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Mar. 3rd, 2009

Great Sites




It’s not often that an author’s site can make you cry. But reading
Terri Farley’s posts I always get sucked in. Terri is a prolific writer (Seven Tears into the Sea and the Phantom Stallion series) who also manages to write beautifully about wild horses and her efforts to save them—and get young people involved. Her posts and newsletters are heart wrenching and heart warming, just like her books!    


Linda Rader Overman  (Letters Between Us) is a smart, sophisticated writer whose site speaks to her fast-paced L.A. life and the thoughtful pauses she can bring us to. The sentiments in her posts can be so polished they gleam. In her own wordsChronicles of An Ordinary Woman is the discussions of an ordinary woman who participates in the everyday and commonplace acts of life as she re-views (reminiscences) about her present, past, and future.



 Barrie Summy’s site (I So Don’t Do Mysteries) gleams too, in a warm, delightful way that speaks to the kid in you. Or perhaps the kid in Barrie, who offers a bright spot to come out and play. She has a great knack for making you curious. And check out her new Book Review Club!  

That's Barrie! 


Feb. 4th, 2009


Rita’s Week

...With a review of her soon to be released novel for a Brand New Book Club and an exclusive interview on how she bent time and managed multiple narrators.



by Rita Williams-Garcia

A review

Dominique: the bully

Leticia: the witness

Trina: the victim

Three high school girls. One typical day. One telling moment. In Rita Williams-Garcia’s new novel Jumped (HarperTeen/Amistad, March, 2009) she takes a hard look at human nature.

Zero period and the ever-observant gossip, Leticia, fakes her escape from class “to be outside where the dirt is fresh and the gossip is good.” Leticia’s got her ear to the ground, catching it all “while it’s clicking and flashing; what they’re wearing, who they’re with, and what they’re saying.” And she hits pay dirt.

Down the hall comes self-absorbed, pink-pretty Trina, who waltzes through life certain that when “people see me, they see walking art.” But Trina’s dance places her in Dominique’s path, and just then Dominique, a fierce basketball player, is angry at the world. Coach has benched her for poor grades and Dominique is fuming for a fight.

“She cuts a knife through my space then turns,” says Dominique about Trina, who has, unaware, insulted Dominique by walking too near. “And I slam my fist into my other hand because she’s good as jumped…”

Giddy with this gossip—that Dominique will lay in wait for the unsuspecting Trina after school—Leticia dials her friend, Bea. But Bea disappoints her by asking her to get involved. “You gotta give Trina a clue,” she says… “You’re the only one who witnessed it all go down. This is your mess.”  


Will Leticia decide Bea is right? That being a witness makes it her mess?

Jumped plays out the tensions inherent in this moral question. In a dovetailing drama that unfolds through multiple narrators in the space of several hours, the novel, like growing up itself, flows like a river, pulls you down the rapids and sends you inexorably over the falls.

Williams-Garcia is a master of voice and spare, rhythmic prose, which she uses to dig to the heart of each character and deliver them up in all their self-importance. And the beauty of this book is how skillfully the author hits her mark. A feat accomplished not through introspection but the weave of inspired action which draws the reader relentlessly to its tough conclusion.

                                                                                    ---zu vincent

 Hold on, there's more....

Rita’s Secrets for Bending Time and Managing Multiple Narrators


Q: The novel takes place over one day. Have you used this technique before?

When I was in college, I sold a short story to Essence Magazine that was never published. The story takes place within the time frame of a girl and her boyfriend standing at a red light before crossing at the green light. Within those thirty seconds the girl decides whether she’ll continue on with her boyfriend. Other than that, this is it.


Q: Why did you choose this compressed time frame?

Many reasons. I didn’t want to delve into the girls’ home lives any more than I had. I didn’t want to point to social issues to explain why Dominique is the way she is or give easy answers.  

Instead, I thought it would be fitting to handle a seemingly random act in a tight space. And since it’s predicated on so little, the merciful thing to do for the reader would be to not belabor the storytelling. These brutal attacks usually just happen. (I actually saw one today on the F Train. Three girls and a woman who supposedly kicked one of the girls. ) To stretch it, I’d have to make Dominique question her actions when I didn’t believe she would.  


