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No Pain, No Gain: Are You Making Your Characters Suffer?

Painful heart

Painful heartThink about all the things you don’t like in real life. Sharks. Spiders. Earthquakes. Bullies. Public speaking. Chances are, if you expose your characters to what you fear, your fiction will flourish because of it. Writers can’t afford to be nice. We’ve got to throw rocks at our characters, as Nabokov famously said. Get them into terrible trouble and hold them there, feet to the fire, until the very end of the story.

Why? Because witnessing other people’s pain and observing how they deal with it keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully, it teaches us something too.

I don’t mean that we should create unrelenting misery; our characters need to experience both ups and downs. I’m no masochist, but since it’s January, I thought the topic of pain was appropriate. For many, this is a month of deprivation and dieting after the holiday excesses. Or a time to force ourselves (again) to start working out at the gym. Just attempting to carry out our new year’s resolutions—and the guilt we feel if we don’t—can cause angst.

Given that this past year has been a challenging one for my family, it helps me to remember that hardship can actually benefit us in the long run. Light can’t exist without darkness. We must experience sorrow to truly feel joy.  So in fiction, a dearth of pain can be a problem. When tension fades, so does reader interest. One of my students has a tendency to protect her protagonists, just as she’d do for the people she loves in real life.  Her instinct is to keep them happy and safe from harm. Boring. “Stop mothering your main characters,” I tell her, but she still finds it hard to hurt them. She’s not the only writer who struggles with this.

It may be helpful to think of it in exercise terms. Physical pain, the kind we feel when we push ourselves playing sports or working out, is a necessary part of getting stronger. Athletes can’t get to the next level without it. Tearing microscopic muscle fibers helps the fibers rebuild more densely into bigger muscles—scientific evidence that discomfort can be beneficial (as long as we don’t overdo it).  I’ve always found it ironic, of course, that in order to flood my system with those bliss-producing endorphins, I have to embrace pain first. But every time, the aches and agony lead me to the ecstasy.

The Hulk (Pixabay)Emotional pain can strengthen us in the same way. Writer Jeanne Weierheiser calls “embracing pain the gateway to growth.” How can you not gift your characters this kind of opportunity? I’m exploring what it means to be a hero in the book I’m writing.  To do this, I’m forcing my characters to make mistakes and endure some really bad things. That’s because their journey to transformation is not based on success. Winning isn’t always the best teacher. Setbacks are what make us stronger. Think about your own experiences. Isn’t positive change more likely to occur after periods of heartache and despair? In the end, my protagonist comes to see that she’s learned more from her missteps than her triumphs. It’s through struggle that she discovers who she is.

The hazards writers create don’t have to be huge and life-threatening. But there should be plenty of small stuff for characters to sweat. Even minor pain can cause emotional upheaval and growth. Things like—

  • Change. This is something people tend to be wary of. As Sol Stein writes in Stein on Writing, “Changes in life are fraught with peril. If the perils of major change happen within the covers of a book, the reader will be absorbed.”
  • Surprises. There are good and bad surprises. Bad ones in life bring “hurt, sadness, misfortune,” says Stein. “But in books readers thrill to the unexpected. A new obstacle, an unexpected confrontation by an enemy, or a sudden twist of circumstance all start adrenaline pumping and pages turning.”
  • Embarrassment. Even in humorous fiction, characters should experience some suffering. Embarrassing situations are a perfect vehicle for this, and they will almost always create interesting plot developments.

Failure is also a reliable source of pain. Most of us have experienced some incidents of failure in real life. When I think of all my unfinished stories and abandoned novels, for instance, I tend to start feeling bad… And yet, my advisors at VCFA taught me that nothing is wasted, every word we write (good or bad) prepares us for what comes next. So, I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress, and that Jane Fonda was right when she brought the phrase, “No pain, no gain,” into prominence to promote her exercise videos.

A protagonist in pain can help us answer the following key story questions: Does this person have a goal? What is the purpose of this scene? If your character isn’t suffering, trying to keep from suffering, or trying to make someone else suffer, scenes can start to drag. In fiction, too much happiness can become humdrum.

So, embrace the pain when it comes knocking at your door. Learn from your fiascos and flops. And do something nice for your characters—inflict some misery on them. One day, they’ll thank you for it.

