Thursday, May 31, 2012

The May Westside Writers Schmooze talks Location, Location, Location!

On May 9th, twenty-seven Schmoozers gathered for a discussion on the importance of setting and location at our longtime Schmooze home, the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library.

“And what a lovely location the Fairview Branch of the Santa Monica Public Library is for our Schmooze!” co-coordinator Karol feels compelled to interject, as she remembers the previous two or three meeting spots, which were not nearly as comfy and accommodating.

After some announcements – registration for both the SCBWI Summer Conference and SCBWI LA County Working Writers Retreat  are open and filling up! (wait list only for the retreat) – we had a brief recap of Schmoozers’ favorite moments from last month’s SCBWI LA County’s Writer’s Days, which included lots of inspiring speeches and, even better, super-inspiring intensives. Kudos to our bro, (former Schmooze co-coordinator) Lee Wind and the wonderful Sarah Laurence for pulling off a home run on their first at-bat.

Most excitingly – some congratulations were in order:  Our own (co-coordinator) Charlie Cohen and Lupe Fernandez placed in the Writer’s Day contest!  Way to represent, guys!

“Why thank you, Karol,” says Charlie, “I know I speak for Lupe as well when I say WE WUZ ROBBED!!  We shoulda got first place… or BETTER!  Uh, that is… it was so wonderful just to be recognized.”

 During this month’s intros, Schmoozers were invited to mention a setting or location that is of  particular importance in their own manuscripts.  This resulted in a globe-hopping demonstration of the diversity of our group (or at least the diversity of where we’ve set our stories), with books set in Kenya, Hiroshima, the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Texas.  We also had some fun fantasy and fictional settings, including a book that takes place underwater (!) and one in a cool, fictitious town in Oregon. 

One Schmoozer humorously reported that the setting of his book is a crappy, “low rent” fantasy world.  This really excited Charlie as he actually lives in one of those (emotionally anyway).

Ultimately, a wise Schmoozer summed things up beautifully by noting that often the locations we use are amalgams of all the places we’ve lived. To wit, Karol mentioned that her personal familiarity with Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia enabled her to really bring her novel about a young girl who hangs out at a major league baseball stadium to life.

Additionally, longtime Schmoozer Sara Wilson Etienne is on record saying that the very beginnings of her debut novel Harbinger stemmed from her wanting to set a story in the unique location of the college she attended.

Charlie recalled Sara’s advice years earlier to collect pictures of locations that look like your story’s setting and put them on your walls.  He also spoke of trying to find facsimiles of his imagined worlds in real life.  While working on a supernatural story set in Texas, he spent a lot of time biking in the dried out parts of Griffith Park and the Santa Monica mountains.  

One windy day, he was stopped short by a loud ominous, howling sound.  It turned out to be the wind vibrating the high power lines but, for Charlie, it was the thing he’d been waiting for.  That eerie moment really set the tone for his imagined town and his story.  “What a happy accident,” as a certain Mr. Pincus might say.  But of course, Charlie being Charlie, he had to fess up that he then became so enamored of his location, he forgot to populate it with real, breathing characters.  Charlie just can’t abide happy endings. 

So as not to depress everyone even further, Karol quickly opened the floor to a general discussion of location.  She began by focusing on books that are dependent on the cities in which they’re set.  And where better to start but with In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak who, sadly, had just passed away.  Charlie talked about how the book could only have taken place in New York City – albeit a fairly bizarre version of the Big Apple.  Charlie also shared a lovely tribute to Sendak printed in the New York Times.  (Read it HERE.)  Our community of children’s book writers and illustrators had lost a real treasure, and we made sure to take a moment to honor his brilliance.

Other examples of city-specific books included the New York-set Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Los Angeles-specific stories by CecilCastellucci (Boy Proof, Beige,) and Francesca Lia Block (Weetzie Bat books, among others), the hardscrabble Hard Pan in The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and the early days of Philadelphia where Laurie Halse Anderson sets much of her historical middle grade fiction.

We then noted that many children’s books feature That Very Special Place – a location that is not only special to the book’s characters but represents an unfamiliar place which stands to captivate young readers.  The barn in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) is a prime example of a setting that becomes special to both Wilbur the pig and the readers of this classic.

