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Revising the Revision

The book in progress sits atop my printer as a hard-copy draft, awaiting revision. I’m letting it cool down before I start editing. I need some time and distance to gain objectivity. I need to find a hot-pink editing pen for when I’m ready to spread out the pages to slash and burn.

Meanwhile, I’m mulling over cover art and branding strategies. I’m brooding about the tentative title, FICTION FORMULA REVISION, which I dislike but can’t think of anything better. (Why is it so easy to invent a pun or quip for an Instagram caption, but a book title won’t come?)

My thanks to those of you that sent “likes” of the last book update but asked no questions. Normally I welcome questions, but my email has been down and inaccessible for the past three or four weeks. While the problem hasn’t been solved, a Band-Aid has been applied so I’m operational again. I think it will hold well enough for the time being. (Fingers crossed.)

And boo hiss to this darned plague that has all technical-support agents overworked and under-helpful. Doesn’t the universe understand that when I’m at this stage with a book, the least computer hiccup freaks me out?

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Quote for the Day

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

I stumbled across a variant of this saying a few weeks ago. I don’t recall now where I saw it. A niggling thought in my brain suggests I might have seen it on Instagram. Anyway, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I came across the scrap of paper and tried to hunt down who said this.

Apparently no one and everyone. It’s so good people of various professions have used it, tweaked it, applied it, and shared it. I have no doubt you’ve encountered it or some variation of it as well.

It speaks to me for obvious reasons, chiefly because I make a living teaching college students how to change their status from amateur to professional. Of course, I help others besides students. Anytime I share writing craft or explain how a story is structured, I am focused on the professional approach, which is writing with the aim of being published and paid.

There are, of course, many who write for the sheer pleasure of self-expression. They fill journals with the joys and tribulations of their lives. (They may even make the journal itself.) Others sustain the fading art of letter writing. Some amuse themselves penning character sketches or generate blogs or share inspiration on Instagram. Countless individuals write stories for their children or grandchildren. And there are those who go about their lives and occupations with a yen to share the stories swimming in their imaginations but who are stymied by having no idea of how to express them.

When I chose writing as my dream, my life, and my profession, I focused my practicing toward one chief aim:  to have my novel on the public library shelf in my hometown. In my childhood, the library was the most magical place I knew. I daydreamed about living there among the towering shelves filled with books. I didn’t mind that it was housed in a ramshackle old building next to the railroad tracks, with brick walls, uneven floors, and large plate-glass front windows from the days when the building was a store. Those details added to the magical kingdom, and as a child I used to plot ways and means of being locked in by mistake so I could spend the night there.

So when I realized I wanted to be a writer I could think of no achievement higher than being shelved in that wondrous, shadowy place. I would choose an armload of books to check out and then go and stand next to the shelf in the “C” section, where someday my novel would belong.

But to reach that objective, I had to get published. And to get published, I had to submit my work. And to submit work that would be accepted by the editors that kindly, or curtly, or impatiently rejected what I sent to them, I had to write stories that were good. And to write good stories, I had to learn what I was doing. And to learn what I was doing, I had to practice. And to practice properly, I needed training.

Fortunately, I received training in the Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. The objective there was not to write creatively, but instead professionally. Oh, the hours of practice I put in, trying to master scene conflict and moment-by-moment dramatization. I would write a scene, only to realize when I read it over that I’d left out some critical plot point. Inserting it would mess up the moment-by-moment/stimulus-response order of dialogue. Then I’d have to rip apart the scene and rewrite it.

I learned to place a small checklist of plot points next to my typewriter–yes, I started my career back then–so I wouldn’t forget key comments. I learned that even as I grew more adept at my craft I would still have to edit and edit and edit. I grew to understand that no matter how delicious breaking a rule of technique felt during the heat of composition, that in the cold light of revision it was far less effective than I’d believed. Of course that meant I had to go back and rewrite the section properly.

And finally, after so much trying, practice, writing, rewriting, and care–I found I didn’t need the checklist. I could park two opposing characters in the same locale and know they would go where they should.

I’m not boasting that I’m as polished and smooth as I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not bragging that I never feel the urge to toss the rules of good craft. I’m not saying that I don’t indulge that urge. I still check my copy. I still edit. I still go back and undo the rule-breaking for something better.

But I get the quote. I live the quote. After so many years of hard effort, it’s good to know this is how I roll.


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Book Update

My book on revision is coming along. I’ve written all the chapters. Now I’m trying to decide whether to add a few frills. I’m also asking myself if I’ve included enough, if I need to supplement with any additional information, and if I’m ready to edit.

