Writing Full Characters

 

I haven’t written here in so long, instead preferring to focus on taking photos and sharing them on Instagram or Facebook. If you aren’t following me on there, you should. It’s a good time, especially at this time of year.

I have been struggling with my writing, as always, and turned towards some old advice that I had read in On Writing by Stephen King: read more. I took that advice and went hard on it by creating a whole new series for my UNspoiled! Podcast series, the UNspoiled! Book Club, hoping that the tie-in to work would cause me to be more consistent with my reading. And you know what? It worked!

I have been flooded with ideas and revelations since starting the book club, and in some ways I have been a little overwhelmed by the realizations I’ve had. I could clearly see that I was heading in the wrong direction with parts of the story, or that there were pretty big questions I hadn’t considered. But one of the biggest things I have gained from this exercise is a deeper understanding of what makes me tick as a writer, and that I need to explore that more deeply.

For me, it’s all about psychology. I am fascinated by people and human behavior and the ways in which people are shaped by their surroundings and upbringing. This is a huge reason why I’ve been discovering that Stephen King speaks to me personally as a writer: nobody I know of has quite mastered the art of the psychological the way he has. As I was reading both The Dark Tower and IT (I’m not done with either yet, so no spoilers!) I was struck by the fact that King is able to jump from one perspective to another, and still make me care about each individual despite my initial annoyance at being wrenched from a POV that I was starting to like. In a few words, he turns characters into complete people. I may not always like them, and in some cases may be disgusted by them, but I am almost never bored.

After realizing this, I decided to go ahead and create a series of questions that I’m going to begin asking myself about every character I write. All the character sheets I’ve found are pretty surface, asking questions like, What’s your character’s favorite band? How do they like to spend their free time? Do they get good grades?

I mean, c’mon. That’s all superficial stuff, the kind of dating-website nonsense that says nothing about who a person really is. Really you could pick the answers to questions like that out of a hat and still have no idea about the character as a human being.

 I think the questions I wrote get to the deeper root of who a person is. I’m sure someone out there has done something like this before, but I wasn’t able to find it so here it is. I think that, if you know who someone is on a fundamental level, figuring out something like their favorite band comes from a richer, more organic place.

Anyway, I decided that I would share this with you all in case someone out there finds it useful.

 

Childhood

Who are their parents? What values were they raised with? Did they accept or reject those values? If rejected, was this out of defiance (personality), or disillusionment (experience)?  If they subscribed to those values, was this out of faith or out of fear?

Self-Awareness

How do they see themselves? How does their family see them? Does their family know them well, or is there not a close relationship? Is their personality met with encouragement or discouragement, and is this supportive or abusive?

How do strangers see them? Is the character aware that people see them this way? Do they like this or do they try to fight it?

Direction and Goals

What are their goals, both long-term and in this immediate moment? Do they not have any long-term goals? If not, why not?  If they do, are those goals their own or have they been forced upon them? If forced, do they realize that or are they in denial and believe them to be their own? How dedicated are they to these goals? Do they honestly believe they can achieve them?

Friendships

How many friends do they have, a few close friends or many casual friends, and why? How close are they to their friends? Do their friends see the relationship with the character the same way that the character does? Are friendships is important to them or are they OK with being alone? Are they honest with themselves about whether they like being alone?

Sex/Romance

What kind of person is the character attracted to? Are they sexually active? Does the character believe in love, and do they prioritize love or sex? What is their relationship to sex: are they open or timid? Proud or ashamed? Do they have any kinks? What turns them on?

Are they an optimist or a pessimist regarding relationships? Do they prefer someone older or younger, domineering or submissive? Are they aware of that preference? Do they have people interested in dating them? Why or why not, and does the character care?

Are they attracted to people that remind them of family, and if so are they conscious of that? How many relationships have they had? What kind of pattern and do their relationships take on, and are they aware of them? In failed relationships, do they blame themselves or the other party? How does their family treat their partners, and what role does that play in whom they choose to date?

I’m sure I will think of loads more questions, and when I do I will update the file. If you’d like a printable sheet of these questions, you can find it here. I didn’t design the sheet to be filled out like a worksheet, more like a list to be kept and used as a jumping-off point from which to fill your notebooks and Scrivener pages with brainstorms about your characters.

I hope someone out there finds this helpful, and I hope to see you again soon!

My Coach

Since January, I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with a coach named Melinda Sohns, who has a website called Turning Yourself Inside Out. Melinda was looking for a volunteer who wanted to lose a lot of weight, and who was trying to get off the diet bandwagon. Needless to say, I fit the bill.

Melinda is not a coach that stands in front of you screaming to “have some self-respect”, slapping the cake out of your hands while cracking a whip to scare you onto a treadmill. She’s not a coach that has you count all your calories and then tells you what you fucked up at the end of the week. And thank fuck for that, or I might be in prison right now for manslaughter (no jury would convict me of murder).

