Writing

Q&A of the Month: Quiet Books

Q. Is there a market for quiet books or do they all have to be LOUD to be signed? -- Gary

A. Hmm. What I would say is, we are in a very crowded book market, with, if I recall correctly, 300,000 new books published professionally in the United States last year alone. In such a market, books have to stand out in some way, in order to give both booksellers and our end consumer -- the reader / book buyer -- a reason to purchase the book. That method of standing out could be the book's exciting plot, its unusual subject matter, its marvelous writing, its author (as brand-name authors like John Green or Linda Sue Park have enough of a reputation to stand out no matter the nature of the book itself), any gimmicks that are built into it (like the photos in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) . . . Whatever might distinguish the book to a librarian flipping through a catalog or a child surveying a shelf. 

In practice, the most common method by which a book stands out is its book's plot, because it's the element of writing we can all talk about most easily, and opinions about what makes "marvelous writing" differ so widely from person to person. If your book doesn't have a LOUD plot -- if its events are pretty everyday -- then you need to make the characterizations and delineations of those events as rich and meaningful to us readers as they are to the characters themselves, and then the quiet everydayness will become LOUD because we love your people so much and we're so deeply invested in what happens to them. (I'm thinking of Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell here, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca L. Stead, Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo....) Such a book can definitely sell -- both to a publisher and to readers -- and even be more beloved than loud books, because the experience of them is so much more intimate and precious. However, if you aren't a writer who goes into that much literary depth, it might be better to concentrate on developing a louder plot.  

Two New Writing Workshops with Me!

I'm delighted to announce that on Saturday, November 21, I'll be teaching two writing workshops as a fundraiser for Park Slope United Methodist Church. One will be in the morning (9 a.m.-12 p.m.) and one in the afternoon (2-5 p.m.) at the church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Each one is $50, and all proceeds go to PSUMC. (This will be the first public debut of some material from my new book, The Magic Words, and I'm excited about that.)

"So You Want to Write a Book?" (9-12): In this workshop for beginning writers, or even people with just an idea for a book, "We’ll talk about practical techniques for starting and sustaining a novel-length narrative, including questions to ask, story dynamics to explore, and tips and tricks for getting the work done. A brief overview of revision and submission practices and publication options will be provided at the end."

To sign up: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/so-you-want-to-write-a-book-tickets-18955014960

"A Master Class in Character" (2-5): "What makes a character come alive on the page? What details should you include, or not include? Do characters have to be likeable or relateable? If you want a character to be relateable, how do you make that happen? In this workshop for novelists, we’ll explore the many dimensions and mysteries of characterization, and discuss ways to create believable, compelling fictional people."

To sign up: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-master-class-in-character-tickets-18955102221

It would be great to see you there! If you have any questions, leave 'em in the comments. Thank you for your interest.

Five Questions for Emil Sher, author of YOUNG MAN WITH CAMERA

This debut novel by Emil Sher is quite honestly one of the most extraordinary and challenging books I've ever worked on--an incredible example of voice; a narrative that will ask you to think about the interplay between language and images, what you expect from a narrative, what makes a good ending in books and in life. It came over the transom to my colleague Anne Shone of Scholastic Canada, who shared it with me, and is illustrated throughout with richly evocative black-and-white photos. This past week, it was nominated for Canada's Governor General's Award -- their equivalent of the National Book Award. 

Without further ado, Five Questions for Emil:

1. Tell us a little bit about your book. 

At first blush,

Young Man with Camera

is about bullying. But as T— would likely ask: “What about the second blush?” At its core, I believe this novel is about a lifelong friendship between T— and Sean that is tested in ways that reveal the breadth and depth of their bond. It’s also about a blossoming friendship between T— and a homeless woman named Lucy that is cut short. T— values both relationships, and both are brought into sharp relief at the hands of Ryan, who is not simply a garden-variety bully: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath. T— has long been in the crosshairs of "Joined at the Hip," his name for Ryan and the minions who have tormented him ever since a kitchen fire accident left him with facial burns. His perch on the margins gives T— a singular perspective that he captures in striking black-and-white photographs. When he bears witness to an assault, camera in hand, he is forced to make some very difficult, life-changing decisions. To keep silent is to bury the truth. To speak out is to put the lives of loved ones at risk. For a young man who hungers for the truth, T— moves forward by being true to himself.

2. If this book had a spirit animal or theme song, what would it be and why?

In a world of tortoises and hares, it’s a tortoise that would feel most at home between the covers of this book. Tortoises often go unnoticed; they slowly make their way beneath the radar, so to speak, with none of the eye-catching speed of a hare. I think T— would feel a kinship with a tortoise. They may not make a move for a long time but you can practically hear their thoughts tumbling inside. And like a tortoise, T— needs a protective shell of his own as he navigates the bruising bumps of life.

And while I don’t know if T— would ever finding himself listening to Stephen Sondheim’s "Send in the Clowns," I do know it would resonate with him. Listen to it once and you would think it’s about a trapeze artist who has lost her timing. But, in fact, she is speaking of a whole other loss altogether that has nothing to do with circuses and clowns. There’s what you hear and then there’s what is actually being said. Just as there’s more than meets the eye in a photograph, this song takes on a very different meaning when placed in a larger context. Context, as T— believes, is a synonym for the larger truth. In that way, "Send in the Clowns" is of a piece with T—‘s world: there’s more to it than meets the ear.

