Saturday, January 24, 2009

No Time for Thinking

Hi All,

Sorry this post is late. I had my wisdom teeth (all four) yanked out on Friday and the pain killers have officially worn off. Though I would love to sit and write about character development, it seems that the only thing going through my head right now is: "Why are these darn drugs not working?"

For years I've been avoiding the inevitable. Every time I would go and see my dentist she would give me that "you're naughty" kind of look and tell me that I should get my wisdom teeth pulled. I would tell her that they weren't bothering me and that if and when they did, she would be the first person I'd call. What I hoped was that I would never have to call her...I was wrong. Last month my bottom, left wisdom tooth began to really bother me. I knew that the outcome was not going to be anything I was going to be happy with. I've never had a cavity, nor have I ever had freezing or a filling...hence my worry about the whole tooth extraction thing. I went in and explained everything to my dentist, who then told me I HAD to get them pulled. At first she said just the bottoms, but then she looked and said, "Nope, I think we'll do all four!" Oh, goodie.

She sent me to an oral surgeon who seemed like a nice enough man. He sat me down in a comfortable chair and told me that he had a movie for me to watch. He started the movie and then left the room. What unfolded was a fifteen minute fright fest of all the bad things that could happen (including death) if you have your wisdom teeth removed. Now when you are a certificate carrying hypochondriac (I'm kidding about the certificate, but would gladly carry one if one existed) telling me that I could die from this procedure is not going to calm me down. Instantly my anxiety went through the roof.

Finally the big day came and I arrived at his office, not having eaten since 5 p.m. the previous day, because I was going to be placed under general anaesthetic, I got there with my nerves barely intact. They had told me that I had to wear black and couldn't have nail polish on my left hand (IV hand), so I arrived in jogging pants and a short sleeved black top. They placed the IV in the soft bend of my right arm. Within a few seconds I was out and was only aware of a few slight things that were going on, including the cracking of my teeth as he pulled them out. When the whole thing was done he informed me that I would probably be in a lot of pain, because he had to cut into my jaw bone on both sides of my mouth.

The whole thing took less than an hour, but has rendered me quite sore. My husband (Mr. Compassion) said, "Geez, when I had my bottom ones out, I wasn't in that much pain." This from the man who can't get out of bed for a week if he gets the sniffles. I think the pain medication may actually be working now. It took long enough. Well I thought I would let you all know why my post was late, and now off to bed I go while the pain has subsided.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Images and Voices

I’ve been struggling to come up with what to write about on this topic all week. Not that I have anyone but myself to blame, because I think this topic was my idea! But now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve realized that I don’t really "build" my characters, at least, not consciously. When I start a story, I usually have the basic plot idea first. Then I think about how a person might react/act in that situation. But from there I always feel like the characters sort of build themselves.

A main character usually comes to me as an image. I’ve written before about how The September Sisters began only with the image of two girls fighting in a pool. For my second YA novel, The Life of Glass, (out from Harperteen in Winter 2010) I started the book with only the image of a girl riding her bike in a prom dress. This actually never ended up happening in the book (though there is a crucial bike riding scene at one point) but it told me a lot about the character, that she was the kind of person who was impulsive or impatient enough to do this.

Other times I hear a character’s voice. A line of dialogue pops into my head, and then I know exactly who the character is. In The September Sisters, Abigail’s next door neighbor looks after her for a while after her sister disappears. When I first heard her voice in my head, it was in broken English, with an accent. I heard her mispronouncing Abigail’s name, and then I realized that she was an elderly Hispanic lady. The same was true with Abigail’s father – I could hear the stern way he continually called her “Ab,” and then I knew exactly what kind of father he was.

How do I imagine and hear these things? How do I get from these small moments to a full-fleshed out character? I’m not exactly sure. In my head a book always starts like a puzzle, a thousand tiny little pieces that at first seem to make no sense. But I take the little pieces, the voices, the images, and I just start writing what I do know. As I write, it all, somewhat miraculously, starts to come together.

Sure, I learn a character’s quirks and nuances along the way, and when I revise I have to go back and change things that, after learning more about the character, don’t feel just right. But I never feel like a character is “built.” From that very first image or word, a character always just feels like a real person to me, and like any other relationship, as you get to know this person more and more, the little things, the things that make you love (or hate) someone eventually reveal themselves.

