Category Archives: Things that might make you think
I’m thinking a bit about reviews. I know a lot of authors think about reviews. Sometimes incessantly. And yes, reviews can be helpful in terms of sales, both long-term and short-term. They can also be really harmful, but if you engage in this writing pursuit, guess what? That’s part of the territory.
In the world of books, reviews have a long and tortured history, as this 2012 Atlantic Monthly piece points out. Yes, friends, no matter the era, there are invariably complaints about reviews, reviewers, and what they ultimately accomplish. There are also always complaints about whether someone has the expertise in a particular genre or subject to do a review, and whether someone has a background in writing.
And yes, reviews can also be political/false in the sense that someone is trying to deliberately sabotage a writer or a writer is actually posting glowing reviews of his or her own work (that’s called a sock puppet review).
None of this is really new, friends. Certainly technology gives us the ability to post things quickly and create “buzz” (whether negative or positive). It also allows people to mask their identities and post whatever they want about a writer’s work. Which, again, isn’t necessarily new. It’s just a lot easier now than it was a couple decades ago to do it. The Interwebz have created an arena in which anyone can voice an opinion about a book (or any other product) and even develop reputations for reviews, and become kind of a reliable source for others about particular genres. You might, for example, find that you seem to like the same types of genres that, say, “pinklady998″ likes, and you start following that user and find that you trust her/his reviews about certain things, which might in turn guide some of your own purchasing habits.
So reviews can also be tools. They’re a “word-of-mouth” kind of thing, in this crazy Internet age. So rather than hanging out with your friends on Friday night talking about the latest reads you got at the library (or at the bookstore), you post a review of a book online and that then becomes part of a larger conversation about the book/story that anyone else can engage in. Which is kind of neat, actually, that you can engage with other people from all over the world about a particular work.
As an author, though, you might consider the following guidelines regarding reviews. And I’ve said some of this elsewhere, but I’ll reiterate it here:
Hi, gang –
Well, I’m still a bit of a Writer McCrankypants. My apologies for that. This project, as excited as I am about it, is rather stressful as all these disparate elements have to come together so that I can launch it to the best of my abilities (and then do the whole thing again with yet another project in the pipeline…LOL).
Remind me again why I do this job? Oh, I remember.
Because I luuuuuuuv it!
As I’ve been working on the project I’m about to launch I’m also finishing up a short story for an anthology. That one’s been a bit of a pain in the butt. Sometimes stories almost write themselves. Other times, they’re divas and require certain things just so, taking scenes out and re-doing them, and a whole host of other issues. This was one of those. Who knows why. It just was. I’m just about done and then I’ll leave it for a few days and go back and read it and see how it all feels.
Anyway, the past couple of months have gotten me thinking, because not only have I been totally swamped in the writing world, but also in my non-writing world. Yes, friends, writers have non-writing lives, too. Like anybody else, we have shopping, cleaning, and laundry to do (unless you’re all super-famous and can hire that out), cars to get fixed, animals to take care of, jobs to go to, family and friends to check in with and/or take care of, home repairs, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, bills to pay, taxes to do (ARGH)…
Which means for those of us who write and work full-time day jobs, there isn’t a whole lot of time for either. And that got me thinking about much larger things that maybe writers and other creative pursuit-types don’t think about.
So, I’m Andi and I’m a setting whore.
That is, I love me some setting. I love a setting that an author threads into a story in ways that make me feel the local flavor and color, see myself walking down a particular street, and enjoy a view the main character does. I love a story in which setting comes alive, as in Alexandra Fuller‘s astonishing works about Africa and Wyoming. I also love a story in which setting is a strong secondary character — a vehicle for the other characters, like Carl Hiaasen‘s Florida or Tony Hillerman‘s Southwest.
It’s also hard to write setting well. You don’t want it to weigh down your narrative, but you want it to stand out when it needs to. Maybe you want it to confine your characters, like in a dungeon. Or a cave in a blizzard. Or a snobby cocktail party. Maybe you want it to liberate them, like a distant river that marks the boundary to the kingdom of Rin, where your characters will find sanctuary from the evil queen of Tandix. Or the sight of an island after a long voyage at sea. Or a view of home from a mountaintop.
Could be you want it to instill fear in your characters, like the Grexen Swamps within which dwell the legendary Faljin trolls. Or that really dark, creepy subway tunnel from which just emanated a scream. Or the gleaming white of the official’s hall, where judgment will be meted out.
