Sunday, August 25, 2013

What YA. Writers Can Learn from Summer Blockbusters

I've always seen more movies at the theater than the average person, in fact, I think I internalized, early in my development as a human, that sitting beside a person in a movie theater was the best sort of companionship. Having been through some extreme personal upheaval and heartbreak in 2013, I've found movies, even ones that I had little to no expectation of being blown away, as a great distraction from daily life. Movies I've seen in 2013?

The Croods 
Monsters University 
Despicable Me 2 
Iron Man 3 
Great Gatsby 
The Hangover 3 
The Wolverine 
Pacific Rim 
World War Z 
Oz the Great and Powerful 
Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters
Star Trek 
City of Bones

Things you should know about me personally and my movie choices. 1. I have children. I see lots of kids' movies. Often, the kids movies have been far superior to adult movies (How to Train Your Dragon, Up, Megamind, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). That was not the case this year, though the kids movies were enjoyable enough, none of them blew my mind. 2. I like science fiction. I just really really do. I've always said that fantasy was my favorite genre for books and SF was my favorite for movies, that is evolving with the genres, but I will always love a good science fiction movie, and particularly enjoyed Elysium. 3. Someone important in my life likes superhero movies. I'm getting a little tired of them myself, but what can I say? 

Here is what I, as a YA writer, took from my movie going summer. 

1. High Concept is still important.  This article discusses why Hunger Games and Harry Potter and Twilight did so much better at the box office than Beautiful Creatures while speculating about the success of Mortal Instruments; City of Bones and the upcoming Divergent. One of the things they focus on is they trailers' ability or inability to make audiences understand the concept quickly. As a teacher of reluctant readers, I can't tell you how important that is. To be able to pull a book off a shelf and get a student interested in the idea...and before the book gets to the library shelves it passes through tons of gatekeepers who are looking for the same thing. No one is saying that the initial concept is all the book is about, in fact, part of the mystique will this intriguing concept play out. One of my favorite high concept examples is What if Dinosaurs DNA could be used to recreate dinosaurs and a theme park know it's not going to work out really well, how could it? But how will things go bad? How will characters try to salvage the situation or save themselves? I hope that the marketing for Divergent gets the high concept thing right, because I liked Mortal Instruments (less than the books but still....) and I don't think it's doing very well at the box office. 

Regardless of the advertising (or box office) this movie poster is fantastic! 

2. Don't lose track of the Individual Struggle within the story. I found this article  really fascinating, particularly that 'big" movies have to save the world, but that audiences respond to individual stories. 

One of the compelling descriptions that I've heard of the difference between YA and MG is that a MG character can focus on saving the world, while a YA character has to save the world WHILE figuring out who they are within the context of that world. Too often the big stories focus on story rather than character, and it's nice to know that sometimes audiences would rather see character, I'd love to see even more character development in blockbuster movies (crosses fingers and hopes for Ender's Game to be one of those movies). As YA writers, of course we never lose track of characters, or at least we try not to!

3. Diversity- You don't have to be a white guy to be a hero. YA literature is doing really well in this regard, in fact some critics have pinpointed the lack of male heroes in a world of Katniss, Tris, Clary Fray etc. But in the world of the megaplex the white male rules supreme. (I read a statistic that in 2013 women had 20% of the speaking roles in movies. 20%!!!!)  Current YA has a lot of girl power, but is still more than predominantly white, and predominantly heterosexual. I think throwing in diverse characters for the sake of diversity is a bad idea...but being aware of the issue and finding ways to work diversity into stories is an important goal. 

4. People like to be entertained. It's the bottom line--why our books get published. Books and movies have sustained me through some of the worst times in my life, and I know how important they are. Literature (and movies) give us context and meaning for tragedy and triumph. But, while I'm appalled that women don't have bigger roles, while I'm worried that some of my favorite books will be turned into abysmal movies (*cough Time Traveller's Wife *cough). While it's annoying to see colorful movies with nothing but action continually outsell more thought provoking movies, I think the thing to take from this very successful summer blockbuster season is that storytelling is still alive, that consumers all over the world want to be told stories, and that we, as authors must get to work to provide those stories! 

Happy Writing!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Courting Amish Style

What Rose and Noah face when they begin courting.

Yes, there still is a place in the world where the process of a boy and a girl getting to know each other is called ‘courting.’  In Amish communities throughout the Midwest and stretching into other regions of the United States, dating is called courting and breaking up is referred to as ‘quitting’ each other.

