"In 900 Years of Time and Space, I've Never Met Anyone Who Wasn't Important Before" (Problem: Boring Lead, Riveting Supporting Cast)

I received an email the other day from a reader (who wanted to remain anonymous in this post - but we'll call her Sarah) who told me that she was having trouble getting into her protagonist, despite this being her most prominent POV.
She is dynamic as many Young Adult characters are, but at the beginning she's anxious and self-doubting because she's in that adolescent phase when you realise everything you know about yourself is completely wrong and you're just starting to discover who you REALLY are. There's not much that makes her like me (or am I kidding myself?) even though I've been in the same position as her. Well maybe not exactly since this is YA SF, but as far as her emotional state goes, I've been through that. But I just feel like she should've developed more by now, and she still feels like a faceless stock character.

Bildungsroman is the nature of YA above all, and that relatable trait for the protagonist is necessary. To some extent, there is a universal adolescent experience, and YA is a form of escapism that addresses or even helps the overcoming of this phase and its anxiousness and doubt with the reader. The prominent thread is the realisation of what you can do and who you are or what you like, which I think is a main factor in the popularity of love triangles - choosing the self that you want to be and all that.

Sarah went on to say:
I never intended to insert myself into the story or anything like that, don't worry! I do see similarities, but I guess I don't or can't understand her as well as I could have three years ago. I'm really flexible over what I can do next, but there's also a lot I would have to keep if I start changing her around because the whole idea of the story is her shift from who she was into who she learns she is from the events of the story. I just need a way to get into her better or make her more human.

First of all, when people email me, I always make apparent that by no means am I telling you what to do. Everyone has a different approach to characterisation, everyone has different experiences they're drawing from, everyone has their process.

Second of all, people need to stop assuming that author insertion is a cardinal sin. It isn't! Not at all! I am a BIG believer in drawing from your experiences and your emotional/psychological understanding of adolescence (and the world, for that matter) in crafting POV and characters and plot. For example, in my adolescence, I made the long journey of realisation and confidence from self-hating doormat to leader/girl on bloody fire.

That being said, there are a number of options in Sarah's situation.
  1. She could scrap the protagonist completely and promote a secondary character that might be similar to the protagonist or just enthralling generally. 
  2. Likewise, she could combine said secondary character with the protagonist, or switch their personalities.
  3. She could give her protagonist a chance to shine - not just in terms of the story, but in terms of her own relationship with the character. Engaging in writing exercises can strengthen the author-protagonist bond, allow you to understand them better, to accustom yourself to their voice and their situation. 
  4. Develop the protagonist. Try and determine what it is about the secondary characters that make them so much more intriguing. Are they just more well-developed? Do they have better thought-out backstories? Are they more involved than your protagonist? Are their stakes higher? Figure out what it is that separates them, and then decide what you're going to do to your protagonist.
So, does the term "ordinary teen girl" summarise your protagonist almost completely, maybe excepting one flaw or trait? You need to rework your thinking. Everyone is ordinary, and no one is ordinary.

Here's another way to think about it and it's a lesson from Doctor Who.

Just look at those characters, even if you're unfamiliar with the show. Look at them. They are completely different - in appearance, demeanour, backstory, plot and growth - and they are all extraordinary. Don't worry if your character doesn't fit the typical YA protagonist mould - what is important above all is that your protagonist is a character, they're a person with all the little bits that make up a person.

If all else fails, take a note from One Direction and that Little Things song.

What do you guys think? Tell me about your troublesome protagonists, how you've overcome beige characters with a whole range of bright colours around them. What kind of protagonist do you want to read? Who's the most interesting character you've encountered in YA?

Your Workspace is All Wrong (And What's Essential to Boost Productivity)

The way we writers work is peculiar, and actually, particular. Though I've found that one method for one novels doesn't always suit another novel. Some of us are fully digitised, others still handwrite half of their work, and many of us are an amalgam in between. 

Me? I like to outline with tangible plot points, create and reshuffle, and I do this with post it notes on cork boards. I can keep track of pacing, interlocked story lines and character frequency. I can sketch landscapes and statues therein. But when it comes to writing, it has to be in Word.

But today, I want to talk about healthy creative environments.

So, at the moment, I'm on the floor in my living room, more from my uncanny ability to sit cross-legged for extended periods of time and the fact that I just spent the better part of a year extricated from my family in HSC mode (and I'm attempting to quash complaints that they never see me despite my nearly always being home). That, and the wifi conks out on my end of the house and it's infuriating.

I've never been one to work well outside my house. Seriously. I can't study in libraries, I can't write in coffee shops or at the beach. I don't even work that well on my balcony.

But now, I'm stuck here. To the right: 50-inch plasma TV with Blu-ray surround sound. To the left: parents who are slightly deaf and thus turn aforementioned TV up very loud. Behind those boards: the kitchen, where every appliance is like thunder and mortar rounds when anyone operates them.

Solution: move. But where?

So, what exactly are the essentials

You have to have physical comfort, namely a sitting positing that isn't distracting or painful or pins-and-needles-inducing, loose and preferably soft clothes, and temperature control. Not to mention light. I like a well-lit but not fluorescent room.

Noise within your threshold of background sound, which varies person to person. I actually like sound when I need to concentrate, and that's become more soundtracks than anything else lately. My most productive time is at night, when everyone's gone to bed, and I can leave the TV on at a normal volume, blend Hans Zimmer into it, and talk to myself and my proverbial brain beast that roams freely around the living room. 

Tools within reach or already set up, be it your laptop charger, hard drive, textbooks, folders of research and plotting. Could you imagine running out of battery in the middle of the Natasha/Loki interrogation of The Avengers

Sing it with me: SUUUUUUSTENANCE! Water or tea or coffee, jubes or crisps or apples. From many weeks of constant studying, I'll tell you this: above all, leaving your post in search of food or drink is THE ULTIMATE PROCRASTINATION TOOL. I don't know why that was capitalised. 

You know what I'm about to do?

Well, clean my room primarily (because clearly to show people my party tricks in the backyard, my room at the front of the house has to be impeccable), but also relocate myself to my larger-than-Hulk desk. I've already boxed all of my school work, so it's just a matter of setting up some cork boards and figuring out how to boost my wifi signal. 

But I'd like to hear from you guys. Where do you work best? Did it take you a while to find it, or was it somehow forced on you? Do you need your environment to tie directly to the environment you're writing about? Any tips for making a perfect workspace?

Review: Unravelling by Elizabeth Norris

Series: Unravelling #1
Release date: June 2012
Publisher: Harpercollin's Children's Books
Pages: 445
Source: Berkelouw Books

Leaving the beach, seventeen-year-old Janelle Tenner is hit head on by a pickup truck.

And killed.

Then Ben Michaels, resident stoner, is leaning over her. And even though it isn’t possible, she knows Ben somehow brought her back to life…

Meanwhile, Janelle’s father, a special agent for the FBI, starts working on a case that seems strangely connected to Ben. Digging in his files, Janelle finds a mysterious device – one that seems to be counting down to something that will happen in 23 days and 10 hours time.

That something? It might just be the end of the world. And if Janelle wants to stop it, she’s going to need to uncover Ben’s secrets – and keep from falling in love with him in the process…

It's described as 24 meets X-Files and as a blockbuster, but that is seriously underestimating the sheer awesomesauce of this debut from Elizabeth Norris. Andrea Cremer is a little closer, likening it to if Veronica Mars snatched a case from Mulder and Scully. The thing is this: from the synopsis, this doesn't really seem like a scifi, but it actually, brilliantly is. It's also a little pre-apocalyptic, I suppose. Norris expertly immerses you into a character that lets you see the "offness" of the goings on around her and concerning her, which escalates and grows in an addictive way until BAM - scifi glory and bamf.

Norris finds a perfect mesh of internal and external conflict, and a voice in our protagonist, Janelle, that is intelligent, passionate and resonating. Her inner strength, her loyalty and preoccupation with her family - the connections and characterisation we experience through Janelle makes the fluctuations of Joss-Whedon-kill-your-darlings really effective (and tearjerking).

I read the last 250+ pages after midnight - I thought I was going to do a couple chapters, but when this books kicks on the turn, it kicks. It is intense. Like, intense. The plot line is gripping, there is an absence of a love triangle, and an act of logic and selflessness to close. It's easy to engage with Janelle, and for once, there was a proper and respectable use of "fuck" that effectively characterised a supporting character.

While at times, the dialogue is corny and a bit repetitive, and the pop culture references a little on the shallow side, the book is fast-paced and captures the breathlessness of a teenager trying to make sense of a world crumbling around them, literally and figuratively. And there are a few red herrings, which I always applaud, because despite the formulaic twists and structure of Unravelling, there was a final turn at the climax that got me.

Overall, Norris has an understated, flowing style of writing that captures you, even if you've put the book down for a day. For authors looking to see examples of well-paced YA with innovative strands of science fiction/action/fantasy/thriller/whatever, this is a must-read. And honestly, I'm just generally recommending this one.
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