One of the things non-fiction is good for is cultivating voice. Because NF has no characters to hide behind, it forces us to write as ourselves in a way regular fiction (as opposed to fictive or inspired-by memoir) doesn’t.
The voice I’ve spent so long honing in my NF work has helped me a lot over recent months–it’s easier for me to get into a character’s head without mapping or noting or any of the other techniques I used to use. But the other NF stalwart I’ve come to depend on, the outline, doesn’t carry over to fiction.
Granted, I rarely outline my blog posts (though I do use a blog client rather than writing directly in WordPress. More on that in another post.). But other than these posts, I stick to my non-fiction outlines the way finger paint sticks to my jeans, shirts, walls, and kitchen cupboards. Writing an article without an outline is difficult for me–I end up scattered and utterly confused. When I write fiction, though, I find the very act of writing an outline leaves me scattered!
Here’s what my non-fiction outlines tend to look like:
Title: Blog Post on Outlines, Plot, Voice
- What am I writing about?
- Key point – using outlines, getting confused, thoughts
- Do outlines hinder voice or help it?
- Relevant links: x, y, z
Where Am I Going With This? 2 Paragraphs
- Point 1
- expand, include a relevant quote
- sum up
- What I’ve learned/am thinking about
Extra funny thing: I can write from someone else’s outline with no hassle. Hand me a writing exercise, or hash something out with me for a short story, and I’m fine. Ask me to write the outline myself, and I’m a mess.Remember when I said non-fiction helps with voice, because there are no characters to hide behind? I think that’s my problem. Outlines in fiction–for me, anyway–take the story in an NF direction, so that I end up thinking news-and-opinion rather than character-and-plot-development.
Overall, not writing outlines isn’t a killer for me, but it is sometimes annoying. My writing group has no problem working out plots and sequencing, while I struggle to get all my ducks in a row. Oftentimes, this means I have to write and rewrite large chunks of a manuscript until it’s all internally consistent–which is a pain and a half! Lately, I’m getting over the hassle of this by keeping a soap opera diary.
A soap opera diary (I have no idea what they’re actually called, but that’s what a guy I used to know, who worked on Passions, called them) is like an encyclopedia for any given show. Continuity people keep track of all the births, deaths, marriages, evil takeovers, one night stands, coffee hijinks and more so that the show doesn’t contradict itself. There are still gaffes every now and then, but for the most part, the writers and continuity folk manage to keep the show fairly consistent. So, for my latest manuscript, I’ve started doing post-outlines, summarizing chapters and highlighting anything that could be a Big Continuity Issue later.
Do you write outlines for fiction, non-fiction, or both? How do you keep track of continuity issues?Read More
Yesterday, I posted about the growth of e-books and the possible need for e-agents. Thinking about e-books set me a-wander, and here are the results. Not all of the stories presented here are novel length; some are short stories–there’s even a short graphic novel. All are worth a proper sit down read through, and, to me, YA appropriate (remembering that I’m very liberal). A note on Fairyland: it’s all there save for the final chapter. Although it can be frustrating to wait for an ending, I recommend you read it anyway, slowly, and over a cup of steaming hot tea.
*Titles link to online text or download pages.
1. FOR THE WIN, Cory Doctorow
Doctorow is indispensable. It’s hard to imagine any other author taking on youth and technology with such passion, intelligence, and understanding. Although perhaps less urgent than Little Brother (2008), this effort is superior in every other aspect: scope, plot, character, and style. Set in the near future and in locations across the globe (though primarily China and India), the story involves a sweeping cast of characters making a living—if you want to call brutal conditions and pitiful wages a “living”—in such virtual-game worlds as Svartalfheim Warriors and Zombie Mecha. Many of them, like 15-year-old Mala (known by her troops as “General Robotwalla”), endure physical threats from their bosses to farm virtual gold, which is then sold to rich First World gamers. Then these brilliant teens are brought together by the mysterious Big Sister Nor, who has a plan to unionize and bring these virtual worlds—and real-world sweatshops, too—to a screeching halt. Once again Doctorow has taken denigrated youth behavior (this time, gaming) and recast it into something heroic. He can’t resist the occasional lecture—sometimes breaking away from the plot to do so—but thankfully his lessons are riveting. With it’s eye-opening humanity and revolutionary zeal, this ambitious epic is well worth the considerable challenge.–Daniel Kraus for Booklist
2. TIME TRADERS, Andre Norton
Head over to the Baen Free Library, then follow the prompts to authors, then Andre Norton.
Intelligence agents have uncovered something which seems beyond belief, but the evidence is incontrovertible: the USAs greatest adversary on the world stage is sending its agents back through time! And someone or something unknown to our history is presenting them with technologies — and weapons — far beyond our most advanced science. We have only one option: create time-transfer technology ourselves, find the opposition’s ancient source…and take it dawn.
When small-time criminal Ross Murdock and Apache rancher Travis Fox stumble separately onto America’s secret time travel project, Operation Retrograde, they are faced with a challenge greater than either could have imagined possible. Their mere presence means that they know too much to go free. But Murdock and Fox have a thirst for adventure, and Operation Retrograde offers that in spades.
Both men will become time agents, finding reserves of inner heroism they had never expected. Their journeys will take the battle to the enemy, from ancient Britain to prehistoric America, and finally to the farthest reaches of interstellar space…
3. THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING, Catherynne M. Valente
A young adult novel, following September on her journey. From the first chapter:
Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her father’s house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her, and flew to her window one evening just after her eleventh birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds, in the shanty-towns where the Six Winds live.
“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes, and be delivered to the great sea which borders Fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you upon the Perverse and Perilous Sea.”
4. BETTER ZOMBIES THROUGH PHYSICS, Jim Ottaviani and Sean Bieri
A short, online only graphic novel. Join us for chills, thrills, and pulse-pounding scientific breakthroughs as we embark on a tour of the Quantum Zombie, Inc. facility, courtesy of a guy who bears a striking resemblance to famed scientist and cat-lover Erwin Schrödinger. Hijinks, hilarity, and an abundance of felines await you in “Better Zombies Through Physics.”
*Tor.com & the authors encourage fan fic based on this story.
5. TOAST, Charles Stross
The title of Stross’s provocative new SF collection—a revised, expanded version of a 2002 title of the same name—is a mordant reference to catastrophes at the climaxes of these 11 stories. In “A Colder War,” a stand-alone sequel to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” monsters from outside space and time are liberated as weapons of mass destruction by Russia and the Middle East. In “Antibodies,” a mathematical theorem undermines the foundations of all computer encryption systems, forcing fugitive behavior from the narrator who has depended on the anonymity they hitherto ensured. “Ship of Fools,” written in 1995, evokes the epic scale of Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction in its projection of dire technological fiascos that rock the world at the turn of Y2K. In Stross’s worlds, virtual reality is the new frontier, AI is a fact of life and everyone is fluent in the sometimes impenetrable technogeek-speak that goes with the territory. For all that, his characters are familiar and sympathetic hackers, slackers and opportunists, whose lives have not been improved by their technological expertise, and whose adventures he interweaves seamlessly with the circuitry.–PW
6. HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES, Neil Gaiman
A story about a couple of British 1970s teen-aged boys, Enn and Vic, who go to a party to meet girls, only to find that the girls are much different than they imagined.
The story follows Enn, a shy boy whom the more confident Vic encourages to just talk to girls. While at the party, Enn talks to three very nice but strange girls. As he focuses on “making a move” on the girls, it is revealed to the reader the exchange students there are more interplanetary than foreign.
7. TANGLEFOOT: (A Story of the Clockwork Century), Cherie Priest
A novelette, Tanglefoot is steampunk/alternate history fic. From the prologue:
Stonewall Jackson survived Chancellorsville. England broke the Union’s naval blockade, and formally recognized the Confederate States of America. Atlanta never burned.
It is 1880. The American Civil War has raged for nearly two decades, driving technology in strange and terrible directions. Combat dirigibles skulk across the sky and armored vehicles crawl along the land. Military scientists twist the laws of man and nature, and barter their souls for weapons powered by light, fire, and steam.
But life struggles forward for soldiers and ordinary citizens. The fractured nation is dotted with stricken towns and epic scenes of devastation–some manmade, and some more mysterious. In the western territories cities are swallowed by gas and walled away to rot while the frontiers are strip-mined for resources. On the borders between North and South, spies scour and scheme, and smugglers build economies more stable than their governments.
This is the Clockwork Century.
It is dark here, and different.
8. AGENT TO THE STARS, John Scalzi
The space-faring Yherajk have come to Earth to meet us and to begin humanity’s first interstellar friendship. There’s just one problem: They’re hideously ugly and they smell like rotting fish.
So getting humanity’s trust is a challenge. The Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal.
Enter Thomas Stein, who knows something about closing deals. He’s one of Hollywood’s hottest young agents. But although Stein may have just concluded the biggest deal of his career, it’s quite another thing to negotiate for an entire alien race. To earn his percentage this time, he’s going to need all the smarts, skills, and wits he can muster.–Publisher description
Today, genre is an ever-evolving thing. Years ago, libraries and bookstores shelved like with like alphabetically–mysteries went with mysteries, science fiction with science fiction, and romance with romance. But over the past century, newer, genres and sub-genres have trickled into the mainstream, making bookstores and libraries a little tricky to navigate. One particularly “new” *genre (or mode) is magic realism, a style that grew out of the 1920 visual arts movement. But what does magic realism mean? And why isn’t it just another kind of fantasy novel?
Magic Realism, or New Objectivity, started out as a post-expressionist kind of visual art. Despite the “magic” tag, though, this new style wasn’t about elves and goblins, but rather rediscovering the magic in the world as it is. As artist Grethe Jurgens writes,
“It is the discovery of a totally new world. One paints pots and rubbish piles, and then suddenly sees these things quite differently, as if one had never before seen a pot. One paints a landscape, trees, houses, vehicles, and one sees the world anew. One discovers like a child an adventure-filled land.”
Sometime in the 1930s, writers started to experiment with this new form, and scholarly pieces started to appear, particularly in the Americas, comparing Magic Realism to other genres, but also further defining and refining the idea. As a result, MR is very popular in South and Central America, and many of the genres leading authors are originally from there (Angel Flores, Alejo Carpentier).
Is Magic Realism the new fantasy?
When we think magic, we think fantasy, fairy tale, perhaps even Disney. According to Bruce Holland Rogers, even editors find the term Magic Realism confusing–
“If a magazine editor these days asks for contributions that are magical realism, what she’s really saying is that she wants contemporary fantasy written to a high literary standard—fantasy that readers who “don’t read escapist literature” will happily read. It’s a marketing label and an attempt to carve out a part of the prestige readership for speculative works.”
But if Magic Realism isn’t fantasy, what is it? It’s hard to say. As Rogers points out, some readers read and enjoy MR novels but dismiss them as fantasy. Others discuss them in great seriousness in book groups and workshops. But there are some common elements in many MR stories.
Magic Realism Checklist:
- Realistic setting
- Focus on new aspects of the mundane
- Focus on finding new experiences/relationships within old ones
- Protagonist seeks out mystery in the everyday
- Explores a new/unusual reality–subjective rather than objective
- Plot and structure are often secondary to character growth and development
Not every element will show up in every novel or short story. But character, reality, and worldview are key points in pretty much every Magic Realism novel written to date. In their book, Zamora and Faris, two of the earliest writers on Magic Realism, describe Magical Realism as…
…an attitude toward reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles in closed or open structures. In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.
Part of the MR/F (cue mystery music–Mr. F!) problem–aside from the “magic” in the term–is that while fantasy is speculative rather than realistic, it shares certain elements with Magic Realism. Good fantasy, like good science fiction, often explores different perspectives and ideas, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and Earthsea series. Similarly, speculative fiction, a literary subgenre which also explores new or unusual perspectives is often confused with Magic Realism, too. Both speculative fiction and fantasy, though, are by their nature speculative, about what ifs and maybes. MR is about the here, the whens and yesterdays of the real world in the past and present.
Why Magic Realism is Important in YA
It’s easy to dismiss Magic Realism–again, because of the name–as a YA and kid genre. But there’s actually not as much YA Magic Realism out there as you might think, because kids and teens are less genre obsessed than adult readers. Moreover, the majority of YA readers are still discovering the real world and their place in it–for teens, everyday life is Magic Realism.
In YA, too, the definition of Magic Realism is less stark than it is elsewhere in the literary world. Agent Jennifer Matson thinks of it…
…as a subset of fantasy, and a magical realistic novel as one in which magical elements intrude, almost matter-of-factly, into a basically realistic setup, informing the novel’s various elements in a natural way rather than totally redirecting them. I also think of the magic as being very gentle and often surreal – nothing “high fantasy” (wizardly bolts, vampires, et cetera) about it.
What sort of books are considered Magic Realism in the YA world? Neil Gaiman’s Coraline could be considered MR. Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief half fits the bill, as does Isabel Allende’s City of the Beasts and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie and Louis Sachar’s Holes also come to mind, as does pretty much anything by Francesca Lia Block (and maybe Tanith Lee). (Check back tomorrow for an MR booklist.)
Should there be more Magic Realism in YA?
Many people, including kids and teens, read for escapist reasons. YA readers also read to help find their niche, to learn how to parse an event (or the world at large), to make sense of themselves and their experiences. And good novels–great novels–allow, even encourage this sort of deep thinking. But Magic Realism takes deep thinking a step farther, stripping away the pretty, carefully boxed-up worlds we as readers so easily slip into, forcing us to confront the world as it is, rather than through a safe, fairy tale veil. To borrow from author Alberto Manquel **,
“Unlike the literature of fantasy, in which the world itself—Narnia or Middle Earth—is unreal, fantastic literature finds its bearings in our own landscapes, our cities, our living-rooms, our beds, where suddenly something happens which demands not so much our belief as our lack of disbelief…in the Anglo-Saxon world, ‘realistic’ is a term of praise and, in spite of centuries of ghost stories and tales of wonder, fantastic literature is regarded as a sort of poor relation. The answer lies perhaps in that, at its best, fantastic literature is never explicit, and readers are made uneasy by the misty mirror it holds up to them. Hundreds of scholarly articles discuss at length whether Banquo’s ghost did or did not exist; none questions the existence of Macbeth. The power of fantastic literature lies not in the answers it dutifully provides, but in the questions.”
Do you read Magic Realism? Write it? Who are your favorite authors?
*some consider Magic Realism a literary mode rather than a genre. I’ve stuck with genre since that how it’s usually discussed in terms of YA and kid lit.
** A Background Reading/Primer for Teachers of Fourth – Eighth Grade Students, available here (PDF download off site).
Young adult literature is popular for a reason. It’s full of tight storytelling, engaging characters, and authentic, relatable voices. Why? Because it has to be. Teen readers are discerning and intelligent, and will toss aside books with unrealistic/unrelatable characters or a condescending tone. And yet, teens read a lot of poorly written crap (read more about poor writing in my earlier post, here).
I read a lot of YA, partially because I like it, and partially because I think it’s important to stay on top of my field. And I’m passionate about what I read–I love some books to pieces, and hate others with the sort of vitriol I usually save for drivers who speed through crossings I am walking across with a stroller (this happens more often than you might think). Over the past year, though, almost every YA novel that’s been recommended to me has fallen into the latter category. Why? Poor writing.
Poor writing, for me, isn’t about grammar (though misusing apostrophes will instantly garnish your writerly stock). Poor writing is what happens when writers (myself included) forget about:
- Flow–transitioning from one idea to the next without jolting me out of the story
- Smoothness–text that’s easy to read aloud, lacking in jarring/clunky sentences
- Word choice–using words correctly, or using the correct form of a word in the right place (practice v. practise, they’re v. their)
- Imagery/Atmosphere–using strong words to draw the reader into the story, set up a certain idea, scene, or theme
These four things fall into what I call “craft stuff”. Craft stuff is like a bonus, an extra reason to read and enjoy book, something beyond the story/plot/characters that enhances the reading experience. Many authors (arguably to their detriment, but that’s a whole other post) ignore the craft stuff in favor of the bigger picture–a compelling story.
Reading Fast & Getting Old
I am old. At least, I feel like I am (having a baby will do that to you). Later this month, I turn 29, putting me ten years past what is, technically, the upper limit of YA. And while this isn’t particularly significant in terms of life in general, it’s very significant in terms of my reading life.
As children and teens, we devour books. Stories consume us, forcing us to read longer and faster. But as we grow older, things change. High school English classes teach us how to read, focusing on comprehension and discussion. College lit introduces us to research, derivation, and lines of influence, reshaping the way we read everything from the newspaper to the grocery list to our favorite author. The older we grow, the more unforgiving we become.
