Month: June 2017

Marianna Baer’s THE INCONCEIVABLE LIFE OF QUINN and Pencil Detonators

By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II.  Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have.  As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.

On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin.  Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front.  After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair.  Soon after that, the meeting room exploded.  Four people were killed.  Hitler was largely untouched.

Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history?  Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.  Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator.  The device is a relatively simple one.  It’s a spring-loaded cylinder.  On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom.  On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism.  When the wire fails…kaboom.  Here’s a diagram:

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel.  Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant.  Can you hear the acid eating away that wire?  Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook.  Two months have already passed.  When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it.  You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear.  Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.

Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on.  The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born.  There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents.  So.  That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work.  As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.”  Everyone has been bullied.  What makes the bullying in your story different.  Everyone has fought with friends.  What makes this fight different?

Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about.  Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way.  In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:

  1. How’d the baby happen if there was no sex?  Who’s the father?
  2. What’s going to happen with the election?  How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election?  (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)

The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing: recite-1a4r72o (1)

On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat.  Her mother asks, “There it is.  Can you hear that?”  Then the narrator says:

A muffled, rhythmic sound.  A distant drumming.  Fast and strong.

A heartbeat.

A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.

So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved.  I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work.  Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating?  Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?

Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later.  On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant.  (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.)  Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.

The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.

The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.

Bill Burr and Michael Price’s F IS FOR FAMILY and Being True to Your Story and Characters (Or Else I’ll Put You Through that Wall)

One of the great problems with contemporary literature is that it often overlooks the problems of the “average” person.  The middle-class people (whatever that means in 2017) who worry about keeping a roof over their heads, who beat themselves up because they can’t buy their kid hockey gear for tryouts.

Netflix wisely picked up two seasons of F is For Family, an animated show created by all-time great comedian Bill Burr and all-star The Simpsons writer Michael Price.  (That’s right, two people who have achieved everything I wanted to be well into adulthood.  You can tell I’m at least a little bit of an adult because I have enough maturity not to hate them for it.)  The program tells the story of the Murphy family, a middle-class suburban family in the 1970s.  Frank and Sue have three children and a thousand concerns.  I’ll go light on the Season 2 spoilers, but Frank has lost his job with Mohican Airways and is feeling pretty worthless.  His wife Sue is picking up the slack by selling Definitely Not Tupperware to other women in the area, but she’s not happy, either.  Youngest son Bill is dealing with a bully (who has an alcoholic father), teenage Kevin wants to be a rock star and little Maureen is on track to be a computer genius…if the adults around her give her that chance in time.  The program features humor and pathos in equal measure, amplifying the effect of each.

Mr. Price and the rest of the writing staff have been extremely friendly and accessible on Twitter.  At one point, they tweeted out the index card-plan they made to plot the course for Season Two.  Mr. Price was kind enough to let me share it with you:

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So, there are obviously spoilers if you zoom in and read all of the beats the staff laid down.  On the other hand, we’re writers.  We can enjoy literary works on two levels: that of the craftsman and that of the audience member.

What should we take away from this rare glimpse behind the scenes?

  • Each episode (or chapter, if you’re writing prose) has emotional consequences.  Look at the first cards under 201, 202, and 203.  Frank is “hopeful,” then events leave him “devastated,” and then he “bottoms out.”  Your story must have meaningful stakes that result in emotional change.  Frank Murphy’s story does not result in earth-changing geopolitical consequences, but the events of the story have a big effect on him and his family.  And that is enough.
  • The writers plan arcs for each of the characters.  Think of Dickens.  Or The Simpsons.  Each character is a fully vested presence in the world of the story.  Accomplishing this goal is not easy, but sometimes, all you have to do is give characters a small moment of emotional truth.  In Season 2 of F is For Family, Frank is so desperate for work that he gets a job filling the vending machines in public places…including the machines he once walked past at Mohican.  His new boss is Smokey, an African-American gentleman who expects hard work and hopes to avoid his wife.  Smokey could simply be a stock character, but the writers go deeper with him on a few occasions.  At one point, Frank screws up, which should cost him the job.  Frank goes to great lengths to fix the mistake.  Smokey subsequently lets down his emotional guard and has an oddly sweet moment with Frank.  Two people from very different backgrounds grew closer in understanding.  (I’m tearing up here!)
  • The writers fill a wall and put their whole story in front of them!  I am not a big fan of over-outlining, but my work has gotten much better since I broke down each beat one by one before beginning my most recent book manuscripts.  You’ll notice that the F is For Family team does not lock themselves into every single beat…the index cards can easily be removed or changed.  The point is to have the shape of the story in your mind in a coherent way.  The finer details, of course, will appear as you sculpt the work.

