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I keep a list of novels I have read, but I don't include those I start and abandon. There are unfortunately a lot of those. The books appealed to somebody enough to represent and sell to a publisher (and some are even many people's favorite books), but that doesn't mean I connect with them. Sometimes I just "can't feel the narrative spark," or "I feel the presence of the author, not the character, moving me through the story," or "the writing is nice, but I find I don't love the main character enough to represent er, keep reading." After all, "in this business, it's gotta be love." *snort* Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I am not the reader for that story, not that that story doesn't have merit. Naturally, I'm not going to name these books. But there are some elements that definitely don't appeal to me, and now that I'm a writer I know why. I've started and put down a number of books lately and find myself analyzing why so I don't do this in my own writing.

1. Unlikeable main character. I know, the author has good reasons. The character is supposed to fill some kind of archetypal role that necessitates him stealing, being accessory to murder, stabbing a friend in the back (literally or figuratively), etc. Maybe she's a complainer or gossiper, and the point of the story is her redemption. I can't find room in my heart for the first reason, although maybe I can understand the second. I like redemption features in characters who aren't the main character. But if I'm going to follow someone around in a book for 200+ pages, I need to like them. Yes, Crime and Punishment is a classic. No, I actually don't read it over and over as a bedtime story.

2. Too much psychic distance--ie, writing about a character instead of seeing through his/her eyes. This is the root of most books I find boring. I don't care so much about what a character looks like as what their moral issues are and the way they see the world. This distance problem happens within a variety of issues: too much headhopping between different characters (common in adult books but not kidlit), not enough internal reactions from the character, using the character to explain the worldbuilding/plot setup while forgetting the character's humanness (sort of, As you know, Bob), and writing down to the reader (usually when lofty adult writers decide to spin one out for the kiddies, who are of course, dumber. Grr!) This is a key difference between kids' books and adult, so if you are an adult writer who honestly has a yen for writing for a younger audience, you would do well to study this difference.

3. Unnecessary cruelty to your characters. I don't mean putting them through the wringer to force them to make hard choices and grow. Voldemort kills many people Harry loves, he tricks Harry into leading people Harry cares about to death, and in the end, Harry's got to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Voldemort. I'm not talking about that. Readers LOVE seeing characters pressed to a wall, because they anticipate a major payoff/triumph commensurate with the sacrifice the MC is giving. No, I mean adding a situation that does nothing for the plot or character growth, that seems to just add shock value for the reader, and that, while huge and horrible, doesn't get more than a meh, that stinks, move on to the next plot point from the author. Like hm, having a book about a runner who has to retrain after an accident, but dumping in a scene with a pedophile and then just moving on without really addressing how it affects the character more than, eh, some people out there are just bad. Okay, let's get back to training. That sort of thing a) makes it seem like the author approves of pedophilia and b) is completely nonsensical within the context of the book. It's not something I see often in books, but I have seen it more than once, and it definitely promotes me throwing said books against the wall.

4. Nothing happens whatsoever, ie, no plot. My sister, who is a poet, has a lot higher tolerance for pretty writing at the expense of story, but the main point of a story to me is...a story. Without a story, I might as well go back to washing dishes and polishing doorknobs. The multiple plot threads where the characters almost interact but don't...yeah, another wall-banger. I want strong writing--I LOVE strong writing--but I want it with a story.

5. The book that skips the climax. Seriously. I have read a few of these. Building up to something big and then skipping it altogether is worse than having it all be a dream.

So to turn this right-ways around, I guess what I want to read about is a likable character I can share thoughts and feelings with, who goes through real challenges that get enough respect from the author to be addressed with gravity commensurate to the situation. Ie, I want a book that has heart. And those are the books I love to name and talk about!
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I really enjoy critiquing. Yes, it's work, and I can't always do it--I have to weave it around my own writing, not to mention my Real Life. But I always learn something from doing it, and I always love seeing glimpses into such different worlds. I've just done three crits outside of my normal crit group rotation, and once again, I'm struck by how different and unique each person's writing is.

One thing the crits made me think through was when it's appropriate to tell, and when it's better to show. I think sometimes writers get a little too uptight about The Rules, as if they can NEVER be broken, ever. Eradication of adverbs! No dialogue tags except for "said"! Never tell, always show! In general, most of the time, those are good things. But I don't think it's 100% bad to use an adverb! Or to, once in a book or so, let someone snarl instead of say a line. The telling-showing thing is most on my mind right now. Here are the kinds of things you should probably show in your writing:

--key plot movements
--key emotional points
--scenes that show decisions, changes, or character growth
--scenes that show important aspects of the relationship between characters

This is what I think telling is good for:

--transitions

As for the passing of time in a book, I think you need a mix. A small, specific, showing instance to sort of stand for all the other instances you aren't going to show. Besides, text on the page = passing of time in the text world.

Something that really helps necessary telling go down well is voice. If you can "tell" in the voice of your POV character, it just slides down like syrup. Rachel Hawkins's book Hex Hall did a good job with this, I thought. The voice let her tell the transitions and skip ahead to all the interesting parts she wanted to show us. And of course, JK Rowling is brilliant at balancing the two as well.

