I hear voices!

Let ME out of here and put ME on the page!

Finally! I’m hearing voices!

For the last week, I have been relentless, tormenting my English students, trying to bleed them so that their unique personalities will pour out into their writing.

My torture techniques are working. Some of them are actually catching on!

Sadly, we English teachers have taken a bad rap for stifling our students’ creativity. As much as I hate to  admit it, in some cases, it’s true.

We force our darlings to conform to the state-mandated guidelines that require them to write a five-paragraph persuasive essay in 35 minutes. The results are carbon-copy essays: Introduction, body 1, body 2, body 3, conclusion.

Yada yada yada.

Of course, there’s a place for academic writing, but I want my writers to be in control of their writing—not to be controlled by it. I want them to choose to use academic writing, not use it by default because they aren’t aware of other options.

Dr. Frankensteins, that’s what we English teachers have become. We’ve created mindless little monsters. We’ve conditioned our pupils to follow such rigid rules that their writing has become stiff and unimaginative, displaying no evidence of personality or individual style.

Thank goodness there are a still few teen rebels out there who are willing to try something new—even if it means sacrificing their A for innovation. Most are too afraid of lowering their GPA to take a risk.

In the last week I’ve tried all sorts of methods to breathe life into my teens’ writing. Yesterday, I had them respond to me in class, using the “voice” of a well-known character or celebrity. I heard “The Situation,” Elvis, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Britney Spears, and even the Water Boy.

Ah ha! Once these kiddos realized they had to alter their diction and syntax to create a “voice,” they caught on.

But when I asked them to pour out themselves on paper, they didn’t know what to do. Once again their words sounded almost identical. I don’t think I could tell one paper from the other if the students didn’t put their names on them.

My evaluation sounds harsh. Don’t get me wrong. I have the BEST students in the world. They are wonderful, respectful, hard working and creative.

But writing is HARD for most of US, especially when we have to put ourselves on paper for the world to critique. It’s easier just to write “safe” without revealing our vulnerabilities.

Bottom line, my students have voice problems. They don’t know who they are yet. Some of them are nervous to test the waters, so they’re reluctant to develop their own unique styles.

Newbie novelists like MYSELF have this problem too.

We’re still in the process of getting to know our characters. Until we really get to know them, they all sound alike, or, even worse, they may not sound believable at all.

I write these words of wisdom as though I’m some kind of writing guru. I’m not.

It’s just that I myself have started to catch on to this wonderful element of writing called voice.

Earlier this fall I met with best-selling YA author Ellen Hopkins at a conference in Nashville. We are so different! Yet she offered me advice that transformed my writing technique.

“Voice. Work on your character’s voice,” she said.

My first manuscript is written in limited third-person POV. Ellen suggested I re-write part of it—as  practice—in first person POV so that I could hear my character’s voice. I wasn’t too crazy about the idea at first, but now I understand why.

My main character TJ Westbrook has his own style, his own diction, his own syntax—just like those characters and celebrities I asked my students to emulate.

In order to create a convincing character with a unique voice, I first had to get to know him, spend time with him.

Well, duh.

I took Ellen’s advice and revised my manuscript. I actually left the comfort of my sunroom, where I do most of my writing, and I found a cozy spot where my characters and I could “talk.” We went on a date.

So here I am now an official participant in NaNoWriMo. I must write fast and furiously. Yes, I can revise later, but I think I can do a better job and write more efficiently if I totally immerse myself in characters’ lives so that I can hear their voices.

No, I’m not going to the extreme as some method actors have. Daniel Day-Lewis trained 18 months with a former world champion for his role in The Boxer. Robert De Niro worked 12 hour shifts as a cabbie in preparation for his role in The Taxi Driver. We all know how Heath Ledger’s personality shifted when he took on the dark role of The Joker.

So don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to go to school with a “mojo hand” and dare all my wayward students to meet me at the crossroads. (Think Memphis. Think the Delta blues. For my current WIP, my main character mixes it up with a little magic as he returns to Memphis to find out who killed his best friend.)

But I do need to make time to go on a few “dates.” It’s not like I’ve got time for a five-hour trip to the Blues City Café—unless one of you suggests an impromptu road trip. I’m up for that.

More than likely, I’ll just chill out in my sunroom and listen to a little Stevie Ray Vaughn. Then again, I might have to make it to the nearest BBQ place in town. But the point is, I may be on hiatus from Serendipiteeblog for a few days as I get into the groove my NaNoWriMo endeavor.

I’m not sure where TJ and I will go on our next “date.” I just hope he’s paying—or, better yet, he and his voice pay off in the form of a book contract.

Midsouth SCBWI Update

Tomorrow I will remember every drop of red ink I’ve splashed on a student’s paper. It’s payback time. I will meet with 7-time NY Bestselling writer Ellen Hopkins, who will critique my manuscript. I’m bracing myself for what’s to come. It’s my turn to listen and learn.

The great thing is that Ellen knows how we writers feel. She’s been there. I admire the passion she possesses for helping other writers see their dreams come true. 

As I listened to her recount her  journey as she gave the keynote address, I realized that we writers all have our own journeys. Often our stories come from the pain we have suffered, and through writing we learn how to deal with our struggles. I hope that if my path continues to stretch toward publication that God will give me opportunities to help new writers, especially teens.

So here I am in Nashville.

I’ve made great strides since the Indy conference. I’m not on the 18th floor this time, but I am able to walk near the rails overlooking the open area. I haven’t pushed, bumped or cussed one person who nudged me toward the open space. (Please note that it is not my nature to do these things, but extreme fear brings out the worst in me.)

