I don't know when I started to read, or when that skill turned into a passion. I know that while other kids got grounded, my mom used to close my books. I remember reading Nancy Drew by flashlight when I should have been sleeping, and the next day running my fingers over every stone in our fireplace, looking for a secret latch.
But I never worried about being shot because I loved books.
It sickens me that a fourteen year old girl was shot in the head because she dared advocate for education. Malala Yousufzai is strong. She is a survivor. Even now she battles against infection sustained during her assault and is regaining motor skills and some memory. She is able to write.
What a beautiful gift.
I am grateful to courageous women around the world, contemporary and historical. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich penned Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The title resonates with truth. In her country, Malala is a troublemaker. Dangerous. It is because of people with the courage to speak out, speak up and dream that I was able to pursue an education, succeed in a male-dominated profession, earn equal pay, and live out my own stories and dreams.
I've heard it spoken that writing is a solitary endeavor. It is a seductive thought, replete with black turtlenecks, jaunty berets, and Gauloises cigarettes. The allure of the artist is a romantic notion that explains social dysfunction. Writers can trot out their tired tropes: I am creative, aloof. I employ words mere mortals cannot comprehend. I am an art-teeste.
What a bunch of hooey.
Okay, writing is a solitary endeavor in the sense that only one person is usually seated in front of the computer at a given time, but it's the rare writer who creates in isolation.
Allow me to 'splain.
My creative side emerged when I was ten. I would climb the Mimosa tree in the front yard and write bad poetry amongst the boughs. I recently discovered some of my early prose and can confirm that although worthy of publication in the school anthology, I was not destined to join the pantheon of poets.
I briefly dabbled in horror and wrote a short story about a babysitter cursed with a demon child, which I penned while babysitting said child. Stephen King can sleep easy at night.
Despite my love of story, I became a cop, a profession that had no place for fiction in its "just the facts" police reports. Being a California cop, I wrote my requisite screenplay with a partner who became the first of many (not including my mom) who encouraged me to write.
I left law enforcement briefly to complete my Medieval History degree (I know, right?) in Paris. Here began my love affair with black turtlenecks, jaunty berets and my disdain for Gauloises.
But while you can take the gal out of the station house, you can't take the cop out of the gal. I returned to police work in Colorado and as I moved up the ladder, documenting reports gave way to writing policies, position papers, a newspaper column, and an essay in a college textbook.
By this time, I had toyed with writing a novel, but a lot of words went into a novel and I didn't really have a lot to say. Then I met Mandy. She organized a critique group. Bolstered by Mandy, Jenny and others, I started to crank out chapters. Still others stepped forward to lend encouragement and the occasional kick in the ass. I went to a writers conference and met still more people--people who were doing what I wanted to do. They shared tips, insights, perils and strategies.
Damn if I didn't write a book.
Then I started writing my second book and I recognized what didn't work in the first one. I internalized these lessons and overcame them as I drafted my second one. Enter serendipity. I answered a comment on Miss Snark's First Victim blog and became internet critique partners with Christine and Angie. Both of these mystery writers possess a wicked sense of humor and keen perception.
I read craft books. Donald Maass changed how I looked at conflict and tension. I went to his workshop where I received validation and criticism--both equally important.
My community continues to grow. I have crit partners, established authors who answer questions and share wine, a cadre of bluntly honest readers and some who don't like what I write but like me anyway. But my biggest supporter is closer to home. In fact, we share one. He is at times sounding board, coach, counselor and cheerleader. Bonus! He has an uncanny knack for talking me off the ledge when the story gods seem to have forsaken me.
So, yeah, I guess writing is a solitary endeavor. But truth is, I've never felt less alone.
I have a framed picture on my desk of a young girl looking skyward with her arms thrown wide, wearing overalls, goggles and a cape. The caption reads I am the hero of my own story.
The photograph reminds me that we are all the center of our universe. Yet too often we create characters who lack the motivation, emotional commitment, or intestinal fortitude for the actions they pursue on the page. Imagine if those characters had their own motivations, acted in their own interest, acknowledged their conflicting emotions, disagreed with each other. How much more interesting does the story become?
I attended a week-long Breakout Novel Intensive 2.0 workshop last week taught by Donald Maass. I am only now sufficiently recovered to sort through the myriad ways a writer can delve deeper into the motivations of their characters to create a stronger emotional response from the reader. It's powerful stuff (that, of course, being the technical term). Somewhere along the line, I realized my antagonist was the hero of his very own story.
...and that, boys and girls, changed everything.
A really good bad guy is as contradictory as he (or she) sounds. How is he right? What theological, historical, political or scientific arguments support his cause? How does he believe his intentions are altruistic? Who in your story espouses his mindset, who eschews it? Can they both be right? (Hint: the answer is yes.) Why bother? Well, it's hard to be heroic against a wimpy adversary. The cop who uses a taser on a five-year-old isn't going to win a valor award, unless the kid had a cannon pointed at his classmates.
Life is messy. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. It just depends on which side of the conflict you're standing. Blur the lines. Let your characters be the heroes of their own story.