Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And the Winner Is...

Jim Danielson!! My mom drew your name out of a hat, so you can thank her. :)

Send me an email at tabitha at tabithaolson dot com so I can get your address and send along your book!! Congratulations!! :)

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Year in the Life...

This year is about over, and a new one will begin later this week. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, but I do believe in looking back over the past year just to see where I was at this time last year – what’s the same and what’s different. Let me tell you, it’s been a busy year. Insanely busy.

I could have started writing everything that had happened, and all the little things that happened as a result of the big things, but then I’d be here for the rest of the week. I don’t have time for that, so, instead, I focus on only the big things. The things that changed either me or my life in some way.

I think this is not unlike writing the synopsis for a novel. I think a synopsis should contain the major plot points, but also the major points that change the character in some way, either internally or externally. Here are the things I do to write a synopsis:

1. Go through each chapter and write down the major plot point, plus my absolute favorite part. If they happen to be the same, even better.
2. Make a list of all of these pieces, then turn them into a narrative (present tense, single spaced).
3. This is always longer than one page, because there are always too many pieces of the story that I love and want to include. So I go through each item and prune out anything that’s not part of the story’s framework, or skeleton. I keep doing this until I’m down to a single page.
4. Tighten up word choice, review spelling and grammar/punctuation, and polish until it shines.

What I have left are the most important pieces of the story, both to me, and to the story. This is also a good exercise in pacing – if I can’t find the major piece in a chapter, then maybe I need to rethink that chapter.

Anyway, that’s what I do to write a synopsis. What do you do?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

For all of you celebrating today, here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas!!

Instead of my usual thursday book discussion, I'll be giving away a fabulous book: the National Book Award winner, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell.

Just leave me a comment on this post, and I'll draw a name out of a hat next tuesday.

Until then, enjoy your holidays, and I hope you're not under a mile of snow and ice like I am. :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Snowflake Cake

I love the holidays. It gives me excuses to do things like bake cakes and give them away.

I made this yesterday as a gift for the staff at my youngest son's school. I've made cakes for them before, but this seemed particularly fitting considering how much snow we've gotten so far. Plus, school was closed due to excessive snow last friday. They got a kick out of it, and I just had fun making it. Everyone's happy. :)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Change in Your Characters

When Cheryl Klein spoke on plot at Prairie Writer’s Day, there was one thing she really hammered home: your main character must change. It’s part of the definition of internal plot.

I’ve heard the same thing from many others, and it’s rare that I enjoy a story where the main character doesn’t change. So this idea of change must be true, but my question is this: what does change mean, and how is it applied?

Webster’s definition of change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone; to transform or convert; to become different; to become altered or modified; to become transformed or converted (usually fol. by into); to pass gradually into

Hmm. Sounds pretty drastic, especially if your character is a baby-stepper. Some characters are good at altering a particular mindset, eliminating or adding to a huge part of his normal life, or even changing of who he is. Others...not so much.

If your character is resistant to change(like many people in the real world), what do you do? What if his life is not too bad the way it is? Does that automatically mean his story will flop? I don’t think so.

I think that there are varying degrees of change. With a character who’s open to change, his growth must be more drastic than the ones who aren’t open to change. With a character who’s not open to change, he still needs to grow in some way, even if it’s simply taking one tiny step toward the change he needs to make.

I think a lot of writers make a huge mistake in this area. They think their characters need to change, so they change them, regardless of whether it’s the right kind of change for that character. But how do we know what the right kind of change is? It’s all in the character, and writing what’s consistent with what your character would do, given the circumstances he’s under.

For example, I’ve said before that I didn’t think Frankie’s change was consistent with her character in THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Given what we knew of her, and how good she was at getting what she wanted, her initial confession didn’t fit her character. Nor did her actions afterward fit.

