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?
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.
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…
I thought it would be helpful to create a resource page for all of your writing needs. All of these are tools that I use and recommend. They help me work more efficiently and share my writing with the world.
This page will evolve over time as I discover new resources so I’d recommend bookmarking it!
Please Note:Several of the links below are affiliate links which means I will earn a small commission if you buy the item at no extra cost to you. These small sales are how I keep the site up and running. Thanks for your support!
Every writer should have a blog. It’s one of the best ways to share your writing with a wider audience. Read my how-to guide on setting up a blog here.
WordPress is the most popular blogging platform. You can set up a free blog at WordPress.com, but if you’re serious about building a professional web presence and having full control of the website’s design, I recommend buying your own domain and a hosting package through a company like Hostgator.
Hostgator – This is an affordable hosting service when you’re first getting started. They offer easy WordPress installs and 24/7 tech support (both by phone & online chat). I’ve hosted several of my websites at HostGator.
WPX Hosting– My current hosting service for this website. Highly recommend them. I love how fast my website loads. 🙂 Their support is incredible, and they will quickly answer any WordPress questions you have (and fix any problems for you). Free SSL certificates, free security protection and support if your website ever gets hacked, and free website migrations.
Blog Design & WordPress Plugins
There are many free WordPress templates to choose from in the WordPress library and, if you’re brand new to creating websites and navigating the WordPress framework, you might just want to try your hand at customizing those.
However, if you want a professional looking website, I recommend investing in a premium theme. Premium themes come with excellent customer support and are far more secure than free templates.
Here are my two favorite theme libraries:
Elegant Themes – Elegant Themes has developed the Divi Theme, an incredibly versatile WordPress theme with a drag & drop page builder that makes it easier than ever to build beautiful websites. (They also have a plugin that lets you use their drag & drop builder with other WordPress themes. I use this on my websites to create sales pages and landing pages.)
Studio Press – Another fantastic provider of WordPress themes. These themes work on the Genesis Framework that is SEO optimized and has rock-solid security. This website is running on the Genesis framework.
WordPress can be heavily customized with a special feature called plugins. Here are some of the plugins I recommend:
Akismet (free) – an anti-spam plugin that helps block spam comments.
Yoast SEO (free) – This plugin helps you optimize your content for search engines. I also love that it evaluates each post you write against the Flesch–Kincaid readability test.
Securi Security (free) – A plugin to strengthen your WordPress site’s security.
W3 Total Cache (free) – A plugin that will help you improve your site’s speed so it loads faster for visitors.
MailerLite(free) – Not a plugin. 🙂 This is the email marketing service I use to send my weekly email newsletter (subscribe here!). They’ve created a WordPress plugin so you can embed their email sign-up forms on your site.
I’ll continue to add more plugins & tools here!
Royalty Free Photos
Here are several free photo libraries you can use to find stock photos for your blog posts and other writing needs:
Pixabay – All images and videos on Pixabay are released free of copyrights under Creative Commons.
StockSnap.io – Another big library of high quality, free photos.
Unsplash – A slightly smaller website but an excellent free collection of stunning, high-resolution photos.
eBook & Graphic Design Tools
Canva (free) – Canva is a user-friendly graphic design software with a wide range of drag and drop templates. Excellent for designing an eBook or a social media graphic.
Writing and Editing Tools
Scrivener – A word-processing program for authors that is a must for organizing, structuring, composing, and formatting long documents. (I particularly recommend it if you are working on self-publishing a novel or eBook.)
Pro Writing Aid– An editing tool for professional authors who want to improve their manuscript before sending it to their editors.
Draftin (free) – An easy to use and distraction-free web-based writing interface.
Day One – A simple and elegant journaling app for Macbook and iPhone. It has helped me implement a daily journaling habit.
Evernote (free) – My go-to app for creating quick to-do lists, jotting down notes, and writing up blog post ideas.
Grammarly (free) – A proofreading tool that helps you spot grammatical errors, typos, and awkward sentences.
