Each New Year’s Eve, my family tapes a big sheet of paper to the sliding glass doors in the living room with the words “In (year), I want to…” at the top. Throughout the night, we all add things to the list. Some are personal goals. Some are hopes. Some are small joys. There are no rules, really. The list stays there all year and reminds us of the things we say we want but don’t always make time to do. This year, one of the things I added to that list was “Climb a High Peak.” I’d climbed smaller Adirondack mountains – Poke-o-Moonshine and Rattlesnake are family favorites – but wasn’t sure I was ready for the longer, tougher trails.
Last week, with summer drawing to a close and that 2015 hope still taped on the door, I decided it was time to give it a try. I set out on a morning that was a little shaky in the weather department but decided to go anyway. I figured that if I still enjoyed climbing high peaks in the cloudy drizzle, I’d know that I wanted to do more. My plan for the morning was to climb Cascade, which has an elevation of 4098 feet, with an ascent of 1940 feet, and then tackle Porter as a side trip if all went well. Cascade on its own is 4.8 miles RT, and the side trip up Porter adds 1.4 miles to the hike.
This is a climb that starts almost right away, after you enter the woods from the trailhead along Rt. 73 between Keene and Lake Placid. There are three small parking areas, and even though I arrived on the late side (around 10am) I was able to find a spot in the busy summer climbing season, probably because it was a cloudy weekday. And then I was off and climbing…
Approaching the summit, it became clear that today was not going to be one of those “million-dollar-view” days. I was essentially climbing into a cloud.
This was my first hike with so much climbing above the treeline – a new experience that I loved! The yellow hashes and some cairns mark the route, not only for ease of travel but also to keep hikers off fragile alpine vegetation. Here I am at the top of my first High Peak, after about an hour and fifteen minutes of climbing…
Stop laughing at my hair. It was drizzle-windy, and I forgot to bring a pony tail holder.
Given the lack of nice views, sunshine, and general warmth at the top of Cascade, I didn’t spend long at the summit. I found shelter behind a boulder, ate some grapes and a granola bar, drank some water, and headed back down to the junction with the trail for Porter.
This trail descends maybe three tenths of a mile before it starts climbing toward the second peak. It was muddier than the Cascade Trail. I met some people hiking this way with nice, clean sneakers and felt a little sad for their shoes.
I loved this tiny salamander. It’s an Eastern Red-Spotted Newt in the juvenile, or eft, stage.
On my way to Porter, I met another hiker who warned me that the summit isn’t all that obvious, so many people pass right by, thinking it’s a false summit. I was thankful for that information and paid attention to my GPS so I’d know when I was close to the end of the .7 mile trail. Happily, when I reached the small, rocky summit on my second High Peak, the clouds were starting to part just a bit.
While there’s much to be said for hiking on a gloriously clear day, it was also pretty amazing to see the clouds part, little by little, to reveal the surrounding mountains. I caught a glimpse of the Cascade summit and wondered if another climb up might yield a prettier view now that the skies were clearing. So I headed back through the mud to Cascade. Approach number two looked more promising…
When I reached the top, it felt like a whole different mountain. The Adirondacks are pretty amazing that way.
I had lunch at the summit (warmer this time!) and headed down to my car. All in all, the hike took about four hours with summit time, and I am officially in love with these high peaks. I’m hoping to do a few more before the summer/fall season ends, and I’m already dreaming about which mountains I’ll write on that paper taped to the wall for 2016.
It’s hard to believe we’re already winding down another summer of Teachers Write, but the smell of number two pencils is in the air, and we know that it’s almost time for you to turn your attention to your classrooms and libraries. Gae has your last Friday Feedback of the summer here. Today’s a good day to take a chance and share if you haven’t already. Imagine telling your students how you were nervous but decided to give it a try…
To choose the winner of our signed copy of ECHO and signed ARC of THE MARVELS, I called to my daughter in the kitchen and asked her to choose a number between 1 and 35 to go along with your comments on the contest blog post. After she hollered back, “Why am I doing this?!” (She is almost 14 and suspicious of my motivations sometimes) she called out, “Three!” That means Linda Mitchell is our winner! Linda, shoot me a message on FB with your address so I can send your books.
There’s no official writing prompt today, but if you’d like to share thoughts on how your writing went this summer and how you’ll bring your experiences back to the classroom, please feel free to do that in the comments, along with our end-of-camp hugs & goodbyes.
I’m having a tougher than usual time letting go of Teachers Write this summer…maybe because you’ve all written so bravely and been such an inspiration. So yesterday, I was thinking that we might try something new during this school year — little Teachers Write reunions from time to time. They won’t happen on a schedule. They’ll happen when I read something wonderful and manage to cajole the author to come visit, to share a glimpse behind the curtain and the craft behind the story and an invitation for you to try a little of that kind of writing, too. So be sure to stay connected to us on Facebook & Twitter for a little community writing here and there during the school year, too.
For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my childhood favorites.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” ~E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
It’s been a gift writing with all of you, and like Wilbur, I am thankful. I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful rest of the summer and a spectacular, inspired start to your new school year.
When I read Kekla Magoon’s YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN, I was blown away by the multiple points of view and reached out to ask Kekla if she’d consider joining us to talk about that in a Teachers Write lesson. She graciously agreed – and has today’s Tuesday Quick-Write!
In storytelling, everything is a matter of perspective. Writing thoughtfully and convincingly through the viewpoint of a single character is a challenge to any writer. Incorporating multiple viewpoints in the same story simply brings this challenge to the forefront of our awareness, both as writers and as readers.
A common question I get asked about my YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN is “How did you juggle all those characters and viewpoints?” That novel contains vignettes from (gulp!) eighteen separate viewpoint characters. Writing multiple viewpoints forces you to think in very detailed ways about how each of your characters really sees the world. It reminds both writer and reader that there is no empirical “truth.” Rather, everything (and I do mean everything) that occurs in a story is filtered through the narrator’s point of view.
In any scene that involves more than one person, each character will be carrying his or her own set of desires, fears, anxieties, thoughts, and observations. If two different people walked into the same room, and were asked to describe it, they are probably going to say different things.
One person might say the room is square with high ceilings. One person might say it is white with gold trim. Someone else might say it’s an office that appears outfitted for an accountant or bookkeeper. These three people could be describing the same room, couldn’t they?
When you write from a single viewpoint, you will not necessarily be describing things as they appear empirically in the world. You can’t possibly enumerate every detail of the space, so you must pick and choose the things to mention, based on your character’s tendencies. In HOW IT WENT DOWN, all of my characters inhabit the same neighborhood, but they each experience it differently. These layers come from your character’s emotional life.
A boy who is scared of the gangs in his neighborhood walks down the street and sees everything in terms of his fear—innocuous things become a threat. The gang leader, on the other hand, feels very much in control of the space, and desires to exert that control, thus he views things as small in comparison to himself. A teenage girl who wants nothing but to get out of the neighborhood looks upon things with frustration and disdain, as compared to a middle grader for whom this block is and always has been her whole world. How would each of these characters respond to, say, stubbing their toe on a fire hydrant?
Practice seeing the world through the eyes of different characters. What interests and excites them? How do their emotions impact their worldview?
Writing Exercise: Write a scene between two characters from the perspective of one person. Then, rewrite the scene from the other character’s perspective. How does it change the way the scene plays out? Consider the character’s motivation and interests, and the way they are likely to describe the scene through their unique viewpoint. What does each character notice about the room or the other person, physically speaking? How does his or her emotional state inform his or her reactions and thoughts as the characters interact?
Optional: This exercise is especially effective if you take an existing scene from something you’ve previously written, and flip the viewpoint. What do you learn about your original viewpoint character by seeing them through someone else’s eyes? What do you learn about your secondary characters’ motivations that might help you create tension elsewhere in the story?
Feel free to share a paragraph or two of your writing from today in the comments if you’d like!
It’s Q and A Wednesday on Teachers Write! That means the comments are open for your questions, not only about today’s post on world building, but about whatever you want to discuss relating to writing & teaching writing. Guest authors will be popping in all day to answer, so don’t be afraid to join the conversation!
Guest author Ammi-Joan Paquette, author of PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE HOURGLASS, joins us for a Teachers Write Saturday reflection on world building — that magical mix of setting and circumstance that makes a character’s world feel as real as ours, even when it’s in a fairytale kingdom or another planet.
Shape Your World
So here you are: wordsmith, historian, grammar hawk… author! You’ve got some terrific characters. They’re inhabiting a pretty dynamite story. But what’s going on behind the scenes? Reading a novel without a well-developed world is like watching a stage performance without a backdrop: the actors move and interact and inhabit their roles—but it’s hard to fully immerse yourself in the story.
