Blog Archives

Character Comforts

It’s funny, what comforts a person.

For instance, Big Bopper loves napping on the couch to the sounds of cartoons.

Bottled Lightning loves silence.

BoyWonder likes to sit around the dining room table with his family and talk, after a big meal.

Freckles McYoungest loves a stormy afternoon, curled up with a book.

I like wind…

An unremitting sea breeze on the beach.

warp-dogThe relentless gale that whips through a car speeding down the highway with all the windows down.

i always want to say "and my other brother daryl". anyone else do that?

i always want to say “and my other brother daryl”. anyone else do that?

An afternoon gust that cools the porch and blasts away the mosquitoes on a summer evening.

catfanA floor fan, pointed just right, that puffs up your t-shirt and makes tendrils of hair dance around your face.

I wonder if it’s because the first house I lived in, situated in a coastal town, had no air conditioning. But every room had windows designed to catch a cross-breeze.

Or, could be I’m just weird.

As writers, though, it’s interesting to think about what would comfort the characters we invent. For instance, there are times that I get a whiff of stale oil and hot engine parts, and maybe a little pee, which reminds me of the Paris Metro. Would that be a comforting smell to someone raised there? Maybe a character loves raking leaves because it reminds him of New England and maple syrup and red flannel shirts—and home?

I dunno. I ponder these things, when I write characters.

Hope I’m not weird.


drama, characters, jersey shore…with gifs!

Oh, I am going to admit a dirty little secret. Ready?

Freckles McYoungest and I have been watching old seasons of The Jersey Shore.


Man. I felt filthy just typing that.

It started when we were with Bottled Lightning, and she kind of sort of FORCED US to watch an episode or two. Holy Cannoli. The DRAMA. I couldn’t. Stand it.

We came home to the land of Antenna TV where I guess Freckles watched the rest of the episodes on Hulu or Netflix or something.

I must admit that now–I am fascinated. I honestly have never known people like this. Well, I might have run across them, but I didn’t stick around to see what made them tick.

Now, a couple of episodes into the Miami Season of The Jersey Shore, it’s easy to see who is a kid sowing wild oats:

and who is a frickin’ sociopath.

Favorite quote of the day:

“You stepped on the only toes you had in the house.”

The Situation to Angelina

If you haven’t seen this amazing slice of Americana, let me explain. Approximately half-a-dozen twenty-somethings hang out in a house for a couple of months near the beach and party. Oh yeah. Occasionally they go to a minimum-wage job. Mostly they get drunk and have Drama. (Please note the capital “D”.)


Thank you for asking.

Teens aren’t manufacturing their drama. There stuff really IS as big as they’re feeling it. First love. Choosing and getting into the right college. Losing your best friend. Standing up to peer pressure. Enlisting in the army. Deciding what to believe in, independent of your parents. Yeah. That’s big.

These guys on the Jersey Shore? They’re stirring up trouble, just so they can feel alive.

So there you have it, writers–the difference between flat characters and ones you can build a story on. You can’t put my characters’ day into a few gifs.


rochester: supreme second banana

The Second Banana.

The comic who supports the lead comic. Often a straight man. Not always.

He’s the buddy. The little brother. Maybe the dog.

He’s your main character’s back-up.

His guardian.

His foil.

But it always works best when he’s a fully drawn character.

A strong Second Banana demands an even stronger main character.

In this clip, you might notice:

Jack Benny is calm…………………………………..Rochester is on his toes

Jack Benny is naive………………………………….Rochester is street-smart

Jack Benny puts a good face on things…………Rochester tells it like it is

The dichotomy makes humor, but in another situation it might foment tension.

The Second Banana is the hardest workin’ man in Showbiz.


if i was going to write about my aunt

I had this aunt.

She wasn’t really my aunt, she was my father’s cousin’s wife.

When my sisters were young, before I was born, she would call my mom five or six times a year and say, “Let’s pool our resources and have a potluck dinner.”

So Mom would throw in her watermelon and potato salad and green beans and meat loaf and corn on the cob and baked beans and fried chicken and cornbread and apple pie.

And Aunt Jo would bring over her three kids, two floppy stalks of celery and a half-loaf of stale bread.

Mom complained about this for, oh, forty years. Told the same frickin’ story over and over again. How Aunt Jo took advantage of her. How she was such a mooch. How Mom fell for it every time.

I fell for Mom’s story. Every time.

One day, the light bulb went off.

“You know, Aunt Jo loved you,” I said.

Mom shrugged. “Yeah. I don’t know why.”

Well, I think I do. They’re both dead and there’s no way to know for sure, but I have a feeling Aunt Jo was out of food to feed her kids and was asking for help.

Mom was too dumb to take a hint.

Aunt Jo thought Mom understood what she was doing.

If I was going to write about Aunt Jo, I would start off with my mom’s point of view, but what a great twist the story would take when I showed what was really going on.

falling in love…with my characters

Any of you who know me in actual-factual walk-around life or twitter fun-life are aware of the fact that I am REVISING THE HECK-FIRE OUT OF my current manuscript.

Well, ladies and gentlemen. Two more chapters to go.

Yahoo, and all that stuff, but I’m already a little sad. Because I love my characters so much I’m going to miss working with them every day.

Writers are the only ones who understand this. If you tell you neighbor you’re going to miss your characters, their response is, “They aren’t real, you know. Shall I call Shady Haven for you? I hear they have full satellite t.v.”

Um, you don’t get it sister.


They’re just made-up.

I ought to know–I’m the one that made them up. From people I have known, people I know now, and parts of me. Those emotions I poured out on those pages had to come from somewhere. If I haven’t felt them, I’ve observed and empathized with them. The “good” emotions and the “bad” ones too.

But it’s time to wrap up this WIP, start querying and release my characters into the wild.

I hope they’re real enough to make it out there.

Anybody else in love with their characters like I am?

master writer #4–jay asher, 13 reasons why

13 Reasons Why, the debut YA novel by Jay Asher is the fourth in our series of kidlit books in which the author demonstrates an incredible mastery of a specific aspect of the writer’s craft.

Clay Jensen finds a strange package on his porch. Inside, there are cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his dead classmate. He will spend an evening crisscrossing town, listening to the tapes to find out the 13 reasons why Hannah committed suicide. Clay is one of those reasons.


Each character is completely differentiated, a difficult task with so many teen characters.

1. Throughout 13 Reasons Why, Hannah tells her story to Clay through the tapes–intimately, in his ear. Jay Asher has found a seamless way to mesh their two points of view. This way, A TENSION DEVELOPS BETWEEN THE REVELATION AND RECEPTION OF THE CHARACTERS’ SECRETS.

For instance, we find out about a girl “…known for being a good listener, and sympathetic…” who agrees to come over and help Hannah when she’s being terrorized by a Peeping Tom.

“She smiled and raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you think he’ll come back?’…This girl’s got a twisted side that very few of you know about.”

“To catch our Peeping Tom, we knew we needed to keep the talking quiet. We needed to hear that first…Click… Her mouth dropped open. Her eyes, I’ve never seen them that happy….”

” ‘You know what I could use?’ she asked. ‘A nice, deep, back massage.’ “

“She pulled open the drawer, looked inside, and covered her mouth. What? There was nothing in my drawer worthy of a reaction like that. There was nothing in my whole room worthy of that. ‘I didn’t know you were into this.’ she said, nice and loud. ‘We should use it…together.’ “

“So who was this mystery girl? Should I tell?”

Well, you and Clay are going to have to flip the cassette over to find out if Hannah does tell. Oh, and in the scene, Jay also gives us a mountain of information about the Peeping Tom. And Hannah. And Clay, of course.

2. Jay reveals his characters almost entirely through VIGNETTES. We get to see the characters in action and draw our own conclusions. Sometimes our conclusions agree with Hannah’s and/or Clay’s, but sometimes, they don’t.

“I just sat there, in the booth where Marcus left me, staring into an empty milkshake glass…”

“When up walked Zach. I pretended not to notice him. NOT because I had anything against him, but because my heart and my trust were in the process of collapsing…”

“He offered to buy me another milkshake, but I gave no response…”

“…Zach left a few bucks on the table and returned to his friends.”

“…and before I left, I listened in on you and your friends. They were teasing you for not getting that date you assured them was in the bag.”

“…you took the teasing.”

” {but}…you chose to get back at me in the most childish of ways.”

3. Jay Asher’s characters are fully rounded because they aren’t stale stereotypes gleaned from previous fiction. They seem to have been kidnapped straight from his neighborhood high school, because they BEHAVE LIKE REAL PEOPLE, NOT IN WAYS CONVENIENT FOR A PLOT OR LESSON TO BE LEARNED.

Up until this point in my Master Writers Series, I have chosen examples that weren’t exactly spoilers for the novels being discussed. But in this instance, I feel the best example has to be this spoiler. If you haven’t read 13 Reasons Why, I beg you to read it before you go on to my third point. Fair warning. Here we go. No turning back.

Throughout the novel, Hannah fights her undeserved slutty reputation. Things come to a breaking point after a terrible night:

“…someone called my name…a head poked up. And whose head would that be? Bryce Walker’s.”

