We Can Change the World*

Last week I wrote about how artists struggle to work in the face of something terrible like this global pandemic. This week I want to write about a broader artistic issue. And don’t worry, I’ll get back to the minutiae of craft soon! But the world feels too…big right now. So please forgive my “big” talks.

Making Purpose-Driven Art

Last week I wrote:

Artists need to make art that will make people think – think about these disparities, think about the astonishing lack of governance from our national leaders, think about this economic division that has been a long time coming and we haven’t fixed it. We need to make art that will make people feel – feel empathy, feel guilt, feel motivation.

We need to make art that will shake the very ground on which we stand.

Here’s Eric Clapton to listen to while you read the rest:

The Generous Spirit

Writing from a place of emotion and empathy – making purpose-driven art – requires that we artists walk the walk.

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and she talks about all manner of things but this one struck me. In her list of creative exercises/how-tos is one called “How to Be Lucky”.  And her answer is, be generous. It struck me because all of the “lucky” talented people I know – the ones who have made the best seller lists, found the right agents, reached audiences – the ones that many aspiring artists look up to – are truly, deeply generous.

By that Ms. Tharp means, when you are giving of your creative self, you are giving away good fortune. You are manifesting good karma. And good karma has a way of ricocheting back to the benefactor.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that artists sacrifice their income by giving away hours of hard work and thoughtful effort. We all need to live in this world. I do school visits and I coach writers to supplement my income, as do so many colleagues. The kind of generosity Ms. Tharp is talking about (and I hope I can relate this truly) lies in the small moments. Directing someone to an article that speaks to their craft issue. Looking a child in the eyes and smiling and engaging as they hand you a book to sign. Being there for a colleague who needs encouragement or boosting. Small moments that add up to big movements.

I think what Ms. Tharp is talking about is kindness.

An Empathy Movement

There’s a lot going on today in the world that sucks away kindness. We are a world divided on many issues, some all too real, some wildly misguided. As artists we can have a role in changing the world.

I think the world has never been more fragile.

…i.e., the world has never been more ripe for change.

Art is powerful. By reaching into deep emotions – by building story lines that raise questions – by creating purpose-driven art – yes, we artists can make a difference.

An empathy movement is one in which we, artists, open the doors to reflection. We set choices before our audiences and let them decide. We create safe spaces for audiences to enter that allow them to examine themselves and societal constructs, without condemnation or evaluation.

An empathy movement has the power to go the distance.

An empathy movement also connects artists to one another, and I think that’s one of the best things that I’ve observed happening in the face of this current crisis – artists coming together to support one another and the world at large.

If you are struggling, I hope you will reach out. I hope you will find comfort. I hope you will be able to work – especially, to work, because we need your work – and to live.

For, all of us together, we artists, we generous and kind spirits, we have the power to change the world.

*With credit to Eric Clapton.


Out of Balance

When things are so out of balance, what happens to creativity? And what is the role of the artist?

On the Edge of Nowhere

Nothing like this pandemic has happened in our lifetime. In our country, 9-11 is the closest we can come to such social upheaval, or New Orleans after Katrina in the way this pandemic is affecting people of color. We’d all have to go back to World War 2 to feel it – but we’re on the edge of losing that generation. The Depression, the 1918 flu pandemic – ancient history. And in those past events we were able to come together, grieve together, try to fix it together, hold one another close, and then get back to work – together.

The lucky ones among us can sit tight. We have enough resources tucked away. We live in places with outdoor spaces that allow for relative freedom. We live in single-family homes. We can look at this stretch of time as time to create – no meetings, no appointments, no social engagements, no random shopping to interrupt the flow. Why, we can bake bread or cookies, and still get that novel written! Write a short story! Learn to draw! Play the guitar that’s been gathering dust forever!

But creativity doesn’t sit easily beside fear. The muse shies away from clamor and confusion. This is why so many of us, unburdened, still can’t find the strength or will to pursue our art.

More importantly, there’s a bigger issue lying in wait, and if we don’t see it yet, we will.

Art and Social Justice

The worst thing about this pandemic is that it has forced us into our own corners, even more than we’ve been cornered over the past four years. It will create a huge economic disparity that will drown the world.

People with few resources can’t afford to be out of work. Social distancing in a crowded apartment complex filled with multi-generational families is a joke. The health care system that has denied a segment of the population proper care is over-burdened by those who’ve been left out.

But working right now is dangerous, so how do people choose? Do I go to work for Instacart or Amazon and bring in enough money to feed my hungry family, or do I go to work and bring home death?

This is where the artist – especially those of us who have the luxury – can do something. Anything. We need to become socially conscious. We need to look up from the bread bowl and get angry. Really, deeply, in-our-bones angry.

And then we need to translate that anger into art.

Purpose-driven Art

Artists need to make art that will make people think – think about these disparities, think about the astonishing lack of governance from our national leaders, think about this economic division that has been a long time coming and we haven’t fixed it. We need to make art that will make people feel – feel empathy, feel guilt, feel motivation.

We need to make art that will shake the very ground on which we stand.

But to do that, artists need to know how to make people think. We need to understand how to make people feel. Inciting emotion is a subtle art, built on a bridge between artist and audience. For the writer, creating deep emotion on the page that is a call to action is a carefully-thought out process of building resonance with characters who express those emotions, and story lines that raise questions. Creating this kind of art is not a dictate but a dance. Purpose-driven art allows the audience in, lets it question and self-examine and choose.

Let’s make that kind of art.

We also will need – desperately – to support artists who come from those communities that suffer from economic disparities, because emerging from this time, with the world in tatters, it will be hard for underrepresented artists to gain footing.

The muse shies away from clamor and confusion, but she is battle-ready and waiting for the artist who feels purpose.

Please take care of yourself, and, when you’re ready, let’s get to work.

And here’s your next two chapters of ARK, my sci-fi young adult novel.

What’s At Stake?

Continuing the posts from a month or so back, when the world was a different place. But I still want to write, and share craft, so here you go.

Finally, a great story – and a great character – need stakes.

Stakes are raised through adding tension at both a macro and a micro level.

Take the Macro…

At a macro level, your story needs to be about something compelling. Note that compelling does not necessarily mean over-the-top, in-your-face action. It means that the character is emotionally invested in the outcome. It means that tension is exacerbated each time the character misses the mark, by ignoring obvious errors, by not understanding what’s happening, or by moving in the wrong direction and/or making poor choices.

As an example, consider any good romantic novel. The premise is always that the lovers will go through a series of push and pull moments. When boy loses girl, it’s usually because he has done or said something stupid, and he has to win her back. This is not action/adventure, but it must be “high stakes” for the couple in question. After all, it‘s about their future, their happiness – and if you are Jane Austin, it’s also about the happiness of their families and possibly even their friends, and maybe even the good of society at large. Those stakes are heightened when the writer heightens the romantic tension by withholding a good outcome until the last possible moment.

As Donald Maass says in Writing The Breakout Novel, high public stakes (“we will all suffer”) go hand in hand with high personal stakes (“I will suffer”), and it is the writer’s job to tap into the emotional heart of what is happening and present it to the reader.

And the Micro…

At a micro level, stakes are raised through diction and syntax. Short, punchy sentence structure produces a reaction in the reader’s brain, and the reader feels tension, anxiety, and dread. Word choice can also affect the reader’s response, as hard consonants create the feeling of abrupt or brutish action. And don’t forget that the right verb can create a punch in the gut sensation (just consider the verb “punch” versus the verb “hit”).

A careful writer will, at some point, spend time going through a novel slowly for just those moments, to heighten tension by changing words or sentences. This writerly skill is sometimes intuitive, but it can also be learned, and if you practice it, you’ll find it comes more naturally with time.

For more on this, see James Scott Bell’s Conflict and Suspense.

Writer Brain, Reader Brain

What this comes down to, as all the posts I’ve written in this series have made clear, is the emotional connection that must be made between reader and writer. The sensation of being lost in a book is brought about when the reader is no longer aware of the machinations of the writer but is, at a lizard-brain level, aware that “something big is going on” in the text.

Heightening the stakes in your work means paying attention, during later drafting/revision stages, to how and where you’ve created “high-stakes” moments, and to making things worse, if necessary. But it also means balancing those moments of high drama with moments when the reader (and the characters) can take a breath before moving to the next level of tension. Tension plays best in opposition to its release.

But best not to release for too long. Modern readers expect that moments of ease will be followed pretty rapidly by an increasingly higher-stakes game. And never let the reader forget the risk your character is taking by relaxing.

So, to repeat, a character’s emotional responses are always at the core of creating a great character, and thus a great story.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions.

And, as promised, here are the next two chapters of my YA sci-fi, ARK.

Post The Apocalypse

These are tough times. Not happy times. We worry for ourselves, our loved ones, the world.

It feels like yesterday, the anticipation of baseball. The blossoms on the cherry trees, the joy of being together outside, at parties.

It feels like a million years ago.

We are all trying to do our part, and I’ve never been prouder of my fellow authors. There are so many options of things for you and your kids to find on line, that it quickly becomes overwhelming. I do think about those who don’t have internet access (where I’m spending my “retreat”, access is spotty, so I can commiserate.)

But we’ll keep trying. I’m part of a collective of authors over on Twitter called Stuck at Home Book Chat (https://twitter.com/ArtistChat). It’s a series of short videos of authors answering frequently asked questions. It’s fun and you can pick your favorite authors to watch. And please ask us questions, too – we’ll answer.

Take care, be safe, stay distanced. Listen to the doctors. We’ll be back to normal one day and this will feel like a nightmare that is over.

There still are cherry trees.

In the next weeks I’ll go back to sharing writing craft tips because that’s what I love to do.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that hidden away in my catalogue is a YA sci-fi novel that I wrote a few years back and published on line, just because. It describes a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by not a pandemic but close – an invasion of nanotech.

I’ll add that it has an optimistic, hopeful ending. And a love story.

So, here’s a sample of the opening two chapters. (Click through the small script on the next page you see to open the pdf file.)

If you like, I’ll serialize the entire novel because we all need entertainment. Let me know what you think – I’m open to suggestions!

(If you can’t wait, you can find it on Amazon here for only 1.99.)


And, again, stay safe.

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

Edited to add: check out the links in the comments. We’re updating regularly! And if you are an author or illustrator looking to add to this list, please do comment or contact me. Thanks!

Wow. What a world. I don’t know about you, but things are changing in my domain at a rapid clip.

With so many kids out of school, it’s got to be hard to find good entertainment (that might even sneak in a little education). And if you aren’t a kid, you may be finding your new “sheltering-in-place” way of life either anxiety-provoking (too much news!) or boring (even binge-watching gets old).

So I’ve put my craft posts on a brief hold for a week or two while I try to help you all find things to do, for yourselves and the ones you love.

For The Kiddos (And Young At Heart)

The inimitable author Kate Messner has created a special resource realm, Read, Wonder, and Learn, with authors reading from their books, suggesting writing prompts, giving mini-lectures on interesting topics, etc. A fun place to find treasures!

And – zowee – check this out from We Are Teachers! A huge compendium of options.

Here’s a resource for moms with tons of different kinds of activities.

For young artists, a drawing challenge that will be updated. Here’s a series of drawing lessons from the amazing Jarrett Krosoczka. And a cool page from Chris Barton with coloring sheets! Also, Jarrett Lerner has excellent activities – check them out.

Non-fiction guru Melissa Stewart has a series of video lessons here.

Check out this YouTube channel of authors, Authors Everywhere, who are presenting drawing tips and other cool things.

Author Lindsay Curry (Peculiar Incident on Shady Street) has a YouTube channel teaching “writing spooky” tips.

Children’s Book Insider is making their writing blueprint free, for kids 6-10.

Publisher’s Weekly has posted this article with a whole lot of kidlit-related on-line information.

And for a quick fix, here’s a video of me reading the opening of THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS:

For The Reader

For the housebound reader, libro.fm has a list of really great suggestions for ways you can not only support yourself but also your local independent bookseller.

And the best suggestion of all is this one: bookstorelink. I’d never heard of it, but type in any book you’re searching for and it will connect you with a local indie that can, in many cases, hand-deliver books to your door, or your waiting car. Cool, huh?

(If you live in Bozeman Montana, my wonderful indie, Country Bookshelf, has confirmed that they will deliver prepaid books within city limits or curbside. Go for it!)

For Anyone

Librarians are awesome. Information at their fingertips, and they know how to use it. Here’s a link to everything you might need to get through the next few weeks.

I’ll be updating this site with new things I find and if you have anything appropriate to share, please share in the comments. Thanks and hang in there!


Driving Toward The End

This is the fourth post in my series on character.

The External Goal

We need to see your character’s internal desire explicit on the page, but your character also needs something driving her forward in the plot, and this is her external goal.

The internal desire and external goal are related, of course, but they can be quite different. The external goal is what we see on the surface of the story. It’s the mystery of who-done-it. It’s the McGuffin. It’s the Lost Ark. It’s inherent in the story and set within your plot, and is set in motion in the inciting incident that starts your story.

This is in contrast to the internal desire, which has been within your character from long before your story began.

Let’s Compare Goal With Desire

In the previous post I used some examples of internal desire – let’s see how the same stories express the external goals.

Harry Potter’s external goal is to defeat Voldemort. It’s that simple. Voldemort is the antagonist, and he’s pretty awful not only to Harry but also to his friends, and by the end, to the entire world, magical and muggle.

Katniss Everdeen’s external goal is to defeat the hierarchy that created and supports the Hunger Games. She survives through force of will, primarily in order to bring down this terrible society.

Frodo Baggins’s external goal is to get rid of the ring of power by throwing it into Mount Doom, and thereby defeating Sauron.

All three of these external goals are pretty straightforward, right? They drive the protagonist’s actions and they account for the action in every scene in the story. You can see how markedly they differ from the protagonist’s internal desire. The latter is, again, the emotional arc; the external goal is a pure plot arc.

A Good Story Needs Both

We’ve all seen movies or read books in which things are all action, all the time. Pretty boring, in my view. Without the layer of internal desire, the external goal is pure entertainment without depth. But without a compelling external goal, a story can be equally boring – an inside-your-head ego trip.

One of the reasons I think the Avengers movie series is so successful is that, while there’s a ton of action, each of the characters also has emotional depth and an internal arc (from love story to filial responsibility to struggles with rage). The stories are kept in balance, and we keep watching.

Notice also how often a great story pits the external goal against the internal desire. Harry wants a family, but in his struggle against Voldemort he puts everyone he loves in danger – and he is internally conflicted, too, as is Frodo in his mission to destroy the ring. Katniss wants to protect Prim, but she antagonizes the “state” and threatens everyone and everything by doing so. When a character’s internal desire bumps up against the external goal the result is conflict, that essential element in great fiction.

My recommended reading for this aspect of craft is Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict.

Next week we’ll pull this all together with what we mean by the story’s stakes.


This post covers the third in my series on character.


That kinda grabs your attention, doesn’t it?

Back when I was an MFA student at Vermont College, faculty member and writer Louise Hawes gave a lecture with that title, and her evocative enunciation of the word desire sticks with me today. As does her point.

Which is: your main character must have an internal desire that drives her from the beginning to the end of her story arc. (Note that your character will also have an external goal, particular to your story, which I’ll discuss in the next blog post. This post speaks to that internal driving desire or yearning that your main character has held long before your story even begins.)

Your job as writer is to know and be able to articulate that desire and understand how it will drive every action your character takes as well as how it is realized by the end of your book.

Some Examples of Internal Desires

Let’s see what some novels contain for internal character desire, as a way to understanding what it means.

Harry Potter’s main desire is to “find” his “lost” parents. To have a family. It’s the only way he believes he’ll ever understand himself. He has many substitute parents throughout the stories (Dumbledore, Sirius, Hagrid to name a few) but in the end he finds solace with the large family of wizards and witches, and finds his community – which is what we all do when we become adults.

Katniss Everdeen’s main desire is to protect her sister Prim. It’s been her desire ever since their father died. That desire drives everything – her volunteering as tribute, her determination to live. She protects others (Peeta) when she can. And though Katniss’s desire is thwarted, it is reshaped into her desire for love.

Frodo Baggins’s main desire is to be something of a wanderer. He wants to explore, to be an adventurer. “He’s more of a Brandybuck,” some say disparagingly. He jumps at the chance to leave home (which makes a perfect contrast with his companion Sam, who’d rather stay home), and in the end Frodo gets what he desires, as he really never returns to Hobbiton.

