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Westside Schmooze: CHARACTER (On Jeremy Thatcher, Kurt Vonnegut, and 5th Grade) - rhcrayon: The Blog!

Feb. 19th, 2009

10:27 am - Westside Schmooze: CHARACTER (On Jeremy Thatcher, Kurt Vonnegut, and 5th Grade)

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My friend "e" once told me that her job hostessing gave her a new superpower: she can walk into any restaurant anywhere and know how long the wait will be. In a similar way, I feel like co-leading the last couple SCBWI Westside Schmoozes has heightened my awareness of craft.

Our latest meeting, last Wednesday, February 11, was on Character. [Official recap here. | Lee's personal recap here!] This was the second Schmooze Lee Wind and I co-coordinated, and while preparing, I came across this quote by Kurt Vonnegut:

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time."
—From Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom From a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur; which someone gave me a long time ago. (A handy place to look for quotes, since it's organized by topic. This one came under "Character.")
This advice struck me as hilariously practical: the idea that you can make a character want something—anything—just to get readers hooked, even if it's not what your book is about. Readers don't know what your book is about! Showing a character wanting something anything is a quick way to get us invested.

This advice helped me right away, with the introduction of my book's second main character. I also immediately thought of an example.
My copy of Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville, is an educators-only edition from the early 90s.
In Bruce Coville’s middle grade novel Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (which I referenced at the last Schmooze, too, on Beginnings), in the very first line Jeremy Thatcher crumples up a drawing and wants a fresh piece of paper—but he doesn’t know if he can get it, because his teacher's so mean. Then you find out the reason he wants to draw is to win an art contest. Then the main story of hatching a dragon gets underway, and you pretty much forget about the art contest for a long time. But those first moments of wanting—the paper, and the contest—get you in the character's head.

It buys the author time to set his story up. Because Bruce Coville is awesome, he brings the art contest back in the end—and uses it to show Change; and his ending "shakes hands with the beginning"; plus, Jeremy Thatcher's ability to draw a dragon ties into the main story. It's not the story, but it adds.

Pretty slick, right??

(Ditto with Kurt Vonnegut's example above. We don't know anything about this character that's "paralyzed by the meaninglessness of life," but wanting a glass of water immediately seems symbolic. I feel it, man. Yeah. Yeah.)

So I'm sitting in a movie theatre three nights after the Schmooze, watching Slumdog Millionaire for my second time (Damon's first) (awesome, by the way), and right as a new character is introduced—a child—before we know anything about him or what's going on—they whack a ball high into the air and shout for him to catch it. There's all this tension in his face—and in us; watching—wanting him to catch it.
You know this movie, right?
I sat bolt upright in the theatre and grabbed my pen. There it is! That's what they did!! Eye on the ball, and we are so in!!!

Oh, man. I'm like Neo at the end of The Matrix. I can see in craft!!

(Did I just give away Matrix for you?)

(Did I just give away Jeremy Thatcher for you??)

Woo hoo! We also sat at the same table at the Golden Kite Luncheon! 
I told Bruce Coville at the last summer conference that I "have long studied Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher for craft." Apparently, now I also teach from it—if leading an SCBWI Schmooze discussion can be considered teaching! (Or preaching, since . . . well, yeah.)

On an increasingly personal note,

our January Schmooze on Beginnings [my own recap here | official Schmooze recap here] gave me my first experience of that energy in a room changing—everyone silent and taking notes—the moment I started talking. (I've done plenty of public speaking before, but apparently people don't take notes at weddings.)

The February Schmooze is the first time I've found us blogged by someone else! Check check check it out: Edith Cohn's post on the Schmooze on Character!

The odd thing is, reading her version gave me new insights—and I was there! It's exactly like what Edith said to me after the Schmooze (when I was wondering how much everyone already knew, coming in): you can hear the same advice and get something new out of it every time, depending on where you're at. I was at a different place in my writing when I read her blog, and it totally helped again.

Which brings me to my last Schmooze-related thought.

Once upon a time, a kid in my 5th grade class found the answers to our upcoming math quiz on the floor. He passed it all around and everyone in the room copied all the answers, all morning, before he gave it back to the teacher, having "just found" it.

Everyone copied, that is, except me.

I'd never cheated on a test, and even though all my best friends (who'd also never cheated) were doing it, I couldn't wrap my head around the logistics of the thing. Where do you hide the answers?? How do you copy?

It was only a three-minute "speed test," anyway (simple subtraction, as fast as you can), and in the end, I just did it.

