The Next Big Step

Yesterday when I was out walking, I finally got a sense of where my WIP needed to go. I wasn’t thinking about the story, but apparently it was thinking about me, and after all this time, there it was, the next big step. Grief. (Wonder where that idea came from!)

I always knew my hero was grieving the loss of the civilized world and everything in it, but I was concerned with his following the stages of grief — denial, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It dawned on me yesterday that he had never actually felt the sorrow and devastation that accompanies grief. So my vision was of his crying. It goes to show that I cannot write what I do not know. Even though J. had been sick for so long, and I had gone through most of the stages of grief, like my hero, I had never actually gone through the emotion of grief. Could never even have imagined the feeling of amputation that accompanies such a life-changing loss. 

I’m not sure where the discussion is in this.  Perhaps: do you have to have experienced the emotions your characters go through to find the truth of the story? Perhaps: what’s the next big step you need to take in your writing, your life? Mine is a move — perhaps temporary — but a  total upheaval. The big challenge will be to find the energy. One of the problems with grief is the accompanying lack of energy. (Which I need to remember when I write my hero’s grief.)

On a more specific topic, the main impetus for my hero leaving the safety of the compound is his participation in a birth. (This story is a reversal of the hero’s journey — in the traditional journey, the hero dies, at least symbolically, and is reborn. In my story he is reborn first, then the person he used to be dies symbolically.) A nurse, his eventual love interest, actually delivers the child, but my hero must participate in some way. What could he do that would be significant enough to be a catalyst? Keep in mind, this is a totally primitive world. Is cutting the cord (with a flint that he found and has been sharpening) enough? Could there be a problem with the birth that he helps with? He owned a pet shop in the old world, selling used pets, but he probably has been around for the birth of puppies and kittens and perhaps even livestock, so he might have some knowledge. Whatever he does, it has to precipitate his next big step.

Did I Really Write a Feel-Good Book?

It will be interesting to see what people say about my books; I’m beginning to think I have no idea what I wrote. For example, A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the story of four ordinary people who become extraordinary while struggling to survive quarantine and martial law in Colorado. It was supposed to be a hard-hitting novel with an edge, but my proofreader told me, “You might do well. I think people are ready for a feel-good book.”

A feel-good book? Where is the edge? The horror? The feeling of doom? According to said proofreader, “Those elements are in the background, but the characters are the story. And they are heartbreakingly real.” Oh.

I thought I couldn’t write good characters. Most books on writing (and many authors) say that a writer has to feel what her characters feel or else the reader won’t feel the characters’ emotions. If you don’t cry, neither will your reader. But I don’t feel what my characters feel. Writing erases emotion, takes me to a place of serenity. And serenity is not generally where you want to take a reader. But I am deliberate in my choice of words and in the details I include. Perhaps those elements combine to help overcome my lack of emotion.

Of course, I generally don’t feel the emotion in the books I read, either. Often, despite the blurbs and reviews that extol the great characters, the characters seem to be only props on which the author hung the story, and a banal story at that.

Perhaps, after all, I won’t mind if I haven’t written a book with an edge. There are plenty of those out there. But I do like my proofreader’s description of my book. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase “heartbreakingly real” about my characters, and with any luck, he won’t be the last.

I can live with that.

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On Writing: A Character’s Emotions

How would you react to the end of your world? In Groundhog Day, each morning was the same and only Phil Connors changed as he lived through the monotony of his new world. Interestingly enough, such monotony would make it easier for you to cope; you would know what each day would bring.

But what if the opposite were true? What if you woke up to a different world every day, where nothing was familiar and nothing made sense? You would learn to cope with the current day as best as you could, but the next day you would have to start coping all over again in an entirely different milieu. Even worse, everyone you know has disappeared. One day they were there, the next day . . . nothing.

In my current work in progress, my hero is struggling with this very problem, but it seems to me as if he’s being a bit too accepting of the situation. Dealing with his neurotic mother all his life could have trained him to be adaptable, which would make him accepting. He could be shell-shocked, which could explain his lack of emotion. He is dealing with the possibility that he’s gone crazy, which could further explain why he’s not emoting all over the place. And, to top it all off, he is in the denial stage regarding the deaths/deletion/disappearance of his mother and his friends.

But the question arises: are his the proper reactions for the situation? Could his restrained emotions be due to my lack of understanding of the human psyche, my inability to write emotional scenes, or perhaps simply my dislike of overly emotional characters?

Emotions are seldom pure and simple; they come mixed, like love and hate, fear and attraction. Sometimes they are inappropriate, such as laughter at funerals, anger at imagined slights. Some people have extreme emotional swings, and other people react unemotionally no matter what happens. And sometimes, the more outrageous the situation, the less emotion it garners.

With such wildly divergent possibilities, in the end, it comes down to what I can make the reader believe, and more importantly, what I can make myself believe. If I believe his reactions are the proper ones, I can write them properly. I like the idea that he is a stoic guy moving through his changing world until one insignificant problem arises to send him over the edge. But if he is that stoic, will he go over the edge? I think not.

And so it goes.