How To Keep Writing When Life Gets In The Way

By Posted in - On Writing on May 29th, 2010 15 Comments

I’m on a heinous self-inflicted deadline, having promised to deliver my manuscript to my Long-Suffering Agent (LSA) on June 24th. So, of course, now that I’ve given myself no room for mishaps, the gods are throwing stones at me—and boy, do they know how to throw ’em.

This week, out of the blue, my beloved Red and White Irish Setter, Ivy, had to have emergency surgery. Now she’s wearing an Elizabethan collar to keep her from scratching the six-inch scar that runs from the corner of her mouth to her throat. She needs a lot of care to keep the collar clean while her wound drains, never mind the special dietary requirements and medication times. But worst of all is that she’s sad, which makes me sad. So I cuddle with her to make her feel better instead of writing or keeping up with household chores.

And I feel guilty.

How am I going to catch up on the time lost? And how could I think about my deadline while Ivy is suffering? I’ve been feeling stricken about both questions, which doesn’t help. Stress makes it even harder to work efficiently when I do start to write and my mind has been so far from my story while all this has been going on that it’s seriously difficult to climb back into England, 1939, and figure out how to make my protagonist more emotionally appealing.

But it’s impossible to resent Ivy. She’s an innocent, and she’s suffering, and she’s the comfort and delight of my reclusive writing life.

Researchers claim that people with animal companions live an average ten years longer than people who don’t have any and I believe it. Ivy makes me laugh and go for walks and get fresh air and know when to stop working to play with her. She spoons with my son every night, bringing him much comfort after he dropped out of college last semester feeling that he was in the wrong place.

A year ago, as a puppy, she fell off the cliffs near our home and bounced right back up but had a puncture wound that closed yet festered under the skin. The vet thinks a foreign body, maybe as tiny as a splinter, may have lodged in the wound and caused a low-grade infection that eventually flared up last week.

Now much of her right cheek has been removed, the skin has been sutured over it, and we’re hoping that all that’s left inside is healthy tissue so she makes a full recovery with no further relapse, but we won’t know. She’s the best dog we’ve ever had and never complained. She’s just happy to be with us.

As Hamlet said, “There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” The gentlest, most innocent creatures—when they suffer—are the ones that affect us most.

The revelation I’m sharing with you today is that life never gets in the way of the writing. It only nudges us to learn from the problems of everyday life. As writers we can’t shy from life. We must live it in order to write stories that feel real.

Ivy’s crisis engendered an outpouring of sympathy and wishes for a speedy recovery from people all over the world, who sent messages on Facebook and Twitter. Many of them didn’t know her before all this happened, but they know and love her now. They’ve connected to her and her story.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. What made so many distant friends invest in the story of this dog’s injury and recovery? How can I conjure an equally powerful response to the ups and downs of my protagonist in the hearts of my readers? If I can figure this out I’ll be able to make up the time lost and, what’s more, the end result will be all the better for it.

I wish I could say the same for Ivy.

So here’s a question for you: how do you make readers care about your protagonist’s plight?

(15) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Deb - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Adding my well wishes, too! Ivy sounds, wonderful wonderful. And yes–you have me thinking that life doesn't really get in the way of writing-it becomes part of what we write.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Exactly! You put it so well, Deb. And thank you for the well wishes for Ivy. She's collecting them all and trading them in for dog treats. Soft ones. 🙂

    How do you make your protagonists likable or empathic?

  • The Crazy Baby Mama - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 6:37 am

    sending strong healing vibes to all 🙂

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Thank you, CrazyBabyMama!

  • Andrew Smith - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Lia, you can't MAKE your readers care about your protagonists in the same way you can't MAKE your kids like vegetables. Readers will care about your protagonists if they are real and have that universal connectivity imbued in their actions, attitudes, and thoughts. If a protagonist is contrived, generic, and two-dimensional, your readers might care about them if they're really really drunk, but I will put a book like that down before I get to page 20.

    How do you develop characters that are real and have that "connectivity" — a real soul that reaches out from the type on the page? In my opinion, there is only one way: as a writer, you have to have at some time or another actually lived their lives in one manner or another. It is not an easy thing, but it's my theory on why so many young, inexperienced writers default toward fantasy and contrived characters/plots: because they haven't lived enough yet, or they're too afraid to dig down deep enough to dredge up the truth that can be found in some of the most common and universal experiences… like caring for a sick friend.

