A Tale of Three Trees

As promised, today I will reveal the winners of Halfway to Happily Ever After by Sarah Aronson and Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. See this post and this one if you’re completely confused by that statement.

     

     

Before I get to that, in honor of the first day of summer, here is a photo (the one on the left) of three trees I pass every day. Okay, yeah. You can only see the the trunk of the tree at the far right. So, the photo at the right shows the tree you couldn’t really see in the left photo (though some of the foliage in the left photo belongs to that tree). Yeah. I know. The knot holes give it a creepy look. So, let’s call it Creepy Tree. Despite its appearance, squirrels and birds by the score are drawn to it and to the one across the street from it. The latter tree seems like a happy tree, with its fuller access to the sun’s rays.

 

Happy Tree. Even the branches seem like a smile.

The tree in the foreground of the picture on the left (same tree in the photo at the right) reminds me of a brush, so its nickname is—you guessed it—Brush. Brush is a haven for birds. I’ve seen cardinals dart into it from time to time, though they usually live in one of the larger evergreen trees nearby.

   

Brush has reached a lovely height.

Brush is a place that many birds visit, but don’t live in. Sort of like a Starbucks or a library—a place they go to hang out in or work. But Creepy Tree and Happy Tree are the homes squirrels and birds return to after a hard day’s work.

Creepy Tree is less creepy from this side of the street (the Happy Tree side).

What makes some trees more habitable than others? It takes a squirrel or a bird to know best, since trees are their domain. But as I asked myself that question, I couldn’t help thinking about stories—places we find ourselves inhabiting, even if the settings are completely made up.

There are some stories we visit. We might read them once and move on. But there are stories we call home—the ones that draw us back to their pages again and again. We become citizens of their well-drawn worlds, and gladly tread their well-worn paths.

In what story worlds are you a citizen?

Speaking of well-drawn worlds, time for the book giveaways. Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Halfway to Happily Ever After is

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Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Every Shiny Thing is

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Marian!

Congrats to the winners! You know the drill. Please comment below to confirm.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Tree photos by L. Marie.

The Stanton Effect: Drama Is Anticipation Mixed with Uncertainty

6a00d83451b64669e2017c3652fef8970b-250wiI’d like to welcome back to the blog Laurie Morrison, who is an awesome teacher, young adult novelist extraordinaire, and a great friend from VCFA. You probably know her from her blog, which you can get to by clicking here. Laurie’s guest post is for the series, The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. You can find Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk here.

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After reading Laurie’s post, please stick around for a special announcement. And now, I’ll turn the blog over to Laurie.

Last weekend, I went to the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I got some very helpful feedback on the contemporary young adult novel I’m working on. Four other writers read the beginning of my work in progress, asked some great questions, and offered some wise suggestions.

“Try to avoid a mean girl as an antagonist because it’s predictable,” one told me. “There isn’t going to be a love triangle, is there?” another writer asked. “That guy doesn’t end up being the right one for the main character, does he?” someone else said. “And I hope her mom gets redeemed a little.”

I haven’t finished drafting this new novel yet, and these other writers’ thoughts helped me crystallize my sense of where the story is going. They confirmed what I had planned for some parts of the plot and encouraged me to reconsider others so that the story will be satisfying but not predictable.

As I watched the Andrew Stanton TED talk that L. Marie shared, the insight that stood out to me was the idea that drama equals anticipation mixed with uncertainty. I take this point to mean that readers should have an idea of what they hope will happen at the end of a story. If there’s a romance element, as there is in my work in progress, that romance becomes more compelling if the reader is rooting for a certain outcome. However, the reader should also feel some genuine uncertainty about how (and maybe if) that outcome will happen.

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With some kinds of stories, readers come in with expectations about the kind of ending that’s in store for them. If a book has a fairly light, humorous tone, as my stories tend to have, readers anticipate a happy ending of sorts. But the challenge, as Stanton suggests, is to balance that anticipation with enough uncertainty so that the conclusion of the story won’t feel too easy. The ending should feel inevitable but not obvious.

