Archive for the ‘process’ Category

A Hippie and an Anarchist walk into a Starbucks and ask the Barista…

Can you picture it? Birkenstocks and tie-dye, piercings and tattoos, a bored look and a smart phone. Counter-culture meets coffee-counter culture. The attitude and the edge, the anger and the disaffection. The sheer conflict of images.

Writers think about stereotypes more than any other people I know. In an effort to communicate with words it becomes necessary to show a reader who, what, and where these people are, and these descriptions require a writer to consider how many strokes of the brush it will take to render the image.

Factually, a reporter has no reason to point out details that have no bearing on a story — we may be told a fire victim’s age but not their weight or race, because these details tell us nothing about the scene. In news reporting we aren’t given extraneous details partially because we can see details that aren’t described and partially because the story itself must be believed because it is simply true, it actually happened. So if we are told a famous and wealthy business tycoon was found dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter we believe it, and begin to fill in unspoken details and questions that allow us to create a narrative in our mind about what we thought happened.

We do this because we have deeply embedded stereotypes that inform our ability to construct an image that is true to us.

That tycoon in the alley, he doesn’t belong there, because that’s not where tycoons should be found. We picture him in a suit, crumpled near a dumpster, face down maybe, pockets turned out where he has been robbed, shoes missing. The location, behind a homeless shelter, sets us thinking who might have done this to him.

Him? When did I decide our tycoon was male? Is male my stereotype default for a tycoon? Are my assumptions based on stereotypes or the preponderance of examples? Does placing a tycoon dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter automatically trip the default that assumes foul play is involved? These images that we construct are a function of our individual experience, but I doubt that from the short description above that a reader would draw the same conclusion further details would provide.

Sally Hemmings, noted real estate tycoon, was found in the alley behind the homeless shelter she founded, dead from a ruptured appendix.

Details, in this case, help us not only see the scene more clearly but also counter any stereotypes we otherwise would have affixed to the story without them. In short, in the absence of the concrete, our thinking would tend toward the stereotype.

In fiction the writer treads delicately between being “true” and giving the reader a chance to properly visualize the characters and settings. News images from South Central LA during the Rodney King Riots would have us imagine a rundown neighborhood full of poverty and crime, and yet one of the wealthiest universities, USC, was mere blocks away to the north. This contradiction in expectations actually provides an opportunity for context and comparison, just as it can with character stereotypes. The problem, in fact and fiction, is that we rely on the stereotypes to become rather than inform the reality.

Far too often in fiction for middle grade and young adults I find that stereotypes, or behavior that has become stereotypical, is nothing more than a cynical way to either deliver on a reader’s expectations or a guarantee to fulfill a marketing category. A middle grade mystery, with a well-intentioned boy detective and a hiding-her-light-under-a-bushel girl sidekick, always reads flat to me. It trades on the stereotypes of a boy with grandiose ideas and the smart girl who helps the boy achieve those goals with a wink to the reader that the boy would be nowhere without her aid. One could argue this being the flip side to the helpless girl who requires a boy savior but neither is revolutionary. Is it possible to have the boy and girl be equal partners? And without an undertone of romance? And for them both to be true to their nature, a boyish boy and a girly girl?


Because our expectations about the characters requires that they correspond to something we recognize in real life, or at the very least within our experiences. And beyond that, the characters themselves must have stereotypical expectations in order for there to be resonance. There is nothing more unrealistic in American fiction (with few exceptions) than a story with 100% caucasian characters, just as there is nothing realistic about a collection of mixed race characters where those differences aren’t noted by the characters themselves. Kids especially are keen on making these distinctions as they are still forming their own thoughts about what behaviors are of a particular character and which are stereotypical.

Every writer who doesn’t feel that writing for children and teens should include a political or social agenda is missing the truth: all writing includes the writer’s agenda. They either rely on and perpetrate stereotypes, for better or worse, or they fight stereotypes in an attempt to get readers to think beyond their own prejudices and expectations. Every detail about character and setting becomes a deliberate choice to either expose or support a stereotype.

