Category Archives: For Writers

Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Putting It into Perspective: Multiple Points of View in MG

In a graduate writing program I did years ago, a highlight of each residency was the chance to pitch our manuscripts to attending agents. Once, I was nervously pitching my book to a Very Famous Agent. When I mentioned that it was written in three alternating viewpoints, Very Famous Agent interrupted and said, “Why’d you have to do that? Single perspective books are ALWAYS better, ALWAYS easier to sell!”

Umm, ouch…pitch session pretty much over! Afterwards I had a lot of doubt about my choice to show multiple viewpoints. But with the number of high-quality, successful multiple viewpoint MG novels available to readers—both then and now—I ultimately chalked up that pitch session to a lasting reminder that agents have individualized passions about books. Maybe a particular agent has sold more single viewpoint novels, but that certainly doesn’t mean singular POV is always better.

Like many elements of writing, the number of points of view you use to tell the story depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Certainly, writing a book in multiple viewpoints has some challenges you don’t experience with a single viewpoint:

  1. Each POV character must be made clear to the reader with every switch in perspective.
  2. Each POV character’s storyline must be memorable enough to the reader to “survive” the interruption of another viewpoint.
  3. Since your POV character is usually the one your reader gets to know most intimately through your careful character development, adding viewpoints tends to add characterization work for you.

From these challenges, it might seem like multiple viewpoint novels are harder on both the reader and the writer!

But there’s no denying that some stories just wouldn’t be as effective without multiple viewpoints. Sometimes you need to show an event that your main character doesn’t attend or info he/she wouldn’t know. Sometimes it’s important to show more than one side of the story, to demonstrate the importance of differences in opinion. Sometimes you might want your reader to be the only one who knows everything, giving him or her the chance to solve a mystery or identify a villain first—always a reader thrill.

Many excellent MG novels serve as examples of multiple viewpoints, and I hope you’ll offer your favorites in the comments. These titles each employ multiple viewpoints for different uses:

Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer. The narrative is divided between two first-person storytellers, Sophie and Cody. On first meeting Sophie, the reader finds her to be a vivacious, lighthearted dreamer, immediately likable in her innocence and intent to sail the Atlantic with family members. But when Cody picks up the story and shares his thoughts about Sophie’s behavior, the reader realizes that Sophie is a much more complex character than first assumed—that, in fact, she’s a girl not ready to face a past tragedy. Because Sophie cannot let her internal conflict rise to the surface of her own mind for most of the book, a second point of view character is used to give the reader the clues and information they need to see all true sides of Sophie, even before she’s ready to see them herself.

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s. This book is a great study in tense as well as point of view. The book opens in main character Willow’s first person point of view, in present tense; consequently, we are already close to this very likable character on the afternoon she learns her parents have been killed. The author then uses past tense first-person to relay Willow’s backstory in the following chapters, but returns to present tense at the moment in the narrative that has led back to the accident, signified by a chapter appropriately titled “Back in the Now.” The really interesting thing, though, is that each of the other point-of-view characters who “chime” in to help tell parts of the story do so in third-person, and consistently in past tense. So even though each additional voice is clearly characterized and has a need to insert his or her part of the narrative at the given time, the reader remains closest to Willow and her first person immediacy. Each of those secondary voices confesses at various points the extent to which they care about Willow, in a slow build of compounded concern that ultimately parallels our own.

Rebecca Stead’s First Light.  In this example of multiple viewpoints, two characters alternate the telling of two seemingly distinct stories – they are in separate physical locations and don’t know each other. Peter and Thea each have their own concerns and conflicts, each trying to solve a set of mysterious circumstances. When finally the two meet—and their narratives align—about 2/3 of the way through the book, it’s a fulfilling thrill for the reader. The story ratchets up in intensity as the two begin a changed journey together.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. I think a lot of the genius of Wonder stands on its use of point of view. If we as readers had heard from no one but Auggie throughout the entire story, it would have been a beautiful and well-crafted book. But with the inclusion of other viewpoints – his sister Via and her new friend Justin, Auggie’s schoolmates Summer and Jack,  Via’s friend Miranda—the story is helped along by those around Auggie, some of whom have known him his whole life, others who meet him only once he takes the brave leap to attend school at Beecher Prep. The first time I read Wonder, I was so taken with Auggie’s voice that when it switched to Via in Part 2 I had a moment of “What? Wait! Go back to Auggie!” But as R.J. Palacio indicates on her website, we need to see inside those other viewpoints to truly understand the extent to which Auggie has left an impact on each of those characters.

Ultimately it may take a little more brainwork to write and to read a novel in multiple viewpoints, but the end result can be deeply fulfilling. After all, being able to understand and to follow more than one viewpoint on a topic helps to prep our kids for this challenging world in which we live. Once young readers understand that each character in a book sees plot events differently, it’s a quick connection to understanding that each of us in real life sees issues from a personal frame of reference. And comprehending one another’s viewpoints can be the first step toward acceptance, empathy, and kindness.

Writing and Yoga

Last month, I took a one-night workshop on yoga and writing with middle grade author Jenny Meyerhoff. Jenny is an avid yogi and says her practice has helped immensely with her writing. I was intrigued (which is why I went) but I admit, also a little skeptical. Breathing and stretching? How could that help with my writing?

But I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the concept! During the workshop, we did yoga poses and breathing exercises for stress relief, creativity, and focus. We also did some poses to relieve back strain from constant butts in chairs!

When I got home, I looked up ‘yoga and writing’ online and thousands of matches came up! I didn’t know this was a thing, but there are countless yoga retreats, classes, and groups specifically meant for writers.

The philosophy behind the connection makes great sense, actually — that the stillness and calm (hopefully) achieved during yoga can help writers quiet the noise and tune in to their inner clarity and thoughts. While in a yoga pose, breathing, or meditating, you concentrate on clearing away worries of what’s on your to-do list or the pile on your desk, allowing your mind to be open to ideas and inspiration. This is essential for the dig-deep kind of writing, where you’re truly “in” the work.

There are many times I’ve shoved my overfilled calendar into a drawer and put my phone on silent, yet I still find my mind drifting to those nagging little tasks while I’m writing. Since the workshop, I’ve been trying to practice yoga breathing when that happens, and I’ve found it does help bring me back to the work.

Another benefit and connection between yoga and writing is learning to take things at your own pace. And not compare! In yoga, it’s not important what the person next to you is doing (even if it’s the most amazing eagle pose you’ve ever seen), you just focus on what you can do.  Same goes for writing. When you compare yourself to another (undoubtedly more successful) writer, we all know that never turns out well.

Yoga also can help writers learn to move on when a manuscript needs to be put aside or doesn’t sell, as the practice teaches acceptance.

Yoga also perfects your posture, increases your blood flow, and improves balance. On top of all that, it boosts creativity! Hard to argue with those benefits for us writerly people who often sit for hours, wracking our brains and wrecking our backs 🙂

I plan to incorporate yoga into my writing this summer, and I’m excited to see what happens. Wish me luck. Namaste!