Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Marianna: Further Thoughts on Dialogue -- Distinct Voices for Similar Characters

As a follow-up to Varian’s post about dialogue-heavy scenes (April 28), I wanted to share some thoughts about a difficulty often faced by YA (and MG) authors when writing dialogue – creating distinct voices for adolescent friends who’ve grown up in similar circumstances.

All fiction writers know that developing distinct voices is one of the Ten Commandments of dialogue. As clearly explained by Anne Lamott and Janet Burroway:

“…you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others” (Lamott, 66).
“A character who says, ‘It is indeed a pleasure to meet you,’ carries his back at a different angle, dresses differently, from a character who says, ‘Hey, man, what it is?’” (Burroway, 137).

But while working on my first young adult novel, I encountered a problem. My characters – a group of teen friends – are far, far more similar to each other than the two characters Janet Burroway presents. They share similar educational backgrounds, hometown, class, and race. And isn’t this true of the characters in many YA and MG novels? After all, in “real life”, before they’ve made choices and gone their own ways in the world, teens are often surrounded by others who are (circumstantially, at least) similar to themselves.

So, how to create individual, identifiable voices?

In looking at YA novels that center on groups of friends, I found that some (definitely not all) writers successfully develop recognizable voices for their characters while still believably portraying close-knit groups with much in common. To do this, the writers key into the defining aspects of the characters’ personalities and create voices that reflect those traits. The differences between voices are subtler than in Burroway’s example, of course. But, the voices clearly belong to separate, distinct individuals.

Here’s a look at how one writer does this successfully.

Love, Cajun Style by Diane Les Becquets follows friends Lucy (the narrator), Evie and Mary Jordan through the summer before their senior year. The three girls grew up together in the small, Southern town of Sweetbay, are of similar middle class backgrounds, and attend the same school.

Lucy’s summer is characterized by a loss of youthful innocence, but also by an affirmation of her belief in the goodness of people. Two qualities come through most strongly in her speech. One is her general childlike enthusiasm – the innocent side of her personality –manifested in her folksy, almost old-fashioned phrasing:

“What did you think about Mr. Savoi’s open house?” Evie asked.
I felt myself smile. “I had myself a mighty fine time.”
… “And?” Evie said.
“And Dewey asked me if he could kiss me.”
“He asked you?” Mary Jordan said.
“Mm-hmm. And I’m here to tell you that was the finest kissing I’ve ever had in my life” (221-222).

When Lucy’s somewhat na├»ve and idealistic ideas about love are challenged, though, her speech reflects an unsure side, as she struggles to figure out her own feelings and thoughts. For example, when speaking to Mary Jordan about her loss of virginity, Lucy doesn’t offer opinions, but only asks questions. This is her way of speaking whenever a friend is in crisis. By asking questions, she leads both her friends and herself to a deeper understanding.

“When did he tell you he didn’t want to be serious?” I asked her.
“We were supposed to get together last night. But then a bunch of the guys wanted him to go out. He’d been acting different. I called him later. That’s when he told me.”
…“When did you decide to go through with it?”
“It was after we made up at the play. We talked about it. At first I wasn’t sure. But then one night things just seemed to happen. It’s supposed to feel good, right?” she said.
I just listened.
“The first time it hurt. I thought it was going to be so incredible. I’d felt so much when we were kissing. But when it was over, I didn’t feel anything. It all happened so fast. I thought the next time it would be better.”
“Was it?” I asked (267).

Lucy’s tendency to listen and ask questions – main characteristics of her dialogue (or lack thereof) throughout the book – reflect her confusion, her search for answers in her life, as well as her gentle ability to help friends come to conclusions about their own lives.

Evie’s main dilemma is almost the opposite of Lucy’s; she is struggling to find the openness and innocence necessary to experience a romantic relationship. Evie is jaded, primarily because of a mother who has a constant stream of male “visitors” in and out of the house. She has developed both a tough exterior and a sense of humor to help her deal with her situation. Unlike Lucy, she is also confident in her opinions and offers advice freely. These are the characteristics that come through in her speech. Here, Lucy confides in Evie about having kissed her teacher:

“I mean, he’s good-looking and all. And maybe it’d be fun to think about kissing him. But thinking and doing are two different things. Remember those kids we were teaching vacation Bible school to last year?” Evie said.
“Remember how cute little Peter was?”
“Well, how do you think it would have been if one day I’d gotten him in the broom closet and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, even though he was suscitating just fine?” (151).

Evie’s colorful sense of humor often comes through in her use of metaphors. She tells Lucy: “You can go speaking to him. But try and be like one of those Orange Dream Bars that’s been sitting in the freezer too long. Gets that freezer burn all over it” (152). Not only would Lucy never offer advice so confidently, she would never use an analogy like this.

Mary Jordan is the dreamer of the three, more comfortable in the world of books and poetry. This sensibility leads her to make statements such as, “Love is so magical. It’s like this spell that makes you all dizzy in the head.” (124). She also has the least noticeably Southern voice, which corresponds with her more bookish, slightly more worldly personality. “It’s crazy. I thought Doug and I could be one of those great loves. I felt important. I had the whole thing planned out in my head. But now I feel so empty, like it never meant anything to him at all” (265). There is no mistaking Mary Jordan’s quotes for anything that Evie or Lucy would say.

In the earliest drafts of my young adult novel, Frost House, the adolescent characters did not have any variation in their speaking voices. I was focused on the content of their dialogue and on making it sound realistic. I didn’t take the next step -- thinking about what dialogue differences would deepen the characterization of the girls. The following is an example of a conversation between Leena, the narrator, and her new roommate, Celeste. (Beats and most speaker attributions have been removed.)

“You know, I’m sorry I never called over the summer,” I said. “I mean, when I heard about your mother, I wanted to call, to say I was sorry and see how you were doing. But…”
“I didn’t feel much like talking, anyway,” Celeste said.
“If you ever do want to talk about it, I hope you’ll feel comfortable.”
“Look, Leena, I appreciate it, but you don’t have to take me on like some sort of peer counseling patient. I’m fine. Really. My mother was a very sick, very unhappy woman. Believe me, she’s better off where she is now.”

And the revised version:
“I’m sorry I never called over the summer,” I said. “I wanted to call, when I…when I, you know, heard about your mother—”
“Look. I don’t know what big-mouth David told you. But let’s get something straight. I do not discuss my mother. Got it? Do. Not. Discuss. My. Mother.”
“Okay. I totally understand you feel that way now, and I don’t blame you at all. But if you ever—”
“I won’t,” she said. “Ever.” After a pause she added, “David doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. I hope you do.”

In the earlier version, you can’t tell the difference between the two voices. They both sound pleasant, reasonable, congenial. In the most recent version, Celeste is stronger and more aggressive. She says things that might be perceived as offensive. Leena sounds unsure, like she’s approaching a rabid animal. By changing the voices, I not only strengthened the characterization of the two girls, but raised the tension in the scene. Celeste’s attitude, obvious from her dialogue, makes it much easier to understand why Leena would not want to live with her and makes her a more intriguing character.

Leena’s voice was also very similar to her friend Abby’s. In going back over Abby’s dialogue, I decided that it would fit with her character to have a tendency to overstate and exaggerate, as this is one of her main qualities – she’s always looking for drama. So where she used to say, “Are we going to unload the car now? In the rain?” she now says, “Please don’t tell me we’re going to unload in a hurricane.”

While at first it can seem like two characters would speak in similar ways, all characters are dealing with different issues and have different personalities. By thinking about which of these personality elements are most important, a writer can not only come to a speaking style unique to that character, but also clarify in her mind what attributes and personality traits most define that character. And for the reader, the experience of getting to know a character is enhanced if the character’s voice is one clearly and compellingly her own.

Works Cited:
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Fourth Edition. New
York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994; paperback edition, New
York: Doubleday, 1995.
Les Becquets, Diane. Love, Cajun Style. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Troy: Hare today ...

I’ve been looking at lots of rabbits; I have rabbits coming out my ears.