Hemingway Editor(free) – A web application that evaluates a piece of writing for clarity and simplicity.
Readability Score(free) – A web application that helps you improve your writing by measuring the readability of your text.
Cliche Finder (free) – The Cliche Finder highlights cliches in your text so you can avoid trite, overused expressions in your writing.
CoSchedule Headline Analyzer (free) – The CoSchedule headline analyzer app evaluates how well your blog post’s headline will rank in search engines. It also scores how effectively your headline will result in social shares and click-throughs.
Writing Productivity Tools
Todoist (free) – A task management web application that lets you create to-do lists with recurring dates and times. Use it to remind yourself of your daily writing goals.
Trello (free) – A fantastic web application for organizing and planning writing projects and working collaboratively.
Marinara Timer (free) – A web-based productivity timer modeled after the Pomodoro technique.
You can find more free web apps for writers in my post here.
Books & Essays on Writing Well
The Elements of Style – This classic writing guide by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White includes sections on grammar, commonly misused words and phrases, principles of composition when writing an essay, as well as stylistic techniques.
Storycraft– A must-read for any writer. Using examples from books and newspaper articles, journalist Jack Hart deconstructs how to tell a captivating story. He covers everything from how to develop characters to choosing point of view to bringing scenes to life.
The Memoir Project– An inspiring little guide by Marion Roach-Smith, a former staff writer at The New York Times, all about how to write what you know. This is a must-read for anyone interested in writing a memoir or a personal essay.
Story – One of my favorites! Robert McKee’s screenwriting workshops have earned him an international reputation, and in this book, he lays out everything that you need to know to write powerful stories. An in-depth and fascinating read.
The Story Grid– Shawn Coyne, an editor with 25+ years experience, shows you how to use the Story Grid layout to write a successful novel (or nonfiction book) by telling a compelling story. If you don’t want to purchase the book, you can find all of the information from the book along with free resources at the website Storygrid.com. Make sure to check out the podcast. It’s one of my favorites!
Creating Short Fiction – Damon Knight shares clear, no-nonsense fiction writing advice on everything from structure to pacing to how to get ideas. There are also lots of excellent exercises to put that advice into practice.
It’s a given in most writing circles that you should never open your novel with a scene in which little happens, especially if that scene involves a flashback. This is normally good advice, but this morning’s passage is an example of when good advice should be ignored.
As always, it’s hard to be certain without reading the entire manuscript, but given that Tess is thinking about going back in time and changing history for the sake of her friend, it’s safe to guess this is what the story is about. Decisions that momentous don’t drive subplots. So even though the only action in this passage is that Tess lies in bed with her dog against her legs, has a flashback, and makes a decision, that decision is where the story starts.
This doesn’t mean the passage couldn’t be more effective. The voice, for instance, is detached, with precise descriptions of Tess’s state of mind that don’t really convey how she feels – “cropped up in her?” The language tends toward polysyllabic Latinate words – “canine contact was a prerequisite,” “infinitesimal possibility” – that makes even the interior monologue more formal than it should be. As I’ve written before, paying attention to the roots of the words you use can transform the feel of your prose.
One thing I didn’t correct was the vagueness about the time-travel mechanism. At this point, the key elements of the scene are all emotional – Jobe’s longstanding horror and grief, Tess’s compassion and fear. Going into detail about just what’s in the closet at the Java Jack’s would distract. I think readers are willing to let time travel remain a mystery for the moment.
The most important rule of writing is that there are no rules. But when you need to go against what is normally good advice – no flashbacks in hooks, open with action – then you have to get everything else right. If your opening relies on powerful emotions rather than dramatic events to draw readers in, then you need to use every tool at your disposal to make those emotions as clear and compelling as possible.
The smell of the rain wafted in on the breeze and Brumus, who was draped across lying against Tess’s  midsection side, kicked as he snored, chasing some squirrel that had the nerve to scamper through his dream.
