Why Every Story Needs Its Own Pit of Snakes

1. Snakes

How to Make Your Character’s Lowest Moment Truly Nerve Wracking

Every story should have a tragedy. Even stories with happy endings need at least one.

Disney’s animated classic Cinderella has three. The first two tragedies happen during the opening narration. Cinderella’s mother dies. Her father marries the wicked step mother and dies shortly after. Cinderella is forced into a life of servitude. The third tragedy happens when Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart. That tragedy seems inconsequential compared to everything Cinderella has been through, but we’ll see why of all these events the destruction of the dress is the most important one.

The death of Cinderella’s parents make us sympathetic to her plight. Its a life altering event sure to rock anyone’s foundation. So why is it so much more tragic when the wicked stepsisters tear up her dress? After all it’s a garment, meant to be worn once, while Cinderella’s parents were her entire support system.

We don’t spend much time with Cinderella’s parents in the opening scene. Her mother has no screen time and her father has no dialogue. We’re told he was a good man, but we’re not given much to mourn. It’s Cinderella’s newfound circumstances that are given weight.

The shredding of Cinderella’s gown breaks our hearts because we see all the hope that goes into it.

Cinderella struggles to sew her dress between chores. Then her mice friends decide she deserves something nice for a change. They run through the walls on covert missions to gather materials. They cut the fabric, even though the scissors are a two mouse operation. Why even the birds help measure the hemline.

When Cinderella sees the dress her dream finally comes true. She’s awash with gratitude. It’s her starry eyed anticipation of the night’s events that makes her stepsister’s assault so gut wrenching.

This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to Cinderella, but it’s the worst thing we’ve witnessed. It’s this low moment that makes the eventual ‘Happily Ever After’ feel earned.

I’ve written a lot about the virtues of introducing characters in humbling situations, but I want to talk about the importance of those tragedies that happen later on.

Why Every Hero Needs to Be Tossed into A Pit of Snakes

It’s when our backs are up against the wall that we’re forced to get clever. It’s when the chips are down that we realize how good of gambler we really are. It’s when the going gets tough that the tough put on a mech suit and blow the alien queen out the airlock.

Every story needs one of these moments at the end of the second act. When the only thing the hero has left is the lesson their journey has taught them. When they realize the goal that set their quest into motion isn’t what they really want. When they reach the tipping point of a major life change.

The greater the hero’s fall the more meaningful their rise will be.

Ra’s al Ghul needs to burn down Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne’s last connection to his parents, for Bruce to find the resolve he needs for their final confrontation. Kirk needs to be marooned on an ice planet before he can earn the respect of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. 99.9% of the cast of Game of Thrones needs to die brutal agonizing deaths before Daenerys Targaryen can fry the white walkers with her dragons (that’s not a spoiler, it’s an educated guess).

Do an inventory of every film you’ve ever seen and you’ll find the greater the second act tragedy the more rewarding the victory. This is why Joss Whedon is so notorious for killing beloved characters. The second act demands sacrifices.

2. Snake

Why Raiders of the Lost Ark is a Master Class in Plot Structure

(SPOILERS for the Indiana Jones series)

Indiana Jones spends most of Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to find the Ark of the Covenant. When he finally does it’s taken by the Nazis. To make matters worse they leave him in a pit of snakes. Indy hates snakes.

The Nazis dump Marion Ravenwood into the same pit before sealing it shut. This is Indy’s lowest possible moment, but it’s also where he realizes that the thing he’s wanted all along was a human connection. His goal changes and he evolves in time for the climactic confrontation.

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Indy finds three of the Sankara stones that promise fortune and glory to whoever possesses them. When Indy’s in a pinch he utters an incantation that superheats the rocks. Two of them fall into the river while one burns Indy’s pursuer. Indy reacquires this stone, but returns it to its rightful owners.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to choose between staying to acquire the cup of Christ or leaving the temple with his father. In the end Indy always chooses his human connections over material MacGuffins.

One of the problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that the titular hero suffers so few losses. He’s never pushed to his breaking point, he rebounds too fast, and he’s never forced to make a choice. His goal stays the same the entire time. Sure, reconnecting with Marion Ravenwood and learning Mutt is his son distracts him, but he’s never forced to choose between his family and the adventure he’s on. They’re along for the ride. In the end the film feels like it has no stakes.

(END SPOILERS)

Hit Your Audience in the Feels Before Going for the Smiles

I’m a fan of hard won happy endings: those stories with all of the foreshadowing of tragedies that somehow end in victory. I’m also a fan of the reverse: those stories where the heroes victory seems like a forgone conclusion until everything ends in ruin.

I like twists that take risks, but they’re not always palatable for general audiences. Audiences tend to be more forgiving of tonal shifts when they happen before the third act.

(SPOILERS for The Dark Knight below)

Batman catches the Joker two thirds of the way into The Dark Knight. It’s a hard won victory that took last minute heroics on the part of Batman and scheming on behalf of Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon. Their victory is short lived when the mob kills the love of Bruce Wayne’s life and gravely injures his greatest ally. Meanwhile the Joker reduces Gotham Central to ruins, eliminates Batman’s leverage over the mob, and escapes.

It’s this series of terrible losses that makes Batman’s plight so compelling.

(END SPOILERS)

Writers should ask themselves what’s the worst possible thing that can happen to my hero? Now how close can I get to that without emotionally exhausting my audience? There is such a thing as too much dread, just remember to balance it out will a little hope. Cinderella didn’t have to sulk too long before her Fairy Godmother showed up.

Hit your characters as hard as you can without betraying the tone of your story. Have some awareness of genre expectations. If you’re writing a children’s book your hero can get swallowed up by a wolf provided we know they’re alive the entire time. If you’re writing a horror story the wolf can devour your hero’s limbs one at a time. If you’re writing a romantic comedy your character can suffer a forgivable betrayal. Perhaps they discover they’ve been dating a wolf the entire time.

Where I Use Plot Structure to Predict How Game of Thrones Ends

I believe Game of Thrones is so consistently shocking because George R.R. Martin has no intention of ending his saga on a note of futility and pain. He’s going for a bittersweet ending, that will be heavy on the casualties, but will ultimately leave the kingdom of Westeros in better shape then he’d conceived it.

If I had to guess, each of the players vying for the iron throne will realize the kingdom needs generals to protect it from the white walkers more than it needs a ceremonial monarch. Either the victor of this war ends up as the ruler of Westeros or the title goes to their second in command. What matters is that Daenerys owns everyone with her dragons.

How to Make Sure Your Mystery is Satisfying

1. Shadow Glass

How the Lost School of Storytelling Blurred the Line Between Intriguing and Confusing

I love writing mysteries with vast casts, layered subplots, and dozens of twists. My favorite mysteries contain elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. They’re the everything and the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. The TV show Lost inspired much of my love, and apprehension, for this facet of the mystery genre.

