Creating Compelling Characters and Writing Dual Narratives

I read an amazing book recently. It’s called Sick Bay and it’s a middle grade contemporary novel by Australian author, Nova Weetman. Sick Bay was published by UQP in June this year.  When  you  read  this  book  you  feel  like  the  characters  are  real  people  telling  you  their  story.

Meg uses Sick Bay to hide from other kids. She’s struggling with changes at home, wears slippers to school and buries her head in books.

New girl Riley is a type 1 diabetic with an over-protective mother. She’d rather chat with her friends than go to Sick Bay, but sometimes she has no choice.

They think they’ve worked each other out, but what if they’ve got it all wrong?

On the brink of high school, Meg and Riley need a place where they can find the courage to be themselves.

ABOUT NOVA

From Nova’s website: – I write books, as well as articles, tv shows and the odd shopping list. I eat a lot of chocolate when I’m writing. And spend way too much time hanging out in op shops trying to find a bargain, or looking through old recipes for something yummy to cook. I think they call it procrastination.

Apart from Sick Bay, Nova’s books include Every Thing is Changed, The Secrets We Keep, The Secrets We Share, Frankie and Joely, The Haunting of Lily Frost, and the Choose Ever After series.

DUAL NARRATIVE AND CHARACTERS THAT HOOK YOU IN

One of the most remarkable things about Sick Bay is that it’s written from two points of view and the characters are so well crafted that there is never any confusion about who’s ‘talking’ or whose part of the story we’re reading. We care deeply about both Meg and Riley right from the start.

Voice is such a difficult thing to master and Nova does it with two characters in the same book. Sick Bay reads as if Nova knows Meg and Riley as well as she knows her own children.

To me, knowing your characters is the secret to making them engaging and to ensure that they stand out from each other. Right from the start, the reader needs to feel as if they know these people. They need to see the character’s vulnerabilities and find them interesting. The reader needs to care about what happens to the character/s, to be so invested in their journey that they will follow it right to the end of the book.

Without telling or using info dumps, Nova hooks us into her characters and their lives straight away. It’s in the small detail, the things that make Meg and Riley unique. Here’s what I mean. In the first two chapters of Sick Bay, this is what we find out about each of the characters … and all this through their actions, thoughts and interactions:

MEG

  1. Doesn’t have many friends – best friend is a paper bag – sets her apart from other girl’s her age … establishes straight away that she’s dealing with something difficult.
  2. This is not the first paper bag she has used so we know this is an ongoing situation
  3. Attachment to bags and unwillingness to throw them out … she is looking for someone or something to love.
  4. Used to have a best friend who ditched her for ‘normal’ friends … makes us wonder what’s wrong with Meg. What happened to the friendship? Why did it break down?
  5. We are already feeling sympathy for Meg because she has a problem and has been abandoned by her best friend – but she is funny and eloquent  and lacking self-pity
  6. Spends a lot of time in sick bay and teachers let her so they must know something about her that makes them feel empathy for her.
  7. Office lady Sarah feeds her … so either she is poor or she has an eating disorder.
  8. No mention of parents but the teachers seem to have a protective attitude towards her so the reader wonders what the story of her family life is.
  9. Sick Bay is far from a hotel room so there must be some reason Meg she likes to hang out there instead of the classroom or the schoolyard.
  10. Meg spends a lot of time there but doesn’t appear to actually be sick.
  11. She is wearing her slippers to school, but we know that it’s not by choice.
  12. Usually brings her book to sick bay so we know she reads a lot.
  13. Meets Riley who actually appears to be sick.
  14. When Riley asks what she’s doing here, Meg jokes to cover up … defence mechanism.
  15. Meg is clearly very hungry.
  16. Meg wonders what is wrong with Riley.
  17. Meg Quotes things from books.
  18. She is the best writer in grade 6

Already Meg has many unique characteristics and habits that make her stand out.

