This week, my work on the YA novel came to a screeching halt. Why, you ask? Because of a sort of writing emergency, something that needed immediate attention. That happens sometimes, when you’re a writer. It’s happened twice in the last couple of months, on two different projects. Often it has to do with problems that come up just before publication. And then you swing into emergency mode, and there you are, making sure that everything is fixed. Making sure that when the reader gets the book or magazine, it’s perfect. Or as perfect as you can make it.
But before I get back to my own YA novel progress, what about the other participants? I’ve had some comments from people who want to participate, but have not sent me their URLs. If you want me to link to your blog, send me your name and URL (to email@example.com), because I can’t tell if what you have in the comment is what you want me to use. And I’ve been terrible about responding to comments lately. I’m so sorry! It’s, you know, what I wrote above. Emergencies, and my own exhaustion.
So, those of you writing or revising YA novels, how are you doing? I’d love to hear from you! Here’s how I’m doing so far. I have the first five chapters:
1. The Great Detective
2. Seeking Hyde
3. The Mutilated Body
4. Rappaccini’s Letter
5. The Poisonous Girl
Those are tentative titles, of course. Some chapters are typed, some handwritten, one still just plotted. I’m going to get back to it soon. I just need to, somehow or other, catch up with everything else.
But working on the novel and on the writing emergency I described above has gotten me thinking about the importance of technique.
We are all readers. We are not all writers. Writing is, at least in part, a craft that is learned. And that craft consists of being able to lead a reader through a story in such a way that the reader participates in it, lives in the story. The story becomes real to the reader. That’s a particular skill, and there are techniques the writer uses. What the writer does is craft an experience for the reader.
I’ll give you two examples.
She entered the room and heard three knocks. She wondered if it could be his ghost.
She entered the room – knock, knock, knock. What had she heard? Could it be his ghost?
Do you see the difference? You read the first, you participate in the second. You hear the knocks along with the character.
That’s the writer’s craft. The tools of that craft are words, punctuation marks, even blank spaces. So, for example,
She had finally realized what she should have known all along, that she loved him.
She had finally realized what she should have known all along – that she loved him.
She had finally realized what she should have known all along: that she loved him.
Those sentences mean different things, even though the only actual difference is a punctuation mark. In the first one, “that she loved him” redescribes “what she should have known all along.” In the second one, the dash seems to hold those two parts of the sentence in tension. “That she loved him” starts to look more like a conclusion, what she finally realized. And in the third, “that she loved him” is a definite conclusion coming out of the rest of the sentence. It is her realization. All of the sentences say the same thing. But they emphasize different aspects of it. The third one is the most definite.
A good writer knows how to use all the available tools to create effects. A good reader is sensitive to those effects, having been trained by years of reading.
A good reader can feel when he or she is in the hands of a good writer. He or she relaxes, knows that everything will be all right. Characters may die, the world may be destroyed, but the one terrible thing, the one forbidden thing, will not happen – the reader will not be thrown out of the book. The reader will not be out in the cold, looking in, saying, “I don’t believe it. It’s just a bunch of words.”
There’s more to writing than technique, of course. There’s art, which raises writing above mere effect. Which gives it mind and soul. But I find that I return to technique often. I return to it whenever something isn’t working, when I think, how in the world am I going to make this chapter interesting to my reader? How am I going to make it vivid? And I find that the best writers have great technical skills: Kelly Link, for instance. Her story “Travels With the Snow Queen” begins,
“Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you. You enter the walls of the city early in the evening, when the cobblestones are a mottled pink with reflected light, and cold beneath the slap of your bare, bloody feet.”
You’re there, right? At least by the words “bare, bloody feet.”
I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to fix things. Which should be fixed soon, and then perhaps I’ll be able to catch up with everything else, and then perhaps I’ll be able to rest, and this horrible exhaustion will go away. I hope.
But I miss writing my novel. I’m just at the point where Mary and Diana have found out about Beatrice, and they’re about to go see the exhibition in which she kills various things merely by breathing on them. And they talk to her, and she tells them about the other girls. And that’s the real beginning, when all five girls, my lovely monsters, are together. That’s the beginning of what they call the Athena Club. (Oh, I’m not giving anything away. All this information will eventually be on the jacket, you know.) And there’s a murder to be solved.
I want to get back to late nineteenth-century London. Because when I write the novel, that’s the only time I get to do anything like what the reader will eventually do – live inside it. After it’s written, when I’m revising, I’ll be outside looking in – making sure that the novel works for the reader, which is a completely different experience. But I want to get back to London and see my poisonous girl in action.
Soon, soon, soon.