Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Author Brains, Activate! Write for Truth and Justice.

When I visit with groups of school kids, like you, CFG (short for Chenery Fifth Graders), I jump up and down to try to drill one simple thought into their heads. Here it is. Brace yourself.
The craziest ideas can combine to make great stories.
Let me try saying this another way, in case you didn’t get it the first time.
The weirdest, wackiest, most random things you can imagine can be mixed like soup ingredients to brew up a fantastic book.
Now, I’ve never met Louis Sachar, so I don’t know what was going through his head when he began writing HOLES. But I like to imagine it this way:
One morning, after his jog, Louis Sachar accidentally knocks his wife’s purse off the kitchen counter, and out falls some paper, some makeup, and a change purse. Coins and cosmetics spill all over the floor, right next to his smelly old jogging sneakers. And while he’s kneeling there, picking up coins, his Author Brain imagines the coins are buried treasure, and then he puts a gold-colored lipstick tube back into the purse, and as he unfolds the paper, he sees it’s a grocery list, and he happens to read “onions” and “peaches” on it. And his Author Brain thinks to itself, “Onions. Peaches. Lipstick. Buried treasure. Stinky sneakers. Eureka! By gum, Louis, we’re onto something big here! Typewriter, STAT!”
(Here’s a total digression. Do you ever watch “American Idol?”  Randy Jackson, one of the judges, is always telling singers he likes, “You could sing the phone book!”  It’s cheesy, but hey. You, my dear CFG friends, could write the grocery list. And I don’t mean you could just write “gummi bears, swiss cheese, stuffed olives” on a piece of note paper.  Almost anyone could do that. I mean you could write a fantastic novel about gummi bears, swiss cheese, and stuffed olives, if you set your Author Brains to work on the task.)

I wrote a grocery list of some of the things I imagine Louis Sachar might have been thinking about as he wrote HOLES. Some of them are very serious ideas, like racism and juvenile prison. Some feel more story-ish, such as curses and buried treasure. But some of them feel almost entirely random and silly. Lizards? Pigs? Sneakers? Lipstick? And that’s what makes it fun. Mixing up the serious with the silly is a great idea.
Speaking of silly, I made a Wordle word cloud of my list of ideas.
We’re going to have a lot more to say about HOLES when we meet for creative writing workshops this year. I’m going to teach you the six things that every story needs, and let me tell you, HOLES has those ingredients by the shovelful. It’s a perfect illustration of the kinds of things I like to teach. So I’m going to save some of the fun for when we meet, but for now, let me leave you with this idea:
Did you notice how HOLES weaves together several people’s stories? Mainly we learn about Stanley Yelnats IV. The book is primarily his story. But sometimes we visit the story of Kissin’ Kate Barlow. And sometimes we spend time with Elya Yelnats. We even visit Sam now and then. And we learn about other characters, though we don’t really enter their heads: Stanley Yelnats I, Trout Walker, Hector Zeroni. All these characters have their own separate wants, needs, hopes, and problems. Each one of them faces tremendous obstacles, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deadly or nearly fatal. But all these stories, all these characters, their histories, their unmet desires and problems, they all converge in HOLES, even though they are spread out across space and time. Converging is when things all come together just right.  It’s something like this.

It makes me think of many strands of hair, tightly woven together in a braid. Here is some extreme braiding, let me tell you!

In HOLES, when the characters’ story strands come together, justice is finally done. Justice brings good things to those who deserve them and have suffered, and brings a final comeuppance to those who’ve been selfish, greedy, and cruel. (Don’t you love the word comeuppance? Come-up-pance. Sounds like “Come up, pants.”  It’s when someone rotten gets the punishment they’ve got coming to them.)  Justice makes story endings satisfying. There’s the kind of justice when criminals end up in prison, and the kind of justice that restores a stolen fortune. There’s another kind of justice in stories called poetic justice. Poetic justice is not limited to the kind of justice that comes from judges and police. Often it’s when ironies get straightened out. My favorite example: Camp Green Lake is soon to become a Girl Scout Camp. I’ll bet you never saw that one coming. I didn’t. It’s ironic because mean old Mr. Sir kept telling the boys, “This ain’t Girl Scout camp,” which was his way of saying, “This place isn’t for wimps.” Girls scouts aren’t wimps, I’ll have you know, Mr. Sir, sir!

There is one bit of poetic justice that I wanted and didn’t get, though, and I’m not proud of myself for wanting it. I was certain that a yellow-spotted lizard would bite that nasty old Warden in the end. And it didn’t. I was just so sure she’d get chomped! She, with her rattlesnake venom nail polish, and her willingness to see others die to get what she wanted -- oh! She had it coming, I thought. After all, her ancestors watched Kate Barlow die that way. It’s not fair in real life to punish people for what ancestors do, but it happens all the time in stories. But perhaps the Warden’s greatest punishment would be not dying. She’d get to live a long time, knowing how miserably she’d failed, and how close she came to finding the treasure, only to lose it in the end. It’s a good thing Louis Sachar was in charge of the Warden’s fate, and not me. I might be a little too aggressive. But only where stories are concerned. 
Here, CFG, are your writing prompts for HOLES:
1.       Go on a scavenger hunt for everyday objects. Make a grocery list of them.  You’re not looking for epic stuff. Just ordinary stuff.  Make sure your list includes at least 30 things.  Now pick three of those things, completely at random, and see if you can come up with an idea for a story based on those three things. If you want to add in a few more, go ahead. Try to state your story idea in no more than two sentences. That’s your prompt. But as an additional prompt, if you want to, start writing the story.
2.       Make up two or three characters whose lives are separated by distance, or by time, or both. Make sure these characters have never met each other, nor even heard of each other. Figure out these details about each one: Name. Age. Gender. Occupation. Where they live. When they live. Their home or family situation. What they want badly. What their problems are. Got that figured out? It’s a lot of work, I know. Now, figure out a way that you can make these two lives converge. Braid their lives together somehow. Your prompt is to write a paragraph describing each of the characters, and then another paragraph describing how you could braid their lives together. That’s your prompt. As an added bonus, you can write the story.
3.       Invent a truly horrendous villain who doesn’t kill or seriously injure people. Make your villain powerful, intelligent, tricky, and difficult to catch. List three terrible things this villain has done in a row to his victim or victims. (Does this villain threaten a person?  A family? A group? A village? A city? A nation? The world?) Now think of the most perfect way for this villain to get their comeuppance, without killing or seriously injuring them. Make sure that both justice and poetic justice are done.
4.       Write a scene, a story, or a poem involving gummi bears, swiss cheese, and stuffed olives.
© 2012 Julie Berry