Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Favorite Craft Books, Part 1

Since it’s Thanksgiving, I thought I’d give thanks to some of those wonderful writers who generously share their knowledge of the craft of writing with the world. I clutch at craft books like they are lifeboats, running for them at the first sign that my manuscript is in danger of sinking. Here are a few of my picks of the best craft books available – the ones that you want on your bookshelf:

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler is a screenwriter, but he understands Joseph Campbell and the structure of the hero’s journey and he delivers it in a clear and succinct style. Truly one of my all-time favorite books for understanding the holistic concept of story and story archetypes.

Robert McKee, Story. This is an expensive book, but a true classic. McKee also comes from the world of film, but structure is his business, and he dissects what works and provides excellent examples. I particularly like his analysis of scene and sequel – a principle I didn’t fully understand before I read this book.

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Also an expensive book, but one that is used as a text by many writing programs. Burroway dissects it all, from character to voice to point of view, and includes exercises for both individuals and groups, and examples (short stories and excerpts) of every craft element. I go to this book first whenever I’m stuck.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. This book is dense. Meaty. Yet I have sticky notes on so many pages, my copy looks like it could fly. Gardner’s book is one that every serious writer must read. And re-read. He includes exercises that are among my favorites for understanding an aspect of craft.

Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft. A good basic book discussing foundation, with exercises, Le Guin writes with clear, often visual expression. This is a terrific book for beginners in particular, but even seasoned writers will learn something new.

I have many, many more books to recommend, and I’ll continue this discussion later.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Craft Issue #9: Desire

Desire. I can’t hear that word now without hearing the way Louise Hawes, author of BLACK PEARLS and THE VANISHING POINT said it during my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Drag the word out, now, breathy and low: d-e-s-i-r-e. There you go.

Louise was talking about protagonist’s desire – what motivates, energizes, and drives both the main character and the story. Lately I’ve been thinking about desire; specifically, how to express my character’s desire on the first page of a text. And how to express it throughout the work. This sounds like an obvious thing to aim for and achieve, but for me at least is not as easy as it sounds.

Donald Mass, in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, has an exercise in which he suggests that the writer find the main character’s two yearnings, desires, or goals that are “in direct opposition to each other.”

Why? Because humans are conflicted by nature. We want freedom, yet security (THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX.) We want love, yet we fall in love with someone dangerous (NEED.)
We want to live fully, but our lives are held in a trap – maybe we are dead (THE LOVELY BONES) or maybe we’re vampires (ETERNAL.)

I have a tendency to protect my protagonist. I place convenient characters and situations between her and her problems, I erect huge road signs and arrows – This Way Out! – when in fact I should be discovering ways to let her suffer the slings and arrows because not only will that intensify her desire but it will also bring her into internal conflict. Finding my protagonist’s desire and threading that desire line through the work really means finding both her true inner desire, and its opposite.

Because isn’t fiction all about conflict – about longing and dreams unfulfilled? We march through life trying to protect ourselves, so what we want in our fictional counterparts is daring. We want our protagonists to live as we cannot. To take risks, even to risk it all. It is the tug away from the brink, the wish for something safe, that keeps most of us from tipping into danger. Our fictional characters must make the leap from the cliff. As a writer, I want to thrust out my hand at the last second, but I have to learn to pull back because as a reader I want to experience catharsis.

So I’ve been on a desire hunt. I’m trying not only to find out what my characters want, even when that desire is not safe (in fact, I’d like it to be at least as impossible and unsafe as Katniss’s desire is in THE HUNGER GAMES), but also trying to make my protagonist take risks to fulfill that desire.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Author Interview: Anna Levine

After an intense week of work on the copyedits for FAITHFUL, I'm thrilled to be back posting a new author interview, and especially delighted to feature author Anna Levine. Her most recent two books, FREEFALL and JODIE'S HANUKKAH DIG, both published in 2008, are receiving much acclaim.

Congratulations on the publication of your award-winning books FREEFALL and JODIE'S HANUKKAH DIG! Can you tell us a bit about each of these books?

All my books are set in Israel. I like writing stories with strong female characters. JODIE'S HANUKKAH DIG (Karben Publishers) is about a young girl who dreams of being an archaeologist. Everyone tells her she’s too little—of course she proves them wrong. Being the smallest person on the dig, she is put into a bucket and lowered into a cave where she discovers an ancient treasure.

FREEFALL (Greenwillow/HarperCollins) is about an eighteen-year-old girl before her draft into the Israeli army. It’s a novel about being eighteen and living in Israel with everything that entails from conflicts with family, changing friendships, the challenges of the military and falling in love for the very first time.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or are these your first effort?

I started writing about twelve years ago. My first book, RUNNING ON EGGS (Front Street/Cricket Books) is about the friendship that develops between two girls on a track team. One of the girls is Israeli, the other Palestinian. I’ve written a number of award winning short stories and poems for Cicada, Cricket, Spider and Highlights magazines. Many of my poems and short stories are available on my website.

Can you describe your path to publication?

SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) was very helpful in getting my writing career started. My path began with a lot of rejections. I think most writers experience this. But I can be very determined, and like Jodie and Aggie (from FREEFALL) when I’m told I can’t do something—I’ll prove them wrong. I work and rework my manuscripts until I get them right.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Persistence! And determination. I think for a lot of us writers who have family responsibilities and/or day jobs it’s also a matter of giving ourselves the time it takes to dream, think and create.

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I live in Israel. My books are set here because I find this country, the mix of cultures and the people fascinating. I am always learning something new. I’m working on a new Jodie book that explores an ancient water tunnel underneath the City of David in Jerusalem. Just a few weeks ago, I slogged through the tunnel with the water up to my knees. It was dark, wet, terrifying and so much fun!

I’m also working on another young adult novel set in Jerusalem. This novel, CURTAIN CALL, is about a religious girl and the conflicts she faces as she steps out of her religious home and community to mix with secular society.

What are your other writing inspirations?

I guess for me writing is a reflection of my personal life. I have two boys in the army. My husband is a professor at the Hebrew University. My experiences, my life and my family all find their way into my books.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about your work? I know you have a book trailer, too - please share!

My website about my other works
The website for FREEFALL
My book trailer: