Howdy folks. Alas, I’m needing to take a little break. My father-in-law passed away unexpectedly in his sleep last weekend just four days after eulogizing his mother — Jen’s grandmother — at her funeral. He was 58. Tough, tough times around here and Jen and her mother and brother and sister — and the rest of the extended family — weather this storm.
So my best pal, John “J.A.” Pitts, author of Black Blade Blues and Honeyed Words, is going to dazzle you a bit over the next two weeks while I focus on seeing Jen through the eary days of this terrible loss.
And John’s topic, as always, is timely….
I took a very intensive two week boot camp workshop with Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith back in my early days of being a serious writer. It was scary and emotional, challenging and allowed me to grow in ways I had no idea I could grow. Overall, it was a life changing event.
The last day of that two weeks, Kris sat each of us down and explained the things she saw as our strengths and our weaknesses. Things we wanted to explore and improve on, and things we really needed to address. I come to story through character. That is my personal strength. The character is paramount in my world. Once I know who they are, then I can get on with figuring out the world, the plot, the story.
What I didn’t realize, until she called it out, was what I needed to work on the most. Whenever I got to the real deep heart of the conflict, when I got to the point where my characters were going to encounter some significant emotional impact, whether good or bad, I backed away.
The workshop is fairly intense, as I’ve mentioned. At one point, we had to write a short story over night (okay, that happened more than once). In this one case, I was writing a story that had some intense emotional significance to the main character, and the next thing I knew, I was in the kitchen washing dishes.
Literally. I didn’t remember getting up from my keyboard, going downstairs, running the water and washing a sink and a half before I was aware of my surroundings. I was so deeply engrossed in the emotional turmoil of my characters that I’d totally lost conscious recognition of the world around me.
When I got back to the story, I made a note of where I’d left off and didn’t think anything further about it. I eventually finished the story and the week progressed.
After my conversation with Kris about my propensity to back away at the last minute before things got to hard, I went and pulled out that story. I read it through, and sure enough, when the emotion got hard, I backed way out, leaving the reader skimming on the surface of the characters instead of being deeply engaged. I was both shocked and a little chagrinned. She was right (not that I doubted her) but it was a shock to see it so blatantly so soon.
I vowed right then to do the hardest thing. When I found myself hitting that wall, when I got to the brink where I found myself turning away from the story, finding something else to do, that’s when I take a deep breath and plunge forward, pushing myself further than comfort would allow.
It’s a powerful technique — going past your point of comfort. It’s what separates the okay writers from the good writers. After that point, with that little bit of advice, I started selling stories. Not every story I’ve written has sold, far from it. But that was the hill I needed to climb to finally get over the hump and show editors I had the chops to grab them by the throat and hold them for the wild ride required in the story at hand.
It is liberating to discover those nuggets of truth about ourselves. Every moment of life, every word on the page, is an opportunity to become a better person, a better writer. Why not look for those moments of hesitation in your own lives. Find that moment where you grow afraid, turn away from the challenge. Once you have found those lines, dare to step over them.
You never know what adventures wait on the other side.
Thanks, John. Well said. I think steering into the oncoming traffic of deep, even difficult, emotion is a critical element in my life and writing.
We look forward to seeing what you have for us next week….