The Sweet Life

I’ve been on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kick lately. I reread the 1964 novel by Roald Dahl and watched not only the Tim Burton 2005 movie of the same name (starring Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore), but also the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder and directed by Mel Stuart. I’ve seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory twice recently. Slight spoilers ahead.

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Charlie’s story is a Cinderella story—a good, but poor kid desperately wants to gain one of five golden tickets which allow the bearers to visit the world-famous chocolate factory of the reclusive Willy Wonka—the prince of the story. Charlie doesn’t stand much of a chance, since anyone in the world could find a ticket. But that’s what makes the book/movie such a delight.

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Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka

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Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka

Why the obsession? Fairy tales are the ultimate comfort food for me when life is tough and I feel overwhelmed by it. (Like when two computer viruses almost crashed my computer recently.) It’s great to know that good things can happen to nice people, especially when the news is full of stories of brutality and hate—proof that life is often anything but a fairy tale.

I’ve heard men quip that women are obsessed by chocolate. How interesting that this book was written by a man and both movies adapted from it were directed by men. Seeing all of that chocolate flash across the screen is fun, but dangerous. I usually need to have some chocolate on hand to satisfy the cravings inspired by the movie. (Same with the 2000 film Chocolat, based on the novel by Joanne Harris and directed by Lasse Hallström—a film that also starred Johnny Depp and also Juliette Binoche. I highly recommend the book and the movie. I might have to revisit both soon.)

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While Dahl’s story, like others he’s written, has enough of an acerbic edge to delight twenty-first century children, Charlie’s family interactions, by contrast have a sweetness that I appreciate. But the best parts of the book and films are when the extremely bratty kids receive their just desserts at the factory. (Nanny McPhee, a 2005 film written by and starring Emma Thompson and directed by Kirk Jones, is another good film for that. It’s based on the Nurse Matilda stories by Christianna Brand.) Those moments are a catharsis for me.

Nanny McPhee

Yeah, I know. A fairy-tale like story with a happy ending won’t solve all of the world’s ills. But it can make a bad day—or a bad week—a little sweeter. If only real life was just as sweet.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory photos from yamu.lk and fanpop.com. Book cover from Goodreads. Nanny McPhee poster from mposter.com.

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Check This Out: Strange Sweet Song

adiruleGreetings one and all. I feel like singing. Know why? Here today is the awesome Adi Rule, author of the young adult novel, Strange Sweet Song (St. Martin’s Press), which releases today!

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Here is a synopsis:

18112933Music flows in Sing da Navelli’s blood. When she enrolls at a prestigious conservatory, her first opera audition is for the role of her dreams. But this leading role is the last Sing’s mother ever sang, before her controversial career, and her life, were cut tragically short.

As Sing struggles to escape her mother’s shadow and prove her own worth, she is drawn to the conservatory’s icy forest, a place steeped in history, magic, and danger. She soon realizes there is more to her new school than the artistry and politics of classical music.

With the help of a dark-eyed apprentice who has secrets of his own, Sing must unravel the story of the conservatory’s dark forest and the strange creature who lives there—and find her own voice.

Adi is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Let’s talk to Adi, shall we?

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Adi: I am left handed. I have never had a cavity. My favorite band is My Chemical Romance. I love video games.

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El Space: No cavities, huh? I wish I could say that about myself! How long was the process of writing Strange Sweet Song?
Adi: About two years.

music-note-icon-psd-psdgraphics-124893El Space: I didn’t know you were a singer until I read your bio on your book. So the obvious question is what commonalities or differences do you share with Sing da Navelli? But I have to ask what other character(s) do you see yourself in most?
Adi: In a way, of course, everything and everyone in the story is me, but I don’t see myself particularly in any of the characters. Sing deals with some psychological issues that are common among singers, so we share some of that. And she’s not always likable—that controversial word—which some readers have responded negatively to at first. But I tried to write honestly; classical singing is so cutthroat that a certain amount of puffy confidence is a matter of survival—but along with that is constant, vicious self-doubt. Sing’s emotional journey is her attempt to navigate between these two extremes to a place where she can actually grow as an artist and as a person.

