Tag Archives: young adult fiction

Getting Into Your Characters

Have you ever faced the age old issue of ‘what comes first?’

No, not the chicken or the egg … but the book and the film!

Now, obviously, in 99% of cases, the film will be based on a book.  But I’m not talking release dates.  I’m talking about which came first for YOU!  Did you watch the movie Twilight, and then decide to read the books, to then have Edward Cullen forever depicted as Robert Pattinson in your mind?  Or did you conjure your own wolves and vampires, only to be disappointed the moment you took your seat in the audience? It’s a particularly pertinent question for the YA world, with books like ‘The Hunger Games‘ and ‘City of Bones’ being made into films, and the actors portraying famous roles being announced months prior to the films, as if to ask ‘did we get it right?’.

As an author, characterisation, and how detailed the physical attributes you give a character can be a difficult tightrope to tread.

Personally, as a reader, I prefer to read the book before I see the film.  I LOVE to conjure characters in my mind.  To attribute the leading man with unmentioned details which I’m personally attracted, to see aspects of myself in the lead female, if she’s likeable, or perhaps characteristics of people I dislike, in her if she’s not!  My mind becomes a playground, the words on the page simply forming the framework for my games.  It’s my imagination which fills the gaps, populating a world which has been carefully crafted not just to suck me in, but to keep me there by allowing me to combine my own imagination with the authors.

If only we could take a snapshot into the mind of a reader.  A hundred readers.  To see what Hermione Granger, or Matilda, or Prince Caspian ever looked like before the characters appeared on the silver screen.

I say snapshot, because my memory is visual.  I read a book as a series of pictures, which flash through my mind as my eyes see the words.  But not every reader attributes a physical image to a person.  He or she might instead associate a smell, or a sound, or even just a sense.

And because of all that … because I know as a reader I like to colour in the lines, rather than be presented with a fully completed paint by numbers, I’ve noticed something in my writing.

I very seldom describe my characters in great detail!

The reason I’ve even touched upon this topic, is that last month I was very lucky to win Elli Writes’ June writing competition, and my prize is a portrait of one of my characters!  An amazing prize for an author whose artistic talents at school lay more in sketching still life drawings of apples, than bringing a vivid character to life.

But the prize begged the question – which character should I choose?

I’ve now completed three novels, and have the start of three other novels on the go.  That’s seven books worth of characters.  Seven books worth of people, who in my mind are as vivid as the day, and yet, who on paper, I have always been reticent to describe in too much detail.

But I’m not a lazy author.  I just want to give the reader a sense of the character.  A vague physical outline, which hopefully the emotions, and dialogue, and situations will allow the reader to colour with his or her own ideas.

Interestingly, if I squeeze my eyes shut and try to describe the snapshots in my head, I can see figures.  I can see scenes, and situations.  But the people in those scenes are fixed like mannequins, their faces indistinct.  And yet I feel like I know these characters inside out.  I mean, after all, I created them.  I understand their fears, their passions, their ideas.  They are my friends …. My favourite people.  Neat combinations of reality and fiction, some of them spliced together from people I know, others simply conjured out of necessity or situation.

And yet, for me, they’re all faceless!  As if, as an author this time, rather than a reader, I was hoping the readers themselves would fill in the gaps, and see the face of Ellody Rose, or Felicity Firestone for themselves.

So, how exactly do I choose a character for my prize?  How do I tell Liz, the editor of Elli Writes, how to draw a person who for me has no face, just a mass of emotions, decisions, and reactions?

The answer is, I didn’t.

Because in all of my books, it turns out there is always at least one character who has a face!  And these characters always tend to be male!!!

No, they’re not my ideal men, or physical embodiments of my ex boyfriends!  And no, they’re not film stars, or pin-ups  … (Though it is sometimes quite a cool game to play, coming up with who would play your lead men in the movie of your book!)

No, interestingly, the characters who I have the most clear visual impressions of, are the ones who are the most guarded.  The ones who share little with the reader, and likewise with me.  The ones I don’t understand, or don’t want to understand.  The two-timing lady player.  The emo/punk misunderstood Dream Navigator, who spends his days lashing out at those around him ….

(I won’t tell you too much more about those characters, as I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who have been reading the excerpts of Flicker and The Dream Navigator on the blog)

But what I will tell you, is that I’ve made a decision who I would love Liz to draw for me …

In The Dream Navigator there’s a character called Raye.  He’s dark, and perplexing, and only begins to open up towards the very end of the book.  But from Day One, I had the most vivid image of him.  A Korean Adam Lambert.  His hair blue black, his nails painted with black varnish, and his eyes ringed with kohl.

He fascinates me, because I don’t know or understand him, and so writing about him proved both frustrating, and really exciting.  In my head, he was the most visually distinct, and yet the hardest for me to understand!

And so now I will be handing over the gauntlet to Elli Writes 🙂 Will she understand him any better than me?  Will she be able to turn my words into a picture, and see the same boy I see in my mind every time I flick through my manuscript?

Or will she be waiting for the movie (God I really hope some day I write a movie!!!!), to see the actor who gets cast as Raye?

What do you see when you read a book?  Is it different when you’re writing?  Do your characters resemble real life people?  Do you prefer to watch a film before you read the book?  Or would you rather have your own character in your mind, and then shun the director’s presentation of that person?

As ever, please let me know what you think, either in the comments box below, or on Twitter.

C-C xxx

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Filed under C-C Lester, Unsigned Author Commentary, Writing

Anything You Can Do …

As a child, I saw school as a competition.

I wanted to be top of the class, and that meant comparing myself, and my work, to other people.  It’s an attitude which worked as a child, and even through secondary school – GCSEs and A Level exams offered yet another forum for competition.  But, as an adult, studying at one of the best universities in the world, that attitude had to change.  If you try to be the best at Cambridge, you’re inevitably going to be disappointed.  In fact, a number of people I studied with quickly became more than disappointed.  They became defeated, verging on nervous breakdowns because for the first time in their lives they weren’t the best.  They had gone from big fish in small ponds, to tiny fish in an enormous ocean, and they couldn’t handle it.

It was at Cambridge that I realised a change of attitude was necessary, to survive, and to stay sane.  It was no longer about other people, and what they were doing.  I went from being competitive, to being a perfectionist.  I was simply going to do the best that I could do.  Whether that was in my studies, or in my extra-curricular life.  Regardless of how well others were doing, provided I was doing the best I could do, then I was happy.

And for the most part, I think this attitude works as an adult.  If you stop comparing yourself to others, and simply focus on what you want from your own life, then you’re likely to be far happier, and probably far more driven, because you’re doing things you want to do, not things other people want to do.

But there’s a problem with my logic.  Because being an author requires you to constantly be surrounded by the works of other writers.  Most writers start writing because they themselves love to read.  The written word surrounds them, and its not just their own.

I write Young Adult fiction because I enjoy Young Adult fiction.  I love the genre, and so when I pick up a book in a book shop it tends to be a YA fantasy novel.  That’s how I recently discovered the fantastic Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

But not everything you read is fantastic, by any stretch of the imagination!  And I think this is one of the most difficult parts of being in author-limbo.  After months of crafting words and constructing plot lines and sub-plot lines… After gritting your teeth and bearing subjective rejections from agents, editors and publishing houses … You have in your hands, the one thing you’ve been dreaming of attaining.  A physical published book.  Tangible acknowledgment of someone else’s literary success.  And it’s crap!

Now obviously that’s just my subjective opinion! (Just like all those publishers’ subjective opinions of my manuscripts!)And I’ll spare you from the details of exactly which book it is that has got my shackles up, because it’s not the only time it’s happened, and I don’t really want to turn the blog into a forum to bitch about other YA authors … but what I will say, is that as an unpublished author, who has spent the past three years writing and rewriting sentences – treating creative writing as a craft rather than just an outpouring of words – it’s quite depressing to come across something that really doesn’t read like anywhere near the same amount of work has gone into it.  Maybe it just slipped through the publishing net.  Maybe at times the insurmountable hurdle I feel like I’m facing actually gets a bit lower, and some less-deserving manuscripts make it through the ‘Total Wipeout’-like obstacle course to final publication.  Or maybe that’s just the whole point of opinions – they differ, and not everyone agrees that something is very well written.  To be fair, even highly successful recent ‘greats’ – Harry Potter, Twilight, Eragon, are not without copious critics.

So I guess there are several ways, as an unpublished author, that you can deal with reading a published book, which has (if you think competitively) beaten you over the publishing hurdles, and successfully come to print.

1) Accept that everyone thinks different things are good.  That’s why your agent might rave about your manuscript, but it doesn’t immediately get fought over by every publishing house it’s sent to!

2) Sometimes crap stuff gets through the filter – and if you start to see a pattern, and are beginning to lose self-belief, maybe try sending your manuscript to the publisher happily printing all the crap?! (This is a joke … kind of 🙂 )

3) Take on the positive message I always try to convey in my posts – that everything works out in the end, you just have to believe in yourself and your writing, and work your writing butt off … so use the annoyance at someone else’s success to power your own success

4) Use the book as an exercise to improve your own writing – don’t just bin it for being ‘bad’, but really think about why you don’t think the book works, and then try to apply that reasoning, and those criticisms to your own work.  That way your own work can become stronger directly as a result of the poorer work!

 

I think the important thing to underline, is whilst you do need some competitive spirit, or at least some desire to win in this publishing business, that shouldn’t mean you

a) shun all other writing all together, or

b) shun all other writers!

 

Being an author is a lonely enough profession in itself.  Unless you have the luxury of a co-author, you work alone, and the only way to get things done is by spending long hours in front of a lonely computer screen or blank page.  So your own quest for success, shouldn’t result in you losing a sense of author community.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, as blogging authors, we’re have a very real opportunity to create a writer community – published or unpublished – and social media will allow us to communicate in that community.  Don’t become so bitter and twisted because you think your own work is being overlooked, that you shut yourself away from your peers.  Often their feedback and criticism will be the most useful.

For example, I very recently discovered another author, of a similar age, represented by my agency, who not only also writes YA, but is also unpublished and lives within an hour of me.  So now, my plan is to see how many other writers I can find fitting those rough credentials – signed, but not yet published – so that perhaps we can form our own kind of writers’ group.  A forum for discussion, reading, and most of all growth.

And as for stopping reading altogether?  Well that should NEVER happen!  Because, like I said earlier, most writers get into writing a particular genre, because it is THAT genre which he or she loves to read.  So stopping reading a genre, simply because you don’t enjoy comparing the work to your own, is a really sad bi-product of choosing to become a writer.

 

C-C xxx

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