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I’m taking a break….

I hate to do this, but I’m going to take a hiatus.

I have a manuscript that I’m pretty excited about and the holidays are coming, too.  Things are just going to be too hectic for me to write quality posts.  I don’t want to just throw anything up on the blog so that I keep up with my schedule.  So, here’s my plan:

I’m going to take a break until after the first of the new year.  Hopefully, by then, I’ll have more of my manuscript written and several young adult books under my belt.  Then, I hope to resume the blog in the way I originally intended: as book deconstructions in three parts.

I want to thank everyone who’s been reading my posts and I want to wish everyone a happy holidays!  I’ll see you after the first of the year with more reading and writing adventures to share!

Happy writing!

Kate

 

 

Words: My Fair-weather Friends

 

The high tech word cloud is by Lance Shield. click the picture for more of his interesting art.

 

I used to part of an on-line writing community.  In some ways it was great.  There were published authors available to give writing advice and a place to post snippets of your manuscript.  All kinds of people lingered on this message board: spiritualists, atheists, lawyers, scientists, musicians, and even one sailor if I remember correctly.  There was a place to post your query letter for critique and places for publishing advice.  Most of us were trying to turn out one brilliant piece of writing.  Since I hadn’t found my writing group yet, this was a perfect alternative.

One of the best things about this community was that it gave me a huge amount of exposure to amateur writing.  Plenty of people would find this site, post the first page (or sometimes chapter) of their work in progress and ask for a critique.  For a while, my goal was to write three critiques a day.  Reading other people’s critiques and doing analysis of my own really helped me to sharpen my writing skills.

The first amateur mistake that really started to stick out was wordiness.

Amateur writers often want to strong-arm their readers into seeing their exact vision.  They use too many words to describe a scene and then repeat themselves just to make sure the message was driven home.  Really masterful writers give details that launch the writer’s imagination.  Consider this paragraph from one of my early manuscripts:

Megan threw a hurried look over her shoulder and continued swiftly on.  Not running.  Everyone knew that the worst thing to do when you were being chased was to run.  Speed walking.  She glanced over her shoulder again.  Those eyes, she thought.  Red eyes.  Adrenaline surged through her body like electricity, leaving her fingers stinging, and she looked for refuge.  She hadn’t exactly seen her pursuers, save the eyes, but she heard their menacing calls.  A high-pitched, terrifying, inhuman scream that seemed to summon more of them.  There had been at least six sets of the glowing red eyes when last she had spied them over her shoulder and, judging from the sound of it, at least double that was behind her now.

Can you feel how forced it is? Megan is in a hurry.  If you didn’t get that from the two clues in the first sentence, you might have figured it out in the clues in sentence three, four, and five.  That’s me, trying too hard to set a scene.  In doing so, I take a paragraph that should be fast-paced and manage to slow the progress to a crawl.

The things chasing Megan are forced, too.  As a writer, I’m being mysterious and if done delicately, this can work.  Just eyes and howling.  But, what I do here isn’t delicate.  I mention the eyes three times and their color twice.  I belabor the howl in the same way.  I want for the reader to hear the horrible sound I’ve conjured in my own mind so I pile the adjectives: high-pitched, terrifying, inhuman followed by the noun scream.  Screams are high-pitched; I don’t need both words.  “Terrifying” should be the impression the reader gets without being prompted.  What I have left is “inhuman scream” which, if you think about it, does the job just fine,

These days, I’m better at reading my own writing with an eye for extra words.  Even when I’m reading published books, I find myself wanting to yank a work here and there because I feel like a sentence would be stronger without it.

So what about you? Is there some early lesson that really struck a chord with you?  Do you like to write wordy or are you a sparse writer?  Do you think writing should launch the imagination or fill in all of the details?

I hope everyone has a quick Friday and a great weekend!

Let’s get Physical!

This great image is by graur codrin. I found it on freedigitalphotos.net. click the picture for more fantastic work by this artist.

I break my writing education into two pieces: before the beta read and after the beta read.  I’ve been writing forever.  Usually my stories were what I fondly call “soap opera style”.  Characters do shocking things with shocking results, and then they do more shocking things with even more shocking results.  This goes on until I can’t dream up anything new or I’m sick of the story.  A manuscript like this isn’t designed to end…thus the soap opera analogy.

Then, one day I picked up one of these rambling stories, saw a potential ending and wrote with that in mind.  Inside of two months, I had a finished manuscript.

