Fellow author Sherry Terry was kind enough to interview me for her blog. I shared my thoughts on my writing process, reviews, and my eventual travel plans.
Please check it out!
Last month, I was invited to give a short presentation at a writing conference for social workers. I’d previously done a panel on using writing as therapy, and my research interest is the effects of trauma on students, so this was my topic this time:
Writing can be a form of self-care for human service workers working with clients who have experienced trauma. Explore ways to process secondary trauma through writing, as well as how to balance accurately telling clients’ story while respecting their confidentiality and dignity.
Because participants said they found my presentation helpful, I thought I’d share it here too.
“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
This quote strongly reflects the approach I take to writing. Many of my stories are based on composites of people I’ve worked with across my various education, criminal justice, and social work jobs, and while they’re not exactly true, their themes and messages seem to resonate with readers who’ve experienced similar situations. At the same time, however, as I write about the trauma my clients have experienced, I need to be careful to protect their identities as well as minimize the secondary trauma I might experience while writing about what they’ve gone through.
SAMHSA (the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) defines trauma by the three E’s:
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
This is similar to a story arc – a character experiences an event, and how that character deals with the effects of that event (either short-term or long-term) makes up the rest of the story.
That said, there are six types of trauma, and which type is used can lead to different types of stories:
For me (ie, someone who hasn’t experienced much trauma but works with clients who have), writing is a way for me to put into words what my clients have experienced, when they don’t have that chance themselves. It’s about making these “salt of the earth people,” as a reader once described them, real so that people can understand them as people and not caricatures. It’s about highlighting a problem so that others can identify with it.
But this is just me, as a social worker/teacher/advocate. I surveyed a writers’ group about how they use writing to process trauma, and here’s what they said:
When telling a story that’s based in truth, whether it’s your story or one that you’re telling on behalf of others, there are ethical considerations to take into account. First off, how will others react if they’re portrayed as the villain, or if you change the story to make it “better” but make them come across worse? What about potential legal ramifications?
The authors I surveyed also shared their tips for writing a story based on trauma, without causing problems for others.
Everyone experiences and reacts to trauma, and writers are no exception. We write about our trauma and that of others, as a way to process what we’ve experienced and share experiences with others.
If you’re a writer, how do you use writing to process trauma? What techniques do you use to write about it ethically? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
I’m currently in that fun part of the doctoral student process where I’m writing my comprehensive exam – a big 75-page paper that demonstrates I’m an expert in my field and deserve to stay in the program. My focus is on trauma-informed care and education.
Trauma-informed care basically boils down to 2 things: realizing people have experienced crappy things in life, and then giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is NOT about making excuses for behavior, but rather finding an alternative way to get the same results you expect for everyone else.
There are quite a few types of trauma. Each one has a different cause, although they can all have similar results.
BIG CAVEAT: Not everyone who experiences trauma will react to it the same way. Some people are affected and some aren’t. It basically comes down to resiliency (although my argument is that if so many students have experienced – or are experiencing – trauma, why don’t we just change how the education system reacts to it, rather than telling kids to suck it up or get over it – which is kinda what teaching resiliency comes down to).
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focuses on “three E’s” of trauma: event, experience of the event, and effect. Specifically, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Within that definition, there’s a lot of room for variability.
Writers love to throw trauma at their characters, and readers seem to love it too. What types of trauma do your characters face? What types do you prefer to read about?
I write a lot of character-driven stories, and so I’m always on the lookout for ways to focus on characters’ motivation and thought processes. I’ve recently come across a term, stuck points, that really fits with my works.
My research focus in my PhD program is trauma’s role in education. As such, I’m taking a lot of classes and workshops focusing on a trauma-informed perspective – realizing that there’s a good chance anyone you meet and work with has experienced some kind of trauma that affects their perceptions and behaviors, and therefore changing your own perceptions and behaviors to meet them where they are.
One of the methods used to treat trauma is cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which focuses on reframing people’s perceptions of what they experienced. And a major component of this is stuck points.
Stuck point = a thought that keeps someone from recovering from a bad/traumatic experience.
Often times, stuck points develop because someone’s old way of thinking doesn’t fit with what happened to them. It builds on the just world theory that bad things only happen to bad people – so if something bad happens to you, you must be a bad person.
Stuck points are often a black and white exaggeration, using terms like “everyone” or “no one,” “always” or “never.”
Stuck points can focus on the past – “If I’d done X, then Y would’ve happened instead of Z” – or they can focus on the present – “No one will ever love me” or “I’ll never be able to trust again.”
My novel Yours to Keep or Throw Away is driven by MC Andrew Adam’s stuck points:
Sometimes there’s truth in stuck points. For example, if Andrew had been a better partner, maybe his relationships wouldn’t have ended – but maybe they still would have. What happened wasn’t entirely his fault, and he shouldn’t keep beating himself up over it.
As characters grow over the course of the story, they can move past these stuck points to become a healthy character (or go from a healthy character to having stuck points). Either way, it makes for a great, character-driven story.
