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About Devine Intervention

"Frequently hysterical ... devastatingly honest writing that surprises with its occasional beauty and hits home with the keenness of its insight." 

—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

 

"So much fun... an insightful story about seizing life for all it’s worth while you have the chance."

—Publishers Weekly


"It is a pleasure to read a writer who so delights in language, and who writes so captivatingly in a teen voice with such imaginative description."

— Los Angeles Times

“This is a love story. Not a romantic love story, but a story of the development of a deep caring relationship with another being. Humorous and sad at times, it brings us to ask ourselves what we think about heaven and how we get there. Believable and fast-paced, it keeps us reading to the end.”

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Photo by Emerald England.

Thursday
May152014

The Problem with Godzilla (Warning: Contains Spoilers)

The original. It's still good!

I'm in the midst of doing one last big revision of THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, which comes out next year from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books. Among other things, this means I have metaphors on my mind—and it's no doubt why I am not a thunder-lizard size fan of the new "Godzilla" movie.

There's a lot to like about it, especially great performances from Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, neither of whom are on screen as much as I would like.

If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want me to wreck it for you, stop reading now. (And have fun at the the theater, because movies are awesome.)

But if you're a writer and want to find out why this story didn't satisfy as much as it might have, pull up a chair.

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The original "Godzilla," in case you've never seen it, is a Japanese movie released in 1954. On its surface, it's about a dinosaur-like thing that ravages the country. Metaphorically, it's a story about nuclear destruction. In the end, they don't beat the monster. He just walks away (to return later).

With nuclear weapons and nuclear power in general, we really did create a monster that is impossible, or nearly so, to kill. The movie works on both levels, which is a hard thing to pull off. A metaphor can't get in the way of the story. It has to make it resonate more deeply; otherwise, it's like putting a pinwheel on a top hat.

This latest version, which thankfully is better than the 1998 monstrosity starring Matthew Broderick, brings back Godzilla and modern-day giant moths. It's a good idea, to be sure, and the effects were great.

But this time, instead of working as a Cold War metaphor with the giant moths and lizard reaching a stand-off, the struggle between the two ends with a deux ex machina, which means "god from the machine" and refers to a story that ends when a divine force fixes things.

This is a total spoiler, but in the end, Godzilla kills the monsters because he wants to "restore balance" to a planet despoiled by nuclear power. So the moral of this environmental tale: Just get out of the way, humans. Mother Nature—the god in Godzilla—will take care of you.

Never mind that there's no such thing as an animal that exists to "restore balance." Sure, some serve that function, but that's a byproduct of evolution, not their intentional gift to the rest of the world. Living things are motivated to stay alive long enough to reproduce, and they'll generally do what it takes for that to happen.

I might have bought the magical balance monster if the story had contained a metaphor with meaning.

But the metaphor of this movie is reckless. Unlike the original, which said something profound, this movie says something stupid and dangerous.

The environmental story of the generation is the pending disaster of climate change caused by human activity—a fact supported by 97 percent of the scientific community, no matter how badly the mainsteam media has failed to communicate this, no matter how much the propaganda artists at Fox News would like to deny this.

According to the metaphor of the movie, the giant moths of global warming are the result of past excesses. But we don't need to worry about them. Nope! It'll be OK if we just do nothing! In Godzilla we trust!

This is what only the most uninformed and short-sighted politicians would have you believe: that climate changes are part of the natural cycle and that the planet will regulate itself as it always has. It's not true, even if it is a more comfortable story than the alternative.

I don't know if the filmmakers thought about this one bit as they made their movie. I suspect they didn't, and wouldn't want to be part of a propaganda machine. Nonetheless, this is how I interpreted the movie, and one reason it disappointed me on an artistic level.

My second disappointment with it was that it felt in many places like a piece of entertainment plotted according to the Blake Snyder "Save the Cat" school of screenwriting. If you haven't read this book, it outlines a storytelling method that responds to audience expectations about character, plot, and pacing. It's a really useful starting point, and a great way to understand what is happening on screen and why it affects us. This is what all stories want to do: entertain us by creating an emotional experience.

But it's not a really great way to write a story if your underlying metaphor isn't sound, and your characters are more pawns than fully realized humans.

Godzilla suffered a lot from this. At times, I coul dfeel the checklist of details contrived to manipulate my emotions: the death of a mother, the separation of a father and his child. Some of these moments worked—a scene where the Bryan Cranston character sees a gift his son had made for him 15 years earlier. This is a testament to his skill as an actor, at the least.

But other manufactured emotional moments. One such example: the one where the hero saves a child on a train. We didn't know the kid, we didn't get to know him, nor did we get any deep satisfaction of seeing him reunited with his parents, because the camera panned away before the hero interacted with them.

This is what can happen when you plot a story based on key moments instead of on the harder-to-predict, harder-to-craft moments that come from having really well-developed characters. In my experience, you can really only create these moments well when you know your characters deeply, and when you have put them into such emotionally harrowing situations that their response feels both like a surprise and an inevitability. Of course the good guy is going to save a child on a train. A great movie will make this feel a whole lot more special, especially if the good guy sacrifices something meaningful in the process. They tried here—in fact, the good guy gives up a toy soldier from his own childhood, ostensibly something he would have given to his own son. But if you were struggling to live, would you really care about a toy soldier? Probably not. It feels more like a manipulation than an authentic emotional moment.

For me, the writer's lesson in all of this is that it's hard to write a high-concept story with genuine emotional and metaphoric reasonance. For some people, this doesn't matter. A big enough lizard, loud enough explosions, and charismatic actors are enough.

"Godzilla" is getting great reviews so far, which means the movie is working for its intended audience. Being good, though, doesn't mean people will still be thinking of your story 60 years after it first comes out.

I don't think there are many writers out there who don't, at least in their dreams, hope of creating something that still means a lot to people decades later. You might not hit great with your work. You might only hit good. But no one's ever going to create anything truly great by relying on anyone else's formula, or by building a story from the outside in.

It's a fine place to start, but where you finish has to come from someplace deeper, someplace you can only find in yourself. It comes from the deep, like Godzilla. And it's hard work bringing it to the surface, but it's worth it every time.

 

Thursday
May012014

The scary thing about diversity

A lot of people are talking about diversity in books and the many reasons this is vital.

What I haven't heard mentioned yet is the fear that can sometimes go along with changing perspectives and practices. So I'll talk about it. (And here's hoping I don't mess up too much. There's fear of that, too.)

In the children's book world, I'm the majority. I go to a lot of conferences, and when I look around, most of the people I see are white women. When I visit schools and bookstores, the same is true. And for sure, a lot of book characters are white girls.  

When you're in the majority and people start talking about the importance of diversity, it can be uncomfortable thing.

First, you feel like a jerk. Your presence alone is crowding other, rarer voices out. All of the effort you've put into getting published, when viewed in this context, can feel terribly selfish. As if your dream is part of the problem. That things would be better if you would just go away. 

This can be an especially hard feeling for women to bear. We still get paid less than men for equal work. And I'm old enough that I still remember when there was not a baseball or a basketball team for girls my age—I got to sit on the bleachers and watch my brothers play. Mine was the first generation to benefit from Title IX, and I'll be forever grateful to the teams that did make room for girls. It made a huge difference in my life.

And yet, for a lot of women writers, there remains a strong feeling that our male colleagues still get more respect and appreciation. I was once told by a librarian that the school didn't want our touring group if one of our male colleagues couldn't make it, because male authors are "so rare." Historically, nothing could be less true.

Given all this, it's been incredibly heartening to see the way my mostly female colleagues have embraced the need for diversity in what we read. This industry is full of big-hearted, wise, compassionate, and wonderful people. 

And truly, the call for diversity is nothing to fear, even when you're in the majority demographically.

Working hard for this gets us where we want to be as a society: where all voices matter equally.

I don't want to live in a world where certain people matter more because of their skin color, their religion, or the size of their bank accounts. I don't want to live in a world where people feel lesser because they are different. 

When we write, we create worlds. This is maybe the hardest part of our work as writers, but also the most thrilling. When we do it well, what we've created becomes real where it matters: in people's hearts and minds.

What kind of world do I want? One where every child can see him or herself in a book, where every child feels as if he or she can be a hero. I want to live in a world where young readers become more interested in others and develop empathy and compassion because of what they've read. And I want readers of all ages to know that everyone matters, not because of who they are or what they look like or believe, but simply because they are.

So let's write that world into existence. It's not about mattering less when you're in the majority. It's about acknowledging the everyone else matters as much.

There is room for all of us. There is also a need for all of our best efforts. I can't see a better way of working toward that world than by showing it to children in books. 

 

Saturday
Mar292014

If You Don't Mind Exploding Cats

If you don't mind cartoon cats who meet unfortunate ends, then you will like the German trailer for DEVINE INTERVENTION. I absolutely love this trailer, which conveys quite a lot of the book and is easily understandable, even for people who speak no German at all.

The German publisher, Dressler, has done a really great job with the book. They built me this website, made buttons, posters, and postcards, and even printed the first chapter. It's kind of thrilling, really, in part because German is the only other language I speak well enough to understand all that is happening.

Danke schön, Dressler!