What, exactly, is a stereotype is a question for another time.


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How old do you have to be to get that title reference? When did local news coverage stop teasing the late news with the promise of “film at 11?” For those wondering, there will be no film in this post, at 11 or otherwise.

A few weeks back on the Tuesday night #kidlitchat on Twitter people were divvying themselves up into pantser and plotter camps. Plotters, as the name suggests, are those who plot before writing while pantsers (and I kept wanted to say pantsters for some reason) would write at least initial drafts by the seat of their pants. I quickly identified myself as a pantser all the way, without hesitation, and then proceeded to suggest writers attend conferences with pins or stickers attached to their name badges readily identifying which camp they were in.

Then I thought about.

Letting my current WIP rest a bit so I can come back to revisions with fresh eyes I began thinking about what I was going to write next. I’ve had this story in my head for years now that I felt was ripe for the writing. Instead of looking at earlier attempts and notes I had taken on this project I sat down and began sketching out what I knew about the story, just some general plot points. I had a number of elements that I was shuffling around in my head and decided instead to shuffle them around in real space. I found a sticky note pad and wrote down what I thought were the top ten important plot points, plus separate notes for the first and last chapters, and began sorting and shuffling them. I went with a basic three-act structure and divided the sticky notes into where I thought they fell, then arranged them in order for each act. And there it was, a story outline, all plotted pretty as a picture.

But it didn’t work.

While the events built on one another there was no emotional arc. There were no secondary character arcs. Conflicts were barely suggested. There was a lot more to the story than what I had semi-outlined but without working those elements into the plot twists the story felt flat. I took my sticky notes and transferred the information into a new Scrivener file, a folder for each, and put it aside.

The next day I woke up with the idea that I was over-thinking the story, over-plotting it really going against my seat-o-the-pants nature by mapping it out. At the same time one of my problems is that first drafts are often so overwritten, filled with extraneous detail and backstory, that I was looking for some way to get closer to the heart of the story from the start. Without being fixed to the idea of working on this project further I decided instead to look over some recent information gleaned at the New England SCBWI 2011 conference about picture books.

Specifically, this post from Harold Underdown’s site regarding Picture Book Secrets by Margot Finke. Go ahead and take a look at it.

There’s a section there called “A Good Way To Plot a Picture Book” that, while similar to things I had seen before, really stripped the conflict of a story down in a way that triggered something in my head. Even though I was planning a YA project and not a picture book I used that little story structure as a guide and rewrote it using my sticky notes from the day before. Some points gained emotional focus. Others picked up subplots that mirrored the main story. After thinking about this story for five years, ruminating and tumbling the basic plot in my head and in notes, I finally had something that felt substantial and satisfying. I went back to my computer file and rebuilt the outline using this new guide. I filled in new conflicts and character connections. There was tension and pacing throughout. The story flowed more naturally.

All because I reconceived my YA novel as a picture book.

And now that picture book outline is the perfect armature for a plot summary and query synopsis, once I finish the story and can work out the details. I now have a road map where before I wasn’t even driving on paved roads. There’s still a lot of work ahead, and much of the story that I haven’t really planned out, but I’m sure my pants will help be fly over those bumps. I’m not ready to admit to full conversion, but I am interested in seeing if all this structure converts me into a plotter.

I’ll let you know when I get there. Film at 11.

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Going into the holidays some are worse than others: family dynamics, general stress, you know, the usual. This year seemed relatively low-key but I had this strange lingering sense that something was just a little off, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

The day before Christmas I was out doing a last-minute gift run when I saw a friend’s book in the bookstore.  It wasn’t officially due out until next month so I was surprised and happy for him.  I proceeded to talk the book up with the store owner (who obviously had the good taste to order it in) and someone overheard me talking about the book and added it to their purchases.

That felt awesome.

