Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lisa: On Inspiration

Sometimes people ask me - what inspires you?

People are so curious about that when it comes to writers, aren't they?  Like we know the secrets of the universe and can share those secrets with anyone who asks. I'm sorry to say there isn't a magic key.

I think I believe inspiration is everywhere. Well, some days it is. And nowhere on other days. It just depends. Am I open to it? Am I looking for it?

But I've realized something lately, and I thought I would talk about my discovery here. What often inspires me - moves me to write - is when a song or book or movie or a scene in nature or any number of things causes me to feel something strongly. When I feel something deep in my soul, I then want to work at writing something that will cause someone else to feel those feelings while they read my work.

When I read The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo a few years ago, I felt like I'd visited a different land. Like I'd walked the streets of Baltese and visited the market square, just as Peter did. It left me longing to do something similar with my writing. As soon as I closed her book, I opened my idea journal, and thought - if I were to write a fairy tale story, what elements would I want to include in that story?  I wrote down a few things. A beautiful flower garden. A bird. A king and a queen. A girl.

It took me six months before I found my way into that story. But always, when I looked at that page, I was reminded of how I felt when I wrote those words. It wasn't so much the items themselves, but putting them together to try and create a magical story that would make a reader feel like he/she had been swept away to different time and place. A place where things are bleak, but a glimmer of hope seems to be around every corner. And a place where story elements are woven together in such a way that by the end, you look back at the journey you took with wonder and delight. I don't know if I accomplished all of those things. But I tried. Because of the story I'd read that inspired me, I really tried. I'm happy to say that the middle grade novel I ended up writing sold to Henry Holt recently (it's untitled at the moment).

Another example I can share. In January, 2010, I was watching the Grammy awards. It was a pretty good show, as far as the Grammy's are concerned. But then, something spectacular happened. The artist P!nk came out and gave one of the most beautiful performances I've ever seen as she sang her song, "Glitter in the Air." I was moved. Moved enough to download the song, which I'd never heard before. Over the next few days, I listened to it over and over again.

I want to write a book like this song, I thought.

I want to write a book that makes me feel the way this song makes me feel.

It was this line, specifically, that gave me goosebumps:

"Have you ever wanted... an endless night?
Lassoed the moon and pulled that rope tight?"

So, as writers like to do, I started asking myself, what if? What if two teens didn't want the day/the night to end? Why not? What was going on with them, and could I find enough of a story there to write a book?

I could. And I did, always going back to how that song made me feel, and trying to bring those emotions to the page.

Did I succeed? Some readers have told me, yes I did. Not all readers, of course. Ha, that's a dream world, where everyone gets what you were trying to do and loves it!

But I'm happy with how the story turned out. The book is called THE DAY BEFORE and I'm celebrating it's release today!

What about you? How do you answer that question - what inspires you?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Troy: Who should be me?

Due to the fact that my voice isn’t particularly audiogenic, has no accent appeal, is low on theatrics, I’ve never been convinced that reading my work to an audience is the most engaging approach for me. I don’t want to bore anyone. At a recent book-signing event where I live, I got a little help from a friend, the girl who represents the protagonist, Kat, in the book trailer for my debut novel, The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Amulet, April 2011).

The portion of text I chose for us to read is where Kat meets Ye, the ancient dragon below the Mollie Kathleen Mine. Since the story is first-person narration by Kat, it was natural that a girl read it. She dressed in character, which included a gold tooth and Denver Nuggets basketball cap. To nudge the listeners’ imaginations, I held up a mask I’d made as I read the parts of Ye.
So, girl meets dragon, they talk, and eventually develop a friendship. But it starts out as kind of a “Who’s on first?” encounter, in Ye’s mist-filled chamber. Here is the scene where the reading began: Kat, who has just seen him, has dropped a gold nugget on her foot.


“Did you say ‘how’?” he asked in a rusty, crack-of-dawn voice.