What stuck points do your characters have? Are they able to resolve them?
My first novel, Yours to Keep or Throw Aside (previously released as The Lone Wolf), came out a couple years ago. After hearing about it, I’ve had several people tell me, “I’m not a big reader, but I’ve been thinking about writing a book too. I have a really great idea.” Which is great, but….
Before I go any further, watch this video.
It’s been said that for every overnight success, no one saw all their late nights and early mornings. Writing is no exception. It’s hard work, and it take a lot of time.
Here are the things I think are necessary to write a publishable book:
I’ve been an avid reader since I was five (25+ years), and I read everything – fiction and nonfiction, children and adult, Nobel laureates and NY Times bestsellers, US and international, classics and modern, literary and fluff, genre – you name a category, and I’ve read something in it. I’ve taught high school literature and analyzed it in college lit classes. So, I think it’s fair to say I have a good idea of what’s out there, what works and what doesn’t, and why. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
2. Develop your writing skills.
I’m currently a PhD student and I’ve worked as a professional researcher in several fields, meaning I’ve written a lot of analysis/explanatory papers, some of which I’ve won awards for. And I’ve taught writing at the high school level, so I think it’s fair to say I have well-developed writing skills. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
I wrote one anyways, for NaNoWriMo ’09. And, it sucked. It sucked bad. I’d like to revisit it someday, but as for now it’ll stay locked away.
3. Get feedback from people you don’t know, who know what they’re talking about.
I kept writing, though. In October 2010, after eight months of writing, I finished the first draft of Yours to Keep or Throw Aside. Yay me! It was good, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. So I joined FOUR online writing groups (and I’ve since joined a local in-person writing group and a local writing association). Two were worthless and provided absolutely no feedback. One was filled with people who said it was great, and would I please tell them how great theirs were too so they could win a popularity contest? The fourth, Scribophile, ripped the novel apart. Not only were there story and character issues, but the writing was subpar – POV mistakes, filter words, telling instead of showing, too many tags and adverbs. And you know what? They were right.
4. Learn more about the craft of writing.
So I set out to learn about what I was doing wrong. I read books on writing. I follow a couple dozen blogs about writing. I read about what to do, and what not to do, and billions of examples and explanations of each. I talked to other writers. I’ve attended writing workshops.
I also wrote (and continue to write) short stories. While the depth is minuscule compared to a whole novel, it’s a great way to try out techniques, hone your voice, and finesse your understanding of the language.
5. REVISE, then Revise, then revise again. When you’re done with that, revise.
Armed with all that knowledge, I rewrote my novel. I got more feedback. I rewrote it again. I got more feedback. I nitpicked with edits for two years until finally I was ready to send it out into the big scary world.
6. Learn about the publishing industry.
While I’d been editing, I’d also been reading up on the publishing industry. I’d tested the waters with short stories, both with publishers and self-publishing. So when it came time to send queries, I knew who to send them to, what to say in them, and what to expect in reply.
When people tell me they want to write a book, but they don’t like reading, and they’ve never written anything other than stories in elementary school and short papers in high school, and they don’t know anything about their audience or the publishing industry, and can I put in a good word with my publisher for them? – the answer is NO.
It’s not that I’m trying to be mean. I think everyone has great (and not so great) ideas for books, and these people are no exception. But they need to put in the work, because writing a book involves much more than an idea.
Writers – what’s your experience with publishing? Any points you’d add to my list?
I just started a PhD program this fall, and I love it.
When it comes to my career goals – eventually, I intend to be a research analyst at a national thinktank, looking at education policy as it pertains to low socioeconomic status and minority students – I don’t mess around. I’m strategic. I know what I want to do, and I evaluate every class I take, every relationship I form within the school, every decision, with respect to whether it’ll get me closer to my goals. If it doesn’t, I don’t do it.
Since classes started this fall, I’ve identified three possible research organizations I could work with next year AND talked to people involved about getting on with them. I’ve narrowed down faculty I could do research with, both for my research practicum next fall and for a research assistantship. I’ve made a list of classes I plan to take, as well as how they’ll fit into the generic schedule given to me by my advisor (not surprisingly, I’ll be taking extra classes because at this point, I definitely know what kind of courseload I’m capable of). I’ve looked at the job qualifications at places I’d love to work someday and compared my skills to the list. I’ve gotten the go-ahead to do my own research projects and I’m in the process of putting together a team of master’s students to help me.
In short, I’m focused.
When it comes to writing, however, not so much. I know what I want to do – I have a list of goals for the year – but I don’t do much to reach this goals.
For example, I set myself the goal of writing at least two hours a day while I’ve been on fall break from my school social work internship. I’ve probably spent two hours total over the last two weeks.
I know a lot of writers who are very focused on their writing. They treat it as a career – and I think that’s the reason I’m not putting as much time into it as others, because for me, writing isn’t a career. I love what I do, in the field I’ve chosen (not to mention the huge cost in terms of dollars and time in getting several advanced degrees). I have no intention of quitting my day job to be a full-time writer.
At the same time, I want writing to be more than just a hobby.
If you’re a writer, is it a hobby or a career for you? If you’re like me and love your career, how do you balance time for writing as well?
It’s been a couple years since I last attempted Story A Day, where you write a story a day for the month of May. This year probably wasn’t the best to attempt it; in addition to the day job and end-of-the-semester tests, papers, and projects and helping classmates on those papers and projects, I’m also taking three weekend trips this month. We’re about a week in, and here’s my progress so far:
Stories attempted: 5
Stories completed: 0
I carry around a bunch of notepads with me, each with a different story started on them. So far I’ve worked on five different stories, but I haven’t written more than a page or so for each one. I know what I want to write about, but it’s hard finding the time to actually do it. Things should maybe calm down after next week, so I may still be able to finish successfully.
Are you participating in Story A Day? If so, how are you doing with it?
Samyann is the author of Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation, a historical romance spanning from the Civil War, to the Great Chicago Fire, to modern times, and she tells all about her own process on her blog.
Q. What am I working on?
What am I not working on? I’m finishing up the first draft of my novel A Handful of Wishes, which should be released by Evolved Publishing December 2014. I’m also putting the final touches on a short story collection, The Futility of Loving a Soldier, that’ll be released this summer (maybe; I’ve been trying to finish it for a year). And there are always a dozen short stories floating around, half-written, that I’m trying to work on.
Q. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t write a specific genre; I write what I find interesting. So while The Lone Wolf was literary/women’s fiction, A Handful of Wishes is magical realism. My short stories range from contemporary to horror and paranormal. I focus more on a common theme – love and betrayal, sacrifice and redemption – as opposed to any genre conventions.
Q. Why do I write what I do?
Again, I write what interests me. I’ve always read widely, from everyday fiction to genre stuff like mysteries, sci-fi, and horror, as well as a lot of nonfiction. I try to write stories that’ll elicit a strong emotional response from my readers and stick with them long after they’re done reading.
Q. How does your writing process work?
Poorly, at the moment. Right now my weekday schedule is up at 5:30, work 7-5, class from 5:30-8:30, then home at nine to write papers until about midnight or 1:00, then fall asleep and do it all over the next day. Unfortunately, I’ve been getting a lot of great story ideas but haven’t had a chance to write them, other than brief notes. When I do have time to write, I usually do so fast and furiously, because the stories have been marinating for awhile and are pretty ripe for telling.
I’m going to tag author Christopher Starr, because he’s about two months overdue for a blog post.
He’s the author of the Heaven Falls series, starting with The Road to Hell: The Book of Lucifer, about Lucifer’s fall from grace.
It’s November, which means that thousands upon thousands of people are sitting down to write a 50,000 word novel as part of NaNoWriMo.
It also means that thousands upon thousands of people are sitting in front of their computers, eying their word counts, and thinking, “Crap, it’s only day seven and I’m how far behind?”
I’m in that second group.
I started off strong. I went to a local write-in on the first day. I sat at a table where a fellow writer took away another NaNo’er’s phone to minimize distractions and may have threatened to disconnect my internet connection. I hit my word count. Days 2, 3, and 4, I hit my word count.
But then on day 5, I came home from my evening class with a migraine/mild diabetic reaction to too much flan, and a bug bite that I had an allergic reaction too (funny story; it’s called Skeeter Syndrome, and it means bites swell up into itchy 3″ in diameter welts). I tried to write, but ended up just going to bed, at 9:00, and sleeping it all off. I planned to catch up today, but between an unexpected trip to the mechanic’s (headlight went out this morning) and my son’s 7th birthday party tonight, I didn’t have time for it.
I’m hoping to catch up soon, but this weekend I’m headed out of town, which means not much writing will get done Friday, Saturday, and possibly Sunday.
And then I have a 20-page policy analysis paper due in a couple weeks, followed by an 8-page paper on my family’s ethnic integration in America. And a book launch in less than a month.
It’s not going to be pretty this month.
If you’re doing NaNo, how’s your progress coming along?
Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi at Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse) have added two more books to their Descriptive Thesaurus Collection: The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. To celebrate, they are hosting a race, and not just any old race, either. It’s the…
Writing is hard, isn’t it? Create the perfect hook. Make your first page compelling. Craft an amazing 25 word pitch. Knock out a query that will blow an agent’s mind. On and on it goes. And sometimes, well, you just wish someone would help.
From October 21st until October 27th, Writers Helping Writers is posting an OPEN CALL for writers. Fill out a form to request help with critiques, book visibility, social media sharing, blog diagnostics, advice, and more.
An army of Amazing Racers are standing by (me included), waiting to help with your submissions. How many people can we help in a week? Let’s find out! Did I mention there are Celebrity Racers too–amazing authors and editors who know their way around a first page. Maybe one of them will pick your submission to help with!
Each day this week, there’s an AMAZING giveaway, too. So stop in at Angela & Becca’s new Writers Helping Writers website and find out how to take advantage of this unique, pay-it-forward event for writers.