so you want to talk about flesh prisons (aka characters’ physical descriptions)

The other night at dinner, my husband was talking about Ready Player One. He read the book (in English) first shortly after it came out, then saw the movie, and now he’s reading the book in Italian. (Which he’s taught himself, because this is the guy I married.) He commented on how, since he’s seen the movie, he kept picturing the character Art3mis as her on-screen version and not the book version.

Which got me going about describing characters and using the phrase “flesh prisons” (yes, while we were eating) and he asked a) if I’d write it up, and b) if I’d use the phrase “flesh prisons” in my post.

So. Here we are.

I’m even going to throw in the asterisk that I gave him before going on my rant: this doesn’t work for all genres. If you’re writing romance, for example, you’re going to go right ahead and slow down while focusing on the love interest. There are times, be it in genres or just scenes, when more description matters. Just bear in mind that longer descriptions do slow down the action, so they’re more suited to certain places in your book than others.

Okay. Asterisk out of the way. When boiled down, my own personal decision on how much to describe my characters is this:

What do we decide to do with our meat prisons?

Bearing in mind that my characters are contemporary figures who get put into “basically today, usually Michigan” for their thriller settings, they’re humans. And human beings can be interesting, but part of what I’ve come to realize about myself is that physical appearance is most interesting to me when it ties into characterization.

Maybe also that I’m just not good at in-depth character descriptions. Anyway.

Let’s take Jay for a minute. I know, I know, only a handful of people have read Not Your Mary Sue so far since it’s not out until June, but you can meet him in the opening pages here. And most of the description comes when you first meet a character, right? So we can see some elements of Jay’s appearance: reddish hair (currently messy instead of purposefully tousled); blue eyes; tall; has a smile that lights up his entire face. I’ve even dropped in a clue about whether he’s right- or left-handed, but that’s not really a physical descriptor.

The thing is, in the first draft of the novel (from NaNoWriMo 2017) I did something that made me cringe a little when I went back over it: I described him based on which actor would play him in the movie version. It made sense within the book itself – Jay wants his story to be told and become a bestseller, so it’s not a stretch to imagine it then getting turned into a movie, the way both Mark Harmon and Zac Efron have played Ted Bundy – but I ended up cutting it.

Naming a well-known actor basically locks us all in to the same Jay, forever and ever, amen, the way my husband’s been picturing the Art3mis from the movie while reading the book. If I describe someone as “Avengers-era Chris Evans” (not my Jay model, in case you were trying to make it work), then we’re all stuck with Avengers-era Chris Evans in our head. We might not complain, but … we’re still all picturing the exact same thing.

I want to give you some leeway.

Pick whatever kind of nose you want for Jay. Imagine his eyebrows. Fill in the rest of his face.

You’ll learn later about why his smile maybe isn’t such a welcome thing, and Marcy has her own reasons to focus on his physique in the early pages of the book, but there’s enough to play with so that your Jay doesn’t have to be my Jay. And I’ve gone for sort of the low-hanging fruit: hair color, eye color, and height. Basically sketched in a roughly humanoid figure.

The rest of what you learn about Jay has to do with his character: who he is as a person. When Marcy describes his physique, it’s in comparison to what she associates with his favorite hobby. (Spoilers there, so that’s vague. No, it’s not serial killing.) His hair matters because it is messy instead of deliberately tousled, each of which says something different about a person.

What I like to describe about my characters’ physical selves are the things that tell us something about them as people.

It’s usually not something they had no control over – whatever genes blessed or didn’t bless them from birth – but the things they do: hair style. Tattoos or piercings. Hair dye. Clothing. Hobbies and learned skills that show themselves physically, like a guitar player’s calluses. Sometimes things they didn’t necessarily have control over, but tell us about their lives, like scars.

In the Ready Player One example, Art3mis is encountered first – and for the vast majority of the book – as an avatar. Cline spends a lot of time having his main character describe that avatar, in part for those romance novel reasons (Wade knows who Art3mis is before encountering her “in person” so he already knows she’s interesting) but also because the avatar was entirely created. Art3mis chose not only her screenname, but every element of her avatar. Everything about her appearance is therefore a deliberate choice that tells Wade something about her before he ever meets her.

And to be fair, I have wondered if character descriptions are one of my weakest points. (If you’re going to tell me I’m right, please be kind while you do so.) Maybe it’s something to do with being ace and just not looking at people the “usual” way. Or maybe I just think motivations and internal aspects of character are more interesting than flesh prisons.

How do you approach describing characters’ physical appearances? Do you have any favorite authors who seem to be really good at it?

Let’s talk about Marcy

Now that Not Your Mary Sue is available for preorder, I’ve started posting little teasers about the books – or rather, specifically about my main character, Marcy. I’ve had this planned for sooooo long (this whole publishing thing is a marathon, not a sprint) and I wanted to share some background that might give a little more information about my process.

First, we like images, right? Snappy photos. And I, personally, don’t like seeing the same image over and over and over in marketing, so “photos of my book cover” didn’t feel like the right way to go. You’ll see plenty of it, but … that’s not my current main focus. Except my main focus is words, so … how do we get those into an image?

Enter the letterboard.

There we go: words turned into an image with a specifically-chosen background. It’s short and to the point – the board’s not that big, and I don’t have an unlimited number of each letter, anyway – and hopefully eye-catching. The location of this one will get discussed more later, when we get to Jay, but that’s for later. Right now we’re talking about Marcy, and the first teaser is actually the first thing she says to Jay:

“Have you already written the ransom note?”

