Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nine Questions and Answers About Writing

As part of the Writer's Digest University event, I answered nearly fifty questions written by participants in the course of the webinar. Here are nine of my favorites (including a definition of the new Point I just named, the Experiential Point, in part because I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote in the blog post here).

8. Can you review the difference b/t emotional and experiential Points.

The Emotional Point is the emotional change that your protagonist goes through – how he or she develops from A to B emotionally as a result of the action of the plot, and how you would define that development from A to B. (The Emotional Plot is the steps through which she makes that change.) The Experiential Point is a loose summation of the dominant feelings you intend the reader to feel in the course of reading the book: scared, delighted, under stress, etc. Or, if you prefer, it’s a summation of the book’s overall atmosphere/attitude: funny, tense, relaxed, amused . . . again, what you’d intend a reader to take away.

9. What if the change is not something modern American readers appreciate? And what if the change is very subtle, again, that readers might not connect to?

If you’re determined on this change, and there’s no way to heighten it or make it something modern American readers might appreciate (if, in fact, the subtlety and strangeness of it are part of your whole intention, as sometimes happens): Then you need to accept that your book may have a limited audience among modern American readers. Which is not the end of the world – you can still find a publisher (just maybe a smaller one that appreciates this kind of change, and not a mass-market one); you can still find those readers (ideally the ones served by this publisher); and you will have written exactly the book you wanted, which is always a good thing, because people rarely get exactly what they want in this world. But if that is not something you’ll be satisfied with, then I’d return to the idea of heightening the change.

10. How do you feel about using modern terminology such as BlackBerry, iPhone, Facebook, etc., in YA novels?

As a general rule, I think it’s good to try to avoid brand names, because they also brand and date your character for the reader in a way you may not intend, and those companies don’t need the free advertising. The exceptions are Facebook and Google, because they’ve become such an ubiquitous part of everyone’s online lives, and an online life has become such a ubiquitous part of life in general for many people, and they don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. . . . I feel as if you might as well use the real names of those programs, since if you use a fake name, readers will just see through to what you mean anyway. On the other hand, if you can come up with a fun fake name for those programs, that’s cool too, and it protects you from concerns about something getting outdated; for example, Sarah Dessen invented her own social network,, that appears in all of her books.

18. Are there rules for how a novel is written such as in the 1st person.

Yes. I’m going to shamelessly quote my own book at length here:

With first person, the reader is inside the narrator’s head, looking out through his eyes. This means that we have an immediate and intimate connection with this character—immediate access to all of his thoughts; an immediate, you-are-there presence in the action. It is terrifically intense, because there is no escape from this point of view, and everything that happens to the character happens to us, the readers, as well.
However: That will only happen if readers find this narrator likeable or compelling in some way. If the narrator is really annoying, that greatly increases the chance that the reader will put the book down. (If I stop reading a book, nine times out of ten it’s because I dislike something about the narrative voice.) . . . In first person, a narrator is under three kinds of pressure: (1) to tell the story; (2) to be believable and compelling as the voice of that particular character; and (3) to bring a personality and richness to the story beyond mere factual narration, as no interesting human being telling his own story ever reported merely the facts.
. . . Doing a first-person voice is like writing a picture book in rhyme: You should do it only if you do it very, very well. Of the three kinds of pressure placed on the narrative voice above, #2 and #3 are by far the most important; everything else — all your informational and plotting needs — has to work within the bounds of the character’s believability and personality. And if you have more than one first-person narrator within a book, then each voice has to be distinct from each other one in all the personality aspects we’ll discuss below: word choices, sentence rhythms, thought patterns.
20. Any techniques on how a character with low self esteem, as in a lack plot, can be created into an attractive character?

Show the reader that the character is actually quite interesting, smart, and funny, and has strengths s/he doesn’t recognize, most likely because they’re not valued by the culture (familial, social) in which s/he lives. Then make the plot of the book the change in the character’s own values, and the discovery of those strengths. (Three books that do this well: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich; and the forthcoming The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson.)

23. What aspect of being an editor, do you find the most enjoyable? Challenging?

My favorite part of being an editor is my conversations with my authors, in person (especially over food), on the phone or through e-mail, in my editorial letters, and on the manuscript page. The most challenging part of the job is the workload.

25. Is there a common theme that you see in new writers, of something that needs to be strengthened?

New writers tend to be impatient. They give away their entire story on the first page, or in the first chapter, because they believe they have to hook a reader right up front by throwing everything awesome they can possibly imagine (and/or all the information they have about the story) at the reader ASAP; but then there’s very little left to discover for the reader as she or he goes forward, because the writer has already revealed everything that’s interesting. I believe that readers are in fact more often hooked by authorial control: the sense that there is a lot of interesting story to be told here, and this author knows just how to tell it, and is going to reveal it to you piece by piece.

The moral here (slightly vulgar, but still true): Write your novel as if you’re performing a striptease, not going to a nude beach.

35. If one doesn't know what happens in the middle of the story, how can one figure it out?

In the words of Ray Bradbury, “Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.”

47. You talked about defining point and three kinds of points. Do you have any more tips on how to uncover/define/figure out these points in our manuscripts? I was horrible at figuring out theme in high school and I still struggle with it.

Yes, “Figure out your points!” is one of those things I say blithely because I do it all the time, but I know writers often struggle with it a little bit more, because they practice creating action, not diagnosing it! I’d set Thematic Point aside at the beginning and think about your Experiential Point first: What are five things you want to make the reader feel in the course of the book? How would you want the reader to describe the book afterward (beyond generic positive adjectives like “Great!”)? Then think about your main character. Who is he at the beginning? And the end? How would you define the difference between those two people? What has he learned emotionally? There’s your Emotional Point. And then if you can take what he’s learned Emotionally and turn that into a more general thought about life or people or ways of being in the world, you can check off Thematic Point too.

Shameless Authorial Bookmongering: My book Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, containing many more thoughts on plotting, novel beginnings, character development, and voice, is available here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Plot Questions

Earlier today, I taught a webinar for Writers' Digest University about plotting. As promised, I'm posting the questions I asked the writers to ask of their books here. Readers of Second Sight may note that these questions both substantially reflect and in a couple of instances substantially change the material in the book.

  1. What is your Emotional Point?
  2. What is your Thematic Point?
  3. What is your Experiential Point? 
  4. Does a change of some kind happen in the course of your book?
  5. Who changes in your WIP?
  6. What is your protagonist’s change in circumstances from the beginning to the end of the novel? (Action Plot)
  7. And how does he himself change? (Emotional Plot)
  8. What is your character’s drive that keeps getting him into trouble in the plot? What is your character’s compulsion?
  9. What is your character’s thing to be gained or lost? What is her desire? 
  10. Conflict, Mystery, Lack: Which type best describes your central action plot?
  11. Stakes: At the beginning of your book, what is at stake for your character in this book in the Action Plot? The Emotional Plot? What will happen to him if the change we see in the action doesn’t come about?
  12. What are the stakes by the end?
  13. Structure:  What is the Inciting Incident of your Action Plot?
  14. List as many Escalating or Complicating Events in that plot as you can.
  15. List the Obstacles in that plot.
  16. What is the Climax of your Action Plot?
  17. What is the Resolution of your Action Plot?
  18. What is the Inciting Incident of your Emotional Plot?
  19. List as many Escalating or Complicating Events in that plot as you can.
  20. List the Obstacles in that plot.
  21. What is the Climax of your Emotional Plot?
  22. What is the Resolution of your Emotional Plot?
  23. Where are your Turning Points?

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Ramble: June Joys and #YASaves

(The fourth in what should be a monthly series of blog posts in which I write for an hour about whatever comes to mind.)

Happy summer! I spent the weekend in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Novel Revision Retreat. It was a beautiful venue—a 1930s woods lodge, with gorgeous views of the Shenandoah mountains out every window, including the room in which I taught my sessions. The talks were more or less the “Quartet” talks from Second Sight. . . . These are my usual retreat talks, because they cover all three major elements of fiction (Character, Plot, and Voice), but every time I give them I find something new to say in addition to all the material that’s already there, so I’m going to have to ask the organizers to grant me two hours for every session the next time I do them. (Or I should learn to edit myself and say less; but then I do like being thorough, to transfer as much of my brain to attendees’ brains as possible. Someday technology will evolve enough that we can just do a mass Frankenstein hookup and be done with it, and then we can all spend the weekend writing instead.)

