Tag Archives: character

Does Writing Have to Hurt?

Ernest Hemingway has been quoted: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A cursory search reveals a number of such references to pain and writing. As a journeyman writer, I have a few thoughts on the subject. I am writing about these thoughts in an attempt to place them in some cognitive structure of my muddled mind.

Many past writers of renown seem to have been troubled souls. I cling to a notion that reflection and introspection lead to trouble, and trouble arouses emotions. Many of these emotions hurt, especially if suppressed. They fester into anger and guilt.

Writing is an art form that allows expression of emotions through words on a page (or screen). Fiction is creative expression of emotion with the pretense of being imaginary. The writing of fiction becomes cathartic as suppressed emotions are vented through a narrative medium of characters and literary devices.

Instead of talking about myself, these other guys have this problem. How do they deal with it? In the labor of writing, I also process my own feelings. At least, that’s my journeyman’s hypothesis.

Readers love emotions. We like to identify with characters and partake in vicarious feelings with the detachment of fiction. We temporarily feel the pain of fear, rage, betrayal, and loss only to look up and close the book. I suppose we feel better, but mostly we feel without getting overwhelmed.

My conclusion is that emotions sell books.

The craft is the creation of art that expresses life so that readers can swim in emotions without drowning. The more realistic a story becomes, the deeper the experience (and the danger of drowning). I suggest that is why some readers prefer cozies and fantasies, lest they realize the story is about them. There is comfort in deniability.

Enough of what my friend calls Seventies Psychobabble. Why must the emotions be painful? The honest answer is, because in my case, I’m just not that funny. And, I am not nearly joyful enough.

Essentially, only pain motivates me to sit at the keyboard and bleed. Comedy is a substitute for the bleeding. If I could write humor, I would.

Joy is an emotion. I can, occasionally write that, but I am not motivated because I am comfortable enjoying my own moment. Then, readers seem to seek out their own cathartic “pleasures” in reading material (and other art forms). Joyful people don’t seem to find a need to read joyful material the way perfect melancholy personalities seek painful reads. Blood sells books.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey (even though painful). It beats most alternatives.

How Shall I Start My Story?

Your story must begin with a hook and a promise, but we’ll get to that later. In fact, I advise you to get to the beginning of your story after it has been written. Seriously.

Recently, a friend told me he was having trouble with the beginning of a chapter in his nonfiction work. I told him to start somewhere else. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? There is no such thing as too simple. That’s like a woman too pretty, a motorcycle too fast, or a vacation too much fun. What does that even mean?

My first lesson in beginnings came my freshman year at UW-Madison. I would watch my roommate sit for what seemed like hours moving everything except his writing hand. He could not begin his English 101 assignment for the week. The paper remained blank. I became rather famous in that little dorm because my mandatory English class was going well while everybody else seemed to struggle (Thank you, Ms. Marshall, my high school senior English teacher).

The beginning is the toughest part. Many years later, while I was teaching Science to high school freshmen, I required them to write. I taught them what Ms. Marshall had taught me: Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said. How can you begin telling me what you are going to say if you don’t know? I told them to write the introduction last.

Here’s how I did that. Suppose my daughter came to the classroom door. (I look at one student, then another.) Would you please introduce her to the class? Inevitably, I would get the answer, “I don’t know her.” Good. Now, how are you going to introduce your essay if you don’t know it, yet?

True, for expository writing I always emphasized outlining. If you have a detailed outline with a thesis and conclusion, you might be able to write the introduction—because you already know what you are going to say. Well, if that is how you want to write fiction (a plot-driven story) then work the outline first. Still, I don’t understand how I can know the characters well enough to introduce them in the beginning of the story.

The answer is, write some of the exciting stuff, first. Write the scenes that come to mind, the ones that stoke the fire in your imagination. Get to know your characters at their best and worst. Allow yourself to wonder how they got here or there—and where they might go from here. At this point, I can make a decision about writing a character-driven or plot-driven (or, milieu-based) story. If it is character driven, I need some detailed biographies. If it is plot driven, I must write a detailed plot outline. If it is milieu based, I must flesh out the rules and other details of the context and setting.

