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Friday, August 30, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Displaced Anger and Multiple Personalities

Dear Jeannie,
In the 18th year of Blake's life, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he learned that his father had another son, Jaxon, who is just 6 months older than Blake. Jaxon was born in England of a different woman. Blake's mother died a year later, and Blake believed that his mother lost the battle with cancer so quickly because of her husband's obvious betrayal. How would these issues affect the way Blake deals with the woman he's in love with, and what would his feelings be for the half brother, Jaxon, whom he never really knew. How do you think Blake would react when he meets Jaxon for the first time?

Author in the Tropics 

Dear Author in the Tropics,

You could go a few different ways with this, but most likely Blake will harbor residual resentment toward the brother he never knew. It's human nature to want to find a target to blame, even in circumstances when there clearly is no one to blame. Jaxon would be a prime mark. The timing of uncovering the knowledge of his existence, coinciding with his mother's lost battle to cancer would make his emotions run very high. Depending on how much you let Blake simmer and stew about Jaxon, that would make a big difference in how Blake reacts when he meets him. You could have him be standoffish, or take a swing at him, or give him an evil eye. Bound to be tension. As to how he reacts to the woman he loves...I'm not sure I understand the connection. Are you thinking Blake would be wary to commit to someone, being fearful that he might be cheated on like his dad cheated on his mom? Otherwise, I'd think he's cling to the woman in his life to help him get through these difficult events.

I also want to make sure I understand something, so there's not a potential hole in your plot. Did Blake's mother find out about Jaxon when Blake was 18? Or had she already known about him? Feel free to dialogue in the comment section. Good luck!

Dear Jeannie,

My characters were on a cruise ship that exploded, and they lost their memories. Before this, they'd each had multiple undercover assignments. Mary can only remember one of her covers, with her husband, but no children. Meanwhile Charlie/Nicolo/Martin/Danil so compartmentalized his identities that he has developed MPD and different languages or situations will trigger each personality, none of which were married. Which would be the greater trigger to put him back together: falling in love again in the place where he originally proposed, or seeing his daughter's face?

Splitting Hairs in Alaska

Dear Splitting Hairs,

The scenario you've presented is fairly unlikely; however, I realize that you're writing a work of fiction. The proper terminology for multiple personalities is now Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Click on the link and read about half-way down...lots of info.) It's true that people suffering from DID can have various different languages, handwriting styles, tones of voice...very cool. So that works for your story, and it's neat that you've got two people who specialize in undercover operations. As to what can put him "back together," that's oversimplifying things. Treatment for DID varies according to practitioner, but it's never like the self completely shatters and there are no vestiges of the primary identity left. True DID would mean Charlie is aware of the other alternate personalities, but perhaps not in control of when they come out.  Since you've moved away from this idea, I imagine you could take your pick of how you want to reintegrate him. Just make sure it's clear that it's a work of fiction and that you took creative license. No one should take offense. :) Best of luck!

Got questions of your own? Leave them in the comment section, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle, and I will post my answers in next week's column.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Importance of Old Story for Writers

When authors are told to start in media res (in the middle of things), this means starting with the action, the inciting incident, the new story world.

When a book starts with the inciting incident, it leaves much of the actual old story world, or Old World, to the reader's imagination, flashbacks, or internal monologue cues. I'm going to expound on why I think this cheats the reader, because there is benefit to starting the book with a little glimpse into the Old World.

What Old World Is Not

It's not backstory.

Backstory is everything that happened before your novel starts. If your character is 21, then his backstory would cover his birth, childhood, teenage years...everything up until the scene you open with that he's in. Backstory could even cover generations before he was born, such as family traditions and secrets that affect him.

What Old World Is

Old World encompasses the plans your character has, whether those plans are to change or to keep things exactly the way they are. The character might be completely ignorant of the issue(s) they need to face, or they are in complete and utter denial about it. But this is their life, and it's "working" for them (whether it truly is functional or dysfunctional).

Old World v. New World

There should be some major tension between the New World and the Old World.

Of course, this makes sense. We wouldn't want to read about someone just ho-humming it through their regular, Old World life. That would be b o r i n g.

When the New World breaks through on the page, it interrupts the Old World. Those plans the character had? Toast. Previous goals? History. But the Old World should rear its head occasionally through the book.

The reader might not understand the huge impact the inciting incident has, though, without some Old World first. (Click to Tweet!) This is my primary reason for writing this post, because for a therapist, understanding the environment, the Old World, is just as crucial as knowing the backstory. I couldn't do my job if I didn't know what had been going on in someone's life before they lost their house, or before their father died, or before they were put into foster care.

A Great Example of Old World

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind starts with Scarlett doing what Scarlett does best...flirting with boys, attending parties, and planning to marry Ashley Wilkes. This was her life, her Old World.

There are arguably two inciting incidents that happen, one right after the other. First, she learns that Ashley is to marry his cousin Melanie. Second, the Civil War starts. Life as she knows it takes a drastic change...which is the New World.

The Old World should complicate the New World in some way, in much the same way the New World obliterates the Old World. What I mean by this, is that the person's life trajectory...the Old World that's in place when the book begins, should be at odds with the New World.

Scarlett just wants things to go back to the way they were...her having tons of beaus chasing after her, attending soirees, having money at her disposal, and having Ashley in her back pocket. She keeps hankering after these Old World relics while the New World plays out...and it disrupts her life further.

How Much Old World do You Include?

No hard and fast rule here. I've seen Old Worlds that were one paragraph of page one. I've seen some that were a few pages. Usually the New World interrupts at some point in the first chapter, but this isn't written in stone, like I said, but a good rule of thumb.

Remember, there's no limit to how much Old World you can retroactively put in a book, via flashbacks or internal dialogue. We're always told to stay away from backstory dumps, so don't take this post as license to put a dump back in.

I Don't have Old World...Now What?

The good news about Old Worlds is that adding them isn't all that difficult. If you've already started your book in the middle of the action, ask yourself a couple of questions:

1) When my character woke up the morning of page one, what were his/her plans before I interrupted them with the New World?
2) What does the character think the story is going to be from page one? (Hint: this should be different from what you as the author knows the story is.)

Once you've answered them, you'll have your Old World. All you need to do is give them a structure and copy/paste it in before your novel. Not as a prologue, but as paragraph one of page one. Just scoot that old paragraph one back a bit.

Let's Analyze

What other benefits would the reader gain if authors showed just a tad more Old World before the inciting incident? Any other books that you'd say have good Old World examples?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Paranormal PTSD

Dear Jeannie,

My character is named Tex and is the equivalent of a preteen at the time the story takes place. He was raised by an older boy named Johnny who did his best to keep Tex out of harm's way, but ultimately failed when he was forced to leave on short notice when Tex was about 5 or 6. Little Tex had a rough time living on the frontier: malnutrition, inability to find steady work, people taking advantage of his naivety, having to get streetsmart or die, etc. He learned that he possessed the ability to experience emotionally impacting events that occurred in certain places. He found this out the hard way by experiencing the Battle of the Alamo first hand several years after it ended. As a result, Tex now avoids memorials and old battlefields like the plague, fearing something similar may happen. Tex doesn't see Johnny again for 16 years, by which point he promises to aide Johnny in his side of the American Civil War. What kind of emotional baggage might Tex be carrying with him? 
Stressing in the States

Dear Stressing,

It's pretty clear that Tex is likely suffering from PTSD. One of the key symptoms of PTSD is avoidance of stimuli (people, places, things) that remind you of the trauma. Since he is scared to visit old battlefields and memorials where people died, this would fit. He might also have flashbacks, nightmares or day can see my Anxiety Disorders label for more info.

What might be more painful for him is the idea that Johnny doesn't seem to remember him (whether Johnny does or not). I'm sure as a young boy he was wholly reliant on Johnny, and probably worshipped him with hero status. You didn't make it clear whether little Tex knew why Johnny had to leave suddenly, but either way, that event would have devastated him. Seeing him years later, seemingly having moved on, would make him very wary, if not downright pissed. I hope that you have given Tex a very good motivation to want to help him, otherwise that plot point might seem implausible. 

Best of luck to you, and thanks for writing in. 

Got questions of your own? Leave them in the comment section, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle, and I will post my answers in next weeks column.  The queue is empty, folks.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Therapeutic Sound-Off and Writer's Guide Giveaway!

So I've been cataloging various things that bug me, in no particular order. I believe that sounding off (in appropriate venues) is very therapeutic. I invite you to join me in the comments section and sound off yourself for a chance to win your choice of one of my Writer's Guides!

Without further ado, my sound-off commences:

1) Why do containers of mixed nuts say they have "less than 50% peanuts?" Do they really mean more like 48-49%?

2) Why do Glee cast members keep coming back to their high school? Seriously? How many of us actually go back and haunt the halls of our high school? Just curious how many seasons they can continue with the original cast (RIP, Cory).

3) Why is it that when you ever switch lanes, either at the grocery store or on the highway, it's always the worst choice? Someone applies for the credit card to save 10% or the car goes slower than you were originally? Explain this to me.

4) Why is it that when you are finally presented with a great opportunity to call folks you rarely get to talk to (i.e., a long drive by yourself), NO ONE picks up the phone?

5) Why is there always spilled milk in the refrigerator section? I don't understand. Do they bust all the time, and I've just never been the lucky recipient?

6) Why do cats select one spot of carpet to terrorize? Just that one spot. They can't spread their toenail shavings elsewhere, just shred the carpet into a fuzzy mess right there, preferably as close to the entryway as possible.

7) Why did we ask to receive this ridiculously expensive set of knives for our wedding that we have to handwash? Wouldn't it stand to reason that the more expensive the knife, the more utility it would have? It is not utilitarian to hand wash. 

8) Why did Asperger's Disorder get removed from the new DSM-5? This is an outrage.

9) Why is it that when you have a big production to sing in, you always lose your voice, get sick, hack up a lung, etc?

Okay...there's ten of mine, just off the top of my head. Let's see yours. All commenters will be entered to win a Guide of your choice, so don't be shy! Contest will run until Sunday!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Overcoming Bullying and Teens in Therapy

Dear Jeannie,

What would be needed to overcome the consequences of almost a lifetime of being the victim of bullying (not the horrific kind, but ongoing "bitchery" and exclusion)? My 60+ MC can now take early retirement to escape from workplace bullying, and she plans to move to a new, larger city. However, "starting over" would probably be extremely difficult because of emotional baggage—low self esteem, general loss of confidence, shyness, and poor social skills. Also, she has absolutely no desire to talk to a therapist (due to a bad experience many years ago).

Budding Writer

Dear Budding Writer,

Your case is an interesting one, as your protag is 60+, not the typical age we think about when we conjure up images of bullying. But lets face it, older women can be catty. And no better place than at work to do so, it seems. So you're MC has been facing snotty looks, rude comments, and general bitchiness from her coworkers for years. Years. So don't underestimate the allure, the excitement, that she'd have at starting over...getting away from all that she's known, going someplace where she's unknown and has a clean slate. It'd be similar to bullies, unpopular high school teens breaking out of that mold when they go to college. Yes, her self-esteem is damaged, but she could flourish in the right environment, so take careful attention to where you end up placing her. Best of luck!

Dear Jeannie,

   My character is a teenager who sees a therapist because he's struggling with both the death of his sister and physical injuries from a car accident. He's been sabotaging his own recovery.
   How might a teenage boy act about seeing a therapist? I assume he'd be embarrassed at seeming weak. Grief over his sister and that he's not expected to fully recover physically so he's given up. Not sure what that would look like. At this point, it's been over a year but he just started seeing a therapist in her home (or is that only on TV?). I really don't know anything about therapy sessions, so any insight would be helpful.

Teen Trauma n' Drama

Dear Teen Trauma,

Therapists do see patients in their home. However, the ones that I know (i.e., the smart ones) always have a separate entrance/exit or a mother-in-law unit where they do the actual sessions, so that their home is separate from their office. How he would respond to therapy is entirely up to you. I've seen teen boys who had no issues at all walking in my office, and I've had some who would rather have tweezed their nose hairs. Either, or, some of one, some of the other...kinda depends on his personality. As to what goes on in therapy session, I did a post here on that subject. It should give you lots of ideas. If you are interested in the variety of grief reactions, I'd suggest you grab my Writer's Guide to Grief for $3. (sorry...shameless plug, but it truly does have all the info you need). Good luck to you!

Leave a comment below, Sleepless in Seattle-style, and I'll get to your questions in my next Dear Jeannie column. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

How to Develop Your Character's Achilles' Heel

It shouldn't be a newsflash for writers that readers don't want to read about perfect characters. We like 'em flawed, preferably more so than ourselves.
Everybody's Got Problems by Doug Savage

But what does this really mean, to say that something or someone is your character's "Achilles' heel?"

In Greek mythology, Achilles was predicted to die young. His mother Thetis didn't accept this prognosis and took him to the River Styx, where she proceeded to dip him in, as the river offered powers of invulnerability. She, ah, held him by the heel, so it didn't get washed in the water, which was why he was vulnerable from physical harm there.

The term "Achilles' heel" has come to mean an area of weakness or a vulnerable spot. It can by external, such as the oft-cited Indiana Jones' fear of snakes, or it can be internal, such as the evil wizard Voldermort's inability to love and form friendships.

The mythology behind the term is helpful to me. Achilles' mother blanketed him, so to speak, to prevent harm. Characters blanket themselves in the same way, putting on coats of armor to prevent others from seeing the parts of us that need work. And it's the author's job to crack that armor through plot, which is the fun part of writing. (Click to tweet!)

But how do you go about developing this? Here are a few ideas:

1) Hint at the vulnerability early on in the story.

Even within the first few pages, you can give the reader a glimpse that all's not well with your hero or heroine. The character can brush off someone's concern, allude to a secret, avoid a particular person...the possibilities are endless. But throwing the reader a bone early on is a necessity.

2) Have the character share page space with their vulnerability.

What do I mean by this? A character who's oblivious to their problems isn't a character people want to read about. So how do the two meet on the page? You can do this a couple of different ways:
  • Character denies the problem itself.
  • Character accepts the problem, but sees no need to change.
  • Character not only accepts the problem, but wants to change.
All of the above can form interesting character arcs. If a character denies their Achilles' heel, they are, in essence, acknowledging it. (Think about that.) Another good way to have the two share page space it in having your character expend time/money/energy in overcoming the problem. Denial can be expensive and timely to maintain.

3) Your plot eventually has to circle around the vulnerability.

At some point, the vulnerability has to take front and center. The main character duels with his greatest fear or biggest problem in a standoff that usually happens at the climax of the book. It's even better when you bring in the nemesis (if you have one) to capitalize on the opportunity.

4) Work out a realistic resolution.

Not everyone can pull an Indiana Jones and overcome their phobia of snakes in order to defeat the bad guys, get the girl, and save the world. In fact, I'd say most people can't. Character's don't have to overcome their fear, just face it. And it was apparent in later Indiana Jones flicks that he still hated snakes, even after his exposure therapy session in a pit where he faced them.

Just be real with the outcome of your story. If your character's flaw is alcoholism, that's going to be a flaw forever. True addiction doesn't just come and go (aside from miracles). But it could be possible for them to walk into a bar to save an old friend and not get sloshed. It's likely not possible for them to just have one sip. That's not realistic.

Let's Analyze

Do you find internal or external vulnerabilities better to read about? Why?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Teen v. Adult Reactions and Guilt Trips

Dear Jeannie,

How might teenagers react to realizing they're in an end of the world (EMP) situation? They are away from adults but in a familiar home, so it might even take a while for them to realize how dire the situation is, but what sorts of emotions and behaviors would be possible? Would they fall along the grieving types of reactions possibly, denial, bargaining, and the sort? How do teenagers react to disaster, possibly childishly, and being forced to act like an adult? I'm afraid I've made them too 'adult' and non reactive. 

Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried,

Teenagers and even children feel the same way adults feel when faced with challenges and hardships. They have all the same hardware and wiring that adults's the software that's different (i.e., how the hardware is utilized). Children act out when scared or angry, while adults might be more "mature" about it and get even or punch a boxing bag. The rule of thumb with teens and kids in general is that they are less likely to be able to communicate their feelings effectively, so they will resort to more physical ways of coping, whether that's fighting, running around like hoodlums, being verbally aggressive, etc. They will likely have heightened reactions as far as intensity and duration go (i.e., they cry/yell longer and louder). So yes, they'll feel denial, shock...all of it. You might have them acting "too adult" if you have them sitting in a circle, calmly discussing options. Hope that helps!

Dear Jeannie,

My MC idolized his father as a child until, as a late teen, his younger sister killed herself with a drug overdose from a narcotic/alcohol mix she'd gotten hold of from her physician father's stash. He had a previously hidden drug abuse problem. Although my MC followed in his father's footsteps professionally, the devastating events of his childhood have caused issues in his adult life. What might those issues look like? He is 34 years old and his father passed away several years ago, having never gotten over his guilt and failure as a father.

Home in the Heartland 

Dear Heartland,

Oooh. Like this backstory. You could go a lot of different ways. Perhaps he becomes obsessive-compulsive in how he handles/locks up drugs, keeps files, maintains his office, etc., so as to avoid any possibly accidents such as what happened to his sister. He might have a difficult time treating addicts, or closet addicts, especially those who are fathers, as they remind him of his own and the counter-transference is too great. You didn't mention if your MC has a family, but if not, he might be extremely reluctant to engage with a woman who had any kind of alcohol/drug background..even if not her own, but a family member's. (Which would be the perfect heroine to give him, by the way.) He likely got into medicine not only to follow in his father's footsteps, but maybe somehow to absolve himself of his ignorance when, as a young teen, he didn't know what to do for his sister (say, if he found her dying or something). His motivation is to be better than his father, which gives him great amounts of pressure, which, ironically, would make him susceptible to the same things his father did to relieve stress (i.e, drug addiction). His greatest fear could likely be to be like his father in every way, not just as a physician. Lots to work with there. I'd be interested in assessing him for real. :-)


I hope so, because I'm officially OUT. The queue is empty, so first two responders will definitely have your questions answered next week! 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Broadening My Cultural Horizons

The last ten days have been full, as my husband and I have hosted two Japanese girls through a homestay program our church has participated in for over 20 years. Every other year, we go there or they come here, and the cultural exchange is truly phenomenal.

We took our girls to the zoo...and they oohed and aahed over our petting zoo and red panda exhibit.

And they brought packages from Japan in order to cook a traditional meal for us...

It's called okonomiyaki, which is loosely translated into a pork/cabbage pancake. It was fried, and had barbeque sauce on was fantastic!

Then they produced the not-so-appetizing look of anko, a sweet red bean paste, and these wet little dough balls. They just laughed at us as we chewed on the white balls.

I then put one of them to "work" with calligraphy art. She had been a student of Japanese calligraphy for years, and was most gracious to supply me with the Chinese symbols (due to their not being a Japanese symbol for these three words) of faith, hope, and love:

 Aren't they beautiful?


Then they shared praise songs and Scripture readings in both Japanese and English (truly putting us and our lack of education to shame).

And they indulged us by admiring our daughter's kimono, which was given to her at Christmas by my sister-in-law who lives in Okinawa. All the girls wanted photos of the little blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl in a kimono. :)

It has been such a joy to have these girls in our home. Taking them to Target, the grocery store, the car wash, letting them cook, experiment with foods, play card games, use the garbage disposal...everything was novel. We learned so much, and watched our daughter's horizons expand as well.

I'm hoping I get the chance to go to Japan next year. Our girls will still be in the Christian school there (through which the homestay program operates). What an amazing experience that would be.

Of course, while they were here, my mind was a swirl with all kinds of writing ideas and story plots. Added bonus, for sure.

Let's Analyze

Have any of you participated in something like a homestay or foreign exchange program? How did you like it? Was was the most difficult part of it? The most amazing part?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Dear Jeannie: Oedipus Complex and Trauma Regression

Dear Jeannie, 

In a medieval fantasy story, my protag is the second-in-line to take over a noble house. His Father, the Lord, and his mother pile unreasonable expectations on him to be the perfect successor. Since divorcing himself from those expectations and trying to find a true path for himself (something he has yet to find), his parents have treated him coldly. During this time, he has been having frequent sexual relations with both male and female prostitutes (despite being entirely heterosexual), selected due to their resemblance to his parents. Later in the story, he gets extremely drunk and attempts to seduce his Mother with the hope of sleeping with her. Could this be explained as an unhealthy desire for their praise, love and affection, or is it likely there is something else going on? What would a psychologist conclude about him?

Unknown in the UK

Dear Unknown,

Welcome back again. :)

Freud would call this a classic Oedipus Complex. In so striving to be like his father (relate to him, identify with him as a male), he is attracted to his mother, who obviously finds his father attractive, or she wouldn't have had sex with him and procreated. (Or so the theory goes.) You could explain his coming on to his mother by the fact that he got extremely drunk. However, since you have him purposefully selecting prostitutes because they "resemble his parents," this adds a psychological element to the story for sure. It's also pretty extreme for a heterosexual to engage in homosexuality without a very good reason. I'd want to know what does sleeping with the men (and the women) do for him? Is it a sense of power over [those who look like] his parents? Is this his way of being in control? I'd probably go that route rather than the love and affection route, but the answer is found in how he feels about his actions.

A therapist would conclude that he has daddy and mommy issues. :)

Dear Jeannie,

Why is it that some people never grow up, emotionally, or psychologically? I mean, we all know middle aged, older, and even elderly men and women who act like spoiled kids, and feel entitled to whatever they want--but what is it that lets them stop developing? They lose their tempers if they have to wait in lines, you can't get them to stay for a doctor's appointment because they won't sit that long in the waiting room; and everything is always somebody else's fault. I get how that part looks, I've seen it. What I don't get is what lets an adult keep that child's mindset.

Trying to Remember What It Felt Like to Be Two

Dear Trying to Remember,

In a nutshell, trauma can arrest a person's development, keeping them stunted and stuck with the mindset of a much younger person. The adult population I work with have many of the same traits as their children...but sometimes it's worse. Adults are more savvy, manipulative, and coercive. Research is showing that trauma affects the way a person's brain develops, and if the trauma occurs prenatally or during the first five years, the damage done to the brain is significant. The adult is not aware that they are "stuck," of course. They might have fleeting moments of clarity when they look at other adults and wonder why they haven't finished high school or, more likely, why these other adults have had such an "easy ride" (lack of seeing their responsibility in the matter). It's tough, but treatment essentially harkens them back to their childhood, to try to get them unstuck. Let them be a kid without fear of repercussion, and introduce them to adult concepts (b/c they probably never were taken care of very well by their parents)...and so on. Vicious cycle, that trauma.

Best of luck to you!

Got Questions?
Post them anonymously below, using monikers like Sleepless in Seattle.
I'll get to them in future Dear Jeannie columns.