Nonfiction is such a different writing experience than fiction. With the latter, you know when you’ve sewn up the story. With nonfiction, there can always be another chapter, another paragraph, another point. Someone text-messaged me the other night, and the small but important piece of wisdom I was about to insert into a block of text flew right out of my head. I’ve yet to recall it, and I have a strong suspicion it might be gone forever–or at least until I upload and the book goes live.

Anyway, this is mainly to let you know that my blog posts may be a bit sporadic as I try to polish the book and get it done. I’m not disappearing on you again. I’ve just got my head primarily wrapped around this project at the moment.

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Lose the Laundry

No, I’m not talking about your dirty clothes. Today’s post is about a necessary writing responsibility called description.

Do I hear groans? Quick! How many of you skip descriptive passages when you’re reading fiction? It can become boring pretty fast sometimes, and it’s slow. It puts the story on pause while the writer evokes some lovely–or clunky–imagery.

So if it has all these things going against it, why am I even bothering to bring it up? Why not ditch description altogether? Didn’t Elmore Leonard advise fiction writers never to include the things that readers skip?

He did.

However, we shouldn’t ditch description completely. Why? Because our stories need it. Description helps orient readers to our story world, particularly when your setting is purely imaginary. After all, remember that your fans have never been to the planet Faraway unless you describe it to them.

Secondly, description shows readers what our characters look like, especially in their introductions when they’re making that all-important first impression. Without description, I might read maybe half of a novel, all the while imagining–for whatever reason–that my viewpoint is stocky and red-haired, then suddenly discover that this individual is tall, willowy, and blonde. It’s like walking down a staircase and missing a step. Even if you catch your balance and avoid falling, you’ve taken quite a jolt.

And, finally, description helps evoke emotions or physical sensations through what our point-of-view character experiences. After all, if your protagonist has just proposed to the girl of his dreams and she turns him down, he needs to feel the emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, anger, and disbelief. Maybe we toss in resentment and stir up a bit of jealousy toward the guy she’s choosing instead. Or, if your point-of-view person is coshed with a blackjack at the end of Chapter Four and comes to at the beginning of Chapter Five to find herself trussed with rope and her face smushed into the gritty texture of old carpet that smells like dog urine and mold, then you have to share those descriptive details with readers or how will they know she’s shivery and nauseous from the throbbing pain in her skull and needs to keep her eyes shut against the dizzying spin of the room around her.

Hmm. So despite its bad rep, description is necessary. Does that mean Mr. Leonard is wrong? Not at all! It means we have to make description fun, fast, and lively enough that readers don’t want to skip it. Or, like tricking a toddler into opening his mouth so we can spoon in green peas, we have to slip description past readers before they realize what’s happening.

It’s helpful to remember that there are two major types of description:  laundry list and  dominant impression.

Let’s get the laundry out of the way, shall we? Early in my career, an editor criticized my manuscript for featuring too many laundry lists. I had no idea what she was talking about and kept piling on more and more details in my descriptive passages, which was the wrong thing to do and exactly what this editor did not want. Somehow, I finally revised that project to her satisfaction or exhaustion–not sure which–and publication deadline was met.

For clarity, let’s define laundry-list description as old-school enumeration of endless details about a setting or a character. Often such description begins with one side of a room and systematically moves the reader’s eye around as it catalogues the colors, furnishings, and architectural features. Or it might start with a character’s glossy black hair pinned high atop her head with only one long curl allowed to rest on her sloping shoulder, then moving down to address the widow’s peak of her hairline, her wide-spaced cerulean eyes with thick curling lashes, her pertly perfect nose with three adorable freckles scattered across its curvature, the rosy fullness of her lips, and the dimple in her chin. Fiction of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century often features such passages. Because every detail is lavishly attended to with equal emphasis, description tends to be long. More information means more word count. Longer imagery grows slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r until it becomes … ZZZZzzzz.

The other type of description is dominant impression, which focuses on a single image you want to get across to readers. What is the most important or notable aspect of the treasure cave that you need to convey?

Well obviously it’s the treasure.

All other information can wait. If that cave holds fabulous riches, then go bold with it in a couple of sentences and make sure you emphasize specific, well-chosen details. Consider ropes of immense pearls, rubies and emeralds winking in the torchlight, heavy Spanish doubloons heaped on the floor. However, don’t catalogue every jewel or count the bolts of shimmering silk cloth. Instead, what is it about a heap of treasure that would stand out to you first and foremost? The glitter-fire within the jewels? The gleam of the coins? If you want this trove to dazzle, then focus on how it shines and sparkles in the flickering torchlight. It’s the dazzle that’s the dominant impression, not each item.

Of course, if the treasure your hero expected to find is not in the cave and instead he encounters a pile of human skeletons in rotted clothing with baleful red rat eyes gleaming from among the bones, then you’ll want to focus on whatever your overwhelming disappointment leads you to notice. Maybe it’s the stench–dank and putrid–like standing in a mass grave. Hit with one vivid metaphor–ideally less of a cliche than my examples–and keep the action moving.

Every few pages, if needed, you can insert a descriptive phrase to supplement the dank dismal atmosphere or the empty gloom within the cave or the glum resignation on the sidekick’s face or the sharp twinge in the protagonist’s stomach as his ulcer perforates from the stress of failure and sends him to his knees in agony.

By pausing only briefly for a swift, vivid impression for setting establishment or character introductions and by mixing descriptive words into the story action, you’ll be able to lose the boring pile of laundry and keep your story exciting, plausible, and vivid.


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Narrative Comeback?

In technical terms, narrative is defined as summarized story action told to readers by the author. It’s quick, economical, and useful for transitions or dispensing a lot of information in condensed form. It’s biggest drawback is that it’s telling instead of showing, and readers may grow detached from the story events or characters.

jane eyre cover

In the middle of the twentieth century, narrative was a popular mode of discourse in women’s fiction, particularly in the so-called Gothics that were mega-hot during the 1960s and ’70s. If you’ve never heard of Gothics, they were a sub-genre of romantic suspense and highly derivative of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE in that they featured a naive young woman without family going to work in a huge, spooky mansion and meeting a handsome wonderful man who turned out to be a villain and a gruff, brooding, irascible man who turned out to be the hero. Some had historical settings while others took place in modern times. The covers featured a somber Victorian manse in the background with a young woman running away from it, usually clad in a diaphanous nightgown. Gothics grew so popular that in the 1970s there was even a daily soap opera called DARK SHADOWS that unfortunately aired just before my high school let out for the day. If I walked home at lightning speed, I could sometimes catch the last five minutes of the program, which made for very disappointing viewing since that was always the cliffhanger. Given that soaps did not play reruns and VCRs hadn’t been invented yet, it was a frustrating situation.

Dark Shadows

But I digress.

Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Norah Lofts were leading authors of this era. Two years ago, I stumbled upon a small treasure trove of these authors at an estate sale and snapped up an armload. (I believe I posted about it.) What struck me in reading these books was how heavily they relied on narrative rather than the moment-by-moment scene action and reaction I had been trained to write.

victoria holt

By the early 1980s, Gothics had fallen from public favor. Women’s fiction shifted from historical adventures to contemporary. The bedroom door flung open wide. Conflict between heroine and hero intensified, and moment-by-moment story action was depicted along with sharp-witted dialogue.

For the past forty years, most commercial fiction of various genres has been presented this way with scenes that demonstrate conflict without summary alternated with in-viewpoint processing of emotional reaction and planning of what the protagonist will do next.

Yet currently I’m seeing a trend back to narrative. I noticed it first–and this is by no means any sort of accurate or precise observation–in suspense thrillers featuring the so-called unreliable narrator. College students currently seem enamored of the type of female protagonist whose personal life is a mess, whose emotional life is erratic, and who may turn out to be the villain in a–gasp–plot twist at the end. My students find this extremely thrilling. I, alas, am less impressed by the so-called novelty of this approach since [spoiler alert!] Agatha Christie pulled this off in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in 1929, and therefore it’s hardly new.

murder of roger ackroyd

Last year, I picked up a romance novel by a successful author that I’d heard about but hadn’t read before. Given that this author has also written numerous well-received suspense books, I expected a skillful, engaging story written by expert hands. What I got was two opening chapters of exciting story action, written in moment-by-moment conflict, and the rest of the story in narrative. Okay, I thought. She was probably finishing off a long-term book contract and just wanted to get done.

the duchess Steel

Last month, I picked up a fairly recent Danielle Steel novel. I haven’t read Steel in years, but this had a historical setting in a time period I like so I gave it a try. I lost interest by Chapter Three because it was all narrative. The heroine’s problems are strong ones, and I wanted to sympathize with her, but the less-than-skilled summary held me too far from her. Okay, I thought. This is Steel, who is far from being one of your favorite authors.

oysterville Wiggs

This weekend, I started a book of contemporary women’s fiction by Susan Wiggs called THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE. I don’t believe I’ve read Wiggs before. She is smooth and compelling, and I’m enjoying the rather complicated story a great deal. However, it’s nearly all narrative. There are snippets of dialogue here and there, occasional scenes or scene fragments, then it slides right back into told-by-the-author format. Fortunately, it’s expertly handled, and my interest is held. But at the key turning points in the book, I’ve found myself slightly disappointed by the narrative distancing. I want to be in the moment when the protagonist is betrayed. I want to experience it vicariously. I want to participate in her face-to-face confrontation with the person that torpedoes her. And instead I’m being left out, kept apart, and told about it later. Hmmm….

