Category Archives: Writing challenges

Abuse, Suicide, and Warm Fuzzies

Sorry I missed last week. On planned blog day I found myself in a place with s-l-o-w Internet, and I didn’t have the patience for it. Thanks for YOUR patience.

Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately that I’d love comments on: Even though kids love to read about disaster, distress, and dystopia (read this from the Huffington Post—it’s great), is it possible to write about average, sheltered, and *gasp* happy teens and make it interesting?

I’m wondering because I was blessed to be a fairly even-keeled teen, involved in service organizations and academic clubs and those sorts of things. I never spent a minute smoking in the back parking lot, nor am I aware of any friends who did. I continue to know a lot of the same kind of young adults today. I’m not saying this to be pious. It was just my reality.

After reading Mary Kole’s post on high school cliques, I was reminded why my young adult experience may not be typical. Everyone at my school got along. In the four years I attended Wasatch High, I don’t remember witnessing any gathering crowds shouting, “Fight, fight, fight!” Unless I was cloistered in a classroom after school, unaware.

The first day I attended my then-rural high school after moving from a higher-class cliquish middle school in the city, I was shocked to watch someone I deemed as a skater walking down the hall flirting with the straight-A, straight-laced Mormon girl. And the cowboy eating lunch with the jock. And the pretty girls best friends with the frumpy ones. And so on.

The roof was leaking on my first day of school, and garbage cans were lined down the middle of the hall. At the end of the day, every can was still standing—having budged only a few inches at most. Filled with water. At my middle school, they would’ve been trampled or purposely kicked halfway down the hall before first bell. Maybe that’s the difference between a middle school and a high school, but to me, those garbage cans were a symbol, a clear picture of the different crowd I was dealing with in ruraltown, Utah.

That’s where I lived out my YA experience. Any time I read a book about mean girls, or “popular” crowds, I have to suspend my disbelief. I never saw it for myself. (Not saying it never happened at my school—it could be that I was as oblivious then as I am now.)

For this reason, I am well aware of the benefits of writing what you don’t know, like Brodi so eloquently blogged about today. Who would relate to what I do know if I were to write it? And yet I daydream about finding that audience someday.

Author Wallace Stegner once addressed the question, Is it boring to be good? He wrote Crossing to Safety especially to highlight the normal and beautiful in life. He said:

There was nothing very dramatic in those lives [of my characters] . . . so that I was taking risks, I was quite aware. The contemporary novel deals commonly in sensation, but there was not much sensation in this story to deal with. .  . . And also, I suppose, I had the muleheaded notion that it ought to be possible to make books out of something less than loud sensation.

Is it possible in YA?

I wouldn’t write about abuse and suicide if I thought they were mere sensation. I see them as truths that need to be told, especially for the teen readers who know all too much about that kind of reality. But what about the teens who grew up like me? They may be in the minority, but they exist. Are their reading experiences destined to be all window and no mirror?

One day I’m going to find a way to write about characters doing things just like this. And this, except without the religious motivation. I believe atheists and teens who espouse a faith could both be motivated by all things beautiful and good. I don’t want to have to turn to Christian publishing houses exclusively to find these stories in fiction. I believe teens like the ones I know need mirrors in mainstream fiction as readily as any other reader.

The trick is . . . how to make it interesting? To both YA readers and savvy New York editors who may not believe a high school like mine still exists in this century?

Have you read any contemporary YA books that rang true to you and didn’t involve much darkness? Are they out there and I’m not informed enough to find them? Are they compelling? Or does the real, average, straight-laced-type of teenager’s life come across as too slight in fiction?



Filed under Writing challenges

Writing the Painful Truth

I’ve shared this advice from Susan Taylor Brown once before:

Your writing can come across as unrealistic because you are afraid to write with the authenticity that will force you, and the reader, to feel. If you feel numb when you write, how do you think your readers are going to feel when they read? . . . Lose control. Take the energy you would spend trying to control your work and put it into your work.

Here’s what Ally Condie had to say about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and the controversy surrounding its censorship:

My father was a judge for many years . . . and he told us things he thought we should know. About what happens to girls everywhere, and why you have to be careful, and why a dark and dangerous boy is, contrary to popular belief, also dark and dangerous to you.

My dad wasn’t trying to scare us or cripple us.

He was just trying to tell us about the world we live in and what happens to the people who live in it. Because even if the pain isn’t yours, it could be. And as a human being, that should matter.

Speak tells you things about someone else’s pain. It tells you things about your own pain. And the catharsis and the beauty in the telling–that is something no one should be denied.

From the lovely Mary Kole:

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

And here is Sara Zarr, paraphrased from the UVU conference a few years ago:

If you sweep people’s pain under the rug, it’s condescending and dehumanizing. If you do that to your characters, you are, in a sense, doing that to your readers, too. Honor your readers by letting them feel pain instead of shielding them.

I’m all about letting my readers feel pain. But what about inflicting it on myself? Is this all really necessary?

My WIP scares the crap out of me right now. My first manuscript was excruciating in a lot of ways, but never scary to put down on paper.

For any of my LDS readers who might have happened to see Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace, I felt physically beat up after watching that film. Did you? And yet I loved it. I remember my mom saying, “I think Richard Dutcher wants Mormons to think about things they don’t want to think about.” Reviewers agreed that he asked difficult questions, leaving many of them unanswered.

I would never set out to “make” anyone think about things they don’t want to think about because I don’t want to write messagey books or run the risk of coming across as disdainful toward my audience, criticisms that have been leveled at Dutcher by some viewers. And yet I keep thinking of the day I saw that film—sitting in the Wynnsong Theater, watching characters come to the precipice of destroying their lives and hanging on by their fingernails at the film’s end. Lately I feel that way every time I sit down to write.

For some reason I’m making myself think about things I don’t want to think about. And then I’m recording those thoughts for others to potentially see, no self-censorship allowed.


I guess it’s because the fun, modern fairytale I was working on before didn’t have much of a pulse. I’ll come back to it someday; I’ll need a break after this beast. But in the meantime, this monster of a book is demanding to be released from its cage.

Ha. If some of you ever read it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. What is hard to write or read is different for everyone, and I’m a huge wimp.

Two questions for you:

1. What’s the hardest book you’ve ever read or the most difficult movie you’ve ever seen that was nevertheless beautiful? What made it rise above the others for you?

2. How do you escape the safe rut of self-censorship in your writing?


Filed under Writing challenges

Catch 22 of the Day

Here is a tip I heard from Martine Leavitt and recently read again on Carol Lynch Williams’s blog:

The story must start on a day when something is different for the main character.

I tried this. Laid it all out there on the first three pages. And you know what editors said? “Who cares? I don’t know your character yet, so I’m not interested in going on this journey with her.”

Back to the drawing board.

Next I tried implementing advice from editor Jennifer Hunt, who in essence told me to tell readers whose story this is going to be, establish her voice, and *then* begin the character’s journey. Similarly, writer/editor Kim Griswell said:

Most heroes’ journeys begin in the ordinary, everyday world. We meet a character where he lives and get to know a bit about him. Just as we’re starting to like him, he finds himself at the edge of a cliff looking off into the great unknown.

I tried this too. Do you know what my writers groups said? “I like knowing your main character more, but I was hoping for some conflict by now. What’s different about this day?”

ARG! Sometimes I wonder if writers are even close to sane.

How do you balance the introduction of main characters with making stuff happen in a first chapter? Or what are some novels you think have especially great first chapters? Chances are, your favorite first chapters achieve this balance without readers even noticing.

*Runs off to read 20 first chapters*


Filed under Writing challenges, Writing Tip

Who Can Write for Whom?

an-naOne of my favorite books is An Na’s A Step from Heaven. Another favorite is Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. Man, I would LOVE to be able to write like these women! And yet . . . I wonder if the well of my own experience is a bit shallow. Drip, drip. Writing about my own culture would be BOR-ING, so I trick myself into thinking maybe I’ll spice things up by writing about someone else’s.

Kidding! I never consciously set out to write a novel about a Japanese-American girl confused about her heritage. The girl just came to me. I knew her family history before I ever really knew her. And I was scared to write it and am still scared to publish it because race, especially writing about one different than your own, is touchy, touchy.

In Rick Walton’s class yesterday we read Mitali Perkins’s recent School Library Journal article “Straight Talk on Race.” She referenced Hazel Rochman’s 1995 Horn Book article “Against Borders.” 

Both articles are intriguing to me not only because of my first novel, but also because my second novel is about a girl who moves to Germany. Both of these essays articulate why I’m a little scared to tackle these stories: How can I be authentic if I’m not writing from the depths of my own identity? How can I write about a foreign place as something other than an exotic vacation destination if I’ve never lived there?

The issue of race and culture in young adult literature is a sticky one because if you venture outside your own experience you risk inaccuracy, even if you do meticulous research. Hazel Rochman explains:

You can get a lot of things wrong as a writer, an artist, or a reviewer when you don’t know a place or a culture. I’m from South Africa, so I do know that culture better than the average American does, and reviewing a book about apartheid, I might find things that you might miss. One obvious example is the use of the word native, which is a derogatory term in Africa with overtones of the primitive and uncivilized, quite different from the way it’s used here. It makes me realize that I must miss things when I review books about, for example, Japan, or about Appalachia.

Another risk in writing about other cultures is being condescending by trying so hard to be respectful. Being reverential about other races all the time does not portray members of that culture as real, three-dimensional people with their own problems and better things to do than give sage advice to white protagonists.

And yet, these articles convinced me that the bigger risk would be not writing my stories, becoming so afraid of getting things wrong and offending people that the story is squelched altogether. Perkins writes:

Let the stories come. The more novels about a diversity of characters written by a diversity of authors and consumed by a diversity of readers, the better. All I’m asking is that we pay attention to how and why the race of characters is conveyed in a story.

What Perkins says next is something I’m still digesting. She suggests:

When race is explicit in a book, ask yourself . . . what would have been lost if a character’s race hadn’t been defined by the writer. Why did the author choose to define race? If the only answer you come up with is “maybe he wanted to show how open-minded he is” or “she could have been trying to move the world toward a better day,” that’s not good enough.

A better answer might be, “because the particular community where the action is set is diverse.” Or, “because the protagonist knew how to make kimchee from scratch.” The story and characters, not the author’s best political intentions, should determine whether or not he or she defines race.

So question for the day: What reasons do you assign races to your characters? Or are there reasons at all? Is it okay to have a character who is from a culture different than your own “just because”? Do you think it’s generally better to not assign race at all and let your readers decide how they see your characters?


Filed under Writing challenges

The Dangers of Being Gifted

My last post about Martine Leavitt and her gift from the universe got me thinking about the term “gifted.”

My elementary school had a gifted and talented program, meaning from time to time I got yanked out of regular class to go learn how to write stories. I usually won the PTA Reflections contest, and I won a book-writing contest sponsored by the school library. They bound my winning story and put it on the library shelves next to real published books (and I hope it has long since disappeared). I was delighted but never surprised by my prizes—I was gifted. Teachers said so.

I think having confidence can get you started, and I’m grateful to the teachers and librarians who gave me some. But feeling gifted won’t get you far, especially if you believe in yourself too much. That’s the first danger of being naturally talented. You who regularly attend writing workshops know what I’m talking about—there’s always the guy who tears down everything everyone else has written but turns up his nose when anyone dares give him a suggestion or two!

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about here is balance—the line we try to walk between wanting to make sure a gift is not wasted and giving our favorite talent too much focus.

Is there such a thing as writing too much? I didn’t used to think so. I thought excellence came at the expense of balance. Our culture is so success-oriented in the business and financial sense that living a full, well-rounded life does not always come intuitively, nor does it always seem desirable. Becoming obsessive about our gifts is danger number two.

For religious people, I think this article can be instructive—“The Seduction of Our Gifts” by BYU Dance professor Pat Debenham. He talks about how artists are misled in feeling their talents are more valuable, more magical, more infused with divine purpose than other gifts, like accounting. And yet the “gifts” of dance, writing, painting—even accounting—are never mentioned in the scriptures. When we try to use our talents rather than real spiritual gifts to “bless” other people, we may be trying to justify our self-absorption. You can’t delve into writing a book and think you’re doing the world a favor if you write at the expense of developing universally needed gifts like hope, faith, and charity.

For religious and non-religious people alike, I think Nathan Bransford’s post “Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer” is a great wake-up call, especially commandment number four: “Don’t neglect your friends and family. No book is worth losing a friend, losing a spouse, losing crucial time with your children. Hear me? NO book is worth it. Not one. Not a bestseller, not a passion project, nothing. Friends and family first. THEN writing. Writing is not an excuse to neglect your friends and family. Unless you don’t like them very much.”

So, a question for all you lurkers who may be inclined to comment. How do you fit writing into the overall purpose of your life without letting it become THE purpose of your life? Or (because I like stories), what are some of the success stories you’ve seen in your life of artists who are more excellent at what they do precisely because they aren’t so narrowly focused on only one thing?


Filed under Writing challenges

Are All Writers Procrastinators?

My friend Emily said she read somewhere that all writers are procrastinators.

I’d like to hear more anecdotal evidence of this—if it’s true—and even more, I’d like to hear the reasons. Could it be that ALL people are procrastinators? Or is it that overachievers who set their standards so intimidatingly high are especially prone to putting things off? And yes, writers are overachievers to even attempt what they do. Or delusional. Don’t believe me, read this and try not to cry.

I really appreciated Claudia Mills’s presentation at the last BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers. (She’ll be back this year, kids! Don’t miss it.) She gave me tools for overcoming all the reasons I procrastinate—no time to get into that creative zone! my house is a mess! my writing probably sucks anyway!—and when I apply her suggestions, they work like a miracle drug.

The only problem is that I’ve procrastinated applying them consistently.

I don’t want to give away all her secrets in case you’d rather hear them from her yourself this summer. But my favorites are these:

1. Remember that the drop of water hollows the stone. If an hour a day seems too short a time to accomplish something, such as writing the great American epic novel, just think of how far you’d be now if you’d dedicated only an hour a day for the last six months instead of doing nothing.

2. When attending to all the other chores you have to do in a day—cleaning the house, writing a peer-reviewed academic paper, contributing to the potluck—remember the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the benefit comes from twenty percent of the effort. If straightening up makes you feel as happy as if you’d vacuumed out the closets too, why vacuum the closets?!

3. Have a creative ritual. This primes your creativity and sets your mind in a “now it’s time to write” mode. Claudia Mills drinks hot chocolate before writing and uses an hourglass to measure her one-hour-a-day. I have a new-age alarm clock that can play different sounds, supposedly to help me ease out of sleep or drown out the kickin’ party my pre-marriage-era roommates are throwing when I’m trying to sleep. (Yes, I’ve always been lame.) I set the new-age alarm clock for an hour, and by the time the babbling brook or chirping crickets shut up, I’m usually so far into the story I don’t even notice the hour is up.

With only an hour a day to write, Claudia says, “You don’t have time to waste even one minute on self-doubt.”

Or procrastination.


Filed under Writing challenges, Writing Tip

Loosen Up

I was an illustration major once. It didn’t last long.

My old AP art teacher once instructed my friend BeckyAnn to smear a charcoal still life she’d been working on forever and start over on the SAME PAGE! I don’t care that her piece turned out amazing, with all those haunting hints of oozing orange slices emerging in various black-and-white layers. Who cares if she won an award for it in some high school exhibition in Park City, I think, if I remember right. I was still not about to SMEAR my picture and start over. I gripped my charcoal tighter and glowered at my teacher who, it seems, knew how to give me only one instruction: “Loosen up.”

The thing is, I can’t. I have the same problem with toothbrushes—my gums are receding, I brush so hard.

I think I might have the same problem with writing. Writing exercises seem like such a waste when I’d rather just be writing the book. From blank page to finished product, from point A to point Z, with no messy drafts in between—this is my tidy writing fantasy.

I’ve never liked messes. My dad laughed at how I stifled sneezes even as a baby because I was probably afraid of blowing snot all over myself. And I still wash my hands about five times after pulling the defrosted hamburger out of the microwave and dumping it in the frying pan.

That’s why I pulled out my notes today from writer Susan Taylor Brown’s lecture “Write Where It Hurts.” To me, writing first drafts that stink like hot garbage hurts. It’s embarrassing. It seems so inefficient. And yet, people keep telling me there’s no other way to get at the heart of my stories; I have to wade around in the messy unknown to discover what’s hiding. Trying to be tidy results in unrealistic, stiff storytelling, never uncovering what the real story should have been.

Here’s what Ms. Brown had to say about my phobias: “Your writing can come across as unrealistic because you are afraid to write with the authenticity that will force you, and the reader, to feel. If you feel numb when you write, how do you think your readers are going to feel when they read?”

The cure for numb writing? Loosen up. “Lose control. Take the energy you would spend trying to control your work and put it into your work.”

Okay, I can do that—if I stay up till two in the morning watching Monty Python clips on YouTube before settling down to write. I’m not sure how else to put my dominant inner editor to sleep.


Filed under Writing challenges, Writing Tip