Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Does Middle Grade Fiction Belong to? For Whom Do We Write? by Braden Bell

I recently spent three days and two nights on a school retreat with 8th graders. Being with them as they worked, played, and ate provided a wonderful research opportunity for a middle grade author. In addition to picking up a few bits of jargon and inflections, I noticed something I thought was profound. It’s one of those things that you know in your mind, but every now and then, the full import and significance hits you and you realize that you know—but don’t necessarily understand. It hit me with renewed force that middle graders, like all humans, are incredibly unique. They are multi-dimensional in every possible way. They are walking bundles of contradictions. They can be mean and generous. They can be sensitive and clueless—and they can do that in the same day. Sometimes the same minute. In this light, a realistically written middle grade protagonist might strike an adult as being unrealistic. As I pondered that, I thought about how much children’s literature—including middle grade—is controlled by adults. Written, edited, sold, purchased, and recommended by adults. I remembered just how little autonomy and freedom adolescents have. Nearly every aspect of their lives are controlled by adults. Most of what they do is done for adults, and done the way the adults want it done. Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Adolescents are, by definition, immature. They don’t have good judgment. Still—very little of their lives are truly their own. And this is what led me to my thought. Is the literature we call middle-grade really their own? Or, does it reflect the mores, desires, priorities, and agendas of adults? Is it a genre created for their joy and delight—or is it a vehicle for us to shape and guide them? When I was a kid, I loved to read. I was fond of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and an obscure and sort of silly series about a pig who solved mysteries. It wasn’t high octane literary stuff. But I liked it. My parents and teachers wanted me to read “quality children’s literature.” So we got a book list from the library and I read some of the books on the list. I hated them. The experts had identified these as being “quality children’s literature.” This child didn’t enjoy them. Who was right? I don’t know. Sometimes we need to tell children to eat their broccoli. A steady diet of ice cream isn’t healthy. But when do the kids get to decide what they like? What’s the balance? I can’t pretend to know. But it’s got me thinking about my own writing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plot 101: Quotes and Links to Help You On Your Way - Caroline Starr Rose

When revising, it's essential you study your plot carefully to determine what's working and what's not. Here are some quotes and links I used in my revision class last spring. I hope they point you in the right direction with your own work:
plot line
Quotes from Novel Metamorphosis:
“The connection between the inner and outer arc, the emotional arc and the plot arc, isn’t always easy to see! When you set up an initial plot conflict, you need to immediately ask yourself what obligatory action scene is set up. When the inner conflict is set up, you need to ask what epiphany is set up.”

Quotes from Second Sight:
Good fiction creates “deliberate emotion...through immersing us in the character’s lived experience [via] well-crafted prose: prose where every word has been considered carefully by the author and belongs in the work; prose that communicates clearly.”

WANTS = action plot / NEEDS = emotional plot

“The difference between starting with premise and starting with character is usually that in a premise plot, the character has something done to him or her from the outside; and in a character plot, the character is the one who causes the action, thanks to the Desire.”

Avoiding the infodump: “Information must emerge organically, usually within the context of action.”

“A kid reader, whether he knows it or not, is picking up a book with the following request in mind: Make me care.”

“Fiction runs on friction and trouble.”

“Decide whether we need to see the full action of every instant in your book. ...Focus on your most powerful scenes.”

“You are a writer, not a security camera...Shape events and cherry-pick the ones that are going to be the most exciting and most significant for your story.”

Plot Structure :: Ingrid's Notes (This is an incredible series on classic plot and arch plot, alternative plots and alternative structures)
Plotting :: Janice Hardy's Fiction University (Another comprehensive list of posts on plot)

What tips, quotes, or techniques have helped you when working on plot?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

EAGLE TALONS by Robert Lee Murphy (reviewed by Paul Greci)

Eagle Talons, Book One of the Iron Horse Chronicles by Robert Lee Murphy is a fast paced story with well-developed characters set in 1867 on the frontier as the railroad is expanding westward.

From the back cover:

Will Braddock doesn’t want some old judge dictating his future. The newly orphaned fourteen-year-old embarks upon a quest to determine his own destiny. He heads west to find his uncle, a surveyor on the first transcontinental railroad. He has to convince his only living relative not to sign the judge’s papers sentencing him to a blacksmith apprenticeship. He wants to be free to ride across the windswept prairies and through the forested mountains, not pound nails in a barn. He wants to be part of the excitement of building the Union Pacific Railroad.

This is a coming of age story set in a time where kids on their own had to grow up fast. Murphy does a great job of using the both the historical setting and the landscape as vehicles to increase the tension and keep the story moving. 

Without any spoilers, I loved the tricky situations Will had to navigate, the characters he had to confront, and the barriers he had to overcome to survive. There is much in this book to discuss, from what it was like to be a boy relying on himself in a dangerous place and time, to how the Native Americans were affected by the coming of the railroad.

Eagle Talons published by Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Gale is scheduled to be available in libraries, on-line, and in bookstores on October 22, 2014. Until then, you can read the sample chapters on the author's website.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Writing Wisdom

I've been re-reading Hooked by Les Edgerton. I've posted about it before, but I just LOVE the section about story-worthy problems - it's wonderful.
"Good and worthy story problems derive from the small and the particular and the individual. Not the grandiose. Don't begin a story with the intent of writing about a grand topic, such as freedom for instance."
Yes! This reminds me of Ralph Fletcher's saying, "The bigger the topic, the smaller you write." We can't write a story well if we're trying to focus on ALL of something. We need to narrow the topic until we can make it personal, emotional, powerful. Les Edgerton provides a fabulous example:
...some years ago we had civil strife in this country over states' rights versus federalism and slavery, among other things. We called it the Civil War. ...there were a great many essays and speeches written on both sides about the conflict - even without chat rooms - and most of those are now forgotten except to academics specializing in such knowledge.

What lots more people do remember about this chapter in our history, however, is a little book titled Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by a lady named Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book had a powerful effect on the nation, both the North and the South. Why? Because she focused on one particular, the life of Uncle Tom and the effect of slavery upon him.
Wow. For me, this example was like a punch in the gut - but in a good way. The first time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was crying at my desk, in front of my students, by the end of chapter three. It's powerful stuff. And Edgerton's right - it's because of her focus on specific people and their lives that we react as strongly as we do. No one has ever made me care about characters more than she did. That book hurt me, which is exactly what she wanted it to do.

By narrowing our story's problem and limiting its focus, we make it more emotionally powerful. Edgerton says it better than I can: "Always get your story down to the level of individuals. We can see individuals. We can't see The Forces of Capitalism vs. The Forces of Communism."
What piece of writing advice/wisdom do you most appreciate?