I'm writing a novel set in the 1930s, but I never (never!) think of it as "historical fiction."
I have an instant recoil reaction from the term "historical fiction" because I know how it would make my kiddos' (high-school seniors) eyes glaze over before they even tasted the prose. In novel #3, I am trying hard to rivet my readers so thoroughly that they will forget they ever thought such a boring thought ("historical fiction") at all. And it will then be "the amazing YA novel" that just happens to be set in 1930s. Kind of like how The Book Thief is just an amazing novel, not an amazing historical novel. (Delusions of grandeur, Ash?)
I've read a post from Laurie Halse Anderson who tries for the term "historical thriller" to describe Forge. Another option mentioned by Elizabeth Wein, whose fabulous Code Name Verity (I'm reading it now...) is set in WWII, was "historic suspense."
One of the commenters on Anderson's site pointed out the basic problem with these labels, which I think is true for "historic suspense" as much as for "historical thriller": the word of death in "historical fiction" isn't "fiction" but "history." That is because too many people have had crap history teachers; they think that "history" is where good stories go to die.
(For similar anti-social studies reasons, I don't want a glossary ANYWHERE NEAR any of my fiction, as I said here.)
Okay, so I'd rather not label the novel at all, but it's going to get labeled. What's a writer to do? This is a problem I hope my agent, editor, publicist, and others who generally know better will help me solve. But I'm open to suggestions from all sides.
If you didn't know, I'm on Twitter: @ashleyhopeperez. I've discovered that--for better or worse--Twitter lends itself to micro-confessions. I'm a bit of a confession junkie (for example, I MIGHT make a weekly stop to postsecret.com to see the latest in minor and major postcard confessions.)
Here are a few of my own small confessions from Twitter...
Sometimes, on my Mac, I "Force Quit" an application--even when it's behaving fine--just to feel powerful.
I used to giggle every time I saw the word “SIEMENS” on an appliance. Now, thanks to a WWII history buff, I think of concentration camp labor.
I place candy wrappers under poop-bomb diaper in trash to avoid spousal detection.·
At 9mos, our son got into the cat food on my watch. The worst = I think he liked it.
I used to have an irrational fear of odd numbers & argued a grade down once because of it.
Did an image search for “miscarriage” (book research) and was sorry.
I’m learning what potty-training involves, and sometimes I wish I could keep Liam in diapers.
Now that you know some of what you've been missing (I also retweet interesting articles and book-related stuff), go follow @ashleyhopeperez on Twitter. :)
The short version of my post today is this: anyone who has been moved, intrigued, or otherwise affected by the "I'm Christian Unless You're Gay" essay by Dan Pearce (aka Single Dad Laughing) NEEDS to read Tanita S. Davis's newest book, Happy Families.
The reason that the Single Dad Laughing piece is back on my mind is that Dan recently posted in "A Teen's Brave Response" about how the essay led to one teenager coming out to his family and community--and calling them to live their faith differently.
For those who haven't read the "I'm Christian Unless You're Gay" essay, let me summarize: Dan writes gently, humbly, but also compellingly about the tendency in lots of faith communities to reserve "full" love for a select few. Here's a bit that's relevant to what I'm going to say about Tanita's book:
“Oh, but you’re not gay? You’re clean, and well dressed, and you have a job? You look the way I think you should look? You act the way I think you should act? You believe the things I think you should believe? Then I’m definitely a Christian. To you, today, I’m a Christian. You’ve earned it.”
I bet you’ve heard that message coming from others. Maybe you’ve given that message to others.
Either way, I hope we all can agree that we mustn’t live that message. We just shouldn’t.
So now that you've got that (and really, you need to go read the whole essay), let me tell you what this has to do with award-winning YA author Tanita S. Davis's Happy Families. Here's the deal: her book is about two teens from a strong Christian family and their experiences coming to terms with the discovery that their dad is a transgender person.
