Monthly Archives: February 2012
Just this morning, I read a great article in The Guardian by one of my favorite authors, Maureen Johnson. In the article (read it here), she discusses J.K. Rowling’s upcoming adult novel. Some of the public seems to think that the novel may flop simply because Rowling has previously written only children’s novels, and adult novels are infinitely harder.
This statement never fails to turn me into a giant squid of anger. As a reader and writer of primarily young adult literature myself, I find this view offensive. As Johnson says in the article, “It seems to be the received wisdom that books angled at the younger set are simply not quite the same thing as books aimed at adults: not quite as challenging to write, not quite as challenging to read. And it is my boring yet constant duty to explain that books for younger readers are some of the most challenging and well-written material out there. Children and young adults (or adolescents, whichever you like) are among the most athletic of readers. Unlike adults, they do not normally restrict themselves to one genre. They read broadly, experimentally, and with considerable passion.”
Since I was a young reader, I have read a mix of children’s and adult literature, and to be honest, almost always preferred the YA to anything else. This probably had something to do with the fact that the protagonists were closer to my age, but also, the stories in general were more active, more skillfully written, and all around better. This is not to say that adult fiction is substandard, but it is a fact that young audiences won’t tolerate a boring read, and let’s be honest: some adult fiction is boring. And even though an adult book might not be snooze-inducing, young adults refuse to sit through a fifteen-page description of the main character’s morning routine when it could easily be summed up in fifteen sentences. They don’t want filler, they want action. Adults are willing to tolerate unnecessary narration, but children demand only quality material.
Of course, just as with any genre or category, there is bad YA fiction. However, there is a certain pressure and duty that falls on children’s authors that adult fiction writers don’t necessarily have to deal with: that their readers are experiencing certain things for the first time and are looking to books to see that they’re not alone. This is one reason why I don’t believe that any YA book should be censored or banned- because finding out that you are not the only one who has gone through something can save your life. YA readers are picking up books not just to go on the spectacular journey between its pages, but to find out that they’re not the only one who hasn’t been kissed/is struggling with their sexuality/had a terrible fight with their best friend/has had thoughts of ending their life. On the other side of that coin, YA characters are also going through the triumphs they are; certainly, a YA reader can understand the happiness an adult character experiences on their wedding day, but right now, that reader can relate much more to the joy of being accepted into their top college.
I’m digressing a bit, but my main point is that YA and children’s literature is not substandard to adult fiction, in either the reading or the writing of it. They are on the same level and should be accepted as such. Rowling’s new adult book may not do as well as the Harry Potter series, but almost nothing as done as well as the Harry Potter series. As Johnson continues, “Let the book stand on its own. The bridge can be crossed in either direction. Many adult authors are now streaming over to the younger side, seeing the rich potential audience there. Rowling, who helped to build the bridge, is walking in the opposite direction. And why shouldn’t she? She’s following her ideas where they take her. Cross-pollination in reading and writing is a good thing: writers moving into new storytelling areas, kids reading “adult” books, adults reading “kid” books. They’re all stories.”
All stories indeed. Why don’t we strip the books of their age-dictating labels? Books are books, stories are stories. If you enjoy it, read it.
Recently, my university introduced a new MFA Creative Writing Program, and since its advent, we’ve been privileged to have some really awesome writers come and visit. This past Friday, though, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, the castle was host to someone a little different: Keith Strunk, an actor, writer, and producer who had come to Arcadia to discuss using the tools of acting in the field of writing.
The posters thumbtacks around campus bore the Hamlet quote, “Suit the word to action, the action to the word,” an excerpt taken from Hamlet’s speech to the players he’s hired to perform the “fictional” play about a malicious man who kills his brother, the king. Strunk, however, used this phrase to begin a discussion about something else: How can a writer use an actor’s approach to words to influence their work, or make it better?
Strunk started out as an English major at Ursinus College, and only after he graduated did he find his way to the world of performing. These days, the award-winning scriptwriter runs River Union Stage, is a member of the Philadelphia Liar’s Club, and is currently ghostwriting a non-fiction book. Most of his fictional work, he shared, begins with a line or two of dialogue, from which springs a bigger idea.
