ABL – Always Be Learning

Joe’s Post #178

Always. Be. Learning!

I’m going to bastardize a quote from one of my favourite movies.

Always Be Learning.

This is in the top 3 of my personal things to live by, or at least I’ll admit living by.

  1. Always be learning.

2. Never sniff the hockey gear.

3. Be kind to everyone because you never know who’s going to pee in your soup.

If you need a few more motivational quotes to live by, here are 50!

But for writing, here’s what I was looking at this week and wanted to pass along.

Agent Irene Goodman wrote a great article in Writer’s Digest. 16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know.

Now I had the pleasure of listening to her at the Surrey International Writers Conference. She spoke about Non-fiction book proposals and I have to say, she handled the crazies there pretty well.

“So, how come no one wants to buy my book about quantum mechanics and the relation to me not getting girls?”

Her: “Uhm, make it simply about quantum mechanics. Like a text book. There’s a market for that.”

“Then girls will like me?”

Her: “Ah, next question please.”

Anyway, there’s a ton of great advice in that article if you have a moment to read it. I personally love #9, but am deeply afraid of #11. I so want that one not to be true.

 

Always. Be. Feeling.

Another read, (albeit a bit longer) is Don Maass’ latest book about putting emotion into your writing. Ok, he called it The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and it’s one heck of a good read. See, the thing is, as a reader, I remember a book that made me feel. I don’t often remember something with a good line about ducks, or on-fire dialogue, but man, do I remember a book that made me cry.

I’m currently doing my best to make sure I put a bit more emotion into my story. It’s a new journey for me as I usually write something like ‘Joe feels sad’ and leave it at that. But there’s so, so much more that can be done.

So, buy it on amazon. Borrow it from a friend (mine is full of notes, though), or take it out of a library.

Lastly, Surrey International Writers Conference is where I learned so much last year. Or learned so much more. It won’t be long until there’s early registration and I would love to see a few more of my writer friends there. We can learn stuff together, share our learning and become better writers.

ABL!

For the websites, in case you missed them, they are here.

Irene Goodman

Don Maass.

SiWC

Writer’s Digest

So what learning are you doing this week?

Next week – what it’s like to do a rewrite. I should be done my 1st rewrite on my novel and have a few things to share.

 

 

First Story Part 2 – How To Write It

mood01So how do you get a 9-year-old to write a story? Sure, it’s hard to get his butt in the chair and actually write, but once there, what does he do? What have they taught him in grade 4?

Much to my shock, it’s actually quite a bit. And yet, it’s also quite simple.

Here’s the thing. There are hundreds and hundreds of books about how to craft a story. Seems everyone has an idea. Stephen King. James Scott Bell. Dilbert.

But looking at the 5 page hand out the teachers gave The-Youngest, it made me realize that sometimes it’s actually not that complex.

Forget the 400 page books on character. Forget the tomes on plot. Forget everything about what you’ve read. Here’s how to write.

Like you were 9 and you had nothing in your head on how to actually do it.

#1. Ask what if. It’s that easy. It’s the basics of story-telling. What if you were transported to the minecraft world? What if you were an NHL goalie and you were in a shootout for the Stanley Cup? What if you were a new Stepdad and spent most the time being constantly confused and bewildered?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

What if we could bring dinosaurs back to life?

All stories can start from there. All of them. What if Dinosaurs came back to life? Jurassic Park. What if a giant shark decided to attack a beach community? Jaws. What if there was a school for wizards and by writing about it, you could make billions of dollars? Harry Potter. What if women liked porn and bad writing? Fifty Shades of Grey.

See? If in doubt, start with what if.

#2 But where can you get the what if ideas? Try, Building Ideas With Memories. I call it mining your own life, but it’s the same thing. The-Youngest looked at what he did on vacation, what made him scared, what hobbies he had, what events in his life were important.

#3 Begin with Something Happening. In the case of The-Youngest, he had to follow “The night I followed the (blank), this happened”. So, “The night I followed the cat and the cat had to fight a dog.” Isn’t this the essence of how to get a story going? A character, in movement (following), another character, (a cat or turtle or bunny) when something happens.

So, what could happen in Minecraft? Or in an NHL game? Or to some poor stepdad who has no idea how to scorekeep?

After much thinking and talking with The-prettiest-girl-in-the-world, aka his mom, he settled on a minecraft story.

#4 Figure out who your good character is. Figure out your bad guy. What traits do they have? What defines them? Make notes.

