The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

Paranormal Romance and Fantasy Romance Tropes by Sarina Dorie

This week on ShadowSpinners we welcome Sarina Dorie, creator of the popular series, Womby’s School for Wayward Witches.

 

Hades & Persephone: To the Underworld

 

Paranormal Romance and Fantasy Romance Tropes

 by Sarina Dorie

What is a trope?

A trope is a plot device. All genres have them. When done well, a trope feels natural and necessary to the plot. When it isn’t done well, it feels contrived or unoriginal. It isn’t that a trope is inherently bad, although some people are very opinionated about the ones they love or hate.

In every genre, readers expect them. In romance, the trope is generally the element that helps the hero and heroine meet or keeps them apart. The thing that makes a trope work is subverting the readers expectations so that the writing feels fresh and original.

 

What’s an example of a trope?

For example, one of the tropes of Romeo and Juliet (which is a love story, not a romance in case you didn’t realize it) is the idea of enemies to lovers or rival houses. This is the same trope in Westside Story. It’s used in many other movies, books, and television shows.

 

In Twilight, the idea is used with vampires versus werewolves with the protagonist being caught in the middle. After Twilight was published, this trope was used a lot in paranormal romance, specifically the rivalry of vampires versus werewolves. It became an easy (and sometimes lazy) way of creating conflict. For years every paranormal fantasy novel I picked up had rivalries between vampires and werewolves. Writers kept writing it because readers kept reading it.

But every plot was the same: He was a misunderstood vampire with a dark past. She was a werewerewolf/werebear/werepanther trying to avenge her clan. They were mortal enemies, but the only thing they could think about was each other.

 

The trope got old. The conflict felt contrived. People made fun of the genre. This is probably why What We Do in the Shadows worked so effectively. It subverted the viewer’s expectations. The vampire versus werewolf rivalry focused more on the bromance of the story. The actual love story/romance was the B plot (secondary plot) for one of the other characters. This B plot also explored tropes taken to their extreme. And of course, there was the unforgettable line from this movie “werewolves not swearwolves” that lives on in my memory forever.

 

What are examples of your favorite tropes?

That’s just me and my preferences. That trope of enemies to lovers or rival houses lives on in paranormal romance.  When done well, it doesn’t feel contrived, but there are other tropes that other people don’t like because of the execution. Some of my personal favorites that I use in my fantasy and science fiction romance novels are:

Beauty and the Beast

Fairy Tales

Enemies to Lovers

Love Triangles

Sassy heroine

Amnesia

Tragic past

Was it a lie? (disguise/undercover love)

Breaks her heart to save her

Noble rescuer steps in because she’s dating Mr. Wrong

 

Anyone who has ready my Womby’s School for Wayward Witches Series is going to recognize some of these. The first two tropes work especially well in the kind of fantasy and science fiction I write. Sometimes my monster/beast is the pretty human or an unassuming Prince Charming is the real beast. I already like fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, so fracturing a fairy tale worked well for me like in my novel WRATH OF THE TOOTH FAIRY coming out in the summer of 2019. Think about Shrek and why it did so well. The movie completely subverted our expectations.

 

How do you use a trope?

Everyone writes differently. I don’t usually set out to write a trope, it just happens. In the editing phase or partway through writing, I try to be aware of elements that might not be original and subvert expectations. If you are writing a horror novel, mystery, historical, thriller, etc. my favorite tropes might not be the tropes you and your audience are drawn to. Figure out what works for you.

 

How do you find tropes appropriate for your genre?

Do some research. A while back I found some lists of romance tropes. None of these are complete. There are more I find myself using that aren’t on these lists, but it gives you a starting point to think about.

145 Romance Tropes

https://goteenwriters.com/2015/12/16/145-romance-tropes/

All the Kissing’s Favorite Romance Tropes

https://allthekissing.com/2018/02/atk-romance-tropes/

Romance Tropes: What Words for Romance Readers

http://arghink.com/2015/10/romance-tropes-what-works-for-romance-readers/

Sarina Dorie has sold over 150 short stories to markets like Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, Cosmos, and Abyss and Apex. Her stories and published novels have won humor contests and Romance Writer of America awards. She has over two dozen books available on Amazon including her steampunk romance series, The Memory Thiefand her collections of short stories like Fairies, Robots and Unicorns—Oh My!are available on Amazon, along with her series Womby’s School for Wayward Witches.

You can find info about Sarina Dorie’s short stories and novels on her website:

www.sarinadorie.com

The best way to stay in contact with Sarina Dorie, hear about what she is writing, know when she has a new release, or books offered for free on Amazon is by signing up for her newsletter.

https://mailchi.mp/sarinadorie/authornewsletter

 

 

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Funny turtle flying on hang-gliderPhoto Source: Be_Low, iStockPhoto

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Eric Witchey

In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.

We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.

As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.

The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.

I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.

A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.

So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.

For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.

The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.

Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.

My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”

He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”

Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!

Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.

The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.

It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.

Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.

So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”

So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.

Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.

So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.

And we don’t sell any.

In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.

Unless…

We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).

Playful Experimentation Based on Principles

One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.

To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.

In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.

Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.

Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.

Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.

For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.

I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.

Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.

Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.

The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.

Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.

A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.

-End-

The Information Dump and Life’s Ever-Changing Landscape

by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I struggle with backstory. Apparently my characters require a great deal of explanation resulting in my critique group citing I’ve once again created an information dump. They advise, “Just weave the information through the story, bit by bit.”   Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Well, not for me.

For those unfamiliar with an information dump, it is an extended form of telling rather than showing. A chunk of information “dumped” on the reader. Some can stretch for paragraphs, pages, or heaven forbid take up entire chapters. Your reader at this point may start flipping pages, decide the laundry needs tending, or worse yet put your book down never to be picked up again. Such are the pitfalls of an information dump. Following are a few of the tools I’ve discovered to address this issue.

Blog-image-Joanne

Is all the information necessary?

Most times after creating an information dump I’ve found I’m simply clearing my throat, and in edit the information can be cut entirely, or simplified to a few words.

For instance, I may need to know every native plant, and exactly where they are located, on the Island buried in the middle of a Louisiana swamp. My readers however, need only know the name of the tree with snaking gnarled roots, and creeping vines sprouting up along the path leading my protagonist to possible doom. Then again, even that bit of botany may be unnecessary.

Is it taking place in the moment?

This particular question has caused many a debate. My previous ways of placing the information in the moment were through a characters flashbacks, or dreams. My logic being—in the moment, it’s in their head, their memory. You can see where I might get in trouble with said logic. A writing mentor once explicitly instructed, “Never, never begin a story with a dream, and when you do use dreams make certain the dream is bookmarked (before and after), in the present moment.”

Can it be placed in the moment through dialogue in an existing scene, or by creating a scene in order to relay the information?  

By using dialogue between my characters I’ve successfully shared past memories, and yes, even dreams, while maintaining the rule of—in the moment.

For instance do my readers need to know Sarah begot Diana, who begot Dorthea, who begot Leona, etc., in order to eventually get to the pertinent point? The point being, my protagonist’s lineage is tied to a famous Voodoo Queen.

Instead her Grandmama could simply invite her for coffee and say, “Te’Ona, it be ‘bout time ya knew where ya blood comes from.” Grandmama could then take out the family bible where all the births are listed (incase Te’Ona needs the information for future story building).

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling your readers personality traits.

info-dump

Can you provide information and sense of place all in one scene?

Queue the second half of my title, Life’s Ever-Changing Landscape.  During a recent trip to my home state of Louisiana I was feeling a bit well, ancient. All of my childhood haunts were either gone or altered. We’d drive down a certain street so I could show my husband a particular building only to find it wasn’t there, or had been turned from the movie theatre of my youth to office spaces. Waterway’s where I spent time frogging were not longer passable, clogged with debris, or invasive plant life. My favorite tree in the park no longer stood. Yet, at each juncture I still explained the landmark’s significance in my life. “The tree was my touch stone when things were going poorly at home. Now that I think about it, that tree lives on in many of my paintings.”

