The Best Reason to Blog — 2014 Edition

by Jami Gold on November 27, 2014

in Random Musings

Harvest basket of colorful decorative gourds with text: The Power of Gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. The day we eat too much food, roll our eyes at the antics of our extended family, and think about all the things we’re grateful for. Or in my case, see if I can sneak in some NaNoWriMo words while everyone else is taking their post-turkey nap in front of the football game.

(I’m sadly serious. I love Thanksgiving, but this holiday isn’t helping me catch up. Anyone have a Time Turner I can borrow? *panics*)

This Thanksgiving post is now an annual tradition on my blog. Four years ago, I revealed that the best reason for me to blog is all of you. The post three years ago reiterated that point with my gratitude for all the friends I’ve made via blogging and social media. Two years ago, I confessed my love of the blogging format because of the connections possible. Last year, I revealed that blogging for you pushes me—in a good way.

And gee, what a surprise! All of you are still the best reason to blog! *smile*

The Power of Gratitude

The reason I do this post on an annual basis is because gratitude is such a powerful tool.  Thinking about what we’re thankful for forces us to pay attention to our priorities and what matters most to us.

The daily grind of pulling teeth, er, words out of our head, of facing rejections or bad reviews, or of slogging through marketing and promotion can make us forget why we do what we do. Being grateful for the good things—whether that’s the joy we feel when writing goes well, the excitement of wanting to share our work, or the appreciation of our readers—reminds us of the positive aspects. So for me, taking the time to be grateful for all of you makes blogging worth it.

Using Gratitude to Form Connections

I recently tweeted a link to a post by Dan Blank that made me cry because he talks about what it means when we truly embrace our audience. Unless we’re writing just for ourselves, connecting with readers is usually one of our main goals for our work.

As Dan said:

“The real goal is that moment when a fan connects so deeply with your work… It is a place where the boundary of artist and fan is broken, and you are two human beings sharing something unique together.”

I haven’t had that experience with a reader of one of my stories yet. But I had several experiences of an overwhelming connection with readers of my blog this past year.

When I attended the Desert Dreams regional conference this past spring, multiple people came up to me and said, “Oh my gosh! You’re Jami Gold. I love your blog!” They wanted hugs and selfies and a sense of that connection.

As an introvert, that experience was odd to say the least. *smile* Introverts generally cringe at being the center of attention, and because my fiction doesn’t debut until next year, I still feel like a nobody in many respects. So to be honest, I’m not sure I reacted as well as I could have—or should have—to validate that sense of connection. (So if I disappointed you when we met, I’m sorry!)

think I handled the situation slightly better when it occurred at the RWA Nationals conference this past summer, but I don’t know. Is meeting an awkward dork what they wanted? *wink*

Now, I don’t bring up those experiences of mine to brag (or to make fun of my dorkiness, as the case may be), but to share that yes, a sense of connection is what we often want with each other. So thank you—all of you—for allowing me to connect with you through my blog.

Just as I try to be there for you with my posts each week, you all were there for me this year with my brother’s brain surgery. (Tangent update: He still has some paralysis, but he’s slowly recovering.) I plotted all of your prayers and healing wishes on a map so he could feel the support from around the world, and I can’t tell you how much that outpouring meant to me or my family. We were all shocked (in a good way) and profoundly grateful.

It felt powerful. These connections feel real. They are real.

The opportunity to connect with you in our own sincere or dorky ways is the reason I blog, and for that, I’m lucky to have you. Thank you!

Does stopping to feel grateful help you focus on your priorities and what’s important to you? Have you ever deeply connected to others through their writing? Have others ever deeply connected to you through your writing? How does that make you feel? (Am I alone in my I-don’t-know-how-to-handle-this introversion?) Is there anything special you’re grateful for this year?

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The Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers

by Jami Gold on November 25, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Snowman holding gift with text: The Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers

Here in the U.S., it’s almost Thanksgiving, and for many people, that means the big shopping days of Black Friday and/or Cyber Monday aren’t far behind. I’m not a shopaholic, so I usually need help knowing what gifts to buy for people. That means it’s also a great time to start thinking about what we might want for writerly gifts this year. *smile*

With that in mind, I updated my Ultimate Gift Guide for Writers, and I included lots of links because I’m a lazy bum and do most of my shopping online. *grin* You won’t catch me fighting the crowds on Black Friday.

If you’re a writer, this might help you give suggestions to family or friends. Or you can direct your family to this post for ideas. Something on this list is bound to please every writer out there.

Stocking Stuffers

For Writers Who Outline

  • Note (index) cards
  • Notebooks (many writers prefer plain spiral or steno pads over fancy, leather-bound books—those are too pretty to use *smile*)
  • Ugly writing journal (so we’re not tempted to “save” it) (suggested by Daniel Swensen)
  • Corkboard
  • Pushpins
  • Whiteboard
  • Dry erase markers and eraser

Technology Helpers

Big Ticket Items

  • New computer/laptop
  • Bigger/second computer monitor
  • Printer
  • eReader or eTablet (Kindle/Kindle Fire, iPad, Android tablet, etc.)
  • Ergonomic desk chair
  • Website/blog hosting, upgrades, or design (Note: I use and recommend TechSurgeons for great service, and no, they don’t have an affiliate program, just lots of happy customers. *smile*)
  • Registration fee for writing conference or workshop
  • Membership fee for a writing group (like RWA—which is open worldwide and for more than just romance writers)
  • Cover design or editing costs for self-published authors

Writing Craft and Publishing-Related Books & Tools

Writing and Publishing-Related Workshops

Miscellaneous Suggestions

  • Gift basket full of writing-related ideas (pens, notebooks, special beverage and glass, inspirational items or quotes, etc.) (suggested by Theresa Miller)
  • Gift cards for books (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.)
  • Gift cards for office supply stores
  • Fun reader/writer-type gifts (“Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” mug, “gifts for writers,” The Literary Gift Company, etc.)
  • Canisters of favorite coffee or hot chocolate (suggested by Angela Quarles)
  • Tea or other writing beverage (suggested by Daniel Swensen)
  • Totem for a muse (figurine, stuffed animal, etc.) (suggested by Lisa Hall-Wilson)
  • Magnetic poetry kit (now available in tons of specialized themes—from Shakespeare or passion to cat or bacon lover)
  • Literary action figures
  • High-quality printer paper for queries/submissions (suggested by Christy Farmer)
  • Printer ink (suggested by Shain Brown)
  • Subscription to music source (Pandora, Spotify, Grooveshark, etc.)
  • Premium level of online service (Dropbox for automatic backups, Amazon Prime for free shipping/lending library, etc.)
  • Entry fee for a writing contest
  • Massage gift certificates (suggested by Julie Glover)
  • Back or foot massager (suggested by Gene Lempp)
  • Comfort clothes (robe and fuzzy slippers) (suggested by Brooklyn Ann)
  • Writing time (anything from babysitting to a writers’ retreat)
  • Housecleaning services (especially during deadlines) (suggested by April Bradley)

What did I miss? What other writing craft or publishing-related books do you recommend? Do you have suggestions for other items to add to the list? Which things would you most like to receive? Is there anything on the list you wouldn’t want? Will you brave the store crowds this year?

(Note: Some links on my blog are referral or affiliate links.)

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Pinterest Fail cookies--perfection vs. reality--with text: Is Professional Feedback Like...?

The title of today’s post makes it obvious that this might be a controversial topic. Writers pursuing traditional publishing are often told not to pay for editing before submitting to agents or publishers. But is that always the best advice?

The “rule” originated because in the days before valid self-publishing options, there were too many willing to take advantage of authors. (Er, there still are too many willing to take advantage of authors, but let’s stick to this one point. *smile*)

Pre-published authors were bombarded with claims: “Pay me to edit your work, and I guarantee you’ll get an agent/publisher.” Er, no. No one can guarantee a result of an agent or publisher unless they’re in cahoots, which some of these scammers were (and are).

Also back then, many editors were employees of a publisher, rather than a freelance contractor, unlike how they are now. That meant there weren’t many quality editors able to freelance for anyone and everyone.

Put that scam aspect together with the fact that there weren’t other legitimate editing or publishing options years ago and the advice to not pay for editing before submitting made sense. Any editors we found as pre-published “nobodies” were likely to be scammers or unqualified.

But the landscape has changed just as much as the post-apocalyptic settings in some of our stories. We’ve had to change our opinions and attitudes about many old-school advice “rules,” and today Sharon Hughson, a pre-published author who’s pursuing traditional publishing, is here to talk about whether this advice about editing should be next on the chopping block. Please welcome, Sharon Hughson! *smile*

*****

How a Professional Edit
Can Outshine other Forms of Feedback

Writing is a competitive business. If you want to stand above the crowd, your writing needs to glitter brighter than a diamond at midday. To this end, a writer needs feedback on the stories they write. (I’m not talking about Aunt Rose, either).

Different avenues exist for writers—at every level—to get honest (and hopefully helpful) insight into their manuscripts. Much of this input might be available free of charge. In fact, should we ever pay for a professional edit when seeking traditional publishing?

I have seen recommendations from traditionally published authors (and even a few agents) in regards to editing. The consensus seems to be: Don’t spend money on editing your manuscript before shopping it to agents and editors. Believe me, I sighed hugely when I read this advice (since I don’t make much cash as a full-time pre-published author).

Is this the best advice for you and your manuscript?

In my sixteen-month stint as a professional writer, I’ve found feedback from a multitude of sources. Family, friends, writing groups, fellow newbie writers, published authors, and even a couple professional editors.

What a Critique Partner or Critique Group Can Do for Us

I have experienced three separate types of critiques in my writing life. My experiences may be atypical. In any case, I’ve had critiques from a writing group, a published author, and a fellow pre-published writer.

I know most writing groups are composed of pre-published authors. However, my experiences between a group setting critique and a one-to-one critique have been vastly different.

In the writing group, you have three types of people: the know-it-all, the uber-critical person, and the soft-hearted reader. Their titles are self-explanatory. None of these people will be able to help you improve your writing. In fact, they may make your story worse if you try to incorporate their advice.

If you’re a member of a critique group, you’re the person who gives honest and useful feedback on every story. You never get your feelings hurt and always balance your negative comments with positive ones. As this person, you will soon tire of receiving less-than-helpful critiques from the other members and seek feedback elsewhere.

I actually paid $50 to have a published author in my fantasy genre read the first 20 pages of my manuscript. We had a ten-minute meeting to discuss her comments. She marked my manuscript in every direction. The setting was lacking. The characters were flat. The premise sounded tired and over-used. My sentences were horribly constructed.

About ten percent of what she said helped me improve my writing. Saying what is wrong with something is not the same as offering solutions to fix the problems. In fact, I have rarely read a critique that offered helpful insight for improvement (noting all my bad habits doesn’t count, does it?).

Finally, a fellow writer offered helpful and insightful advice about the opening and characterization of the manuscript I’m currently shopping to agents. She reads the genre and has an excellent ear for strong voice and snappy dialogue. Where she excels, she gave me the best advice I’d received from all the other critiques combined.

Of course, she isn’t strong on structure or creating conflict. She knew what she liked about the characters but couldn’t tell me why she didn’t like what she didn’t like (a mouthful, I know). In short, if we struggle in the same areas, she can’t help me dig my way onto solid ground.

What Beta Readers Can Do for Us

Beta readers are readers not editors. They should not be expected to catch your grammar errors, typos, or sloppy writing. They read for content and fluidity.

Say they’re confused about why or how something happened, they make a note. If they didn’t like the characters or find them believable, they mention it. Give them a list of 23 things to comment on and you’ll get some amazing—and diverse—feedback.

I did have two fellow writers beta read my manuscript. Both of them gave insightful commentary about plot, character, setting, conflict and pacing. In most cases, every one of my six readers found different things to wonder about—which helped me plug the holes in the story.

As for helping me improve the structural flaws, there wasn’t any feedback I could use. They weren’t equipped to identify weak areas in my story or character arc.

What a Professional Editor Can Do for Us

This brings us to the woefully under-appreciated professional editor. Perhaps you have looked at these people and thought, “I can do that. What skill do they have that I don’t?” Especially since many of the best editors are also published authors.

A developmental editor will amaze you (if they’re a true professional). You won’t have to ask them about anything. They will open your manuscript and tear in.

Yes, I do mean tear into every word, sentence, paragraph, and event. Close attention will be given to the opening pages because they know these are crucial to the success of your story—both with agents, publishers, and readers.

Nothing will be off-limits. Is the setting vague? Does the character have a goal? Can the scene be easily visualized? Does the dialogue sound like something people would actually say?

Your narrative will be scrutinized. Are you using the best point of view? Are you hopping between character perspectives within the same scene? Does the description sound like something a narrator of that age would truly think?

Certainly, problems like too much telling will be addressed. However, deeper issues like the underlying structure of the story and obvious character arcs will be more important to a developmental editor.

Their job is to decide if you have a story to tell. If you do, are you telling it from the right perspective? Did you start in the best spot? Is there enough conflict to sustain tension and keep readers turning pages?

Jami is holding me to a word limit, or I could go on here for another thousand words. Bottom line: A professional editor locates the bones of your story and decides if you have a foundation. If you do, they’ll dissect the characters to help you streamline motivation. If they find inconsistencies, you will hear about it.

My Personal Conclusion

In short, I disagree with this blanket assertion: A manuscript traveling the traditional path doesn’t need an editor. I agree there are some benefits in “free” feedback, but sometimes those sources don’t push your manuscript to the top of the slush pile.

Time to face facts: You won’t hook an agent or editor with a manuscript that doesn’t shine. No matter how great your prose or how many degrees you possess, you aren’t the best critic for your written work. It’s a fact; one I was sad to encounter.

I’m a pretty effective editor, but the truth is I’m too close to my own story to recognize many of its shortcomings. The characters are my intimate friends, so I read between the lines. I see subtext that doesn’t exist. Weakness in character arc or description are the invisible woman.

So here’s my advice:

If you’ve shopped your story and no one is biting,
take the plunge to pay for editing.

Spend the money on a developmental edit to ensure your manuscript:

  • has sound structure,
  • has believable and relatable characters, and
  • isn’t riddled with plot holes.

Look at this expense (and it isn’t cheap) as an investment in your career—like workshops, craft books and conferences. In the end, your manuscript will sparkle. You will learn how to write a stronger story and spot your weaknesses in the next manuscript. Best of all, your name will appear on the cover of the book you’ve envisioned.

*****

Sharon HughsonSharon Hughson writes non-fiction, YA fantasy and women’s fiction. More than a decade in public education has given her special insight into the minds and voices of teenagers.

Reading, playing the piano and walking in the great outdoors devour her minutes (yes, only minutes!) of free time. She lives with her husband along the Columbia River in Oregon.

To learn more about her writing, visit her website.

*****

Sharon Hughson's blog headerVisit Sharon’s blog to read her three-part series on her experiences with critiques. The series kicks off with a reminder that critiques often aren’t going to feel good, and we need to be prepared for that. The second post touches on the fact that when multiple feedback comments say the same thing, we should listen. And the third post explores how the ability to ask (non-defensive) questions might increase the helpfulness of the feedback (so look for that feature when searching for feedback sources).