Lost has taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when writing mysteries. It featured emotionally involving character arcs with themes like regret, the wages of sin, and crisises of faith. It set up intriguing plot lines about psychological manipulation, international conspiracies, and time travel. Lost successfully followed through on its character arcs, but fell short of bringing its plot lines to completion.

In the end Lost had little to do with psychological experiments, quantum physics, or philosophy. It was really just Stephen King’s The Stand on an Island. Candidates endorsed by a Christ figure, Jacob, had to defeat others endorsed by a Satanic stand in, the man in black.

For those of us who wanted the Sci Fi elements to factor into the big reveals we were sorely disappointed, especially when the production ended in a church.

The Island’s unique electro magnetic properties, its ability to travel through time, and the motive behind the Dharma Initiative’s experiments were never explained. We were left to tie those dangling plot threads off on our own. The show runners were more interested in pairing off the characters for an afterlife of monogamous bliss.

I remain a Lost apologist, but I don’t believe a compelling journey excuses a disappointing destination. If the destination rewarded us for paying attention the mysteries throughout the journey would feel like they meant something, not just tricks to string us along. This is why I understand people who came away from Lost with viewers’ remorse.

If you’re interested in writing a complex mystery, like Lost, here are some tips to make sure both the journey and its end are rewarding.

Answer Some of Your Mysteries Early On

If your question to answer ratio is skewed towards too many questions readers will start to wonder if you bothered coming up with any answers.

If you foreshadow an event in the first chapter and it happens before the end of act one you build trust with your audience. When these hints payoff early you train your readers to look for more of them.

It’s like the first screen of Super Mario Bros. World 1 stage 1. The screen tells you everything you need to know about the game. You learn that there are mushroom creatures that can kill you. You can flatten them by stomping on their heads. You can hit random bricks to collect coins or power ups. The screen is designed to teach you the right way to play.

If page one of your mystery sets up a reveal that happens by the end of that chapter your readers will search for more to come. They’ll trust you know what you’re doing. One of the most unsatisfying things about getting invested in a mystery is being half way through the book and having no idea if you enjoy what you’re reading. The audience’s opinion shouldn’t depending on an epic ending.

2. Ah-Ha

Make Sure Your Philosophical References Benefit Your Theme

People want to be enlightened while they’re entertained, so long as the philosophy writers pepper in has an impact on the proceedings.

If you’re writing a story where reality is not what it seems you’d do well to reference Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This is a parable about two slaves born into bondage. The slaves spend their lives facing a cavern wall watching the shadows of the miners working there. They believe these dancing silhouettes are the inhabitants of the world. If you’re writing a story about clones separated at birth that allegory doesn’t fit. It will only confuse readers into searching for meaning where there is none.

I once used the ethical question of the trolly dilemma in a story where it didn’t fit. In the trolly dilemma a trolly is careening down a hill. A madman has tied five people to the track. You have the power to switch the track. The only problem is the trolly will hit an innocent bystander if you do. Is it morally right to willfully sacrifice one life to save five others, or is taking action wrong?

This conflict between rational and emotional thinking had nothing to do with my story’s broader themes. My story was about how we can conquer our fears by embracing our imagination. I’d just read about the trolly dilemma and thought it’s inclusion in my story would make my mysteries seem more important. The dilemma was the wrong fit for my theme.

Deep references don’t belong if you’re only using them as intellectual window dressing.

Spirituality Doesn’t Automatically Make Your Mystery More Intriguing

I’ve noticed a trend in mystery thrillers, like Lost, to evoke spiritual themes to give themselves an ominous flavor. The same rules apply here. If you quote a bible story as a metaphor for what’s happening to your characters it must factor into your broader themes. If you reference the book of Job one of your characters better go through a crisis of faith.

Spiritual themes need to pay off. Audience members of faith don’t like to see their beliefs used as esoteric gibberish to make stories seem more mysterious. Audience members without faith need to see spiritual concepts play out in tangible ways. Lost blurred this line by using religious references as metaphors for moral dilemmas that applied to everyone.

Still, Lost was at its best when the concepts of science and faith were part of a narrative debate. When the show revealed that it was coming down on the side of faith in the final season, a chunk of the audience felt shortchanged.

3. Big Eye

Why Wouldn’t Your Characters Share What They’ve Learned?

Conflict is the heart of drama. Goals are the heart of conflict. If two characters’ goals are the same then conflict arises from poor communication. Back when I was watching Lost my friends would always yell at the screen, “Just tell him what you saw already!”

So many of Lost’s filler episodes would’ve been unnecessary if the characters had pooled their knowledge of the island’s mysteries. The show-runner’s justified the characters’ tight lips in a number of ways some more effective than others.

When the Others, the cult-like natives of the island, kidnapped Michael’s son, Michael had good cause not to share what he knew with his fellow castaways. Leverage is a good reason for characters to stay mum.

If your hero fears rejection they might not share information they learned while researching the person they have a crush on. If there are incriminating photos of your hero they’re not going to feel compelled to tell their pals they’re being blackmailed. If your hero is afraid people will think they’re crazy they’ll be less inclined to share their dead father’s prophecy.

One of the tricks the show-runners of Lost used to keep miscommunication going was a sense of urgency. There was never any time to explain, even though slowing down to do so would save everyone in the long run. This got aggravating, because most of the time characters were trekking across an island. Even if there was an urgent matter the characters had nothing but time to explain on the way to their destination.

If your heroes are always in too much of a hurry to share what they’ve learned you’re using urgency too often.

Closing Thoughts

Long form mysteries demand more structure than other genres. For writers, like myself, who enjoy discovering the story as we go, we need to have a good memory for the questions we’ve raised. A mystery is a check we are writing to the audience. We should let them know that our credit is good by cashing a few checks early on.

A lack of communication between characters shouldn’t be the only thing keeping our long form mysteries going.

A clear theme can keep the audience invested when they’re not entirely sure what they’re reading. Our philosophical, psychological, and spiritual references should support that theme.

As I mentioned, I am a Lost apologist. I own all six seasons and part of me still thinks show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hung the moon. My fantasy version of Lost’s ending has our heroes facing the bright light in the sky from the inside of an airplane, not a church. Still for all its narrative sins Lost’s imitators commit so many more. Lost was able to sustain an even tone and a level of intrigue until the very end. I found the character endings satisfying even if the plot fell short of my expectations.

If you can’t tie up each of your dangling plot threads at least make sure that your characters’ aren’t left hanging.

A Storyteller’s Guide to Public Speaking

1. Say it Loud

I used to have a nervous tick that manifested whenever I spoke in public. My leg shook like a cartoon bunny. The severity of the tick increased the worse I thought I was doing. If my audience folded their arms, checked their watches, or rolled their eyes my brain sent a message to my thigh, “It’s rattling time!” The worst was when the momentum rode up my spine all the way to my neckline. I turned into a chatter-mouthed bobblehead. My words came out in a pulsing vibrato like I was talking into a desk fan.

