The lovely and talented Hannah Harrington has written a guest blog for us about the inspiration behind her new novel Speechless, as well as her top tips for aspiring writers.
I get asked a lot about the inspiration behind Speechless. I wish I could boil it down to one light bulb moment, but all I remember is one day thinking of what it would be like to take an oath of silence.
For some of us that might not be such a challenge. But I wanted to write about someone who would have a very difficult time with such a decision—someone who depended on speaking as part of their identity. Enter Chelsea Knot, the protagonist of Speechless: she’s a gossip queen who is always airing dirty secrets as a form of social currency. Getting into other people’s business and spreading it around makes her feel better about herself, for all the wrong reasons.
Who would have a harder time being silent than a gossip monger like Chelsea? And what on earth would cause her to voluntarily give up speaking? These were the questions I had when shaping the story. The stakes would have to be pretty high to get someone like her to shake up her life and reform her old ways.
In Speechless, Chelsea has a fall from grace early on all due to her big mouth. She shares a secret she shouldn’t have, and the consequences are dire. As a result she loses her place as a popular girl and is alienated by most of the rest of the student body. Not only that, but she becomes a victim of the behavior she once partook in. Suddenly her so-called friends are name-calling, harassing, and bullying her, both verbally and physically.
Bullying is a major issue in our schools today, one that recently is fortunately getting more attention. It’s something most teenagers face in one shape or another—either as the bullies, the bullied, or the observers. Speechless features characters who fit into all of these categories. A lot of high school is about finding out who you are, and that’s difficult enough without other people trying to tear you down. Chelsea has to deal with a lot of that, and at the same time with consequences for her own selfish behavior. She does a lot of growing up over the course of the novel, and by the end of it she isn’t perfect, but she’s learned that while it’s hard to stand up for what is right, at the end of the day you only answer to yourself. I hope that people take away from Speechless that silence has just as much power as words do.
Everyone’s writing process is different. The great thing about writing is that there are no limits when it comes to ideas or experimentation. However, there are a few simple ways to make your writing stronger:
1. Show, don’t tell. This is a basic idea, but it can be harder than it looks. Readers don’t want you to spell everything out about what a character is feeling—they want to experience it from the way a character behaves or what they say. If a girl is beautiful, don’t tell me she’s beautiful—describe what makes her beautiful so I can believe it. Here’s an example sentence: “Jenna sat at her desk staring at the blank piece of paper before her, and then suddenly ripped it from her notebook, balling it up tight in her fist before hurling it at the wall.” I don’t spell it out there, but from reading that sentence, you can glean a few things from Jenna’s character about her emotional state. She is clearly frustrated and unhappy about something, even though I don’t use those words to describe her. Figuring that out from reading about her actions is more powerful to a reader than saying “Jenna sat at her desk, frustrated beyond reason”. It also adds subtlety.
2. Don’t be afraid of the word “said”. Sometimes it’s good to use more descriptive words, but you’ll find that your dialogue goes much smoother without interjecting it with “she cried” or “she yelled” or “she announced” every other line. It also ties back into showing not telling: readers can often tell just from the dialogue alone what kind of tone the words are being said in without having to spell it out. If someone is stomping around a room while they’re speaking, and you use some exclamation points with what they say, we can tell they are raising their voices without you pointing it out.
3. Character voice. Think of two friends you have, or two family members. Do they speak the same way? Probably not. Everyone has their own voice and mannerisms and sense of humor (or lack of!). Trying to differentiate your character voices in dialogue so they don’t all sound alike can do wonders for your character development. If you’re writing a story with a teenage delinquent and a security guard, I should be able to tell them apart by their dialogue alone, no signifiers necessary. Think, too, if you’re writing from a teenage perspective what kind of words they’re going to use. Don’t try too hard to insert big vocabulary words or purple prose—simplifying your writing can make it cleaner and more believable.
4. Read! A great way to learn about writing is to read the works of other writers you love. Read your favorite novels and try to think about why it is you love them so much. Is it the descriptions, the plots, the characters, the writing style? You can then try to apply what you love about other people’s writing to your own.
5. Write every day, no matter what. Even if you feel you have nothing to say. Even if it’s just a sentence or two. The only way to become a better writer is to write, write, write!
Follow Hannah Harrington on twitter @hharrington
Speechless is out now from Mira Ink, get your copy here.
Oh, and please watch our snazzy trailer :D