Or you want it to make your characters feel safe and loved. Like in grandma’s kitchen, which always smells like enchiladas or maybe fried chicken and okra. Or your pickup truck, which you’ve had for years and that has gotten you out of lots of tight spots. It still looks good, even after all these years.
You see why setting is important? It influences what your characters are and, in some cases, who they are. It can change your characters — make them rise to an occasion or fail. It can create adversity (think about the recent Robert Redford movie All Is Lost) or offer succor. Think about the rich settings of The Lord of the Rings movies, or of the Star Wars movies. Setting isn’t just landscape. Think about the movie Misery in which the character is held prisoner in a house.
Setting isn’t just a backdrop. It’s a vehicle for characterization and narrative. And it’s also an intrinsic part of a character. And it’s not just something you see. Setting has sounds, smells, tastes. It evokes feelings. So when you’re writing setting, think about that, too. So let’s go chat a bit more about this, shall we?
OMG how deep did that even sound? Yeah, we’re all navel-gazing up in here. Heh.
Actually, there seems to be something in the writing water, because a few of us have been waxing philosophical (wax on, wax off) on our blogs for a couple of days, now. I must’ve had some of that writing water, because I’ve been navel-gazing after all.
We all make choices. I get that. One of mine was to work a day job so I would have health insurance and other benefits that I just can’t afford otherwise. At least not at the moment. As a result, I don’t write 8 hours a day. I would LOVE to do that, but I made a choice. So writing is a part-time job (though it takes up many more hours than that), and I view it as such. I don’t view it as a hobby. It’s a job, and one that brings me a lot of satisfaction and happiness in many ways.
But it also brings me a shit-ton of frustration, angst, and exhaustion. There are days I’m despondent, that I have no desire to write anything, and I wonder why the hell I do this and what the point of it all is. Rejection emails. Skimpy royalties. Bad or weird reviews. Plots that suck. Characters that piss me off. Ineffective writing. Word salad with no flavor.
I have those days.
I’ve written thousands of words over the decades. As individual words, they don’t suck. They’re just words, part of a language that indicates something. Without context, they just float around in thought bubbles, neutral entities without baggage. As combinations of words that I put together, some of them do suck. Others don’t. They’re slung together, thousands of them, in patterns and styles that track this long slog I’m on. Some are epically bad. Others aren’t too bad. And sometimes there’s a gem in there.
I have the evolution of my writing life in boxes, on discs, on my hard drive, my flash drives, and the Cloud, signalling the shifts in technology over the years as well as various points on this path, when the combos of words started to suck a little less. And out of all of the thousands of words that I have written, very few of them have made it to the big stage. I’ll write thousands more. A small percentage of those will make it off my hard drive and out into the world. The rest will serve as pavers on the road that is my personal writing journey.
That’s okay, fellow inkslingers. As author/writer/ninja wordsmith Chuck Wendig says,
Your writing career will be long. Lots of peaks and valleys. Lots of digging in dirt, lots of learning “wax-on, wax-off,” not sure how waxing a fucking car will teach you goddamn karate. Lots of living to do, lots of reading to do. A world of of thinking, what feels like literal tons of doubt pushing down on your neck and shoulders. And, obvious to some but not obvious to all:
It’ll take a lot of writing.
See Chuck’s blog, “It Takes the Time that It Takes,” HERE
And then I read Kameron Hurley’s blog over at Chuck’s virtual house HERE.
THAT is the essence of a writing life. And this, from that blog, is key:
I think I’ve been on the long tail a long time, but the more I talk to other writers the more I realize that that whole slog – the shitty apartment with the shitty boyfriend, the frigid outhouses in Alaska, the cockroach wrangling in South Africa – weren’t actually the start of it. That wasn’t the part where things got really interesting.
It was getting the first book. It was after the first book. It was being confronted with the fact that writing is a business, and expectations are very often crushed, and your chances for breaking out are pretty grim.
It’s persisting in the game after you know what it’s really all about. After the shine wears off. It’s persisting after all your hopes and aspirations bang head first into reality.
That’s when it starts. The rest of your life was just a warm-up.
Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
Kameron Hurley, “On Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Writer“
Once you have that first book or story out, THAT’S when things do get interesting. Writing IS a business. And now you have to find the balance between your creative lovefest and the crapshow that the business can be. Wax on. Wax off. Repeat.
Because Hurley’s right. Persistence is what it takes to be a successful writer. Think of that, as she says, as a way of life and not just a word. That is the essence of a writing life.
Back to it, Grasshopper.
