This Little Trick Will Add a Dash of Joy to Your Writing Life.

This Little Trick Will Add a Dash of Joy to Your Writing Life.

Last week, I revealed the doldrums I’ve faced while trying to publish my work.  My goal was to shed light on the process and normalize the struggles we all encounter. In that post, I also suggested some strategies that help me persevere.

Here’s another invitation: share your work with other people just for the fun of it.

Do it because having readers is the whole reason we write.

Let it bring you joy and connection with those who need your stories.

The following is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. It was originally published on The Keepthings, an Instagram curated by O Magazine editor Deborah Way.

The piece was inspired by a book my brother gave me (see the featured image and the photo below).

If you haven’t checked out Deborah’s gorgeous posts, do it right now.

Better yet, follow The Keepthings, read a post, and leave a comment. This literary citizenship will make you and the poster feel so good. And, wouldn’t it be nice to interact with an esteemed editor like Deborah Way? 

Art in Focus 

My graduation party had just ended. I stood in my mother’s kitchen doorway, counting down the hours until I left home for college in Louisville, Kentucky. At eighteen, I had eyes for nothing but a future that lay 600 miles away.

My brother Joe walked up behind me and tapped my shoulder. Even though he was only sixteen, he towered above me. Yet when he tapped me again, it was like he’d grown small. He beckoned me to the bedroom he’d shared with my other brother, his twin, before they moved in with our father. Touching the wall, I thought of all the bands the three of us had listened to in that room. Ozzy Osbourne. Anthrax. Metallica. A single bed and dresser had been set up after they left.

“Here.” The space was so empty, Joe’s voice echoed. He looked away as he dropped Art in Focus and a TI-81 graphing calculator into my hands. He claimed the calculator had been lying in an empty hallway. Art in Focus, he’d stolen from our high school’s art department.

These were two of only a handful of gifts Joe had given me over the course of our lives. He knew I couldn’t afford the hundred-dollar graphing calculator required for my upcoming calculus class. But why would he think I’d want some old high-school textbook?
He pointed to Art in Focus and said, “Open it.”

I did. In the “Property Of” grid stamped on the book’s inside cover was my name, where I’d dutifully written it in when I took art history in the fall. Joe had taken the same class in spring.

“We had the same fucking book! You believe that shit?” He ran his finger over the white space where his own name should have appeared.

I chewed the inside of my cheek, unsure whether to accept stolen goods.

Then he clasped his hands over mine. “Now you can take part of me to college.”

Later that night, I tucked the textbook and calculator into my suitcase. All freshman year, I carried them in my backpack, comforted by the weight of their presence—his presence—especially on days when the future didn’t live up to my dreams.

In an art class, I learned that white space is also called negative space. It’s an essential part of a composition that often amplifies the subject. But sometimes negative space becomes the composition’s subject.

Joe visited Louisville twice before he ended his life. On both visits, I planned to have him fill the “Property Of” blank with his signature. But fun times always eclipsed that task. So now every time I touch the book, I open the front cover and swipe my finger across the blank line that he once touched.


So, which one of your possessions has a story to tell?

Who needs to read it?

Once you’ve shared your story, send me an email. I’d love to hear what you felt and what you learned.

And keep writing your precious stories. Each one is a miracle with the power to touch someone’s heart. 

If You Want to Become a Great Writer You Have to Be Willing to Do This.

If You Want to Become a Great Writer You Have to Be Willing to Do This.

How’s the querying? 

Family and friends ask this question with joyful expectation. Experienced writers are more subdued.

I’ve spent much of my life trying to appear competent while feeling terrified that I’m not smart enough or good enough. 

But I committed to being transparent about this process. If success came easy, it would inspire fellow writers. If I struggled, I’d model perseverance and the power of AGFOs (another fucking growth experience). 

So far, I’ve queried twenty-five agents. For those of you who’ve never done this, twenty-five is a small number. A few still haven’t acknowledged my email. Several requested additional pages. Six requested the full. Two of the six declined. I’m waiting to hear back from the other four. Requests for the full are always a good sign but they’re not a guarantee. While most agents will at least respond with a nice rejection, they can still ghost you. 

My rejections have been variations on the following theme: “You’re a talented writer with a compelling story, but I’m not sure how to sell this.” Often, these statements are coupled with phrases like I’m sure you’ll get an agent, or this is just one opinion.

Two agents sent more personalized responses. One was exceptionally generous, and while she passed, she told me to send her my next project. 

Rejections are always disappointing no matter how thick your skin. 

Two really stung. 

Agent one: “I’m sorry for your tough life. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for everything you’ve ever been through. But I don’t feel like this rises to the level of the universal.” 

I’m sure this agent (who read a partial) was trying to be kind, compassionate, and helpful, but the repeated apologies felt more like commentary on my brokenness than a critique of my project. 

And then there was The Doozy written by an agent who’d read the full. 

Agent two: “I really thought this would be more fully cooked. The first eleven pages were electric, but the story quickly fell apart. Put it away and work on something else.” This person said a couple of semi-nice things and probably believed their feedback was a gift. And really, all feedback—even the tough stuff—is a gift. 

What I heard: “Yep, your book sucks. And you call yourself an editor? Quit your project and your day job.”

Talk about a hot poker to my ego!  

Fortunately, I’ve been on a healing journey long enough to call bullshit on those shadow remarks. 

Here’s the truth: It’s easier to find flaws in someone else’s writing than to identify them in your own. As a writer, I’m in the trenches just like you. I get too close to my story or overly invested in certain things. Sometimes my impatience causes me to rush through the process, because damnit, I want to freaking publish this book. 

Part of the querying process is learning to decipher the meta-message embedded in agent responses so you can decide whether to query more or return to your manuscript. 

First, I had to tend to my wounds. 

I journaled about my feelings then checked in with mentors and query friends who listened, shared rejection tales, and cheered me on.

I returned to my “why” and made a list of things I loved about this book. I got clear about how this will help my readers and why I am willing to see this through.  

I checked in with beta readers and questioned whether something could be missing, read craft books including my advanced copy of Allison William’s soon-to-be-released masterpiece Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. (Pre-order your copy STAT!)

In the Story Draft section, Allison shares the following exercise: Give a fresh reader pages 50 – 70 of your manuscript, but tell them it’s the beginning. After they read the excerpt, ask if anything’s missing. If their answer doesn’t refer to most of your first fifty pages, it’s likely they need to be scrapped.

As soon as I finished reading this exercise my stomach dropped past my toes. 

A few days later I received The Doozy. 

Once I regained my sense of self-worth, I knew I needed to see whether agents one and two had a point. So, I spent Memorial Day weekend at The Porches, a writing retreat in nearby Nelson County. I took a printed copy of my manuscript and Seven Drafts

In the three-act structure, act one is the place where you establish your ordinary world, or the world the narrator inhabited before something launches their journey. For many books, act one is around sixty pages. My first fifty pages established the world before my brother’s death. 

An invitation to join my husband’s heavy metal tour is the inciting incident that launches act two of my book. This event takes place three weeks after my brother’s death. 

As I reread the first seventy pages, it was clear some events were essential, but most could be condensed and repurposed as flashbacks. The ordinary world of my story was the grief-stricken first few weeks after my brother’s suicide. It was a world where some people die tragically, others behave erratically, and hope is a chip of soap sliding toward the bathtub drain. Rereading took me back to the drawing board, but it also showed me how close I am.

Querying, like most milestones in the writing life, is not a point of arrival, but an opportunity to test your creative experiment

Sometimes the results delight you. 

Other times, they launch another experiment.  

This doesn’t make you a fraud, a bad writer, or someone who should give up. 

So, how’s the querying? I’m persevering and so should you. 

What obstacles have you faced in your writing life? 

How have you picked yourself up when you felt like quitting?

Your projects are worth fighting for. Keep showing up and keep writing on. 

Too Much Plot or Character Arc? Rebalance Your Writing by Doing This.

Too Much Plot or Character Arc? Rebalance Your Writing by Doing This.

Yesterday, I read a Lit Hub essay by Lan Samantha Chang about the importance of protecting our inner worlds. We create from our inner worlds and promote through our outer world. As writers, we tend to focus on one or the other. The essay has inspired next month’s newsletter topic. This week, let’s explore another set of inner and outer experiences as we delve deeper into Donald Maass’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.  

In last week’s newsletter, we explored Donald Maass’s thoughts on the inner and outer modes for writing your characters’ emotions. This week, we’ll look at your protagonist’s inner and outer journey. 

The outer journey is represented by the plot, which “holds up the novel’s structure like columns hold up a skyscraper.” But you need more than a series of columns to tell a great story. To give your plot a sense of depth and perspective, you need the “crosswise beams of the protagonist’s inner journey.” Plots reveal what happened. Inward journeys, or character arcs, give your plots their meaning.

It’s likely your stories tend more toward plot or character arc, but telling a powerful story requires you to master both. Focus too much on plot, and your story will feel superficial. Hang everything on the inward journey, and we’ll wonder what’s causing your character’s turmoil. 

Great stories swing from both poles. Characters do things that create inner struggles and then use those inner struggles to form actions that move the story forward. 

According to Maass, “human beings can be divided into two broad psychological categories or polarities: those who store tension and those who store energy…. People who store tension turn inward. They ponder, reflect, think, and feel. Those who store energy turn outward and prefer to go for a run or smack a ball with a stick.”  

Knowing your tendency toward energy or tension will help you understand what parts of a story are easy for you to create and what parts you must intentionally build. 

Between drafts, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Am I a person who tends to store tension or energy? 
  2. Which polarity have I written for my character? 
  3. After reading my draft, what do I need to include to balance the poles of the story’s inner and outer journey? 
  4. If I’m writing more about energy (action), what internal resources will help me explore the emotions behind my character’s actions? 
  5. If I’m stuck in my protagonist’s head, can I figure out what actions reveal my character’s angst and their reactions to the story’s conflict? 

If your draft is heavy on plot and light on introspection, it’s likely you’re failing to identify and capitalize on your scenes’ emotional beats—those pivotal moments where your protagonist ponders then responds to the conflict between what they want and what’s possible. If this is happening, step back and ask yourself what the story is about. For example, is this a story about loss, connection, or loneliness? 

Once you know your story, consider what part of this conflict your scene reveals. For example, maybe your character desperately wants to be seen as legitimate, and therefore worthy of love, just as Bone does in Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina.

In Allison’s novel, Bone is so hungry for her mother’s love, she’s willing to do anything to keep from upsetting her, even if it means enduring her stepfather Glen’s horrific abuse. 

After one beating, Bone is taken to see a doctor. An x-ray reveals her collar bone has fused into a lump, and her tailbone has broken. The doctor insists she tell him what happened. He slaps the headboard of her bed, demanding answers, as Bone watches her mother’s fingers grip the palm of her free hand. When Bone feels her mother’s “icy, but comforting fingers” on her back, she asks to be taken home, somehow knowing that to be loved she must keep her mother’s secrets. 

If you’ve set up shop in the narrator’s head, make something happen in the outer world. Maass says this is especially important if your characters are psychologically tormented. 

But, when exploring your inward journey, don’t just think about swinging from action to emotion. Think about how you can take the emotion you’re exploring and swing it to one of its poles. For example, “is there a point when self-awareness turns into self-confidence, or goodness hardens into self-righteousness?” 

Maass says, “Characters are most interesting when they’re inconvenient.” Characters filled with righteous anger might be easy to cheer for, but what if that righteous anger narrows to revenge? And what if that revenge morphs into torture?

Writing inconvenient characters can be uncomfortable because they require you to step beyond the bounds of what you normally write. But the payoff in terms of story is huge. Inconvenient characters explore territory we’re all hungry to examine. They say the uncomfortable yet true things lurking in our hearts and let us explore the forbidden.

As you prepare for bigger story payoffs, send me your answers to the following questions:  

Do you typically write about energy or tension? 
What would help you write about the opposite polarity? 
Which inconvenient characters are the hardest to write about? 

Using Donald Maass’s Inner, Outer, and Other Modes Will Help You Crack the Code on Writing about Emotions

Using Donald Maass’s Inner, Outer, and Other Modes Will Help You Crack the Code on Writing about Emotions

Last Saturday, I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank filled with body temperature water and 800 pounds of Epsom salts. 

After my session, someone asked, “Did you spend some time on the astral plane?”

Grinning, I replied, “Why yes I most certainly did.” 

If you’d like a comic look at the range of experiences people have while in these tanks, check out this clip from the Big Bang Theory

For the record, all of my sensory deprivation tank experiences have thankfully been like Sheldon’s. 

Separating myself from the world’s constant sensory assault gave me a chance to recharge. Afterward, I was keenly aware of the ways inward feelings, outer expressions, and our exchanges with others impact the way we experience the world.

All of this aligned perfectly with the inner, outer, and other modes of writing Donald Maass talks about in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

When using the outer mode, we show emotions through our characters’ actions and the subtext embedded in their interactions.

Donald says, “Action is an opportunity for us to feel something, not a cause of feeling something.”

To illustrate this point, he uses an example from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Upon release from a psychiatric facility, our protagonist, Pat, must meet with his outpatient psychiatrist. As he waits for someone to call his name, Kenny G plays on the office sound system. Unable to take one more note from that “evil bright soprano saxophone,” he topples the waiting-room furniture. 

Maass encourages writers to keep their stories within the reader’s zone of tolerance. He believes “the best way to deal with characters who are dark, tormented, suffering, or insane” is to show what’s happening externally rather than trapping readers in a character’s tortured internal monologue.

His advice: “When characters’ emotions are highly painful, pull back.”  

Quick maintains the zone of tolerance through humorous scenes that temper his characters’ pain. 

Writers can also show internal conditions and states of being. To do this, Maass shares Hemmingway’s advice: “Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down and make it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.” 

The inner mode is where we tell feelings. This equally important part of storytelling must be skillfully executed; however, feelings are often overwritten. Maass says to watch out for overwrought phrases like “his guts twisted with fear” or “her eyes shot daggers at him.” 

Instead, focus on unexpected emotions your characters could have. Often, these emotions exist underneath the surface or beyond the safety of what you typically write. 

Ray Bradbury explores this in Fahrenheit 451, a novel about a futuristic fireman named Guy Montag who makes a living by burning books. A recent experience causes Guy to question his profession. During the next scheduled burn, he takes a book from the house just before it’s doused with kerosene. The owner is told to leave but she refuses. 

As the house burns, we would expect Guy to fear for the homeowner or become overwhelmed by the horror he’s witnessing. But Bradbury gives Guy an unexpected emotion—excitement. 

Unexpected emotions can be used to create reversals from what readers expect. To do this well, familiarize yourself with both primary and secondary emotions and how they play out in human experiences. 

Writers bring their skills to Maass’s inner and outer modes. His other mode belongs to the reader. It includes their unique emotional reactions. 

Readers expect to have a positive experience when reading, but they also want to be challenged. 

So how do you effectively challenge the reader? 

Create novel situations that make readers confront their assumptions and beliefs in such a way that they need to chew on the story to work out its meaning. 

Maass calls this the chewing effect and says, “it makes stories more memorable because readers who chew on stories spend more time with them.”

Another way to create the chewing effect is to go cold during an emotionally intense scene. To go cold, you show your characters’ actions without sharing their emotional responses. You can also do this by sharing emotional responses that conflict with readers’ expectations. 

Jeanette Walls achieves this early in The Glass Castle when she shows her father’s hot-headed behavior while expressing total admiration for him. The incongruence between how the characters behave and how young Jeanette feels makes readers fear for her safety.

To learn more about the power of going cold, check out this essay by Dylan Landis.

So, what helps you understand your character’s emotions? 

What strategies do you use for exploring their inner and outer modes of expression? 

What challenges do you face? Send me an email

Your answers might lead to a future blog post. 

Answering This One Weird Question Will Help You Build Better Characters

Answering This One Weird Question Will Help You Build Better Characters

Two weeks ago, I started a class where the instructor asked the following question:

What if you were The One?

Like many people, I squirmed in my chair. The One? Seriously? 

Sensing our discomfort, he asked us each to list the ways we’re already the ones making a difference in another person’s life.

The one who feeds the cats. 
The one who tucks the kids into bed. 
The one who visits a mother in a nursing home. 
The one who writes stories that make people feel less alone.

After we created our lists, he returned to his original question.

If you were The One, and nothing and no one was against you, how would you live your life?

What would you allow yourself to do?

Maybe these questions sound arrogant or absurd. But he’s not the first person to entertain these ideas.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham is famously quoted as saying the following to her students:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” 

If you were The One, would you feel more alive?

Would you allow yourself to be a channel not just for your stories but for the emotions that enrich them?

In the Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Maass says, “how characters experience their story determines how readers experience a novel (or memoir).”  Like it or not, “you reveal your inner self right away.”

He says a writer’s positivity—or lack of it—gets transmitted into their work. Slush piles are filled with misery-laden manuscripts that only go from bad to worse—if they go anywhere at all.

“Cynical writing tries too hard.”

To write well, Maass encourages writers to cultivate a sense of positivity or indomitable resilience that provides a life force for your character’s journey.  This positivity encompasses the best of you—your nerve, your drive, your sense of hope.

This isn’t about writing Pollyanna characters and cheerful plotlines.

Maass uses Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policeman to illustrate the kind of positivity he’s referring to. This novel is about an asteroid named Maia that’s six months away from colliding with the earth. Society is collapsing. There are bankruptcies and price controls. Guns have been outlawed. Religious mania and suicides are up. But even as life unravels, one gritty cop, Hank Pike, tries to solve the latest crime. His colleagues think he’s crazy. Who cares if the most recent death is a suicide or a murder? Hank does, and he’s determined to find out what really happened.

That desire to get the job done in the face of worldwide calamity is the positivity Maass is talking about.

And doesn’t this definition fit for the writing life too?

Writing well requires us to muscle through countless drafts, rejections, and near-constant ambiguity and uncertainty.

Yet, we continue to write.

To keep doing this, some small part of us must believe we’re The One with the positivity required to write something important.

If this is true, what would it take to believe that no one and nothing is against you?

What would you need to believe or do to see every hardship as a lesson, every setback as a gift, every loss as the beginning of something new?

Does it sound like I’ve hopped on board the bullshit train and started to blow its horn?

Do you wish you were onboard too?

All I ask is that you figure out what you believe and then ask yourself the following questions:

How are my answers working for me?
Do they give me courage?
Are they helping me create characters that persevere, even when their worlds collapse around them?

And, if these questions feel too big, try this one:

When are you the one who makes a difference in someone’s life? 

Don’t be afraid to recognize your contributions to the world.

Instead, use them to sustain your writing life, and as always, keep writing on.

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