Sunday, April 29, 2007

Beach Talk: Finding Your Character's Voice

Come spread a blanket and join us on the beach.

Crissa-Jean Chappell, whose first novel, Total Constant Order, relies on the main character's voice for much of its emotional power, stopped by Wordswimmer to chat this week.

You'll have to wait until October, when her book is scheduled for publication, to hear the stream-of-consciousness voice of Fin (Frances Isabelle Nash), the sympathetic protagonist of Chappell's novel who struggles with OCD (Obsessive Compulsion Disorder) and a voice inside her head that's always counting.

But, for now, imagine a fifteen-year-old girl's voice containing the coming-of-age angst of Holden Caulfield, the frenetic desperation of Joey Pigza, and the hipster wisdom of Weetzie Bat.

How did Chappell, who teaches creative writing in Miami, find Fin's voice? And then, even more miraculously, how did she manage to bring Fin's voice to the page?

Here are a few tips that Chappell was kind enough to share with Wordswimmer while we were chatting on the beach.

Wordswimmer: Do you remember how you found Fin's voice?

Chappell: I used to believe that plot and character were two different things. It took me a while before I learned that they are the same. Fin’s voice grew out of her struggle with OCD. Everything that a character does (and says) must revolve around her (or his) conflict.

Wordswimmer: What was it about her voice that made you sit up and take notice?

Chappell: Fin is a character I can relate to. When I was her age, I shared many of the same anxieties. Often, I felt like the invisible girl at school, watching everyone like a spy from another planet.

Wordswimmer: Did you trust her voice immediately?

Chappell: Fin says things that I wouldn’t dare to say out loud. Sometimes she even frightens me. She tells it like it is. In the process of writing this book, I would often stop and think, “Is this too much?” That’s the left brain talking. And I would take it as a sign to keep going.

Wordswimmer: How did you manage to get her voice down on paper?

Chappell: I like to listen to people and write down what they say. I always carry a notebook in my purse and it’s brimming with fragments of conversation. (Of course, my job as a professor comes in handy for eavesdropping).

Wordswimmer: Was it difficult to write about Fin and OCD?

Chappell: Once I decided to write about OCD, Fin’s voice was easy to find. She’s the girl in the front row who doesn’t say much, who spends a lot of time drawing in class, who notices things that the other kids ignore.

Wordswimmer: Did it take a long time to get the voice on paper?

Chappel: I wrote the novel in nine months. I showed it to another YA writer, Joyce Sweeney, and we polished it before submitting to my agent, Kate Lee, who offered her own wise suggestions. My editors at HarperCollins, Katherine Tegan and Julie Lansky, were very protective of Fin. They never asked me to make changes that would feel out of character for her.

Wordswimmer: Any suggestions for writers searching for the voices of their characters?

Chappell: It’s important to be a good listener. By that, I mean, pay attention to your protagonist. Don’t simply move her through the plot like a chess piece on a board. She might do things that surprise you. When that happens, let her. That’s when it gets good.

Wordswimmer: How do you help your students find their voices?

Chappell: When I teach a writing class, I walk into the room on the first day and jot a sentence on the board: “Screw the left brain.” (The quote's taken from a note that supposedly hangs over Ray Bradbury’s computer and refers to the critical/analytical section of our brains devoted to self-censorship.)

As a professor working in a college devoted to the arts, I understand that most of my students are visually oriented. To make matters more complicated, many were born in other countries. They come to class with a lot of “baggage.” Somebody may have told them, “You’re a terrible writer,” and now they believe it.

To be honest, anybody can learn to write well. I can teach them a variety of tricks to strengthen their skills. However, voice is something that can’t be taught. I can only coax them into expressing themselves as candidly as possible, making every noun and verb count, rather than hiding behind a bunch of flabby adjectives.

A friend of mine writes letters so lush with detail, they remind me of short stories. Yet when he attempts to write fiction, he gets bogged down by some preconceived notion of what “good prose” should be. His stories sound nothing like his letters.

I see the same struggle in my students.They’re afraid of making mistakes. They don’t want to look stupid.

I tell them, “This isn’t about spelling. I don’t care if your grammar is funky. Just write. You can clean it up later.”

At first, they’re overwhelmed by the freedom. They want to know, “How long does it have to be?”

I tell them, “Until it’s done.”

They want to fill up space with long, rambly sentences and abstract ideas.

I tell them, “Imagine you’re paying me a buck for every word. Now go back and trim it. Save yourself some cash.”

Because they are young, they often believe that they have nothing important to say.

I try to teach them that their voice matters.

Every story has been told. It’s their view of the world that gives meaning to their narratives. That’s why my nonfiction classes usually impress me more than those in creative writing. There’s no B.S. when my students write honestly about their lives.

If it scares you, good. Go further.

If you think you’ve pushed too far, push harder.

Once you let go of that built-in anxiety, it’s like Dumbo’s magic feather.

You can fly.

Wordswimmer: Many thanks, Crissa.

For more information about Crissa-Jean Chappell and her work, visit her website at:

And keep an eye out for Total Constant Order, which is due out in October from Katherine Tegan Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers).

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