Sunday, November 28, 2010

Story or Skill?

Hello! Just before Thanksgiving break, one of my NaNoing 6th graders asked a question that I've been mulling on all week. She asked, "What do you think is more important? The plot, or the writing?"

! ! ! ! !

I love this question. Lydia answered herself quickly enough. "I think it's the plot," she said. "I mean, think about it. Why would you pick a book up anyway? Because you read the back and think it sounds good."

And Lydia's absolutely right: a good story is crucial. But exceptions abound, don't they? What draws us to books, what keeps us in them once we've started? What do we value as readers? Can we finish a book even if it has a lame plot? Does crappy writing make us chuck unfinished stories across the room? I've been trying to compile a list of awesome story/awesome skill titles, and I'm falling woefully short. I thought I'd at least start the list here and ask you all to pile on it with me. :)

Awesome Plot, Awesome Writing

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has to lead this catagory simply because I just finished it. I'm totally traumatized, of course, and will never shake Cato out of my memory. However its plot is wildly imaginative (as well as horrifying), and the prose is so tight, I almost cried. After reading the first two pages, I shook my head and wondered how I ever thought I could write a novel.

Awesome Plot, Not-so-awesome Writing

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Killer story! Brilliantly eerie concepts of the monsters we create with our own hands. Love how Mary is the monster and her dad inspired the character of the cold-hearted Dr. Frankenstein. Love how she wrote the beginnings of the tale in a Swiss chateau with her hubby Percy and their bff, Lord Byron on a cold summer night, sharing scary stories. Do NOT love the writing. It's stuffy and overwrought. It meanders and moralizes. It clouds things I want clear and illuminates bits I could care less about. But it's a classic. Hmm. Do I just not know good writing when I read it, or could plot maybe weigh in heavier than clean, concise prose? :)

Not-so-awesome Plot, Awesome Writing

The Little Stranger by Sara Waters. I waited years for this latest of Waters' books, and I was woefully disappointed when reading it. Her writing is gorgeous--when I'm in her books, I feel the cramp and cold of old cars, see the late-summer sun glint off of high windows, sigh with the sadness of a mother's slumped shoulder, shield my eyes at gaudily decorated rooms and aristocratic women. But the story wasn't good enough! I know, I know--who am I to say so? But I do say so. A cranky doctor spends 500 pages terrorizing a small family out of their fine home.
Not enough! I did finish the story, but I felt grumpy and let down most of the way through. And I jumped to the end to see 'whodunit.' So, maybe no matter how gorgeous my writing grows to be after decades of practice, I will not rely on style to tell a stale tale.

Not-so-awesome Plot, Not-so-awesome Writing

Pretty Little Liars. I want to simultaneously give this series a frat-boy high-five and a wicked-twisty snake bite. You know the kind where you make your frenemy's forearm burn? Because I think the plots are ridiculous and the writing made my eyes feel coated in bubblegum: "she watched his tight-from-running ass" and "taut-from-swimming abs." Seriously? But I finished the whole first book. So well done, Sara Shepard. I mean, holy cow--debuting as a best-seller? Nabbing a TV series? Seriously--high five!

I waded through over 300 pages of teenage sex, drugs, stealing, drinking, lying, and blackmail. Why? Because no matter how much it drove me crazy, I wanted to know who was sending the mysterious texts. Is that a good plot? I don't think so. I think it's a brilliant gimmick. Especially since we don't find out the texter's identity until book four. :)

So, the cynic in me raises an eyebrow and wonders, is gimmick even more important than plot and writing style?

No, no, no. Of course it isn't.

But is it?



Stop it.

Tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NaNo Love

NaNo is in full swing here in midwest Wisconsin! :) Some highlights from our first week:

Team Dracula has been writing with a vengence. My 7th grade students have already upped their word count goal. By the fourth day, they both neared their initial target of 2000 words. Harper Madeline bumped her goal up to 5000, and Alexsis Rocks is shooting for 4500.

Alexsis flopped down yesterday and said, "I'm kind of sick of writing." I told her how normal that was and asked what I could do to help her along.

"Well, I could use some candy," she said. Oh! Missed opportunity! I'm not that teacher with the glass bowl of candy on her desk! But of course I love candy. Of course we need candy to help get us through. Left-over Halloween bowl . . . here I come. :)

With no sugar to boost her mood, I asked Alexsis if she wanted to be done with her story. She thought for a minute, then said, "No. I don't want to just give up on it. That's lame." She decided to get to the "blood and stuff because that's interesting." I totally agreed.

Not only is Team Dracula flying along, but my four sixth graders heard about our novel project and asked to get in on it. Absolutely! They deferred registering online; they weren't interested in word counts. They're just on fire to write these stories that bump and spin in their brains. One girl plans to write a full-length novel modeling the Percy Jackson series. Another is inspired by Twilight, but wants her werewolves and vampires to fall in love. Another girl is working on a WWIII dystopian romance. What a gift of a job I have! To sit with these girls each day, hacking away at scenes; working out dialogue and punctuation; planning action sequences and twisty endings. I am daily inspired and encouraged by them all.

We spent time last week haunting author websites. They pored over blogs and sites of Rick Riordan, Derek Landy, Terry Deary, Scott Westerfeld, J.K. Rowling, Jeff Kinney . . . . Some of the students are writing letters to the authors, and to read their first drafts was so touching:

"I'm writing a novel too."
"Do you have any advice?"
"I LOVE your books!"
"I want to write a book like yours."
"I'd really like to hear back from you."

I love, love, love watching young hearts fall in love with authors and their stories. There's really no greater romance, in my mind.

As for me and my NaNo? I'm plugging away, but I'm woefully behind. Since I'm registered on the Young Writers site, I can't seem to buddy-up with you grown-up NaNoers. I'm at something like 6500 words today. I'm very proud of those words. :) No sense in beating myself up, right? It's all about the ride. And who knows? I may get swept up in a wildfire of writing over Thanksgiving break. Here's crossing my fingers!

Here's a funny anecdote to end: A fifth grader asked me about my story. Now, my story is a YA book touching on all sorts themes not appropriate for fifth grade boys. I hemmed and said, "Oh, you know, it's about friendship."

"But, like, what happens?"

"Oh, it just covers this one night when all these friends get together."

He just looked at me, clearly disappointed. "So, your story doesn't really have a plot?"

Oh, ouch! Could this be wisdom from the mouth of babes? It took me days to recover. No, my story has a plot. It has a subtle plot, a Catcher-in-the-Rye plot, I tell myself. Not a Deltora Quest plot (and more's the pity for me! Deltora Quest is awesome! Where in the world do you come up with your ideas, Ms. Ridda?)

But our conversation didn't end there. He asked the title of my story. I told him the working title was Cinnamon Blue.

"Does it have any cinnamon in it?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No, buddy. It doesn't." I don't know if I've ever let down a student with so loud a thud in all my life.