(For the 5 challenges, scroll down.)
It’s hard to believe that today my daughter is eight weeks old. It’s also hard to believe that many mothers are back to work full time by now. I cannot imagine.
Actually, I CAN imagine, and it seems awful. It’s still rare that I get more than two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, and I’m often up for hours in the middle of the night to feed, diaper, and soothe her. If I had to be at work at 8 am with a one-hour commute (that’s what I did when I worked full time), I’d be waking by 5 every morning to get myself and the baby ready for the day. I’d get home at 6, so I don’t know when I’d have time to cook dinner, do the laundry, play with the baby, or hang out with my husband. And don’t get me started on how annoying it would be to pump at work. I feel both great admiration and great sympathy for full-time working mothers of infants.
Although I haven’t gone back to either of my paying jobs yet (except for Skype tutoring once a week), I’m trying to get back to my writing work. There’s a Work in Progress grant I plan to apply for, and the application deadline is March 31. All I need to do is make a few light revisions in my manuscript, write a synopsis, and polish up the first 10 pages for submittal. But you’d be amazed how long these tasks are taking me. I do most of my work with a baby strapped to me, bouncing her as I type to keep her pacified. In fact, that’s how I’m writing this blog right now!
The first six weeks of Baby’s life I didn’t do any writing except this blog, but I did do some manuscript swapping with other writers. I got feedback on my draft from a few people, and I gave feedback to a few writer friends. I managed to read one full manuscript for my friend Bethany, often while breastfeeding. Ironically, hers is a novel written as diary entries, which is the format of my manuscript as well! (Check out Bethany’s blog here!)
Writing a novel as a series of diary entries is great in a lot of ways. As Bethany pointed out to me, it can help you fully realize your main character’s voice. It’s also a good way to explore the protagonist’s emotions AND to keep the story in the present moment – both of which tend to be important in YA and Middle Grade books, and that is what both Bethany and I are writing.
But, as I read Bethany’s manuscript and began to review my own, I realized that there are some challenges to the diary format as well.
5 CHALLENGES TO WRITING A NOVEL IN DIARY FORMAT:
- Readers must suspend disbelief.
Most people don’t keep diaries. Those that do don’t often write extensive, frequent entries. And chances are, in order to tell a good story, your protagonist is going to do just that. She is going to include full scenes with description and dialogue instead of just telling briefly what happened.
Your job as a writer is to make both the voice and the story so engaging that the reader doesn’t stop to wonder whether the character would really take the time to write all of this in her diary.
- It’s difficult to include backstory and explanations.
If a character is writing a diary, she is essentially writing something for herself. Therefore, why would she need to tell herself about something that happened in the past? Instead she might write, “my visit to Grandma’s was just as bad as last time,” without going into detail about what happened last time. After all, she already knows. Perhaps she even wrote about it previously in her journal. She also might not take the time to fully describe people or places. Why would she bother to describe to her diary her mother’s appearance, or what her bedroom looks like?
Your job as a writer is to find a way to tell the story vividly while still staying true to the diary-style format. One way to get around this challenge is to write an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) instead of diary entries. If your character is writing to another person, it makes sense that she would do more explaining and describing.
One book that finds a way to overcome this challenge is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s essentially a diary-style novel, but the entries are written as letters that the main character sends to an anonymous person. Here’s the very first page:
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
So that’s one way to do it.
- Grammar and style gets tricky.
If your protagonist is a teen or preteen, are you going to write the way a kid that age would actually write? Well, yes and no. You don’t want to include all the spelling and grammatical mistakes your protagonist would likely make in real life because that would make for annoying reading. Instead, you’re going to write using the rules of the English language and find other ways (word choice, sentence style, content, etc.) to make the diary seem realistic.
You can make your own decisions, but chances are you’re going to indent your paragraphs and use quotation marks for dialogue. Chances are you’re not going to use ten exclamation points even though that’s what a real teenager writing in a diary might do. In the same way that you shouldn’t write dialogue exactly the way people speak (with all the “ums” and “likes”) you also don’t need the entries to be exactly the way your character would write them. After all, this is a work of fiction. You’re not trying to replicate a teenager’s diary; you’re simply using the diary as a device to tell a story.
There are plenty of ways to make the diary feel real without resorting to misspelled words, all-caps, and ovelry-exuberant punctuation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is scattered throughout with cartoons that have been drawn by the narrator and look like they have been taped into the book. In Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, the narrator, teenage movie buff and aspiring director Greg Gaines, writes out scenes of his life as if they are screenplays. In this way, Alexie and Andrews give their books a unique “diary feel” without breaking grammar rules.
- Tense can get tricky.
When you’re writing a diary style novel, you have to think about when your character is sitting down to write these entries. Is she writing about what happened that day or yesterday? Is she writing once a week about the whole week? She might be feeling a certain way right now (present tense) about something that happened yesterday (past tense) or something that’s going to happen tomorrow (future tense).
This challenge isn’t too hard to manage, but, what if you want your character to be more reflective about her experiences; what if you want her to be making some realizations that she might not make in the moment? Or, what if it’s unrealistic that your character would have been chronicling things on a day to day basis? Maybe she didn’t have time. Maybe she didn’t realize until after the fact that something big and important was happening to her. Maybe, instead of writing diary entries, she could instead be looking back from a certain vantage point and writing about an important time in her life.
Of course, if you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, the narrator in this case should still be young and looking back on something that happened fairly recently. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart both do this. In The Catcher and Rye, for example, Holden is writing an account of the recent past: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”
Anyway, this is a good alternative to the diary-entry style.
- Diary entries lend themselves to telling instead of showing.
Think about how you might have written a diary entry as an angsty teen. Something like this, perhaps:
Oh my god, I HATE Linda right now. She is being such a BITCHY BITCH!!!!!! She told EVERYBODY at the bus stop I wasn’t wearing deodorant, and they all laughed at me and called me a stinky pig. I’m seriously not talking to her anymore. She SUUUUCKS and is officially no longer my friend!!!!!!!!
You see what I mean? First of all, I don’t think I’d want to read a whole book like that, riddled with excessive explanation points. Secondly, in most books, this would be a scene, right? We’d be at the bus stop with Linda and the protagonist. We’d get a little description of the other kids. We’d get the dialogue of what exactly was said. We’d be SHOWN the bitchiness of Linda instead of being told about it. Although it’s fine to have some telling in a diary-style novel, you really have to include scenes and dialogue.
In essence, when writing in this style, you have to continually walk the line of making it seem like a diary, yet making it an engaging story. Not easy to do.
In fact, I think Bethany has decided to do away with diary-style for her novel. She says it helped her find her character’s voice, but now she’s going to tell the story in first-person past tense, no diary entries necessary.
As for me, I’m sticking with diary entries for now. I got the idea for this novel by reading over some of my own ninth grade diary entries, and I fell in love with how open and vulnerable and emotional and often hilarious (sometimes unintentionally) I was when writing for myself. I wanted to write a story that had a similar tone. Will I succeed? Only time will tell!
Wish me luck getting together my submission for the Work in Progress grant, and wish me luck getting this little baby to sleep at night!