And honestly, there is nothing Trina could do to make amends to Dominique. It’s so not about Trina although she is the casualty. Realistically, in a story that takes place over time, I wouldn’t have been able to keep Dominique’s intentions away from Trina. In that case, it would be out of Leticia’s hands and I wanted to keep Leticia on the hook.


Q: What were the challenges of writing in such a short time span?

Back story. Digression. Characters yakking about their outlook on life. How much can I get away with and yet move the story forward?  I have a folder filled with unused chapters, all under the, “Covered that already,” banner. One of my favorites involves Leticia and her mother shopping on Seventh Avenue and Leticia getting into it with some shopper. Funny Leticia and Bridgette story but I covered it.


Q: What were the advantages and disadvantages of this technique?

Well, it should work for the story you’re telling. Not everyone can wear the hot new fashion that’s got everyone buzzing, nor can a storytelling technique be grabbed off the rack. When the fit is good, everything falls like dominoes. You achieve a nice symmetry. When it’s an ill fit, we all point. “Look at Rita Williams-Garcia in that thang. What was she thinking?”


I liked this form for this story because the field of battle is contained. The structure—nine periods times three students, was pretty much laid out for me.  We know we’re headed for 2:45pm. The disadvantages are, you are wedded to that tight space. It leaves little room to play around in. You build a huge “Unused” folder.


Q: How did you face narrative arc, pace, and character change in such a compressed time frame?

I gave each character her own arc in a moment of truth that all happens just before the attack. Trina’s moment of truth comes in art class when Ivan won’t let her live in her bubble. Be prepared, Trina. That ain’t all. 

            Leticia’s happens in her chemistry class, and Dominique’s occurs in Coach’s office—one last chance to turn it around. 

So you have these three characters in rising states anger, anxiety and rage mounted relatively close together in the chapters before the attack. There’s nowhere else to take this but to its inevitable collision. 


Thank you Rita!



Jan. 1st, 2009

Sweet Thanks

The Roman god Janus, associated with the New Year, is depicted as two-faced—one side looking backward, one forward—to signify both the end and the beginning of things. But imagine Janus, as he turns from the old to the new, pausing in that moment between. The god takes a breath, holds still, and gives thanks. We mortals can too!




This is a huge year to say thank you for me. Launching a novel has shown me just how much our writing community cares about words. And I’ve been awed by the support of so many. 

In my novel’s acknowledgments I was able to thank those closest to me and most involved in production for The Lucky Place, so this is a chance to cast a wider net. 

Thank you to authors Jacqueline Woodson, Tim Wynne Jones  and Susan Wooldridge for reading The Lucky Place and offering such generous advance praise. It meant so much to me that you each took time from your own busy writing schedules to lend your support.



Thank you to the writing communities of Vermont College and the Class of 2k8 who opened your arms to me.

Traveling around the country for signings I've been delighted to catch up with many of you, and you've always been so gracious! (Like Vermont's  wonderful Cindy).



And Rita Williams-Garcia, Tobin Anderson & Kathi Appelt who were all at NCTE in San Antonio this November.

Thank you to the Highlights Foundation for helping support my time at Honesdale this spring.



Thank you to the many librarians, teachers, booksellers, bloggers and friends who are passing news of The Lucky Place on to readers, especially my faithful friends right here on The Tollbooth.



Thank you to the many bookstores who have hosted me and celebrate authors--The Flying Pig Bookstore and Lyon Books, to name just two.

Thank you to all the book reviewers who read the novel and felt moved enough to respond.


Thank you to the talented Cynthia Leitich Smith and Cynsations! (Shown here with her new ARC--a must read!) Thank you for naming The Lucky Place a new voices Cynsations Book for 2008
. And thank you for your support of not just me but all the authors you highlight throughout the year. Cynsations is a gold mine of what’s happening in children’s and young adult literature today and it’s wonderful to be included in this rich tradition.  

Special thanks to Gail Gautheir for nominating The Lucky Place for a Cybils Award with such generous praise. 

And to Brittany Lashinshki at Boyds Mills Press who not only holds down the fort at so many book shows but knows a good beach when she sees one.  

Thank you Suzanne Williams, Ellen Hopkins and Teri Farley—writers extraordinaire—


for the energy and talent you put into your Nevada program and the support you’ve shown my work. You’re my adopted SCBWI!  


