Campaign Writing: Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

donald trump rnc choosing lesser two evils
hillary clinton cspan choosing lesser two evils
Well, folks, I just can’t get away from the campaign. It offers too many lessons for writers!
I recently heard a talk show segment on undecided voters who, reportedly, view their presidential vote as choosing the lesser of two evils. We’ve all experienced situations in which every possible choice has a downside. Psychologists call these avoidance-avoidance conflicts, and writers should love them.
This type of conflict is so common, there are myriad of folk sayings to this point. For example, “Being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
biblical devil
caught between devil and deep blue sea
As a writer, this is often where you want your character(s) to be—”between a rock and a hard place!”
A simple case would be getting dental work, or living with the pain.


“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is the variation of tolerating the current situation or opting for an alternative that is definitely negative and could be worse.
In this instance, think remaining in a bad marriage or pursuing a divorce. This one can be ramped up with the addition of children, property, pets, and the loss of in-law family.


As a writer, you want the negatives to be as bad as possible. There isn’t much stress in choosing to skip lunch or be late to the hairdresser.


How your character chooses to deal with the stress reveals character and engages readers. Would your character make lists of the negatives and choose the lesser of two evils?
hillary clinton campaign choosing lesser two evils
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore]
donald trump campaign choosing lesser two evils
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore]
Or would your character do nothing and let nature take its course? In the current election, that might mean not voting. Another possibility is looking for the silver lining: is there anything positive about candidate ________?


Intra-psychic conflicts (as opposed to armed conflicts, physical battles, etc.) are great tools for writers. Perhaps the conflict is the plot and the entire story is its resolution. What would cause your character conflict? Is your character solely responsible for the outcome? If not, as in the present race for the presidency in which no single vote is the determining factor, shared responsibility would affect the character’s response. Would s/he disclaim responsibility altogether?


Takeaway for writers: Use conflict to strengthen your story—what causes conflict, how your character(s) express their stress, how it is ultimately resolved. Avoidance-avoidance conflicts can raise tension in individual scenes or relationships, or it can be the whole plot. Use it as you will, but use it!

I am also excited to announce that a short story I wrote, “A DIY Life,” has been published to The Penmen Review! The article was posted today and will soon be printed in the Storyteller Magazine as well.

Horror and Haints for Halloween Reading

pumpkin decoration
With less than a week till Halloween, it’s the perfect time to read about ghoulies, beasties, and things that go bump in the night. Although there are religious bits here and there—Allhallowtide being the time in the liturgical year when three-day observances remember the dead, including the hallows (saints), martyrs, and faithful departed—most of us don’t think first of saints and martyrs. After pumpkins, it seems to be a time for witches, ghosts, zombies, and the undead.

witch book raymond buckland
Well, it’s time to stop thinking of witches as the Wicked Witch of the West. This is a non-fiction reference book that provides all sorts of information about witches. And lots of other interesting info as well, organized alphabetically.


For example, under garlic, it says, “In folklore, thought to be a deterrent to vampire attack and also to witchcraft and the evil eye.” It’s supposed to protect against plague. Roman soldiers ate it for strength and courage.  But it’s also supposed to have grown in Satan’s footprint when he left Paradise.
down there huysmans
And speaking of Satan, check out the old novel Down There (La Bas): A Study in Satanism, first published in serial form in 1891, but there is a gripping translation published in 1958.


vampires burial death
Interest in vampires waxes and wanes. For an effective blend of folklore and reality, see Paul Barber’s book. Among other questions that surround this book is, “What are the most efficient ways of getting rid of an unwanted body?”


food for dead michael bell
Michael E. Bell followed the trail of New England’s vampires. In it you can find ghostly tales, glowing corpses, rearranged bones, and more.


great big book horrible things
If you want reality rather than folklore, consider atrocities. Many people hear the word “atrocity” and think the Holocaust, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. But this book outlines scores of atrocities associated with war and political upheaval. Read them and weep.


book dead lloyd mitchinson
War atrocities are truly horrible. If you want a lighter look at things, Check out Lloyd & Mitchinson, who set out to sketch lives of the justly famous and the undeservedly obscure. Expect some humor here!
complete stories poems edgar allen poe
If reality is too painful, and folklore raises troubling questions about the unknown, there’s always fiction!  Edgar Allan Poe is Halloween reading at its best. He may be more suspense than horror, but “The Tell-tale Heart” and “Fall of the House of Usher” are enough to make anyone wakeful. And being short stories, his works come in easily manageable bites.


salems lot stephen king
[Photo credit:]
night shift stephen king
[Photo credit: Too Much Horror Fiction]
For a contemporary novelist, think Stephen King. He writes horror and supernatural stories. His other works of suspense, science fiction, and fantasy are still good Halloween reads. (As happens so often with prolific writers, his more recent books are a bit formulaic, so go with the earlier ones.)


creepy skeleton woods
When it comes to Halloween reading, there’s something for everyone!

More Writing Lessons from the Campaigns

In Wednesday night’s debate, Clinton said something to the effect that when things are going badly for Trump, he blames others—party leaders, the media, those rigging the election. If I remember correctly—and for the purposes of this blog, that doesn’t really matter—she said that he never takes responsibility for his problems. The point for writers is that she was purporting to identify a pattern of behavior—and patterns of behavior are crucial for your characters.


In this blog, I will focus on behaviors people use to protect themselves when things are going badly. These are what psychologists call defense mechanisms. Not to put too fine a point on it, defense mechanisms allow us to hide from ourselves. Most of us don’t realize when we’re using them.
person hiding defense mechanisms political campaign
If you look online, you can find the 7-9 most frequently used defense mechanisms, the 31 Freudian defense mechanisms, etc. I am going with the 15 defense mechanisms Dr. John M. Grohol classified according to how primitive they are.


Primitive Defense Mechanisms

Primitive Defense Mechanisms are often effective over the short term but less so over the long term: Denial, Regression, Acting Out, Dissociation, Compartmentalization, Projection, Reaction Formation.


Denial: refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if a panful event, thought, or feeling doesn’t exist. E.g., “I’m not an alcoholic. See how well I’m functioning?”



Regression: going back to an earlier stage of development. E.g., becoming weepy, clinging, maybe reverting to nail-biting or bed-wetting.


Acting Out

child acting out defense mechanisms political campaign
Acting Out: behaving in an extreme way when unable to express thoughts or feelings otherwise. E.g., not able to express anger without throwing things, punching things, etc. Includes temper tantrums and self-injury.



Dissociation: the person disconnects from the real world for a time, to an interior world free of thoughts, feelings, or memories that are too painful to bear.



Compartmentalization: the person keeps different parts of the self in separate cognitive or emotional compartments to avoid feeling conflict. E.g., a person who beats and tortures prisoners as part of a job but remains a loving spouse and parent at home.



Projection: unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses are “projected” onto someone else, often the object of those thoughts, feelings or impulses. E.g., someone who is uncomfortable around people of a different ethnic group may justify avoiding those people by deciding that they don’t welcome outsiders.


Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation: changing unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposite behaviors. For example, a man who is really unhappy in his marriage might make a point of publicly “worshiping” the mother of his children, bringing her presents for no reason, etc.


More Mature Defense Mechanisms

More Mature Defense Mechanisms are common among adults, and may be all a person needs, even if not ideal: Repression, Displacement, Intellectualization, Rationalization, Undoing.



Repression is when one unconsciously drops unacceptable thoughts, feelings, impulses, or events from memory. It’s done unawares, unlike suppression, when one consciously puts such things aside and refuses to think about them.



Displacement is when thoughts, feelings, or impulses triggered by an off-limits target are addressed toward another, more acceptable one. E.g., a child who cannot show anger toward a parent may take it out on a sibling, pet, or toy.



intellectualization defense mechanisms political campaign
Intellectualization is dealing with issues by keeping emotions at a distance and focusing on the rational argument or information gathering. For example, someone who is diagnosed with cancer to keeps fear and anxiety at bay by learning every possible thing about treatments, prognosis, etc.



Rationalization is, essentially,espousing a reasonable explanation rather than the real explanation. For example, a man is dumped by a woman he really, really likes and decides he probably just wasn’t rich enough for her.



Undoing is trying to make up for past behavior. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings and then try to be extra nice, complimentary, generous, etc.


Mature Defense Mechanisms

Mature Defense Mechanisms are the most constructive and helpful, but more difficult to achieve: Sublimation, Compensation, Assertiveness.



Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable impulses, thoughts, or impulses into more acceptable channels. Examples would include releasing sexual impulses through non-sexual exercise, redirecting anger into humor or fantasy.



Compensation is counterbalancing perceived weaknesses with strength in other areas. Done well, it can reinforce positive self-esteem.



assertiveness defense mechanisms political campaign
Assertiveness is fulfilling your needs in a manner that is respectful, direct, firm—and appropriate. Assertive people strike a balance between speaking up for themselves and listening to other people.


What defense mechanisms seem to be exhibited by each of the political candidates?


white house defense mechanisms political campaign

Most people have more than one means of defense, but tend to rely on a few more often than others. In the extreme, for an addict, the drug of choice is the answer to every problem. As a writer, you need to understand how your characters cope. What are their patterns of behavior? And how effective are they?

A Time to Read

james river writers conference 2016
The annual James River Writers Conference was held last weekend. It is predominantly geared to writers, with lots of sessions on the craft and business of writing. But it also celebrates good writing—which is another way of saying, it celebrates good reading!


This year’s book contest was for the Best Self-Published Novel. No doubt the winner, Heaven Will Protect The Working Girl by Jo Allison, is a great read. It’s the third in a series of mysteries set in turn-of-the-century St. Louis. But don’t overlook the two finalists, Geoff Camphire and Bonnie Stanard.


james river writers 2016 best self published novel contest
Each year, JRW also includes an opportunity to attend the Library of Virginia’s Literary Awards Luncheon. This year’s Life-Time Achievement Award went to Nikki Giovanni.


nikki giovanni
She is a poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. And, BTW, she’s also a very lively and humorous speaker! She’s won numerous other awards, and her publications are too many to mention here, but go online and be impressed—and maybe inspired to pick up one of her books!


Or perhaps you will be taken by the work of one of their Literary Awards Finalists in Poetry: Jon Pineda (winner), Joshua Poteat, and Claudia Emerson.


james river writers 2016 shann palmer poetry contest
JRW also recognizes poetry. Check out this year’s winner (Zoe) and finalists of the Shann Palmer Poetry award.


Rita Dove said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Perhaps it’s time to see for yourself.


If, in spite of it all, you aren’t drawn to poetry, the Library of Virginia also makes annual awards in fiction and non-fiction. This year’s Library Award in Fiction was won by Robert Goolrick for his novel The Fall of Princes. Other finalists were Leslie Pietrzyk and Sara Taylor. Goolrick was interviewed for JRW attendees Saturday afternoon. Although he attended Johns Hopkins University, he was born in Virginia and lives here now.


robert goolrick fall of princes
[Photo credit: Algonquin Books]
His novels include  A Reliable Wife, Heading Out of Wonderful, and The End of the World as We Know It—plus several others.
Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green
[Photo credit: HarperCollins Publishers]
The Library Awards Finalists in Non-Fiction were Bert Ashe, Mary Sarah Bilder, and Kristen Green. Bilder’s book was Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention; Ashe’s book was Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles. Green won for Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County
bert ashe library of virginia
Ashe spoke at two JRW sessions: “Writing What You Know: Turning Your Personal Experiences into Sellable Books” and “Powerful Articles” were very well-received. (Other panelists were Kurt P. Behm and Jessica Lahey.) He also joined Phaedra Hise and Jason Tessuro for the “What’s Your Story?” presentation on how to make a story that entices readers beyond our own limited sphere of influence.


So pick up a good memoir or two—or three or four! It’s always a good day to read.