[paragraph added] Tess was already awake. Had been lying there in the dark for what seemed like hours. Normally, such canine contact was a prerequisite for Tess to sleep soundly. But not on this night. Despite Brumus’s contributions, she was not sleeping soundly at the moment, nor had she for the previous ninety minutes, since she and her burly dog first climbed into bed. Her disquiet was a result of being  It was hard to sleep when you were torn between longing and guilt., both of which cropped up in her after the demonstration she’d seen of the awesome power that resided
[paragraph added] That . . . thing in the closet at Java Jack’s. This thing in the closet, w Whatever it was, wherever it came from, it offered the power to change her past., a And thus … her present, and her future. She could go back in time and make everything with Gil work out. She imagined herself as the wife of a professional athlete, living in some obscenely lavish home. that was protected from the regular people by gates, be they iron gates or economic gates. This longing for the good life triggered a trace of guilt, but the lion’s share of the guilt that gnawed at her like a shark feeding on the bloated corpse of a dead whale, was about something bigger. She could justify the desire to be a member of high society as something that was a fairly common human failing, what she could not abide, was her mind’s insistence on thinking about what this power could do for her while poor Mr. Jobe walked around town every day with that lingering horror haunting his consciousness.
[paragraph added] But she couldn’t. How could she change history just to make her own life more comfortable?
But doing it for Jobe . . .
Despite the age chasm of difference between their ages, for some reason, she and Jobe had connected from the very beginning. She was one of the few people in town who treated him with dignity. Most people could only see the former mental patient wandering the street and either avoided him or ridiculed him. Of course, neither his time spent in a mental facility, nor his penchant for having conversations with himself, or … whomever he thought he was talking to, did much to help discourage such mistreatment. She had actually talked to him, over coffee and danish, and heard his story.
And that’s what kept her Tonight tosseding and turneding — well, as much as she could was possible with an eighty-six-pound pit bull sleeping on against her waist. Every time she tried to close her eyes, she saw the faces of Jobe’s wife and two dead children in the, photographs of whom she’d seen hunted up in the library, in newspaper accounts of
[paragraph added] She’d been alive when the massacre. The murders happened, though when she was very too young to remember. , and so she hadn’t seen the original media coverage. But in one particularly dark afternoon, over mugs of Peruvian at Java Jack’s, deep conversation with Jobe had, he’d opened up to her about what it had been like for him. and told her what happened that night. That conversation was what piqued her interest and led her to the library to find out more. Though they filled in many of the details, it turned out that the newspaper accounts paled in comparison to what Nathan  told her on the night that the two of them stayed after she closed Java Jack’s and talked over Peruvian coffee deep into the night.
It was in dead of night on the early morning hours of Saturday, June 6, 1987., Jobe explained. He had come home at the end of his five to two shift to find the side door of his little three bedroom working class bungalow ajar. He would later recall remember that a little the very last vestiges of driveway dust still lingered in the air, and w. When he got out of the car, he noticed rocks from the driveway on the lawn.
“I was meticulous about my lawn,” he told Tesssaid in his a quiet, raspy voice. as he wiped away a tear, “tThose rocks didn’t belong … just didn’t belong.”
The police later connected the dust and, the rocks,. he’d connected the dots immediately. Someone, he determined, had just pulled away, and fast.
[paragraph added] At the time, he went inside, the open side door frighening him. And His eyes went to the house and the instant he saw the door ajar, his stomach clenched. Despite something in him crying out, begging him not to go inside, he did. Iin the ensuing decadesthirty-seven years, he’d been trying to un-see what he saw thereinside. 
[paragraph added] The living room front of the house was undisturbed and quiet, eerily quiet. If not for the open door, and the coppery smell, and the imaginary pliers twisting his stomach from the inside, there would have been no sign that anything was amiss.
But as he moved down the hall and his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the blood came into focus. Five crimson streaks ran down the wall, from one bedroom to the next to the next.
As Nathan told his story, the chill scuttled up Tess’s body like an unholy clutch of frigid tarantulas, out of the center circle of Dante’s Hell.
Dear God, she thought as he recounted the scene. She was right there in that hall with him. 