And finally, thank you to all those who’ve read and responded to my novel this year. It’s been amazing to hear from you! I saved you a piece of cake from the best launch party ever (thank you Marti and Ron!) because you've made life so sweet.



Nov. 20th, 2008

Ellen Hopkins




This week we’ve been talking about facing our demons, but we’ve also talked about success. Why not? We need to be inspired by the success of others. And one of the most successful and inspiring writers I know, and a woman willing to face her own demons head on, is Ellen Hopkins www.ellenhopkins.com/. Her New York Times bestsellers pour out in prose poetry that has captured thousands and won her several awards. But it’s her passion that really blows you away.


Hopkins might write the most cutting edge stories around, but that passion is rooted in an old fashioned integrity. When she speaks about her readers her interest in their lives and their futures wells up, as if they were each carried in her heart. She genuinely cares about reaching young people through literature, which is why she can’t be anything but honest. “Readers see through you if you aren’t,” she says.


You don’t get sugar coated reading Hopkins. You get brutal truth. Uncomfortable moments that look deep into our own black hearts. An intimacy between reader and characters that is as unsettling as it is compelling. Perhaps it’s because her own success is rooted in heartache. 


Her first novel, Crank, was born from personal sorrow. A long time freelance writer, Hopkins began writing her novel in 2002, basing it loosely on her oldest daughter’s addiction to methamphetamine, or crystal meth. She took the first few pages of this novel to a book festival where editor Julia Richardson liked them enough to take a chance. Crank appeared in 2004 and within weeks had given Hopkins the  best seller spot she’s kept ever since.



In the sequel to Crank, Glass, and in her books Burned, Impulse and Identical,  Hopkins reaches for her gritty truth by exploring themes such as incest, addiction, and—in her next novel, Tricks—teen prostitution.


             “I keep pushing the edge,” she says. “But no has told me to stop yet.” Maybe that’s because she’s so single handedly caught the ear of teens. Her books spread almost underground at first. Not showing up so much in libraries as they were tucked under the arms of kids in the halls at school.


            “One teacher told me she finally stopped a boy and asked to see what everyone was reading,” says Hopkins. “It’s fun to get kids excited about reading,” she adds. “And they’re buying books. Kids tell me I bought all five of your books, and I’m so proud of that. They read them and pass them to their friends.”


            Hopkins is as dedicated to her work as she is prolific. Thrilled to be doing something she loves, she writes every morning until early afternoon. And she finished Identical by writing fifteen pages a day on a writer’s retreat in Cabo with a group known as the “plot dogs.” “They kept calling me to come out of my room,” she laughs, “but I was in the zone.”


For Hopkins the process is intuitive. She likes to create her characters around a theme. “But I don’t just create characters,” she says, “I create how they live in relation to others.” If they have a bad relationship with their parents, she figures out why. Not through plot or outline, but by listening. “I let them in my head and they tell their story”


The fact that her character’s stories come out in prose poetry happened through experimentation. “It’s important to experiment,” Hopkins says. “I wouldn’t have known I could write like this if I hadn’t.” She often plays with voice on the page, and her poems are sometimes as visual as they are lyrical. “Verse is not a place for everybody,” says Hopkins, “but it’s where I belong.”



She also seems to belong to the generation she’s touched so deeply. Perhaps she’s done this because in fiction, facing your own demons means you’re giving your characters those demons, too. Hopkins has five characters in her upcoming novel Tricks. And she talks about one scene in particular that came to life for her in an unexpected way.


She was writing about Seth, a young male prostitute, a kid whose farmer father kicked him out of the house for being gay. To survive, Seth finds a sugar daddy, yet he also finds himself powerless. To move Seth through one particularly sensitive bedroom scene, Hopkins did research on prostitution and talked to a gay friend. But when it came time to write, she realized her character, although forced to perform sexually, was actually, in some part of himself, wanting to be there. She was startled.


But it’s these startling moments that show she’s reached deep into a character and found the truth. Facing demons is what makes each of her characters living, breathing human beings.


“These stories are important,” Hopkins says about the dark underbelly of life she often portrays. It took courage to go out on that limb, to push the edge. “But I wasn’t wrong, thank God,” she says. “And now I’m getting paid well to do what I love.”


               see you next time! ..........zu


Courage to Write

Yesterday’s question was, how do we take that leap of faith that lets us reveal our own darkest underbellies? Our own deepest shame? Where is that place for us as writers where truth is a liquid, not a solid?


For Jeannette Walls, writing The Glass Castle meant facing her demons. She was ashamed of her past. And one of her biggest demons was her relationship with her dad. She’d endured his often painful neglect. A heavy drinker who couldn’t hold down a job, he was forever moving his family from town to town. At the same time he was a dreamer, and carried around plans for the glass castle, the home he fantasized he’d build for his family.


“When we weren’t running we were chasing something,” says Walls, “my dad’s dreams. We were looking for gold to build the glass castle.”


In the end Walls realized she had to build her own “glass castles” in life. Yet she found it was her dad’s strong belief in her, the sense he imparted that she, too, could follow her dreams, which led her to success. This was Walls’ liquid nature of truth that came when she wrote her story down.


That’s her advice to writers. “Just get it down. You don’t know what the story is until then. Just get going… and tell the truth.”


So is it these very feelings of discomfort, even shame, that tell us when we’re on the right track?


Before Walls wrote The Glass Castle, she wrote what she calls a “gossip column” in New York. The irony, she says now, is that she was “pursuing other people’s stories while I was busy hiding my own.” Journalists, she notes, often pursue half truths and caricatures. But memoirists and novelists need to move closer to the bone.


This isn’t always easy to do. Walls talks about a scene in the memoir where she and her brother and sisters are going hungry and they catch their mom eating a hidden chocolate bar. When she was writing the book, this was one of those scenes Walls struggled with. How to juggle the truth with the idea that the truth can expose the people you love?


Yet to this day Wall’s mom has never mentioned that scene. Instead she complains that Walls once depicted her as homeless when she was living under a bridge.

“I wasn’t homeless,” her mother says. “My home was under that bridge.”

The lesson? Your demons may not be someone else’s, after all.


And if Walls had let fear stop her, she’d never have written a book that’s touched so many readers. Especially young readers, since her book is popular in classrooms and juvenile halls.


Reader reactions, Walls says, have both amazed and pleased her. Some people feel her past was terrible, some see it as magical. Some have understood poverty for the first time, some feel she’s telling their story.


And for Jeannette Walls, if she has made a single person understand what it’s like to be poor, then writing her book—in effect exposing herself—has been worth it. “The power of reading and writing is to understand how much we all have in common,” she says. “We read to get past barriers, to see we’re all very much alike.”


Ironically, in order to show how much we all have in common a good writer uses the most uncommon scenes. Scenes that are full of substance, and yes, maybe even secret pain and shame.


Walls recalls a night when she was little and afraid of a monster under her bed. Instead of comforting her, Walls’ dad helped her chase that monster around the house and out into the night.


“That ol’ SOB demon been chasing you for years!” her dad cried. “Let’s go git ‘em. He’s a bully and a coward. Look ‘em in the eye!”


Looking her demons in the eye has brought Walls peace with the past. “All I did was survive,” she says about that time. “But I believe there’s a gift in that.”

Nov. 19th, 2008

The Glass Castle


I was taking a walk in the woods today when a single autumn leaf unhooked from a twenty foot oak and descended. Down and down and down this piece of gold fluttered and sank, me walking toward it and the leaf falling in gentle spirals—and I kept walking and it kept floating as if we could meet by appointment. Finally I stretched out my palm and that little piece of gold fitted in.


But what was it really? Just a dried old leaf. I saw this when it was in my hand. Then again, I still saw gold.


Isn’t this what writers do. Walk with reality in our palm? Seeing both a dried old leaf and yet a piece of fluttering gold?  


I had a chance to speak on a panel with some fellow 2k8 (classof2k8.blogspot.com/) writers Monday at the California Library Association’s annual conference in San Jose. And I was thrilled that after our talk I caught author Jeannette Walls’ closing lecture about her memoir The Glass Castle.


There’s something incredibly rich about finishing a great book and getting to hear the author speak. Walls’ memoir about growing up in extreme poverty has been on the New York Times best seller list for over two years and sold over two million copies. It chronicles her nomadic childhood with her three siblings and her smart, but eccentric parents. In the memoir, the Walls family moves from the Southwest desert to the West Virginia mountains to New York City, where her parents end up homeless.  


