Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Child’s Voice

When writing stories for children the writer must be careful to not write down to them. Children may be inarticulate but they are not stupid. Theodor Geisel knew this fact when he wrote “The Cat in the Hat” under the pen name Dr Seuss. It is full of sophisticated concepts, which a child can grasp but often not speak. At the same time, we must avoid throwing too many esoteric facts in their direction without providing an active backdrop. When you were working nine-to-five as an office temp, it wasn’t any fun reading through a list of facts, and that’s true for children as well. In truth, the child’s voice in your writing is not a tightrope to walk upon, but a very fat pipe. There is plenty of leeway in either direction before the bulk of your children get bored or snowed.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote on the sophisticated end of the age group, but his works appeal to one of the widest age ranges in the fantasy genre. He pulls characters from a quasi-mythological hat without hesitation and sprinkles the stories with concrete elements the children can hang onto. Boil down “The Hobbit” to just hobbits, dwarfs, elves, and goblins and you leave out the one thing which binds the whole series together – the ring. Tolkien didn’t start off with the intention of making the ring the central element in his stories, it just happened when he discussed “the Hobbit” with his young readers and discovered what they liked the most about the book. You may have to do this with your own books. The ring rises in prominence because every kid would like a ring which can make them invisible. Think of all the mischief you could get into if you wore such an item, then think of the draw to a child’s active mind. Bullies revenged, candy acquired, peril escaped, are just some of the many uses for which such an item might be employed. When you hear youngsters talking about their favorite movie, novel, or comic, listen for the things and events which they talk about the most. Was it the Deathstar or Lord Vader, which gathers the greatest thrill? Those key elements in the story, which survive the test, future works may refer to in ways that are more sophisticated. J. K. Rowling would know all about that. The invisibility cloak Harry Potter employs follows a similar route of discovery as Tolkien’s ring with the exception of the item’s demise. Jo decides to break the concept into three items in the end so one may be lost, one may be buried, and the best of them all, retained.

The key is to the child’s voice is to know when to show and when to tell. Suspense is a key factor as well. Too much revealed in the beginning takes away from the surprise ending, but with children you have to reveal important plot elements on a regular basis as well. In “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” Harry is a bullied and badgered boy who lives in a terrible situation, but by the end of the first chapter enough is revealed to indicate that things might change for the better. Now if you’ve read the whole series, you would know that this in fact not the case. His life changes, some things get better but others much worse. The author does not pull any punches, and doesn’t talk down to the reader, which children and adults alike appreciate when they read it. At the same time, she doesn’t ramble off a bunch of gobbledygook. If the details are too sophisticated for your children readers, make sure to introduce them without the more esoteric aspects, but instead reveal those details throughout the story in bite-sized chunks. Dialog and circumstance should allow the child to discover things right along with the protagonist, instead of having some talking head come along and tell them everything. If Gandalf had described all of the things he knew about Bilbo’s duties in the book “The Hobbit”, the reader would have been left with very little suspense. No, Bilbo experiences these things as they come, and the reader does so vicariously as well.

If you might think picture books lack sophistication then you haven’t read “Cannonball Simp” by John Burningham. It appeals to the smallest children, yet speaks about the issues of animal abuse and neglect, and introduces unconditional love. While some editors insist on “Keeping it Simple”, many of the books in a publisher’s backlog aren’t selling because they took the assignment too far.

Anyways, do you use simple elements to construct your stories, grow suspense, and distribute clues, but don’t talk down to your audience. Kids aren’t stupid, so don’t write that way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Writing About Time Travel

Time travel is possible, but not probable. While you may think paradox is a problem, it occurs all of the time at the quantum level. Quantum tunneling has been shown to occur in time as well as space. When a paradox occurs, quantum effects induce the collapse of the wave function thus rendering the event differently. In the many worlds theory, traveling backwards in time would create a branch of time-space in which a new future is propagated on the strength of the new observations. If you can't bring yourself to believe in many-worlds, imagine instead a means which prohibits backwards travel to any part of the observable light cone. The evidence for temporal back propagation is seen in duel particle experiments where two identical particles travel in opposite directions and change state simultaneously when only one of them is observed. The mathematics for time-space intervals work both ways, backwards and forwards in time, without any distinction.

