I had a young writer ask me for advice on how to weave exposition into her fantasy story. The "infodump" is a hurdle for every worldbuilding storyteller. Readers need to know certain things about the world, but they don't want to be bogged down with endless exposition. I figured my answer might be worth posting here ...
I often get emails from people looking to break into children's publishing. I don't have all the answers, but I do have some general advice I find myself giving again and again. Below are three steps, in order of importance, that I think writers should focus on:
1) Write a Really Good Book
First time writers don't sell books based on partial drafts or outlines. They sell finished manuscripts. And there are a lot of finished manuscripts in the world. That means the first step is completing a book and revising it until it is airtight. Don't expect an agent or editor to look at a sloppy manuscript and see the potential--that same agent or manager has hundreds (not an exaggeration) of other manuscripts to consider, and they'll take the one that demonstrates the greatest professionalism and craft. Taking an example from my first book, Peter Nimble, I did about 15 complete re-writes before showing it to an agent ... and then did another 3 drafts before the book went to an editor. I have yet to talk to a professional author who didn't go through the same level of revision before finding a publisher.
2) Join SCBWI
The "Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators" (SCBWI) is a national organization with local chapters all over the country. This group is a fantastic place for both professional and aspiring writers and illustrators to gather and discuss craft and business of children's publishing. The annual conferences are often attended by agents and editors who are looking for new books. I have a number of author friends whose careers were launched when they met an editor at an SCBWI event who requested to see their really good manuscripts (see above point).
3) Query Agents
If a lot of industries, the "it's who you know" rule applies. Not so in publishing! Book agents read and consider manuscript submissions from unknown writers all the time--that's their job. Nearly every writer I've ever met was pulled out of the "slush pile" from an agent who discovered them. Your job is to query agents who will best understand your work and be in a position to sell it. This means doing a bit of homework, by reading the Writer's Market and finding agents who are looking for material like your book. The internet is awash with resources about how to approach agents. A good place to start might be Kidlit.com, a website run by children's book agent Mary Kole. She answers questions about the dos and don'ts of querying better than anyone!
The above steps aren't a guarantee of any success, but they are a good place to start! Also, I might as well link to this brief but eloquent video of Neil Gaiman talking about step one (which is really the only step that matters):
One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately are the differences between cable and network television. This is not a new topic. Much hay has been made of the way pay-channels like HBO and Showtime don't have to worry about commercial breaks ... but why is it that even the shows on "free" cable channels like FX and AMC still feel better than network shows?[1. "Free" is, of course, a euphamism for hundreds of dollars a year]
For me, one essential factor is the difference in season lengths. Cable TV shows generally only run for 11-13 episodes per season, while network shows nearly double that number. Obviously, a writer needing to produce twice as much content in the same year might end up sacrificing quality for speed ... but what if there were another reason? What if a shorter season was actually linked to better storytelling in some essential way?
This week I've been enjoying reading the AV Club's series of interviews with "Freaks & Geeks" creator Paul Feig, in which he talks through the writing and shooting of every episode in the short-lived series. In the interview, Feig discusses how he and co-creator Judd Apatow discovered early on they were being cancelled at the end of the season:
This comment was sort of an "Aha!" moment for me. Suddenly, Feig and co-creator Judd Apatow had to cram all the best story parts into the final six episodes. And maybe that's why "Freaks & Geeks" was such a brilliant show -- every episode felt like it was truly an event. I can't help but wonder if the show would have been quite as strong without the axe hanging over the creators' heads?[2. British TV seems to have internalized this idea without the need of a network axe. Consider the abbreviated runs of "The Office" or "Fawlty Towers," both of which ended because their respective creators would rather have no new episodes than bad new episodes]
Going back to the question of cable shows, I can't help but think of how Feig's experience applies to season premieres and finales. Premieres and finales are where a series delvers its biggest dramatic punch -- rules are changed, people are killed, stakes are raised. A little basic math informs me that a cable show (whose seasons end after just 13 episodes) will have those moments twice as often as a network show. No matter how you cut it, that gives the cable show a huge storytelling advantage because it disallows filler.[3. If you're in the mood for more TV thoughts, you should check out screenwriter Matt Bird's current blog series "How to Create a TV Show"]
How does this apply to writing in general? I suspect it connects somehow to series books, but I haven't worked that part out. In the meantime, it's simply a powerful parable about the importance of not holding anything back. I'm currently in the middle of a second book, and I'm constantly getting exciting story ideas that I think I should save for a story in the distant future. That's ridiculous. I should be putting everything into the book I'm writing now. I should be treating this book like the last one I may ever get to write.
Some months ago, the kind folks at Project Mayhem ran a very kind review of Peter Nimble. Last week, they asked me to contribute something for a post about what authors miss from their pre-published days. As fun as being published is, I could think of at least one thing that I miss from the old days of blindly hoping for publication -- allow me to excerpt:
Before I had a book in the world, I had no real sense of my audience. Audience was an abstract idea that couldn't be pinned down and had little say in my storytelling. With the publication of Peter Nimble, however, I've suddenly found myself writing stories with specific readers in mind. It's hard to type a sentence without thinking: I wonder what Librarian X or Critic Y will think of this? While such thoughts may be helpful during revisions, they can be crippling to the early stages of the creative process.
