Expect the Unexpected: Turning

“…he could see the blackbirds, and small hedge-hopping sparrows, a single spotted-breasted thrush in the boughs of a nearby tree. Fat Charlie though that a world in which birds sang in the morning was a normal world, a sensible world, a world he didn’t mind being a part of.
    Later, when birds were something to be afraid of, Fat Charlie would still remember that morning as something good and something fine, but also as the place where it all started.” ~from the end of Chapter One, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

In poetry, at least in my understanding of poetry, there is the idea that each line’s responsibility is to either reenforce or to alter the meaning of the preceding line – it makes the poem surprising, leading the reader in one direction and then moving it somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.

To give a far too simplistic example – Shakespeare Sonnet CXXX:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red

These two lines reenforce each other. The chick is not that awesome.

But sonnets hinge on a turn – the final lines switch up the meaning of all the lines that went before. The first sets of lines create this snowball effect: my mistress ain’t that good lookin’, she’s not that sweet, and so on.

Then Shakespeare turns the meaning of the poem:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.”

Meaning she’s the rockinest rock star because she’s herself.

I think of this as a ‘turn’ because, well, it turns. (I’m a simple creature.) This kind of thing is easy to see in poetry because that’s one of the simpler ways in which poetry works.

Fiction, by it’s nature a different beast, can still benefit from turning. It’s not something that a fiction writer can do with every sentence because, damn, that’ll hurt a reader’s neck from all the back-and-forth.

Neil Gaiman is very, very good at the fiction turn.

Take the opening quote from Anansi Boys. He talks about birds as a normal piece of the world. And they are. But then, to add intrigue, there’s that awesome clause “when birds were something to be afraid of.” He contradicts everything that he’s describing around that. It’s jolting. It’s effective. I read that sentence over and over again, wallowing in the idea of birds turning into something to be feared.

You find the turns throughout Gaiman. He’s all about throwing in the unexpected note. Even his main character, Fat Charlie, is not fat. There’s a show dog named Goofy. Little splashes like this wake the reader up, make the reader focus. And you want your readers paying attention.

Have you guys come across any instances of turning? Any authors or stories that you remember because of the way it shifted?

The Second Reason to Read Widely: It’s Probably Been Done

*The First Reason to Read Widely: because reading is fun.*

And now on to the second: because what you’re writing has probably been written already.

I give you Exhibit A:

It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” ~opening line of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Seems innocuous enough, right? It’s a very intriguing opening…and Gaiman riffs on for about half a page on the importance of song, the way it interacts with human emotion, the way song tells a story. All very beautiful.

So now, imagine, if you will, that you have a great idea for a novel. (I have many of these, and there’s a long list of novels-to-be-worked-on.) Imagine further that you have gone so far in your plotting of said novel that you’ve constructed a title, an opening sentence, a final sentence, and the general structure of the book itself. You know how you want it to work – and the opening sentence and the closing sentence resonate for different reasons.

Now imagine that you’re reading a book by a very famous author, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman for instance, and the first sentence of your brilliant book – which you haven’t gotten to write yet because you’re busy working on other novelistic projects – is syntactically identical to said famous author’s opening line.

Say it with me now: AUGH!!!!!!

(By the way, I despise using exclamation points. But this feels like  the only accurate way to express my melodramatic sadness.)

I do not begrudge Gaiman his sentence. Obviously, I think opening a story with such a sentence is a good idea. Genius even. That’s why I wanted it.

My planned opening sentence was this:

It begins, as all things do, with a gamble.”

Perhaps not as brilliant as riffing on song. Perhaps I could even convince myself to still use it…but I would feel like a copycat.

Because, look, though I talk a lot about stealing/borrowing bits from successful authors (even going so far as writing blogs about it) I don’t actually want to lift sentences in such a direct fashion. That is not the art of concealing your source. And the art of concealing your source is important.

So, in spite of my frustration – and my frustration definitely slowed down the reading of the first pages or so of Anansi Boys as I came to grips with the opening sentence – I’m glad I’ve read wide enough to catch this kind of thing. Having seen where Gaiman went with his opening and having followed it all the way to it’s conclusion (a.k.a.: I read the book) made me rethink what I was trying to do with my own story-to-be. (Because, oh yes, it will still be! I lost a sentence, not a book.)

Anansi Boys is a mass of folk-tale telling skill. The opening sentence is lovely and puts the reader in that frame of mind. The book that I want to write is not that, and so now I’m wondering, as I go back to the drawing board, if there isn’t something a tad serendipitous to the reading widely idea – that you come across what you need, when you need it, and learn what you need from it.

So…

1. Read widely. Because your Brilliant Original Idea is not. And you need to figure that out but quick. This is important for things like plot and whatnot, that goes almost without saying. But it’s also important for small things. By reading Anansi Boys I figured out something else about the story I want to tell, just from reevaluation of the first sentence; it made me think about the tone and how similar or different I want it be in relation to Gaiman’s book.

2. Write fast. Because if you do have a Brilliant Original Idea, you’d better lay claim to it before someone else does.

3. You should read – because reading is fun.

Chapters in Which Something Happens

My daughter, who is three, is on her way to being the next Neil Gaiman.

Bronwen likes to tell stories. The other day we were driving somewhere, the destination is unimportant, and she asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Always open to the possibility of stealing my children’s ideas and using them in a story of my own, I said, “Sure.”

She began like she always does: “Okay, here I go.” (Because she’s learned the hard way that we need to know she has started.)

She goes on for a period of time describing a situation with dragons and knights in shining armor and Peter Pan and dinosaurs before she noticeably runs out of steam. But lack of a sequential, logical plot point is not a deterrent to Bronwen, master of the first draft that she is – oh no, she says “And then something happens” and we’re off to the next portion of the story in which Captain Hook saves the day when he turns into a ninja and slays Shredder.

Subject matter is not the only way she is like Gaiman. (Joking. Don’t yell at me.) Note the auspicious use of ye olde literary device: And Then Something Happens.

Ah-ha!

Now we get to why Gaiman is a really kick-ass storyteller. He has embraced the Something Happens. Which means he is not a boring storyteller. To tell a good story, stuff has to happen. Whether it’s in logical order or believable is beside the point at this moment. With Gaiman, just assume that it does make sense – or, rather, he will make it make sense to you (the key!).

And I knew I was in pretty darn good hands when I picked up Anansi Boys just from the chapter titles. Chapter titles are risky things, as we talked about before with Margaret Atwood – who also gets away with titles – because they can give away too much. But what’s interesting about Anansi’s chapter titles is that they reassure the reader that something does happen.

A sampling:
Chapter One: Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships
Chapter Two: Which is Mostly About the Things that Happen After Funerals
Chapter Three: In Which There is a Family Reunion 

From that tiny bit, I can assume that there is a family dynamic heavily at work in the story and that Point A leads to Point B because Something Happens. The first chapter is telling the reader who the family is, the second chapter takes place at a funeral – and I can assume that a family member has died (Something Happened), and that the family reunion after the funeral will not run smoothly because of the Something that Has Happened which will cause Something Else to Happen. It’s all very dramatic.

So here’s a possibly interesting way to apply Gaiman’s storytelling to our own work, if you’re so inclined: title the chapters “In Which __________ Happens.” If nothing actually happens in that chapter, then you need to reevaluate what you want that chapter to say…and if it doesn’t say anything, I think you’ve found some pieces to scrap/think heavily about cutting. (And don’t forget to delete the chapter titles before you submit your book around – you don’t want to give everything away.) Hm, come to think of it, that could be a cool way to help you write a synopsis too….

New Year, New You, New Mentor: Neil Gaiman

To kick off the New Year, we have a new mentor (who had been scheduled late last year before I got all overwhelmed and schtuff). You may recognize the name:

Neil Gaiman!!!!!!!!!!!!

*and the crowd cheers*

And to emphasize the importance of mentors – whether the mentors know they’re mentoring or not – I direct you to the dedication page of the hardcover Anansi Boys:

Note: the author would like to take this opportunity to tip his hat respectfully to the ghosts of Zora Neale Hurston, Thorne Smith, P.G. Wodehouse, and Frederick ‘Tex’ Avery.”

Ah yes, our mentor recognized those who had come before him…and, I would assume, influenced him in some way.

Because, as I’ve often said and will certainly say again, we don’t write in a vaccuum people. (Unless, of course, you’re a Little and the vaccuum happens to be a cozy, if hayfever inducing, location.) As writers we are always responding to the literature that has come before us, and to the literature that is coming at us.

Gaiman is an author who is coming at us. His books rest on the shelves, dominate the bestseller lists, and he is still producing. This makes him someone you, as a writer living at this point in history, will probably have to respond to at some point. So it’s good that we look on him as someone to learn from, because, damn, his work has a lot of stuff to teach.

So, this blogger would like to take this opportunity to tip her hat respectfully to this inspiring and inspired author. And, dear readers, it is especially cool to be examining a living author who is so active in the world of social media. You wanna hear what he thinks? Check out his blog Neil Gaiman’s Journal and follow him on Twitter @Neilhimself.

And to get this party started, I would like to end on a question: What is your favorite Neil Gaiman book?

P.S. For those who may have missed it, I did start to do some work on Gaiman, and here are the links from back in December if you’d like to see where I’m coming from:

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular
How to Avoid Being Too Dark?
Thursday Reviews: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)
Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does It Take?

Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does it Take?

Newbery Medal winners are generally destined for a long shelf life, heaps of attention from libraries, teachers, and parents, and are often deserving of the lauds and acclaims.

