Who is more qualified to talk about writing than some of the world’s most beloved authors? Here is some writing advice from the greats, along with some (hopefully) inspirational photos of their writing spaces.
Elmore Leonard is one of many authors who doles out writing advice:
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
“You have to listen to your characters.”
“Try to get a rhythm.”
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this bit of folk wisdom. It reflects the common understanding that people abhor uncertainty. Predictability is a desired state, even if what is being predicted is negative—to the point of being disastrous, dangerous to the point of being life-threatening.
Think prisoners/captives: one powerful way to break down their resistance, to garner compliance, is to increase their uncertainty. This can be done handily by having no natural daylight, and artificial light that cycles on randomly, along with an unpredictable eating schedule, unannounced questioning sessions that sometimes include physical abuse and sometimes don’t—anything that is disorienting.
Whole books have been written on uncertainty and its management. For example, see Psychology of Uncertainty by J.D. Smith, W.E. Shields, D.P. Britzman, D. Brothers, and K. Gordon; or The Social Psychology of Uncertainty management and System Justification by K. VandenBos.
The takeaway for writers is that to increase tension, increase uncertainty, decrease predictability.
Given the examples above, the application to action/adventure plots is obvious, but this writing rule applies across genres. Will he/won’t he call? Does she love me or not? Will this disease kill my child? Will my boss understand if I miss another staff meeting? Will I miss my plane? Does the murderer suspect that I know he did it? If your story unfolds in a predictable pattern, your reader will lose interest. Why bother to read what you know is going to happen? Perhaps truly fabulous prose will keep some readers going, but why depend only on that?
As I’ve written before, the term “healthy relationships” doesn’t necessarily pertain to just romantic partners; it can also include family and friends. A handout I received during an event with Hanover Safe Place (see image above) listed the following characteristics as being part of a healthy relationship:
Self-esteem: Feeling positive about yourself before you’re able to take care of partners, friends, and family
Communication: Talking out problems, feelings, and ideas, but also being a good listener
Agreements: Promising to be respectful and follow “rules of relationships”
Connections: Having more than one relationship so as to not remain isolated
Balance: A give and take between the two people in the relationship
Are you in a healthy relationship?
An article in Psychology Today, written by Alice Boyes, Ph.D., goes a few steps further. It lists 50 characteristics of healthy relationships. By clicking the link, you can read through these characteristics; if you can answer “yes” to most of these statements, it’s likely you’re in a healthy relationship. Remember to be truthful with yourself!
There are also questions you can ask yourself about your relationships (see above handout). These questions vary, but include:
Do you make decisions together? Give examples.
Do you trust and believe them? Do they trust and believe you?
Is your relationship built on choices, not pressure?
What to take away
Healthy relationships are built on equality between the partners. One person should not have most of the power in the relationship! Being in communication with one another, giving as well as receiving, and keeping the relationship balanced are all important to maintain a healthy relationship.
Warning: This blog talks about the incidence, demographics, and aftermath of sexual assault and rape, with comments addressed to writers.
Yes, the statistics are appalling. Depending on the study you read, 20-25% of women are raped by the time they turn 44 (as compared to 8% of men). And depending on the questions asked, many behaviors that could be considered sexual assault or rape aren’t included. For example, some studies define rape of women as forced vaginal sex, whereas men are asked whether they‘d been coerced to have vaginal sex with a woman, or anal or oral sex with another man. Countries at war experience higher incidence of rape than countries at peace.
For writers, such statistics are a potential indicator of the readers who might identify with a particular scenario. And here again, writers need to know the facts in order to make judicious decisions about going with or against the norms.
The less higher education you have, the more likely you are to be raped.This is true for both women and men.
Native American women and women in Alaska are more likely to be raped than other women.
People with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault.
People ages 12-34 are at greatest risk for rape and sexual assault.
Prostitutes can be raped.
Nearly half of all rape victims, male and female, are raped by acquaintances. Of these, about half are intimate partners.
55% of rapes and sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home, and 12% occur at or near the home of a friend, relative, or acquaintance.
However, rapes and sexual assaults can occur in any setting, among all social strata and ethnic groups—i.e. anyone, anywhere.
Physical violence isn’t the most common type of force used to coerce women into sex. Approximately 44% of women said they were pressured into sex “by his words or actions, but without threats of harm.” Women reported being physically held down, pressured by the physical size or age of the rapist; threats to end the relationship or spread rumors about the victim; or insulting the victim’s appearance or sexuality. Although alcohol is often involved, verbal pressure was more important.
The Aftermath of Rape and Sexual Assault
54% or more of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. The Pentagon estimates that in the military, unreported assaults are 80-90%.
Nationwide, tens of thousands of rape kits in police evidence custody go untested.
People who have been sexually assaulted will not necessarily be hysterical or crying. Some may laugh, some may cry, some may show no emotion at all.
13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
94% of women who are raped exhibit symptoms of PTSD over the following two weeks, and 30% report such symptoms 9 months later.
A raped woman is twice as likely to become pregnant compared to one having consensual sex.
Hanover Safe Place has a handout that outlines possible aftermath of sexual assault for victims that could be a valuable resource for writers wishing to depict realistic aftereffects.
