Bad Writing Advice #1 On setting goals for your characters

Rule #1 in a non-existent series of bad advice for writers.

When you (as a writer) introduce a character to a reader, it is like introducing them to a new friend. But that character won’t really become your reader’s friend until you give that character a goal. Once you give him or her a specific goal to direct their actions–they need to avenge their father, they need to kill a monstrous whale, or even they need to get home to their family–it is at that point that the reader will start to anticipate that character’s actions. And that is the point of stories. We live to anticipate.

For example: If you are playing a game of chess only a few minutes of your game time is taken up with the physical movements of the pieces. This is true even of a game that lasts for hours. The vast majority of your game consists of watching your opponent and anticipating both their moves and your own. And it is in this watching and predicting that we take our enjoyment. In short, the enjoyment of the game comes from the anticipation.
In the same way, a reader will enjoy your story as long as they can anticipate your character’s direction. It doesn’t matter if they anticipate wrongly (indeed there are many good reasons to mislead your reader) what matters is if they can. Objects and obstacles only enhance the experience of the reader. They love to see the impossible pulled off. But they need to know what to anticipate, and if you don’t provide that (in terms of a clearly defined goal for your characters), then you’ve failed.


Early 2015 clean up

Sand at Palm Desert

Sand at Palm Desert

L.A. is a desert. A desert with water. An ancient ocean-bed, dry and long buried, suddenly thrust back to the surface.

At any time, day or night, if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of the ancient sea, lost amongst the cacophony of millions of automobiles whooshing past or the harsh dry winds called the Santa Anas. The sound comes from the ghost of an ocean or some vast inland sea, calling up from the long dried mud on its bottom, begging to be wet again, to be submerged.

And the land responds. You can hear it whispering in the hot dry wind, or catch it rising slowly from the hot flat stretches of cement.

It says, “Never.”

It says, “No.”

It says, “Leave us alone.”

It says, “Goodbye.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

This morning I was going over my notes from the past year, many of which I wrote on the way to work and hadn’t yet integrated into my stories. I got in the habit of using the Notes App on my phone to write down ideas as they come, and then later integrate them into my flow. The entry above was one of the things I put down, way back on April 16 of last year.

Going back over them this morning was deeply refreshing. I kept finding these unexpected ideas and many of them were very good. It was a nice affirmation. One of those, “Oh yeah. I guess you can write after all,” moments.

Last year was not a good one for my writing. I really got bogged down in a lot of stuff which was all useful, but difficult to get through. Sort of a winter of discontent. Some things are like that; they are simply difficult to get through and there’s no easy way to get around them. There’s no shortcut. Grief is one of them. I supposed a long illness like cancer would be another. To get better you simply just have to keep going until you break through.

So I’m slugging away hoping to break through. Hopefully we’re near that point. I don’t know. I just keep putting my nose to the wheel and try to learn as fast as I can.