Archive for May, 2015

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:


(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.


To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.


Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?


Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

Character Qualities – I

May 21, 2015

In my school talks, I often ask the kids what type of stories they like: lots of action, or interesting characters?  Most authors tend to write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, though they may rightly strive for pleasing balance of each.  I’m a character-driven writer.  The story doesn’t really start moving until I know the characters well enough to let them take over the story (even though they don’t, really—the author is always in charge!).  Getting to know them takes time, but one exercise I’ve found helpful is

The Interview

That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit everybody down and ask them a set of  questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  To answer these questions, I have to use what I’ve already decided about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward.  Something always turns up that surprises me!

During a visit this week with fifth-graders at Daniel Wright Junior High, I asked which interview they’d like to read from Somebody in This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.   Several characters got votes, but the majority went to



(You didn’t know that was his full name, did you?  He’s very honored to be picked.  Not to mention very surprised.)

Thank you, Daniel Wright fifth-graders, for choosing my first posted interview!

What’s your favorite color?

Puke.  (Stupid question)

What do you think is your strongest quality?

Survival, baby.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

What’s to improve?

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Oh, come on.  Everybody knows that.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

What friends?

Okay, if I had any, they would say I’m darkly humorous, deeply mysterious and a kick-butt Call of Duty player.  I know that’s more than three words.  I can count.

What do others not understand about you?

Everything!  That’s the story of my life, man: tragically misunderstood.

Okay, if you insist . . .

Everybody assumes I hate my brother.  Or at least that I resent my brother.  Only I don’t.  Resent, maybe a little.  But I definitely don’t hate him.  The truth is, I’m proud of him.  Who wouldn’t be?  And there was a time, I’m told, when he was proud of me.  My mom says he’d always wanted a little brother, and when I finally showed up it was like every Christmas and birthday present rolled up in one.  He was eight then.  Mom says he was the best big brother any kid could ever hope for (like, big surprise).  She was working part-time at the real estate office, and Dad had just accepted the claims-adjuster job, so they were busy.  Thorn was like Dad, junior.  He did everything—feeding, changing, burping—once he even got up at night to walk the floor with me when I was sick (Mom says).  He did all his other stuff, too: top grades, sports, and all, but when he was at home he was all mine.  I’d cry for him when he wasn’t around, and go into paradoxes (is that the word?  Doesn’t look right) of joy when he showed up, because he’d piggy-back me all over the neighborhood and read to me and push me on the swings and stuff.  It’s not just Mom who says so.  We moved to Hidden Acres when I was two, and all the neighbors tell me (and tell me and tell me) that they’d never seen a big brother like Thorn.  I wish I could remember.  But I guess, in some way I do.

Because I don’t hate him.  I love him, probably more than anybody.  And I guess he loves me too but he outgrew me.

He made me laugh, he made me mad.  And sometimes—oh man, I’ve never said this to anybody—he comes close to making me cry.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll either be hiking through Tibet or working on a shrimp boat out of Louisiana.  What other options are there? Legal, I mean.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was probably one I can’t remember.

What’s your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is fear itself!

No seriously, my greatest fear is probably finding out who I really am.  I’ve been coasting along as anti-Thorn but that’s not necessarily me.  My grandma—the one who traveled, and died a couple years ago—she was the only one in my family who didn’t look at me through my big brother, and I kinda think that if she’d lived longer she might have had a clue.  It might’ve helped, you know?  A little positive reinforcement.  I’ll find out sooner or later.  But what if I don’t like me?

If you died tomorrow, what would you ideal epitaph be?

Here lies Thorn Thompson’s brother.

Good thing I’m not dying tomorrow, huh?

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?  If you could ask them these questions (or any others you think might be interesting), what would they say?

Can a Book Really Change Your Life?

May 16, 2015

Well, technically anything can change your life, from the high jump that secured your state track record and won your scholarship to the University where you met your wife and fixed your geographical location . . . to the speck of dust that flew in your eye and got under your contact while you were driving across the bridge that caused you to swerve and then over-correct and plunge over the guardrail into the river, ending it all.

But really . . . can a book change your life (always excluding books like, you know, the Bible)?

