Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How do you want to be remembered?

Thursday I was able to get away from work for a few hours to attend my kids' fifth grade graduation. (Who schedules an event like this at 9:30 in the morning?! Are those of us who actually work for a living such a small minority around here?)

Since I was giving a final exam until 9:15, I got there with literally seconds to spare before the ceremony began. The graduation was in the school's gymnasium, and I didn't even bother trying to find a seat in the bleachers, because I basically would have had to walk in front of the action to do so. I was able to find a nice spot to stand in the wings, and I've never minded standing. (I pretty much do it all day anyway.) Shortly after I got there, a guy with a camcorder showed up and decided that smack in front of me was the perfect spot for him to shoot the entire ceremony from, so for most of the event, this was my view:

Anyway, I spend the week or two leading up to the graduation trying not to be too cynical about it in front of my kids. Seriously, though, why do we need to many graduations? Before my kids ever get to high school, they will have graduated three times from the very same school! Seriously: there was kindergarten graduation, now elementary school graduation, and in three years middle school graduation, but they go to a K-8! And I was annoyed at some of the expensive ways this was turning into a big deal. For instance, there was an expectation that the girls would wear a nice dress, but they have occasion to wear such a dress maybe once before they outgrow it. I couldn't see buying fancy dresses just for this.

They actually had nice dresses from last summer that they could just barely still squeeze into, but we were worried that the straps on them would be too thin for the school's dress code. They also had nice shoes, but they could not wear those because they were backless. This has been a tough few years for teachers in this state, with pay cuts, cuts in benefits, and rising prices on everything, so the idea of buying new things when we actually had stuff they could wear was doubly aggravating. Seriously, if you've decided this is such a big event that they need to dress up for it, then suspend the parts of your dress code that would rule out a lot of nice clothes. In the end, we went with the dresses they had, but we bought new shoes. We couldn't find any that were dressy and closed back and flat while still being a good fit, so we also had them wear bobby socks with them. I thought that would work fine, but I'm embarrassed to report that they're the only girls who wore socks. :-/

Rather than imitate a high school graduation to the hilt, they had each teacher introduce the kids in his or her class. As the kids crossed the stage, they were handed the microphone and they told the audience either one thing they were looking forward to in middle school or one thing they'd like to be remembered for. I thought that was a nice twist.

So as I stood there listening to kids giving their little soundbites and watching the head of the guy in front of me, I turned the question on myself. What would I like to be remembered for? (I'm not planning on going anywhere any time soon, but then, my kids aren't planning on leaving their school for three years either, so I guess the question is just as relevant to me as it is to them.)

I don't need to be remembered as talented or successful. I hope people remember me as generous and as hard-working. I think I am these things, but I often feel that other people don't notice it. I'm not necessarily showy in the things I do, so sometimes I work really hard on something and people assume it was easy, or sometimes my definition of generous doesn't seem to match that of other people. (For instance, as a teacher, I don't define generous as "giving everybody good grades." I define it in terms of generosity with my time and effort.)

So what about you, my three or four regular readers? What do you want to be remembered for?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Middle Grade Musings

One of the books I ordered from that amazing sale was categorized under Young Adult but was really Middle Grade. I read it yesterday with an eye toward whether or not I could write straight-up MG, since I already tend toward the young end of YA.

I'm not going to name the book here, not because I have anything bad to say about the novel per se, but because I'm focusing more on my own reaction to it, and I'd hate to come across as being critical of the book when that's not my intention.

In tone, this felt a lot like pieces I *have* written--just not long pieces. I don't know if I could write like this for sixty or seventy thousand words. I think I could; I'm not sure how much I'd like it, though. One thing that helped mitigate that twee-ness I often pick up from MG writing is that it was in first person. The young narrative voice helped keep it from having that grandmotherly voice that grates on me. Actually, it reminded me of short humorous pieces I wrote when I was about the same age as the protagonist--when I was a ninth grader.

