On Character Inspiration

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Do you base your characters on real people? From everything I’ve read, this is somewhat of a no-no.

I remember reading somewhere that J.K. Rowling has stated that none of her characters are based directly on real-life people (except for Crookshanks, who’s based on a real-life cat! I love that), but that shades of people she knew, as well as herself, naturally creep into the characters.

Of course your own emotions and experiences are going to fuel your characters. Realistic human emotions are what make good books so good. For my first novel, I was very careful about not making the protagonist too much like myself, but I’ve had friends read it and think otherwise. For each character, I did draw upon traits of people I know or have known, and for some I drew upon traits of fictional characters I felt were particularly well-drawn. But in the end, each of my characters was entirely fictional. I couldn’t say that one or another has a real-life counterpart somewhere.

As I’m querying my first novel, I’m hard at work on my second. I had immediately jumped into a sequel, but then I read somewhere that your second novel should be something totally different–if the first one doesn’t sell, the sequel won’t either, for obvious reasons. So the sequel is on hold (just for now, since I love it so far and can’t wait to see what happens next).

So I decided to do something drastically different. I started writing an epistolary novel about a shy teenager on her school trip to Paris, drawing heavily on my own experiences (as well as my high school journal). It’s written in the first-person present, which are both firsts for me. This novel is a little uncomfortable, to be honest. High school was not a great time for me, and the more I write, the more I find myself tapping into the pain of the awkward teenage girl still inside me somewhere, pain from wounds I thought were healed long ago. And while none of my characters are thinly-veiled real people, every single one of them draws from people I actually knew in high school and beyond. And some of the scenes I’ve written–such as the one where my protagonist smokes her first cigarette under the Eiffel Tower–are fictionalized versions of stuff that actually happened. Most of the people involved are people I’m no longer in touch with. But I can’t help but wonder if someday someone I knew once will pick this up and recognize an element of themselves in it somewhere.

I’m only a month and 36,000 words into this new work, so I’m not sure yet if it’s something that will pan out. The rawness and realness of it scares me a little in the way my first novel didn’t, but I think that’s a good thing, no?

Wanderlusty Wednesday

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Over the weekend, I encountered a couple who was thinking of taking a trip to Normandy next year. I immediately started providing my unsolicited travel advice, since I used to live there. But before I had gotten very far, they interrupted me and said, “No no–we don’t have time for all of that. We just want to see Omaha Beach, then leave to see Germany.”

To which I can only reply: don’t do that.

There’s a lot to see in this world, I know that. And I know that living in Saint-Lô, I had way more time to travel around Normandy than the average visitor. I would spend days on end in one little town, just soaking it in. I’ve since moved back to America, making my European excursions few and far between. Yet I still make it a point to travel at least twice a year, and when I do, I opt for the slow-soak version, rather than the get-it-all-in-while-we’re-here turbo-charged trip.

I took the above photo in Honfleur on a random weekday in 2007. Honfleur is a gorgeous little town on the bank of the Seine. If you don’t have a car, it’s not the easiest to get to–I took a train to Caen, and then switched to a bus–but it’s so worth it. I spent the entire day wandering the little streets, eating at a cafe on the harbor, watching the boats float in the water, then as the sun began to set, I got back on the bus and went back to Saint-Lô.

If you ever find yourself in Normandy, do yourself a favor and spend more than a day there. Spend a week, a month, a year if you can. There is so much beauty in that little corner of the world.

On Rejection and Perspective

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I finished my first novel–I mean edited-down, polished-to-a-gleaming-shine, FINISHED-finished–about 3 months ago now. When I was done, I thought, FINALLY. Now my writing life can finally begin!

You know nothing, self of 3 months ago.

So I’m in the querying stage. I’ve gotten 10 rejections so far. I thought I had prepped myself for this stage of the process. But let me tell you, each one of those no-thank-you emails is like a punch to the gut (not that I’ve ever been punched in the gut, but those emails knock the wind out of me, so I imagine that’s what that feels like).

I’ve been writing my whole life, and writing-writing, with a career in mind, for six years now. When I first started out, I wasn’t great, to put it mildly. Now I wouldn’t call myself Tana French, but I think I’ve gotten pretty good. I’m also an avid reader, so I trust my own judgement at this point. Plus I’m up to 9 beta readers who have all called my novel “unputdownable.” And in the rejections I’m getting back, most agents haven’t even read any pages. It’s so frustrating! In every query email I send, I just want to yell, “MY BOOK IS GOOD I SWEAR!! PLEASE GIVE IT A CHANCE!!” (I won’t do that, though)

I’ve been feeling a little discouraged lately, if you can’t tell. When that happens, I go back to the advice I got from a good friend in a dark bar (is there any better kind?): perspective, perspective, perspective.

This attitude is best summed-up by my father. When I told him how I was feeling, his response was, “So you’re not getting paid to live your dream? So what? How many people really are? You’re young, you’re healthy, you’ve got a good job, a roof over your head, people who love you, and something you love doing. That sounds like a pretty good life to me.”

If that’s not perspective, I don’t know what is.

And yet–and yet–I’ve never been one of those people who settled. Yes, I have a good job. Yes, I have a nice life. But I want to be a writer. Want it more than I’ve wanted anything before.

And then I remembered this quote I read once by Anita Shreve, and though I just spent the past twenty minutes googling, I can’t find it. I’m totally messing this up, but it went something like, “I think just being a writer would be enough. Even if it didn’t come with success. Even if I were just a waitress, who only got to write on her days off. I think that would be enough.” (If anyone can find the exact quote, please let me know!)

Perspective: I am a writer.

I thought since I’d spent so much time working so hard on something, recognition would just come, in time. Maybe it just hasn’t been enough time. Maybe this isn’t the right debut book. Maybe it’s the marketplace right now. Maybe I’ll have to self-publish. Maybe I’ll never have the success I’ve dreamed about.

But no matter what, I am a writer.

So when I’m feeling discouraged about the querying, I just open up my word document and get back to work on my second book. It’s not about settling, at least I don’t think so. It’s about working towards who and what I want to be, and being grateful for what I have along the way.

Wanderlusty Wednesday

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I think I’ll make this a thing. Because Wednesdays can be boring, and because I like alliteration.

I envisioned having this amazing travel blog, where every day I’m posting these gorgeous exotic photos. BUT, due to reality, I only travel travel like once a year (and by that I mean to places other than the Jersey Shore and upstate New York). We’re saving up for a big trip this November (the location is still TBD–suggestions welcome! Only requirements are that we haven’t been there and it’s not rainy season) so most of photos I’ll post will be from my epic adventures of years gone by. 

Today: Greece. If you need ideas for your next trip, rent a catamaran in Greece. (I’m not rich, in case you were wondering. A catamaran trip is affordable when you squeeze eight people (plus the captain) and make it a week long.)

These photos aren’t from Mykonos or Santorini–they’re from Hydra. I like going places I hadn’t heard of before (not that I’m knocking famous places–I am still in love with Paris, after all). It’s a tiny island with one port and no cars–you get around on foot, or by donkey. It’s magical. Go there.

Hydra!

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Public transportation:

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A view:

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Swimming in the sea:

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Another view:

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We went “hiking”, which is really just walking for a bit–the island’s so small you’re never far from where you started.

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Hydra’s also the home of lots of homeless kitties, which broke my heart–but at least they’re homeless in a beautiful place which stays warm most of the year.

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We couldn’t stay forever, but hopefully I’ll be back someday.

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In the Woods

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THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

This is the second best book I’ve ever read. (The first best is Tana French’s follow-up novel, the Likeness–I’ll get around putting my love for that beautiful novel into words at some point).

The fact that this book has anything less than five stars on GoodReads and Amazon is one of the main reasons I completely disregard reviews when deciding what to read next (that and the fact that 50 Shades of Atrocious Writing has anything more than 1 star). This book is perfect: the characters, the beautiful sentences, the plot, the themes. Perfect, I tell you.

The premise is chilling and engrossing: In 1984, three children disappear into the woods in a suburb of Dublin. Hours later, only one little boy is found, with blood on his shoes and slashes on his back and no memory of the previous hours. The other two children are never found. Twenty years later, Rob Ryan, the found boy, is a detective, investigating the murder of another child in those same woods. And though the mysteries are well-spun yarns, it’s the characters that get to me in this novel, how beautifully drawn Rob and his partner Cassie are. That, and the beautiful sentences.

Reasons to read this book:

1. The aforementioned beautiful sentences:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palette, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.

2. The voice of your narrator, Rob Ryan:

The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

3. The relationship between Rob and his partner, Cassie:

The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.

4. Its ability to maintain its sense of humor through its devastating, sometimes gruesome story:

I recently found a diary entry from college in which I described my classmates as “a herd of mouth-breathing fucktard yokels who wade around in a miasma of cliché so thick you can practically smell the bacon and cabbage and cow shit and alter candles.” Even assuming I was having a bad day, I think this shows a certain lack of respect for cultural differences.

5. The sheer truth of its sentences:

We think about mortality so little these days, except to flail hysterically at it with trendy forms of exercise and high-fiber cereals and nicotine patches. I thought of the stern Victorian determination to keep death in mind, the uncompromising tombstones: Remember, pilgrim, as you pass by, As you are now so once was I; As I am now so will you be…. Now death is uncool, old-fashioned. To my mind the defining characteristic of our era is spin, everything tailored to vanishing point by market research, brands and bands manufactured to precise specifications; we are so used to things transmuting into whatever we would like them to be that it comes as a profound outrage to encounter death, stubbornly unspinnable, only and immutably itself.

6. The incredible themes, and I think this is what a lot of people who posted negative reviews missed. They’re somewhat subtle, but so finely spun once you find them. I can’t get into them without getting spoilery, so SPOILERS after the jump.

Continue reading

The Difference between Pros and Amateurs

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The other day I came across this article and found it fascinating. Basically it states that the difference between writers and non-writers (or experienced writers and amateurs) can be measured in the way they brainstorm:

Lotze asked 28 non-writers to copy some text from a page as well as finish a story based on a prompt, all while they were hooked up to an MRI machine. When it came to copying text, he didn’t see much activity in the participants’ brains. When they were coming up with a story, however, some of the vision-processing regions of their brains lit up, almost as if they saw their tale unfold.

While visualizing your story may seem like the right way to approach writing, it turns out that for full-time writers, the brain performs a bit differently. When Dr. Lotze watched writers from a competitive creative writing program perform the same tests, he found that experienced writers, while brainstorming, used parts of their brains associated with speech instead of vision.

Amateurs visualize; pros immediately go into how to describe it with words.

It got me thinking a lot about my own process, because I do tend to visualize the scene first, then go about figuring out how to describe it. But this process should come faster; it’s not about that beautiful image in my head, it’s about how to best transmute that image into the heads of others.

 

The Accidental Writer

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Tana French (whom I LOVE) on accidentally becoming a writer (from this interview):

“She didn’t quite know how, though, as she hadn’t ever tried writing in the past. ‘I thought I could never write a proper book, I’d never done it before. But I thought I could write a sequence. Then I had a chapter. The next thing I knew I was turning acting down,’ she says. ‘I wanted to find out what happened. I don’t outline or anything, I don’t know whodunit … I really wanted to know what on earth happened to this guy, and the only way to find out was to write it.’ She tentatively sent the finished manuscript to an editor friend, to find out if she should ‘shove it under the bed or keep going’, and shortly afterwards ended up with a two-book deal. Then came the awards, the sales and the critical acclaim.”

As I go through the querying process, I’m reminded that every brilliant writer had to get their start somewhere. I’m nowhere near Tana French levels of genius–I imagine if she had had to query, the first agent to read a sentence of her writer would have jumped on it–but like her, I’m just going to keep going.