Project Mayhem also got contributions from authors Kate Messner and Stephen Messer. To read their responses and some great reader comments, check out the link below:
PROJECT MAYHEM: Rushing Towards Your Dream? Wait.
This weekend, I’m headed up to Portland for the Wordstock Writer’s Festival! I’ll be doing signings, reading, a few panels about writing for young readers (with a whole host of awesome authors). What’s more, I’m also teaching a workshop this Sunday:
This topic was borne out of a recent observation made by Mary. It came during the heat of final revisions for Peter Nimble. I was cursing how much extra work it was to tell a visually rich story from the perspective of a blind child -- going through every line to make sure I wasn't taking my own sight for granted. Mary heard my grumbling and responded with typical perspicacity: “But isn’t that what you always do? You only pick the stories that force you to write with one arm tied behind your back.”
Of course, she was right. I have never had a shortage of story ideas, but the projects I actually finish all contain some ridiculous formal hurdle that makes them insanely difficult. Why write a feature film when I can write a silent feature film? Why tell a horror story when I can tell a horror story for children? Why inhabit the real world when I can build an entirely different world from scratch?
Readers love stories that tackle hurdles, but writing them is a serious pain! Now, however, I’m starting to believe that the formal challenge is the very thing that gets me through a draft -- long after I have grown bored with my plot and characters, I have this "Pet Hurdle" to keep me involved. Since then, I’ve started doodling pictures of my Pet Hurdle:
Isn’t he cute? The workshop on Sunday will walk writers through the process of identifying the Pet Hurdle in their own work-in-progress and give them some tools for turning that challenge into an asset.
It makes me wonder: if Peter Nimble hadn’t been blind … would I even have finished telling his story?
Last week, I had the pleasure of watching a staged adaptation of CS Lewis' Till We Have Faces. In advance of the show, I sat down and read the book.[1. This was long overdue; people have been telling me that I would *love* this novel for years. Summary judgment: I think this is a book that would have blown my mind in college, but less so as an adult.] There was something near the end of the story that seemed like a good jumping-off point for a topic I've been meaning to blog about for ages.
First, a little setup: Lewis' book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid & Psyche. It follows Psyche's scorned older sister, Orual. After losing her beloved sister, Orual becomes embittered and angry. At the end of the story, she finally gets an audience before the gods -- a chance to make her case for how they have wronged her. But instead of giving a sympathetic plea, she unleashes a tirade that betrays her own selfishness.
Orual hears the ugliness of her own anger, and it prompts a revelation:
"Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. ... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should we hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"[2. The excerpt is from Part II, ch. 4]
This "word" that Lewis eludes to is the magical, rare moment when a person sees him or herself with clarity for the first time. Aristotle (the grandfather of writing analysis) had a word for this moment in a character's journey: "anagnorisis."
Let's let the man himself explain the term (through Wikipedia):
There you have it. Anagnorisis is the moment when someone understands a Truth so powerful that it effects change in their lives. I don't know about you, but this moment is the reason I read stories. In fact, I judge the quality of a story by the quality of its anagnorisis, because when done right, I share in the character's epiphany.
A great number of Aristotle's playwriting terms have survived into the present age (climax, catharsis), but none of them are so valuable to understanding the power of a story as anagnorisis.[3. For those interested in learning a bit more about Aristotle, screenwriter Matt Bird just posted a great summary of how Poetics has influenced screenwriting for better and worse.] Unfortunately, this word is all but forgotten -- it's not even in the OED.[3. Neither, I might add, is the word "scop."]
I have a card with "anagnorisis" on it taped to the wall above my desk, because I never want to forget that every chapter, scene, and word is working to that one profound moment. After all, How can my characters meet audiences face to face till they have faces?
What's the difference between irony and sarcasm? Most thesauri list them as synonyms, but anyone who's been on the receiving end of either type of humor can tell you the difference at once: ironic statements make you laugh, and sarcastic statements make you cry.
Many a protective parent has assured his or her teased child that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. And the word sarcasm literally translates to mean "to tear the flesh." But what exactly is it it about a sarcastic statement that makes it a low form of humor? And what makes it "tear the flesh?" I've been mulling over this question for a while now, and I think I've landed on an answer:
Sarcasm happens when the observed irony does not extend to the speaker.
That is to say that an ironic person includes himself among the mocked, whereas a sarcastic person stands outside the situation in judgement. See how it might play out in the below scene involving a bunch of nerds camping outside of a movie theater:
In this instance, the guy making fun of the people is including himself in the joke -- after all, he's in the line, too! But consider what happens when the speaker is not in line with the others:
Sarcasm is the one kind of joke that can be made by someone who does not actually find something funny -- it is humor for the humorless. In life, I have a problem with sarcasm because I don't believe that any person has the right to laugh at others unless he can first laugh at himself.
And what about sarcasm in storytelling?
To be clear, I'm all for sarcastic characters (I enjoy Holden Caulfield as much as the next guy!). But sarcastic authors are a different thing altogether. Sarcastic authors attempt to point out absurdities in the world, but they try to do it from a safe distance -- never letting themselves become a part of the joke. The only way to do this is by creating straw men for the express purpose of knocking them down. Ironically(!), this ends up undercutting the author's initial goal, because now instead of critiquing the world, he is critiquing some flimsy characters who bear little resemblance to the world.
The end result is a thing neither funny nor true.
I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about the importance of specificity in action scenes. Namely, four things:
1. You do not have to be super to be a hero
Many writers make the mistake of thinking that action sequences are about showcasing a hero's strengths ... but for my money, the drama is found in exposing their weaknesses. A while back, a good friend of mine wrote a NY Magazine piece on this very subject entitled Are Martial Arts Ruining Action? The article traces the origins of the martial arts explosion in Hollywood action movies and laments how every actor now goes through months of training in order to make the wire-Fu look authentic in their cop movie. Why is this bad? Because no matter how well executed and thoughtful the fights may be, no character in a cop movie has any business doing backflips.[1. The Rush Hour franchise, of course, gets a pass on this particular gripe.]
2. Superhuman action is low-stakes action
So what about stories where the superpowers are already built into the plot? Shouldn’t the X-Men be able to do backflips? Perhaps, but it’s still important to make the super-punches mean something. If characters can take an unlimited (or even undefined) amount of damage, it’s hard for audiences to care about the outcome. Screenwriter and friend Matt Bird has a great piece about this subject over at his blog, The Cockeyed Caravan. Check it out!
3. Above all, action should make sense
Last week, movie critic Jim Emerson launched a great series examining how action sequences can go wrong simply by ignoring the 101 of filmmaking. His first example? The Dark Knight Returns. Emerson goes shot-by-shot through an epic car chase, revealing how careless editing can lead to a needlessly disorienting experience. This reinforces my longstanding belief that James Cameron is the greatest living director of chases for the simple fact that he makes sure that at all times the audience knows the following three things:
1) where the good guys are
2) where the bad guys are
3) where the exits are
Don't believe me? I invite you to watch for yourself.
4. Sometimes no action is the action
While I generally think it's bad for writers to summarize action scenes, there are some stories that deliberately do so because its essential to their overall message. A good example of this is Tolkien. Despite having written an epic trilogy about the battle between good and evil, Tolkien keeps his action scenes infuriatingly short -- usually under a page. Roger Ebert observed as much when he reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he points out that the central action set piece of the movie (the fight with the Balrog) takes up less than 500 words in the original book. So was Tolkien being lazy with his action writing? I’d say in this case, sidestepping the action was the action -- the author was signaling to readers that the meaningful events of this particular story were found in the journey itself, not the skirmishes.
In theatre, descriptive action sequences are almost non-existent. Hamlet may talk a big game, but at the end of the script, all we get is: “dies” (Not even a definite article for the poor Prince of Denmark!) This works in playwriting because specific action is limited to the capabilities of specific actors, budgets, and stages -- why write a death scene that a director will just have to change anyway?[1. One could argue that the unique appeal of theatre is this infinite variety in staging possibilities -- no two productions are alike.]
The same is not true for novelists and screenwriters. Books and movies are stories fixed in time -- if every reader is seeing a different thing during an action scene, that’s a problem.[2. I am not objecting to ambiguous ideas or themes in books and movies, but I would argue that the basic questions who/what/where/when should be universally understood … because only when those things are clearly established can readers effectively debate the why behind those actions.] Unfortunately, I often read action sequences that give me the feeling that writers are going on autopilot: instead of writing a tightly constructed series of dramatic events, they simply write “and here we get an awesome chase sequence!”
I’m ashamed to say I’ve done it myself. Writing action scenes is hard, and it’s nice to think that those difficult bits can be reduced to a few lines of summary. But summarizing fights and chases is like a comic carefully setting up a joke and then replacing the punch line with “hilarity ensues!" (To be fair, "hilarity ensues" is sort of an awesome punch line in its own right.)
And when you get down to it, truly funny moments don’t even have traditional punch lines -- watch your favorite comedy and write down the laugh-out-loud moments. I guarantee you that the biggest laughs will fall on generic lines like “Actually I quite like it” and “I can imagine.”[3. These are actual examples taken from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ... I find such human moments far funnier than the digressions on multiple heads and improbability engines.] Such lines are not funny in a vacuum; they’re funny because that character said it in that specific moment.[4. This is something my MFA director Milan Stitt was fond of saying -- credit goes to him for the observation.]
I'm going to make a confession that I might regret. About a year ago, I joined some of Mary's colleagues in a weekly "tabletop gaming" group ... which is a dressed-up term for Dungeons & Dragons. This was a pretty smart bunch of people (our game master has a PhD in comic books!), and I learned a lot from the experience -- not only about roleplaying games, but also about the give-and-take of corporate storytelling.
