What I Wish I'd Known When I Started Writing

That the Characters Are the Key


If you read my "How I Got Started Writing" post from last week, you know that I started writing when I was about 6 years old. So I guess what I wish I'd known when I really started writing was like... how to use a computer. How to synthesize a solid plot. What a metaphor was.

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For the sake of making this blog post uhhh useful for adults, I'm going to skip ahead to when I was 25 years old and I started going to my first writing critique group. I met some of the coolest people and most insightful writers at this group, and even though I haven't been able to see them for quite a while, I still hold all of these people in a special place in my heart.


Not only because they're cool people, but because they taught me amazing things about writing:

Connection to Characters is Paramount

Sometimes Your Reader Wants to Know What the Room Looks Like

Trust Your Reader

Connection to Characters is Paramount

I focus really hard on character arcs in my writing now, but I didn't always.


There's a piece of ADHD that not a lot of people understand: Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD). People with ADHD can experience emotions more intensely than neurotypical (NT) people, which can look on the outside like mood swings or even bipolar mania and depression. It isn't! It's just that people with ADHD feel feelings in a more feely manner, and it can take longer for us to come down from those intense emotional experiences.

Where RSD factors into this emotional reactivity is that it makes actual or perceived rejection from other people physically painful. When I describe it as being on the level of being punched in the chest, I'm not speaking metaphorically. It literally feels like someone hit me in the chest with their fist.


And if someone punches you, that causes an emotional reaction, right? Yes it does. So when my RSD was triggered by something, my emotional response was oftentimes defensiveness or outright anger. And I was pretty embarrassed and ashamed of being not in control of my emotions. So my RSD would get triggered, and I'd get angry about that, but then I'd feel ashamed of being angry, and then angry that I was ashamed, and back and forth until I either binge ate cookies to make myself feel better, or I would explode on the person or people responsible for the RSD in the first place. I didn't realize I had ADHD, and I definitely didn't know about RSD. So I just thought I was a crazy person. I legitimately thought I had bipolar disorder for a while, because of my "severe mood swings."


For a long time, I avoided interacting emotionally with writing because I thought other people wouldn't understand the intensity of the emotions I felt, because I thought those emotions were wrong or bad. Writing about very emotional things also causes those emotions to well up in me, and sometimes I was so emotionally overloaded from living life that I just couldn't fit any more feelings inside myself.


What this ended up doing was stunting my characters emotional connection to the story and to each other. I was trying to write characters like "normal people," and to my ADHD alien brain, "normal people" were in control of their emotions.

Which I now know is hilariously not the case.


It was only after I started getting a grip on my own mental health and getting to know more people who weren't toxic buttheads that I started to understand that there were other people out there who felt feelings as intensely as I did, and that this heightened emotional awareness was actually... a benefit? What?? Huh???


Sounds fake but okay.


I started to allow myself to write with emotion.


And... holy crap, y'all! It freakin' worked! My characters got way better. My stories as a whole got way better. My experience of sharing my stories got way better too, because when your readers connect with your characters, well that's the goal isn't it? That's the dream? To write a character that feels so real and authentically human that other actually real and authentic humans get emotionally attached to an entirely imaginary thing.


Bananas.

Describe the Setting Whydoncha


I have a big problem with descriptions. I don't often pay attention to my surroundings in real life, so when I'm writing stories, I kind of ignore the setting there too. It's like in the Matrix when Neo and Morpheus are in that big empty room.

What's wrong with that?


Oh it sucks, that's what's wrong with that.


I was kind of hoping that I could just be like "it's outside" and the reader would fill in from there. That's fine, right?


Well... what kind of outside? A forest? A field? A desert? A tundra? Is it raining? Sunny? Cloudy? Nighttime?


The readers need answers, Sofiya!


I've gotten better at describing things the first time around, but I still have to come back through for a revision that's basically only for describing settings and characters. That's right, I'm bad at describing what my characters look like, too. Is that because I don't pay attention in real life to what people look like? Why, yes it is. Thanks for asking.

Trust Your Reader


Readers are smart. Even though they can't magically intuit what the setting is when I don't describe it at all. Pfftt. We'll work on that. But yeah, for the most part, readers are smart. And for a smart reader, there are few things as annoying as being talked down to.

But if I, the author, have a really cool thing I want the reader to know, I don't want to risk them missing it! So the clear solution is to hammer it home over and over and in very specific detail, right??


No. No please, no, do not do that. Please.


Your reader is smart.


Trust your reader.


Do you want to hint that your love interest is actually the big bad evil guy? You can do it subtly, and your reader will pick it up. Maybe they won't pick it all up right away, but that's good! It's like sprinkling breadcrumbs. You the author are sprinkling delicious breadcrumbs for your reader to follow gradually into a room full of bread, and then they get there they think to themselves, "Aha! A room full of bread! That is expected and makes sense, but I'm still surprised by the various types of bread here!"


As opposed to there being a trail of breadcrumbs, but then they reach a room, and it's full of sharks. And they're like, "Why are these sharks here?" before being mauled by a shark.


Or even worse. The most worstest. Your reader walks into your story, and you say, "Hello, welcome to my story."


And the reader says, "I sure am excited to get started."


And you grab a baguette and you smack them in the face with it, and you say, "The love interest is the bad guy."


The reader goes, "Did you just hit me with a baguette?"


To which you respond by hitting them again with the baguette, and you say more loudly, "The love interest is the bad guy."


And the reader goes, "Yeah I heard you the first time. Can you stop hitting me?"


And you grab them by the collar and hit them over the head until the baguette breaks, all the while screaming, "THE LOVE INTEREST IS THE BAD GUY!!!!!!!"


And at that point, your reader flees from your story because they're so frustrated that you think they're not smart enough to figure that out on their own. Also because you have been assaulting them with baked goods.


Don't assault your reader with baked goods. Trust your reader. They are smart. They will get it.


What happens if someone reads your book and they don't get it? Well my friend, that means they weren't your Reader.


Capital R Reader?? What's that!??


We'll talk about the Capital R Reader later. It's another thing I wish I'd known when I started writing, but it's going to require a whole dang blog post just for itself. So for now, that's all! That's it! Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something new!

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meet sofiya!

Sofiya Pasternack is a mental health professional, the highly-distractible author of Jewish MG and YA fantasy, and prone to oversharing gross medical stories.

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