The Characters That I Am Not

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things that I am not.” -Joss Whedon

An interesting thing happened when I sent the beta version of my book out to my parents (hi, Mom). Mom and Dad were, unsurprisingly, thrilled and excited and said all kinds of nice things about it. They were also gravely concerned.

One of my characters, you see, has quite a foul mouth. The swearing is truly atrocious. Dad said he thought that with my brilliant mind I could do better than that. Mom felt I was setting a bad example. I thought: Well, it’s not like it’s me swearing. Blame Tory, for goodness’ sake. All I’m doing is writing down what he says.

Exploring the things that I am not.

Which is true of all my characters, of course. Not one of them is me. It really is the true joy of the thing, getting to know the inside of someone else’s head, looking out at the world from their point of view.

And today I’d like to introduce you to a few of them. Meet Tory.

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Tory paced the cell, tripping over legs and beating on the wall with his fist. One of the boys yelled at the Mercant when it came, but it was pointless. Tory told him he was an idiot. The boy’s name was Kis. Kis asked Tory if he had any better ideas. Tory told him his idea was to shut up.

After about a week, several of the boys had swollen lips and bruised cheeks from fighting with each other. Tory thought he might burst from frustration.

Then one day something happened: One wall of the room disappeared. Tory’s heart leapt for one cruel moment when he saw trees and sunlight.

But it took only a heartbeat to realize: The new space was yet another prison. The “trees” were plastic climbing apparatus, the “pond” was a grimy little plastic pool set in the ground, and the walls were just farther apart.

Three of his roommates had already run out into the space, whooping and hollering as though they had actually found freedom. Kis, who seemed to have finally figured out how pointless everything was, stared out silently. He looked inquiringly at Tory. Tory shrugged. Might as well.

Well, okay, Dad was right about one thing (imagine that). Tory doesn’t need to swear to be who Tory is. So the swearing is (mostly) gone. You’re welcome, Mom.

Even though it’s written with my boys in mind, the book has female characters too. You want to meet Semantha? Say hello. (But she’ll probably just roll her eyes at you.)

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Semantha’s eyes are actually much paler than they look here, and she usually wears that hair in braids. Just so you know.

Semantha looked over the top of the book and glared at her little brother. He was only ten and a crappy shooter, but he always got the first turn with the chem gun. Father was issuing the same instructions he had given a thousand times before: “The chem gun won’t kill them, at least not at first, but it’s enough to hold them at bay for a while. If you really want to do some damage, use a flame thrower. Then,” and Father made a stupid “pow-splat” sound with his mouth and Semantha rolled her eyes.

Children weren’t allowed to use flame throwers, of course, not even for practice. Only soldiers were allowed to have them, and only Outside. Jonethen might go Outside someday, but not Semantha. Oh no. Her job was to “grow up and have a nice little family,” as Mother loved to remind her.

Father finished his instructions and Jonethen took aim. And missed wildly. Semantha snorted and returned to the book, a memoir of the Great Perimeter Battle by General Agular Tonsen. She had pulled it down from the shelf in the dusty little pro shop where they rented the chem gun. Mr. Gerban, the shop owner, patted her on the head and said, “You can borrow it, sweetheart. It’ll give you something wholesome to do while your brother practices.” She had faked a smile, said thank you, and ducked out to the target area.

Semantha looked up again to see Jonethen make a couple of decent shots, then miss the entire target again, twice in a row. Father said that was enough for today, and clapped him on the shoulder. He set the chem gun down on the bench and turned to her:

“Go ahead, Semantha. Just bring it inside when you’re done, and don’t lick it or anything. Those chemicals are bad for you.”

Duh.

Semantha pushed her long braids behind her, loaded the gun with a fresh canister. They were just paint canisters for practice, anyway, so it was a doubly stupid thing for him to say. She took the gun to her shoulder and imagined herself taking aim at an Ekross: Pow! Right on target.

Finally, I want to introduce you to somebody who is very, very special to me. He’s the only one whose story is told in first present, and only because he insisted on it. He told me what he wanted rather awkwardly and very politely, of course, and once I understood, he was much happier. He is a gentle soul and often misunderstood. Please be kind to him. This is Jed.

This might be sorta what Jed looks like. Only, skinnier and with more hair. And he'd never have his picture taken with a blue backdrop because they don't have studios in the wild, silly.

The sun is coming up, and the other boys are laughing and shouting already. They’ll leave me alone if I’m quiet and if I remember not to say anything about the plants. When we get where the dirt path ends, I tell them bye and go up toward the meadow. I don’t want to hear when they find roots to dig up.

