Instagram filter used: Lo-fi
You’re sitting there, steaming cup of tea next to you, several hours blocked out for writing and…no words are coming. Worse, you can’t even seem to settle enough to get to any words.
What’s going on?
There is an obvious check-list to look at, the one involving emotional and physical issues: are you going through a very stressful time such as the death of someone close to you or a divorce or is someone you love seriously ill? It could be something less dire, like you’re afraid emotionally to go where you need to go in your story.
But there are many more times when none of these things are the case and we still feel like we can’t quite grab the writing gods by the tail. Here is a list of things we might not notice, but which can actually have a serious effect on our ability to sit and concentrate:
Having to go to the bathroom: Yes, this sounds funny, but I have noticed that if I have to pee, I have about a third the patience I usually have. I find myself trying to hurry through first-draft writing or letting things pass in editing I would ordinarily stop and work on because there just seems to be some sort of hurry to get somewhere… Why? My body is sending a constant “Hey—hurry up and get to the bathroom” signal. In my less-body-conscious, “get writing done” state, this translates as “I need to be getting through this page as quickly as possible.” You’d be amazed how fast focus returns after a bathroom visit. (And don’t get me started on sitting there being too hot or too cold…put on a sweater! Or take one off!)
Sitting too long in one position: Aches and pains sneak up on us. The longer we sit in one position, the more our bodies start to whisper, then grumble, then shout. Don’t wait for the shout. Get up every so often and swing your arms and walk around the room. Recent research in creativity shows that taking a short break every 20 minutes to let your mind wander around (not on the internet) and let your body move actually improves retention of information and allows the mind to make connections it otherwise wouldn’t make—like how the vase you spontaneously added in scene 4 now plays a pivotal symbolic role in scene 16 that you hadn’t even considered. Set your timer for 20 minutes and let your brain go on walkabout.
Hunger: Of course we know when we’re hungry. But more important than that is what our bodies do the longer we go without eating. We only have a limited amount of energy before we have to refuel. As we run out, the body starts sending that energy to higher and higher priority systems. No matter how it feels to us, writing a novel is not high on the survival scale. Our brains start to drift, we lose focus on our themes and character arcs and plot points and soon we’re writing that crap we know we’re going to have to re-write extensively later. Better to stop and eat even just a banana than push ourselves to some word or time goal at the expense of our story.
What You Eat: But wait! Don’t just eat anything when you’re hungry. This is a huge topic, but believe me when I say everything you eat affects your brain. What you eat before you try and sit down to write may affect you more than anything else on this list short of water (addressed soon!). Instead of trying to discuss all the things that negatively affect your ability to concentrate (short short list: simple carbohydrates like sugar, foods made with white flour, candy, soda, packaged cereals, etc. or foods with MSG, nitrites, nitrates, or other neurotoxic ingredients), here are some great brain foods you can eat that will support your writing. Look for complex carbohydrates that take longer to digest and don’t spike blood sugar the way the simple carbohydrates do: Fish, cottage cheese, vegetables, beans, chicken (organic), potatoes, yams, whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and millet to name a few), dried apricots, bananas, plain yogurt, carrots. Have a meal (not a huge one) based on complex carbs and then hit the desk!
To-Do Items: writing writing writing writing dang it I have to get printer ink pause…refocus…writing writing writing what was it I had to get? Think think think think give up refocus refocus refocus kind of writing kind of writing Printer ink! Yes! And I have to get a new car no writing happening
I don’t know what your to-do lists look like, but if they’re floating around in your head and you’re trying to remember them over and over, they’re taking up valuable writing-connection space. Albert Einstein said he didn’t memorize his home phone number. One reason was because it was easy to look up and he didn’t want to waste brain space he could be using thinking about what he needed to be thinking about. It’s the same for us—you need to be thinking about your book, not re-remembering the things you need to do later.
Have a piece of paper next to you and when you think of something, write it down and get it out of your head, where all it’s doing is poking your story like that annoying kid next to you in the school assembly in fifth grade who thought he was soooo funny, and he wanted to make sure you heard every non-funny thing he whispered, and…writes on notepad next to article…
Noise: Obvious, right? Sure, if the noise is happening right when you sit down. But what about if you’re really deep in your story and then the noise starts? You may only be aware of it the way you would a gnat buzzing around your head, but that gnat is going to derail your story if you keep giving it even a part of your attention.
