Last week, I took a day off from security guards, sex demons and assassins (the WIP) and joined a group of undergraduate English majors, MFA students, and other writers on the University of Minnesota Mankato campus, where we had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Roxane Gay talk about writing difference.
Though Gay is both a fiction and non-fiction writer, my exposure to her work has primarily been through her eloquent, insightful essays (and her Twitter feed, @rgay), where she takes on race, gender, sexism, feminism, social class, sexual violence, homophobia, privilege, identity, corruption, and the intersectionality of these topics. While Gay’s non-fiction subject matter can feel fraught and political and scary and huge, the craft talk most emphatically was not—except for a comment about the need for publishers to be more inclusive about the writers they publish, and to expand the breadth of human experience published books present to the world.
Nope, this was a one-hour craft talk about writing difference in an authentic way. And unlike institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the patriarchy, character development is a writerly choice, something I fully control in my own work.
Note the simplicity of Gay’s phrasing: “Writing difference.” It’s as inclusive as it gets. It doesn’t value any difference over another. It excludes no one, and meets every writer where they’re at. It’s about me, the writer, writing characters who are different than me. Hell, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight Caucasian woman who writes about vampires, sirens, werewolves and sex demons—whose ancestors are aliens—and the phrase still works.
Here are some quick hits from my notes from Roxane’s session. Any errors or misinterpretations are, of course, my own:
Writing difference is about authenticity, about reaching beyond stereotypes and “lazy, half-assed assumptions.” Don’t merely write “the sassy gay friend, the fiery Latina, or the wise black maid. Dig deeper.”
People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here.
“No one is any one thing, right?” No one is solely racist, or sexist, or disabled, or LGBT, or homophobic. We can’t assume that any person—any character—is part of any monolithic whole. People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.
Research is important. READ difference. Read across genres. Expose yourself to others’ realities.
As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.
“Writers write what they’re called to write,” but authenticity is key. If your story needs a character of difference, write one—but it’s problematic, and inauthentic, and perhaps an issue of ethics, to write difference as a marketing ploy, or as a way to hop on a bandwagon, or to fetishize.
Though Gay writes both fiction and non-fiction, she says that fiction writing is her “happy place,” a way to “self-medicate.” Soft-spoken Gay clearly relishes the power she wields when writing fiction. “I control my characters. I create entire worlds.”
Yes. And by writing difference in an authentic way, we, as writers, help create the world we want to see—one character, one book, one difference at a time.
To get a taste of Roxane in action, here’s her “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” TED Talk from last year. Bad Feminist is an awesome book, and I very much look forward to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, coming in June 2016.
What are your thoughts about writing (or reading, or watching) difference? Can you recommend any authors who write difference well?
I’ve been writing novels for a long time now. I can say that I’ve learned how to write a novel and I’ve learned how to meet a deadline.
But I get stuck. I lose my way even though I have an outline. I have to rewrite. I struggle sometimes with imagery and just plain bad writing. And I sometimes lose confidence. I have accepted that these things are just part of the job.
I’ve also discovered over the years that when I’m feeling doubtful about my writing it helps to go read a book on writing craft, or storytelling, or character development and try out new techniques or new processes. Going back to basics and/or learning something new frees me from self-doubt and the writing doldrums.
So, since we’re in the midst of the Winter Writing Festival, and I figure lots of you are struggling with self-doubt, have lost your way, or are stuck on a scene, it might be helpful to provide a list of great books on the craft of storytelling and writing.
Below you’ll find a list of my favorite books on the craft of writing. Some of these books changed my life. Others are used all the time as I plot or troubleshoot.
The book discusses mythic structure and the hero’s journey as first outlined by Joseph Campbell. My take: This was the first book I ever read on story structure and it was an enormous eye-opener. It probably should be on every novelists shelf. But, a word of caution, romance authors will be left scratching their heads. The hero’s journey explains a lot of stories out there, and a lot of popular movies, but it doesn’t work for romance novels.
This book discusses fairytale structure and can be viewed as a companion book to the Writer’s Journey. My take: I’ve been waiting for this book for years. It was published in 2010 and it discusses stories that don’t fit mythic hero’s journey structure (like romances!) If you’re writing stories about characters learning to live a fulfilled life, then this book will help you understand that structure. I truly think every romance author should own this book and study it.
This book discusses scene and sequel structure. My take: This is a book that will help you improve pacing, regardless of what kind of genre you may be writing. The book focuses on thrillers and suspense novels, but romance authors can get a lot out of it as well.
This is a seminal book that provides hands-on help in crafting three-dimensional characters and understanding what people mean when they talk about conflict in a story. My take: This book changed my life. Seriously. I had no idea what conflict was, and I kept writing stories that got rejected with the words “no conflict” written all over them. If you have been told that your manuscript is lacking in conflict, you should read this book.
Written by a well-known literary agent, Donald Mass’ workbook provides advice and exercises to make your novel stand out in a crowd. My take: The exercises in this workbook are so useful, whether you are trying to fix a scene you’ve already written, or plot a novel from start to finish. The exercises are also very useful during brainstorming sessions with other writers. A lot of the questions I ask during the WWF brainstorming sessions on Wednesday mornings come right out of this workbook.
Beloved author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin provides her take on the craft of writing. My Take: If you’ve ever read one of Le Guin’s books, you know that she writes beautifully. Her book on writing craft (including such issues as comma placement) was utterly liberating for me.
These are my go-to books when I’m looking for inspiration or when I’m stuck. What books on craft or storytelling are on your shelves?
It’s been said that, in a courtroom, the man who represents himself has a fool for a client. Something similar can be said for a writer who does his or her own editing.
In an earlier blog, I mentioned fine-tuning my SFR and that it became a cautionary tale in and of itself. Here’s what happened:
Some of you know family obligations made it impossible for Cuz to relocate when his employer chose to move. With him facing unemployment, we decided to polish a manuscript that, although begun as a writing exercise in the 90s, would not die. Unsurewhether thoseold ideas still had merit, we entered the first chapters into a contest and—Hallelujah!—they did. To ice our little happy cake, while the story sat, SFR emerged as a viable genre. Whoopee!
Reality soon changed whoopee to whoop ass—with mine in its sights. Half the chapters remained in WordPerfect®, the program we had grudgingly abandoned when Word® rose to industry dominance. Some existed only on legal pads. The last handful were doc. and docx. files.
Have you any idea the garbage a story can collect over nigh eighteen years? Upon seeing the merged files, I darn near had a coronary. Over 120,000 words, huge gaps, duplicate scenes, missing scenes, more inconsistencies than I care to enumerate, and despite comprehensive profiles, the characters had morphed. Oh, and no ending. That’s right. At 120+K. It. Was. Not. Finished.
But wait. There’s more. Since we were having so much fun, circumstances added a smidge more crazy.
My CP, who planned to help us navigate indie publishing’s vagaries, announced her impending out-of-state relocation. In a strange twist, although they didn’t know each other, Cuz and her hubby worked for the same outfit.
With the deadline approaching and beta-readers waiting, we escalated to panic mode. I settled in to work. I kid you not when I say I gained about fifteen pounds because I did little but sit and type until I sent the story to the readers.
Nobody liked the hero. Too alpha. No evidence of a softer side. The heroine, while likable, didn’t fare much better. The villain . . . Well, you get the idea.
I returned to my chair and, comments in hand, knuckled down.
Many sleepless nights, pots of coffee, and PB&J sandwiches later, we had something viable but, given its age, realized holes we stood too close to see might yet exist. Both Cuz and I have solid general science backgrounds and experience within specific disciplines. Neither of us can claim more than a basic grasp of physics, however, and we had, of course, ventured there.
Pooling our resources, we hired a developmental Sci-fi editor who, we were assured, had experience with romance.
While he found several oopsies on the physics/space-science front, making him well-worth his hire, his comments and handling of the love story declared ours wasn’t the story he wanted to read. Unfortunately, what he wanted to read, we didn’t want to write.
We thanked him and parted ways.
I’ve done plenty of editing during my life. These days, it’s mostly for my CP, but in years past, I edited publications, ads, form letters—Yeah. Fun stuff—and books that eventually found place in traditional publishing. I could handle this. No sweat.
Thus, without fanfare, I donned motley and joined the fools’ ranks.
More eighteen and twenty-hour days behind the desk followed. My feet swelled. My hips spread. Each tick of the clock, it seemed, claimed another strand of hair.
Somehow, between midnight phone debates, sometimes-grudging compromises, incessant typing, and gritty eyes, time ran out. Cuz and CP made the long trip, squishing into my dinky office to navigate the publishing process.
After an almost nineteen year gestation, the book went live 25 January 2015.
It wasn’t ready. We knew it. We priced it high to discourage buyers, but like proud parents who refuse to believe they created an ugly child, kept the pictures on display.
People bought it. Our family and friends led the way, but we sold too many for just that forgiving group.
Instant panic—for me.
Cuz moseyed on to Book Two. I couldn’t make him understand Book One of a series carries the weight of every book that follows (we have three gestating), and ours didn’t have the muscle yet. Our developmental editor had become so fixated on the alien pronoun usage several discrepancies and plot holes evaded his detection just as they’d escaped mine—until I read the book in print.
Nightmares had nothing on this mess. The book bled red ink. Depression, a specter most writers battle at times, found a foothold. I republished over and over while fighting the demon (I forget how many print copies I bought. I can’t seem to see this stuff on the computer), enduring Cuz and Hubble’s jokes about how anal I was and their advice to let it be. No argument made either male understand why I persisted. The months that followed proved hellish.
