The secretary where I used to work thought I was the most entertaining person in the office. One day, she told me that she was amazed at how many stories I had “for a person my age.”
To be fair, that particular weekend I shattered a mug by pouring tea into it (it just broke, I swear. I wasn’t even touching it) and went house hunting and managed to find the most incredibly terrible houses on the market (this one place… it was from 1840 and had a tin ceiling that had sagged so much the blades of the ceiling fan were literally at my eye level). So, I guess I made it sound like I have an interesting life.
But more stories than other people? That just didn’t seem right to me. Surely wacky stuff happens to everyone pretty evenly. Maybe other people just let the wacky stuff pass by unremarked upon.
Raw story material happens to us all the time. Everything we do or see, everything that happens… anything can be fascinating with the right light from the right angle. As writers, our job is to collect this raw material and spin it into something wonderful.
I’m always narrating a story in my head. Have been since I was a little girl. My mother will tell anyone who’ll listen about how we would arrive somewhere, she’d let me out of the car, and I’d walk just far enough to feel like everyone couldn’t hear me (of course they still could). Then, the story would start. And it would pour out of me for hours, occasionally repeating, until I was exhausted and wanted to go home.
As an adult, I have learned to tell the story without speaking it aloud. But whenever something happens to me or around me, I always imagine how I would tell people about it. I turn the story over a couple of times until I get bored of polishing it. Then I leave it in my memory banks until I have to make small talk.
But these everyday stories, they aren’t just good for small talk. They’re real stories, and they deserve to be told.
So try this: The next time something even slightly unusual happens to you, turn it into a story. You may be surprised by how great it is.Read More
The Infection Begins
It starts somewhere with something simple, something almost innocent. A stray thought: “I’m not that good at writing anyway.” “I’ll write later, when I have more time.” “Writing is self-indulgent.” “I’ll focus on more important things for now.”
Next thing you know, that thought has sent out tendrils into every corner of your mind and being. It drains your energy and uses it to grow, taking up space that used to belong to your inspiration and enthusiasm. It sucks you dry. It takes the words you were going to use to write, and twists them so they tell you what a failure you are.
Is it Resistance?
Resistance happens whenever you’re doing something worthwhile. It sneaks up and asks, “Who are you to do this thing? It’s too important, too grand, and you are nothing.” If that doesn’t work, it says, “This is worthless. This work is pointless.” If that doesn’t work, it says, “This will be too controversial. Do you really want to spend your whole life fighting not to be censored?”
I’ve felt a lot of Resistance to writing the novella I’m currently working on. “These characters are too young to be having sexy thoughts. You will get in trouble,” it says. “This story has been told a thousand times. No one wants to read it,” it says. “This story is too feminist. If you publish it, you’ll get labeled one of those Feminist writers, and no one will ever read anything you write ever again,” it says, spitting as it speaks. “It’s not feminist enough. People will think that you’re advocating for the fembot revolution,” it says. “It’s boring. It drags. There’s no conflict. No wonder you don’t want to write it,” it says.
No wonder I don’t, when my Parasite says things like that.
The Tendrils Extend
But it’s not just this novella. This voice isn’t content to disparage my work in progress. It is telling me not to bother planning the fantasy series that has been struggling to get out of my head for most of my life. It’s just another fantasy series, and the world doesn’t need it. And it’ll never make me any money anyway.
This blog? No one cares. In fact, this blog is a pox on the Internet, just clogging up the tubes with its worthlessness. Who am I to tell other people to write when I can’t even do it myself?
Who am I to do anything? To try new things and maybe fail? I can’t even write a tiny little novella.
Every time I sit down to create, the Parasite goes on and on about how I’ll never make anything worthwhile. So I don’t.
Is There a Cure?
I can tell you about lots of treatments that don’t help.
They tell you to show up. You sit in front of the page for two hours. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else. You sit in front of that page for two hours and let the Parasite berate you. Let it tell you everything that’s wrong with you. That’ll help, for sure.
They tell you to write something different. Write something silly, throwaway, unimportant. So that the Parasite can use that as further evidence against you. If you even succeed despite it’s litany.
They tell you to write through it. To let the words be bad, to come back and fix them later. But every bad word added to the pile is further ammunition.
I have tried listening to it. Letting it say what it has to say, and trying to argue logically with it. But it isn’t logical. You can argue all you like, but it will just repeat its points over and over until you have exhausted your will to fight.
There are treatments that help, a little.
It helps to name it for what it is, but that isn’t a cure.
It helps to admit how it’s hurting you, but that isn’t a cure.
It helps a little to write about it, like I’m doing now. But it also hurts, because then you associate writing with more pain.
It helps to disidentify as a writer for a while. To call yourself something else, to put your dreams on the shelf and say you’ll come back to them later. And maybe you will, but is it really worth it? And there’s no guarantee you won’t be reinfected as soon as you pick up the pen again.
I Wish I Had an Answer
But I don’t. Do you?Read More
Disclaimer: My boyfriend tells me I’ve already written a rant about how dumb the characters in Rob Roy were, but I think this one is better than the one I don’t remember, so I’m posting this anyway.
Content Note: This post occasionally mentions rape, because my movie example, Rob Roy, is pretty much all about it.
Anecdote Time: Characters That Make Me Quit
There are two archetypes that I absolutely despise: The unapologetically evil villain who does evil for the sake of evil, and the pure wonderful hero who has no weaknesses and never does anything wrong.
I’m going to talk about a movie, for a second (and by a second, I mean forever): Rob Roy. I have a serious weakness for Liam Neeson. I will watch pretty much anything that has his name on it. But this movie… these characters… they are so poorly written. The bad guy is a monster, you know because he tortures poor people for no reason and rapes the good guy’s wife because he’s so evil (I have a huge problem with rape as a device to show how evil someone is as well, but we can talk about that later). Liam? Has no flaws. He is perfect, except for the part where he lives in an oppressive society.
Obviously, everyone supports him and follows him into battle and fawns all over him and kisses his beautiful Scottish feet. Duh.
Elements of a believable character
Why was Rob Roy’s villain so unbelievable? He appeared to be doing evil things for kicks. I’m not saying that no one ever does anything bad for funzies, but I would think that would tend to be rare. Your villain has to want something, and be willing to do anything to get it. And “more power” is sometimes that want, but it’s kind of a boring one. I know I’ve read that story a thousand times.
And what about your hero? Just along for the ride? Saving the world because, well, shit, someone’s gotta do it? I don’t buy it. What’s in it for them? Family? Love? Money? Maybe they don’t want to do it at all, but external factors are forcing them to?
Every character in your story, down to the most mundane ordinary character that we only meet once, must have some motivation, something that they want that drives what they do and how they do it.
Liam Neeson is perfect. I guess I don’t mean in real life, because I don’t know the guy, but as Rob Roy, he sure is. Honorable, noble, never kicks someone who’s down, wants to save the Scots because someone has to, and he’s the strongest and noblest.
Readers relate to characters through their flaws. Everyone can sympathize when someone does something unrealistic or stupid in an attempt to impress someone. Everyone has hesitated to do something because they weren’t sure they could do it right, or because they were afraid of success.
Part of making a successful character is making your reader feel the same way the character does, to feel empathy for their mistakes and misfortunes, and to cheer with them when they succeed. Or at least to understand where they are coming from.
If a character is perfect, the best your reader can do is wish they were perfect, too. And that’s kind of sad, because real people never are.
I originally named this section “Intelligence” and ranted for a while about how the protagonists in mystery novels do such stupid things, even as we’re being told how smart they are. Then I realized, the stupidity isn’t the problem. The problem is that we are being told that they are smart, and we are supposed to accept it, but then the character does stupid thing after stupid thing.
I’ll allow a possible exception for the unreliable narrator, but otherwise, characters should act in a manner consistent with their personality, and their other actions throughout the book. The kinds of actions they take can change over the course of the story: they can get desperate, more cautious as the stakes go up, they can become braver, they can learn from mistakes, whatever. But these new actions come from somewhere. They aren’t random.
I have to give Rob Roy one thing… it’s perfect characters are perfectly consistent.
I’m not a huge fan of stories where the characters don’t make any meaningful or difficult choices. This happens occasionally in plot driven stories, since the characters are in crisis mode, simply reacting to things that happen to them. But even in a plot-driven story, it is possible, and I would argue, necessary, to set up a situation in which characters need to make choices contrary to their core values in order to survive, and that, my friends, is interesting.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen Rob Roy, so my example is falling apart here, but I don’t remember anyone making any difficult choices. The closest I can come up with is noble wife “chooses” not to disclose her rape, not because she’s ashamed or having difficulty dealing with it or because she is being portrayed as a real person in any way, but because it would “make her husband reckless.” This appears to be only slightly difficult for her, and the difficult part is actually keeping it a secret, not, you know, HAVING BEEN RAPED. Ugh, I need to go take a shower.
What About Change?
When I was in high school English classes, we were taught that the difference between flat characters and well-rounded characters was whether or not they changed by the end of the story. I am no longer convinced by that argument.
I have come to believe that change may or may not be the result of Choices, above, and whether or not the character changes has little to do with whether they’re a realistic and complex character, and more to do with their personality. Captain Kirk never really changes, any more than token increases in caution as he gets older, but I wouldn’t call him a flat character. He faces incredibly difficult and complex choices all of the time, and responds to them in a manner consistent with his character.
I think worrying too much about change is a distraction. Worry about choices and motivation instead.
These Elements Are Not Optional
I hear you. You don’t want anyone to tell you how to write. I understand. But I think that having any of these elements missing is infuriating and confusing, and the last thing you want to do is simultaneously infuriate and confuse your reader. How are you supposed to care about a character who doesn’t want anything? How are you supposed to worry about a character who is perfect? How are you supposed to understand the behavior of a character that is inconsistent? How are you supposed to empathize with a character that never makes any choices?
Your minor characters may not have space to make choices on screen, but they had still better have motivation, flaws, and be consistent. The weird old lady walking down the street past the protagonist is doing so because she wants something. And when she gets there, she is going to have to decide which brand of something she wants.
You must ask “Why?”, and let your characters tell you why they do things. Because if you don’t know, your reader isn’t going to know either. And how will they care if they don’t know why?Read More
You might be interested to know that there’s an e-book available for FREE right now on Amazon called An Idea A Day: 365 Writing Ideas by Valerie Hockert. I’ve only looked through January and February so far, but it looks like there are some really great ideas there.
You should consider checking it out.
[ In case you're worrying, no, that isn't an affiliate link, and no, I don't intend to post things like this frequently ]Read More
The Illusion of Spontaneity
In nature, everything on a macro scale that seems random is an illusion. Stones roll down hills in predictable ways. Rivers meander through valleys in a way that is well understood, and can be predicted by their age.
People can seem random and unpredictable as well, but when they do, it is because you have incomplete information about what is driving them.
In fiction, nothing can be random. You must have a reason for everything that happens, every action every character takes, even the most minor. You cannot afford to pretend that things are random.
Cause and Effect
When we are very young, we learn that things happen for a reason. And I don’t mean that in the “God has a plan” way, but rather in the “Physics has a plan” way. If you drop a rock, it falls, because gravity. If you aren’t watching where you’re going when you’re driving, there’s a good chance you’ll hit someone, and if you hit someone, things will be damaged, because kinematics.
It works for psychology as well. If someone screws you over at work, he doesn’t do it because he wants to screw you over, and he doesn’t do it randomly. He does it because he gets something out of it. If your partner cheats on you, it isn’t because they wanted to hurt you, but rather because in that moment they liked the other person more.
The Role of Complexity
Things, especially in psychology, but also other things, look random because of incomplete information. They look random because they are complicated.
Why did you get into that car crash? Because you and the other car were in the same location at the same time. Because you chose to look down at your radio at the exact moment you entered the intersection. Maybe you and the other person are only entering the intersection at the exact same time because one of you forgot a paper on your desk and had to go back for it. Maybe if you had played a song that was 10 seconds longer than the one that was playing, you wouldn’t have had to check your radio for another 10 seconds and would have avoided the accident. If you had gotten further without your paper, it would have taken you longer to go back for it, and you would have avoided the accident.
Why did Martin throw you under the bus at the staff meeting? Because you had a shared responsibility, and both of you blew it, and he needs to get promoted because he’s got more mouths to feed and anyway, he’s really a good person and this experience will make you stronger, so it’s actually like he’s doing you a favor. People actually think like this. But you can go back further. Why didn’t the pair of you meet your obligations? Maybe you didn’t feel like working late. Maybe a critical piece of information was misfiled and you couldn’t find it in time. Maybe your customers were uncooperative.
What This Means For You
As a fiction writer, you cannot afford to ignore the reasons why things happen. While we feel sympathy for a character to whom bad things seem to happen constantly for no reason, we feel more and better sympathy if there is a reason why the bad things are happening.
We feel better when there is someone to blame. We feel better when seemingly meaningless choices are actually causing the bad things. We, as a species, deeply want to believe that the world is fair. And while, the real world is many things, not including fair… a fictional world can at least be predictable. And that is what your readers want.Read More
Here at Thrift Stories, we believe that…
Everyone has a story worth telling.
Anyone who wants to write can write well. Wanting to write is enough.
Community builds confidence.
Discussing other people’s writing improves your own.
Writing need not fit into well defined boxes.
And most importantly,
We all deserve to be able to tell our stories, and to hear the stories of others in return.
How We Started
Thrift stories started over secret coffee in an undisclosed but painfully corporate coffee shop in an undisclosed but thoroughly and dishearteningly average mall with a phrase. A phrase that emerged from a conversation that, surprisingly, started out involving anything but books. It was more like putting words together. And turning words that are not verbs into verbs. Cats and punk rock were probably involved somewhere. But once the phrase “Thrift Stories” stumbled across our tongues we started sprinting down a path that leads us, well, here. And hopefully beyond.
We realized that the majority of contemporary books out there on shelves don’t seem to be targeted towards people like us. We further realized, spurred on by that phrase, that the stories we like best are hacked together from and patched all to hell with bits and pieces from everywhere. We discovered that, sadly, those are just the type of stories that never see daylight for various reasons. And we decided that, clearly, we are the people to do something about it. A handful of pissed off kids trying to change the world (of modern literature); what could possibly go wrong?
We figured there are a handful of major brick walls, both obvious and invisible, that unconventional literature runs up against and we realized that none are beyond scaling or knocking down, especially now that we’re in a world where proxy servers complement printing presses. And thus, Thrift Stories was born, forged out of novel but ultimately too-offbeat-for-industry ideas heated glowing hot by a burning desire for well written and easily accessible literature worth reading.
What We Believe
We believe that writing is either done well or done poorly, regardless of genre (or genre bending). We believe that it is possible to become a better writer and that it is possible to get your work out there regardless of how far off the beaten path you choose to walk (or run, or dance, or hover). We believe that it is far too easy to get discouraged if you don’t march to the beat most publishers and writing professionals expect. And we believe these are not impossible problems to solve.
To that end, we’ve created Thrift Stories. We’re building a community to help you, me, all of us improve as writers and feel more encouraged and less alone in our lunacy.
What We Do
Writing Prompts: We give a weekly writing prompt so you can get yer practice on. It’s very much to help us all get some of that so-hard-to-come-by motivation by having a real deadline that all of us know about and hold each other accountable for. We encourage you to share what you have written with us, so that we can help you keep on track. We don’t expect a groundbreaking, heart-wrenching work of pure genius out of responses, or even necessarily anything complete. Just around 600 words or so on whatever this week’s prompt awakens deep in those forgotten caverns of your imagination, posted in the comments for all to enjoy, or on your own blog if you’d prefer. We may pick a few of our personal favorites each week. No prize, no contest, just recognition.
Articles and Stuff: We write weekly short articles to give you some pointers as well. We even give you extra surprises from time to time. And, perhaps best of all, we let you know that you’re not the only one out there who likes to hear those twangs of strain as you bend the rules.
What you should do