Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Author, Holly Schindler (and a Super Give-away!)

Today I'm giving a big welcome to Young Adult novelist, Holly Schindler--my first guest blogger!  Holly is the author of A Blue so Dark and the recent Playing Hurt.

My introduction to Holly and her books came through the children's writing network, Jacketflap.com.  A little later I found Holly at her web site, hollyschindler.com and at her blog, hollyschindler.blogspot.com.

Holly's books are are what I consider top-of-the-line young adult writing: a strong and realistic voice, sophisticated detail, unforgettable characters, and an authentic identification with her young readers.  In my opinion, it doesn't get much better than that!  Here's what Holly has on her book covers:

Fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose has been hiding a secret. Her mother, a talented artist and art teacher, is slowly being consumed by schizophrenia, and Aura has been her sole caretaker ever since Aura’s dad left them. Convinced that “creative” equals crazy, Aura shuns her own artistic talent. But as her mother sinks deeper into the darkness of mental illness, the hunger for a creative outlet draws Aura toward the depths of her imagination. Just as desperation threatens to swallow her whole, Aura discovers that art, love, and family are profoundly linked—and together may offer an escape from her fears.

Star basketball player Chelsea “Nitro” Keyes had the promise of a full ride to college—and everyone’s admiration in her hometown. But everything changed senior year, when she took a horrible fall during a game. Now a metal plate holds her together and she feels like a stranger in her own family. 

As a graduation present, Chelsea’s dad springs for a three-week summer “boot camp” program at a northern Minnesota lake resort. There, she’s immediately drawn to her trainer, Clint, a nineteen-year-old ex-hockey player who’s haunted by his own traumatic past. As they grow close, Chelsea is torn between her feelings for Clint and her loyalty to her devoted boyfriend back home. Will an unexpected romance just end up causing Chelsea and Clint more pain—or finally heal their heartbreak?

I love these blurbs--they're wonderful examples of what I share in my workshops when I tell students "what you should be writing in your query letters!"  In just a few short lines we have character, plot, and a the promise of a huge emotional pay-off that  makes us want to know more, much more.

So how does Holly come up with all this good emotional content?  How about "Crying at the Movies"?

"I am one ugly crier. Some women—I’m thinking of actresses on the soaps, especially, who seem to be able to turn on the waterworks anytime they want—can look pretty while the tears roll down their cheeks. Me? My lips turn red, and I puff up like I’m having an allergic reaction.  I really hate crying at the movies for just that reason. And I usually hold it back. But I’ve had plenty of times that I felt myself tearing up, or feeling a tear break forth despite my best efforts to hold it in.  And I think that makes me a better writer. 

Both of my published YAs—A BLUE SO DARK and PLAYING HURT—feature characters whose experiences are completely unlike my own. In BLUE, I’ve got a protagonist with a schizophrenic mother who fears that she is mentally unstable, too. In PLAYING HURT, I’ve got a couple of former athletes…and dual protagonists, one of which is a man.  Talk about different. I couldn’t play a decent game of basketball to save my life. Yet, the opening scene of PLAYING HURT involves a basketball game. 

In order to pull it off—to make situations I have never lived seem real—I have to have extraordinary empathy for my characters. Their pain, their triumphs have to be my own.  I have to chuckle when they tell jokes, I have to feel my heart race when they’re in trouble, and, yes, I have to tear up when they encounter tragedy.  

If you’re a crier—if you sniff at Hallmark commercials, or cry out in victory when the winner of Top Chef is named—you’ve already got a leg up on the competition. If you can empathize, you can be a great writer."

Thanks, Holly--much appreciated!  And in appreciation of our readers, Holly has generously provided a book give-away:  a signed copy of Playing Hurt.  For our first lucky winner, I'm going to add a copy of my how-to-write book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.  A second name chosen will receive a copy of The Essential Guide plus a signed bookplate and bookmark from Holly.  To be eligible for the drawing, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post today or sometime during the next week before midnight, June 1, 2011 (6/1/11, 12.00 AM).

Tip of the Day:  Thanks again to Holly, we have some special writing advice on video.  Enjoy, and don't forget to leave a comment!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Writing With All Five Senses

Right now I'm reading a great book by New Zealand novelist, Rachel King:  The Sound of Butterflies.  The story is set in 1904 England and the Brazilian rain forest, and inside the front cover there are eleven review excerpts.  Starting from the top, some of the key words repeated throughout the reviews are:  sensuous, lush, luscious, and exotic.  Other reviews use the terms: rich, evocative, opulent, sultry, seductive, and rippling.  (I do like rippling.)

Lush, luscious, and yes--rippling--writing is a worthy goal for all of us, I think.  Even if you're writing "just about your own backyard" miles away from the Amazon or London's Richmond Park, there's no reason to make it dull.  Pull us in; help us to see, hear, taste those motor mowers and dandelion puffs.  In other words:  all five senses, people!

To really get those senses moving, we need to go beyond mere description--we need to associate the senses with the power of emotion and memory.  For instance:

1.  Sight.  Sight is the sense we most commonly turn to when adding description to our manuscripts, and it's the one most certain to trip us up and bore readers.  You know the sort of thing: there was a gray rock on the cement steps only inches away from a brown stick covered in mud. The mud looked dirty.  But let's ramp this up a few notches:  the rock, a chunk of brain-shaped coral, could be covered in blood because it has just been used as a murder weapon, instilling terror in your main character when she stumbles over it on her way to deliver a cake for the victim's birthday.  The rock could also be very unusual--a vivid shade of purple, and similar to one she's seen inside her new boyfriend's aquarium.  Seeing the rock now means something; it starts a chain of action, reaction, emotion, and future plot twists.  It's also a very unforgettable rock because of the color, the blood, and the association with a brain, and it sets a tone unique to the story.
2.  Sound.  We live in a world of noise that can sometimes be overwhelming, forcing us to tune it all out--much to our disadvantage.  An excellent exercise is to sit with your journal and listen, really listen, for 5 to 30 minutes and then record what you hear.  Do this for your characters too.  Imagine them in their individual settings, and then listen along with them to whatever is intruding on their environments.  Whether it's a string of Gregorian chants or the sound of a jackhammer three streets over, make it important to your character's well-being or distress.  Make it real.

3.  Touch.  The way particular items feel to your characters can add volumes of emotional reaction and involvement to your writing.  A scratchy collar, a much-washed baby blanket, the sting of a wasp, the weight of a good book in your hand.  We've all been there.  Let your characters experience their story world in as tactile a way as possible, showing, rather than telling, why they prefer the feel of one item over another.

4.  Taste.  I enjoy descriptions of food, not just for the ingredients or how to put the recipes together, but because of the combination of mood and memory food writers seem to excel at.  I've mentioned before how helpful I find food magazines to be for found poetry and collage work precisely for the sensuous language contained in the articles.  But taste covers more than food.  How about the taste of rain or snow, a barely detected poison, or the taste of a lead pencil--the one your main character is chewing on throughout his four-hour math test?

5.  Smell.  I hope this isn't too much disclosure, but my favorite smell in the entire world is kittens' feet.  I think kitten paws are the sweetest, prettiest little things ever.  Katherine Mansfield described them in her journal as "unripe raspberries" and I've always considered that description right-on perfect.  One reason I love them so is they always make me a think of a little white and orange kitten I wanted as a small child and couldn't have.  Wah!  That kitty smelled delish and I've never forgotten.

Tip of the Day:  Make two lists:  one with your favorite sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and smells, followed by your most disliked items in these same five categories.  Once you have your lists, freewrite on why you love/hate these things, what they remind you of, how empty your life would be without them.  Now do the same for some fictional characters, either from your current WIP or a brand new story.

