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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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6 Tips to Help You Get Some Creative Time With Kids in the House

A lone tree in the midst of a lake.If you’re a parent, chances are you have to watch your kids while trying to schedule in some creative time for yourself. Sure, you can get down and dirty with them, get yourself covered in paint or mud, and have loads of fun, too. However, you likely once in a while feel the need to work at your own creative pursuits. I’ve found a few ideas that work for times when I need to work on my writing with minimal interruptions. Maybe some will help you in your creative endeavours, too.

Your children’s age will depend on how much you can accomplish. In the early years, when children are very young, you may simply need to arrange for extra help or be satisfied with what you can squeeze in:

  • A tiny human often requires more attention than you have hours in a day.
  • You shouldn’t leave your eyes off a toddler, especially if you want your kitchen cupboards to stay intact.
  • Kids in the midst of toilet training are an accident waiting to happen (that you need to clean up).

My kids are in elementary school and by no means independent enough to look after themselves for an hour or two while I work away at the computer. I’ve found few ways, though, to integrate my work into their lives.

Idea #1:

I rarely write at the computer when home alone with the kids. My kids run to the computer as strongly as most working adults run away from it. I lose my patience easily when I get interrupted so frequently that the period I’m aiming for seems two miles away. My best alternative is to avoid the situation altogether.

Idea #2:

Therefore, I work with paper and pen at a table, usually brainstorming. I have enough projects on the go (paid and personal) that I always have something to brainstorm. Doing this after a meal works best, because my kids are re-energized, usually happy, and eager to play with each other.

Idea #3:

I taught my kids how to knock. (If you don’t have a separate room, teaching them to say, “Excuse me, Mom/Dad,” could play the same role.) I can then finish my thought/sentence and turn off my timer. Then I tell them to come in, and they have 100% of my attention. If my husband’s home, though, they get a very quick, “Mommy’s working. You have to ask Daddy.” Which brings me to Way #4:

Idea #4:

I set reasonable boundaries for their ages. I can set the oven timer for 20 minutes and ask my kids not to disturb me until it beeps. However, because of Rule #1, I only use this when I’m alone with the kids and facing a tight deadline. I’ve also heard that having a box with special activities reserved for such times can help, but it didn’t work for me.

Idea #5:

Ask for help. Whether it’s the grandparents, your significant other, a trusted friend, or paid child care, if you need a long stretch of creativity time, you may need to bring in the cavalry. Kids are programmed to desire their parents’ company, but having someone else in the house who loves them, or at least cares enough about them to have fun with them, may give you that extra space to work on your project.

Idea #6:

I spend scheduled time with them each day, and ensure that work is far from my mind. I don’t write between 3:00 and 4:00 so I can pick up the kids from the bus, have a snack with them, see if they have homework, etc. I also read to them many nights of the week. I limit writing on the weekends, again, depending on my workload.

Think through your own rules carefully to make sure they’re appropriate for your family’s situation, but then gently enforce them. Be understanding that kids need help when things change, especially when the kids are really young. Based on my experience, the angrier I get with the kids, the angrier they get with each other, and I have to frequently stop what I’m doing to break up their fights. Gentleness, patience, and consistency usually ensure longer periods of time for me.

One warning, though: whatever you do, don’t make your creative pursuit appear like something that’s keeping you away from your kids. Children may grow jealous of your hobby/job instead of being inspired by it. Just be gentle with your children. In my few years of parenthood, I’ve learned that patience and teaching generally beat force if I’m looking for long-term compliance.

Do you have any tips on how to carve out some creativity time for yourself with kids in the home?

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Storytelling or Missionizing?

Robertson DaviesI idolized Jean Little in my pre-teens and early teens. Many of her books helped me understand other children. I do believe they made me a nicer person. One novel, Different Dragons, even helped me get over my fear of dogs (though I still greatly dislike them). I wanted to write similar stories, ones that helped others understand their friends, family, and even strangers better. I didn’t want to scare anyone, or hurt anyone, or embarrass anyone. I wanted to help. But I was still too young to look past someone’s physical appearance into their soul, and that showed in my writing.

