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You Gotta Get Behind Your Character

Minerda-sample

Illustration by Robin Follet. Minerda.

There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)

I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).

I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.

Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.

There Was a Reason Prince Was Purple

His Purple Highness, the Prince we all loved, rocked a color that is neither red nor blue. It’s more than a royal shade; it’s the perfect blend that holds all things. Masculine and feminine; hot and cool. Two distinct identities in a loving embrace.

I had my own purple moment these last few days as I wended my way through the health care system.

Last week I saw a doctor who ordered a CT scan. Before she did, I told her what my acupuncturist noted when she treated me. “I may have gall bladder issues,” I said to the doctor. “I have these sore points on my legs.” I indicated where they were.

My doctor nodded and said with wonderful diplomacy, “I think it’s great you seek alternative therapies. Myself, I need visuals and data. So I’d like to run some tests to rule out some things.” Seeing her acceptance of East while she did West, well–it was a violet moment for me. Purple

Today I saw my acupuncturist, CT results in hand. Those results didn’t give an “impression” as the radiologist says, of gall bladder issues, but some other possibilities, maybe colitis. She gave the data careful consideration, then placed needles accordingly across my body. I could feel, from the moment the fine, wavering needles touched my skin, instant tingling and energy swirling. I soon slipped into a restful, half-aware state, as only acupuncture can do for me. I’ve tried regular massage, but I never zone out. Only the needles can work mauve magic. I left the session without a rod of stone-like muscle frozen in my back. I left looser, calmer, happier. Mauve, you might say.

This week I hear from my doctor about next steps, Western style, based on the result of the CT. I will probably see a specialist and work in concert with that person and my acupuncturist. I’ve already begun seeking answers to the most lavender of all questions–what’s a good diet while I learn more about what’s wrong? Because we must live in the in between, right?

If you’re not one to flex with the overreaching metaphor, let me make it plain: Prince, medicine, politics, and so many things, are best handled with lots of purple.

As I write the next draft of Minerva’s story, under the wonderful eye of my agent, Amy Tipton, I am listening to the voice of a teen who declares herself “beyond labels.” Is she gay or is she straight, or is she something kind of periwinkle? Or does she really, truly, have to declare a color?

“Plum,” my mother-in-law would say, as they say in Mount Airy (AKA Mayberry). “Plum pretty.”

In these next weeks of writing, in these next weeks of political conventions, in these tearful and lamenting weeks of violent conflict in our streets, I pray we all bow to the most royal of colors and see the compromise, empathy, humanity, dare I say, mixed blood in all our souls.

I’ll turn back to Prince to set us all on the lovely purple path.

Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain

Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.

Minerva Mae Would Like to Be Heard

Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.

Enjoy!

 

Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,

I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.

9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.paper-pen2

This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.

I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).

I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.

Best,

Lyn Fairchild Hawks

 

How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.

I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.

I can’t wait to tell Di.

A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.

 

Me and Minerva Mae

Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.

You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.

As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul.  The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls.  I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.paper-pen2

When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?

Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.

Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.

Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.

I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.

There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.

Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.

The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.