F is For Family is a show that is steeped in love.  Sometimes that love is difficult and expressed in…confusing ways, but the Murphy family is all about love.  The people around the family are also (generally) decent human beings.  Being set in the 1970s, the writers have an obligation to represent the time with verisimilitude.  (The appearance of reality in fiction.)  One of the characters the Murphys see on TV is Tommy Tahoe, a Dean Martin manque who sings horribly misogynist songs about subjects like telling your wife to keep her mouth shut.

Everyone who reads this, of course, is a decent human being and would never think something like that about women, but that’s the point.  For better AND worse, Tommy Tahoe would never be allowed on TV today.  But this is the kind of entertainment that was mainstream in the 1970s.  Have you ever seen one of the good, old-fashioned roasts?  These stars, all of whom love each other, tell the most racist and sexist jokes you can imagine.  But it’s all about togetherness and sharing a night together.

Mr. Price and his writing staff are surely great people, but did the right thing in presenting a heightened version of the 1970s as it was, not as we would like it to be.  Another recurring element of F is For Family is Frank’s favorite show: Colt Luger.  As you might expect from a crime-solver whose names are both guns, Colt is a hypermasculine crime solver who is not as…enlightened as we are.  Example:

These kinds of shows were popular in the 1970s and reflect the time in which they were made.  When you’re a storyteller, you must be more faithful to the story and the characters than you are to your own feelings.  Otherwise, you’re not telling an honest story.  You’re just giving a lecture.

Which brings me to one of the most beautiful parts of F is For Family: it’s very deep, but doesn’t force you to engage with it on that level if you don’t want to.  In the contemporary parlance, Frank and Sue are struggling with gender roles placed upon them by themselves and by society.  Frank’s neighbors are slightly cautious about the African-American who pulls up in front of Frank’s house.  Maureen wants to build computers and Frank just has a little hold-up in his head that prevents him from giving his daughter what will make her happy.  In a particularly sad Season 1 episode, Frank argues with Sue and calls the younger son Bill a “pussy.”  Bill spends the rest of the episode sorting through his identity and how he wants to express it.  So you could easily write college papers about F is For Family.  

But most of all, the show will make you laugh and make you feel.  What else could you possibly want in a work of fiction?

Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” and Light Instead of Heat

During World War II, the brave Allied servicemen in the Pacific theater were missing the comforts of home.  Instead of Mom’s cooking, they were trying to swallow cold MREs in an unfamiliar climate halfway across the world.  The men were scared: for their lives, for their country, for the relationships they put on pause to do their duty.

The political and military brass of Empire of Japan did the perfectly natural thing: they tried to take advantage of these feelings in order to demoralize the enemy force.  Enter Tokyo Rose, the collective name for the sweet-voiced women who narrated radio broadcasts intended for American soldiers and sailors in the Pacific.  The Pentagon and private agencies did their best to help the men keep their minds occupied while in theater–distributing radio programs, movies, paperbacks, comic books–but there was always an audience for any English-speaking voice they could catch over the airwaves.

Tokyo Rose told the Americans how beautiful Japan was and softly, sweetly urged them to give up hope that they would defeat the mighty forces of the Empire.  She cooed into the microphone and told the guys about their girls back home, how Sally Strongheart from All-America, Kansas, wasn’t waiting like she promised.  No, she was going to the sock hop with that 4-F she always said was just a friend.

See for yourself:

Of course, the propaganda effort didn’t work because Americans are so awesome (USA!  USA!  USA!), but the story reveals an important lesson about craft.  The rhetoric of Tokyo Rose was not bombastic.  She didn’t scream.  No, she calmly appealed to the fears of her listeners.  See how this relaxed and logical approach was a much better idea than, say, endless screeching?

We write because we have stories we need to tell, ideas we need to share.  Our hearts burn with the need to commit our thoughts to paper and share them with others.  But here’s the problem: we can’t get our message across if all we do is burn.  No, the heat must be focused and have a purpose.  In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens: “heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it.”

Here’s an example of heat that produces no light, that casts no illumination whatsoever on the world or the human condition.  This young woman was not pleased to see a Donald Trump banner on her campus.  I think you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t make a very compelling argument.

I think you’ll agree with me that this young woman did not win any hearts and minds to whatever the heck she was thinking.

We are in a new and fascinating age of political literature.  (I wish this age had begun fifteen years ago, but so it goes…)  As reading rates have declined, the writing community has become ever more liberal, or whatever term you would like to use.  On some level this makes sense.  Writers have always been curious about others.  We’ve always used empathy to put ourselves into the lives of others.  But I think it’s reasonable to admit that the balance has shifted even further to the left than usual.

There are such amazing opportunities for writers!  There are so very, very many things to say in this absolutely crazy political climate.  We all want writing to remain what it has always been: a vehicle for entertainment social chronicle and change.  Unfortunately, our work becomes less useful and less effective if we figuratively prance around the yogurt-puddled quad screeching at people who both agree and disagree with us.

Protest literature is boring and pointless when it’s all heat and no light, when it’s a screech instead of an argument.  That is why I was so pleased to read a protest poem that actually meant something.  Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” appeared in Rattle’s Poets Respond feature.  Published a couple weeks before the election, the poem is not at all pro-Trump, but it’s also not packed with breathless hyperbole and unchanneled anger.

First of all, look at the title.  Ms. Custer literally identifies with Trump and makes it clear that she is employing empathy.  A writer can hate a character all they like, but they must empathize with the person about whom they are writing.  No, this doesn’t mean that you forgive or even like a person.  You must understand, to paraphrase the great Lee K. Abbott, who the character is in the dark.

Then Ms. Custer dedicates the poem, “for D.T. and other lonely people.”  I know.  I agree.  Trump is bad.  I don’t like his policies.  I don’t like some of the things he has said.  Did we gain anything from yet another affirmation against Trump?  No.  But we do get something out of thinking of the “villain” as a real human being, in this case a “lonely” one.  For some reason, many of us are forgetting that the old-fashioned mustache-twirling bad guy who is just bad has fallen out of style.  No, we like our villains to be complicated and to resemble real people who have real motivations.  Thinking of Trump (in this case) as a real human being also makes your protest art more effective.  Instead of arguing against a strawman, you’re arguing against a flesh-and-blood man.

The poem itself, it seemed to me, was quite sad and evocative.  Ms. Custer could have been like so many other writers and written:

OMG I HATE TRUMP

HE SAID MEAN THINGS ABOUT THAT BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT

AND RUINED BILLY BUSH’S

CAREER.

See?  Only heat.  No light.  Ms. Custer’s Trump is revealed to be a sad and pitiful man; her work is more effective than a thousand screeching undergrads.  You can’t unseat a politician unless you understand them and why they do what they do.  You can’t make a deal with a person unless you understand their psychology.

Ms. Custer uses the heat in her heart to generate light instead of merely adding to the fury that we find in so many places.  Let’s try to do the same thing when next we try to change the world with our words.

Chelsea Sedoti’s THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT and Main Characters Who Never Appear in the Story

When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie.  I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:

Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed.  Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room.  In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals.  A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway.  It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap.  He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”

That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation.  That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial.  Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.

The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study.  The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett.  The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school.  Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.

Then Lizzie goes missing.  Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went.  So she investigates Lizzie’s life.  She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend.  I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.

Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss.  I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.

Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity.  Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting!  Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC.  These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street.  Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.”  Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well.  She wasn’t involved in the disappearance.  Lizzie remains missing for quite some time.  This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.

So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented.  All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her.  One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager.  (And one who admired her.)  Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling.  There’s a homecoming dance!  There’s a terrible bully!  There’s an annoying but devoted brother!  Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.

My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative.  The book opens:

The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”

So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear.  (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.)  Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters.  To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up.  Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being.  Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.

In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol.  Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln?  Didn’t think so.  Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him.  These kinds of characters are (often) symbols.  Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl.  She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house.  She’s a living, breathing person!  (In prose form.)  Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.  

Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her.  Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way.  Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns.  She grows up in some ways and not in others.  The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.