Worry Wart

Got a nice surprise last week when five advance reading copies of Ogre Enchanted showed up in my mailbox. So it’s a book, not the book, but a book–always a great moment.

On December 10, 2017, Bird dog wrote, I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.

The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.
If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!

Sara wrote back, First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!

I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in a bunch of ways.

And Zoe/TheSixthHobbit wrote, I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it often: We should stifle our worries about what readers will think. It is just a stick to beat ourselves with.
A couple of days ago, I started reading a memoir I will not name and took it with me to New York City, but I hated it so much I couldn’t keep reading and switched to my addiction, Free Cell Solitaire on my cell phone. In my opinion, the writing was cutesy and way too wordy. In the first few pages, the author constantly announced what he would and would not include in the memoir, and I wished he would shut up and just tell what he planned to tell and not blather on about it in advance. So, for this post, I looked at reader reviews of the book on Amazon: “…great storytelling…”; “He writes beautifully.”; “Excellent writing style.” Obviously, readers’ opinions differ.

Another example. In this case I will say the name because he can take it. I can’t bear Stephen King for a similar reason. In my opinion, he overwrites. My husband loves his books, so I’ve tried more than once to read one or two. But my mental red pencil comes out instantly, and I’m deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs! I prefer spare writing that disappears into the story, but millions–many millions!–disagree with me.

And a few other readers probably don’t like his work for reasons that are different from mine.

And I’ve adored books that haven’t caught on. And others that have.

And my books, incomprehensibly, aren’t the cup of tea of many readers.

Having said all this, however, we can set our fears to rest–or discover that they’re justified with a writers’ group or beta readers. One reader isn’t enough, and three are better than two. Don’t tell them what you’re worried about. Just let them read and then find out what they think. If it doesn’t come up, you can ask about the anxiety–or whatever else you happen to be concerned about.

If only one person is bothered, listen, think about it, and decide if you agree. But if more than one are troubled, and especially if more than two are, take that very seriously.

As for the anxious first-person MC, I’m with Sara on all counts. Yes, congratulations on finishing a draft! Kudos to you!

I’m a champion worrier, with a trophy to prove it, so, like Sara, I can relate, and would almost certainly enjoy a narrator who was like me in this regard.

I also love Sara’s idea of using the anxiety to advance the plot, like having it fuel a bad decision.

And I agree with her that there are many ways to portray anxiety.

It doesn’t have to show up only in description. It can appear in the elements fiction writers have at our disposal: dialogue, thoughts, action, physical symptoms. Even setting, which might be a trigger.

In dialogue, for instance, our MC can stop mid-sentence or trail off, distracted by worries. Or she can chatter uncontrollably. Or stutter. Or yell at people and even things. In the TV legal comedy, Boston Legal (high school and up), one of the MCs at one point gets so stressed that he starts speaking nonsense words and seems not to realize he’s abandoned English. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

A few other examples. Thoughts: Her mind can refuse to settle down and can rattle on and on. Action: She can walk out on a situation. Symptoms: Hives. Setting: The school where her anxiety began. There are many more options in each category.

Also, , in dialogue and thoughts and everything else, we can show our MC trying to conquer her anxiety. Her efforts are likely to make her even more relatable.

In our first draft or, as in Bird Dog’s case, an expansion, we shouldn’t worry about going over the top. We should write the anxiety as fully as we can and throw in the kitchen sink. When we’re finished and start revising, we’ll have a better idea of what to keep and what to toss.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC, a writer, is polishing the first five pages of her manuscript for submission to agents, and she is questioning every word. Anxiety is taking her over. She reads this blog, but she can’t keep herself from worrying about her readers. Write the scene, varying the ways she expresses her anxiety. Give it a happy ending, though, and create her recovery.

∙ Your MC never worries. He’s part of a team combing a wilderness to find a lost camper. Everything goes wrong, but he’s untroubled. Write the scene, and make him really annoying.

