Thursday, August 28, 2014

Realistic Characters: Created by Design or Inspiration?

Whether in plot- or character-driven fiction--and I am becoming less and less convinced there is a definitive distinction between the two--character design is central to maintaining an audience's interest in our storytelling.  How characters act and react to the obstacles strewn in their path demonstrates who they are (or who they are becoming).  A character who acts in a manner inconsistent with his or her personality quickly becomes a slave to whatever urges the author has.  I've read enough fanfic to know that playing God with your characters, allowing them to behave inconsistently, almost inevitably leads to boring storytelling.

So how do we create consistent characters?

We don't.

They have to come to us.

Gemina Soul
Gemina Soul, used with permission by kattattak.

As a reader, I don't have to like who a character is or what a character does.  I just have to be able to understand why they do what they do.  That understanding allows me to give the author the benefit of the doubt, to trust that they truly understand their stories, and to simply get lost in the storytelling.  If characters make no sense to me, if I can't understand their flaws, then I cannot give myself up to the power of their stories.

Falling in love with a character in someone else's work is not so different from becoming enamored with our own.  I've written recently about meeting one of my protagonists.  Purple prose aside, inspiration struck me in a moment when I most needed it to appear.  Alisandra was already there, fully formed from the ether, or from my own mind, or from a crack in time and space between our two worlds.  However she came to me, I cannot claim to have created her.

But for her story, I escape neither responsibility nor blame.  In the end I will lay claim to having told her story as beautifully and accurately as I was able.  But the work has not been in the inspiration: it has been in the craft.

Darcy Pattison wrote an excellent little blog post on keeping characters consistent. Of her methods, one of my favorite exercises for discovering characters involves a full immersion of myself into their world.  What does life look like on a daily basis?  How have the edges of that life, sharp or silken, carved the characters' personalities?  What things have these story people seen or done that have contributed to the people they are becoming?

Character interviews are another excellent tool for getting to know your characters.  I particularly love the long outline in chapter seven of K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.  It gives a novelist a very in-depth idea of the kinds of things you should know about your character when writing them into a piece of fiction, and particularly into one the length of a novel.

I've also found altering my usual POV to be another excellent method of getting inside the minds of my characters--particularly if they are antagonists or minor players in the main story.  I just slip into a first-person mindset and let their words run wild.  I am always surprised at what they tell me about their own experiences.  Even those characters I hate most have a right to have their stories heard; I don't have to ever repeat them to find them valuable.

These methods are indispensable to us as writers, because they help bring our characters to life in our own minds.  I am wholeheartedly convinced that the real work is not in "coming up" with a character.  It's in understanding the characters we've already met. We will never understand our characters' motivations, their actions and reactions, if we do not understand them as people first.  What does that scar over her left eye mean?  Why does he always flinch when he hears the sound of running water?  Why does she smirk when she gets angry?

In the end, designing a character for me is never about designing her to behave in subservience to my desired plot.  It is always about getting to know her, meeting her at her level, and discovering who she is, was, and may yet be.  If she trusts me to listen, to understand her story even if I don't agree with it, then she will trust me to tell it to others the best way I know how.  My job is not to create.  It's to take what's already there, a secret known to me alone, and to give it manifestation in the here and now, so that others can meet the characters that have entrusted me with their stories.  

Crafting stories is both a buoying joy and a heavy responsibility.  We have a sacred obligation to our characters to tell their stories the best way we can, and until we can embrace them, understand them as old friends, their stories will be little more than collections of pretty phrases without meaning.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Change in Scenery - Setting and Stagnant Water

I met Alisandra on an unseasonably warm Sunday in February.  My partner Katherine and I, glad for the warming weather after a relatively mild winter, decided to spend an afternoon out on the banks of a local lake with a picnic basket and a bottle of cheap wine. 

Before long, we had devoured our lunches and were halfway through the zinfandel.  We lay together on a ratty pink quilt and allowed our thoughts to wander.  Katherine carefully observed the skyline on the opposite bank.  As they often did, her eyes wandered over each flickering branch in awe of the way sun and shadow played amongst the sparse leaves rustling in the late winter breeze.  I, on the other hand, was lost in the feel of crisp air brushing against my skin, and in a moment of impulse I stood and crossed barefoot to the water's edge.  I dipped the toes of one foot into the frigid water.  Although it was cold enough to bring pricks of pain to my skin, I couldn't move, frozen by a feeling in the center of my chest that I couldn't describe.

That's when she appeared.  Within my mind's eye Alisandra stood, almost fully formed, on the banks of a frigid lake.  I could not move out of sheer fascination.  I wanted to know everything about this woman: who she was, how she'd come to be here, and perhaps most importantly, what she was doing.

I felt in my chest her longing, her desperation, her yearning.  I asked her what she was waiting for.  "I'm choosing my mistress," she whispered back. She stared into the distance as she waited faithfully for her hopes to manifest.

It took weeks for Alisandra to trust me enough to explain what she meant.  Even then, she wouldn't trust me with her story all at once.  First she gave me but a vignette, an image of the choice upon that bank.  Then she gave me her novella, the shortened version of how she came to make the choice.  The story that eventually grew from that initial meeting became Choosing Her Chains, my novel currently in the middle of major re-writes.  And none of it would have come about had I not been foolish enough to dip my toes in frigid water on a cool day in February.

Taken in October, not February.  Sue me.

Alisandra has been particularly silent lately.  I normally count on her to drive me one way or another, to let me know when my story is falling short or when I'm getting the details wrong.  The past few weeks, she seems to have left me to my own devices.  She's confident with my plot choices, with my characterization, and the inevitable climax the novel will take.  But something just hasn't been right.  The atmosphere has been all wrong.  I can't convey exactly the emotions I know she and her fellow characters have been feeling.

The lake's waters have fallen stagnant.  Something has got to change.

My partner and I often take mini-vacations or day retreats with her family.  We always have a great time together, and it allows us all to bond as well as relish in the fact that we're all adults (sort of) and don't have to drag whiny children around on our adventures.

As the summer fades into fall, one of our preferred retreats is Turner Falls, a beautiful park in Davis, Oklahoma.  There's tons of hiking, picnic areas, etc., but we most love swimming in the various "natural swimming areas" surrounding the falls.  The water is always cold and refreshing, even in the hottest days of summer, and the sheer volume of visitors more or less ensures safety from any unwanted serpentine residents.  It's absolutely brilliant.

Water slide, anyone?
This past Saturday, we found ourselves at a particular place in the park where a number of rocks sit underneath a series of small falls.  If you have the fortitude (and balance) to climb over the algae-covered rocky bottom, you can make your way onto one of these rocks and enjoy the falls as they splash over your head and back.  After much trial and error (and a few extra bruises), I sat on a particularly wide rock and watched as the others splashed around and avoided the rocky bottom. 

A familiar hypnotic compulsion overtook me.  I couldn't stop running my fingers over the rough stone edges of the fall.  As the chilly water washed over me, I sat motionless, entranced.  I was frozen, just as I'd been on the banks of that lake months before.  I had a sudden realization.  Of course the atmosphere in my novel had been wrong!  I had been basing the whole time of year on my initial meeting with Alisandra in February.  But no!  The timing was all wrong!

"Oppression is not cold and empty," Alisandra whispered to me.  "It's the beating of the summer sun on a hot day, blistering and stagnant.  The rush of water, no matter how frigid, whispers the song of freedom."  She shook her head and chuckled (rather uncharitably) at me.  I'd lost my footing in her story, not because the plot was "wrong" or the characters poorly portrayed, but because I was trying to fit them into my preconceived notions of setting.

I've spent time the past day and a half re-reading old notes and drafts and re-sketching scenes as necessary to incorporate this new revelation. It's as if all those plot elements that were poorly tied together now flow along like rapids on a hot summer day.  I can't guarantee the end result will be any better than it might have been, but at least now I'm no longer sitting stagnant, wondering what in the world I should do next.

Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Creating the "Write" Atmosphere

I had an itch to work on some dark prose this week, so I did what I normally do with short pieces.  I sent off the second draft (because who wants to read the first one?) to people I trust (both published and unpublished authors and poets) for their preliminary thoughts.

My favorite reviewer (one of my frequently published friends) spent most of his comments on the opening few lines.  He wanted to remind me of the importance of establishing ambiance immediately.

In writing poetic prose, plot isn't necessarily the most important part of the work.  In fact, it might not even be a fully formed element.  Instead, language reigns supreme.  Emotion and setting become the primary characters.  Atmosphere means everything.

Time is rarely an excuse.

I spent some time last night on a webinar on "How to Find Time to Write" (hosted by Kevin T. Johns).  I thought I'd find it useful, since I do have a full-time job and sometimes wonder how I'll ever find time to get writing done.

Within the first twenty minutes, I realized that time has never been my problem.  I've got it.  Obviously.  Right now I'm using the half an hour between the time I get out of the shower and the time I have to wake up my partner to work on blog posts.  I pretty regularly take short writing breaks at work (rather than actually taking lunch).  In the evenings, I tip-tap away at the keyboard while watching television.

For me, the time is all right there.  It exists.  I can't use lack of time as an excuse. 

During the webinar, Kevin said he felt sorry for people who feel they have to write in particular settings, that they were missing opportunities for productivity by insisting on writing only when in the right mood, or at the right place, or at the right time.   I'm sad to say that I may or may not be one of those people.

I do get a lot of writing done in the midst of chaos.  But that productivity usually takes the form of blog posts, short poems, etc.  I have a lot of trouble fitting fiction into my writing day.  And I think I've identified the root of the problem.

In real life, as in prose, atmosphere means everything.

I am incredibly easily distracted.  I don't know whether it's undiagnosed Adult ADD or just my penchant for getting lost in my head at random moments, but keeping my mind focused on a particular task can be incredibly difficult for me.  Even now, I can't stop from periodically flipping over to twitter or Facebook, or from wondering whether I really ought to go ahead and start making coffee.  Then my mind flits to the terrible coffee we have in our office and I think that yes, I really ought to make myself a giant tankard of coffee each morning before going to work.  You know, I bet I could set that up the night before as well as make my lunch and I'd save time for writing in the mornings--

--and I've come full circle, back to my working on this blog post and wondering whether it makes any sense because of my nonsensical ramblings.   Perhaps, as I've just demonstrated, I'm perfectly capable of working on these sorts of projects in between thoughts as they flicker.  It just works.

Fiction is another beast entirely.  For me, good storytelling requires me to step out of my reality.  I have to look into my characters' world: to see what they see; to hear, touch, and feel what they feel; to be in that moment completely, or else I can't find just the right words.  And therein lies the problem.  How does one really focus on immersing herself in an atmosphere if she can't really get out of the distractions in real life?

Right now, my lack of setting is hurting my fiction productivity way more than my lack of time.  I live in a tiny studio apartment (no doors except for in the bathroom) with my partner and our feline compatriots.  Because of our respective schedules, I am never home alone, which means truly immersive writing for me can ONLY take place in the morning before she's awake.

I've also tried writing in my office at work.  It helps, but only if it's in the early mornings or late evenings when the office is empty.  I occasionally get some good work done in the local public library or in coffee shops.  But I don't yet have a space of my own that I can dedicate to undistracted writing.


So how can we set the atmosphere, wherever we are?

I don't claim to have all the answers.  Obviously, I still struggle with distraction on a daily basis.  However, I do have some suggestions that I've found at least partially helpful.

1.  Headphones -- I have a pair of awesome (but inexpensive) headphones.  They don't block out all sound, but they do at least give me a semblance of privacy.  I could never get anything done in a coffee shop without them.  In this particular instance, I don't suggest earbuds, but instead the larger, more traditional style of headphones.  This suggestion is based on my personal experience--I have yet to get a set of earbuds that give me as much privacy as the larger style can.  Perhaps they frighten would-be distractors away.  :)

Don't need Dr. Dre to jam.

2.  Find some music or background noise -- I know, I know.  Why create background noise when you're trying to get away from distractions?  The object here is to find some sort of sound that not only sets you in a good mood for writing but also helps cancel out any extraneous noise (that you have no control over) going on around you.  Some writers swear by setting their own playlists and writing while listening to those.  Some prefer Pandora or other streaming services that allow you to pick a "genre" you find inspiring.  I'll listen to Pandora occasionally, but I actually much prefer the background noise generator at  If I can't be out by the water at least let me pretend I am.  :)

Will someone please buy me a waterproof notebook?

3.  Sit facing a wall -- Stephen King advocates working facing a corner.  If you've got visual access to lots of interesting things, they're very likely to draw your thoughts away from your work.  Sure, an item or two might help inspire you--your character's eyes are just that shade of aquamarine--but having an abundance of visual distractions is just asking for trouble.

4.  Have all supplies at hand -- Before you sit down, make sure you've got anything you might need to work.  Laptop, books, kindle (because yes, I have references in e-book), pens, pencils, whatever items you might need to work on your chosen project for the day.  There's nothing worse than having to get up and down all morning or afternoon because you have to go searching for something you need but didn't have on you.

5.  Close all extraneous computer windows -- If you do most of your work on a computer (like I do), then close out any windows or tabs you don't need before you start.  Seriously.  Leaving them open will KILL your atmosphere.  Even now I see a second tab opened to Twitter, and as I watch that little (55) move up to (74), it takes all of my will power NOT to check it.  Don't do it.  You're here to write, not to stalk people on social media.

Blogging has demonstrated to me that I have the power to write in a variety of atmospheres, and even to switch between them relatively quickly.  But sometimes, the demands of your story insist upon a certain atmosphere.  Do what you have to do to make it.  Your work deserves it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fake It, Baby! The Power of a F.I.B.

This morning, one of my dear friends shared with our writing community a (true) story about her daughter.  The little girl woke in tears from the middle of a dream.  In this disturbing nightmare, a horde of mischievous faeries threatened to take away her mother, the writer of their destiny, if she didn't complete a (perfectly positive) story about them.  The little girl would not be consoled.  Even though one of the faeries got gobbled up by their Great Dane.  She absolutely insisted her mother write the story, lest she be carted away by a horde of faeries. 

What strikes me about this amusing little anecdote is not so much its humor (though there is plenty to be found), but its earnestness.  This little girl sees her mother as a writer, a writer with the power to create her own salvation, or to doom herself with her own negligence.  What a wonderful gift, to be seen as such a powerful woman by someone who loves you!

Writing is at the heart of my friend's identity.  It is what she loves, who she is, and that simple "being" reflects in her daughter's attitudes and opinions.

But what about the rest of us? I am but one of a flood of unpublished amateurs out in murky waters wondering whether I will ever be comfortable enough to call myself a writer. I work an ordinary day job, where I push papers and manage administrative "emergencies" on a day-to-day basis.  Those tasks pay my bills, but they do not define who I am.  When meeting new people, I introduce myself by name and job title. Their primary understanding of my identity comes from my place of employment.  And usually, I allow the misconception.

When I was teaching high school band, we had a saying we would tell our students when performance anxiety took over:  "F.I.B. - Fake It, Baby!"  We didn't need their confidence.  We just needed them to act like they had it.  Funny how that works.  As many of them learned to fib, to fake their way through the paces, they actually got better.  What had been holding them back was neither talent nor lack of discipline, but fear.  They just needed to push through, to put on an air of confidence until some magical day when they actually had it.

For a long time I considered writing a hobby.  It was this task I did in my spare time that brought me pleasure, but it was not something to be proud of, to tell my family about, to post about in blogs or chat rooms.  It was just something that I did under the cover of darkness, when I was too emotionally wrought to express myself in any other way.

