Saturday, February 27, 2010

Plotters vs Plungers

Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction has read those books on how to write a novel—the ones that say we should sit down and create character profiles and answer 25 questions about our characters including physical description, religious affiliation, rents or owns, home d├ęcor, pets, early riser or late sleeper, favorite color, prejudices, commonly used swear words, tea or coffee, regular or decaf. We need to know what they would carry in their pockets and what they are afraid of.
After that, we’re supposed to write a chapter outline, or at least a synopsis, including opening, major conflict, crisis, and resolution.
I’ve tried it that way. It doesn’t work for me. By the time I’m done with all that, the juice has been wrung out of the story. It’s like an old piece of tough meat I’ve chewed on for too long.
When I began writing The Warrior Heir, I had no idea what would happen. After five years of revision, it barely resembled the work I’d started with. The Wizard Heir process was similar, though a bit more efficient, because I’d already built a world and a magical system.
This is so unlike me. I am very much a planner. I don’t even like to go shopping without a plan in mind. I mean, I was the kind that always did the index cards for the term paper.
I can’t stand the idea of Wasting Time, backing out of blind alleys, cutting chapters, undoing and redoing. It’s just so inefficient—all that grumbling and gnashing of teeth. “Well, if I’d known this was going to happen, then back at the beginning I would have….”
But I’ve had to accept the fact that, when it comes to fiction, I am very much a plunger. I have to keep writing in order to find out what happens. Connections, motivations, and relationships surface that I never anticipated.
Characters? My characters reveal themselves as the story unfolds. I do keep character tables, with descriptions, etc. so my brown-eyed person doesn’t turn blue-eyed in the third book of a series. But I do it after the fact.
Full disclosure: there is a character who has different colored eyes in each of the Heir books. Unintentionally.
When I began to write The Seven Realms series, my agent wanted to sell it as a three-book deal. It was the first time he tried to sell books that I hadn’t written yet.
I gave him forty pages. My agent said, great, now just give me an outline of each of the three books. And I’m like HAHAHAHAHAHA as I see the taillights of the three-book contract dwindling in the distance. And he said, well, how about a paragraph for each book? And I said, Do I have to stick with what I write? And he said, No once we get the money, do whatever you like.
I love my agent.
So he made the deal and I launched into the three books, and now, finally, at the opening of the third book, I’m using the forty pages I submitted.
I often ask writers I meet—do you outline ahead of time? And most don’t. In an extremely unscientific poll on an e-list I’m on, I asked accomplished writers if they outlined ahead. After I sorted their answers, out of eight, only one described herself as an Outliner, though she referred to it as a plot skeleton. Four were middle-of-the-roaders—they had some kind of framework, even if it was notes written on a matchbook cover. Three were total plungers.
There are exceptions. I heard Bruce Coville say at a conference that since he began outlining, he has fewer unfinished books. And James Patterson apparently outlines his books and hands them to a stable of co-writers to complete.
For me—no outline. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it requires a lot of revision. (Shrugs.)
Do you need to know how it all ends before you begin? I usually do, but not everyone agrees. E.L. Doctorow famously said of writing, “It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Well, maybe. But you still have to have a destination in mind. I usually know where I’m going. I just don’t know how I’ll get there, or how long it will take.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Does Anyone Else Have The Writer’s Disease?

Well, enough ranting for a while. Now I’ll turn to excusing my own bad behavior by attempting to tarnish others. I’m launching a kind of guilt class action—let’s if it sticks. Here goes.
I’ve noticed I have a bad habit of making up stories about people. Not just about the characters in my books, but about people I barely know.
And, no, I’m not the one that started that rumor that you kissed Bobby Malone behind the bleachers. That was so totally not me. I’m not talking about gossip. These stories are not ever shared with anyone else. Which is a good thing, because many of them are just plain wrong.
When I meet someone, and I know little about them, I take the few facts and observations I have and spin them into a whole set of assumptions based on how they look, their clothing, and what they say and do. Not to mention the fact that they resemble my cousin who used to beat me up, my aunt that I adored, or the teacher I had in seventh grade who used to smoke in the principal’s office.
I create history, motive, intentions (good and bad) personalities, gifts, talents and flaws. I make ordinary people extraordinary, whether they want to be or not, and sometimes fail to give credit where credit is due.
I’ll see somebody crying in an airport, and pretty soon, I’m sniffling, too, because I know she’s going home to bury the child she never knew. I’ll see a couple squabbling in the grocery store, and I’ll find myself taking sides, creating a back story to support my choice, even though I really know next to nothing.
You’re too controlling, I say to myself. She’s not the same person you married, so deal with it.
In effect, I write their story for them, without their knowledge, input or permission. A story that may have only a nodding acquaintance with the facts.
I know everyone does this to a degree. That’s why we say things like, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and “It’s what’s inside that counts.” But, hey, I’m a writer. I have a fertile imagination. My stories are remarkably detailed and incredibly persistent.
It’s bad enough when I do this with strangers that I’ll never see again. But if it’s someone I interact with on a regular basis, my stories are put to the test. When reality contradicts them, I resist revision. I feel resentful and betrayed, like the person made a promise to me and didn’t keep it.
But you’re supposed to like dogs, I think. You look and act like someone who would. But I thought you’d be funny. You remind me of my friend from college who always made me laugh. Or, you’re not supposed to want the same things I do. You’re supposed to be all noble and selfless. That’s the role I assigned to you. What gives?
Meanwhile, of course, the person soldiers on, totally oblivious of their part as a character in my story.
Anybody else guilty of this?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Lexile Investigation Continues…

In my previous post, I expressed misgivings about using Lexiles to select books for pleasure reading for middle and high schoolers.
I appreciate all the thoughtful comments from people who are more expert than me in reading and library science. Thank you!! Librarians and teachers: you are my people!!
Before I let this topic go (my heavens, a 2-blog rant!) I thought I would try using the search program on the Lexile website  to find books within a particular Lexile range that I might like to read. I used the grade level ranges, though I understand that standardized testing generates a Lexile level for individual students.
Let’s say I’m a 10th grader, and I find books at my grade level easy to read. That translates into a Lexile of 1155 to 1390, according to the website. I narrow my search to fantasy juvenile fiction, ages 14 and up, because that’s what I like. The result: a total of six books. Out of a huge database. They seem oddly young, too—not high interest for 10th graders. The ages ranges on the specific books are 7 and up, 8 and up, 10 and up. Examples include Tales of Beedle the Bard, Wizardology, and Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide.  
If I search general (not juvenile) fantasy fiction, I get eight books: two H.G. Wells, one Arthur Conan Doyle, a 1983 science fiction book by James Hogan, a science fiction textbook, a fantasy textbook, an Arthurian tale, and one R.A. Salvatore Forgotten Realms series fantasy novel from 1993. Mostly science fiction, and nothing contemporary at all. It seems like the older the book, the higher the Lexile level.
Well, maybe it doesn’t work so well for high school. How about middle school?
OK, I’m a seventh grader with a high reading level (Lexile of 1040-1270.)  That would be my own target reading audience. Again, I search for juvenile fantasy fiction, age 12 and up. We’re doing better. We turn up 32 books this time. And some of them have been popular with teens who self-select (Brisingr, Blue Moon, Sabriel, Chalice, Princess Ben.) But the list also includes three old Wizard of Oz books, H.G. Wells’s Time Machine, and some that look like picture books. And there is no guarantee how many of these books are going to be in a given library, or appeal to an individual reader who, say, likes urban fantasy. Fantasy is a broad genre, and this is pretty limiting.
Hmm, I think. Let’s take a different approach. I’ll look for books in a similar Lexile range to my latest book, The Demon King. Now The Demon King is 512 pages, a complex high fantasy with multiple character viewpoints aimed at ages 12 and up. It has a Lexile level of 760. Oops. According to the Lexile website, that’s equivalent to a fourth grade reading level.
This is the same book that is being published as adult fiction in several countries overseas.
Let’s see what else is in this range (660-810L), ages 10 and up.
Wow. I have a lot of competition for those fourth grade fantasy readers. I get 692 books! There’s lots of good stuff here. Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series, Suzanne Collins’s phenomenally best-selling The Hunger Games. More best-sellers include Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, Kammi Garcia’s Beautiful Creatures and Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series. Also, of course, the Twilight series, and all four of my YA novels.
There are award-winners like the Newbery winning The Giver, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, Jeanne DePrau’s City of Ember, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella, Enchanted, and the Best Books for Young Adults 2010 top-tenners  The Demon’s Lexicon and The Reformed Vampire Support Group.
Hmmm. Here are Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate (ages 14-17), Neal Schusterman’s Unwind (ages 13-17) Kristin Cashore’s popular and award-winning Graceling and Fire (ages 14 and up). Some a little edgy for that high level fourth grade child.
But, keep in mind, based on Lexile level, none of these books would be offered to a high-reading level 7th grader. They wouldn’t be “hard” enough.
By the way, some picture books, including Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (740L) are in the same range. It’s actually at a higher Lexile level than my novel, The Wizard Heir (690L), which is 458 pages long. Who knew? And, Young Merlin, 25 pages long, for ages 4-8, is also ranked more difficult than The Wizard Heir based on Lexile.
Anyway, when it comes to pleasure reading, I’m going back to fourth grade, I guess.
OK, I’m having fun here. And I admit: it’s possible I messed up somehow, though I believe I used the search function the way any parent or child would to find a book. My point is this: it would be cool to match readers to books they could successfully read. But as soon as you develop a score, rating, numerical evaluation of something, it takes on a life of its own. People begin to misuse it, even though the developers of the system have disclaimers on the website about responsible use, considering content, etc. 
Plus, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but just because something is difficult to read doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.
Even when it comes to reading level, a formula based on difficulty, e.g. strictly sentence length and word frequency, seems limited. Also in play are the length of the book, the complexity of the story, the metaphors and imagery used, the theme, the content, the subject matter, and the pacing. I would argue that  a 458-page novel is more challenging to read than a picture book, and more suited to a high level reader. I don’t care about the length of the sentences.
I freely admit, I’m no expert, just a reader and a writer and a parent. But as someone with a vested interest in nurturing pleasure readers, I’d rather have a librarian or teacher talk to the student, find out what they’re interested in, what else they like to read, and direct them on that basis. If the book is too challenging, it will take about a minute for the kid to figure it out. Trust them.
And the last thing I’d want to do is take a book out of a kid’s hands that he or she wants to read, because it’s not hard enough.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Not Loving Lexiles

