Friday, October 29, 2010

The Teen 'Voice'

Any writer of YA fiction knows that one of the things - if not the thing - editors look for in a manuscript is an authentic voice. Voice encompasses the whole of the book, it gives a reader a 'feel' for the characters and story. A writer's voice infuses the entire story and one of the ways to demonstrate that voice is through dialogue. However, when your main character is a teen many writers feel that they need to write the dialogue in a certain way - like there's a 'typical' teen voice or something. Well, we all know that there's no such thing as typical. There are stereotypes for sure but no writer wants their character to be a stereotype. Yet I've noticed some writers who want to write YA seem to fixate on the dialogue and mannerisms of teens by asking themselves or other writers whether they think a teen would say this or do that. My response to the question? "I don't know about whether a teen would say this or do that but what would your character say or do?"

I write fiction that, for the most part, has older teens as the main characters. But it's not like there's a template that says what all 17-year-old girl protagonists sound like. I have the privilege (or is it the curse?? :) ) of being a parent to two teen girls. Those two girls sound, look and act nothing alike. Their friends sound, look and act differently as well. They are all individuals. Some of them sound extremely mature and adult, others more child-like and innocent. One 16 year-old-girl could say "Like, I totally can't deal with her drama." while another would say "Drama queen. She better grow up." while another would say "Well, she seem kind of emotional. Don't you think?" They're all conveying the same point about another character but saying it in different ways depending on their maturity level, personality type and style. The voice comes from the character. Always.

What really bugs me is how fixed so many people seem to be on making sure that voice 'sounds' teen enough. Maybe it's because I'm embedded in the YA world but I don’t hear nearly as much chatter about whether your sixty-five-year-old grandmother character sounds 'senior' enough. Yes, we as writers have to make sure that we don't make a teen sound like she's a neurosurgeon when she's only taking basic Biology in high school (unless she's some kind of super-genius or something. But then why would she be taking basic biology then? I digress.) but your manuscript is filled with a variety of characters with a variety of ages and backgrounds and you have to create several unique, realistic voices.

So the point of my semi-rant? Worry about the character and making the dialogue true to that character. Don't write what you think a teen should sound like. There is no typical teen voice. There is only emotional honesty. Once you nail that, everything else is gravy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One Story At a Time

I, like most mothers, are Grand Masters of Multi-tasking. I can plan a grocery list in my head, while driving my son to hockey practice, stopping to drop off dry cleaning and work on stubborn novel plot points all at the same time. This talent (or maybe not a talent but an essential survival skill in today's world) is not something I trained for or even thought I needed to have before I had children. Maybe it's a latent gene that turns on when you give birth. Suddenly you become a multi-tasker. Then again, maybe it's just a woman thing. Lord knows I despair of seeing it develop in my dearly loved son. My husband seems to be a great multi-tasker at work but when it comes to home life, uh, well, he tries. My point is, if this is something that I've developed to survive in my day to day life (or it's a genetic twist that a large percentage of women have) it seems to have by-passed me in terms of my ability to work on more than one story idea at a time.

I am a one draft at a time, one story at a time writer. I am amazed when I hear of other writers who can flip from working on their middle grade WIP to dip into a picture book draft and then, if they're stalled in these endeavors (or because they really are amazing multi-taskers), start drafting that YA novel they've had brewing in the back of their mind for a few weeks. I know I am not mentally or physically capable of stopping and starting three or more different projects with different voices, different plots, themes, tones and maintain the focus required to reach conclusion on any one of these projects. Ack. I get stressed just thinking about it. Even when I received my revision notes for Illegally Blonde, a story that was pretty much complete, I had to stop working on my WIP at the time to fully focus on Lucy's voice, Lucy's story and submerge myself into the story completely so that the revisions didn't have a different tone. That was my one big worry about the editorial revisions on IB. Because they came so many years after I'd completed the story, would I be able to get back into that 'voice'. So that's why I dropped the WIP I was working on at the time for a full month while I tackled the revisions. I didn't feel confident enough that switching from one story to another would benefit either of them very much. Yet I know many writers who can do this.

Is this writerly multi-tasking ability something that you can develop? Is it just a personal quirk? I'm genuinely curious even though I don't think I'll ever change my one story at a time method. I guess with my personal life already filled to overflowing with multiple tasks, I kind of enjoy just focussing on one thing at a time for a change. How about you? Are you a multi-tasker or one story at a time writer?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Exercise Your Writing

Let's put it on the table, people. I hate exercise. Running, push ups, leg-lifts, free-weights, you name it, I avoid it. I do like some physical activity. I like yoga. Used to do it fairly regularly after the birth of my last child. I like walking so I don't mind walking to the subway or walking the dog (if the weather isn't horrible). But, overall, my slug to Tazmanian Devil ratio is about 100:1. But here's the thing: I think I'm finally starting to understand that whole philosophy about forcing yourself to exercise -consistently- even when you feel like crap, even when you abhor the idea of getting up at 6 am to do your stretches or run on the treadmill, once you start it it's not so bad.

I noticed this because I haven't been writing very much on the WIP lately. I do a lot of writing on the subway and, for various reasons, I've been driving to and from work the last couple of weeks. Well I finally got on that subway again a couple of times this week and my old habits kicked in. Instead of grabbing the newspaper or a book to read like many people, what I've usually done for the last few years is take that time to write. Well, I'd gotten out of that habit and the first day I truly didn't feel like pulling out the journal. I thought, I'll just re-read what I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Just to remind myself of where I was in the story. Soon enough that led to some ideas, a few words of correction here and there, an additional paragraph and by the time I got to work I had two new pages added to the story. It wasn't easy, the words took a while to come but, like exercise, if you force yourself to just do it, start slowly, it does get easier. Same with my attendance at The Boy's Tae Kwon Do practices. When I go I make sure I have nothing to read except my own work. As soon as I sit down I'm like Pavlov's dog and out comes the journal. Again, my mind may not want to write but I'm forcing myself to just look at the words at first, scratch a few new ones out in the hopes that more will come. Like people who say I can only do one push up and then the next day they say maybe if I got one done, I can now do two.

It's been a really long week and I'm not sure if I'll get much more writing done over the weekend. But I know that avoiding exercise leads to a flabby, unhealthy person so avoiding writing leads to a flabby, unfinished manuscript. Write one paragraph this weekend? Yeah, I can do that. And if I can do one, then maybe I can do two...

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Perfect Scene

Writers are notorious for their perfectionism - at least the quest for perfection - in their work. We know full well such a thing doesn't exist but we strive for that perfect word, perfect sentence, paragraph, page, etc. Most of the time we fail - or we feel like we fail. The stories in our heads never seem to match with what ends up on paper. That is why we revise - and keep revising - until we get as close as we can to that mental image/story or (and this is more likely) we finally get so sick of the story we can't stand reading it anymore and say "Good enough".

When chatting with other writers I inevitably hear how they've read their stuff so many times they'd rather swallow knives than have to re-read the scene they've already read, revised (rinse, repeat, rinse again) a hundred times or more. If they're lucky enough to get published some writers may not even want to crack open that book because 1)after revisions for the editor, copy edits, and line by line scrutiny they are more than ever deathly sick of it or 2)they are terrified to find an escaped error or get renewed doubt and angst over whether the scene/chapter is good enough or, horror of horrors, shouldn't be there or could have been done a different way to better effect.

It is rare to feel like anything you've written can't be improved upon because 99% of the time it can. But there are times - those rare, exceptional times - when writing a scene flows so easily, feels so right and is exactly as you pictured it in your head (if you are like me you see the scene unfold like a movie in your mind) that you wouldn't change a word of it when you're done. I've only experienced that feeling once and it was a scene in Illegally Blonde.

I wrote the scene where Lucy kisses Filipe for the first time at the church four years ago. I remember exactly where I was when I finished it(late at night, in bed) and I remember thinking "Yes. This is exactly how I imagined this scene should be." That scene is still almost exactly the same as from the moment I put pen to paper over four years ago. In fact, I was so sure of the 'rightness' of that scene that one of the first questions I asked my editor, Anita, in our first conversation was, "Please tell me you don't want to change or cut the scene with Lucy and Filipe's kiss at the church." Luckily, Anita had no problems with it either. If she wanted it cut it might have been a deal breaker! :)

The point is that sometimes it's not so much about whether a scene is perfect or not. I'm sure many people who would read the scene might think it's just an average scene or who would think it could definitely be improved upon - and maybe that's true. But for me, for the story I wanted to tell, in the way I wanted to tell it, the scene is so right, so 'perfect' I would not change a word of it. And given my love of revision, I know how rare that is.

