by Tasha Seegmiller
I am deep in a revision of a novel that will serve as my MFA thesis. This story is about a woman, her children, her faith, her marriage, and a little bit how easy it is for modern women to get lost in the tumult of obligation. It explores how dreams and ambitions can be both independent of a woman's roles in life, and yet undeniably intertwined with those roles.
There are many kinds of relationships that are tricky ones, but particularly when they are relationships where partners can both love and hate equally, simultaneously, and then defend one another with unwavering conviction.
The complication of relationships, as near as I can tell, comes down to how the characters love and how they feel loved.
As it is now 2020, I’m working on the assumption that most readers have at least heard of The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This 1995 book explored the ways that people demonstrate love and the ways that people feel loved, and I think the ideas presented within are essential for authors writing any kind of love relationship.
Before that, C.S. Lewis wrote The Four Loves, a religious and philosophical exploration of the way people love and why they need to love. (This book is free on Kindle Unlimited.)
While I acknowledge there may be more ways for people to love than those expressed in these works, the fundamental ideas remain the same: two people in a loving relationship of any kind are going to love differently, a diversity that may expand as that character is placed in the position of expressing different kinds of love.
I’ve got a few forms to consider.
1. The Parent Relationship
I know some people who cannot think of their parents without a feeling of bitterness and betrayal. Others have an unwritten agreement of mutual politeness and still others will keep their parents apprised of the occurrences in their lives on a regular basis.
The question for your character is how does he feel about his parents, and, if applicable, step-parents or guardians? How does he demonstrate those feelings when in proximity of these people? Is it similar to or different from how he expresses their feelings?
This can also be something to consider in the situation that character is the parent, how they feel about their children, how they think their children feel about them.
2. The Sibling Relationship
A great depiction of the sibling relationship can be seen in the way that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet interact with each other in Pride and Prejudice, and the way that Marsha and Jan Brady perceive their relationship in The Brady Bunch. Both of these have times when a sister is frustrated; both have a time when a sister is supportive.
The question for your character is how does she feel about her siblings? If she’s an only child, how does she imagine it might have been to have someone to chat with? When something great happens for a sibling, does your character feel the draw to celebrate or perceive yet another mark on the sibling measuring stick which she will never be able to attain? What kind of an event would launch your siblings from the status of feuding to allied?
3. The Friend Relationship
I am very happy to admit that I have come into the incredible fortune of having friends who are kind and supportive and encouraging. But just as with any friendship, there are going to be moments when someone is going to do something that annoys someone else. That’s the reality of life.
The question is how does your character respond when they have been hurt by someone or when they discover they were the reason someone else felt "less than?" In The Lord of the Rings series, we get to see the love that exists between Samwise and Frodo AND we get to see the frustration (acknowledging that some of this is impacted by magical things) that these two feel. The friendship between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also a good depiction of admiration and annoyance.
The question for your character is does he feel loved by the people who he associates with? How does he communicate with his friends? What would be considered the ultimate betrayal for these friends and what would be the thing, the only thing, that could heal that betrayal?
4. The Love Relationship
Whether you have characters who are meeting or dating or engaged or married, there is a depth of courage and vulnerability that must be present within a relationship that is going to be built on love. This year, my husband and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary and I’m happy to tell anyone who cares that I love my husband WAY more than when we got married. I am also happy to tell them that we had quite a bit of negotiating (aka “heated discussions” aka “silent treatments” aka “a few good fights”) to figure out how to be open and honest with each other.
The love that we get to see in Me Before You goes through these ebbs and flows, moments of anger and celebration. This is also the reason that I love watching Madam Secretary, because there is an exploration of what it means to be married and raising kids and working jobs and . . .
The question for your character is what does she want beyond the clichéd roses and chocolate? How does she demonstrate love for someone with depth and vulnerability? What is she willing to hide to get the person she wants to be with? What is it about her connection with this significant other that makes her willing to fight to stay together when there are so many reasons she could run?
The trickiest thing about writing about love between characters is the mandate that we, as the authors, explore how these kinds of love feel and look and sound. The fun part is observing others. The hard part is understanding our own tendencies and how they may work within our own stories.
What stories showcase one of your favorite forms of love? Can you think of a love relationship category that I didn’t consider? Please share it with us down in the comments!
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
by Ellen Buikema
Writing is a solitary endeavor, and many writers are happy to stay in their writing caves. However, one must escape into the wild sometime. Consider approaching the art of writing as you might a traditional job where you bounce ideas off co-workers, commiserate when things go wrong, and celebrate each other’s successes.
