Drive Your Story With Fear

What does your character fear?

We all know that when moving our stories forward we’re supposed to make things worse for the protagonist.  Is he lost?  Let the sun set, let the rain come. Is he alone?  Find someone to stalk him.  Is she being hunted?  Take away her defenses. Does she need to find a cure? Have it fall into the hands of the antagonist.  This is all something fundamental, though many of us forget about it or fail to take it far enough. You know those books where the hero is having enough trouble as it is, and the next obstacle in his path makes us cringe?  Then ten pages later it gets even worse? Sometimes we forget that things can always get worse.

So let’s try again.  Is he lost?  Let the sun set, make it a moonless night.  Then let us know that as a child he was locked in a closet and darkness became his biggest fear (or set this up earlier in the story).  Is he alone?  Find someone to stalk him.  Then twist his ankle. Make the stalker someone he knows, and let him drop his guard. These twists aren’t terribly exciting – they’re overdone at best – but you get the picture.  Making things worse for your character increases tension, and playing on your character’s fear to do so is a great technique.

But fear is more than just a driving force in the main plot.  Fear is a part of character – my character, your character, the hero’s character, your mom’s character, your really attractive 6th grade teacher’s character.  It factors in to a lot of our decisions, even the everyday ones.  So knowing your character’s fears is important.

Fear can be a main part of your plot or it can be part of a side-plot.  It can be a theme that carries through your book, it can change a decision during a defining moment, it can even be something you keep to yourself in order to know your characters a little better, make them a little more real, help you understand them so you can explore other parts of who they are.

Remember that everyone is afraid of something.  I can stand a thousand feet in the air and look over the edge without blinking, I stare out of the window of an airplane like an eight-year-old during takeoff and landing because I think it’s cool, but show me a spider and I’m out of the house and down the street ten seconds later.  These things are a part of human existence, so putting them into your book, whether the reader is afraid of them or not, can make it a little more real.

When making character sheets we focus on physical appearance, tags, traits, what they want, what they need, habits.  But we shouldn’t forget fear.

So I’ll ask you again.  What do your characters fear?  What keeps them up at night? What do they think about when all the lights go out?  Figure it out.  Write it down.  Use it, or don’t.  Either way your characters will be a little better for it.  And who knows? Maybe it’ll become an important part of your story.

Do you use fear as a driving force in your writing?  What do you think about knowing what your character is afraid of?  How do you use it?  How do you think you can use it in your future writing?

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The above photo is from a great post about how to find and use your character’s fear. Here’s the link – http://www.writingeekery.com/fear/

What They Don’t Tell You About Writing

Who are they?  

They can be anyone – commencement speakers, mentors, authors at writing conferences, motivational coaches, life experts.  They help inspire us.  They tell us what we can do with our lives, with our writing.  Their words are sweet and move us to action.  They tell us that anybody can be a writer, that anybody can learn, that everybody has a story to tell.  They tell us that the craft can be learned and that if we try, really try, put in the effort day in and day out and struggle through, then we, too, can be great storytellers, bestselling novelists, award-winning authors. 

But they don’t always tell us that for as many ups as we have, we’ll have ten times as many downs.  And if they do mention it, we don’t listen.  We don’t always understand that we’ll struggle, that we’ll fail, that we’ll come to a point where we’ll think (where we’ll know) that we’re never going to make it.  That the inspiration we loved before isn’t so inspiring anymore.  That the speech they’re giving is going to fade from our minds and when we listen to it again it won’t have changed, that the person who made it won’t always be there to give another one.  We don’t always realize that the drive has to come from inside of us so that, when the excitement of beginning fades, we can grit our teeth and push through it.  That we have to find the inspiration inside ourselves so that we can continue on until we reach that next realization, speech, moment, that will carry us forward.  It is only then, after we’ve driven ourselves 99% percent of the way, and had others help push us the last 1%, after we’ve been through one hundred ups and one hundred thousand downs, that we’ll be able to look back on that speech by the speaker, mentor, author, coach, expert, and say, ‘That was when it all began,’ and know that we’ve made it.

What I’m trying to say is that nobody in the world can motivate you through writing an entire book.  What they can do is motivate you to start one, and help you realize that you have your own reasons to keep going.  Finding these reasons for yourself is one of the most important things that you can do as a writer.  I have several, but one of the main ones is that I’m obsessed with a good story.  Not only in books but in movies, TV shows, and even plays.  There’s something about a fictional story that can capture truth even better than real life can – stories can make you realize things about yourself and ask the tough questions.  They can be a study on bigger things like right and wrong, the nature of evil, society, memories, forgiveness.  I guess that it’s the chance to write a compelling story, and capture something more than the thrill of the ride in it, that keeps me fascinated and keeps me going.

What have others said that inspires you?  What videos, speeches, or music makes you want to get up and do something?  What drives you?  What goals do you have that make you push yourself forward, even without anyone else’s help?

