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.

Help Keep an Inspirational Message Alive

No Page Left Blank

Three days ago I wrote a post about my cousin, Ryan Gillis, a drug-addict-turned-inspiration who recently passed away in a car accident, and you all responded in a huge way. Not only did my usual blog followers drop by to give their condolences, but over 14,000 people showed up in total on that one day, coming from all over in search of information on Ryan. I also watched the visitor stats for Ryan’s “Love Life” video skyrocket, and I have to say that I couldn’t have been more thankful to see that Ryan’s message is being spread even in the wake of his death.

Today, because you’ve all been so wonderful and supportive, I want to share a couple of plans that are going on in Ryan’s name that some of you may wish to support.

First, Ryan’s family has opened a fund to raise money to help…

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A Ramble About Life

Kids and their new go-kart

Kids and their new go-kart

I’m sorry about my recent silence; I’ve been in a strange world where I’m actually enjoying editing. What’s more amazing is that I’m editing Dragon Wraiths. You’d think that finding anything wrong with a book that’s been published for eighteen months would send me into a spiral of despair. Especially finding grammar mistakes and typos, rather than just poorly worded sentences. But surprisingly it hasn’t. I knew there would be some errors, especially as it’s the only book that I haven’t paid someone to edit, relying instead on family and friends.

(That said, my mum found a few glaring typos in Class Act and that was edited, so you can’t catch everything.)

I think I’m enjoying it because I know the book has received great reviews (and awful ones!) so I can read it knowing at least some people like it. But the main reason I’m enjoying it is because I can see how much I’ve learned about writing in the past year or two. I’m not changing the story but I am tightening the prose and it’s surprisingly empowering.

My original intention was to try and cut 35,000 words (30%) from the story so I could enter it in the Chicken House children’s novel competition. So far I’m only cutting 8-10% from each chapter. Unless I find half a dozen chapters that are redundant it isn’t going to happen. But I’ve decided that’s okay. Instead I’m going to try and get the book below 100,000 words and resubmit to agents. Who knows, I might have more success this time.

The nice thing about editing is that it structures my day. Aside from the two hours of school run mayhem in the morning, and the four hours of whining, crying, shouting and chaos from pick up to bed time, my days are calm and focussed. I carry my manuscript round and edit at the school gate and waiting for my coffee. Having a deadline of the end of term really helps keep me working. My only distraction is constantly checking for Class Act reviews!

On the trampoline

On the trampoline

This morning I wrote a response to a post on Helen Yendall’s blog about having too much to do and how much harder it can be to manage your time when you don’t go into an office to work. This was my (edited) response:

This is how my boss used to tell me to do to prioritise work: categorise things into ‘what will get me fired if I don’t do’, ‘what will get me promoted if I do it,’ ‘what do I enjoy?’ and everything else. It’s tough to do that when you’re self-employed, but for me I’ve roughly translated it as, ‘what has an immoveable deadline that will either make or cost guaranteed money’, ‘what will clear the biggest headspace most easily (usually niggly admin),’ ‘what will make me happy and therefore make everything easier’ and everything else.

Of course stuff like school run, cooking, dog walking, kids’ homework have to happen. But non-essential ironing, cleaning, Facebook, even the blog, go by the wayside in peak times. I’ve also found the routine of the school run and walking the dog can help. I constantly feel overwhelmed by stuff, too. Getting diagnosed with depression taught me to take better care of myself for everyone’s sake.

Writing it made me realise that it’s all true. Life has been tough recently, for me and for hubbie, and the routine hell of the school run that tops and tails my day makes me yearn for twelve-hour office shifts and getting paid. But I’m learning not to compare myself to others, or even to who I was before kids, and get on with it. My struggles are mine, no one else’s, and I’m certainly not the only person fighting to survive (as hubbie pointed out this week). Life is what it is and you have to make the most of it. If that means watching Queens tennis or drinking too much Waitrose coffee (it’s free! I come four days a week to work…) then why not?

As Lauren wrote recently on her blog BetweenFearAndLove, feeling guilty that you haven’t got it as hard as others is a useless emotion. I haven’t learnt that lesson yet but I’m working on it.

Please Help A Fellow Blogger

Donation page

Donation page

It’s no secret that I love the blog Miss Fanny P, as I often share bits here on Writermummy. Miss Fanny P is one of a handful of people that I’ve ‘met’ since I started this blog that has come to feel like a close friend. She is a talented writer and photographer and her children are adorable (and say the funniest things.)

A few days ago MissFannyP was burgled, with her son waking up to find a man in his room. Everything of value was taken, including baby photos and other irreplaceable things. The worst part is that – due to a paperwork error – they aren’t insured. I have set up a crowdfunding page to raise money for her to replace the things that can be replaced – camera, laptop etc. The lost photographs can’t be, but we can help her take more.

Please, every pound will help (and if you’re from a country that can’t donate through GoFundMe please contact me and we can sort something). This is link: www.gofundme.com/MissFannyP

 

Poem About Grief

I just have to share this powerful piece of writing

Ubiquitous. Quotidian.

Note: I want to share this thing with you. Not because it is finished but because it needs to be outside of me. It came to me very quickly. A few words a few days ago. A sentence last night. A phrase when I woke up this morning.

I ate my breakfast. I drank my coffee. I took my daughter to school.

It was waiting for me when I found my chair. It is better, I think, for it to be on the outside of me. What I mean to say is this: I wrote this, then went for a run with a friend and, when I came back to it, it seemed more beautiful than scary.

***

Grief is the subterranean monster that has been waiting with inexorable hunger since your childhood. She is the unseen creature lurking just beneath the surface, reaching up for you with her impossibly…

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Help me help Ria

Please read this post about an inspirational woman seeking to make a difference in the world.

kenthinksaloud

There are two versions of this post today. You can read one or the other or both. They are complementary though cover the same ground. This one looks at this project from the Bangladesh side of things. The other, on my writing blog WriteOutLoud looks at the project from the angle of the e-book I’m about to bring out. You can read that post here

I have about four books on the go, all very close to being ready to publish. These have been set aside, temporarily, to put together a book which I hope will raise money for a special lady in my life.

Let me introduce you to Ria.

Ria 1

Ria Mollick is a young woman I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for more than seven years. I taught her while living in Bangladesh and her family and mine are very close friends. Ria has worked hard through…

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4000 Gifts: A Story of Arrival

I was looking for a post to reblog for International Women’s Day (having failed to write anything inspirational myself) and I discovered this gem in my reader. Such an inspiring post from an inspiring lady. I want to start my own book of gifts. Beautiful.

HAVING DECIDED TO STAY

P1040686 Some years ago, I was seventeen, and life made almost no sense. What a surprise.

That is, I had my bearings on a great many matters, and I had a veritable collection of high ideals, but they were just that: ideals. And when you are young and living in your parents’ house, it is probable that everything worth having will seem to be far in the distance. If you are not careful, that will never change.

The story of the seventeen year old whose life makes no sense is hardly a novel one. But neither is the story of the college graduate whose life still makes no sense. Or the mid-career professional. Or the young housewife. Or the wealthy, retired couple that vacations in Europe. Or the worn old man, full of days, who finally holds up the white flag and gives his surrender to cancer, and whose life makes…

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