Nancy: The Problem with Empathy

malice-toward-noneOdds are, if you’re a creative person, you use your creative expression to process and make sense of the world around you. Knowingly or unknowingly, you also might be working out your personal issues in your work. This lesson came home to me a few weeks ago when I realized a struggle I was having with a character on the page was the very same struggle I was having with some real-world people in my life.

The character in question is an antagonist who did a terrible thing to the protagonist’s best friend years earlier, and that bad act comes back to haunt all of them in the present in the story. The real-life people I’ve referenced have recently stated beliefs and claimed values I didn’t realize they had, and I can’t make peace with it. In both cases, I’ve lost my capacity for empathy, and it’s a problem.

A few months ago, I posted about writing as our superpower. One of the things that makes that power so super and immutable and important is the ability to make readers walk in the shoes of the ‘other’. Stories take us places we’d never go in real life and introduce us to people we’d never meet otherwise. It’s especially important that an author empathize (and make the reader empathize) with the protagonist, even when she’s doing stupid or dangerous or infuriating things. Even when she’s weak or making bad choices or not living up to the challenges we’ve given her. Empathy allows us to go deep with the character to understand why she’s making these choices, because within the bounds of the story, we view the world and feel her feelings from her perspective. But what about the antagonist, especially if s/he goes into some seriously dark territory and does some truly heinous things? Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2: The Decoder Ring

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.

As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.

So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? Continue reading

Michaeline: The Japanese Coffin Experience

painting of a cholera victim who has been prematurely buried, struggling to get out of a coffin.

We can ignore impending death, or allow it to concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson would have it. Just in case you need more motivation this NaNo when time is running out. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine you are trapped in a wooden coffin, wide as your shoulders, slightly longer than your length. You are waiting to be incinerated, or buried, and the crying and pounding are done. No one is out there, and you have time to think back on your life. What would you have done differently?

This isn’t bizarre sadism out of the blue; I watched a most remarkable Japanese TV program this morning about how lost men in Japan felt after retirement. After forty or fifty years of daily work (often at the expense of family life and hobbies), they expect to spend their golden years as full-time kings of their castles. During their worklives, they only enjoyed the undivided attention of the household for short periods of time after work and work-related socializing. They are astounded to realize that their wives are not willing to turn an hour or two of gentle servitude into a 16-hour-a-day event. Lost, without hobbies, without religion, without meaningful work and their workplace relationships, and now with resentful wives, they find their golden years turned to ashes.

Enter the Japanese coffin experience. Continue reading

Nancy: Shades of Gray

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.

Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.

One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion.  Continue reading

Michaeline: Monsters and Revenge

Three ladies in togas dancing under a tree bearing golden apples.

Golden Apples cause such a lot of problems . . . the Goddess of Discord, Eris, wasn’t invited to a shotgun wedding, so she threw an apple inscribed “For the Fairest” into the party. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, you had the whole Trojan War happening. Vengeance — it snowballs. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Why are monsters so powerful? Well, for one thing, they are a vehicle for vengeance. They want to do in whoever made them a monster; their victims want their revenge in turn, and before you know it, you have a cycle of violence and vendetta. Not many of us have met a Frankenstein or an Adam, but we’ve all experienced injustice and unfairness. It’s an extremely powerful, extremely relatable emotion. As they say, revenge is sweet.

The act of revenge is fueled by anger, and “hate gives us a similar high to cocaine”. OK, my source for that is a Cracked.Com article, but en comoedia, veritas. (I won’t provide a link because the article peeks through anti-Muslim doors that I don’t want to open, but you can google it if you like.) Anyway, I’ll link to National Geographic, which explains a brain-imaging study done in 2004 about how the brain rewards people who choose revenge.

However, as we all know, revenge isn’t simple. Another old saying goes: revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge conducted in the heat of the moment is often something stupid with major consequences. Revenge takes a lot of time, commitment and emotional investment – emotional investment that might be better spent elsewhere. Another chestnut: If you want revenge, dig two graves. “Pursuit of revenge is likely to be destructive to the pursuer as well as to their object,” the Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations says. And this Psychology Today post mentions a paper (by Kevin Carlsmith et al) that suggests that people who don’t take revenge actually feel better long term – better than people who choose the revenge.

The PT post goes on to say that Mario Gollowitz thought that revenge could be satisfying when the offender understands the connection between their act and the retribution. It’s not as good if seemingly-random bad stuff happens to a bad guy – the old “Karma is a Bitch” bumper sticker.

Although, reading down to the comments of the PT post, one woman mentions Continue reading

Michille: The Courage to Write

the-courage-to-writeOne of the things that several of us 8L have said over the last months is that we won’t buy anymore craft books/take anymore craft classes until we have finished what we already have. In that vein, I did eeny-meeny on my craft bookshelf and chose The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes, almost at random (because I have too many to choose from). The very first chapter is called Elements of Courage. It made me feel strong just reading that. There are some funny sections throughout the book like Page Fright, That Naked Feeling, Counterphobia, and Draft Dodgers. Continue reading

Justine: No More Excuses

6490798 - classic glossy black chair, isolated on a white background

Last year at this time, I attended RWA Nationals in NYC, including the awards ceremony on Saturday night. This year, I watched the ceremony via live stream from the comfort of my living room. No high heels. No tight dress. No edgy excitement. Just my rainbow cozy pants and a tall glass of milk.

I debated whether to attend Nationals this year and ultimately decided not to for one important reason: Continue reading