Are My Characters Based on People in Real Life?

My friend Laura, who is supportive and sassy at the same time, always asks me if she’s going to appear in my novel. “Emily, is this book about me? When are you going to write my life story? Am I the good guy or the bad guy?” She’s being cheeky when she does this, and it usually makes me laugh, but I got asked this question again with my current novel.

One of my critique partners commented on how much she liked a certain character. To her, he jumped off the page. “Is he based on someone you know?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “He is a little bit.”

“It shows. You must be close.”

It’s erie that she said that because she’s right, and weirdly enough that made him very easy to write. But, I don’t do that all the time.

Some of my characters are not based on real people at all. They are completely constructed in my imagination. Everything from their look to their personality I built in my head and on the page. Not only is it safer that way, but it’s also enjoyable as a writer. I like these new creations. They are refreshing.

But not all of my characters are completely original. A lot of them borrow things from people I know in real life. Even if we’ve been friends for years or I just met you and interacted with you for six hours, I might “steal” something from you and put it in my draft.

This doesn’t mean that all my friends and family members are going to end up in a book. To some, that’s probably a relief, to others (Laura) it’s a huge bummer. Either way, I can never really tell who ends up as being the basis for a character. And it’s never an exact replica. I twist some things around, I change details, or I just simply borrow something, a look, a trait, a mannerism, and stick it on a character. I do this for lots of reasons. The first is I don’t want to get sued, the second is that I like having friends and don’t want to be alone the rest of my life, and the third reason is writing a real person can be boring and limiting. They already exist. It’s more fun to create someone totally new based on something that already exists. I don’t want to constantly ask myself ‘would so-and-so do this?’ I would rather ask myself ‘how would my  character react?’

What’s strange is that if you’re currently close to me, I can’t seem to write about you (I have this same problem with setting. None of my stories take place in Colorado, for example). I can’t write my parents, my brother, my roommate, my best friend Kathryn, or my last boyfriend. I do name characters and places after people in real life. That’s also fun, mostly for me because it’s basically an inside joke.

Does this include people who’ve scorned me, too?

No. I used to always joke that if I hated you, I’d write you in a novel and then kill you off. If I seriously hated you, I would “Dolores Umbridge you.” In other words, I’d make you a universally despised villain. People would root for bad things to happen to you and you’d eventually be defeated.

I did this for a little while, but then I stopped. I hated doing it. I made a villain based of a girl I disliked in college and it made me dislike writing that character. The antagonist is important to the story and I shouldn’t shy away from it. So I ditched that villain. Basically, I don’t want to give an ounce of thought to that person anymore. That girl is long gone and my life is better for it. I don’t want to give her that satisfaction or that attention.

Anne Lamott wrote in her lovely book “Bird by Bird” that characters should come from your real life, but you should change them around to suit your story and so they won’t come looking for you. She said this specifically about ex-boyfriends:

“If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work.  And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth.”

So on that note, I’m off to start my weekend. Do any of you base your characters on people in real life? Do your enemies suffer a gruesome death by pen? Or are you like me and you don’t give them the time of day? You can leave a comment below, tweet me @EmHof, or follow me Goodreads. Until Tuesday, I’m out.


Read It or Skip It? (September books)

It’s time for the inaugural edition of ‘Read It or Skip It!’ This is my new way to review books. I simply tell you to read it or skip it. Easy right? There are some I tell you not to skip, they’re that good, and others I tell you not to waste your time on. I know how valuable time is. Think of this as like a book PSA! 🙂

‘A Working Theory of Love’ by Scott Hutchins

Read it if you like fiction, second chances, love, and meditating on the difference between logic and emotion
Skip it if none of the above sounds appealing

‘The Disreputalbe History of Frankie Landau-Banks’ by E. Lockhart

Read it if you like boarding school books, P.G. Woodhouse, pranks, and sassy main characters
Skip it if you don’t like third person narration or YA books

‘Prodigy’ by Marie Lu

Read it if you like YA adventure/dystopia books or you read the first one
Skip it if you’re burnt out on post apocalyptic and speculative fiction

‘The Spectacular Now’ by Tim Tharp

Read it if you like YA, romance, charming narrators, or if you’re going through a change in life
Skip it…well, actually don’t skip it. And see the movie!

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

Read it if you like meticulously plotted books that are a little gothic
Skip it if you hate corny dialogue or you’re tired of affairs

‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Read it if you like descriptive writing, romance, whimsical settings, magic, or the circus
Skip it if you want a more gripping plot

‘Siege and Storm’ by Leigh Bardugo

Read it if you like Russian history, magic, action/adventure
Skip it if fantasy is not your thing

‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson

Read it if you like crime fiction, non-fiction, cool tales about America, and Chicago
Don’t skip it! 

‘Tender is the Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read it if you like F. Scott Fitzgerald and the lost generation
Skip it if you don’t like “old books”

‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls

Read it if you like memoirs and stories about the underdog
Don’t skip it! 

‘September Girls’ by Bennett Madison

Skip it.

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

Read it if you like newspapers, character studies done in vignettes
Skip it if flawed characters, non-happy endings, and inconclusiveness frustrates you

Phew! That was tiring. I obviously read a lot. What have you been reading? Want to know why I rated them how I did? You can leave me a comment below, tweet me @EmHof, or follow me on GoodReads. Until Friday, I’m out!

Three Series I Loved as a Child

My boss has two daughters, a nine-year-old and a six-year-old who both love reading. Naturally, this means that they are pretty much my best friends. I volunteer to take them to the library or Barnes & Noble. I look forward to late nights when I get to read to McKenna (our personal favorite is Olivia Goes to Venice). I chat with the girls about what they’re reading in class, with their mom, and in their spare time on the family Kindle. The six-year-old loves Ivy & Bean and the nine-year-old is making her way through a series of books where kids get to raid Disney World at night and solve mysteries. I’m so glad they’re reading, but it makes me nostalgic for the series I loved growing up, especially these three.

By far my favorite series when I was little was the American Girl series. I was obsessed. I had all the books, a Samantha doll complete with clothes and accessories, and I would religiously study the catalogue when it was delivered to my house. Back in my day, there were only five American girls; Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. I read and reread all their books.

Recently, one of my single-digit buddies was telling me about how she only likes the ‘new’ American Girls, meaning the ones from this century. That hurt my heart a little. I mean, those books were formulaic, but holy cow did they have some super heavy stuff going on. Felicity’s family was torn apart by the American Revolution. Kirsten’s family immigrated from Sweden and had to share a one room house together. Addy was an an escaped slave and even when she got to the north, it was still a hard knocked life. Samantha’s books dealt with suffrage and child labor. Molly’s dad was in Europe fighting the Germans in WWII! That’s a serious dose of real life right there. The books also promoted working hard, self-esteem, and the power of family and friendship. Who doesn’t love those values?!

I still remember the bright red boxcar that was on the cover of these books. Four orphaned siblings, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny make their home in a boxcar until they move in with their grandfather, who they thought was a crank but turns out to be awesome because he moved the boxcar into his backyard. He’s pretty much the coolest fictional grandpa ever. They got to have lots of adventures, solve mysterious, and accompany Awesome Grandpa on his travels.  On top of all of this, they had a dog! I was so envious. These kids had a pretty good life for being parentless. Thanks to these books, I wanted a dog, a boxcar playroom, and more siblings (sorry Will! I still wanted to keep you, but I wanted more people to boss around apparently).

Ah, Laura Ingalls Wilder, how you touched my childhood. I read your books once. Then I read them again. Then, just for fun, I read them for the read aloud book whenever we played School. My favorite is still the timeless Little House on the Prarie, which I reread the most. This is another story about people who were tough. The family had survived a move to Native American territory while getting over their prejudices, disease, and the harsh everyday life of having to physically harvest stuff in order to eat. I got so attached to the Ingalls family and I remember being sad when I finished the series. I just felt like I had been through so much! These happy golden years indeed, Laura.

I know I’ve left a lot off this list (Pippi Longstocking! The Babysitters Club!), but I want to hear from all of you! Who was your favorite American Girl? Do you still fantasize about living in a boxcar? Did anyone else want to punch that brat Nellie in the face? What about the boys out there? I remember Goosebumps and Animorphs, but that’s about it. What other book series have I completely disregarded? Which ones do you want to read to your kids? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook, or tweet me @emhof. I love to hear from you!

Have a lovely weekend, everyone. I’ll be back on Tuesday. Until then, I’m out.

The Love/Hate Relationship with a New Idea

Well, the Procrastination train has left! Woohoo! My draft was finished on Thursday (look at me, makin’ an early deadline) and I got to enjoy another “flood day” on Friday.

dan rad yes gif

One problem is solved, but now I was worrying over another.  All the advice out there says to start your next book the minute you incubate your current one (for non-writers out there, that’s the time you step away from your novel, usually about six weeks, in order to be fresh when you go back to revisions). Well, I was struggling with my idea for the next book, and as a result, unwillingly to part from my current manuscript.

I got one idea in the middle of the night (which happens sometimes, my brain never shuts off) and I was immediately energized by it. I loved my heroine, gave her a cool name, liked the setting, gave it a backstory, gave said heroine a super hot love interest and a grand adventure to go on. I marched myself over to Walgreens to buy a notebook to start jotting down ideas. I got three pages into it, and stopped. It didn’t quite feel right. I switched over to the computer and came up short there as well. There was no drive to tell the story, no hook that I could seize ahold of. No one would want to read it ever. I now had no new idea to work on and it bothered me. Six weeks of waiting around and not working on something would make me irritable. Plus, I can’t stand the thought of not working.

So I just did what I’m good at. I complained. I engaged in insecurity and self-doubt. I moped. I was sure that I would never make it as a writer.

But then I got another idea. And from that came another and there was a hook, a mystery, and a conflict. Important things! It’s a book I’d read if I were a reader.

This idea may fizzle out as well. It all depends on what happens during the research stage. I am going to take my time with this one, give it it’s due dilligence because I’ll be staying with it for a long period of time.

That’s the thing about a new idea, it either burns out or blazes on. So let’s see where it goes.

I’ll try to get back to a regular Tuesday-Friday schedule of blogging (no promises). So until Friday, I’m out.

I’ve arrived at the Procrastination Station

It’s Tuesday. I have a deadline for Friday. How much of my novel have I edited?


That’s right, I’ve arrived at the good ol’ Procrastination Station. The place where all productivity, motivation, and positive attitudes go to die. I am a frequent visitor of the Procrastination Station, having been several times during high school, college, and post grad. It’s not like I like coming here, it’s just that I can’t help it. Sometimes I don’t even know how I got here, like a sleepwalker. How is it almost noon and I’ve accomplished so little? How am I not freaking out about it yet?

It’s just such a huge task that I have in front of me. Over the weekend, I was out of town at a wedding and looking forward to diving back into my novel and editing it to make it better. Now that I’m home and my bags are unpacked, I’m sitting at the computer doing anything but working on the AT story. I’ve checked Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. I’ve read the news and feel fully informed about Syria. I’ve read like six BuzzFeed lists. I’ve made queso and chips. I might even go make more food. I read about 100 pages in my book. I’m even blogging in order to procrastinate.

What is making me do this? Extreme laziness? Well, I am semi-lazy about some things, but not so lazy that I’m not productive. Is it fear? Sort of. Right now attacking the novel is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Elbert. It looks like a daunting task and I know I’m going to be exhausted afterwards, but it’s doable. Is it because I like the pressure of working at the last minute? Sort of. I always liked the flurry of activity before our Tuesday night deadline at my college newspaper, and I tend to produce my best work under stress and a deadline (I had my highest GPA during my most stressed out semesters at XU).

It’s totally unreasonable to put this off. Every day I don’t work on it, I get further and further from my goals. I am a goal oriented person. I’m also trying this new thing where I avoid stressful situations, but burning the midnight oil on this draft will probably result in anxiety and stress. Why put myself through that?

I think it’s the confrontation of imperfection. I am by no means a perfectionist, except when it comes to myself. I beat myself up over every little failure in life, every ruined relationship, every mistake, every terrible judgment or choice. Editing my draft is me basically admitting that I did not do this right the first time, that there’s lots of (fixable) issues with it, that I’m a bad writer, on and on down the dark rabbit hole of pessimism I go…

I have no cure for my procrastination except to just do it. Turn off the WiFi, put my butt in the chair, and do it. I’m right, my draft sucks, but hopefully when I’m done, it will suck less.

Time for the train to leave the station. How do you fight off procrastination? Leave your suggestions in the comments. I’ll be back to blogging when the editing is done. Until then, I’m out.

Editing the book! Phase 1: self-edits

I’m one to celebrate milestones when it comes to writing a novel, even if it’s something as insignificant as a finished draft two. I often tweet my excitement, but I’m sure people wonder how I edit, what I edit, or what I’m even doing between drafts. This lovely little post is an attempt to explain the long editing process, which usually starts with self edits. These are the edits I make without showing the full manuscript to anyone and it’s usually the first phase most writers go through while editing. Strap in kids, it’s quite a ride!

Round 1: Putting it on the computer


The handwritten first draft.

Now, every writer, and in fact, every novel, undergoes a different writing and editing process. I am kind of a weirdo in that my first draft EVER of this story I wrote in about two weeks, over Christmas, long hand in a notebook (see above). I let it sit there for a few months, too, churning over the plot and characters in my mind. After my workshop, I transferred my handwritten draft onto the computer. It was my first process in editing. I cut out scenes that didn’t work, I expanded certain passages, and when I finished I had about a 60,000 word manuscript (most mainstream novels are between 70-100,000 words). It was in this phase that I attempted to re-plan the novel, but I ditched that in an effort to pants it (as previously complained about on this blog!). That worked out much better. The draft was still missing a chunk of the narrative though, hence the low word count.

Round 2: A taste of critiquing and finishing the damn thing

Around this time I got lucky that my critique group was meeting. We agreed upon bringing the first 10 pages of our draft. Here I got some great feedback about what was working and what stood out. I was then able to go back to the draft and finish it. No more huge plot holes! There are three narrators to the story, and so now each character has a beginning, middle, and end. They go on a journey, all that good character development stuff I’ll save for another post. Now that draft two is finished, I let it sit for a week or so (which is challenging) and then I move on to the third round.  At this point, the manuscript is at about 73k words, the shorter end of a novel.

Round 3: Lists and edits

After I take some time away from the draft (which results in me being a little stir-crazy so I apologize, friends), I then do one huge edit. This edit includes lots of things. I meticulously go through the manuscript, scene by scene. I fix little things like typos and then, using the handy comment feature in Pages, I make comments to go back to. These can be anything from ‘this metaphor sucks, fix it’ to ‘did you introduce this plot point before?’. I also delete stuff that’s awkward, not working, or that I simply don’t like.

Here you can see the comments I make within the document and the notes that I add to as I go.

Here you can see the comments I make within the document and the notes that I add to as I go.

While I’m going through the draft, I use the handy Notes app on my Mac to make lists of things. These range from things I want to include when I go through it again to loose ends I need to tie up. For example, I realized in a read through that I never describe a main character’s apartment where a good chunk of the action takes place. This is silly! Writer fail! So, I made a note to include it. I have to write things down or I will forget them.

I also make a list of questions I need answered. These are pretty simple things. One of my characters is a nurse, so I need to ask my nurse friend Brett some questions over a beer or two. A third of the book takes place in Chicago, and since I am not physically there this resulted in me emailing my friend Danny questions about public transportation and bars, which he so kindly answered, and I will include these in round 4.

Round 4: The last big edit, getting it ready for other eyes

Round 4 consists of adding in the big changes, the information I’ve gathered, and getting the manuscript fit for the eyes of others. This means making sure the formatting is consistent, that things like text messages and emails look different than the regular text, etc. The formatting and line edits (re:fixing typos) are a drag for me, but knowing that other people are going to read it is good motivation. I am not perfect, and my manuscript won’t be either, but at least it will be fit for critiquing. I start this process on Monday. The word count will probably remain the same, at least for this phase, though I could see it coming in at about 75,000 words.

