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Writing Description In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing description is like writing a dream. As you search for words to capture the sense of where you were, what you felt and what you saw, you try to visualize the way it was. When I describe my characters, the space around them, the way they move, their gestures and their tone of voice, I imagine myself present in the story.

The more information you have about your characters and their lives, the easier it is. When you’re writing for teens, you must imagine the location in great detail: the schoolroom, the playing field, the horse-drawn carriage or the car. You won’t use all the details, of course. It’s like exploring the prop room backstage at the theatre: you go in, take what you need and leave the rest.

I found the dream world of Victoria Rebels easy to access. Queen Victoria kept a diary and drew pictures of herself and people around her. Artists painted her portrait against vivid backgrounds. Far more challenging was Beauty’s Daughter, a novel about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy. Hundreds of years passed before the Greek poet Homer dreamed his two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, describing the Trojan War and its aftermath, on which my novel is based. Descriptions of bloody battle scenes offered no help in telling the story to teen readers. Shards of ancient pottery present stylized pictures of ladies in long gowns playing lyres, weaving on looms and drinking from goblets, but those are meagre sources on which to build the dream world.

Occasionally I’ve had the rare chance to see for myself the details that bring the dream to life. When I visited Shrewsbury, England, where Charles Darwin grew up, I made a cold-call from a payphone to the owner of the house where teen-aged Charley courted his sweetheart, Fanny Owen. The owner graciously met me at the bus stop in a nearby village and drove me through his “patch” of perhaps two thousand acres to Woodhouse, a splendid white mansion on the brow of a low rise, overlooking thickly wooded grounds. Four massive Greek columns supported the grand portico. It wasn’t hard to imagine Charley arriving on horseback, entering the great hall with tapestries and paintings covering the walls and a broad staircase leading up to a gallery.

But it was the library that most interested me. This was where Charley intended to propose to Fanny before he left on his journey on the Beagle, asking her to wait for him but having no idea when he’d return.

Painted the soothing green of moss, the room smelt pleasantly of leather and tobacco. Books bound in leather and stamped in gilt lined shelves reaching to the high ceiling. Fanny sat down on a bench covered in yellow silk and patted the place beside her, smiling up at me. I was too nervous to sit.

“Will you wait for me, dearest Fanny?”

“Your future is so unclear! How can I promise to wait when I’m not sure what I’m to wait for?”

I had everything I needed. I was in the dream.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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The True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryVictoria RebelsWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker     The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGlowHappyface

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Writing Dialogue In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Your characters are center stage, and they’re talking.

Dialogue, and lots of it, is one of the key components of teen fiction, whether the novel is historical or contemporary. It’s a critical part of a scene and reinforces voice. You probably know browsers who open a book, perhaps attracted by the clever cover or the author’s name, and flip through the pages to check on the amount of dialogue: too little talk and the text appears dense, and the book goes back on the shelf.

Dialogue on the page is more concise than actual conversation. It doesn’t ramble, it reveals character and it moves the story forward. Usually you need do little more than to identify the speakers at the beginning: “he said” or “she said” will do it. You can vary that with words like barked, screamed, whispered, exclaimed or shouted. Modifiers, like loudly or excitedly, are usually unnecessary.

A variation on dialogue is interior monologue, in which the main character thinks to herself or imagines a conversation with another character in which the main character takes both sides. Here’s an example from a novel in my contemporary Hotline series, with the interior monologue set in italics:

Lissa is dead, Jenny thought, letting the water stream down over her face. She’s dead and I’ll never see her again. Jenny worked shampoo into her hair. But she can’t be dead. I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it.

Dialogue can also play a major part in flashbacks, animating material that falls outside the time frame of the narrative, as when Jenny, out of the shower, remembers a conversation she had with Lissa the previous day, before the novel begins.

By all means avoid the “info dump”, using dialogue as a means to convey information. This is a common trap, which I fell into in Cleopatra Confesses. Cleopatra confides to a friend that she dreams of becoming Caesar’s wife, but she is already married to her younger brother (common among the pharaohs).

Her friend reminds her of Caesar’s complicated marital life, and Cleopatra replies, “You are right – he has a wife in Rome. Her name is Calpurnia. His first wife, Cornelia, bore him his only child, Julia, and both are dead. He divorced his second wife, Pompeia, when he suspected her of adultery.” Cleopatra goes on to talk about the need for Caesar’s wife to be above reproach, and Caesar’s disappointment that Calpurnia is barren and has given him no children. This is all necessary information, but it should have been conveyed in some other way, perhaps an interior monologue in which Cleopatra considers the situation. It’s also a clunky paragraph. (A critical reviewer pounced on my lapse.)

Here’s an exercise that develops dialogue skills and produces interesting and sometimes hilarious results in a writing group or a class. Provide one provocative line of dialogue (Example: “I told you not to open that!”) and write nothing but dialogue for twenty minutes – no description, no set-up and only an occasional “he said/she said” is allowed.

Dialogue is an indispensable skill when you’re writing for teens. If your characters are on stage, get them talking and make the most of it.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

     

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Cleopatra ConfessesMary, Bloody MaryThe Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteVictoria Rebels     SparkGenesisBoys without Names

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

My Novel Writing Process, by Carolyn Meyer

When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.

At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.

Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.

I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:

Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.

Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.

Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.

Scene 3:  Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.

Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.

Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.

Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.

Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.

Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”

The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.

***

Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Cleopatra ConfessesMary, Bloody MaryThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's ShadowWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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