Why I Don’t Care for Character Descriptions

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Chihuly Glass, Photo Credit RJS Photos

It’s 2017, and inclusion is in.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.  By all means, movies, TV, and books should include a more diverse cast, one that looks more like real life.

But books… should authors include diverse characters? To me, that’s an interesting question with no one right answer.

The way I’ve resolved it is to only describe those parts of characters where physical description is important. For instance, in my manuscript, Acheron Crossing (which I’m trying to get an agent for!), I describe the main character only as fat. It’s important, because she’s bullied for being fat. But does her race or height or hair color matter?

Not at all.

In my mind, the problem is that when you start identifying some characters as white, and then don’t identify the race of other characters, in most cases, they’re assumed to be white. JK Rowling got a lot of crap for not having a diverse enough cast of characters, and she said that they were there, but she wasn’t going to describe them all. Lots of people don’t buy that though.

Another article I read by a young black woman talked about how, when a black woman was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she didn’t see what the big deal was. She had always seen Hermione as black before Emma Watson was cast. She said that because of all the prejudice Hermione faced, and her only descriptors were “bushy brown hair” and “big teeth,” it seemed perfect to her. There are a million articles out there that describe this better than I do. Here’s one.

That article blew me away, and completely changed my thinking. It made me realize that if I don’t describe my characters, maybe the reader can better identify with them. The character can be anything the reader wants them to be.

In my mind, a book is a magical doorway, and the reader gets to be part of that magic. If a reader identifies with a character, that’s the best kind of magic.

In a personal example, I think Nicola Yoon is one of the best authors out there right now. In The Sun Is Also A Star, Natasha is Jamaican American, and Daniel is Korean American, and it was important to the narrative. Culture was all over the book. I had previously read Everything, Everything, and when I was looking up more about The Sun Is Also A Star, I read a reference that the main character, Maddy, in Everything, Everything was partly African-American.

I didn’t remember that.

In fact, I didn’t remember anything about what she looked like.

It didn’t matter to me what race Maddy was, nor did it matter to me what her love interest looked like. If it was relevant to the book, I don’t remember that either.

I remember that it was an amazing plot and a beautiful love story. I remember that it had a breathtaking finale, that I was reading it in Vegas. I was laying by the pool with a friend, and she kept trying to talk to me.

And I wasn’t interested.

Because I had to finish this wonderful book.

Now, I don’t mean to say that the main character in Everything, Everything shouldn’t have been African-American. Honestly, there are tons of books with blonde haired, blue eyed main characters. If I want a MC who looks like me, I have a bookshelf full.

But from what I understand, POC don’t find nearly enough books where people look like they do. So it doesn’t matter if I read past the part where Maddie was African-American. For someone who doesn’t have enough book characters who look like her, that could have been an important connection.

I remember the first time I read a book where the main character was fat (Good in Bed, by Jennifer Weiner). I was in my 20s, and Cannie looked like me. She was a real person, not a fat person caricature who just ate cakes and candy all day and watched TV. She was a writer and had boyfriends and did all the things that normal people do. But she was fat, and it was okay.

Not every book needs a main character who looks a specific way. But in my opinion, if there’s going to be a description in the book, it should serve a purpose. Not just be there because the author is a blue-eyed blonde.

What do you think?

 

Collecting Rejections

Stack of books

Some famous “rejects.”

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a post about dealing with criticism. Which is hard enough, but in some ways, dealing with rejection is worse.

I “collect” rejection stories. Carrie, by Stephen King, was rejected 30 times. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling, was rejected 12 times. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, was rejected 38 times. And on and on and on.

I pull these stories out whenever I need to remind myself that a rejection doesn’t mean the story is bad; it just means that it didn’t find its match. It’s kind of like dating that way. I’ve abandoned many books that other people loved, and loved books other people hate. Unless a book is actually poorly written, whether or not it’s “good” is more about the taste of the reader than the actual story. And even then, I like some “poorly written” stories.

Recently, I had a tough rejection. I have a goal to get a story into a particular online magazine. I read it, I follow it, and I know what type of stories they take. My story is better than some of the stories I read there. Not better than all of them, but better than some. (This is, of course, my extremely biased opinion.)

Usually, this magazine rejects within 30 days, so when a month came and went, my excitement built. And built. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t mean they’d accept my story, but of course, I didn’t listen.

When they had the story 75 days, I got a form rejection back with the usual, “Thank you but this wasn’t a good fit for us.” My heart plummeted. But on the bottom was a “PS,” the email equivalent of a handwritten note. It said: “PS We enjoyed this story, but it didn’t make our final cut.”

(insert screaming face)

Truthfully though, I really appreciated that feedback, because it told me what I believed; it was a good story. Just not quite good enough? Too similar to another story that’s being published soon? Drew the short straw? I don’t know. But since a publication I respect liked it (even if they didn’t publish it), someone else probably will too.

I recently read a story about how someone, inspired by Stephen King’s tale of collecting rejection slips on a nail on his wall, has made it a goal to get 100 rejections this year. Because, with rejections, come acceptances. I think that’s a pretty great attitude.

So, instead of being upset by this latest rejection, I’m just going to add it to my collection, and see how many I can get this year. Last year I got 15 rejections and 1 acceptance on short stories. This year, so far, I’m at 14 rejections and 1 acceptance. Considering we’re only at halfway through the year, I’ve done 100% better than last year.

Now I just need to keep up the good work.

Related posts: Being Perfect, Accepting Criticism, and Generally Getting Over Myself

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge Check-in

The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge started on June 1st and ends September 3, so we’re about halfway through.

Here were my original stacks:

Of the 18 books I read in the last month and a half, only 7 were from the list, and I started and abandoned 1. So with only a month and a half left, I’m less than halfway through.

I knew this was going to be a problem for me, actually reading books from a pre-chosen list. But I’m determined to get through the ones I’ve picked.

I’ve reviewed some of these books in more depth on Goodreads. You can follow me by clicking the button to the right, if you’re interested.

What I’ve read:

  1. Roseblood (meh!- 2 stars)
  2. Bel Canto (great!- 4 stars)
  3. The Couple Next Door (overrated- 2 stars)
  4. The Mouse and the Motorcycle (fun-3 stars)
  5. The Golden Compass (pretty good- 3 stars)
  6. The Subtle Knife (second book in the series, so not as good- 3 stars)
  7. The Amber Spyglass (fantastic, makes the series worth reading- 5 stars)

Abandoned:

  1. Wicked (That one was supposed to be on my “alternate” pile. I guess I got them mixed up… oops)

Those of you who are participating in the reading challenge… how’s it going?

When Writing Isn’t Going Well

IMG_9029I have this great novel idea. I’ve been nurturing and taking notes on it for months. I know my characters, I know where the story is going and how it gets there.

I sat down at my computer to start this novel recently. And suddenly, it’s like my brain is coated in molasses.

This will be my third (hopefully good) book. I wrote my first (bad) novel in high school. If I’m counting all the way back that far, when it’s complete, this will be book number seven (I think). So I’m no stranger to sitting down and writing 70,000 words or so.

But for some reason, this one is just fighting me, and it’s making me wonder: should I be writing something else right now?

For weeks, I’ve been sitting at my computer, forcing myself to write 500 words or so, and then when I felt battle-weary, I’d get up and do something else, hoping that physical activity, organizing, cleaning, would jar the words out of my brain.

It hasn’t worked though. Oh, I feel ready to sit down and write, but the minute I do, it all dries up again, and the molasses is back. I thought about taking a break from this new book, maybe starting something else. But abandoning a book is the reason I have approximately 1,356,791* unfinished novels on my computer.

So, with my last two books, I forced myself to finish, and I think they turned out pretty good. With this one, I’ve decided to abandon the beginning. I almost always rewrite my beginnings anyway. (Why are beginnings so hard?) I’ve skipped ahead to the first plot point, and am writing from there. It seems to be working at least somewhat better.

