Ice Skating and Character Arcs

Sometimes in the sturm und drang of the internet, something flutters to the surface of the cesspit, untarnished and beautiful. Something like Jonathan Van Ness’ progress videos as he learns to ice skate.

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Jonathan is a charming fifth of the cast on Netflix’s “Queer Eye” and host of the podcast “Getting Curious.” While he is an expert in many things, he is bravely choosing to share his process of learning something completely new. What he is sharing isn’t flawless, but it is real. It is so refreshing to see behind the curtain of social media perfection to see a capable person striving to learn something new.

In my sheer joy I texted my BFF Amanda:

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I think we don’t see adults learning something new more often because as a society we somehow think of it as shameful. Surely adults should know everything already? Children are the only ones we force to learn. I think if respected people shared what they are learning more openly it would make children less resentful and adults less ashamed.

Have you ever met an adult who refused to learn how to use their cell phone? It isn’t a generation gap to blame, it is a willingness to learn that is missing. Because an important element of learning is failing, looking silly, and being publicly embarrassed. And as we get older we seem less willing to make ourselves as vulnerable as we need to be to learn something new.

I’ve just finished reading the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth where she compares the difference between ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’. Those with a fixed mindset have a tendency to think of the world in black and white terms. An individual is either intelligent or they are stupid. They are talented or hopeless. Those with a growth mindset have the perspective that effort can change intelligence. That practice can develop talent. Unsurprisingly, those who believe that they can change their circumstances often are the same ones who put in the tremendous effort necessary to learn, grow and ultimately …change their circumstances.

Now, of course, I am going to bring this all back around to writing. Because I am, after all, me.

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A growth mindset ties in perfectly to discussing character arcs. A story works best when a character learns a lesson and leaves the story different than they began it. (Ideally, the reader/viewer leaves changed too, but that part is out of the artist’s control.)

For example in my work in progress, my two protagonists begin the story with fixed mindsets. Though their worldviews are very different from each other they are both unwilling to question, let alone shift, their personal philosophy. The plot works on my characters, as their point of view is challenged again and again, until finally, they break. The breaking point for me is about the midpoint of the story. Then comes the second half as they practice and test their new point of view.

On the other hand, my villain is confronted by as many, if not more, challenges to his fixed mindset. Unlike my heroes, he refuses to change his mind. Instead, he doubles down on his worldview to disastrous consequences.

I love reading because I get to see characters go through the hard work of growing and changing. It helps to inspire me to follow in the footsteps of protagonists and not my villains.

Optional writing homework: Think about what core beliefs your character has at the start of your story, then think about how they will change at the end. Consider what kind of events or strife will challenge them enough to change this deeply held belief. Do exercise with your protagonist, a side character, and your villain.

What is it worth to you?

Sitting across the table from my handsome husband, I sipped my Manhattan and listened to him talk about video games. Again.

We enjoyed a medium deserved, much-needed date night in the midst of the whirlwind around Christmas and New Years. The conversation turned, as it so often does, to a beloved Twitch streamer. We attempted to pinpoint what exactly is the source of his success. We cited his unthreatening everyman video game skills and his hilarious fluctuations between absurd confidence and wallowing self-pity that translated into moderate charisma and lots and lots of money.

Honestly curious, I asked aloud, “I am at least as charming as this guy. How do I implement his business model to my writing career?”

“Give your book away for free,” my husband answered.

My head felt like it exploded.

Do you even know how much work I already do for free as a stay-at-home mom and housewife? Do you know how little that unpaid labor is valued in our society? And you want me to put my passion project, the fruit of my intellectual and creative self, out into the world for free as well? No.

I blinked in shock. Mike may or may not have been pleased to render his chatty wife speechless.

“That’s how you would do it,” he doubled down on his assertion.

“But…”

But the hours of work! The literal years of my life spent writing and learning how to write better. The money spent on conferences, how-to books, and paper. Don’t these sacrifices deserve some sort of reward?

