Monday, September 27, 2010

English Class with Ms. Moskowitz--Part 2: Motif

Okay! Onward!

Motif is easier than theme, and even less necessary. This is one that you can really ignore if you feel like it. But it's also a fun thing to play with if you like. It's something that I focus on a lot more in some books than in others, but it ends up creeping in most of the time anyway, and I bet it does in your stuff, too, more often than you might know.

The definition of a motif is really simple. It's a reoccurring element in a story that serves to tie parts of the story together. Cool?

A really obvious example of motifing (made that word up) is something like what I did in THESE HUMANS ALL SUCK, the manuscript that has been gently laid to rest. I did a lot with colors, particularly with the color blue.

If something was blue, you could pretty much bet that it was important. I didn't hit you over the head with it, I'd just casually mention that it was blue and move on. If you weren't looking for it, you probably wouldn't have noticed that blue was important. But it was there if you felt like it.

A more common example is a line or phrase that's repeated in the story. This is one I use A LOT. A character will say a line of dialogue early in the story that gets echoed in different ways--in the main character's thought process, in his own dialogue, something like that. And it immediately brings the reader back to the first time it was used.

Using your motif is like cross-referencing one part of your book to another. This is very much an English class element. If an AP English kid ever writes a paper on your book, there's a good chance he'll go in looking for motif. I'm not saying you should write your book with that goal or anything, but it's a good way to think of motif. It's something that works on an analysis level. If it's something that's very blatantly part of the story, it's probably too obvious.

I have weather as a motif in #magicgayfish. The mentions of the ocean are all in there to echo Rudy's emotional state. He projects his emotions onto the ocean (which is called a pathetic fallacy, if you're a fan of even more fancy terms). So if you were to go through and write down the different ways the ocean is described throughout the book, you would actually have written down Rudy's exact emotional arc through the book. Which is pretty cool, I think, and definitely not something I did unintentionally.

Almost done, but I want to do a quick reminder; I'm not writing The Great American Novel over here. I'm not writing anything that I could see a class analyzing in English. So this isn't something that you need to be writing literary fiction in order to worry about. Some of my YA books trend towards the more literary, and others towards more commercial, but they all have theme, motif, and allusions weaved into them, the same way they have plot and character and all that good stuff you're already used to thinking about.

Are these things I'm talking about comparable to plot and character in terms of importance? Well, it depends on the book you're writing, but almost definitely not. This is veering too closely to the literary/commercial debate for my taste (and I'm so, so sick of this debate) but just keep in mind that I'm not suggesting you stop writing dynamic, hooky plots and start writing stories of impotent old men staring out to the horizon or whatever. Write what you want. Be aware of your options.

Even my killing zombies with spatulas book has themes and motifs. And probably allusions, I can't remember. I'll talk about those next.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

English Class with Ms. Moskowitz--Part 1: Theme

Hello, I am Ms. Moskowitz, and I will be your teacher today.

I'm fresh out of a long day of classes and ready to toss some words at you. Topics we will cover: theme, motif, and allusion. We're starting with theme.

Before I start, we have, as usual, a few caveats:

1. I am a sophomore in college. Just...yeah. I wouldn't be blogging this if I didn't know it, but it's something to keep in mind.

2. I'm sure people will have different definitions for some of these. They're words and everyone approaches them differently. These are my interpretations and my explanations, and God knows I have a weird way of explaining stuff.

3. The most important point: no one is making you think about these things. You don't need to think about theme or motif or allusion or anything else to write a good book. You don't even need to know what they are. There's a good chance that, even if you don't know these terms, this is stuff you've already been doing.

But knowledge is power. And whether or not you choose to use these things, I really do believe that you should be aware of them. It's good to have options, and if thinking about any of these things helps any of you (they help me) then I've done my job.

Let's begin! Class in session.


This comes first and foremost, because, in my experience, it comes first and foremost. Well, almost. Theme is the second thing I think of when I'm formulating an idea. I start with characters, proceed to theme, and then put together a plot. That's all I need to start writing.

To put it in the most naked of terms: Theme is the message of the book.

Most books have several themes. Let's talk about uhhhh I don't know. Romeo and Juliet. Here are some things you could legitimately say are themes in Romeo and Juliet.