Science has yet to plumb the depths of temporal theory, so saying it isn't possible is uninformed. Now some people will immediately say, "Where are the time travelers to our century? Why haven't we been visited by any?" To that I would say, human civilization may never get to the point of developing time travel, due to unforeseen things like extinction and inferior intelligence. That does not mean it is impossible, just improbable. If you told me forty years ago that you would be able to fit a device as powerful as an iPhone in your pocket, I would have called you a dreamer. All the same, people hypothesizing about the year 2000 back then had us all in flying cars. In the future, time travel may be possible, but extraordinarily expensive, or be so destructive to the user that only idiots would try it. Opening a wormhole into the past would require tremendous amounts of exotic matter and energy, and it would probably be a one-way trip. While I don’t believe space-time can be torn, I do believe it can be tied into all sorts of nasty little knots. One little mistake could mean the instant conversion of your nice little wormhole into a planet gobbling blackhole. Ouch!

Then there is motivation. Why would somebody want to travel back in time? If it was regulated then measures would have to be undertaken to prevent contamination of the past. If it was done in secret or unregulated like the banks in the W era, opportunists could jump backwards and change important events or exploit foreknowledge to corner markets. Who is to say it hasn’t already happened? If an organized crime syndicate or worse, a government were to exploit time travel, there would be no way to detect them if they could just go back and clean up after themselves. Then there are the goody-two-shoes who might try to go back and assassinate Hitler or Stalin, only to produce somebody who brings about global extinction. While going back and doing some proactive tampering may seem like a pleasant thing to do, it is based mostly on vengeance. Personally, I would like to have sent Lenin to Antarctica instead of Moscow, or at least inform the Russian army where he was hiding out. That would have easily saved sixty million lives. Finally, there are the tourists. Those people who would go back just to see people and places from the past. Tourists generally look out of place anyways, thus I doubt we would even notice them, unless they came from a century where nudity was the norm.

When you write about time travel, remember that the sky is the limit. Nobody has ever done it, thus we have zero experience. If you merely describe the events and avoid the how, you should end up with something great. Just make sure you go back through the book and resolve any paradoxes. Readers hate them! It is helpful to write out a timeline showing where events and/or characters overlap. Try not to jump from one observer to another during the overlapping period, since that is bound to confuse the reader more than you already should. Focus on the story, the motivations, and the drama. Leave out the mechanics unless it is important to the protagonist, antagonist, or both. When you are done, if two versions of a time traveler do interact, try to remain on a single point of observation. First person voice is good for time travel stories, while third person omniscient tends to create too much distance. I remember writing a screen play, years ago, where all of the characters, and I mean all of them, were the same person in disguise who was trying to fix a mistake made the first time around with a borrowed time machine.

Write what you want and remember -- have fun!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Creating a Picture Book

In order to create a picture book and get it published there a few important steps to follow. First, write a story in short story form as a basis for your book. It doesn’t need to be very long, but it must have the elements of a plot and should teach some sort of lesson. Then remember the three ‘R’s, -- rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. Use them to create a poem or prose which a child can listen to in five minutes at the most, and which an adult would be willing to read. Pare away any nonessential elements until you have enough verses to fit in twenty to thirty pages. You need to break the poetry or prose into stanzas or paragraphs whose bite-sized chunks fit on each page in large, readable type. The text must be large, because grandparents will be reading your book, and the blocks of text bite-sized, because your illustrations will not fit otherwise. Dr Seuss’ book “The Cat in the Hat” is an excellent example of a fun and engaging book, with plenty of those three ‘R’s and text in their proper proportions.

Assuming you are also the illustrator, create plates which directly correspond to the story verse. They can refer to the short story, but must show elements of the prose on that particular page. Make certain the text will fit in one space on or near the plate. Most children’s books use full page plates and then place the text upon them. You may also consider illuminating the first character of each stanza as an added detail. If you want to see an example of beautiful plates, just look at Jan Brett’s “Hedgie’s Surprise”. Once you have drawn you plates there are several routes to getting the plates and text published. Many children’s writers go directly to editors and bypass the agent route entirely. Publishers are constantly looking for good children’s books, thus if your story is engaging and the artwork is good, your chances are much better than other genre in getting published. Scholastic Books is a good publisher who has excellent editors to polish your work and get it to the presses. The most difficult part of writing any book, is not writing but getting noticed.

You need to submit copies, not originals, of your plates. You can make copies at color copy shops, but I’ve had better result using local print shops that use offset printing presses. The cost might be higher, but it is better to send high quality copies to the publisher than smudged or off azimuth ones from a copy shop. In addition, local print shop personnel tend to know their jobs more than the other guys. If you want to send digital images instead, or if a publisher requires it for the submission process, then you can either use a high quality digital camera, or once again, pay the local print shop to do it for you under controlled conditions. Trust me, the quality is worth every penny, and once they are digitized, you can always print them on a good photo printer. I use the HP Photosmart 8450, but any decent one will do.

You may choose to do the layout yourself and bypass the standard publishing route. Learn photoshop or quark express then, because picture books are expensive to print and bind. One mistake can cost loads of money so you might want to stay on the straight and narrow. If you really must publish yourself, then lightning source is a good bet, but unless you pay for their extra services, they aren’t going to hold your hand. Lulu is good as well, with the same limitation. Create Space can print color books, but as far as I can tell do not do the durable heavy bindery a picture book would require.

Overall, your best bet is to follow the steps I spelled out above and try to get the attention of a publisher. Write a decent synopsis based upon the short story, include a sample of the text, and a copy of one or more plates. If they want the whole thing, don’t worry, they’ll ask for it. Don’t be bothered if they don’t respond they don’t hate you, they are just very busy. Keep submitting until you get a bite. It may take a month, or a year, or ten years, or even never, but part of the labor of love is sticking it out until you have fulfilled your dream.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Frugal Law of Chekhov

As a writer with over twenty years of experience, I have learned a hard lesson which every writer learns eventually. Do not include any passive person, place, or thing unless it is to play an important role some where later in the story. In plays, where the script is sparse and the actors fill in much of the actual scene, if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first scene, then it must be used at some point later in the play. In Haley Cork and the Blue Door I show a black hole as a means to eliminate a witch, and near the end of the book Haley Cork uses a black hole to do something similar.

The principle of frugality is critical to keeping a story uncluttered with elements which are not essential to the telling of the story. There is a form of Irish ballad which violates this principle to such a degree that the listener is rapidly distracted from the main theme which is the innkeeper’s infidelity to his wife. For a story to more than just an entertaining ditty though, we as writers must focus on shoring up any plot holes by hunting down the extraneous details, and either put them to use or expunge them from the story with prejudice.

It is difficult when writing under the influence of a stream of consciousness to remember every little thing that we may write as we go along, so I’m going to teach you a couple of little tricks to keep thing in order.

If you mention a passive person, place, or thing (element), then decide at that moment whether you want it to remain passive in that context or to elevate it to an active state immediately. As an example, if the gun on the wall is not going to be used in the story and is just an ornament then make it something which could never play an active role, such as a moose head or a stuffed armadillo, at least then it gives character to the story and plays a role in scene creation. If you absolutely must have a gun on the wall, then you must use it later on in the story, if not immediately. If you mention a bus driver or a milkman, then at some point in the story you have to bring them in to play at least a minor role in the story, otherwise there is no point in mentioning them.

When you mention a passive element, write it down separately as well as the chapter and page it occurs. You word processor may have an annotation feature – use it! When you complete a chapter then go over the list of elements you have accumulated and decide whether to utilize them or remove them from the story line.

Another trick I use is to reread each paragraph individually and identify every element in it. I do this after my rough draft, free association phase, and it help me determine whether the story has the right flavor. When I have my list, I can then choose to expand on a description of any particular sentence into a full paragraph or omit it altogether. Once again, if it isn’t essential to the story then it isn’t needed in the book.

By now, you are probably struggling with a fifty thousand-word manuscript and wondering how to come up with another seventy or eighty thousand words. Why would you want to omit non-essential words when you can hardly come up with enough to say to fill out the book? That’s the difficult part. There is always more to say in the story. Check your dialog -- maybe you don’t have enough. Check your main theme -- are all of the conditions for your theme met? Are your characters’ back-stories adequately formed? Do you have clean and fully described scenes? There a many books out in print where the author stalled a fifty thousand words because he or she couldn’t find anything more to say about the main character. The successful writers must then decide whether to introduce an additional character or rethink the entire plot. I usually opt for an additional character since it makes the story more interesting and allow colorful plot elements to adorn the story. Remember, the more characters you have in the story the higher the degree of conflict and the more interesting everything gets. If another character won’t fix it, then maybe my plot isn’t strong enough and I need to punt on the project.

So sweep away the unnecessary passive elements and either convert them to active elements in the story or get rid of them altogether. Trust me -- you’ll be happier with the result in the long run.