How about you? Have you ever had a scene come out almost exactly as you envisioned it that it barely changed from the first draft? Or do you sculpt your scenes, layer by layer to get them to be as near to perfect as you can?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Celebrating an Amazing Author

It is so rare to achieve any success in this writing game that when something comes along that is so amazing, so wonderful and the recipient of that success is so deserving of it it is a joy to celebrate it with them. The wonderful thing that happened today was that a fellow Torkidlit writer is a finalist for one of the most prestigious awards in Canada - the Governor General's Award. The writer is Cheryl Rainfield and the book is her searing story SCARS.

This honour is particularly special because Cheryl is, without question, one of the most supportive writers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. She is open and warm and caring of the struggle that writers - and people in general - go through. That comes from her compassionate nature and it comes from a lifetime of her own personal struggles and her ability to rise above the most horrible of circumstances to become an exceptionally positive and creative human being. Her love of books and reading enabled her to do this and it is that love that helped her write and gave the world SCARS. And now, with this nomination, even more people will be aware of the book and the story and hopefully, more teens will know they are not alone even when it seems the world has turned its back on them.

Bravo, Cheryl. I'm thrilled your book has received such an honour but mostly, my dear, I am thrilled for you. Enjoy the ride!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Link to an Awesome Blog Post

I don't often link to other blog posts because I'm a horrible blog visitor. I can go long stretches of time without visiting or discovering other blogs and, most of the time, I find that I'm usually quite late to the game and everyone has already discovered, visited, commented or otherwise discussed the blog or blog post in question so there's really nothing more I can add to the issue/discussion.

But today I finally visited the blog of Sarah Davies the principal agent at Greenhouse Literary and her October 5th blog post was filled with such wonderful, practical and hopeful advice to writers I just had to share it with you (and I'll make a point to visit there more often). It's the kind of thoughtful post that will resonate with so many writers (or anyone who is endeavouring to accomplish an almost impossible pursuit)that it should be shared as widely as possible. It really did put things in perspective for me and is a reminder of what we set out to do with our writing and what we should be getting out of this perilous and fraught with angst endeavor.

Enjoy the post, thanks to Ms. Davies for writing it and Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all my fellow Canucks out there!

A Kipling Moment

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just Keep Pushing

No, I'm not advocating rude subway or bus riding behaviour. I'm talking about pushing through when you don't feel like any progress is being made. This happens to me in so many aspects of my life I feel like I could just write blog posts about only this topic. Sometimes it feels like all I'm doing is pushing but I'm not getting through. Like I'm holding a wall that feels like it's about to topple on me if I don't keep the pressure up against it. And that's exactly the feeling I have when I'm working through the middle of the book which I'm doing right now. And that's exactly the feeling I have when I'm dealing with family/life commitments that I can't possibly attend/deal with because there is a whole section of wall that is about to topple first so I have to let the other side crumble.

The last few weeks and the the few weeks coming up I have/had to:
- miss my mom's birthday
- miss my Uncle's surprise 65th birthday party
- delay getting my daughter's skating program started
- delay cleaning out the old house
- manage Thanksgiving weekend around two hockey games which means we might have our dinner on Saturday night so I can drive four hours on Sunday night (after the hockey game) to surprise my mom with a quick overnight visit from her grandkids, drive back on Monday afternoon, drop off my daughter at her university on the way and get back home by Monday night
- probably miss my husband's annual early extended family Christmas get together on the first weekend in December (another hockey tournament)
- slow my writing down to a painful crawl but still try and maintain some forward motion with a page or two written while waiting for the Boy to finish Tae Kwon Do practices

Yup, the wall is certainly crumbling and cracking but am I about to stop pushing and let the whole thing fall? No. I may not be entirely successful in keeping the wall straight and unbroken but, darn it, I am not going to stop pushing against it because I know if I do that I'll be a quitter and if there is anything writing has taught me is that you can't be a quitter. Not if you hope to succeed in this business. Not if you hope to suceed in completing a novel. Not if you hope to succeed in growing and expanding your own strength of character. Yes, it is hard. Yes, not everything will be perfect. But the beauty is not in perfection - the beauty is in the effort and in the holding on in face of seemingly unsupportable odds.

So for all of us holding on to those walls (or boulders) keep your strength, don't give up, don't give in. The effort will be worth it (and, if all else fails, at least your arms will get really toned).