One of the central aspects of any roleplaying game is combat. Generally speaking, most roleplaying games are pretty conversational and free-form … but when a bad guy shows up, everyone pulls out dice, and charts, and (in my case) a calculator! Suddenly, there's an order of operations, and a series of rigid rules to help choreograph every movement of a battle.
I sort of became obsessed with the details of these "encounters" and started taking copious notes about every move in the hope of unlocking some secret about how to write action scenes. I wanted to figure out what separated the so-so encounters from the ones that sucked us in -- inspiring recaps, arguments, and in-jokes.
What I discovered is that blow-by-blow, the actions in a fun encounter were no different from those in a boring encounter -- sometimes you landed a hit, sometimes you missed. What made a difference was when those ordinary actions were a reflection of the personality of individual character: a hothead fighter dives into a suicide battle right after the rest of the group has agreed to retreat; a vengeful character murders an enemy who has already surrendered; a noble character sacrifices herself so that others can escape.
That is to say, the actions are dramatic because that character did them in that specific moment.
Last week author Nathan Bransford posted a question on his blog that I have been thinking about for a long time:
He elaborated very little on the question, only adding that his gut said it might be determination. The power of Mr. Bransford's blog is such that he can sort of just lob a huge question into the universe and get a gigantic response from enthusiastic readers -- I'm talking hundreds of people weighing in.[1. Not that I'm jealous.],[2. Yes I am.]
When I glanced down the many responses from readers, I noticed that they fell into two distinct camps. The first group agreed with Bransford, listing traits that point to a strong work-ethic -- "determination," "passion," "persistence," etc. The second group focused more on traits that make up the writerly psyche -- things like "curiosity," "honesty," and (my favorite) "bloody mindedness." Obviously, this is a trick question; there's no one answer to what makes a writer. But looking down this list, I felt like both types of answers were missing an essential element.
Consider the work-ethic answers. Are determination, passion, and persistence important to a writing career? Of course! However, they are in no way unique to writers. Success in any career requires these qualities.
The other camp at first seems more tailored to writers. They perfectly capture the fact that every writer has a unique point of view that (arguably) deserves expression. There's only one problem: these personality traits have nothing to do with the actual act of writing. Curiosity, honesty, and bloody-mindedness could just as easily apply to a person who aspires to write but never gets around to it.[3. Also, serial killers.]
To truly answer the question, we need to find a trait that combines the artistic outlook with the professional drive to get things done ... in short, we need praxis. "Praxis" is a theological term that essentially refers to the point where faith becomes action.[4. Students of philosophy might recognize the term from reading Kant, who argued that praxis was the application of philosophy to actual events.]
So praxis for a writer would be the thing that makes them translate their unique personality onto a page. My storytelling gut tells me that this praxis would likely be some kind of personal experience -- an event (possibly traumatic?) that forces them to react by writing. I can't speak for every author, but when I consider events/moments that spur me to actually write, I think of one thing:
This feeling has plagued me my whole life. Every time I've sat down to write something, it's because I feel fundamentally misunderstood by those around me. Writing is a chance for me to articulate all the things going on inside me in a way that I hope will make sense to others.
The good news is that this never goes away. As of this month, I finally have my first novel in the world(!), and every time I read a minor quibble in a review, I feel the same burning shame and frustration that filled me as a child whenever a teacher or parent misunderstood what I had been trying to say.
It's that feeling of being misunderstood that pushes me to write another story. And another. And another.
UPDATE: Nathan Bransford just revisited the topic on his blog, highlighting what he thought was a particularly poignant response from one reader. Click here to read.
Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.[1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi ... ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.] While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist -- it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen! That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.
Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains. One of the reasons I like Betsy's blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments. Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the "rule of three", others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask "what's the point?"
While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place -- each exploring different questions:
1) How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?
2) Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?
These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.[2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously -- which just made me sound scatterbrained.] The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature. It's the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs. It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.
If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here. In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why. Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine: they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?). Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don't really care about what's under the hood; instead they're more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.
Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling -- authors, editors, and dramaturges. People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world -- scholars, librarians, and teachers. I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other. (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)
So which camp is better? Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I'd be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn't absolutely essential. After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).
Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children's literature community? There exists an unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics -- authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.[3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences: ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA). Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing. Not cool, conference planning people, not cool...] Is it messy? Of course! Is it frustrating? Sometimes. But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?
A few months back, my editor and I were caught in a heated "discussion" regarding a certain passage of Peter Nimble.[1. My editor has a pretty low online profile, so I'll respect that by not publishing her name ... of course if you reallywant to know who she is, it's printed in back of Peter Nimble!] Essentially, she wanted me to remove a paragraph on the grounds that it slowed down the action. Understand that I am usually very eager to rip apart my own work in response to a note ... but this particular passage was different.[2. In fact, both my wife and agent have at times argued that I can be too eager in this regard. Perhaps that's a subject for another day.] When I sat down to write a book, I essentially sat down to write this one passage -- and now I was being told to cut it out entirely! There were a LOT of phone calls, during which I would list countless reasons why these few sentences were necessary to the book. Every time she would say she understood my feelings, but that she couldn't in good conscience agree. Finally, after what seemed like weeks of back-and-forth, I tried cutting it out -- just to see how it read.
