Archive for the ‘middle grade’ Category

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.


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The word came back on my most recent revision that, yes, I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.

The story arc is fine, the tension appropriately taught, the characters in place, but it appears I need to give the antagonists narrative arcs as well.  Actually, they do have their narrative arcs, I simply haven’t illuminated them all yet.  And as characters ebb further from the main character it becomes crucial that these narratives be seen and observed in a way that both the reader and the main character can draw their conclusions together.

I’ll admit, despite working until the last minute on this packet deadline, I secretly hoped the story could be closer to being finished.  Hoped, but not realistically.  There was a time – maybe six months ago? – when I wasn’t sure if this would ever be finished, if these goofy middle grade boys I had created were simply too elusive for a novice writer like myself.  As recently as July I was still considering abandoning them if I had even the faintest hint that their story was beyond my reach.  And mind you, this isn’t a complicated or particularly challenging story, but its shape and tone had been elusive to me.

But only a few months later and it keeps feeling closer to being done.  The way the horizon keeps moving ahead of you as you walk toward it is a little how this feels.  A year ago I would have said, with the completion of the first very rough draft, that I had reached the mountain top, could see the end destination across the valley below though the path was obscured by dense foliage.  The analogy works on another level for me because I remember, hiking the Sierra’s as a Boy Scout, how many times we reached a peak or a pass and could see our destination ahead of us but there always seemed to be one more peak perpetually in the way.  Finally, we would reach our camp for the day and be surprised because we hadn’t seen it coming, there was no “one last peak” to measure it by.

So that’s where I am right now.  Somewhere in between that last peak and the final destination, somewhere in the valley foliage unable to see how close I am to the end.  The light is shifting, I can tell progress has been made, and it all seems easier than when I first was getting my mountain legs, but I have no idea where camp is.

My chief antagonist is waiting for some scenes of her own to chew on.

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I have spent the better part of the day – maybe six hours all told but it could be pushing eight – writing a total of five pages.  They obviously did not come easy.  Every word in every line feels wrong, every motivation stilted.  It’s pushing 1 AM and I am reluctant to quit for the day despite my fatigue because I don’t feel I’ve done enough to justify sleep.

I  write a few lines, I back up several paragraphs to regain momentum, scrawl another line, stop.  I read and reread.  I see where I’ll have to go back and work dialogue, make the characters voices distinct.  I spot details I will have to back-fill.

I so want to quit this story.

I cannot beleive this simple story doesn’t want to be told, at least not at this time.

I feel like one of my freakin’ characters, trapped in the darkest part of their journey, steeped in bleek and certain I’ll never find my way out.  All well and good, because I need to be able to feel that in order to properly convey that same feeling through my character, but why the hell can’t I get the characters into this spot?  Why am I on the inside and they’re on the outside?

These are the moments where we go in search of the impossible, the ridiculous.  I want a mysterious stranger to deliver the magic pebble, or secret map.  A little personal deus ex machina, if you will.  Just this once, just to get over the hump.

I know, I signed up for this.  No one said it would be easy.  I know.  I know.


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Last night I went to a school-wide book group with my older daughter.  Twice a year the school holds these groups for the upper graders, reading grade-level books on a particular theme and then having kids and parents come in, break into small groups, and discuss the book.  I think it’s a great idea and the turnout is fairly good.  It has it’s problems (books tend to be better suited for girls’ interests, for example) but on the whole a really great school community event.

But what was interesting from my point of view was how hard I find myself biting my tongue at these events.  Not because I disagree with what is generally being discussed, but because my studies give me a wildly different perspective on literature intended for children.  This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this problem.

My undergrad degree was in film and I have to be careful in general discussions about movies because I know too damn much.  If I’m watching a film and suddenly find a scene that has been stolen from another movie (as might happen in, say, Quinten Tarnantino films), or someplace where a director has repetedly used the same sort of plot devices or themes (hello Spielberg), these moments pull me out of the film and ruin my enjoyment; I cannot see the movie for the flaws, as it were.  But most people don’t notice or care about the minutia of these experiences – American movie audiences on the whole tend to prefer to be uncritical beyond “things blew up, that was fun” – and so my part of any discussion is muted.

So last night while I was sitting in our group I didn’t really care that much about the story as much as I did about how the group reacted to mechanics of the book.  What did they like about the character?  What did they think of the setting and the plot?  What was realistic and what felt forced?  Naturally there were differences between what the parents saw and felt and what the kids saw.  And all of it was incredibly illuminating.