Conversely, Connor’s change in UNWIND makes perfect sense. What starts off as self-preservation turns into a desire to help more than just himself. Given the circumstances he’s been in, he’d have to be a horrible person to not take this path. Readers don’t generally like reading about horrible people. : )

Anyway, I guess my point is that, yes, a character must change. But the level of change must be consistent with who your character is.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Honest Scrap

I've been nominated for the Honest Scrap Award by fellow blogger Ann Bryson, a lovely person I met at the Prairie Writer's Day conference. :)

“Scrap means left over, discarded material. Many times truth and honesty are discarded material, considered fragments and left over. This award is for people that tell it like it is, and let the scraps fall where they will. There are 2 guidelines for receiving this award. One, you are to list 10 honest things about yourself. Make them interesting, even if you have to dig deep. Two, present the award to other bloggers.”
Ten honest things about me are:
1. I love to bake. Cakes are my favorites, but really anything will do. Banana bread, cinnamin rolls, cookies, pies, quiche, bread, whatever. Especially around Christmas time. :)
2. I don't like running. Hate it, actually. I only run for the train, and only if I know there won't be another one for an hour.
3. One of my biggest fears is speaking to strangers, especially a group. I guess it's got more to do with being the center of attention, which makes me squirm like no tomorrow. Blech. There's a reason I write. :)
4. I'm addicted to coffee. Love the stuff, love it! But caffeine and I don't always get along, so I have to take a break from it for a month or two, then I vow to stick to decaf. But it never lasts because it doesn't taste as good.
5. I've been crocheting since I was twelve, and can do it with my eyes closed. Literally. I made seventeen baby blankets in one year once, because we knew so many people having babies. I've still got one to make for my future neice/nephew.
6. My favorite board game is Connect 4. Though I guess it's not technically a board game...
7. I read to my kids every day, at least once. I'm looking forward to reading novels to them as they get older.
8. I check on my kids every night before going to bed and always listen to the sound of them breathing. It's such a calming, reassuring sound...something only parents will probably understand.
9. I used to ride motorcycles, avidly. I probably will get another one when my boys are older and I have more time. Which probably means I'll be an old woman and too weak to hold on. :)
10. I'm a very honest person. I used to hold back my opinions or comments for the sake of avoiding conflict, but the past few years I've been saying what I think. Tactfully, of course. Or, at least, I hope.
And now, I tag Carrie, Lee, and Prince B. If you choose to be tagged, that is. :)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Plot Summary: A calico cat, about to have kittens, finds a hound chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. And the hound, Ranger, befriends this creature he is supposed to hate. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise her kittens there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use them as alligator bait should he find them. But they are safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay in the Underneath. Kittens, however, are notoriously curious creatures. And one kitten's moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that changes their lives forever.

This book was nominated for the National Book Award. I’ve heard many people talking about it, recommending it, insisting that it was going to win some kind of award this year. And that was before it was nominated, so I’d already had it on my TBR list. After the nomination, I bumped it up.

I can see why so many people think it will win an award. It’s literary and thoughtful, with loveable characters and horrible villains (who even have a sympathetic side). And yet, I didn’t love it. It took me a long time to figure out why, but I finally did.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

There is no main character. We delve into one character, then move on to another, then come back, then move on, etc. As a result, we get to know what many of the characters are thinking because they tell us themselves. It allows us to get to know them fairly well so we know why they do the things they do, and even evokes sympathy in the unlikeliest characters.

For example, Gar-Face is a mean man who keeps his dog chained in his yard, feeding him occasionally. We find out that he was harshly abused as a child, and he never faced those demons, evoking sympathy even though he’s still a mean man. Also, the Alligator King is a one hundred foot long alligator. That right there is enough to make the reader say “Yikes! Gar-Face, get rid of him!” He does what all alligators do – eats the young, innocent, wounded, unsuspecting, whoever crosses his path. Yet, he has wisdom that he passes on to other characters that almost makes him likable.

But, there’s still no main character. Hence, I could not figure out who’s story this is. I still can’t. I got to know the characters up to a certain point, but never got to really and truly delve into them. Not the way you get to know a single main character, because you’re spending so much time with him.

As a result, not all of these characters’ actions made sense to me.

The actions of Ranger and the cats were completely understandable. But they’re the good guys. We see them grow, find themselves through loss and grief, then come together stronger in the end.

