Friday, February 26, 2016

On Having Something to Say

Dear A. S. King,

I know a novel is not an essay.  It’s an experience.  But I recently went to see E. Lockhart speak, and she explained the characters in a book are all in a conversation with each other, and the book itself in in conversation with other books, with what’s going on in the world.  I recently read your I Crawl through It.  Your novel has something to say.  It responds to so much that has been frustrating me about our world and education in particular.  When I was finished I wanted to shout out my window, “This!  This!  This!”  But when I realized the street outside my house was empty, I quickly googled reviews of I Crawl through It so I could connect with others about my relief at your brilliant articulation.  Surely this book was already making splashes of change in a surreal and hypocritical educational system if not the world.  Finally!  However, though reviewers appreciate that I Crawl through It has accomplished something important, it soon becomes clear that they don’t totally get what that is.  I had to let you know that my writing partner and I stayed long past the lunch hour at our local café discussing your book, and somebody out here gets it.
I’m about to tell you what I got out of this book and why it’s important, but that necessitates taking it apart to some extent.  E. Lockhart said something else the night I heard her speak.  Recalling those teachers who asked us to boil down the meaning of a novel into one sentence, she said, “You write a novel because what you have to say can’t be said in one sentence.”  Nothing I say here will remotely compete with the beauty and richness of I Crawl through It as a whole artistic work.  Nevertheless I feel compelled to cry out across the country from my little writing room to you, Ms. King, “I get it!”
I get it.  I have built invisible helicopters.  Dreams I saw quite clearly that people in positions of authority did not see.  Dreams I worked on every day.  I fashioned them from lines I copied out of books, images I saw in films, art I stared at, lives I listened to, and questions I couldn’t shake.  Dreams I wasn’t sure would fly, but which I was compelled to pilot regardless.  And so I tried out for the play, I taught in the inner city school, I married a man I believed in, I painted my living room purple, adopted a daughter from China, quit teaching, and have spent years alone typing stories into a laptop.  Neighbors, colleagues, family, even friends questioned why I didn’t go into engineering, become a business major, or adopt “one of my own kind”.  They lifted skeptical eyebrows, shook their heads –what a waste, asked how long it takes to write a book anyway.
I get it.  I have ticked like a bomb.  When I brought limp student sentences that needed attention to the principal, and she told me not to ever leave my desk until four o’clock exactly.  When one robotics kit for one “trouble maker” took a fight.  When schedules, tests, and documentation crowded out the space and time for learning.  When one of the sixteen-year-old eighth graders asked me why I would even come teach here.  When the children’s need began to be supplanted by buzzwords and doublespeak that safeguard the status quo.  When those in charge listen with a smiling face, a nodding head, and a patronizing tone, but do not hear, do not intend to address anything after I exit the room.  When seething they say to me, “How can one child be arrogant and tender?”
I get it.  What I am forced to eat, I have tried to digest on paper.  Real people in torn jeans scribbled on with a Bic pen.  Angry boys plugged into electric music resting their heads on backpacks jaw muscles clenching and unclenching as they chew their gum.  I type them into Word documents, give them beautiful sentences, ask them questions until their dark places merge with mine.  All of them in the process of a great becoming.  All of them searching for a path through.  But this is light writing.  Just for kids.  Or so dark it will give them ideas.  About who they can love, what is fair, who is missing from the conversation.
I get it.  I have heard the cry, “I can be helped.”  They sat around the table in an effort not to lose him.  I asked if he was using –he said yes.  And the rest of them went around the table continuing the litany of missed assignments.  I saw the eyeliner, the piercings, the dyed hair, and the dog collar, but I heard a voice that did not want to walk on anyone’s leash.  Another asked why she had to do this anyway?  They told that one she was rude.  And no one said anything when her chair went empty the rest of the year.  Lonely, so lonely, so misunderstood, so desperate they thought about taking their own lives, and I was the only one they could ferret out who would do anything?
I get it.  I walk through a senseless world in which the most sane are called crazy.  Where classrooms are stripped of any curriculum taking up culture because that is racist.  Where candidates call for the deportation of whole populations and call that American values.  Where the voice of calm reason is drowned out by the zealots, and a child who wants just a little bit more or a different way is taking advantage while litigious parents defend the playing time of kids who crash cars full of empties.  Where millions of dollars are spent on tests that ask the wrong questions because no one wants to pay enough attention to the hard questions.
That is why I want to wave your book out my window and shout, “This!”  I am compelled to rush down my street and slap it on the high school principal’s desk, explain to him that I Crawl through It should be required reading for every school district, university, and learning community –students, teachers, and administrators, librarians, business owners, and parents.  Maybe I still will.  I don’t know.  What I know is that something stops me.  I think those who most need to read your book won’t understand it.  They have not learned think in a way that would enable them to process it.  That’s when I wonder maybe you did not write I Crawl through It for the people who run the system.  Maybe you wrote it for us, the few people who can see the reset buttons so small they’ll only fit an unbent paper clip, so we keep crawling through them.  For that I thank you.

