Category Archives: Character Development

A Conversation with Vanessa Brantley-Newton, illustrator of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER

I’d like to start this post by noting that the subject of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER, the late Audrey Faye Hendricks, was nine years old when she was imprisoned for her civil rights activism. She remained in prison—real prison—for a week. She was locked in a cell. Interrogated by adult strangers. She was in danger, both inside the prison and after her release. She is an American hero. As of this post, she does not have a Wikipedia page.

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“I’d never heard of Audrey Faye Hendricks,” says Vanessa Brantley-Newton, author and illustrator of over 75 books. vanessa-brantley-newton“When I read Cynthia Levinson’s manuscript, it broke me. It made me cry. I became fascinated by Audrey. I read the manuscript to myself and then had someone read it to me. Right away, I could see the pictures—that’s very important.”

Vanessa goes on to detail aspects of her research, “I read Cynthia’s previous book on the Children’s March, WE’VE GOT A JOB TO DO, and weve-got-a-jobwatched the PBS program on the event. I wanted my work to be emotional—to make it clear that Audrey was a child. As I worked, I listened to music from that time, songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” With one exception early in the process, Vanessa and the author did not actively collaborate on the project. “Cynthia wanted to see how I portrayed Martin Luther King Jr.—a friend of Audrey’s family—and once I showed her the sketch, we didn’t need to consult again.”

Like all of Vanessa’s work, THE YOUNGEST MARCHER glows with color and shimmers with texture. the-youngest-marcher“I’m a retro girl, heart and soul,” Vanessa says. “I love the colors of the sixties and seventies, the reds and oranges together.” She scanned vintage fabrics and included photographs in her collage work. Her use of marbleized paper adds swirling atmosphere to the image of a small, beloved child curled up on a prison cot.

Despite her age, Audrey’s bright-eyed conviction is made plain in Vanessa’s illustrations. As she heeds Dr. King’s call to fill the prisons, as she boards the police van in her starched skirt, bobby socks, and pink hair ribbons, she is full of hope and might as easily be headed to school or church. Although younger than the other marchers, she remains stalwart until the prisons are full to bursting and all are released. Hope intact, Audrey Faye Hendricks emerges to her parents’ arms and a changed world, one she helped to create.

“I hope that people can be inspired by my work,” Vanessa says. “As a child, I never saw children of color in books. We have this wonderful ability as authors and illustrators to tell stories that encompass what children go through so that kids feel included, like someone has captured their real world.”

I’d like to thank Vanessa for her time and for all of her efforts to bring Audrey Faye Hendricks and her story to vibrant, visual life. I’d like to thank author Cynthia Levinson for writing the story of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER. I’m glad and grateful to know about this remarkable story of courage.


Hayley's Author PhotoI write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming in spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka.
I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

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Filed under Activism, Book Launch, Celebrations, Character Development, Characters, cover art, Creativity, Illustrators, Inspiration, Interviews, Launch, Picture books, process, Research, Uncategorized

When We Were Twelve—EMUs’ Advice To Their Younger Selves

All this week on the blog we’ve celebrated the launch of Elly Swartz’s debut middle grade novel, FINDING PERFECT.

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FINDING PERFECT’s sweet, sensitive main character, twelve-year-old Molly, wishes her life was perfect, but family and school problems keep her in turmoil. She attempts to counteract these upsets with comforting rituals, only to find that these same rituals, bit by bit, begin to control her. As her anxiety escalates, it becomes clear that Molly needs someone to advise her, to assure her she is capable of positive change, and to help her look forward to stronger, better days.

Perhaps the best person to guide Molly would be her older, wiser self. With the perspective that comes with years, an adult Molly would know how to be supportive while encouraging growth. With this in mind, I asked the EMUs what advice they would give their twelve-year-old selves.

We’ll start with the author.  Elly’s advice to Elly Junior? “Be brave. Be kind. Be curious. And always stay true to who you are.”

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Isn’t Elly Junior adorable? See the light of creativity and compassion in her eyes? Bet this kid will grow up to be a writer or something.

The Debbi Michiko Florence of today advises her younger self, “Don’t worry so much about following trends like Farrah Fawcett feathered hair – really, it doesn’t work on Japanese stick-straight hair.”

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(I admire you, Debbi, for even trying. While my sister expertly wielded her round brush and can of AquaNet every morning, I slept in.)

Debbi goes on to recall a relatable tween dilemma with all its requisite drama. She asks her younger self, “And that gold belt trend you just had to follow? Remember how you begged and pleaded with your mom to get you that gold belt and how you lost it the first day you wore it to school? And remember how you convinced the teacher to let you go look for it and then convinced your friend’s teacher to let her leave her class to help you look for it? And how you looked and looked and couldn’t find it and you were so afraid you were going to get in trouble and you were freaking out? Then upi found it. The belt had slipped under your shirt and you were still wearing it! Don’t sweat the small stuff ! Or even what you think is the “big stuff.”

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I don’t have a picture of Debbi  back then, but I know she was much, much cuter than a sleepy desktop ducking.

PierceHeadshotUCLA (2)little-terry

Like the seasoned picture book writer she is, Terry Pierce is superbly succinct. She advises young Terry to, “believe in yourself, be courageous and strong. Stand up for yourself if someone wrongs you. Don’t let others define you. You’re bright, a hard worker, and have a kind heart, and that will take you far in life.”

IMG_2512 - WEBJason Gallaher gives his former self a real pep talk, exhorting him, “to not stress out so much about how things are going to turn out in life. Everything is going to be just fine, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

Right now, dear 12 year-old, you’re quirky, a bit gangly, and your suspicions about liking boys are correct. But don’t worry about that because everything turns out better than fine.Keep focusing on your dreams because they will come true. And I know you’re going to roll your eyes and say, “Everybody says that.” But I’m not just saying this like your teachers or guidance counselors say it. I’m saying it knowing this for a fact about you, about us.

Every dream you have comes true: You move to a big city, your quirky talents get appreciation from people in a legitimate industry (publishing, in case you’re wondering), you *finally* get past that horrible middle stage when you grow out your hair and find out what it feels like to have long locks (You’re robsessed with it. Also, when Robert Pattinson becomes a thing you’ll understand the term “robsessed”), and you find love.

So keep trucking along. Love yourself, which I know will be a struggle, but in times when you feel down, know that even now, nearly two decades later, I love you and wouldn’t have made it here if not for you.

Sadly, Jason didn’t provide a tweenage picture of himself, so I’ll just leave this here.

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Oh, and this:

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Only one more, I promise.

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Darcey Rosenblatt says, “I would tell myself there will come a time when you truly treasure all the things that make you weird and different than the normal kids – really – trust me.”

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Spoken like a true environmental planner/scuba diver/mother/artist/story farmer/hiker/conference founder/wife/costume-maker/ soon-to-be published author, Darcey. You put the actual in self-actualized!

EMU Elaine Vickers advises her young self to value friendships, saying, “There are great things ahead, 12-year-old Elaine! You will soon outgrow this hairstyle and this shirt. But the friends you make this year will stay with you. You’ll laugh and grow and travel together. One will sing at your wedding, another will help deliver your babies. And one day, they will take you out to dinner the night before your first book launches. Hang on to these friends.”

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Stay true to yourself. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Stand up for yourself and be kind. Love yourself. Treasure what makes you different. Hang on to good friends.

Good advice for FINDING PERFECT’S Molly and everyone else. Congratulations and thank you, Elly!!!

Enjoy the day,

Hayley

 

Curriculum Guide for FINDING PERFECT:

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9780374303129TG.pdf

A Teacher’s Guide For FINDING PERFECT

images.macmillan.com

A Teacher’s Guide For FINDING PERFECT About the Book To twelve-year-old Molly Nathans, perfect is: • The number four • The tip of a newly sharpened No. 2 pencil

To purchase Finding Perfect:

http://amzn.com/0374303126

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780374303129

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/finding-perfect-elly-swartz/1122889663?ean=9780374303129


hayley-at-12Hayley's Author Photo

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming in spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Filed under Advice, Anxiety, Book Launch, Character Development, Characters, Inspiration, Launch, Panic, Uncategorized, Writing and Life

The Essential Glimmer of Hope

Middle grade readers are engulfed in emerging awareness of the world around them. They have a lot to learn, a lot to to try and understand. That’s plenty right there, but it’s not all that’s required of them. They have to learn about themselves too. Sometimes that process is straightforward, if painfully and memorably awkward.