“No, I said—” I faltered, trying to figure this out. Logic was kicking in, part of the process of going from shock to acceptance. Was it the fall? The lack of air? The mineral water? Here be a dragon. Here be a talking dragon. It wasn’t a crocodile. It wasn’t a horned toad on steroids. He was staring at me at the bottom of a mine. That part was undeniable—the bottom of a mine—but the rest?

I began again. “Did you say: ‘Did you say, ‘how’?”

“That is what I thought you said. ‘How’ as in ‘howdy,’ short for ‘how d’ye do.’”

Still numb, my mind shifted to auto-answer. “Thanks for the English lesson. But the ‘ye’ is outdated. The ‘ye’ should be you.”

He frowned. “Who should be me?”

I shook my head. “Ye. For you.”

With a note of suspicion, he said, “I knew you were eavesdropping.”

“What do you mean?”

“You heard me addressing myself. I heard your scream. I knew you were close. You were eavesdropping. You had to have been: You know my name.”

“I know your name? I heard you cough—”

“You heard my name. Ye. That is me. Or I, Miss English-Lesson.”

“You are Ye?

And so on. We had rehearsed this twice—I read only the quotes for Ye—and it worked.

I then enlisted a lot of help from the audience. For this portion of the reading, I chose a chapter that is strictly dialogue between Kat, a talk show host, and several call-in listeners. Audience participation was immediate. Volunteers—eight in all—ranged in age from about six to sixty; most had the book in hand, so I gave the page numbers and the name of the character each person was to play. They got into their verbal roles with enthusiasm. Ahead of time, I had asked another friend to be prepared to read the major role of the talk show host. Her confident reading made it easier for the participants to play their parts. A couple of snippets:

“This is Say-so, and I’m Miranda Bates. My guest today is Katlin Graham, a name synonymous with gold, dragons, and the new Wild West. Hello, Katlin.”

“You can call me Kat.”

. . .

“Next caller. Thomas, here in Washington, D.C.”

“Yeah. What the”—beep—“so special about dragons? Dragon movies, dragon games, dragon books! All this dragon”—beep—“it’s about the mighty buck! People are makin’ tons of money off any idiot who’ll dig in his pocket—”

“Care to respond, Kat?”

“I agree. If you’re talking about the fantasy media-greedia.”

“But that’s just what you’re—”

“All right, Thomas, you’ve had your say. We go now to Boston. Rebecca?”

A regional book representative in attendance remarked he’d never experienced a reading like that.

These approaches would not work for every novel or event—it’s not feasible, for example, to take along a character reader on a book tour—but the next time you’re scheduled for an author reading, you may want to explore the possibilities.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Brian M: Reimagining a Classic: Story Breeds Story

First off, reimagining a classic is not a habit you want to get into. Being known as a writer who cribs every plot and character he comes up with is not a good idea. Yet, sometimes there arises in a writer’s life the urge for a story do-over. E.g. “Romeo and Juliet” transformed into “West Side Story,” Austin’s Emma updated to “Clueless.” So, given Hemingway’s famous line, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” (no, he wasn’t quoting Owen Wilson’s character in “Midnight in Paris”) what better book to inspire imitation then the “one book.”

In my case, the urge to riff off Huck Finn Thirty Three Years Among Our Wild Indians by Col. Richard I. Dodge. In 1884, before Huck Finn was published (1885 in the U.S.) Twain read Dodge’s book and wrote about 1500 words in the book’s margins outlining a sequel to Huck Finn. Twain immediately wrote nine and half chapters, just beginning the story. To our knowledge, he never picked it up again. (Life published these chapters in 1969; two writers have attempted to blindly finish the story with the title, Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.) began when I met a man who possesses a book once owned by Twain:

Twain’s marginalia notes have never been cataloged by scholars, so you can imagine my excitement given the prospect of seeing them. You can also imagine the reluctance of the owner of the Dodge book containing Twain’s notes, Robert Slotta, to show them to me. After all, I was merely a midlist YA author. I needed to bring something to the table.

