Tag Archives: character development

Bel Canto

Sometimes when I’m at book sales I buy books that I know are always on displays at bookstores, but I’ve never paid much attention to what the book is about. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of those books. I grabbed it without even reading the synopsis, just because I know it’s popular. Then I read the synopsis and thought it sounded good. Unfortunately, I don’t really think it delivered.

The story opens at the birthday party of an international businessman. A poor South American country has coaxed Mr. Hosokawa to his own birthday party with the promise of a performance by his favorite soprano, Roxane Coss. They hope to get Hosokawa to build a factory in their country, and though he has no intention of doing that, Hosokawa is willing to let them hope in order to enjoy Roxane Coss’ singing.

Things quickly fall to pieces when a group of terrorists take the whole party hostage. Though their primary target turns out to be absent from the party, the terrorists try to make the best of the situation. As a stalemate ensues, the terror begins to subside and something akin to friendship begins to replace it. But in the end, it’s still hostages and terrorists, and all things must come to an end.

The first thing I have to say, in complete honesty, is that this book was so very slow. Almost boring, even. Perhaps it is more enjoyable if one is an opera fan, though even that, though a prominent plot key, doesn’t move the story forward in a specific way. The story included a lot of internal thoughts and a lot of descriptions of waiting. I just found it challenging to really get drawn in. And, I guess the significant Stockholm Syndrome the hostages ended up with. I guess it would be natural to start seeing the humanity of people you’re stuck with for long periods of time, but it still just doesn’t sit well for anyone on the outside, I think.

That said, Patchett’s writing style is good. She knows how to tell a story, so I in no way would be turned off from trying another of her books. She cycles between characters smoothly, giving us insight into their minds and actions and giving us an image of who they are without telling us. She’s got show not tell down really well.

It’s the kind of book I might recommend to someone who likes high-brow literature and don’t mind a slower story if the character development is good. But for those who like fast-paced thrillers and action books, despite the premise this would not be the book to turn to.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

I know the year isn’t over yet, but I’m confident in saying I’ve found my favorite book of 2020. V.E. Schwab has crafted such a compelling story that hit me right in the feels.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue opens with a young girl who wants more than a simple life in her small French village. To escape an unwanted marriage, she makes one mistake and suddenly finds herself with endless freedom but no permanence. As the years tick by, Addie must learn how to live with the consequences. Her only other option is to give up and let her devil win.

Chance seems to lead Addie to Henry Strauss, who seems to be everything she’s been aching for. Addie tries to brace herself for when reality sets in, but she could never imagine the truth that awaits her.

I’ve loved every book I’ve read by Schwab. The way she builds her worlds, weaves her stories, and creates characters that are relatable and complex makes it so easy to lose yourself in the story. Addie LaRue is no different. You get invested very quickly.

It could simply be where I’m at in life, or my own experiences, but there was an emotional depth that pulled me in to the story. Knowing how it feels to walk through life invisible. And she captured perfectly the ache and anxiety of knowing how soon you’ll have to say goodbye. Though Addie and Henry go through things quite different than I have, Schwab captures perfectly the idea that emotions are common ground, even when experiences aren’t.

Addie didn’t want a boring life, and the trade off seemed to be that she could experience anything but never leave a mark. Her journey seemed to be one of searching for purpose, of finding a way to matter, even when no one remembers you. These ideas are very poignant and I think very relevant to my generation.

In short, read the book. You may not feel it the same way I did, and that’s OK. Because the story speaks for itself.

A Conjuring of Light

The final piece of V.E. Schwab’s series, A Conjuring of Light was almost everything I wanted it to be.

In this final book, White London is awakening, but not as innocently as it seems. Kell, taken captive in the end of the second book, is quickly rescued by Lila, but they are catapulted into chaos as Osaron, the sentient, rogue magic from Black London, attempts to take over Red London.

Kell and Lila find themselves paired with unlikely allies as they set off to find the once thing that they hope can contain Osaron and save all the Londons.

This book has a lot more deaths, and meaningful, painful ones at that. But, it also has the long-awaited romance too. I’m not sure if I love or hate books and authors who leave two characters locked in romantic tension until the end. I think it must be both, because there’s something fun about crying in exasperation, “just kiss already!”

This action-packed finale wrapped up all the loose ends, except one. Kell decides he doesn’t want to know his past, even though he has a spell to find out– and is told that the memory-repressing mark on his arm is held in place largely by his unconscious desire not to know. It’s great and all, but some of us are curious and want to know, even if he doesn’t.

The series, as a whole, was excellent. The characters had depth and grew throughout the story. They felt like real people, and wrestled with real emotions, even in the midst of everything else. The writing moved the story along, and I didn’t feel like it got bogged down by fluff or filler. Even when Schwab was using the second book to develop characters and set the stage for the finale, it moved at a good pace and the development was interesting to see.

It’s a fantasy series readers will want to return to again and again. I know I will.

The Creative Writer’s Notebook: authentic voices

Because I don't always keep up on my editing, and don't always have something here and exciting worth sharing, I decided to come back to my book of writing prompts that I bought almost a year ago.
This week I did the lessons inspired by William Faulkner (ok, I did two out of three, the last one was hard and I couldn't think of what to write). They were mostly focused on allowing your characters to speak in a real voice, allowing punctuation, grammar and vocabulary to show what your character is like. I've always thought that would be quite easy, but as I sat down to do it, I realized just how proper my dialogue must be. When I'm writing, probably my most authentic language is the use of contractions.
The first prompt I did was inspired by one of my nieces, who wanted to make sure her papa didn't "lost" her hat instead of returning it to her. I tried to write a little scene about a small child who had a bad dream about an upcoming zoo field trip. I tried to think of the kinds of things that trip kids up, often tenses. My little girl would sometimes use the present tense if a word because she didn't know any better, and sometimes she would add an extra "ed" on the end of a word.
As challenging as that was, it was harder to try to write a scene about two people trying to cross a river using only dialogue to portray what kind of people they were. That I as what really made me notice how proper I am while writing.
So this next week, I have two goals in mind for editing: I want to work on the first chapter, making it something that grabs your attention and makes you want to know more. But I'm also going to read through my story and pay close attention to my dialogue, and ask myself if my characters sound real, or if they sound stilted and stiff. I'll have the answers for you next week!