UPDATE: This post was corrected to acknowledge Kristen Green won the 2016 Literary Award for Nonfiction.

What Writers Can Learn from Political Campaigns

First, we get the slogans.



Slogans, like story titles, are intended to appeal to the target audience and to convey something of the contents.


Emotionally loaded words and images are powerful. Calling someone a liar isn’t nearly as powerful as labeling that person a serial liar. Both campaigns—and particularly partisan supporters—have thrown out words like criminal, racist, misogynist, rapist, war-monger, etc.
donald trump
[Photo credit: Michael Vadon (Creative Commons)]
hillary clinton
[Photo is in the public domain]

Is he a strong leader or an angry bully? Is she warm and friendly or attempting to appease? Images and actions are subject to interpretation.

During the second presidential debate Trump often walked behind Clinton when she was talking. Was that an attempt at intimidation? Or was he just trying to maximize his time on camera?


tim kaine
Governor Tim Kaine [Photo is in the public domain]
mike pence
Governor Mike Pence [Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)]
A presidential candidate typically chooses a running mate to fill some perceived deficit in the ticket. It might be geographic or demographic appeal. Or it might be opposing temperaments and skills. As a writer, consider the complimentary natures of characters. A classic example is the Star Trek characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, who have often been labeled, respectively, the id, ego, and superego of the series. Complimentary characters typically cooperate and strengthen the relationship. Characters that have the same traits often compete.


president barack obama
President Barack Obama

vladimir putin
Vladimir Putin [Photo credit: (Creative Commons)]
In fiction, as in campaigns, people are known by the company they keep. Whether Clinton and Trump are helped or hurt by these associations depends entirely on how the POV person perceives Obama and Putin to start with. Again, this is subject to interpretation. Characters might agree on facts, traits, etc., but still react differently depending on their values. This is a good way for writers to reveal a character’s character.
Writers, consider the usefulness of denial. I won’t give examples here, but refer you to any of the political fact-checking sites.
When a candidate says something that is demonstrably not true—or denies speech or action that are part of the public record—what’s to be gained? Will sheer repetition of the untruth create doubt? Will the listener/viewer not bother to check for evidence?


And then there is the power of innuendo. Clinton has repeated implied that Trump’s failure to disclose his tax returns means he has much to hide. Trump has repeatedly said that there must be more damning evidence in Clinton’s e-mails than has been revealed.


As a writer, having one character speculate about another can be very effective. Is she pregnant? Is he cheating on his wife? Did she steal from the collection plate? Did he kill his business partner? Plant the seed and then adding, “I don’t know. I’m just saying.”
I’ve heard that people have shown up in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms so affected by the campaign that it’s being labeled Election Stress Syndrome. The media certainly focuses on emotionally loaded words and actions.


gary johnson william weld
Governors Gary Johnson and William Weld [Photo credit: Gary Johnson Presidental Campaign (Creative Commons)]
Takeaway for writers: Whatever your political leanings, look to this campaign as an opportunity. Examine what’s said and done on all sides and strengthen your own winning writing.

Festival of the Written Word and Some Exciting News!

On November 5th, I will be one of the featured writers at this year’s Festival of the Written Word, hosted by the Chesterfield County Public Library.

festival of the written word 2016

Festival of the Written Word has something for the reader and writer in you! Embrace your creativity and immerse yourself in literacy, ideas and imagination. The 2016 Festival of the Written Word will include live readings, workshops, panel discussions with local authors and food. It’s an activity that the whole family can enjoy.

I was involved with the festival last year, speaking on a panel about romance and mystery. I’m excited to hear the other panelists and the featured speaker, Kristen Green, this year!

In addition to the events listed on the flyer above, the festival will include readings by various authors, workshops for writers of all ages, panel discussions with local authors (including me!), and, of course, delicious food provided by Firehouse Subs.

It’s a great idea for readers (and writers!) to take advantage of such festivals and literary events at their local libraries. They are typically free and open to the public!