Changing might not be the best word, but I was interested in the results of a BuzzFeed post on the subject.  In answer to the question, “What children’s book changed your life?” readers a posted jacket images with a brief exposition on the book’s life-changing properties.  Some of these were quite specific: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (which I have never been able to finish) launched one reader’s lifelong interest in linguistics, leading to a college major.  Another has never killed a spider since Charlotte’s Web.  Meet Samatha (American Girl) taught proper table manners.  Other reported changes are more nebulous: “This is the first book I remember my mother reading to me and it reminds me of how much she loves me” (Goodnight Moon).  “These books taught me to value everything in life because nothing is forever” (A Series of Unfortunate Events).   “It taught me never to follow the crowd” (Sophie’s Ponytail).    Other books could have taught those same people the same lessons–as in romance, there’s no “one” for you,  but several “ones” who, in intense communion with you at a particular time and place, will change your life.

When I was about ten years old I read this book (The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier).  It was a Weekly  Reader Children’s Book Club selection silver-swordfor the month, and the copy in the picture is not the actual copy I read, though it looks that old and beat up.  (Found this one at a Good Will.)  It’s’ a great story that holds up well fifty-five years later, but I can’t say for sure that it taught me about courage and perseverance and sacrifice, although the story offers indelible models of all those virtues.  It probably did, but what I know for sure is that this book make a reader out of me.  That is, someone who doesn’t just read for pleasure and enlightenment, but for a particular kind of pleasure and enlightenment that can’t come any other way.  With this book I first experienced the sharp pang of discovery when a story wraps around your heart and shakes hands with itself–when something happens that’s so poignant and right and piercing, you know you’ve been changed.   To this day I can turn to the very page where it happened; I wrote about it here.  When you read such a passage, you know you’ll read it again–not to find out what happens, of course.  That particular secret is out, but the deeper secret of how it touched you can be discovered again.  And again.

Other books could have done that–and would have, since I was certain to become a reader.  But for me it was this one.

I’m a Believer . . . in the Oxford Comma

May 8, 2015

My story: I didn’t even know what the Oxford Comma was, but in general, I was against it.

For instance, what’s the difference between these two sentences?

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste, and corn plasters.Oxford-Comma

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste and corn plasters.

Eagle-eyed readers will immediately see that the difference between these two sentences is one little comma, which appears to have no particular use and adds no additional meaning.  When you are listing items in a sentence, the “and” is a signal that you’re wrapping up the list and the list does not need doesn’t need that sporty little curve with the dot at the top that looks like a tadpole with a ruptured appendix.  It’s redundant.  I hate redundancy.  I take commas out whenever they don’t appear to be needed, and if copy editors put them back in, I will sometimes (if I’m very, very sure) take them out again.

But . . . all the experts said that items in a list must be distinguished by a comma before the “and.”  Much as I hate redundancy, I hate incorrectness more.  How mortifying, to be passed over for the Newbery or National Book Award because I disdained the Oxford comma.  That’s almost like disdaining Laurence Olivier, or telling William and Kate their new baby is ugly.  (Which she isn’t.)

So I accustomed myself to using the Oxford comma without knowing the reason why.  Sometimes it’s wise to obey the rules even if you don’t understand the reason for the rules; else you may end up looking silly.  As I would have, if I persisted in my disdain and wrote something like this:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800 year-old demigod and a dildo collector.*

. . . .oh.  I get it.

Adding the Oxford to items in a list is merely to distinguish it from items of attribution, such as those falsely and ignominiously attributed to Haggard’s ex-wives, parents, and Nelson Mandela.  Notice the Oxford comma in the last sentence: does it appear to be wagging its head and nodding its little head at you?  That means I told you so.

But don’t get me started on apostrophes . . . .

Or elipses . . .

* These examples have been floating around the web for a while and may be apocryphal.  Apologies to Nelson Mandela.

Where Does the Magic Come From?

May 2, 2015

In 2008, a middle-grade novel called Savvy, by first-time novelist Ingrid Law, swept numerous awards lists and was anointed with the silver medallion of Newbery runner-up.  Savvy has certain distinctive elements: a real-life location (rural Ohio), a loving though eccentric family, quirky characters, a desperate situation–and supernatural intervention, because each member of the family has a particular “savvy,” or supernatural power, that’s revealed at his or her 13th birthday.  The genre is best described as magical realism: a story set in an actual place and time, where the main problem or conflict is solved by other-worldly phenomena. (Even though, in this book and many others, the “savvy” is as much a problem as it is a solution.)

Since the publication of Savvy, I’ve noticed a bunch of books cut on the same general pattern.  Of course, stories where supernatural events occur in our own world (as opposed to a mythical kingdom or alternate universe) have plenty of representatives in classic children’s fiction—think The Indian in the Cupboard, or Tuck Everlasting, or—even farther back—Mary Poppins.  “Magic” is a staple of children’s literature, from fairy tales to Arabian nights, so what’s new?

Well, nothing is really new, as Solomon noted (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9).  But “new” does go in cycles, and we seem to be in a magical realism cycle now.

Important to note: this is different from magic as the learned power to manipulate inanimate forces (as in the Harry Potter series) or to conjure and control spirits (as in the Batimaeus series).  Savvy is a prime example of what I’m seeing more of.  Just recently I reviewed Lucky Strike: real-life location (Mississippi Gulf Coast), loving but eccentric family (Nate’s crotchety grandpa), quirky characters (Genesis Magnolia Beam and her father the Rev.), a desperate situation (lightning strike), and a supernatural power (sudden, inordinate luck).   And A Snicker of Magic: real-life location (western North Carolina), eccentric family (wandering mama), quirky characters (just about everybody in Midnight Gulch), desperate situation (homelessness), supernatural power (seeing words).

Then there’s Almost Super.  And Bliss and Cake.  Also Flora & Ulysses, and Egg & Spoon.  Sometimes the formula takes an interesting twist: the main characters in Almost Super receive “stupid” powers, and in Remarkable the main character is the only one in her town who doesn’t possess some phenomenal gift.  The magic almost always occurs without explanation; it’s just there, or it’s part of the family heritage from way back.

Most of these books tend toward sunny optimism.  Even though danger or sadness weaves into the plot, the reader knows that the best friend will not die, that the main character will find a home, that Dad will recover, and their immediate neighborhood will be much better off than it was before.  In fact, if I could sum up the theme of almost all the aforementioned books, it would be

The world is a beautiful, fascinating place, and you are a magical person if only you would realize it and tap into your special power.

 This is true and not true.  The world is beautiful and fascinating but also hard and cruel (that’s a point that YA literature has often been criticized for making).  How to solve that paradox, or at least live with it, might be seen as the big theme of all literature.  “Magic,” in the magical-realism genre, could be interpreted as a way to make the world come out right without recourse to any form of religious consolation.

Classic fairy tales like Cinderella perform a similar function, but fairy tales take place in a world understood as Once upon a time.  In other words, not here.  Also fairy tales are peopled by types rather than personalities: the wicked queen or stepmother, the noble prince, and the kind and beautiful heroine, with dwarves, giants, gnomes, and talking animals for magical mischief and comic relief.  The generic nature of fairy tales insures their survival.  They are for all time, not today’s Issue of the Week.  When highjacked and made to serve an agenda they lose their power.

The uniformity of fairy tales (truth and beauty always win) tells us something about the moral compass and human yearning for clear distinctions between good and evil. I’m not sure what the increase in magical realism for middle-schoolers tells us, except perhaps that when God goes out the door, “magic” creeps down the chimney. We have our supernatural yearnings, and need our supernatural fix.

I believe the world is beautiful and fascinating because God made it, and I believe the world is also hard and cruel because it’s fallen. We yearn for something beyond the world because He has planted eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes again, 3:11). In an increasingly secular society, though, I can’t say that just anywhere, and perhaps the last place I can say it is in a novel.  Fiction can’t preach.  But it can reflect, and current youth fiction might be reflecting a response to practical atheism in the public square and the public schools.  As these become more secular, life can’t be seen as a gift, because gifts demand givers. Life can only be a problem, or a series of problems, to be solved with facts and hard data (and gritty “realistic” YA novels).  With nowhere else to go, imagination retreats into fantasy, offering hope that there’s a little magic in all of us.

But where does the magic come from?  If we can’t answer that question, or if the answer is strictly relative, those puffy hopes are nothing but clouds.