It was innocent in content--not that this comes as a surprise. High school freshmen in MG books apparently crush all the time, but they never think overtly sexual thoughts or make overtly sexual statements. Or even much innuendo. They say "damn" and "crap" and possibly "hell," but nothing stronger than that. These don't read like real-life freshmen--they read like middle-schoolers (and innocent middle-schoolers at that), which is to be expected, given that middle-schoolers are the target readers.

There are other considerations beyond tone, though. I think the biggest one for me is the scale of the conflict. This book was about beginning high school, and all the changes that come with that. Now I know some MG books have higher stakes--life and death, even. On the one hand, the relatively low stakes in this book worked with the faintly humorous voice of the narrator. On the other hand, it made it hard for the book to grab my interest at first. There wasn't much happening beyond middle school friends drifting apart, crushes, new friends, and so forth. I would have liked a bit more adventure. Eventually the emotional stakes got high enough to carry me through to the end, but I could see some readers not making it that far.

So the bottom line? I don't know any more than I did before whether I could write on the MG side of the divide. I think I could hit that tone and keep the content down. What I'm not certain of is that I could come up with a plotline that would hold my own interest. In the bookstore, YA's are far more likely to intrigue me than MG's, but I'll keep my eyes open and keep learning the genre. Maybe Barnes and Noble with have another awesome sale.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tension on Every Page

A couple years or so ago, I was reading a writing resource that advocated listing various elements about each scene in your novel--I no longer remember exactly what, characters, time, whatever, and conflict. That is, what conflict was occurring in each scene. It said, in passing, that any scene without conflict should be scrapped.

At the time, I blew it off. It was just the sort of impracticable writing advice that vague how-to's were full of. How can you possibly have conflict in every scene? Sometimes you have other things you need to achieve in a scene--bring characters together, have a character investigate something, lay the groundwork for something you're going to need later, you name it.

Of course, that's how I ended up writing a 120,000-word YA novel with lots of boring scenes that didn't carry their weight. *grin* Over the course of cutting off forty-thousand words, I slowly and painstakingly learned that this was actually pretty good advice. But conflict doesn't have to be between people. And even if it is between people, it doesn't have to be overt. So what we're talking about here isn't so much conflict as it is tension. If I'd understood that, I would have written a better novel in the first place, and the revision process wouldn't have been as painful as it's been.

I've done a pretty good job of pulling unnecessary scenes, but this week I ran across a bit that wasn't working for me. Chris is staying with Michelle and Paul Adams, the marks. He needs to stay with them long enough for a relationship to form that will make it hard to con them, and I need to show this relationship developing. Chris also needs to learn the location of the key to a rifle case in which the Adamses keep some Civil War-era rifles Danny and Steve want to steal. So quality-time relationship-building, and finding stuff. The scenes are necessary, but where's the conflict come in?

In retrospect the answer is pretty obvious. What I'm doing is trimming back on the description, of which there's too much, and ramping up the tension. The tension comes from Chris misinterpreting every signal he gets from the Adamses, based on a lifetime of interaction with Danny and Steve:

Paul obviously wanted to chat, but Chris had no idea what to say. Paul seemed nice and sort of funny, but other than baseball, Chris had no idea what he was interested in. And Chris knew next to nothing about baseball.

Well, it was something, anyway. “So do the Braves play again soon?” he asked.

Paul chuckled. What, was it a stupid question? “From April through September, they play nearly every day.” Of course it was a stupid question. Chris felt his face heat up. Whatever, I don’t really like baseball anyway.


Chris got the sense Paul was trying to get him interested in something--several times, he offered to buy Chris whatever he was looking at. Chris declined as politely as he could each time--although it was particularly hard to say no in the bookstore. He’s not really being generous, Chris reminded himself. He’s trying to buy you. Anyway, it was easy to be generous if you were rich; it didn’t really mean anything. Chris’s father would probably have loved to buy him all sorts of things, if he had the money. Probably.


