The common advice for freeing your mind to write is to create a journal. I’m fairly certain that most of you have either 1) created a journal that you may or may not keep current, or 2) heard the advice and decided journaling isn’t for you (hey, it happens).
So, what other options do you have when you’ve lost your self in a quagmire of self-pity, mundane daily obligations, and insurmountable life woes and can’t quite seem to maintain your true identity or nurture your creative center?
Why, you slap on your pith helmet, turn your gaze inward, and explore that largely ignored country of your core self, naturally. And the best way to accomplish this is with the list below. Why a list? Because you’re a writer and writers love lists.
Be advised that there are no right or wrong answers because sometimes simply asking the right questions is the answer.
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
Which is worse, failing or never trying?
If life is so short, why do we do so many things we don’t like and like so many things we don’t do?
When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
What is the one thing you would most like to change about the world?
If happiness was the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
Are you doing what you believe in, or are you settling for what you are doing?
If the average human life span was 40 years, how would you live your life differently?
To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
Are you more worried about doing things right, or doing the right things?
You are having lunch with three people you respect and admire. They all start criticizing a close friend of yours, not knowing she/he is your friend. The criticism is distasteful and unjustified. What do you do?
If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Would you break the law to save a loved one?
Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
What is something you know you do differently than most people?
How come the things that make you happy don’t make everyone happy?
What is one thing have you not done that you really want to do? What’s holding you back?
Are you holding onto something you need to let go of?
If you had to move to a state or country besides the one you currently live in, where would you move and why?
Do you push the elevator button more than once? Do you really believe it makes the elevator faster?
Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
Why are you, you?
Have you been the kind of friend you want as a friend?
Which is worse, when a good friend moves away, or losing touch with a good friend who lives right near you?
What are you most grateful for?
Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?
Has your greatest fear ever come true?
Do you remember that time 5 years ago when you were extremely upset? Does it really matter now?
What is your happiest childhood memory? What makes it so special?
At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?
If not now, then when?
If you haven’t achieved it yet, what do you have to lose?
Have you ever been with someone, said nothing, and walked away feeling like you just had the best conversation ever?
Why do religions that support love cause so many wars?
Is it possible to know, without a doubt, what is good and what is evil?
If you just won a million dollars, would you quit your job?
Would you rather have less work to do, or more work you actually enjoy doing?
Do you feel like you’ve lived this day a hundred times before?
When was the last time you marched into the dark with only the soft glow of an idea you strongly believed in?
If you knew that everyone you know was going to die tomorrow, who would you visit today?
Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by 10 years to become extremely attractive or famous?
What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
When is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards, and just go ahead and do what you know is right?
If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
What would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you?
When was the last time you noticed the sound of your own breathing?
What do you love? Have any of your recent actions openly expressed this love?
In 5 years from now, will you remember what you did yesterday? What about the day before that? Or the day before that?
Decisions are being made right now. The question is: Are you making them for yourself, or are you letting others make them for you?
If cities had pulses, then neighborhoods had temperaments and the patch of Houston, Texas Incognita and Toby settled in used to be a pocket dimension where art and creativity thrived. Over the near fifteen years in which their marriage occurred, they traded up from a shoebox apartment to a starter home, and a pandemic forced the world into seclusion, the area transformed into a land where bars, nightclubs and fast food joints held sway and common courtesy was no longer common.
It was late August, going on Eight in the evening when the sun had retired from the cloudless skies and Nita decided to walk home from work, taking the long way to help clear out her head because it had been a particularly stressful day and she hated bringing work home with her.
Her mother had a saying, If not for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all, and that was probably why she found herself standing in the middle of the street, fear and rage a bubble in her chest about to burst because it was seven to one and the odds were not in her favor. They were on the cusp of manhood, sixteen, seventeen at best, youth and speed on their side and probably hopped up on a drug that boosted their adrenaline, while she was a thirty-four-year-old woman with a bad knee who happened to be three months pregnant. The only advantage she had was their concentration was focused on the girl about their age that they were putting the boots to.
Armed only with a half-used canister of pepper spray, a lipstick stun gun that reportedly delivered 25,000,000 volts, and a pair of steel-toed boots, she dove into the fray. The plan was to tag at least five of them while she had the element of surprise but only managed to catch one teen with a foot to the crotch, another with the stun gun, and two others with a sweeping blast of the pepper spray.
“Wait! Hold on a minute,” Toby said, interrupting Nita’s recounting of events. “You took on seven guys in your condition?”
They were in Nita’s office at the community center, where she was seated on a second-hand couch with a sixteen-year-old girl whose face was a mess of cuts and contusions. A first-aid kit and a bottle of alcohol sat between them. Toby paced back and forth while his wife gingerly cleaned out the girl’s wounds, tossing the bloody gauze pads into a waste-paper bin that was slowly beginning to fill up.
“Took on is overstating the matter,” Nita said. “I put myself between Hannah and the boys, we had a brief standoff, they decided that getting their asses handed to them by some old broad wasn’t worth their time or trouble, and they left.”
“What you meant to say was, you’re lucky they didn’t regroup and gang up to stomp a new mudhole in your ass. What if they were carrying weapons?’
“I know, Toby, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t just walk past and do nothing.”
“And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have helped, you just need to find a safer way to do it.”
“Sorry to be so much trouble,” Hannah said.
“This isn’t about you,” Toby said, then course-corrected. “I mean, of course it’s about you, and I’m glad my wife was able to help prevent something more serious from happening to you. I’m just mad at her for acting like some rebel teen auditioning for Black Widow’s vacant spot in The Avengers.”
“Message received, loud and clear,” Nita said, moving off the couch, taking Toby by the arm and ushering him into the hallway. She closed the door behind them to give them the semblance of privacy. “I agree with you one hundred percent. It was a stupid thing to do and I promise to be more careful in the future.”
If she thought that statement would assuage his anger, she was dead wrong. Toby continued to argue at her, but she kept her tone and manner gentle and apologetic until she diffused the majority of his wrath because she realized it came from a place of concern and love.
“Can you at least explain to me why there are no cops here, and why she’s sitting in your office instead of a hospital?” Toby asked, looking at the girl on the couch whose clothes were covered in blood. She was staring at her smartphone.
“She’s afraid to go to the police or the hospital because she’s underage, smells like a bar at last call, and her pupils are dilated so there’s no telling what she’s on. It was tough enough convincing her to come here.”
“Is she local?”
“She lives in Sugar Land, that much I was able to get out of her,” Nita said. “I think she came here to have a little fun without the risk of running into anyone she knows.”
“Yeah, like no one travels to Houston.”
“I didn’t say it was a good plan, and remember, she’s young. I’m going to go back in to finish patching her up. Why don’t you see if there’s some ice in the break room for a compress, her lip’s starting to swell. And thanks for coming over so quickly.” Nita kissed her husband before heading back into the office.