RILEY

  1. Has some illness requiring regular testing, but we don’t yet know what it is.
  2. A boy has a crush on her but she doesn’t reciprocate so she has enough self-awareness and confidence not to be influenced in by it. In fact she hates the assumption that she should be flattered by the unwanted attention.
  3. Riley carries an insulin pump around her waist and is self-conscious about. So we realise she’s diabetic, but there are clues planted before this is stated.
  4. Trying to concentrate on teacher but her friend Lina wants to talk about boys. So Riley appears to be more interested in school than her friends.
  5. Her friends are made about boys but she’s not interested in them.
  6. She is not conventional either … that’s something she has in common with Meg.
  7. Likes the year coordinator so doesn’t see teachers as the enemy … another thing in common with Meg.
  8. She is asked to make a speech at graduation and wonders why she was chosen … very aware of people picking her for things because she’s diabetic.
  9. Has only been at the school for a year.
  10. Doesn’t understand why such a big deal is being made of grade 6 graduation.
  11. Tells teacher she is fine about moving on to high school but really she’s petrified. So she isn’t always honest about what she’s feeling.
  12. She is going to public high school but friends are going to private one. She doesn’t seem upset about this. Hint that friendships aren’t perfect.
  13. Parents are big part of Riley’s life – strict/protective – focus on bedtime and carb count. Contrast to Meg’s who aren’t mentioned
  14. Has diabetes and hates having to explain about it all the time.
  15. Meg has been asked to make graduation speech too. Riley sees that Meg is even more suspicious about why she has been asked to make a speech.
  16. Riley wonders what’s in Meg’s brown bag.
  17. Riley likes Meg’s honesty about not wanting to make the speech.
  18. Riley is in a friendship group of four. She lies to her friends about her diabetes so perhaps they’re not true friends.
  19. She is supposed to check her blood glucose levels before she eats but doesn’t always do it.
  20. Doesn’t like being in the sick bay.
  21. Doesn’t like doing tests in front of her friends.
  22. Self-conscious about diabetes and people judging her for it.
  23. Hates friends treating her as if she is one of their patients.
  24. Riley’s diabetes is life threatening.
  25. Mum is a psychologist
  26. Riley thinks of her body in two halves – body bits that are tested, bits that aren’t – bits that are normal. Indicates that what she wants most is to be normal.

Riley is part of the ‘cool crowd’ but has her own issues too.

TIPS FOR CREATING CHARACTERS THAT STAND OUT

  1. To create an engaging character you need to know them as well as if they were a real person.
  2. To connect with readers straight away, your character needs to be  vulnerable and yet speak with some authority – they must have credibility for the reader.
  3. It’s the small detail that makes a character unique and tells us about their internal and external conflicts. For example, Meg wearing slippers to school. This is something physically memorable about her but it also hints at internal and external conflicts. Something is not quite right in her life. Twelve year-old kids don’t normally wear slippers to school.
  4. Look for differences and similarities with your characters. Common ground is what forms friendships and relationships. Differences cause conflict.
  5. What does your character need and want … think of needs that might be unique to them? Specifics will make your character stand out.
  6. To create a dual narrative that works, your characters have to stand out. With Meg and Riley, they stand apart from each other because of their needs, their characteristics, their life circumstances, their family backgrounds, their view of the world.

If you’re thinking of writing a dual narrative contemporary MG fiction, I highly recommend you read Sick Bay.

Feel free to share other books you’ve read that have helped you hone your writing craft.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

 

 

 

Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone – And ‘On Track’ With Kathryn Apel

Kathryn ApelMy dear writing friend, Kathryn Apel’s second verse novel for children, On Track has just been released by UQP.

On Track is the story of two brothers trying to find their place in the world and within their own family.

Toby struggles at school, has a stumbly, fumbly, bumbly body and thinks that Sports Day is the worst day of the year. No matter how hard he tries, he’s not good at anything … except running away from his ‘big, better brother’.

Shaun is top of his class in every subject and he can’t wait for Sports Day so he can beat the record in discus. But when his ‘joke of a brother’ is around, nobody notices the things Shaun can do.

Kathryn says it was important for her to write this book because kids are all different. She has found from her experiences in the classroom, as a mum, and in her own life, that kids are often misunderstood, that people don’t always ‘get’ that every kid has a backstory, they are the way they are for reasons that are often beyond their control.

Why a verse novel?

Although she says that writing verse novels makes her feel vulnerable, Kathryn says that they allow her to really step into characters, step into their shoes and be them.

The journey to publication

bullycoverI started my ‘verse novel about training’ (as it was called for many years!) 6yrs ago, but it was only 140 words when I put it aside the first time… and then had my epiphany with Bully on the Bus…

In April 2010 On Track grew to 650words… so of course I got a bit intimidated and had to walk away again. By September 2011 it was 5639words. And so you get the picture. (I write slowly…)

The way I write is to mull things over and polish, polish, polish as I go.

