Jaye Wells

Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Craft Thursday: The Hook

Psst!Did you know that my publisher posted Chapter 1 of BLUE-BLOODED VAMP? Go ahead and read it because today’s Craft Thursday post is all about story openings. Go on, we’ll wait for you.

Here’s some reading music for you.

You back?

First, let’s get this out of the way. The way I write openings isn’t necessarily the way you should write them. Genre conventions, author voice and all sorts of other issues dictate what kind of opening a book should have. However, in general most genre fiction books are all about the fast hook.

In media res is a phrase often bandied about by us writer types. It means, “in the middle of things.” Thus, you throw your reader into the story without a lot of context. The unanswered questions and lack of reference points often works to hook them into the story so they can’t help but find out what’s going on.

You’ll notice, of course, that unlike most of the other Sabina Kane novels, our heroine doesn’t actually fight anyone in these two opening scenes. It was a conscious decision based on the fact that a) Sabina has grown as a character over the course of the series and b) she’s recovering from some pretty heavy emotional issues after the end of SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL and I needed the opening to reflect that.

A lot of writers think that to hook a reader you have to have explosions and sirens and all sorts of literary pyrotechnics. I, myself, have been guilty of this thinking. Witness the first scenes of THE MAGE IN BLACK, which featured a kung fu battle in the middle of a mini-mart that culminated in a couple of flambeed vampires, a shotgun battle and an explosion. (BTW that’s still one of my favorite scenes ever).

Over time, though, I’ve realized that you don’t need all that noise to craft a great opening. Violence for violence sake can be fun as hell to write, but without some really excellent tension and character development it’s pretty empty reading. So when I started writing the opening of this book, I focused on creating the promise of action.

The promise of action is a technique where you present an inciting incident that tells the readers, “Look, there’s some really exciting shit coming. You might want to stick around.” Basically, what I’m saying to you, is you have to promise (AND DELIVER) exciting conflicts–both internal and external–for your characters to overcome.

In the first scene of BBV, we have a lot of promise. First, we know that Sabina’s determined to find the man who killed her sister, even, as she says, if it means putting a gun to her friend’s head to get his cooperation. Second, we know that this promise she made to Asclepius is going to bite her in the ass–a major complication in an already complex mission. Third, there is the promise of internal conflict for Sabina, i.e. she’s going to have to learn some hard lessons along the way, including maybe that revenge isn’t the answer.

Mind you, the promise of action doesn’t mean you don’t still need actual action. Sabina isn’t sitting around talking about everything she wants to do. The conflicts are revealed by showing her interact with the people in her world and react to things they say and do.

A quick note on exposition here. BBV is the fifth (and final) book in a series. That means that I had to use some exposition in the first chapter in order to bring readers up to speed on the major facts they needed to know going into this story. Namely, that her sister is dead and that Sabina is set on revenge. There are also a couple of mentions of other characters, like Giguhl, because long-time readers of the series would have been distracted wonder where Sabina’s sidekick was if I hadn’t mentioned him.

For you, however, especially if you’re writing the first book of a series, you need to use as little exposition as possible in your first chapter. The goal is to hit the ground running, keep the reader guessing and promise some really cool shit.

Questions?

Craft Thursday: Live a Little

I’ve been reading the book IMAGINE: HOW CREATIVITY WORKS by Jonah Lehrer. It’s a fascinating look at how creativity works, even in non-traditionally creative venues. One of the things he discusses is the importance of travel and new experiences to creativity. We often call this “filling the well” and if you ain’t doing it, you’re handicapping yourself and your stories.

Last night, I spent eight hours riding in a cop car. I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere that I’ve been participating in a Citizen’s Police Academy through my city. Part of the program is the opportunity to do a ride along. Now please understand the decision to sign up was not an easy one. A) I’m a writer, not a hero. B) I’m a control freak and the idea of putting myself in a dangerous situation is terrifying. So naturally I had to do it.

