My teenage son was peeking over my shoulder, and when he read this title, he laughed. I didn’t ask him what was funny — that adults have value? — or that we are at a point of needing to blog about it? But we do. Need to talk about it.
During the summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults, one of our amazing advisors, Amy King, known to the world as A.S. King, presented a passionate and illuminating lecture — and a plea — about fleshing out adult characters. I just knew I had to share it! (Late as it is. Better late than never, right? Right? The good thing about these topics is that they are as timely today as they were back in July. See, this is why I am glad I am not a journalist anymore :))
Anyway, with Amy’s permission, here is the gist of her talk, in my own words. Mostly.
In writing books for young readers, of course we want to keep our young characters active. We want them to have agency (which, incidentally is the topic of my graduate lecture, coming up in a month and a half, omg). We want our young characters to make mistakes, to act, to shape their destinies, or at least try to, not just to watch or merely respond to adults and their drama. And we surely don’t want the adults to pull our characters out of every sticky situation, solve all of our heroes’ problems, or achieve nothing more than stuff the young characters with morsels of wisdom and knowledge and message — no, no, no. Of course not.
But can we sweep the grownups aside completely? Kill them off, immobilize them, shut them up, so our young characters can have room to make their own decisions and affect their own destinies? Shove them onto the sidelines, keep them shadow-like, in the background, to serve cookies, step aside, pass out in front of the TV?
If we do, we might be creating a flat, unbelievable story world. If we don’t develop our adult characters, we might rob our young protagonists of the chance to really grow.
In real life, adults are everywhere for the teens and younger kids to watch, emulate, learn from, detest, idolize, try to make sense of, make fun of. In deeply felt and richly imagined stories, young characters don’t come out of nowhere and don’t get handed down a world free of adult control or influence. Amy implored us to embrace the possibilities offered by adult characters in order to craft stories that would ring truer for young readers. Here are some questions to consider when developing adults in YA and children’s fiction:
1. Look at the teachers, the bosses, the neighbors, the celebrities, the heroes. Spend some time fleshing them out, the way you would your younger characters. Who are they? What drives them? What do they believe and why and how do their beliefs affect their actions? How does your main character feel about them and why? In what ways is your main character like them? And how is she different from them?
2. Get to know the parents on a deeper level, as “fully formed human beings.” Consider: young characters might have adapted their parents’ attitudes, or they might be rebelling against them. What is each parent’s gift, or legacy to the young protagonist? Ask yourself: “Are they distracted? Supportive? Yelling? Happy? Hardworking?” A combination of these? And, “Why are they these things? What is their connection with the protagonist?” Does anyone tell your young main character, “You are just like your mother?” And how would your main character feel about being told that?
Reflect on how your young character might try to fight against the legacy passed down by her parents or other adults. Alternately, how can your young character try and embrace it? How can she do both in the space of the same story and even the same relationship?
3. We typically think of parents or adults influencing the younger characters, but consider: inspiration and wisdom can flow both ways. How can your protagonist influence the adult characters in her story?
- In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, see Hazel and August’s interaction with Hazel’s favorite author Van Houten
- In Nancy Werlin’s fantasy Impossible, the main character’s foster family are supportive, imperfect, empowering and wise. They make a tremendous positive difference in Lucy’s life, yes. But they learn from her, too.
- In Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the young maid Griet is at first inspired and learns much from her “boss,” her master Johannes Vermeer. But in the end she proves to be a stronger character than her flawed and legendary hero.
- And let’s not forget Amy’s own Please Ignore Vera Dietz, in which the protagonist’s father is the one trying to keep his daughter from making his mistakes. But really, Amy makes adults matter in all of her books, from Everybody Sees the Ants to Reality Boy, to the just published Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future).
A. S. King is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author of six YA novels and short fiction for adults. She taught adult literacy in Ireland and now lives in Pennsylvania with her family and teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.
Thank you, Amy so much for the inspiration, for letting me share, and for all those glorious books!
It seems crazy that I am only now getting around to sharing such a long-promised post, about a graduate lecture from the summer’s residency by a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts now-alumni Joe McGee. Crazy, when I am now finalizing work on my own upcoming lecture for January! (Gulp).
Nevertheless, here goes!
Joe’s lecture, ZEN AND THE ART OF NOVEL WRITING: Stringing Your Story Together One Bead at a Time was one of my favorites from last July’s residency. It had a simple message, as most truths do. But it stuck with me through these last few frenetic months of writing, and I hope it helps you too.
For writers faced with the prospect of just starting a new novel, those mired in the mucky middle, or those trying to see their work anew after too many drafts to count, it can be easy to get discouraged, blindsided, lost, overwhelmed. That is why, Joe recommended, it’s so important for us to stay in the NOW.
