Author Archives: Michelle Schusterman

The Longhand Writing Challenge

Back when I spent a lot of time on the (wonderful) Absolute Write forums, I loved it when someone would mention a writing program like Scrivener or StoryMill. Because comments like these would inevitably follow:

Writing Longhand

Credit: Abizern

“Pshh…Hemingway didn’t have Scrivener. He got along just fine.”

“All those extra features are so overwhelming! Give me good old Microsoft Word any day.”

“Word processor? Please. I write by hand.”

At which point I’d come in with something like:

“Pen and paper? Ha. I “penned” my first novel with stone and chisel.”

My passive aggressive point being that every writer has his or her own method, so let’s not judge someone for wanting to use a high-tech option. And yes, it was a bit defensive of me, because my love for Scrivener knows no bounds.

But I have a confession: I never write by hand. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I wrote by hand last year (and of course I mean wrote creatively, not signed documents and filled out forms).

And I want to try longhand.  Maybe not an entire novel, but just a little something every week. I think writing this way engages the brain a little differently – I’ve even heard some writers claim that their prose is more natural when they write by hand because they use smaller and/or simpler words (or maybe they’re just not constantly clicking open the thesaurus).

Of course, then you have writers like me, with handwriting so godawful it’s practically undecipherable. But what’s really stopping me from writing longhand? The following are the embarrassing but true reasons why:

  1. It physically hurts. That’s how out of practice I am. When I write solidly for longer than five minutes, my hand actually begins to cramp up. (And I’m a percussionist – you’d think some of those developed muscles would help me out a little bit.)
  2. I’m so lazy it’s ridiculous. Every time I glance at a notebook, my brain is all “come on, you’re just going to have to type it all into your laptop eventually anyway…just skip this step.”
  3. Seriously – if my handwriting were a font, it would be called “drunk chicken stepped in paint and did the conga.”

The funny thing is that if I could just get over number 2, I could probably fix numbers 1 and 3 with time and practice. So that’s what I’m going to do.

My personal challenge for 2013 is to write longhand. An entire book? Probably not – but I’m aiming for a scene per week or two. By the end of this year, I don’t want to glance over at the bottom of the bookshelf and see that sad little notebook I bought months ago with so many blank pages. I want notebooks – plural – filled with scribbles and scrawls and drunk chicken scratch. I want to find out for myself whether or not writing longhand changes my prose, or anything about the stories I tell. Heck – I just want to spend less time on my laptop in general.

None of this is to say I’ll give up Scrivener – never! It makes keeping track of separate drafts so ridiculously simple, and it’s very practical for keeping my books organized.

What about you – do you write by hand often? Do you want to? And for the love, if anyone has any tips on how I can improve my first grade teacher nightmare handwriting, I’m all ears.

 

Michelle Schusterman is an author, musician, screenwriter, and Vogon poet living in Queens. Her middle grade series, I HEART BAND, will be launching in January 2014 with Penguin/Grosset. You can find her on KidLit Network, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Character Lessons from Doctor Who

If I say watching a television show is a study in writing, does doing so then qualify as “work?” (More importantly, can I write off Netflix when I do my taxes?)

I watch Doctor Who for the awesome characters, creative sci-fantasy elements, and off-the-wall stories, all of which have taught me a ton about writing (and often leave me shaking my fist and screaming “MOFFAT!”). But after every episode, I feel more inspired as a writer – and more inspired to mess with my characters. If you’re a Time Lord fan, or a would be-fan, beware: ahead there be spoilers.

1. Give minor characters so much history and personality and life that they could carry their own series.

Most episodes of Doctor Who introduce new characters who are only present for that episode. They could easily be two-dimensional, but they rarely are. As an example, take the series four episode, “Midnight,” which is more psychological horror than your normal whimsical Doctor stuff. Not a single character on the shuttle (aside from the Doctor) would ever appear in another episode, but they were as real and developed as any long-time companion…making their actions and fates near the end of the episode all the more horrifying.

This isn’t to say that every single name you drop in your novel should have a five-page character sheet. In fact, that can be detrimental – “character soup” is something I often have to deal with in edits. But your story will be all the more rich and real if each character has problems and passions that drive their actions, no matter how short their page time.

2. Give everyone a chance to be a hero.

Because good heros (and good characters) are flawed, and they can’t do it all. The Doctor is all kinds of flawed (and if you don’t believe me, you clearly haven’t watched The Waters of Mars). But one of the things I love most about Doctor Who is that so often it’s those minor, one-episode characters I mentioned a few paragraphs up who really save the day, often by some sort of personal sacrifice.

This is particularly valuable in middle grade stories, where the main character is likely very internally focused. Think about Hermione accusing Harry of always trying to be the hero. Sometimes the load must be shared – a great lesson for middle grade characters (and readers). The main character can’t do it alone, and shouldn’t have to.

3. Don’t just be cruel to your characters – be creatively cruel.

Death? So not the worst thing that can happen. Take a look at some of the companions’ fates.

When I think of Captain Jack and the Face of Bo, I want to weep. (Even though Jack’s fate to live a bajillion years and die as a giant head might not be canon, I still just…ack.) Then there’s Rose and her not-quite-Doctor – a strange end to a character arc that managed to be both satisfying and devastating. Martha’s whole year just made me feel bad for her (although admittedly irritated at times). And Amy and Rory – I’m glad they had each other, but if you didn’t tear up at “raggedy man, good-bye” then you have no soul.