The shape of a story in verse lends itself to this, although I know many would say that you should write… and then edit… separately. (I’m curious to try this one day – if I can put my perfectionism aside.)

The finished book is more than 17,000words – with about 5000 of those words written in three months during the editorial process, as a result of restructure, and subsequent character development.

final-on-track-cover-smallWhat was the hardest thing about writing On Track?

The whole plot structure. There were things I knew I needed to put in there, but I didn’t always know where or how best to sequence them. My editor helped with restructure and that’s when the extra 5,000 words came in. It felt like they were big shifts at the time, but they weren’t really. Though they definitely improved the story.

The hardest thing was that point when it was all in pieces – when I knew my manuscript could never go back to the way it was, but I wondered if I would ever be able to pull it all together again!

What was the most rewarding thing about your writing journey with On Track?

When my editor read the final manuscript and was sobbing at the end. Even though she had worked on the manuscript for so long and knew it so well, she was still swept along, and moved by the ending.

When you start to hear the feedback and people have ‘got’ the story and are more into it than you thought they could be, that’s pretty amazing.

Initially a picture book writer, Kathryn says that at first, writing novels was extremely daunting.

She shares her experiences and tips for getting writers out of their comfort zone.

5 TIPS FOR WRITERS ON HOW TO GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE

  1. Read a lot in the genre you plan to write. I immersed myself in verse novels. I loved reading them. It was such a rich experience. Reading verse novels really made me want to try writing one.
  2. Have a go. Pick up the pen and put something on paper.
  3. Actually play with the words.  Takes some risks with words and placement. Make them say more than what the word actually represents.
  4. It’s okay to freak out. Panic and walking away is okay. You still have those words to come back to. Sometimes when you pull it out again you surprise yourself with what you have done and you know it for what it is, not what you thought it was when you panicked.
  5. Share things. I tweet a lot when I’m writing. I find it helps a lot to share my word count, and how and when I have pushed through barriers and things are finally falling into place.

Sandy Feet

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From young adult author, Nikki Buick, comes Sandy Feet, a raw and engaging coming-of-age story about the highs and lows of adolescence as well as the consequences of family tragedy.

Teenager, Hunter did not vote for the family road trip. He can’t think of anything worse than being stuck in the car with his mum, his stepdad, his little sister and his new half brother.

His Mum thinks it will bring them closer together, but when Hunter discovers that he has been deceived about what really happened to his real Dad, the opposite happens.

Although things come to a head and the truth spills out, it’s what needs to happen before family relationships can be healed and they can move on from Hunter’s horrific car accident and his mother’s attempt at taking her own life.

Sandy Feet_978 0 7022 5315 7_CoverHunter is a very believable and likeable teen going through more than just coming of age issues.

He is a complex and well rounded character with authentic teen traits and flaws.

The road trip takes the reader up through northern Queensland, allowing them to experience a beautiful but dangerous part of the world.

The scenery is beautifully described and I love author Nikki Buick’s laconic humour.

“I didn’t like the ocean. It was always too cold, even in summer. It fizzed up my nose like a soluble aspirin and it dumped me like a sumo-wrestling girlfriend”.

On the road trip, Hunter learns truths not just about his family, but about himself.

A teenager’s difficulty in accepting his blended family is handled with sensitivity and realism. Hunter isn’t a bad guy, he just doesn’t see why he should accept his mother’s new husband as his Dad. Hunter already has a Dad – it’s just that he’s not allowed to see him.

For Nikki Buick, the themes of blended families, absent fathers, mental illness, disability and self-discovery came from her years of study and work in the area of Family Dispute Resolution, listening to and counselling young people through issues they struggled to navigate on their own.

As the mother of three teenage sons (and two younger ones), Nikki naturally drew on their collective souls in writing Sandy Feet to breathe life into the character of Hunter. ‘I sat down and wrote the story of an angst ridden teenager, dragged along on a family adventure that held no interest whatsoever for him. My sixteen-year-old son Harry could well relate to such a tale and still has nightmares!’ she comments.

Nikki now feels like Hunter has become her honorary, make-believe son and she loves him almost as much as the others!

This genuine connection to her main character comes through in Nikki’s writing, and that’s what makes Hunter’s voice so strong and authentic.

