Monday, December 2, 2013

Esteemed YA and MG Authors Share How They Know Their Characters Are Alive

(This article originally appeared in the SCBWI-San Diego newsletter, Dec. 2013)
Turning Words into Flesh:
How Fiction Authors
Bring Characters to Life

By S. L. Lipson

In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmal­ion, carves his ideal woman out of ivory and falls in love with her image. But his kisses meet cold stone, not flesh. The goddess of love, taking pity upon him, brings his creation to life.

Like Pygmalion, we fiction authors carve out our characters and await the magic that turns them into real people for us—people so real that our readers will also feel as if they know them.

How does that magic present itself to you? What makes you realize that your new characters have become fully alive? Here’s what some of our esteemed YA and MG novelists say:

Ellen Hopkins: It really is when they talk to you, not only while you’re at your computer, but when you’re trying to concentrate on something else, or attempting to go to sleep. Sometimes they wake me up, insisting I’ve forgotten to write some­thing very important.

Nikki Grimes: When my characters argue with me about the words I’m putting into their mouths, I know they have become their own per­sons! At that point, not only do they walk and talk, but they even tell me off. It’s quite hilarious!

Sharon Flake: My characters lead me like a balloon that is being carried away with the wind. Yes, at times I must get ahead of them and make a course correction. But mainly I write, rewrite and marvel at how much more gifted they are at telling stories than I am.

Heather Petty: For me, it’s when writ­ing their dialogue and responses become intuitive. When I start to anticipate what they will say or not say, and how they will say it, like you can with a best friend or family member—that’s when I know I’ve finally brought them to life.

As for me, I know my characters have taken on lives of their own when they start writing their own songs and poetry, and I record “covers” of their original hits on my computer, and want to share their poetry with my students, who are their age.

Those who don’t write fiction might think we are all “hearing voices,” ready to be committed! And we are! Our commitment to those voices is what pulls readers into our worlds.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Useful Noncommittal Words for Harmony in Relationships

Sometimes, in potentially volatile conversations, we must smother verbal sparks with noncommittal words, rather than insist on being "right" and fanning flames that lead to everyone being burned. Here are some handy phrases to cool down the heat, so no one ends up "the sore loser" (see picture below--drawn by my son, Ian).

  1. "I can see why you think that." This phrase lets people know you're listening to them, suggesting that you agree with them, but not actually agreeing with what they say. (My son brought this line to my attention--by using it. He's a skillful diplomat, as the middle child, and only boy, between two strong-minded sisters.)
  2. "Thanks for your input." The word thanks gives value to the other person's words, without necessarily valuing them.
  3. "That's an interesting point." The word interesting offers delectable neutrality in sticky situations, without commitment.
  4. "I'll think about that." This allows you to show open-mindedness, maybe even to consider another viewpoint, without definitely committing to anything in advance.
  5. "You may be right." The overbearing listener will hear the words you and right without realizing that the may has not committed you to agreeing with him/her.
I am a firm advocate of directness in conversations, rather than evasiveness, but we all have those people in our lives with whom a conversation often escalates into a battle of wills. Life's short and high blood pressure only makes it shorter, so reconsider the value of being "right" for the sake of your own health With some people, you can consider noncommittal words a gift to their egos/insecurity/need to dominate. 

Let me know how this works for you! And please subscribe to my blog if you enjoyed this.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Behind the Armor

I will now share my poem about self-protective behaviors that alienate us from each other. In all forms of communication, we cannot connect with others unless we drop our shiny, unyielding facades to expose our emotions, face vulnerability, and reveal our hearts--our true mettle.

Behind the Armor
by Susan L. Lipson

Clouded knights
wear arrogance for masks,
aloofness for protective suits,
meanness for shields,
while battling insecurity,
and weakness. 

Ninjas prefer hand-to-hand combat
with emotions,
building thicker skin through baring it,
from struggle to sweat to sigh to
enlightened daze.

No heavy armor required
when we are who we are.
No hasty judgment pronounced
when we know who they are.

The next time you feel insulted by someone's apparent arrogance, feel sympathy for the insecurity that hides behind the actions. When your warmth is iced over by someone's coldness, have compassion for her fear of emotional sharing. And when a bully tries to make you feel small, pity his misguided need to put others down in order to raise himself up. Channel all of these feelings into actions and reactions guided not by judgment, but by understanding. That's how we shed the heavy armor that weighs us down and prevents us from connecting with each other.

That's also how we writers connect to our fictional characters, to make them real for readers: we must first know their naked selves before we can hide them beneath armor for our readers to uncover. The joy of finding the cracks in a character's armor, and eventually uncovering that character's heart, is one of the great joys of reading, isn't it?

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Dream Office

Natural Cubicle
by Susan L. Lipson

To work inside a tree cave, hollowed out by fire,
charred yet enchanting,
marred yet inviting,
scarred yet empowering,
while still green above all,
ever green, above all--
that would be a metaphorically perfect space
for writing strong, magical, moving, timeless words.

My dream office, pictured above, stands proudly at Stanford Sierra camp, where I spent last weekend at the Fallen Leaf Retreat for children's authors and illustrators, hosted by SCBWI Nevada. While listening to the rippling Lake Tahoe sloshing softly to my left, and inhaling the aroma of pine, I stared at this tree cave and imagined myself sitting inside, writing. Typing like a wood pecker on a computer powered by tree energy alone, writing words that will forever ring true. Words that spread out and away from me like the ghostly rings of the missing section of the trunk--enveloping young readers in my memorable words. And I'd have no need for file cabinets, for a trusty squirrel assistant would gather my first draft acorns and bury them for a season, so that I could revisit the seedlings that grow to spring forth as sapling stories. And I would create a forest of words from my tree cave.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Political Poem

Broken-Winged Bird
By Susan L. Lipson

The American Eagle struggles to soar,
Because of an imbalance caused by its cracked right wing,
And an uncontrollably vacillating left wing.
Only the steady winds of change,
Blowing upward,
Can uplift the ailing icon through its center,
Enabling it to regain its balance
And to evoke sighs of respect again.
We voted for such winds,
And now we anxiously await the weather reports
For an upsurge.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tweeting Memorable Words

New to the Twitter world, I have taken on this social media platform warily, even disdainfully at first, considering it a vacuous "Look-at-me!" exercise. But at a recent writers' conference, I kept hearing about how important tweeting is to drive people to read more from you if you hooked them with your cleverness. "That's how you get people to visit your website, read your blogs, know your name," claimed the presenters. So I signed up, and then studied tweet patterns like a birdwatcher, noting whose tweets turned my gaze to them, which inspired me to tweet back, and which of my new flock bore bands that showed they're being tracked.

I found out it's a game. First, it's about who can make the best move in 140 characters, catching the eyes of followers and inspiring them to retweet a post; second, who can be consistently clever, snagging the top branch of the Twitter feed at just the right time for maximum exposure; and third, who can achieve the highest number of followers, without following more than follow him/her ("Mom, you never want to be following more people than follow you," advised my daughter, a more experienced player. "AND you should follow people who follow you if their posts interest you and they have a lot of their own followers, because they might retweet you to their people. See?") Yes, it's definitely a game. A game with rules that reveal themselves as you play. A game that makes me nervous about the etiquette that seems to underly it (regarding who to follow or unfollow), and makes me hesitate to type something for unknown eyes that might mislabel me and end up on "my permanent record." Yes, I feel like I'm back in elementary school, tweeting hesitantly and hoping others like me.

Aside from the realization that the Twitter game requires strategy, I notice something else that has to do with its worth to writers: forced conciseness. Like a poetic structure, a tweet must use hashtags sparingly--I still haven't quite figured out how to use them!--leaving room for the strongest possible words. I find myself cutting down tweets to fit the 140 character limit, substituting words for shorter synonyms, and paying more attention to word choices than I have to do on Facebook. It's like the difference between poetry and prose. I advocate that all writers practice writing poetry to tighten their prose. Now I'm advocating that writers use Twitter not just as "Look-at-me-and-follow-me" tool, but as an exercise in the economy of words!

