Recommended Reading and Viewing

This is a list  of resources I've found useful in my self-imposed education about the craft of writing. I hope you'll find them helpful too. What are some of your favorite resources on writing craft? Please let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page so I can check them out!

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Character Relationships

 
Edmund Leighton

Edmund Leighton

CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS

One question that has proven invaluable in our journey with autism is:

"How will this affect the relationship?" 

I find myself asking this question over, and over, and over again. The "this" in question might be anything from implementing a new therapy option, to making a particular change in our daily routine, to insisting on the consumption of vegetable matter at the dinner table.

It's a question, in fact, that lives constantly in the back of my mind, because when the relationship is healthy, when there's a good rapport between my son and me, cooperation happens; progress happens; peace, and love, and joy happen. I can push a little harder, and ask a little more, and wait a little longer--and that's how we move forward.

When the relationship is bad--CHAOS. In capital letters. And it won't go away until the trust is rebuilt and the relationship is fixed.  

This doesn't mean I never lecture my son about eating his vegetables, or unexpectedly reorganize our plans for the day, or insist that he participate in therapeutic activities that push him out of his comfort zone. It just means that I need to balance those kinds of things with positive interactions--a smile, a favorite entree once in a while, watching an episode of Phineas and Ferb with him, or sharing in his triumphant excitement over the defeat of the big boss in his latest video game. And it means sometimes "giving" a little to maintain that balance--maybe on a day full of massive disruptions to the routines that help him feel safe, lima beans are not so critically important. It means that I am constantly taking the temperature of our relationship and making adjustments. And asking the question: 

"How will this affect the relationship?"

I'm finding that this question also comes in handy with creating well-rounded characters in my writing and developing convincing relationships between them. As my characters move through the world of their story, I find myself automatically asking how this choice, or event, or conversation is going to affect the relationships between the characters. Will it build, or destroy trust? Will it deepen affection, or erode it? How much or how little? 

And, as in real life, the answer to the critical question of howthe fictional relationship will be affected is better understood when I ask a follow-up question:

"Why?"

To really understand how a particular choice, or event, or action will affect the relationship between me and my son, I need to understand him as a unique, individual person. I need to know that for this particular person, a hug is not usually a positive experience because of the tactile over-sensitivity that's part of his autism. So offering a hug might affect my relationship with him differently than it would affect my relationship with my very cuddly daughter. It's impossible to really understand the "how" unless you also understand the "because."

The same is true in writing fiction. To really understand how a relationship will be affected by whatever is happening in the story, it is vital to understand the nature and history of each of the characters in the relationship, as well as the nature and history of the relationship itself. The same event will affect different relationships in different ways. To illustrate, let's look at an example in which one person hands another person a piece of fruit. Consider the effects of that simple action in the context of three different relationships: 

Relationship 1: Annie is packing her lunch for school; so far she has a bologna and cheese sandwich, and a packet of potato chips. Her father hands her an apple. 

Relationship 2: Snow White has just finished cleaning the dwarfs' cottage and is resting on a bench in the sunshine just outside the cottage door. An old peddler woman hands her an apple. 

Relationship 3: Adam is relaxing in his garden paradise. Eve hands him an apple.

In each relationship, the act of one person handing another person an apple takes on a different meaning because of who the characters in the relationship are, and because of the history of each relationship--and therefore, the same action will affect each relationship differently. Understanding the personality of each character in your story, and at least a little bit of the backstory that will inform their choices, helps in creating more convincing and consistent dynamics in the relationships. 

In real life, I use these questions--how will this affect the relationship, and why--to maintain a stable, constructive relationship between me and my son. In fiction, though, the goal isn't always to preserve and stabilize the relationships between characters. Sometimes the author's goal is to escalate conflict, increase tension, and throw the characters' world into chaos. As the author, you can choose which direction to push your characters--but only if you understand how each choice would affect the relationships, and why they would have that effect on those particular characters. 

Whether you are pushing your fictional world to a climactic crescendo of chaos, or restoring the balance in the denouement, understanding andshowing the effects of the action of the story on the relationships between the characters helps readers relate to the characters, and draws them further into the story. 

Character Motivations

 
Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

CHARACTER MOTIVATIONS

 

If I had a nickle for every time I've heard, "Mom, why did (s)he do that?" I would be a wealthy, wealthy woman. I have complained sometimes that I spend half my life trying to explain the obvious (Why do people greet each other when they meet?), and the other half trying to explain the unknowable (Why did that toddler pick the green lollipop instead of the orange one?). And strangely, the two seem to overlap with disconcerting regularity (Why did a stranger stick his gum on the bottom of my chair?).

Unfortunately for me, attempting to explain the world to someone for whom the world frequently makes no logical sense doesn't pay in nickles. Fortunately, however, it does pay in other ways. I have gained some valuable insights from both observing human behavior more closely than I otherwise would have, and pondering the meanings, motivations, and consequences of that behavior. Believe me, even the most seemingly mundane action performed by the most seemingly ordinary person can have layers of meaning and motivation that most of us will never guess at--and if you're watching closely, you might catch glimpses beneath the surface. As behavioral therapists are fond of saying, "All behavior is communication." Everything a person does says something about the person--about what's important to her, about his past, about what he wants from her, or how she values herself relative to others. It's fascinating to watch, and guess, and wonder. 

The strategy I've found to be most effective in answering, for my son, that real-life question, "Why did (s)he do that?" is to say, "Since I can't know for sure what's happening in another person's mind, I can only guess. But here are some reasons I can think of that someone might do a thing like that." And then I list as many possibilities as I can think of, and encourage my son to do the same. Then I will point out some contextual clues I can see, and tell him which possibility I think is most likely the true one based on the clues. It has become a sort of game between us, and although some of our postulations can sometimes become pretty silly and far-fetched, I think the exercise has helped improve my son's ability to imagine the world from someone else's perspective. 

And that's what fiction writers do, really, isn't it? We imagine another perspective, and we write it down. That sensation of being able to see inside another mind and actually know why (s)he did that--something that none of us can actually do in real life--is one of the things that most draws readers into the story. A character's motivations don't always need to be spelled out in detail on the page; sometimes it's best merely to hint at them and let the reader fit the pieces together and guess based on the contextual clues. But even when the motivations aren't specifically spelled out on the page, if theauthor knows what motivates a character, it's easier to make the character's actions seem consistent throughout the story and to make the character feel like a real, whole person (or alien, or fantastical creature, or y'know...whatever). 

My challenge to you, dear reader, whether you're a writer or not, is to spend some time watching people. Take a notebook with you, and write down a specific action that you observe, in as much detail as you're able, including any contextual clues you might notice. Then write down as many possible reasons as you can think of that this particular person might have performed that specific action. Begin with the most obvious reasons you can think of, and then let your list grow into the realm of the outrageous. Maybe he's on the run from the mafia. Maybe she's an alien scientist sent here to learn how to mimic human behavior, but she doesn't quite have it right yet. Maybe you'll generate some really good story ideas in the process. 

(And if you want a really eye-opening experience, spend an afternoon with an autistic person of your acquaintance, and ask him or her to point out to you things people do that don't make sense. I guarantee, you'll find it fascinating.)