YA Challenge Update

Status report: I’m working on the introduction. Today was a long day, and I didn’t get much writing done. But tomorrow I’m going to spend all day working on it. The first section is done, and I want to write the second and third sections, if possible. And then, on Thursday, I’m taking the bus to New York. I’m going to take my computer with me, not to work on the dissertation, but to work on the YA novel and my Folkroots column. I need to have enough of the YA novel revised so I can get something to Alexa and Nathan by this Sunday, for the workshop next weekend. (This weekend in New York, next weekend in Asheville. I love traveling.)

Nathan is also working on his YA novel, and Alexa has recently posted about her research: “YA Novel Challenge Update 3 – Research in the Real World.” The post starts,

“I spent four hours today learning about guns. Not reading books about guns or gleaning information from episodes of Mythbusters, but buying ammo, having a crash course in gun safety, and then shooting a Glock 9mm and a .22 caliber revolver in the midst of the heat and smoke at the local firing range.

“What was my bleeding-heart liberal ass doing at a firing range? Research.”

That might actually be good research for me as well, at some point. It’s been years since I’ve shot a gun, although when I was in college, I went to a firing range and learned to shoot a .22 pistol and a 9mm Glock. And later, on random occasions down in Virginia, we would go into the pasture, set up soda cans, and shoot a .22 revolver, and sometimes a .45 caliber M1911A that belonged to a friend, and once a 7.65 Argentine mauser made in 1910. I preferred the .22s – when you’re 5’4″ and 120 pounds, kickback can be fierce. Like Alexa, I didn’t get any particular pleasure out of firing a gun. It was just something to experience. I would like to learn fencing, though. In my novel, Sherlock Holmes has fencing foils in his umbrella stand. Can I put the fending foils in the umbrella stand and not use them by the end of the novel?

I’ve been having a specific, crucial problem with my YA novel: voice. I wrote several chapters, and they just felt flat and stale. And I thought, whose voice am I writing in? Whose perspective am I writing from? While I revised my dissertation chapters, that question stayed with me, pestering me. And one night I thought, this novel isn’t really about the central mystery, is it? It’s really about monstrous girls. So I wrote a prologue about monsters. In that prologue, I found my voice. It was the voice of Catherine, who had also narrated “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter.” I know, it sounds obvious that I should write in the same voice for the novel version, but it wasn’t obvious to me. I was deliberately writing from a third person perspective, no particular person narrating, because I didn’t want it to be Catherine’s story. I wanted it to start much earlier than she comes into the narrative. But when I made Catherine the retrospective narrator, suddenly the story had attitude. It had a point of view it had been lacking. And I realized that I could go through the chapters, rewrite them from that point of view, and make them live. (“It’s alive!” I would have shouted in triumph, but it was about 2 a.m. at that point.)

I’m going to give you that prologue. I’m not going to post any other excerpts from the novel: this is all you get. And I don’t know if it will actually end up in the final draft. But it was, at least, a way for me to get into the heart of the novel, to find its voice.

Prologue: How to Be a Monster

I. Be Frightening

Justine is the most frightening of us, although Catherine is the most deadly.

When Justine walks down the street, people stare at her. Sometimes they stumble back before recovering themselves. Then, they try to ignore her, lowering their eyes or, if they are women, hiding behind parasols. And yet, other than her height, she looks perfectly ordinary: a girl with a long, pale face and brown hair in a braid around her head. We’ve tried persuading her to wear a more modern style, but she refuses.

She is the most gentle of us, the one most likely to carry a spider outside instead of crushing it under her boot heel. But she is seven feet tall, and that frightens people. So they stare, and stumble back. Boys have run after her, taunting her. They have even thrown rocks. It’s not a good idea to throw rocks at Justine. She’s gentle but strong. You don’t want to feel her grip on your shirt collar, hear her asking, as though genuinely curious, “Why would you do that?”

But Catherine is the one who can tear your throat out.