Some neat things in the last month:

  • Before I went to the revision retreat, I took a delightful road trip with my equally delightful author Sara Lewis Holmes, who wrote Operation Yes. When Sara heard that I was coming to central Virginia for the retreat, she insisted that I should visit the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton; and I ended up asking her if she'd be willing to come with me, which she very kindly was. And it was one of the neatest productions of "As You Like It" that I've ever seen, performed in the style (though not the costumes) of the Bard's time, with full light for the whole play, which in turn facilitated some very neat audience-actor interaction. The actors were great, the music was fun, I loved their interpretation of the play, Staunton as a town is terrific, and it is well worth the road trip for you too, should you be anywhere in Virginia.
  • On a trip to visit some wedding venues, I lost my beloved little Samsung Rogue phone; so I now have a HTC Incredible 2 (an Android phone), which is fast becoming even more beloved than my Rogue was.
  • I read Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove recently, and they were just delicious—tightly written, darkly sexy, fully backstoried fantasy full of con men and women and clever, clever twists. They’d be great beach reads this summer.
  • A recent realization/articulation that came out of reworking my plot talks: Stakes not only can change in the course of a novel, but they very probably should, as the character comes to know and understand more of the world and their values change likewise. So in StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, the stakes begin as Digger’s survival; but as her world and affections widen to include all the people in her eventual destination, the stakes change to the survival of those people, and the cause they’re all fighting for. So as you’re looking at your novel, think about the stakes at the beginning vs. the stakes at the end, and how the character gets from one to the other.
  • My next SCBWI appearances will be in October, in Wisconsin, on plot; and November, in New Jersey, hopefully on voice, if they'll let me talk for two hours.
  • Some recent films I enjoyed: Fast Five; Win Win; Beginners; Bridesmaids.
  • To expand a little more on the reasons I enjoyed Bridesmaids: One, it had one of the most likeable and flawed female protagonists I’d seen in a long time, a fully rounded woman who had a career that mattered to her, friends, and a family, as well as romantic confusion. . . . It is a little depressing how rare that is, that we'd see a female protagonist in all of those dimensions, and yet, there she was, so let us celebrate that. And second, despite all the wedding trappings, the emotional plot was really about female friendship: what it’s like to have a best friend, how you hang out and talk and exercise together and then eat dessert; the little jealousies and larger issues that can create distance; and the relief and pleasure when you connect again. The climax of the movie was not Kristen Wiig’s getting together with the cute Irish cop, but her reconnecting with Maya Rudolph at last, and I found myself getting almost teary-eyed in thinking about all my dear girlfriends and seeing that sort of true warts-and-all friendship at the center of a story at last. (The one exception to my enjoyment was the infamous barfing scene, which I just kept my eyes closed for, so as not to emulate it in turn.)
  • Whenever there is entertainment for women vs. entertainment for men—or, in children’s literature, boy books vs. girl books—there’s a debate about whether males will embrace female stuff, with the general understanding that the answer is “No.” So then do we harsh up our girl stuff to attract the men, as Bridesmaids did? Or do we own our girl stuff and accept that men won’t come? (This is apparently not an option for Hollywood studios, or one that they’re willing to accept in only limited doses; it’s easier for publishers, as the financial stakes are so much smaller.) Or do we tell men/boys to stop being idiots and start respecting women’s/girls’ stuff? I don’t know that that would work, but it’s certainly my favorite option, and I think it is worth bringing up every time, to remind all of us that it’s sexism afoot here, and what we need to change is our selves (or sexist guys) more than our stuff. Hrmm.
I was also interested in the recent #YASaves discussion. Some commentators online noted that we have this discussion about every two years, where the children’s/YA lit community has to defend itself against charges of being too dark, usually as a result of an article in the major media like this one. The responses tend to fall into these forms:
  • A) This writer is an idiot who doesn’t really know anything about the genre and hasn’t looked hard enough. (Usually true.)
  • B) Discussion of the need for dark material in YA literature, given that it reflects the real darkness in teens’ lives and psyches. (Also usually true.)
  • C) Writers defending their writing this kind of work, based on (B), often including descriptions of all of the letters they’ve received from teenagers who appreciate seeing their realities at the books’ hearts.
  • D) Sighing over the fact that YA is still regarded primarily as a didactic genre by the major media, and doesn’t get respect as an art form in and of itself.
  • E) In response to (D), writers (or at least Barry Lyga) saying “Forget you, it’s my art and I’m going to own it and practice it, and I don’t have to defend it to you, fool.” I think this is a new wrinkle in the discussion, but I was glad to see it, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  • F) A few brave souls who dare to agree with the theoretical point of the original article, even if the writer was an idiot in practice.
I think that first of all, we need to stop taking major media disses to children’s and YA lit personally—the Today Show stiffing the Newbery/Caldecott winners, the New Yorker (which I love) or the Wall Street Journal (which I don’t) thinking of our genre as primarily a didactic one. These venues think children’s and YA lit is fundamentally inferior to adult lit either because it doesn’t make as much money or because they perceive it as only didactic; they do not get that it is an art form; therefore, they will always get describe it wrongly, and we should stop wasting energy being surprised and offended every time. After all, with the magazines specifically, because these articles are generally scare articles, they generate a lot of page views (from concerned parents and librarians as well as offended members of our community) and off-page discussion (cf. all the response blog posts and the whole Twitter campaign), and those make too much money and buzz for the publication in question for the editors who assign/accept such columns to give them up. (“YA Is Art” isn’t controversial enough to get the same response.) So let’s concentrate on writing our own smart articles investigating the art of our genre, or finding ways to celebrate our own people’s achievements far and wide, and not waste time rewarding stupid ideas.

