Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Character-Based View of Plot

(I am, for silly personal reasons that shall be revealed eventually, going to be posting quite a bit this week. Consider yourself forewarned.)

Last fall, when I was working on my talk about plot for the Illinois SCBWI conference, I found myself thinking a lot about Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful "Plot vs. Character Cagematch" talk at Kindling Words last year -- particularly her emphasis on the fact that good plotting grows out of the complications inherent in good characters, and the choices and situations those characters are driven to make. This is something I believe strongly too, but it wasn't something emphasized so much in all of the talks I'd given on plot up to that point. So working off Laurie's ideas, I came up with a character-driven view of plot construction, in which a a good book develops its story in five simple steps:

1. The book establishes a complex character—someone with:

  • A flaw of which he or she may not be aware
  • Something to gain or lose
  • Or both.
2. The world of the book* presents that character with a situation:
  • One that will evoke the flaw—again, possibly unbeknownst to the character
  • Or in which the thing that can be gained or lost will be gained or lost
  • Or both.**
3. And then it forces that character to make a choice or take some sort of action
  • John Gardner: "Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another."***
4. In the new situation engendered by the results of #3, the plot repeats steps 2 and 3, until

5. The flaw in the character is faced and dealt with**** or
  • The thing to be lost or won is lost or won
  • Or both.
* This could be other characters' decisions or actions -- like, say, Mr. Bingley moving to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice, and bringing Darcy with him; or the actual world of the book -- like the announcement of the Hunger Games in The Hunger Games.

** Steps #1 and #2 can happen simultaneously (and sometimes should) -- think of the opening of The Lightning Thief, in which we learn all about Percy as he "accidentally vaporizes his Pre-Algebra teacher," as the chapter title says. Or the first book in The 39 Clues series, where Dan and Amy Cahill light two million dollars on fire in the first sentence -- that tells you plenty about them just as it kicks off their adventures.

*** This is one of my two favorite writing quotes ever, tied with David Mamet's "All art is where you put the camera."

**** "Dealt with" does not necessarily mean "corrected" -- the character can and probably will make mistakes involving that flaw again, after the book ends. But it does mean, I think, "recognized and acknowledged," so that the flaw no longer wreaks its havoc unconsciously -- there has been growth.

I like this formulation because it puts the emphasis upon the protagonist's choices and actions, and books in which a character does a lot and chooses a lot are, I think, generally more compelling and interesting than books in which things just happen to the character -- or worse yet, in which things happen to other people while the protagonist observes. Also, I have met writers who claim to be scared of plot, but I've never met one who claimed to be scared of characters, so I hope it might be more comfortable to think about. And I think this view of plot could ultimately work well paired with the plot structures I've talked about before (particularly Freytag's triangle), so that the choices and actions get consistently bigger and bigger, ultimately building to point #5 above. Maybe this view of plot would be especially useful to writers feeling their way through the first draft, and then the other plot structure could be useful in the revision stage, as people check the sturdiness of the structure they've created.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kidlit Drink Night -- SCBWI Winter Conference Edition

Yes, just four scant days after our last event, and with just two days' notice, we're delighted to announce the third annual Kidlit Drink Night -- SCBWI Winter Conference Edition, this Friday night, January 30. We'll be at the Wheeltapper Pub on 44th Street between Lex and 3rd, starting at 9 p.m.

Conference-goers who are new to the city might also be interested in this list of great New York activities my blog commenters and I compiled a few years ago.

Hope to see you here!

This Makes Me So Happy.

Via bookshelves of doom; click the picture for details.

Next I hope they do Emma the Vampire Slayer -- though the Regency is still a bit too early for Edward Cullen, I guess.

(P.S.: Longtime readers may remember Melissa W.'s work of Pants genius in the comments here; it's almost equally amusing to substitute "BRAAAAAINS!" in the same quotes.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

So, I Had a Nice Day Today.

The kidlit readers here will know this already, but: Today was a very good day for me, as two of my dearly beloved books won ALA awards in Denver this morning.

