Dear Diary

On November 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, In my WIP, adult fantasy, I have three point of view characters: two adults, and then a 15-year-old whose sections are all from her journal entries. I am having a lot of fun pulling from the style of my teenage journals, but I’m a little worried. Journals are almost all telling, and it might not appeal to adults. I’m keeping them short. I enjoy adding a different perspective than the other two characters, and I also like that I can use the voice to introduce every single person of her large family with “her brother” or whoever it is. Anyway, any advice?

For example, here’s her first journal entry:Hello! My name is Norma Filara. My dad just bought some new land, and when he was at the office he got this little notebook for me, and now I can keep a journal again! My last one got left behind when we moved. Actually, all our stuff got left behind when we moved. I guess I have to explain about that. My little brother Hamal was learning how to dream-jump, and he accidently jumped into some soldier guy’s house. We don’t know every thing that happened, but… he’s not alive. I don’t want to talk about that. It was freezing cold and we had to leave our house and everything, and Mom and little Orion got pneumonia, and… I don’t want to talk about that either.

Let’s move forward. We just came to a new city, called Grayton. My dad got a great offer on some land that no one else wanted. It’s perfectly good land too. He and my biggest brothers Altair and Leo are super busy now building buildings and digging wells. I’m supposed to be busy too. We all are, but Altair’s wife Ann is too busy watching the little ones so sometimes we middle ones get overlooked. I don’t mind. I would rather explore, and she can’t stop me!

Carley Anne wrote back, Ooo, sounds intriguing! I guess the style of writing (whether it is more telling, or more descriptive), would depend on the character of your fifteen year old, and what kind of a mood she’s in. Why is she writing? Is it just to remember a few facts, or capture a memory? Does she actually enjoy writing? (That would probably result in a more descriptive style.) I like her style of writing (reminds me of Anne Frank), but it almost feels like she could become more descriptive as she continues adding entries, and slowly becomes more “accustomed” to this journal.

I’d argue that journal entries by their nature are like dialogue, because the diarist is speaking to the reader. I call that showing. The reader is introduced to Norma’s character through the way she expresses herself. My impression of her is that she’s direct, enthusiastic, and emotional–not that she tells us she’s those things. I get the enthusiasm from the two exclamation points and her eagerness to journal. The directness is there in that she doesn’t beat about the bush, and the deep feelings are revealed in her reluctance to talk about the loss of her brother and the illnesses her family suffered.

That reluctance is an interesting choice in a journal, which won’t be read by anyone, which is the ideal place to explore pain–which suggests that Norma not only doesn’t want to discuss her troubles, she also doesn’t want to think about them.

That’s a lot of showing to pack into a short journal entry. Good job!

Yes, I suppose the reader is told that this is a world in which dream-jumping occurs, but telling is an inevitable part of dialogue, as in, “Don’t shake my hand. I have a cold.” I have a cold is telling. Don’t shake my hand is showing that the speaker is probably a considerate person.

And telling is woven in with showing in narration, too. In my opinion (please argue–with examples–if you disagree), extended pure showing is impossible.

The purpose of showing, in my opinion again, is to put the reader in the story. We supply the feelings, thoughts, nuances of character, the sensations (not just sight and sound, but also smell and touch) that make it real. Writing teachers urge us to show so we don’t forget these elements in our eagerness to relate events.

Telling makes the showing comprehensible. Without telling, the reader is lost, like an infant before language. The baby is primed to discover the telling in her world. The reader is primed, too.

Occasionally, pure telling works. I’ve mentioned this novel before: Miri, Who Charms by Joanne Greenberg (definitely high school and up). There’s almost no showing, and yet the story is compelling (and tragic). Maybe it would have been better if some showing had been worked in. I don’t know.

As for adult reader interest in a fifteen-year old’s journal, well, I’m an adult and I’d be interested. POV change adds variety, as do the form of journal entries. I could be interested if the whole story were told by a fifteen year old, too. It would depend on the voice and what the teen had to say. I think that falls into the category of worries we torment ourselves with when we write.

I’ve said this before: we should whisper our worries about readers into a lead canister and then drop the canister in a well. I say this because I’m guilty of it, too. My current worries are that no one will want to read about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain more than 500 years ago, and that the book (which no one will read) will be intolerably sad. These are just sticks for me to beat myself with. Maybe no one will read the book, but it’s still the book I want to write. And I assume that Christie V Powell wants to write that fifteen-year old’s journal entries.

What I just said applies to the projects of our hearts. Sometimes writers are commissioned to write a particular thing and being paid depends on writing that thing. Others of us write for our jobs. However, for the rest of us, readers are too unpredictable to worry about. Also, chasing the market is usually futile. It stays maddeningly ahead of us. The trend that was hot when we started is ice cold by the time we finish.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write a journal entry for Tolkien’s Sauron. Can be an ordinary day in the life of the lord of evil. Or can be the morning of what he expects will be the final day for goodness.

