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!

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

A Writer’s Process (6a)

Welcome to round 6 of A Writer’s Process. With me on the blog today is another friend from VCFA—the awesome Jen Bailey, whose blog is Write Fiercely. When you finish checking out Jen’s blog, come on back and take a front-row seat. Coffee will be ready in a minute.

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El Space: Welcome, Jen! Please tell us about yourself.
Jen:
I was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, and am the oldest of three children. I have two little boys and I read to them for a good hour every night—we’re currently obsessed with the Mr. Putter and Tabby books.

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I also do a mean Junie B. Jones voice.

7058f78417e8103bc934f61c958c20d6El Space: Ha! That would be fun to hear! I’m not familiar with the Mr. Putter books, so I’ll have to check those out. What else are you involved in?
Jen: I most enjoy working one on one or with small groups of writers. I am currently mentoring a teenager as he writes a sci-fi trilogy, and I lead a writing group at a homeless drop-in centre. In September, I’ll begin teaching creative writing at Algonquin College.

El Space: Wow. You’re really busy. It’s great that you’re mentoring a sci-fi writer! And congrats on the new teaching gig, Jen! Now, on your blog, you mention that you have “a passion for rhythm and sound.” Please tell us how that came about. What books endear themselves to you because of that?
Jen: I have a feeling that this came about because I have a musical background, and have read a lot of poetry. When words and music (rhythm, sound) combine in a complimentary way, I can feel it in my body, and it evokes emotion in me.

Rhythmic, sensory language comes naturally to me when I’m writing in character. I only discovered this about my writing when I noticed it in Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, and made the connection between the words on the page and the emotion that was being evoked as I read. I think it is a powerful tool that can also be used in revision if it doesn’t come out naturally as you write.

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El Space: Are you a pantser or a plotter? How did you discover this?
Jen: I have never heard of the term pantser—but, I suppose that’s more what I am, if it’s the opposite of plotter! When I first started at VCFA, I was working on a middle grade suspense novel. It was fun, trying to figure out the way in which I would lay all the clues in place and keep the reader guessing. The thing was that my story seemed to be dead on the page, and I didn’t understand why. So I picked the advisor whose process was the most foreign to me to see if I could figure out what I could do differently.

I worked with Amanda Jenkins, and we started a new project from scratch. She had me do freewriting to learn about my characters, and introduced me to the idea of letting your characters tell you the story instead of vice-versa. What I learned from Amanda was that characters can surprise you if you listen to them, and they can lead you in directions you might not see if your analytical side is running the show 100%.

El Space: She told me the same thing when I worked with her. Her advice changed the way I write today. Now, let’s hear about your WiP.
Jen: Twelve-year old Norah Jackson can’t get “soft eyes” from her mother.

El Space: What do you mean by “soft eyes”?
Jen: Compassionate, loving eyes. All she gets are “piercing” ones—critical, demanding. She can’t figure out why—she has worked on this problem like a puzzle, turning the pieces over and over, but never finding the right fit. To make matters worse, her younger half-brother, Kevin, gets soft eyes all the time, whether in sympathy or in celebration of his “gold star” achievements at school.

When her stepfather, Dave, gives her a pamphlet for a boarding school, she misinterprets his intentions and believes that he, too, has rejected her. This brochure sets Norah on one final mission: to get a “gold star” like Kevin, and, in turn, her mother’s soft eyes.

Norah has always been fascinated by birds. When her art teacher, Mrs. McGauvrey, suggests she enter an art competition at a bird sanctuary, and Norah sees that its location is marked on a map by a gold star, she knows this is the way to win her soft eyes. Fearful of exposure, failure, and rejection, Norah tries desperately to get all the details right, but every bird she draws flies away. As her attempts for perfection at home and school intensify, Norah’s stuffed emotions brim over, and, with the help of Mrs. McGauvrey and a carefree friend named Josh, she discovers how to let everything out on the page so that the birds stay and she can be seen.

And that’s about all we have time for today. I know. You’re giving me the piercing eyes now like the ones in Jen’s story. Don’t be dismayed. Jen will return tomorrow for more questions about her book and process. You don’t have to wait till tomorrow to ask Jen questions, however. Just comment below! And as always, thanks for stopping by.

Book covers from Goodreads.com.