Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing Cross-Culturally

            In my last post I mentioned my material always circles back around to themes of adoption.  They say having kids will teach you a lot about yourself.  Adopting our daughter from China, definitely brought my interest in adoption into focus.  As a result, many adoptees show up in my writing. 
As an adoptive mother, I am eternally thankful to the scores of talented authors and illustrators who have explored adoption issues in pictures books.  These treasures have been a meaningful way for my daughter and I to open discussion and make sense of her own story.  Naturally curious, I have explored ahead and found not nearly as many middle grade or young adult novels deal with adoption at the forefront of the story.  There are a number of excellent titles which feature an adoptee as a minor character, but far fewer which host a protagonist struggling with the identity and cultural issues I foresee in my daughter’s future.  Perhaps this is why my own short stories and novels feature protagonists whose central conflicts involve grappling with missing pasts, blending cultural identities, and facing issues of race.
That brings me to the writing question of this post.  Here I am, a thirty-something adoptive mom writing, often in the first person, from the perspective of Asian American teenagers who at some point in their pasts were adopted from China.  These girls’ lives are a far cry from my own past –a white girl who grew up on Long Island and spent the better part of her life in the well-off suburbs of the Midwest.  This is writing cross-culturally. 
Do I even have the right to attempt to tell these girls’ stories?  Perhaps these stories are better told by Asian American authors.  We certainly have many gifted young adult authors who are also Asian American.  I have even had colleagues warn –your writing may not be publishable, and editor may not find you credible to write these stories.  Maybe we should we wait for this generation of Asian American adoptees to write their own stories? 
But, I wonder, what will they read in the meantime?  Does ethnicity alone qualify an Asian American author, born in the US and raised by Asian parents, to understand the special issues associated with adoption and multi-cultural families?  Perhaps, being an adoptive mother, literally functioning as the bridge between my daughter’s two worlds, do I have a special insight into an international adoptee’s struggles?  Does that earn me a pass to write contemporary Asian American protagonists?
What do you think about writing cross-culturally?  I’d love to hear you weigh in on this issue!
Additionally, if you’ve read any young adult literature featuring protagonists dealing with adoption issues as the central conflict, please, by all means, pass on the titles!

Monday, December 5, 2011

What is Your Material?

In her book, Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See dedicates an entire chapter to the question What is Your Material?  She asks us to “Notice the stuff that interests you!”  I think the concept of our writing material has a worthy place in a blog on writing craft.  It’s important that we become familiar with our personal material, that we explore why it’s important to us, and that we learn how to compost it.   This concept of composting is Natalie Goldberg’s:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil.  Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.  But this does not come all at once.  It takes time.  Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall though the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

Once when I was just taking up writing seriously, my architect brother asked me, “What are you going to contribute to the field?”  The question stymied me, but years later, after becoming more familiar with my material, the question seems much more appealing. 
            I’ve found my material returns again and again to the theme of adoption.  Without a doubt, I’ve been forever altered by the experience of being an adoptive mother.  But beyond that, raising my daughter has awoken me to the ways in which adoption themes run through my own life, despite the fact that my husband and I are the first to ever adopt in our family.  This quotation from Karin Evans’ The Lost Daughters of China embodies how my material is so precious to me:

“As a writer I have immersed myself in other subjects, but have always returned to the adoption theme.  Whether in fantasy or reality, it haunts us all, adopted and non-adopted alike.  It is a metaphor for the human condition, sending us forth on that mythic quest that will prove we are bonded to each other and to all creatures of this world –and in the process, reveal to us who we are.”
--Betty Jean Lifton Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1988)

Indeed, I have found that whether or not actual adoption finds its way into my characters live, they often end up, in some sense, adopting each other.
            And sometimes our writing material, by virtue of its nature, makes special demands of us.  In my post next Monday, I want to look into the special challenges my material has raised for me –in particular, writing cross-culturally.  In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’ve discovered about your material.  How do you stay in touch with it?  How do you fuel your compost pile?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapterness Conclusion

            Studying chapterness in Wintergirls, freed me to see how each of my chapters could grow organically.  To assume there is a formula for chapter structure would be a misinterpretation of this little study.  There are all kinds of chapters: short one-scene chapters, chapters that start with some exposition and build into a scene and then another scene, chapters that frame a flashback in a present scene to forward the character’s journey.  The possibilities are endless.   
            At least now, I have some tools with which to prod my chapters to see if they’re actually functioning as chapters: 

       1) Is my character moving forward inside and out?  
       2) Does my character face choices, and do I take him far enough?  
       3) Does a complication cause a rise in tension that lands the character in a new place?   
       4) Do the smaller arcs clump to form a larger one?   

These questions helped me shift around the note cards on which I'd outlined my novel, as well as, add some cards that were missing.  I’m sure I’ll re-see my chapters as I write through my second draft.  I just feel glad to not be falling back on mere intuition about where the chapters should begin and end.  It helps to have a thoughtful understanding of some actual mechanics of chapters.
            Special thanks to one of my personal YA goddesses, Laurie Halse Anderson, for writing such an artful book.
            What are your thoughts on chapterness?  How do you structure your chapters?  What kind of chapters do you like to read the most?  When you read, do you hold onto each chapter conceptually in your memory or do you sort of get lost in them?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on chapters too.  Thoughtful artistry means exchanging ideas and refining the way we see our art.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chapters: Arcs Clumping Together

            In the case of Wintergirls Chapter 11, one arc made a complete chapter, but arcs more often than not clump together to form chapters.  In Chapter 35 of Wintergirls, after attending Cassie’s funeral, Lia arrives at her mother, Chloe’s, house to spend the night.   
            Arc 1: Lia pulls into the driveway observing the cars for the wake parked across the street, and she observes her mother pull up next to her seemingly upset.  Lia searches the house for her mother who’s gone in first and finds her crying in the shower.  This arc establishes a rich ambiguity for the chapter: Chloe could be crying over Cassie’s death, over the danger Lia is in, or over a patient who’s died.   
            Arc 2: Lia cooks a meal for Chloe, asks about Cassie’s autopsy, and when Chloe takes a call from the hospital zones out remembering how the negative voices of this house got in her head.   
            Arc 3: Lia takes her mother’s deal –Lia will eat, and Chloe will tell Lia about Cassie’s autopsy.  
            Each arc has its own rise and landing in a new place.  But they also function together to depict how this daughter and mother get what they need out of each other.  The chapter also continues the through-line of the novel –Lia’s battle with Cassie; she has to know what happened to Cassie and whether she will follow her down the same road or defeat her.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chapters: Arcs and Complications

            So I get that a chapter has to move the character forward, and I get that choices and going far enough are ways to do that.  But when are my chapters supposed to end?  I mean, how far forward do you let the character move before making a break between one chapter and the next?  The answer seems to be explained by arcs.
            I feel like I get arcs.  I drew a bunch of little arcs to help me understand the chapters I studied, but explaining the specific arcs of each chapter in words was harder. These concepts helped:

• An arc is a small beginning-middle-end in a story.
• Tension rises in the middle.
• The character lands in a new place.
• That rise in the middle is caused by a complication. 

Chapter 11 of Wintergirls, a short, two-page chapter demonstrates how an arc can work.   
Beginning: Lia is in bed, unable to sleep, sure Cassie’s ghost is right outside her door; she even spins herself an imaginary cocoon for protection.   
Then middle: the fragrance of ginger, cloves, and burnt sugar which Lia’s come to identify with Cassie infiltrates the room, and Cassie appears addressing Lia in ghost form for the first time.  “Come with me,” she says to Lia.   
Finally end: Lia spends the rest of the night locked in Cassie’s gaze.   

