Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For SECOND SIGHT Readers: Some Further Thoughts on Emotional Points & Patterns

I had a nice exchange over e-mail recently with a writer who read Second Sight and felt a little bit unclear (quite understandably!) about a couple of concepts promulgated in the book; and I decided to post our correspondence here to help clarify the ideas for anyone else who might be interested and/or confused. To wit, here's my correspondent:

At first I wasn’t sure whether you were saying a book needs both a thematic point and an emotional point or just one, but I believe you mean the book has a single point and it can be either of the two. 
Also, I was a little muddled about the emotional point itself. I wondered if the emotional point is the intended emotional response to the book’s resolution, or is it the reason a person chooses to read that particular book in the first place. Your example of the humor that is essential to Pilkey’s books makes me think it must be the latter.

I spent some time pondering the Compulsion vs. Obstacles section of “Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story” and wanted very much to hear you expound upon the “emotional pattern” that a character is compelled to repeat over and over. I’m not certain what an emotional pattern is. Is it something like a tendency to be impulsive, stubborn, zealous, etc.? Or is it the driving emotional force behind most of the character’s actions, like love or anger?
These were just tiny questions gnawing at me as I read Second Sight, but the *emotional pattern* I repeated over and over was exhilaration at the clarity and the little epiphanies I experienced and a bit of a brain fry as I tried to pin down the point of my story. That simple plot checklist was so helpful (thanks!)
My response:
Thanks for your questions -- they're good ones!

Actually, I think novels (literary fiction, anyway) should have both Thematic and Emotional Points -- a philosophical thought or idea or question driving the book (a question answered through its events), its intellectual heart; and then the emotional heart, which should be the Emotional Point.
When I'm working over a manuscript and I say "What's its Emotional Point?", my answers tend to go toward the overall emotional atmosphere of the novel, the key feeling the author intends the reader to take away at the end. (I make absolutely no claim to this being clear in the book.) In Pride and Prejudice, I would say its emotional point is humor, amusement, that sideways & smiling look at the foibles of intelligent human beings. In Twilight, I would say it's that feeling of being caught up in falling in love, and the reader's being in love with Edward too. In Feed, I would say it's that gaping, yawning, despairing feeling at the emptiness of the society and the lack of connection that Silas has at the end. (So yes, it's more of the intended emotional response to the book's resolution, as you put it.)

It's also often the author's intended emotional reaction to the idea espoused by the Thematic Point . . . For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, the Thematic Point is that even smart people sometimes get caught up in their own smartness and act stupidly, but rather than treating that with rage or despair (like, say, Dostoyevsky or Vonnegut might), Austen laughs at it and creates a happy ending. And that laughter, which she hopes to inspire in readers in turn, is the Emotional Point. In the classical Well-Made Novel, everything in the book should help add up to that feeling on the emotional side and the Thematic Point on the intellectual side.
As for the emotional pattern, I'd say it's a combination of those two things you describe . . . It's the outward behavioral tendency to hide, run away, be silent, be angry, fight, hit, whatever, which is driven by some inward emotional force (or pain, usually) in the character's nature or experience. In Speak, for instance, Melinda is silent and hides as much as possible for most of the book, because she believes no one will listen to her after her experience at the party; so silence/hiding is the emotional pattern she repeats again and again, coming up against the obstacles of people who WILL listen, who DO value her words (and also the obstacles of situations in which she SHOULD speak out), until those things give her the courage at the climax to change her pattern and name what happened to her. Or Pride and Prejudice again: Lizzy's pattern is to be prejudiced and pleased with herself, until she comes up against the obstacle of being massively wrong about Darcy and Wickham, and having to recognize all the other obstacles she bypassed to continue to be massively pleased with herself. . . .
This pattern does not necessarily apply to every novel; it's much more useful for character-driven books where the character needs to make some emotional change than plot-driven ones, where the change is mostly external. (I don't think you really find it in Harry Potter, for instance, at least not on the single-book level.) But if you can identify that key thing your protagonist does over and over again, especially in response to a threat, it's often quite useful in unlocking his/her nature and what might need to change for him/her to move forward emotionally, to grow.
If you've read Second Sight and you have questions or ideas you'd like to see explicated more, do feel free to leave a comment about them here. I continue to revise the underlying talks whenever I give them (and who knows, maybe there'll be a second edition of the book someday), so it's always nice to get feedback on what needs more explanation/examples, where I got too much into theory and not enough into practice, what's working well and what isn't, etc. Thanks!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Scholastic Summer/Fall 2011 Preview

What do Cleopatra's daughter, a North Carolina delicacy called livermush, and a pickpocket who can see magic have in common? Well, I edited books about all three of them, and I talk about all three of them in the terrific Scholastic Summer/Fall 2011 Preview, now available online:

All three books are featured in the YA section, and include:

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson (out in July; in the YA preview around the 7:30 mark). This book for some time was called The Young Anthropologist's Guide to High School, as Janice Wills is, indeed, a young anthropologist who applies her love of the discipline and her sharp wits to life in Melva, North Carolina, complete with high school social groups, confusing mating habits, and the most horrible coming-of-age ritual of all: the annual Miss Livermush pageant. Janice's voice is S.O.J.A. -- Straight Outta Jane Austen -- in its piercing insights and the hilarious way they're expressed, and the Publishers Weekly review this week called it "rewarding, honest, and quite funny" -- all exactly right!

Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce (out in November, 8:15). This sequel to StarCrossed shows our heroine, the pickpocket/forger/spy Digger, back in her beloved hometown of Gerse, navigating the cross-currents of the magical civil war she ignited, and fighting a private war of her own in her quest to prove her friend Durrel Decath innocent of the murder of his wife . . . a quest made all the more complicated by Digger's falling in love with him herself. I call it a "fantasy noir" in the video for its blend of magic, mystery, and the darker sides of human nature and the world Elizabeth has created; but it's also just plain kickass, filled with daring escapes, double-crosses, and disguises; secret poisons, old friends, and surprises -- with sometimes each of the latter two things providing the other. If you're a blog reviewer interested in getting an ARC, send me an e-mail at chavela_que at with your blog and postal addresses. . . . I can't fulfill all requests, sadly, but I'll gladly do the best I can.

Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter (out in August, 9:20). Did you know that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and General Marcus Antonius of Rome were not just giants of doomed romance and ancient history, but parents? Indeed they were, and this wonderful book introduces readers to their daughter Cleopatra Selene. The first third of this novel describes Selene's life in Egypt, living in luxury, studying in the great library of Alexandria (swoon!), and adoring her passionate parents. But when the greedy Roman soon-to-be emperor Octavian defeats Cleopatra and Antonius at Actium, and precipitates their deaths soon after, Selene is taken to live in Octavian's household in Rome, where she finds both romance and treachery in her fight to fulfill her own dream of returning to Egypt. I could really just write "Swoon! Swoon! Swoon!" the whole rest of the space here for the incredible sensual details Vicky includes about life in the ancient world, the epic sweep of the personalities and drama, and the sizzling romance. . . . The thinking girl's perfect summer read.

I hope you'll check out the video and all of these wonderful novels!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Watch Trent on the Today Show!

Update:  You can see the video of Trent's appearance here.

Posting VERY quickly to note that Trent Reedy, author of the book WORDS IN THE DUST, will be on NBC's Today Show this Friday, May 20! (Previous posts about this book here and here.) Pending breaking news, he should be on with Al Roker and his Book Club for Kids around 9:45 a.m. EST. Please tune in if you support one of the following:

  1. Children's literature on network TV
  2. Realistic contemporary children's literature in general
  3. Books about other places and peoples
  4. Afghan women and girls 
  5. The U.S. military
  6. Books about people of color
  7. With said people on the covers
  8. Trent
  9. Extremely nice guys like Trent
  10. The Vermont College of Fine Arts or the Erin Murphy Literary Agency
  11. Katherine Paterson, our current Children's Laureate
  12. Me and/or my books
  13. Scholastic and/or Arthur A. Levine Books
And if one of those does not apply to you, I really don't know why you're reading this. Thanks for your support!

Monday, May 02, 2011

"The Answer," by Robinson Jeffers

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history...for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.


A commenter posted this on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog today in response to a thread about Osama bin Laden. I was here in New York on 9/11; I watched from a terrace at Scholastic as the towers burned. And yet as satisfied as I felt to hear that Osama had died, to know that justice had come round in the world in this one small way, an eye for thousands of eyes, I felt disquieted also about raucously declaring victory when we threw away so much chasing that justice over the past decade . . . American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives; fathers and mothers and children and siblings, even when their bodies returned from the wars; the trillion dollars spent on these missions overseas, when a full quarter of American children sleep in hunger.

So this poem spoke to me in that larger sense: that we cannot know the larger answers, the ends, what is right in the long arc of history. We can know only our own small answers to the questions, and try to see clearly our own smallness, to keep ourselves and those around us whole. I think often about a quote from Rabbi Sheila Peltz, who went to Auschwitz and said, "I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place." As justice is a restoration of balance, of wholeness, again, I am glad today for that. But we should be careful about declaring any more.