Need Stronger Backstory for Your Characters? The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to the rescue!

Bookcover for The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological TraumaAt The Winged Pen, we’ve written about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s wonderful writing books before. So we’re super excited to tell you about their newest one:

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

Yay!!!!! *shoots off rockets*

A wound, in the writing world, is the hurt the main character carries around that keeps him or her holding onto a lie.

A few examples of wounds from The Emotional Wound Thesaurus:

  • Being Bullied
  • A Speech Impediment
  • Failing to Do the Right Thing
  • Witnessing Violence at a Young Age

A lie can be anything that the character uses to protect that wound from getting bumped again. The same lie keeps the character from moving forward and achieving his or her goal.

Replacing the lie with a healthier truth gives the character partial healing. Transformed, he or she can win the battle or the soulmate, seize the prize, or lead the team to victory.

Where do authors find the lies for their characters to confront? Like all other aspects of story, lies are all around us. Unfortunately, the flaws in our characters (and in our own character) that are perfectly visible to everyone else—friends, enemies, readers—are flickering, distorted images for us. Critique partners, editors, and beta readers can help us bring them into focus.

The title of my work-in-progress, THE WOUNDED BOOK, feels a little ironic to me today, because the long process of working on it has wounded me and healed me by turns. This is the mysterious alchemy of writing: we write what we know and sometimes healing our character’s wounds helps us heal our own.

For example, J.K. Rowling’s dementors in her Harry Potter books are a terrifyingly realistic metaphor for depression. I don’t presume to know what personal connection they may have had for her, but, as a reader, I recognized them immediately. In this video of her visit to the apartment where she first wrote Harry Potter’s story, she talks about how hard writing was.

Her belief in Harry’s story carried her through and presumably changed her life as much as Harry’s story changed millions of readers.

Writing believable characters is challenging, but worthwhile. It’s the inverse of reading a book that tells a truth you always suspected, but could never articulate.

I’m looking forward to “shopping” a little in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. I may finally diagnose my main character’s wound in a way that transforms her into the person I always meant her to be: a girl who encourages and challenges middle grade readers to become the truest versions of themselves!

Happy Writing!

Bonus: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus promises to be extra useful for creating characters when used with the well-loved Reverse Backstory Tool (from The Negative Trait Thesaurus.) It’s my absolute favorite for building strong characters.

More Bonuses: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus includes the new Backstory Wound Profile and the new Character Arc Progression Tool. You can download them free on Angela and Becca’s Tools for Writers page. There’s also a #writerspersevere giveaway in honor of the new thesaurus!

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. Find her on Twitter or on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale!

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Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Ten Steps to Tightening. This week, we’ll discuss Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses.

We are physical beings who experience life on this planet through our five senses. It’s true that our minds love to time-travel, pulling us out of the present moment, to worry about something we said in the past or to look forward to something about to happen in the future. Our characters, like us, do the same thing in their internal dialogue, which is good because it makes them real.

But the reader must also feel them living and breathing in the real world. Not only does this make your character more real, but it engages the reader by making them experience the same sensations. If your character smells burnt brownies or he chooses bubblegum mouthwash at the dentist, we don’t intellectually absorb that, we feel it with your character.

I struggle with this, too, because I don’t want my characters stuck in a sensory deprivation tank. I think it’s about feeling our way into our character’s body and environment, and not overthinking it. Some call it getting into the zone or entering a trance like a shaman writer. The physical experience of being on a subway is very different from the waiting room at the spa. The air, the light, the smells, the sounds and even the tastes are  different. But it’s even deeper than that, because the subway is different in the morning rush hour from late at night, and the zen spa is very different from the one at the mall.

The more mindful we are in our daily lives, the more we can bring that mindful experience to our writing. This means noticing how our bodies react to the physical world around us. Sometimes it’s easy to go for the standby descriptions, but if we tap into what we really, really feel, then our writing becomes  more authentic, and our readers will feel it.

Feeling Your Words
Instead of waking up with “bleary eyes,”  we can bring own unique experience of waking up tired. How do our eyes feel? Are they scratchy or is the skin around your eyes tight?

The next time something scares you, notice: what happens in your body? Instead of the usual “heart racing” and “shiver ran down spine,”  you can bring your own unique experience. Does your body clamp tight like a drawbridge? Does your hair prickle on the back of your neck or on your forearms? Does your heart pound, hammer, race, thud, pulse or beat in some other way?

Seeing Your Words
With visual descriptions, it’s about picking out the one or two things that stand out and are most important for us to understand the character or setting or whatever it is you’re describing. The reader can imagine the rest.

I loved Joanne Harris’s #TenTweetsAboutColour, in which she says, “In fiction, the objective is not so much to describe the color accurately, as to convey a feeling to the reader.” We can describe the  “blue sky” with any other synonym for blue, from azure to indigo to slate, but doing so is more clever than evocative. Instead, she suggests linking colors with a feeling or a sensation. She says: So: “ice-white” conveys something different to “milk-white,” or “bone-white,” or “moon-white,” or “ash-white.” Often even these color descriptions can become cliche, so we can add a feeling to the color like “blameless blue sky.”

And, of course, the same can be done with eyes. Instead of “piercing blue eyes” or “sparkling eyes,” try something different, depending on the feeling you’re trying to evoke. Are they “arctic blue eyes” or “forget-me-not blue” or “Hollywood-blue eyes”?

Hearing Your Words
This can also be applied to sound from a character’s voice to the sound of the wind through the trees. When you’re away from your desk, notice the timbre and tone of different voices, and if the sound of the wind is different blowing through the birch tree compared to the oak tree.

Smelling Your Words
Smell is our oldest sense. “Even a single cell animal has ways to detect the chemical composition of the environment,” according a researcher at Columbia University. Smell is such an evocative sense and brings the reader more quickly into your world than perhaps any other sense. You can describe a smell as acrid, sour, sharp, cloying, or you can evoke a feeling with it, like flowery, comforting, or repulsive.

Her skin smelled like chlorine from the pool.

The subway air was damp with the scent of humans, which neither their stringent deodorants or perfumed shampoos could hide.

Tasting Your Words
When I was a children’s yoga teacher, I would do a mindful eating exercise in which each child would get a raisin. They would observe it, smell it, touch it, listen to it as they shook it in their hand. They would share what they experienced through each of these senses. Then they put the raisin in their mouth, feeling it first before biting into it. I would ask them if they tasted anything? Where on the tongue do they taste it? Is it sweet? Grapey? Sour?  Do they chew it one side or both sides?  How long is it chewy for? Does the taste linger? You get the point. I don’t think we have to go into this much mindfulness every time we eat, but if we can bring a little noticing, it will enrich our writing! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

With that I give you all permission to go eat and smell and taste and hear and feel the world!

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Editing Tools.

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Playing with Language

Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with a look at first and last pages. This week, we’re diving into making your language shine.

After the long slog of drafting and re-drafting and revising and editing, it can be hard to remember what you even liked about your book in the first place. When I get to this stage, I like to take a pass at my manuscript that’s all about play.

This is one of my favorite rounds of editing, and it was born way back in the days before streaming television, when my husband bought me the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three as a gift. I watched all the episodes, of course, but the DVDs were also great because of all the extras. (Did we have more time back then? Did I call in sick to work?)

Anyway, one of the DVD extras was an interview with one of the Buffy writers, Jane Espenson, who talked about writing and editing and workshopping and polishing a script until it gleamed. She’d hand it to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who would go through the script and take all the best lines and find a more unique way to say them.

She said she learned quickly to try to turn her dialogue on its head wherever she could.

That story has always stuck with me. Whether it’s because I too suffered under an uber-controlling, perfectionist boss who always knew better than me what word to use where, or because I just enjoy playing with language, but I’ve grown to love this editing pass on my novel, where I search out my time-worn and clichéd phrases and trade them out for something delightful and fresh.

Of course, you can be too delightfully fresh with your language. No one wants to read a book that is written so creatively you have to pause every sentence to figure out what the author means. So here are a few dos and don’ts for hacking away at your stale phrasing:

DO…look for the expected and see how you can change it up. Do you describe a sunrise as a symphony of pink and orange? See if you can tweak it a bit by trying something more like this:

Pinks and oranges played dueling themes across the lightening sky.

DO…take your character and their interests into account. Is your character into computer programming? Maybe she would describe a sunrise in those terms:

Bits and bytes of pink and orange arranged themselves into perfectly programmed layers.

Pro Tip: Writer Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each of her major characters based on their interests, backgrounds and dialects. A reference like that would come in super handy for this pass.

DO…check in on your dialogue. Can you tell what character is speaking without dialogue tags?

See if you can give your characters their own distinct voices. If you open up any of the Harry Potter books and see that a character is saying, “Bloody hell!” you’d have a pretty good idea that Ron was speaking. Or, to borrow again from TV, Chandler Bing from Friends wouldn’t be the same without his trademark, “Could this sunrise be any more pink?”

DO…consider where your story takes place and where your characters are from. I have yet to hear my Oklahoma in-laws utter the word “car” – it’s always “vehicle” with every syllable distinctly pronounced.

Even sprinkling in a few region-specific words will give your readers a feel for the where of your story or character, which deepens the reading experience. Consider how a few of the people I know say “hello”:

From England: Howya?

From South Africa: Good Day!

 From Brooklyn: Hi, hi.

From Oklahoma: Howdy.

From Oregon: Heeeyyyyy…

DON’T…go overboard. This is an easy step to get carried away on, and that leads to passages that are overwritten and dialogue that sounds stilted or over-the-top. Your reader shouldn’t need a decoder ring to get the gist of your story. So if you find yourself editing your sunrise into purple prose like this:

The sky blushed as his lover the sun eased her way into the sky, draped in a negligée of glorious rose and peach…

…then you’ve gone too far! Step away from the keyboard and save your creativity for another story!

When I’m drafting, I’m so focused on telling the story that I need to just get words on the page. Too often, this leads to a few turns of phrase that are drier than stale toast. By adding in an editing pass specifically for playing with my language, it not only helps me polish my work, it also helps me recapture the fun and joy of creating a new world with words.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Chapter and Sentence Length.

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Coming Back After a Writing Hiatus

Does life ever get in the way of your writing? It does for me, and never more so than during my recent move from Georgia to Canada. With all of the logistics that came with moving a family internationally, I was forced to set aside my writing for a period of more months than I care to admit.

It wasn’t until after we were settled and my children started school that I finally had the time and emotional energy to get back to work. Unsure where to start after such a long break, I reached out to my friends at The Winged Pen to get their advice. Their thoughts were so helpful that I asked for their permission to share them with all of you.

Q: How do you get back to your writing after a hiatus?

 Halli: I’m dealing with that now. I just tried to jump into my manuscript, but I’ve been out of the story for so long, I’ve lost the feel and voice. So I am diving back in with research I need to do for the story.

Julie: Between travel and Pitch Wars, I took six weeks off this summer. I wanted to ease back into things, but not too gently because I didn’t want it to take another month for me to get going again. So this weekend, I made a 30-day revision plan. I reread my notes to myself about what needed to happen to take this zero draft from dumpster fire to something I could send to CPs by the end of September. I mapped out a new beat sheet (because I’m changing a couple of the plot points and getting rid of some others) and created a chapter map with color coding for the four act plot/character arc structure, with an added set of columns for the themes & subplots to make sure they’re echoing enough/making regular appearances in the storyline. Then yesterday, I sat down and started reading. It took me at least an hour, maybe two, to get back into the voice, but after a while, I was able to start making tweaks, and tweaks led to a new scene, and now I feel like I’m back in the groove. My ms just happens to have 30 chapters, so I wrote 1-30 on my chalkboard and will try my best to cross off at least one chapter a day until I’m done! That will hopefully give me some accountability, plus I get a huge sense of accomplishment when I cross off those numbers on the chalkboard.

Kate: What helps me, like Julie, is setting up a schedule. I did my month of poetry as a kickstart. Then I tried to get back into the manuscript, but was still dithering a bit. Finally, I just gave myself some deadlines. I’m writing 3k a week (2 pages a day, 6 days a week). I have a chart. I’ve accepted that I’m basically a toddler when it comes to whining and stubbornness, and sticker charts and rewards are really helpful!

Rebecca: Tackling a new revision is always intimidating. I find that setting a timed-goal for my first couple dips into revising really helps. The hard part is thinking about revising 96,000 words. If I pick a place to start and tell myself to work for 45 minutes and then I can have a break, I find by the end of the 45 minutes that I’m usually engaged with the work and happy to keep revising.

Richelle: Scheduling usually works for me. I like to dedicate a couple of nights a week to an away-from-home writing session. It’s on the calendar so everyone knows I’ll be unavailable. I find that having even just two nights a week to immerse myself in writing means that I can squeeze in shorter (but very productive) bursts the rest of the week because I have those longer stretches to really figure out what I need to do.

Jessica: In addition to incorporating many of the suggestions above, I’ve decided to jump back in by reading my entire manuscript and writing myself an edit letter—something that I can use as a roadmap for revisions.

One last thought:

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison

With that in mind, let’s all get back to work!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Canada, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

Pixar, CREATIVITY, INC., and Learning How to Fail

Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family’s favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar (with Amy Wallace), failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar’s success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do…which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter — and a significant portion of the book — talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a copywriter and in my second life as a fiction writer, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out writing, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep plots simple, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I relied on tropes because they had led to success for so many other writers – and success was something I wanted.

Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating. I know writers who have honed and polished their work for years, never querying for fear that they will be rejected. I know writers who send a few queries, get a few rejections, and abandon their project because they don’t want to know that the project of their heart has failed. And I know writers who refuse to budge from the plans they’ve laid out for their work or their career because they think to do so would mean they have failed.

At one time or another, I’ve been those writers, too.

But over the years I’ve learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle — when I risk trying something that might fail — I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As writers, we can’t control how our readers respond. Or whether an agent will resonate with our work. Or whether a publisher will choose to add it to their list.

Even once we get agents and publishing contracts and sales, our control is minimal, and failure is inevitable. How we respond can make all the difference between getting stuck and moving on.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us writers – I’d argue most of us people! – don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you’ll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, “I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum.”  And having support on your journey can make those failure moments sting a lot less.
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you become the best writer you can be.

And if you’re interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.