This past Friday HH and I went to see the production of Arsenic and Old Lace at St. Michael's Playhouse. It was really well done--set design, costumes, acting--all the production values were high. That may be why the plot problem loomed so large.
The problem is Chekhovian. In this case, there's no loaded gun that must go off. Instead, a glass of poisoned wine, present from the start, must be drunk.
Because the play is a comedy/farce, multiple times the wine is presented to a possible victim. Each time, something happens so that the wine is unimbibed, to hilarious effect. However, that wine has to be drunk.
Finally, the poisoners are discovered, and they agree to enter an insane asylum in order to avoid being arrested by the police, and here's where things go off the tracks. The director is on the scene, he has agreed to accept them, and then he accepts a glass of poisoned wine and drinks it.
Chekhov is satisfied. The wine has been taken care of. However, this means that there is no asylum director to accept the two crazy ladies, and that the police will investigate (it isn't as if the asylum director's absence won't be missed), and inevitably the crazy ladies will be arrested. Of course none of this happens in the play, which ends with the asylum director raising the glass to his lips, but it's there all the same, and fairly easy to see.
I think this plot hole is why Arsenic and Old Lace, beloved as it is, hasn't attained classic status. The ending doesn't quite work, in the way that, say the ending of The Importance of Being Earnest does work.
There's no escaping story logic.
I went to fetch a towel to pick it up with, but when I slid the screen, the bird righted itself and sat, eyes closed, looking like it was recovering. I decided the best thing to do was leave it undisturbed, so I went for a walk. Somewhere in the middle of the walk, I got wondering what I would find when I returned. I came up with three possibilities, which somehow made me think of Schrödinger's Cat, which in turn led me to the flaw in that thought experiment for the storyteller.
Schrödinger's cat can only be dead or alive. It's another example of binary thinking.
Of course, those are the options for all of us, until one of them becomes the ultimate and is no longer an option. (This is the place to insert my favorite clip from Moonstruck, except I can't find a video, so you'll have to put up with dialogue. Rose says to Cosmo, "I want you to know, no matter what you do, you're gonna die just like everybody else.")
But one step back from what is really no option, there are many options. These are the ones I came up with for the little stunned bird.
- It would have recovered and flown.
- It would still be there, recovering.
- It would have flown in order to avoid a cat. (Our deck sees a lot of neighborhood cat traffic.) It might still be stunned, but in a safer location.
- It might have died from being stunned.
- It might have been killed by a cat.
- -If killed by the cat, it might have been taken away completely.
- -If killed by the cat, part of it might still be there (cats being cats).
Because that's what storytellers do, they look for stories outside the (Schrödinger's) box.
(image from whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
What are you currently working on?
The major revision is to More than A Stage, a contemporary YA that follows aspiring Broadway baby Heidi MIretti through a summer of drama both on and off the stage.
A fictional TV series (Hotspurs Harriers) plays a role, and it's been terrific fun casting and writing episode synopses for this mash-up of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Shakespeare, all so the fictional star can play a pivotal role in Heidi's story.
It's also been a pleasure to re-immerse myself in the world of theater, which was my high school passion, and in these particular works: The Importance of Being Earnest, Midsummer Night's Dream, Rent, The Odd Couple, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
More than a Stage reflects my interest in teens following their passions, not only in romance but in their vocation; it could be pitched as a Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You meets E. Lockhart's Dramarama.
I consider gender and sexuality spectrums, so my characters are as likely to be LGBTQ as straight and cisgender. When the novel opens, Heidi is an out and proud lesbian with girlfriend, and a BFF whose boyfriend likes to wear skirts. (Their story is told in a companion novel, Skirting the Truth.)
Why do I write what I write?
Stories seem to choose me as much as I choose them. Something happens that makes me ask one of two questions: "What did it take for that person to do that? or "What if?" Most of those questions seem to have to do with gender, particularly gender roles, which isn't surprising since I have been fascinated by the arbitrary nature of most--if not all--gender roles as distributed among both men and women.
My YA novels include at least an element of romance, because I love romance of the Jane Austen persuasion--the characters finding the person who is right for them--and because I think there's nothing more difficult than opening up to another person when you are already vulnerable, taking the risk of being rejected and hurt. Romance or not, the inner journeys my characters make and their response to the world around them is what fascinates me, as does the way people pursue whatever they're passionate about, whether it's the arts, sports, gaming or superheroes.
How does my Individual writing process work?
It all starts with one of those two questions I mentioned (possibly both). After that, two things can happen. The best case scenario is and immediate answer which leads to another possibility and another and another, until the whole basic story has arrived. This has happened to me exactly once. I don't expect it to happen again, although I would love it to.
The second possibility is that I can't stop thinking about the question and the situation or person that prompted it. That sort of obsession means I've got a story worth sticking with, even if it takes a year or five for the elements to come together. That's what happened with Heidi. By the time I'd finished a draft of Skirting the Truth, she'd become such a fascinating character, I wanted to give her her own story. It was more than a year before I chanced on the germ of the plot.