On 1 August 2015, I downloaded The Sword & the Starship for the final—I hope—time, and can, at long last, say I’m proud of it. It’s sixteen pages and several thousand words leaner than its January incarnation. The bits that went nowhere are gone. The timeline issue has been resolved. The hero and heroine boast complete character and emotional arcs. As for the villain? No complaints.
AND (cue Angel Choir) Cuz has finally seen the light.
Here’s what we learned:
1.) Hiring a content or copy editor would have been wise. Despite determined attempts at objectivity, my knowledge of the story and characters led to ill-advised assumptions, skimming, and more reworking than there had to be.
2.) Nothing catches errors quite like the ear. Read the book aloud. Hearing it read works, too—if you can avoid zoning out.
3.) Not all editors are created equal. While grateful for the solid science, we would have been better served by an editor who shared our vision for the story.
4.) Trust yourself. If your inner voice is screaming, listen; it’s probably right.
5.) Chair time is not always time well-spent. Get up. Move. You can’t think very well with your blood cushioning your tush. You’ll accomplish more with it energizing your brain.
6.) Sometimes, in the long run, it costs less to spend. If you work best with print, then print. While shredded paperbacks are excellent soil-enhancers, and pages spread over soil stop weeds, they’re expensive alternatives. Your flowerbeds will be just as happy with computer paper. Better a garden than a landfill.
7.) Publishing sites have draft modes. Unfortunately, I noticed the option too late. We could have learned what we needed without risking our—or our book’s—reputation. Instead, we went all in, releasing it during its almost-but-not-quite-ready-yet, chrysalis stage—a decision we might yet regret.
So there you have it, my cautionary tale. If you take nothing else from it, take this:
Some things never attain their potential if they’re rushed, so don’t cut the chrysalis.
I started writing when my son was eleven months old. He graduates from Junior High this coming May. I wrote my first book in under a year, at least I count it as my first book, because the other two before it weren’t fit to be coasters for the coffee table. So I wrote this book, met with a popular rock band for the research and secured an agent within three months of sending it out.
I got a call from her one day telling me that a publisher in England had heard about this book through the grapevine and called my agent asking for it. They called her. This was unheard of I was told. A month later a producer asked to see it. He wanted to make a it into a movie of the week.
Through this experience, I learned that there are two types of people in the writing industry.
I belong to an online writing loop where pubbed and unpubbed work side by side answering each others questions. There was one women who was indeed, just one of us. She had participated in our discussions and been there just like the rest of us.
And then she sold her first book. A few months later I wrote her and asked her a question just like I had done with her a dozen times before, and she with me. This time the curt reply came with an ending sentence telling me that there were other people on the loop I could have gone to without bothering her. I never bought her book. Neither did anyone else in our critique group.
So what happened to my career? I mailed off the revisions my agent had asked for in January. When I hadn’t heard back by June, I finally called.
I was told that my agent had died that previous February and nobody had thought to notify me. To this day, I still do not know the specifics. My book was returned with a no thank you. I was released from the contract. No one ever knew what happened to the English publisher and the movie producer disappeared without a trace.
In one phone call I went from the cutting edge, being told that my book was so damn unusual that it would create a new sub-genre, back to square one. That was seven years ago.
And that is where the lessons began.
Not how to put a sentence together or how to submit in proper format. All that was in books. What I learned came from people.
The kind of person who glances down at your names tag at a conference, sees that there is no marking designating your masterpiece and their eyes wonder the second before they excuse themselves to go sit at the agent/editor table. I attended a conference with an someone I knew. We weren’t best friends, but we had spent some time together. When I hadn’t seen her the whole three days and finally ran into her, I asked her about it. “I don’t come here to socialize,” I was told. “I’m here to meet the people that will get my book on the shelf and that’s it.” I wasn’t one of the important people, not worth the time. At least not to her.
I met a particular multi-published author who shall remain nameless who was so important to herself she dismissed me with the wave of her hand while I was standing at her signing table.
And then I met the real people. The true giants.
I met Sue Grafton at a book signing. When I mentioned I was a newbie writer, she stopped the line for two minutes, crossed her arms over her chest with the most sincere smile and asked me how it was going.
Dean Koontz. When I didn’t feel as if I could go on with all the rejection letters, he sent me a personal note telling me ”For fifteen years most of my friends and virtually all of my relatives thought I was a bum … hang in there.” He even spelt my name right.
And Clive Cussler? I had been reading him since I was fifteen years old. He was the reason I got into writing in the first place. It’s why I write action romance. So what did he tell me when I finally, after eighteen years, met him at a book signing? “Send me a copy of your manuscript. I would like to take a look at it.”
These are my teachers.
These are the people that are not so impressed with themselves or their work that they will turn their backs on the person with the plain badge. They care. They remember.
I had a drink with an editor from a publishing house recently and we were talking about how hard it is break in to the business. When I recounted my history, she smiled sadly and said she was sorry.
And that’s when it hit me.
I almost had the instant success. I was almost one of the rare that sold their first book.
And if that had happened, where would my ego had ended up? What table would I have been sitting at and with whom would I talk to at the conference?
My lack of success in the writing industry, at least by some standards, put in the right places at the right time and showed me the people I want to mimic. The real giants. Not because they have sold more books or make more money or put their books in the top ten of the New York Best Seller List. They are giants because they cared enough to look back and see where they used to be.
It appears that my big break is a hair breath away. I have people who want to read my work. People with the clout to make the difference. We’ll see. I’ve been close before and have learned not to get too excited.
What goes around comes around. Karma. Ying and Yang. Two sides to every coin. With every action there is an opposite action. It doesn’t matter how you say it, it all means the same thing.
What we put out in the world will be what we get back. In my writing, as well as in my life, I want my second side to reflect my first. And it’s not going to be determined by how many books I have on the shelf or who I sat next to at that luncheon. It’s going to come from how I treated the person who has just finished her first draft of her first book and the person who just opened his forty-seventh rejection.
So whether or not my book sells and the deals start pouring in, don’t look for me at that front table by the podium. Look for me in the back with the real people, the people with the plain badges who realize the struggle and the reward go hand in hand.
ABOUT JACQUI JACOBY:
Award-winning author, Jacqui Jacoby lives and writes in the beauty of Northern Arizona. Currently adjusting to being an empty nester with her first grandchild to draw her pictures, Jacqui is a self-defense hobbyist. Having studied martial arts for numerous years she retired in 2006 from the sport, yet still brings strength she learned from the discipline to her heroines. She is a working writer, whose career includes writing books, teaching online and live workshops and penning short nonfiction.
People always ask where I get my story ideas. It’s a complicated question…and yet it isn’t. Because they never come from any one place. Sometimes an article I read on the internet will get the wheels turning. Sometimes an overheard conversation sparks something. And sometimes it’s a picture.
A picture like this one.
My son went snow tubing with friends this past winter. When he came back, he had several pictures. This was one of them. I chuckled and told him his facial expression seemed a little sinister. But as I looked closer, I caught a little flash of red just behind him. A small marker that said Lane 10. And there it was. The idea and title for a new book. A thriller. One where something terrible happens on Lane 10.
Right now that’s all it is. The smallest kernel of an idea. But once I get a chance, I plan to explore it just a little more. And hopefully, one day, that photo will give birth to a brand new book–painting not just a thousand words, but tens of thousands of words.
And there you have it. Short and sweet. I would love to hear your thoughts!
If you’re an author, do you have an interesting story about where you got one of your ideas? If you’re a reader, have you ever read a book and wondered how on earth the writer came up with the plot?
Last week, for about the twelfth time, I found myself befuddled up to my eyeballs over a romantic suspense work in progress. Whether you’re a panster, like myself, or a plotter, at some point you could find fresh ideas hiding in the deepest, darkness recesses of your mind amongst a pile of crappy overused ideas. When this happened to me in the past, I’d walked around for days mulling over my problem, my plot’s direction, which is perfectly fine, if you don’t have a deadline and or have time to waste. This time I purchased a few books (Snap: Seizing Your AHA Moments by Katherine Ramsland and Your Creative Brain by Shelly Carson, PHD) and learned for one that mulling is an acceptable process to release your muse. What I also learned, so far, that the more tricks you use to open the gates the faster that will happen.
We’re like the grains of sand on a pearly white beach. Besides having the potential to be stuck in places we really don’t want to go, we’re totally awesome and unique and we all learn in different ways. And in combination of ways.
It’s alleged that we have seven mind-sets (seven ways of learning and using our minds): Absorb Brainset, Envision Brainset, Connect Brainset, Reason Brainset, Evaluate Brainset, Transform Brainset, and Stream Brainset. I’m not going to divulge every detail I’ve learned from these books so far. I suggest you check them out for yourself. However, I will share a concise description of each mindset and an exercise you can use that key to unlock your mind’s muse.
Absorb Mindset: Ability to absorb new information in a non-judgmental way to be stored for use later when you can use say information to see associations between objects and to remain open to your subconscious.
Exercise: Pick a space, indoor or outside. For five minutes, really absorb your surroundings. Notice the colors, textures, lines and shadows. Then touch, listen, smell and taste. Next pick an object and think of a new way use for it. We’ve all seen the Knorr Side Dish commercial where a cork screw is used as a coat nail and a fork is used a cabinet handle. That is the same idea.
Envision Mindset: In this mindset we deliberately imagine ways to solve problems, using absorb information. This mindset is well known to creative people. The exercise below will help you increase your mental imagery. It turns off the stream of unwanted thoughts.
Exercise: Close your eyes and take three deep cleansing breathes. Now image your happy place. Where you feel the most relax? Picture yourself there. Allow yourself to feel the surroundings. If your recliner, feel the texture of the material against your skin, the firmness of the cushion surrounding you, the angle of your body as you relax. Are there sounds around you? Soft music or maybe a ball game on the T.V., or your children playing at your feet. How about smells, tastes. Allow yourself to enjoy your happy place for a few minutes.
Connect Mindset: This mindset allows you to spawn many ideas without concerns to how they will play out. You’ll think out of the box. Successful use of this mindset could lead you to become overwhelmed with creative possible ideas. You’ll become energized and excited about your work.
Exercise: Set a timer for three minutes. On a piece of paper write down as many uses for a shoe you can think of. Then set the timer again and write down all the things you can do with a shoelace. Set the timer again and jot down the consequences of a torn shoelace.
Reason Brainset: This brainset solves problems logically, using all your storage memories and knowledge. It allows you to control what thoughts occupy your mind. It is deliberate and necessary as you complete your creative project. It is the perfect mindset to flesh out a whimsical idea and make it realistic. It helps you motivate action, manage time, increases chances for success, strengthens self-confidence and heightens sense of control over your life. It’s one mindset I’ve consciously worked on every single day, several times a day, over the last several months.
Exercise: You will stop particular unwanted thoughts or train of thoughts as soon as they enter you mind by simply saying, “Don’t go there.” Or “Thinking of this is not my on my hour’s agenda.”
Evaluate Mindset: Coming up with fresh ideas is vital is our line of work, but judging whether those ideas are indeed worth spending time one is also essential. This is where this mindset comes in. Three factors are necessary: active judgement, focused attention and impersonality. We need to judge our work against others of which it’s competing. Not us against them. This is about our work, not ourselves. In order to do that, we need to get some distance from our work, judge it with respect, don’t toss the work mid-project, look at each of its parts and evaluate their merits, and look at the work from the point of view of your audience. Be flexible. Consult others. Be hard on your work and not yourself!
Exercise: On a sheet of paper write the titles of your top ten books of all time. Imagine they’re no longer available anywhere or ever again. Now, ( I know you’re going to hate me) cross off five. Behind them, write why you crossed them off.
Transform Mindset: Is all about emotion. Our emotion. Our negative emotions and how they affect our memories and visions. It’s important we know this mindset and how it disturbs our creativity. It is a what-if state, just like the envision mindset, but unlike the purposeful imaginings of the later, this mindset’s themes are worry, anxiety, self-pity or regret. But this mindset can help with your creative project. Our characters are an extension of humanity. People have flaws, negative thoughts, regrets. We can use this mindset to write timeless characters if only we draw on the transform mindset.
Exercise: Pick three things in your home that you feel best represents you: personality, taste, qualities. Now write a paragraph about each and how they relate to you. Did you learn anything about yourself? Was there a negative or positive view of yourself?
The Stream Mindset: We refer to this mindset as being in ‘the zone.’ It is the unique melding of self and action. You lose your sense of self and focus on the world at hand. But how do we achieve this mindset.
First, you need the expertise to enter the stream mindset. Second, you need to be engaged in an activity that intrinsically motivating you. (Intrinsic motivation means that you’re involved in an activity because of an internal award and not an external one.) Do you write for the joy of writing?
Exercise: On a piece of paper jot down five activities that had your blood surging and your mind whirling. These activities are your passion.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, I’ve only touched on the information contained in these two books. In fact, I’m not finished with either of them, but what I’ve learned so far has helped me to be more productive, to think out of the box on my wip, and be more acceptable of the amount of work I can accomplish in a day.
When writers think about the tools of our trade, our thoughts might understandably go to craft: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice. Characters, plot, setting, tense. Point of view, goal/motivation/conflict, dialogue, pace. And yes – all these things all need to be taken into account, all these things and more.
But I’d like to add to the list something that I consider to be an essential character development tool: empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as being empathy machines. I think the same thing can be said of books, because at the foundation, isn’t every great reading experience one where we temporarily abandon our sense of self so we can vicariously experience life from another point of view?
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d spent thousands of hours in fictional characters’ heads, considering someone else’s perspective, and the more unlike me the character was, the more fascinated I was…about the staggering breadth of the human experience, about the possibilities of the world outside my rural hometown, and about the place I wanted to make for myself in that world.
So this might explain why I feel a strong attraction to, and a strange affinity for, so-called “unlikeable characters”, and to fictional villains in particular. What intriguing psychological ground! What makes a villain tick? What secret pain does he or she hide?
I didn’t realize this affinity might be a marketable skill until I was in college, when a psychology professor suggested I consider a career in criminal psychology. “You have an unusual capacity for suspending judgment.” I didn’t end up interviewing with the FBI, but in retrospect, I think this sense of psychological curiosity came from a very obvious place.
From READING – and having free-ranged the adult library stacks from age ten, I’d met perhaps more than my fair share of dubious fictional characters. 😉
Which brings me to writing, and to empathy.
They say that a villain is the hero of his or her own story. He or she thinks they’re doing a good thing, the obvious thing, for very good reasons. When writing villains, we need to understand those reasons. Judgment and mental distance is a luxury we simply can’t afford, not if we’re going to do that character justice on the page. To get at a villain’s true goals, motivations, and conflicts, and to write from their point of view with any sense of authenticity, we have to dig deep, put aside our personal value systems, and try to find some common ground, some shared humanity, in what can be pretty unsavory psychological territory.
We need to be brave enough to engage our empathy machines…at least temporarily.
It can be very challenging to explore the inner lives of characters who might be very, very different than ourselves – REAL people, three-dimensional people, flawed people who both frighten and fascinate. Though it’s a tool that always needs honing, I find a well-developed sense of empathy to be a very handy tool to have around.
What are your thoughts on books as empathy machines, and the concept of empathy as an essential tool in a writer’s toolkit? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why? Please weigh in.
…who still receives letters from readers expressing both delight and dismay about Stephen, the villain in my 2011 release, TASTE ME – including questions about when I’m going to write “his” book! 😉
Composite image by stockimages/KROMKRATHOG at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Many moons ago, a younger cousin requested help with his writing. He’s a marvelous storyteller, enjoys roll-playing games, and, like me, is a Ren Faire denizen, but his writing was what he calls organic—aka weak, wordy, and wandering, in need of industrial-strength honing. Since he’s more like a brother than a cousin, I agreed.
I had several advantages:
I am the elder. Cousin remembers the days he, along with my brothers, was put in my charge. Old habits die hard.
I have more experience. At the time, I wrote a quarterly magazine column, handled publicity for several youth related organizations, and had two books under contract—which I, later (with cause), withdrew.
Cousin wanted to learn. No question about who had final authority.
A word of warning:No matter how well you think you know someone, be prepared to learn more about both that person and yourself. Not all of it will be good. There will be days you won’t like the face across the desk. Worse, you won’t like the one in the mirror.
One of the first things we did was attend a local RWA® meeting where writing friends, Jim and Nikoo McGoldrick, gave a talk on collaboration. A husband and wife team who write as May McGoldrick (historical) and Jan Coffey (romantic suspense), they punctuated the discussion with audience roll-play. The first warning bells tolled, but we moved blithely on, confident family ties would ease our way.
Knowing Cuz wasn’t keen on Historical Romance, and being a closet Sci-fi geek who once dreamed of being an MD—and studied accordingly—I whistled up an idea that combined our interests. Next, a comprehensive outline complete with character profiles, the particulars of two disparate worlds, and enough conflict to set those worlds aflame. Since the Sci-fi romance genre did not yet exist, I considered it a fun exercise to hone Cuz’s wordsmithing skills.
First mistake: The outline. (Photos are of the original chapter by chapter concept.)
I’m a pantser. Dyed-in-the-wool, can’t-write-any-other-way type. I wanted to get us thinking along the same lines, not strangle us with them. Cuz’s writing style and mine went to war. Finding a way to mesh diametrically opposed processes took a wee while.
If you are a plotter, run from collaboration with a pantser. All those nice bullet points you put in your outline will become points of contention. Baldness will be the least onerous outcome. And two pantsers? I’m thinking chaos, but it would be interesting to see the final result—if one didn’t cosh the other.
Second mistake: I wrote the heroine. Cuz got the hero.
Never would the twain meet. Narrative passages had to be worked and reworked ad nauseum. Oh, and my heroine would not have given Cuz’s hero a second glance—except to insure her aim when she shot him.
The list goes on, but this post is supposed to be about how NOT to commit murder, not the myriad reasons why doing so will cross your mind—repeatedly—so let’s move on.
As I said, being the experienced elder gave me leverage. You may not have that, but it’s important to recognize strengths and weaknesses and step forward or back accordingly.
Cuz took my ideas and ran with them, coming up with things that would never have occurred to me (Sentient androids? Really?). His aerospace industry experience provided a knowledge base alien to me. His perspective also added a depth I would have missed.
I am a word junkie. Words delight me with their shades of meaning and inherent strength. Putting them together just so is crack for my addiction. Add a creative streak that makes the Atlantic look like spit on the sidewalk, and storytelling comes naturally. And, since the hero is fashioned after a 12th century Scots warrior, my infatuation with history proved handy.
We began to achieve balance.
That’s not to say we didn’t argue. We did. Often. For hours. Sometimes Cuz’s writing didn’t accurately convey his ideas. I’d rework a scene, adding continuity and strengthening prose, only to have him come back with a resounding, “That’s not what I meant.” Frustrating—for both of us. He threw ideas at me like a pitching machine run amuck (thank you, Donald Maas). I couldn’t simply dodge them; I had to explain why I wouldn’t swing. We’d argue—again.
