Monday, January 31, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Academic January, The Conclusion

Academic January is officially coming to a conclusion. In week one, the parameters of the Character Desire and Plot discussion were introduced. In week two, we examined Sharon Darrow’sPainters of Lexieville, our action oriented example and in week three we took closer look at Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, our character oriented example, which brought us to week four and our combination example, Kimberly Willis Holt’s National Book Award winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.
And, here we are on the last day of the month we are finally at THE END. 

Conclusion: The Relationship Between Character Desire and Story Structure
 This examination of character desire and plot did prove that Katherine Paterson’s motto, “Something’s got to happen. Someone’s got to change” is a reminder for all authors to heed (114). The three authors examined here demonstrate that a connection between character and plot exists within the three listed classifications: action-oriented, character-oriented or a combination thereof. Each of the authors, in her own unique way, is successful in depicting what it is the main character yearns for within the plot of her book, whether it be Pert’s longing to leave Lexieville behind or India Opal’s desire to create a family or Toby’s wish to have a summer like no other.[Image]  It is interesting to note that only in The Painters of Lexieville does the main character “get” exactly what she wants in the manner in which she hopes (although Pert does make many sacrifices to see herself safely out of Lexievile). This may be a benefit of the action-oriented novel where an author must clearly outline the main character’s desire as it is the protagonist’s choices, actions, and reactions in pursuit of an external goal that fuels the plot. In contrast, in a character-oriented novel like Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character’s desire is more subtly revealed as the story progresses. This may be so as emphasis is on what the main character feels, versus the actions the protagonist takes, throughout the novel. However, in an action-character-oriented novel, like When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, a combination of both the straightforward and the more subtle approach to revealing character desire is at play to depict both aspects of the work.

Character desire and plot cannot be extricated from one another. One must exist for the other to exist. As Stephen Fischer, quoted by Burroway in Writing Fiction, states, “Structure is the art that conceals itself—you only see the structure in a badly structured story, and call it formula” (40).  None of the authors examined here wrote to a formula, but each elevated her structure, and its depiction of character desire, to a level of concealed and deliberate art.

The Works Cited
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 6th edition. New York: Longman, 2003.
Darrow, Sharon. The Painters of Lexieville. Cambridge: Candlewick, 2003.
DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. Cambridge: Candlewick, 2000.
Holt, Kimberly Willis. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. New York: Random House, 1999.
Kress, Nancy. Beginnings, Middles, and Endings. Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books,1993.
Lukeman, Noah. The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Regan Books, 1997.
Nolan, Han. “Creating Fiction: A Journey to Truth.” One-on-One Plus Conference. Rutgers, New Brunswick. October. 2003.
Paterson, Katherine. The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Dutton, 2001.
Pattison, Darcy. “Keep it Moving: Pacing a Novel.” Children’s Writer’s Guide 2002:  1-2.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Academic January, The Action-Character-Oriented Novel

Academic January continues. This is week four in our series on examining Character Desire and Plot. In week one, the parameters of the discussion were introduced. In week two, we examined Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, our action oriented example and in week three we looked at our character oriented example, Because of Winn-Dixie. Now, we are ready to go deep with our combo action/character driven example.

