“You’re Only As Good…” : The Intersection of Trauma, Fiction, and Publication

I know it probably sounds pathetic to most people that I identify myself so much by my career as an author – especially since I’m not and likely never will get rich doing it. I know there are plenty of people who, no matter what they say to my face, probably think it’s a waste of my time, because it’s not liable to make me rich.

 

I’ve always identified myself as an author… For as long as I can remember (back to even before I could read or write in reality), I’ve had that facet of myself, that identity wrapped up inside me. In my tumultuous childhood, writing was a lifeline, and the only voice I really had.  Life traumas have left me questioning whether or not I should have ever published, but never whether or not I should have ever written.  I think that’s the part that confuses some people.  They think the two are interlinked, and that if one writes, one must publish.

 

Truth? In some ways, I was much happier with my writing, before I published. The self-doubt and self-loathing I’ve struggled most of my life with didn’t invade my writing world until I published the first time… That was when the inner chorus of “See, you’re not worth anything” and “I told you no one wants you” and the “Why do you bother?” grew louder… and every time someone looks down their nose at me about “wasting time” or my “hobby,” that chorus gets louder still.  Every time the icy shoulders come out or someone talks over top of me or changes the subject when I start talking about my books, the chorus becomes more insistent.  Every time I schedule/pay for time to advertise, only to have someone else horn in, and everyone instantly turns their attention to that other person’s work, the chorus becomes deafening.

 

Truth? For every one person I’ve received an e-mail from about how much my work has helped them (and yes, there have been a number… I’m not discrediting that) over the years,  there have been twenty who haven’t even given me or my work a chance, and who’ve done the “snake oil salesman” routine, and told me “how wonderful” my work is, like I can’t see through them, and like I don’t know they’ve never read a word… not even the free postings I’ve offered over the years (and I’m not saying anyone has to read anything I write… what I’m asking for is honesty. If you don’t read it, don’t tell me you think it’s “wonderful”… I’d much rather you just said, “It’s not my speed” than lie to me, thanks.).

 

Am I bitter? No, that’s not the word I would use. Bitterness implies being angry at someone else, or a system, and I’m not. I know how this game is played. The problem is, I’m no good at playing it. I believe an author’s work should be able to speak for itself, not that the author should be out there prostituting themselves for the next reader… I know it’s a shabby way to look at things, and I’m likely to get backlash for it… I’m aware of that. But my truth is built on identifying myself by my work… I’m ashamed to say I allowed other people to dictate the kind of work I did, when I first started out. I allowed publishers to “sex up” my books, even though it destroyed the foundation of those books and characters, and stripped me of my own identity at the same time.

 

Who am I angry at for that?  I’m angry at me. I’m disgusted with my naivete, that I thought that was just how the industry worked, and that I had to go along with every change. I’m thoroughly annoyed at myself for allowing others to convince me I’m not good enough, that my work wasn’t good enough, unless I stripped away everything that made it me, and instead turned it into some kind of printed-page porno.

 

There’s a lot more to me, and to my work, than I think too many people give me credit for… And yet, I’m left with that rising chorus that says I’m worthless as a person, because I’m worthless as a writer, and that the proof is all around me… And, these days, without my identity as an author, I literally AM nothing. I keep writing, because I know that if I stop, if I pause long enough to take a breath, that swelling wave of self-doubt and self-loathing will drown me. And this time, it might just succeed in killing me.

Character Revelation: The Black Moment vs. the Moment of Truth in Fiction

It occurred to me while I was writing, last night (as things like this most often do), that one thing I’ve never seen discussed in any depth is the difference between the Moment of Truth, and the Black Moment, in a story. Perhaps that’s where some of the confusion starts (and maybe even ends), with some authors.

I’ve discussed Emotional Black Moments (EBMs) before, and how these are character driven. Emotional Black Moments are all about a character coming face-to-face with death, disaster and fear. A plain Black Moment, however, is far less about the character, and much more about the events he or she might find him/herself caught up in. Black Moments are points in the plot when things seem the most bleak, problems the most insurmountable. Black Moments encompass more than a single character.

