Conscious Writing: The Right Side of the Bed
One of the recurring themes of this year is approaching our writing with a sense of joy and adventure. If you’re not having fun or feeling fulfilled, why do it? That’s my philosophy.
In A Year of Living Consciously, Gay Hendricks suggests an interesting metaphor for how we approach life and – for our purposes – our creative work.
He asks how you wake up in the morning. Do you feel groggy or refreshed? Do you wake up easily? Do you complain about having to get up or do you awake energetically and ready to tackle the day?
Think about how you wake up every morning and consider if that’s how you face life in general or your creative work. Do you sit down to write with enthusiasm or do you moan and groan about it? When you approach your work, is it with a clear or muddled head? Do you jump at the chance to write or would you rather sleep in?
If you don’t approach your writing with enthusiasm, why might that be?
Conscious Writing: Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Unless you’re collaborating on a project, writing is a solitary activity. Even when we have a writing partner or collaborator, we complete our portion of the work alone. While most writers enjoy the silence and solitude that allow them to create, we can also feel lonely. Loneliness is distracting and tiring, and generally not conducive to creativity. But when we recognize this feeling and why it might have appeared, it’s easier to dispel.
As an exercise, think of yourself as part of something much larger than yourself. It could be something as simple as your apartment building or neighborhood, as large as a big city or country, or as vast as the universe.
Imagine all the people and objects and processes constantly on the go around you. Imagine everything moving and yourself a part of that network of activity. Now consider the idea that your emotions and physical state are also part of a complex process that’s constantly on the move.
Let your loneliness or writer’s block or other negative space move into and out of your range of sight, perhaps the same way a city bus discharges a passenger and then moves on to its next destination. You don’t have to ride the bus (loneliness), but can simply watch it come and go.
Conscious Writing: Are You Playing to Win?
Do you consider yourself a competitive person? I can be. In social and business relationships, I lean hard into a win-win philosophy, but put me in front of a Trivial Pursuit board and I will throw metaphorical elbows like the meanest roller derby player.
If your creative work were a game, would you be winning? Not in comparison to other writers or creative people, but compared to your dreams and goals? Are you playing all-out or are you on the bench most of the time? Are you having fun? What role are you playing?
If you don’t like to think of your creative work as a game, think of it as a story. The takeaway is the same. Are you satisfied with the scenario you’ve created and the way you’ve chosen to act it out?
The good news is, whether you’re playing a game or writing your story, you control the rules, your position, and the state of play. If you don’t like the score, you can change the situation.
Conscious Writing: Who Pushes Your Protagonist’s Buttons?
In fiction, a lot of creative problems are actually problems of human nature. The better we understand ourselves and others, and how we interact, the better we can portray characters on the page and create natural-sounding dialogue and conflict.
One place fiction falls flat is in the character web. Perhaps the cast generally all like each other and get along, except for the minor foible or bad habit. If that’s the case, the story probably lacks conflict and drive. The stakes may seem low. Sometimes minor supporting characters blend together, rendering them hard to distinguish. In this case, readers may be confused about who is doing what or about which characters require more attention.
If your cast feels flat or if there’s not enough conflict among your supporting characters, ask this question:
- Who elicits the strongest emotions in my protagonist?
These don’t have to be negative emotions, but that helps. Who does your hero love, hate, fear, envy, or compete with? Who causes his heart to flutter? Who gets under her skin? Even minor supporting characters might create strong reactions. You should force your protagonist to interact with characters who raise the strongest emotions. Give those dislikable characters something your protagonist needs. Don’t let your hero avoid the person they fear or loathe.
If you can’t answer these questions about your protagonist, that might be a sign your hero isn’t yet ready to carry your story. Spend some time examining your main character’s backstory. Give them more personality, likes and dislikes, fears and longings. The more complex your protagonist’s character, the easier it will be to identify who pushes her buttons.
When you have these answers, use them to ramp up the emotion, connection, and conflict between your characters. You don’t have to do this with every individual who appears in your story. Sometimes, a bank clerk is just a bank clerk. However, if your bank scene needs conflict or humor, a prior relationship between your major and minor characters might be what you need.
Consider swapping out or combining characters who don’t elicit strong emotions or change their backstory to give them more history with your protagonist. If you need to trim a large cast, identify the supporting characters who push your hero’s buttons, and consider how the story would roll if you cut the supporting characters who don’t create this friction. Give their roles in the story to a more compelling character or combine them and create some emotional stakes.
If you really want to mix it up, create opposing emotional reactions among your characters. Does your hero love someone who fears him? Does your heroine have an admirer who raises her hackles? Does your hero dislike someone who is admired by everyone else or have fondness for a character rejected by society? Repeat this exercise among your supporting characters who share backstory.
You don’t want to overdo it. Not everyone needs a complicated relationship. It’s ok if some characters simply like each other or don’t know each other at all. Creating too many complex interactions might detract from your main story. Use relationships to add some pop to your character relationships, but don’t let the psychological drama take over your entire story.
This is a good exercise if you’re working to fix characters that aren’t working in your draft, but it’s even better if you work this out before you start writing. The better you understand the emotional relationships in your character web, the easier it will be to create realistic conflict and goal obstacles for your protagonist. You’ll also have a better grasp of the baseline mood of your scenes.
Imagine the difference between these scenarios:
- Your hero must ask a favor of someone.
- Your hero must ask a favor of someone he doesn’t like.
- Your hero must ask a favor of someone he doesn’t like who is also in love with him.
Even in this rather uncreative scenario, you can see how the conflict increases as more emotional layers are added.
Look for places in your story to create these kinds of emotional links within your character web. Particularly look for scenes that may feel flat and see if some button-pushing might up the tension and reader interest.
Conscious Writing: Are You Experienced?
Today, let’s look again at reframing our relationship with creative work, particularly when the work does not go the way we wish.
When we encounter creative obstacles, it’s easy to fall into the poor-me trap. Nobody understands our work. You have to know an editor to get published. Why do other writers always get lucky?
Unfortunately, complaining and making excuses make it harder to learn from the experience. We insist that we are having the wrong experience – when our work is rejected, when we get a bad review or peer critique – when clearly, the right experience – publication, great reviews, peer praise – was what we expected and deserved.
It’s natural to complain and kvetch. I do it frequently. I’m quite good at it. But sinking into a bad mood prevents us from seeing how we could improve.
Instead of complaining about a bad experience, acknowledge that you’re having an experience. Reframing your problem as a neutral event might help you see ways you could have prevented the experience or identify methods for avoiding the bad outcome in the future.
As an example, when you receive multiple rejections in a row, what do you need to learn? There could be a number of reasons:
- There are issues of craft with your story that preclude publication. You might need to learn about plot, dialogue, description, or editing. Maybe you need a writing group or class to help you figure it out.
- There are issues with your manuscript. Even if your story is well received, issues such as misspellings, typos, or bad formatting could result in a rejection. Are you rushing to submit your work or taking the time to make sure you present your story in the best possible light?
- You submitted to the wrong forum. Regardless of quality, not every story is a good fit for every publication. Did you research which magazines or websites publish the type of story you write? Did you find venues that publish previously unpublished writers?
You can apply this turnaround to all kinds of creative obstacles:
- Are you not getting enough from your writing group?
- Do you often start stories but never finish them?
- Do your stories tend to fall apart at the mid-point or fall flat near the end?
Be open to the learning opportunities that your writing presents. When you sit down to write today, remind yourself to welcome them.
Conscious Writing: Why Characters Don’t Want to Change
The character change arc is a tenet of modern fiction. With some exceptions, a novel’s protagonist undergoes crises and evolutions throughout the story, emerging at the end with lessons learned, as a better version of himself.
The journey is less interesting if your protagonist changes very little or if she does not resist the change. Today, let’s think about that resistance.
In the real world, people don’t change simply because you ask them to. Ask any married couple. Anyone who marries with the premise that their spouse can be changed is in for a disappointment. If that worked, divorce rates would be negligible.
There are reasons for that. Laziness and inertia are two. Unless there are serious consequences, the path of least resistance is the easiest traveled.
Further, for many of us, our sense of self was a hard-won trophy. As someone who was raised in a religious cult, I fought hard to assert my independence and my sense of what is right or wrong for me. I was abused by the best; peer pressure and spousal nagging don’t work on me. I know who I am. I built myself, brick by brick. Abandoning my sense of self, my internal guide of right and wrong, my judgments and opinions, seems impossible, not to mention unnecessary.
For others, trauma, punishment, or bad examples influence how they act in the world.
Considering your current WIP, why is your protagonist resistant to change? Did your hero watch his father fail at his vocation and take away a lesson on how life is? Did your heroine fight to assert herself and her personality, and does she now see any suggestion to change as a personal attack? Did your main character build their personality around being the Provider, the Protector, the Joker, the Black Sheep, the Mother, or the Martyr? How hard did they have to fight to become who they are?