Never underestimate the power of networking.
Everyone has talents in different areas, but talent needs to be cultivated. “The first essay I ever wrote was perfect in every way,” said no writer. Ever.
Great writers start as mediocre ones. Practice is the route to greatness and networking, spending time with and learning from other writers, is the vehicle that will get you to your destination faster.
Where to find writers
There are private and public groups for writers of different genres as well as writing and editing groups to explore. There are many talented people out there who are willing to help out a fellow writer. We are all in this together. I cannot emphasize this enough.
If you need to find some writer groups, here are a few I recommend:
- Fiction Writers and Editors (no promos, spam, or bullies)
- Meet the Authors!
- We PAW Bloggers (We Poets, Authors, Writers, and Bloggers)
- Authors Networking Group
Twitter groups (aka hashtags)
The Twitterverse abounds with writing communities, which are denoted by their hashtags (#). Here are a few: #WritingCommunity, #writinglife, #nanowrimo, #amwriting. This is also a place that many agents and editors frequent. Also, a recent blog by Frances Caballo’s has a handy list of 105 hashtags for writers with a short description of each. Marcy Kennedy's post at WITS has a lot to offer as well for understanding the Twitter writing community.
Writing is a business populated with artists who work in various specialties. LinkedIn is a great place to meet book formatters, illustrators, editors, printers, publicists, and other writers.
Blogging in Print and Video (vlogging)
According to the latest blogging statistics, 77% of Internet users regularly read blogs. Blogs are easy to find. All you have to do is type a topic in the search bar along with the word blog and BAM, there you have it. For fun, I typed in “motorcycles blog” and was given the opportunity to view a few hundred of them.
Try typing in the genre that interests you and the word blog. You’ll not only find great material, you’ll also find other writers who may have similar interests. Many writers have their own blogs. Contacting them from their sites is simple. It has been my experience that writers are generous folks and will get back to you when they are able.
You're already onto this, since you're here at WITS. You can also connect online with other writers via this resource page at Writers Relief.
Video Blogging is not quite as common as blogging just yet but is a good way to learn more about a writer, or anyone for that matter. Most vlogs are found on YouTube.
Other places to look:
- Instagram via Instagram Live and IGTV
- TikTok - Current estimates show that TikTok has about 80 million monthly active users in the United States. 80% are between the ages 16-34.
- Facebook Live - I experimented with Facebook Live about four years ago. The vlog was fun and a bit unnerving for me, mostly because I had a primitive setup. I recorded myself with my cellphone propped against my laptop’s screen. Amazingly enough, it worked out okay.
- Local Library - Writing workshops are great for meeting like-minded people. These groups often meet once a month. This is an opportunity to meet with people who write in different genres, and have varying levels of experience. Some are seasoned professionals; others are just beginning their journey. I met the person who eventually formatted my eBooks and another who designed my first book cover at a local library workshop. I’ve also made many good friends at my monthly writers group.
- MeetUp - There are hundreds of thousands of MeetUp groups covering a plethora of topics in at least 180 countries. I belong to a few writers groups on MeetUp. They have been invaluable resources.
- Zoom - Since in-person meetings of larger groups is currently ill-advised due to the pandemic, Zoom a cloud platform for audio and video conferencing, is a safe, secure method to meet online. My weekly critique group is using Zoom. This enables people who are not local to join the group as geographic boundaries are irrelevant.
Professional writing organizations are a good way to interact with other writers and further your career, no matter where you are in your writing journey. Many associations offer great ways to connect online as well as in person with local member events. Each writers’ association has its own perks.
Perhaps one of these groups will suit your needs and interests:
- Authors guild
- The National Writers Union
- International Women’s Writing Guild
- National Association of Independent Writers and Editors
- Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
- Romance Writers of America
Connecting With Authors in Your Genre
Some tips for being successful in building lasting connections:
- Begin with the authors with whom you are familiar.
- Go to GoodReads or Amazon and then enter your genre of choice in the search bar to see authors in that genre and their work.
- Engage with writers on their social media pages. Always be positive. Share their posts. Comment on their blog post. (This is an excellent way to begin communicating with another writer.)
- Chat with writers at conferences.
- Avoid spamming, tagging other writers with your work.
There is no need to be alone on your writing journey with so many people to engage in meaningful conversation. Be brave. Reach out.
How do you connect with other writers? Are you finding work-arounds for the new normal? Please share your experience with us down in the comments!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.
by Barbara Linn Probst
Kill those darlings.
We all know the cliché (actually, it was Faulkner, not Stephen King, who coined the phrase) and, accepting its wisdom, do our best to kill those beloveds no matter how much it hurts. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes get deleted, leaving a cleaner and stronger narrative.
These darling are deleted from the story, but not from our laptops or minds. Many of us (okay, me, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one) squirrel them away, hoping we’ll be able to squeeze them into a future manuscript.
Of course, simply shoehorning them in—because we have to use them somewhere, right?—seldom works. Unless, by some amazing chance, a grandfather scene exactly like the one I just deleted is precisely what the new book needs, the darlings need to stay in their coffins.
However, there are other possibilities for this excised material if we abandon the idea of keeping our darlings intact as chunks of prose and consider, instead, what they indicate, arise from, and serve. We can explore these “other possibilities” by zooming in and zooming out to consider them from different perspectives.
Just as we do with a camera lens or font size, we can zoom in closer to get a magnified look at a smaller amount of terrain. With prose, that means focusing on smaller units, extracted from their context.
An image, a descriptive detail, a gesture, a sentence or two of dialogue—that may be all that’s worth saving from a passage that otherwise has to be deleted. Taken as stand-alone bits of language, freed from their context and associations, these small “usable items” might worth saving for use in a new story.
In stockpiling these usable phrases, it’s good to note their referents so you’re clear about how they might be used later. Does a phrase denote arrogance, an emotional softening, a sense of foreboding? Later, you might be searching for a way to convey that very quality, and you’ll have a private dictionary to turn to. Retaining the meaning, along with the words, also helps to check the tendency to insert a phrase where it doesn’t really belong, simply because you can’t stand not to use it somewhere – the hallmark of a soon-to-be-dead-again darling.
In contrast, we can step back from the specific words to their source. What was that “memory of grandfather” scene really about? Was it about the remorse at having taken someone for granted, nostalgia for a sense of safety that’s no longer possible? The yearning to be someone’s favorite again, for no reason other than her existence? A child’s confusion to see someone she thought she knew growing feeble, his presence diminishing? What was the human feeling at the scene’s core, and why did it matter—to the character, and to the narrative arc?
These sensations, intentions, aversions, and desires are only accessible when you zoom out and view the passage from a wider perspective, letting the trees blur so you can see the forest—ignoring the words so you can see their source.
Once you find that, you can change certain words and sentences to fit a new story. Rather than transplanting the passage exactly as written—or, on the other hand, tossing out the whole thing—you can re-use the essence.
To give an example: In an early, long-abandoned novel that (fortunately) will never see the light of day, the adult daughter of my protagonist was writing a master’s thesis on Georgia O’Keeffe. The “reason” I had her doing that was (ouch) so I could sneak in a backstory scene in which the protagonist had a profoundly transformative experience, years earlier, while viewing O’Keeffe’s masterpiece Black Iris. The adult daughter’s thesis served no purpose in the story, however—nor, in fact, did the museum scene. Both were, appropriately, killed off. I mourned and moved on.
Yet there was something about the O’Keeffe painting that stayed with me—something it evoked that I yearned to express. That “something” noodled around in that murky in-between part of the brain where creativity often occurs, and then burst into life unexpectedly a year later, providing the genesis for a much better story that became my debut novel, Queen of the Owls. I feel safe in saying that without that now-dead darling, Queen of the Owls wouldn’t exist.
Make use of both!
Zooming in and zooming out are inverse processes. In the first, context is discarded, freeing the words from their moorings; the focus is narrow, precise. In the second, words themselves are discarded, freeing the intention or emotion that gave rise to them; the focus is wide, diffuse. In neither case is the “darling” preserved intact, in the hope of shoe-horning it into a new slot. We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work.
Sometimes, of course, darlings can and should stay dead. But not always. To delete and destroy all darlings would be a shame since they often contain much of value.
That’s why we love them.
Your turn. Do you have a file of deleted material -- chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences? What fresh possibilities might the material offer to your story? How have you been able to use them in the past? Please tell us about your darlings down in the comments!
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Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novel (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and the forthcoming novel The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.
Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.
By Becca Puglisi
We know the importance of making our characters authentic, believable, and memorable for readers. But relevance is important, too, because it makes them relatable. Readers see characters who are facing the same issues they’re facing or dealing with the same struggles they’re dealing with, and a bond is formed.
As an example, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. It was written in 1960, but this story about children navigating a racially-charged culture that is altering their safe and comfortable world is still relevant to us almost 50 years later.
Are your characters relevant?
Relevance in your stories is about finding an element for your character or story that your reader can relate to in the real world. It might be heavy (a theme, social or political issue, moral quandary, or mental obstacle) or minor (a hobby or interest, dominant character trait, or common missing human need). Either can be effective. And if you can come up with a common thread that hasn’t been used a million times, that’s always a plus.
To that end, I’d like to share a real-life malady I’ve recently learned about that may be incredibly relevant to readers today.
Introducing "Compassion Fatigue"
Exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, apathy, or indifference experienced by those who have been exposed to repeated trauma, tragedy, and appeals for assistance
This condition is all-to-common in occupations where people are constantly exposed to trauma (e.g. first responders, social workers, journalists, therapists, animal welfare workers, etc.) The frequent exposure to horrible events inherent in these jobs leads to a necessary psychological withdrawal as these workers try to distance themselves from what they’re seeing. While a certain level of withdrawal is healthy, serious cases can lead to problems on the job, relationship conflict, and debilitating mental conditions like PTSD.
Well, you might think, that’s interesting, but my character doesn’t have that kind of job.
Due to the 24-hour cycle of social media and news networks, compassion fatigue is becoming much more widespread. The public’s constant exposure to the suffering of others—sometimes on a hard-to-fathom scale—is taking its toll.
Compassion fatigue presents with the following symptoms:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Increased apathy
- Lack of focus
- Weight loss
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Feeling hopeless or powerless
- Loss of interest in things that once brought joy
- Self-blame (for not doing more)
- Decreased efficiency at work
This should give you an idea of how detrimental compassion fatigue can be. You may even recognize some of these symptoms in yourself as you navigate the constant barrage of news coverage. This malady is becoming more common, and therefore more relevant, for today’s readers. As such, it might be something that could work in your story, but as with any real physical or emotional affliction, it needs to be handled responsibly and thoughtfully.
Questions to help you decide:
1. Does It Fit for My Character?
The first consideration is whether or not compassion fatigue actually works for your character. We’ve all seen the results of authors trying to force certain habits, personality traits, or emotional responses onto their cast members. The inauthenticity is almost unbearable, leading to a disconnect with readers.
As with any other aspect of characterization, you have to do your homework and make sure it makes sense for the character. Compassion fatigue might be a reasonable outcome for someone who…
- works in a job where trauma and tragedy are frequent.
- lives, works, or volunteers in a war zone or area of high crime.
- is a caregiver to a chronically or terminally ill loved one.
- consistently sees trauma second-hand (on the news, social media, etc.).
- is highly empathetic and compassionate to begin with.
Basically, if your character consistently witnesses circumstances that naturally arouse their empathy but they’re unable to do anything about those situations, they’re at high risk for compassion fatigue. If this is the case for your character, it may be something that can be written into your story.
2. Have I Done My Research?
Compassion fatigue is a real ailment and, like any real-life element, it needs to be represented accurately. If you’ve suffered with this condition, you’ll have firsthand experience and it will be easier to write. If you haven’t, get to work researching.
- Find people who have dealt with it and talk to them.
- Read medical journals and legitimate sources.
- Join discussion groups and online communities.
Gather the information you need so you can write this condition accurately and realistically for your character.
3. Does It Serve My Story?
Like any physical or mental ailment, compassion fatigue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It will have far-reaching effects on your character that will impact your story, so it should only be included if those effects serve your purposes. Here are a few natural outcomes of compassion fatigue that might do your story some good:
- It Provides Organic Conflict Options. Insomnia, lack of focus, moodiness—the symptoms of compassion fatigue are going to cause problems for your character at work. Likewise, increased apathy and withdrawal will make it harder for him or her to connect with loved ones. Good stories require conflict in every scene, and compassion fatigue can provide that conflict at home, on the job, and everywhere in between.
- It Impacts Human Needs.Basic human needs are universal to everyone. They’re important to us as authors because when one of them is threatened or removed, it becomes a motivator, driving the choices and actions for your character. Compassion fatigue can impact many of these needs. So whether you need your character to make a monumental error, hit rock bottom, or recognize their need for change, it can be used to position them exactly where you want them.
- It Contributes to Character Arc. What changes does your character have to make in order to grow and evolve by the end of the story? Maybe she needs to learn that she is as important as the people she serves, and she needs to take better care of herself. This might relate back to a wounding event she’ll need to finally confront and deal with—one where she was devalued or mistreated in some way. If compassion fatigue can tie into any of this, it will make it easier for you to map out that arc.
Compassion fatigue is just one example of an element that could provide a sense of relevance for your readers. The options for writing stories that feel very “now” are endless.
If you can find that one element to connect your character with today’s reader, it won’t matter how different they are in gender, age, race, time period, or geographic location. It will be enough to start that empathy bond that can carry readers all the way through the story to make sure the character comes out okay.
What’s relevant about the story you’re writing? Or have you read a book recently that resonated with you because it felt very now or current? Please share it with us down in the comments!
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Writing is an odd often-spooky dream to nurture. We write happy. We write scared. We write sick. We write tired. We write in every mood because we are dream-chasers, and dreams matter, even when we get scared.
[Take heart, y'all. We are writers. We are mighty beings formed of stubbornness, creativity, and caffeine. We've got this.]
Every writer falls differently on the fear spectrum but most of my pals have some form of The Big Two:
- Fear of Failure. Ex: What if I never finish/format/publish my book?
- Fear of Success. Ex: What if I go "all in" with this dream and my life has to change?
Many of us have some extra worries that extend beyond The Big Two. It's almost Halloween -- the perfect time to open the door to the spooky parts of our psyche. So, let's chat...
Named Fears are Less Spooky
Studies show that admitting to a problem or fear out loud lessens the anxiety associated with it that worry. Put simply, named fears are less spooky, whereas unnamed fears tend to grow larger and larger in our minds until they crowd our rational thoughts. As the line from Harry Potter goes, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.”
In case you haven't noticed this phenomenon yet, many writers have brains that lie. Our pesky brains will snatch a worry out of the air and pounce on it like a hungry cat.
Fae Rowen, one of our founders at WITS used "fear" as an acronym to express this concept to her logical mathematician brain:
False Evidence Appearing Real
She put that up where she'd see it every day to assure herself that most of her fears and worries were not real. We ALL do that. For her, the fear of not being able to do something perfectly kept her from sending her writing out for years. Now she has one book released and another on the way.
She remembered her dreams, and she persevered. She wanted to see her book on the rack of a bookstore or a grocery store or a gift shop. She wanted to share her stories with others.
I'll bet that you have some specific dreams yourself. Think about those for a moment. (I'm going to ask you about them in the comments.) Think about why you spend time nurturing those dreams.
Why We Chase Dreams
Dreams are important and scary and real – for a writer, chasing them is the hardest game in town. I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for the sheer doggedness that keeps us going.
Why is chasing dreams so scary? How does our traitorous psyche manage to kick our butts so soundly?
Because we worry. We creative types worry about the darndest things! And we often allow that worry to defeat us. Chuck Wendig wrote a post almost a decade ago at TerribleMinds where he discussed how “Writers Must Kill Self-Doubt Before Self-Doubt Kills Them.” (It's wonderful!)
So what do writers worry about the most?
I've narrowed it down to some version of the following five items:
- What if I write the book and nobody buys it?
- What if I write the book and everybody buys it…can I be that brilliant again?
- What if I can’t meet the deadlines of a publishing contract or schedule?
- Who would want to read what I have to say?
- When I say what I have to say, they’ll know who I am.
Every time an artist creates, they’re shouting to the world: “This is who I am.” What a heady, frightening, mind-blowing thing! For most artists, if our work is found wanting, it feels like WE are being rejected too.
How is the worried artist supposed to cope?
Laura Drake and I are HUGE fans of titanium panties. We just strap on the proverbial Big Girl Titanium Underpants and do the next thing. For myself, if I stop and think about the fear, I’ll hyperventilate or (worst of all) I'll freeze. I have to keep going, even if I work on something different than the thing that’s scaring the crap out of me (like my memoir).
What have I observed other writers doing when things are in the crapper? When rejections roll in and plots stall, when blog posts bomb and the WIP rises up like a scary beast?
- They depend on friends and family when the going is rough.
- A supportive critique group.
- A writing network is priceless. This could be your local writing chapter, or online groups, or Twitter communities.
- GUMMY BEARS.
- Okay, I'll stop. I'm making myself hungry.
5 things to remember about this writing life:
- It never gets easier. We simply adjust.
- Remember: Your brain lies. Some of that fear is manufactured by US.
- Writers are wicked brave. It takes courage to persevere.
- We have weird habits. (I want to hear about those in the comments too!)
- Writers must write, even if it's only to ensure our family can stand us. (I don't know about you but I am nicer when I write. Also funnier and more attractive.)
How do you deal with the fearful part of your dreams? What dream are you chasing right now? What are your weird writing habits and rituals? We’d love to hear about it down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.