Combination Action-Character-Oriented: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
The action-character-oriented novel merges characteristics of both classifications to tell a multi-layered story. Kimberly Willis Holt in her National Book Award-winning novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, accomplishes this by juggling two main plots: one action-oriented, the other character-oriented.
Like DiCamillo, Holt hints at the implicit promise in her title. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town signifies that a majority of the novel’s action will concern Zachary Beaver and his impact on the main character, Toby. As suggestive as the title is, Holt must expand on the implicit promise in the narrative itself. Holt opens the book with:
Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Diary Maid parking lot…and before half an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world (1).
Holt uses Zachary’s arrival partially as a device, a way to bookmark her main character’s story with a timeline: one summer from Zachary’s arrival to his departure. This opening also begins to unfold the action-oriented plot in which Toby’s actions in befriending Zachary drive his character growth. This done, Holt still must clue the reader into the character-oriented plot. As the action of chapter one continues, Toby’s thoughts drift to his worries about his mom’s preparation in an out-of-town music competition: “My stomach’s been growling all the time…I haven’t had a decent meal since Mom left a few days ago. Not that she cooked much lately since she was getting ready for that stupid contest” (Holt 5).
This mention of Toby’s mother and the undercurrent of home-front-problems hints at what Toby may be facing emotionally as the story progresses. Is his anger over his mom’s “stupid contest” based on a real fear that she will not be returning to Antler? The reader reads on to find out. In fact, Holt does such a fine job of interweaving the action-oriented plot with the character-oriented plot that both aspects of the novel must be examined together.
With the requirements of the implicit promise fulfilled in both main plots, Holt slowly builds the rising action. With nothing else to do with their summer but snoop on Zachary, Toby and Cal leave bags of food on Zachary’s doorstep when his caregiver leaves to secure another side show act. The action heats up when Toby and Cal defend Zachary from a pack of bullies: “I throw again, this time aiming at James Rutherford’s arm. I miss. Then I hear it. Glass breaking. The window shatters, and the boys scatter in different directions” (Holt 61).
This section is important, and not solely because the consequences of the Toby’s rock throwing have him spend more time in Zachary’s trailer. While contemplating his action, Toby ties the developing aspects of the story structure together. “Two things weigh heavy on my mind—Zachary’s broken window and Mom’s big night tonight” (Holt 61). In this manner, the action-oriented plot concerning Zachary and the character-oriented plot involving Toby’s parents’ separation interweave at pinnacle times throughout the novel, keeping the reader abreast of one as Holt develops the other.
In building the mid-section of her novel, Holt increases the tension by having Toby learn his mom is choosing to stay in Nashville after losing the singing contest. Toby questions his father about when she will be returning. His father’s body language triggers a painful memory.
The way he walks out with his jaw set and shoulder stiff reminds me of something I had forgotten or blocked out. The fight. Their last fight. It was in this room. At this table. Dad got up and stomped away, while Mom continued to yell at the wall. Shutting my eyes tight, I try to erase that memory, but it plays over and over in my mind. And the strangest thing is I don’t even remember what the argument was about. (Holt 76)
The reader, who never quite believes that Toby’s mom will return, feels empathy for Toby. In establishing this emotion in the reader, Holt succeeds in creating her audience’s connection to her main character’s purpose. Like Darrow in The Painters of Lexieville, Holt draws on the reader’s compassion for the circumstances facing the main character. It is the audience’s investment in Toby’s struggle to accept his parents’ separation that helps escalate the novel’s tension. The reader discovers it is this inner struggle that is the heart of the character-driven conflict of the book. In examining conflict Burroway writes:
Conflict is at the core of character as it is of plot. If plot begins with trouble, then character begins with a person in trouble; and trouble most dramatically occurs because we all have traits, tendencies, and desires that are at war, not simply with the world and other people, but with the traits, tendencies, and desires of our own. (124)
Toby’s torn feelings about his mother leaving her caged life in Antler, Texas, where as Toby states, “nothing much ever happens,” will need to be resolved within the character-oriented plot. However, the mother-son relationship is not one Holt spends a great deal of the novel developing. In fact, Holt only depicts the mother in flashbacks, one telephone conversation, and a few letters. Also, as in Because of Winn-Dixie, in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, it is not the title-bearing main character—Zachary Beaver— who bears the brunt of the novel’s emotional journey. It is again the father, whom the author develops from a flat into a round character to support the character-oriented aspect of the book.
Holt achieves this by transforming this relationship in a subtler manner than did DiCamillo. When watching his father prepare dinner Toby thinks:
Dad might as well be from Pluto as from Dallas. People in Antler see it as the same thing. The funny thing is, now it seems like Dad belongs here more than Mom I don’t think she ever counted on him settling in Antler when he passed through years ago, looking for a place to raise worms. (Holt 22)
Holt does not use an extended metaphor to develop the father as a caricature, but Toby regards him as one. He believes his Mozart-listening, post-master, worm-farmer father is boring beyond belief. Later, after Toby learns his mother is staying on in Nashville he thinks, “Maybe Mom would have stayed if Dad did something more interesting than raise worms and work in the post office” (Holt 119). The tension between Toby and his father mounts after Toby asks his dad questions about being born and raised in Dallas. In Freddy’s bait shop, the following conversation takes place:
Freddy asks, “You like to fish, Toby?”
I shrug. “It’s okay.”
Dad holds the coffee mug close to his chin. “I think my son has a dose of the big
city in him.”
I frown because I know what Dad is referring to, and I don’t see how asking a
few questions about why he left the city makes me a city kid. (Holt 124)
Holt’s read-between-the-lines portrayal of the father-son tension is deliberate. It is in keeping with the everyday atmosphere of the novel. Also it serves to maintain the book’s balance, as Holt does not want her character-oriented plot to overtake her action-oriented plot, or vice versa.
Keeping readers interested in both plots is no easy task, yet Holt does so smoothly. Once Toby reads a letter from his mom, explaining she had no intention of returning after the contest, the action-oriented plot gains speed. Toby and Cal devise two schemes involving Zachary. The first, they convince Cal’s sister to chauffeur the world’s fattest boy to the drive-in movies. The second, they arrange a baptism for Zachary in Gossimer Lake, to fulfill Zachary’s long-wanted but unspoken wish.
Previous story events intensify the baptism’s meaning. To backtrack momentarily, Cal’s brother’s, Wayne’s, death in Vietnam has a strong impact on Toby. Holt depicts Toby’s grief and the repercussions of the actions he takes in dealing with his grief in three clear-cut ways. First, Toby hides out in his room for days. Second, he hangs up on his mother in their first telephone conversation. Third, he avoids Wayne’s funeral by holing up in Zachary’s trailer, which results in a growing rift with Cal. These story events, in both the action-oriented plot, and the character-oriented plot keep the tension mounting. Yet, also within these chapters Holt begins to complete the character-oriented plot with Toby’s coming to terms with his parents’ separation. His doing so eventually brings closure to his strained relationship with his father.
“I guess I thought like me, her dreams belonged to her youth and that she’d be happy with the simple life. But that was my dream. It wasn’t right for me to expect her to change.” Dad turned his head toward me. “So if you got any blaming to do, aim it my way.”
When he says that, I realize that’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do, but now I feel numb and I don’t know who to blame so after a long moment I say, “I don’t blame you, Dad.”
“Then don’t blame her either. She loves you, Toby. You need to let her love you.” (Holt 194)
The bonding scene continues as the father and son fish. Now that Toby no longer blames his father, he has the ability to view him as a more complex individual. This occurs when Toby learns his father failed to impress his own dad. “I don’t know what to say…I always thought Dad was kind of boring, but I never thought about him failing at anything” (Holt 196). Toby sees his father in a new light—he is more than the boring worm-farmer whose habits drove his mother away. This realization completes the father’s portrayal from a flat into a round character.
This allows the climax, the baptism scene, to reconcile the external tension surrounding Zachary. Also, before the novel’s close Holt must tie up what remains of the inner conflict, Toby’s acceptance of his mother’s decision to pursue her dreams. However, since the action-oriented plot is still building, Holt places three obstacles in Toby’s and Cal’s way in planning Zachary’s baptism.
First, they must convince Ferris to preside as minister. Second, they must persuade Zachary to go ahead with the plan. Third, they must receive a ride from Wheelchair Willie when the truck transporting Zachary breaks down. Once reaching the lake, dunking Zachary is not an easy task. It takes struggle and strain to lift him out of the water but when the baptism is over Toby thinks:
Zachary smiles, and I wonder if he’s feeling different. Because standing out here waist deep in Gossimer Lake, next to my best friend, I’m feeling different—light and good and maybe even holy. (Holt 215)
Toby’s thoughts tie Zachary’s rebirth to his own rebirth. Thus, Zachary’s baptism is a new start for Toby as much as it is an entry into the life of Christ for Zachary.
However, in the denouement there is one final moment of catharsis. The Ladybug Waltz, the event Toby has been looking forward to all summer, is a rite of passage. Toby is unembarrassed at the Mozart sonata his father has picked to accompany the releasing of the ladybugs, and when all the sacks are empty, he notes: “…one ladybug resting on a long sunflower growing at the edge of the cotton field. Instead of following the others, I guess it had its own plan. As soon as I get home, I’m going to mail that letter to Mom” (Holt 224).
Toby’s journey is rendered complete. Holt does a fine job of having Toby’s choices drive the action-oriented plot and having the character development aspects drive the character-oriented plot in this coming-of-age novel.
In fact, the coming-of-age label serves as a backbone for Holt’s story structure and its depiction of her protagonist’s primary desire. Throughout the novel Holt depicts Toby’s yearning to “grow up.” He hopes for this summer to change his life, to be remarkably different at its end— more mature— than he was at its onset. Both the action-oriented plot and the character-oriented plot build on one another throughout the novel to fulfil this desire. As story is about a single moment after which “nothing will be the same again,” Holt succeeds in having the summer When Zachary Beaver Came to Town set Toby on a new life-course.

