Book Giveaway

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Winged by Colleen Houser


by Colleen Houser

Giveaway ends March 27, 2015.

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Empathy: A Writer’s Greatest Tool

My creative writing professor once told me that you cannot be a fiction writer and hate people. It’s just not possible, because writing is people. The world is people. If you don’t like people, you cannot understand the world and cannot be a successful writer. It would be like trying to be a mathematician that hates numbers (or representations of numbers). It is paramount.

Now, I have been called a misanthrope most of my life. People bother me. You are chaotic and overwhelming, especially in large groups. I’m highly introverted and awkward in most social situations. I don’t understand the concept of “small talk” or how not talking about the weather makes me impolite or unfriendly. So, obviously, this meant that I was a horrible writer which led to another jaunt down insecurity lane, because at the time, I thought that he meant that I had to like people, like their personalities, and be a people person.

It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. He was talking about empathy. Having empathy is one of the most important tools at an author’s disposal. There are two kinds of empathy: cognitive and affective.

Cognitive empathy means that you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. In terms of being an author, this would be your character. You must know likes, dislikes, fears, aspirations, experiences, and how the character feels about himself or herself. However, as an author, this needs to be taken a step further. It’s being able to see and understand how this character views the world around them, how they take in and process events and information, and what actions the character would take based on that view. At the same time, the author must also anticipate how these events and actions interact with the character’s preconceived notions and how the world view changes. It is a give and take that is constantly changing.

I liken it to this quote from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.”

In order to make a character a whole person, the author must care. It’s loving a character as he or she would love him or herself. They’re like family. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love them. This is true for every character including your villain. That connection should be evident in everything that an author writes otherwise your characters will be flat and unbelievable. If the author doesn’t believe in or care about the character, why should the reader? Which brings us to affective empathy.

In the author/reader relationship, affective empathy is what you want from your reader. It is what occurs as a reader begins to care for your character. When a person sees another in distress, this causes distress (assuming you’re not, y’know, a sociopath or something). The reader isn’t going to care about the character in the same way that the author does, and we wouldn’t want them to. While the author is charged with putting themselves into their character’s shoes and expressing his or her point of view in words, the reader is under no such obligation.

How is this a tool for the author? Well, the reader’s affective empathy can be used to against them. The more that a reader cares for a character, the more easily they can be led. Readers are more forgiving of characters that they like or empathize with. In contrast, if you wanted to surprise your reader with a plot twist, such as a hidden villain, you can play with your readers’ emotions by making them care about a character before pulling the rug out from under them. (I’m sorry readers, but it’s all for your own good.) The bigger the reaction (other than one of “that’s totally unbelievable), the more successful you’ve been.

Oh, but I do have a word of caution though. An author must be careful when manipulating a reader’s empathy. Piss a reader off too much, and they might never pick up your novels again.

Keeping that in mind, what my professor said is true. If you don’t want to spend your time thinking about your characters or your reader, if you cannot empathize with them, there is no way that you can be a fiction writer.

In those terms, I actually enjoy people. From psychology to sociology or anthropology, history, art, and music, everything that humanity touches, I find fascinating. Humanity has a beauty and complexity that I just can’t stop exploring. Languages, landmarks, mythology, ethics, value systems: I can never get enough. It all stems from our relationships with others, just living. It’s magical.

Do You Have Any Creative Writing Advice?

I was asked for some of my own writing advice, but I don’t know that I really have anything concrete. I don’t like posts that tell you things like “never end your sentences with a preposition” or “don’t edit while you’re writing” or “only use dialogue tags ‘said’ and ‘replied'” all of which are ridiculous to me. Everything has a time and place, but I don’t want to be one of those annoying “follow your heart” people. So, I’m going to try.

* Certain narration styles drive me crazy.

1) The omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator makes me feel like I have ADD. Well, I do, but it makes me cognizant of it. I find the thing most difficult about an omniscient narrator is that it’s difficult for me, as a reader, to find a focus. This narrator frequently jumps back and forth between the personal thoughts of one person to another, and it’s difficult to separate the overwhelming knowledge and what each character knows and sees.

2) First person present. I understand imminence, wanting to move the story quicker, but… it bothers me. I feel like if you’re a person telling a story, obviously, you’re telling it at a later date and past narration would be more correct. It’s just a pet peeve. The Hunger Games novels were particularly challenging to get through due to my thoughts on this.

* Do the Work

So, I lied to you. This is one of the rules. It’s not really a writing rule, but a preparation rule. Do the work. Know your characters inside and out. You have to be able to put yourself into their shoes and see things not only from their perspective, but how each character views your other characters. Know your villain. Know your world and its rules. It’s easiest to answer the big six: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? There shouldn’t be a question that you can’t answer. And “just because” doesn’t count as an answer.

* Dialogue tags

Occasionally, I like the peruse some of the writing blogs on WordPress, and I’ve noticed something interesting. Whenever anyone is giving advice on how to write dialogue, I see this bit of advice: only use the dialogue tags, “said” and “asked”, and use “replied” sparingly. In the years that I’ve been taking writing courses, this piece of advice has never come up (at least not while I was paying attention). In fact, it always seemed to me like the exact opposite was required. So, I had to wonder, were these people on crack?

As I’ve begun to dig a little further, asking both writers and readers, the logic of this advice began to come out. A reader told me that if the novel was full of other dialogue tags, it tended to sound amateur. A writer described a class where the teacher berated him for sounding like a fourth grader, who just discovered dialogue tags.

So, my problem with it is this. “Said” and “asked” convey virtually nothing. From a communication standpoint, it’s a nightmare. I’ve brought up communication before when I discussed author intent. When encoding a message, only ten percent of that communication is verbal. Everything else is nonverbal. How many times has someone told you, “It’s not what you said, but how you said it”? That means, when writing, ninety percent of the message isn’t being received and must be replaced. Use of other dialogue tags such as “muttered”, “groaned”, “whispered”, and “whined” are more efficient than a long description.

Also, dialogue tags have other uses other than indicating who is speaking. Sometimes they provide a longer more literal pause affecting flow and pacing. It provides negative space in dialogue. Any artist knows that the negative space is just as important as positive space. I do agree that having a dialogue tag for every piece of speech is ludicrous, but if there is a change or greater purpose for it being there, I say knock yourself out.

* A Little Bit of Poetry Can Go a Long Way

Be creative in your descriptions. I’m not talking a constant “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” or giant extended metaphors, but saying that someone waddles away like a penguin dancing on hot coals can offer a strong mental image for that extra punch. Why a penguin would be dancing on hot coals? I don’t know, but it’s the best I can do off the top of my head.

A Little Shameless Self-Promotion

Are you looking for Action? Adventure? Romance? Redemption?

Venture into the world of Wingéd and the trilogy that will change your view on life and the afterlife.

Seek redemption with Friedel…

“When Friedel McBride was taken to the realm of the dead, everything changed. Follow Friedel as she is thrown into a new, divine world, filled with winged spirits who guide the living. They are the Wingéd, and they are in danger. In order to earn her wings, Friedel must take the Leap, a long dive off the highest cliff in the mountains, but this cannot be done unless she confronts her mortal coil. As she prepares with her Candidate class, the secrets of her past begin to arise. If she is unable to face the crimes of her past, she’ll be lost to the abyss forever. Meanwhile, lurking within the hallowed corridors, something sinister is causing them to lose more candidates. Friedel is their only hope, and she must find out why their numbers are diminishing before they discover the truth about her. But how can someone whose life reveals such evils ever be redeemed?”

Find serenity with Kapera…

“The sequel to Wingéd tells the story of Kapera, a rebel foiche Dé, a weapon of God, in her fight to save the life of Grace, a target of the Demon Wingéd. However, Kapera is a reluctant participant. In spite of her feelings, Kapera will risk everything she holds dear to save the millions that would die if the Demons get theirs hands on this one child. Can Kapera put aside her anger long enough to defend Grace against certain death? And will she ever find the peace she craves?”

And discover that your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength with Cassius…

“Thousands of years ago, before the age of Friedel and Kapera, there lived a soldier and harbinger of death. When Cassius and Emmy meet as Candidates, they are instant friends, but their friendship is threatened as the Cassius rises in the ranks of Dragons and fears for her safety. As his world is torn asunder by witches and Demons, he cannot shake the love of a Moth, who longs to be more than what she is. The third installment of the Wingéd saga tells of the rise and fall of the most notorious figure in Wingéd history, his ultimate disgrace, and the Moth who would do anything for him.”

Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards says, “I read [Wingéd] in one night, and that is a compliment. I liked the plot and the mythology. There are a lot of “angel” books, and this takes the genre and gives it a new, fantasy-like spin,” and “I LOVED the story of Cassius and Emmy. I was engrossed by the connection between them.”

Readers say, “The thing I like most about the Wingéd series is how each of the novels stands on its own, but it also transcends each individual character’s personal journey for we’re all flawed beyond measure. That is what the Wingéd series is all about. It’s truly about the fall and rising up out of the abyss. It says the only way to stop the descent is to accept yourself for everything that you are and to have enough compassion for others to help them do the same.”

Available on Amazon for the bookworm on your list!

Interesting Things Learned Through Novel Research

1) We’re all just people.

I find that most people are under the impression that ancient peoples were stupid, and for some reason, it’s like this huge joke to make us feel better about ourselves. Well, they didn’t have all the facts right and believed in multiple gods, so they must have been stupid. I understand that it’s difficult to see ancient humans being anything like ourselves considering that they lived so differently. However, humans haven’t evolved very much since we became Homo Sapiens (yes, the theology nut is going to talk evolution; don’t get too excited).

“Homo Sapiens” showed up 200,000 years ago (Wikipedia [yes, I got information from Wikipedia. Bad author]), and modern humans, as we think of ourselves now, came around 50,000 years ago. Therefore, this encompasses all of modern society. So, the Ancient Greeks? They look like you. They think like you. No matter the education level, they can reason just like you. Maybe even better than you, because let’s face it, the Ancient Greeks are awesome.

What absolutely sealed this idea for me was when I started reading the translations for graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii. Yeah, not Greek, but what can you do? First of all, heh, it’s graffiti! Second of all, it’s just as awful as an profane as spray-painted dicks under an overpass. For example, “(Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio); 3932: Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” and “Nuceria Necropolis (on a tomb); 10231: Serena hates Isidorus”(Graffiti from Pompeii/ Yeah, I don’t know Isidorus, but I really want to know what he did.

We are way more similar than anyone realizes. It should not be surprising that humans could erect these monuments or have these vast kingdoms. It’s not surprising, because to say that they couldn’t do it means that we couldn’t do it. They’re us just with a different set of beliefs and culture. Ah, which brings me to…

2) Culture is arbitrary.

I can’t really find one resource that led me to this conclusion, but I’ll try and explain myself. Humans tend to be a little ethnocentric. We believe that our way is the right way, and everything we believe to be sacred (or even unjust) now is the way that it’s always been. For example, many people believe that it is natural for a woman to be overemotional and prone to crying, and this has been the mark of women forever and always was. Well, throughout history, it was actually the opposite. (I’m sorry that I have no proper citations. I learned this in History class when I was reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography and found it weird when he kept expressing how much “affection” he had for other men.) To be emotional and crying were marks of passion, and only men who had all this testosterone (although they didn’t call it that obviously) could be passionate. It was considered normal for women to be calmer or even stoic. A passionate or emotional woman was considered unfeminine.

What I’ve learned by delving into history is that culture is a collective idea and subject to change. And it does, constantly, based on the ideals of its members.

3) There’s such a thing as Rock Gong.

Seriously. Check it out.

Author Intent Revisited

So, I’ve already written an article on how author intent is irrelevant. However, I might have to backtrack on my statement. It wasn’t exactly recently that J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Ron and Hermione would never have been together in real life. This didn’t mean much for me as I’m not an uberfan, but as with the last time that Rowling dropped a little secret about one of her characters that isn’t in the novels themselves, it got a huge fan reaction.

I feel like none of these bits of trivia (yes, “trivia” like “trivial”) should matter. Nothing that she says changes anything that happens in the novels. Dumbledore being gay does not change the story. The fact that she felt the Ron and Hermione relationship was not realistic does not change what happens. It still happens. And yet… BOOM!

There are comments upon comments of readers either in favor or against what she said. Some were delighted, because it confirmed for them something that they believed all along. However, what has piqued most of my interest were the comments stating that Rowling had “ruined” or “cast[ed] a negative light on the novels” with her statement. I take this to mean that either the reader is unable to enjoy the novels in the same way with this knowledge. If author intent were completely irrelevant, this wouldn’t be.

Still, I believe that with her statements, Rowling does in fact taint her work. She wrote these novels, encoding the message in the words where it was then received by the reader. The message was received and interpreted, and it cannot be taken back. By saying these things, she is in fact stealing meaning from the reader, which I feel is a betrayal of the author/reader relationship.

The reader trusts the author to be in absolute control of the story. I always say, “In order to write with authority, the author must be the god of their own world.” You, the author, are god, and a true god makes no mistakes. To take that back? Now, she is a person. Fallible. The veil is gone.

Now, sometimes, I like trivia. I find it interesting to see the contrast between what I had planned and what the final result was. I am the master of last minute decisions. I don’t think a single novel turned out how I originally planned it. And sometimes, you want to share this information with your readers. “You know, [So-and-so] was never supposed to survive past chapter five, but [he/she] grew on me.” And so on and so forth.

What is the difference? I had to sit and think on it a while, because it felt hypocritical. The difference is that the trivia that I would deem harmless and interesting are where I felt my plans were wrong, and I’m happy with the way that they went instead. What I presented to my reader is the best story that I could come up with. I believe in it. So-and-so lived past chapter five, because it was better. I’m not saying, I should have gone with my original intention, because this is unrealistic that they should have survived.

I have to hand it to Rowling. Letting out these little controversial bits of trivia every so often is business genius. One, it keeps people talking about the novels. Two, it requires very little work. As an author, I can’t help but admire her for it. As a normal person and reader, I can’t help but be really annoyed by it.

The original blog on author intent: