Do Writers Have a Responsibility to be Good Role-Models?

What are your responsibilities as a writer? Should you self-censor in the name of being PC or setting a good example? Is that taking things too far? Writer’s aren’t role-models, are they?

When I was teacher, I was clear on my responsibilities to model certain levels of behaviour. No one is perfect behind closed doors (and that is why the staff-room door of any school is, generally, closed) but when standing at the front of the class, I tried to be the best version of myself, and I encouraged my students to be the same.

200w_d

I was not this sort of teacher – although some days it would have been nice.

Is it any different when writing? This is a question I struggle with all the time, especially writing for young adults. Let me give you a simple example. In one my manuscripts the protagonist’s best-friend refers to some other boys as retards. He’s using the term in a pejorative way, basically saying they’re stupid. I know that this is something a teenage boy might say without even thinking about it, but I also know it’s offensive and harmful. The same can said for using gay (as in homosexual) as a pejorative (this was the major insult of my 90’s teenage years). So, do I keep the phrase in, because it’s accurate, or do I take it out, because it’s offensive?

I took it out and here’s why:

1) There are many alternative words that I can use to convey the same meaning.

2) The character in question is one of the ‘good guys’ which gives everything he says or does a certain measure of authority – if he does it, it must be OK. But using ‘retard’ as a pejorative isn’t OK, and I don’t want to imply that it is.

3) This character hasn’t been written as a ‘flawed hero’. If he had then the reader might think, ‘oh, what a jerk but that’s one of his flaws’. In this case, there’s no evidence of that.

4) The character said it, but I wrote it. For the most part I try to be respectful of the feelings of others when I speak, and so I should be when I write. I’m not perfect, I have said things which were rude, wrong and offensive, in my life because sometimes I speak before I think, but I don’t have that excuse when writing.

As writers, we do have a responsibility to think beyond our stories to the real lives that they may touch. Whether we want them to or not, readers will take a message from your work and you don’t want that message to be one that limits or puts down a group of people. Think hard about the things your fictional characters are modelling for your real-life readers.

Everyone has an opinion

 

Writing in the First-Person

When I was teaching, the difference between first-person and third-person stumped more than a few of my students. Even though we do it so naturally in speech, writing in first or third-person and staying consistent can be tricky when you begin. Today we’re going to focus on first-person narrative.

Why First Person?

First-person lends itself well to writing where you want to immerse the reader fully in the narrator’s point-of-view. In this case, everything the narrator knows, the reader knows and everything that the narrator doesn’t know, the reader can’t know. This includes things about the narrator him/herself – the narrator can’t describe the colour of their black eye if they can’t see it, they have to limit themselves to how it feels.

Obviously this creates limitations for you, as the writer. You can’t describe another character’s thoughts and feelings, only what the narrator perceives them to be, and you can’t give information to the reader that the narrator isn’t aware of. But first-person makes up for these limitations by giving the reader a sense of immediacy and urgency. When the protagonist hurts, the reader is experiencing it first- hand.

Consistency is Key

Once you’ve decided to write in first-person, you need to stick with it. If you’re using personal pronouns such as I and my or we and us, then you’re writing in the first person. In these cases, the narrator is referring to themselves or a group that includes them. For example:

I walked to the shops (first-person singular)

We walked to the shops (first-person plural)

If you find that you slip out of first-person into third-person as you’re writing, don’t worry. Once you’ve recognised the mistake, take up writing in the first-person again and go back and fix the error later. That’s what editing is for.

 

Using the Five Senses

Sometimes you’ll hear people say that, when you write, you need to ‘paint a word picture’. But this doesn’t go far enough because a picture only includes what you can see and when you write you need to give your reader every sense. Even a ‘word movie’ doesn’t cut it so let me give you a reminder of the senses you should be drawing on when you write.

Sight:

Perhaps sight is our dominate sense. We use it to understand so much of our world and for many of us the idea of being visually impaired is difficult to understand. Of course, we don’t just see indiscriminately. We can choose to focus our sight on certain objects. Children can be so focussed on something – a ball or pet for example – that they may genuinely not see the car coming towards them. You may physically see things about a person you’re attracted to, that other people would miss – the flecks in their eyes or the highlights in their hair. When you describe what a character is seeing, it tells the reader a lot about them, what’s important to them and their state of mind.

Hearing:

Can you hear the tweeting of a bird or is it swallowed up by the roar of traffic on the freeway? Is your character speaking in a soft voice or a growl? The soundscape around us is just as rich as the landscape and tells us just as much about the character’s environment. It also helps us to communicate emotion. An angry person might yell, or hiss, their voice might be rough or sharp. Don’t neglect what your characters can hear.

Touch/Feel:

We see with our eyes and we hear with our ears but we can feel with every part of our body. Touch/feel can tell us a lot about the character’s environment – the gritty sand or soft carpet under foot – as well as their physical state – burning muscles or stinging eyes. The way you describe how something feels may also change depending on the character or situation. For example, a kiss from someone you care about will be described differently from a kiss from someone you despise.

Smell:

Smell is strongly associated with memory. The smell of pine-trees takes me straight back to Christmas, the smell of coconut reminds me of my older sister laying out in the sun, trying to get golden brown. Smell is a wonderful sense. And it’s not just pleasant things that we should describe the smell of. Foul smells tell us about decay and disease. They warn us not to eat certain things or go to certain places. If something is green and oozing, chances are it smells putrid too. Let your reader know that.

Taste:

Babies and toddlers put everything in their mouths. It’s not enough for them to feel, smell and see the block, they want to know how it tastes too. After a certain age though it’s socially unacceptable to stick everything in your mouth. That said, we taste a lot of things beside food and drink. We taste the sweat above our lip, we taste the coffee on our lover’s breath (I mean, I don’t personally, but my character might), we taste the bitter bile rising in our throats. Taste and smell are so closely related that something can smell like something else tastes or vice versa. Don’t under estimate the power of taste, it can add a whole other level to your writing.

 

When you’re writing you should bring all your senses to play. It creates a richer world for your character and therefore your reader. And it’s more fun for you, too.

Everyone has an opinion

Five Clues that You’re Writing for an Audience of One – You

We write for a lot of reasons – to entertain, to educate, to share our emotions – and for the most part writing is about communicating ideas between people. But sometimes we write for ourselves, to understand ourselves better or vent our feelings.

Both options are fine but if you’re looking to share or publish your work you need to know if you’re writing for an audience of many, or just for yourself.

Here’s 5 clues that you’re writing for yourself:

  1. You’ve written the first draft and you’re calling it quits.

No one’s first draft is perfect. No one’s. It takes time and effort to turn a first draft into something worth sharing with the world at large. If you’ve enjoyed the writing process and now you’re ready to move on to the next thing, that’s great. But accept that the only audience that work is fit for, is you.

 

  1. It begins with ‘Dear Diary…’

Diarising or journaling is great for getting in touch with your feelings, recording important events in your life and venting tension and stress. It’s also let’s you write without censoring yourself. But this very freedom is also what makes a diary or journal private. When you’re angry, upset or in love you are going to say things about other people that you don’t want them to know – things that might not even be true. And that’s fine. But for everyone’s sake, keep it under lock and key (or password protect).

 

  1. The main character is basically you…but more so.

I’ve read a lot of fiction written by teenagers which starred them, only without their name. I’ve also written this fiction myself, when I was a teenager. It’s basically a fantasy in which the gorgeous and super nice guy or girl in the school sees how beautiful and special the main character (i.e. you) is and falls in love despite the gorgeous but evil guy or girl (i.e. which ever popular person is making your life difficult) going out of their way to halt the progress of true love.

Go ahead and write these stories, they’re fun and everyone deserves a fantasy. And you’re right, you are awesome. But they often lack the depth that makes a good story because the protagonist is perfect in every way (because obviously, you are perfect in every way), and a perfect person has no reason to grow and change – which is what drives a story.

 

  1. You stood on a soapbox while writing.

You’ve got something to say. You’ve got opinions. You’ve got a message to get across. Great. But don’t turn your story into a vehicle for your message. A good story is driven by character and conflict, and while your personal feelings on an issue may naturally filter into your story, if you beat your reader over the head with a message, they’ll stop reading.

 

  1. You name names.

Don’t do it. Don’t say nasty things (or things that could be construed as nasty) about people unless they’re true and even then, even then, be sure that you’re willing to bring the wrath of those people down on you. Because while you might think that your neighbor is a puppy-drowning-cat-worshiper, if you write it down, show it to other people and he’s upset about it (although why would he be? Cats are awesome) then he could be within his rights to take legal action against you. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it under any circumstances. I’m say be careful and very, very, sure about what you’re saying. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.

Everyone has an opinion

What Should You Consider When Writing Characters Who are Have a Different Race, Religion, Gender or Sexual Preference to You?

Book characters are amazing things. They drive the story and they invite the reader to journey with them. As readers they can become friends. As writers, they can be anything we want to be, however they are often, in part at least, a reflection of ourselves. But what if you want to write a character who differs from you in a significant way? What if the character you’re writing doesn’t share your gender, race, religion, sexual preference and/or nationality? In this case, I believe there’s some extra considerations you should make.

 

Character Hierarchy:

Publication1

The image above shows the hierarchy of characters. Because the protagonist is the most significant character and the one you need to know the most about when writing you’re characters, that’s the character I’ll be focussing on here.

 

Authenticity:

When we say something’s authentic we mean it’s the real thing or as close to it as you can get without it being the real thing (my husband once told me that the lamb curry I made was too authentic – is that a compliment?). As writers, we strive to create authentic characters living authentic lives and to do that we need to understand our protagonist and his/her life as well as we understand our own.

This can be trickier when our protagonist is significantly different to us. I’m a white, heterosexual, woman (I know, I know. I’ve got it made.). Understandably, it’s going to be more difficult for me to write an authentic black, homosexual, male character than a white, heterosexual, female character. While there are experiences all people share (love, loss, fear for example) our race, culture and sexuality alters our perceptions of them and how we express those perceptions. That’s not to say you can’t write an authentic character who differs to you, my protagonist for All My Father’s Secrets is a boy, but you may need to do more work to ensure they ring true for your reader.

 

Respect:

I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s. For a while in the 90’s there was an influx of sitcoms that featured sassy, black, women. They were there to tell the main character “how-it-was” and they said “mmm-hmm” a lot. These women were always strong, no-nonsense and independent – on the face of it, a positive image. Also a stereotypical and two-dimensional image.

Don’t be lead astray by stereotypes or media-images of a group of people. If you don’t know enough about the life and culture of the protagonist you want to write, think twice about writing them. And if you’re writing your protagonist as being a member of a certain race/culture/sexuality etc. so that you can shine a light on the failings of those people, take heed, you are asking to get decked.

 

Rights:

Just because you can write a story, doesn’t mean you should. Some stories are not yours to tell. No writer has the right to appropriate the stories and experiences of another group of people. I would tread very carefully with anything that is culturally or historically sensitive. I, personally and as an Anglo-Australian, wouldn’t write a protagonist who is Aboriginal and experiencing displacement due to the colonisation of their country. Not only would it be insensitive to the reality of Australian and Indigenous history, it’s not my story to tell. There are Indigenous-Australian authors who are far more qualified and capable of telling that story, the story of their people and their ancestors. That’s not to say I couldn’t write the story from the perspective of a white settler in Australia, even one who is sympathetic to the Indigenous people, but I would be appropriating someone else’s story if I did it from another perspective.

 

There is no rule that says you should limit yourself to protagonists that share your gender, colour and culture. But you should be careful that you can do the character, your story and the real people who may see themselves in that character, justice.

Everyone has an opinion

How to Know Your Writing is More Than a Hobby

Here’s the thing about writing. It can be a lot of fun. It can also be a lot of work. But these are not the things that determine whether it’s a hobby or not. After all, hobbies can be work sometimes (for example training in a sport you enjoy. I defy anybody to tell me that they love running laps, in the rain, around a flood-lit oval, in the middle of winter. Or hitting endless balls across a net on a scorching day when the sun is reflecting off the court, into your eyes). And work can be fun (a great discussion with a colleague or a hard-won success can be awesome). So what is the difference?

Here’s my five clues that your writing has become more than a hobby.

  • You know what ‘platform building’ is:

You’re aware that if you want to get published, it’s probably a good idea to get your name out there, even before a publisher casts their eyes over you precious written-baby. You may not have a platform yet, but right now, as you read this, you know what I’m talking about.

  • You write, regardless:

You write whether you want to or not. You write through writer’s block (or google, ‘how to get rid of writer’s block’ and then write). You write when your muse is AWOL. In short, you write like it’s your job (says it all, really).

  • You participate in professional development:

You aim to get better at what you do and to that end you read blogs and websites, attend conferences and seek out writing how-to books and texts. You read books within the genre, and for the audience, you write and you read the books of great authors regardless of genre to see just how they perform their magic.

  • You share your work with other writers for their feedback:

You’re either part of a writers’ group, a writing association or have a mentor (or any combination of those). You’re actively seeking feedback from others in your field in order to improve your work.

  • You are actively working towards being published:

Whether you plan to self-publish or find someone to publish your work for you, you are actively looking towards ways to get your work off your USB and into the hands of actual readers. You’re researching you options, writing submissions and sending your heart and soul manuscript, into the world.

 

If these five things ring true for you, I believe you can call your writing a career.

Everyone has an opinion

How Should Writers Reflect Social Issues?

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke late last year Pinterest, Twitter and even traditional news carriers have been full of stories, commentaries and revelations about sexual misconduct, the abuse of power and the roles and rights of men and women. Despite being the type of person who has an opinion on everything, I feel there’s nothing I can add to the conversation here (and the world breathes a sigh of relief). However, it does raise the question of how we as writers should reflect social issues within our work. Continue reading

Five Painless (And Effective) Ways to Improve Your Writing

Whether you write for the love of it or because you want to make a career of it, you’re probably interested in how to improve your writing. If you’re like me, you don’t always have the time for courses and working through resources. Sometimes, you want the results without the pain.

Here are five ways that I use to help me improve my writing and which might be helpful for you too: Continue reading

Man in balaclava

How I Use My Childhood Rape in My Writing

When I was eight I was raped. It feels strange to write that here. It’s not something I’m in the habit of sharing although it does come up now and then with the mums I’m close to because as mothers we discuss these issues in relation to our kids. I was lucky that my parents were very practical and straight forward about getting me help to deal with the experience and, after 25 years, it doesn’t have a strong hold over me. Continue reading

Beginning, Middle and End

At a certain point in your education, probably very early on, you will have been taught that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. Being 5 or 6 you probably won’t have responded with, ‘no shit Sherlock’ but I would forgive you if you did because it’s pretty obvious. Kids do get carried away when telling a story but we all instinctively know that a story must start somewhere, something must happen in the middle and the story must come to a close. Continue reading