Reading you under the table since 2012

How Do I Look?

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JJ

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JJThe other day, as I was catching up on my TBR pile, I found myself being repeatedly thrown out of book. It wasn’t for lack of pace, uninteresting premise, or dull characterization; it was for the constant physical description of the main character.

Description is a tricky thing to handle in books, especially if the narration is told from the first person (as was the book I was reading). Sometimes I notice the description, other times I do not. Why? What makes for a smooth, almost invisible description of a character’s looks, and what makes for a jarring one?

Some of this is a matter of personal taste, of course; I am someone who prefers physical description of character’s in books rather vague.* But there are some writers who are very particular about their characters’ looks, and whether or not their descriptions throw me out of a narrative come down to a few things:

1. The description feels shoehorned in.

Your mileage may vary on this one, but nothing is more distracting than reading a passage where plot is moving forward, only to have it interrupted with descriptions of the character’s hair or eye color. For example, a sentence like this would jar me: She packed her bags, determined to flee the country. Before shutting the suitcase, she made sure she had enough blue and green blouses, to set off her sea-green eyes. Just because she was a fugitive of the law didn’t mean she had to look like one. 

I feel there is a time and a place for descriptions. When characters meet for the first time. When characters are being compared (or comparing themselves) to others. When a character’s looks affects how others perceive him or her. Think of all times you think of the way someone “looks” in real life; a character should be thinking along similar lines. For instance, when I look in the mirror, I am not lingering on my dark eyes, strong jaw, and sharp chin. I am wondering whether or not I look tired, or if the spaghetti I had for dinner left any marinara on my face.

2. The description feels, for the lack of a better word, too “favourable”.

This…is tough. While I prefer showing over telling in prose, there are some times when telling actually trumps showing. I especially feel this way when it comes to describing someone attractive. What people find attractive varies from individual to individual, and a detailed description of a character’s physically appealing qualities makes me roll my eyes. Phrases like her long, slender legs or his well-muscled forearms are perfectly fine, but instead of being shown physically that a character is attractive, I’d rather been shown emotionally.

So how to write description in such a way that isn’t distracting? I think people, when they come across others they haven’t met before, will focus on one or two things that stand out. Race/ethnicity, an unusual birthmark, or perhaps a haircut. J.K. Rowling does this quite well; Harry’s lightning-shaped scar, his untidy hair, and spectacles; Hermione’s bushy hair and too-big front teeth; Ron’s red hair, freckles, and lanky height. These are distinguishing physical characteristics that help the reader recognize the character, both on the page, and in other mediums, like the screen or fanart.

Very few people will notice the dimple in someone’s cheek, or the relentless symmetry of his or features upon first sight. It is only after some time that we begin to build mental images of each other. It is the same with characters; when presented with a laundry list of characteristics, I will probably forget what the character is supposed to look like. But if we get the details bit by bit, they reinforce and solidify a mental image, similar to how we would create mental images of those we know best.

What do you think? Do you have pet peeves or quirks that distract you when it comes to physical descriptions of characters in books? Leave us a comment below!

* There is one, rather important exception to this rule: I would rather be told, upfront and as soon as possible, if a character is NOT WHITE. It is all-too-easy to erase a character’s ethnicity—think of people’s reactions to Rue being black in The Hunger Games—and I prefer direct, irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness.

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S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is a writer, artist, and adrenaline junkie. Before moving down to grits country, she was an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York City, where she read and acquired YA. When not obsessing over books, she can be found rock climbing, skydiving, or taking her dog on ridiculously long hikes. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina with her doctor Bear, a stuffed baby harp seal named White-Harp, and a husky-dog called Bentley. Other places to find JJ include TwitterTumblr, and her blog.

Posted in Writing Life | 7 Comments

Book Recommendation: Jeff VanderMeer’s WONDERBOOK

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Susan Dennard

WonderbookI’m a HUGE fan of books on writing. Like, I probably have an addiction and I know my husband would be REALLY happy if I’d throw out some of these gazillion craft books hogging up the basement…

Recently and sort of on a whim, I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I am so, so, SO glad I did. Seriously guys, this is my new favorite book on writing craft. Not only does this book give beginners everything they need to know to start crafting stories, but it’s an incredibly helpful book for experienced writers too.

Here’s the trailer:

Not only does VanderMeer introduce some awesome concepts and prose possibilities that I’d never considered before, but he also shares tons of essays from other authors on how THEY do things.

Then there’s all the art to go along with it!! A few of the crazy diagrams left my Muse spinning in the best possible way. Like this Hero’s Journey as depicted with a Mexican Luchador:

Mexican-Wrestler-Mono-myth-VanderMeer-Zerfoss-Wonderbook-2013

On top of all the graphics, there’s an interactive website to go along with the text. SO. MUCH. INFORMATION. It took me weeks to get through this book, and I enjoyed/savored every sentence.

So watch the trailer below, read an excerpt or the web extras, and maybe pick a copy of your own. I promise: all artists can gain something from this fantastic guide.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of more than 20 books and a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award. His books have made the year’s-best lists of Publishers Weekly, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He is the cofounder and codirector of Shared Worlds, a unique writing camp for teenagers, and has taught at Clarion, the world’s premiere fantasy/sci-fi workshop for adults. VanderMeer is based in Tallahassee, Florida.

SusanDennardBefore she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor, Susan Dennard traveled the world as marine biologist. She is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly series as well as the forthcoming Witchlands series (Tor, 2015), and when not writing, she can be found hiking with her dogs, exploring tidal pools, or practicing her tap dance shuffles. You can learn more about Susan on her blogTwitterFacebook, or Pinterest.

Posted in Book Recommendations, Inspiration, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Interview with Margot Wood, the Real Fauxtographer

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by Adam Silvera

Today we’re VERY excited to be hosting the talented Margot Wood on the blog! In Margot’s The Real Fauxtographer series she takes photos inspired by YA novels – sometimes a cool moment, other times a detail that jumped out as very visual to her, and even characters! It’s all awesome and I’m a big fan. And Margot is also exclusively premiering her latest YA fauxto, which you can find after our interview.

real fauxtographer

ADAM: What’s the genesis story of your fauxto series? Has photography always been a hobby of yours? 

MARGOT
:  I didn’t get into photography until I was a senior in college at Emerson. I had to fill credits with bullshit courses and I thought, oh hey, photography seems like an easy A, I’ll do that. That class was one of the hardest and most challenging classes of my life. My teacher was such a hard ass and really demanding and I think the challenge of trying to create a photograph that she would be pleased with is what really got me into the craft. By the end of the semester I finally came up with a series of photos that she was happy with – a series of photographs of my Dad’s tin windup robot out on human adventures. Looking back on those photos, they aren’t my greatest works of art, but they were definitely the beginnings of my “fauxtography.”
The young adult fauxto series (which still needs a better name, if anyone has any ideas, holler at me) came about a few years after college, after I had moved to New York. I had developed a bit of a following in the city as an urban and graffiti photographer, but I quickly got bored with taking pictures of things that everyone else has taken pictures of. I wanted to find my “thing” that would help define me as a photographer but also continue to challenge me.
In late 2011 I discovered this book called THE HUNGER GAMES and this thing called Young Adult Novels and a new obsession was instantaneous. I was addicted. They became a drug, the bookstore, my opium den. But sadly, my new hobby required a lot of my time and attention and my photo hobby wasn’t doing much. So one day in January, while I was reading THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan, an idea for a photo came to me. It just popped into my head. You know those moments of pure clarity when everything makes sense and the world inside your head lights up like a firework? That’s exactly what the moment was like for me. It wasn’t just the idea for that photo, it was the idea for the series as a whole. I had finally found a way to combine my two favorite hobbies in a never-ending, continuously challenging way.
Forest of Hands and Teeth

Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

ADAM: Which shoot was the most difficult? And which was the costliest?

MARGOT:
 Every shoot I’ve done has been difficult in one way or another. A lot of the time I’m taking self portraits so the biggest pain in the ass is just getting the camera to focus on the exact spot I want it to, running into place and posing, just in time for the self-timer to go off. Then I’d run back over and review the shot, curse like a sailor because it wasn’t right and then do it all over again. . . for about 50 different takes.
The most expensive one to shoot was CODE NAME VERITY. I bought a $200 vintage French military parachute from the 1960s for that one. I’m not entirely sure how I would write that off on my taxes.
CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein.

ADAM: Okay, own up: which fauxtos are your proudest of? If you say “all of them” expect pure destruction. And cancellation of all your favorite shows and book series. And more destruction.

MARGOT:
  No destruction needed. I actually am not proud of all of them, at least not anymore. I look back on some and think “You fool! This could have been better!” But the ones that stand out for me as my favorites are TIGER LILY, SABRIEL, DOROTHY MUST DIE, BEAUTY QUEENS, CODE NAME VERITY, and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. To me, those are the ones that tell a story. They aren’t just random photos that may or may not be inspired by something, those are ones that are so specific to either the story of the characters that if you saw them, you’d have to ask what it was about in order to understand them.
DOROTHY MUST DIE by Danielle Paige.

DOROTHY MUST DIE by Danielle Paige.

ADAM: Have you ever considered being a cover designer? 

MARGOT
: HELL YES. But I am like Jon Snow when it comes to actual cover design. I know nothing. I know what I think would look great on a cover, but I haven’t the faintest idea about typography or layouts or any of the actual skill that’s involved with making a book cover.
SABRIEL by Garth Nix.

SABRIEL by Garth Nix.

ADAM: Finally, if money isn’t an issue, which book(s) would you love to do a fauxto for?

MARGOT: 
Your book Adam, obviously. For reals though, I would do ALL OF THEM. If I had unlimited funds, I would travel every weekend to new locations for these photos. I hate shooting indoors (I’m pretty terrible at it) and I’m a nature girl at heart so I would just travel to a different place each time for new fauxtos. I would also hire an assistant and models for these shoots (unless you want to volunteer as tribute, Adam) because there are a lot of shoots I want to do but I can’t be in them. I need someone else to be in them and I need someone else to help me shoot them. And then with my dream funds, I would buy a really fancy camera. I have a nice one now, a Nikon D7000, but that’s not a truly “professional” one. True, you don’t need a fancy camera to take fancy pictures, but you asked me about my dream funds and well, that’s what I want. So gimme it.Thanks for stopping by, Margot!Now here’s the fauxto for EXQUISITE CAPTIVE by Heather Demetrios! Isn’t it beautiful? The gold! THE GOLD!

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 11.35.19 PM
Have you been following Margot’s fauxto series? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
margotwood
Margot Wood hates writing bios but will oblige because it is Adam Silvera asking her to write it. Margot was born and raised in Cincinnati, OH but left for Emerson College in Boston. Since then, she has lived in LA, back in Ohio and finally, currently, New York City. You probably know Margot from EpicReads.com and all those Tea Time and YouTube videos. She has been the Community Manager of Epic Reads since it’s launch in May 2012. She likes candlelit dinners, long walks in lush forests and her favorite donut shop is Peter Pan Bakery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter @margotwood.
adamfaceauthor
Adam was born and raised in the Bronx where he wrote fan-fiction in between competitive online gaming and napping. He’s previously worked as a children’s bookseller and a marketing assistant at a literary development company. He  currently reviews children’s and young adult novels for Shelf Awareness. He is tall for no reason.His debut novel, More Happy Than Not, will be available June 16th, 2015 from Soho Teen. Go say stuff to him on Twitter.
Posted in Interviews, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

What’s the One Thing Your Character Can’t Live Without?

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Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72There are a myriad of ways to create characters. Problem is, there are so many of them that we can spend all of our time creating characters and never actually write the novel those characters exist in.

I tend to be a minimalist when creating characters, because I like to learn who they are by tossing them into the plot and seeing what they do. But it helps to have a starting point for those characters, otherwise they develop willy nilly and feel completely inconsistent and at odds with themselves. They make decisions based on plot (what I want) and not what they want.

When I first create a character, I like to ask: What is the one thing this character can’t live without?

This pinpoints what matters most to this character, and suggests the type of person he or she might be. Some characters can’t live without an item, such as a prized possession from their dead spouse, others can’t live without something loftier, like the freedom to choose their own destiny. Both of these characters will have unique approaches to how they interact with the story world.

That’s why it’s important to ask next: Why?

People value things for very different reasons, which in turn makes them very different in both personality and motivations. Valuing a possession could suggest a materialistic nature, or profound sentimentality, or even a fear of loss. A desire for freedom at all costs could create an idealistic dreamer or someone who’s afraid to commit to anything that might tie her down.

Once we understand why that character values that “thing” we know more or less how she’ll react in a situation.

This can also lead to some other fun and useful questions to ask, such as:

If this character lost that thing, how would she react?

This can suggest how the character might react to adversity in general. The person who sits down and cries for a week is probably not going to be an in-your-face confrontational type, while the person who seeks revenge on whoever took what she values is likely to react in a much more aggressive fashion.

What would this character do to avoid losing this thing?

This can suggest the lines a character might cross, or how much she’ll endure for something important to her. Can she be pushed beyond her limits? Would she betray her own morals? How far is she willing to go? If she’s willing to break laws or vows for this thing, where else might she be flexible with ethics or morality?

What would this character sacrifice to protect this thing?

This is a great way to determine what choices to throw at the character by forcing her to make such a sacrifice. It also helps with developing what else might be in the character’s life, or what she might not value as much even if she does care about it. Willing to let a tyrant oppresses a village as long as her family is left alone? Willing to give up that family for the greater good if it stops the tyrant? Maybe she’s willing to sacrifice herself for what she values.

Some characters start as wispy outlines, while others leap fully formed from our heads. No matter how they make it to the page, they all care about something more than anything else in their lives. Knowing what matters to them will help us turn them into real and compelling people our readers will remember.

Where do you start when you create a character?

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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Posted in Beginner Resources, Writing Life | 6 Comments

Sherlock’s Approach to Research

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 by

E.C. Myers

EC MyersEarly this year, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts launched its interview series, In Conversation, with Benedict Cumberbatch. (Good choice!) Something he said about how he researches a new role struck a chord with me:

“[Research is] a security blanket. Not all of it — very little of it ends up on screen, often. And it’s just to take a little bit more possession of the extraordinariness of what I’m being asked to do. Because it’s so far removed from my experience. It just gets me a little bit more… It just gives me a little bit more courage to pretend to be something I’m so far from.”

cumberbatch[Watch the quoted clip, or the whole interview, here. Video will play automatically in a new window.]

I literally couldn’t have said it better, because I’m not Benedict Cumberbatch! But I feel the same way about novel research. Obviously, before you start writing about something you don’t know much about, like say computer hacking — the topic of my next book, The Silence of Six — you have to find out more about it. But the tricky thing about research is you don’t necessarily know what information you will need before you start outlining or writing the book. The natural solution is to learn everything you can, just like Sherlock, but as Cumberbatch said so sexily: most of that isn’t going to end up on the page, and it shouldn’t.

A “security blanket” is a perfect metaphor for the way I research, because I don’t feel comfortable enough to start a new project until I’ve read a bit about it — even if I’m just going to be making things up. Research also gives me a better idea of the kinds of things I’ll need to learn in more detail to make the book as authentic as possible, and the more I learn, the more ideas I have that will make the book even better.

My research usually starts off on the internet (where else?). I’ll probably start by visiting Wikipedia and various websites to get a basic introduction to a particular topic. This usually leads me to books and movies and documentaries that they’ve referenced, which soon become my primary sources, and I’ll start looking up fiction books on the same topic.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

I know a lot of writers don’t or can’t read books similar to what they’re writing, because they’re worried about being influenced by them too much, but I find it helpful to see what’s out there. They help me discover the right tone for my book. It’s good to know how other writers have approached the same ideas, so I can avoid duplicating them and, maybe so I can try to do better. For instance, many technothrillers in film and print treat hacking like magic; a few minutes in front of a keyboard, and a hacker is deep in the Pentagon’s most top secret files, when in reality, a hack of that magnitude would take months, or much longer. In fact, before many hackers try to break into a facility or system, they do research too!

Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love to learn new things, and since my school days are long behind
me, researching new stories introduces me to all sorts of topics I wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. Research can also be fun — it gives you “permission” to read a bunch of books and watch TV shows and movies, while still considering it a productive part of writing. I finally started watching the show Leverage as inspiration for some of the infiltration scenes in The Silence of Six. I got to read Michelle Gagnon’s PERSEF0NE series and Robin Benway’s Also Known As books for great examples of how to write computer scenes and tense, action-filled chases. I watched The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (but sadly I can’t recommend it, for reasons that have nothing to do with his performance). I also probably ended up on some NSA and FBI watchlists for Googling things like “How to hack into a Macbook,” “How to hack a car,” and how to do Google searches like that anonymously.

Meet_linus_bigThe danger of research is you can get a little too attached to that security blanket. There’s so much to read and watch, you can feel like maybe you’ll never be ready to start writing that book. You cram too much of your research into the book, so your editor starts giving you notes like, “It feels like there’s a subplot about Wi-Fi.” (All I can say about that is Wi-Fi is fascinating! And there are lots of ways to exploit it.) When research turns into procrastination, it’s time to put those books aside and start writing, confident that you know enough to get through a first draft, and you can always do more focused research later when you need it. Just highlight the sections that need to be filled in on your manuscript (I like to mark them “TK”), and keep going. And try to avoid falling into another Wikipedia spiral as you look up those missing details!

I’m in this exciting research phase with my next project. All I’ll tell you about it is that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, and The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst are on my reading list. I actually think these books aren’t at all similar to what I want to write, and this project shouldn’t need much research, but they’re going to get my subconscious thinking about the story so when I do start writing, I’ll feel ready.

Do you like researching your stories? How do you go about it? Do you like Benedict Cumberbatch?

Posted in Beginner Resources, Inspiration, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments
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