A Glimpse of Hanna – Developing Character Through Writing Exercises

I’ve had people ask for excerpts of Unspeakable. I’m hesitant to do that at this point. I want people to get to know my characters, but also don’t want to create spoilers.

Before writing Unspeakable, I sketched out the backstories of all of my characters. I even typed out scenes to help me get to know my characters better. Here’s one that I did for Hanna. I hope you enjoy it.

Dianna Agron looking a lot like Hanna Rutherford
Dianna Agron looking a lot like Hanna Rutherford

 

Approximately eight years before Unspeakable …

 

They’re not fighting. It’s worse than that – they’re devoid of anything friendly. Every creek of the house pinches my shoulder blades closer together. Like the tick of a trigger waiting to release. Something will prompt a blow up, it’s just a matter of what.

 

Not a good time to ask for anything. But I have a job interview tomorrow and need to know if I can get a ride. The bus only runs once an hour on a Sunday, so I’m hoping to avoid having to arrive 45-minutes early.

 

Mom is polishing the already clean counter top, her nostrils flared, the muscles in her arm quiver. I clear my throat. Barely a sound escapes. But it’s enough. She stops – cold.

 

I inch backward, regretting my decision. I can find a way to keep myself warm in -30 Celsius weather. I’ll find a bus shelter or something. At least the three walls of glass cut the sharp wind. I can handle the cold – well, the kind related to the weather anyway.

 

But it’s too late. I’m committed. “What..is..it, Hanna?” she asks without turning, her back rigid.

 

I squeak out my request, trying to explain. My words tumble over each other.

 

It’s no matter. My mother breathes out a fiery of angry words. I’m lazy. I’m inconsiderate. I’m selfish. I’ve heard it all before. As she unleashes on me, I stand, stoic as possible. Any retort I give will just fuel her anger. I spare a surreptitious glance at my father, curled over a book in his armchair in the living room. A pain greater than my mother’s fury? My father’s curtain of indifference.

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Choosing a Setting for My Novel

A lake in Northwestern Ontario
A lake in the Canadian Shield

 

Unspeakable is set in a secluded mill town in Northwestern Ontario, Dryden. When I told my husband this, he said, “Don’t set it in Canada. No one wants to read a book set in Canada.”

I know what he’s trying to say. The majority of the readership in North America is from the United States, so in his mind, I am (allegedly) closing the door on a MASSIVE market by setting my story in Canada. However, when I had a portion of my manuscript reviewed by a Writer In Residence at The Alexandra Writer’s Centre, one of her first comments was, “I love that you set it in Canada.” So despite differing opinions, for now (until a fabulous agent/editor tells me otherwise), the setting remains.

So why Dryden of all places?

Dryden, Ontario
The Mill. Dryden, Ontario

 

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, in order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Dryden was a small town that I was intimately familiar with. I, like my main character, Hanna, worked there as my first job as an SLP. I feel that knowing the town where she’s living and being very familiar with (parts of) her situation helped lend a greater authenticity to the story. I could describe things more accurately, the smells, the textures, the beauty, and sometimes the not so beautiful. It helped provide a framework from which to build my story.

I have come across a few dilemmas in choosing Dryden.

  1. People are going to think it’s me.

 As I was a rookie SLP in Dryden just as Hanna is, it’s natural that people will think that she’s me. My sister even asked me if one of the first scenes actually happened (never mind that Unspeakable is a romance and I’ve been with my husband since grad school – thanks sis.). So, the answer is NO. Although Hanna and I have our careers and our first professional setting in common, she is not me. She has a very different personality and is confronted with situations that I’ve (thankfully) never experienced. And let’s face it, regardless of the setting I choose, people will think it’s me, simply because I wrote it. In fact, just this weekend I was having dinner with old and new friends. It came up that I had written a novel. Each sentence that I uttered, describing the plot, was punctuated with, “So, it’s you. It’s you, right.” I don’t think changing the location will change that popular perception.

