The Real Adventure

My parents sometimes claimed that I spent my entire childhood with my nose in a book. But, I didn’t learn how to read until I was five. Before that time I chose books with intriguing pictures in them so that I could make up the stories in my head. Essentially, I withdrew from the world into books everytime my family moved to a new location, which was almost every other year.  As I grew older I found the time spent reading was only as good as the materials I read. I recall hours spent reading our set of World Book encyclopedias and checking out library books as often as I could. 

However, the real reading adventure occurred when we moved to another state. What kids thought was cool in one place, was no longer cool in the next location. We leased the house of an education professor, and I found his personal library on an enclosed porch. The limerick book was amusing for a while. Gulliver’s Travels was a bit of a challenge. I understood most of that book but did not discern the politics it portrayed. 

Soon I learned to expect more from reading, and to enjoy a well written factual book as much as fiction. There are only so many fiction plots, which means I demand more creativity from them. I discovered that many of my favorite authors suffered the same fate, either being confined by illness in their youth, or moving to distant places so that books became their companions. 

Later I heard the theory that creativity involved taking ideas that were no longer in fashion, and modifying them until they become something new, which made perfect sense to me. The more that I read, the more that I search for that kind of novelty. My idea of a quality book changed over time. Realism became more attractive that the exciting, yet predictable adventures that I read as a young adolescent. 

 In college, I dabbled in writing poems and fables. However, the best story turned out to be very similar to my brief infatuation with a student with promising musical ability who would never become a great musician. In my late twenties I started writing a novel based on my own experience in art school and faltered for lack of a cohesive plot. My life simply did not have the exciting people and events that interesting books required. When my children were young I started writing short stories. I soon discovered that plots ripped straight from my own life were still the best.

Now I hear people extol the popularity of mysteries, suspense and thrillers or whatever one calls an action packed book where the hero tracks down a murderous villain, while dodging dangers. There are parts of these stories that I like, but the tendency to repeat the same plots has made them not as desirable for reading. 

So, decades after I started writing in college, I realized the wonderful, imaginary things I wanted to put in the stories didn’t work as well as real life situations that took on a new perspective of the world. Character driven stories are time consuming and not easy to write, or easy to end as the major villain to conquer is the character’s own weaknesses. Sometimes writing itself becomes a sacrifice, but still provides enough joy for me not to give up on it.

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The Curse of Perfection

Unfortunately, I can always make my novels better. Even though I think ideas through before I write them down, the quality of my writing is not consistent. Neither is my ability to read what I’ve written in the past. This depends on my current level of dyslexia/dysgraphia. Now, I’m editing a 100,000 word novel that I started 10 years ago. I attempted to edit it right after I wrote it, but I kept changing tiny things that didn’t matter and shifting the order of events.

Finally, I decided to put the manuscript away for a while. There were parts of it that I had to scrap and start over again. But, other parts didn’t require any more than a spelling and grammar check. Those sections were written very slowly. Revising as I go is essential.

I’ve observed other authors creating fiction within well-delineated genres. They complete the book and then revise everything at the end, because they’re following basic guidelines for their plots (with a few minimal subplots) their goal is to put out as many decently written words as quickly as possible to get the story written.

Other authors experiment with their writing and revise as they go along and that is the curse under which I write. With more complex plots, I have to reread the beginning each time to  recall what I have created before continuing. Even though I tend to review and edit the prior chapter(s) before moving on, sometimes information in the first part of the books must change because of a shift in the original plot. I have two options. I can note a place to rewrite a prior chapter later, or I can just do it at that time. I usually bite the bullet and do it at that time. 

When is the story ready to be released to the public? Usually, it requires another reader to tell me I’ve reached this point. At some point I have to invite other people to read my precious work to see if they are able to follow the plot and characters, and if it strikes them as anything worth reading.  I fondly recall the time I created a 1,000 word short story in about an hour for a critique group challenge. The group liked it so, I proofed the story once, sent it to a contest, and it won. I had never made $100 in one hour before, and this has never occurred since.

My writing never seems perfect enough. And, I am not alone. Famous authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Fyodor Dostoevsky often published their novels in serial form, and then spent months editing the entire manuscripts later before republishing them as novels. Most good writers understand that there are diminishing returns to self-editing after a certain point, so nothing helps me as much as a deadline in which I have to get the work finished.

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Asking for Ideas

Writing a well-crafted novel is hard labor, like going through a struggle harder than childbirth. Some authors want to seek out a short-cut, a sure thing, or a fully fleshed-out plot that has been used successfully in the past. However enticing this short-cut seems, when people write stories based on another person’s plot, they soon find that the tedious part is writing out the individual scenes. 

As an unknown author who does not receive the support of professional editors and writers, creating an excellent book is difficult and time consuming. But, if the idea is my own I have an investment in my work. This personal idea provides motivation to continue working. If the book is based on someone else’s idea of a good plot, I might simply give up when writing becomes too difficult. After all, how can I fix the problems with someone else’s concepts? 

There is a tremendous amount of work involved in moving a finished piece to the next level, so it is ready for publishing. Often writers are tempted to dispose of their first effort after an extended time of struggling to write it. Advice to new authors often repeats the idea that the first novel is going to be bad. Should I finish writing it anyway? Yes. This bit of folk wisdom has been disproved many times––by people such as Mary Shelley, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and J.R.R, Tolkien whose first novels remained popular for decades. (The authors in this illustrious list did have some experience writing before attempting their first novel.)

Of course, all authors are not created equal. Some learn more rapidly and some work the craft for years before they offer their work to the public. The truth is that writing is learned by doing it. This means the second novel will almost certainly be better than the first. Some authors, like Jane Austen, published their second novel first, and then returned to edit their first attempt based on insights they gained from that experience. So, the first novel may be the right place to use my best ideas.

I can study other’s novels and research the latest tools for writing. However, the type of computer, word processors, editing software, and internet sites used to glean information are not the most important part. I could write an excellent article using a pen on a notepad. (Of course, that would take longer as my handwriting is illegible and my spelling leaves something to be desired.) The thought processes that go into my writing––creating characters, choosing the viewpoints, setting up the action arcs, the pacing for the plot, and the types of elaboration––carry far more weight than the tools I use. When people say that a person must write to improve their writing, they are telling the truth.

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Ending the Never Ending Story

When a new idea for a book grabs me, I dwell on it for a few days, or maybe a week or two in my spare time as work on the kind of writing that makes money (technical training). However, soon I realize I will forget the scenes that I have dreamed up if I don’t start writing them down. When I start writing a novel I know how the characters are going to change by the end. But, I don’t know the manner in which this will occur. So, I usually do not know the ending.

Each author has their idea of how to create a fictional character, story, setting, and so on. I do not want to duplicate what has already done, so I don’t read other fiction during this time. My process is to come up with a general outline, and yet remaining flexible. I dwell on my ideas for a few days, or weeks, until the first part of the book coalesces in my mind. Then, I start creating a list of scenes. Then comes the task of creating very short synopsis of each one. However, I often get ahead of myself and write them out completely only to realize they have to be changed because the events in them are out of order.

Writing character driven novels means the plot requires adjustments as I create the story. As I continue to think of how the story should unfold I go back and edit earlier scenes to fit with later events. Inevitably, I start moving scenes around, even if they don’t need to be. That is when I start creating a calendar with important dates. When I have enough for about thirty to fifty percent of a book, I start trying to pin down the ending, because if I don’t, the plot seems to go on infinitely. 

I don’t finish stories with everything settled and calm. Nothing seems to be dramatic enough to call it quits. The big event that wraps up the story often changes the world for the main character. They are heading off to college or off to a new country. Only occasionally do they return back to the place they came from to receive praise from people who ignored them in the past. It seems enticing to take my character further into this new world, but I must resist the temptation to do so.

Ending the never-ending story is a challenge that I’ve face with most of my works that are more than short stories. There is always one loose end to tie up before the last word. I’ve learned to identify my major conflict and make sure it is resolved. I’ve learned that all loose do not need to be explained. I can even acknowledge that the main character will never know the answer to certain questions. Leaving parts unknown does not stop the end of a story.

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The Pleasure of Rereading Books

As a child I used to read Black Beauty repeatedly. This book sat open on my lap when I was supposed to be taking a nap with my head on the desk in first and second grade. Each time I reread it, I wanted to get the same sensation I had before. But, it’s actually a difficult book for a first or second grader to read and comprehend all the finer points. So, I learned new things each time. Honestly, I didn’t understand the cab driver’s political comments concerning blackguards until I was much older. However, I was so impressed with this book that I decided to search for more works by the same author. Unfortunately, it is the only book that Anna Sewell wrote.