So I did. I wrote a book proposal to Mr. Slotta in which: 1) the Dodge book with Twain’s notes in it becomes the McGuffin of a contemporary story in which the main character, Billy Allbright, is thrust into a journey that’s as adventure-filled as Huck’s trip down the Mississippi; and 2) the story echoes Twain’s distillation of Huck Finn: “...a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” But that was merely my opening gambit.

I then proposed to Slotta that should this first book, Adventures of Billy Allbright, be published, we would strike a deal: he would show me the Twain notes in their entirety, and with Billy Allbright as a modern framing story, we would travel back in time to reveal the adventure Twain had planned for Huck, Tom, and Jim after they “light out for the Territory.” Slotta was agreeable and we drank to our lofty plan over some Mark Twain Bourbon.

Extensive research ensued, which you’d better love if you want to write something that’s true to the spirit, style, and intention of the writer/story you’ve chosen as your muse. I immersed myself in Twain biographies, multiple works of literary criticism, and threw myself into the sea of Twain’s writing, fiction and non-fiction, not the least of course, Huck Finn.

For me, research is a bipolar task. While part of the brain was pickling itself in all-things-Twain, my imagination was constantly letting ideas, character notions, plot twists, and turns of phrase pop from the source material. In this dialogue between Twain terra firma and a writer’s imagination, exciting things began to happen. Questions jumped out like, “Okay, if racism/slavery was the big issue Twain/Huck was grappling with back then, what could possibly be the modern equivalent?” My answer: homophobia. Then another question arose.

From the broad strokes Slotta had provided re Twain’s intentions in the Huck Finn sequel (that Huck and Tom abandon Christianity and convert to an Indian religion) I knew Twain wanted to tackle Christianity (which he certainly did many years later). So, how might I follow Twain’s lead and do the same? The answer caromed off the homophobia idea. My Huck/Billy would be shackled with the homophobia of Christian fundamentalism. And Billy’s journey (along a tarmac river) would be a story in which “...a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”

While those were two thematic borrowings from Twain, borrowing can also come from tiny details (especially when you’re a research wacko like me). I’ll provide one example to illustrate how carried away reimagining can get. Whence the name “Billy Allbright?”

In the University of California Press edition of Huck Finn, which reinserted several passages Twain cut before the 1885 publication, there is a ghost story. It involves a raftsman haunted by a barrel floating down the river, following him. When the barrel catches up to him, the distraught man opens it and discovers a dead baby, his own, that he had murdered. The raftsman drowns himself holding the baby. The dead baby is named Charles William Allbright. The father’s name is Dick Allbright. Billy (Charles William) Allbright is my main character; his father, Richard Allbright. In my mind, Twain may have been haunted by the unfinished creation of a Huck Finn sequel, and by never finishing it he smothered it in its infancy.

The above three “parallels” (for lack of a better term) to Huck Finn/Twain were, of course, just the beginning. As the dance between the classic and a new story develops, you must choose what to hold close and what to fling away. And just as the Japanese are famous for “reverse engineering” the American auto business, the reimagining writer must reverse engineer the classic, take it apart, see what works, hurl parts around, and reassemble it into something both recognizable and new.

My proposal for Adventures of Billy Allbright eventually became the recently published YA novel, You Don’t Know About Me (the first five words of Huck Finn). As to a hoped for second book revealing Twain’s original intent for Huck, Tom, and Jim in the Territory, Slotta got cold feet and didn’t wish to share the notes. C’est la vie. For now.

However, I did manage to publish one book, and garnered a review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books that tells me I did my homework. Here are snippets from it.

Sometimes the remake gets it just right—not only adopting the plot and character arcs that made the first book great but also manipulating the style and sensibilities of the source text to refresh and renew our acquaintance with it, all while creating a story that stands alone on its merits. You Don’t Know about Me, Brian Meehl’s revision of Huckleberry Finn, is one of those. ... Meehl’s engagement with Twain is flawless in all of its layers and facets. ... Clearly, the book stands on its own merits as an exploration of one boy’s quest to understand the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions of his faith, his family, and his friendships, but it will also make young people better readers of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by helping them see the ironies and contradictions Twain explored in that book in comparison with present-day contexts.