2. People are going to think it’s my former colleague, the Sue Ellen to my J.R. (This was not a concern until recently.)

Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas
Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing  (J.R.’s wife) in Dallas

In Unspeakable, Hanna is the sole charge SLP. When I worked in Dryden, I started at the same time as another new SLP, ‘Miss Sue Ellen’. To help with setting and clinical accuracy, she was amongst my first BETA readers. Her reaction? “People will think this is me.” Oy.

To be honest, when I created Hanna, I made her personality very distinctive from mine. But when I created her, it never occurred to me that people would think she was Sue Ellen. In fact, after reading Unspeakable, Miss Sue told me that she had found herself in a somewhat similar situation as Hanna (I plan on writing a future post on how things in my story started to come true – it has happened a lot!) I was totally clueless to this situation, as it had arisen after I had moved away. My first reaction: Hurray, my story has major plausibility! My second reaction: Uh oh, people might think it’s Sue Ellen). Sorry Miss Sue…all I can do is assure readers, that is isn’t you either.

3.  Do I use the Dryden of yesteryear or present day?

King Streen, Dryden, Ontario
King Street, Dryden, Ontario

When I moved to Dryden more than a decade ago, the town was like a quaint little suburb, much as I describe it in Unspeakable. After I left, there were some layoffs at the mill and apparently things changed. I went to visit there in the summer of 2013, (when I was in the midpoint of writing my manuscript). I was stunned by:

a). How accurately I remembered some things: like the inside of the health unit.

b). How I fabricated things from my memory when I wasn’t aware:

Hanna’s boss’s last name is Van Horne, but when I named her I had forgotten that that was the name of the street where the health unit is located.

c). How things that I had created had also come true:

Hanna’s apartment building really exists (it’s a unique building in the town) but I changed the business under her apartment from a shoe store to a Barber Shop for my own creative purposes. Guess what is actually there now; that’s right, a Barber Shop, much like the one created in my imagination – weird.

d). How things remained the same:

The Chinese restaurant across the street is still there, exactly as I had remembered it.

e). How things have changed:

The biggest difference now is that Dryden has definitely incurred some the brunt of its depressed economy. Let’s just say it isn’t the polished suburb I remembered. For the purposes of my story, would it be better to have the place be a little more rough around the edges, adding additional challenges to Hanna’s plight? If I did this, would I offend who proudly call Dryden home? At the moment, it feels too one-dimensional and cliché to make Dryden just another small depressed mill town, so for now I’ve left it as it was in memory.

4. In order to avoid offending anybody, maybe I should fictionalize the town completely and give it a new name.

There are parts of the setting that I have fictionalized already (e.g., restaurants, bars) and parts that are quite accurate (in my mind). But you know what? You can’t write a novel and worry about what others will think. That others will think it’s about you or about them. Or that people will be offended if their town isn’t always portrayed in a favorable light. That’s a sure recipe for writer’s block. It was concerns of what people might think that stopped me from writing altogether for so many years. So I just won’t go there. Unspeakable is Hanna and Hank’s story, and I’m glad I wrote it. A town by any other name doesn’t really change it.

 

Writing Exercises That Inspire

 

A Hint of Hank…

Henry-Cavill-Immortals-027

In the intermediate creative writing class I took at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre two years ago, our teacher gave us weekly writing assignments. I found these very helpful at flexing my writing muscle and letting the creativity flow. In an interview with Vulture, Gillian Flynn reported that the “Cool Girl” article in Gone Girl came about when she was doing a writing exercise to help alleviate writer’s block. She indicated that, as a rule, she tends not to use writing exercises in her actual manuscripts, as writers tend to “shoehorn” them in. This resonated with me as I had a few that I tried to do just that with, and ended up deleting. However, there are a couple of scenes that started as writing exercises that really inspired the trajectory of my story (in a good way). I thought I would share one with you today.

