I recently had the opportunity to read Leila Springer’s as-yet-unpublished work, BUZZ KILL, to my fifth graders. They are absolutely enthralled with this YA novel, and had some questions for the author. Here are their wonderfully mature questions and her responses.
Everyone in our class loves your story. How do you write a story that connects with EVERYONE?
That’s a terrific compliment to a writer, thank you! I think people are like Venn diagrams, you know, with the intersecting circles? I think BUZZ KILL taps into some core interests that a lot of people share, even though we’re very different. Everyone wonders about the future. What will computers be like? Will there be jetpacks or flying bikes, and if so, how will they work? Also, pretty much everyone likes a ghost story. And everyone I know likes food!
Most importantly, Lola has something in common with everyone in your class; you all know that the grown-ups have kind of made a mess of things. Rather than being depressing and writing something in a far off and dystopian future, I wanted to tell a story closer to home, to show that it doesn’t have to get that bad. We can fix it now by being aware. Everyone can make a difference, and sometimes it’s the little things that count the most.
How do you write first person POV so well?
This question actually made me laugh, because I wrote the entire first draft of this book – got all the way to “The End” – in third person. And then I said to myself, “You dope, she’s telepathic, she’s reading other people’s minds, the reader has to be in her head.” So that was a big edit I had to do.
The trick with first person is to let your character come through you as purely as possible. In the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time with Lola, so I know her really well and I can hear her telling me her story.
If you are familiar with the term “channeling,” it’s when a medium believes that a spirit from the “Other Side” is speaking through them. I conjured Lola up and now I try to step aside and let her tell her story her way. As I edit, I find I am taking out the parts where it’s my voice and replacing them with parts that sound more Lola-like. The more I work – as in, the longer I keep my butt in the chair – the louder and clearer her voice is in my head.
*How do you plan pacing so you know when to do a cliffhanger, and what to do?
I’m just naturally talented that way. Not! Actually, that’s a really sophisticated question. And it has a one-word answer: Tension.
But here’s the back story:
After I had finished my second draft (the one where I changed the voice to first person among about a trillion other edits and I thought – okay, now it’s done!) I took it to the Big Sur Writer’s Conference (where I met your teacher, Mrs. Ulleseit). I was describing BUZZ KILL to a gentleman, Mr. David Brown, who said, ‘You know, that sounds like a movie. You should read this e-book by Chris Soth called “Million-Dollar Screenwriting – The Mini Movie Method.” So I wrote that down and when I got home I ordered the e-book. And it was amazing. It was exactly what I needed to learn about pacing and tension. It literally provided a framework for me to hang my story on.
Now, Chris Soth is a screenwriter, and screenplays are usually about 110 pages. So some things are very different from a 300-page novel. But Chris notes that all movies used to be filmed on 15-minute reels that the projectionist switched out while the movie played. There were two projectors for each theater that they alternated using so one could be loaded while the other played, but there had to be breaks in the action – a cut to a different scene – to allow for the switch. Audiences got used to that pacing, and to this day most films are still written that way even though reels are a thing of the past. (Please note the term “most.” There are terrific films that completely ignore this.)
So basically there’s a formula to writing a classic screenplay. And it comes down to this: Audiences expect escalating tension in short intervals. For example, by the end of the first third you have to have hit certain marks – like the back story and the inciting incident that calls the hero to action. If you have a reluctant hero, your hero has to have tried resisting that call to action. And the audience has to have met any allies that will help the hero, even if they don’t appear to be allies at this point.
This is just the first third, and already it’s about action, character arc, and tension, tension, tension! Together, they drive the story.
*How do you plan such wonderful chapter cliffhangers?
You’re right, they take a good bit of planning. The last paragraph of every chapter has to pass the test “Does it make the reader turn the page and keep going?” If not, I re-write it until it does.
You can re-write a chapter so it begins and ends with the best parts. Maybe a surprise or a reversal from what the hero was expecting to happen. Or your bad guy says or does something really awful. Or something terrible happens. All of these do the same thing – they up the tension.
When I was in school and I had to write a paper, whether it was one page or three or twenty, I always made it a circle. The second-to-last sentence referred back to the first paragraph of the paper for a resounding conclusion. But then, if at all possible, I would take it to the next level. Once I had fulfilled all the requirements and answered the question I had set out in the topic sentence or thesis, I would take it a step further. My very last sentence would end with a question of what could come next. Teachers loved that. I used to come into class and my papers would be photocopied off for everyone to read. I would be totally embarrassed but secretly thrilled, too.
You will find that the very end of BUZZ KILL takes you back to something from the beginning. That’s all I will say for now!
*Your scenes are really descriptive and full of action. How do you know if you’re stretching a scene too long or not?
If you read it out loud to yourself and you get bored with it, it’s too long! First drafts can take some meandering about for you to find out what is really going to happen. But editing is when you ask yourself the essential question about every single line: “Is this moving the story or the character arc forward?”
I end up editing out about two thirds of what I write. Be merciless. A line might be great, but if it’s not moving the story forward, it goes.
*Along those lines, how do you know if your story is getting too crazy, too off-task, or off in the wrong direction?
Let’s look separately at ‘getting too crazy’ versus ‘too off-task, or off in the wrong direction,’ because there is a subtle difference between the two.
If your work is so crazy that even you don’t buy it, congratulate yourself on having a rocking imagination, and then dial it back. BUZZ KILL is an action adventure, and people read adventures to have fun. It’s supposed to be more real than real. So I constantly tell myself, ‘Yes, I know it probably won’t happen, but what if it did?’ That way I can skate right along the edge of plausible improbability. That’s what makes fiction fun. I purposely put Lola in situations I think she can’t get out of. And then I see if I can get her out.
On the other hand, if your piece is getting too off-task or is going off in the wrong direction, you might have needed to write that extra bit to explore a character or some bit of back story. You’ll probably find that even if it doesn’t end up in the final draft, you have a better understanding of who your characters are and where they’re going to eventually end up and why. Or maybe you were just having fun with a tangent! If this keeps happening in your writing, you may be the kind of writer who works better if you start on an outline as soon as you have the vaguest idea of where the story is going.
*How do you keep your characters in character?
I find that it helps if you have a solid image of your character in your mind to start with. To exercise your imagination you can look around at strangers when you’re out. Notice details and imagine what they might mean and how you can use them to describe a character. That guy with his shirt buttoned wrong – why didn’t he look in the mirror before he left his home and see that? He must live alone, right? Or maybe his family doesn’t even notice him anymore. Or maybe he was in a big hurry for some reason? Why? That group of three girls with identical hair and clothing styles, what tension can you make up between them? What if the one with the giant Louis Vitton handbag just shoplifted something she doesn’t even want? Why would she do that?
I like to check out what people at grocery stores are buying, and I’m also a huge eavesdropper. I’ll be sitting somewhere with a book and if an interesting conversation starts up within earshot I’ll continue turning pages like I’m still reading, but I’m really listening in.
Finally, I make a “dream cast” – the actors I would choose if BUZZ KILL was to be made into a movie. As I write I’m putting them up on a movie screen inside my head and moving them around.
*How many hours a day, days a week do you write?
I have a secret weapon. I can really, really type. I can type without looking at my fingers. I type as fast as I think. Seriously, I can freak out just about anybody just by typing while I look them in the eye and talk to them about something completely different. Typing without looking at your fingers is like a superpower. (A big shout-out is in order here to Mrs. Rutz, my typing teacher in the 7th grade. Although she was old as the hills even then, so maybe she’s looking down at me from somewhere and smiling).
Anyway, I work about twenty hours a week at writing. I wish I could do it all day, every day, but after about four hours I get burned out and remember I have a whole other life. When I’m doing fresh writing (not editing what’s already on the page) I can churn out 500 to 1000 words in that time.
Editing is not so fun, but it has to be done, so I just keep my butt in the chair for the four hours. No excuses, no going online. I don’t answer the phone. I eat at my desk a lot. I buy a new keyboard about every year and a half (and yes, I recycle the old ones) because they get crumbs in them from all my eating while writing and then the keys start sticking.
*Do you have any tips for thinking of ideas to make your story better?
You bet I do! Writing is about accessing the subconscious. When does your subconscious come out to play? When you’re sleeping! I print out whatever part of the book I am working on and read it right before I go to sleep. I keep a pen by the bed and a flashlight because I’m lazy and I won’t get up to turn on the light in the middle of the night. A middle-of-the-night idea may be so brilliant I am absolutely certain – at midnight or two a.m. – that I couldn’t possibly forget it. But if I don’t write it down, by morning I will have forgotten that I ever had that brilliant idea.
Fortunately, it happens more often in that twilight time just as I’m falling asleep. If I was a psychiatrist I would study what the brain is doing right as we’re finally drifting off. It’s an amazingly creative, problem-solving time. I will suddenly hear my characters talking to each other, or I’ll get an idea that fixes a problem I thought was insurmountable.
I think that helps with what we were talking about earlier, too, about really knowing your character from the inside out. Reading what you have done just before you go to sleep is like inviting your story and its characters into your dreams.
I don’t believe that dreams can predict the future, or anything like that, but they are very powerful keys to what is going on in the most creative part of your own head. BUZZ KILL started from a single super-short dream I had of a small dog barking frantically at a big grate set smack in the middle of a greenhouse floor, with the filtered sunlight coming in through the tree leaves and everything. The image was so strong and so disturbing that I woke up. I asked myself, “Why is that dog barking? What is down there that is making him so upset?” I really wanted to know, but the only way I was going to find out was to write the book. So I did!
Check out buzzkillthenovel.net!