Something is missing.
Contrast this with lavishly rendered plays—care has been given not only to set construction, period-specific costumes, and expertly painted scenery. There’s also the small things: an ornate side table topped with a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers; a chipped porcelain mug that has clearly seen better days; heavy brocade drapes to give a gloomy, faded glory to the scene.
None of these elements on their own could be argued as being essential to that scene. But taken together? They transport you to another world entirely.
My most recent novel, Princess Juniper of the Hourglass, was the first book I’d written which was not set, in some way, on this world we know. The land of the Lower Continent is not so different from ours, as a matter of fact, but it is fully its own place, complete with history, geography, wildlife, and more.
Once I got the hang of what I needed to do in creating this world, I had a blast! Here are some of the things I learned along that journey.
1. Ask the big questions. Nothing is too obvious when you are building a world. So you should start at the very beginning. What is your country’s name? Who is its ruler? What is the climate? What are the people generally like? In my case, it helped when I could relate my country to a real-world place I was familiar with. I quickly realized that my world had a generally European feel. I knew Torr was a tiny country. I researched small European countries to get an idea of size and population and settled on one that generally fit. This served to anchor the specifics in my mind and gave a clearer expression to the story.
2. Think visually. One of the best ways to bring your world to life is to represent it outside of the written word. For me, sketching a map was invaluable. This map was ultimately reproduced within the finished novel by the immensely talented Dave Stevenson, but for my early writing purposes, I just kept to my chicken-scratch basics. Right away, this act of creation will beg new needs: What does the rest of your continent look like? What are your country’s land neighbors? What outstanding land formations shape your world?
3. Venture outside the lines. Throughout this process, detail is your friend. You should color your world in broad strokes, without worrying about whether this information you’re gathering will be directly useful to or will even appear in the story. The population of Torr, for instance, never appears in my novel. But knowing it is extremely helpful to me in visualizing the events as they unfold across the series. Likewise the history of the Lower Continent (my characters’ piece-of-the-world)—I did a good deal of brainstorming as far as political backdrop and motivation for this, most of which had no bearing whatsoever on book 1. But once I went to begin writing book 2 (and, soon, book 3!), I was very glad to have that foundation to draw from.
4. Don’t be afraid of the mundane. Throughout this lesson so far, I’ve mostly been talking about fantasy worlds. But if you’re writing a realistic story, your world needs no less detail. It might be more easily rendered, but all of the above still applies: Draw a map of your character’s immediate neighborhood. What is the history of his or her family? Describe his relatives, best friends, acquaintances, and more.
5. Whip out your magnifying glass. Big-picture details are important; you can’t have a king without a country for him to rule. But equally important are the smaller world-building details. When it felt appropriate, I described Princess Juniper’s outfit. I invented a crest for the country of Torr, as well as a motto, which I worked into the description of the royal coach. I had a lot of fun giving details about the foods my characters’ enjoyed. I created exclamations and expressions that felt consistent with their country and worldview. The large details anchor the reader into the story; the small details anchor them in the scene.
6. Go exploring. When it comes to writing outside your comfort zone, Google is your friend. In book #2 of my series, Princess Juniper of the Anju (out next summer!), the main characters stumble upon a village built entirely in the trees. I confess, at first my imagination moved in a pretty linear way. To combat this, I went searching for treehouse images—and I was amazed as the treasure trove I discovered. There was no point where I sat down to transcribe an exact description of the images I found online, of course; but filling my mind with possibilities sparked my own imaginative potential, so that the resulting village is filled with much more detail and creativity than it otherwise would have been.
7. Leave a little room for fun. Last but not least, don’t forget to have fun with your world. Upon reading an early-stage draft of Princess Juniper, a friend commented that she would have liked to see the kids have more fun. She was so right! While part of this was plot-driven, pausing their schedule to give them time to be kids, I also wanted a little world-building specificity to bring this aspect to life. A little research uncovered a list of old-fashioned games that kids used to play in centuries gone by: for my medieval-style world, this was just the thing. Instead of giving my characters a general afternoon off, I gave them some unique and specific activities to engage in. Just one paragraph in a whole book, but it’s become one of my favorites.
Building a world, like any other kind of writing, is an intensely personal experience. Just as no end result will be the same, no journey will take the same path. But I do know that the more deeply you live in your world, the more vividly you see it, the more sharply you recreate it—the more your readers will do the same.
It’s your world. Now go and bring it to life!
Note from Kate: Got questions about world building today? (Or anything else relating to writing? Fire away in the comments!)
Our guest author for today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES with Arthur Levine Books. Mike joins us today to talk about something that seems to visit every writer from time to time at least — anxiety.
It’d be easy to make a joke about “being a writer” = “being anxious” –
it’s certainly true in my case – but I’m actually a pretty firm believer that
it’s more like “being HUMAN” = “being anxious.” At least part of the time,
There’s a great post on Alain de Botton’s Book of Life which persuasively asserts that anxiety is not a temporary sign that our lives are somehow in need of repair, but is in fact a sign that we are both human and alive. When boiled down to its essence, the process of writing is about exploring and expressing the experience of being alive, which can, of course, be a smidge difficult to remember when we sit down to actually start writing something and anxiety springs upon us and sinks its fangs into our necks like a slavering demon hound of psychic destruction.
But it’s not truly all that dramatic, is it? It might feel like a red-fangedbeast is using our carotid artery as a drinking straw, but we’re really just having an ordinary, everyday, human experience that’s completely unworthy of condemnation. Maybe we can use that as a springboard to getting started. Think about the anxiety involved in trying to craft some prose, kick around a description of how that feeling manifests itself in your mind, then apply it to something else, something that seems entirely prosaic and unchallenging to you. Then see if that juxtaposition squeezes out any more creative sparks. Here, I’ll start.
There are times when doing this feels like a recipe for certain exposure of my gigantic fraudulence. I don’t relish the thought of even one person discovering what a fake I am. If I actually manage to pull this mess together, I’m sure the first person who sees it will scream FRAUD! YOU’RE A FRAUD! That kind of thing hurts, am I right? But I guess there’s no way around it. I have no choice but to bite the bullet, silence my internal editor, and make the next pot of coffee myself. The new guy in marketing sure isn’t gonna do it…
Your turn. GO!
Today’s assignment: Have a little fun with this one & feel to share some reflections in the comments!
Good morning!July has flown by, hasn’t it? Are you ready for one more week of writing together? Here’s your Monday Morning Warm-Up with Jo Knowles.
And our guest author for Mini-Lesson Monday is Elizabeth Dahl, who lives in Baltimore. She’s the author of GENIE WISHES (Amulet/ABRAMS 2013), a middle-grade novel with line drawings. Elizabeth joins us today to talk about the power of sketching in the writing process…
Drawing Your Way to “The End”
About ten years ago, my father gave me a long, narrow pewter paperweight on which was engraved a simple question: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I didn’t have to think twice about my answer: Write a book. Be a writer.
Because I loved books and words, I’d studied English and writing in college and grad school. Every time I’d hear or read an interview with a writer, I’d think, “Those are the ways that my mind works too.” But by my mid-thirties, after years of working as a copyeditor, proofreader, and writer for publishers, corporations, associations, and government agencies, my only finished pieces of creative writing were scattered short stories, poems, and essays, and I’d barely even tried to get them published.
This was the big unmet goal of my life. And an unmet goal has its own heft, no less perceptible than the heft of a paperweight. Over the years, my unmet goal had grown from a stone to a boulder. It was craggy and mossy and impossible to move.
Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I started writing a story about a fifth-grade girl who was elected to be her class blogger. After the end of the first paragraph, I grabbed pen and paper and drew something I’d mentioned within that paragraph. A minute later, I scanned the drawing and inserted it into the file.
Almost immediately, I felt lighter and happier. And so I kept going, chapter by chapter. If I found myself writing about hamster erasers that sat atop pencils, I’d think, Why not draw one?
After I’d finished a first draft (I had a first draft!), I went back to chapter 1 and, while revising the story, considered more places I might add line drawings. That weird musical instrument Genie was imagining, born out of her middle and last names, for instance: What did it look like?
I’d never been the strongest student in my various art classes, but who cared? The drawings were another expression of my main character’s voice, as important as the first-person narration that carried the bulk of the story and the intermittent blog posts that punctuated each chapter.
The more I thought about it, the creative boost I was getting from these drawings made sense. I’d always loved illustrated books as a kid—especially books with simple line drawings, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. As an adult, I continued to love them—books like Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda series and Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days. Similarly, I loved the scattered line drawings that appeared within columns of The New Yorker. They were modest, charming, and sometimes a bit sly. They added personality.