One of my more enjoyable times as a mother was picking up a book that I enjoyed as a child, and reading it to my children. These were not just short books but lengthy ones like The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien. I felt like I had a legitimate excuse to laze around with my children and reread old favorites.

I read through anthologies for a taste of works by newer authors. I find that I am more demanding when reading a novel by an author with a reputation. I acknowledge that the lesser known ones may be starting out, and there is still the possibility of growth. Finally, I tend to seek out far more stand alone novels than series, having accepted the mournful fact that only one of the series will be my favorite. This sense of disappointment is intensified  after I have discovered that it is the first one in the series.

When I choose an unfamiliar book author, I take the risk of discovering that I ‘m not fond of it. Then, a decision has to be made. Is it good enough to keep reading just to find out what happens? Will I regret the decision as I will never get that time back? So, I teeter back and forth trying to decide if my new venture in reading will pay out or not. Usually, if I find the book not to my liking, I continue to read for a few more chapters. If it still does not interest me within that time, it is added to the did not finish pile. If I am rereading an old favorite book, I don’t have to worry about that. So, now I am rereading To the Lighthouse years after I first encountered Virginia Wolff while attending college.

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The Artist’s Hierarchy of Needs

Have you ever seen the “Artist’s hierarchy of needs?” It is based on Maslow’ structure; however, the basic need for a self-actualization, or achieving one’s full potential including creative activities, is the point at the bottom on which the whole triangle balances. Creativity comes first, the food, water, shelter and sleep are at the top, or the last needs to be fulfilled.

If you are planning to use November to write a 50,000+ word novel that is suitable for publication without many months more of rewrites, you will need to abide by the topsy-turvy hierarchy of needs for this entire month. Participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge, may mean that time spent cooking, cleaning, sleeping and even bathing will have to be curtailed in order to find more time to write.

However, over the years I’ve found ways to increase my written output. So, I do have some advice for those that want to attempt this impossible challenge. The easiest way to create content in the least amount of time is to write what you know. Your own life story may not be that interesting, so don’t feel confined to the truth. If better ideas spring up, or you decide to appropriate events that happened to friends or celebrities, remember that you are writing fiction, not a real autobiography. With a word processor you can use the search and replace feature to alter names and appearance of the people after you are finished. This also relieves the fear of being shunned by family members who don’t appear in the best light.

However, even when writing a novel based on your own life you need a plot. There must be a challenge that you face or a problem to overcome; whether you succeed, fail, or just accept your fate..The story line found in Cinderella is often used. It starts out with recalling an event that shifted your life from pleasant to some degree of miserable. Then, after three nights at a ball—make that three different attempts to overcome the problem—you encounter one last disaster, run away and prepare for defeat. However, your fortune shifts due to someone’s gallantry or pure grit on your part.

Your idea for a novel based on your own life still will need embellishment. To complete this within a month will require planning. The initial troubling event, each of the attempts to overcome the problem, and the final triumph each require multiple scenes. Perhaps you wish to write a scene each day. The number of scenes covering the first two sections will have more for the last section with the resolution. There might be 10 scenes introducing the problem, and 16 scenes in the attempts to solve it. Then, for the ending stretch, when fortune shifts, only 4 scenes would be required.

Even if you hit the goal of 50,000 words, you will still be less than halfway to a new novel. The next few months will be consumed editing and rewriting until this morass of words makes sense and flows in a manner to keep the reader interested. Still, I wish you the best of luck!

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The Villain’s Motive

There are multiple ways of uncovering how a person can become a villain. I can look at my own life and see what others did to harm me or what I have done to them by preventing them from accomplishing what they wanted. I may think that is not like a villain because it wasn’t a horribly vicious thing. However, I assume that I deserve what is good more than others do and therefore justify my own bad behavior.

A wise person once pointed out to me that people who refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings, become the cruelest when persecuting other people for their faults. Interestingly, we may criticize real people that perform the same corrupt actions as we do, but we will attach ourselves to fictional characters like ourselves. So the reader who constantly seeks villains who either want to rule or destroy the world may not be as common as writers assume.

Two of my favorite villains are Javert in Les Miserable in Les Miserable and Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Let us look more closely at the appeal of these literary villains. Javert assumed any effort to chase down a petty thief who had repaid society for his crime was justified. Chilllingworth secretly tormented the man who he assumed had seduced his wife when he had been absent for years himself. In both cases the villain never confessed to reveal their motive for persecuting the protagonist. But, their was no need to. Their crime was lack of compassion. They both thought they were justified in their pursuit of the protagonists, who had fallen down into the slippery slope of a bad situation..

