March 2

Plans for Extended Critical Essay (ECE)

For my upcoming semester at Spalding University,  I need to turn in a 20-30 page essay referred to as an Extended Critical Essay, or ECE,  Since I imagine three and a half-weeks between each draft wouldn’t be enough time for me to do all my research, reading, writing and edits, I am working on gathering all my information now.

I’m not sure what my topic will be on. I’m leaning toward writing emotion into a story or something on world building.  Maybe I can somehow combine the two…. How character’s emotions can help with world building in YA. I may decide to go in a totally different direction as well. But I’m hopefully giving myself enough time to do the research and come up with a final decision.

In fact, I plan to write mini-essays on the two topics while I am doing the research, with the hope that it’ll help me build material/resources for the ECE I will need to work on. I would love feedback from people as I make progress, differing opinions, suggestions on what other resources to look at, no matter what stage I am in during this endeavor.

My first step is to find the resources that will help me write the mini-essays and eventually the ECE. I would appreciate recommendations on:

  • Non-Fiction books/articles on Writing Emotion
  • Non-Fiction books/articles on World Building
  • YA Fiction that is a good example of one or both elements.
  • Any other resources that you think may be of interest/help to me.

Thanks in advance for your recommendations and comments.

June 1

New Semester, New Reading Material

A new semester has started at Casa Connelly, which means I have a long list of new material to work through. This semester my focus is on Screenplays, which means I’ll be reading a lot of screenplays, watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of books. My mentor for this semester is David-Matthew Barnes.  My list of reading material may change but at the moment this is what I’m looking at consuming:

Let The Right One In.  
Stardust
Princess Bride
Your Cut to: is showing
Young Adult
Garden State
Perks of Being a Wallflower
Chinatown
Thelma and Louise
Jane Eyre
Northanger Abbey
Jane Emily by Patricia Clapp  
A book by Lois Duncan

Any suggestions on which Lois Duncan book I should read? I’ve never read that author before.  Like last semester, I’d like to post reviews, both critical and regular book reviews on each of these.  So do you have a preference as to when I’ll read them?  They’ll be consumed between now and October. We’ll see what I can actually find, screenplay-wise as well.

March 8

The Things They Carried Critical Review

 

The Great Descriptions They Carried

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carriedportrays the Vietnam war through numerous short vignettes. Some stories are fiction others non. In his short story, “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong,”a story in which O’Brien admits he’s not sure if the story is real or not, Tim O’Brien reveals through internal and external description how war can rob a child robs of their innocence.
The story starts with Lt. Mark Fossie arranging to have his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, brought to Vietnam for a visit.  Medic Rat Kiley, who narrates the story to his companions, describes Mary Anne upon her arrival to the Song Tra Bong outpost as follows:

The cute blonde—just a kid, just barely out of high school—she shows up with a suitcase and one of those plastic cosmetic bags. (…)  She’s got on culottes.  White culottes and this sexy pink sweater. (90)

Kiley provides a pretty picture of Mary Anne Bell with three sentences, and readers see the words Kiley didn’t say: innocence, an innocent girl.  By using the term “kid” to describe Mary Anne, Kiley gets readers to immediately think of the innocence of childhood.  The mention of her being “barely out of high school” has connotations of her still growing up and having little or no experience out in the world.  The plastic cosmetic bag is an interesting detail.  By itself, the detail can attest to her vanity and naiveté.  Here she’s brought a non-essential item into a warzone, a place where people are too busy fighting for their lives to worry about their appearance or how someone else looks.

According to wisegeek.com, Culottes are “a form of split skirt. They are usually made full or calf length, and consist of a pair of loose, flowing trousers which strongly resemble a skirt until the wearer engages in vigorous physical activity.”  In other words, a fashion accessory that is like the cosmetic bag: useless in a warzone, pretty, but impractical. The fact they are white easily refers to purity, the untarnished innocence that white is often associated with.  The pink sweater returns readers to Kiley’s descriptor of “kid,” which is when the favorite color of girls is most often pink.
Mary Anne Bell’s innocence in reillustrated a few pages later when readers are given the history between Mary Anne and Mark Fossie:

Mary Ann Bell and Mark Fossie had been sweethearts since grammar school.  From the sixth grade on they had known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie and have three healthy yellow-haired children and grow old together and no doubt die in each other’s arms and be buried in the same walnut casket. (94)

This description shows the idolized life Mary Anne sees for herself.  O’Brien chose his words carefully to convey that this was a fantasy she had, without actually saying it out right.  He mentions they were “sweethearts since grammar school.”  Grammar school refers to a time of innocence and a lack of expectations.  The fact she would get married “someday” instead of a specific date also indicates she’s thinking of a vague concept of time that can easily slip through her fingers.  There is no basis of reality to the assumption yet, no date set.  The “gingerbread house” is possibly the strongest evidence that this is a fantasy, as it refers to the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale told to children, which links readers back to the “grammar school” reference.

O’Brien also shows Mary Anne’s loss of innocence with descriptors in the story.  Changes in Mary Anne start to show around the time she starts helping treat injured people and saving lives. She also learns how to use M-16s. Within weeks of arriving:

 

There was a new imprecision in the way Mary Anne expressed her thoughts on certain subjects.  Not necessarily three kids, she’d say.  Not necessarily a house on Lake Erie.  “Naturally we’ll still get married,” she’d tell him. “But it doesn’t have to be right away.  Maybe travel first.  Maybe live together.  Just test it out, you know?” (99)

The new imprecision shows her dreams and plans have changed.  She’s gone from the childish certainty that she will marry and have three kids, to a more adult attitude about maybe this wasn’t what she wanted; a realization that there is more out there than marriage and motherhood.  She could do other things with her life, like travel.  Mark Fossie noticed other differences about Mary Anne:

He couldn’t pin it down.  Her body seemed foreign somehow—too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be.  The bubbliness was gone.  The nervous giggling, too.  When she laughed now, which was rare, it was only when something struck her as truly funny.  Her voice seemed to reorganize itself at a lower pitch.  (99)

The description of Mary Anne being “stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be,” is a metaphor.  The softness and flexibility of her childhood has faded, and became hard, adult, tarnished. The bubbliness, and the nervous giggling, are often associated with childhood as well, innocence.  The fact her voice reorganized itself at a lower pitch is another indication of her growing up, stripping the childish innocence she arrived with. All these changes occurred as she learned more about war, saw more of the war: learning how to shoot, how to live like a soldier, learning how to treat wounds.

The last time Kiley says he saw Mary Ann Bell was after she’d disappeared for weeks with the greenies, special force members, and Mark Fossie, after waiting a long time for Anne Mary to come out, goes into the special forces building:

It took a few seconds, Rat said, to appreciate the full change. In part it was her eyes: utterly flat and indifferent.  There was no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it. But the grotesque part, he said, was her jewelry.  At the girl’s throat was a necklace of human tongues. Elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather, the tongues were threaded along a length of copper wire, one overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable. (110-111)

The eyes are known as windows to the soul.  Those who are innocent, tend to have a playful spark in their eyes, a sense of life and wonderment. But in this description her eyes are perfectly flat and indifferent, no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it, a sign that any innocence she once had has now been killed. She has been corrupted by the war and the person she once was has been murdered.  The jewelry she wears is also a sign of who she has become.  Instead of the jewelry being sexy, cute or pretty, it’s grotesque.  The tongue necklace shows she has nonchalance about the lives that have been taken, a lack of horror, and is a sort of badge of what she’s done and lost: her innocence.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, possess a short story titled Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong. The story is narrated by Rat Kiley, and through O’Brien’s word choices and descriptions effectively show how Mary Anne Bell and how soldiers lost her innocence by going to Vietnam.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1990. 89-116. Print.
Smith, S.E., and Bronwyn Harris. “What Are Culottes?” WiseGeek. Conjecture, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.

October 13

Slow Down. Breaking down and Setting Time limits

When I’m going to edit my own work, my process is usually predictable and simple.