MacawEl Space: Understandable. What was the inspiration behind characters like Nathan Daysmoor? The Felix?
Adi: Nathan, to me, is that unadulterated love of music that all the best musicians have at their core. He exists outside of the politics of academia and the music world in general, but that also isolates him. I’m actually not sure where the Felix came from. I think her name came first; I have a macaw named Felix—who is nothing like the Felix! OK, sometimes I can tell he wants to rip my throat out—and he’s gotten comments along the lines of, “Isn’t Felix a cat’s name?” But despite Felix cats of varying renown, the name doesn’t come from feles—“cat”—it comes from felix—”happy”—and I guess that train of thought was the seed of a character.

El Space: Reading Strange Sweet Song was like watching a staged musical. What musicals, if any, influenced the book? I couldn’t help thinking of Phantom of the Opera and operas like La traviata.
Adi: Angelique, which the students perform, is a gentle parody of nineteenth century opera. It’s the play-within-a-play that mirrors the events of the novel itself, except that Sing—who loves opera, and Angelique especially—has to eventually come to terms with its flaws.

Sunday_patinkin_peters_aThere are no musicals that specifically influenced the book, although I am a big fan of musicals as well. I like Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit’s Phantom very much, though strangely enough, I didn’t have it in mind while writing SSS, even though the stories both feature young female singers and sort of darkly attractive mentors. Must have been my subconscious! My other all-time favorites are Sunday in the Park with George, Moby Dick: The Musicalone of the funniest things I’ve ever seen—and, I will admit proudly, Cats. Because, come on. Cats is awesome! And the brilliant Growltiger “opera excerpt” is one of the reasons I got into actual opera.

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Frozen-Soundtrack-frozen-35659358-1280-1280El Space: What songs would you put on a Strange Sweet Song playlist? I ask this, because I’m listening to the Frozen soundtrack on my phone. 😀
Adi: The Frozen soundtrack is very appropriate for the northeast right now! Ha ha! While some of the music and composers in SSS are invented, there are quite a few real pieces throughout the novel. I wanted to throw in pieces people might be familiar with, but they’re all easily accessible on the amazing Internet, anyway. 🙂 Definitely Brahms Opus 118, No. 2 (Intermezzo in A), because that piece features prominently in the story. Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” from The Magic Flute, plays an important role as well. And two heartbreakingly gorgeous soprano arias that influenced my idea of what Angelique’s aria might sound like are “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka and “Ain’t it a Pretty Night” from Susannah.

El Space: Which authors influenced you as a writer?
Adi: As a kid, I adored Roald Dahl and James Howe, and I still do. They taught me so much about how to use words and how to be funny, coming at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. Dahl is so delightfully big—just look at all those italics!—and Howe was that hilarious American-dry before it was mainstream. I love Diana Wynne Jones‘s simple, subtle, crystal-clear style that socks you right in the guts. I love every sentence Frances Hardinge has written. I will never be as clever or insightful as Terry Pratchett, and it makes me so happy that he intends to keep writing for as long as he is able. I’m inspired by Lemony Snicket, a master somewhat disguised as frivolous, who often prompts me to wonder, “Can he do that?” And for just perfect words, I am continually delighted by Alicia Potter.

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El Space: What advice do you have for authors who want to incorporate their previous job experience in their novels—i.e., they’re musicians and want to write about the industry; they’re actors or lawyers—whatever? How should an author guard against information overkill?
Adi: That’s a great question. I’d say start—and end—with character. Having real-world experience with the nuts and bolts you’re writing about will lend an easy authenticity to the story, but at its heart, the story is probably about someone who faces a difficulty and undergoes some kind of change. Readers will connect with the emotional arc of the main character regardless of the environment or field she’s in. In terms of info overload, I think it’s important to remember that readers are smart. They’ll get it! Define profession-specific words and situations by context whenever possible—a character’s reaction to something tells us a lot more about it than straight-up exposition. Also, give us the right details rather than all the details. The emotion and the sensory aspects of a scene have to come first, so choose actions and descriptions that both educate and illustrate. And if you have to pick one, always illustrate.