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

Dark Knight succeeds mostly due to its characters

All stories, yes, all stories, succeed or fail on their characters. Howard the Duck sucked so bad because, well, Howard the Duck sucked so bad. The Dark Knight succeeded because it had a tortured Batman and one of the greatest villains of all time, Heather Ledger’s Joker.

So, The-Youngest made himself a list of traits. (Interestingly enough, one trait was that the bad guy was good looking, while his good guy was ‘not good looking.’ Hmmmm. Interesting.

#5 When you write, use feeling words. It’s how we connect to the characters. We need to feel what they feel if we are to feel for them. Wait, does that make sense? It sounded good in my head, but whatever, think about how your character reacts to what happens. Not just physically, but emotionally. How does it affect them?

Annoyed. Scared. Disgusted.

He made a list.

#6 Use your senses. Smell. Taste. Sound. Sight. Touch.

This is to draw us into the world. A world with 5 senses becomes real. It becomes relatable. Now, I’m not sure he actually remembered this in his final draft, but it’s something to keep in mind when writing. Eating zombie flesh tastes yucky, right? Smells bad too, right? But how does it taste? How would it feel in your hands? What details are so totally gross that you can barely stand to look at it?

He may have forgotten about this one a bit. As do I.

#7 How does your story begin? How does it end?

I always know this, but I struggle with the middle. Still, as a learning tool, it’s vital. If you know where it starts, you can, uhm, you know, start, and if you know where the story is going, where it will end, you can throw things at the characters that prevent them from getting there. Until they do. The end.

#8 Then you write.

Seriously.

So he began with an idea.

What if someone hacked into his minecraft account and destroyed his valuable supply of diamonds, blocks of gold and stacks of ender pearls?

He worked on his characters, the good guys, Florence and Flo. He worked on his bad guys who had made a fatal mistake of leaving a small electronic trail F&F could follow and exact revenge.

He knew where he wanted to start, he used a few ‘feeling’ words, and he wrote a pretty damn good story.

It is here if you want to read it.

Nothing like a good minecraft story

Nothing like a good minecraft story

FLOYD AND FLORENCE’S MINECRAFT ADVENTURE

This is a story about how 2 cousins named Floyd and Florence helped the police capture Henry and Jerry. They are wanted all over canada for major robberies. Floyd is 15 and Florence is 12. Floyd is an expert minecrafter and Florence is a noob at the game. Florence is staying for the summer break at Floyds house.

 Floyd helped Florence make a tree house. Florence learned how to place a block, how to hit, how to move, how to mine and how to craft. Together they created a giant castle with a moat.They have 3 double chests full of diamond blocks. These are super hard to get.

One night when Floyd is out with Florence at mc donalds, SOMEONE BROKE IN TO Floyds back door and went straight after the computer. They put it in their bag and they left. Henry and Jerry (the bad guys) hacked into Floyds computer and got on their server. They destroyed Floyd and Florence’s castle but they accidently left a sign there saying where their campsite is on the server. Floyd and Florence were very upset at first but then remembered that they had a backup laptop hidden in the basement.

While Florence is asleep Floyd goes on to the backup computer and gets the server. He follows the sign Henry and Jerry put there and he finds their camp site and gets their stuff back. Floyd sets up a trap at the camp site so when they go in their big main shack it will blow up. The trap is also a virus. It tells the police where they live.

When the police get to Henry and Jerry’s they arrest them. They find $3,000,000 worth of stolen things. Floyd and Florence get rewarded $1,000,000 and really good laptops. Floyd and Florence bought a lot of NERF GUNS and video games. Their parents let them play Minecraft any time they wanted.

the end

I was so proud of him. The ending even made me laugh.

It’s amazing what your children can teach you. In this case, it was to remember, at the end of the day, a story is pretty simple (and writing one can even be fun!)

The school of real life

real-life-school

Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.

 

 

Dare to open that vein

images_006

Credit: Soulsonpage

Helga’s Post # 123:    Whenever I am afflicted with writers’ block (a frequent occurrence), I am reminded of a quote that uses a chilling metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition: The famous quote, one that most writers are familiar with, is this:

‘There’s nothing to writing. Just open a vein and bleed.’

I would think that a good many wannabe writers would rush for the razor without hesitation if taken literally, if that were all it takes to write a good book.

