Exploring a Character’s Past Wound

About five or six weeks ago, I rolled my ankle while walking to work. It wasn’t significant, I didn’t even lose my balance. Just a slight not okay and then okay and I continued on my way to work.

To you, this may seem like a non-story. People roll their ankles ALL the time. But this ankle has been traumatized. Many times. Over many years. This ankle was first really sprained when I was 14 years old, then again throughout the rest of high school. This is the ankle that I had reconstructed six years ago. This ankle still swells when there is a massive switch in the weather patterns, one that I am intentionally rehabbing once a week.

So a minor roll, a quick not even worth noticing not quite injury is, six weeks later, still sore, still slipping, still swollen. The small, non-injury is clearly an injury, and the emotions that I had after tearing two ligaments, after having it reconstructed, after trying to come back with atrophied muscles and incredible soreness are all living in the forefront of my mind.

When we are looking at why a character is the way they are, why they act or react the way they do, we need to make sure readers understand the emotional impact of events in their past and remember/recognize that even purely physical traumas can be accompanied with significant emotional contexts.

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Honoring the Past

While we don’t want to detail every single thing that has happened to a character in our book (really, please don’t), we, as the creators of these people do need to have a familiarity with what has made them who they are at the time of the story. People aren’t just self-conscious. They don’t “get big” when confronted for no cause, and they don’t shrink away in the same situation without a reason to be cautious.

Then, after you have learned/created/acknowledged this, you need to make sure that your readers have the same opportunity to understand. You need to pick the just right time that will deepen the moment of the current situation by allowing the memory of the past to penetrate the awareness we have of what made the character who he/she is.

Merging Then with Now

One of the reasons reconciling with the past is so powerful is that it can often serve as catalyst for where the character is when the story begins and where the character would like or should like to go. Their past can be something that happened a day or week ago, or it can be something that is months, years or decades old. What is important is that the character can first, learn what it is to reconcile what they did or what happened to them with the reality of the situation.

The second is to brace themselves for what the reality means for how they have to heal, and how they have to move forward. This may mean a candid conversation with themselves, and it may mean the incorporation of a therapist, counselor or trusted confidant.

The Reality of a Past Wound

There may be some wounds, some damages, that do not allow someone to heal completely. This, too, is something that needs to be explored: how will the character continue while a little bit broken? How will they adjust to a new reality that is different from what they wanted?

Exploring a character’s past with intentionality will solidify an arc and improve the quality of a story as a whole.

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Tasha Headshot Color

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Find Your Community

The most impactful thing you can do for your writing (besides finishing what you start) is join a community of writers. No one understands a writer like another writer. We have quirks, tremendous self-doubts, huge highs, and a lot of anxiety about an industry that can be maddeningly unpredictable. A community will provide you the support you need.

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Where can you meet other writers?

Blogs, social media, fan groups, conferences, and retreats are a few places to start. Target groups that write your same age group or in your genre. Be brave and introduce yourself. Pass along a business card. Ask them questions about themselves. Befriend them on social media. Whatever you do, think of reaching out as making friends and not as networking.

How do I find beta readers?

The same people you meet through blogging, social media, fan groups, conferences, and retreats are good options. Ask to swap manuscripts. If you ask someone to spend their time reading your manuscript, the best way to repay them is to do the same. Another option is to find or form a critique group. You may find one through your library or local chapter of SCBWI, SFWA, RWA, or any other reputable writing organization. Contribute to the groups you join, and only commit if you intend to be reliable and active.

What do I stand to gain from socializing with other writers?

The benefits are endless no matter where you are in your career.

For those of you who aren’t published, writers love to talk about books, so be ready for a lot of book recommendations. Some of these recommendations may become a comp title for your own work. Associating with other writers may lead to them asking you to participate in conferences, critique groups, book clubs, and book events. Socializing provides you the opportunity to receive feedback on worthwhile time investments, balancing home and work life, writing and working full-time, recommendations on agents, insight into how to query, what questions to ask when you get The Call from an agent, and so on. Publishing thrives on the whisper network. Most of what you learn will be from speaking directly to other writers.

If you’re published or under contract, you need a community too. You can get advice from others on cover art, social media platforms, building your newsletter list or website, and swag. You may want to know if, when, or how to part ways with your agent, which conferences are worth your time, advice on maximizing book bloggers, how to cope with bad reviews, what to do if your agent retires or your editor moves houses, how to sell on synopsis, and the list goes on and on. Join a debut group. Actively seek out relationships with authors, agents, editors, and bloggers. Maintain those relationships the best you can.

At no point in your career will you be better off without a community. Benefits come from creating reciprocal relationships with your colleagues. This is not “networking” per se. Initially your intentions may be to meet critique partners or gain social media followers. But as you engage with other writers, friendships will form. The same person you introduce yourself to at a conference could be the author you ask a blurb from one day or they may ask you. Interact with the spirit of giving. Don’t take anything without the intent to give back. Show up, be friendly, bravely ask questions, and contribute to building a community where all writers feel welcome.

 

Job Posting: Writer. Prerequisite: Not Having All the Answers.

I did something brilliant by accident the other day. This is a pretty common occurrence for me, as is sharing my brilliance with the world in posts like this one.

What can I say? I’m a giver.

Whilst on a recent road trip, driving through the gorgeous monotony of a mountain canyon, I was pondering the parallelism of plot and character arc—as one does—and it struck me that if one were to input character interview questions into a google form, and then link that google form to a google spreadsheet, one could compile vital story-data into a singular, easy-to-navigate access point.

One, I thought to myself, despite your tendency to think in really long sentences, you’re a freakin’ genius.

I then conceived the notion that one could gather data on character motivations, reactions, and actions, as well as the relevant plot points in the story, color-code them, and thus create a literal rainbow of parallelized plot and character arc in spreadsheet form.

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My geeky little heart nearly burst, guys. These spreadsheets could take my pre-writing to a level I’d never even conceived of! And that’s actually the point of this adorably egocentric little post of mine. What haven’t you conceived of? What data could you collect? How much deeper can you dig? How much more mindfully can you plot? How well can you get to know your characters, your magic system, your setting? How much more is waiting inside of you?

I’m not asking you because you’re supposed to have the answers to all of those questions right this moment. You’re not. Refer back to the title of this post if you don’t think I’m super serious about that.

Being a writer isn’t about knowing, it’s about writing! Exploring. Seeking. Striving. Trying out your crazy ideas (like rainbow-themed story spreadsheets) and stubbornly moving forward whether they pan out or not.

And one of the biggest thrills in the whole process is how much of a process it is. How there are always new insights and ideas waiting for you. How you can feel stuck at your current level of understanding, and then get slammed so hard by a random epiphany that the pages of your future books tremble from the impact.

Keeping pushing. Keep pondering. Keep plotting.

You never know what new ideas might be waiting for you around the bend.

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Kimberly VanderhorstKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Why I Write: My Cancer Story

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Seven words kick-started my writing career. “It’s not good, kiddo, you’ve got cancer.” That was almost 5 years ago when the doctor showed up on my doorstep in scrubs, straight from work.

It was 5 years ago that I started taking writing seriously.

I had two types of breast cancer.

I was 34 years old when I was diagnosed and had been contemplating what I wanted to do for at least the prior 5 years before. I found myself getting caught up on technicalities or writing: finding and making time to write, questioning my quality of writing; wanting to do a blog but not sure the proper name to give it… then being afraid that I would look stupid juxtaposed to those amazing other blogs.

The list of excuses goes on. I won’t bore you with them.

But, the biggest fear I always had was that if I did the “thing” I was supposed to do with my life, then I would die sooner. My clouded thinking kept me from writing.

Sure, I was a closet writer. There was nothing that could keep me from writing. It was the sharing of my writing that was shoved to the black hole of the closet.

But hearing that I had cancer solidified one fact for me: if I don’t start sharing my writing I may die before I get to do the thing I most wanted to do with this life.