3. Please name and elaborate on at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book. 

It is sometimes said that “Character is plot,” which I believe to be true to the extent that I have long been drawn to stories anchored by compelling, complex characters. But a memorable protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the story will engage and keep us connected from start to finish. And so it was with T—, who I took a shining to from the get-go but whose motivations and intentions and reactions and decisions all had to be cracked open and justified and structured so they moved the story forward. One of my favorite photographs in

Young Man with Camera

(artfully shot by David Wyman) is of a bicycle half-buried in snow. “It makes me think of a story that ends before it’s over,” says T—. “There’s no And then.” No matter how rich and varied characters may be, they need an “And then….”

4.  What is your favorite scene in the book?

There are three moments in the novel that have stayed with me, and they are all linked to friendship. There is the scene early in the story when Ruby appears from the back of her father’s store with a paper towel she offers to T—. It’s a lovely gesture, made all the lovelier because of the loveless humiliation we know T— has just endured at the hands of Joined at the Hip.

T— is not accustomed to a lot of physical contact, other than being tripped and shoved, which makes what Lucy does all the more meaningful. During the scene where they look at a photograph together — "Girl with Striped Face" — Lucy reaches out and gently touches T— ’s scars, without judgment.

T— and Sean have long shared the same boat. We learn that boat is made from different stuff when T— describes the importance, the necessity of being by his best friend’s side as Sean wades through some very difficult waters: “If there’s something you really don’t want to do, it helps to have someone help you not do it. Not right away. Not for a while. Not until you’re ready.”

5. What are you working on now?

Is it premature to share a working title?

Unexpected

: a fish-out-of-water story about a seventeen-year-old single father.

Five Questions for Trent Reedy, author of BURNING NATION

(The first in a new series of brief interviews with authors of forthcoming books)

1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Burning Nation is the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy. It continues the story of seventeen-year-old Idaho Army National Guardsman PFC Danny Wright and his friends as they are stuck in the middle of a tense stand-off between the state of Idaho and the federal government of the United States. In the first book, Divided We Fall, Idaho has voted to nullify the Federal Identification Card Act. When Danny’s National Guard unit is sent to quell a protest/riot resulting from this nullification, he accidentally fires his rifle, which causes other people to shoot, leaving twelve dead and nine wounded. The president demands an investigation and prosecution. The governor of Idaho refuses to cooperate, saying that he gave a lawful order to the National Guardsmen under his command.

Burning Nation begins right where the first book left off, with the president sending the military to force Idaho to comply with federal law. Right from the beginning, Danny and his friends are caught up in the fight, but as the country descends into the chaos of the Second American Civil War, losses begin to take their toll. It becomes hard to understand what has been won, but easy to see what’s been lost. As the sacrifices mount and betrayals abound, Danny and his friends begin to think about the wounds they’ve suffered, inside and out.

It’s an action-packed book that continues to explore what happens when America’s current political divide widens into tomorrow’s nightmare, and it’s alarming how many real-life headlines seem to have been predicted by Divided We Fall and Burning Nation.

2. If this book had a theme song, what would it be and why?

Ten years ago, when my fellow soldiers and I were serving in Farah Province in Afghanistan, we were struck by how much the landscape resembled that featured in the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. That movie features a song by Tina Turner called "We Don’t Need Another Hero." My fellow soldiers would joke about this song, with one man saying, “We don’t need another hero” and another replying, “We don’t even know the way home.” The video is a bit dated and cheesy, but if you listen to the words, the song really fits as a commentary on the brutality and waste of war that is very appropriate for Burning Nation.


3. Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

When I began work on Burning Nation, I was under the naive assumption that writing the book would be easier because I had already finished Divided We Fall. I knew the characters, the setting, and at least the situation that led to the events in Burning Nation. I should have known that Burning Nation would be as significant if not a greater challenge than the first book. One of the challenges came from the situation the characters face. Throughout most of Burning Nation Danny and his friends must endure a federal military occupation of their small northern Idaho town. With U.S. soldiers hunting for them all the time, their movements, and thus my options for the kinds of scenes I could include, felt rather limited. I began to feel almost as claustrophobic as Danny and his fellow soldiers.

Another challenge with writing Burning Nation was that it was the second part of a story that already had its first part on the market. I was facing a situation that was new to me, that of having public feedback on characters and other aspects of the larger Divided We Fall story, while I was writing that story’s second installment. It felt like having many, sometimes too many, advisors in my office with me while I worked. Cheryl was wise, as she usually is, when she encouraged me to stop looking at reviews and reader comments as I worked on Burning Nation.

4. What is your favorite scene in the book?

I’m really quite happy with a lot of the scenes in Burning Nation, so I’m going to cheat and list two. First, since Burning Nation isn’t merely an action/war book, but is a piece which, I hope, encourages the reader to think about the terrible nature of war and its effects on those who live through it, I’d like to point out a scene that happens after Danny Wright has been through terrible physical and emotional torture. He is out of his mind from sleep deprivation and other torments, and when his one-time rival TJ bursts into his cell to rescue him, Danny isn’t sure if what is happening is even real. He’s confused and kind of cries, “Travis?” Travis Jones realizes that Danny is seriously messed up and it’s going to be harder to rescue him than he and his friends supposed. It’s a small moment, but I hope there’s a lot of emotion in that simple question, that exhausted and near-breaking-point, “Travis?”

And since I love some good action, I’m also quite happy with a hand-to-hand fight scene near the end of the book. It’s a fight between Danny and a U.S. Army major, a desperate fight to the death where Danny has to make an important decision about how deep into the war he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he wants to save. In addition to the moral question the fight raises, I just think it’s a clear scene, a tense and suspenseful fight. And the conclusion of the scene is really quite chilling.

5. What are you working on now?

I am hard at work on the third book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, entitled The Last Full Measure. The story follows America’s further final decline into a terrible civil war, and the difficult consequences this has for Danny Wright and his friends. I’m having lots of fun working on it, and it’s on schedule for a 2016 release.

For more about this book, including an excerpt, reviews, and purchase information, visit the Burning Nation page on the Arthur A. Levine Books website. 

A Ramble: The Elements of Writerly Talent and Improvement

"A writer needs three things:  experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently:  How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. 

First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:

Imagination:  The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth:  a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful:  Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. 

Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.

Dramatic Skill:  The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people:  Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. 

Writing Craft:  The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. 

All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:

Unconscious Reading:  Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. 

Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:

Practice:  So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it:  "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins:  You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.

Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:

Conscious Reading:  Separate from the Unconscious Reading above:  This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.

Cultivating a Process:  Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.

Choosing the Right Material:  In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge:  She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. 

So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) 

Cultivating a Purpose:  Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) 


Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.

If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:

Perseverance:  Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. 

Writers, readers, reviewers:  Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer? 

The Quote File: Talent

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." -- Thomas Jefferson 

"The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck." -- Hector Berlioz

"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except the best." -- Henry van Dyke

"The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Talent develops in tranquillity, character in the full current of human life." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage." -- Sydney Smith 

"Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential." -- Jessamyn West

"If you want to write anything that works, you have to go with the grain of your talent, not against it. If your imagination is inert and sullen in the face of business or politics...but takes fire at the thought of ghosts and vampires and witches and demons, then feed the flames, feed the flames." -- Philip Pullman

"Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him." -- Mel Brooks

"The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved." -- Marge Piercey

"Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline." -- Andre Dubus

"Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so." -- Doris Lessing

"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius." -- Felix E. Schelling

A New Episode of the Narrative Breakdown & My NYPL Panel on Native American YA Literature

Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago:   me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!

Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.

I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

The Quote File: Gustave Flaubert

"It's a very baffling act, writing. Flaubert looked at the skies and spent three weeks trying to describe one. I mean, the sky exists anyhow; why should one want to put it down on paper?...It is as if the life lived has not been lived until it is set down in...words." – Edna O’Brien

Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.

It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style, “close the door,” or “he wanted to sleep,” than to give all the literature courses in the world.

Prose is like hair; it shines with combing. 
 
Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.

The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.

Style is as much under the words as in the words. It is as much the soul as it is the flesh of a work.

One mustn't always believe that feeling is everything. In the arts, it is nothing without form.

Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. 

Exuberance is better than taste.
  
The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.
 
Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.

Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.
 
The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.
 
Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.

There is no truth. There is only perception.

Of all lies, art is the least untrue. 
 
To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost. 

On Being a Real ________

My phone said the temperature was 35 degrees as I was preparing for my run in Prospect Park yesterday, so I dressed in my usual cold-weather running gear:  my thickest running socks, tights, a camisole, a running top that zipped up my neck, a windbreaker, a hat and gloves. About twenty-five minutes into the run, as I was cruising steadily down the lower drive with Beyonce lilting in my ears, a guy ran past me going the other direction, wearing only a stocking cap, a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, and shorts. He had the wiry physique and spindly calves of someone who runs every day, who probably did the New York marathon a few weeks ago and will run it again next year (one of my fondest ambitions), and I thought Wow, that guy's a real runner.

And then I thought:  Dammit, I'm out here running in 35 degree weather too. Am I imaginary? No! I'm a real runner as well!

And this got me thinking about the way we use the word "real" to connote -- what? Physical existence? Identity? Membership in a group? People talk a lot about whether or not they're "real" writers if they haven't been published, or if they don't do it every day, or if they're not writing a specific thing (books = good, blog posts = your existence is doubtful). Fandoms are riven by arguments about whether you can be a "real" fan if you haven't read all the back issues, if you only got into it after the movie, even (noxiously) if you are female. When I saw that guy in the park, I doubted my worth as a runner because I don't have the physical ability to run in shorts at 35 degrees without getting frostbite -- meaning, really, I haven't put in the time to gain that muscle tone and metabolism. But my legs pumping in their tights, my heart pounding in my chest, my hand clutching my water bottle were all as present and powerful as that young man dashing by; and I resolved then and there that I will stop dissing myself about this in future and give myself credit -- that my effort, at the least, was real and deserved respect.

Of course, since I live in children's books, I also thought of this:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
   "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
   "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
   "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
   "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
   "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
   "I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
   "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
I don't think Reality in terms of activities can or should be conferred by someone else:  It's something you claim for yourself, and you become Real partly by claiming it. But I do find the ideas of love, effort, and endurance useful here: that while your activity or fandom is not always easy, and may in fact be quite messy or hurtful, you stay with it because you love it, because it does something good for you or the world or brings something good out of you for the world. And in the end, that love and patience, along with doing the work, are what make you Real. 

(I should add that I don't think what I'm saying holds entirely true for racial/ethnic/sexuality group identities, which have complexities and histories, and costs and benefits, far beyond mere participation in an activity or fandom. Nor is it true for anything that requires a specific accomplishment.... No matter how much I may love cheering at marathons, I can't say I'm a Real marathoner, because I haven't done one! But for activities and fandoms, this is my new standard for Real.)

And if you have all of those qualifications, and then some people tell you you aren't a Real __________, then they are the actual frauds; because part of love is generosity, the desire to see this good thing grow, and they don't have enough love in them to be a Real ________ themselves. Ignore them and go on.