Replacing the metaphor with more realistic tools, what does it mean? At the danger of over-simplifying the quote’s meaning, the more life experience a writer has, the better the chance he/she will write a great book, perhaps even a bestseller (assuming a certain level of writing skills). But not just ‘experience’. Anything is an experience, lining up at the super market, taking the dog out, whatever. Life challenges might be more accurate. And the steeper the challenges, the deeper the valleys that life has carved out for you, the more likely you will be able to ‘open a vein and bleed’. Not always, but there’s a good chance that writers who took it on the chin for much or part of their life will write stories that resonate, stories that readers will remember. Not only remember, but they’ll be chewing their fingernails waiting for your next book to appear in their favorite bookstore.

Take these examples:

One writer leads a straightforward, uncomplicated life. He has travelled widely. He has a decent job but is bored because it doesn’t really challenge him. There are no conflicts in his daily routine or only minor ones, no complicated relationships. He has never had to worry about money and he has never been betrayed, simply because he doesn’t feel close enough to anyone that it would matter. Never felt much passion for anything, never felt the agony or ecstasy over falling in love or being abandoned or watching a loved one die. He thinks he is happy by the sheer absence of calamities in his life, but he has no way of measuring it. Such a person could become a reasonably good travel writer or write a suspense story based on a simple plot and lots of action rather than interesting, three-dimensional characters. But he would be hard pressed to ‘open a vein and bleed’ in his writing.

Another writer lives a life full of contradictions. She has glimpsed heaven and hell in equal measure (or better yet, has lived through more hell than heaven). She has suffered difficult relationships, has experienced delirious happiness when falling in love, and felt the heart-wrenching agony of losses when she was abandoned or lost a loved one to illness. She has experienced financial calamities as well as betrayals. She has a checkered past that would make Lady Chatterly blush and therefore hasn’t shared it with anyone, even her closest friends. But she has no regrets. Everything she does, she does with passion, or she won’t do it at all. She has learned from mistakes, of which there were many. Instead of wallowing in misery and turning bitter she has chalked them up as necessary training ground to become stronger and more independent. She leads a roller coaster life without ever a boring moment.

Who has more to give to their readers? Who is willing to open a vein and bleed profusely, making it part of their story?

All this is self-evident. So, what’s the point?

For one, it’s a great tool for readers to choose quality books. Books that not only entertain while we are reading them, but that stay with us long after we have read ‘The End’. Sometimes years after we’ve read them. Books that have the potential to change us, that’s how deeply they touch us. Stories that we can’t stop thinking about, because their characters are so real we feel we have met them in person. Relationships between them have depths of emotions we may never have known exist, let alone experienced. Or else we have experienced something similar to the story and can relate to the author’s version, remembering and identifying with our own past. With our own bleeding vein.

When choosing your next book to read, take a look at the author’s bio. Does he/she know about their subject matter from their own life experience? We are all familiar with Hemingway’s illustrious life and how he managed to mirror that in his writing. Or, take Sean Slater, a bestselling author and personal friend (in fact he was the original founder of our writers’ group). A police officer in real life, his books are brimming with events that ring true because many of them are. He has lived them and he effectively weaves  them into his stories.  Another example is one of my pet authors, John LeCarre. He has lived the life of a spy, so he knows how to write about it with authority and authenticity. It helps that he is a man of great intelligence, passion and awesome writing talent. He is well in his eighties now but you wouldn’t know it from the way he writes those wonderful love stories that are always an important part of his books.

I think these are pretty good criteria for selecting your next good book. (Depending of course on what kind of reader you are). Better yet, why not write one? If you are reading this blog it’s likely that you too have chalked up a lot of interesting life experience that can be mined for your next writing project. And if you are not in a hurry to get published so you can pay your next months’ rent, you will add more material to your arsenal for later use. Meanwhile, live those passions that we so love to read about, regardless of your age, because we are never really too old for that.

Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’

 

The magic of fear in writing

Karalee’s Post #132

fearI was musing the other day, thinking about all the emotions and sensations people go through during their lives. Most of us at some point have felt excitement, joy, peace, terror, pain, sadness, ecstasy, fear, happiness, contentment, anxiety, cold, hot, restless, panicked, relaxed, blissful, etc.

Then, in my writer’s way, I wondered  what underlies all the bad feelings and what can change all the good ones into bad ones. I realized that the common denominator is FEAR.

The definition of fear is:  an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The magic of this definition for writers is the word belief.

Think about that. We can make our characters believe anything we want. We create their lives from inception to death, building their belief system through their experiences, and those experiences can trigger reactions and behaviors throughout their lives.

