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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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Review: The Artist’s Way for Parents

The Artist's Way for ParentsI would argue that most parents in North America gain most of their parenting skills from “I’m not doing what my parents did” and parenting books. Whether Dr. Spock or Dr. Sears, we all have someone’s reference book somewhere telling us what to do in case of illness, what milestones to expect, whether babies need schedules or not, etc.

What I was sorely missing, though, was a more spiritual way of parenting. I’m not talking religion here. By spirituality, I mean a deeper sense connectedness to the world. Because creativity helps us connect with each other, I believe it’s important that kids be exposed to many forms of creativity so they can learn how to connect with others. This isn’t free play, though that’s also important. It’s simply arts and crafts and exposure to others’ creativity as is appropriate for my kids’ ages. Not easy for very cerebral types like myself.

My mom gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way for Parents by Julia Cameron. Cameron is well-known for The Artist’s Way, and while I haven’t worked through that book yet, I hear good things about it.

The beauty of The Artist’s Way for Parents is that it helped reconnect Kid Lori with Adult Lori in a non-self-help way. It fuelled my ideas and drew on what I’ve already experienced in my life, no steps to memorize or supplies to buy (unless I want to). Simple suggestions and case studies about activities like going for a walk with my kids, for example, inspire me much more than the rules I’m supposed to live my days by until the kids move up to the next parenting book. The Artist’s Way for Parents ever so quietly nudged me to remember what I enjoyed as a child and then encouraged me to simply draw on that.

So really, The Artist’s Way for Parents is actually about what my parents did right: they let me be creative.

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The Seeds of Childhood – Part 2

Jean Little - my favourite childhood author and purveyor of great advice.
Jean Little. Photo from jeanlittle.ca

I didn’t plan a part 2 when I wrote last week’s blog, but the idea wouldn’t stay quiet. A magnet in my gut pulled me to the computer to publish a poem I’d written as a kid. I think I was in grade 7, though I may have been younger. I’ve always carried this poem in my mind, and some time earlier this year I found it.

Ahem…here it goes (typos included):

Friends Are Forever

Friends are forever,
Well, most anyway,
Always loving and caring,
And with whom we do play.

I may cry,
And I may weep,
But friends they are;
And friends I keep.

There are different kinds of friends;
Tall friends, short friends,
Girl friends, boy friends,
Funny friends and crazy friends:
But most of all –
Best friends.

You can tell I prioritized rhyming over meaning, but I commend myself for the effort. (Pats young self on back.) I remember actually reworking this poem several times on a typewriter at my dad’s business. I thought it was so great, I even entered it in a contest. (Didn’t win.)

Turns out I produced a lot when I was 12. I was apparently so focused on writing and learning how to write well that I wrote a fan letter to my favourite childhood author, Jean Little. I had read all of her books that were available then. She’s still publishing now, and I read a recent book a few months ago. I never tire of her work.

I didn’t save a copy of the letter, so I can only surmise that I asked a bunch of questions, because she wrote a bunch of answers. This I do know, though: I clearly wanted the easy answer to becoming a successful writer.

While I’d love to put the whole letter up here, it was actually very personal, and I’d feel like Judas if I published it on the web. But I think I can share this piece of advice from her:

“You want suggestions for things that would be ‘easy’ to write about. Good writing, Lori, is not easy. It is challenging, fun, exciting, hard work, satisfying, maddening but never, ever easy. […] Poetry is worth working at. What triumph is there in doing something that’s so simple it takes no effort? You want to be proud of what you write, don’t you? Then be ready to give it your best.”

It was a two-page letter. I was thrilled to read it then, and I’m more thrilled to read it now.

The reason I’ve posted this is to reconnect to my main point last week: it’s perfectly okay to temper our childhood loves with adult wisdom (not criticism). So I’m going to take another crack at that poem. Given all the work I put in to it over 20 years ago, I feel it deserves adult tempering. I’m then going to post it here. I don’t know when exactly, but I promise to do it before my birthday, which I’m of course not going publicize. It’s not soon, though, hence choosing that date.

If you find some art from your childhood that you’d like to share, post it on your blog and feel free to link to it in the comments section below. Then, if you’re up to it, rework it, see what comes of it, and let the rest of us know about it.

(Ms. Little wrote in my letter that she was actually going to keep my letter. If anyone knows her really well, do you mind asking if she still has it? I’d like to know what I wrote! Message me first for my maiden name, though.)