No Pain, No Gain: Are You Making Your Characters Suffer?

Think about all the things you don’t like in real life. Sharks. Spiders. Earthquakes. Bullies. Public speaking. Chances are, if you expose your characters to what you fear, your fiction will flourish because of it. Writers can’t afford to be nice. We’ve got to throw rocks at our characters, as Nabokov famously said. Get them into terrible trouble and hold them there, feet to the fire, until the very end of the story.

Why? Because witnessing other people’s pain and observing how they deal with it keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully, it teaches us something too.

I don’t mean that we should create unrelenting misery; our characters need to experience both ups and downs. I’m no masochist, but since it’s January, I thought the topic of pain was appropriate. For many, this is a month of deprivation and dieting after the holiday excesses. Or a time to force ourselves (again) to start working out at the gym. Just attempting to carry out our new year’s resolutions—and the guilt we feel if we don’t—can cause angst.

Given that this past year has been a challenging one for my family, it helps me to remember that hardship can actually benefit us in the long run. Light can’t exist without darkness. We must experience sorrow to truly feel joy.  So in fiction, a dearth of pain can be a problem. When tension fades, so does reader interest. One of my students has a tendency to protect her protagonists, just as she’d do for the people she loves in real life.  Her instinct is to keep them happy and safe from harm. Boring. “Stop mothering your main characters,” I tell her, but she still finds it hard to hurt them. She’s not the only writer who struggles with this.

It may be helpful to think of it in exercise terms. Physical pain, the kind we feel when we push ourselves playing sports or working out, is a necessary part of getting stronger. Athletes can’t get to the next level without it. Tearing microscopic muscle fibers helps the fibers rebuild more densely into bigger muscles—scientific evidence that discomfort can be beneficial (as long as we don’t overdo it).  I’ve always found it ironic, of course, that in order to flood my system with those bliss-producing endorphins, I have to embrace pain first. But every time, the aches and agony lead me to the ecstasy.

Emotional pain can strengthen us in the same way. Writer Jeanne Weierheiser calls “embracing pain the gateway to growth.” How can you not gift your characters this kind of opportunity? I’m exploring what it means to be a hero in the book I’m writing.  To do this, I’m forcing my characters to make mistakes and endure some really bad things. That’s because their journey to transformation is not based on success. Winning isn’t always the best teacher. Setbacks are what make us stronger. Think about your own experiences. Isn’t positive change more likely to occur after periods of heartache and despair? In the end, my protagonist comes to see that she’s learned more from her missteps than her triumphs. It’s through struggle that she discovers who she is.

The hazards writers create don’t have to be huge and life-threatening. But there should be plenty of small stuff for characters to sweat. Even minor pain can cause emotional upheaval and growth. Things like—

  • Change. This is something people tend to be wary of. As Sol Stein writes in Stein on Writing, “Changes in life are fraught with peril. If the perils of major change happen within the covers of a book, the reader will be absorbed.”
  • Surprises. There are good and bad surprises. Bad ones in life bring “hurt, sadness, misfortune,” says Stein. “But in books readers thrill to the unexpected. A new obstacle, an unexpected confrontation by an enemy, or a sudden twist of circumstance all start adrenaline pumping and pages turning.”
  • Embarrassment. Even in humorous fiction, characters should experience some suffering. Embarrassing situations are a perfect vehicle for this, and they will almost always create interesting plot developments.

Failure is also a reliable source of pain. Most of us have experienced some incidents of failure in real life. When I think of all my unfinished stories and abandoned novels, for instance, I tend to start feeling bad… And yet, my advisors at VCFA taught me that nothing is wasted, every word we write (good or bad) prepares us for what comes next. So, I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress, and that Jane Fonda was right when she brought the phrase, “No pain, no gain,” into prominence to promote her exercise videos.

A protagonist in pain can help us answer the following key story questions: Does this person have a goal? What is the purpose of this scene? If your character isn’t suffering, trying to keep from suffering, or trying to make someone else suffer, scenes can start to drag. In fiction, too much happiness can become humdrum.

So, embrace the pain when it comes knocking at your door. Learn from your fiascos and flops. And do something nice for your characters—inflict some misery on them. One day, they’ll thank you for it.



Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:


  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!




How to Finish a Novel

       I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.


Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

imagesStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.”  Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.Unknown-2

While writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before.  But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Just a few of my many craft books

Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses?   As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

Inspiration...So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!





