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December 2014



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Nov. 18th, 2014



I was intrigued by this piece by Susan Lanigan on restraint in writing. She focuses especially on Irish literature, but I think her ideas apply more widely--about not pulling punches, about not shying away from the emotional. I especially love what she says about scenes of physical intimacy, because it has long made me uncomfortable when people assume that the cut-away or fade-to-black is always the right choice for such a scene. Intimate scenes can be extremely important for both character and plot. It's when characters are especially vulnerable, and when they can't help but interact and react, and when emotional stakes are high.

I like Susan Lanigan's definition of restraint, and why it can work when it does work: "Writerly restraint is no more or less than affording the reader the courtesy of space to experience the impact of the scene for herself. It’s about pulling back and allowing the reader to infer, rather than constantly poking at her with countless authorial interjections." Yes. And what it isn't, as she notes, is unnecessary distance, the draining of juice and life from a scene, the distrust of emotion.

This is also what I think Walter Kerr was on about in his book How Not to Write a Play, when he lamented, "We are now embarrassed by the dramatic gesture. We do not wish to be thought capable of so gross and unliterary a lapse." And, "In general, we distrust scale nowadays. Certainly we distrust spectacle. We know that the audience yearns for extravagant event; but we are inclined to think of the yearning as one of the least attractive of the audience's characteristics. It is a superficial desire for thrill ... a fairly shoddy form of escape ... [but] I'm not sure that we understand this passion for excitement correctly. It may be a passion for reality, especially that reality which cannot be grasped in any other way."

Sometimes, when we think we are exhibiting proper restraint, we are really just holding back.

Nov. 16th, 2014

uih cover

Imaginary worlds

Reading this interview with Martin Wilson at One Teen Story, I was struck by this part of his answers: "I had binders full of these [imaginary] movies—plot descriptions, casting choices ... But it didn’t stop at movies. I played (and still play) tennis, so back then I created an entirely fake professional tennis circuit, with hundreds of tennis players, complete with tournaments, rankings, matches, all of which I kept meticulous track of. I know that might sound crazy, but these things kept me sane and happy, I guess, and sowed the seeds for my future creative endeavors."

And I thought: Oh, no, Martin Wilson, it doesn't sound crazy at all. I know whereof you speak.

I've seen this sort of thing described in fiction: the game called "Town" that Harriet the Spy plays, in which she invents a town and lists all its imaginary residents and then gives them stories to play out. There are also the imaginary baseball games played by Jack Kerouac's characters (and, I have heard, by Kerouac himself).

I wonder how many other writers have done this: create worlds that are not quite stories, not in the traditional narrative sense, but which may be seen either as play, or as exercises along the way to becoming a storyteller.

Like Martin Wilson, I created an imaginary tennis tournament with fictional players and results. I also had imaginary schools full of fictional students (for which I even created yearbooks), imaginary towns (for which I drew maps and created directories), and my own imaginary soap opera for which I outlined ten years' worth of episodes. I created my own Scholastic-style book catalog with book covers drawn by me, and wrote my own synopses for these non-existent books. Similarly, I wrote my own version of TV Guide with shows I invented myself. I created magazines complete with ads for fictional products, drew album covers for imaginary musicians, and created an employee roster and bulletin board for a fictional company. I invented summer camps and competitions. (And once again, I must thank my grandfather for supplying a vast quantity of discount notebooks to feed all this imaginative output!)

Not only were these endeavors highly enjoyable, but I think they also served as a springboard for my writing. They taught me about world-building and character development; they were creative outlets and sparked further creativity. I thought of them as "games," and much later as "writing exercises."

And now I'm curious as to how many other writers out there have ever done something similar.

Nov. 13th, 2014


What we try to do

I'm still poring over the words Jeannine Atkins blogged the other day. She was writing about poetry, but her thoughts could apply as easily to other forms of writing. For example: "We want readers or onlookers to feel a bit off-balanced, because that means they’re awake." Also: "The end of a poem may be found in its beginning, with its inspiration and uncertainty." Well, I recommend just reading the whole thing.

Nov. 11th, 2014

TNTB cover1

Lessons? Stories?

Lessons are often a part of the discussion about children's and YA literature. What lessons are we teaching? Which characters are role models? What's the moral of the story?

