Monday, March 31, 2014

What Makes a Character

Writing a good character is essential as I've stressed, well, a few times. The ins and outs of what makes a character seem real are complex for me, often times more than the plot I'm writing. The main character, especially since I tend to write in first person, is a challenge to make have her weaknesses and strengths instead of her just being perfect all the time. It's easy for me as the writer to just have my female MC react to the situation just how I think she should or understand things right when I want her to. The truth is, while fiction is definitely not real life, it can feel extremely contrived when your character is perfect at everything.

Let's start with looking at a personal favorite of mine. Nancy Drew. I like Nancy Drew, I grew up reading the books and talked about them a lot. I didn't care for the mysteries as much as I liked reading about her exotic adventures and her smarts in figuring things out. Looking back at it now, it seems odd to think she's supposed to be younger than me...

Anyway, I digress.

Nancy has it all, smarts, good looks, a fair amount of money, a loving family, a loving boyfriend, and the penchant for always being around when things that need solving (and are stumping the police) occur. Most detective stories that I've read center around characters who always seem to be in the right place at the right time to get caught up in a mystery. It could be totally normal but I tend to doubt it. The other thing that makes Nancy really different (and that annoyed my oldest sister to the point that she read the Hardy Boys instead) is that for every case she encounters, she is able to just 'pick up' whatever ability she needs to know be it tap dancing, (Clue of the Tapping Heels) bagpipes, (the Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes) acting, (The Clue of the Dancing Puppet), etc. She is definitely the girl that every girl would strive to be. Well her prowess always annoyed my sister, it was part of what I liked so well about the books. She was tough, the kind of girl who wasn't afraid of danger, and would think to write an SOS in pink lipstick on the window of the plane she was being kidnapped in.

I've said before that Abby started out being based on me. I like to think of myself as smart, brave, and ready to stand up for what's right, but in reality I think I'd be scared of things as much as the next person. It some ways I think Abby has less courage than me but in other ways, she has a lot more. *SPOILER ALERT* I don't think I would've gotten in front of Mrs. Willis to protect her from being shot. Not that I wouldn't want to save her but I'm not sure I have that sort of selflessness. Stepping in the  middle of a group of bullies to defend someone she didn't know also is possibly braver than I'd be. On the same hand, I hate seeing things that I view as unjust and sometimes don't think it all the way through before stepping in. *END SPOILER ALERT*

Connor on the other hand, is the type of hero that a hero should be. Smart, kind, charismatic, and just a bit good looking. I am of the impression that people with good personalities who take care of the people around them are attractive whether their features are classically good looking or not. I knew when I started writing him that I wanted him to laugh in the face of danger and have a way of getting the others around him to do the same.

He is the bane of my writing life.

Every sentence he speaks is a challenge with me, second and third guessing about whether he would say even the most mundane things like "Let's go." It sounds stupid but I was/am so afraid of making him sound out of character, like a different character entirely, or worst of all, like a girl.

Now that I'm writing the sequel, I want a more comfortable idea of who he is so I can write without the agonizing. I've done character interviews, something I recently picked up as a way to identify and better know my characters. Basically, it's a first person interview by me, the author, and first person from the character. Some of the characters I get really into and are really easy. Connor isn't one of them. Zack is easy for me to get into character for. He's intimidating, more likely to give insults than complements, and generally difficult to win a fight against. Does this mean that my personality more mirrors his than Conner's? Quite possibly. Thing is, I don't want to like Zack more than Connor but since it's easier for me to write Zack, I find myself with more portions writing about him than Connor. I could change my main character but I don't want to. I like Connor's character, I just can't seem to write it comfortably.

This is a lot of obsessing when I need to just finish my first draft and do most of the work in edits but I don't like my discomfort over writing him. Recently, I stumbled over some old first drafts of books I'd emailed myself out of fear for my computer's life (and since I hadn't yet invested in a memory stick) and was enjoying reading some of my work from 2009. I expected to be reading a lot of cringe worthy phrasing and conversation only to get a huge shock when I realized my characters in a book from five years ago had deeper characters and less awkward conversations than characters I have now. As you can guess, it was just a bit disheartening.

Why haven't I gotten better with age? I thought age was to writing like it was to good wine. It only got better.