Brian Selznick had made great use of special locations in his genre-busting novel-picture book hybrids, using a Paris train station of the 1930s for The Invention of Hugo Cabaret and New York’s American Museum of Natural History in Wonderstruck. In Hugo, Selznick treats readers not only to the hustle and bustle of the train station’s public places, but also to the fascinating “behind the scenes” areas within the walls, where Hugo travels, unseen, tending to the station clocks. Many Schmoozers noted that this was one of the great values of location: taking readers somewhere they’ve never been.

Brian Selznick wove this curiosity, 
a historic panorama of New York City 
from the 1964 World’s Fair, into his 
novel Wonderstruck.

Louis Sachar’s Holes introduces readers to the dismal Camp Green Lake with the short but telling statement that opens the book:  “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”   Fans of the book know that the lack of a lake is but the beginning of the long list of unfair things at Camp Green Lake.  In Holes, the unjust camp is the perfect setting for the unjust situation in which protagonist Stanley Yelnats finds himself. 

A sinister school is another oft and effectively-used location for many great kids books, places like the Holbrook Academy from Etienne’s Harbinger, Crunchem Hall Primary School from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Spence Academy from Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, and the corrupt Catholic prep school from Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.

Of course, all schools aren’t sinister.  Some are downright magical, like Hogwarts.  (J.K. Rowling has often said that the real subject of her books was boarding school.)  Try to imagine the Harry Potter series without Hogwarts, and you’ll get a sense of how important setting is – and how great books tend to have great settings.

And when it comes to fantasy – from Narnia to Middle-Earth to Oz to Whoville, setting is almost always an integral part of the story. 

Some books utilize starkly different locales within the same story, which further illuminate character and plot.  Consider the difference between the bleak existence in District 12 vs. the gaudy glitz of the Capitol vs. the treacherous arena where the Hunger Games are played.

After all the talk of fun and fantastical settings, some Schmoozers fretted that their books mainly took place at the homes of their characters, but their fears were quickly put to rest.  Home is where kids find themselves most of the time – but these places can also have plenty of magic to them.  Karol gave the example of the lovely latest middle grade novel by Joanne Rocklin, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street.  It tells the story of a group of kids, all from the same block, who collectively experience trepidation when an orange cone shows up beside the empty lot where they’ve played their whole lives.  The novel is told through multiple points-of-view, as the kids reveal truths about themselves and slowly unravel the mystery of the orange cone.  When it’s discovered that a beloved tree is in jeopardy, the kids band together to save it.  Here, the setting is completely commonplace – an average block, in an average town – but it’s completely special to the characters and, thanks to Rocklin’s wonderful writing, to the readers as well.

And here’s a bit of Schmooze trivia:  Joanne Rocklin, formerly of the Los Angeles area, was the person who gave our monthly meeting its name.  She was among the early SCBWI pioneers who started our Schmooze, with the meetings being held in the game room of the condo building where she lived at the time.  Joanne got a kick out of hearing folks unfamiliar with Yiddish stumbling when they tried to pronounce the word “schmooze” (it was a much lesser-known term at the time).

Knowing that Joanne is a writer who believes setting is of the utmost importance in books, Karol e-mailed Joanne to get her input on this topic.

Here’s what Joanne had to say:

“Setting affects everything:  dialogue, characters, actions and motivations, plot.  I sort of think of ‘time’ as part of setting, too, i.e. time period.  And once you have your setting, a good place to start thinking about your book, by the way, you get ideas for the story/plot itself.   For example:  I'm starting a new book (starting is the hardest part of the process – so many choices!) and I chose Oakland's rural hills, which have a lot of horse trails.  Not sure why; just because.  I began there.  Then I read something about the equestrian history of the area, and decided to set it in the 50's.  Which made me think of the polio epidemic.  Which made me think of the therapeutic use of can see how the setting gives ideas.  I believe that ‘details’ are vital to make your work come alive, and once you have your setting, the details are there.  So many manuscripts I've read for kids are kind of ‘blah’ and sound the same, because the beginning authors aren't thinking of settings they really know, or researching the ones they don't.”

