Saturday, June 22, 2013

The One and Only Ivan: Making Characters Unique

With seven Newbery-award-winning books under my belt already, I finally read the 2013 winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

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I've joked in previous posts that clearly the trick to winning a Newbery is to write a book about a tween or teen uprooted from his or her home because of some family tragedy. Applegate's book puts a spin on this formula - a gorilla named Ivan is uprooted from his home because of some family tragedy.

Ivan has been part of a mall circus exhibit, the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, for 27 years. He has accepted his fate, but when Ruby, a baby elephant arrives, Ivan decides this is no place for an animal to spend its life. He concocts a plan. He is going to free Ruby so that she can grow up in a zoo with other elephants.

Applegate creates a unique character by telling the story from the first-person perspective of a gorilla. To that end, she has written in a short, choppy style with chapters rarely lasting more than a couple pages, and sometimes just a couple sentences.

The lesson for my own writing is to find a way to make a character unique. That isn't always as easy as writing from the persective of a gorilla, but uniqueness can be achieved because of a character's unique circumstances or unique perspective. In Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, I have been able to tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of a mouse. As I write my next story, Abigail's Atlantis, my challenge is to find what makes the main character unique.

It is the challenge all writers must undertake - give readers a new experience through the uniqueness of the character, the circumstances, or perspective. After all, if the story isn't unique, what is the point in telling it?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Graveyard Book: Location, Location, Location

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I've knocked off yet another book in my continuing endeavor to read the Newbery award-winning books. This time around it is Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (2010). As with the previous Newbery books I've read, I focused on what I can learn in my own writing from this book.

The opening of the book leaves a toddler abandoned thanks to a grisly murder scene. He wanders out of his out, losing his diaper along the way, and ends up at the local graveyard. While the scenario is preposterous, it sets up one of the more interesting settings I've read in the Newbery winners so far. The boy (nicknamed "Bod" for "Nobody") ends up raised by a collection of interesting ghosts and undead creatures. While he appreciates his home, he longs for a life among the living - and he wants to find out what happened to his family.

However, we are left wondering through most of the book why Bod's family was murdered and when the answer comes, it is abrupt and unsatisfying. As for Bod's dream of a life outside the confines of tombstones and crypts, this is also undermined by the author. Gaiman clearly relishes describing the world of the dead and ends up making the world from which Bod wishes to retreat more interesting than the one to which Bod dreams of going.

Thus the lesson I learn about writing is to make setting and location an important part of the book, but not one which overwhelms the story. My latest project, tentatively titled Abigail's Atlantis, will delve into the ocean and the famous lost underworld city. It will become crucial to make sure that while I try to capture the wonder and awe of such a fabled location, I don't do it at the expense of creating a moving and involving story.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Higher Power of Lucky - Are Newbery Winners Just Lucky?

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I'm now six books into my effort to read at least a healthy chunk of Newbery award-winning books. I'm enjoying the reading, but am starting to feel the repetition - a point I already noted in my last post on Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder.

I want to be careful that my comments don't come across merely as sour grapes. It isn't interesting to listen to a writer whine how "I can write just as good as they can. Why do they get all the lucky breaks?" I want to make it clear that these books have been, by and large, above average books. I'd rank most of them 4 stars out of 5. That's they thing, though. These are supposed to be the absolute cream of the crop - the best of their given years. I'm not quite seeing it.

The problem is NOT that each book individually is not worth the effort. The problem is that I'm starting to feel like, "Isn't this the same book that won the award the year before?" That's because the stories are remarkably similar. Apparently the Newbery selection committee is quite enamored with stories of tweens and early-tweens thrown into self discovery because of significant family upheaval.

In The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (2006), the protagonist lost her mom and is now in the care of her father's ex-wife. Like some of the other Newbery winners, the setting is a small town - in this case, Hard Pan - a California desert town with a population of 43.

Susan Patron discusses The Higher Power of Lucky

The argument could be made that there is no such thing as a new story, only a new way of telling it. Still, while each of the Newbery winners I've read so far have individual merits and nuances, when taken as a whole, it is hard to escape their similarities.

So what role did luck have to do in these books' successes? Well, luck is often viewed as being in the right place at the right time. However, one doesn't generally just happen to fall into these kind of circumstances. One has worked to put oneself in such circumstances, whether knowingly or not. In the case of Newbery-winning authors, they may have been published in the first place because someone knew someone in the publishing field. The book may have found its way to the Newbery committee members' hearts because of some other connection.

Luck, however one defines it, does play a role in success. However, Newbery-winning authors are not talentless hacks who just knew the right people. These are good authors with solid stories who happened to write the kind of stuff that appealed to the right people. Congrats to them for that - and good luck on their next projects.