I can't say enough positive things about Ellen Hopkins. Her writing is beautiful, moving, and terrifying. Her story is both inspiring and heartbreaking, and she's so honest about it that it makes me want to be a better, and more honest, storyteller. Here's a little slice of her, for anyone that needs to remember why we write, or for anyone who needs a refresher in teen voice.
ELLEN HOPKINS—Not for the Faint of Heart: The Climb to the Top
ELEMENTS for success = talent, perseverance, and luck, in varying degrees.
-Luck is something you make for yourself.
-Writing is a constant climb. Don’t look for the easy way to the top; expect to work hard. The climb is not for the faint of heart.
-Build a publishing bio
-Learn the rules before you try to break them.
-Don’t make the climb alone—take classes, join critique groups, attend conferences, etc. Each brings something new; the investment will pay off.
-This business is communication.
-Capitalize on your own experience.
-->E.g., Ellen used her own first kiss/love experience for Christina in Crank
-->E.g., JK Rowling used the pain from her father’s death for Harry
**Tell the story you have to tell—the one that touches your heart, not the one that you have to force onto the paper.
-Good enough isn’t enough; you have to write the best.
Questions to ask yourself:
-How far are you willing to go?
-What are you willing to do?
-How high are you willing to climb?
Publishing, like any other mountain, is ever-changing. Don’t just accept these changes; embrace them. (e.g., Kindle)
"The only indispensable people are writers and illustrators who love and respect children."
ELLEN HOPKINS—Like for Real: The Not So Mysterious Teen Voice
Examples of messages she gets from teens:
-“Love me, hate me, either way, you’re gonna be talking about me.” (common theme = "remember my name")
--“I have a big heart and don’t give up … People like to fuck me over constantly.” (The back and forth shows inner turmoil in children.)
-“If you want to know more, ask me.” (kids are very open)
-“I know the things I know because I know how cruel the world can be.”
-“Without my friends and family, I would be nothing.”
--And her favorite, from a 14-year-old-girl who is, by the way, doing well now (I took a picture of this with my phone b/c it was so beautiful): “Walking through the crowded hallways where sharp glares and friendly faces pass me by and stab my back. Sitting there in Geometry, grinding my toes to prevent my stomach from growling, constantly I thought “I’m dumb” and “Where’s the nearest sharp object?” I don’t meet anyone’s eyes, my hands are constantly hidden, (no hints, I promise). I try to really refrain from talking at all. I abhor by shyness, but lately it’s been hard to overcome it without thoughts of fear. Challenges occur every day, but my main challenge is posed daily. When I look in the mirror and think about myself, and lie inside my head for hours alone. I am only clarifying that my challenge is myself.”
TIPS on voice
- Each teen functions within his/her own realm of experience. Voice is an offshoot of character.
**Create characters and their realm (family, likes, friends, etc.) first. Layer them. Voices will evolve from that place.
-Don’t plot first. Plot needs to flow from character.
-Within every story, each character’s experience will be different, so each voice must be unique. It is very important to maintain distinct voices.
-Climb into your characters’ heads and write like they think—phrases, incomplete sentences, 1-word thoughts, etc.
-Let your characters talk through you. Channel them. Become them. Write “you” as them. (First person can help accomplish this in a more organic matter than third person.)
**Don’t dumb down language.
-Don’t let author intrusion trump teen’s voice.
-Avoid metaphors inconsistent with teen voice. (E.g., “My heart danced like Fred Estaire.”)
-Leave the Valley Girl off the page. Use minimal foreign language and no urban hip, unless you live it. These things pull you out of the story. (e.g., writing "N’Awlins" instead of "New Orleans" pulls you off the page. People will read in the vernacular that they speak; you don’t have to try so hard.) Your goal is to reach the largest possible audience. If you try to appeal to just one segment, you can limit your readership.
**Listen to teens not for how they talk, but for what they’re talking about.
-Look for what’s important in kids’ lives.
-Myspace – younger teens
-Facebook – teens that have been reading Ellen's stuff for awhile
-Twitter – mostly for industry stuff
-Some teens don’t curse.
-Some overuse bad language.
-Use as it is necessary to be true to your characters.
-Listen to kids’ music. Check their playlists.
-Music influences voice.
-Question to ask: What type of music does your MC listen to?
-Don’t stereotype with music. Life influences what kids listen to—e.g., some black kids listen to country, some Hispanics like punk, etc.
Your own teen experiences will affect the voice of your characters. Bring authenticity to the voice.
-What were you like as a teen?
-How can that come into play with your teens?
-Characters don’t have to be like you, but this can affect how you write your teens.
Interesting bit of info: Ellen doesn’t write rough/first drafts. She perfects her poems as she goes—sometimes has to tweak a little.
Exercise: Ellen Hopkins didn't start by writing in verse. She attended a workshop, I believe taught by Sonya Sones, where the assignment was for everyone to write a poem. So what did Ellen have all of us do? You got it. We all wrote a poem about a memorable high school experience, and then some people (ballsy freaks of nature, I tell you!) read them out loud. To ELLEN. While I just sat there with chalk in my mouth.
Note: I had mine posted, but it made this post wayyyyy too long. And it was kind of pathetic. :)
So, do yourself a favor. Go and get yourself a copy of Tricks, or anything else Ellen-related. You may squirm and cry and lose a few hours of sleep b/c you can't shut off your brain (yeah, so this happened to me ... especially with Identical), but you won't regret it.
Nightie night. Don't let the bed bugs bite. :)