Tag Archives: YA novels

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

27 Sep
Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right?

The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a high school student, Reshma Kapoor, who wants to be valedictorian but worries that someone might beat her. Her desire is clear, but it’s not enough to build a novel on. More is needed. In this passage, we see some of that more:

When I first told Mummy about the perfects, she laughed and said, “No one can be perfect.”

People say that all the time, as if it’s obvious.

But is it?

That’s the problem with people. They think perfection is about things you can’t control: your intelligence or your wealth or your beauty. But if they thought of it as avoiding mistakes, they’d understand how achievable it is.

We all know that it’s impossible to go one hour without making a mistake. And if that’s possible, then it must be possible to string together twenty-four consecutive mistake-free hours into a perfect day.

Having an entire mistake-free day is difficult, but it’s doable.

She lists the ways she didn’t make mistakes (studying, dieting, etc) and then says this:

And if I can have one mistake-free day, then I can have two, and three, and four, and eventually whole weeks and months and years will pass without mistakes. Is that so insane?

This is a nifty piece of writing. It starts with the idea that some girls are perfect, gives one character’s response (no one’s perfect), and then considers whether that’s really true. If perfection is possible, how would the narrator achieve it? She develops a plan.

Kanakia has used that basic desire (be valedictorian) to create plot. Take out the specifics, and you get this: “Main Character wants ____, and some characters seem to have an advantage in getting ____, but So-and-So says that’s not true. But if it is true, then here is how Main Character will beat those characters at their own game.”

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use desire and community to create plot, using Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia as a model:

  1. Find something that your character wants. It can be anything, and there are a few usual suspects: love, money, success. Try using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and water (and other basics required for human survival), safety and security, love and belonging, respect, and the ability to pursue happiness (self-actualization, American-style). In Enter Title Here, Reshma’s desire is a mixture of the last four. If she’s valedictorian, she’ll be assured of a successful career and the financial security it brings. She’ll feel as if she belongs with a group like the perfects. She’ll gain people’s respect and will be able to pursue the life she wants (or so she thinks). Your character’s desire doesn’t need to tap into all of these categories, but it should hit at least one of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too fleeting to drive plot forward.
  2. Give the character competition. Reshma wants to be valedictorian, but the perfects might beat her to it. Of course, competition doesn’t necessarily require other characters pursuing the same goal. They might have other goals that put them in the way of your character’s pursuit of her own desire. In the way is the key phrase. If nothing’s in the way, there’s no story: I wanted to be valedictorian, and so I did it.
  3. Create a philosophical framework. Resume’s mother doesn’t say, “You’ll never be as good as the perfects.” Instead, she says, “No one can be perfect.” She’s suggesting a way of seeing and understanding the world. Reshma doesn’t just reject her advice, she also rejects this philosophical framework for another: You can be perfect if you have the willpower. In your story, let a character comment on the competition. Is it possible to defeat it? To be like it? Is it desirable to try? We hear versions of this almost every day: when we fail to get something we want, someone will say, “It’s probably for the best.” Whether we agree or disagree with that statement determines what we do next.
  4. Let your main character disagree with this framework. Reshma decides to beat the perfects at their own game. She can be perfect. She’s saying, in effect, it’s not for the best. How can your character refuse to see the problem the same way as the philosophical character?
  5. Develop a plan. Once Reshma decides to do what seems impossible—be perfect—she creates a plan: be perfect for an hour, then a day, then a week, then for months and years. What is your character’s plan to outwit, outwork, or outperform the competition/obstacle?

The goal is use desire as a starting point for creating character motivation and plot.

Good luck.

How to Jump Out of Scene into Backstory

29 Sep
Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene S. Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?

This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the JohnsIt will be published on November 3, which means you can take off work to buy it and tell your boss that you were voting.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene with two couples meeting for dinner. Their sons are long-time friends and have just left home together to attend the University of Texas and play together on the baseball team:

He held out a glass of bourbon to Andres while Angie poured a couple of margaritas in stemware waiting on the table. They raised their glasses, the four of them, and looked at each other as though they’d all just rolled out of bed after an afternoon of intimacy.

“To our boys,” Angie said.

The novel uses this moment as an opportunity to give a brief history of the relationship between the Mejias and Robisons, a history that begins this way: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” We learn that the Robisons are older. They’re white and the Mejias are Hispanic. They’re upper class, and the Mejias are working class. The history of the relationship, then, is, to some extent, the history of how the couples dealt with these differences.

