Thursday, January 22, 2015

Where does character come from?

I have a friend who has recently begun trying his hand at writing fiction. He wants to write character-driven fiction. He believes--and I agree--that the best fiction has deep, round, believable characters. The trick for the writer is knowing how to create characters like this.

Authors get asked a lot where their characters come from. Surely we must know someone just like this character or that one, and we patterned the character after him. This might be true for some writers but it's never been the case for me. As a matter of fact, that's the death of a character for me: I can't just fictionalize someone I know. They always come out boring and wooden. Ironically, the character has to come completely out of my imagination to develop the qualities of a real person.

I told him that the way to develop your character is to put him or her in a situation and see what they do. Then do it again and again and again. At a certain point, the character 'clicks': he is suddenly real to me and I know what he will do or say in any situation. At that point, he or she is like a real person to me.

There was a time when Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair were as real to me as my brother and sisters. I'd spent so much time with them--ten years for the first book, another three for the next two, every day spent following them around and chronicling every single thing they did. As I wound down the books, I started to miss them. I started to panic, too, wondering who I would hang out with. Maybe not every writer is like this, but I spend so much time by myself that I don't have much time to spend with real flesh-and-blood friends. I liked Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair. They were interesting, they were fun. I wondered who was going to take their place.

Back to writing advice. Some people believe you should interview your main characters to get to know them better. That you should ask them all sorts of questions that will reveal their true natures to you. It doesn't all end up in the book of course, but some of it might. Some of it might lead you to find out really interesting things about your character that could deepen your story--for instance, an aversion to heights that gets woven into the plot. Just don't be too hokey or transparent about it. 

Here's an example of such a questionnaire: this one is a list of questions that Marcel Proust was asked about himself. And if that seems too precious, here's a list from the Gotham Writers Group


Friday, January 16, 2015

So You Want to Be An Author

The last event I did was a talk for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as you may know it) at Gum Springs Library in Virginia, and it quickly went from a session on creating and sustaining conflict in your story to what book publishing is really like. I'd say this is true of almost all of my book events and it's understandable: that's certainly what I was interested in when I was trying my hardest to be published.

So I thought I'd post some links to some of the most sober and honest thoughts I've seen recently on the book publishing business. Now don't get me wrong: the writing comes first, the writing should always come first (meaning you should be writing for the joy--painful as it is sometimes!--of writing) but often in the process we let our minds wander from the keyboards to wonder what it would be like to sign a contract and have a book put out by a major publisher. The truth is that it's a business and you'll be a much better business partner for a publisher if you are clear about what you're getting into.

Best-selling author of "Prep" Curtis Sittenfeld gives the real low-down at BuzzFeed in "24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing". Among her nuggets of wisdom: "Unless you're Stephen King or you're standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody has heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised" and "The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career."

The awful truth: This post, "The Ten Awful Truths--and the Ten Wonderful Truths--About Book Publishing" was written in 2012 but a lot of it is still true, if not even worse. If you want to get a book deal with a major house, you have to be able to accept a fact like "A book has less than a 1 percent chance of being stocked in an average bookstore" and know what you're going to do to overcome such odds. Because the author is the major reason for a book's sales success or failure.

Chuck Wendig is known for giving clear-eyed advice about writing and publishing, and his post "25 Hard Truths About Writing and Publishing" is no exception. 

Matt Haig (author of "The Radleys") is both clever and insightful in his "30 Things That Every Writer Should Know" such as: "Authors shouldn't go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando's" and "Being published doesn't make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones." 

Friday, November 14, 2014

This week in obsessions

Just in time for the holidays: I may do all my shopping on The Grommet this year. Whimsical and clever gifts for all your whimsical and clever friends and family members. Unfortunately the very clever Sorta notebook is out of stock until 2015. It's a notebook that lets you rearrange the order of its pages--a cross between a three-ring binder and a Moleskin. I try to keep a notebook for each writing project I'm working on, a place to work out plot problems and keep track of the color of each character's eyes, that sort of thing, but as you can imagine, inspiration doesn't always come in sequential order and so I'm forever flipping back and forth through the pages. I'm dying to try out the Sorta to see if it might be the answer to my problem.

(I am looking for suggestions for holiday gifts! Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comment section.)

I love the HBO series Game of Thrones and so I find it amusing that the Turkish military is banning its troops from watching the show. This show is too intense for Turkish soldiers to watch? Like they can't sort out the issues presented on the show for themselves?

Speaking of HBO, did you watch the miniseries Olive Kitteridge? I did and I loved it (so did this woman on Jezebel and she explains why here). It reminded me of my childhood growing up in New England, the hardbitten unapologetically curt people, the accents, plaid car coats. I made hot dogs and beans for dinner tonight after seeing the characters have it for dinner on the series. Only I didn't remember the story all that distinctly which means I will need to reread the book.

Recipe of the week: No, not hot dogs and beans. Even I can make that without a recipe. This week's recipe is pickled cabbage slaw from Smitten Kitchen. The reason I picked it is because it is on the healthy side (cruciferous vegetables like cabbage are very good for you), and we're about to enter the long season of bad eating what with Thanksgiving and the holidays. And because I am half-Asian and like all Asians, I grew up on pickled things. I had the pickled kind of coleslaw for the first time a few years back at a deli in NYC and you know, it's better than the mayonnaise kind. So whip up a batch of this to eat with your sandwiches at lunch instead of potato chips and feel good about yourself.

