Archive for November 2010
Can I just admit I’m still full
from Thanksgiving dinner four days ago?
Maybe eating pie for every meal since
hasn’t helped. So far, my most significant salvo
for attacking the stuffed feeling has been to stop
getting on my scale.
But as of now, as soon as I post this,
I am going to go take a walk.
About a mile from my house, down
a quiet, scenic road with speed bumps,
(lest I move too quickly),
stands my favorite stop sign.
I walk to it most days and touch the seven
o’clock corner of the octagon for luck.
I listen to my iPod, keep my hands in my pockets
and sometimes I see a guy with a three-legged dog.
I’m not fooling myself. This is not true
exercise like playing squash or lifting weights.
I have really nothing profound to say about it
I’m going to take a walk.
The following is a bit story about a character from the world of Birthmarked.
Pyrho had never been outside the wall, nor wanted to go, but when one of the older kids at school told him he was advanced, this from a kid who had access to sensitive school files and tended to know such things with disturbing accuracy, he decided, before he talked to his father about it, that he had best go and see for himself what it was like outside the wall. His father, still upset about Pyrho lighting the grass in the school playground on fire, would not, Pyrho decided, appreciate questions with implicit longing about his parentage. Furthermore, his father would never let Pyrho go out on his own to explore, and exploring was now imperative.
During recess, while the other kids of his year were playing on the swings and the jungle gym, and the big kids were playing soccer on the grass area that had not burned, Pyrho quietly passed back inside the building, down the dim, deserted hallway, and out the janitor’s door.
Bright sunlight fell on the cobblestones beneath him, and he instinctively tilted his hat forward to shield his eyes. The walk down to the south gate was long, through streets active with pedestrian shoppers, but he’d had the forethought to put a piece of folded paper in his pocket, and this he held conspicuously now, under the guise he was simply delivering a note, as any boy might be called up on to do without remark. With his other hand, he twitched the matches concealed in his pocket. He couldn’t resist snagging them from home despite his father’s warning, and the spindly little sticks felt good, like luck.
The great doors of the south gate were open, and Pyrho slowed, watching the view of the unlake through the arched opening, and the nearing rooftops of Wharfton. The bang of a blacksmith’s anvil rose from the town below, a sound familiar and beckoning. The horizon drew him, and he knew once he stepped outside, no other wall would exist between him and all of the wasteland beyond the rugged homes of Wharfton. A boy could walk through that gateway and keep on walking forever.
“Where are you headed?” asked the guard.
Pyrho peered up, seeing more Adam’s apple than anything else. He held up the note. “It’s a note for the Tvaltar,” he lied easily. The Tvaltar was the only building he knew of for certain, visible as it was from further up the hill.
“It’s likely closed now,” the guard said. “Try the door around on the right. That’s where the projectionist lives, if he’s not out in the market. Don’t dawdle, now.”
“I won’t,” Pyrho said.
He passed under the arch and strode down the long incline. The wall looked taller from the outside, he noticed, and more impenetrable, but at least it would be impossible to lose his way when he was ready to return. He slid the folded paper in his pocket with the matches.
The road dipped between the first wood and stone houses, and spidery alleys and trails fingered out in different directions, all bright with sunlight and sharp shadows. Pyrho followed the sound of the anvil, and then voices, and when the quadrangle unfolded before him, alive with market day, he stepped under the shade of a mesquite tree to get his bearings. It was a smaller market than the one he knew in the Square of the Bastion. Here, people were more likely to have their wares spread out on a blanket than arranged on a cart or table, and there was an unhurried, relaxed atmosphere that engaged him. Several boys ran past carrying long sticks and water jugs.
“Looking for someone?” A young mother was paused just beyond the shade, a basket slung over her elbow, and he saw she was speaking to him.
A barefoot girl in a neat blue dress stood behind her, running her fingers rapidly through a circle of red yarn to tie it into an intricate pattern of spaces and lines, like a web or ladder. She glanced up idly, and Pyrho was surprised to see her cheek was badly scarred. The girl eyed him curiously.
“You from the Enclave?” asked the girl.
He was about to improvise about coming down to buy some eggs, but for once his words failed him.
“You just came down to take a look, didn’t you?” the mother said, in an easy, warm voice. “That’s quite all right. You’re not the first.” She nodded toward a pair of old women on the far side of the quad. “You might like to watch the spinners. They’re fun.”
“I’ve seen spinners before,” Pyrho said.
The woman smiled. “Of course you have.” She started to turn away.
“Would you like some matches?” he asked. He scrambled in his pocket and thrust his hand forward, offering them.
The mother turned back again and considered him more closely, tucking her hair behind her ear. She took a step nearer, into the shade. “Thank you,” she said, and held out her own hand.
The boy turned his fingers over to pass the little jumble into her palm.
“Why do I get the feeling you won’t let me pay you?” she asked.
He shook his head. It felt good, somehow, to give her something, and even better that she accepted. He backed up a step.
