The Writer’s Parasite

Randy Son of Robert

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?

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Why I Don’t Care About Your Characters

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

 

Motivation

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.

 

Flaws

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.

 

Consistency

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.

 

Choices

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?

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Unleash Your Inner Toddler To Write Better Characters

A young girl crawling through a metal tunnel with a very confused look on her faceTheodore Scott

 

 

How Children Figure Out The World

I don’t have children, but I have met a few, and from what I hear, most of them go through this phase where they will not stop asking, “Why?”

They ask because they aren’t sure yet what the rules of the world are. They are starting to understand that some things cause other things, and they are trying to figure out why. They are trying to build a dataset that will allow them to accurately predict what will happen when they do a thing.

Yes, I pretty much just turned children into robots. Let me also tell you how awesome my emotional intelligence is.

 

Writers Need To Figure Out The World, Too

Whatever world you are creating, whether you are replicating the modern world, what you believe the past might have been, what the future could be, or if you are generating an entirely new world with entirely new rules, you need to know why things happen.

You need to have a set of situations so that you know, when X happens, then Y is likely to follow. If you jump in the water, you will probably get wet. Your characters, assuming they aren’t children, also need to know these rules, and they need to act as if they know them.

Say you’re writing a fantasy novel where clothing never gets wet. When people get in the water, they leave their clothes on, because, why wouldn’t they? Clothing never gets wet. If a character from this world suddenly found themselves in a world where clothing did get wet, they would act according to the wrong set of expectations, and hilarity would ensue. Before they touched the water, they would be baffled that other people change into other clothing, but once they got their socks wet, they would learn real fast.

Maybe that’s a stupid example, but the point is that all adult characters in your world should always have motivations based on how they have observed the world to work.

 

Ask Until You Never Want To Hear It Again

You could ask “Why” about everything you write down. Every action your characters take. Every thing they say. Every time they are surprised. Allow them to answer this question, because in fiction at least, there is a reason for everything.

People are not random and unpredictable. Every person is working from a different data set, and it makes sense to know what your characters’ assumptions are.

 

Even If You Never Need To Know

There is value in asking “Why” over and over and over, even if you never explicitly state the answer in your story. Any given character will always approach similar situations with the same expecations.

A huge cause of unbelievable characters is that they are inconsistent. A character tells her boyfriend that she was sexually abused as a teenager, but then he gets in a car with a complete stranger and drives a few states over. Why? What on Earth could make her do that? If you can’t answer that question and your reader can’t guess, they will quit your story.

 

Meet Your Inner Toddler

I’d like to introduce you to your Inner Toddler, now. He or she probably (but not certainly) is of the same gender as you, and probably goes by one of your nicknames when you were a baby. For example, mine is a little boy named Battering Ram Head.

In between demanding candy and throwing things on the floor, Battering Ram Head helps me figure out things like why a sexually abused teenage girl would go somewhere with a complete stranger.

Unlike a real life toddler (from what I hear), he can be satisfied, and he can follow complex and nuanced reasoning. I never said the analogy was perfect.

In any case, Battering Ram Head doesn’t buy that she’s going because he just seems so warm and fuzzy. But he does believe she might do it if she thought she was helping him save another girl from her fate. It would depend on how she acted in other situations as well.

 

A Consistent Character Is A Believable Character

If you always question the intentions and expectations of your characters, and make sure they are acting in accord with their previous intentions and expectations, they will be believable.

If your characters change, their intentions and expectations should change as well, and they should approach the same situations in different ways.

If your readers can’t guess what your characters will do, or rationalize why they did something unexpected, they will stop reading.

 

Now I ask you, Why?

 

 

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Treat Yourself To Some Writing Time

A fancy coffee drink sitting next to a laptopNot Margaret

 

If you treat writing like work…

I used to pretend that writing was my side job. True, it never made any money, but I was confident that it would someday. And since I read a lot of personal finance blogs, I thought that the best way to convince my writing hobby to make money was to treat it like a job.