Keeping motivated

I’ll confess, the hardest part for me, when it comes to editing, is keeping motivated. I’ve probably said that before.

It’s also hard to write blog posts, because I feel like I’ve written it all before. But here goes.

I pushed myself this week and I got a big chunk done in the first half of my story. My young rebels have a much better scheme for their civil disobedience, and I like it a whole lot better.

I’ve now started working through the second half, which will be more challenging. This is the part where I have to work in the people who claim to be his parents, and Mason’s struggle to grasp what is true. I think this part will require more than just a couple scene edits and additions, but that’s ok. I’m excited to be working on it.

What made a big difference in the last week or two was just editing when I found a note or spot that needed work, instead of trying to add a note or details on what to change. When I make notes, I end up using that as an excuse to “work” but not really accomplish anything, so I’m glad to be getting past that.

So this week it’s moving into the psychological part of the book. I’ll need to dig out my notebook and see what I had planned for it, then, as Nike advocates, “just do it.”

The final days

I’m less than 1,000 words away from winning NaNoWriMo this year (writing 50,000 words).

I have two days left, not counting today (and I don’t because I have to leave for work in an hour).

And I still have to wrap up this chapter and wrap up the whole story.

Where I am at almost feels like a climax of its own, but it’s actually the story winding down. Whether it will be a series or just one of the ambiguously cyclical stories that annoy some people and refresh others, I haven’t really decided. That will be something to consider later on, after I’ve finished the story and read through it again. At that point, I’ll be able to see if there is enough new ideas to pursue a series. Or, perhaps, I’ll be dissatisfied, and I’ll write another chapter or an epilogue or something. But all of that will be December’s problem. (Ok, probably a problem for some time later on in life, I never seem to get around to earnestly editing any of my projects.)

When I hit 40,000 words, I felt like I was running out of steam. As I looked at my outline for the last two chapters, I was wondering how on earth I was going to write them at 5,000 words each (even though just last week I was bragging about how they were such dense chapters). When it came down to it, I thought I was going to come up short.

But this gave me a great opportunity to add in some “extra” content that showed different strengths of different characters, and I think will really make the last chapter of the story make sense. I was able to add in a little bit of the snapshot of life kind of scenes that make the character real, show time passing, and give just a short break from the hustle and bustle of the main storyline.

So now here I am, just a little over 49,000 words, and I’ve still got the entire final chapter to write. If I’m honest, I’ll probably put that off until December (I’ve got a book calling my name, and I need to finish it so I can blog about it on Friday!).

But I’ve learned a lot about my writing process since I’ve tried out some new things this year, the biggest being that even if I plan and give myself structure, I still have creative license and freedom. While in general my story is the same as when I started out, several characters turned out to be very different than I had expected. And by letting myself plan as I go, I was able to adjust the key events in later chapters to reflect the new strengths and weaknesses that I discovered in my characters.

And finally, I was able to simply enjoy the writing instead of stressing over what is supposed to come next or how to pass time before moving on to the scene that is supposed to happen next month. So, I’ve committed myself now to being a semi-planner. I know where I’m going, but I can take side roads to get there.

Onward now to those final words.

NaNoWriMo: Week 1

I have successfully completed the first week of NaNoWriMo, and my word count is on track. I’ve only been behind one day.

My writing process is going smoothly, in large part because I have general plans and content for the chapters I’ve written so far (who knows what will happen after chapter 13. That’s where my planning had ended). And I’m making time to write. That is my downfall, during the other 11 months of the year, I don’t always make time to write.

There is just something about November that makes it easier. I think it is, in large part, because I know I am part of a group that is embarking on the journey to creativity. No one is really paying attention to my word count, no one will really know if I finish or not, but somehow being part of the group motivates me in a way that I’m lacking on my own. So, maybe I need to find myself a writing group. Also, being able to update my word count, and turn little bars from blue to green as I meet daily goals is satisfying. I wonder if stickers on the calendar would be as gratifying…

I’ve also been trying to be more conscientious about my writing. In my planning and outlining, I’ve been challenging myself to break up the action with slow life-picture scenes. Scenes that give more insight into the character, instead of just moving the storyline along. I’ve also been working on tie-ins. If I mention this early on, how can I make it relevant later? Or, conversely, if something happens, and I want to address it later on, what can I do now that will open the door then? This last part is something I really want to develop, because they are my favorite bits of stories, the subplots revolving around things that seem inconsequential, or that you almost forget about, until it comes back up in a completely natural and relevant way. I want to be able to write that seamlessly.

And I’m thinking about my characters, trying to develop individual tones and personalities that reflect in their words and actions. I don’t want cookie cutter characters. I want to write people.

So, that’s where I am, one week in. I’m following my outline, but veering off when it seems like the right thing to do. And I’m still outlining as I go, which allows me to recognize how things happening now can come back up later. And then I write it down so I don’t forget. And some of the things I thought were going to happen may not happen after all.

Onward, now, to week two.