Breaking News:  Next Tuesday, May 24, 2011 Young Adult author Holly Schindler will be guest blogging right here at Dava Books.  Holly has written a special post, plus she'll also be sharing a writing exercise.  To celebrate, we're having a super giveaway--a copy of her new novel Playing Hurt, accompanied by a copy of my how-to-write book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.  Details of how to win will be revealed next Tuesday--don't forget.  In the meantime, keep those words rippling!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

12 Tips to Finding Your Voice

"How do I find my voice?  How do I know I'm using the right one?"  Just like the word "style," "voice" can be a confusing term when you're just starting out and writing to please an editor.  But all you really need to know is:

1.  Write like you talk. One of my favorite comments from a former workshop participant who had just finished reading The Essential Guide for New Writers was, “The book sounds just like you.  Every time I read it, I'm right back in your class.”  Bingo!

2.  Write like you're writing a journal entry.  A great way to let your natural voice emerge is to pretend you're only writing for yourself.  I find it always helps to write my first drafts in my journal, and by hand. 

3.  Freewrite, especially when you're "stuck."  Try setting a timer anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes and just start writing.  Don't think, just write.  You'll be so busy you won't have time to worry about the "sound" of your writing, and that means the sound will be natural and 100% you.

4.  Avoid censoring your "first thoughts."  So what if your freewriting grammar is non-existent, you've misspelled every other word, and your "first thoughts" are far from pretty?  Who's to care?  The point is to get words on paper--words that are yours alone.

5.  Examine why you feel the need to censor.  Sometimes when we let loose with those first thoughts, they can be pretty shocking.  We think of all the people our words could hurt or embarrass, or who might reject us for being ourselves--especially for being our "shadow selves."  One way to conquer these worries is to set aside some time to list the people you think would be upset by your writing and why.   Once you have your list, work on solutions.  For instance, you might need to write under a pseudonym, or you might want to keep your writing private until after it's published.

6.  Walk in your characters' shoes.  Another good trick to find your authentic voice is to let your characters do the talking.  Ask them interview-type questions:  "What is the worst thing that ever happened to you as a child?"  "What do you love/hate about your current job?"  "Where would you go on your dream vacation?"  Then sit back with your pen and paper and take dictation-style notes.

7.  Write in the first person.  The easiest way to get into a main character's head and voice is to write from the first person point of view.  If you don't particularly care for that POV in the finished work, you can always rewrite in third person later.  The idea is to be as open and true to your character(s) as possible in your first draft so that you have something to work with down the road.

 8.  Give your "worst" thoughts/voice for your characters.  Assign your shadow side to your characters--especially your villains.  Give them every negative thought you've ever had and let them run with it.  Not only is this extremely cathartic, it's also an excellent way to personalize a believable voice. 

9.  Write poetry.  Really! Poetry practice can lead you to your individual sense of rhythm and language.  Poetry forces you to take breaths between words and lines, thereby helping you discover if your true voice is direct and to-the-point, or more comfortable weaving back and forth in a tapestry of emotion and nuanced subtlety.  Poetry can also force you to reach for unusual word combinations and uses, sparking your creativity.

10.  Keep a shelf of authors whose voices you admire.  Go to your bookshelves and pick out not just your favorite books, but the books that in your opinion have the strongest voices.  Read and re-read to discover what it is that speaks to you, then do your best to use some of those same techniques in your own attempt to find voice.

11.  Don't try too hard.  Nothing is worse than reading an author who tries so hard to comply with "how everyone else writes" that the voice is not only false, it's irritating.  Chick-lit, wise-cracking snappy twenty-somethings who enthuse with irony over every broken fingernail; pages and pages of dialogue dripping with "Y'alls" and "Dah-lins" when the author has been no further south than Maine; cerebral attempts to fake street smarts and slang...  It's way easier to just be yourself.

12.  Don't worry about it.  Write what you love and you'll be writing in your own voice.  Try to keep in mind that writing is an act of creativity--follow your intuition, follow your gut, follow your heart.  Do those three things and you'll be using your real voice without a second thought.

Tip of the Day:  Read aloud from a wide selection of titles.  Listen to the way the words and sentences sound.  What do you admire when you hear the phrases?  What do you dislike?  How can you change your own writing so that it sounds more pleasing or realistic to your ear?