 

The assignment was to write something from the starter line, “There is a particular place he is going to tonight but…”, and to just let it flow. I thought about my main male protagonist, ‘Hank’ when writing it. This is NOT the version in my manuscript for Unspeakable, but rather the exercise that inspired a ‘TSN Turning Point’ scene (I also removed names and spoilers). This exercise helped me understand ‘Hank’ a little bit better and set the tone of his voice.

I hope you enjoy it!

On the shores of Wabigoon Lake

 

There is a particular place he is going to tonight but he is not prepared to admit to himself where that is. If he ends up there again, it is not on purpose. This is a small town, there are not many streets, it’s only natural – after all this was his hiding place – not hers.

He pulls up to the dead-end street at the edge of town. He kills the engine and tilts the powerful machine onto its stand. He yanks the helmet off of his head, rests it on the black leather seat and runs his calloused hand through his smooth black hair, allowing the cool evening breeze to evaporate the sweat that has gathered in his short locks. He told himself that he was just going for a walk along the familiar pathway, to gather his thoughts, clear his head, to be alone. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted to see her again, to be allowed to touch her. He pushes the thought of her out his mind, pushes his body away from her, quickly marching forward. They are like magnets, you spin them in one direction and the attraction is undeniable, turn one to face the other way and they repel. He is searching solitude yet simultaneously seeking her.

His black boots compress the gravel below him as walks at an anxious pace along the familiar path ahead of him. When he veers off onto the smaller lightly trodden trail, the moonlight shines on the waxy leaves of the birch trees that feather their branches along the route, giving them an ethereal glimmer. Several minutes pass until he can see the clearing that marks their meeting place, the dark water of Wabigoon Lake shimmering in the dim light.

He pauses, the sparkle of the water momentarily mesmerizing him. An owl lets out a solemn cry. As he feared, longed for, and denied – he is alone. He leans against a tree near the waters edge, letting his breath slide out of him in synchronicity with his body as he lets his legs collapse beneath him, dragging his back along the bark, tearing at him.

He rests his head in his hands, trying to get ahold of his conflicting emotions. She had pushed him away and eventually he had responded in kind. He could not expect their friendship to continue. It wasn’t feasible in this suffocating town; where everyone thinks they know you and if they don’t, they make believe they do. There is no place for your own self. His voice will never be heard here – especially now that she is …(sorry, spoiler removed!)

 

If you have writing exercises that helped inspire you, I would love to hear about it!

So Why No Novels With Speech Therapist Protagonists?

As I had mentioned in my post on How I Came To Write Unspeakable, the seed of the idea for my novel was inspired by a comment made by my esteemed colleague, CBW (or as I like to say, CB-Dub). CBW astutely observed that there were no speech-language pathologists (SLP) as protagonists in novels. In fact, she wished that someone out there, for once, would portray us as the sexy creatures that we are (or would like to think we are). Hence, the seed was planted and I began writing Unspeakable (click here for my post on how it went from the seed of an idea to a full-length manuscript).

Part way through the writing process, I did a Google search on speech-language pathologists as protagonists and came across this post by the Speech Dudes. It’s a bit dated, but I like the humor and they too have noticed the same thing. We can be sexy and exciting! Just give us a chance!

So, I hope to heed the call with Unspeakable. Hanna is a bit naïve at the outset (as most of us are) and overwhelmed with the demands of the job and the diverse clientele that many of us are expected to serve. (You wouldn’t ask a Neurologist to be an expert in Gynecology, yet the same SLP may see a child with autism, an adult with Aphasia, a person with feeding issues, and person who stutters all in the same day.) She flounders at first, but her heart is in the right place – she wants to ‘save’ all of her patients, but as any seasoned professional knows, that just isn’t possible.

And so, I leave you with this. The Speech Dudes contributed some scenes of the SLP as the protagonist and I thought I would contribute my own, tongue-in-cheek version, for CBW. She has often teased me that there should be a sexy scene with ‘a dangling uvula’. We’ve had several fits of laughter in the clinic cafeteria about this, but I still refuse to put such a scene in my novel. But here’s one, just for fun (and yes, it’s meant to be cheesy and ridiculous!) Enjoy!

“Come closer,” she said, leaning towards him.

He inched closer, but the small distance between them seemed like a giant chasm. She needed him to be near her. She placed her latex gloved hand firmly on his cheek and urged him toward her.

He couldn’t deny her. If this is what she wanted, he had to comply.

“Good,” she whispered. She could feel his breath flutter against her skin. “Now open for me.”

He parted his soft lips, revealing the moist expanse of his mouth. Finally, she had what she wanted. An unobstructed view of his supple tongue, and there, nestled in the back, between the perfectly rounded orbs of his tonsils, their presence simply highlighting the immense size of the long and ample rod-like structure dangling there. That which gives a special vibration to our words, our sounds; the epicenter of the mouth: his glorious uvula.

The Speech Dudes

In a recent press release from The Association of American Publishers, it’s clear that digital downloads of books to mass market reading devices continues apace. From February 2010 to 2011, there has been a 202.3% increase in sales of eBooks. Not only that, eBooks are now ranked as the number one format for all categories of trade publishing, which includes adult hardcover, adult paperbacks, adult mass market, children’s/young adult hardcover, and children’s/young adult paperbacks. For those who like their number to be preceded by a $ symbol, eBooks raked in over $90 million in cold, hard cash over the year.

e-book imahe

Yet amongst the plethora of vampires, werewolves, wimpy kids, celebrity chefs, management gurus, and impossible heroines, there doesn’t appear to be ONE protagonist who is a Speech Therapist. Not one. Now, if a Whitehouse chef can be the main character in a story (e.g. “Eggsecutive Orders”) why not a…

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The Process of Writing: Part Two

 

WRITING YOUR UNIQUE STORY AND DEFEATING WRITER’S BLOCK

desktop

Last time, I discussed the importance of writing because you love it and understanding your characters. This time, I will be adding two more important strategies that worked for me in getting the first draft of my manuscript completed.

 

  1. Write What You Know.

I know, I know, we’ve all heard this one before, but it’s true, but not always in the way we might think. When I was at When Words Collide, a writer’s convention in Calgary, D. J. McIntosh (author of The Witch of Babylon), posed the question: Why is this story one that only you could tell?

 

When I wrote Unspeakable, I was motivated to tell a story about something I live every day; speech pathology. I challenged myself to make it sexy and interesting. In order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Starting out in my profession, I was very much like Hanna (my main character); young, naïve, and in over my head. So I decided to place my story in the same town where I had found my first job as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) – Dryden, Ontario. It was the perfect setting for my story and writing about a place (and experience) I already knew helped add authenticity to my writing.

 

In addition to the things that I understand about Hanna, there are a lot of things that I understand about Hank, because of some of my unique life experiences. One is Hank is French Canadian; a language minority in his part of Canada. This plays an important role in his journey in Unspeakable.

 

Unspeakable is a story only I, the French-Canadian SLP who worked in a small mill town and grew up in Western Canada, could tell, because my life lens colors my story. HOWEVER, there are a lot of things in the story that I don’t know about – so you have to pull from similar experiences, as well you need to do your research (which I will address in a future post).

Write

  1. Sit Down and Write.

After you’ve got your plot, sub-plot, and characters figured out you need to write your story – your novel. Wow, that can be daunting. 80,000-plus words with a plot, subplot, characters, denouement….and, and, and…. Take a breath. Writing a book can be an overwhelming (and often discouraging) undertaking.

 

Where do you start? That’s just it. Start.

 

I found that writing an outline of my story and chapters really helped. And then, well, you have to sit down and write it.

 

Some writer’s have word count goals, time goals, etc. You could also write out a writing schedule. For me, it was much simpler than that. I tied my writing time into my life routine. When my youngest son was in an activity, instead of going home and running errands, I slotted that as my writing time. Inspired or not.

