Monday, November 3, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: Trouble

Jane Resh Thomas
Many people who write for children had a painful childhood themselves. Many of us have old business in childhood that makes us, unawares, want to protect our characters, so we soften conflict and draw them as perfect little insufferable darlings.

As Carol Bly used to say, however, “'The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep' is not a story.”
No. Stories are about trouble. No trouble, no story. “The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep, and Miss Lydia Best had just caught me cheating on my Latin test.” Now there's a story, especially if you knew Miss Best, as I did in junior high. Her hair was white and shingled up the back. She always wore nicely tailored suits in impeccable condition. An upright broomstick through her torso kept her perfectly erect. She never smiled. If Miss Best stabbed you with a glare and jerked her thumb toward the door, you were on your way to the office without a word's having been said, and you knew you'd never known such trouble in all your years at school. Anybody who would cheat on a test in Miss Lydia Best's Latin class had to be crazy.

Hic haec hoc
Hujus hujus hujus

“The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep, and those red dots on Lenna's cheek came from the bristles of the hairbrush her mother had swung just before Lenna left for school. If she answered Miss Best with the truth about those dots, her mother would kill her.”

Stories are about trouble.

Because so many writers for children want to protect their characters, one of the books I ask my students to read is Donald Maass's [sic] Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, where Maass asks contrarian questions that help in the revision of a story. They pry a writer out of his unconscious ruts. (The paperback workbook contains the guts of the hardcover book, Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level, and also poses exercises.) Maass's questions ask for the other side of things. Your character hides behind her hair and would never call attention to herself? Donald Maass would ask, what's the opposite of hiding and being withdrawn? What would happen if your character did the opposite? Write that scene.

Editors' most frequent explanation when they reject manuscripts that are “well-written” is the deadly summary “The story is too quiet.” What editors mean thereby is that the characters are too nice to live, their world is too pretty, the opposition to their hopes and dreams is too bland and tepid. The sky was blue and the clouds were like sheep. So what? Where's the conflict?

The best advice I could give to anybody who asked, even if I hadn't read the manuscript, is “Push the conflict.” Who in your childhood caused the most trouble for you? Who in your story reminds you most of that person? How have you dramatized your protagonist's hatred for him? Yes, hatred. If you haven't hated, you haven't lived. Half of life is seizing our hatred and harnessing it to something more constructive. Adults are only more adept than children at hiding their jealousy and malice and lust. What were the secrets your family demanded you keep as a child? They didn't have to tell you to keep your mouth shut. You knew. What are your character's family secrets? His parents' upcoming divorce? Financial trouble? The druncle?  What is the worst thing your character ever did?

What would you be ashamed for Miss Lydia Best to know about you?


  1. I went to the Donald Maass Breakout Novel Intensive in Sept. The first exercise on the first day of class, Donald asked us to write down " the truth that is too painful to put in the story; the joy that is too much; the fear that is too embarrassing; the thing that can’t happen; the idea that will get you scorned; the feeling that will cause people to squirm." My first thought was "Jane." :) My second thought, however brief, was that I didn't want to write down certain things that someone might find on my computer...thus, the problem.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Jane. I, too, have heard this advice from you! Shelley writes of the potential embarrassment writers can experience if they reveal childhood secrets. That's a valid fear, but perhaps there are various ways to record these incidents in order to capture their essence without revealing everything for posterity. File them like they are character exercises, change the names and setting - anything to set them at arm's length but still allow us to tap into the emotion we felt at the time we experienced them. That's what will make the story authentic and engage the reader. And when we write them into our stories, remember they're now part of our character's experience. There can be a kind of freedom in this!