Been a few days. I’ve been battling a winter-time nasty cootie attack that involved feeling like crap for over a week. Some monsters aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they can lay you out just as easily as a zombie or werewolf or pissed-off MMA fighter.
And when I physically feel crappy, I don’t have the creative energy to work on my fiction writing. So I spent a lot of time watching movies and paranormal shows on Netflix and basically sleeping. In other words, spending a lot of time alone without being able to write or go outside and feeling generally icky.
For me, that’s a recipe for monsters.
Not the ones in the shows I was watching or the microscopic cooties that went to war with my immune system. And not these friendly, fuzzy ones:
Rather, the ones in my head. And those, my friends, can be worse than any external monsters we might have to face.
I see there is a scary POLAR VORTEX that has descended upon parts of the country. This sounds like some sort of freaky space/time conundrum that involves cold. Regardless, it’s butt-ass cold out there for a lot of you, so take precautionary measures.
I will now provide authors with some
hot air advice to warm you up regarding marketing and promo. This list is by no means exhaustive (nor is it meant to be), and I’ve mentioned a few of these points at varying times on my varied blogs. Just a few quickie tips that hopefully will keep you from being branded Sir Royal Asswipe of the Douchecanoe in readers’ and writers’ circles.
Continue onward for tips to ward off douchecanoeing.
Today is the two-year anniversary of the death of my best canine buddy, Taylor.
I grew up in a household where there were always dogs, and those dogs were always part of the family. They lived primarily indoors with us. I know there are people out there who just don’t “get” the animals in the house thing for whatever reasons. That’s fine. But I’m not one of those people. Taylor was my constant companion for over 14 years, and my guru in many ways. She was a rescue dog, but not from a shelter. I found her sitting on the side of a New Mexico highway one July day after I’d been camping at Mt. Taylor (hence her name).
I pulled over because most dogs out there — Rez dogs — tend to look like they know where they’re going and what they’re doing. And they’re certainly not sitting on the side of the road. I got out of my car and she watched me, but she didn’t bolt. I got within about twenty feet of her and I crouched down and said: “C’mere. Come on.” And I beckoned at myself with my hand. She got up and very slowly came toward me, kind of slinking, ears back (she had HUGE ears — they earned her the nickname “Batdog”) and tail between her legs. I held my hand out so she could sniff my fingers and she did. She sniffed for a few seconds and then decided I must’ve been okay, because she got closer and literally climbed up into my lap and licked my face.
I took her to the vet the next day for vaccinations. She was in bad shape. Twenty pounds underweight, tapeworm, and dull, icky fur. I told the vet I was hoping to find a home for her because I didn’t have a place where I could keep her. I was living in a second-floor apartment in a historic building in Albuquerque at the time. The vet looked at me and smiled. “She already found a home.” She told me that when Taylor had put on some weight, in a few weeks, to bring her back for checking. Damn that vet. She could tell that Taylor was already settling in.
And sure enough, at the end of the summer, I’d moved to a place where I could have Taylor. She’d put on weight (she was 55-60 pounds most of her life), we’d gotten rid of the tapeworm, and she was starting to be okay around me and other people. She and I spent most of the summer at a friend’s house, where there was a fenced yard, until I found another place. And that fall, we went to doggie training school. I worked with her every day on the things we learned in class. Taylor was part shepherd, and shepherds are working dogs. So she liked having tasks and things to do. After graduation (Taylor was summa cum laude), we spent another few weeks on “distraction training,” which involved large groups of people and dogs and putting your dog through his or her paces. The object was to get the dog used to being around groups like that and focused on you and you only.
I continued distraction training for weeks afterward. I’d take her to Albuquerque’s Old Town and put her through her paces amidst tourists. She went to work with me on campus several times, and would sprawl out and snooze under my desk. She’d also go with me late nights to the public radio station where I volunteered and hang out with me while I did a world music show. She went to the airport (this was before 9/11) to get used to escalators and a whole other slew of people. I traveled with her all the time in the car, and she was very good at that, too.
And slowly, Taylor blossomed into her funny, wise, diva self. She was a joy to have around, and we got to know each other so well that all I had to do was look at her and raise an eyebrow and she knew it was time to go for a walk and she’d jump up and go to the door and wait. As she aged, she became more talkative (I think she had some husky in her) and would yowl and carry on to let me know when she was excited or pissed about something.