On her blog, Sharon goes deeper into the insights from her professional editing experience.

*****

Thank you, Sharon! Like you, I’ve heard this “don’t pay for editing before submitting” advice before, and we don’t talk enough about whether that’s still the best advice, given the changes in the industry.

As Sharon said, I don’t think authors should pay for editing right out of the gate. There are many sources for feedback, and spending money shouldn’t be our first option. In addition to what Sharon mentioned here, I’ve blogged before about my experiences with writing contests and how some of them are structured to provide feedback (although due to the contest entry fee, they aren’t technically “free” feedback).

Every agent will be different about what they can overlook. Some might be able to see past our errors or inelegant wording to the story underneath. Some might not want to help us through that weakness. Some agents consider themselves feedback agents and some don’t.

So how can we know what to do? Following the typical “don’t pay for editing” advice, the next line is often that we should shove this story under the metaphorical bed and move on to another story. For me, my second story helped me find my voice and my genre, so I understand why we might not want to stick with the same story that’s causing us problems.

But other times, we want to stick with that story and solve its problems. We might not want to give up on a story that’s the first of a series, or perhaps it’s the book of our heart. Or maybe we’re willing to invest money to speed up our learning process beyond what we could pick up on our own from free or cheaper resources. There’s no right answer for everyone and every situation.

When we don’t want to give up on a story, we might be able to use a “rule of three” to step through our revision/submission process:

  1. Get feedback from three free sources (beta readers, critique groups, etc.).
  2. Query three agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages (many agents who accept sample pages will peek at the pages even if the query is less than perfect).
  3. No bites? Get feedback from three more free sources and pay attention to repeating issues noted in the feedback.
  4. Query three more agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages.
  5. No bites? Pay a small amount for feedback on our opening pages or scenes (writing contests or a professional partial edit) and again pay attention to repeating issues noted in the feedback.
  6. Query three more agents who represent our genre and accept sample pages.
  7. Still no bites? Pay for a professional edit or a manuscript critique/analysis from an editor who emphasizes teaching-style feedback and specializes in our weaknesses (i.e., big picture developmental editor issues, sentence and grammar line editor issues, etc.).

If we stick to two or three feedback sources or agents on each round, we won’t burn out too many people, and we’ll still have enough feedback to look for repeating problems. That information about our weaknesses can be invaluable, as Sharon’s advice and this process are all about learning what might be holding us back.

That’s my main takeaway from Sharon’s post. If we feel like something is holding us back from success (rather than just plain subjectivity) and free feedback isn’t helping us determine what that something might be, it might be worth it to invest in a more aggressive form of feedback.

When we’re feeling stuck, we want to know what’s holding us back. Sometimes, our critique partners or beta readers will be able to push us past that obstacle, and sometimes they won’t. In those cases, paying for an edit might provide the in-depth analysis that will push us to the next level for this story—and the next one. *smile*

Do you think authors pursuing the traditional publishing path should ever pay for editing? Have the changes in the industry affected your perspective on this issue? How do your experiences with the different types of feedback compare to Sharon’s? Do you think knowing our weaknesses can help us move forward with a story, or is it better to move on to a new story? When would a professional edit be a good idea or a good investment for a beginning writer?

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Paper torn to reveal a drawn heart with text: The Psychology Behind Emotions

As writers, we usually want to keep the reader immersed in the story so they don’t put down our book in the middle and not care enough to pick it up again. We often keep readers’ interest by engaging their emotions.

That might mean we give readers characters to root for, anti-heroes they can’t look away from, or plot situations or character circumstances they want to learn more about. A common method for keeping readers engaged is to create a sense of empathy or sympathy with the characters, and that means we want our readers to feel emotional when our characters do (even if the emotions don’t match up exactly).

Because of those goals, we see a lot of writing advice about how to create emotions, show emotions, strengthen emotions, layer emotions, handle intense emotions, etc. But we might not have stepped back and thought about (or learned about) the psychology behind those emotions we tap into.

When we understand the psychology driving emotions, we might be able to make those emotions more realistic. We might recognize when there’s a disconnect on a character’s emotional journey, or we might see when a character’s motivation doesn’t match the accompanying emotion.

So I’m excited to bring Kassandra Lamb here today for a guest post on “emotional psychology 101.” Her experience makes her the perfect person to help us understand the deeper psychology behind our characters’ experiences.

Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! *smile*

*****

Emotions 101 for Writers

As a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer, there is one subject that I know well—emotions. For years, I helped my clients identify, understand, and manage their feelings. But when I first sat down to write about my characters’ feelings, I discovered some new challenges.

I had been trained to name the emotion for the client. Now, as a writer, I couldn’t name it. I had to show, not tell. And I had to do so while maintaining the pace of the story. Ack!

I did finally get the hang of it, and my psychology background was an advantage. So let me share some things I’ve discovered about showing emotions in our writing.

The Basics: The Physical Side of Emotions

In order to immerse the reader in the character’s emotional experience, we describe their behavior, body language, internal dialogue, and visceral sensations. The last of these can be difficult to pin down but is often the most powerful way to show, not tell.

We humans experience emotions first as sensations in different parts of our bodies. There are individual variations—some people are more chest feelers while others mostly experience stomach sensations—but there are definite trends in where and how we tend to feel each emotion.

(Note: this is a way that you can individualize your characters. One can be a chest person and another feels most things in their stomach.)

Here are some examples of the sensations related to each of our basic emotions. (For an extensive list of ways to describe feelings, both Jami and I recommend The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)

  • Fear: tightening in throat/chest, dry mouth, nauseous/butterflies in stomach, heart pounding, chills, hair standing up on neck, hyperventilation, etc.
  • Anger: heat, heart pounding, muscles clenched (especially fists/jaw), gritted teeth, outward pressure in chest, rapid respiration, etc.
  • Sadness: heaviness (especially around heart), ache or sharp pain in chest, lump in throat, voice choked, stinging/gritty feeling in eyes, loss of appetite, fatigue, etc.
  • Happiness: lightness, floating sensation, bubbly sensation in chest, warm, tingling, etc. (excitement includes restlessness, rapid heart rate, etc.)

There is a physiological reason for these tendencies. A part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), regulates our body’s reaction to the environment and prepares us to respond. The ANS has two branches, the arousal branch and the non-aroused branch (that’s not what they’re called, but I’m guessing you could care less about the confusing, more scientific terms).

You might have noticed that anger and fear have a lot of overlap. These emotions are part of the fight-or-flight response that is triggered by the arousal branch of the ANS when we perceive a threat. There’s also some overlap with excitement, another aroused emotion. Be careful with these overlapping emotions. If the feeling isn’t apparent from the context, you may need to use at least one sensation that is exclusive to that emotion.

“His heart pounded. A chill ran through him.”
(Got it. We’re talking fear here.)

The non-aroused branch of the ANS takes over when we are safe. It kicks in even more so when we are sad or depressed. We can become so under-aroused that it’s hard to function.

There are three other basic emotions, called the self-conscious emotions. These develop in toddlerhood, when the child first develops a sense of themselves as a separate being.

  • Pride: See happiness, add swelling sensation in chest.
  • Guilt: lump in throat, pain in chest, queasy stomach, twist in gut, etc.
  • Shame: heat in face and/or all over, heaviness, shrinking or pulling body in on itself feeling (as in wanting to hide), etc.

Guilt and shame, while related, are not the same. Guilt is about our behavior while shame is about our being. We feel guilty for what we have done; we feel ashamed of ourselves (for more on this, see my past posts on guilt and shame).

Emotional Twists and Turns (i.e., Emotions Aren’t Logical)

People can get guilt and shame twisted up together in their psyches and feel ashamed because they make a mistake (especially if they had fairly dysfunctional childhoods). This can be a useful dynamic when developing a character with poor self-esteem.

Also guilt sometimes morphs into misdirected anger. A man cheats on his wife, gets caught, and is initially remorseful. But then he becomes angry if she doesn’t forgive him right away.  He’s subconsciously mad at her for “making” him feel guilty. Or he doesn’t get caught but his guilt turns to anger on a subconscious level and he picks fights with his wife, maybe even projects his guilt onto her and accuses her of infidelity.

Ever wonder why some women are attracted to bad boys, no matter how much they bemoan the way these men treat them? Another way emotions can get twisted together in women from abusive backgrounds is confusion between fear and love on a subconscious level, or even fear and sexual excitement. The parents they loved, and who were supposed to love them, were scary. So they meet the bad boy, feel fear (a realistic reaction) but then misinterpret the fear as attraction and/or love.

Jealousy is a common motivation in characters. It’s a combination of fear and anger. The person is afraid of losing someone they love to another, and they are angry at the person they perceive as a threat. How dare this woman try to take my man? The tricky part is keeping it straight which emotion one feels toward whom. The jealous person may aim the anger at the wrong party (i.e., their loved one) and end up bringing about the very thing they fear, the loss of that relationship.

Good Grief! (i.e., How to Write Grief “Right”)

As an avid reader of mysteries, it really bugs me when an author glosses over the grief of those close to the murder victim. Grief is hard to portray realistically, and it can potentially debilitate a character. But when a character sets out to solve or avenge a father’s/sister’s/lover’s/child’s murder, damn it, they’re gonna have some grief to deal with along the way.

Grief is the most complicated and illogical emotion of them all (and they’re all illogical). It’s a mixture of pain, anger, bargaining, and guilt. If someone or something can be blamed for the loss, the grieving person will go there, at least initially. Often they will be angry with the person who died (told ya it’s illogical), although they probably won’t acknowledge this anger consciously. They feel abandoned and/or are mad about something the dead person did that they feel led to their death.

In book one of my series, the protagonist’s first husband is killed while doing a favor for her. The night after his funeral, she rages, “Why did he have to be so damned nice?” Of course, she immediately feels guilty for being angry at him for being a nice guy.

Survivor guilt is also common. The person becomes convinced that if they had done something differently, the death would have been prevented. This is a belated attempt to reclaim a sense of control over a situation that they couldn’t control. Because helplessness is the emotion humans hate the most!

Grief can lead to various pursuits of justice and/or vengeance that may or may not be rational. This makes for some interesting plot points. BUT (back to my pet peeve) the person would not be able to completely sublimate their grief with these pursuits. They should still periodically feel a surge of guilt, anger at the dead person, anger at themselves, or just plain sadness.

Grief brings us to the subject of…

When Is Deep Point of View Too Deep?

Readers want to be entertained by realistic stories about characters they can relate to. They do not want to be overwhelmed by the characters’ emotions. So there are times, for this reason and also for pacing purposes, when toning down the emotion is called for.

I have discovered several ways to do this:

Limit the Number of Visceral Sensations:

Two usually does the trick, especially if you also have some internal dialogue. I once read a story—that was otherwise well written—in which the heroine’s grief for her lost lover was expressed in a long paragraph that contained every grief-related visceral sensation known to humankind. Instead of feeling immersed in the character, I found myself pulling back, thinking, “That’s a little over the top.”

It really wasn’t. A grieving person might very well feel all of those things. But it’s too much emotion for the reader’s comfort level, and it broke the tension in the story.

Replace One of the Visceral Sensations with an Action Beat:

This is a great place to add a little touch of individualization. Is this a character who would be irritated with her grief, or would she succumb to it? Have her swipe her wet cheeks with the back of her hand, or throw herself across her bed.

When this guy is angry, is he the yell-and-pound-the-table type, or would he narrow his eyes? This shows the reader the emotion without immersing them in it quite so much.

Use a Different Point of View (POV):

Of course this only works if you write in multiple POV. When writing a scene in which a character has a strong emotional reaction, sometimes (not always though) it is better to show that scene through the eyes of a different character.

I often do this with both grief and intense anger, especially if wallowing in the emotions would slow down the pace too much. The emotion can be quite powerful when seen through the eyes of a close friend or lover, and yet it is not as overwhelming.

The Deft Stroke:

This is often the best approach when pacing is the major issue. One short description of a visceral sensation and then move on.

In one scene in my new thriller, the protagonist’s husband is in a dangerous situation when he receives a text message from his wife referring to another character as his girlfriend. Realizing this is not the time or place to deal with “a wife in a jealous snit,” he sends her a one-word answer and gets on with the action of the scene. (And of course pays for that terse answer in a later scene.)

My brother (my guy-stuff consultant) pointed out that the character would be angry at the accusation, even though he chooses to push it aside for now. Well crap! How do I have this guy get angry and deal with his anger, all in an instant before the tension in the scene dissipates. After mulling it over, I hit on the deft stroke.

“His jaw clenched.”

This is that character’s main way of exhibiting anger, so that three-word sentence is more than enough to show his emotion.

A quick action beat and/or short line of internal dialogue works well too.

“Her head jerked up.”

“I’m just ducky, *sshole.”

Obviously, this is a quick overview of how to write about emotions. So by all means, ask me questions in the comments.

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Kassandra LambWriting and psychology have always vied for number one on Kassandra Lamb’s Greatest Passions list. In her youth, she had to make a decision between writing and paying the bills. Partial to electricity and food, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her. She and her husband also spend part of each summer in her native Maryland, where the Kate Huntington mysteries are set.

Find Kass on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for updates on Kate’s World at Kass’s website, and check out her posts on psychological topics and other random things at the misterio press site.

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Fatal 48 Book cover

Celebration turns to nightmare when psychotherapist Kate Huntington’s guest of honor disappears en route to her own retirement party. Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, has been kidnapped by a serial killer who holds his victims exactly forty-eight hours before killing them.

With time ticking away, the police allow Kate and her P.I. husband to help with the investigation. The FBI agents involved in the case have mixed reactions to the “civilian consultants.” The senior agent welcomes Kate’s assistance as he fine-tunes his psychological profile. His voluptuous, young partner is more by the book. She locks horns out in the field with Kate’s husband, while back at headquarters, misunderstandings abound. But they can ill afford these distractions, since Sally’s time is about to expire.

FATAL FORTY-EIGHT is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo.

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Thank you, Kassandra! I find this fascinating (psychology and brain stuff are two of my nerd hobbies *smile*). I’ve always believed an understanding of this topic helps writers, so I’m grateful to you for sharing this post.

We’ve mentioned here on my blog about how visceral reactions (throat clenching, heart pounding, etc.) work in small doses, but we can easily overdo it (to the point where it hurts the pacing). So it’s good to get “permission” from a psychologist to find a happy medium between realism and writing craft. *smile*

As we’ve also talked about how those visceral reactions overlap from one emotion to another, I loved hearing about why that overlap exists. As Kassandra alluded to, that’s why we need to ensure our meaning is clear with more specific visceral reactions or by layering in other emotional cues (body language, dialogue, etc.).

Many of us also struggle with how to handle intense emotions, such as grief, so I appreciated Kassandra’s tips on our options. She mentioned some great approaches that I hadn’t thought of before, so now I have more tools to add to my writing toolbox. Hopefully, you all found something helpful in my nerdy selection of a guest post too. *smile*

Do you think understanding the psychology helps us write more realistic emotions? When emotions haven’t felt realistic in stories you’ve read, what felt “off” about them? Do you have any other tips for how to write emotions realistically? What emotions do you have the most trouble portraying? Kassandra will be checking the comments, so now’s your chance to ask for help!

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Multicolored stick figures holding hands with text: Creating Unique Characters through Research

Several months ago, I posted about how we shouldn’t be afraid of writing diverse characters, even if we don’t have first-hand knowledge of their experiences. My belief isn’t about quotas or forcing stories to take on an issue. Rather, my take is that diversity exists in real life, so it’s lazy to not include diversity in our stories.

However, because of the fear of “getting it wrong,” we might hesitate to write characters with diverse orientations, cultures, nationalities, or abilities. Yet as we discussed earlier this week, we often write about settings or jobs or situations we haven’t experienced, and it’s simply part of our job as a writer to do our research to make our story and characters believable. So how can we reach the point where we’re comfortable with our research for diversity aspects?

The first step is to listen to our characters and not make assumptions about them conforming to the “default.” Sticking with a “default” character is a cliché-like writing tic, and clichés and writing tics aren’t good in general. Instead, we want to treat each character as a three-dimensional individual.

The second step is to learn enough about the diverse aspect to determine if and how various experiences might affect our specific character. In other words, the diverse aspect shouldn’t be the only thing defining who our character is. There’s no monolithic xyz experience for any type of character, whether white, black, Asian, gay, or paraplegic. Just because a character is xyz doesn’t mean they have to be a certain way. That’s resorting to a stereotype.

Today’s post is about how we can do that research to learn more about experiences for which we don’t have first-hand knowledge. The other week, I tweeted a link to a fantastic blog with writing resources for racial and ethnic diversity. (Check out their Navigation page for links to posts about each category, trope, stereotype, etc.) And I just discovered Diversity Cross-Check earlier this week (with their tag categories to connect with other first-hand resources).

And today, I’m excited to introduce Melinda Primrose here on my blog to discuss writing characters with a disability. She’s going to give us the inside scoop into how to research for authentic characters. Please welcome Melinda Primrose! *smile*

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How to Write a Character with a Disability

Thanks, Jami, for letting me stop by today. How many of you have read a book with a disabled character and thought the way the writer portrayed the character must be correct? It’s ok to raise your hand. I used to believe the same thing, until I became disabled myself.

I’ve been legally blind for almost 10 years now. I’ve come to realize that most authors just use tropes when it comes to disabled characters. But you don’t have to be one of those authors! Let me show you how to write an authentic disabled character.

Step 1: Why is your character disabled?

I want you to really think about this. Why is this character disabled? Does this character need to be disabled to fulfill his/her usefulness in the plot? Is your character disabled just to fill a trope?

Not sure about tropes? A great list of disability tropes can be found on TV Tropes.

Look around. See how others have used the trope and subverted it. (Be warned! Heading to TV Tropes can lead down a rabbit hole that’s hard to get out of.) And, of course, what you do from here will depend on your own personal tastes and story needs.

Step 2: Research the Basics

This is super important! Do your research! Knowing the effects of any given disability will help clear up character choices.

For example, I would find it very hard to believe a blind character being a world-renowned photographer. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but the author would have to give a lot of explanation as to how the character is able to accomplish this.

Researching anything can be difficult without the right tools. When thinking about disabilities, WebMD and Google will get you a good start:

  • WebMD: Web MD will provide the basic background for the disability, including symptoms, causes and treatments. This can help show what the character’s daily life may be like. For example, would someone with this disability be on medications or have to go to the doctor/hospital for treatments?
  • Google Search for Organizations: There are also many organizations that are dedicated to disabilities. Googling the disability can point you toward these organizations. For blindness, I know of two major organizations, American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind. Studying these organizations can show you what assistance is available for a disabled character.

Step 3: Get Personal with Research for First-Hand Accounts

The hardest part of research is talking with someone who has the same disability as your character. If you know someone in real life with the disability in real life, approaching them first would be my best advice.

Don’t know anyone with that specific disability? That’s ok. There are several ways to find people with disabilities on the internet. Thanks to the internet, we can get to know people from all over the world!

  • Google Search for Forums: First, let’s go back to our friend Google. Googling any disability plus the word “forum” can point you to a place where people with that disability congregate.
  • Ask Reddit: If you have a very specific question, like “how would having a fake eye affect someone’s ability to go camping,” another great option is Ask Reddit, or, if you’re on a mobile device or use a screen reader, you can find an Ask Reddit for Mobile version here.

I may be late to the Reddit party, but it’s such a wealth of information. Another way to find how someone reacts to life with a disability would be the Reddit AMA’s. An AMA is short for “I am a” and is a place where people share their story and answer questions from the community.

There is a search box on Reddit, so use it to find what you need. There will be a lot of unrelated stuff to sift through, but the good stuff you will find can be extremely valuable.

(Super huge warning!!! If TV Tropes is a rabbit hole to get lost down, Reddit is a journey to the center of the Earth! It is very easy to get lost in reading Reddit that you forget why you’re there in the first place. Make sure you have a plan of action to get yourself out of Reddit’s grasp!)

Advice and Disclaimers for Researching First-Hand Accounts

In addition to the general rules of net etiquette, there are a few things to remember that will help you get the most out of your experience with someone with a disability.

  • A disability affects everyone differently.
    That question about a fake eye and camping is a real one I’ve come across. I have gone camping with my fake eye and had no problems, while others who have answered that question had major problems and wouldn’t advise doing it.
    Neither answer is an absolute. What is right for me isn’t always right for someone else. If you get different answers from different people, that’s just life.
  • Not everyone with a disability is open with strangers about their disability.
    I don’t have any problems answering questions about my disability or what caused it. My view is that I’d rather answer questions and inform people so they don’t live with the stereotypes.
    Not everyone has the same attitude I do. If someone doesn’t answer your questions, just move on and understand it’s not always personal.

If you have any questions about blindness, you can find some information on my blog. I’ll be happy to help if I can.

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Melinda Primrose is a legally blind author, mother and Pittsburgh Steelers fan, though not always in that order. You can find her at her website, where she blogs about life with blindness, among other things. She gets frustrated when she sees a person who is blind portrayed erroneously in literature, so she answers any author’s questions about blindness to help combat this.

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Melinda Primrose's blog banner

Melinda Primrose and her blog are a treasure of information for writers interested in learning more about what it means for a character if they’re blind. Her growing blog already has detailed posts about the basics of blindness for authors, the intricacies of walking while blind, and the reading options available to those who are blind.

In addition, she’s happy to take questions from authors through her blog or Twitter!

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Thank you, Melinda! This is great advice for researching many character-related elements, not just disabilities. I’d never thought about forums or Reddit for information (and like I mentioned above, I just recently discovered the great Writing with Color and Diversity Cross-Check resources), so there are more researching options than ever before. *smile*

As Melinda said, our first step should be figuring out how our character fits into the story. This step helps us avoid clichés and tropes for any diverse aspect.

For example, with few exceptions, a character’s diverse aspect shouldn’t be treated as a character flaw because character flaws are personality aspects that a character can “fix.” A clichéd trope is to have a character “overcome” their disability the same way they’d overcome being, say, selfish, but for most stories, disabilities (or other diverse aspects) would be character traits similar to eye color, not flaws to overcome.

Like Tracy’s advice on Tuesday to complete premise-level research first, Melinda’s tip to research the basics online will help us prevent issues with stereotypes and believability. That step of learning what we can on our own comes with additional bonuses too.

It can be scary enough to approach people in real-life for any kind of research (at least for introverts like me), but it’s especially hard if we’re worried about offending someone with our questions. Learning the basics first through the power of Google will also help us approach potential first-hand account sources with respect. In other words, these steps can help us ask more intelligent and non-offensive questions, no matter the type of diversity we have in our story.

But above all, remember Melinda’s final piece of advice about how a disability (or other diverse aspect) will affect everyone differently. We need to be true to our characters because their experiences will be unique, and hopefully these tips will help us write realistic and three-dimensional characters who will capture our readers’ imaginations. *smile*

Have concerns about “getting things wrong” held you back from writing diverse characters? Did this post help you know how to overcome those worries? If you’ve written characters with diverse aspects, do you have other tips for how to research and/or write characters beyond our experiences? Have you written a character with a disability? If you’ve hit walls in trying to research a disability, leave the details in the comments and Melinda will see what she can do to point you in a helpful direction!

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6 Steps to Researching a Story — Guest: Tracy L. Ward

November 11, 2014 Writing Stuff
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No matter what genre we write, we’re likely to have to research something. If our stories take place within the real world, we might have to research events, settings, or diseases. If our stories take place outside the real world, we might have to research theories, ideas, or concepts. In other words, today’s post about how to research for writing projects will be relevant to most of us.

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The Pros and Cons of Switching Genres — Guest: Summerita Rhayne

November 6, 2014 Writing Stuff
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We often choose which story to focus on by writing the idea that pesters us the most. That “squeaky wheel” path might lead us to hop genres without meaning to, and our brand is often tied to our genre. So should we ignore that idea? Learn some of the pros and cons we should keep in mind if we consider following our muse’s lead.

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Do You Have a “Must Read” List of Blogs?

November 4, 2014 Random Musings
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As writers, most of us are insanely busy. *raises hand* And it can be difficult to find time to dedicate to writing. So I’m picky about the number and quality of blogs on my “must read” list. They have to earn their spot—and keep earning their spot. So why would I turn over control of my blog to others for most of a month?

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7 Tips for Staying Safe on Twitter — Guest: Marcy Kennedy

October 30, 2014 Random Musings
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Today Marcy Kennedy shares tips to stay safe on Twitter, but many of these tips will apply to staying safe online—period. Not just for Twitter. And read on for my bonus tips of how we can implement her ideas across our online life.

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Ask Jami: How Do We Describe Characters?

October 28, 2014 Writing Stuff
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How we describe characters often depends on our story’s genre and what impression we want readers to have. When we’ve talked about descriptions here before, we focused on how it’s important to describe our settings enough to anchor our readers. Do we have to describe our characters to the same extent?

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