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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.

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.

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.

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.

Creating Unlikable Protagonists Readers Can Love

Please Like Me

Please Like MeC’mon, admit it. Don’t we all wonder sometimes about how well we’re liked and if people really listen to what we say? In real life, we may never know the answer. But in fiction, when it comes to creating characters, popularity is measurable and important. Writers must make readers care about their protagonist right from the opening scene.  If we fail to do that, we risk losing readers before we’ve had a chance to win them over. The trouble is, a protagonist is more likely to be “unlikable” at the beginning of a novel when she’s only just figuring things out. Character transformation is a gradual process; it takes time to mature and change. That means she needs to make mistakes before achieving success. Be a coward before becoming courageous or cruel before learning to be kind.

Unlikeable is, of course, a subjective term and also a matter of degree. But what does the word really mean? A trait that turns off one person may be something another admires. Don’t we all have friends who don’t like some of our other friends? Admirable attributes can tip toward the negative when taken to extremes: conscientious may turn into obsessive, confident into arrogant or worse. We also dislike people who embody qualities we hate or fear in ourselves. So, characters who reflect the weaknesses we’re ashamed of can be particularly off-putting to readers. Finally, many of us feel contempt for other humans simply because they’re different from ourselves. Look at all the people on our planet who are at war with each other just because their skin color, religion, diet, etc., is different. We tend to abhor what we don’t understand. And yet, this leaves writers with a unique opportunity to use unlikable characters to open readers’ hearts and minds. Many authors have done a brilliant job of showing us how to love unlovable people. A few of my favorites are featured below:

In middle grade novels, check out Gilly in Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins; Jackie in Lindsey Stoddard’s Just Like Jackie; and Julian in Palacio’s Wonder.  Julian’s chapter wasn’t written until after the first novel in the series was published. Up until that point, Julian was just another loathsome bully who didn’t seem to have any redeeming traits. When Palacio got into his character’s head, however, I was stunned and moved by what she taught me.


In YA, there’s Andi Alpers in Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, who’s popping pills and acting out because she’s weighed down by a guilty secret; Summer Barnes, alcoholic and suicidal, in Ann Jacobus’ Romancing the Dark in the City of Light;  Devon Davenport, accused of her baby’s attempted murder, in Amy Efaw’s After; and Keir Sarafian, charged with date rape, in Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable. And yet these characters, despite self-destructive tendencies and reprehensible deeds, all inspire empathy.

But first, a caveat. Although stereotypical gender roles are changing, I feel it’s still harder to write unlikable females in literature than it is to write unlikable males. Another writer and I were talking about this as we brainstormed how to portray her novel’s strong-willed, do-gooder female protagonist. I felt the character came across as too off-putting and combative, but the author wasn’t so sure. “Difficult female characters often get a [more] virulent response than those who are male,” my friend pointed out. “Women who live outside the boundaries and act impulsively scare us more than men do, because everyone expects men to be flawed like this, while we still hold out that women [should be] dependable and not erratic, kind and not cranky.”

If we want to create real, complex, multi-dimensional characters who get under our skin and evoke strong emotions, we can’t minimize a protagonist’s unattractiveness or whitewash her inner demons. Fortunately, there are ways to portray characters truthfully AND help readers see the good in the bad. Writers just need to keep these three basic strategies in mind:

First, soften a protagonist’s harsh words and bad behavior by flipping from exterior actions and events to interior thoughts and memories. Allow your character to say and do anything horrid thing she wants, but immediately afterwards jump inside her head and show us her vulnerability by contrasting her angry words and actions with the hurt, fearful, insecure person she is inside. Tell us what she really thinks. This helps us see why the character behaved this way and, most importantly, who she really is.