(Okay--so I realize these kind of writing craft posts are really just notes for myself as I think aloud, but I thought I'd post it anyway in case anyone has any additional insights. Another thing critiquing does for me is show me Just How Much I Have Yet To Learn, so uh, I don't claim to be any kind of expert...)
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Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, Editing, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
By Cheryl B. Klein
Asterisk Books, New York, 2011

A review by Rose Green

Second Sight is a collection of talks and workshops and blog posts on writing by Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic. Some of these talks have appeared on her web site, and others not. Here they are all collected into one handy resource. If I was leaving the country and could only take a handful of books with me, I would include this one. It’s the single most practical writing book I’ve read.

What this book is not: an introduction to writing and/or children’s publishing. It will not tell you the standard format for manuscripts, nor will it tell you how to write a bestseller. It will not tell you how to get rich “like that woman from England who wrote a book” or how to get on Oprah. It has very few examples from adult books--with the exception of Aristotle’s writings, which should tell you something about the depth and seriousness with which Cheryl regards children’s literature.

Who this book is for: the intermediate to advanced writer, preferably someone who has already completed (or at least is deeply into) a first draft. There is definitely a hole in the market for books for intermediate writers, the ones who are past the introductory stages of how a book is put together but who don’t yet have an agent or editor of their own to guide them. It’s full of practical suggestions for deep revision, for finding those “electric fence emotions” (as she describes the raw feelings of middle school) and pulling them forward to connect with readers in a real, believable way. The book itself is written with authority; not just because of Klein’s editor hat, but because she herself is an excellent writer, particularly gifted at pinpointing and expressing plot structure, voice, characterization—in short, the underpinnings of a novel.

Some topics covered in the book: The Annotated Query Letter from Hell, back to back with an example and discussion of a good (real) query and why it works. Deep discussions of character, plot, theme, and voice. An excellent tutorial on how a picture book is put together, complete with a sample storyboard (which my daughter had me read to her--twice). An entire chapter detailing the editing process of one of her author’s books. (Note: if you think all the revision is over once you sign a contract, this chapter will be very eye-opening!) A revision checklist for writers. And more. If you are most concerned with getting the emotional heart of a book right, whether serious or funny or whatever, this is the book for you.

The only warning I need to give is that you may find yourself stopping often to put the book into practice. As I was reading it, I also happened to be revising a first draft of a book of my own, and found myself diving back and forth between my draft and this book, making notes and thinking through character arcs. So, bring a pencil when you sit down to read!

Second Sight will be available in February 2011 and further information about ordering can be found at Cheryl’s web site, www.cherylklein.com.
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I've been reading Brandon Sanderson's middle grade action/adventure/humor series, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, to my kids. We just finished the third book, and I'm still taking apart the solution/payoff to that last book in my mind. (For those who have read it, the Himalayan kickboxing scene.) The books are funny and seemingly chaotic and rather chatty--which drove me crazy the first time I read them, but somehow on subsequent reads I've become very much hooked. The thing is, they're not chaotic at all. In the midst of all that seeming chaos and chattiness are actual plot points and character clues.

Sanderson's known for his intricate magic systems--and while this book is meant to be light and funny, the same skill shines through here. To get to that kickboxing scene, he had to use stuff he planted over the course of at least two books, things that seem completely unrelated and random. But just as Alcatraz learns to power his Talent (the unusual ability to break things, sometimes spectacularly) at a distance and to conduct it through other material, Sanderson does that with plot/structure. Somehow you get to the climax and find everything's lined up, and all Sanderson has to do is activate it. The solution is a surprise and at the same time, it's been there all along. Plus, the payoff is great regarding the characters. It's really extremely well done!

Because I'm trying to set up clues and solutions and a payoff in the book I'm drafting right now, I naturally started analyzing this. I hopped over to Sanderson's site and found this fascinating essay on magic systems. The thing is, though, it doesn't just apply to magic systems. It's really how he deals with plot.

Basically, there are two ways to look at fantasy setups and solutions. One (what he calls "soft magic") uses the magic as sort of atmosphere, and the plot solutions come from real things anybody could do, magic or not. The other, which he calls "hard magic," is where the magic rules are laid out very clearly, like tools, and the MC uses the tools at his/her disposal (ie magic we know about) to solve the problem. The point is, instead of springing new, surprise powers on the MC in their time of need, the MC has to scramble for whatever they've got on hand. Like the here-are-five-ingredients-now-make-a-gourmet-meal-of-them sort of show. So the ingredients aren't a surprise, but the final outcome is. Which is very satisfying.

What I'd add to this is that if the tools you combine to solve that problem are actually past failures, the payoff is going to be even sweeter. So, take the first book in this series. Alcatraz has gone from foster home to foster home, pushed around and abandoned because he always breaks stuff, and people can't take it. But then, he learns it's a Talent--and so when he uses it to solve a problem, it's a triumph. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson does this, too. He goes from school to school, always having problems because of his ADHD. And then--it turns out he has this because it's all part of his half blood survival makeup. It makes him good at fighting monsters. Those are sort of along the way sorts of developments, but think of how Harry Potter finally defeats Voldemort. (Um, hopefully this isn't a spoiler to anyone...) He uses the spell everyone gets onto him for, the spell he's always used instead of killing someone, the spell people sort of think is a weak copout. (Actually, HP uses both hard and soft magic for the ultimate climax--the first part of Harry's confrontation explicitly doesn't involve magic at all. The combination of both of these, I suppose, sort of makes it the amazing adventure/fantasy/human story it is.)

So when you're looking for ways to solve the problem you've painted yourself into, take a look at what tools your MC has built up over the course of the book. Look particularly at their failures. What new and surprising--yet inevitable--solutions can you come up with based on these tools?
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(Cross-posted from my blogger pseudo-web site at http://rose-green.blogspot.com)

As a reader (and a writer), I'd say that probably the single greatest feat to accomplish at the start of a book is to make your reader fall in love with the main character. If a reader can feel what that character feels, can live through his/her dreams and pain and joy, then that reader will be hooked on the rest of the story. As I've been rereading Harry Potter (not unlike the rest of the Muggle world!), I've been taking particular notice of this, and I think there are two main questions that every writer needs to ask him/herself:

Why do I like this character?

Why am I invested in his/her struggle?

I think one thing that makes us fall in love is a mix of heroic qualities and everyday weaknesses. We see both ourselves as we really are, but also as we yearn to be. Take Harry in the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix. He's just lived through the worst experience of any wizard's life, and as a reward, he's gotten to go back to the Dursleys, who treat him like dung. Not only that, but instead of talking to him like an initiated adult, the wizards he trusts are now keeping him in the dark regarding Voldemort's activities. When he and Dudley meet up in the park, it all comes to a boil, and it's all he can do not to stun Dudley into smithereens with magic. We feel his very human temptations, especially since we know how justified he is in wanting Dudley to finally get his due. And yet, he fights it. That's the heroic part. He fights as hard as he can to keep himself from hurting Dudley, even rescues him from the dementors. His positive choice, mixed with the very real and justifiable temptation makes him believable, yet heroic. When he saves Dudley, it isn't because it's a "duty," it's because it's the decent thing to do--and Harry is a decent person.

That fighting against oneself or one's instincts works in other books, too. Take Edward Cullen, trying very hard not to eat his girlfriend Bella in the vampire book Twilight. Or Catherine in Rules, who has that glorious moment running through the parking lot with Jason, yet is too afraid to mention Jason's handicaps to the girl next door, in case the girl won't want to be her friend. The gap between weakness and potential makes our characters vulnerable and likeable.

Another thing that makes us fall in love is how a character consciously works to meet his/her challenges. Take Bobby in Things Not Seen, who wakes up one morning to find he's gone invisible. He's scared, but despite his fear, he forms a plan and goes to work to solve his problem. No reader wants a character who just sits around and wrings their hands. Like Bobby, Gen in The Thief has a plan, too. The other characters treat him rotten, and he plays along with them--but no one that crass would have the beauty of storytelling like Gen does, and with this the author clues us in that Gen acts the way he does on purpose, and even enjoys it.

A third thing that makes us fall in love is seeing what's inside a character, even if no one else has figured it out yet. Levin in Anna Karenina is too shy to talk to Kitty, but when she's not around, we see what a wonderful person he is! We cross our fingers and hold our breath, hoping he'll finally find a way to tell her how he feels. DJ Schwenk in Dairy Queen thinks and feels so much, and yet, true to Schwenk form, can't manage to say any of the things that would raise her above the herd she feels so trapped inside.

Falling in love with the character is a huge part of the book, but not all of it. To keep a reader reading, the tension needs to rise, and the reader needs to stay invested in the character's struggle. This happens as the character's desires grow in tandem with his or her opposition. Going back to Phoenix, we know Harry is telling the truth because we saw what happened to him. Rowling didn't just tell us, she showed us. And just when Harry thinks he'll be getting support, he gets called a liar, instead. The greater his need for support, the less he gets, which makes his case seem more and more just. By the time he gets detention from Umbridge, the reader is burning for justice. If you think of what your character wants most, and then throw the worst thing to prevent that, you've got tension, you've got action--and you've got a reader glued to the pages, wanting to fight for your character.

Practice:

Write a scene to make the reader feel indignant on your character's behalf. Do this by showing what the character really wants, and prevent them from getting it. Give them a taste of a dream, then rip it away. Show the reader the truth, and then have no one believe what really happened.

Write a scene that makes you feel sympathetic for the character even though he may be making a bad choice or may be doing something that others will look down on.

Write a scene in which your character shows positive attributes in the midst of an otherwise bleak situation. They have a plan, they see the silver lining, they go out of their way to be nice to someone when they could justifiably wallow, instead.

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