My wife was telling me about a friend going through some rough times. Personal stuff. Emotional stuff. And she said it was sad. But I disagreed. What this friend is experiencing is certainly challenging, but hardly sad. She’s in a negative situation and needs to get out of it. She needs to find her own place, her own footing, her own voice. And while she may cry a lot about her circumstances, they will make her stronger. One day that friend will look back at this year and know that it was a good year because of what she learned about herself.
This year has been one of those years for me. It hasn’t been sad. But it has been challenging. I prefer to look at it in terms of victories, though. We had to put my father in a memory care home, but that was a victory over confusion. Now he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his finances and groceries straight. My mother passed, but that was a victory over pain, as she had suffered for years with cancer, COPD and spinal issues. I had a regular job I didn’t care for most of the year, but that was a victory over unemployment. Now I have a better job, and my editing business is getting busier and busier.
Every failure leads you down a road toward victory, as long as you keep walking or running or driving in good faith.
If you never experienced defeat, never saw blood, never witnessed suffering or death, then you’d never have thick skin. You’d never overcome. And you probably wouldn’t care.
Suffering makes us stronger. And it makes us care.
I called my step-dad yesterday. He took care of my mother for 24 years, so he has my respect. But she is gone now. I looked at the calendar and realized she died 6 weeks ago. Feels like just yesterday that he called me at 4:10 in the morning and said, “Your mother just passed ten minutes ago.”
He grew up in Montana, in Kalispell. My mother loved visiting there. And every time I think of Kalispell, I think of the Missoula Floods, and how the ice dam broke 20,000 years ago, releasing the gigantic lake that sat on what is now Missoula, Montana. That river–some say the largest river in the history of the world–flooded most of Eastern Washington and Western Oregon. I live in the valley that used to be under hundreds of feet of water.
I think my mother’s passing was like the ice dam breaking. I think you have to let life flood over you sometimes, and see how the landscape changes. We get into ruts, always taking the same path, digging canals deeper into the ground. If you dig deep enough, you lose site of the terrain, the people around you.
The water’s getting deep. It’s time to build a boat. It’s time to see where the river flows to.
I encourage authors to map out their stories before they compose. A story is like a river, with twists and turns, surprise waterfalls and white water rapids in between placid, flowing stretches. A straight-forward story is not like a river. It is like a canal. No one wants to read a canal. No one puts on their shorts and flip flops, grabs their inner-tube and yells, “Let’s go ride some canal!”
In each chapter or section of your book there needs to be a conflict, an obstacle your heroin/hero needs to overcome. In the first act, the hero/heroin might do well against the obstacles. In the second act, they need to fail. And the third act is where they have learned their lesson, gained wisdom, and finally triumphed over their adversary, or died a glorious death that inspires or educates others.
Unless you are quite experienced in story crafting, this structure does not flow naturally. This is why I recommend some form of story mapping. It is best to do it before composing, but it can be done after a first draft, during self-editing.
A motif is a re-occurring image, theme or element that appears throughout your novel. A dove symbolizes peace, or a snake represents evil, or a spider represents death. Motifs add color and intrigue to your novel, but you have to be tricky, subtle, underhanded in your use of them. After a first draft is a good time to distribute motifs. Spread them out, don’t just leave them at the end and marvel at your brilliance. And for gosh sakes, don’t explain them.
When your character is experiencing emotion, don’t say: She felt grief. Don’t say grief enveloped her. Don’t say she was painted in grief. Say what she is doing in response to the grief. Say what her posture is, what her hands are doing; and if she’s distracted by the grief, don’t say she’s distracted by the grief. Jane set the letter down on the counter, her hands trembling, her breath quick. She adjusted and re-adjusted her wedding band, removing it, sliding it back onto her finger. She picked up the letter again and held it to her breast and wept.