Suspending a Character’s Disbelief and Ours

I’ve got book winners to announce, but that will be at the end of this post. Mwahahahaha! So grab a donut and pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea while I talk at you for a minute.

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Ever read a book where a character is handed a truth that would require a major paradigm shift for him or her to accept? For example, the character suddenly learns that magic or monsters really exist.

We’ve all read stories of characters who stubbornly cling to disbelief in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary. They insist that they’re dreaming or “this isn’t really happening” until they reach a plot point (at least halfway through the book) that pushes them toward belief. Or we’ve read stories where a character instantly accepts a completely world-changing viewpoint without a struggle. There are also stories where the character seems to ignore what would be totally obvious to a seven-year-old. I think of that as the Lois-Lane-can’t-see-Superman-behind-Clark-Kent’s-glasses perspective. That’s why we don’t necessarily suspend our disbelief as we read. (Or sometimes we go along for the ride because the characters are so beloved or iconic.)

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Lois, have you noticed anything unusual about Clark? No? Some reporter you are.

Here is where foreshadowing can be an author’s BFF. An author can hint at the possibility that something major is going to happen at a future point. Foreshadowing also is a reminder that things are not always what they appear to be. It provides a solid base to make a character’s suspension of disbelief seem inevitable.

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Prince Zuko of the Avatar animated series and Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Sometimes though, a rip-off-the-bandage approach works to move a story along. I can’t help thinking of two episodes of Doctor Who, series 4 (2008), starring David Tennant as the Doctor (BBC/BBC America).

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In Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, an extremely chilling 2009 Hugo award-nominated two-episode arc written by Steven Moffat, we see a little girl talking to a psychiatrist, while her anxious dad hovers in the background. Such an innocuous scene. The little girl has told the doctor—Dr. Moon—about her dreams.

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Doctor Moon (played by Colin Salmon) and the little girl (played by Eve Newton)

In her dreams, she goes to a library—a place where she feels safe. But as we watch the episodes, we realize that all is not what it seems. Later in the first episode, because of a dangerous development, Doctor Moon has to share a shocking truth with the little girl, a truth that would require a paradigm shift for her to accept. (Quote below from IMDb. **SLIGHT SPOILER.**)

Dr. Moon: What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real. The Library is real. There are people trapped in there. People who need to be saved. The shadows are moving again. Those people are depending on you. Only you can save them. Only you.

**END SPOILER.** You can read this Wikipedia article if you want to know the plot. Or, I would suggest watching the episodes. They are extremely good.

Another example of a character having to shift from disbelief to belief comes from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (the title depends on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be on), Hagrid tells Harry the truth about Harry’s extraordinary life in this scene from the first Harry Potter movie, directed by Christopher Columbus (2001).

Rowling set the stage earlier by having weird things happen that Harry witnessed, but couldn’t explain. So when the big reveal comes, his struggle for acceptance doesn’t feel contrived.

I’m facing a similar issue in my middle grade book—a character struggling to believe something extraordinary about herself. I’ll ask you the same questions I had to answer for the character: If you were told that magic really exists, what’s the first thing you would do? What would you say or ask?

While you think about those questions, I’ll move on to the book giveaway. Thanks for you patience. If you recall, last week I had mentioned two great books: None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio and Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue by Charles Yallowitz. You can find those posts here and here. Jordie and Hello Kitty wanted to be in on the reveal. You might have to enlarge the photos below if you have trouble reading the names.

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The winner of None of the Above is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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The winner of Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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Congratulations Jill! Congrats, Professor! Please comment below to confirm.

Now I will leave you with a photo I am calling, “The Five Geese of the Apocalypse.” For some reason, they were just standing there on the ledge looking out. Surveying their domain perhaps?

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Doctor Moon and the little girl from stevegoble.blogspot.com. Doctor Who, series 4, DVD cover from Wikipedia. Lois Lane and Clark Kent from goodgirlsinc.wordpress.com. Coffee and donut from wisdomwoman.com. Zuko from glogster.com. Anakin/Darth Vader from tvtropes.org.

Is There a Perceived Age Limit for YA Authors?

