Tuesday, April 4, 2017
From my years of writing words intended for many more eyes and hearts than they often reach, I have synthesized the following bittersweet truths and guidelines for myself, as well as for fellow writers:
1) Exasperation over sometimes absurdly long delays in artistic gratification may be part of a bigger plan for eventual success, in which time is irrelevant. Write memorable words and they will be remembered, even if not within the time frame you desire.
2) Expectations of others' reactions to your words can hinder your openness to hearing those reactions. Listening does not guarantee hearing any more than looking guarantees seeing. Remove your filters--the expectations--and take time to process feedback without simultaneously qualifying its relevance.
3) There is no such thing as a definitive "final draft." The author must settle on defining "final" in terms of a work's readiness to move others without further revisions--and the author's readiness to move on to another project.
4) Your words are yours to hatch and nurture, no matter how long they have to sit in a journal, a computer file, or your mind; consider them as germinating, not wasting away.
5) Some obscure comments from editors make sense in their own time, via epiphanies visible only to eyes freshened by time away from a manuscript. Celebrate each realization with a zealous revision and a self-congratulatory hug for your progress.
6) Treasure all comments about how your words moved a reader, even if those words only appeared on a post you wrote on Facebook, Twitter, or your blog. The point is to move people, and if your public works evoke written responses, even negative ones, you have succeeded in evoking emotions and inspiring others to write.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Leading my writing workshops for teens and hanging out (as invisibly as possible) with my teenage kids and their friends have done more to hone the authenticity of my teenage characters' voices than reading books like _____ (fill in your own title), by authors who think they know teens because they were teens and have strong memories. That's not to say that I don't "mis-hear" my own teenage characters at times, and have to revise their dialogues or narrative voices. I do, often. All YA writers have to know that they don't necessarily get the voices right in the early drafts.
But that knowledge frustrates me when I read a YA book that obviously needed revision for the sake of authenticity, and somehow managed to get published with passages of dialogue that sound like actors, playing teenagers, while doing a table-read of a script before production. I read such books as if I were a director, at that same table read, redirecting the players to deliver their lines more like teenagers--with more pauses between their instantly delivered, perfect analogies and literary allusions; with fewer polysyllabic words that betray the author's word-crafting behind the scenes, like the Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain; and with more uncertainty, since teenagers rarely feel sure of themselves and their reactions to others. I love beautiful dialogue as much as any reader; however, I have to believe that I'm hearing it through the mouth of its alleged speakers.
Recently, one of my teenage students gushed to me about a book she adored, one which I didn't adore, because the allegedly adolescent characters seemed to have incredibly sophisticated, unnaturally poetic, college-lit-major kinds of voices--in short, they sounded to me like puppets for the author more than real teenagers. Even their literary and art-related allusions gave them away as impostors, in my mind. The student concluded her speech by asking me, "Have you read it yet?"
I nodded. "And I liked it, but not as much as you did, apparently."
"Whaaat? Really? Why not?" She looked like a deflating balloon.
"Well, don't get me wrong. I appreciated the story and the characters were interesting. They just didn't sound like teenagers to me, and that's why I didn't love it. I would have loved the book if they were college students in their 20's; then they would have seemed real to me. Their dialogue didn't sound like any teenagers I know. And I know some pretty smart teenagers!" I winked, indicating that she was one of those smart teenagers.
"Aw, seriously? I LOVED the dialogue!" She frowned. "Gosh, me and my friends talk like that!"
I smiled, but politely repressed my laugh. No, you don't. I let a shrug be my reply. I wondered whether I, as an adult and a writer, not only speak differently than a teenager, but also read differently.
Maybe teens are willing to overlook realism because they like characters who talk the way they wish they could talk--or the way they think they do talk?
Maybe the adult readers who adored the same book simply have no recent experience with teens to contradict the discussions they read in this same book, and just assume, "Well, they're really smart kids, I guess." Or: "That's how we talked as teens." Or maybe they just wish that all teens were that brilliant and quick-witted!
Maybe the publishers and reviewers who rave about the book follow the TV model of shows like "Glee" and "Pretty Little Liars," in which clearly adult actors play high schoolers and the viewers just accept the incongruity as "artistic license?" Or maybe the book was actually written with 20-something-year-old characters, but then the marketing department pointed out that the audience would be much larger if the characters' ages fit the YA model? (I would find that explanation most soothing to my confused author self, albeit still frustrating.)
I ASK YOU, MY DEAR READERS: Does authenticity in characters' voices matter to you? Do the identities of the ones uttering poetic prose matter less than the memorability of their lines?
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
If the first line of your manuscript doesn't grab your reader, it's not the right first line. Readers don't have time to waste on false starts. Cut lines until you find the most compelling opening. Then start from there.
I once told an author-client to cut his first three chapters and start with the fourth. "That's where your story starts. The previous chapters are backstory, necessary to you, maybe, but not to the reader. Weave in the few details that the reader needs to know to understand certain plot points and restart from that great first line of chapter four."
My client was ticked off, let me tell you! "Just throw away all that work of the opening chapters? Do you know how many times I rewrote those? They were my most difficult chapters to revise!"
"And once you finally got those chapters done, the rest flowed much more easily, right?"
"Right! Only after all that initial set up was done!"
"And 'set up' is the operative word. You know how in a play script you read the stage directions, separate from the lines? Well, chapters one to three amount to stage directions that set up the play and the players for YOU, the director, who will use those stage directions to plan and direct the scenes. But your audience doesn't read or hear those stage directions; they merely absorb the essence of them that you infuse into the actions. All that your audience needs to see is the point at which the spotlight introduces the first action. Get it?"
He didn't get it, and I thought he would fire me...until a few weeks later. The one piece of advice he had taken from me was to set the work aside and take some time away, to freshen his perspective. Then he sent me a new manuscript, with a Post-It note that said, "Thanks," but not much more, while under that note was a much tighter manuscript, more than three chapters thinner.
What I got out of that experience--which has occurred numerous times in my book editing past: If we struggle to create certain chapters or lines, rather than pour them out of our minds, that's our Muse's hint that we should delete them. Immediately. Before we waste more time. Know when it flows. Redirect when the flow gets clogged.