The complication:  Cassie not only appears, but makes her demand propelling things forward.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chapters: Choices and Going Far Enough

            Wintergirls Chapter 9 is an excellent example of how Anderson gives Lia choices and takes things far enough emotionally.  Lia arrives home having made it through the day in which she learned her friend, Cassie, died alone in a motel room after leaving Lia thirty-three unanswered messages.   
            Anderson gives Lia choices: she eats a rice cake instead of Thanksgiving leftovers; she turns down sister Emma’s invite to kick the soccer ball around in favor of retreating to her room and digging out a pill to help her cope; and when her dad comes in at the end of the night to suggest they talk, Lia pretends she’s asleep.  With each choice we see her retreat further from her family.  
           Perhaps more importantly, Lia would also like to avoid the thought of Cassie and any responsibility for Cassie’s death, but the idea dogs her until her father finally gets up and leaves her for the night.  At this point, Lia is not just sad she’s lost her friend, or frightened she may be on the same path.  Lia is, in fact, plagued by the idea that Cassie’s death is her fault.  This is Anderson going all the way emotionally.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapters: Moving Character Forward

A really good example of how a chapter moves a character forward in her inner and outer life is Chapter 46 of Laurie Halse Anderon's Wintergirls.  In this chapter Lia’s dad finds her dozing on the couch and decides she needs to eat.  A phone call from Lia’s friend, Cassie, now dead of her own eating disorder, prompts Lia’s dad to wonder how Lia really feels inside before announcing she will be reevaluated for inpatient care.  Then the two spar hurling issues at eat other, the fight ending when Lia stuffs a sandwich in her mouth asking him if that’s what he wants.  The chapter makes it really clear that the external struggle for Lia is food –will she eat?  However, internally, family issues like divorce, infidelity, and attention to relationships are boiling.  By the end of this chapter, Lia makes the decision to confront her father –is this all you want?  me stuffing a sandwich in my mouth?  Subtext: there is more to this eating disorder and we both know it.
So there is the external struggle: food, and their is the internal struggle underlying it: the unaddressed family issues.  The characters challenge each other to take the next step forward in both of these conflicts.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Four Things that Make a Chapter

            I went back and raided my notes from Patti Lee Gauch’s Highlights Founders Workshop called Starting Your Novel, and I pulled out four statements about chapterness.  At the time these statements had seemed obvious enough, but now with my novel spread out in note cards, they were real food for thought.  Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls had was also out on the table, and I decided to study her book using these four statements:

1)    A chapter moves the character forward in his/her inner and outer life.
2)    Going far enough (emotionally) and giving the characters choices moves the story forward.
3)    Arcs in the story rise in the middle because of a complication.
4)    Arcs clump to form chapters.

Wintergirls is not one of those books with short, pearl-like chapters, nor are the chapters consistent in length or structure.   I was going to have to really analyze what Anderson was doing with her chapters.  So I read Wintergirls a couple of times, took a lot of notes, and made a lot of little drawing to describe the chapters.  These were chapters that developed organically, each with its own needs, and many providing great examples of the principles above. 
            Watch for my next post in which I tear apart some of Laurie Halse Anderson's expertly crafted chapters to see how they work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


            I was sitting in Cynthea Liu’s Revision 911 workshop avidly scrawling notes when she pointed out that the end of a chapter does not occur just because you’ve reached the end of a scene.  Of course not, I thought joining the writers around me in their nodding, but uh, so, what exactly is a chapter then?  I put chapterness  on my list of writing stuff to investigate, but didn’t face it directly until this summer when the first draft of my novel  was spread across the dining room table on one hundred note cards.
            So what makes a chapter a chapter then?  I’d always like books with those short two or three page chapters strung like pearls on the string to make a story.  A spotlight flashing on each vignette and then fading quickly out, leaving the audience to consider what the collage of short chapters said as a whole.  But I rarely wrote that way.  The note cards on my dining room table were arranged into ten chapter groups.  I’d just kind of intuited what held together.  Some of my chapters even had a titles that held their scenes together thematically.  But there were a lot of scenes in each chapter.  Did I really have ten books in my story (Book I, Book II, etc) that should each be divided into smaller chapters?  I just kept coming back to what makes a chapter?  And how do chapters build one upon the other?
            I'll be following up on these questions in a short study of Lauris Halse Anderson's Wintergirls over the course of my next several post.  In the meantime I'd love to hear your ideas on what makes a chapter?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Great Voice Exercises

I searched everywhere to find writing exercises that would elicit strong character voice in my writing.  Here are some of the best I found and invented.

