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Can I still do it? Shake off the frost and post here knowing who reads, and who doesn’t, and what expectations I have set? I share this as an opening to relate the vulnerable, very human feeling of being faced with the great canvas.

I’ve been writing, sure. Things are moving along.

I’ve learned much in the year I’ve been absent. Adventuring not to different countries this time but different worlds, geo-politically in a sense. It doesn’t feel like a year, but then I haven’t been able to say much. The irony of gaining access to the more venerable doors is that you lose the ability to talk about much of what is going on. When the purpose is to share rather than promote yourself, anonymity is your friend. At least, by the bar I’ve set here. Not that I haven’t been called out already. In nice ways. Which brings me to my point. How do you sustain?

I don’t mean in the “How am I going to face the NY Times Bestseller list for yet another week? Ennui! Privileged people problems! Calgon!” way.

Even then you still feel the same visceral self-ness you’ve been shouldering all this time thinking there would be some rightness in the end game. Heavy stuff, but hang on. That’s actually a good thing. That’s better than good. That’s brilliant. That’s where the shiniest truths emerge.

Being a writer isn’t a reinvention, it’s an expansion. You. The universe. Hang on. The sugar plumbs dancing in our heads aren’t the reward. Rule one of writer club: don’t confuse the fat lady for the scenery. The reward of keeping the inner aspects of yourself that you once found (or still find) squirmy is knowing you live in a zeitgeist with people who can share with you the same little signal moments of lightning you bow over first to them. Surprising, glowing little moments of shared wonder or pain, or company. Shooting stars of illumination. Flares of path light in the distance. Near heartbeats to slow our own panic.

We are all here for such a short period of time. What stirred this post was not only the need to re-connect with this experiment – and you – whoever you are who keeps twitching my statistics to make me smile knowing this may help salt your path, or who knows what you are doing with it. Have fun. What motivates me is the understanding of someone who gets that even if you have a shrine of awards, or a shrine of bulk-purchased, single-ply you hope makes it past Thursday so you don’t have to liberate the bar bathroom nano-ply next door (again) – that you are still suffering the same, unavoidable fact of your writer existence.

I love every doe-eyed, sad, angry, elated, arms out on the balcony or cliff’s edge to the sunset one of you. I can say that completely sober and mean it because I’ve had a year to go off and see how many people who’ve made it still suffer from the same unavoidable reality. Whatever you were secretly nervous about at fourteen, or twenty-four, or forty, or eighty, sticks to your ribs, and yes you can go to therapy and become one of the West Side, card-carrying, made creative elite, but you will still wake up on a cold sweat on occasion whether you remember it or not, and those things will motivate you to pick up a pen or miss your stop thinking about them from time to time.

Yes, I live in New York. Yes, I clawed my way up the drapes one handful of organza at a time. Great floss, that. Yes, it’s changed me dramatically and clearly marks a difference when I see where everyone’s path diverged. Though how much I can’t yet say. I’ve reconnected with friends who literally landed on the four corners of the earth. Turns out there was something to our little clique after all. Plotters. Every one. And even though I got what I was after (be careful what you wish for) I’m arriving at many truths my doubles found in the heat of the tropics, the arctic north, far east, and lastly sitting in a plastic lawn chair in our old back yard, trading our exotic baubles for early kids and early retirement. Who gets the last laugh I wonder?

I will never retire. This used to terrify me. Now the idea of retiring terrifies me. Not because I can’t think of a million things to do with an afternoon, and lust heavily at times for the opportunity, but because retiring in this sense means throwing in the towel. We can’t get back what we lost.

In exchange for living in interesting times, I’ve tasted a lot of what I always wondered about. Last week I finally discovered the secret to the answer 42.

Go on, ask. There really is one. It’s pretty inspiring and worth finding. And you do absolutely know it’s exactly what Adams meant. Like everything in my life, I discovered this little gem in the course of a completely unrelated research project, and didn’t even seen the synchronicity until the final finish line moments, like this glowing reward for gritting through. As far as longstanding authorial Easter eggs go, that one turned out to be truly nod worthy. Call it luck if you like. But you know, he died at 41, so circle back to this post.

What is the difference between writing, a medium intended to stay around long after we are gone, versus just sitting around a fire being a performer and living what might be a truer source of the craft: bringing the fire to the night, kissing the watchful faces of everyone in the circle with that glow.

The difference is how history is created.

Look at it this way: of all the brilliant performances and works ever written, only a tiny grain of them have ever survived. Not just the good ones, a wide array, almost a completely random assortment.

The new research on why we die is illuminating. Supposedly in virtual models, a society that never dies of old age eventually dies due to lack of adaptation. How long did dinosaurs live? Depends on how you see them: collectively as fossils, or individual as very large and successful moving rocks. That died. And never came back. We know nothing of what they could have become.

The species that died, or dies continuously to force room for the next generation created us. Now that we have the insane problems of our family dysfunction as a species firmly established, we can see how totally unavoidable it was that we all ended up frothing, volatile beakers, largely unattended until someone noticed the magnetic phone interference and electrical problems thirty floors down. We are dangerous because we are in an experiment we created.

The first little amoeba said to the second: “I’ll wait here. You have the crumb. I’ve had my life, and I love you more than dessert.”