By this measure, I am a Real runner, knitter, cook, yogi, writer, and editor. I do remain objectively not very good at the running, knitting, and yoga. But there is something about merely being Real that makes me feel better connected and more committed to my chosen activities--that I know I belong to them and they to me, that no one can take my Realness away from me. As Beyonce gave way to Bonnie Tyler and the sun set over the lake, the wind died down. My speed picked up. I felt again the exhilaration I discovered years ago, that I can run, that I am a runner, that this is a superpower I carry in my own two feet. And I ran out of the park, as Real as I wanted to be.

New Webinar! "Creating Characters Agents Love and Editors Publish: For Middle Grade and YA Novels"

I'm teaching a webinar next week through Writers' Digest University. It's called "Creating Characters Agents Love and Editors Publish." Here's the pitch:

Readers may buy novels for their storylines—the facts that they can learn from the flap copy or an Internet blurb. But readers love books for their characters, because compelling characters bring feeling and meaning to what would otherwise be a mere list of events (also known as the plot). And if you’re trying to hook an agent or editor, nothing will make your opening chapters stand out more than truly distinctive characters:  fictional people, whom you have made real, who compel that agent or editor to want to find out what happens next. 

In this live webinar, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic executive editor Cheryl Klein will teach you multiple strategies for getting readers interested and invested in your characters. She’ll draw on examples from popular middle-grade and YA novels to show you how successful authors work their magic, and provide a solid, actionable list of techniques that can be applied singly or in combination to strengthen your characterizations, from your protagonist and villain down to your supporting cast. By the end of the webinar, you’ll be well equipped to create characters who make agents and editors want to read more of your work, and eventually keep all readers turning the pages. 

Full disclosure:  This is an adaptation of a talk I've given at SCBWI-Hawaii and Hollins University, and some of the material in it is rooted in material from Second Sight and my Plot Master Class, though more of it is new or expressed newly. I actually keep this list of techniques written on a Post-It on my bulletin board at work, and when I feel like a character who should be interesting me isn't, I'll lean over and look through them:  New? Yes! Kind. No. Rather, whiny--oy. Etc.

The webinar will be delivered live on November 14, and available for purchase/replay later. If you're interested, please click over to the Writers' Digest University website here and check it out. And thank you!

Quote File: Time

Reading and Writing

  • "The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” — Junot Diaz 
  • "If I am a prolific writer and turn my hand, with what seems to some as indecent haste, from novels to screenplays to stage and radio plays, it is because there is so much to be said, so few of us to say it, and time runs out." — Fay Weldon
  • "It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded... my nine year old daughter's personality... Card catalogues... Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled... I want to stop time and get things down on paper before they've flown off like a flock of starlings." — Nicholson Baker
  • “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.” — Carl Sagan
  • "The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading." — Norman Rush
  • “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius
  • “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” -- Flannery O'Connor  
  • “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.... The wait is simply too long.” — Leonard Bernstein
  • “To fully understand a grand and beautiful thought requires, perhaps, as much time as to conceive it." — Joseph Joubert 
  • “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” — Annie Dillard
  • “To many people artists seem / undisciplined and lawless. / Such laziness, with such great gifts, / seems little short of crime. / One mystery is how they make / the things they make so flawless; / another, what they're doing with / their energy and time.” — Piet Hein 
  • "Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day." — Robert Hass

Use

  • “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
  • “A man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of life getting his living.” — Henry David Thoreau 
  • “I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult." — E. B. White
  • “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.” — Steve Jobs 
  • "Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let others spend it for you." — Carl Sandburg
  • “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time. — Viktor Frankl
  • “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” — Auguste Rodin 
  • “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.” — Jerome K. Jerome
  • “Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is.” — Thomas Szasz
  • “We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and the sensation of Time. And there are but two means of escaping and forgetting this nightmare: pleasure and work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose.” — Charles Baudelaire   
  • “We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” — Paul Bowles
  • “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” — W.E.B. Du Bois

Lack

  • “Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
  • “Our perception that we have ‘no time’ is one of the distinctive marks of modern Western culture." — Margaret Visser
  • “I wish I could have known earlier that you have all the time you'll need right up to the day you die.” — William Wiley
  • “Here lies, extinguished in his prime, / a victim of modernity: / but yesterday he hadn't time— / and now he has eternity.” — Piet Hein 
  • "To achieve great things, two things are needed:  a plan and not quite enough time." — Leonard Bernstein 

Epiphany

  • “All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, This is when I became myself.” — Rita Dove
  • “You don't have to specialize — do everything that you love and then, at some time, the future will come together for you in some form.” — Francis Ford Coppola
  • “There comes a time in a man's life when to get where he has to — if there are no doors or windows — he walks through a wall.” — Bernard Malamud
  • “In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” — Albert Schweitzer

Miscellany

  • "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils." — Hector Berlioz
  • “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer
  • “If you're behind the times, they won't notice you. If you're right in tune with them, you're no better than they are, so they won't care much for you. Be just a little ahead of them.” — Shel Silverstein
  • “Time heals old wounds only because there are new wounds to attend to.” — Yahia Lababdidi
  • “A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the true value of time, and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.” — Abigail Van Buren
  • “Being rich is having money; being wealthy is having time.” — Stephen Swid
  • “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. And that's sufficient.” — Rose King

A Straightforward Technique to Make Your Writing More Immediate and Effective

The rule, right off:

Eliminate “protagonist + sense verb” phrases that make us watch your protagonist have an internal experience, and instead simply dramatize the internal experience.