“We weren’t bothering anyone,” Hannah said, hissing every time Nita touched an alcohol swab to one of her cuts. “We were just out enjoying ourselves, you know. Okay, so we partied a little but we were definitely still in control, and we were on our way to get something to eat, walking because the weather was nice, and Ella, that’s my girlfriend, said something sweet so I kissed her.
“All of a sudden these guys showed up and they began harassing us. They were making all kinds of nasty comments and demanding that we kiss again but this time like we meant it. We tried to ignore them, hoping they’d get bored and leave but they surrounded us and started asking which one of us was theman and how we got off by bumping donuts and disgusting things like that.
“I told them to fuck off, which was probably the wrong thing to say but they made me angry, and one of them hit me in the back of the head with something and I was looking around for Ella but they were punching, kicking and spitting on me, calling me names, and—and that’s when you showed up. You probably saved my life.”
Before Nita could respond, Toby stepped into the office with a tray loaded with ice cubes wrapped in a tea towel, a slice of pizza on a paper plate and a mug of hot tea.
“Managed to rustle up a cold compress and a slice. Don’t worry, it’s not Domino’s, it’s quality pizza that tastes pretty decent reheated, and I hope you’re a tea drinker ‘cause there ain’t a drop of coffee in the place.”
Nita took the compress and handed it to Hannah, saying, “Try not to talk so much and hold this to your lip. It’ll help reduce the pain and swelling. Keep in mind that this is only a patch-up job. You should really have someone at a hospital take a look at you, you might have a concussion or internal injuries.”
“I—I can’t,” Hannah said. “My parents would kill me.”
“And you don’t think it’s going to kill them seeing you hurt like this?” Toby asked.
“He’s right,” Nita said. “And it doesn’t seem like it right now, but in the long run, it’s easier just to tell the truth and deal with the consequences outright.”
“I need to think about it,” Hannah said.
“Okay, no pressure,” Nita reached over and plucked a business card off her desk to hand to the girl. “You know, I do this sort of thing for a living, so if you wanted me to be there when you spoke with your folks, I’m totally fine with that.”
Hannah studied the card. “Look, just because I kissed my friend doesn’t mean I’m gay, or whatever.”
“You don’t have to be, and we don’t make judgments here. This center does more than just offer outreach programs for the LGBTQ community. We offer a safe space where women are treated with dignity and can escape negative influences. We even teach self-defense classes, which are more than just learning to punch and kick. You can learn how to deescalate situations or spot the warning signs and avoid them altogether.”
“When I came in just now, I thought I heard you mention you were with a friend when this happened,” Toby said. “What happened to her?”
“She wasn’t there when I turned up on scene,” Nita said.
“She’s home,” Hannah said.
“In Sugar Land?” Nita asked.
Hannah nodded, dug the smartphone out of her pocket and held up a text message. “We drove here in Ella’s mom’s car. She sent me a text while you two were out in the hallway. She took off when the trouble started. For some reason they just let her go. She said she didn’t remember running away or getting into the car and before she knew it she was home. I didn’t answer her back because I don’t know what to say. I never would have left her like that, I don’t care how many guys there were.”
“None of us knows what we’d do in situations like that,” Nita sighed.
Hannah’s brow furrowed. “Are you defending her?”
“No, I’m just suggesting that you give her a chance to explain herself. She may have a good reason for what she did, maybe something in her past got triggered and put her on autopilot, or maybe she’s someone you just can’t depend on in a clutch. I know plenty of people like that and I still consider some of them friends.”
And the discussion went on. Hannah had eaten a little and when she calmed down a bit, she still refused the police or hospital recommendations, so Nita and Toby drove her home.
During the ride it seemed as if Hannah was warming to the idea of Nita being a part of the conversation with her parents, but as the car pulled up to her home, she politely declined and thanked them for the ride and all they had done for her.
A few days later, Nita was in the midst of juggling three different things for three different sets of people when there was a knock at her office door.
“Ain’t it always the way,” she said to herself as she stomped to the door, and swung it wide open. “What?”
She felt the flutter of tiny wings in her belly as her eyes fell on features that had aged over the years, become more angular yet were still as beautiful as ever. It was the face that belonged to…
“Lorelei Kilgareth?” Nita’s jaw should have cracked, it hit the floor so hard.
Lorelei smiled and held up her right hand to display her wedding ring. “Actually, it’s O’Leary now. I married someone we went to school with, maybe you remember him…”
“Tommy O’Leary? You married brace-face?” If it were at all possible for Nita’s jaw to hit the floor twice, it would have.
“Well, it’s been a long time since Tom wore braces,” Lorelei said. “You look like you’re in the middle of something, I can come back if this is a bad time.”
“No, no, come in,” Nita said, perhaps a bit too eagerly. She gestured at the couch. “Please, have a seat.”
Lorelei sat at one end, Nita at the other, and the past took its place in the space between them.
“Long time, no see,” Lorelei said after a long uncomfortable silence.
Nita nodded. “So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
Lorelei dipped into her handbag and brought out Nita’s business card. “You gave this to my daughter the other night.”
“Daughter?” Realization sometimes dawned slowly on Nita. “Hannah…?”
“O’Leary,” Lorelei nodded. “She told us what happened. Tom wanted to call and thank you, but I thought this was something best done in person. He would have been here, too, but he’s taken Hannah to the police station to file a report, so you should be receiving a call from them.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” Nita said. “Did you make her go to the hospital?”
“Good, we were worried about that, Toby and me. Toby’s my husband,” Nita held up her own hand to put her ring on display. “Not as impressive as yours, but still…” She had no idea why she added that last bit and regretted it immediately.
“It’s a beautiful ring.”
“Thanks,” Nita said with absolutely zero confidence. “Like I was saying, we were concerned she might have had some internal injuries…”
There was another awkward pause which Lorelei broke again. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“It’s plenty. What happened to Hannah happens more often than you think, so she wasn’t the first girl I helped from being seriously injured in an attack, and sadly, she won’t be the last. Unfortunately, the world is still a dangerous place for women, gay or straight.”
Lorelei found it hard to meet Nita’s eyes. “She told me about the kiss.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that. She’s young and probably still trying to figure things out. We’re more capable than men to differentiate between emotional and sexual attraction, so it could have just been a spur-of-the-moment thing. You know that as well as I do,” Nita said in a tone that surprised her. “And if she happens to like kissing girls, she shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for it. Acceptance is probably one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. But that’s a conversation you should have with your daughter before involving an outside party.”
“I wasn’t—it’s not a—I don’t have—” Lorelei started several times, caught herself and tried to regroup, sighed and finally settled on, “I just wanted to express my gratitude to you. I still can’t believe how fortunate we were that she was saved by a friend.”
“We’re not friends,” Nita said curtly.
“Um, okay, I guess I deserved that, then by a former friend.”
