A Writer’s Process (6b)

Photo on 2012-08-28 at 13.40We’re back with the sunny and splendid Jen Bailey. While I search for a chocolate scone (and of course, I’ll share), here’s a reminder for any newbies tuning in: This is part 2 of the discussion of Jen’s process. You can access part 1 here, if you haven’t already done so. (If you commented yesterday, thanks!) In part 1, you’ll find a synopsis of Jen’s work in progress. If you haven’t read that, you can’t pass Go or collect $200 until you do!


All caught up? If so, let’s jump right in!

El Space: Would you consider your book magical realism? Straight fantasy? A blend of the two?
Jen: This is a struggle I keep having with myself, and so what I’m trying to do is just forget about these labels and just see what happens. All I know is that Norah’s birds keep flying away. But I am writing it from her point of view, so until she figures out what’s going on—this is the pantser in me!—I can’t truly answer this question!



El Space: Fair enough.
Jen: I wonder if it is magical realism. Sometimes I ask myself if Norah is destroying the birds herself; other times I’m wondering if someone is stealing her birds. I think the answer will come out in the text, and I’m excited to find out what it is.

El Space: What else excites you about telling Norah’s story?
Jen: I would have to say it is the insane connections I have found as I write it! I see themes coming up over and over again—especially themes of flying, folding—and you know, it is like a mystery! I know it’s all going to gel eventually, but it is happening organically rather than because I have hijacked it with my linear thinking. So while that’s sometimes hard for me to let go and do, it’s fun and freeing when it happens.

El Space: I can relate to that. I’ve tried to control a story with my plot points, instead of allowing the characters to drive the story. So, Jen, what authors help fire your imagination? Why?
Jen: I am drawn to sparse, subtle, emotionally charged writing. Authors who blow my mind: Margo Lanagan (so raw!), David Almond (imagery), Benjamin Alire Sáenz (poetic language), Martine Leavitt (beautifully sparse and powerful), Hervé Bouchard/Janice Nadeau combo (wrote subtle but emotionally intense graphic novel Harvey), Kevin Henkes, and Mo Willems (again, subtle but intensely emotional).


191113El Space: Good ones! What tools or techniques help you give shape to your character(s)?
Jen: I use a lot of freewriting to discover my characters. Once they’ve taken shape in my mind, I just kind of go with what it is they’re telling me about them. I try to hone in on how they speak, move, are, then get it on the page.

El Space: What kinds of books would you like to see more of for the middle grade or young adult audience? Why?
Jen: I’d like to see more stories that explore community and collaboration; stories that move away from the single-protagonist model. Every person’s story impacts that of another, and I am interested in the dynamics between people, miscommunications, and multiple POVs. I think stories like these help build empathy, even more so than do single-protagonist stories. I blogged a bit about the plural-protagonist model.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you were given recently? How did it help?
Jen: “Just write a good story.” It helps me to remember that I should write the story I need to tell, and any other concern—e.g., audience, genre, publication pressure, marketing strategies—will work itself out later.

El Space: Very wise. What advice do you have for writers about shaping characters?
Jen: I would say to do a lot of freewriting to figure out how your character thinks. Put them in situations and see how they react—just for fun, not as part of your novel/story, necessarily. For example, I could take Norah and imagine her at an amusement park, and through her actions, thoughts, and words, I will learn about her. I suppose I don’t really shape my characters, I uncover them.


Great advice. And judging by the theme music, that’s all the time we have. Thanks for being my guest today, Jen!

And thanks to all of you for joining us and pretending to hear the theme music that I mentioned. (Though if your imagination needs help, please click here.) If you have questions for Jen about her work in progress or her process, please comment below. Don’t forget: you can find Jen at her blog or on Twitter.

Grackle photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads.com. Question mark from clker.com. Monopoly card from joecarr.us.

20 thoughts on “A Writer’s Process (6b)

  1. I like the way how you uncover your characters rather than shape them.
    I have to ask-what are multiple POV’s? My mind is coming up with all sorts!

    • Sorry, Andy. Multiple points of view. 🙂 In one of my novels, I tell the story from the perspective of three characters. Needless to say, I’m still working on that one!

      • Ah I see. I am learning lots on here.
        It is like at home, trying to communicate with my children. I am sure they speak a different language.

      • My niece and nephew constantly speak in text-speak: LOL, BTW, ROTFL. And then they speak a mile a minute and text the same way. Sigh.

      • We had a special cake made for my in-laws wedding anniversary. Two figures sat on a sofa, the male asleep beneath a newspaper, the female with a cigarette and a cup of tea. Both lifelike. I thought it was great. My eldest two saw it and told me it was sick.
        Sick? How could it be sick? I tried to work out how this could be offensive, but apparently ‘sick’ now means ‘great.’ Different language. The perpetual age thing.

  2. I’m also interested in the collective protagonist, something Sarah Ellis introduced me to when I was at VCFA. I do have a novel with three voices, Gringolandia, and it does involve collaboration among the characters to confront a common adversary, but I wrote it before VCFA and still thought of it as my main character’s story, primarily. Perhaps the collective nature of the struggle against the dictatorship subconsciously worked its way into the novel, but this is a subject in which I’m quite interested and hope to explore it in a future project. Thank you for discussing this, Jen.

    • That’s great, Lyn. Check out the section in Robert McKee’s “Story” for a bit more about the idea… How did Sarah Ellis go about introducing it to you? Have you read any stories you felt were in this vein?

      • When she was my advisor, she gave me a list that included Hilary McKay’s series, which is more of a family story than a community story, and Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, which does explore the community and various young people’s place in it. Another novel I’d recommend with a collective protagonist–in its case, a Mexican-American family forging a new life on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, is Sergio Troncoso’s From This Wicked Patch of Dust.

  3. Love the idea of uncovering your character rather than shaping one. Also interested in multiple points of view and the challenge of using this technique without having the work feel as if it were discrete sections patched together. Thanks for this intriguing discussion Jen.

  4. I, too, love the idea of uncovering the character, but also the way that Jen is willing to let the story unravel itself. It seems to me a very patient way to write a story. I’m afraid that I’m often too uncomfortable with questions or gray areas in my stories and the result can be that I limite my own imagination! Thanks, Linda, for another great post. And thanks, Jen, for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Jen, thanks for sharing how your characters uncover themselves. It’s so interesting and gives me lots to think about until I’m ready to start on a longer project.

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