I’ve been reading a lot of great books lately, including Sarah Tomp’s My Best Everything, which came out recently, and Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, which comes out at the end of this month. Both of these books are contemporary realistic YA. Both are well written. And both manage to balance anticipation with uncertainty. But the two books have very different tones, and therefore they handle the anticipation-uncertainty balance very differently.

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In Sarah Tomp’s My Best Everything, I never took for granted that there would be a happy ending. The book has some lighthearted moments, but an ominous feeling pervades the narrative. The main character, Lulu, makes moonshine to earn the money she needs to pay her college tuition, and even though Lulu doesn’t always realize just how dangerous the moonshine business can be, Tomp makes its perils very clear to the reader. The ending has an inevitable feeling, since it capitalizes on elements that are raised throughout the story, but it definitely isn’t predictable. I wanted to get to the end of the book precisely because there was so much uncertainty: about whether or not Lulu gets to go to college, about what happens to her relationship with the boy she’s falling for, and even about whether or not that boy survives.

In Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, the characters deal with plenty of heavy stuff, but based on the tone and the way the book is packaged, I was expecting a happy ending. There’s a love story at the center of the novel, and I would have been very disappointed if Paige, the main character, hadn’t ended up with the guy I wanted her to end up with. Even though I anticipated something pretty specific from the ending, the novel has enough uncertainty to be very compelling. There are some believable obstacles that keep Paige from getting together with the right guy too soon, and Paige’s love story isn’t the only part of her journey—she has a lot of other important, satisfying relationships and goes through a lot of other growth. I wanted to keep reading to find out how close to the end Paige and her guy would get together and whether I would be satisfied with the way it all happened, and I also wanted to see how the other elements of her journey would turn out.

My work in progress is more similar in tone to The Start of Me and You than My Best Everything, so my challenge will be to make readers root for an outcome they’re pretty sure will happen while incorporating enough obstacles and surprises to earn a happy ending. As I keep writing and revising, I’ll definitely keep thinking about maintaining an effective mix of anticipation and uncertainty, as Andrew Stanton suggests.

Thanks, Laurie, for a great post! Other posts in the series can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Speaking of good books, I’m delighted to announce the winner of Breaking Sky by Cori McCarthy.

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Drum roll, please. . . .

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The winner is . . .

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Laura Sibson!

Laura, congratulations! Please comment below to confirm.

Book covers from Goodreads. Anticipation poster from redvinesandredwine.blogspot.com. Uncertainty sign from abouthydrology.blogspot.com. Drum roll gif from giphy.com.

A Writer’s Process (12b)

Nora_Carpenter_photo_2I’m back, talking with awesome and multitalented Nora Carpenter about young adult fiction. And you’re here too. That’s awesome as well. If you haven’t checked out the first part of the interview, you can click here and do so. Nora’s young adult novel is A Beautiful Kind of Crazy. Are we ready? Then, let’s go!

wocLOGO_OrangeEl Space: In an article at WriteOnCon, Kelly Jensen mentioned three elements to a good realistic young adult novel: world building, authentic characters, and dialogue. In fact she stated:

World-building is not solely about where a book is set, though. It also means developing a dynamic and fluid world within your story.

Would you agree about the necessity of the three elements? How did you go about “developing a dynamic and fluid world” in your book?
Nora: I 100% agree that a character’s “world” encompasses not just his outer environment, but also his inner world—in other words, the people with whom he comes into contact, his relationships with those people, how those people’s worldviews are a result of their environment, and how they impact the protagonist, etc.

Lego-people-lego-8853733-2560-1718Once we get past setting—okay, we’re in a boarding school . . . or at a homeless shelter . . . or in a large city—those places have to feel real. Ultimately, it’s the characters that populate those places that make the worlds come alive. They have to talk, think, and act like people who would be in those settings in real life. And out-of-place characters have to be explained.

