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Back to Work: 5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

Back to Work:  5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

(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!

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This is me and the baby right now.  Shh, she’s sleeping to the sound of my keyboard typing!

 

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.

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Hard to get much work done with this little babe!

5 CHALLENGES TO WRITING A NOVEL IN DIARY FORMAT:

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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:

Dear friend,

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.

 

  1. 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.

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From The Absolutey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  (Illustrations by Ellen Forney)

 

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An excerpt from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.  Note that Andrews follows the appropriate style guidelines for screenplays!

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

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Should I write my novel as diary entries?  Hmm, let me think about it…

 

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!

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Baby loves to sleep on Mommy!

 

Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

One of the many part-time jobs I do to support myself before I make millions with my writing career (ha, ha) is tutor middle school students at a local school. I tutor in a room that is allegedly called The Learning Lair, but no one actually calls it that, so I usually tell kids, “I’ll meet you in that room in the basement,” which sounds a lot creepier than it is.

This basement room is where I always meet students, even if we end up going somewhere else because the Learning Lair is occupied. Which is why I was surprised last week when I was waiting for my 4 o’clock student to arrive and got an email from her mother saying, Suzie* is looking for you, but she can’t find you.

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I wrote back immediately, I’m here! In the basement of the middle school! I’ll stay put. Then I waited. Kids these days have cell phones, and Suzie had been cc’ed on the message, so she should now know where to go. Why she was confused? This was where we always meet. Perhaps I had gone to the bathroom at 3:59 and missed little Suzie stopping by, but you’d think she would have waited for a minute or two instead of leaving to wander about the school grounds in search of me.

When Suzie didn’t appear, I sent another email: Still here. In the place where we normally meet. But Suzie never showed. Apparently she had already been picked up by her nanny and was on her way home.

I have a feeling I know what happened. After all, I was a middle school girl once. And middle school girls are sneaky. Take, for example, when I was in the sixth grade and didn’t like riding the school bus because the other kids were mean to me. I would walk really slowly down to the bus stop, see that the bus wasn’t there at that exact moment, and then walk really slowly back up the hill to my house. “Mom!” I’d yell. “I think I missed the bus!” She would then have to drive me to school, and this happened so frequently that eventually we got my friend Amanda’s mom to start giving me a ride every morning.

My mom never found out about my trickery because middle school girls seem very sweet and innocent. I’m pretty darn sure what happened with sweet little Suzie was that she didn’t want to have a tutoring session that day, so she used the old, “I can’t find my tutor anywhere” trick. I know all about that, and I won’t allow it. Not on my watch.

No more middle school trickery!

No more middle school trickery!

Which was why I was really annoyed on Monday when it happened again, with a different student. I had been tutoring from three to four in another classroom and arrived back at “The Learning Lair” at 4:00 pm, or perhaps 4:01 at the latest. But my 4 o’clock student, little Jane*, was nowhere to be found. Soon I got an email from her mother that Jane had “looked for me” but “couldn’t find me.”

I was outraged. This was starting to make me look bad, as if I was some drifting, invisible tutor who could never be found, when in fact I had been sitting, clearly visible, right smack in the middle of the Learning Lair for the past fifteen minutes. I’m here in our normal meeting spot, I wrote to Jane’s mother. I was in another room from three to four, so it’s possible I wasn’t here at 4pm exactly, but please tell Jane to wait for me next time! If I’m not here when she arrives, I’ll be here soon!

These middle school girls, I tell ya. Poking their heads in the Learning Lair, seeing I’m not there, and immediately assuming/pretending, “well, Eva’s not here today. Guess I should just go home.” Obviously they should have waited for me. Or checked back a few minutes later. Instead they made a big show of “looking for me” and told their parents, “oh, it’s not my fault, the tutor must not have showed up today.”

Trust me. I always show up.

Angry tutor face.

Angry tutor face.

There are a lot of quotes about “showing up” for writing, even when you don’t feel like it or don’t feel inspired. Author Isabel Allende says, “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Too often, we writers act like sneaky middle school girls. We open our laptops, but when the writing doesn’t come immediately we think, “oh well, I guess I should do something else today.” We move on, make a big show of “looking for inspiration,” pretend that the lack of writing isn’t actually our fault.

So I have something to add to Allende’s writing advice: show up, show up, show up, and WAIT. Don’t just poke your head in, see that nothing is there, and go on home. Ideas don’t always arrive on a schedule. Writing doesn’t always flow right away. Don’t just show up to your writing desk for a few minutes to say that you were there. Show up and then give it some time.

Trust me. The muse isn’t as punctual as Eva the Tutor, but it will be there eventually.

*  *  *

Luckily, I was able to reschedule with little Jane. We’re meeting today at the Learning Lair, and she knows that if I’m not there at 4:00 pm exactly, she should wait for me.

Woody Allen once said that eighty-percent of success is showing up. Maybe the other twenty percent is being patient enough to wait.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the (somewhat) innocent

There Was No Weaving, or, What We Do Before We Write

There Was No Weaving, or, What We Do Before We Write

The other day I was tutoring a seventh grade boy I’ll call Kevin, and things were not going well. Kevin was slouched in his chair, an oversized baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. I was trying to get to the bottom of this math re-test I was supposed to be helping him prepare for, but according to him he had no review sheet, no notes, no textbook, and his teacher had already left school. He responded to each of my questions sullenly, shifting his body further and further away from me.

“So what can you remember about the test?” I asked. “What sort of problems are going to be on it?”

“I dunno.” Kevin shrugged and pulled his cell phone from his pocket.

“Kevin, put the phone down.” I felt frustrated. I’m a get-things-done type of person who loves efficiency, and I wanted to report to Kevin’s mother that I’d fully prepared him for the test.  Yet here we were, ten minutes in, and I didn’t even know what material was on the test. I also didn’t know Kevin very well – it was our first real session together — and I was starting to think he was uncooperative and impossible.

“Could we go to your teacher’s website? Maybe there’s something about the test there,” I suggested.

“There’s not,” Kevin said. “I already checked.”

I knew that how I handled this situation was going to affect the relationship between me and this kid for the rest of the year. Should I discipline him? Reason with him? Offer him a reward?

Put that phone away so we can do math!

Put that phone away so we can do math!

“Look, be real with me for a second,” I said. “Obviously, you don’t want to be here. I get that. But I’m not going anywhere, so let’s talk about it. What’s up? You won’t hurt my feelings. Just tell me why it sucks so bad to be here.”

“Because,” he said.

“Why? Tell me all the reasons why this is the worst. Let’s list them out.”

He sighed.  “Because I’m tired.”

“Makes sense.  Okay, that’s one.” I held up one finger. “What else?”

“Because I don’t need help with my math.” Kevin’s voice trembled, and his eyes started to water. He put his elbow on the desk and shielded his face from me. “My mom thinks I do, but I don’t. I understand it.  The only reason I got a bad grade was because I made careless mistakes.”

He wiped away the tear that was rolling down his soft, middle-school-boy cheek, and the annoyance I’d felt for him melted into affection. All his sullen “nos” and “I don’t cares” had been a tough guy act to mask his frustration and a bruised ego.

“So you really do understand the math you just made careless mistakes?” I asked.  (The old repeat-back psychology method.)

“Yeah.” He sniffed, and I dug into my purse for a tissue, passing it to him silently.

“That does suck. You must feel really frustrated,” I said. “What would you rather be doing right now?”

“Anything.”

“Like what?”

“Hanging out with my friends.”

“Yep.  That’s more fun that tutoring. What else?”

“Playing soccer.”

“Oh yeah? What position do you play?”

I knew if someone walked into the classroom at that moment it would seem like I wasn’t doing a very good job tutoring. It would seem like I was wasting  time, talking about soccer when we could be going over math problems. But if I was going to get anywhere with Kevin, we needed to first build some trust.

“So look,” I said after we’d chatted for a while about soccer and baseball, “let’s just relax for a minute, go to the bathroom, get some water. When you’re ready, you can show me some of the math that’s going to be on the test. Show me what you know so I can tell your mom that you really did understand it, you just made careless errors. And then we can talk about strategies for helping catch careless mistakes on the re-test. How does that sound?”