 

I was taught to use Free Fall Writing at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. This technique basically means sit down and just write. Without editing or self-criticism – give’r (that’s a Canadianism, eh?). I didn’t set arbitrary word counts as a goal. I felt that this would just add unnecessary pressure and would lead me to feel dejected and defeated if I didn’t attain the word count goal. My goal was simple: Any writing, for me, was an achievement (a lot harder to fail that way). When I wasn’t sure where to go next or what to write, I used the Free Fall method and it really helped alleviate any instances of writer’s block and kept the story moving forward. And hey, I always left the coffee shop I nestled myself into with more content than when I had arrived.

 

 

So, in the end, with the help of things I learned about characters, world building, and Free Fall Writing, I got my story down on paper. But most importantly, I wrote Unspeakable because I had a story that I felt compelled to tell. Once I had the idea, plot points and characters bounced around my skull constantly; cracking at my consciousness and pulling me into a world of my own making. I had to let my characters breathe. This, in the end, is what really drove me.

 

Especially Hank. With his long lean body, black hair, and those cobalt blue eyes. Well, I couldn’t wait to spend time with him. And the only way to do that…was to write him. So I did. And now, I miss spending time with him.

Hank
Hank

 

Sigh.

 

 

How I Came to Write My Novel

Writing my novel

Since I was very young, I’ve always loved reading and wanted to grow up to be a writer. You would often find me with my nose in a book, reading into the wee hours of the night, using the pinpoint of red light from my waterbed heater control to illuminate each finely typed line, so as to not wake my sister.

My first experiences sharing my writing with others left me feeling embarrassed and self-conscious (the fault of the inner critique). Whenever my mother proudly stated to her friends that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I saw placating smiles and schooled expressions. Isn’t that sweet? I felt ashamed that I had such fanciful pursuits – it felt as realistic as believing in the tooth fairy; and at eleven, I knew there was no tooth fairy.

Creative interests took a back seat to finding a secure career. I became a speech-language pathologist (SLP) over 15 years ago, and I currently practice with the pediatric population. I love what I do. To help families facilitate and improve their child’s communication, to connect with others, is often very gratifying.

Speech-Language Pathologists
Fellow SLPs at the Hanen More Than Words training workshop on November 18, 2014

But what of my childhood dream? Do I simply leave it in the background of my wants and desires, as something silly and unattainable?

If I don’t try, I am sure to fail.

I was inspired to pursue my dream to write once more when I realized I had no reason not to pursue writing any longer. I don’t need it as a career. I can do it just because I love it. What did I have to lose?

The idea

I was discussing books with a colleague in November 2012 and she mentioned that no one has ever written a book where the main protagonist is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and sexy (her words, not mine). This got my wheels turning. What would a book like that look like? How could you develop a story where it was important that the main protagonist was an SLP?

The seed of the idea for Unspeakable was planted. And so, I started making notes. I came up with a premise, and characters and a plot and a subplot. Now what?

Work to do your best.

I took a course on novel writing at the University of British Columbia in early 2013, and then a creative writing course at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre that spring. I was then accepted into their yearlong novel course last year, where I completed my first draft. I had a few reviews from writers-in-residence programs, and did some rewrites. I then had a few beta readers read it over the summer, and did more rewrites. I sent it for a manuscript review with a local writer’s association – they told me it was good, but gave me few constructive things to work on (I waited 10 weeks for that one!)

 

Currently, it is in the hands of a professional editor that I hired. I now have to wait 14 weeks. So, if you’re following all of this, it took me 2 years to get to this point. From the seed, to the tree in it’s adolescence. Sure, there were long periods where I didn’t touch my manuscript. Namely the summer months, when I parent full-time with few moments to myself and those long periods of waiting…waiting for people to read it and give feedback. And so now I wait again, and I write about other things. This blog mainly, and there is another seed. It’s germinating. I just need to plant it.