But what happens when hobby becomes vocation?  When you begin waking each morning planning your writing day, or going to bed each night hoping your dreams will bring you new ideas for the next day?  What happens then?  How do you burst from the closet with fountain pen in hand and say "Guess what?  I'm a writer!"?

Maybe fibbing is the key to making that transition, to going from a hobbyist to someone proud of a chosen vocation (whether or not it ever pays us a dime).

Bryan Hutchinson argues that, as writers, fear is not our enemy:

 "On the contrary, courage, confidence and even so called fearlessness are the results of facing, embracing and finally, dancing with your fears."
~Bryan Hutchinson,

His point is that we need not be fearless.  We only must keep writing anyway.  I believe we have to take it a step further.  We have to share that writing with others, even through the fear.  When we meet someone at a party, we can't limit ourselves to saying "I am a sales associate" or "I am a homemaker" or "I'm a contractor."  For many of us our day jobs are only a way to pay the bills.  Let's act like it, ignore the fear, and tell it like it really is--even if we don't believe it yet.

I'm Amalie Cantor, and I'm a writer.  Who are you?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Keeping the Darkness In

This past week, a blog post has been making the rounds on Twitter (again) on toxic writing.  Colleen McCarty poses an interesting question: "But what about the flip side? What happens when what you’re imagining and creating on the page starts to become your reality?"

I'm not known for writing sympathetic characters.  My protagonists are oftentimes selfish cowards, some of whom find redemption, but some of whom exist only to shed light on the humanity of those around them.  I gain catharsis from writing these sorts of characters.  There's something alluring about sinking into their heads, about getting into the darkness that both plagues humanity and makes it beautiful.

For most writers, characters, and particularly protagonists, are mere extrapolations of the way we see ourselves.  Some might argue that I, therefore, have a somewhat dismal viewpoint of myself.  That much is at least somewhat true.  But it's therapeutic to take these character flaws, the ones that represent the worst of myself, and bring them into the open.  It allows me to examine them objectively, to set them at a distance, but also to learn how to integrate them into the whole of my being.  My flaws, and the scars they have created, are as much a part of me as are my virtues.

Not that McCarty doesn't have a very valid point.  The truth is that, when I'm writing a particularly dark scene, when I'm mining myself for that almost sadistic part of me that becomes excited by cruelty, by selfishness, by violence, I can become unbearable for days afterward.   I get snappy.  I become withdrawn.  I am more interested in losing myself to the darkness than I am in exploring the light.  My poor fiancee often gets the brunt of it.  Sometimes it's so bad that I have to pull myself completely out of the project for a few days, lest I become irretrievably lost.

But I think my partner also gets it.  By writing characters that are so like me, I learn how why I should not make the same choices they do.  I learn what it means to be selfless, to give, to be bright and cheery and caring.  My darkness is not expunged, never that.  But I learn to use it in balance, to allow both parts of myself time to shine.  In my day-to-day life, my bubbly personality and desire to help others shine through almost everything I do--at least that's what my coworkers tell me.

But at night, with the lights low and the laptop screen burning, the darkness bubbles up from inside the depths of my heart, bleeding onto the page in thorny characters and misshapen opportunities.  I long to cultivate that darkness, to bring from within it something haunting and dirty and lovely.  To allow it to fade would be to lose the beauty of who I am as a person.

So, yes, Ms. McCarty.  I am one of those authors that writes to keep the darkness in.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Power of Words, The Power of Doubt

I wrote today's post in response to the contest over at Positive Writer - Overcoming Writer's Doubt.  In the week or so since I've found it, Bryan Hutchinson's work has become a much needed source of inspiration for me.  Thanks for running such a great contest and such an inspirational site!  :)

* * * * * * *

Neither faith nor doubt are instinctual.  Each is cultivated from the gradual outpouring of words.  A single word, sentence, or phrase may float past us with little notice.  But over time, each shouted taunt or whispered praise blasts over us like grains of sand.  From both within and without we are eroded, sculpted; the people we might have been are molded into the people we become.

I learned to read fairly young.  By three, I was mispronouncing words in my mother's nursing textbooks. I mimicked the curves of letters as words blossomed on the margins of my Barbie coloring books.  I read voraciously, usually without much concern for pictures on the page.  They could not match the images that drew themselves in my mind's eye. 

By third or fourth grade, I had learned that to be smart was to be different.  That being different made you a target for ridicule and shame.  My bullies were but scared kids themselves, but their words had power, the power to destroy, to ruin.  I chose to stick to myself, to keep company only with others who hid among the shadows. Words sculpted me into an elementary school hermit.

Of course, words also allowed me to explore myself and the world around me in relative safety.  I devoured the words of my favorite authors and wanted nothing more than to emulate them.  I began my first novel in 7th grade.  I wanted to create something as dark and beautiful as my favorite Christopher Pike stories.  I showed it to my mother.  She sent those first chapters to a friend at a local university.  I never read her response.  I couldn't handle the assured heartbreak.  I knew quite well I "couldn't do it."  Why invite criticism?

Still, I loved to write, to twist those 26 characters into strange and unusual combinations.  I wrote some poetry.  Toyed with fiction.  Posted on deadjournal, xanga, whatever "blogging" site was popular at the time.  I never really expected anyone to read anything.  Looking back, I'm pretty sure I didn't want them to.

Years passed.  I stopped writing creatively and started writing academically.  The university embraced me.  I could put the right words in the right places, could easily meet and often exceed my instructors' standards.  I knew how to give them exactly what they wanted.  I thought, "I could do this for a living."  Praise for my work became a drug for me.  I had no high so euphoric as receiving a paper back from a professor full of praise, light correction, and even thoughtful consideration.  For the first time, I believed I'd found a place where I belonged.

Then grad school happened. I'd spent a few years out of my element, teaching full-time, but I'd needed more than anything to be back home in academia.  If only my professors had felt the same way.  They challenged me in ways I couldn't imagine.  Was I acceptable?  Yes.  But I felt as if I was just barely reaching the bar.

Then came my master's thesis.  My adviser became more irritated with me which each draft.  "Amalie," she once said, "you have a talent for putting together pretty words that don't mean anything."  On that day, my dream of becoming a professor shattered all over her office's dirty grey linoleum.

I hated how her words broke me, how they continued to break me, until the day I finally finished.  I walked away from grad school with my GPA, if not my ambition, intact.  All confidence I'd gained in five years as an undergraduate vanished in six months as I tried to finish one goddamned paper that no one would ever read.

I wrote nothing--fiction, essays, poetry, prose--for almost a year, one of the harshest of my life.  I was a woman in crisis, employed, but at just above minimum wage.  I had three degrees but used none of them.  Worst of all, I didn't believe I deserved anything more.

Slowly, I climbed out of my depression.  I realized, in retrospect, what my adviser had been trying to accomplish. She'd wanted to craft me into the kind of thinker, the kind of writer, that she knew I could be.  But her words held power, and rather than build me up, they'd eroded all my confidence away.  It would be up to me to get it back.

I turned once again to prose.  I hoped to express the doubts that followed me like a cluster of vipers snapping at my heels. In writing, I expelled the venom of a life I didn't know I hadn't wanted.  I wrangled myself a new job and a brilliant fiancee.  I thought maybe, just maybe, I could take my writing seriously again.

The day the doubt lifted, I'd been writing feverishly for hours.  My partner and I were at one of our favorite coffee shops, sipping meltaway lattes, when I handed her my laptop.  "I've been toying with this short story all day.  Read it and give me your opinion?"  She put her own sketchpad away and nodded.  I headed toward the ladies' room.  I couldn't watch her face as she read.

When I came back, she had tears in her eyes.  I looked at her in concern, but she lifted her face to me and said, "Baby, it's beautiful."  In those three words, the rip in my soul--the one that had torn me apart since that day in my adviser's office--began to heal.  I'd given a professor's words the power to destroy me.  I'd never thought to let my partner heal me with hers.