  1. Write a letter from one character to another.  Variations: about a major problem this character is having, have the second character write back and refuse the help requested –for both include specific reasons help is needed or refused.
  2. Write a character’s prayer.
  3. Pretend your character is telling a story to his/her best friend
  4. One-Minute Play: Write a 1 at the center of the top of a page.  Skip a line, and at the center of the next line, write 2.  Continue until you fill the page.  1 and 2 are the names of the characters in a play, and the first line begins, “Hey, did you see that…”  Fill the page in one minute. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  5. Two characters, who normally have a good relationship, today have a serious problem.  What is each thinking that remains unsaid? (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  6. Phone Call:  Write a scene in which your character calls someone to get something s/he wants.  While s/he is calling, give him/her some activity to perform like cooking dinner.
  7. Find a place to write where you can observe various people.  Spend five minutes writing the internal dialogue of one person.  Repeat at least twice.
  8. Imagine what kind of animal your character might be.  What are some traits of this animal.  Rewrite a scene focusing on the human character’s animal traits.  Try including dialogue and internal monologue.
  9.  Write a scene in which your character’s spoken word contrasts with his/her inner thoughts.
  10.  Write a monologue in which your character NEEDS TO TELL something, considering who s/he will tell and perhaps where they are.  The character doesn’t need to say IT right away, but IT should drive his/her words. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  11. Imagine two of your characters interviewing each other.  How does each reveal who s/he is in both his/her responses and questions?
  12.  Greetings: Write a very short scene in which the characters greet each other, noticing their physical state (ie. heartbeat, etc.), their body language, what words of greeting they use, their tone.  Try other scenarios with different moods or levels of stress.
  13. Speech Rhythms: Take a dialogue scene you’ve written that falls a little flat.  Rewrite it playing attention to the voices’ pacing, rhythm, height, volume, etc.
  14. Write a scene using two lines of overheard dialogue and/or two observed behaviors.
  15.  How we see the world affects the metaphors in which we think.  Write a monologue for a character using a metaphor (indicative of his/her thinking) which  you extend throughout the exercise.  Experiment with another character’s account of the same situation.
  16.  Consider how setting affects voice.  How might the sounds of the environment or music create variations in your character’s voice?
  17.  Write a dialogue in which a character has to keep an internal conflict secret.
  18.  Have one character introduce another to someone else in the book.
  19.  Have a character recount a dream.
  20. Choose a significant object from your character’s environment.  What would it see? hear?  What stories could it tell?  Without describing or revealing the object’s identity, have the object say something it needs to tell at this particular moment. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  21.  What is your character’s favorite color?  Imagine how it appears in his/ her environment and what the color tells you about him/her.  Free write your character’s voice as if it were this color and then as if it were two other variations of this color –ie. rose pink, fire engine red, magenta.
  22.  Consider different ways a character could use a pause in his/her speech.
  23.  Be your character telling his/her best friend a story.
  24.  Try contrasting the content and tone of your character’s speech.
  25. Choose a scene you have already written but feel uneasy about.  For some reason, this scene isn't gelling; you might not be sure why.  Now, rewrite it, using a totally different narrative voice.  For example, if it's third person, narrate it from the point of view of one of the characters instead; if it's past tense, try present tense; if it's very poetic, try keeping it sparse and factual.
  26.  Send your viewpoint character to the mall with a quiet friend. Let him or her describe what they like or dislike, and why, while window shopping, browsing through a bookstore, trying out the latest electronics, etc.
  27.  Coop your character up in a room alone: a bedroom, a conference room, a doctor’s exam room. Is he or she frustrated? Antsy? Bored? Nervous? Scared? Write his or her thoughts when stuck there for an hour.
  28.  Have one character tell another about someone s/he doesn’t like.  In variations of this exercise consider that the character should be revealing more about him/herself than about the person s/he is describing.
  29.  Imagine your character strikes a match. S/he must describe his/her life history while the match remains alight.
  30.  Free write two dialogues for your character, but vary his/her status in each.
  31.  Write an internal monologue of a character in which s/he remembers a very embarrassing moment.
  32.  Write one page in a character’s secret diary.
  33.  Have a character write an excuse note.
  34.  Hot-seat or have another character hot-seat your main character, asking challenging questions.
  35.  Have one character overhear two others talking privately.
  36.  Have your character write a poem in response to an important event.
  37.  Experiment with having a character saying the opposite of what s/he means.
  38.  What has brought you to your knees?  You can answer this yourself or have a character answer it.  (Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning)
If you have any more great voice exercises, post them in your response!

