Monthly Archives: March 2012

Painting Characters with Voice and Personality

While preparing for Eldest’s graduation, we’re painting over the fingerprints, shoe scuffs and general grime that accumulates over the years.  Picking out colors isn’t always easy to do.  Colors deepen and change as the bright morning light falls into the  shadows of night, and not all the colors we love look good when painted side by side.

We paint our walls to evoke emotional satisfaction.  The laundry room is bright and cheerful or subtle and soothing–a nod to the torturous chore of washing clothes and a firm attempt to cheer the laundry person up.  Bedrooms induce sleep.  Kitchens sparkle.  Living rooms wrap around us like a cocoon, making us feel at home.

As writers, we paint our characters in the same way.  We provide them with a personality and a voice.  We paint them soothing or sensitive or joyous or angry.  We give them distinct colors to portray an individual that readers can love or hate, root for or fear, cry over or rejoice in their demise.  In essence, we paint an emotional connection between our characters and our audiences.

And like a freshly painted room, we need to accessorize to create robust, multifaceted characters.  A red hand towel in an earth tone bathroom to energize us.  Flowing curtains in a boldly painted room to highlight the softer side of life.  A jock who listens to classical music, or a religious police officer who turns to God and not the stereotypical bottle.

All this while keeping in mind that colors change and deepen as the day goes on.  All this while keeping in mind that characters deepen and change as the novel goes on.

What kind of painter are you, deliberate or impulsive?  How do you consciously paint characters with distinct voices and personalities?  How do you show the deepening of characterization as your novel progresses? 

Think about your current manuscript’s MC: what color is s/he?  Was this purposeful on  your behalf?  If you added a splash of color, what would it be and why?  If your MC is rainbow-colored, does s/he feel chaotic?  Can you tone her/him down?  Should you?

Curious minds want to know.

 

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Disturbed by Prejudice: Hunger Games, Writing and Public Perception

I’m not gonna lie.  I’m extremely disturbed.  First the bullying in our schools, the homophobia with the Clementi/Ravi case and now, the outcry over casting decisions for Hunger Games.

If you haven’t heard, the scuttlebutt is that some people are downright angry that several key characters in the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel were…not quite what they pictured.

Namely, and I quote: “why did the producer make all the good characters black smh” and “why is Rue a little black girl?”

Um, because she was in the book.  And even if she hadn’t been, what difference does it make?  Rue is an innocent, sweet child who was thrust into the games as cruelly as all the other kids.  Her death was tragic–on the page and on the screen.

Not all agree with me.  In fact, one such tweeter admitted that Rue’s skin color on the big screen ruined the movie for her.

Another took it one step further: “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad”

Okay, I’ll bite.  That is extremely racist.  And seriously messed up.  A young child’s death isn’t sad because her skin is darker than yours?  This sentiment hearkens back to the day of Nazi Germany.  It echoes the hatred heaped on the Irish in America’s early days.  It encompasses the sheer viciousness of our planet’s history.  It is a sad commentary on just how un-evolved human beings really are.

I’m not gonna lie, people’s ignorant, undereducated and outdated beliefs creep me out.

I think this is why my younger juvenile lit is full of bullies.  I like to tackle the issue of fitting in.  I like to empower my characters and encourage them to take control of their destinies by believing in themselves and not abiding by the labels provided to them by others–ignorant, undereducated and outdated others.

By doing so, I hope to empower and encourage kids to come out stronger, smarter and less likely to spread hate and prejudice themselves.  We need to break the cycle of bullying in our society–by kids and by the adults who should know better.

I applaud Ms. Collins for the beautiful portrayal of her characters.  I applaud the casting decisions and am thrilled that the Hunger Games movie was not white-washed.  Because, guess what?  We are only as good or as bad as our behavior.  And bad behavior knows no skin color.

On days like this, I’m embarrassed to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed.  I don’t want to be judged by the color of my skin.  Because, honestly, I am the sum total of what I’ve done, what I believe and what I feel.  Not what I look like.

I’m too disturbed to ask any questions, so please feel free to share your thoughts on the topic.  Any tips you have on how writers can help perpetuate acceptance rather than intolerance would be greatly appreciated.