Words are powerful.  There are still days when I fear the power intrinsic in my voice, in my hands, on the tips of my fingers.  Each and every word I say, whether shining and brilliant or dull, dank, and dark, has the power to erode away who another person might be.  But it also has the power to sculpt them into the kind of person they want to become.

I only hope it's the latter.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Riding the Changes

This week has been hell on my normal writing schedule. 

My partner (a beginning artist) and I had a plan all mapped out to increase our productivity levels, which has been lower this summer than we'd like.  We were going to spend all day Saturday getting our tiny studio apartment reorganized.  Space is at a premium in our home, and we thought doing a bit of rearranging would give us both some much needed work space. 

Saturday was VERY successful.  We got a LOT done and our living room opened up quite a bit to allow for Katherine's painting.  We were exhausted and hot, so about 7 pm we decided to put the rest off until the next day.

Procrastination is a dream killer.  Seriously.

By 8 am Sunday morning, the temperature in the apartment had climbed to about 85 °F.  The air conditioner was out. Again.  So for the next several days, I spent my days commuting between the apartment (to see what work had been finished) and my sister-in-law's house in the city.  She and her roommate were lovely and hosted us (and our two very unhappy felines) in their guest room while the air was out of commission.

I tried to write some this past week.  I really did.  I even pulled my laptop out.  Once.  But I was out of my element.  I was still working my normal schedule, but I lost 30 minutes of my precious schedule (in each direction) to the morning commute.  Of course, the loss of that extra time coincides with my office's final week of the summer semester, a week which is historically our busiest.  Each night this week I've arrived at the house tired and cranky and only half-fluent in some previously undiscovered dialect of English.  My carefully crafted dreams of spending this week in creative ecstasy with our newly reorganized and tidy apartment were obliterated right there on the unexpectedly hot linoleum floor.

I am, by nature, a scheduler.  I live and die by the clock, and while at work, by my Outlook calendar.  I would never know when I am supposed to be where without it.  So for me, the only way to ensure I'll do ANY significant writing is to create a time-slot for it.

I did try.  Each night on the way back to the house, I planned.  "This house usually eats dinner at about 8.  I'll get home at about 5, say hello to everyone, and then lock myself in the bedroom to write from about 6 to 7."  What actually happened:

Me:  I need to write a bit before dinner tonight.
Katherine:  Of course, sweetie.  Do what you need to do.
Me:  *starts to head to bedroom*
Katherine:  By the way, Jenn and I randomly decided we should clean the pool for the very first time all summer.  Wanna go swim for a bit while it's still warm?
Me:  *brief pause*  Sure. I should have a bit of time for that.

Four hours later, we're still in the pool, the sun has long set, and no, we never did have dinner.  My carefully planned schedule was interrupted, which meant the whole rest of the day was obviously blown.  Repeat this scenario three more times and you've got a relatively clear picture of my week.

My partner has exactly the opposite predilection.  She can't schedule anything to save her life.  "It'll happen when I get to it" seems to be her life mantra.  I'm constantly harassing her to get herself on some semblance of a schedule so she can accomplish what she wants to accomplish.  Never works.  She finds it stifling.

Yet in this week, when she was at the mercy of both my work schedule (and thus the absence of the car) and the schedule of her sister AND the unpredictability of the maintenance crew, she managed to actually get a lot of things done: cleaning the pool, working on some painting, etc.  It's as if a switch inside her flipped and said "Wow, I have this opportunity to do these things that I didn't think I'd have.  Let me go do it."  Now, if she knows that she will have between 3 and 5 today to herself to paint, she's not interested.  Go figure.

I envy that spirit of adventure that follows Katherine around like a little spastic cloud of paint balls wildly destroying (and beautifying) all my hard-laid plans.  My point of view is usually limited to "How can I make this thing happen/not happen?"  Hers is more "I wonder what's going to happen now?"  The discrepancy makes me crazy, but for some strange reason I'm still marrying her.  I must be a bit  of a masochist.

There are many excellent blog posts out there about how to schedule a writing career or hobby around another full-time job or other commitments, and almost all of them emphasize the need for a writing routine.  ("Writing Routines that Work" is one of my favorites.)  I can't say I disagree with any of them.  But sometimes things happen, and my routine is pretty much thrown out the window.  How then do I learn to ride the changes?  How can I become more flexible to changing currents and less like an iceberg?

Looking back on the week, I can identify a dozen small choices that, although they might not have resulted in my designated 1500+ words a day, would have gotten me closer to my goals.  I could have sat on the side of the pool and read the short stories I'm working on aloud to my partner.  I would have caught my own grammar mistakes that way AND gotten her feedback.  I might have turned on the voice recorder on my cell phone as we lounged in the waters and told her about some of my new story ideas.  I would have gotten her ideas as well as played with turns of phrase that might shine up into something sparkly.  When her sister wanted to drink wine and play cards with us that one night, I could have had a notebook and pen sitting aside so that when someone said something particularly outrageous or funny, I could jot it down for possible use later.

I often over-emphasize the importance of a schedule. I miss opportunities to hang out with friends, to have lunch at that new Thai place, to go see an excellent movie, because it interferes with my preconceived ideas of what I'm supposed to be doing at that time.  Then, when those oh-so-precious plans fall apart anyway, I'm totally useless.  I don't know how to cope.

The truth is, by focusing on what I didn't have time to do (which is almost always untrue anyway), I miss out on experiencing the things in life that would make me a better writer.  Moreover, I miss out on the things worth writing about. 

My narcissism has mumbled to myself a million times why my partner isn't more like me.  Why she can't abide by schedules, why doing what she knows she can seems to be such a chore.  Then, something like this past weekend happens, and I remember that sometimes, only sometimes, I need to learn to be more like her.

Here's to air conditioning restored, to routines reestablished, and to riding the changes.  May we all make the most of what we've got.

Even if it wasn't on the schedule.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Writers in Community - Reading, Reviewing, and the Self-Publishing Community

No one, not even a curmudgeonly old hermit of a writer, exists in total isolation.

The beauty of writing is that, although it can certainly be an exercise in self-exploration, it is just as often an activity partaken in community.  (Why else would blogs be so popular?)  Many of the best authors of at least the last three hundred years were guided by mentors and colleagues, sometimes through formal education, but oftentimes through simple companionship.  Mary Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and her lover-turned-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.  The Brontë sisters shared a love of writing that helped push all three to publication.  Closer to modern times, Margaret Atwood, with several colleagues, founded the Writers' Trust of Canada.  Clearly, these women understood the value of writers helping writers.

For most of my life, I chose to write in isolation.  I sometimes shared a poem or short story with a trusted friend or family member, but I had neither the courage nor the determination to share anything with the outside world.

My life changed when I joined in June 2013.  At first, I was totally lost, flailing wildly amongst a sea of amateurs and professionals of all writing levels, and I had no idea what to do.  One of the groups on the site took me under their wing, and introduced me to the wonderful world of reviewing.  I have been hooked ever since.

Let me clarify, for the sake of this post, what I mean by a review.  I am not referring to those lovely pieces that fans (or critics) of works list on, personal blogs, or in the New York Times.  These pieces are written as critiques of works that have been published/completed and presented to the public for review.  No, when I think of a review, I'm not thinking of those authors who send around mass requests for 5-star reviews on their published babies (which may or may not deserve the 5 stars in the first place).  Instead, I think of a particular form of helpful, encouraging critique given to fellow authors/poets on their works-in-progress.  I love giving them, I love getting them, and I want you to learn to love them, too.

Why Should I Review?