I did it because I wanted to know what it’s like. I did it because I want to be able to write convincingly about cops. I did it because I want to be able to describe the adrenaline rush of roaring down the road with sirens blaring to chase down a perp who’s running through a neighborhood. I did it because I was afraid and that means it’s something that needs exploring.

I’ve done lots of things in the service of writing that I never would have had the guts to do otherwise. The desire ot have lot sof experiences to draw from for my fiction is kind of like a passport. Even though I get nervous and doing things out of my comfort zone isn’t always comfortable, I know that ultimately it will benefit both my fiction and my life.

Because guess what–your writing is your life. It’s your life distilled and filtered and morphed and reshaped. If you spend all your time stuck in a high tower and you never speak to real people and you never challenge yourself your fiction will show it.

This is not to diminish the role of imagination in our work. But I’m one of those ridiculous people who thinks a writer can’t live on imagination alone. If you spend all your life with your nose buried in the laptop or the notebook, you’re going to miss the entire ride.

“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” –Auntie Mame.

Not for nothing, but there’s no guarantee writing will bring you fame and fortune. If anything, it’s a guarantee of the opposite. So while you’re pursuing this unattainable dream, maybe you should enjoy yourself a little. Go drive fast cars and get into fist fights and kiss someone who’s all wrong for you. Get your heart pumping. Know what it feels like to have your heart broken. Laugh until you pee a little. Talk to people you have nothing in common with and learn something from them. Do something that scares you.

Yes, put your ass in the chair and write. Let your imagination go wild. But every now and then, leave the chair. Leave the house, for chrissakes. Seek adventure. Your stories and your future self will thank you for it.

Craft Thursday: More Thoughts on The Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about the post on The Zone last week. I’ve decided there’s more I need to say on the topic, so the next couple of Craft Thursday posts will address this very important topic.

Why is it so important? Because The Zone, aka The Flow, is so critical to creativity. Authors always talk about those moments when they fell liek they are merely a conduit for story. You lose track of time and your fingers fly across the keyboard faster than you could possibly think. It’s like taking dictation for the gods or dancing or meditation.

“When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one the world’s formost experts on the concept of Flow.

Here’s a TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You back? Okay, now that we understand how important it is, let’s discuss how Flow and Zone are also not that important.

WHAT?!? But, Jaye, you just made me watch an 18 minute video on the importance of Flow and how it can give our lives meaning and happiness.

Shh, grasshopper, shh. Yes, The Zone is awesome. I have an almost religious reverence for it and in a lot of ways it’s one of the big reasons writing is a need and a want in my life. The Zone makes you feel like Siddhartha on the mountain at one with the infinite.

However …

There will be a lot of days, A LOT, when you can not get into the Flow. Days when you’re restless and distracted. Days when you had a fight with your wife or your kids are having problems or you’re PMSing and there’s no chocolate in the $%#^#& house.Or maybe you’ve been working on this book for four months straight and it’s still not coming together and you’re just not sure you have the endurance to keep going. You keep trying to get into the Flow, but really you’re barely treading water.

Pop Quiz!

What do you do if you just can’t get into The Zone?
A. Take a break. You deserve it. Several weeks should do it.
B. Stop writing altogether. You’re a fraud anyway.
C. Keep calm and write on.

You don’t really need me to tell you, do you? If you do, send me $10 and I’ll scream WRITE, DAMN YOU, WRITE! into your voicemail.

The truth is most writers don’t spend the majority of their writing time in The Zone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so special. If it was easy to get there, we wouldn’t appreciate it. So, yeah, it’s not easy –actually it’s probably also not that advisable since it warps your relationship with the real world–to get and stay in the Zone. Regardless, books get written.

They get written because if you’re an author you’re not just an artist, you’re a craftsperson. You’re a word worker, hammering out a story. Those blinding moments of inspiration and that chorus of angels that croons while you’re Flowing are fabulous. But they appear too inconsistently to get the work done.

The work gets done by making a habit of putting your ass in the chair and laying words on the page. I’m not one of those writers who say you’re required to write every day. But you should probably have a reliable habit of some sort. Some people have weekly word goals, some have somewhat regular bouts of word bingeing. Either way, the work has to get done. This obviously gets more important once you get published and have a contractual obligation to finish the book. But even before that, when you’re on the road to Oz, you still have to complete projects.

Completing projects makes you a more experienced writer. And guess what? Being a more experienced writer makes it easier to achieve Flow. Flexing your creative muscles through practice creates a sort of creative muscle memory. Deliberate practice means you’re available and prepared when those flashes of inspiration decide to make an appearance. Plus, you also learn what works best to get you into the Flow. Since I’ve written several books now, it’s easier for me to shut off the internal editor and let my fingers improvise like a Jazz musician. I trust myself more to get the work done because I’ve done it before.

Anyway, the big point is, respect the Flow, but more than that, respect that writing is work.

Until next week, happy writing!

Craft Thursday: Protect Your Zone

Last week I was in Chicago for the Romantic Times Convention. During a panel someone asked how we–Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Lucienne Diver, Nicole Peeler, Jennifer Estep and myself–handle writer’s block.
First of all, I’ve tackled Writer’s Block here before.
I repeated some of those points during the panel, but I also touched on something I have only recently begun to realize for myself.
If you want to avoid writer’s block, you’ve got to protect your Zone.
I capitalized the Z because the Zone is that important. It’s the sweet spot, the Shangri La, the secret cave where the muse resides. It’s the place where writing feels like meditation and time flits away like bird’s wings on a soft, warm breeze. Doubts fear the Zone. So does the inner editor. There’s no ego there. Basically, the Zone is the orgasm we’re always trying to reach each time we sit down at the keyboard.
Have I oversold it? I don’t believe so. If you do, maybe you have yet to find your Zone.
Regardless, I think a lot of what we call writer’s block is an inability to find the Zone. When we’re blocked, finding it can make us feel a lot like poor Odysseus trying to get home. It’s an epic quest fraught with clawed beasts and Cyclopses and murderous sirens.
Typically the biggest villains blocking our way are Ego and Editor. Ego wants us to believe we’re demigods worthy of worship. Editor tells us we’re shit on the shoe of whichever author we’ve elevated to the status of deity. Both are monsters.
scyllacharybdis-sept-9-2010
In keeping with the Odysseus metaphor, Editor is Scylla, the fanged beast who makes horrible sounds and consumes any poor soul who dares stray too close to her lair. Across the way, Charybdis is the sucking whirlpool of ego. In the center of these beasts is safe passage to the Zone.
Perfectionism is Scylla’s ambrosia. She finds your fear delicious. Charybdis, on the other hand, grows stronger every time you Google yourself, every time you check your ranking on Amazon.
If you’re ever going to break free of their pull, you’re going to have to learn to steer steady through the rough waters and ignore the waving tentacles in your peripheral vision. In short, you’ve got to protect yourself or you’ll never find your way back to Ithaca.
Look, let’s be honest. Writers have a reputation for being … peculiar, particular, persnickety. I never used to understand why my more experienced writers would issue dire warnings about resisting the urge to self-google (insert hairy palm joke here). I never understood why my successful author friends have these bizarre rituals and strange OCD behaviors about their writing. I never got why they didn’t enjoy the more public aspects of the job more.
Now I get it, and, ironically, it was Romantic Times that brought this lesson home for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast. I got to catch up with a lot of friends and meet lots of readers. Had some laughs and fun gossip sessions and fascinating discussions about books. But it also exhausted me. I thought maybe it’s just that I’m getting too old for sitting in the bar all night. But I’ve come to suspect something else is at play.
I didn’t protect my Zone.
First of all, I rarely get any writing done during cons. I write on the plane, sure. But once I’m in the hotel, I’m in full book pimp mode. I’m schmoozing and drinking and having deep discussions about how to save books. No bueno, my friends. As much as I enjoy the public side of my job, my first responsibility is to lay words on the page. It’s not just a job, though. It’s a NEED. Writing is as much of a requirement for my health as exercise and a good night’s sleep (lack of both of these can also screw with your Zone, btw). What’s worse, I always lose at least two additional days after cons as I catch up on sleep and let myself recharge.
Second of all, all that talk about The Industry is fucking demoralizing. It’s hard to get excited about writing when everyone’s talking about how books are going the way of the Dodo. When you’re consuming all this constant bad news and dire Chicken Littleism, it’s impossible to feel creative. Cons aren’t the worst perpetrator of this, though. Every time we read industry blogs or loiter on Twitter all day instead of writing, we’re opening ourselves to a constant deluge of shitty energy.
With more demands on our time to promote books, it’s becoming harder to insulate ourselves from the negativity that strips us of our internal compass, the one that leads us to our creative True Norths.
So how do we protect our Zones? I can only tell you the steps I’ve taken.
First, I’ve culled my Twitter and Facebook lists. Anyone who makes my teeth clench or my ass twitch or my trigger finger itchy is gone. Life’s too short. This is the social media equivalent of culling emotional vampires from your real life (something you should also do to protect your Zone).
Second, I’m taking time most days to get the hell away from my computer and go get some fresh air. Three or four times a week, I’ve been taking long walks. While I walk, I listen to audiobooks by people who inspire me–Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While I walk, I take time to be thankful that I have a job that allows to go for long walks during the middle of the day. I try to feel grateful, which in turn makes me want to make the most of these opportunities wherever they may lead.
Third, I’ve stopped masturbating my Ego by googling or reading reviews. I’m not saying I’m a saint. What author isn’t a narcissist on some level? Sure, I slip up and read reviews, but I rarely don’t regret it.
Those are the big things. Your things might be different. You might get derailed by the things that help me get in the Zone the fastest. Regardless, it’s up to each of us to be honest about the habits (or people or addictions or rituals) we have that are working against us. It might take a while before what I’m saying makes sense. You might read this and think you’re the special kind of writer who will never hit a block so hard and large that you need a Sherpa to guide you over it. You might not believe in writer’s block at all. That’s fine. But protecting your Zone isn’t just about avoiding the dreaded block. It’s about protecting the magic, cupping your hands around that little, fragile spark. It’s too easy for that flame to flicker or burn out if you let your attention wander.
Protecting your Zone will not make you feel like a rock star. Taking long walks and ignoring the latest viral bullshit online won’t win you any readers. But you know what will?
Writing amazing books.
Protect your Zone from bad touches, friends.