Then, I write the story. I finish it. The end is the second most difficult thing to write (unless you are writing something with bedroom scenes of your parents, as historical fiction or creative nonfiction). Now, when I know how the story goes all the way to climax and resolution, I can write the beginning. I can make a promise that I know I will keep because I already have.

The beginning, hopefully the first page if not the first line, includes a hook. Maybe it is a baited hook, something that entices the reader to go on to the next line, paragraph, page, and chapter. I don’t know how to explain this (another blog?). The bait depends upon your audience (and genre). I know enough about fishing to respect the dual importance of presenting the bait and setting the hook.

Here comes the promise. The beginning of your story must be an honest offer of the kind of story you are going to deliver. Language, style, tone, setting, and characters all matter, but the reader must know before the end of the first chapter, and maybe by page three, just what kind of story is offered.

One little confession, here: I don’t look at the beginning first when I evaluate any piece of writing. For a novel, I open a random page to get a feel for the language, characterization, and movement. If I accept these, then I go to page one. I know, I’m eccentric, but it is a habit developed by reading a ton of research papers, professional and amateur. If it is slutty, I put it down. If it is trite or cliché, I put it down. If it is beyond belief, I put it down.

So, write your beginning only when you are proud of your completed story and you will be better equipped to write an honest promise that hooks the reader. If you do that, you just might hook an agent and an editor.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

What Is a Story?

By definition, a story is an account of real or fictitious events (as history) usually narrated (told) as by spoken or written words, pictures, symbols, and/or artifacts. History is the root word from which story is derived. Narrate is a term grounded in a word meaning knowledge or knowing (as Gnostic). So, a story is some account of events told by someone having specific knowledge and point of view. Yeah, well…

A story is trouble for somebody about whom we have some care and concern. At least in the American Novel, there is some expectation of conflict escalating to climax and resolution. We might say there is a kind of recipe or format. A specific pattern of format for story expectations might characterize a literary genre. Readers look for very different plots in Romances, Mysteries, and Erotic Novels.

A story is a promise (Bill Johnson, www.storyispromise.com). The author presents a situation in which one or more characters face personal conflict which escalates to seemingly impossible conditions. Action and tension increase. Trouble abounds. Defects in personal and/or group character traits complicate the troubles. Outcome is not certain; however, the audience demands satisfactory conclusion.

Oh, one more thing. The story must stretch the audience’s belief without breaking it. Genres differ, here. I cannot become a fan of Horror or Science Fiction because it is very difficult to maintain the suspension of my disbelief (I am a skeptic). Erotica and Romance escape my naïveté. Military and Nature milieu stories must be accurate or true to my experience else I stop reading.

One example is a famous book that claimed the moon was visible in different phases at different places around the world simultaneously. I set up a sun-Earth-moon model in my living room and learned that the author was wrong. I discounted everything else in the story. It became unbelievable to me and the author not credible.

Similarly, characters must be believable. Fortunately, the range of normal and abnormal human psychology is so vast in my experience that little could be more extreme than historical accounts of real Wisconsin residents. Still, a character must stay in character unless that kind of abnormal psychology is part of the story.

Plot trajectory must also follow some generally predictable patterns with a few surprising specific twists. Random conflicts and resolutions (strangers appearing, magic events, unexplained coincidences) are believable only within limits of context. It breaks the story promise.

A story is a promise kept. The writer offers a promise of interesting characters with believable traits including defects, a milieu of setting and circumstance offering trouble, and a sequence of events with plenty of building conflict. The reader/audience has a right to expect all of this with some unpredictable events and a satisfactory outcome. And, the promise must be offered in the first few pages. That’s all.

In fairness, I remind you that my views come from on-the-job training. I have no formal education in narration or novel writing. You can get your own training by writing, reading, and searching views of successful writers you appreciate. You can find all sorts of discussions of story, narration, myth, and symbolism online. One topic I am interested in investigating is the range of emotional appetites of various audiences with regard to characterization and story structure (plot or conflict curve). We read to experience emotions.

One last thing: Feel free to teach something, to make a statement of observation regarding the meaning of the experience of life. You can tell a story that adds something to the great narrative of human history.