The passage tells that history from the Mejias’ point of view and begins with a description with the meals that the Mejias prepare for guests:

The Mejias rarely strayed from their standard foods—fideo and meat, tacos and chalupas, easy ricotta-free lasagna, beef and, more rarely, chicken enchiladas.

Then, the novel sets up the difference between the Mejias’ food and the Robisons’ food:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

And what is that difference?

That first meal together, the Robisons served blackened catfish, which Julie thought was too fancy for her taste.

But what makes the passage interesting is the next line:

Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.

This is how a novel or story uses a snapshot to suggest a life. Seeing Off the Johns starts with a dinner and uses it as touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between the two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reveal a life with a scene, using Seeing Off the Johns by Rene Perez II as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that contains a recurring moment. Perez builds his scene around a dinner, something that occurs every day and is shared by these couples on a regular basis. There are many potential, daily moments like this, and there are also other less mundane ones: recurring arguments, recurring obstacles, recurring bad habits or giving-in to vices. Even first-time moments (sex, drugs, murder) are often part of longer arcs: “the character walked this street every day until…” or “she’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” So, first, figure out which scene you’ll use as the jumping-off point for the backstory.
  2. Jump from scene to backstory. You can make the jump by reversing the order of the lines used to introduce the scene. “She’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” becomes “On every other night at the bar…” This is essentially what Perez does: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” The line could have read, “Every other time they’d met for dinner, they’d gotten on this well.” What he adds is the word despite, which is a great way to add tension. It adds a charge to the mundane: “She’d been coming to the same bar for years and never been hit on despite…” Give the line a try by combining the usual with the word despite.
  3. Build a narrative upon that despiteThe word inherently suggests story. Why didn’t guys hit on the woman? Why did the Mejias and Robisons get along? The answer almost certainty involves a revealing detail about human nature (She was six-foot-five and intimidating to the sort of men that drank at the bar) or a character’s decision (Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.) Note that word accepted. They could have refused to accepted the difference in wealth, but they didn’t. They decided to get along. What you get, then, is a narrative that goes something like this: ___ has been happening for a long time despite ___, and the only reason this scene is happening now is because _____.

The goal is to craft piece of backstory that jumps out of a scene and illuminates the lives behind the scene.

Good luck.

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

23 Oct
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Take Me Tomorrow features a drug that makes its users temporarily clairvoyant. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is the author of the Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The first novel in the series, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection. Her most recent novel is Take Me Tomorrow, a YA dystopian thriller.

In this interview, Thompson discusses her growth as a writer since publishing her first novel at the age of 16, stretching the conventions of the YA dystopian genre, and the role of The Odyssey in her new novel.

(To read the opening chapters of Take Me Tomorrow and an exercise on how to begin and end chapters, click here.)

Michael Noll

The chapters have real dramatic punch. Each begins in a moment of tension and ends with that moment ends. As a result, the chapters are often short and focused on a single scene. Do you structure them that way consciously?

Shannon A. Thompson

I never structure chapters to be a certain way. The breaks might change during editing, but I mainly focus on simply telling the story honestly and in the best way possible. In fact, I didn’t even realize that about the chapters until you said it. Perhaps that is just the way Sophia’s mind works.

Michael Noll

This is your fourth novel. The first one, November Snow, was written (I believe) while you were still a teenager. I’m sure it’s easy to see how you’ve developed as a writer since then. I’m curious what you think is the most significant way your writing has grown.

Shannon A. Thompson

I believe my writing has grown dramatically. It’s funny you bring November Snow up because it is currently being re-written for re-release in November of 2015, and even I can confess to the embarrassing moments (the endless moments) I’ve had evaluating the changes I want to make. My voice has become more concise, and my characters have grown in maturity and depth. I am very excited to see how far my stories have come over the past seven years, and I hope to continue growing for the rest of my writing life.

Michael Noll

The novel begins in the woods, with a female narrator running and throwing knives into trees. In other words, we’re in a world that owes some of its existence to The Hunger Games. Its dystopian world (with a tyrannical state apparatus) also sits firmly within the genre of dystopian YA literature. I’m curious how you view yourself as a writer in these genres. Some writers, like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, take inherited creatures and stories and re-imagine them. Other writers—Suzanne Collins, to some extent—write within the genre without feeling the need to stretch it. What sort of writer do you consider yourself? Are you pushing at the conventions or working comfortably within them?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, is set in a region around Topeka, Kansas.

