If you want to break a habit, the most commonly suggested first step is to get a baseline of just how often,and during what circumstances,you’re actually engaging in that habitual behavior. The purpose is to get a better idea of … Continue reading
Recently I’ve been focusing a lot on developing characters for a new story-and yes, I said NEW story. As in not the unfinished one I’ve been working on for the last few years…as in the voices in my head that have been nagging me to tell this other(totally unrelated) story,won. They won, I lost. Well, technically I guess I won and I lost. Internal battles are like that.
I’ve noticed that there are usually two main types of writers: the ones who think of characters and develop the plot around them, and the ones who think of plots/storylines and plug the characters into those. I’ve realized that I tend to be more like the latter. I have pages and pages of scribbled story ideas that come to me at random times (like I mentioned in an earlier post), and I might have general character ideas to go along with the story, but I usually only flesh those out as I’m outlining the plot.
I tend to start by visualizing what each character looks like, and try to find a photo of someone who resembles them as reference. I’m definitely visually oriented, which is why I normally see stories play out in my mind like movies. Also, considering my profession involves meeting new people and hearing their various backgrounds everyday, one would assume that creating characters would come easy to me. One would be wrong. I think that fact actually works against me, because I tend to be so detail and back story focused I get stuck. Just another example of how over-thinking can be a writers curse, I suppose.
There seems to be a recurring question that comes up among writers about what the “right” amount of back story for a character is. Too much backstory can work against you by drowning your story in unnecessary information. Too little backstory can leave readers confused and/or not invested in the character. Admittedly, I don’t know the widely accepted “correct” answer to that one yet. What I do know, is that if I feel like knowing a certain part of a characters personality is important to the story or would improve the story were it included, then I’m putting it in. I of course could be very wrong about it…but then again, that’s what editors are for, no?
This new work in progress I have is one that is very near and dear to my heart. It’s an idea I’ve had for quite some time,but I kept putting on the back burner because it seemed too heavy and I was afraid I wouldn’t do it justice. Well, those voices I mentioned earlier just increasingly bugged me to the point where I felt like I had no choice but to at least attempt to flesh it all out. I’ve decided to use some of the characters as an homage of sorts to some of the ‘real’ people that were involved in what the story is about. I’m also nervous about that aspect, since although i’m not using any real names, it means a lot that the key pieces of their personalities are depicted authentically. You know, no pressure, just trying to honor people’s memories.
I once saw a few signs that I just loved because they ring so true. One said: “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” The other said: “If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.” Everyone we’ve come across that has been any part of our lives, any place we’ve been, any experience we’ve had…although some of the memories fade, they all leave a little bit of themselves embedded within us. Sometimes that little bit left behind is a gift; something that awakened a new part of you, or a wonderful memory that you’ll keep forever. Sometimes what’s left behind is a deep seeded fear of commitment and a nervous tic.
When it comes to being a writer and creating characters, you have to use all of it. Just like heroes and heroines, villains too originate in the mind of the writer who created them, and they all are born from something. For instance, the motivation for Lord Voldemort? J.K. Rowling’s first ex-husband, Morty. Ok that’s a lie, I made that up. But if you know a writer, don’t be an ass hole. Because in a world of circuses-real or imagined- sometimes you’re the ringmaster, and sometimes you’re the monkey.
So there I was this morning, sipping my morning coffee-which I’d reheated twice due to having to fulfill the incessant demands of the novel-minions instead of drinking it while it was hot-they wanted breakfast and stuff…so demanding. I got to thinking about how most of us don’t ever learn to harness the power of our own minds. I know,kind of an intense train of thought for someone to have first thing in the morning while cutting food into shapes and brushing Shopkins off the kitchen table. But that’s just how my mind rolls.
It’s actually something I end up talking about almost daily, because it’s highly applicable in my line of work. That’s my “by day” line of work, not my “by night” writer kind of work. Yet in reality, it’s highly applicable in that too…it’s highly applicable for all of us, all of the time, really.
I wrote a post a while ago about not “Shoulding on yourself”, which is a more specific example of what I’m referring to now. We all have a constant internal monologue that is happening in our minds, awake or asleep, it’s there. Sometimes we’re aware of it, but most of the time we aren’t. What we ARE aware of is how we feel; our emotions, our general mood-and then our decisions followed by actions. What most of us don’t realize is the direct, instantaneous, connection between our thoughts and those eventual actions or consequences. Logically we know that what we’re thinking about leads to our actions, but we don’t take the time to pay attention to or understand that we have control over that process. That it doesn’t have to be “something that just happens automatically”, it can be something we harness the power to and use to our benefit rather than being just a ride we’re along for.