Eventually, I signed with an agent, Marissa Walsh, who sold Genie Wishes to the Amulet imprint of ABRAMS. I was thrilled. Not only did my ABRAMS editor, Maggie Lehrman, like what the drawings did for the story, she asked for more. In the end, I had a book that was 40,000 words and 50 drawings long.
I have to be honest. Without those drawings, I’m not sure there would ever have been a book at all. The drawings provided levity, and the levity worked as a propulsive force. It was the forklift that budged the boulder.
The larger lesson here isn’t that everyone should illustrate their own writing. But it’s good to remember that other forms of creative expression can inform and enhance the writing process.
Some novelists listen to the same grouping of songs as they write a particular novel. Others have cork boards full of images that inspired their characters or settings. There’s no limit to the ways that other art forms can complement your literary efforts. Whatever helps you get to “The End.”
Today’s assignment: Take a few minutes to draw or doodle today! It doesn’t have to be anything that you believe will end up in your story, but sometimes, drawing can wiggle ideas loose, so give it a go. Maybe you’ll try one of Elizabeth’s strategies above, or maybe you’d like to storyboard one of your scenes. (Jo Knowles has a great post on that here.) Stop by to reflect on your experience in the comments if you’d like!
It’s Sunday, which means reflection day at Teachers Write and a time to check in with one another on Jen’s blog. It’s also time for a Teachers Write giveaway and another one of our Focus on Historical Fiction posts. Let’s talk history first!
My Ranger in Time series is written in third person, and goes back and forth from Ranger’s dog-centered point of view to the point of view of the main character in the historical setting. Choosing the right words is always important in writing, but in historical fiction, the author has a responsibility to select not just a word that sounds good but also one that fits the point of view and makes sense in that particular time period.
When I’m writing descriptions from Ranger’s point of view, for example, I need to remember that dogs don’t see most colors but do have a highly sophisticated sense of smell. How would a dog from the 21st century describe a 19th century covered wagon or an amphitheater in ancient Rome when there was nothing quite like those things in his world? Perhaps he’d make a connection to the cars that his home family used for travel or the soccer stadium where his boy played. What frame of reference might that dog have for the smell of oxen and lions when we don’t encounter these animals regularly in our modern-day lives? I needed to remember that Ranger would have had the experiences of his modern-day family and probably would have seen animals like other dogs, cats, squirrels, birds, and horses, but probably nothing much more exotic. You can take a look at page 17 in RANGER IN TIME: RESCUE ON THE OREGON TRAIL and pages 16 and 24-25 in RANGER IN TIME: DANGER IN ANCIENT ROME to get a sense for how I chose to handle this. If you’re sharing this prompt with students, it might be fun to have them bring Ranger back in time to whatever period in history you’re studying at the time. How would a dog from our world describe the smells, sights, and sounds of Revolutionary War battle or a ship full of immigrants bound for the New World?
Language is also important when we think about the historical setting of a story and what was and wasn’t around at that time. Obviously, my pioneer kids in Rescue on the Oregon Trail won’t have iPhones or iPads. That would be an anachronism – something that appears in a time period in which it just doesn’t belong. But this can be easier for a proofreader to spot with technology than with words. The first printing of my regional historical novel Spitfire, set in 1776, had a character using the word “okay,” which didn’t enter the lexicon until the middle of the 19th century. This slipped by proofreaders and was pointed out to me by a kind reader so that we could correct it for the second printing. I’ve been even more careful with words since then.
In RANGER IN TIME: RESCUE ON THE OREGON TRAIL, one of the sections written in Sam’s point of view talks about how he’s glad that Ranger has come along:
“It was good to have furry company, especially with Lizzie being so cranky.”
When I got my manuscript back from my Scholastic editor with notes, I found a comment asking if “cranky” was really the best word. She’d checked – and it was part of the lexicon in 1850, but she thought it might sound more current and wondered if something else might be a better choice. Would I give that some thought and see what I could come up with?
I understood that while technically, the use of “cranky” was all right, it might sound modern to some people. So I brainstormed some other words I might choose instead and thought that “grumpy” sounded right and a bit less modern, too. But was it a word that would have been part of Sam’s world in 1850? Some quick internet research told me that it was not and also led me to this delightful Wordnik blog post about different ways to call a grouch a grouch, no matter what the time period.
According to “A short-tempered history of the curmudgeon,” cranky was indeed a word in 1850, but “grouchy” didn’t come around until the 1890s. According to the blog post, the Online Etymology Dictionary says college students at the time may have coined the word, possibly as a derivative of the Middle English grucchen, which meant to grumble or complain.
Sourpuss was also out of the question on the Oregon Trail, since it didn’t show up in our language until 1937. And while the word “grump” was around in the 1700s, meaning “ill-humor,” it was generally used as part of the phrase “humps and grunts,” which I love…but it isn’t relevant here. “Grump” apparently wasn’t used to describe a grouchy person until around 1900.
Curmudgeon and crab were both options, but curmudgeon sounded too old for Sam’s point of view, and crab felt too oceany to me for a story that traveled over land. (I know – that’s a weird reason to reject a word, but it’s my book, so I get to decide these things, whether they are rational or not.)
So ultimately, an hour later, I changed the word back to cranky.
This is why revising a book takes so long.
On to our giveaway now!
Last week, I was at the wonderful International Reading Association Conference in St. Louis and brought you all back some presents!
Okay…the truth is, I couldn’t bring back books for ALL of you because of airplane carry-on limits. But I brought back a couple of really special signed books so we could have a giveaway. Here they are…
If you’d like to enter the giveaway, you’ll need to do a little word-research work based on today’s historical fiction blog post. Choose a word that you’d like to know a little more about – maybe one from your work-in-progress, or maybe not – and look up its etymology online. (One quick way to do this is to simply google the word and “etymology.”) Where did the word come from, and how long has it been part of the English language? Come back here to share what you learned in a comment before Thursday at 9pm EST, and you’ll be entered in the drawing! I’ll pick a winner and send the books out Friday morning.
I’m super-excited about today’s guest author, not only because I love her books but also because she’s tackling a topic that’s going to be perfect to share with your students – writing memoir and personal narrative. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of EIGHTH GRADE SUPER ZERO and the forthcoming TWO NAOMIS with Audrey Vernick. She lives in Brooklyn, and today, she’s here with us to talk about writing from personal experience…
Where are you from?
I get that a lot.
Mostly, because of my name.
My father is Nigerian – that’s where my first name, Olugbemisola comes from. It’s a Yoruba name, and it means “God has brought me a gift, or God has brought me honour. My mom was Jamaican, and the “Rhuday” part of my pen name comes from her. That was her middle name, and it’s also my daughter’s middle name. The Perkovich part, my husband is of Croatian descent. I was born in the Bronx, NY. I live in Brooklyn. We traveled a lot. So there you go. I can tell you about my name, where I’ve lived, where I live now. That’s where I’m from.
I tell students not to be afraid of the word “memoir.” It sounds a little grand, yeah? A bit presumptuous? Sometimes it can lay a weight on your writing before you start. Famous people write memoirs. Politicians. Entertainers. Athletes.
Yeah, yeah. And so do you and I.
It’s likely that we’ve all had to write personal narratives at some point, perhaps under a different name. Writing a personal narrative, loosely defined as “telling the story of something that happened to you” can actually be a great first draft of a memoir.
To move into memoir, we can infuse our personal narratives with three things:
Memory + Meaning
“Retrospection and reflection are crucial elements of the memoir genre,” writes Katherine Bomer in her wonderful Writing A Life.
When I think about writing memoir, that question, that “Where are you from?” gets at the beginning of moving a piece from personal narrative to memoir. As a writer, I take all of where I’m from — the people, the places, the things that I love, the things that I hate, the things that I don’t understand…I discover and examine what Donald Murray and Nancie Atwell encourage me to think of as my “writing territories”, the ones that I return to again and again, and then I just tell stories.
So, we moved a lot. Most of the time when we moved to another country, my mother had to put her career on pause. My sister and I were ecstatic because it meant that she was home, and she baked a lot. Let’s say I write an essay or personal narrative about the birthday celebration the year we were in Kenya when she was mixing the cake and a giant praying mantis appeared on the wall and we all screamed and ran around and spilled the batter and it was wacky and funny, etc. It was a fun, funny day. And there was cake.
Or I could use that as a springboard for a memoir about the different ways that I saw my mother during each of those moves, how her different ‘forms’ of motherhood at different times (WOHM, WAHM, entrepreneur, etc.) inform my own motherhood. How, reflecting back on our relationship over time, I see how those moves affected it. How that day with the cake batter made me see that my mom was sometimes as frustrated and frightened and feeling out of place as I was as a child going from school to school, community to community, no matter how much I tried to just smile and act nice, and think of it all as wacky and funny.
Writing memoir is about taking the small things and asking big questions. Thinking about the people, places, and ideas that mean a lot to you. About writing where you’re from. I think all writing works when you go back to what gives you strong feelings, what you’re passionate about…and ask: What’s the Big Idea? We write memoir to make meaning, to understand, to record.
Look at your personal narrative. Does it remind you of another story you could write about? Are there clues that reflect a recurring pattern in your life? With a personal narrative, we are primarily writing about what happened and how it made us feel. With memoir, we add another layer: what does this mean?
Do a fifteen-minute freewrite on your best day last year. What you did, how it felt, etc. And then read it over and think. Why was this what came to mind as your best day in the last year? Was it reminiscent of another experience? What elements of it evoked the strongest emotion?
Now do another, on your best childhood memory. Do you see any connections? Parallels? Contradictions? What do you think they mean?
A personal narrative is about a point in time, a moment, and emotion and feeling of that snapshot; it helps the reader feel what the writer was feeling at the time. For example: “The Time My Aunt Veronica Dropped The Thanksgiving Turkey On The Kitchen Floor.” You can tell a very funny and detailed story of that event – what everyone said, how you felt when you saw the turkey slide across the floor, the family deciding what to order instead, the hodgepodge dinner that resulted, etc.: personal narrative.
While a personal narrative is generally focused on an event, a moment, maybe even a thing or person. A personal narrative is about the present, helps the reader see and feel what the writer was seeing and feeling at the time. A memoir points to Past, Present, and Future.
Memoir hones in on the relationship between the writer and that person, place or thing. It connects what happened “outside” with what happened “inside” in a way that offers little points of light along the path of who you were, who you are, and who you think you might be.
Back to the Dropped Turkey Story: You can talk about how that event, and perhaps one or two others — maybe even other Thanksgiving adventures, changed or deepened your relationship with your aunt: memoir.
Memoir is often writing that describes the Big Idea or Theme of a memory. A memoir, usually written in first person, doesn’t include everything; it’s not a total slice of the author’s life, but rather, you select events for meaning that relates to your big idea or theme.
Look at your personal narrative. Why was this event (or person, or place) of particular significance? (Using the Thanksgiving example, you might see that it was the first time you realized your uptight aunt had a sense of humour that was similar to yours, but she only showed it at certain times. How did that affect you? How does that affect you now?)
Then look for patterns – are there other, similar moments or stories?
Ask: What does all of this mean? (In our Thanksgiving story, maybe you start to examine what role humour plays in your life, or in your relationship with your family, etc.)
A couple of years ago, I took a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone. It had been a long time since I’d been on a roller coaster. I grew up LOVING roller coasters. ADORING them. I was so excited to be getting on after all this time, I was going to take my daughter on her first coaster ride, I was going to feel all of the things that I used to feel – the exhilaration, the rush, the invincibility – of my youth.
Instead, I almost didn’t make it on. And as I was strapped into the seat, every single What if? disaster possibility flashed through my brain.
I could write a personal narrative about this night, and just write about how, trembling, I got on, I was more nervous than I’d expected to be, it was so much fun, I was terrified, the feel of the wind as we went downhill, the lights of Coney Island, I was proud of myself for overcoming those initial fears, I was all “Woo hoo!” and then we went home.
Preparing to write as memoir: I’d go back and think about some of those roller coaster rides of my younger days – why did I love them so much? Was it because I was a careful kid, and they seemed like this one reckless thing to do? I’d wonder whether or not I’d do it again, or if this Cyclone ride was my swan song. And if so, what does that mean? I’d think about how I developed my relationship with roller coasters and how it affected my relationship with my parents, and with strangers (my parents wouldn’t go on with me, so they said I had to find an adult to do that. I was a very shy kid, but wanted to ride so badly that I overcame my shyness because I really, really wanted to get on. I was also angry at my parents for “forcing” me to do that. And then here I was, years later, getting on cyclone, and as the ride started, I wasn’t excited, exhilarated, or any of those good “ex” words. I WAS TERRIFIED.
And this time I was the parent, and as my daughter weighed the decision whether or not to ride with me, I really, really didn’t want her to. I was terrified for her own safety; I didn’t want her to see the fear that I had for myself. I might revise a personal essay about this day into a memoir about parents and children, how our fears change when our roles reverse, etc. Or about how I still approach my discomfort with approaching strangers, dealing with my shyness, in that “roller-coaster-deep-breath-way” – it’s terrifying, but I know that more often than not, the result will feel or even be transformative.
“Why is this important to me?” “How did/does it make me feel?” “What did/does it mean?” “What did it change in my life?” “What does this say about me?” “What do I wonder about because of this person/place/event/thing?” “How does this connect to me, how can I connect to you?”
Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Realize that there is often not just one right answer, sometimes there’s no answer at all. Especially to the why questions, but you should still ask those a lot.
In your piece, you might be asking questions about what happened and come to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. Your writing might show us how you were affected by this experience, how it has profoundly transformed the way you see the world. And maybe, possibly, probably, reading your piece will change your reader’s world, transform their story, add to where they’re from.
Note from Kate: Want to chat more about personal narrative & memoir? Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments!
Good morning! Our Thursday Quick-Write guest author today is Heidi Schulz. Heidi’s the author of HOOK’S REVENGE, and its sequel, HOOK’S REVENGE: THE PIRATE CODE, comes out in September. Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book debut, GIRAFFES RUIN EVERYTHING, in Spring 2016. Heidi joins us today to talk about creating compelling characters.
No matter how compelling a story’s premise, if the characters fall flat, your reader will quickly lose interest. However, creating characters that come alive on the page is not always easy. Here are my best tips for doing so.
Know Your Characters
You should know a myriad of details about your characters. Not every fact will make its way to the page, but knowing these particulars will inform the way you present your characters.
One way to learn about your characters is to write about them, creating scraps and scenes that have little to do with your plot, but much to do with exploring the character.
For example, give them pretend job interviews, “What would you say is your greatest strength? Weakness? How would others answer this question?”
Play get-to-know-you party games with them. “What is the furthest you’ve travelled? What is the last book you read? What do you have in your pockets/purse?”
Most importantly, get personal. You will learn a lot from your characters when you ask them, “What do you want, more than anything? How does that change as you move through the story’s plot? Of what are you most afraid? For what would you sacrifice nearly anything?”
Do these exercises with all the characters in your story—main and supporting. Getting to know their interior lives and motivations will enrich your writing and cause you to fall head over heels in love with them. You will find each player fascinating. That interest will come through in your writing and compel your readers to feel the same.
Make Them Unique
We all familiar with character clichés like the popular cheerleader, the bullying quarterback, the nerdy girl who becomes beautiful, the socially awkward math whiz, the scrappy orphan, the Chosen One, or the good-hearted criminal. Perhaps your character fits in one of these categories, but reading about him/her will be flat and dull unless you find a way to subvert expectations.
What is unique about your character? Insert a bit of the unexpected to catch and hold your readers’ attention. Taking examples from movies, look to the way Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (popular cheerleader) or Will from Good Will Hunting (math whiz) turn clichés on their heads.
Even if your characters don’t fit in a standard trope, take some try to fully explore what makes them unique, interesting, and surprising.
Finding a Character’s Voice
Voice can be a challenge. How can you make your characters sound distinct: different from each other and different from your own authorial voice?
Sit in a public place and listen to the way people converse with one another. Take notes. Some people will be verbose, others far less so. Some will speak in more formal language, others in slang. Some will speak haltingly, weighing every word, others quickly, completely bypassing any brain filters they may have. Knowing what you know about your characters, what speech patterns will they have?
Pay attention to character voice in your reading. How does author word choice impact the way you view the characters? Good examples are Felicity Pickle in Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic or Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now.
Creating distinctive voices takes practice. Try writing a piece of dialog between three or more of your characters, without using dialog tags. Ask a reader to see if they can pick out who is who.
What if you have done all these things and you still don’t feel like you have a good sense of your characters?
Revise. Revise. Revise.
Good characterization is a process. It may take writing your second draft, or third—or more—to get a clear sense of who your characters are. Every revision will bring the picture into sharper focus. In the end, you will have characters that will leap from the page. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you will be able to look at your creation and exclaim, “It’s alive!”
Today’s Assignment: Choose one of the prompts above, and get writing, getting to know your character. If you have specific questions or thoughts about creating characters, post them in the comments and we can discuss further. Good luck with your writing!