Well, to be honest, I based the beginning off of my real life. I used to live on a couple hundred acres with my husky, Shadow (the inspiration for Argos) and I collect knives in my spare time. That being said, I strived for a more realistic viewpoint in my dystopian novel. The genre is saturated with almost unrelatable worlds, and although those are fantastically entertaining, I wanted Take Me Tomorrow to have a very close relationship with our current world because the themes very much coincide with societal issues of today, and I didn’t want the topics to be buried under a fantasy. Perhaps that is working comfortably within today’s lines, but maybe – in all honesty – it is pushing the conventions since the approach isn’t in dystopian literature as often. I leave that for the reader to decide. That being said, the sequel – Take Me Yesterday — reveals more about the world than the first book, and I am hoping it receives a contract in the near future. Too bad I don’t have tomo to know.

Michael Noll

The Iliad and The Odyssey are mentioned often in this book. To what extent do you look to those books and their monsters and plots, all of which remain freshly contemporary?

Shannon A. Thompson

Both of those stories are mentioned because Sophia really enjoys them. She has a daring soul and an adventurous heart, but the extent of their mention is explained more so in the sequel. That being said, I will point out one particular scene, which is a bit of spoiler, but in Noah’s bedroom, she comes across a statue, but she doesn’t recognize it. This has to do with Greek culture, and it also shows that – although Sophia reads – the government has censored a lot, especially in terms of photographs (hence why Sophia is fascinated by the paintings in Phelps’ mansion) so she doesn’t recognize what she is looking at despite the fact that she would be aware of it if she were alive in our world. Those are very small details that I inserted specifically for the readers who experience novels more than once and for the rest of the series because Sophia ends up on her own odyssey, and the adventure exposes – like you said – many monsters.

October 2014

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

3 Apr
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise is the latest in the Timely Death series. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas and the author of Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The latest novel in the series is Seconds Before Sunrise. The first novel, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection.

In this interview, Thompson discusses choosing Kansas over New York for her novel’s setting, when to write multiple points of view, and how to create a community of readers and writers.

(To read the opening chapters of Seconds Before Sunrise and an exercise based on how Thompson sets up the novel’s love story, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the importance of place in the trilogy. It’s set in Hayworth, Kansas, which you’ve said is an amalgam of Hays and Ellsworth. This seems, on the surface, like an unusually specific choice for a paranormal romance. The genre states its interests in its name (paranormal and romance), and so the focus of your novels is obviously on the experience of being a shade and the love story between Eric and Jessica. The genre doesn’t really allow for long, lyric passages about place. But does that mean the trilogy could have been set anywhere, or does place matter? To take other examples, place definitely matters in True Blood and Harry Potter, but the American South and England also have much stronger literary histories than central Kansas. In other words, if you set any novel in the South, the reader will have certain expectations. Kansas is more of a blank page, so to speak. How does it impact or color the novel?

Shannon A. Thompson

Understandable question! In the first draft, The Timely Death Trilogy purposely did not have a set place where everything happened. This was because I wanted it to feel like it could happen anywhere, especially right outside your window. Then, in rewrites, I realized I wanted a place, but I didn’t want the stereotypical cities that many novels take place in right now (New York City, Chicago, etc.) I desire more of a “home” feel, something more people can relate to, so I knew I wanted a smaller town, and then I realized I hadn’t read many YA novels in the Midwest, especially fantasy or paranormal based, so I picked Kansas—more or less—as a tribute to the state I lived in during the time of writing the novel.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from two perspectives: Eric and Jessica. How do you know when to switch between them? Sometimes the chapters switch back and forth between points of view, one after the other, but there are also times when Eric gets a couple of chapters in a row. I’m especially curious about the chapters where they are together. How did you decide who got to narrate those chapters?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month. Thompson discusses her approach to POV in the novel at her website.

I actually wrote about how I choose who was speaking on my blog here: Dual Perspectives: Should Characters Have Equal Time to Speak?

To summarize it, I let the characters dictate when they will speak. Since the first novel revolves around the Dark (shades), Eric spoke more, but the second book is focused on what it is like to be a human. Jessica speaks more because of her human background, but it’s a lot more even than the first novel. The third novel, Death Before Daylight, will expose the Light, but I won’t spoil it by saying who speaks more yet. 😀 

Michael Noll

On your website, you give writing tips, and one of them is to avoid inserting technology into fiction—no cell phones, Facebook, Twitter—because it will quickly become obsolete, as flip phones and MySpace have proven. But you also write that excluding technology is a moral choice. You write, “I want young adults to spend more time outside (or reading) and putting an emphasis on social media didn’t sit well with me any longer.” I’m curious how you balance this choice with the fact that social media and technology are becoming integral parts of our lives. Many people (especially teens) cannot use maps, for instance, but instead rely on the GPS apps in their phones. We check our phones constantly (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat) and even sleep with them. We almost certainly do not plan social gatherings or meetings as far ahead as we did when it was possible to go a day or more without talking to someone. Is it possible that at some point in the future, it will be impossible to write about human life without incorporating phones and social media? Will they become like cars–essential parts of a story?