Because of my years of contact with Amish teens coming to my farm to participate in horse-back riding activities, babysitting my children or hanging out with my own teenagers, I’ve come to understand their secretive world of courtship very well. 

First, Amish teens do get to pick their partner, contrary to popular belief.  But they must choose another Amish member or they’ll get into heaps of trouble as seen in TEMPTATION where Noah, an Amish teen, falls for Rose, an outsider.   The boys and girls of a community spend their entire lives together; meeting as toddlers, going through school together until the eighth grade and participating in church and weekly youth activities, such as singings and volleyball or softball games. 

By age sixteen, many of the Amish have already decided on their future spouse.  Courting is serious business for the Amish.  ‘Dating around’ is not acceptable behavior within the Amish society.  A person chooses carefully who they will commit to courting, because they know that they will be expected to stay in the relationship due to problems that can arise within the community when couples ‘quit’ each other.  Also, divorce is almost unheard in the Amish world, so teens tread lightly with the opposite sex until they decide on the right person.

The Amish youth are encouraged to begin romantic relationships, because it helps insure that they will remain Amish.  Since the teens aren’t allowed to court until they’ve officially gone through the ceremony to join their church, many young ones who might have reservations about living their lives the Amish way, will commit to it in order to be with the person they’re fond of.  With courting, comes the prospect of marriage and a jump into adulthood, which satisfies the hope of more freedom.

Each community has its own set of courting rules.  The community I live in for instance, has a-hands-off courting policy.  This basically means that a couple will get in HUGE trouble if they get caught holding hands, kissing or going any further physically within the relationship.  Punishment includes reciting their sins before their entire community on Sunday and possibly being ‘shunned’ for a length of time, usually lasting one to six weeks, depending on the conduct.  Shunning is especially painful to the couple, because it means they won’t be able to see each other until the time is up.  Other communities are a bit more relaxed on the matter, but Amish teens are always held to a high standard when courting.  This doesn’t mean that couples aren’t getting a kiss in here and there or even going much further into a physical relationship, but they are watched carefully and learn early on to either abstain or be extremely stealthy in their liaisons.

Although, the courtship rituals of the Amish society might sound harsh to those of us on the outside, there are many positives to their strict structure.  Most couples will begin courting at the age of sixteen and marry by the time they’re nineteen or twenty.  Because the teens have a deep sense of responsibility and meaning about entering a relationship, they don’t play games, and there is much less drama and heartbreak involved.  They enjoy support from their families and community and begin their lives together on solid ground. 

I’ve witnessed many teens go through the process of courting and each couple eventually married.   In the end, they were in love and happy…and isn’t that what we all strive to achieve?

You can read firsthand about Rose and Noah’s courting experience in TEMPTATION, where they meet secretly and struggle to find a way to be together.  Their story continues in BELONGING, when they finally have the opportunity to court in the Amish way, but are torn apart again when Rose’s family puts a stop to it.  You will find out once and for all if Rose and Noah find their happily-ever-after in FOREVER, which hits bookshelves on January 28th, 2014.   

Learn about a fascinating culture while taking an emotional roller coaster ride in the TEMPTATION series! I love to hear from readers!  You can contact me on my FB page (Karen Ann Hopkins) or the Temptation FB page.

Happy reading!

Karen Ann Hopkins

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Details, Details

Details, Details

Like many artists, writers are a hyper observant breed. We don’t just see water in a swimming pool. We notice how the light shines through the water, creating wobbly web-like patterns on the blue concrete floor below.
When others look to the sky, they may see birds and planes flying overhead. And we see those things, too. But we also take into account that a shadow is cast by these objects. On a clear bright day, a following patch of darkness will glide over the grass and concrete in the wake of a scavenging crow. Your friend doesn’t just smile at the compliment you pay her, she beams, making the very slight gap in her front teeth all the more endearing.
Details are everywhere. Painters in particular are well aware of this. Ever watch one of those Bob Ross TV spots? There he is, grinning and painting, laying down the foundation of his work. Then, gradually, one brush stroke at a time, he builds up to a fully formed landscape. Tree, lakes, foliage, waterfalls, and mountains enshrouded by mist arise magically from mere smears and blobs of paint. And you can tell he has an eye for detail because, when he’s done, it looks real.

As writers, essentially, we’re after creating same effect, only with words as our medium. Even if we’re writing about flying porcupines or dragons or epic outer space battles, we still want our audience to be able to believe in the environment in which we’ve placed our characters. Details help us to cast our veil of illusion over our audience, to draw them in to our world, and smudge reality out.

Of course, we don’t want to overdo it. Too much attention to detail can interrupt the flow of your story, and slow the pacing. The trick is be like Bob Ross and fill in just enough to suggest reality. After all, Mr. Ross doesn’t paint individual leaves. You can’t stare at one of his paintings and count the blades of grass. However, looking at the painting as a whole, there still appears to be individual leaves. Even though he’s created whole beds of grass from one or two well-placed strokes, it still seems as if all the blades are accounted for. There is shadow as well as light, reflections and also the sense that the picture we’re viewing continues off the canvas in all directions.

Check out this opening passage from The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Even though this is only one sentence, Poe provides us with quite a lot of information regarding his narrator’s surroundings. We can glean from this opening that the environment is bleak. He shows us that the clouds are low and tells us that it’s autumn. He also tells us that he’s in the country. Our brains, in response, might imagine craggy and decaying trees even though he never expressly tells us that there are any trees at all. Those low clouds are dark in my mind’s eye even though Poe doesn’t tell me that either. “Oppressive” kind of does the trick there. Actually, I’m not putting a lot of color in this countryside at all because of that word “dreary.” Also, night is approaching. Time has passed. It’s gone from daylight to dusk, and Poe conveys this in a less straight-forward and more poetic way with the “shades of evening,” line. The shadows are closing in and all of this adds to a growing sense of claustrophobia that will underscore the entire tale.

Poe gives us a lot of descriptive terms in this first sentence, but you’ll notice he doesn’t tell us every single minute detail. Like Bob Ross, he suggests. We, as the readers, do the rest.

Of course, the inclusion of details in our writing has a much longer reach than just how we paint a character’s surroundings. What about the characters themselves? Harry Potter wears glasses. That tells me his eye-sight isn’t great. Wrap your protagonist in a wool scarf and, before you can mention the temperature, your readers will know it is winter. And those are just the surface details.

Take a look at this passage I’ve constructed below.

The ten to fifteen seconds it took for the bus to draw to a complete stop were Mark’s favorite of the day. Like always, he waited for her to stand from the bench first. That way, he could sidle close without it seeming too awkward. They were, of course, all waiting to board the same bus.
Today, her bubble gum smelled of watermelon. Though Mark didn’t much care for watermelon, he did like the Gardena perfume she wore. It reminded him of the spring that seemed so far away.

In these paragraphs, the reader can determine that the characters are waiting at a bus stop, even though I don’t say that outright. It’s suggested that this is a daily routine and also that the whole scenario has been going on for some time. A reader might also perceive that Mark has a crush on the unnamed female character though that’s not spelled out either. I never mention exactly how close the characters are to one another, but that Mark can smell her perfume and the flavor of her bubble gum suggests that they are quite close indeed.

We all know the rule of “Show don’t’ tell,” and I know that I’m approaching that same advice from the angle of incorporating details. And I think that, remembering that timeless writing rule can be a good guideline that will help you to determine what types of details to include and also aid you in deciphering what might be too much. The details that you paint into your individual story should fit in with “showing” your reader your world, the ins and outs of the people populating the pages of your tale and the heart of the story itself.
Are the details you’re including necessary to the story? Do they add to mood and theme? Do they provide important information? Do they help things to feel real? (Smell in particular can heighten the reality of a scene.)

These questions are often best saved for the revision process, when you will know better what your story is and isn’t. They’re good to have in the back of your mind as you go, though.

A good writing exercise to practice adding and incorporating details is place your character in a setting, and never mention by name what that setting is.

For example, you could write about your character waiting at the dentist without using the word “dentist” or “waiting room.”
What sounds does he hear and how do they affect him? What does he smell? How is he feeling? Maybe he rubs his jaw in anticipation. Or does he check his watch? On that note, a business man might have a Rolex while the athletic type might have a sport’s watch.

The dentist I had when I was a kid used to listen to and sing along with opera music. He had civil war paintings hanging on all of the walls, too. Those things always creeped me out. Including those details would be an interesting way to suggest creepiness to my audience and convey information about the dentist, too, without my telling everyone outright that things are weird.

Ultimately, details should enrich your story, adding contour and dimension to your tale the same way details add to other art forms like paintings, drawings, sculptures, movies, plays and dance. Be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. Be subtle and remember to trust your readers to fill in the blanks and also to pick up on the important stuff you have taken care to sprinkle throughout.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Whose Story is it Anyway?