Not sure what I mean? Half a dozen people I respect have suggested I read Michael Scott’s Secret of the Immortals series, particularly since I have a strong interest in myth and fairy tale. Yet when I finally carved out time to read The Alchemyst I was disappointed. The writing was poor, the sentences were clunky and hard to read, the characters irritating in their naivete. The story, when I did finally grasp it, was interesting though very derivative. But when I actually spent some time outside my own head, I saw that these issues were my issues, my frustrations and baggage realized in print.
The Alchemyst isn’t a bad book–if you’re young. It’s meant to be absorbing and read fast, not picked apart for a book group or savored over hot chocolate and madeleines. It’s written for a young audience, an audience without a grounding in mythology and fairy tale, an audience still forming tastes and opinions. A lot of YA is written this way–Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series and early Tamora Pierce* (particularly the Song of the Lioness series) come to mind.
In some ways, blaming my age for my problems with certain books is wussing out. Taste in books is a very subjective thing, and not all stories will appeal to all people. Saying I’m too old (or too young) for a given novel is a neat way to skirt dangerous ground and avoid insulting authors and readers alike. Worse, playing the blame game makes me sound as if I don’t value craft stuff. The thing is, I do think of writing as a craft. And Michael Scott’s writing annoys me, greatly, because I think it lacks craft. Could The Alchemyst be better written? Yes. Would it attract the same readers? I don’t know.
Craft v. Story
Pride and Prejudice is a classic. The characters are instantly relatable, and Austen’s wit shines through. The story forms the basis of many modern love novels, and the original has spawned dozens of sequels. But for every reader who loves P&P, there’s a reader who doesn’t get it, a reader who gets lost in the language and slips out of the story. Many readers who love the movie adaptations find the original text inaccessible or, worse, intimidating, and never make it past that first, perfect line. (Austen is the soul of intimidation–her work (except maybe Northanger Abbey) has a certain “yes, I know, I’m very clever, and you simply cannot help laughing at my wit” feel that can be quite off-putting.) Yet retellings, like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, are often lumped in with chick lit, or dismissed as “pop trash”.
The Alchemyst, The Sisters Grimm, and the Song of the Lioness series have one glaring feature in common: they’re fantasy. And while fantasy is often well written, it’s also (for good or bad) the catch-all easy genre, the genre many serious YA readers (teens and adults) look down on. But fantasy is also one of the most popular YA genres–not just because of the vampires and werewolves (or their predecessors, elves and goblins) but because it’s accessible. Does this mean fantasy authors should skip craft stuff? No. But it may mean that plot is more important than a perfect sentence. Of course, we already knew that, didn’t we?
*I love Tamora Pierce, especially her later work. I think her early work is a little raw, and it took me a while to get into it, but her stories are captivating, and I think she deserves some slack because her books were so original for the time, and originality is its own kind of greatness.
Her more recent stuff is brilliant–marvelous storytelling/craft and great plot. Go read some. Now.
Do you care about craft in the books you read? Do you read fast? Slowly? What’s your definition of poor writing? Is it excusable?
Get the first part of this discussion, here.
Image credit: leocub
Writing is a numbers game–the more books you sell, the more money you make. If you write fast, it’s even better. Getting a book out every year for ten years (Jasper Fforde’s goal), if you sell enough, could be quite lucrative (and your hourly rate might actually approach positive numbers). Yet writing, good writing, takes time to craft. Story, characters, and prose itself do not happen overnight, particularly if you’re fond of tight dialogue and polished writing. But here’s the secret: not all readers are writers, and a lot of them don’t care about your perfectly polished prose.
Poor writing–a term I hear bandied about once or twice a year, whenever I’m in a group of writers–is not simply writing badly. It’s the perception of writing badly, of writing in a way that focuses less on literature and writing, and more on reading.
Don’t get me wrong–metaphor, allegory, and description are three of my closest friends. Whenever I read a passage I truly love, I add it to my Quotes & Adorations file, saving (and savoring) it for a time when I need a little literary love. But pop fiction, from chick lit to cozy mysteries, is popular for a reason: it’s easy to read, easy to digest, and easy to dispose of when you’re done.
It’s easy to dismiss pop fiction as trash for the masses. It’s also dangerous to dismiss pop fiction as trash for the masses. Why?
All books, even those which may be irritating/annoying/present a point we don’t agree with, have value.
The masses are aptly named–they’re the majority of readers, the folk who make bestsellers bestsellers.
