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Why Do I Write?

As I turn 53 today, several recent events converged to make me examine why I write and whether I want to continue writing.

I wrote and published 8 books between 2007 and 2012. I have not written a book in a while and Create Space sent me an email asking if I was still writing.

I had lunch with a friend and we talked about my dry spell and she asked me what would make me passionate about writing again. I have suffered health crisis after health crisis since before I wrote Mythikas Island, which has resulted in a roller coaster of frenzied work and months living as a cat. Health woes certainly contribute to the ambivalence.

I began writing poetry and journaling as a young girl. I did not attempt fiction until I was middle-aged. So as I explored the reasons why I started writing books in the first place, a theme developed.

I wrote the Mythikas Island series (I: Diana, II: Persephone, III: Aphrodite, and IV: Athena) for my daughter Anna. She was a teenager and was sick of love triangles in YA books. She said some girls wanted stories that didn’t revolve around guys. Ideas for stories about goddesses and girl power had been percolating for a while and that became the impetus for the Mythikas Island series. Four girls are groomed to be leaders and must save themselves and fight for their future.

I wrote the Story Building Blocks (I: The Four Layers of Conflict, II: Crafting Believable Conflict, III: The Revision Layers, IV: Build A Cast Workbook) because I couldn’t find them anywhere when I needed them. I was tired of reading about the story arc and all those motivational tomes. I wanted nuts and bolts and tools for developing plots and characters. 
I wanted advanced craft lessons. I also wanted to centralize all of my notes on revision, editing, and proofreading. So, I spent several years learning, reading, dissecting stories, and researching. I developed a story architecture theory that made sense to me. This blog, Game On, is an extension of the desire to share what I learn. I also guest post on The Blood Red Pencil, another blog devoted to the craft of writing.

I have studied interior formatting, cover design, and website building. Although far from expert, I have added those skills to my tool kit.

Then I was blindsided with the misdiagnosis of a mystery muscle disease. That led to a year of research and another year of developing that research into a website for the rare disease, Stiff Person Syndrome, which became The Tin Man. It not only has up-to-date information on SPS, but a large section on how to cope with debilitating diseases and resources for patients with rare diseases. Again, things I couldn't find that I needed.

While I haven’t been entirely slothful, there was no book at the end of those two-plus years. Create Space had no way of knowing that, hence the gentle reminder.

It turns out, I am motivated by writing things that benefit other people. It is the sharing information and helping that bring me joy. If I inspired one teenager, helped one writer, or educated one patient, I consider all that time well spent.

I’ve always joked to my critique group that my biggest problem is that I don’t need the money and I don’t want to be famous. I admit to being turned off by the business and promotional aspect of publishing, as necessary as it is to being a lucrative independent author. It is an area I would need to research and I’d have to overcome my natural resistance to being in the spotlight and sales promotion. I would also have to work around my physical limitations. I’d much rather sit in a room churning out work and let others worry about what to do with the end product. Alas, successful writer-preneurs are not built that way. So, I have to decide if that is the way I want to spend time.

I attended a funeral yesterday for a friend that made me ponder what I want to do with my remaining time. He died during the adventure of a lifetime, checking off a big item on his bucket list. This led me to examine what I am still capable of and prioritizing my bucket list. The hubs is going to retire next year in August. After our relocation from Windyana to Adult Disneyland, I don’t know what my days will be like. All those long hours I spent working or sleeping while he was at the hospital will now be filled with different things.

My muses still visit and my characters still chime in with ideas of where they'd like to go, especially my goddess girls. I have more ideas for the Story Building Blocks series. I have a draft of a YA story, and first chapters of many others that I call my Widows & Orphans file including a mystery called The Wicked Stage.

But will they ever see print? Who knows? Once the reno nightmare of the new house and trauma of moving are over, I may put fingers back to keyboard. If for no other reason than to free the characters that haunt me like trapped ghosts seeking the light.

Adding Tension With Conflicting Alliances

Alliances can drag characters into gangs, criminal activities, and wars. Many tales hinge on divided alliances. Loyalty is often tested.

Members feel they belong to their religious congregations and sports teams. Citizens feel they belong to their city, state, or country. Plots can turn when the governing bodies of those organizations, cities, states, or countries place unreasonable demands on the characters they feel they “own.”

Organizations can be benevolent or menacing. 

Dick can force others to belong to his group. He can try to escape a group. Dick can be shunned, punished, or murdered if he attempts to leave a group.

Jane may be willing to lie, cheat, steal, or kill to belong to an exclusive club.

Sally can behave in ways that are detrimental in order to “belong.” She will accept unpleasant circumstances and tolerate unpleasant people in an attempt to “fit in.”

How far is Sally willing to go to belong to, or escape from, a group? This can make a taut Thriller.

If Jane joins a group or club and that group or club starts taking over her life, she has an overall story problem and the situation creates conflict for everyone around her: coworkers, family, spouse, and children.

If a teenaged Sally is desperate to fit into a clique at school, you have another overall story problem. She might humiliate and harm herself to be included. Cliques aren’t limited to high school. They surrounded royalty, emperors, prophets, politicians, actors, and rock stars.

Children feel they belong to their parents, family, or clan. If parents, families, or clans feel they own family members and can tell them what to do and how to live their lives, you have conflict. Perceived ownership can serve as an antagonist motive in a Romance or serve as the basis for a Literary novel.

Lovers feel they belong to each other. If a lover takes the concept of ownership too far, it makes a good Thriller & Suspense problem, a woman in peril novel, or the motive in a Mystery novel.

Devices such as the need to join or the need to break free can be used at the scene level.

Dick may be wrestling with divided loyalties: go to a cousin’s wedding or beg off to chase a clue or meet his dream girl at a public appearance she is making. It also works as an antagonist’s scene dilemma. He can be a mob boss whose presence is expected at a meeting with his second and third in command, but his instincts tell him something is up and that a bust will go down, so he squiggles out of it or does not show up. His minions will not be happy.

Dick’s religious beliefs may keep him from taking a necessary action at scene level. He can wrestle with whether or not it is okay to make an exception, just this once.

Dick may be sick of the idiots populating his tennis club, so he does something to overcome a scene obstacle that will result in his expulsion. The scene accomplished two things: freed him of the ties that were choking him and gained him the clue, evidence, knowledge, etc. that he needed to overcome the scene goal. A further complication could be that those idiots like him so much they ignore the infraction. Dick will have to come up with an even bigger violation to earn his freedom.

This conflict works in any genre. For these and other obstacles that create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Story World Building: Social Contracts

The terms of the social contract in Dick and Jane’s world puts pressure on them to behave in certain ways. The constraints can make whatever they have to do to solve the story problem difficult, if not impossible. If Dick and Jane violate the social contract in their world, they pay a price for it.

It is especially important in Fantasy and Science Fiction when writing about alternative worlds that you consider the demands social contracts impose on the people in them. 

In writing historical novels, it is important to understand what the social contract of the time and place required. Morals and practices changed over time and across geography. Small desert tribes had a different social contract than societies in king-ruled Europe and those of hunter-gatherers in Africa.

Studies have suggested that groups of one-hundred or less are pretty good at self-regulation. There isn’t a need for organized law enforcement in such a small community because the members all know each other and are able to keep tabs on one another. If one of the members commits an act that is detrimental to the group, the other 99 are willing and able to correct or punish them. Even in a small community, there are rules that they follow to keep the peace.

It isn’t in the group’s best interest if they can’t trust one another. If someone is lying, stealing, killing, or lusting after someone else’s mate, conflict will ensue and the transgressor will be booted out. It is hard to survive in the world alone, especially if you suck at hunting or gathering.

In groups larger than one-hundred, it is imperative to have some form of social contract with rules that are enforceable and enforced. The golden rule of most societies can be boiled down into the loose statement: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This isn’t effective if you’re visiting a community of purple people eaters.

Ancient Egyptians had a long list of “I will not ...” statements in their Husia. Jews and Christians embraced commandments which included admonitions to not worship different gods or idols, to not lie or bear false witness against a neighbor, to not murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet their neighbor’s wife.

Hinduism’s rules of dharma encouraged patience, forgiveness, self control, honesty, sanctity, control of senses, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness, and absence of anger.

In your story world, your characters will be subject to the rules of their society's contract. If Dick breaks those rules, there will be consequences. He may fight to change the rules or reveal the dark side to one of his society’s rules.

It is considered a plot hole if you apply modern sensibilities to the people from a historic setting. That doesn’t mean you can’t take some artistic license. However, having Victorian girls behave like the cast from a modern reality TV show does not work for most readers, unless you are portraying an alternate universe in Science Fiction or adding a Fantasy twist. 

Errors of this type will, at the very least, make the reader cringe. At worst, your book will go on the to-be-burned pile.

If you write fantasy or Science Fiction, develop your own ten commandments for your story world. How are they enforced? What are the consequences for breaking them? Are some infringements more serious than others? Are some ignored on a routine basis without consequence?

In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the citizens of District 12 aren’t supposed to hunt outside the fence, yet Gale and Katniss do so regularly. Because they transgress, Katniss is better prepared to survive the Hunger Games. Breaking the social contract benefitted her. Katniss and Peeta break the contract again at the end of their first Hunger Games by refusing to kill each other, which sets up the conflict for the second book in the series.

Think about your story. Have you directly or indirectly explored social contracts in your story world? Have you put it to work for you in terms of complicating your characters’ lives? Have you utilized transgressions and punishments?

For more information on crafting believable obstacles, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Using Personal Space as Conflict

Personal physical boundaries vary from person to person and culture to culture. Some cultures hug, air-kiss, or shake hands and others bow politely. 

We’ve all had conversations with people who stand uncomfortably close or those who stand so far away we don’t think they are participating in the exchange. When someone infringes on Dick’s “personal” space, he is forced to back off, push them away or tolerate it until he gets what he needs. 

If Dick lays hands on people who don’t like to be touched, he has offended them. If they don’t outwardly respond, they may make an effort to avoid Dick in the future and are unlikely to do what Dick wants them to. If Dick needs to whisper something but the other person stands too far away, they make the exchange of information very difficult to achieve.

If Dick takes a seat in a nearly empty movie theater (train, plane, or bus) and someone chooses the seat next to him several things could happen. The stranger can be obnoxious enough that Dick moves, he can accept the situation, or Dick could become so obnoxious he forces the other person to move. If Dick needs information from this stranger, or if the stranger is targeting Dick, you have conflict.

If Dick is lunching alone and Jane, a stranger, takes the seat across from him, she is either crazed, wants something, or has mistaken him for someone else. Either way you can have fun with it. Characters don't share tables or hotel rooms with strangers unless there is a very good reason for it.

If someone at work consistently encroaches on Sally’s personal space (or work responsibilities), Sally might dread going to work. She may ask to switch offices or even quit. She might take an aggressive approach and escalate the territory war until the other person gives in or quits. This can serve as a scene obstacle or a personal dilemma.

If Dick is an interrogator, he may encroach on a suspect or witness's personal space to intimidate them. Intruding into someone's personal "bubble" is an act of aggression. It could also be an act of intimacy. Who do you really want to have up close and personal? Whose touch is acceptable?

If a sibling encroaches on Jane’s side of the room, she might complain to mom and dad. If that doesn’t work, it can escalate into petty acts of retaliation until one or the other wins, they agree to a truce, or mom and dad step in and separate them. These kinds of disputes can happen between teachers at school, soccer moms on the field, or waiters at a restaurant.

These conflicts are often featured in comedies, but can be utilized in any genre. Two opposing gangs forced to share a hideout in dystopian story works just as well as two enemies sharing a jail cell.

Bowing, handshaking, and hand gestures are the subjects of extensive studies and say a lot about a population and an era. When you write about different cultures, be sure to investigate the ins and outs of social and physical boundaries specific to that region and time period. When you create a fantasy world, this kind of detail can add richness to it. 

There are many reasons why one person's "bubble" is wider than anothers based on their past history, trauma, or training. You can use it to define character.