Thursday, March 31, 2011

Character Development

I have a brand new playlist in iTunes. So far it only has about half a dozen songs, but for me that's a pretty great start. Why? Because it's the playlist for my next book. It's what I'm going to listen to when getting into my characters' heads.

We all have different ways of getting to know new characters. I've seen several great posts on character development lately. Here are three of the ways I've been discovering the personality and voice of my next MC:


Voice can be tricky to master. Sometimes when first meeting a new character we wonder if we'll ever figure out the voice. I remember feeling a bit paralyzed when planning out Olympus Gate because I had some idea of Annie's voice, but it kept slipping away from me. I could describe it, but I couldn't use it.

Fortunately it did eventually become natural, and now speaking through her takes no extra effort. But knowing that I succeeded once before only helps a little now that another character has usurped all my attention.

So how do I get to know the new girl's voice? Well, for the first time I'm trying out character interviews. I set aside a block of time, fire off a few questions, and let my new leading lady find her words. The interviews have revealed so many unknown things about her, and at the same time they have allowed me to explore her voice. I can try out different nuances, and if they don't work, I can just throw them out!


In one of the interviews I started off with an easy question about what my character loves to collect. From there we “discussed” what her room looks like, which led back to some details about her early childhood that I realized would have had a profound influence on the way she sees the world.

Now that information was already in my notes, but until we really dug deep into the details of her background, it was just information. Knowing the facts isn't the same as experiencing them, and by delving into the repercussions of this one event in her life, I was able to connect with a core element of her psyche.

That's what makes backstory so important. Without knowing where our characters come from, we can't mold ourselves into the proper shapes to tell their stories.


This particular book requires a lot of research because it involves a severe injury and the consequences of that injury. I've been learning so many things that I was simply clueless about only a month ago. This injury will truly change my character's lifestyle.

But the research isn't just helping me get the logistics of the story worked out. It's also helping me figure out my character's personality. Every new thing I learn makes me wonder: how would she react to this? How will her worldview change? And every time I face one of those questions, she becomes clearer and clearer in my mind.

So how about you? What do you do to make your characters more real?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

On Saturday the world lost a very special person. She was one of my favorite authors, and she's somebody I would have liked to have met. Many of you have probably seen (or written your own) blog posts remembering Diana Wynne Jones. This is my own brief tribute.

I had never read anything of hers until the past year or so. I started with Howl's Moving Castle. It wasn't like anything else I'd ever read. It had a different kind of magic, beautifully flawed characters, delight and whimsy. I loved it.

Since then I've read at least a dozen of her other books. All of them are wonderful. Through them she came across as someone who knew hard things, but who nevertheless chose to embrace the quirks of life and find humor in them. Indeed, from this autobiography (which I read last night for the first time), I get that exact impression.

I've seen so many heartfelt things said about Diana Wynne Jones since Saturday. Neil Gaiman's post was particularly poignant. There was one line that stood out to me more than any of the others: she “hated the telephone but would still talk to me on it if I called, albeit, always, nervously, as if she expected the phone she was holding to explode.”

I loved it because that's how I've always felt about phones. I didn't know that detail about her, but I'm so glad I do now. And I feel almost justified in my own dislike of phones. Knowing I had something in common (even such a small thing) with a person who has influenced my thoughts and writing is for me like finding a pattern where I always thought there should be one but had never seen one before. It feels right.

So now, goodbye Diana Wynne Jones, and thank you for leaving us with so many lovely stories.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Recommendation: Hate List

I read Hate List by Jennifer Brown this past week and was absolutely riveted. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it's about a girl named Val whose boyfriend shot several of their fellow students in the cafeteria one morning before killing himself. In the aftermath, Val is both loved and hated—hated for her relationship with Nick and for creating the list of enemies that became Nick's targets; loved for stepping in front of the gun and stopping the massacre from becoming worse than it already was.

The opening chapters are intense as they recount two separate events: the morning of the shooting and the first day of school the following year. These chapters are both impossible to put down and incredibly hard to read. But they are only the set-up for the real story: Val's journey to acceptance—from herself, her family and the community.

Ultimately what really pulled me into the book was Val herself. She's such a real character. Her conflicting emotions feel so genuine: confusion because she still loves Nick and misses him and can't reconcile the Nick she knew with the boy pulling the trigger; defensiveness because everyone is blaming her and she never wanted anyone to die; guilt because she believes what happened was her fault and doesn't think she deserves to be called a hero.

Everything about the story feels authentic. It gets the little details right—like the way Val curls into her seat on the bus with her knees propped up against the seat in front of her. It shows complicated relationships between all the characters involved, particularly within Val's family. It's believable from the large scale to the small scale.

By the end of the book I was fighting tears. The ending is a cathartic release of all the emotion that has built up throughout the story. It isn't a “happy” ending, but it's a hopeful one, and I think it's exactly what the story needed.

It's a hard book, but one worth reading. I'm very glad I did.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Snapshot Stories

One of my absolute favorite commercials is Google's “Parisian Love.” It tells an incredibly sweet story without showing anything more than a series of Google searches. Yet it's so effective because we're wired to search for the connecting factors. We're good at filling in the details.

Have you ever seen a collection of photographs that tell a story? If you saw three shots, one of a girl posing in front of a pool, the next of her little brother sneaking up behind her, and the third of her splashing around in the water, you would probably have a pretty good idea of what happened, even if you hadn't actually seen her brother push her into the pool.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Well, often the characters that we're writing about are absorbed in their own situations and might not be very observant of the other people in their lives. But just because a POV character isn't keeping up a running commentary on the life and times of every friend and neighbor, that doesn't mean the reader can't be allowed to see glimpses of the stories happening to those minor characters.

For example, a POV character could find out that one of the major industries in her town is laying off several hundred employees. Then maybe she drives by a neighbor's yard sale a few weeks later and considers stopping to look at the nice TV he's selling but decides against it. And then maybe a few weeks after that she sees that the sports car in his driveway has been replaced with a beater. And perhaps after a few months there's a foreclosure sign on the house.

The character doesn't even have to know the owner of that house for us to get a good picture of the story happening in this neighbor's life. The POV character may not even think about the tragedy unfolding for this neighbor, but the reader will notice and feel that the book has an extra layer of authenticity.

So if you're struggling to bring some extra color and life to your book, consider the stories happening in the periphery of the main plot and try to come up with a way to slip those other stories into the narrative.

Do you have any minor characters who have been giving you trouble lately? Could you liven them up a bit by given them their own stories?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Five Things I Love About...

Cassandra Clare's books.

Yes, I do love them. I haven't mentioned them much on the blog before now, mostly because if you like YA you're probably already very familiar with her books. But I just read Clockwork Angel, and I can't help myself: I'm going to gush a bit.

So here are my top five reasons for loving these books:

1. The world. It's so easy to get lost in. It feels very natural while being so wonderfully supernatural. The lives, the cultures and the habits of the Shadowhunters make so much sense in context. The rules of the world (the way magic works and the roles of the various types of beings) are consistent, but with enough room for new developments to make for interesting twists. It's just fabulous world-building all around.

2. The characters. A lot of books have good characters. All the books I love certainly do. Truly memorable characters, though, are a little more rare. And yet, Cassandra Clare's books are loaded with them. I come away from her stories with the feeling of having spent time in the presence of actual people, and I know they'll stick with me for a long time after.

3. The romance. And all those wonderful characters have pretty exciting romances as well. There's a good reason thousands of girls find themselves half in love with Jace or Will—they are irresistible to their romantic counterparts, plus they have the tough guy exterior to hide their internal vulnerability. But what Cassandra Clare is really good at is drawing out the “will they or won't they” and leaving the reader desperate to see how the relationships progress.

4. The fact that I finally understand Steampunk now. I'd read a few other Steampunk books, but I had never connected to the characters in those books and thus hadn't really felt like I “got” the genre. Now thanks to Clockwork Angel, I can finally understand the draw.

5. The pacing. What a thrill! These books are so hard to put down. The plots work, and they take the reader on such unforgettable rides. The stories are a delightful blend of action, world-building and character-building. They're the sort of books I wish would never end.

How about you? Read anything you just couldn't put down lately?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

If Books Came in Ice Cream Flavors

Today I've got ice cream on my mind, so for today's post I present YA Genres as Represented by Ice Cream Flavors.

Romance: Strawberry

Why? Because it's simply sweet.

Paranormal: Chocolate Fudge

Why? Because it's a rich, dark indulgence.

Dystopian: Coffee

Why? Because it looks like it could be chocolate, but as soon as you take a bite you discover something bitter under the surface.

High Fantasy: Rocky Road

Why? The name says it all.

Sci Fi: Rainbow Sherbet

Why? Because it has that tangy edge.

As for Steampunk... well honestly, I can't say I'd like little bits of metal floating around in my ice cream, so I think I'd hold off on that one.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mythology in The Red Pyramid

Given that the working title of my novel is Olympus Gate, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy reading about Greek and Roman mythology. The Percy Jackson series came to my attention last year, and pretty quickly made its way onto my bookshelf. The books are a great read, so when I saw The Red Pyramid in the library I didn't hesitate to pick it up.

I haven't finished yet (blame the fact that I got my hands on Clockwork Angel and the temptation to start reading it was just too great), but so far it's a really fun story.

But reading The Red Pyramid is such a different experience for me than reading Percy Jackson. The Olympian pantheon is so familiar—from Latin class, from books, from my research—but the Egyptian gods are still very foreign. Yes, they were mentioned once or twice in school, and they've popped up a few times in books (Otherland comes to mind), but I don't have nearly the same instant recognition. Give me a brief description of an Olympian and I'll have a good guess as to which deity you're describing and what role he or she will have in the book. With the Egyptian gods I haven't a clue what to expect.

Which isn't altogether a bad thing. I'm really loving being surprised. I'm loving the discovery. In just about every chapter some new detail skips off the page singing, “Betcha wanna know more about me, don't ya? don't ya?” And I nod an enthusiastic yes! There's so much fascinating information to learn.

And Egyptian mythology is just one of many rich mythologies to delve into. When I was in Hawaii a few years ago I remember hearing about the volcanic goddess Pele. (And my cat is named after the Hawaiian moon goddess.) I've read my Edith Hamilton and know a smattering of Norse mythology from her.

And one of the great things about these mythologies is that they come from cultures that are so different from our own. They can give us exciting ideas for new stories because they are so diverse.

So I guess that's all to say I'm very glad I picked up The Red Pyramid. Thank you, Rick Riordan, for such a fun and informative book!

And what about all of you? Any particular mythology holding your interest right now?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


The word “next” can be rather scary for only having four letters. It combines immediacy (no more time for dilly-dallying, this thing is happening forthwith) and uncertainty (we never know exactly how the future will go). Right now I'm tiptoeing closer and closer to my own big, bold NEXT.

And I'm not entirely sure what it will hold.

For those following my progress on Olympus Gate, the final pre-querying draft is very nearly done. That means it's time for me to be looking ahead to the next project.

Among my options, there's one in particular I feel drawn to. It's about a girl who grants wishes, but who must be very very careful not to let her own stray wishes lose into the universe or she'll risk doing harmful magic that can't be un-wished.

It's about gargoyles too, and martial artists and punk rockers. It's about a charismatic and dangerous boy who is the Omega to the main character's Alpha.

But it's also—and here's the big, scary part—about life in a wheelchair. Because one of the main character's stray wishes gets her badly injured to the point of paraplegia.

So here I am, peering over the border into Nextville and beginning to wonder whether I'm really able to dive into such a huge topic. At this current moment, this book is impossible for me to write. I don't know enough yet. An injury like the one my character sustains has never been part of my world. So in order to do this and do it right, I have a lot to learn.

The idea of doing that research is frightening and humbling. What if I totally misrepresent the experience of dealing with the injury and its consequences? What if people think I'm audacious for even trying?

But then on the other hand, my character is out there, trying to be heard, and without me she'll never have a voice. I hardly even know her yet, but already she is important to me.

So I know I'll take the first step. I'll start the research. Maybe I'll get stuck and find myself deciding to go a different direction. Maybe this will turn out not to be the right project for me. But for now, what comes next is to learn everything I can about this girl and her experience.

What's coming next for you?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Recent Reads

A few of the books I've read in the past month:

1. Matched by Ally Condie – This was a definite win. The story pulled me in and didn't let go. I really enjoyed the romance of it. The one downside? Now I'm in the middle of yet another series I can't wait to read more of.

2. Across the Universe by Beth Revis – This book had a lot of well-deserved buzz. I don't always see many popular YA sci fi novels, so I was really glad to read this one. Excellent concept and great execution. The themes were intriguing and kept me turning pages, and the characters' situations, though so unfamiliar, were easy to dive into.

3. Being Nikki & Runaway by Meg Cabot – The second and third of the Airhead books, probably my favorite Meg Cabot series. There's something irresistible about the “What if I suddenly became a supermodel?” idea.

4. Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder – Last year I recommended Poison Study, the first book in this series. Now I've finally read the second, and I'm still totally in love with the characters. If you like fantasy, this one doesn't disappoint.

And what have you been reading?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Stereotypical Villains in YA

Veering into an atypical topic for me today, but it's one that's been on my mind a lot recently.

How many of you have ever been the brunt of a stereotype? I think it's almost impossible to go through life without being classified at one point or another. Throughout Middle and High School the “teacher's pet” and “dork” labels were my constant companions.

Most teens probably get put into one category or another. So it's natural that YA books deal with the topic. Unfortunately, I've noticed lately that a lot of YA books, even by authors I absolutely love, tend to propagate certain stereotypes that when repeated so often could damage the way we think about people.

I'm not talking about racial prejudices. That's too big a topic for me to go into right now. What I'm referring to is more of a social stereotyping.

When you think of YA books, who do you think of as the hero type? Is it the average Joe? The quirky girl with a unique worldview? The nerd who is always made fun of but has a great heart?

All those people are worth time in the spotlight as main characters. I'm always glad to see them there, and I particularly love reading about the geek who saves the day.

But who does that leave as the perpetual villain? If the first people we think of when searching for antagonists are the cheerleaders and the jocks, then I think something's wrong. Yes, there may be reasons for the stereotype of the dumb jock or the catty blonde Miss Popularity, but the more I see those characters in print, the more they bother me.

Beautiful doesn't always mean bad. By making athletic and charismatic teens into villains, I think we're alienating and misrepresenting quite a lot of people.

Please understand that this isn't a jibe at any one book or author. There have been plenty of times in my life when I would have used the same stereotypes if I had been writing a scene set in a high school. But my thinking has been changing lately, and I want to challenge yours as well.

So, just as my two cent suggestion, maybe next time you start creating your villains, think about what stereotypes you might be spreading and whether you might just come up with a more complex, interesting character by staying away from them. That's going to be my goal for my next book set in high school.