That is actually the mark of an excellent writer—being able to produce villains who see themselves as right, and yet the audience sees through their façade and realizes their depravity. Sometimes, this is done by having the villain be insane. But, one must really understand mental illness for this character to ring true. It is more likely that a person who seems perfectly normal has decided on a course of action that is cruel to others with an ultimate cause that they rationalize as good. However, this ultimate cause is actually self-promotion.

How does a writer make a character seem villainous? Have them do selfish things that hurt other people and show that they simply don’t care about this at all. They might have the attitude that other people aren’t really important as they are and don’t matter. Therefore, these characters see committing destructive acts as being justified. The skillful author knows how to reveal that there is no actual justification for becoming evil.

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A Likable Villain?

Authors sometimes seek villains that their audience can identify with because they want the readers invested in the villain. This helps to propel a person to finish a book if they really don’t know what is going to happen to the antagonist in the end. The unprincipled conformist is a character popular among his fictional cohorts. This antagonist pushes the boundary of right until he veers onto the side of wrong. What makes this character so villainous? Conformity requires that a person at least appear to follow a set of rules. A required similarity can mask the truth about a person who actually harms other people, especially those within the group.

The nature of this harm can express itself in a number of ways. One of the most common is the exclusion of people for insignificant reasons. In order to create a strong camaraderie a common enemy needs to be found. There are two reasons that people do this: one is the ancient reason that wars exist–so one group can take something of value from other people. Exclusion allows this group to justify their gains at the expense of others. The second reason is to shift the blame for any problems onto an outsider who becomes the scapegoat.

In the end both of these actions destroy the group. Whether the exclusion is used as an excuse to take away wealth or credit or influence from the other person, or simply a social snub, it results in physical pain. This person who hurt will not sit there and take the abuse. The excluded people will avoid interacting with those people, even if they would prefer to fit in.[1] When this targeted person leaves the town, the group must seek out a fresh scapegoat. The villain continues to lead them in this process until his guile is uncovered, or the apparently cohesive group crumbles from the inside out. The unprincipled conformist harms others by squelching individuality. In the end people tire of being controlled and turn against the villain.

Exactly how is the unprincipled conformist brought to a demise? This job falls on the rebel with a cause, also known as the principled nonconformist. This protagonist persuades the followers who have been tricked into supporting the villain to pull out their support. The reader becomes sympathetic to the people that really do not want to follow this leader who will use and destroy them. At that point the villain becomes very unlikeable. So readers cheer at the stirring speech of revelation about the villain’s true intent. The physical fight between protagonist and antagonist may not be necessary because former followers bring down the unprincipled conformist.

[1] Eisenberger, N. I.  (2012)  Broken hearts and broken bones: A neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 42-47,
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Favoring rebellious heroes

As much as people are willing to mimic the behavior of others in order to fit in, they often secretly wish for the strength to show dissent. We admire the person who has the guts to do what we dare not do  – challenge group norms. So the heroes of novels are often the wildcards, impetuous, untamed but with a good heart. We love to cheer on these principled rebels.

They challenge both higher ups and friends, not because they are disloyal, but because they want to incite those with power to help others. In fiction the hero often sways the fence-riding group to rebel against the villain by the use of stirring altruistic words. And, sometimes the hero engages in a knock-down, drag-out physical fight, too. But what occurs in real life? In a true uphill struggle by the minority voice of dissent to influence the majority, the rebel with a cause must be consistent. Consistency is not necessarily the hobgoblin of small minds.

Group dynamics affect the challenge of being a real-life rebel with a cause. Social groups tend to seek consensus so that everybody can get along. The fact that everybody else seems to hold the same opinion provides enough validation for most people to follow a leader. Once they have committed themselves, they don’t really want to hear someone who questions their ideas. In the novel, when the hero questions the consensus, they run the risk of being excluded. This of course creates a nice plot twist. Although the hero will not change colors, those that back this character risk exclusion, too. Just as in real life, the group excludes those supporting the person who questions their authority.[1]

Persistence on the part of the minority is their major weapon. The majority group starts with the assumption that the rebel is not correct but the persistence on his or her part creates a conundrum. “How can they be so sure and yet so wrong?”[2] If the rebel view is going to have any chance of gaining a following the supporters must remain consistent over time. If sticking to their guns is seen as attention seeking, or a rigid belief rather than consistency, it will fail.