Try adding white noise—a fan or one of those cool radios that play forest scenes or water or something if you’re working at home or, if you’re in a café, break out the headphones and pick a song to put on repeat. The repeat part is key—the more you’ve heard the song, the more your brain relegates it to the background, where it masks that annoying business guy sitting across from you having a conference call in a café. Really? What is he thinking?
Water: Much like having to go to the bathroom and being hungry, the body also has a signal for when it needs water. But this signal can be much more dire. It is no exaggeration to say that the body runs on water. The neurochemicals in the brain are transported on water. The electrical connections in the muscles, including the heart, depend on water. All your hormones are transported in water. You can’t flush toxins without water. Blood pressure is dependent on having enough water to transport red and white blood cells and platelets. And that’s a very short list of how much the body depends on water.
So when we’re thirsty, our body sends us a very powerful message that all is not well. But not many people know what this message feels like. Yes, we will get a headache, but that’s like saying “Don’t worry about the horses getting out of the barn until they’re actually running by you in the driveway.” There are many earlier signals—one I notice is a strange tightness in my throat. In fact, if you find your brain wandering when you really are trying to concentrate, try drinking water first.
It will take about 20-30 minutes for your body to absorb it and send it where it needs to go, so you might actually want to drink water before you even sit down to write, and keep drinking it regularly throughout your time. Water, more than anything else, is the key to a full-functioning brain.
The next time you find yourself struggling at the keyboard, take a quick look through this list and try a few of the things on it. Hopefully, you’ll be back up and running in no time!
I love reading books about writing. I love workshops. I love classes and seminars. I love being in a room with other writers, learning a fresh new way to bring my stories to life on the page.
What I don’t love is how I feel about pretty much everything I’ve ever written after said books, workshops, classes, and seminars. Why? Because here I am in a class, untying the knot of my writing and realizing not just that something is not working in a scene, but finally understanding why it’s not working. Then I realize the thing that’s not working in that scene is why this scene, and this one, and oh this one too, isn’t working. It’s systemic!
One of the most important things we do as writers is continue to learn our craft. As much art as there is on the page, there is just as much, if not more, craft helping to bring that art to a new level. So this isn’t an article about scrapping classes and seminars because we as writers need these forays into the depths of our ability to create.
It’s about what we do when we know there’s a problem with a work we thought was finished, a problem we now know how to fix.
Eager interviewer: “Do you ever read your books after they’ve been published?”
Author (face resembling that of someone attempting to be nice to a person who has set a plate of drowned worms in front of them and encouraged them to “eat up”): “Well, you know…no.”
Internal Author response: “It is very clear to me that you have never, not once, had something published. Because if you had, you would know that the idea of re-reading something when there is no way I can fix all the thousands of things I would find wrong with it would fall somewhere lower on the list than cleaning beneath my car seats with my tongue. And I have a toddler. And a dog.”
We have a job where nothing is ever truly finished, in the sense of “Well, that’s absolutely as good as it’s ever going to get, and at no time in the future will I ever think it could be any better.” But obviously books get turned in and published. Where do you halt the re-writes within the realm of “never really finished”?
There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground in the answers I’ve gotten to this question from writer friends, and these are writers with successful careers and, in some cases, NYT bestsellers under their belts. Pretty much all of them say “Use what you’ve learned in your class in your next book. Turn the ‘finished’ one in.”
90% of me totally and completely agrees with them.
It’s that 10% that keeps screaming and throwing trash cans across the alley under my window at two in the morning. That 10% is the worst soccer fan on the planet.
So I re-write.
But why does that 10% win out over the very wise and correct thinking of the 90%? Because I know I’m not alone here.
A writer friend recently said she’s come to believe people who teach workshops don’t teach them to show writers how to be better writers—they teach them to get the writers to come to the next workshop. We laughed and we certainly don’t think that’s the sole motivation of teachers the workshop-world over, but that feeling in writers, that “There’s still something wrong with this story” feeling that does drive us to take classes forever, whatever that feeling is is very, very real and is much more responsible for many seminar sign-ups than anything else. It’s also what drives all these re-writes.
Turns out this article isn’t about the dilemma we face every time we learn something new about writing. No, this article is really about fear. Fear of turning something in that isn’t perfect, that someone could find fault in, that could get rejected, which we could see coming, because see all those flaws?!
That may be the biggest reason why nothing is ever “done.”
So to re-write or not to re-write?
The answer to that question doesn’t lie in what we do or don’t know about our craft. It isn’t found in our finally reaching such a pinnacle of perfection we disappear in a pink cloud of enlightenment.
It lies in the ability to say “This is good enough” and to be satisfied in that.
And the most important part of that sentence is not “good enough”—it’s “satisfied.”
There’s so much work to do behind that one word. It doesn’t mean “settle” or “I can’t make this piece any better”; it doesn’t have anything to do with the piece. “Satisfied” means “I am happy with who I am as a writer.” That is a crucial distinction. I may never be satisfied with a certain piece—it may need more work on the theme, the emotional arc, whatever. But I can be dissatisfied with a piece and still be satisfied with myself as the creator of that piece.
Fear is necessary, because it’s what drives us to write better and better stories. But there needs to be a healthy balance between fear and satisfaction and there are times when it’s out of balance. At those times, and we all find ourselves there, we have to look outside the piece, outside ourselves as writers, and root out the source of the fear.
When you do that, you’ve added yet another dimension to your ability to tell stories. The saying over the entrance to the temple of the Oracle at Delphi said “Know thyself.” Knowing the depth of our fears is the source of the depth in our stories. And creating a story with depth is truly satisfying.
Instagram filter used: X-Pro II
We toil away writing, getting all our words just right, wonderfully lost in our own created worlds. Day in and day out we struggle with plot holes and microtension lags and settings where we changed the color of the furniture but now all we’ve accomplished is we can’t find all the places we mentioned the sofa, so at some horrid moment our beta reader’s going to write a note saying “I thought the sofa was dark green? Here it’s yellow. That’s barfy. Please be consistent.”
When we’ve finished one book, we can’t just wipe our hands and go get a sandwich. No, it’s time to get to work on the next book.
Ha ha! If only it were that easy!
Because of course I’m leaving out the bit between where we feel satisfied/go eat a sandwich and then start our next book. Between those two things we have to Talk to People. People We Don’t Know.
Of course, in our new Writer’s World, we’re talking to people we don’t know all along. Twitter and Facebook and Blogs and more Twitter and so forth, churning out little soundbites (writebites?) over which we have at least the illusion of control. And it could end there, really, in these microenvironments, but at some point, most of us are going to have to get out there and try to interact face-to-face with actual humans, in the form of book signings and book tours (even if our tour comprises the book store in our immediate neighborhood) and even parties where we run into people who could have, or should now leave the party to go, read our book.
And it’s here where the burden we carry becomes supremely evident.
When I was in ninth grade, in the mid-eighties, I found Dave Barry. If you’ve never read any Dave Barry, I suggest you stop wasting time reading this column and go read him, right now. It’s the only way you’ll get the full impact of what he meant to a sad, “different” girl (I was a punk at a time and in a town where just wearing Chuck Taylors was enough to bring derision down on your head, much less having a head sporting less hair than others, due to the fact that I’d shaved quite a lot of it off) to find something that, for the span of time reading that article, made her forget the outside world and actually laugh at something. He created for me an alternate universe, one where things were light and funny and even when he drew in current events it was in such a way that, generally, I was unable to draw breath for whole minutes at a time. I followed him for years and years, always searching out his column in whatever town I moved to, the one small space of home in a kaleidoscope of change.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I am, for the first time, going to meet this man, Dave Barry, on his tour for his newest book—this man who, through his writing, brought me so many moments of joy and laughter.
A man who, honestly, has never heard of me and has no reason whatsoever to pay any more attention to me than the sandwich he will eat during the lunch I will share with him…and seventy-five other people.
Imagine the space in my heart I carry for him and his work, the relationship I’ve had with his writing over the last thirty years. Imagine what it’s meant to me to have looked forward to his columns, and now to look back over so many years and see the line of bright spots his writing has created. Imagine how I called the second I saw the announcement of this event to buy tickets, terrified they might already have sold out, then the elation of securing a spot, and how my fingers shook as I put the day and time on my calendar, hardly daring to look it was so exciting, but carrying that day inside, warm, waiting to arrive.
Imagine being him. Imagine being in your sixties, exhausted, on the third leg of a brutal book tour, with yet another meet-and-sign to get through, God, this one made up of having to sit through an entire lunch. What will be going through his mind? Will he be wondering how quickly he can get through it? Will he be grouchy because he’s in yet another time zone in a backward progression where he is actually getting less sleep, not more, because it’s right after Spring Forward? Will he be thinking of the event he has later that night, trying to conserve energy to make it through both, by not truly engaging in this one?
Imagine being him, meeting me.
