Oatmeal, Lucky Charms, and Quitting Peekaboo
by Ki-Wing Merlin
I had a problem.
I was writing a middle grade mystery and I wanted the main character to be a Chinese American girl from a working class background. I had searched for this book when I was 12 and I was still searching.
I also wanted the book to be fun. I love literary books; I get giddy browsing the Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winners at libraries. I treasure these books. But that wasn't the kind of book I imagined for my mystery. I wanted this to be a light read. As much as I love yummy, chewy oatmeal, I longed to offer my 12 year old self a surprise bowl of Lucky Charms.
So I wrote about an unsinkable Chinese American girl whose parents work long hours at garment factories. Her name is Allen Mak. Like many (certainly not all) names of Asian Americans, the name is easy to pronounce, yet carries a burden of explanation. Allen shrugs at this burden. Allen has a grandmother too, one like my very own Pau-Pau, the Queen of Matter of Fact. In fact, Allen yearns to live up to her grandmother's example, yearns to connect with her.
I gave Allen a fun mystery to solve. Her uncle's store is robbed. She collides with the thief and thinks the thief stalks her. After years of laying low, Allen now explores her neighborhood for the first time, trying to find the thief before the thief finds her. The mystery plot was lively with neighborhood bullies, rivaling friends, and surprise twists. Lucky Charms, remember?
Two separate stories.
In a sense, I had written two stories: one set in Allen's home, and the second in her neighborhood and school. Then I enrolled in Cheryl Klein's online plot workshop to help me revise.
Cheryl talks about Cores and Points in the workshop and in her book. About Cores: "This is a gut feeling or knowledge. What about this book is making you write it? What is the most important thing you want it to convey or to accomplish? What is the thing you will not give up in it, no matter who tells you to do it?" And about Points: '"'the point' is the ideas or experiences that the novel is built to convey." (She also distinguishes between Thematic, Emotional, and Experiential Points. Really, take the class, buy her book).
When I introduced myself on the class bulletin board, I shared that Core to me was my main character's specific background. I wanted to claim Allen and Pau-Pau as just as worthy of starring in a book as anyone else. I wrote that my story was about ways of hiding and how hiding creates disconnection and alienation. Finally I wrote that I hoped to strengthen the mystery plot, so that it better reinforced my Points and so that both plots sang in tune, resonating with each other.
Later, I added that while Allen Mak's background was Core to me, I could see someone rewriting the story with the very same Points and removing the multicultural aspect.
Do you see my problem?
My main character's background was essential to me. Yet I also thought of my story as a fun mystery in which this background could only be incidental.
This turned out to mean that I would keep struggling to make the mystery matter. It was fun, but it was little. I looked for ways to build up its stakes. I contemplated gangs, crime syndicates, corrupt cops,... those would be bigger than my store theft. But would they matter? Could they resonate?
Then I read these words of Cheryl's: "Action Plot and Emotional Plot are like the double helix of DNA, weaving in and out of each other so an Action event inspires an Emotional reaction in your character, which in turn inspires her to do something that drives the Action forward. The more tightly you can interweave all of these things, the more elegant your book will be."
Core is the heart and the nexus.
That's when it hit me that the natural place for my plots to interconnect is the core. I needed to stop insisting the Core was beside the Point. If what mattered most to me was my main character's background, I needed to use it in the mystery.
So I rewrote. I took apart my mystery plot in order to rebuild it on new ground.
The emotional plot of my story remained 12 year old Allen Mak reconnecting with her grandmother, finally discovering the neighborhood she's lived in for years, and coming to learn that connection requires openness and work, including getting over her compulsion to hide.
My action plot remained a mystery, but the stakes became not just the survival of Allen's uncle's store, or the endurance of a friendship, or even Allen's self-respect under her grandmother's gaze. The stakes became her immigrant family's dreams: the loss of their life savings, Allen's father's absence as he takes a job hundreds of miles away to make up the money, the threat of further disconnection and alienation.
As it turned out, my problem wasn't that I wanted to serve Lucky Charms. My problem was that I thought in order to do so, I had to ignore my main character's background.
I was wrong. My plot remained fun and twisty, and, I hope, able to delight like a bowl of Lucky Charms.
Core is what makes the story matter.
So here's the lesson I took away: in order for a story to matter, its plots should reveal the core. Or, said another way, I shouldn't play peekaboo with what matters most to me in a story.
What matters most to you in your story?
A few notes:
- I am definitely NOT saying stories with diverse characters should have diversity as their point (please no). I am saying that for this story, my protagonist's specific background was important to me, and that my insistence on it being only incidental was diminishing the story.
- There has recently been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in Children's Lit. See Lee & Low, NPR, Betsy Bird, Ellen Oh, Roger Sutton. I wasn't thinking about this during my revisions, but I agree with and appreciate all of these posts.
- Finally, some lessons are slow to take (or maybe some folks, meaning me, are slow learners). In order for a story to matter, its plots should reveal the core. I'm currently working on a story about a girl whose passion/talent is computer programming. And guess what? I had to figure out that to make the story sing, I can't sneak in the programming; I have to make it matter.
About Ki-Wing MerlinKi-Wing Merlin, like Allen in her book, is a Chinese immigrant raised largely by her grandmother. A graduate of Yale, she’s a member of SCBWI and lives in North Carolina with her husband and two sons. She is represented by Tamar Rydzinski of Laura Dail Literary Agency.
Online, you can find Ki-Wing here and on Twitter. She is also a contributor to the upcoming Kidliterati blog.