You might think you know where this is going (shouting matches, disgust, excommunication), but you don't. What you actually see is a family figuring out new dimensions of what love and commitment mean. This is a book that can speak in powerful ways to believers and secular readers, a book that puts the reader in a "what if..." position and educates us without ever getting preachy.
Let's start with an important fact: Tanita sets things up in Happy Families in such a way that certain faith communities--very conservative ones--actually COULD process the choices made by the characters. (I rarely get to claim much "street-cred" but for once I get to! As someone who was raised inside a very conservative evangelical community, I am in a perfect position to see all the brilliant moves that Tanita makes.)
For one thing, Tanita separates transgender behavior from homosexuality and infidelity. In Happy Families, we see that the dad's decisions are about an expression of selfhood, not about sexual infidelity to his wife. The idea that a transgendered individual could still be faithful to marriage vows--and that his or her spouse should be as well--is extremely powerful and will give faith communities something to think about seriously in how they react to non-mainstream gender expression in their congregations.
Speaking of... Christianity in Happy Families rang totally true to me and reminded me of how Sara Zarr portrays Christianity in The Story of a Girl (there, it's the mystery behind a forgiving friend). Christianity offers one context for the story, not the message of the novel...which is how most "inspirational" fiction reads to me, and which is why it's so repetitive.
Far more powerful than the gospel message pasted into a novel is a fictional encounter with a family that makes a reader ask, what have they got that makes this kind of caring possible? That is what Happy Families accomplishes, and that is no small feat. (Let me make this personal: The reaction of the teen protags' mom is just... amazing. I aspire to have even a fraction of her faithfulness as a spouse. Other Christians who read this book should, too.)
Another really important aspect of this book--and one that brings an interesting angles for readers from all backgrounds--is that it shows that gender and sexuality aren't just something that teens experience ("who am I? who do I want to love? who do I want to be?) but are also things they have to come to terms with in others--sometimes even in their parents. That is, as far as I'm aware, an underrepresented perspective in YA.
Finally: as you already know from my rant about glossaries, I am usually staunchly against the presence of reference material at the back of any sort of novel. But I think that in Happy Families the glossary of preferred terms and the resource list in the back serves as a subtle call to action. It's like it tells us, "how you speak is one thing you can change starting now to be more loving to families like this one in your community."
That is, I think, a message that Dan Pearce--and all of us who want to stomp out the "I'm Christian unless..." tendencies in ourselves--can get behind.
Something that I'm working on in novel #3 is keeping various lines in the plot going at the same time while also creating meaningful connections between these lines. In music, this is called counterpoint. (Disclaimer, y'all: I'm no musician. In fact, my elementary school music teacher took me aside before a school concert and gently suggested, "You just mouth the words, honey." The only reason I know such a thing as counterpoint exists is that I had many musically gifted friends some 12 years ago when I was a student at Simon's Rock.)
A quick skim of the Wikipedia article on counterpoint confirms that it is, precisely, what I'd like to accomplish with my current plotting efforts:
In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously... In the words of John Rahn:
It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices.
The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintentionally. Bach's counterpoint—often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved—is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.
So, from now on: my new mantra is, "Bach it." I'm betting I'm not alone in my aspirations. All right, y'all, go Bach it now.
Last week, I shared one of my favorite tricks for beating writing block with figment.com, the amazing (as in, "Holy cow, where were you when I was sixteen?!") online writing community for teens and YA lovers. (Seriously, everybody... if you know a teen writer, make sure they know about this site.)
My method involves any book whose prose you admire, a pencil, and some careful attention to the joints between words. It's guaranteed (just about) to shake you out of writer's block if you've got it, and you can use it over and over...
Read the whole prompt here. You won't be sorry!
Q: How did you get yourself noticed and your work out there? Did you ever feel like your writing wasn't good enough?*
All writers feel like their writing is not good enough. If they didn't, they'd never slave over it to make it better. To make it great, even.
