Saturday, June 26, 2010

CLIMAX AND DENOUEMENT: One Crazy Summer (Post #6 of 6)

Dear Allyson and Heather,

     I’ve been thinking about your post, Heather, and about how Williams-Garcia created an antagonist who AVOIDS taking action. Her decision to pit Delphine against such a resistant mother created a challenge with respect to the ending. How could the story come to a climax in which there would be some resolution of the tension between Delphine and Cecile, while still remaining true to the characters? A sugary sweet ending wouldn’t fit, but to have no mutual understanding wouldn’t satisfy readers either.
     In Beginnings,, Middles & Ends, Nancy Kress says, 

…the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that preceded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” (p. 108)

     In the penultimate chapter of One Crazy Summer, “Be Eleven,” the protagonist and the antagonist confront one another. It’s a confrontation we’ve been prepared for, and expecting, and waiting for, since the first chapter, when Delphine and her sisters set off on the quest to visit the mother who had left them behind six years earlier, leaving Delphine with only a “flash of memory” that told her “Cecile wasn’t one for kissing and hugging” (p. 7). With Delphine, we wonder, “Why? 
     And finally, in “Be Eleven,” Cecile explains. Cecile initiates the scene with a tirade directed at Delphine, blaming Delphine for not calling her father when Cecile was in jail, Delphine responds: 

I’m only eleven years old. And I do everything. I have to, because you’re not there to do it. I’m only eleven years old, but I do the best I can. I don’t just up and leave. (p. 206) 

      In response, Cecile opens up, sharing her own life story with Delphine. Delphine reflects: 

Here was my mother telling me her life. Who she was. How she came to be Cecile. Answering questions I’d stored in my head from the time I realized she would not come back. (p. 209) 

     Delphine’s self-awareness grows out of these revelations: “….for what seemed like the first time ever, all I could think about was my own self. What I lost. What I missed" (p. 209). The information doesn’t change Delphine’s feelings—“I was still mad”—but it does give her information that she planned to take out “one piece at a time and look at” (p. 210), and it gives her Cecile’s understanding: “Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can” (p. 210)

     About the dénouement, whose function is to “wrap up the story” after the climax, Kress says, 

it may consist of a sentence, a paragraph, or a brief scene clarifying what happens to the character after she changes. (p. 112) 

Williams-Garcia has created the perfect dénouement. After they’ve said their goodbyes at the airport, Delphine expects Cecile to walk away. But in line for boarding, Delphine reports: 

When I turned to see if she had gone, she was standing only a few feet away. Looking straight at me. It was a strange, wonderful feeling. To discover eyes upon you when you expected no one to notice you at all. (p. 214) 

And finally, there’s the moment we’ve been prepared for, and waiting for, from the first chapter: 

We broke off from the line and ran over to hug our mother and let her hug us…..We weren’t about to leave Oakland without getting what we’d come for. (p. 215)

     It’s a perfect ending—one that follows from all of the actions that preceded it and grows naturally out of the personalities of the characters.

StorySleuths Tip #81: Create a climax and dénouement that meet the standards of Nancy Kress--that logically follow the actions preceding it while growing naturally out of the personalities of the characters.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

ANTAGONIST: One Crazy Summer (Post #5 of 6)

Dear Allyson and Meg,

We haven't talked much about antagonists in the books we've read so far, although we have meet some doozies (the Blackbringer in Laini Taylor's fantasy novel Blackbringer and Wendell in Marcelo in the Real World  come to mind). The antagonist in One Crazy Summer is another doozy: Cecile Johnson, the mother who abandoned the three sisters when the youngest was still nursing.

We readers learn about Cecile through the eyes of our narrator, Delphine, who explains that the term "mother" is
"a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother" (p. 14).
Delphine's explanation sounds fairly straightforward and unemotional, but we readers can't help but feel her underlying resentment toward her mother. What I found fascinating here was how the narration clues us in to the possibility that Delphine may not be a completely reliable narrator when it comes to her mother.

Then, of course, we actually meet Cecile when she arrives late at the airport to pick up the children. She looks "more like a secret agent than a mother," Delphine thinks, judging by the way her mother appears dressed in big sunglasses, a scarf, and a hat. We are still in Delphine's head, still seeing Cecile through Delphine's point of view. Is Cecile really so crazy? So horrible? So uncaring?

