Monday, July 28, 2014

What to write next

"Please know that I am not trying to avoid my editorial responsibility, but I think it is always unfortunate that an editor decides what an author should do next. ... I do think you should do the one you really want to do. I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor."

--Ursula Nordstrom, from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking a walk

My monthly post at YA Outside the Lines is about walking and hiking: how they enrich my writing life, and my life in general. A sample: "When I visited Paris, I never took a metro or a cab. I walked everywhere, figuring that everything I would see along the way was part of the experience: every flowerbed and statue and fountain and bridge, every patisserie and storefront and sidewalk café."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

If Carville and Matalin can get along ...

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author who's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. Actually, over the course of his career, he moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I was curious about what precipitated the journey. I admit I was also hesitant, not sure whether I would encounter the sort of shallow, venomous rhetoric that one often finds in anonymous comments on news blogs.

I was relieved to find the book perfectly readable, even fun at times. There were large parts of this person's life I could identify with or admire, and several points I even agreed with. There were weaknesses, certainly: sometimes a major shift in philosophical position was explained only by a single anecdote, and anecdotes were used more often than facts to support some generalizations. There were some straw-man arguments, some examples held up as irrefutable where I could easily think of counter-examples, and a few snide remarks to which I took offense. But I kept reading, and largely understanding and enjoying the author's story, even when I didn't always agree with his conclusions.

I mentioned the anecdotal nature of his rationalizations as a weakness in some of his arguments, and yet I think people often do base their general politics on their specific, individual experiences. A good or bad encounter with police, being the victim of a crime, having difficulty getting medical care or health insurance, having a child, starting a business, encountering racism, being laid off from a job, etc., are all examples of personal life experiences that can affect people's politics one way or another. One thing that made me laugh was whenever he characterized people from my end of the political spectrum with traits that I think of as more associated with his end of the spectrum: smugness, a tendency to be unrealistic, and bitterness being three examples. It reminded me of just how much is in the eye of the beholder, just how many labels and assumptions we use about one another, and how easy it can be to see an opponent's flaws while overlooking our own.

I often read books by and about people who are very different from me, but it's rare that I deliberately choose to read books that make cases for politics 180 degrees from my own. One of the book-jacket blurbs (from a person who agrees with the author politically) said something about the book being likely to persuade people to migrate to his end of the spectrum. I thought that quote actually showed a misunderstanding of what such books are for. By and large, they're not really to convert people who disagree with the author; they are to reassure those who already agree with the author that they are making smart choices, that they have good arguments on their side. And certainly I didn't read the book to be converted.

But near the end of my reading, I finally grasped the main reason I challenged myself with this book: I want to humanize my opponent. I am really tired of polarization, knee-jerk insults, and the situations where everyone shouts and nobody listens. The other day, on a very thoughtful blog whose comment stream seems to be populated by similarly thoughtful people, I saw commenters disagreeing on an extremely inflammatory, controversial subject, but they were arguing with logic and respect for one another's positions, and I nearly wept to see it. Those are the kinds of discussions I wish I could see more of.

I have strong political opinions based on deep convictions. If you know me, you know what they are, but I'm deliberately not identifying them on this blog post because I think it would undermine the whole point; my hope is that this post would be equally true if the other author and I were to switch political poles. I don't discuss politics on this blog, which I like to keep for writing and such. I advocate for my political views elsewhere, and I do so because I sincerely believe in what I'm advocating for. But I don't need to demonize the people who disagree with me, and I don't want them to demonize me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Double Negative

You may know that I have a special interest in contemporary realistic YA novels with male main characters (having written two of them myself). My friend C. Lee McKenzie has one coming out on Friday, July 25:

double-negative2
Double Negative, by C. Lee McKenzie.

Hutchison McQueen is a sixteen-year-old smart kid who screws up regularly. He’s a member of Larkston High’s loser clique, the boy who’s on his way to nowhere—unless juvenile hall counts as a destination. He squeaks through classes with his talent for eavesdropping and memorizing what he hears. When that doesn’t work, he goes to Fat Nyla, the one some mean girls are out to get and a person who’s in on his secret—he can barely read.

And then Maggie happens. For twenty-five years she’s saved boys from their own bad choices. But she may not have time to save Hutch. Alzheimer’s disease is steadily stealing her keen mind.


You can find out more at C. Lee McKenzie's website, blog, or Facebook Fan Page. There's also a giveaway for Double Negative and for Amazon gift cards here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Articulating it

"A writer doesn't often tell a reader anything the reader doesn't already know or suspect. The best the writer can do is put the idea in words and by doing that make the reader aware that he or she isn't the only one who knows it. ... The fact is, there really isn't anything new in the world and what I've always hoped to do with my writing is to say, in so many words, some of the ideas that lurk, wordlessly, in the minds of a great many people."
--Andrew A. Rooney, Not That You Asked

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Believable characters

There's a radio commercial that's been out lately. I don't even know what it's a commercial for--some hospital or insurance plan, maybe? In any case, one of the characters in the commercial is supposed to be a hypochondriac worried about the illnesses he might have. And he's just randomly spewing out the names of various conditions that don't even have similar symptoms.

But there is logic even to hypochondria. In my experience, exaggerated anxiety over illness tends to evolve in one of two ways. In the first way, a symptom--say, a headache or stomach-ache or leg pain--will lead the person to research the various illnesses associated with that symptom. Therefore, the person with the stomach-ache might worry about an ulcer or appendicitis, but he would not imagine that he had a skull fracture or a detached retina. In the other manifestation, a hypochondriac might hear about a particular dangerous illness, especially one with very vague or common symptoms, and might start asking herself whether she has those symptoms ("Is my vision a little blurry? Haven't I been feeling tired lately?")

However, I have never met a person who displayed hypochondria by just flinging the names of unrelated diseases into a conversation, willy-nilly. This fictional character rings false, a victim of insufficient research or insufficient imagination. In a commercial, that may not matter as much, because I think the suspension-of-disbelief goals of a commercial are different from those of a novel. But most novels do require that suspension of disbelief. Characters should always make sense to themselves, even if they seem strange or extreme to the other characters.