So far I’ve enjoyed all the sessions. I’ve picked up several autographed books, including one with a scary Sasquatch-looking creature on the front cover. It’s for my younger son, but all the Lockhart men have had their own dealings with Sasquatch–and no, I’m not referring to myself. I’ll save that story for a later time.

Editor Ruta Rimas of Balzer and Bray has been on hand to lead a few workshops, including the First-Page critique session. In case you don’t know, a First-Page session calls for writers to anonymously submit the first page of their work for critique. Ruta made several excellent points we writers should keep in mind.

  • Remember one editor’s opinion may differ from another. If you don’t get the response you desire from the first editor, don’t be afraid to submit somewhere else. Editors have their own preferences.
  • Writers who want to write for the YA market should double check to see if their topics are relevant in today’s teen world.
  • Fantasy (speculative) writers must, must, MUST create a believable world at the beginning. Otherwise, most editors won’t turn the page.
  • Don’t overwrite. Don’t over do the description.
  • Make sure you open your novel with the RIGHT scene.
  • According to Rita Rumas, historical fiction and “fish out of water” stories may be tough markets for new writers to break into in the general children’s market.
  • Rumas also suggests adding an unusual touch, such as maybe adding a paranormal element to the historical genre.
  • Lovely prose garners attention, but the story must move forward with successful pacing.
  • Each character should have his or her own voice in the novel.
  • Editors want writers who are already involved in a critique group.

Before I log off to finish polishing my manuscript, I’ll leave you with a thought. Adventure and story exist everywhere around us. You never know when you’ll meet your next character, so get ready to write.

Just a couple of superheroes fighting crime in downtown Nashville

9-11 and Reckless Abandon

I was bouncing on and off Twitter when I saw a tweet from Ellen Hopkins that challenged writers to blog about our freedoms. Actually, I had been thinking about doing so already, but I was a bit hesitant because I have a strong conviction that I should use my words to bless, not to curse. Not that I would ever use my blog to curse, but we all know how easily words can be misconstrued. How ironic I should say that considering this blog is about transparency.

Transparency? The word is probably not what you would consider when you think of 9-11 and freedom, but I am thankful that I have the God-given right—and I do mean God-given—to be transparent –to be me, to not worry about whether I measure up to somebody else’s perception of  who I should be. I am who I am. God gave me free will. However, I willingly gave up the right to make decisions for myself because I wanted an omnipotent God of infinite love to tell me what is best for my life. Not everyone has made that decision.

If I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing, that is keeping a close, daily dialogue with my creator, then I shouldn’t worry that I will compromise my integrity. Am I tempted? Of course. Do I mess up? Sadly, yes. We all do. It’s easy to turn a deaf ear to the still small voice when there’s something we want that doesn’t fit in with God’s current plan. But if we return to our daily, never ceasing dialogue, then we will do what it takes to make our relationship right again.

When I grew up, I thought that for people to become Christians, they had to dress a certain way, wear their hair a certain way, talk a certain way, listen to certain types of music. This perception became quite confusing to me after several people professing to be Christian contradicted one other with their rules. Who was right, I often wondered. Then I went straight to the source—the Bible—and found the answer. God is right. God doesn’t place an emphasis on the outward appearance. He goes straight to the heart.

What matters most to God is love.

So my blog about transparency could just as easily be a blog about love. The freedom I am most thankful for is my freedom to love with reckless abandon. And I do.

I am a people person. I don’t think I can survive, or at least thrive, unless I’m around people. If I don’t have the freedom to be myself around people, I wither. A part of me dies. I think what I have loved most about being a teacher is that I can love my kids with reckless abandon, my God-given right.

I’m glad that God wove a creative spirit in my soul. I’m glad He made me quirky, unique. I’m glad He allows me the freedom to appreciate the music that Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Black Crows and Sheryl Crow create. I’m glad that God allowed me to follow His team, the Red Sox with Dustin Pedroia, Tek, Youk and all my other favorites. I don’t know if these people (or their fans) have made the decision to trade their free will for God’s guidance, but if they happen to make bad decisions that don’t honor God, I can’t condemn them. That’s not my place. They have free will. I can love them with reckless abandon, not caring what those who will judge will say.

And loving them doesn’t mean that I have to condone their actions or hang out with them if they are in a place where I could be led astray. I can appreciate the gifts God has given them. God is the giver of all good things. And I can open wide my heart to them and love them with reckless abandon.

I think most of us are well aware of the controversial burning issue that was once proposed for 9-11. I just have one question: Where was the love in that plan?

People have free will to choose which house they will serve. It is not the human being’s job to force other people into believing what the Bible says. The Bible doesn’t instruct Christians to hate their enemies. Don’t get me wrong. There is a time, a season, to draw the line, to establish a boundary. If people use their free will to decide to cross the boundary, then they should expect consequences.

To love means to respect people for whom they are and to respect the choices that God allowed them to make—even if we don’t like them. To love means to grant people the freedom to be transparent, to be who they really are without inappropriate censure or disrespect.

I am thankful for my freedom of transparency. I’m glad that God has reassured me that I can wear my tee shirts, jeans and flip flops, I can play my guitar—loud if want, amplified on some occasions, I can write my Young Adult fiction, I can respect and learn from all people, even those who do not share my Christian beliefs. I can do all these things with reckless abandon—without worrying about other people’s perceptions—their perceptions don’t matter, not really.

God knows what’s in my heart, He knows my motivations and God is in control.