Are You Holding Back in Your Writing Because of Social Media?

In a world where people seem to be offended by anything and everything, it can be a daunting task for a creative person to navigate the choppy waters of what will and won’t evoke controversy hour-by-hour.  No matter the topic, it seems like someone can find a way to twist it into their own meaning pretzel with plenty of negative connotations.  And when the world seems to be backfilling with these types of oftentimes innocuous offenses, many creative types may be afraid to truly express themselves.

The solution: Don’t allow hashtags and comments on social media to dictate what you want to express in your story.  If you have an idea for something a character does or says, then you start to think about how Twitter or Facebook of Reddit will react, the trolls have won even before you’ve expressed yourself.

You can’t let that happen.

You have a story to tell.  And you cannot let anonymous people online dictate what you want to say in your story.  You just can’t allow that type of false pressure to squelch your creativity.  Even before the internet there were people who hated and were offended by things they read or saw.  Just because those people have a larger more vocal platform now doesn’t mean you should allow them to get into your head and beat down your ideas.

Maybe your story has controversial elements or themes.  Maybe you explore domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, or other hot button topics.  Maybe you have a character who is a racist or sexist; who uses language that you wouldn’t use but they do.  As a creative person, you need to do what’s best for your project.  If it evokes anger, offense, or hashtags against you and your work, so be it. 

Hey, you can’t please everyone.

And that’s the main thing you have to remember.  More people when they dislike something are likely to comment on it than those who like or enjoy something.  And what is odd is that usually when reviews or comments are negative, people tend to want to find out the truth for themselves instead of just going off of what some person has posted online.

And example: Joker.  Here’s a recent film that was maligned in the press, by many critics, by people online, and other groups for weeks prior to its release.  The star and director were hounded with questions about the film’s violent content, the red carpet premiere did not allow the press to ask questions, and the fear of the film spawning violence led to the U.S. military issuing a warning, and some theaters adding extra security.

All pretty negative things against the movie, and yet it was the highest grossing film for an October release and is set to break other R-rated film box office records.  There’s also Oscar buzz around Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joker. 

The filmmakers didn’t hold back.  They didn’t listen to the critics and edit the film down to a safe PG-13.  They stuck to their vision of the film and released it as is.  And the results were effective and the negative outcry probably had a positive outcome for the film overall.

Joker is the perfect example of how as creative individuals we need to do what’s best for our story.  We need to tell the story we want to tell.  Tell the story you want to tell without the fear of social media backlash churning in the back of your mind. 

Tell your story.  Not theirs.

Do you find yourself editing and toning elements of your story down due to fear of what may be said about you or your story on social media?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Using Empathy & Sympathy in Your Writing

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?  When it comes to writing, should we use one over the other?  Should we use both?  Do they even matter? 

The short answer is yes.  They do matter.  And both can help your reader connect with the problems and conflicts faced by your main character over the course of the story.  So, let’s define each word.

Empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

Empathy allows the reader to jump into your main characters shoes and experience what they are experiencing even if they never have.  It helps create an emotional bond between the reader and character.  A way to connect them on a deeper level that in turn keeps the reader caring about the main character and their situation.

Sympathy – an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathy

Sympathy allows the reader to feel bad for the plight or situation of a character even if they can’t directly identify with the experience.  This is much more surface level emotion, while empathy digs deeper into the feelings and emotions of the reader.

If you want your reader to have a full immersive experience in your story, ensuring that they can either empathize or sympathize with your main character is key.  Whether the reader has gone through a similar situation as your main character or not, making them invest their emotions and feelings into the struggles and conflicts your main character is going through will keep the reader engaged and invested.

It all comes down to the concept of caring.  Does the reader care about the characters?  Do they have a level of compassion for them?  Do they hope they succeed and want to be there with them when they achieve their goals?

If you as the author don’t care about your characters, the reader won’t either.  Take the time to give your characters emotional weight and put them in situations that will create a sense of empathy or sympathy for them with the reader.  Readers need someone to root for and identify with in a story, and adding these levels of emotional connectivity can ensure that your readers and characters will connect over the course of the story.

Do you utilize Empathy and Sympathy in your writing?  Is one more important to you than the other?  Is it important for the reader to empathize or sympathize with your main character?  Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Your Characters Off-Balance

Should your main characters ever feel comfortable?  Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine?  Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO.  Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.

In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives.  Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge.  With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain.  It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.

The old adage is that Conflict = Drama.  And drama is what drives the story forward.  Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm.  But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers.  Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.

This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play.  Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters.  Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.

Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down.  That’s fine.  It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride. 

Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible.  Don’t let them get there.  And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.

They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began.  And that’s a good thing.  They have grown as a character.  They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.

It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors.  It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance.  It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”

When Writing a Novel, Don’t Rush Your Story

We live in a society where the majority of people want things fast, and they want them now.  From food to other products, people demand immediacy, and any time period above that can often result in one-star Yelp! reviews or complaints on social media. 

Even with entertainment or news we’ve become accustomed to soundbites, YouTube clips, and quick hits on the News app on our phones, giving us the gist with no real depth or further information.  And the majority of society is just fine with this.

So, what happens when you are planning out a novel or screenplay with that mindset of how the world is with its lack of attention and need to get things fast?  It can make a writer think they have to deliver story, character, and more at a breakneck pace, which is contradictory to what the point of a novel is.

SLOW IT DOWN!

Your story can be fast-paced, but if you start to rush through chapters just to get to what you think is the “fun stuff” it can cheat your reader – and yourself, the writer – out of delving deeper into the world you are creating.  Take your time and deliver chapters that have meaning to the story, develop character, and bolster the themes you want to communicate.  Don’t be afraid to slow it down a bit.

As a writer, I often find myself doing this, especially if I know that something really fun, action-packed, or exciting is coming up soon.  You get the feeling to just gloss over things in order to get to the fun stuff.  But if you cheat the story, you cheat the reader, and that’s the last thing you want to do. 

The big sequences should be earned, and the reader needs to feel that they have taken a journey with the characters where both get the big sequences when they are deserved in the story.  Not because the author got impatient and wanted to jump ahead.

That being said, if you are a writer – like myself – who likes to write those sequences when they pop in your head, don’t be afraid to just write them.  You can always write the connective tissue that comes before and joins the fun stuff to the rest of the story.  This can also help you as you write the chapters prior to the scene create momentum that drives the story and the reader toward the big event.

It’s also key when you’re writing to give your reader as much information about what’s going on as possible.  Utilize the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  And also the sixth: thought.  As the author you can describe all of these things and use them to teleport your reader into the world you have created for them.  Put the reader there with your characters, in their heads, and make them feel like they are part of the story.

Novels are meant to be long.  They are meant to take their time to tell stories that have a lot of moving parts, the delve into the psyches and inner-workings of the characters, and give the reader an immersive experience.  While we do live in a world where it seems like less is more and faster is better, don’t forget that novel readers don’t want to take a trip in a car going 150mph, they want to take the train with it slower pace and multiple stops. 

Take your reader on a journey they don’t mind being on for a while.  They’ll be happier when they get to the final destination, and as the writer you will be satisfied that you wrote them a quality that took its time a really delivered.

What do you think?  Does taking your time and developing story, character, and description still matter?  Or have readers become impatient with novels that take their time?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Remember, Everything Begins as a Draft

As consumers of entertainment, we have become accustomed to seeing the best version of what is being presented to us.  Whether it’s a novel, a movie, a TV series, or a play, we are witnessing this project at its highest level of completeness and – for lack of a better word – perfection.

You may read a novel and think to yourself, I could never write something that good.  Maybe you’ve come out of a movie thinking, I don’t think I could create a screenplay that great.  This is the big mental block that can invade the minds of creative people in any medium.  We see what has been produced, printed, or staged and our minds begin to doubt our own creativity.  

We wonder if we can ever be that good at what we do.

Consider this: Every film we see, every novel we read, every play we watch started as a draft at some point. Whoever wrote it had to start just like you: with an idea.  They had to cultivate it in their mind, then begin jotting down ideas that bloomed into a rough outline that was then filled with things crossed-out and put in that were better.

We often forget that prolific authors like Stephen King or Judy Blume deal with creative highs and lows while they are crafting a story.  And everyone has to tackle a rough draft at some point in order to get to the next step of revision and editing.  Yes, even the greats have to go through the same process every time they write.

It’s easy to get hung up on what has been published or produced and be intimidated.  But you have to remember that even people who are well-versed in their craft often struggle the same way all creative people do.  It’s just how the creativity game is played.

Creating is hard work for anyone.  We look at artists we admire and think that it comes easy to them.  It really doesn’t.  They, too, put in hundreds of hours to create what we are watching, reading, or listening to. With that perspective in mind, it’s easier to realize that we also have the ability to do great works; as long as we are willing to invest the time, effort, and creative energy to do so.

So, the next time you finish reading a novel or watching a movie and begin to wonder how you could ever write something as good, remember that at one point that brilliant work began as a rough draft that evolved into what you just read or saw.  

You, too, can begin at the draft phase and watch it evolve into something greater.  You just have to take the first step and begin writing and creating.

You can do it!

The video below is a snippet of an interview with Wings and Frasier co-creator David Lee discussing the evolution of the Wings pilot into what it eventually became.  A perfect example of how even those we revere as talented creative types often have to work hard to create something that works.  Enjoy!

Story Exercise: My Story

Below is the draft of the story I wrote for this exercise. It’s a little longer than 500 words – I got carried away – but it was fun to write. Please feel free to include yours in ther comments and share them with others!

I put the items, location, and animal I chose in BOLD.

            This was it.  Leila stood looking out at the night sky, a blanket of stars before her, emptiness below her in the darkness.  She didn’t want to do it; but she knew she had no other choice.  An icy wind whipped through her body and she felt her fingers and toes grow numb.  There was only one way out of this situation.  For too long she had waited.  Agonized. Suffered.  

            And now it came down to this.

            Her phone buzzed to life in her pocket, which startled her.  She fumbled with her numbed fingers to grasp the phone in her jacket pocket.  She saw the name on the screen, closed her eyes, then answered.

            “Hello,” she said as her teeth chattered.

            “Are you coming down the slope soon?” the voice on the other end began.  “We’d like to go get food sometime tonight.”

            “Okay, okay,” Leila said with frustration.  She looked down the snowy hillside of the ski slope.  She was alone and the ski lift had come to a halt.  It was just her.  

            At the edge of a double-black diamond ski slope!

            Why did I think I could do this? she thought to herself.  To impress your sister, duh!

            Her sister who was not impatiently waiting for her with the rest of the group at the bottom of the run.  Her sister who was now calling her to get her to come down.  

            “On my way,” Leila said as she disconnected and put the phone back in her pocket.  “Hope they have good food in the hospital cafeteria,” she said to herself.  “Because this isn’t gonna end well!” 

            She heard a growl.  Was it her stomach?  No, she would have felt that, too.  She looked to her right.  Nothing there.  She heard the growl again.  To her left. She swallowed and looked to her left. A coyotecrept toward her.  It’s mouth in a snarl.

            Leila did her best to stay calm, and reached into a pocket on her ski pants and pulled out a half-eaten candy bar.  “I know chocolate is bad for dogs,” she said, “but I think you can handle this.”  She tossed the candy bar in the coyote’s direction. It looked at the sugary bribe, then back at her.

            “Darn!” she said, then looked down the slope.  “And down we go,” she said in a low voice, hoping the animal eyeing her would stay put.

Leila leaned forward quickly, her skissliding inch-by-inch toward the edge.  She gripped the poles tight, took a deep breath, and felt her body descend.  

The powder churning up around her skis was a comforting sight; she had been terrified it was ice all the way down.  

            Leila felt herself picking up speed.  She wavered a bit, but maintained her balance…at least for the moment.

            Then the ice came.  Her once seemingly sensible speed went from manageable to uncontrollable. The wind whipped through her hair and around her goggles.  Her blue beanie was ripped from her head as she careened faster and faster down the slope.

            With all her might she attempted to form a wedge with the front of her skis to slow herself down, but she hit a bump in the icy terrain that sent her sprawling off balance.  She felt herself launch into the air, her body like a wayward missile with no clear target.

            And she landed on her side, but continued to slide downward.  Pain radiated from her side and the arm she landed on, but she was grateful her phone was in the opposite pocket.  However, she had her sister’s “lucky charm” in her other pocket…of the side she landed on. She shifted as she slid and pulled the lucky charm out to look at it: a small Funko Pop! of Wonder Woman.  

