Friday, 28 September 2012

Body Parts are not Characters

Earlier this week, I read a fabulous blog post by Janice Hardy, which can be found here:

In the post, Ms. Hardy talks about writing what you mean. As I was reading the examples given in the post, I was thinking to myself  "I don't write like that." Wrong.

Sentences like "my eyes followed him to the door" might sound good in context and might even be okay if only used once or twice in a full-length manuscript, but when read alone, sentences like that sound weak.

My undergraduate adviser once told our creative writing class "to put every word on trial." Sentences work the same way. Mind you, this should happen in the revision/editing process. If you agonize over every word or every sentences as you are writing, chances are you will mess with your flow and won't get much actual writing done. For me, it is easier to tell if a paragraph is not working, but sometimes a weak sentence in a paragraph is harder to spot within my own writing.

Taking Ms. Hardy's blog post into account, I went back to the opening chapters of Borrowed Time and found that I did have sentences in which the body parts were the characters, and I noticed something, it happened almost exclusively in "love scenes." I had written sentences like "his lips met mine," "his fingers raked through my hair," and "his thumb rubbed my cheek." Technically the point is made, but when read as individual sentences outside of the context of the paragraph, they seem weak--passive. The character, in this case Trevor, the narrator's boyfriend, is doing the action, so he should be credited as such. It was an easy to make the sentences more active. "He raked his fingers through my hair" etc. I kept "our lips met" for the time being, but again, in writing what you mean, the meaning is implied, aka they kissed, but the phrasing sounds like the lips met up for coffee or something. "Love scenes" are the hardest for me to write and as it is I keep it PG-13, but that is only to be true to my narrator. (The problem is in trying to keep it age-appropriate, the writing often gets cheesy as evidenced by the above sentences. This is something I'm working on.)

Speaking of being true to the narrator, I tend to write "plot-driven" pieces. I remember my adviser once told us our characters should dictate the plot, we shouldn't dictate their actions. This was not how I worked. Wasn't I supposed to be in control? Wasn't I supposed to decide/know where the book was going? I think there is a happy medium between plot-driven and character-driven. As a writer, I like to have a blueprint for the plot. I like to know where the story is going because frankly I find I loose motivation if I don't. I don't like wayward stories. That being said, a writer should know one's characters, specifically what motivates them, what they desire, etc. I was talking to a writing friend the other day who reminded me that J.K. Rowling can tell you the complete history of any of her characters. Obviously the woman is impressive and can write, but that's what I mean. She knows her characters, and while the plot was obviously painstakingly thought out, her characters stay true to themselves and act on what motives them.

While combing through the opening chapters of Borrowed Time, I found one instance of "body parts as characters" that I immediately revised. To set the scene, Shelby has recently found out that she is being sent to boarding school. Her best friend, Adrienne throws her a going away party, but at the party no one seems genuinely sad that Shelby is leaving. In fact, at the party, Adrienne puts the moves on Trevor, which  makes Shelby want to give the party a little show ( a dance with Trevor that both he and those watching wouldn't soon forget) and then leave. There was a sentence in this section to the effect of Shelby wanting to go find the beer and get drunk but her "feet led her to the car instead." I remember when I wrote this scene I was thinking that leaving a party was not necessarily true to character. If she wanted to get drunk, why she leave. She made that choice, not her feet. However, my remedy at the time was to try to think what Shelby's character would do next. Plot-wise, I needed to get her out of the party, but what would Shelby do? Well, Shelby would call the cops and report the party to get everyone else in trouble. As I was editing earlier this week, I gave myself a little pat on the back for letting my character "act," but I cringed at the part about her feet leading to the car. I don't normally include my writing in my posts, but here's the revised scene. (A note about the reference to Trevor's brother, he is a cop.)

I wanted to get wasted, really, really wasted that night, but after I danced with Trevor, I found myself heading to my car instead of to the spiked punch or beer. I needed to get out of that party.
At least beer would help me forget that Adrienne had crossed the line, but since I was sober, I decided to return the favor and cross a line too. I grabbed my phone out of my purse and hit the emergency call button.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, I’d like to report underage drinking at 1545 Thatcher Drive. You should send the police right away,” I said and hung up.
My guess was Trevor’s brother would give him and Adrienne the head’s up as soon as the call came into the station. The two of them would get everybody out of the house, and they’d be fine. As for those leaving who may or may not get pulled over and breathalized, well, that was my parting gift to them. 