At this point, I felt like I had a fairly good vocabulary.  My grammar was usually good.  I had some interesting ideas and images.  I didn’t really know what else a writer needed.  So I went to the internet and found that I was supposed to get a reader.  Or a whole bunch of them.  Preferably, someone who had a writing background.  I had one writer friend who offered to read my manuscript and I took him up on it.

The whole experience was one light bulb moment after another.

One of the first lessons that I learned was that the physical movement of the character has to make logical sense.  I, like so many other writers, wrote awkward fight scenes because I wasn’t sure how a body would move in this situation.  I would lose track of my setting during a chase.  Would the antagonist be able to see the protagonist from where he was standing?  Does the protagonist need to jump over the box that fell earlier in the scene?  I didn’t even ask these questions before my beta read.  My scenes lost authenticity because of the lack of detail.

So, how did I rectify this problem?

  • I drew pictures.  I drew a floor plan of the building where the character was located.  And then I drew a diagram of the room.  Let me stress this point.  I AM NO ARTIST!  J.K. Rowling may be able to sketch out a great image of a character but I can’t. Still, laying out the space my characters move through really helped to add authenticity to the scenes.
  • Act it out.  I’ve already mentioned my sad acting of a scene where my very confused dog stood in for a monster and my best friend played a ten year old boy.  Since then, I’ve walked through dozens of scenes making sure that the character is moving in a natural way.  That’s double-true for fight scenes.
  • I got an artist’s dummy.  They have authentic movable joints and you can see if a position you have in your head is feasible for the human body.
  • Get some realistic props.  Does your character shoot a gun?  Try to find a way to shoot a gun.  How heavy is it really?  What does “kick” really feel like?  If you have a chance to drive a car like one your character drive, do it.  So much of writing is in the details.

So, what do you do to make sure a scene plays out authentically?  Is physicality a weakness in your writing or do you have some other are where you have to go to lengths to achieve realism?

Happy Belated Halloween!

We carved pumpkins but this one is by boxercab. Click the photo for more art by this artist.

I was enjoying Halloween last night rather than writing my blog.  I know.  Bad Kate.  But honestly, we got an adorable little angel and a bunch of other cuties.  Also, since we did up our yard like a graveyard and dressed like ghosts, many little kids had to be coaxed up to get their treats!  One little ninja brandished his plastic sword when he approached me.  Brave little soul!

Anyway, I’ll be back on Wednesday, hopefully sans my sugar hangover.  I hope your Halloween was as fun as mine!

What scares us?

The Halloween movie poster is from Wikipedia. Although it's copywrited, I'm claiming "fair use".🙂

I planned on writing a blog post, but instead got sucked into a two-hour bio show on the making of the movie “Halloween”.  I always loved that movie and now  I love it even more!  A few things I learned:

  1. The Michael Meyers mask is actually a re-worked William Shatner mask.
  2. It had the longest single shot in movie making (4 1/2 minutes which they actually admit did have one break, but they do have an uncut version of the shot).
  3. The movie was shot in California so all of those October leaves are painted Maple leaves that had to be gathered after each shot.
  4. The whole thing was made for $325,000.  $25,000 of that was Donald Pleasence’s pay.
  5. There’s a shot where you can see John Carpenter’s cigarette smoke.
  6. John Carpenter wrote the score.

As far as writing goes, this solidifies my belief that simple is best.  Think about “Halloween”.  Do you remember any extra people on the streets?  Was there much in the way of background in the original movie?  Think about the score.  Just a simple one-fingered melody.  Did we need to know motivation for it to be scary?  Of course not.  Bare bones simple can work just as well, sometimes even better, than all the explosions and CGI in the world.

The same is true in a book.

In honor of Halloween, tell me about your favorite spooky movie.  Is it a simple, terrifying concept like “Halloween” or a more complicated plot, like “The Ring”?  I know this is a book blog, but this time of year makes me crave cinema.  Have a safe and happy Halloween!

 

This gorgeous image is by mariobraune and I found it on flickr. click the photo for more of this artist's work.

I’m going to start this post by saying that I don’t always believe that the best type of writing is writing that you don’t notice.  THE BOOK THIEF was definitely one of those books where the writing was noticeable and it added to the story.  In fact, I think when the book is more psychological and less action-y, a more florid writing style really fleshes out the book.  However, with action the opposite is true.

GONE has psychological elements.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there is a character with an eating disorder.  There is a character who resents taking care of her autistic little brother.  In a situation where children grow up too soon, there has to be a psychological impact.

However, I believe, at its heart, GONE is an action story.

The majority of this book is action or tension-filled scenes.  Exposition is at a minimum.  Characterization is achieved largely through action.  Want to know what kind of person Sam is?  Look at how he reacts in a stressful situation.  What to know how he relates to people? Pay attention to how he talks to his friends.

GONE is written in the third person, which by its very nature keeps the reader out of the character’s heads.  I’m not a person who’s overly attached to reading a particular point of view, as long as it works.  I think, in this case, third person works.  It’s removed.  It allows for point of view shifts.  And it doesn’t lend itself to long passages of introspection.

The author keeps the action rolling.  There are chase scenes and emergency situations the characters have to respond to quickly.  Often, sentences are short or even fragmented.  There isn’t much in the way of flowery language.

Which makes my analysis of the writing for this story a pretty easy job.  The writing gets out of the way of the story.  At the end of most books I’m left thinking about a phrase or two that stuck with me.  Some even pulled me out of the writing briefly.  Not so with GONE.  This book is pure storytelling.

I’m sorry I don’t have more for you with the writing style.  I can say that I was so engrossed in the story, I was paying less attention to the writing than I usually would.  If you’re not trying to compose literary fiction, that’s a pretty high complement.

If you pick up GONE (which I really did enjoy) let me know how you like it.  Tell me if I’ve missed anything in the analysis.  I love to get other people’s points of view.

This gorgeous image is by mariobraune and I found it on Flickr. Click the photo for more of the artist's great photographs.

GONE by Michael Grant has a premise that’s a brilliant hook: every person over the age of fifteen disappears and only children are left behind.  The author tells you about this situation in the very first sentence.  Consider this opening:

One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War.  And the next minute he was gone.

As a reader, that sentence alone was going to be enough to keep me reading for at least a couple of chapters.  However, as I’ve been reminded lately, a premise is not a plot.  It will keep me reading for a couple of chapters but GONE is a whopping 560 pages long.  After the initial shock of children being left to their own devices, a story with tensions and struggles had to happen.

As a writer, I know the challenge of composing the beginning of a book.  You need to introduce characters.  In GONE, there’s a pretty sizable cast.  You also have to introduce setting.  If there’s world-building to be done, that needs to be solidly established in the first several chapters.  Besides all of that, the plot needs to move.

Mr. Grant uses a very effective device to get all of this done. The main character is Sam.  His love interest is Astrid.  Astrid has a little autistic brother and he’s missing.  Voila!  We have action.  We have an excuse to explore the setting.  And if we break up the search for little brother Pete with a point of view switch here and there to look at some of the other characters, that’s OK too.  It’s brilliant and there’s tension, even if the real antagonist of the story, Caine, isn’t introduced until page 140.

Once Caine shows up, the story is propelled forward.  We have our antagonist and his cohort of villain friends.  Our protagonist, Sam, and his cohort of hero friends have already been established.  Instant tension.

In the meantime, many of our minor characters have their own separate challenges and tension going on.  Lana, a character with a story-line of her own, fights for her life for weeks.  First, she’s terribly injured in a car accident, then coyotes trap her in a hermit’s shack.  Her private story is compelling and it’s sprinkled in amongst the main plot line.  Mother Mary is a character who takes charge of the youngest children.  At the same time she fights with an eating disorder.  Jack is a young computer genius who is having second thoughts about his association with the Cotes Academy crowd.

And these are just a few of the minor stories.

These are situations that the average reader can identify with.  Sam and Caine might be awesome super heros/villains, but Mother Mary, Lana, and Jack are (mostly) just stressed out people dealing with crazy circumstances.  As a writer, this is a good lesson for me.  Sometimes, I avoid writing about the “normal people” for fear that the reader will find it dull.  However, watching normal people cope is rarely dull.  If I ever find myself in need of a subplot, I’m going to look to my secondary characters and see if there’s a story there.

Plotting in GONE by Michael Grant is a clever mix of hero quests, the struggle of good versus evil, and personal stories of coping.  There are aspects of the plot that I didn’t like.  It felt like a lot of time was spent following the travels of the main characters.  Books where characters travel through the desert, then travel through a forest, then travel on the water, then travel (pick your mode of transportation) one of my pet peeves.  Just moving a character around doesn’t mean they’re really doing anything.  Nonetheless, I never felt the urge to put the book down.  By the last half of the book, I was completely engaged.

So, that’s my plot analysis for GONE by Michael Grant.  On Wednesday, I’ll take a look at the writing style.  This was definitely a book where the writing didn’t get in the way of the story!  Until then.

This magical image is by mariobraune and I found it on Flickr. Click the photo for more great images by this artist.

GONE by Michael Grant is totally set up to be a book about what kids would do if they had to build a society.  Picture it: all of the adults disappear one day, suddenly, for no apparent reason.  Simultaneously, a barrier made of God-knows-what-but-burns-to-the-touch encloses a large but limited area around the town.  It’s a perfect set up for power struggles and warring factions.  And GONE is that, but somehow it’s also much deeper.

It’s pretty cool how Mr. Grant managed the setting.  There are two maps at the beginning of this book, one of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone, the area inside the barrier) and another of the town of Pardido Beach, California (the one small town within the barrier).  Let me just say, I HATE books that include a map at the beginning.  I usually think that means that the author doesn’t trust his writing enough to believe I can imagine his setting without pictures.  Amusingly enough, after my initial grumble I completely forgot they were there.  I didn’t need them, the setting was so clear.

It was fun to look at them after I finished the book, though, because despite the limit of the setting–it’s about 62 square miles enclosed under the dome–the setting is wildly diverse.  I honestly don’t think that this book could have been set anywhere other than California.  The FAYZ contains a beach (which plays a pivotal role in a chase scene), the desert (which plays a pivotal role in one character’s survival story), hills and forests (which offer a nice variety of wild-life to mutate and become terrifying), a gold mine, and some barrier islands.  As far as structures go, there’s one town, a nuclear power plant, a private school, and a marina.  Everything a pack of unsupervised children need.

However, the real treasures of this book are the characters.  Things don’t break down as utterly black and white.  Sure, we have our “good” characters: Sam, the protagonist; Astrid, his brilliant girlfriend; Edilio, the kid who’s got your back.  On the other side of the equation, we have the “bad” characters: Caine, the leader of the private school kids; Diana, his sort-of love interest; and especially Drake, the private school psychopath that likes to hurt people.

However, the bulk of the characters are the variety that is working each day to do their best.  Some of them are weak and some of them are clueless but all of them are complex.

  • There’s Mary, who later becomes known as “Mother Mary” who takes care of all of the little children.  She’s super-stressed, battling an eating disorder, and experimenting with self-medication.
  • There are the two local bullies: Orc and Howard.  Orc is the brawn and Howard is the brains.  While they’re annoying and potentially dangerous, they’re nothing compared to the evil that is Caine.
  • There’s little Pete, Astrid’s autistic younger brother.  Who knows if he’s good, bad, or neutral?  He joins my ranks of spooky little kids, though.
  • One of the most conflicted characters is Quinn, Sam’s best friend.  He longs to be special and wants to lead but lacks the courage.  He goes with the flow, even if the flow is being directed by some pretty dastardly dudes.
  • Or, my personal favorite, Lana and her dog Patrick, who find themselves stranded out in the desert when Lana’s grandfather blinks out as he’s driving them home.  She is On. Her. Own.  Stuck in a mining shack, surrounded by mutated coyotes.

I could go on and on.  These characters, the ones doing their best, were the best part of this book for me.  The idea that there would be a “good” side and a “bad” side was conventional.  The concept of a power struggle was utterly predictable.  But the idea that there might be kids filling roles with utter reluctance, in over their heads and coping badly was just simply beautiful.

Throw in the super powers and you’ve got one big mess!

So that’s the characters and the setting. On Monday, I’ll tackle the plotting.  This was a pretty long book and Mr. Grant kept the pacing good and fast.  I’ll see if I can’t figure out how this author does it!

This picture actually does go with the book! This great photo is by mariobraune and I found it on flickr. Click the picture for more images by this artst.

It was bound to happen.  I hit a writing slump.  I’m questioning my premise, my characters, and my pacing.  There’s only one thing to do when that happens: read some other author’s fantastic writing so I can get horribly intimidated.  The least I could do I share my experience with you!

The book up for deconstruction is GONE by Michael Grant.  Like so many of the other books I read, this is the first in a series.  As of October 2010, three of the books have been published (Gone, Hunger, and Lies).  There are rumored to be six books in the completed series. GONE, the first book, was published in 2008 which means Mr. Grant is putting out one pretty sizable book a year.  Seriously impressive!

Mr. Grant has a small promotional website through HarperTeen with a short bio and a little bit on each of the books in this series.  There’s a perplexing little website called “the fayz“.  It’s a reference to The Fallout Alley Youth Zone–the nickname given by the children to the 100 or so square miles enclosed by a barrier where the adults are missing. The website looks like a journal kept by a character named “Sinder” who, as far as I know, doesn’t appear in the book.  The cool thing (besides the journal, which was cool and does contain spoilers) is that the site contains a link to an on-line version of the book.  So, if you’re curious and don’t want to add to the stacks of books in your living room (come on, fess up.  I know I’m not the only one with book towers.) you can read GONE from here.

GONE is the story of what happens in one small California town when every human being over the age of fifteen blinks out of existence.  Very much like LORD OF THE FLIES bullies vie for power in this new adult-less world.  Unlike LORD OF THE FLIES, we have a supernatural element in this book.  Some of the children left behind develop abilities, like super strength or super speed.  Of course this just lends a sharper edge to the power struggles.  And, not even get me started on the freaky animal mutations….

The main character of the story is Sam, a reluctant hero-type.  He’s a leader.  He’s a good guy.  And he knows that power is a corrupting force.  He doesn’t want any part of it.  Still, when a scary group of bullies from the private school on the hill come to town, Sam has to decide if he’s going to lead or if he’s going to submit.

One of several antagonists in the story is Caine, the leader of the private school crowd.  He’s charismatic and smart.  He’s also brutal and selfish but in the absence of leadership, the kids follow anyone willing to tell them what to do.  Immediately he and Sam have serious problems with one another.

There’s a pretty big cast.  There’s also a fairly big scope in the story-telling arena.  I thought I was going to read a book about society building.  What I got was much, much more.

On Friday, I’m going to take a look at the characters and setting in GONE. Then, next week, I’ll tackle plotting and writing style in separate posts.  I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts about this book with you!

Racism in Young Adult Fiction

 

This beautiful image is by jamieskinner00 and I found it on Flickr. For more photos by this artist, click the image.

 

Today, I’d like to look at racism in young adult fiction.  At least one or two books make the American Library Association’s most challenged list because they contain racial discrimination.  Personally, I think that this stand is counterproductive.  Often young adult fiction contains racism to illustrate the lesson that bigotry is ugly, as in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.  Sometimes, like Laura Ingalls’ LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRARIE, it’s represented in a historical way.  Whether it’s included to teach a lesson or just to keep a historical era authentic, I believe it’s a mistake to shield the young from images of racism.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a coming of age story about a girl named Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama in the 1960’s.  The climax of this book is a trial in which their father, Atticus, defends a black man against accusations that he raped a white woman.  THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the story of a boy who runs away from his abusive father.  As he flees, he meets up with a runaway slave named Jim who is trying to get to Ohio to buy his freedom. As Jim looks after Huck, Huck realizes that the black man isn’t property, despite what society tells him.  When Huck must make the choice between revealing Jim as a runaway slave, or helping him continue to Ohio and face the threat of hell for stealing another person’s property, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

One of the leading objections to both of these books is the liberal use of the word “nigger”.  I hate this word.  In my opinion, there are only a couple of others that rank as hateful.  However, I believe that we, adults and young adults alike, need to have open, adult discussions about when using the word “nigger” is and isn’t appropriate.  When it’s used in a historical context to demonstrate how it was used to hurt and belittle, I believe it serves a worthy purpose.  If it’s used to shock and make writing edgy, it becomes the same as swearing in young adult.  Maybe even worse.

LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRAIRIE gets the racism nod, and has been challenged and banned in a few places because Pa Ingalls takes part in a black face minstrel show.  It’s presented as entertainment, the same as a spelling bee and a musical concert.  It’s worth mentioning that an earlier book in the series, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE has one black character who is a doctor.  This doctor saves the family from malaria.  So, in this context, I believe the minstrel show just illustrates the culture at the time (in the 1880’s in the Midwest).  While, yes, it is racist, it’s also an opportunity for how cultural awareness has changed in the last 130 years.

Here’s something that I found interesting:  all of the book challenges from racism that I found were racism around African-American culture.   It’s not like racism against other groups doesn’t exist in young adult literature.  There’s a nice little collection of Holocaust literature for young adults, including ANNE FRANK: DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL.  Holocaust literature is, by it’s very nature, about racism.  And while ANNE FRANK had been challenged, it was for sexual content and homosexual reference.  Also, while the LITTLE HOUSE series has the one example of racism against blacks, there are multiple examples of racism against Native Americans.  Ma Ingalls even says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” during their stay in Indian Territory.

So, I want to leave this discussion with the question: why wouldn’t we want to expose young adults to examples of racism?  Why does it seem that only representation of racism against African Americans is challenged?  I personally would have no trouble including racism in a book I wrote.  How about you?