Don’t think about all these scenes, don’t think about all these chapters. Don’t think about your readers, your agent or your dear friends on Facebook sharing good news. The trick is such a simple one, and yet it can be so hard sometimes: when you write, it’s best to “stay immersed completely.” What Joe reminded us back in the summer has always been true and will remain so forever: “the now is all we have.”
As you are settling into your writing space, “let everything go but the scene you are writing,” Joe said, and “write for yourself first.” He said: “Focus on the smallest particle,” just the action at hand. It’s “all about one good sentence placed after another.”
For each scene we write, Joe asked us to consider: “What is the quintessence of the moment?” Quintessence is “the most perfect example of a quality in its concentrated form,” in other words, the it-ness of whatever the it is.
So before writing, take a moment and figure out, “at its core, what is the scene REALLY about? What is its absolute essence?” He advised to “turn the scene over and over in your head and your heart until you’re sure of its quintessence.”
[I have been doing that in the past three months more than ever before, and let me tell you, it helps SO MUCH. Before writing each scene, I try to determine its role in the overall story design. In this lecture Joe referred to Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer, and it has become one of my favorite craft books (along with Robert McKee’s Story). As per Alderson’s advice, before writing each scene, I think about my character’s goal and the action she will take, the overall mood, her growth and the shift the story will take in the course of this scene. Thinking about all that before helps me stay “in the now” of the scene when I start writing, while allowing the plot to move forward.]
Joe invited us to think of each scene as a “pearl polished till it shines with its individual quintessence.” As you write, “don’t focus on the strand,” he said. “Just focus on the bead.”
“Think inside the box,” Joe said. “The scene is the box.”
Joe urged us to “retrain the brain to put blinders on to everything but the scene we are in, to write “as if the current scene is the only scene.”
I don’t know about you, but I am so big on the goal, the plan, the overall. I NEEDED to hear this. When we surrender everything we’ve got to the scene at hand, as though nothing else exists, our writing is likely to reflect that kind of focus and intensity. Our characters become more real. Our voice and our vision shine through, unobscured by worries, fears, or projections.
One of the ways Joe recommended we train ourselves to approach the work this way is through meditation. For example, close your eyes and picture a candle lit in otherwise complete and total darkness. Can you watch that imaginary flame flicker for 15 minutes straight? During the lecture, Joe had us try it for just a few minutes: it was so hard! So you might want to practice, train yourself in increments. But it’s worth it. I am not quite sure yet what I am going to do with the short passage for my work in progress I wrote as part of Joe’s “be here now” writing exercise following that attempt at meditation. Right now I am actually thinking it might make a great ending — but it’s also possible that I won’t end up using it at all. The point is, that passage surprised me with its vividness and the strength of the main character’s voice. This is what happens when we write in the moment, we inhabit out characters. As Joe put it: “By immersing ourselves in the scene, we are inside looking out, not outside looking in.”
So, before you start writing your next chapter, consider your scene’s essence, focus on your breathing, surrender your chatty mind to the truth of the moment. Call forth some vivid sensory details and lose yourself in your story’s magic, while finding yourself in the wonderful adventure of NOW.
Happy writing, and hugs to all!
Joe McGee, who graduated from the program in July of 2014, teaches writing in southern New Jersey. Represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, he is the author of a picture book Peanut Butter and Brains, forthcoming from Abrams.
That’s what I have been doing, the reason you guys haven’t heard from me in a while (ahem): I have been getting closer to my characters. Especially the protagonist of my creative thesis, a novel for young readers, 75-80 pages of which I am to send to the MFA program office by December in order to graduate. Polished, submittable/potentially publishable, approved-by-advisor pages. Now you see why I haven’t been blogging more often in the past two months?
I find characters are just like real people, sometimes, in that they like to put up defenses. They wear masks; they like to give a certain impression. They hide things. Our job as writers is to lovingly, but also unflinchingly, get past their defenses. Once we get to a place where they are most vulnerable, once we understand their core, we will know our story. What are some of the ways we can do that?
One way is of course to write a draft. And then another. And another. Then there is the thinking, just mulling things over, the least effective method, in my opinion. Brainstorming with writer friends or others can be effective, to a point. Discuss your story too much with too many people, and you can find yourself in danger of losing hold of your own vision. Some writers swear by filling out character biographies and questionnaires between drafts. As for me, in my time at VCFA, I have discovered the value — and the fun! — of writing exercises, what one of our advisors calls “side writing.” I call it “low-stakes” writing. I also call it “getting closer.”