“The blood, aAll that blood,.” he said as if He forced the words out as if they were made of sandpaper, he gulped hard, and went on with the story.
Brett’s room was the first on the right., h He was lying in his bed, the one with the Cincinnati Reds bedspread,. it was tThe same shade of red as the warm blood, splashed onto the headboard and wall, and pooled around Brett’s head. The boy’s His eyes were wide open. and fixed on the ceiling. The yawning, jagged gash across the eleven-year old’s  So was his neck was, down to the bone. It might have been called ‘ear to ear’ had the boy’s his son’ts right ear still been there. That however, had been cleanly severed.
[paragraph added] Jobe retched, and with tears pouring down his face, started calling out for his wife and his younger son as he staggered from Brett’s room. [paragraph removed] “Vera! Vera! Brady! Vera … say something,!” he begged as he staggered further down the hall, leaning against the bloody wall.
But no one answered. Jobe fell into eEight-year-old Brady’s room was next. Brady was a grisly little duplicate of Brett, from the wide open vacant eyes, to the gaping throat wound, all the way down to his missing little right ear. Except that Brady The child’s body twitched a twitch that had nothing to do with life. It was just a result of a final random nerve signal, 
[paragraph added] Jobe’s stomach rebelledbucked, and surrendered its contents upward. Despite his best efforts to turn his head, it splashed onto the bed. And Brady. … and his dead son.
[paragraph added] He lurched stumbled from the room on liquid knees and leaned against the door jamb with his cheek pressed to the wall outside Brady’s room. Between what the things he’d just seen, the smell of his own vomit, and the heinous stench coming from the bedroom he’d shared with Vera, he was having trouble staying conscioushis head spun and his stomach threatened to erupt again. The very last thing he wanted to do, was to go into that last bedroom. But he clung to the hopeThough he knew that some last abomination waited for him, the infinitesimal possibility that Vera might still be alive demanded that he continue.
Vera was in the master bedroom at the end of the hall and she was on the floor. She’d apparently heard something in the night that made her get up and put on her robe. The monster had met her just inside the bedroom door.
[paragraph added] The smell in this room was stronger, so strong that it made Nathan’s eyes burn. His wife lay on her back, arms and legs splayed wide apart. Her robe was spread open beneath her, her nightgown was pulled up, and her panties were pulled down. The number and ferocity of the stab wounds that littered her chest and abdomen was so profound that, later that morning, the sight made the coroner, who had several years experience  retch and sprint from the room when she saw them. Vera no longer had her right ear either.
[paragraph added] Those were the These images that never left comprised the ghastly graffiti that was indelibly imprinted on every wall, in every room, inside the mind of Nathan Jobe‘s mind.
[paragraph added] Or Tess’s, now.
I can’t blame you for losing your grip on sanity! Tess thought with her hand trembling and coffee spilling from her mug, as she listened to Nathan that night.
And now, tossing and turning in bed, sShe closed her eyes, reached down, and scratched Brumus on his head. [italics removed]  Jesus! She couldn’t live with the images for more than a few days, and Jobe had lived with them for decades. [italics removed] How the Hell does did he ever find any peace?
Well, she knew a way. And sShe knew what she had to do.
1. I couldn’t picture the dog sleeping comfortable draped across her midsection. I thought leaning against her side was easier to picture and less problematic.
2. Note that you’re describing her from the outside, clinically, with little emotional distance. Describe her using the words she would use at the time. Also, keep the interior monologue in her voice.
3. Why does the thought of living the good life trigger guilt in her?
4. If she’s lying awake in the middle of the night, would she invest the effort in coming up with the labored whale metaphor? Keep it simple and let her thoughts flow.
5. I wasn’t sure at first how Nathan and Jobe were related. If she thinks of him as Jobe, she should do so throughout. People don’t usually change the way they address someone in their heads. At the end, you could get away with her addressing him as “Nathan Jobe” because she’s thinking of him in a more formal sense. The bit of extra formality is actually a sign she’s made her decision.
6. I normally recommend against breaking the moment — if you’re in a flashback, stay there until you’re done. But the emotional center of this scene lies with Tess and her understanding of Jobe’s grief. Pulling back to show her understanding of what your narrating is appropriate.
7. But here, breaking through with Tess’s commentary actually undermines the moment. Given what you’re describing, your readers will feel what Tess felt without her having to comment on it. And that emotional connection will bring them closer to her. Besides, that tarantula metaphor is pretty strained.
8. This moment will have more impact if you keep the language simple. Let the events speak for themselves.
9. The mention of random nerve signals is far too clinical.
10. You don’t need either italics or thinker attributions (“she thought”) for your interior monologue. Keep it in third person, past tense, and your readers will know who is thinking.
I’d love your take on the passage. And on the whole idea of breaking the rules and whether or not there should be rules in the first place.
And also, Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you all next year.
Often we assume that to show a character’s emotion we have to focus on the character. We write that her fists are clenched, that he was stunned speechless by her beauty. Or we describe the feeling itself: how anger whirled inside her, looking for an outlet, how he felt a powerful attraction unfurling in his chest.
These are valid techniques, but they’re straightforward, front-door options, and too often they tend toward cliché or generic. If you have five descriptions of anger in your story and they are more or less interchangeable, you’re missing five unique emotional opportunities.
You can take advantage of those opportunities with a method I call the leaf technique: Show your character’s feelings by writing their thoughts about an object or event that is seemingly unrelated. (I use leaves in my examples, but you can choose whatever suits your character and your story.)
The leaf technique slips us in the back way, letting us feel what the character feels in context, without ever explicitly naming the emotion. It pulls the reader into the character’s unique emotional experience, letting the reader feel not just anger or love but the experience of feeling anger or love as that specific characterin that specific story moment.
Character Emotion through Leaves
Let’s say it’s spring in my character’s world. The leaves are emerging from their buds. Birds are singing. My character is feeling bitter about life. What does she think about the leaves?
The leaves came out today. It breaks my heart to look at them, all new, innocent, untouched by the ravages of entropy. I think about their future, chewed by insects, spotted by disease, stripped from their twigs by a careless child who hasn’t learned what death is.
So perfect, this leaf, delicate, reaching out into the world in good faith, translucent in the sun of May. What did it ever do to deserve this life?
The character doesn’t say anything about herself here, and yet we learn a great deal about her state of mind and experience of life. She sees the leaves very differently than, say, someone who’s newly in love:
Overnight, the leaves had come out, and even though he knew they had their own schedule, it was easy to pretend they had arrived to celebrate with him, green fireworks exploding all around, flags waving, tiny hands clapping, the birds all aflutter with the news, flying back and forth joyously to relay the story: Michael kissed Johanna! Michael kissed Johanna!
The joy the character feels is explicitly mentioned in this example, but it’s projected into the leaves in a way that brings the emotion to life in the world.
Character Personality through Leaves
A character’s attitude about the leaves can show us not just their emotions but also their whole personality:
Everyone’s talking about the leaves coming out. “It’s so green!” “Look how beautiful!” “The miracle of springtime!” As if it didn’t happen every May, as if the entirety of species on this planet weren’t programmed to grow at all costs. Yes, I see that the tree in my yard has leaves again, just like it did last year and the year before and the year before. And the flowers are blooming, too! Imagine that.
The real miracle is this novel that’s growing under my fingers. It didn’t exist last year. All alone I found it and shaped it and brought it into being. It is utterly different than anything else, but it has all the best elements — risk, love, pathos, poetry.
I should title it “Springtime.” Then maybe people will give it the attention it deserves.
Here the leaves provide an opportunity for the writer to show the character’s sarcasm and also set up a tension between what the world is ooh-ing over (spring) and what the character thinks they should be ooh-ing over (his novel), which indirectly lets the reader glimpse the relationship between the character and the people around him.
Plot through Leaves
The leaf technique can also be used to foreshadow the plot, to set up a scenario parallel to the one the character is about to go through:
The leaves were budding out, emerging after the long barren winter. Alyssa watched them from her room high in the tower. They emerged trustingly, counting on the sun to shine for them, on the earth to supply them with nutrients. They had a role to play, and they would play it, no matter what.
After a long morning sitting motionless by the window, watching them dance in the playful spring breeze, Alyssa began to pack.
Although we know nothing about Alyssa’s story, we can infer from the narrative she creates around the leaves that she, too, has a role to play, and has finally decided to emerge into the world and trust, like the leaves, that she will be able to do what she needs to do.
Leaves over Time
Once you create the tie between emotion and external object, you can use it for the rest of your story as a subtle emotional shorthand. If the newly-in-love character later gets in a fight with his lover, the leaves can hang limp, or cling desperately to their twigs in a storm, and right away we associate the change in the leaves with the change in his emotions. If the bitter character, a few months later, looks up to see the leaves silhouetted against the sky, making a beautiful pattern even with their spots and flaws, we know she’s starting to feel better about the shape of her life.
Leaves in Bullet Points
The leaf technique adds richness and depth to your character by drawing on their personality and life experience.
It immerses the reader, giving them the feeling of being in the character’s head.
It creates a relationship between your character and the world.
It doubles as setting.
It adds whimsy or humor by attributing unusual characteristics or experiences to inanimate objects.
It creates a shorthand that you can use later on, a recurring motif that can show the evolution of the character’s emotions.
The leaf technique makes the emotion you’re writing specific to the character and the scene. It brings to life the way each person experiences the world differently depending on their mood, their personality, and the moment.
The same emotions will come up again and again in our stories (and our lives), but no emotional experience is the same. Use the leaf technique to create a unique emotional experience that will resonate in your reader’s mind.
When the money doesn’t come flowing in or when the market ignores your book, it’s easy to lose the joy in writing. Fortunately, you can get it back.
What Rewards are Writers Seeking?
In almost everything we do, there are two types of rewards involved:
Extrinsic rewards are those we get from the outside world, including money, recognition, prizes, and praise.
Intrinsic rewards are those we get from inside ourselves, including a sense of accomplishment, personal satisfaction, mastery of a craft or skill, or simply the pleasure of pursuing something we enjoy.
Though both methods can be effective when you’re pursuing a goal, it depends on what kind of goal it is. Some research has suggested that extrinsic rewards—particularly money—may in some cases be detrimental to creative goals.
In one experiment, for example, scientists asked elementary and college students to make “silly” collages. Teachers then rated the projects based on creativity, and found that the students offered money came up with the least creative results.
In another related study, researchers asked creative writing college students to write poetry. One group was given a list of extrinsic reasons for completing the project, including making money and impressing teachers. The other group was given a list of intrinsic reasons, including self-expression and the enjoyment of playing with words.
Twelve independent poets then judged the poems. Results showed that participants given extrinsic reasons to write not only wrote less creative poems, but also created less quality work than those given intrinsic reasons.
“The more complex the activity,” wrote lead author Teresa M. Amabile, “the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward.”
Researchers have some theories as to why this may be:
Extrinsic rewards may make us feel less autonomous in pursuing the activity, and lead us to believe we’re now controlled by the reward, making the activity less enjoyable.
Rewards encourage us to complete the task as quickly as possible to receive the reward, and to take few risks, reducing creativity.
Extrinsic rewards may simply make the task seem more like a “job.”
Signs You’re Thinking Too Much About Extrinsic Rewards
To discover if extrinsic rewards are causing you to lose the joy in writing, ask yourself these three questions:
1. What are you thinking about when you’re writing?
While writing, do you notice thoughts like, This book isn’t going to be as good as my last one? Do you worry the reviews will be lackluster, or that this book won’t get the green light from your publisher? Are you secretly hoping this book will the one to garner you the publishing rewards you long for?
All of these types of thoughts are centered on extrinsic rewards, and even if they occur only sporadically during your writing time, they can derail your focus and sap your motivation. When you find yourself thinking something like this, let the thought go and bring your focus back to the story, alone.
