Coming up with novel ideas often begins for me with an art project – a collage of images that speak to me about a particular character whose voice begins as a distant call and then grows louder and louder.
This semester I have the pure joy of encouraging ten students to listen for that character and put him or her on the page. This particular group of students wants to write novels for middle grade and young adults. Seeing as young adults are my favorite audience, I’m looking forward to encouraging creative play at first drafts that can really grab a teen’s attention.
We met last week for the first time and I loaded my passionate charges with a ton of work that will help them to see that children’s writing can be quite challenging and complex.
I assigned Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK so students can get a handle on this novel’s multiple layers. If you look inside the cover of my copy of Speak, you’ll see that I write all over the cover pages of books I admire, jotting down page numbers where language might indicate a shift in character growth or a line that indicates a sub-plot has become more signficant. I’m not really trying to teach students to deface books so much as I’m trying to encourage them to learn from practicing writers out there who are masters at their craft, masters who have taken a leap, actually, from craft to art. Laurie’s work always does that for me.
My students have also been assigned to bring in the first pages of their own new work. While some knew exactly what they wanted to write, others were in a panic.
I suggested they go to the mall and pick a teen to paint with words, then pick a second teen — he or she doesn’t even need to be in the same group, and, in fact, serious tension can be created by choosing a second teen from a completely different group. Write up character sketches for each teen and then have them meet at the mall or in a hallways in school, or in a detention room. Have them negotiate over something they both want.
Sometimes, I go to youtube and try to find my characters through new music. I used this character development technique to create the characters I’m working on now, two characters locked in unlucky love who came together in a garage band. But I was having trouble seeing them. I looked through photographs and listened to music and came across Orianthi and this outstanding youtube video Highly Strung. I totally love her blue nails and the way her hands dance and slide all over that guitar.
This effort at character development reminds me a bit of when I was a little girl. I’d make my own paper dolls and then create clothes. I play at wardrobe with characters in much the same way. So, when I’m really stuck for details, you’ll often find me looking for clothes on Anthropologie or ethnic designer sites for Evie. She tends to wear suede jackets and fringed boots with long peasant skirts or jeans. Evie is totally a boho sort. Her issues are with her boyfriend, the band’s lead singer and harmonica player, who wants to push the relationship a bit further and faster than she’s willing. Poor Evie is thinking she’s not that into him even though they share their music.
I’m curious, what works for you when you’re developing characters?
Good morning, January 19. Welcome to Janis Joplin’s birthday. She would be 68 today. I suspect she’d still be singing.
But she is still singing — just listen to the radio today.
Janis continues to live in her music. And so HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Janis Joplin. May you celebrate this day! May your voice ring out always!
How wide can I smile??????The announcement was made early Monday morning and I was there to hear them say, “And the winner is….” The entire ALA experience was mindblowing and fun and happy, happy, happy celebrating!
The committee actually called my house Saturday evening but we were across the street having dinner with friends (coq au vin, in case you’re wondering what kind of cooks I befriend), and so I missed that call on my cell phone which was on the kitchen table in my purse. I didn’t check my phone until Sunday morning when husband Jeff told me my purse had been making weird noises. When I looked at my cell phone, I had a ton of missed calls beginning with Don Latham, the committee chair asking me to call him, then finally, a call that said he was sorry he’d missed me but Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing was the award winner. Would I please call him back. Well, I’m a girl and so I did what girls do. I screamed, OMYGOD! OMYGOD! OMYGOD! (I think I might also have screamed Holy Shit! but I can’t be certain). Jeff was all, WHAT! WHAT! WHAT! I said screamed JANIS WON! SHE WON! And there you have it.
Actually, I was packed and ready to go to the airport by 11 am even though my plane to ALA didn’t take off until 7 that night. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t tell anyone until the Monday morning award announcement. I could have walked to San Diego I was so excited.
The other four finalists were powerful writers and books and I’m so proud to be in that company. They include :“They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group,” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; “Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement,” by Rick Bowers and published by National Geographic Society; “The Dark Game: True Spy Stories,” by Paul Janeczko and published by Candlewick Press; and “Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates,” by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw and published by Charlesbridge.Each one was so strong, in fact, that I refused to hazard a guess as to the winner. I also felt like the Janis Joplin team had done such an amazing job of bringing the art and music to the book through page design and photo placement that I seriously, secretly thought it was possible. But that was my secret! Now I can say — Thank you YALSA committee!
I’ve posted photos on facebook but I’ll also post them here. But, first, I also have to tell you that Abrams Books won a total of four awards this year. Editor and publisher Susan Van Metre had the honor of stickering books:
They say ALA awards can change a writer’s life. I have such a good life because I have the opportunity to pursue my passion for telling stories. I don’t know if I can imagine what changes will come on the wind of this award, but I’m remaining open to all the possibilities in the world!