Oh, F*ck! It’s a Period Piece…

You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece. 

I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.

I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.

It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.

Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.

In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.

Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.

Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.

In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem. 

I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.

And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?

Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

What If It’s A Novel?

“What if it’s a novel?” someone–I can’t remember who–said. There it was: the dreaded comment I had been anticipating from the moment I handed my story in for workshop. In the four years I had been in college, I’d taken countless writing workshops, some for prose, some for scripts, and always with predictable results. By the end of my Advanced Fiction Workshop, I had come to understand that the go-to critique–that thing you say to take charge of the conversation, seem smart, and poise yourself on a pedestal all at once–was, “maybe it’s a novel.”

I had gotten this critique countless times, and admittedly had given it out once or twice myself, yet I couldn’t ignore the sting I felt at hearing them about this particular story. I sat there at the corner of the long table and bit my tongue to keep from audibly scoffing as the conversation focused on all the things about my piece that “would work better if it wasn’t a short story.” I was irked because, once the word ‘novel’ was uttered, the workshop had devolved into a free-for-all where people threw around ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the draft at hand: “what if your main character wasn’t the focus of the story?” “what if, instead of present-day Boston, it’s set in 1950s Venezuela?” I was angry that they were stripping my story down to nothing. I was angry that they couldn’t stick to critiquing the work in front of them and had instead resorted to hypotheticals. And, most of all, I was angry because they were right. It would be better as a novel. 

This story came to me with a title already attached: “Carrot Cake.” The first stroke of inspiration came in the shape of (you guessed it!) a carrot cake. I was internally creating a world and characters and conflicts from the first time I saw the cake and thought to myself maybe there’s a story there. By the time I had a seventeen-page draft ready for workshop, I had been thinking about or working on “Carrot Cake” for well over a year. So, yeah, it sucked to hear people fixating on what it could be instead of what it was. This annoyance was heightened by the fact that I was graduating in a few weeks and I had spent more time studying media theory and scriptwriting than studying creative writing. In other words, I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel.

I love rules. I absolutely adore them. It’s why I kick ass at Uno. It’s why my idea of a perfect night involves Settlers of Catan. It’s also why I am so terrified of tackling a novel project. WHAT ARE THE RULES???? Ask some “experts,” and they’ll tell you there are too many rules to count. Others will say there are none. Most will hit you something along the lines of “I don’t know the recipe for good writing; I just know it when I see it.” As a self-proclaimed lover of rules, that vague shit just wasn’t going to cut it for me.

I stayed back after class on the day of my workshop and confided in my professor that I had considered turning “Carrot Cake” into a novel but was unsure how to go about it. I told her the prospect of writing a novel scared me. “You’re right,” she said. “ I don’t think you’re ready to write a novel.” I nodded, thanked her, then made some polite conversation before skulking off to the bathroom to talk shit about her to my mom. I took it like a champ. But, the minute I left that classroom, I was determined to write the novel.

Notwithstanding, I still had no fucking clue how to do it.

A few months later, I stood in the teeny Writing section of my local Barnes and Noble. I grabbed a copy of everything that claimed to help write a novel and carried my pile to a worn armchair by the second-floor windows. I spent all afternoon skimming everything from Stephen King’s “On Writing” to “Writing a Novel And Getting Published For Dummies.” I wrote extensive notes on the perceived pros and cons of more than a dozen guidebooks (I. Love. Rules.). By the time I was finished, I had a tension headache and numb buttcheeks, but I had narrowed it down to two books: “The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel” by Hallie Ephron (follow her on Twitter!) and “Writing Your Novel From Start To Finish” by Joseph Bates (follow him on Twitter!).

After bringing both books home, I realized that “The Everything Guide” is much more technical, and it focuses on the logistics of how to break down your idea into a novel (which is great because, as I have said probably too many times by now, I have no clue how to go about doing that). Joseph Bates’s book is more about the intellectual process of novel writing, though it does include technical step-by-steps. Reading it emulates the feeling of being in the middle of a really great lecture. In the absence of hard and fast rules, I decided to let Ephron and Bates guide me through this journey of writing my first novel.

As I delve into the first few chapters of both guides, I am driven to think about beginnings. When I say beginnings I don’t mean the opening scene of my novel; I mean the start of this journey. In “The Everything Guide,” Ephron talks about the tools one needs to write a novel. She says the best first step you can take is to gift yourself time and space. I’ve set up my desk in a corner of my room, and I’ve filled the drawers with chocolate (and Lactaids) to reward myself after a couple of productive hours. I light a candle, put on a record, and hang a makeshift DO NOT DISTURB sign on my bedroom door, and boom–I’m ready to start writing.

The next step of this journey–Ephron and Bates seem to concur–is turning an idea into a premise. I won’t say much about this because I’m superstitious and don’t like giving details about a work-in-progress, but this was a fairly easy step for me to take because “Carrot Cake” already exists as a story. But, as I began to distill Ephron and Bates’s advice on beginnings, I started to notice similarities between what they were writing and what I had been taught in my screenwriting classes. I ran to my shelf and pulled out my favorite scriptwriting guide, Syd Field’sScreenplay.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that starting a screenplay is not at all different from starting a novel; it all starts with turning an idea into a premise. This realization came as a relief, because I may not know how to write a novel yet, but I sure as hell know how to write a script. 

As I get ready to take the first steps of this journey, I feel a little more confident than I did following that less-than-awesome workshop experience (I’d loathe to call it a ‘bad’ experience, because there were some nice takeaways and the professor was mostly kind and always supportive). I feel like I have Ephron, Bates, and Field in my corner, and now it’s time to let them take the wheel.

I can’t wait to see where they lead me!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Copyright Note: I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I always do my best to properly cite my sources. However, if you feel I have improperly credited someone’s work, please message me privately and I will make the necessary changes. If the work cited in this post is yours, please know that my intention is never to regurgitate your ideas but to discuss how they have impacted me. If you feel I have misused your work, please message me privately and I will edit the post or take it down altogether.