A Matter of Life or Death: A Writer’s Tip by Dr. Maxine Thompson

In my personal life, I have dealt with life or death matters many times, sometimes even unbeknownst to me, starting in childbirth four times, later, losing both parents over a 10 year span, (which is a life milestone in itself),  caregiving for my husband when he was in palliative care, and including being there during my sister’s two week hospice experience before she made her transition. Although 6 years have passed, these last 2 experiences  have kept me on edge.  It’s an unnerving feeling–one I will never get used to as long as I live.

Let me explain. Although we are mortal, I think most of us like to live under the illusion that we and our loved ones will always be safe and alive. Simply put, I don’t like how I feel when I’m living with the reminder of death in every corner.  The feeling is akin to living with a terminally ill relative, where the end is inevitable, and you know it. Now having gone through that with my late sister, (although I was in denial up to the very end), in those last hours it is really when LIFE gets real for you!

Currently, I’m going through another life or death matter. Although this is not my life or death matter, it is the life of someone whom I love dearly so I have to give it my all and pray incessantly. But truly, it is  in God’s hands. At the same time, I have to continue to work.

As a result, I’m feeling hypersensitive to what is going on about me, but it has gotten me to thinking. I’m remembering clients who came to me, paid a deposit, then didn’t finish their books because someone close to them died or they experienced a tragedy, after they started their project. Some had even paid me in full to complete their books and never went a step farther.

I understand it though. Due to life getting in the way, in this past quarter, I’m not on schedule for certain goals I’ve had, either, but I have asked God to guide me  through this maze.

Black Writers on Tour (www.blackwritersontour.com) is coming up on 4-19-14, so I have a beacon of light to keep me focused. Therefore, as I go through this living-on-the-edge experience, I hate it, but, at the same time, there is a silver lining.

This reminds me of what makes for a good story–that is, when your character is  living on the edge. Your character needs to feel that his story quest is somehow a matter of life or death.

This has also showed me  that  in writing, we need something at stake. In other words, what does your character have to lose?

As a story/developmental editor, this has given me questions to ask writers to make their words leap off the page and feel like a firecracker in the reader’s hand.

Why should your story matter?

How can you make it matter, to the extreme of life and death? How can you raise the stakes?

What is the most terrible thing that can happen to your character? What if it were your family? Make your character’s problems as personal as your own concerns.

How can you make it matter to the reader? By making the threat of physical, professional or psychological death come through on every page.

Consider these questions.

What are some of the things that matter to your character?

What is the character’s motivation? If your character is motivated never to be abandoned as he was as a child, how will this affect him if he goes through a divorce?

Tap into the fears and things that are a matter of life and death to your readers and you  put that into your writing.

What are some of the worries that keep you up at night? Worry about the safety of your children–young or adult? Worry about your bills? Worry about criminals? Who would want to have their child kidnapped?

These scenarios can jumpstart your story. Unlike in real life, you can torture your characters and let these things happen to them.

What is an urgent message you want your readers to get out of your story? Put that in as your theme.

Just raising the stakes will make for a page turner for the reader.

After all, until we live as if our writing is a matter of life or death, we won’t see it as a serious undertaking either.

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