1. My current semester mentor Lou has me meditate on my character every single month. I imagine her in her own space, allow her to do what she will. This is not always easy, but almost always worth it. After a while of “watching” your character get out a piece of paper and a pen and just write down the things you saw him or her do.
2. Here is another one from my mentor. Again, get quiet, maybe meditate. Then call forth an image of your character doing something in her space. Once you allow her to get comfortable, ask her a question. Make it a simple question, not too deep (so as not to involve your left brain too much in the answer). For example, if you want to find out what she is afraid of, instead of going the direct route, probe carefully. Ask her about a scary dream, for example. Her answer might give you a clue as to what she considers scary.
3. This one I got from a lecture by one of our faculty advisors Amanda Jenkins, and it’s also something the unforgettable Rita Willaims-Garcia had us do in workshop this past summer residency: Put a timer on for ten minutes and come up with a list of words related to your character (or your story). Don’t think, just write whatever comes into your head. If you’d like, you could narrow down your focus a bit: for example, list words related to how your character feels about another character. Or list words associated with his or her feelings when she’s about to cross some important plot threshold.
4. Make art. All art intersects, don’t you think? Poetry, music, painting, pottery, might there be an art — another art — that is relevant to your story? Then use it, learn more about it, have your character use it! But even if your story has no connection to any other art forms, you can still put your pen down, and say, pick up a paintbrush. That’s what I am doing for my protagonist this month. Yep, it’s part of my packet homework. She is not even a painter, still I am asking my protagonist a question, then having her paint her answer. Try not to worry too much about the results of your work. Anyway, it’s not yours, it’s your character’s ;)
5. Do you have a weakness as a writer? Maybe you worry your characters are too passive, your dialogue stilted, or your setting too thin? Maybe you are trying to figure out the shape of your scenes or your chapters? Whatever it is you are struggling with, think of other novels, one or two, that do it masterfully, ones that make you jealous. Then post-it notes and pencil in hand, comb through the text and study how they did it. Based on your findings, create exercises to challenge yourself to do what your model authors did. For example, I am now preparing a graduate lecture on active characters in “quiet” books where most of the transformation happens internally. In analyzing Nancy Werlin’s YA fantasy, Impossible, I noticed how opinionated the main character was, and how her beliefs fueled and informed her actions. So I went back to my own protagonist, and had a little chat with her about her opinions. She wasn’t always forthcoming. Still, I learned a lot.
And that’s the point of these. To learn. To see your story in fun, new, deeper ways. To shut up the chatty, bossy left-brain editor for a while, long enough to uncover some secrets. And of course, most of all, to get closer to your character. As a bonus, you might end up with some material that will be usable in your manuscript! Better yet, you might hear your character’s true voice.
Or at least, well, that’s what I thought. Sort of.
When back in May, in my third semester, I finished a new draft of a novel I had been working on for…ahem…a lot of years, I was ecstatic. But the glorious feeling that yes, I got it, that I nailed it this time, lasted for about…oh, twenty minutes.
After that, doubts and questions flooded my mind. Was my main character active enough? What did she even actually do?
Still I sent it to my then advisor, and after getting back her insightful and encouraging comments I tinkered with the draft some more. Then I thought, I was really finished. Really, really. That one lasted a few months :)
I am just back from a family trip to the Italian Alps, so I can’t help but think in mountain metaphors. Because it just seems so similar! When you’re climbing and climbing for hours past all these clouds, bend by bend, turning and turning up into the gorgeous infinite sky, and your whole body is screaming SOS, I am so done here!, and it seems you will reach the destination just around the bend, but when you get there, new breathtaking views open up and show you the path keeps snaking on ahead, what are you going to do, turn around and go back?
Revisions can feel that way sometimes.
My new fourth-semester advisor read the draft recently. She had some things to say, she had sharp questions; she had more insightful comments. She made me see things that I can’t now un-see. I am excited about the possibility of drawing more connections through my work, of making the story even truer. But you know how we all have that small chicken voice in our head? Well, the voice in my head wonders scared, is it worth it? Will I ever be done?
The best way to shut up the chicken voice, in my opinion, is to focus on the work. But another fun way to do it is to write up a blog post about it. :)
Ray Bradbury and many others talked about the idea of 1,000 words a day, the idea that it takes that many failures to master anything worthwhile. Some writers come to that mastery through many abandoned books, first or second drafts, perhaps, that are their learning, their stepping stones. Beth Revis, for example, a NYT bestselling YA science fiction author, wrote ten “drawer” manuscripts before she got to THE ONE (Across the Universe, one of my favorite books).