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Sometimes it’s decidedly not straightforward. Peer conflicts and personal challenges loom large. Young people encounter problems that threaten to get out of hand and actually hurt them. They may not know how and when to seek help. Fear and shame stop them in their tracks.

The Scream

When this happens, they need an antidote to the poison of despair. They need hope. They have to have it.

This is where a deftly written, sensitive novel like Elly Swartz’s upcoming FINDING PERFECT (OCTOBER 2016) comes in. I just finished reading the ARC—the pre-publication Advanced Reader Copy—and emerged feeling both enlightened and heartened. This is a story that trusts readers with hard truths while encouraging them to turn away from despair and step toward hope.

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Twelve-year-old Molly, FINDING PERFECT’S main character, finds that her efforts to control life’s turmoil backfire. Habits that once brought comfort and security become traps that steal her peace. Her pain is very real, yet throughout her story, there is an essential glimmer of hope. Hope that she can and will find her peace again. That with courage and support, she’ll find her way—step by small step—out of a thorny tangle that once felt inescapable.

Hope doesn’t smooth over life’s snags and scars with a veneer of perfection. It shines light onto them, eliminating dark corners of doubt and fostering strength and growth.

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This is what a book like FINDING PERFECT can offer to the beleaguered and bewildered middle grade reader. A chance to experience a trial and emerge triumphant with a bit of hard-won hope of their very own.


Hayley's Author Photo

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. I’m currently expecting two picture books, BABYMOON (Candlewick Press) and WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, spring 2019, (Simon&Schuster, Beach Lane Books) illustrated by Diana Sudyka.

Come hang out with me on Twitter @hayleybwrites, Facebook, or in the meadow: http://hayleybarrettwrites.wordpress.com.

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Filed under Anxiety, ARCs, Character Development, Characters, Uncategorized

A Plea for Anger

This is one of those posts where I’ll wear both my professional hats–author, and psychologist. I want to talk about anger as a normal and even positive human emotion that deserves a spot in children’s literature.

Yes, anger. ANGER. The bad feeling! The demonized emotional state! That emotion people are told they shouldn’t feel, or that they should work to eradicate. In today’s world, we have come to a point of teaching people that if they experience anger, there might be something wrong with them (not the thing that made them angry). Worse, I see a not-so-subtle push to hint that everyone, even victims, can choose whether or not to feel anger.

As both a writer and a psychologist, my opinion about that is, UM, NO. <Oops. Did that sound angry?>Mad-Lady

Anger, like fear, happiness, and unhappiness, is a regular, healthy human emotion. Like hunger, excitement, and pain, anger is also a physical sensation with a specific purpose. A colleague of mine in the field of psychology has survived three harrowing battles with cancer (two his own, one his beloved wife), and he said once, of pain, “It’s so simple. Pain is the body’s way of saying Look! LOOK RIGHT HERE! Pay attention to this.” Pain is the body’s alert and cry for help and care.

Roland (1)Anger, likewise, is one of the mind’s attention-getters. Consider it your brain’s way of saying, “Hey! Look right here!” Think of anger as a spiritual alert that some essential aspect of you or what you value is being violated. Then find a healthy way to spend the physical energy anger generates, the purpose of which is to allow you to defend yourself or your world when that defense is needed. Yes, anger is very physical, and it needs to be spent, not stored, or it can lead to dis-ease, disease, or even violence.

And there’s the key. While anger often contributes to violence, anger does not equate with violence. Anger isn’t a choice, but usually, violence is. There are many other positive, healthy things to do with anger, like exercise, or write a fiery speech or even an entire book, make a video, paint it out, write a bill to become law, walk away from a toxic person or situation, protest injustice–the list of healthy ways to spend anger is pretty limitless. Put it to work. That’s why you have it, and why you feel it. Identify the violation, and address it productively. Anger doesn’t have to lead to harm to anyone or anything. In fact, anger can herald that historic moment when harm finally meets its match in our will, and ceases.

