Saturday, October 31, 2009

STRUCTURE: In Like a Lion: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Hi Meg,

 This chapter makes me want to talk a little bit about the structure of a chapter. As writers we are all aware of the structure, or arc of a story. There is rising tension, a climax, and at the end, a resolution. As this chapter demonstrates, a chapter should have an arc that mirrors the arc of the story. We open with Junior's admission, "I never guessed I'd be a good basketball player." It turns out that he is not just a good basketball player. As the chapter unfolds he comes to realize that his confidence has turned him into a basketball force to be reckoned with. "I was the hired gunfighter."

Tension mounts when Junior's team, with their record of 12 wins and one loss, to Wellpinit, are faced with a rematch against Rowdy's team, which is undefeated. Junior wants nothing more than to win this game. Alexie keeps the tension rising as Junior is interviewed before the game and he says, "I feel this is the most important night of my life . . . I have something to prove to the people in Reardan, the people in Wellpinit, and to myself."

Tension continues to rise as the game begins, and the reader is wondering, will he do it? Will he win?

We reach a climax in emotion and action as the gym explodes with emotion and noise, and Junior has led his team to a victory. Then, the emotional arc goes up a notch, when Junior is confronted with the devastation of his opponents, and the reality of just how painful this is for the Wellpinit team. "I was suddenly ashamed that I'd wanted so badly to take revenge on them." Junior weeps like a baby--tears of shame that he has broken his best friend's heart.

Upon reaching the climax, the story drops in action and emotion, as Junior describes the aftermath of that victory. He had a goal, he acheived it, and the price was high. A complete story in one chapter, with an arc all its own.

Story Sleuths Tip # 17: Make sure that, like the entire story, each chapter has an arc.

Friday, October 30, 2009

WISDOM: Valentine Heart: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Allyson,

This chapter starts off with a violent disconnect--in one sentence, Junior reports that he gave Penelope a valentine and that Eugene, his dad's best friend, was shot in the face. It's a dichotomy that reflects the chaos of Junior's world. In the next sentence we learn that Eugene died. Two pages later there's another death--Bobby's suicide in jail. That makes three, with Junior's grandmother being the first. And now Junior shows readers how he survives the grief. His resources are his community of friends, who walk out when his teacher judges him unsympathetically, and his own creative spirit. When he decided to list the things in his life that give him joy, or gave him joy, he not only reveals his internal strength, but he shows readers a way of dealing with their own loss and grief: focus on the joy. It's a gift that Alexie gives his readers, through his character.

Story Sleuths' Tip #16: Share wisdom with your readers--offer them new strategies for learning from challenges in their own lives.

Over to you, Allyson.


CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, ACTION: And a Partridge in a Pear Tree, Red Versus White and Wake: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Hi Meg -

There is something I’ve noticed again and again in this book, which I am reminded of in this poignant little chapter, And a Partridge in a Pear Tree. It has to do with the fine line writers for children must walk when defining their character’s sensibilities.

Although this story is largely autobiographical, Sherman Alexie, at the SCBWI International Conference in LA this year, commented that the character Junior is nothing like Alexie really was at that age. Junior reflects a level of sensibility, maturity and confidence that Alexie didn’t achieve until much later in life. On page 151 Junior says of his father’s boot, “that thing smelled like booze and fear and failure.” Does that reflect how a fourteen-year-old rez kid would see or describe the world? Would he say that a boot smells of fear? Of failure? No. It is how a grown-up Sherman Alexie would describe such things.

But is that a problem? No, and here is why. Consistency. The character is perhaps a little too mature, a little too self-aware for someone in his circumstances, but he is unswervingly so, and as a result, I buy that it is simply who he is.

Storysleuths Tip # 14: Be consistent with your characters maturity level and sensibility and you can get away with a lot

At this year’s SCBWI conference in L.A. Jordan Brown, editor at Walden Pond Press spoke about the function of scenes. He said, “every scene should have something no one is expecting to happen because that is what propels a story forward.” These chapters, Red Versus White and Wake, bear the shocking news that Junior’s grandmother has been killed by a drunk driver, and describe the way that all who loved her dealt with her death. I didn’t see it coming. On page 154 when Junior begins speaking of his grandmother in past tense, “And do you want to know what the very best thing was about Wellpinit? My grandmother,” I found it a little odd that the author suddenly switched perspectives and was looking back over the distance of time. Then, on page 155, six pages into the chapter he very matter-of-factly reveals that she’d been struck and killed by a drunk driver. Wow.

Story Sleuths Tip # 15: Introduce the unexpected to propel a scene forward.

