by Christine Kohler
I was preparing a presentation for an international SCBWI conference in LA in 2014 on “Real World Facts: The Foundation for Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Fiction, and Fiction” when I became aware of the problem of mis-classification. Classification between nonfiction and fiction should be a concern of not just librarians.
When I taught writing for ICL for nearly a decade I used to be generous, calling a hybrid of nonfiction being forced into a story arc “fictionalized nonfiction.” However, I became alarmed when this classification confusion crept into professional children’s publishing under the guise of “creative nonfiction” or “narrative nonfiction.” It was especially troubling when authors made up dialogue and internal monologue and classified their works as nonfiction, under the guise of narrative nonfiction.
For an example of classification confusion, look at AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE (Scholastic) by Pam Munoz Ryan. Is this book nonfiction or historical fiction? Pam and her publisher Scholastic give a disclaimer in the front of this picture book, “Based on a true story.” In the author’s note, Pam admits that to make this a more compelling story she “fictionalized” it. Then she elaborates what is fact and what is fiction. I love Pam Munoz Ryan’s writing and admire her dedication to research, but in my opinion, AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE should be classified as fiction, not “a fictionalized true story.” Even if the author and publisher were trying to say this picture book is fiction based on facts, it gets hazy as to what classification it is in the way they danced around that the story is fiction.
THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills) by Alexis O’Neill is historical fiction written in first person. Alexis said she included back matter because readers will often accept historical fiction as fact and she wanted to help readers separate fact from fiction. Alexis said, “The more they are aware of the difference, the more they will keep their antenna up when they read other works of historical fiction. I hope they might begin to ask, ‘How could this be verified? Is there proof that this person really said or did that? Is the source of that information reliable?’”
When School Library Journal reviewed THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS, it placed the picture book in the nonfiction section. In an interview, Alexis called this misclassification embarrassing and said, “If a writer makes up even one teeny, tiny thing that can’t be verified-- a piece of dialogue, a neighbor’s name, an emotional reaction--the piece becomes fiction. Nonfiction means that everything is verifiable. But librarians struggle with this, especially if the book has biographical information in it. They want to place the book where readers are most likely to search for it.”
Compare these two picture books VOICES OF PEARL HARBOR (Pelican) by Sherry Garland and REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR (National Geo) by Thomas Allen. Why is Tom’s book classified nonfiction and Sherry’s fiction when both are in first person? Sherry used different invented characters to represent Every native Hawaiian, Every US citizen, and Every Japanese mother and wife. Tom begins in first person as the narrator of his own story and memories of that day as if in a memoir to create a framing to the factual information about the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Notice that Tom put all dialogue in direct quotes in his book.
What are some no-nos in narrative nonfiction? Made-up quotes. People who never existed or interacted with the biography subject.
Even in FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS (Penquin), author Marta Ojito, a journalist, writes in her author’s note, “I won’t put dialogue that cannot be verified as exact.” This is not true for all memoirs. I admire Ojito for holding herself to a higher standard.
What does this mean for us as authors? I believe we should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should figure out in the course of our writing whether a piece is fiction or nonfiction. Do not be wishy-washy in using terms such as fictionalized nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Pitch it according to the correct classification--nonfiction or fiction. Even in author notes, jacket flap copy, blurbs, and publicity, the author should make the classification clear, and if it’s not, correct it.
Once the book is released to the world, though, it is out of our hands. It’s like I wrote in my October 2018 blog post about how books take on a life of their own after publication. Once your baby grows up and leaves the nest, you no longer have control over it. If someone misclassifies it after being published, an author has to swallow it like a bad review. *Sing “Let it go. Let it go.”* Take solace in that you, the author, did the best you could to make the classification clear.
Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian and U,S. readers! Stay tuned, everyone, for my next blog article about creative and narrative nonfiction. Read More
READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog
by Christine Kohler
by Christine Kohler
Even though I’ve admitted to not joining in National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), this topic would help aspiring novelists to make their goal in November. I, personally, don’t like to drag out writing a first draft for a multitude of reasons. For me, it’s easier to revise words on a page than it is to get those initial ideas down on paper. For many writers, they never finish that first draft. It becomes the “novel in the drawer.” Imagine how many novels those type of writers could have completed and polished during the time they dragged out for a year (or more) writing the first draft.