It’s true, prior to my cancer experience I had a national magazine that paid me for an article but never actually published it. The letter that read “Dear Author,” was enough to satisfy me for a while. But, somewhere inside I just knew I wanted to do more with my writing. Once wasn’t good enough for me anymore. And besides, only the editors got to read it so in some ways that just didn’t count.

It was time to put myself out there. It was time to write and share it. The desire of my heart was sent to heaven and blessings poured down.

Blessings Pouring Down

Once I decided what I wanted to do, my eyes were open to opportunities. After voicing my desire to write, the cancer center asked me to write an article for the monthly newsletter. And since writing workshops encouraged giving of your talents to start building portfolios, it was a no brainer for me.

Though, let’s be honest here, a big portion of me wanted to be paid for my effort. I mean, really, I knew the time I put into my writing. And who doesn’t want a paycheck? After a little internal debate I took on my first free job.
After one article the cancer center told me I needed to write bigger. They told me I needed to expand myself beyond a simple newsletter that would reach a handful of people. I needed to get my words on bigger paper.

This one free newsletter act landed me speaking assignments and it gave me even bigger opportunities.

Soon, the doors started opening. A national cancer magazine, Conquer, contacted the cancer center looking for stories. The editor called me and asked me to write for her.  I even got brave and asked if they could pay me a little something for my time (yikes, scary). Though most of the articles were donations she agreed to pay me for mine.

I worked hard on that article. It was my first real debut afterall. I mean the first one that people besides the editors would read.

After Conquer received my article she called me asking if I was a “professional writer or something”. Booh-yah!

“No. I’m just a girl with a passion for writing.” I am still just processing her words. Wow. Biggest payday ever.

“Did you take some writing classes?” she asked. She had some professional writing background and taught writing classes at a university.

I was a little embarrassed as I had to answer, “No. Just the basics in college. My degree is in nutrition.”

“Well, keep writing. You have a way with words.”

I don’t tell you this to brag. No way. I tell you this because I don’t want you to doubt your abilities. Your passion will be the vehicle to your success. I had no training in writing just a deep love for it. Doors will open in unlikely spots if you put yourself out there. Take advantage of every opportunity to share your passion. Other doors will open.

CANCER STRIKES AGAIN

So. My brave meter started rising. I decided to do that blog I had been thinking about (and overthinking about).

Soon after I decided to follow through with putting together my blog. I stopped worrying about picking the best name out there and just did it. I just plain started to write and publish my writing. I was so scared putting my 1st post out there but soon 1 post turned into over 100 posts and I was doing what I was meant to do. I was asked to join the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog and have been writing for them for a few years.

And somewhere in the middle of all of that cancer struck again.

Just 18 months after finishing chemo, radiation, and surgeries I was diagnosed again with cancer: metastatic breast cancer. It’s stage 4 cancer, which is incurable. It spread to my ribs, my backbone, my right hip, my right arm. The spots were small and they felt it was manageable. Not curable, just manageable.

The last 2 years I have been fighting stage 4 cancer. It has since spread to every vertebrae on my back, my liver, my lungs, my spleen. I don’t tell you this to make you feel bad for me. Absolutely not. I tell you this to let you know that there comes some sort of emotional healing when I write. That the pains of my condition are weakened because I can write. Feeding passions heals heartache and brings power into your life.

And that life is precious. Don’t waste time on wishing you could do the things that you wanted to do. Chase your dreams. Make them happen.

My trials gave sustenance to my writing.

Thank You

I’m glad that the doctor showed up on my doorstep 5 years ago. I’m glad I’ve been able to walk through this cancer journey so I could write. My heart is full of joy from following my desire to write all along while my body is filling up with cancer. I’m glad I took that chance 5 years ago. It has gotten me through my hard times with cancer. Writing has been the healing medication to my soul.

I did only one simple thing: I decided I was going to write. And how it has filled that hole in my life. How it has enriched and blessed my life.

