The Stanton Effect: Invoking Wonder

6a00d83451b64669e2017c3652fef8970b-250wiThank you to L. Marie for asking me to be a part of this guest post series. My name is Charles E. Yallowitz. I run the Legends of Windemere blog and publish books under the same title. I think that covers the “My Name is” requirement.

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This is about one of the points on Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk. I chose to write about invoking wonder in the reader. As a fantasy author, this is a very important goal whether I focus on it or not. I have to draw readers into a world that doesn’t exist outside of the page, so there is more that I have to say. For example, I can say, “They drive to New York City,” and people will immediately visualize the city with familiar landmarks. You may have to describe some of the area, but people have a pre-existing notion of what you’re talking about. If I say, “They rode into the city of Rodillen,” then nothing very cohesive comes about. This requires that I describe the buildings, people, weather, culture, and whatever else I can slip in without doing a full info dump. This is really just to set the stage too, but it is a piece of invoking wonder since you want to draw readers into your world.

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Maybe it’s because I have to tug harder at a person’s mind to get them to step further out of reality than Earth-based genres, but this is something that I feel should be done with every aspect of a story. The plot must be riveting at most points, the characters should be interesting, and the world has be both unique and recognizable. All of this is a challenge because one never knows the balance, which is where editing and beta readers can be helpful.

A difficulty that I always have is that I visualize a lot of what I’m doing, so I’m in a permanent state of wonder when it comes to my stories. An outside opinion is what helps me find out if that comes across in the finished book. Well not so much the finished book, but the first draft. My point here is that authors do have blinders on whether they realize it or not because they’re more attached to the story. This makes the invocation a little unclear to our own minds. (Note: I have Supernatural on while typing this, so invocation and similar words might be turning up a lot.)

-Supernatural-supernatural-32710241-1024-768Bobby Singer

Touching on a riveting plot, I always think it needs a good amount of both action and character developing downtime. This will prevent things from growing dull while maintaining growth for the characters.

In regards to wonder, you can aim for two things here. The first is making the reader excited that an action scene can happen at any moment, which helps them read through parts that might be slow. By action, I mean everything from car chases to a detailed shopping spree that ends with a canceled credit card. Basically, things that aren’t dialogue and exposition, but still carry the story ahead.

The other thing is that the reader starts to wonder how the characters will change. This might be the strongest area of wonder invocation that I can think of since we’re talking about the vessels that a reader will attach to. Consider several of the questions that go through your mind as you read a story. Will THEY survive their quest? How will THEY change over the course of the story? Can HE/SHE handle being rejected by someone they love? All of these involve wondering about the characters and not the main story. We get curious about these fictional people and think about how they’re going to come out of their adventure. It’s another connection that makes a person mentally plunge into the story.

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Now, everyone will have their own methods and foci when it comes to invoking wonder. I’m only going to list my personal ideas here:
1. Detailed world that touches on as many senses as possible. What does the reader see, hear, and smell? Taste and touch are more situational.
2. Give the characters personality, subplots, and growth that isn’t so straightforward as “hero get stronger.” Knock them down from time to time and show what they’re like when they stand back up. The reader will be curious to see if they can keep going.
3. If your story has magic and monsters, then go wild with the descriptions. Yet always remain consistent. Try not to have a troll look different in every encounter or switch your spell system in every book. Consistency helps create a solid foundation that a reader can work off of to explore your world.

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4. Foreshadowing. Hints can get a reader to keep going beyond their bedtime and return for a second read through.

To sum up here, I think invoking wonder differs from author to author. This is only what my opinion is and that’s influenced by my genre, reading history, and the specific stories that I want to tell. I’ve had people get absorbed by my books while others give up in the first 10 pages. It’s all personal preference when it comes to this arena.

One thing I do think is necessary for everyone is to go into a story with a clear and positive mind. If you read something with the expectation that you will hate it, then you’ll probably hate it. That wonder will be missing because part of you never wanted to wonder about the story. I’ve done it with books that I was made to read in high school and I still can’t bring myself to read them. This whole thing should be fun and sinking into the story with a sense of wonder is a big part of that.

Thanks, Charles, for such a great post in this series! Other posts can be found here and here.

Want to purchase Curse of the Dark Wind? Click here.

Supernatural photo from fanpop.com. Troll from mata.hari09.free.fr. Jim Beaver as Bobby Singer from pt-br.supernaturalbrasil.wikia.com. Wizard from wallpapersa.blogspot.com. Fantasy book from abstract.desktopnexus.com.

Open Your Eyes

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First, a brief announcement: I’m hosting two book giveaways this week. If you missed the first interview, click here. Tomorrow you’ll find the next interview and book giveaway. Winners to be announced on Sunday.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you what’s been on my mind lately. My good friend Sharon Van Zandt had this lovely quote on her blog:

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.
E. B. White

If you know Sharon, you know that she deeply believes this.

That quote takes me back to an incident last week. After we watched Ender’s Game (in case you’re curious, I enjoyed it), a friend of mine introduced me to a new toy store in our area. She searched for toys for her toddlers. I went along for the ride.

I’m glad I did.

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the inside of the store. Picture a wonderland of toys on low shelves (at a kid’s level) or set up in inviting displays. The store featured the kind of toys you might have grown up with: Etch A Sketch, stuffed animals, puzzles, books, dolls, building blocks, train sets, and trucks—all for a new generation.

