I recently reviewed a debut novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World. In it, the author, Malachy Tallack, describes life in a rural village on the island of Shetland. And he tries to do that in an accurate and honest way.
The problem is that not a whole lot happens in a remote village. The inhabitants go about their daily, seasonal and yearly rhythm. Strangers might arrive, but they’re usually looking for peace and quiet. Others might leave, but villagers are used to that too as people, mostly the younger generation, go off to pursue opportunities in the city. Even deaths in these aging communities happen regularly enough that there’s a certain routine to them too.
When nothing happens, nothing changes. And novels—stories in general—are all about change. There is (nearly) always a moment of self-realization for the (usually) main character.
I just had my in-laws staying. For seven weeks! Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice, easy-going people (at least, they kept telling me so), but I reckon Ghandi could test your patience after seven weeks in your spare room.
There was no one thing they did to annoy me (OK, there was one thing: “The car had an accident,” said Pops. It wasn’t him. It was the car.) It was all the little irks and ticks that built up over the time. And it was a long time. Seven weeks. Did I mention that already?
By the final week, I was frazzled. And my wife was away on business, leaving me to deal with them on my own. It came to a head one evening when I had to ask Mom, again, not to snap the spine of my paperbacks when reading them (“But it’s so much easier to hold in one hand.”)
I had to talk to someone. I had to get it all off my chest. But it was 11pm, who could I call? My wife’s days were full with meetings and preparing for meetings and, anyway, I’d just be moaning again if I called her. Who else then? Who could I call at that time of night to sound off?
It’s at these moments you realize the kind of support network you have. It’s a special kind of someone who’ll take that kind of call at that time of night and still give the level of sympathy you’re looking for.
There will be times in your story, too, when your protagonist needs support. And it’s not always obvious where that support will come from. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find that secondary character who will step in to save your hero just at the right time. Continue reading “Who’s going to help your hero?”→
All characters have desires. Desire is the engine that drives your story, it’s what gives the hero a goal—find the killer, fall in love, destroy the death star.
If your characters get what they want on page one, there’s no story left. It’s your job, as an author, to give your characters what they want at exactly the right time. Or not at all.
Until then, you have to play with that desire, use it to develop the drama that will push the story along and pull your readers with it.
There are a few straightforward ways to use your characters’ desires to inject drama into your story, to fuel that engine that will keep your readers engaged.
These techniques are useful for when you’re stuck, when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. They can also help to get back control of your characters when they run off and do their own thing, when they stray away from your carefully plotted plan. Continue reading “Create drama with your character’s desire”→
“Be a sadist,” said Kurt Vonnegut. That’s number six on his list of eight creative writing 101 tips. He added, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Vonnegut knew what he was talking about. He made awful things happen to Billy Pilgrim, his leading character in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. It was not enough to send Pilgrim unprepared into the thick of World War II and have him captured by the enemy, Vonnegut then sends him into the worst firestorm of the war—Dresden in February 1945. And that was just the start of poor Pilgrim’s problems. Continue reading “Give your hero a hard time”→
It might seem obvious to say (or just plain odd), but your characters don’t know they’re part of a story. Except for some metafictional works, your characters think they are real people. They want to behave like real people – and readers want them to behave like real people. That means that the actions they take and the choices they make are all done for a reason. What they do has to make sense to them (and the readers).
Your main character chose to be a hero, at least the hero of your story. Certain circumstances led them to that decision and the position they’re now in. They chose to act in one way rather than continue with how their old life was going. It wasn’t a random decision. It was motivated by events, the past and influences from other characters (who also don’t know they’re in a story). Continue reading “Three ways to discover your character’s true motivation”→
Best-selling thriller writer Ian Rankin writes a book a year. At a certain point, usually at the end of the first month, he is struck by “the fear.” He becomes convinced that all the work he’s done so far has been a waste of time, that this new book won’t be any good.
When he mentions this to his wife, she usually asks, “Are you on page 65?” He then realizes that he goes through this phase with every novel, always at the same point. Always around page 65.
Many writers, if not all, experience this kind of doubt about their work at some stage. And, as writing is such a lonely profession, they don’t all have someone with whom they can share their frustrations. Continue reading “Overcome your inner critic”→
A pause, even a long break, can be good to gather your thoughts and decide where you want to go next.
‘A pause at the top, you need a pause at the top to generate momentum.’
John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.
Sometimes our minds say really unhelpful things that are best left unsaid. Sometimes we hold ourselves back from saying what is important because our minds tell us we will look stupid. Instead I would like to encourage you to communicate thoughtfully. To ask yourself what you want to achieve, and then what you need to say and do in order to make that outcome more likely. It is okay to pause.
Paul E. Flaxman, Frank W. Bond, and Fredrik Livheim. The Mindful and Effective Employee: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Training Manual for Improving Well-being and Performance.
Whether you suffer from high or low self-esteem, you might find self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation kinder to yourself, and to others.
‘It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequent, such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’
Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (volume I).
By far the most common meaning of ‘high self-esteem’ is evaluating oneself positively; in other words, making and believing positive self-judgements and self-appraisals. (This is often described as prizing, appreciating or approving of oneself.) Now keeping to this popular meaning of the term, please do the following quiz. Answer each statement true or false:
Boosting your self-esteem will improve your performance.
People with high self-esteem are more likeable, have better relationships, and make a better impression on others.
People with high self-esteem make better leaders.
Before I give you the answers, let’s go back in time to 2003. In that year, the American Psychological Association commissioned a ‘Self-esteem Task Force’ to investigate if the claims above (and many other similar ones) were true. So a team of four psychologists from top universities – Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger and Kathleen Vohs – systematically ploughed through decades of published research on self-esteem. They looked long and hard for firm scientific evidence to either confirm or refute these popular beliefs. Then they published their results in an influential journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And what did they find? All three of the above statements are false! They also found that:
High self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism and arrogance.
High self-esteem correlates with prejudice and discrimination.
High self-esteem correlates with self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.
And as if this news weren’t bad enough by itself, when people with low self-esteem try to boost it through positive self-affirmations, they generally end up feeling even worse!
So if trying to raise self-esteem is not worth the effort, then what’s the alternative?
Self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation are all far more important than self-esteem.
Everyone has judgmental, even prejudicial, thoughts. Try to recognise these as just thoughts, you don’t need to believe them and you don’t need to act on them.
“A clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”
“There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. I suspect that in this comprehensive and (may I say) common-place censure, you are not judging from yourself, but from prejudiced persons, whose opinions you have been in the habit of hearing. It is impossible that your own observation can have given you much knowledge of the clergy. You can have been personally acquainted with very few of a set of men you condemn so conclusively. You are speaking what you have been told at your uncle’s table.”
“I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.”
“Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else.
Jane Austen. Mansfield Park.
While our thinking colors all our experience, more often than not our thoughts tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they are merely uninformed private opinions, reactions and prejudices based on limited knowledge and influenced primarily by our past conditioning. All the same, when not recognized as such and named, our thinking can prevent us from seeing clearly in the present moment. We get caught up in thinking we know what we are seeing and feeling, and in projecting our judgments out onto everything we see off a hairline trigger. Just being familiar with this deeply entrenched pattern and watching it as it happens can lead to greater non-judgmental receptivity and acceptance.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.