Hello, my name is Peta, and I am a literary snob. I look my down my overly large Indian nose at many books, particularly when I’m in a funk over my own writing. I am irritated by clunky prose, drawn out of stories by dry dialogue, and find words like “ain’t” only a few ellipses short of repulsive. I pride myself on being able to craft a good sentence. I’ve also been known to spend hours crafting that one sentence.
Generally speaking, though, readers are not looking for a perfect sentence. They’re not looking to deconstruct a book, or get together and create a literary love file. Much as I–literary snob and book geek that I am–hate to admit it, the general reader is not looking for carefully polished prose. Most readers are looking for the Big Three:
Thought-provoking plot or characters
Familiar, straightforward writing
But straightforward writing, while not necessarily literary or writerly (writerly in a bad, overwrought sense) is a good thing, because it’s, well, straightforward, and easily understood by the lowest common denominator.
Finding the lowest common denominator is not just something you do in elementary math. (Though I do love fractions. Something about those little numbers and slashes makes me very happy. Recurring decimals? Blech.) But the lowest common denominator, in figurative terms, is similar to its mathematical counterpart: it’s a way of finding the broadest possible common ground, something that appeals to everyone, i.e. the masses. (I’m not using LCD in a derogatory sense–I’m a big fan of the masses, being one of them and all.)
Column writing provides a great example of appealing to the lowest common denominator. To write a successful column, it’s important to think about audience, and find the same wavelength as your audience. Craig Wilson, a columnist for USA Today, does this by using simple, clear language–most of his columns use common words with a maximum of two syllables. This isn’t because Wilson has a poor vocabulary, or because he thinks his readers have mashed prunes for brains. It’s because, for a popular columnist, getting the story across is more important than stringing together a few pretty words. (Fun fact: the word “prose” actually comes from a Latin word meaning “straightforward discourse”.)
In terms of fiction, writing for the lowest common denominator is not quite so simple, because there’s genre to consider. Hard science fiction readers have different interests, and a different threshold to historical romance readers. Each genre (even literary fiction) has its own language (I almost wrote “lexicon”, then remembered this is a post about straightforward writing). Historical romance readers may be familiar with terms like “farrier” and “roustabout” while science fiction readers are not. Shooting for just the historical romance reader may alienate potential readers skimming in a bookstore or taking a stroll through a friend’s shelves. Yet over-explaining, or using very simple language (“farrier” vs. “the man who makes horse shoes and takes care of hooves”), could frustrate experienced genre readers. So where is the line?
Putting Genre-Specific Language in Context
In a recent, very unscientific polling of my bookshelves, I discovered that my favorite authors are those who use context to explain or describe important details. Let’s say I’m writing a novel with a farrier named Percy. The first time I introduce Percy, I might write:
Farriers–horseshoe makers–were a welcome sort in every town, a fact Percy played to his advantage. Offering a three shoe for the price of two deal every Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday, he reminded his more intelligent customers that no, a better deal could not be got elsewhere, because there was, in fact, no other elsewhere, as Percy’s nearest competition was one hundred miles away, or eight hours by a regular horse, and twelve hours by a three-shod one, so they’d best take advantage of his deal and buy twelve shoes to save four hours.
Later, when I want to revisit Percy, but not go into such horse-shoeing detail, I could use sensory details to remind the reader of what a farrier is:
Athenia breathed deeply, savoring the farrier’s scent of sweat, fire, iron, and the forge mingled with the foppish apple tobacco he preferred.
The brief description of scents associated with Percy the farrier remind the reader that a farrier is, amongst other things, a type of metalworker. Added to other contextual clues, this is enough to ground the unfamiliar reader without irritating the seasoned one.
A Note on the Lowest Common Denominator in YA
Finding the lowest common denominator in a YA audience is a bit strange, because YA isn’t written along handy-dandy genre lines. And teens are less entrenched in a particular kind of reading, and are willing to jump around subject matter, so the general genre language rules don’t apply. Just be honest, write authentically, take a few deep breaths, and everything will be okay. Or at least as okay as it ever is. Of course, getting a handle on familiar style might also help…
On Thursday, I’ll have more about “writing poorly” and YA, in my very creatively titled post, Reading Fast, Writing Poorly, & Getting Old.
Do you write for everyone? Or do you stick to a specific audience? Why?