Emotion is the Lifeblood of Fiction

At the end of the movie Romeo and Juliet I cried like a river. Also at the very end of The Professional when Mathilda plants the plant that symbolizes the pure, childlike love of Mathilda(12-year-old Natalie Portman’s first movie) for Leon (Jean Reno ) in this dirty old world, I fall on my knees gushing with tears when she says, “I think we’ll be all right, now.”

Because I have this big heart that can love, be loved, and be hurt by love, I have the baseline blood for writing fiction. When I started out as a writer, I was told “open a vein” by Lawrence Block or some huge writer like that. I think that’s what he meant: You have the big heart you have to let it bleed on paper.

If you’re a rather even-tempered person who never fell in love, never was smashed nearly to madness by love, or if you never get too excited by anything, never hated anyone or anything, seldom blow your cork or feel the tremendous need to vent–I wonder what you’ll write about.

Fiction, yes it’s about stuff happening. But then it’s primarily about what the emotional response is to the happening. The blood must flow from the start and from the heart.

So if you’re a person with tremendous feelings, that qualifies you for fiction writing. You have the right blood. But can you put the blood, the emotions, on paper?

May the writing gods help you, help us all, that is the challenge of the job, the privilege, the glory.

Bless My Writing Block

When I was writing The Black Butterfly Woman in 2010 I sent a few pages around to various agents. And one, Jim Donovan, liked it very much and compared the directness of my prose to Thom Jones (The Pugilist at Rest), a very nice compliment indeed. He liked my story about a young soldier in Vietnam driven to volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. But (he said) the story seemed to end abruptly and he didn’t think he could sell it. Was there more? I immediately sat down to writing the second half of The Black Butterfly Woman, working very hard, and failing very miserably. Why?

I wrote a horribly contrived second half that, as Jim Donovan honestly told me, didn’t seem written by the same writer. I thought I had written well and was so devastated I went immediately into coal black writer’s block, a very dark place for most writers. It’s like finding out you no longer are able to make love.

Then, four months later I wrote an unexpected and, for me at least, deeply moving second half to my book. The story seemed as a gift from the sky. What happened?

Most writers don’t have a degree in psychology (like me), but many writers having a working relationship with their subconscious mind (a.k.a. the Muse, Inspiration, the Bright Angel) know that writing is not a purely conscious activity. Much good writing comes from a semi-conscious, dreamy fugue-state of altered awareness that resists description, much like trying to define God. Beautiful writing is divine, unexplainable, undefinable activity. That being said, here’s what happened to me.

After a really good agent from the real world of professional writing gave me wonderful encouragement to go forward, I began writing out of the limited resources of my conscious mind. The expression “half-baked” comes to mind. I was producing gummy dough instead of prose. I was trying to write-on-demand, which for me is like trying to be funny on command. And when I was told by a professional I was creating underdeveloped work, I collapsed because I had worked very hard to create that worthless gum. I became blocked.

Here is what I believe about the dreaded writer’s block. It is the refusal of the conscious mind to go forward with writing work without the help of the subconscious mind. Or, it could be the subconscious mind just shuts off the chattering conscious mind, just completely shuts it down. The command is: “Shut up”. And the writing stops. Just like shut valve.

My belief is writer’s block is good, a necessary thing, a blessing. Just as your stomach needs time for digestion, so the creative mind needs time for unconscious digestion. It is not thinking or willing. It is Zen. It is secret, unbidden, and beyond (or perhaps beneath) your control.

I get writing block once in a while. I no longer dread it. I’m not afraid of it. I accept writing block as a natural part of my creative process. I even believe writing block is the harbinger of great writing. So don’t be afraid of it. Writing block is a blessing. It means great things are coming to you. Let it happen. Bless the writing block.

Forget Research

I am somebody who does a lot of research, which for me means reading about the California Gold Rush, the westward journey of the American pioneers, anything about Lewis and Clark, and of course the geography and maps ( even the geology of the West, since the Goldfinder Series features a gold-spewing volcano). I love reading anything about the America Civil War.  I am in love with the 1850’s and 1860’s. I am very certain that I lived during that time and that’s the reason I love to read about it. It takes me back.  I love research almost as much as writing. In fact it’s very relaxing at times and at other times very exhilarating for me.

But here’s the secret, a little bit of arcana about writing.

After you do all the research, all the reading, all the speculating, fantasizing, imagining–you need to forget about it. That’s right, forget about it. This is very similar to eating. First you eat, you enjoy your food, then you forget about it (hopefully) and let it digest. Your conscious mind lets go. Then it turns into creative energy that runs your body. The same is true with ideas, the food of the mind.

And so you forget about your research. Why? Because your subconscious mind needs to go to work on all the facts and events and speculations. Stephen King calls it letting the boys in the boiler room get to work. Who are the boys in the boiler room? They are the slaves of the subconscious mind. They work for free. You don’t have to do a thing except not think about them–and not think about your research of your story. Let it bubble. Let it digest. This is not conscious work. It happens while you’re asleep, or working, or eating a cheeseburger. It costs you nothing. The hard thing for some people is to keep the big, pushy conscious mind away the slaves doing the work. I am lucky. Not thinking, not analyzing, is something I’m very good at.

You can ask other writers, but for me, I only use about ten percent of the research material in my actual story and most of that may be pretty transmogrified. Think of grapes when you’re writing as your predigested words and ideas. But you don’t want grapes and you don’t want grape juice (at least I don’t). You want wine. You want the fine wine of literature. Think about that for a while, and then don’t think about it. Now you’re getting the idea. Now you’re forgetting the idea.

If you give yourself a chance to forget about research and let it simmer and settle and bubble you may be quite amazed at what you will write next. It’s as if you have an invisible helper (you do). It’s as if you have an angel whispering in your ear (you do). Ask Mark Twain. Try it. You’ll like it.

Write What You Don’t Know, or, Write What You Want to Know

When I was young I was given the old chestnut, “Write what you know”.  Like any other child I could write about my dog, my parents, my room, my friends and other such mundane topics. A brilliant child could write brilliantly about any of these topics and of course these subjects can be needful elements of any good story. The big point is, what any of us know at any given moment is limited. We are dipping into our own personal well of experience and that well runs dry pretty fast.

When Stephen King wrote his first novel, Carrie, I wonder how much he knew about telekinesis (transporting objects by mental will) or pyrokinesis (setting things on fire with angry thoughts)?

The great idea for you to consider is not Writing What You Know, but–Write What You Don’t Know. Which is really to say Write What You Want to Know. What do you want to find out more about? What is your passion? Where does it lead you? In case you hadn’t noticed, your reader wants to learn something new, to be led on an expedition. In case nobody told you, you are that expedition leader.

This leads us to research, an interesting word. What happened to search? Don’t you have to search before you can re-search? What was your original search? I did physical search when I was seeking the location for my novel series, The Goldfinder. I walked through the original site of the California gold discovery at Coloma and I didn’t like it. It was too rugged, too steep. It didn’t call to me. Next I was drawn to gold discoveries that had occurred at high elevations. After several weeks I found a motherlode of beautiful granite peaks and river-laced valleys and hidden blue lakes where a man could walk and dream–and where a bonanza of gold had been discovered in 1850. I knew I was home. After that I got every book I could find on the history and geology of the region.

Every minute of search and research, of draft writing and rewriting was paradise for me. I enjoyed it so much I didn’t ever want it to end. Didn’t want it to be published because it meant the end of being in the story. I was in love with the story–and still am–even though I am in the process of publishing, of letting it go. The Gold Hunter, The Gold Shapers (published 2015 by Amazon/Createspace) and The Gold Soldier, The Secret of Gold Lake scheduled for launch in 2016-17.

The big idea is to write about what you want to know, what you will fall in love with. Because you’re going to spend a lot of time writing a novel. I’m afraid to admit how long it takes me to write a novel. My fastest production was five years, from research to final writing. Because I wanted to know more about the Vietnam War (my brother was wounded in action) I began reading about it–and became fascinated with soldiers called Tunnel Rats. These brave soldiers went down into Viet Cong tunnel complexes to destroy them. I wrote The Black Butterfly Woman/ The Tunnel Rat’s Story completely based on research and then imagination. I did not go to Vietnam because I knew they had turned the few remaining tunnels into a tourist attraction. I didn’t want to dilute my vision with a tourist attraction. The third book of my Goldfinder Series visits three terrible battles of the American Civil War.  I went to Missionary Ridge hoping to charge uphill into imaginary bullets and cannon fire but instead found the valley filled with multi-lane freeways and the ridge filled with modern houses. Progress happens. But as a writer this was very disturbing to me. The truth is, I believe in my last lifetime I died charging up Missionary Ridge with a bullet to my right eye. But that’s a level of research I won’t discuss right now.

Suffice to say, if modern development obliterates history, it’s best not to go there.

Follow your passion. Your heart will guide you. What gives you energy? What excites you? Follow! Follow! It takes great passion to write a novel. It’s like water on the desert. Without it you’ll never make it. Passion will sustain you through the dry places where the others fall away. Keep going. Write what you want to know. What you must know. Then share it with the world.

Goldfinder Series

Find the Goldfinder Series on Amazon

Rumors of California gold ran wild. Rivers of solid gold lay hidden in mountain valleys and could be harvested with a pick and shovel. Indians would trade chunks of gold for a pretty scarf or a few beads. Somewhere is a secret lake of gold. On his seventeenth birthday Petr Valory has seven dreams he will be unable to recall when he awakens. But he will remember glimpses of them during his life: the creation of the Earth, the first bird, the Gold Lake itself, the first discoverers who kept it secret for thousands of years. These dreams reveal just a few of his lifetimes, “the red-haired man” Cellini, the Renaissance gold artist, or Agricola, author of the first text on gold mining. They haunt Petr and inform him. Petr Valory is at the heart of the California Gold Rush and the hunt for Gold Lake. He is The Goldfinder.

Character Driven Stories

It’s 2 A.M. Your two best characters are hunkered down in a three-foot trench across a hundred yards of barren ground torn and battered by artillery–across from a machine gun nest occupied by, you guessed it–the bad guys. One of your characters is a combo Stallone/Jack Reacher action maniac. Your other character is Woody Allen. What will Stallone/Reacher do? What will Woody Allen do? You’re a character driven writer, you know what they will do. Woody will try to talk his way and walk his way out. He’s an intellectual, a thinker, a pontificator. He will give a dozen reasons, logical and a little hysterical, for not going forward. Stallone/Reacher lives by a different code. Hit them before they hit you. Stallone/Reacher may take a minute to decide the most decisive way to blast the bad guys, but he’s definitely going to attack. He’s not going sit in a trench with Woody hoping the danger will go away. Character drives action.

Now you understand character. Once you know your characters deep down in their guts, they will take action. In fact, they will take over the action. All you have do is sit there in the fictive dreamy state and take notes on what your very real characters do (or won’t do) and try your level best to vividly portray what your living, breathing characters have decided on their own to do. Now you’re writing. Now you’re having some fun. And people pay you for this? Don’t have a fictive dream state? Let’s talk about that another time.

Notes from Myself, or, Why I Carry a Notebook

All of us have vivid dreams at night that, a few minutes after awakening, completely disappear. The same is true during waking hours, vivid ideas and striking phrases pop up unannounced, and because we are too busy, we do not write them down. Just like the dreams, they are lost. Where do these dreams and ideas come from? They come out of the sky. They come from the deep blue sea. This is your subconscious mind trying to communicate with you. Mark Twain said a little angel would sit on his shoulder, whispering to him.

I’m not a psychologist but here’s what I believe. When I ignore these messages from myself, the subconscious mind becomes less available to me. By paying attention to the inner whispers, I am developing a relationship with my subconscious mind. I am encouraging and respecting the inner voice. How I do this?

I keep a notebook. Actually I have two of them. My Dream Notebook is 5 X 7 paper notebook and sits near by my bed along with an ink pen. My second is smaller and travels with me in my shirt pocket. When I get a flash from the little angel, the subconscious, I stop whatever I’m doing and write it down and I say thank you. These flashes are always more brilliant, more poetic than the work of my ordinary mind. In this way I encourage a working relationship with my more brilliant subconscious mind. I show my subconscious mind respect by taking time to record its message. What I find is the more I do this the more I receive. Same with the dreams. Equally important is to not judge the message. Just write it down even if it seems mindless. Some of it is mindless. Some of it is brilliant and illuminated. If I prejudge the content and don’t write it down I get less content.

The source of this brilliance is inside you. Try it. You won’t be disappointed in yourself.

Let Primal Characters Create the Story/ Real Characters VRS Puppets

Primal characters live, breathe, eat and sleep like real human beings. Puppet characters act jerky like Frankenstein and speak in phony puppet-phrases. They don’t eat, sleep or take a shower because they are puppets. You can learn to create primal characters from the masters of modern fiction.

Jack Reacher is a wildly popular fictional character created by Lee Child–who we know more about than his creator. That is the way it should be. Reacher is 6-5, about 250 lbs., with blue eyes. An ex-military cop, he can beat-up the average street fighter with ease. But there’s more. He has a strong sense of justice. Anyone willing to hurt women or children will be made to regret it. He’s a modern Paladin/Superman. But there’s more. Reacher wanders America alone, without a suitcase or even a change of clothes. He carries a folding toothbrush, a little cash, that’s all. He sleeps in cheap motels and presses his clothes under the mattress at night. When his shirt and pants get too dirty, he throws them away and buys a new shirt and pants, that’s all. He’s an existential minimalist. He eats double or triple orders of food and likes his coffee black, and lots of it. He’s a weapons expert and not only that, every part of his body is a weapon. He heads into danger rather than away from it–and wherever he goes bad guys are busy committing dark, dirty crimes against decent people who can’t defend themselves. Reacher kills at least a half-dozen bad guys per story and it doesn’t bother him any more than killing bugs. Why? Because bad guys made a bad choice: hurting innocent people to make money. They deserve to die. So Jack Reacher is a vivid Character with a capital C. But there’s more.

Lee Child has created a primal archetype: Every man wishes he was a hero saving a beautiful woman and rescuing an innocent child. Every man wishes he was a hero to his wife and to his child. Every man wishes he could heroically stop the bad, evil guys. Since ordinary men lead much more quiet lives (of quiet desperation–or even quietly heroic) we hunger to read of Jack Reacher’s raw and bloody heroics. It lives in our blood if not in our actions. So he is a primal character. (Just as Ayla is a primal archetype character for women readers in Clan of the Cave Bears, the modern, beautiful, intelligent woman who is forced to live among stupid Neanderthal cavemen–and overcome them and thrive).

So what do you do, my dear writing friend. If you would create wildly popular fiction, create primal characters (with lots of defining characteristics to make them real). Once you create this primal character then your job as a writer is to craft interesting situations-problems–perplexing, excruciating, hopeless, mind-boggling problems. Then sit back and watch. Your primal character will thrash away finding a solution. Take notes. Expand notes into prose. Now you’re writing. Now your creating interesting fiction. Can you tell Lee Child is having fun?