Second, use backstory and personal history to shed light on your unlikable character. Maybe her parents are divorcing, a sibling has cancer or a cousin is a sadistic bully. After’s protagonist, Devon, endures poverty and neglect. Although Devon’s smart and a soccer superstar, the brick wall she eventually runs into is the deep psychological damage caused by the actions of her single, sleazy mom who brings men home late and night and the absent father she’s never known. Author Amy Efaw uses this to explain how her character could commit a horrific crime. In another instance, when a writer friend added an anecdote to her novel that showed a nasty character rescuing a puppy when he was young, it helped me see that he wasn’t always a jerk. When she made the boy’s father even more of a monster than the son, I understood how the character’s ugly attitude had been shaped. Backstory gives us a reason, even if it’s not an excuse.

Third, examine your protagonist’s relationships. If she’s the youngest child in a family of epic overachievers, maybe this character is insecure, feels less than, or doesn’t believe she can ever measure up. Figuring out how family dynamics and relationships factor in to your character’s behavior is a terrific tool for deepening understanding. In Romancing the Dark, the father that Summer Barnes loved is dead, and her unloving, too-busy-for-her-daughter mother ships her off to various boarding schools, all of which Summer gets expelled from. This lack of love, stability, and parent role models causes her character to become depressed and self-destructive. She drinks too much, thinks about killing herself, and keeps everyone—even the people she cares about—at arm’s length.

Some characters, of course, can’t be redeemed. Like Darth Vader, they choose the dark side, but if we can see them waver and get a glimpse of their vulnerability, it’s an exercise in compassion and tolerance.

Palacio summed it up best when she said, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I believe our job as writers is to show that battle—especially when we’re depicting a jerk. And creating a story where readers can have empathy for people who are difficult or just different from ourselves, might just be one of the greatest gifts we can give.



This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth 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.

A Setting’s Many Jobs: Multitasking with the Objective Correlative

Teaching a workshop on the objective correlative

A story always needs a setting, no matter what it’s about. Because “Nothing happens nowhere,” as the saying goes. Setting is about so much more than place though. It can be used to reveal character and mood, foreshadow what’s to come, or show not tell. How? By using one of my favorite literary devices: the objective correlative.

I’m not a particularly observant person, especially when it comes to visual cues. My kids make fun of me, because I don’t notice what people are wearing, what kind of cars they drive, or even the color of their hair. My default mode has always been to live in my head. That’s where I make up stories, create character conversations, write to do lists, and wonder things like how many people are actually going to read this blog.

My daughter’s picture of our backyard
My daughter’s picture of our backyard

As a writer, it’s good to have an active inner life, but you need to notice what’s going on outside of you too. But even when I remember to be consciously aware of my surroundings, I still agonize over which setting details to describe. Thanks to our brain’s “sensual selectivity,” only a small number of the sensory impressions that inundate us will register in our consciousness at any given moment. What makes that selection for us? The answer is, our emotions do.

Smiley emotionsThe act of linking setting description to character emotion is one way to use the objective correlative, also known as telling it slant. Tell it/slant is all about focusing on details that help the reader understand what you’re trying to convey—like insight into the narrator’s emotional state or a foreshadowing of what’s to come. “The trick is not to find a fresh setting or a unique way to portray a familiar place,” explains writer Donald Maass, “rather, it is to discover in your setting what is unique for your characters, if not for you.” Thus, a fictional environment comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that characters experience those details.

In order to tell it/slant, you’ll need to identify your scene objective. If your goal is to shed light on a teenage girl, you might choose to describe her room. The objects we surround ourselves with reveal much about our personalities. Is she into books or computer games? Do we see volleyball posters and muddy cleats or a shelf filled with art supplies? Stuffed animals or a bathroom counter filled with makeup and six different kinds of lip-gloss? Every object in the room should tell a story.

Next, how does your character react to the setting? In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole cites New York City, for instance, as a place that stirs strong, often contrasting emotions in people.

I hate New York! Rats!Manhattan Skyline“I love New York City,” she admits. “I love the burning grease smell from the halal carts and the sticky sweet aroma of roasting peanuts that seems to hit me on every corner. My heart swells at the dank wind that a speeding subway train churns up as it pulls out of a station.”

But for the folks who hate New York, Kole says, “All the people on the sidewalks might have shifty eyes, rats might lurk in every sewer grate and everything would seem astronomically expensive, especially the closet-sized hotel rooms.”