Craft Thursday: Own It

Note: I’m leaving tomorrow for the ROmantic TImes Convention in Chicago, so I’m posting Craft Thursday early. Next week, we’ll return to our regular posting schedule.

___

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation over coffee with a writer friend. I’d been talking about this dress I saw and loved, but admitted I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. She looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got to own that shit.”

Since that conversation, her words have been loitering in my mind. I’ve been wondering if I’m doing enough owning of the shit in general. Sometimes I avoid making decisions about my career because it’s scary to take control. Sometimes I let the things I don’t control overwhelm me and use them as an excuse not to see after the things I do and should control.

I’m not trying to give you the impression that I am paralyzed. Far from it. I am generally a pretty ambitious, outspoken chick. But like everyone I have moments of insecurity and doubt.

I used to have these moments a lot when I was trying to find out if I had the chops to be a published author. Somehow, I managed to overcome those doubts and keep at it until someone said yes. I’m not sure why it happened for me and not someone else, but I think owning my role in the process was a big part of it.

“I’d write a novel if I had the time.”

“I should write today but I have to take the kids to soccer practice.”

“I could write on my day off, but I’m tired.”

Do any of these sound familiar? If so, you’ve got yourself an ownership problem.

The hard truth: No one is going to knock on your door and hand you a book contract. No one is going to spot you in the mall and say, “Hey! You look like you might be an amazing writer. I’m going to write you this check for a million dollars in case you ever get around to writing that book.”

NO ONE OWES YOU A CAREER.

You own how much effort you put into writing. You own how much you seek out critique. You own how often you submit. You own that shit, friend.

It’s scary to admit that. Terrifying to accept that you might declare your desire and never achieve it and that it might be your own fault if you don’t. Ownership means you don’t blame anyone else if you don’t get there. Ownership says, I might fail, I might succeed, but, damn it,  I’m going to do everything in my power to TRY.

So what exactly does owning it look like?

A. Own that writing is a priority. Even if you have to give up watching The Voice or My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. Even if it means getting up an hour early or going to bed an hour late or writing during lunch or your kids’s soccer practice. The minute you make it a priority, you will find time you didn’t even know you were wasting.

B. Own that you are a novice, and that the only way to improve is to practice your craft.

C. Own that seeking out critique is one of the most effective ways to improve your skills. Only showing work to people guaranteed to say nice things is a form of avoidance.

D. Own that rejections are not personal. It only takes one yes. Are you going to give up before you get it?

E. Own that the struggle of aspiring to be an author is part of the training for being a professional. You think a few form rejections are hard? How in the hell are you going to handle hundreds of complete strangers giving your work one star online? Or having a person call you out in public because they feel betrayed by a decision you made for one of their favorite characters? Or having your integrity challenged on a blog because someone took exception to something in one of your stories? Don’t rush through the training. You’ll be so much more prepared if you allow your scaly, defensive skin to grow first.

F. Own that you chose this path. No one foisted this dream on you. You might fail, you might succeed. But guaranteed you will learn things about yourself on this quest, and that, my friends, is the true treasure.

G. Own that you get to define success. I’ve said before that if being rich and famous is the definition of success, 95% of all authors are complete failures. Don’t doom yourself to fail. Redefine success for yourself. Did you write today? Success! Are you improving with each story you write? Success!

How about you guys? How do you own it?

Craft Thursday: Kaleidoscoping

Quick post today.

I recently read a post by the fabulous Jordan Dane about how she puts a book together. Her process was fairly similar to mine and I posted a link to it on twitter. Jordan, in turn, asked me to post a comment about how I do it. So I did. Follow the link to read her process and a down and dirty version of my own process.

Instead of calling myself a plotter or a pantser (seat of the pants writer), I call myself a kaleidoscoper. I’m currently working on a workshop presentation on this process so I won’t rehash it all here. So go read that post. If you have any questions or would like more details, let me know in comments and I’ll get into more detail. Here’s the link to Jordan’s post and my comment.

 

Craft Thursday: Humor and Other Painful Things

I love writing urban fantasy. There aren’t many rules. Because it’s a multigenre, there are no prescribed formulas. Conventions, sure. But UF is as likely to flaunt conventions as follow them. Also, because the monsters we write about are powerful metaphors, there are many opportunities for twisting expectations and skewing perspectives. All this allows an author incredible latitude when it comes to using humor, satire and parody.

“That’s the great test, if you’re going to be a great comic writer, not a humorist, you’ve got to take it into the throat of grief. Can you make laughter and seriousness so close that they are the same thing? There’s nothing more wonderful than when the comedy’s got horror in it, got blood in it. And the seriousness is at all times aware of its own preposterousness. What’s it for, this seriousness? Everything is loss, is nothing, in the end.” -Howard Jacobson

This quote hangs over my computer monitor. Not because I aspire to be a “great comic writer” but because I aspire to be an honest writer. One who shares the truth as I know it. And the truth is messy. I might write books about vampires and demons, but they’re really stories about people. Or, perhaps more succinctly, they’re about broken people.

We’re all broken, right? Because perfection doesn’t exist. Because we don’t live in a world of perpetual abundance. Because we’re humans and not the gods we’ve created. We’re broken and we’re ridiculous and we’ve all got an expiration date. And in these truths are the seeds of all good humor.

Humor allows us to watch tragedy through a Plexiglas shield and provide color commentary without feeling threatened. It dilutes horrors and deflects tears. But to be true, humor must also be relentless. Fear has no place here. You can’t worry that your mom might read your work and be ashamed. You can’t worry that the PTA might read it and ban you from the bake sale. You can’t worry that nice girls don’t talk about those things. That little twinge in your gut? It’s there to tell you to keep going.

Telling stories isn’t always comfortable. While we’re writing about monsters, we’re really writing about ourselves. The things you fear, the things that make you angry, the things you love–ultimately they’re all fodder for comedy. Because life is ridiculous and sad and wonderful. And because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry. Or worse, we wouldn’t care at all.

 

 

Craft Thursday: Snark

Hi! I’m Jaye Wells. I like a little sarcasm with my blood. I like making fun of the things that scare me. And there’s nothing I love better than some seriously twisted humor.

But while I aspire to the love child of threesome between Janet Evanovich, Chuck Palahniuk and Christopher Moore, I get that not everyone laughs at the same things I do. Whether you like your humor subtle, sarcastic or slapstick, there’s an author out there writing it. So I thought I’d cover one of my favorite kinds of humor today: Snark.

First, can we agree the term is overused? These days, pretty much anything anyone says that’s the least bit sarcastic is labeled snark. But, in my opinion, true snark is an art form. In fact, I prefer the term “sardonica” but so far no one else is biting on that term. So snark it is. Now, what the heck is it?

At its best, snark is witty cynicism with a heavy dose of sarcasm. At its worst, snark comes off as snotty and, well, let’s face it, douche-y. Especially when wielded by blog trolls, obnoxious radio personalities and pseudo-intellectuals.

It’s also often confused for other common comedic devices: repartee, satire, gallows humor, farce, irony, parody. The confusion often comes from the fact that snark blends so well with these other devices and is even combined with them to great effect by skilled comedic writers. But in my opinion, snark is really just a preemptive offensive defense.

All humor is rooted in pain.–Richard Pryor

Bear with me while I get a little deep for a moment. Often the most effective wielders of snark are highly intelligent people who spent at least part of their childhoods being punched by metaphorical or literal bullies. In other words, they developed verbal weapons where they did not have physical ones. In addition, these same people probably spent a large part of their teen years observing their peers to try and figure out why everyone else seemed to fit in while they did not. Thus, a snarkist was born: a keen observer of human nature that wields words like weapons to cut down opponents before they themselves can be cut down.

I should also point out that these same breeding grounds can also give birth to writers and serial killers, but that’s another blog post altogether.

In fiction, snark is often used by characters who have built thick walls around themselves. That’s probably why so many urban fantasy heroines (and Sabina Kane is no exception) wield both snark and literal weapons. The guns kill enemies and the words keep potential allies at bay, but both types of weapons are meant to disguise vulnerabilities.

But given snark’s somewhat regrettable reasons for existing, why do we find it so freaking funny? Again, this is only my opinion, but I think we all have an inner snarkist. It’s just that snarky characters in books actually say what they’re thinking. They flaunt the polite rules of society that demand that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we don’t say it at all. And how many of us haven’t wanted to speak our minds more often? To be able to say just the right cut down at the exact right moment (instead of thinking of it two hours later when you’re halfway into a gallon of Chunky Monkey).

As an author, writing snark can be incredibly cathartic. First of all, I get to say things in print I might never say in public. If you read my twitter feed it might surprise you to know I actually do censor myself. But Giguhl, the hairless cat/Mischief demon from my Sabina Kane series, says all sorts of things I’d be embarrassed to say in polite company. Second, it’s really fun to see how a character’s use of snark changes as they grow through a series. As a character becomes more open to relationships with other characters, their humor tends to get less caustic and defensive and more driven by camaraderie and good-natured ribbing.