Jill Bixel

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Going Far Enough

 Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun blew me away.  She writes in high-definition.   It’s more than highly developed characters you care about.  When Jandy Nelson writes it’s in color, and almost everyone else is in black and white.  Reading Nelson is like walking into Wonka’s chocolate factory and it’s not just a mirage –you can walk into it and touch everything and taste it.  I tried tearing apart what Jandy Nelson had done to achieve this, but it wasn’t until I read another nameless new novel that I fully understood some of what Nelson is doing when she writes.  I finished the fifth chapter of Nameless Novel breathless, about to start telling people I wished I had written this book.  The premise was out of this world.  But it is way too easy to post-it pages that let me down.  Though each of these four post-it points deals with a slightly different writing craft principle, I suspect they are all negative examples of what Jandy Nelson does so well.

Stage It
I had the distinct feeling that Nameless Author was using her characters to move the reader through her own thoughts.  Too often scenes weren’t about characters in conflict over their desires.  Instead, the author uses her characters as puppets to walk us through her own line of thought.  The result is the characters do not sound like young people, nor do they sound distinct from each other.  The dialogue reads as hokey and fake.  I am so much more present in the author’s head than I am in the novel’s scenes, scenes which could have been dripping mood and tense with conflict.
Her ability to stage characters’ essential discoveries through action is perhaps Nelson’s greatest strength as a writer.  The most memorable occasion in I’ll Give You the Sun occurs on page 308:

It’s time for second chances.  It’s time to remake the world.
Knowing I only have one shot to get it right with this tool, I wrap the cord around my shoulder, position the circular saw between Noah’s shoulder and my own, and turn on the power.  The tool roars to life.  My whole body vibrates with electricity as I split the rock in two.
So that NoahandJude becomes Noah and Jude.

Jude splits her sculpture down the middle epitomizing her need to be a whole person separate from her twin brother.  She could have just said this in a line of dialogue, but as an action the moment is heightened, beautiful, and memorable.

Emotional Core
Nameless Author often dangled potential scenes in front of me only to snatch them away and avoid them entirely.  Two main characters discuss a move on of them has to make.  No sooner does one of them reflect, in her head, how hard this will be, than we skip ahead to the next scene, a scene in which the significant move has already been made.  The reader never gets to see the scene happen.  I felt so cheated.  I wanted to see this experience in a scene.  As a reader, I want to head directly into the characters’ messiest, most emotionally challenging, horrific moments.  I want to head into the moments that deal directly with the emotional core of the story.
In contrast, Nelson’s Noah has just been caught masturbating with Brian, caught by his mom.  “She doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen,” Noah says narrating the opening of the next scene, and neither does Nelson.  She lays down sentence after sentence heading directly into the messiest of moments, the one Noah would most like to avoid, and –oddly enough –one right at the emotional core of the novel.  As Dianna enters Noah’s room to talk about what happened, I wriggle in my chair squeamishly.  I want to get out of this scene as much as Noah does.  But Nelson steers us right through it, and her courage results in fabulously real moments like Noah’s exclamation:

How does she know what I’m feeling?  How does she know anything about anything?  She doesn’t.  She can’t.  She can’t just barge into my most secret world and then try to show me around.

And the scene ends with Dianna’s theme-cracking statement to Noah:

“Listen to me.  It takes a lot of courage to be true to yourself, true to you heart.  You always have been very brave that way and I pray you always will be.  It’s your responsibility, Noah.  Remember that.”

And, yes, that cuts right to the core of Noah’s conflict with his mom and, more importantly, himself.