In the absence of violence, anger itself is not the problem. The violation that sparked it is the problem. Anger is a change agent. Sometimes it’s the situation/violator that needs to change, and sometimes it’s our own perceptions (ooooh, yes, we can ALL get angry over “nothing,” toothpaste in the sink, misperceptions–that list is endless, too).

As writers, especially children’s writers, I think we owe anger some serious attention. I hope we’ll let some of our characters FreakinTroubleget down-and-dirty, white-hot furious sometimes, and do something productive with that emotion. We all know that children need to see themselves on our pages–and kids get angry. Ticked. Pissed off. Cross-eyed, spitting, shouting MAD. Asking them to put the feeling away, to not express it, to become “long-suffering” in the face of obvious injustice and violations–it may just distance them from what we write. It could rob them of vicarious opportunities to practice healthy spending of that energy, evaluating what caused it, and putting their anger to good use to make needed changes in our world.

So, the short version is this:

Mad ≠ Bad!

Give anger a little respect!

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Susan Vaught

Susan Vaught

Susan Vaught is the author of many books for young adults, such as TRIGGER, BIG FAT MANIFESTO, and FREAKS LIKE US. Her debut novel for middle-grade readers, FOOTER DAVIS PROBABLY IS CRAZY, published by Simon & Schuster, hit the shelves in March, 2015. Please visit Susan at her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

The Art of Essential Living (and Writing)

My debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was sold on April 3, 2014. On that same day, I got a phone call from our social worker, asking if we would be interested in changing the age range of the child we were willing to adopt. We had been in the process of adopting a child for 3 years, and were approved up to the age of 24 months. She asked if we were interested in, let’s say, changing the upward end of the range to 28 months.

Translation of that question: There is a child that the adoption committee wants to match you with. He is slightly older than the age range you requested. If you change your age range you will be matched with your son.

Answer to that question: Yes. And yes and yes and also yes.

growingPlant1My book sold on the same day I found out about our son. Two excruciatingly long processes in the soil, sun and rain, and they flowered on exactly the same day.

Explain that. (Seriously. I’m collecting reasons, magical and logical, for why these two journeys are so intertwined.)

Or I will explain it. Or I will try, at least. But bear with me? I want to finally write a little about my son, who just came to live with us in December. I’ve been protective of his journey, not wanting to expose him too much in too public a way, but there is a part of it that I want to explore now. Here. With you all. And I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with writing. Maybe. We’ll see.

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In Honduras.

My son was born in Honduras and lived his three years there before we adopted him. He lived in the same town, with the same family. His life with his foster mother was secure and full of love. This is evident. He is fully himself wherever, thus far, he has been – in his home town; in Tegucigalpa, the capitol city of Honduras; on Roatan Island; on my parents’ farm in very rural Vermont; and now, in my town in Vermont, in our little village, in our house. In all of these places, in all of these landscapes, he is…who he is. Do you know what I mean? He’s got a solid sense of self. And he is very comfortable residing there. No need to defend himself, no need to hide himself.

I believe he is like this for two reasons: First, he came into the world this way. He must have. And second, his foster mother nurtured this in him – through her love and gift of security – during those critical early developmental years in his life. (The respect and awe I feel for her, this woman who took in my son with open arms, raised him, and then let him go with those same open arms…that is for another post another day.)

Because he has this innate sense of centeredness, he is very curious about and very comfortable finding the ways that he fits into the landscape of our family. And here is where maybe he and writing overlap? Or are woven together?

My son’s first three years were full of the routines and rhythms of household chores. I’m learning this about him. He loves to do the laundry with me, for example, and learned the order of button pushing to start the washing machine by the second time we did it together. He loves to cook too. He sits on the counter, his short legs kicking the wooden drawer underneath him, and he dumps the flour, cracks the eggs, and pours the milk. Stir is one of his first English words. He watched my other 3 kids come home from school for about 3 days before he began taking their lunch boxes out of their backpacks and bringing them to me – because he realized that was what they did, day after day, right after they piled through the door and spilled into the house.

This kid watches routines. He feels rhythms. And then he acts. He finds the places where he can fit himself into the beat, into the music, into the pauses and patterns – and then he inserts himself. The earnestness with which he pursues this breaks my heart wide open. He is so transparent. He is so clearly identifying and claiming his place in the family, and in this new life. But – or maybe and – at the same time, he is so clearly tapping into something that is familiar to him at his core.

