High Stakes, Bathrooms, Jedi, and ALL the Buttons

While I’m busy furiously working out the details of my next YA novel, I’m constantly thinking about the writing process and everything that goes into the construction of an effective YA novel.

I used to think that I wrote more literary fiction. You know the kind: poetic language, flowery imagery, metaphor on top of metaphor on top of hyberbole with a dash of abstraction. Oh, the abstractions! Nothing is worse better (sure, we’ll go with better) than reading a novel full of abstract thoughts and images and concepts. But that’s not me. I am grounded in reality, and as a result, so is my writing. Sure, I can write a solid stream-of-consciousness type of metaphorial story…but why?

What’s the point?

Does it serve the plot?

Is it a character trait?

What’s at stake?

My author pal Jess Verdi said to me, after going over a draft for the manuscript that I’m currently shopping to agents, “I think perhaps a good thing to think about as you go through the manuscript is to think about the ‘stakes’ in each scene. What’s at stake? Is it enough to keep the reader compelled, or should the stakes be raised?

She touched on something that I’ve always had trouble with.

Each chapter should have something compelling to keep the reader wanting more. What’s happening to the protagonist that is going to propel the plot forward? What’s happening to the character that is affecting his/her psyche/way of thinking/ideals? What is being challenged? Who’s waging the bets?

Are there always these high stakes?

I would say that, in some ways, there is always something at risk or to risk in every chapter, every scene. Otherwise, what’s the point? When I assign and teach descriptive or narrative essays in my class, one example of what NOT to do that I always use is Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Do we need to know that you woke up, got dressed, had cereal for breakfast, walked outside, saw your friends, and then had the most titillating debate on which seat in the goddamn car to take? No. Those details are inherent. We know you (or your character) has to go to the bathroom, but we don’t need to know about it. I also assign The Hunger Games in my some of my classes (more on that at another time), and, if I’m assigning descriptive or narrative essays, I always ask my students: Did we ever see Katniss go to the bathroom?

So while I’m working on this new YA project, I have to keep reminding myself that we don’t need to go to the bathroom.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Not that I’m literally sending my characters to the potty, but it’s hard to discern good, necessary details from the deadened limb-kind, especially in something so new and fresh.

I think I just have to take it all day by day, step by step, word by word. There is no use scrutinizing every single phrase and questioning myself on every creative flourish yet, is there? I don’t think so. If I did that, I’d never move forward.

Earlier this week, I was able to breeze through the first chapter, which was really exciting. Of course I stared at the computer screen for a solid hour trying to come up with the perfect introduction. I’m sure it’ll change 500 times, because they always do, but for right now, I’m fairly happy. I think I captured my main character well enough in the first 11 pages. I would give you a taste, but I’m wildly superstitious about that sorta stuff.

Can’t jinx anything before it’s something, you know?

One question that I get asked fairly frequently is how do I know where to stop a chapter?

For me, it’s never really been a matter of planning the end to a chapter, but rather, the endings are always instinctive. When I’m writing, I’ll feel the end approaching. When I was at The New School, one of my workshop professors, the successful, talented, and wonderfully delightful Sarah Weeks was a huge fan and proponent of “Buttons.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What on this overpopulated earth does that mean?

“Buttoning” is a way of closing a chapter so that it feels whole; it prepares the reader for the next chapter, it raises the stakes for the character, and it allows the chapter to “stand alone” to a degree.

Man, do I love buttons.

Buttoning up a chapter is something that is hard to explain. At least for me. I always just inherently end up closing a chapter. I almost never am able to force it. If I have to force it, I have to stop, take a break, and come back to it because unless I’m a Jedi – which sometimes I like to think I am – I cannot force anything.


Yoda Playing Pokerby by Erik-Maell
Source: DeviantArt

Get it? Force? Jedi? I’m so punny.

But seriously, I can’t exactly Jedi-mindtrick a chapter button. It won’t work.

Although sometimes I wish I could.

Writing is a process that takes time and patience, will-power and knowledge. It’s as much of a learning process as anything. The whole fun of working on a new novel is the process of discovery and learning new character traits. Characters you didn’t plan on suddenly appear, new plot twists occur without you even knowing, and the stakes are constantly being raised. It’s all about the risks.

I’m happy to risk it all.

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