Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Experiment

I've rewritten the first few paragraphs of my first scene, varying the narrative modes. Any thoughts?

Mode 1 - Dialogue

"Are we going to walk with her today?" Rob asked.
"Sure, if your hurry up," Margaret said. "We have to leave exactly when she leaves."
Rob dragged the last bite of bacon through the pile of ketchup on his plate and crammed it into his mouth. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Ready for what?" Margaret's mother appeared in the kitchen carrying a stack of folded towels.
"To walk with Lily," Rob said.
"No, you are not walking with that colored girl, so just sit back down and finish your breakfast."
Margaret plopped down in her chair. "What do you think's going to happen? It's not like her skin will rub off on us."
"Margaret Jean, don't talk back to me. Now go brush your teeth."
"I did already," Margaret said.
"Well, go brush them again. Your mouth needs a little washing out anyway."

Mode 2 - Description

The giant oak stretched high above the roof of Charlotte's house, except it wasn't Charlotte's house any more. It was Lily's house, Margaret reminded herself. The tree stood like a guardian looking down on the postage stamp yards of Brick Street. The old oak was Margaret's favorite thing about the street where she grew up. Once playing Red Rover underneath the tree, Margaret fell so hard on her back she saw stars flickering in the leaves. That tree knew everything that happened on Brick Street. It was tall enough to see Meyers Market three streets over where the neighborhood changed, where the yards became cluttered with old cars and broken tricycles. When her mother called them shameful, Margaret winced. She couldn't believe the tree would see them that way. The oak didn't seem to care that there were lines that couldn't be crossed. It poked leafy fingers across the boundary between Margaret's yard and Lily's, a boundary Margaret's mother no longer let her cross.

Mode 3 - Action

Margaret lifted the edge of the curtain and peeked out the window. Lily was still there, leaning against the trunk of the giant oak. Margaret let the curtain fall. She hurried back to the table and stacked the empty bowls together. She grabbed her plate and scraped the remaining clump of grits into the trash. She popped her little brother Rob in the back of the head. "Hurry up, so we can walk with her."

Mode 4 - Thoughts

How could Lily just sit there in the grass, leaning against that tree, while eyes from every house on Brick Street peered out at her? Maybe she didn't care. May it didn't matter to her what all those people hiding behind their Venetian blinds thought. It must be a good feeling, not to care like that. Well, today Margaret wouldn't care either. She'd ignore her Mother's ridiculous restrictions. She'd slam the door behind her, march right up beside Lily and walk to school with her, whether Lily wanted her there or not. She would. Maybe.

Mode 5 - Exposition

The summer before school started in 1971, the Supreme Court decided that forced busing was the only way to ensure desegregation in public schools. It wasn't a popular decision in Riverton. In early August, a crowd of angry citizens constructced a dummy, pinned the school superintendant's name on it, and burned it in front of his office. It didn't change anything. The schools were rezoned, buses rerouted, and Margaret Jean Crawford's life would never be the same.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Experiment with the First Scene

How many ways are there to revise scene 1? Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, provides lots of options. Here are some ideas.

Change your point of view. Write in third person instead of first. Try it in second person and see what happens. What if your narrator is omnicient and knows everything everybody is thinking?

Change tense. Try writing your first five paragraphs in present tense, rather than past.

Change the point of entry into your story. Try starting later or earlier than your original first scene. What happens?

Change your narrative mode, your way of presenting information. There are five narrative modes: dialogue, description, action, thoughts and exposition. Try one of these:

Begin your scene with a description of an important object.

Begin with your main character egaged in some significant action.

Begin with an outrageous opinion the main character thinks but would never say out loud.

Begin with six lines of dialog between two characters, an argument important to the plot.

Begin with a description of the room where the first scene occurs. Use details that reflect the plot or owner's personality.

Does one of the variations feel right? Did it spark new ideas or possibilities you didn't realize were there?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Second Scene

I am continuing to work my way through Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress in preparation for the Pacific Coast Children's Writer's Workshop this summer.

The first scene of a book gives us, as readers, an introduction to the main character or characters and the conflict that will propel the book forward.

The second scene will generally be less intense, slow the conflict down, vary the pace so that the story does not become monotonous.

There are three options for the second scene: backfill, flashback, or a continuation of the story line.

In Backfill, the author or the point-of-view character tells the reader who these people are and how they got in this mess in the first place. Backfill will slow the story down, but the Swimming Pool Theory says "that structuring fiction is like kicking off from the side of a swimming pool. The stronger and more forceful your initial kick, the longer you can glide through the water. The stronger and more forceful your opening scene, the less your reader will mind a 'glide' through nondramatized backfill."

In Marion Dane Bauer's Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, the first scene is startling to the main character and to the reader. Claire (though we don't know her name until scene two) is meandering along the edge of the woods in the back of her yard making up stories. Suddenly Dorinda, a black skinned girl in a yellow dress, leaps out of the woods right in front of her. When Claire finally manages to ask "Who are you?", Dorinda turns around a races away into the woods without a word.

The second scene is backfill in the voice of Claire. She explains that this is 1950, a mill town, a place where no African Americans live. She notes her family's recognition of the injustice done to blacks, but their reluctance to view it as their problem in any way. The scene works because we're as startled by the girl in the yellow sundress as Claire, and want to know who this is and where we are.

Flashbacks only work if they follow a stong opening scene that clearly shows us a character and his/her current situation. The flashback must be closely related to the first scene. Finally, it must be clear how long ago the flashback occurred. Flashbacks definitely remove the reader from the action of the story, but the Swimming Pool Theory applies here, too.

In A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, the opening scene is very short. We meet the boy, Tree-ear, and Crane-man, the old man who is his companion. We immediately understand thier friendship and their poverty, and see that Tree-ear has just had an adventure that procured him a bag filled with rice.

The second scene is a flashback that shows how Tree-ear got the rice. It is clearly tied to the first scene and happened just the morning before this conversation between the friends.

The third option for scene two is to continue the action of the story. It is important here to remember to vary the level of the conflict.

In The Illyrian Adventure by Alexander Lloyd, the second scene continues the action. In scene one, we meet a vivid Vesper Holley, who is headed for adventure despite the fact that her father has just died. Vesper is meeting her father's friends and her new guardians; and she insists they move to her house and into her plans without any consideration for their sedate retired way of life.

The second scene continues the action as Vesper introduces her plan to visit Illyria, a dangerous country on the Adriatic sea that her father had wanted to visit before he died. Alexander has woven small bits exposition seamlessly into the two scenes, but scene two is an answer to the question: What happens next?

Look at the book you're reading. Does scene one introduce you to one or two main characters? Are they vivid, real, interesting, odd? Do you have a clear sense of what their present situation is like?

Now look at scene two. Is it backfill, flashback or a continuation of the action? How did the author make that transition? Did it work?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In the Works

I met with my editor from State Standards Publishing on Monday. She gave me my copies of the two new sets of books that just rolled off the press. It's an amazing feeling to see my name on all those books. It was a lot of work and two sets at one time was a big bite!

She also commissioned me to write another third grade book, just one book, on ancient Greek influences on American democracy. I spent yesterday afternoon in the library collecting research. Manuscript is due by the end of June for publication in November 2009.

I'm meeting with my fabulous critique group this weekend. My submission is a book proposal for Readers Theatre on Global Explorers.

I'm researching publishers for a book I'm working on with a friend. She is a counselor and has spent time during the last three years using art therapy with children of the Rawandan genocide. I'm really excited about working on this project with her. You can read about her work here.

I'm off to do homework in preparation for the PCCWW in August. Check back later for the next installment of what I'm learning.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Implicit Promise

In August, I am planning to attend the Pacific Coast Children's Writer's Workshop. It's an intensive hands-on workshop. In preparation, I'm diving into some of the recommended reading and trying out some of the writing exercises. Since I think it will help me to absorb the information, I'm going to blog about the process and include some of he exercises. So, here we go. This is from Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress. (My adaptation.)

Every story makes an implicit promise to its reader in the opening scene. Two promises, actually--one is emotional, the other is intellectual. Stories should make us feel and think.

The emotional promise is to entertain, thrill, scare, sadden, uplift the reader.

The intellectual promise is to show the reader the world from a differenct perspective, to confirm what the reader already believes about the world, or show the reader a different more interesting world.

A romance promises to entertain, to confirm our belief that love can conquer all, to carry the reader to another world where the main character (and by identification, the reader) is beautiful and loved.

A mystery promises an intellectual challenge, confirmation that we can make sense of the events around us, and the satisfaction that justice prevails.

Let's pull out some books and see for ourselves.

This is the opening paragraph of The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander:

Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them. She understands the use of a slide rule but prefers doing calculations in her head. She does not hesitate to risk life and limb--mine as well as her own. No doubt she has other qualities as yet undiscovered. I hope not.

The implicit promise: I am in for an adventure. I like Miss Vesper Holly already, and I am certain that she is going to get our narrator into some harrowing situation. The world from Miss Holly Vesper's daring eyes is worth checking out. Already we have two characters and potential conflict. All in one paragraph.

This is the opening of Trembling Earth by Kim L. Siegelson:

The cloud-softened light of early mornglowm lay atop the swamp water like a slick of pure gold. Hamp stood in the stern of his punt boat, letting his pole drag the bottom until he stalled in the gold-tinted channel that led home to Pinder Island.

"Gilded fine as any street in heaven," Pap had said once of such a spectacle--back when pap knew more about heaven than he did about hell.

The implicit promise: This story will take me to an unfamiliar world of the swamp. Hamp knows his way around the swamp, but there's trouble brewing. The trouble centers around his dad. I anticipate sadness. This story is going to confirm to me that father and son relationships are essential, and I hope redeemable.

Now you try it. Pull out the books you're reading and look at the first paragaph or the first page. What implicit promise has the writer made to you?

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Graduate!

I am one proud mama!

My youngest graduated from the University of South Alabama last Saturday. It was a whirlwind weekend, full of moving out of the dorm, graduation breakfast, graduation ceremony, and graduation party! Lots of laughter, a few tears, and great joy.

I came home to a full week. I spoke at the Phenix City Schools Young Authors Awards Banquet; managed to get all the files turned in for the Bugler deadline, despite a computer crash at the office and a sudden change of command announcement at Fort Benning; and after a full week home, finally unpacked my suitcase!

Next week I'll be back to normal and back to blogging.