Also, the rebel with a cause does not have the luxury of both ‘winning friends’ and ‘influencing people.’ Rebels may influence others by remaining adamant in their position, but most people will not like them. And, the rebel hero must remain strong when punished by the status quo. Any attempt to gain support through appeasement may result in influence going down the drain.[2]

Basically, the uniform view of the majority is never as solid as it appears. Many people conform not because they agree with the large groups, but because they fear exclusion. However, timing is everything when trying to convert private dissenters into open rebels. This works in fiction plots as well. The hero must speak up before members of the group have a chance to act based on the mistaken majority beliefs. When people comply with a demand, and then someone criticizes that demand, they tend to take the criticism personally.

It is those waffling fence-sitters who cling tightly to their fence that are most willing to admire the person who dissents on principle.[2] When the rebel with a cause voices an opinion that they secretly hold, these secondary characters slide off the fence in his or her direction. They have a sense of liberating relief that they can now do the right thing.

 “Indeed, people may speak up and dissent from important group norms not because they want to be difficult and destructive, but because they care for the group and its future.”[3]

[1] Levine, J.M. and Vernon L. Allen, V.L. (1968) Reactions to Attitudinal Deviancy, Report from the Per Group Pressures on Learning Project. Vernon L. Allen, Principal Investigator. Wisconsin Research and Development Center for Cognitive Learning, The University of Wisconsin

[2] Nemeth, C. J. & Jack A. Goncalo, J.A. (2011) Rogues and Heroes: Finding Value in Dissent.  In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd[1] Monin, B.and and O’Connor, K. (2011) Reactions to Defiant Deviants-Deliverance or Defensiveness? In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

[3] Levine, J.M. and Vernon L. Allen, V.L. (1968) Reactions to Attitudinal Deviancy, Report from the Per Group Pressures on Learning Project. Vernon L. Allen, Principal Investigator. Wisconsin Research and Development Center for Cognitive Learning, The University of Wisconsin

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Woman on a tightrope

Recently the movie Not Okay hit a nerve by using “Unlikeable female protagonist” as one of the content warnings for its rating. What did the likability of the main character have to do with identifying the appropriate audience for this film? Nothing. This explanation was intended to be satirical, but it does point to a disparity in judging film and television characters.

There is a list of protagonists pulling off nastier stunts than faking a kidnapping. Misanthropic and pain-killer addicted Dr. Gregory House frequently disparaged his coworkers, exhibiting almost zero sympathy. Walter White was a down-in-the-dumps high school science teacher that fought the law rather than his cancer by manufacturing methamphetamines for sale on the street. People did not accuse them of being unlikeable male protagonists.

Why is there pressure to make female protagonists more likable than their male counterparts? A male protagonist can be anywhere on the range from handsome to ugly, sly to simple, strong to scrawny, or sophisticated to blunt, and still be considered likable as long as they show strength in at least one area. The female protagonist has to walk a tightrope.

The narrowest measure is that of beauty. But, this comes with subtle indicators that affect other characteristics. For example, the female lead can be physically strong but should not look musclebound. They can be older, as long as they look young. I recall an author showing off a cover with a female character that he assumed would read as a physically strong mature female. Her expression was tough, but her physical appearance was not, and she looked all of sixteen.

According to the Reysen Likability Scale, attractiveness is a major determinant of likability for females, and people are also pickier about the quantity of a woman’s laughter. The giggles of women in movies and films are reflected in real life. Women laugh as they talk, but not because they’ve found anything funny to laugh about.  

This trend has hit close to home for me. My novella about a very intelligent, but not attractive female sparring with an attractive, manipulative male gained the comment “your female character is not likable.” One person went so far to say, “The problem is that she has low self-esteem.” My character had the opposite problem. She understood exactly where her ability lay and refused to give into playing dumb.

Finally, one person grew brave and defended her, “She reminds me of Daria Morgendorffer. I actually like her because she’s different.” As a person who doesn’t spend much time watching TV, I had to research Daria. She is a cartoon character and a teenager who is a bit pessimistic, not interested in fashion, and unfortunately, knows how to use her brain.

In film, the ideal female seems to be gorgeous and not intelligent enough to realize how good she looks. We are long overdue for characters who break this mold.

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