I was with a group of seventh graders, five boys and two girls, and all the parents women.  Think what you will of those numbers and you’re probably right.  The kids were candid and articulate, they knew what they did and didn’t like, and based on their ability to analyze the mechanics of a novel their teachers have done a damn good job teaching them critical reading.  More than I ever got when I was their age.  Hell, yes, I’m jealous.

Favorite comment of the night came from a boy who found several points of contention, but summed up his experience with the book this way:

“I was okay with the first two chapters because it was interesting. Then plot happened.”

And we laughed.  But he was onto something, and so was I at that moment.  This boy is no fool.  He could see that the story was designed to lull him in and then wallop him with the message story.  He was fine going along with the action but then felt a noticeable shift in the writing and felt betrayed.  He used to word “promise” to describe the story and felt it “didn’t deliver” on that promise in the end.  Others agreed and expanded on these comments.  Debates over which parts they felt were “real” and which parts felt “like fiction” were had.  There was even a discussion about the image on the cover, and how misleading it was, and how it didn’t accurately portray the main character (the girl on the cover was “too pretty” and didn’t match the description in the book).  Discussion about the book’s theme – immigration and the role of immigrants in the wake of 9/11 – were glossed over as the group’s focus delved into what was wrong with the way the author delivered the message.

And I couldn’t help but think that more writers and editors need to hear these conversations.

It’s one thing for bloggers and critics and other reviewers to say these things, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish when you hear it from the target market, the intended audience, kids.  It made me realize the depth of the vacuum writers have to work in because the critique groups and agents and editors they have to get their stories past are adults and never the people the book is written for.  Flip this idea on its head for a moment. What if the agents and editors were peer-aged with the audience; how many of the books that are currently published would get the green light?

No, we cannot accept that children would possess the critical facilities necessary to judge if a book should be published, yet we expect them to take what they are given without question?  What I saw was something I think I want to see more of as a writer.  I think once I get this writing thing down I want to spend some regular time around my target audience so that I can hear from them directly what works and what doesn’t.  It would be a lot more helpful to me to hear what that 12 year old boy said above than to have an editor say “I need to see more conflict with the main character by the third chapter.”

I don’t know how I would have felt if I were the author of the book in that room last night, listening like a fly on the wall.  I do know that as harsh as it may have been, I would have wanted to hear that before I published the book.

So here’s my idea of the day.  I think it might be important for authors of books for children and young adults to spend time with children and young adults on a regular basis.  I know there’s a creepiness factor to overcome – especially for male authors – but perhaps if authors helped establish and co-facilitate a regular book club at the schools in their area they’d have access to unfiltered opinions and gain a greater sense of what does and doesn’t work in the field.

And publishers and editors?  Here’s one for you.  Ask your authors if they’d be willing to help establish a book group at their local schools.  Be willing to provide the group with galleys and ARCs of titles to be released and have the authors collect that feedback.  The authors get an opportunity to work with the audience and you get fabulous raw data from the front lines about the market and what isn’t working.

And once again, my mini rant for those out there who haven’t heard: middle grade students want more mystery and they want more speculative fiction.  They don’t want cute super-sleuth kids and they don’t want aliens and they don’t want secret agents or super-evil bad guys.  They want human mysteries, they want science fiction that engages their heart and their mind, they want to see stories of kids facing the very real perils they face, and they want to see how others solve their problems.  The want a message but not message-only books.

Oh, and they’d like realistic fiction to be set during a period of time that they were alive.  They complain about having to read stories set in “ancient times” like the 40s and 50s.  Last night these kids, who were in kindergarten during 9/11, expressed a fascination with what was going on in this country immediately following.  They get the horror and they understand the war (to the extent that any of us can) but they don’t understand the smaller stories, about the personal effect on the curtailment of rights and freedoms; they don’t understand the situation in Sudan and Darfur and how the US responded (or failed to respond); they don’t know the stories of hate crimes in this country and abroad; they don’t understand fears or the basis of those fears over illegal immigration or the need for homeland security.  And they want to know these things, they just don’t want to have to wade through crappy fiction to learn it.

That’s what I learned last night.

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This is neither about the legality of former slaves or about the senior President Bush.  This is about deadlines, and re-envisioning the middle grade book, and the panic of feeling like I cannot write.