Now, I’m a person that seeks patterns. I like overviews. I think about the cycle of history and how it so often repeats itself politically and culturally. I like to mull over the causes of events and piece factors together.

If genre fiction really is seriously trending into narrative–not just a few sub-genres, but across the board–then this is a large pivot point in how stories will be presented to readers.

So I ask myself this:  in terms of decor, one of the hot trends in the past five years has been mid-century modern furniture, with collectors grabbing pieces from the 1950s and ’60s. The retro movement is very chic, and some wear clothing and hairstyles of the era as well. The Bohemian style is also in favor. Called Boho, it features vivid colors such as orange, avocado, and turquoise, mismatched furnishings garnered from thrift stores, plants, macrame, and brass accents. So here we have the 1950s through the 1970s very much in vogue. In the 1960s and ’70s, narrative summary was very much the writing style.

Then I tilt the question around and examine it from a different angle. The past decade–admittedly rough for fiction sales–has seen only one market segment strengthen and grow. That’s the children’s market. It’s grown because adult readers moved in, attracted by simpler story lines and imaginative settings. However, these readers wanted more adult themes, which created edgier books and a category designed for so-called “New Adults.” While American juvenile fiction has long relied on moment-by-moment scene action, British juvenile fiction has held the tradition of a narrator telling the story. Three of the most influential children’s series have come from England: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS; C.S. Lewis’s NARNIA books; and J. K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER adventures. I might also throw in Brian Jacques and his charming REDWALL series for good measure.

the hobbit

And finally, I have to wonder if it’s not a confluence of a declining literacy in the United States that needs a simpler story approach and people being so overwhelmed with the now-constant barrage of global information that they can’t escape.

Declining literacy is one of my frequent rants, and I find it shameful that the most powerful, affluent nation in the world continues to see a decline in this area. My college students claim they are avid readers, yet only about five percent of them are currently reading fiction on a regular basis. The rest–when questioned–will reluctantly admit that they stopped reading at about age fourteen. They are hardly what I would call a sophisticated reader, and some of them are so lazy they will not read a novel if they don’t immediately understand its arcane vocabulary. They refuse to grasp the idea that this is how a person continues to learn and grow mentally.

As for the information overload, the Internet pours too much over us all day long. My phone dings frequently, bringing me news headlines. I receive work emails, personal emails, store and shopping emails, blog posts, text messages, and Instagram feeds 24/7. There’s no way to absorb or process it all even if I wanted to. I can’t even play a simple word puzzle on my phone to keep my aging brain limber without being assaulted by advertisements, Facebook enticements, and political messages. Yes, I can turn off much of it. I can block messages and unsubscribe to shut down emails. If I ever retire, I can become a complete Luddite and jettison my computer and phone. However, I’m not desirous of becoming a hermit. Setting aside the current pandemic where we want very much to know what’s happening, after attempting to process too much information all day long, do people really want to spend their leisure reading intense, conflictful, moment-by-moment scenes or would they rather glide along, safe behind the narrator telling them a story but not asking them to become too involved?

I wonder.


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Manageable Revision

While I’ve met a few–very few–working authors that profess to love revising their fiction, the rest seem to react with groans, eye rolls, or resigned shrugs. Amateur writers, by contrast, tend to respond with varying degrees of panic and/or bewilderment.

Whether professional, newbie, or hobbyist, any writer worth some salt should know that revision is part of the job. A story isn’t completed in the rough draft. It’s completed when it’s written, rewritten, polished, and right.

However, whether a writer enjoys it, accepts it, or loathes it, there’s no need to panic or feel lost during the process.

If you’re at the stage where you’re still learning the writing craft and have little to no experience with the revision aspect of putting a story together, let me say right now there’s no need to be afraid.

Fear is unproductive, and while it’s possibly responsible for more than a few manuscript files never being opened again, you can vanquish it by facing it and understanding how to deal with it.

Maybe fear is too dramatic a term. Maybe you’re simply confused, puzzled, nervous, or unsure about a few areas in your story line. Perhaps you’re willing to tackle revisions, but you just don’t know where to begin.

Here’s what I always tell my classroom students regarding the very first step of revision. And that’s to type “The End” on the last page of your rough-draft manuscript. If you haven’t written an entire draft from start to finish–however wobbly–you’re not ready to make changes or decisions.

It’s best to write your rough draft with as much focus as you can sustain. Don’t write while second-guessing yourself. Don’t write with mental reservations. Don’t write with the idea that your weakly designed sidekick will have to be redone. Trying to work with that kind of split-focus in play means your scenes will be choppy or fragmented, characters will act or speak in contrived ways, the plot will jump here and there without cohesion, and the conflict will continuously weaken as you try to push events forward.

Ray Bradbury advised writers to plan slowly and coolly and then write as hot and fast as possible. Train yourself to outline ahead of time. Writing by the seat of your pants is so very appealing because it makes you feel defiant, rebellious, and artistic, but it really tends to result in a lot of dead ends, restarts, and confusion that could otherwise be mitigated. If you want to feel defiant, rebellious, and artistic, wear mismatched socks that clash with the rest of your clothing, but by all means plan your story up front.

Even if you can only plot the first and third acts of your great American novel-to-be and you’re vague about the middle, if you must launch your story right now or die, then leap in and swim as though you’re crossing the Gulf of Mexico with sharks snapping at your toes. Go fast. Go big.

Whatever you do, don’t stop and rewrite while you’re still in rough draft.

Type it all the way through the ending. You may be exhausted, half-drowned, and missing a foot, but finish the rough draft before you fix anything.

Then assess what you have as coolly as you can. The revision process takes time. It should be addressed in small, manageable chunks. Deal with one task before you tackle another. Don’t try to do everything at once. You’ll only confuse yourself and end up overwhelmed.

Remember how long it took you to write your first draft. A week, if it’s a short story? A month? Five months if it’s a novel? Two years?

Do you really think revision can be wrapped up in a matter of hours?

Not going to happen.

Like writing, revision is accomplished one small bit at a time.

Assessment is all about facing the weaknesses and repairing them. It’s about solidifying your plot and plugging its holes. It’s about adding complexity to your major characters and governing viewpoint. It’s about making the antagonist tougher so that your hero is forced to be stronger, try harder, and reach farther than expected. It’s about owning up to your poor punctuation habits, turning on your computer’s spell check function, and cleaning up your grammar.

Revision isn’t a matter of jumping here and there through the manuscript like a feral rabbit hunting clover in a suburban Bermuda-lawn. It’s not about hiding things you don’t know how to fix or hoping no editor will notice them. It’s not about ignoring the flaws or, worse, dwelling on them until you’re in such despair you delete your files permanently.

Most importantly, revision isn’t about throwing out the good along with the bad. It’s about learning your craft, then finding the courage to trust that craft. Whatever is weak, make it better. If you don’t know how, find out. Whatever works–even if you doubt it–leave it alone. As you hone your story instincts, find the strength to rely on them.



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Finding the Positive

As I type this, it’s the close of Day 1 of my local community’s lock down. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918. We are modern. We have prescription insurance and anti-bacterial hand soaps. We shouldn’t have to fear plagues, so what is this? What happened?

In a culture that a few weeks ago was overscheduled, hectic, stressed, busy, and addicted to social media, with nothing more exciting going on than political debates and watching Prince Harry of Great Britain repeating the actions of his ancestor, King Edward VIII, who abdicated royal responsibilities so he could spend his life with the divorced American woman he loved–suddenly, bam, pandemic.

As disruptive and frightening as it is, this health crisis–once and if we and our loved ones get through it–will eventually serve as fascinating fodder for future stories. We have plummeted into changes we could never have foreseen, and our emotional confusion is nearly overwhelming.

A writer’s chief stock in trade is character emotion. It fuels characters. It motivates characters. It drives them to smoulder and plan and weigh options and take action. It makes them seethe, resent, fret, lash out, worry, agonize, fear, flee, and panic.

