Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I guess the NBA folks, Coretta Scott King people, Newberry group and Scott O'Dell crew knew something I didn't - until now. And now I'm getting on the bandwagon, so scoot over.

I've read a lot of good middle grade books in the past eighteen months, and One Crazy Summer perches near the top of that list. It's one of those books that whispers to me every now and then, although I read it almost a year ago.  References to Cassius Clay, Oakland's riots, and President Kennedy, help to set the tone and perspective of our young black story teller.

Expertly told in first person, the first chapter whisks us away with three little girls as the oldest child considers why she and her sisters are on a plane, flying to Oakland from JFK. In her mind, there seems to be no good reason for the summer trip to California, leaving her father behind in Brooklynn. Their mother left them, after all, so why was their father sending the girls across the country to a mother they barely knew?

It's not until the middle of chapter two when we actually learn our narrator's name. But by then, we already know Delphine and root her on, hoping the mother she seeks to know in Oakland will show some motherly behavior to - if not her - then at least her younger sisters, who do not even remember the person who gave them life.

The beloved pink baby doll, which youngest sister Fern totes everywhere she goes, takes on special significance throughout the story. Especially when a black magic marker "colors" the doll and introduces new conflict among the girls.

There's a lot happening in Oakland during 1968, and Delphine senses some of the significance of the time and place. But mystery surrounds Delphine's mother and what her mother does in the kitchen. Why does she so fiercely protect whatever the kitchen harbors while seeming not to care for the girls? Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern just can't understand.

But Delphine continues to care for her sisters while slowly discovering a bit more about her mother, a poet and Black Panther. With the backdrop of turbulent racial struggles, this is still a story about belonging. Or maybe a combination of fighting for justice while trying to fit in. In any case, One Crazy Summer shows a small family, and a larger community, struggling with universal issues of belonging and fairness.

Readers will appreciate the developing relationships and changing dynamics the children face as the girls careen from one situation to another. This book is rich with effortless metaphors and social commentary without feeling didactic in the least.

Rita Williams-Garcia penned a simple yet multi-layered historical fiction work in One Crazy Summer. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Sidekick Isn't Just for Poops and Giggles

For every epic story, there is a quest. For every quest, there is a hero. And for every hero, there's a sidekick. A sidekick can be anything from your protagonists best friend, to maybe something as simple as a household pet. Heck, in my story, COPERNICUS NERDICUS, Nic's sidekick is a fully functional battle-robot from an interactive video game. Strange, eh? It really doesn't matter who or what they are, there is one thing you have to realize :

They are JUST as important as your main character.

Before I move on and discuss just how important a side kick is to your main character, let's take a look at some famous side kicks in storytelling history. Oh, and feel free to comment with your own personal favorites. After all, every story has one.

Star Wars - There are so many to choose from, but thanks to my love of robots from my own MG novel, I can't resist choosing these two bucket of bolts.

What's great about these two guys, is that they're not even human yet they show such a wide range of human emotion that you literally feel for them just as much as you do Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and all your other "organic" characters. But that's not even the half of it. Without these two characters, the universe would be destroyed as we know it. Without that little R2 unit, we would have never seen the destruction of the death star, and who knows how long it would have taken for Luke to find Obi Wan. And what's a huge alien universe without a protocol droid?

Long story short - without these two guys, our Star Wars story would go nowhere.

Lord of the Rings - Sure, I could have picked Gandalf. Better yet, I could have picked Aragorn. But no, they aren't even close to the same level importance as my favorite hobbit. That's right, folks.

If Sam was hanging outside Frodo's window that night, consider middle earth destroyed. If it wasn't for Samwise's undying faith and love for Frodo Baggins, Frodo NEVER would have made it to Mount Doom. What's great about Samwise, is that he is weak and vulnerable. But the love he has for Frodo makes him stronger than any weapon at their disposal. He never ONCE gives up. Okay, maybe he does have moments of despair, but he comes through in the end. Sam is well deserving of the title hero of the shire.

Now what's the point I'm trying to make? Well, you can say one fact about secondary characters is that they all have their own intriguing back story that cannot be ignored. It creates some amazing depth in your story, and the fact of the matter is, your MC isn't the only person we're following in the story. Plus, it's a lot more realistic if your secondary characters actually appear to be alive, and not just cardboard cutouts or cookie cutters.

Oops, forgot -

I'm sorry Batman, I forgot about you and Robin.

There's one thing about secondary characters that make them quite possibly the most IMPORTANT part of any story. I want you to take a guess. Come on. Guess.

Done guessing?

Here's what it is - it's all about making YOUR MC evolve! And I'm not talking pokemon (but seriously, if you want to talk pokemon drop me a message on twitter or something). I'm talking about growing as a character throughout the story. Look at what I pointed out above with our side kicks from Star Wars and LOTR. Every one of them teaches the MC something about themselves that they didn't realize before. They go through moments in the story that are life changing for both sides. But without those side characters, there's little hope for your MC to get anywhere.

So do yourself a favor when writing your story. Don't just add characters as fluff for your MC to talk to or joke around with. Static conversation with another character doesn't go anywhere. I had made that mistake plenty of times when I first started writing. Make each conversation meaningful in one way or the other. And have each interaction between our MC and sidekick move the story forward.

Remember, it's not only about your MC. Where would Harry be without Ron and Hermione? Where would Wesley be without Inigo and Fezzik? Where would Bruce Willis be without Carl Winslow from Family Matters?!

Get it folks? Good - now get writing, and give me some of your favorite secondary characters!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who’s telling your story

Middle Grade books are written in third person.

YA books are written in first person.

This seems to be the trend, if not rule, recently. Want proof? Go into the book story and pick up 20 YA books and see how many are were written in first person. Then move to the MG section and pick up 20 of those. How many are third person? Here’s a hint, you’ll find a majority that fit the “rules” stated above.

So what does this mean for us writers? If you write Middle Grade does it have to be in third person? If you write YA does it have to be in first?

Abso-positive-lutely NOT.

Why not? Well, I’m not one for conformity just for the sake of conformity. But beyond that, each and every book and each and every author have their own life, their own stubborn personality. We’re creative beings, so I hope you understand what I mean when I say that every story has its own life, but even if you don’t, think about it like this: every book has something unique to tell, and not every book should be told the same way even if they’re for the same audience.  So how can you best tell what your story needs to tell?

As an author, we need to stay true to ourselves, but we also need to stay true to our work.

Should we take the POV trend into account when planning/writing/querying a novel? Yes, of course, always. Should that dictate what or how we write? No, of course not, never.

How do we decide what POV to use, then? I use a pretty tried and true method: whatever feels right. Is your character the one you want to be telling the story? Or would you rather have a strong narrator telling it? Voice is important either way. Most writers have one POV that they feel more comfortable with. That’s totally cool and might just be how you decide which one to choose for new work. But don’t be afraid to try something new to see how it works out. You might just surprise yourself.

If you still don’t know, try writing out one chapter, once in first person, then start over and rewrite it in third. Which do you like better? If you’re a really logical decision maker, create a list of pros and cons, grade them, have someone else read them etc.

Are you a trend rebel? Here are a few books that break the trend of first person YA and third person MG. Breaking a trend can sometimes be a great thing, so don’t be scared to try it.

MG in first person                                YA in third person

Percy Jackson                                     Daughter Of Smoke And Bone
Clementine                                          Gracling
Wonder                                                Luxe
See You At Harrys                               Mortal Instruments
Better Nate Than Ever                         Cinder
Walk Two Moons                                 Maze Runner

Monday, November 11, 2013

Say What?

Dialogue can be one of the trickiest parts of writing. So when Matt de la Peña, YA/MG author of Mexican White Boy, the upcoming The Living, and Curse of the Ancients, the fourth Infinity Ring book, gave a session on dialogue at the Missouri SCBWI conference, I jumped at the chance to attend. Matt said one of the most profound things I'd ever heard on the topic. 

"Dialogue isn’t just what’s inside the quotations marks but also what’s around it." 

Just think about that for a minute. It’s not just what the characters say, but how they say it, how it’s blocked out in the text, and even how the setting can contribute to the conversation.

And now that I have everyone’s brains churning, I’m going to share the wonderful advice I learned during Matt’s session.

Step 1: Get out of the reader's way:
This is more commonly referred to as author intrusion. The writer tends to creep into the text more when it comes to dialogue. But it is the writer’s job to fade into the background and let the character do the work. The dialogue should represent your character while the tag is the writer. So let the character’s words speak for themselves as much as possible.

Step 2: Understand reader psychology:
Readers like white space. They start skimming or skip over text entirely when they see large walls of it. But when a page with a lot of breaks or white space comes along the reader pauses and may start reading again. This is where dialogue comes in. It creates white space on the page. It’s inviting.
Step 3: Decide how much your characters are going to say:
Writing a novel is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. Elmore Leonard said, “Get to the good stuff.” So there will be times when you want an entire conversation to play out. There will be other times you want to summarize conversations so you can “get to the good stuff”. Not every conversation can be in your book nor should it be. So when in doubt, start your scene late and end the scene early. Cut out the boring stuff and leave the reader intrigued but not confused.

Step 4: Make your dialogue tags as useful as possible:
As stated before, it’s not just what’s inside the quotation marks that’s important. Don’t just tack on tags to your dialogue haphazardly. A few examples to illustrate the different placement of tags:

1.      “I like the way you look,” he said. This example is just matter of fact. We know who spoke and what they said.
2.      “I like the way you look,” he said, “especially when you smile.” This example creates a very different rhythm to the words that are spoken. Using he said in the middle of the dialogue creates a natural pause for the character without having to say “he paused”.
3.      “I like the way you look,” he said admiringly. Here an adverb was added to explain how the character spoke. But if you use adverbs, make sure they are really necessary. Ask yourself if it’s clear from the dialogue the way the words were spoken. If so, then ditch the adverb.
4.      “I like the way you look,” he murmured. Using an alternative dialogue tag can help express volume or how someone said something. In this case since the sentence is murmured, maybe the speaker is shy or afraid to say it so they aren’t speaking up. Alternative dialogue tags can be useful from time to time but if abused, they can annoy the reader because they become noticeable.
5.      He took her hand. “I like the way you look.” Here is an action tag with the dialogue. Using the action adds to the scene and it eliminates the need for a formal “said” tag. We know who is speaking based on the action performed.
6.      “I like the way you look.” This has no tag at all. Typically when there are only two people in the conversation and it’s back and forth, the reader can tell who is talking without needing a tag.
Once you’ve figured out your tags, read your dialogue out loud to get a good sense of how it feels and how it flows. Do you like the way it sounds? If not, adjust accordingly.

Step 5: Know your characters:
Dialogue should be natural and focused, but every character will speak differently. Are there certain words one character likes to use? Do they have an accent or dialect? Do they have verbal ticks or quirks? Are they sarcastic or serious? All these can help differentiate one character from another when they are speaking. If you distinguish your characters well enough, you shouldn’t need dialogue tags at all. The reader should be able to tell who is speaking based on what they say and how they say it.

Step 6: Check for authenticity:
Dialogue should be artful. It should also carry the scene forward. If you use too many beats it might make the conversation sound mechanical. Conversely, if the characters talk in circles the scene will never go anywhere. Think about the context of your story and the characters in the moment of the conversation. Their actions and words will vary in different situations. Real conversations are far from clean. People talk over each other and interrupt. Your conversations in the text should reflect that. Conversations in writing don’t have to be perfect, because they aren’t in real life.

Some additional tips:

  • Often people don’t name the thing they are trying to say especially if they are scared or keeping a secret. They will dance around the topic rather than getting to the point.
  • People sometimes speak to each other but don’t really listen. This kind of conversation feels disjointed because the people involved aren’t addressing each other directly.
  • Don’t have a conversation “bitch”. The other person will want to talk about things outside of what’s happening to your main character.
  • Don’t overload with exposition. It’s fake and lazy. Maintain the integrity of your characters.
  • What your character thinks internally doesn’t always match what they are saying. People are afraid to say things, so their words may come out meaner or some other way than intended. Representing the internal vs external is more human. But if the internal response is expected, you might consider leaving that out.
  • If you take a risk, make the things around it easy. Don’t over complicate everything.
When in doubt listen to the way people speak. Really listen. Are they talking to each other or at each other? It can make a difference. Dialogue doesn’t have to be a giant headache inducing part of your manuscript. It can help the flow and add layers to your story. So get out there and get those characters talking!