Character Development & Stakes
Namelss Novel’s protagonist loses her closest friend to a decision she, herself, will soon have to face.  Nameless Novel’s protagonist witnesses the loss, she sees it happen, and it is final.  This should be a climactic scene in the book.  The protagonist, already dealing with traumatic loss, stands to lose the first person she’s trusted to be a real friend.  But the scene leaves me cold.  Why?  The lost friend is severely underdeveloped.  She doesn’t feel distinct from the protagonist as a person.  She doesn’t even speak differently.  She is characterized differently in terms of interest, background, and even race, but on the level of the soul, her approach to life has never been given definition.  So, I never come to care about her.  Beyond that, close friends each contribute something to the relationship the other needs; if I’d known what the protagonist lost with her friend, I would have felt the loss as it happened.
Jandy Nelson has me caring from page one:

This is how it all begins.
With Zephyr and Fry –reigning neighborhood sociopaths –torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, tree, this white-hot panic.

In these two sentences I come to know about care about Noah.  Because he is running from bullies, I feel immediate sympathy for him.  I smile at his voice, at his hyperbolic way of thinking, at his energetic, racing syntax.  I also admire my first glimpse of Noah’s vivid way of viewing the world.  If Nelson can do this in two sentences, imagine how much I, the reader, care about Noah by page 145 when Jude describes Noah’s new, non-painting personality as “death of the spirit”.  I literally gasped.  I felt the loss, because I’d been given a chance to feel what Jude was losing.  I lost Noah with her.

The Readers’ Job
In one of the final scene of Nameless Novel, one character basically explains the meaning of the entire book, over the course of eight pages.  No fair.  A book is supposed to be an interaction between the reader and the text.  It’s the author’s job to put a story out there.  It’s the readers job to react to it.  No fair kicking the reader out and taking over that role.  A significant thematic line or two placed appropriately?  Okay.  But eight pages.  It kicks me right out of the story because I have no more thinking to do.  And, frankly, it feels disingenuous because in reality nobody shows up to explain the meaning of life.
To be fair, even Nelson dallies with the temptation to moralize at the end of I’ll Give You the Sun, but at least her thematic lines are tied to in-scene action.  It’s a little much when Jude rambles on about how maybe we are accumulating new selves all the time, but this is so incredibly overshadowed by action-action-action at all the climactic moments.  Jude saws the NoahandJude statue in half.  Oscar tackles Noah.  Guillermo realizes Dianna is Jude’s mother –not because someone tells him – but because he sees the studies for her statue.  This is a novel of secrets revealed, but they are never just disclosed from one character to another, they are revealed through action every time.

I hoped by exploring the contrast between these writers’ approaches I would be able to arrive at some general principle of novel writing that embodies all four of these writing musts:

• Staging characters’ essential discoveries through action achieves the integrity at the core of why we write in the first place.

• Heading directly into the messiest moments at the emotional core of the material results in radically true, reader-changing moments.

• Slowing down and spending the time to develop characters who need each other raises the stakes, heightening the moments when we lose them.

• If you do these things, there won’t be any need for you to explain your book’s meaning in the final chapters because your readers will have lived it.

I think all of this can be summarize by some of the most powerful words a writing teacher ever shared with me.  Editor Patti Lee Gauch often says, “Go far enough.”  I’ll Give You the Sun is a prime example of a writer going far enough.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Problem with Talking It Out

Okay, Joss Whedon is my hero.  I’ve been r-watching Buffy from the beginning while I’m on the treadmill, and it’s a daily writing lesson on top of a workout.  Today Joss Whedon answered my prayers.  You know how sometimes there is something nagging you about a manuscript, you know what it is, but you quietly hope it will go away?  Well, this isn’t that.  This is worse.  This is more insidious.  This is a bad habit I’ve carried with me since I started taking writing seriously, a habit I didn’t even know I had.  Recently, I got some clues in the form of agent feedback letters, and so I’ve been watching for it in my peripheral vision.

Here’s what I’ve been doing all this time.  Writers are observant and articulate –some of our greatest strengths.  I see all the complexities of my characters’ relationships and all the subtleties of their issues.  And it feels so good to be able to pin those all down in words whether I’m having them hash things out in a big confrontational dialogue scene or moodily brood, reflecting on all the intricacies of their situation.  Problem is this isn’t very good storytelling.