To read more about this, hop on over to the post Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed.

Bully: One Point. Victim: Zero. Again.

I don’t know about you, but I am well and truly tired of the unchecked bullying that goes on in our schools and on the air.  Cyber space, with its photoshopping and instantly viral social networking capabilities, is one heck of a nasty place.  In this technologically advanced world, the playground–and the bully–knows no bounds.

According to irate students in a small rural community, one such instance occurred yesterday.  A photoshopped picture with a cruel caption was posted on a social networking site FROM A SCHOOL COMPUTER DURING SCHOOL HOURS.

As the story goes, the guilty party was told to take it down.  Great.

Take it down.  Check.

Parents called.  Check.

As soon as school let out, the picture went back up.  My question: where were the parents on this?  The ones who had been called as the sole form of punishment for the child’s violation of school policy?  Where was anyone?

The photo was reposted over and over again by the bully’s friends.  Some kids saw it and laughed, no doubt spurring the bullies on.  Encouraging them through their applause and like buttons and nasty comments.

Other kids are furious.  I’m furious.  I’m tired of the hand slaps that bullies receive for violating another child’s privacy, for smearing reputations and for causing emotional damage.  But more so, I’m frustrated by the lack of consequences.  When nothing substantial is done, adults send the message that we condone this type of behavior, thus perpetuating the cycle and escalating the viciousness of future attacks.

When the Ravi/Clementi verdict was handed down, I rejoiced for a brief moment.  I’d followed the story and was rooting for justice.  But then my heart stopped when “guilty” made me realize a young man could be deported–away from his family, away from his friends, away from a culture he knew and transplanted unceremoniously into foreign territory.

The consequences are scary and heart-wrenching.  Nobody wins in this situation.  Not Tyler Clementi who took his own life after Ravi’s deliberate invasion of his privacy.  And not Ravi who is looking at a possible prison sentence and deportation.

Had Ravi known he’d be caught, had he known Clementi would commit suicide, had he known he would actually be prosecuted and found guilty, I guarantee, he would have made a different choice that day in his dorm room.

And that’s my problem.  Kids don’t know.  They don’t know because they continue to get away with bullying.  They receive a tiny reprimand, an empty threat.  It isn’t until things escalate to the point of tragedy that verdicts are made and sentences carried out.

Why, though?  Why do we wait for extensive damage before we act?  Why do we feel that parents and teachers and principals and grandparents and aunts and uncles do not have the right–nay, the responsibility–to demand respectful behavior from kids?  Why are we so lazy with the well-being of a child’s life that we sit back and allow bullying to take place?

Ravi knew what he did was wrong.  He knew it.  You can’t attend school in America and not know about the so-called zero tolerance policies on bullying.  He knew it, as did those who launched the cyber attack yesterday.

Sadly, they also knew that adults rarely follow through.  Their chances of serious consequences were virtually nil.  Ravi gambled and lost.  So far, yesterday’s perpetrators have won.  I can only hope that won’t be the case for long.

What do you do to enforce positive behavior in the kids you know?  What is an appropriate consequence for bullying within the school setting?  Do we, as citizens, neighbors, friends or family, have the right to intervene when we see bullying?  Do we have a responsibility to do so? 

Furious minds want to know.

*And no, this isn’t my kid.  And yes, I am fully aware that my children are not perfect.  Nor am I as a parent.*

Celebrity Hype and I: The Hunger Games

I love Suzanne Collins.  Her writing is honest and strong.  She writes lyrically, yet efficiently.  She isn’t afraid to tackle tough topics, and she does so admirably.  To say that she is my favorite author is an understatement.

Yet, I’d like to note that I loved Ms. Collins long before The Hunger Games hit book shelves.  You see, she’s multitalented.  She’s authored a picture book and a Middle Grade series–which was devoured in our household.  She’s also quiet and poised.  Not to mention, I’ve heard from a writer friend who went to school with Ms. Collins that she’s sweet and kind and smart and funny.

She is one of the very few celebrities I give credence to.  You see, in the midst of the social media trap that writers find themselves in–blogging, tweeting, FBing, etc, etc, etc–Ms. Collins found a place in the heart of readers nationwide because of her storytelling abilities.  Not because she pandered to the masses.  Not because she wore slinky outfits in her author photo and not because she behaved badly on national television.

I’m just going to throw this out there: I don’t like celebrities–as a general rule.  If I had to be honest, I’d say my disdain for many of them is as close to prejudice as I get.  Funny that I want to be an author.  That I want my books on book shelves and nightstands and libraries across the globe.  Quite hypocritical actually.

But let me elaborate.  What I don’t like is the God/Goddess pedestals we put celebrities on whether they deserve it or not.  I don’t like that famous actors can act naughty and rude and pretentious and spoiled and still be looked upon as role models.  I don’t like that rock stars can rock rehab centers often enough to have their names permanently etched on a waiting list for the next “oopsy” and our kids LOVE them and want to be like them.

I think “celebrity” sends many, many wrong messages to our children about what success is and what being great really means.  I think reality shows that glamorize teen pregnancies and bitchy housewives set the tone for low and misguided expectations for America’s youth.  Heck, for its adults, as well.

I hate that compassionate nurses and great teachers get paid celebrity pocket change, while some celebrities with extra-large wallets who are greatly admired by youngsters don’t have a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies.  It just seems so…wrong.

On the other hand, I love that some celebrities are quiet, poised, sweet, kind, passionate, compassionate, smart and funny.  I love that some celebrities make my children really think about the society in which they live.  I love that these celebrities aren’t afraid to make a positive impact.  I just wish there were more of them.

But then again, maybe there are, and I just don’t know about them.  After all, squeaky wheels get the oil and the kind of celebrities I admire aren’t squeaking.  They are busy working.

The Hunger Games movie opens tomorrow morning.  At 12:01, I will be sitting in a theater with a gaggle of teens waiting breathlessly to see the film adaptation of my all-time favorite book–one that takes a clear stance on the “reality” of today’s entertainment and the impact it has on our society.

Kudos, Suzanne Collins.  I wouldn’t interrupt my sleep for anyone but you and your Hunger Games.

How about you, dear readers, what are your thoughts on celebrity-ism in today’s world?  How do you think reality shows have skewed our realities?  Who is your favorite celeb and why?  What type of celebrity role model do you cringe at?

Curious minds are really, really curious!

KISS Method for Kid Lit: Keep it simple, Scribe.

In honor of spring, Dear Daughter baked a new batch of cupcakes.  Unlike her Christmas polar bears and her Halloween rats, DD’s beautiful bouquet was unnervingly simple.  She completed the entire dozen flowers in the time it took her to decorate one rodent.

Simple, yet elegant.  Elaborate, yet easy.

This KISS method is exactly what children’s writers need to keep in mind when penning tales for young readers.

Up until about fifth grade, kids are learning to read.  Once they hit middle school, they read to learn.  As writers for young children, we need to fulfill all the requirements of a great storytelling, while keeping the writing itself simple enough for high comprehension.

KISS: Keep it simple, Scribe.

CAT’S KISS METHOD

  • K is for KEEPING: While short on words, writers need to keep all the key components of a great story–robust characters, engaging plot lines and a resolution to conflict.  This often translates into fewer characters for kids to get to know and keep straight.  It also means a simpler story arc with fewer subplots.
  • I is for INTEREST: Young minds need to stay engaged.  As writers, we can do this by tapping into a child’s natural creativity and imagination.  The details we provide must be selective–just enough to provide a solid background, but not so much that kids can’t fill in the blanks themselves.  Pick one adjective to describe the dog instead of four.  Use strong verbs that show emotion and physical movement rather than resorting to an entire paragraph of telling.  In other words, declutter manuscripts by omitting extra words and use only those that initiate thinking on the reader’s behalf.
  • S is for SHORT: Short sentences help beginning and struggling readers keep facts straight.  Remember, youngsters are still learning to read fluently at this age.  The front half of long sentences can easily be forgotten by the time kids reach the punctuation at the end.  Shoot for an average of roughly ten words per sentence for young readers.  This is easily done if details are kept to a minimum and strong verbs are used.
  • S is for SOUND: In the early elementary years, children read out loud.  Even in the next stage, kids “hear” the words in their minds as they read to themselves.  Odd phrasing literally sounds funny, while redundant sentences–subject, predicate, subject, predicate–sound choppy.  Stilted dialogue doesn’t roll off the tongue and quickly becomes tiresome.  By varying sentence structure and length, using simple conjunctions and maximizing the robust English language, writers can pen engaging sentences that flow.

Young readers, more than any other age group, deserve great storytelling.  This key time in their lives often determines if they will turn to books or some other activity to fulfill their entertainment needs.  Boring, formulaic writing doesn’t engage busy minds.  Likewise, elaborate writing that is hard to decipher can turn a young reader away from books altogether.

Books for kids must appear elaborate, while maintaining enough simplicity that readers can stay engaged without struggling.

Who are some of your favorite kid authors (chapter book, young MG)?  What do you like about the way they write?  Are their books easy to read on a basic level? 
Curious  minds want to know.

Guest-imate Lists for Book Sales and Graduation Celebrations

Eldest graduates in two months.  I’ve been making lots o’ lists recently–the biggest and most important being the guest list.  This is followed by the food list, which will be followed by the grocery list, which is directly impacted by the guest list guest-imation.

What is the Guest-imation?

That estimation of which guests will and will not attend the celebration.  For example, graduation occurs on Memorial Weekend.  The First weekend of summer in our  neck of the words.  The First opportunity to hit the lake.  The First holiday in many moons.  I don’t expect all of our camping-loving guests to show up.

Likewise, my big sis (and her family) is counted with the Will Nots.  We will send her an invite/announcement, yet we know full well she will not be trekking 21 hours NorthWest on the very day her own Eldest graduates.

Guest List 4.

Food List 0.

When creating lists for book signings, release day parties and general estimations in sales (particularly for self-pubbed authors) we must keep in mind the Guest-imates.

Aunt Edna may love us, but will she really buy our violently steamy Paranormal Romance Horror novel?  Eh, unless your Aunt Edna is cooler than mine, her name is firmly etched at the top of the Will Not list.

Yet, we often fail to wrap our brains around this.  We find ourselves carried away by sheer numbers.  I have 2,170 Facebook friends and 185,000 twitter followers, 164 this, 4,001 that, 12 + 907 + plus plus….*

Guestimate what?  These peeps will not all buy my novel.  Period.  They will not all attend my Release Day Party–cyber or otherwise.  Neither will they all care.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true.  Just because we know someone doesn’t mean s/he will financially support our endeavors, provide a toast for first-born novel or eat from my dessert bar for Eldest’s graduation.

And that’s okay.  Perfectly, happily okay.  But, we need to accept this as fact.  We need to prepare ourselves for the reality that a guest list or friend list or twitter list or blog list does not automatically translate to sales numbers.

We also need to keep our cool when Aunt Edna–holding the number one slot on the Will list–actually does not.  Just because she passes on divine chocolate cheesecake or that fabulous historical novel written in the time period when she herself was a child, doesn’t give us a free pass to skip her 108th birthday celebration and snicker behind our hands when she’s not looking.

Bitterness and hurt feelings have no place at graduation parties or in the writing realm.  Life is not tit for tat.  It is not a tally of favors owed and favors received.  It is not a book purchased simply as insurance for a future sale of our own.

So be smart.  Create a Guest-imate list based on real life and not one on feelings.  Hopefully that will get my grocery list to a manageable level and your sales expectations more in line with reality.

How do you create your guest lists?  Have you ever grossly under or over estimated them?  How has this impacted you in the writing world or in real life?  What tips do you have for creating future lists or guest-imating the Wills and the Will Nots?

Curious minds want to know.

*I don’t really have this many friends–real or imagined.

Character Name Calling: Funny, Frivolous or Necessary?

This morning Middle Son asked what his Irish name should be for the day.  His class is celebrating St. Patty’s Day early because students will be home in their jammies when the actual day arrives–and what fun is that?

“So, should I be O’Tyson Wacker or Tyson McWacker?”

