Tag Archives: Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

An Interview with Diana Lopez

6 Mar
Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

In this interview, Lopez discusses the importance of strong imagery, how to find a contemporary teen voice, and when to explain cultural/regional details to a broader audience.

To read the opening chapters of Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and an exercise on creating conflict with subtext, click here. For those in Austin, Lopez will be reading at the Westbank Library on March 12.

Michael Noll

One of the more challenging technical aspects of fiction writing is getting characters onto the page for the first time. Your novel does this really effectively. The opening pages use a simple object (bikinis) to introduce four of the major characters (the narrator, her mother, her sister, and her little brother) and also the major conflict (the mother’s breast cancer). All of that happens in about three pages. How did you approach this introduction to character and story? Did the book always begin with the bikinis?

Diana Lopez

Yes. The original title of the novel was “9 Bikinis, 500 Names,” which are now the first and last chapters. I have no idea where the number nine came from, but I knew that I wanted to tackle breast cancer from a daughter’s perspective, a girl who is maturing and who has a lot questions about the body. I wanted her mother to be a strong character with a positive attitude, someone who was going to celebrate her days before the mastectomy by showing off. What better way than to wear bikini tops?

I can’t overstate the importance of strong imagery. The best way to make an okay story into a memorable one is specific imagery. My students often struggle with this. They miss so many opportunities. But consider all the power an image holds. First, it gives the reader a chance to experience via the senses—the bikini colors and patterns, the texture of the fabric, even the hot sun that we associate with them. Second, images hold connotative powers. I don’t have to say that Chia’s mom is fun loving, daring, and sexy. What kind of conclusion would the reader draw if the mother bought oversized T-shirts instead or if she threw away her bras the minute she came home from the doctor? In other words, a good image lets the readers co-create as they arrive at their own conclusions about the characters. Imagine all the assumptions we make about a forty year old woman driving a minivan versus a sixteen-year-old boy.

Michael Noll

There’s a really tender moment in the first chapter between the narrator’s dad and mom:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so, too, because she hesitated before sitting down.

When the narrator’s little brother demands juice, her dad gets it instead of her mom, which causes her mom to say, “Your father’s treating me like an invalid.” What I love about this moment is its complexity: the father is trying to be kind and considerate—and in most situations, his actions would be seen that way—but because of the situation, the mother interprets these actions as insulting and painful. As a result, the reader is shown something deep and powerful about the characters. Did you try to find scenes that would result in this kind of awkward collision of intention and effect? Or was a scene like this a happy accident? Did it just pop onto the page one day?

Diana Lopez

I am always looking for opportunities to heighten the conflict. It’s what drives a novel just as it drives a good conversation. Imagine how bored you are when your friend is relating the non-eventful details of her day, and then imagine how attentive you are when your friend is talking about someone in trouble. We love conflict.

I spent a lot of time figuring out my characters. I write a lot about each before I put them in scenes. What’s the mom like? Where does she come from and how does she spend her days? How about the dad? Where did they meet? Of course, this doesn’t make it into the final book but it definitely informs the scenes.

So to answer your question about that dinner, I imagined the family at the table and the parents having to deal with the mother’s breast cancer. It made sense for the father to be overprotective, and by then, we already know the mother has an independent streak. So the way she takes offense is natural and logical, given who she is. You could put two different people at the same table with the same looming news and get a completely different scene. In fact, that would be a good writing exercise, wouldn’t it?

Michael Noll

You don’t shy away from featuring technology in the novel. In the first chapter alone, the narrator texts her friend, searches through Google Images, and uses her iPod as a point of comparison for something as important as boys. Was it difficult to write about these things from an 8th grader’s perspective? I ask because my students at Texas State have a far different relationship to cell phones and technology than I do—and certainly different than I had at their age. These same students, however, tend to view their younger siblings as getting far more privileges than even they got. They sometimes sound like old geezers complaining about the kids these days. As a writer, how are you able to bridge the generational gap between you and your characters, especially with technology?

Diana Lopez

Good question and one that brings up a very important aspect of writing for young adults. You have to know your audience. I like writing contemporary books, so they have to take place in the here and now, not decades ago when I was a teen. This can be a challenge, but here’s where research comes in. The best way to bridge that generational gap is spend time with teens. Talk to them. Observe them. “Friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Soon you’ll start hearing that contemporary teen voice and you’ll get a good sense of how they relate to each other and to technology. I teach too, and I’m still writing on the board. Instead of copying the notes, half the class takes a pic with cell phones. Many public schools are doing away with books and distributing iPads to their students. I only know these things because I’m out there paying attention. A good tool for writers is observation and engagement with the people you hope will read your book.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the audience for this book. It’s about a Latino family living in San Antonio. They use corn tortillas for tacos—not flour—and take a trip to a cuarto de milagros. In other words, they have an intimate relationship with a particular culture and place. As a result, I was interested in this passage about migas:

Migas was our favorite Tex-Mex dish—a mix of corn tortillas, eggs, tomatoes, onions, and cheese. We loved the recipe. Thing was, migas were for breakfast, not dinner.

The description of migas is clearly meant for readers who do not have the same cultural knowledge as the narrator and her family. This seems to point to a tension that is inherent in a novel about characters who do not often appear in national fiction (though this is changing). How do you balance the need to clue in an audience not familiar with things like Tex-Mex food with the equal need for an honest depiction of a narrator who wouldn’t walk around explaining the basic elements of her life? How do you decide what to explain and what to leave to the reader to figure out?

Diana Lopez

Diana Lopez's middle grade novel Confetti Girl won the William Allen White Award and, according to ALA Booklist, "puts at its center a likable girl facing realistic problems on her own terms."

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Confetti Girl is featured the week at Latin@’s in Kid Lit.

Excellent question and one I have struggled with. I want my book to be accessible to many readers. That said, I don’t intentionally highlight these details. Seriously, they are part of my world so it doesn’t occur to me to give the recipe for things like migas or to explain the process of making cascarones like I do in Confetti Girl. This is where an editor who lives in New York comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she has highlighted places with unfamiliar images or words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus and mentioned T-heads, never realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be little more explicit? The last thing I want is a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and can point out these places—then lets me decide whether or not I should add that recipe or definition.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Create Conflict with Subtext

4 Mar
Diana Lopez's YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel has been called an “honest, sometimes uncomfortable, but always hopeful look at how cancer affects family.”

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated.

Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. You can read the opening chapters at Hachette’s website. (Look for the maroon tab that says “OpenBook-READ AN EXCERPT.”)

How the Story Works

When setting up scenes, we often choose the most obvious paths toward conflict. One character is upset about something and says so. Another character doesn’t like what’s said and so reacts. Thus, conflict. While this method can work, it also limits the characters to thinking about and acting on whatever is happening directly in front of their faces. In other words, there’s no subtext.

In a conflict that arises out of subtext, the characters are thinking about something that is not happening in front of their faces, and the conflict arises because those thoughts begin to manifest themselves through the character’s actions. As a result, a character’s internal conflict becomes external.

Here’s the scene from Lopez’s novel that illustrates this idea perfectly. The subtext isn’t stated in the scene, but it’s clearly present:

As soon as she saw the table, Mom said, “What’s this?”

“I made dinner,” Dad announced.

“But I could have made dinner,” Mom said. “I was planning to. I always make it, don’t I?”

“Just wanted you to have a day off,” Dad said, all cheery.

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful.

After some typical dinner-with-kids chaos, this happens:

“So let the rest of us help,” Dad said. “There’s no need for you to do everything.”

“And there’s no need for me to do nothing at all.”

I felt totally confused. Dad was acting super nice, but Mom was acting mad. “What’s going on?” I had to ask.

It’s at this point that the subtext is revealed: the mom has breast cancer. With that knowledge, you can go back through the scene and see how the dad’s and mom’s actions all stem from this subtext. What makes the scene work is that not everyone is acting on the subtext in the same way: The dad has approached the cancer diagnosis differently than the mom, and the kids don’t yet know what’s going on. As a result, the scene involves three different characters (mom, dad, kids) reacting to subtext (conflict that is happening off page) in three different ways.

What’s interesting is that all of the characters have good intentions. No one is the bad guy or antagonist in the scene. Keep this in mind. A good subtext can pit good people against one another simply because they have different, incompatible reactions to the subtext.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene whose conflict stems from subtext, using the scene from Diana Lopez’s novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel as a model:

  1. Choose a subtext. Or, decide what the character(s) are thinking about while they’re doing other things. What often works best is a subtext that is shared by more than one character. So, you could consider news or revelations about health, career, relationships, school, or finances. These are big areas, the sort of things that stories are “about.”
  2. Choose characters. Who are they, and what is their relationship to one another? Remember, you’ll be putting these people together in a scene, so you need a reason for them to be together.
  3. Give each character a different approach to the subtext. How does each character feel about the subtext? In Lopez’s example, cancer makes the mom determined to enjoy life and the dad determined to care for the mom, and the kids don’t know about it yet. In your writing, each character should have his/her own personal reaction to the news/revelation and also a need to act on that reaction. In life, some good advice is to never act rashly or in haste—to let news sink in before acting. But in fiction, this is bad advice. People and characters alike have a gut reaction upon learning news, but with people, this reaction is sometimes tempered with time. In fiction, time should actually heighten the reaction. In other words, by the time your characters find themselves in scene with one another, they should be so disturbed or bothered by the subtext that they’re chomping at the bit to act. It might also be helpful to have at least one character who doesn’t know the subtext.
  4. Put the characters into a room together. Lopez uses the occasion of a meal. Many stories use wedding, funerals, and graduations. Jane Smiley, in her brilliant novel A Thousand Acres, has her characters play Monopoly. The point is to put the characters into a confined space that they cannot leave: a car, around a table, a space station (Gravity).
  5. Make one of the characters act first. Lopez has the dad act on his reaction to the subtext first (making dinner, pulling out the chair), and the sequence of events dominoes from those initial acts. The act should stand out in some way. The easiest way is for the character to act out of character, and, often, this kind of act will cause the character to be embarrassed or behave awkwardly. Remember, the character is doing something out of the ordinary, and so he/she likely won’t be very good at it. The small failures in the act can provide openings for other characters to react.
  6. Keep the subtext just beneath the surface. Don’t let it be stated outright. As Lopez makes clear in the first chapter of the novel, once the subtext is revealed, the scene ends. So, the longer you can keep it under the surface, the longer you can keep the scene going.

Good luck!

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