With our time waning, we decided to finish with an exercise:  Make a map of your character’s street or another special location in your book.  If you missed the Schmooze, go ahead and try this exercise.  What you will come up with may surprise you!

Bummed you missed out on all the fun?  Then be sure to join us for out next Schmooze – HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP FRETTING AND LOVE THE REWRITE – on Wednesday, June 13th.  All Schmoozer’s in attendance are invited to share a before-and-after example of a paragraph or passage from your own work that has benefited from revision.

And here's a last little Sendak fun before we sign off....

Keep passing the open windows,
Charlie & Karol

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hollywood Schmooze Critique Night

If you want to see this famous L.A. landmark on your way to the SCBWI Hollywood Schmooze:
Just head East on Wilshire Blvd. past Fairfax Avenue. On the left, you'll see the streets lights
at LACMA (LA County Museum of Art.) Our meeting place is just a few blocks past this spot and  about 5 blocks south. (Not that anyone needs directions anymore with mapquest!)

Last session, about fifteen of us stuck to a tight schedule and provided feedback for 10 minutes each on ten people's work. We accomplished a lot and the format was excellent! Thanks, Rene.

The range of writing being presented (we emailed 5 pages in advance) was remarkable. Great stuff, everyone! There were a few picture books, a few middle grade novels, a few non-fiction pieces and a few YA novels.

And the observations were on target too. I walked out inspired and a bit overwhelmed but very happy to be even to the point in my writing where I could receive such pointed criticism. The suggestions I got were ones I needed to hear -- and  I love that, when you go to a critique session and you hear just what you needed to hear...all the voices inside you that you are trying to ignore, suddenly come alive.

I am not sure if there is much more to say since I can't go into the details about each submitted story, though I would certainly love to. They are all so fantastic and I can't wait to see them in print.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Westside Writer's Schmooze Brings The Funny

Wea Culpa! We apologize for the lateness of this post, but after mercilessly berating you all at the last Schmooze to be sure to read our blog posts, we both became terrified that you actually would! The idea of having an audience froze us in our tracks and it was only the terror of facing you without having done our work that got us moving again.

 Here, then, is… The COMEDY TONIGHT Schmooze Recap:

The evening got started with a little, well, humor –

Charlie: “Hey Karol, how many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
Karol: “(sighs)… I knew you were going to screw up the joke.”

Okay, so after the flubbed opening joke and after Karol’s usual annoying, guilt-inducing announcements of all the really cool and useful and rewarding contests and SCBWI things (check 'em out HERE) that you’re not gonna do, even though you know you should be doing them and that if you were doing them you’d not only feel better but actually be better off, and THIS is why your family is right that you have no discipline and will never amount to anything, but who are they to judge, anyway— half of them are drunks and the other half puritanical self-satisfied prigs—really, it’s enough to make a person take to his bed, and since you’re under the weather like this, how can anyone expect you to go to SCBWI events anyway…

Where were we? Right! After announcements came introductions…and this month we asked Schmoozers to also name a favorite funny book. Man-oh-man, did our “to read” piles grow in the time it took to go around the room. Here’s just a taste of the fabulous funny fiction the Schmoozers mentioned:

  • I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil/M.T. Anderson
  • Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging/Louise Rennison
  • Al Capone Does My Shirts/Gennifer Choldenko
  • Pete the Cat /Eric Litwin & James dean
  • I Was a Teenage Dwarf/Max Shulman
  • The Stupids Die/Harry G. Allard Jr. & James Marshall
  • Harry the Dirty Dog/Gene Zion & Margaret Bloy Graham
  • Me Speak Pretty One Day/David Sedaris
  • Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Douglas Adams

After the intros, we got down to the business of the night:  comedy.

What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.
—Steve Martin

Charlie began the hilarity by telling the story of putting his dog Andre to sleep. Specifically, he discussed how bad he’d felt and how his pain was relieved by a Louis C.K. bit he’d seen shortly thereafter about the same thing. Charlie argued that for comedy to be really funny, it needs to be rooted in reality and pain. He claimed that Diary of a Wimpy Kid was funny because it was brutally honest about middle school, and that The Office, while often hilarious, was actually the saddest show on television, rooted in broken dreams and lost hope.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.
—Erma Bombeck

There was some debate.  Karol led the charge, along with other Schmoozers, asserting that there are plenty of things, like Captain Underpants and Charlie’s own favorite picture book The Silly Book by Stoo Hample, that are funny precisely because they aren’t heavy, or reality based, but are about silliness, lightness, and fantastic juxtapositions. 

Faced with the Schmoozers well-considered rebuttals, Charlie did the sensible, mature thing and changed the subject.

Comedy is very controlling—you are making people laugh.  It is there in the phrase “making people laugh.”  You feel completely in control when you hear a wave of laughter coming back at you that you have caused.         —Gilda Radner

We went on to discuss technical stuff—tropes and tricks to help the comically impaired:

K’s are funny. P’s are funny. H’s and N’s, not so much.

Odd numbers are funnier than even.

Pickles are funny—they have a P and are phallic. In fact, as the room agreed, anything phallic is funny, including phalluses themselves.

The Rule of 3: Three is the smallest number that forms a pattern and, as such, it creates a classic comic rhythm. Almost every joke has its punch on the third beat. Our new resident comedienne pointed out that this extends to comedy acts themselves. Almost every performer has a punch line that is returned to three times to give their act a structure and spine.

Know Where You Put The Punch. It’s important to give the reader a place to laugh; an actual punch. As a rule it’s at the end of sentences, though sometimes writers place it in the middle to make it seem accidental, like found humor. The important thing is to know where you put it.

Don’t put a joke on a joke. Two jokes cancel each other out. If your setup is funny and wacky, you punch line will feel forced. However a wacky setup may be all you need. Witness the scene in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, which describes Charlie’s old grandparents who never rose from bed. There is no specific punch line here, but the scene itself is hilarious.

At this point, Charlie and Karol ran out of things they’d Googled.

I don’t want to gain immortality by my humor.
I want to gain it by not dying.
—Woody Allen

Thankfully, the Schmoozers were in excellent form, with many new attendees (including a very funny comedienne) who added a lot to the evening’s discussion.

Eventually, we got to the really fun part of the night - sharing and deconstructing our favorite funny passages.  Here are some we remember:

Karol read from Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens 
and Chris Crutcher's King of the Mild Frontier: 
An Ill-Advised Autobiography.

Charlie read from The Silly Book 
by Stoo Hample.

Another new schmoozer read a hilarious 
bit from I Was A Teenage Dwarf by Max 
Shullman, the writer who created Dobie Gillis.

Longtime Schmoozer Greg Pincus, an author 
himself of a hilarious new ebook, The Late Bird, 
read Crowded Tub by Shel Silverstein (read it here).

Karol also passed on “the 7 different types of humor” (according to Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk blog):

Farce: Exaggerated comedy. Characters in a farce get themselves into an unlikely or improbable situation that takes a lot of footwork and fast talking to get out of.

Dark: Humor about the gross, violent, and otherwise depressing things in life; also called Black Comedy (think M*A*S*H). “Gallows Humor” is similar to dark humor, but the victim is the source of the comedy.

Screwball: Humor based on a misunderstanding, such as mistaken identities, taking an overheard piece of conversation out of context, etc.

Slapstick: Physical humor. Lots of pratfalls, falling, being hit on the head, etc.

Parody: People often confuse this with satire, but the two are completely different. Parody mocks or makes fun of an original work of art.

Satire: Satire is basically making fun of or ridiculing human follies and shortcomings, hopefully in the hopes of causing improvement.

Dry: Dry humor is a deadpan style of humor, that not-very-funny joke your uncle the cost analysis accountant tells.

What if you tell a joke in the forest, and nobody laughs?  Was it a joke?
— Steven Wright

That pretty much wrapped up our Comedy Tonight discussion…except wait! We’ve forgotten possibly the most essential comedy element: The Callback.

Charlie: “Hey, Karol. Wasn’t there some question you wanted to ask me?”
Karol: “There was! How many writers dose it take to change a light bulb?”
Charlie: “(haughtily) What is it about the light bulb that you think needs changing?!?”


That’s it for us!  

Keep passing the open windows.
Charlie & Karol