Writing Community as Lifeguards

DSCN1653Watching my daughter at her swim class today, I realized how learning to swim and learning to write are similar. When learning to swim, support is important. The same holds true for learning to write.

Kids first jumping into the water need flotation devices, which range from life jackets to noodles. My favorite—which my daughter used in her swim class—is the “bubbles.” This is a belt with up to 4 buoyant squares on it. The belt doesn’t restrict motion and it is adjustable—as you gain proficiency you drop to 3 bubbles, then 2, then 1, then none.

Writers first jumping into writing are no different. We need help to stay afloat. Our flotation devices are workshops, classes, conferences, mentors, and craft books. As we get better, we need fewer of these, although with writing the learning never stops—thus our career-long need for beta-readers, critique groups, and editors.

English: Lifeguards in the tower Nederlands: L...

Lifeguards in the tower  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another vital element when learning to swim is lifeguards. Lifeguards see when you’re in trouble and rescue you. They can see what you’re doing wrong and save you from ever getting in trouble in the first place.

Writing communities are both flotation devices and lifeguards. When we run aground on hazards like writer’s block, deadline desperation, marketing overload, or mid-novel burnout, other writers are there to tell us we are not alone. They’ve been through the fire, too, and often have tips to share.

And when you are finally published and out there in the wide world, this network of writer-lifeguards has your back. They’ll help guide you through the marketing morass, show up at your book events, and spread the word on social media. Writer friends will comfort us during the bad and celebrate with us during the good.

Writing can be lonely—but it doesn’t have to be. Find yourself a good, supportive writing community, either in person or online. Your family undoubtedly loves you a lot, but there are certain things only another writer truly understand. If you say sadly, “Saggy middle” to your family, they will poke your belly and give you diet tips. If you say “Saggy middle” to your writer friends, they will tear at their own hair and shout, “I KNOW!”

The journey is certainly easier and more pleasant if we surround ourselves with people who are willing to support each other, give generously of time and advice, and fill this whole adventure with laughter. Find people who lift you up, not tear you down. I’ve been lucky—and I hope you are, too.

Conferee lounge at the Philadelphia Writers' Conference. (Photo by J. Thomas Ross)

Conferee lounge at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.
(Photo by J. Thomas Ross)

Can you suggest places writers can find supportive writer communities—online or in person? Do you have stories about how being a part of a community has helped your career?

Villains and Writers: Why is it so hard to be evil?

One of the things I often read on agent and editor blogs is that the antagonist in a manuscript isn’t strong enough. That they are cardboard, nebulous, and somehow not as threatening as they should be. I’ll admit I struggle with my antagonists. Obviously, I am not alone. But why is it so hard?

I think it’s because most of us are decent people. We can’t fathom hurting others or blocking some event that is clearly a good thing for humanity. Sure, we all have our moments of making rude gestures to other drivers, or using words we don’t want our 2-year-old overhearing, or even thinking some very vengeful thoughts. But for most of us it stops there. The darkness we all have inside of us scares us to death.

When I see someone like the Colorado shooter, I cannot fathom his thinking. Sometimes with bad guys, you can see where they’re coming from, see how they are damaged emotionally, see how they think what they’re doing is the right thing. But by all accounts, this shooter had everything going for him. And yet he killed 12 people in cold blood. How do you get inside the head of someone like that? How do you write someone like that believably?

The key, as I alluded above, is to know their damage. When writing a villain, we must remember that he has his reasons for doing what he’s doing. And they make sense to him. He is the hero of his own story, and he believes HE is the one doing the right thing.

We as the writer must know the emotional driver behind our bad guy’s thinking, his actions. Only by letting the reader understand this will our bad guy gain the strength he needs to be a gripping antagonist. I think accessing the darkness inside terrifies a lot of writers. We don’t like to think it’s inside us. And once we unleash it for a book, can we put the genie back in the bottle?

While you may discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself during this process, writing the antagonist doesn’t need to be so gut-wrenching a process.

I have found some guidance by using Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Maass walks you through the antagonist’s world. Outline the story from the bad guy’s POV. Justify his actions using literature, mythology, law. Justify them in such a way that for just a moment your hero can actually AGREE with the villain. In other words, don’t just understand WHAT the bad guy does in your story, but understand WHY.

How do you approach your antagonists? Do you ever scare yourself?

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