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Learning Characterisation from Humans Of New York

HONY Facebook Page

HONY Facebook Page

I’ve talked about the Humans of New York Facebook page many times before, mostly in passing. Today I wanted to discuss what an amazing resource the page is for writers.

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is coming up with three-dimensional characters. When I start a first draft my characters are usually pretty vague. I know their motivation or I know the key story problem (Helen getting pregnant, Rebecca’s dislike of the upper class, Lucy’s need for a family and to fit in), but the character starts out as a hazy version of me at some earlier point in my life. They move on from that, and by the end of the first draft they become living, breathing, talkative people in my head. But I think one of the reasons I like my male characters better is because the starting point for them is more often men I know and admire or love, rather than versions of me. (There’s a lot of hubbie in Marcio!)

The problem now is that my novels are starting to have mirror scenes. I’m stuck with Finding Lucy because it starts with a death and a funeral – as does Class Act (although Finding Lucy came first.) Now, it’s unlikely many people will read both, as Class Act bombed, but I can see the reviews now. “Amanda Martin’s latest novel is dull and repetitive, with chunks lifted directly from her previous release.” Oh joy.

Similarly, the protagonists often have similar upbringings and backgrounds because I write more authentically when I can really live it (or have lived it!)

Brandon's Latest Post

Brandon’s Latest Post

So where does HONY come in? I’ve been editing Dragon Wraiths this week for one final time before entering it in the Chicken House/Times competition, after having had the lovely lady who proofread Class Act run through it. She pointed out the bits where I lose the sense of Leah being a teen (my editor has teenage kids, which is fantastic). But she also pointed to the bits where I evoke Leah’s backstory well, when she was in foster care.

I did a lot of research online for the care scenes, and the snippet of Leah’s time on the streets. I wanted it to be realistic but not sensationalist, genuine but not too gritty. A fine line. But then I read a HONY post yesterday which gave an insight into care in one paragraph. In fact it created a whole story and three-dimensional character in a couple of hundred words. Each HONY post does.

When Brandon Stanton (the amazing man behind Humans Of New York) was on his UN tour, the stories were beyond my ability to visualise, but now he’s back in New York the wealth of material is incredible. Not just for main characters. I think one of the reasons Baby Blues resonates with people is because all the characters have stories of their own. I chose not to develop the bit-characters in Class Act, because some reviews of Baby Blues said it was crowded with people, but I’m learning you can’t please everyone!

What Brandon shows is that a person’s whole life and character can be depicted in half a page. He has a way of getting under people’s skin to their very essence. He gets them to tell the core of their life story succinctly but with feeling. I read his posts to keep me grounded in the stories of the world, but also I read them to learn from a master.

 

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Big Blog Giveaway

A knitted cat

A knitted cat

It’s been a long time coming but my blog is slowly approaching 500 followers. It feels like time for a celebration, so I’m planning a giveaway of sorts.

I haven’t decided what or how yet, but it might involve free books, knitted cats and quite possibly chocolate.

Watch this space.

Spread the word!

(Pssst! Any ideas on how to do a giveaway?! I guess rafflecopter is the way but I haven’t used it before. Or do I give a prize to the 500th follower? Any tips? How does it work internationally? And what would you rather have? Books, toys, chocolate or all of the above?!)

 
3 Comments

Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Competitions

 

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Trying Not to Quit

Waiting for Ears

Monkeys Waiting for Ears

September was crazy, October is turning out to be (tries to think of a PG word) challenging. Despite having a lovely birthday, with lots of new wool to tempt me, so far the reasons to smile are becoming harder to find. The kicker is I can’t even blog about most of it.

The bit I can talk about is probably more a symptom than a cause. I want to quit. Again. It’s not the first time I’ve found myself all done with trying to be an author, but it’s the first time I’ve found something else (temporary I’m sure) to fill the creative void. Knitting.

Not that I don’t get frustrated with that as well. If I have to make another monkey (especially for the children) I might weep. Again! There were tears of frustration when I sewed a leg on back to front. But I am loving the creativity of inventing patterns as I go, seeing what I can create with my extremely basic skills and having something to hug at the end of it.

Critical as my children are (“Mummy, why doesn’t the bottom on my monkey squish like my brother’s does?” “Because Mummy used the wrong material to enclose the beads and, no, I’m not unpicking it to change it.”) it’s much easier to ignore. I can see the end product and decide if the critics are right. Same with my paintings.