Rita Williams-Garcia uses Delphine's narration to create questions in the reader's mind before letting us see Cecile in action for ourselves. And when she does, her words and actions clearly show that Delphine's fears were justified. She exhibits no warmth toward the girls, just hustles them into a taxi and takes them home. She mumbles
"I didn't send for you. Didn't want you in the first place. Should have gone to Mexico to get rid of you when I had the chance" (p. 26).
While this statement confuses the girls, they are even more offended when they discover that Cecile has no food for them, offering them a choice between eating "air sandwiches" and walking down the street alone to order take out from Ming's.

What's interesting about Cecile as an antagonist is that she doesn't so much oppose Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern through her actions the way that Wendell in Marcelo in the Real World actively tried to thwart Marcelo. Instead, Cecile's inactions--her lack of motherly warmth and concern--leave the girls off balance and force Delphine to take on more responsibility than an eleven-year-old should have. She is an antagonist because she withholds the very care and emotional connection that the girls crave.

StorySleuths Tip #80: An antagonist can provide opposition to the protagonist through inaction by refusing to interact with the protagonist or withholding emotional connections.

Post #6: Interview with Rita Williams-Garcia

Sunday, June 20, 2010

THE TICKING CLOCK: One Crazy Summer (Post #4 of 6)

Dear Heather and Meg,

My kids’ last day of school was Thursday and already we hear that ticking clock. The first day of September is just around the corner and there is so much to do between now and then! The time constraint adds tension to the story of our summer, just as it does in literature with the literary device referred to as the ticking clock.

During a lecture at the 2009 SCBWI Western Washington conference, literary agent Michael Stearns spoke about the use of a ticking clock in novels to add suspense. In an online article titled Adding Suspense to a Novel -- the Ticking Clock, author Marg McAlister suggests that the main requirements to use this literary device are:

1. Plan to have something big happen at the end of the chosen period of time, with severe and unwanted consequences for the main character if he/she doesn't meet the deadline.
2. Choose a period of time during which the action of the story will play out – a day, a week, 39 days, a year – the time period doesn't matter, as long as the main character faces serious challenges to complete whatever is necessary in the time frame.

How does device work in One Crazy Summer? First, let’s look at the “period of time during with the action of the story will play out”. This is established before one even turns the first page—the title One Crazy Summer implies that there is a time limit being imposed. We are promised that something is going to take place over the course of a summer, and as the novel progresses, we see that time-clock ticking down.

And what is the ‘something big’ that is going to happen? The story opens with the girls flying to Oakland to meet, and get to know, Cecile—the mother who abandoned them for reasons that are not altogether clear to either Delphine or the reader. When Cecile collects them at the airport in chapter two it is apparent that one month may not be enough time to get to know this woman who seems determined to keep her distance. The ‘something big’ is that Delphine just may return to New York without having gotten to know her mother. She may never come to understand why her mother left three young daughters to be raised by their father.

As the story progresses we are made aware of time ticking, and with each passing day it seems less and less likely that the girls will foster any kind of relationship with Cecile. In fact when they have only been there for one day they are ready to go home:

‘I wanna go home.’

‘Me too.’

I knew which home they meant. I said, ‘We’re going back home in twenty-seven days’ (p. 60).

It is close to the end of their time in Oakland when Cecile gets arrested, and still Delphine has not gotten close to her mother:

If Cecile had been arrested when we first arrived in Oakland, I would have called Pa, and Pa would have made sure my sisters and I were on a plane back to New York. Nothing would have made me happier than to leave Cecile and Oakland back then. But we hadn’t gotten what we came for. We didn’t really know our mother, and I couldn’t leave without knowing who she was (p. 178).

It isn’t until the very end of their stay that Cecile reveals to Delphine the truth about her own painful past. And it is not until the day they leave that Cecile finally demonstrates the kind of care and compassion the girls have been looking for all along.

If Delphine had a lifetime to figure out the secrets behind her mother’s actions and establish a relationship with her, there would be no story. Having just one month to accomplish these things adds tension, and propels the story forward.

StorySleuths Tip #79 — Establish a period of time during which your character must accomplish his/her goal, demonstrate time ticking down, and make sure your readers know what is at stake if the buzzer rings before the goal is met.

Post #5: Antagonist

Thursday, June 17, 2010

BRINGING HISTORY TO STORY: One Crazy Summer (Post #3 of 6)

Dear Allyson and Heather,
     I was drawn into One Crazy Summer partly because it's about the 60's, a time I vividly remember as a college student, participating in lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration in southeastern Tennessee. Although the Black Panthers were getting a lot of press for their political activities, I wasn't aware at the time that they sponsored social programs as well.
     So I was fascinated to read One Crazy Summer--not only as the story of three sisters and their relationships with one another and other members of their family, but also as a window into an organization that was far more complex and fascinating than I had realized at the time.
     In The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, James Alexander Thom clarifies the difference between historians and historical fiction novelists. He says,
[Historians] have to point backward from the present and, bearing the authority of their profession, declare what they believe happened back then. Those who read the prose of a historian understand that they are looking back.

But we novelists, and our readers, aren't looking back to the time. We are in that time, looking forward. We are living in the historical moment, through the vividness of our stories, and looking to the future to find our outcomes. (p. 28) 
     Williams-Garcia takes us back to be in that time by embedding clues to the period throughout the book.

1. Clues in narration: A clue to the time period can be as simple as a single word, like the word now superseded by "flight attendant":
A stewardess rushed to our row. (p. 11) 
2. Clues in dialogue: Williams-Garcia also uses dialogue to give readers historical context for the story:
"How can you send them to Oakland? Oakland's nothing but a boiling pot of trouble cooking. All them riots. " (p. 5)
3. Clues in description: Vivid descriptions clearly anchor the story in past time:
We sat at one of the two long tables. The classroom was unlike any I had ever been in. Instead of pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and President Johnson, there was a picture of Huey Newton sitting in a big wicker chair with a rifle at his side. (p. 69)
 4. Clues in internal monologue: Historical information is also shared with readers through internal monologue:
I knew he meant her, Cecile, when he said Inzilla. I didn't know some of those other names. Only Huey Newton, the Black Panther leader, and Muhammad Ali, used to be Cassius Clay. (pp. 45-46)
 Thom says,
As much as you can, you must be like someone who has lived there, because you're going to be not just the storyteller but also the tour guide taking your readers through the past. (p. 154) 
Williams-Garcia is one awesome tour guide, using clues planted in narration, dialogue, description, and internal monologue to take readers back to a specific time and place in the past.

StorySleuths Tip # 78: When writing historical fiction, use clues planted in narration, dialogue, description, and internal monologue to take your readers back to a specific time and place in the past.  

Post #4: The Ticking Clock

Sunday, June 13, 2010

DIALOGUE: One Crazy Summer (Post #2 of 6)

Dear Meg and Allyson,

I started One Crazy Summer knowing that the setting and time period—1968 in Oakland, California—would certainly make for a unique read, full of interesting historical details about the Black Panthers and Huey Newton. I had no idea it would also be so funny! The relationship between the three sisters is full of warmth and humor.

Take this passage of dialogue between the three sisters and their mother. Delphine, the narrator, and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern have just traveled to the house of their estranged mother, Cecile.

I spoke first: “We’re hungry.”
As usual, my sisters’ voices followed on top of mine.
Vonetta: “What’s for supper?”
Then Fern: “Hungry. Hungry.” She rubbed her belly.

The girls go around this subject a few times with Cecile in the same pattern, Delphine with a broad statement of fact, followed by supporting details from Vonetta and then Fern. At last, Cecile asks for the money their father had sent with them.

I crossed my arms. There was no way she was getting our money. “That money’s for Disneyland,” I told her.
“To go on all the rides.”
“And meet Tinker Bell.”
This was the first time we heard Cecile laugh, and she laughed like the crazy mother she was turning out to be. “Is Tinker Bell going to feed you?”  (pp. 30-31)

This structure of dialogue takes place throughout the book: Delphine approaches their mother with a request or need, and Vonetta and Fern back her up. Williams-Garcia goes out of her way to highlight this pattern of speaking. In a moment of narration, Delphine reflects,
When my sisters and I speak, one right after the other, it’s like a song we sing, a game we play. We never need to pass signals. We just fire off rat-a-tat-tat. Delphine. Vonetta. Fern. (p. 77)
The girls riff off each other, so it’s important that Williams-Garcia establishes a clear pattern.