I went into rabbit mode when I read an essay in class and mispronounced one of my fifty-cent buzz words. It happened when I pitched a script and the producers rolled their eyes toward each other, and when I gave technology tutorials and my coworkers interrupted to ask questions about what I’d just covered.

I hid behind Power Point presentations so thick with content they could stop bullets. I let my slides speak for me, but the moment the projector went on the fritz there went my leg, dancing on its own.

I broke the habit with a trick that had nothing to do with imagining my audience naked. I applied my gift for stories to composing speeches. It turned out plot structure was just what I needed to weigh down my restless leg.

Make Your Speech Easy For the Audience to Remember

You’ve probably heard the expression: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.” Repetition is great when you’re teaching someone how to navigate the mosaic of menu items in a complex application. When you’re relaying technical information you should repeat yourself several times, but if you’re making a persuasive argument you should do something different.

It’s better to clarify your point by restating it then to repeat it until it sticks.

A good way to do this is to introduce your agenda with a story. Narratives are easier to recall than bullet points repeated ad nauseum. We’ve all seen so many movies our brains are hardwired to remember things in three act structures.

In movies: the first act sets our hero on their quest, the second introduces hardships that force them to evolve, and the third has them approach their problem as a new person. The best films have us identifying so much with the hero that we feel like we’re changing with them. If you’re making a persuasive argument take your audience through the hero’s journey.

Get them personally invested in you, or a sympathetic subject, so they can identify with your goal. Tell them about what’s stood in the way of your goal and how it forced you to grow. Show them how that new knowledge helped you get through your lowest possible moment. If your audience is invested in your plight, they’ll share the same goal by the end of your speech.

So how do you get your audience to get invested in you?

Use Humbling Experiences to Make Speeches More Relatable

Filmgoers identify with characters who are introduced in moments of vulnerability. There’s something sympathetic about someone who’s grasping for an engagement ring that’s fallen through a sewer vent, or someone who double fists a pink slip and an eviction notice at once. Use your embarrassment.

Earn your audience’s emotional investment by recounting a personal failure rather than a triumph. If you want your audience to take your advice show them how your methods had to change over time. Let them know now what you wished you knew then. Spare them the pain of going down the same road, because you’ve already found the dead end.

If you’re addressing people who are interested in starting their own business talk about how disposable you felt working for someone else. If you’re addressing filmmakers thinking of crowdfunding their next project talk about how desperate you felt trying to break into the studio system. If you’re addressing people who want to drive traffic to their blogs confess your social media sins.

This account of your failings should be genuine, none of that Tony Robbins washing his dishes in the bathtub nonsense. Give your audience something real. Remember you’re only oversharing if the tragic part comes at the very end. If you tell the audience how you managed to pull yourself out of a tailspin you’ll seem brave to admit you were ever falling.

I use this technique all over this blog (I opened this article with an example). My journey as a writer has left me with a surplus of embarrassing learning experiences. I feel no shame in marching them out to support the lessons I’ve learned.

2. Blow Your Top

Yes, You Can Give A Speech Without Slides

I love me some good visual aids. I’m always looking for an opportunity to flex my Photoshop muscles, to spoof stock photos with my own likeness, and to make my titles look like movie logos, but I know better than to let my designs speak for me.

Too many corporate lecturers talk to their computers, reciting their slides in a drawl monotone. You’re better off sacrificing some of your armor to remind the audience that you’re there. The less you reference your materials the greater your connection with the people in front of you will be.

Try using a Memory Palace to remember your speech. You can do this by breaking it down into a handful of points. Since most people can store 7 items in their short term memory 7 is a good number to start with.

Now come up with big awkward images to remind you of these 7 points. If your introduction involves recalling a time you got fired imagine yourself set aflame. If your argument is that student debt is leaving people with empty pockets imagine someone with inverted pockets dragging on the ground. If your closing argument is that corporate jargon is lowering our reading comprehension imagine a book of forbidden knowledge with a question mark etched into it.

Now take a space you’re familiar with, like your home, and fill each room with these awkward images. Walk through this memory palace over and over again, using your awkward images to trigger your talking points.

Contrary to what you’ve seen on TV Memory Palaces do not give people photographic memory. You’ll still have to practice your speech, but this visualization technique will help structure your preparations.

Ask the Right Questions

When you ask your audience to participate do it in a meaningful way. Don’t use the Socratic method to try to milk each answer from them.

This is how one corporate speaker asked my coworkers to be polite. He set a giant pad on an easel, pulled out a marker, and said. “Now who can tell me some ways that you can be respectful of the speaker?”

He waited until members of the audience, people in their 20s through 60s, raised their hands like grade schoolers.

“Turn off your cellphones?”

The speaker drew a bullet point for CELLPHONES. “That’s a good one.”

“Don’t talk while the speaker is talking?”

The speaker drew another dash. “Don’t Interrupt. Very important.”

“Wait until you’re called upon to ask questions?”

“Wow, this is a smart group.”

This was a corporate function. The speaker’s information was supposed to improve the way employees carried on, but instead of telling us what to do he quizzed us. The speaker kept asking questions to get us to come to his conclusions, but never confirmed which of our answers were the right ones.

This technique is supposed to keep the audience engaged. it does if you save it for ah-ha moments where the listeners are meant to have revelations, but if you use it to tell people to turn off their phones you’re patronizing them.

If you choose to use subtext you need to foreshadow that your speech is going to have a twist. Drop hints like, “This story doesn’t play out the way you might think.” or “The story seems weird now, but just you wait.”

Knowing a twist is coming gives the audience a reason to pay attention. Bring them to the climax and then ask if they can guess what happens next.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re one of those people who suffers from restless leg syndrome whenever you get up to speak in front of anyone try structuring your speech like a story. Restate your message without repeating it word for word. Humble yourself to make your audience sympathetic. Break it down to 7 plot points, place them in your memory palace, and walk through it until each one is as easy to recall as any object in your home. Don’t hide behind the projection screen. Foreshadow twists to engage your audience and save your questions for ah-ha moments.

A Question About Diversity in Fiction

Many MesThe Pros and Cons of Concealing Certain Character Traits

There are good reasons to avoid identifying a character’s ethnicity, exact age, and body type in your writing, especially when these traits aren’t crucial to understanding their actions. By revealing these specifics you limit the casting options in your readers’ heads. You make it harder for some members of the audience to see themselves in the role. If you leave these elements ambiguous your lead could be anyone your readers want.

At the time of this writing there’s stubble on my face. If I’m reading a story with a male lead I’m likely to imagine him with stubble too, until the author tells me he’s clean shaving. I’m six foot four, I have dirty blond hair, and greying sideburns as is every male lead of the books I read, until the author tells me otherwise.

I’m never heartbroken when one of these character traits is different from my own, but I usually see myself as the star from page one. I doubt I’m alone in my narcissism.

… But, what happens when a screenwriter decides not to specify a character’s ethnicity, age, or body type? That character usually ends up cast with a white actor, in their twenties, with a perfectly sculpted body. That’s the default setting in Hollywood. If a screenwriter wants to see diversity on screen they have to put it on the page.

