The Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015

At the beginning of a new year, we typically look forward to the year ahead. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to look back in order to see how far you have come, and evaluate how you did in the past year. I examined my top 20 posts this past year and found that readers read a good mixture of craft and marketing, as well as some of my more personal writing-life posts. In case you missed any, here are the Best of The Goose’s Quill 2015. Enjoy!

  1. When The Hero Is Not The Protagonist
  1. What Big Question Do You Write To Answer?
  1. How To Measure Growth As A Writer
  1. Our Characters’ Other Lives
  1. Adventures In The Land of Zal
  1. Marketing: Doing The Things You Don’t Want To Do
  1. Book Trailer Beginnings
  1. The Truth About Your Productivity
  1. Anticipation Angst and Announcement
  1. The New To-Do List
  1. Introverts, Extroverts, and Social Pain
  1. The Insidious Persistence of Grief
  1. My Biggest Takeaway: 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference
  1. Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: My Annual Oil Change
  1. Writing Longhand: A Generational Divide
  1. Working Vacation: Yes or No?
  1. Empathy: Curse or Blessing?
  1. Revising My Writing Process
  1. Marketing Bits and Pieces

And my #1 post of 2015:

  1. THE WITCH OF ZAL Cover Reveal and Surprise!


Thank you for reading in 2015—I hope you continue to join me in 2016!

Empathy: Curse or Blessing?

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suspect most creative types are highly empathetic. I sometimes think I feel other people’s emotions more strongly than my own. While I do feel things deeply, I can usually control my emotions and focus on what I need to do.

However, when someone else’s emotions overflow, it is hard for me to control myself. At a friend’s mother’s funeral, my tears didn’t flow until my friend’s did. When I hear of a crime, I feel the terror of the victim. During mass tragedy such as 9/11 or Sandy Hook, I go numb with the overload of grief. The reason I have never seen Schindler’s List is because the images and emotions would stick with me far longer than with most people. I become haunted.

Cover of "A Swiftly Tilting Planet"

Cover of A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I find it hard to explain how vividly I can feel other people’s emotions. In Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, main character Charles Wallace goes “Within” other people. His soul enters other people’s consciousnesses, so he can experience what they experience—physically and emotionally. This is a good way of explaining how I sometimes feel—as if I am inside the other person, feeling what they feel.

Sometimes I think this intense empathy is a curse. It aggravates my anxiety. It makes me wary of social interaction. It makes me want to hold people at arm’s length—although even that precaution is not enough, since even the stories of strangers can bring me to tears.

On the other hand, this sort of empathy is a blessing. It helps me create characters with feeling. It allows me to help people with the kind of help they most need. It helps me relate to people different than me, because I can feel what we have in common. It makes me more compassionate.

In the final analysis, I have to consider this empathy a blessing—because I would rather feel too much than nothing at all.

What about you? Do you find yourself overloaded with empathy?


Voices in the Wilderness: Why Writing Matters

I wrote this post before the attack on Charlie Hedbo. In light of the events in Paris, I think reflecting on the deeper purpose of writing is more relevant than ever.

We’re all creatives here, so I know this has happened to you: two completely unrelated topics slam together in your head and create a thought that makes you go “hmm.”

Topic #1: A writer friend lamented that many writers’ conferences seemed to feature marketing over craft these days. Personally, I feel that this will rectify itself after this wave of writers who were unfamiliar with marketing ages out and a new group of writers who “grew up” with marketing doesn’t need as much guidance. But there is a definite shift away not only from craft, but often from the purpose behind our writing.

Topic #2: So many scary and violent and crazy things happening in the world. Sometimes I despair of the world I am leaving for my young child. My husband and I discussed the helplessness most average citizens feel, and how powerless most people feel to change things. How many people long for a hero they can rally behind.

Thought: Maybe if we writers reclaim our purpose we will find that we are the heroes we have been waiting for.

Every writer writes because we have something to say. In fiction, obviously, we never want to be preachy or didactic, but we all have something to say. Even those who would say they only write to entertain have a specific worldview, a specific set of values, that permeate their work even if they don’t intend it.

Writers have a long history of being the voices in the wilderness—the ones who speak out against injustice or warn of dangers in the world. Thomas Paine rallied a new nation, Rachel Carson called out an industry poisoning our world, and George Orwell sounded the alarm against a dystopian future, just to name a few.

We live in a world where we are increasingly unable to talk to each other. Forgetting international tensions, the ability to talk about almost any subject without it devolving into an insult-laden screaming match is a lost art in America. Both sides cannot even hear each other, let alone consider a point of view different from their own.

But fiction writers are in the unique position of being between the two sides. We don’t argue—we present a story. A story of a person who may or may not be like the reader in their views, in their lives. This character takes a journey, and the reader goes with them.

The reader learns what the character learns. The reader gets to see a different perspective without being berated or told they are wrong. The reader gets to see what life is like for a person or community they have no experience with. They are presented with information, then left to make up their own minds about what to do with that information. There are studies that show fiction readers grow in empathy the more they read. In other words, reading opens readers’ minds and hearts to people and ideas outside themselves.

So it occurred to me that we writers might be the heroes this world needs to begin hearing each other again. To begin to realize that our differences are largely manufactured for political reasons. To realize the basic humanity in the “other.”

Perhaps one writer will change the world. Perhaps it will be our collective voices that change the future. But one thing is certain: we all have something to say that people need to hear. We have a reason for writing. We have a purpose.

We are the voices in the wilderness.

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Why Disney’s Captain Hook is a Great Villain–and how yours can be, too

My daughter has been obsessively watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) the past few weeks. And it struck me suddenly that I like Captain Hook, in spite of his villainy. I’ve seen my share of Disney movies, and he’s the only bad guy I empathize with. As a writer, I started to wonder why.

First, I compared Hook to other Disney villains and their main emotional drives. Showing my age, my examples are ones from my childhood. Some modern Disney villains may also employ the techniques that make Hook a great villain, but the lessons I gleaned from Hook still hold true.

    1. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
    2. Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
    3. Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
    4. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
    5. Hook (Peter Pan) – revenge

On the surface, Hook seems much like the others, driven purely by some dark emotion. But although I enjoyed the other villains, I never empathized with them on any level. I identified 2 things that set him apart.

1) Motivation backstory – for most Disney villains, we never know why they are driven by these dark urges. Did Maleficent snap over a lack of invitation because she was a nerd in high school? Did the Stepmother grow up dirt poor and swear “never again”? Was the Evil Queen so insecure about her looks because her mother always told her she was ugly? Did Cruella De Vil want to stand out so much because she had always been overlooked as a child? We never know the backstory—we only see the results.

With Hook, we do know why he is driven—and it is a nuanced why. He’s not seeking vengeance for Peter cutting off his hand—no, he wants revenge because Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, causing the beast to stalk Hook constantly.

2) Vulnerability – The other Disney villains are pure evil. Chilling. The stuff of nightmares. And they have no human weaknesses.

Hook, though, has a glaring weakness—he is terrified of the crocodile. Not just nervous, but scream-like-a-child, jump-into-Smee’s-arms hysterical whenever he hears that clock. Such blatant vulnerability in a man who casually shoots his own crew when they annoy him opens up a very human side we can access.

These 2 techniques (combined with a touch of comedy) give Hook accessibility that many Disney villains lack—and therefore allow us to empathize with him.

I’m going to keep that in mind for my villains. While I have always known they need to be 3-dimensional, I have focused more on making them strong enough to push the hero than on making them accessible to the reader. By giving them nuanced motives that I allow my readers to see and by adding a vulnerability the reader can relate to (who wants to be eaten by a crocodile, after all?), I can make my villains stronger, deeper, and more memorable.

Do you have any tricks for making your villains relatable to the reader?

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