Due to my chronic earliness, I got to talk to Strunk for a bit before the event began. In person, Strunk is energetic and inquisitive, and his open, friendly manner make you instantly comfortable around him. After calling accidentally attention to myself as a “theatre person,” Strunk asked me if I was there for just the acting aspect of the talk, or the writing part as well. I told him both, and he even asked me about my thesis and how it was coming about. When he found out that I had been trained in the Meisner technique, he asked me to help him with an exercise during the event.
To begin his talk, Strunk defined Method acting. “How many of you roll your eyes when you hear the phrase, ‘Method actor’?” Most people, including myself, raised their hands. Strunk went on to explain that the approach to performance first only included the teachings of Lee Strasberg, but now a Method actor is anyone who has any affiliation with Stanislavski’s teaching.
“But what does that have to do with writing?” he asked the group at large. “Who cares?”
He went on to quote famous acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who defined acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” In the later stages of Meisner training, an actor learns that in order to make a scene live, they need to know who they’re talking to, how they feel about that person, what their own point of view is, and what action they’re playing- even if they’re onstage alone. One part of Meisner’s exercise is to have one actor in the room and another actor knock on the door. When Actor #1 opens to door to Actor #2, the latter must have a reason for being at that door. “Think about it,” Strunk pronounced. “No one goes to any door without an intention. Even if they claim they don’t have an intention, there’s an intention behind that statement.”
This is the same for writing. Strunk pointed out that all intentions stem from being specific- what does my character want? Why does he want it? What will happen if she doesn’t get it?- and looking at the specificity of an action makes a scene work, on the stage or on the page. Every scene must have a conflict, something to raise the stakes, and each character must have a point of view about that conflict. If none of these exist, the scene probably does not help the story move forward. “Characters,” Strunk told the group. “Need to need something.”
About halfway through the talk, Strunk called me up to demonstrate the Meisner technique of repetition. He explained to the crowd that the point of the exercise was to remain neutral in your delivery until you had the impulse to change something. This was a speeded-up version of the exercise; in my experience, it can takes weeks to be allowed to go beyond being neutral. He and I stood facing one another in front of the crowd and Strunk’s eyes landed on my polka-dotted rain boots. “Those are funny boots,” he commented. “Those are funny boots,” I repeated. “Those are funny boots.” “Those are funny boots.” Back and forth, we parroted the phrase, eventually allowing inflections from anger to joy to disbelief to understanding, to enter our phrases.
“But,” observed an audience member, “It seems as though you’re manipulating the meaning.”
“Exactly!” Strunk exclaimed. “And it seemed false, didn’t it?” The observer nodded. “The point of a Meisner exercise is not to manipulate the words when you feel they need a change, but to allow the words to be spoken differently because you feel an impulse to change them. It’s not premeditated.”
Strunk later used a similar example when a student in the audience asked how actors manage to keep their lines fresh every performance. Strunk explained that while improvisation of lines is frowned upon in performance, one must think of the recitation of lines as an improv with predetermined words. “You use techniques to build a framework, like walls of a log flume. You’re the car, and you set yourself on the top of the hill and let yourself go. Those walls, that framework, keeps you on track, but you still have room to play.”
The great thing about actors, Strunk pointed out, it their ability to be open and the fact that they never lose touch with their inner child. Writers could benefit from the same lesson, being open to play with their scenes and dialogue. “It’s that old writing adage: you can’t have a favorite character, scene, or line. You have to be willing to play around with it and throw things out if necessary.”
Strunk also remarked that even writing non-fiction can be fun. “It’s still about connecting with the audience, to the idea of things.” He mentioned an instance when he met with the subject of his ghostwritten book. The client works in what one might consider a dry field, one full of charts, graphs, and numbers, “but what I wanted his honesty and ability not to judge people to come through [in the writing.] I wanted to connect through the humanity.” Strunk pointed out that non-fiction is just as viable a form of writing as novelization, and just as difficult, if not more, because the writing has to be clear and connected for someone who is trying to learn about the book’s subject.
