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Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

You Gotta Get Behind Your Character

Minerda-sample

Illustration by Robin Follet. Minerda.

There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)

I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).

I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.

Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.

Me and Minerva Mae

Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.

You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.

As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul.  The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls.  I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.paper-pen2

When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?

Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.

Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.

Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.

I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.

There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.

Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.

The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.

 

 

 

You’re So Pathetic…Let Me Kick Start You!

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Albert Einstein


We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein 

Image found here

Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, “Oh, you’re so pathetic”? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, “Why me?”

The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake ’em.

(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else’s eye is so much more compelling to spot.)

But the pathetic behavior of human beings–our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door–is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don’t want to hear about Wendy’s woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a– and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.

Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year’s resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I’m-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:

  • Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I’d enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action–either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, “Hmm, just a few pages more.”
  • Have your character encounter a person who is a foil–opposite in thought, action, family background, speech–and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school’s quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
  • Make a list of your characters’ intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious–color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there’s the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters’ rainbow?
  • Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character’s comfort zone upside down. In “How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner,” Writer’s Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).

I’m not saying great art can’t be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn’t Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn’t Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen’s tale? Doesn’t Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn’t Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what’s interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!

There’s also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above–but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.

In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!

But that’s everyday life and many of us don’t want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.

Writing Prompts

  • When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
  • Look at Elizabeth Sims’ list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
  • Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
  • Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
  • What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident. 
  • Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can’t see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you’re over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly “out of character” but required by the heart-clutching moment.
  • Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims’ list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters–or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel–and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
  • What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.

The Peter Pan Generation

“I shall title this journal, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.”

— Wendy Redbird Dancing

Ever read someone else’s words and get chills that this stranger’s on your very same wavelength?

Yesterday at Forbes, author Jason Oberholtzer shared his mind with “In Defense of My Generation.” Though I couldn’t have written such an essay, I do feel as if I’ve written such a book.

Image found at Scottish Book Trust

Wendy Redbird Dancing (protagonist of my novel) would agree with him that this time we’re living in needs some name, so might as well pick one. He points out that the 21st century is “the unnamed decade.” He lists common titles–“The Two-Thousands, The Ohs, The Naughties, Noughties, Aughties, Oughties, or The Aughts.”

Wendy votes for “Noughts” in an age where she finds communications ephemeral, people undependable, and dark forecasts everywhere she turns. She would say a big amen to his assertion that “We grew up with loose ends, loose labels and high expectations”–and then promptly introduce you to her mother, Sunny, who deems everything negotiable.

Wendy who loves the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, as her lord, savior, and saint, would agree with Oberholtzer that she is indeed part of a lost generation. He calls it a “Peter Pan generation” mired in questions and fears, suspicious of all things institutional and people over 30. In an age of reality TV, TMZ exposes, 24-7 news flashes of scandal as leaders fall like Lucifers, Wendy can’t help but see like Oberholtzer that “every institution we have been taught to hold in esteem has, in the last decade, given us ample reason to question their (sic) integrity.”

Wendy has Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, George Bush, the Catholic Church scandal, WMDs, Enron, and Halliburton, Wall Street, and the housing crisis in her news feed. All are reason to wonder who can she trust. And that’s just on her TV. The people closest to her have shown that material goods and fleeting feelings are the best things to cling to in a crisis–and we all know how that approach works out. At the start of the novel, Wendy realizes she can no longer cover for those responsible for her and needs to find a new path with true integrity.

Oberholtzer has at least six years on Wendy, but his spirit and analysis reflect her sober assessments. Here are a few of his thoughts that Wendy “plays out” for the reader, through direct experience and feelings:

–“Osama Bin Laden has actively defined my generation…The event that welcomed us to the adult world taught us that evil is real, justice is complicated and institutions are fallible.”
–“So let’s please do away with the following seductive assertions: we have no regard for sacred institutions or hard work and we prefer our mother’s basement…”
–“We do not shirk responsibility. Our coming of age involved a massive reassessment of the meaning of responsibility. Individualism is often a characteristic of one who has reason to believe he or she is alone responsible for the future, when traditional models have failed.”
–“We don’t want pity.”

Wendy’s coming-of-age tale forces her to confront some terrible truths. There’s the internal pain from a past trauma she must face, but there’s the external anguish from one person closest to her she must confront and overcome. She finds her target, takes aim, and moves forward with her destiny.

As minds shimmer with the same thoughts across cyberspace, radiating kindred feelings, Wendy whispers in my ear. She says that if this is so–people who are strangers can think so alike–then she does, strangely enough, have hope for humanity in this lost and limbo Age of Nought.

Great Voice, But Don’t Be a Tease

“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.”

— Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Today on the bus I saw some teens taking a picture of a stranger they were mocking. I heard, “Dude, this is so going to Facebook,” and “I’m tweeting this now” while one boy tapped his phone. Mockery gone viral. Ah, modern youth: everything’s for posting, and everything’s for comment. For one shining second, each of us can be paparazzi or celeb. Take your pick.

