Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Write who you are: Teri Terry has an identity crisis

It might seem rather incestuous - today's guest blogger Teri Terry is basing her blog on a talk I gave in Birmingham last week. As I always do, I bashed on about how it's not about writing what you know but writing who you are (not an original thought, unfortunately - I read it in Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell).I also read in Story by Robert McKee that Stanislavski used to ask his actors: Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in your art? Hmm. Inneresting question for anyone trying to write novels.
Candy Gourlay

Who Am I, and what does it mean for my writing?

A reasonable question to ask. I’m posing it after having a bit of a light-bulb moment on Saturday.

I was on the train coming back from Birmingham, iPod on, not thinking about anything in particular while the countryside rushed past my window. But random things were having a chat in my subconscious, as they do. I’ve always founds trains are great places for thinking.

I’d just been to the SCBWI event with Candy Gourlay and lots of lovely SCBWI friends as well. I won’t be a spoiler and tell you all about it, as this event may appear in a location near you, soon (and GO if it does – it was a fascinating and inspiring talk). But a few thoughts collided in my brain on the journey home.

They were three:

  • a rejection received the day before: along of the lines of, concept check; writing check; supporting cast, check; main character – er… – lacking something?
  • Culture and cultural clashes – being from one place, living in another – what this means (and from a personal perspective, it is one of those things you don’t really get when you are making the decision: at 20-something or even 30-something, you don’t feel the long-term implications in your guts)
  • Write what you know vs. write what you are.
I’ve had this sort of debate with myself, before. If you looked up ‘rootless’ in the dictionary, I’m sure you’d see my photo: Dad Dutch, Mum’s parents Finnish, me born in France, moving every five minutes with Dad’s air force postings throughout childhood. And I continued this pattern on my own, living all over Canada and Australia, collecting degrees and changing careers along the way, until I somehow landed in England. I’ve lived in the same house here now for six years with my partner, and I’ve never even come close to that long before. It is a bit terrifying.

When Frances Lincoln had a ‘Diverse Voices’ writing competition a few years ago, I remember looking at it, and wondering: would writing about belonging nowhere be an acceptable interpretation of the rules?

I decided not, but out of the thinking JJ was born, my 13 year old character in Meet Me at the Lost and Found whose artist dad and poet mum had her many times around the globe before she could talk.

Writing what you know: the feeling of belonging nowhere and trying to find a place for yourself, and the survival techniques you learn, like how to quickly integrate enough but not too much in new surroundings. The ‘one friend’ rule: you just need one, and you’re all right.

When it was gently rejected last week, it was pointed out that the ‘warm fuzzies’ this sort of 10-plus book needed to have were missing. The expectation that JJ was making her own family for herself when her parents dumped her with an Aunt in London were not fulfilled. The relationship with her Aunt and Grandad didn’t develop sufficiently, and JJ wasn’t likeable enough. And the criticism was fair.

On my train journey, I was thinking about the three things I mentioned above, and about rejections of the past. And I started to spot a pattern.

My secondary characters are not generally a problem: it is always the ‘I’, the main character, their development, their relationships, readers’ sympathies with them. There seemed to be a recurring theme.

A-ha! An epiphany! Something to work on, and think about.

But the why is less comfortable. When I write, I am my main character. Male, female, whatever age. JJ feeling disconnected from anywhere is writing what I know. But resolving the story to give warm fuzzies at the end isn’t what I know. I don’t get it. Because I still always feel like I don’t belong anywhere, like I need space. Like I don’t want to get too close to people in case they disappear. Beyond my ‘one friend’ – long-suffering, darling husband – I get to a certain point in relationships with people, then back away.

Ways forward for my writing?

I get it, and I’ll work on it. And I also see why I prefer writing for 12 or 14-plus. Adolescents are plagued with feeling alienated and needing to find their way. Warm fuzzies aren’t my specialty. Dystopias are just the thing…

Teri is currently writing Slated, a chilling YA Dystopian trilogy.

Last word from Candy: well this is a pet topic of mine so I can't help putting in a last word. Not mine but another quote from Robert McKee that really resonates with me - Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as a writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave of your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life.

Heads up, anyone working on high concept who hasn't wept over a character yet.

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