When should an author cast their characters on behalf of their readers? The obvious answer is when it’s crucial to the story.

If the nationality of a character is important you should include it. If the story takes place in a backdrop where prejudice is prevalent then highlight the conflict. If the point of your story is to share an underrepresented perspective then the audience can find another way to see themselves in the character (as I’ll discuss later).

Why Writers Shouldn’t Fear Having A Diverse Cast of Characters

Full disclosure: I’m a white, cisgender, mostly heterosexual, male. I grew up in a suburb rubbing shoulders with clones of myself. I was the protagonist of countless stories set in the American midwest. I was one of the boys in Stephen King’s IT, biking all over town to solve the mystery of Pennywise the killer clown. I was one of the boys in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, hiding from Mr. Dark’s carnival cronies in the mirror maze of mystery, and that was me learning the true meaning of the Jack-O’-Lantern in The Halloween Tree.

Everywhere I looked I was the hero of something. I was Huck Finn, John Connor, and Bart Simpson. My face was thoroughly represented throughout fiction.

This never meant that an appreciation for these stories was only for a white boy like me. Readers see more than just their physical attributes in characters. They see their hardships, quirks, and shared desires. If a character is relatable their ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation might be the least significant things about them. Their quest might not have anything to do with these surface level features.

… But, if all that matters is that a character is sympathetic then why shouldn’t I write a story about little a black girl going on an adventure of her own? Should white writers require a narrative reason to cast black characters? What if this hero goes to school with a mixed cast where her race is never a conflict? What if my only reason for identifying this character’s ethnicity is that’s how I first imagined her?

We writers draw the most from our own backgrounds. We’re hesitant to represent other people’s experiences for fear we’ll get them wrong. I grew up in the midwest, but not as a black girl. Would it be wrong of me to write a story that highlights the differences in that experience? This is why so many coming of age films are viewed through the eyes of white male protagonists, because there’s a disproportionate amount of us writing for the silver screen.

There’d be nothing wrong if I wrote about my own boyhood adventures. I could leave it to other writers to tell stories about their own cultural experiences, while I stay inside the borders of what I know.

… But I feel like I’d be doing my own fiction a terrible disservice.

For the last Seventeen years I’ve been living in Minneapolis. The city is far more diverse than my hometown of White Bear Lake, a place so white it’s in the name. When I say that Minneapolis is diverse I’m not just using the word as a euphemism for varying skin tones. I mean there’s a diversity of religions, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds. We have the largest population of Hmong and Somali immigrants in the country. In 2011, The Advocate named us the most gay friendly city in the US (a 2015 annual survey ranked us as the most literate). Minneapolis is a mid-western melting pot.

When I leave the city I miss that diversity. The rest of the state isn’t as whitewashed as Chris Rock’s “There are no black people in Minnesota” routine might have you believe, but rural areas get a tad too monochromatic for my liking. Let’s just say a lot of people wear camouflage as a fashion statement, and the principle form of recreation in my hometown is yelling, “Faggot!” out car windows at pedestrians.

This is why I don’t want to whitewash my stories or populate them with cookie cutter Joe Everymen. My boyhood was a culturally narrow one. I don’t want to limit the children that populate my fiction to my own experience. Of course I can relate to my background, but it bores the shit out of me. What if I find a character’s dissociation from my upbringing more intriguing?

I agree with Spike Lee’s sentiment that, “Culture is for everyone.” Writers from all walks of life should be able to celebrate the cultural differences of their characters, even if that requires some real world research.

How Writing a Novel is a lot like a Relationship

Love of Writing

Last week I mentioned that I’d finished reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. Rather than be a creativity kleptomaniac, I’m citing Ansari’s book as the inspiration for this article.

In his book, Ansari talks about the strange thing that happens when someone we like makes themselves available to us. The moment we know this person is a possibility they go from being the one to an option. They lose their appeal. We let our text exchanges with them fizzle out. We’re suddenly too busy to set a concrete appointment. The thrill of discovery is gone. This reaction is especially true to emerging adults fresh on the dating scene, where the search for a soulmate is a numbers game.

Ansari says that between 2005-2012 one third of couples who got married met online. He says the people who were dissatisfied with online dating spent too much time looking at screens sifting through their options, mistaking introduction services for actually dating. The message Ansari keeps driving home is this:

“With so many romantic options, instead of trying to explore them all, make sure you properly invest in people and give them a fair chance before moving on to the next one.”

Replace the word “romantic” with “writing” and you’ll see where I’m going with this. If you’re serious about writing you’re going to need to start following through on your relationships with words long after the thrill of discovery is gone.

I’ve written about the urge to cheat on your novel, how a blog can try to seduce you away from it, and how it feels to break up with it, but I haven’t written about what it takes to make a relationship with a novel work: commitment. One of the biggest challenges early writers face is the allure of all their options.

How do Writers Choose the Right Muse?

Just as millennials are waiting longer to get married early writers are spending more time exploring their options. Just as the internet has given emerging adults a venue for casual hookups it’s given writers a place to test casual material. Just as emerging adults date before settling writers dabble in digital mediums before committing to putting their work in print.

Early writers flirt with stock photo writing prompts, sense-centric exercises, and flash fiction sprints. They have meaningless flings with fan fiction, slash fiction, and creepy pasta. They get polyamorous punching-up prose with multiple partners, groping at the groggiest of group activities, and chipping in on chain stories.

Just as young lovers leave their partners when things run their course early writers wrap their stories up when the romance is gone, even if that’s somewhere in the middle of act one.

Why do You Keep Writing When the Passion is Gone?

Passion is a fleeting thing. The spark fizzles out fast, whether it’s the spark of love or something creative.

Just as young lovers are hesitant to put rings on the things they like early writers are hesitant to invest in a 90,000 word undertaking. They have no idea where their manuscript is going, but it feels suffocating.

Coming home to the same partner can get boring. So can coming home to the same piece of writing. Partners can cramp your style, keep you from going out, working on a novel can do the same. Sometimes lovers need you to drop whatever you’re doing just to validate them, to pay a contrived compliment when one couldn’t be any further from your tongue. Sometimes you’ll have to push through an arduous chapter when you’re not feeling the least bit clever.

What do you do when your manuscript’s mysterious magnetism suddenly feels mundane, when its revelations feel redundant, and its maintenance feels monotonous? What do you do when the butterflies in your stomach flutter off, when your crush eases, and all the sweet nothings turn out to be just that: nothing?

Adjust your expectations.

There’s passionate love and there’s companion love. One fades after a few years. The other grows over time. One is hot and heavy. The other is warm. One will give you a nervous jolt. The other will put you at ease. If you spend all your time trying to capture that early electricity you’ll miss out on the thing it was supposed to be charging.

In his book, Modern Romance, Ansari felt he wasn’t getting much satisfaction going on so many first dates. He decided to experiment with finding someone decent and sticking with them to the fifth date. He was surprised to find that long term dating didn’t feel like settling.