Some say the whole construct we’re applying is simply our own coping mechanism against the chaos. I say, yes! Both! Neither! Open the box and find out! Open another box and find out if it happens again! I am a writer.

So are you.

The bad news: you will lose your life and there is no cake. So you get even less than the lone romantic amoeba who had an actual hand in all this.

(As it turns out, romanticism in amoebas wasn’t a success for evolution purposes in the amoeba per se but the decision still turned out to be a good one.)

The better news: you are the sum total of a million-trillion molecular, astrophysical, bio-revolutionary mistaken paths that worked.

Welcome to your existence, the intersection of a trillion-trillion-trillion lucky breaks. You’re a fractal that pulsed awake and stayed together instead of breaking apart within three weeks. 18,144,000 seconds to convince your mother before she noticed. You are Christmas cake made of stardust. Lick your lips when you taste the cold. You are sunshine.

I can be a million-trillion molecular, astrophysical, bio-revolutionary illusions. I am a writer. I can be anything. Anything. And so can you, because the thing about being a totally unmonitored experiment is all the beta features we’re passing along to the next generation. Because the harder it is to fit in at that dull day job, or gazing out the window on those family vacations you have to just remember are material, the more James Bond top secret gadgets you’re going to light your shoes on fire with as soon as you find them – attached to your own inherent existence. This is the secret of what makes life so obscenely compelling. This is the mystery and sheer, utter joy of it.

You either take the pledge to test them out or let them die with you, and if they die with you, it’s highly possible no one will ever seen what you could have uncovered. The uncomfortable parts that aren’t fully releasable yet will have no author to master them. But wait, you are a writer. You don’t even have to read the manual to become the fiery spectacle you are. The task of being interesting all on your own comes in exchange for the things you wouldn’t have had anyway. Because let’s face it, a trillion-trillion-trillion combinations later, you still wouldn’t be whoever you think you’d rather be.

But…

There is a cost. For every one of us still chasing shadows and bringing the light forward as best as we’re able, given the circumstances of our experimental nature, the result of which absolutely requires our free will, some have fallen. Our speed race is against the death of our ability to carry forward all the other success that will be lost. Loving the mechanics of being together circling the fire is loving the beating heart of being human. If we don’t love the collective, we cannot sustain. That doesn’t have to mean agreeing with it, in fact most times loving something and agreeing to let it fail are completely opposite impulses. Take our love struck, hypothetical amoeba, for instance.

People, some at least, are natural performance artists. We do it because we do. Art of the early primordial variety is the stuff that we were programmed with to guarantee the pilot light comes on when it’s time. That happens to spark the same cascade of future art spilling ahead like a line of gasoline to light the spectacle for the next. Sometimes the light gets lit too early, and that has other implications. Sometimes it gets lit too late. Both require a lot of strength to get through if you found the wrong forest or saw the reflection of a past or future forest lit before you were able.

But if we don’t test out all these glorious, terrifying experiments we call ourselves, we leave nothing. We lose all the beautiful joys we ourselves experienced as a result of the previous tenants.

Case in point. You likely do not know Lesley Harpold.

But her writing lives still. Hers was either an incredible life, or a performance pulled off to the fullest degree of any performance stunt known to me. Her life would be unbelievable to me if I hadn’t said the same several times over the course of many others. People have presumed me gone or in danger of being gone before, which is a bit unsettling the first time it happens. Actually, this is a pretty strong reoccurring theme in the lives of writers, either those scattered into hiding from the repercussions of particularly effective alter-egos, or those who really are what we might call “off being dedicated.”

In my usual skeptic sense on the uncertain things in life, I can only say bravo to what I read of Lesley’s that turned into a two-hour exploration of what it means to touch lives anonymously. Whoever or where ever she is, or whether you believe or not, this is the legacy she left, starting with the piece I read.

http://workbench.cadenhead.org/leslie-harpold/possible-scenarios-for-heaven.html

I’d say this is another case of a forest clearing I came upon too late.

And to anyone wondering how to keep going…

So what if all these crazy experimental aspects of being human were landed upon us in a flourish of cold mathematical beauty? So what if there is or isn’t someone watching. We have ourselves. You can blame teacups in space and still come to the same conclusion. There were beautiful people out there years before now, the best of which make us who we are today, and in order for that to have any meaning moving forward, we do our part. We go forth.

And when we are done, we can just know, remembering the fireworks lit at the coldest moments around us, that the ship does not go down with the crew.

Spark your flares and send some memories ahead. You know they’re watching. Remind them it was worth waiting for.

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It’s a boastful assertion, but some comfort to the many writers I see struggle to come to grips with the reason why good writing takes so long. You know you have a good story. You just need to know how to get it to the completed draft. There are ways to make it through when nothing else works.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few hard and fast rules to keep in mind, but typically the alternative process goes like this: you can pool from direct experiences to get something solid very quickly that is unpolished and in the rough, or you can wait a while, delicately approaching a subject repeatedly in different lights and moods, and like da Vinci use thin layers over long periods to produce something highly structured and refined. There’s no one way, or right way, or better way to do it. But frequently for dedicated writers the problem is not a lack of writing ability, because let’s face it, that part isn’t impossible, but rather the weight of the writing itself. Part of making it to the finish line is daring to believe you have something good to offer the world. The other part is realizing when you are in a small dingy with a lasso roped around the tip of an iceberg, with only a tiny paddle to make your way home with your inspiration, because that’s what it is. What you see or think you see is not what you are dealing with. Not really. Not if you’re here, still reading, and any of this rings true.

The point is to keep approaching the darkest doors you have yet to open with the deepest textures ingrained in them, because those are the same doors no one opens, and they stay closed for difficult reasons. You have them, they are there, and they are beckoning.

Plenty of times a story sags or goes brittle and falls apart or we lose interest simply because the structure underneath was not strong enough to hold it, or the little bits of fluff we intended to tack onto it simply weren’t interesting and full enough to cover what we wished. But nothing much compares to the difficulty most genuine and earnest writers face. You can see and feel the anguish from them at coffee or over dinner, or in their holiday updates, and you know something is stuck by the way they avoid that most awful of questions. When will it be done?

Of course, this is like asking God, when will the universe be done? If it hadn’t been such a pain to create, there wouldn’t have been so much about productivity once it was finished. Or is it? But that’s a question for another story.

What I humbly offer people who are writing good work, talented friends and struggling acquaintances I want to comfort, is simply this. You must lock eyes on the thing that makes you squirm. You must write all the harder when your cursor hovers over any possible distraction to get you out of the red zone, that uncomfortable on the nose place you must invent and uncover and lay bare about yourself so that others can dance around it and be safely distanced and comfortable confronting it after you’ve built the cage to hold it.

Whenever you get the need to reach out and send the signal to eject, sit on your hands and think. This is not genius advice by any stretch, but it is the most successful for getting done the project you really have in you, that you really want to complete, and the one that will ultimately be the most fulfilling as a creator, instead of skirting around all the little amusements that so many writers fall into while they are waiting to get the courage to say the thing that made them writers in the first place.

The shortest distance between two points is a direct line. It will be hard to write this way, but if you are reading this journal you have probably tired of the other advice anyway. Here’s my best shot to help you, because we are in the same line of work.

Write what scares the hell out of you. Write the thing you won’t share face to face or even think about for fear of ruining your day. Write the thing you cannot speak any other way. Sit there refusing to give in to the part of you that is scared off and instead make sense of the world you have found to build past all the fantastic mind palaces that were already so easily conquered in the past.

Go to the place you cannot go and open the door colored the blackest of night you cannot touch and find out what’s there. Something good happens afterward. You’ll have something that’s yours, that you believe in. The fight to leave what compels you will take over for the blank page you cannot fill. It is a reversal just as hard, but you will never wonder what to write again. You’ll always have something powerful and rich and compelling to write once you start from that place.

I have never felt what other people call writer’s block. I’ll even wager that what most people casually dismiss as a lack of discipline or procrastination due to lack of direction is really only this: the real truth, the one knocking about and asking for you by name, the thing they don’t tell you in pastel-covered writing self-help books is that real writing, like real living, or real anything is terrifying. Writing isn’t make believe. It’s pure fear, dipped in caramel. When you find yourself turning as far away from a word or subject or whisper as you can, that is exactly where you should be heading for your next line. Realize when you’re doing this, why you’re pulling away, and how that procrastination actually means you have exactly found the point at which you will write best and truest and most like your own voice. Consciously go after it, daily building up a tolerance for that thing waiting that you cannot face, and the block will go away.

It is so much easier to soften what is too true or too on the nose than to invent what is false. You will be happier with the outcome, I think.

Procrastination in writers is deathly not because it takes time, but because it teaches us to keep missing the obvious talents in ourselves that are waiting for us to make use of our personal truths we are secretly chasing without knowing that is exactly why we write.

Follow those dim lights down those dark corridors. Be willing to let the candle go out where you walk. Let your eyes adjust.

That’s my ghost story for the season.

Bisous

There’s a million tricks on mechanics, dramatic devices, and cast development, but the most important for good writing is also the simplest. You have to be honest. I’m not saying you have to write the truth, because part of being honest is realizing truth is like opinions and everybody has them. But you have to be willing to write the elephant sitting in the room.

Whatever it is you, or your characters by projection aren’t talking about, chances are that’s actually your golden ticket to producing a work that is both fascinating and original. That also means it’s hard work.

Maybe it comes out fast on the page, but the real work happens in your own ability to discern your biases, and be willing to look deeper into your characters, at their challenges, but also backward through time to what caused their behaviors and your own as their author.

Yes, you do get to a point where you learn how to seamlessly merge total fiction and mechanical polish with the rough, beating heart of honesty, but if you’re ever stuck with an outline that is suddenly looking very flat and cookie cutter on the page, consider the one thing that would make you break out in a cold sweat to come face to face with, or blush at to hear whispered about yourself at a party? Make it real, then make it relate to something you want to write about.

Maybe this is what bothers your characters, and maybe it isn’t, but if you can come up with half a dozen of these little phrases, you’ll be writing stories that ring true and have that quality unnamed for a long time to come.

Well-written reviews explain flaws that will be obvious to the target audience. If you can’t offer solutions you may not understand the story or storylogue in general to be effective in a review. I wait until I have a solution for each problem I bring up.