    Hugs to you and Ivy.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Thank you, Andrew! There's so much talk in the publishing industry about the need for readers to feel connected to the main character within the first few pages of a novel, but such hackneyed advice on how to go about it.

    I love the simple way you've boiled down the universal essence of my experience with Ivy to "…caring for a sick friend."

    I'd like a character who cared for a sick friend. But that makes me the protagonist. What if Ivy's the protagonist, which is how it feels in this case? Aren't people responding to Ivy's plight, rather than mine? Or am I looking at this all wrong?

  • claudine - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 9:27 am

    I think we're responding both to Ivy's pain (the suffering of the innocent) and identifying with the pain of your concern for her, and being inspired by you setting her as a priority. It's harder to see a loved one suffer than to suffer yourself.
    Prayers to you both.

    P.S. I really hope this will let me post. Not having much luck with that lately.

  • claudine - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Oops. Make that FOR you both.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Thank you, Claudine!

  • Victoria Dixon - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Much love and homemade, soft biscuits for Ivy. 🙁 The good news is, she sounds like she's still a young animal and that should help her be strong and recover.

    As for your question, I've got a character in my book who is young, fatally ill and yet wants to act in the service of his Emperor before he dies. When he and his father agree to act as revolutionary messengers and potential assassins, it raises the reader's respect for them. I killed them both in acts of self sacrifice. Not because I'm a sadist, but because my novel's an historical fantasy and the father was a real person whose noble act 1800 years ago still sings. I wanted to bring that out even further, so I gave him a son, which also ties into the book's theme of family and sacrifice. Why am I going on about this passage?
    One of my favorite authors (Guy Gavriel Kay) showed me several years ago that the best way to write beloved characters is to have them be (at least) one of three things: Excessively 1. Heroic 2. Intelligent 3. Humorous. Combine any of those traits and it increases the character's appeal. I suck at humor and can't honestly lay claim to intelligence, so I went for heroism on a grand scale. LOL
    I don't know if that helps at all, but it is how I try to develop my characters. Again, good luck with Ivy!
    .-= Victoria Dixon´s last blog ..Pitch Purgatory =-.

  • Rachna Chhabria - Reply

    May 29, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Lia, a protagonist that readers will like has to be real, with problems, dreams and aspirations that readers can relate to.
    Knowing you as well as I do, I am sure you will turn this into a blessing by translating all that you have learnt from this episode into shaping your protagonist into a believable character that has readers anxious and worried regarding his well being.
    My best wishes for Ivy. Hugs for you.
    .-= Rachna Chhabria´s last blog ..How much Criticism to Take? =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 30, 2010 at 11:04 am

    I really enjoyed the peek into your book and the advice from Guy Gavriel Kay, Victoria! Terrific, helpful comment. I agree that a heroic, intelligent or funny protagonist is easier to get behind. I think a kind one is also appealing.

    In the movie industry there’s a term called “pet the dog”— shorthand for any kind or compassionate action the protagonist takes in the opening scenes of a film that clues us in to who the protagonist is and enlists our empathy or loyalty or approval.

    I think you’re on the right track with characters that inspire the reader’s respect. How have you clued the reader in to this in the first ten pages of your novel, I wonder?

    By the way, Ivy says thank you very much for the soft homemade biscuits and love!

  • Victoria Dixon - Reply

    May 31, 2010 at 11:05 am

    My hero saves an orphan from exposure/starvation within the first five pages. ;D At the same time he’s contemplating attacking rebel forces. LOL

    I just received my umpteenth rejection – this time from an agent who was interested until she saw the pages – and I just don’t understand why I haven’t received more interest in the book as a whole. Really hoping I get good feedback from the conference I’m attending next month….
    .-= Victoria Dixon´s last blog ..Pitch Purgatory =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 31, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Sounds like a dynamic opening with a great “pet the dog/save the orphan” moment to show us your hero’s someone worth investing in!

    I think that getting feedback in person from industry gatekeepers via workshops and conferences is the best possible way to take quantum leaps forward in understanding what our manuscripts still need. Especially because you can ask questions when you meet someone in person. You can say “So do you think it would be better if I…?” and they can say “Yes, or you could handle it this way…”
    and a lightbulb often goes on.

    I wish you luck! Which conference are you attending?

  • Victoria Dixon - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    That’s exactly what I’m hoping for. ;D Thanks for the luck. I’ll need it. I’m headed for Crested Butte, Colorado for the Crested Butter Writers Conference in mid June.
    .-= Victoria Dixon´s last blog ..Pitch Purgatory =-.

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