Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jordy's Coat

Interesting, the arc of this topic. Initially is was going to be more tightly focused on clothing, if I’m recalling correctly. And, though I’m usually pretty malleable on topics, I immediately said, “I don’t write about that. That won’t work for me.” Then it turned into a broader topic of appearance. The month is nearly gone, I presume I’m the last to step up (this being a 30-day month), and I’m writing a post

In my novel Becoming Chloe, a prominent “character” is a leather coat. It’s stolen by Jordy, a 17-year-old gay young man living on the New York City streets with his friend Chloe, and hustling to keep them in food.

In a rare (for me) act of blatant foreshadowing, the moment he sees the coat I let the reader know how important it will turn out to be:

It’s a leather store she’s [Chloe’s] standing in front of. “Wow, Jordy, look at that coat.”

I don’t know yet that my life will turn out differently if I don’t.

When I look at it, Jordy narrates, I make that sound that Raymond always wishes I could make with him. I remember what it feels like to want something. If I had that coat, I’d be magic. Men would cross the city to fall down at my feet. I’d turn the collar up, roll the sleeves back two turns, push them up a little toward my elbows. Everybody who saw me would want me, and I’d understand why. It would seem natural to be all that to someone. To everyone.

When they have to walk away without it. Jordy doesn’t even want Chloe to mention it:

It hurts to talk about it. Like sitting around talking about what a great guy that was who just dumped you, how good-looking he was, and how great he was in bed. I’ve lost something I couldn’t afford to lose.

And then, when he sees it again:

I try to think of a way to get to Rene’s without going by the leather store. There are lots of ways, but they all have me walking a little farther. And that’s stupid, I decide. What am I, a little kid? I can stand to see something it hurts to want. I can see it and then just keep walking. It happens to lots of people every day. We all survive.

But when I pass the store, I don’t just keep walking. It stops me dead, like seeing an old flame step out of a cab on a busy street. And once I’m stopped, I stay stopped a minute, and I look at the duster coat. And I make the mistake of thinking about going to Rene’s wearing that coat. It would be so different. It would be even better than it is now. He would look at me and see things he never saw before. I would be just as big as Rene and have just as much power, and we would have to find new games to play, ones that reigned in both of our powers so we didn’t both get burned to a crisp by all that self-satisfied cool.

Granted, that’s a lot for a coat to do. And, of course, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, he sacrifices so much to get it that it becomes something he can’t even keep. But this is the way, I find, with characters who go through lives with big holes in their hearts. They keep thinking they see something, some outside person or object, that will fill the hole and make them feel complete. It never works, but it’s a compelling emotion to chase.

And, if it’s not funny enough that I would forget Jordy’s coat experience until it came time to write this post, I now realize that my novel Diary of aWitness revolves in great part around a jacket. One Ernie’s mom gave him for Christmas. With leather sleeves, and NFL stickers, autographed by a football player. One he knows she couldn’t really afford. And because Ernie is more than a hundred pounds overweight, the jocks seemed determined to get it away from him as part of their bullying routine. Because, as Ernie says, I had made the fatal mistake of letting them know how much it meant to me.

I felt like I’d be cool if I just wore that jacket all the time, Ernie narrates. Like I wouldn’t even be the fat boy anymore. Or, anyway, like it wouldn’t even matter that I was.

The significance of the jacket takes a strong shift in light of the turns of plot, but I can’t think of any spoiler-free way to make that point.

So let me go ahead and make my point. We talk a lot about accepting others no matter how they look. Some of us are better at it than others. Almost all of us could use some work. But just about everybody I’ve ever met has more trouble with their own self-image than they do with the image of the person they want/are attracted to/love. We are the ones we can never seem to please with our appearance.

Something as simple as a coveted article of clothing that seems to have the power to fix everything can be a strong character clue. It can point to the emptiness and confusion inside, trying to get out into the light to be healed.

Friday, June 29, 2012

What's inside counts for diddly squat

While reviewing the female love interests in all my books, published and unpublished, I realized they all had something in common. They're physically flawed.

Melody's face was disfigured in a childhood fire.

Sage was transgender (she was born male).

Felicia was dying of cancer (and thanks for nothing, John Green).

Charlie was fifty pounds overweight.

Chloe was malnourished, and missing a front tooth.

Like any author, I loved these girls. I think they're beautiful, scars and all. But editors, readers, and people in my writers' group don't seem to see things that way.

"I loved Melody, but couldn't she have plastic surgery or something so she doesn't have to be ugly?" -reader

"I love Charlie! I think she should be the main character, not your whiny male lead. But why does she have to be fat? It doesn't add to the plot. Why not make her beautiful?" -member of my writers' group

So why do people want the girl to be sexy, even when the entire point of the book is that beauty comes from within?  Even when my male leads are such dorks, they're lucky to end up with 'flawed' girls like this?