I'm not just a writer, I'm a mom. And as a mom, I can safely say that  kids are crazy and exhausting unique and challenging. Just like writing. And while the whole "Your book is like your child" analogy is nothing new, the writing process continues to teach us writers, who are supposed to be in charge and in control, a serious thing or two. My latest Duh! moment began with the birth of my first son over 12 years ago. I was teaching English as a Second Language at the college level at the time, and my students bought be a lovely baby book to keep all my child’s milestones and baby memories in. I remember looking through it during the first days of my boy’s life and thinking I’d be working through the book page by page. I’d never babysat as a teenager. I was a first-time mother. I put my trust in the publisher of this expensively bound, glossy-papered keepsake, sure that they had every clue what was supposed to happen consecutively in a child’s life.

I was wrong. I couldn’t first put the picture of my son walking on Page 4 because he was actually stringing words together first, which I had to write on Page 6. He never crawled. He sort of scooted, so I had to cross off and edit that line in the book. And his teeth fell out way earlier than the book hinted they would. I was skipping all over this baby book to fill in my son’s story. Primarily because the book was not the story. He was.

And still, when my second son was born a little over three years later, I trusted again that I would be seeing things in the order his baby book suggested. Hadn’t I learned that every individual is different? I should have, but I figured my oldest son was perhaps a fluke. Unique. Some kind of baby anomaly, and, certainly, my second son would offer proof of this through his very rigid adherence to the “normal” timeline of growth and development. NOPE. He never crawled either. He spoke even earlier than my first son. He lost his teeth WAY later than the book suggested. He, too, was his own person. An individual. Go figure.

Now, I birth characters in my head. I conceive of ideas and attempt to lay them out word for word in some kind of story structure. For years, I’ve been looking for the perfect “baby book template” for my ideas – the ultimate plot outline, the “correct” plot diagram, the magical truth of how many pages in before each twist and turn is supposed to occur in my stories. I’ve spent LOADS of time and money on resource books, classes, conferences, and I’ve worked to try to cram my beautifully flawed and very individual characters into the slots on the “normal” and “correct” story timelines I’m given. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And I finish feeling unsatisfied…or, worse, I don’t finish at all.   

Since I hadn’t seemed to quite learn the lesson with my children or with the four novels I’ve conceived of and finished so far, while looking for yet another magical template for plot, I came across a resource that told me exactly why my characters weren’t following the perfect story arc. Lisa Cron’s WIRED FOR STORY as well as her online articles started smacking me with some seriously verbal whacks that basically said, “Hey, You Distracted and Misguided Writer! The plot doesn’t dictate the story. The character does.”

That sounds simple. But Cron says this is the reason why so many manuscripts that have come across her editorial desk are not compelling at all. “In fact,” she says, “it’s often why the manuscripts weren’t stories at all. They were just a bunch of things that happened.”* When we sit down to outline, map out and create that path for the brilliant climax, often we, as writers, ignore the screaming needs of the proverbial “square” individuals in our books and try to shove them into the pre-set “round” holes. Yet, the story comes from the internal journey and needs of the characters. In the stories that rivet readers most, the characters move from one point to another because they were compelled to by who they are and what they need. That is the reason why they go from Point A to Point B and, ultimately, all the way to Point C(limax) and Point D(enouement).

“It’s just like in life: we don’t simply want to know what a person does, what we really want to know is why. That’s the arena story lives it,” Cron says*.

So Mary Maincharacter doesn’t go to the creepy warehouse to check out its contents. She goes because she is convinced her grandmother, who she loved more than anyone else in her family, hid her jewelry there before she died. And she doesn’t simply get the jewelry and bring it back to her house. Instead, she risks her life and freedom in exchange for possible imprisonment by breaking in and taking the jewelry back to a hiding spot in her basement because she knows some nasty thugs are looking for it and she wants to get it first and ultimately prove these jewels are rightfully hers. Whew! The point Cron makes: story moves along by way of the internal motivation of the characters as opposed to the writer merely moving characters around on a predetermined story board. And THAT is what the reader expects. Defying the character’s nature for the sake of plot will only lead to the reader putting your manuscript down and never picking it back up.

Lesson learned. Finally.

And because it is an invaluable one, I’m giving away a copy of Lisa Cron’s book, WIRED FOR STORY.
Simply post a message below about your own experience with plotting or a comment about this post. Leave your email address in the post, so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be determined by a random drawing of entrants and notified on Saturday, August 10, 2013.

Good Luck! 


The Winner of the WIRED FOR STORY book giveaway is CARLA LUNA CULLEN. Carla, post or send your email and I will contact you to get you the book. Congratulations!