Beyond sociological observations, I could classify this scene as a “man versus man” external conflict, or even “man versus machine” for the stranger whose picture was taken unawares by cell phone. Or perhaps, assuming the mockers have a conscience, it’s a “man versus self” situation where someone in that mob asked himself if his actions were right and wrong.

With youth in mind, I read YA wondering how well it will fly with teens. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pursuing my “personal MFA” here, reviewing YA while polishing my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Studies are going swimmingly. Besides wondering how today’s kids take these reads, I take my own pulse–what’s my taste?–while weighing the craft of many talented authors–how well does characterization, plot, setting, style, etc, work?

Charlie, the protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, had me at hello. His voice is honest, to the point of being embarrassing, and it’s calm, to the point of being robotic. The whole novel is Charlie’s letters to a stranger:

“I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.”

After defending himself against a bully who attacks him during his first week of high school, Charlie notes without any particular worry, “Some kids look at me strange in the hallways because I don’t decorate my locker, and I’m the one who beat up Sean and couldn’t stop crying after he did it. I guess I’m pretty emotional.” Even with the frequent crying, it’s as if there’s a thick rubber curtain between Charlie and us; his emotions bat against it and sometimes, creep around the barrier, but the time they get to us, they’re muted, enervated, distilled.

So naturally, I wanted to know what was up. I kept reading to find out what this boy’s issue was. I knew his best friend had committed suicide before the novel began. I knew Charlie had lost his Aunt Liz to a car accident. From a great distance Charlie offers brilliant observations about the worlds around him–that of his family and then very slowly, new friends he manages to make, and then the girl he secretly loves. Friends treat him with kid gloves, like a breakable toy they play with or a small child they’re teaching the ropes.

The entire novel I wondered if at the end we’d learn Charlie is on the autistic spectrum. We can only speculate what Charlie’s psychiatrist visits are for, though I agree all along he needs them. I liked his differences that touched every relationship he forms–whether with his English teacher or other students–because you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if they will abuse him or take advantage in some way. But people find him charming–particularly two seniors who become his constant companions–and his teacher feeds him advanced reading all year. With the help of these “normal” people who all struggle with various issues of their own, Charlie can come of age in a somewhat normal way, learning how to make friends and survive classes and join the community. The friends have dramas that Charlie reports on as if embedded with the troops but not quite moved: cheating boyfriends, questions about sexual identity, and drug and alcohol use. Their dramas filter through Charlie’s insulated perspective, we need to see how their train wrecks will turn out.

SPOILER ALERT

But I had no idea that Charlie suffers from a past trauma of sexual abuse. He cries often, and as the book progresses, suffers a few breakdowns, even catatonia. He discovers masturbation at a fairly late date, age 14, so maybe that was a clue. But it’s not till the final pages that we learn of the abuse that fueled his current behavior and sadness. We also never learn who he’s been writing all this time.

And so Charlie, a character I’d cared about, deflated for me like a balloon. All that rubber insulation had to pay off in some way, but not with this neat diagnosis, this tied-in-a-bow ending of a hospital stay. I liked the story, but I wasn’t moved.

Obviously, if I made it to the end, the work was a success, correct? But Charlie’s internal conflict is hinted at only via smoke signals–Charlie versus his buried pain–and even with his odd actions of writing to a stranger, his clinical observations about fellow humans, and the bouts of crying, I didn’t learn enough to expect such an ending or even suspect who turns out to be the actual perpetrator (Aunt Liz).

I realize that trauma goes underground. I realize that Charlie is giving us hints all along of PTSD. I don’t doubt that his character is quite possible and that his experience probably speaks to many readers. The goal of this novel is not to explore the terror of his flashbacks or his work with the counselor where we might descend into myriad labyrinths and never emerge. The novel aims to tell us the perks of being a strange, withdrawn boy who somehow manages to cross his own barriers, however unexplained to us.

Fine. I say, “Great voice. Great character worthy of being followed. But don’t be a tease.”

By “tease,” I mean that if Charlie can’t tell us what’s up, then someone, maybe the surrounding characters, maybe elements of setting, must tell us somehow. Or how about the recipient of the letters? I know that Charlie leaves no return address–a clever way to ensure no contact–but why not let that plot be foiled? Lush by Natasha Friend has a similar premise of writing to an unknown person, where a girl with an alcoholic father and family chaos leaves messages for a stranger in a library book. But the stranger writes back, and Samantha the protagonist evolves. The mystery (AKA the tease) morphs into a conflict and complication for her character. We as readers feel rewarded for our time spent in anticipation, confusion, and wonder.