Me? I have a few dead picture books in the drawer, a few false novel starts, a rough novel draft of maybe-something-we’ll-see. One fantasy YA manuscript I wrote was so bad I deleted it, with glee! But mostly, over the years, I have been revising two novels. Two stories of my heart that I just can’t seem to let go. This latest one has been getting better draft after draft after draft. There is no doubt about it: I have been getting closer.
But the busy worried little chicken wants to know, how can I know for sure when I do get it right? Will I ever know?
I am sure I am not the only one wrestling with such questions. So I figured that just for fun, I’d ask some others for their take on this.
Here is what they had to say:
From Trent Reedy, a YA author and a VCFA alumni:
“My dear Katia Raina, (almost) MFA, you are asking my all time favorite question. I used to ask this question ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I would ask every visiting writer at VC. I would ask it at every Q and A time at book shows. Because….if we accept that we as writers are always improving our craft, then it stands to reason that our current manuscript can be improved. How is a writer to know when to turn in the manuscript, when to submit it for representation and publication? My first novel, WORDS IN THE DUST is the only book I’ve ever sent to a publisher “complete.” With all others I have earned publishing contracts on partials, by sending up three chapters and an outline. How did I know WORDS IN THE DUST was ready to send up? I had, of course, the help of my VCFA advisors with that one. But even then, I graduated VC knowing that WORDS required at least one more significant overhaul and another polishing. I didn’t know what else could be done. I sent it to agents and one editor and one of those agents and editor rejected with the same, useful revision suggestion. I did that revision and tried again. It worked.
In short, for the writer to know when his manuscript is ready to submit for professional publication, he must read hundreds of books and learn all he can about craft. He must teach himself to understand how unready his previous manuscripts were. Then he must apply what he has learned about craft over and over again until he has exhausted the sum of his knowledge, until he has worked until he has dulled the tools in his writer’s craft toolbox. After that, he seeks out his writer friends so that he can use their suggestions to revise again. And when all that has been done, and the well learned writer has no idea what else can be done to improve the manuscript, then, MAYBE then, it is ready to submit for professional publication.”
And from Amy King, better know to the world as A.S. King, multiple award-winning author of contemporary YA novels and a member of the VCFA faculty, who writes one new book a year:
“The answer to your question really depends on the book. A wise friend of mine says that you know that you’re done writing a novel when you’ve revised so much that you hate it. In my experience, this has held true. However, I’ve also had books that I don’t hate when I’m done. I just know I’m done because after so many revisions and printed manuscripts and reads, there isn’t one more thing I’d change.”
Finally, here is perspective from my own advisor, Louise Hawes:
“I’m never finished, I’m always revising. Because as I pointed out, via Graham Greene, in my lecture on openings, you’re not the same person when you finish a book as when you start. Or a week after you publish as two weeks after that. So I’ve never read a book of mine at a bookstore or school or conference, that I haven’t “revised” for that reading. As for when to quit “tinkering” with a manuscript and send it off to a publisher, agent, or competition, that’s another question. And the answer, of course, is different with each writer. For me, when I stop waking up wanting to fix this or change that, I know I’ve stopped living with a story. It’s time to send it out into the world to live with its readers!”
As for me, I love revision as much as I love the mountains. I am proud and excited and yes, nervous, too, to go back to the work, to see it again, with new eyes, then to delve in, and try to get even closer. That’s my learning. That’s the fun of the writing life. I guess it’s never really over. Like Louise says, at one point, you just let your book go out into the world and focus on the next one.
When will I know when I get there? I don’t have my answer yet. All I have is trust that one day I will. Meanwhile, the winding journey is scenic. I might as well enjoy the views!
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” Ray Bradbury
Totally wiped out, and yet, at the same time, it feels as though the well is filled to the brim, spilling with magic.
Ready to face my final VCFA semester. I think. :)
A bit nervous at the prospects of working with one of the most intriguing, insightful, and inspiring advisors, Louise Hawes, one of the original founders of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. But also feeling pumped, excited and blessed.
I am made of visions and ideas now dancing wild, now wrestling with fears.
What did I take away from the fantastical ten-day whirlwind that was this past residency?
Besides being reminded that I am now in my final six-month stretch? Gulp.
Here is a little list of topics some of which I hope to blog more about in the weeks to come (in between packet work, of course! Not to mention, the ongoing internship. And an upcoming family trip to Italy. Okay, so, yeah, you might have to bear with me, just a little.)
1. Stories’ Many Dimensions
Through the many wonderful lectures and conversations, I was reminded that writing transcends the 2-D of a sheet of paper of a computer screen. Because our work has more than one dimension. When we read out stories out loud, the physical act of passing the words through our mouths gives new physical life to the sound combinations we put together. Also, when we make the act of writing itself a part of the writing, we break down an invisible wall. Take for example Mo Willems’ unforgettable picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The story is based on the main character — the pigeon — talking to the reader the entire time, and it feels as though the readers’ answers to the pigeon’s desperate bus-driving pleas will determine the story’s ending. Wild, if you really think about it! Meta-fictive writing can be a fun, mind-bending tool to add to our writing toolbox.
If we think of the act of writing, too, as multidimensional, we can see deeper into our stories, we can live them with our characters. Look for a list of writing exercises that can help us get closer to our characters.
3. Questions and Answers
Story construction consists of a careful layering of one question over another, with answers that are strategically placed in a way that keeps the reader turning pages. Questions and answers can be a wonderful way to help us keep the reader’s attention.
4. The Beauty of Now
Once again, I was reminded of the value of letting go. When we stop fretting about the direction of our story, its future and its past, our future and our past, when we let go of control and focus on one scene at a time, amazing things can happen.
5. The Value of Adults
I got so consumed by the magic of the residency this time, I forgot to ask people’s permissions to share some of the insights from their lectures. But I plan to do it soon! One of the residency’s most amazing lectures came from Amy King (writing as A.S. King, author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, Reality Boy, and more.) In a passionate and insightful talk, Amy discussed the importance — and the value — of fleshing out the adult characters in stories for young adults. I hope to be able to share more details with you in the weeks to come!
In addition to absorbing all this wisdom, I reconnected with old friends, and especially my dear classmates, the Darling Assassins, who, more and more, are starting to feel like the siblings I never had. And I watched the previous class, Allies in Wonderland, receive their well-earned MFAs. The Allies, who were the ones welcoming us when we were wide-eyed first semesters, are the class filled with spunk and man, oh man, some serious talent. They held our hands (metaphorically speaking, for the most part), encouraged us, believed in us. They reminded us that we all are Allies, that we get to build portals for young readers, that Wonderland is our permanent address. They absorbed the program’s atmosphere of giving energy, and laser-beamed it back at all of us, multiplied. Now we got to see them off. Sometimes, because of all the tears, the picture got a little blurry.
Yes, the Writing for Children and Young Adults program is an incredible community, a magical home for everyone who dwells there.
But, in the end, we are all a part of a bigger community, we who write for some of the sharpest, most discerning, most open-minded and most passionate readers on earth, the young readers. In that mission, there is the magic that makes us all Allies in Wonderland.
So yeah, I am back. But, that’s the funny thing about magical places. You never really leave them, do you?
Fun fact: Once upon a time, at age 14, I sang this song, silly accent and all, and played it on the piano, on national Russian television. :)
Since then both the video and the audio of this little milestone had been lost in the craziness of emigration and moving and growing up and living. But sadder than that, when I sit at the piano now, all that comes to me are the song’s first two chords. (It was a unique arrangement, nothing I can find in sheet music, or re-create by ear). As far as the rest of it goes, beyond the two first chords, nothing comes or ever will again. It’s been too long. My fingers have lost the memory. I have no nostalgia for performing on TV ever again. But my fingers miss the song. I wish I could let my voice loose to those chords again, wish I could let my kids hear it.
This is what happens when you let go of something for too long — be it a song or a story. Right? You face the danger of losing it forever. Sometimes that’s just all right. Some stories deserve to be lost. But once in a while, you risk losing a treasure.
But there is another side to this “practice, practice, practice” coin. Once in a while, I believe we need to stop working on our craft so damn hard, stop completely. At least, I do.
It’s not easy either. Now that the semester is through, and I have finished writing and revising a novel I have been working on for (ahem) years, I am under strict orders from Shelley, my last semester’s advisor, to rest. I tried to resist at first. I kept going with some poetry, even though I could sort of feel it, my zeal and creativity grinding slowly to a halt. Now, before I go off to my next residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (next week!, OMG!) I am not writing. I am enjoying my family more. I am even becoming somewhat competent at our own crazy version of pool volleyball! (a HUGE surprise, trust me). Still, it’s hard. After the months of living my story, of my fingers flying over keyboard letters like they knew where they were going better than I did, not writing leaves a hole, an emptiness. Where had my super productivity and focus from the last six months go? My desk is a mess, I am waay behind on laundry, and I can barely go grocery shopping anymore without forgetting the sour cream and the hot dogs!
Look at this post, even, what am I saying here?
All of this only proves, of course, that I need this break, don’t I?
I am doing the best I can. Taking in the lazy-making swelter of summer, I try to just be, in the softest possible way, even if not writing makes me feel a little helpless, a little blind, a little lost.