{Clay} “God, no. This can only end one way. If anyone can shovel more shit onto Hannah’s life, it’s Bryce.”

“{and}…Miss Courtney Crimsen…She’s the one who left me stranded with no one to talk to. And there I was, at her house, where she had nowhere to hide.”

{Clay} “That’s not why you did it Hannah…You knew it was the worst choice possible…You wanted your world to collapse…”

“…I was right not to trust them…but I was done. I was through fighting…”

“Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears…then, just like that, I let go…My legs fell apart. I knew exactly what I was doing. Not once had I given into the reputation you’d all set for me. Not once…Until Bryce…I let my reputation catch up with me–I let my reputation become me–with you.”

Boy. The easy author choice would have been an out-an-out violent rape. Good-girl Hannah kills herself because nobody would have believed her. Bad boy Bryce. Eh. We knew he was no good. Tragedy. *Yawn*.

Honest to Murgatroyd, I think this is the most heartbreaking, dead-on, brilliant scene in the whole book. If you think Hannah was asking for it, or could have gotten away, I submit that you’re missing the point.

She has been trying to get away from the reputation the student body has pegged her with for the entire book.

She can’t.

Hannah has been disappointed, degraded, embarrassed, debased, time and again. She was through fighting–she had fought it so long and so hard, obsessed over her reputation, she became what she feared most.

She made a choice. Or did she? Bryce certainly didn’t overpower her. But did the actions of the other students over the school year  “brainwash” her?

Layer upon layer. Each character sharp, distinctly individual.

13 Reasons Why is an important contribution to teen literature. There’s very little action, mostly character study, but oh! how fascinating! For that reason I give you Jay Asher, the Teen Character Master.

master writer #1–jennifer brown, hate list

I have a brilliant, new idea.

No, no, come back!

For the next weeks I’m going to profile different kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.  These are the books I go to when I’m stuck in revisions and need a refresher course.

First up:

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

A gut-wrenching YA, The Hate List is about the aftermath of a school shooting. Valerie and Nick, two high school outcasts who find each other, are bullied by just about everyone else in the school. As a way to blow off steam they keep a running list of people who treat them badly–the “hate list”. Near the end of junior year, Nick cracks. He shoots up the school, killing kids, using the hate list as a guide. Even though Valerie saved a classmate she’s implicated in the deed. She helped write the hate list. She loved Nick. How responsible is she? How much guilt does she bear?


She can make you feel sympathy for her villain.

Can you imagine a more unsympathetic character than a mass-murderer?

Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer doesn’t excuse Nick’s actions. Or blame them on society. But she does give us a reason to lament the loss of his soul. Nick is by turns repulsive and endearing.

1. The poor, misunderstood villain is a great way to stir up sympathy. Jennifer does it here, by CONTRASTING WHAT SOCIETY BELIEVES ABOUT THE VILLAIN vs WHAT THE NARRATOR KNOWS

How could Valerie have loved such an awful monster? Jennifer takes us back to when Nick and Valerie meet:

  • Society sees: “His clothes were ratty, sometimes too big, and never stylish.”
  • But Valerie looks beyond that: “He had these really sparkly dark eyes and a lopsided smile that was adorably apologetic and never showed his teeth.”

2. Just when you think you’ve got this guy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks pegged, Jennifer gives Nick AN UNEXPECTED INTEREST OR TALENT.

Valerie visits Nick’s room for the first time and stumbles upon his stash.

“…To you yourself, to us, to everyone”

“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d?” Nick said, quoting the next line before I had a chance to read it.

I sat back and looked at him over the top of the book. “You read this stuff?”

That’s right, Nick is somewhat of a Shakespearean scholar. All on his own. Now, I find that awfully endearing, don’t you?

3. And as you might imagine in a book about bullying, there is more than plenty of UNEARNED SUFFERING.

“I could almost feel the embarrassment and disappointment radiating off of him, could almost see him crumple into defeat before my eyes.”

Note that the most effective use of unearned suffering comes AFTER you have established your villain’s likability.

This has been a mini-crash course. Pick up Hate List to learn from Jennifer Brown, my gift to you as The Sympathy-for-the-Villain Master.

alice in wonderland: where childhood is real

Tim Burton? I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You are a master of visual splendor. The Wonderland you created for Alice is incredible.

I saw your film with my pal Jenn Bailey and two of her three BaileyBoys–The Bandman and Lord Bluntly.  We enjoyed it, yes, but…

Tim, you don’t really get it.

Alice in Wonderland and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass are quite the subversive pieces of literature.

On the surface Wonderland is fantabulous creatures,

splendiferous beauty,

outrageous creativity,

bounteous color,

precious sentiment.

But Alice learns very quickly that she cannot let her guard down. Eat an irresistibly tempting cake and grow too large to fit through the door.

The gorgeous flowers can talk–

but they only have nasty things to say.

And if you meet a grinning, good-natured looking Cheshire cat, beware. Even he will admit, “…we are all mad here.”

I read this book approximately six million times when I was a kid. My own kids hated it. Now that I’ve seen your film, Tim, I finally understand why. It’s because the book has what you’ve left out of the movie:

Veiled menace.

I’m not talking about obvious dangers like the bandicoot or the jabberwocky.  Enemies who declare themselves are easily dealt with.  I’m talking about the darkness that comes clothed in the guise of angels, like the walrus and the carpenter:

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”

We all know how THAT turned out.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.                                                                                                                                                                         


The Mad Hatter, who poses a riddle without an answer. The Red Queen who will chop off the gardener’s head for planting the wrong color of flower. The baby who turns into a pig.

Even though Alice is only a quarrelsome little girl, she sees these petty creatures for what they are. Chess pieces. A pack of cards. Nursery rhymes. They are grand-standers and charlatans, and she can protect herself from them.

Not your usual children’s literature from the Victorian Era, when childhood was deemed an idyllic time tended to by all-knowing adults. As kidlit writers, we know the notion of a carefree youth is a myth.

So now I get why I loved these books as a child, and why my kids didn’t like or understand them.

And Tim? Afraid you really missed the boat. There’s a rumor you’re looking at the Wizard of Oz next. If you are, think LONG AND HARD about the STORY before you start. And let me tell you a secret:

The shoes are silver.

steamed punks

Steampunk: the new old genre.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are the fathers of Steampunk, what with Captain Nemo’s Nautilus:

and the Time Traveller and his machine:

The word “Steampunk” conjures thoughts of gears, goggles, parasols and petticoats.  Ingenious technology paired with Victorian sensibilities.  It’s often easier to show someone a picture than try to explain the Steampunk genre in words.

Sure, the trappings are cool–the computer with the fine oak cabinetry, the steam-powered bomb factory, the button-up leather coat.  But isn’t it interesting that Steampunk stories are generally set around the Victorian Era–and not past around 1930?

Why?  You ask.  Why? Why? Why?

Well, you’ve come to the right place, my dears.  I have all your answers.

Steampunklandia is a safe place to play.  To challenge ideas.  Like who should be considered strong or weak, who is appealing and who is repugnant.  Even who is right or wrong.

Once upon a time authors wrote about any human being they wanted to, in any fashion they wished,  with impunity.  The Pinhead.  Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.  The Snake Girl.  But now, it’s no longer popular to write about characters as OUTLANDERS.  Our society has come to understand that we are all human beings, even the most seemingly different among us have the same fundamental desires and needs, and the right to respect and dignity.

Now, take the gal on the right:

You are not going to get away with writing about this little lady in a straight novel.

If an author wants to write about a gypsy in a modern-day novel, she will have to shed light on the historical context of gypsies: how they’ve been persecuted, their culture, lifestyle, migration patterns.  Heck.  She won’t even get to call them gypsies.

But in a Steampunk  book, there is an alternate universe she can populate with all kinds of clichés and politically incorrect characters, because it is OTHER.  Steampunklandia may feel familiar, but it is not our world.  We have permission to enjoy any character the author cares to dream up.

I think it’s a good thing that we demand gypsies aren’t just silly, two-dimensional characters in our literature any more.  That we want to know their real story.

But come on.  Somewhere deep in a guilty little corner of your soul…don’t you miss stuff like this?

details, details

I don’t think I’ll ever write a 100,000 word manuscript.

First of all, my attention span isn’t that long.  Also, I have been known to search for just the “right word” for 45 minutes.  You don’t pound out 100K words doing that.  But the biggest reason is…

I’m just not that into detail.

I can’t spend three pages setting a scene.  Which makes me a perfect kidlit writer, of course.  Only adult market writers can get away with crap like that.  The one thing that would bore me more than reading such a thing is writing it.

And I don’t want to describe what my characters look like down to the last wart on Aunt Junie May’s left pinkie toe.  Sorry.  Most of the time, I won’t even tell you what color their hair is.  Or their eyes.  Not unless it’s important to the characterization or the story.

And the house might be “needing paint”  or it might come “from family money”, but I’m not going to furnish the blueprints and color swatches.

Because if you’re reading my story, I’m going to make you work.

When you pick up my book, you and I enter into an agreement.  I will do my best to entertain you, and you will do your darnedest to be entertained.  I ply my craft, you apply your imagination.

You, the reader, get to create too.

And that, my fellow writers, is the reason that there will always be books.


%d bloggers like this: