What is evil? The dictionary definition is “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.” It’s also the word President Trump used to describe the shooting yesterday in Las Vegas. “An act of pure evil.” He’s not the first to describe such shootings as evil. And while no one can deny this act was indeed evil, I for one am tired of the word. It isn’t helpful and it somehow absolves society of any responsibility for such events.
I believe a more helpful word to call the people carrying out these shootings is sick. Just some of the many definitions of the word on dictionary.com include, “Affected by physical or mental illness, disappointed, mortified or miserable…suffering from serious problems.” Merriam Webster defines it as, “spiritually or morally unsound.” Or how about this archaic form, “pining or longing for someone or something.”
Sick. These shootings keep happening because we are not a healthy nation. Mental illness is rampant in our people. The CDC reports that in any given two-week period, 7.6% of the American population is suffering from depression and nearly 43,000 people a year take their own lives. Eighteen percent of the population is afflicted with an anxiety disorder. Nearly one in five people. And yet the Trump administration proposed a budget that included a $400 million dollar cut for mental health care, including a 20% reduction in mental health research funds. A google search about mental health care funding will quickly show a history of deprioritizing care for the mentally ill beginning with the closing of institutions in the 1960’s. America has a poor track record of cutting money to such a badly needed area of care for our citizens. We still don’t seem to be connecting the dots.
We’re living in an epidemic of loneliness. A recent study revealed nearly seventy-five percent of Americans reported feeling lonely. Many people have already stated more eloquently than I ever could that we live in an age of digital connection, but physical disconnection. Social media is no substitute for genuine community. Let it sink in for a minute. Three out of four Americans feels lonely. They are, as in the definition of sick, disappointed and miserable. When was the last time you spoke to your next-door neighbor? Asked a colleague to lunch? Called a relative or old friend?
People are more stressed out than ever. It’s literally making us sick. It’s a worldwide problem and is so pervasive, as a society, we’ve accepted stress as a natural part of modern life. It affects nearly everyone. I believe a huge part of that stress is caused by too many choices. From school choices to career opportunities to grocery shopping to online dating, people are bombarded with choices and it’s taking a psychological toll. The more options we have, the more wrong choices are possible and in a world of seemingly endless choices, so many of us perceive possible endless failures to do the right thing at all times. I cannot overstate how much stress it causes us to constantly worry that we’re not making the right choice.
We are pining and longing for something or someone. In Psalm 107:9, it says “For he satisfies the longing soul.” Human’s natural state is longing for something beyond the “food that perishes.” Whatever your religious beliefs or lack thereof, we can all agree the human soul needs nourishing and yet we’re living in a time of spiritual bankruptcy. We’re not feeding our souls with religion, art, or nature. Church attendance is down and fewer people than ever believe that church is helpful or relevant. The United States compares poorly to other countries on our spending for the arts. People are reading less literature than ever before. America is suffering a severe nature deficit. We’re not just disconnected physically from other human beings, we’re disconnected from life itself, spending less time outside and in nature. From 1997 to 2010, our attendance at national parks declined 19%. And yet study after study proves spending time in nature increases our physical and mental health and decreases our stress.
I’m afraid we don’t get to dust our hands off and call these shootings evil anymore as if these events suddenly spring out of some supernatural well of malevolence whose source can’t be identified. It can. Its source is a sickness that is gripping our nation. A sickness in our minds and in our souls that comes from a disconnect from each other, from nature, from our creator, and from life itself. We are disappointed, miserable, spiritually unsound and pining for something more.
We can’t ignore the crisis of mental health, of loneliness, of stress, of spiritual bankruptcy and expect that this problem will ever be solved.
And we can’t address the problem until we label it correctly. Sick. The importance of this label is the ray of hope it provides. Because a sickness can be healed. The world, in many ways is improving. We have the tools and research to create solutions, to bring healing.
My heart breaks for all the victims and their families in the Las Vegas shooting. My heart breaks for the shooter and his family. My heart breaks for all of us as a nation facing yet another tragic news story.
My heart is sick with it.
I’m feeling profoundly sad and shocked today, my confusion about priorities cleared in an instant to one single thing.
I was very self-absorbed this morning about my writing goals. I was lamenting the changing world of publishing and how I couldn’t hope to understand it. One of my manuscripts was requested by a couple of agents and I was obsessing about when I’d hear replies from them. My head swirled with a conversation last week with some critique group members who’ve self-published, one who’s found modestly decent success. I was wondering where to begin today and how to prioritize.
Should I write on my current manuscript? Should I revise a previous one? Maybe I should be doing some more research into self-publishing. Or maybe I could explore the information out there about indie publishers?
All of these questions came to a screeching halt in my head like the proverbial needle on a record. My fourteen-year-old daughter, voice shaking, called me to come upstairs. She’d just found out her soccer coach of many years had lost his twelve-year-old daughter in a tragic boating accident. Immediately, I felt sick and shaky, heartbroken for this family.
Priorities are an interesting thing, aren’t they? You’re caught up in things that are important until you’re reminded of what’s Important.
Years ago, I heard a quote that, as an aspiring writer, I found impossible to understand.
“If in 100 years I am only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes then I will have considered my life a failure.”
~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Today, I understand completely.
Writing is everything to me. But it sure ain’t Everything. No amount of writing success could matter to me without my family. Without love, it’s all for nothing, and I risk typing away like a noisy gong in the solitude of my office.
Today, my priorities are straight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hug my children.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Corinthians 13:1
It’s fitting that the heroine of Contrition is a bit of an art voyeur because I felt like a voyeur reading this novel. The reader is treated to a glimpse of a secret world and a highly personal transformation of the protagonist, Dorie McKenna.
Dorie has discovered, on the death of her adoptive parents, that her deceased biological father was a famous artist and that she has a twin sister living in a convent. Dorie is a tabloid journalist living in Venice Beach and feels about as far removed from the life of a nun as a person can get. But she feigns interest in a cloistered life in order to gain access to her sister and her sister’s amazing artwork. Dorie grapples with her deception as she considers using her sister’s art and identity to further her own floundering career.
Weiler takes us on a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of a modern California convent, such as this one the author visited. But perhaps even more fascinating is the journey on which Dorie embarks to discover who she is, her faith, and where art fits into both.
Her twin, Catherine, creates beautiful religiously-inspired paintings and chooses to keep her artwork hidden, as it is her form of worship. This novel forces the question, what is the purpose of art? Is it for the sake of the producer or consumer, the artist or the audience? As Dorie is a writer grappling with the same issue, I like that the question applies to all art forms and as a writer myself, I can relate most in this way.
Like Dorie, I have sometimes worried that my writing replaces living an authentic life for the obsession with creating an imitation of life. In the book, the character articulates it best with the following, “I preferred not to commit words to paper or computer screen, would rather have skipped telling tales of life, choosing instead to live it. But I couldn’t help myself. Terrifying as it was, this recording of the world going by and my speculation about it was often the time I felt most alive. Was it possible to live life in an act of creation based on the mere observation of life?”
Can the creation of works of art, whether those are paintings, books, musical pieces, plays, or dances, be not just a substitute for a life, but a life itself? And how much does the size of our audience validate our work? Is it even necessary?
I feel this sentiment extends as well into the life of a nun in a convent. Is it possible to live life as a servant of God when a nun remains cloistered, her main act of service being private worship and prayer?
Dorie is flawed and at times, frustrated me with her muddled and often inexplicable reasoning for exposing her sister’s artwork to the world. Though appropriate to a book about a person contemplating joining a convent, Dorie spends a great deal of time alone in thought, which slowed the story for me in a few places. However, I enjoyed watching her struggle with her morality, her faith, and the concept of art. Dorie is real, relatable, and likable in her imperfections.
Weiler creates some interesting characters in unique situations and settings that will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished the book. I was fortunate enough to have met the author at a writing conference and she was fantastic! Check out her website: http://www.mauraweiler.com/
I highly recommend this original and satisfying novel.
I just got back from an amazing weekend at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and the theme this year was Dare to Dream. This was my first time at Pikes Peak, but I’ve been to a few writing conferences over the years. The last one I went to before this had a theme that felt a bit more like How Dare You Dream. I came in as a contest winner, my manuscript was polished, and I was certain people were going to be clamoring to look at my book. This was a few years ago and that particular story was a YA paranormal. I thought it was original–set in Orkney with some mythology around water-based shape-shifters. Turns out no one wanted any more YA paranormal and I was told absolutely no more water-based creatures of any kind. I came away so demoralized, I decided to take a break from writing conferences, which my wallet thanked me for–but perhaps my muse did not.
Fast-forward to this year and I won the Pikes Peak Zebulon writing contest and the prize was an irresistible free conference. I’m so glad that I went and I learned a lot. I’m going to be honest here. I’ve been to a fair few writing workshops. I’ve read many books on writing. There’s always always always more to learn about the craft, but there does come a point where you know most of what’s going to be said at these conferences. Show don’t tell. Story pacing. Character arc, etc., etc. Not only do you know it, you’ve hopefully already internalized it and started applying it to your writing. I love going to these workshops to get those reminders though. But almost everything I learned at this conference didn’t come from any workshop.
This weekend, true to the theme, I learned to dare to dream. From a comment I got from a contest judge, to the keynote speakers, to the writers I sat next to at meals, I realized I was daring to dream all along, but I wasn’t daring to believe it. Loved the movie Zootopia and found the rabbit parents in the beginning to be disturbingly relatable when they encourage their daughter to settle with the funny (sad?) line, “We settled hard.” The father tells his daughter, “It’s great to have dreams, just so long as you don’t believe in them too much.” And that’s what I’ve been doing with my writing. I dreamed big, but I didn’t dare believe in it too much.
I quit my full-time job last year and went back to subbing so I could write more. Then I added a part-time job along with the subbing back into the mix. Why? I think I’m afraid if I try really hard to make a success of writing and still fail, I’ll have no excuses. Key word–afraid. It’s like I’m walking around with this ridiculous Imposter Syndrome. I’m not a real writer. It’s just something cute I do so I can have an identity separate from being a wife and mother.
Wrong. I’m a good writer. There, I said it. At my first lunch of the conference, I ended up sitting next to the 2nd place winner I beat out in the contest. Now she actually placed first in another category and contests are a crapshoot. Some people are just good at winning them and I have no misconceptions whatsoever that I’m a better writer than anyone at that table. But turns out she’s a published author who was even in the process of optioning film rights to her book. She said something close to, “Not like I’m awesome or anything, but you beat me out so you must be good.” I talked to some of the other winners. Published authors. Agented authors. And there I was without even a business card to hand out. Many people at this conference were on their first or second manuscript.
I’m on my fifth. And it’s not that I’ve shopped these manuscripts around like crazy and had to set them aside. I just set them aside.
Joe Lansdale was one of the keynote speakers there and he said, “Write like everybody you know is dead.” And I nodded, thinking in particular about writing sex scenes and knowing your mother (or mother-in-law!) might read them. But it took me all weekend and a conversation with another writer to realize what he probably really meant. This other woman said she had no interest in being published, she wrote for herself, and she could be posthumously published like Emily Dickinson. I’m gonna guess that’s because she was afraid. That woman was writing like she was dead.
And then I got it. Write like everyone I know is dead! Don’t even care what people think if I fall on my face and fail. This is my dream, damn it. Dream my big dream, dare to believe it, and then actually put myself out there.
It’s time to stop being afraid. I think the theme for me this weekend was Dare to Dream—Seriously.
“The key is to tell a story that’s as emotionally engaging as possible.” JJ Abrams
The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert this Tuesday featured an interview of the director/producer JJ Abrams. Colbert referred to the Star Trek/Star Wars director as “the consummate storyteller.” And of course, that’s what a good director, like a good author, should be. Movies and books are both made up of the business of storytelling.
I got three takeaways from the interview that apply to writing equally as much as to movie-making:
- Emotional connection is key.
- Avoid too many lens flares.
- Give your audience questions, questions, and then more questions.
Let’s look at each one for a minute.
- Emotion. The first is often overlooked by the makers of Hollywood blockbusters and authors alike. I love an action movie as much as the next person, but if you want me to remember the movie five minutes after I walk out of the theater, I need to make that emotional connection with the characters. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but a Trekkie, I am not. However, I really enjoyed JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness for the very reason that for once, we see the unemotional Spock become pretty darn emotional. He’s worried for Captain Kirk, he’s pissed as hell, and he gets, in Spock terms, a little sentimental. I’m not saying it wasn’t a great film otherwise, but the reason I enjoyed it and remember it is because of the unexpected emotion in a Star Trek movie. Visceral emotion connects the audience to a story in a powerful way and that’s why it was the first thing Abrams mentioned in his interview in regard to storytelling.
