Monday, January 30, 2012


            So while I was studying my Sara Zarr books, I made another great discovery –Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Arts’ journal, and it includes a rich section for Young Adult Literature.  This is where I read Lindsey Lane’s essay, Out on the Bendy Branches.  In this essay, Lane compares stories to Alexander Calder’s mobiles.  She says:

I started to see a correlation between scenes dancing on a fulcrum, balanced, telling a story, casting shadows, catching light, moving, resting and moving again. The pieces and shapes of a mobile have to be perfectly balanced as they move in concert and opposition, suspended at varying lengths from the spine, the arc of the story.

That’s what Sara Zarr’s doing, I thought!
            My overriding impression when I started How to Save a Life was that she was laying her story down one piece at a time.  Whereas the feedback I’d gotten on my own first chapter was: You’re stuffing so much in here I can’t figure it out and get my bearings, with Sara, I really had a sense of being able to take in one thing at a time.  First, there is Jill asking, “Who am I without my Dad?”  Then Jill goes into what’s hard about living without her Dad.  Out of that she pulls that the hardest thing is loving her mom, in particular understanding her.  Then she arrives finally at the specific challenge of understanding her mother’s decision to adopt, and we land in the train station waiting for the birthmother with Jill and her mom.  One piece at a time, like the pieces on a mobile.
            As I read, I was aware of each piece in relationship to the others, but Sara allowed me to be present in each moment without author anxiety about showing me right away how it was all going to fit together.  That’s what I was doing in my chapter one –rushing in and confusing the readers with too much before they even had all the pieces.
            There was another benefit to this.  The pages were never overwritten.  Because Sara is just laying down one piece of her mobile at a time without stopping to explain connective tissue, she gives the writing lift and forward motion.  As Lane explains:

I thought about how much these writers leave off the page—but what they do leave on the page shows us enough that the world is created and the heart of the story beats….The overall arc is there. The voice. The characters. Even the back-stories are there. But there isn’t a lot of connective tissue. There isn’t a lot of telling. The reader supplies it. The reader actually holds the story as a whole. Each scene makes sense on its own and within the context of the whole but it allows the reader to make leaps.

What’s left off the page raises questions that propel me, the reader, forward.
And so I imagined Sara Zarr building her chapter one like a mobile.  I actually drew it out:

Suddenly, I was getting very excited about my first chapter again.  I could do it this way, I thought.  Though a tapestry with different threads running through it is sometimes a useful metaphor for me, the mobile metaphor appealed.  I get easily lost in a tangle of threads, but I could build a mobile.  And for chapter one, I just have to introduce one major branch of the mobile and the pieces that dangle from it, one at a time.  They move, they pick up the light, their shapes and colors harken to other branches of the mobile with which they are in balance, but for chapter one, I just have to build this one branch.  I think in pictures so after I meditated on some different places to start in the marrow, I picked one and started sketching.
Consider drawing your story as a mobile.  It just may be a useful mapping strategy!  Let me know how it goes!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Beginnings: Starting in the Marrow

            So I have this second draft that is coming back from readers with feedback, and consistently they are saying something is not right with the first chapter.  Surprise, surprise… the infamous first chapter.  Is there anything harder to write?  My writing partners’ comments include things like:
1)    The writing in the second and third chapters is SO much better than the first chapter.
2)    The pace really picks up after the first chapter.
3)    I just couldn’t get a visual on the first personal narrator in Chapter One.
4)    You were establishing so many new things in Chapter One that I couldn’t get my bearings.

Yeah.  So back to Sara Zarr for another one-on-one lesson with me and my copies of all her books!  Here’s one thing I figured out.
            (Caveat: I’m skipping over her prologues here… prologues are a whole other issue!)
            The opening scenes of Sara Zarr’s books start right in on the central problem at the white hot center of the story.  She doesn’t work up to it.  She doesn’t foreshadow it with a smaller version of the problem. She goes directly to it:

            How to Save a Life:
                        Dad would want me to be here.
            There’s no other explanation for my presence.  Sometimes it’s like I exist –keep going to school, keeping coming home, keep showing up in my life –only to prove that his confidence in me, his affection for me, weren’t mistakes.  That I’m the person he always said I was.  Am.  That I know the right things to do and will always do them in the end, even if it takes me a while to get there and even if I fight the whole way.

She starts right in the marrow of Jill’s problem.  It would be so easy to get lost in the circumstances of Jill’s mother adopting a baby after losing Jill’s dad, but Sara starts in the marrow.

There are things I want to remember about Cameron Quick that I can’t entirely….  He’s a story I want to know from page one.
            My brain doesn’t seem to work that way.  Most specific things about Cameron are fuzzy…. But when it comes to Cameron I always want more than I have, would like to be able to take hold of at least one or two more pieces, if only because I’m convinced there are parts of myself hidden inside them.

You can easily get lost in the mesmerizing details about Cameron that I left out with the elipses, but Sara directs all of them right toward Jenna’s need to reclaim these old pieces of herself.

Story of a Girl:

Okay, Story of a Girl has my favorite opening of all times, and I have to say, Sara wows me with both her prologue and her chapter one so here is a little from each:

            I was thirteen when my dad caught me with Tommy Webber in the back of Tommy’s Buick, parked next to the old Chart House down in Montara at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night.  Tommy was seventeen and the supposed friend of my brother, Darren.

That’s her battle right there –is she this story?  Can she break through to her dad now?

Chapter One:
            They made us clean out our lockers on the last day of sophomore year….The only stuff I kept was from Honors English.  I would deny this is asked, but I thought I might want to read some of my essays again.  There’s this one from when we read Lord of the Flies.  I really got into it, the savagery and survival-of-the-fittest stuff.  A lot of kids in my class didn’t get it….
            Then Caitlin Spinelli was all, “Yeah, didn’t they know their chances for survival were, like so much better if they worked together?”
            Hello!  Walk down the halls of your own school for three seconds, Spinelli: we are savages.  There is no putting of the heads together to come up with a better way.  There is no sharing of the bounty with those less fortunate.  There is no pulling the dead weight so that we can all make it to the finish line.  At least not for me….
            Anyway, Mr. North wrote on my essay…
            Deanna, he wrote, you clearly have much of importance to say.

And at the heart, in the marrow, that’s what the story’s about.  Are we just savages?  Can Deanna find something more?

When I've got nothing, literally nothing, no draft or anything, I know I need to just start somewhere.  But when I’m staring at another blank screen, ready to write draft three of Chapter One (or to be honest draft eleven because I’ve written this chapter so many more times) and all those threads of the story are lying out there, it’s so easy to be tempted to just pick up the obvious one --the concrete circumstantial hook.  Let’s get started, let’s fill the reader in on everything that’s going on.  But Sara Zarr reminds me to be patient and take my time choosing.  Which thread runs right through the marrow of the story?  Pick that one up.  Start there.  Let the rest weave in around that.
Of course, then it’s time to start brainstorming the infinite scenes that could embody that marrow, right?  At least my brainstorming doesn’t feel so random.  I’ve got a purpose, and that puts just enough pressure on my brainstorming that the more vivid scene ideas start coming faster.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Sometimes the idea of holding an entire novel in my head seems overwhelming.  If my draft-three novel were a tapestry, I just know there would be a lot of dropped threads and holes!  So when I’m reading some of my favorite YA authors, I marvel at how intricately each story thread is woven through.  They know just when to go back and let us know how the relationship with that supporting character is going.  They know just where to pull an old thread into the scene I’m reading.  They leave me breathless… beautiful how they tied that in right there!  And, sometimes, they leave me doubtful that in my own story I could ever possibly remember to pull the subtler threads through and tie them in at just the right spots.  So, I did what I usually do in these cases.  I took my latest favorite –Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life, and I studied it, closely!
            First I took two days to reread the novel.  As I read I took notes.  For each chapter I jotted down in order the major events.  Admittedly, this was a little tedious.  I would never want to do this on a first read.  But it gave me so much good data to work with, and it made it very easy to flip back through the story and study it.  Warning: spoilers ahead!
            Second, I reviewed my notes and jotted down what I saw as the major threads.  Here’s what I came up with:

            Jill                               Jill & Mandy                                                  Mandy           
loss of dad                                                                        baby’s father?/pain from abuse
                                    relationship with mother

Dylan & Ravi                                                                                       Christopher & Kent

                                    who she will be
                                    (relationship with each other)

Then, I literally went back through my notes shading them with colored pencils to color code these threads.  Here’s an example of what my notes look like for one of Mandy’s chapters:

Mandy:           While buttering toast, Mandy recalls mother’s incessant talking,
her need to breathe, and Robin’s e-mail
                        She thinks, Maybe I could be a mother.
                        She tells Dylan about her missing father & her mother
                        Dylan tells her, Your mom got a lot too = me, Mandy!