I find myself doing the same thing Perks does in my own novel: starting down a path and not finishing what I began. In my revisions, I’ve looked at the secondary and tertiary characters and asked, What’s the consequence of their interactions with Wendy? What’s the pay-off? For all actions there must be an equal and opposite reaction, if I may dare create a physics formula for fiction; there must be that gun going off…wait, I just plagiarized Chekhov. You write a stranger, we need to see that stranger’s face some day. You act strange, we need to know why, or get some hints that are stronger, more helpful, long before the last few pages. Give me a chance to build a thesis about Charlie’s internal conflict at least–and then fine, blow it out of the water like any good mystery novel, but give me a fighting chance.

I still recommend Perks. Do pick it up. See if you felt satisfied or thwarted. I felt some of both.

Writing Prompts:

— If an internal conflict is the essential drama of man versus self, what types of feelings and beliefs cause these struggles? What aspects of self do humans struggle with?
— Have you ever experienced one of these internal conflicts: self versus love or lust you don’t want to feel? Self versus physical pain and suffering? Self versus addiction? Self versus grace or forgiveness?
— Of all the types of internal conflict a character faces, which is most interesting to you?
— How clearly does a character in a story you’re writing manifest his or her internal conflicts?
— How do you manifest your internal conflicts?
— What topics are taboo for your writing? Aren’t taboo? Can your characters explore anything?

How Much Reality Can I Take?

“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”

— Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

Photo by Nathan Cook

By page 24 of Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?

By page 24 I had to put the book down. And ask myself: How much reality can I take?

What we like to read is all about taste–whether you like chocolate with your peanut butter in an orange wrapper or chocolate so dark and pure from a Belgian clime that it tastes like butter…I know people who would gobble either. I’m not much of a memoir or nonfiction reader, so it’s no surprise that when I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality. I can turn to truTV (supposedly “actuality”) for that. I also don’t need darkly realistic fiction with no sign or hint of redemption (see my guide for signs of redemption in a work).

I know life is terrible sometimes or all the time, depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, and I don’t avert my eyes from the news. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, or abandonment and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. And she shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on fear and lust.

I know this is how humans behave, and some people run on these two gears only most of their lives. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, though. I consider my reading much like my taste in chocolate–something I want to keep around and maybe try again sometime.

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts I did keep reading. Some would say it is unrealistic because there’s a Gay/Straight Alliance at school with kids who are definitely out and there are devoted environmentalist teens. Having taught at schools where this is possible, I question those who say it can’t happen, but all the same, I don’t feel a novel must represent the majority or the average rather than the exception. But let’s get beyond details of scenery and character type: let’s get to meaning, because this book has plenty of it. M or F? follows the relationship of Frannie and Marcus, two devoted friends who share a brain. They think alike and care deeply for one another. Marcus has been out to Frannie since he moved to the school, and they accept one another, foibles and all, with open hearts. When Frannie falls for the environmentalist who also strikes Marcus’ fantasy, things get interesting. Their struggle with romance and friendship ignites a series of IM high jinks worth following.

Bleah! Sounds like a romp, you say. The feel-good movie of the year! Give me stark reality. I want blood, guts, murder, real–with a healthy dose or redemption.

I can hang with that, too. I just started watching two series–The Wire and The Killing–and love both. I loved The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Why do I stick with gruesome mafia killings, violent deaths of teen girls, and desperate drug situations in low-rise projects? Because in each of these I’ve mentioned, someone has hope, faith, drive, or ambition. McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. Somebody went back and did a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.

Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.

M or F? deals honestly with sexual orientation and young love. It also explores loyalty between friends and how we can betray one another while pursuing our own desires. This important exploration makes the book worthy of a classroom read, and co-author Lisa Papademetriou also provides a teacher’s guide for this purpose. There’s lust, but it’s not reveled in with graphic sidetrails the way Rage quickly descends. I believe in describing teen lusts and teen dreams, but like the judge, I know when things wax a bit too pornographic and don’t care to quote it for you. Or, let’s put it this way: before you show me your panties, show me your brain. I want to know why I should like you as a person before you undress.

In Rage, I know that Johanna means well, trying to tutor the violent boy and serve at hospice, but she goes through the motions of serving, either spacing out while someone dies to fantasize about her love interest, Reeve, or trying to escape when forced to tutor the violent boy. She is powered by loneliness and lust. Her best friend asks her to leave the house so she can sleep with her boyfriend.

Now this portrayal is authentic and no doubt strikes a chord with teens wracked by these struggles. We are selfish creatures in high school and act out of our worst desires. A teen or adult reader may appreciate this honest mirror and want to immerse herself deep in the ugly of the moment. Johanna is a lost protagonist, headed into a downward spiral after a dangerous girl. The blurb promises this: “In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love and struggles to find her way into a new light.”