When they got to a store that sold nothing but baseball caps, though, Paul insisted on buying Chris a fitted Atlanta Braves cap, and would not listen to his objections. Fine, thought Chris. You’re not buying it for me. You’re buying it for you.

Here's another bit:

Finally, mercifully, the game was over. Paul made a show of throwing away the scorecard, saying it didn’t matter who won or lost, they were just playing for fun.

“Fifty-three to eighty-four,” muttered Chris.


“Fifty-three to eight-four. You won.” In case you weren’t sure. “If you didn’t care what the score was, why did you write it down after each hole?”
Paul held out a placating hand. “I don’t know. They give you a card and a pencil, and it’s just what everyone does. It didn’t even occur to me not to. But it’s not like it matters. Who cares who won?”

“Sure,” said Chris. Whatever you say.

Last one, I promise:

Ah, so that was it. “Well I’m sorry,” said Chris. “It looks like you’ll have to find some other kid to live out your sports fantasies through.”

Paul’s eyes widened. He’s going to hit me now, thought Chris.

Anyway, these aren't quite as cleaned up as they could be--I see some repetitive phrasing and way too much use of the characters' names--but the point is that I get all the interaction and relationship-building. In fact, the relationship-building is arguably deeper because now it repeatedly sets up Chris's expectations and repeatedly showcases how the Adamses are different from the kind of family he is used to.

I wish I'd had a better understanding years ago of how conflict and tension could--and should--underlie any scene, even one that wasn't overtly about disagreement.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Juno Good Characterization When You See It

I just saw the movie Juno for the first time last night. I remember hearing it was very good when it was new, but I don't get out to theaters much and I miss a lot of movies. Eventually this movie slipped out of theaters and out of my consciousness. Just one more flick my artsy friends liked that I never got around to seeing, along with Bend it Like Beckham and Whale Rider. But then one of the cable channels, I forgot which, started advertising that they were going to show the film, which reminded me of its existence, except I don't like to watch movies on broadcast TV because of commercials, editing, and lack of widescreen, so I rented it on iTunes instead. See industry people? Make stuff available for free and people will pay to enjoy it instead. Paradoxical, but seemingly true. (It's funny how I can't stand iTunes for music, what it's intended for, but absolutely love it for renting movies.)

I enjoyed the movie the whole way through, but at first I was enjoying it as just another quirky comedy. Somewhere near the end it dawned on my that I was actually seeing an excellent movie. Afterward, I read up on Juno's critical reception and box office performance. I saw that it won the Oscar for best screenplay for Diablo Cody, which surprises me not at all, and I saw discussion of its portrayal of abortion--which it really did handle sensitively enough that you can think it's pro-whatever-your-side is, regardless of what side you're on. I saw praise for its humor and its dialogue and the performances. What I didn't see much mention of was its characterization.

This may be the best example of characterization I have ever seen. All the stock sentiments about how to create excellent characters, which never come with specifics on how to accomplish them, are carried off here. No major character is a villain, even when some of them are at odds with Juno. The primary and secondary characters are all dynamic, and we gradually learn bits about them, and can see the strengths and flaws of each. The canard that each character is the star of his or her own story is actually brought to life here, as each was treated, again, with respect and sensitivity and none was merely a stand-in for the author to beat up for the sake of making a point.

When I was done watching the movie I tried to mentally retrace how Cody accomplished this--I mean, these are the things everyone says to do, but I rarely see them accomplished this well. It's one thing to say you should treat your secondary characters, and even your adversarial characters, with respect, but actually accomplishing this is rarer. How can I learn from Juno?

Um, here there be spoilers, obviously.