You know how this story goes: she was right, I was wrong, "kill your darlings," blah, blah, blah.[3. Author and blogger Wendy Palmer has a neat little series on writing rules that are often misapplied -- including the infamous "Kill your darlings." It's worth reading, if for no other reason than to learn that Faulkner didn't originate that phrase.]
When I looked over the final proofs of that chapter a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. My editor is a busy lady, and I'm sure it would have been much easier for her to just let me have my way. But she stuck to her guns, and the book is better for it.
Shortly after that issue was resolved, I sent over a picture as a sort of peace offering:
Way to be awesome, Editorus Rex.
My first year of grad-school, I wrote a terrible play about a woman who hadn't slept for 17 years. At the center of the story was a mystery regarding what had happened to make her stop sleeping. When I went back home over holiday, I had a former drama professor look at the script. He promptly told me why the play didn't work: I had written a revelation story and didn't know it.
Revelation stories, he explained, are plots in which the central dramatic event is the revelation of information to the audience. The key phrase in that definition is "to the audience". In revelation plays, the climax takes place not on stage, but in the seats.[1. Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers has talked about the danger of art whose sole purpose is in manipulating the audience: "In the end it is directed to putting the behaviour of the audience beneath the will of the spell-binder, and its true name is not 'art,' but 'art-magic.' In its vulgarest form it becomes pure propaganda." A bit extreme for me, but still interesting.]
These sorts of narratives are hardly limited to theatre. A recent(ish) example from the literary world might be Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.
[COMMENCE SPOILER ALERT!] Speak tells the story of a high school freshman recovering from a recent sexual assault. The book begins after this assault took place, and its climax involves the protagonist learning to "speak" of what happened. While Anderson does a pretty good job of making this revelation feel dramatic, the early chapters of her book rely heavily on the assumption that readers will readily identify with the protagonist's emotional life -- and that that identification will be enough to carry them all the way to the climax. While the gamble pays off in this book, I have seen many other stories (my play included) where it blows up in the author's face. [END SPOILER ALERT.]
The primary problem with revelation narratives is that all the interesting stuff happens in flashback. So how does an author bring those past events into the present-tense (where the audience can experience it in realtime)? Usually authors spice up the revelation by making the characters deal with the past trauma. But on the spectrum of dramatic impact, "dealing with issues" is pretty weak -- no matter how well it's written.
Even if you pull this off, there's still the added challenge of not pissing off your reader. In her recent book on publishing, children's book editor Cheryl Klein talks briefly about the storytelling power behind mystery:
"I want to think about mystery a little more because it's probably the single most effective plot technique for hooking a reader: Have a secret, let the reader know there's a secret, and then don't tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. It's a classic childhood strategy, the equivalent of dancing around your reader saying 'neener-neener-neener.'"
I think that Cheryl is spot-on so far as it relates to individual scenes. However, occasionally a story drags out the mystery so long that reading the book feels like 300 pages of "neener-neener." Not exactly the best way to win over your audience.
When I first started reading Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road for our children's literature class, I thought I was getting into a Speak-style revelation narrative. The hero, Tyler Markum constantly eludes to some past events that have defined her.[2. Several other characters in Jellicoe Road also have secrets that are constantly being teased -- the book is nothing if not teasy.] But when Tyler finally gets around to sharing her memories, she learns her understanding of the events was either incomplete or flat-out wrong. That added element creates a nice Rashomon-style twist to the moments of revelation -- and it also keeps the storytelling focus on the chracters, where it belongs.
Last week in our Children's Literature course, Mary and I discussed Robert Cormier's proto-YA novel The Chocolate War (1974). For those who have not read it, The Chocolate War is a harrowing story of a freshman who dares to buck convention by refusing to participate in the school-wide chocolate sale. This book was a perfect followup to William Golding's Lord of the Flies. In some ways, The Chocolate War is a continuation of Flies' thesis about the depravity of human nature, but unlike the earlier book, The Chocolate War does not seek shelter in rules and law -- in fact, social strictures are depicted as fundamentally destructive. But that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a unique way that Robert Cormier achieves a sense of "interiority" in his writing. YA literature is often noted for its use of interiority -- working overtime to forge a direct, emotional connection between reader and protagonist. We don't just know what the main character did, we know how they felt while they were doing it. (This probably explains why so many adolescent girls are in love with Holden Caulfield.)
It's no surprise that The Chocolate War -- a seminal work of YA literature -- trades in interiority. But what is surprising is how the book goes about creating it. Generally speaking, most books aiming for interiority make use of the first-person narrative mode.[1. Some go one further and employ the present-tense. If you like hearing people dump on contemporary literary conventions, I urge you to read Philip Pullman's delightful takedown of this trend.] As a writer, I'm a bit leery of this technique. Sure, a great number of brilliant novels have been written in the first person. But I also feel that less talented authors sometimes use this device to compensate for an anemic narrative. Most of the Twilight books contain about 100 pages of plot sandwiched between 500 pages of, er, "interiority."
Robert Cormier was a journalist, and it shows in his clean prose. Authors who rely too heavily on first person narration should feel shame when reading The Chocolate War, which somehow creates intimacy between reader and hero without ever ever breaking from the third person. Even more, Cormier doesn't even bother to stay with his protagonist in every chapter -- instead he nimbly hops from one side-character to another, shifting his third-person-limited perspective every few pages. In fact, every public scene containing the protagonist (Jerry Renault) is narrated from the perspective of an outside observer, and it's only after school that we get to hear out hero's take on the events that transpired. I would judge that at most 1/4 of the book is told from Jerry's POV, and yet, by the end, we somehow know him like a flesh-and-blood friend.
How does Cormier pull it off? I've read the book three times in as many months and still can't answer that question. However, on this most recent reading, I started to wonder if Jerry's aloofness was actually part of the puzzle. Perhaps the reason that we connect with Jerry so much is because we long to connect with him, and so when we do get a rare glimpse inside his head, we make the most of it.
My former writing teacher Milan Stitt once outlined the difference between "plot" and "story." He defined plot as the chronological list of events that transpire. Story is the act of telling those events in a way that creates meaning. These are two very different skill sets, and while the ability to concoct engaging plots is helpful, it is secondary to the ability to tell those events in a way that pays off. The gap between plot and story is the reason your mom can't retell a joke.[2. I see now that this comes dangerously close to a "your mom" jab ... Please accept my heartfelt apologies, Moms of the World.]
Cormier understood that a book about selling chocolates would not work unless he made it meaningful ... unless he made it a story.[3. Robert Cormier died in November 2000, and Publisher's Weekly released this touching memorial discussing the man and his work.] Many people have observed that DIARY OF A WIMPY KID's Greg Heffley is a sort of middle-grade version of Holden Caulfield ... I wonder if there's a middle-grade version of Jerry Renault out there? Any ideas?
As promised, I'm devoting this entire week to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Today I'd like to discuss the long path leading up to the creation of this iconic character. Thanks to Johnny Depp, most people know that Peter Pan was a 1904 stage play before it was a novel, but what Finding Neverland fails to mention is that the character of Peter Pan actually goes back even further -- to a book called The Little White Bird. Published in 1902, The Little White Bird was an adult novel that featured an unaging boy named Peter Pan who lived among birds in the middle of Kensington Gardens.
It would be a stretch to call this earlier book a prequel. Yes, the kid's name is Peter Pan, and, yes, he refuses to grow up, but that's where the similarities end. This proto-Peter lacks the cockiness and capricious violence of his later incarnation. When he meets a girl, he asks to marry her. When he's granted a wish by the fairy queen, he asks to return to his mother. I simply cannot accept that this pansy would turn into the pirate-murdering, rooster-crowing, teeth-gnashing Peter Pan that I know and love.[1. there is a whole separate conversation to be had about how the "rules" of Kensington Gardens" don't work with the "rules" of Neverland -- more evidence that the two books were not meant to exist in the same universe.]
I don't think Barrie intended for his readers to see the characters as contiguous. Rather, I think he considered Kensington Peter to be a sort of "dress rehearsal" -- one of many incarnations necessary for the creation of his final character. Even the stage play, which much more closely resembles the 1911 novel, lacks much of the depth of character and theme found in the later book. Scholar Jack Zipes agrees in his introduction to a Penguin edition of Peter Pan:
"There is a sense that [Barrie] wanted to provide definitive closure to the story with the publication of the prose novel in 1911 ... The 'definitive' novel is the most complicated and sophisticated of all the versions of Peter Pan."
As someone who has read Peter Pan a number of times, I think the work shows. The 1911 edition, while simple in language, is unbelievably rich in theme.[2. My wife has observed that she can't read the book with a pen in her hand because she'll compulsively underline every sentence -- they're all that good.] The idea that something this good can only be got after countless revisions thrills me as a reader, but the writer in me trembles. There is something terrifying in the possibility that a great character may take several passes to get right -- that long after publication a story might still bear revision. When do you stop revisiting past work? Unless you're George Lucas, the answer to this question might be "never."
Other Examples of Literary Dress Rehearsals
In the interest of expanding the conversation, I tried to think of some other books that functioned as literary dress rehearsals. I'm sure there are a lot more out there, but here's what came to mind:
Huckleberry Finn - More than once during the latest Huck Finn Debacle, I had to remind myself that Huck started out in 1876 as a supporting character in Tom Sawyer. It wasn't until eight years later that he got his due in Huck Finn.
Sara Crewe - Frances Hodgson Burnett's wonderful heroine first found life in a stripped-down serial novel in 1888. Fourteen years later, she appeared in a stage adaptation titled A Little Un-Fairy Princess. It was only after that that Burnett revised A Little Princess to create the Sara we know today.