The defining characteristic of a Black Moment is in how a group of characters comes together to resolve the issue at hand. Whether that group is a large one, or comprised solely of a hero and heroine, they must work together to resolve the Black Moment. These Black Moments can involve one or more EBM, as well, as Black Moments are often catalysts for extreme emotional moments and upheavals that cause considerable character growth and development.

In contrast to a Black Moment, a Moment of Truth is always about an individual. Like an Emotional Black Moment, these Moments of Truth are about character change, growth, and development. However, unlike an EBM, a Moment of Truth is about how a character acts or reacts when placed in a situation that necessitates some kind of self-sacrifice (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or a combination thereof).

The best example I can give of a Moment of Truth is when a loved one is being held at the point of a weapon.  How would your character act/react to this situation? Is he or she frozen in panic? Do they move to try to disarm the assailant? Do they try to talk everyone out of the situation safely? Do they fall apart and start crying?

Defining how a character acts/reacts in a Moment of Truth is tricky, if you haven’t taken the time to really get to know your character. A lot of what I call “pantsers” (ie, people who just sit down and write a book without really doing any kind of plotting or character creation) have difficulty with Moment of Truth moments. They tend to rely on the stock reactions (ie, “Oh, it’s my hero, so he’s going to act tough and say a lot of tough things, and then either the bad guy’s going to give up, or my hero’s going to shoot him”), and this reveals giant flaws in the character(s) involved.

Let me give you an example of how knowing your character(s) leads to a more realistic Moment of Truth.  In my novel HOPE OF HEAVEN, my hero, Peter Talladay, is a very protective person – particularly of family and women, including Hope (my heroine). However, he’s also a man dedicated to his job fighting terrorists, has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and is obsessed with avenging his family’s (mother, father, brother) murder.

When Peter’s Moment of  Truth comes, at the hands of Gordon McGuire, he has to decide between calling Gordon’s bluff and refusing to do what’s demanded (and thus potentially getting Hope killed), or doing what Gordon wants, which might spare Hope, but would mean giving a terrorist what he wants, and most likely letting the murderer of Peter’s family go free.

Now, the stock response to this situation (if working with a stock tough-guy, which Peter isn’t, but we’ll just assume for the purposes of this part of the argument) would be for Peter to try to disarm Gordon, followed by a fight of some kind, during which Peter (being the big, strong hero) would subdue and incapacitate Gordon, leaving him unable to perpetuate any kind of harm.  Totally predictable.

But because Peter isn’t a stock character, his reaction to the situation is quite a bit different. First of all, when he first realizes Hope is injured, his reaction is one of fear. He actually freezes for a moment, until she assures him her injury is only minor. Then, faced with the threat of what Gordon could do, Peter does the only thing his heart will let him do – he cooperates, aware that as long as Hope is in danger, there’s nothing he can do to take out the threat of Gordon McGuire. In the end, he lets McGuire have what he wants, to spare the life of someone he loves. No theatrics involves. In his Moment of Truth, Peter faces the difference between revenge and self-sacrifice, and sacrifices his desire for revenge and even his sworn duty, for the life of the woman he loves.  I am, of course, simplifying this scene quite a bit in an effort to not give away any pertinent spoiler details about the book. Let’s just leave it at this: Peter runs an emotional gauntlet in this scene, requiring him to deal with a LOT of issues all at once, and in a very limited window of just a few brief moments.

A Moment of Truth places your character in the unenviable position of having to, in a split second, make a judgment call based entirely on his or her personal morals and beliefs. If you haven’t yet answered the question of just who your character is, you can’t possibly hope to answer the question of what he or she would do when put in a life-or-death situation (theirs or someone else’s). Is your character going to step up and do the right thing? And just what constitutes “the right thing” to him or her, anyway? Do you know?

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not really investing in their characters (and I don’t mean they should be emotionally attaching to the characters on the deep “this is my baby” kind of way… that can get anywhere from frustrating to an editor, to just downright creepy). By investing, I mean time. Sit down, get to know your character(s).  No, you don’t have to use the 50-page bio package I fill out for every character. Nor do you have to invest in any fancy character generation program. But what is essential is that you get inside your character’s head.  Sit down and at least write a brief introductory bio for (or from) him or her. Find out what makes the character(s) tick.  Not just their physical attributes, but also their emotional and mental traumas, triumphs, etc. If you want readers to invest their time and emotions into your character and stories, you have to make the effort to get to know your characters.

If you’ve taken the time to really get to know your character(s), when the EBMs, Black Moments, and Moments of Truth arrive, your character(s) will literally leap off the pages with their unique and fascinating reactions.

What Doesn’t Kill Us: The Truth About Emotional Black Moments in Fiction

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the fiction industry. I say disturbing because to me, as both an author and a reader, the true story behind every good story arc is what makes the characters tick. And defining a character means putting him or her up against whatever nightmares you can throw at them, and watch how they deal with it. But the trend I’m noticing is more and more authors and script writers shying away from the truly difficult questions – the Emotional Black Moment, or EBM, as I call them.

 

The truly amazing characters in fiction are defined not by every action in a book, movie, or TV show, but by one single defining moment (or series of moments) of all that time – a moment where they shined not through physical prowess, but through their reactions to their own personal EBM. The more often they encounter these types of EBMs, the more depth and strength a character gains. But an author or writer who is afraid to let his or her characters face these moments in dooming the character to a cardboard existence. Those are the characters no one remembers.

 

No, I don’t claim to be the next NYT Bestseller, or a Hugo or Pulitzer Prize winner.  So, what qualifications do I have to speak on this subject?

 

I write characters people still, years after reading my books, write to me regularly to tell me how much impact the characters had on  them, and how they find themselves re-reading my books because they feel that close to the characters. One young lady put it most succinctly when she described her reaction to the Black Moment for one of the most complex couples I’ve written about, to date. She said “I wanted to go back in time and fix it all. I wanted them to be happy again.”

 

The characters she was talking about were Trevor Watkins and Jaye Michaels, from SHADOW WALKER. And, I have to admit, writing that book, even knowing what was going to happen, what HAD to happen, I, too, wanted to just erase the past that formed the foundation of their EBM as a couple. I didn’t, of course. They had to go through that. They had to face those demons, and each had to face personal demons, as well, in order for them to grow and become the solid, unshakable couple they needed to be to face the story arc’s Plot Black Moment.

 

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a HUGE EBM coming for Underground, in HERO’S HOPE… Something that will shake the foundation of the entire team, and especially the core of Tamia and Rick’s relationship. I won’t say anything more on that, right now, but I think that’s enough…

 

So, how does an author create a character’s EBM? Well, it starts with giving a character a real back story. There needs to be something there to feed into the EBM. Someone who’s lived a life of roses can’t possibly be expected to stare down a Black Moment capable of twisting a jaded reprobate inside out. If you only work with “life of roses” types of characters, be prepared that you’re never going to be able to create a truly impactful EBM… They’re not going to be able to handle it.

 

Characters who face and succeed in overcoming the most memorable EBMs start out with a past. Maybe, as in Tamia’s case, they have an actual criminal past, a past littered with poor choices involving drugs and violence. Or maybe, as in Trevor’s case, they grew up neglected by an absent, abusive, or negligent parent, witnessed horrors, and experienced shattering traumas in their past, already. And sometimes, their scars run a lot deeper under the surface, as in Telyn Gwndal’s case (from Legends of Tirum), whose belief in her own worthlessness was subtly applied by the society in which she was raised, a bastard child only accepted by her mother’s people because of who her mother was, but never for herself.

 

These characters each face their own personal EBMs, as well as EBMs that involve their significant others (Tamia faces her first EBM when she’s forced to reject the man she loves for fear of losing him and something else she holds precious – she’s about to face the worst one ever in HERO’S HOPE. Trevor faces his in a very big way when his amnesia lands him smack between a future he wants more than anything, and a past he can’t quite absolve himself of.  And Telyn’s about to face her biggest one, yet, in CHILD OF FALLEN WATERS.)

 

It’s not easy to face a character against an EBM. Our natural instinct, as authors, is to protect and shelter our characters. To treat them with kid gloves, so to speak.

 

Trust me, you have to banish that instinct forever, if you intend your characters to grow.

 

Yes, you’ll write painful scenes that leave you drained, crying, and feeling generally like the most miserable traitor on the planet. You’ll want to tear those scenes up and never look at them again. But if you put them aside for a little while, then come back and read them again, you’ll realize what awesome characters you really have, and how much more you respect and love them for what they’ve undergone and overcome.

 

Now, I’m going to shock you with the next exercise. Kill your character.

 

I hear the panicked gasps, the thuds of writers dropping like flies. :)

 

I’m not talking about publishing these scenes. I’m talking about sitting down and writing a “What if” that kills your protagonist(s). Be brutal, be decisive. Do it.

 

I can hear the wailing, already. “But whyyyy?”

 

Because if you can’t kill your character, you most certainly can’t torture them emotionally. If you can’t place them in mortal bodily peril (even if it never makes it into the book), you’ll never be able to rip their souls out and stomp all over them with jackboots.

 

Trust me.

 

Some of the hardest scenes I’ve ever written involve death. I’ve literally killed good guys, before (I killed Kelly Blake in TERMINAL HUNTER. I liked her character… but I killed her, anyway). I’ve placed characters in such mortal peril there seemed to be no hope for them (in TAMIA, I dangled Tamia, my title character, so close to that edge I terrified my audience momentarily – I know, because they told me. And in SHADOW WALKER, I put a gun to Jordan Watkins’ head, and a knife to Trevor’s throat. In SPIRIT MAGE, I teetered my hero, Nacaris, on the thin line between life and death, and taunted pushing him over the line. In BURDEN OF PROOF, I nearly drove Chelsea Hanover mad by setting her attacker loose on her yet again, leaving her battered, broken, and in terror). These scenes have been the most difficult to write, but also the most rewarding in watching the characters involved learn from, grow from, and overcome adversity because of them.

 

Don’t believe me? Read the books… Then come tell me what you think. I dare you.

TamiaCover     In Her Name CoverLegends of Tirum 3: SPIRIT MAGE

Join the Fight: Tell Congress That Being an Artist/Author IS a Business!

Like most people, I barely understand most of the legalese involved in tax law.  In fact, until recently, I blindly believed that, as an Author, since I considered myself engaged in business, and everything I read told me I had to file a Schedule C as a sole proprietorship, when I had royalty income, I was engaged in a For-Profit business.  Well, imagine my surprise when the State of Arizona tried to tell me, just before Christmas, last year (Thanks a lot Arizona Scrooge!), that because I couldn’t prove a profit (ie, more income than expenses) in three out of five years as an author, I was not, in fact, engaged in a For-Profit Business.

Apparently, being an Artist/Author is one of those areas for which you are supposed to be punished, in the good ol’ US of A (or, at least, in Arizona), thanks to one of a set of “tests” to determine whether or not a business meets the criteria for “For Profit.”  Unfortunately, one of those tests requires a showing of profit — something few authors or artists are familiar with, when it comes to their art.  And, equally apparent is the ridiculous notion that an author or artist should ONLY be engaged in writing/art in order to be classed as pursuing that For-Profit status without proof of said profit margin.  Apparently, we really ARE supposed to starve and end up in the poor-house/bankrupt in order to be taken seriously by the tax laws.

Well, if you’re an author/artist, or family or friends of such, you know how driven a profession this is.  We dedicate every spare moment we can squeeze out of our day for the creation of our creative minds.  And there’s not a one of us who doesn’t intend to someday be able to do nothing but write, paint, etc, etc  full-time.  But we’re also realistic enough to realize that with millions of books printed every day, and hundreds of thousands of artists out there, most of us aren’t likely to ever see our names on or far enough up the bestsellers list or on gallery listing, etc, to make that kind of money.  We hold down other jobs, to pay the bills, and our families suffer as much as we do, for our art.

It’s time to take a stand… So if you’re an artist or author, a friend or family of one, or a fan who wants to see your favorite author/artist/etc continue to create, we need your help.  Follow the link below, sign the petition, and let’s tell the US Congress that being an artist/author IS a business, and we deserve protection and fair regard, as such, under the tax laws.

http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/arts-irc-186-amendment/ (yes, I know the link has a mistake… I hit a “6″ instead of a “3″ when typing in the title, and can’t figure out how to change it).

New Communication: In Defense of the Internet & Social Networking

I’ve heard all the talk about how Social Networking is the ruin of the world, just as, in the past, I heard all the fire-and-brimstone, end of the world talk about the internet and e-mail.

I’d just like to say that the Internet, and Social Networking, are a blessing to me, and I’m sure there are others who feel the same.