While the dialogue is interesting, funny, and witty, it also develops character. We can see the unity among sisters in the way the younger girls build on their older sister’s statements. The girls want the same things. They support each other. Here, they want Cecile to get them a television.

She said, “No one needs a television set.”
“We do,” I said.
“To catch our shows,” Vonetta said.
“Yeah,” Fern said. “To catch our cartoons.”

This is a rare case where Williams-Garcia includes dialogue tags for the girls. Many times, dialogue spins down the page without tags. In this next example, Vonetta and Fern gang up on Delphine:

“See, Delphine, you can’t tell us what to do,” Vonetta said.
“Surely can’t.”
“’Cause we’re going to the Center, and we’re going to the rally.”
“Surely are.”
“And we’re going to sing our song.”
“And do our dance.”
“And you can’t be in with us.”

Notice how quickly the dialogue jumps back and forth between Vonetta and Fern. Dialogue tags would simply slow down the back-and-forth between the girls. Williams-Garcia helps the reader know who’s speaking through a couple of directions. She tells us that Vonetta is talking to Delphine. The second speaker, though, isn’t Delphine replying. It’s Fern piping in, which the reader knows due to Fern’s signature word surely.

While I could cite many more examples of dialogue in One Crazy Summer, I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that the dialogue works on so many levels: it develops the character of the sisters as a united group and as individuals; it shows their wit and spirit; and it provides moments of laugh-out-loud humor.

StorySleuths Tip #77: Look for ways to establish patterns of communication between characters as a way to show character on many different levels.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

WRITING FROM YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE: One Crazy Summer, Post #1 of 6

Dear Heather and Meg,

I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, a white girl in a working-class family. Like every kid in my neighborhood, all of whom were white, I had a father who worked, a mother who stayed home, and I went to St. Agnes Catholic Church on Sundays. There was confidence and comfort that came from being just like everyone else, and for the most part I was blithely unaware that anyone's experience was much different from my own, for even the books I read were about girls much like me.

As an adult looking back, how I wish that the librarian had been able to thrust into my book-crazy hands a copy of Rita Williams-Garcia's novel so that I could have begun at an earlier age to appreciate the experiences of a child growing up non-white, which were so different from my own.

Reading this book as an adult I was struck by the way Delphine noticed her own blackness. At the airport preparing to fly to Oakland, for instance, Delphine notices the ratio of black to white people. 

There weren’t too many of ‘us’ in the waiting area, and too many of ‘them’ were staring. I’d taken a quick count out of habit. Vonetta, Fern and I were the only Negro children (p. 5).

This isn’t the only time Delphine counts the non-white faces. It’s something she and her sisters are confronted with on a daily basis as she describes here, when talking about their experience watching television:
The Mike Douglas show wasn’t the only place to find colored people on television. Each week, Jet magazine pointed out all the shows with colored people. My sisters and I became expert colored counters. We had it down to a science (p. 118).
What a terrific example of "show don't tell"! By watching Delphine and her sisters notice the world around them we discover just how deeply they are affected by it.

It was shortly after I finished reading One Crazy Summer that I came across a cartoon in the May 31 issue of The New Yorker (p.59), which smacked of Delphine's experience. The comic shows two men watching television, drinking a beer. One says to the other, “I actually saw ten gay characters on television this week—which almost balanced out the 2,174 straight characters I saw.”

And I recall a lecture delivered by Mitali Perkins back in April at the Western Washington SCBWI conference. Speaking about multiculturalism in children’s literature, Mitali commented that whenever she walked into a room she immediately noticed how many other people of color there were.

Whatever the minority experience one has, be it that they are black, gay, or from another country, they are acutely aware of being outside the majority culture in this country. It is so important that kids like Delphine have a book such as this to relate to, and that kids like me have a book such as this to learn from. 
StorySleuth Tip #76: Whatever your experience is, there are kids out there that need to hear it. Even if you think you are a minority of one, tell your story.

Post #2: Dialogue

Thursday, June 3, 2010

INTERVIEW WITH GRACE LIN: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon Post #7

After reading and examining Where the Mountain Meets the Moon last month, we StorySleuths had some questions about writing process and writing techniques that we couldn’t answer from the text itself. So we asked author Grace Lin if she would answer our questions for us, and she graciously agreed. We’re grateful for her responses, which we are posting below, as they gave us insight into the special considerations and challenges she faced in writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

1. Were all of the stories based on traditional folktales or did you write some from scratch?

The stories were a hybrid. A lot of them were based on traditional tales that I tweaked here and there, embellishing myths that were little more than a line. For example, at Chinese New Year, it is common to find pictures of two plump children dressed in red decorating doorways. These children are called Da-A-Fu. Why? I researched and only found a very short summary of them: they were two spirits transformed as children sent to destroy a green monster that was terrorizing a village. There were no details of how or why or what village, but it was enough to spark my imagination. So with that, I created the twin characters of A-Fu and Da-Fu in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon who destroy the Green Tiger.

2. At first it seems like the stories are independent stand-alones but clearly they are tightly interwoven--seemingly unimportant details become significant, minor characters reappear in larger roles--what process did you use to weave it all together?

Not a very organized one! Every time I wrote a story I would think, does this have a purpose with the rest of the plot? If there were at least 2 threads that could tie it to the larger story then I kept it. If there weren’t, I cut it. It was really just a lot of obsessive thinking.

3. We were so taken by the ending. We always hear that refrain that the ending should be a surprise, and yet inevitable. When Minli got to the old man and he would only answer one question -- wow! Of course! It was just perfect. We wonder at what point you knew what the ending would be.

I knew the ending about the questions before I wrote the book. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is very loosely based on a folktale called "Olive Lake," though I changed it quite a bit. In the folktale, the main character is only allowed to ask the God of the West a limited amount of questions, so the structure was already there! All the additional ending elements--Fruitless Mountain turning fruitful, etc, I had planned before I started writing as well--I like to have kind of an end goal so I know where I am going when I write.

However, one also has to be flexible as they write too! For me, all the storylines with the Book of Fortune and the Secret of Happiness came pretty late and those, I think, are the real heart of the ending.

4. What was your revision process like?

I actually enjoy revision. It's writing the first draft, that initial output, that kills me! And my editor, Alvina Ling, is not only my editor but a great friend so I really trust her opinions on my writing...and she understands when my writing is quite rough.

But I don't really have a clear organized process. I write the first draft the best I can, send it to Alvina and wait for her response. Usually she has a really good idea of what to do with it and then I get to work. I like the retooling of the story; I feel like revision is when the story really starts to sing. After my first draft of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon she told me I needed at least 10 more chapters and I should show the parents' side of the story. I cringed at the 10 more chapters but showing the parents' side was an idea of genius!

5. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

This was a very emotionally challenging book for me. I think the best way to explain why would be just to direct you to the speech I read at the Josette Frank Award.

6. Could you share one writing tip that you learned in the process of writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon?

With Where the Mountain Meets the Moon there were so many story lines that I was afraid that things might get lost on the reader. So after each major change my editor had other people in house read it and I had other friends read it to make sure things were clear. I really learned the value of a fresh reader! Sometimes it's important to have someone who knows nothing about the story, someone who is not even a writer, read the story, just to make sure it hangs together--though I would suggest using them only towards the end—when you are fine-tuning, not at early draft stage!

Many thanks, Grace, for your writing and for your articulate explanations of how you researched, structured and created Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. We are looking forward to reading your books that are currently in the works—especially the two companion books to Where the Mountain Meets the MoonReturn to Sky and Needle at Sea Bottom!

StorySleuths’ Tip # 75: With thanks to Grace Lin: “Sometimes it's important to have someone who knows nothing about the story, someone who is not even a writer, read the story, just to make sure it hangs together--though I would suggest using them only towards the end—when you are fine-tuning, not at early draft stage!”