In the end, good snark is hard to define. It’s kind of like pornography–we know it when we see it.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my definition of snark? Who do you think uses it well in fiction?

Note: Most of this entry was reposted from a series of blogs I did for Babel Clash, Border’s now-defunct science fiction and fantasy blog.

Craft Thursday: Method Writing

First of all, yes, I know it’s Friday. But since I got caught up yesterday and couldn’t post my Craft Thursday entry I decided I’d slip one in today.

Today I’d like to discuss point of view. I’m not talking about first (I) vs. second (you) vs. third (he/she/it). Instead, I want to address the importance of getting into your character’s skin so you can see their world through their eyes. Sounds creepy, doesn’t it?

Anyway, when I was 22, during the summer following my college graduation, I spent a month taking a class on Native American Mythology in Taos, New Mexico. I spent my days learning about Hopi creation myths and Jungian symbolism followed by helping the local church re-adobe their walls before heading to Pizanos, the local pizza joint for a few beers and delicious pie.

My best friend was there, too. She was a studio art major, so her days were spent just like mine, except in the mornings while I was geeking out over Jung, she was painting in the campus’s studio. We stayed in the same casita and spent a lot of time on the patio in the evenings chain smoking and waxing poetic about the vast mesas of potential laid out before us. It was a heady time.

One day, we signed up for an early morning hike through a local canyon. Above the trees and trails, high cliffs dotted with old Anasazi caves rose like ancient skyscrapers. When we arrived, the sun was just above the horizon and its light bathed the cliff walls. Our group paused to admire the show before starting our hike.

You know those moments of clarity? The ones when you’re fully invested in the instant of time you’re in? When you feel as though the secrets of the universe are within your reach?

As I looked at those high, red cliffs with the pink and pale yellow light dancing across its planes, I brushed up against infinity. I turned to my friend and said, “Everyone sees something different.”

She frowned at me. “What?”

“You’re an artist, so you see the interplay of light and shadow. The range of hues and the composition. Right?”

She nodded.

“But an anthropologist or historian will see something different. They see those cliffs through a lens of history. They won’t notice the light and shadow, but they’ll see things an artist would miss. A myth and folklore geek will love the symbols on the cave walls and the significance of the caves themselves as symbolic wombs. A geologist will see the rock formations and appreciate how rain and wind created something so majestic. Isn’t that fascinating?”

Being my friend, she wasn’t unused to me making such pronouncements back then–I was young and often very impressed with my naive wisdom. She looked at me, and without blinking said, “You’re an art history major with a history minor whose studied anthropology and loves myths. What do you see?”

I smiled. “I see all of it.”

It took me eight more years before I started to seriously write fiction, but now that I’ve been a writer for a while, I realize how important that moment was in my development. It was the first time I understood point of view.

As writers, it’s our job to see the world through the eyes of our characters. Often these characters will have experiences and knowledge we lack. Everyone sees colors and hears sounds and tastes foods and feels things as individuals. So when we write, we must constantly be aware that our characters are not us because they have unique experiences and biases and talents and challenges. Acknowledging this is the first step toward writing good characters.

The second step is learning how to do what I call “method writing.” You’ve probably heard of method acting. The Method, as it’s often called by Hollywood types, involves immersing oneself into the feelings and thoughts of the character. Often this is achieved by the actor recalling sensations or emotions from their own life.

It’s the same with writing. If I’m writing a scene where my character is angry, I recall a time when I was angry and bring those visceral memories to the page. I’ll amplify or reduce the severity of those sensation depending on the needs of the scene. But I’ll also adjust them based on the character I’m writing.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, because of what we’ve already covered. An assassin will experience grief differently from a child. I’ve been a child, so I can bring my experiences there into play. But I’ve never been an assassin. So I have to put myself in an assassin’s shoes. This is where imagination and the ability to extrapolate are your friends.

I can imagine, for example, that an assassin has to be somewhat hardened against emotions. Death is not a stranger to be feared. In that case, I’d write the emotions as the opposite of the ones I’ve experienced during my own meetings with Thanatos. In other words, I always start with how I’d react and adjust those known sensations to fit what I think my character would experience.

I hope that makes sense. It’s what works for me. It’s not an easy way to work by any means. I laugh and cry my way through every book I write and often walk away from sessions an emotional wreck. Also, lord help anyone who interrupts me when I’m writing a fight scene.

No matter how you manage to write convincing characters, the bottom line is that you have to be able to write from many perspectives. Sometimes your characters will do things that you would never do. Think dangerous thoughts and say disturbing things and perpetrate acts that disgust you.

You are not your characters. Your characters are not you. But during the space of time that you are writing them, you must learn to get inside their heads and hearts. You have to understand that an artist will see the waltz of light and shadow across cave openings, but a serial killer wants to crawl into those rocky wombs and paint the walls with tourists’s blood.

Craft Thursday: Embrace Adventure

Last week, I spoke via Skype to an English class at Seton Hill University about my books and writing. Someone asked about my best advice for aspiring writers. After my first answer, which was “Well, you have to actually write,” I talked about the importance of collecting experiences. It’s possible I advised these impressionable young minds that they should hang out with biker gangs and get themselves arrested. I was, of course, speaking metaphorically.*

But not really.

A lot of people think that all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument (pen, laptop, whatever)  and a degree in English. Only one of those is true.

You ask me, I’ll tell you writers need both of the following: An amazing imagination and lots of life experience. I told those kids that if they’re choosing their degrees my advise would be to pick something other than English. Want to write mysteries? Study law or criminology. Want to write excellent character driven fiction? Study psychology. See what I mean?

However, I don’t really think a degree of any sort is necessary. The school of life can teach you everything you need. By embracing adventure, you can’t help but improve your fiction.

As writers, it’s our job to provide readers with a virtual experience. We mine our own experiences and visceral memories to inform the reactions of our characters. Sometimes we simply take a feeling we had and turn up the volume. Other times we share something we did verbatim and call it fiction. Regardless, our memories, experiences and knowledge constantly inform our stories.

I don’t have regular hobbies. Long before I realized I was a writer, I pursued a veritable cornucopia of hobbies. Interior decorating (fail!), cross stitch (fail!), embroidery (fail!), sewing (epic fail!), etc, etc, etc (fail, fail, fail). What I eventually realized is that my hobby was taking classes and learning new things. Now that I’m a writer, I indulge this interest in more interesting ways.

In service of my fiction I have shot guns, walked through graveyards, studied esoteric arts, attended roller derby matches, taken language classes, studied self defense and kick boxing, and traveled all over. I tell people it’s all for the writing, but in reality the writing just gives me an excuse to pursue my fancies. The work feeds my life and the life feeds the work.

Right now I’m enrolled in a Citizen’s Police Academy. For thirteen weeks, I will learn how cops do their jobs. This isn’t a sit-in-a-classroom thing. We get behind-the-scenes tours of  facilities, to drive cop cars through a tactical course, to do a ride-along, to meet K9 units and narcotics squads,etc. The best part? This is my job.

I’ve often said that writers are both participants and observers in life. I have a colleague who told a story of being loaded into ambulances after car accident and even as she was scared and in pain, the writer part of her brain was taking note of the layout of the ambulance and the traits of the EMTs for later use. For a more mundane example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been speaking to a group of readings while simultaneously filing away interesting body language tells or physical traits into my mental database. Writers are supposed to be crazy, so use that an an excuse to try things you never would have tried before.

I guess my point today is that life is the best writing teacher. Get out into the world. Open your arms and embrace every opportunity (within reason–don’t break the law or hurt anyone, please). Use the writing as your excuse if you want, but you might just find the adventures you undertook to improve your stories also improve your own personal story.

What’s the craziest class or experience you’ve pursued for a story?

*And by metaphorically, I of course mean, I’m covering my ass in case any parents come after me.