A Setting’s Many Jobs: Multitasking with the Objective Correlative

Eliza picture

My daughter’s picture of our backyard

A story always needs a setting, no matter what it’s about. Because “Nothing happens nowhere,” as the saying goes. Setting is about so much more than place though. It can be used to reveal character and mood, foreshadow what’s to come, or show not tell. How? By using one of my favorite literary devices: the objective correlative.

I’m not a particularly observant person, especially when it comes to visual cues. My kids make fun of me, because I don’t notice what people are wearing, what kind of cars they drive, or even the color of their hair. My default mode has always been to live in my head. That’s where I make up stories, create character conversations, write to do lists, and wonder things like how many people are actually going to read this blog.

As a writer, it’s good to have an active inner life, but you need to notice what’s going on outside of you too. But even when I remember to be consciously aware of my surroundings, I still agonize over which setting details to describe. Thanks to our brain’s “sensual selectivity,” only a small number of the sensory impressions that inundate us will register in our consciousness at any given moment. What makes that selection for us? The answer is, our emotions do.Inside-Out copy

The act of linking setting description to character emotion is one way to use the objective correlative, also known as telling it slant. Tell it/slant is all about focusing on details that help the reader understand what you’re trying to convey—like insight into the narrator’s emotional state or a foreshadowing of what’s to come. “The trick is not to find a fresh setting or a unique way to portray a familiar place,” explains writer Donald Maass, “rather, it is to discover in your setting what is unique for your characters, if not for you.” Thus, a fictional environment comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that characters experience those details.

In order to tell it/slant, you’ll need to identify your scene objective. If your goal is to shed light on a teenage girl, you might choose to describe her room. The objects we surround ourselves with reveal much about our personalities. Is she into books or computer games? Do we see volleyball posters and muddy cleats or a shelf filled with art supplies? Stuffed animals or a bathroom counter filled with makeup and six different kinds of lip-gloss? Every object in the room should tell a story.

2-nyc-empire-nina-papiorek copy

I love New York!

Next, how does your character react to the setting?  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole cites New York City, for instance, as a place that stirs strong, often contrasting emotions in people.

“I love New York City,” she admits. “I love the burning grease smell from the halal carts and the sticky sweet aroma of roasting peanuts that seems to hit me on every corner. My heart swells at the dank wind that a speeding subway train churns up as it pulls out of a station.”

But for the folks who hate New York, Kole says, “All the people on the sidewalks might have shifty eyes, rats might lurk in every sewer grate and everything would seem astronomically expensive, especially the closet-sized hotel rooms.”


I hate New York!

Same city, different perspective.

A character’s mood determines how she’ll react to and interact with her surroundings as well. A bedroom can be a safe haven, or it can feel like a prison if a teenager’s been banished there after being grounded by angry parents. Our state of mind colors how we perceive our surroundings. In this way, our settings can multitask.

Try the following exercise. Pick a place like a kitchen. Write a paragraph describing that kitchen from the point of view of a character who’s in a happy, relaxed, and positive mood–but don’t mention how the character is feeling. Then flip it and describe the same kitchen, but this time, put your character in an angry, fearful or negative frame of mind. Then compare the passages. Details like chicken noodle soup simmering on the stovetop and a cat purring on your lap vs. a sticky floor littered with dog hair, a sink filled with dirty dishes, and a spider crawling up a cracked window beautifully illustrate how different states of mind can impact what we notice. It’s all about showing, not telling.


Teaching a workshop on the objective correlative

A student of mine, 14-year-old Luna Patience, did a great job with this exercise in a workshop I taught last fall at the TeenSpeak Novel Workshop and Retreat. With her permission, I’m quoting from two passages she wrote using a graveyard setting. Note her use of imagery and strong verbs:

(Negative mood) “The sky overhead grumbles with oncoming clouds, and the freshly turned earth smells of mold and petrichor. As rain begins to spit from the sky, the thin coat that Leonard loaned me… is immediately soaked. Rainwater streams into my boots…pooling around my toes; filling in rivulets over the headstones…”

(Positive mood) “The cold morning air is playful, wind whipping about me like fingers, bringing in the exhilarating smell of autumn and rust. Father’s headstone shines in the first rays of early yellow sunlight, settling into its new home among the maze of grass and shade. I take a great breath and kneel to place a marigold on his grave, my knees sinking into the freshly turned earth.”