Reviewing, particularly for works-in-progress, can be a winning situation for everyone involved in the process.  Writers receive honest opinions of their work, which can help them improve it.  Readers (if the review is public) get an honest appraisal of whether they might enjoy the work before reading it.  Reviewers get the opportunity to read unpublished/incomplete works, which can be both informative and encouraging--it's always nice to know we aren't the only ones who make mistakes!  Personally, as both a reviewer and a recipient of well-constructed reviews, I honestly believe the reviewer receives just as much--if not more--out of the review as does the recipient.  Here's why:

 1. Name Recognition

Do a great job on a review and you'll lure new readers into your own works.  Sometimes a well-thought out review will gain you special recognition on someone else's blog, twitter, etc.  Before you know it, people are coming to you with review requests, which means even more traffic to your own work.  Everybody wins!

2. Receive More Reviews 

Giving a great review makes it more likely that others will provide great reviews to you.  If you're in self-publishing, getting unbiased, encouraging, and honest reviews from your readers can help you identify flaws in the writing and also help gauge the response of potential readers. 

3. Learn What To Do

The most important benefit of reviewing other people's work is that it teaches you what makes a successful piece of writing.  When you intentionally read something with a critical eye, and not strictly for pleasure, you start to notice more and more the kinds of elements that really draw you into the work.  These insights can assist you when you're revising your own work.

4. Learn What Not To Do

The corollary of learning what to do is learning what NOT to do.  As you're helping other writers identify potential flaws or problematic aspects of their work, you're also learning how to identify them in your own, which makes self-revision a much more fruitful (if not less painful) process.

Until the past year, I don't believe I've ever offered anyone an extensive critical review of a work-in-progress (informal discussions of classwork not included).   I also have written one or two, maybe even three poems or vignettes in a given year.  Yet in the past year, I've seen my own productivity explode, which directly correlates to how much time I've spent reviewing.  Reading the works of other people can be one of the most exciting and inspiring parts of my writing day.

Why is Reviewing Important in Self-Publishing?

More and more, authors are turning to self-publishing as a way of distributing and marketing their works.  The reasons for choosing self-publishing over traditional are as complex as reasons for choosing a book itself.  However, self-published authors concede some valuable assistance when foregoing traditional publication.  The most important of these is use of the all-important professional editor.

Please let me preface what follows with a disclaimer:  There is almost never an adequate substitute for the services of a professional editor/proofreader. Professionals have the experience.  They know exactly what to look for when taking apart a piece of work and stitching it back together again, and your work will almost always be better for their assistance.

But let's also not ignore the fact that, when you're self-publishing, you may or may not have the budget that professional editing requires.  Realistically, a very good writer may spend forever in obscurity because they needed a bit of help in editing that they never received.

And here is where reviewing comes in.  Reviewers are no substitute for the line-by-line editing of a professional, but they can help give an author the best possible shot at fixing errors before they become overly problematic.  A good reviewer will encourage you, but also alert you to things that can really effect the opinions of your readership.  "If I read the word 'chagrin' one more time..."  

That being said, a certain amount of emotional distance from reader to reviewer is crucial.  If I want glowing praise from a piece, I send it to my mother.  If I want glowing encouragement with grammar edits, I send it to my partner.  But if I want a down and dirty, nitty gritty, outright destruction of anything subpar in my work, I go to my writing groups or to critiquing partners.

In the end, whether going the traditional route or self-publishing, having extra eyes on your work is almost never a bad thing.  Listen to the opinions of others, offer your own opinions in return, and then decide what to heed and what to throw out.  In the end it's your work; you must take responsibility for the final product.  You might as well make it the best you can.

How Can I Get Started?

So maybe you're thinking you'd like to get into this whole "reviewing" thing. How do you start? Remember, trading reviews is a social activity, which means somehow you're going to have to put yourself out there and just dive in!

1. Find and join a local writing group.

There is something irreplaceable about meeting with other writers face-to-face to examine one another's work. You gain invaluable experience along with friends and allies on your writing journey.  Check out local libraries, bookstores, or even the internet to find possible writing groups that exist in your area.  You might be able to find a group through sites such as Meetup or craiglist, but do proceed with caution.

2. Find a writing group online.

Websites for events like NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo are excellent for finding like-minded individuals either in your area or across the world.  You might also check out sharing and reviewing sites such as,, or Writers-Network.  Each site will have its own pros and cons, so explore as many as you can before settling down with one (or all) of them. I personally recommend, as I myself frequently review there, and there are all sorts of free (or very very inexpensive--think $1 in "gift points" or so for most) courses run by volunteers to help you hone those reviewing skills.

3. Explore social media.

You'd be surprised how many people are actively seeking reviewers online through other forms of social media (Facebook or Twitter, anyone?).  Read a good book?  Write a review and post it on a blog.  Maybe you'll get a re-tweet or a follow out of the deal, and either way you've had the opportunity to really delve into a fellow writer's work.

At the end of the day, few writing exercises, in my opinion, give you as much bang for the buck as time spent in reading and reviewing others' work, particularly with works-in-progress.  You get all the benefits of writing with all the benefits of reading, and you get to do your part to serve the larger community of writers out there.  Give it a try.  The worst that can happen is that you get to explore the work of another writer.  Even the most curmudgeonly of old hermits need a connection once in a while.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mental Illness and the Creative Mind

Monday afternoon, as I was preparing for a quick nap before dinner, I read that Robin Williams, one of the greatest comedians and actors of our time, has passed away. I didn't want to post anything until official confirmation of the cause of death had been reported, but news outlets have now confirmed that he died by his own hand.  He had apparently been suffering from severe depression for some time.  In one unfortunate decision taken by a desperate man, the world lost a brilliant, creative mind.

Although Williams was adored by many, the conversation has already begun shifting away from fawning memorials to questions about his life, his intentions, the dark things from his past.  I heard evidence of it on the radio on the way to work both yesterday and this morning.  My coworkers are all discussing how their Facebook feeds have essentially exploded with both memorials and criticisms of the man.  His struggles with addiction, his three marriages, his somewhat criticized relationships with his kids--all these things and more are slowly but predictably coming under the microscope.  Already in many of the more popular (even if I don't understand why) blogs, he has been criticized for being selfish, or for being cowardly, or for being responsible for his own choice.  I will not give them traffic by linking them here, but all you have to do is perform a google search and you'll find them, I promise you.

Mental illness is a deadly disease, for which suicide often seduces a sufferer with promise of an ultimate cure.  Williams is only the latest in a long dark history, paved with the lives of countless artists, writers, musicians, and comedians, some of the most creatively gifted of their times. Kurt Cobain. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Vincent van Gogh.  Virginia Woolf.  At least anecdotally, the rate of mental illness amongst those in the creative professions seems higher than among the general population.  Some more recent studies have confirmed there is a correlation between those in creative professions and mental illness.

In one 2013 study, researchers noted that writers specifically were at greater risk for any number of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and yes, even suicide. The brilliance and tragedy of the creative mind is its gift for seeing things in new ways, not all of which are bright and sunny and joyous.  Sometimes the darkness draws us in without our knowledge.  Sometimes we dive into it willingly, choosing to hide within the shadows of human consciousness.  Unfortunately, danger lurks in those shadows.  We swim through the darkest of humanity, and we are not left unscarred.

I once thought that suicide was a "permanent solution to a temporary problem."  The very good intentions of the statement--intended to inspire sufferers to look for hope in a better tomorrow--ignore the fact that sometimes mental illness is not temporary.  For many people, these diseases are manageable but chronic.  To suggest otherwise, that somehow a miracle cure is the only desirable outcome of such a battle, is ill-advised at best and horribly callous at worst.

I myself struggle with persistent depressive disorder and have since I was very young.  I have fought off the urge to take drastic self-harming measures more times than I care to admit.  Is it true that the condition sometimes goes into remission?  Absolutely.  Is it true that some people have eventually found themselves free of the disease?  Of course it is.  But to tell me that my only goal should be to overcome it entirely detracts from all of the efforts I have taken to live with it, each and every day of my life, no matter how hard a task that seems.

Suicide is permanent.  It isn't selfish, it isn't cowardly, and it isn't its victims' fault.  But it is permanent.  The very beauty of life is that, from moment to moment, it contains infinite potentialities for change.  To be fair, not all of those possibilities are positive.   In five minutes, I might get a phone call announcing that everyone I love is dead and gone.  Tomorrow morning, I could discover I'm suffering from an incurable cancer. A week from now, I might be evicted from my apartment.  These are all very real worries, some more realistic than others, but real.  To imply that everyone's tomorrow will be bright and beautiful is not only shallow--it's demonstrably wrong

But then, there are other possibilities.   Some are perhaps pipe dreams.  My novel in-production might sell 7,000,000 copies and make me rich, eliminating all my financial worries.  My mother might call me to tell me she won a million dollars and is giving me a cut of it.  I might wake up with no health issues at all, with my knees and joints in better shape than they have been since high school.

But then there are other perfectly possible scenarios.  I might get offered a promotion at work.  My partner and sister-in-law might have a delicious fajita dinner ready for me when I get home.  I might get a publication acceptance letter.  I might get to spend an excellent day out by the pool.  Just because my life tomorrow might actually get worse doesn't negate its ability to get better.

To me, it's the positive possibilities that make the negative ones, if I can't ignore them entirely, bearable.  Every day I fight to embrace those possibilities, to keep pushing forward in the hope that tomorrow, even if not perfect, will be better than today.

Robin Williams, at least in this life, has run out of possibilities for change.  It's tragic and heart-wrenching and I pray that he's found rest from the demons that were plaguing him.  It wasn't selfish.  It wasn't cowardly.  It wasn't his fault.  But he'll never sign another movie deal.  He'll never get another comedy special.  He'll never get to help a friend in a time of need.  Those possibilities are now over for him.

Don't ignore the infinite potential of your life, no matter what shape it may be in now.  It could be taken from you in a moment.  Don't let it go without a fight.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Retention & Racism at Hogwarts -- The Importance of What We Don't Say

My fiancee and I are nerds.  We tend to obsess over fictional characters more than we do the people in our lives.  Why discuss mom's new diet when you could argue over the alignment of timelines in Doctor Who?

As an example, yesterday afternoon we were enjoying a midday snack at a local restaurant.  Enjoying the emptiness of the venue, we decided to discuss matters of great importance to us: namely, what the retention rate for muggle-born students at Hogwarts might be.  Obviously, they can perform magic just as well as pure-blood/half-blood students (shout-out to Hermione Granger & Lily Evans Potter, eh?).  Lily is nigh on deified in the story.  And Hermione's knowledge of the wizarding world could put some pure-blood brats to shame.

Hermione Granger - Deathly Hallows

But where are all the "first generation" muggle-borns?  Lily Potter seems to be the exception rather than the rule in Harry's parents' generation.  Most of the mentioned characters are either half-blood or pure-blood.  There are a handful of older muggle-born witches (Kendra Dumbledore as one possibility), but very few of them are active characters in the world of the novels.  It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume some of those muggle-borns simply hid their heritage to be more accepted in a highly prejudiced society.

But I cannot help but wonder.  How many muggle-born witches and wizards might have existed who simply chose to leave the wizarding world behind, either during Hogwarts or shortly thereafter?  I am sure there are many individuals out there who know better than I do the details of the books and will probably knock me right off my pondering stool, but I do wonder why there isn't more visible evidence of their existence in the novels.

I once read a fan fiction in which some of the most prejudiced of Hogwarts students were given the opportunity to describe the reasons for their prejudice.  One Slytherin argued that muggle-born students rarely fully adapted to the wizarding world, so they eventually returned to the muggle world to make lives for themselves.  Their presence at Hogwarts, therefore, only endangered all wizarding kind by making discovery by muggles more possible.  Obviously, I'm not the only person who has wondered where the heck all these muggle-borns went.

Perhaps J.K. Rowling was making a statement about the invisibility of oppressed minority groups in inherently prejudiced society.  Perhaps she meant something even deeper.  Perhaps she meant nothing other than that there were fewer muggle-borns than pure-bloods or half-bloods.

The point is, fans of well-done fiction can take an author's words and glean a great deal of insight--erroneous or not--about what the author might have meant, what he or she might have intended by laying out particular details in a work. J.K. Rowling doesn't hide the wizarding world's general disdain for those born to non-magical parents, yet the attitudes of her heroes tell us a great deal, not just about the wizarding world, but about own her beliefs regarding prejudice in the real world as well.

When writing all fiction, but particularly allegorical fiction, I think it's important that we as authors pay attention not only to what we do say explicitly, but also to what we don't say.  How sharply divided are the "good guys" from the "bad guys"?  What makes the bad guys bad?  Have we portrayed them in a way that might negatively (or positively) reflect on certain groups of people in the world "outside the book"?

I leave you with a copy of a video that went viral a while back:  "To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang."  Whether you agree with the poet or not is irrelevant to the point.  What's more important is what Rachel Rostad read in JKR's work.  What strikes me most about the piece is how a poet, more sensitive to cultural issues surrounding the ethnically Asian community than JKR could be, makes an argument for racism in something as simple as a choice of character name.  She makes other valid points as well, but that one argument almost cinches the deal for me.

I highly doubt J.K. Rowling set out to be known as racist against any community.  Most of the series seems to be about the futility and danger of harboring ridiculous prejudices. Yet her choices hurt a group of readers who needed her understanding and ended up feeling left hanging.

We would do well to learn from this example.  You can never have control over what a reader thinks of your work.  And there are indeed readers who will take offense at any portrayal they disagree with simply because it challenges them.  Challenging readers is GOOD.  We shouldn't write only to confirm what others believe is true.  We write to entertain, to entice, but also to educate, to force others to think.

Still, we all should do our best to mitigate critics' misunderstanding of our intentions.  Our work should say exactly what we intend it to say, even when we remain silent.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Embracing the Revision Process

I first tackled NaNoWriMo in November 2008. I hadn't even heard there was such a thing until maybe a week before, but my girlfriend at the time was very into the idea, so I decided to join her in her efforts.

It was an unmitigated disaster. I had no characters, no plot, and no storyline. I came to the end of my hastily constructed outline at about word 30,000. I had to make up a whole "tagged on" story arc to get to 50,000 words by November 30.

On December 1, I saved the final file. Then I promptly threw it away. Even the thought of tackling revision on such a blemish on the face of the literary world sent me into dry heaves. I feared to even attempt NaNoWriMo again until 2013.

As a young writer in my teens and early twenties, I hated the very idea of revision. Why change what inspiration drove me to write? Sure, I would go back and proofread, but revision? I didn't really understand what that meant, and I certainly didn't know how to do it.

Then, I got older, and though my revision and rewriting skills improved, my patience did not.  My July 2013 Camp NaNoWriMo project is still waiting for its promised round of revisions/rewrites.  It's been put on the back burner.  I haven't quite decided to scrap it yet, but I'm not sure when I will feel the desire to work on it again.

I wonder how many writers have that same attitude toward the revision process.  I wonder if fear of changing, of losing the beauty of what we've painstakingly written, freezes many of us from ever aspiring to improve as writers.

It's amazing how time and experience can force one's perspective to change.  Now editing and revising are my favorite parts of the process, for one simple reason.

I loathe first drafts.

There is nothing more intimidating to me than a blank screen or empty page. It doesn't matter if an entire scene, story, or novel has been swimming around my literary womb, waiting for the orgasmic ecstasy of birth. When I see that empty page, devoid of all life, my creative well dries up like Oklahoma's water supply in mid-July. I wonder whether I will ever write another story, another sentence, another word that might color that lifeless desert.

At heart, writing is about creating.  It's about bringing forth something from nothing.  Yes, one could argue that just an idea already gives you a starting point, but setting an idea into words, somehow conveying that idea to people who don't have the benefit of living within your mental landscape--that's beyond challenging.  Sometimes it feels impossible.