Does this look like a fun place to read a book? (Thanks, Bookshelf Porn!)

Friday, November 7, 2014

This week in obsessions

Funny, last week's posts got quite a few more hits than the previous weeks. . . I wonder if it's because it had "IEEE" in the text? or big data analytics? If that's not your cup of tea, here is this week's recipe: Pumpkin Cheesecake (recipe from Food52, one of my new favorite food sites because I like to give edible gifts for the holidays).

Book of the week: Michel Faber wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, a historical novel set in Victorian England. It came out about the time I was in grad school and working in earnest on the book that would become The Taker. I had an assignment for class to interview an author, and after a reading at a bookstore that no longer exists in downtown DC, Michel and his wife Eva kindly agreed to be my guinea pigs. We went to Kramerbooks so he could sign stock and then we got some cake and sat in Dupont Circle and I interviewed him. His wife Eva stands out in my memory, not only because she was obviously so proud of him and so supportive, but because she was just a wonderful person and after we parted, there were actually many times I thought of Eva and wondered how she was (I, too, am the wife of an artist, though in my case, a musician). Faber's latest book, The Book of Strange New Things, just came out and he's saying that this is the last novel he will ever write because Eva passed away this past summer. Having met her and seen the two of them together, I can completely understand why.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This week in obsessions

The only reason there's a post this week is because I have insomnia. I was at the IEEE Big Data Analytics conference this week and am wiped out, but apparently not exhausted enough to sleep through the night.

Are vampires over? This question has been weighing on my mind because I'm working on a vampire novel at the moment. (The first chunk is with the literary agent right now. As we speak.) Anyway, Anne "truly queen of the damned" Rice just put out a new vampire Lestat novel and if vampires are not dead to you, you can read an excerpt here (via TIME). And if you need more reading suggestions, The Guardian runs debut author Lauren Owen's list of the ten best vampire novels.

Twitter + fiction: RL Stine (of Goosebumps fame) wrote a short story on Twitter and you can read the entire thing here thanks to GalleyCat. I write about it because (a) he is an awesome guy. Maybe funnier than anyone you know. And I can brag that I was at his house once. It, too, was awesome. And (b) it is harder to write a Twitter story than you might think. It could actually be a good writing exercise. I know of what I speak: I was part of the Twitter Fiction Festival earlier this year and you can read my story here.  Another interesting example is Joe Hill's Twittering from the Circus of the Dead (which, naturally, sold film rights. Only Joe Hill could sell movie rights to a story told in tweets.) 

I would so be there: the Metropolitan Museum of Art just opened an exhibit of mourning dress. What are you waiting for?

Friday, October 24, 2014

This week in obsessions

"There is no psychology in fairy tales," says novelist Philip Pullman. And many modern stories reference fairy tale tropes. A fine review in the Guardian of a new book about fairy tales, Maria Warner's Once Upon A Time.

If you ever studied psychology as an undergraduate, you will probably be entranced by Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves -- particularly if you are of a certain age, when the kind of behavioral studies like the one described in the book were taking place. Nominated for the Man Booker (and probably other prizes to boot).

Again from the Guardian: this article about an author who stalked an onliner reviewer generated a lot of discussion in book circles on Twitter and beyond.

Recipe of the week: This is one of my three favorite dessert recipes, cream cheese pound cake. I'm not a pound cake person by nature, I like my desserts more complicated and with more variety in texture, but I love this cake because it stands head and shoulders above other pound cakes. It's rich, simple yet with great depth of flavor and stands well on its own or as the background for fruit toppings, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, toasted almonds--you name it. Recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

What will you be doing for Halloween? We'll probably be watching Ghost Hunters

Events: For NaNoWriMo I'll be presenting a workshop on putting conflict in your fiction on November 2 at 2:30 pm, Gum Spring Library in Stone Ridge, Virginia. I've taught this workshop at several writers conferences and gotten good feedback, so I think you'll find it worth your while.

Friday, October 17, 2014

This week in obsessions

Hey, if you were intrigued by last week's mention of Susanna Clarke's classic Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, they're doing a reread of it over at

Because if that picture doesn't say 'delicious' and 'autumn' then I don't know what does. (From Honestly Yum via Remodelista) And suggestions for putting together the perfect cheese platter from Real Simple and The Food Network.

Where will the next generation of writers come from? Possibly YouTube, as book publishers continue to chase authors with ready-made platforms.

What's your decorating style? It appears mine is "darkly romantic" (go figure). If this sounds like your taste as well, you might want to check out this article at Houzz.

If you're like me, you want to make your house as efficient as possible. As the husband and I are contemplating a big house remodel, I gobble up articles like these about maximizing storage. A whole week's worth of ideas for architectural storage via Remodelista.

Ready to go all Ghost Hunters in honor of Halloween? Here's a list of twenty haunted houses in America--surely there's at least one near you.