It was scrawled all over my carefully typed narrative in big red letters. I had no idea what it meant. I was sitting in a writing class at Rice University with twenty other people including an emergency room doctor dying of AIDS, a mysterious CEO who arrived every night by a chauffeured limousine, and a Cuban refugee. All of us thought we were ready to write a novel. Our professor, American Book Award winning novelist Venkatesh Kulkarni, was about to prove us all wrong. He walked into class wearing a white suit and bright green socks, dramatically threw a stack of papers onto the floor, and then proclaimed in his accented English, “None of these would be publishable.” “But these,” he continued, wildly waving a small set of papers over his head, “we will read!”
When one of us was called to the podium to nervously read our manuscripts out loud, it was always accompanied by the loud scratches of his bright red pen as he marked huge “X”s over most pages and scribbled furiously on others. QBCD. It meant Quick Brief Character Description (QBCD) and it was one of the most important lessons learned from the years I studied with Professor Kulkarni. Every time a character entered a scene it was an opportunity to make him/her memorable to the reader. Not just the main character, but everyone—the checkout woman, the pilot, the teacher, the policeman—everyone. The past couple of weeks I’ve been traveling through many airports—Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, Charleston—and the idea of QBCD is ever present. There’s no better place to brainstorm a list of great character descriptions that watching the people in an airport. So here’s a few:
• Short and thin-lipped and icy in her expression
• The one with the orangish hair and the strong mind
• Tall, with green eyes and a powerful voice
• Big silver hoops that shook from her ears as she talked
• With short, curly black hair that always looked wet
• A plain white t-shirt stretched tightly over his perfect triangle of a body
• He had a fringe of naturally dark eyelashes that would make my mascara jealous
• A forehead that stretched well over the top of his head
Professor Kulkarni also taught that every novel needed at least twenty revisions. One of those revisions for me is to search through my pages for the opportunity for QBCDs. And that led to another of the Professor’s favorite scribbled notations—MM. It stood for “Make it Memorable.”When I was revising my current novel, SKINY, I looked for opportunities for those quick brief character descriptions to make every character, even the minor ones, as memorable as possible.
Once I had QBCD’s sprinkled throughout my manuscript, I realized I needed still another revision–one for my main characters. I sort of knew what they looked like, but I needed more detail and specificity. One reader’s comment was, “but what does she LOOK like?” and, when I thought about it, I honestly didn’t know. I also needed consistency. On page 11, the best friend has blue eyes, but on page 58, she has brown eyes. So, I did it old school. Off to the store I went for glue sticks, post it notes, poster board, and teen magazines. I selected pictures to represent all my major and minor characters, and created a Character Board to hang beside my desk. I double checked every name with the board to make sure the descriptions of each character was richly described and consistent throughout.
With my new manuscript, I’m using Pinterest as an electronic character board. Still new to this internet bulletin board site, I must warn you of its addictive qualities. Pinterest is a new type of image-based social media. It is wonderful for saving (or pinning) all kinds of images to a web based file. I have found it to be a great way to collect visual representations of characters, settings, clothing, or any kind of visual reference material. I’ve just started my image collection for my new manuscript, but you can view it here. If you want to try it out for yourself, go to Pinterest.com and request an invite. You can also find links to some helpful hints below:
Donna Cooner is an author, blogger, speaker, and teacher currently living in Fort Collins, Colorado. A former teacher and school administrator, she now teaches teachers and principals at Colorado State University where she is the director of the School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation. Donna is the author of over twenty picture books and was a founding member of the Brazos Valley Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators. She has also written children’s television shows for PBS and textbooks for future teachers.
SKINNY (Fall, Scholastic/EgmontUK) is her debut novel for young adults.
Donna is giving away a signed copy of SKINNY!! Comment on this post to enter!
Did you like this post? Show Donna by buying her book! All of our authors are donating their time and experience FOR FREE, and the best way to show your appreciation is to buy their books.
SKINNY by Donna Cooner: Hopeless. Freak. Elephant. Pitiful. These are the words of Skinny, the vicious voice that lives inside fifteen-year-old Ever Davies’s head. Skinny tells Ever all the dark thoughts her classmates have about her. Ever knows she weighs over three hundred pounds, knows she’ll probably never be loved, and Skinny makes sure she never forgets it.
But there is another voice: Ever’s singing voice, which is beautiful but has been silenced by Skinny. Partly in the hopes of trying out for the school musical—and partly to try and save her own life—Ever decides to undergo a risky surgery that may help her lose weight and start over.
With the support of her best friend, Ever begins the uphill battle toward change. But demons, she finds, are not so easy to shake, not even as she sheds pounds. Because Skinny is still around. And Ever will have to confront that voice before she can truly find her own.
Coming October 1, 2012.