Writing Prompt #7

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

June 15, 2009 -- 11:37 P.M.

Well, I'm back from my vacation to Issaquah, WA! That means that it's time for another writing prompt. But first, a status update:

I saw my younger brother graduate from high school. I also saw my father for the first time since he was tentatively diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It was very difficult. I heard things were bad but not that bad. It hurt me to watch my dad shuffle slowly down the stairs. He says that he has a hard time keeping his balance because he can't feel his feet. I never thought about how important the nerves on the soles of our feet are, because without that pressure feedback, walking can be a bit of a guessing game.

All in all, I think he's handling things all very well. Much better than I would. It made me a little queasy to look at his MRI, complete with skull and eyeballs (strange, but I think I could have recognized his bone structure even if I hadn't known what I was looking at.), but he thought it was cool. He said it's good to see the lesions in his brain, which look like little fireflies on the brain scans, because he knows it's not all a made up disease in his head.

Anyway, my natural response is to run and hide from my emotions and go play video games. I hate to see anyone I love in pain. If I ever get a chance to dedicate a book to anyone, it will be to my mom and dad because they're so courageous.

Anyway, I took a two week break from writing and it's hard to get back into the groove. No rhythm. I haven't done jack squat.

I'll do better when I cheer up. I think I'll get to the acceptance stage about my father soon.

It's amazing how helpful posting my novel online for a critique group has been. Not only does it change the formatting, which helps me get a new perspective, but I can tell when things are moving too slow way easier when I break a scene down into 1000-word chunks. Just about everything I've posted can be chopped down to keep the pace up. Anyway, it'll be ten times better once I put it through its paces.

Mostly that makes me groan because it means I still have half a book to write once I do the cutting. And I think the random stableboy is going to have to go back in to address the male/female balance. If there's space.

Wonder if I should edit the blog posts when I get published? Should I let my readers know I go back and forth on things? Most authors seem to project this aura of infallibility. It probably helps them sell books. All the authors I've met are human, all the books I've read have mistakes--from typos to major errors (like the same guy dying twice in one series--whoops!) and I think it's okay. Serious fans might have a problem with the nice wallpaper being peeled back to reveal the roach-covered wood though, so I'll have to think about it.

On the other hand, maybe so many authors' freaky self-confidence is the reason so many people think they can become best-selling millionaire writers without working at it, so maybe I'm doing a service by bursting the "it's so easy" bubble. Read about how hard Jim Butcher struggled before he found a publisher. That'll make your confidence shake a little, because if it wasn't easy for a future #1 NYT bestseller...

It also proves how important connections are in the professional publishing world. So make them, and don't screw them up once you have them.

We'll now get back to your regularly scheduled writing prompt.


TITLE: Deal with it
TYPE: Character

We've all had moments in our life when we've grieved. If your characters don't have something to grieve about, or at least feel some kind of intense emotion about (like seeing the results of their dad's m.s.), there's probably something wrong with your book.

Now you've probably read the Conan-style heroic fantasy where the black-clad bad guy slaughters an entire village or a hapless underling ("Apology accepted, Captain Needa") or the hero's sister/mother/father/kitten. And it was just the cutest, fuzziest kitten a barbarian war-dawg could ever possess.

And you know what the hero's version of therapy is? Kicking villainish butt, that's what. If my brother turns out to be in league with Dr. Evil, whatever, I'm a buff hero who barely has the brains to point a chainsaw in the right direction, so I accept it and move on.


One of my favorite things about the Wheel of Time series was Rand's flashbacks after he is tortured in the box. As a sexual assault survivor, I know some things about nasty flashbacks and his claustrophobia. His weakness and added descent into madness made absolute sense to me. The all powerful Dragon needs a safety blanket to hug when life gets to that hard moment in life.

So that example's not exactly about grief, but it's certainly about intense emotion. And there are other moments when Rand chivalrously grieves over all the women he's harmed. Realistic, I think, even if one does want to say "you gotta break a few eggs to make a souffle, dude." Which is probably what Robert Jordan himself was thinking.

What about your own hero or heroine? Have you taken opportunities to show a hero dealing with strong emotions? Has she or he ever been through the five stages of grief? If you've forgotten, in order, they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Often, heroes in books only through anger and acceptance. They shed a single tear over the burned ruins of their home village and move on to some self-righteous killin'.

Can you use denial in your story? Bargaining? Depression? I think the only time I've ever seen bargaining in the sci-fi/fantasy genre is in Stephen Donaldson's series, so if you can pull bargaining off, you might be doing something semi-unique.

Now's the tricky part: can you write intense emotion without making it melodramatic?

That's something I struggle with, especially with male characters. In real life, grief can be unmanly, and I've been told there's nothing like a crying hero to drive male readers running from the heels. I will go to just about any lengths not to deal with intense emotional scenes. I have to bring myself to the point of self-flagellating to write them. Part of the difficulty, at least for emotional male scenes, stems from the fact I was sexually assault. I have to fight my semi-subconscious belief that men couldn't possibly be real people with real emotions, otherwise this one particular paragon of male virtue couldn't have hurt me and violated me so deeply.

I think the best advice about writing emotion is that nobody likes a hero who wallows. Keep it short and sweet. Angsty adolescent heroes are a bit of a fad right now, but it's not necessary something that needs to be brought out by long soliloquies about the bitterness of life just to prove how sensitive your character is. A lot of emotion doesn't need to be directly written because we've all been there and we can paint the details in our own minds. And there's nothing like a hero who's trying to keep a stiff upper lip to win a reader's sympathy.

Again, to draw on Wheel of Time examples: Rand, while reading Moiraine's note, is moved to tears. We don't need an internal monologue telling us why. Robert Jordan paints the picture with a few guilty phrases and his denial that he's crying.

Or Perrin when he loses his family. He doesn't go crazy with his grief until Faile holds him. So much emotion in such a short space. I think Jordan is a master of characterization and world creation, which is why we all loved him even when we loved to complain about him.

(And speaking of great authors being human, remember when Perrin is talking to Min in book three and says he's never had a sister? And then his sister dies in The Shadow Returns? Whoops. There's another one where Birgitte swears to Elayne and calls her daughter-heir and LATER says she thinks Elayne's lying about being daughter-heir of Andor. Actually, given the extensive world Jordan's created, I think it's incredible how few continuity errors there are in his books. He must have kept the fattest stack of notes ever.)

Anyway, this week, try to put characters and the tough emotions together in at least one scene. Keep it short. Keep it strong. And put yourself in your character's place. What would you feel like if you were in the same position? Chances are, your hero would react similarly because we're all human. Or elvish. Or whatever.


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