Loading the First Impression for Quick Characterization (The Hunger Games)

Human beings are masters of the first impression. We can glean information from incredibly short encounters, what psychologists call “thin slices.”

In one study done by psychologist Nalini Ambady, participants guessed someone's sexual orientation with above-chance accuracy simply by viewing a one second silent video of the person talking. In another study, participants predicted end-of-semester evaluation scores for teachers after seeing a 30 second silent video of the teacher in action.

As writers, we create slices for our readers. Unlike the thin slices used in the experiments though, our slices and the details that go into them are under our complete control.  If we choose the right details, we can create strong characterizations in a relatively short passage. Suzanne Collins does this very skillfully in The Hunger Games.

Hunger Games tells of a dystopic future where a dictatorial goverment, the Capitol, intimidates its outlying districts by forcing teenagers from the districts to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. It’s definitely a page turner. I started reading it one evening and stayed up until two to finish. When I collapsed into a sleep-deprived nap the next day, my husband picked it up and finished it the next evening.

As my critique buddy Coral says in our group review of The Hunger Games, Collins keeps us hooked by trimming all the fat out of the book. Every scene is action packed and important to the plot. I won't talk more about the page-turning qualities here, although Kathy Temean has a nice post about chapter endings and how they contribute to the book's momentum.

The challenge of a fast paced book is that there is limited space for supporting characters. How do we get to know them with such limited screen time? Collins does this by loading the first impression. She crams focused details into initial meetings so we’re hit with a strong impression right away, leaving her free to continue the plot.

Here is a scene in the opening chapter --  the first interaction that we witness between the main character Katniss and her younger sister Prim. Every child gets one entry per year into the Hunger Games lottery starting from age 12. Prim just turned 12, so this is her first reaping year, and the first time she’s entered in to the lottery.

I hug [Prim], because I know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first reaping. She's about as safe as you can get, since she's only entered once. . . . But she's worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.

I protect Prim in every way I can, but I'm powerless against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she's in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face. I notice her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the back again, and force myself to stay calm.

“Tuck your tail in, little duck,” I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.
Prim giggles and gives me a small “Quack.”

“Quack yourself,” I say, with a light laugh. The kind only Prim can draw out of me. “Come on, let's eat,” I say and plant a quick kiss on the top of her head.

Lets see what we have:

1. The passage starts with a description of Katniss’s fierce protectiveness toward Prim. Look at Collin’s choice of words. “The anguish I always feel when she’s in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face.” This is not just run-of-the-mill empathy.

2.The “little duck” moment. My critique buddy Amitha pointed out that Prim seems much younger than twelve in this scene. But the strength of this moment reinforces the image of Prim as small and childlike, someone who would not last an hour in the arena.

3.Finally, we see what Prim means to Katniss. “'Quack yourself', I say with a light laugh. The kind only Prim can draw out of me.” Prim is not just someone to be protected, but she is Katniss’s primary source of joy.

This is just 160 words, but every detail in the passage points the reader toward the incredibly strong bond between Katniss and Prim. The payoff comes almost immediately, when Prim gets selected for the Hunger Games. Because of this brief interaction, we understand completely why Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Lets look at an example with another supporting character. After Katniss is taken to the Capitol for the Games, she’s assigned a stylist to promote her. (The Games are televised and publicized on reality TV). Here, she meets her stylist Cinna for the first time.

The door opens and a young man who must be Cinna enters. I'm taken aback by how normal he looks. Most of the stylists they interview on television are so dyed, stenciled and surgically altered they're grotesque. But Cinna's close cropped hair appear to be its natural shade of brown. He's in a simple black shirt and pants. The only concession to self-alteration seems to be metallic gold eyeliner that has been applied with a light hand. It brings out the flecks of gold in his green yes. And despite my disgust with the Capitol and their hideous fashions, I can't help thinking how attractive it looks.

. . . .”Yes, this is my first year in the Games,” says Cinna

“So they gave you District Twelve,” I say. Newcomers generally end up with us, the least desirable district.

“I asked for District Twelve,” he says without further explanation.

[They go into another room where an extravagant feast is laid out on the table.]

What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?

I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. “How despicable we must seem to you,” he says.

Lets pick this one apart.

1.Our first impression of Cinna is his physical appearance. Cinna immediately breaks Katniss's stereotype of the grotesque and extravagant Capitol citizen.

2.And then, he reveals that he volunteered for District 12, the least desirable district. Why would he do that? Again, suggesting that he’s not your usual shallow citizen.

3.And if Cinna is not yet sympathetic enough, we get a moment of empathy between him and Katniss. “How despicable we must seem,” he says to her

Again, Collins makes full use of Cinna’s limited screen time. After a couple pages with him, we distinctly feel that he’s a likable and sympathetic character.

What do you think of this “hit them with everything” approach to character introductions? Does it work well here? Is it something that’s always helpful, or only in certain types of stories?

Helpful Tips from a Harvard Writer's Conference

I recently attended Publishing Books, Memoirs, and Other Creative Nonfiction, a three day course sponsored by Harvard Medical School.

The conference was chock full of helpful tips.  If I had a smartphone, I would have tweeted the conference.  But I don't, so I just wrote these tips down for posting later.

These tips are roughly divided into categories, but beyond that, there's no particular rhyme or reason to them.  I just wrote down tips that I found useful.  Note that these are paraphrases and not quotes, so any awkward wording is my fault.  Many thanks to all the speakers and course director Julie Silver for putting together such a great conference.

On Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals

The sales records of the books you list in the Competition section are used, in conjunction with other factors, to calculate your advance.
- Regina Brooks, literary agent and author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults

If you don’t have bookscan to look up sales records, check the Amazon sales rank to get an idea for how a book is selling.
-Julie Silver, M.D., author of Super Healing

An audition video of yourself talking about your book can show your publisher that you’re able to sell your book and may help increase the advance. Publishers are looking for authenticity and passion.
Alan Rinzler, editor, Jossey-Bass.  (Check out Alan's very informative blog, The Book Deal)

On Publishing Contracts

Deadlines are sometimes negotiable, but be aware that if a publisher
is seeking a reason not to publish your book, a missed deadline is their easiest out.
-Jacqueline Wehmueller, editor at Johns Hopkins University Press

On Platform

helpareporter.com is a website where you can sign up and be contacted if reporters need an expert to interview
- Julie Silver

Expertise is no longer enough for a platform. You need to be interacting with your potential audience via speaking engagements and/or other venues.
- Regina Brooks

Content is King: No longer should you think about the content of your book being used in just one form. The content of your book can be used on many platforms and you can be paid over and over again for the same material: video games, radio/tv shows, software apps, etc...
-Regina Brooks

On The Industry
The publishing industry isn’t dying anymore. In fact, they rebounded to record highs in 2009. Stock for Barnes and Noble went up 27.1% and Amazon 163.5%. For the last 12 months, ending in March, Barnes and Noble has opened more stores than they’ve closed.
–Alan Rinzler

Sometimes timing will affect whether a book gets accepted for publication. Editors have quotas and slots to fill. If they get a book at the right time, they may take a chance on it.
–Alan Rinzler

At least 5% of self published books eventually convert to commercial publishing.
–Alan Rinzler

On Writing

If pitching for a periodical, try to tie your pitch to a certain date to create a sense of urgency and relevance. For example, if you’re writing about hot air balloons, you may want to tie it into the 50th anniversary of ballooning.
- Katherine Russell Rich, author of Dreaming in Hindi

If you have a word that appears all the time in your book (for example, the word "healing" if you're writing a book about healing), try taping the thesaurus entry for that word on your computer monitor.
- Julie Silver

Every word counts, so detail is vital. Specificity in detail serves many purposes. It gives work its voice, particularizes character, shows rather than tells, adds energy, humor, and poetry to dialogue. Specific, microscopic detail gives work with its originality.
 - Kelly Easton, author of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes

For help with dialogue, try reading plays. For help with prose, try reading poetry.
–Kelly Easton

To make your writing move, use more verbs and use good verbs. Replace nouns with verbs (look for words that end in –tion, -ment, or –ence). Also, replace adjectives. For example, “It was a hot, sultry afternoon” turns into “The afternoon blazed and sweated.”
 - Susan Aiello, WordsWorld consulting

People think they’re reading because they want to find out what happens, but actually, they’re reading because the author made them care about the characters.
- Michael Palmer, MD, author of The Last Surgeon

On Writing Memoir

Novels have migrated recently into memoir. The people who in the past might have written their stories as fiction are now being told to write their story as memoir.
-Katherine Russell Rich

When writing memoirs, you need to decide how to tell the story. Can you combine two minor characters into one character for storytelling purposes? It’s a tricky question, but in some cases, it's okay.
-Katherine Russell Rich

Establish the narrator immediately. Is he funny? Intellectual?
-Katherine Russell Rich

Try starting with an essay that serves as the launching place for larger work. -Katherine Russell Rich

An Iambic Pentameter Challenge

 Note:  Online universities was kind enough to name me in their top 50 female science bloggers list.  If you're interested, check out the rest of the list..  I think I'm the only creative writing blog listed though (big surprise there :-P)

Simon Larter emailed me a couple weeks ago to apologize for missing the Alternate Version Blogfest.  I won't rehash the conversation since Simon relates it already,  but the short version is that I ended up challenging him to write an iambic pentameter version of his scandalous No-Kiss Blogfest entry.

Well, Mr. Larter delivered (not that I doubted him), and I present his scandelous-flash-fiction-turned-poem here.  To really appreciate the awesomeness though, you should read the original version first.  


Cheaters Never Prosper (Iambic Pantameter Version)

She comes! I heard the hard-heeled steps afar,
In steady-thudded beats that promised pain.
The bolt flew back, the door was pulled ajar,
and there! Her silhouette in sight again.

Her scent slid sinuous across the cell,
her long hair loose, cascading down her back.
I gritted teeth and cursed my private hell,
and strained against my chains till muscles cracked.

“You wake,” she said. (Her voice was blurred by wine.)
Then: “Good,” she said, and walked with measured pace
toward my prison’d form. Her lips! Their line
was limned by light that slow-caressed her face.

“You have been well?” she asked. Amusèd voice.
Our lips were close, a hairsbreadth now apart.
I, well? As if she’d given me a choice.
My jaw began to ache—so too, my heart.

Her palm was cool and soft against my cheek.
Deft fingers traced a pattern on my thighs.
My breathing quicken’d, then, and I—too weak!—
Felt (painfully) an urgent need arise.

“Predictable, my darling.” Laughing taunt.
“You never could resist my touch.” She smiled.
She ran her tongue along my jaw—the want
rose swift and painful, terrible and wild.

Her hands, they moved, exquisite torture-touch—
I leaned my head against the cold stone wall.
The radiating warmth, skin-scent—too much!—
now nothing else existed: she was all.

Her face came close, her tongue flicked at my nose.
“So was she worth it?” This a whispered breath.
Her snaking arms around my back—and those
were worse than any fear-imagined death.

Full length against me, curvèd body pressed—
Her scalding closeness seared my aching skin.
No, never worth it! Silently confessed,
as burning lips grazed light along my chin.

My throat! It smoked from choking back the words.
I’m sorry! (Thought that raged behind my eyes.)
But then, a sudden break—a breath—I heard
(this as she turned away) her stifled cries.

I sagged against my bonds, my wrists flamed pain.
But this, a welcome respite from the guilt
that clawed my gut—reminder that I’d lain
with one not her, destroying all we’d built.

Her hard-heeled steps spiked stone—she strode away,
then paused. The torchlight flickered on her cheek,
in hollows of her neck, on tears that lay
twin-trackèd, glimm’ring as she turned to speak.

“Perhaps tomorrow you shall die,” she said,
and then was gone; the closed door killed the light.
And yes, the thought occurred to me that “dead”
was preferable to my current plight.

The guilt! It tore my gut and spiked my chest
with too-late tendrils of remorse—too late!—
and stinging shame that kept me from my rest.
With hot self-loathing now I cursed my fate.

In stifling dark I breathed her fading air,
and, shamed and bitter, cursed what I had wrought.
Now prisoned, starved, regret my only fare,
death was the only quick release I sought,

My love! Would that I’d not your love betrayed.
Now nought left for me but this bed I’ve made.


Pretty impressive huh?   As agreed upon in our challenge, I will be sending him a copy of The Graveyard Book.

A funny factoid -- Iambic pentameter has special significance for me.  My husband, astronomer and literary snob J. Blackburne, proposed to me in iambic pentameter.  Perhaps I will post the whole story sometime.

Another funny factoid -- the original version of the No Kiss story almost inspired a new research program on my part.  To see what I mean, check out the comment thread of the original post from January.

Dialogue and Point of View Tricks from Garth Nix's Sabriel

I recently read Sabriel by Garth Nix. It was a fun epic fantasy, and I picked up a few tricks that might come in useful for the old writer’s toolbox.

Spoiler warning: The first tip is not a spoiler, the second tip is a slight spoiler, and the third tip reveals a lot.

1. Interruptions are a great way to add life to dialogue.

Here’s a scene where Sabriel goes to her father’s house and encounters an enchanted servant (a “sending”) intent on giving her a bath.

Sabriel shrieked, but, again before she could do anything else, the sending had put back the basin, turned the wheel for more hot water, and was soaping her down, paying particular attention to her head, as if it wanted to get soap in Sabriel’s eyes, or suspected an infestation of nits . . . .

“How do I stop it?” she spluttered to Moggot, as still more water cascaded over her head …

“You can’t,” replied Mogget, who seemed quite amused by the spectacle. “This one’s particularly recalcitrant.”

“What do you… ow! .. . stop that! What do you mean, this one?”

I love the way that last line of dialogue conjures up an image of the scenario.

2. Transition between points of view by giving two versions of the same event.

At one point, Sabriel rescues a man who had been transformed into a statue. We're in her point of view when she breaks the spell. The next chapter retells the transformation from the man’s point of view as he comes out of his enchanted state. It’s a smooth transition into this new character’s head that doesn’t lose the reader. If you want more ideas on transitioning between points of view, check out this post.

3. Use of sayings/proverbs for emotional impact. 

Sabriel introduces a proverb at the beginning: “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” Near the end of the book, a character makes a decision to sacrifice his life. When the others object, the character justifies the choice by saying “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” The saying lends strength to the dialogue at that crucial moment.

Have you used any of these tricks in your writing before?

Agent Feedback on my First Page Part II: Words, sentences, and voice

The First Page Blogfest comes at a good time.  Last week, my first page was workshopped on agent Mary Kole's website.  I had been feeling like my first page was all right (it did make it through writer idol), but that it didn't really sparkle or stand out in a crowd.  Mary had a sharp eye and quickly put her finger on an aspect of writing that I don't pay enough attention to:  the words and the sentences.

Wait, what?  Um, aren't you a writer?  Well, yeah, but left to my own devices, I'm more likely to focus on the content than the delivery.  It's not a coincidence that all my blog articles under the "Voice" label feature advice from other people, while the "Plot" and "Characterization" labels have articles with my own observations.

Anyways, Mary gave some helpful tips on weighing each word and sentence.  You should check out her critique, as well as her other workshops from that week.  I've been playing with revisions, and here's the latest version.  Let me know what you think.  What do you like?  Dislike?  Is there anything in the original version that you miss?
Note: This excerpt is now fairly out of date as well. I'll keep it posted here for historical purposes, but the final version is now different. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Maybe this James fellow wanted her dead. Kyra considered the idea as she peered off the ledge, squinting at the cobblestone four stories below. A false step in the darkness could certainly kill her, and even if she survived the fall, palace guards would finish her off. But she had known the job was dangerous when she took it. At this point, she just needed to keep moving.

The jump ahead looked to be about two body lengths long, so Kyra backed up. Ten steps, then she drew a breath and sprinted forward. She pushed off just before the drop, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. There was a slap of leather on stone as she hit the next ledge. The impact sent a wave of vibrations through the balls of her feet, and Kyra touched a hand to the wall for balance.

Too hard, and too loud.

Silently cursing her clumsiness, she scanned the grounds, looking for anyone who might have heard her. Shadows teased at the corners of her vision, but experience told her it was a trick of the torches below. Since she couldn't trust her eyes, she listened. Other than the wind that gently buffeted her ears, the night was silent. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair, she set off, dashing deeper into the compound.

It had been two days since a man had come to the Drunken Dog, introducing himself as James and asking for Kyra by name. He had an unusual offer: he would pay her to steal a ruby from the Palace compound. But there were other nobles in the city with jewels. Why go to such trouble for something easily found elsewhere? The question had worried Kyra, but the pay was generous, and the challenge intriguing.

Thanks for reading, folks.  And remember to check out the other entries!

Alternate Version Blogfest: Guess the Movie!

Woohoo, Alternate Version Blogfest!

For new visitors, this blogfest is where we take a piece from our writing and rewrite it in a completely different style. In the blog fest announcement, I already rewrote a paragraph from my YA fantasy Midnight Thief as a) a scandalous romance, and b) as a thriller. So this time, I thought I’d pay tribute to one of my favorite movies. See if you can figure out what it is. For reference, here’s the original snippit.

“Most times you won't have the luxury of resting after a fight.” At first she thought it was Riley speaking, but then she realized the voice came from off the mat. She sat up to see James watching from the side. This was the first time she had seen him here during her practice. Hastily, she climbed to her feet. 

James stripped off his outer tunic, tossed it on a nearby box. and walked onto the mat. He reached a pale but well muscled arm towards Riley, who tossed him the dagger he had been using. James caught the dagger and in the same motion beckoned Kyra toward him. She stood, frozen in place. He motioned again, more curtly. This time she obeyed, muscles tense as she approached him.

“Let's see what you've learned.”

And the modified version.

“Most times you won’t have the luxury of resting after a fight.”

At first she thought it was Riley speaking, but then she realized the voice came from off the mat. She sat up to see James watching from the side.

Riley cupped his hand around Kyra’s ear and whispered, “That James, so hot right now.”

James stripped off his outer tunic, and Kyra’s breath caught in her throat. Why had she never noticed how really, really, ridiculously good looking James was? He reached a perfectly tanned and muscled arm towards Riley, who tossed him the dagger he had been using. James caught it and pursed his lips, looking at Kyra with a gaze that reminded her of cold blue steel.

“We know you can steal good,” he said, his eyes narrowing in challenge. “Let’s see if you can fight good too.”

Any guesses?

 I call this version Kyralander, based on Zoolander, starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. If you’re ever looking for a dumb but surprisingly entertaining movie, I highly recommend it.

For those who participated, I’m really looking forward to seeing what you wrote. Follow this link to see all the other entries.