Here’s an example of the process I’m talking about:
You’re driving down the road minding your business and a car comes drifting into your lane, cutting you off and forcing you to slam on the brakes. Que common internal monologue reaction(or external, for those of us who let it rip):
“DAMNIT! YOU ASSHOLE, WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!” “This idiot isn’t even paying attention!”,”Learn how to drive! There are other people out here besides you, dumbass!” (don’t lie- you’ve done it)
What does this typically lead to, action or consequence wise? You immediately feel angry, irritated, possibly enraged (talking to you, self-proclaimed “road ragers”). You might speed around the car, slowing down as you pass to shoot a death-stare at them through the window, giving them the middle finger salute, shaking your fist…ect.
Now, imagine that when you slow down to do any or all of the above actions you notice that the “ignorant asshole” driving the car is actually a very small, frail looking old white-haired woman. She’s hunched over, trying to look at the road through the top cut-out of her steering wheel because she isn’t tall enough to see over it. Damnit. You immediately lower your hand and snap your head back forward, muttering under your breath while feeling like a level-5 asshole for reacting that way to a poor little grandma.
Now lets imagine you utilized that aforementioned awareness of how your thoughts influence your actions, employing those skills when you were cut off. Alternate internal monologue :
*Slams on breaks* “Whoa! What the…(notice incoming anger-inducing thoughts) geez, I wonder why that person did that!? Maybe they’re lost…maybe they didn’t see me because they were trying to figure out where to go, I know I’ve done that on accident before.”
Then you go around to pass the now slow-moving car, still look in (obviously) to see what might be going on in there, and notice the struggling little old woman. Except this time you don’t have the “I’m a crappy person” guilt feeling, because you didn’t fly off the handle and aggressively road-attack grandma. Thought-control win.
That little example can be generalized to any interaction you’ve ever had that may have ended up in a way you weren’t so happy with. We ALWAYS have the ability to reason with ourselves and force some logic into situations that normally would elicit an entirely emotional response. The trick is noticing it when it’s happening and taking those extra few seconds to make yourself do it.
Similarly, we have the ability to control our emotions and consequences by taking more control over our thoughts-our thoughts also have the ability to create much more positive change than we realize. We’ve all heard about “the power of the mind” at some point or another, and what I illustrated through the example are kind of the base-level building blocks of that theory.
So, how is this all related to writing you ask-since this is, overarchingly, a writing blog? Well, as writers we all have our own goals for our work. Some of us write just for the pleasure and fulfillment of doing it, and some of us have dreams of being published or beyond. Often we don’t even want voice those seemingly unattainable goals because of fear-fear that our ideas aren’t creative enough, fear that our writing skills aren’t good enough, fear that others do it better than we do-fear of failure. I know I have those fears. But sitting there this morning, scrolling through the Instagram abyss, I had a thought. It wasn’t a self-defeating thought (as I admittedly often have), it was empowering. I scrolled through countless pictures of books; books being read, books perfectly positioned amongst other items to create beautiful images, books that these posters clearly loved…and I thought “One day, someone is going to love my book so much that they are compelled to post it on their Instagram.”
Wow. I felt happy. I felt motivated. I realized I was actually smiling. That thought and the image that it created in my mind had a noticeable positive impact. It’s nothing earth shattering-think positively and feel positive-but you know what, none of us do it enough. Most of us never take the time to practice the skill of harnessing the power of our minds and using that to propel us toward our goals-not to the height of our actual ability. More often we let skepticism and pessimism invade and pillage up there, maybe not even aware when it’s happening. What we notice is that we just don’t feel up to writing, or we feel “blah” and unmotivated, or that we’re having an inexplicable bout of writers block. But guess what? If you follow those mental dominoes backwards-you’re going to find negative thoughts at the helm.
So, picture yourself achieving your goal. See that completed manuscript sitting on your desk. See yourself jumping up and down or doing your little happy dance after typing “the end.” See yourself walking through Barnes & Nobles and stopping in front of a shelf that is housing your novel-you pick it up and sign the inside cover, just because, just as a treat to the next person who makes the decision to buy YOUR book because they’ve heard great things about it or the blurb just sucked them in. Look in a mirror and actually say, out loud, “I’m going to finish this story and it’s going to be amazing. People are going to love it as much as I do!” (might want to make sure you’re alone for that one though,don’t need someone suggesting a white-sheet vacation at the local Psych ward) Close your eyes, and do it right now.
How do you feel? I’m going to guess the answer is some form of hopeful, or happy, or motivated. Isn’t that better than “blah”, or frustrated, or discouraged? Remind yourself daily that you’re not floating down this river of life in an inner tube, just hoping to avoid the rapids or white-knuckle it through them, you’re in a canoe and you have paddles. The rapids will still come and go- that’s reality but you have the power to steer. So visualize your destination, tell yourself with conviction that you’re going to get there, and-as they say-do the damn thing.
Once upon a Grad-School I had a great professor who, at the time, everyone half-discounted because we all thought was “out there and wacky”-as professors can sometimes seem. Most likely because they are alternating between over-caffeinated and slightly drunk to be able to deal with generally impudent and overconfident grad students everyday. (Side Note: I wasn’t one of those…I was in the “vacillates between over-caffeinated and slightly(ok,moderately)drunk boat” through grad school myself) However, in the clarity that hindsight undoubtedly provides, I realized he was actually borderline genius. Among the many wisdom-bombs he dropped on us during our two-year stint, the one that has stuck with me the most is the phrase “Don’t Should on Yourself.” It was meant as a word of caution, a way to communicate that it is all too easy and all too common for people to second guess themselves prior to/while doing something or berate themselves after. You can, of course, do this in any aspect of your life, which I unfortunately have a history of doing. Here are some shining examples of how this can manifest in the life of a “shoulding” writer:
“I know I already have characters and a plot for this story, but what if I SHOULD go in a different direction? Maybe I SHOULDN’T set story here…I SHOULD probably change that. Then change the characters. I SHOULD probably just start over. “(Result: sitting at your computer,not writing anything, yet simultaneously feeling like you suck at writing.)
” Wow, that book was awesome, I SHOULD have thought of that plot!” (Result: Feeling bad about yourself because you “aren’t as creative as Author X”, then contemplating what changes to make to your story instead of actually writing something.)
I am going to be honest, I’ve had plenty of times in my life where I “shoulded” and “what-if’d” myself into borderline-paralyzing indecision. (Just ask anyone who has gone out to eat with me a few times-WHAT IF I ORDER THE PASTA BUT WISHED I ORDERED THE CHICKEN?!) I’ve also spent a good part of the last two and a half years, since deciding to write this novel, over-analyzing and over-thinking everything from character traits to story arcs. Guess where that has gotten me? Partially finished chapters, hours of ‘as-you-go editing’, and tons of totally unrelated story ideas for books that “might be a better idea than this one.” I HAS NO NOVEL.
So this blog post is a declaration. A declaration that I’m going to work on changing my shoulding ways. I’m going to recognize when I have a shouldy thought, and i’m going to make the conscious effort to let it go. You should to. You should catch yourself when you mentally note a “should-have” or a “what-if”that comes along and say, “Not today, brain!” Make the decision to not allow the planting of those self-doubt seeds. Don’t allow anticipatory regret (or actual regret) to take up residence up there. Do your best. Make the best decisions you can in the moment with the information you have. Sit down and just write (i’m talking to you, me)- worry about the editing and perfecting later. So don’t let the shoulding thoughts eat your brain. Brain eating is for zombies. Go write about zombies…you’re welcome.
Runners….but, why? I ask because I do not, for the life of me, fathom how people become “runners.” In the spirit of full disclosure I have, in the past (the distant past), tried my hand at running. I’ve always enjoyed certain forms of exercise, but running has never been one. However at one point I started to wish it was, because it was a lot less expensive than what I had been paying for my kickboxing classes/yoga classes/wine tasting trips. That last one just slipped in there. I quickly learned couldn’t hang in the running world. Maybe more so didn’t want to than couldn’t. I hated it. I actually had a visceral response to it. This included obsessively checking my watch to see how much time had passed (normally it was about 25 seconds more than the previous time I checked) and mentally berating myself for deciding to do it in the first place.
Most runners I’ve talked to about this, in my pursuit to understand, have said that it’s because running is “decompression time.” Time to clear their minds or to work through and process whatever is going on in their lives. (I mainly tried to process the fact that my knees hurt while simultaneously clutching my side due to the sharp stabbing pains I was experiencing.) That part I do understand, as should everyone, because we all need something that allows us to work through our shit. I’ve learned first hand what happens when you don’t make the aforementioned shit-processing a priority. That happened after I had our first daughter, as I mentioned in my first post, and it took a while until I even realized what the problem was. I was mentally un-stimulated and lacking a sufficient outlet for my thoughts and emotions. Not a winning combo.
This brings me to the title of this post. Writing serves me in the same way that running serves those masochistic “runner folk” (no offense, I still sometimes kind of wish I liked it). But when I’m writing and can get into a really good flow, it can be like a meditation of sorts. It can also be cathartic, especially if I’m writing about my own experiences or ‘free writing’ whatever comes to mind to get the creativity flowing.
Someone once told me that our minds are like rain barrels. Your rain barrel can be filled to the brim, full of everything you’re dealing with in life, and if it’s kept at this level, just one tiny drop (your kid uses your lipstick for wall décor, or your dog uses your carpet as a bathroom perhaps) can cause it to overflow-for you to lose it and for things to feel unmanageable. So we all need to proactively drain our rain barrels. We need to find whatever it is for us that gives us a mental reset, makes us better able to handle all the ‘rain’ life throws at us, and gives us an outlet for how we’re feeling.
Writing is how I drain my rain barrel. It’s my “running”…minus the cardiovascular benefits. But, then again, someone also once told me that drinking a glass of red wine a night is equivalent to spending an hour in the gym (here’s proof-you’re welcome)…so if you need me I’ll be over here with my laptop and my glass of Apothic Red, workin’ through my shit, and workin’ on my fitness.