Other times if she was pissed at me, she’d give me doggie “stink eye” until I was appropriately contrite. Or, if she was REALLY pissed, she’d do what I call “stink back.” She would sit and make sure I was looking at her and then she would deliberately turn her back to me and ignore me for a few seconds. Then she’d look back over her shoulder to see if she had my attention. If I hadn’t asked for her forgiveness, she’d do more stink back. So I’d have to say, “Oh, T! I’m sorry!” And then she’d relent.
And she loved it when I noodled on my harmonica. When I got it out, she’d get excited and she’d sit up and stare and start “warming up.” Kind of a “rowr rowr rowr” thing. I’d play a few notes and she’d do some more “rowr rowr rowr” and then I’d start just playing whatever and she would burst into howls interspersed with “rowr rowr rowr.” It was hilarious.
She used her paws for attention, too. She’d come up and put her paw on your foot or, if you were sitting, your thigh, and she’d pull at you to pet her. She’d also put her paw right across a newspaper or magazine if you were sitting reading it. And she’d do a “Bambi eyes” expression so you couldn’t be mad at her. She was also a practical joker. Once, when we were hanging out with someone who had a shih tzu, Taylor figured out which toy was the other dog’s fave. It was this fuzzy squeaky toy that the dog carried everywhere. So Taylor waited until the dog went into the kitchen with the squeaky toy. Taylor followed. The other dog had put the toy down and was trying to convince its owner to give it a treat. The dog was not paying attention to the toy, and like a freaking fox pouncing on prey, Taylor jumped on the toy and raced out of the kitchen. The other dog just stared after her, stunned. I followed Taylor into the living room, and Taylor had hidden the toy behind a pillow on the couch. She looked at me and I kid you not, she SMILED. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. Eventually, I gave the toy back to the other dog, when Taylor wasn’t looking.
I’ve been thinking about all of those things today. I still really miss her and no, another dog has not entered my life. I did become a regular donor to another no-kill animal shelter, and at a recent event in New Mexico, I donated all proceeds from sales of my books to a local no-kill shelter. I’m a believer in rescue animals, and in rescuing animals. So yeah, I’m a softie. But Taylor changed my life for the better, and I try to help other animals when and where I can. I don’t have any interest in bringing another dog into my life at the moment, but I suspect that eventually, Taylor will send a dog because I still have things to learn.
So to all of you who knew Taylor, I’m glad you got to meet her. For those who didn’t, I hope sharing these tidbits about a remarkable dog who gave me more than I ever thought possible lets you see a bit about who she was and why I miss her so much.
Thanks for hanging out with me a bit today. Happy Saturday.
Hi, all –
I’ve been thinking more about characters, and how to inject authentic regionalisms into yours. That is, how to make a character sound and act like he or she is a product of a specific place and culture.
To that end, I read journalist/writer/speaker/all around awesome woman Caitlin Kelly’s blog today, and it seemed to resonate with what I’ve been mulling. Her latest blog is about defining “New York-ism.” That is, what defines someone as a New Yorker? And then she lists several things that New Yorkers might say and do, and the reasons behind them. Go have a look. See what you think.
And keep reading, if you want to see where the hell I’m going with this. :D
If you’re headed to the Left Coast Lesfic Conference, I’ll see you there!
I’m slated to do a workshop on character. That is, developing them. Making them groovy for sexy-time reading. Making readers WANT to follow your characters and find out where they go, whether they grow, or even if they fall.
So I’ve spent some time thinking about how to create and convey character, how to capture it, and how to hold on to it and make it arc logically and effectively. And we’ll talk about that in the workshop. But for those of you who can’t make it, here are some things to think about when you’re embarking on a writing journey.
I’m one of those writers who thinks that setting is absolutely key to your story. For me, characters and story can emerge from a setting. Characters are products of a setting, its history, its culture, and regional flavor. Alternatively, a character from somewhere else entering a new setting will be bringing his or her own background and context into that new place. You’ll need to think about how that plays out in the story arc and the character arc.
If you’ve decided on a setting for your story, and you’ve got a rough idea of a plot and some rough ideas about characters, then start fleshing out your main character. You’ll need to figure out what makes this person tick in order to make your readers care about his/her trip through your pages. So if you choose to read on, you’ll find 10 tips from Auntie Andi to help you think about characters, and how to flesh ‘em out.
The big, existential question is always: Who is this person?
So let’s dissect that.
1) Name? Some writers don’t care about names, and they’ll take the first one that comes along and slap it onto a character. Or they’ll name a character something unconventional, thinking it’s oh, so cool that their main character, a corporate lawyer, is named Talyn Tigerfoot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if you can actually make that work for the character. But if you can’t, it ends up being jarring for a reader. At any rate, I’m not that writer. I spend some time thinking about names and what the sound of it conveys to a reader and whether it “matches” a character. If you’re not quite sure what I’m getting at, try the tips HERE.