Step one: Print the entire manuscript out.
Step two: Mark each individual chapter with post-it notes so chapters are easier to identify.
Step three: Break the book into 4ths–to the nearest chapter ending. So if the 1/4 mark is on page 60 and the chapter doesn’t end until page 63, the first quarter will contain 63 pages.
 Step four: Use paper clips to keep each fourth separated and together, except for the quarter I am working on. I do not always order the quarters in chronological order, though I am only allowed to work in one quarter at a time.
Step five: Edit an entire quarter.
Step six: Transfer notes for quarter edited onto computer.
Step seven: Start on next quarter
Step eight:  Repeat step five, six and seven until the entire manuscript is edited.
Step nine: Incorporate final notes and clean up final passages from edit.

During my first semester in Spalding’s MFA program, I’ve already seen a change in my editing processes, mainly due to needing to get my requirements throughout the semester, but the new procedure seems to have a much stronger effect on my novel than my original way of editing.  I can see and feel the changes in the novel almost instantly, whereas I may need to go through the above process three or four times before I truly noticed a consistent change in the draft, sometimes in entire chapters.

What is this new, more effective way of editing? It’s simple really.

I’ve been breaking the novel into sections for my packets. About 40 pages each–to the nearest chapter ending. So if I’m on my third pack of 40–with the packet supposed to end on page 120–but the nearest new chapter ends on page 119, I’d break it a page short. I work on the forty page section for three weeks. I am not allowed to work outside those 40 pages during those three weeks.  If I make all the major changes to the draft before my three weeks is up, I start at the beginning of the forty pages and do a deeper edit, grammar, sentence structure, smoothness, general clean up.  If their are changes I still want to make at the end of the three weeks, I make a note of it and MOVE onto the next section of forty pages.

How is what I’ve been doing, different from what I’ve started doing? Honestly if you break my novel down–at least before I started editing it, I’d have only had 5.5 sets of 40. So, I’d only be adding a section and a half to my original idea, which can’t make too much of a difference right?

I think the difference is the forced three weeks to work on the section. By setting that time limit, I force myself to slow down, to really look at my writing, no matter how much I may want to be done with the round of editing. Without the time limit set, I would push through the entire novel at my pace.  I’d make notes to make major changes, however I missed a lot of the changes that were also needed in that same section because I wasn’t looking closely enough.  This also works to keep me motivated, focused on working on my story, so that I can make sure all the changes that need to happen can be made, instead of delayed for another draft.

If you’re needing a new method of editing, this one may be worth trying.

October 10

Tenderness Critical Review

Almost any writer can tell you that the three act structure consists of Set up, Confrontation and Resolution.  However there are more ways to write a story then the three act structure.  A book could be written with three, four, five or even six acts. Robert Cormier provides a strong example of the four act structure in his novel Tenderness.

According to Larry Brooks the first act of the four act structure “introduces the hero in his everyday life, sets a hook to keep readers reading, establishes the hero’s stakes (what he cares about that will be endangered later), and foreshadows later events. It also introduces the changes in the hero’s life that propel him toward the First Plot Point.”

Readers see the first act in first 100 pages of Tenderness. Readers are in the first Act of the story. In this act we meet Lori, learn about her fixations and see how she gets rid of them with Thrash. Afterwards, while watching the news, readers see her develop another fixation on admitted killer, Eric Poole.  Unwilling to leave town before she gets rid of her fixation on him, Lori finds a temporary refuge at Harmony House.

Eric’s past is revealed through an interrogation by a police officer. He then foils the officer’s plans to keep him in prison. On one of his last days in prison, Eric develops his own fixation on a girl, Maria, who fits his victim profile.

In The Four-Part Structure, Larry Brooks wrote the following about act two, “Everything the hero cares about (and readers came to care about in Part 1) is in danger. The hero is usually just reacting to what happened at the First Plot Point—not being proactive. She might try to save the day, but if she does, it doesn’t work yet.”

From pages 100 to 140, readers are in act two. Eric stays at his Aunt Phoebe’s house. While waiting for the media to lose interest in him, Eric thinks about Maria and slowly grows tired of biding his time. He wants to kill Maria. Meanwhile, because Eric avoids the media watching his aunt’s house for him, Lori is unable to see Eric, much less remove her fixation.  She is stalled, non-active beyond keeping a vigil on Eric’s house in the hopes of him coming out.