But I push through.  A "sloppy copy" somehow appears on the blank screen--I'm still not entirely certain how--and I feel an immediate sense of deep relief.  The hard part--emotionally anyway--is over.  Now comes the fun.

There's nothing quite so amazing to me as watching a complete load of manure be crafted, compacted, and sculpted into something that can truly sparkle.  Therein lies the true craft--and I would argue the true joy--of writing.

It's not that different from bringing up a child, really.  Through some great gift of the cosmos, you are given the ability to create life, to bring forth something from nothing.  But when she arrives she's completely helpless, defenseless, and frankly has no idea what she's doing.  So you guide her.  You read every book you can, ask for every bit of advice you can get, and implement every (good) idea you stumble upon.  It takes years, but she grows into something vaguely person-shaped.  Then one day, you look at her, and your work is done.  She's ready to fly, to spread her wings and venture into the terrifying, dangerous, and wonderful world.  Once she's gone, you no longer have any control where she goes.  You live on the edge of fear, terrified that something awful will happen to her.  But she's grown up.  She's become what you've always hoped (or perhaps what you had no idea) she would become.  That's when you let her go.

Writing is similar.  It would be irresponsible to send a toddler out into the world on her own.  She isn't done growing yet!  She takes years of practice and perseverance, and our writing can grow no other way.

Remember, though there are days when that piece is sitting on your desk throwing the equivalent of a four-year-old temper tantrum, refusing to bow to your will, there will also be days that you look at it, and you will think, "Wow!  I created that!"  The dirty diapers are just as much of the process as the hugs and kisses and whispers of "I love you, mommy."

Cherish it all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing for Myself: Fiction, Fear, and the LGBTQ Community

A few months ago I was participating in an online novel writing workshop, working on the outline for what would become my novel-in-progress, Choosing Her Chains.  One of my well-meaning classmates (a cisgender, white, affluent male) asked, as we were discussing the implications of my outline, why I had selected what he considered a possibly controversial theme for the work.  He was concerned for me, that though I might complete an excellent novel, my readership would remain low, that it would continually fight to stay afloat in what he considered a relatively niche market.  "Why would you risk failure before you've even begun?"

He had the best of intentions in his comments, but he didn't understand.  I couldn't have selected another theme even if I wanted to find one.  The story had been bubbling for months, developing in the darkest recesses of my mind.  The protagonist refused to let me ignore her for even a day.  Even now, as I type away on this post, she's poking me in the back of my head and asking why I haven't worked on her story more today.  And the sun is just now cresting the horizon!

At the end of the day, though, even her persistence is not always enough to keep me working.  Tapping into that mysterious subconscious realm where our characters exist is exhausting. Sometimes the fear of getting a detail wrong (and your characters will definitely alert you when that happens) prevents me from wanting to write at all.  What keeps me writing from from day-to-day is the desire to write the story I wish I could read.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, I often find that the selection of stories that portray "characters like us" are limited, if not in scope (thank you independent publishing!) then in quality.  My deepest desire drives me to produce work that meets my own standards in both quality and readership while maintaining the integrity of exactly the kind of characters and scenarios and I would want to read in my own spare time.

I am far from alone. Writers of all genres of LGBTQ fiction are even now actively striving to create high-quality fiction in greater numbers than ever before.  Mainstream literary agents and publishers are gradually picking us up, giving us writing contracts, and publishing our books.  But publishers can never accurately predict their readership.  Unfortunately, for right now, the fan base of such books is more or less confined to the same readers who have been following independent writers in the community for years.

How often are we discouraged from writing what it is we really want to write ("controversial" or not) because of fear of how others might respond? And how do we overcome that fear?

A few days ago I picked up Bryan Hutchinson's book Writer's Doubt through Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program.  I'm only a couple of chapters into the book, but already I've found excerpts with which I can commiserate.

The moment will come when you realize exactly what you want to write about because you absolutely love writing about it and you can't stop.  You'll find yourself driving down the highway when an idea suddenly comes to you and you'll desperately search for a place to pull over just so you can jot down a quick note so you won't forget.  That's when you'll know you've found your niche.1
When I write something that's intensely personal to me, whether it be fiction, poetry, or blog post, I cannot set the keyboard aside.  I'm driven to complete it.  But completing the work is only half the battle.  Sometimes I write purely for myself, and I have no desire to share it elsewhere.  But sometimes I feel the need to share it with others.  Whether that desire to share comes from some drive to enlighten someone, from the hopes of conversing with other like-minded individuals, from an instinct to provide entertainment to others like myself, or even just to stroke my own narcissistic ego, the reason eventually proves wholly irrelevant. So long as I enjoy reading what I write, I've accomplished my goal.

But then the doubt creeps in.  What if potential mainstream readers are driven away by expressly LGBTQ themes and scenarios?  What if they refuse to even consider the book if they suggest it supports a lifestyle with which they are still uncomfortable?  Or even worse!  What if my family in the LGBTQ community somehow feels I have done them a grave injustice?  Have I portrayed them in the light I hope to promote?  Have I become just another hackneyed independent author trying to get my $5 out of those people desperate to read genre-specific titles?

Then I remember: there's really no way to know how an audience will receive your work.  Your 500 beta readers and editors might love a piece of work (or hate it).  Once you've released that work of soul into the world, the reception of your readers will be determined by a tangled web of perseverance, marketing, and luck.

So to myself, and to any writers out there in the LGBTQ community, ride the fear.  Embrace it for the exhilarating experience it can be.  And when you've got that story written, send it to me.  You might be writing just for you now.  But perhaps you're also writing for me.


P.S. -- Everyone should be sure to check-out Bryan's website at   If you need a pick-me-up on the dark days, you'll be sure to find some inspiration.

1Hutchinson, Bryan (2014). Writer's Doubt: How You Can Overcome Doubt and Create Work That Matters [Kindle version]. Available from

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Unsympathetic Protagonist

When writing character-driven fiction, an author presupposes, in a way, that a reader's love for the characters will carry the story through any slower-paced plot elements.  As a result, authors of all genres have written a host of articles and even entire books on creating well-developed sympathetic characters.  (See Mette Ivie Harrison's "How to Write a Sympathetic Protagonist" or Amie Kaufman's "Do I Care? Make Me! How to Create Sympathetic Characters," for starters.)  Such guides to character creation often promote many of the same basic principles.  Give the character something to love and to protect.  Make them the underdog fighting against injustice.  Give them some sort of connection to the other characters around them.

Then, my personal favorite: give them flaws.  No one wants to read a story about Perfect Payton or Extraordinary Erin.  Readers need to connect with the raw humanity of the characters, that part of them that makes us all think, "If they can do it, why can't I?"  For me personally as a reader, the hearts of well-written characters shine not in their light, but in their darkness.

My favorite character in the Harry Potter universe is Draco Malfoy.  Full stop.  He's a brat, a bully, a coward, and a bigot.  His only truly redeeming quality is his love for and devotion to his parents, who are also brats, bullies, cowards, and bigots.  In fact, his only truly sympathetic moment in the whole series (in my opinion) comes when he and Harry find themselves locked in a duel that almost costs Draco his life.  Even then, as Harry stands shocked by his own capacity for evil, the malicious part of me cackles in glee to see Draco get what's coming to him.

Then my heart stops as I wonder, "What if he's dead?"  I can't bear to watch that scene in the movie anymore.  That I've committed the storyline to heart--that I know he will be fine, if still nigh on unbearable--means nothing.  I need him to keep on living, to keep on giving Harry that foil against which Harry will quite obviously always overcome.

I think I love Draco Malfoy not so much for himself, but for how his repetitive confrontations with Harry shatter Harry's perception of himself as a good person.  Harry realizes in that bathroom that he could just as easily be the villain as the hero were he to make different choices.  Draco, for all his flaws, provides Harry with that moment of insight, and I love him all the more for that.

When viewed objectively, many of my favorite characters in fiction border on the unbearable.  Catherine Linton, nee Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, is little more than a pretentious coward.  Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, throughout most of the series, uses the people around her as tools to get what she wants.  In Catherine's case, we can still feel sympathy because we realize how stifling the social structure of her time would be to a woman.  Even as we scorn Katniss as selfish, we can value how she becomes the face of justice, even if her overarching desire is to protect only herself and those few she loves.  Both of the women have some redeeming qualities, but it's fairly easy to understand why critics might disparage them as sympathetic characters.

My fiction often bears the inevitable result of my personal tastes in characters. My stories (when I am most satisfied with them) are littered with characters that I recognize some readers might find unsympathetic.  When writing fiction, the question for me becomes not so much "how do I write a sympathetic character?" as it does "how do I take this downright terrible person that I love and make an audience fall in love with her--or even just love to hate her?"  Similar questions, different foci.

As I was just beginning to expand my horizons as a storyteller, I put together a little "anti-romance" short story called "Purple and Pumpkin Spice."  The one thing that startled me about my audience's response was how vehemently they embraced one character over another.  Some loved the protagonist.  Some loved her husband.  Some loved her secondary love interest.  Some loved the quirky best friend.  None of my readers seemed to agree on which character they liked most, and in some instances readers expressed diametrically opposed opinions of the characters.  Mind you, I intentionally wrote the piece so that there were no "bad guys." At the end of the day, each character was a human who sometimes made a poor choice (or series of choices).  Some of those choices led to others getting hurt.  I'd like to think the characters were somewhat sympathetic, but I knew they were very far from perfect.

My all-time favorite comment from a reader really nailed why I think some people enjoyed the piece:
I actually had to delete some of my initial review comments and rethink what I really thought about the story. So, before I start the review let me explain what I am talking about.
I hated your main character. I thought she was selfish and self-involved. I initially transferred that hate to your story and was writing to you about having a main character that resonates with a reader and blah blah blah. But as I was writing and referencing back to your story, it dawned on me that my strong reaction to Susan was a perfect indicator of how well structured and written this story is. I stepped back and read the story again and was so glad I caught myself before finishing my review.
I am a husband and I realized I was projecting my feelings on your character with the idea if my wife had done the same to me I would hate her. So long story short (too late, right?), I checked myself and came at your story from a fair perspective. But, the strong emotional response you generated is a testament to the strength of this story. Susan became real to me - real enough to hate.
Strangely enough, reading that story of hate turned to appreciation became the moment that I thought maybe, one day, I would be good enough to call myself a writer.  I have no delusions that my story was perfect, or even really well done.  But the connection one reader had to a character he hated made me a devotee of the art.

And therein, I think, lies the secret to successfully writing an unlikeable, perhaps even completely unsympathetic protagonist.  We as readers must somehow connect with the character, regardless of how much we loathe her.  We have to understand why she does the terrible things she does, even if we would like to think we would handle things differently.  Moreover, we have to watch how other characters interact with her and identify with the connections there.  Susan's story, unlikeable though she may have been, found an audience because people could connect with the characters who loved her.

As an author, I relate well to the otherwise unlikeable protagonist, and inevitably, those are the characters whose stories I love to tell.  What do you think?  Have you ever found a protagonist you loathed, even though the story itself left you breathless?  Have you written a story around a protagonist you love to hate?  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

First Post! -- Fun with Heterophones

Well, after months of debating whether or not I should open my blogging up to the wider wilder world of the intarwebz, I have finally decided to begin a standalone blog dedicated to my adventures in writing.  To those of you who may stumble upon this poorly designed first post, welcome!  And I apologize.  To those of you whom I personally guilted (or blackmailed) into visiting this blog, welcome!  And I apologize.  And to the archaeologist two hundred years into the future who is going to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of time on the "blogosphere" in an attempt to understand the social structure of humans in the twenty-first century, welcome!  And I apologize.  In advance.

As I considered what topic I might address first, I decided I would begin with my personal nemesis when preparing first drafts of anything:  heterophones.

Strictly speaking, the word "heterophone" has been defined in two distinct but related ways.  The first definition describes any of a limitless list of word pairs in which the words are spelled differently, have different meanings, and have different pronunciations.  (By this definition we might consider "orange" and "apple" heterophones just as easily as we would "red" and "reed.") The second definition more specifically applies to words that are written identically but have different pronunciations and meanings (i.e. "does," the present tense form of "to do," versus "does," meaning multiple female deer).

However, my use of the word relates specifically to a personal phenomenon.  It refers to my unusual proclivity toward replacing one word with a sometimes (but not always) vaguely similarly sounding word.  Sometimes the replacement word might not seem even remotely similar to the word I intended, but it may somehow be etymologically or cognitively connected to the topic of conversation at hand.  For instance, a few times a week, variations of this particular conversation might be overheard as my partner and I eat dinner and binge-watch bad BBC television on Netflix:

Katherine:  "Honey, can you pass me the remote control?"
Me:  "I don't see it.  Are you sure you didn't put it under the fish?"
Katherine:  *slow blink*
Me:  "Fish.  Plate.  Blanket."
Katherine:  *lifts blanket and finds remote*

Indulge me as I explain my oral composition process.  My brain processes ideas very quickly.  Oftentimes too quickly.  The moment a thought has fully-formed in my head and I've begun speaking said thought aloud, my brain has already moved on to what I might say next.  Perhaps my thoughts have already completely derailed and I have begun mulling over some other topic.  In the above scenario, Katherine happened to have been sitting cross-legged on the sofa with a dinner plate sitting on her lap.  My intent was to ask whether she might have set the remote control under the blanket sitting right next to her.  But even as the words stumbled off my tongue, my attention had already wavered.  I watched as she seasoned her plate of fish, and I began to salivate over the delicious piece of tilapia that had just come out of the pan. By the time I got to the word "blanket," the word "fish" had replaced it in my mental foreground.  It took me three full attempts to retrieve the originally intended word.

My writing is not immune from such errors.  I've just finished up a month of working on my upcoming novel during Camp NaNoWriMo.  For those who haven't participated in any of the various "NaNo" projects before, the premise is simple.  You dedicate a particular month to completing a draft of some project, whether it's a novel, a screenplay, some nonfiction paper, etc.  For novels, the general goal is to complete 50,000 words in 30 (or 31) days.

I've been working on the aforementioned novel for almost six months now, but I have not yet created one beginning-to-end fully realized draft.  I decided that, for July 2014, I would complete at least 50,000 words of the draft within 31 days.  The end result is that, amongst all the insanity of my sister's wedding, 1400 miles of driving, and my ordinary work responsibilities, I had to write a bit less than 2,000 words a day.  I'm not saying that the task is impossible (it obviously isn't), but it takes a particular level of dedication that many lose midway through the month.

I make a valiant attempt to disregard my inner editor during these writing sprints.  I have to kick her to the curb, or else I'd be lucky if a single complete sentence ever made it onto the page.  Some writers will intentionally disable the backspace key during these sprints.  While I'm not quite that determined to avoid editing entirely, I do try very hard not to re-read unless I need to remember details of something I'd drafted earlier.  The end result?  A draft so full of heterophones that Katherine (the only one who seems to be able to interpret them) has to go back and make a note for each one she finds. The result can sometimes be more interesting than the intended sentence.  Just yesterday I stumbled across a sentence where I referred to a particular character as a woman's "lady husband" (i.e., "late husband"). 

The point to all of this discussion is that sentential construction is rarely the simple task we tend to assume it to be.  Language is complex, the brain moreso, and there are a million microsteps along the way at which we might stumble, perhaps not even noticing we've tripped until a third or fourth proof-reading.  Be kind to those who present their souls to you in the written word.  Hold them accountable for poor proofing perhaps, but give them the benefit of the fish, too.

In my case, I choose to blame some underlying undiagnosed aphasia which will certainly eventually turn me into an inarticulate puddle.  Better get to writing then.  Those nouns won't verb themselves.