--True love transcends societal segregation.
--Teenagers will choose their boyfriends over their families.
--True love leads to death.
--Teenagers are incapable of lasting relationships.
--Love leads to death.
--Teenage boys are full of hormones and fickle affections.

and there are a million other themes you could find in Romeo and Juliet. The truth is, if someone tells you that something is the theme of a work, it's very hard to prove them wrong. I could say the theme of Romeo and Juliet is "cats are better than dogs," and even though that's true, it's probably not one of the themes of Romeo and Juliet. Can you prove it?

And that's a very important thing about themes--they are very subjective. Because a theme is always, always, ALWAYS a full sentence.

For a theme to be a theme, it needs to be an opinion. It needs a verb. It needs to be something that you can find and identify and argue.

So "cat" could not be a theme. Cats are either in the books or they're not. No amount of arguing is going to change that. But I can argue that Romeo and Juliet has the theme "cats are better than dogs" until the cows get home, because theme is way more abstract than a simple world or two.

Let's talk about how this fits into your own writing. Your theme is the feeling that you want people to take away from the book. It's the question or the opinion or the decision that you want them to be rolling around in their brains when they close your book.

Don't worry if your theme sounds trite as hell. "Self-destruction doesn't work as a solution," is a theme in BREAK. Like, wow, hannah. Way to say something really fucking original, there. Here's your Pulitzer.

No. Themes are totally allowed to be simple, because it's still all about execution. If I were beating the reader over the head with my message (let's say for the sake of this argument that I did not do this) then it would be a different story, but if you have to suss out my theme from my 44,000 words, then I'm doing an okay job.

Theme's job is to answer the question so what? You have a nice story and some cool characters, but why do I care? What footprint are you leaving? That's your theme.

And please don't ignore that thing I hinted at two paragraphs up--you do NOT need to spell out your theme. At least 90% of the time, you shouldn't. At least 90% of the people who think they fall into the remaining 10% do not. Take out the part where you state your theme out loud, please. If your writing is strong enough, you don't need to say what your theme is.

Having a theme is NOT the same as having a moral. You don't have to be trying to teach you reader something, but your book should, in a sense, argue something. There's a reason you're writing this book. Sharing that makes the reader care too. But you've got to resist the urge to beat the reader over the head with it. Trust your reader!

Theme is your backbone, but you wouldn't go around smacking people in the face with your backbone. Keep that shit to yourself.

So class is over for today. I'll be back later with motif and allusion. They're simpler. But theme is first.

Now I have e.e. cummings stuck in my head--since feeling is first/who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things--appropriate, I think.

Anyway. I realize I'm spouting a lot of esoteric crap, here, so hit me with your questions/comments, please.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How about some Zombie Tag?

So one time we were camping in our backyard, and Graham said, “What do you think happens when you die?”

We used to do that sometimes. Lug our sleeping bags out and pitch our tent and lie there, pretending we had a campfire. We couldn't do it too much because Graham would always start wheezing from lying in the grass all night, but I loved it, and I was always pushing him to do it more often, which made Mom mad.

It was really late, but so loud from the frogs and the cicadas.

I said, “I don’t…think about stuff like that.”

“Everyone thinks about stuff like that.”

“Yeah, okay, but I don’t think you’re supposed to discuss it, you know? You’re supposed to think about it quietly to yourself.”

“Talking to you is like talking to myself.”

I hoped he didn’t see me smile at that, because it didn’t sound like a compliment, even though it felt like one. I think it was too dark for him to see, anyway.

He rolled over, and the grass crunched under him while he coughed. I stretched out. I was thinking about how good a s'more would taste right then.

He said, “Okay, so you die, and just…things keep happening without you?”


“That doesn't make sense.”

“Um...I think most people agree on that one.”

“But, like, how? Like...” He was quiet here for a long time. “Like I was just coughing, and then I stopped coughing, and everything was the same as it was before I started.”


“But coughing isn't dying. How can dying just be a thing?” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Wil. I don’t know. I don’t think things will go on without me.”

I laughed. “I can’t believe how self-centered you are.”

“It’s the curse of being the person the world revolves around. A blessing and a curse.”

“You're a drip.”

He said, “But seriously. No one can say for sure that the world keeps going after they die. Because how would you know? Maybe you're the one who the world can't exist without. I mean, there has to be someone, right? One person dies and the universe is like, that's it, straw that broke the camel's back, I'm done, peace, there's no point in doing this anymore if people are going to keep keeling over on me.”

“That’s so stupid.” I rolled over on the grass and looked at him. “Billions of people have already died, and here we are.”