The sense verbs in question that this usually comes up with are:
  • Watch
  • Look at
  • See
  • Hear
  • Listen
  • Feel
For example (all of these are made up at random -- and for the record, I'm not claiming any of this is brilliant prose. It's the technique that's important here):

A) Katherine heard a man shout, "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" and spun to see what was happening. She saw that a clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.

B) "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" a man shouted behind Katherine. She spun to see what was happening. A clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.

In (A), everything is filtered through Katherine, and having to read about her actions first slows down -- and weighs down -- the action as a whole. In (B), we're presented with what she hears and sees with only the filter of what I call her "sightline":  When Katherine looks at something, we see it too, as she's the camera through which we view the action. We don't see the camera in a movie, but instead get to experience what it records for ourselves as if we were there; and the same thing is going on here with (B), so it's more immediate and involving. (B) also has the benefit of eliminating the many repetitions of "Katherine"/"She," forcing the writer to vary the subjects and structure of the sentences and making the prose as a whole more interesting. These tightening and diversifying effects are especially notable with first person:

C) I walked around the corner and saw a woman leaning against the wall, crying. I heard a name repeated over and over through her sobs: "Clarissa . . . Clarissa . . ." I wondered who Clarissa was, and ached as I remembered my own sweet Suzette.

D) I walked around the corner. A woman was leaning against the wall, crying. Her sobs included the same name over and over again:  "Clarissa . . . Clarissa . . ." Who was Clarissa? Was this woman mourning her for the same reasons I mourned Suzette?

As you can see from (D), this technique also works with verbs that take place inside the protagonist's brain, including:

  • think
  • remember
  • wonder
  • imagine
  • realize
  • understand
  • know

E) Elroy thinks about where he'll be next week at this time:  In the mountains, hiking up to the cabin. He remembers smelling the sharp evergreens and listening to the melted snow running in the brook. He imagines catching the first rabbit of spring and how good it will taste roasted. 

F) Next week at this time, Elroy will be on the trail to his mountain cabin. The scent of the evergreens will be sharp in his nose and the snowmelt will warble in the brook, just as it has on this hike every year for the last fifteen springs. He can already taste the first rabbit, tender and plump.

With (E), we readers watch Elroy thinking, remembering, imagining. With (F), we skip Elroy altogether and see only his thoughts:  where he'll be, how the trail will smell and sound, even the taste of the rabbit. It's much more intense and satisfying, in part because it requires the writer to dramatize that experience in full for us and bring it to life through additional details ("tender and plump").

Of course, the meaning does change from (E) to (F) in a way that points up one caveat to this technique:  Sometimes you want readers to see your protagonist engaged in a particular sense or mental activity, as the fact that the protagonist is doing that is equally important to whatever they're experiencing. If you're introducing a flashback, the words "I remember" at the beginning can be enormously useful in orienting the reader to the fact that you're stepping out of the present narrative time; if a character is experiencing an epiphany ("Janie realizes the truth. She never should have left Mike"), the sense verb can reinforce the existence of that epiphany more effectively than a mere statement of the realization.

As with any writing technique, this is a sentence-by-sentence judgment call. But the "protagonist + sense/brain verb" construction is something I ask my writers to take out of their prose probably eighty percent of the time, and it's a quick and effective way to make yourself show, not tell -- to dramatize more, and better. Go forth and cut.

A Ramble on Likeability in Novels

Sometimes I want to read without thinking very much -- just for the rest and pleasure of being someone and somewhere other who and where I am. When I'm in this mood, I want characters (or at least my protagonist) to be likeable -- a person who's pleasant and interesting, who means well in the world, whom I want to spend time with. Jane Austen says facetiously in one of her letters, "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal"; my situation here is the reverse of that, as I want my fictional people to be very agreeable, so I don't have to go to the trouble of trying to find some fictional worth in them -- I can just be in the book and relax. During the production of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when it was a good day if I went home before 9 p.m., I downed Georgette Heyer Regency romances like kettlecorn, and I still sometimes turn to those -- or even more to Austen -- when I'm feeling stressed or distressed.

And sometimes I want to read and do a little more work -- read outside my comfort zone, sort through motives and morals -- all the pleasures of having my mind challenged and expanded rather than simply engaged. When I'm in this mood, I don't mind if people are unlikeable so long as they're real, and presented with full histories and friends and enemies and contexts, so I can find sympathy through understanding and empathizing with them rather than needing to be entertained or pleased by them. I LOVED The Casual Vacancy last year for the same reasons I loved The Corrections years ago -- the awfulness of many of the people is part of their humanity, and the full picture of humanity that both books present is a beautiful thing. But I very deliberately saved my reading of The Casual Vacancy for my Christmas break, as I knew I might not have patience for it if I read it under less relaxed circumstances. (And I haven't yet read The Cuckoo's Calling; from the reviews, it seems like a book I could read anytime, but I think I'm saving it now for my honeymoon in December.)

And of course making a character likeable is just a tool in the writer's toolbox like any other, which can be used or not in service of the ends the writer wants to achieve. Georgette Heyer needs to make her heroines likeable so we readers feel invested in their romantic travails, and the charm and comedy of such travails are what her books are about. J. K. Rowling in The Casual Vacancy is thinking about the breakdown of societal bonds and safety nets, the dissolution of a community through the increasing detachment of the individuals in it; and the characters are accordingly presented with their flaws on full display, so we can see the things that push them apart. (Michiko Kakutani should know to judge characterizations by a book's larger ends, which is why her review of The Casual Vacancy was so irritatingly stupid.) Yet the characters in both cases are still multidimensional and compelling in their dilemmas, which are always necessary qualities no matter the author's ends. It does take more art and skill to make an unlikeable character compelling than simply to make a regular character likeable, which is one of the reasons books with terrible characters (not characterizations!) so frequently win awards, and books with easily likeable characters are more often overlooked by the critical establishment. . . .