Here's what I've come up with: For the first half of the movie or so, every character actually slides right in to a stock role. Juno is your typical intelligent, brash-mouth, eccentric, sassy teen heroine. She mocks pop culture and high school life and gives us a cheeky narration of the world as she sees it. I've seen her at least a dozen times before. Bleeker is the typical sweet nerd who straddles the line between boy friend and boyfriend. He's awestruck by Juno, obviously in love, and she can't see it. On the other hand, he's too passive to do anything about it. Juno's father is the standard over-indulgent beleaguered dad. Her step-mother is your typical slightly-theatening, not-entirely-welcome step-mother. When she meets Mark and Vanessa, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby, Mark is that sweet, understanding adult who can see past Juno's quirkiness because he still hasn't lost his connection to his own youth. He's the cool dad figure. Vanessa is his shrewish wife who forces him to confine his youthful expressions to one room in his house that she has granted him, where he can keep his guitars and his posters and stuff. She seems a little flaky in her intense desire for a baby. She reads all the baby books and prepares months in advance while Mark advocates a little more common sense. She is the working woman who criticizes work-from-home Mark for not holding up his end of the workload even though he appears to earn more money than she does. She's too serious, while Mark hasn't lost his playful side. We can see that they're headed for problems, but the problems all appear to be Vanessa's fault. All very stock characters in stock interactions. If the movie had kept going in the direction it was headed it would have been entertaining enough, but not necessarily a Very Good Movie.

Sounds like I'm undercutting my point here, huh? But the thing is, it felt to me as though Diablo used those stock roles as our introduction to the characters to give us a handle on them. And maybe that answers the question of how to pull off deep, dynamic characters. Because you can't really front-load all the things that make your characters unique snowflakes, can you? You try to give it all at once and all you have is a messy hodge-podge. But isn't the way it plays out in Juno actually more like how we get to know people in real life? You meet someone, and you immediately pigeon-hole them, not because you're bad or shallow, but because your brain needs to figure out how the world fits together. So this person is a jock or a joker or an artist or a brainy type or an asshole or a drunk or dumb or a minority. I think we first see people as typical whatevers, and I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with that. Then we get to know them as individuals and see how they diverge from that typical role we've classified them as, and the people who become important in our lives become far too complex to possibly boil down to a central characteristic. The loudmouth drunk at the bar that we never see again, though, remains nothing but a loudmouth drunk, as though he has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. The teacher whose class we couldn't wait to get out of remains nothing but a bitch who finds fault in our best efforts, and we neither know nor care about who she is when she leaves the classroom. (For that matter, Beeker's mother is never anything but a nasty, judgmental lady, because she's not central to the story. If she were, we'd probably see the reasons for her bad characteristics and we'd also see her redeeming virtues.) We do stereotype, and I think this is a necessary feature--our brains' only way of making sense of the world. We are freed from those stereotypes to the extent that we remember that they aren't actually the sum of anybody's being, and to the extent that we remain open to revising our generalizations with specific information.

So what I think Cody gives us those easy characterizations on purpose so that we have a starting point, and spends the second half of the movie subverting them one by one. I kept seeing a scene begin and thinking I knew exactly where it was going, and then being surprised when it went somewhere else instead.

The first moment that surprised me was when Juno's stepmother accompanied her to the ultrasound. I was a little surprised to see her there at all, because I had the impression that Juno and she were not close, but I chalked it up to her wanting to have a woman-to-woman moment with her. But then her stepmother reams out the ultrasound technician for making a judgmental remark--it's a beautiful thing, not a hysterical shouting fit but a cold, calculated verbal take-down--and I think, whoa, she's not such a bitch! Or rather, she's a bitch, but she's a good bitch! She doesn't hate Juno or see her as a distracting reminder of her husband's first marriage--she actually cares for her.