Same city, different perspective.

A character’s mood determines how she’ll react to and interact with her surroundings as well. A bedroom can be a safe haven, or it can feel like a prison if a teenager’s been banished there after being grounded by angry parents. Our state of mind colors how we perceive our surroundings. In this way, our settings can multitask.

Teaching a workshop on the objective correlative
Teaching a workshop on the objective correlative

Try the following exercise. Pick a place like a kitchen. Write a paragraph describing that kitchen from the point of view of a character who’s in a happy, relaxed, and positive mood–but don’t mention how the character is feeling. Then flip it and describe the same kitchen, but this time, put your character in an angry, fearful or negative frame of mind. Then compare the passages. Details like chicken noodle soup simmering on the stovetop and a cat purring on your lap vs. a sticky floor littered with dog hair, a sink filled with dirty dishes, and a spider crawling up a cracked window beautifully illustrate how different states of mind can impact what we notice. It’s all about showing, not telling.

A student of mine, 14-year-old Luna Patience, did a great job with this exercise in a workshop I taught last fall at the TeenSpeak Novel Workshop and Retreat. With her permission, I’m quoting from two passages she wrote using a graveyard setting. Note her use of imagery and strong verbs:

(Negative mood) “The sky overhead grumbles with oncoming clouds, and the freshly turned earth smells of mold and petrichor. As rain begins to spit from the sky, the thin coat that Leonard loaned me… is immediately soaked. Rainwater streams into my boots…pooling around my toes; filling in rivulets over the headstones…”

(Positive mood) “The cold morning air is playful, wind whipping about me like fingers, bringing in the exhilarating smell of autumn and rust. Father’s headstone shines in the first rays of early yellow sunlight, settling into its new home among the maze of grass and shade. I take a great breath and kneel to place a marigold on his grave, my knees sinking into the freshly turned earth.”

The objective correlative can also foreshadow. If something bad is about to happen to an unsuspecting character, and you want your setting to be a harbinger of things to come, describe it in a way that creates anxiety

or fear or discomfort. Throw in a few similes and metaphors or anthropomorphic references, as Maggie Stiefvater does so brilliantly in The Scorpio Races—“Below us and beyond us, the sea is whitecaps and foam and black rocks like teeth”—and your reader will feel instantly anxious.

So remember to focus on what your character feels and your setting details will surface. It’s all thanks to the magic of the objective correlative!

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog.

Finding Inspiration

Made it to the top

As a child, I loved reading books about the Borrowers, a fictional family of tiny people who live secretly in the walls of an English house. To survive, they “borrow” items from the big people living there, who assume their things have been lost. Recently I’ve been wondering if the Borrowers have taken up residence with me too, because something I need has gone missing.


Create!Inspiration is not like mislaid socks or lost buttons. You can’t see, hear or hold it, but you know when it’s gone. Because it’s the New Year, a hopeful time, when people are focused on fresh starts, I thought blogging about the problem might help me get back on track. After all, I’m starting something too—the ending of my novel. But the challenge of tying story elements together and weaving in concepts like crisis, climax and character arc into a brilliant conclusion has temporarily overwhelmed me. I need a creativity reboot!

So I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I made a list. I also turned to authors I respect for advice. “Where do you find inspiration? Stimulation and motivation?” I asked them. “What do you do when you hit a rough patch? And if you’re stuck, fading or afraid of failing, how do you convince yourself that you’ll succeed?”