I was having dinner with some librarian friends recently. One of them was venting about a new program she was being required to implement in her high school library.
“They want me to ‘Lexile the library,’” she said. “I’m fighting it.”
“Lexile the library? What’s that?” I said.
Turns out Lexile is a scoring system used to evaluate the reading difficulty of books based on word frequency and sentence length. The idea is that if you know a book’s reading level, and you know the reading ability of a student, you can direct them to appropriate books. Nothing wrong with that, right?
“They want me to paste the Lexile rating on the spine of each book,” my friend said. “Then the language arts teacher sends students in to check out books for pleasure reading. He tells them they have to be in a certain Lexile range. I’m the one that hears the complaints. They don’t want to read any of those books.”
Hmm, I thought. That’s an odd way to choose books for pleasure reading.
“Plus the ratings don’t even offer good direction,” she said. “Take your books. The Lexile level for The Warrior Heir (L730) is higher than for The Dragon Heir (L710). Does that make sense?”
Intuitively, it didn’t. The Warrior Heir is a straightforward hero’s tale. The Dragon Heir is layered, nuanced, darker and more complex with multiple viewpoints. Also fifty pages longer. My younger readers tend to prefer The Warrior Heir. But I guess it must have longer sentences or harder words than The Dragon Heir.
Then I did an author visit at a school. During the question and answer period a teacher raised his hand and asked me, “When you’re writing your books, are you aiming for a particular Lexile level?”
I stared at him, feeling a shiver of apprehension. “You mean I have to do that, too?” I blurted.
As if it’s not hard enough to write books that teens want to read, that parents approve of, that your publisher will buy, and that you can be proud of.
Then I happened to be looking on the Barnes & Noble site. There, on the page for my newest book, The Demon King, was this entry: Reading Level from Lexile: 760L
Barnes & Noble has made its site searchable for Lexile levels.
I was beginning to feel like I was the viewpoint character in a dystopian novel.
I ranted about this to my husband. He rolled his eyes and said, “I feel a blog coming on.”
Um, no, I don’t think about Lexiles when I write. My job as a writer is to tell a story in the most effective way. It means I try to choose the best, most vivid words and a sentence structure appropriate to the on-stage action. I’m thinking good writing--spare, streamlined, and clear—will tend to have a lower Lexile.
I went online, and discovered a whole Lexile world out there. There’s a Find a Book feature on the Lexile website where you can search for a book in a certain Lexile Range. There are success stories of schools that “Lexiled their library.” One company says on its website that its software can allow the librarian to see whether the book a student wants to check out is at the correct reading level. If not, the librarian can direct students to appropriate books. That way, the librarian can “play a big role in improving student reading and essential growth and achievement.” 
Wow, finally! That would have to be so rewarding, being the book police.
Not only that, the software “keeps a Lexile history for each student, and their progress is trackable and, more importantly, reportable.” 
Does anybody else find this disturbing?
It’s not the system itself, but how it’s being used that worries me. 
Next time: the Lexile investigation continues...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

AAAAARGH!! Please Don’t Steal Books

Google Alerts notifies me when one of my book titles or my name appears online. This helps alert me to reviews I’ve missed, awards nobody told me about, or mentions of my books—good and bad—on people’s blogs.
Every so often, it will turn up a link to a post on Yahoo Answers or a torrent site that goes something like this:
I LOVE LOVE LOVE Cinda Williams Chima’s books. Anyone know where I can download them for free?
Call me crazy, but I’m just not feeling the love here.
Book and music piracy is stealing. It is not a victimless crime as some people seem to believe.
I know—I’ve heard all the arguments used to justify piracy, some of them from people who wouldn’t think of walking into a store and walking out with a ham, a pair of jeans, or a physical book without paying for it. Somehow, that ink and paper book has value. The message I’m getting is that the work that I do does not.
YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson  and Mary Pearson have done a good job of addressing those arguments on their blogs so I won’t repeat them here. I believe that people steal books and music because 1) they don’t view it as hurting anyone, really, and 2) they’re unlikely to get caught.
I recently was directed to a website that offered illegal downloads of three of my books. Total downloads: 781. And that was just one site. Not all of those downloads represent lost sales, but a hundred books here and a hundred books there--it adds up. And as e-readers proliferate, it’s bound to get worse, unless we—all of us—take action.
In any given week, my publisher knows just how many books of mine have sold. Guess what—if I don’t sell enough books, my publisher isn’t going to publish any more of them. I’m not a musician. I can’t take my show on the road and sell tee shirts and merchandise. Touring authors don’t draw huge crowds of paying customers. I’m not an entertainer. I’m a writer.
So I’ll have to find something else to do for a living. I can’t afford to work this hard at something for free. With a few notable exceptions, most writers—even successful ones—make a modest income. Can’t wait for the next book in your favorite series? Well, it’s going to take a lot longer if your favorite writer is working a day job. If he or she is able to write at all. I left a day job that I loved because I was exhausted.
All you aspiring writers out there: speak up now, or say goodbye to a future as a professional writer. If your friends are illegally downloading books and music, call them on it. Let them know you don’t approve.
To any pirate reading this: I know you don’t mean to, but when you illegally download an e-book, I can’t help but think you are targeting me, because what you are taking is what I contributed. The story. Not the ink and paper or the fancy binding. It may not seem real to you, but it sure seems real to me.
It takes me a year to write a book. And I hope you think it’s worth paying for.