El Space: What writing project are you working on now?
Adi: My next novel from St. Martin’s is called at the moment Redwing, and we’re currently in the editing stage. It’s a bit industrial revolution and a bit mythological. Plus ostriches! I’m very excited about it.

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Thanks, Adi, for being my guest! Happy Book Release Day!

Strange Sweet Song is available here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s Books
Anderson Bookshop

Looking for Adi? You can find her at her website, EMU Debuts blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

I’m giving away a hardcover copy of Strange Sweet Song. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on the Ides of March. (Um, that would be fifteenth.) Thanks for stopping by!

Book birthday image from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com. Music note from wallsave.com. My Chemical Romance photo from Wikipedia. Covers from Goodreads. Author photo courtesy of Adi Rule. Phantom of the Opera logo from ukfrey.blogspot.com. Sunday in the Park with George image from Wikipedia. Cats image from catsthemusical99.blogspot.com. Macaw photo from adaptingeden.com. Ostrich from freefoto.com.

A Writer’s Process (9)

And now from the ridiculous (see last post) to the sublime. Today on the blog is the chic and sensational Sandra Nickel, another good friend from VCFA. Get out your magnifying glass and your deerstalker, ’cause we’re talking about mysteries and ghosts. Mwahahahahahaha!!!!

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Sandra at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

El Space: Please share a few facts about yourself.
Sandra: I like to think that my writing is the reason my husband fell in love with me. Friends wanted to set us up, but he was living in Moscow, and I was living in New York, so I sent him an email every other day for three months until he was so intrigued, he hopped on a plane to New York so we could meet and have dinner. We did have that dinner, and I have lived a surprisingly European life ever since—two-and-a-half years in Moscow, four years in Paris, and now Switzerland. All because of those notes I wrote. The power of writing. See what it can do?

El Space: Wow! You must have sent some amazing email! Where is your writing taking you now?
Sandra: I’m working on my first middle grade novel, Saving St. Martha’s, a mystery set in a Swiss boarding school. A sort of Nancy Drew meets the first Harry Potter. I just received my critique group’s last comments, so I’m revising.

El Space: Please tell us about it.
Sandra: The heart of the story revolves around two twelve-year-old girls. Lorna is all logic, and Jeannette all mystical ideas, but when their parents ship them off to St. Martha’s to get rid of them, they become best friends; the school, their sanctuary; and Martha, the ghost of the former headmistress, their protector.

But the school is in trouble. Its old abbey is falling apart and the school is in terrible debt. A prized painting—the last gift from the school’s patroness—was never found. And worse, the girls discover that the hard-hearted Corbett Rast and his bank are going to take the abbey and shut down the school unless St. Martha’s comes up with $1,000,000 in 10 days. The girls and Martha vow to find the long-lost painting. But Corbett Rast wants it too . . . and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Martha, the ghost, is quite snarky, so the story is fun—part mystery/part boarding school story, and a lot about friendship. The great news is that Saving St. Martha‘s has had a nice reception so far. It was named as a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize and Hunger Mountain selected the first two chapters to be published in its upcoming “Mentors & Tormentors” issue.

El Space: That’s awesome! What inspired you to write Saving St. Martha’s?
Sandra: A couple of things, really. First came the setting. My daughter used to go to school in this truly amazing place—a Swiss chalet that had been built for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and then taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece on a hill above Lake Geneva. The chalet is all dark wood and tall, sloping roofs, and inside there is this gorgeous staircase worn smooth and glossy from all the girls that have run up and down it. The moment I saw that chalet, I wished I had gone to school there and knew it would be the perfect setting for a middle grade story.

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Sandra and her daughter at the chalet that inspired Saving St. Martha’s

At this same time, my daughter and her best friend were so taken with mysteries and hidden treasures, they formed their own two-member club, a sort of private detective agency that solved the small and large mysteries around them. I put the school together with their private detective firm, a hidden treasure, a mystery, and came up with Saving St. Martha’s.