Eric however has seen Lori through the back window of the house.  She looks familiar to him at first, but he eventually remembers that she was a potential witness to one of the murders he committed years ago and wonders if she might be a lose end he has to kill to maintain his freedom.

Concurrently, one of the girls at Harmony House is trying to get Lori in trouble and Lori recognizes she can’t stay there any longer. Giving up on removing her fixation on Eric, she leaves Harmony House to return home. Before she leaves, however, she swings by his house one final time to say a silent goodbye.

Act three, according to Larry Brooks, is when “the hero becomes proactive, and begins to seriously fight back against the antagonist. He also starts to fight against the inner demons that are holding him back.”

From pages 140 to 214, readers are in the third act structure.  In this act, Lori and Eric finally meet or are reunited as the case may be.  However Eric is suspicious of her and wonders if he needs to kill her. They spend some time together, during which Eric decides Lori isn’t a threat to him and Lori manages to get rid of fixation of him. By then she has grown to care for Eric though and realizing he has not been freed of his fixation on Maria, Lori encourages Eric to go after her. Maria is a trap however. Lori realizes this and stops Eric from hurting Maria, before he has done anything the police can arrest him on. The police threaten to arrest Lori for interfering and she runs into the woods to escape them.

In the Four-Part Structure, Larry Brooks wrote that in Act four “Everything in the previous three parts comes together in a final climax, in which the hero shows that she’s overcome her inner demons. After that, there’s a bit of time for tying up loose ends.”

From page 217 to 229 readers are in the fourth act. Once Lori and Eric find each other again, they decide to celebrate their near escape and rent a canoe in the park. They trust each other, are fond of each other and feel they may be together for a while.  However Lori falls out of the canoe and into the river.  Eric tries to save her. However Lori dies and Eric is sent to prison for her accidental death. In prison, Eric mourns for the loss of a living creature for the first time in his life, which ends the four act structure.

Cormier is a master storyteller, who uses the lesser known four act-structure to tell the story of a serial killer and his would-be accomplice.

Works Cited

Brooks, Larry. “The Four-Part Structure.” Squidoo. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2012. .Cormier, Robert. Tenderness: A Novel. New York: Delacorte, 1997. Print.
October 10

City of Bones: Critical Review

City of Bones opens at a dance club called Pandemonium. Inside, a demon searches for prey among the dancing humans. By slowing this scene down and choosing the correct words, Clare turns a simple walk across a crowded club into a sort of dance that also raises the tension in her novel.  This is seen in passages like:

His hand tightened on the blade he carried and he had begun to step out onto the dance floor when a girl broke away from the mass of dancers and began walking toward him. (…) She smiled, passing him, beckoning with her eyes.  He turned to follow her, tasting the phantom sizzle of her death on his lips. (3)

Despite the demon’s unsavory intentions, this passage has a clear flirtatious feel to it, at least from the girl who is later identified as Isabelle. She is acts almost predatorily with the way she moves around him, makes sure that he sees her and he watches.  We know she’s constantly moving but readers may not realize how much it’s mentioned because Clare wisely chose her words carefully. Instead of several “walks” and “moves,” readers instead encounter “step out,” “broke away,” “neared him” and “passing him.”  Keeping their constant movement from feeling repetitive as it would have if Clare had used the same set of words repetitively to tell the actions.

On the next page, the constant walking continues with the following passage but Clare’s choice of words only adds to the tension that the author has already started to build:

The girl was a pale ghost retreating through the colored smoke. She reached the wall and turned, bunching her skirt up in her hands, lifting it as she grinned at him. Under the skirt she was wearing thigh-high boots.
He sauntered up to her, his skin prickling with her nearness. (…)
A cool smiled curled his lips. She moved to the side and he could see that she was leaning against a closed door. No Admittance—Storage was scrawled across it in red paint.  She reached behind her for the knob, turned it, slid inside.  (…)
He slipped into the room after her, unaware that he was being followed. (4)

Here the words that Clare uses to show the girl’s movements up the tension in the same way that simply slowing the scene down does. The word “retreat” has connotations of fear and prey attached to it.  However the word sauntered is the opposite. Someone who saunters is confident, perhaps even a predator. And as readers are aware that the boy/demon wishes to make a meal of the girl, the tension is raised with those word choices.

In two pages, with the two above passages, Clare describes the boy and girl walking at least ten times and only actually uses the word walking once.  Instead Clare uses descriptions like “retreat,” “sauntered,” or “pass” to add more tension and keep redundancy at bay.

Works Cited
Clare, Cassandra. City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments #1. New York: Simon Pulse, 2008. Print.
September 23

End of Semester is Coming

So some of you may already be aware that I am working on my last packet for this semester.  I won’t be able to attend school for the fall semester, which starts in November.  However, I plan to attend the next spring semester–late May.  By all appearances, second semester students are strongly encouraged to try a different focus for a full semester.  So, instead of taking in YA next semester, try memoir, poetry, screenplay, playwright, adult….  I’m leaning toward Screenplay.  I’ve just heard a lot of great things about that program and it would be different from what I currently write.  I think Adult writing would be too much like YA for it to show me a different way of writing in a significant way.  So I thought I’d ask readers to recommend books or screenplays to me.  Partially so I can keep posting reviews on this blog.

Any genre will do, though I would prefer YA novels for books.  And I have no idea what I’d want Screenplay-wise so I leave that to readers to suggest.

Also, I know, I owe a book review on City of Bones still and two more critical reviews.  Those will be coming shortly!

September 15

Tenderness by Robert Cormier

Eighteen-year-old Eric has just been released from juvenile detention for murdering his mother and stepfather. Now he’s looking for some tenderness—tenderness he finds in caressing and killing beautiful girls. Fifteen-year-old Lori has run away from home again. Emotionally naive but sexually precocious, she is also looking for tenderness—tenderness she finds in Eric. Will Lori and Eric be each other’s salvation or destruction?

This was an interesting book. I was expecting this story to go down a different route, to have a different focus than it proved to have but it was still an enjoyable read.

Both protagonists in this book are anti-heroes, and anti-heroes, especially female anti-heroes are extremely rare no matter the genre. For that alone this book is worth a quick read.. But structurally, there are several reasons to do so. I had twenty pages left to read of  Tenderness when I realized that the book switched between third and first person throughout the entire novel, which is something I normally notice immediately. But it never jarred me making the switch between the different personages.

This book however did not sit well with me in several ways.  Both Lori and Eric felt older than they were in the book. I would have believed Lori closer to 17. Eric felt more in his 20s. However, the plot wouldn’t have worked with the characters those ages.  Once you read the book you’ll know why. I don’t want to spoil anything.  But…I don’t know, it rubbed me wrong.

Other than that, I really didn’t have any issues with the book.  It was a bit on the dry side for me.  And it will probably never be a book that I have on my must keep shelf.  But it kept my interest the entire way through, which is always a good sign.  I would recommend this book more for the structure and the story than the entertainment value.  But that’s my taste.  I know some of my friends will completely and utterly love this book.

 

September 14

Holes: A Critical Review

No Holes in Emotional Arc
Louis Sachar’s Holes is about fifteen-year-old Stanley Yelnats, who is falsely accused and charged with theft. He is sent to Camp Green Lake instead of a Juvenile detention center where he endures and survives inhumane conditions. Sachar gives Stanley a strong, and believable emotional arc through the entire story.

When Stanley first arrives at Camp Green Lake he is overweight, he has no friends and no self-confidence. He’s miserable at this term of his life and at the circumstances that brought him to Camp Green Lake.  Despite his emotional dislike of himself, Stanley does still feel sympathy for the guard and bus driver that took him to Camp Green Lake, which is conveyed after the guard grumbles about the return drive: “Stanley thought about the long, miserable bus ride and felt a little sorry for the guard and the bus driver (13).”

However Camp Green Lake is hard on Stanley.  Digging Holes in desert heat, Stanley begins to grow physically stronger, and loses weight. His body, like his personality,  begins to harden due to the harsh conditions of Camp Green Lake.  This is perhaps best demonstrated when Zero, another camper, admits he can’t read or write and would like Stanley to teach him.  Stanley’s reaction is unsympathetic and unkind:

After digging all day, he didn’t have the strength to try to teach Zero to read and write. He needed to save his energy for the people who counted.