So if I have just one word of wisdom to pass along it is this: Decide to follow your heart, then get to work. Write. And take advantage of those free writing opportunities, you never know where it will lead.

Today I have written my last blog post for TTOF. I want to thank you for your amazing support and opportunity I have had to share my writing journeys with you. There is a time and season for all things. It has been my blessing to be able to have this season with you. But, the time has come for me to focus on my family and maybe do a little writing through my personal blog as I feel necessary.

Thank you for sharing and commenting and keeping me afloat in my writing journey. What a blessing all of you have been to me. May your writing journeys explode your heart and fill you with the joy as I have found in simply thinking through my fingers.

Have a wonderful day… that’s my plan.  

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christie-perkinsChristie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing, blogging, and is a nonfiction junkie. Her stage 4 cancer doesn’t knock down her passion for life and writing. Not a chance. A couple of magazines have published her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her on her blog at howperkyworks.com.

 

 

Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

It’s Not as Spooky as You Think: A Brief Word on Ghostwriting

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A few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the book launch for a biography I ghostwrote. The entire project was one of the best experiences of my life — I helped a woman tell the story of her faith-affirming journey as she struggled to care for a husband who’d been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

You can find out more about that project by visiting: http://www.pattiepperson.com/

It was a great opportunity, the kind of project that reminds me why I love my job.

ghostwriting photo.jpgBut I was surprised to discover that many people had no idea what a ghostwriter was. Even other writers were asking me about what I did as a ghostwriter and how I felt about it. So I’ve decided to give a brief sketch of this corner of the writing profession.

In a nutshell, ghostwriting is just like it sounds. It’s when you do the writing, but someone else puts their name on it. You’re there in spirit only. You’re paid to write what you’re told to write and the employer owns the copyright, has complete creative control, and, if they so desire, can pretend you don’t even exist. *makes vaguely spooky woo sounds*

That may sound terrible but it’s really not. If I poured all my blood, sweat and tears into a book that I created and someone came along and took credit for it, that would suck. But much like you pay a photographer to make you look good in pictures; a ghostwriter can help you look good on paper.

To date, I’ve worked on three books as a ghostwriter. One was for a financial planner who wanted to put his professional knowledge into an easy-to-digest self-help book. Another was for a health advisor who wanted to give his political ideas a proper grounding in book form and the third was the autobiography mentioned above. Each project was unique; and none of the people who hired me were trying to “trick” anyone — as one person asked me. Ghostwriting is a valid editorial option for people who have a great idea for a book — and the knowledge, resources or experience to validate the project — but don’t want to take the time to learn the writing craft to get the work done.

If you’re a writer looking to earn income through different avenues, ghostwriting is an interesting option. You get to live in someone else’s shoes for a bit. You get to open yourself up to a whole new world. And you get paid while doing it! I got a quick education in finances — something people pay good money for. I consider myself much more well-informed about national health care policy and I’ve heard (and then written) some insane horror stories on how the bureaucratic side of things is affecting our country. And walking in the shoes of a woman who had the worst thing she could imagine happen to her has strengthened my faith in ways I never saw coming when I signed on to do the project.

For writers considering a career as a ghostwriter, I’d say the number one quality you need (other than the basic skills any writer must acquire and strengthen) is empathy. If you can fully immerse yourself in another person’s story; if you can lose yourself in someone else’s life and take on their voice like it’s your own; and if you can make yourself curious about pretty  much anything, ghostwriting might be an option worth exploring.

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Crystal Liechty is the mastermind behind the Educating Mom webtoon, which details the always funny and often inappropriate hijinx involved in homeschooling three mischievous children. If you’ve been to college lately, you might have seen one of her essays in the Elements of Arguments textbook (Macmillan Press). When not homeschooling or torturing college students with argumentative essays, Crystal can be found watching Korean dramas, teaching herself Kpop dances or in general working as an unofficial ambassador for South Korean culture. Find out more about her online comic by visiting pleasedontcallchildservices.com. You can also find it on Facebook.

Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading