JH: Sometimes the things standing in the way of our writing dreams is our own doubts and fears. Jennifer Blanchard visits the lecture hall today to share tips on how to get our of our heads and back into our writing.
Jennifer Blanchard is an author, screenwriter, Developmental Book Editor, and the founder of The Feel-Good Life Center. Grab her FREE Story Secrets audio series here and start writing better stories.
Take it away Jennifer…
I’ve always been a person who believes anything is possible if you set your mind to it. I proved that to be true over and over again in my life with the things I’ve accomplished and achieved.
But even with my positive attitude and outlook, I used to have a negative side. And I had lots of negative, limiting beliefs that were stopping me from creating success in my writing life.
The thing about success most people get wrong is thinking that it’s all about taking action. Yes, you do have to take action, but it’s only a small part of the bigger picture. About 10 percent.
The other 90 percent is your mindset. It’s how you think, how you believe, how you feel and the action you take because of how you think, feel and believe.
I didn’t start seeing the success I wanted in my writing life until I took control of my thinking.
Here is the daily mindset practice that I used to hit #1 in my category on Amazon three times, sell thousands of books, write and publish nine new books in one year, and more.
1. Clear The Mental Clutter
Your mind receives around 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts every day. That’s a lot of noise going on in your head!
In order to hear the good thoughts and the good ideas, you need to clear the clutter that blocks them.
My favorite way to do this is freestyle journaling. I handwrite at least one page, stream-of-consciousness, immediately upon waking every morning.
Doing this allows me to leave the negative stuff on the page and not take it with me into my day.
Some other clearing options include:
Morning Pages--created by Julia Cameron, these are three handwritten, stream-of-consciousness pages that you write immediately upon waking (similar to what I do).
Meditation–this allows you to clear your mind and focus on feeling how you want to feel as you go into your day.
2. Set Your Writing Intentions
After I clear out the clutter, I do an intention-setting practice where I grab my journal and write at least one page of positive, present-tense statements about what I want in my writing life.
So, for example, when I was focusing on becoming a Best Seller in my category on Amazon, I wrote in my journal every day: I am a bestselling author. I sell thousands of books every month with ease. Selling books is easy and fun. My community loves to buy my books, read my books and leave me five-star reviews.
The power behind the intention-setting and the repetition of doing it daily is what allows you to penetrate your subconscious mind and program these new beliefs into it.
When you believe something is possible for you, then you’re a lot more likely to act on the nudges or inspired actions that come to you every day. And you’re a lot more likely to be consistent with your writing habit and getting your writing out into the world.
By setting intentions and then taking action when I felt inspired to, I was able to achieve the writing goals I desired.
3. Visualize Your Writing Goal As If It’s Already Done
The final part of my daily mindset practice is visualizing my writing goals as if they’re already done. I focus my visualization specifically on the intentions I set in the second part of my practice.
The important part with visualization is that you not only “see” yourself achieving the goal, but that you also feel the emotion of having achieved it. Emotion is a big part of visualizing.
When it comes down to it, if you want to achieve a goal, you have to fully believe, not only that it’s possible to achieve it, but also that it’s possible for you to achieve it.
This is a very important point. It can’t just feel believable. It has to feel believable for you. You have to believe you can do it.
This three-part daily mindset practice will help you start to believe in yourself and create more confidence in who you are as a writer and in the writing you’re doing in the world.
Share in the comments: Do you have a daily mindset practice? What does it involve?
Observational walking is one of my favourite ways to de-stress and free my mind so I can focus in on my creative writing without distracting thoughts.
I also find it helps me if I am feeling a bit stuck, or just not sure how best to proceed with a story.
I am lucky that I live in the west of Ireland in the countryside and near the sea, so there are plenty of peaceful walks.
However, I have done this on city walks and in parks, so don’t let your surroundings stop you using this powerful tool.
Observational walking is a form of meditation and is not complicated.
You are simply walking at a pace where you can be aware of sounds and can carefully observe your surroundings.
A SLOWER PACE
The pace might be considerably slower than your usual walking pace, so if you do a daily exercise walk you can do some observational walking as a warm up or slow down stage.
The key is being aware; listening and observing.
Listen for the sounds as you walk, whether that be birds singing, dogs barking, children playing, traffic, chatter.
It doesn’t matter, just listen and be aware without judging the sounds and without thinking about them.
THAT WANDERING MIND
If you find your mind begins to wonder about the source of the sounds, or other distracting thoughts then simply focus on your breath for a moment.
Each time you are distracted return to focusing on your own breath.
It doesn’t matter if you are distracted, or if your thoughts run away – you can return to focusing on observing your breath at any time.
This will provide the empty spaces in your thoughts and allow your inner creativity to emerge.
As you walk along let the sounds and sights you see come to you – rather than look around for them.
Again without judging or thinking – just quietly observing.
Observing your surroundings clears a space in your mind for creative writing ideas – it also means you remember a great deal more.
The most trivial observation can grow into something much, much bigger.
This morning, for example, I noticed a woman stepping on a crack in the pavement. If I wanted to develop this further it might go as follows:
Mary walked quickly. She mustn’t have been superstitious, or else she didn’t notice a crack in the pavement. She didn’t slow down, and she didn’t step around it.
Jack noticed it. Jack also noticed the small metal square embedded in the dirt. He snatched it up and dropped it into his briefcase before Mary had even walked the short distance to the edge of the footpath.
Okay so it’s not amazing but it is something. – a germ of an idea.
An idea that could be developed in a multitude of ways.
Creative writing activities such as observational walking clear the mind for ideas.
You can create anything. Even from a simple crack in the pavements like I did.
Or perhaps a strangely shaped cloud, or even a name carved in a tree or even oyster-beds in a bay.
In this newly created space in your mind ideas are allowed to form and emerge.
When you have a new idea always ask yourself what if? Here are some examples:
One morning while I was out walking my dog paused to stare at a trampled trail leading to a hole in a field. I knew it was a fox hole having seen plenty of foxes in the area on previous occasions. But…what if it wasn’t a fox hole…
The hole had been made by someone desperately trying to escape from something.
If it was a portal to another realm.
A shortcut to a children’s hiding place
Once you slow down and pay attention to your surroundings you will start to see a lot more than grass or footpaths.
There is a whole world out there ready to hand you ideas on a plate all you need to do is stop for a moment and take a look.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’
Though you may not know it by the prevalence of clickbait headlines sounding the death knell about author careers, successful authors are out there. Lots of them. And I’m not just talking about the ones who top the bestseller lists week after week. I’m talking about the authors whose names you may have never heard, who are quietly writing and earning income from their books.
And while there is no formula for becoming a successful author, or even a consensus about what defines “success,” there is much that can be learned from studying authors who are already where we hope to be one day. I’m fortunate to know several of these authors. I’ve had the benefit of their wisdom and expertise for years and wanted to share some of that wisdom with you. So this year, in my posts for Writer Unboxed, I’ll be sharing Q&A’s from authors I think we can all learn from.
My series, Author Up Close, will include Q&A’s with two of Writer Unboxed’s own: Anne O’ Brien Carelli, whose middle-grade novel was published by Little Bee in 2018; and Linda Seed, a contemporary romance author who had so much success self-publishing, she was able to leave her 9-5 to write full time. The series will also include interviews with Roger Johns, a traditionally published author who found himself in the enviable position of having to find an agent after being offered a publishing deal, and Vanessa Riley, a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering who writes multi-cultural Regency and historical romances in an industry that (falsely) believed there wouldn’t be a large enough audience for her work.
Author Up Close begins with a Q&A with Fiona Zedde. Fiona is the author of several novellas and novels including the Lambda Literary Award finalist Bliss. Her novel, Dangerous Pleasures, won the About.com Readers’ Choice Award for Best Lesbian Novel or Memoir of 2012. Fiona lives a location-independent lifestyle, traveling and sometimes living abroad for months at a time. As you’ll discover from our Q&A, her ability to adapt to changes in the industry has been key to her success as an author.
GW: You’re what the publishing industry considers a “hybrid author.” Was this an intentional strategy you adopted when you first launched your professional writing career or is this something that evolved?
FZ: This “fingers in different pies strategy” slowly took shape over the years. I started off working with a single New York publisher back in the mid-2000s and stayed that way for a good ten years while also working a corporate job. After a few changes and setbacks, which included leaving my 9–5 and being released by my NYC publisher, I realized I needed to do things a little differently if I wanted to continue writing and publishing.
Luckily, I soon received the opportunity to work with another NYC-based publisher (different genre and different name). I also eventually regained the rights to my backlist. At the suggestion of new author friends, I republished these novels myself. Once the backlist books became available again, readers began asking for sequels, and so I wrote and published a collection of short stories, some following the characters from the previously published books. That led to a full-length novel published last year.
These days, I work with a few different publishers as well as self-publish.
GW: In many respects, you’re living the dream as a writer who makes a living writing and who is location independent and travels the world. What are the key decisions/choices you’ve made in your career to make this lifestyle possible?
FZ: I think one thing I’ve done is remain open to different opportunities and open to change. The business of writing and publishing shifts quite a bit. Strategies that worked two years ago may be completely useless now, or vice versa. If I see that—despite marketing efforts and other factors—a writing name of mine is no longer doing well, I’m willing to scrap it and begin a new name, explore a new genre, and/or submit to different publishers. I also submit to short story anthologies every once in a while in hopes of finding a new audience or coaxing back readers who’ve lost touch with my work over the years.
GW: What are some of the challenges you’ve run across in within the publishing industry?
FZ: One of the biggest challenges for me has been gaining readership outside of my black, female audience. Black readers dive into books of whatever genre they enjoy, despite the race of the author. Black writers aren’t afforded that same courtesy by a majority of non-black readers. At general, multi-author book signings, it’s interesting to see white readers move like water around a rock past the tables belonging to black writers, their gazes fixed on the next available white face.
My other challenge is marketing. I need to get so much better at that.
GW: Finally, what advice would you give a newbie writer who one day wants to be doing what you’re doing?
FZ: Network. Talk to the people already working the way you dream of working. Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. At the beginning of this writing thing, I felt like I was doing everything on my own and didn’t think I had a community to turn to. Now, I’m better at asking for help and advice as well as taking part in community, but it took me a while to get here.
You can learn more about Fiona and her writing, by visiting her at FionaZedde.com. Many thanks to Fiona for allowing me to interview her for this piece.
Over to you: what is some of the best advice you’ve received from your successful author friends?
Each week, I’ll offer a tip you can take and apply to your WIP to help improve it. They’ll be easy to do and shouldn’t take long, so they’ll be tips you can do without taking up your Sunday. Though I do reserve the right to offer a good tip now and then that will take longer—but only because it would apply to the entire manuscript.
This week, check how you end each scene and/or chapter and make sure you’re giving readers a reason to turn the page.
A scene break or chapter ending is a natural place for readers to put down a book, and sometimes we write it that way without considering the downsides. Characters go to sleep, they leave for a journey, they settle in to wait—they at in ways that say “pause the story here” in some way.
But when we end a scene with something that must be known—readers keep on reading. Readers who can’t put a book down even when the scene is over or the chapter has ended are ones who are going to rave about your book the next day (while yawning from lack of sleep).
Look at the ending of your scenes and chapters. Do they end with something to keep readers reading? Not just the last line, but the situation or need int he novel itself? Is there something going on readers want to see? Need to know? Must read the outcome for?
If not, tweak, trim, or shift so the break happens in a spot readers won’t be able to stop on.
One of the things food writers struggle with most is how to promote recipes in a way that sounds authentic and not too braggy. You know your recipe is “the best,” but you can’t keep saying that for every one you write.
So what can you do to improve your blog posts, recipe headnotes, and social media blurbs? First, I went back to my most visited post: 100 Verbs for Recipes, from Julia Child. Who else could I research, I wondered, who would give me a similar list of fabulous terms?
I found inspiration on Smitten Kitchen’s Instagram feed. Deb Perelman is a master of promoting her recipes in a way that sounds effortless, fun, and full of personality.
Incredibly, there was no repetition of her phrases in the 100+ pitches I reviewed. I could probably give you 200 pitches. But I think you will get the point of how to pitch recipes with this list.
Of course, writing a salesy pitch is not all there is to getting readers excited about your cooking and baking. Deb also describes her foods sensuously in every post. You need that combo. (See caption above for an example.)
How to promote recipes? Deb Perelman shows you 100 ways:
Always a good idea
Resistance is futile
You definitely don’t want to miss it
Draws a crowd
Easily one of my desert island foods
One of the best dinners I’ve made this year
Designed to be eaten on laps, sitting outside. (Hooray.)
What I want every big weekend meal to taste like, and has become a family staple around here
If you can resist eating them all before you leave the apartment, you’re going to make so many friends with these
Keeps perfectly for lunches all week
I only wish I had them around more often
It’s basically impossible not to like
You can totally eat them for breakfast. Or dessert. Or just because.
Even more wildly delicious than it looks
Will make you ridiculously welcome wherever you potluck/picnic/barbecue next
Welcome wherever you take it; this is a potluck favorite
Keep the recipe in your back pocket for the next time life is busy but you don’t want to compromise on dinner
I think you’re really going to like this
Nothing short of a dream
Clinically proven to righten the path of any weekend morning
Maximum weekend dinner luxury
I have made this every summer for a decade now
Basically every summer dessert worth eating in one place
Trust me, we’re going to be so happy about this
You’re going to immediately wonder why you don’t make this more often
Keeps in the fridge — as long as you keep us away from them
Obviously, this is exactly what we have to cook next
We make this all the time and think you should too
Be the Ina Garten/Martha Stewart of your party with this
It causes a frenzy
A surprising win in the Weeknight Dinners For Everyone category
These deserve to be a rest-of-summer habit
I want to eat it every day and every weekend all summer
Make your home smell eloquently September-ish, even if you (ahem: me) are kicking and screaming about it
Doesn’t get much better than this
My go-to forever favorite
Did they break into a happy dance? If they didn’t, well, more for you
I cannot wait to have it for dinner tonight
So popular around here, I have all but stopped asking my family what they want for dinner because they only ever request this
Like no other
They’re totally unforgettable
Everybody needs this
It’s the only thing I want to eat
Extremely addicting forever favorite
Always causes a commotion
100% guaranteed to improve all the days that they last
It’s unforgettable, and it only gets better as it rests — make it today!
If you do not fall in love, I promise to come and rid you of your leftovers
Gets better the longer it lasts
Have a way of not making it out of the kitchen
I have never regretted making two
Impossible not to make over and over again
The indisputable champion
Something I hope I’m never too old, smart or refined to eat
I don’t think you’ll find an easier or prettier…
Should any survive until the next day
The result definitely wants to come with you this weekend
Put it in your weekly rotation
Everyone will demand you make it again and again
We always wonder why we don’t make it more often
Delicious in a totally unforgettable way
Exactly what I want
This version is one of the best I know
My favorite dessert on earth
One of the most distractingly delicious things I’ve ever made
You don’t have to go another day without experiencing…
The leftovers are outstanding
It also makes glorious leftovers for lunch tomorrow; future you thanks you
I always wish I’d double the recipe so we’d have leftovers — don’t let it happen to you
What I want to eat all weekend for breakfast, lunch, or dinner
Almost instant gratification
It makes everyone happy
I can’t stop making this dish
Has the best of everything
Exactly what our Friday afternoons should taste like, don’t you think
I think you’re going to obsess over it too
I am obsessed with how good this is
Your friends thank you, in advance
it’s the FIRST THING TO GO every time
Trust me, this is the … of champions
This is the best I’ve ever had. What sets it apart? Butter. (I can’t believe you even had to ask.)
Doesn’t require a special occasion to bake
Astoundingly easy to make
The ingredient list couldn’t be less complicated
This preparation converts everyone
Looks and tastes fancy and took about 12 minutes to make
Have it in the oven 15 minutes later
Who likes meals you can make in 15 minutes? Me me me!
You could be eating this in 20 minutes
Take all of 30 minutes to make
A cinch to throw together
Turns out to be comically quick and easy to make
Welcoming of adaptations
Leaving you more time for doing other things
What to make when you’re short on time or long on things you’d rather do than cook
How do they do it? The Literary Masters of Suspense
As a mid-career novelist, I am attempting to forge fiction that is a hybrid of the literary and mystery and suspense genres. And I have my role models, novelists whose work while suspenseful, also showcase in-depth characterization as well as consistently elegant and thought-provoking sentences that rival anything published in the “literary genre.”
One preeminent writer of this sort of fiction is the late Iris Murdoch, a Booker Prize-winning novelist as well as a professor of philosophy at Oxford, whose deeply thoughtful novels are often characterized by gruesome acts of violence and torture (both physical and psychological) and delicately wound in a golden thread of suspense. Two of her books, each of which involves small-town life, were particularly inspirational. First and foremost is The Word Child whose protagonist, Hilary Burde, an abused orphan, finds that his gift for language (how it works and fits together in poetry as well as prose), wins him a place at Oxford. Burde graduates with high honors, lands a teaching job at his alma mater, and at the height of his career, enters a love affair with a married woman, which is found out and causes him to lose his hallowed place in academia and bottom out. Hilary ends up in a boring, unchallenging office job and one day learns that his new boss is the husband of the woman with whom he has had the affair. The way Murdoch maneuvers her characters and situations with deep insight into love and relationships is intense and suspenseful, and from research into her personal life, I conclude that she has drawn the portraits of her characters from the obsessive, arguably destructive love affairs that punctuated her life—until she became afflicted with dementia.
Adding to this suspenseful novel is another Murdoch in the same vein, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, which begins as an experiment by a sinister character named Julius who aims, through a series of false claims and lies, to undermine the loyalties of couples (both gay and straight) and wreaks havoc on the lives of people who presume him to be a friend. The book is perfectly balanced between plot and characterization and is founded on a provocative idea: that evil is communicated throughout the world by people who suffer from it and who are willing to pass their suffering and this evil onto the next person. And the only way evil is stopped is when the suffering person makes a conscious attempt not to pass it on.
From Murdoch I move on to an American novelist, William Kent Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Connor series of mysteries whose stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, paints an indelible portrait of a small Minnesota town in the early 1960s and whose first-person protagonist, the son of a preacher, recounts a summer of five deaths, some of them accidental, some of them murders, and one of them, tragically, of his older sister. This potent coming-of-age novel rivals similar novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, and takes its title from how the narrator’s father handles all sorts of difficult situations with ordinary grace. This book won the Edgar Award for best novel for a work of fiction published in 2012 and in many ways is remarkably similar to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, another first-person coming-of-age novel set in the same part of the world portrayed by the winner of the National Book Award in the same year. Having read and admired both of these novels, I would be hard-pressed to choose which one is better, and I have no doubt that Erdrich and Krueger probably read one another’s novels and admired them as much as I did.
The real title of this post is How To Put the Social in Social Media Without Losing Your Mind or All Your Free Time.
That’s a heavy promise, right? Social media does like to suck up valuable family time, writing time, down time. If you think about it as a big vaccuum that gives nothing back, you WILL be resistant to this whole “online social thing.”
This post is about how pick your online locations carefully and develop habits that help fit social media into the life you actually have. It’s about how to make connections during the time you choose to spend online. And of course, I share what I do to keep my love alive.
We’ve had two posts in this throwdown already. One from Fae, who pretty much detests it. One from Julie, who has found the one place in social media that doesn’t give her hives makes her happy.
Those two are introverts, whereas Laura and I are extroverts. All four of us have different stances on this topic. Even on the extrovert side, Laura is retired and I work more than full time.
Translation: I have two part-time day jobs that sometimes expand to three, plus writing, plus volunteering, plus an eight year-old. (Plus a very understanding husband.) Many things in life are more important than my writing and I’ve had to learn to be okay with that.