Gollum - In many ways, The Hobbit is a functional prequel to The Lord of the Rings. However, I've always felt there was a serious disconnect in the two characterizations of Gollum.[3. This is closely related to the differing characterization of "the ring," which too conveniently transforms from a straightforward invisibility-device to an all-powerful MacGuffin .] His moral journey in the later books belies the riddle-asking monster-in-the-dark characterization from the earlier volume.
The Addams Family - Strictly speaking, these aren't "literary" characters, but I often think about the fact that Charles Addams drew the members of his "Addams Family" for years before thinking to give them names. It wasn't until the 1964 television show that the family really hit pop culture. Looking back on Addams' older cartoons, you can see how over time he was able to tweak and refine his family into the distinct characters we know today.
Bod Owens - A more contemporary example of character dress-rehearsal might be Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. I know a central chapter from the novel ("The Witch's Headstone") was first published as a standalone short story, but I have not read the original version. I'm curious to know whether the characterization of Bod Owens changed in any significant ways -- anyone out there have a copy?
So those are a few literary dress rehearsals that I can think of. I have this nagging feeling that I'm missing some big examples ... feel free to toss in others in the comments.
Tomorrow, check in to learn why I long believed Peter Pan to be an unfilmable story . . . and read about the London stage production that proved me wrong.
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For those who missed the other "Peter Pan Week" posts:
Day Two: The Problem with Peter
Day Three: Tink or Belle?
Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum
Day Five: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan (special guest post!)
Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.
Yesterday, I talked briefly about the joy of finding how books from my past have subconsciously influenced my work. Today, I'd like to discuss the opposite discovery: when you read something new that puts words to your most secret thoughts. Those are the moments when I leap from my chair and scramble for a pen because what I've just read must be written down! English poet Alexander Pope describes this "aha!" moment perfectly:
True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.
So many great authors have inspired this feeling in me. Here are a few such "ne'er so well expressed" observations that have really blown me away:
MOBY DICK - Herman Melville
"... truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more."
I have often argued this same point among friends and family: that the secret to being cozy lies in a part of you being cold; the moment a person is warm all over, they are too warm. However much I may have felt this in life, I could never have said it so well as Melville.
The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
"Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity."
Chesterton is a master of pith. Case in point: before having really read any Dickens, I was still able to read his book Charles Dickens: the last of the Great Men and love every word -- that takes a special type of writer. (If you like the above line, I'd recommend you check out the ChestertonQuote Twitter feed.)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling
"Both glasses hissed and frothed: Goyle's turned the khaki color of a booger."
A small observation, but profound nonetheless.
Foundling - D. M. Cornish
"Convinced as a child that writers had a key to unlock other worlds and convinced as a young man that there were ways to be fantastical without conforming to the generally accepted notions of fantasy ..."[1. emphasis mine]
These are but a few writers who reached into my brain and scooped out (what I had thought to be) original thoughts. Ordinarily this would make me feel violated or robbed, but these authors managed to express the thought so perfectly that I can't help but feel like I've just discovered a conspirator ... or a new friend.
In last week's children's literature class, Mary taught Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. This meant I got to kick back and just enjoy re-reading the book. While doing do, I came across a passage in which Sara describes the view from her attic window:
"You can see all sorts of things you can't see downstairs," she said ... "Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up—as if it was another world."
The subject comes up again a few chapters later:
When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky. ... she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the window as possible. When she had accomplished this, she always drew a long breath and looked all round her. It used to seem as if she had all the sky and the world to herself.
These passages stood out to me because I am in the middle of writing a book that is largely "about" rooftops, and it includes a few observations very similar to the ones above. While I did not deliberately set out to copy pay homage to A Little Princess, I am pretty sure I couldn't have written my rooftop story if I hadn't of first read them in Burnett when I was a child. (I can't help but wonder if PL Travers felt the same way?)
This happens to me a lot. While revising Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes, I was continually rediscovering how this or that moment/character/theme/word was actually inspired by something I had read long ago. This seems right to me. Some writers make a big deal out of creating from nothing; I, for one, am more comforted by the thought that I create from the things that live within me -- things put there by other, greater minds. On the shoulders of giants, and such. I love realizing how forgotten books are still unconsciously informing me, and I hope to continue making such discoveries for as long as I write.
The other day I was having trouble with a script and so I took a long walk. We have a dollar theater about eight miles from the house, which is a perfect distance (provided you have a ride home[1. 1. I tend to prefer walking all my miles in a straight line ... which invariably results in my phoning Mary to pick me up. The woman is nothing if not patient.]). I love dollar theaters because they stop me from being picky: how can I resent a movie that only cost a buck? Even when the movie is terrible, I can at least spend the time productively by analyzing why the movie is terrible ... Which is exactly what I did while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis' fantasy series[2. 2. I have long harbored an irrational hatred for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ... The Magician's Nephew, however, is one of my favorite stories of all time.]. One of the books' most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery ... some might even say allegory. I've spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several.