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The Perfect Opening Line

Starting off right.  It’s important in sports, jobs and interviews, school, relationships, and all sorts of other things.  Unsurprisingly, it’s also important in writing (and every other kind of storytelling).  Sure there are amazing books with opening lines that are yawn-worthy, and sure there are amazing opening lines that lead you into 300 pages of the worst story ever.  But I doubt anybody is planning on writing the worst story ever, so why not start your story off in the best way possible?

My most recent short story, The Man in the Black BMW, begins like this:

“Bernard was old and even though he hated the idea of death, it was always on his mind.”

Is this the best opening line ever written?  No.  Does it sound a little too dramatic?  Yes, probably.  But it fits the plot and theme of the story, and it does several things that I like.

1.  It creates intrigue.  Why was death always on Bernard’s mind?  It it just because he’s old?  Maybe, but probably not – why would the author give me this information if it doesn’t have something specifically to do with the story?

2.  Creates inner conflict.  Bernard doesn’t like thinking about death, but he can’t stop.  His thoughts and his desires are in conflict with one another.  Subconsciously, we want to read on to see if he resolves this conflict.

3.  It’s not a sprawling mess.  One sentence, one comma, and the line is over.

4.  Immediately introduces the protagonist.  This one isn’t necessary in all opening lines, but I like it for this story.  Right away we get the protagonist, his name, and little bit of information about him (he’s old).  It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to ground us.

There are two main things I think about when it comes to generalizing rules for opening lines.

Create intrigue and questions for the reader.  It should raise a question, any question.  This can be done in a million ways, but it still has to be there.

Be easy to read.  Sprawling sentences with six commas are usually something to avoid.

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).  What happened?  Did it really happen?

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952).  Who the hell is Eustace?  What did he almost deserve?  Why almost?

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).  What was the advice?  It was given a long time ago, why is it important now?

If it’s easy to read and raises questions and intrigue in the reader, I’m in.  It’s your opening line’s job to get the reader to read the second line.  If it’s a good one, it might even get them to read the first page.

Sure you can get away with a normal line, but don’t you want your opening line to be great.  Don’t you want it to give a reader chills, to remind them of the journey you just took them through when they look back at where it all began?

What about you?  How do you create your opening lines?  What do you look for when reading or writing them?

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11 Pieces of Advice From Writers

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1.  “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

2.  “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

3.  “Write drunk; edit sober.” – Ernest Hemingway

4.  “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway

5.  “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain 

6a.  “Say it once, say it well, and move on.” – To be honest, I’m not sure.  I might have made this one up.  If you know who said this please let me know in the comments.

6b.  “Don’t explain.” – Billie Holiday

6c.  “End with an image and don’t explain.” – Stanley Kunitz

7.  “Don’t write to become famous or to make a lot of money.  Write because you love it. Write because not writing for more than a few days feels like you have abandoned a puppy in a mineshaft.  Save the puppy.”  – Joe Beernink

8.  “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman

9.  “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King

10.  “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’” — Helen Simpson

11.  “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” – Lev Grossman

Plus one for good luck:

Write Well and Be Happy: It’s a Me Monday, Part II

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If you’re a happier person, your work will be better.  If work is good, you’ll be a happier person. 

Well, crap, right?  That seems like a pretty closed loop.  But what if you aren’t as happy as you’d like to be, and your work isn’t as good as you wish it was?

Doing little things to make yourself happier isn’t all that hard to do if you do it a little at a time.  Even those of us that are content with our lives can always be happier.  And if happiness is the key to success, writers need to try as hard as they can to find it.

It used to be a romantic notion that writers were the tortured souls of the world, and people believed that if a writer wasn’t depressed they couldn’t be expected to write the next great novel.  But most of us write because we want – some would say need – to write, and doing what we want is what makes us happy.  If you aren’t happy with yourself, how can you have the motivation to do something voluntary?  Because that’s what writing is, isn’t it?  Nobody is making you do it, you just want (need) to.

Well, I’ve been in amazing place in life for the past year.  To be honest it seems like I’ve been happy for much longer than that, but I’ve really started to notice it in the past 10 months (which, ‘coincidentally’, is when I started writing twice as much as I used to, and developing a really good habit of working regularly). 

As a part of ‘It’s a Me Monday, Part II’, I wanted to share a few things that I think are great contributors to happiness:

1.  Coffee (surprise, surprise) and green tea.  This can be generalized as caffeine.  Nobody has ever said, “Damn.  All this energy and motivation is really pissing me off.”  Energy and motivation go along with feelings of joy and a carefree mindset.  Caffeine is the best kind of drug.  Green tea also has a bunch of health benefits other than the energy it gives you.  Try having iced coffee or tea during the day, especially in the summer.

2.  Being organized and clean.  No, I’m not a neat freak, but having all of my stuff put away helps me focus on the things I want to do, without having to worry about doing something later.

3.  Lists.  Again, I’m not a list freak, but if you have things to do, isn’t it nice to know that you won’t forget any of them?  If I have things I need to get done, I write them down on a running list that I keep open on my Mac (I use Notes, so it automatically syncs to my phone).  “Shit, I’m forgetting to do something but I don’t know what,” is one of the most annoying thoughts in the world

4.  Being active and physically healthy.  This might be a placebo, but if I know I’m taking care of myself I always feel good when I sit down to write.  It’s much easier to get to work when you’re confident that your life is in balance.  There are also a ton of scientific studies that show that regular exercise increases energy and focus throughout the day.  Even if the science is wrong, it’s still a great self-esteem booster.  Look good, feel good, write good…write well for all you English teachers out there.

5.  Hanging out with friends.  Don’t be a couch potato or recluse; see your friends, even if you don’t love to go out all the time.  Crack a smile – there’s no better feeling than being part of a group of people who are all laughing at the same thing.

All of this helps you with…

6.  Having a passion in life and doing something to work toward it every day, no matter how small it is.  If you can’t already tell that my passion is writing, then may god have mercy on your soul.  But seriously, I love creating stories, and I do something about that every day.  And it feels good.  I could have the shittiest day, I could trip over myself and do that ‘Wait, did anybody see that?’ look-around and find the entire Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show lineup staring at me and laughing, I could stub my toe and scream ‘F***!’ and look up and find a five year old and his glaring mother in front of me, I could accidentally mass text a message meant for my girlfriend, and I’d still be able to go to bed happy.  Even if all I do is read five pages of a good book and notice something about it that helps me in some way with my writing, I feel accomplished (though, doing more than that is highly encouraged).  Moving in the right direction feels good, so make sure you take a second to realize that you’re doing something – for me, the most important thing – right.

What are a few things that you think contribute to your happiness?  How do you think they affect you as a writer?  As a person in general?

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Back to Beginnings

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Beginnings are exciting, and I’ve already mentioned that I have a lot of them ahead of me. Beginning of postgrad life, beginning of work, beginning of moving out on my own… but the most important of them all is that, for me, tonight is the beginning of a new book.  My new project is something I’m more excited about than I’ve ever been for a project before – partly because I love the idea, and partly because I know so much more about writing, about crafting stories, than I ever have.  That’s what happens when you spend time working at something, you get better.

I’ve written about beginnings already.  I’ve talked about how they’re sometimes the hardest part, how getting up and starting something, getting into a routine, can be difficult.  But beginnings can be exciting too.

Sometimes beginnings can be easier than anything else – we’re free, we can start from scratch, we have no constraints, no thousand pages of notes to keep in our heads.

Beginnings are fun.  I’m not the kind of writer that jumps right into the story, but at the same time I’m not the kind that sits down and meticulously plots something.  I like to think about my concept, the premise I have in my head, the theme of the story and the characters that I’ve already thought of, and just let the ideas come.  It’s really just a free pass to daydream.

For me, beginnings are about thinking, about writing furiously, about listening to music that’s way too loud, pacing around and daydreaming about what might happen, about all the possibilities.  During beginnings I chug coffee (which I do all the time anyway), I pace around, I go out.  Beginnings are about leaving a night out with my friends for half an hour because I’ve just been struck by lightning and have to write something down before I forget it.

Everything gets hammered into an outline, characters, and themes to remember later.

Needless to say I’m excited to start.  I’m excited to spit out jumbled ideas, words that I’ll look at when I have to take the mess and turn it into a plot and ask, ‘What f***ing idiot wrote that down like it was a good idea?’  I’m excited for the moment that one of those jumbled ideas to lights up, and becomes one of the best parts of the story.

How do you feel about beginnings?  Are they daunting for you?  Do they excite you?  How do you begin a book, or some other project?  How do you get your ideas, then turn them into something more?

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I Forgot My Own Birthday

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Fiction All Day, and I forgot about it.  But it’s okay, because this blog is much more forgiving than my girlfriend (who is going to read this post and send me an angry text), and I won’t have to sleep on the couch tonight.  As a consolation prize, the post I made yesterday was about finally finishing my most recent book, which is fitting enough for a one year wrap-up.

So here is a quick year in review:

Since I started this blog…

– I started and finished my last year at Vanderbilt, getting a degree in English and Economics

– I got a job offer, accepted it, and have my start date (July 14) for my first full-time job out of college – working at a consulting firm in DC

– I became addicted to coffee, and now love iced green tea (which I drink by the pot)

– I finally realized how awesome Nashville is, and miss it (read: the bars) a lot now that I’m home

– I came out of school without a serious drinking problem… subjectively

– I wrote and finished Embracing Ghosts, an 89,950 word thriller/mystery that is by far the best book I’ve ever written

– I wrote 11 short stories, the longest of which, ‘The Man in the Black BMW’, I’m going to try to publish in a literary magazine

– I started my next project, a book idea that I’m more excited about than I have been for any of my previous ones

More importantly, since I started this blog…

– I’ve written 33 posts, which comes out to a little more than one every two weeks, though in the last 6 months it’s been more like one every four days

– It’s received 2,546 views and 160 comments

– 454 people have started following it

So, to finish…

I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has ever read a post of mine, and a special thank you to all the people who have stuck with me for longer than a day.  You must be really bored.

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And I thought we could all enjoy that whoever made this meme really nailed the ‘who’s’ ‘whose’ conundrum but couldn’t exactly figure out the much easier ‘you’re’ ‘your’ problem.

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