Sometimes writing is so much fun! Sometimes it’s easy! And the ideas flow! And the characters speak to me and we have tea parties and share secrets!

And sometimes writing feels like walking forward into a hailstorm when the wind blows you backward and turns your umbrella inside out. Sometimes the characters have locked me out and hung up a sign, “Fictional People Only.”

But I still love it.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with me?

Fellow writers, what do you do when the writing is not going according to plan?

*This number is slightly exaggerated.

The Top 10 Worst Things About Reading

I love to read, and will read anything, anywhere, anytime. But there’s a dark side to it too, that no one talks about…

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My overflow “bookshelf”

  1. So many books, so little time. If I read all day every day, (In my dream world), I still wouldn’t be able to read every book I want to.
  2. Every second away from a book I love is TORTURE. Okay, so you know how sometimes you read a book, and it’s good, but you’re okay when you have to put it down? But then sometimes you read a book, and you resent every single second doing everything else, because adulting? Yeah, that.
  3. Not being able to meet the characters in real life. I mean, I guess it’s okay when we’re talking about Hannibal Lecter, but I really wish I could meet Wavy from All the Ugly and Wonderful things, or Anita Blake from the Laurell K. Hamilton books.
  4. Not knowing how I’ll feel about a book prior to reading it. Sometimes, I read a book and I don’t connect, but it’s not terrible enough to put down. And then I’m done, and it never got better, and I’ve just wasted all those hours. Or worse, having stuff to do, but picking up a book knowing I only have a half hour to read, and then falling in love with it and not accomplishing anything because I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. It would be nice if I knew ahead of time so I could plan my life accordingly.
  5. Book hangover. I was in this wonderful world, and I was living there and hanging out with my new best friends, and life was amazing. And then… real life. Ugh.
  6. Not having the book in multiple formats. I now love audiobooks. But I “read” audiobooks much slower than physical books. And when I really love an audiobook, I wish I had a physical copy too, so I could just race through and finish. Conversely, I’m reading a wonderful physical book, and I have to run errands or something or clean up or whatever. Why can’t I just plug my headphones in?
  7. Eyestrain. Seriously. There are some nights when I go to bed that my eyes feel like they’re on fire. On the recommendation of my eye doctor, I now use drops every night before bed. It’s helping. You’re welcome.
  8. When authors get information wrong. There is nothing that drives me crazier than bad information in the middle of an otherwise good novel. I get that sometimes authors take artistic license, and that’s fine. Dandy. A-ok. But when I can tell that the author just didn’t do his or her homework, it makes me want to call them up and say, “Have you heard of this thing called Google? No, avoid Wikipedia. Avoid news outlets too. Yeah, that website’s good. Excellent. Now please check all your references with me before you write anything else. Glad we understand one another.”
  9. People don’t talk about books the way they do about TV. I got my haircut recently, and the lovely stylist wanted to talk about TV shows, asking for my recommendations. And while I said I love The Walking Dead and Big Bang Theory, I would much rather have discussed The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis (so good!) or The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena (Meh… overrated). I want to talk and gossip about characters like they’re real people.
  10. The TBR is never-ending. I’m finally reading Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven (so good!) and in it, she mentions Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. It’s been on my TBR forever. Now I’m going to have to bump it up in the queue. And other books will now be neglected for a little while longer. (sad trombone noise)

What are your “worst” things about reading?

Related posts:

Can I really say I “read” an audiobook?

My Reading Habits

 

 

The Emperor of Any Place, A Review

IMG_8958The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones was a book chosen by my Facebook YA book club. Most of the people in the group said that they had a hard time getting into it. I had put it on hold at the library, but by the time I picked it up, I’d almost decided not to bother reading it. After all, I have about a thousand other books on my TBR.

I read the jacket copy, and the premise intrigued me, so I started reading, fulling intending to abandon it at the first sign of boredom.

That never happened.

It’s not a typical book. It starts off with 16-year-old Evan’s father dying. While Evan is overwhelmed with grief, he allows someone to call his estranged grandfather, Griff.

