Wednesday, July 27, 2011

R4W Follow-up: I Don't Really Care About Your Hair

I’m skipping, or perhaps skirting, today’s YA Highway RoadTrip Wednesday prompt, because “the best book I’ve read this month” is The Secret History, which I already blogged about. But I did promise to do a companion entry about effective physical character descriptions before I got distracted by villains and bears, so we can go with that. 

Some people want to have a detailed vision of the characters’ appearances as they read and are upset if the author never describes them. 

I am not one of those people. 

I’m happy to read along with the vaguest sense of their looks unless there’s something important or highly unexpected that I need to know. (For example, if the protagonist is an albino midget with piercings, you should probably let me know that up front.) 

In fact, I’m more likely to get annoyed by the presence of character descriptions where I don’t think they’re necessary. A few months ago I went out of my normal genres and picked up Longshot by Dick Francis on a whim, and I really enjoyed it – the narrative voice was amusing and the story was interesting even though I know nothing about horse racing. But something irked me about the opening chapters: Francis, or his narrator, felt the need to physically describe every single character almost as soon as they appeared. This crippled the pacing when large groups of people showed up all at once, and in some cases it made for some very awkward sentences:

“Tremayne was equally unimpressed. Tremayne, sixtyish, gray-haired, big and self-assured, was clearly not pleased at the interruption.”

“[I] was met outside the Reading bus station by a shivering young woman in a padded coat and woolen hat who visually checked me over from boots six feet up via ski suit to dark hair and came to the conclusion that I was, as she put it, the writer.” 

But again, I’m biased against character description, and I understand that they’re sometimes wanted or even needed – you can’t just avoid all character descriptions altogether. Though looking at the poor, undescibed characters in many of my manuscripts, apparently I think that’s exactly what I can do. So where’s the middle ground? 

While I’m certainly not an expert on writing character descriptions, I can at least point out three ways to please picky anti-character-description readers (in other words, me). 

RULE ONE: Make me want the description ahead of time. 

There’s a lot of character description in The Secret History, and not just short blurbs in the midst of the action but sometimes whole paragraphs. But here’s the thing… I actually like them. The first thing Tartt does right is make me anticipate and want those descriptions. For example, the narrator hears rumors about Professor Morrow and his students well before meeting them, and they accumulate to form an aura of mystery about the group. 

“The degree of truth in any of this was, of course, unknowable but the more I heard about him, the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party – at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”

And suddenly I want that close-up and I don’t mind sitting through a page and a half of character description. Tartt even sneaks in a second level of character description, because when the narrator finally has his first conversation with the group, he describes the particularities of their voices. Here the details are interwoven in the dialogue, and once again, they’re well done so that I don’t mind them. A big part of the secret is…
RULE TWO: Go beyond information I could get from a driver’s license. 

So your character is a six-foot tall blond with blue eyes. Great. Give me something unexpected, unique, humorous… something.

In TSH, we do learn about Henry's height (6 ft) and hair (dark). But we also learn that “he might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank” and that he “walked stiffly…with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large.” We meet Francis: “angular and elegant, he was precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face,” wearing “a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper.” And so on. It’s all delightfully and appropriately bizarre. 

RULE THREE: When in doubt and if it fits, make me laugh
This is kind of a general rule. TSH isn’t the kind of book that’s full of chuckles, but she still works in some gems: the narrator has a dormmate whose “voice was loud and rose frequently to a screech, which rang through the house like the cries of some terrifying tropical bird."

How do you feel about character description, and how do you write effective ones?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Always Check Your Headlamps and Other Lessons from the Wilderness

I broke my write-every-day streak this weekend, but I did do a lot of research on my outdoorsy MC...

Hours of exhausting but breathtaking hands-on research...

I spent the weekend on a cycling trip with my husband and a friend from college – two days riding a 160 mile loop through National Forest land with a night of camping in between. 

While I’ve done a lot of bicycle touring, I’d never actually camped before, not for real anyway; sleeping out in someone’s backyard or in a campground with showers right next to the fields at a frisbee tournament isn’t really the same as being out in the wilderness and having to pump/filter your own water and protect your food from bears. But I actually had a pretty good experience, and whenever I started to freak out about the whole wilderness thing I could remind myself that the experience was Research and I should pay attention.

So, some things I learned:

--They now make tents so simple that even I can assemble them, which is good since assembling a tent was one of the skills on my list. 

--Dehydrated camp meals are actually pretty delicious, especially if you’re ravenously hungry.*

--Also delicious are peanut butter and Honeynut Cheerio sandwiches. (Actually I already knew this since I invented them on an earlier bike trip, but I never miss a chance to advertise them.)

--If a bear approaches you, Do Not Run. Fortunately I learned this from a pamphlet at the Ranger’s Station, not personal experience.** The pamphlet also advised campers to “pick up small children” if a bear approached. And here I thought they were meant to serve as distracting bear bait. 