Stepping back, I observed a few things. One, my old books were all written third person which meant I could give a different spin on people as opposed to the observations from inside someone's head which is what I've been writing since I started Only Human in June of 2011. Secondly, I was much younger and still basing my characters off of people in movies. Dialogue wasn't difficult because I could watch my show and pretty much transfer their way of speaking and words over to my book. Back then, I didn't worry about what people would think if they read my cheesy dialogue; I just thought I'd be the only one seeing it. Now, even though it's at the back of my mind, it's a constant nagging that at some point all my deep thoughts, possibly unrealistic characters as well as far fetched plot twists will see the light of day and the eyes of loving family and total strangers who don't care about trashing the name of a girl they wouldn't recognize on the street. This leads me to something that lies hidden in every character I've ever written. I am extremely insecure.

Insecurity is something that seems to lurk in pretty much everyone in some way or other. I'm outgoing, laugh a lot, and state my opinions without shame. Or so it seems. People are a lot more willing to bluntly, or sometimes harshly, give me back what they think I can handle. I retaliate by trying to be even more confident and outgoing than before when in reality, what they say hurts. It's a stupid character flaw and one I think about quite often.

I didn't put this character flaw in Abby because she was her own character and because at sixteen, I didn't really know I had it. In my novella I wrote in February there were shades of it spread throughout Alex's character. She is outgoing and pretends to be much tougher than she actually is. I realized when I was writing Cameron, the male MC, that he was the kind of guy who could see through what she was doing easily, making him be just the kind of guy she needed as a friend.

At some point, I might be brave enough to put some of my old stories on here but I might wait until I actually have some positive recognition for my released world before I release my fifteen year old writing on an unsuspecting world. And when I say unsuspecting, I mean unsuspecting :)

Write again tomorrow. I'm thinking about posting some of my character interviews on here, at least the parts that won't give away too much of the story. They are subject to change since I might write out characters or change the plot flow entirely so, be warned.

Anna Leigh

Friday, March 28, 2014

Prequel's and Other Works

My older brother came running  out of the basement yesterday to tell me his most recent genius marketing plan: writing a prequel to Only Human I can put up for free. Needless to say, in the middle of planning and attempting to write my sequel and doing my best to avoid working on three other books I want to work on, it wasn't really what I wanted to hear.

Truth is, he's probably right.

Free generates downloads and downloads generate money for the rest of the series if you can spark someones interest. While I don't want to put the three years of work that is Only Human up for free, putting a little prequel to hopefully spark some interest in it is somewhat easier.

My writing has changed a bit since I was sixteen and started Only Human. While I gave it some definite changes, the writing is definitely my younger self and not the person now writing the sequel. As I sat staring at the blank page in a Microsoft Word document labeled 'Prequel', I pondered what would  happen if people liked it, paid for Only Human, and felt gypped because I wrote it at a younger age. Whatever, I can only second guess myself so much.

I wrote it in under an hour though my brother seems to have had more than three pages envisioned. Oh well, after he reads it I'll see what he says. It wasn't too bad to write except that I didn't want to spoil to much about OH in the process. I managed to tie in a character that doesn't come until the second book with the prequel which I was proud of and will hopefully keep even through whatever overhaul it will probably get.

I've started two other stories in the last few months, one that'll probably be a novella and one that's a stand alone novel. The stand alone novel is about the daughter of a man who runs a sort of mafia, making his two biological sons and one adopted son fight for who will control it. She is in the middle of it, not wanting any of her brothers to fight each other and trying to ward off the hostility her two older brothers have toward their younger adopted brother who's grown up on the street. It was inspired by a few different things, mostly the fact that I wanted to write about a girl in a dangerous, powerful family. We'll see how it goes, it might just be too cheesy to finish like a lot of my stories. I've gotten a lot better at fixing ideas recently instead of just scrapping them though.

