Tag Archives: Anne Lamott

How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

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May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

Waiting by Rebecca Van Slyke

Waiting

Lord, please grant me patience. And I want it RIGHT NOW!

 

Last month I wrote about getting The Call. As with most deals, I had to wait until it was official to be able to share my joy with my family and friends. When I could finally announce something, I got the same reaction over and over: “That’s WONDERFUL! You certainly have waited a long time for this to happen!”

Yes.

Yes I have.

I’ve been waiting to be a “real author” for a long time. When I was four years old, I discovered that books were made by real people. I wanted to be one of those magical people called “authors” and “illustrators.” So I wrote stories on my Big Chief notebook and drew pictures on typewriter paper.

Skipping ahead to college, I took an educational literacy class where the professor offered us this choice: write a research paper, or write a children’s book. That was a no-brainer for me. I spent happy hours writing and illustrating a picture book. The professor liked it so well that he gave me an A… and passed the book along to his publisher. Unfortunately, they did not publish picture books, but it was all the encouragement I needed. The next thirty-mumble years were spent sending manuscripts out. I started with the first story, but gradually added others. I made mistakes. Lots of mistakes. I joined SCBWI. I learned. I wrote. I sent out new manuscripts. I read. I went to conferences, to classes, to lectures. I learned more. And I waited. Every time I sent out a manuscript I knew that this could be the time.  And it wasn’t. Again and again it wasn’t.

I just went back and re-read this last paragraph and realize how pathetic it sounds. Good gravy, what was wrong with me? Why didn’t I give up? Thirty years without a nibble? That right there is some special kind of stupid.

Except I was making progress, I could tell. I finally took the plunge and decided to do more than take an occasional class. By now I was a teacher, and I did what teachers do. I went back to school. I got a master’s degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. That led to getting an agent. Now I was guaranteed to get an offer.

But the offers didn’t materialize. I watched classmates sell a book. Or several books. I had several near-yesses. I tried not to be jealous. I kept writing. I kept waiting.

A quote from Anne Lamott’s book, BIRD BY BIRD helped:

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark; the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

You wait and watch and work. You don’t give up.

So while I waited, I watched and I worked. I cheered on my published friends. I became more involved in my regional chapter of SCBWI. I started giving talks on writing. I critiqued. I mentored. I didn’t give up.  And the dawn DID come. I switched agents, and, after still more waiting, I got The Call in June.

So now that the excitement has settled down, what am I doing? Waiting. Waiting on revision notes, decisions on illustrators, opinions and decisions on new projects.

I have several friends who are waiting to get The Call. They’re close, I can tell. I know because they’re showing up. They’re waiting, and watching, and working.

Some of you reading this are in “waiting for The Call” mode. I need to tell you not to quit. Keep waiting, but while you’re waiting, keep watching for the next opportunity. Will it be a class? A conference? A chance to help someone else on the journey? Keep working to improve your craft. Write. Read strong literature. Illustrate. Study. Read craft books. Show up. And never, never, NEVER quit. Because The Call could be waiting just around the corner for you, too.

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Filed under Advice, Agents, Anxiety, Education, jealousy, Rejection, rejection and success, Thankfulness, The Call