Labels, Irony, and Writing

Yesterday I posted a personal essay that was difficult to do. Today, I want to tie that to the craft of writing.

If you write something that dips into your deepest emotions, if you write something brutally honest, something that makes you squirm uncomfortably, or be a little fearful of ‘putting it out there’ then you’ve written something true. And even if those who read it have never been in that situation, they will respond and recognize the underlying emotions.

If you read something that makes you squirm a bit, that causes an emotional reaction, that sticks with you and won’t let you go after the last word has been digested, then the writer has succeeded.

If you can’t touch those deepest wells of emotion, if you can’t be brutally honest in your writing, if you can’t pull up words that battle to stay hidden, then you’ll have a hard time eliciting responses in your readers.

No one ever said writing was easy.

When you write something that scares you because of that honesty, and your trusted friend reads it and says ‘holy shit!’ then you know you’ve been true to your inner soul.

When you think your writing is filled with believable characters with honest emotions, go back and see if you can dig a little deeper, pull off a few more scabs, and expose a few more wounds.

If you’re afraid to write it, then it needs to be written.

If it won’t let you go, it needs to go into words.


From the 1990s, a photo to tie into the Labels post. 

Vital Simplicity

This past week I met with author Susan Schreyer for a writing gab fest. She asked me a simple question and I’ve been pondering on it since because it’s so vital to writing. I also had her give me advice on roses. She’s invaluable on both topics.


That’s water on the petals

We all know the important ‘what if’ question. It’s how stories are born. What if this happened, and then that? What if she’d said this instead of that? And so on.

But there’s the more important question once that idea is formed. What does each character want, more than anything else?

I know it’s obvious. So obvious in fact, that it gets forgotten, almost like an ignored cliché.

I talked to Susan about a character that is in jail to figure out her role in the protagonist’s life. Susan asked me, ‘what does she want?’. Yes, I’d thought of that before, because this is the fourth book the character will be in. But I hadn’t given it much thought as far as how roles have changed with jail, how this character will fit into the new role, and more importantly, how she will act within confines.

To answer Susan, I started listing off things I thought the character wanted. The things I thought were important. And then, almost as an afterthought, I said, ‘well, and freedom I guess’. Susan honed right onto that word. Freedom. And followed up with, ‘what would the character do to be free?’.

So while I know the question is simple and basic, it’s too important to forget, or to assume that you already know the answer. It’s a question that should be asked of every single character and really, it works out to a dual question.

What do they really want…and how far will they go to get it?

It’s one of those basic questions writers learn early on. It then gets buried because, after all, you know it and you’re sure that you’re using it in writing. But it’s not such a bad thing to occasionally pull out a tool that might be buried at the bottom of your writer’s tool kit, dust it off, and use it again.

The Dreaded Bobble Head

We’ve been re-watching a show called Numb3rs (that’s not a typo) and one of actors fascinates me. Peter MacNicol turned the role of a professor who’s brilliant but rather foggy from a cliché to fully developed character. I find myself studying the mannerisms of the character. I’m not sure if the actor did this on his own or if the director assisted, but either way, what could have been a cardboard walk on character became much more. And I think a large part of that was movement.

Peter held his body with shoulders slightly hunched forward, making the chest shallow. He held one arm across his body, cupping the other elbow, with that arm held upright. As he talked, his hand would be there like a flag on a flagpole, moving constantly, nervously, absentminded, busy. When the character was puzzling over something the hand would move limp, tugging at a curl, pulling at an earlobe. When nervous or agitated, the hand would move more quickly, flitting, worrying.

There were many more mannerisms this character had, including the way he spoke, but you get the idea. Watching him made me ponder on the old dreaded bobble head of writing. There are two things my characters do in the first draft of a story that could cause issues in real life. One, they run around naked until I’m editing and realize I’ve forgotten to dress them. Two, they nod a lot and just stand there while in dialog.

The editing process fleshes them out more. Of course in the first draft I’m just trying to capture the story, so that makes sense. But I have to remember to go back and add those mannerisms; the movements that give depth to dialog and character, and even more depth to the unspoken dialog between characters. Body language is so important.

Clear body language for a dog caught in the act

Clear body language for a dog caught in the act

When I watch an actor who does a marvelous job of bringing that language of the body to life, I find myself thinking – how would I describe that so it would be seen to the reader? How would I describe it without it overwhelming the message in the dialog?

Another thing I like to do is sit in a parking lot with music playing so that I can’t hear what people are talking about. Or watch people in a busy restaurant where the ambient noise makes it difficult to pull out individual voices. In those types of situations you can watch body language without being distracted by the words. And again, figure out how you would describe what you see and what you think they are talking about.

Finally, during an edit process I like to hold my hand over the dialog on the written page, look at the movements I’ve given a character, and see if those movements tell me anything or if they are just filler.

But like I said, that’s all in the editing process. For the most part, in the first draft, I have a bunch of bobble heads nodding and smiling. Or nodding and frowning. Or nodding and teary. Blah.