Shannon A. Thompson

You have a very great point! Yes, technology is part of our everyday lives. However, I still think people will eventually turn away from certain aspects—like how the popularity of MySpace eventually went to Facebook—so I see technology as an unknown expiration date when included in novels. That being said, I see nothing wrong with including social media websites—I loved TTYL when I was younger—but it’s not something I will use in this particular trilogy. I might incorporate it into my future works, but I avoid it for now.

Michael Noll

Many writers (new and old, self-published and those working with publishers) tend to focus on their work but not on the business of publishing. What advice would you give about networking? You’ve been quite successful at building a following. Your author website has more than 14,000 followers. How do you find or attract your readers?

Shannon A. Thompson

I think it’s really important to have a website they can go to. Participate on social media, connect all of your sites, and be willing to understand how the social media changes overtime. Blogging has been my most successful platform. If you’re going to blog, I would suggest keeping a regular schedule with a focused topic range, but it’s more important to connect with fellow bloggers by reading and commenting on writers’ blogs like yourself. Networking is the key to finding fun and entertaining relationships with your readers. Overall, be engaging, entertaining, fun, and informative.

For my website, I began it in September of 2012 under the advice of Robin Hoffman, the Get Published Coach. I started reviewing books and movies, but then I slowly began sharing my story—how I got published and what I was planning on doing in the future. This was before I had my contract for my trilogy. I made sure to begin using a lot of SEO terms in my tags, and through the tags, I found blogs that spoke about similar topics. That’s how I found more writers and readers. Once I did that, I followed trends. For instance, I noticed my book reviews weren’t nearly as popular as my writing tips, so I dropped book reviews and did a long series of writing tips. I also started incorporating my contacts into my blog, which I still do today. On my author Facebook, I will ask questions that followers can answer. If I use their answer, I link to their blog. It’s a way to give back while encouraging a communicating and fun environment. It’s win-win. I honestly believe my every other day schedule is a huge factor, because trends slip majorly on the days I do not blog. Keeping everyone up-to-date is really vital to guarantee return. Having my blog connected with all social facets, so it automatically shares across numerous streams helps. My blog automatically posts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Wattpad, and more.

April 2014

 

Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Write a Love Story

1 Apr
Seconds Before Sunrise is second book in the Timely Death series, a Young Adult paranormal series by recent University of Kansas graduate Shannon A. Thompson.

Seconds Before Sunrise is the second book in the Timely Death Young Adult paranormal series by Shannon A. Thompson.

I once heard a critic claim that love stories are more difficult to write today than they were for Shakespeare. The obstacles that Shakespeare depended upon—class, feuding families, the fate of stars—have mostly been removed as possibilities, at least in America.

So, if class isn’t an option, how do we put obstacles between lovers in a story other than “he’s just not that into you?” This is a problem that genre literature, especially genres that deal in fantasy elements, handles well. The new YA paranormal novel from Shannon A. Thompson, Seconds Before Sunrise, perfectly illustrates two great ways to complicate a relationship. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Story Works

I don’t necessarily believe the critic is right, but the idea that class is no longer relevant is still an interesting one. It’s certainly true that when class conflicts appear in fiction, the battle is often quick and decisive. For example, in the film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway’s character questions the importance of choosing between two identical belts (in other words, questioning the industry itself). In response, her boss not only says she’s wrong but also insults her clothes as lumpy and unfashionable, saying that they must come from “some tragic Casual Corner.” After that, the movie never questions the class divide again.

So what are other ways to complicate a relationship? This passage (the beginning of Eric’s chapter on page 10) from Thompson’s novel illustrates her approach to complicating a love story (and the approach of many novels that incorporate fantasy elements):

I shoved my head into my locker and breathed hoarsely. It was the first day of school and sitting next to Jessica was already killing me. I wanted to talk to her, hold her, be with her—anything really—but I couldn’t. If the Light realized who or what we were, she’d be killed, and there was nothing I could do except stay away.

“You okay?” Jonathon asked, his voice squeaking through the slits of my locker.

I leaned back to stare at the blind artist. I wouldn’t believe he was Pierce, a powerful shade, if I hadn’t known his identities myself.

“I’m dealing,” I grumbled, unable to keep eye contact as Jessica passed us.

She flipped her brunette curls as she playfully hit Robb McLain’s arm. Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.

The narrator and Jessica are in love, but the powers that be are keeping them apart—in this case, the “powers that be” are actual forces with actual special powers. Jessica’s memory has been wiped (though not completely) and other characters are in disguise. In other words, Thompson has invented an obstacle that does not exist in the real world. But she has also added a more realistic obstacle. Though the plot depends on paranormal activities, it’s grounded with a staple of love stories: the beautiful and charismatic, yet so-wrong-for-her, rival.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce complications to love story, using the passage from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise as a model. In order to introduce those complications, we first must do the following:

Choose the relationship. It can be a relationship between lovers, of course, but that isn’t the only option. Every story has pairs of characters who develop a relationship with each other: brothers, siblings, parent/child, friends, co-workers, or teammates. All of these relationships work the same. The story is often driven forward by the forces that push these characters together and then pull them apart.

Choose the force of attraction. The most obvious is love. But characters can also be brought together in other ways: their shared history together, duty to a cause or each other, an event like a funeral, or some external force (boss/teacher forcing them to work together). In stories, this force is often clearly identified: “I could never leave her because _____.” Or, “Now, we had no choice but to work together.” Now, we can introduce the force that will disrupt the relationship. There are many ways to do this. Here are some of them:

Forces that can disrupt a relationship:

  • Forces of Class: These are forces whose power comes from differences in social standing: wealth, race and ethnicity, and position within a power structure. Wealth complications, though less common than in the past, still exist in fiction, especially historical fiction. So, The Notebook initially disrupts its characters’ relationship (just before World War II) by having Allie’s parents call Noah “trash.” Romance novels do this all the time: the tycoon’s son seducing the maid. Complications due to race/ethnicity might seem less common (or, again, confined to historical fiction), but they are still used (as in this beautiful story by Tiphanie Yanique). And, relationships in science fiction and fantasy stories (between different kinds of aliens) often mirror realistic stories of racial/ethnic differences. Complications due to power imbalance might be easier to use: bosses and employees, teacher and student, mentor and mentee, player and fan, soldier and civilian, or legal immigrant versus undocumented immigrant. In short, any policy or tradition that grants one person greater power than another is ripe for use in a story.
  • Forces of evil: It’s often useful to say, in a story, that if two characters get together, the bad guys will kill one of them. This is what Thompson does in Seconds Before Sunrise. It’s also the complication used in most adventure stories, like these two favorites from my childhood: Romancing the Stone and The Princess Bride.
  • Characters in disguise: Shakespeare used this a lot in his comedies. Characters—particularly female characters—would disguise themselves, often as men, and go unrecognized by their beloved. The question you must ask yourself is this: why must the character go into hiding? Are they in danger? Are they balancing multiple roles? Are there parts of their lives that cannot be revealed or discussed? The disguise can come in different forms. They don’t always make a beautiful person less beautiful. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac does the opposite by disguising looks with wit.
  • Irreconcilable differences and incompatible goals: This is used by romantic comedies a lot (she’s too serious, and he jokes all the time; she has a career, and he’s a Playboy). It’s also the basis of many domestic dramas. Answer the question: what would make it difficult for these characters to live together, to stand being around each other?
  • External Events: Many stories use external events that separate the characters (soldier shipped off to war, kid left at home over Christmas). The event can also be more intimate, such as the onset of a disease. The film Away from Her (based on Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) disrupts a relationship with Alzheimer’s, to devastating effect.

Now, you can choose a rival.

Three ways to choose a rival:

  • Pick someone poorly suited as a love interest: This kind of rival is often the complete opposite of the other love interest—beautiful and popular instead of ordinary-looking and nerdy or uncool in some way. Even though the rival’s qualities at first seem appealing, the character who falls in love with him/her eventually realizes the rival’s “true” qualities. This is what Thompson has done: “Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.” This kind of rival often creates a plot whose focus is on revealing the rival’s true personality.
  • Pick someone similar to the other love interest: What if the rival isn’t easy to hate? What happens if I love So-and-so, but she falls in love with someone who is just like me, but not me? This kind of rival creates a plot whose focus is on the other person (me) finding ways to distinguish him/herself.
  • Pick a random person. The scary thing about finding your beloved in love with someone else is that it may mean your beloved is far different than you thought. A random rival (someone whose qualities are neither good nor bad, just unexpected) often creates a plot whose focus is revealing the beloved’s true personality. In other words, it shows that the other person (me) has been pursuing someone with whom he/she is poorly matched.

This may seem like a lot of information. In a nutshell, all you need for a love story is an attraction, a disrupting force, and a rival.

Good luck!

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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