What Connects All These Internal Desires?

You probably guessed the answer to that question already from what I’ve been saying in earlier posts. These characters’ internal desires are driven by their deep, sometimes not articulated or even recognized, emotions. Yearning is another word for this.

Harry yearns to belong. Katniss yearns to protect. Frodo yearns to adventure. Every emotion that surrounds these internal desires is fully expressed through the characters’ actions and reactions – in other words, through what they do, i.e., the plot.

This is how you tie together your character and your plot. Your main character’s internal desire is expressed through her emotional responses to what happens in your story. The craft book I recommend for understanding this aspect of character is Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story.

Understanding your main character’s internal desire is step one to a fully rounded story and a strong story arc. Step two is understanding your main character’s external goal, which I’ll cover in my next post.

Voice: It’s Not (All) About The Music

The title of this post is a little deceptive. There is a musicality to great writing, isn’t there? Words that soar and sing. Sentences that ebb and flow. Paragraphs that lead you in one direction and then plop you down in a foreign land. A beautifully written book is “word music”.

But that’s not all.

Of all the things a writer needs to think about when crafting a story, voice is most closely tied to diction and syntax. Which means that beyond the musicality – the gorgeous words and lyrical writing – the writer has to be aware of what kind of word choices and sentence structure will convey the character’s “truth”: truth in who they are, and in what they feel.

Voice, in other words, stems directly from character. And character is driven by emotion.

Yup, there we are again – emotion.

What, Exactly, Is Voice?

Point of view (POV) is the way we describe who is telling the story. POV can be written in first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and rarely, second person. (Another discussion for another post.)

Voice, on the other hand, is a subtle combination of tone, character, and narrative style. It’s difficult to find a straightforward craft book guide to voice, but the closest I’ve seen is in Writing Fiction: A Guide To The Narrative Craft. I highly recommend this deep and intense book to the student of the craft – read it carefully and you’ll learn as much here as you would as you would in an entire MFA program.

I gave a presentation a while back in which I go into much more detail about voice, and you can download a copy of it here: Crafting Voice. There’s a lot more to digest on this subject than I have room for in this post, although I also wrote another post a while back that includes some exercises and you can find it here.

However, I can say that the narrative voice of a piece of writing should reflect three aspects of your work:

  • Who is my character? What kind of person is he or she? How does she talk, act, and think?
  • What is the tone or approach my book should take toward my subject matter? Am I trying to create a contemporary high school scene, or a historical drama, or a high fantasy?
  • What is the underlying theme of my novel and what impression do I want the reader to feel throughout the reading? What emotion do I want my reader to take away after finishing the book?

Voice Is All About Emotion – The Character’s and The Reader’s

Once again, we arrive back at what I think is the heart of great story-telling: knowing the emotional drivers for your characters, and knowing what emotions you hope to evoke in your readers. The way to channel character emotions and arouse emotions in your readers is partly through your choice of words – through the narrative voice. In addition, you must keep in mind the kind of story you’re trying to tell, to capture the right tone. And finally, your theme – the message you want to convey to your reader – also contributes to the emotional response you’ll create in your reader.

Whether you’re writing a serious futuristic novel or a contemporary rom-com, your word choice must reflect the emotional heart of your story, so that your reader will absorb and relate to it at a subconscious level. And your word choice will also be driven by how your character feels and what she knows about life.

Thoughts? Questions?

Backstory: What Your Character Knows

Backstory. The first of five important character elements…

An Example of Backstory

When I was about five, my parents took me and my sister to Daytona Beach, Florida. Those were the days when you could drive a car right across the sand to the waterfront (I know, right?) It was, I’m pretty sure, my first beach experience, since we lived in the Midwest at the time. I had these beach toys I loved – a matching bucket, shovel, and fork in swirly pink and white vinyl.

Daytona Beach, back in the day

At some point, fetching water, I lost the bucket and was desolate, and then, wading out sobbing while trying to retrieve it, I was knocked flat by a wave. I was under water for no more than maybe thirty seconds, and, after dragging me sputtering from the ocean, my dad found the bucket, but that was all it took. I hated swimming from that moment, and am still terrified in water over my head.

