I don’t usually read a lot of nonfiction, but a few friends have recently published books that I’ve loved and highly recommend!
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens is a must read for anyone who has anything to do with teenagers: parents, teachers, YA writers. One of danah’s gifts is her ability to take complex ideas and interactions and communicate them simply. Another is her empathy. She’s a researcher, and she’s an excellent listener, so teens talk to her and she translates their practices and habits for adults, using her expertise in social software to analyze and contextualize what they do. In this book, danah discusses how technology fits into the lives of teens and unpacks common misconceptions by adults (and especially by the media). She covers everything from bullying to internet predators to basic social networking habits.
Olivia writes a blend of biography, autobiography, criticism, and travelogue. In her latest book, The Trip to Echo Spring (which was short listed for the Costa), she writes about alcoholism and writing by looking at the lives of six alcoholic writers and her own family’s history of alcoholism. The bigger theme across her work is on loneliness, creativity, and transgression. She’s such a good writer because of her empathy — she gives full pictures of the people she’s portraying without pathologizing or deifying them.
The content is compelling, but the prose — Olivia’s sentences are simply spectacular.
Jordan is the math teacher we all wish we had. In part, I think this is because he’s also a writer. In How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, he presents several powerful ideas from math. He doesn’t work out many equations, but he doesn’t shy away from complex ideas, so this isn’t “math for dummies.” Instead, he presents his ideas alongside applications (like how to win the lottery or how to better shield airplanes for combat situations) and history. He’s also hilarious. My husband, who’s very smart but doesn’t have a strong math background, enjoyed this as much as I did. Jordan respects his readers’ intelligence and gives them both the gifts of math and of great stories.
Finally, H is for Hawk isn’t out yet — the UK release date is July 31st, and it comes out in the US on March 3rd — but it’s the book I most want to read. Helen is a falconer, wonderful human, and brilliant writer. Here’s the official blurb:
When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral anger mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Sword and the Stone author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her journey into Mabel’s world. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity.
By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement; a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast; and the story of an eccentric falconer and legendary writer. Weaving together obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history, H is for Hawk is a distinctive, surprising blend of nature writing and memoir from a very gifted writer.
Reviews are coming out now, and the Financial Times ends its review with:
You can write from the head or from the heart, from the intellect or the emotions. The best kind of writing – and it is rare – does both those things at once. It’s rare because it can be so very painful to produce, the discipline required to sit with raw feelings and turn them into ordered words not unlike the courage it would take to hold your hand on a hot radiator until it burns, and then force it back there, again and again.
Macdonald has done just that, and the result is a deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold, with intelligence and compassion – an exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year.
Needless to say, I’ve preordered from the UK!
My VCFA classmate, Sarah Tomp, tagged me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. I’ve been reading my way back through the chain of posts and have loved finding out about what people are working on and how they approach their writing, and I’m excited to reflect on my process and work, as well. Thanks for thinking of me, Sarah!
You can read Sarah’s post here. Her YA novel My Best Everything comes out next year and is about love and moonshine (yes, making and selling it)!. Unexpected combination, right? Her new project, which she describes in her process post, sounds similarly compelling. Sarah’s bright with a big heart, and that permeates all of her writing. I’m looking forward to her novel’s release.
This blog tour is a little unusual in that instead of writers visiting each other’s blogs, the questions move from one person to the next. Sarah tagged two people, and I’ll continue the tour by tagging two more at the end of my post.
Now for the questions…
1. What am I working on?
I have two complete YA novels, one that I’m actively revising while the other simmers. The active project is a contemporary, realistic novel called Lifeline. The background novel is a genre piece set in an alternate version of our world. It’s called Darkness and was my MFA thesis novel, although I’ve rewritten it since graduation.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Lifeline is about a second generation Bengali girl, but it isn’t about being Bengali. The main character also has two parents who are alive and not evil — rare in children’s literature! Mostly it’s about two girls who are best friends, and they love each other as best friends do. The problems in their relationship don’t come from a fight or falling out but mental illness and a desire to protect each other from what’s going wrong in their respective worlds.
I mentioned above that Darkness is set in an alternate version of our world. Steampunk is based on the idea that at one point in history, technology development took a different direction than what actually happened. Instead of electricity, the world is powered by steam. The entire genre is based on that “What if?” The world in Darkness takes another moment in history and applies the same, “What if __ had happened instead?” and is developed from there. As far as I know, no one has picked this moment and built a world around it…
3. Why do I write what I do?
It took me a while to find the right form for my writing. When I was in school, I loved fantasy and mostly wrote stories with fantastic elements. I got into poetry as a high school sophomore and concentrated on that through college and into grad school. I was doing research in education when a colleague (well, more of a colleague of my adviser) asked me about my writing and interests and suggested I try YA. He worked with kids in prison and had been reading the books that resonated with them and had been impressed by the YA novels he’d read. I was skeptical — I wanted to be a “serious” writer — so he told me to keep an open mind and sent me a couple of books. I tore through them, remembered the YA novels that had meant so much to me when I was in school, and started to read everything I could to learn about what was possible and what had been done.
YA novels provide the right space for the questions I want to explore. Teens ask big questions and have big problems without necessarily having the support or resources to work through them, and adolescence is when people really start to figure out who they are and who they want to be — a perfect age for every kind of fiction.
Although Lifeline and Darkness are completely different novels, the questions driving them are related:
— How do I survive when the people I care about most are falling apart?
— How do I survive when the world is dangerous and I’m afraid of myself?
4. How does your writing process work?
When I first started to work on novels, I was a plunger, not a plotter. I thought creativity meant diving into things and figuring them out along the way. This worked for poetry, but after throwing out 200 pages of a novel that I’d already started over three times, I decided to give outlining a chance and was amazed to discover how much work I could save myself simply by thinking through the story before writing it. (I know, right?)
Now I have long planning stages before I write. I “doodle” characters and scenes in my journal. Usually I have one big idea or scene — the climax or some pivotal moment — and then I try to figure out how the characters reach that point. I also tend to have a character or a relationship in mind as I start doodling. Once I have a strong sense of the characters and a general idea of their trajectories, I open up Scrivener and start to outline on notecards.
Depending on the novel, this part can vary. Darkness has three distinct parts, and the outline reflects that. Lifeline has several threads that I wove together and track through color coding Once I have an outline, I print it out and try to find holes, essentially critiquing the outline the way I would a novel. I also map the scenes to a calendar to make sure the timeline works and to see if anything interesting pops up from the dates, from weather variation to holidays, that can serve the plot.
Once I’ve revised the outline as thoroughly as I can, I write. This goes quickly. I wrote the first draft of Lifeline in nine days. I knew where I was going and pushed through a full draft while my husband was on a trip. I led a feral existence for as long as it took to write, grazing and scavenging for food instead of eating proper meals, and sleeping as needed, mostly through naps, so that I could immerse myself in this world.
I let completed drafts sit for a few days (a week if I’m disciplined) before printing out a hardcopy for a read through and initial critique. I repeat the process of questioning the manuscript and characters, switch to the outline, revise the outline based on my notes, and then revise the manuscript.
At this point, my process becomes less extreme. I take several weeks to plan a revision and will take a month or two to write, usually working through a scene per day. I don’t write every day — I need both thinking days and inspiration days to recharge. When I’ve done as much work on a draft as I can on my own, I send it to beta readers for feedback, and this usually sparks another round of questions, outlining, and revision.
Now that I have an almost 3-month old, I won’t be able to draft an entire novel in a week and a half — I have to take care of him even if not myself! — but I expect to continue to alternate quick drafting with slow thinking and planning. One thing that has already changed — I’ve been switching between devices more often and wrote this blog post on my husband’s old iPad in Evernote I expect I’ll be writing more on the go and whenever I can, so I’ll probably take notes digitally instead of on paper so that I can find them more easily.
Outlining turned out to be one of the most creative parts of the process for me, which initially took me by surprise. I daydream scenes and possibilities, jot notes, and then imagine other paths for my characters. I don’t always stick to my outlines —sometimes as I’m writing, the scene comes out differently from what I’d planned —but I always take a step back and think the story through to the end before I begin writing again. I’ve learned that I’d rather toss out a 5-page outline than a 200-page draft!
Gwenda and I overlapped as students at VCFA. We shared an adviser her first and my final semester. She’s a fabulous writer with impeccable taste in books. Her third book, Girl on a Wire, is coming out this fall. I tagged Gwenda because she loves to talk shop. In addition to her work as a journalist, Gwenda has written three incredibly different books and collaborated with her husband on a fourth. I’d love to know more about how she tackles such diverse projects.