The most important thing I took away from Keith Strunk’s talk was that a solid foundation and willingness to play within that foundation can be the key to a successful career, both in acting and writing, as well as beyond. If you’re willing to trust your words to do some of the work for you, then you’re well on your way.
At last, Rachel and Stuart have collaborated on a post! Here’s their review of the script of the film Easy A.
Will Gluck’s Easy A, written by Bert V. Royal, follows a high school girl named Olive Penderghast. At the start of the film, she is socially unknown, or, as she puts it, “I used to be anonymous, invisible to the opposite sex. If Google Earth was a guy, he couldn’t find me if I was dressed up as a ten story building.” And true to her personality and appreciation of literature, she notes that this is cliché. Then, a small lie to her best friend about losing her “V card” to a college guy explodes into a school-wide rumor that she is sleeping around. After she agrees to pretend to have sex with a gay friend to help him fit in at school, her reputation as a floozy grows exponentially. Olive gets caught up in this façade, and it grows to consume her. Once she realizes this, she attempts to find redemption through the video blog (vlog) which serves as the narration for the entirety of the film.
The beginning of the film follows the trend of the typical teen movie, but quickly diverges from this genre as it becomes an analog to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This novel in and of itself was a sort of redemptive effort on the part of Hawthorne as he wrote this in order to absolve his ancestor’s involvement in the Salem witch debacle, which Olive mimics in her attempt to find salvation through her vlog. Throughout the film, The Scarlet Letter plays a significant role in Olive’s understanding of her own experiences. As she starts to grasp the nature of social excommunication as a result of her fictitious philandering, she symbolically sews a scarlet “A” onto a new “whore couture” wardrobe to embrace her new position in the high school hierarchy as a “skank”.
The Scarlet Letter is not the only work of literature that Olive references throughout the film. She mentions early on in her vlog that Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the only work in the canon that is not universal to human experience because “I don’t know any teenage boys who have ever run away with a big hulking black guy.” Later, she mocks the genre of teen fiction while talking to her best friend:
Rhiannon: You’re being pretty cavalier about this. Aren’t you supposed to be eternally in love with him and shit?
Olive: Yes, yes, I believe so, if I was a gossip girl in the sweet valley of the traveling pants.
When she discusses the fictitious loss of her virginity on her vlog, Olive laments that Judy Blume had not prepared her for this experience, suggesting that children’s literature should serve to develop an accurate picture of growing up.
Olive does not limited her comparisons to the written word. For instance, she tells her friend Brandon (the same friend she pretended to sleep with) that he is “Kinsey 6 gay”, referring to Alfred Kinsey’s continuum ranking of sexual orientation where 6 is exclusively gay and 1 is exclusively straight. She also bemoans the fact that John Hughes, a famous director of movies in the 1980s, had no part in the development of her life story.
Olive and her English teacher also poke fun at teens’ overuse of Facebook to share the mundane events of everyday life. Her teacher incredulously quotes, “ ‘Roman is having an okay day. Got a Coke Zero at the gas station. Raise the roof’? Who gives a rat’s ass?” More subtly, after Rhiannon leaves her, Olive says that she is alone and that this is what she is used to. This is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”, which itself is a play off John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”, giving a multicultural perspective to her solitude.
One of the more comedic aspects of the film is Olive’s family. One of the many odd qualities of the group is that they are all named after food or spices: Olive, Dill, Rosemary, Kale, and Chip. Their dynamic involves clever word play that ranges from bad puns to nearly imperceptible wit. Examples:
“Is there an Olive here?”
“There’s a whole jar of them in the fridge.”
“You get family member of the week every week.”
“And there’s a reason for that.”
“Yeah, because you always choose family member of the week”
“Are you accusing me of nepotism?”
“I have no STDs I promise.”
“That’s great. Daughter of the year.”
“Let’s just say it was an inappropriate word.”
“Well, what did it start with?”
“A snide comment from a snobby girl in my class.”
“No, what did the word start with?”
Easy A is a smart film that manages to be both funny and touching. Royal’s script is only enhanced by the performance of the actors and the direction of Gluck, and it’s definitely a movie to check out!
Guess what’s happening, blog readers?
THINGS, that’s what! Very, very exciting things that are so awesomely awesome that I am afraid to share them with you. (I am very superstitious in this way. I very strongly believe that a good thing spoken of is a good thing that will be taken away.)
I will tell you about them as soon as they are more set in stone, but the basic thing is that someone more influential than I read my play and called it “a beautiful, moving piece of work,” “a fully developed play with a very assured and mature voice,” and “Seriously, the best play I’ve read in a long time.”
…I may or may not have cried, I was so happy and excited.
(Also, side note: I have taken a brief hiatus from recreational reading as I memorize my lines for a production of The Children’s Hour that I am in, but Stuart will be here soon with reviews!)
I don’t know why I went into my thesis project thinking it would be easy. Perhaps because I already had a draft of the play completed, and the story arc was, in general, good. Maybe just because I knew what I was doing for my project long before anyone else in my class. But no matter the reasons, I was wrong. Working on my thesis is one of the hardest things I’ve done this school year.
Originally, the plan for doing this project, as I mentioned, was to revise twenty pages a week. I did this for two weeks, completing the first act. My advisor and I then agreed that if I went on to the next act without considering the changes that had been made to the first, I would be getting ahead of myself and the play would be a hot mess by April. So the next week, we took a closer look at Act One as a whole. It was at this point that my advisor gave me such awesome feedback and suggestions that I requested a second week away from revisions to implement the changes and write an outline.
This past week, I still did a few revisions, including cutting three scenes, writing two more, and making little tweaks here and there to existing scenes. I also composed an outline, which is something I only ever do for plays; I find outlines for novels too binding. For plays, however, and for this one in particular, with of its flashbacks and different locations, I needed some sort of bible to reference. In writing the outline, I decided to cut at least one more scene and try to combine it with another. If not… I must sadly bid one of my favorite scenes good- bye.
I mentioned how sad I would be to get rid of this particular scene to my advisor. Funnily enough, the scene only exists because he suggested it, but after I wrote it, I really loved when happened and the conversation between Mary and Peter; Mary makes a life-changing decision and Peter feels deep emotion for someone for the first time. But even with those gems, everyone involved agrees that it’s just unnecessary and slows down the play. My advisor told me, “Even if you eventually cut a scene, writing it is what got you where you are, so it was still a valuable experience.” This is very true, and it was nice to be reminded of that.
The most valuable thing he told me is that this play will not be finished by April. He said I have a few more drafts before I reach its full potential. I was at first disappointed to hear this; I had hoped that I would be able to market this script by May. However, considering that it’s a completely different play now, I’ve accepted that I’m starting from a few paces back than anticipated. He also told me that if this play is a hot mess by April, that’s fine; I’ve been doing the work and developing the play, which is the point. I am so happy that I chose to work on this as my thesis, even though I’m scared that I won’t know how to revise it on my own.
The biggest shock over these past two weeks is finding out that this play is no longer a children’s play in any way. I thought this was a recent development; I always considered the show to be fine for ages twelve and up. But in addition to the asylum scenes and the constant possibility of insanity throughout the play, I’ve now added some romance that I’d never even thought of until my advisor told me that I’d set up a road; why don’t I take it? I was nervous about writing that scene, as I don’t have much experience in writing things like that. The scene is tamer than my advisor was probably suggesting, but I really like it and the direction in which it’s set everything. It’s opened up doors for me to explore another part of growing up: realizing that you’re experiencing romantic attraction for the first time. Because of the time period in which the play is set, it lets Mary break a lot more rules, which is really exciting.
On March 23rd, I’ll be having a private reading of most (possibly all) of the play with current theatre students in the department and getting some feedback from the actors and some people who will be listening. I then have bout three weeks to revise some more and give it to a director and cast of alumni to rehearse a few times before the public reading on April 23rd. No pressure… :p
Now I must go to my writing class and have a deeply personal piece of mine critiqued.
I first heard about Sophie Flack’s novel Bunheads in the actors’ magazine Backstage. The article was about the author’s experience as a dancer in the New York City Ballet and how she took that period in her life and turned it into a (fictional) book.
Immediately, I was interested; as I mentioned in my review of Lucky Break, I’m a sucker for stories about performance art, and I’ve always been fascinated by ballet in particular. The book, the article said, focuses on the backstage life of a dancer, as opposed to the glamour onstage, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
The story follows nineteen year-old Hannah Ward, a dancer in the corps de ballet with the Manhattan Ballet. As all ballet dancers must, she’s dedicated her entire life to her art and dreams of promoted from anonymous corps dancer to soloist. However, the world of dance is a cold one, and no matter how hard she works, she’s overlooked, watching her friends move up in the world while she stays where she is. Eventually, Hannah begins to question if it’s worth it: does she really want to waste her college-age years in a single building, working and sweating and one injury away from it all being for nothing? After a show one night, Hannah goes to a bar and meets a college guy who is playing guitar there, Jason. They instantly get along and Jason shows Hannah that though she lives in New York, she doesn’t actually live in New York. With him, she has fun touring the city and just hanging out, something she rarely gets to do. But when Hannah glimpses the door to a promotion opening, she pushes Jason aside to work toward that. In the end, Hannah needs to decide between the hard world of ballet and the everyday world.
Bunheads,sadly,was a bit of a disappointment. Flack is a student at Columbia University, but the first few chapters reminded me of an amateur’s writing exercise. The writing is clunky and occasionally forced, making for an uncomfortable read. For example, at the beginning of the third chapter, a paragraph runs thus:
“Matilda doesn’t come around the theater often- backstage isn’t the best place for a kid- so I’m always surprised that she remembers my name and that she seems so excited to see me. I guess she’s what they call precocious.”
Additionally, in those same chapters, Flack goes overboard with the teen vernacular; the youngest character is sixteen, the oldest, nineteen, but all of them speak in the same unrealistic way, from the overly sweet “Oh, Bea, it’s just like you to find something nice to say,” to the stereotypically teenage “like, totally.”
This problem does improve as the novel goes on, but there are other issues that remain throughout the book. Flack sometimes doesn’t give her readers enough credit and sums up the life of a dancer within dialogue. While it is admirable that she is trying to keep her reader informed, what the dancers are discussing is so normal to them that they wouldn’t have lengthy, explanatory exchanges about it.
Flack’s novel gives us a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes world of ballet, which was what drew me to the book in the first place, and there are definitely some harsh realities that Hannah and her friends have to face. First and foremost is a problem in almost any artistic field: your best friends are also your worst competition, and sometimes it’s hard to find the balance. There is the stereotypical, but sadly still true, expectation for ballet dancers to be rail-thin; Flack dismisses the rumors that all dancers are anorexic, but doesn’t deny the fact that they still can’t eat very much, or their weight is commented on. Hannah gets her first period in the novel, not uncommonly late for someone whose body is so rigidly disciplined, and when she begins to develop, her chest is noted as being a problem and possibly grounds for dismissal.
There is also the eternal struggle for any performance artist: will I have wasted all of this time just to fail in the end? Should I quit now and enjoy life, or keep working in the hopes that one day, the person in the spotlight will be me? Hannah grapples with this throughout the novel, and while her internal musing is believable, I didn’t like how the novel was separated almost into chunks: Hannah’s commitment to ballet, Hannah’s rebellion, then back to commitment, then, ultimately, rebellion. I liked that Hannah made a brave choice at the end of the novel, but it was almost expected in the pattern. However, even though the sequence hinted that Hannah would make the decision she does at the end, I was unable to see her make that decision for herself before telling the director of the ballet company. I don’t think Flack meant to it to be a surprise- and perhaps to a non-performer, it wouldn’t have been- but a lot of the things that Hannah complained about, I put into the category of Things You Deal With As a Performer, as opposed to Things That Might Drive You to Abandon Your Life’s Dream.
For all its drawbacks, I liked the novel enough to finish it. I do think Flack should have polished the novel a bit more before sending it off to agents and publishers, but it was an enjoyable enough read. I hope that, like Cassandra Clare, this first novel is merely a glimpse of the true writing talent she has and that if she publishes again, her compositions will be at a higher level.
From the very first paragraph of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Ransom Riggs, Jacob claims that his life is painfully average, and of course, nothing promises a story more extraordinary. After the disturbing death of his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist to cope with his grief. During his sessions, Jacob begins to sort out the strange collection of words his grandfather whispered to him with his dying breath: “Go to the island… Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940. Emerson- the letter.” After being given a book of Emerson poems, Jacob deduces that his grandfather wanted him to look for answers where Abraham grew up: Wales. Reluctantly, at the insistence of Jacob’s psychiatrist, Jacob’s father takes him to Wales for a three-week vacation.
As soon as he arrives, Jacob seeks the help of locals to find the children’s home where Abraham was sent to escape the Nazis as a Polish child. The locals are less scared of the place than confused as to why Jacob would have interest in the bombed remains of the school. Determined, Jacob hikes through the Welsh rain and finds the ruin of the school. Inside, he finds that the upstairs rooms are mostly intact, the hallways lined with the strange pictures that his grandfather showed him as a child- unbelievable images of children levitating, lifting impossibly large boulders over their heads, conjuring fire with their hands. In a trunk, he finds thousands of the same photos and begins to doubt that Abraham’s stories were, in fact, stories.
This notion is proved when he meets a few of the children from the story; looking exactly as they do in the pictures, seventy years later. When Jacob tries to speak to them, they run. He dashes after one of the girls and after passing through a cave, finds himself in the same place, but in September of 1940. The girl, Emma, pulls a knife on him and demands that he tell her why he followed her. She doesn’t believe him when he says he is the grandson of Abraham and takes him to see her headmistress: Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine. Miss Peregrine, though saddened to hear of Abraham’s death, is delighted to see Jacob; she seems to have been expecting him.
Jacob is soon introduced to all of the children of Miss Peregrine’s home, children with special abilities known as “peculiars.” Abraham, too, was a peculiar, able to see monsters known as wights. With the help of the peculiar children, Jacob works to find a way to eradicate the beasts that murdered his grandfather and might very well come for him, as well.
I enjoyed this book a lot. One of the most original parts of the book is that it is based around, if not on, vintage photographs obtained by the author. The photographs are reproduced in the book’s pages and, most of the time, add a lot to the story. There were a few that I thought were forced into the plot simply because it was time for a picture, and others that seemed retouched to the point where they didn’t look like photographs anymore. In the back of the book, Riggs writes that none of the pictures have been retouched further than they were before he saw them, and while this may be true, I still found some of them to be inauthentic.
Jacob is a great character with whom to go on a journey. Riggs writes him in a way that toes the line of too-angry teenager, but never crosses it, and Jacob grows out of that angst as the novel progresses, finding that other things in life are more important. He’s wry and smart and is mature enough at sixteen to accept the peculiars as his friends, despite their strange personalities and abilities.
The solitary thing that bothered me about the novel was Jacob’s relationship with Emma. I love romance in YA fiction, but I dislike when modern-day characters get involved with characters from the past. While Jacob and Emma were only separated by seventy-odd years (as opposed to the few hundred that separates the Twilight protagonists), I still hold that it is intensely uncomfortable to watch a character kiss his seventeen/eighty-eight year-old crush who also happened to be his grandfather’s girlfriend. As another author has observed about these kinds of romances, the problem is not whether the person looks old; it’s that they are old. Jacob himself acknowledges the weirdness of this situation, but that doesn’t stop him from making out with Emma a few pages later. Don’t get me wrong, the scenes with them are cute, but I was constantly nagged by the fact that he was thinking longingly about a woman who is essentially in her eighties, no matter how youthful her physique.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children covers every base for the YA reader that enjoys creepiness, mystery, and a bit of romance thrown in there. If you’re buying this one, get it in hard copy as opposed to on an e-reader, as many e-readers tend to dislike oddly formatted books, of which this is one. But no matter which format you purchase, just purchase it; it’s worth it.
“I’d begged them to skip [my birthday] party this year because, among other reasons, I couldn’t think of a single person I wanted to invite, but they worried that I spent too much time alone, clinging to the notion that socializing was therapeutic. So was electroshock, I reminded them.”
“It’s not even a decision, really. You stay. It’s only later- years later- that you begin to wonder what might’ve happened if you hadn’t.”