I missed last week’s post, so today’s a two for one!
1. Showing Character
I’ve been working on a new story idea, which will hopefully become my next novel. To help inspire me, and also as part of my quest to continually work on my craft, I’ve enrolled in The First Three Chapters class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre.
This week’s class was on showing your character through action. Now, when writing, this is of key importance. I could tell you that Sally is grumpy.
Sally is grumpy.
(Gripping stuff, non?)
Or, I could show you that she’s grumpy through action.
Sally yanked her alarm clock off the bedside table and threw it on the floor.
Did you learn more about Sally the second time, other than she’s a grumpy girl? I think so (i.e., she is not a morning person).
So, the lovely Sarah Johnson, our class instructor, had us write down different descriptors of our main protagonist for our work-in-progress (WIP). Then, she had us write a short paragraph where the character walks into the room and we show those descriptors.
First, let me show you what mine would look like if I just told you about my main protagonist.
Demi walks into the crowded bar and spots Todd immediately. Pissed off, she walks over, her braided hair not budging. Demi is not someone you mess with.
Okay. So we’ve learned that Demi is pissed with Todd, that her hair is braided, and that you shouldn’t mess with her – but little else.
Now let me show you who Demi is.
She’s been here for barely a breath and already she spots him. For a moment, she barely shifts. But then her spine goes ramrod straight and she tucks an imaginary stray lock into her already tightly braided hair. Her eyes narrow and she doesn’t even hesitate. Her slim legs launch forward in a crisscross motion, like sharpened scissors, as she heads straight for him. Her razor-like stride is audible across the room. He shrinks back. He has nowhere to go. He’s cornered.
Do you have a better sense of Demi? I hope so. Whatever descriptors come to mind, they’re not wrong, because they’re your own. I’m letting you decide, dear reader, who you think she is. As a writer, we have to trust the reader to have an imagination and to fill in the gaps. I think it’s much more gratifying to share the journey of the story, rather than tell you about it.
I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve finally done it. I’ve started querying. Some of you have asked me what querying means. Well, basically, it’s sending out letters to literary agents requesting representation. Unspeakable is commercial fiction. Large publishing houses will often not even entertain the idea of publishing your work without an agent. Agents understand the industry and help you find the right home for your book and also assist in sale and deal negotiation.
Nestpitch is also on the horizon (ten more days! But who’s counting?). So it’s time. Time to let go, and put my work out there. Wish me luck!
When I attended the recent workshop, Focus on Character, at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre, Emily Ursuliak discussed creating hybrid characters. That is, creating characters that contain elements from different people in your life, and blending them together into a whole new person – a hybrid.
Kendra, my main character Hanna’s sister in Unspeakable, is just that: a hybrid.
Physically, Kendra is a cross between my sister and my close friend (who is of Asian descent.) Both of these special women’s first names start with a K, so to keep things straight in my head when I first started plotting out Unspeakable, I gave her the name Kendra – and it never changed.
Personality wise, Kendra is a combination between my sister and myself. But her backstory, to me, is the most interesting part.
Now, some elements of her backstory are invented of course, and some are inspired by elements of our childhood (my sister’s and mine) and my good friend’s childhood. But one essential element about Kendra came from a rumour that was started when my sister and I were kids. I asked myself the question: What if that rumour had been true? The answer to that question helped me create a plot point that was essential to the subplot of Unspeakable (sorry, you’ll have to read Unspeakable to know what that is…)
Here’s a sneak peak of Hanna with Kendra (with a little hint as to how Hanna meets Hank for the first time).
I go through the motions of completing my order and then take my sandwiches and drinks out to the picnic table.
Kendra whistles and shakes out her hand like she touched something hot. “Wow, did you see that hottie pants who just walked out of the restaurant? This town may stink, but the view sure is fine.”
I shrug and unwrap my sandwich.
“C’mon, don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”
I don’t want Kendra to know the effect he had on me; she’d never let it go. “He was nothing special.”
Kendra shrieks and slides her sandwich over. “Nothing special? Uhmygod, that’s like saying the sun isn’t bright.” She pauses in the middle of unwrapping her sandwich. “Huh, maybe that’s it.”
“You’ve stared at the sun too long and it broke your eyes.”
I chuck a piece of lettuce at her. “Eat your sandwich.”
Kendra plucks the lettuce out of her hair. She scans the sandwiches and drinks I’ve placed on the table, raises her palms, and frowns. “Hey, you forgot my cookie.” So much for not letting him affect me.
I debated about what to post this week. I was thinking about posting a deleted scene from Unspeakable, and use it as an example of Showing vs Telling – which if you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve no doubt heard about ad nauseam.
But the scene I was thinking about sharing was…well, deleted for good reason. It didn’t add anything to the story and when reading it back, I couldn’t help but notice all the mistakes. Even though there are nice instances of showing, there’s also filtering, telling, adverbs, and the list goes on. Although frightening to see how poor my writing was in the early stages of the first draft, I am buoyed by the fact that I noticed these mistakes immediately upon re-read (which means I’ll be less likely to make them in the future…right? – I can only hope.)
If you’re wondering about filtering etc., don’t worry, I plan on explaining these concepts in future posts.
But today… I want to share some exciting news! I was preparing my query letter and synopsis to send out to agents, when I noticed a contest on Twitter called #nestpitch.
#nestpitch is a contest where you submit a 35-word pitch and the first 300 words of your manuscript. If you make it to the final round, your entry is posted on a blog where 12 pre-selected, reputable agents will take a look, and hopefully request more.
Here’s how it works:
In Round #1, entries that don’t meet the qualifications are removed.
In Round #2, there are 9 teams that then whittle it down to their top 5-8 submissions. At this point they may request additional pages.
In Round #3, they pick their final 4-5 and work with the authors to improve their manuscripts. Once this is completed, they go to the next round!
The Agent Round: Submissions are posted on a blog, where a number of preselected agents peruse and hopefully make requests for you to query.
Basically, this helps take your query from the slush pile to the “I want to know more” pile. Anybody who knows anything about the publishing industry knows that this can be a huge advantage.
I felt like I was pretty much done with Twitter pitches (I had participated in 2 others), as I felt that my novel was perhaps best represented in a traditional query letter (and p.s. I never win anything!!). But I figured, since my manuscript is now truly ready, the timing was right, so I entered.
And guess what? I have received requests for more material from two three different teams! Cross your fingers for me that Unspeakable makes it to the agent round.
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?
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.