We’ve all heard and seen the memes about journeys and first steps and how starting is the hardest part. Cannot say how many times I had to push through the paralyzing fear of failure and criticism just to take that first terrifying step into the unknown. Then you look back and think “why was I ever afraid? This is a cake-walk!”
When people start something new they have curiosity and motivation on their side or, at the very least, willingness to try. Passion burns brightly in the beginning and everything seems like a revelation; it’s exciting to learn new skills and gain knowledge. Then, after the initial firework of inspiration starts to fade, the project becomes work and it becomes so much harder to continue on. (Every artist and writer should be nodding in sympathy right now…) Eventually, if they stick with it, comes the sweetness of achievement and mastery.
That, of course, is the end goal. That’s why we started, right? To get better and put more options into our Tool Box of Life.
Maybe for some things.
Wait, excuse me, WHAT? SOME things??! Life is all about being better, faster, smarter, stronger! Make those numbers! Reach that deadline! Get those gains!
Ha. Yeah. Funny how getting older gives you some perspective. I used to be the Hare in the race of life. Now I appreciate the Turtle so much more.
I’ve found that it’s actually the journey getting there has become the best and most important part. It is a very different view point than what I had when I was younger. Home work, work projects, deadlines, and schedules ruled my life with two young Autistic children and a house hold to run. I lived for the end game and the sweetness of being done; of being able to rest and move on to something new. Now, having honed in on my dreams to be a writer and motivational communicator, I find that, ironically, it is necessary to go backward in my journey and try to remember what it’s like to be a beginner.
Mmmmkay Jessica. Why now?
I am going to counter with another question:
Do you remember how you felt the first time you learned something new?
Think about it. Big or small, what was the last thing you did where you considered yourself a beginner? Learning a new App for your phone. Learning a new aspect for your job. Make-up contouring. Beard sculpting. Learning a new language. Learning to fly a plane. Trying to cook Beef Wellington for the first time. Writing a book. (HA.)
Could you teach that skill to a Level Zero, brand new student with no experience? Do you remember the very basic principles? Do you remember the rules and body ergonomics and safety tips? Do you remember what products you used when you were starting out? Do you remember your mistakes?
And more questions:
Do you remember thinking, ‘wow I suck. I don’t understand. I did it wrong. I’ll never get this’ and ‘Someone else can do this a lot faster and better than me, I should just give up’. Do you remember the icky feeling in the pit of your stomach seeing what a bumbling fool you were, the stupid questions you asked, the gnawing fear of failure paralyzing your brain?
Could you empathize with someone, looking at them all shiny and new, and be that new student with them all over again?
This is where I find myself now. At the Beginning.
Yes, I have been writing stories for half my life but it wasn’t until I sat down with myself and did a deep dive into my Being that I realized how important it was that I don’t use “Getting Published” as my driving motivator. It is still a goal of mine, of course, but as a teacher and a communicator, it is more important for me to be able to remember all the steps in-between so I can empathize with my students. Understanding their frustration and guiding them through it. Giving them techniques and tips and advice to help.
As backwards as this sounds, I am actually grateful I didn’t push myself too hard to get traditionally published these last few years. (Yeah, right. Sounds like excuses to me…) Well its true. Why? Because now I can record the whole thing properly. I can use this blog as it was first intended: a journal for the Journey.
Okay so! That’s one aspect sorted. Next up: CONSISTENCY.
I appreciate whoever is still here with me. We’re all trying to figure it out, right? We’re here for you. Start again as many times as it takes.
Living through modern dramatic historical events has kinda got us all frazzled, right? Fires. Hurricanes. Pandemics. Wars. The kids of 2050 are going to look back at our time and be in the same place we felt looking back at the World Wars and the Great Depression. Like, how did you survive, Grandma/pa? How did you live through it all? (And, why do we need to know this? It happened a bazillion years ago.)
What will we tell them? That some of us didn’t survive? That we didn’t have a choice but to continue living because people relied on us and we couldn’t let the economy go completely to shit? That we stayed busy and kept our heads down and protected what was ours because it was the only thing we could control?
YIKES. Dark answers for dark times.
I personally try not to focus on the doom and gloom of it all though. I feel that worry is a rocking chair that gives you something to do while getting you no where. Being aware and making contingency plans are important, don’t get me wrong. But when you focus on the black, all you will see is black. You will look for it and feel validated when something–SHOCKINGLY–goes wrong. This creates a negative feedback loop that will put you in a foul mood all day.
Here’s a secret:
There is little satisfaction in being right about the bad things. It is a hollow victory and is short-lived.
Wanna know my answer to “how did you survive?”
Find joy one day at a time.
Yes, you can collectively groan at the horrid cliché. You’re allowed. But I’ll tell you this is one of the hardest things I ever had to teach myself.
And it HURT.
How does finding joy hurt, you ask? Because you have to actively look for it. You have to dig for it some days, when things are really bad and you want to crawl into the darkness of your blankets and just wallow. You have to fight the impulse to stay in a black mood and bite people’s heads off and throw your bag at the wall because you want to break things. Sometimes the unfairness and injustice and frustration are too much to bear. I totally get it. I’ve been there (more often these last 5 years than I want to let on).
Choosing to set aside the anger and forcibly wrestle your feelings into submission when you don’t want to is a sign of maturity. Adulting at it’s absolute worst (and best, if you succeed), in my opinion. Bottling them up isn’t exactly healthy either but there are appropriate times to vent and be salty and ways to do it so you don’t hurt yourself or others.
Appreciating the small things that you have is a skill you must teach yourself, just like any habit. Sometimes it is hard to look at life and see the good in it or even care that there is good at all, just like it is hard to resist that cigarette and hard to muster up the motivation to out for a walk when it’s raining.
The way I stay grateful and humble in my life is to say it first thing in the morning. As soon as I have conscious thought, I say Thank You. It’s not really aimed at a specific person or Being. It was just ‘thank you’ and recognizing that I didn’t get to where I am all by myself. It’s that easy and that hard. There is always something to be grateful for but depending on our current state of self, it can be damn hard to feel it.
So start just saying the words. That’s how a habit forms, right? Going through the motions. Muscle memory. Doing something over and over until you do it automatically. Thank you for my morning coffee. Thank you for my working vehicle. Thank you for my financial income. Thank you for my derpy cat.
Thank you. THANK YOU. THANK YOU!
Driving to work I would look at the pretty sky and take a moment to be grateful I could see it. I get a text every morning from my partner and I smile because I still have him in my life. I take off my shoes at the end of the day and take a warm shower and I flood the universe with gratitude for indoor plumbing. Looking into my daughters’ faces and telling them what good girls they are and how thankful I am they aren’t into hard drugs and drinking parties.
Yes, I know how it sounds. Like some feckin’ princess dancing through a field of flowers singing about beauty and love and hope. It’s hard not to feel a little dumb singing praises to the Universe every day. However, the effect is two-fold, once you integrate it into your life. Not only will it be a little easier to deal with the negativity of life but psychologically, you brain will reset as well and you will default to a better frame of mind.
In other words, white calls to white and you will begin to see all the things that go RIGHT and be more thankful when they do. This is a positive feedback loop.
Of course there will be bad days/weeks where things start to slide and you wonder why it’s worth trying to find joy every day. But your Happiness Muscle will be stronger this time around and you will find it easier to get out of that black frame of mind.
And, as with all new things, this method might not work for everyone. It worked for me and I’m passing on the experience in case someone wants to try. Other methods I have tried as well are Guided Meditations on YouTube (there are tons out there and they are free), Ho’oponopono, the Polynesian practice of finding balance and forgiveness (I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you), micro journaling every day, tarot/oracle/mantra card readings or maybe a good hard work out routine to appreciate your body more.
Figuring out what works for you takes time and experimentation and the willingness to try something new. If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you got. (Meaning: repeating what hasn’t worked in the hopes that This time it will is mostly likely going to get you the same results.) Where is the breaking point though? When is the right time to put your foot down and declare that you are DONE and today is the day you make a different choice?
Now do you understand why I say it’s hard? Breaking a habit and making a new one all at once is no picnic in the park. Humans do not like being told they are wrong; they do not like change; and they do not like taking responsibility for their emotions (because deep down, we are all just toddlers waiting to tantrum when things get hard).
Be right about the good things, even if the journey toward finding it has you hanging off a cliff by your fingernails. The rewards are worth it if you do the work.
Honestly, one of my favorite things to do while conceptualizing a new novel is getting to know my characters. Sometimes they inspire the spark that create the story and sometimes they come out of left field and demand to be made real (usually when it is least convenient). Sometimes characters have to be blended into one because there are too many in the mix or there are two that are too similar. Some even need to be killed stone dead before they make it to the second draft.
The cast is ever rotating, am I right? It can be a lot to take in for any level for writer. Let me help!
Now there are two different kinds of stories you can write if you’re going into the fiction genre. There is PLOT driven, where the characters are influenced by external conflict and CHARACTER driven, where the plot is heavily influenced by internal conflict. Today I’m going to dive into the latter because NaNoWriMo is coming up fast and I know a lot of budding novelist will be scouring the internet for tips and tricks to start off right.
Speaking of starting off right, I need coffee…
Shameless advertising there. Sorry/not sorry.
Okay! So we know that there are a hundred billion different combinations of things your character can be and if you want them to be as real as possible, you need to make them as detailed as possible. Not all of the detail will be in the novel but you will, inevitably, slip in little tidbits throughout the story. This is a good thing! It adds depth to the character and trust me, the reader will notice and love you for it. (Just don’t go over board with it because too much of a good thing gets dull.)
Some writers absolutely dread this task. They don’t know where to start or how to get the person in their heads on to paper and it ends up being a glorious mess. It’s even worse, usually, when creating villains and antagonists (that will be a later post).
I got you peeps.
I did a post a few years ago on characterization that had a list of interview questions you could use to flesh out your characters. It is the simplest and most logical way to go about it and a great starting point after you get the physical aspects of your characters out of the way. It goes into likes/dislikes, religious affiliations (if there are any), which parent they most represent, any major accidents or traumas in their past, how their relationship is with their siblings (if there are any) et cetra.
I also talked about the use of Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius in THIS blog. Highly recommend! But maybe after NaNoWriMo. It’s an entire book and we don’t got time for that with the 1,667 demanding all our stamina. The first half of the book is a deep dive into the character’s past and what specific incidents from childhood created their Fear, their Desire and their Goals. (If you’re on YouTube at all, look for Abbie Emmons. She has a playlist on her channel that really explains the Story Genius concept and takes you through Story Structure beat by beat.)
But here are a few more known ways of getting to know your characters. One of the easiest, and most important, is to name them. HA. I know, totes obvious, right? I know a lot of writers struggle to find the perfect name. If one doesn’t immediately come to me as I am fleshing out the character, I take out my secret weapon.
I consult a Baby Name book.
Truly! This is what I do. This is how my youngest daughter, Cassidy (meaning “clever”), got her name. From a book. How fitting, right?
See, when I was younger, someone told me that names have power and it stuck with me. My full name means “He Sees/ Grace/ Bitter/ Descends”. (Depending on which interpretation I am consulting it can be slightly different.) I purposely named my oldest daughter the way I did because her name means “Great/Light/Descends” (and it is very true. She is such a love <3). Baby name books (or websites) also list names with their ancestral origins. Jessica is Hebrew. Cassidy and Moira are Irish. So if it is important for your character to have a specific sort of name, start there.
I tend to chose names based on what I want my characters to reflect. Gaelyn, for instance, to me sounds soft and warm and means “calm”. He is a natural healer, a little shy around crowds of people and prefers children and animals over adult interaction. Ciel, on the other hand, is a French boy, sharp as a whip, dark-humored and terribly clever, a master musician and bored with normality. He’s a prodigy and cares very little for humans. His name is small and cutting but means “heavenly”. I thought it reflected his dichotomy perfectly, looking and sounding like an angel but having the personality of a Fallen angel.
Now, if this hasn’t already wiped you out, expand that name into a birth day. It may not be important to the story when your character was born but if you want to have fun with it, check out the Zodiac signs associated with birth days. I know many of you think Astrology is all bogus made up BS but, suspend your eye-rolling for one second and consider it as a tool for your writing. Leos are fiery and loyal and temperamental. Tauruses are stubborn, mischievous, and humorous. Geminis are mercurial, dual-natured and clever. These, of course, are all generalizations but reading about the different signs could help you narrow down what type of personality you want your character to have.
There is also the Chinese Zodiac, which uses animals for each birthday and has similar trait break downs as western astrology. I am an Ox, for instance, and they tend to be hard workers, leaders, warm-hearted, generous and very stubborn toward change.
There is also Numerology, if you want to get even more in-depth with birth days. You can look at each of the different Life Path summaries to get an over view and decide which one fits best for your character or you can use a specific numerical day of birth for a more personalized overview (My life path is 11).
Two of the more complicated methods of finding out who your characters are is using the free Myer-Briggs personality test. It is a test developed by famous psychologist Carl Jung to sort people into their most likely personality types based on a series of questions. It’s a lot of reading if you want to peruse all the different personality types, but very insightful, or you can challenge yourself and try to get into your character’s mindset and take the test from THIER point of view. It is difficult, in my experience, to stay in character and not be influenced by your own personal preferences. It is very fun though to see what comes out.
The other method is the Enneagram test. I haven’t tried this one, personally. In fact, I was just introduced to this test through Abbie’s channel but I know many writers do use it with great success. Again, it is hard to stay in the mind set of your character, especially if you’re just starting to figure it out so maybe save this test for later, until you know a bit more about who you’re writing. Or not. Your choice, as always.
You can also think outside the box if taking tests isn’t your thing. If you are artistically inclined (I am not), you can try the next exercise.
I remember watching the behind the scenes segments of the movie Big Hero 6 where the story board artists were challenged to draw each character according to their personality, sitting down at a table and eating breakfast. Wasabi was very neat, with small movements, drinking tea and being blissful in the moment. Hiro was schlumpy, putting his feet up on the table and getting crumbs everywhere as if he had not a care in the world.
If you are more inclined toward video games or Role-Playing games such as League of Legends or D & D, there is always the options of throwing your characters on the mercy of the 20-sided die or the “Random Character” selector and see what/who pops up. (Can you imagine your main character based off the crazy scientist doctor, Singed or have the stats of a charming thief with plus 13 charisma but only passable dexterity? What a challenge!)
Playing with your characters, taking them out of their natural setting and throwing them into an episode of Fear Factor or Shark Tank (if you like to screen write) can be a hilarious exercise to write and get to know them better. You can plop them into your favorite fan fic and make them interact with Hermione Granger or Avatar Korra or Geralt.
The whole point of all this is that if you’re going to make a character driven novel, you better reallllllyyyyy know your characters. You have to do a deep dive in order for your readers to feel like the characters are worth the investment. We are going for tears here! Book throwing! Screaming! But there is no right or wrong way to do it. My NaNo 2020 novel came from a rant I had about WattPad. Go figure, right?
Don’t restrict yourself to doing the boring things that don’t interest you. DO expand yourself to experiment with new methods and put the work in at the front of your novel. You will thank yourself later for it. I know that every writer wants to get to the good stuff and ride that wave of inspiration while it lasts but you will save yourself a lot of re-writing and editing if you get a good solid background on your babies first.
So there it is. My long ass blog about Character Creation. I hope it helps. All the best in your writing adventures!
I am fortune enough to live along the southern California coast, only a few minutes walk from the beach. I don’t often go to there though. SHOCKING, I know. Everyone that lives next to the beach must absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE it, right? (It’s circumstantial, I assure you. Salt is terrible for your vehicles and your skin. And don’t even get me started on the sun and skin cancer…) I am more of a mountain and tree girl I guess. Or a ‘walk the streets and look at people’s yards’ girl.
Plus sand. SAND! Bleck! Gets in all the cracks.
Recently though I’ve decided I need to enjoy this good fortune while I still have it, sand be damned. In this season of change and growth, I have no idea where Life is going to toss me next. I could move to Arkansas next month for all I know and then be forced to live with the regret of losing my beach days. I am a little boat on a big turbulent sea. So after my kids are off to school, I take an hour and walk down to the surf, music in my ears, hair down, getting tangled by the wind.
I take pictures of the crazy, impossible rock formations people build.
There is a bird sanctuary/estuary along the walking path where you can see egrets, pelicans, cranes and sometimes even herons. There are lot of pretty native wild flowers around here too. Nasturtiums grow like weeds, if you can believe that. (Some places have a hard time growing them!) We have wild lupine and yellow flowering sedum. Such bright contrasts to the gray and beige background. We have an outlet called Surfer’s Point that has a lot of convenient logs to sit on to enjoy a quiet moment for yourself. If it’s not a cloudy day you can see Catalina island in the distance. There is so much to look at here.
Watching dogs chasing balls; watching photographers hoping to catch the perfect shot and couples walking together along the surf; watching yogis twisting their bodies around with perfect balance, becoming one with the earth; watching beach squirrels coming out of their holes to look at you inquisitively; watching the clouds race across the blue, a different formation every second. Blink and you’ll miss it.
The smell of the salty breeze and wet dog, sunscreen and baking seaweed.
It’s idyllic, really. (Except the sand in the shoes. And the hoodie pockets. And the pant cuffs…)
Today I brought a journal with me and sat in the sun and wrote whatever thoughts came to me. It’s been an absurdly long time since I hand wrote anything longer than a grocery list. I sat on a (sandy) log and watched a black-clad surfer wipe out on a wave. I smiled as I watching him pop back up on his board and paddle out to await the next try.
How amazing, I thought, to have so much passion for surfing that these people come every day just to have a chance at catching a good wave. There are dozens of bodies along the shore, waiting. All ages, all skill levels. They’re here in good weather and bad; good surf and bad. They share the beach, sometimes cutting their rides short because of another surfer in their way. That must be frustrating but they all accept this as an inevitability and they still go out and wait. They brave the bracing cold of the ocean; maybe even enjoy it. (I wonder if it’s like taking a cold shower every day. Self-discipline.) They put on their black, skin-tight uniform, wax their boards and wade in, excited just for a CHANCE to be in the barrel and hang ten.
Was there any point in your life that You showed up for yourself every day like surfers do? Making time and giving yourselves permission to do something that you love to do? I’m hard-pressed to name any. At this point I look down at my journal and laugh at myself.
How many times I have I told myself over the years that THIS is what I want to do? That writing is my passion and I want to become a master in it? I want to publish books and teach others to write. I want to help people find their voice and share their stories and grow to love the written word. But what have I been doing to reach that goal? When is writing going to be Number 1 in my life? When am I going to start treating it like a job or an education and showing up for it every damn day like a professional?
Watching the surfers has made me realize how lazy a writer I’ve been. Writing has to become my North Star or it will never really get off the ground. I LOVE writing. I LOVE it. So why am I making excuses as to why I can’t do it? Why am I denying myself this pleasure and this creativity? Making the commitment to type one blog post every week is a good start and an easy goal to check off the list.
This platform is just one of the branches of my writing career I want to continue. I recently started to consider dipping my toes into Vella on the amazon Kindle platform. Similar to WattPad, it is a site that allows writers to post short stories and poetry and whatnot for people to read. It would require a commitment every week to write, edit and publish the same day, same time (if I wanted to gain any readership and consistency anyway). That’s probably the next step in my social media foray.
Next will be actually, you know, writing in my many, many WIPs every day and FINISHING ONE!! *Glares at self*
It’s important to start small or you’ll burn out (first rule of exercise–or anything, really). But not STAY small. Give yourself a challenge that will really motivate you to try, like “I can’t have coffee in the morning unless I have written for 5 minutes without interruption”. It’s a cringy concept for caffeine-lovers but it will certainly get you to write, won’t it? Or give yourself a word count goal to reach before relaxing and surfing twitter for an hour. Whatever you can think of to get you in front of the computer or notebook or whatever. Often you’ll find that if you give yourself just 5 minutes to really dig in to a task, you find that you can keep going without anxiously watching the clock. You’re already doing it so why stop, you know? Proven psychological woo-woo trick.
I must remind myself of this every day. Looking at the surfers today, taking time for themselves to enjoy the beach and the sun. I can do that. I can step into my Author uniform (probably pajama pants and a tank top) and sit in front of my computer and write. It’s just 5 minutes! Put sticky notes every damn place. Bathroom mirror. Lap top. Coffee maker. Cereal bowls. EVERYWHERREEEEEEE. I am worth investing my own time into. I am worth teaching myself to write better so I can then teach others.
It’s 5 minutes every day; 5 minutes that will add up to your life’s dream.
I have been going back and forth for weeks as August bled into September about NaNoWriMo 2021. Riding the wave of last year’s success, I was fully committed to finishing that novel’s rough draft this year before NaNo started (I had a schedule and everything) and then finally completing a full rough draft of my 15 year WIP for 2021.
Operative word here: WAS.
My circumstances changed, as they do, and it came down to whether I would kill myself slowly over the month of November agonizing over word counts after working 16 hour days– or I could sleep.
(Hey, don’t judge me. Only a writer/artist would truly understand the struggle of Art versus Logic.)
You don’t know how many hours I spent bolstering my resolve and trying to convince myself that I really could work two jobs, pay rent and bills, deal with a break up and still be a functioning human. It’s only 1,667 words a day after all. Half of that could be written on a lunch break! (If I neglected food and sanity).
Anyone who has experienced NaNo has also, inevitably, seen the struggle of the 1,667. NaNoWriMo, for most writers, is like starting a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) exercise schedule for an entire month after doing yoga for the previous 10 months. The first week is great! And then, slowly, the weariness and work set in. NaNoWriMo is the Iron Man competition of writing.
But the lead up to November, honestly, is the funnest part. (Also called Preptember and Preptober.)
You make the dedication to prep for NaNoWriMo; to practice for it; to set up time lines, story boards, and character bios. You’re ramping up daily word counts from 200 to 500, to 750 or more. Carving out time in your schedule to focus solely on your fingers moving over the keyboard or page and getting used to denying yourself the impulse to check facebook, twitter, texts messages, or cute TikTok cat videos. You treat yourself to some new highlighters and cute post-it notes and maybe even grab a NaNoWriMo shirt or coffee mug from the merch store to inspire you. You clean your writing space and get new candles to light for when your butt hits the chair. (Psychological hack: scent is linked to memory and production. Chewing gum while studying and then taking the test chewing that same brand of gum may heighten cognitive performance.)
Or maybe you just wing it and grab your computer/notebook and write. (I am a mixture of both.)
November is a trial of psychology, truly. The ultimate balancing act. The thrill of saying NO to obligations and family and being selfish just for a little while. An act of Self-care and love that brings you through the month of November sweaty, exhausted but the proud parent of a half-formed ugly baby story.
Long story short, I look forward to NaNo every year. Even if I don’t win and life gets me down, the anticipation of it is thrilling. I love watching my AuthorTube people pumping themselves up for it and seeing the increased traffic on the NaNo site. Seeing schedules pop up for coffee shop meet ups in my area gets my heart thumping. October 31st, there is usually a big Kick Off party somewhere with swag bags and a bunch of writer nerds in costume.
It all sounds sooooo exciting, right? You know you want in.
So…maybe you can go in my place? Honestly, it doesn’t look good for me this year. I know that a lot of writers out there do a modified NaNo, giving themselves different goals and different word counts to hit and perhaps that is something I might do, to keep up the spirit of it. But I don’t see myself going whole hog into it this year. I’m barely clinging to normality as it is. It’s all I can do to plunk down and write a blog these days. Mentally and emotionally, I am wrung out, yo.
Sometimes, it is okay to let yourself off the hook. Worrying and stressing about something you cannot control is a waste of time and energy. Adding things to an already busy schedule also adds to the stress. I can control my sleep schedule and my allotted free time and if that doesn’t include struggling for hours over a page of writing, then I can let that go. It is not giving up or “losing” to chose self-care and the easy path over exertion. Even Olympians have weeks of rest in order to come back, train harder and get stronger.
So if you can’t do something right now, be gentle with yourself. Do a modified version of the NaNo Iron Man and write a poem a day or write dialogue between characters, just for funsies. Allow yourself to revel in the spirit of the competition and cheer other writers on. We’re all in this together.
Plus, there is always next year and all the months inbetween.
Often we write books and stories based around things we would like to happen. After all, imagination starts when we’re children and as such, the sky is the limit for things we could possibly want to happen: we ride unicorns; we fly through the clouds; we use magic; we defeat the bullies picking on us at school; we meet aliens; we explore the wild wild west and make friends with the native Americans.
As teenagers and adults (and evolving writers), at least from what I have experienced, this proclivity doesn’t change much but the things we want shifts a little: To be rich enough to have fantastic exotic adventures; to find true love; to overcome fear and self-sabotage and live confidently and true to yourself; to speak to dead relatives and friends again; to fly, to use magic; to meet aliens… (some things don’t change.) Writing gives us an escape from our daily lives and gives us a safe place to explore all our hidden desires and secrets.
I wrote something like this called Things I’ll Never Say: To Dragon. He’s long gone from my life and he will never read it but I wanted to write it for him because the feelings he gave me were real and needed to be honored in my memory. Sort of an ode to “the one who got away”. I still look for him in crowds sometimes, Crazy right? Anyway–
A story starts with a spark. It is easy to start a story, as well all know, if it’s something you’re truly excited about. It is also really easy to get caught up in wish fulfillment as an author, especially as a newbie. We write what we want for ourselves through our characters, in big and small ways. I know that many of my characters do/ have things and experiences I can’t/ don’t, like play a musical instrument, speak a foreign language, practice a vegetarian diet, have a strong spiritual connection, traveled widely as kids, have financially stable parents so they don’t have to struggle (which can be a problem. Read further and I will explain).
We want, as humans, to always have the exact right answer to a problem and have things seamlessly work out. To fall in love with the exact right person for you and have them love you back fiercely. To be part of a loving family (blood or no) and always have support in your life. These are not bad things to want for yourself or your characters and it is definitely something to strive for.
But real life isn’t all milk and cookies.
HA you knew there was a But in there! That is exactly my point, writing this article. BUT.
But things have to be earned. If there is no struggle, there is no learning and if there is no learning, there is no appreciation. Have you ever gotten annoyed at a person (real or on TV) who has all the perks; money, beauty, fast cars, big house, super smart, star athlete, and instantly DESPISE THEM because they are jerks and feel they are superior and entitled? You want to rip all those things away and watch them suffer the way you had to suffer your entire life just to survive.
Yep. That’s called CONFLICT my friends. Every good story has it and needs it.
My first WIP story, Silver Sun, was boring as hell for anyone but me to read because the conflicts were minor and my Mary Jane main character always came out on top. Always had the right answer and always had the support and help she needed to defeat the problem. Boring. We wouldn’t get past the second chapter, right? We read stories to connect with problems we have in our own lives. We read to understand and explore solutions and to feel connected to others who are going through the same things we are. (And purely for escapism sometimes but I digress…)
As an author and as a real human being behind the pages you write, this is the single most important fact you need to put into your writing. (Well, one of them anyway.) YOUR TRUTH.
There are a hundred million different ways to solve a problem. But you haven’t experienced all of those. Maybe two or three in any given situation. You can speculate on the other 999,999,997 solutions and emulate them in your writing. Your characters will undoubtedly be in a situation you never have been so of course you have to guess and carry on with the business of Murdering your Darlings. But what will ring truest to your readers is the validity of your own experiences and feelings being shown through your characters.
Broken Hearts. Break ups. Abuse. Betrayal. Black mail. Back-stabbing. Manipulation. Bullying. Death. Mental illness. Physical deformity. Anxiety. Social awkwardness. Speech impediments. Psoriasis. Vitiligo. Halitosis. Dwarfism. Dyslexia. English as a second language. Obesity. Diabetes. Bulimia. Sexual harassment. Foster Families. Homelessness. Gender Conversion Therapy. Medical trauma.
The list is endless and we, as humans and readers, are desperate for understanding on how to deal with these things. We want to know that these people who have suffered through these things, do have a happy ending, in spite of all the problems they had to face and endure. Not without some scars and pain and heart break, but they eventually come out okay. Because if they made it out okay, then maybe we will too, right?
Hope. Your truth can bring Hope.
Make your writing reflect your truth, even if it’s just small things. The character not smiling widely because she has rotten teeth from not being able to afford dentistry (true story for me). The boy who doesn’t change in front of the other guys because he had chest surgery and has ugly scars (true story about a friend of mine). If your character experiences bullying, she’s not going to be okay with it. She’s going to go home and cry and think she’s not good enough for her peers and maybe even cut herself out of desperation to be in control of something. Anything. (Another true story about me, btw. My scars still turn purple in the cold. That is a detail I would include in my writing if I were to apply this to a character.)
I know how incredibly difficult it is to write about your own painful life and we don’t necessarily want to dive into those feelings but your knowledge and experience are invaluable. I promise it makes a difference.
The benefit, also, of putting your pain on the page is that you can explore it in the privacy of your own room. You can edit, delete and rewrite as many times as you like until you feel comfortable with what you’re sharing. It took a lot of years for me talk about my cutting openly but it causes me no pain sharing it with you. If anything, I want you to feel that, if this is or has happened to you, there is a way out of the darkness. You will be OK.
Scars are Badges. Wear them with pride because it means you were stronger and more durable than whatever it was that caused them. Let your readers confront their truths too. Be a guide and a beacon for the ones looking for hope.
Today is the day I came head to head with the dark truth of my heart about my children; the day I had seen coming since the conception of my first child. The day I had to come to terms with the fact that this world is shitty and my kids are living in it and I can’t protect them from it because suddenly, it’s coming for them with a vengeance.
Hello, Middle School, you feckin’ Teenage Wasteland.
My daughter bawled in my arms today because I told her what a good friend she was and how much her big heart mattered. That she was doing a good job staying positive and reminding people that there is good in the world just because she was alive and giving her friends respect and comfort. My tender heart girl.
Alternately, I had a very impassioned and logical conversation with my (precocious) youngest about how she can’t believe everybody she meets online will greet her with the truth, vying for attention and sympathy and saying anything to get it. In her own way she is a tender heart too but she’d rather be on the front lines defending her bullied friend rather than comfort them in the dark of the night. She uses her anger to try and right the wrongs and sometimes that can be overwhelming. But kids shouldn’t have to deal with that crap at 13.
She was called a Snowflake by a boy at school for no reason other than he knew that word is triggering and disrespectful. (Small miracle she didn’t punch him in the nose.) Poor girl couldn’t do anything except cry out of frustration. She couldn’t defend herself because it would enflame the situation, inciting more bullying and she couldn’t go to a teacher because their hands are tied as well. The “Zero tolerance” is a bull shit law.
My older daughter gets verbally abused by her classmates on a daily basis (she is high functioning autistic, rides the “short bus” and has a class full of obnoxious hurtful boys). The only thing teachers can do is gently reprimand the students to please stop because using ‘No’ in a classroom now is considered negative teaching.
I cannot say how angry this makes me as a mother and as a kid who got bullied herself.
I have to teach my daughters to become hard-hearted so the world and all it’s assholes won’t shred them to bits but at the same time remind them that there is good in the world worth fighting for, they just have to find it.
WHAT THE HELL?
Why should I have to have these conversations with my thirteen year old children? Why do I have to watch my daughter cry because I praised her for being genuinely a good person or caution my other daughter against investing her heart in people because they might hyper-focus her sense of justice and bully her into submission? What the hell kind of backward world did I bring them into?
I feel like this world has aged them into Adults before their time and now they have to run the Gauntlet with only half the advantages. I’m not sure if I want to put them in a bubble and keep them away from society or go sign them up for the military so they’ll harden up and be prepared.
Of course, all this angst can be funneled into stories. Writing down the feeling of ineptitude as a mother, of injustice as a bullied kid, of being ostracized because of my physical abnormalities and hyper-smart brain. Writing down the need to fit in with peers because of ingrained social norms but also wanting to stand out as being unique and different.
What a struggle it is to find our place and our people; to grow out of the titles and labels we’re given as teenagers and young adults. Having a neurodivergent daughter has given me an alternative perspective on life that I count as invaluable. It has been a blessing and source of anxiety and now I get to share it with the world. The trials and triumphs of growing up and now seeing my children grow up.
The world needs more stories about how to handle differentness, about how to teach tolerance and acceptance and also raising strong sons and daughters in the face of adversity. The world needs more stories like Wonder and A childcalled It and Phantom of the Opera. Stories that make a change, that force people to think differently and feel deeply.
This is the blessing and the curse of parenthood AND a writer. Someone needs to feel your heartache and hear your story from your own perspective. Someone needs to be reminded of how hard it is to grow up. Someone out there needs to have a spark of inspiration and passion from YOUR WORDS.
I bet you’re thinking, “Wow, there’s a story in that.” (You should write it!)
Back in 2003, there was a girl who went to high school. Black and gold where the school colors. The mascot? A puma, or more commonly known as, a Cougar.
Fast Forward to 2021:
Daughter of girl now goes to rival high school across town. Blue and silver. The Bull Dogs.
Daughter and Mom go do the things that a 9th grader do like take a tour, get pictures done and get the schedule of classes. All the things. Mom reminisces about her High School Days, good ol’ black and gold. Being in choir. Senior Ditch Day. Prom. Embarrassing moments like seagull poop on shirts and bloody noses in class. On the heels of this, excited, and somewhat naïve, daughter goes up to a counselor and blurts out:
“My mom is a Cougar!”
Eyes turn to me and I paste on a suffering half-smile and put a hand on Daughter’s shoulder, patting it. Turns out, High School can still Embarrass me. (This is only made a little less funny because I am dating a man twelve years younger than me. His mother called me a cougar and a gold digger and a groomer upon meeting me the first time. We laugh about it now but back then…)
Adding insult to injury, I then had to explain to the daughter why it wasn’t a good idea to tell people that Mom was a Cougar. Which then embarrassed her. Get used to it, kid. This is only the beginning.
The point of this short blog was a reminder that ANYTHING can be a story. A piece of dialogue can turn into a whole story; an interesting looking person can be a character; a familiar place can spur on a flash back that creates a monologue about how Youth is wasted on the Young. Pay attention. Collect them. One of them could be the next Great American Novel.
Writing doesn’t mean you have to sit down at a computer and stare at a blank screen. It can be notes jotted on a napkin, a bulleted list on an app on your phone, a word written in ink on your hand. Collects ALL the ideas. You never know which one will be the next Great American Novel.
And yes, I will probably turn this into a story. Hopefully a humorous one.
Keep at it y’all. The only bad kind of story is the unwritten one.
As an idealist and a pacifist, it is hard for me to intentionally cause someone or something any harm. I feel instantly bitch smacked by Karma if I say something cruel or do something spiteful out of anger. Guilty conscience. Today, I am wielding pruning shears and as I cut away perfectly healthy, hard-earned plant growth, my soul dying with every snip, it reminded me of the single most life-changing writing advice I ever read:
Murder Your Darlings.
No, DO NOT MURDER YOUR PLANTS. OR YOUR PEOPLE OR PETS OR FRIENDS. ZERO MURDER-Y-NESS!! But you know, Prune their Happy.
Yikes. okay, let me explain further.
So I have a garden (obviously, hence the pruning). It’s a container garden since I rent and am not allowed to put things in the ground. (I was naughty and planted an Iris in the middle of some Agapanthus. SHHHHH..) Mostly it is succulents although I have graduated to flowers and have managed to keep them happy and blooming. (California is wonderful for perennials.) Recently, I was gifted some grape canes by a coworker. For a long time I thought these things were dead. Only four canes out of the eight she gave me survived so I was on high alert, squatting by the sticks and anxiously hoping.
HAAAA. Guess what? NOT DEAD. I can barely keep up with them now. POOF! I swear, I wake up and walk outside and they had a half a foot of growth over night. They are taller than me and still reaching over the trellis for more. It’s amazing, growing grapes. (Even in containers they do well!) Growing food is not something I ever thought my sad little black thumb would ever be able to do. I am Proud.
What’s the problem you ask? Well, because I am such a pacifist–live and let live, you know?–it has made me sort of a terrible Garden Mom. I don’t want to prune my plants. I LOVE the look of a wild garden. Having it take over and fill in all the spaces and have volunteer plants grow in surprise places. GOSH it is so pretty!
Guess what? No bueno apparently. Plants need to be pruned to maintain production and keep disease at bay. Roses need to be cut back hard in the Fall, down to almost a third of their height, in order to make a bushier bush and have healthy blooms the following spring. I learned this and almost keeled over. All that hard work and growing only to Neuter it?! HOW GHASTLY. Grapes are the same way. Tomatoes? You need to cut off the Suckers, or extra branches that come out of the forks of the plant, in order to force the energy into the main branches for sweeter fruit.
No one told me I had to neuter plants. No one told me I had to chop off perfectly healthy growth because it was GOOD FOR IT. You have to give your plants conflict in order for it to grow healthier. You have to expose them to shearing and dry soil and stress to make them stronger. (See where I’m going with this?)
Prune their Happy , you see? I was as shocked hearing that advice as I was about putting my characters through hell for entertainment. But it proved to be a valuable lesson
This is one of the first rules of writing every novelist will truly struggle with, IMO. It’s not a ‘Maybe’ you will. You just Will. Most humans don’t like causing pain. We strive for the Happy Ending because it makes us feel good, like everything is wrapped up in a neat bow. But writing, no matter what genre, should reflect real life. So, as the advice goes, “Murder Your Darlings.” Make them hurt. Put them through emotional Hell. Give them heart break and scars and physical ailments. Do it because 1) it makes for a more entertaining read instead of just sunflowers and kitten parties (even children’s books have some sort of problem to solve) and 2) humans are constantly looking for different ways to sort out their OWN problems by seeing how others solve theirs. Stories are teaching tools as well as entertainment. Humans want to win. They want to see it is possible to overcome the odds, no matter how severe. Hope is a powerful motivator.
My pretty–and tidier–garden reminded me today how far I’ve come as a writer; from one who didn’t Hurt my precious fragile Bubble Baby characters at all to one that lobs shit at them just for funsies. Actually, it IS for a purpose but sometimes it’s still funsies, like dropping an obnoxious Drag Queen in the middle of a law suit. Stuff like that. In essence, you’re fertilizing them, plants and MC’s, because even though you hacked off their hopes and dreams, you’re providing energy to keep them moving toward their ultimate goal: happiness.
My garden also reminded me that yes, I can grow things from seeds if I put my determination into it (like writing books) and I need prune off dead weight (distractions) in order to come back with a healthier and more bountiful harvest.
Isn’t Mother Nature a bitch—I mean Grand?
You, too, can have a bountiful harvest of words, friends! Or vegetables. Or flowers. Or…weeds. Whatever you fancy. You, too, can learn to Prune Happiness and Murder Darlings (IN NOVELS). Keep at it. No one ever said writing was easy, otherwise everyone would do it.
Do you ever have a period of time where you convince yourself you’re too busy to write/create and you do something else? Literally anything else? Weed the garden. Binge watch Lucifer on Netflix. Make pasta dough from scratch. Work on a massive Diamond Dot painting, even though you have tendonitis in your fingers? (If you’re honest with yourself, the answer is YES.)
Yeah. I was there. I AM there, frequently. I call this the Tissue Paper Wall. A slow building film of “I WANT A BREAK” that erects between you and your art and stays there, blocking your view. Out of sight, out of mind and no amount of guilt is going to convince you otherwise. This psychological barrier, thin as it is, facilitates the inability to hold up a finger or a pencil or a stylus to poke a hole because you know that on the other side there is WORK. Lots of arduous work and mentally or emotionally you just can’t. You’ve convinced yourself already that this is okay, for a little while.
Is this stubbornness? Laziness? Writer’s block? Burn out? What do you classify it as? Are there moments where you see the TPW (tissue paper wall) more than others? Curious minds inquire.
Mine usually develops when the habit of writing every day was disrupted. It’s a recurring theme with me and not just with noveling. My writing timeline flew by me, laughing and waving as the chaos of May cramped my routine. Vacation, end of school year stuff, emergencies, covering shifts at work and then having time to be a human and a girlfriend and a mom–writing was a luxury. It bled into June as well so here I find myself, once again ignoring my Blog, ignoring my writing and my goals and scrambling to make sense of my days again.
(To be fair to myself I DID write. It just wasn’t in my novels. There were To-Do lists, bill pay lists, journal entries, music playlists, OneNote entries, Gardening Logs, lots of texting between me and my boyfriend, notes from all the books I read…Haaaa.)
I intentionally ignored the TPW. I let it stay there, comforting me, as I mucked about in the kiddie pool, my will to write slowly draining away. I stopped listening to the novel Play Lists. I stopped created dialogue in my head. I stopped reading Story Genius– AGAIN.
Reflecting on this today, I was reminded that there is a fine line between “taking a break” and “allowing myself to be distracted.” Life is life and there is only so much capacity for being human we can take. There are priorities that take precedence sometimes, like paying rent and taking care of kids and taking care of your health. Juggling and balancing are a full time job in this freak show circus.
There has to be a point where you need to remind yourself why you’re doing this. Why did I start this writing Blog? Why did I quit my full time job to pursue art? Why am I taking singing lessons and trying to book studio recording time? Why did I decide to fold 1,000 paper cranes? (I don’t know. Why ARE you??)
I wasn’t taking my writing seriously enough. It gets so dang hard to make something out of nothing! I made a promise to myself though, that I would make 2021 the year I put serious effort into my writing. I want to complete a full rough draft and do edits and send it to Beta readers. This is a lot of daunting work and mentally exhausting to contemplate as a big picture. But if I let these flimsy excuses take me away from my goal, then obviously my determination wasn’t rooted deeply at all. I let tissue paper dictate my time and my energy into other less productive things. A little break to refresh is fine and necessary for any creative, as long as they get back to it and don’t lose momentum (even if that momentum is a snail’s pace, going uphill in a hail storm).
Poke a hole, friends. Don’t let the Tissue Paper Wall become solidified. Ball that shit up and throw it up at the bathroom ceiling. The sound of the SPLAT will be satisfying, promise.
One word. One brush stroke. One reluctant tap on the keyboard. Poke a hole.