Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The View from Saturday: Making Your Story a Fresh Idea

image from aasd.k12.wi.us

Uh oh. On page 31 of E.L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996), I was hit with a sense of dread by two lines: "He was talking about turtle nests. Turtles had brought Grandpa and Margaret together."

Konigsburg's book tells the story of the four sixth graders who comprise Mrs. Olinkski's Academic Bowl team at Epiphany Middle School. The book explores how the four friends ended up together by devoting a chapter to each of their back stories. Twelve-year-old Nadia's back story involves a trip to Florida to see her dad - and spending time with her grandfather and his new wife on the beach looking for sea turtle nests.

So why would this cause dread? Because my latest project is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who goes to spend the summer with her grandfather looking for sea turtle nests.

Certainly there are differences. My book, Abigail's Atlantis, will focus on many different aspects of the sea turtle's habits and use it as the context for the entire story arch, not just integrate it into a single character's one-chapter back story. Still, there's a sense of discouragement when the idea you thought was original turns out not to be.

For anyone who has read through my journey through the Newbery Award winning books, they know I've harped on how often orphans are at the center of these books. The key, of course, is that the task of any writer is to bring a fresh spin or perspective to a story, even if it is one which has been told before.

In writing two King Arthur-themed books so far (Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table), I have had to work hard to navigate this path. With Abigail's Atlantis, I already was tasked with coming up with a fresh spin on another topic. Now I have to find a way to give a new look to the sea turtle side of the story as well as the Atlantis side.

Note: for those who haven't read the book, this video collection of seemingly disjointed images and quotations won't make a lot of sense. However, in context, they capture the main themes and plots of the book.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Criss Cross: Unanswered Dreams of Longing for Something Big to Happen

image from kids.denverlibrary.org

My latest read in my quest to plow through the Newbery award winners is Criss Cross (2005) by Lynne Rae Perkins. It ranks as one of my least favorites so far.

I'd like to think I'm smart enough to see the merits of a book targeted toward kids, but I'm apparently missing something - like characters, a plot, and action.

The book primarily tells the story about Debbie, a teenager who is wishing for something big to happen as her summer kicks in. It doesn't take long before the reader is also wishing for something big to happen. But nothing does.

In fact, by the second chapter, the story shifts to Hector. At this point, the reader is thrown into confusion over who the main character of the story is even going to be. When we get side tangents delving into the circle of other teens surrounding Debbie and Hector, the result is a muddied storyline where I found myself having to read back to keep characters straight.

In the end, the story leaves its audience with this unsatisfying reality: "Maybe it was another time that their moments would meet. Maybe it would happen in a few days, or next week. Maybe it would happen when they were fifty. But just now they had missed, and the jet trails of the crisscrossing moments left an awkward vacuum in their wake."

Slice of life is okay; many a quality story is built on such a concept. Following teenagers through a summer of hanging out is fine, too - if we see real struggle and not just a few unrequited crushes here and there. Ultimately, Perkins has left an awkward vaccum in the wake of her readers. Like Debbie, I wished for something big to happen, but it never did.

The latest book I'm writing, Abigail's Atlantis, tackles a similar task of following both a female and a male character as they are just entering young adulthood. Criss Cross will help me keep in mind that I need to draw the two characters with clear-cut dreams and ambitions and give them strong stories in which to pursue them. Is it too much to hope that I can be more successful at doing so than a Newbery-winning book?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bud, Not Buddy: Wanna Win a Newbery? Write about an Orphan

image from ew.com

Bud, Not Buddy (1999) by Christopher Paul Curtis is my latest read in my endeavor to plow through the winners of the Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature.

I've ranted on this before, but it bears repeating - if only because Newbery winners can't stop repeating the pattern. What's with book after book being about orphans? Apparently the committee which decides Newbery winners loves stories about orphans.

In this case, you can't get past the first paragraph of the book flap before you know this is a story of a ten-year-old motherless boy in depression-era Flint, Michigan. Bud (not Buddy) is determined to find his father, who he believes is jazz musician Herman E. Calloway.

Newbery committee biases aside, one can't blame the author for focusing his story on an orphan. He tells a strong story where the main character is a determined boy who doesn't let the hard knocks of his life get him down. When Bud finds the man he thinks is his father, he is immediately embraced by the jazz musicians who have formed their own sort of family.

I didn't get a chance to see it, but found out this had been turned into a children's play and was done at The Coterie, a children's theater a mere 15 minutes away from me! It is interesting in that my post about the Newbery-winning Holes by Louis Sacher, focused on how that book was turned into a movie. I would have liked to seen how Bud, Not Buddy fared as a play - and the Coterie has a reputation as one of the five best children's theaters in the country. In any event, here's there blurb about the play:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Holes: How to Convert a Book to a Movie - Without Creating Major Plot Holes

image from tvtropes.org

It is a popular pastime to rip on movie versions of books. The general consensus is that the movie jettisons large chunks of the book to fit the story into a two-hour time frame. What is often forgotten in this common complaint is that there are plenty of examples of books which have been made into great movies. In fact, some of history's most acclaimed movies were adaptations of books - Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, and The Wizard of Oz immediately spring to mind.

Louis Sachar's Holes (1998), also a Newbery winner, certainly isn't at that level. However, it is a nice example of a solid book which was transformed into a solid movie. Surprisingly, in my quest to read the Newbery award-winning books, this is the first (at least that I know of) which has been made into a movie. As I read it, I couldn't quite imagine it as a movie. As soon as I finished the book, though, I pulled up the movie on YouTube (you can view it at the bottom of this page). I was pleasantly surprised.

A movie can't do everything the book does. This is where most people criticize movies. However, movies can do things books can't. Often people are disappointed that the characters on screen don't look the same as the pictures created by the words in the book. A movie, however, can convey a huge chunk of information with one scene that might take pages in a book.

A movie also must typically add more dialogue and, in the case of Holes, the ending was altered. The key, though, is that Louis Sachar wrote the book and the screenplay. It keeps the movie from taking on a completely different tone, despite some of the differences between the page and the screen.

A movie cannot duplicate the book experience - and it shouldn't be expected to. If done correctly, however, it can complement the original and add dimensions not explored in the book. Holes is therefore a success - as a book and a movie.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Single Shard: Building a Character One Piece at a Time

image from picstopin.com

Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard (Clarion Books, 2001) is the ninth book I've read in my exploration of the Newbery winners. This is my favorite yet.

Tree-ear is an orphan in 12th century Korea. He lives under a bridge with Crane-man, a crippled homeless man. Tree-ear dreams of being a potter and believes his wish will come true once he gets an opportunity to work for Min, the most noted potter in the area. However, Min works at a very slow pace and seems incapable of showing gratitude for the hard work Tree-ear does.

When an emissary from the king visits the town, all the potters are hopeful that they will get a commission. Such a coup can provide work for life. While Min is clearly the best potter, the commission goes to a rival who has just learned a new technique.

However, the emissary gives Min a chance to learn the technique and bring some pieces to the palace. Min says he could not possibly make such a journey, but Tree-ear offers to make the trek on his behalf. I won't spoil the ending, but I'll say that the book had me crying tears of joy and sadness. The resolution isn't without setup, but it still had elements of surprise.

My focus on reading the Newbery winners is on what lessons I can glean for my writing. Tree-ear exhibits profoundly admirable traits - patience, a willingness to work hard, a refusal to give up, and steadfastly holding on to his dream - that are essential to anyone longing to be successful at anything.

From a writing standpoint, Shard also reminds the reader that while conflict is important to a story, it doesn't have to grow out of the main character's flaws. In fact, I found myself rooting for Tree-ear because he was so deserving of having his dream come true.