Not really. I’m writing for fun and self-development. Nobody has held a gun to my head to say I need to write this story. What would a fair hourly rate even be? And who in this “fair” art market could afford a book of passion written by a first-time author? Books would go for thousands of dollars! And who would pay thousands of dollars for art? That’s right… art collectors.

I took a deep breath. Trying to slow my mind enough to come up with a reasonable objection to his crazy plan. “But I want the approval of being traditionally published,” I said embarrassed to so openly need the approval of others.

“Who care’s about publishers? You care about readers.”

“That’s true.” The readers are the people I am hoping to connect with after all. Some will obviously pay nothing, but some might pay a lot.

And this is where I got stuck for days. My mind churning in the background, as I do all my other unpaid work, picking away at why I should or should not give away my book for free.

Isn’t this model the honest meritocracy that I want in the world? If a reader likes it, they will pay, if not, they will not. The Twitch phenomenon has proven that there can be serious money in providing free content and asking for small donations from people who care to do so.

But there is the other side of The Twitch coin, the unknown number of streamers who are just as charming, skillful and engaged as the big names, but for some reason, the alchemy of popularity didn’t work for them.

‘What if I’m one of the unwatched streams?’ Comes a voice from the increasingly widening pit in my stomach. ‘What if I build it, but nobody comes?’ The failure of a cornfield ballpark is still statistically likely even if I do get traditionally published. So why not let it get out there for free at least make it easy for readers to get their hands on?

And after weeks of churning…  I’ve decided my story is valuable and I don’t want to give it away for free. That is weirdly difficult to admit, and embarrassing. But, yeah. My novel has worth. (Still awkward… I’ll keep practicing.)

How much worth? In terms of dollars? I do not know. Value, especially in art, is in the eye of the beholder. The same book can be thought-provoking and literally life-saving to one reader, and a simple ‘meh’ to another. Which one is correct?

Is my book collector-level worthy of thousands? Maybe for some readers. But most of my readers will be in middle school, and that is a lot of allowance money. Is it worth the $.99-$25.00 that a bookstore will charge? Perhaps. Maybe since it is born of love and hours willingly given it should be my free gift to the world.

Perhaps someday there will be a machine, or more likely an app, that can measure the increased serotonin levels in your brain when you experience art. Then they will equate those chemicals with a dollar amount, or even better, a percentage of your income. (Like taxes, but fair.)

Until that technology arrives, I’m at a bit of a loss.

All I can say is that my book has worth. My story has value. I just don’t know if I’ll get any money. If that makes cents.

Time and Creativity

Happy New Year!

Another year of storytelling is at my back and another year of storytelling possibilities stretches out in front of me. Which is a good thing. Mostly.

As you may be aware, holiday celebrations can bring up strong emotions. And for me, New Years is an annual review where I suddenly discount accomplishments (new home! new baby!) and focus on projects left incomplete (WIP novel).

So I am going to give you the pep talk that I need to hear in the hopes that there are others of you out there that need it too. So pardon me while I slip into my enthusiastic camp councilor voice and cheer you on and present your merit badges.

Congratulations friend, you have successfully prioritized creativity in your life for another year! This is a huge accomplishment in a world that can seem uncaring. You were able to tune out the siren call of twitter arguments, piles of laundry, and dumb cell phone games to keep appointments with yourself to create.

You have learned so much this year! You are a more skilled writer, careful reader, and thoughtful commentator than you were twelve months ago. And while you might not have a certificate to show others all that you’ve learned, it will show up in the work you produce from how onward.

You are creating around you a tribe of creators. By giving to creative communities, sharing yourself, and your ideas you have tricked brilliant people into hanging out with you! Ideas that have rattled around in your echoey head for years are suddenly spoken aloud and met with encouragement, thought provoking questions, and given new life.

Hopefully these three badges will help balance the scales as another New Years passes without having written ‘the end’. Now is the time to celebrate, appreciate, and dig in your heels for the year to come.

Happy New Year!

We read to know that we are not alone.

~C.S. Lewis