There you have it! Nothing left to come in our Academic January pursuit of Character Desire and Plot than our eagerly awaited conclusion.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Round Up: State of the Picture Book and Ideas and Inspiration

Cedar fever didn't keep me home this week. Thank goodness, because there was lots on the plate. Tuesday I spoke at UTSA to a graduate class of teachers who under Miriam Martinez, Professor of Literacy are studying the all important picture book. Of course, the students had heard about and read the New York Times piece which was very doom and gloom with very little real reporting about what may or may not be driving picture book sales numbers down. Publisher's Weekly responded with a much more informative and balanced piece of reporting with the wonderful headline, Don't Write the Obit for the Picture Book Yet.

We discussed both articles, my reactions, the students reactions. We talked a bit about digital publishing, much about how library circulation is increasing in these hard economic times, and even more about the art and magic and aim of a good picture book.

I read aloud from the forthcoming Grandfather Gandhi picture book I co-authored with Arun Gandhi and we discussed how the book came to be, the slow and necessary timeline for a good picture book to be produced and I closed out with pointing the students to several popular industry blogs and a point to the upcoming issue of Hunger Mountain where we will be celebrating the picture book.

I ended with this:

There were many who said the Gandhi project should be developed into a middle grade reader but this was not my vision. When I heard Arun Gandhi speak of living on the Sevagram ashram as a boy what I saw were visual glimpses into who this boy was, to who Gandhi was as a world leader--yes, but also as a grandfather. That was the story I wanted to tell. One succinct. One layered. And one full of visual grandeur. My work may be complete, but there still is the marriage of art and text to come. It may be another year--or two--before the manuscript becomes a picture book, but seeing my vision rendered complete is well worth the wait. 

Now, flash forward to Thursday, where the WLT kicked off it's annual third Thursday program to a packed house on the third floor of BookPeople. We celebrated the WLT 2010 Book Award winners--lovely awards and big checks--were given out to the talented winners by sponsor of the contest, Bill Jewell of the University Co-op. We thanked WLT Programming Manager and mom-to-be, Jan Baumer, for her hard work with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and then we welcomed our esteemed guests, authors: Stephen Harrington, Brian Yansky, and Jennifer Zeigler.

I moderated the panel where we discussed how ideas come--lightning quick or at a slow simmer, how to move forward with an idea (sage advice from Stephen Harrington, "Start before you are ready."), when we choose to share our ideas, when we choose to keep them close to the chest, how we stay inspired ("Ideas give you more ideas.") and when and how does the marketability of an idea push us forward or halt us in our tracks. It was a lively discussion (where finally we had a contrary moment where Brian Yansky revealed he never outlines and Jennifer Zeigler revealed occasionally she does--but not with Roman numerals, thank goodness.) and an inspiring one to all who attended.

Awesome Austin Upcoming Events

Book Bash!
Mari Mancusi  with Night School (Berkley)and Cynthia Leitich Smith with Blessed (Candlewick) are launching their latest books at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople.

The event will include author talks, Q&A, book raffle, surprise giveaways, devilish desserts, demonic drinks & signing.
Wear red and black if you’re on the side of Evil or blue and black if you’re on the side of Good.