  1. phoebe and the ghost of chagallWalk in nature. Writer Jill Koenigsdorf, author of Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall, swears by going on long hikes in nature with her dogs. “I find that during my walks, all my senses are more attuned and I tend to slow down and mull ideas over. I will see a raven on a barbed wire fence or a slit-open bag of sand on the side of the road or a piece of torn fabric on a rose bush, and it will trigger a story,” she explains. “I also find if I am stuck writing a certain scene or character in a piece I have already started, that walking outdoors helps me see what the problem is.
  2. TEDTalksWatch a TED Talk. The extraordinary range of TED topics makes for a smorgasbord of thought-provoking talks. Best of all, you can watch them for free. Subjects range from understanding quantum physics to curing Alzheimer’s to discovering life on other planets, so whatever you need for your writing, you may be able to find right here. I gained valuable insights into one of my POV characters (a gamer), when I watched Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jane McGonigal’s talk on how “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Highly recommended.
  3. Listen to audiobooks. My son gave me a subscription to for Christmas, and it’s changed my life. It’s also made me late to a lot of appointments, because I’m constantly pulling off the road to park so I can take notes on what I’m listening to. From a craft standpoint, however, I’ve become a convert. When I listen to books read aloud, I hear things I didn’t notice when I read in my head, like how the author uses rhythm, cadence, syntax, tone and vocabulary to create an authentic voice.
  4. Seek out other peoples' storiesSeek out other people’s stories in whatever forms they take. Consider using unconventional materials. Stories can be found wherever we are, so be open about where to look. Sources like stand-up comedy routines, church sermons, obituaries, maps, yearbooks, brochures, games, restaurant menus, journals and even junk mail can be chock-a-block full of anecdotes and ideas. Recently, my husband and I discovered a stash of his mother’s old diaries. The yellowing pages, antiquated language, and old-fashioned perspective from a different era is a treasure chest of data— charming and sweet and a little bit sad. Reading the words my mother-in-law wrote as a 16-year-old in 1939 has been eye-opening. Bonus materials crammed into her diaries included postcards, dance cards, sketches, and even notes from summer camp friends. My favorite one was addressed to “a girl who can keep her temper well.”
  5. Change Your Location. Change Your Perspective. A writer’s job is to look at the world from different points of view. Kathy Wilson, writer, teacher, digital media specialist and founder of the film collective Rikaroo thinks changing locations can help. Writing in a coffee shop in Harlem, for instance, will give you a different perspective than hanging out on Madison Avenue. Switching it up, she says, can be as simple as taking “a ride on the subway, intersecting with different lives, exploring new neighborhoods, eating different food, talking with my students, spending time with my father and his friends [who] are in their eighties and nineties [and] hearing their stories.”” Kathy’s also inspired by the courage and loyalty of animals. “Spending time with my dog inspires me,” she adds. “She seems to have drawn the short straw in life, yet never gives up.”
  6. Teach. Volunteer. I tutor at a school for disadvantaged kids where 100% of the students are on scholarship. Despite significant and often heartbreaking hardships, every senior graduates to attend a four-year college. Most are the first in their families to do so. Every time I set foot on campus, I’m awed by the courage, determination, and resiliency of these teens—often in the face of unspeakable odds. Talk about putting things into perspective…
  7. Take a class. Want to learn to Salsa dance, speak Swahili, sew, sing, sail, or practice Pilates? Go for it. It’s all grist for the mill. Having interests and hobbies is good for character creation, so writers should be lifelong learners. In order to prepare for a lecture I’m giving, I’ll be polishing my public speaking skills next month by working with stage and screen actor Andrew Hurteau, who helps people “tell a more compelling story” as a coach with Butterfield Speaks. Hollywood here I come.
  8. Give Yourself a Deadline: Inspiration is more likely to show up if you have a deadline. If you don’t, make one up and ask a friend (or your writer’s group) to enforce. Procrastination is one of the seven deadly writer’s sins.
  9. Think of writing as a job. Stacy Nyikos, author of numerous picture books and the middle grade novel, Dragon Wishes, says she’s a drill sergeant when it comes to her writing routine. “I write every day, rain or shine, no matter if inspiration comes to the table or not. Writing is my job. Isn’t that how one treats any other job?”

Most importantly, don’t forget the words of Jack London. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

So, come on. Find your club and have at it. Let me know how it goes.

This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth 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.

Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers

Woman meditating

Woman meditating

We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

AspirationsI’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years. Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience,, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”

Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.

Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.

Just BeIn a post (“7 Ways Meditation Increases Creativity”) on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingkindnessCompassion or Lovingkindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

I believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.

Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog.