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!

Discomfort Zone

On June 7, 2015, Arnyoung wrote, I was wondering if anyone has had any problems with thinking about the audience when you write. I have kind of the opposite problem from many of the others who have commented here. I really like writing about characters who are different from me. I have mostly written about adults in historical fiction, but I am a teenager and my family thinks that I should write about angsty teens and depression and things because that’s what some writing contests in my age group are about. It’s not like I can’t write teenagers, but I would prefer to use my own ideas rather than the ones my mom gives me. Any suggestions?

There seem to be several questions here:

∙ Is there a problem thinking (or not thinking) about audience when we write?

∙ Should we write for contests?

∙ Should we generate our own ideas rather than work on ideas supplied by others?

∙ Is there anything wrong with writing adult characters when we are teenagers?

∙ Not positive about this one: Is historical fiction a fit subject for a teen?

Just saying for starters, the posts and prompts on this blog are rarely angst-ridden or depressive, and people read the blog, fool around with my prompts, and discuss their own work, which isn’t usually (although sometimes) full of teen misery. There are many audiences, and lots of readers adore historical fiction. Count me among them.

However, nothing is simple. I’d say yes and no to each of these questions.

Let’s start with the third one. I don’t think we should put aside our own ideas, ideas that are tugging at us, that please us, that make us enthusiastic about writing. That’s what we should write, because writing is hard enough without it feeling like medicine we have to choke down.

But I confess that sometimes I get sick of myself, of the way I word things, of the themes I tackle habitually. When we’re not full of an idea, or when we suspect that we, too, are covering familiar territory repeatedly, an outside idea can broaden us. If the idea seems too alien, we can free write about it and see what associations it calls up. We can make lists of possible directions we can take the story.

Second question. I see nothing wrong with writing for contests. You might win! I’m ignorant about this: Do contests really specify that characters have to be troubled teens? If they do, and you’re in the mood for something outside your usual genre, sure, go for it. If they don’t, why not submit something in your usual vein anyway, in the hope that good writing will win the day?

Now let’s imagine that the almost unimaginable best happens: You write an edgy story about a disturbed and disturbing teen and win the contest, which is not what’s almost unimaginable. Of course you can win! What follows, however, is that the story gets national attention, is anthologized in a collection of best short stories by emerging writers in 2015. Suddenly, you are urged to keep writing in this new vein.

Well, if you were delighted with this new genre and have lots more ideas, pursue what interests you. But if you still love your old genre, go back to it. Your new readers may follow you. Some certainly will. And even if no one does, the most important thing is to be the voice you want to be.

Fourth question. There is nothing wrong with writing adult characters when you’re a teenager. Some people only catch up to their emotional, mental age when they reach their forties. And anyway, it’s hard to avoid writing adult secondary characters, so young writers have experience.

But if you’re writing from in the first person of an adult, you may want to ask an adult if you’re getting it right, if the voice rings authentically adult. It’s not so different from writing in a voice of the opposite sex. We want to be sure we’re hitting the right note.

Here is one tip that may be helpful for some: Sarcasm tends to fade in adulthood. Just saying.

I’ve been an adult for a long time as we all know since my recent birthday. My interior life was very different when I was in my twenties than in my forties and again in my sixties. It was different, aside from age, when I was working for someone else from what it is now, working myself and living a writing life. If I live to be very old, I suspect it will change again. So there’s all that to consider. Still, go for it if that’s what appeals to you.

The fifth question is easy. Of course historical fiction is a fit topic for a teen. A great topic! As has come up recently, we want to do our research and get the details and the big historical events right.

Now for the first question. The only audience I like to think about when I write is an admiring one. Sometimes I have my editor in mind if I think she’ll love what I’m doing. If I’m not sure, I’m best off banishing her. But my most constant audience when I write is me, because I hope to write what I would enjoy reading. I rarely wonder if what I’m doing is right for a young audience. Occasionally, I think about that when it comes to word choice, and usually if I want to use a ten dollar word, I decide to go for it. The kids can look it up or figure out the meaning from context or grow up having the wrong idea about a particular word, which could cause a little embarrassment of the sort I’ve survived more than once. Most of the age appropriateness comes naturally to me, and I think it will to you, too. I put material into my poems for adults that don’t occur to me in my fiction for young people.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write about a teen in the Middle Ages whose family is unsympathetic even dysfunctional in whatever way you pick. Let’s make them neither impoverished peasants nor nobility; the father is a member of the bakers’ guild (or any guild you choose), and everybody has to work in the family business. Think of something your MC wants or a problem the family faces. Write the story.

∙ Move the teen and the family into the twenty-first century. The family business is a fast food franchise. Everybody has to help. If you can, use a version of the same problem that motivated your medieval story. If you can’t, create a new one.

∙ Go back to an earlier blog post or dig into Writing Magic or Writer to Writer for a prompt that feels way outside your comfort zone. Give it a least a half hour’s worth of a whirl.

Have fun, and save what you write!