“We were never friends.”
“How can you say that?”
“For the longest time I gave you credit for not joining in with the others in the bullying, but then I came to realize that you never, not once, stuck up for me. I didn’t expect you to stand in front and take the blows, but you never uttered one word in my defense, something a real friend would have done.”
“I was young…”
“You were Switzerland. You remained neutral because you were one of the lucky kids who flew under the radar. Nobody ever messed with you. And thinking about it, if I had gotten a Wonka golden ticket during grade school, maybe I wouldn’t have said anything either. And if I’m being totally honest with myself, I didn’t want to be your friend either.”
“Now, I’m totally confused.”
“From the first moment I saw you, you gave me butterflies in my stomach. The only person to ever do that. I love my husband better than I love chocolate cake and I’d take a bullet for him without thinking about it, but he never gave me that feeling. Only you, and we’ve never been intimate. Back then I wanted you to please notice me, please talk to me, please hold my hand, please hold me, please kiss me, and you did all that in your own sweet time and I got it all twisted up in my head and my heart and I fell for you. I wanted you so bad, but it wasn’t a sex thing, I just wanted to be with you all the time because, besides home, you were the only place that felt safe.”
“I never knew.”
Nita shot Lorelei a suspicious look, and said, “Really? Because I met a girl in high school that felt that way about me, Charlotte was her name, and she was the kindest, gentlest, most sincere person I had ever met, and she adored me. And I sure as hell noticed it and I loved being adored. The problem was, although I cared about her in my own way, I didn’t feel the same way she felt. And to her credit, she stuck around longer than I would have, but when the reality of the situation finally sank in, she collected the shattered pieces of her pride and left. Never heard from her again and I can only hope that she found someone who appreciates just how special she is, because she deserves it.”
“As for me,” Nita continued. “I was screwed because you became the high-water mark that I compared all my relationships to. There’s a saying, chasing the dragon which refers to a drug user’s pursuit of the original or ultimate but unattainable high. In my case I spent my youth chasing butterflies, until I met Toby and through sheer persistence he showed me I didn’t need butterflies to be happy.”
“Not to sound callous or anything,” Lorelei said. “But that was such a long time ago. Can’t we just put that incident, that I would absolutely undo if I could, behind us and start fresh? I don’t know how you feel about all this but I think fate brought us back together for a reason.”
Nita considered it for a moment. “You may be right. But I need to clear up something that’s been bugging me.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
Lorelei concentrated, flipping through the Rolodex of her memories.
“Here, let me help you,” Nita said. “It was class picture day.”
Lorelei snapped her finger and pointed at Nita. “You were wearing that pink dress!”
“And you were staring at me.”
“Of course, I was. I had never seen you in a dress before. You were beautiful. I wanted to come over, to say hi or sorry or something, but I was afraid that you were still mad at me.”
“You were staring at my chest.”
“I was surprised at how quickly you developed. You used to hide beneath baggy clothes.”
“You kept staring at my chest.”
Lorelei’s mouth opened and closed several times but no words managed to find their way past her tongue.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but since then, I’ve seen that look several times so now I know what it means, and I know that you’ll probably never say what I need to hear you say,” Nita slid across the couch, closing the gap with Lorelei.
“So, instead, I want to tell you something and I need you to believe that it comes from the bottom of my heart,” Nita said as she cupped Lorelei’s face in her hands and felt the woman tremble at her touch.
She moved in and pressed her lips to Lorelei’s mouth and deftly delivered a kiss with enough body English to make the woman’s legs wobble. And she held that kiss until she felt the last of the butterflies depart her pregnant belly in search of a new home.
When she broke the kiss, Nita said, “I forgive you. And you’re right, we need to put the incident, as you call it, behind us, so I never want to see you or your husband again because you both belong in my past. Your daughter, however, is the future, and she is welcome here anytime to avail herself of any of the programs we offer, and if the location is too far, I’ll find her a place she can visit that’s closer to home.”
Nita rose from the couch, walked to her office door, and opened it wide. Gesturing for Lorelei to leave, she said, “Goodbye, Lorelei O’Leary. I trust you can find your way out.”
The stunned, smudged-lipsticked Lorelei, left without uttering a word.
Nita leaned against her closed office door for longer than she cared to admit, processing what had transpired, feeling the weight of the past slowly lifting from her shoulders.
Her next step would be to call Toby and tell him what happened. He was going to be upset, oh boy, was he ever, but eventually when he calmed down and realized she finally had the closure she’d been searching for nearly all her adult life, he’d understand, and she’d find a way to make things right between them.
And as she heard his voice on the other end of the phone line, she rested her hand on her butterfly-free pregnant belly and knew that everything was going to work out just fine.
Thus concludes what started out as a character bio that somehow transformed into a look inside and stroll through the life of a young lady who still will not reveal her name to me. Thank you to everyone who commented or who even left a simple “Like” along the way, as I stumbled my way to a conclusion, of sorts. Much appreciated.
Change is a peculiar thing. When it’s for the worst, it can happen overnight and typically comes in threes, and people learn the folly of security when they watch everything they built so carefully fall apart so easily. When change is for the better, it arrives at a tortoise’s pace. Positive change isn’t measured in leaps and bounds, it’s measured in centimeters, and that’s how it was for Incognita.
Nita was able to fake her way through therapy and she did this after watching a documentary about a Christian camp that tried to use the fear of The Almighty to expunge the gay out of youthful sinners. She was sure that if she were sent to one of these camps that they couldn’t break her, but why go through all that hassle? Besides, what she had wasn’t a same-sex attraction, it was a vibe attraction.
Certain people had a vibe that she was drawn to and she wanted to absorb as much of it as she could and share a bit of herself in the process and she couldn’t give a good goddamn whether they were boys or girls, but how do you explain that to the so-called people in charge who were locked in their binary ways of thinking?
So, Nita just nodded and played along and either she was really good at pulling off her ruse of realizing her mistake and choosing to be normal, or the therapist just didn’t give a fuck and signed off on her. Either way, no more therapy past the apocalypse that was 4th Grade.
The rest of grade school was more of the same but Nita was developing a thick armor coating and let most of the nonsense slide off her back. Junior high, however, was when things began to turn around. In those three years, Nita honed her skill at fighting back. She lost as many battles as she won, but now the bullies understood there was a fifty-fifty chance of them getting away with a cheap shot or cruel prank, or having Nita explode in their face like a preteen M18 Claymore mine.
High school was when it changed for good, as a result of two physical altercations.
The first happened in the cafeteria when a girl accidentally-on-purpose tripped and tried to spill a milk, corn and applesauce concoction all over Nita’s brand-new jacket. The girl hadn’t counted on Nita’s reflexes being quick enough to grab the tray, tilt it away from her and bring the hard-plastic tray up into the girl’s aquiline nose. The girl fell back and her nose sprayed blood in every direction.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Nita said, her tone dripping with fake concern. “I think you slipped. Come on, sit up straight. No, no, don’t tilt your head back, that’ll only cause the blood to run down the back of your throat, and you may swallow it. Lean forward slightly.”