Imagine you, meeting your thousandth fan. Your ten-thousanth. Imagine you’re tired, stressed out, just wanting to get to your hotel, or home, so you can finally take something for this pounding headache, people should understand how difficult it is for you, all you ever really wanted to do was write, this whole “talking to strangers” thing was never part of the deal you saw spreading before you when you started this whole gig…
Imagine killing thirty years of love and caring and specialness, because you’re focused on your own crap. Imagine losing that fan, a fan who has raved about you their entire adult life, who has clipped your writing to share with friends, to save because it reminds them of that one time, imagine having all that crash to the ground because of one interaction with you.
Then imagine creating a cherished memory, a story someone will tell and re-tell. Imagine adding a personal dimension to a reader’s experience of your stories. Imagine how much it could mean to someone, the decision to shove that headache to the back of your awareness and, for a brief moment, authentically connect.
This is the weight I’m talking about. We carry the weight of dreams, of hopes; we carry people’s souls in the ships of our books. You may meet countless people; they meet one—you.
(For the record, meeting Mr. Barry was one of the best, warmest, most genuine experiences I’ve ever had meeting a writer. He was every bit as wonderful as you’d hope someone in his position would be with an adoring fan. I take my hat off to him, and will forever cherish my happy memory of finally meeting him, after thirty years.)
“How autobiographical are your stories?”
We’ve all heard this question. And we’ve all struggled with how to answer it. My initial answer to this question used to be “not very much at all”—after all, I can honestly say I’ve never been in the situations I put my characters in. But then I thought about that. I’ve never been in those situations, true, but I’ve certainly felt the emotions my characters are feeling. Maybe my answer should be yes.
After all, I’m tipping more of my hand than I think when I write character reactions. I’m telling the reader what my reaction to a given situation is—how frightening I think it is, or how sad. Think of the veteran who throws himself to the ground at the sound of fireworks or the person who can’t breathe when someone drives too fast, while others love the Fourth of July or want nothing more than to weave in and out of traffic as fast as possible. The reactions I write, just like the veteran and the person afraid of fast driving, reveal how autobiographical a story truly is.
The real question is, why does this matter?
And this brings us to “core story.” Shelley Bates, in a wonderful class on the symbolic and thematic importance of setting, said every writer has a core story. This is the story you’re really telling over and over, regardless of the outward trappings of the words on the page. But what is a “core story”? And why would we write it over and over? Theresa Stevens’ answer is…paradox. For example, death is a paradox. We don’t know what happens and we don’t really understand it. But in a novel, we can know—we can solve the paradox in the microcosm in a way we can’t in the macrocosm.
Core story is driven by the things we haven’t figured out. It’s the problems we keep trying to solve, the wounds we keep trying to heal. It’s the things that go bump in the night of a writer’s mind.
We know the places in us that hurt, that won’t sit still, that feel like red ants stinging under our skin. We can’t escape the voice at the core of our soul, the one that’s longing to be heard. It’s this voice, I believe, that drives us to be writers in the first place. And those unresolved issues constitute our core story.
It’s easy to scoff at this. “No way. I write sweet romance. There’s no dark thing hidden in what I write.” I felt this way, too, but even in sweet romance there are always complications, conflicts. Look at what those are—I guarantee there is something tying those conflicts together in every book you write, something at the base of all the complications.
It’s important to dive into this because if we can figure out our core story, we can write consciously about it, and that brings a whole different level to our writing. At this level, every story is autobiographical, and every story has the chance to offer a new angle on the same paradox many others face. When we write from this level, we offer true, conscious hope.
When I looked at my own stories, I discovered something I was trying over and over to solve in the microcosm. I discovered…a scream. The kind of scream your soul makes when you feel totally, utterly alone, haunted by past pain and fear.
Before you start to worry about me, I’m fine. But this scream is something that echoes in me and it’s something I’ve spent every word I’ve written trying to understand, and take a step toward healing. Every one of my stories is different, and yes, I could even write sweet romances, but at the core of all of them is the same hunt: over and over, I put my characters in situations where they have to deal with some kind of internal, incessant scream.
My core story.
Because I know that, I can now consciously create these screams and I know how to plot them and how to create conflict that will at first intensify them and then, ultimately, bring them to an end (or at least a conclusion). But more importantly, I can use my stories to explore the very real paradox of trying to find authentic connection with such a scream at your core. I can explore thousands of answers to the questions I now know I’m asking. Knowing my core story gives my stories a focus they didn’t have before.
Can a core story change? Of course. As we gain age and wisdom, we can’t help but solve some paradoxes, only to uncover others. We will move through our core stories as we move through our lives, as we dig deeper and deeper into ourselves and understand not only what we’ve been through, but who we really are. I can trace my progress with my own core story as I re-read the stories I’ve written over the years.
Core stories are the real answer to the question “How autobiographical are your stories?” And it’s by coming from core stories that we create the kind of art that touches others on the deepest levels. Don’t be afraid of the things that go bump in the night. Give them voice—and offer up your own growth and understanding to the world.
 RWA Meeting Presentation, Fairytale Structure, September 2013
I’ve been thinking about condoms a lot lately. I can’t figure out whether or not to use them. I want to prevent pregnancy and heaven knows I don’t want to promote the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but condoms have a tendency to get in the way and create awkwardness and I can’t really figure out a way to wriggle them into situations which arise spontaneously without it looking really weird. And don’t get me started about the pill and how to work that in. But I wonder about my responsibility concerning their use.
A bit of explanation may be required at this point.
As writers, we write about sex, in all its variations and levels (you knew that’s what I was talking about, right?). And my dilemma concerns our role in portraying sex. If we knew only sexually well-informed readers read our books, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue—we could write unprotected sex scenes all day long and never give the little love sleeve (or the little love pill) a thought.
But we can never tell who’s going to end up with our books in their hands. And how many times have you heard someone say they learned about sex from romance novels? It seems entire generations grow up learning more about sexual intimacy from us than from their families. I know for a fact, given that I was just entering adolescence in the eighties, that many of my friends learned about sex from reading romance books. But they learned safe sex: in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was a political act to incorporate mention of condoms, and they sprouted like dandelions in all levels of romance, and pretty much every other book featuring men and women.
I’m proud that writers took it upon themselves to bring awareness to the gross lack of information available about AIDS and the dangers of unprotected sex, but this is why I have begun to feel the weight of responsibility for what kind of sexual information readers find between my covers. The covers. Of my books.
What is our responsibility concerning awareness now? Because we have a pretty extensive cultural conversation going about AIDS and syphilis and all the other diseases and how to keep from getting them, , as well as how to prevent pregnancy, are we off the hook? Or is that like saying, when the light is no longer shining on Ethiopia, that those people must no longer be starving? After all, there are still many people not engaged in those conversations.
To get some inkling of an answer, first I tried to get a pulse from readers. In online discussions, basically there are two consistent camps: they hate it when an author presents condoms or the pill because it reeks of political correctness. “It’s so inauthentic,” they say. The other camp is, at least for contemporaries, that not mentioning safe sex at all is irresponsible.
Well, at least we have clear directions. *sigh*
Next I turned to us and reviewed several different recent books of all heat levels to see if I could figure out what our trend is and, granted my test pool is limited, it doesn’t reveal much in terms of an answer, either. An erotic historical mentions condoms (my hat goes off to its writer! That’s some impressive work) but a contemporary doesn’t, and then vice versa. Many sweet romances, who would never have to broach the subject, mention the presence of one before their space break. And then in many romances of all heat levels they don’t exist. No one trend was evident.
OK, so what are they saying in the mainstream media? Although fairly universally panned, one thing 50 Shades of Grey is consistently lauded for, and something I ran in to again and again, is its ever-present use of condoms, written into the contract the two main characters sign, and the pill. Consider this article: “Research suggests that good erotica can be educational and that eroticised depiction of condom use can actually raise the likelihood that someone will practice safe sex in real life.”
This is from Nursing Times, of all places; not a magazine generally involved in discussing books or their impact. That’s pretty thought provoking. The fact that any discussion is happening in the media infers we carry some responsibility for educating readers. The implication is that it could be that our mention of a condom is responsible for informing someone about safe sex who wouldn’t otherwise get the information. Is it, therefore, negligent not to do so?
Just about every argument I encountered, for and against, was touched upon in one post by a woman named CD in the All About Romance Novels forum. It’s from 1997, but what she says is as relevant today as it was then. The biggest argument for it being fine to leave condoms out: it’s fantasy! What are we so worried about? CD: “I started out reading historicals, where all the heroine presumably had to worry about was the pregnancy issue. Well, of course we all know by now that that was probably the least of her worries…they probably should have been more terrified at the prospect of STDs and the lack of any kind of medical treatment whatsoever should they contract such a thing. And yet, no one seems terribly concerned that the hero/heroine doesn’t consider this at the blessed moment of consummation because, after all, this is only fantasy, right?”
The next biggest argument, which CD also states beautifully: just because they read something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it—or not do it. “Let’s take your average nineties woman—be she a teenager, a college grad, divorcee, older widow, whatever…. Is one reader more likely to go out and have unsafe sex than any of the others? Is that teenager who reads historicals and feels those hormones start to race going to rush out and leave her condoms behind just because those books didn’t remind her? ….I would never, ever, come hail or high water or raging hormones, have unprotected sex simply because the book neglected to stress the operation. Just like I would never go and gun down a convenience store clerk or participate in a drive-by shooting just because I saw it on T.V….”
This argument is harder to credit, as it goes against the scientific findings mentioned in Nursing Times. But scientific impact isn’t the only, or even the biggest, reason to pause before making a decision based on the above two arguments. CD reveals the biggest argument for using them: ultimately, you are morally and ethically responsible for what you write. CD: “Now along comes the contemporary. Must we consider this something more than fantasy? Are writers of contemporary romance morally and ethically required to promote responsible sex? Is the main object of any kind of art or entertainment to teach, elevate, enlighten, or preach?”
This is the deepest consideration and it reveals another: the reader’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. To know the difference, you have to know what comprises reality. And if a reader has never heard of condoms or the pill or safe sex, then her reality is going to be based only on what she’s read in her “fantasy.” It seems, even with the arguments giving us the freedom not to mention them, we can’t shake the ethical/moral thing. There really are people out there who only know what we tell them.
I can only think of one avenue left to explore. What role does personal authorial choice play? Should it play a role at all? I know that when I’m writing a scene of high heat level, I think it breaks the mood to have the man reach for his wallet, or the woman into the nightstand, and rip open the little packet. I just personally don’t want to write that in, and yes, it’s mostly for two reasons—one, I can’t do it without feeling like I’ve got some sort of hidden “BE SAFE, YOU OUT THERE!” agenda, which means it’s going to be about as subtle as an air-raid siren in the middle of your nap. But my other reason is, if you’re writing on the hotter edge of the spectrum, sometimes people are just having sex, as in: what if the two people in the scene had no intention of having sex, it’s just happening, the way death and taxes happen, and they’re in an elevator or at the top of the Space Needle, you see where I’m going. I mean in terms of protection, not…
How believable is it the guy or the girl is walking around with condoms in their possession, just in case they happen to, say, be wandering the aisles of the Safeway and, right over a jar of three-bean salad, lock eyes with someone and know they’re going to run off, right then, to the restroom to engage in hot, random sex? “Good thing I had this condom!” “Yes, it sure is! Be prepared!” Awkward. Artificial. Inauthentic. Reeking of Author’s Intended Message. It also says something inaccurate about your character; namely, “I am the kind of character who has random sex all the time.”
Ultimately, though, my personal preference can’t impact my moral and ethical responsibility, which is the way it should be—they’re not even on the same level. Does this mean our hands are tied? That we are actually irresponsible if we don’t mention condoms or the pill? That has the ring of Big Brother, which can’t be right, either.
So what is our responsibility with regards to how we portray sex? Does our moral responsibility trump our freedom as writers? Can there be any kind of middle ground? If so, what is it?
The fundamental building block of story is change over time. This change is tracked through characters. We take care to craft characters who initially have flaws and strengths readers will connect with and then we create huge messes over the course of the story to generate change in these characters. But what kind of messes and how much change? We risk readers giving up on a story if they think characters are changing “too much” or in ways they don’t expect/understand (or worse, not at all). When this happens, readers can be pretty vocal about their displeasure. So this “how much and what kind” can be tricky.
This can make an author feel trapped—“Is that the deal? Change is necessary, but I’m not allowed to do too much or go in certain directions without risking losing my audience? How is that supposed to work?”
I first encountered this dilemma when I was working on a particular aspect of craft. I took my work live by writing a Harry Potter fanfic novella, which I posted chapter by chapter on two popular HP fanfic sites. In my story, in the first chapter, a young Lily and Sirius have sex. It wasn’t soft and gentle and we’ve-been-wanting-to-do-this-for-so-long lovemaking; no, it was we’re-being-hunted-down-and-I-don’t-know-if-people-I-love-are-dead-or-alive f…you get the picture. And there were many people who about lost their minds. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?” was popular, as was “LILY WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS DO THIS EVER, NEVER, NEVER.” (Apparently, Sirius would.)
I was worried. I knew my storyline, knew where I was headed and why, but here, in the first chapter, I was losing the very audience I wanted to test my writing with!
But honestly, why was the reaction so vehement? Yes, I was messing with the HP world. Granted, these were beloved characters. But what had I actually done besides put two people together who shouldn’t have been together? I felt trapped, like I was going to have to write a different story than I wanted just to make sure people would read it, and that rubbed me all kinds of wrong.
It wasn’t until I was a beta reader for the sixth book in the NYT-bestselling Charley Davidson series, authored by Darynda Jones, that I got a way to navigate this dilemma. As we discussed Charley’s reactions to the rather horrific things she’s been through in the series, I told Jones I loved how, in the fourth book, Charlie had to work through PTSD brought on by what she’d experienced in book three, and asked her why she’d stopped exploring that in book five. Jones said a LOT of people were upset with her for giving Charlie that reaction, because Charlie WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS react that way. This sounded very, very familiar.
Did you feel like you had to compromise your story because of those reactions? I asked. Why did you do what you did and how did you decide to do it?
What both those questions boil down to, she said, is trust. As in, Trust Me, the Author.
Trust is at the base of the author-reader relationship. It’s part of our unspoken agreement: “I’m going to take these characters and put them in messes that change them utterly and irrevocably, and then I promise I will bring those messes, and characters, to a satisfactory resolution.” When these things don’t happen, readers get really, really upset.
She listened to the readers based not necessarily on what they were saying but on why they were saying it. By objecting so strongly to Charley having PTSD, she realized they were really saying, “You didn’t bring this mess to a satisfactory conclusion. We can’t trust the changes you’re making in this character.”
But what was so unsatisfactory about the conclusion? What was it, specifically, that broke her readers’ trust?
Jones realized it wasn’t that Charley had gone through a harrowing experience and changed in the face of it, and she knew that she, as an author, wasn’t going to stop putting her character through harrowing experiences…and having her change in the face of them. (To do otherwise would be to make your readers think you’re stupid or make them wonder if you think they’re stupid. To deny that events affect us and change us would be to deny the reader the respect they deserve, and to disregard that essential building block of story—change over time.) It was that she couldn’t introduce permanent fear into her character, in the form of ongoing PTSD, as a change. It wasn’t a satisfactory resolution, and therefore trustworthy, given she had a character who was going to continue to get into intense situations. Her readers needed to trust they weren’t slowly going to watch a beloved character go under.
I realized all the books I haven’t enjoyed have, in some way, broken this Golden Rule. In some way the author had failed to give a satisfactory resolution. One book I vividly remember, even though I read it many years ago, had a main character who, with one childhood lie, violently derailed the lives of two adults she loved and allowed a third to get away with a horrible crime. The entire book implied this character’s growth arc was going to include getting over her fear of telling the truth and finally clearing the two characters’ names and bringing justice to the third. Instead, at the end, she didn’t—she just calmly told the reader she wasn’t ever going to do it! The author completely broke my trust. I’ve never read another of their books. I still, to this day, hate that book passionately.
This raises an important question: does “satisfactory resolution” mean you have to have a happy ending? No. (Except here in our Romance world! J) “Satisfactory” means it brings satisfying closure. There may still be a huge mess at the end of the story, but you absolutely have to provide closure to the messes you’ve created and the changes the characters have made. This is what it means to be trustworthy.
I broke that rule right off in the first chapter of my Harry Potter story and they told me loud and clear they didn’t trust I would be able to pull off any kind of satisfactory resolution. I made the decision to stick with my original storyline, realizing they hadn’t yet read the whole story and hoping people would be curious (or furious, either works) enough to go along for the ride with me. To their credit, almost every of those initial readers stuck with the story, and loved the resolution I brought to it.
So whatever you write, you’ve got to pay the most attention to whether or not you’re a trustworthy author. You can go anywhere, do anything, but the rule is: bring satisfactory closure to the messes and changes you put your characters through. How will you know if you’ve achieved this? You won’t. You’ve got to test your story on other people. Have them read it and listen not just to what they’re saying, analyze why they’re saying it.
“They” is important—have at least three people read your story (and don’t just send your story around until you find the one person who agrees with your own opinion). It’s best if one of them can tell you technically why your resolutions aren’t working (if they aren’t), even if you have to pay a professional editor to get that information. If you’re not reaching the goal of trustworthiness, that’s when you’ve got to rework the changes in your story.