**Hope you enjoyed that little teaser. Lesson learned this week: we might know the rules of writing, but we might not always execute them.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Fall YA Reads

I recently completed the first draft of Borrowed Time. While I was writing, I made sure to stay away from any other YA books that are narrated by someone who has died, as the second part of my manuscript is narrated by a ghost. Technically, I completed the ghost portion in early 2011 and then worked my way backward, but still, I didn't want to be influenced by other "ghost" stories, so I stayed away. Once the first draft was done, however, I was curious to see how my work compared to published works that had a ghost as a narrator.

I recently finished reading The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg. I liked the book enough that I will definitely read her future work, that being said, my opinion swayed over the course of reading the novel. I loved opening. The narrator, Brie, has just died, quite literally, from a broken heart after her boyfriend tells her he doesn't love her. As a narrator, Brie is funny, sometimes laugh out loud funny and her voice pulled me into the story. I was intrigued by the idea that Brie must go through the stages of grief. Enter Partick Darling, Brie's guide to the afterlife. Brie doesn't fall for Patrick right away, but it's obvious from the beginning that the two will end up together. (Trust me, there are enough plot twists that saying they end up together is not a spoiler.) Brie struggles to accept the fact that life must go on without her. She watches as her family falls apart and one of her best friends seemingly betrays her. Toward the end of the book, Brie realizes things are not necessarily as they seem--both the events leading up to her death and the months after. One of the things I grew frustrated with was that there seemed to be a few points where the book dragged on. Then things would seem to be wrapped up nicely. Was the book over? Nope. There were a few plots twists in the story, a couple I loved and a couple I thought the book could have done without. Still, TCHOYAM was carefully planned and well-written, one that YA lovers should check out.

I started reading Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin yesterday. I haven't finished, but so far I'm not loving it as much as TCHOYAM, probably because even though both protagonists are 15 going on 16 when they die, Brie has a voice that will resonate with readers of Upper YA, specifically ages 16-18. Elsewhere seems like it would appeal to a younger audience, maybe 13-15. Elsewhere tells the story of Liz, who has just died after being hit by a car. Liz then learns that she will live her life backward, that the dead reverse age in Elsewhere. This story is told in third person. Although the plot sounds interesting, the narration isn't as clever as Brie's. I'm trying to hold off judgment until I finish the book. Elsewhere isn't a bad read. I just don't think I fall into the target audience.

UPDATE: The first part of Elsewhere is slow, but it gets better. I did enjoy it in the end. Didn't love it, but it did get better and was a cute book. I'd recommend it for the 12-16-year-old crowd.

Another book of note is The Book Thief, which is narrated by "death." Markus Zusak has a phenomenal command of language. I read The Book Thief this summer and was completely enthralled. For me, The Book Thief is one of those books that is so powerful that it is next to impossible to describe because anything I write won't do it justice. Adults and older teens will love this book.

So what's next on my reading list?

Number one is 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma: Unfortunately, it won't be released until 2013, so I have to wait. In the meantime, I hope to get my hands on her other work,  Imaginary Girls. UPDATE: Read Imaginary Girls and wasn't a big fan. There were some great descriptions, but the plot did nothing for me. Chloe seemed way too in love with her sister. I read a sample of 17 & Gone and it seemed more interesting.

Send me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt: this will be released pretty soon, so I won't have to wait too long. UPDATE: I could not put this book down. There might have been one too many "friend fights" for my taste, but overall, this is a wonderful YA contemporary book about a high school senior who finds out she has leukemia and decides to try to keep it a secret from her best friends and boyfriend. Plus, Tiffany Schmidt seems super nice.

After You by Jessica Corra: again, not released yet, but I'm patiently waiting.

Also on the radar are:
Insurgent and Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slide by Jill Hathaway UPDATE: Read this and enjoyed it. It's a series, so I will be patiently awaiting the next book. I thought the premise was interesting. The main character "slides" into other people's bodies by coming into contact with something they've touched. Onlookers think she is a narcoleptic. Anyway, she witnesses a murder but can't exactly tell people why she knows the girl who died was murdered and didn't in fact commit suicide.
The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski
Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: This is more of a middle grade book than YA, but I think it will have crossover appeal. It's a heartwarming story of Auggie, a boy with a facial deformity, who goes to public school for the first time in fifth grade. The story switches POV, starting with Auggie, then switching to his 14-year-old sister, then his classmates.

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles
This one was pretty good, though I'd argue the little brother's character was inaccurate at times for a three-year-old. It delves into an interesting family dynamic.

Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy
Very cute middle grade story (and great title) about a young medium who gets a little help from the great beyond to deal with tween problems like a first school dance and dealing with the school bully. A great read for the middle school aged crowd.
One for the Murphys Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Read an excerpt. Did not purchase yet.

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
Still on my to-do list.

The List by Siobhan Vivian
Told in 3rd person POV, alternating into the heads of a full cast of characters, The List tells the story of high school girls, two from each grade, one named the prettiest, the other the ugliest. I loved this story and am reading more of Siobhan Vivian's work.

What are you reading?


Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Pros and Cons of Flashbacks

UPDATED: Thanks to all those who have commented on this post in the past week.

I will be "teaching" my Teaching Creative Writing class tomorrow. We are allowed to choose our own topics. I've decided my presentation will be about flashbacks. So, as preparation, I thought I'd test the waters with a post first.

First off: what is a flashback?

If you're a writer or even an avid movie watcher, you probably just read that question and thought "DUH," but starting a class with a definition seems pertinent. It also gets people talking :)

There are probably better definitions out there, but plain and simple, a flashback is a scene that references an event that took place prior to the occasion of the telling. If put the "present action" of the story in a frame, the flashback describes an event the took place outside the frame, prior to the starting point of the story. ***I think there could be a valid argument that flashback and reminiscence are not the same. I'd love to hear some other writers' thoughts on this. Can we say a memory is a flashback? Are all flashbacks memories? Haha, those are the type of questions I used to hate when profs would ask. Bring on the crickets.

What are the cons of a flashback?

Obviously not all stories are meant to be told in a linear fashion. However, the drawback to a flashback is that it has already happened and thus, arguably lack immediacy. Therefore, flashbacks should only be used if they reveal information about that drives the story forward. Also, flashbacks often have clunky verbage. I'll explain what I mean by that below.

What are the pros?

Flashbacks can reveal information about a character's desires, motives, emotional state. Showing a character's past sheds light on the type of person they are in the present and can help give the reader insight into the character's present actions. Therefore, an effective flashback is one that reveals information relevant to the character's present. Flashbacks can also slow the pacing of the story down if it is moving too quickly. (The con of this would be that too many flashbacks would make the story's pace too slow.) Also, flashbacks allow us to show pre-story moments in scene rather than in summation.

How to signal a flashback:

What is the tense of the first verb used in the story? This becomes the operational tense. If the story is told in past tense, then the flashback needs to be one tense removed from that--past perfect. If the story is told in the present tense, the flashback would be in the past tense. Past perfect can be clunky. Generally speaking, if the flashback is meant to be in past perfect, one should use the past perfect tense three times to signal to the reader that they are reading a flashback,  then the writer can use the past tense to streamline the verbage. One moves out of a flashback the way one enters it. If you have decided to switch to past tense in the middle of the flashback, the last three verbs of the flashback should be past perfect. This will signal that the flashback is ending and we are returning to the story's operational tense--that the flashback is over and we are continuing on with the rising action of the story. Flashbacks can also be formatted with extra white space--an additional line or two--before and after the flashback to visually illustrate that the scene is separate from the rest of the text.

Some writers chose not to write flashbacks in one tense removed from the operational tense. I'm not one who typically breaks conventions and find it annoying when I have to reread a paragraph because halfway through I realize its a flashback. I prefer the flashback to be hinted at through verb choice, but not all writers do this. All I can say is that I personally don't want my readers to be confused. I want them to be engaged, so I try my best to follow verb conventions when writing flashbacks.

**Another formatting option is to italicize the flashback.

Other types of flashbacks:
*dreams (Personally, I think dreams are overdone, especially by young writers, so I would avoid writing about a dream, but it is an option.)
*extended flashback: Flashbacks can be a paragraph, chapter, or even the majority of the text. It is possible to have a "story within a story" in which the flashback is "book-ended" by the present action.

I would also like to point out that flashbacks can be in poetry as well. A great example is the poem "Spring Rain," by Sara Teasdale.

**If anyone has any good citations for examples in fiction or nonfiction, please let me know. I know there are so many out there. (UPDATED: the Madeleine scene from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Also, The Things They Carried has flashback scenes. I've read that book three times and I can remember the flashbacks, but since I don't have a copy with me here in Vancouver I can't pull any excerpts.)

Thanks for reading. If you found this helpful or have something to add, I'd love to hear from you. Look for a post about  how "body parts are not characters" coming in the next couple days.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Thoughts on Workshop

Hi all,

Last week I promised a post after I completed my first week of grad school. I'm taking four classes this semester and love, love, love all of them, professors, classmates and all.

As of right now, I am thinking my thesis will most likely be in Children's Literature (no shocker there), but I'm also very interested in pursuing nonfiction. Luckily, I won't have to make this decision until after South Africa.

So...I had my first workshop. Overall, it went very well. I wrote a picture book/easy reader story--a feel good bedtime story is probably more accurate. The thing I love about workshop is that it gives the writer an opportunity to hear feedback and reader reactions.

For those who are unfamiliar with workshop, here's an overview. The class reads a selection provided by one or more students. We had four students submit, and each workshop took about 20 minutes. Those who are reading are encouraged to write comments in the margins of the manuscript--extensive comments. Sometimes this can be a bit tricky due to lack of space, so in my undergrad classes, we wrote workshop letters. They had to be one page, single spaced. The formula was pretty basic, but it was effective, one I would recommend to other writers who find themselves in a position to review another's work whether in workshop or otherwise. In the first paragraph, briefly summarize the piece. This can be very brief, but it is helpful for the author to have the summary in case the reader has misunderstood something about the plot. Chances are that if something didn't connect for the reader, the problem was in the text, not the reader's fault (obviously there are exceptions to this claim.) The second paragraph should offer positive feedback and should provide concrete examples. Rather than simply saying, "I like the narrator," choose a page or section that you feel best exemplifies why you like the narrator, include the reference and elaborate. Being vague helps no one. The third paragraph, or section in the case that the positive feedback needs to be divided into two paragraphs, should be suggestions for improvement. Tread lightly my friends. I've heard lots of writer's say "If you don't like something tell me." I understand this point. A workshop where everyone kisses up to one another is not productive, but it is important to remember that writing is personal, and therefore, there are polite and diplomatic ways to say what you want to say. The last paragraph should be closing thoughts, anything that did not fit above. Lastly, sign your letter. Take credit for your feedback. It's annoying to get a manuscript back with comments and not have any clue who made the comments.

Some professors lead the discussion. Others try to stay out of it. Also, some workshops are an open forum discussion, but other times we simply go around the room allowing each person the opportunity to comment.

One very important part of workshop is that the author does not speak until the very end. It can be a bit awkward sometimes to have people talking about your work right in front of you. It's also awkward to talk about someone's work while they are right there. The reason the writer remains silent is that sometimes it is tempting to be defensive or to explain, but think of it this way: if you are published, you are not going to be sitting there with every reader being able to explain your word choice or clarifying a confusing plot point. In workshop, the piece should speak for itself, even if it is an excerpt of a chapter. If the writer is too involved in the conversation, it does not allow for the other members of the workshop to discuss plot, narration, etc. However, if, as the writer, you take the time to listen and possibly take notes, you will most likely receive feedback that tells you what is and is not working in your piece. Workshops are a unique opportunity to discern how readers are reacting to your piece and if there is confusion, the other members of the workshop debate the possibilities among themselves. As with any beta readers or critique groups, workshops are helpful because they offer many other sets of fresh eyes looking at your piece.

Still, workshops cause anxiety among even the most seasoned writers.

I find it helps to remember that as a writer you are not going to agree with every reader's opinion. Some people "get" your work. Others don't. The trick is to sift through the feedback and make changes while still remain true to your voice and the integrity to the piece. The opposite is also true. You are not going to be everyone else's ideal reader. Obviously, the professor is the most likely the most accomplished person in the room and the one with the most experience. They are also the person giving the grade. I've heard lots of students talk about tailoring their work to fit their professor's preferences. I understand the temptation, but write the piece that you want to write,or better yet, write the piece you want to read. If you are trying to write for someone else, it is less fun.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Benefits of Outlining

I've read a few author interviews lately that have asked the author whether or not he or she is a planner or a pantser. What's a pantser? Someone who flies by the seat of their pants.

For me, I work in longer mediums, novellas, novels, lengthy personal essays. I struggle with short stories and poems. That being said, my ideas come to me nearly fully formed in terms of plot. I know the basic arc, the beginning, middle, and end from the get go. I've read some writers are inspired by characters first, and they let the character drive the story. I tend to write more plot-driven pieces myself, but I know my characters pretty well.

I'm a planner. Even in my non-writing life I write to-do lists or lists in general. I love schedules and concrete directions. So you'd think I'd be all about an outline for my manuscripts, right? Yes and no. My earliest works, Alive Without a Trace, Chasing Dreams, Going for the Mountain, all three written and self-published before I was 16 years old were all "pantser" projects. I didn't outline whatsoever. I wrote for the love of it, and I wrote everyday. I was a kid, naive, but I was ambitious and did not know the meaning of self-doubt. As I've grown as a writer, though, my projects have become more in depth and I've taken the revision process much more seriously. In this regard, outlining has been a marvellous tool.

For my WIP (work in progress) Borrowed Time, I started as a pantser, but then I read Bleak House by Dickens for my Oxford class. (I hated Bleak House by the way.) In our discussion, we talked about the alternating narrators and I had an epiphany. I had been telling the story from Shelby's perspective, and it was stalling. So, I decided to write it from Kiki's perspective. Kiki is a ghost. I wrote five chapters from Kiki's perspective for my Creative Writing tutorial in Oxford. I didn't find it too hard to start from Part Two, but it quickly became clear that I was referencing events in Part Two that I hadn't yet written about in Part One. I needed to outline or I'd drive myself crazy when it was time to pick up Part One again. Since the story takes place over the course of a school year, I started a new word document, made two columns, made headings for each month, and created bullet points for major plot points or quotes I wanted to remember. I also color coded it. (When I hand write outlines, I use different colored pens. It makes it easier to follow and the splash of color makes it a bit more cheerful.)

I recently finished the first draft of Borrowed Time, and as I was rereading it, I realized that I wasn't happy with how I dealt with the passage of time. I hand wrote an outline (with pink and blue pen). For each chapter, I documented the month, the conflict, the emotions, and what, if anything, needed to be fixed. This method allowed me to see that the second half of Shelby's narrative is paced faster than the first. There is also a one month jump that didn't read well, so I made a note on my outline to add a scene and divide that chapter into two separate chapters.

Outlines can be very detailed or just the bare bones. You don't need a formal structure either. My undergrad adviser had us keep a "great thoughts" notebook. The name sounds intimidating or pretentious depending on how you look at it, but basically, the point was to keep a small notebook with us and write descriptions of interesting events we saw, funny things we heard, etc. I'd tried this technique before but wasn't a fan. I'd even keep a notebook by my bed because I'd get all these ideas before falling asleep. I'd promise myself I'd remember them, but never did, so I made the effort to write them down. Thank God for iPhones. Pre-iPhone, I had to get up, turn the light on. It was a production. Inspiration struck time and time again, and I'd have to keep interrupting my sleep, so now I just use the voice recorder. Also, now that I'm juggling multiple projects, I keep a notebook in my purse so I can jot down thoughts during the 45 minute bus rides to campus. This notebook is not for a formal outline, but it does serve as an outline of sorts.

For Podium Finish, I would jot down scenes or dialogue as they'd come to me, but rather than outlining the plot, I outlined my characters. I created lists documenting everything from physical attributes, fears, desires, family, words that were specific to that character. Podium Finish is told in alternating first person point of views, and one of the toughest parts of revising was creating distinct voices. Having the lists of key words or phrases made the process easier.

I'm also thinking of expanding a short story I wrote in high school. It's roughly 20,000 words as is, spanning 5 years. I feel an outline similar to what I did for BT will be necessary to reference while I'm writing. I haven't gotten very far on this, as I'm editing BT and pitching PF to publishers, but I'm excited to dust off an old piece. The characters from the piece have stuck with me similar to the way the characters of PF are still in my head six years later. It's begging to be written, and I need to get my fingers on those keys! (I'll save motivation and my writing habits for a later post.)

Happy writing!