I’m sure that works for some people. I’m not saying it’s the Hitler of Strategies. But it’s not a very good fit for me.

 

You will avoid it like work.

Let me tell you how a day went, when I considered my writing a job.

I would wake up, think about writing, groan and roll my eyes, because I do enough work at work-work, and it’s plenty miserable, thank you very much. Then I would grudgingly sit down at the computer, open a full screen text editor, and stare at the page for half an hour, maybe write a sentence or two and maybe delete them, then I would go to work-work. During each of my breaks, I would feel like I should be sneaking in some writing time, but instead I would look at pictures of cats on the internet and read the Bloggess and try to stifle my screams of laughter into my arm fat. Then, after work-work, I would get home, exhausted, and knit while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Not a whole lot of writing got done that way.

 

A different way to think about it

I read somewhere that one particular author treats her writing like a special, joyful activity. She goes to the cafe, orders a super expensive coffee drink she wouldn’t normally order, and really takes time to enjoy the writing process.

Going out is more trouble than pleasure for me, but I decided that if writing were an excuse to stay in bed, I would totally take full advantage of that. So I have a little netbook stashed under my bed, and when I wake up, I grab it and type for however long I can before I really have to go to work.

When I first implemented this strategy, I would also write before I went to bed, but then I got an iPhone, so that stopped.

But still, in the morning, before I do anything else, I write an article for this blog, and maybe a little bit for whatever fiction project I have going on. And I do it, not because I have to, or because it’s my job, but because I love it and I want to. And whenever I forget that I love it and want to, I always fall off the wagon. Until I remember how much I really and truly love to write, and then I can barely stop myself from doing so.

 

So, will you treat yourself to some writing time?

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How to Use Pinterest to Supercharge Your Descriptions

Using Pinterest To Supercharge Your Writing

 

The Author’s Secret Weapon…

For a long time, authors have used photographs to improve their writing. It’s much easier to imagine the mannerisms and expressions of people in pictures than it is to invent a dozen people entirely from scratch without overlap. Places come alive from photographs in the same way, although they tend to be even better when based on a real place the author has been.

 

…Modernized

In the dark ages, writers used to cut pictures out of magazines and keep them in a binder, referring to them often enough that they could remember each picture. But since the internet, there are many, many easier ways to maintain a library of inspirational photographs. Of course, since the internet, there are many different options, but today, I’m going to tell you about Pinterest.

 

What Pinterest Is

Pinterest is a semi-social networking platform where people collect and trade pictures. They are often difficult to trace to their sources, and their legality is… questionable, but the system is undeniably useful. You can follow other users, or just their boards, and you will tend to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests to yours.

You can keep up to 500 characters worth of notes on each picture, but I typically don’t bother. Be aware that there are no privacy settings, so if you want to keep your inspirations private, you’re better off with another service, like Springpad or Evernote.

Also, if you have or are recovering from an eating disorder, you should be aware that Pinterest is full of sketchy thinspiration, and that people you followed for their cool nature pictures will periodically cover your internet with quotes like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and pictures of people who might be mistaken for tree branches. If you don’t want to see that stuff randomly, don’t follow people, only follow the boards you find interesting.

 

My Boards And How I Use Them

Scenery

My Scenery board is my favorite. I collect pictures of beautiful and strange landscapes, rooms, and houses. Most people keep inside and outside pictures separate, but I don’t feel any need to do that. I like to find them all in the same place.

 

People

I also collect pictures of people. It can be tough to find interesting people on Pinterest, because the “People” category tends to be swamped with the same celebrities. If you’re persistent, though, you can find people who are pinning people who look like they have interesting stories.

I also have a board of fantasy artwork that I typically use only for people.

 

Nature

When I write a fantasy novel, I like to describe the flora and fauna in great detail, and I like to make them seem bizarre and otherworldly. Turns out that you can actually do that from photographs, because plants and animals on earth are pretty weird already. Also, there are plenty of people out there making digitally altered photographs out of animals, and those are pretty cool as well.