With all of this formulation, remember to be original. Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

How do you get story ideas?

The question goes to the nature of creativity, and it gets complicated and controversial.

The simple answer is, I look for them. I ask for them, and they arrive. The complications and controversy appear as I try to explain HOW that might happen.

Last week we took one news story and imagined a fictional plot, some milieu, and a few characters that might be developed. News items, especially strange ones, are stimulants to the imagination. It’s a quick way to get started.

“Michael” is another. When asked how he knew things in the movie, John Travolta’s angel character answered, “I pay attention.” It can be that simple. Pay attention to what is happening around you. Go to the mall or park. Better yet, go to a household auction and watch people. Go to a NASCAR race and imagine the lives of the individuals and families in the stands. Try Lambeau Field. Go wherever you have fun, and then pay attention.

Getting ideas is not my problem. I have them stacked up like cord wood waiting for the writing. I have the second novel in draft waiting for the first rewrite. The third, also a sequel, is pressing for me get started (I am prewriting). I have actually begun a few lines of the fourth novel, a prehistoric prequel. Then there are the nonfiction projects. Urgency is what I am feeling.

I would like to say that I don’t ask for any more story ideas, but I do. It’s a subconscious thing. I wonder. At the end of the first novel, I wonder what might happen to all these people of my imagination. I wonder what might happen, if…. Real prayer is subconscious.

Hence, the dream. I believe my story idea was a response to subconscious questions/concerns/prayers. Here comes another question (and story idea): Whence cometh answers to subconscious questions/concerns/prayers? While we’re at it, why not also ask, whence cometh questions/concerns/prayers? Yes, another story idea—or, maybe a nonfiction project.

Writing generates stories. It is a process of self discovery, of finding out what I think and feel at various levels. It reveals personal love and fear, acceptance and anger, cognitions and prejudices.

Ready to start? Take a walk. Pick up an item as simple as a stick or stone. Take it home. Put on some meditative music (I like R. Carlos Nakai) and ask the item to tell you a story. Write it down. STOP!

Don’t think about it so much. Just write. Give yourself a brief time limit (maybe 7 minutes).

Writing is a process of logical you communicating with creative you. It is a journey of art and craft. Let it happen.

What is a story idea?

You can, again, thank my wife, Nancy, for this question. An avid fiction reader, she has some great questions for writers. I would really like to read your questions and comments. This blog is meant to be but a launching pad for discussion.

Reducing the question to the simplest terms conceivable to me, today, I will say a story idea is one of three things. 1. It is an interesting character who the author comes to know and the readers come to enjoy—even if they hate him/her. 2. It is an interesting problem, situation, or difficulty that challenges the author and
readers—someplace for the character(s) to go with no known way of getting
there. 3. It is an interesting milieu—a setting of time, place, and circumstance—that fascinates the author and readers, that challenges belief without breaking it.

As an example, let us scan some news stories on this day, November 9th, 2011. Here’s one: CAIN ACCUSER FILED COMPLAINT AT NEXT JOB, TOO. Just for fun, we could explore this as a story idea. Where is the story?

Well, we certainly have a couple of interesting characters, here. Now, we are writing fiction, so we don’t want to base our character directly upon real people; however, a little memory and imagination might allow us to create a character with some attributes of Herman Cain, perhaps Bill Clinton, and a few others. We imagine a character with narcissistic tendencies, maybe a past of sexual abuse, perhaps an inferiority complex. We write a detailed description and biography with family, friends, and personal character traits. Love him and/or hate him, our character must evoke feelings.

But, he cannot get into trouble alone, and without trouble, his story is not interesting. We look to another character in the news story. Great. In this case, we have a few other characters. We can recall some of our acquaintances and generate one or more colorful characters. After all, we can only really get to know our main character through interactions with others, in this case, because the story is about relationships. Now, what shall we call him (that is as interesting as
Herman Cain)? Is our story serious or humorous?  Both? Hmmm. Max Grover? Maybe too obvious. Will Hornaday? No. Pat Germain? Please.

Okay. Maybe about now we decide to flesh out a plot. If our character does not emerge in full flesh to write the story for us, we can outline a series of difficulties leading to a major conflict that demands resolution. Maybe we start with a few incidents in high school or college that were not all that politically incorrect at that time, but which reveal a character weakness. From that, we can outline a few scenes through life becoming bolder as our character finds himself in increasingly stressful situations of power. Get the idea?

Maybe that setting of power and stress IS the story. Maybe the rungs of the corporate ladder, or the journey of political flesh pressing, or a caldron of combined corporate stress and political intrigue become the milieu in which interesting things necessarily happen. We might want to tell the story of corruption of decent but flawed people in this world of competitive thirst for power and status.

Write what you know. Any one of these approaches can lead to a provocative and entertaining story. Choose the way that fits you—your world view and experience. Of course, research is one way to gain experience. Read, get a job, and join a political party.

Personally, I like all three. I would say that BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT is driven by two main characters set in a milieu of combat PTSD recovery within political chaos similar to recent global news. These two factors of character and milieu make conflict of plot inevitable. I chose to write about one character’s thoughts because psychology interests me (and I have experience). You might choose a very different path. The point is, any story will work if it is vividly compelling in character, plot, and/or milieu.

When you write, what are you thinking about?

Here is a question from a newer member of Write on the Edge, our writing group at Foothills Branch Library of Yuma. It stopped me in my tracks—mostly because it sent my mind to spinning like tires on ice. Okay, not a useful metaphor in Yuma, but I am a Wisconsin boy. It got me thinking so fast I lost traction. I’m going to take a stab at answering, but I really hope you help me out with comments.

Sometimes I think about you, the reader, and try to construct some meaningful combination of words to express my thoughts. I suppose it’s always a good idea to keep the readers in mind, but I must admit you usually are not front and center—my ideas  occupy that space. That may be a good thing.

Other times I think about the mechanics of writing so intently with my logical mind that my creative mind breaks free to express my feelings. This may not be a conscious decision, but it is intentional. That is, it happens when I intend to express something really important to me. Poetry helps. I believe the focus on meter and rhyme, maybe even structure of a particular form, becomes a type of mantra that allows more of my brain to function simultaneously. Well, that’s my hypothesis.

The researcher in me immediately tries to devise some inquiry that might answer the question or test my hypothesis. The question is similar to the research question for my dissertation which basically asked what high school students think about (and how they do it) as they work on real environmental problems. In that case, students were encouraged to “think aloud”, or talk, while they worked in small groups. It is a method that has been used to study problem-solving techniques and strategies for years, but I have a constraint here. I write alone.

Introspection and reflection might be of some use, but it is even more difficult to manage subjectivity with introspection than with thinking aloud. The best we may do is to learn what we think we are thinking about, and that is grossly biased. Hence, the comments of many writers may be necessary to even begin to perceive patterns. And, there is a key word—patterns—because, we are not likely to always think in similar ways to each other or to ourselves in different situations.

Here is one fair conclusion, however. When we write, we think. That is why writing can be a wonderful tool for learning. It requires us to structure our ideas, and occasionally it reveals our feelings, even the ones we consciously try to avoid or hide. For example, much of my writing during my divorce in the late seventies was about Vietnam. Obviously the experiences were on my mind but suppressed.

Caution: Introspective journaling can be too revealing for a lone individual. Counseling and group work is advised lest memories trigger realism of reliving the stress, pain, and terror. Maybe that is why I accepted the choice to write fiction. I can pretend it is not all about me.

Much to my surprise, I found myself thinking about my fictional characters so intensely that they talked to me and actually drove the story. It happened so subtly that I didn’t notice right away. I just found myself thinking about how they were going to get out of the situations I had created for them, even to the point of wondering how a sentence was going to end. I wish that experience on all of you. See why I had to start writing a sequel immediately?

Writing can be very much like meditation, and meditation works best if I do not think about what I am doing at the time. I am really living in a single moment as a passive observer unless compelled to participate, and then I choose participation by previously accepted purpose and intent. So, I think it is fun and useful to think about writing, thinking, and thinking while writing, but I do not wish my metacognition (thinking about thinking) to impede my cognition.

Happy thoughts and have fun writing.