Why?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but while everyone is lamenting how the Internet and Social Media have destroyed the concept of a “real” relationship and made everything superficial, without emotional investment, I have to say that they have done exactly the opposite for me, allowing me to better open up and express myself, to form real and lasting bonds and strengthen friendships and family ties that were falling apart all around me, before.

Seems odd, you say?  Not so much.  You see, while I’m not exactly a terrible conversationalist, and I can speak with some passion about subjects that inspire me, I can’t say I’m a great personal orator.  I have early experiences that block me, in face-to-face conversation and relationships, from opening up and really letting the person to whom I’m speaking inside my head and heart.  It’s not that I don’t feel things – it’s that I have difficulty trusting that other people won’t react badly to what I have to say.  I’ve become far too familiar with the verbal (and emotional) slap, and like a wounded animal, I tend to shy away from putting myself into that kind of position again.  I’d rather slink off and hide in the corner, sunk in misery, than to look someone in the eye and tell them what I feel – often, whether that feeling is good or bad doesn’t matter.  I have almost as much difficulty with the words “I love you” as I do with “you hurt me” or “I don’t like this.”  It’s not that I don’t feel love – it’s that verbally expressing said feelings is neigh unto impossible for me.  Instead, I give myself ulcers.

However, as I’m sure you’ve noted, by now, I am quite emotionally expressive and a verbose communicator in written language.  This predates the Internet, by the way.

You see, I learned very young that the only outlet I had for getting out my feelings – whether those of pain and fear, or those of love – was to write it out.  I was an avid journal keeper as a child (however, I destroyed many of the pages I wrote practically as soon as I wrote them, just to make sure no one else found them), and I’ve always poured my heart into the written word.  It’s the one place I felt I could freely express what I thought and how I felt, because it didn’t matter if the person reading accepted it or not.  I didn’t have to deal with their ridicule or rejection – whether real or imagined.

However, in the days prior to the Internet, though I wrote literally hundreds of letters, I never really mailed any of them.  I would second-guess myself, talk myself out of it, and I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why I needed a stamp.

The advent of the Internet provided me with not only the push I needed to get published as a fiction author, but also the means to start expressing myself.  It was a slow process, because I was technologically handicapped by an initial inability to navigate myself around, and also by a general sense of impatience that wasn’t up to the task of very old dial-up speeds (sitting around watching e-mail download or pages upload wasn’t my cup of tea, even when that was considered “fast.”)

By the time I discovered Social Media, I was already starting to come out of my shell.  The Internet had sufficient speed to allow me to communicate more effectively, and I could hold meaningful conversations, reveal bits of my inner feelings, so much more smoothly than ever before.

 

Social Media allows me the chance to not only stay in contact with my family and close friends, but it also allows me to express myself – my thoughts and feelings – in ways I’m just incapable of over the phone or in person.

Many people who have known or know me in person likely see me as one of two things – either a bitter, angry person who does nothing but complain, or a silly goof who takes nothing seriously and annoys people through her jokes and silliness.

Neither of these two facets are even close to the real me.  They’re shields – devices that I use to keep people from seeing inside me, from knowing how fragile I can really be, how vulnerable I make myself to other people, on the inside.  They keep people from guessing how much I care, and how deeply a careless or hurtful word really cuts.  Those over-the-top personalities are a curtain dropped between me and the rest of the world.  A curtain I pull especially tight against those I love – against my family and friends.

Why?  Because the people I love most have the most power to hurt me.  The people I care about the deepest have the ability to destroy a part of me with their rejections, coldness, or anger at me.  I don’t state this as anything more than simple fact.  Yes, I know I give away that power myself – but it’s something that I have little control over.  No one realizes how very much I care about those I love.

I can say it here.  I can tell the entire world that, for someone I love, someone I care about, I can and will literally lay down my life, if that’s the choice left me.  I would much rather die than ever have to face life without someone I love.  I know.  I’ve been there, and a part of me is still reeling, today, from the pain of not being able to stop the terrible whim of Fate, that day.

I can say it here.  I can tell you all that a single word of revilement, disgust, or rejection from someone I care about slices clear to my heart, and I bleed inwardly over it for decades – perhaps even a lifetime – to come.

But what I can’t do is tell anyone, face-to-face, how much I care.  I can’t tell them when I’m hurting or why.  I can’t reveal my most secret pains and fears to them.  Not if it requires me opening my mouth and having to let actual words come out.  In those situations, my brain freezes, my lips go numb, and my mind starts whirling with the beginnings of the “gonna hate me for this” or “gonna feel sorry for me” or “they don’t care how I feel,” etc, etc, etc.

So, while you may curse the destruction the Internet and Social Media have cast over the concept of meaningful communication and “real” relationships, I’ll be rejoicing in the freedom I’ve found.  The freedom to tell people “I love you,” or to let them know exactly how I feel.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK GEEK: World-Building Is More Than a Hobby

Yes, I am a book geek.  A certified research nerd, known to haunt the stacks in search of that one footnote in the back of a book on ancient Egypt that makes obscure reference to a rumored religious practice or bizarre habit of some pharaoh or other that can then get turned into the entire basis for a work of fiction. :)

I’m proud of my ability to ferret out entirely useless trivia, because to me, it’s the Mother Lode, to be mined for true fictional gold.  I’ve based entire worlds around one seemingly-useless piece of information, before.

But world-building isn’t just a hobby.  I believe it’s something essential to every fiction writer’s arsenal, whether you’re writing in the “real world” or in a world you’ve created completely on paper.  It’s not something to be taken lightly, or shrugged off (just ask George Lucas – the flack he’s gotten for the inconsistencies between the original Star Wars releases and the 3 “prequel” movies should be a huge, neon red flag to any writer!)

“But, Esther, I only write CONTEMPORARY fiction!”  I hear you yelling through the monitor.

And, what?  You think that excuses you from the exercise of world-building?  Consider this:

Are you using an established town/city?  Or are you creating your own fictional town somewhere in a real country?

We’ll run both, in two different hypotheticals. For today, let’s deal with the first hypothetical… It’s going to take a while… :)

Hypothetical Setting A – Established town/city:

For example, let’s say your story is set in modern-day Chicago.  Here are questions to ask yourself before you even begin:

1.  Do you live in Chicago? (If yes, get your jacket and walking shoes ready, because you’re going to be hitting the streets in short order.  If no, you’ve got a LOT more work to do…)

2.  If you answered yes to #1, before you begin writing, you need to decide what landmarks you want to use, and then you’re going to take a tour.  Walk and drive the route your characters are going to take several times over the course of a week.  What’s traffic like, at different times?  Are there any interesting people who you see regularly along the streets?  What about landmarks along the route? You’re going to need a map and a pen, to jot down notes and impressions about certain locations.  You’re going to want your characters to have similar experiences.

3.  If you DON’T live in Chicago, have you ever visited the city?  If yes, you need to figure out if you have any photos of the locations you want to use, and you’re going to either have to study a map and  try to remember sights, sounds, and impressions, or you might want to plan another trip.  If no, you have two choices – If you can afford it (I know it’s difficult.  I have problems with this very issue), take a trip there.  Nothing beats a first-hand impression.  If you can’t afford the trip, it’s time to hit the stacks.  You’re looking for the MOST CURRENT information available.  Check out websites for Chicago, look at maps (Google Maps is good, because they’ll give you a street-level view of an area, which is an invaluable world-building resource for contemporary fiction authors), haunt your local library or bookstore for books on the locations you want to use.  Network, and try to find people who live there and might be willing to talk about their favorite places to go, what traffic’s like, what the weather’s like, etc.

4.  Now that you’ve done the first part of your research (tired, yet? ;)..), it’s time to start putting it together.  Set your locations, and the routes your characters typically take between them.  Also plan a couple of alternate routes, in case you need them for any reason.  As you put together these pieces of location information, you’ll probably encounter even more things you need to know, more details you’re missing.  Any time you run into these questions, go back to your sources (I keep a file on my computer that has nothing but the logs of what books, periodicals, websites, and people I use as sources for a contemporary novel).

And don’t think that a particular genre of fiction excludes you from this research.  I’ve seen authors in some genres try to shortcut the research and world-building phase because they think it doesn’t apply to them.  Believe me, the readers can tell the difference! :)

That’s all for now.  Later, we’ll deal with building a world from literally the ground, up (as found in most Fantasy and some Science Fiction).