It is escapism? So the guys can fantasize about a perfect girl, and so girls can dream of being perfect?

I dunno. But I did write a beautiful character once. Her name was Katrina and she was gorgeous. And the book was rejected because she was far too bland.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Appearances: revealing and deceptive

I’ve always been a fan of minimalist physical description that allows readers to picture characters for themselves. When physical details are mentioned, I like them to matter to the theme, plot, or characterization. For example, Anne of Green Gables would not be Anne of Green Gables without her red hair. She thinks about it and complains about it so much that it affects her self-confidence. And trying to change that color leads her to some misadventures.

In Fat Kid Rules the World, Troy’s size affects his treatment by others and his view of himself. Weight is one of the biggest appearance-related issues that teenagers and teen characters struggle with, from Artichoke’s Heart and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things to Wintergirls.

Appearance can help make or break the careers of models and dancers (Braless in Wonderland, Violet on the Runway, Bunheads, Audition). Anguish over bra size affects the main characters in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and The Lipstick Laws.
When the main character of my first book, The Secret Year, encounters the girl with whom he will have a passionate and troubled relationship, she is wading in a river while wearing an expensive party dress. This scene reveals several things about her: she has the money not only to own such a dress but to be careless with it; she is not fastidious or inhibited; she is impulsive enough to swim whenever the mood strikes her. The main character is more practically attired in boots, which he removes before joining her in the river—revealing that he is both more cautious and less wealthy than she.

There are, of course, characters whose appearances belie their personalities: the charming but manipulative Steerforth in David Copperfield; and the brutal Keir in Inexcusable, who even has himself convinced that he’s a nice guy. These characters turn our own biases and assumptions against us, testing our ability to see beneath surfaces.

Characters’ external features, dress and mannerisms are not just decorations. They’re most interesting and relevant when they’re aligned with, or in opposition to, the characters’ inner lives.

Monday, June 25, 2012

slipping into someone else's skin...or at least her clothes - Alisa M. Libby

I will have to echo the sentiment of fellow historical author, Julie Chibbaro - clothes are particularly important for historical fiction. The clothing can help the reader get a sense of the time and place, and the role of girls and women in that time period. It wasn't just a matter of reading about the corsets and farthingale hoops that my characters wore - a complex architecture of clothing concealing the human female body beneath. I also had to imagine the process of slipping into their clothes.

What would it be like to wear such complicated garments that I required the help of others to dress and undress every day? What would it feel like to wear corsets with whalebone or iron stays pressed against my ribs and abdomen? How would it change my movement, my behavior? Of course, my personal reactions would be different - ladies in Tudor England weren't sitting around Hampton Court wishing they could wear their blue jeans. But they may have longed for bed time, when they would be released from their clothing-confinement. These gowns were often very beautiful, but there was more to them than beauty. What did it say about a woman, or what society thought of a woman, that her legs are concealed beneath a hoop-skirt cage, her sleeves heavy and cumbersome, her waist bound in iron? This is what my characters had to contend with, though they may not have thought of it in these terms as they completed their morning toilette.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Luce on Appearance, with Commentary--Sarah Porter

For the theme of appearances, I thought I'd let Luce speak for herself. The following comes from the as-yet-unpublished third volume of the Lost Voices Trilogy: a scene in which my mermaid heroine Luce, exhausted and battered by a run-in with a school of Humboldt squid, collapses under a dock and later wakes to find a small human girl touching her shoulder:

           Chrissy watched her while she ate, clearly fascinated. “You’re so pretty. Even with bites
 in your face.”
Luce didn’t feel like smiling anymore. “That’s just because of magic, Chrissy. How pretty I am.” The adoring shine of those warm brown eyes made Luce sad. “You shouldn’t take magic things too seriously, okay?”
“Because magic can trick you. You shouldn’t let it.” After all, Dorian hadn’t. He’d called her enchanted beauty “freakish.” That was all she was to him.
“You’re not trying to trick me,” Chrissy murmured uncertainly.

Luce isn't the first girl to experience her own beauty as a burden, as something that chafes against her private sense of self. Think of the pained, self-ironizing humor of Marilyn Monroe, who rendered the perfection of her own beauty into a kind of desperate mockery-- because she was too smart not to realize that it was only a kind of magic. A "glamour," as they say.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In the eye of the beholder (Lauren Bjorkman)

Attractive features:
Gorgeous eyes
Gorgeous hair
Gorgeous lips

Less attractive features:
A hairy back
Skin lesions
A nose tattoo

When it comes to looks,  the boy love-interest in a YA novel often draws heavily from list #1. We’re talking a lot of green-eyes, kissable full lips, and well-formed, muscled bodies. Whew! Is it hot in here?

I understand the reason behind this. It’s fun to drool. When it comes to love, though, I believe the interior matters more.

To draw the focus away from the physical appearance in my books, I choose ones that are somewhere between list #1 and list #2. For instance, Nico in MY INVENTED LIFE wore bangs halfway down his face, concealing his eyes entirely, and eliminating the problem of having to describe them. Just kidding. Sort of.

But do I take this too far? The copy-editor of my latest book, MISS FORTUNE COOKIE, thought so. My main character, Erin, has a little crush on her friend’s boyfriend, Darren. After I established his awesomeness through his actions, Erin describes him like this:

He is as tall as Mei, lean and golden-skinned, with a broad forehead and pointy chin. I think of him as a Filipino-American Legolas from The Lord of the Rings movie, except with spiky black hair. In a word, hot.

The copy-editor wrote a note in the margin, “Is Darren supposed to be attractive?”

At first this annoyed me. Does every guy have to be a cross between Thor and Adonis? In my mind, Darren resembled a certain rock star. Of course he was attractive, especially if you have a thing for Asian rock stars.

But after closing my eyes and trying to picture what the reader might envision, I decided the POINTY CHIN was just TOO much. And took it out.

But I wonder. What's wrong with a pointy chin. Doesn't this guy deserve love, too?

Monday, June 18, 2012

What I learned from a 19th-century painter of brothels and cabarets about appearance--Emily Whitman

Two black gloves against a bare background. The arms, the hands, more alive than they'd be in bare flesh. A face garishly painted in stage makeup, all the more honest for the disguise.

I met the singer Yvette Guilbert in this painting at the Toulouse Lautrec museum.  Gloves and a face, and I know her.

The right details, vibrant against a spare background. I'm aiming for that in my writing, too. I'm blown away by writing that does it well, slashing through the scrim of how I see the world, making me focus suddenly, intently. It may be a motion, a piece of clothing, a metaphor, but all of a sudden I SEE.

We make sudden judgements based on threads of information. My book Wildwing (It just won the Oregon Book Award in YA!) plays with appearance as cue and clue. Addy time travels to the Middle Ages in a stolen costume and is mistaken for Lady Matilda, arriving to marry the lord of the castle. When a sea-soaked Addy reaches the castle, the maid Beatrix helps her off with her wet clothes:

"Now, off with this lovely kirtle of yours--will you look at the weave of this fabric! I've never seen the like!" She starts untying and loosening laces, and then the sodden weight of the gown is lifting off and I'm standing there shaking in my cold, wet underwear. "Well, don't they do things different where you're from, my lady!" She's eying my underwear as if she's never seen such things before. I cross my arms firmly across my chest. "Where is your shift?And what are these flimsy things? Well, no matter; they're sopping, and you're as wet as a drowned cat." She reaches a hand to my underwear, and I leap back.


"But you're all ashiver, my lady," she says, shaking her head firmly. "His lordship will never forgive me if you take ill. We need to get you into that warm bed."

Past and present rub against each other in layers of clothing. Later, when Addy's dreaded wedding is approaching, and she's fallen in love with the falconer's son, and the king who knows the real Lady Matilda is due to arrive any minute, Beatrix is sewing a veil to hide Addy's face. Says Addy,

I think how an actress steps onstage and the audience sees her for the first time. They take in how she's dressed, how she stands, the tilt of her head. In that split second they decide who it is that they see. It will be like that when I don this veil and appear before the king. 
"It's about making an entrance," I say out loud.
"It's about hiding your face, is what it is," Beatrix says.

Appearance as disguise, as clue, as revelation. It's all there in those black gloves.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

APPEARANCES by Wendy Delsol


I was almost tempted to do a post on author talks, signings, etc., but that wasn’t the sort of appearance we YAOTLers agreed to discuss.

Okay, appearances.

Always a bit of a puzzle. Books are so often about the main character going from ordinary to extraordinary. Readers need, thus, to identify with the everyday type presented at the beginning of a story. Perfection, physical or otherwise, doesn’t leave much room for transformation. Still, we like our main characters to be (or become) a better version of ourselves. And sometimes, yes, there’s a physical component to that.

So there’s a balance to be struck. I find it useful to physically describe my protagonist via interactions with others. More importantly, to vary the opinions. In my STORK trilogy, I had the school’s queen bee scorn my new-to-town protagonist, Katla, her fashion sense in particular. At the same time, others—her soon-to-be best friend, Penny, for example—were enamored by Katla. This ambiguity leaves room for the reader to form their own opinion.

I also try to introduce or reinforce certain individual traits—Katla’s white blond hair, for one—via secondary characters. As an example, Jaelle, a waitress in town, gives Katla a distinctive nickname.

“Hey, Ice.”
The first day we met, back in the summer, Jaelle had taken one look at my blond hair and proclaimed it ice-white. And as far as I could tell, Jaelle didn’t give out nicknames easily.

Given Katla’s connection as a human Stork to the white bird as well as my use of the concept of  a white witch, I had wanted to highlight Katla’s white blond hair. The nickname, compounded by the fact that Jaelle didn’t overuse them, accomplished as much. That was my intent, at any rate.

I was a little surprised when some bloggers and reviewers of Stork were annoyed with Kat’s fashion obsession. She is an aspiring designer and, admittedly, way into names and labels. She’s also a little daring or out there in her own fashion sense. This, too, was intentional. She’s an L.A. girl who’s recently been relocated against her will to northern Minnesota. Yes, upon arrival, she’s dismissive of her new classmates and the local styles (or lack, in her opinion, thereof). Yet, some of her own outfits are a little, well, unusual. She receives as many odd looks as she gives. Again, my intention was to allow room for the reader's interpretation.

By the end of the book, she has an appreciation for her new friends and their economic situations. Moreover, she elects to wear a vintage dress to Homecoming, something she wouldn’t have even considered when new to town. It is one measure, among others, of her personal growth.

I’m often asked if, given Kat’s flair for style, I’m into clothing. The answer is no, not really. I like to look presentable, but I’m also budget conscious. I had to research designer names much as I had to research the names of Norse gods.

As to the cover—a close-up, full-face representation of Kat—I love it but will admit that the model is slightly prettier than the Kat I’d imagined. The luxurious fur trim she’s clutching to her throat, however. Oh yeah, that’s her. Though I’m sure she’s paired it with ripped jeans and big, clunky motorcycle boots.

A final note about the other variety of appearances: I was recently at the Mecca of the book world, Book Expo America (BEA). For a small taste of the BEA experience, visit my blog, or those of my fellow YAOTLers:
my blog:
Joy Preble:
Kimberly Sabatini:

(here's a BEA shot of Joy and me with an Obama look-a-like.)

And, finally, it looks like it falls to me to wish everyone a Happy Father’s Day. I know I snagged a good one for my kids.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Dreaded Mirror: Finding New Ways to Describe Appearance (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

How to convey appearance without going into long descriptions is something I think about a lot. I've had editors tell me I need to be sure the reader "sees" the character the first time he/she is introduced. When writing in the first person this can be especially tricky. As writers, we try to avoid the cliché of having our protagonists look at themselves in a mirror and describe what they see. What are other ways to communicate appearance?

I once heard Isabel Allende speak on this topic. She said she never just comes right out and describes her characters. If a character is short, she'll have someone ask that character to pick something up off the floor because she's closer to it or if the character is tall, someone will ask her to reach something off a high shelf.

Another method of description is to keep it active. Instead of saying a character's hair is long, I might say it whipped in the wind. Instead of saying his blue eyes were attractive, I might say I drowned in the blue of his eyes or the blue of his eyes drew me to him. And then the deeper level -- what is it about those blue eyes that draw or drown?

I'm always looking for new ways to make descriptions engaging and evocative. At times, as both a reader and a writer I find that description can slow the pace or take me out of the story. So for me it's ideal if the description can be a part of the action.

In my first drafts, appearance definitely gets slighted. It's not where my focus is. But as I read back through, I work to find what are the parts of the story that are in my head, but not on the page. That's when most of the descriptions are added in -- what the characters look and sound like, what the places look and feel like. I think different writers have different default senses. For some, the visual is primary and present from the start. For me, the first draft is more about the emotion the character is feeling. And the other five senses come into play later.

What works for you? How do you incorporate appearance in innovative ways?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The History of Clothes (Julie Chibbaro)

 I write historical fiction, so clothes are hugely important to the stories I tell.  As everybody knows, over time, fashions change.  The names of clothes change too.  Take, for example, the word ‘dress.’  As I was researching my first book, which took place in 1524, I looked up the fashions of the day.  My young character would wear a dress, but it wasn’t called that.  It was called a ‘kirtle.’  Now, I had this problem – do I refer to her dress as ‘dress,’ or ‘kirtle,’ a word no one but some weird history buff would know?  I hoped that if I put my girl in action wearing and living in the kirtle, readers would know what a kirtle was, at least by the end of the book; either that, or they’d be cursing the hell out of me.  I used ‘kirtle’ anyway.

That was my first book.  The outfits women wore in my second book, which took place in 1906, were called ‘shirtwaists.’  Hats had different names, and coats, and shoes.  Thank goodness for the Sears & Roebuck catalog, which they didn’t have in 1524.  I used the word shirtwaist, and showed my girl getting into one.  I hoped that helped explain what it was.  I haven’t heard a complaint.

Now, the book I’m writing takes place in 1984, when Pumas are replacing Keds, and jogging suits are getting popular.  I use clothes to shape my characters, to tell readers where they fit in the story.  A kid wearing a leather bomber jacket is different from one wearing a red and black checked hunting jacket.

Clothes, for me, define the times.  People are judged by what they look like.  I try to remember all that when writing, though sometimes, the inside of a person is what matters most.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Changing your life, changing your hair (Stephanie Kuehnert)

My current work-in-progress (which I've been referring to as the Modern Myth YA) opens the morning after something really major and awful has happened to my main character Dee. This is one of the ways she reacts to it:

 I hated how she—how I—still looked like the same person who had gotten out of the shower yesterday. Well, aside from the signs of a raging hangover and the bruises, but those would fade. They were not the jarring, permanent physical change that I expected—no, that I needed if I had to continue operating this body that felt like a desecrated corpse.
The answer came when I tried to run a comb through my wet hair and it snagged, radiating pain through the roots into my skull.
My hair had hung halfway down my back for as long as I could remember. It was straight as a bone and nearly that color, though Gran liked to say my hair was moonlight and my sister Seph’s was sunlight. I knew from photographs that Seph had inherited her golden-hued loose waves from our mother. She’d also gotten the bright greenish-blue shade of Mom’s eyes whereas mine were the pale silvery-blue always described as “piercing” in articles about our father. These differences were subtle enough that strangers used to ask if my sister and I were twins. That stopped four years ago when everything about Seph got longer, especially her legs. Suddenly she stood a head taller than me and her sharp cheekbones and thin face—the only features she shared with our father—made her seem more than a year-and-a-half older. I never caught up, but we’d still looked a lot alike until she started screwing around with her hair.
I reached into the medicine cabinet for the shears that Seph had used last year when she cut her waves into a jagged, uneven bob that barely grazed her chin. That haircut was nothing compared to the one I wanted. If we’d had an electric razor, I would’ve used it to shave all the way down to my tender scalp. Since we didn’t, I hacked away with my sister’s scissors until heaps of blond hair filled the sink basin.
The few inches that remained on my head stuck straight up when I ran my fingers through. It was too short to grab and hold on to now. No one would ever be able to use it to trap me again. 

In my first book, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, my musician main character like many rock stars has a signature hair style, which was captured in this rejected cover of the book... Well, it's close, but Emily actually has jet black hair and when she has a major crisis in her life, she bleaches it blonde.

In my second book, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, when I got my revision letter from my editor and she noted that I wasn't given the reader a vivid visual of my main character Kara, the first detail I worked in was a description of Kara's hair and as her life changes, so does her hair.

And now we've stumbled on a little trend in my writing, haven't we? I didn't do this on purpose across all my books. In fact, it wasn't until I started pondering what I might write about for our appearances theme that I realized I was doing it. However, I'm not surprised that I've given most of my main characters this quirk. This is a clear case of when an author's real life/mentality bleeds into their fiction.

My best friend and I became aware of this pattern in our own lives back in high school. She noticed that whenever she got the urge to change her hair, shortly after that she broke up with whomever she was dating. It was like she was subconsciously aware of the major change she needed to make and started by taking it out on her hair. It was sort of similar for me except generally I would know I wanted something to change, that I wanted to feel differently somehow, so I would start by changing my hair and then ride the energy that gave me. For example, my sophomore year of high school, I decided I wanted to be more social and outgoing, and well, get a life, so I got this blond streak in my hair and it made me feel bolder.

A year-and-a-half after that, much like my character Dee from above, I'd gone through a really difficult period and was struggling with that fall-out of an emotionally abusive relationship, so I felt like I needed something drastically different because I wanted my life to be different. Then I went full-on blonde.

That is actually my senior photo, though a few months after it was taken, I was on the verge of another major change in my life--graduating early and moving out on my own--so I decided to make another big change and dyed my hair jet black. My yearbook pictures in high school were almost always outdated by the time the yearbook came out because I would change so much in one year.

This wasn't just a teenage thing for me, though. I had a couple years of very normal hair (well, normal for me, which meant it was a more subtle reddish brown) mostly because I was working a very normal (and awful!) office job. When I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE came out, I decided to dye my bangs pink in celebration.