∙ Write a journal entry for a character in a WIP whom you’d like to know better. Let his own words tell you about himself.

∙ Dream-jumping sounds fascinating. Write a scene in which a character dream-jumps for the first time. Mix showing and telling in the narration.

∙ A science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, uses teleportation, called jaunting. The discovery of teleportation is described in the book, which is worth reading. I haven’t read it in decades. My guess is middle school and up, but check with a librarian. Write your own scene in which teleportation is either discovered or invented.

Have fun, and save what your write!

  1. Thanks! I love this post. I’m not sure dropping lead into our drinking well would be a good idea. Maybe my canister can go into a volcano… deep hole… bottom of a nasty compost pile… I’ll work on the imagery.
    Norma’s journal entries have been a lot of fun. They’re the easiest to write but hardest to structure. I’ll add ‘too show-y’ to my canister 🙂

  2. Love this post today! Just what I needed: advice about writing my MG mystery novel trying out the letter structure. And the prompt from Gail Levine is helpful to understand supporting characters. I think Norma’ s book is best for YA audience. I am a retired school librarian who reads widely in MG and YA! Thanks again for this idea to put worries in the well.

    • Thanks. If it were just Norma’s story, it would definitely be YA, but it’s mixed in with the POV of two adults. I’m writing a story about a family, so I chose three characters who can represent the whole people.

    • How do you decide if a book is MG vs YA vs adult, anyway? I know that the age of the protagonist is a big hint, but for example, I have a book where the protagonist is 6 at the beginning and 30 at the end.

      • True. Look at Ender’s Game: an adult book about a 6-year-old. Or Mistborn, where one of the main characters is a teenager on a more typical Coming-of-Age YA plot, but all the other characters and their POVs are adult.
        I think the official designation is a sum of factors, and there are plenty of gray areas. Here’s some I’ve noticed:
        MG and YA tend to focus on a single character more than a whole community or world. MG novels often have less characterization and more plot, and the prose feels younger. The younger the book’s audience, the more telling they prefer and the less patience for description. Length is a huge hint. Adult themes or scenes inappropriate for younger audiences are a giveaway if the book has them. I’ve heard that Stakes are a big factor: the MG’s stakes are more likely to be social status, coming home safely, or keeping a friendship. All three can have deeper stakes like preserving your life, saving the world, or rescuing a friend, but the older the book, the more immediate and personal the threat feels.

        I think, in general, you just develop a feel for it. If you read enough, you can get a feel for which book feels best for which audience.

        • Hm. I tend to write small-scale, personal-stakes books that are heavy on characterization. (One of the things that’s making writing the trilogy difficult is that the stakes get more large-scale as it goes on. The first book’s mostly about Malak surviving with his honor intact. But he’s basically “the enemy,” living with the equivalent of a Senator, or at least a Mayor,” so there HAVE to be larger consequences as he gets out into the world.)

        • Hm. I tend to write small-scale, personal-stakes books that are heavy on characterization. (One of the things that’s making writing the trilogy difficult is that the stakes get more large-scale as it goes on. The first book’s mostly about Malak surviving with his honor intact. But he’s basically “the enemy,” living with the equivalent of a Senator, or at least a Mayor, so there HAVE to be larger consequences as he gets out into the world.)

  3. I was just discussing this with a writer friend of mine who wrote blog post about how sometimes perfectionism can get in the way of his writing the things that excite him. I ran into this problem in college when I was too concerned about writing what I thought people wanted to read and what I thought my professors would like. As a result, my stories were all on “edgy” topics that were a chore to write and were mediocre at best. True, the story I wrote about a girl feeling pressured into getting an abortion when she didn’t want to got accepted into the NULC, but I am positive it only got recognized for the topic and not the quality of the writing. It wasn’t until my senior year that I finally started writing things I was excited about, and only recently have I discovered my own unique writing style.

    Your point about chasing the market reminds me of when I was in high school. I mentioned that I wanted to be a writer to someone, who asked me if I would be the next Stephanie Meyer. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be the next Stephanie Meyer, I just wanted to be the first me. If Theodore Gesiel had written what he thought people wanted to read at the time, we would have never had the joy that is Dr. Suess. Just a thought. ^_^

  4. I haven’t been on here in a couple weeks. I loved this post! I’ve never tried writing from a journaling perspective, but the prompt about writing a journal for a WIP character you’d like to know better was an excellent suggestion! I actually did that and just worked out a whole problem I had been having! Thanks for the idea!

    I’m just not sure if I could do it for Sauron though. 😉

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