I hope you had a pleasant St. Patrick’s Day. Though I’m not Irish by any stretch of the imagination, I celebrated with some friends who throw a fabulous party every year.

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Jordie mistakenly believes that the wearing of the green means this.

Moving on, last week I had an eye-opening conversation with a teen. I’ll call her Sarah, though that isn’t her name. We started off talking about Veronica Roth’s announcement on Twitter concerning her new book contract. If you have no idea who Veronica Roth is, I’ll tell you. She’s the author of the Divergent trilogy, a young adult dystopian series. A movie adaptation of book 2, Insurgent, will premiere on Friday, March 20.

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When Sarah asked what type of book Roth would write, I shrugged, having only read the Twitter announcement, which was understandably succinct. Here’s how part of the conversation went.

Me: What if the new series is for adults? Some YA writers go in that direction once they have a successful series under their belt.
Sarah (frowning): She’s still in her 20s, right?
Me: (shrugging; remembering back to the time when I saw Roth at Anderson’s Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Naperville): I guess.
Sarah: Well, she should write YA.

We continued talking about the issue until Sarah’s brother asked me which videogames I’m looking forward to this year. But I couldn’t help reflecting on whether or not other teens had a perceived age limit for young adult authors. I’ve written young adult fiction. While I won’t tell you how old I am, I can say that I was in my 20s when Noah got the call to build the ark. Does that mean I shouldn’t write YA novels if I’m not in my 20s or even early 30s? (And yes, I could keep going higher up the age chain.)

Perhaps the question sounds ridiculous to you in light of authors you know who are “seasoned” in age, yet write YA novels. But some teens, as Sarah proved, have definite assumptions about age. I think she would be surprised to learn that the average age of the people in my grad school program, writing for children and young adults, was well above 30.

Oddly enough, when I was in my 20s, I tried my hand at writing adult fiction—the result of being told that “real” writers wrote adult fiction. I failed miserably at it, but at least had entertained myself for a time.

f1f21692fb02f3442735a930b8b09539A friend and I started writing YA fiction when we were 14 and 13 respectively—the result of reading a boatload of outdated books from the 1950s at our local branch library. (That library really needed some new books.) The stories involved people “going steady” while hanging out at the “soda shop” and listening to records on the “jukebox.” Never mind the fact that neither of us had seen any of those things outside of an Archie comic book. So those stories weren’t realistic. Actually, they were closer to parodies than anything else.

Since we also were heavily influenced by Harlequin romance books, we wrote novels with adult protagonists also. We made sure that we included first-kiss scenes that took place around page 106 in our handwritten novels and a betrayal three quarters of the way through the story, as per the formula.

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Old Harlequin romance books

I never once thought I had to be a specific age in order to produce a story for a certain age level. I guess I’m weird that way. So when someone has a preconceived idea about the age “best suited” for a project, and I don’t fit whatever mold he or she describes, I usually feel the need to challenge that expectation. After all, sometimes you have to take a metaphorical rock and send it flying through the glass window of a preconceived notion. That’s the only way to evoke change.

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Whether you’re 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, or 150, if you’ve got a story for a particular age level, write it. And don’t let anyone else—especially society’s preconceived ideas—stop you. If someone tries, feel free to give that person the look.

gopher-lookBy the way Cleveland.com had the scoop on Roth’s new series:

“I want to continue to write for my teenage readers,” [Roth] says. “I finally can announce my new project. It’s going to be a space opera. I’m still in the early stages of writing, but I’m really excited about it.”

What story are you excited about? Have you ever been told that there are certain age levels for certain audiences? How did you respond?

Veronica Roth from hollywoodchicago.com. Book covers from Goodreads. Shattered glass from jazzadvice.com. Dramatic prairie dog gif from boingboing.net. Archie comic book from pinterest.com. Harlequin books from etsy.com.

The Stanton Effect: Building to the Punch Line

6a00d83451b64669e2017c3652fef8970b-250wiToday, I’d like to welcome to the blog Nancy Hatch, who is here to bring you the second in a series of posts on The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. (See the first post here.) You know her, you love her from her blog, Spirit Lights The Way. Take it away, Nancy!

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Andrew Stanton begins his TED talk with a joke about three men in a bar in the Scottish Highlands—a backpacking tourist, a bartender, and an old man.

He uses the joke as a tool to convey compelling storytelling:

* The old man engages the audience, drawing us into his world and revealing his character as he shares his tale with a strong Scottish brogue.

* He makes us care as he explains how he built the bar, constructed the stone wall out front, and installed planks on the pier . . . “with me bare hands.”

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* The old man claims center stage with the sole speaking role, yet all three characters are necessary. None is extraneous. The tourist provides the reason for the telling of the tale. The bartender’s presence establishes that the old man is not exaggerating.

* In the same way he crafted the bar, the stone wall, and the pier, the old man builds his story on a firm foundation, one piece at a time. He keeps the finish line in mind. He never veers off course. He steers the story to its predetermined end.

* He creates drama (“anticipation mingled with uncertainty”) as he decries the fact that he’s not called “MacGregor the Bar Builder” or “MacGregor the Stone Wall Builder” or ”MacGregor the Pier Builder.”

Now he’s got us!

We’re curious. We want to hear the end of the story. We want to learn what he IS called. We are ready for the reveal. . . .

* When he delivers the punch line, he doesn’t complete the sentence. He allows the thought to hang mid-air. He doesn’t spell it out. He doesn’t beat us over the head. He doesn’t insult our intelligence. He doesn’t reveal his actual nickname.

He allows us to follow the breadcrumbs and connect the dots.

He’s given us 2 + 2 and leaves it to the born problem solver in each of us to fill in the blanks and come up with the solution.

And we do.

Since he constructed his tale with the same precision he used when building the bar, the stone wall, and the pier, we lay the last piece with confidence.

There’s no wiggle room. We cannot misplace his meaning.

“Och, mon . . . ye must be MacGregor the Story Teller!”

Thanks, Nancy, for being part of this series! On Wednesday, Charles Yallowitz will be on the blog with part three of The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. Hope to see you here, too.

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Jordie would like to believe that he’s as good at telling a story as MacGregor or Nancy Hatch. But when one of his stories bores Kitty into a stupor, he has to rethink that supposition.

Two Years, One Post, and One Ring to Rule Them All

67524Today is my two-year blogoversary. If only print could convey my amazement. Two years. When I began posting exactly two years to the day, I wasn’t sure I’d last two months, let alone two years. But here I am!

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My amazement is sorta like this.

I won’t take up too much of your time today, however. Anniversaries are all about celebrating and giving presents. So this post is to announce a blogoversary giveaway: a $25 Amazon card (or some equivalent at Amazon.uk) to one reader. Woot! A winner will be announced sometime next week. (I have another giveaway to coordinate first.)

This giveaway is my way of saying thanks to all who welcomed me as a new blogger or to those who continue reading my posts even when I talk about books or magazines I read in the bathroom. Please comment below to be entered in the drawing. If you feel like mentioning what you’d get at Amazon, that would be lovely. Don’t feel obligated though. You could instead tell me about the weather in your neck of the woods (it’s freeeeeeeeeeezzzzzzing here), your favorite movie, or about an epiphany you had recently. Two years ago, I talked about a movie I enjoyed, so sharing your favorite movie would be very fitting. 🙂

While I wait for you to respond, I’ll continue mainlining Skinny Pop Popcorn and Reese’s. (Does one cancel out the other?)

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By the way, thanks for all of the memories we’ve shared over the years. (I can say that now. Years.) There have been many that still make me smile, especially as I think about your comments—the best part of having a blog. But reminiscing would only make me cry, and I’ve had enough of that recently, thanks to The Legend of Korra, Book Three: Change. (That’s not a spoiler by the way. I cry easily, at happy or sad moments.) So while you think of how you want to spend that gift card, I’ll go back to my popcorn and the series finale of The Legend of Korra, Book Four: Balance. (I’m bingeing on both seasons.)

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Thanks again for visiting my little space.

P. S. If you’re wondering where the “one ring to rule them all” fits in, you can stop wondering. It doesn’t. I just threw that in.

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Jordie and Kitty have put aside their differences to celebrate this blogoversary. Each, however, has decided to look for the one ring to rule the other.

