Safe Spaces

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Space Series

As the mysterious “they” have said, all good things must come to an end. And that’s true of this series. I’ve been more than thrilled with the posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.)

Last but not least is this post by another friend from VCFA, the wise and wonderful Laurie Morrison. If you know Laurie, you know her awesome blog. I’ve been thrilled by her visits to this blog as well. You can find them here and here. Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe and is working on a humorous contemporary young adult epistolary novel the working title of which is Dear Baby. Doesn’t that sound great?! Until that book debuts, you can enjoy this post from Laurie!

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I have a sign on my classroom door that is decorated with a rainbow and says Safe Space. The sign means that I want my classroom to be a comfortable, welcoming place for all students.

When I began to reflect on the idea of space for this guest post, I thought of that sign. Then I started to think about the spaces that felt safe and not-so-safe to me when I was my students’ age—in middle school—and then when I was a freshman in high school.

When I was in middle school, almost every place felt safe. I went to the same small, cozy school from kindergarten to eighth grade. My mom was a teacher there, my younger brothers went there, and I’d known most of my classmates for as long as I could remember. But when I started high school, I struggled to find spaces where I felt at home.

Nothing particularly traumatic happened to me. My freshman year would have made for very dull fiction. Nobody was overtly mean to me, and I later found out that one of the girls on my bus, who eventually became one of my best friends, was bending over backwards to try to befriend me, but I was so overwhelmed and out of sorts that I just didn’t notice. After feeling so at home in middle school, though, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at my bigger, louder, more competitive high school. Especially during some of my lunch periods, when I didn’t have anyone to eat with, and during a free block at the end of the day, when I didn’t know where to go.

i-love-french-class-131870186934Looking back, I realize that even though I felt out of place and disconnected, I found a couple of safe spaces during my freshman fall. One of those safe spaces was French class. A couple of my middle school classmates were in my French class, so I always had someone to sit with. Plus, the whole class routine was so much like it had been in middle school. We’d start each class by going over the workbook pages we’d done for homework; we’d listen to recordings and copy down what we heard; and we’d learn the vocabulary for an activity, like ordering food at a restaurant, and then have practice conversations together. My new teacher’s handwriting even looked the same as my middle school teacher’s handwriting, and she was always complimenting my accent or my memory. I loved going to French class.

princeton_university_house_flag_25798smaIn the book I’m working on now, the main character, Whitney, has just switched schools because her parents can no longer afford her private school tuition now that her brother has started college at Princeton and her mom is pregnant with a miracle baby. As I’m writing Whitney’s story, I’m drawing upon my own feelings of discomfort and alienation from freshman year in high school and magnifying them, because I’ve given Whitney a lot of obstacles to work against.

But in the past few days, as I’ve thought about the safe spaces that I found at the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve decided that Whitney should probably find her own safe spaces, too. I had already given her a couple without realizing it, actually, but until now I hadn’t stopped to think much about what her safe spaces look and feel like, and how she changes when she enters them. By thinking about the places where Whitney feels comfortable, I think I can enrich the setting of the book and make her a more endearing character.

17332968I read A.S. King’s new book Reality Boy last week and I noticed that her main character, Gerald, has safe spaces, too, even though he’s dealing with some pretty rough circumstances. He feels comfortable and welcome in his Special Ed classroom, and he creates his own imagined safe space—a place he calls “Gersday”—where he can go when he needs to escape. These safe spaces don’t detract from the story’s tension, but they help to develop Gerald’s character, and they give the reader some relief; I actually felt myself exhale when Gerald first walked into the “SPED” room, where people appreciate him.

I think safe spaces are important for everybody, real or fictional. So I invite you to consider: what safe spaces do you have now, and what safe spaces did you have when you were younger? What are the safe spaces for the characters you write or read about? What do those safe spaces reveal to you?

Space sign from GLSEN.org. Book cover from Goodreads. French class sign from ilovegenerator.com. Princeton flag from sportsflagsandpennants.com.

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 (11a)

Remember your days as a freshman in high school or college? There you were at a new school, trying to make a good impression. Graduate school was no different for me. I felt like a “freshman,” starting my program. Thankfully, a great group of people started and finished with me. Laurie Morrison is one of them. Laurie is a fellow blogger and an author of young adult fiction. She’s here today and tomorrow to talk about her young adult novel, Rebound, and young adult fiction in general. Woot!

