I love Gennifer Choldenko, but more importantly, my students love her books as well. Al Capone Does My Shirts is always a big hit, and I remember that right after I bought If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, all I had to do was show students the first paragraph and they were hooked (it uses the word “crap” a lot). When her publisher offered to let me do a giveaway of her new book Chasing Secrets, I could not say no. Please enjoy this post (in which she talks about Flannery O’Connor, as if I needed a reason to like her more) and then directions for the giveaway will follow.
Not every writer loves to write, and many are not fond of revising. I’m one of the lucky few because I love both writing and revising. In fact, for years my license plate was REWRYTZ because of my proclivity for the eraser side of the pencil.
Recently I was reading a series of essays about the work of Flannery O’Connor. Apparently, Ms. O’Connor revised an earlier work called The Train into her classic piece Wise Blood. Below are short passages from The Train and Wise Blood.
Sentence from The Train:
Now the train was grey flying past instances of trees and quick spaces of field and a motionless sky that sped darkening away in the opposite direction.
Haze leaned his head back on the seat and looked out the window. . . .
Same sentence revised in Wise Blood:
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car.
The first passage is a strong and evocative description of the setting, as the character, Haze, presumably perceived it. The two sentences set the scene and introduce the character. First-rate writing for certain.
But the second passage, in my view, is even better. It leaps off the page, making us immediately curious about this Hazel guy and why he’s on the train. It pushes us inside Hazel Motes, giving us a vivid, visceral sense of who he is and how he sees the world. It’s a jumpy, uncomfortable sentence that drives the narrative forward.
When I see an example like this, it brings home what a huge payoff revision can have. Even someone as great as Flannery O’Connor can up her game. This is evident in the micro here, but revision can have a far greater effect in the macro.
When you write for kids, you don’t have the luxury of missteps or digressions. A slow spot in a novel is a minor annoyance to an adult. For a kid, it’s a game stopper. My book will be closed, not be reopened again. And so I spend an inordinate amount of time syncing character and plot.
I have to develop characters that resonate with my readers, because the world’s greatest plot inhabited by empty-headed characters is nothing but a bunch of stuff in a bag. On the other hand, intriguing characters with no story get abandoned too. Character development has to happen between the lines, and character change occurs because of the pressures of the story.
For me, achieving that kind of balance takes time. The good news is with every revision my characters come more sharply into focus and subtle unexpected plot turns suddenly appear before me.
In my new novel, Chasing Secrets, what happened to the main character’s brother, Billy, occurred quite late in the revision process. I didn’t understand him well enough early on. And as I got more deeply into his psyche, he started behaving in ways I didn’t expect, which caused a chain of events that shocked me. I always know I’m on to something when the characters push beyond my own conception of the story.
I love these words from Gennifer because they show how kids deserve our best, and how important it is to write for our young people. If you have not read her books, I wholeheartedly recommend them to you. And if you would like to win a copy of her newest book Chasing Secrets (to find out what happened to Billy!) please comment below by midnight on Friday, September 4th, 2015. Winner will be chosen at random and notified on September 5th.