Bonus points (and possible prize) to anyone who dresses up as a vampire, shape shifter, vampire slayer, angel or fairy!

About to get my musical theatre fix at the Zach Scott, as April Lurie's outstanding novel,Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds is going to be performed live, on-stage on ZACH’s Kleberg Stage.

February 5-20, 2011
On ZACH’s Intimate Kleberg Stage
Saturdays at 1:00p.m. & 4:00p.m. | Sundays at 6:30p.m.
$13 Youth | $15 Adult | Great discounts for 20+
Tickets:  512-476-0541  512-476-0541 x1
More information:

And don't forget to register for the Austin SCBWI Feb Conference and 
for the first ever YA only conference, The Writers' League of Texas is debuting the YA-AZ Conference in April. Registration is open now and some of the attending conference faculty has been announced.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Today at Inside the Writer’s Studio we have debut-author of Words in the Dust, Trent Reedy. The book has a forward by Katherine Paterson, the Ambassador of Children’s Literature. Katherine gave a speech at VCFA’s Celebration Weekend a number of years ago and with her permission it was used in the launching of the YA and Children’s Page of Hunger Mountain, which I co-edit. Katherine Paterson’s speech, Fellow Travelers, where she discusses her friendship with Corporal Trent Reedy of the US Army may be found here. (It truly is a must-read!)

Trent, a fellow VCFA grad, is not your typical guy. He is wholly original as is his work. 

A bit more about Words in the Dust from the publisher, Arthur A, Levine Books:

In the tradition of SHABANU, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND and THE BREADWINNER, a beautiful debut about a daughter of Afghanistan discovering new friends and opportunities after the defeat of the Taliban.
Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her--"Inshallah," God willing.
Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha--but can she dare to hope they'll come true?

Trent, thanks so much for being here. I have long been touched by your friendship with Katherine Paterson and the development of Words in the Dust. I am so glad it’s release day, in early January has passed and that the book is finding its way to young readers everywhere.
Now on to the interview…

Is there a story behind Words in the Dust that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)
In 2004 and 2005 I was serving with the army in support of the reconstruction mission in western Afghanistan.  On one mission my unit encountered a young girl who suffered from a cleft lip.  The disfigurement was jarring and we knew we had to help.  My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money to fly her to our main airbase where an army doctor was able to provide the corrective surgery she needed.
Cleft lip and the similar but more serious cleft palate are birth defects that occur in America as well, but American children almost always have these troubles corrected very early.  So for me, this Afghan girl, for whom the surgery had been unavailable or outright banned by the Taliban, came to symbolize so many other young Afghan girls. She and others like her had suffered when their choices and chances were destroyed by war.

I wondered how the surgery we helped to provide would change her life.  At first I thought that it would seem like a miraculously wonderful change.  But given the obstacles that so many Afghan women face and the challenges facing Afghanistan as a whole, I thought that perhaps improvements in her physical appearance and in the way she could eat and speak were really not enough.
In any case, the last time I saw the girl she was riding away from our base in the back of a truck.  I promised I would tell her story.  All that I knew about her was the story of her surgery.  Everything else I would have to make up.  Words in the Dust  is my way of keeping my promise.

Is there a favorite quote you turn to when the rejection blues get to you?
Although my writing has been rejected many times, I don’t really get the “rejection blues.”  I follow the example that Stephen King lays down in his book On Writing  by hanging all of my rejection letters and printed out rejection e-mails from a nail in the wall above my computer.  Rejection is never fun, but I try to remind myself that for each rejection letter I earn, there are a thousand people who wanted to write, but never finished their first drafts or never had the courage to revise and submit for publishing.  I force myself to think of each rejection letter as a trophy of trying.

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?
In recent months I have been shocked and disappointed as anti Muslim sentiment in America somehow seems worse than it was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  There are more examples of this than I would care to go into here, and obviously, I would hope that we can somehow move past this misunderstanding.  One thing I hope readers of Words in the Dust  will take to heart is the idea that the people of Afghanistan, the Muslim characters in the novel, and indeed Muslim people around the world are just that…people.  We are all just trying to find our way to happy, peaceful, and satisfying lives.  I believe it really can be that simple if we’d allow it to be.

