The Reason We Write

My friend, Lori, posted this quote on my Facebook page last week:

“We write to taste life twice.” ~Anais Nin, author

I think she posted the quote for two reasons:

  1. I love quotes. Love, love, love them.
  2. I am a writer who often wrestles with the why of writing. You know what I mean: Why do we willingly do all of this? The writing. The rewriting. The deadlines.

I think my friend read that quote and thought, “Beth will ‘get’ this.”

And I did.

But I did more than read the quote and think, “Good one.” I pondered the quote for a day or two … until it became this blog post.

I agree with Anais Nin that writing is a way to taste life again — to reexamine our experiences. And initially, this sounds like an opportunity to sift through all things pleasant. As I writer of contemporary romance, I can “taste twice” all those happy, fulfilling moments of my life. As I scan through my memories filled with laughter and hope, I write scenes where my characters fall in love. Or conquer obstacles. Come to know themselves better. Gain recognition — or reconciliation.

Ah, so many fulfilling life moments to relive as I write my stories and weave real life experiences — emotion — into my fiction.

But what of those other moments in my life? The struggles? The heartaches? The disappointments? The losses? There can be no true second tasting of life without those.

What is the value of “tasting life twice” if it means experiencing again those painful moments that broke my heart — or shattered a dream or strained a relationship?

As a writer, I have to choose to be brave enough to go back into my past. I choose to ask God to redeem my life — all of it — through the words I write. Only then can I also see the lessons he has taught me through the tear-soaked times. Only then can I see how I’ve changed and who I’ve become. Only then can I see more clearly who God is — instead of limiting him to who I thought he was.

How does this practically apply to us as writers?

We are tasting life twice when we write — the sweet, savory moments flavored by success and contentment, as well as the salty, bitter moments soaked in tears and regrets and loss. We write about all of it — and we risk lacing our words with real emotion — from our hearts — so that we connect with our readers’ hearts.

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Breaking Down the Basics of Tension

All right. You’ve read my post before on tension but I’m not sure I can stress it enough.

Tension is key!!

TENSION! TENSION! TENSION!

I’ve been doing some reading lately, amid deadline fever, and found the tension in some of the novels to be on the low side.

The stories were good. Well written. Great characters. But at some point, I found myself skipping pages because I just couldn’t wonder around inside their heads my more.

Here’s the break down of tension. It talks.

The more your characters dialog, the more likely they are to say things that make one another mad, or reveal a secret, perhaps say something embarrassing or something controversial and an argument ensues.

Dialog is the gas pedal for tension.

Have your characters say what they are thinking instead of internalizing it. Instead of delivering the story through prose.

Imagine a movie. What if the actors only delivered certain lines and the rest of the emotion was given to you in a thought bubble.

No, say it! Let the arguing begin.

Or what about those scenes where one character says, “I love you,” and the other character just makes a face and doesn’t speak.

We scream at the TV in those moments. “Say something! Tell him!”

Same goes for novels. Your characters speaking causes the emotion to rise which creates tension.

“Tell the story between the quotes.”

Let the characters talk, debate, argue.

Here’s a clip from a scene in the book I’m writing next.

“I saw your face.” SueAnn followed Taylor into her room.

“Of course you saw my face, it’s right here, the focal point of my head.” SueAnn could be such a busybody. But then again, weren’t all big sisters busybodies?

“You didn’t know Jeff died?”

“No and if you did, why didn’t you tell me?” Taylor kicked open her bedroom closet door and scanned the top shelf. The old box with pictures was the only thing she left here when she moved to DC.

“I thought Mom told you. She’s the bearer of all things bad.” SueAnn dropped to the bed, laying back. “Taylor, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Looking for a picture. Her hands trembled as she filtered through the mishmash.

SueAnn reached in for one of the pictures. “Looking for Jeff. Do you still love him?”

“No. He’s dead remember?”

“You know what I think?”

“Do you ever have a thought you keep to yourself, SueAnn? I don’t love Jeff.” But the tears on her cheeks said otherwise. “I just wished I’d known.” She pulled out the picture of them by the lake, senior year, as a tear slipped from the bottom of her chin.

***

Tension! The sister’s talking created tension. If I didn’t have have SueAnn in the scene with Taylor and told the reader Jeff died internally with Taylor, it would have been telling and boring.

Here’s the other nugget to great tensions. DROP THE BOMBS!

I’m going to keep writing about this until I’ve changed the writing world.

Or until I’ve changed myself. I’m still working on this concept too!

Don’t delay news or a plot point as a way to draw out the story.

Go ahead, let the world know your hero is in love with a woman who just announced her engagement.

Let the world know your hero is a prince who can’t marry the woman he loves.

And use dialog to deliver the one-two punch.

The more story you tell inside the characters’s heads, the more you soften the tension. Even in first person, you need those secondary characters to talk to your protagonist. To deliver the story.

So if you can’t remember anything about scene tension, remember this:

“Tell the story between the quotes.”

“Drop the bombs.”

Go write something brilliant!

You Don’t Have To Do It Alone – Brainstorming Help!

As writer’s we are constantly learning new things to improve our craft. That being said, brainstorming is one of the harder aspects of the writing journey for me. It’s amazing, I can help other writers with plotting but when it comes to mine, I get stuck. I was astounded (and greatly relieved) to find out I could get help.

Last week I met with my craft buddies and we had a fantastic time brainstorming. Not only did we flesh out our next novel but Gabrielle Meyer was an awesome hostess. She planned the schedule and created the perfect atmosphere of brainstorming and relaxing. For the most part, we worked in the mornings and played in the afternoons. Listen, if I didn’t love where I lived, I would move to Little Falls Minnesota. Thank you Gabrielle!

If you want to brainstorm with a group, here are a few tips.

  1. Have Clear Expectations. Like anything else, you want to go into a project with clear expectations and communication.Time is precious and you want to maximize it.
  2. Set a schedule. You want to make sure everyone gets equal time. We scheduled about three hours per person to brainstorm.
  3. Voice Recorder. Utilize a voice recorder or the recorder on your smart phone. I promise you won’t be able to type notes quick enough. Ideas can come fast and furious and they can change just as quick. A recorder ensures that you catch it all.
  4. Be flexible. Remember, you are brainstorming with people who have different perspectives and experiences. Listen to the ideas; you never know what may come from it. One idea leads to another and before you know it you’ve hit upon something that works!
  5. Speak the same lingo. The group of people you brainstorm with should speak the same writing lingo as you. Translated? If you follow the Lindy Hop, then they should know exactly what that means. If they follow a three act structure, you should know what that means. It helps ensure all needs are met.

These are just a few benefits I receive from our craft group.

  • Perspective. Each person has different talents and experiences. In our group alone we have a copy editor, a journalist/reporter, a grant writer and a historian. Throw the four of us together and we came up with awesome goals, disappointments and absolutely awesome love stories to write.
  • Lindy Hop. We utilized the My Book Therapy’s framework to plot a book and we were able to walk away with our next story almost complete. After I get home I plug everything into an Excel chart and then review it with The Book Buddy. Use whatever works for you, but I’ve found these two tools help ensure I haven’t missed any key points in plotting.
  • Friendships. We’ve developed awesome friendships because of our common passion of Jesus and writing. What a blessing to call these ladies my friends.

What about you, what experiences have you had with brainstorming?

Listen to me! Or: The non-list-making, non-threatening, let’s-have-a-cup-of-coffee-and-chat method of creating living breathing characters.

Christian books should reach beyond our hearts to touch our souls.  Regardless of the genre — suspense, romance, historical, or chick lit — stories can touch our lives, even change us.  And, while plot lines are important…it is characters that drive stories.  When we think of the Hunt for Red October, we think of Jack Ryan.  When we think of the Fugitive, we think of Dr. Richard Kimball.  Characters drive the plot.  So, how do we create characters that live and breathe and drive a story into our hearts?

 

Throw away the list!

When I began writing, I did what seemed logical – I filled out character lists.  Answered hundreds of questions.  But my characters still felt flat, and more than that, their actions, dialogue and conflict didn’t seem to connect.  At the time, I was home schooling, and as I looked at developing my children’s self-esteem, it hit me.  People reveal themselves from the inside out, based on how they see themselves, or want others to see them.  And discovering how a character defines himself is the key to making them come alive.

 

Who am I? 

I have an identity – as a wife, a mother, an author, and by those three words, I’ve given you a glimpse into who I am, based on your understanding of what those words mean to you.  Everyone has an identity, a way they describe themselves.  Knowing how our character defines him or herself will help us understand his/her motivations and values.  And knowing those will help us figure out what their greatest fear and dreams are, and help us craft internal and external conflict.

 

Let’s take the characters I mentioned above:

Jack Ryan – a CIA analyst, rising in the ranks who hasn’t had much field action. He’s a family man who wants to keep the world safe.   His greatest fear in this movie is misinterpreting the actions of a Russian sub that has gone AWOL and accidentally igniting WW3.  His greatest dream is to be right…and gain access to this sub.  His motivation is his family…keeping them safe.

 

Dr. Richard Kimball in the Fugitive.  He’s a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murdering his wife.  His greatest fear is never having her murder solved.  His greatest dream for the purpose of this movie, is apprehending her killers.  His motivation is his love for his wife, and his freedom.

 

Knowing a person’s identity makes their actions believable.  So, how do we discover our characters?

 

First, as you create a character, ask how he defines himself.  For example, I’ll create Joe, who calls himself a drifter.  Why does he call himself that?  Because he has been on his own for year.  Why?  Because he left home as a teen.  Why?  Because it hurt too much to stay there.  Why?  Because his father left them after his little brother was born with Down Syndrome.  Why?  Because he’d been close to his father and his heart was broken.

 

See the pattern?  Start with an identity and start asking WHY.  The key is to keep asking until you get to the underlying motivations behind your character’s identity.  Once you’re there, it’s not too hard to discover the three things that will give your character resonance:

  1. Your character’s values
  2. Your character’s greatest fears
  3. Your character’s greatest dream

Values drive actions. 

We do things because we believe in them.  For example, if my character has a broken past, maybe he values trust and family.  And maybe he’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves – i.e., his brother and mother.  But maybe he also values his privacy?  One way to create internal conflict in a story is to pit a character’s values against each other.  What if this character has to sacrifice his privacy to earn someone’s trust?  Or sacrifice his family to keep his privacy?

 

A person’s values also lead to mannerisms and ancillary information. For example, my character might carry a picture of his family in his glove compartment.

 

Make them suffer:

While you’re asking your character the whys, also ask him about his greatest fear, and greatest dream.  Because, your goal is to make him suffer.  For example, if my hero loves family, maybe his greatest fear would be to lose the family he has left.  And maybe his greatest dream is having a family of his own?  By asking these questions, you’ll then learn how to torment them.  (And authors are all about the torment, aren’t we?).

 

What about the extras?   

Oh, you mean the kind of car he drives?  The clothes he wears?  Your character’s identity, motivations and values will make them reveal the “list” questions.  My character might drive an old pickup…maybe unconsciously the same kind his dad did.  Or maybe he’d drive something completely opposite.  Maybe his hobby is fishing…reminiscent of the old trips with his father.  Once you know your character’s identity, he’ll fill in the gaps. Your job is to listen.

 

Creating a character doesn’t have to be about mining your brain for interesting quirks.  Simply sit down with your hero/heroine and have a little chat.  (Preferably in a room with a closed door where no one can hear you.)  Hopefully you’ll discover a character who leaps from the page and into your reader’s hearts.

 

Did you like this?  There’s more!  I’ll be teaching How to Writing Unforgettable Characters,” one of 13 morning- intensive coaching classes at the Oregon Christian Writers Summer Conference, AUGUST 4-7, 2014!   It’s a fantastic conference – OCW brings top national editors, agents and authors together to teach 13 intensive coaching classes and 30 workshops. Manuscript reviews, one-on-one appointments with editors and agents, mentor appointments, daily worship. The 2014 Keynoters are: Allen Arnold, Dan Walsh and Tuesday lunch keynoter, Editor, Chad Allen of Baker Books.

 

WHEN/WHERE: 

Oregon Christian Writers Summer Conference AUGUST 4-7, 2014 Red Lion on the River Hotel (Jantzen Beach), Portland, Oregon

Registration: www.oregonchristianwriters.org

 

Hope to see you!!  (We’ll learn how to write something brilliant!)

Susie May