My best friend said, "This means you're quitting that job, doesn't it?" I hadn't entirely intended to. My boss would have let me get away with the pink bangs, but my best friend knew me better than I knew myself. On the inside, I was screaming for change and I used my hair express it. Sure enough, when I came back from my time off to celebrate my book, I put in my notice and decided to go back to work as a bartender, the job I'd done in grad school, which gave me more writing time. It also allowed me to do whatever I wanted with my hair, so for the past four years I've been switching up the color of my bangs, I've had  several shades of pink, blue, purple, bright red, teal green, sometimes I'll do a couple different shades at once.

Lately, I've felt stuck in a rut--with writing, with my job, with where I live, everything. I can't make any drastic immediate changes to any of it, but I needed to get out of my funk. This weekend when I went to my stylist, she suggested that we keep my colorful bangs, but add some blond chunks to my hair. It's been ages since I've been blond or even blond-streaked. (The last time was in 2005... right before I broke up with my boyfriend of 8 years. I went back to dark hair in mid-2006, right before the "real" job and right after I met my now-husband.) I hadn't even told my stylist about how stressed and uneasy I feel about my life, but it was like she looked into my soul and knew 'This girl needs energy, she needs a change in mentality, she needs to feel bold and ready to take on the world. She's needs some blond in her life!" So, even though my horoscope said not to make any drastic changes in appearance, I went for it, and here is the result:

My bangs, though you can't really tell from the photo, are purple, which I chose on a whim and also because I figured if I didn't like the blond, I could cover them with pink and it would look cute. But perhaps the purple was a subconscious choice to because my mom is always saying, "Purple is a high energy color."

I'm hoping my new 'do will spark some much-needed change in my life or at least in my mentality. It's worked for me since high school and it works for characters in just about every book I write. What about you? Do you find yourself making changes to your appearance right before or after major life changes?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Do I need to describe my character? (Anna Staniszewski)

When it comes to physical description in stories, I tend to go with the "less is more" approach. For secondary characters, I'll give a few defining features to help get the readers' imaginations going. But when it comes to main characters, I tend to avoid physical description all-together. Why? Well, as a reader, I like imagining characters any way I want to. So I guess this is my attempt to give my readers that same freedom.

Ironically, after all the time I spent not describing my main character in My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I then got a book cover that shows the main character front and center. I must say, though, that if I did have to have a photo of my main character on the cover, I'm glad it's a girl that looks a lot like what I was imagining.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against physical description. Sometimes it's quite necessary in order to convey something about the character. For example, I just finished reading Every Day by David Levithan (a fantastic book!) about a character who jumps from body to body on a daily basis. In that story, physical description is absolutely necessary in order to differentiate the various people the protagonist inhabits.

How about you? Do you like the freedom of imagining characters however you want, or do you prefer physical description to be more concrete?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Now Appearing--Jan Blazanin

I can’t imagine writing for teens and not paying attention to my characters’ appearance. Body image is such an important concern for them that it's not realistic that a teen character wouldn’t feel the same. However, the amount of detail given to a character’s physical traits varies widely according to genre. The participants in a wilderness survival story, for example, are probably more concerned with staying alive than the condition of their hair.

Fashion reporting is not one of my strengths, as I discovered with Fairest of Them All. My main character Oribella is all about hair, clothes, and make-up, but my descriptions in the draft MTV bought weren’t detailed enough to pass my editor's inspection. Here’s my original description of Oribella’s dress for the Crowning Glory Beauty Pageant:

            I gasp at my reflection in the watery mirror. The opalescent fabric molds to my figure making each of my curves shimmer. As I turn from side to side, the color changes from pale rose to mauve to the blue of an evening sky. The gown’s straps are so tiny they’re almost invisible. Mom says no strapless gowns until I’m sixteen, but this is almost as good.

I thought it was good enough, but my editor wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t picture the gown until I sketched it and transcribed what I saw. This is the version in the book: 

            I gasp at my reflection in the wavy mirror. The full-length gown flows like a silken waterfall from my bust to just above my toes. Tiny tucks cinch in my waist so that it looks impossibly small. Below the waist, the tucks unfurl into a rippling skirt that’s slim-fitting but loose enough to allow me to walk without ruining the lines of the gown. The opalescent fabric molds to my figure making each of my curves shimmer. As I turn from side to side, the color changes from pale rose to mauve to the blue of an evening sky. The bodice is cut to show a hint of cleavage, and the silver chains sliding over my shoulders are so tiny they’re almost invisible. Mom says no strapless gowns until I turn sixteen next year, but this is almost as good.

