The Five Worst Things

As I am deep in the outlining phase of my massive manuscript re-write, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me and need all the help I can get in re-working most of my plot. In my current (like, I don’t know, fourth?) draft, one thing is clear: my main plot is far too simple. Too many things come to the protagonist too easily and – often – by sheer luck. Well, that’s just not going to cut it. I need to make things much more complicated for her and here is how I plan to do it.

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How can you make your readers’ hearts fill with dread or concern for your characters, compelling them to keep turning the pages? Simple: keep stacking up obstacles for your protagonists. Here’s an exercise that I’ve seen recommended in quite a few places, but which I first tried in an outlining workshop taught by my friend and Columbia Writers co-leader, Dustin.

The Five Worst Things

Take a scene where the conflict is weak or where things feel too safe for your characters. Think of something bad that could happen as a result of their action (or inaction). That’s number one. Now, think of something worse that could occur: there’s number two. And go on down the list, thinking of subsequently more trying scenarios until you have five terrible things that could happen to your characters. Heck, if you’re feeling ambitious/cruel, you can go with ten ideas.

There’s no need to always have these things be physical harm or death (that gets old quickly, trust me), but it can be the loss of a friendship, uncovering a closely-held secret, realizing something important has been a lie, being betrayed by a trusted person, losing an item, or missing an opportunity. I always gravitate to grievous bodily harm (because my protagonist is scrappy and gets into lots of hand-to-hand combat), but I need to expand my horizons a bit.

This exercise is great because it can function not just with individual scenes, but in a macro manner, applied to a whole manuscript or story. What are the five worst things that can happen to your characters throughout the entire narrative arc? How can you keep them on their toes? What complications can you throw at them?

And remember: not all of these complications need to be the result of the antagonist’s actions. Lots of characters will do a perfectly good job of sabotaging themselves – so let them! A flawed character who doesn’t always act in their own best interests can be a compelling one.

Grab some paper and give it a try. What are the five worst things that can happen? Only your imagination knows for sure!

The Moving Blues

I’m moving in three days. Oh dear god in heaven, send help. I’ve read so many blogs and articles about how to make a move low stress, but I’m thinking that’s an impossibility. That standard is unachievable. The best I can manage is only kind of wanting to die, which will have to do.

Moving Truck

I have done all of the things that are supposed to help:

  • Start packing well in advance
  • Donate or throw out everything you don’t use
  • Plan and organize tasks using a calendar
  • Research and hire the right moving company
  • Create a master to do list
  • Clearly label boxes
  • Schedule when to disconnect utilities
  • Change your address before you move

All that good stuff. But oh my gosh, it is a LOT. I’m doing all of the sorting, packing, throwing out, and donating myself and – get this – I’m sick as a dog with a stomach bug and I hurt my back moving boxes around. Unfortunately, I’m not quite done packing and I have painting of one of my new rooms to do before my stuff arrives on Friday morning. I have to push through no matter how awful I feel.

It should be noted, however, that I am extremely organized and very stubborn (that should be the title of my memoir) and that I can work through just about any physical issue to get things done, running pretty much on pure willpower. This comes from over a decade of daily, body-wide chronic pain; I’ve built up quite the pain tolerance, so if something knocks me down, you know it’s serious.

Wish me luck, dear readers. I am going to need it.

Hmm. Wish me aspirin, too. That should help.

 

Giving Thanks

Yes, yes, I’m a few days late. But my gratitude is not bound by seasons! I’m thankful for so many things in my life right now.

Work

Sounds banal, I know. But just a few years ago, I was in such debilitating body-wide pain that I couldn’t work. I could barely write or take on freelance gigs. I was stuck at home most of the time and there were spans of days where I could barely climb the stairs to go shower in the second floor full bath. But now that I have my pain under control, I can work a full time job like a regular human being! My company gave me a chance and hired me despite my having a spotty work history over the previous five years. My position suits me, my co-workers are easy to get along with, and my supervisor is basically my work mom.

Health

I haven’t felt this good in almost a decade. Years of pain, surgeries, drugs, side effects, physical therapy – and nothing worked. I just kept getting worse until I gave up trying to take care of myself or seek medical help. It felt hopeless. After dozens of doctors and failed treatment plans, I tried one last pain management specialist. He asked the same questions that others had, but came to different conclusions. He recommended a specific nerve block on the front of my lumbar spine and I was so lucky that he was right. Now I get this procedure twice a year and it keeps about 80% of my pain in check, meaning I can live a normal life.

Family

I lost my mother to cancer in 2017 and this tragedy brought my father and I closer together. Our relationship hasn’t been this solid in many years. And now he has a girlfriend whom I adore and she has two children who I just met over the holiday. I never had siblings growing up, but now I may have the chance to be a big sister. I hope I’m up to the challenge.

Partner

I’ve been dating a wonderful man for a year now and we’re about to move in together. He is supportive and kind and believes in me as a writer as few people ever have. We’re working to strengthen our relationship through open communication and loving support.

Friends

I have an incredible network of friends who are near and dear to my heart. They are thoughtful, creative, funny, caring people. I would not have made it this far without them and I am grateful for every day that they choose to stay in my life.

Parrot

I have a terrible gremlin for a daughter and I love her. Mai Tai is adopted, and there’s a lot I don’t know about her past. She not a bird who wants to be touched, so I’m doing my best to work with her in ways that she is comfortable. Trust from a prey animal is valuable and not always easy to obtain; I never want to risk breaking that.

The Joy and Terror of Running a Game

In equal measure, I love and dread running a tabletop role playing game for my friends. GMing a session of a game is a bit like a four hour long improv performance and if you don’t do a good job of it, you ruin everyone’s fun. So, you know, no pressure? Real talk: I have terrible performance anxiety/stage fright for the days leading up to a game.

Of course, the moment I get started, I immediately have fun and – so far – things always go great. I have never had more than minor hiccups in the games that I have run, and those were all easy to fix or fib my way through. Running a game leaves me elated, high on the joy of telling a collaborative story with people, which ends up with me being energized for several hours afterward (while also wearing me out and making me want to retreat into my introverted shell).

How, I wonder, can GMing a TTRPG stir up both negative and positive emotions, one right after the other? And why can’t I empirically see how well things have always gone in the past, and stop worrying about screwing up? My guess is this is related to impostor syndrome, which I suuuuuuper struggle with on a regular basis. And, which (if interviews with successful authors has taught me), apparently might never go away. So I have to learn how to shack up with impostor syndrome, ease its worries to the best of my ability, and try to prove it wrong at every turn.

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Comic via xkcd

Putting myself in a position of authority immediately causes impostor syndrome to target me and attack. And yet I keep doing it! Co-running a writing critique group, leading critique meetings, leading a small writing support/accountability group, teaching workshops about writing, running games… why do I do it to myself? What’s with all the self-imposed torture? I suppose that I’m trying to prove my anxiety-ridden brain wrong (which is not really how anxiety works, but that’s another issue for another day).

I genuinely believe that we should try to do the things that scare us because they often turn out to yield the most satisfying results when we succeed… or even when we fail!

What is something that scares you, but that you have tried to conquer by diving in? Or have you not yet faced it down? What is your greatest worry that is keeping you from trying it?

The Task Ahead

Wilder Blood Cover Treatment Re-Writing

I received my developmental edit back and, y’all, it was brutal. But here’s the thing: it needed to be. This is why I hired a stranger who doesn’t care if she’s still my friend at the end of this process. I needed to have a complete outsider tell me what wasn’t working (some of which I was well aware of) and nudge me in a direction to think about what would work better.

Some of the editorial letter surprised me, some did not. I knew my overall plot was too simple, for example, but I didn’t think my protagonist needed a change in motivation. It’s… a lot. My editorial letter is sixteen pages long and it covers a lot of ground. I have a great deal of work to do.

Sisyphus

I’m not at all upset by or resentful of this process. I think it was wholly necessary to give me the slap across the face that I needed to tear this project apart and rebuild a better, more engaging manuscript. I’m also awaiting another friend, who is doing an editing pass on the manuscript, to see what she has to say before I get too ahead of myself with planning this rewrite.

I’ve started the brainstorming and vague outlining process, which I will dig into this fall and early winter. I’m moving in December, so I’m giving myself permission to not start producing words until late December/early January. I don’t normally go in for New Year’s resolutions, but I think I might make mine to rewrite this bear of a project. I believe in it. I really think this could be a great series that people would enjoy and so I’m not giving up on it.

This is Halloween

Halloween is and always has been special to me. I accept that part of this reason is  the proximity of my birthday (10/27) to the holiday, but I think it’s more than that.

My parents always let me throw Halloween birthdays, which were big shindigs for all my friends. These took place in our unfinished basement, a sufficiently spooky place on its own, made doubly so with the addition of dim lighting and lots of fake spiderwebs. There was bobbing for apples, cupcake decorating, races to mummify your partner in toilet paper, a showpiece cake that my mom and I had decorated together, and costumes. Oh, the costumes!

Dressing up was, if you ask me, the centerpiece of this entire event. My mother had taught me how to sew from a young age, so we were always making extravagant costumes, from the 1950s poodle skirt girl to a colonial-era gown to a Victorian ghost. Costumes were mandatory at my parties, and my friends were always willing to humor me.

There was something transformative about dressing up, and I think I knew this even from a young age (I had moments of great wisdom among my otherwise plentiful naivete). Changing one’s appearance, even if just for a few hours is a free exploration of ourselves and of otherness, both at the same time. It is freeing to become someone – or something – else for an evening (but please don’t do that subtly racist thing where you dress as a Native American or someone “Oriental” or we are going to have to have a talk about culture vs costume).

This year, I get three chances to dress up: once for my birthday dinner (pirate captain), once for Halloween to give out candy (bird kigurumi onesie), and once for a Halloween party on 11/3 (Jester). I will happily take that opportunity to be someone else for an evening. Won’t you?