Third semester in a row now on this middle grade novel and fourth entirely different approach.  The more I revisit this story, the more I whittle away at it, the less I know it.  Perhaps there’s a wisdom in there somewhere, about having to forget everything I know (or think I know) in order to regain what is lost, or to find the true heart of the story, but for the life of me all it makes me feel like is failure.

Everything I read suggests my problems come from a lack of conflict, that instead of my main character wanting something the story is, as one person described it, One Damn Thing After Another.  But the models don’t fit the story I want to tell, the story isn’t about a character who knows what he wants.  In fact, it’s precisely because he doesn’t know what he wants that he figures it out in the end.

It’s always bothered me when character set out on their journeys with so clear a desire.  As humans, we do that for the big picture, but so much of our lives are shaped by the little picture, the things that happen along the way that add up down the road.  We’ll cut some slack on an adventure story, or a mystery, because we know that the pieces will be filled in along the way.  But when it comes to a string of unintended consequences adding up to a true-but-unsuspecting sum of the parts, boy, we don’t like to talk about those plot structures because they don’t work.

Except I don’t believe that.

When I was training to be an art teacher I had so many adults wish me luck because they felt art wasn’t teachable, it was some mystical talent you were born with, and good luck.  I’m not going to lay out how incredibly false this notion is except that I understand how people could come to that conclusion.  Tweens and teens are fond of expressing how impossible their homework is, how their soccer coaches demand the impossible, how no matter what they do the just don’t get it and never will.  It is a simple but no less true fact that the only thing we are born knowing how to do is laugh and everything else along the way must be learned.  There may be any variety of impediments along the way that prevent one from becoming, say, an Olympian athlete or a nuclear physicist, but no one is born a natural archaeologist or a natural gardener, and really, everything must be learned.

Along the way we gather bits and peices of those things that will make us the people we are, except those pieces don’t control us; we chose those things that define us and we combine them into our personal narratives.  So as we read those narratives – in real life and in books – we tend to believe in those stories that resonate with our experience.  If our experience is limited to several hundred years’ worth of unrealistic goal-centered journeys where every action is in support of the main character’s prime objective, then any story that falls outside of that track is foreign territory, it’s off the map, and as a consequence, we see it as ‘wrong.’

I recall being in sixth grade and thinking I wanted to be an animator for Disney when I grew up.  Knowing and vocalizing that didn’t send me on a journey to meet a famous animator, or spend my days obsessively drawing flip books, or get me in trouble at school for handing in book reports that were really summaries of Disney cartoons.  In sixth grade I was busy writing and illustrating puns and puzzle books, modifying my Stingray into a low-rider bike, reading books on magic, and spending my summers taking oil painting and ceramics classes.  Perhaps if I had been more obsessed I would have ended up an animator for Disney, but clearly that wasn’t my destiny, and so any story of my life written as a middle grade novel wouldn’t work.

But here I am, and things happened during these years in between, and it seems sometimes that maybe life really is about the random elements that add up to something you couldn’t see from the beginning.

I know this story backwards and forwards.  I know these boys and how they think, how their field of vision is blinkered to the point they can barely see their own feet, and I know the trouble they get into because of it.  I know what they’re up against, and what they think they’re up against, and all the key players.  I know all these things and yet I cannot seem to express them in a way that makes narrative sense in any traditional format.

I wrote a solid new opening.  Then a second chapter came slower.  I’m weeding elements from previous drafts and making it breezier, but now it feels artificial.  I found the inciting incident and wrote four more chapters and then, just an hour ago while lying in bed unable to sleep, realized I didn’t need it.  I thought I had to give these boys I’m writing about a reason to spin off and make these mini comics that piss people off – but they don’t need a reason.  They’re boys, this is what boys do.  They become the inciting incident.  Fellow students react to them, they in turn react to the reaction, chain reaction sends everything spinning off into space, story ends when everything comes crashing back to earth and the boys are left with a bunch of smashed pieces to deal with.  They don’t want any of what happens to them, their desires are almost selfish, and if there can be said to be anything resembling rising tension and set-backs they aren’t object based.

I’ve been having to fight this Aristotelian view of the craft for some time and haven’t really found anything that makes me feel comfortable with my writing.  It may simply be I have become much too stubborn to see that the story is impossible because I will not (or cannot) cram the story into the mold.

It’s not supposed to be easy, I know that.  Does it have to feel so impossible?