El Space: What drew you to write for the middle grade audience?
Sandra: Well . . . I wasn’t drawn to write middle grade. Not really. That whole story of what inspired me to write Saving St. Martha’s was a someday, down-the-road sort of inspiration. A long, long way down the road. I could imagine writing for young adults—and I did—and I could imagine trying my hand at picture books—and I did. But middle grade? There was something eminently frightening about it. My own middle grade years hadn’t been wildly happy, and I had clouded over my memories to the point of remembering very little. How was I to write for an audience living out the years I felt least connected to?

But then, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and someone—I don’t remember exactly who—tossed down the gauntlet of: “Why don’t you try writing a middle grade?” So, I did, mostly because I like to pretend I’m not scared of anything, other than heights and mice. I went through hypnosis to reconnect to my middle grade years. I hung out with middle grade kids. I read any and every middle grade book recommended to me. I wrote. And what fun it all has been!

El Space: Sounds like you were well prepared. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery?
Sandra: In a way, mysteries are easier to write than other stories, because the broad arc of the story is already there. You set up the mystery, and then the mystery must be solved. Easy, right? The problem is that the small arcs that make up that broader arc can be tricky. New mystery writers—and this was certainly true for me—often believe they must hide the hints and clues and truth from the reader. But the opposite is true.

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Mystery writers must reveal every detail for the reader, but then use sleight of hand, distraction, or an unreliable character to make the truth difficult to discern. This is the tricky part, where mystery writers strive to hit the sweet spot of revealing enough, yet not too much. For this, having a critique group or beta readers is essential, since they are coming to the story for the first time. You want them intrigued, but not confused; you want them to have just enough information to keep reading, but not so much that they put down the book because they’ve already figured it all out.

El Space: What authors inspired you when you were growing up? Which inspire you now?
Sandra: There were so very many who inspired me. I was a big reader! But since we have been talking about middle grade, let me say: E. L. Konigsburg, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, Norton Juster, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. As for now, this blog isn’t long enough to name them all. But I guess I can say: Ditto for all the above, and add a few of my “new” discoveries: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Louis Sachar, David Almond, and Grace Lin.

Some Middle Grade Books That Have Inspired Me

Books that inspire Sandra

El Space: Do you stick to one project or work on more than one? What tools are helpful?
Sandra: I’m an immersion writer. I absolutely love submersing myself completely in one story-world at a time. That’s not always practical, however. Right now, in addition to Saving St. Martha’s, I’m working on a young adult Gothic ghost story and a storyteller’s poem about a female Paul Revere. When I need to quickly switch from one story to another, the best tool I have found is to freewrite my way into a character’s world. I start by having the character dress herself, noting every detail from the scratch of her wool skirt, to the cut of her socks’ elastic into her calves, then move onto other details like the woody-lead smell of her pencil and the squeal of a violin in the room next door. Five minutes of these kinds of specifics are enough. The wormhole is created, and just like that, I’m pulled from one story-world into the other and am ready to write.

Sorry, that about wraps it up! Thanks, Sandra, for being such a great guest!

If you have questions for Sandra about her book or her process, please comment below.

Magnifying glass from trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com.

A Writer’s Process 9(a)

A funny thing happened on the way to the blog today—if you recognize that well-known setup to a joke, you’ll have an idea of the subject of today’s discussion: humor in writing. With me today and tomorrow is the awesome and splendiferous Shelby Rosiak, whose blog My Year with The Mouse just might be your cup of tea.

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Shelby laughing after a friend’s daughter cheated at pin the tail on the donkey

If you haven’t visited Shelby’s blog, click on the blog name above, and witness Shelby valiant visiting many wonderful places at Disneyland and reporting on them, thereby making us wish we were her. Alas, MYWTM is on a hiatus now while Shelby gathers her wits and tries to find at least two shoes that match.