I am working on another jacket for the popular Brian Jacques Redwall series (Philomel), and once again I’m drawing animals wearing clothes and wielding weapons. This is always a challenging process for me. Challenging, because I prefer animals to be as nature intended: in the buff (fur and feathers, that is). Getting an otter into a dress, a rat into a jerkin, a tattoo onto a weasel’s face, these are easier said—with words—than done—with pictures. I would bet that putting a hat on a rabbit requires more sleight of hand than pulling one out of a hat. It’s the ears. Either the hat must have a roomy crown, or holes, or grooves in the brim, or else the ears get bent.

But this isn’t about hats on hares. It’s about the creation process for my illustration work, and some of its parallels to writing.

Since the jacket I mentioned is a work in progress, I’m not going to preempt the publisher’s plans by showing the art; instead, I’ll use an example from the illustrated tenth anniversary edition of Redwall, in which Basil Stag Hare pays a surprise visit to an antagonistic rat. A flamboyant military gent, Basil is conveyed in the narrative through personality, action, and speech, more than by physical description, so as the illustrator I had some room with his looks. It’s always a welcome matter when a character is not overly described. This also makes it easier to avoid redundancy. You don’t want to repeat what the author has said, but rather enhance it.

The thumbnail sketch comes first, and it’s usually done in the margin of the manuscript as I’m reading it for the first time. I want to catch the visual moment. This drawing is for me, an idea on which to build. Like a rough draft or random notes, it’s primarily to show the essentials: a particular scene with subject and setting in a rough composition.

Then there’s the second sketch. If there were no need for approval—of editor, art director, and marketing team—I would bypass this stage and move directly to the finish, which, as you can see below, is removed in several ways from this second sketch. But seldom do I get that privilege.

Once I get to the finish, I begin drawing on my illustration board, using any needful references—whether live animals or actual objects or 2-D images, plus notes from the text. I draw and draw until I get it right. It’s like the revision process for the writer. I continue making small adjustments as I then begin the painting, and continue reworking the painting until I’m satisfied with the results: the final edit. Working with acrylics allows me this opportunity—unlike oils and watercolors, they are very forgiving—and rag board takes lots of abuse.

Here’s the finish: Basil’s mocking bow from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who is out of the picture frame but presented in the text—a viewpoint that is also the reader’s. To enhance the subject and the occasion of this moment, I’ve echoed Basil’s pose, and particularly his ears, with lively repetitive shapes: the blades of grass and foliage, the feather, boots, and cuffs, the bent iron fence. It was through writing that I learned this technique, after seeing a similarity in how structural repetition—theme and imagery—strengthens a story.

As to the color, I laid in the strongest hues first, such as the red and purple, to establish areas to base the surrounding colors around. I put the foreground in cooler greens to help frame the hare and hint at the shadowy environment from which his (implied) opponent stares. Also, if you squint, you’ll see two basic values of dark and light. Study the masters of realism and you’ll find that their solid, succinct compositions consist of two contrasting values.

To my great disappointment (and loss of any chance of royalties), this anniversary edition was pulled prematurely after one year. Before it hardly had a life, it was gone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nina: On Why I Like Sad Books

When I started teaching high school in September of 2007, I knew there would be challenges: maintaining discipline, keeping up with grading, engaging students’ interest, developing a new curriculum—the list went on. What I did not consider, though, is the extent to which I would worry about my students. They are not my children. In fact, the older students aren’t even a decade younger than I am. But, for the first time, I understand a little bit about how parents must worry for their kids.

There are the small, daily things: tired eyes, forgetfulness, a rude comment that seems out of character. Later, a girl cries in a bathroom stall. A freshman eats lunch, alone, on the bench outside. A senior becomes paralyzed by a deadline and I fear that he will fail my class. A sophomore girl who is going through a hard time walks off campus with an older boy, and I hope that she is not relying too much on what he can offer her. Some days something small can send me on a marathon of worrying: I smell cigarette smoke on a student when she passes me in the hall, and I worry about her other acts of rebellion, about the company she keeps, about how hard it will be for her to quit, about her health, about all the ways in which she reminds me of a friend from childhood who was also smart and also fragile and also smelled like cigarettes and who has made a series of grave mistakes and suffered profound disappointments.

When I was in ninth grade, a boy I’d known since middle school committed suicide. We were not close friends, but we talked often and I liked him. Our easels were next to one another’s in Art 1. We traded compliments on pastel drawings, and he frequently made me laugh. And then, one morning, I learned that he had killed himself.

I don't know whether I would worry about him if I were his teacher. In my memories of him, he was sweet and friendly and always smiling. I like to think that now, as an adult, I would recognize, somehow, that he was in trouble. But I have no idea if I would, and even if I did, I fear that my worrying would not help him.

An old colleague at a bookstore once mentioned to me that she wanted to discover a new, good YA book that was not about something huge and sad. She was sick of recommending books about death and abuse and self-harm to nice women looking for birthday gifts for their nieces. I sympathized, but the truth is, I am drawn to books about sad things. I like reading them, and I like writing them. And now that I spend so many hours of my life worrying about real teenagers, I like the sad books even more.

My first novel follows a girl named Caitlin over the course of her junior year as she comes to terms with her best friend’s suicide. Caitlin is wrecked and inconsolable in the beginning, but because this is fiction, I can heal her. Not all the way, of course, but better and more quickly than I could heal a real girl. I can give her a friend. I can make her understand her mother. I can let her fall in love and take photographs and build something beautiful. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t only like sad books for the hopefulness that often develops from the sad things. The more a book makes me cry, the better. But part of what makes reading sad story after sad story bearable is that I trust that my fellow YA authors will sweep in and allow their teenage characters to save themselves. There is something profoundly reassuring about the stories of so many troubled kids grappling with awful situations and turning out okay.

The novel I’m currently writing is not about a big tragedy. It is about first heartbreak, though, which is also something damaging and difficult. And yes, heartbreak is something from which many of my students suffer. I worry about them, too.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sara: Working with an Agent

The first step in publishing is getting an agent, and this can be the most difficult part, but for the purposes of this post I am going to skip most of the query process. So much great info is already out there about how to market your book; see Saundra’s great post on writing your blurb, for instance:

What is not as widely discussed is how to appropriately market yourself when approaching agents. First, always be professional and courteous. You want to come across as someone agents would want to work with, someone they can see themselves communicating with on a regular basis.

Second, do your research. Some questions to ask yourself: Is this agent’s list a good place for your work? What is his/her reputation? What do you know about her company? Experience?

You should know enough about the agent’s background before querying that you feel confident about accepting representation from her if offered. Know what she represents and what she has sold in the past. All of this information is easily accessible online.

Third, be persistent because this business demands it. I have turned down many saleable projects--all agents have--because they simply were not a fit on my list. I have even had people come back to me with new projects, when the first was not a match, and had that work out. Do not give up easily.

So, you have queried a group of agents you want to work with and one requests a partial manuscript and then calls you the next day to say she loves it -- now what?

Now you need to make sure it is the good fit you thought it would be by talking with her. Have questions ready--not only questions about commissions and the agency contract, though this is information you need to know--but also questions tailored to THIS agent, questions that show her you have done your research and are professional and are thinking critically about the publishing process. Try to get a real sense of her working and communication style.

Hopefully you will get a feeling from this conversation whether or not you have good chemistry. Of course forging a relationship takes some time —and there will be initial nerves at work-- but you should feel comfortable enough to ask the questions you want answered. Also, this conversation should give you an opportunity to gauge her enthusiasm level. Remember to talk to her about YOUR book-- what does she love about it? Publishing is such a tough business and you want, above all, a passionate advocate for your writing. Does she have a vision for the book, for your career? There are few overnight successes and you need an agent who is in it for the long haul. If this agent is not truly in love with your book, find someone who is. It could be an agent with less experience--make sure to consider all factors before making a decision.

Once you have your dream agent, there are some basic rules for maintaining a healthy author-agent relationship. My first is to be open to revisions. Editors often ask me if an author is open to revisions, and I do not want to be in a position to tell them no. Many authors have understandably emotional reactions to requests for revisions, but keep in mind that revising is a give-and-take process. You shouldn’t feel obligated to make every change suggested, but you should be willing to listen.

Another integral part of any good working relationship is trust. If you do not trust your agent, find one you can trust. Remember that an agent is your advocate, and is working for you. You must have faith that her advice is meant to help you.

Finally, be passionate about promoting your work. It’s your book, and there is no better advocate for it than you!