Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I Learned About Writing .... from soap operas?




For many of us, the best and most rewarding stories are character driven, those in which the plot is advanced by what is gradually revealed about the character, what he or she learns, and how he or she changes. Add some suspense and a few good plot twists, and we’re usually as happy as clams (if we could only figure out what makes clams happy).
But I have something more to add -- two simple and valuable suggestions that I learned about writing such stories while toiling in a rather unlikely field – soap operas. I realize that at first glance this probably won’t reflect well on me as an author, but during one temporarily stunted point on the way to here I spent two years writing soap operas for television. This brief detour in a career that was otherwise spent almost entirely writing books for teens and pre-teens began around 1988. At that time the sales of the sort of YA books I’d been was writing -- often referred to in the 1980s as problem novels -- had slowed precipitously. Editors felt that nearly every problem a teen could encounter had been written about, some many times over, and I found it difficult to sell any new ones.

At the same time, the hottest thing in the YA book world was a new series called Sweet Valley High. A second series for slightly younger readers, The Babysitters Club, was beginning to look like it would be even bigger. Editors were interested in ideas for series, but I didn’t actually understand how a series worked. Except for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I’d never read one.

For much of the previous two decades I had only written one kind of book. It always began with characters who had a problem and who learned and changed and grew as a result of dealing with it. When it was time to start the next book, I began with a whole new group of characters and a completely different problem. But a series had continuing characters (until later when Fear Street and Goosebumps came along), and could easily grow to be 30 or 40 books long (Sweet Valley High and its spawn eventually reached 152 volumes; according to Wikipedia, the Baby-sitters and its spinoffs gave birth to somewhere around 200). How could the same characters keep learning, changing and growing through that many books? Especially when they never appeared to age?

I felt I needed to find the answer, but I had young children and also needed to make a living. One logical course would have been to sit down and analyze a book series, but I’d recently met someone with connections in the world of soap operas, and I was tempted because I thought it might someday lead to others sorts of well-paying television writing.

In truth, I’d never actually watched a soap opera, but I knew that they were series with continuing characters and that some of the shows had been going five days a week since before the invention of television (Guiding Light, where I would eventually work for a year, began in the 1930s as a radio serial and moved to television in 1952). In addition, soap opera writing paid well. Quite well, in fact.

Through my friend I learned that CBS had a soap opera writing program, and, through a friend of that friend, I managed to get into it. The training program may have been geared toward writers with less experience than me (the people at CBS weren’t certain they’d ever had a published novelist in the program before), but that didn’t mean there wasn’t lots for me to learn. Or at least new ways to look at the craft of telling stories.

While the characters in soap operas rarely seemed to change, or learn anything -- except when they recovered from amnesia, or redeemed their wicked ways – they were still very much character driven, and that is where I stumbled upon two ways of approaching character that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Both lessons will sound simple, but I hope that won’t diminish their importance. Even to this day, some 100 novels later, I find them extremely useful.

The first is, whenever writing a character, always keep one question foremost in mind: what is this character’s motivation? What does this character want? Characters drive stories, and motivation drives character. So that basic motivation should never be too far from the character’s thoughts. What does this character want and what is he or she doing in this scene to get it? It’s almost a litmus test for the viability of a scene. If your character isn’t doing something to get closer to what he or she wants, then you should be asking yourself if the scene is really necessary.

The second lesson was equally simple, but also valuable. If character A encounters character B after an interval of time apart, always be sure to go back to the last time they were together and see what their feelings were about each other. If they haven’t interacted on your pages in a while, you may have forgotten that the last time they were together they’d nearly killed each other, or fallen passionately in love, or perhaps merely told a lie. In which case you would be remiss in not recalling that fact in the current scene.

Going back over some earlier (unpublished) writing, I was amazed at how often I’d have two characters meet without the slightest reference to how they were feeling about each other at their last point of departure. But such continuity is essential for telling a good story. Readers read much faster than writers write, so while we may forget what two characters did 60 pages ago, your reader won’t. When it comes to character interaction it’s important to always pick up where you left off.

I spent two years writing soap operas before deciding that I was much happier writing books. After quitting I almost immediately began my most successful series, the 17- book Help! I’m trapped in… collection, which is still selling – (as e-books) 20 years later.

It never would have happened without soap operas.

I don’t recall now how long the CBS soap opera training program lasted. All I know was that quite soon thereafter, I was hired to write for Guiding Light. And that’s when I learned yet another lesson. All my life I’d thumbed my nose at soap operas as hack work written by untalented writers. And the truth is, some of the writers I met weren’t the most talented, but others were some of the smartest writers I’ve ever met anywhere. Why they chose to write soap operas I’ll never know, although money clearly had a lot to do with it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A "MUST-READ MIDDLE SCHOOL BOOK!"

│ JLG’s Booktalks to Go
 
STRASSER, Todd. Fallout. Candlewick. 2013. ISBN 9780763655341. JLG Level: C : Advanced Readers (Grades 6–9). It’s 1962. Every day at school you hear rumors of attack by the Russians. Bombs are coming! Your teachers train you to duck under your desk. You learn to cover your face with your arms to protect you from nuclear fallout. Your father prepares for the worst by building a bomb shelter. Food and water, along with emergency supplies, will keep your family protected until it’s safe to come out. People laugh at your doomsday attitude. Then the sirens go off. Your family of four heads for the shelter. The problem is that your family has the only shelter. Can you really shut everyone out, knowing that outside will surely lead to death? If you let them in, food for four will have to be shared among more. How long can your family last then? Don’t miss Fallout, a what-if tale that asks the really hard questions. Author Todd Strasser uses his personal experience to create an end-of-the-world historical revision tale about the Cuban Missile Crisis. On his website, he shares his personal pictures of his family fallout shelter. An official Fallout website has great resources including a tab on memories of 1962 (with a link to the Duck and Cover movie). The Candlewick book page features curated links to multiple resources. Be sure to listen to the audiobook sample and check out the ready to use discussion guide. You might also view Jenny Sawyer’s Book of the Week. While it’s not a book trailer, it will surely get your student’s interested in reading the novel.
 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Well-crafted Piece

     At a gathering recently someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I wrote books for young people. What followed was a conversation every writer of picture, middle-grade, and YA books has probably had many times. He asked if I had ever thought about writing for adults? I said I had and I have. He asked if I’d ever thought about writing for TV. Again, I had not only thought of it, but had done it. Then he asked if I’d ever thought about the big time? For a moment I thought he meant trying to write a best seller, but it turned out he meant writing for film.
      There too, I had both thought about it and done it, although I’ve never had anything more than the script for a made-for-television movie produced. In fact, in more than forty years of writing there probably isn’t much I haven’t done. Newspapers, magazines, advertising, public relations, poetry, song lyrics, short stories, novels, book series, TV and movie scripts, even fortunes for risqué fortune cookies (those were actually my first best sellers).
      In the process I have worked alone, in collaborations, and with teams of writers. And, as I’m sure many others have, I’ve pictured myself in “the big time,” writing bestsellers and blockbuster movies, giving lengthy interviews on radio and TV, appearing on the covers of magazines, and sitting at tables in book stores while long lines of fans waited for my autograph.
      Now that I’ve reached my 60s most of those fantasies have passed. These days, the idea of writing a movie script, of going Hollywood, and all that implies, doesn’t hold much appeal (except for the medical benefits offered by the Writer’s Guild of America). A bestseller would still be wonderful, of course, but in the meantime I find I’m content to work quietly and by myself in my “workshop,” feeling the way I imagine a craftsman must feel. Mostly, what I dream about now is producing a really good piece of work.
      Something akin to a handcrafted desk or dresser…
      Please allow me to explain the non-sequitur. For most of my life I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to furniture. It was there to put things on, or in, and I used it like everyone else. Even antiques and museum pieces held little fascination for me. After all, it was just … furniture.
      Then one day my wife and I took our children to colonial Williamsburg, Va. In one of the old shops I watched a cabinetmaker work on a replica of an antique desk, complete with inlay and beveling and all the other carefully added flourishes that perhaps only a handful of craftsmen have time for anymore.
      After a while the kids got impatient and my wife took them to see the wigmaker and the blacksmith, but I stayed and observed the care and precision with which this craftsman went about his work, the ultimate reward not being the opportunity to give an extended radio interview, nor appear on a magazine cover, but the simple pride and satisfaction that comes with having produced a really solid, sturdy, well-crafted piece.
      Even then I didn’t give up my fantasies right away. I had to sign books for long lines of fans, only to see some of those autographed books appear for sale on eBay the very next day. I had to give some long radio interviews and appear on television a few times to realize that so many people do these things now that it hardly makes a difference. I had to walk down the red carpet at the premier of a movie made from one of my books to find out that unless you are J.K. Rowling the paparazzi has no interest in the novel’s author.
      I’m glad I had those experiences, because – and I know this will sound clichéd – they helped me to focus on what I now believe are the important things in life: family, friends, and working patiently to produce something solid, sturdy, and lasting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The New York Times Review of FALLOUT


