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!