Then there are the small things, the previously written bits that trip you if you aren’t wary. I have a mind for such details and often scoured the manuscript to find what precluded Cuz’s latest idea or snippet of heroic dialogue. It didn’t help that life intervened mid-story. The manuscript languished, all but forgotten–except at family functions when we’d unfailingly end up discussing it—for nearly a decade.
Thus, we call it The-Story-That-Wouldn’t-Die.
Things we’ve learned:
The strongest glue for any collaboration is respect. Respect for the other person’s ideas, talents, strengths, and opinions. Without it, clashes will destroy the partnership before it can mature.
Life happens. Death, illness, accidents don’t care about commitments. And when two people are involved, twice as much can go wrong. Add the give and take necessary to determine the best story solutions, and flexibility is a must.
When words won’t come to explain or an idea won’t gel into something easily shared, patience saves lives. After a time, you learn to hear past the words.
Sometimes you must be willing to see where the wrong road leads. When time comes to backtrack, you might find yourself with a treasure taking the right road probably wouldn’t have revealed. If not, there’s always the childish satifaction of, “I told you so.”
Collaboration isn’t for everyone. Truth is, had Cuz been anyone else, I doubt we would have stuck it out, but I didn’t kill him, he didn’t kill me, and our exercise is now a full-fledged book. The feedback from those few who’ve read it is encouraging. One reader, who prefers suspense to romance of any kind, called it gripping and admitted, despite reservations, she read it in one sitting. It’s a long book! Have to say, that one earned a cheer and a tear or two.
So, let me introduce you to a brainchild conceived in the 90s, nurtured off and on as life allowed since late 2009, and finally, brought into the world January 2015.
Does she have a soul?
Genetically engineered to blend with a sophisticated, aristocratic society, Valara F’al-ten awakens from her hibernetic sleep in an uncharted star system, orbiting a planet rich in resources Earth Colony 5 needs, but how does one negotiate inter-galactic trade agreements with a society that still wields swords?
Clan High Chieftain, Gordain Ryn Phellan, has problems—an outlawed clan, a rival chieftain, and a despot with mind-control capabilities—even before he captures the bewitching female who claims to have a flying ship. That she could be kin to his greatest foe and was assembled rather than born should repel him. It doesn’t. Instead, he finds himself torn between his responsibility to the clans and his escalating desire for her.
Despite unnerving physical and emotional changes, Lara needs to complete her mission, but Dain’s enemies have other plans. Past and future collide as they work together to neutralize the threats, leaving Lara caught between duty and the yearning of her awakening heart.
Currently available for Kindle, but alternate formats will follow in a few days.
We also have a website. It’s a bit sparse at the moment, but books 2 & 3 are already in the mental womb. Shorter gestation should make birthing these new babies—(choke) interesting.
I spent more than a little time at 2014 RWA National in my hotel room, writing. Let me correct that: I was struggling. I was working on this love scene that takes place at about the halfway point of my WIP, ENTHRALL ME. For some reason, Tia and Wyland’s bodies were doing all the right, sexy things, but the scene was flat. Dead.
Over some awesomely sleazy Chinese take-out, I realized I’d completely lost track of Wyland’s emotional arc. Why were Wyland and Tia in bed again? They must have reasons, right?
I realized I had no earthly idea what those reasons were. Houston – or should I say San Antonio – we have a problem.
After returning home, I took what felt like a really drastic step–I stopped writing. I pushed writing new words aside and, using my daily writing time, tried some troubleshooting techniques I use in my day job as a quality and process analyst (namely root-cause analysis, and The Five Whys) to investigate what was up.
And I figured out what the problem was pretty quickly.
I hammered out the first draft of this book during NaNoWriMo, in Nov. 2013, then devised a Chapter/Scene breakdown based on that first draft. Over a half year had passed since then. So much had changed in my story, but I hadn’t taken the time to update my plot line document, my GMC charts, and all the support materials that are so essential to my process.
However, my revisions document was 10 pages long and growing by the day. *choke*
In a moment of serendipitous timing, a couple of my Ruby Sisters mentioned registering for an upcoming Story Masters workshop, which I’d had the opportunity to take last year and had written a blog post about. As I re-read the blog post, it hit me: I’d fallen headlong into the trap Donald Maass had warned us about!
Goals can get in our way. When you feel all caught up in deadlines, word count, page count, and meeting agent/editor/reader expectations, STOP. Ask yourself, why do I do this? What am I trying to say? What matters in the end is not that you made your daily word count, but that you told a compelling story. THAT’S the goal. Remember?
I’d become so focused on daily output, on the number of scenes piling up, that I’d lost sight of the endpoint. What was I writing toward? How was I going to get there?
* crickets *
My mental story map was no longer accurate. My out-dated support materials had become an albatross hanging around my neck.
Why had it taken me so long for me to recognize this? The best I can come up with is that I allowed outside influences, and thoughts about commitments to others, to get in the way. I’d stated a goal to readers to release a book annually, which still feels s-l-o-w. My CP wouldn’t get new, polished chapters if I stopped to assess whether the chapters I delivered to her actually, you know, connected in any reasonable way.
I also realized I’d fallen into what author Chuck Wendig called The Pit of Comparisons (language NSFW). Reading all those tweets from people who release multiple books per year, when I can’t release one, and who talk about their 10K-word writing days when on my most productive day, I can barely eke out 500, had really done a job on my head.
These things made it really easy for me to just…plow forward, to ignore that niggling spider sense telling me that something was wrong. Because activity equals productivity, right?
No. Not so much.
So I took a deep, painful breath, and told my CP it might be awhile before she saw any new chapters from me. I acknowledged—really acknowledged—that there was no way in hell I’d be ready to release ENTHRALL ME by years’ end. Then I devised a bullet-point plan to get myself back on track.
My plan includes:
Reading the first half of my manuscript, which is at second draft and which my CP has already seen, to reacquaint myself with the story facts I’ve committed to paper.
Updating my Chapter/Scene breakdown document to reflect what actually happens in the first half of the book.
Updating my character development charts to reflect current GMCs.
Applying those piled-up revisions to the first half of the book.
After these steps are done, I figure I’ll be standing on a firmer foundation story-wise. Next, I’ll need to:
Reassess the plot and storyline for the remainder of the book. What scenes do I need to write to tell the rest of the story, based on what I wrote in the first half of the book?
Update my Chapters/Scenes document to reflect that analysis.
Re-read first draft NaNoWriMo scenes from the back half of the book to see what might be salvageable.
Start writing the second half of the book.
I’m on step four of this plan, applying revisions, and I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER!! I’m getting my story back on track again, and not letting the words, or the illusion of progress, get in the way.
What do you do when you recognize your story might be clattering off-track? How do you keep yourself from falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others?
TEMPT ME, Book Three of Tamara Hogan’s award-winning Underbelly Chronicles paranormal romance series, was nominated for a 2014 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and for a 2014 Booksellers Best Award. Learn more at www.tamarahogan.com.
My children came into the world with two sets of grandparents and two sets of great-grandparents. Safe within the nurturing embrace of their large and loving family, they thrived.
I can’t recall whether Son was in kindergarten or first grade, but one day, he arrived home confused and agitated. A classmate claimed to have no grandparents. How could that be?
The shattering of normal had begun.
This is one of my favorite memes (sorry, Angelica, but Carolyn will always be Morticia to me). In one pithy sentence, the truth is revealed: Normal isn’t a wide brush that coats every life with the same paint. It’s a series of brushes comprised of various materials, camel hair, boar bristles, razor wire, each a different width and bearing a different color.
We’ve all heard or read about that mystical, magical, elusive element called Voice. From whence does it come? How do I get it?
The answer is simple. As you experience life, you acquire streaks, stripes, and spots of matte, satin, gloss, and glitter. It’s from that chromatic chaos tinting the neutral base of your inherent nature Voice emerges.
Voice is you–who you were, are, and even who you will become. If planning your next visit to an exotic land is your normal, that adventurous spirit will traipse across the page. A perennial optimist? Sunshine will light your words. Pessimist? Gloom will shadow your prose. Try though you might to disguise it, Voice will illuminate the real you.
Have things in your world ever become so overwhelming you wanted to divorce your life? Okay, maybe not divorce, but how about a legal separation? Or, at the very least, a lengthy vacation?
Life will, eventually, test every hope, dream, belief, and perception, pushing you to the edge of your mental and physical endurance. It will leave you asea, battling crashing waves, glowering skies, and circling sharks. Survival will demand all your attention. Day by day, you’ll struggle, hope for rescue, search the horizon for signs of land.
This becomes your normal.
Then, for better or worse, it will change. You’ll look back and either be relieved to have washed ashore or nostalgic for storm clouds because the sun is baking your brain.
Here’s the thing: As much as you curse what- or whoever tossed you overboard, there are things to be learned within your circumstances. Without these lessons, your stories will lack depth, credibility, and empathy.
Your Voice will lack resonance for your reader.
(Just for the record, the same holds true for joy and other aspects of living. Trials, however, seem to sharpen the learning curve.)
Authors, and their work, mature and grow within the framework of each individual’s normal. The frames are all different and constantly changing. Some are heavy and gilded, some thin strips of salvaged wood. Time can strip the gilding, embellish the wood, but within the frame, Voice, although evolving, remains unique.
Thus, I encourage you to reevaluate your normal, the joys, trials, and general messiness of living.
Accept it. Embrace it. Learn from it.
Put it to work.
The vanquished is always servant–or, in the fly’s case, dinner–to the victor.