            She chucked it up the slope only to see the coyote making its own slip-sliding way down toward her.  

            Leila’s legs were heavy from her ski boots; her skis were on two separate solo runs down the hill, and from her viewpoint it looked like they would arrive at the bottom before she did!

            Not wanting to wait around for her new friend, Leila shifted head-first down the slope and “swam” the rest of the way down the mountain.

            As she arrived at the bottom of the hill – still on her side – her sister stood over her.  “You couldn’t have done thattwo hours ago?”  her sister said.

            “If I knew it would be that easy,” Leila replied, “I would have!”

            “Where’s my lucky charm?” her sister asked.

            “On the mountain,” Leila said as she awkwardly stood. “But I think the coyote up there will try and get it first.”

            Her sister considered the news.  “I’m good,” Leila’s sister said.  “Dinner?”

            “Yes!” Leila said.

I look forward to reading yours! Have a great weekend!

The Power of Words

Dr. Solomon (John Lithgow) makes a great point in this short clip above.  The dictionary is not only a great resource to check one’s spelling – although spellcheck does most of the heavy lifting for us these days – but it’s also a storehouse of the millions of words that we as writers implement through our own creativity to produce stories, characters, locations, and descriptions designed to entertain audiences.

Too often we will read a great novel, see a well-written film or play, and be intimidated by the awesome creative forces at work before us.  But then we need to step back and remember the above clip from 3rdRock from the Sun.  Every writer, screenwriter, and playwright is using the same dictionary of words that we have at our disposal.  

With practice, determination, and editing, we can also be at the same level of skill and talent as those who have gone before us.  It’s all the same words, it’s how they’re organized that makes the difference.

Today, go and organize some words into a great short story and see what happens!

When it Comes to Your Writing, Who’s Really in Control?

Where do you want your characters to go…or where should they take you?

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your outline for your novel or short story and you’re ready to sit down and write.  Your fingers are poised over the keys of your computer – or typewriter, if you’re old school – you take a deep breath, and dive into the story.

As you start to dig into story, you realize that your main character is taking you down a storyline that you didn’t outline or anticipate.  In fact, it’s almost as if your protagonist is in control of what they’re saying and doing.  It’s as if you are only there to transcribe the events as they unfold.  A mere voyeur to a story you hadn’t even planned.

This is a good thing!

I’ve had these moments happen many times while writing.  I think I’m going to take the story one place due to planning ahead, and then the main character takes the wheel and we go off on a weed-infested dirt road that I never even knew was there.  It’s at these moments while writing – especially during the drafting process – that it’s best to just sit back and see where things go.

Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end.  Sometimes you’ll learn something new about the character and the choices they make that can have an impact on the story and in turn the character’s interactions with others in the story.  The key during these moments is not to fight the creativity taking hold of your brain and your fingers as the rapidly pound the keys to get every sentence down as fast as possible.

And it’s not only a great method of discovery for your main character.  Supporting characters can benefit and develop greatly during this process of creative surrender.  Maybe you have a character who you feel isn’t strong or dimensional enough; but while writing a sequence that includes them they begin to say things and do things that make them far more interesting and instrumental to the overall story.  That’s always an exciting time!

While I do support writing outlines, I also believe that as creative people we must allow ourselves to give into the temptation of going where our roadmap doesn’t.  Even if you do return to the road you previously paved, you may have learned a thing or two that can benefit your characters – and your story – in the long run.

Have you ever let your characters take the wheel and take your story down a trail you never expected? Leave a comment and let me know!

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!

Have You Heard About NaNoWriMo?

This coming Thursday, November 1, 2018, National Novel Writing Month begins.  If you have never heard of it, I encourage you to take part in NaNoWriMo, which is a worldwide event where writers are encouraged to sign-up and write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30.

This is a great way to create a writing routine and discipline yourself into writing every day.  It’s also a great way to get a jump start on a rough draft of a new story, or even to motivate yourself to finish one you have already started.

Either way, it’s an opportunity to have a set writing goal that will keep you motivated to reach that 50,000-word mark by the end of November. 

You can sign-up here at the official NaNoWriMo site and check out the other stuff they offer.

Happy Writing!