--If you don't want to have a scarring nighttime experience, bring your glasses and make sure your headlamps work. In the middle of the night I had to stumble (literally, because I didn’t see the humungous rocks in my way) to the pit bathroom, barely able to make out anything with my horrible night vision, convinced that a wild animal or psychotic mountain man would sense my vulnerability and leap out of the trees to attack me.  As I went to leave the bathroom my headlamp blinked three times, which is headlamp code for I’m-about-to-die, and I started to think the same thing. Fortunately it worked long enough for me to navigate the blurry black and gray circle in front of me get back to the tent, but I knew that no matter how much I had to go to the bathroom I was not getting out of that tent again until daylight. 

--It’s impossible to sleep through the night on a thin sleeping pad in a cramped tent, even if you’re completely exhausted. Also, when one person in the tent gets up, everybody in the tent wakes up. Sometimes they fall back asleep pretty quickly though, and then you can accidentally scare the crap out of them when you come back to the tent from your aforementioned bathroom adventure.

--I will never, ever have enough self-control to not itch my bug bites. 

--On a related note, I really hate insects. I used to think I only hated them when they left their territory (outside) and invaded my territory (inside), but it turns out I hate them always.

I can also better describe exhaustion, knee pain, mild delirium, sudden extreme hunger, and the overwhelming smell of pit bathrooms, all of which I'd suppressed somewhat from previous trips. 

But at the same time I can describe the exhilaration of riding with the wind or cresting a brutally steep summit. I can try to describe the indescribable scenery of towering rock faces and the deep woods. And I can explain why I want to do get on my bike and do it all again...

After the knee pain and bug bites fade, anyway.

* I recommend Backpacker’s Pantry (not that I’ve compared it to any other brands)

** While I do like to be educated about bears for my own safety, I mostly picked up the pamphlet because of Megan Miranda's hilarious entry about them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

RTW: Cue Maniacal Laughter

Recently I discovered the fantastic YA Highway, and this week seems like the perfect time to participate in one of their Road Trip Wednesdays. As they explain it,  

 Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This Week's Topic:
Who are your favorite literary villains/antagonists, and why? 

I like intelligent antagonists – my villains need to talk a good game and wield some serious wit. Part of my Shakespeare obsession comes from this: hello, Iago and Richard III! And from contemporary authors there are the brilliant Hannibal Lecter and the deliciously deceptive Tom Ripley the films are great but the books are even better. I love the gentlemanly villains and maybe-villains of Gaiman’s Neverwhere as well. 

Similar and almost as good are robotic villains – the hyper-rational, super-tricky machine minds like Blaine the Mono in the Dark Tower series, the prison in Incarceron, or of course Hal 9000.  

The best villains have more than intelligence and wit though, and as fate would have it I got a perfect reminder of it just this morning:

<veers off the YA highway briefly for a related side story>

I was in the library cafĂ©, waiting for the main building of the library to open. (That’s right – my new local library has a coffee shop just outside. Brilliant!) Next to me was a mother reading a Star Wars graphic novel to her young son. From what I could hear it was the least action-packed Star Wars episode ever, all about peace negotiations between some minor groups. When she finished, her son asked whether so-and-so was a bad guy or a good guy, and his mother explained, “They’re more neutral, not necessarily bad or good. Both of the groups just want different things.” The boy asked another question that I couldn’t hear, and his mother answered:

“Even the bad guys care about something.”

Simple genius… and so important to remember as a writer! 

I love villains who trick you into rooting for them because you are seeing the world through their eyes and their desires...especially if there is actually a compelling reason for their actions. 

And by the same token, when villains don’t have a clear motivation they lose some of their appeal for me. It’s the frustration that comes when the psychopath goes to the chair refusing to give any reason for what he’s done. I mentioned Iago earlier, but he actually would never top my villain list because he fails the motivation test. He spends the play throwing out a dozen different half-formed excuses for his vengeance and then ends it by refusing to talk about his crimes or motives, ever again. Kind of infuriating. 

So, in summary, give me villains that are smart, sassy, and clearly motivated!

What about you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reading for Writing: The Secret History

I haven’t done one of these in forever, so here we go: some things I learned (or just admired) about writing as I read Donna Tartt’s A Secret History

Goodreads Link
Note - for those who haven't read it yet, there aren't any spoilers here that you wouldn't encounter in the first few pages, even if it might seem otherwise. 

Giving it all away and still making it work

The Secret History opens with a prologue, beginning with this sentence:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. 

So, obviously, attention-grabbing opening, which is exactly what you want. But look at the corner Tartt has painted herself into.  

(Sidenote: this is the first time I’ve imagined that phrase in my head, and it’s totally something I would do. I always seem to mop and sweep myself into corners.) 

She’s told the reader who dies at the climax of the book, and then she actually goes on in the prologue to reveal where and how he died, who planned the murder, and that the guilty parties were never arrested. It looks like she’s given away all of the information that would keep people reading in suspense, just for the sake of a killer first line. 