Other featured authors include:

Stacy Hawkins Adams
Jean Anderson
Nancy Wright Beasley
Bill Blume
Tina Glasneck
Kristen Green (Featured Presenter)
Valley Haggard
Ann Marie Halstead
Lorraine Heath
Doug Jones
Pamela Kinney
Lana Krumwiede
Vivian Lawry
Cathy Maxwell
Fiona Quinn
Steven Smith
Guy Terrell
Heather Weidner

For more information and a detailed schedule, check out the festival’s website. Hope to see you there!

(Also coming up is the CCPL’s “Murder at the Library” event!)

In other news, I recently wrote an article for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They have a weekly column entitled “In My Shoes.” I wrote an article, “Repair or redecorate after breast cancer?,” about the process following radiation, multiple surgeries, and a “persistent non-healing wound” after my breast cancer diagnosis. Check it out!

Writing Cruelty

Some of us—dare I say most of us?—are not inherently cruel or sadistic. Therefore, when our plots require a scene that involves such behavior, there is a great temptation to fall back on the stereotypes of many TV shows and movies. Don’t. If you need really gruesome, vivid, compelling cruelty, look to reality!


historical torture
As you may know, I recently toured northern Italy. In San Gimignano (“of the beautiful towers”) I visited the earliest of the city’s torture museums.
And of course I bought a book.


tortura inquisizione
The implements on display were truly horrifying—and thought-provoking!


stretching rack
Not long ago, I had a medical procedure that required me to lie absolutely motionless, face-down, arms stretched above my head for 45 minutes. By the end of the procedure, my shoulders ached and muscles twitched, and I wondered how long those condemned to the rack might last before at least passing out.


head crusher
My point here is that although many types of torture are intended to cause death eventually, this doesn’t happen immediately. Might writers use a less-than-lethal version? For example, using an implement like a head crusher only to the point of cracking the skull bones.


Some mechanisms that I would label instruments of torture had other purposes—at least ostensibly. But besides ensuring a woman’s virtue, consider the discomfort of long-term use, and the humiliation of such an item at all.


Immobilizing someone in any way becomes painful after a time.


And many body parts, from skin to fingers and toes, tongues and scalps, can be removed without causing death. Ditto broken bones.


It is possible to force someone to drink so much water—or other liquid—that the stomach actually explodes. But short of that? What about a parent pinching a child’s nose shut and forcing her/him to drink milk?


punishment necklace
Forcing someone to wear a heavy weight around the neck is tiring, humiliating, and eventually very painful. What about a modern version, that required the wearing of a loaded backpack without relief?


My point is that if you need inspiration for a truly cruel and haunting scene, you really don’t need to be able to create it out of thin air. Start with what people are known to have done!

Reading History and Geography

I have mixed feelings here. In fourth grade, my geography book was the most exotic, fascinating thing I’d ever seen. In high school, I hated history so much that I vowed never to take a non-mandatory class. And I didn’t, avoiding history all through college. But like so many, I find both topics not just palatable but absolutely fascinating when presented in literature and/or experienced during travel.


Virtually any good writing set abroad gives a vivid sense of place, so I’ll put geography aside for a bit, and urge you to consider all the ways you can enjoy history.


nervous splendor budapest 1900 norway 1940
Consider historical events or periods of interest to you. Your reading options are myriad. I grew up in a house with few books, but we did have a two-volume pictorial history of World War II that had pictures of concentration camp survivors that are seared in my mind’s eye still.


At least as common is to read history by reading about people. Queens, kings, generals, popes—biographies abound. Think Queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, or Catherine the Great—to name a few women. Often travel sparks an interest. I was unaware of Sisi the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, or Maria Theresa, one of the most outstanding and powerful personalities in the Habsburg dynasty.


dean king skeletons zahara
[Photo credit: Amazon]
I won’t belabor the point, but geography can be equally personal. Consider Dean King’s book, Bones in the Zahara. Vivid and personal, immediate and gripping. (Indeed, I recommend any of Dean King’s non-fiction books.)


Bottom line: History and geography can be as gripping as fiction. Try it!