There won’t be many berries yet, but maybe a few. I always thank the bushes when I take their berries. If I find good leaves, I’ll put a few in my sack—they don’t mind when you do that. If you take the whole plant though, then the screaming is awful.

When I get to the meadow, I throw myself down in the grass, feel the chill earth against my belly. When my breathing gets slow and quiet, I can hear the plants whispering. They’re so glad it’s morning and they’re alive—it makes me glad to be alive too. I wonder if they can hear me saying that to them?

Flowers have a cheerful sound, like tiny bells. The grass sounds smooth. Trees are like big drums, booming up from their roots under the meadow. I like listening to the meadow, but the sun is high and my sack is still empty. I’ll probably have to sit in the ninth circle at dinner again tonight, but what can I do? I’d rather go hungry than kill the plants.

I start back toward home, looking and looking for leaves and berries. Sometimes Mom asks why my foraging bag is never full. One time, I tell her about the plants. She looks mad and says, “That’s a really weird thing to say, Jed.” So the next time she holds my skinny arm in her big warm hand and says, “Jed, why is your bag empty again?” I say, “I forgot,” and she shakes her head. 

So, there they are. What did you think? Whose story do you most want to read? Which one would you most like to hang out with?

And would you like to meet more characters from my book? Tell me. Maybe I’ll highlight them in a future entry. Maybe I’ll even let one of the alien creatures speak to you.

The Pinnacle of Achievement

One: My first novel is out at beta, and receiving overwhelmingly positive first impressions.

“Unique and intriguing,” “A page-turner,” and “Wow” seem to be the primary responses. It may not mean much in the big scheme, seeing as the comments come from friends, but it feels good. And I do trust their judgment, or I wouldn’t have sent it to them. There was that one reader who said, “I’m confused,” and that’s okay too. (Love you, Lisa!) There’s also plenty of good, meaty critical feedback to help me make it better.

I’m reading it to the kids as well, and that’s fun.

I’ve started some minor revisions, like replacing all the wordy dirds with fake language. It came out rather nicely. In fact, the replacements seem to carry more weight than the original actual swear words, so that I ended up toning it down and removing portions of it to keep it from being too heavy.

When I told Monty, who is among my book’s first fans as well as a valuable beta reader, that I had invented a new swear-word language, his face lit up: “I love it when they do that!” he said. Apparently, Michael Vey does something similar. I guess I’d do well to pick up those books and read them. Monty has all of them.

Two: My Query-Preparations are Going Well

My query letter is more-or-less ready, and I’ve started studying agents. I’ve picked out a few who seem like good candidates. I like what they have to say about what they’re looking for, they’ve got strong, relevant client lists, and have had success placing books at good publishing houses. I’m just beginning to look, so I’ll keep adding and prioritizing candidates until I’ve got a good short list.

Three: My book keeps getting better.

Reading my first book aloud to Monty & Eli is deeply satisfying and helpful. They keep pointing out places it can be better, like the endings to several chapters where they’ve said: “Mommy, take off those last few sentences and just finish the book right at such-and-such sentence.” They’ve been right every time.

We’ve also found places where the narrative slows down and can be tightened. Segments removed, chapters conflated.

 

Four: My Next Book Has Begun

Slave Chip is coming along well. I’ve written tons of back story for the main character, who is fleshing out nicely as someone interesting to read about rather than the cardboard caricature she started out as. I’ve written a couple scenes that might even make it into the book–like the one where she meets a slave trader and he flirts with her in a totally unexpected way.

Five: I’ve Been Asked to Beta Read For a Nationally Best-Selling Author

The last time I beta-read a book, it was for someone at Ernst & Young that I worked with in 1999-ish, and the book was terrible. Just awful. This one is not awful. It’s quite, quite wonderful. The brevity of this paragraph does not do justice to its wonderfulness. It’s just that it’s hard to keep my mouth shut about it and if I go on too long I might spoil Things. So that’s all. Just, it’s wonderful.

Six: None of That Matters

I have a teenage son. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. I mean, he’ll be a teenager tomorrow. It feels good, primally good, to have a strapping young lad for a son.

But if you’re wondering what I mean by the “pinnacle of achievement” in the title of this entry, then I must tell you, it’s None Of The Above. It’s this:

Monty, age 13 (nearly), at the dinner table: “You know, Mommy, I was thinking. You run your own business, and you wrote a book that’s just as good as anything else I’ve read.”

Thanks, son. I appreciate that.

“Well, You’re pretty cool.”

Yup. My teenager said that. That, dear friends, is the pinnacle of achievement.

THIS son. The one who took down his first prey on his first shot and carved it up to stock his grandparent's larder for the winter. Yup. That son.

This kid, the one who just bagged a deer for his grandparents, thinks I’m cool.