“But it only takes one person.”

“And that person’s going to be you?”

“Hey, you don’t know me.” He laughed. His breathing was getting noisy.

I said, “Of course I know you. That’s the point.”

“Yeah.” His breath caught, and he coughed some more. “You’re pretty lucky to know me, let’s be honest.” He was wheezing pretty badly by then.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MG vs. YA

I've written YA for a long time, and I've only seriously been writing MG for about six months. In a lot of ways, I'm still learning the ropes.

But MGs are my favorites to read. They have been ever since I was very, very young. Even while I was still reading picture books or early chapter books on my own, my mom was reading my sister and me MG books before we went to sleep. I know a lot of voracious readers who grew up reading the classics. They read Huck Finn and Jane Eyre when they were five. I didn't do that. (Hell, I still haven't read Huck Finn). I grew up with middle grade books.

By the time I was eleven, I'd switched mainly to YA, and that's still the bulk of what I read. And don't get me wrong. I love YA. Some of my favorite books are YA. But a lot of my very, very favorites are MG, which is why writing it has been this pretty amazing experience.

People have asked me lately what the differences are between writing YA and writing MG. Some of them are easy. But before I start...


--In MG, your main character's probably going to be 8-14 years old. In YA, you're looking at 15-18.

--Sex, drugs, cursing, those things that some people still think you can't do in YA? Well, you can't do them in MG.

--MG is probably shorter. This is way more relevant in contemporary (as is probably everything I'm going to say) than in fantasy. And if you're like me, they'll probably end up being about the same size anyway, because all my books are fairly short. BREAK (YA) is 43,000 words, INVINCIBLE SUMMER (YA) is 53,000, ZOMBIE TAG (MG) is 44,000. Not a huge amount of variation there.

There are other differences I've noticed that are harder to define, but that I think are really noteworthy and interesting.


MG books tend to be very focused on the main character's place in his community, whatever that may be. The MG protag wants to fit in. That doesn't have to be as literal as "I want the popular kids to like me!" though it certainly can be. You'll see a lot of "I want to be the son my father wants me to be," "I want to make the baseball team," "I want everyone to stop treating me like I'm a freak because I have cerebral palsy," or "I want my community to trust me despite this mistake I made a while ago." From there, conflict happens and things can get very confusing (though they can also stay focused on that initial motivation) but when the book starts out, very often the main character's primary goal is to find his place and slip into it.

I know it isn't a book (and I haven't even read the books. I suck) but I use the movie How To Train Your Dragon all the time when people ask me what a MG book is, because it's such a perfect example in my head. At the beginning of the movie, all Hiccup wants is to be a big strong dragon hunter like the other men in the village.

The themes in YA, on the other hand, tend to be focused on the individual alone or on her relationship with a very select group of people. "I want to get over my father's death." "I want to get into a healthy relationship. "I want to stop doing drugs." "I want to start doing drugs." "I want to get into a good college." "I want everyone to leave me alone."

Unlike MGs, which typically start wide (Hiccup's whole village) and later narrow somewhat (Hiccup's friendship with Toothless--though please keep in mind that the wider issue does not get left behind), a YA sometimes starts wide but almost always ends up very narrowly focused.

I can't use a book example for YA when I'm not using one for MG, so let's use My So-Called Life. Angela Chase wants a new life. She has all these people and they're all new and exciting. That's the first episode. By the middle of the first season, her conflicts aren't with the whole world around her anymore. They're with whether she's going to let Jordan Catalano keep copying her homework. The other people are still there, and she can still interact with them, but the individual bits of conflict tend to be on a very very tight basis. And the main conflict is definitely not how the whole school thinks of Angela, as it is for Hiccup and his village.

And before I go on--you guys know that "fitting in" or "getting a boyfriend" or "romance" or "killing dragons" guys know those things aren't themes, right? I saw a writer misuse the word "theme" the other day, and it broke my heart. Those are "thematic elements"--stuff the themes are concerned with--but they aren't the themes themselves. "Fitting in is impossible without altering who you are," or "Getting a boyfriend requires more persistence than most people are willing to put in," those are themes. Really depressing ones, but themes nonetheless.

Let me know if I should do a post on stuff like themes and motifs and the differences between them. I'm an English major. I can bring it if you want it.



The easiest way to define this is--in MG, you get to save the world. In YA, you don't.