And that’s it! Well, for now…it’s far from finished

Once this is done, I take my first big scary leap and send the manuscript off to my writer’s group where they will surely demolish the thing. And that’s okay. I’ll also take a break from my manuscript and won’t come back to it until our group meets and we go over it. Then Phase 2 begins. That’s where I implement their changes, freak out, hate my draft (which happens during Phase 1 as well), but I buck up and make the changes both big and small.

There will be a Phase 3, but I have to be a little vague on that because it all depends on other things that happen after Phase 2. I can’t predict the future, sadly, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

So that’s how I edit! Any tips, fellow writers? Questions? Leave them in comments, yo.

August: the month of YA novels

I didn’t intend for it to be this way, but in the month of August I found myself tearing through a bunch of YA novels. This is definitely not a bad thing though, because even though it has a shameful stigma, I really enjoy YA novels. The worlds are complex and well imagined, you can get through them pretty easily and feel accomplished, and it’s exciting to read about characters on the cusp of adulthood. There’s a new layer of complexity that adults sometimes lack.

One of my all time favorite books is a YA book. Harry Potter is technically YA, though that along with my other favorite series, The Hunger Games, has that crossover appeal. Don’t hate on YA around me!

I read the first two books in Allie Condie’s ‘Matched’ trilogy and they were okay. Beautiful prose, but I sometimes found myself confused and frustrated with the plot. Since I’m one of those people that has to finish series that she starts (I crave conclusion!), I felt obligated, but not excited to read this.

I was pleasantly surprised though. The rotating point of view made the narrative full and lush. I found myself less frustrated with Cassia, the protagonist, in the third installment, and I was captivated by this plot the most. It evolved from an obligation to a page-turner. It’s definitely the best of the series, and I love the poems that she used throughout her three book narrative.

Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars

I have to admit, I picked up this book after I saw the movie trailer for it. Also, I just really like the title. It’s gotten lots of literary love, including the Printz award (which is like the Pulitzer for YA for those of you not in the know). Also, it was exciting for me because this was the first e-book that I borrowed from the library. Ah, the wonders of technology!

How I Live Now is about an American girl who is sent to England during the outbreak of WWIII. If you want a grand scope of what’s going on in the world for the fictional third war, this is not the book for you. The narrative is focused mainly on Daisy and what happens to her as she struggles to keep the family she’s come to love safe. We get a great sense of the vagueness of war.

The last part of the book is beautiful. I so enjoyed it. I found myself gobbling this book up, despite the weird romance. Speaking of, I should warn you, the book is good, but I was a little creeped out because she falls in love with her cousin. I mean, I get that cousin romances are not a rarity…in 18th century England. Not present day. I’m sure there’s some deeper meaning for this, but yeah, it’s a strange one.

Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars (docked a star for the incest)

Another book set during a world war, but this time it’s historical fiction. Two girls become best friends during their time serving in the women’s forces in WWII. One of them is captured by the Nazis and tortured for information. The novel is divided in half, each part told from one girl’s perspective, and it includes a lot of flashbacks that sometimes made the narrative a little chunky for me. The other thing that made it chunky was a lot of the airplane and military jargon.

But it’s also deeply suspenseful and I loved the unique language Wein developed for her two narrators. The book was very visual, almost like a movie. The climax of the book is erie and startling, but well worth it. Also, there’s some code cracking in it, which I love.

Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars

I know the publishing industry and readers are feeling a little fatigued by the dystopian trilogies (I know I am a little as well), but this one pleasantly surprised me. Marie Lu’s legend starts off a little obnoxiously, but as the characters develop, you get pulled into their world. I absolutely love Day, one of the narrators and the male lead, and June grew on me. Her dystopian LA is very well thought out, and I could see the seeds she was planting for the sequel (the final book comes out in November).

Goodreads rating: 4/5