A Writer’s Process (11b)

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHello! Please join me in welcoming to the blog once more the luminous and enlightening Laurie Morrison! I really, really, really wish I had a brownie like the ones Laurie wrote about in Rebound, her young adult novel. I could also go for a slice of pie! (Mmm. Pie.) Let’s move on, since I can’t get either one just now.

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If you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, welcome to you too. But I have to tell you that this is the second part of the interview with Laurie. The first part is here.

El Space: Yesterday we talked about your antagonist. How did you go about crafting a “nuanced, realistic antagonist”? “A nuanced, realistic heroine”?
round characterLaurie: Hmm, that’s a good question. Once I decided to make Lissy’s dad an antagonist, I thought about her insecurities and considered how I could turn him into someone who would especially push her buttons. That involved turning him from a not-very-successful lawyer into an entrepreneur who takes risks, thinks people should look out for their own interests, and has never valued Lissy’s interest in baking. I did a lot of free-writing about Lissy and her dad’s back story, to figure out precisely when and how he had made her feel not good enough, but then I also figured out what her dad has going for him and why Lissy’s stepmother, Kim, fell in love with him. When I turned him into an antagonist, that actually opened up possibilities for Kim to become a rounder and more important character.

As for creating a nuanced and realistic heroine, one thing that really helped me was to free-write scenes between Lissy and each of the other key characters, both from the past and from the summer when the book takes place. Some of these scenes made it into the story and many did not, but I got a fuller picture of Lissy as I saw how she interacted with others and came to understand the relationships that have shaped her.

El Space: You’re writing a series of blog posts on first-person narration. (If you want to read them, start here.) What excites you most about this perspective?
11925514Laurie: I love the intimacy of a first-person narrative and the experience of trying to capture a character’s experience through her own eyes and ears, skin, etc. and in her own distinctive voice. I’m also excited about what I think of as the reliability spectrum for first-person narration.

I find it fascinating to read books with narrators who turn out to be quite unreliable, such as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. But then I’m also interested in narrators who aren’t unreliable on purpose, but who aren’t unequivocally reliable, either, because any person’s perspective is subjective and in some ways limited. No narrator can attend to everything that is going on all at once or truly know where others are coming from.

307652Some narrators are closer to the wholly reliable end of the spectrum than others, but it’s still important to think about when those largely reliable narrators might not be seeing a character or situation accurately and what their blind spots or defense mechanisms might be. I love to write and read about characters who are relatable and engaging but also clearly fallible. I think it’s a powerful experience to love and identify with a first-person narrator while also understanding her limitations and rooting for her to grow.

El Space: Cool! I wish I could quote directly from the podcast interview I heard with Ally Carter some months ago. But she mentioned having a niche in the marketplace. She’s known for a certain type of book. I happen to love her books. What do you see as your niche? Why?
Laurie: If I continue to write the kind of stories I’ve been writing—and if, you know, people actually want to read those stories—my niche would probably be writing books for the younger end of YA readers.

Most of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students read young adult novels instead of, or in addition to, middle grade books. The term middle grade is actually kind of confusing, because it doesn’t really correspond to middle school years. I gravitate toward writing stories that would be good for middle school students who are ready to read about teenage experiences, but might not be quite ready for all of the content in “older” YA books.

5819551That doesn’t mean that I censor myself when I’m writing or exclude certain things on purpose because I am trying to send a certain positive message. It just means that if I really think about my intended reader, I imagine myself at age 13 or 14 or one of the students I’ve gotten to know especially well, and my sense of that intended audience influences which stories I choose to tell.

El Space: What authors inspire you?
Laurie: Lots of authors inspire me, but here are a few. E. Lockhart and Jaclyn Moriarty inspire me because of their humor and their distinctive first-person narrators. Sarah Dessen inspires me because of the emotional depth of her novels and her multifaceted characters. Katherine Paterson inspires me because of the affection she clearly has for her characters and her readers.

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2839El Space: They’re all awesome. What writing advice, if any, have you received that electrified your writing?
Laurie: [VCFA’s own] Alan Cumyn taught me that it’s very compelling to watch a character who won’t let herself have something we know she really wants. Franny Billingsley taught me to identify a character’s vacuum—the longing or hole that the character is struggling to fill. Mary Quattlebaum taught me that if you give a character a driving passion, that passion can help shape your character’s voice and make it sound distinct. And Shelley Tanaka taught me that subplots need to enrich or mirror the central story, and too many subplots can make a story less powerful.

Thanks, Laurie, for being my guest! You’ve been awesome. But next time, please bring brownies.

Those of you who stopped by can find Laurie at her blog or on Twitter. If you have questions for Laurie, please comment below. You can also answer this question: Which antagonists have you read reacently which seemed “nuanced and realistic”?

Book covers by Goodreads. Pie photo from Wikipedia. Round character poster from mhaywood.blogspot.com.

A Writer’s Process (3b)

We’re back with the fabulous Nicole Valentine discussing her process and her book, The Idle Tree. If you’re tuning in for the first time, this is part 2 of the discussion. Please check out part 1. Thanks to all who joined in the discussion yesterday. Now, let’s get to it!

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El Space: What was your biggest “ah ha” moment concerning your process? How did you come to this discovery?
Nicole: I was writing scenes and they were all fine and good. Everything in them was necessary; there was no passivity. The formula was there; yet still I felt like something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t a character or plot issue; it was something bigger: structure. I went back to the Structure Queen, aka Franny Billingsley, author of The Folk Keeper and Chime, and enlisted her help. She was integral in making me realize what was missing: the cog-like effect each scene should have on the next.

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The cogs metaphor worked well for me. When I was a kid, I had this terrible Milton Bradley game called Downfall. I say it was terrible, because compared to Life and Clue, it’s like playing tic-tac-toe with a stick in the dirt. However, when it comes to understanding scenes, it’s a great visual to have, so I’m including a picture here.

El Space: Pictures are good!

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Nicole: There were these cogs you had to turn in order to get your little round disks to fall and land in your well. If you didn’t line up your cogs correctly, your opponent could get their disks down before yours. A scene is like a cog in your novel. It must work like a precision instrument. The cog must deliver that reader into the next scene and the next. Your reader is that happy little disk that wants to land in the well of victory, aka “satisfying resolved plot-land.” If you just keep stacking cogs with no thought of how the scene will deliver them to the next cog, well, that will be your downfall. See what I did there?

El Space: I think so. You need a strategy to keep a reader invested. Speaking of investments, what steps do you take to safeguard your writing time?
Nicole: It’s hard. I have a wonderful and supportive husband who treats parenthood like a shared job, and I’m so thankful for him. He’s my first reader, too. Motherhood and the day job can put demands on the writing time, but I’ve learned to treat them as opportunities. I’m known to copy down interesting habits and facial tics in a boardroom for use later. I try to treat my writing time like an office job. I write at night as well. It’s midnight as I’m answering these questions, so you’re getting silly Nicole with lots of references to my misspent youth.

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El Space: Ha ha! This is probably the time to hit you up for favors! But moving on, some authors feel they have to dumb down scientific concepts because they’re writing for kids. How will you make the science accessible, yet challenging for readers?
Nicole: I suppose I’ve spent a large portion of my life explaining technology to those new to it. I refuse to speak in jargon. Good teachers always find a corollary in the student’s knowledge base they can use to describe a new principle.

As for my own principles of time travel, they are really quite simple. Finn doesn’t need things to be dumbed down, and I believe my readers won’t either. I like to reside in that area where science falls short and conjecture begins. There’s this wonderful line where science and magic meet. That’s where you’ll find me.

El Space: Me too! What time travel books inspired you?
Nicole: My favorite time travel is less sci-fi and more magical realism. I’m more intrigued with time travel as a natural occurrence—no machines. My favorite novel of all time is Jack Finney’s Time and Again.

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I’m a native New Yorker, and the city is as much a character in that book as the protagonist, Simon Morley. The first time I read it, I was so enchanted with it that I had to take the 5th Avenue bus to work every morning, even though it meant waking up an hour earlier. Time travel is part nature and part science in this book.

You can probably guess that my favorite series growing up was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (book 1). More recently, I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which I thought was so brilliant the pages actually glowed when I turned them. Did anyone else notice this?

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El Space: I’ll say yes, since I loved that book!
Nicole: I’ve also enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

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Michael Crichton’s Timeline was brilliant for the tie in of physics. As for non-time travel books, I love anything by Charles de Lint and Alice Hoffman. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern blew me away. I’m convinced she can write setting like no one else, it might not have been time travel, but I was definitely in that circus with her. I also love craft books. I keep a Pinterest page of favorites that many author friends help me curate: The Craft of Writing.

El Space: How did your technology background prepare you for writing your novel?
Nicole: I suppose it’s prepared me to get a handle on structure and plot. The planning ahead in creating an application is similar to outlining a novel. When I’m not in outlining land, I think the comparisons end.

When I’m pantsing (yup, still hate the term), it feels more organic. Something inside my brain takes over, and it just flows. That doesn’t happen to me with coding. There is nothing that beats the feeling of a successful writing session, one where the muse stood by your shoulder the whole time.

Thanks so much, Nicole! This has been awesome. If you have questions for Nicole, please comment below.

Stopwatch from dreamstime.com.