-- Allyson

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ALLUSIONS & CULTURAL REFERENCES Don't Trust Your Computer, My Sister Sends Me a Letter, & Reindeer Games

Hi Allyson,

I've been noticing, too, how Alexie slips bits of wisdom into the story. Consider these, all from a previous chapter, "Slouching Towards Thanksgiving":

• "You have to read a book three times before you know it." (p. 94)
• "The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." (p. 97)
• "He made me realize that hard work--that the act of finishing, of completing, of accomplishing a task--is joyous." (p. 98)

Truths like these always startle me in a way I like, and make me feel that I'm getting extra value from the characters in the story.

The title of the next long chapter, "Reindeer Games," includes an allusion to contemporary culture that all of the readers would be familiar with. It sets readers up to expect that Junior, like Rudolf, wouldn't be allowed to play (on the team). But eventually, like Rudolf, Junior winds up leading the team--"Coach said I was the best shooter who ever played for him."

Then, when Junior is knocked out by Rowdy and hospitalized, Coach comes into his room after Junior wakes up and shares his wisdom, which is the wisdom of a legendary football coach. But it's not the Vince Lombardi quote Junior knows that Coach shares--it's a new one to Junior: "The quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor." The quotation has the ring of authenticity because it was said by a real person, one who the reader, as well as Junior, is aware of, one who has won recognition in his field.

Story Sleuths tip #13: Literary and cultural allusions, and references to familiar and famous people, can give authenticity and depth to your characters and your story.

Over to you, Allyson.

Monday, October 26, 2009

SECONDARY CHARACTERS and WISDOM: Rowdy Gives Me Advice About Love and Dance, Dance, Dance: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Rowdy Gives Me Advice is just two pages long, but it reminds me of a point I would like to make about secondary characters, as these two pages feature Rowdy and Gordy, two significant secondary characters. Author Ellen Jackson says this on her website:

“When you write a book, you’re inviting your readers to spend hours with your characters. Most children don’t want to spend those hours with plain, ordinary people--the ones they see every day at the park, at school, at the mall. They want to meet characters–characters in the sense of different, special, interesting people. When thinking about your secondary characters, think quirky.”

Meg, I ask you this -- do characters get quirkier than Rowdy and Gordy??

Story Sleuths Tip 11: To quote Ellen Jackson, “When thinking about your secondary characters, think quirky.”

And now, for Dance, Dance, Dance: At a retreat a few years ago the AMAZING, but now retired Philomel editor Patricia Lee Gauch spoke about the importance of adding lines of wisdom to your text. Just little zingers here and there; one liners about truths your readers can relate to. Consider these:

  • “Lies have short lives.” (119)
  • “But things changed. As things always change.” (123) 
  • “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” (129)
Story Sleuths Tip #12: Sprinkle your text with tidbits of wisdom.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

DEVELOPING CHARACTERS My Sister Sends Me an E-mail, Thanksgiving, and Hunger Pains: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Allyson,

I've been wondering how Alexie gets me to care so much, as a reader, about his characters. I think he's brilliant at using a wide variety of ways to develop the characters, and their relationships with one another, so that I'm continually surprised. These three chapters develop Junior's relationships with three different characters in three different ways.

This is the first time Alexie has shown us a character from a point of view different from Junior's. In "My Sister Sends Me an E-mail," we see Mary through her own eyes, or rather, through her own words, as she sends Junior an e-mail about her life in Montana. It's a place he has never been, her "dream come true." And because readers aren't shown, or told, Junior's response to the e-mail, we can leap into the pages of the book, right into Junior's shoes, and read the e-mail as if we were him. I wondered: would he have felt the same foreboding I felt in her jubilant: "I love my life! I love my husband! I love Montana!"?

In "Thanksgiving," we see the changing relationship between Rowdy and Junior through action--no words are exchanged between them. When Junior looks up at Rowdy's window, Rowdy gives him the finger, but he is also holding Junior's cartoon, which indicates to Junior that "maybe he still respected me a little bit."

And in "Hunger Pains," Alexie shows us the developing relationship between Penelope and Rowdy by using only dialogue--they don't see one another as they talk through the girls' bathroom door. Junior isn't even aware that it is Penelope he is addressing until she emerges.

There are so many ways to portray characters and their relationships to one another. Engaging readers by using a wide variety of these strategies holds readers' attention and draws readers closer to all of the characters.

Story Sleuths' tip #10: Use different approaches--such as another point of view, action without words, and dialogue devoid of action--to develop characters and explore the relationships between them.

Over to you, Allyson.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SLOUCHING TOWARD THANKSGIVING: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Meg -

Elana Roth from the Caren Johnson Literary Agency spoke recently at our SCBWI meeting, and she said this about pacing: “There must always be something next to keep the action going.” In this chapter Alexie sows the seed for a possible friendship with Gordy. When Junior gets home, there is a “something next”—in this case he learns that his sister is getting married. Then there is “something next”—it is the following day in school and Junior actively pursues and begins to develop the friendship foreshadowed several pages earlier. The final “something next” comes at the end of the chapter when we learn that in the end, the friendship was a successful one: “and he certainly helped me through school. He not only tutored me and challenged me, but he made me realize that hard work…is joyous.”

Story Sleuths Tip #9: Promise your readers “something next” to keep the action going.

-- Allyson

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

HELP FOR THE HERO Grandmother Gives Me Some Advice, Tears of a Clown, and Halloween: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Allyson,

Chapter headings do herald the coming events, and whet the appetite of readers. Just from the title of the next chapter, readers wonder what advice Grandmother will give Junior--and they'll read to find out.

Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey follows the step referred to as "The Road of Trials" with a step known as "The Meeting with the Goddess." Junior, taunted and bullied, has been through a “Road of Trials,” which resulted in his hauling off and slugging Roger in the face. Then Junior confronts a dilemma: what next? What can he expect the next time he sees Roger?

I think of Junior’s conversation with his grandmother as a kind of “meeting with the Goddess,” since his grandmother represents wisdom and unconditional love. His grandmother provides the answer: “They’re going to respect you now.” She’s right. They do. At least, the guys do. It takes longer for the girls--even by the end of “Halloween,” two chapters later, Junior is still isolated by the girls: “I was still a stranger in a strange land.”

Story Sleuths Tip #8: Adult characters can assist your protagonist, and can offer advice and wisdom, so long as the main character stays directly involved in the action.

Over to you, Allyson.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How To Fight Monsters: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Meg -

In this chapter I am reminded of some things we've already mentioned that are done so well. The way Alexie  builds suspense by making me as a reader wait all chapter long to find out what on earth the chapter heading was referring to-- fighting monsters? The language, the precise words and phrases that ARE the voice -- "I was emotionally erect."

But the thing I would like to draw specific attention to is something I mentioned a moment ago: the chapter headings, and the ways in which they compliment the book as a whole. The headings draw me in. They match the voice of the character. They make me, the reader, wonder what is coming, and invite me to keep reading. This chapter's heading is a perfect example: How To Fight Monsters. Upon reading that I needed to keep reading and find out what he was talking about. Real monsters? Internal monsters? Another way that Alexie uses chapter settings successfully is as markers of time. Headings like Halloween, Slouching Toward Thanksgiving, and And A Partridge in a Pear Tree give the reader a sense of the chronology of the story. As writers we do not necessarily need to mention within the context of a chapter where we are in time--the chapter heading can do that for us.

Story Sleuths Tip # 7: Chapter headings can serve as an invitation to your reader that they cannot resist--please keep reading!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

UPPING THE ANTE ON YOUR HERO’S QUEST Go Means Go & Rowdy Sings the Blues: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Allyson,

I love questions. They wake me up if my mind wanders a bit. And right off the bat on the first page of “Go Means Go” Junior asks “the biggest question,” which is: “Who has the most hope?”

That question stopped me, as it stopped Junior’s parents. Just for a moment, though. They know the answer. Then they share it, with us and with Junior, in chorus: “White people,” which Junior knew. It’s an answer that leads to another question—a bigger question: what will Junior will DO next? Junior’s decision is pivotal—he announces his journey into a new world, the world of Rich White People. Though his parents try to dissuade him, he’s adamant. And furthermore, he’s aware of the danger. But he decides to go anyway. “Tomorrow.”

In this chapter, Alexie sets Junior off on the start of his quest. The die is cast. Go means go. But danger lurks, as Junior predicts that “my fellow tribal members are going to torture me.” And he’s right—in the following chapter Rowdy does torture him, and not just physically, but much worse. “I knew that my best friend had become my worst enemy.”

Story Sleuths Tip #6: At the outset of the hero’s quest, raise the stakes by setting risk or danger directly in his/her path.

Over to you, Allyson.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Hope Against Hope: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Meg –

I never thought of it that way before – how preceding a peak in action with a flatter section of story serves to heighten the peak. I like that.

Now we move into a very powerful chapter, charged with emotion. Junior learns about his sister’s passion for writing. He learns for the first time ever that there may actually be an option other than life on the reservation. He learns that there may be hope. And here is what I noticed as a writer—Alexie is heightening my interest in the story by asking new questions. First, through the mouth of the protagonist when Junior says on page 40, “But I still want to know exactly why my sister gave up on her dream of writing romance novels.” As a reader I pause here and find that I want to know the same thing. Then, when Mr. P. says at the end of the chapter, “Son, you’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation,” it is not Junior, but me, the reader who is forced to ask the question—is he going to do it? Is he going to leave?

Story Sleuths Tip # 5: Questions build suspense, whether they are posed by a character, or the situation begs that your reader ask them.

-- Allyson

Friday, October 9, 2009

Because Geometry Is Not a Country Near France: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Hi Allyson,

I agree. Focusing on seeing the world through my character’s eyes is one sure way to create individual, memorable characters. And in this chapter there’s a vivid example of seeing through the character’s eyes—Junior’s portrait of his sister. We LITERALLY see her through his eyes.

Here, the story unfolds at a slower pace than in the previous chapters. Less action happens, Instead of action, Alexie fills in some backstory and introduces two characters who will become important to the story—Junior’s sister, and Mr. P. It isn’t until the last page of the chapter that something dramatic happens, when Junior heaves his geometry book directly at Mr. P. THAT’S action! Charting the tension of the first 6 pages in this chapter on a graph with a vertical axis from “flat” to “thrilling” might yield a wavering line, barely rising until the end of the chapter. But that preparation means the action at the end packs a huge wallop. As Katherine Paterson once said in a speech at an International Reading Association Conference, “Make them laugh, make them cry, but most of all, make them wait.” Alexie made us wait—and then he made it worth the wait.

Story Sleuths Tip # 4: Backstory and slower pacing can lead up to and heighten important dramatic action.

Over to you, Allyson.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Revenge is My Middle Name: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Hi Meg,

I need to add something that occurred to me when reading chapter two, specifically the scene in which Oscar is shot. When he spoke at the SCBWI conference, Alexie said that a major theme in this story is about being trapped; about the experience all children have of their decisions being made for them. This is what gives the book universal appeal. Yes, it is a story about a poor-ass kid on a reservation, but the character is a child experiencing something all children can relate to—his choices are being made FOR him. He is completely powerless when his parents decide Oscar’s fate. Furthermore, while he is powerless, he still recognizes that as much as he wishes to be in control, he needs his parents. He says, “my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them.”

Jordan Brown, editor at Walden Pond Press says that the character should be someone the audience can relate to. Whether you are a wealthy white kid from the suburb or an inner-city kid struggling just to eat each day, you can relate to both the powerlessness and the desperate need for parental support that Junior experiences. I think Alexie does a great job of exposing the frailties unique to kids in this age group.

Okay, now on to the next chapter. This go around I will point out the attention to details that really let us into Junior’s life. Richard Peck has said “The character should only see things that matter.” In other words, as writers we must take care not to reveal to the reader those things that the author might notice, but that the character would not. We have the tendency as writers to imagine ourselves in a setting and then describe in detail everything we see. Instead, we should describe the things our character would notice. On page 17 Junior describes the 127th annual powwow celebration where there would be, “singing, war dancing, gambling, storytelling, laughter, fry bread, hamburgers, hot dogs, arts and crafts, and plenty of alcoholic brawling.” I believe that as an adult, especially as a non-Indian adult I would notice many things at the powwow that Junior does not mention, and I appreciate that I am seeing the world through HIS eyes.

Story Sleuths Tip # 3: See the world through your character’s eyes.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Chicken Means So Much to Me (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

Hi Allyson,

Yes, I'm grabbed by that first line of the first chapter, too. It's reminiscent of that classic first line--"Where's Papa going with that ax?" Both these first lines plant a stick of dynamite under the reader and kick the story into high gear right out of the starting gate.

Now, onward to the next chapter. I’m always fascinated by voice. And I’m not the only one, as both Heather and Kimberlee commented that Junior’s voice comes through loud and clear, even from the first pages.

I’m always wondering: How does a writer capture the voice of a character? Alexie nails Junior’s voice. I can HEAR Junior talking. How does Alexie do this? One way, I noticed, is that Junior addresses me, the reader, directly. In general, I'm not a fan of "dear reader" asides, which I often find forced and distracting, but in Junior’s case I find it endearing to be addressed directly. It’s chatty. It’s conversational. It feels real. “Okay, so now you know that I’m a cartoonist.” I’m there, with Junior, watching him draw, on the rez. The narrator drags me into his story.

Kirby Larson, Newbery Honor winning author of Hattie Big Sky said, in a presentation for writers focused on voice, “using voice tics, like ‘yo, man,’ is one way of identifying your character’s voice.” And, by the way, did you notice how many sentences Junior starts with “and”? “And sure,” “And hey,” “And now,” just for starters, in the space of 4 paragraphs. That’s the rhythm of spoken language, of storytelling. That’s Junior’s voice.

Story Sleuths Tip #2: Read the story you have written and ask yourself: Is my storytelling voice fresh and unique?

Over to you, Allyson.