The objective correlative can also foreshadow.  If something bad is about to happen to an unsuspecting character, and you want your setting to be a harbinger of things to come, describe it in a way that creates anxiety or fear or discomfort. Throw in a few similes and metaphors or anthropomorphic references, as Maggie Stiefvater does so brilliantly in The Scorpio Races—““Below us and beyond us, the sea is whitecaps and foam and black rocks like teeth”—and your reader will feel instantly anxious.

So remember to focus on what your character feels and your setting details will surface. It’s all thanks to the magic of the objective correlative!


Finding Inspiration

As a child, I loved reading books about the Borrowers, a fictional family of tiny people who live secretly in the walls of an English house. To survive, they “borrow” items from the big people living there, who assume their things have been lost. Recently I’ve been wondering if the Borrowers have taken up residence with me too, because something I need has gone missing.

Inspiration.   Unknown

Inspiration is not like mislaid socks or lost buttons. You can’t see, hear or hold it, but you know when it’s gone. Because it’s the New Year, a hopeful time, when people are focused on fresh starts, I thought blogging about the problem might help me get back on track. After all, I’m starting something too—the ending of my novel. But the challenge of tying story elements together and weaving in concepts like crisis, climax and character arc into a brilliant conclusion has temporarily overwhelmed me. I need a creativity reboot!

So I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I made a list. I also turned to authors I respect for advice. “Where do you find inspiration? Stimulation and motivation?” I asked them. “What do you do when you hit a rough patch? And if you’re stuck, fading or afraid of failing, how do you convince yourself that you’ll succeed?”

images-21. Walk in nature. Writer Jill Koenigsdorf, author of Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall, swears by going on long hikes in nature with her dogs. “I find that during my walks, all my senses are more attuned and I tend to slow down and mull ideas over. I will see a raven on a barbed wire fence or a slit-open bag of sand on the side of the road or a piece of torn fabric on a rose bush, and it will trigger a story,” she explains. “I also find if I am stuck writing a certain scene or character in a piece I have already started, that walking outdoors helps me see what the problem is.”


  1. Watch a TED Talk. The extraordinary range of TED topics makes for a smorgasbord of thought-provoking talks. Best of all, you can watch them for free. Subjects range from understanding quantum physics to curing Alzheimer’s to discovering life on other planets, so whatever you need for your writing, you may be able to find right here. I gained valuable insights into one of my POV characters (a gamer), when I watched Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jane McGonigal’s talk on how “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Highly recommended.
  1. Listen to audiobooks. My son gave me a subscription to for    Christmas, and it’s changed my life. It’s also made me late to a lot of appointments, because I’m constantly pulling off the road to park so I can take notes on what I’m listening to. From a craft standpoint, however, I’ve become a convert. When I listen to books read aloud, I hear things I didn’t notice when I read in my head, like how the author uses  rhythm, cadence, syntax, tone and vocabulary to create an authentic voice.



  1. Seek out other people’s stories in whatever forms they take. Consider using unconventional materials. Stories can be found wherever we are, so be open about where to look. Sources like stand-up comedy routines, church sermons, obituaries, maps, yearbooks, brochures, games, restaurant menus, journals and even junk mail can be chock-a-block full of anecdotes and ideas. Recently, my husband and I discovered a stash of his mother’s old diaries. The yellowing pages, antiquated language, and old-fashioned perspective from a different era is a treasure chest of data—charming and sweet and a little bit sad. Reading the words my mother-in-law wrote as a 16-year-old in 1939 has been eye-opening. Bonus materials crammed into her diaries included postcards, dance cards, sketches, and even notes from summer camp friends. My favorite one was addressed to “a girl who can keep her temper well.” 
  1. Change Your Location. Change Your Perspective. A writer’s job is to look at the world from different points of view. Kathy Wilson, writer, teacher, digital media specialist and founder of the film collective Rikaroo thinks changing locations can help. Writing in a coffee shop in Harlem, for instance, will give you a different perspective than hanging out on Madison Avenue. Switching it up, she says, can be as simple as taking “a ride on the subway, intersecting with different lives, exploring new neighborhoods, eating different food, talking with my students, spending time with my father and his friends [who] are in their eighties and nineties [and] hearing their stories.”” Kathy’s also inspired by the courage and loyalty of animals. “Spending time with my dog inspires me,” she adds. “She seems to have drawn the short straw in life, yet never gives up.”
  1. Teach. Volunteer. I tutor at a school for disadvantaged kids where 100% of the students are on scholarship. Despite significant and often heartbreaking hardships, every senior graduates to attend a four-year college. Most are the first in their families to do so. Every time I set foot on campus, I’m awed by the courage, determination, and resiliency of these teens—often in the face of unspeakable odds. Talk about putting things into perspective…
  1. Take a class. Want to learn to Salsa dance, speak Swahili, sew, sing, sail, or practice Pilates? Go for it. It’s all grist for the mill. Having interests and hobbies is good for character creation, so writers should be lifelong learners. In order to prepare for a lecture I’m giving, I’ll be polishing my public speaking skills next month by working with stage and screen actor Andrew Hurteau, who helps people “tell a more compelling story” as a coach with Butterfield Speaks. Hollywood here I come.

