Paul Acampora: Five Things I Learned Writing “I Kill The Mockingbird”
I Kill the Mockingbird is a middle grade novel about Lucy Jordan and her two best friends, Elena Vallejo and Michael Buskirk. The three – all book lovers – have just finished eighth grade. As they face the summer before high school, they contemplate the tricky changes happening all around them including Lucy’s mom’s recent victory over cancer, the death of a beloved English teacher, and Michael and Lucy’s budding romance. They’ve also got more pragmatic concerns like the assigned reading list distributed on the last day of school, which includes To Kill a Mockingbird.
“What if we could make everybody read To Kill a Mockingbird this summer?” Lucy asks her friends.
In Lucy’s opinion, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the greatest book of all time. Michael thinks the classic is about “a little white tomboy who worships her father in a town filled with whacky racist Christians and lynch-mob farmers.” Meanwhile, Elena is sure that Charlotte’s Web is truly the best novel ever written. Just the same, the three friends agree to work together on a scheme to honor their dead English teacher by making as many people as possible want to read the Harper Lee novel.
Soon – thanks to a bit of “literary terrorism” plus Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and a life-sized Santa Claus doll dressed up as an ax murderer – the conspiracy to promote reading, dubbed I KILL THE MOCKINGBIRD, is not only successful, it’s out of control. Wil Wheaton, Neil Gaiman and Chuck Wendig are tweeting about it. Books are disappearing from stores and libraries around the country. The cops might be on the friends’ trail, and a Mockingbirdpalooza is about to break out in the park downtown.
I Kill the Mockingbird is a comedy about friends, first kisses, so-called great literature, social media, patron saints, and the weird, wonderful and unexpected ways that books change our lives.
1. Laughter is to story-stuff as Geiger counter is to uranium.
With I Kill the Mockingbird I wanted to write a comedy. I was constantly on the look-out for the funny. But every time I found a laugh, I could also scratch the surface and see loss, pain, fear, general existential horror, and cruel insanity. Good times. Good times.
Mostly, I veered away from the dark stuff. Still, all that risk, chaos, danger, and darkness… those are engines which drive stories. Harry needs Voldemort. Hitchcock needs Mcguffins, Kirk needs tribbles. Robert Downey Jr. needs himself. Mars needs Women… Okay, one of these things is not like the other, but in writing I Kill the Mockingbird, I learned that comedy can be a story-stuff Geiger counter for me. If it makes me laugh, then my story’s engines are almost always nearby.
2. Boil away the banter.
I love dialogue. Or should I say:
“I love dialogue.”
It’s fun and active, and it’s my favorite way to bring characters and scenes to life. One of the most enjoyable parts of writing dialogue is the back-and-forth rhythm of it. It’s like tennis or ping pong or badminton. A long volley – aka “banter” – can be satisfying and amusing too. But volleying doesn’t tell a story. There has to be a point.
In my earlier novels, I tended toward scenes with two or three speakers because, frankly, it’s easier to manage. In I Kill the Mockingbird, a typical scene generally features three or more characters. For me, increasing the number of characters in a scene exponentially increased the dialogue challenges. Lines started bouncing around like Mr. Moose’s ping pong balls. I struggled to keep all the words moving forward in focus and on pace. I found myself writing a lot of banter, which feels like dialogue, but it’s not. Dialogue moves a story – not just a conversation – forward. Banter is weaving and bobbing and puns and knock-knock jokes. It can be funny, witty, clever and well-written. And it’s not enough.
During revisions, I figured out a simple strategy for boiling away most (but not all) banter: I tried to make sure that each line of dialogue could only be spoken in a given situation by a specific character. If a line could be placed into the mouth of an alternate character and still work… then something had to change or go. The strategy eliminated a lot of word volley. It also forced me to create characters with more depth and often led me to more interesting places, relationships, and ideas.
I’m still a sucker for good banter. My editor tries to control me. Mostly she succeeds. Still, I do love me some knock-knock jokes.
3. Tools don’t matter.
I want a Macbook Air and a moleskin notebook and a hand-turned oaken pen with a nib pounded out of mithral by elves under the Misty Mountain. I want two gigantic high resolution monitors and an ergonomically correct chair plus a standing desk over a top-of-the line treadmill. I want an 8-foot by 10-foot sustainable cork bulletin board to hang on my wall where push pins made from shark’s teeth will hold color-coded index cards covered with hand-scrawled notes and ideas. I want a billiard table. I don’t play billiards, but Mark Twain had a billiard table in his writing study/billiard room so therefore I should have one too. I want a writing study/billiard room.
I’m not kidding. I really want that stuff. And at least once a month, I shop for it all. I convince myself that if I only had the right tools, the correct set-up, plus various high-end accouterments THEN I would be a better writer, a better husband, a better father, and a better human being.
I know it’s stupid.
I want it anyway.
While writing I Kill the Mockingbird, we sent our first-born to college. The second-born, a teenager, is not cheap. She’s worth a thousand times what she costs, but she’s not cheap. Meanwhile, our cars needed major repairs. A dog required major medical. Our house is a house so there’s always something. In the meantime, my laptop died, and the home pc tottered on its last legs. New computers plus moleskin, pool table, corkboard, shark’s teeth, and mithral nibs were just not in the budget. So I resurrected an old netbook, taught myself to install Linux, and learned how to love the free and awesome LibreOffice. My daughter helped me to construct fabulous bulletin boards out of super-cheap foam panels and spare fabric (I told you she was worth it.) My pens are often “found” (thank you, day job.) I buy notebooks at the dollar store.
As it worked out, writing I Kill the Mockingbird did not require the best tools. Half the time, my tools aren’t even very good. Usually, pen plus paper plus access to my manuscript (I often carry a paper copy around) is all I really need. Other times, LibreOffice and the netbook are enough.
All that said, I do hope to purchase a new laptop this year. And if anybody has some spare mithral and an elf lying around, feel free to send them my way.
4. My editor knows more about making books than I do.
My editor knows more about making books than I do. I was already aware of this, but I’m learning it again thanks to several recent and very kind reviews of I Kill the Mockingbird. In more than one, reviewers point to scenes which they think work especially well. In every case, those scenes work largely because my editor, Nancy Mercado, helped me to focus on where I was trying to go. In one case, a reviewer pointed toward a scene that is NOT in the book and gave thanks that I didn’t go there. Well… I did go there. But then, thanks to Nancy’s guidance, I reconsidered it.
Here’s the thing: This is my third novel. I’ve made them all with Nancy. My first novel, Defining Dulcie, was one of Nancy’s first acquisitions around 2005. We learned how to make that book together. Since then, I’ve completed three books. Nancy has finished dozens. I’ve written three relatively short, contemporary novels for middle school readers. In the same time, she’s worked on comedies, dramas, sci-fi, fantasy, graphic novels, picture books, series, poetry, nonfiction, dystopians, short story collections, and more. Of course she knows more than I do!
Make no mistake: In every case, the final word on what goes into my books is mine. But I am an idiot if I don’t seriously consider all of my editor’s questions, suggestions and advice. I try not to be an idiot.
5. I’m not as smart as I think that people think I am.
As I mentioned above, I Kill the Mockingbird is my third novel. After I wrote my first book, people were surprised and delighted at my accomplishment. Honestly, so was I. I received and enjoyed the kind of warm affirmation that children get when they pee in a bowl the first few times. It was all good.
The second novel – with positive reviews and modest sales – raised some eyebrows and smiles. It was sort of like a second parachute jump. I didn’t die the first time so people weren’t shocked that I didn’t die the second. But still, it was okay to assume that gravity and silk were handling most of the work. All I had to do was step out of the plane, right?
This time, it feels like people might believe that I know what I’m doing. I can definitely describe many writing steps and processes more clearly now. I know more words. I recognize dead ends more quickly, and I know – both in theory and in fact – that writing a novel is not an impossible task. Still, to say that I know what I’m doing… that might be more false than true. There’s definitely more to this whole thing than jumping and yelling GERONIMO! But there’s still a lot of Geronimo going on here. Of course that’s why this whole business of making up stories is so much fun.
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Paul Acampora writes short stories and novels for young readers. Kids, parents and critics praise his work for its laugh-out-loud humor, smart dialogue, and heartfelt characters. His books include Defining Dulcie, Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face, and his newest novel, I Kill the Mockingbird, a comedy caper/conspiracy theory/literary love story about friends who sabotage their summer reading list. Paul enjoys classroom visits and writing workshops for K-12 students. He is a dad, a husband, a former kindergarten teacher, a college administrator, and the model for the Marshall in the 50th Anniversary Edition of Stratego.