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Trampolining in winter in negative digit temps. Welcome to Vermont, kid.

Rhythms and routines. This is how you write a book too, isn’t it? On a meta-level: make a routine for your writing. On a micro-level: find and follow the rhythms of your characters’ voices and of the story. But it’s deeper than that. And I don’t know if I can describe what I am feeling adequately here. (Maybe someone can give me insight after reading this?) There is an essential quality to my son’s life right now…as in, he is practically all essence. There is an authenticity that buzzes through and around him that’s palpable. Maybe this is because he is, in a way, being re-born right now. And that newborn time is all about essence and core and what-you-see-is-what-you-got, right? Most kids keep this for a while, some for a long while, so I am, by no means, suggesting that my son is unique in this…but I do think that, among the myriad of other reasons I am so lucky to be mothering this kid, I am privileged to be a part of this kind of essentialness in such an intimate way.

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Yup, he’s drinking it all in…

This – this essentialness – is what we strive for in our writing, isn’t it? The transparency and truthfulness of the human spirit that breaks open the hearts (and minds) of our readers? That inspires them – in even the smallest ways – to live fully inside of themselves?

I don’t know. I think so anyway. What I do know is that my son humbles me every single day.

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Filed under Character Development, craft~writing, rhythms

How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

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May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

3 Ways To Establish Characters Quickly

I love a fascinating story world and I go nuts for an original concept, but the one story element that pulls me in faster than any other is character. The moment I feel I understand  the protagonist is the moment I’m hooked.

Since my upcoming YA novel Futures features five main characters, I’m facing the extra challenge of making five important character introductions. I’ve thought a lot about how to help a reader quickly understand what makes characters tick. Here are three methods I’ve observed for establishing characters quickly.

Give an Impression, Not a Description

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

C. S. Lewis’ opening line for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader gives us an immediate impression of the main character. We don’t yet know what Eustace looks like, how old he is, or where he lives–but we get the idea that he’s not a pleasant guy.

Screenwriters use this trick when they introduce a character in a script. They provide just enough details to give an impression of a character, even while limiting physical description. Here’s the intro for a character in the screen adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

SAM (17) would make every mother proud and every father nervous. She is alive, adventurous, and a worldclass flirt.

This exact phrasing wouldn’t work in a novel because it’s more telling than showing. But that first part is great, and I could see it working well in prose. It tells you a lot more about Sam than a rundown of her facial features or clothing would.

Provide Contrast

“Gorillas are patient as stones. Humans, not so much.” –The One and Only Ivan

Sometimes the best way to tell us who a character is, is by telling us who he’s not. As with Ivan the gorilla, characters stand out when they are surrounded by people who are different from them or put in settings where they don’t belong:

  • Harry is the boy wizard who doesn’t belong in the terribly ordinary Dursley household.
  • Katniss is the hunter who will do what it takes to provide for her family while her mother will not.
  • Park is quiet and intelligent compared to “the morons at the back of the bus.”

Hint at Their Problem

“The only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” –Wonder

The main character of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a boy with a facial deformity, tells us his problem on the first page. We get August right then. We realize first that he’s an ordinary kid. We also realize that he’s misunderstood, that he’s insightful, and that he’s going to be totally frank with us despite whatever misconceptions we might have about him.

In Courtney Summers’ Cracked Up To Be, one of the first things Parker tells the reader is, “I look like shit today for a variety of reasons…” and then admits that she might flunk high school. We’re picturing rumpled clothes and messy hair, but more importantly, we’re getting a feel for Parker as someone who’s troubled and off-track.

There are definitely a lot more ways to introduce characters. What other methods do you think help establish character quickly? What are some of your favorite character introductions?

parker photoParker Peevyhouse loves puzzles of all types and is always up for a game of Clue. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut YA novel, FUTURES, will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in 2015.

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Filed under Character Development, craft~writing, Writing

Why Writers Should Be Readers

galley box largeAs a writer of books for children, the most difficult thing for me to admit is that I wasn’t a big reader when I was a child (which is very a-typical for kidlit authors). I read and loved a lot of picture books during my elementary school years, and then some Amelia Bedelia early readers, but I can literally name—on just two hands—the novels I remember finishing before I graduated from high school. They were pretty much all by Judy Blume and Roald Dahl.