- Lens flares. While the director was talking about cutting out actual lens flares in his movies, I think it’s a reasonable jump to make this mean any flowery, over-the-top narrative or similar tricks of writing that blind the reader to what’s going on, either because the story and emotion is lacking in a scene, or the author is in love with their own pretension. JJ Abrams admitted that his wife, as all good spouses do, called him on his bad habit of lens flares, saying this about it, “There was one scene in Star Trek Into Darkness when you literally couldn’t see what was going on and it was a very important emotional scene.” Don’t blind your readers with a metaphorical lens flare, which is sometimes even more tempting in an emotional scene. If you’re getting carried away with your verbage, just take Colbert’s advice, “It’s like putting on jewelry. Put on everything you want before you go out, look in the mirror and then take off one lens flare.” (Or an unnecessary paragraph of purple prose–I’m sure Stephen would agree.)
- Questions??? JJ Abrams was there to discuss his role as producer in 10 Cloverfield Lane and man, does that movie garner some questions. The Late Night Show ran a clip where John Goodman’s character is seen to be holding someone apparently hostage in a bunker. His hostage escapes up some stairs and is trying to open a door to the outside. I love that for once in a horror movie, someone is actually screaming, “Nooooo, no, don’t open the door!” John Goodman screams this as he watches her struggle with the lock, only to have someone’s diseased (?) face appear at the window. I got me some questions. What’s worse for this woman–inside or out? And the movie trailer is even more intriguing. I would say questions are the beads in a long necklace of storytelling, but I’m just going to let JJ Abrams sum it up better than me. “The fun of something..when people go to see a movie…when you’re watching a film, you want the audience to be asking questions, you want people to need to know more…[I]t’s about telling a story that is drawing you deeper into it…[I]t’s what a good story does.” A good story makes the reader ask one question that must be answered by reading further only to be hit by another question and yet another burning question. If not every scene, at least every chapter in your book should be presenting the reader with a new question they MUST answer.
I love it when I get a lesson on writing when I wasn’t expecting it!
Every once in a while, some writers pull off a successful story that features an unlikable protagonist. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you’re like me and trying to write a likable, sympathetic hero or heroine. And if that’s enough for you, no need to keep reading this post.
But likable and sympathetic–that could be your grandma. The milkman. Your 8th grade Social Studies teacher. A lot of nice people that you know in real, boring life. And I’m not saying those people don’t have some interesting stories in them, but c’mon–I think I want a little more than nice for my book. This is, after all, my wish fulfillment, a way to live everything I’m not. (And I’m nice, okay?) But that’s not enough. So I want a cool protagonist for my book–a kick-ass hero that makes readers pump their fist in the air and cheer, “Hell, yeah!”
So how to pull this off? When I started thinking deeply about characterization, I remembered a writing workshop where the presenter gave a list of character attributes that make a character immediately sympathetic.
This list included:
- loves someone
- is loved by someone
- having plans, purpose, or dreams (duh, your character needs a goal!)
- genius (I think intelligent is probably sufficient)
- self-deprecating attitude
- in jeopardy (and no, not the game show–although that’s pretty cool)
- no self-pity (no whiners, please!)
This is a great list of traits. A trait being defined by Webster’s as: a distinguishing quality (as of personal character)
a: a distinguishing quality (as of personal character) <curiosity is one of her notable traits>
b: an inherited characteristic
So to a certain extent, your character’s traits are inherited and beyond their control. Regardless of how our personalities might or might not be determined by a genetic lottery, we like people who have positive character traits. I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Ackerman & Puglisi and their corresponding The Negative Trait Thesaurus. It’s a great way to come up with likable traits for your hero and unlikable traits for your villain and at the same time, balance both positive and negative in both kinds of characters so you don’t end up with a goody-two shoes cardboard hero or a moustache-twirling, evil 2-D villain.
But traits alone are not enough to a make a kick-ass, cool, hell-yeah kind of hero. For that, we need skills, baby, skills!!
Here’s a free-stylin’, random brainstormed list of skills that could, with varying degrees of success, catapult your hero into the coolest stratospheres of Cool Cat-dom.
- Athletic skills: How about a character who excels at a particular sport? They could run fast or swim. Skateboarding, skiing, surfing, snowboarding? (Yeah, you know those are cool)
- Martial arts: Karate, jujitsu, tae kwon do, etc. They don’t come much cooler than Daniel LaRusso, right? (You can roll your eyes here, but you know, I did have a poster of Ralph Macchio in my bedroom once upon a time and it’s hard to let that go. And he was, after all, the best around and nothing was ever going to keep him down.)
- Weapons: Swordsmanship, anyone? Archery? It worked for Katniss as much as Robin Hood. Or maybe even think bigger. Fighter jets. Maverick from Top Gun fo’ sho. I don’t want to think too deeply about why holding the power of life and death in someone’s hands makes them so cool, but it does.
