4 Tips for Writing Characters Not of your Gender

Mar 31, 2011

Before I dive into today's post, I wanted to let you folks know about a few contests from fellow writers! You can win some great books (and follow some great blogs) from David Powers King and Chantele Sedgwick! Go check them out!

So today, let's talk about a tough one-- writing point-of-view characters that are a different gender from the writer.

When the idea for Devs first came to me, something happened that rarely does: it came with the main character intact. I had an immediate image of a shaggy-haired teenage boy, and so Ash was born. I didn't really think about the fact that writing a POV boy character would be a whole different experience.

In my first draft, Ash was an odd conglomeration of female mannerisms, a whole lot of action, and not much thought. I had to do some serious revision on him-- and in fact, my current rewrite is focused primarily on deepening his character. Through the process, I learned some very helpful things if I ever do this again.

1. Treat them like any other character.

I tried to think of Ash as a person first and a boy second. By fully developing his character profile and by writing him in terms of HIMSELF and not BOY, I was able to focus on who he was. Like I said, this has taken multiple drafts to get right. However, each time I came to a point where Ash had to take action or react in some way, I tried to think what Ash would do, not what a boy would do.

If you want to avoid falling into gender stereotypes (which I admit, I did), this is the absolute most important thing to do.

2. Don't forget the internalization

This is a big one I'm focused on right now. Basically, I was afraid to get inside Ash's head. He was a boy. I have no idea what goes on in a boy's head (or heart), so I just steered clear of the whole thing.

Bad idea. Not only did it make him pretty hard to relate to, it also underplayed many of the issues that come up in the book. I didn't address them, because I'd have had to address them through Ash. It's really kind of funny how terrified I am of a fictional 16-year-old boy...

At any rate, I've been doing my best to get over that, and discovered some fascinating things about how my character works. It goes straight back to number 1-- I have to focus on how Ash himself would think about these things. And it's amazing how much better the book is for all that internalization!

3. Have someone of that gender read the book

DO NOT LEAVE OUT THIS STEP. If I had, Ash would have spent the book with female mannerisms that are, in some cases, laugh-out-loud funny. The male members of my crit group have been invaluable to point out things like Ash swishing his hair back with his hand. For the most part, Ash's actions, reactions, and thoughts have been fine, though a few of those had to be modified as well. I wouldn't ever have seen them if it hadn't been for the awesome guys in my group.

4. Don't be afraid!

Of course, I should be one to talk. But don't be afraid of getting into your character's head, or letting them feel emotions, or writing them altogether. It's a whole different ball of wax to write a character that's not your gender, but it's actually quite a fun challenge. So if that's how a character comes to you-- dive in! After all, if it doesn't work, you can always rewrite things later.

So, my friends, have you ever written, or thought about writing, a character not of your gender? What things scared you? What tips can you share? What books have you read that do this well?

Finding Your Sense of Awe

Mar 29, 2011

When I was in college, I took the oddest--and coolest-- biology class ever. My professor insisted that in order to properly study science, we needed to appreciate it. He said that the world in general has lost its sense of awe. Our first assignment was to go anywhere in nature, sit for half an hour, and just feel it. And then of course write about it, which necessitated thinking about what we'd felt.

I try to remember his advice sometimes when I start to get stressed, or just bogged down in the daily trudge through mundane things. A few days ago, I bundled up the Kiddo and took him out on a walk. Normally, I stick him in his stroller to go to the park, but that day I just let him wander along the sidewalk next to me.

We stopped every thirty seconds.

We stopped on the yellow bumpy strip that alerts blind people to a crosswalk, and stomped on it to really feel the bumps. We poked at the green shoots popping out of the dirt, ready for spring. We picked up wood chips and sniffed them.

The whole walk was Kiddo-directed, and included running back to favorite spots multiple times. We didn't make it that far down the street, but it didn't matter. We weren't going anywhere. We were just enjoying.

As I watched the enjoyment he had in such small things, I realized I had been missing those things. I wasn't paying attention to the feel of bumps under my feet, the contrast of green plants against brown dirt, or the rain-drenched scent of wood chips, because those things weren't important to me.

Not until our walk, anyway. On that walk, those things were very important as I re-discovered my sense of awe. I really paid attention to the world, and to all the wonderful things in it. When we got back from the walk, I was filled with contentment.