Give yourself a gold star if you can guess where I met Shelby. CoughcoughVCFAcoughcough. Now grab your rubber chicken, bonk yourself over the head, and join us!***

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El Space: Let’s start with four quick facts about yourself, for those who haven’t sat in Noble Lounge on campus reading books about Scaredy Squirrel with you like I have.
Shelby: (1) When I was thirteen years old, I was on a TV game show. I lost, but got a VCR as a “parting gift.” (2) I have been to twelve countries including China, where my family adopted our now two-year-old daughter, Violet. Our four-year-old son Theo came with us—it was a real adventure. (3) I live near Disneyland and can see the fireworks from my back porch. It’s pretty much awesome, because who DOESN’T want to see Disneyland fireworks from their back porch? (4) I used to be a technical writer for the world’s largest computer company. I much prefer creative writing.

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El Space: Love the Disneyland fireworks! And I’m glad you love creative writing, since that brought you to that place I coughed about earlier. Who are the authors who most influence you?
225px-JudyBlume2009(cropped)Shelby: I think influence is a funny word because, to me, it implies that I’ve changed my work based on their writing. I can’t think of anyone like that, but I have been inspired by a number of amazing writers. I cried when I met Judy Blume [left]. I’m not kidding. She must have thought I was a total whackadoodle, but she was so sweet and gracious about it. As a young person, I was very inspired by writers who wrote strong female characters—Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, Jean Craighead George, Scott O’Dell. And you didn’t ask this question, but the three authors I wish I’d had a chance to meet before they died? Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, and Roald Dahl.

220px-Dave-barry-post-hunt-2011El Space: I wish I could have met them as well. Now, everyone who knows you knows you’re hilarious. In a recent PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, Dave Barry, considered one of the funniest writers in America, said this:

[W]hen I’m writing columns, it’s—all I’m thinking about is jokes, joke, joke, joke, setup, punch line, joke, joke, joke. And I really don’t care where it goes. I don’t have a point the [sic] make. . . . With a novel, you have to have a story. It’s much more important to have it matter to the reader what happens to people, and it has to make sense and end in a way that is satisfying.

What are your thoughts on humor and your writing? How do you make it satisfying as Dave Barry suggested?
Shelby: This is a great quote. Articles, and nowadays blogs, are perfect for short one-liners—off-the-cuff jokes for an easy laugh. Novels present a different challenge, but also a real opportunity for the humor writer, because you can establish something humorous, like an inside joke between the author and the reader, and refer back to it as an ongoing aspect of the novel and it can become funnier and funnier as you go. You can also start building humor with the narrative, with establishing a small joke and growing with it.

Think of the song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This old lady swallows a fly—that’s funny, but we also sing “perhaps she’ll die” at the end of each verse. Then the old lady swallows a series of animals, each funnier than the last (a dog? Seriously?). And at the end she swallows a horse, which is funny in and of itself, but then you get the HUGE payoff with “She died, of course.” By building the humor, you get a much bigger payoff than you would with a one-liner. And that kind of payoff in and of itself is very satisfying.

And that’s something that you can do with longer fiction that is more difficult with shorter fiction. I think the big difference is thinking long term in the humor, in addition to one-liners. Making it satisfying means tying it all back to story, because it’s always about story. The humor needs to serve the story, otherwise it doesn’t belong there.

The big drawback of being a humor writer, however, is having to cut funny lines. I’ll write something I think is absolutely hysterical, and my feedback says it has to go because it doesn’t serve the story. It’s hard to cut lines when you think, But that’s hilarious!! But it needs to be done. It always comes back to story. Always.

And we’ve run out of time for today. But tune in tomorrow and we’ll talk more with Shelby about humor. Don’t forget to bring your rubber chicken. In the meantime, if you have questions for Shelby about her process or want to share a tip about humor writing, please do!

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***Glad you made it to this footnote. Um, you don’t really have to hit yourself on the head with a rubber chicken, since we’re not talking about the physical humor you see in movies. I just wanted to see if you would do it. 🙂

Rubber chicken from spirithalloween.com. Disneyland fireworks photo by Kevin Hogan. Judy Blume and Dave Barry photos from Wikipedia.