Once I have the elements--characters and plot concept--I start drafting. I get enough down so that I have a sense not only of where things are going but--most important--that they are going. I'm talking the basic "this is how I am going to tell the story"--the voice, the point of view, the tense, the characters (character definitely comes first for me), a sense of what the Big Events are, the basic structure, or at least what I think the structure will be.
Once I have those elements, I plot. I'm not a real outliner, but I get out index cards and markers and other fun office supplies, a trick I picked up from my advisor Tom Birdseye (you can see some of his index cards on the wall behind him). I and make a guide: This is how I think I'm getting to those major plot points. They go up on a bulletin board and serve as guides.
I love the index card guides because they let me write scenes out of order. At this point, my focus is on getting the story out, whatever it takes, and sometimes that's writing scenes in order and sometimes it's working on an early chapter one day and a late chapter the next. Work on an easy chapter when I'm tired or a difficult chapter when I know it's time. The index cards let me do that. I may stop to do character studies, or fact check something (show tunes in the case of More than a Stage), but I don't do that unless, for some reason, I'm bogged down. One thing I don't do is look back. If I know something has to change, I make a note and move on (sometimes with "Boys of Summer" playing on repeat). I do it this way because things happen, wonderful surprises, when I'm not too tied down.
Some people call this the discovery draft, some people call it a pre-first draft. I call it making marble. This draft will be the block from which the final sculpture will be carved. The rough shaping that is revision brings the index cards and markers out again, highlighting the wonderful surprises, deleting the planned things that weren't as good (or that turned out to be redundant but that allowed me to get to the wonderful surprises). Revision is where I get ruthless. If it doesn't serve the story, it has to go. Cut, cut, cut. Chisel, chisel, chisel. Until finally the novel is ready for a final polish.
And now it's time to tag friends. I'm going to tag any of my fellow Magic Ifs (VCFA January 2014) who haven't participated in The Writing Process Blog Tour. You know who you are.
One of the things vacation has always meant to me was time to luxuriate in reading, and this last week was no different.
I took with me three books and finished them all.
Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You was utterly and completely wonderful. I loved the world she created (indie films in Hollywood, with ties to the past) and her characters and I especially loved the various relationships (friends, lovers, shifting relationships). My only problem with the novel was that it ended and I had to leave that world. I suspect I'll be back.
The world Sarah Combs created in Breakfast Served Anytime was equally vivid, although it felt familiar in some ways because it was a summer "geek camp" on a college campus, not unlike the CTY camp my daughter attended for several summers. This was not a typical YA novel in many ways, but then, the characters weren't typical either. My favorite aspect of Combs's novel was how grounded it was in Kentucky, whether the issue was getting kids to want to attend college there instead of seeing the world, or the coal as a source of prosperity or environmental degredation, or city vs. rural. Many of the issues also come up in Vermont, but with slightly different twists (substitute wind turbines for coal) and the young adult perspective on them felt quite accurate.
Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls was the third novel up. It says so much about this novel that I, who am not particularly close to my sister, totally bought into the relationship. I'm not a great spooky story reader, but I loved this one. In some ways, perhaps because the setting is somewhat similar, it reminded me of Jennifer Donnelly's debut, A Northern Light. There is something about flooded towns, too.
We had a week's vacation, and I was finished with the books I brought by day four. Luckily for me it rained on day five, and we visited a book barn. There I found a book I'd been wanting to re-read for a number of years--Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, which I enjoyed so much when I read it as an undergraduate. Of course, after thirty-five years, I'm noticing different things, but it's no less enjoyable, particularly for the way she talks about writing "costume Gothics." There are some similarities to Atwood's later novel Cat's Eye.
And now I'm home, with a whole stack of library books before me, as well as a writing project (picture book) to tackle.
What have you been reading lately?
But if we want to consider the price of war, this is a good day to do so, and there's no better way to bridge the distance and know that price than to read Ernie Pyle's description of the aftermath of D-Day:
"Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out – one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.
Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes. Here are broken-handled shovels, and portable radios smashed almost beyond recognition, and mine detectors twisted and ruined.
Here are torn pistol belts and canvas water buckets, first-aid kits and jumbled heaps of lifebelts. I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down."That's some of the best, most effective writing I have ever read, because it brings the story home. Every single detail speaks of the massive, yet personal loss of life, all to stop what must have looked like the unstoppable spread of fascism.
The best way to honor that loss is to prevent totalitarianism from ever rising again, in whatever form it takes.
Ernie Pyle's complete story is here.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fun twist on the ABCs, running from Andy Acorncap to Zippy the Zygodactyl (a good word to know). The critters names may be imaginative, but they are left in the woodland shade by the illustrations, created from items found in forest litter from Florida to Maine. A useful endnote should inspire young readers to create their own Litter Critters after a walk in the woods near them.
View all my reviews
Vermont has a long, proud history of supporting libraries and our Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award is one of the oldest childrens' book awards in the nation. In recent years, that award has been joined by the Red Clover Award for picture books and the Green Mountain Book Award for YA literature.