So, my friends, do something to find your sense of awe today. Let it replenish a life you constantly spend emptying with all your daily tasks. Do it to refill your writing coffers, but also just to do it to be alive today. And please share. What things do you do to refill, recharge, and rediscover the world?

Pic is of the Kiddo when he was still the Bambino, getting his first exposure to spring.

When You Want to Give Up

Mar 24, 2011

When we start a story, it's because we love it-- the idea, the characters, the setting, the adventure of discovering all those things. For me, that's why I write. Because I love the discovery and the creation of a new story.

So what happens when you're not sure you love it any more? When you want to give up and just bury it/burn it/cry over it and tuck it lovingly in a drawer?

I mean, of course we get discouraged. We have moments when we have no idea how to fix a plot hole, or we've worked on it forever and just need a break. But what about when you really do want to just give up on this story and move on?

The first thing to do: wait.

Wait until morning, or until the stress and joy of your sister's wedding is over, or until you're not sick. In other words, wait until you can get a little perspective.

Then look at the story again. Look at what, in particular, has you frustrated and discouraged. Are you sure you want to be done?

I started asking myself that question this week. Was this story what I wanted it to be? I'm getting toward the end-- close to sending it out into the querying world. Did I want this story out there as a representation of me? Well, the short answer is that the story WASN'T where I wanted it to be. So the question changed: was I willing to put in the work to make it what I wanted?

And I decided yes, I was. I love this story. I know what I want it to be, and it's really not very far off. Sometimes, you do have to decide to let a story go. And that's okay--I've done it before. But this story is worth the fight for me.

So, my friends, have you ever wanted to let a story go? How did you decide to do it-- or not to do it?

How to Write Strong Character Relationships

Mar 21, 2011

Note: If you're here for the Show Me The Voice blogfest, you can find my entry here!

Writers talk all the time about creating strong characters, dynamic characters, memorable and unique characters. It's the core of our stories-- it's not just about what happened, but who it happened to. But there's a side of character development I think we often neglect, and it's one of the most important parts of who human beings are.

Our relationships with other people.

Characterization-- who a person/character is-- can sometimes be shown more strongly through relationships than through anything else. A relationship between characters is often a whole plotline itself. But even when it isn't, your characters will never feel as strong, dynamic, memorable or unique if you ignore their relationships.

As I've gone to conferences and worked on Devolutionaries, I've tried to make my relationships as strong, dynamic, and memorable as the characters themselves. Here's a few things I've learned.

For a strong relationship, no matter the type, your characters should need each other. There should be something about each of them that needs the other. In Devs, my main character Ash needs each of the others, even if he doesn't like it (or like to admit it). He has a distrustrustful and antagonistic relationship with another character-- but he also needs the training this character can give him. And this character needs Ash's ability to take risks to get what he wants.

There should be at least one reason-- and maybe more-- that each of your characters needs the others. This is especially important in romantic relationships. They need to fulfill a need in each other.

Of course, if that's all you use to define your relationships, you'll have a boring story. Your characters should also be in conflict with each other. This doesn't mean they have to be fighting all the time, or even that they have to have exactly opposite characteristics. But there should be some aspect of your characters that causes conflict. In Devs, Ash and his love interest have conflicting moral views on a key issue. For Ash and another character, their similarities (stubbornness, distrust) are actually what puts them into conflict.

Just like a character changes, relationships must change throughout the story. A static relationship is a boring relationship. However the relationship starts in the story, it needs to be grow and be different in the end. Through the conflicts and the needs, the way the characters see and interact with each other will be different. This is not restricted to romantic relationships-- Ash's relationships with each of the main characters evolves over the story.

And finally, don't forget about the relationships of the non-main characters with each other. This is something I'm trying to fix in my revisions. Ash's relationships with the other characters are the most important, but the other characters have relationships with each other that make the story stronger and more real. It doesn't have to be a focus, but it should be an element in the story.

So, my friends, how do you approach your character's relationships? What have you found that helps make them stronger? What are some of your favorite character relationships in books and movies?

Updates from the Sick House

Mar 18, 2011

NOTE: If you're here for the Show Me the Voice blogfest, you can find my entry here!

So the Kiddo got sick a few days ago, hence the sparse posting this week. It's always sad to see him lethargic and feverish, but luckily he's on the mend. Which is good for several reasons, not least of which is I can't bear to watch Ninja Turtles one more time.

Unfortunately, now I'm starting to feel under the weather, so I still have no real post for today. Just a few housekeeping things.

First, thanks to Karen and Gale for my most recent awards! You ladies are awesome. :)

Also, you can now find me on Goodreads! I had an old account with my maiden name I haven't touched in years, but last night I created a new one and spent WAY too much time on it. If you're there, find me and friend me!

And my crit mate and friend Chersti is holding a contest of awesomeness on her blog! Enter your first line and get a chance at some awesome agent critiques-- plus a discount on the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in June!

With any luck, my voice will hold out for me to keep reading Devs out loud over the next few days. I may still have a few revisions as I go through this final read-through, but my goal is to finish and start querying by May 1-- just in time for the LDStorymakers Conference! Wish me luck. :)

Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Mar 14, 2011

I mentioned last week how much I LOVE Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. And I still don't think I gave it enough credit.

Seriously, friends, this book is so packed with power, I've read it twice already. It had the same effect on me both times-- I felt empowered. This book is one of very few that really got inside me, ripped out my heart, healed it, and changed how I look at the world. It is truly my favorite book at the moment. Everyone should read it.

"Two girls, two centuries apart. One never knowing the other. But when Andi finds Alexandrine’s diary, she recognizes something in her words and is moved to the point of obsession. There’s comfort and distraction for Andi in the journal’s antique pages—until, on a midnight journey through the catacombs of Paris, Alexandrine’s words transcend paper and time, and the past becomes suddenly, terrifyingly present."

I literally loved everything about this book. It is a masterpiece of everything we as writers strive for.

The setting-- Paris-- well, how can you not love it? And this book gave a fabulous look at Paris now, and Paris during the French Revolution. I loved the history; whenever I learn something in a book, it gets bonus points. The writing itself is gorgeous and evocative while still remaining true to Andi's voice. The plot was fascinating and page-turning. I loved the mysteries of the past, and how they wove with the present. It was brilliantly executed, with multiple plotlines weaving expertly in and out of the story.

But most of all, I loved the characters. Andi, the protagonist, is...complicated. And depressed. You would think spending a book with a depressed character would be, well, depressing. But I grew to love Andi, and to want the things she wanted for herself as desperately as she did. Alex, the character in the diary Andi finds, is complex and fascinating. To watch both these characters change throughout the book is what makes it so incredible.

The emotional power of Revolution is staggering. On Jennifer Donnelly's webpage, she talks about her inspiration for writing this book. She wrote it to find answers to how we can live in a world that is so full of cruelty. This brilliant and gorgeous book helped me find an answer to that same question.

When Tragedy Hits Home

Mar 11, 2011

Whenever I hear of natural disasters, it makes my heart ache. So many people are affected in so many ways, and the tragedy is beyond my scale of understanding. But when I heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan today, that tragedy hit home.

My husband lived in Japan for 2 years as a missionary for our church. He whispered romantic things to me in Japanese when we were dating, and even proposed in Japanese. I have seen pictures and heard stories that have made the land and the people dear to me. I even tried to learn Japanese, though it didn't go too well.

That has made today's disaster personal for me. My husband has been beside himself; he knows these towns and walked these streets and is friends with many of these people. He doesn't know how to contact most of them except by letter, and so he doesn't know how they're doing. He is crushed knowing the depth of the disaster, and that crushes me.

The same year I started dating my husband, I had a Japanese roommate. We became good friends, but we lost touch after she graduated and moved back to Japan. Just this Christmas, we started emailing each other again. She lives north of Tokyo, though I'm not sure where, and I haven't heard from her. I know she is likely fine and just doesn't have the electricity to respond to my email, but the not knowing is painful and frightening.

I know I don't normally post personal things on this blog, but today's events hit me hard and I needed to share them. If you're a praying person, please pray for Japan. If you're not, please send your best wishes. And if you can, find a way to help. We often talk in blogging about being a community of writers, but sometimes tragedy helps us remember that we're also a community of human beings across the world.