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce won the first-ever William C. Morris Award, which honors “a book written for young adults by a first-time, previously unpublished author.” This was the first novel I ever acquired and edited wholly on my own -- not a translation, without Arthur's co-editing, the whole bit. I met Elizabeth in the course of a critique at the Arizona SCBWI conference in 2004, pestered her until she sent me the manuscript a year later, and bought the book in early 2006. She worked incredibly hard on revisions for it, resulting in a stronger and better manuscript at every stage, and I’m delighted that her gifts for “masterly writing and vivid characterization and setting,” which shone through in even the two chapters of our very first critique, were recognized by the committee. Congratulations, Elizabeth!

And then Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for outstanding translation. Originally published in Japanese in 1996 as Seirei no Moribito, the book was written by Nahoko Uehashi and translated by Cathy Hirano. The excellent Janna Morishima acquired the book for Scholastic and hired Cathy to translate it; when she left the company, I took over editorial responsibilities -- with great pleasure, as Cathy and Nahoko are both incredibly talented and wonderful to work with. And the book is just awesome -- I once pitched it as "Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 stars in an Ursula K. LeGuin fantasy in Japan." The Batchelder Committee Chair Sandra Imdieke said of it, “This sophisticated and complex Japanese epic is filled with political intrigue, mystery and danger,” but it also has marvelous character development and fascinating relationships and mythologies. . . . I'm so pleased its quality was rewarded. The sequel, Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, will be out in May.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Occasional Poems

First a small bit of doggerel -- bad, I admit -- for Betsy's and my own open occasion tomorrow evening:

Tomorrow night we come to drink
And argue, gossip, chat, and think
About the kids' books we love most
And which awards we'll jeer or toast.
We'll gather at the bar Gstaad,
In the back, where space is broad,
At Forty-three West Twenty-Sixth,
Just down the block -- it's right betwixt
Broadway and Sixth Avenue.
Half-past six. (Later will do.)
Come raise a glass! It's a good time.
(And I swear: No further rhyme.)

Then to continue the discussion of a magnitudes-superior occasional poem, I really enjoyed this clip of Elizabeth Alexander on the Colbert Report Wednesday night, particularly Stephen's concerns about J. Alfred Prufrock's mermaids and the difference between a metaphor and a lie. Highly commended to all those with an interest in poetry:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Praise Song for the Day," by Elizabeth Alexander

(A transcription of today's Inaugural poem, as provided by the New York Times and CQ Transcription Service. I will be very interested to see where the line breaks fall in the final version, but in the meantime, I like the plainspeakingness, and the call to work, love, and hope.)

(Update: Susan Marie Swanson pointed out that the proper text of the poem, with line breaks, is here.)

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Four Little Writing Things + Poll

  • My lovely author Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich is writing a monthly "Five Faves" column for, and her excellent agent Erin Murphy and I are both quoted this week on "The Book That Changed Everything."
  • Another lovely author, Francisco X. Stork, has a wonderful post connecting the disciplines of writing with those of Buddhism: "The Six Perfections of Writing."
  • If you've written a fantasy novel, or really any novel with a Big Bad, you should read through the list of The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became an Evil Overlord and make sure your villain tries to abide by them. (In other words: So much as possible, avoid the cliches contained here.) I particularly like #12: "One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation."Also #29: "I will dress in bright and cheery colors, and so throw my enemies into confusion."
  • I tweaked my submissions guidelines this week, removing the "Closed to submissions" bit from the top (so there's no more confusion about that) and adding these lines:
-- Any submission without an SASE will not receive a reply.
-- I like books about characters who do things, who take action in their own lives, who love and lie and take risks and fight to get what they want, who are faced with and make difficult choices.
-- Some people think that literary fiction doesn't have action to it -- that literary fiction is people sitting around and feeling and talking at each other. This is not true. It's just that in literary fiction, the writer is as interested in the characters' emotional development as he or she is in the action the novel portrays, and particularly in the relationship between the two [the action and the emotional development], even if that relationship isn't spelled out in so many words.
-- If you've written a book, particularly a picture book, for the sole purpose of teaching a lesson to children, like "Be kind to everyone" or "Don't play doctor with the pit bull": Your manuscript will probably not be right for me.
And the poll: Cruising cable last weekend, I came across the last twenty minutes of The Empire Strikes Back, which I hadn't seen in ages. After I finished watching it, I saw that it was labeled "Episode V" in the cable guide, and I thought how strange it would be to actually watch it as the fifth film in the "Star Wars" saga -- to know already the big "NOOOO! NOOOO!" fact revealed at the end of the movie -- and how Episodes IV, V, and VI would all feel very different with that knowledge. And then it occurred to me that I will someday have to decide in which order my (putative, theoretical) children will see the series. What would you all do/are you doing?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Quote File: Work

With particular attention to the work of writing, as I have about two hundred quotes on that topic; and also happiness, vocation, time, discipline, excellence, and the meaning of life.

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing. -- Robert Benchley

Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need. -- Voltaire

To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. -- Anatole France

Until the age of fifty we have to learn, and after fifty we have to work until the end occurs. –- Jose Saramago

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. -- Teddy Roosevelt

Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something. -- Robert Heinlein

Nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a
design. -- Harry Crews

First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do. -- Epictetus

What you have to do and the way to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it, that is another matter. -- Peter F. Drucker

Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand. -- Thomas Carlyle

The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. -- Diane Arbus

I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it--but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work. -- Thomas Edison

A problem is a chance for you to do your best. -- Duke Ellington

Don't hope more than you're willing to work. -- Rita Mae Brown

Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. -- Theodore Roosevelt

Happiness is a by-product of cheerful, honest labor dedicated to a worthwhile task. -- Sidney Greenberg

The main thing that separates happy people from other people [is] the feeling that you're a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench. -- Barbara Kingsolver

Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. -- Joseph Addison

There are three ingredients to the good life; learning, earning, and yearning. -- Christopher Morley

To love what you do and feel that it matters -- how could anything be more fun? -- Katherine Graham

All happiness depends upon courage and work. -- Honore de Balzac

The struggle to reach the top is itself enough to fulfill the heart of man. One must believe that Sisyphus is happy. -- Albert Camus

Life begets life. Energy becomes energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich. -- Sarah Bernhardt

People don't choose their careers; they are engulfed by them. -- John Dos Passos

If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you might be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature ... you will be happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this. -- Marcus Aurelius

I've come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that's as unique as a fingerprint -- and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you. -- Oprah Winfrey

Every calling is great when greatly pursued. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn't, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence. -- Honore de Balzac

Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can. -- Galway Kinnell

When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. -- John Ruskin

A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist. -- Louis Nizer

You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint paradise, then in you go. -- Nikos Kazantzakis

It’s difficult to beat making your living thinking and writing about subjects that matter to you. -- Eleanor Holmes Norton

I see myself as someone who drops tiny crumbs of nourishment, in the form of comment and conversation, into the black enormous maw of the world's discontent. I will never fill it up or shut it up; but it seems my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to attempt to do so, however ineptly. See me as Sisyphus, but having a good time. -- Fay Weldon

Every day I'll wake up around noon. Then I'll go to the track and I'll play the horses ... Then I'll come back and I'll swim and ... have dinner and I'll go upstairs and I'll sit at the computer and I'll crack me a bottle [of wine] and I'll listen to some Mahler or Sibelius and I'll write, with this rhythm, like always. -- Charles Bukowski

The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work, / And if it take the second must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. -- William Butler Yeats

While writers dearly love to work, they stand with parsons and painters and philosophers in loving just as dearly to be paid for it. -- Dalton Trumbo

Take the time to write. You can do your life's work in half an hour a day. -- Robert Hass

Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. -- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let others spend it for you. -- Carl Sandburg

We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and the sensation of Time. And there are but two means of escaping and forgetting this nightmare: pleasure and work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose. -- Charles Baudelaire

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime. -- W.E.B. Du Bois

I learned that you should feel when writing not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like children stringing beads in kindergarten -- happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. -- Brenda Ueland

The best work is done with the heart breaking, or overflowing. -- Mignon McLaughlin

You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. -- Jack London

I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer's block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done. -- Barbara Kingsolver

Plumbers don't get plumbers block and doctors don't get doctor's block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expect sympathy for it? -- Philip Pullman

The work never gets easier. It gets harder and more provocative. And as it gets harder you are continually reminded there is more to accomplish. It's like digging for gold. And when you find the vein, you know there's a lot more where that came from. -- Sam Shepard

If your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt. -- Henry J. Kaiser

Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them. -- Chaim Weizmann

Don't be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones will tend to take care of themselves. -- Andrew Carnegie

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. -- Zen Buddhist proverb

A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules. -- Anthony Trollope

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

I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything. -- Michael Phelps

Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance. -- Samuel Johnson

Genius is eternal patience. -- Michelangelo

Patience is also a form of action. -- Auguste Rodin

The cure for anything is salt water -- sweat, tears, or the sea. -- Isak Dinesen

Effort is only effort when it begins to hurt. -- Jose Ortega y Gasset

Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better. -- John Updike

The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor. -- Vince Lombardi

The secret of joy in work is contained in one word -- excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it. -- Pearl S. Buck

The only lifelong, reliable motivations are those that come from within, and one of the strongest of those is the joy and pride that grow from knowing that you’ve just done something as well as you can do it. -- Lloyd Dobens, Clare Crawford-Mason

Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity. -- Louis Pasteur

Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle. -- Abraham Lincoln

I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen. -- Frank Lloyd Wright

The artist is nothing without gift, but gift is nothing without work. -- Émile Zola

Whatever you can do, do with all your might, for there is neither deed, nor planning, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, toward which you are heading. -- Ecclesiastes 9:10

I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done. -- Marie Curie

I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult. -- E.B. White

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful. -- Marie Curie

The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men. -- George Eliot

The happiest excitement in life is to be convinced that one is fighting for all one is worth on behalf of some clearly seen and deeply felt good. -- Ruth Benedict

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough. -- Anna Quindlen

You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand. -- Woodrow Wilson

We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don't know. -- W.H. Auden

Saturday, January 10, 2009

One Last Request for Writerly Help

Normally I don’t ask for help from readers three times in eight days, but: I have been hired to write an article based on my talk The Art of Detection: One Editor’s Tips for Revising Your Novel. (This will actually be just the second time ever I’ve gotten paid for my own writing—and hey, getting paid for one’s thoughts is pretty cool!) But before I go forth dispensing my wisdom to all and sundry, I wonder: Is it really wisdom? If you’ve read the talk, have you tried any of the techniques? Did any of them seem particularly helpful, or NOT helpful? Anything I should push further? Drop altogether? Are there revision topics you wish I had covered that I didn’t—e.g. actual practical techniques for working through a revision, like, say, “Keep a running outtakes file”? While goodness knows not every technique works for everyone (so I'd expect a wide variance in answers here), your honest constructive feedback is appreciated. Many thanks!

A Hypothesis of Sweets

In the course of my Christmas baking, I formalized an until-then casual Hypothesis of Sweets that I have advanced several times over the years. This hypothesis is:

A. There are three kinds of sweet tastes.

  • 1. The Dry Sweet. That is, dry in texture, with little internal moisture (and often hard), but still sweet in taste. Examples: sugar cookies, shortbread, vanilla wafers, the chocolate part of an Oreo, gingerbread men, the crust of a pie or crumble, brownies, the plain digestive biscuit.
  • 2. The Creamy Sweet. Creamy in texture; the sugar level can vary. Examples: the creamy filling of an Oreo, the chocolate on a chocolate-covered graham cracker or digestive biscuit, the marshmallow in a Mallomar (also the outside), the peanut butter in Little Debbie's Nutty Bars, whipped cream or ice cream, caramel, pudding.
  • 3. The Fruity Sweet. AKA the tangy sweet, sharper in taste, but still with a sweet takeaway. Examples: the raspberry filling of a rugelach, the fruit in a crisp, pie, or cobbler.
  • 3a. The Banana Exception: Because of its texture and relative blandness, Banana shall be regarded as a creamy sweet, not a fruity one.
B. The most delicious desserts involve two, but no more than two, of these sweet tastes (but see also point C).
  • 1. Proof: Oreos, linzer tarts, Mallomars, s'mores, Moon Pies, oatmeal cream pies, McVitie's Plain Choc digestive biscuits, tiramisu, chocolate-dipped strawberries, cheesecake, caramel-covered apples, Twix, Thin Mints, those Girl Scout peanut butter sandwiches, pain au chocolate, black and white cookies, rugelach . . .
  • 2. Many desserts involving only one type of sweet can be improved by adding another: chocolate-dipped graham crackers, for instance, or the cheesecake brownie, or the brownie a la mode, or ice cream with fruit sauce, or banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
  • 3. The Jaffa Cake Exception: Jaffa Cakes are the only known dessert to successfully integrate all three sweets.
C. The Add-On Exception: Many desserts involving two of the three sweets can be improved by adding the third on top.
  • 1. This exception should be invoked with care, however, as the third can also be disastrous.
  • 1a. Examples of Positive Add-Ons: Whipped cream or ice cream on a fruit pie or crumble; strawberry shortcake; cherry cheesecake; cherries or strawberries on a hot fudge sundae; chocolate-dipping a linzer tart.
  • 1b. Examples of Negative Add-Ons: Anything fruity ever added to an Oreo.
D. Taken as a whole, the most satisfying dessert spreads will invoke all three types of sweet, and allow the diners to construct their own combinations of tastes.
  • 1. Proof: One can construct a perfectly good dessert table with berries, chocolate pastilles, and shortbread cookies. Or fondue!
The floor is now open for discussion and debate of this hypothesis. Evidence (e.g. recipe links) welcome.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Oy Vey: Voice, and Also Twilight

So I'm gearing up to write a talk I've been putting off for a long time, which will be all about voice. And I am rediscovering the reason I've been putting this off for such a long time, which is that voice is to fiction as air is to life: It's simultaneously everything and nothing, essential to have and impossible to grasp, all-encompassing and absolutely individual. Voice to me includes both what is said and how it is said; imagine, if you can, the jolly voice of the narrator in the Narnia books suddenly describing a scene of zombies eating people's brains with soup spoons, dripping blood and corpus callosum; or more unlikely still, describing an explicit sex scene. The persona (intelligence, imagination, soul) behind that narrator would never discuss those topics; they aren't dreamt of in its philosophy. And that seems an important thing to know about a voice, its limitations and its tics; as opposed to the voice of the narrator of Possession, say, who also is unlikely to offer up the zombie brain scene, but who describes the sex quite easily. . . .

When I think about voice, I think about how real a sentence sounds to me, how believable it is as the voice of a real human being, if it's in first person; and also about how elegant a sentence sounds if it's in third person (and also in first, if elegance is appropriate for that character)--how smoothly it flows, whether it chooses the right (and yet also sometimes the unexpected) words, its rhythms and its eddies. So already in talking about voice here, I'm talking about perceptions of reality and of quality of aesthetics, and bloody hell if I can do those topics justice in an hour and a half.

I've thought about anatomizing the elements of a strong voice, with examples, but I'm not sure that would necessarily help writers improve their own writing -- do you go back through your writing and say "Hmm, according to Rule #28, 'Strong voices use distinctive adjectives (in some cases)'; therefore I will replace every fourth 'nice' in my book with 'persnickety'"? This seems unlikely, and I do like the theory of my talks to have some practical application. So for all these reasons, I'm finding it damnably hard to figure out any useful principles relating to voice other than "Have a distinctive one."

(And I think I am also getting tangled up in my own confusion here; perhaps some of these things I'm wrestling with aren't voice but style, if the two can be separated; and why shouldn't I try to nail down a perception of reality in my talk? Ninety minutes is a long time. And perhaps I am also enjoying my own melodrama over the difficulty of writing here -- always a danger with writing something in public. . . .)

In any case, I'm turning to you, dear and thoughtful readers, to ask for your help in coming up with some questions about voice I can try to answer in my talk. What issues do you struggle with in regards to voice? Do you struggle with voice as a concept in your writing, or do you just ignore the concept and make a voice, without much theorizing about it? Is it all about person for you -- whether a first-person or a third-person or, goodness, even a second-person narrator is the right perspective to tell the story? Or do you worry about distance, or energy level, or those distinctive adjectives? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

One thing I've thought about doing in relation to this is just making up a list of Prose Tics That Annoy Me and teaching people not to use those in their writing, along with why said Tics are bad -- much like the Principles of Line-Editing I posted a long time ago, but in much greater length and detail. Would that be useful? It would, at least, be correcting the Tics in a voice that add up and ultimately make me put a submission down; and I could probably compile a list of Prose Tics That Please Me likewise -- though the most pleasing tic is usually the unexpected and original one.