images-1  8. Give Yourself a Deadline: Inspiration is more likely to show up if you have a deadline. If you don’t, make one up and ask a friend (or your writer’s group) to enforce. Procrastination is one of the seven deadly writer’s sins.

  1. Think of writing as a job. Stacy Nyikos, author of numerous picture books and the middle grade novel, Dragon Wishes, says she’s a drill sergeant when it comes to her writing routine. “I write every day, rain or shine, no matter if inspiration comes to the table or not. Writing is my job. Isn’t that how one treats any other job?”

Most importantly, don’t forget the words of Jack London. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

So, come on. Find your club and have at it. Let me know how it goes.

Find Your Pea Vision: Write from the Antagonist’s Point of View



While visiting my eldest son in Oregon this month, I spent a morning picking peas on his farm. After showing me how to choose the plumpest pods that were ready for harvesting, my son handed me a bucket to fill. As I worked my way down the row of trellised vines, peering out from under my sun hat into the dappled green depths, I picked what I thought was every last ripe pod.

It wasn’t until I went back for a second pass, that I saw the rogue pods that had escaped me. They seemed to have popped out like magic right in front of my eyes. I stared at them as they dangled jewel-like from the stalks, their plump exteriors bulging from the tender bumps inside. How had I missed them before?

One of the farm interns chuckled. “It takes awhile to get your pea vision,” he said, “and yours just kicked in.”

          images-5   Pea vision, as I define it, is when something obscure becomes suddenly clear. It’s all about perspective. Writers need to find their form of pea vision too—especially when it comes to characters. Figuring out how a protagonist acts, thinks, feels and talks rarely happens in a single blinding flash of insight. It takes time to get to know a character. When I walked back down that row of peas, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. Why? Because I changed the way I looked at the vines. Searching from a new angle, picking pods from the other side of the trellis, and risking bug bites and sore muscles to kneel in the dirt enabled me to better see what was ripe for the taking.

In writing, a different vantage point can result in a similar bounty. Our stories play out in real life from a single perspective—our own. But in novels, we can narrate from multiple points of view. I’ve always loved books where different characters give their version of the same series of events. In books like Tim Wynne-Jones’ Blink and Caution, Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Feral series, and Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, each narrator’s perspective fills in a piece of the story.

“Write what you know,” goes the old adage. But writers should do exactly the opposite too. Mine your life, sure, but stretch yourself as well to write what you don’t know, what you don’t understand, as a way of figuring it out. I love writing about people on the edge, for example. The people who trigger us—whose behavior makes our blood boil—can sometimes be our best teachers. The traits in them that most disturb us may tell us a lot about ourselves (and our fictional characters). Antagonist

Which is why I like to give my writing students the following exercise: rewrite an existing scene in your story from the antagonist’s POV. The point is to write from the perspective of someone whose behavior is strange, disturbing or even incomprehensible. The goal is to find the commonalities, because I believe that people, no matter where we come from or how we grow up, have more things in common than we have differences. Afterwards I ask my students, “How did that change your story?”

Currently, I’m writing a book narrated from three points of view. One of the POV’s is my antagonist, a man very different from me. An obsessive-compulsive computer programmer with PTSD, he’s awkward, unattractive and antisocial. He has no friends and spends his days coding and his nights playing video games. He also commits a terrible crime. How do I get into his whackjob mindset? By looking for emotions we’ve shared, instead of the life experiences we haven’t. Like my antagonist, I too have felt lonely, jealous and powerless—and that is how I access him.

