Thursday, June 26, 2008

And now onto my slacker voice...

Do you find that your writing is influenced by what you read? I'm reading a YA novel with a spot-on slacker voice at the moment and I find my characters talking a little bit like the protag! Inevitable, I suppose, but that raises a question in my mind: how much of my voice is truly, genuinely, completely mine? Do the effects of osmosis merely tinge my voice? How influenced can I be by other writers' voices before losing my own?

Okay, maybe more than one question.

Now that I've almost satisfied my obsession about story openings, I need a new, hard-to-define idea to obsess about.

Voice, ahhh!

Ode to Community

I came home last night from my critique group meeting on a high. A general question about my book from a member who'd joined us recently and thus had missed many of my chapters led to a lively discussion and a suggestion that I knew, with the kind of certainty that combines both intuition and rational thinking, that this was one I had to incorporate.

Critique meetings are great because people have different ideas about how to solve a problem or even if there is a problem. These diverse opinions have benefited me as much as the actual critique of my work. I've also
learned how to differentiate --for the most part, anyway--between the suggestions that I would incorporate and those that I wouldn't.

But every once in a while, everyone would agree on an idea and get swept up by a wave enthusiasm with ideas and suggestions pouring out like we're plugged into to some fountain of creativity. Last night, for me, was one of those meetings, and it happened to my book: Bonus!

Writing is a solitary pursuit and I like it just fine. But working alone is one thing, being isolated is another. I don't know what I'd do without the connection to other writers. I've been with my critique group for five, six years now and even though some members have left and others have joined, the group provides a community for me in which I live out my life as a writer.

Many writers are part at least one critique group, and it's not surprising. I think of what I receive: thoughtful critique from writers who are well-read, intelligent, and most of all, generous with their time and knowledge; what more can I ask?

(I suppose I could ask that they all suddenly decide to switch genres to writing middle grade and YA!)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Effective openings in MG and YA part 3

Saffy's Angels
by Hilary McKay

Because I grew up reading books by British authors (I grew up in Malaysia, ex-colony of Britain), I thought my fondness of Saffy’s Angels was due to the nostalgic factor. But a second reading recently convinced me that nostalgia has only very little to do with it; it’s the writing, it's all about the writing.

The opening goes like this:

When Saffron was eight, and had at last learned to read, she hunted slowly through the color chart pinned up on the kitchen wall.

One of the things Les Edgerton in Hooked strongly recommends is crafting an opening sentence that captures the main issue of the story. Easy to say, but how do you present a whole story in a sentence? That's where it is essential to know what your story is about. I've been looking at story openings lately, and find that it can be done, although not always.

Hilary McKay has definitely done it here. We may not know it yet: we’re wondering why Saffron learned to read at such a (relatively) late age, and why she is searching through a color wheel, of all things. But we keep reading.

Turns out the color wheel does hold the key to Saffron’s life and over the course of the story, the innocent fact that her name isn’t on the color chart leads her to a secret, which in turns leads her to unusual events, and eventually to her coming to realization about who she is.

I also love the subtle hints about several of the characters within the first page. Here is a loaded bit of dialogue:

“If there is one thing your mother was good at,” Bill Casson, the children’s father, would say, “it was choosing names for you children.”

Just when you’re boiling mad on behalf of his wife at that bit of patronizing junk, the author goes on with this:

Eve, the children’s mother, would always look pleased.


Two short sentences, and we know who Bill and Eve Casson are. Brilliant.

But the characters aren't all about brokenness. We also meet Indigo, a boy sitting in front of the hearth, covered in soot and being protective of his baby sister. Every good story has tension and conflict, I realize, but if I am not given anything that is strong and good and kind and hopeful in the story, I don't know if I want to read more. So even though Saffron is upset she's not in the color wheel, and the Casson parents' relationship is questionable, Indigo's patience with Saffron and insistence that his youngest sister, Rose, isn't left out of anything, provides tenderness, the much needed something-good. This character trait of Indigo continues in the rest of the books in the series although he goes through transformation in other aspects of his life, and that makes me very happy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

This could be the one

I think I've finally got an opening for my new novel.

Version One, which took forever to write, seemed like an intriguing and dramatic start, but didn't pass the reading-after-hibernation test; it didn't say much of anything. Version Two had more momentum, but I realized, from all the reading I'd been doing about strong story openings, that it fell squarely in the "character ruminating" category, a major no-no. Without any ideas about how else to start, I gave up and worked on other things. Now that Version Three is taking shape, I am cautiously thinking that this could be a keeper.

The fact that I am taking a detour (sounds so much better than "wasting time procrastinating") to write about it on my blog is further proof that it's going well. (Really, it does. Don't ask me why. You fellow procrastinators out there will understand.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

I love my library

I just did grocery shopping (how much?!!) and pumped gas (how MUCH?!!) and was in a particularly grumpy mood. And then I went to my local library and my mood just did a magnificent turnaround. I love my library!

What I brought home this time:
  • Zen and the Art of Faking it by Jordan Sonnenblick. I loved his first book, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pies. The protag and his little brother are such wonderful characters. Despite being a kid-having-cancer book, I never once felt manipulated emotionally. Plus it's so, so very funny. Funny cancer book? Yep, he pulls it off. I sent the author an email telling him how much I enjoyed his book (I've never done that before) and he replied! Great writer and nice guy.
  • Sneaking Suspicions by by Carolyn Coman. I was hooked by its hook--two kids and parents who've just gotten out of jail (!) on a road trip. But now that I've started reading it, I love the writing as well. Funny but not in a contrived, too-clever way.
  • Forever Rose by Hilary McKay. The quirky, loving, and fiercely loyal Casson family has crawled their way into aspecial place in my heart, squeezing in with the Penderwicks. I had thought the Permanent Rose was the last book in the series, but I was happily surprised to find one more.
  • Lon Po Po by Ed Young. The Chinese version of the Red Riding Hood story. I am slightly upset that the Anglicization of the "Lon" isn't accurate, but the illustrations are gorgeous.
  • Hondo and Fabian by Peter McCarty. The story is simple. I'd venture to say this is a story without conflict (gasp!) but who cares when the illustration brings these two critters to life in such an innocent and lively way.
  • The Beginning, The Muddle and The End by Avi. I had meant to read this to my children but it turns out most of the jokes are over their heads. Writers though, will enjoy the humor.
  • The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer. A beautiful and sensitive book. A literary novel, in the best sense of the word, for the younger reader.
  • Runaway by Alice Munro. I can't just read juvenile books! Every once in a while, I want to read something that makes my heart ache and I often go to my favorite Alices: Munro and McDermott.

Friday, June 13, 2008

So popular it can't be good

J. K. Rowling gave the commencement speech at Harvard University. What is your first reaction to that news?

Some of the graduates feel they've settled. Instead of Noble Prize winners or world leaders, they got a children's writer. In the words of one graduate, "You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … "

"Most prominent", "entitled", "like". Don't you just love it?

Another graduate asks, "Are we the joke class?"

On what assumptions do these graduates base their opinions? That something loved by the masses cannot possibly be good? That true excellence can only be appreciated by the select few?

Maybe it takes highly trained musicians to understand the intricacies of harmonic progressions, voicing, rhythmic interplay that Mozart or Bach use in their compositions. But it doesn't take a highly trained musician to be transported by the music, to recognize something exceptional in it.

Also, if we buy those assumptions, then we have to conclude that everything popular is sub-par and all that is excellent is hidden. Spielberg, Coppola: bad movie makers. Who is good? Don't know; their films are too obscure.

I am not arguing that everything popular is of high quality. I am arguing that human beings, no matter the educational level or taste, do possess abilities to recognize greatness. Am I saying Harry Potter is great? That's not the point. The point is that popularity can sometimes be the result of excellence.

Read Rowling's speech. See if you detect humility, grace, wisdom in her words. I do.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Eagle has flown

Sigh. It's over. I finished Eagle in a day. And I was wrong; it isn't the final installment of the Five Ancestors series, which means the ending of Eagle is a cliffhanger, which means another long wait for the next book. I know some authors can produce a book a year, but I want it to be a good one and am therefore theoretically willing to wait longer. Sigh.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Equal and opposing

Life often comes at you in opposing pairs. You give birth to a beautiful baby and end up in the hospital with 104-degree fever. Your first restaurant review is published and as you read your name in print, everything suddenly goes blur in your left eye because the capillaries have just burst, creating a giant floater-like creature that stays for much longer than the 3 months that your ophthalmologist predicts.

Maybe the impact isn't always equal but isn't it strange how so many good news are accompanied by not-so-good ones? I guess there has to be a reason for the "Good news first or bad news?" to be in our cultural lingo.

Here is my current good news/bad news situation: I finally got my hands on Eagle, the 5th book in the Five Ancestors series, and I find out I won't be able to attend a writing conference when the results of the writing contest in which my novel has placed in the finals will be announced.

Not dire straits by any stretch of imagination, but still. Why do things have to come in opposing pairs?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Effective openings in MG and YA part 2

Me and the Pumpkin Queen by
Marlene Kennedy

I don't think I'm abnormally obsessive.

Right off the bat we know the narrator is highly self aware. And contrary to what she claims, obsessive, because only obsessive people would qualify that adjective with "abnormally." Sorta like, if your obsession is at level 4.275 or less, you fall within the normal boundaries of obsession and you’re okay. Go above it and you veer into “abnormally obsessive” territory, which may not be so okay.

I like to listen to someone who's obsessive/passionate. The topic doesn't matter--ancient languages, amoeba lifespan, dung-beetles--as long as the person talking about it finds it fascinating, then I know I'll enjoy listening.

In the case of this book, I am not terribly interested in giant pumpkins but I like the person who tells people she’s not abnormally obsessive, and so I read on.

She then goes on to say:

... I prefer to describe myself as focused.

A girl after my own heart! I’m not obsessed about finding the perfect story opening, I’m just focused!

At the end of the very short 1st chapter, she says this:

It just so happens that my thoughts are consumed with something out of the ordinary. Daddy isn’t worried about me at all. But Aunt Arlene is.

The author has set the stage, introduced the main characters, and even though I still don’t know what this “out of the ordinary” obsession is, I’m ready to find out.

Next up: Saffy's Angels by Hilary McKay

Effective openings in MG and YA part 1

Now that my mind is occupied with story openings, I've been looking through Middle Grade and Young Adult books published recently to find the ones that draw me in. Here are some examples:

Click Here (to find out how I survived seventh grade)
by Denise Vega

This book starts with a prologue of sorts. It is the supposed website of the protagonist, Erin. The first line reads:

This is the totally secret and private home page of ERIN PENELOPE SWIFT.

Benign little sentence, except that it encompasses the whole story. We are introduced to Erin, we know she's into computers, we wonder why a homepage is secret ,and we get a sense of uh-oh right away because we know that anytime somebody thinks something is "totally secret and private" it will be made known to the world.

And since this book has a prologue and a chapter 1, it "gets" to present another great opening. In chapter 1, we see Erin and Jilly finding out they won't be in the same track at their new middle school.

This is yet another example where the opening contains the seed of the story. We even get a sense of their relationship in the dialogue, first when, just before they open their respective envelopes that tells them which track they'd be in,
Jilly says

"Don't jinx it, Erin."

and then

"Are you sure you read yours right?"

Erin doesn't even react to those statements, which shows that this was a normal expression of their friendship. But I am alerted to the possibility that the nature of their friendship may have a big role to play in this story. And indeed it does.

Tomorrow: Me and the Pumpkin Queen by Marlane Kennedy

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Eagle has landed

I'm so psyched! The book I'd placed a hold on at the library is finally ready, after way too many weeks. When I placed the hold, the book hadn't even hit bookstores yet, but six people had already placed a hold on it before I did.

Oh yeah, which book: it's the final installment of the Five Ancestors serieus by Jeff Stone, Eagle. These books tell the story of five young monks whose only home they knew was burnt down and their beloved Master killed. Each monk is trained in a Kung-Fu style fashioned after an animal: Tiger, Monkey, Crane etc. I loved the first book and devoured it in a single reading. Its opening is one of the best I've read and the rest of the book was brilliant as well.

Why would a woman my age get so excited about a Kung Fu book directed at middle grade boys? The first obvious reason is that I write middle grade, so I read a whole bunch of middle grade.

But the real reason is that Kung Fu holds a nostalgic place in my heart. My childhood is filled with many Kung Fu movies--cheesy or artsy, badly or well-made. The violence was never real enough to bother me and the choreography of the fight scenes and the stunt doubles who performed them rivaled the choreography and dancers anywhere. Yes, I'm comparing Kung Fu to dance, and all the aficionados can hate me, but I don't care! Eagle is mine to devour very soon!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


In my current obsession, er, focus, on story openings, I've been scouring everywhere that writing advice exists, and came across a little book, about 5x7 and bright cerulean blue, titled Hooked. Despite my gimmick-o-meter flashing (danger, author resorting to non-standard size and blinding colors, stay away!) I picked it up. I read a whole chapter standing in the "writing and publishing" aisle and was, yes, hooked. (Insert groan or drum beat as appropriate.)

Besides being an entertaining read, this little book offers advice that is up-to-date and direct. The gimmick is really in the presentation only. Here are a few things I like about it:

  • The author gives a list of opening essentials, ordered according to the importance of each. This is tricky. On the one hand, how does one distill art into a list? On the other hand, a writer who doesn't take a stand or define the hard-to-define will only offer advice that drifts into obvious platitudes.
  • He tells it straight. Of prologues, he says it is "...a section of backstory or setup relabeled as prologue. It' ain't foolin' nobody, chum."
  • Yet he never says never. As strongly as he recommends against prologues, he actually has a section on frame-story (stories that begin with a prologue and ends with an epilogue) openings. Once again, he manages to maneuver the tricky waters between not waffling and recognizing that exceptions exist for every rule.
  • He references movies, and not n a disparaging manner either. Thelma and Louise is used several times as an example to explain inciting incidents and story-worthy verses initial surface problems. Even more interesting is that he attributes the current state of fiction-writing as partially indebted to movie-making. Imagine that, one of the oldest forms of story-telling being indebted to the new kid on the block!
  • He gives lots of examples and explains why he likes each one, usually enthusiastically, with exclamation points! It's so refreshing to have a sense of the person and his passion behind the words, especially in writing-advice books where all the sentences are trimmed of excess words and exclamation marks are nowhere to be found.
  • For a book ostensibly about openings, he manages to touch on the writing of the whole novel/story. To write a strong opening, he says, we need to figure out the story-worthy problem.

I believe this last point is where the crux of the matter lies. Lots of story openings don't work because the stories don't work. It’s easy to belly ache about the injustice of having our thousands of words judged on the merit of a mere few hundred, but this little book about story openings has sneaked in a new question in my mind not only about my story beginnings, but my stories period.