And speaking of Prose Tics That Annoy Me . . .

I've written, at this point, the equivalent of about ten full text pages on Twilight, but none of them feel quite right as a response, either because I'm pretty sure other people have already said what I'd say or because the pages go into that swamp of reality and aesthetics and never come out again. It's a fascinating book. I also felt strongly reading it that it was not a good book, though when I asked myself why, my reasons were all political and aesthetic and not emotional: Bella doesn't earn any of the adoration she receives on all sides; there is no plot besides her passion for Edward*; Edward is a bossy, condescending, snickering, sparkly emo boy (though did I mention perfect?); and the book is chockablock with Prose Tics That Annoy Me, not least the redundant dialogue tags and the reiterations of how perfect Edward is.

* Which is fine as a plot, as far as it goes, but since she doesn't want anything besides Edward, once she discovers Edward actually wants her too, she has everything she wants and there is no conflict, mystery, or lack. (At which point the bad vampires conveniently show up so there is conflict again.) Protagonists in romance novels should always want at least one thing outside one another, so (a) they're interesting as individuals (to me, interesting people always have something they like thinking and talking about besides other people, and Bella and Edward did not pass this test) and/or (b) they have to choose between the loved one and this other want, which forces conflict and growth.

I gather the big choice for Bella and Edward in the course of the next three books is whether Bella should become a vampire, but by the end of this book, it seemed obvious to me that of course she should become one: She doesn't love anything else in her human life, or that human life itself, with anything like the force of her passion for Edward, and there is apparently no downside to being a vampire, so why not? When I was watching the movie, I recognize see those downsides, as many of the human pleasures I love most -- sleep, food, touch -- seemed to be denied the vampires (I'm thinking of Edward's stone skin here, not that that seems to keep Bella from snuggling with him). But since none of those pleasures seem to matter to Bella really in this book, the decision doesn't seem like a difficult one.

Still, when I thought about the book from a sheerly emotional perspective -- which can and often does matter more than anything else in a reading experience -- then I totally understood why so many readers love this book so passionately, why they would call it not only a good book but one of the best ever: because more than any book I've read in a long time, it captured the exhilaration and fear of falling and being in love. When I read the scenes in which and after Edward and Bella confess their love to each other, I remembered such scenes in my own real-life experience, how delicious and vertiginous those moments were. And for teen readers who might not have had such an experience yet, I imagine those scenes could be all the more shivery and wonderful. (My political brain sticks its oar back in here and says "Yes, and ridiculously-high-expectations-inducing!" But we are ignoring it for the moment.) When I talked about the book with friends whose literary taste I admire, why they felt compelled to read all these in four days flat, they seem to have plugged straight into that emotional vein and managed to ignore the rest, which I clearly couldn't. But I respect and even envy that experience in some ways . . . More power to you people (though the political brain still wants to recommend a good kick-ass fantasy heroine instead).

So: Twilight, problematic but fascinating book; voice, fascinating but problematic subject. End of post for the night.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Isaac Hayes: Rolling in His Grave or Digging It?

I just finished writing an important e-mail, so, as I try to do whenever I have time, I clicked away for a quick mental distraction so I could come back and reread the e-mail with fresh eyes.

This may have been the best distraction ever:

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain Plays the Theme from Shaft
(via Obsidian Wings)

The first minute is fun, but stick around for the whole thing. It's worth it.

Friday, January 02, 2009


I've been doing a lot of housekeeping today -- scrubbing down the tub, cleaning out the refrigerator* -- and I finally fixed up my website a little bit too, updating my upcoming appearances and correcting the link to the bad-picture-book demo in the picture-book talk. If you find any other broken links or missing pieces on the website, would you please drop me a line at chavela_que at yahoo dot com? Thanks ever so!

* Thanks to my antioxidant-obsessed boyfriend, we had not one, not three, but six tubs of blueberries in various parts of the refrigerator -- four of them now dried blueberries, which I'm saving for future baking. And four packages of baby carrots. New Year's Resolution for this household: Eat the fruits and veggies we bring home.