Early writers have an embarrassment of riches. They’re surrounded by seductive ideas quick to give out their contact information. They’re not lovesick with writer’s block, they’re stuck at a fork in the road with too many directions to go down. Just as we all want to find the best possible lover, our soulmates, writers want to find the best possible story, when we’d be better off seeing the one we’re working on to completion.

Closing Thoughts

You can keep trying to replenish your supply of passionate love, text another suitor while the one you’re with bores you, or you can start making memories with someone you care about. They might not give you the same rush of endorphins, but they may ultimately feel like home. When the thrill of the chase is gone you might have something worth maintaining.

Short fiction comes on like an exotic lover, but novels stay on like true companions. See your work in progress through before you start fantasizing about the next one.

How to Keep What You’re Reading Out of Your Writing

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

I read a lot of non fiction, mainly social psychology books on the cutting edge of our understanding of the human condition. I’m interested in why we do what we do, why modern society still enjoys a public shaming, why we follow charlatans into oblivion, and why a certain segment of the population falls asleep after copulation. I consider these books general research materials. I don’t use them to inform any specific projects, but rather all of them. I read them before the conception stage and they educate my characters’ behaviors.

When I read social psychology books as I’m writing something else happens. I get so enthralled by these new concepts that I feel an urge to include them.

I just finished Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. The book started as a joke about texting in Ansari’s standup act, but it’s become the definitive volume on dating in the information age. Ansari investigates gender ratios in the online dating scene, Tinder hookups, texting etiquette, social media breakups, and sexting. What he uncovers was surprising.

The entire time I was reading Modern Romance I couldn’t help thinking, “That’s an interesting stat. I wonder which of my characters might know that?”

This desire to use Ansari’s ideas in my work in progress creates problems. One of my characters uses a dating site in the story, but he isn’t very well informed. If he was privy to Ansari’s information he’d make better decisions. As it stands, the character has a quick aside on the climate of online dating, armed with Ansari’s information he’d have a full on rant. My character could put his own spin on Ansari’s observations but without a citation, even in fiction, I run the risk of committing plagiarism.

This got me thinking about all the media I consume and the checks and balances I use to prevent it from appearing in my writing.

Never Steal from Similar Stories

When I’m working on a book I avoid reading stories with similar subjects. This wasn’t always the case. When I first tried my hand at writing a novel, a werewolf story, I rented every werewolf movie I could find. My original concept was a memoir about my dorm experiences at an arts high school, with a wolf-man thrown into the mix.

I decided my villain needed to contract werewolfism from an STD, because I liked the idea so much when I saw it in Ginger Snaps. He’d also be haunted by each of his victims, because I was convinced that was part of lycanthropy lore by An American Werewolf in London. I decided that the security staff needed to be members of a secret werewolf society after watching The Howling.

My idea, as I’d conceived it, involved the student body coming together to conquer the lone wolf that was preying on them. Now it was a convoluted mess, filled with ideas I couldn’t justify, because they were no longer my own.

I wasn’t confident enough in my own scribblings. I felt I needed these borrowed beats to help prop them up. I wasn’t writing anymore. I was remixing, trying to find my voice in other writers’ tunes.

Had I stayed away from the video store and dug deeper into my own experiences, I might have found a story that was my own.

Similar Stories Can Kill Your Ideas Before They’re Fully Formed

In an effort to curb my creative kleptomania I find myself censoring my own ideas. I’ll discover a story that’s similar to something I’m developing and go back to alter the resemblance.

For instance, Twin Peaks, Under the Dome, and Wayward Pines are all mysteries that take place in small towns with a 50s-style diner. Since my current story takes place in a small town I want to set it apart. That’s why I zoned all diners out of the plot, excluded waitresses from my cast of characters, and froze the town’s design scheme in the 1980s. I replaced all the neon signs audiences usually see in theses environments with text written in desert chrome. I ripped out the classic checkered tiles and tore down the diamond wallpaper, replacing them with magenta grids and glowing triangles.

Sometimes this self censorship forces me to be more creative. Sometimes it takes story elements off the table that are more universal.

The cenobites that skulk throughout the pages of Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels wear their flesh wounds like military stripes. They sport nails through their skulls, chains through their nipples, and rods inside their open craniums. Barker’s cenobites take body modification to a whole new level. The more gore they sport the higher their station is in Hell’s ancient Order of the Gash.

I read The Scarlet Gospels and realized I had to deny all the demons in my story similar accessories, or else it would look like I was trying to stand on Barker’s shoulders.

Avoid Picking Up Another Author’s Accent

Sometimes it isn’t another author’s ideas, plot, or characters that want to infiltrate my stories. Sometimes it’s their voice.

I’m bewitched by some of my favorite authors’ obscure word choices. Every time I read Edgar Allen Poe I feel a strong urge to use words like: turgid, cacophony, and phantasmagorical in my prose. When I read H.P. Lovecraft I want to use words like: eldritch, and effulgence. He also makes me want to preface every sensory description with the word faint. When I read Clive Barker I want to use words like: rivulets, torrents, tempest, and din.

When I binge read all three I want to write things like:

“Eldritch winds carried phantasmagorical shapes out of the turgid blackness. There was a din, followed by a cacophony of deafening splashes. The tempest came down in effulgent red torrents. Rivulets spilled over the roof, until the walkway was slick with blood.”

It’s one thing to borrow another author’s favorite word choices. It’s another thing to steal the voice right out of their mouth.

Chuck Palahniuk uses a device he calls choruses. These choruses are stock phrases his narrators use, ongoing inside jokes that he calls back to throughout the story.

In Palahniuk’s book Choke Victor, the hero, uses multiple variations of this phrase:

“Parasite” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Stalking” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Vandalism” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

I found this chorus so infectious that it worked its way into my casual speech. I’ve used it so often that I’ve mistaken it for a thought of my own. I’ve had to prevent myself from letting it appear in my writing.

Palahniuk’s writing style is littered with so many of these fun phrases that I have to remind myself they’re not common idioms that belong to everyone. These astute asides belong to him. I’ll just have to come up with choruses of my own.

Closing Thoughts

Every author inevitably absorbs their influences. The best time to do this is before you take on a new project. If you already know your story will dabble in modern psychology check out those books before you start writing. Research first. If you’re absorbing while you’re writing everything you encounter will be fair game.

If your imagination has a tendency to embezzle other author’s material you might want to keep it deprived. A creative fasting can keep you from plagiarizing. Writers should read as much material as they can in their genre, but they should avoid stories whose summary bears more than a passing resemblance to their work in progress.

Reading effects us all at the unconscious level. Writers need to be conscious of how they absorb that material.

Point/Counterpoint: Should writers fear missing out on other things?

Point CounterpointPoint: Why Write About Events When You Can Live Them?

Something big is happening tonight. It’s the mixer of the season. The gathering to end all gatherings. So, why are you staying in?

Didn’t you hear? They have the best musical lineup you could ever hope to listen to, the best film screenings you could ever want to see, and the best dance floor you could ever feel beneath your feet. They have seven of the most delicious courses you’ve ever tasted, paired with the finest wines that will ever pass through your lips, and just wait until you see what’s for dessert.

The people that are usually too attractive to mix with your social circle will be there. Bottles will spin. Numbers will exchange hands. Magic will happen behind drawn shower curtains. Tonight is that once in a blue moon when all the gorgeous people feel like humoring you. You don’t want to be stuck at home in your PJs when their desire changes phase.

There’s just six degrees separating you from the right networking connections. They’re listening to pitches, shopping for exactly the kind of story you’re selling. Better get here soon. Their window is already closing with the changing of the trends.

You’re at home writing when you could be out experiencing something worth documenting, doing something worth humble bragging, taking the kind of selfie worth posting on Match.com. There are so many incredible places to checkin to, so many beautiful sights to put a low-fi filter on, and so many interesting people to name drop when you update your status. Yet you’re busy coaxing dialogue out of people who don’t exist.

No one is forcing you to make a decision. Just say, “Yes!” to all of your options.

Put down your pen. Check your notifications. You might still have an in. Put down that notepad and pick up your phone. Come on no one wants to be alone. Quit your writing application and refresh that Facebook button.

Doesn’t your fortress of solitude put you in a foul mood? Go out and see the night’s sky. The moon is eclipsed. There’s aurora borealis. There are fireworks and comets. There’s a wall of water on the horizon and UFOs are ushering in the arrival of the four horsemen.

How can you keep writing when there’s so much happening?

Okay, fine, stay in, but shouldn’t you be watching television? Shouldn’t you at least have other voices in the room? If you caught up on that popular serial series you’d have conversation material for the water cooler on Monday. If you caught up on what’s trending you might just have a social in. Embrace someone else’s fiction for a change.

Go on, your characters won’t mind.

Fear of Missing Out

Counter Point: How Artistic Endeavors Can Be More Rewarding than Fleeting Experiences

Writing isn’t a waste of time. Endlessly cycling through your options is. Playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with your schedule is. Fantasizing about what else might be happening is a waste of time and your imagination. Ask yourself: how much time do you spend contemplating the best way to spend it? Just imagine how much more you would have accomplished had you been writing.

The average person gets more satisfaction from spending money on experiences than they do on items, but the average person rarely gets to experience crafting items of their own. A well written story has the power to last longer than the memory of another night on the town.

Writing takes dedication. Alternatives are always trying to test your resolve. They want you to put off working on your novel until you call your characters by the wrong names, until you forget what folder the document is in, until it’s forever a work ‘in progress.’

There are well laid plans, then there are excuses to avoid what you ought to be doing. Stop confusing new atmospheres with adventures. Stop confusing interruptions with interactions. Stop confusing options with obligations. You could have a flexible schedule or you could flex your self-motivation muscles.

Writing can feel repetitive, but repetition takes many forms. You’ve been out dancing recently. Have you picked up any new moves since then? You could go to another concert or you could give your ears time to stop ringing from the last one. You could go out to the bar and talk about the same things you did last night, or you could give your friends time to develop new topics of conversation.

Boredom doesn’t care if you’re home alone or in public. It will hunt you down. You’ll find yourself at the karaoke bar thinking, “I’d rather be writing.”

At home it’s tempting to stop typing and go looking for a party on the same screen. Instagram need not be a menu of foods you should’ve eaten or a guided tour of places you should’ve been. You can’t afford to eat out every night and you’re still getting over your last round of bug bites. So your ‘notifications’ tab has a big number next to it. It will get even bigger if you stave off checking it until you’re done for the night. Then it will feel even more rewarding.

Writing might seem like a lonely vocation. The slower the words come the more it seems like there’s a party that you’re missing. Abandoning your work in progress might feel freeing, until you fail to find a creative outlet in any of the other options.

There’s far more satisfaction in following through than there is tapping your phone, looking for something else to do.

Why the Best Characters Overshare

Oversharing

A Big Difference Between Film and Fiction

In film we sympathize with characters that are introduced in vulnerable situations. In fiction we get to see that vulnerability underneath their skin. In film we judge characters by their actions. In fiction we get a broader sampling of information. In film a character’s charisma makes up for their shortcomings. In fiction a character’s rationality makes all the difference.

Characters in novels shouldn’t be burdened by the same like-ability standards as characters in films. Characters in movies have a few hours to get their motivations on screen. Characters in novels can slow time down to give us a play by play of their every thought. This is why villains in text tend to make more sense than their big screen counterparts.

Writers Should Stretch the Limits of Empathy

You’d be surprised with what people can empathize with, things they’d dislike characters saying on screen, but could understand them thinking on the page. These are universal conditions that often go soft spoken.

We all feel like we have the right to be angry when we’re in traffic. When we have the right of way we’re mad at the asshole behind us honking as we’re trying to turn. When we’re stuck behind someone who’s turning we’re mad at all the opportunities they’re missing.

We all fear judgement. When we’re surrounded by people with more academic experience we fear they’ll see the gaping hole in our intelligence. They’ll catch us rephrasing their statements, citing dated information, or misdefining terms.

We’re all jealous of someone else’s success. We watched them prepare for the opportunity and still have the audacity to call them lucky.

A character in fiction can have terrible thoughts and still be a good person so long as their actions are decent. Those terrible thoughts, that seldom find their way onto film, might help us relate to them.

Let Your Character Keep It Real

If you’re writing in the first person, or third person omniscient, you should give your audience a peek inside your character’s inner workings. If your character’s conscience is always clear it will alienate the reader. Your character shouldn’t think the way they’d speak in a job interview. They should feel free to put their worst foot forward, to let it all hang out, to embarrass themselves.

Don’t just give us a record of what is actually happening to them. That’s what we get from films. Frame scenes through your characters eyes, through the patterns they recognize. Project their biases onto every surface. Fill our ears with their sneaking suspicions.

Don’t tell it like it is. Tell it like your character believes it to be.

These Aren’t Your Secrets

People who know you can differentiate between your beliefs and those of an embarrassing friend. Astute readers know the difference between the subject and the author. If a character’s nature is established early on you shouldn’t feel like you’re putting words in their mouth. They should have a strong urge to speak their mind as it’s been defined.

Even when a character is rooted in you allow them to do things you’d never do. Let your audience think an embarrassing character moment is rooted in reality.

It’s good if a reader thinks, “Only a genuine psychopath could write from a killer’s perspective so convincingly.” or “Only a serial cheater could rationalize betraying their lover like this.” or “Only a sexual deviant would know the lingo for this nuanced fetish.”

If readers are trying to figure out what makes you tick then you’re doing something right. It means your characters feel real.

Here are some other methods for showcasing your character’s flawed nature.

Rationalize Wrongdoing

It’s easier for people to rationalize selfish decisions than stupid ones, even when they’re one in the same. If your plot needs your character to go somewhere they’d be smart to avoid, you need to make the reward outweigh the risk.

How do people always rationalize cheating on their spouses?

“I never wanted to hurt anyone.” Which is another way of saying, “I didn’t think I was going to get caught.”

Make the devil on your hero’s shoulder more articulate than their angel, at least until the climax of the story when the angel drops the mic on them.

Use Logical Fallacies

I’ve linked to yourlogicalfallacyis.com as a tool for arguing with trolls online. Now I’m recommending it for another purpose. Look through some of these poor arguments: the straw man, the slippery slope, and special pleading. Now find one for your narrator to use in a fit of anger. Your hero might be a smart person, but it’s hard to think rationally in the heat of the moment.

Make the holes in your hero’s argument obvious. This will create dramatic irony. The audience will know something your hero hasn’t come to terms with. Your hero should realize their fallacy when they go through a change by the end of the story.

Plan a Crime

Some of the nicest characters plan murders, they just don’t follow through on them. They confide in the reader about what they’d like to do to their bosses, their in-laws, and their own children.

Think of this as an intrusive thought that’s lingered in your character’s imagination. It’s not something they’d commit to doing, just a dark fantasy they escape to now and again. There’s no one in the character’s life they can confess this to without coming across as a homicidal maniac. So they tell you.

Launder Envy

We all know jealousy isn’t something to be proud of. So we code it when we vent. We’re envious of the beautiful person who nabbed our position. We just happen to notice how little they did to get what we wanted. We have a front row seat to an injustice. Sure that injustice came out our expense, but we witnessed it all the same. If anything we’re the most qualified to give criticism.

Perpetually envious people aren’t particularly likable. Socially adjusted people know this, but jealousy is just part of the human condition. The more a character works to rationalize their envy the more they reveal how much it consumes them.

Talk Dirty

Talking dirty isn’t just about kissing and telling, it’s about letting your character share their sexuality with the reader. A timid character might confess to a crush, while another might walk you through their bedroom fantasy. There’s a way for characters to do this without coming across as smarmy.

Just as characters can launder their envy to build a better rapport with readers characters can launder their lust with innuendos and euphemisms. Feel free to be unambiguous. Just give your character a big heart to go with their libido. It’s hard to hate someone who intertwines their sexual fantasies with their emotional ones.

Closing Thoughts

I love characters without filters, characters who think it like it is. If they spoke everything on their minds they’d come across as creeps talking about their exes on first dates, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re gossiping with their most trusted confidant. They know the reader is someone who gets them. The hero over-shares because they count the reader as their friend.

Raise the Curve: Why Writers Should Surround themselves With Passionate People

Raise the Curve

I have lived with my share of slackers; people who couldn’t be bothered to clean their hair dye out of the sink, to sweep up all their broken glass, or close the door on their way out of the apartment. These were people who used scuffed CDs as coasters for the beer bottles they were using as ashtrays. They stacked towers of dirty dishes in the sink, too high to soak.

One night, at the old place, a girl was too drunk to figure out how to get the toilet to flush. She lifted the lid, found it was too heavy and dropped it into the tank. It fell straight through the bottom, shattering it. The toilet gushed its gallons across the hall and into my room. Later that day she tried to superglue the porcelain pieces back together. When that didn’t work she left an envelope full of cash on the counter. This was the same envelope the roommate who’d invited her in used to paid his rent.

My room was a mess, with a closet overflowing with laundry, but compared to my roommates’ spaces it looked immaculate. That’s the thing. If all of your roommates are lazy slobs the act of sweeping makes you a neat freak, tossing expired milk makes you anal retentive, and taking the trash out means you have OCD.

In school some teachers graded on a curve, giving A’s to the top 10% of the class, B’s for the next 10%, C’s to 60%, and D’s and F’s for the bottom 20%. If the majority of the students were putting in failing work it didn’t take much to earn an easy A.

As my roommates illustrated, this curve exists in all areas of life: in offices, customer service, and even creative endeavors. If all of your classmates are tapping on their phones then simply looking in the professor’s direction counts as participation. If all of your coworkers punch in late and leave early then merely working your entire shift makes you a model employee. If all your fellow writers are in the idea stage then just typing a page puts you ahead of them.

If you surround yourself with people who do the bare minimum you won’t feel compelled to rise that far above them. If your peers set the bar too low you will plateau before you peak. Writers encircled by slackers will have a hard time getting to the professional level.

When you’re writing it’s important to distance yourself from people who regularly declare their boredom. Dissociate with the couch ridden binge watchers jonesing for junk food. Step away from the compulsive status checkers, declaring their envy of people they haven’t seen in years. Get clear of the habitual heralds; the hot headed hurricanes spinning through the bad news cycle. You need to find peers who will pressure you to work harder.

How the Right People and the Right Places Can Improve Your Writing

Writers should surround themselves with passionate people who aren’t afraid to challenge them. Writers can find this in a writers’ workshop, but be sure to select the right group.

A writers’ workshop full of hobbyists won’t do much to raise novices to expert status, not when the sole goal is to create a nurturing environment. Here’s how I recommend auditioning a writers’ workshop to see if it’s right for you. Bring an old short story that you don’t like, or an old draft of something that didn’t work. Act like you have a lot of pride in this piece. If the workshop praises it without giving any constructive criticism find a different workshop.

Writers should seek out people who humble them not people who inflate their ego.

Sometimes it’s the people you know who challenge you to work harder, sometimes it’s the people you don’t. Try sitting shoulder to shoulder with productive strangers, people erecting their own walls of text, typing so fast they give you keystroke envy.

Find a coffee shop full of freelancers, someplace where you don’t know anyone, someplace that makes you feel uncomfortable, where people are always replying to important messages in their inboxes, where the clientele seem further along in their careers than you. I’ve found that these intimidating spaces inflate my word count, because I’m less inclined to fall into a black hole of click bait articles and movie rumors.

It turns out this method of surrounding yourself with passionate professionals can be done on social media as well. I’m starting to understand why writers on twitter post their hourly word counts like high scores. It gives the rest of us something to aspire to.

What Beds and Writing Spaces Have in Common

It’s hard to work from home when you don’t live alone. Home is where most people go to relax. Good luck getting any writing done in a minefield full of legos and children competing for your attention. If you have roommates good luck resisting the lure of entire seasons of television, viral video recommendations, and marathon gaming sessions. Good luck visualizing anything with all those screens in your sightline. Good luck hearing your thoughts with speakers blaring all the time.

Writing can be just as tough when you live alone, especially when you use your writing space, and writing tools, for other things.

There’s a reason sleep experts tell you not to browse the net, watch TV, or eat in bed. You risk developing insomnia, because your mind stops associating your bed as a place for rest.

You should treat your writing space with the same respect as your bed. Whether it’s in a home office or a cafe downtown you should only go there for one reason: to get work in. That’s why I have a coffee shop I go to write and another to have conversations with friends.

I still associate with my share of slackers. I have people I only hangout with and others I can also work around. I try to surround myself with creative individuals. When none are available I go to places where I can at least rub elbows with them. I go to these strange lengths because I’m always trying to raise my personal curve.

What Writing a Novel and Quitting Smoking have in Common

Former SmokerWhen I quit smoking everyone I knew still smoked. I didn’t have to buy a pack for the temptation find me. A friend would see me standing with my hands in my pockets and wave a cigarette in front of my lips. I didn’t have to ask for it. Hell, I didn’t even have to light it. As far as they were concerned, I looked wrong without it.

I was the type of smoker other smokers pointed to and said, “At least I’m not as bad as him.”

When I saw the cigarette smoking man, on The X-Files, hold a cancer stick to his tracheotomy, I took it as a signal to light one up myself. The filter in my mouth was trigger enough for me to light another.

My smoker’s cough sounded like a donkey heehawing. My phlegm was the color of coffee. My nicotine headaches lasted for days.

Smoking was a part of my writing process. At the end of every page I’d reward myself with a cigarette. When I was blocked I huffed and puffed throughout. I did my best Hunter S. Thompson impression, balancing the filter in my lips while my hands were busy typing. My keyboard looked like an ashtray.

All of my characters smoked. I wrote long descriptions of the clouds they blew. I used smoke as a tool for expressing how they felt in the moment.

I didn’t measure my walk to work in blocks. I measured the distance in cigarettes. The walk to the coffee shop was two American Spirits. Blockbuster Video was three. The walk to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts was four.

I smoked a pack and a half a day. I’d walk to the gas station at two in the morning to make sure a pack was waiting for me on the night stand.

Cigarettes were an extension of my body. My mannerisms required them. My eyes said more with firelight. My smile was always lopsided. The habit was part of my expression.

Even my self portraits featured cigarettes.

Selfportrait

I smoked indoors, before and after I’d brushed my teeth. I ashed into sinks, cans, and beer bottles. I smoked in bed. My cat stunk of ash. The smoke was so thick in the apartment anyone who stepped outside had red eyes, like they’d emerged from a pool of weapons grade chlorine.

One day I got so sick I couldn’t raise a cigarette to my lips. I had night sweats and fever dreams. I lost time, lying in bed for days. When I became lucid I tried to light a cigarette. It made me nauseous and lightheaded. This sensation was familiar. I’d gone a week without a cigarette before. The physical addiction had sweat its way out of my system, all I had to do was reacquaint the tobacco with my lungs.

Then I got an idea. What if I tested myself to see how long I could go without smoking? I wouldn’t tell anyone. My roommates, coworkers, and classmates smoked. If I told any of them I’d feel embarrassed when they caught me lighting up again, or worse, they’d test my resolve.

A friend who’d failed to kick the habit gave me the last of her nicotine gum. I had one precious sleeve of it, so I had to ration. I saved the pieces for when I felt like I was having an irrational anger attack, then I’d pop one in and park it in my cheek for as long as I could take it.

I didn’t out myself to my fellow smokers until I’d committed to quitting. It took months for many of them to notice. By then my cat was sniffing under my roommates’ doors to get her nicotine fix.

When It’s Safe to Tell People You’re Writing a Novel

If you tell someone you’re thinking of writing a novel prepare to be heckled in a couple of months if you find yourself working slow.

Writing a novel is a lot like quitting smoking. It’s best to tell people once you’ve already commit to it, once you’re a few chapters deep. Identifying yourself as a writer isn’t the first step to becoming one. You have to develop the problem before you can admit to having one.

When I started coming up with stories I became annoying company. I read some information on writing online and took my false authority out on the town. I talked a good game, but I wasn’t really a player. I used my desire to be a writer as a conversation starter. I was a cocktail conceptualizer, a party going poet, and a social satirist.

I changed plot details based on reactions I was getting. I switched genres depending on my audience’s tastes. I renamed my heroes on the go. I spoiled my stories before I even started writing.

I got good at pitching, but failed to realize that I wasn’t writing. I was more of a bard than anything. I could tell a scary story at a camp fire, but I was a long way off from getting one on the shelf of a major retailer. By identifying myself as a writer I’d made it harder to become one. The instant gratification I got from telling stories substituted my need to jot them down.

Why You Should Keep Some of Your Story a Secret 

When a screenwriter pitches a movie to producers it’s not uncommon for them to compare it to something else. The script reader who gave the thumbs up to Alien said it’s like Jaws, but in space. Often the comparison is this meets that. It’s Die Hard meets Titanic. It’s 28 Days Later meets Love Actually. It’s Predator meets Jurassic Park (no wait, they already made that movie).

The problem with this strategy is it sets false expectations for your story. Everyone’s vision of Die Hard meets Titanic is going to be different. One person will imagine an action movie set on a sinking ship. Another will imagine a period piece about hostages, with a romantic subplot. Others will imagine Under Siege with Steven Seagal.

This is why most screenwriters will tell you not to pitch with a comparison, but to have one in the tank in case you’re asked for one.

Fledgling novelists might have comparisons impressed upon them when they pitch their story to friends. You might mention you’re writing a young adult novel with a strong female protagonist.

A friend might say, “Like Katniss Everdeen?”

If you say, “sure,” your friend’s expectations could warp your story into a dystopian future like something out of the Hunger Games. All of that friend’s suggestions will try to shift your story in a direction they understand. Do this enough times and your audience will suggest you write something homogenous and bland.

People want stories that are familiar only different, but if you invite comparisons before draft one you’ll forget the “only different” part.

When you turn writing a novel into an exchange expect this type of input from everyone.

Hollywood producers throw out “what if” questions to test a screenwriter’s flexibility during pitch sessions.

“What if it’s not a musical? What if it’s a martial arts movie?”

“What if the Hindenburg doesn’t crash in this version?”

“What if Hitler isn’t the bad guy? What if he’s the love interest?”

Your friends will do this because they want to hold up their end of the conversation. The problem with their suggestions is that they’re fleeting. Your friends might not be as invested in their ideas as they’ve led on. It’s just that the only thing you feel like talking about is writing, so they feel pressured to weigh in.

On the other hand, sometimes friends can get too invested. They’ll check in to see how their suggestions are coming along. If you say you couldn’t make their ideas work they’ll debate you into putting them back in.

I’ve had to explain to friends why I don’t want to name characters after them. I fear I’ll imagine that person in the role and I’ll feel weird about making their character do anything embarrassing. Now I have a rule that if you pressure me into naming a character after you that character is guaranteed a brutal death. No exceptions.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re telling people about plot developments you haven’t written, or outlined, you’re not writing. If you’re telling people you’re almost done, it will be a long time before you have anything worth showing. The half way point doesn’t come once you’ve reached the middle of the story. The halfway point comes when your first draft is finished, sometimes not even then.

Wait to tell people you’ve been working on a novel until you’re several chapters in. Tell them what it’s about when you’ve already committed to a direction. Keep some details to yourself and learn to have a conversation about something other than writing.