I look back now and can’t figure out exactly why I wasn’t a big reader—my parents both read incessantly and took me to the library all the time—but I have a clue. Truth be known, reading was difficult for me. More often than not, I felt frustrated because I would read five or ten pages and then realize I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t remember which character was which or how they knew one another. I didn’t feel attached to the story at all. As it turns out, I had a learning disability that I didn’t know about until I was in college. But I won’t put a label on it now because this isn’t the point of my post.

The point of my post is to say this: My writing ability has taken a very long time to develop because I wasn’t a big reader until I was in my twenties. And now I’ve been playing catch up for the next twenty years.

I started with non-fiction (typical for a college student), moved on to the adult market, then finally—for the first time in my life—truly discovered the magic of middle grade and young adult novels. And that’s when I fell in love with reading. It became an addiction.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Reading is, by far, the best thing a writer can do to sharpen his or her storytelling skills. Yes, you also need to write and write and write, for development, but very little improvement will take place if a writer isn’t learning from others through a process similar to osmosis. Exposure to excellent storytelling, and lots of it, can’t help but rub off.

As a reader, the more books you read, the pickier you become about loving a book verses just liking it. Or even finishing it. Right?

The same thing has happened to me as a writer. The more I read, the easier it becomes to pick out what makes a plot work and what hurts it. The characters in a great novel become my friends, and just like it’s simple for me to tell someone what I like about my real-life BFFs, I can more skillfully tell my readers what makes a person attractive or repulsive (at least to me). And I can also better understand, by reading excellent books, what my own weaknesses are as a writer. I struggle with the details of setting—how to make it feel natural without overdoing it—and transitions. (Why is it so darn difficult to move a character from one room or thought to another?!)

But when I see the masters at work, I learn. And I absorb.

And this is another critical element: A writer needs to know and understand the genre and market they’re writing for. If you’ve been involved with critique groups and read enough pages from beginning writers (and believe me, I was one of them, so I’m not knocking anyone), it’s likely that you’ve heard sample pages that don’t fit the parameters of the author’s intended market. Perhaps it’s a picture book with 3000 words. Or the story is about seniors in high school, who should be thinking about college applications and their unattainable crush, but is instead filled with pranks on teachers and middle grade gross-out humor.

Knowing what works in each market, and what doesn’t, is obviously paramount to your success. And you’ll only know this if you’re intimately familiar with your chosen genre.

And then there is pacing. This is another thing I struggle with. I think of a cool scene that I’m dying to get to, or that awesome moment when my two main characters finally get things right, and I want to make it happen that very moment. I want the plot to move over so my characters can make out express everything they’ve been holding back. But the best pacing uses restraint for a slow burn; it builds up for a worth-while reveal. It makes a reader work for the rewards. And it also knows when to push all the details about the carpet and drapery out of the way and get on with the story.

I love that about reading, because good pacing is something that can only be understood through experiencing it. It can’t really be taught, and it’s certainly difficult to master.

Another benefit of continuous reading is recognizing clichés or overdone plots. While it’s true that there are “no new ideas, only new voices” editors likely won’t even read your first page these days—no matter how stellar your writing is—if your pitch tells them that the new girl in school is unavoidably attracted to a mysterious boy who is actually—gasp!—a vampire/werewolf/dark angel. While this pitch in various forms sold book after book about seven years ago, writers who keep up with the ever-changing trends will likely know better than to spend their time on a similar plot (but check back in another seven years).

And the #1 reason to read: isn’t reading THE BEST THING EVER, anyway?

I’m still not a fast reader, and my struggles with attention haven’t entirely faded, but once I get hooked on a good book, I’m gone. I’m in heaven. And I want nothing more than to help my own readers experience this same emotion.

So tell me, what has reading done for your own writing? Has it helped you avoid overdone plots or character types? Honed your skills? Does good writing put you in the mood to work? It surely does that for me!

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IMG_0723-2Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at BookshopTalk.com. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, craft~writing, Education, reading, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and Life

Music and the Written Word

music art picAs I wait for editorial notes on THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, I’ve been working on another middle-grade suspense novel. One essential thing that puts me in the writing mood and keeps me there is music.

I’m always curious to know how many authors listen to music while they write, and how many consider it a distraction. I’m one of those people who can’t write without music—usually LOUD music, which makes no sense because all other types of background noise really zap my concentration. It could be that music drowns out everything else, allowing me to focus. That’s probably true. (Especially when I’m wearing headphones and can’t hear the kids fighting in the next room.) But I also find that music provides atmosphere, helping me visualize the setting and characters more vividly.

Each project gets its own playlist. MOTHMAN had mostly folk music by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Civil Wars, because those artists fit the tone I was hoping to establish. Thanks to Pandora, I also had the pleasure of discovering new artists along the way, like Crooked Still and Sarah Jarosz. They were added to the playlist, too.

My playlists don’t change dramatically from project to project, since I always include some sort of paranormal or spooky element and I need the music to reflect that. So I don’t have any lists with, say, Dolly Parton or Metallica. But unexpected artists do sneak their way in. The theme music for a previous book that didn’t sell was, and will always be, a song by the Pretenders. That’s the appeal of the creative process: I never know what my very opinionated imagination has planned.

the muse with lyre

How do you keep your muse happy?

With this new project it’s been fun to explore the subtle differences in mood, conflict, and pacing. Trying out different musical genres as I write actually helps me shape the characters and the overall feel of the book. Cinematic music has been working pretty well, works by composers like Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat. Groups like Passion Pit and One Republic have found their way into the rotation too. I try not to argue with how the muse chooses to further her agenda. I just do what she tells me to do.

I’m sure there are amazing studies out there about the positive effects of music on productivity and cognitive ability. I confess my interest is less grandiose. Someday, somehow, if a humble book of mine is ever made into a movie, my heart’s fondest wish is that it will get a kick-butt soundtrack. Who knows? Maybe some future writer will crank up the volume on her laptop speakers when she hears it, feeding her own muse in the great circle of (writing) life.

What do you listen to when you write? Beethoven? Lady Gaga? The soothing sounds of the rain forest? Let us know in the comments!

                                                                                                                                           

May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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“Based on True Events”

In Carol Brendler’s wonderful introductory post on Monday (welcome, Carol!), she talked about writing “a story that hangs upon a true event in history.” That line jogged my brain about something that I’ve actually been thinking about for a while: the often surprising role that truth plays in fiction.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rabbit: The True Edward Hopper

For example, when they hear what my novel is about, many people assume that my heroine Gladys is just a thinly veiled version of me at 11. “You must have been cooking up a storm at that age!” they say. They’re always disappointed to learn that that aspect of the book is completely made up; that I never even boiled a pot of water until I was in my 20’s.

But the parts that are based on reality? No one would ever guess which ones those are.

A few months ago, my husband and I were walking around my hometown when we came upon the spot where the day camp used to be. It’s now a parking lot for a Super Stop & Shop (cue the violins), but back in the day it was owned by a local family. A family with a pretty daughter who was probably the most popular girl at my high school.

Funnily enough, the most popular girl at Gladys’s school also comes from the family that owns the day camp in their town.

“So, wait,” my husband interrupted as I was explaining the Stop & Shop lot’s storied past, “Camp Bentley in your book is based on a real place??” He had read at least three drafts, and had no idea.

Rebel with Paws: The Real Dennis Hopper

There are plenty of other examples, of course, on both sides. The quirkily-named rabbits, Edward and Dennis Hopper? 100% true (I owned both of those rabbits!). Gladys’s totally prosaic aversion to walnuts? 100% fiction.

Now that I’ve gone at it from the writer’s side, I find myself wondering which bits of my favorite novels have a basis in reality, and which are total flights of fancy from the authors’ imaginations. I’m sure that I’d be surprised to learn the answers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a time-travel machine to go grill Jane Austen, and I don’t like to bother my BFF J.K. Rowling with too much shop talk when we hang out…

So instead, my fellow writers, I turn to you! What’s a scene or aspect of your book no one would ever guess was based on reality? And what tidbit would your readers be surprised to learn is truly 100% fiction?

Share in the comments!

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Filed under Character Development, Writing, Writing and Life