On the first page of his exciting, harrowing new novel, Todd Strasser pulls his readers into a nightmare that almost came true. Scott Porter is a fifth grader living in a New York City suburb in 1962. One night his father shakes him awake, saying, “We’re being attacked.”  
Strasser has reimagined the Cuban missile crisis and set “Fallout” in a realistic John F. Kennedy America. Mickey ­Mantle plays hero for the Yankees. Nikita Khrushchev plays villain for the Reds. Dads go to work and read Playboy. Moms keep house and smoke. The one unhistorical detail is that in this story the Soviets don’t back down. They strike. 
The narrative that follows alternates between present-tense scenes of acute distress as the Porter family and six largely unwanted guests struggle to stay sane and alive in an ill-stocked bomb shelter meant for four, and past-tense scenes of the simple, everyday dramas of Scott and his pals in the lead-up to the bombing. Nothing so theatrically terrible happens inside the shelter, though there are some grisly arguments about reducing the number of hungry mouths. Yet as I read and suffered along with the characters, I kept thinking how comparatively pleasant it would have been for them to have faced one of those zombie apocalypses screenwriters are so fond of these days. The bomb shelter is a form of living death. No electricity, no privacy, enough food for only a few days and persistent questions about whether the occupants will starve or suffocate or kill one another before radiation levels fall enough for them to escape the shelter. And what will they find when they open that trapdoor? 
“There’s down here and up there,” Scott says. “The ones who feel like they’re buried are alive, while the ones who aren’t buried probably aren’t alive.” Personally, I’ll take zombies. At least with zombies you know where you stand (they want to eat you) and you can look up and see the sky in between attacks. 
By now you’re probably wondering whether “Fallout” is really appropriate for children. So let’s be clear. For all its horror, this is a superb entertainment suitable for any tough-minded kid over the age of 10. It thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense. If the characters aren’t exactly overburdened with complexity, they’re better drawn than many of the people one bumps into in the average thriller. 
Strasser, a prolific writer for children and teenagers, writes with purpose and economy and structures his book intelligently: The scenes of prewar life give context and emotional weight to what happens in the shelter. Without the prewar material, the tension and misery of the drama in the shelter might be unbearable.  
My guess is that Strasser’s middle-grade readers know little about the Cuban missile crisis, and this exercise in “what if” should help them — in a way no textbook could — to understand a historical moment better known for what didn’t happen than for what did. By contrast, the author knows his material very well. He was 12 in 1962, and his dad built a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard. Given his experiences, it’s no wonder Strasser takes a strongly antiwar position, especially in an author’s note at book’s end. Thankfully, he had enough sense to leave most of the preachy tone out of his suspenseful

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Journal News Story

Long before he became a novelist, Todd Strasser was a 12-year-old boy whose father built a bomb shelter under the family’s Long Island home.

His latest book, “Fallout” (Candlewick Press, $16.99), set in 1962, takes a look at that era from the vantage point of an adolescent whose experience mimics Strasser’s — and whose father is equally prepared for disaster. Equal parts memoir and fantasy, it’s a page-turner aimed at the middle-grade crowd, with an appeal that extends to adults.

“The first fan letter I got was actually from an expat, an American in New Zealand, who said it really reminded him of how terrified we all were back in the Cuban Missile Crisis,’’ he says.

For Strasser, who’s come out with 140 books for young readers since 1979, “Fallout” represents a shift, of sorts, in subject matter. “My first original novel was probably the only other book I’ve ever written that was really, to a significant degree, autobiographical,” he says. That book, “Angel Dust Blues” — a coming-of-age novel set in the suburbs — was followed by bestsellers including the “Help, I’m Trapped In” series and such award-winning young-adult novels as “The Wave” and “Give a Boy a Gun.”

Strasser has lived in Larchmont since 1990. “Fallout” is his 100th original novel. Recently, he took a break from working on his first “science-fiction adventure story” to answer a few questions.

You are clearly one of the most prolific authors around. How do you motivate yourself to write?

It’s sort of the default activity of my life.

Why did you wait until now to write about a father who builds a bomb shelter to protect his family during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

For a long time I’ve been writing books about what’s going on now, or what I imagine will happen in the future, and I guess as I got a little older, closer to 60, I started looking back, and this amazing event in my life was just sitting there. I mean, in a strange way, my father gave me this amazing gift.

About a year ago, you got in touch with the family that now lives in your childhood home. The bomb shelter came as a surprise to them, right?

These people didn’t know about the bomb shelter until closing. You have to go through a trap door that was in a closet under carpet, and so the new owner went down there and found the cans of condensed milk and other stuff. There was a paper down there from 1962, a New York Times just lying there with headlines about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What do you miss most about the 1960s?

The total innocence.

You recently returned from a book tour in Germany, where you are pretty much treated like a rock star. What’s that like?

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge celebrity, but certainly it is different there for me than it is here. I’m on TV and people take pictures and they bring these books that are 30 years old and ask me to sign them. It’s pretty bizarre.

You write under the pen name “Morton Rhue” in Germany. How did you create that name?

Todd is similar to the word “tot,” which means “dead” in German. And Strasser is like “street’’ in German. “Dead street” in French is “mort rue,” and somehow that became Morton Rhue.

One would think you’d be fluent in German by now, but you make all your presentations in English when you tour Germany. Did you learn any new words on your last trip?

Whatever I learned on this trip was what the German GPS said, like “Recchts abbiegen.” I can say “Right turn coming up, left turn coming up.” That’s basically my German: German directions.

You’re known to be quite a surfer, and yet you only started when you turned 52.

It’s not like the pictures you see on TV of people riding these monumental waves. I go out there and I ride these waves that are pretty small and manageable, and it’s really a wonderful experience just being out in the water and this sensation of gliding along on a wave. I love it.

Early in your career, you spent 12 years running the Dr. Wing Tip Shoo fortune cookie company, which you created with the money you made after you sold “Angel Dust Blues.” What did you like most about that experience?

It gave me the freedom to write each day until around 3 p.m., at which time I would switch hats and become a cookie purveyor. It beat having a real job.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Go-kart: A early-teenage reminiscence

It was the fall of 1964 and The Beatles were “taking America by storm” (a ridiculously overused phrase at the time) with hit after hit. To me, they were okay, but not nearly as cool as when Doug’s parents bought him a brand new go-kart with a two-cycle Clinton engine.  

I’d never seen anything so beautiful. Or so fast. We took the kart over to the school parking lot and started it. The engine whined like a chain saw (the Clinton company did indeed make chain saws), and when Doug took off he shot past me with bugling eyes and a look of frozen fear on his face. 

It had to be the coolest thing ever. That night at dinner I asked my father if I could get a go-kart, too. “Sure,” he said. “If you can pay for it.” 

I shoveled driveways all winter and, by the spring, had saved less than a quarter of what I would have needed to buy a kart like Doug’s. It seemed hopeless, but then, in the Pennysaver, I found an ad for a homemade kart that looked like it had been welded together out of spare pipe. It had no engine.   

“You sure you want it?” Dad asked, clearly dubious, when he took you to see it. But I was sure (And why not? I couldn’t afford anything better). 

I guess Dad felt bad after that, because he said I could have the Briggs and Stratton engine from our old lawn mower. I unbolted the engine from the lawnmower, drilled new holes in the engine plate on the go-kart, and mounted it. 

When I went to the store to buy a centrifugal force clutch, I discovered that I couldn’t afford one. But I could afford a sprocket and a chain. All I’d have to do was jump start the kart.  

Our short driveway slanted down to the street. After making sure no cars were coming, I crouched beside the kart like a bobsled driver and pushed. The engine caught and roared. The kart shot out of my hands, sailed down the driveway, across the street, crashed into the curb, and died. 

In time I learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. I would ride up and down the narrow street in front of our house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if I hit the brakes too hard she’d stall. 

Jumpstarting is hard on an engine. The spark plug often got fouled and had to be cleaned. I fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned myself on the muffler. Cables snapped and had to be replaced. Brake bands wore out and had to be replaced. The drive tire went bald and had to be replaced. I did it all myself. 

While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart, I cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive mine. I suspect they regarded my kart as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, I can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous. 

I’m pretty sure I spent far more time fixing the kart than driving it. At its best, it never went a third as fast as Doug’s. It would be too neat and easy to end this story by saying that Doug got bored with his kart, or never appreciated it. The truth is, I have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All I know is I loved every second I spent with mine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

FALLOUT AND TODD FEATURED IN SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL

Always an Original: SLJ Talks to ‘Fallout’ Author Todd Strasser

Todd Strasser has been on the children’s and YA literature scene for more than 30 years. His latest YA book Fallout (Candlewick, 2013) has received rave reviews from many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. School Library Journal calls it “a well-written, compelling story with an interesting twist on how history might have turned out.” Publisher Candlewick has even developed a discussion guide for the book that has direct correlations to the Common Core. We caught up with Strasser to chat about the book, his distinguished career, and his latest project.
toddstrasser  Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
 
Can you tell us more about your latest book, Fallout?
The book is part memoir and part speculative fiction, rooted in my experience as a twelve-year-old boy living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when our family was the only one in town with a bomb shelter. Thus, I not only worried along with everyone else in our country about the very real possibility of a nuclear World War III, but I worried about trying to survive in our shelter as well.
Many of my anxieties concerned the possibility that a war might start while my father was off at work in New York City, and therefore too far away to get home. In that case: Would there be time for me to run home from school before the bombs fell? And since everyone in town knew we had a bomb shelter, would others get there first and demand to be allowed in? What if my mother, brother, and I got inside and our neighbors came and wanted us to let them in?
 
How does it feel writing a book that has a historical setting in which you actual lived?
It certainly stirs up long dormant memories and emotions—and it’s a bit of a reality check. When I revisited the bomb shelter 50 years later, it was a lot smaller than I remembered.
 
What are your memories of 1962?
It was a transformational year in terms of my awareness of the world. Before then, my world view was mostly school and my small neighborhood and friends. Not only was 1962 the year I became aware of the Cold War and the idea that a country thousands of miles away wanted (allegedly) to destroy us, but also that here in the US some people were willing to resort to violence to stop a black man, James Meredith, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi.

You have been writing for a long time. Have you seen many changes in what kids want to read and how books are published?
Fallout is actually my 100th book-length work of original fiction. My first novel, Angel Dust Blues, was published in 1979. It’s about a young man growing up on Long Island who’s arrested for selling marijuana and, like Fallout, is considerably more autobiographical than most of my books.
I came along in the valley between two mountains of series. You might call the first [mountain] “Mt. Stratemeyer,” after Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The second [mountain] is more like a mountain range; some of the peaks might be called “Mt. Pascal,” “Mt. Martin,” and “Mt. Stine” [and] the tallest, certainly, being “Mt. Rowling.” But I was schooled in the valley of the one-off problem novel. There were hardly any series coming out at that time. And as far as how books are being published? The e-book, of course, which is a blessing for those of us with long lists of out-of-print books.

You have been nominated several times for the Edgar Award.  Are there a certain techniques to writing a good mystery?
Here are some that I’ve gleaned over the years: 1) Be stingy with information. 2) Create as many viable red herrings as possible. 3) At some point, dismiss suspicion of the main culprit.

One of your pastimes is surfing, and you came to it in your fifties.  Can you tell us more about how that happened?
FALLOUT COVER075 398x600 Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
I’ve always been a water rat, and had always wanted to surf. My daughter and I went to Hawaii the summer after she graduated from high school and saw lots of “Learn to Surf” signs, so we tried it and loved it.

What book would we find on your nightstand?
The Son, by Philip Meyer. An extraordinary story extraordinarily researched.

As an author, how are you using social media?
I’m trying. I’m really trying! I am on Facebook, and have recently been posting photos and stories from the 1960s. On Twitter (@ToddStrasser) I have changed my photo to one that includes the Fallout cover, and I also have been tweeting about topics from the 1960s.

On what are you currently working?
A sci-fi adventure about life after the destruction of Earth’s environment. Working title: Moby Dick in Space.