Skinny Pop from the Skinny Pop website. Legend of Korra, Book Three from animationmagazine.net. Legend of Korra, Book Four from ign.com. Cupcake with candle from go4costumes.com. Macaulay Culkin from musiceyz.co.uk.

Soft and Strong

007A glance at the label of the generic brand of bathroom tissue I use (yes, I dare to go there) got me to thinking. I can see the value of softness and strength in bathroom tissue. But as human characteristics, softness and strength seem like polar opposites, because softness is often equated by some with weakness. I take umbrage to such a notion.

My mom’s got the softness and strength combination down. You probably think the same thing about your mom. My mom’s a hand patter. If you’re miserable, she likes to sit beside you and pat your hand, telling you that everything is going to be okay. But Mom morphs into steel when she goes into battle mode. She’s quick with a handbag upside your head if you decide to break the law. Yes, there is a story attached to that statement, but I won’t go into it now.

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Kate Spade handbag—a classy way to hit someone on the head

I love the juxtaposition of softness and strength in the males and females who populate various fictional worlds. Yet I have very little interest in heroes or heroines who are only seen in one light—that of strength, whether they are viewed as purely cool, physically powerful, or hilariously snarky. I can’t sympathize with a character who completely lacks a soft side. I can understand if he or she desperately wants to hide the fact that he/she is vulnerable. But the absence of any discernible softness causes me to put a story down.

Even Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has a bit of softness beneath his rock-hard abs. Don’t believe that? If you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) [SLIGHT SPOILER], remember the hospital scene when he visits Peggy (who has her own show now on ABC—Agent Carter)? [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] That scene caused even my jaded heart to melt. And I loved the scenes between Cap and Sam Wilson (the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie), where they talked about their difficult adjustment to civilian life.

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Cap and Peggy

34529Here’s a great example of softness and strength from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. (For the plot, click on the book title.) The narration below shows what a character named Shawn thinks about a witch named Magrat who needs to rescue Shawn from some murderous elves. [SLIGHT SPOILER] Shawn doubts her ability to help until he realizes a fundamental truth:

Mum was right—Magrat always was the nice soft one . . .
. . . who’d just fired a crossbow through a keyhole. (268)

Shawn later learns that Magrat (who works with Greebo, a vicious cat described as “just a big softy” [269]) was extremely lethal, even as she “daintily” raises the hem of her dress to kick an iron-allergic elf with shoes bearing iron attachments. [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] Good stuff!

Because of the desire to portray heroines in a strong light and not as damsels in distress, sometimes authors (and I’m thinking mostly of myself) fight against bringing out a heroine’s soft side, hoping readers won’t judge their characters as weak.

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You might get the impression of softness when you see this cupcake. My plans to take over the world, however, might cause you to think something entirely different.

In the first incarnation of my novel, my heroine didn’t seem to have any flaws. She only mildly annoyed some of the secondary characters. Her inability to laugh at herself—to see herself as flawed—was a flaw on my part as the author. I had to start over with her and her story.

The first thing I needed to do was take myself out of the equation. While I hate to be ridiculed or abused, that doesn’t mean I should avoid writing a character’s journey that involves horrible bumps in the road. And while I like to be liked, a character who is liked by everyone isn’t a very compelling character.

One of my VCFA advisors once told me to pay attention to the way secondary characters act toward the main character. While that might seem elementary to you if you’re an experienced storyteller, that advice instigated an epiphany for me. The friction of interactions, often caustic, helped shape the pearl of a better character. Even more interesting, it provided the mixture of softness and strength I find compelling.

In what ways are your characters soft and strong?

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter from somewhere on the Internet. Kate Spade handbag from thebusinesshaven.com. Book cover from Goodreads.

Color Show

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While researching sight in horses, I learned that horses can’t distinguish as many colors as humans can. The human retina has three cone photoreceptors while the equine retina has two (dichromatic vision).

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One of the articles I read is “Vision in horses: More than meets the eye” by Neil Clarkson for Horsetalk.co.nz. The following line from the article made me sit up and take notice:

The research showed that horses, with their dichromatic vision, cannot distinguish red.

love-red-colorHumans with protanomalous (red-weak) vision have the same issue. And since red is my favorite color, well, you can see why I took notice, especially since the color red led me to research the topic in the first place. While writing a story with shape-shifters, I wanted to know which colors a teen in his animal form (horse) could distinguish. Could he distinguish the color of blood on snow?