At the same time, obsessing too much can be paralyzing. Hemingway wrote that every writer needs "a built-in, shock-proof shit detector," which is true, but you need to make sure that shit detector has an off switch. (I wrote about this particularly important off switch here).
If I couldn't turn off my inner (psycho) editor, I'd never be able to write out the pages of crap that, sometimes inexplicably, lead to something special. Don't settle for mediocre writing in your final drafts; don't worry about it in your drafts.
As for getting noticed, my best advice is to find other writers whose opinion you respect and to share your work with them. I do this "live" with my writers group, but a website like Figment.com is a great way to connect to other aspiring writers.
·*Question courtesy of the·National Writing Project·and readers of·Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program·here.
Like most writers I've worked with in workshops and writing groups, I tend to think too much about when I'm going to tell my readers something. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, how long can we go without telling our juicy bits?
Of course, you don't want to be coy with your reader or make her feel tricked, led-on, or otherwise done wrong. Nor do you want to build up a reveal so much that--no matter how big a deal it is--it leaves the reader thinking, "is that all?"
But! Neither do you want to toss away all your character's secrets and complications in the first chapters of your book. As Noah Lukeman writes in The Plot Thickens, "storytelling is not about giving away information but about withholding it."
Ilsa Bick's Drowning Instinct is a recent example of just the right level of restraint--she manages to keep us hanging on to find out the specific details of the tragedy that opens the book. That restraint ups the tension and anticipation in the book.
Of course, it helps that Bick weaves together many threads in the plot. In fact, that's a second point about this whole withholding idea: it works best when you're working between several plot lines or at least dimensions of a story. In Bick's, for example, in addition to the big secret, we have unanswered questions for at least fifty pages at a time for a number of plot threads. These additional layers of mystery, which are peeled back befor the "big reveal" keep our eyes trained on the novel's striptease. The result is suspense, lots of it.
I'd like to have some of that. So I'm working on my layers...
First confession: I used to write poems, but I don't anymore.
For now, poetry feels too risky, the payoff too uncertain, each poem like stepping from a ledge never knowing how far one will drop. Poetry takes more courage than I’ve got. I’m no prophet, no visionary. I just want to live. And to piece together stories that might--might--have bits of poetry caught up in all the workhorse prose.
Second confession: I love poetry, but find poets a little scary.
This fear is probably because I imagine that they live with the anxieties I would feel if I were a poet. How do they do it? Maybe a lot of them don't have my "special" kinds of worries. I think of Carl Dennis, whose poems themselves (funny, talky, self-depricating) make me think he might be able to live with his work.
But then I think of Mark Strand whose experience with poetry is exactly what I would fear. For all his success, for all the gratitude I feel for his poems (several of which I've memorized, including this one), I cannot imagine what it's like to be him. I recently read an excellent interview in which, among other topics, he talked about “quitting” poetry again and again:
It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else... So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.
It floors me to imagine believing, with each book, that one has nothing left to say in that genre. Ever. If Mark Strand weren't so handsome (I think he looks like Paul Newman), I might feel bad for his suffering in the wake of his own words.
Third confession: sometimes I feel the novel is the coward's art.
One of my writing teachers, Peter LaSalle, once said that the poet has to make every word count whereas the fiction writer can always bring home the bacon on the next page and make the reader forget some so-so prose. I guess that's what scares me most about poetry: that absolute exposure, each poem needing to hold up to scrutiny. In fiction, it's more about the cumulative effect. I can hide in the sheer volume of pages.
Of course, the best fiction writing is risky, too. When it is truly fine work, there is the feeling that one might embarrass one’s self. Or do injury. But the bright spots in fiction come with plenty of plain old work with ordinary words. The novelist can make use of everyday language without shame. Bits that the poet has to sacrifice to find her poem can properly belong to a novel.
So there you have it. Three confessions, all of which suggest that poets are a superior kind of creature. Thank you, poets. You're braver than I'll ever be.