Sunday, December 22, 2013

5 Words of Inspirational Encouragement for the Writer

It has been said time and again (but it bears repeating): “Writing is easy. Good writing is hard.” That’s the simple way of saying that we writers are challenged with perhaps the most difficult task in the world—creating a new, entirely-believable universe, populating it with countless lives to flesh-out and intertwine, and making the world a better place through our words, all whilst simultaneously entertaining readers and giving them something fresh and intriguing each time. The pen is truly mightier than the sword, and those who take it up must not be faint of heart.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take heart. Writing is one of the most rewarding essentials you can have in your life. Today, I want to encourage you with five words of inspiration. Take these thoughts with you when the writer’s blocks, criticisms, misunderstandings, discouragements, and plot holes arise.

1. “Your story is a gift, given to you, alone.”
Everyone is born with a gift. Writers are born with many. These gifts come in the form of stories. The stories that tumble through your brain, that keep you up late at night, that often weave themselves seamlessly together… they are gifts, given to you, alone. With each idea you are given, you are charged with the task of molding and shaping it into written word, and thus into meaning and external existence. It is your responsibility to give your gifts life, so that others can see their beauty as well. In this way, you are able to make your gifts manifest, just as one born with the gift of singing manifests this gift through song. No one else can tell the stories that you are given. Your stories choose you, because you are the only one who can tell them as they are meant to be told.

2. “You hold the mightiest weapon of all.”
The pen is mightier than the sword, not because it conquers, but because it convicts. It has the power to propose, challenge, and warn without threatening. A sword can effect only false, and often temporary, change through threatenings and forced conversions. The pen offers a challenge of self-examination, a choice to silently take a new path in life, and lastly a change that could forever alter the way you view yourself, others, and the world around you. The pen guides through gentle persuasion and direction, not by an iron fist and brute force.

Reach out to this power you carry and take hold of it. Wield it as it is meant to be.

3. “Your words will change the world.”
Just as every action creates a reaction, every word creates an impression. These collected impressions form attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors. When someone reads the words you pen, they are absorbing these impressions you create, along with the mental word-pictures and illustrations that you pose. The mind does not forget. It is the most impressionable feature that we possess.

You don’t need to be a best-selling author to change the world. Great or small—read by many or few—the words you compose will leave a footprint on the minds of your readers, and your readers will leave a footprint on the sands of time. The mere existence of the words you write will change the world, altering it in some way that it never would have been otherwise. Writers are world-changers. You are a writer. You are a world-changer.

4. “Your writing will change you.”
Delve deep into yourself. Seek out the things that are closest to your heart—the things that drive you, inspire you. Search for feelings and revelations that you could never put into words, and challenge yourself to try and pen them down anyway. Dare to be original. Dare to be yourself. Nobody else can be you.

Writing is a metamorphosis that changes the reader as much as the writer. As a wielder of the pen, you will find yourself continually faced with questions that demand answers—answers you must discover for yourself. Don’t be afraid to dive deep. No writer who ever penned the opening sentence of a novel has found himself unchanged by the novel’s final line. Writing is a part of who you are. Embrace it and the journey of self-discovery that it offers you.

5. “Your writing has meaning and purpose.”
You were born into this world for a reason—not just one, but many. As a writer, one of those reasons is to write—to change yourself, and your world, through words. Never let anyone tell you that it isn’t worth it or that you aren’t good enough. You have been given the great gift of writing. Use it to change the world. Choose to make this planet a better place because you dared to pursue your writing, against all odds and against all naysayers. You are a writer. You love what you do. Choose to continue doing it.
There is a divine plan laid out for your life and for your writing. Your stories and your musings have a place in this world, just as you yourself do. Follow the road less traveled. Take the first step on the thousand-mile journey. Keep moving forward. Look back, but don’t dwell on the past. Watch the horizon for the next road-sign on your path of purpose.

Your life is a story. Relish the descriptions, pause for the commas, search for the meanings, gasp at the plot twists, enjoy each day’s chapter, and trust in the Author above all else.

Love the stories you bring to life, and love your own life's story. There will never be another one like it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Psychology of Writing: 5 Ways to Create Emotional Connection Between Your Readers and Your Characters by Using "Uncontrollable Circumstances"

When breathing life into a character, many factors are to be considered. However, of these, emotional connection is perhaps one of the most important in creating memorable, believable characters that your readers will remember for years to come. Here are five simple tips to help you achieve “emotional connection” between your audience and your cast of characters by using the power of “uncontrollable circumstances.”

1. The Power of the Uncontrollable
Psychological studies have shown that people tend to feel more motivation to assist and sympathize with individuals who are facing uncontrollable circumstances.

One of these experiments involved an elderly man (a test assistant) falling down on a bus. In one version of the experiment, the man was using a cane to support himself. In the second version, he was carrying a bag filled with alcohol. In the analysis of these tests, more individuals attempted to assist the elderly man with the cane because they perceived that his fall was caused by an uncontrollable circumstance—his age. Oppositely, those who saw the elderly man fall while carrying a large bag full of alcoholic beverages perceived him to be drunk, and therefore felt less inclination to assist him (or feel emotional attachment to him) because his condition was controllable (brought upon himself by choice).

When writing your characters, keep in mind that your readers are more likely to feel emotional attachment to them if they are facing circumstances beyond their control. An uncontrollable circumstance is anything that directly affects the character and, in turn, cannot be overcome directly or initially by your character. In other words: the character cannot simply choose to alter their situation and change the circumstance as a result. An uncontrollable circumstance may include: the death or terminal illness of a loved one, old age, a crippling disease, foreclosure on a house that cannot be afforded anymore, or even a fire-breathing dragon who cannot be slain and ravages the character’s homeland as it pleases. Any circumstance perceived as “uncontrollable” can also qualify as an uncontrollable circumstance.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Provide a Reason—and Make it Good!
Piggy-backing off of that first point are the ideas of reason and cause. Every good story features a conflict, and your main characters should always be at that conflict’s very center. When you strive to create emotional attachment to your fictional cast, be certain to ask yourself two questions: (1) what is the cause of my character’s conflict and (2) for what reason does that cause exist?

Running with the theme of uncontrollable circumstances, let’s say that your character is an athlete who’s dream is to eventually gain entrance into the Olympics. However, one year prior to his debut, this character sustains a leg injury which he is told will never heal enough for him to run again, let alone gain him entrance into the upcoming Olympic games next year. This is the cause of the character’s conflict. For what reason does this conflict exist? Was this athlete injured in a reckless training accident? Crippled by a long-term illness? Perhaps hit by a car while trying to save a child
from the careening vehicle?

Regardless of how far-fetched or down-to-earth the reason for your character’s conflict is, remember that it is vital to have one. The cause and the reason play enormous roles in bringing out emotional attachment in your characters because they reveal the history of your character’s conflict, spotlight your character’s goals and dreams, and pinpoint exactly why you should care about this character in the first place. Remember: the stronger and more believable your character’s reason and cause are, the more emotional attachment you will achieve. The reason behind your character’s conflict can drastically alter the type of emotional response that you receive from your readers.

3. Controllable Circumstances are in the Eye of the Beholder
You must realize that your readers may have differing opinions on what circumstances are controllable and what circumstances are uncontrollable. As a writer, you have the power to shift your reader’s perspective of a seemingly “controllable” circumstance, and thus portray it in a more sympathetic light.

Let’s go back to the example in point one with the elderly man. In the second version of the experiment, the elderly man fell while carrying a bag full of alcohol, apparently drunk (a controllable circumstance), and thus received less help than he did when he fell with his cane. When the same experiment was administered via written scenario testing, the results were the same. However, something interesting occurred when the experimenters added an extra attachment to the test, detailing the addictive effects of alcohol and explaining alcoholism as a “disease.” In this second version of the test, featuring the alcoholism information attachment, the subjects showed a much higher emotional and empathetic response towards the scenario with the elderly man and the bag of alcohol, because they began to view his drunkenness as an uncontrollable—rather than controllable—circumstance.

Similarly, you, the writer and author, have the power to take a controversially controllable situation and render it “uncontrollable.” Consider Robin Hood for a moment. If you simply tell your reader that Robin Hood is a thief who lives in the woods, leads a gang of outcasts, and steals from the rich to
give to the poor, your reader will likely interpret him as a trouble-maker, who is too lazy to work for money, and thus steals from those who have worked hard to build up a comfortable life and fortune. At this point, Robin Hood’s stealing is a controllable factor. It is something that he chooses to do, just as he chooses not a get a job for himself and make a decent living.

However, the moment that you introduce the uncontrollable factor—an unjust ruler who ruthlessly taxes the poor, and sends those who can no longer pay to prison—you have taken the first step towards gaining your reader’s emotional attachment to Robin Hood. Once you introduce the cause—the town poor—and the reason—providing for and protecting those who cannot do so themselves—for his stealing, you have given your reader Robin Hood’s personal motivation for doing what he does. They are suddenly more likely to feel emotionally attached to him because he is daring to face an uncontrollable circumstance that renders everyone helpless. Considering that few would look upon thievery in a positive, wholesome light, it is rather amazing that a simple, uncontrollable factor can make us view at it as such a heroic deed. This is the power of the uncontrollable circumstance.

4. Put your Darkest Dark next to your Lightest Light
Artists will tell you that, when creating dimension, dark and light colors must work together. The darker the shadows, the more emphasis the lighter colors will get, and the more the viewer’s eyes will be drawn to the light areas.

Similarly, when crafting your characters, particularly your protagonists, remember that the darker the situation your character faces, the more emotional attachment you will likely receive from your readers. Make your antagonist dark. Make it ominous and unstoppable—an “uncontrollable
circumstance,” if you would. It doesn’t have to be an all-powerful dark lord or a fierce, fire-breathing dragon to be ominous. A less fantastical antagonist can be just as daunting. It may be a natural disaster, surviving college, overcoming an injury, or thwarting a terrorist attack.

Whatever your antagonist, make it dark. Bring it out in all of its ugliness and let your readers know it is a thing to be feared, or to at least deserve contention.

But, equally as important, don’t forget to portray your character in the lightest light that you can. This doesn’t mean that you should make your character perfect and flawless. It simply means that you should strive to contrast them starkly enough with your antagonist that your readers come to like them and to dislike whatever is opposing them.

5. Face the Uncontrollable
Lastly, to achieve truly emotional attachment, I believe that it is necessary for a character to face their “uncontrollable circumstance.” Does your character have a gambling addiction that is threatening their marriage? Have them rethink their life. Does your character have a crippling fear of tornadoes? Stick them right in the middle of one. Is a Dark Lord threatening to bring eternal darkness upon a world with nobody capable of opposing him? Have your character set out to defeat him.

Your character does not need to overcome their “uncontrollable circumstance” fully. They do not even need to succeed in the attempt. However, for a truly reader-satisfactory effect, I believe it is necessary for your characters to face whatever uncontrollable circumstance is hanging over them, even if they are destined to fail in overcoming it.

Remember, an “uncontrollable circumstance” is one that directly affects the character and, in turn, cannot be overcome directly or initially by your character. This does not mean that the uncontrollable circumstance cannot be overcome at all. It simply means that, initially, your character is not capable of overcoming it, must use an unconventional method for conquering it, or needs outside assistance of some kind in beating it. An uncontrollable circumstance is a seemingly helpless one, with seemingly being the key word.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Psychology of Writing: 4 Ways to Give Your Readers the Right Impression Of Your Characters, World, and Tone

Writing and psychology go hand-in-hand. Believe it or not, it only takes the subtlest of words, or an ambiguous turn of phrase, to give your readers the right (or very un-right) impression of your characters, world, or tone. Here are four simple ways that you can utilize “word psychology” and apply it to your writing.

1. Ask Yourself: What Impression Am I Giving?
A while ago, I was critiquing a friend’s short story about an elderly widow living deep within a forest, surrounded by friendly wildlife and a beautiful garden. Things seemed pleasant enough, until I came across this line: “Sunlight filtered through her blood-red curtains…”

Notice how much this sentence jars with the previous descriptors? “Blood-red” may be an accurate description of the curtain’s color, but the word-choice paints an ominous (and rather graphic) image.

I asked my friend why he had chosen the words “blood-red” to describe the curtains, and asked if there were some dark meaning behind it. When he told me that “blood-red” served only as a color descriptor, I suggested that he use another word instead, such as cherry-red, apple-red, or rose-red, to better tie-in with the woman’s humble life, surrounded by nature.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Choose Words that Paint Your Character, World, or Theme
One of my favorite writing quotations is by British author, Brian Jacques. It goes like this:

'Paint. That's the magic word. Paint pictures with words. That's the greatest advice I can give anybody. Paint the pictures with words. The picture will appear in the imagination so the person reading it can say, "I can see that"'.

While this quotation applies to using colorful descriptions to flavor your writing, it can also apply to the more subtle uses of description. In the example with the widow woman above, my friend was painting a very negative and sinister image of the woman with the phrase “blood-red curtains.” Even though the other details about this woman and her environment were pleasant (“beaming smile,” “warm hearth,” “cheerful songbirds”), this one factor clashed violently with these positive details. And, as a result, the readers’ impressions of this otherwise benign character were darkened by the thought of what these “blood-red” curtains could mean for her. Negative messages linger longer in the mind, because they raise our curiosity and suspicion. Be cautious about accidentally giving the wrong impression of your character or world by using ill-fitting words.

When you describe aspects of your character, take extra time to consider what your words mean. What pictures do they paint of your character? Is that discoloration on your character’s cheek a “scar” or an “old battle-wound?” Notice that, even though these two words mean nearly the same thing, there are completely different “sub-meanings” to each of them. Scar is a rougher word that could paint the image of a brawler, a tough soldier, or even a villain. Battle-wound paints the more heroic image of a veteran warrior who perhaps earned his injury through valor.

3. Strive to Create Harmony
If your story has a theme, take advantage of subtle words that can create this themed harmony throughout your story. This same rule applies to characters and worlds.

For example, if your story features a futuristic metropolis world in which technology and speed are king, consider using terms that would paint such images.

Instead of “Hovercars glided along the maze of highways.”
Try “Hovercars zapped along the network of speedways.”

Notice the words “zapped” and “speedways” imply velocity, whereas “glided” and “highways” paint a smoother, more relaxed image. Also, note the word “network,” which gives the impression of something digital, like a computer or other technological gadget. These are small changes, but, as you can see, they can really alter the tone and feel of your fictional world.

4. Don’t Get “Out of Universe” or “Beyond Character”
What is the setting of your story? Is it set in a day of dragons and knights? A crumbling dystopia? Perhaps on another planet, populated by little, purple, five-legged bunnies?

Whatever universe, or time period, your story is set in, always keep in mind what exists within your world, as well as what your characters have knowledge of.

One of the most jarring examples I ever read came from a medieval, fantasy novel, in which a character found “fungi shaped like a football.” Do you notice the problem here? Football did not even exist during the time-period of this story, let alone within the universe that this story took place in.
Despite the fact that the story had drawn me in deeply, this odd turn-of-phrase pulled me out of the immersion for a moment. This, in turn, took away from the believability of the story and broke my focus on the action at hand.

Keep in mind, too—especially when writing from the viewpoint of a character—not to describe things using words that that particular character would be unfamiliar with or likely not use. An uneducated shepherd boy is not likely to look at a stormy sky and ponder how many water molecules are floating around up there. Likewise, an arrogant scholar would probably not refer to clouds as “puffy, white things.”

Give It a Shot!
One of the best ways to practice integrating “word psychology” into your writing is to pick up an old piece that you wrote a few years back and examine the words critically. Ask yourself:

  • What image am I painting of this character, world, theme?
  • Do any words or phrases seem “out of universe” or “beyond character?”
  • What words or phrases could I replace them with in order to get a more accurate, mental picture across?

 And don’t forget to search for places where you integrated “word psychology” well. Underline them, and put a big smiley face nearby. Then, once you’ve re-worked the entire piece, treat yourself to a cookie. They are a writer’s best friend, after all.