What makes the Christmas holiday season so special for writers is that it’s the only holiday that juxtaposes recollections of the past, with assessments of the present, and contemplation of the future. The warm and fuzzy nature of the season prompts the recall of warm and fuzzy Christmases past. It brings people and shared memories together in celebration and closes out the week or so allotted to it with contemplation about the coming new year.
No other holiday offers writers so many options and alternatives for stories as Christmas. Its key element—happiness—is easily flipped over to expose a less positive underbelly rich in frustration, despair, and hopelessness for our heroes to struggle against and overcome as they search and reach for happiness. Its focus on giving provides a rich milieu of generosity contrasted against the less generous and sometimes downright meanness of the world’s realities.
The “holiday infected” heart is an easy target for emotionally rich stories. Readers love the tearjerker that has a happy ending. There are of course, those stories where it’s the tragedy that teaches the lesson of the season. For example, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl.” It’s the epitome of a holiday, heart-breaking tragedy. It doesn’t tug at your heartstrings; it yanks them free of their moorings and drowns them in a sea of sadness that make a reader’s reality so much the sweeter by comparison. Likely that was one of Anderson’s goals.
It and stories like it rely on mining the primary emotions of kindness and giving and their contrasting opposites personified in characters and familiar situations. Well done, they go beyond the pitfalls of interjecting the maudlin and put a new twist on traditional styles and more conventional writing techniques. That should be your goal whenever you put pen to paper over the holidays.
It doesn’t take a lot to convert an age-old tale into something new. Take the story/song of “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer.” You could turn him into a lush I suppose, the history of his drinking derived from some tragic event at Clement Moore’s house. (The tragic event is up to you.) Or perhaps the red nose is a symptom of a fatal illness and this might be Rudolf’s last Christmas Eve trip. Put that at the center of your white board and see how fast the tentacles of ideas spread. Simply write it at the center of your whiteboard and step back. Ideas will flood in.
I bring Anderson’s story to your attention not to interject maudlin emotions into your Christmas spirit, but to remind you how the richness of emotions that surround the holiday season can add an important element to your writing—heart (or its opposite: heartlessness). Of course, writers pull—or yank at times—at readers’ hearts through words. In that regard, I direct your attention the list of “Feeling Words/Emotion Words” at eqi.org/fw.htm. Most of the words listed there are verbs, which mean they can inexpensively add depth and breadth to a description, definition, expression, or exclamation. There are something like 4,000 emotion-laden nouns, adjectives, and verbs to choose from in the English language. What I found is that such lists generate their own story ideas. The word “glided” jumped out at me. I suddenly visualized Santa rehearsing the approach to rooftop landings with a bunch of reindeer trainees.
The referred to list is filled with what I call “bumble bee words”—capable of carrying many times their own weight in intensity and injecting zing into a sentence. Many are the action verbs that can turn an ordinary sentence into a movie in a reader’s mind. Others are adjectives that add visual spice to a story. To give you an idea, here are a few “b” words: brutal, brutish, bubbly, buffeted, bugged, bulldozed, bullied, bummed, buoyant, burdened, bursting, buzzed . . . It’s like looking at flashcards of exciting visuals.
These words are not meant to be kept in a bowl to be dipped into and thrown at the page. You have to be careful with them. Many have been subjected to overuse and misuse to the point of becoming hackneyed. One that might sound fresh to you might have holes in its soles to your readers. Those are the ones that need bed rest. Let them lie.
Each word, and especially each verb, you consider needs to be assessed and measured to make sure it properly fits into and feeds the intent of your sentence. Take a word like “ambivalent”—having mixed feelings or ideas about something or someone—a condition not that rare during the holiday season. But your writing is enhanced when you capture the essence of ambivalence via story rather than merely injecting it as a descriptive. In fact, if you say the word over a few times it has a sort of sterile sound to it. (“Ah,” said the doctor, looking up from his microscope and rubbing his chin, “its another damn case of ambivalence.” / “Oh dear, what can we do, doctor?” / “It’s tricky. Treated incorrectly and it can morph into hackneyed.” / “Oh no, doctor! Not hackneyed! Anything but hackneyed!” / The doctor looked over with a serious expression on his face. “Go prepare the surgical suite.”
Hackneyed is what happens when you rely on the tried and true and take the lazy route through the thinking process. We each carry a little bag of hackneyed words and phrases around and thus they are too easily accessible. Their use requires little thought, and they have the tendency to float to the surface where they are the first words grabbed and slapped onto the page. To add freshness to your writing in the New Year, try to sit back and contemplate how to say something differently in a meaningful way. But remember, saying something differently doesn’t necessarily remove hackneyedess (my word). You need to dig a little deeper into your vocabulary pouch and find the very best word.
What makes “The Little Match Girl” hackneyed is not the story itself, but that its theme has served as the foundation for so many stories—like a collection of cupcakes with frosting of different colors but they all taste the same. The challenge is how can you tell a well-used story in a fresh way that provides a truly new perspective to the vortex of poverty and public ambivalence.
What you do is tweak some fundamental ingredients. Stand the story on its head—poverty is replaced by great wealth, and the poor little starving girl by the thoughtless mogul who has become dedicated to expanding her wealth and empire. She might also be the night janitor who offers the creatively stressed artist (or writer) insights and suggestions and the ultimately great idea and suddenly disappears. She—your heroine—didn’t start out as a lonely wretch; the “condition” was foisted upon her. Now think of how many ways you could have that happen! You can take any story apart and redesign its pieces, contents, and characters and shuffle them around a bit to have something new or at least newish. Detroit does it every model year. And like Detroit, if nothing, your first story of the New (model) Year should at the very least be “newish.”
So make a resolution, and process that has a long history, dating from Babylonian times 4,000 years ago. The Romans offered their promises to change and improve to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. Medieval knights would take les voeux du paon (the peacock vow) to reaffirm their commitment to chivalry. But the Christians focused on reflecting on past mistakes and resolving how they would improve themselves in the coming new year. And that is what writers need to do.
Back then, those who made resolutions were probably more motivated to keep them to assure they benefitted from their gods’ good graces. Perhaps because we now make our resolutions to ourselves rather than the gods, we’re more prone to break them or not seriously try to keep them the centerpiece of our New Year improvement efforts. Writers should not follow the common rabble here but set the example. We’re above that sort of behavior. Instead, writer’s resolution(s) should be carefully considered and include plans of commitment and execution to assure a higher level of success. It is, after all, your chosen craft.
According to one study, eighty-eight percent of those making New Year resolutions fail to keep them! The same study also found, however, that men benefited (by twenty-two percent) when they engaged in goal setting rather than just resolution making; and, women were ten percent more successful in staying true to their resolutions when they made them public.
The success or failure in keeping our resolutions might also have something to do with the approach we bring to them. Try spending less time reflecting on the past and more time on specific ways to implement ways to improve your efforts and achieve measureable self-improvement. Set benchmarks to target.
So in the spirit of making resolutions, here are some to consider:
1. Write from your heart, the impact or results of your efforts is the readers’ job.
2. Be truthful to yourself, your readers, your story, the goals of your efforts.
3. Avoiding taking yourself too seriously. It makes your writing ponderous rather than light and refreshing and thus enjoyable to create and read.
4. Play around with a different genre. If you are up to eyeballs in memoir, take a break and play with fiction. Take a real person you are writing about and fictionalize him or her in some totally different setting.
5. Keep working on the discipline thing. It demands constant attention. Don’t condemn yourself if you fail, praise yourself for continually trying. Write even when you don’t feel like it. I suppose you can write yourself into a funk, but if so, you can certainly write yourself out of one.
6. Research. If you don’t do your research, your story will lack credibility and readers will become critics who will spot weaknesses and go in for the kill. Also, a dose of truth adds spice to fiction and makes it more believable by fuzzing the border between fact and fiction. Keep your readers in what I call the it-could-be-true zone. People love to believe. Feed that desire. The most frightening horror story is the one that could happen . . . right next door!
7. Close mouth, open eyes and ears. Observe! Does this need explanation? Shouldn’t. Just remember that great ideas don’t hide, they’re out there walking around in public and you need to be ever vigilant at trying to spot them.
8. Read . . . a lot. This is the hardest thing for me to do. I find myself feeling guilty about not writing when I’m reading. But reading is the fuel for creative thinking. Feed the fire and keep it stoked. Set aside a specific time—a.m. to get the juices moving, and p.m. to prime the pump of the subconsciousness of nighttime thinking.
9. Read and research, but remember, too, your primary focus is on writing. Reading should be a source of knowledge that fuels your creativity and adds details to story, not some place to hide to avoid the work of writing. This is an area where we can too easily lie to ourselves . . . You may be doing important research, but don’t avoid important writing! Assess your habits with brutal honesty—you have to hate a bad habit to change it.
10. Keep at it. Some days will be better than others. Your goal is to attain prolificacy. (Now there’s a word worth the fifty cents I paid for it!)
11. Brainstorm on a white board. When filled, take a picture with your iPhone or iPad and print it out. There’s something about standing in front of a blank space that motivates to move—mentally and physically.
Give thanks for your talents and to your talents, and for having the insight and perseverance to want to improve them in the New Year. May 2016 be happy and productive.