Not everyone agrees that this literature must be lesson-driven. Sarah Ockler writes: "... the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader." Also, "We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons."

I've been getting more and more uncomfortable with the "role-model" school of thought. My characters are not paragons of virtue; nor are they villains who are duly punished. They are not always likable or admirable. They make mistakes, they suffer, they learn things. Not every character receives a reward or punishment for every action. The "good" guys have flaws and the "bad" guys have saving graces. In these respects, I try to create fictional worlds that resemble the real one.

So what am I doing, if not trying to teach lessons? I think I am just trying to express something that rings true to me, that I hope will ring true for many readers. I'm highlighting some part of human experience, trying to bring it into sharper focus, to show it from certain angles. To encourage people to think about it. I've long said that I'm more of a descriptive writer ("this is the way things often are") than a prescriptive writer ("this is the way things should be").

This is a crazy world we live in. I'm just trying to make some sense of it, in my own small way.

Nov. 9th, 2014


Just you and the book

Sometimes, it's just you and the book. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody has weighed in on it. Nobody has pointed out what it lacks, what else it could be, what else it could have been. Nobody has asked you to change it; nobody has told you what they wish you had written instead.

Nobody else has stepped into this world yet. You long for visitors, for others to discover this world. And yet you also savor it, this precious time when it is all yours, unspoiled. When everything is possible, when the magic is undiluted and intact.

Nov. 4th, 2014


Fear, overwriting, and cuteness

A few treats from 'round the internet, for your edification, amusement, etc.:

I interviewed Delilah S. Dawson over at YA Outside the Lines, where we talked about the future, fear, and the dark side of amusement parks, among other topics. Feel free to check it out. A sample: "If I sought fear on purpose, then it made me feel stronger, more in control. Better the nightmares that you've chosen than the ones you can't avoid."

Laurel Garver gives tips on critiquing an overwriter. A sample: "Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity."

And in the land of unbridled cuteness, Carrie Jones describes what happens when your dog falls in love with part of your Halloween costume. Complete with pictures!

Nov. 2nd, 2014

TNTB cover1

Something to do this week

I'll be doing two author events this week, my last events for a while. If you're in the Philadelphia area, why not drop by one or both? Details are below.

Wednesday, November 5, 7-8:30 PM: Author discussion and Q&A in Warminster, PA. Appearing with I.W. Gregorio as part of Pennsylvania "Speak Up for Libraries." Warminster Twp Free Library, large meeting room. 1076 Emma Lane, Warminster, PA 18974.

Friday, November 7, 8-9 PM: Author/illustrator night at Children's Book World, Haverford, PA. Dozens of authors and illustrators; books; refreshments. 17 Haverford Station Rd., Haverford, PA 19041.

Also, on Tuesday, don't forget to VOTE!

Oct. 31st, 2014


Letting go of stuff

Some time ago, I began cleaning out my house, weeding out things I no longer need to keep.

I had done a little targeted weeding a few times in my life, but I had never done a serious, top-to-bottom assessment of everything I own. I had accumulated far more than I'd thrown out or given away in my life. The only thing that had limited me in any way was the fact that I lived in one-room spaces until I was in my mid-20s, and then I lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a decade after that. One's possessions tend to expand to fill the available space, which is why I encourage people who have just moved into a larger space not to be in a hurry to get more stuff. Hang onto those empty spaces as long as possible; they will fill naturally soon enough.

There is a lot of advice out there in the world on simplifying your life and downsizing your possessions. Some of it is drastic, accomplishing major deaccessioning in a very short period of time. I've discovered that I need to go slowly, doing a little at a time.

I have seen progress. The walk-in closet in my writing office is finally neat, organized, and uncluttered. I finally have the things I use the most within the easiest reach. I've thrown away bagfuls of junk, recycled bagfuls of paper, donated and freecycled boxes full of usable clothes and furniture and books. But I still have a long way to go.

If I try to tackle it more aggressively, I quickly get exhausted and discouraged. So I keep plugging away a little at a time. If I keep getting rid of more than I bring in, I will make progress.

One other thing I had to come to terms with was that the person with whom I share a house does not currently share my desire to simplify, at least not to the same degree. There are times when I would like to tackle the clutter in his spaces. But I had to reach my readiness to downsize in my own time. Nobody else dictated that for me, and I cannot control the timing of others' readiness. Also, I can't know what is really "clutter" among someone else's possessions. So I focus on my own spaces (mainly my writing office, where most of my clutter is concentrated, and parts of our bedroom). After all, I certainly have plenty to keep me busy for months to come.

Letting go has been an eye-opening process for me. There is so much I've been holding onto for sentimental reasons or "in case I ever need it." I've really been questioning my attachments to every object, every piece of paper. It has also made me more mindful of everything I bring into my house, to avoid future accumulations of clutter. I ask myself: Do I really need or want this? If so, where should I put it? How long should I keep it? What will I do with it when I no longer need or want it?

Oct. 29th, 2014


Healthy jealousy?

The book I just finished reading introduced me to an intriguing concept, "healthy jealousy:"

"I think there's a difference. Mean jealousy pulls people down so they'll be on the same level with us, or pushes them down on our way up. But a healthy jealousy is sometimes just the push we need to jump for ourselves. Sometimes we need to look at someone who is doing something difficult, or dangerous, so that we know we can do it too. It's that sense of 'I want what you have,' that makes the risk seem worth it." --Allison Vesterfelt, Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage

I think she means that if jealousy inspires us to take action, to move toward a goal, and not to do it at anyone else's expense, it can actually be a positive motivator. I'd never thought of it that way before. Can jealousy or envy be a good thing sometimes?

Oct. 26th, 2014


Side doors

Some books have what I think of as side doors, entry points to parts of the story that are suggested rather than shown explicitly. They're not part of the main plot flow of the story, but they hint at an intriguing backstory or side journey. Sometimes they point to another book in the author's oeuvre; sometimes they foreshadow upcoming events in a series; and sometimes they let the reader connect certain dots and wonder at the rest. I imagine they could be great jumping-off places for fanfiction.

One example is in Gone with the Wind. If you read between the lines, putting together certain information, it is strongly suggested that Rhett Butler had a son with Belle Watling, and the son was living in New Orleans. I've always thought that hidden subplot had a lot of potential--what if the son came to Atlanta when he grew up?

Another example, from children's literature, is in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Headless Cupid. For fun one day, the kids in the book are testing their psychic abilities with playing cards. None of the kids displays any such ability, until the last child--but just when he shows a glimmer of psychic aptitude, there is an interruption and the scene goes in another direction. This child's ability never really becomes a major plot element, but remains a subtle thread, making us wonder about its influence on the story.

Then there are the characters from books who make appearances in other books. S.E. Hinton's Tex is best understood after reading her earlier That Was Then, This is Now, in order to make the connections between Cathy and Miss Carlson, between Mark and the hitchhiker. The implication is also that Tex is Mark's half-brother, and I've always wondered if Tex was written partly to provide the redemption that Mark never achieved.

In Marilyn Sachs's The Truth About Mary Rose, a young girl wonders about the deceased aunt she was named after, Mary Rose. The plot revolves around the difficulty of interpreting history, and how differently people see and remember the same person. The book's narrator concludes that she can never know the whole truth about Mary Rose. But readers have access to some materials that the younger Mary Rose doesn't: Sachs's earlier books, in which the original Mary Rose actually appears (albeit as a secondary character), especially Veronica Ganz.

I use "side doors" in my fiction all the time. An example is in Try Not to Breathe, when the main character, Ryan, and one of his best friends, Val, visit their other friend, Jake, at a time when Jake is in serious distress. There are these two lines, from Ryan's POV: "When I came back into the dayroom, Jake was bent over Val's lap, hanging on her, while she stroked his hair. I hung back, watching, and the way he clawed at her made me wonder if maybe I hadn't been the only one in love with Val all this time."

It made me wonder, too. In the book, it becomes clear how Val and Ryan feel about each other, but Jake's feelings are left murkier. Does he love Val? Does he maybe love Ryan? I would have loved to explore those questions--and I did, but not on the published page. They would have dragged the story off course. In essence, they were more part of Jake's story than Ryan's, or maybe they were part of what would be a sequel if I ever wrote a sequel for that book. As it stands, these lines are just a side door for readers who want to speculate and carry that story further in their own heads.

Do you ever notice side doors in the books you read? Do you follow where they lead?

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