Here’s what is.  Buffy, Season 3, Episode 7: Revelations.  Angel has been spit back out of the demon dimension, and Buffy is keeping him hidden in an abandoned mansion while he recovers.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Post, an ex-watcher, has come to town under the guise of supervising Buffy’s slayer friend, Faith –really she’s after the Glove of Myneghon, which will give her evil powers.

The whole time, I am talking to my laptop screen –which is something because remember I’m on the treadmill.  And I’m gasping to Buffy, “Would you and Angel just talk to each other and work out how things are going to be between you now?”  I can see all the things they have to hash out:

1)    You can count on Angel, Buffy!  He came back from the freaking demon dimension for you!
2)    How can you not mention the fact that you love each other but if you sleep together again Angel will lose his soul!
3)    Giles and the Scooby Gang are always researching your way out of problems.  I’m sure if you looked into it, in the library, you could find a way to be together.
4)    Plus, you should talk to your friends so they understand Angel is good again.
5)    Angel, you’ve got to tell Buffy how betrayed you felt when she slayed you!
6)    And Buffy, you’ve got to tell him why you had to do it and how it tore you up!
7)    On top of that, Buffy, if you really believe you should move on to other less Hellmouthy guys, it’s only fair that you tell Angel why!
8)    And Angel, you’re not going to tell Buffy about what the demon dimension was like and how you were compelled to get back for her?
9)    I don’t think you can just skip over the question of whether Angel should be responsible for his sins.  I mean he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t in control, but he did do those things!
10) And, uh, I know it’s a little existential, but worth a cup of coffee to talk through whether you can/should even really be together, right?

I keep watching because I think Angel’s good now.  I want to figure out all of the above ten points so Angel and Buffy can be together.  But if Joss Whedon puts in this talky scene I want, it kills all the suspense.  And it kills all the suspense because it kills all the interaction between me, the viewer, and the story.  The talky scene resolves all the problems I am waiting to find about if I’m right about.  Good for real life relationships, but not so much for storytelling.

Joss Whedon, being the genius he is, does something else instead.  He shows a brief scene of Angel doing a spell in his brooding mansion.  And again I keep watching because, though I’m sure this indicates Angel is creating the living fire that will destroy the Glove of Myneghon, there is the remote possibility he could be preparing it for his own evil use.  I want to find out if I am right and Buffy’s friends are wrong about him!

When Faith shows up at the mansion to kill Angel, I even want Buffy to tell her Mrs. Post tried to kill Giles and is not to be trusted.  But Joss Whedon sets up the scene so  there's no time for this conversation.  Buffy and Faith have to fight.  Faith has to find out about Mrs. Post by seeing her put on the glove with all the ensuing lightning and everything.  A much better scene than if Buffy told on Post, and Faith was like, “Okay,  cool.”  They kill her, they shrug, they go home, end of show.  Besides, I mean, if you have a glove someone has to put on the stinking glove, right?

Now, I am a little suspicious about TV series because sometimes I don’t think the writers know the answers to my list of questions.  I think sometimes they just keeping manipulating the character dynamics to keep me watching.  In a novel, I think the writer has got to have an idea what those answers are. 

But, it’s okay to let some of these questions go unanswered for a few chapters because it keeps me, the reader, engaged, it keeps me interacting with the story, it keeps me wondering, and talking out loud to the book in public places, and it keeps me turning the pages! 

And, when these problems and questions are resolved, I, the writer, can’t have the characters sit down and talk it out like psychologically healthy people you’d like to be involved with in real life.  It’s got to happen through a scene the reader can interpret, through action.  It’s only fair.  Just because I see all the intricacies of what should be resolved, I can’t leave the reader out.

So, ahhh.  It all seems so obvious, but my abilities as a writer, this acuteness of observation and articulation seduced me to a place where I could pin everything neatly down on the page and forget entirely about storytelling.  Thank you Joss Whedon for taking me to the next level!

One big question I have about this is…does a first-person limited viewpoint make this harder.  It might.  I’m going to think about this in the scenes I write and read next.

When a Character Tells a Story II

Sometimes a character has to tell a story to another character.  It’s something I’ve been curious about for a while and began writing about here.  Being a writer can attract you to characters who tell stories.  My fear, and I think it’s justified, is as soon as a character starts telling a story all the tension goes out of the scene.  Now I’m finally going to get the answers I’ve been waiting for, you know, and the character is just going to tell you.

Recently, I was reading a great new suspenseful YA novel.  Super setting, super premise.  And one of the main reasons I was turning the pages was to find out the story behind the mysterious protagonist.  He kept alluding to history that put him in this awful situation, and I was loving piecing things together.  Then, about halfway through, he finally tells his story to another main character.

The author did a really good job of it too.  She did it just like I would have.  It was a believable point in the plot for him to have to disclose what happened.  The scene is from the listening character’s perspective.  She breaks it up with questions, the listener’s reactions, and the listener’s observations of the story’s effects on the teller.  And it’s the least suspenseful part of the book.

So I had a thought about another way to keep the tension in a storytelling scene.  I’m still looking for a novel that tries something like this, but I wanted to get it down so I could remember to experiment later.  I think I’d like to try having the listener predict what the storyteller might say.  This could happen in dialogue or in the listener’s head.  I think it might work because the reader could be guessing along with the listening character.  Also, it amps up the tension between the storytelling character and the listener –impatience, maybe conflict about how much to share.  On top of that, I don’t think I’d have the storytelling character answer the listener’s questions with speech.  It would be much better to have the storyteller answer with an action –show the listener an artifact, take her somewhere, perform some grand gesture that allows the listener, and vicariously the reader, to reach her own conclusions.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Classroom Lesson

Spoilers in the service of craft…sorry!

I’m anticipating writing some classroom scenes in my current manuscript, and deep in the middle of Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, I found a stellar example of how to execute a purposeful classroom scene ripe with tension.  Colbert’s Chapter Twelve features protagonist Theo, who has just learned her recently-returned best friend’s kidnapper was her four-years-ago, much-older boyfriend.  Mr. Jacobsen, her world gov teacher, is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  

Colbert includes not only the classroom scene, but also three pages of anticipation.  Mr. Jacobsen stops Theo in the hallway to gives her a heads up about the discussion to come.  This serves several purposes.  The reader understands this discussion will threaten Theo’s precarious perspective of the kidnapper as her boyfriend, not to mention we anticipate a variety of opinions, which may not be supportive of Theo’s position.  But Theo agrees to attend.  So the tension is on.  Additionally, Colbert wins our sympathy for the sensitive, straight-talking teacher –a set-up for an end-of-scene, accidental betrayal.

Colbert also moves us through four distinct high points.

First, the device.  Mr. Jacobsen explains to Theo the principal has asked him to help the students process the return of Theo’s friend, Donovan, kidnapped four years prior, and to do this Mr. Jacobsen is conducting a lesson on Stolkholm syndrome.  It’s a believable device to give the cast a new filter for the situation.

Second, Colbert lets the classroom discussion build point (Donovan ran away willingly.) by counterpoint (He was a victim.) until Mr. Jacobsen picks up a point to accentuate.  He phrases this point as a focus-building question: Is the extent of the victim’s danger diminished when we learn that he had a seemingly normal relationship with the defendant prior to the abduction?  The question is a high point because it is the question Theo is asking about herself.  Indeed, in the next paragraph, Theo thinks to herself: Bingo.  Is it?  I will give one million dollars to whoever can answer that question right now. 

Third and finally, the discussion ends on an answer to that question which makes Theo feel “like someone drove their knuckles square into [her] stomach,” when classmate Klein lets fly: “…I think if some dude was trying to fuck me every night, I’d find a way to get out of that situation a little faster than he did.”  This hits Theo hard, again, because Colbert stages the discussion so Theo can apply the Stolkhom syndrome concept to herself.  She’s left to wonder, albeit subconsciously, Did I let Chris abuse me and like it?  A dangerous question for an isolated girl.

Lastly, Mr. Jacobsen slips, when he reminds Klein this is a sensitive subject, letting his eyes drift to Theo.  The teacher’s faux-pas not only makes us catch our breath because we like him so much, but now, unavoidably, everyone in that classroom has made some connection between Theo, Donovan, and this kidnapper.  It is as close as Theo has come in the story to seeing herself as a victim.

