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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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The Power of Focus in Your Art

oqx70jjbslomi5ackhxm_urbex-ppc-030Last month, an editor whose blog I’d been following for over a year offered me a free consultation, because the 20 pages I’d sent to her for feedback (paid service) showed her enough problems she wanted to give me a shout. Long story short, she said to restart a novel I’d been working on for the past two years. Ouch.

But I took her advice. The original one had grown to 92,000 words, I was on ending #7, and I had more plates in the plot’s air than a 20-year circus veteran. Even worse, I didn’t know how to make them stop spinning without breaking them. My gut feeling said to restart, but I ignored it: who wants to restart 92,000 words? I needed a kick in the ass to make it happen, and that freelance editor was it. She also helped me decide what to focus on, and something that had been right in front of my nose finally made it inside my brain. Let me explain.

Over the past three months, I’ve spent a lot of time at our local roadhouse theatre (disclaimer: also my client). I sat a few rows away from American folk and rock legend David Crosby, kids’ entertainment powerhouse The Wiggles, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry, and West End and Broadway superstar Colm Wilkinson. The main similarity was that each artist, The Wiggles included, had distilled their artistic lives into a two-hour show:

  • Crosby condensed his 50+ years in the music business and included songs from a newly released album.
  • The Wiggles song catalogue, 25 years old and growing, apparently has over 1,000 melodies in it, yet the group only performed a handful plus some from a new release.
  • Chris Hadfield had stories, songs, and photographs to share with us about Canada and space exploration. He even included some family history. That’s about a hundred years of stories reduced to two hours.
  • Brian Skerry just finished 19 years at National Geographic. He filtered that down to two hours.
  • Colm Wilkinson has been performing on stage since the 70s, almost as long as Crosby. He picked his favourite songs and sang for two hours.

In only two hours, they had invited me into their lives and shared something significant with me (and the other 1,000-2,000 in the theatre) that remained in my soul. Two hours. Clearly I was wasting time and words in my novel of 92,000 words.

So that begged the question: what is the true focus of my novel? I won’t answer that here, but I was giving each topic I’d raised in it equal time; I didn’t see where I could connect and layer them. My goal now is to publish a novel under 60,000 words.

This is also a question you should ask yourself about your art. I think we keep adding material because we’re either afraid of running out of something to say or too scared to dive into it more. (Feb/17 update: This blog post talks more about digging deeper.)

Some time in the early fall, I returned to my old improv group for a workshop. The topic was working with what you already have and not constantly searching for new stuff. Despite the workshop leader’s best intentions, I couldn’t home in on that skill anymore, and I wonder if I even had it to begin with.

I believe that part of what makes an artist successful is the ability to reduce an idea to its core and then explore it from there. For most artists, that will mean digging into some personal stuff, even if the piece of art isn’t about something personal. But it’s that kind of focus that will, I believe, let you connect with your audience, because you’ll give a voice to the depths of their own emotions.