But let’s look more closely at Donna, because she’s my favorite companion. She doesn’t die. She doesn’t lose any family members or friends (that she knows of). She’s not physically or mentally harmed in any way. She is, in fact, the exact same person she was before she met the Doctor – a temp from Chiswick in a wedding dress. We last see her happily leaving a church with her new husband and a winning lottery ticket tucked in her cleavage.

Sounds like a happy ending, yeah? But in context it’s a more brutally heartbreaking finale than anything I could’ve possibly imagined for her. For her, Donna. That’s the key – it was an ending that wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact with any other character. It could only work with Donna, with her cutting humor masking that enormous inferiority complex, with her mother who constantly made her feel worthless, with her gradual development into becoming a woman who would quite literally save the world. Maybe it’s not a fate worse than death, but for the Doctor (and the viewers) it was gut-wrenching. And it would have been for Donna, too, if she could only remember.

What are the stakes for your characters? The threat of death is certainly motivating, but try being more creatively cruel. Think of Artemis Fowl in The Time Paradox, forced to deal with the consequences of his own regrettable actions by literally confronting his evil 10-year old self. Pinpoint what really makes your characters afraid and vulnerable, and make them face it head-on.

Any other Whovian writers out there? What lessons have you learned from the Doctor? I’d love to hear them!

Michelle is the author of the upcoming I HEART BAND series (Penguin, Fall 2013), about the thrills and spills, practices and performances, crushes and crises of middle school band geeks. She’s a screenwriter for a Manhattan-based TV/film production company and lives in Queens with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She blogs, tweets, and tumblrs.

The Great Library Giveaway Spotlight #5

Our library giveaway is about halfway over – still plenty of time to donate books or nominate a deserving library! Another huge thanks to all of the authors, publishers, and our own Mixed-Up Files blog contributors who have donated books.

You can see the complete list of donated books here. For information on how you can donate a book to add to our collection, please visit our Great Library Donations page.

And to nominate a worthy public, school, or private library to receive the books, please go here.

Each of our spotlight posts will highlight ten or so of the books we will be giving away. Check out these terrific titles!

 The Smoky Corridor by Chris Grabenstein

Zack is about to start at his new school, and in addition to homework, school lunches, and bullies, Zack must also contend with a ruthless hit man seeking a lost treasure, a voodoo savvy ghost waiting to take possession of a new body, and a soul-sucking zombie in the basement. Suddenly homework doesn’t seem so bad. Once again Chris Grabenstein proves his mastery of the frightening and funny tale.

 

 The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She’s ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother’s sister, is coming to visit for several months — and is staying in Lucy’s room. Lucy’s vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang.

  Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary

Ramona just wants everyone to be happy. If only her father would smile and joke again, her mother would look less worried, her sister would be cheerful, and Picky-picky would eat his cat-food. But Ramona’s father has lost his job, and nobody in the Quimby household is in a very good mood.

Ramona tries to cheer up the family as only Ramona can — by rehearsing for life as a rich and famous star of television commercials.

 Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet

When a book of unexplainable occurences brings Petra and Calder together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect; an eccentric old woman seeks their company; an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth, they must draw on their powers of intuition, their problem solving skills, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has stumped even the FBI?

 Winterling by Sarah Prineas

Spirited young Fer travels through the Way to a magical world in which beings part human and part animal serve an evil ruler known as the Lady, and where she hopes to learn about her long-lost parents and her own identity.

 

 

 Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

The state of Maine plans to shut down her island’s schoolhouse, which would force Tess’s family to move to the mainland–and Tess to leave the only home she has ever known. Fortunately, the islanders have a plan too: increase the numbers of students by having several families take in foster children. So now Tess and her family are taking a chance on Aaron, a thirteen-year-old trumpet player who has been bounced from home to home. And Tess needs a plan of her own–and all the luck she can muster. Will Tess’s wish come true or will her luck run out?

 The Yggyssey by Daniel Pinkwater

La Brea Woman is missing. Valentino, too. The ghosts of Los Angeles are disappearing right and left!
Iggy Birnbaum is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, no matter what Neddie Wentworthstein and Seamus Finn say.

There’s just the little matter of traveling to another plane of existence, first…and then, of course, not pissing off a witch once she gets there.

 The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

In this funny, uncannily wise portrait of the dynamics of a sixth-grade class and of the greatness that sometimes comes in unlikely packages, Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami finger puppet of Yoda. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Dwight’s classmate Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless.

 The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier

When Minerva and Keira King were born, they made headlines: Keira is black like Mama, but Minni is white like Daddy. Together the family might look like part of a chessboard row, but they are first and foremost the close-knit Kings. Then Grandmother Johnson calls, to invite the twins down South to compete for the title of Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America. Minni has always believed that no matter how different she and Keira are, they share a deep bond of the heart. Now she’ll find out the truth.

 

 The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin

Oona and her brother, Fred, love their cat Zook (short for Zucchini), but Zook is sick. As they conspire to break him out of the vet’s office, convinced he can only get better at home with them, Oona tells Fred the story of Zook’s previous lives, ranging in style from fairy tale to grand epic to slice of life. Each of Zook’s lives has echoes in Oona’s own family life, which is going through a transition she’s not yet ready to face.  The truth about Dylan, and about Zook’s medical condition, drives the drama in this loving family story.

 

*All summaries are from IndieBound