Sure, it was a ham-handed performance but it was enough to fool the teachers into thinking it was merely an unfortunate accident. What the teachers hadn’t realized was that Nita recognized the bloody girl as one of the Barbie clones from grade school who probably thought she could carry that Mean Girl shit over to high school.
When the Barbie clone returned to school wearing a nasal cast and sporting two black eyes, Nita leaned in while passing and whispered “Who’s the raccoon now?”
The second incident involved some lunkhead whose name Nita couldn’t remember if someone held a gun to her head, he was that unimportant. He was a grade above her and wanted to show all the fresh meat who was in charge, so he went down the line shoving and intimidating newbies. When he got around to Nita, the idiot actually tried to grab her boobs, but she put a stop to that quick fast in a hurry with a rabbit punch to his solar plexus. Knocked the wind right out of the dumb bastard and he crumpled like a paper bag. Nita could have told him to sit in a crouched position, calm down and take slow, deep breaths, but instead she stood over him and laughed like a loon before eventually walking away.
No. One. Messed. With. Her. After. That. Day.
Word quickly went around that sure, you could take a swing at the chubby girl if you wanted to, but the chubby girl was out of her fucking mind and she always hit back.
Kids being the little assholes they are, still talked about and made fun of her but they did it behind her back when Nita was well out of earshot. Ever since that day, Nita noticed a peculiar thing begin to happen. Girls began following her around, inching their way closer and closer, and eventually worked up the courage to sit at her table during lunch period.
She hated to call these girls mousy, but they were the timid and shy girls who got picked on the most by bullies who went after easy targets. None of the girls ever asked for her help, but Nita assumed they hung close to her figuring they were safe within her sphere of protection. She never guaranteed them anything but she didn’t chase them away, either. And they became an unofficial clique because sometimes things just worked out the way they worked out.
She actually became chummy with one of the girls, Charlotte, and one lusciously breezy day, when Nita had a few extra bucks burning a hole in the pocket of her Target jeans, they went to the mall together. Nita passed Express and The Limited with no interest because Lane Bryant was having a Spring sale.
“Let’s go inside,” Nita said.
“Oh, come on now,” Charlotte started, all doe-eyed and rosy-cheeked. “You don’t need to shop there! You’re not that big!”
“Not that big?” Nita actually liked this scrawny girl but she had the sudden urge to dropkick her into next week. “Sorry to disappoint you, Char, but I am that big and I do need to shop there. I actually enjoy shopping there. So why don’t you just slowly step away from my fat ass and go to the skinny store or something.”
Nita entered the store and it was liberating. She had been in chubby denial for the past two years or so, and to her coming out as fat was akin to coming out as gay or bi. Both of which she had to do and the former she actually found harder.
She remembered the exact moment that she came out to her mother as fat. She went to her mother’s job one day and her mother asked, “Where did you get that outfit?”
“Lane Bryant,” Nita proudly exclaimed. Okay, maybe it wasn’t so proudly, but damn it, she was just starting to get a handle on things.
“Oh, um…they have nice clothes there.”
Nita noticed the emphasis on nice. She could almost hear her mother’s insides screaming, “My God! Has it come to this? My little girl is fat!”
In Lane Bryant, while passing one of the store’s wall mirrors, Nita noticed she had a shadow. Charlotte, walking five paces behind with her head held down.
Nita spun on her heels and confronted the smaller girl. “I shop at Lane Bryant, so what? Sleeves on jackets go past my wrists for once. Shirts actually button around my chest. I don’t feel like a fucking freak here!”
“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Charlotte said. “I also don’t think of you as fat, I’m sorry, I don’t. You’re my friend and okay, I said something stupid and I hope you can forgive me. I mean, haven’t you ever said something, meaning well, that was taken the wrong way?”
Thoughts of Lorelei Kilgareth sprang to mind.
A long moment passed before Nita slowly exhaled her pent-up anger. She offered Charlotte a slight smile and said, “C’mon, help me pick out something nice. Let’s see if you’ve got any taste in big gal clothes.”
Nita was forced to admit to herself that shopping with Charlotte was actually fun. When their arms were loaded with outfit options, the girls went into the fitting room. Nita was so anxious to try on the new clothes in front of an audience that she stripped down to her underwear without even thinking about it. She realized the mistake when she saw the expression on Charlotte’s face change.
“What happened to you?” Charlotte asked, staring at the scars on Nita’s inner thighs.
“Nothing,” Nita said, snatching the nearest bit of clothing to cover herself up.
“Bullshit. That’s not nothing. Who did that to you?”
“Why do you care? Get out of here! It’s none of your goddamned business!”
“Of course, it’s my business! You’re my friend! If someone hurt you, I want to know about it!”
“I did it to myself, okay?” Nita admitted and had no idea why she did it. “Happy now?”
“I like scars,” Nita said, but it came out slowly, like she was struggling to get the words out. “At least that’s what I used to tell myself. The reality is that sometimes the world is just too sharp, you know, everything has edges, people, words, everything, and all those edges want is to stab at you, to cause you pain because they feed off your misery. And sometimes you want to feel you have some control over your life and if all you ever feel is pain then maybe you want to control that, too.”
Charlotte’s large and expressive eyes began welling up, proof that her soul was good and deep within she knew the true meaning of love and compassion. She hadn’t befriended Nita for protection, she actually had some sort of feelings for this tough girl who harmed herself in secret. The smaller girl knelt and moved the clothes Nita was hiding behind.
“What are you doing?”
Charlotte didn’t answer. She just lifted her hand and touched the scars. Delicate fingers traced the path of the razorblade cut marks gingerly, as if the wounds were still fresh.
Nita wanted to push Charlotte away, to beat her up for being so dammed nosy, and threaten her life if she ever told one single solitary soul about what she saw and heard in here, but she found that she was paralyzed, locked in the grip of something she didn’t quite understand.
Then Charlotte did the unexpected by pressing her pink tulip lips to the scars, the way a loving mother would try to kiss a child’s boo-boos better. And something inside Nita melted. Not because this clueless girl was kissing the insides of her thighs, but because she was showing tenderness to something that was much more private, more personal. She was kissing Nita’s secret pain, something she never shared with anyone, not even her own mother.
Then Charlotte wrapped her arms around Nita’s legs, gave them a gentle squeeze and said, “No more, okay? Promise me, no more.”
No one outside her own mother had shown Nita the slightest bit of gentleness and since she didn’t know how to accept it, her body trembled as her own eyes began to fill with tears as if all her emotions had condensed into a deluge of rain.
And the two girls remained in that fitting room for a long while, each crying for entirely different reasons.