“You don’t have to teach me to write,” said Zero.  “Just to read.  I don’t have anybody to write to.”
“Sorry,” Stanley said again. (82)

Later, Stanley gets in trouble when one of his fellow campers steals a burlap sack of sunflower seeds.  Stanley takes the blame for it and is sent to the Warden’s for the theft.  When he returns to finish digging his hole, he finds that someone has nearly finished digging his hole for him. He realizes that Zero, who hadn’t been involved in the theft, had done the work for him. Zero’s act soften’s Stanley toward him. He agrees to teach Zero how to read. From this point on Zero and Stanley begin to grow as friends.

The hardness Stanley developed earlier does not completely disappear though.  It’s just changed into a different kind of hardness–he becomes less sensitive, more confident in himself and as a result, willing to stand up for himself and others. On page 138, the Warden tells Stanley that he can no longer teach Zero how to read. Instead of accepting this as he would have at the beginning of the book.  He stands up to the Warden.  “‘Why can’t I dig my own hole, but still teach Zero to read?'” he asked.  “What’s wrong with that?” (139)

Thus completes the emotional arc of the story. Stanley starts at an emotional low at the beginning and concludes the arc as a strong, confident and emotionally empathetic guy.

September 13

How I Live Now: Critical Review

Same Person, Two Narratives
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff is about a girl who is sent to live with her cousins in England. While there England goes into war against an unnamed enemy, sending Daisy on a journey of survival. To tell the story, Meg Rosoff forgoes the traditional English standards of writing to distinguish the story’s present from the narrator’s present.

Though the character who narrates the story is the same person throughout the book, there are two distinct narrators in the story: fifteen-year-old Daisy and Daisy as an adult.  To distinguish between the two I’ll refer to adult Daisy as Elizabeth–which is her birth name but she is only called that once in the beginning of the book.

With Daisy’s narration, bad grammar is the norm, which is demonstrated when Daisy meets Edmond for the first time:

I’ll take your bag, he said, and even though he’s about half a mile shorter than me and has arms about as thick as a dog leg, he grabs my bag, and I grab it back and say Where’s your mom, is she in the car? (3)

Daisy doesn’t use quotation marks, she doesn’t always create a new paragraph when someone new speaks, nor does she always separate the dialogue from the would normally be the previous or following sentence.  Readers biggest clue that someone is talking are the dialogue tags and the capitalization of the first letter of the first spoken word, which some readers may find disconcerting the first few times they encounter it. There is a comma where a question mark should be and it is all a run-on sentence.

Using traditional grammar, the paragraph above would be at least three sentences long and broken into multiple paragraphs. However, applying the traditional rules to the text would have disrupted the ebb and flow that Rosoff has set up for the novel. Daisy’s grammar also suggests numerous things to readers and any number or combination of those implications could be the reason for it.  The run-on sentences give readers the impression of a long-winded teenager or someone emotionally distraught.  The bad grammar could be because the narrator is uneducated or someone who is stream-of-conscious writing and not worrying about grammar rules.

However, in Elizabeth’s narration proper grammar is used as is demonstrated with the first paragraph of chapter one:

My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that. My father took one look at me when I was born and must have thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like an old-fashioned queen or a dead person, but what I turned out like is plain, not much there to notice. Even my life so far has been plain.  More Daisy than Elizabeth from the word go.

In contrast to Daisy’s writing, Elizabeth’s good grammar appears older, more sophisticated and more emotionally distant from the events described, which is probably true as Rosoff states that Daisy wrote her entire experience down shortly after being rescued.  And then implies that years later Daisy read over the experience, added her comments and published the book as written.

This combination allows leaders to get a sense of how Daisy saw the events shortly after living them and how she viewed they a few years later when she looked over her account of the events.  And allows readers to see how, years after the major story took place, things went for her when she saw her cousins again after the war.

By combining bad grammar with good grammar readers get a unique story that allows the story’s present and the narrator’s present to be viewed within the same scene from two different periods of time.

Works Cited

Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2006. Print.