How do I bring characters to life?

Most characters in When Colour Became Grey are based on real people. They may not be based on people I know personally, but they are based on people that exist. Some characters are built on fictional characters from tv shows or movies, or a mash-up of several people, but I don’t ever use the same visual traits of a given person and their name. I doubt anyone would be able to pinpoint who any of my characters are based on and I prefer to keep it that way.

[Don’t use a real person that exists and use their name as well (in fiction). This opens you up to possible legal issues, especially if you display the person in a bad light and it’s recognizable who you’re talking about! I would also advise against copying fictional characters like for like. You can use other people’s work to get inspiration, but don’t flat-out copy-paste it.]

For me to be able to give life to a character I need to visualize them, especially their face. If I can’t draw inspiration from anyone I know, I will google faces or names. It’s a great way to also get inspiration; seeing a face can trigger your imagination and make you create a character you may not even have thought of before.

That is how I visually choose a character. Their behavior or personality trait is not based on that same person. If I see a face I don’t know, it’s easy to assign them character traits. For people I know it’s harder to dissociate their real personality from the one I want to create for the book. So I often spend time with the characters outside of my book to get to know them.

I can still keep writing in the book, but I will leave the reactions and intensity of the characters to a minimum until I have fleshed them out. And when I can’t write (I’m commuting, cleaning, etc.), I “spend time” with the characters. I imagine what they’re like at home when they’re alone, when they are stressed or scared, how they react when they’re angry or challenged. I also imagine how they would interact with other characters of my book; if you look at yourself, you don’t always act the same depending on who you’re speaking with and I try to recreate that dynamic with my characters.

I might be the one giving them life in the beginning, but they develop a life of their own. Wherever I want the story to go and however I want the characters to interact, is not always up to me. Sometimes I have decided what will happen in the book in a scene, but I realize it doesn’t fit the personality of the character. And then I need to adjust the story to fit the characters.

By doing this, the story often improves because it doesn’t go as I had planned it, and often when you plan a story it can be too linear, too perfect, too predictable and boring. It makes the characters also come to life and not be two-dimensional. They are part of the story and should have their space in the story, not just be part of the decor and ready to nudge the plot on, as and when needed in the direction you want it to go.

If you think of the story you want to tell, not only from the main character’s point of view, but also from other character’s point of view, you may see an angle that could be interesting to explore. How are your characters reacting throughout the story and why? Does it fit with the story itself? If the main character is evolving over the course of the story, are the side-characters also evolving? Does a dramatic occurrence such as a death only influence the main character, or does it spill over into other characters?

How many drafts does it take to publish a book?

That depends (I feel like I say that often…) on the type of book you write, how long it is, how you write, etc.

The way I write drafts is probably not exactly how other authors write. I get the impression that other authors write one draft all the way through to the end, and then amend that first draft until they get the final version of the book.

I write in my first draft until I change a major aspect of the story, then move to draft two. So I save drafts as I go along. To visually explain how I write, it’s like knitting a scarf with patterns and colour changes; when I realize I don’t like what I’ve knitted, I undo parts of it and start again, add different colours or change the patterns. But I’m not knitting it all the way through and then undoing my work.

Once I’ve gotten all the way to the end, the majority of the work has already been done and I concentrate on editing and polishing the story. This type of writing drafts works for me because I have a rough idea of where I want to end up, but a lot of the details are unknown and only come to me as I write. So if I write half the story and realize I want to change something major a quarter in, I can’t make myself keep writing to finish the story, because I’ve already decided to change something earlier on. And as I rewrite and rework the story, more things change, sometimes even the ending!

For When Colour Became Grey I had 13 drafts before I had written all the way to the end. Then I polished it for another couple of drafts, and gave it to the editor. The version I handed to the editor was about 130.000 words, and the published version is at just over 100.000 words. So I also added a couple of drafts here.

So far I’m on draft three of the sequel and I don’t think I’ll need as many drafts as for the first book of the When Colour Became Grey series. In the first book I had to do world building and think about what the tone and focus of the book series should be. I’m finding writing the sequel in a way easier because I have a base I can build on, and I have a much clearer idea of where I want book two to go, although I’m still early in the book and things have a way of changing unexpectedly…

Afterword to my readers

If there are any subjects you would like me to write about in this blog, please feel free to comment here or comment/message me on my facebook author page. 🙂

How to create your book cover

I worked with a professional cover designer to create my book cover and I highly recommend if you can afford it, to use a professional.