Being a trustworthy author is this important. As with me and the author who’s book I hated, if you mess with this, you risk losing readers not just for that one book, but for life.
 Private email exchange
 The Husband’s Secret is an amazing example of satisfying resolution without a happy ending.
 Note: The feedback telling me my HP story wasn’t going to work was based solely on the first chapter. This is why I chose, to a certain extent, to ignore it. By the end of the novella the feedback had done a 180, so I made the right choice, but it was a risk.
Instagram filter used: Sierra
One of the first books I ever wrote takes place on a pirate ship in 1725. The 1725 part is important, because that was the end of the Golden Age of Piracy and several countries were combining their efforts to hunt down the last of the big-name pirates; specifically, one of the pirates in my story. As a first-time author, I struggled in my attempts to let my readers know this important worldbuilding information. Some of my early tries basically boiled down to:
The Captain reached the end of his letter: “We are not able to careen at Tortuga,” he wrote. “As you know, I’m being viciously hunted down. 1725 has certainly has had its challenges!”
“So, [name of character], here we are in 1725, and we certainly are being viciously hunted down, are we not? That is because I am a very important pirate.”
*delete with extreme prejudice*
The problem is I was dropping information in without any motivation for it—creating the notorious “info-dump,” where the author basically stops the story dead and tells the reader a bunch of information. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear your readers rolling their eyes while they put your book down.
So I spent a lot of time studying this aspect of the craft. To this day, I still look at how other authors handle the balancing act of letting the reader know the when, where, and why-it-matters of worldbuilding without “telling.” Three techniques I’ve noticed effective authors using over and over are:
a) To avoid “telling,” write information in such a way that it sets up story questions the reader will ask and then reveal world information that answers them.
b) When possible, use concrete, world-defining objects to answer story questions.
c) To keep readers reading, keep raising immediate story questions and answering them, but only to raise more.
Eric Nylund’s book The Resisters is the first of a YA science fiction series, which is, in my mind, possibly the most difficult worldbuilding situation you can find yourself in. Here’s how he uses these three techniques to show me his world. These are the first three paragraphs of his book:
1) Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.
This seems straightforward, at least at first. We know battles mean some kind of war. So Ethan is involved in a war.
2) In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt…or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.
In (2), Nylund presents a brief inner flashback. Although it might appear to be, Nylund’s flashback isn’t “telling.” It’s a response to the question raised in the first sentence: “What battle is Ethan preparing for?” But I have no way to contextualize the information the flashback gives me and so it raises more story questions—“in which someone didn’t get hurt” [wait, so the battle Ethan’s about to be in has no casualties? What kind of a battle is it where no one gets hurt?] and “his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk” [WHAT? The entire human race? And why isn’t his life at risk in this battle?].
3) At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.
(3) answers one question raised in (2)—why this “battle” isn’t a battle (it’s a game)—but it raises another immediate question: “What time period am I in?” Nylund doesn’t tell me, he shows me, in (3), by introducing a concrete, world-defining object—manned robotic exoskeletons used to play sports. He could have just told us about the exoskeleton: “Ethan put on his six hundred pound, nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit and charged out onto the field, ready to play.” “Oh really?” the reader says, “It’s six hundred pounds, is it? And it’s nuclear powered? Well, thanks for telling us that, Mr. Author! I see we are not in 2013.” EYE ROLL. We have this reaction because there is no story question driving the description. It’s just dumped in there.
But the appearance of that suit is motivated by the question “Why is this game, whatever ‘it’ is, considered a battle?” This gives us a totally different encounter with the world-defining exoskeleton: “Oh holy crap! Why are they wearing those? What is this ‘it’ they’re playing?”
Now let’s get back to (1), and its apparent straightforwardness. (2) and (3) make us we realize we no longer understand what “battle” means there. In fact, that battle now appears to be some kind of game! And that’s how we get to the story question: “What is this game, this ‘it,’ which is considered a battle and requires Ethan to strap on a six-hundred-pound metal suit?”
Nylund’s given me so much story information in such a short amount of time without me really even noticing. My attention has moved from story question to story question and so I am fully engaged as a reader—I want to know why Ethan’s life and the whole human race are in danger, and I want to know more about this mysterious game/battle and these suits. I also want to know what battle Ethan’s headed for, and whether or not I’m on earth, so I’m motivated to keep reading. But most importantly, not an eye-roll in sight because all the information was generated naturally from story questions Nylund led me, as the reader, to ask.
And now back to those pirates…