Let’s talk background on this one. Marcy’s a knitter, mostly because I’m a knitter. That’s part of the Almina’s Sister shawl by Lisa Hannes. (Those links takes you to LoveCrafts – it’s also available on Ravelry). The yarn is Gnomespun Eshu in the colorway “Sebastian.” It’s a triangular shawl with cables that, like many of Lisa’s patterns, can be knit with any yarn, at a suitable gauge. She provides percentage information so you know when to move into those final gorgeous cables with your chosen yarn.

There’s not always a specific correlation between the quote and the knit project I chose for the background – I started off with “Okay, which projects are large enough to work for these photos?” – but the second one I’ve shared was specifically chosen:

His audience is literally captive.

This one is Marcy thinking to herself instead of speaking out loud, but she’s thinking about Jay. Marcy thinks about Jay a lot. And check out the shawl in this one. It’s the Celtic Birds Wrap by the Munro Sisters 3 (which I don’t think is currently available anywhere other than Ravelry). I used cascade sock yarn in bark for the design and La Bien Aimée merino sport in quail for the background. It’s a fair isle wrap, knit flat, and it’s one of the most intricate projects I’ve ever made. Knitters beware: you have to trap floats on both the RS and the WS, but it’s so worth it, and you’ll have the skill mastered before you’re done.

And the birds fit so neatly around Marcy’s thought, although the birds themselves are neither caged nor captive. Their spacing is serendipitous, but it worked out so perfectly.

If you’re looking to use a letterboard in photos, I’ve got some helpful hints:

  • use a frequency counter to figure out how many letters you’ll need to free from the packaging (or if you don’t have enough of a specific letter to make your favorite phrases). I started out writing down a bunch of Jay’s quotes and used the frequency counter to list how many letters I had to cut free to make all of those quotes, and even then I did it in multiple sessions because it’s fiddly and annoying.
  • organize your letters in a plastic craft or jewelry case. I used a permanent marker to write the alphabet on the bottom of each square. Mine doesn’t have 26 squares so I doubled-up on the letters, but even doubling-up works just fine. Make sure it’ll stay closed in your bag, especially if you take it to the beach and have to change out phrases when, say, the wind is blowing off Lake Superior at gale-force speed.
  • if you’re taking it out somewhere, put the longest phrase on your list on the board first. Then you don’t have to wrestle with spacing out so many letters while sitting on the beach or a bench or a log.
  • be kind to your hands! Prying the letters up, especially if your board is new, can hurt your fingernails. If you’ve got a plastic guitar pic or some other tool that’s suited to the job, go ahead and use it. If you go out with four or five phrases, that’s a lot of prying to do.

Soon enough we’ll talk about Jay and the challenges of photographing something that isn’t so static.

Have you used letterboards before? Do you have any other tips you’d like to add?

Writing and waiting

As of yesterday, I can finally – finally! – announce that my debut novel, the psychological thriller Not Your Mary Sue, will be published in June 2022 by Aesthetic Press. *throws glitter confetti everywhere* I’ve been sitting on this news since this spring, and really, the entire backstory to the book story is one of waiting.

I drafted the novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2017, which means I was vaguely plotting the novel since the beginning of that year. I had the idea based off of one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Misery, where the two characters are stuck together in a house. The author character is held prisoner and forced to write. I substituted Ted Bundy for King’s captor and the novel just flowed.

(Fun fact: you can look back at any of your NaNoWriMo stats if you’ve entered the project into the site. I finished the draft on November 27 that year.)

So I’ve known this story and my characters, especially my main two, since 2017. In fact, the part where they’re stuck together – on an island instead of a house in Colorado – hasn’t changed all that much since 2017. I’ve known this story and these characters for years, but only a few other people had any idea about them.

So first there was waiting while I let the story settle so I didn’t still think it was already absolutely perfect in every way. Time to gain some distance before tackling the revisions on my own. And then more waiting when I started sending out queries.

Lots of waiting.

Do you get the waiting part yet?

I was seriously querying for over a year when I got the request for the full novel. (Queries generally ask for the query letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters or so – check before submitting, but keep those documents on hands for when a rejection comes in and you need to send them out again. Getting a request for a full is A Big Deal. It’s not a guarantee, not yet, but incredibly exciting.) More waiting. Then the offer. Dancing! And more waiting.

I’ve been sitting on the news of the deal for months, because publishing is allllllll about waiting. You still don’t get to see the cover – not yet. You have to wait until mid-September. And the book itself? Wait until next June. (No, this isn’t weird for publishing. Yes, this is how it works. And yes, it’s hard to wait!)

But then – then! – I’ll be able to talk about my story and my characters with more than just my dad and my husband and a few friends. We can have more in-detail conversations about how Misery and Ted Bundy inspired things. Maybe argue about what happens.

I can’t share too much more right now, but I can leave you with this teaser from my publisher.

A not so classic girl meets boy story begins when a televangelist’s adult daughter, Marcy, journeys to a secluded island resort where she awakens a captive of the handsome, charming, notorious Fresh Coast Killer who requests she pen his autobiography explaining all of his intentions and crimes in detail. She finds herself horrified that she is intrigued by him and maybe even…infatuated by him. He has more control than she realizes as he slowly begins to brainwash her just as the autobiography is completed. Once she is rescued and he is arrested, Marcy begins to pull her life back together only for her captor to escape and her brother becomes a new suspect in a cold case that alters what she thought she knew about her family.

Oh yeah. I’m excited. I can’t wait!