Thanks for listening, friends.

*UPDATE* I got word from my friend this morning that she and her family are fine. They felt the quake, but live far enough away that they didn't suffer any major damage from either the earthquake or the tsunami. I'm feeling greatly relieved.

How to Write a Life-Changing Book

Mar 10, 2011

I recently read a book that touched me in a way books rarely do. Don't get me wrong, I read a lot of books and have a lot of wonderful experiences with them. But it's rare that a book gets to me the way this one did. It changed the way I looked at the world, just a little. It made me gasp as it wrenched and healed my heart.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. Read it, folks. I'll do a full-scale review next week, but for now, just know that this book is one that changed me. It's the book I wish I could write. I want to write books that capture people's minds and change their hearts. And I think I'm not alone in that desire. So the question is, how in the devil do we do that?

All the standard stuff applies. You've got to write a darn good book. But a good book doesn't mean a powerful book. The kind of book that changes people has a little something extra, that emotional core that readers can relate to at the most fundamental level.

In my freshman creative writing class, the professor made us all write a credo. A credo is a document where you state all the things that you strongly believe, no holds barred. You basically bear your soul about all the things you hold most dear. And then you use those things to write your stories.

Because only when you write about the things you believe to your core can you reach the core of a reader. This is hard. It is painful. It's even a little bit frightening sometimes. But if you really want to write a deep, powerful story, this is one way to do it.

1. Write your credo. It can be as simple as you want-- mine is just a string of sentences starting with "I believe..."

2. Read your credo. Think about what you want to write about. Which ideas give you a little thrill of fear? Mark them-- and then use those in your book.

3. Don't preach. When we write about things we believe, it can sometimes come across too didactic. Try to focus on asking the hard questions, not answering them. Let readers do the answering for themselves.

4. Write your heart out. That's one thing first drafts especially are great for-- writing from the heart. Tell your story, and don't be afraid to face those big bad beliefs.

Of course, that's all easier said than done. You don't have to go through those exact steps. You can start with a haunting question, or a single idea you feel clear to your core. Just find your heart, and write it. If your book can change even one reader, all that work is worth it.

So, my friends, do you have a credo? Have you written about the hard truths you firmly believe in? How do you face the fear? What books have you read that changed you?

Double Book Review: A Long Walk to Water and Between Shades of Gray

Mar 8, 2011

Recently, I've been trying to expand out of my typical reading palette. I managed to get my hands on two ARCs that helped with that. They were both historical, multicultural novels, and they were both wonderful.

Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk to Water is a middle grade novel based on the true story of a boy who escaped the horrors of Sudan, and returned later to help build wells for the people of his country. It is told through two points of view-- Salva, the Lost Boy, and Nya, a young girl struggling to survive after the war is over. It's beautifully constructed, with only small, pertinent details of each character's lives coming out. I think it will hit its target middle-grade audience well; there is a wonderful balance of history, conflict, and character in an easily-accessible style. For a quick, engaging read with an enjoyable mix of culture and story, you can pick this one up in bookstores now.

Ruta Sepetys' YA novel Between Shades of Gray was...beautiful. I can't think of another word for it. Except maybe horrifying. And haunting. And moving. It's a story of World War II-- but it's a story of a side of WWII that isn't often talked about.

Lina, a teenager living in Lithuania, is taken from her home by the Soviet Secret Police and shipped to Siberia. She lives essentially as a slave with her family, relying on her art and her relationships with those around her to survive. Many of the circumstances around her are absolutely horrendous, but the primary feeling I got from the book is of hope. Hope that the future will be better, that people can be better than they seem, and that Lina will be reunited with those she has been separated from.

The book was beautifully written. The various of characters were realistic and relatable-- even the grouchy ones. There was much exploration of the different sides of human nature that came out in such horrific circumstances. It was both depressing and uplifting.

I couldn't put this one down. I connected with the characters so well, I was desperate to find out what would happen to them. The plot was tightly woven, and it brought me to tears multiple times. I loved learning bits of Lithuanian culture, and learning this often forgotten history of WWII.

I highly recommend this one-- and lucky for you, it comes out this month!

Raffle Winners Announced!

Mar 7, 2011

Okay folks, it's time to announce the raffle winners!

Thanks again to everyone who donated. I wish I could offer amazing prizes to everyone.

The winner of the 10 page manuscript critique OR synopsis critique from editor C.A. Marshall is...

The winner of the first chapter critique from agent Sarah LaPolla is...

The winner of the first chapter critique and book from me is...

Congratulations to the winners! I will be emailing you today to let you know how to claim your prizes. Thank you all again!

Saturday Randomocity

Mar 5, 2011

A few randoms on this Saturday...

First, the African Education Raffle is over! Unfortunately, we didn't make our goal, but hopefully we'll still find a way to pay for the children's tuition. To all you who donated, thank you so much! We are that much closer to keeping the children in school thanks to your help. I will be announcing the winners of the raffle on Monday, so stay tuned.

Next, a shout out to Teralyn Pilgrim, who gave me an award on her blog! She was one of my awesome beta readers, and is an awesome writer herself. She's got a wonderful blog, so drop by and say hi!

And a shout out to another one of my awesome beta readers and writing buddies, Reece Hanzon. Reece and I have been friends since we had a creative writing class together in our freshman year of college. He writes wonderful and exciting sci fi adventures, and he has finally joined the blogging world! If you can, go show him some writerly love.

Lastly, I posted last month about finding characters in real life. Well, here's a reminder to be careful with that-- Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, is being sued by someone who has a very similar name and story to one of the characters in the book. I still think taking small traits and contradictory characteristics from real people is fine, but be careful how far you go in creating your characters from real people.

Now, my friends, go out and have a fabulous weekend!

Creating Strong Settings from Real Places

Mar 3, 2011

One of the things I love about writing a new book is discovering the setting. I love fascinating places, and I love working them into my stories.

For example, the city where TUGL takes place is based loosely on Dubai. On my second trip to Ghana, I had a 12 hour layover there. It would have been yuck anywhere else, but I've never been in an airport like that. It was a cross between a luxury mall and a swanky hotel.
Dubai is the height of luxury, with man-made islands, indoor skiing, and elaborate architecture. It fascinates me, so I took it, modified it, and stuck it in my story.

My husband thinks it's odd that I base so many of my settings on places I've been in real life, but for me, it makes the setting come alive. So how do you take a place you love and turn it into a unique setting? I'm going to use an example from Devs, since it's fairly complete at this point.

1. Think about what the story needs in a setting. I have a scene in Devs that involves a secret meeting. I wanted the setting to be creepy, and symbolize decay-- but I also wanted reminders of how the world was before the decay.

2. Think of places in your life that could fit those needs. I had a hard time with this one, actually. I didn't want it to be a warehouse or an abandoned mall. Those felt too cliche. After some thought, I decided to place it in a looted and abandoned sporting goods store. I've been in plenty of them, and it was a good, "normal" type of place you'd find on any American main street.

3. Come up with details from that place to enhance the needs of the setting. I pictured my own local sporting goods store in my mind, going over all the things that were there-- and figuring out what things would be left if the place got looted. That's when I came up with the pool table. Nobody could carry it out during a looting. So I left it there in my scene. It was a perfect, haunting representation of the world that had decayed.

4. If you can, twist the setting a bit so it's more unique. That particular scene in Devs actually didn't need much twisting (beyond turning it into a dilapidated dump). It was small, and worked for the needs of the scene. But one of my larger settings is based on Dugway Proving Ground, which I visited to do some research. The base had some awesome places I could use for my setting, but I had to modify them.

I twisted the entire base around, changing locations, adding whole areas, removing things I didn't need, and tossing in new details. I used the nature of the setting to enhance my twists. Dugway, for example, tests military weapons in the middle of the desert. So I added a testing mine field that makes things a little more complicated for my protagonist. Is that mine field really a part of Dugway? Nope, but it sure worked out well for the story.

Using places from your own life can be a wonderful way to bring life and vibrance to your setting, and therefore your story. I love building settings that way-- and I love all the twists and turns that come up along the way.

So, my friends, do you use real places when you create your settings? What are some examples? What are some of your favorite settings in books you've read?

Don't forget, tomorrow is the last day of the raffle! You've only got one more chance to enter to win a critique from Sarah LaPolla and C.A. Marshall, and help five kids in Ghana get an education!

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