- Techie skills: I married a computer programmer. ‘Nuff said. Seriously, in today’s world, being way skilled in technology gives you a serious advantage and a lot of power. Think Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
- Artistic: If anything might be sexier than computer programmers, I mean, only a smidge, of course–it’s musicians. Or what about someone who can sing like an angel? A painter or sculptor or photographer. What about an amazing dancer? Now that I think about it, writers are probably THE coolest people ever. I can see you’re nodding in agreement. Bottom line, artists are cool. Just visit Greenwich Village. And then tell me what it’s like, please, because I’ve never been.
- Domestic skills: What?! I hear you say. Do you mean mopping like a fiend or something? No. Two words: Supermarket Sweep. Give your character mad grocery shopping skills! Okay, kidding. But cooking really well can be very cool. What about a person with a green thumb? It’s incredible how everything comes back to The Karate Kid, but remember Mr. Miyagi and those bonsai trees? That was kinda cool, right?
- Magical/Paranormal powers: Something along the lines of Harry Potter or the X-Men. I do, however, understand where literary agent Russell Galen was coming from when he told me he’s turned off by “Master Race” stories in which characters are inherently more wonderful than ordinary people. The trick is to give your characters a villain worthy of their magical powers. Or maybe it’s not as big as a super power. Maybe it’s telepathy like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse character. I’m reading a fun paranormal western right now, The Curse of Jacob Tracy by Holly Messinger and her cowboy hero can see ghosts. (Check out this original book!)
- Survival skills: Bear Grylls! Okay, maybe he’s not the best example. Drinking your own urine is never cool. But someone who can build fires, track people, put up a four-star shelter with just some twigs and branches, and catch a fish with her/his bare hands is pretty cool. Maybe more Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins or Julie in Julie of the Wolves than Bear Grylls.
- Smooth criminal: I guess we shouldn’t root for criminals, but they can be oh-so-cool sometimes. How about Hans Solo and his smuggling? Or books like The Grifters and Fight Club? The character of Fergus in the Outlander books and his pickpocket skills. Frank Abangale in Catch Me If You Can certainly had some skills–even if it was pure nerviness.
- Word to your Mother Nature/Mad Scientists: Can I get a shout-out for the coolness of people who rock climb, mountain climb, scuba dive, spelunk, and hike? The character of Saul in Lucy Clarke’s A Single Breath opens up an underwater world of free diving for Eva. Or maybe your character can commune with animals. Do they have a special relationship with nature? Anna Pigeon, the Park Ranger in Nevada Barr’s mystery series is one example. They could be a storm-chaser. Scientists who study the natural world. Neil deGrasse-Tyson, am I right? So cool. Albeit not a character, but a real person.
- Handy-(wo)man: Who doesn’t love a character who’s good with their hands? Mechanics, carpenters, general handy people. We’re talking real skills. Nora Roberts must have a thing for this because so many of her leading men remodel houses. I think her husband did something in this line of work so I get it now.
- Speed Demons: People who do things fast. Drive sports cars or racecars, fly airplanes or helicopters, speedboats, parachute. Or spaceships like in this fun sci-fi book about a lizard pilot, Would I Ly to You by Lawdon. You know. Cool.
- Medical know-how: Claire Fraser in the Outlander series (again, sorry I keep coming back to this series) is a perfect example. Or the woman in The Midwife of Hope River. Just like people skilled with weapons, the medical expert holds the power of life and death in their hands.
- People skills: From charming to manipulative, this can be an incredibly powerful –and cool–skill for your character. Tyrion Lannister, though small, is packed with people skills that carry him to a position of power many times throughout Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
- Deductive reasoning: There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes has been done and re-done to death. The dude is just plain cool. Or how about Caleb Carr’s character in The Alienist? A sharp, observant mind is the bees’ knees to me.
- Random skills: The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse featured a heroine who was skilled at…you guessed it, taxidermy. A quirky or one-of-a-kind skill can make your character a cool standout. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Heroes Are My Weakness featured a ventriloquist heroine who was surprisingly cool in a dorky way. Think of a random skill for your character and then work it into the plot–or maybe an entire plot will stem from the skill itself. Can they speed read? Wing walk? Identify any song in less than five seconds? Make the world’s best balloon animals? Are they a champion at curling? Your imagination is the limit.
Positive character traits take you most of the way to creating a sympathetic character, but for a truly memorable, cool character, don’t forget to give them some serious skills!
What kind of skills do you think make for the coolest characters? Let me know in the comments.