Writers are a brutal sect. We spend our free time inventing new methods of torturing characters, all while cackling like gremlins over the tears of heartbroken readers. “I’m off to kill someone” is a phrase tossed around like a tennis ball in writing communities. To the outside observer, our dark humor may seem psychotic. What normal person beats their brainchildren into a pulp only to quip about it later? Although the jokes are often in poor taste, suffering draws in writers, and readers, for better reasons than mental instability.
“Write what you know!” the experts insist—except in the case of, well, everything, because fiction is inherently composed of lives you’ve never lived. Restricting yourself to personal experiences is impossible, because that will prevent you from showcasing the diversity of humanity. Yet, what if you offend a reader for misunderstanding the challenges she faces?
Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
If you grew up in the early 2000s, you probably mutilated a daisy at least once to help you guess whether your crush shared your feelings. You’d pluck off the petals one by one, reciting “he loves me” or “he loves me not.” At age nine, I didn’t have a true love, but pretending was fun, and handfuls of daisies met unfortunate ends thanks to my mock indecision. This floral game of roulette is what the enemies-to-lovers trope looks like from afar.
As writers, we love exploring the internal struggles that shape our characters. During formative moments, emotional turmoil may need to take center stage, as with Thomas in Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes. Usually this scene happens near the story’s middle, when everything—including the protagonist—seems to be falling apart. Turning points deserve emphasis; otherwise the deep change in the character’s arc will seem artificial or glossed over.
Some books make me feel like I’m Bilbo Baggins, unsuspectingly opening my door to a heap of dwarves tumbling across the threshold. Characters, titles, relationships, and family dynamics zig-zag past my eyes, creating a buzz in my mind as I stumble through crowded scenes. I’ve heard enough names to fill a genealogy, and I’m only on page two.
Kids’ minds are like clay. Everything they see and experience leaves a mark, and for better or for worse, the impression is difficult to remove later. I don’t recall much from my childhood, except the characters who took me on grand adventures. However, a startling amount of elementary and middle-grade fiction promotes damaging ideas—you know, the whole “parents are the worst, kids are smarter than adults, rebellion is cool” schtick. Because stories influence how children perceive the world, we should be especially careful when crafting entertainment aimed at them.
From Dr. Watson to Samwise Gamgee to Jane Bennet, no beloved classic would be as engaging without side characters. They’re the protagonists of untold stories that thrive between the lines. But have beta readers ever confessed that they kept reading your manuscript only to see what happened to a side character? Although the protagonist was present, she fell flat beside her quirkier companion.
Imagine that, for twenty-four hours, you’re limited to the use of half your vocabulary, your awareness of interpersonal subtext dims, and all your skills and strengths revert back to level one. On top of that, you shrink to the height of a hobbit. Carrying out your normal routine would be frustrating, wouldn’t it? But you would still have nearly the same internal experience. Your needs and desires wouldn’t disappear, only your ability to express and achieve those goals.
Who is the best literary villain of all time? Various people would argue that Dracula, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Voldemort, and Sherlock’s rival, Professor Moriarty, are top contenders. But, for me, the answer is clearly Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events.