My other book is one I don't want to say too much about since I think I might really like it or think it's too embarrassing to show anyone. I wanted to put my Korean knowledge to use and found a way I think it might work, mainly making fun of a lot of the dramas and cliches of Korean dramas that I watch. It's not set in Korea or really about Koreans but about a girl who loses a bet to a rival and has to write a book that's like a k-drama, much to her chagrin. She's an upcoming writer and is afraid of pleasing her most difficult critic - a reviewer on a website she frequents. It's quite fun to write since her character is a lot like mine and her sarcasm can be quite funny at times, even to me. I suspect she's going to lost a fair amount in edits since I don't want her - or me - to look like total cynics :)

I don't know if I mentioned before but one of my goals in my writing career (if I ever have one) is to write books in a whole bunch of different genres. I'm used to the authors I like in contemporary, the authors I like in sci fi, and the authors I like in whatever else I'm reading but I think it would be fun to have my name in a whole bunch of different categories. I already have science fiction (thank you Only Human) but I'd like to do a proper, nerdy science fiction one too like aliens, spaceships, the whole thing. Not that it's really up my alley but I might as well try. I guess I'd have to go for a dystopian one at some point too though I really don't care for those.

After finishing yesterday's post I remembered another guy whose character I liked in the book. Dan Wells Partials series is a really good series, one I just finished reading this month and Samm is a great main. I suspect I like him because he was actually written by a man so he doesn't feel like the cheesy contrived hunk that most heroes usually feel. I also liked Ginny Aiken's Shop-Til-U-Drop series and her hero. He starts out seeming like a stupid character, a 'lunkhead' as the heroine describes him at one point but I liked him a lot.

Write again at the beginning of the week,

Anna Leigh

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Character Building - A Lost Art

Character building is an essential essential part of writing a book. Bad characters? No book. Boring characters? No book. Weak, 2D characters? Well, you get the point.

As an aspiring writer, I know this as truth but knowledge does not a good writer make :) There are a lot of scary things about building a book including plot, setting, and interest but the scariest thing by far for me are the characters from a number of aspects. Every new character I bring in brings it's own list of questions like what kind of life they live, what their ambitions are, and whether I really need them or not. For a long time, my books have been bare bones stories with only as many characters as needed to further the plot. I have this fear of creating a bunch of characters who don't advance the  plot and all feel like hurriedly jammed in characters intended to take the reader from point 'a' to point 'b'. Lately, it's been much easier to get over these blocks if I decide to mention the grouchy neighbor who annoys the main character from time to time or the her boss at her summer job.

In Only Human, Abby has two neighbors who frequently argue and are known through Rosedale for their fights. They are relevant to the story because Abby takes fights in a much more intense way than others since she can feel an exaggerated form of their emotions. Abby's boss is described as being a  picky, somewhat grouchy person but isn't further elaborated on since he isn't the focus of the story. I added these characters not with the hopes of distracting the reader but with the hope of making the town and her every day life feel a bit more 3D. Abby is very observant of the things going on around her since she has an inside view to everyone around her.

The main girl is usually easy for me though lately, I've been trying to write different temperaments and personalities instead of my own over and over again. When I first started writing OH almost three years ago, I thought Abby would be just like me, but despite the fact you as the reader are in her head, she isn't me. She is much shier than me, much less likely to get involved than me and basically, Abby instead of Anna. It's a good thing, it would bore everyone if all the characters were variations of me.

It used to be when I wrote that I made my characters with the same interests as me. I like watching Dr. Who and *poof*, my main girl likes quirky, British Sci Fi. I hate peas with a passion therefore, my main girl never goes near them. While these qualities do lead to the making of a unique character since they are real characteristics, they make for repeat upon repeat of little Anna's, only to change as I change and get better at expressing who I am.

A recent experiment of mine is giving my MC hobbies that I don't care for or a like for foods I don't like. In my novella which is hopefully slated for future release, my MC really likes vegetables. I don't know if this was a fact I elaborated on in the story (I've written waaay too much since February to remember) but I knew it when I was writing her. With Abby in Only Human, she is insecure about herself but not about the way she looks. Alex, my MC from my novella, has a lot of insecurities in the way she looks, mostly sprouting from the fact she has acne. I didn't explore this story line very much but it was mentioned, including the fact that she pulls her hair into a ponytail all the time because she's determined not to be self-conscious of her face. This came from me, always wearing my hair down because I wanted to hide my acne and the scars that came from it. I still have acne and the scars but I pull my hair back all the time now, knowing that it's just my face and the way I am. Having overcome that insecurity (mostly) myself, I'm able to write about Alex having the same feelings and working on overcoming them.

