Saturday, November 21, 2015

Passivity has been noticed (and, I hope, revised)

I sent off a draft last week after applying a few more revision suggestions. Two of the suggestions were basically logistical issues within the story, but the third suggestion was something a little bigger. My main character's interests were clear, and so were his reactions to the people around him, but his own personality was harder to define. Why couldn't he be more like my secondary characters?

My agent was right, and I did some work to flesh out traits that previous drafts had hinted at but not emphasized; I hope I've resolved the issue. But I also did some mulling over of why I had this problem in the first place. I definitely consider myself more of a character person than a plot person, but somehow, I'd ended up with strong secondary characters and a protagonist who mostly just reacted to them. This hasn't been the case in all my writing projects, but it also isn't the first time it's happened.

I typically write in either first or close third person, so both the reader and I go through the story, moment by moment, right with the main character. As in life, other people happen to us. As in life, we see others from at least a bit of a distance. We know that not every single moment of our own lives is character-defining--we might be mild-mannered but occasionally get upset about something that happens to us; we might be early risers but occasionally sleep in because we've had a tiring week. We know that we react to things that happen in whatever way makes the most sense--right?? So the things that happen are more important to the story.

Now that I realize this is a trap I can fall into, I'll react to that information by spending more planning time on my protagonists. It seemed obvious that I needed to do this for other characters, especially antagonists; after all, readers need an explanation for why they do the ridiculous things they do. I guess that's true of the story's hero(ine), too.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

You won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any muse.

So I saw two very different musicals, The Book of Mormon and Without You, in the space of a week. (A wonderfully theater-geeky writer friend was involved.) It got me thinking, not for the first time, about my relationship with musicals as a writer, which is pretty deep-seated for someone who doesn't write musicals. I even started a post about my admiration for their clever lyrics, many of which have stayed with me so persistently that they've become tied to various in-jokes in my life. (There've been a few song parodies. Attend the tale of Soapy Todd, the cleaner barber of Fleet Street.) And about how they often motivate me to work on my own writing, both because they inspire me as achievements and because of the messages in so many of them. I hear the people sing and I want to seize the day and climb every mountain and defy gravity. (Come to think of it, defying gravity would make climbing every mountain a lot easier. Where was Elphaba when the von Trapps needed her?)

And then, while I was halfway between highlighting gems from a range of musicals and trying to convey their effect on me without quoting "Purpose" from Avenue Q too heavily, the soundtrack to Hamilton became widely available. The Internet, at least the bit of it that I follow, went nuts, and I knew that others understood.

I've only listened through once so far, and I have no doubt there's more to discover, but Hamilton is a perfect example of so much of why musicals impress me. The old refrain "surprising yet inevitable" keeps running through my head as I think about musicals, and in Hamilton's case, I think the opposite works: inevitable, yet surprising. Even vague U.S. history knowledge, enough to make you at all interested in this show, is enough that you probably know the ending going in, as well as a few things that will happen along the way--how the war turns out, for instance. And if you don't know the ending from the outset, you'll be told early on, and then there's lots and lots of foreshadowing to remind you. But the show gets there in an unexpected way, a way that the participants in the events couldn't have imagined. The same is true of a lot of other musicals--either they're based on a true or a familiar fictional story, or they sum themselves up in the opening number and leave it to you to figure out how they'll arrive at the projected ending. When they get there--or when they get close, and you can see how they're going to get there--there's a satisfying feeling of closure. On a smaller level, I love it when lyrics build to a word or phrase that's surprising but then seems obvious. ("Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak / Oh, why can't the English / Why can't the English learn... to SPEAK?")

It's a feeling I want to create in my own writing, both in large ways with plot arcs and small ways with details and dialogue. Musicals remind me that I have the chance to tell any kind of story I want in a resonating, satisfying way. And I am not throwin' away my shot.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

In the name of research

I spent much of my writing time today reading about, and watching videos of, what happens when antacid tablets interact with water, vinegar, or soda. In water bottles. In film canisters. I emailed a photographer friend with questions about the latter. And then I threatened on Twitter to start a list of things I've Googled in the name of research.

I did get some writing done today; the general subject of the scene I started should be apparent. (Teachers and other science-minded folks, any thoughts on how two ten-year-olds might safely make a cool-looking explosion are most welcome.) But, although I do indulge in an #amwriting tweet here and there, starting such a running list might provide a little too much temptation to turn #amwriting to #amprocrastinating.

So instead, I've decided to get it (at least mostly) out of my system here. Here's a sample of things my writing has led me to research. (Which, I should note, is mostly realistic fiction with relatively familiar-to-me settings.)

-Names. Oh, so many names. Often popular names in particular characters' birth years, extrapolated based on the assumption that it will be a few years before the manuscript reaches readers.
-Names I think I've settled on to make sure there's no one out there whose possession of said name might pose a problem. This also goes for towns, schools, camps, and fictional candy brands and social media sites.
-Activities at summer camps. (Apparently, some camps' summers don't culminate in an Israeli folk dance show. What do those campers do all day?)
-Types of paint and their advantages and disadvantages.
-How to use a zip line.
-Treatment of fractured wrists. (No, not directly related to the zip line.)
-Do kids still use alarm clocks?
-How old are kids when they get cell phones?
-How to make a web series. (This one, I Googled in character, trying to limit the search terms to a fifth grader's vocabulary.)
-Tips for filming with a smartphone. (I searched this one as myself; I might need educating, but the techie ten-year-old in question didn't.)
-Various points about hair care across ethnicities.
-Points about my own culture that I'm pretty sure I know, just in case. Yes, I confirmed today, Tums are kosher.
-Typical weather in a particular state at a particular time of year.
-Rules of handball.
-How many Legos in a tub?

This isn't to say the Internet is the only place for research, but since I'd rather not hit my neighbors' cars testing out a film canister rocket, it's a darn good resource. How about you, other writers? What has your writing forced you to learn?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

We're a team. Our captain wears high heels.

When I signed on with Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson, I didn't just get a agent. I got a team. A cheering section. A bunch of people who know how to express excitement because they're all writers. We cheer for each other and for our shoe-loving agent (see logo designed by author and illustrator Catherine Scully). And this week, author Dionna Mann is hosting a Team Howland blog party! She's come up with personalized interview questions for a whole bunch of us. Author Tom Mulroy and I kick off the party today, and I can't wait to read everyone else's interviews and learn more about my teammates.

Thanks, Dionna! Go Team Howland!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Children's lit friends. They're hard to shake.

Six years ago, I finished a two-year program in Writing for Children, with a healthy dose of children's lit classes. Six years ago. That's three Simmonses ago. Exact program lengths and graduation dates vary among my classmates, but basically, we all finished a brief grad program long enough ago to have pretty much forgotten about each other.

I spent last weekend at the wedding of one of those classmates, meeting the real-life versions of people I'd seen referenced in her writing. And this weekend was the beginning of a reunion that's been built around next week's Summer Institute. I brunched and picnicked with Simmons '09s and '10s from a few miles away, and from across the country, and from Across the Pond, who chatted about their writing, their work for publishers, libraries, bookstores, and schools, and which books they'd been sharing with their kids. They've been excitedly planning this visit for months, and more of them are coming in the next week. (And yes, the newly-minted bride and groom made the trek today.)

Children's literature is a field full of people who've held onto literary affections formed in childhood. Is it any surprise that children's lit people hold onto friendships, too?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A note about my musical dad

This Father's Day, I give my dad credit for my relationship with the sounds of words. Which is no small thing.

My dad is a musical guy. He reads Torah, which involves memorizing chants and vowel sounds to read from a scroll where neither is printed, almost every week, and sometimes leads services as well. His conversation is often interspersed with lines from songs--why say you're going to have fun when you can channel the Beach Boys and predict "Fun Fun Fun?" Mention a familiar movie, and he'll sing its theme music. Hand him a book to read aloud, and you'll learn any song out there with its characters' names in the lyrics.

Even when he's not actually singing, he's putting things in rhythm. I realized recently that every time I count to five, I'm using the rhythm he used to teach first-grade me to spell write for a spelling test: W! R! I-T-E! My childhood was dotted with ditties; my little sister's name was tough for a four-year-old to learn, but who could forget it after a few dozen repetitions of "Leora does the horah, while she studies Torah?"

And then there are the puns. My dad isn't the sole influence (see also: grandfather; uncle who can't hear flexible without saying Flaxible), but he has influenced my soul. When you mention a skirt, it's absolutely necessary for my dad to say, "Let's not skirt the issue." When I think of a pun and I'm anywhere near Twitter, I will mistweet the English language.

As those who know me are aware, I love me some rhyme and meter. I don't sing especially well, but I love writing song parodies and noticing which song lyrics fit to which other songs' melodies. I have an ISBN song, similar to "Camptown Races," that helps me make sure I haven't missed any digits. In short, my life is a life of earworms.

Thanks, Dan the Man. Happy Father's Day.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Revisions and shenanigans

Just a peek out of hiding to say that I sent the second round of revisions back to my agent this weekend. The first round was big enough that finishing it felt momentous; in fact, I rewarded myself by finally subscribing to Netflix. The existence of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may also have played a role in that decision, but I held off until the draft was done, thank you very much.

The second round was less of a big deal; I found myself rewriting bits of scenes, rather than writing entire new ones. But both revisions so far have driven home the point that it's okay to lighten up. Creating characters and giving them funny things to say comes more naturally to me than unleashing the fury of plot upon them, and I think that knowing that, I focused extra-hard on the latter. A few unnecessarily serious plot elements are gone or altered now, leaving just the most important ones so the weight of the story lands where it's supposed to. And there are more shenanigans. Because characters with funny things to say are funnier when they have funny things to do.

Also, apparently some kids break the rules at camp. Who knew?*

*I'm not saying I totally believed the counselor who said our lips would fall off if we didn't sing. I'm just saying I got to know a lot of camp songs very well.