As a courtesy to the author, criticism works best as impersonal perspective in exchange for warning the audience of what they need to bring to the experience.

Ever notice you can read a critical review and then like the story just fine? Good criticism helps the audience understand how to approach the story. Scathing criticism is usually an attempt to buffer a serious-to-fatal flaw with humor instead of direction. Sometimes people cannot be honest about their work because they use it to self identify. That’s unfortunate.

All the criticism to my work so far has been understandable to me, thankfully before publishing. Insight and appreciation are both rewarding to read. I’d rather know than not because I’d like to improve. I’d also rather not find out in a public review of a book that’s already published. If it turns out to be accurate, I’d feel somewhat betrayed by my editor and publisher for not being honest with me in the initial development. For this reason I move my projects ahead with a lot of personal skepticism, very slowly. Perhaps I’m just the sort of person who would be hit hard if I found out my final draft was worthless. But I’ve yet to write anything that perfect.

This might be why I take it as a given that what I review will have flaws and that my suggestions and the improvements from others are just part of the process on the way from sneak-preview to final draft. I’ve always found a bad thing happens when you run out of improvement – the project stops being interesting. Luckily at that point it’s done.

A lot of people want to know about agents, and I confess I only know what my friends have told me, some of whom are pretty veteran. I’ve found a lot of experienced authors are very willing to share what they know about the industry as a courtesy if you’re willing to ask/listen and read.

Some days I wish there were more hours in the day to read all the research available online to become a better writer and self-advocate. Usually I’m wiped after I write for 4-5 hours. A few times I’ve worked around the clock simply because I gave myself a hard deadline and deep down I knew there was a point where it was good enough for a reasonable chance without my obsessing on every remaining detail. At a point you will know in your heart, your project will be ready to have someone else take the knife to it, and their deep cuts will be more valuable from fresh eyes rather than yet another spell check on your part.

I’m very, very fortunate in that I’ve been given an opportunity to interact with a good agent who specializes in the genre I’m focusing on, so it does happen. The line is in fact live. But I admit I have been silently working away on all my waking free hours, going to seminars, reading, seeking advice from editors, and giving up my weekends and lunch breaks to write for over eight years even to get this far. For over five years I’ve kept to a writing schedule of trying to commit four hours a day once I get home from work. This sort of discipline can burn you out at times, and you’ll definitely want to keep a balance with your mate. But if you find the act of writing rewarding for its own purpose it can also be therapeutic and balancing and remind you of your humanity. If writing becomes your distraction that’s a winning combination, but be careful like any vice to set your boundaries as well.

I decided to continue struggling at writing because it’s one of the few aspects of life where I feel completely rewarded no matter how much I stop sleeping or miss good movies to work on it. There’s a certain level of self-sufficiency in good writing that’s maybe more about the personality of the writer, but I assume this ability for solitude is something integral for writing to progress. It’s sort of strange having this entirely separate career but I’m slowly merging into one concurrent direction. I’ve picked up a lot from the business sector, and this has both inspired me and made me reluctant to start approaching anyone until I felt I’d given 110% of what I could do on my own as a serious effort to writing. I don’t like to do anything half-way. The results have been mixed. I know what I’ve done well, and what needs to be fixed now, which is possibly one of the most discerning skills to hone.

I will say that my writing has increased sharply with my sixth manuscript, and that over the past six months of immersing myself in the local community (forgive the absence) and foraging for whatever tribal wisdom is available, I’ve started to write on a level that makes me confident enough to present my work for review and honest feedback to professionals.

So here’s another quirk I learned…

In theory it’s supposed to look something like this:

“Rewrite formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” — Stephen King

I realize now there was an asterisk somewhere at the bottom, that went something like “* if you are Stephen King.”

As for me, upon suddenly getting attention from an agent, my formula went something like this:

Rewrite formula: 24th Draft = 23rd Draft – 50% ZOMG.

Followed swiftly with:

… oh, wait, I have a better idea for this chapter than when I first began…

…oh, I just read something about (insert esoteric pre-Columbian tribal fact here) that reminds me of (insert modern astrophysics theory here) and would be a really interesting connection to explore as part of (insert adventure story fourth act structure here).

…oh wait, just one more read-through…

When you start finding your own work interesting, you feel both satisfied and deeply, deeply narcissistic to an embarrassing degree. Then you stop being embarrassed because there’s not time among all the other million things you immediately find to correct. This is the efficient humble / jazzed paradigm. I mean, if you hate it, you’re probably right. I was. That explains manuscripts 1-5. Yes, I was working. I was working for number 6.

Then there are details. You can get wrapped up forever in little authentic details, like wine labels and sartorial conventions. Apocryphal Greek and Babylonian philosophical texts… The truth is, you will always find something else interesting to explore, and your work can always be better. This is slow, like watching trees grow in the back yard.

But I found something wonderful happens when you steel yourself and go out there and start shaking the tree. The professional literary community is a fantastic network of people and they want to see good books written and they want to help create them. Sometimes just the act of having an agent get back to you with interest is enough to change the way you look at your work forever and send you in a better direction you didn’t even think about the last time you dusted off that “final” draft.

One thing writers need more than anything are points of reference for what makes a modern manuscript successful. You’ll know when you’re ready to pitch, but be willing to make the best thing you can now, not just the best thing you’ve ever written. Something great might happen – you’ll find the next project you work on will only take a fraction of the time because you’re teaching yourself patterns of successful story creation. It seems like this has a lot in common with music and poetry and programming. As someone who was not a natural at much of anything, and with very high standards to deal with even so, I can assure you getting better does happen. It’s so slow you may not even notice until you’re nearly there – wherever there is for you.

I’m not a musician, but I can imagine the first time you write a really good sonata and you can sit there and amuse yourself with something finally worth sharing – something you’re genuinely proud of creating. For some of us it takes many years.

Oh, and in the mean time, keep going! No promises, and no slacking. Don’t ever be the quarterback who doesn’t touch down because he stops before the white line.

Back to work…

I just read Plot to Punctuation’s Top 9 Character Tips for 2009 for additional tips for character development not just in the scope of avoiding stereotypes. These are great tips by Jason Black.

As a follow-up Elements of a Novel writes:
“All stories are about people, even when they’re about rabbits. And the stories that move us most, the ones that stick inside years later, are those inhabited by characters we can connect with and admire. And no characters resonate more than those who in the course of a story learned how to transcend their own flaws and weaknesses to do something great—this is known as a Character Arc…”

I’m sure there are many other good resources on this topic and I’ll add them here as I find them. I’m discovering Twitter to be an incredibly invaluable resource for all sorts of amazing links.

Some of my new favorite blogs are:

InkyGirl.com A wonderful resource from Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who regularly posts great links on just about anything new writers might encounter. Her comics are great and her icon makes me smile. Hey, what can I say. She’s doing a ton to help the writing community. I don’t think people get enough credit considering how much time it takes to blog, write, etc.

Teresa Gomes runs quotes for writers, with plenty of inspiration. One of the great advantages to writing is that you have the thoughts of your predecessors already written down. I say, use it. Amazing people referenced daily.

Screenwriter John August keeps an insightful blog up on screenwriting, and it’s great to read multidisciplinary material. Screenwriting is very structured as a necessity of production. Thinking like a screenwriter can help with plays, novels, story boarding, and outlines to cut down on development time from inspiration to draft.

Nathan Bransford keeps a blog as a writer and literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. He’s written Jacob Wonderbar and The Cosmic Space Kapow and offers interactive contests with perspectives on the entries. This is a great learning tool.

Cheryl Klein is listed as a Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and an editor at Scholastic. I find her posts really helpful and thought-provoking. She’s already helped my writing style since I’ve been reading her posts and I’m sure has influenced large swaths of re-writes in the right direction for many people. I highly suggest her to anyone interested in creating relevant manuscripts. Be warned she posts query letters.

I’m one of those people who respects being given the tools for self improvement, and then going off and working on it with minimal harassment on my part. Agents like Janet Reid create a persona I think to warn of their standards, but even this is done with best intentions in mind for the author. If you read her blog, she gives useful information and her honest thoughts on what makes for successful writing.

Character development is not about description, it’s a plot arc. If nothing else, that’s the easiest take-away I know. Remember that whatever your character situation. But if you’re looking for more definite ideas, try these:

Signs your character is taking shortcuts instead of involving:

1. Description: With a third of the current description deleted, could your target audience still guess all the missing details you have prescribed? If this is the case, fine, let them. Save trees or it’s time to write a more complicated character.

2. Dialog: Is your dialog easily mistaken as originating from a popular brand or icon? If you are going to use Paris Hilton or Mr. T in your story, then let it be a parody or a satire about getting to know the actual Paris Hilton or Mr. T. At this point, Mr. T isn’t a description he’s a known stereotype. Regardless of moral judgments assigned to stereotypes, more importantly they’re just such overpowering associations. Millions of dollars have been spent saturating the social consciousness with these icons as a done package. You will be bleaching all the subtle tones of the rest of your story if you squash them with predictable pop figures in disguise.

3. Interaction: Do others wait patiently to hear what your character has to say? Nine times out of ten, you are creating a token power structure rather than a believable and realistic (read: respectful) relationship world for that character. Monologues can be very powerful if they reveal wit and tension in the character talking, but the reverse is what’s known as table dusting. The problem occurs when you give a character so little real interactivity in the story that he or she is relegated to half-time intermission cheer leading or sideline gossip. The metaphor goes, while two maids dust the tables at the opening of a scene they set up the tension of the main characters through random or forced exposition. It’s great to have a character slip an interesting fact in about another while in character, but to have the character’s soul laid bare in a one sentence monologue is more like an autopsy. More importantly, there’s very little you can set up in a glazed over summary that won’t be a stereotype. At that point, you’ve either got a flat character, or even more work disproving the stereotype than if you’d just avoided the table dusting to begin with. Now if you want to set a Red Herring, cheers to you!

4. Self Identity: Does your character fixate on an aspect of self-hood that does not actually tie into the plot arc or character arc within the frame of the story? I don’t make every personal conversation I have about my particular status in a variety of different groups. I do discuss it some, but the key is relevance. Every word spoken in your story has to serve a purpose. Yes, really. Whether it’s painting the backdrop of social tension in the home, or building the culturally acceptable level of intimacy your characters share for believability as the relationships progress, unless the problem with your character is his failure due to frequent non-sequiturs in professional conversation, don’t dirty bomb your story with details that in all honesty represent a part of yourself that you really want to write a story about anyway. Don’t be lazy. If you have a story to tell, tell it. If this is not your story, go tell the other. Make it powerful, not token.

5. B-Sides: If you took away some defining characteristic of your character, would this hypothetical person still have other definable and unique characteristics that a reader could identify? In classic story structure the hero typically starts his or her quest going after the perceived self, and succeeds when the real goal is revealed. If you’re not writing a story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, your character is going to suddenly begin to look like the body snatchers got to work when the page got turned. Your readers will then begin to see the inner workings of your plot, and will be suddenly distracted from your message. Bravery is great, but there had better be a fear of losing under that bravery, or your character has no thread of a quest to overcome and entertain us for the length of a story.

6. Image System: Is your character totally out of touch with a plot that will uncover their many complex affiliations? Is the character doing something initially that brings deeper meaning later when we realize why?

To put the whole question of stereotyping another way, is it better to be subtle and purposefully open-ended and risk being seen as ashamed of writing certain groups inclusively into your fictional reality, or is it best to stake a claim in the ground and use a story as a platform for bringing up a social group or hot topic? There are no right answers, but there are risks with each path to writing characterization.

Ask yourself, are you writing for a specific readership in mind, or is there a risk that others outside this group will want to enjoy your works? – and more importantly, do you want there to be a risk of readers from different perspectives all self-identifying with your story?

Certainly there is arrogance to universality, as if any human being could write such a classic story that everyone might want in on the action. But the flip side – driving the pendulum to the opposite camp – is basically participating in the same power strategy for dominant cultural assumptions as before. This is every bit as forgetful by some new group to claim all of human nature for themselves as the old group was to claim all that is holy in their own time. Soon there will be a new group that was just as marginalized to the same effect, so the King of the Hill strategy does not stand up to history and in fact explains how a lot of the richer meaning in past myth has been lost due to the dominant assumptions that seemed self-evident at the time.

In other words, instead of might makes right for social credit given to appealing character types, how about simply removing the blatant assumptions that your character is of course a member of whatever group? Leave it open, messy, complicated, and relevant. That means avoiding what you believe to be the given truths about your own culture as well. Your writing will improve the smaller you make your blind spot.

The Reader Makes Their Own Decisions

Don’t be so negative, I hear you say. Loosen up! Everybody makes cartoon cultures these days! Really, I’m not being that staunch. I can introduce you to staunch. But I am being critical, since the whole point of identifying new group and cultures is the art of being critical and socially discerning, no moral judgment implied either way. Your audience is going to add whatever personal experiences they have to bring. But I also feel that opening a path for them to do so is actually the more optimistic approach to writing diverse characterization. I also believe when presuming the true meaning of any social commonality, as a writer there is a real responsibility to be thoughtful and go beyond often oversimplified and therefore insulting assumptions for why life is hard or amusing, or worth living as perceived by different cultures, and really dig into what those characterizations really are. Make that commitment and world building happens more naturally.

Some Beginner Ground Rules for Avoiding Stereotypes:

1. Discipline yourself to avoid presumptions about how groups of characteristics go together.

2. Attempt to avoid all instantly identifiable characteristics of groups and cultures to which you do not understand more intimately. Start by avoiding them all-together. Realize how much you paint your protagonists and villains into tiny uninteresting corners. Explore what is less obvious about a group. Build compassion and connection with the reader, and surprise them.

3. Remember the surviving stories from other cultures never let a stereotype stand in for personal character identity. They were oral traditions embellished and given relevance on a tell-by-tell basis. What we have left are the bones of the animal, not the intended presentation. Those bones are your guide to a sturdy story mechanics. Resonating with early mythology says more about the similarities to human nature than the culture from which they came. The universal experiences that remain are still there for you to fill in those more subtle details. The fact that any recognizable form remains at all through the years is actually a sign of good storytelling. It shows past authors introduced a socially mobile meme into existence that can help build (and sometimes rebuild) new and evolving understanding of what it means to be human and perhaps fulfilled in a complicated world. This is possibly the original point of all shabby and misunderstood stereotypes long decayed past their use. Find the hose not the burning pile. Likely something’s under that great mess.

4. Remember the most powerfully motivating stories about social causes do not paint those causes as exclusive to any single stereotype or group. Do not attempt to subdue one misfortune or injustice in your story by marginalizing the opposite. Re: history, this never works and it isn’t a great model to support in literary fantasies, unless as a cautionary tale. Even then, mind the clue-by-fours. Be subtle and let the audience make their own connections to personally held stereotypes of iconic characterizations – that way the story comes home to them.

Myth Making in Modern Story-Telling

Legends are universal by design and frequently are more commercially successful because of it. This also explains a lot of the cyclical return to stories of mythology during downturns. Good myths remain socially evolving. There is truth to the appearance that dominant culture controls the wisdom of human past only if we let these preconceptions go unchallenged. Reclamation is the winning factor, not more of the same polarization shifted to a different side. Most myths today as we see them show only the recent paint job by the highest bidder. The human insights remain veiled until you peel down to the inner human experiences that other cultures have realized and implanted in story.

Is all this planning really necessary? Some people say no and write whole books at a sitting. As a disclaimer though, these people generally have quite a few early practice rounds that were works in progress before they got the hang of belting out sonatas. I certainly think there are no guarantees that planning produces a perfect story, especially on the first shot. I think it depends on the writer, but to have read this far, you might be someone who has found some interesting solutions to story problems you’ve run into without this level of structuring your characterizations. Really, I find it makes it easier to change your mind in the initial planning doodles. A doodle takes a day. A book edit takes functionally forever.

Is This Really Even Humanly Possible?

It sounds like a lot of effort, but the end payoff is worth it. The writer can be more honest with the reader up front about where the story is coming from by trying to leave the end text as stereotype-neutral as possible. Some personal bias always slips in because writers are human, and to strive for perfection is great, but to assume you have created it is frankly insulting to your audience. Attempting to focus on themes that are universal can build a powerful advantage and trust. Focusing on story rather than trying to use story as a vehicle for this or that often very simplistic and not very integrated message generates far more opportunity for social commentary that is relevant and powerful. By paying attention to the limitations of personal social experience, and trying to stay out of the picture, the writer makes a choice to let the story stand on its own merit. As a social commentary it then forces the reader to define and become aware of that defining process – much more powerful to show change – how it happens internally and emotionally, not table dust about it.

Good writers eventually choose to build their own mythology, and in doing so lose a little of the arrogance in presuming to fence in any group or character with exclusive stereotypical assumptions. This is why it works to begin by shedding as much of that personal baggage as possible. Not allowing yourself to define your character in predictable terms will result in better character creation.

The Caveat

First write what you’re going to write – don’t let fear of criticism dissuade you if you have good characterization and you’re tacking a really hot social topic, and frankly, you like what you’ve got. Done well, those are exactly the sorts of much-needed stories that make writing socially relevant. Also, a good scene is a good scene, and there’s no one I know who hasn’t done a scene and stolen it later as a shortcut to completion on an unrelated project.

Just remember a certain amount of self-questioning shouldn’t automatically be viewed as counterproductive for a writer who wants to approach really hot-button aspects of social identity. Stripping your own biases out of the story should be seen as mindful attempt to counteract the writer’s own social limitations in personal experience. I’m always warmed reading people who have a genuine interest in tackling tough cultural and social questions. But I am cautious of the way it’s done because it’s far more frequent that a writer mistakes a stereotype for a culture totally by mistake than for a writer to just write a good, complicated, interesting character who happens to be considered a member of one group or another by the reader. In fact the more readers who want to identify your character with themselves or in the case of the villain, their real-life opponents, the better you’ve done your job.

10 Traits of a Good Writing

1. Relevance. Stories that are timeless today were all relevant back then.
There’s an intriguing glimpse at the hopes and fears of the past which highlight our own.
2. Dialogue. The ability to communicate effectively and minimally.
3. Character. Character like good dialog is the creation of an insider world with the tools of subtext, linking each scene to the next for payoffs and paybacks to keep the readership or audience paying attention to the clues along the way.
4. Story. Story is the reflecting basic human archetypes, no matter how we may scramble them up like a rubik’s cube.
5. Clarity. The ability to write actions and activity which externalize characterization is essential for stage.
6. Metaphor. Externalization of action creates easier visualization for readers as well as audiences, often in the form of a unique symbolism that lives on after the work is finished.
7. Complexity. Modern and ancient readers never went for Dick and Jane. We misunderstand and oversimplify rich and forgotten subtexts from cultures we’ve moved too far away from to recognize in earlier works. B-plots have always been around, and were used correctly to balance the more difficult material encountered in the main message.
8. Structure. You can be the brightest literary genius of all time, but if you don’t understand how to frame your work, your reel will never play through at a scale your readers or audience can watch. It will always be stuck in your head until you discipline your work not to exceed the limits of human endurance.
9. Brevity.
10. Stealth. Never let them see it coming. Use externalization to create vivid visualization for unique metaphors your story can call your own. A unique metaphor means the connection is not overused and will be less likely to give your surprises away.

10 Traits of a Good Writer

1. Persistence. For those tapped to write, there is no choice in the matter. Persistence is the art of refinement.
2. Insight. Writing isn’t about gaining attention, it’s about giving insight – rare and hard won experiences you don’t want to tell.
3. Daring. Throughout history the best loved minds were mostly beheaded. This isn’t a warning, it’s a call.
4. Discipline. Writing is the art of starting. It doesn’t happen without planning – an outline, a beat sheet, and coffee.
5. Forgiveness. Single note emotions prejudice the story. Layered onto the deepest, darkest emotions, a little levity must fall.
6. Wonder. Perspective refreshes an old view. The untried angle is found through wonder.
7. Memory. A good memory creates a reality in writing that outdoes the detail we take in through normal experience. Writing has a resolution much like high definition.
8. Ethics. If a writer lies, the stories go stale, and if writers tell the truth, they live by it as well, producing the greatest stories.
9. Hope. Whether it’s a rejection pile or the character rising for act four, hope really does float us all.
10. Desire. If a writer has nothing else in the whole world, let it be desire because that sparks all. We are after all, only human.