I’m from a small, rural town. Like, really small and really rural. I graduated with 60 kids, and we drove an hour across windy roads to get to the mall. Kids from other schools in West Virginia made fun of us for being hillbillies! Anyway, I’ve always been interested in how people act and why, and I have very clear memories of high school. My parents still live where I grew up. So, in some ways I relied a lot on experience and memory in building Cay’s inner world. Her town is peppered with people of different mindsets—a lot of them conservative, but not all, because a small town where everyone is über conservative is not realistic, either. But they all have explanations for why they think/act they way they do. And those are the people who are influencing Cay, which helps explain what’s going on in her head.

I love Jensen’s point about real people not being consistent. It’s so true. Of course, you don’t want a character being wildly inconsistent, but small inconsistencies reflect real life and make characters come alive. In A Beautiful Kind of Crazy for example, Cay’s dad cares a lot about his kids, and Cay respects him a lot. But he doesn’t have the best relationship with Cay’s sister, Skye, because their personalities are so different. Like a real person, he’s not intrinsically bad, but he sometimes behaves in ways that bother Cay and so cause tension.

lego peoplePretty much every character in the book is flawed in some way. I love flawed characters, because everyone—EVERYONE—in real life has flaws. And I am really interested in the idea of trying to be a “decent person,” while at the same time discovering that “decency” is often subjective and even fluid. And what happens when you think you’re a pretty good person, but then you do something shameful, or something you think might be shameful, and does it matter if no one knows it was you? And what if it’s something that an apology won’t fix? I think most people struggle with these questions at some point, and they are ideas that A Beautiful Kind of Crazy explores.

143555El Space: Some writers have talked about the lack of contemporary realistic YA fiction. In an article at Entertainment Weekly.com about the movie adaptation of Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, writer Hillary Busis stated

I realized something else about her [the main character of Tiger Eyes] essential ordinariness: In a modern YA landscape glutted with fantastical dystopias, supernatural romances, brand-name-soaked glamoramas, and hyperbolic tragedy, what makes this heroine remarkable is the fact that she’s not very remarkable at all.

Busis goes on to state:

Trends, of course, are cyclical. I have no doubt that someday soon, the tides could change, ushering in a new wave of regular kid lit that replaces the Katnisses and Trises with characters who are less flashy but no less fascinating.

A Publishing Perspectives article by Dennis Abrams quoted from the Busis article. Yet many commenters took issue with the pronouncement of a lack of “regular kid lit.” How would you respond?
200px-Hunger_gamesNora: There is definitely great realistic fiction out there, but usually it’s the life-or-death fantasy stories like The Hunger Games that are in the public consciousness because of big movie deals. And let’s face it: stories like that are exciting. They are fast-paced, provide a great escape from a stressful world, and, because of the pace, can be emotionally exhilarating. I love a good fantasy novel with complex, interesting characters to go along with the exciting plot. I can tear through those things! I think young readers especially like stories like that because they imagine themselves as the protagonists. Middle and high school can be tough, so who doesn’t want to fantasize about what it would be like to save the world?

I’m not going to say that one genre is more important than the other, because I think we need all types of books because there are all types of readers. But realistic fiction is extremely important, not only to provide relatable characters in situations similar to readers’, but also to provide relatable characters in very different situations. Entering into a world of poverty or wealth or depression or anything different from their own circumstance can be enlightening and encouraging for young readers. Similarly, recognizing that characters have problems similar to theirs—and reading about how characters deal with them, or don’t—can be so healing for kids.

At the end of the day, no matter what the genre, I think a middle grade or young adult book is successful if it connects with a reader, if it makes her think without offering answers or preaching, and if it provides even a glimmer of hope.

Thanks, Nora, for hanging out on the blog yesterday and today!

Got questions for Nora? You know what to do. . . . While you ponder what questions to ask, I’ll leave you with this question from LOL Cats:

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Book covers from Goodreads. Lego people photos from fanpop.com and a-jenterprises.com.