Last but not least, writers can benefit from tips on how to support a survivor of sexual assault. Your character(s) can act in the ways advocated if among the good guys, or do the opposite if exacerbating the aftermath of the assault.
BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: Consider the dark side of relationships as fertile ground for evoking stress, tension, and crises.
Domestic violence—in its many forms—is so prevalent that all writersshould be informed, should make conscious decisions about whether to include this common aspect of intimate relationships in their work, and if so, to represent such relationships accurately. All the statements that follow can easily be verified online.
So, just how common is it? 1 in 3 women and (surprising to me) 1 in 4 men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused in the United States. Another way of looking at these numbers: if none of your characters suffers physical violence, you probably aren’t writing realistically. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are victims of severe violence by an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
Know the norms and choose when to go against them with your characters/plot.
Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.
Only 34% of people who are injured by intimate partners receive medical treatment for their injuries.
Being the recipient of domestic violence is correlated with a higher incidence of depression and suicidal behavior.
85% of domestic abuse sufferers are women
40% of gay or bisexual men experience intimate partner violence, compared to 25% of men overall
50% of lesbian women experience domestic violence, but not necessarily intimate partner violence
A transgender person is 2.6 times more likely to suffer intimate partner violence than a non-LGBT person
50% of LGBT people murdered by their intimate partners were people of color
Why stay in an abusive relationship? Before I volunteered at Hanover Safe Place, I couldn’t fathom why a woman in an abusive relationship—especially a physically abusive one—would stay in that relationship. At first glance, it seems to fly in the face of a basic tenet of human behavior: people always choose the best perceived alternative. On closer look, staying is often the best perceived alternative.
98% of all domestic violence cases include financial abuse—i.e., the abuser controls the money, leaving the victim with no financial resources to leave. This is the number one reason victims stay or return to abusive relationships. If I am remembering correctly, on average a woman will leave and return seven times before leaving for good.
Fear of being killed. Three women are murdered every day by a current or former male partner. A woman is 70 times more likely to be murdered in the few weeks after leaving an abusive partner than at any other time in the relationship.
Threats againstchildren or other family members
Such low self-esteem that the woman feels she deserves it
Staggering as the figures are, still most of us have not experienced domestic/intimate partner violence. In addition, you might just not want to go there with your writing. But you can still create tension by inserting red flags signaling potentially abusive relationships.
For more information or more targeted information, search the web.
Domestic Violence and Psychological Abuse
Domestic Violence and Economic Abuse
Domestic Violence and Stalking
Dating Violence and Teen Domestic Violence
Male Victims of Intimate Partner Violence
Domestic Abuse in Later Life
American Indian/Alaskan Native Women and Domestic Violence
A week ago today, I helped staff a Hanover Safe Place information table at an Ashland event. I was reminded that relationships are crucial to a person’s health and well-being—whether that person is real or fictional. Today I’m starting a series of blogs on relationships. I’ve written about relationships beforefrom various angles, but they are worth revisiting.
I’ll start with good two-person relationships. Although much of this is phrased for intimate partner relationships, it applies to other close relationships as well (e.g., family, best friends).
As illustrated in the wheel above, good, healthy relationships are based on equality and nonviolence. They include
negotiation and fairness
trust and support
honesty and accountability
economic partnership (regardless of who has the money)
Note to writers: Too often fictional characters are presented in idealized (and clichéd) relationships based on physical characteristics and/or sexual appeal. Make your good relationships richer along the above dimensions.
Various elements in the power and control wheel apply across types of domination, whether physical, sexual, or otherwise, and across settings (e.g., in the family, workplace, church, or community). These methods include
using emotional abuse
minimizing, denying, and blaming
using coercion and threats
using economic abuse
using male privilege
Note to writers: The examples presented in each of these categories are especially helpful in making your villains realistic—and varied!
As the historian and moralist Lord Acton said as long ago as 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And one more note: it is a maxim of social psychology that the person who cares the least has the most power. Think about it!
Summer is a big season for literary magazines to publish big work. Many publications take submissions in the spring and fall, and post their issues in the summer and winter. That being said, so many great literary magazines have put out new issues this season. Here are just a few:
“Another way of putting it is that when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself. According to one familiar indictment of modern literature, today’s literary writers are unpopular precisely because they have lost interest in telling stories and become obsessed with technique. In the 20th century, this argument goes, literature became esoteric, self-regarding and difficult, losing both the storytelling power and the mass readership that writers like Balzac, Dickens and Twain had enjoyed.”
Do you agree? Why or why not? Let me know, please.
I love this list, even though I now have no idea where I came across it. It beautifully illustrates the value of getting rid of flabby modifiers. “Very” is a word we all should do searches for in our documents—finding and replacing with something stronger.
Closely related to this is adding modifiers to terms that have specific meanings. Consider these impossibilities:
Another search—one that must be done by you or your beta reader—is eliminating unnecessary modifiers. One version of this is linking two words where one would do. For example:
Other red flag words/phrases are those that pull back or even deny the meaning weakening what’s being asserted. Examples here include:
If something is somewhat clean, what does that mean? If something is sort of pretty, what should the reader see?
These are not exhaustive lists. The point is examine your writing to make sure every word is necessary, and then trust your words to mean what they mean!
I’ve written about language in the past. What can I say? Words matter to me!