The cover is the visual that will sell your book. If you don’t have a good cover, it will be hard to attract readers. It’s the first impression you make on them. Your book cover will determine if a reader picks up your book and reads the blurb. It’s a powerful marketing tool and you should not underestimate it.

When I started working with the cover designer, I had drawn a sketch of what I was looking for, but I was not married to the sketch I had drawn. My cover designer had made hundreds of book covers, so I trusted he knew what he was doing. I described the book and what I wanted to communicate with the cover. In his first draft, he had completely changed my sketch and made it much better than I ever could, because he had captured the atmosphere and feeling I wanted for the cover.

The most important thing for me, was that I communicated the tone of the book and the overall story, so readers could get a taste of what awaited them. I wanted to not only have a good cover, but also one that once you had read the book, you could look at again, and understand the cover better. So when you design yours, think of what your story is in one picture. What is the atmosphere in the book? Is it a romantic story? Is it a horror story? How is the story written? Is it full of puns and jokes, or is something else? Can you include something hidden, that only someone who has read the story will understand?

While I had read on several blogs, that a mat cover was better than a gloss and looked more professional, I decided to go with the gloss. I had ordered an author copy with a mat cover, but the moment you touched it, you fingers left traces on the book and within just a few minutes it looked dirty and smeared. Most books may be in mat cover, but since I’m publishing through Amazon as a self-published author, I cannot guarantee the quality of the printer and I found the gloss cover was a better choice.

My set-up when I write

Most of the times, I write at home in my office. I have various playlists I put on depending on my mood. Then I close the door to the rest of the house and write.

Music is important for me to get myself in the “trance” to write. Certain albums or musicians always put me in that mood, but I always try to switch it up and mix in new music so I have a larger range of music that can trigger that “trance”. There are also good live music channels on youtube if I just want some background music. The reason I mostly write while listening to music is that it helps me disconnect from my everyday life. I need to get in the mindset of my characters so I need to feel what they’re feeling. If I don’t try to live and breathe my characters, I can’t relate to them.

I also limit distractions which is why I close the door to my office. Nowadays the attention span of everyone has diminished and I also catch myself opening facebook or quickly checking my messages. On my laptop I close all windows and programs, and only leave open the word document to write in, a translation website (because yes, sometimes I think of a word in German and I can’t remember the exact translation in English) and a website for synonyms. I have my phone with me but I turn off roaming/mobile data so I can’t be distracted by incoming texts.

I use head phones to listen to music and invested in an extension cord, to allow me to get up and walk around my office to think. You could obviously just use loudspeakers but I find head phones filter out more of the background noise and thus limit the distractions (the neighbor smacking the door closed, a truck backing into your road…). And the reason I try to not interrupt the music is because sometimes it takes me a long time to get into that “trance” to write and I don’t want to lose it and then have to work to get back into it. And any disruption can pull me out of my “trance”.

By limiting the distractions and having the mindset that I’m writing for the next few hours, it helps me focus and I train my brain to get into the “trance” quicker.

How do you write and how do you get into the writing spirit? Feel free to comment and share your experience.

Updating your book after publication

Normally when you update the content of your book, you need to update the edition so you don’t confuse readers. Some updates on the content can be done without changing the edition, like correcting for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors [depending on who you publish with, this can be easily done.]. This is because it doesn’t change anything fundamentally in the story and improves the quality of the book. I would however caution you to not publish and then check for spelling or grammatical mistakes. You should aim to publish a completed and finished version of your book.

It happens that a typo appears that you didn’t catch before, but once your book is published, you should assume you’re done with that piece of work. Otherwise your mind will be thinking that you can always change it, and you will not be as thorough in your review before publishing it. And again, if you spend time reviewing and correcting errors in an already published book, that is time that you don’t spend on your next book or another creative project.

What if you’ve published your book, and you get a professional review that suggests changing some major aspects in the story, or polish specific things such as character development, world building, pacing; should you rework your book?

This is up for you to decide.

If you feel the professional is right and there are actually improvements you could make beyond “typo corrections”, then you may want to rework the book. You can take it off the market and relaunch it once you’ve done the changes. I would stick to the rule above to then change the edition just to avoid reader confusion.

There is nothing that says you have to do what the professional reviewer says. If you disagree with what they’ve highlighted as needing improvement, then that’s ok as well. It’s your book after all, and you should trust your instincts. What someone thinks of your book or art is subjective and you need to accept that not everyone will like it. Some criticism may be fair (fair as in constructive criticism that you can take on board) and some is simply derogatory and useless that you can (and should!) brush off.