I read one of the best defenses of writing for social causes this morning. The old adage swords are swift but quills sharper and easier to work with when you’re eating the morning toast comes to mind. At several pages it’s a real bit of actual writing, and is a deliciously thoughtful memoir by none other than author Neil Gaiman. He gets into the gritty of why edgy writing can ultimately help speak out about the realities people face, and in allowing possibly derogatory writing to exist, we generate the potential for a society which must face and react to it.

Gaiman argues (in a rather valiant effort) that by taking charge of our own preconceptions during the reactionary process of absorbing shocking art, we are ultimately growing into our own social responsibility. We’re allowing ourselves to become accountable as a society for much more powerful human experiences we may not have ever been presented with before. These things challenge us into understanding and forming an opinion on them. They make us think and decide and draw lines and ultimately solve the problems they highlight, and that’s a very good thing. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

It’s an excellent explanation for why writers must be at the forefront of shocking ideas – it becomes the responsibility of the writer to explore and make the reader aware of that which is hidden, shied away from, and instinctively rejected due to the limits of social propriety. I’m not saying embraced, but acknowledged, and accounted for in that human realities are not always (read: mostly never) what’s on the cover of the storybooks. The pat interpretive simplicities we are raised on give us the flat terrain of early childhood to enable us to grow into adults and that’s the point – growing into adults who can feel practiced enough on the bunny slopes of ethics to finally go after a few black diamonds in our broadening horizons. They offer space to place new steps of change.

Reach out for those diamonds, kids, for they shine the longest and are worth more than all the riches of any writing that came before.

After reading an enormous amount on writing and the craft of story-making, the following are my best picks for writers who want to cut to the chase.

Boring Yet Essential (I’ll keep it a short list.)

“The Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, 1918 There’s a reason this book is still around.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” Just be aware of what punctuation is actually supposed to be used for and you’ll be ahead of the curve, I assure you.

BTW, public service note: If your local library doesn’t at least keep one spare copy of EoS on hand, feel free to make them feel they must have failed in their civic duties and leave particularly suicidal-looking, preferably muttering wide-eyed about what happens to the ducks. This is for the benefit of all the other aspiring writers in your district. Heroic things can’t be argued with. Any librarian worth their salt will get the ducks commentary immediately and not feel too bad about your crafty ruse. They will however, be reminded to stock a copy of EoS every time they see a book cover by J. D. Salinger. Your job as patron and patriot will be complete.

Useful Plot Mechanics Guides

The awful truth is that screenwriters have been generating more of the good stuff on writing technique in recent years than any other subgroup of the species. Rather than scoff that you, my dear madame, are a real writer, (etc, etc.) instead take a dark pair of sun glasses, keep them permanently dangled from your shirt collar and be willing to read the commercialized reasons for why stuff works at the production studios. Publishing houses are a lot like production studios. They like what sells. While you don’t have to write what sells it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what in fact might get published. Just an idea.

“Story” by Robert McKee: Easily one of the most essential resources on the market. Hang your canvas on a well-built frame.

“How Not To Write a Novel” – Consider it the Mystery Science Theater or RiffTrax of novel reviews.

“Save the Cat” by Blake Snider: A clinical case study that references the myth cycle in terms of modern movies that have become part of the cultural cannon – a cannon you are probably borrowing from whether you realize it or not. Face this fact head on and embrace you inner movie affection-ado. It will save you some law suits further down the road and help you revision your idea from a uniquely untried perspective.

Just kidding. Everything’s been tried.

Inspiration on Learning The Craft

“The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers” by Betsy Lerner: A seasoned editor throws the writer on the couch and keeps him there until all the inner workings of why he writes are clear. Interesting analysis of not only why writers write, but how they can learn balance.

“On Writing” by Stephen King: Aliens and shape shifters may not be your thing, true. But King’s inner workings provide practical advice on how to take your fleeting ideas and apply them well to the genre of your choice. He narrates his own audio book, for the commuting inclined.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Why give you a speech when I can give you a sample? http://www.ursulakleguin.com/SteeringCraft_57B.html

Useful Writing Exercises

To be truthful, writing exercises stated as such are mostly touchy-feely research experiments by the head writer more than they are a genuine help to the young writer who is looking to gain something useful from a course.

Rather than exercise, just start treading down the miles of your marathon – as soon as possible. Even now, in fact, I’m hurrying through this god forsaken post so that I can shed the Betty Ford white robe of choice and go down stairs for some brunch and an uninterrupted afternoon with my latest project. [edit: will spellcheck ever come prepackaged with euphemism cross-reference? Otherwise all my allusions will have to be about Barry White?]

With that being said, this is the one book I’ve found as an excellent toolkit for the blank page:

“The Writer’s Book of Matches” by the fine folks at Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

Literary Journals

Since we’re bringing up literary journals, there are two good literary magazines that are worth at least a flip through at your local bookstore:

1. Fresh Boiled Peanuts (of course.) http://www.freshboiledpeanuts.com

2. Brick http://www.brickmag.com

3. And so I’ve heard: AND THEN literary magazine.

All the rest of course, are rubbish. You know one person can possibly know all the good books and magazines out there. My coffee table might fool some, but I cannot possibly know them all.