And this is related to the last point. A typical plot arc in MG starts with the kind of conflict mentioned above and turns into something like...

MAIN CHARACTER wants X. Through doing X, he learns that he has to save the world from CONSEQUENCES OF X.

By trying to accomplish his initial goal, the protagonist might learn something or do something or figure out something that will cause him to have to save the universe, or whatever his version of the universe might be (His town, his school, his family, an actual universe).

How to Train Your Dragon:


Zombie Tag:


In YA? Not so much. The climax is way more likely to be between the main character and her boyfriend, or the main character and her best friend, than it is to be between the forces of good and evil.

Are these set in stone? Nope. A YA fantasy is way more likely to have a world-saving element than a quiet, meandering MG. But these two rules *are* the reason I'm staunchly on the "They're all MG" side of the Harry Potter debate. Harry grows up, but the themes and scope don't. It's not like we're reading thousands of pages to see if he and Ginny are going to get it on, and it's not like we wanted the final showdown in Book 7 to be Ron and Harry fighting over Hermione. The rules are looser in fantasy, but I still think the Harry Potter themes stick them all into the MG camp. A lot of the fantasy we have in YA right now is paranormal romance. Not a genre I'm well-versed in, but even though there's that element of a bigger threat, most of the conflict is still interpersonal, right?


I've been giving YA sort of a bad rap in this post,, because it's not at all what I intended. I love YA. And maybe this point will help illustrate why.

Generally, word for word, page for page, not as much happens in a YA. You get to linger. You get to really sink into a main character's voice. The fact that you're focused on two or three important relationships and not the fate of the whole world is such a blessing because it lets you go into everything very, very deeply. You can have fantastically complicated relationships in YA--think about Angela and Rayanne's in My So-Called Life. You have time to really delve into them and explore them and do whatever the fuck you want with them. And that's the thing, if you ask me, that makes YA so damn cool. I think again, measuring proportionally, word for word, YA books do more for character development and exploration than any other genre. (Go ahead, kill me for that. I don't care.)

In an MG book, usually more happens. You have a lot more action and movement and excitement. You cover a lot of ground. You don't have as much time to pause and dive into things. Is there time? Of course, and an MG that doesn't give itself time to build strong relationships between the characters is going to fall completely flat. Even if you're drawn to a book because of a cool plot--and at this age, most of the readers are--you're going to stay because you love the characters. But MG does sometimes need to leave more to the imagination than a YA, simply because there isn't time to explore all the nuances of the characters' relationships.

I mean, you have to go save the world.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's Time For...

..Teaser Tuesday! (It's been a few weeks, yeah?)

How about...The Animals Were Gone!

This is Craig's point of view, and he's talking about two different boys--Lio, with whom he's hit a rocky point in their very, very tentative relationship, and Cody, the ex-boyfriend who is out of his life but not at all out of his mind.


Things I always liked about Lio:

The gaps between his canines and the rest of his teeth that make him look like a vampire or a really dangerous puppy.

His stupid multicolored hair that he never lets me see because of those hats he wears even though he isn't cold.

The fact that the teachers stopped making him take his hats off after the first week, probably because his hair is so fucked up.

The scar from the central line he had, and how he wears tank tops that let it show and acts like he doesn't give a shit who sees, and explains when people ask about it, with a small smile to show he doesn't mind that they asked, and plays with it, running his fingers across it and pinching the scar tissue when he thinks no one's looking.

His voice, low and gravelly, like he's always getting over a cold.

Things I now hate:

His stupid smiles he makes me work for.

His stupid multicolored hair that he never lets me see because of those hats he wears even though he isn't cold.

The fact that I probably won't be mad at him a few hours because he's so fucking charmed.

Cancer boy cancer boy cancer boy cancer boy, I get it.

His silence.


So Cody's dad's death pretty much destroyed my boy, and as much as we didn't want it to destroy us, as hard as we worked, as hard as I worked...

God, I held on. I held on so hard.

When he was screaming. When he was crying. When he was telling me he hated me and why hadn't I died instead. That time he slapped me across the face and shrieked that I bring him back. The time he shoved me across the room and told me if he ever saw me again he'd kill me himself, and called me two hours later, baby I'm so sorry, baby I'm just so sad and I don't know what to do and my therapist says I BLAH BLAH BLAH

When he said he was going to buy a gun and get revenge himself, and I told him no--not because I thought that was wrong, but because I knew he wouldn't go to Afghanistan and I was worried he would go to me or his mother or his therapist.