What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on this novel/picture book? How did you overcome those challenges?
In the early drafts of Words in the Dust I was keen to demonstrate “cultural authenticity.”  I thought that this meant details about Afghanistan.  The unfortunate result was that my thirteen year old protagonist Zulaikha would take a routine walk to the market while thinking over her country’s turbulent history from the 1979 Soviet invasion through the civil wars, the Taliban, to the arrival of U.S. led coalition forces in 2001.  I would include every detail of the landscape whenever Zulaikha traveled anywhere.  I had to learn to cut a lot of material and to include only that which would stand out and get her attention.  For any writer and particularly for one writing outside of his gender and culture, the “authenticity” problem is a delicate balance of what to leave in and what to take out.

Character. Tell us about the relationship between your protagonist and antagonist. How does this relationship grow and change throughout the work? What does your main character want? And how long did it take you to clarify those wants?
Story happens when a character struggles to get what she wants.  She must overcome some problem.  She must face conflict.  In a workshop session at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Cynthia Leitich Smith explained that sometimes a story consists of a character working towards what she thinks she wants while she must find out what she actually needs.  That’s the situation Zulaikha faces in Words in the Dust.  She has suffered from a cleft lip from birth.  This hurts her eventual marriage prospects.  When the American soldiers offer to provide corrective surgery, Zulaikha thinks that all of her problems may soon be coming to an end.  She really needs something far more lasting and important than a change in her physical appearance.

Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again and why do you love it?
I read or listen to an unabridged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby  at least once a year, usually in summer.  Every line in that book is magic, pure poetry.  I’m also fascinated (or perhaps bewildered by) the passage of time.  Something in me is “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  I think that’s part of the reason why I write for and about young people.  The Great Gatsby is beautiful and sad and perfect. 

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?
I’m not big on craft books.  It seems to me that if books could teach people how to write, then everybody who ever wanted to write would simply buy the craft book and that would be all they needed.  However, I do like biographies of writers and poets.  I do sometimes enjoy essays and speeches by authors about the writing life or about their other philosophies.

In particular I have enjoyed Katherine Paterson’s several books of essays and speech transcripts.  In The Invisible Child (Dutton, 2001) Katherine quotes someone saying, “If we cannot defeat despair—sometimes we can interrupt it.”  I think this is the mission of any children’s book, but particularly of books with heart like all of Katherine Paterson’s wonderful novels.  It’s a creed I tried to keep in mind while working on Words in the Dust.

Inspired by the Actors Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?
I love the sound of the opening notes of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac every morning with my first sip of coffee.  The sound I hate is the screech of the alarm clock, but not as much when it goes off to wake me in the morning.  Rather, I hate this sound when it is played on television or on radio ads.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.
I am tremendous fan of science fiction.  By happy coincidence, I used to live in Riverside, Iowa.  Riverside is famous for having been approved by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as the Official Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.  There is a large stone monument in this small town dedicating the location where the famous Starfleet captain will be born on March 22, 2228.  Every Foby dressing up in Star Trek themed costumes.  I have won first place in the Trek Fest Star Trek costume contest twice.

For more on Trent and Words in the Dust, check out these two interviews with he and his Words in the Dust editor, Cheryl Klein.

 And Part II.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Academic January, The Character-Oriented Novel

Academic January continues. This is week three in our series on examining Character Desire and Plot. In week one, the parameters of the discussion were introduced. In week two, we examined Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, our action oriented example and here we are in week three taking a closer look at one of my very favorite novels, Because of Winn-Dixie.

Character-Oriented: Because of Winn-Dixie

    Unlike the action-oriented novel where the emphasis is on how the external events shape the main character, the character-oriented novel relies on character development as its driving force. Yet this does not mean a character-oriented novel, such as Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Honor book Because of Winn-Dixie, is without plot. Burroway quotes nineteenth-century German critic Gustav Freitag as stating: 
[plot is comprised of a] pyramid of five actions: an exposition, followed by a complication (or nouement, “knotting up” of the situation) leading to a crisis, which is followed by a “falling action” or anticlimax, resulting in the denouement. (40)
    DiCamillo arranges her story structure with these same building blocks. However, since the emphasis in a character-oriented novel is on what the character is experiencing emotionally, not on the action of the plot, how DiCamillo develops her characters is critical.  
    Like Darrow, DiCamillo’s first task is to develop her implicit promise—the contract from writer to reader that hints at character, conflict, setting, and tone (Kress 7-8). Whereas Darrow demonstrated her novel’s implicit promise by outlining her main character’s desire amid key action scenes, DiCamillo’s approach is not as easily deciphered.
    DiCamillo relies heavily on her novel’s title to convey the implicit promise. The prepositional phrase title, Because of Winn Dixie, seems to answer a question. The reader opens the book on a mission to discover what that question could be. In chapter one the reader learns that Winn-Dixie is a stray dog and in chapter two that his rescuer, India Opal Buloni, is new to Naomi, Florida. The new girl in town is a common story problem. Therefore, the reader may guess the novel will focus on how India Opal Buloni’s life changes after moving. How or why does her life change?  Because of Winn-Dixie, of course, the scruffy dog she drags home from his namesake, the Winn-Dixie supermarket.
    On the surface level Because of Winn-Dixie is about a girl and her dog. Yet, as Noah Lukeman in The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life states, “The task of a writer… is to create characters on the verge of change, characters that will, in some way be unrecognizable by the end of the work” (82). In a character-oriented novel, having characters that are on the verge of change is a key way that an author may depict what it is the main character longs for.
   Therefore, to discover what character change Because of Winn-Dixie hinges on, one should look at how DiCamillo depicts India Opal as protagonist and the father, as the most important secondary character, early on in the novel. As the book opens, the two are not at odds with one another, but the readers senses India Opal’s loneliness and her father’s emotional reserve. The eventual outcome this beginning suggests is that the father-and-daughter pair must make a satisfying connection to one another to be unrecognizable by the novel’s end.
    In examining India Opal’s relationship with her father, the reader begins to identify the over-arching story problem. India Opal is lonely, not simply because she is the new girl in town, but because she yearns for a parental connection. India Opal assumes her long absent mother will fulfill this longing. With Winn-Dixie by her side, India Opal has the courage to ask the preacher ten things about her mama, one for each year she has been alive. The preacher begrudgingly shares this information and India Opal rushes to her room.
         I wrote them down just the way he said them to me so I wouldn’t forget them,
         and then I read them out loud to Winn-Dixie until I had them memorized. I 
         wanted to know those ten things inside and out. That way, if my mama ever
         came back, I could recognize her, and I would be able to grab her and hold on to   
         her tight and not let her get away from me again. (DiCamillo 29-30)
    However, the reader suspects what India Opal does not. The parental connection India Opal longs for will not be forged with her mother, but with her father.
    To render this relationship unrecognizable by the novel’s end, DiCamillo uses a common character development technique. She shifts the portrayal of the father from a flat into a round character. This is not the only character development technique at work in the book, but it is the one that supports the overarching story-problem of India Opal’s establishing a deeper parental connection.  
    By definition, a flat character is one-dimensional and is often depicted as a stereotypical caricature. A round character, one who grows and changes, is more complex. DiCamillo’s first line of business is to portray the father as flat and one-dimensional in India Opal’s eyes:
My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it’s hard for me to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach. And so in my mind I think of him as “the preacher.” (13) 
    Here India Opal labels her father as his job title, preacher, versus his family title, Daddy. This is a subtle way for DiCamillo to allow room for India Opal’s character growth. Also, it paints a one-dimensional portrait of the father where the reader is encouraged to bring any and all preconceived notions to the reading. Whether or not the assumptions prove to be correct do not matter. What does matter is DiCamillo’s characterization of the preacher. For the time being, he is flat.