Upon returning home I found myself doing the same thing while driving with my grandson, Max. We passed an empty building, and I found myself saying, “There used to be a coffee shop in there. I’d take your mommy, and your aunts most every weekend. It’s where your mommy first started writing, and sharing her stories with us.”

I hope these few tools help, in information dumps you find yourself creating. I personally continue to find myself in the midst of writing what I feel are amazingly informative information dumps. But now I know how to utilize them for my own purposes of moving the story along, allowing it to take me where it wants to go. Because it isn’t solely the landscape around me changing, it’s the evolution of my writing life as well.

What are tools you’ve used to avoid information dumps?

Designing the Novel

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve read many a bad book in my day. One day, while moaning about a good writer gone bad in my opinion, my friend Susan Palmer admonished me that “It’s just as difficult to write a bad book as it is to write a good one.” She’s right. Believe me, I know.

In the past couple of months, however, I’ve been asked to read three bad novels. These were not written by anyone I know (y’all can relax). I was asked on behalf of the author either by a friend, or the author’s publisher to review, comment, edit (!) or provide whatever rewrite information I could to help the author along.

Normally, I don’t do this. Not anymore. But for some odd reason, those requests came when I had perfectly-sized time slots to devote to them.

Design fail

One of the three was passable. Two were unreadable. Each of these books suffered from the author’s failure to plan. Failure to take the time to design the book.

Here are some of the notes I made:

  1. There is no conflict in this book. When she comes home from work, there are six pages of lovey-dovey “I love you so much,” with her husband. Boring. One sentence of this will get the message across, and then get into the conflict of the scene, although, ultimately, there was no conflict in that scene. Or any other scene, really.
  2. What conflict eventually arises in the book is clearly petty and contrived so that there would be some conflict. One woman says a thoughtless thing to another, and then is forgiven. Hmmm… My life in a nutshell.
  3. The big conflict at the end comes out of nowhere, affecting each character in different ways. This is good, but it’s all in the last chapter. Couldn’t some of that Big Conflict show up earlier to provide a little ongoing tension?
  4. Way too much internal dialogue put in quotation marks.
  5. Crazy point of view shifts without rhyme or reason. Point of view is part of the book’s design.
  6. Writing the way to the story. The story starts when the conflict starts. And when the conflict is over, the story is over. Don’t start three months before the conflict, and don’t end three years afterward. There are ways to insert essential back story information into an ongoing work.
  7. All the characters sound the same. There are situational differences, but no personality or speech differences.

A novel must be designed. You can get a good idea and a wild hair and sit down to write, but if you don’t have at least a blueprint to follow, there will come a time when that novel goes into the drawer.

There is value in taking a flyer at a story idea, for certain. But at some point the author has to sit back and re-evaluate certain aspects.

  • Whose story is this? In other words, who is the protagonist (just one, please), who changes over the course of the story? Introduce this character first.
  • Who is the antagonist? A story is only as strong as its antagonist.
  • Who is telling this story (POV)? How are they telling it?
  • What is the time frame for this story? One week, one year, multi-generational? Tighten it up if you can.
  • What is the point where the protagonist accepts the quest? (Research 3-act structure)
  • What is the darkest moment?
  • Will the protagonist triumph over his/her fatal flaw at the end, or succumb to it?

These are the very basics. When the answers to these questions have jelled, the author will have a framework within which to play.

 

Point of View, Perception and Values: How to Create Conflict Without Really Trying

by Christina Lay

You may have noticed that we live in divisive times.  The gulf between opposing points of view seems to be widening every day. People who hold extreme views are becoming more extreme. Middle-of-the-roaders are held in contempt.  Allies turn on each other for not being righteous enough. Opponents dig in their heels, become intractable. Fresh arguments break out every day and when we, as observers, try to make sense out of what is happening, we are told that Facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t exist, science is fake, and that we can’t believe what we read, what we see, or what we hear.

Pretty fun stuff, eh? I often find myself with a headache, a touch of nausea and an overwhelming sense of frustration.  Luckily, I have the refuge of fiction. I escape into a world where I’m in control, where I know what the truth is and I know who the bad guys are. I can exist in this simple world of my own making for a long time; it is balm to my soul.

But then reality begins to creep back in, with its confusions and complications. And that’s okay, because nobody wants to read my fairy tales where nothing very bad ever happens. Readers, for whatever bizarre psychological reason, want conflict. They want the strife I am seeking to escape. They want danger, intrigue, a plot. Go figure.

And so I reluctantly take a closer look at the world around me. Sheesh, what a mess. But what a great time to study and learn about conflict!  Complicated conflict. Conflict between well-meaning, intelligent people. Many works of genre fiction rely on simple forms of conflict.  There is a bad guy, or force, or malevolent power afoot in the universe. In thrillers, it might be a corrupt foreign power, in mysteries, a murderer, in fantasy, an evil wizard bent on controlling the world and killing all the pretty unicorns.  It’s not too hard to create a villain who is so loathsome and evil that readers will cheer when your protagonist shoots him in the face. Or lops her head off.

Although great fun, this is not the kind of conflict I’m talking about now. Because in the end, the super villain tends to be a superficial character, and the plot, with all its twists and turns, is ultimately predictable. Because if you let your hero die and the despicable villain you’ve created win, your readers will want to shoot you in the face. I know. As a reader, I’ve been there.

I mostly read genre fiction, and often find myself more interested in the twists and turns of the hero’s other relationships. The friends, allies, mentors, co-workers, parents, children, who can all become, if not villains, antagonists of the most interesting sort.

And at last I reach my point: how friends, allies, parents, siblings, can become the most interesting antagonists without having to kill a single a person. They might even be good people. The hero might love or be in love with them. And yet these antagonists can be believable and diametrically opposed to the hero on some point of such import that they become the main obstacle to the hero’s success and the satisfying ending your reader craves.

Truth is slippery. If there is one thing to learn from reality today, it’s that facts can be hidden, misinterpreted, ignored. The interpretation of an event can be determined simply by where one is standing. “I heard that man shouting sexist insults!” “Well, I saw that woman whack a man on the head with her Love Always Wins sign!” “They were the aggressor.” “No, that group started it”. “The police were being needlessly brutal.” “No, the perpetrator had a gun.”  It is easy to see how two friends, experiencing an event from different locations, could come away with very different feelings. One might feel the need for action, or revenge, while the other does not.

Beyond the immediate physical view point, there is of course the viewpoint that comes from economic status, regional and racial outlook, religious upbringing, relative health or dysfunction of the birth family and so on. It pays to do a little homework, a little world-building, in order give your main characters diverse backgrounds or life experiences, especially from those closest to them. Honoring diversity in your fiction as well as your life can add so much richness to your stories.

Another way to create instant conflict between people with the same values is to give them different ideas about how to protect those values. Take traditional family values versus women’s rights.  One doesn’t have to be a super villain to believe that families are healthier when the woman stays home to raise the kids, but if that person is your progressive protagonist’s new husband, watch out.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I’ve personally found it eye-opening to look at all this conflict around me through the lens of character development and plotting. It doesn’t hurt that incorporating the frustrations of the world into a work of fiction can be, not only informative, but somehow healing. As my characters work through their perceived differences, I can see how there might be hope for all of us to stop being each other’s antagonists.

A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

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A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

Eric Witchey

Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.

The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.

In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.

For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.

Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.

I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.

Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.

Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.

She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”

“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.

“Make the scene ugly.”

Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.

Was I wrong? Of course not.

Was she wrong? Of course not.

“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.

“What kind of fiction do you write?”

Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.

When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”

That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.

I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”

Ha! Take that!

Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?

Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.

We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.

Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.

Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.

In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.

I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.

However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.

Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.

Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.

-End-