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Home-Schooling for Writers

April 28, 2010

Is it still called home-schooling if you’re teaching yourself? Like many authors, I am self-taught; mostly by being a voracious reader and by writing, writing and re-writing.

In addition to my insatiable reading and writing, I also collect books on the craft of my profession. I have a shelf full of what my author friend Jackie Miles calls ‘Hotta’ books, which when translated simply means ‘How-to-write-a-novel’ books. My Hotta books cover everything from first ideas to deepening your plot to publicizing your book once it’s published. I study these books over and over, but I never, ever feel like I’ve studied enough or learned it all. My Hotta books are tattered; their pages are dog-eared and full of underlines. Often I copy bits of advice from them onto scraps of paper that I stick all over my computer screen. Stuff like “Make sure there’s tension on every page,” and “SHOW, don’t tell,” and “Say NO to passive,“ and “Put the reader in the action,” and “Julie, use lots of synesthesia (using one sense to describe another).”

Though I’ve written eight complete novels (four published thus far) I still cannot manage to convince myself that I know what I’m doing, that I’ve got it all down now. I feel compelled to continue my education constantly. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just that I lack faith in myself and other times I think perhaps this attitude is good because I’ve read of these authors who’ve had some success and start to think that whatever they turn out in a first draft needs no further work. Later, they realize they’ve acted at their own peril when that second (or third) book falls flat.

These days I’ve been waking up in somewhat of a panic wondering where I should focus my home-schooling efforts. I eye my stack of curriculum and wonder what I need to study. That’s because I’ve got a book at both ends of the spectrum. Both ends meaning I recently turned one in that’s due to come out in the fall of 2010. This book was supposed to be 80,000 words, but when I reached The End, it had a bit over 90,000 words. Since my contract’s deadline had appeared, I went on and turned it in anyway, assuring my editor I’d be happy to try my hand at shearing off the 10,000 words before she plunged in to read it. After some back-and-forth emails, she told me she’d read it, ponder it and give me guidance on what to cut.

I was relieved to put it in her hands for a while and try to forget it because one of my Hotta books says that once you’ve finished a complete first draft of your novel, you should put it aside for a time (a couple of weeks) and then you’ll be able to read it with cool objectivity. With enough time, you’ll be able to look at it as if someone else wrote it and thus you’ll be ruthless in acknowledging its weaknesses. I also reassured myself that I was leaving it in the hands of this capable professional who would see any structural flaws and who would tell me how I could improve my story.

But, alas, during another stint of home-schooling I read about how editors in publishing houses are overworked. They put in long days at their office; taking calls from authors and agents, working with publicity and marketing departments, going to meetings about cover design, production scheduling, etc . . . and as a result, most of their reading and editing has to happen on nights and weekends, of which we all know there are never enough. All this leaves the editor little time or energy for a new author like me.

My Hotta book said that I should join a novel workshop where I read my chapters aloud to other authors and let the group make comments and suggestions. But my editor emailed today that her comments will arrive tomorrow and I’ll have a bit over a month to incorporate them into my second draft. I’ve done this enough to know publishing houses have schedules and the manuscript needs to be moving along to the next stage of production. There’s no time for a critique group at this point.

The best thing for me when I’m anxious about something is distraction. So, back when I turned that book in on March 15th, I decided I’d pour myself into writing another story. Well, a week ago, my agent called me and, miracle of miracles, informed me she’d sold a novel on one chapter and a synopsis. After a few days of pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my mind began to focus on the fact that now I’ve actually got to write the thing.

The story is in my head, and words can’t explain how excited and eager I am to get it down. But I bet you know what I’m doing now. I’m home-schooling myself like crazy. I’ve been memorizing this article I found on-line from Donald Maas, called ‘The Elements of Awe.’ It gives the writer four things for building what he calls ‘Awesome Characters.’ I hand-copied it down, highlighted specific parts, and made copious notes about how my newest heroine can inspire awe.

Also I’m studying my Hotta books like I have a final tomorrow at 8:00 A.M.. I rogued notebook paper from my 12-year-old to outline an article in The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing. It may sound odd, but the reason I hand-copy so many things down is that this helps imprint it in my brain. The article I’m currently obsessing over is by Orson Scott Card, called ‘Creating Characters That Readers Care About.’ Mr. Card gives the writer three tools to lend stature to major characters.

In real life, I don’t like to inflict pain on other human beings, but apparently stories about happy, contented people are boring. Mr. Card advises a writer to use pain and jeopardy to avoid a boring story, to make a character memorable.

It’s fairly easy to see why the character who suffers pain is memorable to the reader. Whether it’s physical or emotional pain, most readers will wince in sympathy and your character will be more memorable and more important. I took my main character in this new novel, Jenny, from early childhood to being a teenager in the first two chapters. I got her to a place where her role in life becomes unbearable because of the emotional pain her parents, one intentionally and one unintentionally, inflict on her. I got her to where her present situation is absolutely intolerable and she sets out to change it. She’s suffered so much emotional pain that I hope the audience cares deeply about her future and will want to keep reading.

The second tool, jeopardy, is simply anticipated pain. Hopefully, the reader’s stake in Jenny is already strong at the outset of the novel because of all the poor kid’s endured. I tried to write in some hints, set up some anticipation within these chapters, to foreshadow that Jenny’s future, the pathway toward her destiny, won’t be lined with roses. The things Jenny’s has already endured, along with this hanging threat of hardship, will hopefully make the audience focus their attention and compassion on her.

The third tool Mr. Card advises to lend stature to your major character is that he/she has to be extraordinary in some way. Mr. Card calls it having heroic proportions. I worked hard to make Jenny unique, special, larger-than-life. What I did was give her this singing voice that other characters respond to as being incredibly beautiful, out-of-this-world. I didn’t want to just come right out and say she had this beautiful gift of music, so what I did is I let several adults overhear her singing. Each person is totally bowled over, reduced to tears almost when they witness her gift. Hopefully this will make her very important in the reader’s eyes.

Well, I know these three tools aren’t everything when it comes to creating memorable characters, and Mr. Orson Scott Card even claims they can be overused by unskilled writers, and he goes on to talk about more tools, including using the character’s past and the character’s motive process to deepen your story. But these basic techniques are a good start. They’re enough for me to home-school myself on today.

Truly, Julie

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