    DiCamillo then further shades the father’s characterization by using an extended metaphor to personify his most distinguishable character trait, his silence. In the first scene in which India Opal and her father interact, India Opal thinks: “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking his head out into the world” (DiCamillo 16). The stereotype of the preacher is now coupled with the caricature of a turtle-man. 
    The novel’s rising action does not rest solely on the various ways Winn-Dixie brings friendship and joy to India Opal’s lonely world. Midway through the novel, Winn-Dixie, the dog symbol of unconditional love, begins to work his magic on the emotionally distant father-daughter relationship. Here, DiCamillo starts to shift the characterization of the father, depicting him as slightly more complex. During a thunderstorm India Opal worries that the preacher will not tolerate Winn-Dixie’s pathological fear of storms. Yet, the father surprises India Opal, and thus the reader, by putting his arm around the dog and responding: “We have to make sure he doesn’t get out during a storm. He might run away. We have to keep him safe” (DiCamillo 78). India Opal is filled with a rush of love.
All of a sudden it was hard for me to talk. I loved the preacher so much. I loved him because he loved Winn-Dixie. I loved him because he was going to forgive Winn-Dixie for being afraid. But most of all, I loved hum for putting his arm around Winn-Dixie like that, like he was already trying to keep him safe. (DiCamillo 78) 
    This is the reader’s last exposure to the father before the climax where DiCamillo assembles the entire cast of characters at a party, thrown by India Opal, to celebrate her family of friends. However, the father’s characterization from a flat into a round character has not been completed. The father-daughter pair still must forge a new bond for their relationship to be unrecognizable by the end of the work.
    To accomplish this task, DiCamillo weaves the various story threads together when a boomer of a thunderstorm puts a damper on the party’s festivities. Amid all the rushing and racing, Winn-Dixie disappears. After searching all over town, the preacher is ready to give up. A hurt India Opal yells: “You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid old turtle shell. I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left. I bet you let her run off, too” (DiCamillo 165). When the preacher begins to cry in response, DiCamillo juxtaposes the early image of the father as “turtle” that India is still upset with, with the vulnerable dad the preacher has become.
We stood there hugging and rocking back and forth, and after awhile the preacher stopped shaking and I still held onto him; and I finally got the nerve to ask the question I wanted to ask.
            “Do you think she’s ever going to come back?” I whispered. (DiCamillo 166)
    DiCamillo waits until this moment to have India ask about her mother’s return. It is not until the father develops from a one-dimensional caricature, to a fully rounded character, that India Opal is able to speak of her deep-seated wish. It fits for this declaration to come at the climax of the book, rather than at the beginning of the novel, because it has taken the building of the story events to bring India Opal to this moment of catharsis. India Opal is ready to hear the “no” she knows is coming and her father is ready to speak it. At this point, the two are a full family, without the mother and for the time being even without bridge-builder Winn-Dixie.
    In reviewing Weiss’s earlier-cited definition, a character-oriented novel should keep its emphasis “on what the character is experiencing emotionally rather than on the action itself. Character development rather than plot is moving us through the story” (Pattison 2). DiCamillo’s early portrayal of the preacher leaves room for the conflict of the story to shape both the preacher and India Opal. His emergence as a round character is hard won and takes his daughter, the protagonist, to free him from his “old turtle shell.”  This done, India Opal’s journey is complete; she has achieved what she has longed for, a deep parental connection.
    As previously mentioned, developing a primary secondary character from a flat into a round character is not the only character development technique DiCamillo employs in Because of Winn-Dixie. She builds scenes upon scene in which India Opal meets and begins to love characters with a “checkered” past in order to heal her own. Among these characters are: Otis, a guitar strumming pet store owner and former convict and Gloria Dump, a strange old lady and recovering alcoholic who has become a mother-figure in India Opal’s life. Through developing strong ties with these two characters India Opal’s forgiveness for her mother, whose drinking was the reason she abandoned India Opal, grows. And perhaps of more importance, these supporting character relationships prepare India Opal to forge a closer bond with her father.
    India Opal’s new family, a rag-tag bunch of Naomi citizens, an ugly dog, and her father, satisfies her innermost longings. The fact that one has to look so closely at how DiCamillo achieved this effect demonstrates how crucial character development is in the plot construction of a character-oriented novel.