In addition to building on this strong four-point structure, Colbert maintains constant tension throughout the discussion.  Theo agreeing to be present sets Mr. Jacobsen up to protect her throughout the class.  The point-counterpoint between Phil and Klein is accentuated by their tenuous friendship.  Also several times, Colbert has Theo consider what would happen if she just came out and asked what she’s really wondering; this hypothetical veneer-rending contrasts with Theo’s need to mask how much the discussion upsets her.  There is also the juxtaposition of how much each cast member knows –the classmates know very little about Theo’s involvement, Mr. Jacobsen knows some, Theo knows more, but even her knowledge of herself is skewed.  Then, of course, affected by the discussion, Theo vacillates between whether she will testify at Chris’ trial or not, which is really a vacillation between views of herself.

Colbert also does an expert job of building in Theo’s silent reactions to the discussion.  She never participates out loud, but we read her thoughts which include surprise that everyone has an opinion on the topic, anger at how little people know, a brief but disturbing memory of what she was doing at thirteen, as well as both questioning Chris and remembering him which turns into a list of grooming behaviors she, herself, does not recognize.  After Klein asks the question “everyone’s thinking,” Colbert adds Theo’s physical reactions –she feels the knuckle-punch to her stomach, she doesn’t move, she stares at the words Stockholm syndrome on the board, she tries to look away from all the eyes on her.  Additionally, Theo’s reactions serve to expand the discussion beyond a black-and-white debate –it is not just a matter of whether Donovan was a victim or ran away willingly –he can be both.  And, because the whole discussion applies to Theo, so can she.

Other things Colbert does well in her execution of the classroom scene:

SETTING: She establishes setting, carefully pinpointing the location of each speaker in relation to Theo.  We know where Theo sits, where each character is in relation to her, and what she observes about each person.  It’s all about how this discussion affects Theo.

CAST: She limits the players in the discussion to characters we know –Klein, Phil, and Sarah who can represent viewpoints from judgmental to understanding to naïve.  But Colbert also fleshes out the class.  She drops three other student names with spot-on adolescent reactions to Klein stomach-punch comment, including a painfully realistic cough-laugh.

INFORMATION: Notably, Colbert also slips in the definition of two key words: Stockholm syndrome and grooming without forcing the teacher “teach” them in a contrived way.  Just as Mr. Jacobsen is about the clarify what Stockholm syndrome is for Theo, she interrupts him –“I know what it is,” and Colbert slips the definition into Theo’s private thoughts.  The term grooming appears between Phil’s surmising on Donovan’s prior relationship with Chris and Theo’s dismissive thoughts about grooming seeming “so textbook.”  Giving our protagonist the benefit of this knowledge affords respect to the readers who travel the story through her eyes, while at the same time demonstrating how this knowledge is not necessarily a match for an abuser’s grooming process.

And that’s just Chapter Twelve.  Yeah, buy this book.  You’ll need to write in it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thank you, Jandy Part II (Overt Actions)

So I’ve spent the summer exploring the premise for a new manuscript, and this has included a lot of plotting.  Plotting for me is a combination of note-taking alternated with exploratory writing.  But plotting before a first draft can only go so far.  There are some anchor points, like the climax, which I can already visualize, but there are others, like my protagonist and antagonist’s momentous turning point.  A moment like this I am sure should be realized through an overt action, but I just don’t know what it should be yet.  So I thought I’d reread the crown jewel of YA novels which realize important plot moments through overt actions –Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere.

As always, this post is full of spoiler alerts, but if you haven’t read TSIE, you should stop reading this and go get the book immediately anyway!

I could write a doctoral thesis on the countless ways Nelson uses characters’ overt actions to realize key plot moments.  The characters’ interactions with plants, Lennie’s poem-writing, Gram’s box of letters to Lennie’s mother, and, of course, Lennie’s relationship with her clarinet are just a few.  Notably, each time a character executes an overt action, it is attached to a motif like the plants, poems, letters, or clarinet.  So much so that I’ve come to think of them as motif-actions.  For this post, I’ll focus on what Lennie does with her beloved copy of Wuthering Heights.  Interestingly enough, this is also a turning point scene.

After her ploy to cut a bouquet of Gram’s prized roses fails to win Joe back, Lennie is finally having her heart to heart with Gram.  Lennie realizes how foolish choices, including her own, prevent us from experiencing great big love while we can (Life is short.  For Bailey, it is already too late.)  But Lennie and Gram don’t just talk about it; Nelson realizes this turning point by having Lennie execute an overt action.  Lennie uses Gram’s garden shears to chop up her copy of Wuthering Heights.  This is Lennie’s favorite book, annotated and dog-eared over twenty-three readings!  Here is what I learned by highlighting all of Jandy Nelson’s references to Lennie’s doomed novel.

First, when it comes to big motif-actions like this, Nelson seeds them almost from page one.  The first reference to Lennie’s Wuthering Heights is right at the top of page two where she is scribbling a poem in the margin as Gram and Big worry over the Lennie plant.

Second, Nelson’s use of Wuthering Heights is never forced because she takes the time to establish Lennie’s relationship with this book.  Lately, a lot of YA characters seem to have favorite classic books guiding them, but Nelson’s use is by far the most believable because she establishes Lennie as a literary person.  On only page seven, Lennie describes her best friend, Sarah, as a literary fanatic like her, delving into Sarah’s darker reading tastes.

Third, Nelson uses Lennie’s interactions with her copy of Wuthering Heights to create an arc of development.  Early on, Nelson uses road-reading to establish Lennie’s starting point: “I like love safe between the covers of my novel.”  As Lennie’s experiences with Joe and Toby compound, her comparisons of real-life erections and kisses with the Wuthering Heights world are funny.  The book also becomes a vehicle for Lennie and Joe to get to know each other over lunch in a tree.  Later “Heathcliff and Cathy have nothing on us.”

Fourth, I learned that once you find that motif-action for your big moment, extend it further than you imagine you can.  After Lennie chops up her Wuthering Heights, she rakes her fingers through the remains while ruminating on her regrets.  As the conversation with Gram continues, she wants to scoop a fistful of book scraps to throw at Gram.  She also rearranges the words into new sentences, reflecting the mood of the moment: under that benign sky and so eternally excluded.  Then she wishes she could put the words back together so Cathy and Heathcliff could make different choices.  Finally, as her understanding of life and love has evolved far beyond the novel, Lennie sweeps the whole thing into the trash.

Fifth, by watching Nelson I learned to look for ways motif-actions can cross subplots.  After Lennie chops up her book, she hands the shears to Gram, and Lennie sees Gram has her own reasons to be angry.  Gram also has her own reasons to be ashamed, which we see as she sweeps the book scraps toward herself.  The pile of scraps jumps when Gram pounds the table with her fist forcing Lennie to hear her reality.  Later, Lennie writes a poem in which Cathy and Heathcliff’s stronger-than-death love becomes about Lennie and Bailey.  So as motif-related actions cross subplots, their meaning reverberates out across the story.

The last thing I learned may be the most important of all.  I’ve written enough to imagine Nelson developing Lennie’s growing relationship with her copy of Wuthering Heights.  I’d bet Wuthering Heights popped up in a freewrite about Lennie, maybe just a matter of characterization.  As Nelson continued drafting maybe she saw opportunities to draw Wuthering Heights through.  Maybe she even took a break from the story to write about what Wuthering Heights meant to Lennie.  Maybe the image of the shredded pages occurred to her then.  Maybe during revision, she played around with the remains of the book left on the table.  Maybe she went back and reread Wuthering Heights, wrote about Lennie’s favorite book some more, and realized how it applied to her relationship with Bailey.  Whatever the case, as long as I keep looking for the motif-action that could become my turning point, as long as I keep mining my current draft for accidental gems, as long as I keep journaling about my characters, it’s okay to proceed without knowing exactly what that turning point’s overt action will be.

 Observing Nelson’s use of Wuthering Heights has taught me something about the nature of the overt motif-action.  Like any seed, you can’t force it to grow, you have to keep nurturing the soil, and it’s definitely worth waiting for.  So thanks, Jandy, for freeing Lennie and for freeing me!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Thank you, Jandy (Part I: Complications, Plot Layers, & Subplots)

Don’t be afraid to write in circles until you find your story.

Spend the necessary time with your premise. 

Words from wise writing teachers.  This summer I’ve taken them to heart.  Most mornings I sit down with a chocolate croissant, a cup of coffee, and Donald Maass’ Writing the Break Out Novel Workbook and learn something more about my characters, their conflicts, and their building tension.  It’s the middle of July, and I don’t have many pages.  You know, actual pages of the first draft.  Well, I have one I wrote this morning.  But, in six weeks, I’ve made more progress with this story than any of my other novels. 

