Sandra Cisneros and Voice

I had the chance to present at the Space Coast Writers Guild conference a few weeks ago on writing for young adults. Good times! And then I had the chance to get over a nasty, nasty airplane-caught flu for three weeks. BUT I’m back and glad to be here.

My many thanks for the generous people of SCWG who let me come and didn’t walk out of my presentation even when I kept running out of air and almost passing out. I blame the pregnancy, not the nervousness. 😉

Of the feedback I got on the presentation, a lot of people said they had never heard Sandra Cisneros’s vignette “Eleven” and liked it. Here’s a snippet in case you don’t remember from your ninth-grade English class:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s       okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.

I like this because, for me, it illustrates writing from the young adult or middle-grade voice. You don’t have to invent a voice out of nothing. You’re already thirteen inside. You only have to decide if you have the courage to peel back the layers and let that awkward, tormented, idealistic person from your past speak.

Next week I’ll touch on how to peel back the layers and write with a younger voice without necessarily making your characters too autobiographical.

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Getting Caught Up

Hey readers, I’m alive! It turns out that instead of incubating creative ideas over the holiday, I was really incubating one of these:

A baby gummy bear, according to #6 Sara. No wonder I’ve been too sleepy to blog.

Despite my lazy excuses, I’ve been cooking up some fun writing tips that I hope will be as useful to others as they’ve been to me. Come back in two weeks and I’ll start posting a few. For now, I need to get ready for the big conference this weekend where I’ll be sharing what I know about writing a YA novel. If you’ll be in Cocoa Beach, come say hi. If you’re a robber—sorry, I have a house-sitter. Besides, I’m taking my laptop with me, and I haven’t bought another piece of technological gadgetry since 2003.

Okay, back to the schedule. It’s time for “Moment in Fiction Monday.”

I recently read a book I got for my birthday . . . back in April. It’s Tallulah Falls by Christine Fletcher, published in 2006 by Bloomsbury. It’s a contemporary, coming-of-age-type book. A little quiet. I miss seeing these types of books coming out lately, but if the ALA rumor is true, contemporary is making a comeback. Good news to me.

I liked a lot of the themes here, but especially an interesting take on dealing with stigmas. Maeve, who’s been diagnosed as bipolar, says to her friend:

“According to some people with lots of initials after their names, I’m bipolar.” Maeve spread her arms wide, glancing right and left, as if appealing to a crowd. “I ask you. What is bipolar?”

“Some kind of brain thing, isn’t it?”

Maeve’s hands collapsed into her lap. Wrong answer, Tallulah guessed.

“It’s nothing,” Maeve said. “It’s a label. That’s what I’m telling you. It doesn’t mean anything.” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. Her grin was gone; she seemed now entirely serious. “Look. People don’t like it when they see other people moving differently through the world. They want to set it apart, away from themselves. So they put it in a box. Call it a name. It makes them feel safer.”

Differently through the world. Debbie repeated the words to herself. She moved differently through the world. That’s true, she thought. She just hadn’t known how to say it.

“When you start believing the label,” Maeve said, “that’s when they have you.”

Interesting ideas, for sure. But what surprised me was both the positive and negative consequences Maeve experiences as a result of adopting this viewpoint.

What books have you liked that deal with labels and the way it affects who characters become?

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Lars and the Real Girl

For today’s moment-in-fiction Monday I’m going to quote on of my favorite movies instead of a book. If you’re dashing toward the NaNoWriMo finish line, I thought you might prefer a movie recommendation since you’re probably tired of looking at words.

This comes from LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. If you haven’t heard of this one, here’s the trailer:

And here is the quote:

Lars Lindstrom: I was talking to Bianca, and she was saying that in her culture they have these rites of passages and rituals and ceremonies, and, just all kinds of things that, when you do them, go through them, let you know that you’re an adult. Doesn’t that sound great?

Gus: It does.

Lars Lindstrom: How’d you know?

Gus: How’d I know what?

Lars Lindstrom: That you were a man.

Gus: Ahhh. I couldn’t tell ya.

Lars Lindstrom: Was it… okay, was it sex?

Gus: Um. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s uh, yeah, yeah it’s kind of – it’s uh – no. Well, it’s kind of sex but it’s not, uh, you know? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s – uh – good question, good question.

Lars Lindstrom: Yeah, but I have to know.

Gus: [dryer buzzes] Hold that thought.

Gus: [in basement] You know, you should ask Dagmar.

Lars Lindstrom: I did ask Dagmar. And she said that I should ask you.

Gus: Okay, you know I can only give you my opinion.

Lars Lindstrom: That’s what we want.

Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re one thing or the other, okay? There’s still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay? And not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts.

Lars Lindstrom: Okay, like what?

Gus: Like, you know, like, you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways. That’s all I can think of. You know, it sound like it’s easy, and for some reason it’s not.

Here’s why I like this movie so much. The writer, Nancy Oliver, explained how she thought of the idea:

“It was a ‘what if?’ thing. Like, ‘What if we didn’t treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?'”

If you’ve seen it, tell me what you think. And do you have any movie recommendations for me?

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Killing Weedy Words

Apologies for the Thursday post. I should have published this yesterday. But you are all too busy finishing your 60k novels this month to read blogs, right?

When NaNoWriMo ends in a few weeks, you’ll probably spend another month finessing plot, characterization, and setting, making your underlying themes gleam, unless you’re like me. Then you’ll spend another year.

After the big pieces are in the right places, then comes the time to clean up sentences. I like these examples from Highlights editor Kim Griswell:

Some words are like weeds: You should pull them out whenever you see them.

Some of her examples include useless adjectives, which we’ve heard a lot about. But I need to do a better job of watching out for prepositions. “Face your problems” sounds a lot snappier than “face up to your problems,” and “at this point in time” is a waste of words when you can say “now.”

Qualifiers should go, too. I felt sad when I saw this one on Kim’s list of noxious words: “Pretty much.” My characters say “pretty much” on pretty much every page.

How’s the crazy November writing madness going for everyone? (If I edited blog posts, I’d delete “crazy”—see, because “madness” means the same thing.)

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Writing and Pottery

In a BYU devotional, Professor Camille Fronk once said:

I found it fascinating to learn where a potter focuses his attention [at first]. He does not concentrate on the outward appearance of the vessel. He knows that the outside will take care of itself when the inner space is formed. In other words, the form of the inner chamber determines the appearance of the exterior.

This fact was used to make a religious comparison, but what can it have to do with writing?

Okay, I know I’ve hit on the issue of character motivation more than once, and maybe that’s because I’m still figuring out how to nail it in my own writing. The way I see it, the main character’s inner life—deepest wishes, greatest fears, way of viewing the world based on unique character traits and past experience—these all have to shape the action in the story. If you are a character-driven writer, it may seem obvious that your character’s heart is what creates the outward appearance of the plot. If you are a plot-driven writer, this idea is more tricky.

I’ve said this before, too: Readers can tell the difference between characters whose motivations create plot and characters who conform to plot without any deep or especially believable motivations. As a freelance reader of slush for a local publishing company, I often write comments like these on manuscript evaluations: “I don’t understand why the character is doing this here,” or “I don’t believe the character would totally change his course based on a vague feeling of intuition. It doesn’t ring true,” or “I don’t think this character would act this way without some outward instigation.” I feel like almost every evaluation turns into a chorus of, “WHAT IS THE CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION HERE?”

And yet, readers have marked the same observations on my manuscripts. When they do, I find that those passages were written when I was excited about the next plot point and I wanted to get my character there. I hadn’t stopped to think what my character would be thinking, feeling, and reacting to in the present, unaware of what plot twist the author had in store for her next.

Do you know what’s going on inside your main character’s heart and head when you sit down to write?

If not, how do you figure it out?

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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.

WHY?

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?

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Domain of Ownership

Are there any literary or artistic works that almost feel like they are a part of you?

I don’t know where this quote originally came from; I jotted it down in some class notes from my college days:

In your own writing, make allusions to works or artists that feel like they are a part of you. Works are more powerful when rich in your personal culture.

I remember the professor telling us we could “own” other people’s works. Our emotional response to them would make for a unique voice in our creative writing.

Who are some artists or authors—or what are some works—that are a part of your personal culture? And are they classical enough to write about or will today’s teens totally miss the point?

Originally, I had characters in my first novel alluding to The Scarlet Letter and Emily Dickinson poems. In fact, I built the whole first chapter around a poem. Then I learned that my main character hates reading and cut all literary allusions.

In a book I’m working on now, I referred to Indian legends about my hometown. Then I changed the setting, and those parts got axed too. I guess I have yet to make my works “rich” with my “personal culture.”

However, maybe personal culture extends beyond the humanities. Why did I feel driven to write about a character who spent time in a Japanese internment camp when I’m a sheltered, white, Utah girl? Because my great-grandparents had a Japanese internment camp barrack brought to their farm after the war, stuffed to this day with old, rusty junk. That building and what it stands for haunts me even now. I hope the image of that barrack haunts the pages of my novel, too, even though I have no Japanese heritage.

What allusions have popped up in your writing that have added depth?

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