Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Ramble: Thoughts Written on the Plane Home from California

(some of which I had had before going to California and finally had the time to write properly on the plane; and yes, this consciously morphed into a blog post partway through, and has been edited and added to since)

fantastic fact, the (n.) that one thing that, in entering a fictional world, alters it and the people who inhabit it so profoundly that the story becomes a fantasy. A dragon, a daemon; the ability to control the winds through singing, or the existence of an entire hidden magical world; gods who act on earth and demand to be worshipped, or ghosts; and the entire logic of the world warps around that and is changed by it. But everything else must remain the same: most especially characters, and their wants and needs and relationships; and scientific laws. No one has yet written a story, that I know of, about what would happen if the earth lost its gravity, how we should survive and what that would change.

The way good writers make your brain spark, alive with both the wonder of their creations and the wonder of the real world: your brain sharpened by the truth they present.

Some themes that emerged from the conference:

  • Empowerment. I talked a little about my fascination with power as a theme in children's literature -- that it comes up so much (implicitly or explicitly) because it's what children don't have (cf. Where the Wild Things Are). Also the power of the writer to master his or her past through writing.
  • Writing your own truth. I used the phrase "your way of being in the world" in my talk and didn't cite it properly; it was from the first part of that lovely Zadie Smith article I linked to a few months back. (Alas, my link to the article itself no longer seems to work.)
  • Outlines. Gotta love 'em.
  • The three-act plot structure, in both my talk and Anastasia Suen's. I identified the core story picture-book structure as "Problem-Process-Solution," where the process makes up the slowly crescendoing middle of the book. Anastasia then took that a step further and put emphasis on the joins between the acts, which she identified as turning points, where the character decides to make a change and takes action to effect it. If you saw the cheerfully terrible picture book I showed at the conference, both the spreads I chose to make full-page pictures -- me pulling my hair and shouting "AUGGH! I NEED COOKIES!" and me mashing the banana -- were turning points, though I hadn't explicitly identified them as such; and thus they deserved the emphasis of the full-page spreads.

Anastasia and Cheryl Zach and I all talked about the importance of plotting and pacing and structure, making your story work in harmony; and then Joan Bauer stood up at the end of the day and blew us all away, God bless her, by talking about the thing that matters most, the thing an editor can't fix or a writer fake: making your characters real. Let's make a character, she said. Boy or girl? Girl, we answered. How old is she? 15. What's her family like? Big -- seven brothers and sisters. What's her pain? She's abused. Where does she live? New York City. Who abuses her? Her uncle. What kind of abuse? Sexual. What's her talent, what keeps her alive? She's an actress. Is she good? Yes, very good. Why is the abuse unexpected? They're rich. Where are the parents? Making money. Who can she talk to? A counselor. And as Joan ran through the litany of questions, the girl sprang to life -- different for each of us, I'm sure, because of our individual tastes and histories, but there in the room, scared and defiant, waiting for all of us to take her and make her story ours. Every editor knows you can fix pacing, you can fix plotting, but you can't fix bad writing and lack of characterization -- or at least, it rarely proves worth the time, if you're trying to make something of literary and not just commercial worth. That ability to create real kids and teenagers and make us care about their problems is the talent Joan and Lisa Yee have in such abundance, and why J. K. Rowling is such a success, really -- OK, incredible plots there too, but they work because we care.

Speaking of which, Lisa and her cute (Son) and beautiful (Teen) and funny (Hubby) family tried very hard to wrest the secrets of Book 7 from me -- but I only smiled sphinxishly. (I've withstood that kind of pressure before.)

Another theme of the weekend was the necessity of writing your own truth, going deep, not shying away from it, not being scared. Cheryl Zach noted that once someone pointed out that all her heroines lacked mothers, and this forced her to look at her own history with new eyes, and enriched all her books afterward. Joan spoke about the deep connection between the struggle to grow a giant pumpkin -- the subject of her first novel, Squashed -- and her struggle to write the novel itself while recovering from a painful accident. Lisa talked about her deep fear of calling herself an author and the bravery required to do so. And when someone thanked me for my willingness to show what were undoubtedly some of the most unflattering (but also funniest) photos of myself ever taken, to write a story casting myself in an unpleasant light (as my bad picture book eventually evolved into), I said why I did it: If I'm going to ask for honesty and truth and pain and humility from my writers, then by goodness, I have to try to show those same virtues myself in what I write. (That thought also was behind "Morals, Muddles," when I gave that talk last year.) And lord, some of those pictures were humbling.

During Joan's talk she spoke about the trouble she had with her second novel, Thwonk -- in particular that she created a whole backstory for the Cupid character but used none of it. At that, the woman sitting next to me wrote "BACKSTORY" in her notebook, then drew a circle around it and a slash through it. "No!" I wanted to say to her. "You have to have backstory! The trick is to make your characters show it in who they are and what they say and do, and when to display the facts of it so it matters in present action. Explanations of backstory are odious, but not backstory itself." Lisa's first draft of Millicent (that I read) was 75 pages of backstory followed by 150 of action in the present, and much of our work on it involved chopping up that backstory and slotting it into the right places -- if we didn't cut it out altogether. (Also J. K. Rowling's genius: perfectly timed deployment of backstory.) But the work was all worth it because the characters were so strong.

I hung out with Marilyn, Greg of Gottabook, and the Disco Mermaids, who are already planning something fabulous for this year's SCBWI ball (hint to everyone else: stock up on your aluminum foil). I like LAX, and Georgette Heyer novels (I'm on a binge -- finished Sylvester on the plane, reading Venetia now, desperate to get ahold of These Old Shades), and See's candies, and walking on Santa Monica Beach. Also 70 degree weather, thank God, and my first-ever sight of an orange tree. I am obsessed with the "Spring Awakening" soundtrack -- all contemporary-YA writers should see this musical to remember the pure clear desperation of teenage sexuality and the weight of adult oppressiveness (though the oppressiveness is less of a problem now than when the show is set, the desperation rings true). And it's a pretty amazing show, period. I want to go see it again and sit onstage. And I have never particularly cared to have Showtime until they came up with a "This American Life" TV show and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers started brooding out of all these subway ads as Henry VIII. Normally I do not find Jonathan Rhys-Meyers that attractive, but in these ads . . . Zounds, as an Elizabethan would say. Forsooth.

End of ramble.


  1. What a frighteningly scary Stephen Dunn poem with a nice twist of hope at the end. Corporate life gives me the heebie jeebies. I spent ten years of my life in marketing meetings and I still get a stomachache from thinking about it. Thanks for posting these.

    The conference was awesome! Cheryl! Your talk was such a delight and the cookie stories were hilarious. Hot Baked Banana Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Awards to the photographers!

    I’m still marveling that you had never seen an orange tree. Really? We have seven citrus trees in our yard, all kinds and lemons year round. Makes it easy to cook chicken.

    Thanks for putting together such a, what is the word I want? Brilliant? Well thought out? Practical? Informative? Yes, your talk was all those things, but I want a better word and my brain is lacking these days… let me rummage around here in my giant mom handbag and see if I can come up with the word to describe how satisfying your talk was…





  2. I agree. I enjoyed the pictures, too. :>) Thanks for coming to CA!

    Christine Henderson

  3. Yes, I, too, have heard tell of these infamous banana smashing and cookie photos.

    And when will the rest of us be able to partake?


  4. Sounds like a great conference -- thanks for the replay! Love that about backstory with a line through it! Also love the way you put it: "perfectly timed deployment of backstory." It's something I'm grappling with now. I love weaving the past and present together, but sometimes it makes my head hurt :-O

  5. Hope you're going to post the talk you gave :)

  6. It was wonderful to finally meet you in person, Cheryl. And that cookie recipe!!! Eve made some for us the next day.


    - Jay

  7. Wow-great notes on what must have been a fantabulous time! Aluminum foil - check - thanks for the heads up on LA.

  8. Thanks for the shout to the DM's, Cheryl! It was great to visit with you again, although it was too brief and it's always hard to talk for too long at these things, since you're always stalked like the rock star that you are!

    We enjoyed your speech, amusing pics, and I am in love with your cookie recipe. Kid you not, I made about 100 of them...gave 10 to Jay, 10 to Robin and I ate the rest within 24 hours. Best cookies ever. Thanks!

    DM #3

  9. Hi! After I read this post, I had to check through my notes to make sure I wasn't the woman who wrote "Backstory" and drew a line through it.

    I only got to chat with you briefly (about this blog). I really enjoyed your talk!

    If you want to see, pictures are here.