Grandmother Moccasin, however, doesn’t go through this kind of growth, yet she’s the key figure in the end. Throughout the story, we see how bitter and angry she is, how selfish and unrepentant she is, as well as what she’s capable of (via flashbacks). She’s the one character that didn’t evoke sympathy from me, not even once. In the end, she suddenly casts aside her anger and chooses to help the dog and cats – which left me scratching my head. I suppose you could say that all the anger she showed us throughout the story was anger at herself, but that’s not how it was presented. And, at least to me, that feels contrived, especially since the resolution was pretty predictable.

Throughout the story, we’re shown how powerful Grandmother’s jaws are, the things she could slice through. What else presented in the story could break Ranger’s chain? Nothing. So I felt that her intent to eat the kittens, only to suddenly help them, felt like clumsy sleight of hand.

I think that if one main character had been chosen to tell this story, and if we’d actually seen more of Grandmother’s choice to be selfless instead of selfish, or at least presented in a way that not everyone is a caricature, this would have been an amazingly powerful story. As it is, it’s good. Not great. But maybe that’s just me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Character of Plot

The last, but certainly not least, speaker I’m going to cover from this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference is editor Cheryl Klein, of Arthur Levine Books. She discussed plot, both from the aspect of the story and characters.

She said story is what happens. Plot is the structure which gives the action shape and meaning. In other words, story is a sequence of events, and plot is the larger change that happens through those events. This happens through both the external and internal plots.

External Plot: change in circumstances via action. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the outside. Entertainment comes from this aspect.
Internal Plot: change within the character. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the inside. Emotion and meaning come from this aspect.

Or, to simplify it even more...
External Plot: plot. As in, a major problem or situation is thrust upon the main character.
Internal Plot: character. As in, the character’s growth.

Ms. Klein really stressed how important the characters are to the story. She said you might have the best plot idea in the world, but without a sympathetic character to carry it off, she won’t be interested. Neither will most readers. Her fabulous advice is to start writing the book as if that plot didn’t exist, telling us only about the character to whom the plot will happen – after all, the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen, so why should we? This will show us more of the character and what he wants, which will ultimately add to the plot.

She went on to define different types of plot.
Conflict: One character vs. another character, or one character vs. herself
Mystery: a story where the characters need a piece of information
Lack: a story where a character needs something to be complete and live a full life

She said that good plots often have more than one of these types of plot going on at the same time. That you SHOULD have more than one plot in your book, since novel is a window into a real life and nobody has only one thing going on at a time.

As far as pacing goes, she said at least one plot event must happen per chapter. Or, your character must make at least one choice. The Lightening Thief is a good example.

On Frame Stories, where a story happens within another story, i.e. The Princess Bride. A change must happen in both stories, otherwise the one without the change isn’t necessary.

On a similar note, for multiple main characters, each must undergo his own change or internal plot. Otherwise that character isn’t necessary.

She said much, much more, but I’d be here forever if I relayed everything so I will stop here. Often, Ms. Klein puts notes from her talks on her website, cherylklein.com. This one isn’t up yet, but she’s got some other good notes on plot. This is one lady who loves to talk Plot, so I recommend checking them out if you haven’t already.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Princess Ben by Catherine Murdock

Plot Summary: With her parents lost to unknown assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of the conniving Queen Sophia, who is intent on marrying her off to the first available "specimen of imbecilic manhood." Starved and miserable, locked in the castle's highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room. So begins her secret education in the magical arts: mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle pantries, setting her hair on fire . . . But Ben's private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat facing the castle and indeed the entire country. Can Princess Ben save her kingdom from annihilation and herself from permanent enslavement?

This author also wrote DAIRY QUEEN and THE OFF SEASON, both of which I loved. But PRINCESS BEN somehow missed the mark. I think this is largely because the style of all three stories were written the in the same way. I think it worked for DQ because the life of a girl on a dairy farm is pretty quiet and boring. Plus, the main character wasn't a girl of action, so it worked that she told us everything. But Princess Ben is different, so this style didn't work for her.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Princess Ben, real name Benevolence, doesn’t seem to have a consistent character. I think the author knows her really well, and could answer any question I might throw at her. But, for some reason, it didn’t come across on the page. Sometimes she appears sedate and accepts abuse by servants. Other times she’s outspoken and undefeatable.

From the beginning, we’re shown that she’s precocious, possibly a little spoiled. In the end, we find out that she was very spoiled and she overcame it. But, in between, there wasn’t much to show us her progression. Her actions were not consistent with a grieving, spoiled girl. Actually, there wasn't much action at all, which means there wasn't much to show me her real character, and I couldn't identify with her. Which makes me kind of sad, because I loved the main character in DQ so much.

My other issue is that the voice was a bit flat. It’s actually consistent with the narrator (Princess Ben as an old woman), but, for me anyway, it didn’t work. I was expecting a fresh and young voice, but got an old one with too much wisdom inserted in convenient places. I think the author should have searched within herself for a voice and style that fit this story, instead of using the same thing that fit DQ.

This was still an enjoyable read, and I think part of why I didn’t like it more is because I had higher expectations after reading DQ. I’ll still read more of Ms. Murdock’s work, but this one isn’t going on my shelf.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Stepping Out of Character?

Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, was another speaker at this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference. Her topic was Character: how to create really good ones, and why it’s so important.

Basically, plot springs from the character. Sure, you could have a chain of events, but without a believable character to carry it out, you’ve got nothing. So how do you create a well-rounded character? Ms. Mihalick tells us all...

Characters are flawed. That’s what makes them real, and that’s how readers identify with them. They are more than character types, such as The Jock, The Nerd, The Quiet Kid, The Queen Bee, etc. They move the story forward through their virtues and flaws, which means they MUST be more than a type. It also means they drive the plot – the plot never drives them.

So how do we create these wonderful characters? Ms. Mihalick had many helpful things to say on this.

On a characters objects and possessions:
What does your character carry around in his/her pockets? And why?
How does he/she dress (i.e. what is his/her sense of style)?
How is his/her bedroom decorated?
What is his/her most prized possession?
What are his/her opinions of the various things in life?

On the people a character interacts with:
Who are your character’s friends? Enemies?
Who lives in his/her town? Neighborhood?
How does he/she treat these people?
What are his/her relationships with parents? Siblings? Other family?

On a character’s actions and reactions:
What makes your character laugh? Cry?
What does he/she do when frightened?
Introvert or extrovert?
Body language.

On a character’s opinions:
Optimist or pessimist?
Liberal or conservative?
What is his/her opinion on certain kinds of music, movies, and books?

Put all of this together, and you’re on your way to creating a very real character.

Now that we’ve created him, how do we reveal him to the reader? Through a combination of action, dialogue, and monologue. But only those things that are relevant to the story. If your character thinks wearing socks with sandals is appalling, but is has nothing to do with the story, there’s no reason to bring it up. The same goes for the people and surroundings. Only bring in the things that have direct relevance to the story, build it, and move it forward. Everything else can stay in your notes.

Now we know how to build a complex main character. How do we build a minor character? According to Ms. Mihalick, use the same things. The minor characters must be as complex as the main character, even though we won’t see as much of it. But if you, the author, know the depth of your characters, then that will come across to the reader. The same thing goes for villains.

She parted with a list of books that contain well-developed characters:
TRACKING DADDY DOWN by Marybeth Kelsey

Thus, adding to my towering TBR pile. :) Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Christmas Present Cake

As promised, here's a picture of the cake I made in the shape of a christmas present.

The picture is horrible quality, and I apologize for that...I really wish I could find the cords needed to download off our other (much better) camera.
*sigh* Maybe Santa will hear my wish... :)
UPDATE: I've uploaded a photo of much better quality. Thanks, Santa!!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Valiant by Holly Black

Plot Summary: When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York City, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city's subway system. But there's something strange about Val's new friends. When one of them talks Val into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature with whom they are all involved, Val finds herself torn between her newfound affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her friends are becoming.

I read this book some weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to, mostly because this is essentially a story about drug use, and that’s not my cup of tea. But it was the way drug addiction was presented – not exactly softened, but not exactly the whole terrorizing experience either – plus, this kind of drug would tempt anyone into becoming addicted. Ms. Black walked a very fine line here, and pulled it off well.

VALIANT has been criticized for the sex and drugs content, and the general “raw” flavor of the story. But, for me, this is what made it work. Sure, there are some bad situations, lousy choices, and terrifying consequences, but don’t real drug addicts go through that? I think Ms. Black told the story she set out to tell, and intended it for an older YA audience.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Valiant. Valerie. The two are not synonymous. Valerie starts out this story as far away from Valiant as possible. But, through a long and dark road, she makes it there.

The drug Val gets addicted to is called Nevermore, and is essentially faerie magic in powder form. Users of this drug are able to perform magic themselves – making people give them money or expensive jewelry, turning garbage into cupcakes, etc. Val gets addicted to this drug, along with two of her new friends. The third friend, however, has the sense to stay away from it. He works for a troll, distributing this Nevermore to the faeries living nearby, and his whole reason for being seems to be to protect his brother from himself.

Val doesn’t get sucked in right away, which I found both believable and refreshing. Some books thrust their characters into situations before they’re ready, and it makes the story jarring. Not enjoyable. But Val got into her addiction gradually, which, I’d guess, is how it happens for many addicts. She spirals out of control, but then does something that not all addicts can do – she gets herself out of it. And she does it on her own (with a small support group), but no one does it for her. I respected her immensely for that.

Val is the kind of character that is deeply flawed, and not entirely likable at first. But if you stick with her, she eventually shines. Bravo to Ms. Black for taking the chance on writing such a character, and succeeding.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Voice Giving Us Voice

Last week, I told you all the wonderful nuggets Jennifer Rofe shared with us at Prairie Writer’s Day. This week, I’m going to share editor Caroline Meckler’s (of Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House) insight on Voice. And it’s amazing insight!

Voice is one of the most nebulous aspects of writing, and I haven’t found a satisfying definition for it. I’ve searched websites and blogs, asked at conferences and other get-togethers, and pretty much everything else short of shouting out questions from my rooftop.

Last month, Caroline Meckler changed all that. Her presentation gave me the clearest, most understandable definition of Voice that I’ve ever heard.

She said every piece of writing has Voice – it’s the expression of the content. Some expressions are more compelling than others... Voice is something that must come from within – editors won’t be much help, especially with first time authors. Voice must already be there for most editors to take on the project.

As to what makes up Voice, Ms. Meckler said there are five elements:

This is the choice of words used both to narrate the story, and in the characters’ dialogue. They should be deliberate, concrete, and surprising (i.e. not predictable). The meaning and connotation of each word should be clear and consistent with both the characters and the story.

These are specifics that create a clear image of both the story and the character. It makes the story and characters seem tangible, and pulls the reader directly into the story. The kind of detail revealed will also reveal aspects of both the story and the characters - the characters because we are seeing his/her perception, and the story because we are seeing the author's perception.

This gives the reader a full-on experience of all five senses. Shown, of course, not told. The senses should pertain directly to the story (as should everything else), as well as reveal more about both the story and characters that we couldn't otherwise see without those senses. This adds to the personality of both the story and the characters.

This is the technical side of things, and has to do with grammatical structure: varied sentence length, run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, perfectly balanced and correct sentences, etc. All of these show the reader what kind of story we're reading, with what kind of character(s) - breathless, perfectionist, intellectual, etc.

This sets the relationship between the writer and reader: close, distant, direct, funny, intense, dramatic, etc. Is this a story being told after the fact, in a debriefing kind of situation? Or is it an intimate setting where the story and characters are speaking directly to the reader?

She went on to say Voice is the personality of your writing, meaning it’s the mood or feelings as a product of the author. The authority of the Voice matches the character, which makes the book come alive - evoking emotion from the reader.

She cited some examples of good Voice:
CALVIN COCONUT by Graham Salisbury
HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
ROSIE & SKATE by Beth Ann Bauman

Then, she closed with some brilliant advice: the wrong Voice will weigh down your story, so keep trying on new Voices until you find the right one. If you stay true to your writing style, it will be easier to both find and keep your Voice.

I don't know about you, but I know exactly what I need to do now in order to strengthen my Voice! Thanks, Ms. Meckler!!