I'm starting to think that the discovery that the Chronicles of Narnia are about something is the bookish child's version of learning that [SPOILER ALERT] there's no Santa Claus. It is the moment when we discover that authors aren't just nice men and women trying to entertain us with a story; instead they're trying to communicate some lesson to us -- which makes them no different than every other bossy adult in our lives. Perhaps even more important, it is usually a discovery we make on our own.
I have re-read (and now watched) The Chronicles of Narnia with this question in mind. And the more time I spend with these stories, the less I think that the outrage is justified. Certainly Lewis has created Narnia as a moral universe -- where every new place and challenge is a proving ground for personal integrity. But what good story doesn't do that? Why do we roll our eyes at the heavy-handed moralizing of Eustace's avarice, but thrill at seeing Ofelia approach the table of the Pale Man? Or seeing Harry Potter discover the secret of the mirror of Erised?
I suspect that the anger concerning The Chronicles of Narnia is less about Lewis' specific message and more about the fact that he has a message at all. It is outrage at the very notion of authorial intent.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a big fan of Lego[1. 1. I am aware that this is heresy; feel free to leave hate mail in the comments section]. Even as a child, I was not shy about my dislike for those rigid little bricks. My problem was that Lego was too detail-oriented. The work was painstaking and the rewards small: put together a bunch of rectangles to get ... a bigger rectangle. Sure, some people can do incredible things, but who has that kind of time when they're eight years old?
The building toy that won my heart (and allowance) was called Construx:
Totally awesome, right? Construx are similar to tinkertoys in the sense that consist mainly of beams and joints[2. 2. This toy was tragically discontinued in 1988, which meant much of my collecting involved dragging my mother to yard sales in search of discarded sets]. This type of system forces kids to think in structural terms. With Construx there is no such thing as a "final product" -- even the models in that commercial looked unfinished. But what a child loses in polish, he or she gains in versatility and speed. It is essentially a concept driven building toy.
I do not actually think one toy is superior to the other. That depends on the kid. But I do think the differences between Lego and Construx perfectly reflect the two major styles of writing MFAs.
Graduate writing programs tend to fall into one of two categories: "Creative Wrtiting" (fiction and poetry) and "Dramatic Writing" (movies and plays). From what I have read and experienced myself, it seems that with each of these categories comes a different pedagogical approach. Creative Writing seems to put a heavy focus on fine-tuning the details of a product -- word choice, flow, tone, etc... Conversely, Dramatic Writing tends to emphasize the big picture issues -- plot, pacing, character.
As with Lego vs. Construx, it all depends on the needs of the student. Some writers need help with fine-tuning, others need help with structure. Actually, writers need both -- but hopefully they can figure out whatever they didn't learn at grad school on their own.
I recently read a fascinating article by Cathy Day who has been teaching fiction-writing for years[1. 1. Thanks to Liz Burns for the link!]. She identifies a problem with traditional Creative Writing MFA programs: semester logistics makes novel-length assignments impossible, and so instructors instead focus on short stories -- a medium that most students (not to mention the reading public) don't even care about. This model is justified by the "learn to walk before you run" argument. Day, however, observes that such programs don't help people run, they just teach people to walk really well.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with short stories (or walking!). But Day worries that all this focus on fine-tuning leads to graduates who are not prepared for the structural challenges unique to long-form projects. It sounds to me like she is wishing her students could play with fewer Legos and more Construx.
I first learned of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable when reading an interview with JK Rowling. Once I became aware of it, I found references to the book all over the place. Apparently every writer in the world already owned and loved a copy. Obviously I needed one too!
The dictionary was written in 1870 by Reverend E. Cobham Brewer. Is was designed to be a sort of poor-man's education in idiom, history, literature, and folklore. The combination of these different fields leads to some wonderful cross-referencing. Almost every entry contains a "See also" listing other related entries -- an endless series of digressions-on-digressions. If Laurence Sterne wrote a reference book, it might look something like this.
It's this rabbit-hole quality that makes Brewer's such a valuable source for procrastinators writers. Philip Pullman puts it perfectly in his forward to the recently published 18th edition:
"has anyone ever opened the great Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . . . looked up the one entry they wanted to read about, and then closed it at once? Of all the dictionaries in the world it is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what's happened, it's time for lunch."
As much as I love this new edition (which I got for Christmas), I was disappointed to see that many of the older, more obscure entries were cut out to make way for contemporary content. That's a pity because part of the fun is in discovering words and phrases that I could never find on Wikipedia. Even Pullman can't help but indicate his dismay at this fact, and he ends his forward with a teasing reference to a forgotten tradition of blessing the Duke of Argyle when scratching one's back. Still, this new edition has plenty of wonderful gems to keep me busy for a while.
You may have figured out by now that I use the "Marginalia" box in the right column to put down things that I read, heard, or saw that day. The entries in that section are transcribed from my physical journal.[1. 1. anyone who has ever met me can attest to the fact that I carry a black, spiral-bound journal with me everywhere I go. More on that later.] I figured including a designated spot for such stuff might keep me accountable -- I'm not allowed to sleep until I've learned something new. For the next couple weeks, I'll be rooting through Brewer's in search of interesting entries. Enjoy.