Matt Myklusch is here again today with an inspiring guest post. This post was originally published on WriteOnCon. You can find the link to the original posting here. Thank you to Matt and the team behind WriteOnCon for allowing me to re-post this article. You can follow along with the Teen Book Scene blog tour for The Secret War here. Enjoy!
Moments that Matter
by author Matt Myklusch
I remember watching the Olympics many years ago and an American swimmer was being interviewed. I don’t remember his name. I guess it’s not important. What is important is that he was heavily favored for his event. So much so, that in the interview, he spoke as if it were a given that he’d be taking home the gold. If I recall, he said something along the lines of the following:
“I don’t need the medal. I’m going to give the medal to some people who I care a great deal about. They can have the medal, that’s for them. I have the moment. The moment is everything.”
A bit arrogant? Probably more than a bit, considering the company he was in. But, this guy was coming up on the defining moment of his swimming career. He’d spent entire life building up to it, and he was determined to own it. I have to respect that. I’ll never forget that guy whose name I can’t remember. “The moment is everything.” I couldn’t agree more.
I think about this when I’m writing because it’s the presence or absence of moments like these – moments that really matter – that make or break any story. There’s only going to be a couple of them. I’m talking about big moments, unforgettable moments… “You Can’t Handle the Truth” moments.
When I write, I always start out knowing what the big moments are in my stories. That is usually the first spark of any idea I have. The trick for me is writing my way up to them. Back when I first started writing, I just wanted to get there. My focus was on getting done. I looked at plot as paramount, and my characters as little more than tools to advance the plot. As a result, the big turning points in my work always lacked punch. There was no real connection with the characters. I didn’t realize that even if I had written a scene as well as Aaron Sorkin wrote that speech from A Few Good Men, it wouldn’t have mattered. Not if I phoned in the set up.
Powerful dialogue is important, but it’s not enough to make us care all by itself. What makes the moment matter is everything that comes before it. The only reason we care what happens in a story is because we care about the characters. That’s where we get invested. It’s like in baseball… If you follow a team and only watch them play in Game 7 of the World Series, you might be happy if they win, but you’ll never care about the game as much as the person who watched every single game that season. The person who did that loves the team. They live and die with every pitch.
Writers need their readers to love their characters and live and die with their actions every step of the way. That’s when the promise of the big moment is made, in the build up. The emotional investment that the reader puts into a character is what gives those big turning point moments punch.
When writing The Jack Blank Adventures, I worked hard to make Jack, my main character, somebody that people could immediately sympathize with and root for. He’s an orphan growing up at St. Barnaby’s Home for the Hopeless, Abandoned, Forgotten, and Lost. He doesn’t know anything about who he is or where he comes from. His name is Jack Blank because he was found on the doorstep of St. Barnaby’s in a basket with the name “Jack” written on the handle. Growing up, every time he had to write his name on a test or homework assignment, he just wrote “Jack” and left the rest blank. Jack Blank. After a while, the name simply stuck.
St. Barnaby’s is built on a stretch of swampland alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. Every year the whole place sinks a little further into the muck. They say for a kid growing up at St. Barnaby’s, staying above swamp level is about as much as you can hope for in life, and it doesn’t look like things will be much different for Jack. He actually takes a career aptitude test there that tells him he will have a long and fruitful career as a toilet brush cleaner! Not exactly the fast track.
Luckily, a robot-zombie comes out of the swamp and tries to kill Jack before that happens. He survives using some super powers he didn’t even know he had, and earns himself a trip to the Imagine Nation, the place where all the fantastic and unbelievable things in our world originate— including him. It’s a world filled with super-heroes, super-villains, aliens, robots, ninjas, and more, but when Jack gets there he runs into more trouble. It turns out Jack is either going to be the savior of the Imagine Nation, or the worst threat its ever faced.
Most people are convinced Jack is going to be the latter, but here’s the thing. He doesn’t let that define him. He has his own ideas about the future. That’s the key with Jack, the quality that I think connects him with readers and makes him likable. Admirable even. He’s a courageous underdog. Someone who won’t give up. And, the central question that drives all of his actions in the story is understandable, realistic, and something the reader wants to know as well. Who is he? The questions about Jack’s past mysterious tie into the problems looming in his future. What is he going to grow up to be?
If I’ve done my job right, I’ve created a situation that everyone can relate to (the desire to break away from mundane, bleak circumstances and escape to a magical world that is full of possibility) and I’ve inserted into that situation a character that people will get behind. The world Jack goes to is larger than life, and the things that happen to him there are too, but they only matter if they are set up properly. All of that build up has to be viewed through the lens of character.
That’s how I approach my writing today. I am less concerned about getting done and more concerned with getting it right. Before I let myself move on from one chapter to the next, each individual chapter has to feel right to me. I can’t define what “right” is, but I know it when I see it. And, I absolutely know when something feels wrong.
Each chapter has to pass muster before I write the next one, and when I get a block of 5 or 6 chapters together, I stop and read them straight through too. I want to see how they play. Are character’s actions staying consistent with who they are? Do they all have their own personality, voice, and vocabulary? Are they engaging and likable (or hate-able, depending on who they are in the story)? Is the story moving? The action in the chapters has to move the story at a pace that feels right. The individual chapter endings and beginnings have to fit into each other like songs in a good playlist. You never know if they do or not until you read a bunch of them together. That’s when you find out if you’re taking the reader to the place you want them to go. If your characters, plot, and setting are all intertwining to maintain emotional investment. If you’re building up moments that matter.
Those moments are the difference between a good story and a great story. In order to deliver on the promise of a big moment, the writer has to know what it is ahead of time, build up to it properly, and own it. Kind of like the swimmer I told you about earlier. One other thing I remember about him? He took home the gold, just like he said he would.
Matt Myklusch has been drawing ever since he could first hold a pencil, and super heroes have always filled up the majority of the pages in his sketchbooks. That lifelong love of comic books spurred him to create the Jack Blank Adventure series from Simon & Schuster, Aladdin. Books I and II, THE ACCIDENTAL HERO (2010) and THE SECRET WAR (2011) are in stores now. Matt has recently left his job at MTV to write full time. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and family, where he is hard at work on the next book in the JACK BLANK series.
THE SECRET WAR by Matt Myklusch: Picking up a year after the events of Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, Jack and his fellow students are now well into their School of Thought training and are “sidekicking” for official, card-carrying super heroes. But, even though Jack feels more at home in the Imagine Nation, he’s still hiding secrets from his friends Skerren and Allegra, both about his shocking connection to their enemy Revile and about his “Top Secret” school assignment, which involves investigating the RÜstov computer virus that affects the Mechas. Jack is busy trying to find out how far the RÜstov sleeper virus has spread, working to find a cure, and striving to avoid the dire future that Revile warned him about. Meanwhile, Jonas Smart is working just as hard to discover what Jack is hiding from everyone. When a rogue Secreteer–the protectors of secrets of inhabitants of the Imagine Nation–starts selling secrets to the highest bidder, Smart is ready and waiting. Jack knows that if Smart finds out the truth about him and Revile, he’s as good as dead. When Jack discovers that the Secreteer causing all this trouble also has information about his father, the distractions really start piling up. If Jack is going to help prevent a second RÜstov invasion, keep Smart from discovering his secrets, and find out what a shadowy, half-mad Secreteer knows about his long-lost father, he’ll need to learn to trust his friends, and to find the true path toward becoming a hero himself.