Saturday, March 26, 2011

Breathing Life

At the Tampa conference last month, during the Q&A after I spoke to the Harlequin team, one staff member asked a question that really put me on the spot. To paraphrase: "How do you create these very different characters who feel so real and alive?"

After thanking her for letting me know that, at least for her, I'd achieved what I set out to do with Zach and Judy, I gave her my well-considered professional answer: "I don't know."

But in all I've read about how to nail characterizations and achieve deep POV, the common technique is to ask yourself questions about the character's childhood, likes and dislikes, memories, beliefs and feelings, et cetera. It's all stuff that is inside the character's head or heart. This is the opposite from my own jumping-off point for most characters. Well, I do start with the conflict I expect the character to experience-- in the case of "The Kingdom of Childhood," that I would have a teacher who felt drawn into an affair with a teenage boy, and a boy who lacked the life experience to avoid a situation that would inevitably make him feel like he was in way over his head. But past that, much of my characterization work involves not the character's mind, but his or her body.

That's counterintuitive, right? Fiction is built on emotions and relationships and interior monologue. But to bring a character to life, she needs to be more than the sum of her thoughts. With Judy in "The Kingdom of Childhood," I initially conceived her as a blonde, slightly doughy woman in her mid-to-late 30s. For the life of me I could not make her work in the story. I wasn't feeling it at all. I had Zach down, but he and Judy had no chemistry; they would not play together. Finally I threw out my old Judy and replaced her with one who was different not only mentally, but physically. The new Judy was dark-haired and older, small and slight-- elflike, according to her father, or according to Zach, "about the size of a twelve-year-old." This means that even as an adult, she looks up at Zach from the same perspective from which she saw her childhood crush, Rudi, when she actually was a child-- making it all the more difficult for her to create a boundary between her childhood self and her adult one. Her small stature also means that the rest of the world, Zach included, does not perceive her as a physical threat, even as the reader comes to know her capabilities. Thus her body becomes an important POV aspect both for herself and for the story's other main character.

And then there is Zach. He's a sixteen-year-old boy, and so by definition he is very much driven by the dictates of his body. He gets hungry, he gets horny, he has to pee, he becomes filled with antsy energy that he needs to run or exercise to work out. Under stress he gets sick to his stomach. He worries about his appearance and his sexual performance, he tries to eat a healthy diet but harbors a guilty love of Coca-Cola, and when he's coming down with a week-long flu, even a hot shower can't help him and all he wants is his mother.

These types of details all need to fold into the greater plot. There's no point in incorporating them just for the sake of adding detail, but rather to create a character who lives and breathes on the page and whose motives are therefore that much more believable. I think my interest in this aspect of characterization comes from the protagonist of John Updike's "Couples," Piet Hanema. It's hard to love Piet. He's an insecure, clownish man, an unhappily married hornball with a wandering eye. You wouldn't want to hire him as your contractor, you wouldn't want to give him too much booze at a party, and you sure wouldn't want to be married to the ass. But in a novel, boy oh boy, does he come to life. His struggles between his physical self and his spiritual one are epic. For my own part, I love writing characters who struggle to maintain control over their physical selves. One of my favorite characters that I've ever written is Jerry in "In Stereo Where Available," who is a recovering alcoholic; he tries really, really hard to master a body that is always trying to compel him to make really lousy choices.

All of these characters are-- or at least, are intended to be-- intelligent and emotionally driven, with long-range goals and spiritual sides. They just have bodies as well, and bodies that really matter. Just like real people.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We're Live!

It's the day I've been waiting for-- well, one of them: the day my book "goes live" on Amazon. The release date is supposed to be Oct 1, but it's showing up as Sept 20 with an estimated delivery date of Sept 23. I posted a link on Facebook that said, effectively, "Yay!"-- and within hours my Amazon number had rocketed up to 14,463, which I think is the highest number I've ever had for any book, and this one hasn't even been printed yet. I know it will sink between now and October (in fact, it already has), but that was still fun to see.

At almost the same time I discovered this evidence that they really ARE going to publish the book, I got an email from someone at the publisher issuing my official invite to BookExpo America. To explain the significance of this to my friends outside the industry, I've told them it's like if my eleven-year-old daughter got invited to Hogwarts. I'll be doing two signings-- one with several other authors at the Harlequin booth, and a chute signing (I had to look up the term) the following day. All together I'll be in New York over four days, which is, to me, a staggering amount of time to be away from home. I think that's the biggest event I'll be doing until I actually have a book, but given the number of surprises that keep cropping up, I suppose that remains to be seen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Surreal Life

A week ago, someone from Mira emailed me and asked when I'd be able to go to New York to get an author photo taken. Um... next Monday? I already had terrific author photos which I use all over the interwebs, courtesy of Angel Kidwell, but apparently the Mira people wanted to work the photo with the rest of the cover design, and stuff like that. So off I went to one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

My best friend Laura can tell you that on my wedding day, when she went to make me up, I handed her a pile of random makeup I'd collected since seventh grade and asked her to do whatever. It's not that I don't think appearance matters, at least to some degree; it's that I just can't do artifice. Wearing makeup makes me feel like I'm trying to put one over on you. Now, this doesn't stop me from coloring my hair, but that's different; I started doing that years ago because nobody wanted to see a 26-year-old with gray hair. I consider it a public service.

