was in the 9th grade English curriculum the first year I taught—that crazy year I was also the JV girl’s volleyball coach back in Illinois. It was in the curriculum every year I taught 10th grade here in Texas. So if you multiply four or five sections times all those years, well, that’s a lot of Jem and Scout and Atticus and Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. A lot of fictional Maycomb. And honestly, a lot of reading passages aloud, not only because I believe in the power of reading words to students, many of whom over the years have rarely been read to growing up, but also because the cold hard reality of high school English is that many students never read what they’re assigned. Not ever. Even honors students. Sometimes especially honors students, which is another story entirely.

But Mockingbird. When you teach something that many times, when you re-read something that many times, it becomes part of you—the words, the rhythms, the characters, the joys and the tragedies of the story. I can recite large chunks of the book from memory. Sometimes when I’m writing my own books, a cadence floats in and I have to recognize it as Harper Lee’s and push it away. For me it’s like that with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby as well. I’ve read it so many, many times that it’s just a part of me.

I had to replace my original copy a few years ago when the yellowing pages started falling out from having been turned so many times. (Let me add here that there is nothing digital that can replace the true wonder of loving a physical book so much that it falls apart bit by bit, goes fragile and has to be held together with a rubber band.)

What passages are indelibly marked in my brain? So many. The opening, for one, that luscious, slow description of Maycomb, Alabama.  The scene where Atticus has to shoot Tim Johnson, the rabid dog. The courtroom scenes during Tom Robinson’s trial. Atticus’ closing speech. That brutal, awful moment when he has lost the case and is walking alone through the courtroom and up in the balcony Reverend Sykes tells Scout: “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” The goofiness with Dill. Scout’s progressive realization the Maycomb on the surface is not the Maycomb underneath. The moment at Aunt Alexandria’s Missionary Circle when Scout sees the town’s hypocrisy for what it is, just as Atticus receives word that Tom Robinson has been shot. Scout’s ham costume. The cruelty of Bob Ewell and the moment where Boo Radley saves the children. The meeting of Scout and Boo. And a dozen other glorious moments in between. Line after line. Word after word. 

One of my favorite passages is one that I can’t read without weeping. I have always loved asking students if the last part is true. I like to think that Scout grew up and realized that it wasn’t.

 “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Revision Workshop 1: Building Tension

Sometimes I know a chapter is well-written but it still isn’t working as well as it needs to. For me, this often happens when the tension in the scene (or scenes) is primarily internal. It’s not that nothing is happening. It’s just that I’ve written a bunch of character ruminating and after awhile that gets tedious to read. It also tends to bring out a level of repetition in my writing that I’d prefer to avoid because really, how many new things can a character think about? I find myself writing the same loop of thoughts.

So what’s a writer to do?
Well, revise, of course!

And in this case, dig in and re-think how the scene needs to play out, how I can move out of the character’s head and ground the internal angst with external action. Author Sara Zarr, whose workshop I attended at The Writing Barn a few years ago, calls these Emotional Turnings. She taught us that every emotional turning of a character needs to be rooted in some action perceivable by the senses. It is grand and wise advice.

Yesterday, I used this advice to turn around a set of scenes that had devolved into too much thinking. In this case, the key was a phone call the MC makes to her best friend, a friend she hasn’t seen much since the MC moved to the city, and has in fact been ignoring, mostly because the MC’s life has been turned upside down by the death of her brother and the ensuing breakup of her family. And then there’s been something very strange that has happened and there’s a new boy and a bunch of angst and so the MC calls her friend.

In the original version, she calls. There is witty banter, but it’s mostly one-sided with the friend going on and on about her camp counselor job and teaching archery and the MC thinks some witty things and then the friend says she has to go without asking why the MC has called. Followed by some pages of MC angsting.

Yeah. I know. It reads well technically. It does bring back all the things that are going wrong in the MCs world and all the things she wants but possibly will never have. But yeah. A lot of ruminating.

So I gave it a hard look. Poked around at this friendship and this moment and the myopic-nature of people when their lives are taking unexpected turns. And wondered what would happen if after the friend rattled on about archery and said she had to go, the MC would say no. I need to tell you something. And instead of saying something friend-like, the friend would basically tell her to get lost. What does she think, calling after basically ignoring her all this time. Call her self-centered or whatever. I hate giving away an exact plot so this is the basic gist although not the specifics. The point is, that the MC needs to be totally blindsided here. And then the MC needs to react in a physical way and DO SOMETHING. Then and only then can she think and then and only then will her thoughts have a real, physical world catalyst. And the stakes are raised because in the process one last remaining safety net (the friend) is ripped away rather than just hanging up the phone. (well, pressing end, which is so much less dramatic, but whatever.) 

See what I mean?

What do you do when you realize a scene lacks tension?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In Praise of The Writing Barn

Today I’m beginning the first of what I hope will be an ongoing set of posts about people who make a difference in my writer world, whose presence and work furthers me (and many others) on the winding path toward creating art that matters. For me, this is a long, long list of amazing humans who not only write but also work tirelessly in one form or another to create community. Children’s writers are mostly generous like that, in ways both large and small. But it’s easier than I used to think to get lost in your own head in this world of writers and books, to find yourself stuck in the business details, the endless often soul-sucking worry about the next book and the next and ‘will anyone notice this one? Why am I doing this again?’

 Which is why I’m so grateful for so many people who keep me focused on the wonder and joy of the process, the journey. Who pay it forward HARD and remind me to do the same.

Writing Barn interior
 If you don’t know about The Writing Barn in Austin, well, you should. And if you don’t know about its creator and director Bethany Hegedus, well, you should know about her, too. I can’t even remember when I first met Bethany, but it was at least five years ago and probably in Austin. I do remember posing for a goofy picture with her at the Soho Press booth in 2012 at ALAMW in Dallas. Soho was launching Soho Teen and there was champagne and somehow colorful squirt guns, I think for the Soho Crime inprint. In any case, our paths kept crossing, Bethany and I, including our twice yearly sojourns to what a group of us now lovingly call The Lodge of Death. Each time I learned more about her, about what had brought her here to Texas, about her writer’s journey and life journey and bunch of stuff in between. Plus we laugh a lot. A lot!

Bethany Hegedus
Bethany writes amazing books, including but not limited to the picture book, Grandfather Gandhi, which she co-authored with Arun Gandhi, grandson of yes, the other Gandhi! Yes, I know! It is such a beautiful, moving, meaningful book.

But The Writing Barn! Bethany and her husband Vivek have made a true book-lover’s haven in a wooded area outside of Austin. Retreats, workshops, lectures, special events. You can come for a few hours, a weekend, a week, depending on the event. You can work on your writer’s craft and learn from a growing and illustrious list of guest authors. (Nova Ren Suma! Jenny Han! Francisco X. Stork! Libba Bray and Barry Goldblatt will be teaching in October!) I am forever grateful for the weekend I spent at The Writing Barn learning about ‘emotional turnings’ in novel writing from author Sara Zarr. I have been back many times, including as a mentor and writing
me and Sara Zarr !
instructor this past summer for a week long Whole Novel Workshop, where I got to teach alongside amazing writers Tim Wynne-Jones and Nicole Griffin, and also learn from many others including Lisa Papademetriou and Hannah Barnaby.

Have I gushed enough?
Here’s a link to The Writing Barn.
Check it out. Go!

Tell Bethany I sent you.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Five for Friday

And it's Friday again, after a strange week that was, in turns, upsetting and encouragingly joyful, depending on what day it was. It has been a roller coaster-y few weeks into 2016, and the weather has reflected this here in my piece of the Gulf Coast, with 75 temps one day and 35 the next and frequently in the same day, leaving my head confused and achy. Seriously, we are all complaining that it's hard to keep up.

And so the five things on my mind this week:

1. Possibly today I will sneak away and see Zoolander 2, because the mister does not find the idea hilarious fun and there is nothing worse on date night than sitting next to someone you love who is nonetheless sighing under his breath and counting the minutes until it's over while he eats his popcorn.

In a small side commentary on that, I always find it interesting that I know people who refuse to go to the movies alone. I am totally grand with going to the movies alone. I love the movies. I love sitting in a theater. I love watching something I really wanted to see and why inflict something you love on someone who won't enjoy it?

2. Scandal is back! But I can't discuss it yet because I haven't seen it yet. But soon.

3. The Lumineers are touring again! They have a new album. Hooray!!

4. Went to see ALL THE WAY at The Alley Theater this week and it was truly brilliant. It takes the story of LBJ's presidency from the moment of the assassination of Kennedy to LBJ's own election the following November, with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the growing turmoil in the US and the insidious beginnings of the conflict in Vietnam. It's a long play, close to 3 hours, but you really don't notice. Of course, I have the Hamilton soundtrack running in my head always now because I love it so much, so it's almost hard not to sit there imagining a stage play re-created as a musical. Still, if ALL THE WAY comes your way, go see it!

5. The WIP is in that place where once I get beyond the next chapter, things will start flying and soon it will be a real book and this thrills me to my tired, tired core. And someday, if I'm really good, I will be able to tell you about it. Hooray to that!

In other writing matters, I had a grand time last Saturday teaching 8 writers about "how to find an agent and why you need one." If you are a writer in Houston and haven't discovered Whitespace Houston yet, you need to discover it!

until next time!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Five for Friday

First Friday in February!
Here's five things on mind:

1. Just 3 months plus a few days until May 17th, pub day for IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS ! I am seriously so excited about this book. Because accidental immortality and murder mystery and star-crossed romance and a forever-seventeen-year-old girl named Emma who ends up a hard-boiled private eye but refuses to stop searching for the boy she loves. His name is Charlie. And oh my gosh, you guys, Emma and Charlie. Plus a down at the heels detective named Pete Mondragon. And did I say Emma and Charlie?? Please be on the lookout!

2. Obsessed with the musical HAMILTON. Have listened to the cast recording a zillion times. Have checked the bio it's based on from the library. I admit that I HAD NO IDEA. Because somewhere I was assigned the Federalist papers and I never could make my way through it. And now I just look at a ten dollar bill and I'm all gooey and teary-eyed because THIS STORY! Lin-Manuel Miranda is a freaking genius. Those tickets for the Broadway show are impossible to get for a reason. (seriously! Even my own sort of BIG CONNECTION,  the one who can get anything, really, even she couldn't promise me access to tickets for the next time I'm going to be in NYC. ) But HAMILTON. Listen to it!!

3. Have lots of things to say about the current presidential campaign but this is not the place to say them. At least not in this particular post.

4. Current TV obsessions: YOUNGER on TVLand, which is not a perfect show but definitely has a lot to say about the publishing world, some of which is occasionally right on the money. and a lot to say about what it means to be a middle-aged woman in this country even now in 2016 when we should know better but we really don't. Plus it stars Sutton Foster who is so talented and brilliant that I would watch her in pretty much anything, including the far-too-soon cancelled Boneheads of a few years back.  Still hanging in there with SUPERGIRL and trying to catch up with iZOMBIE. And if you read this blog, you know that's just some of it. And did I mention that season 2 of TRANSPARENT on Amazon Prime is absolutely perfect and moving and so utterly watchable??

5. Since the McAllen book festival in November, I've had this THING for enchiladas with mole sauce. Holy cow I love that stuff.

And okay, I have so much more to say about so very many things, but I need to write 1,000 words this morning.

Tim next time...