New Voice: Jennifer Shaw Wolf on Breaking Beautiful

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Jennifer Shaw Wolf is the first-time author of Breaking Beautiful (Walker, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Allie lost everything the night her boyfriend, Trip, died in a horrible car accident—including her memory of the event. 

As their small town mourns his death, Allie is afraid to remember because doing so means delving into what she’s kept hidden for so long: the horrible reality of their abusive relationship.

When the police reopen the investigation, it casts suspicion on Allie and her best friend, Blake, especially as their budding romance raises eyebrows around town. Allie knows she must tell the truth. Can she reach deep enough to remember that night so she can finally break free? 

Debut writer Jennifer Shaw Wolf takes readers on an emotional ride through the murky waters of love, shame, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

What is it like, to be a debut author in 2012? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

I love finally being a “real” author and knowing I have a book coming out. I love that I have something concrete to show for the hours I spend hunched over a computer. I love that I can share my story with the world (although that part still kind of freaks me out.)

I love that my kids can look at me and know that their mom worked hard and accomplished her dreams. My family has been my greatest support from the beginning, so my kids know how much time I spent trying to get where I am. It’s important to me that they understand, dreams are possible, but it still takes a lot of work.

One of my favorite things about being a debut author has been the people I’ve met. This is a tough business, but the people in it are incredible. I love my agent and my editor I appreciate all that they have done to teach me about this business and make the road as smooth as possible. I love meeting with my my critique group and my SCBWI groups. I love the people I’ve met through my literary agency. It’s therapeutic to spend time with people who share your brand of craziness and understand what it is to have voices in your head.

I’m also grateful for my Class of 2k12 Group and my Apocalypsies group. Unless you’ve been through this process you don’t know how hard it is. The best advice I could give a new author is to find a marketing/emotional support group like they are. They get it when I have a deadline and my creative brain seems to be running on empty. They get the stress of constant marketing, bad reviews, and the “what if’s” of a business that’s constantly changing. They get it when the dream I’ve worked so hard for also makes me want to rip my hair out.

The hardest and the most surprising thing for me has been the amount of time it takes to do this job. Being an author means keeping up with edits on Breaking Beautiful, networking, blogging, and marketing. In the middle of all of this, I need to (and really want to) keep writing new stories.

Besides all that, I still have four kids, a house, and a husband. I wasn’t prepared for a job that could literally take up all of my time and brain power.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it, and I wouldn’t trade where I am, I just didn’t realize the time commitment that’s involved in writing, revising, and marketing a book.

Jennifer on horseback

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

One of my writing teachers, Ann Gonzales, told me that as you write you circle your character. As you get deeper into your story, or as you revise, you get closer to that person.

I really felt that when I wrote Allie. She was definitely more closed in than the other characters I’ve written. I found myself too often, writing what happened to her, instead of writing what she was feeling. I didn’t write character exercises or journals for Allie, although I see the value it that kind of exercise.

Instead, I wrote and wrote and wrote and then went back and revised. With each revision, I got closer to getting inside her head. By the time I submitted my manuscript to agents, I felt like I knew Allie pretty well. However, one of the first comments that my editor put on my edit letter was something like, “We need to get into Allie’s head more,” so I revised again.

Jennifer’s revision in action

As a writer, I have a tendency to shy away from bad introspection. Maybe I’m trying to rescue my character emotionally, by not having him or her dwell on the bad things in life. Maybe I want to keep the story moving. But, I’ve learned, when bad things happen to your characters (and they will and should) you need to make sure those bad things have some effect on the way they think. You need to let them feel and express those emotions, or they come out like a cardboard character.

As far as finding a teen voice, there are a couple of things that helped me. First, I have two teens at home and we constantly have their friends in our home so I know how they talk to each other. Second, I majored in broadcasting and I had to learn to write news copy conversationally.

One of the problems with voice and especially teen voice that I see a lot in my friends who are writing YA is that they write too formally.

Jennifer as a teen

I think formal writing has been drilled into us through a thousand essays and research papers in high school and college. When I help my son with his high school papers I’m constantly telling him that he doesn’t need to write in circles, just get to the point and say what you’re saying clearly. His argument is that writing clearly makes it sound too simple. Maybe when you’re doing a research paper you need to sound intelligent, but when you’re telling a story, you need to be clear.

I’m not saying that young adult books need to be simplified or dumbed down. Young adults are absolutely intelligent consumers of literature and there are many beautiful examples of prose in books for teens. But the story needs to be in a teen voice, with teen issues and it needs to be clear.

You aren’t trying to showcase your knowledge. You’re trying to show the world through the point of view of a teen.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer Shaw Wolf‘s hobbies include reading, video production, skiing, and running. She grew up in the tiny town of Wilford, Idaho where she milked cows, rode horses, went bridge jumping, and dragged main street. In college, she was a DJ for a small campus radio station and graduated with a degree in Broadcast Communications. She lives amid the peaceful forests of Lacey, Washington.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Jennifer Shaw Wolf on Breaking Beautiful

  1. Hi Cynthia. Nice to see your blog, but curious about Cynsations. Do the many followers repost what you write in other media outlets? Best wishes to you and your family.

  2. Happy reading, Caroline!

    Hi Giora, Great to see you here. I occasionally do a guest post–like the one at CBC Diversity. But what's posted at Cynsations is supposed to stay here unless the host has my express permission.

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