So I don't really have words for how bizarre it was for me to find myself in a studio in SoHo, getting made up and blown out by this guy whose clients are basically everyone you've ever seen in a magazine, so my picture can be taken by this other guy who has taken photos of a variety of individuals, such as Carolyn Kennedy, Chloe Sevigny, Harold Bloom, Chuck Close, etc. In fact, this was exactly the last place I expected to find myself when I set out to make a career out of telling stories. My entire career is pieces of paper with words on them. There is nothing more irrelevant to this job than how I look. Yet somehow there I was, and everybody was really nice and funny, and they brought me a fruit salad and a SmartWater, which made me feel like a real model for a photo shoot instead of a children's ministry coordinator from the 'burbs who needs to lose ten pounds.

After that I got treated to lunch at a Korean restaurant by a Mira editor, Adam, which was totally fun, not least of all because the restaurant was decorated with a wall of elaborate, cavelike rock featuring a waterfall and a white baby grand piano jutting out on a precipice. Finally, I walked over to the FinePrint offices and got to meet my agent in real life. Stephany is as genuine and funny and sweet in person as I'd imagined from our phone conversations. Nothing makes a gazillion rejections sweeter than knowing the agent who signed you really, really rocks.

When my first book came out from a smaller publisher several years ago, I corresponded with another writer whose YA book was going to be released a few months later. She seemed very confident that her book would do extremely well. During our email conversations, she indicated her publisher was putting a big push behind the book, and the vibe I got was that she believed it was a foregone conclusion that the book would hit it big. Sure enough, it debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and she's made a heck of a career for herself since then. I always kinda wondered how she knew that would happen. When I'm offered opportunities like today's photo shoot, or last month's conference, I better understand why that author read the tea leaves the way she did. But the thing is, I don't have that kind of confidence, and it still puzzles me how anyone can. Wouldn't it be nice to embark on this publishing gig and see every step as part of the overarching narrative of one's success? But a career is not a book; you can't control the plot. I write my books, but the readers will write my career.

I hope you like them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Several Things Authors Should Never Be Asked to Do

The above image comes from when my oldest son had the task of painting the master bathroom as a punishment for downloading $125 worth of music, apps, and Simpsons movies from iTunes without permission. Some of his work wasn't optimal, and so my husband clearly marked one of his especially noticeable mistakes in blue painter's tape. This sort of Message to the Universe is how I've often felt about some of the things authors are asked to do-- things that are completely counterintuitive to the entire job of sitting at a computer all day in your pajamas talking to your imaginary friends. Such as:

1. Shake hands and greet people in a charming manner (also known as "networking"). When I was in Tampa at Harlequin's sales conference last month, this was my main task. While I was honored to be invited, it rather mystified me that anyone had come up with the concept of "introducing the authors to the sales team" in the first place. The reason many of us go into fiction writing, rather than a more lucrative and dependable job like putting happy-face stickers on children at the entrance to Wal-Mart, is because we can't deal with people to the point that we decided to make some up who couldn't run away or refuse to return our calls. Trotting the actual writer in front of someone as important as, for example, the company's account manager for Costco, just sounds like either a colossal risk or an entertaining prank.

2. Write a pitch. The average novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words, and if you're a writer like me, you started with more like 120K before you whittled it down. Now here is your task, if you'd like someone to pay you for this thing: summarize it in 300 words or less. The reason my bio as a writer is practically nonexistent is because I never wrote short fiction I could have published in the thousand little magazines that cater to that end of the market. I can't wrap my brain around a story arc of less than 80,000 words. In my mind, everything is A WORLD. Everything has backstory spilling out like tickets from a malfunctioning Chuck E. Cheese game, and everyone is struggling to reconcile that backstory with their current circumstances before Catastrophic Event occurs on page 340. Merely the idea of explaining all that in 300 words is a laugh. At this point, somehow I've mastered the art of the query letter, but you should still hear me trying to explain a new book concept to my agent. There is no "elevator pitch"; it's more like the "I have you trapped in the window seat on this airplane" pitch.

3. Wear clothes. I have already referred to my profession's version of business casual (flannel, decorated with owls, closes with a drawstring). When I was getting ready for that sales conference, nothing terrified me more than pondering what I would wear. All I needed were ordinary business clothes, but choosing such items was a daunting prospect, as was the idea of walking in heels. I don't mean to be melodramatic here. It's just that to someone like me, this was like being asked to show up in a national costume not your own to a state dinner. Screw up, and the joke is obvious to everyone but you. One of my friends tried to calm me by saying, "You're a writer. They probably don't even expect you to bathe." So silly. Of course writers bathe. The only reason the shower is not my office is because it's hard on my MacBook.

4. Proofread the galleys. And this is what I'm doing today, albeit in PDF form. While there's a little "ooooo!" of "this is the official version," I mainly feel useless because I have read this exact document approximately 3,472 times. Now, not to put anyone off reading my book, but I've lived with these two characters day and night in the Anne Frank Annex that is my mind for the past two years. I'd finally won them their freedom, taken a couple weeks to breathe, and started hanging out with some new pretend people... and now here they are again, back for a visit. I know I'm obligated, but once they're gone this time, I'm lowering the blinds and changing the locks.

In fact, I'm using "write a blog entry" right now as my method to avoid working on the galleys. Mira calls this the Author Alteration copy, or AA, which sounds like what I'm going to need when I get through all 389 pages of the manuscript. But now, back to work. Or better yet, to the shower.