And now I'm off to tweet an interesting observation that just occurred outside my window. Curious? Come follow me on Twitter: @sllipson.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Show Your Thanks for Valued Words!

Memorable writing is like tape: it sticks with you and seals the gaps between the writer's and reader's minds.

Have you ever read a book that leaves you believing you KNOW the author? Or a book that makes you WISH you knew her or him? If you met him or her in line at a coffee shop, would you strike up a conversation?

Have you ever considered the favor an author does for you by either distracting, enchanting, enriching, or moving you with memorable words? A favor that certainly deserves a thank you...

Have you ever thought about thanking the author, that so-familiar stranger, that wished-for friend, for connecting with you?

If your answer to any of the above questions is Yes, then I encourage you to write the author a thank-you note via one of his/her social media pages. You'll be surprised how many authors whom you have never met (yet), except via their pages, will answer you. I have heard replies in recent years from some of my favorite well-known authors, such as YA greats Jay Asher, Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Jordan Sonnenblick; from MG mentors Wendy Mass, Nikki Grimes, Sharon Flake, and Jennifer J. Stewart; from memorable adult fiction authors Owen Egerton and Lisa Grunwald, and others.

Whom do you plan to thank for a great reading experience? Tell me here in the comments below. Or share a grateful reply that you received in response to such a thank you message.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Someone Else Will Help the Victim--Right?

The police officer who called my daughter to tell her that she had saved a man's life a week ago by calling 9-1-1, asked her, "So what made you call? You were the only one who called, you know."

"The only one?" she asked, horrified, since she lives in one of many street-facing condominiums in her building, all of which would have had equal exposure to the sound of the attack outside their building. She couldn't imagine, she told him, that she was the only one who heard the screams and the snarling dog. Then she explained that though for a moment she considered that the sound could be someone filming a movie (she does live in LA, after all), she couldn't take the chance of NOT calling when she heard a man desperately calling for help over the terrifying growls. Even if the screams were from an actor, the worst that could happen by her calling would be that the police would have raced over for a false alarm. In fact, the worst that could happen--the man dying--did NOT happen because of her call.

She recalled, for the officer, a term she had learned in a psychology class,"diffusion of responsibility," which refers to the mentality that makes people react to another person's trouble with the attitude, "Someone probably already called, so I don't have to." It's the same attitude that makes people stand around while someone else gets bullied, all looking to each other to stand up for the victim, instead of doing so themselves. My daughter said she would never want to be one of those people who doesn't help. The officer with whom she was speaking was probably surprised to hear such a memorable reply from a 19-year-old.

I was surprised, too. I was surprised to relearn a term I had forgotten from my college psych class in such a hard-hitting, real-life application of jargon. I used to make fun of all the fancy terms for social and psychological behaviors, thinking that most people seemed more caught up in the jargon than in understanding the actual actions it described. I never considered that having a phrase to describe such shocking behavior would benefit the person unfortunate enough to see its practical application. The ability to name this problem somehow might make it a less painful realization, I think--perhaps because the fact that the problem has a name means that other active bystanders have shared the miserable disappointment of having no back-up from other bystanders. Misery needs company, right? What was memorable in theory--"diffusion of responsibility"--now is more memorable because she experienced it. And the memory is haunting.

Learning that her call had saved a man from bleeding to death after a dog attack, my daughter felt simultaneously proud and disgusted, she told me. Proud because she had responded rapidly to a fellow human's cry for help, and disgusted because NO ONE ELSE IN ANY OF THE STREET-FACING APARTMENTS had called. No one! She wondered, "What if I had been screaming out there? I could never count on these neighbors! There's no way that no one else heard him, if I heard him over my TV and had to turn down the volume to be sure I wasn't just hearing screams on 'Breaking Bad.'"

"Diffusion of responsibility" described in a textbook obviously had stayed in her memory. Showing it, here with her story, makes that term indelible and its lesson more hard-hitting: that NO ONE SHOULD STAND IDLY BY WHEN WITNESSING, OR OVERHEARING, WHAT MIGHT BE A FELLOW HUMAN'S WORST NIGHTMARE.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Writing Words that Stick

Memorable writing is like tape: it sticks with you and seals the gaps between the writer's and reader's minds.

In other words, we write and read to connect with others and establish new memories. If you want to improve the "memorability" of your own writing, start by thinking about images and scenes from books that have stayed with you long after you read them; find and reread some of those memorable words and take notes about what made them stick with you. Then apply what you've noted to a recent page of your own work. Based on your notes, can you see similarities in style that you have emulated, possibly even unconsciously? Do you see how you could enhance your work by incorporating some of your favorite elements from the works you've admired? If you find a passage in your own work that reminds you of a line (or lines) that resonated with you in another writer's work, use that comparison not only to maintain the kind of style that obviously appeals to you, but also to pitch your work to publishers and/or readers as "reminiscent of the style of author ___," which may aid in marketing your story.

For example, during and after reading The Irresistible Henry House, a captivating, witty novel by Lisa Grunwald, I kept thinking about how the style reminded me of John Irving's, and how one editor who read an early draft of my own as-yet-unpublished, humorous middle-grade novel referred to my Fergal McBean: One-Lad Bandt as "like John Irving for kids!" So I decided to compare the opening line of Grunwald's novel with my own opening line about Fergal McBean:

Grunwald's first line: "By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."

My first line: "When Fergal McBean was born, just outside of Dublin, Ireland, his Ma first gaped, then gasped, and finally grasped the unique beauty of her child."

I immediately smiled to myself at the stylistic similarities in tone, which were entirely accidental, since I just read Henry House's story during the time in which I've been submitting the manuscript for Fergal's tale of fitting in as an outcast-turned-hero. Knowing how much I have enjoyed Grunwald's book, and knowing that my tastes have not changed much since childhood, gives me the idea to consider who, among my favorite MG and YA authors, has essentially the same kind of storytelling style as Grunwald and Irving. I have come up with the following list from my memorable favorites: Roald Dahl, E.B. White, "Lemony Snicket," Sherman Alexie, among others. What they all have in common with the adult books by Irving and Grunwald: a playful style that takes no character's life too seriously; flawed, yet endearing characters whose personalities and desires are revealed via their interactions with others, rather than just by a narrator; lively language, often containing wordplay; humorous juxtaposition of imagery and concepts; the comical downplaying of events (the opposite of hyperbole); and fast-paced, tightly written scenes. With a heightened sense of the stylistic attributes I admire now firmly in mind, I will be able to proceed with the sequel to Fergal's first book with more confidence. An enthusiastic agent to rep the series might help, too....

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Spice from Old Spice: Kudos to Hilarious Label Writers!

Not all writing jobs are glamorous. Writing for product labels isn't exactly something to Tweet about...or is it? The writers behind these hilarious Old Spice deodorant labels show all writers how to create memorable words no matter where they appear! I buy men's deodorant--yes, it's true--not just for the smell and effectiveness, but now for these labels!

How about those "stench monsters" and the "odor fighting protection you demand from a mountain"? This is ad writing at its most creative, don't you think?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Measuring Literary Success Through Memorability

If I can't remember what happens in a book, or recall a glowing line from a poem, story, or article, then it has failed my test of success. Something--a character, a line, a scene--has to stay with me for me to add a title to my list of works I recommend to others. Too often I read a literary work and can't recall anything a week later. Now I could blame that on my age, but the fact is, I have forgotten many books throughout my 45 years of reading. The reason that some works have stayed in my memory files long after I've deleted many other brain files holds the answer to my own creation of memorable words. STUDY THE WORDS THAT HAVE RESONATED WITH YOU AND YOU WILL DISCOVER THAT MAGIC MEMORABILITY.

For example, I recently reread a book that I cherished as an elementary school girl: A Girl Called Al, by Constance C. Greene. I was shocked when I realized how much I still remembered--over 40 years later--and how much that work has influenced me as both a writer and a teacher. I teach many lessons related to nonconformity, and the first time I ever heard that word was in Greene's book, used to describe the girl, Al, who taught me that it was cool to think and act differently from the so-called "popular" kids. I brought out this old treasure of a novel for my youngest student, in fact, at the same time that I was using a few poems and stories on the same theme for a few of my older students. Al came into my life and stayed there, apparently.

Similarly, Holden Caulfield met me when I was a new teenager and has resided in my brain, along with his self-deprecating opening in which he doubts that I, his reader, will really want to hear about his story--a hook I will never forget. His voice resonated then and now echoes through my own YA works-in-progress in various ways, I see. And John Irving's style, which captivated me with The World According to Garp, with its matter-of-fact punchlines that left me saying, "Wait--what?" and laughing or gasping aloud, and his wandering storytelling style that always manages to bring the reader back to the original point from which it began meandering, now manages to find its way into the style I use in my current middle-grade novel. One editor who read an early draft called it "John Irving for kids."

Even nonfiction lines stay with me as both a writer and a teacher. Anna Quindlen wrote an article just after the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center, in which she described how the world changed with an image of a To-Do list floating 80-something stories to the ground below, against a backdrop of smoke and rubble. Other journalists described the rubble, the ambulances, the sightings of falling bodies, but her To-Do list struck a chord with me. The list represents all the things that will never get done by the person who wrote it, as many of us do each day, without any inkling that he/she would never complete it for reasons beyond anyone's imagination, reasons that make us realize that we must never take anything for granted, or stress out over task lists that mean we are alive and well to pursue their completion. That fragile piece of paper floating against such destruction strikes an indelible image not just visually, but also emotionally. That is the kind of image I want to write. I have used that image to teach writers about the importance of choosing the perfect detail to convey multiple messages--MEMORABLE details that matter.

I could go on and on, clicking on the many documents in my brain that comprise the Memorable Documents File, but I know you understand and are now clicking through your own mental documents. Find them, analyze them, and see how they infuse--or should infuse--your writing today.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Know the Flow

If the first line of your manuscript doesn't grab your reader, it's not the right first line. Readers don't have time to waste on false starts. Cut lines until you find the most compelling opening. Then start from there.

I once told an author-client to cut his first three chapters and start with the fourth. "That's where your story starts. The previous chapters are backstory, necessary to you, maybe, but not to the reader. Weave in the few details that the reader needs to know to understand certain plot points and restart from that great first line of chapter four."

My client was ticked off, let me tell you! "Just throw away all that work of the opening chapters? Do you know how many times I rewrote those? They were my most difficult chapters to revise!"

"And once you finally got those chapters done, the rest flowed much more easily, right?"

"Right! Only after all that initial set up was done!"

"And 'set up' is the operative word. You know how in a play script you read the stage directions, separate from the lines? Well, chapters one to three amount to stage directions that set up the play and the players for YOU, the director, who will use those stage directions to plan and direct the scenes. But your audience doesn't read or hear those stage directions; they merely absorb the essence of them that you infuse into the actions. All that your audience needs to see is the point at which the spotlight introduces the first action. Get it?"

He didn't get it, and I thought he would fire me...until a few weeks later. The one piece of advice he had taken from me was to set the work aside and take some time away, to freshen his perspective. Then he sent me a new manuscript, with a Post-It note that said, "Thanks," but not much more, while under that note was a much tighter manuscript, more than three chapters thinner.

What I got out of that experience--which has occurred numerous times in my book editing past: If we struggle to create certain chapters or lines, rather than pour them out of our minds, that's our Muse's hint that we should delete them. Immediately. Before we waste more time. Know when it flows. Redirect when the flow gets clogged.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Standing Like Stone

One of my dearest friends died on this day, a decade ago, and in thinking of her and our relationship, this verse pops into my head:

"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another's trouble,
COURAGE in your own."
(Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australian poet)

That verse from a much longer poem came to my attention via other memorable words, by one of my new favorite authors, Owen Egerton. Egerton quoted Gordon in his indelibly moving novel The Book of Harold: Illegitimate Son of God. Thus, memorable words give rise to other memorable words--and to images, ideas, and anything else born of artistic passion.,TopRight,1,0_SH20_.jpg

While reading those words aloud, I imagine a short film of the tide rolling in, leaving froth and bubbles on the shore--seen via a close up shot--and then rolling out to reveal two rocks protruding from the sand. Zooming in on the rocks, we see that each one bears an engraved word: one says KINDNESS, the other says COURAGE. Then a huge wave crashes over both, and the shot of the submerged rocks is drawn out, making the viewer wait for it, wait for it, wait for it--until the water again recedes, showing the engraved stones standing firmly where they were.