In the course of small talk we caught up a bit on how my year was winding up and, no, I still haven’t found an agent yet.  But I’m still plugging along, writing something new, got myself a critique group. I left feeling a bit unsettled but I didn’t really connect it at first. Then, while sitting around having a family meal today it hit me: I graduated 11 months ago and am as unpublished as the day I was born.

And that felt horrible.

It felt horrible for about an hour until I realized that unless I actually had a newly released book in the stores it would always feel this way; that a writer is only a writer in other people’s eyes when there is a new book out.  Otherwise, “when is your next book coming out?” is no different that “when do you think you’ll find a new job?”  In Hollywood the old saying is that “You’re only as good as your last film” which means how well your film grossed and how long ago that was.  For writers, because their books are perceived as sitting on the shelves forever, you really are only as good as your next book, because without a deal in the works a writer is essentially unemployed.

That line of thinking not only felt horrible but also somewhat liberating, because it meant every writer, no matter how famous, was unemployed. Unless they are working off a multi-book deal or under deadline on a contract, all writers are essentially “at will” in the market.  The best any of us can do at the holiday table when asked about our work is speak about our future hopes in publishing.

New year coming, a new basket in which to gently place the eggs of future hopes. Let 2010 end on a note of comfort that at any given time most writers are in the same boat. I’m looking to paddle harder and faster and make 2011 be the year I prove myself employable.

As a writer.

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For a century now we’ve been running this great experiment called adolescence.  With the rise of theories on social development, we’ve come to refine the compartmentalization of childhood into such neat little slices of experience and expectation that I’m wondering if maybe it isn’t time to step back and ask ourselves if we’re doing right by the adolescents in our midst or if we aren’t doing more damage than good.

And for once, instead of my usual rants against education, I’m going to pose this question to writers of Young Adult fiction.

Time was, we used to have a ceremony for children as they reached puberty and called them adults.  We’d send them on walkabouts, or give them bar (or bat) mitzvahs, administer confirmations, hold sunrise ceremonies… whatever name they are given, many cultures seemed to have in place a ritual recognition separating childhood from adulthood with nothing in between.

And for many decades we did not have a Young Adult fiction category for the same reason.  At one point a child was no longer expected to need coddling literature and it was time for them to venture out into the world and learn from the “adult” side of the library.

Since then it seems we’ve created a sort of limbo where people we call teenagers or “young adults” are permitted to exist in a protective cocoon that, presumably, exists to allow for a smoother transition into adulthood.  In this protective envelope we find teens yearning for the experiences of adulthood but disinterested in the responsibilities of same.  We let them drive cars, but they are still carried under an adult’s insurance coverage and responsibility.  We let them have jobs but don’t require they share any of the expenses that adult wage earners are beholden to.

And come graduation from high school there is another four years for them to remain fully out of adulthood, and even then we find many returning home to the roost.

My charge today is to ask: how much does YA literature foster a retardation of maturity?

I know there is the thorny issue of deciding whether fiction reflects or mirrors a culture, and whether it should.  This is the uneasy territory  find myself considering over and over.  Should my stories mirror those experiences most teens are having, or should they, somehow, suggest that there is more to life than grades and proms and dating and shopping and dueling with adults?  I look at the teen characters I create, and their stories, and I wonder “Are you nothing more than the result of too many freedoms and not enough responsibilities?”

I wonder if adolescences has created a class of entitlement.

And I wonder if YA literature can do anything about it.

In prepping for my pending residency at school (this weekend!) I am finding I wish I had more time to read.  I want more time not only to digest the required reading but to delve further into the issues these books bring up.  I want to brush up on my Bettleheim and explore Erik Erikson.  I want to read and know more about why we think, as a culture, adolescence as a classification is such a good thing.

I have a full six months between now and graduation from school, between this moment and the one where I have to lecture on something substantive within the field of children’s literature.  I have more ideas and more questions than can be answered, much less expounded on, in a half year’s time.  I feel like I’m about to be told I can go into the world and build jet planes having only worked on plastic models.

This is it.  There is no “adolescence” for me as a writer.  My ritual is on the horizon.

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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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