Thanksgiving has whizzed past and Christmas looms ahead. If you’re anything like me, you make this super stupid promise to yourself roughly December 24th that you will buy gifts throughout the year, so you aren’t pressed and stressed and ready to stand on a roof with a shotgun holding the entire dish of rum balls hostage…and ALL the rum.
No, this year will be different. I will be PREPARED.
*clutches sides laughing*
Sort of reminds me of finals back in college. Next time I am going to read all my chapters AHEAD of time.
The holidays are a magical time of year, but all of us handle the season differently. So what is your Holiday Style? Here’s a helpful little quiz:
1) When cleaning before the holidays, you:
a) Might give the mantel a light dusting just so you don’t look like a show-off. The gleam from your spotless fixtures could cause retinal damage. When someone mentions Ask Heloise, you can’t help but think, ‘Ptht, amateur.’
b) Make a plan to go room by room and whip your house into shape. Once this baby is clean, you KNOW it will stay that way for good.
In fact, you’ve vowed to stab your husband if he leaves his towel on the bathroom floor, and have threatened your children with a tell-all e-mail to Santa if they don’t put their clean clothes away properly.
c) Get a little excited because you haven’t seen your floors, counters or pretty much any of your home’s flat surfaces since the party last New Years. In fact, you are pretty sure the Christmas tree is still up under one of the piles of laundry and unopened mail.
Hey, why take down decorations you know you will need every year?
Yes, this is um…ME *hangs head*
2) When it comes to holiday shopping, you:
a) Are already finished. You made a long, detailed list last January and have spent the year buying the perfect gift for all your loved ones. All that’s left is to enjoy the season while those ill-prepared dopes fight over the last Holiday Barbie.
b) Wait until Black Friday. Technically, you start three days before Black Friday. What better way to use all that camping equipment you got last year for Christmas, than to stake out the front of Apple, Ikea or Best Buy?
c) Dig through your closet for all the unopened crappy gifts you got at the office Secret Santa party last year and then re-gift them to your distant relatives. Sure, Aunt Edna doesn’t know who Justin Bieber is, but who wouldn’t want a singing toothbrush?
Well, other than you, of course.
Tomorrow, I will do the wrapping….
3) When it comes to gifts, you:
a) Spare no expense. The holiday season is a season of generosity. All your gifts are thoughtful, beautiful, lavish…and better than everyone else’s.
b) Believe it’s the thought that counts, and most people will think you are cheap if they see the Clearance sticker on their present, which is why you LOVE black Sharpies. They can be counted on to fully black out the $4.99 on the bottom of that seashell vase from Anthropologie.
Hey, we don’t have to pay retail to still give an awesome gift. You just make sure the gift recipient can see part of the original price of $89 so they feel like you ‘shelled’ out a lot of cash.
c) Make one trip. Dollar General has everything you need for Christmas gifts. What could be a better Christmas gift than cans of Lite Vienna Sausages (Now Made with REAL Meat!) or Low-Sodium Spam?
4) When it comes to holiday memories, you:
a) Love capturing every moment on video, then editing the clips to music using your MacBook Pro. Then, of course you order prints on-line so you can scrapbook together all the holiday magic.
You have the cutest little snowman stickers that will add the perfect touch to the family newsletter you send out early morning December 26th.
b) Have them all in a big box that you will organize one day…once you locate the box.
c) Save gas, time and bail money by staying home instead of visiting those who happen to share DNA (though you did do an Ancestry DNA test because you don’t want to accept you really ARE blood related).
No, all you need is to binge watch a season of Maury Povich reruns. The experience is pretty much the same.
5) Of all the Christmas carols, you:
a) Know Handel’s Messiah is your all-time favorite, and you know all the words. Why wouldn’t you? You sing in the choir every year.
b) Can’t get enough Silver and Gold, sung by Burl Ives. It reminds you of being a kid and waiting all year to see Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
c) Think Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is the funniest carol EVER, next to the Three Kings who tried to smoke a rubber cigar. In fact, you can’t even sing Deck the Walls with the correct lyrics.
6) As far as wrapping Christmas presents, you:
a) Use the tips you saved on Pinterest and from Martha Stewart Magazine. You bought the heavy duty paper and lavish bows last year at the Container Store’s ‘After Christmas Sale’ and expensive ornaments 85% off at the Neiman Marcus ‘After Christmas Sale.’
All your gifts look so beautiful, they might as well be considered Christmas decorations. No one ever wants to open your gifts until they’ve taken a picture of the wrapping.
b) Thought you were saving money when you bought the wrapping paper from Walmart. Of course, you didn’t foresee that it was as thin as rice-paper on a crash diet. After tearing the corners on every box you wrapped, you had to wrap everything AGAIN.
This means ten gifts took 42 rolls of paper. You lost the tape, only to later find it stuck to your butt. The dog ate all the ribbon and is now pooping tinsel, and your husband has found it HYSTERICAL to put tape on all the cat’s paws instead of helping.
c) The gifts you bought came pre-wrapped. It’s called a Dollar Store bag. DUH. You love the environment, so why cut down more trees when THIS Christmas wrapping paper can later be used to pick up the tinsley dog poop?
7) When it comes to dressing for holiday parties you:
a) Buy smashing outfit ahead of time so you have time to find the perfect accessories and shoes to match. Then you make sure to get an appointment with a hairdresser and makeup artist in October before the slots fill. Why trust those holiday pictures to anyone but a professional?
b) Buy an outfit ahead of time, but completely forget about shoes and earrings…and eating less. You bought the dress even though it was too small, because it was supposed to make you be ‘good’ this year and not overeat.
Ah, but that was until the dog started pooping tape and Christmas ribbon and you leveled the fudge like a Biblical plague (Moses would have been duly impressed).
So Christmas Eve you find yourself wandering the mall searching for the last pair of Spanks in the free world. Speaking of tinsel, you can’t help but wonder what the tensile-strength of spandex is. In your mind, you imagine a Catastrophic Spanx Failure that takes out three innocent bystanders.
c) Just wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt because Netflix doesn’t judge. Holiday parties are just too…peoplely. Why socialize when there are still so many books you’ve yet to read?
Embrace the inner psychopath. If I could only teach ONE ‘trick’ for writing great stories, it would be this: The moral codes that make us excellent citizens make us terrible writers.
We have to remember the rules change when dealing in the realms of imagination. Fiction is NOT life, rather it is an imitation of life. It is life in distillate form.
To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, great stories are ‘life’ with the boring parts cut out. Yet, so many emerging writers forget this.
Novelists aren’t just good with words, novelists excel at using words to create a STORY. This is why so many first ‘novels’ really aren’t novels at all. Because being good with words isn’t enough.
If it were enough, then chefs could perform heart surgery because they’re ‘really good with sharp blades.’
Being ‘good with words’ has to be refined. Good with words…HOW?
Prose and description so glorious angels sing does not a novel make. What makes a novelist is how we wield those words. Yet, here’s the catch. If we want to write stories readers can’t put down, then can’t get out of their heads, then cant stop talking about?
We must embrace our inner psychopath. If we don’t have one, then we need to train one.
Great Writers Embrace the Inner ‘Psychopath’
The terms psychopath and sociopath are easy to confuse, yet they’re distinctively different disorders. Sociopaths have an antisocial personality disorder, which often leads them to ignore social and moral rules that guide an ordered society. They understand right from wrong, just don’t care.
So where does the sociopath part ways with the psychopath?
It’s believed that psychopaths are a more extreme version of the antisocial personality disorder. Thus all psychopaths are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are psychopaths.
The psychopath is, thus far, believed to be incapable of forging emotional bonds, whereas sociopaths can. Thus, the sociopath might not have any qualms about emptying a stranger’s bank account, but he wouldn’t do that to his best friend.
Psychopaths would make no such distinction and would empty anyone’s account they gained (manipulated) access to. The psychopath isn’t guided by any sense of shame or guilt. He or she doesn’t hold back, and is not hindered by empathy or sympathy.
Back to writing.
Superb fiction is an exercise in sadism. Why writers generally creep non-writers out is because we have the imagination to inflict so much suffering and pain.
The non-writer doesn’t understand HOW we can do what we do, but they enjoy it nonetheless…and they just make sure to keep their eyes on us.
Millions of people watch (and read) Game of Thrones knowing they are going to be tortured hour after hour…but they can’t get enough. And bear with me, because this goes for ALL great stories. We don’t have to write stories with rape, incest, cannibalism, and mass murder to still torture an audience.
For the writer psychopath, not even CHRISTMAS is safe. Think of all your longtime favorite holiday movies, the ones you watch year after year. What do they have in common?
They all involve chaos, mass mayhem and destruction.
There’s a reason for that. Without chaos, mass mayhem and destruction, there is NO STORY.
Who wants to spend an hour and a half watching a movie about a well-adjusted family getting along? #SnoozeFest
No, we want the GRISWOLDS! National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is about a man whose only goal is to have the most incredible Christmas ever…but his dream is systematically dismantled in increasingly awful ways.
All of his dreams blow up in his face. His lights won’t work and when they do, he causes a massive blackout. His dream is to have the biggest best Christmas tree (good goal, noble goal), but the tree won’t fit in their house and then there is a squirrel and on and on. Nothing works.
Everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong…twice. Then catches fire.
Christmas Vacation is funny, but it isn’t in my top five. I insist that Gremlins is a Christmas movie, yet Hubby doesn’t agree Gremlins is a Christmas movie (because he is wrong).
Then of course there is…
But, monsters taking over a town at Christmas and a hostage situation in a skyscraper are pretty obviously full of overt conflict.
So I decided to talk about the movies that are plenty tense, yet the conflict has more to do with people, their relationships to and with one another, and how desires and false idols collide.
My two favorite Christmas movies are ‘A Christmas Story‘ and ‘The Ref‘. I’m specifically mentioning these two because the screenwriters certainly knew how to embrace their inner psychopaths.
A Christmas Story…from HELL
A Christmas Story is all about a young boy in the 1940s doing everything humanly possible to secure the gift of his dreams, a Red Ryder BB gun. Every good idea he concocts blows up in his face. This poor kid can’t get a break.
I’d like to take a moment to mention that what separates the mundane from the magnificent has to do with VECTORS. When a writer embraces that inner psychopath?
NO ONE IS SAFE.
New writers very often forget to USE their other characters as more than stage props (plot puppets). Why A Christmas Story is SO fun is because mayhem strikes from every angle. Trauma sucker-punches everyone.
When the MC is only in a struggle against a singular antagonistic force, the story falls flat and becomes tedious. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Yet, in this holiday classic, Ralphie isn’t the only one who gets smacked. Dad wins a PRIZE he insists on putting in the front window, and he’s oblivious to his wife’s mortification.
Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window. ~Ralphie as an Adult
The one thing the whole family—but most especially DAD—looks forward to is the Christmas turkey and the days and days of leftovers to enjoy. But nothing is safe from a writer who’s embraced that inner psychopath. Not even the Christmas turkey.
But look how chaos and destruction hammers EVERYONE (not JUST Ralphie).
Speaking of mass mayhem. The Ref is one of the few movies that can make even this Griffendork root for a ‘bad guy.’ Dennis Leary *fan girl moment* plays Gus, a cat burglar who robs the wrong mansion…and his partner abandons him.
With the entire city’s police force out hunting for him, Gus makes a snap decision to lay low by taking a seemingly nice family hostage.
Ah, but the tag line for this movie is genius.
They might be his hostages but what they’re doing to this guy is criminal.
The Ref (1994) Fan Trailer - YouTube
Gus begins with a plan, a plan he’s executed flawlessly until it goes horribly wrong. What’s better is it just keeps getting worse and worse until the end when…catharsis.
See, all the great movies about the holidays present us with the MC’s ideal then the STORY smashes that ideal to pieces until the MC, and those around the MC, realize they’ve missed the entire point of something (family, love, peace, holiday spirit, giving, etc.).
YET, what I want to point out is this. The characters have to endure the torment to get the golden fleece. They cannot suddenly achieve enlightenment and say, ‘A-ha! I’ve had this all wrong! The holiday season is really about X!’
If they did, we’d call foul, be supremely ticked and tell everyone to avoid this movie more than the kiosk barkers at the mall.
Don’t make eye contact. Whatever you do, DO NOT let her buff one nail.
If we watched ninety minutes of a beautifully decorated home (description) with perfect people, we’d feel cheated and ROBBED if nothing went terribly, obscenely WRONG.
Why? Because if the MC doesn’t rightfully EARN revelation, enlightenment, etc. it’s a CHEAT. The writer cheated, which is why we feel cheated. Catharsis is what great stories offer. Release.
The harder it is for the MC (and others) to get to and through Act Three, the more intense the cathartic experience…and the better the denouement.
Today we’re going to talk about revising a novel. It’s a highly emotional and arduous task, but vital. Revising a novel is more than mind-bending work at a computer (or with a red pen for the retro crowd). It’s a tough emotional experience that can blindside us and land us in the mire if we don’t anticipate what to expect.
Some of y’all might be familiar with the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. For those unfamiliar, Swiss psychiatrist, Kübler-Ross first introduced her grief model in her book, On Death & Dying back in 1969 after years of working with terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross identified five specific stages humans experience when faced with an emotionally overwhelming event.
The emotionally overwhelming event can be something traumatic like a death, but not necessarily. The human brain is a magnificent organ. The brain’s critical imperative is, first and foremost, to help us SURVIVE. Not thrive. SURVIVE.
We have to remember this to appreciate what we’re really going through when writing and then revising a novel, especially when we are new.
Our amygdala (Lizard Brain) is roughly the size of an almond, and responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze that kept our ancestors alive for enough generations to give us cool stuff like iPhones, Ikea, and the Internet.
Problem is, the amygdala isn’t terribly ‘smart.’ It can’t tell the difference between an attacking bear…and someone dumping us via text message.
It also can’t discern between experiencing death or revising a novel. This can become a problem, because we need to be in the higher thinking centers—HELLO PREFRONTAL CORTEX—if we hope to be objective enough to revise our first draft(s).
It’s a Process
New writers often are unfamiliar with these five stages. Thus, they can become stuck in the grief process when revising a novel. Revising a novel is grueling, which is why it helps to know what it feels like. What is normal? When are we stuck? Why or when should we look for outside help?
Good questions, so back to the five stages…
Kübler-Ross caught a lot of criticism when she introduced her Five Stages of Grief. Many (mistakenly) assumed Kübler-Ross was suggesting humans went through the five stages in a neat, linear order. Some folks didn’t experience all five, etc.
The problem, obviously, is critics assumed humans make sense.
That, obviously, was the first mistake.
Those who’ve studied Kübler-Ross’s model now realize humans are jacked up and don’t follow instructions because we are not robots. #YayScience
According to some researchers, some humans facing trauma don’t experience any of these emotions, though I’ve yet to puzzle out how that is even possible. So toss that out for our purposes. We often won’t go through the five stages linearly.
Perhaps we can even get stuck on one, or vacillate back in forth in the Feedback Loop from Hell. The Feedback Loop from HELL is what is most pertinent to the Emotional Sheol that is revising a novel.
Kübler-Ross’s five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It applies to losing a loved one, and yep, also applies to writing.
Denial: My Book Is PERFECT
This is something we experience most intensely when we’re new and have no friggin’ idea what we are doing. I remember my first ‘novel.’ It was—and I KID YOU NOT—187,000 words long.
One day, I just started writing, and writing and writing. Finally, I said to myself, ‘Well, this seems long enough. The End.’
I wish I were joking.
My novel was AMAZING. It had love, death, murder, comedy, tragedy, witty reparatee. It had everything!
…but a plot.
I didn’t want to be…’formulaic’ *flips hair*
This is the point where we might join a writing group or hire an editor because we need help with you know commas, spelling, punctuation *more hair flips*.
Many who finish NaNoWriMo for the first time can believe that the novel doesn’t even needs revising *clutches sides laughing* and that it’s cool to publish as is.
Please for the love of all that is chocolate do NOT PUBLISH OR QUERY. Finishing a novel is a lot like losing a loved one. Many loved ones actually in that when we finish, we have to say goodbye to ‘people’ who are very real to us.
Thus, selling our house, accepting proposals from death row inmates, or publishing a book are all MAJOR decisions we should put off…until we’re again legally sane.
Okay, for writers, legally ‘sane.’
The other side of denial (for the more seasoned/jaded author) is THIS IS ALL CRAP. Resist the urge to delete or sign up for barber college. May I introduce y’all to the seasoned writer after a first draft (or NaNoWriMo):
Snickers Super Bowl Commercial Danny Trejo and the brady bunch - YouTube
Have a Snickers…and a nap.
Anger: How Dare You Say My Book Needs Work?
Maybe we reach out to a beta reader, a critique group or even hire a professional. This is the gut punch. Again, this is more for the newer writers since, if one sticks to the craft long enough to be a seasoned author…we spin through these stages faster than a Roulette Wheel hit with too much WD-40.
A little side-bar here…
When we decide to become professional authors, it’s wise to master the craft in every way possible. STUDY STORY. Become an expert. I read a ridiculous amount of books in almost every genre.
Yes, binging on Netflix and series IS work.
I study story structure, character arc, dialogue, theme, etc. First, I do this to help write better craft blogs, give the best classes and offer superlative services. But I also do this for my ART.
Expertise gives us insight and ammunition.
When I was new, I hadn’t studied enough and there were consequences. First, I dismissed good advice. Secondly, I didn’t have any way of discerning good advice from bad advice, which can lead to the Franken-Novel (book by committee). Thirdly, if I wanted to stand by a creative decision, I couldn’t articulate why.
But back to anger. When others (even experts) told me I had problems, I got angry. Instead of doing the tough work, I ‘fixed’ surface stuff. If we get the opinion of an expert who’s any good, I guarantee you they’ll make you angry.
As a long-time editor, I can tell you the ‘perfect’ book doesn’t exist.
Even if a book is great, a good editor should be able to spot something that’s going to take it to that next level. Often, it’s something that requires painful sacrifice. Anger is natural, but take time to cool off and see if maybe that person has a point.
If it’s something you simply refuse to change that is perfectly okay. It’s your book.
Yet, I’ve learned if something makes me angry…there very often is something there worth exploring.
Bargaining: Okay, Maybe My Novel Needs Work
Bargaining is the place I believe most novels die. This is where we spend three or five or ten years reworking the same book. I can’t recall who first coined the term, but this is where we start ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.’
We can’t bear the thought of tearing down and starting over, so we futz with prose and description, move around chapters, decide we really have a series.
When revising a novel, we do everything BUT what needs doing. Sometimes we don’t have a core story problem. Or we have a weak core problem. Maybe we don’t have any stakes, or the stakes aren’t high enough.
Perhaps there is no ticking cock, thus nothing prompting urgency in the characters.
This is the hard birthing pains part.
Maybe we DO have a series, but series have structure. We can’t just parse a book apart at a certain page and say, ‘Book ONE!’ then ‘Book TWO!’ without doing some other modifications.
We always have to remember that the human brain is wired a certain way and when writers run contrary to what’s been ingrained in the audience’s very DNA, that’s a risk.
Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary—or even conscious—invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, two, three.
~David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, pg. 73
Depression: I SUUUUUCK & My Novel is DOOOOMED
No and no. Writing fiction is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. This is why most of us who finish NaNoWriMo spend the first weeks of December eating jars of marshmallow fluff from our blanket fort. We’re so shredded because we’ve poured out an incredible amount of psychic energy, which needs time to recharge.
Think if you were trying to remodel a bathroom. You throw yourself into the remodel for a month. You’ve had to pee in old Folgers cans, borrow a neighbor’s bathroom, you have to go to the gym to shower.
Finally, after thirty days, the functional stuff is in place: shower, sink and toilet work.
But you insist on continuing without charging any of the tools. Oh you plug in the drill while you break for lunch, then go back to trying to instal cabinets, but the drill is sluggish and dies.
That table saw you’re using to cut the flooring is portable because it has a battery pack. But you do the same thing you did with the drill. You plug in the battery while you run down to the mini-mart for a Monster drink…then BACK TO WORK!
Can you imagine the nightmare of ‘finishing out’ a bathroom with tools that barely have a charge and keep dying? The mistakes one might make by stopping and starting over and over to plug in the charger for a half hour?
THIS is what can happen if we start revising a novel too soon. We are worn out. Our tools need time to charge. We need perspective and if we force the process…we can make small problems much bigger.
As an author, speaker, trainer, blogger, wife and mother, it’s super important for me to strive for work-life balance (Translation: Don’t go to jail).
For instance…blogging on something completely different for a change. On, per se…working OUT.
Because seriously. Without time to decompress, get rid of pent up energy and anxiety, well that’s when I start collecting hitchhikers in my basement.
…I don’t have a basement.
Since I don’t like shopping, have a bazillion food allergies (thus am any chain restaurant’s worst nightmare), and can’t afford my crafting habit…the gym has been a relatively good fit. I get out of the house, it’s healthy, and great family bonding time.
Sure, there are a lot of people—AHHHHH—but they have on headphones and generally want to be left alone.
What? I’m an introvert, not the Unibomber.
Alas, since I’m one of those people who goes to the gym all year long, I feel I probably notice trends others don’t. Namely, the massive uptick in @$$hats—Gym Bugs—collecting in the gyms when the temps outside drop.
Sort of like flu bugs but without any kind of vaccination.
It is the holiday season and thus…
Gym Bug Season seems to begin around November 15th then run through February 15th. Probably has to do with those who want a) to meet someone to date so as not to be alone during holidays b) to trim down to look good for holidays c) get pics of ‘doing’ New Year resolutions and/or d) to keep that ‘holiday bae’ until at least February 15th (after Valentine’s).
Dunno. Don’t care. All I do know is that Gym Bugs are not the regulars I see throughout the rest of the year.
We’re Gym Rats.
Gym Bug Season
There are about three months out of the year that, unless I work out at some seriously bizarre time like 3:30 a.m., I need a really good sense of humor…because I can’t afford a really good defense attorney.
For the likes of me, I have NO IDEA WHERE THESE PEOPLE COME FROM. And I really don’t get them, but that’s fine. I’m old enough to know that which I cannot control, I CAN openly mock.
To be clear, I think newbies ROCK. We all start somewhere. I am still a work in progress. I love to work out…but I also love tacos.
Neophytes are kewl, but parasites (Gym Bugs)? Not so kewl.
Y’all may recognize a few of these…
Dude Who Leaves 800+ Pounds on Machine
I admire people who train hard and push their bodies to the limits. It’s when they push my patience to the limits that we start to have problems. Want to lift five-hundred pounds? A thousand? Go for it!
Just RE-RACK YOUR WEIGHTS WHEN FINISHED and we can allllll get along.
I do have to say, our gym is really cute. They play these gym etiquette/courtesy videos on the televisions overhead. One has this tiny blonde girl removing her fifty pounds off the squat bar after she’s finished and putting them away.
*clutches sides laughing*.
Yeah, because Mackenzie working off that non-fat sugar-free peppermint soy latte is the real troublemaker.
I remember being at L.A. Fitness in November of 2009, nine months pregnant with Spawn, LITERALLY chasing after some muscle-head who’d left like 700 pounds on the squat machine.
He’d also liberally sprinkled the floor with 80+ pound dumbbells…then left them for my VERY pregnant self to fall over.
I chased him through L.A.Fitness chastising him for leaving such a mess until he finally hid from me…behind the 105 pound receptionist and her desk.
“That Machine Doesn’t Work That Way” Girl
So last week, I’m on the StairMaster and look over and saw something that made me go full white girl.
I literally couldn’t even.
There’s a machine that’s meant to help you train to eventually do a full pull-up/chin-up. There is a nice foam pad where you kneel, then grab the overhead bars and pull up. The machine allows you to add weight (counterbalancing your full body weight). This way, you’re pulling up say only 50 pounds instead of a full 150.
Then, gradually you take away weight until you’re strong enough to lift your full body weight. VERY COOL machine. But I look over and…
Well, this is close enough of a reenactment…
Granted, points for creativity but some things can never be unseen.
This inevitably places me in an awkward position *bada bump snare* of not being able to decide whether to a) say something and maybe prevent injury and/or b) take a picture to prove I wasn’t hallucinating.
Why do the people who work at the gym never STOP these people? #ThatWillLeaveAMark
The Equipment Hoarder
This should be self-explanatory but…*weary sigh*. Why do some people feel the need to help themselves to sixteen sets of barbells?
I’d like to posit a solution.
During the holidays, law enforcement officers make extra money working security. Why can’t gyms hire school librarians to guard the dumbbell racks at gyms?
These terrifying women could be the exact sanity sentinels we need. The last line of defense against those with no manners.
It’s a total win-win! Librarians could make sure these folks had to check weights in and out. Maybe add in fines for taking too long or failing to return them. The regulars would be happy, the gym floor clean and safe and librarians flush with cash #MakinItRAIN.
That or gyms could hire any woman named BRENDA to keep watch. They’d behave. #Seriously
The Sweat Spreader
There are people who sweat, a lot. And sweating is good. Sweating means we are properly hydrated. It’s also an amazing way to get rid of stress hormones and toxins. Please! SWEAT! It’s why we’re at the gym (or supposed to be, anyway).
Just, when one is finished dripping all over the place…um, wipe it UP?
My recommendation? Use those spray bottles the same way I do with my cats when they get on the counter. Spray the offender from behind. Then, when they jump and scream in shock?
Play dumb like you have no idea why they jumped…but kindly offer a towel and glance at the sweaty equipment.
Eventually, the GOAL is for the offender to realize the “mysterious jet of water” only hits them when they don’t wipe down the equipment.
If that doesn’t work…repurposed bark collars #IGiveUp
Money is fundamental to our lives but taboo in polite conversation…much like sex. But just like sex, money is one of the main drivers of human behavior. And what do we pattern our characters’ behavior on? Yup. Exactly.
Now, of course, I would never be so crass as to suggest that any of our protagonists are motivated by such indelicate—even sordid—things such as money or sex (*rolls eyes, but soldiers on*). Protagonists are always ultimately convinced to act solely from altruism, and villains are the ones who simply must be avaricious and lustful. (*accidentally rolls eyes so hard I fall over backward*)
Except, sex and money are just shorthand proxies for deeper, more complex psychological stimuli. In this case, ‘sex’ as a motivator encompasses everything from our biological impetus to procreate—because the world by now totally needs more humans *eye roll…OW!*—to the pleasures and comforts of companionship.
‘Money’ is the stand-in for scarcity, acquisition, and competition for what we need to survive, from basics like food and water to the finer points of existential fulfillment.
And, while plotting is totally Kristen’s wheelhouse, it’s safe to say all plots boil down to one basic premise: a character wants/needs/lacks something and must overcome obstacles to obtain it.
No matter what genre we write, character motivation matters. Therefore, money matters.
Haves, Have-Nots, and Have-a-Snickers-Cait-You’re-not-Yourself
I am not the kindest editor, and I’m a downright PMS-ridden-harpy when it comes to historical anachronisms.
Wanna trigger the transformation? Just drop any of the following little gems into prose:
Characters using generic ‘gold coins’ to pay for bread and cheese (a whole other rage topic for another time);
WORSE, using those same coins across international borders (because universal currency, exchange rates, and value of goods was so standard and easily handled. Genghis Khan’s forced standardization of currency conversion across his empire is a totally underrated achievement of his. Too bad Europe was all like, “Yeah, no, thanks, we’re good with our seventy-five-and-counting different currencies. Try back next century, yeah?”);
Look, I get that researching and figuring out how to include depictions of money sounds about as much fun as listening to Gilbert Gottfried read Strunk & White at open mic night. But, we just have to suck it up and look at it as penance for our sins. Or something like that.
Wanna see the harpy pop out again? Give me a servant girl with more wardrobe changes than a Lady Gaga concert. Or the poor farming family whose feisty, independent daughter is always buying and reading books. Or the Regency version of the Mary Sue Shopping Spree.
Quick, anybody got a Snickers? I’m feeling a little peckish.
Money doesn’t grow on trees
Here is the most important tip for using ye olde economics in historical fiction:
What questions, you ask? (OMG, stop me, I’m so punny!)
ALL the questions, because to paraphrase/absolutely slaughter Socrates: we’re not always smart enough to know what we don’t know.Here’s a basic set of questions I use:
Where (literally) in the world are the characters? What are the local industries, geographical resources, etc.? Ship-building on the coast, sheep-shearing inland.
What are the major imports/exports of that region or country at the time? Robin Hood didn’t ever eat corn-on-the-cob (corn is SO 1492!).
What do the characters do for a living? How much is the wage or income for that time period/region/profession/social status? What would the modern equivalent be? The world wasn’t just nobles, peasants, and beggars. There were comfortable—even wealthy—craftsmen, tradesmen, physicians, lawyers, accountants, etc.
What is the currency of the region/country? What were the denominations in use? Was currency used at all, or was it a barter system? Nowadays, who remembers the French ‘franc’? How about the French ‘livre’ or ‘louis d’or’? Okay, yes, I do, but I’m a nerd.
Did they have servants? How many and what kind? What did they pay them? Elbow grease was the original renewable energy source, and even relatively poor families might have a ‘girl’ come in once a week to help out.
What exactly would a character own? Capsule wardrobe or queen’s trousseau?
If you are feeling a little freaked and a lot overwhelmed by the seemingly enormous, torturous research paper I have just assigned you…don’t. This is fiction, and while relative accuracy is necessary, footnotes are not required.In fact, I’m about to show you how to cheat.
My money’s on the answer…
I totally get it that not everyone dreams about spending hours organizing one’s non-fiction library by time period-topic-region. *cough*
So, for those out there who just want to get the job done, I present…the quick and dirty way to research just about anything for historical fiction.
Make sure you have a way to organize the research you gather because the last thing any writer wants is to find that *exact* detail we needed, then waste hours trying to find that page again.
Always start with Wikipedia. Print out or save the relevant articles. Make note of dates, places, foreign language words that will need translation if used in the story, specific terms, etc.
Don’t click away yet! Scroll down to the bottom and look at the footnotes! There’s gold in them thar hills! The cited books and articles are the next level of resources for when there’s time/interest.
Next up? Ask Dr. Google. The first entry is almost always Wikipedia, but usually the next hits are also established sources. Google also has great ye olde currency conversion links.
If you know an impecunious doctoral student, bribe them with home-cooked food in exchange for help accessing JStor, one of the largest online repositories of scholarly articles. Also, many public libraries and alma maters offer a wide range of research databases.
Often, Google provides the most precise results from Google Books (because Google is a self-referential bastard). Google Books basically is like a mini-Project Gutenberg (where all kinds of out-of-copyright primary sources are available for free download). Google Books will even HIGHLIGHT the relevant phrases on the pages of the book, and you just can’t get more silver-platter-research than that.
Adding it all up
All joking aside, here’s the process in a nutshell:
Get your questions ready.
Get ready to organize your findings so you can find ’em again.
Go to Wikipedia and print the heck out of the articles…and don’t forget the footnotes!
Do a Google search to find other professional or academic resources.
If you need to dig deeper, go to the public library or use alumni privileges to access JStor and other academic and research databases.
Search Google Books for info hidden in rare and out-of-print books, and Project Gutenberg for free, downloadable primary sources.
Time is money
I often get asked, “How long should I spend researching?”
The answer is easy.
No, really, it does depend on a lot of individually-determined factors, like how familiar we already are with a time period, how comfortable we are with historical research, or even how much mind-numbing 18th-century prose we can take reading before we tear our hair out, wonder WTF we are doing with our lives, and go become meter maids because that looks like so much more fun than this *ish*.
However, I do think a good milestone is when our brains ‘click.’ Certain names, dates, facts, or events keep popping up consistently, and we begin to feel an almost-comfortable familiarity with them. Another good test is when we don’t need our notes to tell our long-suffering significant other/friend/stranger-duct-taped-to-chair/cellmate about the time period and what people lived like and could afford.
Like all things in writing (and life, but that’s another dissertation for another time), learning to research money takes time and practice. Luckily for penurious writers, the one thing researching money doesn’t take…is money.
(Unless people want to give me Amazon gift cards so I can make headway on my 35-page book wish list. Then I’ll totally take the money because then I can get more books and make things like this ‘Catalogue Raisonné about money, trade, economics, and shopping in history.)
Want more of these Catalogues Raisonnes? I have a whole page of them over on my website. Just click the image!
Instructor: Cait Reynolds Price: $55.00 USD Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom When: Friday, November 16, 2018. 7:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M. EST
National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). For those who aren’t yet familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a yearly challenge to write 50K words in thirty days. It’s a fantastic introduction into writing as a profession, because writing as a profession differs vastly from writing for a hobby.
NaNoWriMo is held during the first month of the holiday season. WHYYYY? Because a) there IS no perfect time to write b) pros have to meet deadlines, even sucky ones and c) writing professionally WILL eventually make us choose between word count and friends and family.
So, best to get that out of the way early.
For those who want to write a “novel” for fun or to simply see if you can finish a “novel” then today’s writing advice doesn’t precisely apply. Alas, everything changes when our goal is to produce a novel as a commodity—as in expecting people to pay money and part with 12-15 hours of free time they don’t have to read and love our words.
This brings me to my first point.
Description is NOT Story
Pretty…but um okay.
Fiction isn’t just a bunch of pretty words. Many of us who decide we long to write a novel have been told most of our lives we are “good with words.” We probably even made top grades in English and believe we already “know how to write” because of all the As we made in school.
Ah, problem is this though. Our English teachers didn’t care that we used twenty-five modifiers on the first page of our short stories. They didn’t care because their GOAL was to teach us what a modifier was and how to use it…NOT to prepare us to write for commercial publication.
Yes, I know many of us received A++++ es for our cerulean skies and peridot eyes. Alas, fiction is about one thing and one thing only. PROBLEMS. Fiction is NOT description.
Fiction is a Crucible
Fundamentally, superb fiction is the hero’s journey and the hero’s journey is almost always (99.9999% of the time) about a person undergoing a TEST he or she didn’t CHOOSE.
In every one of these novels (series) the protagonist DID NOT ASK for the challenges that fate tossed at their feet, but they DID (eventually) take up the journey and enter the fire that would change them and their world forever.
Sure, some of these titles have AMAZING description. Into the Woods is total prose porn. YET, description isn’t story. Tana French, description genius she is, still had to have a core story problem or she didn’t have a novel.
One BIG reason a lot of folks will stall out and fail to finish NaNoWriMo is they don’t have a story. They have a crap ton of pretty words and are trying to create a ten-foot-tall cake with no cake…only icing and sprinkles.
Description and Voice
How any writer decides to use or not use description is a matter of voice. This said, the professional author recognizes this is a business. Books are a commodity meant to eventually be sold in exchange for money. Real money that buys stuff.
The more books we sell, the better for everyone. Agents are happy, publishers elated, bookstores celebrate, and libraries thrilled. Culture and society benefits from a literate, reading population AND…authors have money for coffee (which keeps the murder rate down).
This said, there are a lot of different tastes we can appeal to, much like any other product. Think about art. Some folks are willing to spend tens of thousands on a giant canvas that looks like the drop cloth from the last time I painted my office.
Others? A single red dot suspended on a vast white background. Me? I love anything on velvet that involves a bullfight and Elvis…because I’m a smart@$$ (if my art glows under a blacklight, that’s a bonus).
Actually, I am not—quite—that gauche but I’m not evolved enough to “get” anything at The Modern in Fort Worth (modern art museum, FYI).
Um, it’s a box and a lightbulb. Oh-kay. *looks around* I don’t get it.
The point is this. It doesn’t matter if we use a lot of description or a little or we’re somewhere in between. Why? Because there’s an audience for all styles—so long as we have a STORY to go along WITH that description (or lack thereof).
We Can Do Better
I know I’ve mentioned this particular bugaboo in a recent post. We are authors. Authors are artists. This means we should be able to do a better job at description than non-writers. It doesn’t take an artist to lean on raven hair, emerald eyes, or porcelain skin. Can we use simple descriptors like these? Sure.
But please keep in mind that books (thus authors) already have a lot of competition—and not from other books. We’re competing against Netflix, hot yoga, YouTube, cat videos, Spotify, video games, etc.
Humans have more ways to be entertained than ever before in human history. Should our potential reader (code for customer) choose reading as their distraction of choice, we’re going to have to up our game to make ours stand apart.
Suffice to say, more of the same is a risky plan. It certainly won’t be enough to catch the attention of a culture with the attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat. AND, what catches the attention span of our culture largely isn’t what one would initially assume. They crave tough mental work and eschew being spoon fed.
Much of the modern audience is ignoring the blockbuster Hollywood movies, and choosing instead to get lost in Game of Thrones. A series so complex it need a GPS, a team of sherpas and a Dungeon Master Manual to keep up. Much of the brain-holding description so popular a decade ago now fails to resonate with contemporary audiences.
We (the audience) like to have places where we can fill in blanks ourselves.
This means the blow-by-blow police sketch description might have worked well enough in days of yore, but now? It’s common as clay. We CAN describe a character directly, though often oblique description is far more visceral, thus more resonant.
Oblique description. Er?
Perception is Reality
Far too often, description is used either to hold the audiences’ brains or to make word count or both. Why do we hold the audiences’ brains? We might be new.
Being new often means we want to be in total control (new at the whole “playing god” thing). Until we gain some experience we don’t trust the audience to “get it” without us spoon-feeding them.
Yet, the largest reason we fail to employ description for maximum impact is that writing is HARD. It’s an art that takes time, training and a LOT of..