“You ever make out with a girl?” Incognita’s boyfriend, Toby, asked in the early days before they became a couple. It was a simple question born of mild curiosity, the kind a person asked when they were bored and some stupid idle thought popped into their head.
Nita was about to answer, “Nope, sorry. No lesbian stories for your spank bank,” but the question opened the door to a memory of a person she hadn’t thought about in years. Lorelei Kilgareth.
They shared a desk back in the 4th grade and just the thought of Lorelei filled Nita’s nose with the scent of her shampoo. This girl had a knack for always smelling so clean, even when the pair got sweaty from playing at recess.
Nita always got laughed at by all the vapid, stupid clone girls because of her clothes that came from discount stores and she was picked on by idiot boys because she was considered an easy target for ridicule because of her weight, but Lorelei never fell in with the crowd, and never made Nita feel like that goofy-looking kid with the retainer that appeared in all her class pictures.
Nita wanted to tell Lorelei how she felt but she couldn’t make the words sound right in her head. Since they lived on opposite sides of town and Lorelei’s neighborhood was a damn sight better than hers, they stayed school friends, but of course, Nita wanted it to be more. In fact, she used to talk to herself when she was alone in her room and pretend she was talking to Lorelei and they had great lengthy conversations about everything that couldn’t be said in person and in those fantasy-filled discussions they discovered that they felt the same way about each other and Nita would fall asleep hugging her pillow, pretending it was Lorelei.
One day, when they were alone in the girl’s bathroom, they shared a kiss out of the blue. No rhyme, no reason and no tongues, just a simple peck on the lips because why not? And that was the first time Nita ever kissed a girl and as a result of that kiss, during lunch period she finally worked up the courage to tell Lorelei how she really felt. But the words came out all convoluted and Lorelei’s beautiful face twisted into a horrified mask of disgust and she said a word that shattered the illusion of them being together forever, shattered their friendship, and shattered Nita’s heart into a quadrillion pieces.
“Dyke!” Lorelei said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Nita could still remember that awful cafeteria smell and Tommy O’Leary, the stupid little brace-face boy who pointed at her and repeated the word and that was the ember that lit the spark for all the other kids to join in on the chant and dogpile on a girl who was in love and foolishly thought that it conquered all.
Incognita wanted the ground to swallow her whole but instead she fainted and fell face first onto the white tiled floor, deviating her septum and giving her two black eyes. After that she became known as Dykey Raccoon, a name that somehow managed to follow her all the way through junior high school. To add to her misery, Lorelei reported Nita to their teacher, which got both sets of parents involved and Nita was transferred out of the class she shared with Lorelei and was forced to see a therapist to address her unnatural same sex attraction.
School life had never been a picnic but after that, it became a living nightmare. The next time Nita saw Lorelei was on picture day. Her mother made her wear a stupid pink dress that showed the entire school that she had more cleavage than the principal she stood next to, and all the Barbie clones had a field day with that revelation, and all the boys, too immature to know how to handle a young lady going through puberty, made a game out of trying to punch her in the chest. That was when she learned to defend herself.
But the thing that stuck out in Nita’s mind was that Lorelei couldn’t stop staring at Nita’s chest. Out of disgust? Jealousy? Desire? She wasn’t able to tell and would never find out because the two never saw each other after that day.
The sad truth of the matter was if Lorelei had apologized for what she said, even after all she’d been through, Nita would have forgiven her.
Incognita ran into an old high school friend the other day and after a bit of catch-up, when she told him she had a boyfriend, his face twisted up.
He said, “I thought you were…”
“No, I don’t, and I won’t know until you tell me.”
“Well,” his face turned red with embarrassment. “I heard you were that way.”
Going off a high school rumor, he wasn’t thinking the word bisexual. He wanted to say lesbian and his expression told Nita that he thought of her preference like it was a sickness or affliction.
He wasn’t a bad guy back in high school and probably was still decent, so Nita let him off the hook, saying, “Yeah, I sold out and got myself a boyfriend and a little apartment uptown.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean it’s your choice and none of my business…it’s just I saw you and that weird goth girl holding hands and kissing in the mall, and I thought…”
“You thought the same thing everyone else thought, that I was a card-carrying member of the Sacred Sisterhood of Lavender. But I kissed you, too, back then, or was it so bad that you don’t remember?”
“I remember, and I was hurt and confused because I thought we had something…”
“We did, we had a moment and it was nice.”
“But I wasn’t enough.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing back then. Nobody was enough because I didn’t know what I wanted. I kissed other boys besides you and other girls, too. I like kissing, sue me. Look, if it’ll make you happy, I’ll give back the toaster oven gift I got for being a switch hitter.”
“I think you’ve got this all wrong…”
“No, I understand it better than you do. You judged me back then, just like you’re judging me now, and you can’t even be decent about it and ask me how I feel, or take a moment out of your day to consider what I was going through. Do you have any idea what it’s like being too queer for the straights and not queer enough for the gays? Having both sides turn their backs on you?”
And that was when her high school friend shut down and the rest of the conversation was nothing more than him issuing a string of apologies over and over again. Incognita stood there longer than she should have and let him say sorry repeatedly because she knew this would be the last time she ever saw him.
Yeah, Incognita got teased. A lot. She was the smart one in the family. Most of her earliest memories (well, the good ones, anyway) were of curling up with one of her mother’s medical textbooks and encyclopedias, reading about exotic diseases and conditions, women’s lib, and mammals. But people never saw past her weight or funny clothes. Her mother tried hard, she really did, but the little blonde girls, safe in their pristine two-story houses with their mommies and daddies and all their pretty toys didn’t care for her one whit.
Early on, Nita entered the world of the gifted and she always felt that she didn’t belong. Most kids lived across the street from the upper-class genius school, but she had to commute from the lower-class area. Sure, there were a few girls she got along with, but most just pretended she wasn’t there. But as bad as the girls were, the boys were the meanest ones.
She doesn’t remember exactly what they called her, but she remembers being absent for almost half of fourth grade for fear of getting beaten up by this one boy who didn’t like her size. She wasn’t unhealthily obese or anything, just chubby…and poor.
Nita tried to make friends for two years or so, and when that didn’t work, she decided to become invisible. By age ten she became jaded and cynical, reasoning that maybe it was just stupidity that made them so happy. She watched them at an Easter fair, giggling, tossing rich, pastel confetti eggs in the air, and running from boys. Maybe ignorance made them laugh and made them whisper.
But gifted kids are meaner ’cause they know better.
She used to read Judy Blume books about slumber parties and crushes and wondered “Who are these people? Does this shit happen in real life?”, then decided probably not, and picked up “Go Ask Alice” instead. She often wondered if she closed her eyes real tight and made one of those Twilight Zone big wishes, could she have teleported herself home to where things were peaceful and safe? If she stared intensely enough at the back of someone’s head that she hated, could she make it explode? If she stopped smiling, would anyone on the planet notice? Then concluded that maybe if she just stopped asking questions and took it, it would be over sooner.
Maybe she could make it until Friday, and die before Monday.
As the title suggests, I have a character who refuses to tell me her name, so I call her Incognita, or just Nita for short.
She’s a stubborn as hell 20-year old Taurus of Mexican and German descent, a genetic composition she claims makes her fit for world domination, but she lacks the drive to become a leader, whether it be in the form of a shepherd or an antichrist.
She spent most of her life alone with her mother, her beloved privacy, and repressed memories of an absentee father, until her mother remarried when Nita was thirteen. Inadvertently, she developed an affinity for Gershwin early in her adolescence.
She now lives in Houston with her boyfriend, Toby, in a shoebox apartment on the most interesting stretch of horizontal pavement in the city, and self-mutilation has become a nightly ritual because she loves scars.
She is a completely monogamous bisexual who’s endlessly intrigued by Japanese and Chinese culture, and from the moment she learned to read at age three, she fell in love with medical reference books, and they turned her into the sadistic little weirdo that she is today.
Nita really wishes she could draw but she handles a pencil as well as she does chopsticks, which is why she eats her Chinese takeout with a fork.
She despises misogyny in all of its veiled and abundant forms, and can sing and play the drums like the devil, but only when she’s alone.
Among the things she loves: her mother’s little black dog (more than anything in the world), deep burgundy lipstick on girls, scraping the frosting off birthday cakes, lined sheets of paper, and old school Nintendo games, especially River City Ransom and Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, which she considers spiffy!
She can’t stand fashion magazines and their contradictory messages: Be yourself, but dress like this! Love your body, but long to be thin! Be independent, but here’s how to get a man! Be assertive, but speak softer! They all fall into the Go Fuck Yourself category.
She’s an absolute sucker for expressive eyebrows, hates to wake up before noon or go to sleep before two in the morning, and she used to like The Daily Show, Sifl & Olly, and Trauma: Real Life in the ER, but her cable got taken away due to non-payment, so now she feels she has nothing.
She also usually hates herself, and hopes I understand.
As stated in a previous post, hand in hand with creating a strong premise for your story, developing believable characters to fill your imaginary world is an essential part of constructing fiction. The best way for your audience to identify with characters lies in your ability to understand them fully, and the best way for you to accomplish this is to talk to them, or better yet, ask them a series of questions. It’s important that you don’t allow them be evasive and certainly do not take no for an answer.
Don’t worry, you won’t be asking them complicated things like their strategy on balancing the nation’s budget, why the burning sun doesn’t incinerate itself, or how do you solve a problem like Maria? The list of questions below are relatively basic, some which have occurred to you and others that most likely haven’t. And even though most of their answers aren’t particularly relevant to your story and probably won’t come up in conversation, it will aid you in understanding the inner workings of their nonexistent minds.
You’ll notice that the questions have been broken up into bite-sized nuggets, thus making the task of developing your characters less insurmountable, and offering you a coffee or ciggie butt break between your interrogation, should you need it. Now, without further ado:
101 Character Development Questions (grill ‘em like a steak!)
Character Development Questions #1 – The Basics
These are the first questions you need to answer about your character – the stuff you probably need to know to get started.
Do they speak with an accent?
Where are they from?
Where are they now?
Character Development Questions #2 – Backstory
Developing a solid backstory for your characters is essential – even if you don’t put much or any of it in the narrative. The more you treat your character as though they are a real person, the more real they’ll become.
Who are their parents? Biologically and socially.
What is their earliest memory?
What did they want to be when they grew up?
What did/do their parents want them to be?
Do they have siblings? Older or younger? Brothers or sisters?
Do they have or have they ever had children? How many?
Do they or have ever had a significant other? Are they still with them? Why? Why not?
What were they doing right before the story starts?
Up until now, what’s the most noteworthy thing they’ve done? To them? To the people around them?
What was their education like?
Character Development Questions #3 – Tastes
Your characters likes and dislikes is possibly the most overt part of ‘who they are’.
What’s your character’s favorite color?
Do they/would they choose to wear a scent? What would it be?
Do they care about what things look like? All things, or only some?
What’s their favorite ice cream flavor?
Are they a tea, or coffee drinker? Or soft drinks, or do they drink a lot of alcohol? What kind?
What kind of books do they read? What TV shows and movies do they watch?
What kind of music do they like? Do they like music at all?
If they were about to die, what would they have as their last meal?
Are they hedonistic? In all cases? Or does practicality sometimes/always/often win out?
Do they have any philias or phobias?
Character Development Questions #4 – Morals, Beliefs, and Faith
A character’s moral code and beliefs can offer a lot of insights on their motives, and the likelihood of their taking a given course of action.
Do they have an internal (something that they’ve come up with for themselves) or an external (something handed to them via religion, family traits, etc.) moral code?
To what extent are their actions dictated by this code?
Do they believe in a God or Gods/Goddesses/Higher being of some description?
Are they superstitious?
Do they value faith/instinct more highly than reason?
Do they believe in an afterlife? If so, what’s it like?
Do they have any specific beliefs that manifest obviously?
Are the respectful of the beliefs of others? To what extent?
Have they ever had to stand up to criticism for being religious? Or not being religious?
Would they be more likely to act for the good of the one, or the good of the many?
Character Development Questions #5 – Relationships
It would be difficult to write a character who never interacted with anyone else. We learn more about a character from the way other people react to them than by their actions alone.
Do they make friends easily?
Do they have a best friend?
Can they get people to do what they want them to? If so, how?
Do they have a lot of romantic relationships? Serious, or short term?
Do they fall in and out of love easily?
Do strangers and acquaintances actually like them when they meet?
Do they have a network (people they’re connected to without necessarily knowing)?
What is their relationship like with their family?
Are they still in touch with non-family people they were in touch with a year ago? Five years? Ten? More?
Do they like children? Do they want children of their own?
Character Development Questions #6 – Physical Appearance
Time to play dress up!
How does this character dress? How would they choose to dress, if all options were open to them?
Do they have any tattoos? What do they mean?
Do they have piercings? How many? Is this culturally appropriate for them?
Do they have scars? Where did they come from?
Do they alter their appearance in some way on a regular basis (make up, hair dye, etc.)?
Is there something they’d choose to change about their appearance if they had the opportunity to?
Is there something about their appearance they’re particularly proud of/happy with?
Objectively, are they physically attractive? Fairly plain? Unattractive?
Do they have an accurate mental picture and opinion of their physical appearance?
How much time do they spend thinking about their physical appearance?
Character Development Questions #7 – General Knowledge
How well acquainted is your character with the world around them?
Can they navigate their own local area without getting lost? To what degree?
Do they know who the top politician or monarch is where they live? What about elsewhere?
Do they know if/where there are any major conflicts going on right now?
Do they know the composition of water?
Do they know how to eat a pomegranate (or any other tricky item of food)?
Are they good with the technology available to them? Average? Completely hopeless?
Could they paint a house… without making a mess of it?
Could they bake a cake? Would you eat it if they did?
Do they know how to perform basic maintenance on the common mode of transportation?
Do they know the price of a loaf of bread?
Character Development Questions #8 – Specific Knowledge
What about special skills?
Do they have a specific qualification in a narrow area?
Is there something they do or know exceptionally well that most other people don’t?
Do people often comment on a particular skill or area of knowledge to this character? Behind their back?
Is there an area this character could be considered top of their field or a genius in?
Have they deliberately sought to gain knowledge in a specific area? If so, why?
Do they speak more than one language? More than two? Why?
Does their cultural background effect what they would be expected to know?
Have they ever been publicly acknowledged for being well-versed in something?
Have they ever been bullied for knowing a lot about something?
Do they actively seek new knowledge, or let it come to them naturally?
Character Development Questions #9 – “What if…” Questions
These questions are designed to give you a different perspective on why certain things are important about your character – or why they’re not.
What if they’d been born with a different biological sex?
What if they’d have more or less siblings?
What if a key formative event in their past had gone differently?
What if they lost a limb?
What if someone close to them died unexpectedly?
What if they’d been born 50 years earlier? 100 years? 1000?
What if they’d done something completely different on the morning when the story starts?
What if they found enough money to make them wealthy for the rest of their life in a bag?
What if they were stranded and deserted?
What if they were betrayed by someone they trusted?
Character Development Questions #10 – Miscellany
These are just questions that any real person would likely be able to answer, but a fictional character often can’t.
What did they have for breakfast this morning?
What ridiculous beliefs did they have as a child?
Do they like marshmallow treats?
Do they sleep on their side, front, or back?
Do they work better with sound or silence?
Do they have a strange obsession with something minor?
Do they like art?
How fast can they run?
Do they prefer to sit on the floor or on a chair?
What do they want, right now?
Question 101 – Why Should Give A Tinker’s Damn About Your Character?
Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?
Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of the tedious, yet invaluable character question list. Hopefully it helps. Now stop standing around here gawking. Sally forth and be writeful.
Enjoy your holiday weekend (and you really should have invited me over for some Christmas goose. Maybe next year, eh?)
I was talking to a friend yesterday about one of the housemates in this year’s Big Brother UK (how dare you judge me!) who had the annoying nonstop habit of thinking aloud in a random, babbling manner that made me sometimes feel as if I was reading her unfiltered thoughts. This, naturally, brought the topic of internal monologue to mind.
Whether you refer to it as verbal stream of consciousness, internal speech, or inner voice, internal monologue occurs when your characters engage in conversations with themselves, thinking in words at a conscious or semi-conscious level.
When used properly, making your audience privy to your character’s thoughts and internal struggles can add levels of emotion and intrigue that deepen your story nicely. But it’s not an easy skill to master, and in the hands of an inexperienced writer, the piece can quickly become a quagmire of unnecessary narrative.
Here are a few things you might want to bear in mind:
Mind your thoughts. The first thing to keep in mind–which should be obvious–internal monologues are always written from a character’s point of view, and the thoughts should match their personality and speech patterns.
Act first, think later. Avoid the temptation of beginning your story with expositional monologue. Sure, you’re eager to set the scene and establish characters, location, time period, etc., but you should consider capturing your audience’s attention from the onset by thrusting them into a riveting bit of dialogue, intrigue or action, before introducing the necessary exposition.
Don’t tip your hand, but don’t wait too long, either. You should never let a character’s thoughts introduce vitals details before they’re relevant to your story. Also, make sure you’ve provided your audience with everything they need to know before any tense scenes and definitely before you reach the climax. Never put a pitstop in your action sequence to sandwich in a bit of explanatory monologuing. Ick. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Back the right horse. If you have a choice between using dialogue or internal monologue, go with the dialogue–if, of course, it can properly explain pertinent information or convey the internal battles of your character. When doing this, however, there’s a trope you need to avoid, affectionately known as the dreaded “As you know, Bob” where one character tells another character something they already know.
Show, don’t tellstill applies… somewhat. If you utilize enough internal monologuing in your writing, you’ll come to realize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll need to tell what a character’s thinking instead of showing it. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
Everything you know, not everything I know. I watch a lot of martial arts flicks, especially the old Shaw Brothers chop socky ones, and a recurrent theme was of an undeserving young student turning his newly acquired martial arts skills on the old master. I only bring this up because of a line I heard during a showdown where the young buck is boasting that he not only knows all the old man’s techniques, but he also has the advantage of youth on his side. The old master shakes his head and corrects the younger aggressor, “I taught you everything you know, not everything I know.” This should be the same with your character. There is no reason on this green earth for your audience to know everything your character knows. Everyone likes a little bit of mystery and in your audience’s case, it’s what keeps them turning pages.
Thoughts do not drive a story. Chiefly because they’re a poor substitute for conflict. This is another one of those things that should be evident, since I assume you’re an avid reader. So think on the last book that really held your attention, I’m talking about the one you continued to read even though your eyes were burning because you were fighting off sleep. What kept you invested in the book? The character’s thoughts? The answer you’re searching for should be conveniently located in the “Hell, no” aisle. More likely than not, the things that held your interest–writing style aside–were the story’s action and dialogue, because they’re what defines your character best.
In closing, interior monologue is one of the more useful writing tools at your disposal, and if you economically pepper it amongst action sequences and dialogue, it should serve you and your story well.
They say, “Everyone has at least one good book in them” and while I think book might be a bit of a stretch, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone has at least one good story in them. The natural length—the pure story without padding or the encumbrance of unnecessary detail or description—of which can range from flash fiction (under 1,000 words) to short story (under 7,500 words) to novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) to novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) to a proper novel (over 40,000 words).
No matter how non-creative you believe yourself to be, your brain is nonetheless gifted with the special ability of imagination, and regardless of how infrequently you put it to use, you still are able to dream up intricate realities, despite your age or IQ level. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, projected a new reality in our minds in the form of daydreaming our desires? And no two daydreams are exactly the same since we each possess unique preferences, points of view, wants and needs.
Yet, even armed with the knowledge of this gift, we, as writers, tend to suffer because we either do not fully believe in or properly comprehend our true nature as creators. Sure, we continue to imagine “what if” scenarios but sometimes we find it difficult to allow those thoughts to flow through us—the conduit—and blossom into the stories they need to become.
The following list isn’t a step-by-step “how to” guide, because no one can tell you precisely what you need to do to access your inner story. You are a totally unique entity, after all. View it more as a broom to help you sweep away the clutter piled up on the footpath to your personal tale.