∙ Two characters are preparing–separately–to debate each other. Their prep methods are entirely different. Write the preparation for each of them, and then write the debate.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Congrats on getting your advanced reading copies of Ogre Enchanted!
    This was a great post, and I can apply it to some of the books I’m currently working on as my MC’s tend to worry a lot.

  2. Hi everyone! It’s been sooo long since I’ve last been here but I really missed the community and I’m glad to be back! I used to go by Kitty but I decided to go by my real name now instead of my old nickname from middle school. Anyways, great post!

    I love the point Gail makes about not worrying about what readers will think. I read somewhere that the first draft is just you telling yourself the story, and I think that’s so true. You’re probably going to go through a few rounds of self-editing before anyone else sees your work, so if nobody’s going to even see your first draft, write it however you want. And even when you do get to the point later when you have to worry about how your book will appeal to others, you’ll always have critique partners and beta readers to help you.

    And I think stories about characters with anxiety are important and definitely have a place on shelves. It’s something a lot of people struggle with, and I think they’d be happy to see characters sharing their struggles, not annoyed. Have you read Eliza and Her Monsters byt Francesca Zappia? It also features a character with social anxiety and a lot of people really like the book.

  3. Carrying over from the last thread, but Gail, thank you again for the list idea! Now I have a bunch of reasons why my villain might be doing what they’re doing, ranging from downright weird to potentially useful.

    They’re basically giving the MC everything he’s always wanted, at the cost of everything he’s come to believe in.

  4. Hello Mrs Levine.
    I was wondering if there was I way I could interview you for a school assignment. I understand if that isn’t possible but I thought that I might as well ask.

  5. Superb♥Girl says:

    Hello! I’m not exactly sure where to leave my question (newbie), so I’ll just put it here!
    Gail, I have plans for this fantasy story, and the main idea is that my MC wants nothing to do with this enchanted world they came to. But thinking back, I remember reading a book with the same premise, and I HATED the MC. I had grown so sick of her whining about this world, and being so upset over it, I stopped reading the story. So I’m beginning to worry that my MC will turn out looking like an annoying drama-queen. Do you have any advice for me? Thanks!

    • I’m not Gail, but if you’d like another person’s 2 cents, I’d think why the person wants nothing to do with the world might make a difference. Are they worried about someone at home? Allergic to something in the new world? Just cranky?

      I’m thinking about Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She wants to leave Oz from almost the moment she gets there, but because it’s because she’s worried about her aunt + uncle, she doesn’t seem whiny.

  6. Hello! I have a (weird) question. My novel is centered around a fictional, magical school. I have most of it’s details worked out, but I’m can’t decide on it’s actual appearance and architecture. It’s in north american mountains, built a few hundred years ago, and I was originally going to do a castle, but it sounded very much like JK Rowling’s Hogwarts and it didn’t fit the culture. Does anyone have any ideas or thoughts? Thanks!

    • You can look into the history of what types of large buildings might have been built in that area. Perhaps a fort (check out Cove Fort in Utah–big stone walls around a courtyard). Or what about the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado? I’m more familiar with these Rocky mountain buildings, but if you’re using different mountains, you can probably research other places.

    • Superb♥Girl says:

      My advice (which is hopefully helpful) is that it depends on what kind of school it is. Is it a light or dark one? Do the students enjoy their time there? What kind of magic is it focused on? How big does it need to be?
      Depending on what the answers are, it could be enormous, gloomy tunnels carved inside the mountains or a tiny farmhouse forgotten by time. Heck, it could even turn out to be a village! The possibilities are endless!
      Again, I hope that was helpful! Best of luck to you!

  7. Sunny-days,

    If your magical school is set in a mountain range, your school could even BE an actual mountain, (or look that way to outsiders.) : )

  8. Which mountains? The Rockies are tall and stark and have a tree line, and the stones in Colorado are red, while the local-to-me Adirondacks are green and pillowy with lakes nestled in the valleys, and fiery foliage in Autumn. What kind of atmosphere are you looking for?

    You might want to look up the Appalachian Trail. All kinds of neat stuff there!

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