It was hard to let go of perfection and my yen to Fast Draft, but there are rewards from my overburdened schedule. A big one is my time-saving social media habits, which I will detail at the bottom of this post.
Important Note (like super-duper important): Taking the “social” out of social media defeats the entire purpose. You will resent all that wasted time. (At least I would.)
If you’ve hung out at WITS for a while, you’ve heard me wax rhapsodic about social media before. Below are several of my posts that will give you all the how-to and “what the heck is it” info you might want.
And then there is little ol’ former technology-trainer me. I have a confession that won’t surprise you… I freaking love software and apps.
I love the time-saving tools (although it’s super hard to beat my own kitchen timer for time management). I love the way technology connects people. I love the way Excel’s pivot tables summarize thousands of records into a table the size of your hand.
Technology is just cool.
However, time is in short supply and I’ve had to shoehorn social media into the schedule. Remember that promise from up top: How To Put the Social in Social Media Without Losing Your Mind or All Your Free Time ?
Here are my Top 5 “fit it in no matter what” social media tips:
1. The biggest trick I have is using the “in-between” time. In the long check-out line, or waiting in the doctor’s office. Waiting in the car line to pick up my kid. While I eat lunch. Just before I go to bed. While my kid reads to me (with my phone hidden from her view so she isn’t aware she only has half of my attention).
All those in-between moments add up. You’ll at least get 30 minutes a day. You can do a lot with 30 minutes! Plus, you’ve turned those boring “waiting” moments into something that is a reward (at least for me). Boorah.
2. Planning is everything. Some of your time will just be spent scrolling, liking, commenting. But a smart author plans out the week or the month, so the important updates get out now mantter how busy you are.
3. Decide who your audience is and focus your time in their neck of the online world.
I love what this article at Contently has to say – it’s a few years old but it’s still pretty accurate.
Let’s talk strategy. You have limited time, maybe limited content, and there is a very specific audience you want to reach. Here’s a quick, non-scientific breakdown of who uses which network:
Teenagers gravitate towards Snapchat, YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram.
Soon-to-be-wives and soon-to-be-moms are all about Pinterest.
Young parents and grandparents alike can be found on Facebook.
Business types and leaders rule LinkedIn.
Influencers and bloggers love Twitter, WordPress and Tumblr.
Here’s an infographic with my thoughts on the main social media apps out there. (Yes, I totally think Facebook is a huge time suck.)
4. Set up Google alerts. You want the content you are passionate about to come to you so you don’t have to spend time chasing it down. No one has time for that. Google Alerts email the info right to you.
Enter a search term for the topic you want to track. As you enter your terms, view a preview of the results below.
Choose “Show Options” to narrow the alert to a specific source, language, and/or region. Specify how often, how many, and how to receive alerts.
Select “Create Alert.”
5. Don’t be afraid to schedule. Especially during busy weeks, when I don’t have time to both post AND monitor, scheduling tools let me “have it all.” I go back and forth over whether I like HootSuite or Buffer better, but here is an article that compares them both. I also used Social Oomph for a while.
Overall, I’m super happy with social media. I don’t use all the tools I’d like to use, and I always feel like I’m swimming up stream in terms of time, but notifications and alerts allow me to at least keep up with the people who are interacting directly with me. I count that as a win.
More than anything, your time online needs to be fun and productive. Find your tribe and enjoy them. If your time online is fun, you’re less likely to resent it or view it as wasted.
Now it’s your turn! Introvert or extrovert? Social media lover or hater? And what are the tricks that have allowed you to fit it into your busy schedule?
If you’re writing a novel and are nowhere near the end, why spend time on short stories? Doesn’t that distraction delay getting to the end of the current draft, a moment that always feels months away? I thought so once. One year, I wouldn’t let myself touch any other project until I’d worked on my novel every day. This lasted five months until I revisited “The End.” Again.
Why should a novel writer devote precious writing time to short stories? After five novel drafts, two years of submitting shorter fiction, and seven publications, here are my reasons.
Do Something With All Those Ideas
Not every idea deserves a novel. And there’s something cathartic about expressing an idea soon after inspiration strikes. I’m not holding my breath and suffocating the idea because I have to focus elsewhere. As powerful as some ideas feel in the moment, most are quite happy as short stories or flash fiction or poems, or being expressed at all. I now tend to start each idea in the shortest possible form. I only expand the word count if my gut and reader feedback suggest there’s more to say. In the meantime, I grow my list of stories and drafts, not only my list of ideas.
Understand the Impact of Every Edit
An effective edit rarely moves me in the same way as what inspired the story. Revising a longer work can be a dreary process because it’s difficult to grasp the impact of my efforts. This is not the case with flash fiction. Try changing a word in a 100-word story, swap sentences in 250 words, or drop a paragraph among only 1,000 words. You’ll notice an immediate impact on the entire piece. This inspires me toward better revisions by reminding me how powerful each change can be.
Feel A Sense of Completion More Often
Novel drafts take months or years to write. Short story drafts can take weeks. Flash fiction, anything under 1,000 words, can be even briefer. I’m not saying shorter work is easier to write, or requires any less thoughtful revision. But the satisfaction of reaching the end of a draft will happen sooner with shorter fiction. This can prevent listlessness after always having the same answer for “what are you working on?”
Practice Finding Comps
I read every market to which I submit. If I want a literary journal to publish my story, I not only follow their submission guidelines, but I prove I’ve engaged with what they’ve published. I do so by including the stories I read and liked in my cover letter to the editor. If they overlap with my subject matter or appeal to a similar audience, all the better.
In practice, this is akin to finding comparative titles, or comps, for a novel and citing them in your query letter. Prove that you’re thoughtful and have an understanding of the market.
Strengthen Your Query Letters
Every market where I’ve submitted short fiction requires a cover letter. Writing cover letters has taught me how to address editors, present myself, discuss my work, and highlight my accomplishments. This builds confidence in writing and revising query letters to literary agents. Growing my publication history also strengthens my credibility for the next stage of my writing journey.
Give More Than One Story A Chance
I no longer believe I have to withhold myself from other creative work to finish an ambitious project like a novel draft. Novels do take intense focus and persistence, but the reasons above led me to a new strategy.
I’m currently working on a novel during the weekdays and shorter projects on the weekend. This means that by default, the hardest thing gets the bulk of my time. Sometimes, my weekends are writing-free and the stories have to wait, but I’m always making progress.
Though my novel may take a while before it’s ready, all those shorter pieces are out there, being submitted, rejected, accepted, and in any case, read. Don’t withhold your words from the world because your magnum opus isn’t ready.
What’s been your experience juggling short and long projects? Do you avoid multiple ongoing things at all cost? How has one form of writing informed another?
I don’t think writing is hard – wooden tables are, gemstones are, and sometimes my head is, but writing? No.
It’s as simple and complex as having an idea, putting words together, adding the thoughts or feelings, linking to the research, and using keywords for SEO.
1. The Idea is the Starting Point
If you’re writing a blog about a particular subject, you’ve always got an idea. Can you present it from a different perspective? Are you an expert on the topic? Do you have credibility when it comes to that subject? If you’ve answered, “Yes”, then maybe you’re just bored with the idea.
That happens. How many times can I write, “Recovery works” to try and encourage someone struggling with their addictions? So far, I’ve filled a lot of pages on my other blog with exactly that same message.
In all fairness, not more than 5% of the posts literally include the words, “Recovery works”, but in each of these 185 posts, that’s the underlying message or idea.
Yet, each post is presented from a different viewpoint, or for some, it’s because I wrote from the perspective of depth rather than breadth.
2. What are the Thoughts and Feelings about the Idea?
Much of that writing entails describing thoughts and feelings; it’s personal to me, but judging from the comments, my experiences with the topic are commonplace. So the idea of addiction and recovery have an already established audience. Now, it’s my job to take the idea and make it fresh and new.
One of the easiest ways to get readers interested is to ask questions. So far, I’ve asked four and will ask more before I’m finished. Why? Because I know that what I think, feel, or know is limited to my experiences and there are other people out there who can supply additional information that I might find useful.
So now that boring, “Been there, done that” idea is open to others, and sometimes the What’s In It For Me principle factors here – the readers get to let me know how much they know about the topic. I don’t know how many other posts a reader’s comments have generated, but a fair number.
Beyond my interest and a reader’s interest, there’s always room for research.
3. What Are Valuable and Interesting Research Links?
For some of us, the idea of research sounds like the library desk with musty, dusty tomes all opened to various pages, sticky notes protruding from them, and 3 x 5 cards littering the table.
Not today. Research is a key element in any post. Why? Because it validates your argument, presents reliable information by experts on the topic, references a quote that summarizes your topic, or lends credibility to your idea.
But too many people get careless in their links – the old Wikipedia will have something about it. Delve deeper than that. If you’re going to use Wikipedia, research the references and see where that leads. I’ve used the referenced sources before and been pleased with the linked information.
Links within also lend authority to any post. They can be external or internal. If you write on a collaborative site, like Two Drops of Ink, then see what your co-writers have to say about the topic. You’ve added a valuable link and given them some additional exposure for their writing.
I know that two of our monthly contributors, Noelle Sterne and Peter B. Giblett will always give links that let me know more about their chosen topics. I’ve yet to find a link in any of their posts that didn’t add value.
How many of you have searched for yourself or your blog? Confession, I have. And if I’m simply looking at Marilyn L. Davis, boy do I rate. However, that’s not really how most people know me. It’s the same for your blog or business. You may find yourself, but is that how the average person is looking for your site or posts? Probably not. Granted, some names are forever embedded in our brains. Think of all the major brands.
But since most of us aren’t a major brand, how do you get your name or blog to rank on the first page of Google? Eric Enge, general manager of Perficient Digital simplifies the problem.
“We tracked the SEO performance of a number of different sites,” Enge said. “The sites that provided exceptional depth in quality content coverage literally soared in rankings throughout the year. Sites that were weaker in their content depth suffered in comparison.”
In the WordPress editor, you can add categories and tags. So for the above, I’d add all the other aspects and probably attract readers who wanted more in-depth information, not just Keto diet.
Yoast Plug-in is a Second Set of Eyes
Yoast is a plug-in for a WordPress site. It also has an editor that gives you insight or frequently used words in your post. This also helps you determine keywords and where to strategically place them:
In the title – near the beginning
Throughout the post
Only where relevant
Check all the features of Yoast before you publish. There’s a lot of tips, edits, and suggestions that help improve your writing, as well as giving you a list of internal links from your site that would add value to the post.
And it’s always nice to get the little green dots – means something is right.
Will They Understand This Post?
Besides the SEO, Yoast will give you a readability score. This number is based on:
And don’t forget that images offer you one more place to add keywords in the ALT text. Since search engines can’t see an image, these words act as a point of references for the search engines.
For instance, all the images for this post include the name of the post, Two Drops of Ink, and my name. As an aside, I remember looking for an addiction image on Google, and up popped one for From Addict 2 Advocate. That reinforced the message that images are advertising in the background. Use them.
With just these four tips, you can make your writing relevant to your readers, add additional perspectives, find valuable links, and get Google’s attention.
Simplify, share your perspectives, do your research, and give your readers value in your posts.
The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
As writers, we can use the motif of the underworld in two aspects:
The underworld as world of adventure
The underworld as world of the dead
Why write the underworld?
Create an internal or external site for the change your character undergoes, and the wisdom they extract from their experiences in the story.
Explore your character’s unconscious, and how the archetypes of the collective unconscious manifest in their life.
Explore your character’s reaction to the unknown in themselves or in the world.
Explore your characters’ reaction to the nature of death, and to the idea of their own death.
Explore your characters’ relationships with the dead (both those they knew in life, and those they did not).
Create an “underground” “sub-culture” that resists or subverts the ways of the ordinary world.
Remove the character from the home world in order to challenge and change them.
Develop the rules, customs, and aims of your story culture; in particular, how their perception of death shapes their perception of life.
Explore the boundaries of the upper world.
Deepen your story world by portraying its inverted, mirror, or dark side.
Tap into a rich literary tradition.
When to write the underworld?
The underworld as world of adventure is usually entered soon after the character begins their engagement in the story. In the Hero’s Journey, this is in response to the Call to Adventure, when the character crosses the Threshold of Adventure and leaves the Ordinary World behind. The rest of the story takes place in this symbolic underworld, until the character crosses the Threshold once again and returns home.
A literal descent into the underworld is likely to take place much later in the story. In the Odyssey, the voyage to the land of the dead happens in Book 11, almost halfway into the 24-book poem.
A journey to the world of the dead is best undertaken when the character reaches a mental, emotional, or physical standstill in the story. Their work with the world of the living has progressed as far as it can, and in order to seek deeper truths, uncover secrets about themselves or their world, or achieve greater mastery, they need to overcome more difficult challenges.
A journey to the world of the dead is the ultimate challenge a character can overcome, which is why those who succeed in returning are revered in myths around the world. You can prepare your character for the journey by having them first undergo adventures that take them to locations symbolic of the underworld.
In the One Page Novel, the character enters the World of Adventure in the Quest, and emerges back into the Ordinary World in the Power (thus the two stages can be plotted as mirror opposites). However, a literal trip to the world of the dead might best be undertaken when the character is deeper in the underworld, particularly during the Shift and Defeat. The Shift suggests an overturning or inversion, and no location better symbolises a sense of loss and Defeat than the depths of Hell.
How to prepare for the Underworld?
In order to be ready for the underworld as World of Adventure, the character must acknowledge and respond to the Call to Adventure. This may be either…
An external motivator (something or someone else), or,
An internal motivator (the character themselves),
and their response may be…
Willing (they are convinced of the need to respond), or,
Unwilling (they are forced to respond).
In order to prepare to enter the underworld as World of the Dead, the character should be at a point in the story where…
They have experience of previous symbolic descents to the underworld.
They have tried their mental and physical powers and have achieved some success.
They have a very strong motivation for undertaking the journey, and this motivation manifests both internally and externally.
Additionally, the character may prepare in the same way they would when entering any dangerous situation. They may…
Pack essentials such as food, drink, clothes, shelter, power supplies, etc.
Bring protection such as bodyguards, talismans, or powerful creatures.
Leave instructions behind with a trusted companion as to what should be done if they haven’t returned by a set date, as Inanna does in Sumerian myth.
Complete a mini quest to win or collect a protective item, as Aeneas, who was told to obtain the golden bough.
Settle their affairs, such as their duties to their people, or their responsibilities to their dependants.
Say goodbye to loved ones.
What to do in the Underworld?
The character’s task(s) in the underworld may be to:
Try to bring a loved one back to the world of the living.
Commune with a loved one or a stranger who has died in order to:
Discover arcane or forbidden knowledge.
Learn a secret about themselves.
Parlay or plead with the gods on behalf of their world.
Retrieve a valuable item or creature (perhaps as part of a mini quest).
Sacrifice themselves or someone else, perhaps as replacement for one of the dead.
The Underworld as World of Adventure
In the Hero’s Journey, this is the world that the character enters by crossing the Threshold of Adventure. In The One Page Novel, this is the new world of the Quest. In opposition to the World of Adventure is the Ordinary World which is the familiar home that the character leaves behind (Stasis), and usually returns to at the end of the story (Resolution). The Ordinary World is the world of light, while the World of Adventure (being in the underworld) is characteristed by increasing darkness.
The World of Adventure is a conceptual story space, meaning it may not be an actual location in the story, but simply the part of the story where the character encounters new and complicated:
But often it’s easier for writers (especially within the constraints of genre) to turn the World of Adventure into an external location, and to physically remove the character to the new World. This also allows you to set up the important contrast and tension between the Ordinary World and the World of Adventure.
Leaving home to start university/boarding school
Starting a job at a new company
Moving to an unfamiliar location
Meeting someone in a strange neighbourhood
Setting off to discover an unkown part of the world
If you’re using a plot formula, identify the stages that belong to the World of Adventure/the Underworld.
What physical location symbolises the Underworld of Adventure in your story?
In this clip, Joseph Campbell describes a diagram which represents the self as a circle, intersected by a line representing the Threshold of Consciousness.
The Threshold of Adventure – that is, the symbolic division between the upper and lower worlds that the character crosses – is also the Threshold of Consciousness. In this sense, any descent into the underworld requires the character to face the fears and insecurities in their psyche. The story is the process of bringing to light the shadow self that has been relegated to the individual’s or the society’s unconscious, and integrating this shadow back into the whole.
Loss of consciousness is sometimes an initiatory act that mimics a symbolic death, and for this reason it can be a meaningful element of a ritual that allows passage to the underworld.
What has the character been unwilling to accept about themselves?
What has the character’s society been unwilling to accept about themselves?
How does the character commune with their subconscious?
Dissent & Descent
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
– Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost
When something is secret, illicit or illegal, we tend to use language such as:
Under the counter
On the down-low
In contrast, we use language denoting “up” or “high” to express moral superiority:
Uprisings are put down, people who follow alternative ways of life are said to be part of sub-culture, and desires which contradict our social persona are relegated to the sub-conscious. Clearly there is a link between dissent and descent, and many writers have enjoyed the practice of overturning this order and making the underworld the site of life and light rather than death and darkness; chief among them, William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Blake not only penned his own hellish proverbs and undermined the word of the Bible, he also reinterpreted the work of one of the greatest English poets (and perhaps of all poets) when he wrote:
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
What is the accepted social order in your world?
Who goes against the social order? Who has been forced “underground”?
How are the inhabitants of the underworld morally superior?
Note: I’m dying to deconstruct this section, but I’ll leave that pleasure to you…
The Underworld as World of the Dead
While the World of Adventure is a story space, the World of the Dead is a physical location, although it can be either an internal or an external landscape. The World of the Dead is often the setting of the afterlife – the place where souls “live” after the body dies. But it can also be populated by characters who are spiritually “dead”, or who have been exiled, or who have chosen exile from the Ordinary World for various reasons.
In this sense, you can use a symbolic World of the Dead in your story without reference to a spiritual or paranormal explanation.
A distinction may be drawn between the underworld and the wasteland motifs in literature, where the underworld involves a willing descent and a quest to an existing location – usually to bring back some vital wisdom from the dead – while the wasteland often descends upon the character because of a (perceived) misdeed and transforms the world around them.
The prototype for the wasteland motif is the story of the Fisher King, whose ailing causes the land to become barren.The worlds of post-apocalyptic fiction, no-man’s-land in war fiction, haunted locations in ghost fiction, and corrupt corporations in crime fiction are common equivalents of the wasteland in modern literature. For the underworld journey (katabasis), at least for the Western literary tradition, the prototype is in Homer’s Odyssey.
The difference is subtle, and as a writer you’re welcome to ignore it, however…
If your characters spend most of the story in the “underworld”;
If your characters don’t journey to the world of the dead, but instead…
Their ordinary world transforms into the world of the dead;
and if the appearance of the world of the dead is linked to a character’s misdeeds,
… then you might want to consider developing the wasteland motif as distinct from the underworld.
Types of Literary Underworld
THE URBAN UNDERWORLD: One popular use of the World of the Dead is as a “criminal underworld”, occupying the dark and dingy corners of a city. But it’s important to remember that, while society may regard its inhabitants as criminals, from another point of view the inhabitants may very well be a group of marginalised, disenfranchised, misfit characters living in their own “ordinary world”.
The urban underworld may also be the home of unusual or supernatural people or creatures who have been forced “underground”. As such they may use sewers, underground/subway tunnels, basements, bunkers, or other subterranean urban structures.
The opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip
Knockturn Alley in the Harry Potter series
London Below in Neverwhere
THE HEAVENLY UNDERWORLD: There may be some debate about whether this is really an underworld at all, because worthy, long-suffering, “good” characters are often seen ascending to a higher plane in the sky. This is usually depicted as the celestial abode of the “good” gods – such as the Olympians, and the Asgardians, and of course the unified deity of the monotheistic religions.
However, not all descents underground are dark, grim, or hellish. Many cultures imagined subterranean worlds of light. In Zoroastrian scripture, the king Yima, in order to avoid a cataclysm, creates an underground city or Vara lit by artificial light. In shamanic journeys, the shaman descends through a hole in the ground and emerges into a bright, sometimes watery underworld. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the daily journey of the sun god, Ra, briefly brings light even to those grim nether regions of the Duat.
While for most characters the Heavenly Underworld is the end goal, for some it may represent boredom, being cut off from those they love, or a sense of unworthiness.
Avalon in the King Arthur legends
The Undying Lands (Valinor) in Lord of the Rings
Note: These examples are across the water rather than under the land, perhaps because the former represents a journey of hope and immortality, whereas the latter is more readily associated with death and burial.
THE HELLISH UNDERWORLD: Many religions foresee a painful end for those who don’t obey the rules, and the “hellish underworld” is where they end up. This is a world of eternal, sometimes fiery torment for wrong-doers. Often, each sinner’s punishment is tailored to them.
Hell in Paradise Lost
Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings
The Horcrux Cave in the Harry Potter series
THE GRIM UNDERWORLD: This is one of the most common literary underworlds because it offers a real chance of a “life”, though nothing on the scale of the Ordinary World. Sometimes the Grim Underworld is an adjunct to the Hellish one, and may be depicted as limbo or purgatory. Characters in this world may have unfinished business which they need to complete before transitioning on to another state.
But in other mythologies, such as in the Akkadian underworld, Kur, there is no final judgement, and the dead exist forever, with nothing to eat but dust.
The world of the dead in His Dark Materials
Pandaemonium in Paradise Lost
The underworld in Homer’s Odyssey
The land of the dead in The Earthsea Cycle
THE UNCANNY UNDERWORLD: Elements of the underworld are often inversions of the ordinary world. Sometimes these inversions overturn expectations, sometimes they subvert the traditions of the world of the living, and sometimes they literally turn things upside down. This can be useful for comical effect, but it can also impart an unsettling feeling.
The German word, unheimlich, is usually translated as “uncanny”, but also means, “unhomely”. This is particularly apt for the character who leaves their home world and travels to an underworld which bears the characteristics of a familiar setting, but in a way which renders them strange and disturbing.
Wonderland in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The house in House of Leaves
Why do you want your characters to spend time in the underworld?
What do your characters need to accomplish in the underworld?
Which type of underworld, or combination of underworlds, is best suited to…
Your character’s aim?
Your story world?
Looking at depictions of the underworld of the dead in mythical and literary texts, it’s clear to see that they have been created by the living, and for the living.
For example, some myths stress the importance of the judgement of the soul, clearly in order to encourage people to live well and do good while they’re alive.
Others emphasise the harsh living conditions that are only alleviated by material wealth and proper burial in the upper world, perhaps to uphold the status of the rich, or of a worldly priesthood.
For yet other cultures the key is to bear many children and keep up a line of descendants, and so they teach people how their dead ancestors suffer without regular libations and offerings.
What is the most important social aim in your story world? Survival? Creation? Procreation? The accumulation of wealth?
What belief about the afterlife could uphold this aim and motivate the living to live accordingly?
Which type of underworld would be best suited to promote this social aim?
The Descent to the Underworld (katabasis)
First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
“Katabasis” is the name given to the journey down to the underworld, or to the entire underworld adventure. The monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” presents the mythemes that may be encountered in a katabatic narrative, whether in the World of Adventure, or the World of the Dead, or both.
Broadly speaking, a journey to the underworld of the dead may include the following episodes:
Deciding to make the journey.
Searching for the entrance to the underworld.
Entering the underworld.
Meeting the guide to the underworld.
Paying the price for crossing.
Learning about the organisation of the underworld.
Meeting the souls of the dead.
Meeting the rulers of the underworld.
Obtaining the prize.
Journeying up out of the underworld…
And succeeding in returning to the ordinary world…
Or failing and remaining in the underworld forever.
A night-sea journey (in the “belly of the whale”) may also be a part of the katabasis, or it may be a separate episode.
The Entrance to the Underworld
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.
– from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid
The entrance to the world of the dead is often a conduit underground. Depending on the story, and the purpose of the katabasis, the entrance may be nearby, in a familiar location, or at the ends of the earth or sea. It may also be in plain sight, or hidden and accessible only to a few.
Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, falls down a rabbit hole.
Professor Lidenbrock in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, finds a passage through an Icelandic volcano.
Percy Jackson, in The Lightning Thief, travels down an elevator in DOA (Dead On Arrival) Studios, Los Angeles.
Possible real or symbolic entrances to the underworld:
An adit/mine shaft
A tunnel/underground passage
The roots of a tree
A hole in the ground
An underground/metro/subway station
The purpose of a physical gateway to the world of the dead is to distinguish the katabatic journey from the usual method of entry – through death. However, it could also be possible to transport the character when they are unconscious, or dreaming.
Is the entrance to the underworld hidden or in the open? Why?
Is the existence of the entrance known to all or only a few? What are the consequences for those who know, and those who don’t?
Is the character reluctant to enter? Why or why not?
The Guide to the Underworld (psychopomp)
At the Threshold of Adventure, a figure conversant with the ways of the underworld will appear to guide the character. This figure is often an animal or a therianthrope, but may also be human or divine. Sometimes the guide is an aspect of the traveller themselves, such as their soul, or anima/animus, as is the case in His Dark Materials when the children meet their personal death.
The guide may also be someone the character knew in life, in person or by reputation, as with Dante’s guides, Beatrice and Virgil.
Some mythological guides are:
Hermes/Mercury – ancient Greek/Roman messenger
Azrael – Jewish & Islamic angel of death
Anubis – ancient Egyptian god of the dead & embalming
The Grim Reaper – human personification of death
The guide may point out and describe…
The organisation of the underworld
The various divisions of the underworld
The souls of the famous, or infamous dead
The rulers of the underworld
The rules that govern the underworld
Who knows enough about the underworld to guide your character?
What are their feelings towards each other?
How good is the guide? What do they reveal, and what do they hide?
It’s also a common motif for the passage to the underworld to require a price of entry. In Ancient Egypt, people were buried with valuable objects for this very purpose, and in Ancient Greece, it was customary to place a coin in the dead person’s mouth or on their lips specifically to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades.
There may also be a non-monetary price on knowledge from the underworld, famously in the form of the Faustian “bargain with the devil”, but also in prayers or offerings to the gods, or in the exchange of news or promises with the dead. For example, in order to speak to the dead, Odysseus pours libations on the ground, and vows to sacrifice animals when he returns home. In return for the wisdom of the runes, Odin gives up one of his eyes.
In some cases, the price may be even heavier, as a life for a life.
What is the price for entering the underworld?
How willing is the character to pay it?
How do they try to bargain?
The Rules of the Underworld
Do not put on clean clothes,
Lest the (dead) heroes will come forth like enemies;
Do not anoint thyself with the good oil of the vessel,
Lest at its smell they will crowd about thee.
Do not throw the throw-stick in the nether world,
Lest they who were struck down by the throw-stick will surround thee;
Do not carry a staff in thy hand,
Lest the shades will flutter all about thee.
Often the underworld will have its own special laws that are not governed by the logic of the ordinary world.
One rule that holds in the underworld of the Persephone myth is that anyone who eats the food of the underworld is doomed to remain there for eternity. Another rule is that only those who have died are allowed in, and that no one is allowed out. Obvious, in a sense, and the crux of the katabatic character’s conflict, but their ability to succeed in their task and return to the world of the living will depend on their finding a loophole, or a compromise in the rules that govern the underworld.
In the World of Adventure, the character will often enter into a new society with different laws, priorities, and expectations than their home world, and their task will be first of all to learn the ways of the new world, and then to gain proficiency in them, and finally to synthesise them with the old world view.
What rules can make the character’s work more difficult?
How can the character bend or break the rules to get what they need?
What are the consequences of bending or breaking the rules?
The Geography of the Underworld
Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;
A mortal mother would on Lethe fix.
– from Don Juan (IV,4) by Lord Byron
Descriptions of the world of the dead often emphasise its vastness. If it is to contain the souls of every person who has ever died, the underworld needs to be much larger than the world of the living. This makes the underworld inherently suited to epic poetry. Even so, most writers feel the need to place some sort of order and division on the underworld.
In designing your underworld, you might consider…
LEVELS: Dante famously divides his inferno into nine concentric circles, each one featuring a different sin and its punishment. This allows him to deal systematically with the dead.
GATES: In the myth of Inanna’s descent, the Sumerian underworld has seven gates, and at each gate the traveller is stripped of a possession. This repetition is a way of showing the difficulty of the task, and of distancing the character from the world of the living.
LANDSCAPE: In Greek/Roman mythology, the River Styx formed the boundary of the underworld, and the dead were ferried across it by the boatman, Charon. Using natural features mirrors the ordinary world and makes the underworld feel uncanny.
CITIES: Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes the creation of Pandaemonium, the capital city of Hell. Again, this gives the reader an ordinary world order they understand, and which they can easily compare and contrast to their own.
The Inhabitants of the Underworld
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
– from A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg
In populating your underworld, you might consider…
THE GUARDS: often ferocious, mythical creatures wait at the gates of the underworld, such as the three-headed dog Cerberus in Greek mythology, or the Cŵn Annwn, or hounds of hell of Celtic myth. The lion-hippopotamus-crocodile Ammit of Ancient Egyptian belief fed on the souls of those who failed the judgement of Anubis. These terrifying creatures can safeguard the treasures of the underworld, and attest to the powers of those who can get past them.
THE BOATMAN (or FERRYMAN): Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the River Styx in Hades, is one of the best-known inhabitants of the underworld. Perhaps the idea of a chthonic river is particularly evocative? Or maybe it’s the story of the ferryman himself?
THE UNNAMED, UNNUMBERED DEAD: with such a vast number of departed souls, the most difficult task may be describing the sheer extent of the crowd in the underworld. This may impart a sense of awe, helplessness, or insignificance. On the other hand, it may also spur a character on to escape back to the ordinary world.
THE FAMED OR FAMILIAR DEAD: creating the contrast between the vast crowd of souls and the few who are recognisable and important to the katabatic character can be a way to heighten the emotional impact of the journey. It can also work to comic effect, depending on the exchange!
THE RULERS: They may be monarchs, military leaders, political leaders, or any character who mirrors or mocks the power structure of the ordinary world. The underworld is sometimes governed by a sibling of the ruler of the world of the living, to emphasise the opposition, but also the close bond that ties the two worlds together, as is the case with Hades and Zeus (Pluto and Jupiter), and Ereshkigal and Inanna.
THE RULERS’ CONSORT: Many chthonic gods and goddesses choose consorts from the world of the living. This can develop their own backstory, as well as serving the usual mythical function of explaining various seasonal phenomena.
THE JUDGES: The judges are sometimes the rulers themselves, but sometimes a separate deity or entity is chosen to judge the souls of the dead and find them worthy or unworthy to move on. This judgement is a great source of suspense, and can reveal a lot about the society, as previously discussed.
The Communion with the Dead (nekyia)
O, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days’ conference with the dead!
– from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
Talking to the dead is one of the chief concerns of katabatic travellers. We all have at least one person we long to meet again, but communion in the underworld usually comes with its own challenges.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus must hold the souls back from feeding on his blood offering, until after he has learned what he needs from Tiresias.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas tries to embrace his mother, only to discover that she is no more than a shade.
There is a sense of urgency caused by the difficulty of maintaining communication, and staying alive in an environment meant for the dead. And no matter how long the character spends with their loved ones in the world of the dead, it is never enough…
The communion with the dead can also be a way for the character to uncover messages from their own subconscious, especially in discovering knowledge or resources that they already possess but are consciously unaware of. This is often the revelation that allows the character to rise up out of the underworld in the Power.
The Return from the Underworld (anabasis)
This lyre lark is for the birds, said Orpheus
It’s enough to send you bats
Let’s stay down here, Eurydice, dear
And we’ll have a bunch of screaming brats
– from The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Characters who manage to navigate the underworld successfully, and complete the task for which they made the journey, eventually emerge back into the ordinary world, in a real or symbolic resurrection. However, sometimes the return journey is even more difficult than the entry, since escaping the world of the dead is not the natural way of things.
In the monomyth, Joseph Campbell describes several mythical events that might occur:
Refusal of the return – the character may decide to stay in the underworld rather than returning to the ordinary world bearing the elixir of life.
The magic flight – the character may be magically transported up out of the underworld, often pursued by a supernatural being who wants to keep them trapped. In response, the character may jettison items to try to slow the pursuit.
Rescue from without – the character may be saved by another supernatural being, or by someone from the ordinary world who “pulls them up” and out of the underworld.
Nor is the character’s work done when they are back in the ordinary world. Their task is then to disseminate the knowledge that they have brought back from the dead, in order to help improve their society. In terms of their own life, they will often take some time to adjust to the ordinary world, which has not only changed while they were away, but which has also shifted due the new perspective they’ve gained through their katabasis.
It’s not unusual for a character to fail to integrate the teachings of the underworld. And so begins the journey anew…