by Eric Witchey
In a few, short weeks, I’ll be standing on the stage and speaking at Old Church again. The idea is terrifying, which seems to surprise people who know me because not only do I seem to love public speaking, I actually do love it. Sadly, my love of public speaking does nothing to keep me from being terrified beforehand. The love only shows up once I see the audience begin to show signs that what I’m saying might help them solve their writing problems. The chat will be about attitude in writing. Will I be talking about my amazing attitude?
Nope. Not mine.
I have a bad attitude about most things in life. I’m a negative person. I’m a fool who puts little black squiggles in a row on a white background until he likes the way they look. I think people who don’t read or write fiction are helping destroy the culture, the country, and the planet. I’m so full of bad attitude that I don’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning for fear of my own negative influence on my day.
Will I talk about your attitude?
Nope. Not yours.
I don’t know you, and I have no idea what your attitude should or shouldn’t be. If I had to talk about your attitude, I’d say something unflattering in order to make sure you know your attitude is worse than mine, which I have established is really bad. Judging your attitude will help me feel better about my attitude.
I will probably talk about my terror. I believe my terror makes me just like all the writers on the planet.
We are all afraid of the blank page, of not being enough for this story, of not knowing something others know, of appearing to be weak in the face of the thousands and thousands of really good writers we know surround us. We are afraid of not finishing, of finishing and failing, of not starting, of having to explain, of not getting the chance to explain. We are afraid of standing up to speak, and we are afraid we won’t get a chance to stand up and speak.
Most writers are neurotic as hell. It’s sort of a prerequisite for the empathy needed to do the job.
Oh, and lest you gloss over the term, I mean neurotic literally and not figuratively. My Google search spit out the definition of neurosis, “a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality.”
Yup. That about covers folks fueled by caffeine and hope who spend their days lining up little black squiggles on white backgrounds. But I’ll be talking mostly about attitude. The old adage that “Attitude is Everything!” is usually spouted by people who want others to think they are succeeding or who want magic to take care of their lives while not bothering to face their actual issues or the issues others are facing. Writing not going the way you want? Well, you obviously have the wrong attitude. Learn some discipline.
Not enough money in the bank account? Well you obviously have the wrong attitude. Learn to attract money.
Someone cheated you and took your house? Well, you obviously have the wrong attitude. Move on or they control your heart.
And on and on.
Judgments come from attitudes. We are fond of judgments, and believing that other people have the wrong attitude is one of our favorites.
Writers, who are engaged in something our self-consuming, commercialized culture already minimizes, unless the effort starts delivering cash into the pockets of non-writers, live their lives in abject terror of the next critical finger that will point their way.
I’m terrified, so I’ll work hard to prepare for the Old Church chat.
Well, he has a good attitude.
Nope. Not a good attitude. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that terror is a good basis for any activity. Still, I’ll do it in the hopes that what I say will help someone avoid mistakes I have made. I had to make those mistakes in order to be able to analyze what I had done. The analysis lets me describe how you can skip my mistakes.
Oh, well then he has a detail-oriented, can-do attitude that includes good follow-through.
Nope. I have a pathological compulsion, which I can prove with my medical history.
But this talk you’re going give will be about attitude, right?
Yep. But it won’t be about mine. It won’t be about yours.
I’ll talk about how to write fiction that lets us take advantage of that favorite of human pass times, judging the attitudes of others. You see, every really good, powerful character in all of fiction is flat terrified in some way. Think Frodo, Ahab, Anna Kerinina. Consider Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. What about Walter Mitty and the Vampire Lestatte? Name a few of your own favorites. Name their fears. Name their neuroses, if you have the psychobabble jargon to do so. Don’t have the psychobabble? No worries. It’s enough to know that good characters often have bad attitudes.
Think about how we all (I mean, other people) seem ready to judge the successful and failed attitudes of others. Readers are judgmental people just like us…
I mean you…
Uh. No. I mean them… Uh, yeah–those other judgmental people that aren’t us.
A story allows readers to engage in a constant, quiet, often subconscious judgment of the attitudes of the characters on the page.
Well, if that’s true, then we should be able to learn to manipulate the little black squiggles on the page so that they cause the reader to judge, to condemn, to support, to anticipate, and to celebrate based on the attitudes of the characters.
My attitude has nothing to do with it. I wrote today because I can’t quit. That’s not an attitude. That’s a chemical imbalance in the brain.
However, while compulsively scratching my itch, I also worked consciously to help the reader feel the attitudes of my characters. I did that in order to help the reader engage in judgments in support of, and against, the decisions being made by my characters. Those judgments are part of what many writing instructors call “identification.” But thinking about whether the reader identifies with a character doesn’t cause it to happen. Displaying text in a way that triggers the reader’s neuroses causes identification to happen. Getting characters’ attitudes all up in the reader’s grill so the reader can judge them connects the reader to character.
My attitude is terrible. That’s not important to the reader.
The character’s attitude is important, and demonstrating attitude through conscious alignment of the little black squiggles is a tool we can pick up, manipulate, and use to deliver the judgment opportunity to our readers.
That’s what I’ll talk about once I get over my terror. I’ll talk about how to line up the squiggles so the reader gets caught up in judging the characters.
Eric M. Witchey has made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant for over 24 years. In addition to many contracted and ghost non-fiction titles, he has sold more than 90 stories, including 4 novels. His stories have appeared in nine genres and on five continents. He has received awards or recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines. When not teaching or writing, he spends his time fly fishing or restoring antique model locomotives.
Visit www.ericwitchey.com for more information and come to the meeting, April 7th at the Old Church.
Doors open at 6:30 and the meeting starts at 7.