I guess it’s up to me whether or not he retains his trichromatic color vision or switches over to dichromatic while a horse. (This is a fantasy book after all.) Since I wound up dumping the snow in the scene, the color aspect became moot anyway. But it caused me to think of how enriched my own world is due to having trichromatic color vision. Since I love bright colors (note the nail polish in the first photo), I have to fight the temptation to make every person, place, or thing I write about brightly colored. But I love using colors as symbols to show the emotional landscape of a character or to show mood in general.

Color choice can be very important when you’re using an objective correlative. If you’re wondering what an objective correlative is, here’s a handy definition from Merriam-Webster.com:

Something (as a situation or chain of events) that symbolizes or objectifies a particular emotion and that may be used in creative writing to evoke a desired emotional response in the reader.

A great post on objective correlatives with a helpful (and color-filled) example can be found here at Ingrid’s Notes. I can wait while you jet over there. I’ve got coffee to drink anyway.

You’re back? Good. Moving on, I also love to use color in an ironic way; for example, a depressed character who has the most colorful hair or wears the most colorful clothing (or both).

Color is one of the reasons why I love superhero ensemble shows or movies—all of those colorful costumes. Yet some of the most interesting heroes are the ones in basic black (or “very, very dark gray”; if you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you probably recognize that line). Here are some of those heroes:

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Black Panther (in front) and Lego Batman

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Black Widow and Hawkeye

(Still wondering about the “dark gray” line? Watch this video.)

How do you use color in your stories? What, if anything, have you admired about another author’s use of color?

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Hello Kitty and Jordie wanted to be part of the color photo shoot, since they’re colorful as well. However, if this post were a magazine, this photo would be one of the alternate covers.

By the way, I mentioned in another post that I was going to make myself a puppy hat. Mission accomplished. And yes, I wear it proudly.

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Horse eye from commons.wikimedia.org. Color wheels trotusa.com (which had the same photos from the Horsetalk article). Red wallpaper from love-wallpapers.com. Batman from jeffajohnson.com. Jeremy Renner from Hawkeye from fanpop.com. Black Widow from hdresimler.com. Black Panther from fanpop.

Convenient Incompetence?

I get on various kicks. These days, I’m really into the Justice League animated series, having seen most of the Justice League animated movies. Though this series is well over ten years old, I’m finally getting around to watching the episodes of season 1 that I missed. Better late than never, I guess.

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The Justice League (from left to right) Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Flash, Hawkgirl

Maybe it’s the slo-mo hero walk as the theme music swells that gets to me, but I can’t get enough of the show. Here. Watch the opener for yourself.

Like it? Makes you want to put on a cape, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps it inspires you to find six people and make them walk with you in slow motion. While I love the series, one thing irks me: many times the heroes get a serious beat-down until the last few minutes of the second or third episode. (Episodes have at least two parts in this first season.) I’m not against a hero getting the worst of it in a fight for the sake of building tension. But some aspects are frustrating to me, especially if a character is (allegedly) almost invincible. Take Superman and Wonder Woman.

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They have super strength and are bullet proof (Wonder Woman through her bullet-proof bracelets), among other skills. But in many episodes, someone who seems to have less power is able to slip in and sock either of them on the jaw, which sends them flying back. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you can’t even use scissors to cut Superman’s hair (since the scissors would break), I ask myself, Does it make sense that someone could punch him on the jaw or in the ribs without breaking several bones in one’s hand? Same with Wonder Woman. I just watched an episode where a woman raised on Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and given super strength via magic, gets the better of Wonder Woman more than once. But shouldn’t a woman who was born an Amazon have a slight advantage over a woman who is merely given super strength? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just curious.

And Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz), who supposedly is one of the most powerful creatures around with his super strength, regeneration ability, as well as his ability to shape shift and mind read, regularly gets knocked unconscious.

Martian Manhunter

I know I’m quibbling here. May I remind you that I do love the show. But having watched some of the behind-the-scenes features, I learned that other viewers had issues. Some described Superman as “a wimp” (according to producers Bruce Timm and James Tucker). The producers admitted that they pulled back on Superman’s power to make the threats the Justice League faced have more weight.

Okay, I can understand that. If Superman or Wonder Woman could easily defeat certain villains, the stakes would seem pretty low. And with their abilities, watching them take down a villain practically with one hand tied behind their back would seem boring by the third episode. But that’s the issue with seemingly invincible characters, isn’t it? We don’t feel the tension if we know that they will easily defeat an antagonist. (That’s why I’m a huge Batman fan. He lacks super powers, so the stakes are usually high for him.)

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But I still feel frustrated when a character’s “incompetence” seems convenient for the sake of the plot. For example, if a villain is able to slip in and attack a character who supposedly has super hearing or psychic ability.

I know, I know. These characters were developed over many decades. So nitpicking comes easily to someone who does not have to write or produce an animated show every week. That’s why I need to carefully assess my own characters. If they seem too powerful (the Mary Sue effect), the threat is neutralized. But if they have certain abilities (like super strength), there needs to be a good reason why an allegedly physically weaker antagonist can get the better of them. A good example of this is Lex Luthor waving a chunk of kryptonite at Superman, knowing that kryptonite is Superman’s weakness.

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That’s why I’m inspired by a Justice League movie—Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths—which seems to hit all the right notes. In that movie, the Justice League are faced with their evil doppelgangers on a parallel earth. I won’t go into the plot. You can find that out here. Suffice it to say that the stakes are high for each character. And that’s what I want to keep in mind—high stakes for hero and antagonist alike.

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Making sure a character lives up to his or her abilities while keeping the tension high is a tightrope walk. But it’s worth the journey!

Maybe you’re not writing a superhero book. But if you have a hero (male or female) and an antagonist in some capacity, what do you do to keep the stakes high while avoiding making your hero seem conveniently incompetent?

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Hello Kitty, after assessing her archnemesis Jordie’s skills, has deemed him incompetent, and therefore worthy to attack.

Justice League image from supermantv.net. Wonder Woman from halloweencostumes.com. Superman from supermanhomepage.com. Martian Manhunter from dcmovies.wikia.com. Justice league: Crisis on Two Earths image from murrue02.tumblr.com. Lex Luthor image from listofcomicbooks.com.

Making Friends with Winter

017After waking up to witness the aftermath of an overnight snowfall (above), I groaned, totally not in the mood for snow. We’d dodged the snow bullet at Christmas, though everyone I know was disappointed, having desired to frolic in the snow.

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Sometimes Winter seems to loom large . . .

Usually when snow falls, my mind dwells on the state of the roads. You get that way when you have dodgy tires and lack the money to replace them. So, I muttered to myself as I brushed the snow off my car windows: “Why couldn’t the snow fall when I didn’t have somewhere to go (i.e., at 3 or 4 a.m.)? If only winter could be more subdued.”

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Jordie tries to subdue Winter. I suspect that his plan is doomed to failure.

As I brushed the snow and scraped the ice off my windshield, I quickly grew tired of my bad attitude. Grumbling didn’t solve anything. I needed to embrace the season since, like it or not, it’s here to stay. But my mind required “winterizing” just like my car. For the car, I usually make sure the fluid levels are on par (particularly antifreeze and water in the radiator). To get myself in the winter mood, I need a constant supply of fluids too, namely, hot beverages like coffee, cocoa, tea, and apple cider.

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Jordie attempts to make friends with Winter.

One thing that helped my mood today, besides a warm cup of coffee, was the gladsome sight of freshly plowed roads. And the trees along the roads were beautifully laced with snow. I can’t imagine a wedding dress more beautiful than those snow-laden trees. That’s one of the perks of living in an area where winter makes its presence felt through snow and ice and iron-gray skies.

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These are not the trees I saw, but they have a snow-laced appearance, albeit with less snow than the ones I saw.

The Frozen-themed birthday party I attended on Saturday in honor of a newly minted three-year-old seems all the more appropriate now with snow on the ground. Alas, I don’t have an ice-blue gown as beautiful as Elsa’s. I’m forced to make do with a fun winter hat.

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This is not my hat. I made it for a little boy. But you can bet I’ll soon make myself a puppy hat.

Some cool good things have happened in this winter season—another reason to be joyful, rather than annoyed. I had a great Christmas and celebrated New Year’s day—my nephew’s birthday—with my family. And two days before the new year, some dear friends celebrated the birth of their second son. Oddly enough, he was born on the same day as the son of some other dear friends. In a season where life seems dormant or brittle, it’s great to hold a brand-new life in your arms. But I digress. . . .

Another way I can winterize my mind, besides having fun building a snowman or sledding (excellent choices), is to reread stories set in winter: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis just to name a few. I love curling up under a warm blanket while reading a book featuring a frozen landscape with snow I don’t have to shovel. And I have all of these on my bookshelf.

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Happy New Year! And welcome to Winter 2015!

What’s your favorite way to winterize?

Central Park trees from hqworld.net. Elsa film poster from filmpopper.com.

Deck the Halls with Three Good Books (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)

santa 9Ho ho ho! Santa’s got a brand-new bag. (If you’re a James Brown aficianado, you’ll have “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in your head now. Mwahahaha!) Today on the blog, I’m thrilled to welcome three great authors and fellow VCFA alums: Melanie Crowder, Caroline Carlson, and Skila Brown. They agreed to a quick interview without any coercion from moi or that cupcake-wielding supervillain, Hello Kitty. If you’re totally confused by that last statement, go here.

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Melanie, who also wrote Parched, is here to talk about her upcoming young adult historical novel-in-verse, Audacity, which will be coming to a bookstore near you on January 8, 2015 (published by Philomel Books/Penguin). Melanie is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Caroline is here to discuss The Terror of the Southlands, book 2 of her middle grade series, The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, published by HarperCollins. If you were around last year, you’ll remember that Caroline stopped by just before the first book of her series debuted. (See here and here.) Good times. Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies.

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And last, but certainly not least, Skila is here to talk about her middle grade historical novel-in-verse, Caminar, published by Candlewick Press. Skila is represented by Tina Wexler.

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After our discussion, I’ll talk about a holiday giveaway that I hope will be an annual thing.

El Space: Greetings and welcome to the blog. Could each of you provide an elevator pitch for your book to bring readers up to speed about it?
Melanie: Audacity is the inspiring story of Clara Lemlich, whose fight for equal rights led to the largest strike by women in American history.

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Caroline: Hilary Westfield is a full-fledged pirate now, but if she doesn’t prove her boldness and daring by rescuing a kidnapped Enchantress, she’ll be kicked out of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates for good.
Skila: Set in 1981 Guatemala, this novel-in-verse tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

El Space: Awesome. So, tell us what inspired you to write your book.
Melanie: Clara’s story just wouldn’t let go of me. I first discovered her in 2010, while looking for topics to try my hand at picture book biographies during the second semester of my MFA at Vermont College. But the more I read about Clara, the more I was captivated. I began to suspect that this would turn into a novel-length book. And then her voice showed up—in free verse, no less! I had to follow. . . .
Caroline: The Terror of the Southlands is a sequel to my first book, Magic Marks the Spot. I wanted to continue the story of Hilary’s adventures on the High Seas, explore more of her world, and learn more about the characters I’d created for the first book. Also, I love detective stories, and this book, while not a traditional mystery, is absolutely swarming with detectives. Pirates too, of course!

pirate_clipart_ship_2Skila: I spent a long time reading and learning about Guatemala’s Armed Conflict and the role that the U.S. played in that violence. It made me angry—angry about what happened and angry that not many people know about it. There are so many things I can’t do about so many issues in the world. But one thing I can do is tell a story. So that’s what I did. I told a story about a boy who survived. I think survival stories are the best kind of stories to read.

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El Space: You’ve all intrigued me! If you had a choice of educating, astounding, amusing, or challenging a child or a teen with your writing, which would you choose? Why? You can pick a combination of two if you wish.
Melanie: Challenging. Definitely. This is a book for teens, and Clara was a teen when she became an activist. I absolutely want readers to find her story and to know that they, too, can change the world.
Caroline: I love reading and writing humor, so one of my main goals every time I sit down at the keyboard is to amuse both myself and my eventual readers. That said, I hope that while kids are laughing, they’re also being challenged, astounded, and only very occasionally educated.
Skila: Challenging. I was the kid who loved to be challenged and also who loved to challenge. There’s always that one kid in every class, right? Raising her hand in class to say, “I think you’re wrong,” to the teacher. I would love the idea of my book challenging what you might believe about war, or the way you think about the world, or the capabilities of a child. I love books that make me think. I hope Caminar is a book like that.

El Space: If your main character had a Christmas stocking or made a Hanukkah wish, what would this character wish for? Why?

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Melanie: Books! Clara loved poetry, and she loved learning—languages, social theory, literature—all of it!
Caroline: Hilary’s Christmas stocking would probably include a sword-polishing kit, a packet of homemade cookies from her governess, and a good book she could read aloud to her gargoyle.
Skila: Carlos would probably wish for food, for obvious reasons. But on a lighter note: candy! And maybe a radio.

Thanks, Melanie, Caroline, and Skila for stopping by! I’d love to have you guys come back again!

And if you’ve popped over to check out these authors, thanks for stopping by. There are other places where they can be found. Looking for Melanie? Look here. Looking for Caroline? Look here. Looking for Skila? Look here. You can find each wonderful book by clicking on its title:

Audacity (preorders only)
The Terror of the Southlands
Caminar

You can also find each book at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’ve been wishing for more books this holiday season, your wish is about to be granted. I’m giving away a preorder of Audacity and a copy of The Terror of the Southlands and Caminar. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winners will be announced on Monday, December 22.

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Jordie and his archnemesis have agreed on a truce during the holidays. Each is hoping Santa will bring him/her books by Melanie, Caroline, and Skila. Um . . . yes, Jordie and Hello Kitty still believe in Santa. Don’t you?

Christmas ornament from realestateyak.com. Hanukkah menorah from tucker-tribune.blogspot.com. Christmas stocking image from dryicons.com. Santa bag from its-so-cute.blogspot.com. Pirate ship from free-clipart-pictures.net. Strike photo from historymatters.gmu.edu.

It Takes Two

Ever have one of those days when a supervillain with a bulbous head seems to win, and all you can do is lie there and take it?

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Jordie isn’t sure how he wound up tied up with his own cape. But suddenly he finds himself on the ground with a blade of death headed for him, and a supervillain softly cackling in the background.

But suddenly a friend comes along and works with you to turn the tide. The supervillain is subdued, thanks to teamwork.

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If it hadn’t been for Sidney Duck, Jordie would have been toast. Now, the supervillain has been vanquished. Jordie and Sidney will share the cupcake, since the supervillain is headed to the nearest maximum security prison where cupcakes are not allowed.

Most of us will never have to face a supervillain along the lines of Hello Kitty, Dr. Evil, or Lex Luthor. But sometimes we’re the supervillain or at least we act like the henchperson of one. Who else but us plays the “You really messed that up” tape over and over in our head? Who else but us whispers, “You’ll never finish that” or “Everyone else will always be better at that than you”? You know where those statements come from: the real supervillains—Doubt and Defeat.

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Dr. “One Meellion Dollars” Evil and Lex Luthor

But suddenly along comes a friend who sees things differently. Where we see, “Ugh! I can’t believe I wrote such crap,” he or she sees, “Wonderful,” “Could be awesome with just a little polish.”

Aside from being grateful to find a Cutie orange in my Happy Meal today, I’m grateful for my Secret Gardener and blogger friends who continually rally around with a few carefully chosen “You can do its” to help me vanquish Doubt and Defeat.

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Writing is a solitary venture. Yet there are times when we writers need something that only someone else can provide: another perspective. Two heads are sometimes better than one.

So, when a supervillain like Doubt or Defeat comes around and whispers,

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I’ll be back . . .

Do yourself a favor and call a friend. Don’t let Doubt have the last word.

And speaking of the last word . . .

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Lex Luthor from youngjustice.wikia.com. Dr. Evil from cupofjoepowell.blogspot.com. Cat from LOL Cats.