Tyson McWacker, of course.  But the more we said it, the more ridiculous it sounded.  Say it fast three times and he turns into Tyson McQuacker.

My Dear Hubby’s wedding gift to me–my brand new last name–has a long history of teasing behind it.  Seriously, how could it not?  Kids have inane senses of humor and love to slaughter names for the sheer joy of watching others squirm.

As I did when naming my children, I consider every single character name very carefully before committing to it.

 Cat’s Unconscious Rules to Name Calling

  • They must roll off my tongue.  First and last names absolutely must flow together or they simply cannot be paired up.
  • They must never rhyme.  Josie Posey is just ridiculous.  Likewise, alliteration must be used carefully–or not at all–because it is sooooo overused in children’s lit and begins to make my ears bleed after a while.
  • I love pairing short and long.  Either via syllables or vowel sounds.  If everything matches, I get twitchy, like I’m back in kindergarten clapping out syllables.
  • Names must convey character via their sounds.  If my character is soft and emotional, the name must sound warm and sweet.  Harsh characters have harsher names, while strong characters have strong sounding names.
  • Nicknames happen if my characters need to grow and change.  I use these to convey their development.  Silly, little Suzie grows into responsible Susanne.  Or, staunch and stuffy Elizabeth lightens up and becomes Liza or Beth or Lizzy.
  • I love unique names, but this can be carried too far.  I try to balance the sound of them within an entire novel.  If everyone has a funky name, I won’t remember anyone.  Likewise, if everyone has a John Smith kind of name, I may forget who everyone is.
  • I try really hard not to start more than one character’s name with the same letter.  Some people are visual learners and may resort to shorthand for character names–ie, reading the first letter and moving on.  If we aren’t careful, characters can run together and readers will have a hard time keeping them straight.
  • Funky, unpronounceable spellings?  No way.  If I can’t pronounce a name with any sort of fluency, I will not make my audience try to stutter through it.  What often happens in these cases is that readers shorthand names–pronouncing them however feels comfortable and will be easily remembered–and then we can’t discuss the book with anyone else.  Because nobody will know who we are talking about!
  • I love slipping in subtle humor or imparting meaning through the names I use.  In my pirate chapter book, I have Mama, Papa, Missy, Junior, Yappy and…Petey the Parrot.  It’s obvious they are a family–an every family, family–and that Petey is just a bit different than the rest.  In my YA, Gemini Baker’s name is tied to the entire theme of the novel.
  • I love being able to spit the name of the antagonist into the air.  Bullies’ names usually have hard consonants in them and are short.  Names I want to get rid of, fast.  Or, conversely, names that can be drawn out in a sarcastic kind of way.  Z’s and S’s are faves of mine, as well as vowels that can be carried long and far when my MC wails.
  • Obviously, ethnic characters deserve ethnic names, but they should fit.  I never throw a token Jose Garcia into a manuscript followed by a complete homogenization of his character.  This is just wrong on all kinds of levels.  Names should match personalities, values, traditions and histories.  Janice is a gum-smacking child of hippy parents while Heidi and Helga come from conservative families who value their roots and what that all entails.
  • I avoid at all costs asexual names, though I have been known to deliberately mislead via nicknames.  But that loops back up to the nickname/real name growth thing.  Will Frankie the tomboy embrace the Francesca she should become as boys and girls begin to part ways in middle school?
  • I do love a name that can be made fun of.  Of course, I write for kids, so this probably has something to do with it.  Names really do help shape and mold the kids who have to carry the burden of them.  I feel that overcoming the emotions tied to this very natural tendency of name-teasing can really help develop a character–both protagonists and antagonists.  Which really translates into a deeper understanding and growth opportunity for my readers.

I process all these in about two seconds.  I never pre-plan names, nor do I consciously consider them as laid out above.  Literally, my fingers type a name and I either let it go or hit the delete key.

Readers, what do you like in character names?  How does a name influence your feelings toward a character?

Writers, how do you pick the names you use?  What personal “rules” do you follow when naming your fictional babies?

All, what is your absolute all-time favorite character name?  Your least favorite?  Why?

Curious minds want to know.