This is all good, I know that. Seven days from now, I will be flying to Vermont. Before loading up with new inspiration, meeting my (last!) VCFA advisor and charging up with new ideas, I need to be as empty as possible.
So, cheers, guys. Here is to summer and to rambling. To emptiness, and to just being. Here is to floating. To memories of music. To making new memories.
Soon I will be writing my head off again, I sure hope so!
But today, I cheer for just listening.
Happy summer, my dear friends!
I will post again in late July when I come back from residency.
What are stories made of?
The answers are many: characters, setting, plot, theme, ideas, emotions. But underneath it all, we writers forget sometimes, don’t we? That first and foremost, stories are made of words. In this post, I would like to explore the storytellers’ most basic building material: language.
According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, language is “the use by human beings of voice sounds, and often written symbols representing these sounds, in combinations and patterns to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.”
Think about it — sound, combinations, patterns. When it comes to language, these can be great tools!
THE UNDERNEATH BY KATHI APPELT, A SONG OF A STORY
A story I’d like to use here to demonstrate the power of language, the power of sound and word and pattern, is Kathi Appelt’s middle-grade novel The Underneath, a magical tale about two kittens and a blues-singing hound facing danger together and forming a family in the deep dense woods of the American southwest. I was lucky enough to have Kathi as a workshop advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts last year, and I learned so much from her just in ten memorable days. But I also learned much from her writing, and that you too can do. Just look closely at this story, and the way she uses language here with precision and heart, to accomplish all sorts of storytelling aims, from plot, setting and characterization, to mood and theme.
If you haven’t read this book (and I hope you do!) or if it’s been a while, here is a little summary:
A pregnant calico cat befriends a chained hound and makes her home in “The Underneath,” a hole under a tilting house in the middle of the forest. The house is inhabited by a cruel and lonely hunter, Gar Face, and his sad blues-singing hound. The hound finds joy in the company of the cat and her two twin kittens – Puck and Sabine. But the happiness is short-lived. Unable to resist the pull of curiosity, Puck violates the most important safety rule of “the Underneath” and goes out into “the Open” to bask in the sun. Gar Face catches the kitten, then his mama, stuffs them both into a bag and throws the bag into the river. Puck makes it back, his mama does not. Stranded, away from his sister, his hound and his home, Puck faces dangers on the other side of the creek, dangers that include a powerful predator sleeping under the root of a tree, an ancient snake with her own magical story.
There are many, many strands in this richly patterned tale. Yet, Kathi makes it whole. There is so much magic here: talking animals, blues-singing dogs, ancient snakes, magic upon magic. Yet the narrative moves fast and feels incredibly real. I think Kathi’s use of language has a lot to do with this sense of unity and authenticity the story creates.
If you read The Underneath carefully, you will notice the narrative is peppered with proper nouns. Through the specificity of her words, the reader walks “dark damp streets of south Houston” with Gar Face or watches out nervously for snakes: “vipers, rattlers and corals, the copperheads, the venomous crew” in the “piney woods forest in far East Texas.” We aren’t just anywhere, and we aren’t dealing with some generic cat, either: she’s a calico. The personalized character of a tree isn’t just some pine: it’s an old loblolly pine. The Native Americans inhabiting the woods are the Caddo people. These choices provide the reader with a feeling of precision. The setting comes alive in its specificity.
CONTRASTS AND WORD PLAY
Kathi often plays with words, now setting them against each other, now pairing them in startling combinations. When now orphaned Sabine finds herself hunting in the forest, the way her mama used to, Kathit subtly chooses words to signal Sabine’s savage origins and her growing responsibilities. But in the same passages, these words — “rough” and “sharp” and “fearless” and “mother tigers of the Punjab” — are contrasted with adjectives, such as “small,” even “tiny.” Sabine is a descendant of the wild hunting she-cats. She’s also still a miserable, struggling kitten.
“With her rough tongue, she licked her front paws one at a time, taking care to polish her sharp little claws. Then she walked to the edge of the Underneath and looked out into the awful Open. Soon she would have to go out there, like her mother and her brother, now lost. … Sabine, descendant of the great lionesses of the Saharan plains, grandchild of the mother tigers of the Punjab, tiny heiress of the fearsome lynx and cheetah and panther, night hunters all. Here was Sabine.”
Through these contrasts, the poignant passage helps characterize the animals, create tension and raise the stakes.
But just as it can be used in creating tension, word play can be a great tool for tension release.
“Suddenly he was overwhelmed by it all. Such deep and utter Missing,”Kathi writes when describing Puck under the rain, in all his misery. She allows him to wallow for a few more sentences, before providing some quick comic relief on the following page, when Puck runs into a pine: “He was so full of Missing that he almost missed the tree.” :)
Sound, too, can set the mood and advance the story. Here is Kathi using assonance and alliteration of the sound “s” to add tension and set a menacing mood, while describing the emotional state of Grandmother Moccasin, a snake: venomous, grieving, angry.
“Loss. A small hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossss! she whispered. A word that scrapes against the skin.”
Repetition is a big part of using sound skillfully, and there is a lot of it in The Underneath.
Sometimes Kathi uses it for emphasis, and at other times to establish important plot connections between the narrative’s many threads and themes. One example is the repeated use of the word “curl.” When the kittens curl beside each other, or beside their hound, purring, the word is used to portray love. When Grandmother snake curls her body into a tight coil, ready to spring, the venom pulling in her mouth, the word “curl” describes hate and anger, underscoring an important theme in The Underneath, the contrast between love and hate.
Language of course has a lot to do with how we string our words into sentences. Kathi often varies the length of her sentences, going back and forth between fragments, alternating between short, simple, incredibly long and complex. When using long sentence, she builds a rhythm, often leaving the punch, or the revelation for the end. Look at this long, winding sentence, how it leads us slowly toward its dramatic end: the end of an ancient tree.
“So much water makes the ground softer than soft, so soft that an old tree, one that has stood for centuries, one that was struck by lightning and has dwindled down to less than half its greatest size, whose limbs fell to the earth with a crash, whose long and lovely needles turned coppery red and settled on the mossy ground, whose upper stories cracked off one another and dropped away, whose trunk split in two and made a nest for one lost kitten, this old tree, this singular loblolly pine, the one that has held an ancient jar in its web of tangled roots for a thousand years, held it deep under ground with its even more ancient inhabitant, this very tree finally let go of the soggy earth that had held it all these years and leaned over.”
Reading the winding sentence is akin to giving tribute to the long life of a loblolly pine.
Kathi’s use of punctuation is subtle most of the time, not calling attention to itself. But in some of the tenser, more action-packed passages, she uses ellipsis and exclamation points for added tension and italicizes selected words for emphasis. In the following example, Puck is chasing a log drifting down the creek, with an intention of jumping atop it and riding it to the other side.
“He could see the limb heading straight toward him. Closer and closer and closer. Almost. Yes! He slid down the bank and landed, oomph, right in front of the turtle-laden limb. He closed his eyes and…
See how, with the use of ellipsis and a paragraph break, Kathi has the reader feeling both the kitten’s desperate courage and his uncertainty? As though it is us, and not only Puck, who are about to jump onto a log in the middle of the creek!
Kathi’s writing can be an inspiration for us all. A lot of this — the rhythm and structure of the sentences, the sound of our words, will come to us naturally as we write and revise our own stories. But it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful, to remember that we sometimes can take a sentence and break it apart or meld it together for stronger effect, that we can set elements against each other, that we can dig deeper and give our readers a more specific experience.
Let’s honor the origins of all story. Let’s remember to love the place where it all comes from. We are writers, and language is our home.
Do you believe in serendipity? Happy coincidences shaping your life?
Do things just happen to you? Or has a chain of decisions and actions brought you to where you are today?
A combination of both?
Randomness may have a place in real life from time to time — and even that we could argue about. But in a tale worth reading, setting and life circumstance exert increasing pressure on the characters, who then push the plot ahead through their own actions, creating a chain of cause and effect. In great books, every detail, every would-be happenstance is laden with meaning and purpose.
Suddenly a character goes from happy to angry; then just as suddenly, the emotional storm has passed.
Suddenly a character wants something she did not want before. Why?
Suddenly a protagonist in need is rescued by Deus Ex Machina.
For a great study on cause and effect, look no further than a children’s classic, Holes, by Louis Sachar. The book is filled with surprising, unlikely happenings that include a waterless lake, two separate generations-old curses and survival in the middle of the desert. And yet, the reader believes every single event because it doesn’t just happen – it flows out of circumstance and character.
When Stanley Yelnats, finds himself at Camp Green Lake, a dried-up lake bed in the middle of a desert where troublesome youth are sent to rehabilitate themselves by digging holes, we learn that he is there for a crime he did not commit, as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It all seems so coincidental, doesn’t it? And yet, the reader finds out that everything about the story’s initial situation has a definite cause. The lake’s dryness can be traced back to a doomed romance of long ago, an event that eventually led to the digging frenzy, followed by the whole idea of Camp Green Lake.
Much goes on in the story that I don’t have room to analyze here. But you can go back to it on your own, pick out any event — anything at all — from the pair of stolen shoes falling on Stanley’s head “from the sky,” to his family’s rotten luck, to him finding the treasure at the end of the story — and you will easily be able to trace a cause that led to that event.
This is what I call marvelously tight plotting! As connections between various plot strands tighten, the pressure on the characters intensifies, and the reader’s fascination grows. Action builds upon action, each deeply rooted in character, until it all comes together in an exciting climax, where each wild and surprising event makes perfect sense.
Sure, great works of fiction, (as well as not so great ones), have been built on circumstance. Right now I am thinking of a young adult romance, The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith (Little, Brown, 2011,) which is about a girl who misses her JFK flight and meets her “true love.” But even though the inciting event, missing the flight, is coincidental, the rest of the story builds on the characters’ evolving emotions, which lead to their decisions and actions and form the basis of the story’s plot. I don’t remember which one of our Vermont College of Fine Arts teachers said — I am pretty sure it was Tim Wynne-Jones — that our stories are allowed one coincidence, which is the event that launches the adventuAfter that, let’s try our hardest to stick to cause and effect!
Sure, serendipity can be exciting. But in the end, books like Holes leave the reader with an optimistic, uplifting sense that everything we do matters. Maybe in real life we can’t make every action count, (though we sure can try!) But in creating fiction, we can – and we must.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King (On Writing)
The name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class is Darling Assassins. I will confess: when we were deciding on a name during the summer residency of 2013, I spoke up against it. I thought, must we as writers stand for destruction instead of creation? I supported the name of Liars & Spies, inspired by guest Rebecca Stead at our first residency.
And then, the next two semesters happened to me. Since last summer, writing has been all about killing.
It may sound harsh. But it’s been amazing.
I have been working on one manuscript for many years now (asking me just how many would be more impolite than asking other people their age!). Draft after draft, I have been creating, until the thing grew so unwieldy, I wanted to burn it altogether. So many times I seriously considered hitting “delete” — a fresh start! But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The story wouldn’t let go of me. Then I came to VCFA. With the (mostly) gentle prodding of my advisors, I have been pruning and hacking at my mess of a manuscript. Packet by packet, semester by semester, I have been letting characters go, eliminating subplots, (destroying an entire fantasy world!), zeroing in, chipping away at the block of marble, getting closer to the core.
And, incredibly, magically, all this killing has created room for the story to grow into what it’s been meant to be. One week ago I finished a new draft . Yesterday I sent it to my advisor. The last time I completed a draft of this story was somewhere around 2011. Today, the story is so very different, and yet, so much closer to its truth.
Now I know, writers aren’t liars. (Though we may sometimes be spies, let’s admit :) ). We tell the truth.
From the very beginning, I have been proud to belong to my plucky, generous, fun-loving, talented class. Now, even as I anxiously await my advisor’s response to my new novel, I am proud to call myself a Darling Assassin, a name I feel I have earned.
Yikes, it’s really been a while! Sorry!!!
This post may not be a revelation to many writers out there, but the following idea was quite a discovery for me: writing out of order.
Sure, I’ve heard about it before. Somehow, I always thought this method was reserved for wizards and other super-human types. :) I thought my boring brain was too logical, my inner editor too bossy for such marvelous creative chaos.
And then in the middle of my semester, my advisor challenged me.
The beginning chapters of the manuscript I sent her were fraught with problems, she pointed out (quite gently). I yearned to try and work those out right away. But she said, “no. Leave the beginning alone. Send me some middle scenes instead.” She only wanted to see the scenes that explored a relationship between two particular characters. With the next packet deadline looming, I couldn’t afford to write in order. I had to try this crazy new upside-down way.
So I dove in, terrified (and a little excited, too).
Oddly enough, the first thing I started with was an ending. I wrote backwards from it for a while, then I jumped into late middle. Then I went kind of all over the place, in true jigsaw-puzzle fashion.
Only now, after more than a month of this work, am I allowing myself to return to the beginning again.
It’s been crazy how good it felt. Like play. Like candy. My bossy left-brain inner editor, totally disoriented, just gave up and left me alone to indulge. My characters, emboldened, seemed to come to life.
I used to think it was important to write in order so as to trace the main characters’ arcs, to watch them grow. But when I wrote out of order, I discovered things about my characters that I could go back and build toward instead. Now that I am looking at the beginning, I am amazed at how much better I know my protagonist and those close to her.
Part of the reason I enrolled into the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program was to reconsider my process. I had tried NaNoWriMo, tried to take longer with a rough draft, tried an online Holly Lisle class, etc. All this time, I have been seeking a deeper, more honest way to write. I believe writing out of order is a big part of the answer.
Writing out of order. Scary — and freeing. Have you ever tried it? Do you think you ever will?