It’s an amazing, painful and often humorous story that looks life right in the eye.  Walls’ message for writers in her talk—her trick? To see truth for what it is. “A liquid, not a solid.” Because truth can be both a dried fall leaf and a beautiful thing of gold.


Walls was deeply ashamed of growing up poor. She left her West Virginia home before finishing high school and moved to New York City to make a new life. “I wanted to leave everything from the past behind,” she writes, “even the good things.” But she discovered that the past “has a way of catching up with you.”


After Walls moved to New York she put herself through Barnard College and became a journalist. In the new life she’d carved out, she never admitted the circumstances of her past, and often lied about who and what her parents were.


“For so many years my fear was myself,” says Walls. “My own past.” The day she spotted her homeless mother rooting through the garbage she knew she had to confront this past. Still, her fear was palatable when she sat down to write.



“Why am I doing this?” Wall would ask herself. “Why expose myself to humiliation?” She was terrified the truth would ruin her image. “My stand in the world that I’d so carefully cultivated.”


So the question for tomorrow is, how do we do this as writers? How do we take that leap of faith that lets us reveal our own darkest underbellies? Our own deepest shame? Where is that place for us where truth is a liquid, not a solid?

Nov. 12th, 2008



 Two sisters, one stolen car, and a whole flock of chickens... Melanie Kroupa at Farrar Straus and Giroux is publishing Tami Lewis Brown’s middle grade novel

One Shiny Silver Key 

Here’s the story. Last summer our own Tami Brown was inspired to spend a summer up near the Canadian border, alone. Here she holed away and wrote the draft of her middle grade novel One Shiny Silver Key. If you ask me that took courage. But courage has its rewards. Tami just sold One Shiny Silver Key to Melanie Kroupa at FS&G.


I was lucky enough to read One Shiny Silver Key in draft, so I know that Tami’s harrowing story of Peep and Margie’s journey will grip your heart. Her young protagonist is brash, bold and thoroughly lovable. Plus she tells it like it is! 


I asked Tami for the story behind her story, and what follows is a peek backstage. But first, I thought I’d add to this mysterious process we call writer’s intuition.


Doing our part, some friends visited Tami last summer. One day I got her out of her cave long enough for coffee at the lovely little whistle stop known as North Hero.


That’s where we found what can only be described as a chicken memorabilia shop. It was filled with wire, ceramic, quilted, painted, plastered and stuffed replicas of chickens. Go figure. The minute Tami walked in; she knew her character had sent her there.   


I’ll let her tell the rest.


“About fifteen years ago I read a news story about two sisters, seven and nine years old, who borrowed their father's car and drove 200 miles to visit their older sister and her new baby.


That story really stuck inside my brain but I never expected it to turn into something important to me or my life.


Three years ago I woke up one morning thinking Peep and Margie never set out to be criminals. I didn't know who Peep and Margie were... little did I know I was soon to find out.


That summer I went to the Vermont College residency and as part of my MFA program, and realized I had to write an entirely new first half of a novel—at least 75 pages—for my creative thesis.


A few weeks later I went on vacation in southern Vermont to Rudyard Kipling's house. Every morning I got up before the rest of the house stirred, went to Kipling's desk, and wrote like wild—something I can't usually do on command or from one day to the next.


By the end of two weeks I had about four chapters of the novel written. Then I proceeded to rewrite it ten zillion times over the next two and a half years.


Last summer I knew one of the weird elements was that their mother was obsessed by collectible chickens—which I didn't really understand until Zu drug me into that place on North Hero Island.”


The rest, as we know, is history.

In addition to One Shiny Silver Key, Tami’s picture book


Soar, Elinor! 

will be published in April 2010 by Farrar Straus and Giroux/
Melanie Kroupa Books



Sep. 11th, 2008



“To the writer of fiction, reading fiction is a dramatic experience. It’s often tense, provocative, disturbing, unpredictable.”

Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer

If you love to write you also love to read. You love words. You love the very act of setting down sentences. Phrases haunt you. So do random scenes and ideas.
I have a suggestion. Take advantage of this if you read The Faith of a Writer. Have your journal ready. Sit with the essays at a coffee shop or on a rock at the creek and open an inner dialogue. Respond to Oates’ journey with notes on your own. We all have gold in our history and passion for this strange persuasion to create. Mine it.
In her introduction Oates says that underlying her essays in The Faith of the Writer is a “prevailing sense of wonderment at how the solitary yields to the communal…” I think she’s talking about intimacy. That only by being intensely private, by revealing our most secret selves on the page, do we truly reach others. So mine it deeply.  
Oates begins by exploring her past, starting with her early school days learning to read and write, then moving to the children’s literature that most influenced her work long after childhood vanished. This is important, she says, because our first emotional attachment to story soaks “into the very marrow of our bones” and influences our “interpretation of the universe thereafter.”
It’s worth noting what that influence was. Oates began at age eight, with Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Your influences may be totally different, but they will still yield clues to your voice and subject matter, your “strategies of art” as Oates calls them.
As for methods, “Write your heart out” is Oates’ advice. “Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.” Especially mine your forbidden passions. “Read widely, and without apology.” Admire and even copy other writers work.
And run (or walk or swim) as a way to meditate. Since writing is also visceral, it relies on tissue memory, and we need to give spirit and body a chance to work together. Oates is an addicted runner. “…The runner seems to experience in feet, lungs, quickened heartbeat, an extension of the imagining self,” she writes. It’s in giving ourselves over to these times of solitude that inspiration strikes.
Where does this inspiration come from? From a deep human yearning to play, says Oates. She reminds us that our minds long to play, to experiment and imagine just as readily as our bodies long to move. And it’s okay to be restless. We’re fueled by defiance and rebellion. An urge to be different, to honor and record the past our way. To set the record straight. “The artist is born damned,” she writes. And it’s this sense of exile and inadequacy that pulls us to create.
Yet, ironically, at the same time writing offers a “key” into a special, magical world. Lost in that world you both “are and are not yourself…”. It’s not the outcome we’re after, but the immersion. Writing is fascinating, we fall into that wonderful loop of time and go down the rabbit hole into a waking dream. Life is quickened, writing is a great luscious risk, “like falling in love.”
And because of this risk we need to address failure. Oates’ essay on failure is not only illuminating but heartening. Especially her list of famous fiction writers who nonetheless felt like failed poets or playwrights.
There’s much more in the book, about reading as a writer, self criticism, and even the joys of the writer’s studio. In each essay Oates moves beneath the surface to ask the underlying questions, the why of writing. So that from her singular soul we recognize much of the journey, or at least a few stops along the way.
I like the places this book takes me, the slant of it. When a writer who’s produced a body of work shows you behind the scenes, the weight of her words feels balanced with her deeds. And examining what shaped her gives us not only the evolution of a writer, but ways to understand our own approach and use it more effectively.
            Oates says it best,
            “Henry James spoke of the artist as, ideally, one upon whom nothing is lost….,”she writes. “What a writer is intellectually, morally, spiritually, emotionally will radiate through the work…. Yet we can change our characters, we can deepen our souls, certainly we can become more mature, more sensitive and observant through the discipline of writing…. And one of the ways we can affect such change is by approaching the art of writing as a craft.”        


Sep. 8th, 2008


            I discovered a delicious secret the day I began my journey to become a better writer. Books on the art of writing. One of my favorite illicit pleasures when attending college was out of reach was to wander the back shelves at the university book store—those monkey racks they hauled in and filled with required reading arranged by class. I’d grab a catalogue and thumb through until I found the course numbers that directed me to the creative writing book shelves.
I could never resist a first stop at the lit course requirements—Norton Anthologies as big as door stops towering over classic and current novels. But I knew the real gold was mined in the books those lonely one or two creative writing professors put forward. The reading list here was not only thin and so shrunken as to be subversive, but it was usually “suggested” rather than required. As if even in the university it was understood that art and its craft was not to be trifled with by requiring something of the muse, but rather, gently suggesting it.
Here were the most lyrical novels, the sharpest cutting edge poetry and short story collections, and most intriguing of all, books on writing. Being a fledging it hadn’t occurred to me that so many authors wrote about their process. And that, wonder of wonders, they had made it accessible to me.
Not just on the university shelves, either, but in the library. What a feast to find so many books about writing neatly shouldered together in Dewey Decimal land. My method here was to run my hand along the spines of these thickly bound titles until one seemed to jump itself into my grasp. Writers know this phenomenon, that just like the stories we’re compelled to write, the books we read choose us.
This same magic worked for me in bookstores, too. Finding the writing reference shelves I’d thumb through and discover the sorts of books which rarely failed me—often trade paperbacks with covers that felt a bit roughed up, like the softest sandpaper. And these books too jumped into my hands, as if what I needed to know right then and there had already been telegraphed.
Really, a writer’s education is scandalously free, or at least cheap, on the university, library and bookstore shelves. And any advice on a good writing book is meant to help you look for your own jump. Because we are never just one sort of writer with one single need. The need changes as the process moves forward. One season Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel may but just the thing. The next, Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
This week I wanted to talk about a book that doesn’t so much give a how to as it explains how come. What makes a writer? How do we go about it? Why do we even try? There’s a familiarity in honest answers to these sorts of questions that feels like coming home.
Which is why I chose Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer, because Oates’ book of essays on craft manages familiarity by being original. And it proves what she herself says about the great irony of writing that, “In our very obliqueness to one another, an unexpected intimacy is born.”
Stay tuned….

Jun. 5th, 2008

Literary Bones

Day Five

“….a different sort of flesh covering those literary bones.”




Dramatic Structure


You know the feeling. You end the book and close it reluctantly, with what can only be called satisfied despair. Satisfied that the read was so perfect, despairing that alas, it’s over. Now you feel dazed, disembodied, half of you still with the book’s main character—as if by some eerie alchemy, you’d become him or her—and it’s a day’s effort to climb out of that more vivid, more interesting body, and back into your own.


You’ve been hooked and reeled in by the power of story. A power that owes much to dramatic structure. And while art itself may be indefinable, you can look at the mechanisms which helped to create it. You can reveal its literary bones. And one way to start examining these bones is through plays and screenplays.





A couple of books on dramatic structure really lend themselves to this. Lajos Egri’s classic The Art of Dramatic Writing, and Screenplay by Syd Field. Egri approaches structure through the stage play, but his principles can apply to any story form. He explores how the heart of a story revolves around premise, character and conflict, and the expertise with which these elements are dramatically orchestrated.


“A character stands revealed through conflict: conflict begins with a decision;” writes Egri. “…A decision is made because of the premise of your play.” (Egri digs into this in the book and ties it to character change). “The character’s decision necessarily sets in motion another decision, from his adversary. And it is these decisions, one resulting from the other, which propel the play to its ultimate destination: the proving of the premise.”





You might be more familiar with the newer book, Screenplay, in which Field borrows Egri’s dramatic play structure for scriptwriting and breaks a script into three acts. Act I is the beginning, or setup, Act II the confrontation and Act III the resolution. Field calls this movement—from beginning, to middle, to end—the foundation of dramatic structure, because it appeals to our essential sense of storytelling.


“You may not believe in beginnings, middles, and ends,” Field writes. “You may say that art, like life, is nothing more than several individual moments suspended in some giant middle… what Kurt Vonnegut calls a ‘series of random moments.” Yet even life, he counters, has three acts: birth, life and death, and we crave this sense of balance in our stories, too. 


Yesterday, Elizabeth noted that the film “Prince Caspian” can’t really be about Caspian’s journey to adulthood in the sense that the book is. Books and movies aren’t the same animal (and that way lies disappointment for diehard Narnia fans). But if you dig into dramatic structure as Egri and Field map it out, you might find the movie does an admirable job of paying tribute to Lewis’s Narnia. And it’s a great practice in general for looking at what makes stories tick.


In “Prince Caspian,” Hollywood has pared the story down and quickened its pace, but Caspian still has to overcome emotional and physical obstacles to take his place as king. We still watch him struggle and we still watch him change. And his movie journey has its beginning, middle and end, from the opening in Narnia, to his battles with the Telmarine, to the conclusion with Aslan. 

It’s just a different sort of flesh covering those literary bones.






Thanks again, Elizabeth
            For more on the book of essays Through the Wardrobe that Elizabeth and I appear in:
           A review of the collection is at:  
           Sarah wrote more on cinematic techniques at  http://community.livejournal.com/thru_the_booth/21786.html 

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