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We lingered in the store until the salesperson calmly informed us that the store was closing. I admired her restraint. While we browsed, she had remained at the register instead of following us around, forcing a snappy sales pitch on us and other guilt-inducing suggestions for making kids happy. (“Don’t deprive your kids of the new Mega-Block Tower Set. Only $69.99.”) She allowed us time to look and reminisce. Also, she didn’t try to hustle us out of the store. You know that look: the salesperson stands at the door with a key in the lock, giving you strong vibes to get out.

I’m glad we took time to stop and look and play. (I feel sorry for any parent who dares to bring a child to that store. You’ll never be able to convince him or her to leave.)

Sharon’s post and my trip to the toy store reminded me of what I’ve been missing lately. Because I have a goal for NaNoWriMo, word count has been at the forefront of my mind. I lost sight of the goal I had when I first began writing: to write with eyes filled with wonder.

The quote Sharon included was incredibly apt, because E. B. White’s writing, particularly Charlotte’s Web, has always embodied wonder to me. It reminds me to stop and look at life with the unbridled enthusiasm of a child.

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I know. We don’t stay children. We grow up and have jobs and mortgage payments and kids and cars that need repairing. People we love fall ill and we suffer the grief of loss. Others annoy or disappoint us. Wonder is difficult to sustain in a world determined to beat us down. We go through life with our eyes squeezed shut instead of open in wonder.

Iconic books like Charlotte’s Web acknowledge that sad things occasionally happen. But the fact that sad times occur does not negate wonder. Wonder is not a bury-your-head-in-the-sand, rose-colored-glasses feeling. It is countercultural—an intentional response to a jaded mindset or a busy, hurry-it-up lifestyle.

That’s why we have to fight to hang on it, to avoid treating it as if it’s just for kids or the hopelessly naïve. It takes determination to be watchful for those wonder-filled moments where we feel glad to be alive. (Sing it with me: “The hills are aliiiiiive with the sound of music!”) It means being willing to look foolish as you stop and look and play. For me, however, it means being willing to sacrifice my word count goal, if at at the end of the day the answer to the question, “Am I having fun writing?” is no.

When was the last time you felt wonder? Don’t you think it’s time you did? I dare you to open your eyes and embrace the wonder. To help you along the path, I’ve decided to be spontaneous and send one person a print copy of Charlotte’s Web. (I didn’t see an eBook listed.) If you’ve never read it, comment below and I’ll enter your name in the drawing. If you’ve read it, feel free to tell me what you thought about it. Or, share a moment where you were filled with wonder.

Have a wonder-filled day!

Etch A Sketch from cotradeco.com. Charlotte’s Web cover from Goodreads. Kid looking amazed from parentdish.co.uk.

Eyes of Wonder

Peter-jackson-250x339In a recent Entertainment Weekly sidebar, when commenting on the 2005 relaunch of Doctor Who, Peter Jackson stated, “If there’s any secret to its resurgence, it’s due to the show’s complete lack of cynicism.” If you’re familiar with Doctor Who, perhaps you know that this show was first launched on the BBC in 1963, but went on hiatus in 1989.

Jackson’s remark struck a chord with me, because I’ve been trying to analyze why I love the show so much. This love grew from childhood, watching Doctor Who on PBS with my dad on Sunday nights. Friends who recently saw some of the older seasons on DVD described them as cheesy or low budget. But I loved them, starting with Tom Baker, because they always took me someplace wonderful. So, when the show returned in 2005, I was more than thrilled, because like the show’s producers, the show has never lost its wonder for me.

Which brings me to the second quote, one from Rise of the Guardians, a 2012 film by DreamWorks Animation. I won’t go into the plot. You can check that out for yourself here. During a scene early in the film, North (St. Claus) asks Jack Frost to name his center. In other words, what ideal or virtue does he bring to the world that he also is willing to safeguard for the sake of the children of the world?

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As an object lesson, North hands Jack a set of nesting dolls and has Jack open the dolls until he gets to the center doll—a doll with large blue eyes. This doll represents North’s center: wonder. North then tells Jack:

It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children.

As I read Jackson’s comments in EW, I couldn’t help linking his quote with North’s and then reflecting on what my center might be. Let me give you a little background. I grew up reading magazines like Mad and Cracked, magazines famous for their parodies of movies and books. I never met a parody I didn’t like. Sarcasm was my center. It affected my writing. (Some might say infected.) Everything was ripe for mockery.

In my second semester at VCFA, my advisor read my fairy tale parody and shook her head. In her assessment, some of it was good; yet she could see what was missing: wonder. Sure I could write a parody. But did I have the guts to go beyond mockery and produce something original? The thought of doing so was daunting. What if someone mocked me for it later?

Wonder is the antithesis of cynicism. If I have wonder-filled eyes, I see beauty and life in the world, not just the flaws or what makes it ripe for ridicule. That’s why Jackson’s remark jumped off the page at me. Having watched all of the episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who, I can attest to the truth of his statement. If you watch the interviews of anyone connected with the show—actor, writer, producer, lunch lady, makeup crew—you will discern the love—the wonder—he or she sees in it.

So, I’m in an examining mood now. Having chosen to write books for kids, what is my center? I can tell you what I’m working on: wonder. But I need to shrug off some cynicism first. Thankfully there are blog posts like this one by Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, that remind me of the wonder of writing. (One of my classmates brought this article to my attention. Thanks, Rachel.)

What is your center?

For a fun quiz on this question, go here:

Jackson, Peter. “Lord of the Whovians.” Entertainment Weekly #1252. 29 Mar. 2013: 36-37. Print.

Rise of the Guardians screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a story by William Joyce. Directed by Peter Ramsey. © 2013 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All rights reserved.