            Here’s what I learned.
            In interviews of some of my favorite authors, they refer to the 13th draft, the 20th, and I’ve thought, What on earth are they going over so many times?  After this exercise, I could totally see how it would be VERY useful to take an entire pass over the novel for each thread or character.  It really is too much to hold in my head otherwise!  What I think I will do is chart the threads in my own manuscript as I did with Sara Zarr’s novel.  Then, I will take a day to read through it pretty fast looking at just one of my threads.  I will be asking myself questions like:
1) Where do I see opportunities to weave that thread back in,
     in order to deepen the story’s meaning?
2) Where do I need to slow down and explore this thread more?
3) Is the development of this thread moving along fast enough?
Then I’m going to go back to he beginning and do it all over again for the next thread, and so on.
Something else I noticed about threads: when I was color coding, there were some events in the story that just couldn’t be considered one thread, no matter how I looked at it.  For example, at one point Ravi gets Jill to open up about how she’s doing with the death of her dad and Jill ends up totally insulting him.  On the surface, this could look like a Ravi thread.  A closer look tells me this is more to do with Jill’s loss of her dad, but it also has a lot to do with the kind of person she wants to be.  Those three threads just can’t be separated here.  What this taught me: the threads affect each other.  If the story is working, at some points the threads become so intertwined that they cannot be extricated from each other.  It reminded me that, when I do these passes over my manuscript, I can be looking for opportunities where one thread has an impact on the others.  It’s something I knew, but when I tear things apart to see how they work, it’s nice to see the bits naturally returning to the organic whole.  It’s nice to know that intertwining threads may be a sign my story is deepening.  It’s also a good reminder that sub-plots which don’t affect the central conflict need to go.
I kind of hate the idea of picking apart some of my favorite novels like this, but at the same time it’s like opening up a watch and discovering how the clockworks function inside.  The clockworks are their own kind of artistry.  In a way, understanding them makes these stories even more beautiful.  And the big bonus –it’s helping me fine tune the machinery of my own story!

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year, New Mountain Range

         Well, the new year finds me at the precipice of a whole new phase in my writing.  In 2011, I published my first story and completed the second draft of “the YA novel I think is going to make it.”  But as I wrapped my holiday gifts, visited with family, and indulged in gingerbread, my sense of accomplishment morphed into a an unsettling realization.
From the top of the mountain on which I now stand, I can see the undulating topography of an entire mountain range before me.  I’ve never gotten so far with my writing before, but it is dawning on me there is a whole other level of climbing and journeying.  My manuscript is good, but is it Sara Zarr-good, Laurie Halse Anderson-good?  John Green-good?  How to get there?
         At an SCBWI conference, I once heard Sheldon Fogelman, leveling the side of his hand against his other open palm, say “In order to proceed, you have to have a plan!”  It’s always worked for me before, kept me from wandering aimlessly, and kept me growing as a writer.
         So here is my, albeit flexible, plan so far:

January & February
         Finalize pitch.   
              How does revised pitch inform revision goals?
         Draft Query Letter
         Crystalize business card design
         Study amazing Sara Zarr novel, How to Save a Life for
                  evolution of characters’ thought arcs across story
                  not overwriting
         Write two short stories
         Continue compiling a list of fifty agents 
              & research to hone list
         Look for the right workshop for manuscript
March – BIG MEETING with writing group: feedback on manuscript
         Organize feedback into Draft 3 & 4 goals
         Write 1, 2, and 5 page synopses
         Write Chapter Outline

April & May
         Draft 3

June & July
         Draft 4

         Start sending queries to agents!

         What do you think?  Any advice for the writer who doesn’t just want to be published, but wants to be GOOD?  Have you ever gotten to a new phase in your writing where you think, What am I going to do now?  It seems like an easy place to give up.  How did you go forward?  What are your writing goals for 2012?