2. How much pressure are you feeling?
Perhaps you’re trying to “write quickly” so you can get more books out there and make more money. Maybe you’re trying to please an editor so you can hang onto a multi-book contract. Maybe you’re trying to prove that the time you spend on writing is really worth it by getting the story done and published, already.
Feeling stressed and pressured quickly takes the joy out of writing, and stress and pressure usually come from focusing on outside rewards. Try to think back to why you started writing in the first place, and see the blank page as a place for fun.
3. How do you feel about yourself as a writer?
It’s amazing how many of our feelings about ourselves as writers are tied up in outside approval. When children create, they do so simply for the fun of it, until they start to get the idea that it matters what others think about their projects.
If you’re feeling down about your writing or about your ability as a writer, you can probably trace it back to something outside yourself—a bad review, negative comment, lost contest, or publishing rejection. Remind yourself that the emotions you’re feeling are because you are seeking approval outside of yourself.
When to Use Extrinsic Rewards to Your Advantage
Sometimes extrinsic rewards can be beneficial to a writer. Think about those writing-related tasks you don’t usually enjoy. Scientists have found that extrinsic motivation works most effectively for them. So if you don’t like promoting your work, for example, you may find more success by providing yourself with extrinsic rewards each time you complete any marketing-related task.
Put together a successful book launch? Give yourself a weekend away. Update your website? Take yourself out to dinner. Write a series of guest posts? Get yourself that new outfit you’ve had your eye on.
“External rewards can be a useful and effective tool for getting people to stay motivated and on task,” says Kendra Cherry, author of Everything Psychology Book. “This can be particularly important when people need to complete something that they find difficult or uninteresting, such as a boring homework assignment or a tedious work-related project.”
Restore the Joy in Writing
If you’ve lost the joy in writing, it may help to remind yourself of the many intrinsic rewards you receive by doing it. Here are just four examples:
Writing promotes healing self-expression.
In one 2005 study, researchers found that those individuals who had experienced an extremely stressful or traumatic event who wrote about the experience for 15 minutes four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later than those who didn’t write.
“When we express our feelings honestly,” says writer Nadia Sheikh, “we are better equipped to deal with them because we actually know what we are feeling instead of denying it….we feel more in control of our thoughts and feelings, and we understand them more clearly.”
Writing creates personal satisfaction.
How many people can say they’ve actually completed a poem, short story, or novel? As writers, when we finish a project, there is a blissful sense of satisfaction. We may re-read the words later and wonder, “Where did that come from?” or “How did I do that?”
This sort of satisfaction seems to be even more delicious when the project is difficult. If you had to bang your head against the wall to get through the middle of your novel, but then you figured it out and finished it, that creates a feeling that’s hard to match with any other sort of activity.
“An immense amount of pride and self-satisfaction follows a completed, perfected, edited, and published novel,” says bestselling novelist David Perry.
When writing, you can create your own world.
For some writers, the craft provides a sort of sanctuary, a place to go no matter how chaotic the outside world may become. For others, this immersion into another world stimulates a state of “flow”—that sense of being completely absorbed and lost in one’s work to the point of losing track of time, which has been linked to increased happiness.
“Writing is like being in a dream state, or under self-directed hypnosis,” Stephen King says. “It induces a state of recall that—while not perfect—is pretty spooky.”
Writing makes us feel more like ourselves.
Writing can bring us peace, and make us more comfortable with who we are. That may be because it helps us understand ourselves and others, because it relieves stress and anxiety, or because it allows for that self-expression that helps us make sense of our own jumbled thoughts.
Freelance writer and sci-fi/fantasy storyteller Rand Lee said it well when he wrote:
“I have to face the appalling truth that I have to stop worrying about fame and fortune, and focus upon writing pieces that, first and foremost, produce within me a sense of wonder and delight. Rereading my works with this in mind renews my enthusiasm for the creative process and gets me back in the saddle.”
What rewards do you enjoy from writing?
By Colleen M. Story