Characters Aspen and Laurel in A & L Do Summer are about as different as best friends can be. Flirtatious, curvy Chicago native Laurel likes to show off her shape in low cut tops and up-to-there shorts as we see in the outfit she wears to a graduation party for Aspen’s brother:

            Laurel pulls a lip gloss from the pocket of her white denim shorts and adjusts her red V-neck tank top. Her earrings are vertical chains of three gold hearts, and a tiny diamond sparkles from the heart-shaped gold locket dangling in her cleavage. If I had cleavage like hers, my locket would be in the shape of an arrow pointing at it.

When the girls attend a barn party later in the story, their outfits not only reflect their personalities but the way other teens treat them. Here Aspen comments on the reactions of Wynter and Tessa, two party girls who give them a ride to the country:

            They’re all smiles at Laurel, complementing her low-rise denim shorts, yellow halter top, and the brown henna swan above her shoulder blade. The cloak of invisibility hides my navy tee, khaki shorts, and me.

Appearance, of course, goes much deeper than hairstyle and clothing. The main character in my work-in-progress is seventeen, overweight, and unhappy with her appearance. Not an unusual situation among teen girls. So I was stunned by the reactions of my female writing friends who read an early draft. They made comments like, “Exactly how big is she--size 12, 14, 16?” and “Don’t make her too fat or it’s not realistic that a boy would like her.” 

There couldn’t have been a better indicator of how obsessed women are with our bodies. My agent had a different take on it. Her feeling was that teen girls who are on the chubby side would like reading about someone like them. And the idea that a boy can’t be attracted to a heavy girl is ludicrous. Just look around, and you’ll see that isn’t the case at all. So my main character is staying chubby, and my writing friends will have to deal with it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Big.... *clears throat* (Sydney Salter)

I rarely mentioned the title of the manuscript that eventually became my debut novel. And the little wiggle of embarrassment didn't disappear until I'd said the title hundreds of times after publication. It's a good title: My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters.

I just didn't want anyone to know that I had a big nose.

So why write about something I didn't even want to talk about? I asked that question about a thousand times through the publication process. My Knobby Knees And Other Natural Disasters could have been just as good, right?

After writing three novels that didn't grab an editor or snag an agent, I felt more than a little discouraged. Was it time to give up and               ? I never could quite fill in that blank, so I decided to give NaNoWriMo a try. Not having the time to do much research, I trolled my high school journals for material. All that boy-craziness, friendship drama, and, yes, angst over my giant, huge, take-over-the-world nose.* I would have no trouble drafting 50,000 words in November. And I didn't. I wrote honestly, cathartically, joyously. I'd found the fun in writing for the sake of writing again.

And the story was commercial. I snagged that agent, grabbed that editor, and found myself talking about my nose for weeks and months. People did ask me all the embarrassing questions I'd feared, various versions of, "So, you think you have a big nose, hmm?"

I'm proud to say that I'm completely over my nose issues. What took my character 345 pages to learn, I finally figured out, um, a few decades later. But you can bet that I'm not about to start beating up on my other body parts, no matter how saggy they get!

* I would totally scan in a photo of me in high school, but I couldn't find one. Me and my nose mostly avoided the camera. How freaking sad is that?!?!?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Seriously, You Can Walk a Mile in My Shoes

This month we are talking about appearances, mannerisms and writing garb at YAOTL. I'm preparing this post ahead of time because I'm getting ready to head out to BEA (Book Expo America in NYC--June 4-7.) As I'm packing and prepping, I'm realizing that almost all of my clothing choices revolve around my footwear. I'm flat footed, often have running/dance/clumsy injuries and truthfully--I think I'm missing the girly footwear gene. So sad.

What's a mutant to do? Let's start with the fiction and work into the reality of my footwear choices. In my mind I believe that my outfits would look fabulous if I was wearing something like this...

I totally get why heels make a person look amazing. I wish I could pull off this look, but in reality I can't make it from the bench to the mirror in the shoe store with these babies on. (And yes, I'm aware that they are kind of on the conservative side LOL!)

So you won't see me in those. At best, I'll be wearing something quasi-orthopedic like this...

Not nearly as awesome. I should insert a warning here--this is only for small periods of time--when there really isn't another option. And you should know, it will have taken a considerable effort on my part to live through the experience. There will likely have been blisters, sore feet and an aching back. And the whole time I'm sure I was thinking about how much more I would have enjoyed "such and such event" if I had just been wearing these...

Yup, 90% of the time--this is what I will have on my tootsies. I have this pair exactly and another color too. So if you were on line at BEA and you looked down and saw two really happy feet wearing these--you'd have found me. But even though I can't walk in those awesome green death traps, I must have some wisps of femininity floating around inside me. I STILL LIKE TO BUY LOTS OF SHOES! I just want to be the Carrie Bradshaw of comfy sneakers. Yeah, it is what it is. And it's a really good deal for anyone who wants to walk a mile in my footwear. *grin* Speaking of walking a mile in someone else's shoes--check out these guys tottering around for a very good cause.

And now that you've had a good laugh combined with a warm fuzzy and a touch of pride, I have to ask...what do your feet like to dress up in?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Eyes Have It (by Joy Preble)

When I began writing what would eventually turn into the DREAMING ANASTASIA trilogy, I always envisioned Ethan with stunning blue eyes. The kind of blue that makes you stop and do a double take. I honestly don't know why. I just know that's how the character came to me. And those eyes became part of what attracted Anne and part of what made him a little strange and mysterious because that kind of stunning blue just stands out, you know.

Actually, this is model the cover artist used for Ethan.
And then she blue-d up his eyes a whole bunch and put him lurking in the upper left corner of the book so that it looked like this:
Interestingly, when Sourcebooks first printed advanced reading copies, Ethan was not on the cover! But the chatter, esp. in Europe at Bologna Book Festival, was that something was missing. Duh! Ethan and his blue eyes.

Now let me say that this is a physical feature that not only distinguishes Ethan in the series, it is also reflective of what his character is NOT. Let me explain. So here's this hot dude with these amazing eyes, but as a person, Ethan is amazingly obtuse sometimes. He misses things. He makes HUGE mistakes. He trusts the wrong people. In metaphoric terms, he just doesn't see real well. Of course in book 3, the reader will learn the deepest and darkest of Ethan's misjudgments.... And to reflect that, if you look carefully at the new ANASTASIA FOREVER cover (AF will be out August 7th!), you will see that Ethan's eyes are much, much darker too!
Which I think is totally cool of Sourcebooks and my editor Leah Hultenschmidt and very indicative of the darker nature of the entire 3rd novel... and if I say anymore I'm going to spoil something I am sure!

Anyway, Ethan's eyes. Actually a big part of the series!
So yeah, the eyes have it, people. Yes they do.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Appearances can be deceiving

by April Henry

I'm not that much into writing about appearances.

Cheyenne, my main character in Girl, Stolen is blind. So she doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about appearances, either hers or others'. For example, this is about all Griffin, the other character, notices about her after he steals the car she's been lying down in:

The girl in the backseat wouldn't stop yelling. She had black hair and huge brown eyes, wide with fright. Maybe she was pretty. Griffin didn't know.

Being kidnapped is bad enough, but being kidnapped and blind would be horrible. But appearances can be deceiving. Cheyenne ends up proving her own strength time and time again.

In my next YA, due out in May 2013, this is about all I have to say about the main character:

I kick through the mess on the floor, push the coat aside and stare at myself in the mirror. At me. At who I must be.

Only it’s a face I don’t recognize. 

Snarled blonde hair that falls to the shoulders. To my shoulders. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen? Wide blue eyes. Straight nose with a bit of a bump at the bridge. Lips that look swollen. Skin so pale that the freckles on my cheeks stand out like flecks spattered from a paintbrush. Am I always this pale or is it from shock and blood loss? What I think is the beginning of a bruise shadows my jaw. My heart pounds in my throat and bloody fingertips. I want to throw up. 

[Aside: I would tell you the title, but I've just leaned Sales didn't like the working title, Finish Her Off, so let's just call it The Book About the Girl Who Doesn't Remember Who She Is or Know Why People Want to Kill Her.]

Hidden talents
When I first got the idea for this book, I loved thinking about a girl who discovers she has some hidden talents.  Like this:

I spin around to face him. His eyes are half closed in pain. Blood runs from his nose, red as paint. His right hand reaches out to grab me. My left hand rises, bent at the wrist like the neck of a crane, and knocks his hand away. Then my hand snaps back and claws down, fingers spread, my remaining fingernails digging into his cheeks, leaving furrows that immediately fill with blood. He cries out and puts his hands to his face. 

Leaving his throat unprotected. I draw back my hand, my fingers close together and bent at the second knuckle. And I drive them into his throat as hard as I can. 

And then he’s lying flat on his back, not moving. 

I’m not even sure he’s breathing. 

All my moves were automatic. I didn’t have to think. Didn’t have to remember anything. 

Whoever I am, I already know how to do this. 

For me, I would much rather write about a character who is not exactly what they appear to be on the outside.

Friday, June 1, 2012


I'm interrupting our monthly theme here at YAOTL to bring some insanely exciting news: I've sold my third YA novel!

That's FERAL, forthcoming from HarperCollins!  Commence screaming with excitement...