Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Name that Theme

I’m currently taking a class on literary criticism, a subject that I have never really been a fan of. To my surprise there have been a number of elements in the class that I have enjoyed and have proved insightful. However, I’m currently studying a section on theme, which at times I’m finding a bit bothersome.

I’ve always had problems with the concept of theme. To me the idea of theme suggests that I’ve set out to write a book to make a point, or to teach or preach something. While there are a number of books written specifically with that goal in mind, that’s typically not my goal. Usually, my goal in writing is to create a story that entertains and touches people on a variety of emotional levels. While the book might end up indirectly teaching something, that’s great if it’s not at the expense of the story. For me, the story needs to come first. In fact, I believe that’s a mistake many beginning authors make—they want to teach something, so they create a story as the vehicle for teaching that point. As a result, the story suffers. You need to focus first on the story.

I’ll have more on the subject of theme and being preachy in my next post. In the meantime, what do you think of the concept of theme? What do you think about writing fiction in order to teach or preach a specific point? Do you think most contemporary authors have a theme in mind in their writing?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Research in D.C.

I'm spending the week in our nation's capital doing research for a YA novel I'm currently working on. It's nice when you can combine work with family vacations.

What's been some of your funnest on-site research that you've done.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reluctant Readers No More – Part 2

Last post I talked about how to turn your children into passionate readers, but what do you do if they've already become reluctant readers. I'm sure there are a wide variety of opinions on this, but I think many kids become reluctant readers because they haven’t yet been introduced to books that are interesting to them or they are forced (in school or at home) to read books that are boring to them . Often, so-called great literature or classics aren't that interesting to young readers. Even your Newbery winners at times leave a lot to be desired. As a result, if the only books that a child is encouraged to read are the ones that don't interest them, they make the assumption that all books are boring or not exciting.

However, there are plenty of books available that help reluctant readers overcome this mindset. I think books that break the so-called norm can help the reluctant reader become an interested reader. I think books like Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, Time Warp Trio, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid all fall in this category of books that break the norm. On part 1 of this blog topic, PragmaticMom shared in the comments a link to some of her Favorite Books for Reluctant Boy Readers Grades 3-5th. I think it's interesting that many books on her list are some that break the norm, but then she also has a mix of classics and newbery winners.

For some reluctant readers it might be a simple matter of finding the right genre, i.e. fantasy, SF, Horror, action thrillers, sports, educational, etc. Harry Potter opened up the fantasy world to many readers, as well as just the reading world in general. However, for some young readers Harry Potter seems too long. Overall length of a book can be a major obstacle. They look at how many pages are in it and it just seems too overwhelming. In those cases, shorter can be better.

I think the main key is to find books that interest the reader. Every reader is different, but there are plenty of book choices out there to turn your reluctant readers into passionate readers.

What are your suggestions for turning reluctant readers into passionate readers? What books or strategies do you recommend?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reluctant Readers No More – Part 1

I have often heard the question from parents, teachers, or book enthusiasts “How do you get ‘reluctant readers’ to read?” I believe this has a 2-part answer, the first part being that before they ever even have a chance to become reluctant readers, you turn them into “passionate readers”. How do you do this? It starts at home and it starts early.

Parents play a major role in creating enthusiastic or passionate readers. When parents simply take the time to consistently read to children a few minutes every day when they are very young (reading books that the children enjoy), their children will develop an interest in reading and become readers for life. This has been a tradition in our home at bedtime, and each of our five children have become avid readers, often to the point where punishment for wrong doing has sometimes been to take their books away. In many of these cases, the wrongdoing was actually reading when they were supposed to be cleaning their room, doing their jobs, getting ready for bed or going to bed.

One of the biggest obstacles to reading to children is the time commitment, but the benefits make it well worth making that commitment. Not only does it develop a love for reading in your children, but it becomes a time for parent and child to have fun together, grow closer to each other, and create great memories.

How has reading to your children worked for you? What strategies have you used to make time for reading in the midst of hectic schedules?

Next post, I’ll talk about the second part of the answer, which is what do you do if your child is already a reluctant reader.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Author's Voice - Make Your Story Come Alive

When you ask children's book editors what they look for in a manuscript or what makes one story stand above another, you'll often get responses like it has to have a "fresh voice", distinctive voice", "strong voice" or "memorable voice". It all comes back to the author's voice or the voice of the story. But what is voice?

Voice is one of those intangible things that’s hard to wrap your fingers around.There are probably dozens of different definitions of what voice is, but for me voice is what gives the story feeling and personality. It’s what lets you feel like you know the character. It’s the language and style of the story  (i.e. POV, active voice, sentence structure, simile/metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, repetition, contrasts, onomatopoeia, exaggeration, allusion, etc.) , the tone, the rhythm, and the mood.  It’s the emotion and personality of the characters, the narrative, and the story itself.

The bottom line is that voice is what makes the story come alive.

What's your definition of voice? What makes a story come alive for you?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lawn Care and Fixing Your Manuscript - Part 2

The other day as I worked on my lawn to figure out why a small patch wasn’t growing very well, I discovered a rock just a few inches below the surface. As I peeled more and more lawn away, I discovered it was a huge rock. In fact it was a three foot boulder. I spent the day digging around it and eventually pulled it out with a giant crowbar, a tow chain and my truck.

Sometimes our stories are like that too. The small problems we see on the surface might actually be a symptom of a more significant foundational problem that can take a lot of work to fix. For example, a number of years back I wrote a middle grade fantasy novel that garnered interest from a few editors, but not to the point where I received any offers. I thought that was about to change with one editor who praised it up and down. Some of the other editors at the house thoroughly enjoyed it as well, but it hit a road block when it reached the head honcho at the publisher. The final comment came back saying even though we loved your writing, we felt the novel wasn’t quite original enough.

That response really took me by surprise. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. The magic system was very original. The characters were very original. The story line was very original. What did they mean? I had to dig deeper to figure out what they were talking about and as I did I realized that I had some key foundational plot elements that had become cliché in the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a quick fix. It would require some major re-landscaping of the plot, storyline, and character to fix it.

The point is that you can’t ignore what might seem on the surface to be just a small problem. If in the eyes of your critique group and readers everything in your story seems great except for a few minor things, fix the minor things. They might be symptoms of something bigger. If you’re getting rejections—even if they’re encouraging, personalized rejections—try to discover ultimately why your story is getting rejected and remedy it. Sometimes you need to dig deep below the surface to find out what’s holding your story back. If you’re lucky it still might only need a few tweaks. If not, be prepared to get your hands dirty and do what it takes to make it work.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lawn Care and Fixing Your Manuscript

Over the weekend I realized that you can draw some parallels between fixing up your yard and fixing up your novel. We had a small patch of lawn that for the past several years has never really done very good. The grass grew thin there and was always dried out. On Saturday I decided to dig beneath that patch of lawn to see why it was behaving badly and fix it. I figured it probably had few rocks or gravel near the surface that I just needed to take out and replace with good soil, making it a twenty minute job tops.

Sometimes our stories are like that where we can tell there’s a problem, but we’re not sure what it is. We have to dig down into it to discover the cause of the problem. This is where critique groups or readers can be a great a help. They might tell us that some of the dialogue doesn’t sound natural, the setting in one of our scenes doesn’t feel real, we have too much description, or not enough. It’s amazing how much you can improve a story by just doing some minor reworking or tweaking based on feedback you’ve received from readers or critique group members.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to do more than just a little tweaking or editing. You might find as you dig in below the surface you have a bigger problem than you realized. That’s what happened with my lawn. In my next post I’ll tell you more about what I discovered under my lawn and how that relates to writing too.