Yet, despite thinking of my characters as real people, immersing myself in their lives, even dreaming about them, what I love most about character building is the thing that separates it utterly from real life. With characters, I am completely in control of their destiny. I can manipulate them to do and say what I want, to find resolution in chaos, and hope in disaster. And then, 75,000 words or so and several revisions later, I get to say goodbye. And start all over again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You WILL Talk To Me

Sitting down to write this blog post, I had an image in my head of backing one of my characters into a corner and forcing her to talk to me by any means necessary--threats, tears, gunpoint, whatever.

Because that's pretty much what it's like for me when I write a book.

See, my first drafts start off so...first draft-y. Characters aren't fully fleshed out and are one-dimensional at best. And often times, they do things that serve my plot well, but make no sense based on personality. Like, "Why would the girl who's afraid of the dark be wandering around a forest at midnight?"

But, as I've discussed before, I ignore those details and push through my first draft. It's in the revision stage that I give my characters layers--quirks, backgrounds, likes/dislikes and weird habits. Of course, I start with an overall emotional arc for each character, but it isn't until the story portion is complete that I can sit back and scrutinize the puzzle pieces.

When my first draft is done, I sit down and do a good old character inventory. Embarrassing moments, first kiss, favorite food, celebrity crush, etc. And I tweak it around and twist it until relatable, but also unexpected and funny. Like, for instance, one of my YA characters has a crush on...Phil Collins. Strange, no?

When I wrote the sequel to A Bump, I didn't have to worry about any of that. The characters were already fleshed out. I "knew" them. And THAT was the greatest joy--it was like sitting down with old friends and catching up on good times. I was so connected to all of them that I couldn't get the words down fast enough. And often, they were all talking in my head at once.

Which often lead to moments where I'd find my husband staring strangely at me and I'd say, "What?" And he'd tell me that I was just sort of whispering to myself about a character. (Maybe it's best that writing is a solitary profession, no?)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Creating Characters

Just like with any writing topic, everyone builds their characters differently--at least to some extent. When I first tried my hand at writing novels, I used these long and detailed characterization charts. They asked everything from name, to religion, to political beliefs, to how they dressed, what their favorite food was, and on and on and on. I quickly learned that these characterization charts, no matter how detailed, simply did not work for me.

For one, in these charts, all my heroes and heroines would appear to be basically the same person (except for, perhaps, hair color, eye color, etc.). But once I started writing....well, that character chart gave me very little information I actually used. This is because (as weird as it sounds), my characters don't really come to life for me until I begin delving into the story. Once I figured that out, I changed the way I build my characters in the pre-writing stage.

So, what do I do now? A very shortened version of the pages of charts I used to use. It's actually a very simple approach, and it goes something like this:

1. Name
2. Siblings and names, if any
3. Friends and names
4. Age
5. Employment
6. Physical characteristics
7. Basic journey of the character (this is where I try to, at the very least, understand the internal and external conflict my character is going to face...from where they begin, and where I think they'll end).

And that's all I have as far as a "chart" goes, and these are more so I know who the people are they're going to be dealing with, and because I'm a character driven writer--knowing their journey is critical for me. That doesn't mean I know how they're going to get from point A to point B, because often I don't, but at least I know WHAT the destination is, if not the exact path to get there.

My next step (and I've talked about this before), is to write myself a letter from the character. Now, I don't do this for every character in my book--but I definitely do it for my hero and for my heroine.

Again, this probably sounds a little odd, but I simply open a new Word document, type: Dear Tracy: and begin to free write. Sometimes I'll end up with pages and pages of information (that I never would have thought of while filling out a chart), and other times it will just be one or two pages. Regardless, I'll always discover at least one or two bits of information about my character that I didn't know before. Sometimes this will alter the journey, sometimes it will bring it into clearer focus, and usually--it will help me understand WHY this journey is important to this particular character.'s it. The rest of what I'll learn about my characters will happen as I'm writing the book. However, while I'm writing, I give myself free reign to write the characters as they need to be written, even if they don't follow suit with what I planned. For me, though, that's part of the magic of creating stories. I love it when things I haven't planned (or even thought of) happen on the page in front of me.

My process for character building is much more about learning WHO they are in the process of telling their story, than it is about deciding who they are before I've even begun. This process works for me time and again, but there is one thing I'll often have to change once I'm writing--and that's their names. If a character isn't clicking for me, the first thing I do is change their name. Often, the new name (for reasons I don't understand) will click, and suddenly whatever issues I'd been having disappear completely.

Regardless, my end goal is to write about characters I care about and to tell their story in their way. That's the only way I know how to bring them to life.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Novel Girls News

Check out this awesome book trailer for Tracy Madison's A TASTE OF MAGIC!!