I think it’s because I’ve been working on the distinctions Maass makes between the protagonist’s main problem, and what he calls complications, plot layers, and subplots.  Maass uses a lot of adult novels to demonstrate these concepts, but I’m going to use Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere here to illustrate them.  I think Nelson’s understanding of how these elements work in her story account for the fully-felt reading experience.

Warning: Spoilers Abound!

Look, The Sky Is Everywhere could easily have turned into another great YA example of “girl must choose between Edward and Jacob.”  Lennie is caught between a romance with her recently dead sister’s boyfriend, with whom she can remember and grieve the past, and the new musical genius in town, with whom she can imagine and celebrate the future.  But the book is so much more than that.  And here is why.

No surprise, Nelson is crystal clear about Lennie’s MAIN PROBLEM.  And it is not just a choice between to boys.  Lennie wants to get through her grief for sister, Bailey.  Her Uncle Big actually says, “There’s no way but through.”  What that means gets complicated though.  Through means time to experience loss and pain, and through means being on the other side of loss and pain, able to embrace life again.

Maass defines COMPLICATIONS as the obstacles that get in the way of the protagonist’s main goal.  These not only abound in The Sky Is Everywhere, but remain incredibly focused on Lennie’s desire to get through her grief.  Toby, the now-dead Bailey’s boyfriend, helps Lennie remember Bailey in a way no one else can.  Joe, the new boy in town, and perfect counterpoint, enables Lennie to forget her grief.  The jacket copy doesn’t lie when it reads, “though she knows if the two of them collide her whole world will explode,” because when Joe sees Lennis kissing Toby Lennie breaks with Toby and Joe breaks with her.  Without either boy in her life, Lennie comes to realize that both relationships were masking her need to face that, without her sister, she is undeniably alone.  After this realization, it dawns on Lennie she has been focused on only her own grief.  So well does Nelson understand Lennie’s main problem that the complications can unfold and unfold.

Now Maass distinguishes complications from PLOT LAYERS, which he defines as additional problems the protagonist faces –not complications to the main problem, but altogether different problems.  Lennie has these too.  She has avoided her clarinet talent.  She writes audience-less poems which she scatters everywhere.  And Lennie learns about her missing mother.  These problems exist separately from Lennie’s need to get through her grief, but they are both compounded by Bailey’s death and come to inform Lennie’s journey through her grief.  The layering leaves Nelson levels of problems to utilize in Lennie’s inner arc, but because she finds nodes of conjunction between these layers and the main problem, the book holds together.  The layers are not random or scattered, they are purposeful.  If they do not exist because of Bailey’s death, they become touch-points that help Lennie make sense of things.

SUBPLOTS, Maass says, are something else.  While plot layers are given to the protagonist, subplots are narrative lines given to other characters.  Nelson nails these as well. Toby wants to hold on to Bailey, though he must let her go.  Joe wants an all-or-nothing romance, but life is more complicated than that.  Gram wants to talk about her own grief with Lennie, Big wants to bring the family –particularly Lennie— back to life, and Lennie’s best friend, Sarah, just wants their friendship back.  Each character is working to solve his/her own problem while the protagonist is working on the main problem, though, again, the secondary character’s issues are tightly woven to that main problem.  The result is not only a rich dynamic between characters, but also a meaning-making aesthetic.

The depth and breadth of Nelson’s work with the protagonist’s main problem, complications, and layers, as well as, the secondary characters’ subplots is encouraging to my work this summer.  Of course, it’s nice when the pages start to come, the actual pages of accumulating chapters, but Nelson’s work tells me something different.  It tells me it’s worth taking the time to understand your material with clarity.

I copied this quotation from The Sky is Everywhere down in my journal:

            Beside me, step for step, breath for breath, is the unbearable fact that I have a future and Bailey doesn’t.
                        This is when I know it.
            My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life.  Grief is forever.  It doesn’t go away; it becomes part of you, step for step, breath for breath.  I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her.  That’s just how it is.  Grief and love are cojoined, you don’t get one without the other.  All I can do its love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy.

The reason I catch my breath when I read this passage is because Jandy Nelson earned that moment.  She earned that moment because she took the time to know her material with intense clarity.  I’m going to do that too.  Thank you, Jandy!