I’ve gotten to know Steph through blogs and social media, and she’s a wonderfully warm person and excellent writer. I love her middle grade magical Regency books and can’t wait for her novella about grown up Kat. I also tagged Steph for selfish reasons. She’s the mother of two young children — a toddler and a baby — and yet she’s one of the most consistently productive writers I know. I have no idea how she juggles everything, but she’s great at all of it, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about how she does it.
Over the past several weeks, there’s been an ongoing conversation about diversity in children’s literature, thanks in part to a BookCon panel of literary luminaries comprising all white men, which is particularly egregious in a female dominated field. At the beginning of this month, that discussion moved to Twitter under the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks:
Reminded of a workshop where a faculty member told me that maybe my novel “was really about race.” I had a POC MC. It wasn’t about race. — Anindita B Sempere (@anindita) May 1, 2014
As a writer of South Asian descent, I’ve thought a lot about diversity in literature. Growing up, I read almost no books in which characters looked like me, and when they did, they were usually trying to reconcile their Indian and American heritages. I didn’t like these books. Sure, they were a necessary step in multicultural literature, but to me, they were irrelevant. The presented a false dichotomy; my identity was much more complicated than two traits. Even worse: these books bored me. I liked adventures and mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. I had more in common with Meg Murry, who tessered to other planets, than with these characters who were supposed to represent me.
Later, when I began to write, I felt like I HAD to write about “multicultural” characters. (I’m struggling with vocabulary here — I don’t like the phrase “person of color” — UGH — and multicultural is similarly problematic — might as well say “other,” which assumes that there’s a default.) Because of my family background, it was my duty to try to fill in some underrepresented voices. But there’s nothing worse than writing out of a sense of obligation for the writer, the reader, and the story itself.
I believe that all writers should be able to write about any character or setting. That’s the work of writing: to have the empathy to create life and meaning from words. Women and men should be able to write point of view characters that don’t match their gender. A second generation South Asian American woman should be able to write a white male character, and the reverse should also be possible.
But there is a caveat.
Dominant voices, such as those of white men in the West, have historically silenced other perspectives and had their own privileged. Because of this, it’s especially important for those with dominant voices to be careful and respectful when portraying underrepresented ones. This goes for men writing women, whites writing non-whites, straight people writing gay characters, the wealthy writing about the poor – and so on. There simply aren’t enough visible examples of underrepresented voices to balance mistakes and misrepresentations, especially when made by those with authority.
The following are a few tips for writing underrepresented voices, although they could apply to writing any character:
1. Do your research. Google is your friend. The library is your friend. Wikipedia is often a false friend, but the references are usually a decent starting point. Learn about the people you’re writing about. What would your character eat for dinner? Which holidays does she celebrate? What does he wear around the house? This kind of research is basic and the bare minimum for creating a character whose background differs from yours.
2. Talk to the people you’re writing about. Oftentimes when researching, you won’t know which questions to ask, and conversations can reveal unexpected details that make characters feel authentic. People inside a community can explain stereotypes, common beliefs, and misconceptions. This is an important step in understanding both boundaries and worldview.
3. Read books by the people you’re writing about. First, you’ll get a sense of voice. Second, you’ll start to understand range and see where there’s commonality across background and sensibility and where artistic choice and individual experience come into play. See what has already been written and think about how your work fits into this larger body of work. Are you adding to it? Casting it in a new light? Are you repeating something that has already been done, and if so, why?
4. Have multiple readers vet your text. This is the best way to prevent inauthentic writing. Readers from within a group can flag anything that doesn’t ring true. It’s important to have multiple readers, however, to account for individual experience. If multiple people say something sounds wrong, you know you need to edit. Your readers don’t have to be writers, of course, but as with good critique partners, you want people who will read critically and give constructive feedback.
I no longer worry about my obligations as a writer from an underrepresented group because I realized that whatever I write, whether contemporary, realistic fiction or genre fiction, I populate it with diverse characters. They don’t have to share my background in order to be shaped by my worldview: that diversity makes the world rich and creates opportunities for misunderstanding, conflict, learning, and growth — essentials for any compelling story.
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Anindita is a writer, educator, book addict, geek, and occasional dog rescuer.