The Arthur A. Levine Books Spring 2009 List

I just updated my sidebar with the two January-publication books from our Spring 2009 list, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about the rest:

The Snow Day by Komako Sakai. As I write this, it's cold and gray outside, with a snowflake occasionally drifting its way past my windowpane. And I have never read a book that captures so beautifully and accurately the experience of watching the snow fall as The Snow Day, about a little rabbit who gets the day off from kindergarten and the quiet day that follows, waiting for the snow to stop and Daddy to come home. Already the recipient of three starred reviews, including this one from SLJ.

Heartsinger by Karlijn Stoffels, translated by Laura Watkinson. During the editing process, I referred to this fondly as "my weird little Dutch book," because it's one of those books that challenges our traditional American expectations of what a novel should be, and so requires the reader to adapt to it rather than judging it by those traditional expectations. (See also: The Legend of the Wandering King; I'll write more about this when I do a "Behind the Book" post.) And not all readers will adapt to it, and not all readers will like it. But those that do read it will discover beautiful, lyrical, magical-realist writing; a wonderful fairy-tale-like atmosphere and story; and a deep understanding of love and the problems of love between man and woman, and parent and child. And indeed, challenging those traditional American expectations of what a novel should be is partly why we do translations, so I hope readers will be willing to meet Heartsinger halfway. The beautiful cover was designed by Elizabeth Parisi (who also created the cover for Maybe below). Starred review from Kirkus.

Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan. The followup to Shaun's amazing The Arrival has more text (much more, as The Arrival was wordless, and this is a collection of short illustrated stories), but just as much wonder, terror, humor, wisdom, sympathy for the human condition, and astonishing art. Two starred reviews.

Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee. Every time I go to Los Angeles, including my recent holiday trip, I think about this book, because -- besides being Lisa's first YA novel, a terrific portrait of a girl figuring out who she is and what she wants, and funny as heck, especially thanks to the wonderful supporting characters -- it is a love letter to L.A., in all its gritty, glamorous, car-dependent, movie-besotted, great-Mexican-food-containing glory. And as I do not generally love L.A., I am grateful to Lisa for writing a book that makes me appreciate it, especially the Mexican food . . . Seriously, it's probably not wise to read this book unless you have a good taco place within a five-minute walk or drive. (This book was called Definitely Maybe until we learned about the movie last spring -- damn you, Ryan Reynolds!) Out in February; see advance reviews here.

Celestine, Drama Queen, by Penny Ives. A little duckling diva just knows she'll be the star of the kindergarten drama . . . and indeed she is, if not in quite the way she expects! A perfect book for all fans of Fancy Nancy or darling ducks.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. I wrote about this book here and I will write more about it closer to its release in March, but for now I'll just say it's about a young man with a form of autism who spends a summer working in his father's law firm; it's a love story, a legal drama, and a religious inquiry into our human response to suffering; and while that may sound dry, it's full of life, and extraordinary. We've sold rights in four foreign languages thus far (Italian, Spanish, German and French), and it too is receiving some good love over in the advance reviews. The lovely, perfect cover is by Dan McCarthy, who has also created posters and t-shirts for Harry and the Potters, though our designer Chris Stengel knew him from posters for other bands around Boston . . . which goes to show you never know where someone may discover your illustrations. Out in March.

Are You a Horse? by Andy Rash. Sometimes, when I'm in need of a break at work, I will go over to my friend/our editorial assistant Emily's cubicle, hang over the side, and stare at her thoughtfully. "Emily?" I ask. "Are you a horse?" This never ceases to amuse me (though I imagine Emily might be tiring of it), and it also reproduces the process of inquiry that our hero Roy the Cowboy goes through: He has a saddle, but no horse to ride -- in fact, he doesn't even know what a horse is. So he asks a cactus, a wagon, a crab, a lion, and various other animals whether they are a horse, using their answers to come to an eventual definition of a horse. A great book for all budding scientists, and hilarious to boot, thanks to Andy's brightly colored pictures, the witty text, and the twist ending. Out in March. You never know . . . you might be a horse too.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

I'm feeling blissfully lazy and so don't have much more to say than that. Wishing you all blissfully lazy beginnings -- and then productive and enjoyable new years -- as well!