Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christine: Authenticity in Characters' $*&%$ Dialogue

Today sucks.

Okay, a couple of disclaimers:

1. No, it doesn’t.
2. Even if it did, I would never say that.

But some of the characters I’ve created for my novels would. Lots of teenagers populate my novels, and teens aren’t necessarily known for the most nuanced of vocabularies.

I’ve had several conversations recently with people who think literature is among the arts contributing to the coarsening of our society. They don’t like vulgar language, or even relatively mild slang, in books—particularly those their kids may be reading.

I totally get that. I’m a mom myself, and I’m the daughter of a mother who grimaced once when I used the word “stink,” admonishing me to replace it with “smell unpleasant.” Her prim New England sensibilities are etched indelibly on my brain. And like my mother, I consider the standard not just a matter of etiquette, but of wordsmithing. Where’s the challenge in settling for language’s lowest common denominators? I’ve tried to set comparable standards for my own kids.

But do I trust that they can hear other people using salty language without following suit? Yes. And time has proved me right. They’re young adults now, and I’ve never heard them say anything that would make their grandmother blush. (Well . . . almost never.)

So how do I feel when they read dialogue coming from my characters’ lips that they could never image their mother saying?

Well . . . fine. First of all, I’m happy the distinction is clear, and second, I consider it my job to create characters who are credible, relatable and relevant. This doesn’t mean all of my characters cuss like sailors (which would be unrepresentative of and disrespectful to my readers), but it means that, by and large, they communicate differently than the middle-aged woman who created them. I think my art demands it.

When I’m writing at my best, my imagination is on cruise control. The characters have taken the wheel, and I’m just along for the ride. But if I start censoring them, the smooth path suddenly seems riddled with speed bumps. That doesn’t mean my characters have carte blanche to act or speak any way they please, but it means I have enough respect for them to be as true to them as possible. And if they are acting and speaking authentically, I think my readers respond to that, without compromising their own values in the process. Indeed, bad behavior in literature tends to cast our own values in sharp relief. It would seem condescending and inartful to give readers any less than a fully realized character, flaws and all.

Consider a scene from my young-adult novel, THEN I MET MY SISTER. The scene involves my protagonist’s frustration that her cold, controlling mother can never let herself be vulnerable, and therefore can never fully connect with her daughter. The mother’s emotional unavailability has no doubt blunted the shattering grief of losing her firstborn in a car wreck 18 years earlier, but this scene suggests the price she is paying:

Mom looks at me squarely. “You saved my life.”

A chill runs up my spine. I’ve heard this all my life, usually from other people: You gave your mother a reason to go on, they’ve said, or, I don’t think she could have made it without you. No pressure there, right?

I squeeze the blade of grass and green moisture stains my fingers. “It freaks me out a little when you say that, Mom.”

Anger flashes across Mom’s face.

“I mean, I’m glad you were happy to get pregnant again,” I clarify, trying to sound casual. “It’s just. . . .” It’s just friggin’ hard to be born with a job.

“You don’t have to explain,” Mom says, her voice steely.

“Don’t get mad, Mom,” I say. “We should be able to talk about things.”

“We’re talking,” she snaps.

I stand up abruptly and put my hands on my hips. “I hate it when you do this—shutting me out every time I try to open up to you.”

Mom turns defiantly, returning to her hands and knees, returning to her weeds.

“By all means, Summer, open up and let me know it annoys you to be told you make me happy,” she mutters to the dirt.

My stomach tightens, and my eyes shimmer with tears. God. I never cry in front of my mother. “I’m not goddamn annoyed!”

Mom turns and stares at me sharply. “Don’t curse at me, young lady.”

I open my mouth to respond, but Mom has resumed digging in the dirt, clawing her fingers into the soil, yanking up weeds and tossing them aside without giving them another glance. Each weed will be purged methodically, systematically, impassively, until her garden is perfect.

And she is finished talking to me.

I think this scene demands the cold-water jolt of harsh language.

And I think my readers can handle it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kristen: My Comfort Zone Update (it’s actually getting bigger)

Last we left it, I was a freakishly private person who adored my cat and avoided the Internet and wrote books for teens, tweens, and people who are younger than that. I am still all of those things. Mostly. But I also Twitter. I did not create a wit-busting handle.

You can find me at http://twitter.com/kristen_tracy

I mostly discuss my bus adventures in San Francisco and also offer quirky (sometimes startling) animal facts.

Sample tweet: Researching tween book and found out polar bears are so toxic (PBDEs attack sex and thyroid glands) that 3 out of 100 are hermaphrodites.

In addition to my Twitter birth, since I last reported on my comfort zone, I’ve repeatedly left my house. I even went on tour.

It’s true. This summer I bought some new shirts and went on my first national book tour to promote my teen novel A FIELD GUIDE FOR HEARTBREAKERS. Hyperion-Disney sent me out into the world with Stacey Kade and Brent Crawford and we flipcammed various parts of this experience and posted the footage to Hyperion-Disney’s unRequired Reading Facebook page.


During the San Francisco leg of our travels, I gave them a crazy behind-the-scenes tour of Alcatraz. Seriously. I even took them inside a secret tunnel. (I guess that tunnel is a lot less secret now.)

In addition to the tour, a couple of weeks ago, for San Francisco’s Annual Literary Festival, I performed at the Porchlight Storytelling Series in front of several hundred people. I told a story about my book tour (My story focused on a pigeon that I saw that got run over and killed by two Segways in Washington, D.C. Apparently, pigeons don’t understand what Segways are yet). I was SO SCARED. Somebody told me I made the piano player laugh. I don’t remember any of it.

I also hit the airwaves. Yep. I read a bunch of my poems for KQED Writer’s Block, which meant I got to hear my own voice coming out of the radio and it freaked me out beyond belief. Because I don’t really sound like that, do I?

And I did more radio. I was interviewed by Michael Krasny on his show Forum with a group of women poets. Holy crap! I was scared out of my mind. And before we went live the show’s producer read us a huge list of naughty words we weren’t allowed to say on the air, and after she finished saying the naughty words, I said, “I am very afraid of the direction you think this interview is going to take.” And everybody laughed. But I was serious.

And then, as if I hadn’t done enough, I believe I may have joined a literary movement. I know. I know. It’s been quite a year. I’m part of The Contemps, a group of 21 contemporary authors with books coming out next year. It’s a fantastic group.


I was really nervous about joining them. Because I am afraid to blog. Because I am a carbon-based life form mostly made out of water and fear.

Okay. That’s my comfort zone update. Do I miss my reclusive life? TREMENDOUSLY! Then why am I doing this to myself? Because I am a writer. And I’ve come to realize that this means playing on the Internet (a little bit). I try to play for less than an hour a day. I have no plans to join Facebook or anything else. And I will only blog if I’m part of a large pack of people. Because at the end of the day, I still believe that the Internet is a time suck. Slup. Slup. Slup. (That’s the sound of my writing time getting sucked away while I write this blog post.)

Thanks for reading! And for your viewing pleasure, I have attached my teen shark novel cover. SHARKS & BOYS comes out summer 2011. Chomp!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rob: Things Never Work Out As Planned

And sometimes that can be a good thing.

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was in elementary school, and it got me fascinated with fantasy and quests and epics. So, when my fourth and fifth grade teachers asked me to write stories, I'd always start writing an enormous quest, describing the characters and their cool swords, all the wacky stuff they had in their backpacks, and how they were going to kick the bad guy's butt.

Inevitably, I'd get bored of writing this after a page or two, and I'd find a quick way to end the story. I'd set up the storyline so that the characters were going to have to overcome big obstacles and fight the villian, and I'd end it with "And they did."

It was a lot more fun for me to look at the beginning of the story and imagine the possibilities than to actually bother with writing it out. I just assumed that everything went according to plan: my awesome characters did awesome things, the bad guys were defeated, and everyone was happy.

But stories rarely go according to plan--we'd hate it if they did! We don't want to see a hero easily defeat every foe and waltz into a victory; we want to see him try and fail, and try and fail again, and barely crawl across the finish line against all odds.

One of the great military philosophers, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote the following about battle:
"In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance."

Clausewitz refers to this as friction: nothing goes according to plan because there are so many variables; the slightest thing could change (ruin) everything.

"...[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging...."

The obvious comparison with all of this--especially in the context of this blog--is to our writing: it's this friction, these try-and-fail cycles, that make our stories interesting. They provide surprises and conflict and drama and suspense.

But that's actually not the point I wanted to make. Yes, things not going to plan can be good for our stories, but they can also be good for our lives.

In the Spring of 2009 I graduated with my MBA. Normally, the program boasts a 97% job placement rate at graduation, but the economy had just fallen apart and most of the graduating class was unemployed. We'd expected jobs approaching or above the six-figure mark, but that salary target dropped and dropped over the following months, as we became desperate for a job--any job.

My wife and I (and our three kids) only lasted for a couple of months before moving back in with my parents. Bills went unpaid. We were uninsured. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

Every day I'd go to my dad's office and work--I'd tweak my resume and call leads and scour job listings. And then I'd write, because I had nothing else to do.

In the fall, my brother, Dan Wells, came to me and told me that if I had something to pitch, he'd pay my way to the World Fantasy convention, and he'd introduce me to agents and editors. There were only two problems with that plan: I didn't have anything sci-fi or fantasy (which is what editors at the con would be interested in) and the con was only two months away.

So, I wrote VARIANT. I pounded through the first draft in a little under two weeks, and then spent the next month and a half revising and polishing. I went to the con and pitched very poorly (and unsuccessfully), but Sara picked me up about a week after that.

VARIANT sold in April to HarperTeen in a fantastic three-book deal.

But here's the thing that just blows my mind: if things had "gone to plan", then I'd have an MBA job (that I'd probably dislike, because business has always been the backup plan), and I'd still write novels in the evenings and and on weekends. But things didn't go to plan--I failed to get a job. And there were dozens and dozens of try-and-fail cycles in those months of unemployment.

If things had gone to plan, I'd have never written the book. I'd have never gotten an agent. I'd have never gotten a book deal.

Sometimes it's great when things don't go to plan.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Troy: Cover Story

When I pulled up the chair to my drawing table, to illustrate the cover for my middle grade novel, there I sat competing with myself, having an artist-writer stare-down.

Problem is, I find it easier to depict a scene or a subject with words than with paint.

I wrote The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Abrams/Amulet, April 2011) with no intention of illustrating it, and hardly knew what I'd do for the cover. I had already painted with words—the images were there, waiting to be enhanced by the reader's own vision. I had said all I'd wanted to say.

But books need covers, and logically, since I'm also an artist ...

I believe a cover should read like a premise. It's the book's visual pitch. You get one shot, usually. Setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, genre, theme, even voice—some or all of these can be conveyed on the cover, though the simpler the design the more immediate the message. Above all, audience is the primary consideration. Had this been a book for adults, I would have depicted the little scene of Cripple Creek, Colorado, in early lithographic style, with the dragon hovering skyward in psychic distance. But being an MG, it must appeal to that age group, and also appeal to them through the eyes of parents, grandparents, aunts, booksellers.

The story involves the last dragon on earth who's been holed up in a gold mine for ages. A real gold mine—the Mollie Kathleen in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Kat Graham, the heroine, discovers Ye, the dragon, after an accidental fall down an abandoned chute, and consequently triggers the twenty-first century gold rush. Her mishap also endangers Ye and his glittering subterranean Wonderland. In short, it's Calamity Jane colliding with the Reluctant Dragon, and the dragon in turn colliding with our world.

Illustrating a book cover is not a time to indulge the inner artist, though that may happily occur during the process. It’s a time to submit to the needs of the book.

Here's Kat narrating the moment she meets Ye:

And beyond that, smoldering like a thundercloud at dusk, lay the dragon. He was as tarnished and mythological as prehistory itself. Two gold-leafed wings with silver veins were folded along his back; a scarlet ruffle ran ridge-like between them, into the shadows where his tail was curled; two silver strands hung from his chin; two filaments of smoke rose from his nostrils; two glowing eyes glared into mine. Fire-and-cinnamon eyes. They say that dragons can cast a spell with one look—and I believe it. I was stuck in that stare. If I stepped up and peered into it, I’d see myself trapped like an insect in amber.

My first visuals were simple: a close-up of the girl holding a nugget of gold, and the dragon. (I'm showing one of many here.)

The designer, Chad Beckerman, set a rough layout for type on an altered version of a sketch.

Then I thought of focusing more on one of the main elements (pardon the pun): gold. Gold runs like a vein throughout the book. My editor, Howard Reeves, claims I've created a new mythology about dragons and gold, so I tossed a bigger chunk of gold into the picture. This new idea grew from Chad's version, with a nugget replacing the dragon's head as the central image. Gold represents several aspects of theme within the story, besides being something everyone wants to cling to, so this made sense.

It then became a matter of creating depictions true enough to what I'd already described, though I felt the words still eclipsed any pictures I could conjure up with paint.

The girl was easier than the dragon, and a young friend provided the model.

Wanting to stay true to my original vision for the book, which was that of rolling the American West and an ancient dragon into one tumbleweed tale, I aimed for a similar effect for the art and ended up with a stylized version of realism, the kind you’d see on a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show poster that features Annie Oakley. And as you delve into the story, my cover decisions become more apparent. Kat’s pose, for example, represents her dilemma: One of her hands is pocket-bound, where she hides not only a stolen chunk of gold but her mother’s heirloom ring, to which Ye has a particular attraction; her other hand reaches out to him in compassion. As for Ye’s looks, he becomes less the stereotypical fierce fire breather after Kat’s first impression, until on further acquaintance you realize he’s a reluctant dragon by choice, becoming the antithesis of greed. A deteriorating nineteenth century wanted poster appears in one of the subplots, so that becomes the cover’s background. I credit the designer for this idea, and an artist friend with the idea of adding faded type. The wanted poster also symbolizes the craze for gold that occurs—everybody wants it—and Kat's world is crumbling; also, the aging dragon's destiny is uncertain. This kind of symbolism is not of course obvious at first glance or even after a studied look, but no matter: It helps convey mood.

In doing the cover for my own novel, the challenge was to successfully perform the task over again in an externally visual way. You’re welcome to read it and conclude for yourself whether this book can be judged by its cover.