I picked up the Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks from the library last night and have already worked through it and the select exercises provided within. I found it to be a great book because it’s practical, pragmatic, and from the viewpoint of an agent who knows what it takes to make a good story.
There were four exercises in particular that I found helpful: Historical, Emotional, Rebellion, and Wanted.
The Historical exercise was all about picking an era and writing a short blurb about someone during that time. Since I’m working on a Civil War book set in my hometown of Columbus, OH, this felt like it should have been a natural fit. I think because I assumed it should be easy, I think I made it difficult! Here is what I came up with, unedited:
It’s just after the Civil War and a teenage girl has been helping with the effort. A staunch Unionist surrounded by Copperheads at school, she despairs of ever fitting in. When she stumbles upon a wounded soldier, she helps him home to take care of him. His memories are gone, but little by little she realizes he might be a Confederate prisoner escaped from Camp Chase.
Something about this felt super flat. But it was more important to get the idea out there, so I went with it.
Then I tried the Emotions exercise, where you were tasked with taking some emotions you remember from your teenage years, and applying them to a character. This is the result of that exercise:
A Unionist teen is rejected by her Copperhead friends now that the war is won. She buries herself in preparations for Lincoln’s funeral procession [to avoid wallowing in sadness] when a wounded Confederate soldier falls into her lap, forcing her to confront ideas of what’s right and fair as she nurses him back to health.
This feels like it has a little more meat to it, if only because it feels more… human. There are emotions involved, people hurt and needing help, and you get a hint of the protagonist’s personality.
The Rebellion exercise was interesting because it is a lens where you think of a time when you tried/felt like rebelling against your parents…
Forced to stop associating with people she considered her friends, ______ resents her father for breaking her apart from them. She hates these people for following the new rules even while she makes excuses for them. She feels alone, betrayed, unheard, discarded, trapped, rejected, and yet somehow, aloof to it all if it will help her deal.
I didn’t really like that one. It felt kind of whiny.
Want Ad Exercise
The Wanted exercise was fun because it’s all about writing a want ad for your protagonist…
Average-looking, gangly 18-year-old female, unaware of her ability to make anyone feel at home. Questionable manners, average command of English, with a twang from childhood living in countryside. Staunch Unionist, but former friends with Copperheads. Logical-minded. Annoyed by inconveniences. Caring, but clumsy about showing it. Tendency to speak bluntly. Only daughter with younger brother, expected to be responsible and calm while mother fights illness and father returns from war.
I don’t know. Writing all of this out makes me realize how much work I have to do to really get back into writing. I’m fighting my looming frustration and sadness, trying to stay positive about this new book attempt and that I’m not a terrible writer. I have a lot of doubts right now, and as long as I don’t think about them, I can write. As soon as I think of my readers, however, I seem to freak out!
Anyway, feel free to send me your thoughts about these exercises! Email me, comment on Facebook, or here at the blog.
Last night I wrote for the first time since September 2012. That’s eight months of no writing. I was afraid I was going to hit a year. What writing I did back in September felt like pulling teeth, and I gave up until the feeling to write would come back.
I had no idea it would take eight months. Eight months of worrying why I wasn’t writing. Eight months of reading writer’s block buster articles. Eight months of reading research books about the location I thought I wanted to write about. Eight months of voicing frustrations to The Boy that I had lost my muse. Eight months of slight depression.
I tried to continue blogging, thinking writing non-fiction was better than not writing at all. But as you can tell by my pathetic archive, that only lasted a couple more months.
Last night I took the advice of a commenter and watched Shakespeare in Love for the first time. I was watching The Boy’s dogs while he met with his dance partner, having just gorged myself on homemade Chinese hot pot. The movie ended. I stared at my writing journal on my abandoned desk, which I had moved to my living room in the desperate attempt to remind myself to write.
That bright green cover with the bright blue ribbon filled with lined, unwritten pages no longer seemed so scary. I grabbed a pen and put it to paper. I wrote three pages, enough to be a decent first draft of a first chapter.
I don’t know if it’s still The Rebel’s Touch anymore. It’s not set in southern Ohio on the banks of the Ohio River. It’s in Columbus, my home city, on the banks of the Scioto. The main character has just discovered a dirty, emaciated man who just told her something that makes her think he escaped from Camp Chase, the Ohio prison for Confederates. Other than that, Abraham Lincoln has just died.
That’s really all I know. But it’s enough.
I love libraries with a passion that some say borders on the abnormal. When I visit a new city, there are two things I must do:
- Visit whatever water exhibit available (fountains, lakes, etc).
- Visit the local library.
The first is something my father instilled in me. He grew up in a water area and feels at home where water is prominent. The second again is something my father began, back when wifi wasn’t prevalent and he needed email access.
Enter the local library. The amazing thing about local libraries is that they say more about a town than you would imagine. Is the library in an historic house? Then books are seen as something to be treasured, but perhaps only to be seen, not used. Is the library in a modern building, with a lot of light and computers? The city perhaps feels that knowledge is power.
These are, of course, my biased opinions based on what little I know about budgets, architecture, and book culture. But the fact remains that you can learn a lot about a city by going to the local library. Better yet, chat with the librarian and get some interesting facts about the town.
Columbus, Ohio, where I am located, has over 30 libraries. Many belong to the Columbus Metropolitan system, and others are specific to the suburbs in the area. When preparing for my book launch party back in 2010, I hit six of the libraries and was stunned by how different they were. It was fascinating to see how the interior layout of the building changed the mood; how the configuration of the books brought certain people together and kept others apart.
Take a library tour of your city, if you’re blessed to be in a city that has more than one library. It was a blast for me to spend a day driving around town, popping into a library to leave some fliers and wander around the building. It lifted my spirits and made me feel good about where I’m living, as a reader and an author.
Try it sometime. You just might like it. But you don’t have to take my word for it.