Sandy Feet is a coming of age story full of hope, and topics for interesting discussion in the classroom. It is published by UQP.

Writing Humour – The Summer of Kicks

Today, I’m pleased to welcome hilarious Dave Hackett to DeeSribe Writing. Dave has generously agreed to share his comedy writing tips with us, and I’m reviewing his very funny new book for teens, The Summer of Kicks.

Dave Hackett (Cartoon Dave) is currently seen each week on Channel Eleven’s Toasted TV and Channel Seven’s It’s Academic, He has written a number of cartoon and funny books for kids, and is known for his lively humour, and he brings this to his writing in The Summer of Kicks, and to his main character, Starrphyre.

DAVE’S INSPIRATION FOR WRITING ‘THE SUMMER OF KICKS’

For a long time I’ve had a real yearning to write a comedy/romance from a teenage guy’s perspective.

Growing up, I was the only guy in a house full of girls, and I wanted to tell a story from that perspective. Like a three-year-old with an IKEA flat-pack bunk-bed and desk combo to assemble, I wanted to write a character who knows what his end game is, but has no idea how to get there. He’s surrounded by girls at home, overloaded with inside information on the female species, but getting close to anything that would resemble a potential girlfriend in the real world is going to require more than a step-by-step instruction booklet and a handful of allen keys.

DAVE’S COMEDY WRITING TIPS

  1. Be Funny. Comedy really sucks if it’s serious.
  1. I’ve heard it said that to write comedy, it’s a great idea to work with someone else. Find a partner – someone to bounce ideas off. Someone whose gasping-desperately-for-air-stomach-cramping-peeing-their-brand-new-jogging-pants response to your last line is evidence enough that you’re onto something witty. If nobody likes you enough to work that closely with you, at the very least, read your funny bits to anyone you can find, and gauge their response. (two year olds and cats don’t count).
  1. This is a gold mine of opportunity, because (and this might surprise you) – your characters can say anything you want them to say. If you’re writing about teenagers, go and listen to actual human teenagers talking to each other (some might put a label on this activity, like ‘eavesdropping’ or ‘invasion of privacy’, but let’s just call it research). Go out into the world, sit near a bunch of them in the food court and listen to them talk. It’s hilarious.
  1. Take a character or two, find a situation and ask: What’s the dumbest, most embarrassing thing that could possibly happen here? Make a list and then choose the thing that you’d least like to happen to you. And go there. And stay there. And then make it worse for them. Unbearably worse. (See, this is fun!) In your story-writing world, you are God. You’re the all-seeing, all-knowing, designer of all things (but let’s just clarify that this is just in your story-writing world. You’re not actual God. Don’t get ahead of yourself). The bottom line is, what you say goes.
  1. Remember, humour doesn’t work if it’s forced or too contrived. If you’re having trouble with funny, if it’s not coming naturally to you, maybe you should be writing sanitation manuals, or a series on the joys of accounting. But if it is comedy that you really want to tackle, don’t be afraid to look close to home for your ideas. Think of all the moments in your life that were cringe-worthy at the time, that you can look back on and laugh about now, and start there.

Comedy is challenging to write, but life is comedy that writes itself.

MY REVIEW – THE SUMMER OF KICKS

Starrphyre is your average sensitive-meets-dorky 16-year-old, with a tragic hippy name thanks to his parents – live to air radio therapist mum, and a bass player dad from a one hit wonder 80s metal band.

All Starrphyre wants is one date with his dream girl, Candace McAllister. Or at least, a meaningful conversation. It seems like he might get his wish when he gets the starring role opposite her in the school musical, but things don’t quite go according to plan. Added to this are Starrphyre’s ongoing battles with his sister’s meat headed boyfriend who has become his room mate, a friendly stalker, an internet scandal and a pair of shoes that get him into a whole lot of trouble.

The Summer of Kicks_978 0 7022 5336 2_COVER_FINALStarrphyre makes mistakes, but you can’t help liking him. He has a good heart and a great sense of humour, but he also has many cringe worthy moments in the story, which is one of the things that make this book so authentically teen.

In Starrphyre’s character, Dave Hacket captures all the awkwardness and vulnerability of being sixteen and embarking on first relationships.

Starrphyre’s loyalties are often torn between family and friends, between friends and friends, but you get the feeling he will make the right decisions in the end.