The next scene that didn't play out as I foresaw was when Juno and Leah see Vanessa at the mall. I expected them to mock her from a distance, since some antipathy between Juno and Vanessa has already been set up. Or I expected Juno to see that Vanessa was an unfit mother, as she ran around with . . . I think it was her young niece. It was actually a weird moment of . . . crap, I can't think of the right word. I'm going to go with paradigm-shifting: I'm watching this scene and trying to fit it into my preconceived notion of where it's going. Vanessa is running around with this kid and I think she's going to try too hard, show her desperation for a kid by smothering her niece with attention and create an unpleasant scene. But it doesn't happen . . . they just have fun together. Then she runs into Juno and I'm thinking she's going to display her paranoia by accusing Juno of stalking her, but it doesn't happen. Then Juno invites her to feel the fetus kicking, and it seems as though the fetus won't kick for Vanessa, though it will for everyone else, and this seems like it's going to make a point about Vanessa's unfitness to be a mother. Juno encourages Vanessa to talk to her fetus, and a tender-awkward scene ensues, and I'm waiting for Vanessa to screw it up, but she doesn't. And then the scene ends and I realize it didn't play to my expectations. It was awkward, yes--so's real life. In the end we see Vanessa not as this shrill rival but as a person, with faults and virtues, who happens to want very badly to be a mother.

But the scene that really subverted my expectations was Juno's last scene inside Mark and Vanessa's home. In keeping with my expectations of Juno as a sassy teen and Mark as a warm, friendly older guy, I'm expecting that Juno's mom or Vanessa are going to perceive something creepy about the friendship between Juno and Mark when there isn't, because they Just Don't Understand. But then Juno and Mark are alone in his house and they're getting closer and closer--uncomfortably close. And I'm watching the scene, revising my expectations, and thinking, okay, Juno, because she is naive, has fallen in love with Mark, but he doesn't realize what's going on in this scene because he thinks of her as a kid, or because he thinks nothing can happen with her because she's pregnant. She's going to embarrassingly cross some line, and he's going to have to pick up the pieces and that's where this is going . . . . Only that wasn't it at all. Instead, it's Mark who has developed an attraction for Juno, and Juno who didn't see it coming because she saw him as this safe adult, and it's Juno who is most definitely Not Okay with this. Because, sure, Mark is this fun-loving kind guy who has not lost his youthful side, but he's also, we now see, shallow and immature and not yet ready to act like a grown-up. And yet, he has a point when he defends himself in the inevitable confrontation with Vanessa--just because she decided she was ready to have a child didn't mean he was ready for the same thing. (Of course, a grown-up, a man, would have communicated with his wife before it got to this point. Vanessa is controlling because Mark can't or won't communicate.) Mark's the closest thing to a villain in this movie, because there's just no getting around his inappropriate attachment to a sixteen-year-old, but we do see his virtues and his side of things, even if in the end we conclude that he's kind of a jerk. (But again the reversal, because we spend half the movie thinking he's cool and Vanessa's awful.)

There isn't as clear-cut a moment of reversal with Juno's father. He's sweet throughout. But at first he seems to be played as your stereotypical Stupid Dad, and we see through his conversation with his wife when Juno's not there, and with how he deals with Juno throughout the movie, that he's not stupid at all. He's actually one of the few smart, loving dad figures in film.

So, to sum up, Diablo Cody seems to use standard character tropes to get us into the story, to introduce us to the characters, and then spend the rest of the movie subverting those tropes, and fleshing out the major characters through scenes that defy our expectations.

Can this be applied to every kind of story? I don't know. I think it necessarily changes a story when you portray all the characters as people trying to walk their journeys to the best of their abilities (whether they're flawed or not). In Vanishing Act, Uncle Danny is a villain. There's no doubt about that. I tried to flesh him out, and to understand his rationalizations for why he acts the way he does, but he's really just a jerk. Chris's father is half villain and half spineless loser. As the story progresses, you may learn more about the characters and why they are as they are, but I don't know that I ever really subvert who they seem to be. (And that's hardly unique. Most stories don't.) If I had it to do over again, where would the story go if I decided to make things not be as they appear? I guess I'd have to start with more sympathetic portrayals of Danny and Steve, if I want Chris to end up where he does. Maybe have Paul and Michelle seem more like clueless marks at first. (Now I find myself wondering if Cody planned the reversals at first, or if she got halfway through a typical teenage dramedy and then just decided halfway through that it would be more interesting if, in the words of Wierd Al, "everything you know is wrong."

I don't know. Food for thought, neh?