2) Where does your character live and is that going to be the main setting of your story? If so, think about regional quirks — how certain communities do things, what sorts of things they do, and how those are going to find expression in your character.
3) Place of origin? (if, say, he or she is a stranger in your setting or grew up somewhere else). Where a person is from determines a few things like expressions he or she might use in speaking, and things like recreation and hobbies. Growing up on a coast is very different than growing up in a mountain community, for example.
4) Age? Yeah, obvious, right? But think about that. A character’s age is going to determine a lot of personality quirks. Older people might not be all into the smartphone thing, might prefer books to ereaders, and are definitely going to speak differently than younger. And they’ll have a lot of pop culture references that younger characters don’t, and vice versa.
5) Background? That is, did your character struggle in rural poverty for her formative years, for example? Or has she always struggled? Would you classify her as working class or middle? Or is she from a wealthy family? These determine how your character might react in different situations. If your character is from a rural agricultural community, she might be extremely uncomfortable in cities. If she’s from a poor family, she might have some issues around people who come from money. Likewise if your character was unable to go to college but ends up in a situation where she has to deal with other characters who did go to college, and who move in very different circles.
6) Occupation? This depends on age, too. If you’re writing young adult fiction and your main character is a young adult, then ask yourself about the school your character attends and what his or her favorite subjects are and what their activities are.
7) Personality traits? Think about 3-5 of these. For example, is your character easygoing or uptight? What sorts of things push his or her buttons and what are those buttons? What is something that’s been bugging her since childhood that she’s still working through? What’s that chip on his shoulder? How does your character deal with change or crisis? Things like this can also drive the arcs for your characters, and will be an integral part of the story.
8 ) Who else is in your character’s life? No one lives in a vacuum, after all. Even if your character is currently alone, shipwrecked on an island, she’ll be thinking about her friends and relatives. And a character can also have relationships with memories and people who are no longer alive. People who have died in your character’s life will have an effect on how that character reacts to things, and might trigger memories that will enrich or add tension to your story. So yes, dead people in a person’s past do count as being in your character’s life.
9) What does your character look like? Sex, age, ethnic background, race? These all play a role in how your character perceives herself and how the world and other characters are going to perceive him or her. A character’s sexual orientation and gender identity will play a role, too, especially if your character is a sexual minority. All of these will help determine what your character looks like, how she dresses, and how she presents herself to the world. I tend to know what my characters look like physically, but I generally don’t try to convey that exactly in my work, because I’d like readers to develop their own sense of how that character appears and how he or she negotiates the world. I’d much rather a reader come to know the character through his or her way of speaking, their friends and relatives, some of the things they like to wear, what they like to drink or eat, and what they think about, as well as how other characters react to him or her. But it depends on a writer’s personal style as to how he or she approaches this. All that said, it’s a good idea to have in your own mind an idea of what your character looks like, because physical appearance can and does play a role in fictional life as well as in real life.
10) Habits/quirks? Does your character smoke? Does she drink to excess? Or is she a little uptight about booze because she grew up in an alcoholic household? Does she like dogs or cats? Both? Does she have any kind of animal in her life? Does she like camping? Or maybe she’s into bowling. Be careful, though, and don’t go overboard with habits/quirks, because that might get in the way of your character arc. But it helps me develop a better sense of my characters if there’s something they do or say that makes them stand out from other characters. It doesn’t have to be flashy and it doesn’t even have to be something that’s intrinsic to that character. It can be something a character does habitually in relation to somebody else. For example, in my short story “Dinner Party,” when Shay goes to her neighbor Brisa’s dinners, Shay generally helps clean up. It’s an unspoken sort of agreement the two characters have. But it’s a habit, and it tells a reader something about these two characters and the level of intimacy they may or may not have.
Final thought on that? Balance. Don’t make your character one big quirk with nothing beyond that. So be careful with your quirks. If your character is eccentric and has a lot of quirks, don’t forget there’s a person underneath all that. Get to know that person and then layer the quirks in as you get more familiar with your character.
With that in mind, it might prove helpful for you to use a questionnaire to get your characters’ backgrounds sketched out. Gotham City workshops have a pretty extensive one. Check it out.
A few other links to help you think about writing characters:
Go forth and write! And read! And have fun doing it!