Friday, January 24, 2014

Am I Upper Middle Grade?

Last night, I was at a writer’s meeting, and I wanted to test out a new chapter with my nine-year-old protagonist. (This chapter is actually the first chapter in the 1.5 Messenger’s Book, and this was the second time I’d read it in public.) I have to smile because both times, I received open mouth looks and tight eyebrow stares. (Most of the other writers are thirty-five and up and have a concept in mind of what Middle Grade fiction should be.) While I won’t give away the subject matter yet, I mean the first Messenger Book is still getting tiny updates with new betas reading it. But I will say that the first chapter is a bit more hard core than your average middle grade fare, but not too far off from the overall flow of the Messengers.

Anyhoo, one of the members, brought up the fact that she didn't believe that the book was Middle Grade (MG), but more YA, i.e. Young Adult. In my defense, I tried to explain that MG is divided into 3 basic groups because children mature so fast: Early Readers, Level 2, and Upper Middle. And I explained I write Upper Middle Grade for kids age 11 and up, but some advanced ten-year-olds should be able to consume it.

My niece and nephew were the spark that motivated me back into the written word from screenplays. Both of them are voracious readers and my nephew in particular reads like there is no tomorrow. But, unfortunately for him, he quickly runs out of things to read. He told me he’s tired of reading about “How cute the lead boy is” for the twentieth time in the middle of a YA action novel. LOL I couldn't agree more. At eleven and twelve both of them inhaled the “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins which is high on descriptive violence. But here was an eleven-year-old that loved it. The kids explained to me that all their friends read it, and a quick look on showed many parents saying the same thing.

The Messengers does have its share of violence and adult situations, but so is everything else in our world from video games to movies. Many of the places I've been on the web (blogs/articles) discuss the concept of what can be put in a MG novel. And the quick answer by most is - well - everything. I personally put into the books what I liked at that age – lucky for me I was a writer then, so I remember many of my ideas.

I believe that books should be real and that danger should be real as well. And with danger comes adult situations. Some places in the world have no problem with enlisting twelve-year-olds into an army or chopping a ten-year-old’s hand off if he steals. The Messengers is built on that grit, not on a simply fun story with cool tech. I don’t believe every MG novel should be all laughs and giggles, but at the same time I don’t think there should be decapitations galore. I wanted a story that is real to the actual emotions of middle graders expressing the sensitivity and beauty of being ages ten through thirteen with the adventure they dream of. That’s why I think the book is Upper Middle Grade for readers like my nephew and niece. Kids who want a bit more edge, but still need to be protected from other things. I hope anyone that one day chooses to read it will understand and appreciate that side of the story. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Surprise – My Characters Don’t Always Agree with Me!

I've been telling stories in some form for quite a while, and it’s always interesting when writing flows down like a waterfall and other days when it trickles out, barely giving you a sentence from its metaphorical faucet. But, I think what’s even more interesting than having your story simmering on the edge of your subconscious, is when your characters finally do show up in the front of your brain, but now both of you are on, no pun intended, different pages. (OK, pun intended.)

Giving birth to a character, at least in my mind, means creating a living breathing type of entity that actually exists within you. Writers can be a little odd in that way, speaking to things that don’t exist and even loving the created characters. Without fail, any time I talk to an author about characters they generally confirm this awkward phenomenon. But as an author, what do you to do when you and your characters don’t agree about what’s happening in a scene?

In The Messengers, there is a scene where one of the characters is hurt during a mission. Immediately, my director mindset told me to “Cut to the final scene and just explain that the characters got back to home base safely.” However, what I wasn't ready for, was one of the other characters getting mad at me. I could clearly hear his voice in the back of my mind saying, “Why are you doing this? Why aren't you giving the readers a chance to see what we can do? That’s not fair!”

Believe it or not, this happened. So first I thought, OK I’m not going crazy. But then I said to myself (which means all my characters can hear) “OK, hotshot show me what you got.” And I opened my mind and let the story flow from this character’s perspective. Before I knew it, I had an action sequence that I simply loved – and honestly (don’t tell anyone) I don’t feel that I actually wrote. It was that character that wrote it, not me, not the conscious version of me anyway.

I've learned that when this phenomenon happens I can generally do one of four things:
  1. Ignore the Character – Which honestly is the worst thing to do. Doing this means the character will act in a way that is unnatural to them and readers later will hate me for this.
  2. Change the Character – I really hate this one. The problem with this method is that it means going back to the drawing board, or changing who they have been so far throughout the project. This can cause a lot of rewriting scenes that no longer make since and will affect the other characters' personalities. Also, I tend to get attached to my characters and don’t always want them changed. “But the project comes first,” I say with hopeful grin and clinched fist.
  3. Give the Character More Experiences – I don’t mind doing this. I find that showing more experiences enriches my enjoyment of being in the world and allows the character to have more depth to become the person I need them to be. Downside it can really make the book long :-(.
  4.  Let the Character Drive – This is something I must admit, I do a lot. I like to see what the character is going to do and watch them come alive. When I do this, it’s like I’m reading the book as it’s being written. The only problem with this method is if the characters aren't developed enough, then they can go off in La La Land.  Yeah, I had that happen a couple of times – editing anyone.

Honestly though when my characters disagree with me I’m generally happy at least in one cool way, the characters have a voice and a distinct one. A character that doesn't talk to me isn't real to me, and therefore I doubt they’ll be real to anyone else. I hope this helps anybody else who has to battle with their MCs and SCs. Thanks for reading.