But you can’t ‘see’ a novel. You can’t swiftly and dispassionately judge it against the criticism or the praise and decide if the comments are fair. I’m struggling as much with the five star reviews for Baby Blues as the two-star ones for Class Act. With the former, I feel I can’t write with that freedom and passion any more. It was a story close to my heart and one I rewrote many times.

Knitty Cats

Knitty Cats

Many of the good reviews talk about the emotional roller-coaster, and I know Class Act and now Finding Lucy lack that. Partly because I’m drained and medically subdued and partly because I’m writing much more self-consciously. It happened with my paintings. I started to try too hard to paint ‘right’ or ‘professionally’ and lost the spark that made them special.

I know I won’t quit. Writing is in my blood. Life will (hopefully, eventually) settle down, and I’ll find a way through. Find a story that needs me to tell it, so I can ignite the passion again. Maybe I’ll be brave and join a writing group, get more feedback to help me find that objectivity. But not right now. I need a layer of armour before I subject myself to that.

In the meantime I’ll go back to my Knitty Cats, and carpel tunnel pins and needles. Christmas is coming. If I can’t sell books, maybe I can sell cats (and definitely not monkeys!)

 

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Autumn Already?

Smiley Son

Smiley Son

What happened to September? Someone stole it while I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t believe it’s October already (and nearly my birthday!) Despite the glorious warm and sunny days we’ve had recently, autumn is still in the air as we shiver our way to school in the morning, through rainbow coloured leaves and fallen conkers.

I love autumn, I think it’s my favourite time of year. Misty mornings, crisp afternoons, riotous colour everywhere and an excuse to wear jeans again.

My daughter has Harvest Festival today and I feel that I also want to celebrate the abundance and beauty around me. It’s been a year of ups and downs but, despite everything, we’re still muddling through, still smiling.

I’ve recently altered the time of day I take my meds and have realised just how much they give me. Returning to the twitchy, ranty insomniac for even a few days was enough to be grateful for the change. I might have become a little more dozy, a little more befuddled, since starting on SSRIs, but I’m definitely happier.

My challenge for this month is to concentrate on finding things to be happy about rather than things to worry me. Good enough parenting, good enough housework. I’m taking up piano again and knitting like a demon. I even enjoyed spending time with my son yesterday, as he took a break from being a whiny, greedy, annoying four-year-old and (briefly) became my little boy again.

October is also about getting Dragon Wraiths entered into the Times / Chicken House competition (the deadline is sneaking up fast. Thank goodness for my editor who has agreed to proofread it in a hurry). I’m almost convinced I shouldn’t waste my time and money, having had another half-dozen rejections on it in the summer. Almost, but not quite. Got to be in it to win it, isn’t that what they say? :)

Meanwhile, Finding Lucy is slowly taking shape and Baby Blues is doing well on the new Kindle Unlimited. I have no idea yet if that earns me any money, but it’s nice to see the numbers ticking over.

That’s life in the Martin household at the moment. What does autumn mean to you?

 

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Reviews, Revisions and RSI

The coveted snippets

The coveted snippets

Septembers are shaping up to be crazy months for me. It doesn’t help that this is the second year in a row that hubbie has been between contracts in September, so added to the usual mayhem I have an extra child at home to feed and worry about :)

September marks the return to routine, but is exacerbated by a new school year – new lessons, homework, after school clubs, teachers, expectations – and the fact that my son’s birthday is three weeks in. Even though we opted for the easiest party ever this year, at a soft play centre, so no food prep, no painting giant sharks or making decorations, we still had invites, party bags and presents to sort, and sibling grief “when is it MY birthday?” to contend with.

I buy for all the family, as I know my son’s various requests best, so I have the added stress of sourcing gifts for grandparents and aunties. The party was a blast though – the first I’ve actually been able to enjoy – and he’s as happy with his toys as a four-year-old who watches too many TV adverts can ever be.

Cheeky monkey

Cheeky monkey

September is also my chance to return to writing. As I discussed in my previous post, that wasn’t as straight-forward as I’d hoped, after discovering my old manuscript was dire. I decided to stick with it but I’m more re-writing than revising, and the going is slow. Thankfully the story is coming together, with some help from my shelf of craft books. I don’t think it will hit my Christmas deadline but, as I’m hoping it will form part one of a trilogy, it’s more important to get it right than get it out.

That’s particularly the case after Class Act’s rubbish launch (I struggle to give it away!) To boost morale (and in the vain hope it might help Class Act sales) I ran a free promo for Baby Blues a couple of weeks ago. I had a whopping 8,000 downloads, mostly in the US. And while it didn’t result in as many residual sales as I’d hoped, It has led to some lovely reviews. I finally have enough reviews in the US to get the little snippets next to my rankings. I was disproportionately chuffed!

The final thing that’s made September crazy is my knitting obsession. I’ve moved on from cats to monkeys, at my son’s request. I can’t read patterns so I’m making things up as I go. It’s extremely liberating, after all that loom-banding when one tiny mistake resulted in a pile of bands instead of an amazing creation. The downside is, apparently, knitting gives me shocking RSI. My hands are numb, my wrists swollen and my arms sore. Gutted. To find a satisfying hobby away from the iPad, and then to have to keep stopping from pain is so frustrating. But I daren’t risk not being able to type!

Anyway, a rather prosaic update. I just wanted to say I’m still here, still alive, still plugging away, and shocked that September’s nearly over already. At least I’m never bored!

 

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Repost: A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture

I came across this article by Zaron Burnett on Huffington Post today and it’s a must-read for everyone (in my opinion)

“If you are a man, you are part of rape culture. I know … that sounds rough. You’re not a rapist, necessarily. But you do perpetuate the attitudes and behaviors commonly referred to as rape culture.

You may be thinking, “Now, hold up, Zaron! You don’t know me, homey! I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let you say I’m some sorta fan of rape. That’s not me, man!”

I totally know how you feel. That was pretty much exactly my response when someone told me I was a part of rape culture. It sounds horrible. But just imagine moving through the world, always afraid you could be raped. That’s even worse! Rape culture sucks for everyone involved. But don’t get hung up on the terminology. Don’t concentrate on the words that offend you and ignore what they’re pointing to — the words “rape culture” aren’t the problem. The reality they describe is the problem.

Men are the primary agents and sustainers of rape culture.

….”

Read More Here

 
8 Comments

Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Random

 

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The Stories in Tragedy: Manchester Dogs Home

My daughter woke up in tears at 3am this morning (that’s another post) and it took a long while to calm her back to sleep. When I finally made it back to bed, I had to check the downloads for my latest Baby Blues free promotion (they’ve been amazing, but that’s another post too) and I happened on a tragic story unfolding in Manchester.

Yesterday evening a fouteen-year-old boy allegedly set fire to the Manchester Dog Home. The home houses around 200 dogs and at least a quarter were killed in the blaze.

I reluctantly confess, despite being a dog lover, my initial response was that it wasn’t a tragedy on the scale of Syria or Gaza or the 9/11 anniversary.

It disgusts me, now, in the cold light of dawn, how numb I have become to tragedy.

Then I started reading the news feed – in reverse – and became involved in the emotion of it. The story behind the headline.

It’s what Humans of New York has done for every strife-ridden country it has visited as part of the UN Tour: tell the stories and you humanise the victims. You create room for empathy and the headline is no longer a number, a statistic. The dispassionate historian in me gives way to the writer. That is the power of stories.

As I read about the awful truth of trapped animals yelping in fear, I cried. When I read about the people of Manchester and beyond turning out in their thousands with crates and blankets and offers of help I felt lifted by the knowledge that there is still some good left in humanity. The online fundraising account started by the Manchester Evening News has raised a staggering sum overnight (donate here) and my faith in the world is somewhat restored.

But then I read some of the comments about the 14-year-old suspect. Comments like ‘he should hang’, and ‘he should burn’ and I think, what about his story? Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a despicable act and he should be punished. But, fourteen? What happens in a child’s life that leads him there?

And that’s the parent in me talking. That’s listening to my daughter sob at 3am, “Mummy, I just don’t know why I’m so sad,” and fearing she’s inherited my depression, god help her. That’s seeing every tiny thing that shapes my children and feeling guilty for most of it, while trying to remember they are people in their own right and it isn’t all my fault.

I’m shocked and dismayed by the boy’s behaviour, and six years ago I would have let him burn. But meeting hate with hate isn’t the answer, although I don’t know what is. My first response is to want to give him a hug, as I would my boy, when he does something stupid that incurs my wrath and says, “I don’t know why I did that, Mummy, I’m sorry.”

All I know is the emotions left me feeling like I might fly apart. There isn’t room inside me for all the contradictory empathy, the love and loss and hope and disappointment and, above all, the need to understand. The world was easier when it was hero and villain, good and bad, black and white.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Parenting

 

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