My title of this post came from the research I've been doing which pretty much means the amount of free-0.99 books I've been ingesting since December. I've kind of been reading a LOT! I took pretty much a two year break from reading while I was working on my book, the only exceptions being the first Hunger Games book and one or two random others, usually in a foreign language for Korean study. After finishing my book, my oldest sister suggested some reading so I could get a more comfortable feel for how words and a good sentence flow together and I took her up on her suggestion. I've discovered a new like for books and read pretty much one a week. With my own view on what I like and the fact I'm more critical than others because of the standard I hold myself to, I've realized just how much self-publishing has done. While it's an amazing thing for authors like me who may never be able to get published professionally, it's also opened the door to all the horrible books that really should never have been released. I can't say too much since someone reading this might consider my own two and a half years of work one of those books, but I can say I've read a lot of stuff that's left me scratching my head. So many young adult books are first person (yes, I did it too) from the point of view of a fifteen-seventeen year old girl with a somewhat dry sense of humor, bad opinion of herself, and a penchant for somehow attracting the cutest looking boys at school. Don't ask me where she lives because if I knew, I'd already be packing my bags. A place where normal, average girls with normal average lives get a minimum of two amazing looking guys chasing after them? Who wouldn't want to live there? I read one where she had seven, not just one or two but seven gorgeous looking guys who liked her. Uh huh, because that happens to me all the time *wink*

I know books are fiction and for a lot of people, an escape to a world they can only fantasize about, but for me there has to be at least some sort of realistic feel to it. Even fantasy or science fiction have to have some believable facts to anchor me to reality as I careen into the unknown that could never exist! The hardest thing for me to swallow about a lot of the books I've read is not liking the actual character who's head I'm in. The other one that gets me even more is the main guy. I might not even be able to share all my thoughts on this subject without writing another post.

Teenage guys in teenage books are unattractive. I don't mean the way they look since every teenage book seems filled with amazing looking, smart, romantic guys. I mean unattractive in the way I'm reading the book and shaking my head, wondering what kind of girl would ever date someone who acts like him. I've met a fair amount of obnoxious teenage boys and don't necessarily find author's adaptions off base but c'mon, if I'm going to read fiction, I want to read about the kind of guy I'd date. Maybe my taste is just unique or I have way to high of a standard. Either way, I don't think I could even name five books I've read with guys that I really liked.

This particular dislike of mine leads me to the other intense fear I have writing characters. I want my main guy to be totally likable, the kind of guy I would want to date. I struggle over every sentence he says, trying to picture what he's thinking that he'd say that, if he'd say that, or if as I dread so often, it just sounds like the main girl speaking. I've relaxed a little bit more and learned to let my first draft be exactly that - something that can be fixed later in editing when I have the time to look over every line and tweak it as much as I want.

After all this bashing, I would like to say there are a few male characters I found likable. Stephanie Morrill's Ellie Sweet books did a good job of making both of the male characters likable even though I did find Chase quite annoying after a while. Even though it was quite sad to me, I thought she did a good job of showing what happens when a good girl tries to date the 'bad boy' and how he does sort of change but it's more of a front than an actual change. Georgette Heyer's Cotillion also had a very likable character in Freddy who was amusing and quite lovable. And, as a cliche, I also  like Peeta from Hunger Games. No, I'm not a 'Team Gale' fan. I think choosing teams is pretty much stupid anyway :)

On a side note, I really really dislike historical books but Cotillion is a good read if you can get past all of the 'ye olden days' speak :)

Anyway, I need to get back to my story. I've found my blog to be a welcome distraction when I'd normally be surfing Pinterest and trying to push my book out of my mind. After spilling my thoughts out to an empty blog, I'm able to put my thinking cap on and get back into my writing.

Write (or most likely rant) again soon,

Anna Leigh

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing A Story - Inspiration

There's a part of me that wakes me up at three in the morning, my heart pounding hard at the idea of a new book that's suddenly popped into my head, inspired by the days events, a movie we watched, or a random comment someone made. I sleep with my phone on next to me, my morning alarm to wake me up, and I use the notepad feature to write these ideas down so they don't disappear when I wake up in the morning.

I've started over twenty books and my first official finished one was in December of 2013. It probably would have been another two years before that one was finished if it wouldn't have been my inspiration to get it done.