II. Be Beautiful

Mary says we are all beautiful, in our own way. Hers is a conventionally English way: blue eyes, and the pink and white complexion that the English are famous for, like old roses. If you see her walking in the park, you will immediately think: There goes a lady. Diana, as dark as a gypsy, with unruly ringlets of black hair tumbling down her back, could never be mistaken for a lady, no matter how demurely we dress her. But when she flashes her eyes and tosses her head, few men can resist. Which is useful, when we need her to pick pockets.

Even Catherine is attractive, when her scars are covered with paint.

But the most beautiful of us is undoubtedly Beatrice. Imagine an alabaster statue come to life, as though Galatea has stepped off her pedestal and put on modern clothes. With her black hair looped up, she looks like a Greek goddess. And when she speaks to you in her lilting Italian voice, you want to stand still and listen as long as she continues. Of course, if you listen too long, you will begin to feel faint. It’s the poison, entering your system. Eventually, paralysis will set in, and after that, death.

III. Be Clever

Mary is the cleverest of us. If we need to steal the Koh-i-Noor diamond or kidnap the Prime Minister, Mary is the one who can formulate a plan. Although she would never allow us to do such things, no matter how Diana pesters. She’s so moral.

Beatrice has contributed seven papers to the Journal of the Horticultural Society. She is always making some discovery or other about the plants she grows in the conservatory. She sells some of the potions she makes to the Medical College, which helps pay our expenses. Justine can quote philosophy and poetry until you fall asleep listening to her. Catherine has studied with T.H. Huxley himself.

And Diana knows the criminal underworld of London as well as Professor Moriarity.

IV. Be Distinctive

We are all different. Beatrice with her luminous beauty, as though she were lit from within, and her academic credentials (she has a degree from the University of Padua). Justine, like a tall, sad lily, reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” Diana, who swears like sailor and does a cancan in the drawing room. Mary, rational, orderly, saying to us, “Girls, we’ve been summoned to Buckingham Palace. Diana, do you think this time you can refrain from stealing anything?”

And I, Catherine, curling on the sofa like a cat, because I dislike this cold, wet England of yours! Writing this story for you, so you can understand how we came together and what we did – we monsters.

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5 Responses to YA Challenge Update

  1. Yum! What a truly tasty tidbit, and I so hope it appears in the final draft. Perhaps you will pardon my impudence in suggesting-

    “…although I am (Catherine is) the most deadly.”
    “But (Catherine is) I am the one who can tear your throat out.”
    “Even (Catherine is) I an attractive, when (her) my scars are covered with paint.”
    “(Catherine has) I have studied with T.H. Huxley himself”.

    Wouldn’t that parse well with-

    “And I, Catherine, curling on the sofa like a cat, because I dislike this cold, wet England of yours! Writing this story for you, so you can understand how we came together and what we did – we monsters.”


    Seriously, I love this (although this is no surprise to me). It’s a great introduction to each lady, and makes me REALLY interested to read the rest. Thanks for the teaser, Dora.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for the update! I’ve been struggling with voice on my latest WIP, too, but had an epiphany yesterday. I’ll let you know when I post an update, as well.

  4. Alexa Duncan says:

    What a wonderful beginning. I love the voice – refined and intelligent, but a little bit dangerous, too. I’m so excited to read this.

    And yes to fencing and hat stands full of foils!

  5. Good intro! But I do wish Mary came off as creepy here as she did in the short story. I found her deliciously creepy there, somehow so normal she was wrong. But then, this is just a prologue. (I wonder, btw, if she’s less creepy in this intro because you tried to write the novel from her perspective at one point? I believe you talked about having tried that direction at one point, yes?)

    If you’re going to learn fencing, I’d recommend taking classical fencing rather than Olympic fencing. Classical fencing uses similar rules to those used by Victorians. And I’d highly recommend that Holmes use an epee rather than a foil. Holmes is a practical man, who would want a weapon that could conceivably be used in street combat–as sharpened epees had been used. Foils are excessively poor substitutes in any sort of real combat; their design, construction and rules set were developed to discourage excess injuries during court duels.

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