In the children's and YA world, we can sometimes be so anxious that children or teenagers will like reading or like one particular book that we make likeability a requirement, forgetting that most children and young adults are born with a taste for honesty before a taste for sweetness, and their fascination with the new and different can withstand a large measure of unpleasant behavior as long as there is still heart or vulnerability there. At age six, I was mesmerized by Ramona in Ramona the Pest because lord, that title spoke the truth! I did not like her -- straight-A me (even in first grade) would have been annoyed to have her in class with me -- but it was precisely because she was such a troublemaking train wreck that I loved reading about her, as she did all the things I never thought or dared to do. At the same time, in children's and YA fiction, authors are often looking to have readers invested in the story or the protagonist's emotional growth foremost (a la Georgette Heyer), with any larger observation about morals or society as more of a byproduct than the point (cf. my theory of YA fiction here); and as a result, likeability often serves children's and YA authors well as a technique, as few things draw us into a story more than liking the people within it.

I'll add, if the protagonist is not going to be likeable, I will want to see some special insight or beautiful language or high-stakes story going on, so I have something else to give me that little bit of pleasure until I get to understand the protagonist in full. With The Casual Vacancy, I appreciated Ms. Rowling's anatomization of this village and the people and their connections in it--how well she nailed every detail of their lives, from the addict's house to the self-satisfied grocer. And in both Ramona the Pest and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we readers can take pleasure in our superiority to the characters' bad behavior (Ramona) or small-mindedness (the Dursleys)--pleasure that keeps us going until we connect with Ramona or discover the magical world.

To conclude in a highly moralizing fashion:  "Likability" is not a necessity in fiction, as it is a quality deployed and desired by authors and readers at different times. People who sneer at reading for mental rest and pleasure are snobs and should be called out as such. People who never do anything but read for mental rest and pleasure should probably challenge themselves a bit more. There is certainly a larger reading audience looking for rest and pleasure than there is an audience looking to be challenged and changed -- especially as the world grows ever faster and more stressful; especially as we all have so much less time for reading (we think) -- which is why Janet Evanovich and James Patterson move so many more copies than Elinor Lipman and Roberto Bolano; likable characters with easily definable problems are much easier to sell from the agent's desk on. But as we readers look for many different things at different times, writers need to write many different people as their stories demand; and making it a requirement either way will ultimately limit both the writer's art and the reader's pleasure.

Three Useful Terms for Discussing Endings

From “All Is Well: The Epilogue in Children’s Fantasy Fiction,” by Mike Cadden, in Narrative, Vol. 20, No. 3 (October 2012):
James Phelan makes a distinction between closure—simply “the way a narrative signals its end,” and what he calls “completion”: “the degree of resolution accompanying the closure. Closure need not be tied to the resolution of instabilities and tensions but completeness always is.” Many children’s fantasy tales provide closure only to move on to what is (or functions as) epilogue in order to satisfy what is perceived to linger in the mind of the reader after plot has been resolved. Closure is about the mechanics of the narrative progression (e.g., a story of a journey will signal closure when the protagonist returns to the starting point), while completion is about “instabilities” that drive the progression and direct the interests of implied readers (if the protagonist in the journey plot sets out to  right a wrong in another location and returns home with the situation in that place unchanged, the narrative would provide closure but not completion). In a similar vein, Maria Nikolajeva contrasts closure with the more specific phenomenon of “aperture,” which she describes as the state of psychological completion of the character at the end of the narrative. Will this character be well despite the rough ending? Can we extrapolate an upward swing in her fortunes or at least her relationship with her world?
I reprint this here because I always like finding official narrative theory terms for ideas or concepts editors have been using in practice for years:
  • Closure:  the story dynamics move it toward a clear end (and does not, say, abruptly quit in the middle of a scene, a la The Sopranos)
  • Completion:  with the conflicts or mysteries or lacks of the Action Plot resolved
  • Aperture:  And the protagonist’s emotional journey/plot likewise resolved in some way.
The presence of all three equals, I think, the most emotionally satisfying ending — though not perhaps the most challenging or innovative, if that’s what you’re going for instead.

A very interesting article if you like thinking about endings, epilogues, or why we write and publish for children the way we do.

Warming Up

Long silence, sorry. Life happening. Life is work (some really fascinating books coming up this summer); cooking (I have a great new kitchen and the Mark Bittman How to Cook Everything cookbooks and apps, and I'm loving using both); teaching (in the last two weeks of my Writer's Digest Plot Master Class); and running (the Brooklyn Half-Marathon is in three weeks, and I have to run ten miles later today). Also Mad Men, because I trust Matt Weiner to take us somewhere good.

The Narrative Breakdown podcast is back! James has posted two episodes in the last two weeks, including one on "First Person POV in Film," with our friend Jack Tomas, and "Crafting Subjectivity within Objective Point of View" -- or, more accurately, how to convey a character's thoughts when you're writing third-person -- with me.

Some tidbits I've written in the Master Class discussions, to make up for the lack of content here:
In terms of manuscript reading, when I'm hearing a pitch or something, I think of something "new" as:
1) an unfamiliar/unusual setting or character -- often meaning an international or historical setting, as with WORDS IN THE DUST in the lesson, or a delightful YA historical I published this last spring, THE FIRE HORSE GIRL.  Most parts of the United States do not get to count as new.
2) an unusual combination of elements -- like ninja chick lit, or a dystopian verse novel (not that I have actually seen one of these, but it would certainly be new) (and kind of awesome if done right, now that I'm thinking about it).
3) An inversion of the usual:  An eight-year-old boy who hates dogs, for instance (rather than wanting one as does most of his fictional ilk), or a teenage girl who becomes a superheroine by staying at home (like Sansa Stark made awesome). 

I think the key things that make a book "quiet" are the stakes, the pace, and the tone of the voice. When the stakes are low -- when what might happen obviously isn't going to be life-changing in any direction; for instance, will a certain character make it home in time for dinner -- then it's easy for a reader not to feel invested in the action, since who cares? When the novel dwells more on tiny moments than big gestures -- when the camera is set on an ultra-zoom on the action, let's say, so every glance or twitch seems to have importance to the author -- that can be lovely if we're invested in the characters and the stakes (a la Jane Austen novels)  . . . or it can be deadly slow and quiet, because everything takes forever to narrate, and none of the action is very dramatic, or out of the ordinary way.
 
And the tone . . . well, there's a difference between a narrator who says "And then it went SPLAT! all over the dirt!" and the one who says "It fell to the ground,"  or the one who takes the time to craft a lovely simile about the moon and include it in the story vs. the one who says "The blood looked black in the moonlight." Which is not to say one is better than the other, because one isn't, and I really like some quieter books -- Sara Zarr and Cath Crowley's novels come to mind. But I do think that if you're writing a quieter novel in today's marketplace, you have to have a really strong voice and really great characters to whom the reader deeply connects to make up for that lack of action.

I think quiet stories achieve success when the world and characters they portray are SO REAL and SO RICH and textured and believable that readers can't help but become involved in them, because they tell the truth about the world we live in -- even if the world in the book is not our particular world. These stories do the small particulars so well they become large and universal. 

Dream sequences can serve a useful function in a novel if the dramatized dream helps the protagonist realize something that is buried deep in his/her unconscious, and that realization plays a role in the plot. BUT, far too often, they are excuses for writers to have lots of beautiful symbols and foreshadowing floating around for a bit that then takes forever to pay off in the actual action, AND they stop that action dead in its tracks for however many pages while the writer gets his or her symbolic ya-yas out. AND some writers use them as the primary way for the main character to receive information, which just feels cheap, as the main character isn't earning that information in any way -- it's a gift to the character from the writer, which really means a gift to the writer from his/herself. I like symbolism (or more accurately, image systems) a lot, and I think it can really enrich a book, but very often dream sequences just feel self-indulgent to me. If you have a lot of them, be sure every one is truly essential to the story, and keep them short. 


On Subtext

Dear blog, so much has been happening -- I moved apartments! I have much work to do! I need to buy a sofa! And a dining room set! I'm going to a conference and on vacation! But I must finish the work first! -- that you are being sadly neglected. (Happy belated blogiversary, by the way.) Here is a quick substantive post stolen from the discussion board on my recent Plot Master Class to make up for what will probably be a continuing silence for a bit.

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Q. I'm into my week 8 analysis assignment and am very intrigued by the question  "What is the emotional or philosophical subtext to this conversation?" I'd never before considered that I should have a subtext to my scene, and yet, when prompted to think about it, I realized I do have one (at least I have one in the scene I chose to analyze). Cheryl, would you mind expanding on concept of subtexts, perhaps even share a Rule of Thumb or two? For example, should an author consciously create the subtext? How should the subtext of various scenes relate to each other? How should the subtext relate to the plot? Will every scene have one? (And if it doesn't have one, is that yet another sign that maybe the scene needs to go?) 

A. Interesting question! To start with the simplest question first:  I don't think every scene needs to have a subtext, or that the lack of one dictates the scene's deletion. As Freud is said to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar :-) , and sometimes one character is just asking another to stop by the store and pick up some milk (say), with no real implications beyond breakfast the next day.

On the other hand, the presence of subtext is a great indication of the depth and complexity of a character or a relationship. Suppose Characters A & B live together in a romantic relationship, and Character A chooses not to have a job and is terrible with money while Character B is a hard worker and responsible saver. If Character A then asks B to buy milk, B might suspect that A is asking because A has no cash on hand of her own. And if money has been a source of tension between them in the past, then there could be a great subtext to the scene involving power (B has it, A doesn't), love (would B be irritated? Or happy to provide? Maybe it would depend on how long they've been together), fear (does A feel OK asking, or does A herself worry that B will resent it?), and all the other dynamics that can play out in a relationship.

The subtext would relate to the plot insofar as A & B's relationship would be part of the plot or form its own plot . . . Maybe A makes these kind of requests of B all the time and never reciprocates, and it's slowly draining him of money and filling him with secret resentment. If so, then even if nothing is said explicitly about anything other than milk within this scene, the subtext of it could drive a climax to their relationship plot in the book -- a point at which things change irrevocably:  In the next scene, he could break up with A, or decide to change his own communication patterns and tell her how she feels rather than being happy-smiley about it, or lay down an ultimatum that A must get a job.

So I think authors can best create subtext by creating complicated characters; staying aware of all of their complexities as they write; and then revising individual scenes to bring in more of those complexities / dimensions consciously, if they didn't come out in the scene the first time around. Maybe you have a scene that feels like a just-a-cigar scene, but when you look at it again, you realize that you could use it to highlight Character C's underlying defiant attitude when dealing with people in official situations, which will show up again later in a crucial Escalating and Complicating Event. . . . This is all rather Advanced Authoring stuff, once you have the basic dynamics of everything down. And so there's not really a Rule of Thumb to it, other than, as always, the more real your people can be, the richer everything else in the novel can be as well.

