Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Beast of Cretacea

It's been quite a while since I blogged, but I think it's mostly because I've been intensely involved in a new project, my first science fiction adventure, The Beast of Cretacea.

So I think I'll start writing about it, discussing how it evolved, the cover, etc. But I'd first like to begin by gratefully acknowledging my daughter Lia, who created the cover for this book, and my son, Geoff, who read a nearly 500-page version of the manuscript and made many insightful and useful editorial suggestions. It’s not only more enough to make the old man proud; it brings a tear to his eye as well. I love you both, and thank you both.

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


│ 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.