The character arc requires that your protagonist go through some kind of change. What they believe at the outset must fail them. The consequences of not changing must be more terrible than the fear or belief that has stopped them from evolving before now.
But that all starts with who they are at the beginning and the reason they don’t want to change or don’t feel like they have to. The stronger your protagonist fought to become the person they are when your novel starts, the greater the conflict when outside influences force them to change and the greater the payoff when they evolve.
Conscious Writing: As Good as the Best
I don’t usually lift the daily quotes from A Year of Living Consciously. I’m already riffing off the lessons and talking about how I apply them in my life and writing, so I don’t want to get too greedy. However, today’s quote is too good not to share:
“I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” – Walt Whitman
Conscious Writing: What Did You Do and When Did You Do It?
A few days ago, I posted about taking healthy responsibility for your creative work and outcomes. That means owning when you screw up or fail to meet your commitments to yourself, but it also means recognizing the actions that created your successes.
Taking responsibility also means how you react to problems. Even when you take all the right actions that should lead to success, life doesn’t always go our way. Sometimes the right actions lead to disappointing outcomes and sometimes crap happens through no fault of our own. However, we can choose how we respond to difficulty or creative setbacks and turn them into learning opportunities and successes.
Whatever you’re dealing with – personal success, failure, or an outside mishap – an important question to ask is “What can I do now to create the outcome I desire?”
Think about this question as you approach your creative work today, especially if you are working on tasks that aren’t directly creative but support your work, such as blogging, posting on social media, answering relevant email, sending invoices, or submitting queries. You might enjoy these tasks or you might hate them. Regardless of your feelings, I presume these tasks must be completed.
When you’re working today, be conscious of the tasks you’ve chosen and why. What do you get out of the task? If you dread it or are behind on your deadlines, ask what actions you’ve taken to create this scenario.
And of course, ask what you can do to create the outcome you desire.
Conscious Writing: The Lies We Speak
Building on yesterday’s post, let’s consider the element of truth and how it affects character and dialogue.
In an earlier post, I talked about truths and lies and how writers can go deeper into examining a character’s relationship to the truth and other characters. The Great Lie is a common narrative device. A character tells a lie or holds onto a secret, and the effort to conceal or discover drives the plot and action. In that post, I recommended that writers also consider the repercussions of lies and secrets. When someone lies, they create a narrative that is about more than the lie itself. The act of withholding – no matter the importance of the secret – can color a character’s attitude, disrupt their goals, and drive a wedge between them and others. Even when the lie is only tangential to the plot, the act of maintaining it should alter the course of the story.
This thought can also help you craft indirect, and therefore more interesting, dialogue.
When we think about lies in fiction, we jump to the Great Lie, the untruth that will ruin lives or reputations. Crimes, affairs, and politics all prompt Great Lies, but in the real world, people tell small lies all the time.
We tell the white lie when someone asks how they look or if you like their singing voice. We tell the polite lie when a store clerk asks about our day, even though we’re mad that we’ve been waiting in line too long. We tell the social lie when we tell an acquaintance that life is good, when it’s anything but.
We tell these small lies to smooth our social interactions. We tell bigger lies because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. We might tell the Great Lie if we don’t want to lose someone’s trust or get into legal trouble.
Think about all the lies people tell without realizing it, the minor untruths we wouldn’t call lies at all. Go through the dialogue in your current work and highlight all the places where your characters are lying, even where it’s a minor social lie.
Is everyone always saying exactly what’s on their mind? You might have an opportunity to mix things up to create more interesting dialogue. Does one character obfuscate more than others? That might give you a clue to their personality that you missed.
Lies are sand in the gears of our relationships. Look for places in your story to create those obstacles and generate conflict, and you might find that your dialogue starts to pop a bit more.
Conscious Writing: Intentional Dialogue
Dialogue is a challenging story element, but crucial to get right. I’ve read hundreds of articles and books about crafting dialogue for prose, film, and the theater and it remains a tough nut to crack.
Experts generally posit some form of this goal for dialogue: It should be interesting and natural-sounding, reflect the character’s voice, create conflict, and move the plot forward. But also be compact and choose every word purposefully.
Yeah, that’s easy.
What I’ve found in my reading is that it’s much easier to avoid bad dialogue than it is to write great. You can find a ton of advice on what not to do. Characters shouldn’t repeat each other’s names or start sentences with “As you know…” You should excise fluff and filler, such as characters introducing themselves or commenting on the weather, even if we do this in real life.
But specific how-to advice on writing memorable dialogue is sparse. Do you need help structuring your story? Follow the three-act structure or Save the Cat or the Hero’s Journey. Need advice on description? Less is more but be sure to pick specific concrete language and describe your world as your character would. There’s even practical advice on writing humor, which is entirely subjective. You still have to do the work on plot and description and everything else, but you can find methods that work until your skills evolve.
Unfortunately, there’s no similar game board for writing interesting dialogue (or I haven’t found it yet). No one can tell you how to start a sentence and where to drop in an expletive or metaphor. There’s no formula saying great dialogue consists of one long sentence, three short sentences, and a fragment. You can’t math your way to interesting conversations.
So, how do you get from:
“As you know, Bob, I’ve had a hard time since divorcing my wife, your sister Evelyn.”
“They should have put you in a glass jar on a mantlepiece. Where were you when Paul was suckling at his mother’s teat? Where were you? Who was nursing you, poor Eli? One of Bandy’s sows? That land has been had. Nothing you can do about it. It’s gone. It’s had. You lose.
Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I’m so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that’s a straw, you see? Watch it. Now, my straw reaches acroooooooss the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I… drink… your… milkshake! [sucking sound] I drink it up!”
- from There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
Shrug. Like Cher once said, if it came in a bottle, everyone would have a great body. We would all write like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson or pick your favorite writer or filmmaker. It takes practice, both listening and writing.
Nonetheless, some insights can help us create natural-sounding dialogue, but for that we leave the world of writing advice and we examine human nature.
In A Year of Living Consciously, which I am using as a guide for my Year of Writing Consciously, Gay Hendricks points out that when we speak – even something innocuous – we have intention behind our words. When we listen, we also do so with intention: a preconceived notion, bias, or plan to respond.
In Hendricks’ example, the simple question “How are you?” means something different every time we say it. Consider what you mean when you say “How are you?” to someone you are meeting for the first time, to a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or to a close friend whom you know is going through a hard time. The same three words have a dramatically different intention depending on who you’re talking to.
To your struggling friend, you’re expressing concern and providing them the opportunity to talk about their problem. To a casual acquaintance, you’re inviting a quick catch-up on events that have occurred since you last spoke. To a stranger, you probably said “How are you?” by rote, intending merely to be polite. You aren’t really asking about their health or well-being, and it would be awkward if they gave you the details.
We also listen with different intentions. It’s a common challenge in relationships. Often, we don’t listen as much as we quietly (or not) wait our turn to speak. What the other person has actually said is almost irrelevant.
Consider this idea if you’re struggling with dialogue and conflict, as I do. My dialogue tends to be direct. I (probably) avoid the major pitfalls, but my characters almost always say what they think. They respond tit-for-tat to what other characters say. It’s not terrible, but it’s not particularly memorable. If my dialogue were a tennis match, it would be two reasonably good players batting a ball over the net back and forth. Great dialogue is akin to two competitors trying to score points. And naturally, one of those is more fun to watch.
Take a look at your dialogue and ask what your character is inviting when they speak. What is their intention? Do they want information? Does your character want to trick someone or start an argument? Do they start one conversation so they can eat up time and thereby avoid a different, more difficult, topic? Perhaps they’re disinterested and not seeking any response at all.
When your characters are listening, what is the intention? Is your protagonist listening for a lie? Is a character waiting to start an argument? Imagine having a conversation with a reliable co-worker and one you consider lazy. With the former, you might be listening for advice or a project update. With the latter, you might be listening for an excuse or a mistake.
When your character is listening to someone else speak, do they expect to agree or disagree with what that person says? Consider this statement: “This task isn’t worth doing.” Using the co-worker example, you might assume your trusted co-worker has a good reason for their comment, but you’ll assume the lazy person simply wants to get out of doing work.
Characters at cross purposes – with different intentions and desires – create conflict. Imagine saying “How are you?” to a stranger, who launches into a litany of their personal problems. You’d feel trapped. Conversely, how would you react if a good friend responded only vaguely to the same question? What if you knew that friend was ill but declined to discuss it with you or even pretended he wasn’t? You might feel rejected and wonder if your friendship had been damaged.
Conversation is more than what your characters are saying. Dialogue also contains their intentions. Listening is also part of dialogue. What a character is thinking or doing when not speaking influences what they’ll say next.
There’s no simple formula for writing great dialogue, but understanding human nature and thinking is one avenue to crafting more natural-sounding conversation. Go beyond the eavesdropping approach. That’s a great start, but examining the human desire and intention behind our words can help you develop character voice and conflict, and craft dialogue that’s more interesting than a verbal lobby.