If just one reader of my book is inspired to read Huck Finn, I would be thrilled to know that this reimaginer was “paying it backward.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Varian:Writing Across Gender - Men Writing Female Protagonists

A few weeks ago, a current student of my MFA program asked for suggestions on how male authors approach writing female protagonists. I figured I’d share my response here, as it’s not a topic I’ve seen a lot of on the Internet.

But first, a disclaimer:

In most ways, I don’t think writing across gender is any different than writing across race, or age, or anything else. It’s our job to create a very specific character—not just a girl, but “an eighteen-year-old African-American girl living with her father in Columbia, SC who was encouraged to terminate her pregnancy at age 15 and is still dealing with the emotional repercussions of those actions.” It’s all about the specificity, and if that rings true, everything else will work itself out.

End disclaimer.

Here are some of the practical things that I do when writing from a female POV:

1) I get feedback from quite a few women beta readers. I try to capture as wide of a cross-section as possible--different ages, different cultural backgrounds, etc. I know that what’s realistic to a 15 year-old girl may ring untrue for a 35 year-old woman. However, if they both call BS on a twelve-year-old girl wearing stilettos, then I know I have a problem.

2) I write a lot of realistic YA fiction, so I read a lot of realistic YA fiction, especially written from the female POV, and especially written by women. I spend a lot of time evaluating the author’s use of language--exploring which words “sound” better in a girl POV. This is so, so, so true when dealing with body issues and sexual relationships. Some of my favorite books to reference include:

Before I Die by Jenny Downham
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

3) I explore when things don’t ring true to me. I ask myself if I’m questioning something because (1) I don’t believe that a girl (or a boy) would act this way or if it’s because (2) I don’t WANT to believe that a character will act a certain way.

A slight distinction, but one that makes all the difference.

A lot of people have problems with the blow job scene in Looking for Alaska (I know I talk about LOA a lot, but Green did some really smart craft things in this novel). Some say that this scene doesn’t ring true—that a girl would know what to do in that situation, and that Pudge and Lara wouldn’t ask a friend for advice. However, I think some readers have problems in general with the proliferation of “one-sided” oral sex in YA literature (which I actually have issues with as well). We don’t want to like the scene, or the character, so we label the scene as not ringing true.

I find that responses like this are often the case when we say that a character’s too whiny or needy or mean. For a long time, I didn’t like The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I didn’t want to root for Gilly; she was too offensive--almost racist. But that didn’t make her an unbelievable character. Same with “Alice”, the protagonist from Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. I didn’t believe it because I didn’t WANT to believe it. It made me too sad.I’m not saying that this happens often, but it does happen.

4) I also do as much research as possible. No, I can’t get pregnant, but I can take a pregnancy test. I can walk around in a pair of heels. And, I tie my own emotional baggage (for lack of a better word) to my character. Although my character and I may not share the same “physical” situation, I can use my own experiences to bring emotional truth to the novel. And while boys and girls sometimes act in different ways, I think their core wants--the need to be loved and respected; the need to protect themselves and others that they care about; and so on--are universal.

5) Maybe most importantly, I recognize that each reader will bring their specific backgrounds, experience, etc. to a novel. Something just may not ring true for them. And that’s okay--they have the right to disagree with me. But I hope that my readers are able to see “reasonable plausibility” in what I write. I want a reader to be able to say, “Okay, there’s no way I would have done that at sixteen, but I can see, given the circumstances, why this character did that.”

So, for those of you out there that write across gender, are there any suggestions I should consider adding to my list?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Marianna: Debut Year Continued - First Signing

In my post at the beginning of this (my debut) year, I mused that my entry to the world of published authors might require me to enter the world of therapy, too. I’m now picking up the story of my potential mental disintegration with last week’s major development – my first Official Author Event: signing galleys of my upcoming YA novel FROST at Book Expo America.

I was completely thrilled that HarperCollins asked me to sign at BEA. But being my first Official Author Event, it did inspire a bit of handwringing. I couldn’t help but see it as an entry exam to this new stage of life, a stage in which I will occasionally be expected to change out of my writing “clothes” (whatever random ensemble of fabric covers my body enough that I can answer the door for the UPS man) and interact with readers. Yikes!

Admittedly, as exams go, signing at BEA was kindergarten level: all I had to do was sit at a table and write my name a few times.

There were a couple of worrisome x-factors, though:

1. Would anyone bother to get a book signed by an author they’d never heard of, or would I be sitting alone at the table trying not to cry for 30 minutes?

2. If there were people in my line, would I be able to control my hand well enough to hold the Sharpie, and my mouth/tongue well enough to form coherent sentences if I needed to speak? My nervous system has been known to launch sneak attacks during events where attention is directed toward me. All of a sudden, my legs will go so wobbly I can barely stand, or I’ll unleash a moment of babble. So any physical malfunction seemed possible.

My modest goal for the day was to get through it without doing anything to make people think I’d sustained a serious head injury on the way to the Javits Center.

As the signing approached, the fear that I’d be weeping alone next to a pile of unwanted books disappeared pretty quickly. First, agent Sara, editor Kristin, publicist Alison, and marketer Olivia were there to support me. (My own personal entourage!) If worse came to worst, I figured they all could stand on line, multiple times, in identity-disguising outfits.

It became clear that such drastic measures wouldn’t be necessary almost an hour before the signing, when a blogger friend came up to me and said, “I’m seventh in your line!” and pointed to a bunch of people sitting on the floor. After a moment of confusion, I realized the people on the floor were waiting. For my signing. Almost an hour in advance, and they were already waiting to get a copy of my book!?!? (Thank you HarperCollins for the gorgeous cover!!)

By the time I took my seat at the table, there were enough people that I knew I’d be busy for the whole 30 minutes. Fear #1 was entirely unwarranted. Phew.

I uncapped the Sharpie. I figured out what page to sign on. I gave the line-wrangler the go ahead to send the first person up. And as I looked at ALL THOSE PEOPLE who wanted something from me, Fear #2 reared its ugly head. All they need is a signature and a smile, I reminded myself. You can do this. But when the first two people in line both mentioned how nervous I seemed, and I realized I was shaking and saw how chicken-scrawly and unfamiliar my writing in their books was, and all those people were looking at me, well…

I became concerned.

Until something unexpected happened. As I read people’s nametags and recognized some names, and didn’t recognize others but saw where they worked or blogged, something clicked. Here, in the flesh, were readers. These people were going to read my book! Suddenly, I didn’t want to sign quickly and send them on their way. I wanted to know who they were! I wanted to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get their blog addresses, to find out where their libraries were…

Because this thing – this whole publishing-a-book thing – it wasn’t just about me anymore. It was about these people who held FROST in their hands. To them, my novel might just have been one more to be shipped home. But to me, this transaction – handing over my book – felt much more important than that. After working on FROST for years, there’s a lot of me in the pages. Seeing those readers holding it… well, it made me feel connected to them in a way I hadn’t anticipated. So I didn’t just sign and smile. I tried to ask every person a question or two; not to fill the silence, but because I was genuinely interested in the answers.

Once I started interacting, the event wasn’t so much about me anymore. And – to my great surprise – I didn’t just survive, but actually enjoyed myself.

I did still have moments of nerves. My hand trembled slightly as I wrote, and I messed up on one reader’s name, right after telling her how pretty it was. (Sorry, Aryanna!) But the experience wildly surpassed anything I’d expected.

I’m sure that not all my author events will go as smoothly as this first one, but I’ll worry about those later. For now, I’m going to file away the therapists’ numbers I’ve been saving since my previous blog post. I won’t be using them. At least, not yet!