Evan has never met Griff, but Evan’s father had nothing but negative things to say about him. In the meantime, Evan finds a handwritten book his father was reading before he died, about an American and Japanese soldier stranded on a ghost-infested island during WWII. Somehow, it has something to do with Evan’s grandfather, but no one will give any answers.

The story shifts in point of view between Evan, the Japanese soldier, and the American soldier. It’s a strange story, but I had no trouble suspending disbelief throughout.

I sped through this book, couldn’t put it down. I wanted to solve the mystery and find out the truth about Griff. I wanted Evan and Griff to work through their anger and listen to one another.

I take book recommendations from other people, but this is why I don’t allow other people’s opinions to stop me from at least trying a book. If I’d assumed that because it was hard for others to get into, it would also be hard for me to connect, I would have missed a fantastic book. Allowing myself the option to abandon a book means that I never have to finish something I hate. It’s liberating, and means I can try books I’m just not sure I’ll like.

What books have you read (and enjoyed) that others didn’t like?

Our Dark Duet- A Review

Our Dark Duet is the sequel to This Savage Song. The first part of the review will be spoiler-free. I’ll warn you before you get to the spoilers.

I read This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab, last November, and I fell in love. I may have screamed in frustration when I found out there was going to be a sequel that wasn’t due out for 11 months! It had a fresh premise, interesting and flawed characters. And monsters. (I like monsters.) It also had moral dilemmas and was a thoroughly discussable book. I partially reviewed it here.

Our Dark Duet came out on June 13th, and I bought a Kindle copy immediately. The story picks up six months later, letting us know what August and Kate have been doing since This Savage Song ended. Kate’s been fighting monsters in another town, and August has been trying to save South City.

For me, Our Dark Duet is a solidly good book, though I didn’t love it as much as the first one. But apparently I’m in the minority there. Folks on Goodreads and Amazon have rated the second higher than the first.

The Spoiler Free Good

Our Dark Duet has all the things I loved about the first one, plus a new and fascinating monster. We get to see more from insight the Flynn compound, and wrap up with all the characters who were in the first book.

The Spoiler Free Bad

Part of what I loved in the first book was the relationship between August and Kate. It wasn’t just about chemistry and shipping them (though that was an element for me). It was also about how they grew to depend on one another. They’re separated for most of the second book.

*Spoiler alert below the picture, including discussion of the ending. You’ve been warned.*

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The Good, With Spoilers

I love that they finally try to kiss, and that it brings Kate’s soul to the surface. I loved that they explore moral complexity more. Kate’s soul is “stained” because she shot someone in self-defense. She admits that maybe she could have done something different, but she didn’t because she assumed the person was a monster. Previously, when August has been reaping a soul, the confession clearly shows that the person is a bad guy. But they reveal that other people have done bad things with good intentions, or that they did bad things previously, changed. I appreciated that acknowledgement, because ignoring that always bothered me in the first one.

The Bad, With Spoilers

I don’t love it that Kate and Ilsa die. I’ve been thinking about it (which is why this review is written almost 2 weeks after I finished the book), and it’s probably the right ending. But it feels so hopeless. Kate and Ilsa helped August keep himself sane and in check. They remind him of the best parts of himself. Having them die and then it just end makes me worry about what August will do going forward. Not that he’ll go dark or lose his way again. But just that we all need to connect with someone, or what’s the point? And I know August loves his parents (even though Henry is dying too… ugh), but it’s not the same. Ilsa and Kate were the people August connected to the most.

I guess the implication was that August and Soro are going to form more of a connection, but… I neither liked nor disliked Soro, so that’s not comforting to me.

It almost feels like a loose end to me, and I want to know what happens to August next. Even though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t like if the author tried to stretch the premise into another book. It’s over… but it doesn’t feel that way.

I don’t mind that Kate and Ilsa died; it kind of feels right to me. And it’s life, isn’t it, that sometimes we don’t get what we want, and endings hurt? I just… I guess I wanted more for Kate and August; a chance for them to see who they could be together when they were a team.

What did you think of this book or this series? Have there ever been books where you both loved and hated the ending?