Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.

Writing As Sanctuary

I know it’s been a while, but now that I made it through November, I’m back to sharing my panel notes. For World Fantasy Con, some of the panels turned more into suggested reading lists, but for now, I’m going to go through the other panels, in the order I experienced them.

I attended “Writing As Sanctuary” at World Fantasy Con. I went into this panel expecting to hear stories of authors using their writing as either escapism or as a tool to process stressors in their lives. Escapism either as a distraction from real-world issues, OR as a way to create a new world, with those issues fixed.

The actual discussion was a lot more nuanced, but less focused.

The panelists were Jacob Baugher, JD Blackrose, JL Gribble, and K. Ceres Knight, moderated by Anna La Voie.

The discussion started off exploring the motivations behind people’s writing and the reoccurring themes they explored, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Most wrote for themselves — but with the intent of publication — seeking that external validation. Only a few used their writing to explore alternative choices — either personally or historically.

Themes They Found In Their Writing

Some writers write themes explicitly into their work. Others only recognize it when they begin editing. And sometimes? You only recognize your themes when the same issues keep coming up, novel after novel. Here were some of the themes the panelists found in their writing – intentionally or not.

  • Non-dystopian post-apocalypse
  • The Holocaust
  • Mother-daughter relationships
  • Cyberpunk — in order to have control over their world

Which is better: To Be Writing or To Have Written?

It’s a reality for many of us writers — the process itself can be agony. I found it inspiring to hear how much of a struggle even published writers still find it. And how many also resort to procrasti-cleaning!

  • Some, like Baugher, were shocked to learn people could enjoy writing. He forces words out and is working on trying to change his own mindset.
  • Sometimes, real-world tragedies strike too close to home and you can’t write. Blackrose spoke of knowing when to push through, and when to step back. Then, when it’s time to return to the keyboard, she aims for just 500 words to regain her momentum.
  • Writing a novel is intimidating and that can make it hard to start. But 30,000 sounds a lot more doable. You can approach writing like Blackrose. She just wrote 30,000 words four times, and she had a novel.
  • Gribble uses gamification to get her words in. She wrote her 3rd novel, just using 5-minute sprints. Her best writing day was also the day she washed all of the windows.
  • Many of us, like Knight, love writing — when inspired. But most of her writing is deadline based.
Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Do you find sanctuary in a private journal?

Some writers swear by them. I know many writers who collect journals by the trunkful. But, advice doesn’t always sync up with reality so I was curious how these writers would answer. How useful are they in practice?

  • Some, like Gribble, find them a waste of words. Why journal when you could be writing paying work?
  • Some use it for free writing when the words just won’t flow.
    Baugher uses this process about once a week as a sort of 10-minute warm-up for his novel writing — his is mostly profanity.
  • Blackrose doesn’t journal per se, but she blogs…
  • Major life events can make journaling helpful. Knight only found herself journaling when she going through her divorce.
  • Some use it to manage stress. La Voie only journals sporadically but she finds it helps with her anxiety.

Knight and I agree: no writing is ever a waste. You’re always learning, always practicing.

What works for someone else, won’t necessarily work for you. Journal only if you’re actually getting something out of it.

Do you have your own writing sanctuary?

Now, me? I have a desk in a library alcove off my family room. But ever since I got a laptop, I find myself on my couch for most of my writing, with the occasional restaurant-based write-in. Not that I haven’t snuck words in at work or on my smartphone. There’s a reason I use GoogleDocs — it can auto-sync, you can use it offline, and it’s available for free on all my devices. I might not be the Google fangirl I was before they dropped 8 of the products I’d adopted… but some habits die hard.

But, I always find it fascinating to learn where other writers work.

  • Some, like Knight, can write anywhere that’s relatively quiet.
  • Some, like Gribble have home offices. But?
    • She NEVER uses it to write in.
    • She spends most of her time in Starbucks, on her couch, or the counter in her kitchen.
    • Gribble WILL, however, edit her writing in that perfect home office.
  • Some, like Blackrose, will write anywhere — even at her day job when things are slow.
  • Some libraries, like Blackrose’s, have writing centers you can use
    • On Sundays, she has permission to use the Writer-In-Resident’s office — it makes her feel like a ‘real’ writer!
  • And some have home offices they actually write in!
    • Baugher came home from a convention and found his wife had turned their 2nd bedroom into an office for him.

Do you use writing as an escape from life?

This question could have gone in so many directions, but somehow we got back to procrasti-cleaning again. As a procrasti-cleaner myself, I was happy to be in such good company. 

  • You can use laundry to avoid writing like Blackrose
  • You can use writing sprints as breaks from chores like Gribble
  • Or!
  • You can leave the house to go write, so you can avoid laundry altogether, like Knight.

How much do you reread before you restart your writing?

Personally, I only skip back a paragraph or two and then push on from there. I keep waiting for there to be a right answer to this. But of course, with all things writing related, it’s a matter of preference.

  • Some read just the start of the current scene, like Gribble.
  • Some, like Baugher, like to leave notes or hints for what’s going to happen in the next scene.
  • Some reread it all.
  • Some, like Blackrose, use the first 7,000 to 15,000 words as a sort of giant outline, and then fill in.
  • Some write in layers. First getting the action out and the plot, then coming back and filling in the descriptive narrative, like Knight.

Critiques That Made You Regret Sharing Your Writing

Even if writing isn’t your sanctuary, it can be scary to share your words and thoughts with the world. And sometimes, critics can be harsher than they know.

For Baugher’s first writing workshop, for his first critique ever, another writer told him, “Stop writing now — this sucks!”

One writer’s mother doesn’t do fantasy, and after they opened up and shared their novel, the response was, “how do you think of these things?”… and not in an awed sort of tone.

Gribble once had a critic complain about the orgy. One problem? Her novel contains ZERO orgies…

Knight once watched a teacher lay into a fellow classmate for half-assing the assignment. Which, not only was discouraging for the student in question, but also, I’d imagine, inhibiting the other students from trying new things.

Blackrose once wrote a Seders in Space humor piece, pulling from her own experiences. A non-Jewish friend hated it and felt it mocked the Jewish stereotypes. Her Jewish friends and family loved it.


And the two final questions from the panel? The answers were in unison.

How does marketing interfere with the sanctuary of writing?

A Lot.

and

Do you write as a sanctuary for your readers?

YES.

So, a bit more of an exploration of their lives as writers, but altogether a panel I enjoyed.


Do you use writing as a sanctuary?

Do you use books as a sanctuary? What are some of your favorites?

Writer Confessions

After last week’s post on avoiding burn out, I thought I’d give myself a break. But, I’ve got a few confessions to make…

On Accepting Limits

Writer Confession #1: I am, indeed, quite bad at taking my own advice.

Once I’ve accomplished a thing two or three times, I have trouble letting myself stop. See: this blog. See also: my NaNo word count. Even when it might not be the healthiest choice for me.

Instead of accepting the inevitable, I’ve buckled down and written past my bedtime every night since we last spoke. I wrote while on a date, I wrote at one of the three Thanksgiving’s I attended, I wrote through an evening visiting my mother. As a coder-by-day, I’ve taken my work laptop home to meet deadlines and wrote during the 3 minute breaks while my new code was compiling.

As expected, everything non-essential in my life is being sorely neglected and I’m eagerly burning the candle at both ends, praying for December.

On being a Plantser

Writer Confession #2: My story looks nothing like I intended. (or at least, expected)

I’ve written about being a plantser before, but every time, it looks a little different.

Instead of kids saving parents from a brain-washing book, my story is ninety percent about a school play. Then again, as I sort of had the 90’s TV show “Wishbone” in my head as my mental concept of what sort of story to aim at a Middle Grade audience, I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising.

There are several meal scenes that likely serve no purpose — although, of course, I can probably fix that in edits. Although, I probably shouldn’t repeat a breakfast scene unless I make it part of my character’s preferences? Why have I decided that my characters love bacon and breakfast foods? Well, I mean, who (whose diet includes pork) doesn’t?

Warning — if you write a story that centers around books and a play, that means you’re gonna have to sort of plot ALL of these things. Separately!

My play currently has roles such as “Sworsdswoman”, “Storyteller”, and “Sidekick”. I made up half a song from another non-existent kids’ musical about “The Flannel Bear” (my world’s Velveteen Rabbit, which my sister was in during OUR middle-school years). [If enough people ask, I might post a video singing it for you. Although, be warned, I can follow a tune, but I can’t carry one.]

With the changes in my story, I’m not really sure what a satisfying ending will look like, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to end at the cast party, so that’s what I’m writing towards now.

On Novel Prep Work

Writer Confession #3: My prep work wasn’t actually a waste of time.

Despite my story looking nothing like I intended, my first 9 chapters almost aligned, and then it kinda went sideways because of the new direction.

But! Working out the main characters, their personalities and families was helpful. Charting out that the two main characters would alternate chapters and would be friends but NOT romantically invested has been a cornerstone of my novel.

And? My massive list of random names definitely came in handy to help me keep up my pace while writing. Although, next time, I should note who they got assigned to. Especially when they only get mentioned once or twice.

On Writing Sprints

Writer Confession #4: My novel would NOT exist without these.

Three years ago, I started using Twitter to ‘clock in’, as sort of a type of accountability. Usually something like, “It’s 9pm and I’m clocking in”. Last year, NaNoWriMo.org created sprint timers integrated in their website where you could invite people to your sprints and race each other for the most words. Or, at least, have a focused 15 minutes where you could usually convince yourself to ignore social media and just write.

The timer breaks this massive “must write all the words” into an achievable chunk. 50,000 words sounds intimidating. 1,666 words a day seem to drag on forever. But 10 minutes? 15 minutes? I can sprint that long.

This year? My NaNo region has a Discord channel. It’s a chat application (often used by online gamer and, it can do audio), that has a sprint feature built in. You type in “_sprint” and anyone can join in. When the timer goes off, you enter how many words you’ve written and it tallies the ‘winner’.

Knowing you’re not writing alone, seeing everyone else’s progress, and comparing your own words-per-minute against your results last sprint can be very encouraging. Or shame you into focusing better next sprint. I’ll even sprint against myself, if no one else is on. But, there are early writers, day writers, and evening writers. You can usually find someone on the channel

On Rewarding Myself

Writer Confession #5: It’s all about TV and chocolate.

I got a large box of dark chocolate and orange truffles as my NaNo writing treat. They’ve lasted a lot better than I’d feared. I’m not sure if I’ve slowed down my consumption as I’ve gotten used to them, or if I greatly overestimated how fast I was going through them. Because the store sell them in bags of 15, and I got a box of a 150.

My daily reward for getting my words in? Getting to go to bed.

And if I have a spare hour, I’ve been catching up on the new Doctor Who. But really? I’m looking at the December 5th arrival of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as my reward for making it through NaNoWriMo. 


Confess to me!
Does your writing look like you expected it to?
What about your writing process?

If you’re not a writer, how do you handle deadlines and staying focused?

4 Things I Learned About Writing Memoirs

Part 1 |

Write By The Rails’s Back on Tracks – Writer’s Workshop – Fall 2018

Now that I’ve recovered from the back-to-back weekends of workshop and writing convention, I can start sharing the notes I took! Today, I’m starting with the notes from the Write By The Rail‘s break out session on memoirs.

I’ve never been tempted to write a memoir, but Nancy Kyme, the author of Memory Lake, shared with us her experience and made me realize it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

First off, we need to define what is a memoir and what makes it different from a biography (or autobiography). A memoir is the intersection between memory and story and typically focuses on one major event or process.

Next thing to note, you don’t need to have an outrageous life. To write a memoir, you just need to be prepared for these four things.

1 – Reminiscing can be immersive.

Be prepared for negative emotions to resurface as strongly as they did at the time. As you go through the story, you’re going to have to make it real for the readers, which means delving into the emotions and thought processes you were having at the time the events actually took place.

2 – Deciding on a voice.

Is this told by the you-of-today? By younger-you? Or do you want a dual-timeline, perhaps comparing recent events to ones that happened years before?

You get to decide what works best for your story.

3 – Discovering the theme.

A memoir isn’t just a recitation of events and stories. It needs a theme. You don’t need to know the theme when you start, but as you edit and polish your work, often you can find the theme that ties the events together.

Themes are varied, but there are some universal themes. Self-growth or discovery. Coming into one’s own. The way truths–or lies impact everyone. Or the impact of a single person on the trajectory of your life.

4 – Resist holding back.

Share your memories the way you remember them. Don’t hold back because you might show someone in a negative light. It’s surprisingly hard to sue someone for defamation in a memoir – they’re supposed to be based on true events – not 100% fact. Memory is faulty and it’s hard to prove your version isn’t the true version – as long as you don’t start making outrageous claims.

Don’t hold back or save the major event for the end as a surprise. It’s hard to build up to something so major without it feeling almost anti-climatic. Have that critical event be the starting point, or make references to it and make the reader anticipate with current-you, getting to that event.


And that’s how to build your memoir — or help someone else build theirs. Welcome the memories, pick a voice, recognize the theme, and don’t hold back. What are you waiting for?


Have you written a memoir? Tell me what experience you shared.
Have you thought about writing one? What would you like to share with readers?

(Thanks to Write By The Rails’s president, Jan Rayl for organizing the workshop and a special thanks to Nancy Kyme for sharing her experiences with us.)

Guest Post: Choose the Right Words (And Live to Tell About It)

Here’s Post #2 in my local writer’s blog hop!

Today’s post is from Katherine Gotthardt, talking about how editing your word choices can make your writing SHINE!

Guest Blog: Choose the Right Words (And Live to Tell About It)

By Katherine Gotthardt, M.Ed.

You’re a writer. I don’t have to convince you that words hold power. If you didn’t believe that already, you wouldn’t have bothered to pick up the pen or put fingers to keyboard. But what you probably ask yourself all the time as you’re writing is, “Is that the right word?” How do you decide?

In my decades of battling with words, many times losing, I’ve learned that the right words are too often elusive. But in spite of this, I’ve also learned following a few guidelines helps me maintain a steady stream of at least half-decent writing, whether it’s poetry, articles, social media posts or something else. Here are some methods I use when I’m fighting to find the right words.


***

Banish Wimpy Wording

In your heart of hearts, you know wimpy wording when you see it. “Very,” and “nice” don’t say a whole lot, for example. They kind of take up space with their banality, clogging up the works while stronger words shift back and forth on the soles of their feet, impatiently waiting their turn. Be specific. Be courageous. Tell that “very nice” lady she’s “uncommonly agreeable,” and then decide what that means in the larger context of your work. You might realize “very nice” is not very nice at all, and now you’ve got the start of a more complex character in your novel. Or you’ve created a conundrum in that article you’re writing about the jewelry store owner the next town over, and you’d better watch your tone or you’ll get your publisher in a pickle. But by evicting the weakling words, you’re moving past trite and forgettable writing. 


***

Write in 3D

Human beings live sensory lives. Even when we’re alone in our own heads, we use taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound to make sense of our surroundings. Our memories are made up of perceptions brought to us through nerve endings and cortex, creating meaning from stimuli. We’re wonderful processors of the sensual. Take advantage of that. Use the senses to write in 3D. Don’t tell me there’s a gray dog on the corner. Show me what’s ahead: a bristled beast with iron-colored fur, lifting its leg, leaking on the fire hydrant, the sun beating a rhythm of mirage on the street’s pavement. Oh. Maybe I should cross the street because I’m not especially sure that’s a friendly Fido out for an afternoon romp. Now you’ve created something besides the image. You’ve created conflict – the archetypal “man versus nature.” Superb. Have your characters react accordingly. Move the action along, no matter what you’re writing.


***

Stop Repeating Yourself, Stop Repeating Yourself, Stop Repeating Yourself

We writers do it all the time. We end up using the same words over and over and over and over and… It bores readers, and when we notice we’ve done it again, it usually horrifies us. How could we have overlooked our repetition of “let’s” five times within four sentences? Ugh! Okay, forgive yourself. It’s easy to make this error, especially when deadlines are screaming from the Google calendar, the cell phone and the land line are ringing at the same time and your pug is barking at the Amazon delivery guy. It’s not cheating to use the tools given to us by the tech demigods. A thorough grammar check should slow you down long enough to help you see the error of your ways, even if your grammar tool doesn’t specifically point out repeated words. And when your brain feels like bubble wrap? Use the thesaurus. I promise you, the Amazon guy won’t tell.

If after using these three techniques you still find yourself losing the war to find the right words, it really is okay. Get up. Stretch. Take your dogs for a walk. While they’re watering the grass, you’ll have time to rest your brain. By the time you return, you’ll be ready to jump back into the trenches. And if you’re still losing the battle?

Thankfully, there’s always the option to edit. Again.

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katherineWBooks

Vice President of Write by the Rails (WbtR), Katherine Gotthardt has been writing and teaching for more than twenty years. She is the author of five books and CEO of All Things Writing, LLC. Learn more about her and her work at www.KatherineGotthardt.com.


Check out the Write By The Rail blog hoppers:

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