Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Character Interview Questions

Ugh. Cold morphed into sinus crud. I'm just about over it now, but it really set me back. No writing accomplished. So instead, I've been playing with this wonderful character interview questionnaire that Suzette Saxton shared on the QueryTracker.net blog. My writing pal Ian Healy did this with one of his characters with fantastic answers which were fun to read.

Just quickly scanning this list, I realize that even though I've been living with this character (her name is Mist, and she's the main character for my current WIP, "Firemage") for a long time, I have huge gaps in my knowledge of her. I could barely answer any of these questions. This is an absolutely great set of questions for making you really think about your fictional people. I was stumped on many of them, and really had to think a while!

**Note** I've slightly tweaked some of the questions to reflect my character's fantasy world**

Character Interview Questions

Note: These questions can be answered in first or third person; however, answering them in first person will help you nail your character’s voice (even if your story is written in third person.)

1. How old are you?

Eleven, the same age as Brig, my foster sister. She was born a few hours before me. Our birthday is in the summer, just a couple months away. Cook will make Brig and the rest of the kitchen slaves raisin cakes soaked in milk. If I stay out of trouble for the entire day, I'll get a taste.

2. If your master's palace burned down, what one thing would you want to take with you?

I have this prayer necklace. It's not worth anything, which is the only reason I'm allowed to keep it. It was my mother's, the only thing I have of hers, and I've had it forever. I'm not even sure how it came to me. It has these wood beads strung on a silk cord that have little flames carved on them. My mom was from Amadras. Jena told me the flames are the symbol of Rhamad, God of Fire. Someone painted them gold, but most of the color is chipped off now. But I love it. I keep it in a basket by my bed, and someday I'd like to paint it again.

3. Describe your hands.

I hate my hands. They're always chapped, and the skin across my knuckles is flaky and cracked. Right now there's little black lines of coal dust deep underneath my nails, but later on I'll be back at the pots again, and they'll be bright red and stinging from the wash soap.

4. Describe where you sleep.

In the slave quarters, just off the kitchen complex. Boys and girls are kept separate. The girl's dorms aren't too bad. Master Doro gives us straw mats to sleep on. I've heard other masters make their slaves sleep right on the tile floor. He even lets us use old rugs that are frayed or torn. These keep the straws from poking too much. My mat is next to Jena and Brig. I have a little basket Jena showed me how to weave that holds my mother's necklace and a couple of rocks and bits of wood that I collect. Maybe someday I can make them into beads.

5. What is your favorite food?

Jena makes this lamb stew, with potatoes and onions and garlic. It's a favorite of the Master's and sometimes, when no one is looking I sneak a taste. If Jena catches me, she raps my knuckles with a wooden spoon. Meat is too expensive to waste on slaves.

6. Describe your economic/political status.

I'm a slave. I do what Kamelah, Jena and Master Doro tell me.

7. Where do you have a scar or birthmark? Describe circumstances surrounding your scars.

Jena is quick with her hands, but she doesn't believe in whipping. Neither does Cook. I've been lucky so far, and all my punishments haven't left permanent marks. Just bruises. I bruise really easily and it shows up for days on my skin, because it's this yucky pale white. But the new Overseer, Kamelah... she carries a dog whip at all times, and I'd do just about anything to keep out of her way.

8. What is the last book you read? What did you think of it?

I can't read, and they don't teach kitchen slaves how. I don't have time to read, anyway.

9. Do you have an embarrassing habit?

I like to sing, but Brig says that when I do, I croak like a Lenosan rock toad. The others agree. I never sing in front of anyone anymore.

10. Give one vivid memory of a parent or parental figure.

I don't have any. My mother died when I was born, and no one knows who my father is.

11. What is a dream (in sleep) you often have?

There's this dream where Jena, or Cook, or Kamelah send me on an errand in the palace. I've never been beyond the kitchen complex, and I get lost. The Master doesn't want to see me, and I'm afraid that every turn I take, he'll be waiting around the corner. Then as I'm walking, the halls are filling up with all the Master's guests, and soon it's a great crowd. I try to slip out, but there are too many people, and I fight to get away, but I'm too small, and I have to keep going with them. No one seems to hear me. They sweep me into this large empty room, where the master waits. On good nights, I wake up before he can rise from his chair. On bad nights, I wake up screaming as he punishes me.

12. Do you have a lifelong dream or aspiration?

Slaves don't have dreams. But I wish I could learn to cook. I'm tired of scrubbing and running coal. Jena's already showing Brig how to make simple stews and soups. I watch and recite all the recipes to myself. Brig can't ever keep anything straight in her head, and is always messing up, which is really frustrating, because I know I could do a better job! Sometimes I help her even though she doesn't appreciate it. It's the only way I get to practice.

13. How do you go to sleep, and how do you wake up? (i.e. position in bed, etc.)

We're up at dawn and most days we don't get to bed until after midnight. I usually stumble over to my mat and pass out.

14. What is the last thing you wrote?

I can't write. But if I stay out of trouble, sometimes Jena lets me have a little bit of henna for my feet and teaches me and Brig how to draw curly flowers and patterns on our skin. Brig is really good at the patterns, but I'm always messing mine up. Jena doesn't do this too often because she only can go down to the market on her one half day off a month. She gets five bronze pieces a month if she's pleased Kamelah and Cook, and the packet of ground henna costs almost all of it. She uses half of it on Brig's hair.

15. What grosses you out?

I don't like watching Cook prepare the little white pigeons that Master is so fond of. They're considered a delicacy, and Cook leaves their heads on and buries their faces in the rice stuffing. I hate looking at them. They make me sad and sick to my stomach.

16. Who is the person you like the least? Why?

Brig. She's so full of herself and is always mean to me.

17. Tell me about the last time you cried.

Yesterday. I dropped a serving platter I was washing, and it shattered. Cook boxed my ears. They rang for hours.

18. What is something you feel guilty about?

The other day I was helping plate up dinner, and we were all in such a hurry, I accidentally knocked a couple of slices of pork roast onto the floor, and they had gunk on them. No one saw so I brushed them off and sent them out anyway. If Kamelah or Jena had seen that I would have been punished for sure.

19. Describe what you do when you look in a mirror.

We don't have any mirrors in the kitchens or the dorms. Sometimes I catch my reflection in the wash basin. I usually ripple the water so I don't have to see. I hate the way I look. If I looked normal, like Brig, then Master wouldn't hate me.

20. Describe yourself sitting in your favorite spot.

The coal bin is right behind the bake house. I like to climb up on the bake house roof. The tiles are always warmed from the ovens inside, and it's just high enough that I can see past the palace walls and see the city, and the Coliseum where the mages duel. It's really windy, sometimes the wind stings because it blows so hard. You can practically see the whole island from there.

21. Tell me about a very treasured item.

I already did. My mother's prayer necklace.

22. Do you have a nervous tic or habit?

When I'm worried, or nervous, or in trouble I hunch my shoulders and duck my head behind my hair.

23. Tell me about your siblings…if you have them.

I don't have any. Well, Brig is my foster sister, but we're not really sisters. We don't get along. Brig thinks I'm freakish looking, and she hates that her mother is responsible for me. She also think she knows more than me, and is always telling me what to do. She's always been pretty, and she knows it. But she thinks she's more beautiful than she is, and she and Jena hope she'll catch the eye of the Master or one of his guests and be a concubine some day. My mother was a concubine, and I think that bothers Brig, like, she's weirdly jealous about it. Not like she has to worry. No one would ever make me a concubine.

24. What is your favorite sound?

Sometimes when I'm up on the bake house roof, the wind carries the cheers and roars of the crowd from the Coliseum. I can't explain it, but it's just sounds so exciting. I wish I could go see the mage duels some day.

25. What is your favorite smell?

When it's time for Cook to go out into the city, she always rubs a cone of sandalwood on her neck and wrists. I can't wait until I'm old enough to have a half day, and get my first bronze pieces. I'm going to buy sandalwood, and paint for my mother's beads.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I'm sick, but I wrote a bit

Daily Word Goal: 500
Today's Total: 287

I don't know how I did it, but I managed to get a few new words written today. And I managed to catch my son's cold. So I'm off to bed.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gearing up for first conference

Daily Word Goal: 500
Todays's Total: 0

Well, sadly, between story time at the library, not feeling well, and some illustration work that took precedence, I got no writing accomplished. However, I'm happy to report that I did get some writing-related tasks accomplished. Namely, I have put together a submission packet for a regional SCBWI writing conference. Not only will it be my very first one ever attended, I'm actually entering one of my picture book manuscripts in the critique lottery. Fingers crossed for me. There are two picture book editors I'd love love love to give me words of wisdom. Hopefully my mss will be one of the lucky few that gets a critique slot.

Nathan Brandsford had an interesting post the other day about cognitive bias and how it relates to writers.

I commented that when I was young, naive, full of myself, (LOL) I thought that I was 'da bomb' when it came to writing. Then I got older, wiser, and a hell of a lot more cynical. Now I'm the polar opposite of smug and cocky. In fact, I'm so far on the other side, my writing is paralyzed by self doubt.

Today at the library, while my son was running amok, I checked out a few of the first pages of some of the newer MG fantasy novels. What surprised me was that, while they were all good, I didn't see myself as being that far off quality-wise. They might be the big leagues, but I'm an up and comer in the farm system. If I keep working at it, I might just get called up sooner than I thought! (Baseball reference for my Cardinals-crazy husband, who I know is reading this blog... right honey?)

Anyway. It was a good moment for me. A little swagger returned.

Lastly, those published books were breaking all the no-no rules people keep telling you not to do when you start your book. I saw a prologue. One book started off with world-building description. Etc. All rules can be broken if they're broken well.

Whew. Lots of random thoughts tonight. Now I'm off to catch up on Shear Genius and go to sleep. I think I'm coming down with my son's cold. Hopefully it's just allergies.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Notes. Lots and lots of notes.

Daily Word Goal: 500
Todays's Total: 100

Well, at least I wrote. However, over the weekend I got some daydreaming time in thanks to my husband, and jotted down all kinds of pages of notes on plot and character -- stuff for the rest of the book. So although the actual writing is creeping along, I'm still working on the novel.

The other thing I'm happy about is that those paltry 100 words are the beginning of chapter two. They ain't brilliant, but they're good enough to go forward with.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writing Log: March 17

Daily Word Goal: 500
Today's Total: unknown

As I'm writing this, it's technically no longer St. Patrick's Day, but my day doesn't end until I hit the hay, no matter what the clock says. So Happy St. Pat's!

Even though I didn't blog yesterday, I was sort of productive. I managed to free write about 208 words. That's well shy of my daily quota, but at least it was something, and I might actually use it for chapter two. I also found some old floppy discs from 1993-1995 that had some of my short stories from my upper level college creative writing courses. They're all pretentious and angst-y, and written in Word 2.0, which modern computers can no longer recognize. I had to open them in notepad alongside a lot of gobbledygook. Pretty entertaining, and kind of disturbing to read my youthful literary pretensions. And Freud would have a field day with my material. However, despite the awfulness, some of them still resonate with me, and I will probably tinker with them just for fun to see if more-mature-me can make something of them.

Tonight I had some art business to take care of. However, I did pull out a couple blank sheets of paper, a felt tip pen, and wrote out about 4 pages of stream of conscious notes about character and plot for the upcoming few chapters. So technically I missed my word quota again, but I'm going to consider 4 pages of hand written notes and a brand new discovered subplot that arose directly from my character exploration a victory for today.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Scene construction, chpt 2

I'm posting this for my writing group. We were talking last meeting about tools to use for constructing scenes and sequels, and I pointed them to Jim Butcher's livejournal blog, where he illustrates the way he learned to map out his scenes/sequels. It's a very basic formula, and one that he still uses in his books, although, now that he's a writing pro (the author of the bestselling Dresden Files and Codex Alera books), Butcher has this formula down instinctively and no longer needs to actually fill these out as worksheets for every scene he writes.

I have found these so incredibly useful in my own writing. They help me focus and intensify my conflict. So far I've used these in revision, but I'm definitely going to try to structure future scenes like this from the get-go.

Anyway, I posted earlier about my troubles with chapter two. After thinking about it and working my thoughts out on paper, this is how I used Butcher's scene/sequel 'worksheet' to tighten my scene and increase conflict:

Here's the "worksheets":


SETBACK (SCENE ANSWER):*answers are: yes...yes but...no...no and furthermore!




And here's what I did with them:

Chapter 2

Scene 1

We’re introduced to Mist. She’s the lowliest of the kitchen slaves, and has been up since before dawn running coal from the courtyard to the fires, scrubbing pots, and trying to stay out of everyone’s way. She’s exhausted. Her feet hurt, her hands are chapped from scouring the pots and other dishes used in preparation for the banquet.

GOAL: To do her work without getting into trouble.
CONFLICT (SCENE QUESTION): Will Mist be able to stay out of trouble and get her work done without punishment?
SETBACK (SCENE ANSWER): NO, and furthermore, she is punished physically


1) EMOTION – upset
2) REASON – she wishes she had a different life, but unfortunately, for a slave, she’s screwed
3) ANTICIPATION – dreads what the rest of the day holds.
4) CHOICE – resolves to try harder, and stay out of trouble.

Scene 2:

Setup, continuation of sequel:

Emotionally bullied by Jena, Mist tries to control her feelings of hurt and resentment, but then Kamelah comes in, and now Mist’s life is in danger.

GOAL: To convince Kamelah that it’s forbidden for her to be in the Master’s presence.
CONFLICT (SCENE QUESTION): Will she succeed in convincing Kamelah that it’s forbidden?
SETBACK (SCENE ANSWER): No, and furthermore… not only is she being forced to serve, she is punished severely for her defiance.

End chapter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Writing Log: March 14

Daily Word Goal: 500
Today's Total: 0

Although I didn't get any real writing done, I did do some scene notes. In a notes file I jotted down my research, put it into description. Basically I worked on pre-writing for the scene. I did about 280 words of free writing description that will probably be used when I fiddle with the chapter, and I worked out some thoughts and notes. This took up about 3 pages. Progress!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Writing Log : March 13

Daily Word Goal: 500
Today's Total: 0

Today Resistance got the better of me. I get a writing fail. Zero words written.

On the plus side, I did get to that research I needed to flesh out the scene, and now I have a very clear idea of how my characters would roast an ox over an open fire in the palace kitchens, and what kind of cauldron/cooking method they'd use for stews. I also did sneak in some daydreaming time.

I'd like to say that watching "2012" helped me with my volcano research, but all it did was make me paranoid about doomsday. I have a terrible obsession with the Yellowstone supervolcano.


Friday, March 12, 2010

frustrated, chapter two

One of my main problems as a writer is my perfectionist streak. I simply can't go forward on a draft until the scene I'm working on is 'correct'. It doesn't matter how many times wiser souls tell me to just get over it, because, you know, that's what revisions are for; I simply can't move forward. It's this awful block that keeps me from banging out a complete first draft. Time after time it also kills my enthusiasm for the book. The end result? Some new shiny idea lures me away.

Now, I need to clarify here that 'correct' doesn't mean submission ready. To me, correct means that I have the foundation laid down, like a house. It needs a floor, roof, four walls and all the electrical and plumbing laid in. The bones. I have to have a solid structure first, and I can tackle all the fussy bits (picking out the cabinets, the wall color) later.

So here I sit, mind paralyzed as I contemplate chapter two. Then ending is sound. But the beginning, the set up, the first time I introduce the main character -- I just can't get it 'right'. The chapter's down, but that opening... the horror! and my first line! *shudder!* There's not enough conflict, and I'm making life too easy for the MC. Her life is supposed to be far from easy.

The other part of my problem is that I'm a visual writer. I need to sit or lie somewhere in the dark, or with my eyes closed, either with music blocking out the world or in dead silence, and let the scene unfold, movie style in my mind. Then I can write it. But as a stay at home mom with a bored 2 year old, my alone time is few and far between. Daydreaming before sleep used to work for me, but now I'm so tired out from the day that I usually just fall into bed and pass out practically as soon as my head hits the pillow. I need to either carve out more daydreaming time during the day, or else man up and figure out another way to do it.

Listening to kids' television is not conducive to writing. Let me just go on the record now and say it.

Now that I got all that off my chest, let's see what I've learned about my current block.

1) The opening is boring
2) I'm feeling like I need to sit down and visualize the scene (including setting)
3) I really need to squash the writer's inclination to be 'nice' to their characters and really put mine through hell
4) I need to stop being a perfectionist and just write!

It probably will help if I do a little more research to help me with #2... but that's another danger. I LOVE to procrastinate writing with the excuse that I'm 'researching'. But that's the subject of another post some other day.


New blog

I'm a freelance illustrator and writer. This is my brand-spanking (emphasis on the spankin') new blog that's just dedicated to the nuts and bolts of my writing life. It ain't pretty, but I don't want this to be. This blog isn't about pretty. It's where I work out my writer angst, comment on things that interest me, and maybe even get personal. If you'd like to learn more about my professional side, as well as see examples of my artwork, please visit my official site: Karyn Lewis Illustration.