Writing from the antagonist’s perspective can make the invisible visible. It does so by enabling writers to understand things about the world of their story that they may not seen before. Both my antagonist and the teenage girl he’s obsessed with undergo pivotal transformations when they recognize in each other some of the emotional issues they struggle with themselves.

In addition, exploring the antagonist’s POV can help avoid stereotypes. In a recent VCFA lecture on diversity in fiction, author Cynthia Leitich-Smith talked about the challenges and rewards of writing fiction from the POV of multicultural characters who may be different from ourselves. (Differences, she pointed out, can manifest themselves in many ways such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic levels, physical and mental health issues and abilities to name a few.) “Our characters shouldn’t be two dimensional excuses for social studies lessons,” Leitich-Smith said. “We are all accountable for the impact of our stories on young readers.” I came away from her lecture determined not to make assumptions. The danger of a single story is real.

Third, writing about characters antithetical to ourselves cultivates empathy. Never judge a person’s insides by his outside, my husband frequently says. When I remember to do that, I can step more easily into the other person’s shoes, and our differences matter less. When Wonder author R.J. Palacio decided to write a new chapter from the bully’s perspective, many readers felt that Julian’s narrative was the best one of all. UnknownBad guys may not be all bad, even when they do bad things. My antagonist is deeply flawed, dangerously hurt and he’s got a backstory full of baggage. But I didn’t understand all that until I began writing from his POV. I recommend two YA books, in particular, as stellar examples of antagonists who are protagonists: Tenderness by Robert Cormier and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Although the narrators are deeply disturbed teenage boys, I found myself still caring about them, despite their horrific acts.

So go find your pea vision by getting curious about your antagonist’s world. Give him a mouthpiece, ask him questions and listen with your heart. How does it change your story?


A Blackdog Farmstead harvest

How does it change you?


Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers



We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

I’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years.  Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience,, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”


Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.


Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.  images-1

In a post on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingKindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

imagesI believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.


Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”images-4


Helen Pyne

Creating Character Contradictions

Think back on the books you love, and invariably it’s the protagonist who comes to mind. Characters are the heart and soul of our stories, and I’ve spent months and sometimes years getting to know mine. But in my systematic efforts to pin down their personalities, I sometimes sacrifice what’s most important: the element of surprise. Even when I think I know my protagonist—her pet peeve, greatest fear, secret ambition, which songs she sings in the shower, and what makes her cry—it doesn’t mean her actions should be consistent.

And that’s a good thing, because predictable characters are boring. Why bother to read about someone if you know exactly what she’s going to do? But if that same protagonist surprises us by doing something unexpected or “out of character,” our interest is piqued. Life is not black and white; our characters shouldn’t be either.

“Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful or wise,” writes Dani Shapiro in her book, Still Writing. “Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types.” One way to avoid clichéd characters is to give them a mix of positive and negative traits–qualities that are both attractive and repellent.d940464aabf2822095ffd0ce607eb46f

In the movie Crash, for example, Matt Dillon plays an angry, racist white cop, whose actions can be as ugly as his words. Yet, when we see him at home tenderly and patiently caring for his sick father, we understand this ugly side is only part of the story.

In one of the film’s most tension-filled scenes (spoiler alert!), Dillon’s character heroically risks his life to pull a black woman from a burning car only seconds before it explodes. The irony is, he’d abused the same woman only days before by groping her during a traffic stop. Dillon’s partner, an idealistic white cop, wants to do the right thing, and yet he ends up shooting an innocent, black man. The fact that bad people do good, and good people do bad is what makes the characters in this thought-provoking film so authentic.


Oxymoronic complexities create unforgettable characters. Characters like Frankenstein (a sweet monster), Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (a gentle madman),


Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (an honest thief), and in real life, actor Robin Williams (the sad funny man). In contemporary YA, I couldn’t stop thinking about Keir Sarafian (a well meaning rapist) from Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable51NX92wCaRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

or Marcelo Sandoval, the autistic 17-year-old protagonist of Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World.  Initially, Marcelo appears isolated and incapable of relating to or understanding other people . But as we gradually come to see, it’s those other people in the story who are impaired—like Arturo, Marcelo’s high achieving, Harvard-educated, lawyer dad. Despite his intelligence, Arturo is blind when it comes to seeing the truth about the people around him. As a hypocritical, greedy, philandering father who genuinely loves his wife and kids, he too is full of incongruities. marcelo1

Character contradictions can help create empathy. When the thug reveals his vulnerability—through his fear of an abusive father or his worry about an incarcerated brother—that’s when we start to care. The superficial, shallow cheerleader can seem like a type—until she goes home to care for a handicapped sister or cancer-stricken mother.

A high school student of mine wrote a story about an impoverished 15-year-old living in the projects in Detroit. His protagonist, Jamal, is an honor student and a loving son to his single, hardworking mother. But Jamal also belongs to a gang. What I feel ultimately makes his character so interesting is the juxtaposition between his positive traits and his immoral actions. In the last scene, as Jamal picks up a pistol and heads out the door for a night of thieving, drug dealing, and possibly even murder, he almost forgets the duffle bag he’s packed. Grabbing it, he mumbles to himself, “Mom always said I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.”  This affectionate, kidlike statement stands in stark contrast to his criminal activities.

I try to focus on five essential elements when creating my characters: name, appearance, motive, history, and environment. Adding character contradictions to these categories can enhance every one.

  • Names have associations and images. Would you call a jock Horace? A popular cheerleader Beulah or Gertrude? Give a shy, artistic guy the name of Spike? Probably not…unless there’s a reason to upend your reader’s expectations. Ironic names can be a hugely effective way to ignite a reader’s interest, surprise us or make us laugh.
  • Appearance. Clothes, hair, body type, fitness level, facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures and speech all provide clues to character. But throw in character contradictions—make that pouty blond in the mini skirt a rocket scientist—and the reader does a double take. My son’s wife wore dusty work boots under her beautiful gown at their wedding ceremony—a statement about their life as farmers.
    wedding boots

    wedding boots

    In Silicon Valley, CEO’s of start-ups saunter down the streets dressed in grungy jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers. But their youthful appearance and slacker attire belie their astounding net worth.

  • Motive. What does your character want more than anything in the world? The answer is the force that moves stories forward and determines plot and character. But motives can be contradictory too, and conflicting desires create drama. When we lie to protect others, or give up something or someone we love, we are living out these contradictions. Take the classic example of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, who at the end of Casablanca forces his true love, Ilsa, to leave him. Or brave Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park who, after moving away from the boy she loves, chooses to ignore his letters and postcards despite her breaking heart.
  • History. Knowing your protagonist’s history is the key to understanding her motives. So, leaking backstory into the narrative can help a character’s contradictory actions make sense. In one of my students’ stories, where a young girl is being beaten by her drunk dad, I was startled by the following line: “[she] searched his eyes for any remnants of the kind, loving father she knew.” That’s the line that captured my attention, because it made me ask, “What happened to change everything? How did a loving Dad turn into this monster?” Incongruities like these can spark our interest and cause readers to engage more actively in the text.
  • Environment: Our environment shapes us, no question about it. Family, friends, school, home, work and physical settings are a few of the many factors that influence character. But you can also play with environment for humorous effect. Look at old sitcoms like the Beverly Hillbillies (poor, backwoods family moves to Beverly Hills) or Green Acres (city slickers move to a rural country farm). Or you can use environment as a vehicle for exploring serious, thought-provoking issues like in the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black (upper middle class white girl goes to a federal prison).oitnb_pds_077_h_wide-d905a9eae1732d4b21dfff6820388699d6c112e7-s4-c85

Regardless of whether you’re writing about oxymoronic characters like rich hicks or well heeled convicts, environmental mismatches can provide story drama that results in valuable new insights for readers.

It’s only human nature to make assumptions about people based on what we see, but when we take the time to pair unlikely elements, the rewards can be rich indeed. Character contradictions are all around us. Notice them, appreciate their oxymoronic complexity, and incorporate them into the people you create on the page. Your stories will be more authentic for it.







Desperately Seeking Discipline

My desk. With me not sitting at it.

My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

 And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author (, told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.

time-297498_640“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus (  “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly (  “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Set working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable.  “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says,  “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright (  who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien ( binge writes. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”


Prewriting rituals: Meditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany-inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off?  Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.   background-313389_640

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” Frances Lee Hall ( explains. “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.

Helen Pyne (






Teach What You Need To Learn


This gallery contains 10 photos.

“Editor. Writer. Teacher.” That’s what my website says I am. But it’s only in the past few years that I have been able to claim the last title. Thanks, in part, to my experiences as an instructor with a program … Continue reading