You spend the second half of your life getting over the first half -- and why that's important in fiction

I got a 2011 calendar in the mail the other day.



When I opened the envelope and found the calendar, I felt a small wave of relief. I won’t have to buy one this year.

You see, my mother had a thing about not buying calendars, so whenever I've had to buy one, I felt slightly guilty.

Why is this important? It’s not really. Or at least, not to anyone but me.

But it proves the adage above about how hard it is to shake the things in your childhood and youth. Not that I needed more proof. I see it all around me, in everyone I get to know well enough that they start telling stories about how they grew up.

The first twenty years in particular leave their indelible marks. No one escapes scarring. I have a friend who has a perfectly nice mother. My friend acknowledges that her mother was always very supportive, but she also clearly remembers her mother saying, “You’re going to have to rely on your personality in life, because you’re no beauty.”

Now my friend is not a bowser. She doesn’t have bucked teeth or a wandering eye. She wasn’t born with a harelip. As easily attractive as any of my other friends, she makes the most of her good features and minimizes her imperfections.

And she would die before she left the house without her makeup on.

Did her mother’s comment (which her mother doesn’t even remember) cause this behavior? Probably not. Or at least not all by itself. The human psyche is, after all, a complex critter, but were I writing a character who was fastidious about her appearance, I know that growing that trait out of something in her background (and preferably her childhood) adds depth to the character. The right background detail can take what looks at first glance like egotism and turn it into insecurity, morphing what might be an unlikable character into one the reader feels sympathy for. It works even if their role in the story is that of villain.

It's a tool you need and the best part is that it's a tool that's easy to use once you grasp its importance.

Writing: A Risky Business

Writers always face the possibility of looking idiotic.

How many of you voiced a spontaneous amen reading that? I know I did when I read it this week.
From the day we first pick up a pen or create a fresh Word document, intending to write something for someone else’s eyes, whether we ever work up the courage to share what we’ve written or not, to the day our latest work is published, we risk looking idiotic.

With every line, every word choice, every simile and metaphor, we risk looking foolish. The fresher, more creative our imagery, the greater the risk.

So once we’re past the novice stage, why do we take the risk? Why do we stretch that metaphor just a hair beyond where we know it will work? Why do we insert a simile that speaks to us but that we know might not connect with our audience?

Truck: A Love Story (P.S.)We do it because the potential reward for that perfect, fresh image is a high that can leave you just as light-headed and delirious as the last push to crest Everest. Though it might not be as dangerous as tackling the tallest mountain in the world, we push the envelope, because to do otherwise condemns us to lackluster prose and tired clich├ęs.Examples of vivid, fresh imagery exist everywhere. One of my all-time favorites is from Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry.

It (a singer's voice) sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman's hand.


Most neo-writers, unless they’re natural wordsmiths, can’t construct a sentence with this kind of incandescent imagery. Hell, I’ll probably never write anything half as poetic. But fortunately, the brain functions much like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the better it gets at this sort of thing, so someday, maybe, I’ll find myself typing something that makes me sigh wistfully the way Michael Perry's writing does.

One of the ways I encourage my brain is to take note of phrases and images that particularly strike me. I have an entire file of them on my computer, not because I’m going to steal them, but to remind myself of what I’m shooting for. They also stimulate whatever part of my brain comes up with fresh images. There was a time when I had a need and the only image I could think of that said what I needed was “toast popping up out of a toaster.” Because I was writing high fantasy, that image didn’t work. But the image of prairie dogs popping up out of their dens did. I was a neo-writer back then, so I’m embarrassed now at how long it took me to find that second image. I’ve had a lot more practice now. Those better images come easier.

The ultimate reward may be seeing a phrase you invented become a part of pop culture, a lexicon borrowed by others because you vision resonates with the masses. Most of us will never achieve that pinnacle, but we can easily imagine the thrill of hearing our words spoken by strangers.

Still, the potential for embarrassment is always there, and if I didn’t have a safety net in the form of critique buddies who will haul me back from the precipice when I get too reckless, too creative, to avante guard, I’d be more cautious about taking the risks I do take.  When my foray into creative thinking is rewarded with their approval, I become more confident and  adventuresome. But when they don’t, I sadly kiss my darlings goodbye. Okay, so more often they have to drag them from my arms with me thrashing about and cussing them for the unimaginative cretins they must be to not “get” my vision. Your true friends will insist anyway.

The important thing is to try. Yes, you risk looking like an idiot, but it's like the lottery: you can't win if you don't play. So take that risk. After all, you've already proven your willingness to look like an idiot the moment you typed the first word of that first story.