To my dismay, when we traded papers with our neighbors and started correcting them, I saw Damon (yes, Damon; you recall he's been my lifelong arch enemy, before we married) marking all my answers wrong. Six—seven—careless mistakes in a row?? Really??

Damon was snickering, and then . . . the teacher discovered she was reading the wrong answers, from the wrong day's quiz—from that sheet off the ground. She laughed hysterically at how worried we all must have been, and slowly realized no one was in on the joke.

My hand was the only one that went up, when she asked if anyone had gotten these first answers "wrong."

I won't go into the terrible thunder that was our 5th grade teacher's wrath. I actually didn't remember this story until a friend gave me back the memory, whole, 15 years later. What I remembered was the terrible awkwardness of one day being the only kid allowed to leave when school got out. Fumbling for my backpack, the whole classroom watching—including terrible Mrs. Redacted. Waiting and moping outside the tiny, dark classroom window for my friends to finish their "standards" (something like, "I will not cheat on a test" 300 times). How even my best friend and my arch enemy, who were the true teacher's pets, were in big trouble.

The point of this story is,

I am having the reverse a similar dilemma with the Schmooze.

I feel like it would be better, when it comes to leading a Schmooze topic, to attribute every idea on writing craft to someone else. Wherever possible, I dig through notes from conferences or go looking online or in books—trying to find quotes to kick topics off, or to use as segues—even if the thing I want to say is my own. I want to lend every idea credibility.

However, it is both faster and easier to produce my own content than to keep searching for who else might've said the same or similar, especially when I'm blatantly retrofitting suggestions with "sources." Or when I've heard an idea tossed around so much it seems arbitrary whom to quote. 

It's also faster and easier to start babbling about one's own process while in the hot seat of the Schmooze than to remember to stick to one's copious notes, which one had spent hours preparing and going over on the phone with one's fabulous, talented, warm, wonderful fellow Co-Coordinator . . .

Thankfully, Lee and all the Schmoozers had so many fantastic contributions, I mostly kept my head. (You should read those other recaps. People brought in great techniques.)  At one point, however, thinking about how authors often say their characters are composites of people they know, I blurted out this thing about the imaginary councils that live in my brain and vote on what my characters should do: one council per character, three members on each, with all members chosen from people I know based on the degree to which they share my characters' defining traits. I always pick names, ages, voices, and looks from non-council sources, which make me feel like I'm drawing from life without basing characters on anyone or worrying about what I'm "saying." (I'm not saying anything!! It's not you, I swear.)

As I talked (and especially as I got to the part about hiring and firing council members at will if they mucked up the works), I could feel my words speeding up. The reactions I heard ("Now I'm getting scared"—hahahaha) made me realize: I've never said any of this out loud before.

blink blink

blink blink

(And then I was outside the class again, somehow in trouble. :( )

It's all good. :D At the last SCBWI-LA Summer Conference, Rachel Cohn brought in a life-sized dummy she talks to—that she totally dresses in clothes and puts a wig on—and put that on the stage for all to see. That's how she channels her voice(s).

Rachel Cohn displays her "inner teen" at the 2009 SCBWI-LA Summer Conference

So is any technique that weird?? That life-sized doll didn't strike me as crazy at all.

(I'm not being ironic. I'm saying it's cool!)

("Is any technique that weird" as in, no technique is weird; not, no technique is as weird as Rachel Cohn's. Hahahahaha

I'll get the hang of this,

Details for attending the next SCBWI Westside Schmooze here | Actual topics and dates shown here. Come on down!



Date:February 20th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)


Rita, this was great. I loved the Matrix moment - and I remember that intro of the kid in slumdog millionaire - you CAN see in craft! And thanks to you, I got to "see" that moment in craft, too.
so cool.
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[User Picture]
Date:February 26th, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)


I just had a major moment of clarity here. Make the character want something right away. Brilliant! I just checked all my favorite books and yup, the MC wants something right away - how can I be 42 and *not* know this? This could be the secret to EVERYTHING!

You need to write a memoir and sell it as fiction. I was riveted by your story of the test in fifth grade. Riveted, I tell you!

And I love the council in your head. Wish you could send them up to Ashland for a couple of days, I could use some advice.

Loved this post!
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Date:March 3rd, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)

buncha characters

I think that Bruce shot, him signing YOUR book,
might be the BEST photo you've done yet !!!
And as to characters etc, you've given me so much
to think about my heads spinning (in a good way)

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