This month, I have witnessed fear and panic. I have seen empty store shelves–and never before have I ever seen a huge supermarket wiped out of meat in a day. I have seen hoarding of supplies. I have seen generosity and kindness from strangers. I have seen people shaken from their self-absorption in their families and/or their social media friends to instead reach out and speak kindly to people they don’t know. I have seen the good in people, and I have seen barbarous indifference as shown in the Spring Break news feeds. At the latter, we shake our heads, yet it takes time to slow down a country and stop its wheels. We are a nation on the go, and yet now we sit on a side railing, waiting. We aren’t used to sitting idle. It’s unAmerican. It’s weird. We’re supposed to work, to go to school. We’re supposed to be busy and productive. We’re not supposed to sit in our homes, afraid when we venture out to move past the six-foot line. We’re not supposed to stay away from our workplaces or our houses of worship. We don’t quite believe this can be happening to us.

We’re in a situation that can certainly be called a lulu. If you ever needed to study human nature to gain insights into motivation, reaction, true nature, and capacity to act, here is opportunity. We are just over a century from WWI, just over a century from the deadly flu epidemic, just over a century from the sinking of the Titanic. History does repeat. It cycles around, and disaster strikes us when we aren’t paying attention. Disaster also forges us into something better than we were, or it shatters us.

I don’t want to belittle the gravity of what we’re facing now. But it’s a chance to observe, to gain insight into deepening our stories.

The point of plots is to put a protagonist through a stress test to see what this individual is made of. How much can the protagonist take? What does the protagonist fear? What secrets does the protagonist harbor? What is holding the protagonist back, and how can the story events push him or her into changing?

It is typical human nature to resist change. Change is perceived on a psychological level as threatening, and some people dig in so stubbornly to avoid change that they would rather remain in an unsafe situation than do anything differently. Consider the 58-year-old man that’s 250 pounds overweight and at risk for a coronary. His doctor tells him he has to exercise by taking daily walks and eat a healthier diet. Frightened, the guy heads straight to the grocery store and loads up on broccoli, kale, flaxseed meal, and salmon fillets. He struggles his way through a week of power-walking, then skips a day because of work issues, then never catches back up. It’s too hard. It’s boring. He gets too hot. His shoes rub blisters on his toes. He’ll exercise on the weekends. He’ll exercise later. And kale tastes like cardboard. Flaxseed meal makes him itch. The fish doesn’t agree with him. He hates broccoli unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Hey, he can order pepperoni pizza with broccoli on it, right? Sure. And what has he changed within a month of his doctor’s warning? Nothing.

Let’s hammer this point with another example:  the elderly individual that won’t leave her house despite widespread flooding and an evacuation order. She has nowhere else to go. No family to take her in. She’s terrified of being put in an old folks’ home. Her cat has disappeared in the rain and if she leaves her cat won’t have anyone to come home to. So the water rises, and every day the woman climbs higher in her house, until she’s trapped in the attic. Finally her little house is swept off its foundation and goes bobbing along in the torrential waters, necessitating rescue personnel to risk their lives to save her.

Or consider the person that stays in an abusive relationship, afraid to leave for the children’s sake. Never mind what this toxic home life is doing to the kids. They deserve parents that stick together. They deserve the nice house, their own cell phones, laptops, and tablets, the pool, and their generous allowances. Such things will more than make up for the emotional misery and psychological/verbal abuse that poisons everything in this dysfunctional family day after day. Right? Otherwise, what’s it all been for?

How about the writer that sweats to complete a novel manuscript, but won’t submit it to a publisher because it needs just a bit more polish? It could be self-published digitally, but no it really needs a third-act rewrite. Despite the fact that it’s been written and rewritten six times in eight years, it really isn’t quite ready because the writer is afraid to expose it to any potential criticism. After all, it might be published and what would be so bad about that? Well, the writer would have to change by working on a new and different project. On the other hand, if it bombs, the writer will have to face that it’s no good and then change by working on a new and different project.

Change–good or bad–is threatening because it upsets the status quo. It makes things different. It jolts us from our ruts, our routines, our habits. While in real life we dodge change as much as possible, in fiction we need it. We should use it to jump-start our stories at the beginning, then let it pressure and challenge our protagonist into a steady arc of evolving in order to win, to succeed, to survive, to become better. Or, if you’re channeling Mario Puzo and design your protagonist to devolve, the arc of change will end in disaster and defeat.

And all the while, our protagonist is battling not just an antagonist, not just physical or emotional danger, but fear. Fear of the story situation, fear of the antagonist, fear of the mission going wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of a worsening spiral of trouble, fear of failure, fear of daring to leave the box and leap for a risk never attempted before.

Change and emotion. They force character action. They ignite the sparks of conflict. They push the protagonist into doing something, into taking risks, into leaving what’s familiar and known to try what’s different.


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