Monday, July 21, 2014

Double Negative

You may know that I have a special interest in contemporary realistic YA novels with male main characters (having written two of them myself). My friend C. Lee McKenzie has one coming out on Friday, July 25:

double-negative2
Double Negative, by C. Lee McKenzie.

Hutchison McQueen is a sixteen-year-old smart kid who screws up regularly. He’s a member of Larkston High’s loser clique, the boy who’s on his way to nowhere—unless juvenile hall counts as a destination. He squeaks through classes with his talent for eavesdropping and memorizing what he hears. When that doesn’t work, he goes to Fat Nyla, the one some mean girls are out to get and a person who’s in on his secret—he can barely read.

And then Maggie happens. For twenty-five years she’s saved boys from their own bad choices. But she may not have time to save Hutch. Alzheimer’s disease is steadily stealing her keen mind.


You can find out more at C. Lee McKenzie's website, blog, or Facebook Fan Page. There's also a giveaway for Double Negative and for Amazon gift cards here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Articulating it

"A writer doesn't often tell a reader anything the reader doesn't already know or suspect. The best the writer can do is put the idea in words and by doing that make the reader aware that he or she isn't the only one who knows it. ... The fact is, there really isn't anything new in the world and what I've always hoped to do with my writing is to say, in so many words, some of the ideas that lurk, wordlessly, in the minds of a great many people."
--Andrew A. Rooney, Not That You Asked

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Believable characters

There's a radio commercial that's been out lately. I don't even know what it's a commercial for--some hospital or insurance plan, maybe? In any case, one of the characters in the commercial is supposed to be a hypochondriac worried about the illnesses he might have. And he's just randomly spewing out the names of various conditions that don't even have similar symptoms.

But there is logic even to hypochondria. In my experience, exaggerated anxiety over illness tends to evolve in one of two ways. In the first way, a symptom--say, a headache or stomach-ache or leg pain--will lead the person to research the various illnesses associated with that symptom. Therefore, the person with the stomach-ache might worry about an ulcer or appendicitis, but he would not imagine that he had a skull fracture or a detached retina. In the other manifestation, a hypochondriac might hear about a particular dangerous illness, especially one with very vague or common symptoms, and might start asking herself whether she has those symptoms ("Is my vision a little blurry? Haven't I been feeling tired lately?")

However, I have never met a person who displayed hypochondria by just flinging the names of unrelated diseases into a conversation, willy-nilly. This fictional character rings false, a victim of insufficient research or insufficient imagination. In a commercial, that may not matter as much, because I think the suspension-of-disbelief goals of a commercial are different from those of a novel. But most novels do require that suspension of disbelief. Characters should always make sense to themselves, even if they seem strange or extreme to the other characters.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Out of fashion

At some point, I looked at the pants being worn by women around me and realized that they were wearing narrow-legged pants when mine were wide-legged. Or maybe it was the reverse. (I think pants have gone through a couple of cycles since I stopped paying attention.)

And I realized I had completely lost track of what was in fashion.

And then I realized I didn't care.

I never had what you would call a knack with putting together outfits, but when I was younger, I at least tried to keep up with what was in. I looked at older people and wondered why they didn't try harder to dress in style. Had they given up, or what?

Now I know, and boy can it be freeing not to care.

It really makes no sense, when you stop and think about it, that for a certain period of time we are all supposed to wear shoulder pads or miniskirts or leg warmers or cropped pants or whatever, and a year or so later, it is supposed to be the height of embarrassment to wear the exact same thing. I wish we were freer and more accepting in this arena, that our stores had more variety.

But, whatever. Somewhere along the line I started paying more attention to other things in life. I'm now old enough that I have seen many, many phases pass (tech fads, food fads, clothing fads), and I have lost interest in all this let's-rush-to-embrace-this-new-thing-now-q
uick-let's-drop-it-and-on-to-the-next. So I will wear my wide-legged pants one day and my narrow-legged pants the next, and I will never wear cropped pants because they don't interest me personally, and I will not judge you for wearing whatever kind of pants you want to wear, because that's your business and frankly I probably won't even notice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Losing and finding the center

"For many of us, sooner or later there comes a point where work gets hard and there’s no support at all from the outside world. That’s when you feel besieged. The fear of getting it wrong stops you."

The above quote comes from a post by Tricia Sullivan on the inner turmoil that can result from too much second-guessing and self-criticism.

And then there's this post by Michelle Davidson Argyle about being paralyzed by too much feedback.

And this one by Dawn Metcalf on not writing when life gets in the way, and the self-perpetuating negative cycle that can result: "I felt like I'd failed across the board, which didn't improve my mood or my ability to write. And that is the flipside of having a public voice and a private life--there is so much of our stories that cannot be told because while being a writer is public, being a human being is private."

Sometimes, a writer's mind is her own worst enemy. We need to be listeners, sensitive, attuned to our environments. We need critique. We need professionalism. Yet those are the very elements that can turn poisonous on us. And on top of any inner struggle comes a pressure not to admit it, not to reveal weakness. To be honest and vulnerable and creative while also having review-proof hides and boundless optimism ... Got all that? And can you juggle on a high wire, too?

I have always loved the way Anne Lamott approaches the writing life in Bird by Bird. She talks craft and practical matters, but she admits that the writing life is filled with inner battles, filled with apprehension, mind games, self-doubt, despair. Not only with those things--of course, there is joy, too, or why else even do this?--but she shows that you can feel all those things and admit it and still write, still publish, still live.

I hear tell that not every writer experiences this, and to those who don't, all I can say is: I'm happy for you, bless your heart. But the writers who do go through this don't do it to be precious. It's not because they've bought into some myth of the tortured artist. The more writers discuss this, the more we realize how common it is, and the more we learn to recognize where some of the pitfalls lie. When we find ourselves lost, we make finding the center again a priority. We know it's around here somewhere.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Imperfection

If inner critics or little worrying voices are too harsh, if the internal doomsayer won't shut up about catastrophic what-ifs, here are a few countering questions:

What if everything turns out OK?
What if I can accept that I'm doing the best I can?
What if the worst doesn't happen?
What if it doesn't have to be perfect?
What if I trust that there will be a solution?

Still having computer issues, so my online presence is spotty, but I am able to post this today.