When to finish & publish your book

In previous posts I’ve talked about not caving into pressure to finish a book before it’s finished just to adhere to an arbitrary timeline to get the book published. Your book will most certainly take more time than you initially planned or anticipated, and you need to give yourself that additional time to polish the story.

But there is also a risk of continuously fiddling with your story and never publishing it because it’s never perfect. I’ve had to learn that it will never be perfect. You will always want to change that word, or this sentence, or tie up this scene a bit better… you can always find an excuse to continue editing your story until you get sick of the story and decide it’s all garbage and not publish it at all.

Ask yourself why you’re reluctant to finish your book; is it because you feel the story is not quite there yet, or is it because you’re doubting yourself and you’re afraid it’s not good enough? After editing When Colour Became Grey with my hired editor (i.e. a person with an external look at the story), I felt the story was nearing its final version. I re-read the story half a dozen times top to bottom in the space of a few weeks. I wanted to make sure it was absolutely final and ready to be published.

But when you tell yourself this is now the last time you’re checking the book before publishing it, you start getting nervous and you change more things. It’s very easy to be sucked into self-doubt and rewrite dialogue, outcomes of scenes, reactions of characters, polish until you think the story is terrible and you don’t want to publish it anymore.

At some point you need to trust that you’ve done the best that you could, and let it go. The more time you spend fiddling with the book, the less time you spend on writing another book. There is a balance between perfecting your book as much as possible, and not letting yourself be crippled by fear. Of course you will see errors you’ve done post publishing, but you also need to give yourself the opportunity to write other stories and books, to evolve and change style, write in other genres. When you’ve reviewed your book a dozen times and you only interchange words that essentially are synonyms, it’s time to publish your book. Trust your gut, and not your self-doubt, and take the plunge.

Why I wrote under my own name (and not a pen name)

First of all, I’m very sorry for this late post. I aim to post every week but I’ve been stuck on writer’s block for about a month (and I was distracted by other things so I couldn’t really focus on writing) and I managed to write again last week and I couldn’t tear myself away from writing the sequel of When Colour Became Grey.

So, why did I write under my real name and not a pen name?

I had initially intended to write under a pen name because I didn’t want to be famous in any way, or have people project their opinion of me onto my book. I wanted the book to stand on its own.

I couldn’t come up with a pen name that I liked and when I read other authors’ opinions as to why they chose to write under their real name or pen names, I realized I was mostly wanting to write under a pen name to “run away” from my childhood bullies. And that was a stupid reason in my mind [this is not to say it’s a stupid idea to escape your bullies]. I didn’t want them to decide how I lived my life so I published under my real name. As for the fame, think about how many authors you know by name. The majority of people know a handful. Chances are the public won’t know your name, much less your face. So I’m rolling the dice on this one.

However, I decided to follow other female authors and initial my first names so my book wouldn’t be disregarded based on bias around author gender. Some prefer to write under their real full name and are hugely successful. But I didn’t feel this was right for me.

And if you’re not sure about writing under your real name or a pen name, then I suggest you ask yourself why you are thinking about writing under a pen name (or your real name). Weigh the pros and cons of both and take the decision that makes you most comfortable. I think it’s a very personal decision and there is no one-model-fits-all. It doesn’t mean you need to publish all your work under that name, but it’s part of your author identity. If you are using a pen name, take the time to find a pen name you really like. I would argue this is more important than the title of your book. You can write many books under one author name, but I haven’t heard of many authors publishing under a new name every time they write a book (but maybe that’s actually very common and working, which is why I haven’t noticed this!)

Another thing to consider is marketing; if you build your network ahead of publishing you need to think about what name you’re using to build a following. It will be harder to use one name for marketing and promotion, and then switch to another name when you publish. This is also to consider if you decide to change your publishing name, or publish under a different name. You may have to recreate a following for that “new” author.

Why you’re never too young to start writing

You may be told you’re too young to write, the argument being you haven’t lived enough so how can you possibly capture the essence of life and pour it into a book that’s meaningful and engaging?

I started at a very young, and when I read what I’ve written back then, most of it is complete garbage. It’s infantile, naive, too quickly paced, too easy, too… too young! But I would never discourage anyone from starting at a young age, nor do I regret starting at a young age. While you may not find anything you’ve written in previous years useful (and conclude it was a waste of time), you still wrote. You thought about plot and characters. You took the time to think about why you want to write and what kind of story you want to write. You let your imagination run free. Maybe you even thought about your competition and read books in your genre to understand what makes a great novel. You’re never too young to start pursuing something you’re interested in, whether it’s writing, acting, directing film, sports or something else.

