Character and plot workshop!

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June 16, Al Capone Does My Shirts

Last week’s column was cancelled due to illness. I think an impending deadline literally made me ill? Can you die from writer’s block?

Gennifer Choldenko, author of Al Capone Does My Shirts ($6.99, Penguin), has become my new hero. Why? Because Choldenko clearly invested a lot of time and research into her Newberry Honor Award winning middle-grade novel that features 12-year-old Moose Flannagan growing up in 1935 on notorious Alcatraz Island. Despite gathering buckets of information about life for the children of prison personnel — Moose’s dad is an electrician and guard at the prison — as well as facts on the infamous prisoners populating the island such as Scarface, Machine Gun Kelly and of course, Capone, Choldenko kept the light shining on Moose. Character is everything, and Moose was a character who shined.

Despite all of this, plus the intense under story of Moose’s sister, a mentally challenged teen whom his mother insists is only “10,” Choldenko created a cohesive, tight-knit novel that never strayed from its purpose — to make us feel the incredible strength and courage it took to walk in Moose Flannagan’s shoes.

I’ve been working on a new project for my editors at Little, Brown about which I am very excited. It’s the kind of storytelling that got me interested in storytelling at an early age. My desire to put my All into the project, however, resulted in an “everything but the kitchen sink” effect. I spent a full year developing the look and visual style of the character. Another year doing background and research. Whenever I start a project I like to know tons about my character. I keep journals, sometimes in the character’s voice. It helps me get inside their heads. It also helps me understand their day-to-day lives. Who are their friends? What do they eat? What activities do they love? What do they fear?

Because the story is going to be my first mystery, I also invested a lot of time into setting up the pieces of the plot — where do things need to go, what is going to happen, why is it important and who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Altogether, that means gathering, comprising and compressing a lot of information.

When I worked as a columnist for the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, my editor learned quickly that I was often filled with great story ideas, but like a kid on a field trip, I’d go on an assignment and come back overwhelmed with my subject. That usually meant I’d wind up with way too much story for my news hole — the space allotted for the story. So Gretchen used her best parenting skills to help me peel away parts that I loved but were not necessarily integral to the story.

Gretchen might be happy to know that though columnists may grow up to become authors, they do not necessarily change. Now my editors at Little, Brown are continuing to direct my writing eye same as my newspaper editor once did.

Their advice for my new multi-layered heroine: Choose five key elements worthy of building the book around. Five as opposed to the dozen or so character traits and subplots I included. Thank goodness despite all of that they were able to see the potential in the story and urged me to continue on.

Reading Al Capone Does My Shirts was like going on a character-and-plot workshop. Choldenko earned the award based on her intense understanding of her character. If she received the same advice from Penguin that I got from Little, Brown, the five character traits that she highlighted to bring Moose to life were: 1) a need to please 2) big for his age 3) easy to make friends 4) overwhelmed with his mother’s mania surrounding his disabled sister 5) deeply connected with sister, Natalie, yet in desperate need of some attention himself.

From chapter one right to the end, these are the character traits that guide Moose and define who he is and how he handles his journey.

In chapter seven, Choldenko writes:

Now I get to walk into a school where I don’t know anyone. Correction. I don’t know anyone except a piece of work named Piper. One enemy, the rest strangers . . .this is not good, for cripe’s sakes, plus it’s midyear so everybody has made all the friends they want already. No one will need a friend except me.

Here the writing is succinct and distinct. This is Moose talking, plain and simple. But the introduction to the chapter is followed by an even more telling paragraph, further highlighting the deep connection he feels toward his mentally challenged older sister who was sent kicking and screaming — literally — to a special school.

Was this how Natalie felt on the way to the Esther P. Marinoff School? Maybe some big ladies will come along and drag me inside kicking and screaming too. Sometimes it seems easier to be Natalie. People force her to do stuff. I have to force myself.

For any writer struggling to organize her manuscript in a way that always drives the action around the main character, Choldenko demonstrates what precision, planning and control can bring to a finished work. I can’t wait to read the follow up, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Great job, Gennifer. (If I can coax my new main character to life with the adroitness of Moose, Gennifer, I owe you lunch. Pick and place and I’ll meet you there!)

Character building

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Who’s that girl?


Clarice Bean is a curious, opinionated, passionate litte Brit. For a girl of around nine or ten, she has quite the caustic wit and a very interesting world view. She is also hopelessly, utterly committed to her one true love — the Ruby Redfort spy series.

If, based on my description, you’re not sure whether Clarice Bean is an actual child or a book character, thank author Lauren Child. London-based Child, creator of Disney’s Lola and Charlie, came up with a character so lifelike and irrepressible that it’s nearly impossible to think of her as anything other than absolutely, positively real.

For moms (or dads) wishing to dip your toes into the scary, scary waters of fiction writing, one truth must guide you: without character you’ve got nuttin’. Sorry about the mob-boss vernacular. No coffee yet.

In a Don’t Look Now (5.99, Candlewick Press), part of an inventive Clarice Bean collection that combines part picture books with middle-grade readers, illustrator/author Child infuses her unique little lady with an authentic voice that makes Clarice Bean too yummy to ignore.  Although previous engaging Clarice Bean stories have been written in picture-book format, Don’t Look Now is a first-rate middle-grade novel that keeps you wondering what is this girl going to do next. Whether your children are just the right age to enjoy Miss Bean or if they’re way too filled with teenage angst, too preoccupied with finding hairs in peculiar places on their bodies to care about a sardonic grade-schooler, do not be deterred. You must think of it as proper research.

While you’ve been stashing away ideas based on great and amazing story-ideas, plots that take us on adventures, spirit us to distant lands or thrust us into hostile futures, remember the most important thing: no one wants to take such a journey with a boring main character who is forgettable as soon as we put down the book. Whatever fictional adventure you’re planning, it all begin with character. Who is that girl? Why do we care about her? What is she afraid of? What change does she fear most? What will change her most by story’s end?

Don’t Look Now takes us into the Bean household at a time of tremendous turmoil and change. Marcie, Clarice Bean’s older, much, much wiser sister, sets up a mega catastrophe when she ignores running water in the tub because she’s taking a very important phone call about boys and school and friends and such. Faster than you can say, “LOOK OUT BELOW!” Clarice Bean has water dripping into her cereal and the ensuing chaos causes Clarice Bean to wonder how things could get any worse. Well, of course, things do get worse when she learns her longtime BFF Betty Moody is moving to another country, and thanks to the mess Marcie made in the bathroom, the Bean family could be ditching Clarice’s beloved home. How does our girl handle the hardships? Ahh, that is the question.

After reading Clarice Bean or any favorite young fiction, imagine inviting that child over for a play date with your kids. Picture her in your kitchen or den or the bedroom of your child. Now imagine some catastrophe strikes — a thunder storm that kills the power, a tree falling into the driveway and crushing your car and their bikes, a toilet that overflows into the hallway. Whatever. How would your child handle the calamity? How do you think Clarice Bean would handle it?

If new writer’s allow themselves to get comfortable putting their make-believe people in the real world, it will help take two-dimension ideas and turn them into three-dimension personalities.

Character is first. Period. So go get yourself a big scoop of character-building goodness. Read Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Child’s deft handling of language, setting and milieu will instantly jettison you into the world of an intrepid young person who definitely leaves an impression. The quiet, yet insistent repetition of her young character’s full name, Clarice Bean, throughout the book, drives home the notion that this is not a child to be forgotten. Remember the name, and your assignment.

Ta, ta for now, my darlings. I’m off. My coffee awaits!