What does it take to write a Newbery Medal winner?

Well, you can take a peek at the criteria here. But I’m also going to break down said criteria in relation to our mentor’s own Newbery winning novel: The Graveyard Book.

According to the Association for Library Service to Children’s website, committee members need to consider the following criteria when looking at a potential Newbery book:

1. Interpretation of the theme or concept.
The theme or concept isn’t assigned – this element speaks toward the question: Did the writer creatively and consistently interpret their own themes/concepts? Well, I’d have to say that The Graveyard Book, in its exploration of death, violence, friendship, and family did a whopping good job of it. I personally think it’s one of the more creative and well-executed ideas I’ve come across in a while.

So you have to have some kind of meaning integral to your story. What are you trying to get kids to think about? How is that shown in your work?

2. Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.
A thumb-and-half up on this one. There’s an awkward ‘Interlude’ in the middle of the book that doesn’t really explain much…and in fact left me a bit confused for a few pages after…then there was the weird cave/tomb raiding bout toward the end…but considering the handling of the graveyard scenes, the presentation of time passing, I think that Gaiman did a decent job.

You have to make sense. And The Graveyard Book is also full of historical references – all of which seemed pretty darned accurate to me. I think this is important because when kids read – and to a lesser extent adults – the accuracy of information is necessary. What if this is the only book a kid reads on this subject? Or what if it’s the first thing they’ve ever read on this subject and you flub up? Are you willing to take responsibility for a kids saying that Pluto is a planet still? In front of the whole class?

3. Development of a plot.
There definitely is a plot.

Please, please, please. For kids – give them a story! (This doesn’t apply to poetry, which can also win Newbery Medals.)

4. Delineation of characters.
Each character played their roles well. I never got lost as to who was who (even with a strange passel of Mad Jacks popping up). I think that here is where Gaiman would’ve impressed the committee. Even the side characters have interesting contributions to the storyline – an accused witch without a headstone, a man buried beside his first and second wives…yeah, poor, poor dude, right?

I could see these characters clearly in my head. I loved how they worked together (plot-wise). Make sure your characters are distinct and that they have reasons for doing what they do – it helps individuate them.

5. Delineation of a setting.
And here is where I think Gaiman won. No one could beat this setting. Hogwarts is probably the only thing that could ever come close.

Make your setting count. Details. Rules. Metaphor. Setting can elevate your story to all kinds of heights.

6. Appropriateness of Style.
While I’d be a little concerned for kids younger than middle school grasping everything Gaiman throws in here, it’s still definitely a kids’ book. The illustrations added a child-element that was helpful to the overall feel, I think. (Considering, however, that illustrations can only be considered when they hurt a book, I think it was a gamble! But it worked, so the book wasn’t penalized.)

Make sure kids can read the book. Don’t through million dollar words in there (without definitions). Don’t start quoting obscure historical events (again without explanations). This is not an opportunity to explore feminism in the late twentieth century via dissertation. Tell a story in the way a kid would want to read/hear a story.

Have you got what it takes?

Thursday Reviews!: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

British authors must have some kind of secret to writing scrappy orphan stories.

Not being opposed to books that start with a creepy man breaking into a house, murdering the family who lives there, and being thwarted by an infant and his ghost protectors…I thought this was a great book. The opening is certainly dark, but I can’t imagine a coming-of-age-in-a-graveyard book opening with sunshine and happy little gnomes.

The creative concepts in this book really caught my attention. How would one raise a living child in a graveyard? If the ghosts can’t leave, how do you get food? How do you educate the kid? How do you teach him to protect himself? How do you make friends? The answers Gaiman comes up with are soooo very interesting. Plus, it’s all a very interesting take on the ultimate human question: What happens when you die?

Nobody Owens, Bod, is one of those characters that you want to cheer for. He works hard to do what’s right, whether it’s getting a headstone for the dead who long to be remembered or defending his fellow students from the classroom bullies. When he’s told that he is kept in the graveyard for his own protection, Bod’s reaction is to say that it’s the man Jack, the man who killed his family, who should be protected – from Bod.

I love a can-do attitude.

The good news is life in the graveyard carries a story a long way. The only problem I had with the story was the reasoning – the ‘why’ – of the man Jack’s assault on Bod’s family was explained away in a sentence or two very close to the end of the book. The bad guys just seemed too simplistic, which was disappointing after so much mystery had been built around their ‘society’. With the well-explained good guys balanced against the less-explained bad guys, the weight of the story shifted strangely, if that makes sense.

All in all, though, it’s pretty darn good. I’d recommend it for middle school and up – and not because the opening is dark (which it is, no lie) but because there are a multitude of literary and historical references that I’m not sure younger readers would appreciate. There’d be a lot of blank stares unless there’s an adult around to explain.

View all my reviews

How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind – they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.