I also loved the secondary characters in the story from his oddball but wise mother, the sex therapist to his school mates and the people he works with in his first job.

The lives of the characters in this story are entwined in a complex mesh that brings plenty of twists and surprises to the story.

There’s plenty of action and humour to carry the reader along with Starrphyre on his journey and I also like the way female point of view characters are sensitively portrayed through the main character’s eyes.

I can see this book appealing universally to teens of both genders.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, Dave and sharing your great tips. I hope that The Summer of Kicks finds its way onto many bookshelves:)

Dee

 

Tuesday Writing Tips – Verse Novels

My first introduction to verse novels was through the work of bestselling verse novellist Ellen Hopkins. Her novels, Burned, Impact and Crank, just to name a few, hook you right into the story from the first page.

I was lucky to first meet Ellen and hear about her books at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in 2008.

Inspired by Ellen’s work I moved on to devour the wonderful writing of Australian authors, Sherryl Clark, Lorraine Marwood, Sally Murphy, Steven Herrick, Catherine Jinks and Margaret Wild.

There’s something about the rawness of verse novels that gets right to the heart of the emotions – it draws the reader straight into the main character’s world.

Verse writers tell us so much in so few words. They take the reader on an intimate journey, make you feel that you are there by special invitation – that it’s just you and the point of view character taking this path.

Keep it simple

The power of verse is that it doesn’t have time or space for adverbs and adjectives.

The reader has to visualise using his/her own imagination. They come to understand the main character’s world through the way that the main character acts and reacts to what’s happening around them/to them. And through the way they speak…their voice.

A good verse novel is like a well decorated Christmas tree – balanced and striking with no excess baubles – beautifully simple.

A natural form

A verse novel isn’t just a novel with fewer words in an easy to read format. There has to be poetry and power in those words.

For a verse novel to work, it has to be the natural form for that piece of writing.

Breaking a piece of text up into stanzas or verses doesn’t make it a verse novel.

Sensory Detail

As Ellen Hopkins said at her 2011 SCBWI LA workshop,

” A verse novel has sensory detail…not just in a visual sense but as a way to show information about emotions.”

How long should a verse novel be?

This really varies depending on the age of the readers and the story.

YA verse novels can range from around 14,000 words (Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block ) to more than 65,000 words (Identical by Ellen Hopkins). Junior novels might be even shorter.

Like any book, a verse novel should be as long as it needs to be to tell that particular story.

Steven Herrick and Pookie Aleera

Steven Herrick is an Australian verse novellist who has been a full-time writer for twenty-five years. The Sydney Morning Herald has described him as “The king of poetry for children”.

His latest verse novel, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is a typical example of how Steven weaves reality and strong imagery into his powerful verse.

One of the appeals of his writing is that he takes everyday situations and places like swimming in the creek and turns them into something much more.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is set in a country town and brings together the lives and stories of the Kids in Class 6A.

There’s Mick, school captain and sometime trouble-maker, who wants to make the school a better place, while his younger brother Jacob just wants to fly. There’s shy and lonely Laura who hopes to finally fit in with a circle of friends, while Pete struggles to deal with his grandpa’s sudden death. Popular Selina obsesses over class comedian Cameron, while Cameron obsesses over Anzac biscuits and finding out the true identity of Pookie Aleera.

These characters and their lives are woven together in a rich tapestry that draws the reader into the story…and sparks their curiosity about who is Pookie Aleera?

According to Steven Herrick, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is the book “he’d been wanting to write for a long time.” Steven’s strong vision for this book is apparent in the telling detail, and the sensitivity and gentle humour. It’s a story about life and friendship and the differences and similarities in us and the things that make us happy and sad.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend has a large cast of characters, but strong characterisation makes each one distinctly different.We see each character’s vulnerability as they walk the line between childhood and adolescence.

Like all Steven Herrick’s works, this book is full of beautiful imagery. For example, Rachel’s response to “Night Sky” written on the board is “It’s like a blanket for the earth to sleep under.”

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is charming, funny, and evocative.

It would be a great book for classroom discussion, dealing with life issues in a gentle and non confronting way. Being so accessible in its content and form, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend would also be a great tool for introducing  kids to verse novels.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is published by UQP for ages 9+

This book is a true example of how verse novels have the power to get to the heart of the emotions, and take the reader deep into the point of view character’s world.