And then with #YASaves itself . . . Is there dark stuff in YA, all about sex and death? Sure. But there is also I Now Pronounce You Someone Else and StarCrossed and Eighth-Grade Superzero and July’s The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, to name four books off my own list that are terrific and smart and not at all about angst; and I feel a little bit frustrated that YA is being tarred as a dark genre when there is such an incredible diversity that people just aren’t educated to see. (Or they can’t find the books in stores, because the darkness is what sells and therefore what gets on shelves.) If you’re scared about the darkness, by goodness, do more to celebrate the light. Read review magazines or YA blogs to find titles you approve of. Tell your local bookstore (whether a chain or an independent) that you’re looking for those kinds of books. Request specific titles, if you need to, and then buy them. Give those as gifts to friends whom you’re trying to educate about the genre and to teenagers.

(And of course the whole discussion is yet another iteration of the unfortunate literalist strain in American Puritanism, the inability to look beyond the factual existence of whatever "sordidness" these critics perceive to the deeper emotional pain that drives that behavior, and the humanity of that pain, which in turn deserves sympathy. . . . Writers, of course, have a responsibility to bring out that humanity, to make the experience of reading these books more than pain tourism for the readers; and if writers don't do that, well, then they deserve the criticism.)

Finally, the hard fact I always come back to whenever discussions like this come up: We (meaning writers, editors, publishers, even booksellers and librarians) cannot control readers’ reactions to the books they find through us. There may be readers who read books about cutting or bulimia or feeling suicidal (to pick three forms of darkness at random) and use them to start or continue those practices themselves. This is horrifying and sad but true. There will also be readers who already practice cutting or bulimia or who feel suicidal, who will truly benefit from seeing their experience reflected on the page and given that recognition by someone else; who will connect with that character, and be helped by seeing that character start to move back toward hope and out of the sickness, and may start to take that step themselves. This is inspiring and brave and also true.

A book is an object made of ideas, and like any object, it can be used for both good and evil. . . . I think we have to be honest and acknowledge the possibility of that evil happening, and perhaps do what we can to diminish the chances of its coming to be, to offer hope or resources in real life, if our books deal with that material. (I am contradicting my own statement about didacticism above, but as Samuel Johnson says, “Inconsistencies cannot both be right, but imputed to man, they may both be true.") But those who see only darkness also have to acknowledge the possibility of connection and hope; and I still feel we shouldn’t shy away from showing (albeit never celebrating) that darkness, as it is an important part of our overall human experience. Our responsibility is to write (or edit and publish) as well and honestly and full of human sympathy as we are capable of, without rewarding darkness for darkness's sake; and to hope in the end that all books find their right readers who will hear the right things in them, as we can't do any more.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Announcing: A Plot + Structure Webinar!

Hey! If you've ever wanted to hear me talk about plot, but you haven't been able to make it to a conference; or if you've heard me talk about plot before, but you'd like the opportunity to get guaranteed personal feedback on your query + the first 250 words of your novel; or if you'd like to ask me a question live, or you just like hanging out on the Internet . . .

I'm excited to announce that I'll be doing a webinar called "How to Plot and Structure Your Novel" through the good people at Writers' Digest, coming up on Thursday, June 23, at 1 p.m. The webinar will cover the elements of plot, principles of structure, some practical techniques for examining your novel's story and structure, and especially tension and stakes -- why we readers care about the plot events and how writers keep us caring the whole book long. (I've been thinking about this a lot since Second Sight came out, so I have some new things to say here.)

The way webinars work:  You'll hear me talk over your telephone or computer, while you'll see a PowerPoint presentation live over the Internet. You can submit questions in the course of the presentation, and I'll try to answer them as I go. Finally, as a bonus, all participants will be invited to submit a 250-word query plus the first 250 words of their manuscript, and I've promised to critique  every one. (I'll offer a special discount for participants on Second Sight as well.) And if you can't attend the live session, you'll be able to access a recording of the event for up to a year afterward.

Interested? Please click this link to get more information and/or register: Take me to Cheryl's webinar!

And thank you very much!