“Heading back so soon?” the mother asked.
“I guess so.”
“Come again any time,” she said.
He peered around the market one more time, memorizing the sound of the smithy’s hammering, and the red of the string in the girl’s fingers, and the way the mother wrapped his matches in a tiny scrap of cloth before she tucked them in her basket, as if she’d been expecting them. It was all right, he decided, if he was an advanced person, with a birth mother somewhere outside the wall. He would ask his father about it when he got home.
As an English teacher who has recently resigned, I’m no expert, but here’s my plan to raise reading and writing tests scores in middle school and high school.
1. Do not require English teachers to attend any seminars, presentations, or meetings on how to increase reading and writing test scores.
2. Do not put the poor readers and writers all together in the same class.
3. Do not require English teachers to write reflections in which they analyze students’ scores on 45-minute writing assessments taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester and explain what they did to affect those scores.
4. Do not require English teachers to write the objective of the day’s lesson on the board before each class.
5. Do not, on the first professional development day after summer vacation, when the teachers are well rested, inspired and excited, have the superintendent present the district’s test scores from the previous year along with scores of other districts that did better.
6. Do not make students take practice tests.
7. Do not purchase an “artificial intelligence” computer service for students which provides writing prompts, gives students a score for their grammar, spelling, and punctuation, alerts you if they use the word “suicide” in their writing, and makes the average score of your students’ work available to administration to compare with other classes.
8. Do not, each year, require English teachers to write new curriculum, or new common final exams, or new rubrics for alternative assignments for students who do not meet goal on their standardized tests yet need to meet graduation requirements.
9. Do not make teachers look up the previous test scores of their current students to look for a pattern of which state curriculum standards the students did not master.
10. Cap English classes at twenty.
11. Establish independent reading for half an hour every Friday, with no assessments connected.
12. Have an online page for the school library where students can post reviews of their favorite books and comment on one another’s reviews.
13. Put big comfy chairs in the school library and make sure the library isn’t closed a block of each day because of a staff shortage.
14. Let the students pick at least one of the books the class will study as a whole group by discussing length, subject matter, age and gender of the protagonist, covers, or anything else they think matters.
15. Let students choose their own writing topics and genres to express their ideas.
16. Allow students to have water bottles in class and to leave for the bathroom when they need to go.
17. Invite journalists, novelists, screenplay writers, poets, public library librarians, human rights activists, artists, and storytellers to visit classes and compensate them for their time.
18. Eliminate standardized tests altogether.
With the enormous amount of time saved, teachers and students will be able to concentrate on true learning. Morale will sky-rocket. The test generating and scoring companies will go out of business. Vast amounts of money will be saved. Best of all, we will reclaim the dignity and enthusiasm that are the rights of every student and teacher.
My friend Jenn Hubbard recently posted about the reader-writer contract, and how a promise is delivered to a reader within the opening sentences of a novel. It reminded me of another contract I’ve been pondering, the kids’ books one that promises not to kill off major characters.
Wait. No. What makes me think such a promise even exists to break? I read White’s Charlotte’s Web when I was too young to question what was happening, and while I was heartbroken about Charlotte, I didn’t feel any particular, personal sense of betrayal. Possibly it mattered that Charlotte was old, and her death seemed natural. It was one of my first books ever, a seminal reading experience that should have been a basis for any patterns I began to recognize later. Yet, when I read Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia for the first time as an adult, I was devastated. Not only did the loss wring me out, but I also felt like the rules had been violated. In the years between White and Paterson, I’d absorbed that deaths weren’t supposed to happen to people I cared about in kids’ books. I’d imagined a promise that, once broken, could never be trusted again, and that unglued me. Since death could happen to my friends in kids’ lit, there was nowhere safe left to go. I never wanted to read anything again.
No, truly. I never wanted to read anything ever again. Certainly not a kid’s book with engaging, imaginative characters.
But I did. Eventually.
Now I’m feeling squeamish. I’d love the power of killing off a key player in my next novel and realistically, it could happen in the setting I’m working with. But I just feel like it would be wrong, with a capital “W.” In the past, stuff that felt Wrong has led me to my most disturbing discoveries as a writer, discoveries that have rippled into my real life as a person. But do I want to go there with death?
The worst thing of all, I think, would be to use death opportunistically, just for shock value, just because a writer could. That would be mean and unfair, not only to the reader, but to the stories that have truly earned their meaningful deaths. Like Charlotte’s. It’s safer to avoid it completely than risk being cheap.
Why do I even need to grapple with this? I resist, squirming. I’m nowhere near the scene, yet, where this could happen, so there’s no need yet to prepare. I’m fully aware, too, that I’ve already had some pretty awful deaths in my writing, so this isn’t completely new territory. Those deaths had to be there and I didn’t question that they did.
But certain deaths. I don’t know. They would be Wrong. Wouldn’t they?
My lunch apple today was just gorgeous, glowing and powerful, so much that I had to just stare at it before I could cut into it. I am surrounded by beauty.
I have this theory about sensory detail and reading. Since normal intake of our world reaches our brains through our five senses, if a writer can describe things clearly enough that a reader sees, smells, hears, tastes and feels them, then the words on the page have co-opted the brain. It’s a polite form of mind control, and if you’ve ever been jarred out of a book because some one calls you to dinner, or to feed the baby, then you know what I mean.
I’ve done this to students when we’re studying setting. I say, imagine you’re walking barefoot down a wide public beach in the day time, with the colorful beach umbrellas, the regular crash of the waves coming in, the smell of coconut sun lotion, and the seagull with the orange beak flying overhead crying out a squawk. Someone hands you a chocolate ice cream cone that tastes half melted already.
Now imagine the same beach at night, and you’re walking towards a bonfire. The people are gone except for a few who are laughing, silhouetted by the fire, and there’s just enough moonlight that you can see the edge of foam where the waves come in. The wet sand is cold under your feet, and as you get closer, you can smell wood smoke. Someone hands you a marshmallow, perfectly toasted, and you have to lick when it sticks to your fingers.
Now imagine the same beach at night, but now it’s winter and the fire is gone. So are the people, and your coat isn’t quite warm enough. You still don’t have shoes, so you hurry over the sand. The waves are louder now, with a sucking sound, and the foam edge of the water is barely visible. Then you look up to see it’s starting to snow big, fat flakes that glow blue in the moonlight.
If it works, you’re seeing snow over a beach, by moonlight. Never mind that it should be impossible to see snow by moonlight if there are enough clouds for it to snow.
How does this work? I just max out the sensory details in the descriptions. It’s one of my favorite, favorite parts of writing.
Today, I’m at a point in Book 3 where I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I can see the scene Gaia sees, and hear it and feel it, so if I try hard enough, I can just go there with her and let time go by, and a story will unfold. It’s a first draft. It’s supposed to be fun, so here goes.
My novel is dedicated in memory of my father, Thomond R. O’Brien, Sr., who served honorably as a cryptanalyst in the United States Army in Germany in the 1950’s. On this Veterans Day, I’d like to honor my dad, and all our veterans and the active military personnel who now serve our country. We would not be here today without you, and I’m grateful.
I’ve been invited to speak in the Eaton-Dimock-King Authors Series at the Tolland Public Library tonight, November 10th, at 7:30. The event is free, but space is limited, so please call to register if you’d like to come. 860-871-3620.
I’m a seat-of-the-pantser. I’ve done books using an outline before when I plotted out romances in ten chapters (major intimacy in Chapter 7) so I know it’s possible, but that is not how I wrote Birthmarked, and it is not working for the sequels. The main problem is that I have to be in the scene, imagining it, in order to live where it’s going with Gaia. Since she can’t see into the future, neither can I. If the reader is to be surprised, I must be, too. But that’s a bit of a cop-out. The truth is that I don’t outline for Gaia because I just can’t. My mind isn’t working that way. I have an idea of one scene I’m heading towards with Book 3, like I had a scene I was writing toward with Birthmarked, but it’s still very open-ended, and I like the comfort of knowing it could go anywhere. Uncertainty helps me be creative.
Uncertainty is also terrifying, because I’ll go in plenty of wrong directions before I find what will work. I’ve just had a rather torturous experience writing Prized, where the first draft was 450 unwieldy pages long. For months, I kindly referred to it as “dog rot.” Yet I had to write it to discover what was going on. Nine drafts later, after lopping off 50-page sections left and right and writing dozens of new scenes, the novel now has a tight plot, and I’m so happy with it that I relish the minute tinkering of the line-by-line and can hardly bear to give that up in order to work on the next book.
It has been gently suggested to me that perhaps I could write a short first draft of Book 3 just to get the blocks in place before I embellish. Believe me. I’d love to. I think it will help that I’m writing full-time now, and not trying to keep the mental continuity going over 25-minute lunch breaks. But I also know that I just have to write a first draft, whatever its messy length, because once I get to the end, I’ll be able to see the entire arc of the story, with all its surprises and holes. I trust that this seat-of-the-pants, butt-on-the-couch process will work for me.
Just for kicks, here’s an example of how the opening of Prized changed. In the first draft, the opening lines were as follows:
The infant took two weak, reflexive sucks on the bottle, and then her lips went slack. Gaia shifted closer to the firelight and watched the baby’s chest for the swell that would confirm she was still breathing.
Bad news, but quiet. Seven months and five drafts later, the opening became this:
She grabbed the hilt of her knife and scrambled backward into the darkness, holding the baby close in her other arm. Beyond the fire, the wasteland was still, as if the wind and even the stones had frozen in the night to listen, and then she heard it again, a soft chink that could be metal or a boot adjusting against pebbles.
Outlining, obviously, has nothing to do with how I write. Thank goodness.