Category: Fundamentals

The best writing advice

About a month ago, a couple of days after I signed the contract for my three-book deal with Astraea Press, I wrote a hand-written letter to one of my high school teachers. She’s still at the school, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d be retiring soon, so I considered myself lucky to be able to reach out to her and thank her for the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

But first, a little backstory.

Like a lot of other writers I’ve met, reading and writing came easily to me from an early age. I’ve been reading for longer than I can remember, and I was told I had a way with words when I was very young. I received awards for writing all throughout elementary school, was praised by my 5th grade and 7th grade language arts teachers for my ability to write dialogue, and won the award for Exceptional Performance in Literature in 8th grade.

But writing came easily to me, which meant I could skate by in all my English classes without even needing to try. And because I didn’t bother to try, I wasn’t included in the Honors English classes that some of my friends were in. Basically, if I tried harder, if I applied myself more, I would have been in those classes. (I learned all of this my senior year after talking to my guidance counselor, who was also my English teacher that year.) But whatever.

My junior year, I was allowed to take an Advanced Writing class. This was separate from English; this was strictly creative writing. The teacher was my sister’s former AP English teacher, and I genuinely liked her. She had us do a lot of fun writing and journaling exercises, and I had fun with it. We read and discussed different styles of writing and practiced writing in those styles, and it was probably one of my favorite classes that year.

But, again, I didn’t really try.

At the end of the semester, one of our final projects was a short story that would ultimately be published in the school literary magazine. I wrote something (I couldn’t even tell you what anymore), submitted it, and got like a B-minus on it. She didn’t mark up my pages like she did on some of my classmates’ work, and the only note I remember seeing was three little words on the very last page:

Know your audience.

Well, sixteen-year-old me was incensed. I threw it away. (That’s probably why I don’t remember what I submitted.) I pitched a hissy fit. My masterpiece, the story I had worked on for hours was better than a B-minus. And I knew my audience. She didn’t know what she was talking about.

Fast-forward *cough* years, and in retrospect, that was the best writing advice anyone had ever given me. And really, up to that point in my life, the only writing advice I’d ever received.

You see, the mechanics of writing came easily to me. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, whatever. Dialogue was easy peasy. Plot? Meh, I could have used some extra work to hone it, but I had the basics down. So those markers that teachers check off before you get to move to the next level? I’d mastered them, and I knew it. And no teacher before her gave me anything less than glowing marks on anything I submitted.

But she was the first teacher to treat me like a writer. Her feedback was the equivalent of the common “It’s not for me” rejection so many writers have received from literary agents and editors. No one had ever rejected my work, though, and that’s why sixteen-year-old me was so angry and infuriated. “How dare she tell me to ‘know my audience!’” I thought she didn’t understand me as a writer, my message, my sheer brilliance.

She wasn’t the one who didn’t understand. I was. And if I’d just swallowed my pride and allowed her to teach me, I would have figured that out a lot earlier than I did.

Aside from being hopelessly amateurish, I realize now whatever I wrote wasn’t suitable for the literary magazine. (I ended up submitting some poetry I’d thrown together.) So no, I didn’t know my audience back then the way I thought I did. I wrote for me—which is always the best thing to do—but in those three little words, she let me know that sometimes, we’re actually writing for other people.

Know your audience.

And write for them.

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The Bechdel Test

The Rule: The Origin of the Bechdel Test

As I’ve been rereading WTRPCPSU during this revision process, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel nearly 30 years ago and has since been used to point out gender inequality in movies. Well, it began with movies, but it can just as easily be applied to television shows and literary works.

The criteria for passing the Bechdel Test is as follows:

There are at least two named female characters…

who talk to each other…

about something besides a man.

Now, I can’t speak for other women in this world, but I know that my real life would easily pass the Bechdel Test. Even if you discount the writing-centric conversations I have, I talk to my female friends about myriad topics ranging from politics to economics to petty gossip (I’ll admit to that) to sports to entertainment. Yes, we may talk about our husbands and our children, but those conversations don’t make up the bulk of our communication.

Since the main character of WTRPCPSU is a 15-year-old female, it should be a given that my novel would pass the Bechdel Test, right? Well, I’d hope so, but just because you have a female lead doesn’t mean you’d automatically pass. I mean, look at Pretty in Pink. I’ve watched that movie several dozen times, and I can’t think of a single conversation Andie has with her friends that don’t involve a guy. And that’s unfortunate.

(If anyone reading this disagrees or can prove me wrong, by the way, please let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to help myself to a heaping plate of crow if I’ve missed it.)

Well, I’m happy to report that WTRPCPSU passes the Bechdel Test. Despite the fact that it’s Teen Chick Lit (hey – I’m being honest), there are more than a handful of conversations among the girls that don’t involve a guy. (Of course, as Teen Chick Lit, there are plenty of conversations that discuss guys, too.) Moreover, I think I’ve done an adequate job of representing both genders, meaning that I include conversations between guys that discuss something other than girls.

That the Bechdel Test should be applied in reverse seems kind of unfair when you consider the initial purpose of the test, but I think it’s possible to swing too much in a single direction. And that’s part of the problem.

Gender equality is about equality. Female characters should get at least as much screen time as male characters. We absolutely need more strong female characters on the screen and in books who interact with each other and talk about real-life issues, not just boys. I’m not denying that. It happens in real life; it should happen in fictional works, too.

But I do worry, as a writer of a female-centric work, that I might not afford my male characters the same consideration that the Bechdel Test demands for female characters. It could be, as author Jeff Fecke suggests, that novels with female leading characters might not pass a Reverse Bechdel Test because the main character wouldn’t necessarily be privy to male conversation. (This would help explain why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test, if for no other reason than the main characters are often male.)

It’s a lot to consider, I’ve discovered, if an author wants to ensure gender equality in his work. But if you take the time to watch how people interact with each other on any given day, I think you’ll find that if you focus on portraying your characters in realistic situations as accurately as possible, you’ll inevitably pass the Bechdel Test – and its reverse – quite organically.

On voice

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. – Ernest Hemingway

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you can recognize a good voice when you read it. As such, I think it’s a hard concept to learn. I mean, the voice is either good or it’s not. But how do you really identify what makes a voice good? (Or worse, great?)

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I haven’t changed much as an adult. I never gave much thought to voice, to be truthful, until I started seriously pursuing the traditional publishing path for WTRPCPSU, and only then because article after article discussed the importance of voice. And then I started paying attention to the books I liked. What did I like about them? What drew me in and held my attention? It isn’t necessarily the story itself that compels me to finish reading. It’s that something, the way the story is told, that makes me want to keep reading.

It’s the author’s voice.

I read an interview with an author who talked about how she developed her voice. She used to mimic other writers she’d read, and as she expanded her reading library, she discovered other voices to mimic until she finally developed her own. I really wish I could remember who the author was and where I read the interview because it’s one I would love to share, if for no other reason than to stress the importance of reading to learn the writing craft.

A few years ago, my sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It was (and still is) one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I love that device, and I mean I truly love it. The very first book I read on it was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I downloaded several dozen books within a week of receiving it. One of those was a novel I had wanted to read for some time now but had always intimidated me by its sheer size: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Before you think that I was only reading classics, I’ll have to interject that that definitely was not the case. But I mixed things up quite a bit. I read War and Peace, yes, but I also began Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series right after it. I mixed up the genres, authors, and time periods. I mixed up subject matter. I read both self-published and traditionally published work.

A crazy thing happens when you read all over the map like that: You start recognizing voices and identifying with them. You subconsciously make notes of what deliveries you liked and what you would do differently. You start to rewrite entire paragraphs while you read – and that is when you are establishing your voice.

I dare you to try it. Pick a book off the shelf (preferably one you know pretty well), turn to a random page, and rewrite a couple of (non-dialogue) paragraphs. Note how you might say things differently. Note how you might use a different vocabulary. Note how you may emphasize different things than the author did.

Those differences? Those make up your voice.

Me? I write the same way I talk. You can read this post and know that if you and I were having a conversation about voice, whatever I’d say would sound a lot like this post does.

That’s my voice.

When I’m writing business communications at work, I write the same way I talk. It’s a bit more formal, and I tend to use industry-specific terms, but whatever I would say in person sounds a lot like my emails.

That’s my voice.

But when I’m writing, I assume someone else’s identity, and I write the same way I imagine that character would talk.

Because that’s her voice.

“If music be the food of love…”

With all due respect to the bard, I think music serves as the food of memories, not love. But by all means, play on.

Music is my ultimate emotional recall tool. What do I mean by that? I can listen to a song now that I listened to in junior high and have total recall about people, places, and certain events. I can picture scenes in my mind as they happened (or at least as my brain remembers them), including whatever emotions I was feeling at the time.

Some writers will listen to songs from their youth to get back in touch with their inner teenagers. That’s a little tougher for me because while my characters are an extension of me to some extent, they aren’t me. I like to think they are their own people. And I can’t imagine how some of my characters might be thinking about the guys they like if I’m listening to  “One” by U2 or “Black” by Pearl Jam. And perhaps it’s because I’m older now, but “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies makes me laugh more than remind me of what it was like to be at my parents’ mercy.

I’m not belittling my playlist from back then. Not at all. My “ideal guy” song back then (circa 1984) was “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, and it still holds up:

I mean, who can argue that Martin Gore isn’t singing about the perfect life partner? But it’s old, and from a completely different generation. I’m not saying that kids these days wouldn’t appreciate it, but I’m acknowledging my age, and that’s why I have a whole other Pandora station, strictly devoted to what I think my characters would be listening to right now. It’s more current stuff, though I’ve realized (much to my dismay) that some of these songs are from the ‘00s and are considered “old school.” (If planning my 20-year high school reunion last year wasn’t enough to make me feel old, this certainly did.)

This may be old school, but this is what I’d envision my characters calling the “ideal guy” song now (circa 2007): “I Could Get Used to This” by Everlife.

Same general concept, but with a different delivery. And even I, in my old and jaded adult stage, can appreciate it.

As I go through revisions for WTRPCPSU – and also as I inch my way through The WIP, I’m relying on my Pandora station more than ever. I don’t feel like it’s enough for me to tell a story or paint a picture. When I was younger, my favorite books made me feel. They drew me in and made me cry and laugh and get angry with characters. That’s why it’s so important for me to get these emotions right. It’s not enough for me to remember what it’s like to be a teen. I want to capture what it’s like to be a teen today.

I may not be able to walk in their shoes (I wouldn’t pass for a high schooler anymore), but I can listen to their music (or, at least, something more current than my high school soundtrack) and let it speak to me. And while themes haven’t changed over the past 25 years or so, it’s still nice to feel like I’m getting a fresh perspective.

The Revision Cave

I’ve spent the last couple of days in the Revision Cave, poring over WTRPCPSU with Julia’s notes beside me, carefully scrutinizing every sentence and often wondering how this manuscript (a) passed muster with my beta readers and critique partners, (b) how a small press could have thought it was good enough to publish, and (c) how Julia could have thought it was good enough to represent me!

I was so frustrated by my writing that it made me wonder what others could possibly be submitting. Just the idea that manuscripts out there are worse than my work makes me shudder.

I’m being hard on myself. I know that. I really am proud of my story, and I think my characters are great. I really do love these kids, and I love being able to step into their world. They are so much fun to write. But I found parts of my manuscript that made me circle entire paragraphs and write, “FIX!!!” in letters that can probably be seen from the International Space Station. I yelled at my pages (as if they’re to blame) for being inconsistent and told my husband that I don’t understand why no one questioned how Bianca would be able to see her friend’s reactions when they were sitting behind her in class.

See what I mean? I’m a hack.

[sigh] Okay, I’ll be serious. I am my own toughest critic. Of this, I am all too aware.

Anyway, I have revisions to do, and my goal is to have my first pass at them finished by Tuesday, April 9. I’d then let it rest on the 10th, reread and tweak it on the 11th, then send it to beta readers on the 12th for their perspectives.

Writer’s Digest posted a link on Twitter this morning that I’m taking to heart in soliciting new betas for this pass, and I think I will implement the following strategy in asking for betas:

  • Short survey before: I need to make sure I’m getting a good cross-section of people. I won’t do me much good if everyone reading it is in  my age bracket or in one given geographic location. I need to ensure diversity, and I can’t assure myself of that unless I ask.
  • Deadline: I also need to make sure people can read this in a week and provide feedback. Why so quick? I’m on my own (self-imposed) deadline and expect to have more changes to make after this pass. Plus, it’s a very short book and a quick read; it will probably cap out at around 65,000 words (if even that!). And in order to ensure the feedback I receive covers all the bases…
  • Short questionnaire after: I need to include a questionnaire for my betas to fill out after reading. The questions would be simple; I can even provide a 1-10 scale so they can easily pick one and provide open-ended feedback if they want. But I need to know what people think of characters, of relationships, of events. Is Character X likeable? Did Character Z behave realistically? Does Character Y come across too needy?

I’ll put out a general “Call for Betas” post as I get closer to completing my revisions.

Will I even get any betas after these requirements, and especially after the glowing reviews I’ve given my own work at the start of this post? I have no idea. But I’m willing to try.

(If you’re reading this and would be willing to be a guinea pig beta reader, please leave a comment including your email info and/or send me an email. I’ll get a survey out to you shortly. Thanks! – E)

What now?

Yes! I’ve got an agent!

And now I have to get back to writing and give my agent a reason to want to keep me on her roster.

This appeared on my Twitterfeed this evening. And it is oh, so very true:

Ideas are easy peasy, dime a dozen. Turning them into books: That’s tough. – Rick Riordan

I have a million ideas in my head that I want to turn into books. I unabashedly (but surreptitiously) eavesdrop on conversations and write dialogue in my head. I jot down rough ideas on index cards so I don’t forget them, and I think of characters I’d like to write to fit those ideas. I contemplate character quirks, study behaviors, think up imaginary friends (and frenemies) based on the traits and personalities of people I know or once knew.

And then I let the ideas gestate. Or is it more like percolate? Maybe it’s a bit of both. But after a while, one of them feels ready. The story is still rough around the edges, and there are still some plot holes you can’t quite figure out how to fill, but it’s basically ready.

I’m almost there. The next story is so close, I can almost taste it. I know my main character. I know what makes her loveable, what makes her flawed, what makes her real. I know the love interest and all his quirks, why he’s so awesome, why my readers will totally crush on him. I know the obstacles of my story, everything the main character will need to overcome to get her Happily Ever After. And I know exactly how I want my readers to feel while they’re reading.

I am so close.

This is going to sound crazy, but I know I’m close but not quite there because I’m still scared of the story. I’m still scared to write it. I’m still afraid to put it down on paper because I’m not certain I can do it justice. And because I’m so scared, I can’t visualize it yet.

When I’m ready, I can see the first scene unfold in my head, and I’m not so terrified anymore. I’m still a bit scared, but it’s no longer paralyzing. What’s left of my fear will dissipate once I finish the first chapter, of course, only to be replaced by a heady mix of excitement, self-doubt, and nervous anticipation.

But that fear… It’s very real.

Checking for Conflict and Suspense

There are two things that I’ve been told time and again that every good story needs: conflict and suspense. (I’ve since been told that a great voice is another thing, but that’s for a different post.)

I’m not going to lie: as a writer, I struggle with conflict. In my mind, conflict is this bigger than life thing. Yes, I know that there are three types of conflict (Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self). I learned those in seventh grade. But I really have a difficult time working conflict into my stories! Or, maybe I just think I do. Maybe most of my conflicts are Man vs. Self and, because it’s an internal struggle, I don’t think it counts.

I don’t know.

I think part of my problem is that my characters have changing desires. I mean, who really wants only one thing? So, I’ve gone through Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up? and have listed below what I think are the Desires/Obstacles/Outcomes:

Desire #1: Remain in current state. (Not an exciting “want”, I know.)

Obstacle: She’s named Homecoming Princess and captures popular guy’s attention.

Outcome: Accepts change and has a new boyfriend.

Desire #2: Wants her friends to like her boyfriend.

Obstacle: He’s controlling and becomes abusive.

Outcome: She tries to break up with him.

Desire #3: Wants to get away from her now-ex-boyfriend.

Obstacle: Now-ex-boyfriend is stalking her.

Outcome: Big Event involving the hero.

Desire #4: Wants to be with the hero.

Obstacle: There’s someone the hero is really interested in.

Outcome: Happy ending! (Hey – it’s a romance, okay?)

Even worse than conflict, though, is my struggle to get suspense right. I mean, I’ve written a romance novel. Just the very definition of that alone indicates that the Heroine will ultimately end up with the Hero. So that’s, obviously, going to be the outcome.

I wrote something a while back on how I can’t believe suspense is as simple as just making your reader wait. And I still can’t believe it’s that easy, but it makes total sense.

So how do I know if the story is suspenseful enough?

When one of my Beta readers writes, “Nooooooo!” in the margins of my first draft, I think I’ve done something right. But when a different Beta reader texts me to say, “Ok. I confess. I cheated. I have read ahead. Thank God!!! I will resume ch 18 tomorrow,” I know I’ve done my job.

Now to craft a query letter that will get an agent and/or editor interested enough in the concept to even look at the first thirty pages. That’s the hard part.

Stay tuned.

Cursing in YA Fiction

I am really torn.

I’ve been furiously editing my first novel, Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?, and I’ve passed around the second draft to a few friends to get their feedback. My sister asked if it would be okay to let my nieces (aged 9 and 11) read it, and since I ultimately wrote it with them in mind, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Miss M (my 9-year-old niece) finished the book in a single day (she was home from school because she was sick) and emailed me with the following feedback:

I read your book and it was a nice book and was very realistic. A thing I think you may want to change if you want my age group to read this is the curse words.(do we really need to read the b word and the a word not to mention the h e double hockey sticks one?)

Okay, maybe nine years old is a bit young for my novel. After all, my protagonist is a 15-year-old girl who has her first boyfriend – whom we later learn is rather abusive. Should a 9-year-old be reading about an abusive boyfriend? Well, I guess I did when I was that age; Sweet Valley High addressed that very issue early in the series. But SVH didn’t have any cursing in it, from what I can remember.

But the topic at hand is the cursing, not the content. So here is my curse-word count as it stands at the end of the second draft:

  • Hell – 5 times
  • Ass – 4 times
  • Damn – 2 times
  • Bitch – 1 time

The “F-bomb” and the “S-word” aren’t in the book at all. I used the list of unacceptable words for Prime Time TV as my guide.

Now, I’m certain I can get around “hell”. I’m also pretty sure I can eliminate “ass” and “damn”. But “bitch” is where I have a degree of difficulty because I really struggled with finding the right word for that scene. It’s kind of like when Rhett is leaving Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind and the movie community wanted David O. Selznick to remove “damn” from the scene. Sometimes, there really is no other word.

(And, as I tried very hard to be cognizant of my nieces as my audience, “bitch” is only used that one time.)

Okay, I suppose I can substitute another word. I guess I could use “whore”. And since the character exclaiming this epithet is a bad guy, anyway, I wouldn’t feel so bad about it. But to me, “whore” feels like a much stronger word, something laden with much more malice and venom. I mean, by definition a “whore” is a woman who is promiscuous in her sexual activities; a “bitch” is just an unpleasant woman. I’m not saying that I’d like to be called either, but I’d be less offended if someone called me a “bitch” than a “whore”.

I guess I’m just irked that a much more loaded word would pass through the censors.

Last spring, ABC News reported that foul language is popping up more and more in YA books. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a few hundred instances of cursing, but one or two epithets are certainly forgivable. I don’t want to sound like one of those authors that says, “Well, my character is 15 and all teenagers curse.” I’m definitely not saying that. But I’m of the believe that a well-considered, appropriately placed curse is not just acceptable, it’s also necessary.

I may be wrong.

So then I checked out Mary Kole’s blog, since she’s the author of Writing Irresistible KidLit, which is a great resource in terms of making sure I’m addressing issues correctly and with the right voice. (And it’s also helped me overcome areas where I get “stuck” trying to craft a believable response to something.)

And here’s what she said:

If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me…. You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

[sigh]

My niece is just one of about 10 people I’ve asked to read my second draft, so I’m taking her suggestions to heart and will address them in my third draft. And I may very well just decide that nine is too young for my book. I’ve written a Young Adult novel, after all. I never intended for it to be a Middle Grade book.

But I also don’t want my word choices to alienate someone that I kind of wrote this book for.

Thoughts?

It can’t possibly be that easy…

Can it?

My friend Thomas, arguably one of my closest friends from high school (and the only friend from high school in my wedding), sent me this great article by Lee Child. The title: “A Simple Way to Create Suspense“.

Well, with a title like that, how could I resist? I mean, that’s like the Holy Grail of writing! Keep the reader interested long enough to move the story forward. So, of course I have to read it.

And I’ll be damned, but Mr. Child is absolutely right! Creating suspense really is that simple. Offer the promise of resolution and come up with dozens of reasons the reader can’t get that promise fulfilled until the very end. Delay gratification.

Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.  – Lee Child

Of course, whenever I read something like this from a renowned published author whose work I enjoy, I take a step back and think of my own work and wonder, “Did I delay gratification properly? Am I answering the questions I set forth too quickly? Do I give my readers a reason to keep turning the pages and stay up into the wee hours of the morning?”

I’ll be honest: I have no idea. What I think is suspenseful and keeps me motivated to keep going may be completely different for the preteen/early teenage girl in the audience. Or it may not be. This is my first book, and I haven’t even shopped it around to agents.

But I’ll say this: my friend’s 11-year-old daughter was interested enough in my characters and the story to ask daily for new chapters. She just wanted to see how the story ended.

So to that effect, maybe I succeeded in delaying gratification. Maybe creating suspense really is that simple.