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Beginnings are hard.  You want to start off on the right foot, the right track, with just the right tone.  But they are also arbitrary, a chosen moment selected from all the possibilities (including the ones yet to be discovered or considered), and personal.

I had wanted to post on the first day of the new year but didn’t feel I had anything to say.  But it was because I was hung up on beginnings — both in a blog post and in my writing — that I felt trapped.  Earlier this week, when it was still the old year, I tried a new beginning to the story that has been dogging me.  I had streamlined the story yet again, removed characters, simplified the setting, all in an attempt to wrestle it under control.

It feels wrong.  Like a drawing where the character of an object is held within the shape of a line, the words have trailed out of bounds and I find myself mentally erasing and drawing over the same territory.  I need a fresh start, a new canvas, a different tool, a stronger line.

In a different life, a previous incarnation when I considered myself in training to be a visual artist, we had exercises to help break the barriers of over-thinking the process.  We would turn images upside down and draw them as we saw them, then turn them right-side up and study the results.  We would do life drawings of people without looking at the paper, freeing ourselves from judging the lines in progress and, by extension, altering the process.  We would learn how to look not at the objects but at the spaces between the objects, the negative space, to learn about the relationships between things.  Our brains were trained to see the things that were invisible but integral to the process of visual representation.

But I can’t necessarily write upside down, or write only the sentences between the sentences, or tell the story that isn’t the story — or can I? My advisor this past semester, Margaret Bechard, related how her editor made her change point-of-view on her last novel, made her include characters, write the story from different perspectives.  These are similar exercises but not exactly the same.  They have the potential to open doors and add insights, to allow the story to be seen in different perspectives, but they don’t feel radical enough to force me to see the story for what it can be.  I need something that forces out the invisible, the negative spaces, the shape of the story beyond its margins.

But most importantly, I need to know that first line.

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This middle grade novel is turning out to be quite the exercise in patience.  I guess it’s to be expected that when you live with an idea for years without really thinking it through before writing.

Last semester I took this thing on because it was the most pressing, the most insistent of my unborn children waiting to see daylight.  I felt it was a good place to start on my MFA journey because the characters would be easy and the story simple.

Easy, ha! Simple, pfeh!

So I wrote a good 70 pages or so and then it was clear it wasn’t working.  Reboot.  Started again and it felt like I was writing to please my advisor. Abort.  Took a month off and came back to it fresh and ended up with a good, solid 20 pages.  Six months and 20 pages, but they were good pages.  Okay, I’m a novice, I’ll take it.

This semester I was determined not to let all that hard work dissipate so I picked up where I left off.  40 new pages the first month, almost 70 the second, I was too close to stop and pushed to finish.  It took 10 weeks but it was a solid 150 pages of middle grade humor and anxiety and I thought: finally, time to pass go and collect $200.

Revision came and I saw the flaws in the opening, a beginning written before the ending was clear in sight, a beginning full of the wrong voice and misplaced focus.  No problem, just dump it.  Take a later chapter and use it as the opening, refocus the relationships.  Add some chapters, splice together with other ideas.

Nope, not quite.  I created a monster.  It’s still too much the old wrong story, too much of a Frankenstein creation than a new vision. Re-vision, reenvision, revise, reinterpret, rework, work.

The notes came back that if I was going to tell this story I needed to incorporate any number of elements much earlier than I originally planned.  The notes included a laundry list of elements from the manuscript, characters and conflicts.  The notes included the recommendation for an “experimental” new opening chapter incorporating all these elements.

I’ve sat down five days in a row and tried to re-imagine the opening, the last four days I have tried to start from scratch.  After the first day I had to ignore the original first draft and attempt a chapter purely from my memory of what I had written and the laundry list of notes.  After three days and three different openings I started a fourth, totally ignoring everything including the notes.

I think I’m getting it.

It isn’t just an experiment, it’s an exercise, a flexing of the muscle I call a brain.  It’s an expansion of the story, a variation on a theme, an orchestral development of a melody and a new arrangement of harmonies.  It’s a test of direction, a test of faith, a test of wills between me and the story.  It will either be an unmitigated disaster or a quiet triumph but will be the natural conclusion of all these attempts.  It might not even be the final version, but it should at least be able to stand on its own finally.

But it needs to be written first.  And the next person who hears about what I’m working on and says “I’ve been thinking about writing a children’s book,” thinking it’s as easy as jotting an email to a coworker, had better step back when they say it; I’m coming out swinging.

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