Monday, March 26, 2012

Lisa: A few of my worrisome things

I recently turned in revisions for my fifth YA novel, FALLING FOR YOU.

Five YA novels? Are you freaking kidding me? I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I'm e-mailing back and forth with Sara or one of my editors, like, is this really my life? Really? Because for years, I dreamed about it and longed for it, and there are still moments when I can hardly believe it's happened to me.

Yet after all those books, I'm still excited and nervous, happy and anxious, grateful and petrified, as I think about this new book going out into the world one day soon.

I thought it'd be interesting for me to look back over the course of this writing career, and list a few of the things I still struggle with when I'm writing after all this time.

1. Believability - I worry about this constantly as I am writing. I understand it's my job to make the writer believe, but how far can I go as a writer before I stretch that string of trust too far? I remember when I wrote I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, my first YA novel, I was so worried about whether the little things the ghost did were too far-fetched. I would tell myself the field is wide open to the possibilities, because it's not like there are things we know to be absolutely true about ghosts, but it didn't help. I was really worried that people would laugh and throw the book across the room because of the stuff I came up with. "A ghost wouldn't do that, no way, that's ludicrous."

And I still worry as I'm writing books now. It's important to take risks with our writing, and to try and find things that haven't been done much in YA, but it's also scary. THE DAY BEFORE, my last YA, has two characters with issues I hadn't seen much of in YA before. You're thinking, that's great! Well, it's great when you your readers buy into it, and embrace it one hundred percent. But how do you know if that's going to happen until the book is out there? That's the hard thing. Write big, try to convince big, and then hope big, I guess.

2. Pretty writing - You know those writers who write sentences that make you stop and read over a passage again and again because it's just so lovely to read? I have secretly always wanted to be one of those writers, even though I will never be one of those writers. Sure, my verse novels have lines in them that teens quote on tumblr and mark as favorites on goodreads. But I feel like with my writing, you have to do a lot of digging to find that one gold nugget. Why can't I have one on every page? Or even every paragraph?

Nina LaCour (her new novel, THE DISENCHANTMENTS is so good, you should totally read it) addressed this issue in an interview recently. I love what she said: "But then I remind myself that for every writer I love who writes in a luxurious, descriptive style, there is also one I love who writes simply. That would be my advice: Pay attention to the way you write and honor it. Don't try to write like someone you're not."

With every book, I have that same moment of panic - my writing is not pretty enough. And each time, I come around to the realization that I simply cannot be someone I'm not. I'm good at creating moments where the reader feels as if he/she is right there with the character. How I do that, I'm not entirely sure, but I am told I do it again and again, so I have to trust my process and my writing and do what I do best in a way that works for me.

3.  Layers and connections - Sarah Dessen, to me, is the queen of layers and connections. Objects or characters or memories are introduced, and at the time, as the reader, you don't know how they fit in or even if they do, but later on, after taking the journey with the main character, you realize every little thing had a reason for being there and in the end, it's like everything is connected in this meaningful way. If you've tried to do this in your writing, then you know it's not easy. And yet, when you do it, and it works, the payoff is huge. When I get to the end of reading a book that has connections like that, and layers I didn't see at first, I am impressed and moved and a hundred other things. A friend once told me she believed that it was in revisions when we try to go deeper with our layers and connections, and I think she's right. So I am always thinking about trying to go deeper with connections when I revise, but it is not easy!

These are just a few of my regular struggles. What about you? Do you have something you worry about or struggle with in every book you write?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kim: Humor for Writers

Humor in fiction is awesome, completely underrated, and a universal way to connect with readers. You need it in your bag of tricks, writers.

Maybe a person can’t learn to be quick-witted, or have a cache of one-liners at the ready, but writers have something on their sides: time. It’s like when you think of something funny that you could have said to that guy that one time in the cereal aisle three weeks ago? It’s too late now for that zinger about shredded wheat, but that same kind of brooding is great for your manuscript! You can type out a 100% unfunny draft and then go back in and weave humor in as needed over time as you revise and things come to you. Readers don’t know when you came up with it. And if you take yourself out of the equation and just focus on aspects of the story being humorous, it takes the pressure off and can loosen your inhibitions.

Don’t tell me that you are not a funny person. You’re not a teenage boy/mermaid/drummer living in a castle/abandoned amusement park/parallel dimension, but you’re managing to make that work in your story, right?

There are different theories about why people think something is funny, but we know that a few are probably pretty true to human nature.  

Superiority/Humans are Jerks Theory: People feel amused when they feel superior over others (Hobbes).
Incongruity/Wait…what? Theory:  People laugh when what happens doesn’t match their expectations (Aristotle).
Relief/Inappropriate Laughers Motto Theory: Things are funnier when we need to reduce tension (Freud).
Look at examples from books that you find funny and work backwards to consider why they might have struck your funny bone. Humor requires communication, truth, and especially empathy. Empathy isn't just about sadness and pity, it's a person’s ability to understand and share another’s feelings and be able to imagine themselves in that position. We need our readers to be empathetic to our characters to connect with the story, or the story doesn't work. And humor and empathy go together like chickens and eggs. Plus, the more characters in the situation that a reader can empathize with, the funnier a scene can be. The best novels strike a balance between drama and humor, because life is like that. It rings true. If you know a person that is always goofing off and can never take anything seriously, or a person who never cracks a smile, never appreciates the wit or irony of a situation, is always morose— you probably won’t have a solid connection with either of them, and the same holds true with novels.

Think of a universal truth in your manuscript and find a way to convey it with comedy. Humor is a perfect tool to get you to show the story instead of telling the story. You can do it via the premise, setting, interaction, expectations, obstacles/antagonism/challenges, quirks, situations, foreshadowing, etc. If you can think it up, you can probably make it funny. Here are a few examples (with mild spoilers):

Premise: Girl really wants a piano, but her dad buys her an organ.
(Truth: Sometimes we have to endure the actions of others.)

Characterization: Protagonist’s mom names her something that doesn’t mean what she thought it did, so she goes by a funny nickname.
(Truth: Caregivers don’t always make wise decisions.)

Challenge/antagonism: Fudge eats Peter’s pet turtle.
(Truth: Younger siblings can be hazardous to a peaceful existence.)

Dialogue: Isaac allows Augustus to make puns about his cancer and they laugh about it.
(Truth: Close friends can make light of things that others may not.)

OKAY FOR NOW by Gary Schmidt
Situation: Doug drinks a coke from Lil too quickly and the foam comes out of his nose.
(Truth: We sometimes have the least grace in front of people we'd rather impress.)

Each of these are a means for the author to show the reader more about that aspect of the story by using humor, rather than telling them what they are using the humor to convey.

And a caveat for our particular audience: Kids use humor as an indirect way of coming to terms with issues and situations that are most important to them, and/or too emotionally stressful for them to deal with directly. If the overall feel of a story is dramatic, humor can instill some amusement into an otherwise serious tone. Sometimes the saddest stories can also be the funniest (see THE FAULT IN OUR STARS above). That’s where Freud’s release of tension comes into play. There’s a reason that it is called comic relief.

The plot arc of a story is, in a way, a problem. You don’t want to resolve things too soon, so pace it out with some wit. Start with dialogue. Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to convey a wide variety of humorous possibilities— sarcasm, banter, Freudian slips, exaggeration, understatement, naivety, confusion, insults… they are all tools you can use in a funny exchange between characters. Use them selectively, but do use them. What can you show by how your character uses humor? Do they know that they’re funny? When don’t they joke? How do others react?

Use humor as a tool and you’ll have a stronger story. We need more funny books! Try thinking of someone specific with a great sense of humor, and write for them. Or try writing a scene that conveys your protagonist’s trait or mannerism in a comedic way. Recollect a funny and/or embarrassing scene from your childhood, and embellish it. Do it for a laugh. And if you're amused, your readers probably will be, too.

You can see an (incomplete) list of books that have great examples of humor here. Let me know what I missed!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dianne: Anatomy of a First Draft

I. Genesis:
Every new novel begins with an inspiration comparable to The Big Bang – an explosion of light and matter and creative force capable of producing an entire universe, not to mention critical acclaim, several awards, and New York Times best seller status.  Of course, in the light of the next day, what appeared to be the genesis of life usually turns out to be one of those sparklers you stick in your lawn on the Fourth of July.  But, hey, any light in the darkness is better than none!

II. Pre-Writing:
Here’s where first drafts begin to diverge.  Plotters will tackle the characterization, plot, and theme with the precision of architects and engineers.

Pantsters, on the other hand, will scribble a couple notes on a napkin before strapping on a harness and a bungee cord and leaping off a cliff.

III. One Quarter of the Way In:
About 15-20k words into the story, pantsters find themselves wrestling an alligator.  It’s suddenly a squirming fury of snapping jaws and wicked teeth, with a thrashing tail and a hide too tough to penetrate.  They realize, while fighting for limb and life, that this is not what they envisioned back in that Big Bang stage!

Meanwhile, plotters look at that carefully designed and meticulously implemented story structure they created and discover it looks more like:

IV. Playing Possum:
No matter where the writer is on the continuum between pantster and plotter, at some point the first draft will look like this:


It’s not dead. It’s just playing dead.  Poke it with a stick.  Poke it again.  Google up possums on the internet and verify: It can’t really be dead.  It’s faking.  Isn’t it?

V. The Home Stretch:
Assuming the possum isn’t really dead, the story begins to move again.  The writer breathes life into it, then can’t stop to catch a breath.  Plotters find themselves back on their outline; pantsters discover their subconscious was right all along.  The story moves so fast, the writer can barely keep up.  Forget sleep. Forget meals.  Forget the children and the spouse – they know how to use the microwave, gosh darn-it!

VI. The Masterpiece:
Finally, after a few weeks (or months, or years) of toil, the writer produces the first draft of that brilliant masterpiece, first conceived in a moment of ultimate creativity.

And it looks like this:

Oh well, it’s yours anyway, and you love it.  Besides, you’ve had some Big Bang-ish ideas for Draft #2, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Michelangelo on!