I don’t think I can wait around for the “new light.” It’s not that I can’t hang with trouble. It’s just that I need to know that Johanna has something to cling to–a decent friend, a concerned adult–and not a careless teacher who leaves her alone with a violent boy or a self-centered older sister or best friend. I haven’t met a redeeming soul yet by page 24. There is a hint of Johanna’s mom being a good force, but that’s not fleshed out yet.

I think about “how much realism” issue all the time because I’ve had an least one writing partner say of my WIP, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US: HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT: “I just want to see Wendy happy.” I understood the comment, and how I answered it is was by showing Wendy passionate about something. I wrote a new chapter where she struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered, she’s inspired, she’s angry, she’s righteous. After this scene she takes bold action of revenge. Within the next 15 pages, there are three “interventions” by individuals striving to connect with this alienated, freakish girl: two teens and a teacher. I can’t say there’s much happy-happy-joy-joy swirling and very few warm fuzzies, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

In the first 24 pages, I can’t find a single soul who Johanna would want to trust. That scares me a bit. Realistic? Sure. Readable? Not so much.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. Sociopaths. Pedophiles. Life is ugly and that’s a truth key to my tale. I present shades of various hells on earth. But call me Pollyanna or Fairy Tale Fanny, but I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess.

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no Good, no Right, just habits, traditions, and other human endeavors of an anthropological bent, then those readers who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.

At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile crossing his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with “Ode to Joy.” Here in the midst of great sorrow is sudden respite and healing peace. The boy still finds beauty in the strains of a melody he will someday create while his ears ring with pain.

Maybe Johanna will find love and light somewhere within the pages of Rage. I hope so. Maybe someone else who likes a certain kind of read will stick around to see.

Redemption versus nihilism. Guess which wins for me, every time?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your YA manuscript:

Literary Goals:

• Is there realism?
• Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
• Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?

YA Goals:

• Is there emotional connection between characters?
• Is there redemption and hope?
• Is there enough clarity in the resolution for YA (ages 16-18), balanced with some realistic limbo and possibility? Does the story accurately portray the liminal stage of young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?

Nerd Hero, Surrounded by Quirks

“Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if I loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?”

Vera in Please Ignore Vera Dietz

I’m all for the nerd hero–the bland, retreating wallflower who blossoms late and great in his heroic journey. She can enthrall us if a) she grows up in some way and b) her compadres along the way are loud, unique, and full of quirks. We’ll keep reading so we can see his next choice and his friends’ next oddball move.

Just beware those quirks don’t create…jerks.

I had great hopes for The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I picked up this award-winning YA novel with its nerd hero expecting a lot. But less than halfway through, I put it down after three failed attempts to restart. The problem for me? The eccentric characters boasted way too many oddities for me to relate.

Nerd heroine Lennie lives with a sage-waving grandmother who paints only in shades of green and thinks the state of Len’s soul is symbolized by the health of a house plant. Len’s uncle thinks he can resurrect bugs by building pyramids (to be honest, I couldn’t quite keep track of his theory, which I guess is the point, but it was obscure and strange enough to the point of being a bit creepy and repulsive). Then there’s the new guy from France with a rock-star smile who falls for Len and embraces her eccentric family without question. Mom and Dad are MIA, no surprise, as we see in many YA novels. Never mind the suitor’s angelic patience while chasing Len, who rebuffs him every time (up to the part where I stopped). The most interesting plot element, Len’s affair with her deceased sister’s boyfriend, is overshadowed by this circus cast of characters.

There are beautiful lines in this novel and the prose is definitely worth the read–rich with imagery, compelling metaphor, strong voice. Blogger Casey McCormick offers an excellent tribute, and I share it here because I want to be clear that like desserts, wines, and meats, there are definite, inscrutable, and equal preferences when it comes to critiques. In other words, as someone once said when I was dumped by a boyfriend: There’s no accounting for taste. (How nice he thought the boyfriend made a mistake!) Clearly, McCormick loves this kind of a supporting cast and just because I find the characters annoying does not mean that in some universal sense, they should be ignored. I get the fan devotion and am struggling to discover why I can’t belong to this group.

I take another look, a man-in-the-mirror gaze, at what made me close this book. Yes, my own novel is full of oddballs: a teen girl who worships Michael Jackson (prays, invokes, petitions him like a Catholic saint); a hippie mom with money lust (who celebrates Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, or whatever holiday comes across her path with the exception of anything Christian); and a grandma who’s a faithful Mass attendee while cussing like a sailor. Yup, my peeps are weird. Yet in a given scene, I believe they do say enough standard, mainstream, expected things to give a reader something to cling to. They’re not flying so far off the radar they lose contact.

I also think Nelson’s quirky characters mask the lack of a hero’s quest, otherwise known as the protagonist’s goal. I get that Len suffers great grief at the loss of her sister, but for the first half of the book, she is merely buffeted by the latest strange choice by her supporting cast. She’s busy reacting rather than making any strides of her own. That’s the nature of grief, so I’m not questioning the realism of what Nelson portrays here. However, back to taste: what I want from literature is a hero’s journey with a target. Even if the protagonist doesn’t quite know her mission yet, I don’t want her passively waiting or dodging; I want her choosing. Many of us would have abandoned Star Wars early on in 1977 if Luke Skywalker had spent too many scenes mourning his aunt and uncle’s loss. The fact he goes off to war sooner rather than later makes us want to follow.

It doesn’t have to be battle; little actions can sometimes be enough, and Miles Halter of Looking for Alaska seeks after two obsessions: famous last words and a wild girl, Alaska. Both desires fuel his everyday, tiny choices. In The Sky is Everywhere, I’m not sure what Len wants except for her sister to come back, and as she avoids the help and concern of her family, her best friend, and various suitors, one starts to wonder, Would I leave her alone if I were her friend? I just might. Another reason I put the book down. Miles, despite his minor life, made enough small choices to be the tail of the comet that we followed his trail of light.

Some may argue that Len’s choice of her sister’s boyfriend, that inexplicable lust, is enough to keep their interest and moves the story forward. Again, this is where tastes diverge and I can’t quite pin why that desire didn’t keep me riveted.

Perhaps it’s an overall approach to characterization: if a character doesn’t choose much, then nothing much is at stake. If she is simply the eye of the storm while others swirl around her, there’s no contrast or foil. It helps when a character has contrasts, something to lose, and is foiled at every turn. It’s also helpful if the driving desire is nameable, less force of nature than an act of will. Len’s desire for her sister’s boyfriend feels like fate without free will; it’s as if a tornado blasted her into the arms of this boy. However, even the pallid characters of Alice Munro’s teen in “Red Dress–1946” or Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen make distinct choices they can discern and cannot argue are acts of God.

This matter of “what’s at stake” may be why I raced right through Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King despite a raging flu. It’s a valid book to compare with The Sky is Everywhere because both books deal with loss and death. Vera is also surrounded by oddballs–her deceased best friend, Charlie, who still haunts her and “made inner conflict look delicious”; and her workaholic dad who doesn’t get that Vera is still in school and might not need over 20 hours of work a week, but,”no matter the ailment, he will suggest working as a cure.” There’s her pizza delivery boss, Marie, a “really cool biker lady with crooked yellow teeth.” Don’t forget a mother on the lam who became a stripper (Cindy/Sindy) and then ran away with a podiatrist. There’s even a talking pagoda–an odd architectural feature in this town that gets to sound off every once in a while. I’d say this is enough of a freak landscape to satisfy anyone with a taste for weird.

Here lie my reasons why we shouldn’t ignore Vera Dietz. Where Vera veers off the passive, wallflower nerd trail (she’s obsessed with words and a strong student, like so many other YA heroes) is with her choices. She says she chooses not to be either of her parents. She makes the pizza job her own with a plan to pay for her community college future so she won’t be crushed by student loans. In the course of that gig, she must brave some strange houses. This is a heroine quality of courage we like to track. She also chooses to drink a little too much, and she chooses to have a crush on a 23 year-old. In other words, she makes some key mistakes based in real, out-there action. From the very first page, we know her inner conflict–loving and hating Charlie, the best friend/love of her life who just died. She’s a prisoner of horrible, obsessive questions(see the preface quotation) from the start, on page one. This gets readers running right behind her.

Vera makes bad choices. She doesn’t just wallow. Therefore the quirky folk around her don’t become jerks by overwhelming her. Len’s grandma, uncle, and wannabe boyfriend are so larger-than-life, they upstage.

I take comfort that my Wacko Wendy tends to upstage others when she walks into a room. But my advice to Len’s heroine’s journey is good advice for my writing as I revise any character’s trail. Is she blazing it, or is it a mere side trail of thoughts and wishes? What action will my characters take by the close of this scene?

Writing Prompts

— What is “quirky”? Define it by comparing quirks to what you consider normal, status quo, expected traits of people in your world.
— Who’s your favorite quirky character in literature or film? Explain why the quirks work for you.
— How are these quirks a cover for the character’s original wound? What hurt your character as a child that now expresses itself in weirdness?
— How are these quirks an expression of the character’s essence–personality, interests, spirit?
— What novel or story or movie have you abandoned because the quirkiness got too strange to follow? What alienated or frustrated you?
— How quirky are your characters in your WIP? On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “lemming and trend follower” and 10 being “freakazoid,” where do your protagonist and supporting cast rank?
— What quirks of others (real folk) irritate you to the point of leaving the scene? What quirks of yours irritate others?
— What are your writing quirks? How do these quirks express themselves in writing tics, blind spots, redundancies, blocks? What parts of the writing process are your biggest challenge?
— Are your characters making choices in the first ten scenes of your novel, or, are they merely thinking about making choices while other characters get to make the really interesting ones?
— Are you a nerd who tends to be upstaged by others’ quirks, but you’re brilliant at writing about them? If you’re a spectator-type of author, analyze how your nerdiness expresses itself. Are you hyperanalytical, perfectionistic, wallowing, highly observant, critical, and sometimes paralyzed in the face of larger-than-life personalities?
— Do you ever feel that others are too busy living while you’re too busy chronicling their odd escapades? Is everybody’s truth stranger than fiction–and yet your fiction is stranger than your life?