1. Examine your self-image.
The first battle you must face is the one against your self-image. You are more than pen and paper, more than a keyboard, more than “just another writer” or more than whatever obstacle your past or conditioning has placed in your path. The main reason why most writers fail to connect with their inner story is because of their limited knowledge of who they truly are.
As flawed human beings we are so engrossed with the perceptions of who we are that we fail to see that we are usually the source for the reality we have created for ourselves. Sure, the walls of the prison may have been constructed by events of the past, by family, peers or environment, but we continue to fortify the walls and never once open the lock–the key is always in our possession–push the cell door to step out into freedom.
This in no way suggests you have to deconstruct your self-image–unless that’s your goal, then by all means, have at it. You’re merely peeling away the layers of the identity you’ve created for yourself for societal purposes and exposing your core self, the real you. Don’t worry, it’s only for the exercise of writing. You can reapply your layers once you’re done.
Your secret identity is safe with me.
2. Take note of your gifts.
Different from writer traits–talent, the hunger for knowledge, and diligence–a writer’s gift can range from an eye for detail, to a flair for description, to a talent for dialogue. Or, you might not even be aware of your talents, so I want you to grab a piece of paper and something to write with and in 60 seconds jot down a list of what you’re good at. Don’t think about it. Simply jot down, off the top of your head, the things that come easiest to you when you write.
All done? Now take a long, hard, honest look at your list. The things you don’t concentrate on, those bits and bobs that just sort of come naturally to you when you write… those are your gifts. You’d be surprised to discover how many writers aren’t aware of their innate skills because they aren’t utilized in their everyday work lives and wind up being placed in the “Hobby” category.
3. Exploit your strengths.
Since you’re bothering to read this, my guess is that you’ve written a couple of pieces already and maybe even finished a few of them. Now, if you’re an avid reader, you will have no doubt compared your piece to your author idols, and have developed the brutally honest ability to cast a critical eye upon your own work and spot areas in your writing that aren’t as strong as others. And since the writing isn’t perfect, you are therefore a horrible writer who should no longer legally be allowed to string a sentence together in an email, let alone write a story.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe you really are a bad writer–hey, they exist–but that’s not my call to make. I don’t know you, so I’ll assume you at least have some fundamental writing potential. However, no matter how good you are, there is one basic truth you must learn to face: Your writing will never be perfect. Why? As stated in a previous post: Because wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and perfection isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time. Still, you should always strive to get your writing as close to perfection as you can manage, and accept the fact that: It. Will. Not. Be. Perfect.
Maybe you can’t write a convincing love scene. Maybe you struggle with organic dialogue. Maybe you get stumped when attempting to create a character’s internal arc. Maybe you’re rubbish at tying up all your story’s loose threads. Console yourself in the knowledge that you wouldn’t be the first. A few of these “weaknesses” and more are true for authors of published works, some of which even make bestseller lists.
And because, as a writer, you are always a student and ever pushing yourself and learning new ways to hone your craft, you will eventually learn to strengthen your weaknesses. In the meantime, put all of the aspects of your writing into perspective, make a deal to stop beating yourself up so much, and focus on your strengths. They’re your “A” game.
4. Gird your loins against the enemy.
In addition to dealing with possible self-image barriers, there are other obstacles that can block your path: Fear, intimidation, procrastination, and self-doubt. The problem with these buggers is that they often take the form of lies you tell yourself. And they happen to be effective as hell because they insulate your brain from facing unpleasantries, in this case the difficult portions of the writing process that you need to slog through in order to strike gold.
The biggest lie you can tell yourself as a writer is, “I’ll do it later.” It’s a dishonest postponement because later never comes. If you don’t confront the enemies that keep you from your writing and tamp the bastards down long enough to complete your piece, then you don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Staring into the gaping maw of the harsh realities that terrify you is one of the most important parts of the process.
Slap a “H” on your chest and “Handle” it.
5. Identify your genre.
At this point, you arch an eyebrow and ask, “Rhyan, how can anyone not know the genre of their story?”
The answer lies within the fact that writers are creators. Some are resistant to the notion of placing labels or classifications on their work. For others, classification difficulties arise when their piece contains elements from several genres as some writers disagree with the act of limiting creative freedom in order to adhere to strictly delineated genre segregation.
For your audience, knowing the genre sets not only the stage, but their expectations as well, and puts them in the proper mindset to both understand and accept the rules of your story.
At this stage in the process, the importance of identifying your genre has to do with story mechanics. Certain elements step to the forefront and operate differently depending on genre, so you should be aware of the rules of the category–even if you decide to break them because of the maverick you are–as you’re arranging your idea into the proper story structure (see: Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline).
6. Plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story.
This is your story. First and foremost, it must feel natural to you. No matter how fantastical the environment, how outrageous the yarn you’re spinning, if you don’t feel confident in the pocket dimension you’ve created, there’s little chance of you selling the story as being credible. Your job is to take utter nonsense and portray it with as much authenticity as possible.
7. Go with your gut.
Some people seek permission to write. Thinly disguised under the “Oh, it’s just an idea I’m toying with” veil, they will ask family and friends if they should write about such-and-such or if this-that-or-the-other-thing would make an interesting topic.
I urge you not to be this person.
I’m reminded of a quote by Jerome Lawrence, “The whole point of writing is to have something in your gut or in your soul or in your mind that’s burning to be written.” So, if you can actually feel inspiration or instinct churning like hot snakes in your gut to write, forget the opinions of those around you, disregard the idea of “should” and just go for it.
Never live with regret, if you can help it.
8. Do it now. No better time than the present.
To snatch a line from Pixar’s Ratatouille “Why not here? Why not now?”
By now you know you must show up for writing everyday, and there’s no time like the present. So, why not find yourself a quiet spot, practice listening, and trust what you hear. That’s your inner story talking to you, and it not only has to be unlocked but it must be accessible at will.
I know it’s become hackneyed to instruct you to follow your bliss, but if you deny your instincts to do what you truly want to do, then the problem becomes one of trust. Do you trust the voice within you or do you trust reality as you are made to perceive it? Or, are you willing to trust the voice and write what you hear, no matter how crazy it sounds?
You have to learn to be compassionate with yourself, as well as having compassion for yourself. Especially during the vulnerable times when you’re blocked and can’t bring yourself to write because you’re scared you’ll be rejected. Take some small comfort in knowing you’re not alone in this.
Since all art must be criticized, every single published author had to overcome fear of rejection. What you need to keep in mind is that your audience–human, just the same as you–can only relate to your writing from their own experience, and sometimes their feedback will be negative. That doesn’t necessarily indicate problems in your writing, and may simply reflect a varying viewpoint.
But fear of rejection has no business rearing its ugly head right now as it’s time for you to honor your inner story by listening to the words it shares with you and writing about it. Trust me, if you’re willing to enjoy the process, you can write damn near anything.
So, why not sally forth and be inner story writeful?