Monthly Archive: January 2015

January, briefly

January has never been one of my favorite months. It seems particularly obnoxious, like a guest who has long overstayed his welcome and doesn’t realize it. Maybe it’s the reality of New Year’s Resolutions sinking in, or just the comedown after the Christmas festivities. Usually by January 31st, I wonder how a month can possibly feel so long.

But this January has been different somehow. Instead of feeling tired and defeated, I feel inspired. When I looked at the calendar today and realized it was January 29th, I wondered where the month has gone. Then I realized where: into several Word documents and a couple handy notebooks.

I'm a handy notebook! Fill me with words!

I’m a handy notebook! Fill me with words!

When you work a lot, whether as a writer or at any job, it’s easy for the days to blend into each other. It’s even easy to forget what day of the week it is. (At least, for me.) So I thought it would be fun to record a little bit of what I’m up to at the end of each month, to remind myself what I have accomplished and how I got there.

This month, I have been…

Working on: The Young Adult contemporary I wrote after FIRSTS. This isn’t just a book of my heart, but a book of my sanity too—it has been a decidedly tricky one to write. I’ve been playing with a mix of perspectives and tenses and actually plotting (gasp), which felt foreign. But this is one story I’ve realized I can’t just “pants” my way through. I tried. I failed. I moved on. Which leaves me here, with an outline and lots of chapters in the process of being written. Now that I have taken January to plot and really know the story and characters, I feel confident that February will be the month where ALL THE WORDS come out to play.

Reading: I started the year off on a very high reading note. The first book I finished in January was Marci Lyn Curtis’s debut, THE ONE THING. I was lucky enough to read this book before its release date (September 8, 2015—mark your calendar!) and was totally blown away. A witty, sarcastic protagonist, an amazing concept, and writing that grips you and doesn’t let go—this is a stunning debut that I’m still thinking about. (Psst… come back on Monday and you’ll get to see Marci’s brand new cover! Trust me, you don’t want to miss it!)

I also read THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black and loved it. Holly Black has created a setting in Coldtown that feels chillingly real. Her writing is rich and beautiful and makes everything in the book so easy to visualize.

I just finished HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown, which had been on my TBR for quite awhile. I had high hopes, and the book exceeded all of them. I love how it’s not what it appears to be, which is a book about a high school shooting—it’s a book about Valerie, the girlfriend of the shooter, and her long road to recovery.

Watching: My husband and I started watching LOST on Netflix. I had seen parts of it several years ago, but watching it a second time through and picking up on more detail has been really fascinating. I forgot how totally captivating this show is, and what a brilliant job the writers did with the characters and their backgrounds and their interwoven lives. Not to mention… the suspense! Oh, the suspense. The reason I stay up way too late.

So that’s my month in a nutshell. Words, words, and more words. Written, read, listened to. February, I can only hope you’re equally verbose!

“Can you speak up?” : Or, writing memorable voice

When I was a brand-new writer getting ready to query my first book (a NA contemporary), I unknowingly committed a big writing sin: I didn’t think about my main character’s voice. If you had asked me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what voice even meant.

So I was surprised when I started getting feedback about it from agents. Requests saying they liked the voice and wanted to read more. Rejections stating they just didn’t connect with it.

I considered all the thought I had put into the story. The details I had put into the cast of characters. The outline I had made to keep track of scenes and plot points. I had put so much work into those parts of the book, yet the thing that seemed to stand out most to agents was something I hadn’t consciously worked on at all. I didn’t even know how to work on it, or how I made it happen in the first place. So those rejections that cited voice as the main reason for not connecting were especially frustrating.

When I started writing my second book, I did something I should have done a lot sooner.

I started reading widely, both NA and YA. And I realized the books I loved most, the ones that stuck with me long after I turned the last page, as different as they were, had one element that tied them together.

Voice.

I started to learn that there was really no right or wrong way to create voice. Voice comes from your main character, from his or her ways of seeing the world you put them in. Voice can be naive or sarcastic or downright mean. Voice can be lyrical or sparse or colorful or gray. The spectrum for voice is enormous, neverending. But a good voice, a memorable one, is always authentic and consistent. Because your main character is the lens through which your readers see the world you create. Your readers will literally get inside your character’s head.

After I realized this, I was both inspired and intimidated. I started to think about what I could do to pinpoint voice, and how I could use it to drive my book. By this time, I had an idea in my head for a character whose voice I knew would be polarizing and the hook for her story. I was ready to start writing what would become FIRSTS.

I knew that I couldn’t control whether people would like Mercedes, but I came to understand that liking her wasn’t the most important thing. What was more important was the experience I was creating, the character whose head readers would be occupying. Did she feel authentic? Was her voice consistent? Was she interesting enough to spend a whole book with?

Here are some things that I have taken away most from reading widely and writing from different perspectives. When I’m writing from a character’s point of view and start to get stuck, I refer to these points:

1) Your character doesn’t have to be necessarily relatable, or even nice. But she does have to feel real. A too-sweet and passive main character who doesn’t ever make mistakes isn’t any fun to read about. A snarky, jaded main character needs to give us at least something vulnerable to connect with, particularly if he or she is doing bad things. People in real life don’t exist as either strictly good or bad, and nor should your characters.

2) Experiment with your character’s voice. Write a few scenes from her perspective. Get to know her. Think about how she would see the world, how she would react to things. Think about the reasons why. This can be difficult, because it might not be how you see the world or how you would react to things. But unless you’re writing a memoir, your character isn’t you. For instance, a bully with something to hide might threaten someone and feel momentarily powerful. A popular girl might know her jock boyfriend is cheating on her but choose not to confront him. Your job is to make your character convincing enough that your reader wants to know more about why she sees things the way she does.

3) Think about your character’s secrets. His motivation. You don’t have to give this away up front. You can keep this from the reader, but let it color your story and build tension. Sometimes what is unsaid is even more effective than what is said. People’s pasts, the experiences they have gone through, have a huge impact on how they see things. So even if you don’t include all of your character’s backstory in your book, make sure you know it. This will let you know him that much better.

4) Keep your character’s voice consistent. If she’s sarcastic and cynical and whip-smart, don’t dumb her down. If she’s incredibly perceptive, don’t let things pass her by. If she’s an anti-hero, own it. Some of my favorite books have narrators who are anti-heroes, and I have stated on many occasions how much I love characters who aren’t traditionally likeable. Why do I love these characters so much? Not because I want to be best friends with them, but because the authors did a great job of keeping the voice consistent, and the characters felt complex and interesting as a result.

5) Pay close attention to dialogue, because it’s a big part of voice. Readers see and feel things unfold from your character’s perspective, but they also hear it from your character’s mouth. Make sure that when he speaks, it’s in a way that makes sense to the thoughts unfolding in his head. The way he interacts with people, his words and his gestures, are an extension of his thoughts.

6) If you’re writing in dual or multiple points of view, make sure each character’s voice is distinct and unique. If the voices are too similar, no matter how good your story is, it will become less compelling as a result. You want your readers to always know whose head they’re in at all times.

And the main thing I have taken away? Voice is one part of writing that’s subjective, which can be thrilling and frustrating. If all the other elements of a book make it speak, voice is what makes it sing.

I’d love to know… what techniques do you use to create a memorable voice?

#SixteensBlogAbout: Resolutions

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about our reading resolutions for 2015. This made me start think about my writing resolutions too, which spiraled into an internal dialogue about expectation. Not other people’s expectation of me, but my expectations for myself. And I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the bar we set for ourselves is the hardest one to jump over.

As writers, words are our currency. We type hundreds, maybe thousands of them, at a time. We fill Word documents and notebooks and random scraps of paper and Post-Its and even napkins at restaurants with them. We add them. We delete them. We string them together, craft them into characters, emotions, relationships, scenes. We use them to make people laugh and cry. We turn them into entire books. And that’s a pretty amazing thing.

But I’d be lying if I said it was all about words. Because numbers squeeze their way into a writer’s world too. And once numbers become part of the equation, it’s hard to not notice them. On Twitter, where we can report how many words we have written on any given day and keep each other accountable. On the calendar in my office, where I reward myself with a sticker on days when I write at least a thousand words. On Goodreads, where we can keep track of how many books we have read throughout the year and see how many our peers have read. During NaNoWriMo, when the magic number everybody wants to hit is 50,000 words.

It’s easy to turn words into numbers and measure progress that way. I do it all the time.

So my resolution for 2015 is not to.

That’s not to say I’ll abandon my calendar or my shiny little heart stickers. That’s not to say I won’t feel a swell of pride when I hit the 5K mark after a productive afternoon. I’ll still do a happy dance and have a big glass of wine when I finish a new first draft. But my goal for 2015 is to measure progress in different ways. Progress doesn’t have to be a thousand brand new words. Progress might be editing a current manuscript, taking it to the next level. Progress might be a blog post or a short story or experimentation with something that might go nowhere. Progress might be taking a day off to read a book I’m excited about. Progress might be taking words away instead of adding them.

2014 was a busy writing year for me. I wrote three new WIPs. I edited FIRSTS, turning it into the book that sold to my amazing editor, Kat Brzozowski at Thomas Dunne Books. Then I edited some more. 2014 was a year of first drafts and revising. I also read a decent amount– somewhere in the ballpark of 65 books in a variety of genres. 2014 was a year of words and numbers. And it was incredible– I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. I successfully achieved the thing I wanted most to do, which was silence my inner editor, trust my instincts, and just write. I learned to love fast-drafting above all else.

Except the more I wrote, the harder I became on myself when I took a day off. The harder it became for me to measure progress by anything other than adding new words. I became a bit obsessive about word count. I was in a competition with myself, desperate to keep the flow going. And there’s nothing wrong with expecting a lot of yourself. Inner competition drives us, keeps us trying to make our writing better. But there has to be a balance.

My problem was, if I wasn’t adding new words, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I felt like I was wasting time. If I fell short of a word goal, I was disheartened and felt like I had failed.

This year, I want to make those three first drafts shine. And that will mean a lot of things. Rewriting. Cutting scenes. Outlining. Making notes to myself in margins. A lot of this will be slow, tedious work. A big chunk of this will mean I have no new words to show for myself. And I’m okay with that. Because in 2015, I’m measuring progress not by how many words are on a page, but how I feel about what I’m doing. Just like I learned in 2014 to silence my inner editor, in 2015 I’m telling my inner critic, the one keeping score, to take a vacation.

So while my goals for 2015 aren’t all that tangible, they’re the goals that make the most sense to me. I want to make progress more about how I feel than what I do.

I’d love to know– do you have any reading or writing resolutions for 2015?

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