15 Going on 40

“The ’50s was a stupid time.” — my mom

Someone once told me the 1950s was a Golden Age and how she wished life now could go back to what it was then. To which I replied, “Sure, as long as you weren’t black, brown, a woman, gay…”

So when I reminisced with a friend the other day about Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen and found it at the library–a book I’d read and reread growing up in the early eighties–I checked the copyright date. 1956. No wonder this book about a teen’s love life was fine for me to read in fifth grade.

Modern teens ought to read it, even if only to make them incredulous that high schoolers could ever be this innocent and nice. In contrast, the 16 year-old protagonist of my novel sees life through a lens of adult skepticism, dismissing trust and eschewing kindness because she’s seen way too much. First, there’s a personal trauma she’s survived, and then there’s what she sees every day on TV. Sex and the City. Marilyn Manson. Hugh Hefner and his revolving door of “Girls Next Door” (in the 21st century this phrase means live-in Bunnies), where teen Kendra is taken in as concubine, claiming,”Hef saved me.” Anna Nicole Smith lolling on the floor squealing for Howard K. Stern to fish her lipstick out of the toilet. The Kardashians. Never mind cholera in Haiti, dictators spewing hate; and TV news and talk radio spewing polarized discourse if not violent, racist vitriol. The world is vast, complex, tasteless, and dangerous–and right at her cable-surfing fingertips.

In Fifteen, white and suburban Jane Purdy listens to radio. Her family doesn’t own a TV. She spends her Saturdays baby sitting and knitting argyle socks for her love interest. She is a Plain Jane like no nerd today. I would pit the worldly wisdom of any quiet, unassuming nerd today against the savvy Jane Purdy has.

Quoth Jane, “I would adore a plain old American hamburger.” This is after Jane is repelled and flummoxed by her first taste of Chinese food (and she lives just outside of San Francisco!). Her date saves her with a hamburger. Many American kids today have run across sushi at the supermarket, have had Mexican food somewhere besides Taco Bell, and are conversant with curry as much as Coke. If they can’t get to these foods themselves, many of them get access to TV and Internet showcasing the miraculous dishes of the Food Network.

Jane on her future: “She did not want to be a brilliant student. She didn’t want to be intellectually curious. She wanted to be Stan’s girl, dancing with him in the gymnasium of Woodmont High.”

It’s hard to imagine goals of today’s girls this simple. Even girls without resources get their heads filled with dreams and drama via TV, movies, and the Web. Some good, like Mia Hamm scoring a goal or Tiffany Hayes of UConn sinking a three–or Coach Tara VanDerveer who led her Stanford girls to the first UConn upset in a looooong while (GO CARDINAL!). American Idol dreams, Apprentice dreams, Discovery Channel dreams. These our girls juggle alongside dreams of home and family. In fact, apparently they can also go shopping for them if you believe the creepy Beyaz commercial.

It’s hard not to learn of all these dreams and options with the amount of print and e-information available. Jane knew what her teachers and librarians handed her or her parents told her.

Some dreams, though, remain not so good. All you have to do is watch the bachelorette-fashion-bridal reality TV and wonder if in our age of Bridalplasty and Bad Girls Club, whether the corsets of beauty have truly been loosened.

Quoth Jane’s friend, Julie, describing a girl, Bitsy, from the enemy camp: “She had to wear real high heels, because she is so little…She made me feel…a yard wide as if I should be running around with a hockey stick instead of dancing.”

Girls are allowed to be more sizes than ever today, at least lengthwise. While there’s still enormous pressure to be skeletal, a 6’2″ girl isn’t considered an Amazon, and an athletic girl isn’t considered freakish or unattractive.

Cleary does a nice job of wrapping us in cotton wool and soothing us into a dreamworld of contentment (that is, if you can believe this world exists for some. It did. It still does for some privileged and sheltered children. I know because I was one.) However, she’s no Alice Munro, who can make a Pallid Polly teen leap off the page with era-appropriate yet timeless angst. I say YA novels need to address lust and yearning in honest yet palatable ways and face the varying shades of darkness out there. Redemptively.

There’s a reason YA is so hot among adults today. Our youth bear carry more than their share of cynicism and jadedness–and not just for those over 30. When I pitch my YA novel to agents, I mention its crossover potential to the adult market, describing the protagonist this way:

Wendy is a YA character who can speak to modern teens as well as Gen X, Gen Y, and Boomers, whether she’s quoting “Billie Jean,” questioning social barriers, or overcoming the ironic loneliness of a hyper-connected age.

Jane Purdy of 1956 could not imagine a black man wowing the white world with miraculous dancing to a song about a seductress and her love child. Jane did not question her future role as homemaker or feel lonely in a small bedroom community where everyone knew her business.

Right now I’m reading two modern YA novels — Lush by Natasha Friend (2007) and Hate List by Jennifer Brown (2009). In the first, an eighth-grade girl confronts her father’s alcoholism. In the second, a high-school girl faces her community after her boyfriend kills several students Columbine-style, all of whom are on a hate list she helped him create. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that YA stories have changed so much in fifty years. You would think that in this half-century in which we’ve seen advancements such as Title IX and workplace equity through the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, that the concerns of the girls today would be brighter and bolder. But these teen girls slog through trauma and darkness in the same way girls have for centuries before–yet perhaps with more honesty, openness, and truth-telling than our society has ever known before.

How are we helping our youth process all this stimuli and information? What is our responsibility in navigating these stories? Fifteen needs no adult discussion. These other books do. As much as teens want to raise themselves, they can’t go it alone.

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Describe a story you’ve read that deals with a real-world issue, one you can relate to. What was realistic about this story? What did you gain from reading this story?
— Make a list of the topics you think today’s YA novels should address. Star your top three. Then write further about at least one of the subjects, mentioning information, feelings, or any other details you think these stories shouldn’t forget.
— Describe what you know of “old-school” teen life. Name an era that your parents, grandparents, or other adults you know grew up in, and describe what you know of their lives back then. What intrigues you, amuses you, or disgusts you about the prior era?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— Imagine that you can design a literature course of only YA novels. Which YA novels address important stories for today’s teens to encounter? These could be novels from a range of eras. Create your “top ten” list and name the topics each addresses.
— What topics should teen novels today address? Not address? Why?
— Compare your teen years and aspects of the era you lived in to the experiences of today’s teens. What is similar and what is different? Are you nostalgic or wistful for your bygone era? Why or why not?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?
— If a YA story is going to deal with difficult subjects, what should happen in your classroom or home when this novel is read? What points would you raise to the teen? What questions would you ask? What activities would you lead?

The Nerd Hero: Does it Work?

“I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.” — Miles Halter in Looking for Alaska

Maybe it’s because I’m mired in Harry Potter novels that I’m intrigued by what I call the Nerd Hero–unassuming male protagonists who are bookish, scorned wallflowers until external events force them into action. I’m wondering whether heroes should be exceptional from the get-go, as Aristotle argued and Shakespeare offered with the likes of Macbeth and Caesar. Does it work for them to be the retiring, quiet nerds?

Miles Halter in the YA novel Looking for Alaska by John Green is a prisoner of his own “minor life.” To shake things up a bit, he heads to boarding school, in search of a “Great Perhaps.” He spends the majority of the novel following his roommate, Chip Martin, AKA the Colonel, who drinks a ripe concoction of milk + vodka, prides himself on a record number of ejections from basketball games, and boasts a long history of dangerous pranks. Miles also falls in love with Alaska, a mischievous, lewd, brilliant, and unbalanced girl who embraces pranks, sex, and books with equal fervor. Other characters, from the Eagle (the headmaster) to Takumi (a classmate who talks with his mouth full and raps elegantly), pop up in Technicolor while Miles Halter dutifully studies for his classes, analyzes those around him, and pines for Alaska.

Miles in his hesitant approach to life (thus “Halter”?) is a character whose function is to mirror others. He’s the mild, nerdy counterpoint protagonist who doesn’t dare upstage the racy, rebel classmates. He stays minor so as not to steal their comet fire.

This is realistic, this is true to life, but is it what we the people want? Shouldn’t a minor character rise to major action at some point in the course of a novel–action bigger than pranks and deep sorrow? Because while “Miles to Go” Halter is much wiser at the end, his most internal, intangible shift doesn’t shake my soul.

Likewise Harry Potter is more mirror than actor for a good portion of book one. He’s dull compared to the colorful Ron (redheaded, too) who guarantees clumsy, hot-headed behavior. Hermione is more memorable than Harry for her academic zeal and busybody flair. Even the Dursleys, more caricature than characters, are better sketched–louder, fuller, easier to see. Harry can’t even recall the most important event of his eleven year-old life: surviving an encounter with Voldemort. His most interesting moment happened prior to consciousness. He’s a blank slate that needs a few scratches.

But when Harry finally looks in the Mirror of Erised in the most climactic scene, he earns the brave and wise culmination of a series of major actions, heroic actions throughout the novel. When the stone drops into Harry’s pocket, he’s earned it for being courageous, loyal, and pure of heart.

Miles stands up to peer pressure once but most of the time, he waits for orders from the more outrageous Colonel to execute various pranks. He dates the girl Alaska chooses for him and even follows Alaska’s instructions for a sexual encounter. He says, “She taught me everything I knew about crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry. She made me different.”

He will still have to work hard to be as different as Alaska. She’s a bit of a basket case but the one we all want to watch. Maybe Miles is too normal a nerd, in that he comes from nice parents who love him. The Colonel’s and Alaska’s family histories are much more complicated. That sets these characters up to hunt hard and fast after something, even if they don’t know what they’re chasing. Miles isn’t chasing much of anything save a “Perhaps.”

Harry steps out with a concrete, jock action–looking like a Division 1, number-one draft pick for quidditch. He dashes to the ground at top speed in search of the snitch. And he rushes headlong into a confrontation with Voldemort, his worst enemy. He also chooses Gryffindor over Slytherin. These are deep moral choices with consequences; meanwhile, the worst enemies at Culver Creek are the rich kids who are minor irritations at best, despite a horribly dangerous prank they pull on Miles in the beginning. That seems a missed opportunity for a powerful conflict, but neither the Colonel nor Alaska seem that disturbed by what Miles goes through.

Miles’ biggest regret is not doing the right thing before he loses Alaska. It’s a pretty big miss, and one that any teen could be guilty of, tonight. A huge moral miss. Harry has no such regrets.

Is this a problem? In the contemporary YA novel, perhaps not. Many of us are no doubt just like Miles–lukewarm in most of our actions in a world full of illusions and grays that we can’t wave a wand at. Especially in a difficult transition such as adolescence, we handle liminality by retreating and doing what I call nerd-ing: maintaining that hyper-reflective, observing, analyzing, hiding, and quiet stance. Maybe us nerds, we’re not so much mirrors as deep pools, with all kinds of untapped potential swirling beneath our still surfaces. Maybe we watch others’ dangerous lives as a dress rehearsal for our own. And maybe we let bad things happen to people. That banality of evil stuff. The only penance is Miles’ deep sorrow.

In the last pages he gains a redemptive wisdom–a gift of forgiveness we all must find when we lose someone. The musings on faith, religion, and the meaning of our minor lives are worth reading as separate essays, and I’ll no doubt go back to these pages.

A last note about nerd heroes, in light of craft: If Miles is the comet tail to Alaska and the Colonel, he brings light and attention to these outsiders, these fringe rebels looking for causes. He is necessary for them to exist–they must have someone to bump up against, even burn–and he reinforces their meaning by following their teachings. These character relationships are very realistic for a contemporary YA novel, where adolescents raise one another, abandoned by absent or incompetent parents and teachers.

But I maintain that the Nerd Hero works best when the circumstances he finds himself in are extraordinary. Hogwarts is an exceptional place to go to school and houses a most exceptional student–the orphaned, scar-marked Harry Potter. Culver Creek is a memorable boarding school, too, with its marauding swan; its intrepid, CIA headmaster; and its rebel warriors. The only piece missing here is the protagonist being exceptional. Miles is smart, kind, and interesting, but in a minor way. He’s too normal of a nerd to take any compelling, concrete risks.

Miles’ one unique feature is his fascination with famous last words, as in Rabelais, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” He can tell you important people’s final words on their deathbeds. That’s quite a streak, but it won’t scorch anyone’s earth. I know a lot of people, including myself, who didn’t leave scorched earth behind in high school, and perhaps that is why we’re still here. Maybe if we’d been better rebels, our tombstones would be the only thing left standing.

In his review of the movie Green Hornet, NPR critic Kenneth Turan says, “How great to have a hero who doesn’t have any powers. Let’s make him a bumbling and ineffectual fool into the bargain…It’s a dicey idea, and the attempt to implement it has been ruinous.”

Looking for Alaska and its nerd hero aren’t failures in the least; it’s a witty, thoughtful book with memorable characters. But there’s a reason it’s titled Looking for Alaska and not named for Miles to Go Halter. Miles is still looking, like so many of us, at the novel’s end. Still a sideliner, follower, armchair warrior, this nerd has many more people to observe before he steps out, alone, on his own faith.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— If you give contemporary novels to your students, do you aim for more realistic portraits of teens or the above-average, exceptional hero? Why or why not?
— Would you teach Looking for Alaska? Why or why not? Check out the Discussion Guide from Penguin here.
— Is Harry Potter the kind of heroic nerd you endorse? Why or why not?

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Define nerd. Do you distinguish nerd from geek, dork, and other terms? Are you or is someone you love a nerd?
— Is it cool to be a nerd? Why or why not?
— Do you like nerd heroes in your books or movies? Why or why not?
— Define hero in light of a story–how do you know a nerd has been a hero by the end of the tale?
— Is American culture pro or anti-nerd or something else in its stance?