My Nana (Dad's Mom) loves to read. As long as I can remember, she's had stacks of books that she plows through in a week and trips to the library are frequent. She's not big on thrillers, science fiction, or fantasy but prefers books set in historical times about places she's visited or murder mysteries that are so complex, they make my head spin. My Dad's love of history comes from her and they read huge books full of history and promptly memorize facts I've never even heard of before.

Ever since I started writing, I liked talking to her about the process and about how nervous I was to show my books to anyone. We never really got into plots very much but she mentioned more than once that someday she wanted to read my books, knowing full well I didn't write the sort of things she normally liked to read. Two and a half years ago, while doing a somewhat innocuous surgery, they discovered by accident that she had stage 2 pancreatic cancer. The stats on pancreatic cancer aren't good at all but she was a bit off the charts considering they found it at stage 2 when it's normally found at stage 3 or 4 where there is nothing you can do but go home and live out your 6-24 months quietly. Even knowing that, she got very depressed and every topic of discussion led back to the things that would happen after she was gone including who she was going to give her stuff too. I wrote her a note around that time, telling her I hoped she would better soon and also saying that she couldn't go anywhere until I'd finished one of my books for her to read. With a new goal in mind, I started serious work on the book I had closest to being finished. I was of two minds about the work, wanting to get it done for her to read but not wanting to give it to her and be like "It's okay for you to leave now."

I was sixteen when all of this happened and my writing self at sixteen was a bit different than my writing self now. My book wasn't even written in a straight line but with bits and pieces going off in every direction, a proper mess. It was discouraging to even try and I put it off for a long time. January of 2013 came with a new resolve to work on it properly and I dedicated time to it a little bit every day (when I didn't get distracted by Pinterest or my blind depression about actually getting it done in time). I set a goal in mind, deciding I was going to get it done by Christmas '13. To force myself to stick to my self-imposed goal, I started telling my family members and friends who in turn began to ask me whenever they talked to me about how my progress was going.

A lot happened during 2013, mentally and physically for me. Recovering from physical problems, a weighted down schedule, and the unexpected move-in of my other Grandma, it was a little harder than expected. Even so, I worked hard and stayed up a lot of late nights. A lot of plot got changed, characters got added and subtracted, pages got written only to be totally deleted the next day, and somehow, I managed to let someone read it for the first time in November.

I've never been a person to let other people read what I write. As I'm sure is the case for most people, writing a book is a bit like writing my diary. Everything is personal to me and the characters are a part of me. The idea of giving that to someone else to critique and possibly not even like was very difficult but something I knew I was going to have to face. I had help with editing from family members and everyone who read it offered critiques and corrections. It was nice but it was really hard. I can only imagine what it must be like from someone who doesn't know you and is interested in selling a book, not necessarily sparing your feelings.

As it was, I got the book done in time for Christmas and Nana was very excited when she got it. My letter to her managed to get tears from most of the family and I felt something new as a writer. The feeling of other people knowing what I'd written and thinking it was good. Did they totally love it? No. Did they think it was going to be a best seller? My family is way to honest for that. In spite of those things, everyone who read it said it was pretty good and my younger sister even told me it was the best book she'd ever read (she's a little biased but hey, I'll take it :)

I self published the book on Kindle to be able to allow Nana to read it and probably would have left it at that if it weren't for my older brother. He told me he was going to find a way to market it and figure out how the process worked. This was a few months ago and even now, we're on the dizzying road that is trying to market someone like me who has no name and whose book is in with a few thousand no name writers trying to get their work out there. My brother found me a cover artist who gave me a great cover and started reading everything he could about sale tactics. To date, my book has sold (ready for it?) 18 copies and had 2 returns making 16 buys that aren't from friends or family. I'm shocked it's that many, especially when I pull open the book and groan to myself, wishing my first book had been a little better. I'm tempted many days to take it down and totally redo it until I remind myself it's a first book and very few people do well on a first book especially when its been self-published.

I learned a lot through the whole experience, mostly the fact that my grammar and punctuation are a lot worse than I initially realized. Sorry Aunt T for all the purple marker you had to use up. Embarrassing...

So, now you've gotten to hear about the birth of Only Human, my first novel. It's available on Amazon and has exactly one review from my oldest sister and editor. She says it has a lot of potential and that I'll get to be a better writer as I get older. I only hope she's right.

I finished a novella in February which I'll probably be uploading soon and am working on my sequel to Only Human, Human Nature. I have a short story in the works and a thousand ideas bursting out of my head, wanting me to work on them instead of what I've set my mind to work on. My goal for Human Nature is a thousand words a day and a hopeful finish with editing by the end of the year. Hopefully I won't get so many hating reviews on my first one at that point, I'll actually have an audience for my second one :)

Write again soon,

Anna Leigh

P.S. A link to my book just in case you're interested in checking it out :)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It Begins...

Books are super personal to me, something I've been working on and thinking about since I was eleven years old. At the grand old age of nineteen, it feels like I've been writing books my whole life. I've read a lot of people talking about how it was their passion, how they've told stories all their lives, how their parents are writers, and all these inspiring stories about how they feel they've always been 'destined' or 'made' to be a writer. I never had any sort of grand calling for me to be a writer. I began purely out of indignation.

As a preteen, Barnes and Noble gift cards were the normal thing I received for Christmas, being at the odd age between getting toys and getting adult gifts. There was always a day sometime in mid January when we'd bundle up and head out to the book store and I'd spend an hour trying to figure out what to spend my 15-20 dollars on. I was very picky about what I wanted since I only had a limited amount to spend and I hated the idea of spending it on anything but something I really liked! Many of these visits ended with me leaving with a fine array of things from a full house sticker book one year to the book 'Little Women' which I got because of it's pretty front cover and the fact it came with a free necklace. Peter Pan, one of my other 'childhood' books was another purchase that happened because of the free necklace involved. Marketing plans like that always worked on my naive self :)

Robin Hood was a book I genuinely wanted to read after watching the 1938 version of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. While I didn't admire his strange hair and aptitude to wear tights (hey, I was eleven. It was a problem), I liked the idea of the story a lot. The man wronged who has to flee from everything he's ever known or loved but still manages to protect those he cares about, including the beautiful woman who loves him (what would the story be without Maid Marian?), and defeat evil in the end. A very typical plot to a story and the type that excited me. The book held much more fascination to me than the movie and I read it through in one day. It ended rather abruptly and I decided I needed to find a longer version of the story. As I remember, Marian actually wasn't mentioned at all in that book which was a bit of a disappoint for me.

Not long after, I bought a much thicker book and discovered there was a lot more to the Robin Hood stories than I'd ever known. I stayed up late several nights in a row to finish it and...was left with the worst thing I could have imagined! While it looks for a while like Robin Hood will end triumphant with Nottingham back under control and Marian by his side, Robin Hood is imprisoned by the now King John and hurts himself badly after trying to escape prison. He makes it to an abbey where the Mother Abbess nicely offers to help him, only to end up being evil and leaving his wounds to bleed out. During this time she has convinced Marian, who thinks Robin is dead, to become a nun. In the end Marian rushes to Robin's side right as he dies and that's the end.

I was incensed.

The next week, sitting at my brothers computer with the book open in front of me, I started to type out the book I'd just spent days reading, planning to keep it the same until the end where I would come up with my own ending (most likely a 'and they got rid of all the bad guys and lived happily ever after' moment). In the midst of this, I finished Peter Pan and found out that he didn't grow up. I was incensed again! I would do the same with that story except in the end, he was going to grow up and marry Wendy like he should've in the first place.

It wasn't until a few months later that my oldest sister recommended to me offhandedly that maybe I should try coming up with my own story instead of copying others. I was shocked at first, the thought of making up my own story to bizarre to even contemplate but then, it started to sink it. I wanted to write, I wanted to make stories with no deaths, no sad endings, and heroes who were undefeatable. Needless to say, I never finished my Robin Hood or Peter Pan projects but I've gone on to find things I like much more.They will most likely never see the success that either of those stories have seen, but I'm happy.

I'll write again about my actual writing projects in another post. This one seems to have gone long enough as it has. Oh, and for those who are actually curious, I do have Robin Hood and Peter Pan slated for being written at some point, most likely at the same time as I write my own version of the story of King Arthur :)

Anna Leigh