My mental movie shows how memorable words affect me. How do they affect you? How do they affect your own writing?

I aim to evoke mental movies in my readers. From the bottom of my computer screen, where I've minimized the document containing my current novel-in-progress, a voice now yells, "Rolling!" I need to get back on set. 'Bye-bye!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

A 13-year-old student asked me the other day, "What's the difference between sympathy and empathy?" I happened to have a poem, written years ago, to explain. Here's an excerpt:

Sympathy is what you SHOW to others; Empathy is what you FEEL for them.
Sympathy is external; Empathy is internal.
Sympathy is a polite action; Empathy is a compassionate one.
Sympathy is expected in polite society; but Empathy is a welcome, cherished surprise.
Sympathy can be expressed by greeting cards; Empathy is only expressed in sincere words and/or hugs.
Sympathy is announced; empathy is understood.
Sympathy shows caring; Empathy creates sharing.
Sympathy is to shine another’s beaten-up shoes; Empathy is to wear those shoes.

Loss is cluttered by the sympathetic shoe-shiners,
And simplified by those who share our burdens,
Leaving us a smaller fraction of grief to bear alone.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Memorable Lines on My Face Make Me Who I Am--Not "Old"

Lately, my friends keep lamenting over age spots and wrinkles, discussing this treatment and that treatment that will help them stay young-looking. Here is my poetic response:

The Lines on My Face

The lines on my face
SHOW, don’t tell
a story
of a writer
blessed not by a well of angst
from which to draw word pictures,
but by a fountain of bittersweet joy,
from which I gather
well-read palmfuls to splash
onto my new wrinkles
just in time to turn them into
fantastic crows’ feet
and grin marks,
hydrated by freshwater happiness
and saltwater lessons.
My fine lines,
though written with strength,
are not the type discussed by Oprah’s Book Club,
nor are they admired
by the “Beautiful People,”
who see them as defects of aging,
rather than privileges.
The lines on my face
help to make me ME—
as do these lines above.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Words and Water

When I contemplate the power, necessity, and life-giving force of words, I think of water, which comprises most of our world and our bodies.

Flowing Words
by Susan L. Lipson

Words flow,
Flow like rivers,
Rivers of rhythm surging,
Surging and burbling and pouring,
Pouring into oceans and lakes and streams,
Streams of thoughts and wishes and desires,
Desires shared by readers who immerse themselves and drink,
Drink their fill of rejuvenating, satiating lexical liquid,
Liquid literature swirling into open minds, the vessels of ideas,
Ideas represented by words that flow,
Flow like rhythmic rivers,
Rivers of words.

Dams built,
Built of closed minds,
Minds in perpetual drought and fear,
Fear the flooding of their foundations,
Foundations that cannot withstand the tides of change,
Change that flows through all,
All open to words,
Words that grow,
Grow life.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poem Recalling New Year's Eve 2013

In the Balance
by Susan L. Lipson

Within the moments between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,
Hides the paradoxical beauty of Life itself--
Ending juxtaposed with Beginning,
Regrets counterbalanced by Resolutions,
Dropping balls and countdowns launching rising confetti and happy songs.

The heat from the joyful crowd swaying and bouncing in front of a roaring fire
Seems to shudder in a blast of cold air
From an opening and closing door,
And I freeze in the warmth of a hug and a wish for a happy new year
As pained faces flash behind my eyes—
Faces of other friends, not here,
Whose hearts are too heavy now to teeter upward
And find equanimity.
I pray for them silently
While around me plays a soundtrack
Of clinking glasses, raucous laughter, and lively music.
Someone breaks a wine glass,
And I hear, “Oh no, I’m sorry!”
And “No worries! It’s fine!”
And laughter,
As we interrupt the party to collect shards and dry the floor.