We’re Mostly Mad Here

I was standing at the stove with my friends lounging around me as I poured pasta into boiling water, laughing at an exchange between Will, Sy, and Gilbert, when a sudden worry flashed through my mind.

How am I going to feed so many people with just one box of mac-‘n’-cheese? I frowned.

Then sanity resurfaced, and my face went red as I realized it was just me and my best writer friend Danielle standing in the kitchen. The hilarious Will, Sy, and Gilbert were our characters and muses.

I revealed my lapse in mental acuity, and they laughed at me—three imaginary, one present on the common plane of reality, and all four mocking my madness.

That's right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

That’s right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

But this madness—while entirely laughable—stems from a very important part of my writing process: taking my characters seriously.

Now, you don’t have to slip that far down the rabbit hole to be a good writer. But whether or not you consider your cast to be real, you must consider them valid.

Even if you think your characters to be players in your plot, not friends hanging out in your kitchen, their truths (not just their mutable facts) must be given due consideration. Avid readers can smell a cardboard cutout character an aisle away. Even side characters are better for having an underbelly. Even if it’s never shown in the story you’re telling, it will influence the visible surface, lending depth and truth.

Writing Grace the Mace, I considered the forces that had formed each character, and the impact each one would have on the others–in shaping, motivating, and provoking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title character herself. Dalvin Grace is shaped by two opposing forces—her mother, and the rest of the world. She resembles both her caring mother and her cruel environment. She resents both her “weak” mother and the buffeting world of the Great Graves mountain nations. Her feelings are spurred by—you guessed it, both her mother, and the world around them.

Had I treated Grace as simply a cog in my plot, I might have decided that she would defend her mother—another cog, a porcelain figure in maternal damsel-ish distress, serving the plot much as love interests commonly serve. That would have left me with an action-adventure novel that read much like an old, two-dimensional video game. However elaborately I plotted the “levels,” the main character would move through them, and collect the prize—mother’s safety—at the end.

But Weylah, the mother, is a valid person in her own right. Sweet, feminine, naive, and near-magically buoyant—those facts I knew from the first brush. I delved beyond the ultimate image of maternity, looking for personhood behind those soft, amber eyes. I asked a lot of questions. What were her fears? Regrets? Strengths? Worst memories? Doubts? Faiths? Worldview?

I can’t say a bell rings in my head at the precise moment a character goes from being an idea to being a person. But usually, the change is near the moment I understand their deepest, greatest why. Writing is an art, not a science, and the artistic process is never entirely predictable, but if they haven’t made that transition from pile of facts to true person, I know I’m not finished. If the people aren’t true, neither is their story.

If I didn’t understand Weylah, I wouldn’t understand the unique tensions between the flowerseller and her mercenary daughter, and how the push-and-pull of that relational tide shapes Dalvin’s very existence, for better and for worse—and for the plot.

Some authors are of the opinion that characters only serve the plot. But characters known in their own right will serve a plot far better than dress-up dolls sewn for the part ever could.

People are the heart of any story, and if you don’t write it with pumping blood, the best you’ll ever get is the interesting corpse of an idea.

You hardly need to go so far as to mistakenly make dinner for five, but a character that inhabits a writer’s head is, of course, that much more likely to stick in the head of a reader.

I think of fiction as a happily catching madness.


If you’d like a disgruntled, paranoid mercenary rattling around in your head,

Check out Grace the Mace, available on Kindle in paperback.




Write it Wrong

There’s something about writing in a separate document from my work-in-progress document that really takes the pressure off. For one thing, in the slag pile, there’s no such thing as a blank page. For another, when I’m writing something in a story that’s been going really well, looking really good, and suddenly I’m not confident about what I’m writing, I’ll usually slow down. Stop. Re-do a sentence or paragraph over and over, question the content, the concept. Here, it’s a slag pile. I’m writing the scene that needs to be written, but I’m writing it in between free-form babble and concept prattling and brainstorming notes for a future epic, emotional journal entries and… well, what I can only describe as word-doodles:

Missing wishing pity smithing wherewithal to find the binding grind of cogs that wind up doing the f—ing thing I asked for in the first place, eh? Can’t screw my eyes right into my brain.

Well, okay. Stay away in the grey miry May. Sweltering in the aimless heat of the mind.

Wtf is that? I did that? I do that? Holy cuss. I’ll quite literally write anything that goes through my mind in this document, won’t I?

And that’s the beauty of it. I can start a section when I’m not sure whether it will work. I can write a paragraph I’m uncertain of, and then continue past it to write more. Because whatever it is, for heaven’s sake, it’s competing with “Missing wishing pity smithing”! (And believe me, I was kind to myself in choosing an excerpt with real actual words.)

It might work, it might not. It might have to be heavily edited, it might not. I might throw the whole thing out altogether, I might learn only what won’t work in the section I’m looking for. But dude, now I’ve written it, because there was no pressure to make it fit with the rest of the story, no pressure to get it right, no pressure to make sure it’s functional. Only the pressure to type, to try, and to see what the muse gives me today.

If the section works, sounds good for a scene or a blog post or whatever, then I copy it over to its appropriate document and edit it into place. If it doesn’t work, if it’s not good enough, no big. It’s a slag pile. It’s where I pour out all the word-buildup that gunks my brain. It’s okay if I write it wrong. It doesn’t need to be anything.

And because it doesn’t need to be anything, especially, I can let it become something, particularly.

A Dark and Painful Crutch

Pain. Death. Darkness. The breaking of the world. That very human hurt.

It must be written, mustn’t it? One cannot be a writer, a real writer, and not touch the pain of life, the pain of reality. Oh, one needn’t write death, perhaps. One needn’t write the darkest or most shattered corners of the world. But no story is true without at least the little hurts, longings some time unfulfilled, weariness, confusion, frustration, ache, worry. Nerves. Fears.

Be it stories with worlds at stake, or lives, or loves, or simple tales of foolish people tangling in hilarious dramas before all is sorted out and set right, there must be pain.

And yet, I think, I too oft’ turn to it as a crutch.

It is harder, at least for me, to write a scene that is at once deep, and meaningful, and real, and glad.

Gladness. Lightness. Peace and sweetness. Hope and joy. Love unstained and undimmed smiles. These are all true things, are they not?

And yet, when I feel I must write deeply, I turn to pain, and breaking, and death, and darkness, because it is so easy to write deep hurt, and too easy to write trite mirth.

But why should ease direct my path? If I am to better myself, my writing, I must face the pure things, the gentle things, the happy springs and lazy summers, the laughing falls and playful winters, and find a way to grant them words, to wrap them into tales as powerful as any abuse or death or broken soul.

Because if I don’t, my tightly painted portraits of pain will fail in time. If I don’t, the skillfully wrought shattering of hearts can’t continue. All the darkness will turn to bland ash at my pen’s touch, for a writer who can write well of pain and only of pain will write it into the grave, will write monsters and victims and tears until all is a ghost of itself, a chain-rattling specter of a meaning once powerful.

My pen, in its attempt to dodge what is trite, may turn in on itself, until in trying to write an ocean of hurt, my tales turn instead into scum on pain’s pond: dark and putrid, but thin, touching only the surface, easily dispersed and quickly shaken off.

And because it is so hard for me, I am prouder of my soft vignettes than of my hard ones, more triumphant when I struggle through the telling of a happy shaft of light than of the oozing pools of earth’s blood. Not because the blood of the world is untrue, but because it is becoming, for me, a crutch.

For to write only half of the truth, after all, is to write a lie.

Passion = Accidental Anorexia :(

The most effective diet in the world is to find something you’re head-over-heels passionate about, then do it without food within your reach. You’ll get so caught up in the passion that you’ll forget to get up and go eat, or if you do think of it, you’ll brush it off as not worth leaving for.

For me, this thing is writing, and it’s all the more effective as I write in a coffee shop; an eight-minute walk home or a few precious dollars away from getting something to eat. This phenomenon is at its height during NaNoWriMo, when I’m reluctant to so much as go to the restroom before I’ve hit my word count.

This would be great if I needed to lose weight. As it is, I often hover a pound or two below my ideal weight, so I really can’t afford to lose any more.

There have been days that I’ve ingested, like, a handful of grapes and a sip of milk at midday. Then I wonder, “Why am I so tired? Why am I having trouble thinking? I’d better get to bed earlier tonight.*” So you see, it’s not a disorder, it’s not a complex. It’s just that passion has hit the override button.

Early this year, I got rather sick and dropped significantly lower. Then I proceeded to run Ever the Actor through its fifth draft. I was nearly ten pounds underweight for quite a while—and I was trying to eat. I like eating, I really do.

Speaking of which, hold on—I only just remembered Mom handed me a plum and a pluot as I walked out the door today.

*Snack break*

Between that and the bagel I bought for brunch, I’m better fed than I usually am at this time of day.

Anyway, where was I going with this? …Aw, pox, that broke my writing flow. Something about how it’s a good idea to eat some of the things, even when you’re busy following your heart.

Scratch that. Don’t stop writing to eat, that’s how you end up writing blog posts with no clear point or punchy ending.

*Of course I would then proceed to stay up late… but that falls under the common internet-user’s issue of “Accidental Insomnia”

Yes, but what does he look like?

Some writers, Stephen King among them, say that character description should be left up to reader imagination.

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.”
On Writing

At first blush, this makes perfect sense, and for some people, it may work very well. I would certainly say King pulls it off. However, I have one major complaint with this philosophy; most reader’s imaginations, mine included, will not come up with concrete images of a character.

All that many of us will get is a corner-of-the-eye blurry picture, punctuated by the couple of points the author perhaps filled in for us. Tall. Gap-toothed.
Most minds, in the absence of information, do not decide if the hair is blonde or brown, the nose thin or broad, brows thick or thin.
Are looks vital to plot? Except in unusual cases (Think Fire) …No. Not necessary at all. But we, insatiably curious creatures that we are, want to know. And so the authors tell us. Or not.

I like my favorite books to give me clear images. When I sit down to draw Keladry of Mindelan (yes, she’s the lancer I mentioned in Mad Skillz), I don’t have to guess; I know her hair is light brown and helmet cut, her eyes are hazel, her nose is delicate and her build solid.
Not every single possible descriptive is given– it was never declared whether her ears are more rounded or pointed, it was never said how they are angled on her head. But enough is said, enough that my mind’s eye is comfortable picturing her.

But what is enough, and what is too much? Genre and opinion seem the only dictates.

One thing I’m sure none of us want: A full-page description of everybody who walks past the narrator’s camera.

So fearful have I been, however, of doing exactly that, that I grew jumpy of mentioning anything about my people’s looks.
I would pause, agonize, debate, and finally slip in “…Sy’s boyish face and broad grin…”, then sit and wonder if the addition was jarring or contrived.
I finally realized that, as a reader, that was exactly the type of tip-off I would want– and want more of.

However, this does not make excessive descriptions any less fearful! Yes, the reader cares, but only so much. But what is that so much? How does a writer strike any kind of balance?
Put yourself behind the reader’s glasses. Ask “If I hadn’t spent the last five days/weeks/months/years obsessed with this story and person, what would I want to know?”

And don’t write any more– or less– than you would want to read yourself.