My problem, according to Robertson Davies, was that I was focusing on the message and not the story. (He didn’t advise me personally – I simply enjoy reading his essays.) Davies felt that too many writers were trying to missionize. I was in that category. “Write about what you know,” they say. While I don’t think that always has to be true, it did apply to my stories at the time. Jean Little wrote in her first autobiography that she began writing to fill a void in fiction. In her younger years, she used to work with children who faced various  challenges. She loved reading to them, but every disabled child in the books she read magically became abled at the end:

I was looking for a book in which the child’s handicap was present only in the background. The kids I taught were no conscious of their disabilities most of the time. They minded when people stared at them, or when their brothers and sisters got bicycles, of course. But usually they were too busy living to brood. Physio and occupational therapy were like arithmetic and reading, an accepted part of their days.

[…]

Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me. [Little, Jean. Little by Little: a Writer’s Education. Markham: Penguin Books. 1987. Excerpt from pages 224-225.]

She currently has over 40 publications to her name, from 1962 to now. She knew how to capture the soul of each child in her work. The books aren’t about “be nice to handicapped kids.” They describe real children’s growing pains, regardless of what daily challenges they face. The child could have cerebral palsy, be afraid of dogs, or live during the Spanish flu epidemic. I stopped reading Little when I was about 13 or so, so I’m no fully familiar with her current works. But as a child on the quieter side of the spectrum, she connected with me.

Fast forward 20 years, when I have my own children. I had started another book with my boys last night: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott:

Soonie’s family makes SHOW WAYS – quilts with secret meanings that are maps to freedom. Her family tells stories of bravery that inspire courage. Each generation passes on to the next the belief that there is a road to a better place. [Book summary.]

Beautifully written, it let me read a book to my young boys about American black history over two nights. My youngest is a bit too young – he doesn’t understand that sort of thing yet. But my older son was quite enthralled, despite claiming at the beginning of each night that he didn’t want to read it. The theme described how mothers pass down hope, generation to generation, through quilting. The background was slavery and then the civil rights movement in the US. For older children, they may have recognized some of the photos pulled out of history. For young children, they blended in to the background as my kids listened to my words.

My third example of an excellent children’s writer (because this is a genre prone to missionizing) is Marc Brown and his Arthur series. I get more excited when Arthur comes on in the morning than my kids. And my anticipation increases when I realize it’s an episode I haven’t seen yet. (They’re currently in season 18, so I have lots of episodes to watch out for.) Arthur, Francine, the Brain, George, Muffy, D.W., Binky…all the characters could just as well be my kids’ friends at school. They’ve tackled cancer, Alzheimer’s (with Joan Rivers’ help – awesome episode), bullying, trying to write a story that’s true to you…The last thing I think about is being missionized to. The first thing I see is an excellent story.

I’ve spent a lot of time debating how to tackle topics that are important to me, the kinds that I think people should read about. It’s easy to rant in an op-ed piece for the local paper. Not so easy is writing excellent fiction on a difficult topic that invites the reader in instead of shutting the reader out. You can’t missionize, you have to tell the story.

There is nothing more satisfying than understanding a challenge you’ve carried with you for so long and finally knowing the direction you have to go in to fix it.

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What Do You Believe About Yourself? It May Affect Your Creativity

Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1884 (age 10)
Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1884 (age 10) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did a few comedy improv workshops once for troubled teens in a local high school. Most of the scenes were about sex, so I urged the students to try something else. A young man spoke up.

“You know we’re teens, right?”

That young man illustrated for me what many people believe: the stereotype they accept for themselves (“teens think only about sex”) also includes a belief about creativity (“therefore we can’t think of anything else”).

When I was young, I actually believed that creativity = good writing. I didn’t realize that practice and learning = good writing. By the time I got to university, I’d stopped writing fiction, because I couldn’t remember anyone (except my parents) saying I could write well.

It’s amazing how 16 years, two kids, and a daytime job improve your self-esteem. I’ve allowed myself to write fiction again.

I didn’t do it by setting aside “me time” at the computer, where I’d spend two hours completely immersed in my writing. I did it the old-fashioned way: the notebook beside the bed. (I believe L.M. Montgomery did this, though I’m sure many other writers did and do, too.) If I had the urge to write in the morning or before bed, I wrote, usually about ten minutes or so, and then went on with my day.

I ended up writing a few kids’ stories and sharing one with my little ones. They loved it, by the way, and it’s sparked a new bedtime routine for us: practicing creativity by writing a kids’ story together.

What if they hadn’t liked it? I would’ve been ecstatic with the small step that I’d at least written something. Then I would’ve tried to figure out why they didn’t like it, and I would’ve tried again.

But first thing’s first: break out of your self-defined stereotype, and create.