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El Space: Welcome, Laurie. As per my custom, I must ask you to reveal four quick facts about yourself.
dv512008Laurie: I teach middle school English. Although I’ve always loved to read fiction, I didn’t attempt to write it until after my first year of working with middle schoolers. I’ve lived in eight different apartments since I graduated from college ten years ago, but I don’t want to leave the current place anytime soon—just ask my fiancé, who knows to avoid saying the word moving. I get freaked out standing too close to the edge of a balcony but was okay going into a shark cage last summer.

El Space: I would have freaked out about the shark cage. Anyway, moving on, please provide a synopsis of Rebound.
brownie9Laurie: Sixteen-year-old Lissy loves baking and hates taking chances . . . until she finds out that her boyfriend was getting back together with his ex while she was home making his favorite brownies.

Humiliated, she takes off to spend the summer at the beach with her estranged, entrepreneurial dad and his replacement family. She reinvents herself as New Lissy—a strong girl whose heart nobody will ever break again—and scores a job as a pastry chef at a struggling restaurant.

The grumbling head chef doesn’t think she can handle the job, and neither does her dad. She’s not sure what to make of Jonah, the moody boy whose grandmother owns the restaurant, and she has no desire to bond with her perky, home-wrecking stepmom or her swimming-star stepsister. But no matter. If she can block them all out and save the restaurant with her dessert specials and advertising plans, she’ll prove that she’s no longer just a people-pleasing pushover.

But when Lissy finds out what it feels like to put herself before others and what her dad is willing to do to get ahead, she begins to wonder: are there different ways of being strong? Does she have to ditch her nurturing nature to become an empowered woman?

El Space: I love a moody boy story, especially one with dessert. Sweet! What inspired you to write Rebound?
301022Laurie: I started Rebound because I was stuck on the novel I’d been working on during my first two semesters at VCFA. There was a lot that I liked about that old novel, but it didn’t have a strong enough plot. And as I tried to make the plot stronger, I was losing my hold on the parts of the story I liked the most.

Just when I was feeling especially discouraged, I read this wonderful guest post on Cynsations by E. Lockhart. In it, E. Lockhart explains that her Ruby Oliver books, which I adore, came out of a “deep leftover sadness” about the end of her first love. She writes, “The ache in my chest told me there was enough there that I could make up all kinds of goofy characters and plot details, but the center of the story would be true.”

516182I decided to pay attention to an ache in my own heart and start a new project that would explore that feeling. I figured that if the “center of the story” was true, then I wouldn’t lose my hold on it as I drafted and revised. This was a little over two years ago, and I was soon going to turn 30 and move from New York to Philadelphia. I very much wanted to be in a relationship, but my last few relationship attempts had not gone well. I felt embarrassed about those last few relationship attempts, because I wanted something to work so much that I had tried to ignore things I shouldn’t have ignored and had put too much time and effort into things that just weren’t right. I worried that I wasn’t behaving like a strong, together woman. I decided I wanted to start with that feeling of deep embarrassment after a romantic relationship went wrong, and that’s where Rebound began.

El Space: And I must say that opening scene in Rebound packs an emotional punch. What character did you find easiest to develop? Hardest?
Laurie: The easiest character for me to write was Lissy’s eleven-year-old stepsister, Annabelle. As soon as Annabelle popped into my mind, I could picture her vividly, and I could see her through two different lenses: I saw her as Lissy would see her and from my own, more objective perspective. I knew that Lissy would be jealous of Annabelle and think she was just the daughter her dad always wanted. She wouldn’t notice Annabelle’s insecurities and wouldn’t realize that Annabelle might actually look up to her.

Lissy’s dad, on the other hand, was much trickier. Initially, I thought he would want to have a real relationship with Lissy but bumble along in trying to get closer to her. But in my first full draft, the second half of the novel was lacking tension, so I worked to make him more of an antagonist instead. It took awhile for me to figure out how to make him a nuanced, realistic antagonist.

Sorry. Gotta stop here. Tune in tomorrow when Laurie tells us more about nuanced, realistic antagonists. In the meantime, feel free to ask Laurie questions about her book or process. I assure you, she won’t bite. 🙂 While you’re at it, tell us your favorite dessert. (I have two: apple pie and brownies.)

Book covers from Goodreads. Brownies photo from thewifeofadairyman.blogspot.com. Shark cage from duckduckgrayduck.com.