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Real Writers: They Don’t Just Publish Books


In the book The Velveteen Rabbit, the stuffed protagonist wants nothing more than to become a real, live bunny. The odds are stacked against him, of course, but in the end the toy bunny’s devotion to his beloved boy pays off, and miraculously his dream comes true. Fiction writers, like the Velveteen Rabbit, also want to become Real. So, when does this magic moment happen? The trouble is, too many of us believe we’re not a Real writer until we’ve published a book.


BooksTraditionally published books are only one of many creative platforms available to writers today. To get you started thinking less conventionally, I’ve profiled three alternative options for getting published: podcast fiction, books for hire, and an app featuring text message thrillers. Two provide compensation; one does  not. However, they all can teach us valuable lessons about honing our craft, gaining visibility, and discovering new storytelling venues.

I.  Podcast Fiction

The Other StoriesThe Other Stories is my latest favorite find. In this weekly, professionally-produced podcast,  new, struggling, and already established writers can share their work and attract the attention of editors, agents, and readers.  The format works like this: authors read their 20-35 minute-length stories (up to 4,000 words) which are released with originally scored, background music and an in-depth interview with the host.

I talked with writer and film producer Rebecca Boeshaar about her experience with The Other Stories. Boeshaar’s first published story, “Forgotten Nightmares,” came out as a podcast on May 24th 2017. You can listen to her read it.

Helen: How long did the process take from first submission to published story?

 Becky: The process, honestly, took about a year. They showed interest in my story when I submitted it but recommended I cut it down significantly. With the audio format, shorter stories work better. So I edited the story down and re-submitted, and after several months they accepted it, and we set a time to do the reading and interview. From there, I waited a little over a month for the episode to come out.

Helen: What are some of the benefits of the podcast platform?

Becky: Firstly, it’s free for the listener, so I think people are more willing to listen to a story from a writer they haven’t heard of. Secondly, podcasts make it very easy to listen to a story while you’re doing something else, driving, cleaning, working out. People can fit it into their schedules without too much trouble. And thirdly, I think the fact that I was reading the story added a fun, personal touch for people who already knew me and wanted to support me.

II.  Books for Hire:  

“Working for hire is another way to scratch that itch of being published,” says VCFA grad Linden McNeilly, who started writing books for hire a few years ago. Nine books later, she’s found success and satisfaction in that field.

Insects as a Food SourceHelen: How did you get involved in writing books for hire?

Linden: A friend had an editor friend who was looking to expand her list of freelance writers. I sent in a resume and writing samples and got offered a contract for my first book right away.

Helen: Tell us a little about how the process works.

Linden: I write for an educational media company. They come up with books they want in a series, and the editor gets writers for each one. The contract includes all the structure: word count, reading level, page numbers, how many sidebars I need to have, and the back matter, like vocabulary, questions and websites that relate to the topic. The payment is set, too. You get paid a flat rate as soon as the book is designed and you’ve approved the PDF, which can be in just a few months.

 Helen: What have you most enjoyed about the experience?

 Linden: I love the challenge of writing within structures, especially word count and grade level. Taking complicated ideas and reducing them to their essence is great fun. I also love researching. I am glad I don’t have to promote them or worry about sales. I love how quickly they become books (within about 6-9 months)! I am happy with how versatile I have become, writing for different grade levels and covering different subject matter.

Helen: Is there a downside?

War TornLinden: I’d like to do longer pieces [so I can] really dig into research. And there are no royalties with this kind of writing.

Helen: Has the experience of publishing these books changed  how you view yourself as a writer?

Linden: Well, since eight of the nine books I’ve written this way are nonfiction, I see myself as a nonfiction writer more than I used to. I see books come to completion quickly and get to work with a great editor. I get to pass out books to my grandkids and teacher friends. But I have lost some of my drive for my own projects. It’s super hard to sustain interest in the long, slow, sometimes devastating march that is fiction publishing.

III.  Hooked: A Fiction App Featuring Text Message Thrillers

Want to polish and tighten your dialogue? Rev up your suspense? Get instant access to teen readers 24/7? If so, maybe the app “Hooked” is for you. This Silicon Valley startup, launched in 2015 with the tagline “Fiction for the Snapchat generation,” was the first app to feature short stories told entirely in the format of text-message conversations. According to the company, the app’s been downloaded more than 20 million times, and the average 6-minute tale gets 100,000 reads! With a user age of mostly 13-24 year olds, 70% of which are female, this audience is a familiar and sought-after one for YA writers.

Reading Hooked Stories

Hooked has a library of roughly 150,000 short and serialized stories, part of the growing phenomenon of mobile fiction platforms for teens. While the majority of stories are user-generated, the most popular material is from commissioned work, which relies on data-driven storytelling. (The app collects valuable nformation on the types of stories and specific cliffhangers that generate the most reads.)

These micro-dramas are not about great writing; the stories contain plenty of dreck. But as attention spans shrink and teens spend more time on their phones and on social media, I believe writers need to meet their target audience where they are. And this app gets a lot of things right.

Read Epic ChatsLike suspense. Stories need to hook readers from the start. To do that with nothing but tweet-length dialogue isn’t easy, so authors must come up with intriguing ideas to get readers “tapping” to  turn pages.  And they do, because in every story I read, I was curious to find out what would happen. Founders Prerna Gupta and Parag Chord even echo advice my
VCFA advisors gave me when they say, “Every line has to either advance the story or advance the relationships,” And also, “Every message [must be] a cliffhanger.”

Tech-wise, Hooked also does something that no book can. It reminds you that you have a story waiting to be finished  by texting lines of dialogue that show up on your phone. I found that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a real text message and one from the app’s fictional characters.  Creepy? Maybe. But Brilliant? Absolutely.

So, will the next great novel be nothing more than a series of text messages? Right now, it’s impossible to say. But the point is, we can’t be afraid of technology. We have to be willing to think outside the box and have a little fun. After all, there are as many ways to be a writer as there are to tell a story.

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Find Your Character’s Secret Power: Turn a Weakness into a Strength

superhero kids
superhero kids
From photographer John Rossi’s “Real-Life Superheroes are among Us” video.

Like the apple that fell on Isaac Newton, a new insight smacked me over the head last week. It happened after I watched a Facebook video, “Real-Life Superheroes are among Us,” by photographer John Rossi. In it, Rossi and his team of professionals took six kids living with serious disabilities and dressed them up as superheroes for an epic photoshoot. “The whole idea,” Rossi explained, “was to take the things that are weaknesses for kids such as cancer and other diseases and turn them into strengths.”

Instantly, I saw the connection. A writer’s ability to turn a weakness into a strength is like discovering a character’s secret power. When a handicap becomes a hidden talent, it’s empowering. Transformation that’s not just about change, but also about acceptance, reassures us. It gives readers hope. If we’re able to see our faults as potential advantages, aren’t we more likely to accept and embrace who we are?

There are two kinds of character weaknesses. The first is a physical or emotional trait that the hero is born with, something that’s hardwired or hereditary. The second is a kind of coping mechanism that’s developed to compensate for a vulnerability or a wound inflicted in the hero’s backstory. Whatever the origin, this deficiency, which has become part of the character’s belief system, is what’s preventing him from achieving what he wants.

Or is it? Marcelo in the Real World

In Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, the protagonist, Marcelo, struggles with an autism-like condition. He hears music that nobody else can hear, has trouble interpreting people’s words and behavior, and struggles to make sense of a world he sometimes fears and doesn’t understand. And yet it’s his so-called disabilities that enable Marcelo to right a terrible wrong, fight injustice more courageously and effectively than others, and win the love of a smart and beautiful co-worker. Marcelo’s cognitive impairment is what makes it possible for him to succeed.

Marcelo understands this. “The term ‘cognitive disorder’ implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or the way I perceive reality,” he says. “I perceive reality just fine.  Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.”

Learning to think differently about how we see our shortcomings helps us release negative emotions and assumptions. The process of revising one’s belief system can free characters from the power their backstory wound holds over them.


Turning flaws into assets also makes for great plot twists and satisfying endings. In the fable of the lion and the mouse, when the mouse is caught by the lion, his small size and lack of strength makes him easy prey. But the mouse begs for his life, promising to repay the lion, and the king of the jungle, amused, sets him free. Later, when the lion is netted by hunters, the tiny mouse is able to free him by inconspicuously gnawing through the ropes that bind the giant beast. Suddenly, the mouse’s tiny size has become a strength, not a weakness.

It’s important to remember, however, that fictional faults are a double-edged sword. They result in both good and bad consequences. So, writers shouldn’t let their characters disregard or excuse their worst traits. The hero still needs to strive to be better.

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, The Secret Garden, protagonist Mary Lennox does try to better herself. But not until the book is well under way. Sickly, bad-tempered, and unsightly, she’s an orphaned child who’s never been loved, raised and kowtowed to by servants. But when she’s sent from India to England to live with a reclusive, hunchbacked uncle, her life undergoes a radical change.The Secret Garden

It’s Mary’s shortcomings that cause her to act in unorthodox ways. For example, one night when Mary hears mysterious cries, she gets up, angry and unafraid, and wanders around the manor house. Eventually she discovers Colin, her uncle’s crippled son, and yells at him in a way no one else has ever dared to. Miraculously, her outburst intrigues her cousin and stops his temper tantrum! Here again, it’s the protagonist’s faults—like her impatience, impulsivity, and temper—that enable her to achieve her goals. Goals that include healing herself, reviving the mystical, “secret” garden, and helping Colin to walk again.

Movie characters exemplify this paradox too. Just look at Forrest Gump. Bullied as a child because of his marginal intelligence and physical disability (his curved spine required him to wear leg braces that made it hard to walk), Forrest had the deck stacked against him. But thanks to the bullies who taunted and chased him, he learned how to run fast, becoming a world-class runner and athlete. Thanks to his low I.Q. and naivety, he did things no one else believed possible, simply because he didn’t know he couldn’t. Football star, war hero, and recipient of the Medal of Honor, Gump has been called “the greatest movie character of all time.” I believe he struck a nerve because so many people know what it’s like to feel as if they’re not “good enough.” Fortunately, the stories we write can help convince readers that despite their flaws—and maybe even because of them—they are deserving. They do matter. And they’re good enough just as they are.

In real life, I have a sister who’s very different from me. We were hiking together the other day, and I was in a hurry, as usual, to get to the top of the trail and down again. But my laid-back sister was content with a slower pace—a pace I sometimes find annoying. Because of this, she noticed many things I did not—including two snakes that I might have stepped on had she not pointed them out to me! In a story, my sister would be the character who looks down and finds the magic key or the missing item in the road. She would be the one who sees what’s important.

The process of transforming character faults from undesirable elements into something valuable is a kind of fictional alchemy. Pure story gold. If writers can stop thinking of limitations as liabilities and reframe how these traits are viewed, we’ll be rewarded with more innovative plot twists and satisfying endings. Personally, I like the idea that I don’t have to be someone different than I am to succeed. Don’t we all want to be loved and accepted for who we are? So, examine your characters’ weaknesses and put a different spin on these traits. If you need motivation, just look at Rossi’s video.

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Research That Rocks


What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:

  • To Catch a KillerYouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence AgencyAccording to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource. “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!”

Benino and the Night of Broken GlassIt was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

Temple Mount by Keith Raffel A Fine and Dangerous SeasonFor his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction.

The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

Paper HeartsHer only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook. “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began

detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book. “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!

Library shelves

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

How to Finish a Novel

The End

I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.

The End

Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

Trust Your IntuitionStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.” Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.

Marcelo in the Real WorldWhile writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before. But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Shelf of craft books
Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses? As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Find Your Pea Vision: Write from the Antagonist’s Point of View

Little girl's eyes

Helen Pyne picking peasPeas on the vineWhile visiting my eldest son in Oregon this month, I spent a morning picking peas on his farm. After showing me how to choose the plumpest pods that were ready for harvesting, my son handed me a bucket to fill. As I worked my way down the row of trellised vines, peering out from under my sun hat into the dappled green depths, I picked what I thought was every last ripe pod.

It wasn’t until I went back for a second pass, that I saw the rogue pods that had escaped me. They seemed to have popped out like magic right in front of my eyes. I stared at them as they dangled jewel-like from the stalks, their plump exteriors bulging from the tender bumps inside. How had I missed them before?

Freshly picked peas on Tucker's farm

One of the farm interns chuckled. “It takes awhile to get your pea vision,” he said, “and yours just kicked in.”

Little girl's eyesPea vision, as I define it, is when something obscure becomes suddenly clear. It’s all about perspective. Writers need to find their form of pea vision too—especially when it comes to characters. Figuring out how a protagonist acts, thinks, feels and talks rarely happens in a single blinding flash of insight. It takes time to get to know a character. When I walked back down that row of peas, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. Why? Because I changed the way I looked at the vines.

Searching from a new angle, picking pods from the other side of the trellis, and risking bug bites and sore muscles to kneel in the dirt enabled me to better see what was ripe for the taking.

In writing, a different vantage point can result in a similar bounty. Our stories play out in real life from a single perspective—our own. But in novels, we can narrate from multiple points of view. I’ve always loved books where different characters give their version of the same series of events. In books like Tim Wynne-Jones’ Blink and Caution, Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Feral series, and Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, each narrator’s perspective fills in a piece of the story.

The Joker

“Write what you know,” goes the old adage. But writers should do exactly the opposite too. Mine your life, sure, but stretch yourself as well to write what you don’t know, what you don’t understand, as a way of figuring it out. I love writing about people on the edge, for example. The people who trigger us—whose behavior makes our blood boil—can sometimes be our best teachers. The traits in them that most disturb us may tell us a lot about ourselves (and our fictional characters).

Which is why I like to give my writing students the following exercise: rewrite an existing scene in your story from the antagonist’s POV. The point is to write from the perspective of someone whose behavior is strange, disturbing or even incomprehensible. The goal is to find the commonalities, because I believe that people, no matter where we come from or how we grow up, have more things in common than we have differences. Afterwards I ask my students, “How did that change your story?”

Currently, I’m writing a book narrated from three points of view. One of the POV’s is my antagonist, a man very different from me. An obsessive-compulsive computer programmer with PTSD, he’s awkward, unattractive and antisocial. He has no friends and spends his days coding and his nights playing video games. He also commits a terrible crime. How do I get into his whackjob mindset? By looking for emotions we’ve shared, instead of the life experiences we haven’t. Like my antagonist, I too have felt lonely, jealous and powerless—and that is how I access him.

Writing from the antagonist’s perspective can make the invisible visible. It does so by enabling writers to understand things about the world of their story that they may not seen before. Both my antagonist and the teenage girl he’s obsessed with undergo pivotal transformations when they recognize in each other some of the emotional issues they struggle with themselves.

In addition, exploring the antagonist’s POV can help avoid stereotypes. In a recent VCFA lecture on diversity in fiction, author Cynthia Leitich-Smith talked about the challenges and rewards of writing fiction from the POV of multicultural characters who may be different from ourselves. (Differences, she pointed out, can manifest themselves in many ways such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic levels, physical and mental health issues and abilities to name a few.) “Our characters shouldn’t be two dimensional excuses for social studies lessons,” Leitich-Smith said. “We are all accountable for the impact of our stories on young readers.” I came away from her lecture determined not to make assumptions. The danger of a single story is real.

The Julian ChapterThird, writing about characters antithetical to ourselves cultivates empathy. Never judge a person’s insides by his outside, my husband frequently says. When I remember to do that, I can step more easily into the other person’s shoes, and our differences matter less. When Wonder author R.J. Palacio decided to write a new chapter from the bully’s perspective, many readers felt that Julian’s narrative was the best one of all. Bad guys may not be all bad, even when they do bad things. My antagonist is deeply flawed, dangerously hurt and he’s got a backstory full of baggage. But I didn’t understand all that until I began writing from his POV. I recommend two YA books, in particular, as stellar examples of antagonists who are protagonists: Tenderness by Robert Cormier and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Although the narrators are deeply disturbed teenage boys, I found myself still caring about them, despite their horrific acts.

So go find your pea vision by getting curious about your antagonist’s world. Give him a mouthpiece, ask him questions and listen with your heart. How does it change your story?

How does it change you?

A Black Dog Farm Harvest
A Blackdog Farmstead harvest

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Desperately Seeking Discipline

Helen's desk
My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author, told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.


“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly. “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Working set business hoursSet working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable. “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says, “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”


Running shoesrituals: Light a candleMeditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany- inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story

questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off? Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” my colleague, Frances Lee Hall, explains: “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your brain.

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.