This fear was exacerbated when I was twelve and my parents insisted on swimming lessons that were conducted in a public pool where we girls were all forced to strip naked and take a public shower together before putting on our swim suits – something that today would be or should be illegal and at the time was utterly humiliating to a girl on the edge of puberty.

Now, just to add to that emotional baggage, my mom later told me a story about how she almost drowned in the ocean as a young woman, and when she was pulled from the water the undertow had stripped off her bathing suit. My worst fears all in one place.

The Wound Leads To The Misbelief

My relationship to water/swimming/the ocean would be an example of what is called a “backstory wound”. Imagine, now, a character with that wound who must confront the water during an emotional high point in the arc of a story. Who must act against all instincts created by that wound.

Lisa Cron, in her incisive book Story Genius, suggests that we all suffer from our backstory wounds, but in a particular fashion. The wound sets up a belief in the mind of the character. But this belief is based on the false premises made by deep emotions (like fear), so Cron calls it the character’s misbelief, because our cognitive unconscious “often steers us in the wrong direction, all the while thinking it’s doing us a favor.” Saving us from fear or embarrassment or loss.

Cron states: “How your protagonist overcomes this misbelief is what your story is about.”

The Misbelief Directs The Story

A character’s story, then, is all about the how. In the case of my own backstory wound my misbelief could be any one of these:

  • Water is terrifying, a force beyond control
  • The ocean is a thief that will steal the things you love
  • I would never wear a bathing suit without a robe because I’m so embarrassed by my body
  • I would never learn to swim anyway because I might die

Each of these misbeliefs would lead to a different kind of story, with different incidents and actions. In other words, the backstory wound and the history of a character with this wound sets up any number of possible story lines.

Your job as a writer is to:

  • Determine your character’s backstory
  • Discover their wound
  • Uncover their misbelief
  • Construct your story around your character, in action, overcoming this misbelief

This is only one of the ways to deepen your character and create a richer and more emotionally compelling story, but it’s certainly one of my favorites. Cron offers a number of exercises that will help you enrich your character.

Next up – voice.


She, He, They: The Character-Driven Story

As I stated in my last post, I believe that all (good) stories are character-driven. Let’s discuss.

At The Heart of All Stories

When you pick up a novel, how long does it take before you commit to reading it all the way through? I’m no longer feeling that I have to slog through something that bores me, so for me, I give a novel about thirty pages. And in those thirty pages, what am I looking for?

Well, a number of things. I want to be drawn in to the concept. I easily tire of bad language/poorly written stories. I like to be able to picture the world, and I don’t want something to be paced either too slowly or too quickly. But for me, the essential element in a good story is – can I relate to the character?

How Do We Build Characters?

One of my story vision boards – the largest picture is my character.

There are as many ways for writers to build a character as there are ways to build a plot. Search the internet and you can find character questionnaires, character backstory builders, character psychological analyses, character dramatic studies, character emotional mind-maps. I’ve conducted day-long workshops on character, and I’ve probably tried every one of the possible architectures, including hands-on processes like crafting a character scrapbook and making a character vision board.

All this to say: characters should be as humanly-relatable as possible, and therefore are just as complex.

Of course, you and I and everyone on the planet develops our “character” with every passing second we’re on this earth. For a writer, it’s impossible to create that kind of complexity, so how in the world do we writers manage to create characters that most of us would recognize the instant we met them?

Jay Gatsby. But you already knew that, right?

If you don’t believe me, how about Jay Gatsby? Or Starr Carter? Katniss Everdeen? Harry Potter (or any one of the multitude of characters in his world)? Aria Stark? I could go on…

Back To The Heart, Again…

While there are many time-consuming exercises that writers can employ – and, trust me, I’ve done them all – I think great characters can be boiled down to a few key elements, all centered around a single, driving human concept: emotion. I talked a bit about this in a past post, but I’m going to talk a lot more about this emotional driver that I believe is at the heart of all good stories.

But let’s break the elements of the emotional driver down. Here are those that I think are crucial for writers to address when it comes to characters:

  • Backstory
  • Voice
  • Internal desire
  • External goal
  • Stakes

I’m going to discuss each of these over the next few posts, and each deserves its own moment in the spotlight. Indeed, each of these is so powerful a tool for writers to understand that you can find a craft book for every one, as you’ll see.

Please stay tuned!