Why is fear so magical? Fear is a great motivator for action to get away from the danger that is likely to cause pain or threaten the character. The fear can be up front and physical like getting run over by a truck, or a swarm of bees heading your way. Fear can also be perceived in one’s mind. Now that’s magical. It’s also endless in the scenarios that can be conjured by the hand of a writer. Inside one’s mind is where psychological manifestations blossom, where beliefs flourish whether they are true or false.

For example, if a character was bitten by a dog when he was a child, he may panic when he hears a dog bark even if the dog is locked inside and can’t harm him. Even more powerful, the character could panic at the mere thought of a dog being close by even if there is no dog at all. The truth here is that there is no danger at all, but the character can still be in a state of fear.

Fear is a great tension builder. It’s the monster under the bed, the darkness hiding all the bad things in the night, it’s one’s imagination running terrifyingly free in one’s mind. Its a veritable treasure chest for a writer to pull from.

Does happiness or excitement compel characters to flee, or murder, or do other criminal acts? Or is it the fear of losing someone you love that causes you to murder the lover? It certainly isn’t in the moment of happiness that characters do bad things.

I can’t think of another emotion that’s as strong and compelling as fear to make characters engage in extreme actions to get away from danger or the threat of danger whether it’s real or perceived.

Can you?

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Perspective Photos:

cypress snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird in snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

Feel your own emotions

Karalee’s Post #131

fear quote

I’m one of those non-resolution type of people, telling myself that most people don’t follow through and I don’t want to be one of “those.”

Goals though, are another breed. They are the GPS to success, the voice from the black box guiding you along your chosen path to the end point to where “you have arrived.” Truth told, goals are the fraternal twin to resolutions.

So what do resolution avoidance and goal setting have to do with feeling my emotions? Both push me outside of my comfort zone where suddenly the unknown creeps in. What if this happens? or that? or I don’t get it done on schedule? or at all?

The above quote from Steven King says it all.

I realize that my emotions around goal setting tend to be negative rather than positive. They are fear based. Why? Goals should be something I want to achieve, right? They should excite me and push me to do things I don’t normally do to get what I haven’t yet gotten.

Ha! Does this sound like what writers try to get their characters to do?

With this in mind, I stopped and let myself feel the fear behind the goals that I’ve set for myself this year. I’ve never consciously done this before and it’s an interesting experience you may want to try as well. I believe it could help us writers be more in tune with what’s behind our character’s emotions. We could do this with other reactions we have too, and unravel the life experiences that give rise to the way we react whether happy, sad, angry, feeling vulnerable or distrusting, loving, hateful, etc.

For now though, I’m looking at where my fears may be coming from.

  1. Fear of success. This sounds odd to me, but it comes from being put down in childhood for liking school and excelling at it. Country kids are “supposed” to hate school.
  2. Fear of failure. This is a dichotomy when I fear success and failure! To me failure is more self-imposed, like I could have, should have, but didn’t. This is true when I don’t tell anyone my goals, then the only one that knows is me. If I do tell others and fail, then it evokes shame which means I am concerned about how others perceive me. Intellectually I know that what others think shouldn’t matter, but again, one’s past experiences builds these reactions.
  3. Fear of certain activities, like answering the phone and opening mail. Now that’s bizarre when I let that one sink in. These are frequent activities I have to do for my work and I do have an aversion to them, but I have never really let the reasons come to light. When I do, I know I react like this because of the number of times that bad news has come to me through these avenues. It leaves me dreading the “call” instead of dancing to the phone when it rings (or my cell phone) in anticipation of winning the lottery or simply talking to a friend.
  4. Fear of “NO.” In direct sales this is a biggy since 80% of people say no! As children, parent’s ‘no’s” far exceed their “yes’s” and “no” has a direct connection to not being able to do what you want to do. I’ve worked hard this year to not take no’s personally, and the difference it’s made in my life in general has given me freedom to relax and be myself. Letting my experience of no’s be emotionally neutral rather than negative has given me more peace than I ever imagine.

Going through this exercise and really paying attention to why I react and feel deep-seated emotions in certain situations has opened my awareness to also do this with characters in my stories. Backstories are huge in developing characters and to feel the why behind how we make our characters react emotionally will help create more authentic characters.

Giving opposite reactions to what one would expect can also be done this way when you understand the why’s in the character’s history.

Have fun with it!

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Productivity: I’ve heard back from one of the short story contests. I got a very nice standard rejection letter. Keep at it is one of my goals.

Motivation: My goals include taking courses with well-known people in the industry to learn how to follow-through and time-manage, etc. On my list are: Jack Canfield,  Eric Worre, Kim Klaver and Harv Eker and Sonia Stringer

Happy Moments:

  • holiday time spent with family and friends
  • snowshoeing on the local mountains with my husband, David.
  • continuing self-development and loving it!

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Perspective Photos:

frost

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird in hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

5 More overlooked emotions

skateboard-man

Silk’s Post #147 — I just got a like and a share on a post I wrote two years ago, which is a bit like sticking your hand in the pocket of a jacket that’s been hanging in your closet forever and finding a $10 bill. (Thanks Kelsie and Shannon).

So I went back and read it. And like any long-suffering, praise-starved, unpublished writer, my first thought was: Wow, this is better than anything I’ve written recently. Followed, of course, by a flutter of panic, pangs of angst, and a dash of hopelessness.

If you’ve been reading some of our 5writers posts recently, you’ve probably picked up on our collective struggles to put butts in chairs, get words on paper and keep enthusiasm high as we approach our self-imposed February 5th deadline for finishing our first drafts in the second 5writers5novels5months challenge. Last week I blogged about The art of course correcting as a strategy for giving ourselves the gift of more time, pulling ourselves out of our writing hole, and rehabilitating our 5/5/5 spirit.

After a probably unhealthy amount of introspection (and a couple glasses of wine), I concluded that there’s a life-imitating-art parallel between the arc of writing a book and the arc of becoming a writer.

At the beginning it’s pure excitement, ideas and enthusiasm and confidence bubbling up like one of those science project volcanoes. Then comes the interminable muddled middle, the all-work-and-no-play slog when you wonder what in the hell you were thinking when you embarked on this shapeless plot and whether you’re really cut out for the writing life. It’s all you can do to keep the faith long enough to reach The End, when you finally catch fire again, tie up all the threads, and bask in the glow of accomplishment. You need to really enjoy that glow, because it has to carry you through the next phase of rewrites and queries – a process that can be so demoralizing it will drive you either to start a new book so you can enjoy that beginning rush again, or quit writing and take up something easier, like rocket science.

Well, right now, I’m deep in the mushy middle – both of my book and of my second-career learning curve to become a writer of novels. The original excitement of the starting writer is long past, and the hoped-for success of the accomplished writer is still far, far ahead.

So it was almost shocking to revisit my writing self of two years ago and read the enthusiasm and engagement in my words. What happened to my writing joy? My competency? My confidence? Will I ever get it back?

Then, something unexpected happened.

My mood lifted. And I started getting excited again, because I remembered: I can do this. The proof was right there on the page.

As an hommage to that two-year-old post, The top 10 most overlooked emotions, I’ll work on getting my groove back by adding another 5 under-appreciated emotions to the list for consideration when you’re trying to add nuance and dimension to your characters. This time I’m focusing not on reactive, situational emotions, but instead on underlying emotions that shape a character’s personality and attitude. My preamble to that post still fits here:

In the service of the writer’s twin holy grails – TENSION and CONFLICT – we cram in the obvious basic feelings like LOVE, HATE, FEAR, HOPE, ANGER, HAPPINESS, IMPATIENCE, RESENTMENT, DOUBT, and EXCITEMENT. 

But it’s the subtler shades of emotion that help elevate characters from bland and predictable to spicy and complex. Without these grace notes, emotions can come across as cartoon-like as emoticons. Here are some more to consider …

1.  WELTSCHMERZ – I wish the English language had equivalents for some of the German words that pack a whole suitcase full of emotional complexity into just a few (admittedly chewy) letters. Just saying the word Weltschmerz seems to dredge up a whole gutful of deep, organic feeling. Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz. I just can’t say it enough.

Germans love to craft words that are collisions of two or more thoughts, and Weltschmerz, said to be coined by author and humorist Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763-1825) translates roughly as world-pain or world-weariness. Wikipedia defines it as “the kind of feeling experienced by someone who believes that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind … anxiety caused by the ills of the world.”

This below-the-surface emotion – a favourite of authors in the Romantic era like Byron, Hesse, and Heine – has added depth to memorable characters in modern novels by writers such as John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller. It’s having a new vogue among today’s essayists, as they attempt to put a name to our collective unease at the world’s present dysfunction. And it even has its own built-in mission: to strive, even against hope, to make things right.

Do you want your action-oriented protagonist to be haunted by a certain sense of deep longing … the pain of a failed idealist that has not hardened into cynicism … a kind of hole in the soul that can never be patched? Give him a dose of Weltschmerz.

2.  PLAYFULNESS – This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

Curiosity is all about “inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation and learning … [and is] heavily associated with all aspects of human development,” Wikipedia informs us. Thomas Hobbes wrote, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind,” and Edmund Burke called it “the first and simplest emotion which we discover.”

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people. (Wouldn’t you like to meet the guy with the skateboard on his head?) So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

3.  GRAVITAS – If you’ve Weltschmertzed your character successfully, you may already be on your way to achieving gravitas. But is it an emotion? Well, not exactly. But it certainly is the product of a cluster of emotions – or perhaps I should say of a person’s way of managing those emotions.

Gravitas was identified as one of the primary Roman virtues, alongside other qualities like dignitas and veritas. In short, it’s an attribute of people who take things seriously, and are taken seriously – and trusted – by others. People with gravitas are the “adults in the room”: responsible, earnest, dignified, substantial. People who have depth of personality. People not given to playing fast and loose with their emotions.

If you think about the traits of the spectrum of politicians currently in the headlines, for instance, you can quickly pick out those who have it, those who don’t but wish they did, and those who you might suspect are wearing a mask of gravitas that hides who they really are. See how much fun this is? How gravitas makes a great protagonist (think Strider)? And how much more interesting an antagonist who’s faking gravitas could be than a standard cardboard bad guy?

4.  GRATITUDE – The emotion of gratitude is getting a lot of attention lately, as it deserves. People now talk about “practicing” gratitude, as opposed to just naturally feeling it. According to some current thinking, “people aren’t hardwired to be grateful … and, like any skill worth having, gratitude requires practice.” (Really?)

Psychologist Robert Emmons, for instance, wrote a 2008 self-help book called Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You HappierIt doesn’t take a professional, though, to know that gratitude will make you more popular – people love an ingrate the way they love a person who kicks dogs.

Gratitude can be seen in an immediate emotional reaction to a stimulus, but it can also be present as a general attitude closely related to humility. A fictional character who exhibits gratitude will win the empathy of many readers … and could be a terrific opposing foil for a bad actor who makes readers want to choke him to death with a big piece of humble pie.

5.  INSECURITY – Ah, the writer’s companion. Definition: anxiety about oneself, lack of confidence, self-doubt, diffidence, nervousness, inhibition, sense of vulnerability or inferiority. Who has never, ever felt like this, even for a moment? Any hands? I thought not.

When it comes to characters, an insecure protagonist is usually a horrible idea unless you have some plan to rehabilitate her pretty quickly. It isn’t easy to relate to a clingy victim – or, on the other end of the spectrum, a bombastic over-compensator – as the main POV character. Insecure people are needy and often make others uncomfortable, as anyone who’s been closely shadowed by one at a party will attest. They can try your patience and suck your emotional energy. So, as main characters, they usually don’t cut the mustard.

But that makes Nervous Nellies or Bobby Blowhards perfect in some secondary roles. For instance, as the sidekick whose insecurity hides her brilliant mind, or big heart. This gives your protagonist an opportunity to exhibit sterling characteristics like empathy and loyalty. And sets up a satisfying surprise when the inhibited sidekick has to rise to the occasion and find her courage just when the protagonist needs her.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

Since we’ve done our 5/5/5 course correction in the name of sanity and mutual support, I’m now aiming to complete my first draft by April 5th. But I don’t want to float off completely into the ether of unaccountability, so I’m re-starting my blog post scorecards.

New pages written:  Since when? Oh, yeah – well let me just take a look, um. Right, uhhh … let’s see. What was the question again? Hold on – is that the phone? Sorry, I have to take this. I’ll, um, get back to you on that.

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  2 this week (and this one’s early … a first!)

Research done:  A little tiny bit

Other accomplishments:  Figured out my ending, my villain and a main character’s motivation to take the action that sets the whole plot rolling. Hallelujah!

Best new thing:  My sciatica went away.

Holiday progress:  Christmas letter done. Decorations out from under the stairwell. Cards in progress. Gifts to be mailed away bought and being wrapped in … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 minute. Bye now until next week!

Wheat or chaff? It’s all about relationships

Image

Helga’s Post #119: What makes a story really and truly tick?

We all know the answers, so no point preaching to the choir. What does get overlooked more often than what’s good for us writers, is this:

The power of relationships.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it’s so common to forget about it and rather focus on getting characters right. Powerful characters that we hope will keep the readers turning the pages of our story. In fact, it’s the relationships between these strong and interesting characters that is the make-or-break aspect between a flop and a bestseller.

Sure, a good plot helps. Suspense and pacing is crucial. Setting will frame the story. Credible, three-dimensional characters are all-important. But interesting characters by themselves are not enough to make a book roar.

It’s how the characters relate to each other that defines the story – and may well determine the book’s future success or failure.

This was brought home to me again after watching the movie Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks.

Never wanting to miss a Steven Spielberg flick I expected much and was not disappointed. In fact, I was quite shaken, not because of the plot, setting or acting, all of which were exceptional, but by the superbly acted and unusual relationship between the Russian spy and the American lawyer assigned to defend him. I will not do a spoiler here, rather I recommend this movie to any of you writers out there. Go and watch it with a view of judging what makes this film as powerful as it is. Then go back home and try to weave these aspects into your own story.

The plot and genre also acted as a huge attractant for me, so please keep that in mind about my starry-eyed review. The setting of the film is late 1950s Brooklyn and later East Berlin, height of the Cold War scare. Height of the hysteria and hatred around Soviet Russia. Spies working each side of the two worlds. Time of the apocalyptic fear that gripped America during the dark days of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’. Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States.

I loved it for its excellence but also as it reminded me of my novel Closing Time (unpublished), the manuscript collecting cobwebs under my bed for the last five or six years. Its setting is 1958 Vienna, the story based on true events but with fictionalized characters (other than President Eisenhower and Nikita Khruschev). Its focus is also the Cold War, the topic negotiating the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the superpowers. It was the second novel I wrote. At the time I thought it was pretty good but a number of rejections from editors and literary agents made me doubt my earlier enthusiasm. And so it lingered since.

Watching ‘Bridge of Spies’ however made me rethink my own story. Perhaps it’s worth dusting off the cobwebs. Sure, it needs a total re-write. I may have to change my protagonist and the antagonist, but these are relatively small details. I have the setting nailed, because that’s where I grew up. A little later than the time of the story, but I can relate.

The major part of the rewrite will be my characters’ relationships to each other. My mind is going into overdrive as I write this.

Thank you Steven Spielberg, not only for a great movie, but also because you have done me a great favor. Maybe you have spawned a book worth publishing. Thanks for the memories.

 

Emotional weather

 

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Silk’s Post #140 — So, you’re writing a scene and there are a million things you have to remember to work into it somehow. The setting of the scene. Your point-of-view character’s “want”. Who the other characters are that he/she is interacting with, and what they want. The scene’s emotional hook. The plotting. The pacing. The conflict and suspense that’s supposed to be present on every page. And maybe you’re calculating how you can slip in some backstory without putting your author’s foot in your mouth.

Now, for really experienced writers – and, I imagine, for prodigies – all this is probably instinctive, like riding a bicycle. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to remember all the individual component actions we need to coordinate to get rolling and have a successful ride. Hold on to the handlebars. Balance. Pump the pedals. Look ahead. Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow. Don’t turn too suddenly. Steer. Watch out for cars, dogs, potholes, loose gravel.

Like me, I’m sure the last thing you’re looking for is another thing you have to remember. However, recent events in the world have made me think about another component of storytelling that links “setting” to all the other elements in a very meaningful way.

It’s emotional context.

I don’t mean the specific emotions of your POV character, or even your whole cast of characters. I mean the emotional environment that is inherently part of the setting. The storyworld is made up of more than just physical landscapes, plot-related events, cultural attributes, eras and places. There are emotional dimensions to all these things that create an atmosphere in which the action takes place.

I would call it emotional weather. While it may be a subset of a broader, more persistent emotional climate (think, for instance, of the general mood in a place experiencing prolonged warfare, or economic distress, or their opposites), emotional weather is more volatile, difficult to predict, and local. And while it may be stormy in one part of the storyworld, or among one group of its inhabitants, it may be sunny in another.

Does this sound like a recipe for one of a writer’s most desired dishes: conflict? I think so.

All this may seem obvious as you’re reading it. But like a well-practiced bike rider, we don’t always think consciously about things that have become second nature to us. We all experience not only our own personal emotions that relate directly to our lives, but also participate in – and are affected by – the mass emotions of larger groups of people, people we don’t even know.

In the past couple of weeks, events have brought my awareness of this phenomenon up from my subconscious to my conscious mind. Think about the recent emotional weather experienced by these groups of people, and how it is likely affecting their perspective on the world, and yours …

  • Masses of Syrian refugees trying to gain safe haven in Europe.
  • 24 million people watching the televised Republican debates.
  • Tens of thousands watching Pope Francis’s addresses and homilies in person, and millions watching on television.
  • 60,000 attending the Global Citizen concert in Central Park in New York City, and millions more watching electronically.
  • 2 million Muslim pilgrims at the Hajj where hundreds were tragically crushed.

I defy anyone to experience any of these things directly – or even to observe them second-hand – and not react to them emotionally. Even if the experience isn’t deeply life-changing (which depends on how immediately and directly one is affected), it still can shift one’s perspective and attitude and beliefs. And in our era of mass communications, these “local” events are now experienced globally.

I think emotional weather shapes attitudes and actions more than we realize. And that makes it relevant to storytelling. It can infuse different groups of people with anger, bliss, intolerance, generosity, fear, hope, mistrust, trust, despair, joy. These feelings may be transient for some, but for others they may evolve into a permanent world view, especially if they seem to confirm pre-existing beliefs.

A key point is that people don’t have to directly experience the events or conditions that create emotional weather to be affected by it. Today, emotions can easily go viral.

So what does all this mean for a writer? I believe that when a story has deeper emotional context – when the writer builds emotional weather into the storyworld, as well as the personal emotions of the characters that are directly related to the plot – the book will be richer and more authentic.

Not only that, it will offer more opportunities to create conflict and tension. After all, conflict and tension are not just rational responses to stimuli. They’re inherently emotional. They may begin in the head, but they grow in the heart.

And that’s what storytelling is all about.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

New pages written:  6 (that’s all?)

Word count: 6,916

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  6 hours

Other progress:  5writers blog renovation – wrote new and revised background pages, updated photos, other tech fixes.

Best new thing: Thanks, Pope Francis, for stepping into the lion’s den, shining a light in dark places, and making everyone with a heart want to be a better person. You rock. (And I’m not even Catholic.)

Worth hanging around

kiteHelga’s Post # 113:   This is my first post in over three months. It will be short and has little to do with writing. Just living.

I think I may be ready. Or almost so. Ready to find my way back to the groove, into the fold of the 5 writers group. I haven’t done any writing other than my personal journal, and I have not even done much reading in those last months – a first since grade school. Events beyond my control have dominated my time and my ability to write. They have created havoc with my equilibrium since my last post in May and to some extent, many months before. In the face of a tragic event, the muse goes into hiding. She will stay there despite efforts to coax her back.

The good news is that Mother Nature, sneaky as she is, has a way of taking care of us. Once we reach a threshold of grief, when we think we just can’t face another day, along she comes and endows us with an unexpected strength to not only survive but move forward. Ever so slowly, in tiny increments, sometimes going backwards before we can move forward to the next phase. But the path is firmly set and we move on.

She does so with an assortment of tricks. Suddenly, after months when the world was awash in monotone gray, colours are starting to look more vibrant. The hue of trees and plants take on a deeper green, the ocean a deeper blue; children’s laughter suddenly sounds joyful rather than grating, and people seem to smile more. Or perhaps they are returning our smile. Food starts to taste like food again and we might even remember how to produce a good meal for friends. We might take up walking again, long walks, giving us the opportunity to take stock of our new life, to do some healing. Friendships deepen and new friendships develop. The world starts to look like a worthwhile place to hang around a bit longer.

But we have to do our part to help her out. Not all days are filled with optimism and renewed energy. Dark clouds do descend without warning when least expected. They will continue to appear, with myriads of large and small reminders from before our life changed. As time goes on, they are bound to recede and lose their strength, though there is no magic cure. It takes work, lots of hard and painful work, to clamber out of that deep cave. Sometimes we will slide back. There will always be that big hole in the heart that can’t be filled. But the strength and the will to succeed are there – the ‘joie de vivre’ and the capacity and desire to bring joy to others. In the end, we are still the same people we were before a tragic event nearly derailed us. We have the same likes, dislikes, passions, values and quirky personalities. And there is a bonus ahead if we stay the course: We become survivors. We will be stronger and have more resilience for whatever lies ahead.

So, chin up, folks. Eventually, the world will be whole again. We have no choice but to let it so. To quote from Haruki Murakami: ‘Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.’

With that in mind, I am dipping my toes in the writing pond again. Wish me luck.