Books that have good subtext, off the top of my head:  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner; Above by Leah Bobet; Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (forthcoming in March from St. Martin's -- a really wonderful and complicated romance with really wonderful and complicated characters, whose last line and ultimate ending turns entirely on how you read the subtext of everything that preceded it); the spy novels by John LeCarre that I've read, which are so dense with subtext I've sometimes found them impossible to parse.

Announcing: My Online Plot Master Class!

I'm pleased to announce that Writers Digest University and I will again be offering an online, eight-week version of my Plot Master Class, starting later this spring!

Goodness, what a clogged sentence. To detangle it, with elements in order of importance:
  • Plot Master Class:  An extremely in-depth course on the elements of plotting, including purpose, stakes, structure, subplots, and pacing. The goal is to help you understand the point of your novel, how your plot can and should serve that point, and what revisions you need to do to make that plot as tight and powerful as possible. (My book Second Sight goes into some of this, but the class covers it in much greater depth and detail, and also reflects various revisions in my own thinking on plot since I wrote the book.)
  • Online:  You'll read lectures and complete associated exercises interrogating your manuscript and its plot, with the opportunity to ask as many questions of me as you'd like in the online discussions.
  • Eight-week: I've taught this class as a one-day workshop at various locations around the country; this course distributes those lessons over eight weeks, allowing participants more time to absorb the material and complete the exercises.
  • Starting later this spring:  March 14, to be precise, with homework to be completed before the course begins.
  • Writers Digest University and I:  I developed the materials, and Writers Digest University offers the online setting.
  • Again:  The current session of the course started in November and is coming to an end now; I've really enjoyed it, and the participants say it's been useful to them!
The most common question I get about this course is "Do I have to have a completed draft of a manuscript?" My instinct is that it will be most useful to people who have completed a first draft of a manuscript and are ready to dig back into it, see what they have, and start polishing it up. (After all, the first exercise is to make an in-depth outline of your current book, and later exercises involve analyzing said outline.) But I've heard from a few past students that they took the course without a completed draft, and it helped them figure out where they wanted to take their books.

If you're interested, please check out the full course description and register here. Any other questions on the course, I'm happy to answer in the comments. Thank you!

In Which I Tell You to Read This Week's New York Times Magazine, Basically

But it is AMAZING:  just astonishingly good writing with wise and painful things to say about writing, or being human, or pain and death, or reality, and/or the relationship among all of the above.

First, there is this excellent piece from a Magazine editor about why writers (himself especially) don't always follow through on ideas, and how this can be a mixed blessing. Its headline is a good writerly aphorism, even though you can only see the truth of it in retrospect:  "Be Wrong as Fast as You Can."

Then, there is this extraordinary story about a young man who shot his girlfriend, then turned himself in; how her parents decided to forgive him, and have worked hard at that forgiveness, with his parents equally involved; and the process, restorative justice, that opens up new avenues of healing for the victims, and (it seems) both punishment and healing for the perpetrator.

Finally, there is this wonderful profile of the writer George Saunders, which pairs beautifully with the forgiveness story, actually:  Because they are both about looking at the reality of the world and its pain, and choosing how to respond in a way that is both open to the pain and compassionate to others within it. My favorite quotes from the article:
I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to 'real life' -- he can put whatever he wants in there. What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.
If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you've doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it [which is, in part, what the process of writing allows] then the possibility exists that you can convert it.
You can find the astounding, heartbreaking short story referenced in the article, "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," here at the New Yorker, along with an interview with Saunders about the story. And that interview (which you must not read before you read the story!) has more wonderful gems:
Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” So this was an example of that: my “original conception” (i.e., the dream and its associated meaning) had to be outgrown—or built upon.
When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo. The average person in the U.S., in, say, 1820, assumed white superiority, and, if he happened to be against slavery, was for a gradual solution, which probably involved sending all the slaves back to Africa, notwithstanding the fact that most of them had never been there and were Americans in every respect. And this would be the nice, moderate, urbane, educated person of that time, who fancied himself “progressive.” 
One thing I always feel in the midst of trying to talk coherently about a story I’ve finished is that, you know, ninety per cent of it was intuitive, done at-speed, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, except in the “A felt better than B” way. All these choices add up, and make the surface of the story, and, of course, the thematics and all that—but I’m not usually thinking about any of that too much, or too overtly. It’s more feeling than thinking—or a combination of the two, with feeling being in charge, and thinking sort of running around behind, making overly literal suggestions, and those feelings being sounded out and exercised and manifested via heavy editing and rewriting (as opposed to, say, planning and deciding). The important part of the writing process, for me, is trying to make choices that push the story in the most interesting direction, by which I mean the direction that causes the story to give off the most light. The story’s goal is to be fascinating and stimulating and irreducible; the writer’s job is to micromanage the text to make this happen.
The artist’s job, I think, is to be a conduit for mystery. To intuit it, and recognize that the story-germ has some inherent mystery in it, and sort of midwife that mystery into the story in such a way that it isn’t damaged in the process, and may even get heightened or refined.
If there is one thing I worry about most in the, um, rigorous way I edit or teach plot, it is that too much thinking and too-intense questioning will kill that mystery for writers -- the feeling, the energy, the electric-fence emotion at its heart. And if there's one thing I look for in manuscripts, it's the ability to generate that mystery or emotion (which sometimes can be happy too, I hasten to say). If you can bring it, truly create it, make me weep as the forgiveness story did or feel both sorrowing and uplifted as "The Semplica- Girl Diaries" did . . . We need more people like you writing for children and young adults.