Kevin shrugged, but when he got back from the bathroom, he sat down and we did a few problems together, and I showed him a strategy for organizing his scratch work. We didn’t have time to do a ton of math, but in the end I was pleased with how things had turned out.

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Recently I came across an anecdote from The World’s Religions by Huston Smith:

At one point the art department of Arizona State University decided to offer a course in basket weaving, and approached a neighboring Indian reservation for an instructor. The tribe proposed its masterweaver, an old woman, for the position. The entire course turned out to consist of trips to the plants that provided the fibers for her baskets, where myths involving the plants were recounted and supplicating songs and prayers were memorized. There was no weaving.

I love this anecdote, not only for the ironic punchline, but because this is something we often forget in our fast-paced world of get-it-done: that sometimes you should postpone the thing that needs to get done while you lay a foundation and gain a deeper understanding.

My tutoring session with Kevin was just that.  We had to postpone the math in order to establish and connection and an understanding that will hopefully make our future tutoring sessions more fruitful.

And I think the basketweaving anecdote is an important one for me to remember in my writing life as well. Some days, there is no writing.  But I am reading, I am observing, I am learning about writing, or simply learning about life. These rituals may not result in novels right away, but I am laying a foundation for my future writing.   What we do before we do the thing that needs doing — these trips and talks and prayers and thoughts — are perhaps as important as the weaving itself, whether we’re talking about creating a basket, a story, or a relationship between a teacher and her student.

The Ogre on the Stairs, or, Write What You Know…?

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The Ogre on the Stairs, or, Write What You Know…?

You know that annoying and constricting piece of advice, “write what you know”? Well, if everybody did that, the world of books would be a boring place. I doubt Suzanne Collins knows firsthand what it’s like to be a teenager fighting to the death in a televised arena. I doubt George R.R. Martin has ever chopped someone’s head off with a sword. I sure hope that Gillian Flynn doesn’t have any personal experience with calculating psychopaths or Satanic cult massacres*.

I recently read the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (see my blog post about it), and although I mostly disliked the book, she gave one important piece of advice: You don’t have to write what you know, necessarily. Instead, write what you know emotionally. Ahh. That swings the doors of creativity wide open.

Write what you know?  Bah.

Write what you know? Bah.

Recently, while reading Tawnysha Greene’s novel A House Made of Stars (see my review here), a childhood memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. (Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.)

My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us while brandishing a kitchen knife in one meaty paw.

“I’m going to kill you both!” be bellowed as Amanda and I ran squealing through the house.  I didn’t know her brother well enough to know — was this a game… or not?

“Quick, let’s hide up here.” Amanda grabbed my hand and pulled me into her mother’s closet. There was a string hanging from the ceiling, and she yanked on it to reveal a set of wooden steps. We scampered up them into the dark and musty attic and crouched behind a stack of boxes, waiting.

Below us, we could hear her brother’s footsteps in the hallway, and then his voice: “Where are you, little girls? Come out, come out wherever you are.”

Amanda squeezed my hand, and I felt confused, terrified, helpless.

Then we heard him open the closet door. The attic steps squeaked and groaned under his weight. Thump, thump, thump. The sound of his footsteps matched the pounding of my heart. I didn’t know what he would do when he found us, but I was preparing for the worst.

In my memory, he looked something like this.  photo credit.

In my memory, he looked something like this. photo credit.

I don’t remember what happened next except I know he didn’t hurt us. In the end, it was all a game: just Amanda’s mean older brother trying to scare us. I don’t remember what we did for the rest of the afternoon, although probably her brother went outside to play basketball while Amanda and I made brownies and watched MTV. I don’t know for sure. What I do remember, though, is the fear. I remember hiding in that attic, trying to make myself small and invisible. I remember feeling absolutely helpless and terrified.

And I can use experiences like that. If I’m writing a scene in which my protagonist is being chased by an ogre, or hiding from an abusive stepfather, I don’t need to have those exact experiences in my personal history. I can instead remember what it was like to hide from Amanda’s scary older brother — access those memories, those feelings. The emotion is what will make my scene feel real.

The Hunger Games is about a futuristic child death match, sure. But it’s also about Katniss’s protective love for her sister, her competitive spirit, her anger at authority, and her confusion over which boy she loves. Hmm, I bet Suzanne Collins has experienced all of those emotions at some point in her life.

So, go forth everyone, and write about haunted houses and bizarre crimes and robot aliens and all sorts of other things you’ve never known. As long as you write what you know emotionally, your story will ring true.

*Suzzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games trilogy, George R.R. Martin writes the series A Song of Ice and Fire (which became Game of Thrones) and Gillian Flynn is the author of Gone Girl and Dark Places.

Katniss of The Hunger Games (played by Jennifer Lawrence — who probably doesn’t have experience fighting to the death either I think “act what you know emotionally” probably works, too.)

My 400th Post, or, Say What You Mean!

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My 400th Post, or, Say What You Mean!

Wow.  This my 400th post.  I started In the Garden of Eva back in July of 2012 as a way to hold myself accountable to my writing goals (see my very first blog post here!), and I feel like it has grown and matured into a stable blog about writing and life (just as I have grown and matured as a writer!).

Writing this blog has been amazing.  I’ve connected with people, been recognized, and built a modest following.  It’s been fun and challenging, and I really think it has improved both my writing and my writing regimen.  But most importantly, In the Garden of Eva has given me confidence.  In response to my fears that one day I’ll wake up and have nothing more to write about, this blog has shown me that I will always have plenty to say, along with the means to say it.

And so for today we will flash back to a post I wrote a year ago about saying what you mean:  Lead with Your Kidneys, or, How to Be Direct, in Writing and in Life.

Thanks for visiting The Garden, and don’t worry — I’ve got another 400 posts in me, if not more!

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14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

You know what’s awkward? Having parent-teacher conferences when the student in question is in the room — like the kind I’ve been having lately in my job as a tutor/mentor. You don’t want to kill the kid’s self-esteem or make him feel like he’s being ambushed. On the other hand, you need to express to both the parent and student that his current performance ain’t cutting the mustard. So you end up making tentative statements like, “I’d like to see you putting in a little bit more effort,” or “You’re starting to manage your time a bit better, but you’re still kind of wasting time.”

I often find myself using these types of qualifiers both at home and at work. The other day, when a student came in to work on a paper but instead spent the entire afternoon texting, I said, “I hope when you come in tomorrow you’ll be a little bit more focused.” Then I shook my head. “No.  Correction. I hope you’ll be a lot more focused. I hope you’ll be focused on the paper and not on anything else.”

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

As it turns out, I use these tentative qualifiers in my writing as well. I’m doing yet another revision of my novel (but my agent says we’re getting close to being done!) and I have noticed sentences like:

She felt slightly dizzy.

She was almost frightened.  

She was starting to feel somewhat confused.

Gosh, I thought, why don’t I go ahead and make her dizzy instead of slightly dizzy? As for the second sentence, what does “almost frightened” mean anyway? Either you’re scared or you’re not. And “she was starting to feel somewhat confused” is so far removed from the actual feeling. Do I really need all those qualifiers chipping away at the significance of the sentence?

Because, see, the problem with those parent-teacher conferences, is that all the “little bits” and “kind ofs,” make the parent and student think what you’re saying is not such a big deal after all. And you’re in danger of the same thing happening if you use too many in your writing.

Sure, I know that “she felt dizzy” has a different meaning than “she felt slightly dizzy,” and maybe the latter is what you really mean. I’m not saying that you never need these qualifiers. What I am suggesting is that you use the “find” function on your manuscript and search for the following words and phrases. Then decide if you really need them.

Words to Watch Out For — Do you really need to use these, or does the sentence work better without them?

a bit
a little
almost
barely
beginning to
kind of
in a way
nearly
practically
rather
slightly
somewhat
sort of
starting to

Get out your ninja sword and start slashing unnecessary words! photo credit.