Even if what you’ve written in your early years turns out to be useless, it is still good practice and you force yourself to establish a routine. It takes a lot of dedication and time to pursue something, and there is no perfect age to start at.

Another important aspect that I realize now, is that when you’re young you have a lot more time available. Even with school, homework and extra-curricular activities, you have a lot of time to explore a creative path. Furthermore, the fact that you live with family means you don’t have expenses to pay for. You don’t have to get a job to pay your rent and food, so you’re freed from obligations you have as an adult.

Writing a book can teach you a lot of valuable skills. It requires not only creativity, but also focus, perseverance, establishing and adhering to a routine, excellent level of grammar & language skills, communication skills, thinking outside the box, research, attention to details, sense or commercialization and entrepreneurship, and many other skills… All qualities that can be useful in many aspects of life. So I would always encourage anyone to write, regardless of age.

Why I visualize most things from my fantasy worlds

After starting a new story, when part of the story is somewhat fleshed out, when I have a few characters, a few important locations that will occur throughout the story, I visualize it. Not only in my head, but in pictures and drawings.

For characters I always have a picture of their faces. It may be a random person, or a fusion of several people, but I like to visualize them. It makes it easier for me to spend time with them and learn how they interact with others, what drives them, why they are the way they are. Some are based on real people, or I draw a sketch of their face, but I always have an image of some sort for all main characters.

I draw out the building plans of places that are recurring in the story like an apartment or a police precinct. This is to help me understand where the characters live and interact with others. If you write a crime story and the detective catches his colleague behaving suspiciously, it implies that he/she can see the other person from their desk. It doesn’t work if in another scene you describe he/she tucked away in a corner and discreetly drinking whisky from a flask.

I found that if I have it visually available, it allows me to be consistent, and also gives me freedom to describe the same place throughout the book instead of giving a detailed description at the beginning of the book when the police officer walks into the precinct in the morning. It can also give you more meat for your story; maybe you need that officer to switch desk because he/she can’t observe the suspicious colleague from their corner, so maybe another cop is fired from the police force and the main character is switching desk and can now observe the suspicious colleague. You can even give the fired cop a greater role and have them interact somehow in the story with the suspicious colleague, or the main character. You can communicate the tension of the story also in the description of a place, and by visualizing your characters you can give them ticks and facial expressions that may be otherwise difficult to imagine or left out completely.

How to find the motivation to write

If someone tells me they would love to write a book but they don’t have the time, then I know it’s a daydream and they don’t really want to write one. Because you can always find the time, it’s the motivation that is lacking.

I’m not saying that everyone can spare 10 hours a day writing, or that everyone has the capacity to spare the same amount of time. For a lot of people the idea of writing a book is like the dream to quit your job, buy a boat and then spend the rest of your days sailing the seas and oceans. It’s a fantasy, but nothing that will become reality.

There is no ‘snap your finger’ solution and your book is written for you. The motivation for writing a book comes from setting time aside, sitting down and writing. Even if you sit in front of your computer and you can’t find the words, at least you’re trying [I’ve written a post earlier on how to overcome writer’s block].

Maybe you don’t have a lot of time, but if you can dedicate half an hour over the course of your day to write, well that’s better than nothing! Writing a book takes a long time and many, many drafts. But nothing will happen if you always make excuses and put it off. I’m too tired, my head hurts, the kids are impossible… Some days you will lose the battle; sometimes something does come up and you can’t set the time aside to write. But it’s very easy to say you’ll take a short break, and then it’s summer, you’re going on holidays, then school starts again, it’s someone’s birthday, then Christmas, then New Year’s, then spring cleaning, you move or you start a new job… There is always an excuse and that is where your dedication to the craft will be tested.

The simple truth is you need to put in the hours, put in the effort, and write words on a blank page. And since you’re doing this without getting paid (at least in the beginning) and it takes a long time to see a finished product, it requires even more self-control and dedication to see it through. It can be very frustrating at times. I remember days where I sat for hours in front of my laptop, trying to focus and think of the next chapter, and after hours of pacing in front of the screen, re-reading the last sentences I wrote, reading my ideas and imagining the scene in front of me, I’ve written one single sentence. It’s easy to feel defeated and give up, but that one sentence is one more sentence than you had yesterday and one sentence closer to the end. So you keep going. One sentence at a time.

So what’s the magic formula to find the motivation to write? Sitting down and writing words on a blank page, and keep at it until the book is finished.