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!)