For three months, Melinda has been meeting with me once a week to talk about the root of my body issues. In the first session, she asked me to start from the very beginning as far back as I could remember, to my first memory of feeling fat. Which just so happened to be in kindergarten. You can see a post I wrote (before even starting coaching) about that here.  We went on from there, her asking me occasionally to stop and go a little deeper into certain situations, and I started to slowly piece some things together right in that first session.

The thing that stood out to me most about working with Melinda was the fact that she challenged me. I have read as many books about weight loss, about “conscious eating”, about healing your connection with you body, as anybody out there. I have tried cleanses and fasts, I have been on Weight Watchers more times than I can count, I became a compulsive exerciser, went vegetarian, went vegan, went macrobiotic, went paleo…you get the drift. And in all the books and quizzes and questionnaires in magazines, they asked the same shallow questions, worded slightly differently, that did nothing but make me feel like, “I should have this figured out by now, I’ve answered these a hundred times”.

Melinda pushed it further. I consider myself more self-aware than the average person, but she managed to get me asking questions of myself that I had never even thought of. “Why do you eat at that time of day? What are you feeling? What are you hoping to achieve when you choose those foods? What kind of feeling would you have if you didn’t eat, or even if you didn’t have the food in the house to begin with? If you could eat anything you wanted to eat, what would you choose most often?”

I kind of surprised myself. It turns out that I would choose fresh, beautiful fruits and veggies instead of Cheetos and cake if I felt I had a choice. And turns out I do have a choice, I just have to make it a priority in my life and in my budget.

And who knew that I avoid exercising as I gain weight because I hate feeling the fat on my body? I hate being reminded of the fact that I’m not thin anymore, and being too heavy to do certain exercises depresses me and makes me want to do even less. Which leads to me gaining more weight, which leads to me sitting still more, and around and around. I honestly had no idea, but after talking to Melinda it was so obvious I felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner.

Our agreement was to work together for three months and then I would write a testimonial about my experience. I’m sure that you’re all wondering whether I have lost any weight, and the answer is yes, although only about 4 pounds which some people would consider negligible. But I will say this: I’m have believed, for my whole life, that I’m lazy. I believed that my weight was the result of a character defect, and that I would never be able to change that. Melinda pushed me past that and forced me to see that I had assigned a completely unfair label to myself.  What I saw as laziness was a result of deep shame and an attempt to avoid feeling that shame by disconnecting from my body. Knowing that is frightening and disorienting. But most of all, it’s empowering.

Melinda has gotten me to see why I have been caught in the cycle I have, and that’s the most important part.  She gave me the tools, and stepped back to let me claim my own power. Now it’s up to me to face it, and decide if I want more for myself.

I would highly recommend working with her if you’re interested in learning more about yourself and your patterns, getting to the root of some of your beliefs about yourself, and reconnecting with your body. You can find her website here. Thanks so much, Melinda, for all you did for me. I hope we can work together again soon.

 

 

To My Former Boss: Please Stop Doing This To Yourself

It might surprise you to know that I hold no ill-will towards the boss who had to fire me. In fact, sometimes I consider reaching out to her because I liked her so much and I hope that maybe now that I’m not working there, we can actually be friends.

However, I have been having weekly meetings with an awesome life-coach who has been really getting to the heart of some of the disordered thinking and body image issues I have faced for my whole life. She asked me the other day to talk about something that triggered me, and I mentioned that it’s really frustrating to me that no matter how intelligent or amazingly talented a group of women may be, there will inevitably be diet talk in the conversation somewhere.

My coach asked me to dig in on that, and asked for details about what they had said, and if there was one person in particular that stood out to me. She asked me what I would have said, if I had been free to speak my mind, and suggested that perhaps I was angry at these women. Maybe I wanted to tell them to fuck off? Maybe I wanted to admit that “I’m so sick of these bitches”?

When I opened my mouth to speak, I started crying. I wasn’t angry after all, even though that was the expectation that came to mind. I was just profoundly sad. My old boss (let’s call her Jeannie) is truly one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. She is warm and caring and would remember details about my life, about customers lives, and would always ask about how things were going and engage in real talks with people about their grandchildren and their health, not because it was good for business but because she actually gave a shit about other people. She was so gentle and patient with everyone.

Except herself.

I only had to hear her speak about herself a couple of times, thank god. But it’s not something that I will ever forget. The venom, the loathing, the disgust in her voice when she said, “I’m so fat. I’m such a pig. I make myself sick. I can’t even look in the mirror. I’m so ugly it makes me want to puke” was enough to make the hairs on my neck stand up. I have heard people cursing up a storm, screaming at each other, but this was uglier than all of that. It came from a deep well, drawn up from the pit of her gut, and it was black as tar, viscous and oily and sticky. It crawled out of her mouth and hung in the air, lingering like a heavy fog, clinging and grotesque.

I started to describe to my coach what Jeannie said and I couldn’t even get through a sentence before my sobs choked off my words. It was like my heart was breaking. Here was a woman whom I had been lucky to meet, whom everyone was lucky to have been working with, who would bend over backwards to do anything for you, and she hated herself. Jeannie didn’t realize at all that I frequently wished I could be more like her. She didn’t understand how much I battled with selfishness, and how often I marveled at her ability to put other people first. She didn’t know the little efforts I made to emulate her, here and there, in my life.

Sometimes it occurs to me that perhaps Jeannie had no problem putting others first because she truly didn’t think she was worthy of being a priority. Maybe she was trying to make herself smaller, in every aspect, because she just inherently did not believe she had the right to take up as much space as she wanted. I think Jeannie struggled with the belief that a “nice” woman is a good woman, and that to be “nice”, you must be non-threatening, you must be quiet, and you must be (above all) small. 

It makes me so sad that our society has trained women to believe that we have to earn our right to take up space on this planet by looking a certain way. Jeannie felt that she had to apologize for her very existence. As I talked about this with my coach, the sadness was so overwhelming that I had trouble breathing for a few minutes. How many women on this earth try and minimize themselves their whole lives, realizing too late that they were never allowed to live at all? How many women are forced to apologize for their audacity to take up oxygen without at least looking like a Sears catalogue model, if not Victoria’s Secret? How many women have raised daughters to value themselves by something as accidental and uncontrollable as their appearance, petrified by the knowledge that their daughters will inevitably, one day, fail?

Because that’s how the system is designed. Women are set up to fail, so that we are constantly aware that we aren’t good enough, and are forever, always, apologizing for it. Keep us small, keep us sorry, keep us desperate. 

And the perfection of this system is that we then take up the reins and need no more guidance, because we’re more than willing to punish ourselves from here on out. Or, behind our hands and behind our keyboards, we punish one another. We take over the dirty work. We come to fully and whole-heartedly believe that women are products to be consumed, and that if consumers don’t approve of the product, the product should be shamed and sent to the back where it can’t be seen, like a bruised apple or a rotting steak.

Take it off the shelf…Nobody wants that…We don’t need to see it…Get it out of here…Put it in the trash where it belongs. 

Jeannie, I saw you. I know you. Even through the unbelievable sadness and self-hatred, I saw you and you were dazzling. You deserve every square inch of space you occupy, every breath of air you inhale. You deserve your happiness. You are not unworthy. You are not a waste. You are smart, and strong, and powerful, and I love you. I hope you can learn to love yourself too.

 

 

 

 

And Life Is Good

There is so much to catch up on! First of all, for those of you who know me from UNspoiled! Podcast, I’m thrilled to say that I’ve met (and far surpassed) my goal of $1200 a month by April, which means that I’m going to be staying on as a full-time podcaster for the foreseeable future. When I lost my job I was making about $785 a month, so that’s a jump of over $500 in 4 months. Truly unbelievable.

This is huge to me. I can’t overstate how surreal it is to actually do this for a living. I worked from home for a couple years in Philly, but I wasn’t making any real money and it was hard to feel like I wasn’t contributing to the household expenses. To be where I am now, in a sweet little home with a wonderful partner, making a living doing something I love, is truly a place that I didn’t think I would reach anytime in the near future. I guess getting fired from my day job wound up being a good thing after all, because I don’t know that I would have taken the plunge and reached my goal this quickly otherwise.

However, there are certainly some challenges here. A kind of weird one is that this job requires me to be sedentary. I love sitting on my ass, don’t get me wrong, but I know it’s not good for me and I’m someone who kind of depends on the momentum of being forced out the door to carry me through the day. If I know that I’m not leaving the house, it’s awfully hard to get up the wherewithal to get out of my robe and slippers, even though I wind up feeling crummy by the end of the day from being a slob. So there’s two parts of it; not dressing and caring for my appearance, and not exercising.

I’m going to do something kind of public here, and commit to once-a-week yoga classes for the next 4 weeks, and twice-a-week 20 minute walks. That’s 3 days a week for exercise, and I will get dressed every single day. Really dressed, with shoes and everything.

I will be checking in on Twitter (you can follow me here), and writing posts to let you know how it’s going. Let me know if you work from home, and how you combat these kinds of challenges! I’m always interested in tips.

 

Fear And Writing In North Texas

When I decided to go full-time with my podcasting, one of the things that I was really excited about was finally getting a lot of time to dedicate to my writing. I imagined myself getting up at the crack of dawn with an oversized cup of steaming coffee, wrapping up in my robe and settling into my comfy chair, then pouring my ideas onto my keyboard for several hours before finally coming up for air.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that’s not what happened. But what I couldn’t figure out for several weeks was, why not? 

It’s not like I’m lazy. Well, maybe I am with some things, like jogging, and scrubbing the bathtub. But anyone who’s met me knows that if anything, one of my biggest flaws is taking on too much. So what was it that was keeping me out of my comfy chair and keeping me dicking around on my podcasting stuff when I had already made a deal with myself to spend the day writing?

As in so many aspects of my life, I finally realized that the reason for my inaction was fear.

I get on my podcast every day and in the midst of reviewing books and TV, I share deeply personal stories about myself, political opinions, and generally open up more than the average person does to a bunch of strangers online. However, that’s me sitting back and criticizing other people’s work, and that’s easy.

I have come to recognize that I’m frightened to put myself out there by creating something that’s all mine. I’m a perfectionist, and when I look at the first drafts of my books from the vantage point of having several more years of experience in critiquing, I can see so clearly how poor a lot of my work was. I feel ashamed and upset and frustrated, and I want to go back and erase everything from the memories of people who read my earlier versions. Even second and third drafts, when reading with fresh eyes, fail to capture anything like what I intended, and I lay awake at night suddenly aware of mistakes I’ve made in the plot, or dogged by the knowledge that certain chapters lag because I have no idea where my characters are going.

Today I’m sitting down and brainstorming until I have the plot of the first fifteen “episodes” of my books nailed down, in detail. I will be removing my finished books from Wattpad for the time being until I have decided how best to proceed with the formatting of “episodes” and the handling of POVs. I think a major overhaul is in order, and I’m pretty excited to get to delve into the future of my characters.

Are you a writer? Have you experienced this kind of realization, and if so, how’d you get through it?

New Year, Same Me

Wow, it has been a while since I last posted on here! And now we’re moving into a fresh, shiny new year, which stretches before us like the first blank page in a journal: inviting us to write our stories, yet filling us with anxiety about making a “mistake” and messing  up that beautiful first page.

Guess what: when you’re old you’re not going to admire how perfect the first page of your journal was. Nobody is going to comment on your neat handwriting, they’re going to be pitying the fact that all that first page says is, “Today I weighed myself and ate salad and balanced my checkbook.” Oh my god, can you imagine? A perfectly ordered, impeccably written journal that just has variations of that sentence, day after day?

What I’m saying is, LIVE YOUR FUCKING LIFE. Get those pages filthy with mud and tears and curry spices and cat paw prints and nail polish and axle grease and the sap of pine trees. Put your phone away, because nobody on Facebook is going to care about the photo of that sunset as much as you will enjoy actually being there to see it. Live the kind of year that leaves you feeling like a different person by the end of it, instead of wondering how a year passed you by so quickly.

And yes, you can do all that while still eating salad and balancing your checkbook. Just don’t make those things all you care about.

I don’t have any specific resolutions. I do have an overall theme, though: FOCUS. Most of the problems I have day-to-day, from not finishing the work I’d set out for myself, to overeating, to money issues, can be attributed to the fact that I act impulsively, I spread myself to thin, I try to multitask…and I fail to focus. It’s a simple word with a lot of implications, and it’s going to be my word for 2016.

What’s yours?

 

 

The Whole Writing Thing

When I originally bought this domain, I was intending the blog to be mostly focused on my writing and updates about books I was releasing on Amazon, etc. I figured it would be a marketing tool for me, and had a very limited scope on what I was willing to post here.

Once I moved down here to Texas and my life began to take a different shape, I suddenly realized my mistake; I wanted to write more than I cared about the money I made from it.

Don’t get me wrong, money is great. But it distorts things, and after really considering it, I felt like doing something I had little experience in and immediately worrying about pleasing an audience was a surefire path to mediocrity.

In Her Flash Cover

So I decided to do something drastic. I took all my books down from Amazon, and decided to completely reboot the series I had started, called Bearing Gifts, and post them for free on Wattpad. I have 5 novellas written, which are each roughly 18K words (although after revising the first one, it wound up being considerably shorter and is probably more a novelette), and so far I have finished editing and revising and reposting the first 3. They are called Episode One: In Her Bones; Episode Two: In Her Arms; and Episode Three: In Her Flesh. 
I am also doing audiobook recordings, which are up on iTunes for free, although I believe I will go back and post longer episodes encompassing whole novellas (or as I call them, Seasons, like on a TV show).

I want to write more than I want to create a business. And I think this story is going to be a lot of fun. If you like fantasy in a modern setting, strong female characters, magic, paganism, ancient mythology, and adventure, I think you will really enjoy Bearing Gifts. So come check it out and let me know what you think!