Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

Finding the Way Out of the Suck

I have a confession to make. I have not written one productive word in about a year or so.

Oh, I’ve tossed down words for new ideas and gone over my current WIP, but I accomplished nothing of any consequence that even approaches a finished piece. Over the last month, I’ve been forcing myself back to the page every day in an attempt to push through my current block.

The problem isn’t that I don’t have a story to tell. I’ve got a billion stories to tell. My imagination runneth over. It isn’t that my story isn’t good enough. I love the story I’m working on. And it’s not a time-management issue, either. I can always squeeze in a little writing. Yet, I still can’t seem to get what I’ve got in my head onto a page. Every time I sit down, I feel like I’m getting ready for Chinese water torture. All the while, I watch my fellow Fictorians publishing their work, and I’m thinking, What the hell is wrong with me!?

For a while I was convinced I’d lost my bliss. Perhaps writing just isn’t what I’m supposed to do with my life.

A bit of backstory on me is that I’m addicted to Audible –’s audiobook retailer. I’ve probably listened to more books than I’ve read by tenfold over the last year. So, it may not be that surprising that, when Audible does a sale, I tend to peruse the offerings and will usually pick up a few books I would normally not even glance at. Recently, I did just that, and ended up listening to a book called The Way of the Seal by Mark Divine, an ex-Navy Seal. Yes, it’s a self-help book, but it’s all about finding where you’re supposed to be in life and focusing on attaining it. The interesting thing about this particular book, for me, is that even though I haven’t tried any of the exercises or the work that the book suggests, it still got me thinking about what I’m doing with my life. From that I’ve come to realize something rather important.

Maybe not every block is writer’s block. Maybe it’s life block.

My real problem is that I’m nowhere near a good place emotionally, which has severely affected my ability to write. I’m living in a house (which was my mother’s and now belongs to her estate) that I don’t particularly want and can barely afford but can’t sell due to the market in my area—major frustration. My day job is an hour to an hour and a half commute to mind-numbing drudgery and busywork that offers neither challenge nor opportunity—the result of a lifelong avoidance of all responsibility. And all that’s waiting for me at home are my two cats—yes, I am a crazy cat lady in the making. That’s not even getting into ridiculous health issues. Honestly, I feel like a wreck, and not the kind that prompts the insurance company to cut a check so you can go out and buy something shiny and new. More like the kind that just keeps chugging along, held together by duct tape and wishful thinking.

It’s easy to forget how life can get in the way of what we love in ways other than trying to juggle a schedule. There we are, cranking out the words, until something happens and the words just stop. So often, it’s hard to connect two seeming unrelated things as, say, paying a mortgage that isn’t actually mine with writing a chapter of fiction.

So, my intention this year is to get back to writing every day and finish the book I’ve been working on for far too long. The manner in which I plan on doing this is not by forcing the words out, but to focus on pulling myself out of the suck, getting myself in a better place and situation, and freeing up all that emotional energy I’d rather be using to gleefully turn the water torture on my characters.

Using What Scares You

I went to a publishing conference in New York some years ago, and an agent said that a great author is a great storyteller. You can have all the craft and technique in the world, but if you aren’t a good storyteller, you won’t become a true success. Alternately, you can have the worst craft and know nothing of technique and be the next huge star of the publishing world. Yet, she could not define what made a good storyteller, like it’s some nebulous thing that cannot be truly understood. She was in the “you can’t learn it, you just have to be born with it” camp, a believer in which I am not.

But what is good storytelling if it’s not the expert use of craft and technique? I’ve been puzzling over it for years and I think I finally figured out a rather large component—a good storyteller is one who can tap into emotion with every word.

We humans, above all else, are creatures of emotion. We like to think we are creatures of intellect and reason and morality, but  these things are constructs we’ve created to put limitations and controls over the nasty, hind-brain, instinctual animal side that is human emotion. Emotion motivates us in pretty much everything we do. Our desire to feel happiness, love, safety, pleasure all shape our choices. Our desire to not feel pain, sorrow, grief, all push us to move in a particular direction, even if it’s subconsciouly. Every choice we make is rooted in our emotional health, or lack thereof. Our need to feel one emotion over another.

The crazy thing is, everyone human being past, present, or future feels the same emotions. Emotion is the one, true universal language. It is the one thing we all as a species, share, and no emotion is more familiar to us all than fear. Writing our fear, more than any other emotion, can truly raise a writer’s prose to new heights.

There’s two ways of writing what frightens us, and both are equally beneficial. The first is the obvious definition—if we want our audience to fear something, start with what we, ourselves, are the most afraid of. J.K. Rowling once said that she decided to put giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets because she herself was afraid of spiders. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s rendering of Shelob in the Return of the King was built off his personal arachnophobia. Think of it as a mind hack. It’s easier to write what we know, how we personally feel about a particular thing or situation when we write about something that makes us feel the emotion we want to invoke. It’s easy to make spiders terrifying if the author is terrified of the creepy bastards, but harder to make a horse frightening if they make the author all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monster. It can be a fear of rejection, a fear of success, a fear of fear itself. It’s making the fear personal that’s the key, no matter what genre or sub-genre we are writing. Every genre deals with some sort of fear, and the more we make that fear our own, the easier it is to make the reader feel it with us.

The second way of looking at writing what one fears isn’t so obvious, and it’s something we all face at one point or another. It’s taking on those scenes that make us cringe. You know those scenes, the ones that make us uncomfortable or leave us at a loss. Wether its fight scenes or sex scenes or scenes of moral uncertainty, we all have a scene somewhere that tempts us to just skip it and have it happen off screen. After all, the worst fear of any writer is that an important, necessary scene will suck and bring the whole piece down.

But nine times out of ten, that seemingly impossible scene will become one of the more powerful moments in a story. Dan Wells once said that a scene in I Am Not a Serial Killer, where the protagonist draws a knife on his mother, was an especially difficult scene to write, but the final product is one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the book. Alternately, I have a friend who kept skipping over scenes where people were fighting (verbally or physically) because he wasn’t comfortable with violence, but it left his work lacking conflict and the story suffered because of it.

Part of why this is so effective, I think, is that the struggle to get the scene written and fear that it won’t work makes us slow down and take a long, hard look at what we’re doing, much more so than a scene that just plops itself down on the page. Difficult scenes force us to pull out all the stops, to dig deep and give it our all, thereby forcing us to put our best work on the page because anything less would just prolong the torture. Also, fear is conflict, and whether it’s felt by the character or just subconsciously by the author, it puts an edge, an undercurrent in the scene that can lift it above simple prose. It’s always the scenes I didn’t want to write, the ones that kick my ass, that I always end up the most satisfied with, and I think it’s because of the fear. If I wasn’t afraid of what I was writing, the writing would not be as good. Period.

Use the fear, share it. It won’t be easy, but more likely than not, your readers will feel it, and what they feel is what will stay with the reader long after they finish the story.

This Ain’t No Fortess of Solitude

We talk about writing being a solitary art. We go on and on about sitting alone in a room, writing stories that only we can hear in our heads with characters we create in worlds we manufacture, an internal creation that, in it’s inception, is as separate and isolated as the writer putting down the words.

Only, it’s not, strictly speaking, true, is it? I mean, yes, the story in our heads part is real, and often we are alone when we’re thinking about said story or writing said story, but when you think about, none of us really write in a vacuum.

Let me suggest that, rather than saying that a story is an internal creation, it is actually a creation of internalized experience. Experience, of course, based on the community in which we live, work, and play. And community is essential for good fiction.

Lets start at the beginning, the inception stage when everything is amorphous and at most we have bits and pieces of plot or setting or character. But these bits and pieces didn’t come out of the aether. It might feel like divine inspiration, but it’s not really. Its our lives, our friends, something we saw on TV or read in a book. Its all the people, places and things that our minds (whether consciously or not) squirrel away for whatever reason. It percolates in our heads until something cool comes out and we think, “Gee, that could make a groovy story.”

And the more experience, the wider our personal community we take in, the more inspired that grove can be, the more diverse and deep, in sum, the more realistic the story can become. Without taking part in the world, without that community, I dare say, story cannot exist. Inspiration would fall flat on it’s innocuous face.

Now, that’s just no fun.

I personally have trouble with this part. I spend too much time in my head and not enough taking in the world around me, but when I do pay attention, I’ve found some the best characters always have a basis in people I know. The same goes for places and even plots. Even though I’ve never been to another planet, I can still describe what it feels like to get sand in my shoes on that planet because I’ve been to a beach on this one. An analogue can alway be found in our personal experiences within our community for the details that place the reader there with a character.

But it’s not just the initial inspiration that comes from our community. One of the nicest things about having a large group of acquaintances, picked up from going to seminars and classes or starting up a conversation in the check-out lane at Wal-Mart, is that not only can you gain inspiration, but also gain sources for fact and reality-checking. Don’t know how to fly a plane? Ask a pilot. Network enough, and you’re sure to find one, or someone who knows one. Need to make sure you’re plots on the right track? Pick a friend who reads or join a writer’s group, if you’re so inclined.

My point is that you do not, in fact, live in a fortress of solitude. It’s not difficult to bring community into our writing lives. It’s already there. We just have to take the time to pay attention to it. Actually, it’s kinda hard to truly be alone in our writing (that is assuming you’ve not locked yourself in a bunker without the internet or television or anything, but let’s face it, if you had, you wouldn’t be reading this, so you wouldn’t notice to argue with me, now would you?).

Your community is right there, now go use it!

And while your at it, use our community to give you some seriously nifty books. Scoot that cursor right on over to the right and sign up for this week’s give away. And come back on Monday, and do it again for even more nifty books!

Don’t You Just Love the Metaphor?

Ever have one of those moments where you’re character gets lost in the turmoil of their own head – arguing themselves into circles that are vaguely reminiscent of filthy water swirling down a drain? Nothing ever gets resolved, and the character just looks like they’re passively wallowing in their own little “woe is me” pity party. I have. On more than one occasion. It was not pretty.

Sure, I could have put someone else in the scene for the character to talk to. Two people sitting around talking about their problems could be interesting if they have different views, but let’s face it, while talking it out might be healthy, it’s can also be boring.

One of my favorite ways to keep this from happening is to take that personal, internal conflict and externalize it.

Enter the metaphor.

As you can imagine, I’m not talking about the typical use your English teacher might bring up where a woman’s smile is a sunrise. I’m talking about when a brawl stops being just a knock-down drag-out between a protagonist and antagonist and becomes an argument between the two sides of the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

This is most easily seen in film, where internal conflict has to be externalized since we don’t get any of that nifty expository internal narrative that we do from books. Instead, we get Hellboy fighting an elemental for ten minutes without taking a scratch, but starts bleeding when one of those normal people he just saved throws a rock at his face and calls him a freak. The elemental was a fun night out, but the guy with a rock cuts to his desperate desire to fit into a world he pretty much knows he never will. That one action stands in for the argument.

I was watching the new Daredevil and reached the inner conflict that seems part and parcel with any super-hero – that of staying a good person when faced with the need to do violence. The struggle to retain one’s humanity when faced with inhuman circumstances, and the aftermath of facing that struggle, might be one of the oldest internal conflicts in literature and shows up in every genre we have devised. So, how do we keep a tried and true conflict from sounding old and stale? We come up with a nifty metaphor to stand in for one guy talking to himself or his best friend. In a fantasy, the hero might find it difficult to use his sword, even at the possible cost of losing those he loves. In SF, maybe it’s a heated argument about purchasing a worn-out old spaceship. The possibilities are endless.

Not only does this get the character out of their own heads, and liven the argument (so to speak), but also has the effect of giving those action scenes that keep the story moving more depth and meaning. Sure, the pacing might be slow at that one point in the middle of the book, but while just slapping a fight scene in there might get things moving, it would have so much more impact if it pressed a button somewhere inside the character, putting pressure on an already tense situation eating away at them.

Of course, I’m not saying that every conflict within a story should harken back to some internal argument the character is having with him or herself. Some conflicts are by necessity strictly plot driven, but I’m one of those writers who sincerely believes that character is where the story lies. The more you can infuse the characters into the fights they get into, the arguments they have, the hard  decisions they face, the better off the story is.