 

Clothing

My fashion board tends to flip back and forth between being the fashions of the world I’m making, things I actually want to wear, things I want to make, and things I would wear to LARP. That said, I love to read books where people’s clothing is described in exquisite detail, so I keep this board around in case I ever feel like doing that.

 

Pictures that Make Me Curious

I have two boards dedicated to pictures that make me wonder. One for real life pictures, usually but not always black and white, and one for art and illustration. I also have a board I call “Inspiration,” which is where I put things I don’t know what to do with. It tends to have a combination of weird things and cool color combinations.

 

Boards For Specific Projects

I feel that Pinterest is at its most powerful when I make specific boards for specific projects. I don’t use this exclusively for writing.

Beautiful Dreamer is the working title of the fantasy novel I’m working on (I promise to think of a better one someday). On this board, I have pictures for all of the main characters, at least three main locations and some of the spaces between them, what magic springs look like, and a couple of pictures of the predominant fashions of the time.

The Palettes, We Watched the Rain, The Menagerie, Specimen Boxes, and Yggdrasil, are for mixed media art projects, not writing. The only exception is the Menagerie, which I use for both. It also serves as inspiration for my demonology novellas.

 

Other Boards

For some reason, I feel the need to be complete, so let me say that I have a bunch of other boards that really have nothing to do with my writing.

 

What are you waiting for?

Yes, Pinterest can be a terrible timesink. But once the initial obsession died down, I have found it to be an excellent way to use (timed) five minute breaks, and I have certainly found it to improve my writing intensely.

If you need an invite, leave a comment, and I’ll happily send one your way.

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Sell It! Get Your Reader To Buy

A salesman sitting in front of some shoesAntonio Machado

 

Boy, do I have a fantastic deal for you. Just today, for the low low price of your ability to read this message, you too can write in way that the reader will buy.

 

First things first, write over the phone!

If you have ever been on a sales call (a live one, mind you) you already understand part of what I mean. Over the phone there is no connection between the salesperson and the audience. If the seller blandly lists facts, people will get bored and hang up. But if their words paint a picture, people will be interested and remember what they had to say.

 

For example:

Bland Salesman: “This weight loss pill prevents fat building and allows you to lose up to 10 pounds.”

What does that look like? Have you ever seen 10 pounds floating down the road? Did it stop you in High School and steal your money, or kick sand in your face in front of all the attractive people? No? Try something more like this:

Good Salesman: “Now image this, you go into your closet and pull out those jeans you couldn’t fit into anymore and your (significant other) gives you that special little look when you look good in them again.”

 

Do you see that? Can you see this product working for you? If you can, you’re going to fork over your credit card number. In this case, your reader is going to pay attention.

How does this apply to writing, you ask? If you write “John walked up the stairs,”  yeah, you know what happened. But if you put it like “the old, warped boards creaked underfoot as John crept from stair to stair, slowly winding up …” you get a much clearer picture of the whole situation.

 

(In)Significance of Research?

Believe it or not, selling is entirely about the format, not about the facts. Take the world’s best salesperson, hand them alien technology, shove them through a time machine and they will sell rockets to Romans. They can do this because they understand the formula.

In writing, what this means that you don’t need to know every last detail about something to write about it. I’m not saying just go ahead and wing it all the time, but consider that a lot of people may not know exactly what your talking about anyway and will just buy it.

For example: Do you know what the Sea of Dirac is? How about Cognitive Dissonance? Ever read a Book of Hours? These are outside the common parlance and as a result, are a few steps above the average reader’s scope. If you want to sound pretty cool, look up something incredibly obscure on Wikipedia (or even better, hit up a library), throw down a few spicy facts, and let the reader fill in all the mystery for you.

 

What Are You Selling?

The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself this question. What do you want the reader to buy? What do you want them to believe? Then think of a vibrant way to sell it. Buy now. You won’t regret it.

 

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