In addition, summer reading programs continue to flourish and children's and YA library services have never been so vibrant.
None of that would have been possible without Grace Greene, Youth Services Consultant that the Vermont Department of Libraries for the past 28 years--which is impossible, because she can't be a day over 40. Grace's passion for books and children and reading is deep and infectious and it certainly influence my life.
I first met Grace during a brief stint as a children's librarian in a nearby town. I will never forget how nervous I was, because The Head of Children's Services (picture of Big Brother looming in my head) was visiting. Grace must have suspected the nerves, because after I answered one question completely at random, she settled me down, asking about the picture of my daughter. For various complicated reasons, a possible career as a children's librarian didn't pan out for me, but Grace and I stayed in touch.
When I became the administrative assistant in Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, I let Grace know that I'd be happy to review relevant children's and YA titles for what were then biannual Materials Review Sessions held around the state. She welcomed me and soon I was receiving regular packages of books to review. At first, they all had to do with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, but over time, variety was added and I found my skills at assessing these works in 150-300 words expanding.
After nine years, I left Holocaust Studies as well, but the packages kept on coming. Soon thereafter, I became a member of the Green Mountain Book Award Committee, and there I got to work with Grace much more closely than ever before, as we met for four or five meetings a year over six years. The breadth of her knowledge, her frankness, and her well-thought-out opinions impressed me as much as her infectious laugh. I'm not a person who looks forward to most meetings, but those were a blast, talking about books, assessing which would be best fits for a list, sometimes arguing about books.
Now Grace is retiring and the Materials Review Sessions have come to an end, for very good, and valid reasons. And although I continue to read widely (because I am a writer and writers read), I will miss those packages, the thrill, the suspense as I wait to see what I've been given this time. The surprises have been many, including Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart, which I might not otherwise have read for months and which I will now be using in a course on Writing YA Fiction that I'll be teaching this fall.
It is often said that books can change lives. So can book people. Grace is one of them. I may not have become a librarian, but our friendship, our shared passion for books and children and teens has helped me become the writer I am today.
May we all have such friends in our lives.
Photo: Vermont Dept. of Libraries.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing the three winners of the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Awards read from their winning manuscripts, and I am here to tell you: They knocked it out of the park as well as Big Papi does down the road at Fenway.
Mackenzie van Engelenhoven, Rebecca Roan, and Pamela Sonn are writers to watch out for. Their picture books (Rebecca and Pamela) and YA novel (Mackenzie) will doubtless be out in the world soon, and deserve to be. These are three seriously talented women.
Listening to them read, reminded me of being where they were a year ago. That's an extra shot of inspiration to finish the tweak-ish revisions I still need to do, so that my own winning manuscript can start taking Next Steps.
- Current Mood: accomplished
This morning an experience brought into focus something I deal with on regular basis. You see, I am one of you, an instructor in a professional writing program at a small professional college. Our students are not interested in a liberal arts education. They come to us because they want to work as writers, whether for game design companies, news media, or as publishing professionals.
This morning I heard someone read a heart-warming story of appreciation written by a fourth grader. The short personal essay was imaginatively organized and expressed deep gratitude. However, it also contained several very simple, yet cringe-making errors: “her and me sat together” and a basic subject-verb disagreement that I no longer remember because all I could think was, ‘doesn’t she know that’s wrong?’”
I happened to be sitting beside my local superintendent, and couldn’t help mentioning the errors to him. He explained, “It’s okay. They’re allowed a certain amount of free expression.”
That was when the penny really dropped.
While I wholeheartedly agree that students need to be allowed to give voice to whatever their thoughts are, not expecting them to master certain fundamental rules of our common language—to learn when they should code switch from what they would say to what they should write—is unreasonable.
I know what you’re thinking—this child was only in the fourth grade. However, I teach at the college level and I see these very same mistakes from my college seniors. Including senior professional writing majors.* It’s not that I see such errors in works of fiction, where they might be appropriate to character. It’s that I see them in everything from personal essays to sample cover letters for job applications.
That twenty-one-year-old students make the same mistakes as nine-year-old students is significant. In some cases, I suspect they have never been taught. In some cases, I suspect they were taught—once, probably in elementary school—but that the teaching was never reinforced. And in some cases, I suspect they were taught, but that they were allowed that “certain amount of free expression” and took it to mean that what they learned in Language Arts class did not apply when they were writing for themselves.** This does them a disservice when it could make a difference between receiving a request for a job interview because their cover letter and resume were flawless and never receiving that request because of basic mistakes in grammar and spelling.
Should grammar and spelling be the first things that matter? No. Persuasive content is most certainly more important. But that is not the same as saying grammar and spelling don’t matter at all. As author Kate Messner points out in Real Revisions: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers, (Stenhouse, 2011), it’s the last step, but it’s a crucial last step.
My fellow teachers, please encourage your students to make that crucial last step. Those of us who teach them after you will be grateful. So will they.
*Deliberate use of a sentence fragment for effect.
**Deliberate use of a conjunction at the start of a sentence. In this case, these sentences form a quasi-list.