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Playlist for Darkroom

Here are the songs on my ipod when I'm writing:

1) Calamity Song - Decemberists
2) Don't Carry It All - Decemberists
3) Superman - Five for Fighting
4) Numb - Linkin Park
5) Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Green Day
5) Emergency - Paramore
6) Pressure - Paramore
7) Digging for Fire - Pixies
8) Here Comes Your Man - Pixies
9) Collide - Howie Day
10) Butterflies and Hurricanes - Muse
11) Unintended - Muse
12) All I Need -  Air
13) Body and Soul - Death Cab for Cutie
14) Mad World - Gary Jones
15) Time of My life - Green Day

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Voice & Sherman Alexie

I’ve sat through a few supposed lessons on voice --in one the teacher had us discuss favorite quotations about voice in writing, in another the teacher elaborated on the technical aspects of viewpoint in literature.  Recently, though I found another door into voice in young adult literature.

My writing partner and I read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I thought, "Okay, now this is a book with voice!"  Arnold Spirit's voice IS this book.  It's distinctive and memorable.  It's because of the voice that you can't put the book down.  How did Alexie do this?

I discovered that the reviews excerpted in the front of the book held a lot of clues about how Alexie captured Arnold's voice on the page.  So I got out my highlighter and started marking key words in those reviews.

Time and again reviewers referred to the novel's HONESTY.  Breathtakingly honest, emotionally honest, tell-it-like-it-is, unapologetic emotion, raw feeling, doesn't pull many punches, profane, fearless, fierce observations, brutally honest --all these terms are repeated throughout the reviews.  I got a gut feeling then.  You know how a lot of times you have to force yourself to write?  Maybe it’s because we get afraid of writing from that place of honesty.  When we go there, we find a lot of unsettling stuff, stuff we could avoid by checking e-mail or grocery shopping.  Writing from your gut, that where the honesty is, the source of voice.  And when I really go there, that’s when my characters’ voice start speaking up.

Here's another term that reverberated through Alexie's reviews --FUNNY.  So hard to come by in novels the older you get.  Here's how the reviews put it: no-holds-barred jokes, devastatingly funny, sharp wit, sardonic insight, raw emotion leavened with humor, hilarious language, self-deprecating.  Now not every story is funny, but I've also heard it said that comedians are the saddest people.  Humor is sometimes the only way we can get at what's hardest for us to face.  Which takes us back to honesty, doesn't it?

Of course there were a bunch of descriptors in the reviews about Sherman Alexie’s LANGUAGE.  Jazzy syntax, emotionally spring-loaded and linguistically gymnastic, narration  [that] is intensely alive and rat-a-tat-tat with short paragraphs and one-liners, verbal succinctness.  If I pay close attention, I thought, there might be an element of voice I could craft –the sound of the language.  So I started getting into the rhythms of characters’ voice, started hearing them as music.  I would let the actual words blur temporarily in my mind in order to just hear the pacing and intonation of their speech.  A voice’s rhythm says a lot about a character’s internal state.

In the back of my Part-Time Indian edition, there is an interview from the artist, Ellen Forney, who did the cartoon illustrations from Arnold Spirit's viewpoint.  She makes some interesting comments about drawing that can be applied to voice in writing.  "Arnold's artwork needed to span different situations and moods, so his drawing style needed to change as well."  There are some drawings which capture well-developed ideas, some realistic portraits which evidence intimacy with his subjects, some portraits drawn from photographs showing distance between Arnold and his subject, and for special reasons some even combine realism and cartoon.  The illustrator even compares Arnold’s sketchbook to a diary –a haven of voice.  Forney made me consider how a  voice would change depending on who the character is talking to or who he’s feeling.  I started tuning into not only distinct voices, but also each voice’s range.

I hope this gets you started thinking about the qualities of voice.  I'm not suggesting analyzing voice to an extreme --that would kill it off pretty quickly.  We all know it needs to flow.  But if we write it off as totally elusive than how can we improve?  I believe we can help ourselves tap into that flow with some study.  How would you characterize voice?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Voice and Music

One of the things I’m trying to help slip into the voices of my characters is music.  I know a lot of writers listen to music to help them get in the mood.  Some authors even post play lists for their books on their sites.  So you can see what songs Laurie Halse Anderson listened to, for example, to get in the zone for writing Speak.

Being a thirty-something mom, I am way out of the loop when it comes to current music.  I may have bought  my last CD in college.  How would I know what music speaks to the 2011 teenagers I’m trying to write about?

So I started checking out author play lists of books like mine and tooling around on You Tube where I could listen to songs and get new suggestions.  A lot of songs came back to me, and I realized not all the songs on my play list had to be songs teenagers are listening to now.  It’s not like my play list was going to appear in the book.  These songs just had to get me into the mood of my story.

So in about a week I had a play list of about eight songs, old and new, that captured the tone of my story and spoke to my characters' inner struggles in an almost uncanny way.  I downloaded the songs onto my ipod, I plugged in for a writing session, and I LOVED it.

The immediate benefit –listening to music while I write drowns out the negative voices in my head.  Voices that say things like, "Are you kidding?  That is so not how teenagers act," are now blasted away by Muse, Linkin Park, and The Decemberists.

I am also able to write more and to write faster.  (There is a similar effect on the treadmill by the way.)  Where I usually slow down or get stuck editing, the music sets a pace.  And the pace keeps me in touch with my subconscious.  Just writing, not editing, just capturing first thoughts.

Maybe most profoundly, I am encouraged by the music.  All these great bands are singing about themes I’m trying to weave into my novel.  What I'm trying to get at, or what one of my characters may be trying to say can't be that out there if Green Day and Paramore are writing about it too.  I feel bolstered to stand up and say what I intuit, what those negative voices in my head might dub as too weird to say out loud.

The music frees me up to just play during a first draft.  I have songs that get me in the mood for certain scenes, songs that sound like particular characters talking, songs I can imagine in the soundtrack when my book is optioned for a major motion picture.  The more I listen to my play list (like when I run) the more nuances I find in the lyrics.  Songs I thought were about my protagonist also tell me something about his enemies.

Now I am always asking people what they’re listening to, and I have a whole section of my notebook full of new bands and songs to check out.  What you are listening to when you write or how you have used music to inspire your writing?

Monday, September 5, 2011


So my latest obsession is VOICE.  At every writing conference or class I go to, the agents and editors always go directly back to voice.  They want to hear fresh, original voices.  They're right.  The books I remember most, the books that suck me in in the first three lines are the ones with distinct voices.

I don't always struggle with voice, but I am with my current novel.  Maybe it's because the protagonist is a guy.  Maybe it's because I get too close to my protagonists and end up turning them into myself.  Whatever the case, I've found instruction on HOW to work on voice pretty sparse.  My initial scan of writing books and the web has not amounted to much.

Maybe that's because voice is such an allusive thing.  It's kind of misty, kind of hard to touch, kind of hard to explain.  Once in a while it happens.  And we all thank the writing gods.  But there's got to be a way to study it, to enhance your chances of stumbling onto a vivid voice.  So I'm going to look into voice myself.  In the posts to follow, I'll share what I've found and raise the questions that continue to bug me about voice.  And maybe my protagonist will start to speak for himself!

In the meantime, if you’ve found any great resources on how to wake up the voice in your writing, please share!