And the thing is, Tartt could have hedged her bets, opening with the death without giving the whole game away. She could have referred to Bunny as simply “he” or “the body,” casting a shadow of death over the rest of the novel while leaving readers wondering who would eventually fall under it. But she lays everything out there – Bunny dies and Henry and his friends kill him. When I first read it I thought that perhaps Bunny was a secret nickname that wouldn’t be revealed until later in the book, accomplishing the same mystery. But nope, there’s Edmund getting introduced as Bunny on page 18.
The prologue ends with a beautiful transition line

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell. 

and then backtracks to the time just before the narrator meets the victim and fellow murderers for the first time. There are now hundreds of pages before you reach the foreshadowed death of Bunny.

But here’s the thing… It Works. I still wanted to read every bit of it; I still stayed up late because I couldn't put it down. So why does it work?

1. The Why
The prologue answered who, how, when, and where, but of course there’s still the mystery of Why. The suspense becomes embedded in character study. Why do these people become murderers? Do they have it in them, hidden below the surface, from the start? Or does something happen that fundamentally changes who they are and what they are capable of doing? Tartt also does two other smart things with the Why question:

The narrator is less in-the-know than the other characters; it’s clear that the rest of the group is hiding quite a lot from him since he’s the newest member. So he and the reader are equally curious about their true natures and their secrets. At the same time, since the reader knows a lot about the narrator, there's the persistent question of how he gets roped into the mess and how complicit or participatory he becomes. 

Bunny is not a very likeable character, but he's also not a villain or someone who clearly deserves death. (Several punches in the face? Yes.) So every time he does something odious you start to wonder…That couldn’t be the reason that they killed him… could it?

Fairly accurate depiction of Bunny. Source
2. Awesome Distractions
But the thing is, if the book was only about why some friends turned against one of their own, it probably wouldn’t hold up over hundreds of pages. If you’re going to take the gamble that Tartt did, you have to make sure that there are reasons to read other than the murder mystery. And there are – Tartt is an expert wanderer and weaver, incorporating eccentric professors, ancient Greek literature and philosophy, adolescent angst and ennui, complicated romantic relationships, drug use, class differences, hallucinations, serious illness and injury, and the entertaining idiosyncrasies of life at a liberal arts college. It doesn’t hurt that there’s some damn fine prose, either. 

3. Balance
And these components – the murder and the rest of the characters’ lives – have to be balanced. Every once in a while, as a reminder of sorts, the narrator foreshadows Bunny’s death again. But it’s never overdone; if it was mentioned every chapter, for example, it might feel like Tartt was annoyingly dangling it like a carrot for the reader (Keep reading - we're getting to the juicy stuff that I promised, I promise!). Instead she throws it in when it fits and otherwise just trusts that the rest of the book (see above) is enough to hold the reader’s interest. Balance. 

Okay...I was also going to include some comments on Tartt's character description, but since I want to make comparisons to some other books and since this is rather lengthy already, I’ll save that for a future post.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Brief Note on Nighttime

Even though I can usually sleep in until whenever now, I’ve been trying to keep an “adult” schedule where I’m all early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise and stuff. Some of this comes from the fact that I can finally be on the same sleeping and waking schedule as my husband, which is very exciting; thanks to the new job he now leaves the house around 7 in the morning rather than 4:30 in the morning. Yay for new jobs!

But sometimes I give into my old night owl ways and stay up late to read or write or waste time on the internet or potter around the house with a mug of hot chocolate. I still enjoy working at night, even though my days of considering 2 or 3 in the morning a completely normal bedtime are a few years behind me. 


 Besides, being alone at night I get *insights* like this string of gems from last night:
  • My slippers are REALLY LOUD. I bet I’m waking up Kyle just by walking around. I thought slippers were supposed to be stealth footwear.
  • Carrying a mug of hot liquid up a rung ladder is SO not a good idea. Maybe if I rigged up that lantern thing on a, horrible plan. I wish they made something that would let me safely transport hot chocolate and coffee and… wait a second...
  • I wonder where I put that collection of travel mugs that I never use.
  • I really need to install a light up in this loft. I can see nothing but the blindingly bright screen. But thank you, obsessive AIM messenger use in college, for making me a fairly good touch-typist.
  • I am so not going to roll out of bed until 9 or 10 tomorrow. I wonder if I should tell Kyle that most days I only pretend to be awake when he leaves and usually go back to bed?
So, yeah, I’m not quite on the Ben Franklin productivity schedule yet. But I have actually been writing a lot every day and using the loft for most of it, which is exciting because there was a small piece of me that feared I would make a big deal out of my writing loft and then never actually use it for anything productive. But I HAVE! I’m excited about where the work is headed so far, and I plan to be back soon with more updates and summer writing goals and all that jazz. 

Until then, happy writing, whenever it is that you do it!

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I love our new house and my new office, especially the LOFT!

When I first saw this space (and squealed with joy), I imagined turning it into a Moroccan lounge writing retreat. Kind of like this:

Or the place where Laini Taylor stayed in Douar Samra:

My design dreams were seriously curtailed by prices and the limited availability of Moroccan-esque things, but I'm still very content with my new, cozy writing space.


The lantern opens to hold writing books - perfect!
And I love the very green view!

Now it's time for me to head up there and get to work!