I bought ART & FEAR for my daughter, but started reading it myself. I don’t usually recommend books I haven’t finished, but this is one I’m really enjoying in unexpected ways. I don’t think of myself as being fearful to create art. However, being introspective, I do some things that show fear, causing me to procrastinate before writing sessions. For one, I circle like a cat before settling down.
Examine ways that you hold yourself back from plunging into writing sessions. Are you critical of your writing? Do you compare yourself with other authors? Do you self-edit to the point of hindering moving forward? Do you get stuck easily, then delay days before writing again? Once you’ve identified the fear that holds you back, then it’s easier to face, and break those negative cycles.
I’ve confessed before that I’m a pantser, but mid-way through I reverse outline. However, if you are on a really tight deadline, outlining prior to writing the story will move you forward at a swifter and steadier pace. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline. Or a long outline. But just enough so when you begin each writing session that you know what comes next.
SCHEDULE YOUR WORK
Figure out how many words or pages you write on average per hour. Then figure about how many words or pages you expect your novel to be. Often a certain line for different publishers pre-determines length. Or if you’re doing NANOWRIMO, you have a word goal for one month. Then do the math. Once you figure how many words or pages you need to write per day, and how long that will take, write it on the calendar. If necessary, make set appointments with yourself based on your schedule between work and family. If this seems unrealistic, keep in mind that if you do get a coveted book contract with a publisher, you will be expected to work on a tight deadline. It’s the old adage, “You make time for what is important to you.”
ENDING WRITING SESSIONS
When you need to end a writing session, do so in the middle of a sentence. Or write the first paragraph of the next scene, or chapter. I write myself a note in brackets telling what comes next. Otherwise, if you end a session at the end of a scene or chapter, it’s harder to pick it up the next day and move forward. You may spend too much time circling the block, or from the kitchen to the bathroom to a chore, trying to figure out what comes next. Leave yourself fresh breadcrumbs in the forest of doubt.
I’ve written about recursive before in a blog article “Getting Unstuck.” Recursive writing is when you write one day, then the next day you go back and read and tweak what you wrote, then move forward. The trick is that you can’t start from the beginning after your second day of writing. Also, don’t get bogged down in heavy rewrites or you won’t be able to move forward.
Again, I recommend you read my article “Getting Unstuck.” [Articles on this Authors Guild website are easier to find by title on the Blogletter tab than they are on the Blog tab.]
Twice I’ve been in family-life situations where I could not write long hours and every day. Both times my first draft dragged out longer than usual. And in both instances, I had a harder time getting into the writing each session, and got stuck more often. What I did in both cases was this little trick. When I found myself taking excruciating long to move forward, I wrote what scene needed to happen next in brackets, then skipped writing that scene. When I told myself in writing what needed to happen next, I didn’t bother to do so in the tense or person or voice of the novel.
For example, I don’t drink or go to clubs. But I needed to write a scene where the protagonist is at drinking and dancing at a club, and discovers her stalker is present at the club with her. I must have been stuck for two weeks on not being able to write that scene. So, finally, I put what needed to happen in brackets, then moved to the next scene where my protagonist leaves the club, drives home, and is arrested for DUI. I had no problem writing that scene and rolling forward.
What happened in the cases where I skipped writing out scenes, but made notations to myself in brackets, was that in revisions I told myself, “Your only job today is to write this scene.” In some instances, it took me two days to write that scene. But when I did it was fully developed.
The main thing to keep in mind with all of these suggestions, from overcoming fear to getting unstuck, is that the first draft is like finger painting. Your job is to get the idea down on paper. It’s not a finished work of art. It’s only the line drawing, or the colors smeared around. Finger painting is messy. But have fun with it. Revision is where you flesh out the characters and scenes and strengthen the story arc and plot strands. It’s where your finger painting takes form and shape and because a recognizable picture. Tell yourself, “This is the first draft, it’s supposed to be messy.” Then just do it. Read More
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings." -- Lewis Carroll, excerpt from “The Walrus and The Carpenter”
by Christine Kohler
What I am NOT going to talk about is kings, or presidents, or specifically President Donald Trump. I’d rather talk about cabbages and sealing wax and whether pigs fly than discuss politics publicly. So, if anyone posts a political comment, I’ll consider it off-topic and not approve. Sorry. My blog. My rules.
However, I am introducing this topic of how works take on a life of their own by using Steven Tyler, a musician with the rock band Aerosmith, as an example. When Tyler wrote “Dream On”—the chorus is an epic song for writers!—and Aerosmith released it in 1973, I doubt he had any idea who all would sing his song in the future. Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. He could not have foreseen that “Dream On” would sell Kia cars on 2018 Superbowl ads. Maybe he was surprised, flattered, when the cast of the tv show Glee sang it. (The royalties are nice, too.)
But in 2015, 43 years after “Dream On” was released, Steven Tyler had his lawyer send presidential candidate Donald Trump a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the song in a campaign rally. Now, Tyler has issued another legal letter to President Trump to stop using “Livin’ on the Edge” at rallies.
What I find interesting, according to an Associated Press article, is Tyler tweeted that it isn’t a political issue; he just does not let anyone use his songs without permission. This is the type of issue I used to enjoy debating in Media Law class at the University of Hawaii. A media law attorney could add to the discussion greatly by telling what case set precedence. Do we get total control of how our work is used? As writers, we do in that no one is allowed to use more than a percentage of the work without permission, and often financial compensation. This is how copyright law is supposed to protect us. However, I don’t know how this applies to music. This is a court case that would be interesting to follow, if Tyler pursues it.
Separate from the legal entanglements, the reason this news article caught my attention is because it shows how a work takes on a life of its own.
Several years ago, I typed my name into my daughter’s Google Scholar account. (Dr. Jennifer Sherman teaches at two universities.) I discovered that my first four children’s fiction books, published in 1985 by Concordia Publishing House, for ages 5-9 were mentioned in a book about working with at-risk children. I also found these books referenced in a scholarly journal. And in another article in a scholarly journal the writer had lifted a quote from an article I wrote while a political reporter. The writer used the quote to make a point very different than the topic of my article.
Children’s magazine writers often get requests to use their stories, nonfiction articles, and poems in testing materials, workbooks, and textbooks. The educational publishing companies pay nicely for these reprints.
When I wrote WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS I used examples from published novels and a humor book. In every case that the work was not in public domain, I got written permission from both the author (or heirs) and the publisher, or I wouldn’t use the selection. I’m sure when the writers wrote their books they never thought, “Gee, I hope someone uses this as an example of good writing craft in her writing book.”
Probably the most profitable spin-off a book can take is to have a tv show, or tv special, or movie made from the book.
Or, I’m sure you know of authors whose books were later produced on stage as plays.
If you are a writer, what are some ways in which your published work took on a life of its own?
We talk about birthing our work, and how books are our babies. And like our human children, it’s just possible as they age they will walk down a path we never imagined. Read More
Thanks to everyone who downloaded WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS on Amazon’s Kindle during the free week Aug. 7-11.
One author, Karen, contacted me and found mistakes in the copy. I apologize. I could give half-a-dozen excuses, but they would be just that—excuses. The buck stops with me, as Teddy Roosevelt said. I felt awful, as if I understood what it meant for the first time to be caught with egg on my face in public. The author was kind enough to mail me editing notes she made while going through my writing book. I made the corrections immediately. Anyone who downloaded WORDS ALIVE! at any time, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a corrected Edition 2.
When I uploaded WORDS ALIVE! Edition 2 was to lower the cost from $7.99 down to $5.99. At the higher cost I made on average $5 a sale, and now I will probably only make about $2 a sale. The reason I did this free promotion was because after 10 years sales had slowed down. So, I decided to let Amazon try to generate more interest.
My goal was to get 50 reviews. I know that’s something out of my control and shouldn’t even be on a goal list. However—ta-da!—exactly 50 people downloaded WORDS ALIVE! during the free week.
In lending library, 184 people read WORDS ALIVE! However, the stats read zero income. A note showed that my book was possibly not enrolled in KDP. But if it isn't, then it shouldn't have been available in the lending library program. I only agreed (checked box) to the lending library because when I signed up for the free week & fluctuating prices, the fine print said I would get a percentage of the lending library fees. As a result, I am totally baffled and not sure how to go in and change anything in the agreement. It's for 90 days, and then I'm supposed to re-visit it. (Can you tell this is my one and only self-published book? The experience does not make me want to ever self-published, except writing books.)
My other goal was to improve my ranking on Amazon. Here’s the best stats it got to:
#5,000+ overall ranking
#13 education & reference
#22 religion & spirituality
#22 teacher resources
A side benefit I hadn’t anticipated was that viewers of my blog doubled the highest readership I’d ever had, a June 2018 article I wrote about “Confession Literature”.
So far I’ve gotten one new review. However, several people contacted me and said they plan to write one. I’m confident that from the 50 downloads, I will get more reviews. But possibly not enough to give WORDS ALIVE! more visibility in promotion. I’ve read where Amazon’s two benchmark numbers are 25 and 50 to give more weighted promotion.
Here is the wonderful review WORDS ALIVE! received from Chris in NM:
Prompts are short ideas or triggers that help a writer get started. But this book does so much more. Each prompt is related to a skill, from poetic concepts, to important writing skills such as character and plot development, to research and interviewing for nonfiction. There's a prompt for each week, which also encourages discipline and regular practice, very important writerly skills! This is a great book for beginners who want to get started but aren't sure how, or intermediate writers who want to expand their repertoire, or people who've taken a break from writing who want a way to get back to it.
Thanks to Chris and Karen and for everyone who has helped me with this project! I feel so blessed to be part of a supportive writing community! Please e-mail if you downloaded a copy of WORDS ALIVE! I would feel so much better knowing you have the up-dated Edition 2.
by Christine Kohler
WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS is free August 7 – 11, 2018, on Amazon’s Kindle. Please download, write a review, and spread the word.
This writing book is ideal for homeschool and Christian school supplemental curriculum. And ideal for adult writers specializing in biblical writing. (Biblical writing is any genre of inspirational writing that is based on the Bible.) It also builds discipline since there are 52 lessons, one for each week of the year.
Click on “Look Inside” and you can see how this curriculum is designed with lessons in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In fiction, it teaches all the elements of a story. Each lesson gives a skill, prompt, topic and scripture, and example.
At my core, I am a teacher. My first degree is in secondary education with an English emphasis. (My second degree is in journalism with an English minor.) I have taught at three schools in South Florida and San Antonio, Texas. When I left my copy editor’s job at the San Antonio Express-News, a Hearst daily, I taught writing for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL) for nearly a decade. In anticipation of resigning from ICL in 2013, I started this blog, READ LIKE A WRITER, August 21, 2012, to have a platform to continue teaching.
As a former teacher, I wrote WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS to fill vacuums in Christian curriculum programs, and because a number of ICL students requested to write biblically-based materials. (I am published by Zondervan, Biblevision, Concordia, plus a multitude of different Christian publications in fiction, nonfiction, poetry in books, magazines, journals, devotionals, and Sunday School leaflets.)
Agents and publishers in both Christian and secular markets said they loved how WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS fulfilled a number of purposes—writing craft lessons, skill examples, and prompts. However, no surprise, it is geared toward small niche markets. At a Christian Writers Conference in Mt. Hermon, CA, agents urged me to self-publish my writing book. In February 2007, my girlfriend Marianne Dyson, science author extraordinaire, formatted WORDS ALIVE! for me and posted it on Kindle. (Marianne and I have known each other since high school!)
I love helping writers improve their craft and achieve their dreams of getting published. I’ve worked with many writers behind the scenes, guiding a number of writers toward getting contracts that launched their careers. If you follow me on twitter at @christinekohle1 you know that I promote other people’s book news through retweets. This is the first time in the 11 years that my writing book has been published that I have done a promotion.
I hope you will help me spread the word about WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS. My goal is to get 50 reviews and move this up in Amazon’s algorithms for writing books. Up until now I have been lax in promoting this book. By offering it free for this limited time period, it also gives me opportunity to give you a gift to thank you for following and supporting me. Thank you! Read More
by Christine Kohler
I have a lot of confessions to make in writing this article about “Confession Literature in YA novels.”
I never use nor recommend using Wikipedia for a source. However, there are different definitions for Confession and Confessional Literature, and the Wikipedia entry works best for what I plan to open a discussion on in this article. The following is a condensed version of a fluid (as opposed to concrete) definition of Confession, or Confessional, literature, according to Wikipedia:
In literature, confessional writing is a first-person style that is often presented as an ongoing diary or letters, distinguished by revelations of a person's deeper or darker motivations.
Originally, the term derived from confession. The writer is not only autobiographically recounting his life but confessing to his sins.
Fictionally, the confessional story is a story written, in the first person, about emotionally fraught and morally charged situations in which a fictional character is caught.
With the advent of the magazine True Story in 1919, the confessional (and later Romance) magazine was created, containing such stories. The formula has been characterized as "sin-suffer-repent": The heroine violates standards of behavior, suffers as a consequence, learns her lesson, and resolves to live in light of it, not embittered by her pain.
MY DISCOVERY, CRITERIA, & ADDITIONS
I found examples in YA lit where someone close to the first-person protagonist was caught instead. Also, in the adult market stories the confessor didn’t always repent. And in the YA novels the resolutions were to reveal the mystery of who the real culprit (sinner) was who committed the crime, usually murder or theft. The one thing all of these stories seemed to have in common besides the first-person confession, dark subjects, and deep emotional self-analysis, was a surprise twist at the end.
This year I have been reading novels in the adult market, mostly mysteries. Recently I read short stories in a collections of Edgar winners, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I noticed some of the stories were told in a confession style, but it was writer Samantha Allen whose story “Some Kind of Lonely” in EQMM that moved me the most. Allen’s essay about Confession Literature clarified for me this specific style. Check out her thoughtful essay “Weight of the Words”.
This is what led me to think about what YA novels are written in Confession style.
I have read all the YA novels I’m going to cite as possible examples of Confession Literature. However, it has been years ago since I read them. I also have no idea if the authors themselves would classify their stories as a Confession style. So, if you don’t agree, please speak up and tell me why any of these books don’t fit the Confession criteria. Or is you know of a YA novel that you feel does fit the Confession criteria, please add the title and author in comments. Here are four novels with links and summaries from Goodreads so you can look them up and judge for yourself if you haven’t read them:
[Note: The Monster summary is from one by reviewer Medeia Sharif and part of the Harpercollins book summary on Goodreads because the original summary is very long and I wanted to mostly highlight the mixed media methods author Walter Dean Meyers—oral confession, jury trial with witnesses, film, journal. (Note: Check out my earlier blog article on using mixed media in novels.)]
CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein (Egmont, 2012)
1943 -- When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
[My note: I remember this story as a mystery being told from Verity’s point of view inside an interrogation room where German SS officers are trying to get a confession from her.]
DOVEY COE by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum, 2001)
My name is Dovey Coe and I reckon it don't matter if you like me or not. I'm here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it, too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn't kill him.
[My note: This story is told from a courtroom with Dovey on trial for murder.]
THE SILENCE OF MURDER by Dandi Mackall (Knopf, 2011)
Seventeen-year-old Hope Long's life revolves around her brother Jeremy. So when Jeremy is accused of killing the town's beloved baseball coach, Hope's world begins to unravel. Everyone is convinced Jeremy did it, and since he hasn't spoken a word in 9 years, he's unable to defend himself. Their lawyer instructs Hope to convince the jury that Jeremy is insane, but all her life Hope has known that Jeremy's just different than other people—better, even. As she works to prove his innocence—joined by her best friend T.J. and the sheriff's son, Chase—Hope uncovers secrets about the murder, the townspeople, her family, and herself. She knows her brother isn't the murderer. But as she comes closer to the truth, she's terrified to find out who is.
[My note: This story is told during a trial, some scenes in the courtroom, and some elsewhere in flashbacks and outside the courthouse where Hope tries to solve the murder mystery to clear her brother. SILENCE OF MURDER is an example of the protagonist not being the accused. But her mute brother’s life is so entwined with hers that she speaks for him.]
MONSTER by Walter Dean Meyers
Steve Harmon is a teenager on trial for allegedly being an accomplice in the murder of a drugstore owner. The author makes use of not only the courtroom, but also Steve’s journal and a movie that Steve’s film club is making of the crime. As a way of coping with the horrific events that entangle him, Steve, an amateur filmmaker, decides to transcribe his trial into a script, just like in the movies. He writes it all down, scene by scene, the story of how his whole life was turned around in an instant. – summary partially by reviewer Medeia Sharif & Harpercollins; see Goodreads for Sarif’s full review
I am convinced that most of the readers of this blog are introverts. Not that I mind, but I would love for you to discuss this topic in the comment section so we can have a dialogue. Confession Literature is something I have not written in fiction, only in poetry and my own journals. It’s not a genre or style I’m experienced with. And I was surprised how I fumbled at coming up with YA novels that could be considered Confession Literature. So, please comment, your opinion counts. Read More
by Christine Kohler
I know you are getting bombarded to re-register for website blogs because of changes in privacy laws. My website, READ LIKE A WRITER blog, and blogletter are through the Authors Guild. So far they haven’t required that I ask people to take any action. However, I want to take this time to reassure you that I have never sold my list and never will. I also don’t run ads.
I also promised my readers that I’d try to keep the blog articles down to about once a month so as not to clog your inbox. I’ve kept that promise pretty well.
If you are not familiar with READ LIKE A WRITER and trying to decide what blogs to invest your time in reading each month, my blog focuses on the writing craft. I’ve had a 35-year career published in children’s books--fiction and NF, articles in adult market magazines & newspapers, and poetry in two languages. I’ve also taught writing. I’m a big believer in the concept of using well-written stories as examples for improving your writing craft.
Thanks to all of my faithful readers.
If you want to check out my blog article archives, look on the blogletter tab and left-hand column where the articles are listed by topic titles. (Under the blog tab the Authors Guild lists them by dates, that’s why I recommend using the blogletter for archives.)
If you aren’t on my blog list, and would like to be, you can sign up on the blogletter page on the left-hand column.
Best wishes on a successful writing career. And READ LIKE A WRITER!
by Henry Turner
When people think of thrillers – even seasoned writers – they often think of set pieces: cool scary episodes, physical scenes, action and excitement. But this has nothing to do with writing a thriller, or better – putting intense suspense into any story. All the action scenes--scares, jump scares, you name it, will go slack and become tiresome if the character is not there. Everything revolves around the growth of the character.
Character actually builds scenes, generates material, and is fascinating in and of itself. Once you’ve gotten to know your character, you can put her or him into any circumstances. I’m so familiar with my characters from ASK THE DARK and HIDING that I could put them anywhere—on road trips, dealing with retail clerks, falling in love—events running the gamut from the most serious to the totally mundane. I know just what they’d say and do.
In HIDING (Clarion, 2018), the central situation is intense – a teen has snuck into his ex-girlfriend’s house and is never clear about his reasons for being there. He’s ingratiating—but he also has darker moments talking about unresolved aspects of his life that deeply disturb him. So, we wonder—what’s he going to do? Because the story is told first-person, he himself has to tell us—but he beats around the bush, avoids the issue, yet all the while he’s getting closer to her room, and finding things that make the situation increasingly uncertain and intense.
ASK THE DARK, SUSPENSE
In ASK THE DARK (Clarion, 2015), my previous novel, the juvenile delinquent main character Billy Zeets finds dead bodies and thinks he knows who the killer is—but he feels he needs real proof. because his reputation is so bad, he thinks no one will believe him. Meanwhile, the killer is on to him, and starts to track him down. As I wrote the story, the events and episodes came very naturally to me, inspired, so to speak, by Billy’s personality. As in HIDING, the events are not exciting merely in themselves, but serve a greater purpose of bringing the characters’ personalities into greater focus.
CHARACTER IS KEY
Suspense techniques are key: withholding pieces of information, suggesting and hinting before clarifying—but the real power behind thrillers or any story is character—CHARACTER—with a plot whose events excite always in relation to how they affect and grow the character.
is an award-winning independent filmmaker and author. His first novel for teens, Ask the Dark, was a Kids’ Indie Next List pick and was nominated for a Mystery Writes of America’s Edgar Award, as well as the World Mystery Convention’s Anthony Award. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Henry now lives with his wife and son in Southern California.
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by Christine Kohler
This year I challenged myself to write one poem a week. Since this is Poetry Month I checked my progress. I’ve written 11 poems so far, four shy of 16 weeks. (No excuses, no matter how valid. Also, some poems took me two weeks to write. Other weeks I wrote two poems.)
I asked authors’ advice when contemplating this commitment. Nikki Grimes, an author famous in poetry and novels in verse, and several other poets suggested I stick to a theme so that at the end of the year I would have something to submit for publication. I had already decided on a broad theme “A Gaijin in Japan”. It’s been 30 years since I left Japan and I regret not having written about our experiences there. I had written one narrative poem about the experience years ago and have never been able to place it for publication. (Got a rejection for “Oriental Gold” today, seconds before I began writing this article.)
However, as disciplined as I can be, poetry is also an emotional outlet for me. So, I’ve veered off theme. Of the 11 poems, only four are about Japan, and a fifth is a haiku about “American Cherries”. (Japanese cherry trees don’t produce like American trees do.)
My advice to others considering doing this is to just write. Pour your thoughts and emotions down in poetic form. Forget about rhyming in free verse. Use prompts if you get stuck for ideas. Photographs make great visual memory-joggers. Driving from Ohio after attending two family funerals I wrote “Ode to a Pine Cone” because it’s what I saw from the car window that inspired me. (I’ve also written about cotton fields, wind turbines, and Snoutnose Butterflies—sold to Hearst Corp.—inspired by Texas landscapes.)
I urge you to try different forms. I was blessed with a senior high school English teacher, Mr. Charles Mauer, who also taught at a university and took an interest in my writing. He challenged me to copy the masters. Mr. Mauer promised that once I did then I could break the rules and write free verse. He was right, by the time I did, I had meters pounded into my inner core. I only wish someone had taught me even more meters and poetic forms, which I didn’t study until graduate school. I would have probably made a career in poetry if it weren’t for the difficulty of making a living wage from it. I am published in two languages—English and French—in adult markets. The markets have shrunk incredibly, and I haven’t seen pitiful payments rise. I have great admiration for career professional poets.
Patti Kurtz, a writing professor at Minot State University, recommends THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING FOR A POEM by Wendy Bishop. On my shelf is THE MAKING OF A POEM by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland and WRITING METRICAL POETRY by William Baer.
What is your advice to people who desire to challenge themselves with writing poetry?
I want to end this article by giving you, my faithful blog readers, a free verse poem I wrote for writers, “Uncensored”. (I’m hoping it doesn’t lose formatting, which is cooler in layout.)
By Christine Kohler
In youth, words
School brought rules—
Spelling, punctuation, grammar—
Proper Lady etiquette struck naughty
words from girls’ vocabularies.
Next came assignments,
required word count,
led to term papers.
All graded with red slashes,
Criticism and blood sheets.
pages tossed in the
living Logos screaming
in eternal flames.
Proper Lady writers
Damn dammed words!
Rage against the censors,
critics, and sticklers.
Smash the dam and
Defy the rules.
Ban the naysayers.
streaming to rivers,
lakes, and oceans,
Worthy words flowing out
from an endless crystal spring
within your writer core.
@copyright 2018 Christine Kohler
by Christine Kohler
One of the things my grandson, Erik, and I love about BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (Candlewick) by Kate DiCamillo is the cuss words.
“What in the name of corn on the cob!” is our favorite curse phrase. Erik and I have even made up our own curses. “What in the name of pea pods!” “Oh sugar shack!” “Oh paddy whack!” Try it; it’s funny. Kids will laugh, too.
Recently I was researching strikes, so I read an adult novel about Boston police strikes after WWI. The author peppered conversation with the For Use of Carnal Knowledge acronym. It took me out of the time period because I couldn’t imagine Irishmen, even cops, using that word the early 1900s. Also, all the male characters used the f-word, which seemed lazy on the part of the author.
An example of an author who uses language appropriately to his time setting is M.T. Anderson . The f-word in futuristic FEED is justifiable because denigration of language could be a theme. However, Anderson uses formal language, and omits the f-word, in his Revolutionary War period OCTAVIAN NOTHING novels.
It’s my belief that original substitutes for swear words can pack more powerful images than resorting to using swear words. In the adult novel PURPLE CANE ROAD (Doubleday), set in Louisiana, author James Burke does an excellent job of this technique. In one passage, the sheriff narrator tells what type of men are in lock-up. He ends with, “the type of men who Satan wouldn’t let scrub his toilet with their toothbrushes.” (Burke does a fabulous job with original jarring dialogue, too.) Listen to how he builds in this paragraph, startling the reader with a twist at the end of the paragraph, and gets his point across without using one expletive:
I looked at her eyes, the sun-bleached tips of her wet hair, the healthy glow of her skin. There was no dark aura surrounding the head, no tuberous growth wrapping its tentacles around the spirit, no guilty attempt to avoid the indictment in my stare. She was one of those who could rise early and rested in the morning, fix tea and buttered toast, and light the ovens in Dachau.
I also believe when it comes to cuss words, less is best. When increasing tension, build from frustration to anger until one burst of physical action and, if necessary, a curse word packs a bigger punch then if the character has been swearing—especially swearing constantly--well before his anger explodes. I used this technique in NO SURRENDER SOLDIER at the point Kiko was frantically trying to get his tatan (grandfather) to not behead the WWII Japanese soldier.
What is your stance on cuss words in YA literature? Do you use them? If not, how do you make it authentic without curses? Read More