So they eventually shipped him off, not to Afghanistan, but to some hospital and then some school, and I never visited him, not once, and it took so long before he asked me to visit, and it should be simple to say no, I can't, I won't do it again, I can't, but it isn't, because he fell asleep crying in my arms so many times, and he called me Lollipop, and he told me I was the only thing, the only thing in the entire huge bad scary world, that helped.


So fuck frozen cold hearts, because who are they helping?

Fuck you, frozen cold heart.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What Are We Doing to YA?

This post is more of a question than most of mine are. I fully admit that this is all speculation. But it's something I've been wondering for a while.

Has the internet community changed YA?

Am I right in thinking that YA writers are the most active online? We tweet word counts and deadlines and what our main character would eat for breakfast. We friend each other on Facebook and leave each other rep points on AW. We have blogs just for posting excerpts and shit like this. We know each other's names, agents, and editors like we're all related. We're The Contemps, the Debs, the Tenners, the Elevensies, the Musers.

The word "blogosphere," ugly though it may be, is so appropriate. We're our own little biosphere. We have staked out our little corner of the internet, and we're loud and social and crazy and God knows I'm part of the problem.

And lately I've been worrying that it really is a problem.

To put it plainly, I'm starting to wonder if YA is turning into something written by/for the internet community under the guise of writing for everyday teenagers, and that who likes you on the internet is more important to your career--or, if not to your career, to your psyche and your perception of your success--than if teenagers are picking up your book.

Is the gap between "successful" author and "author teenagers want to read" getting wider and wider as our main audience to impress becomes bloggers and librarians instead of teenagers themselves?

(For the record, I realize and acknowledge that some of us are teenagers ourselves. But if you're reading this, you're not the average book-reading teenager. You know too much. We've relinquished our right to be considered the average YA reading teenager.)

Are we getting too self-referential to be relevant?

I don't know. But recently, YA has started to look very clubby to me, and I'm wondering if that's really fair for the readers. If we're writing to be social, are we doing our readers a disservice?

We give each other biased Goodreads reviews because we don't want to piss anyone off. We tell people we love books we haven't read just because we're friends with the author. We're so loud about the books we love--which should be a great thing!--that we might be fooling ourselves into thinking that our tastes reflect those of a teenager.

We hear so much about publishing trends. Vampires are in, vampires are out, zombies are in, zombies are out, angels are in, angels are out. But a teenager who loves vampires wants to read more about vampires. She doesn't give a shit whether it's out or not. So is our perception of a "saturated" market affecting her? I'm not saying, obviously, that we should all be out writing vampire books, but wouldn't it make more sense if we did stuff steadily instead of in trendy slews? And wouldn't that be possible if we weren't so intent on responding to and competing with the authors we follow on Twitter?

I think the reason I'm posing these questions is that lately I've felt very disillusioned and overwhelmed. I still love YA. But when I'm writing stuff like #magicgayfish, I start questioning my own relevance really, really easily. I love that you guys are all over it, and obviously I hope that teenagers would have the same reaction, if the thing gets published.

But how closely does our taste reflect that of an actual teenager?

Are the boys we swoon over the ones THEY find hot?

Okay, I'm asking a lot of questions. So here's what I think.

What was initially cool about YA, in my opinion, was that it had the least adult influence from the shelf to the hands of the reader. YAs pick out and buy and read their own books. Their parents don't screen them first. And obviously [adult] publishers still have to decide to publish them (and that's a HUGE thing, but we really can't change that) and the bookstore or the library still has to decide to stock them, but it was still more direct than other childrens' books. It's the kid's wallet, the kid's choice.

And now for some reason, it looks to me like we're letting it become books about teenagers and for adults rather than about teenagers for teenagers, and the way we're going, I don't think that's going to change.

WE'RE the ones counting down the days 'til the next big YA comes out.

WE'RE the ones fantasizing about ourself and the Next Hot Boy.

WE'RE the ones trend-chasing and trend-hating and jacking up the Goodreads reviews.

I think in the future, people are going to equate expecting YA to be only for young adults to expecting science fiction to be only for scientists.

I don't know. I've had very many emotional crisises lately where I'm like I DON'T KNOW WHAT TEENAGERS WANT. So maybe I'm just projecting. But I still think the market shift is noteworthy and worrisome.

Your thoughts?