Don’t become your own expendable character; utilize writer survivor skills

image I think we can all agree it’s Friday! For those who can’t agree, you are welcome to think it’s Thursday. But don’t come crying to the rest of us when you show up to an empty office tomorrow dressed in jeans and a casual dress shirt. For the rest of you, today is also the day I dispense my Nickel’s Worth on Writing: a weekly feature on writing that has been recognized by the prestigious trade magazine Publishers Weekly as “…a weekly post…each and every week…”

But you didn’t come here to read gushing accolades!

Over the years, my wife has gotten used to my (admittedly bad) habit of leaning over and whispering “expendable character” whenever I see someone who I know is going to die. I should clarify I only make these predictions while watching movies, and not, as a general rule, at the grocery store, in hospital waiting rooms or at family reunions. That’s because in movies, these types of characters are easy to spot.

For example, the soldier who pulls out a photo of his “girl back home” while talking with his buddy on patrol — Spoiler Alert: He’s not making it through the next scene alive. And if he mentions he’s proposing to “his girl” after getting discharged tomorrow, chances are he won’t even finish his dinner rations before keeling over from sniper fire or eating expired creamed corn. The same goes for anyone who mentions having a “bad ticker” or who has a nagging cough; anyone who says they’ve stopped wearing a bullet-proof vest or life jacket because “you can’t cheat fate”; and definitely any character who keeps a mouse or baby bird his shirt pocket.

The same can be said for recognizing the difference between writers who utilize survivor skills and those who are setting themselves up to be “expendable.” That’s not to say they aren’t important or that their writing has less value. Any form of self expression unrelated to the Kardashians is important. But over time, writers who haven’t developed effective survival skills are easy to spot.

Let’s face it, at this very moment there are about as many writers clanking on keyboards as there are fictional characters out there. Keeping a healthy perspective on your writing and its place in the world can be tough. However, those who practice some of the following survival skills will be eating creamed corn long after it has expired.

Ok, that example may not have been particularly motivational. Especially if, like my wife, you really hate creamed corn. But you get the idea.

1) Don’t write for publication:
First, let’s talk about what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have hopes of being a published author or working toward the goal of writing for a living if that’s your dream. If your heart pounds a little faster at the thought of seeing your book in print and having people you don’t know mistake you for another writer at your book signing, never give up that dream. What I am saying is those thoughts should always be secondary to your writing itself. It’s like the old saying about putting the cart before the horse. Except in this case the horse is a pregnant three-legged Chihuahua with trust issues. Unless you’ve hitched your cart to something real that you can count on and believe in, every day, you’re not going to get very far. And there’s nothing more real than your love for writing. Put that first, and your cart will keep moving forward. I’d lose the Chihuahua, though.

2) Understand that size isn’t important:
And no, this doesn’t only apply to men.
The true measure of any writer’s success has less to do with the size of their readership, and more to do with mastering their own unique style. In the same way dating a lot of people won’t lead to a lasting relationship until you can define who you are as a person, connecting with readers interested in forging a long-term realtionship won’t happen until you can define who you are as a writer.

Survivors recognize the importance of this process, and readers recognize a writer who has taken the time to develop style and technique; and it won’t matter to them how large your readership is.

I’m 6-foot-2 with an average-sized readership, but thanks to style and technique I do OK.

We’ll just leave it at that.

3) Remember who you’re writing for:
This point really has two parts, both of which are equally important, and neither of which involves anyone related to publishing. There are really only two people you should be writing for every time you sit at the keyboard:

Your readers.

That first person you’re writing for — You — seems pretty obvious. Over time, however, it can get forgotten as more people become involved in the process. Most of us started writing as kids or teens, back when the thrill of articulating your thoughts sparked a fire that burns today. It didn’t matter if anyone else ever laid eyes on it; you were writing for you, and that excitement came from a pure love and desire to create.
To be a writing survivor, you have to remember that feeling and where it comes from. Those who can’t probably won’t survive the creamed corn.

The second person you need to be writing for is your readers. Again, it sounds pretty obvious and it is. But I take it a step further sometimes and think of specific readers as I write.

Oftentimes it’s my wife. Other times I’ll think of a reader who may have emailed me or stopped by my blog to offer a comment — positive or otherwise.

My wife, however, is the only one I picture naked. Which I admit isn’t particularly productive…

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, right. Anyone who has been involved in a theater knows how the energy level rises once you have a live audience. The same goes for writing. In this case, keeping a specific reader in mind can sometimes add a level of anticipation that will sharpen your prose and help you dig a little deeper.

On the surface, this may seem contrary to the first half of this point: Write for yourself. However, no matter who your readers are — wife, friends, complete strangers, cell mate — they are an extension of you as a result of the connection you’ve made through your writing.

Writers who take the time to define themselves through their craft, remember to write for themselves and recognize the relationship they have built with readers are anything but expendable.

There are a lot of you out there.

But please; keep the creamed corn to yourselves.

(Ned is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, will be released this December from Port Hole Publication. You can write to Ned at, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

61 thoughts on “Don’t become your own expendable character; utilize writer survivor skills”

  1. You should write a Nickel’s Worth on endings. They’re often as hard to write as an opener, and you usually have a strong closer. (I’d say “always” but, c’mon, let’s be honest…) The ending’s the most important part, said John Turturro in that Stephen King movie that was partially shot just down the road from me in North Hatley, Quebec, where I caught a glimpse of Johnny Depp through a zoom lens, or maybe it was Bigfoot, it was that clear… Sorry, what? Oh yeah, it’s Friday! The end.

    1. Hey, I saw that movie! Well, most of it. I fell asleep at the end. Did the clown ever get those kids who were looking for that boy’s body near the pet semetary?

          1. Yes(!) any tips on strong endings would be awesome to hear. I write stuff all the time and then I’m done and I’m like, oh. And then what? Save draft, or move to trash. Ahhhhh…

  2. Writing style? Craft? Oh no, I am so hosed. Actually, I write as a release, and as a way to share things I’ve learned. There are times when the words are bursting out so fast, and others when I’ve got nothing. But then again, I don’t really consider myself a writer. I do, however enjoy reading words that are well put together, such as here on your blog.

    1. I appreciate that very much, Susan. But don’t kid yourself: Style, perspective and witty insight all communicated in a creative context.

      Yep, that about covers it.
      I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re a writer…

  3. What a great post. I love creamed corn, but only if it’s made with heavy cream, garlic, and jalapeño peppers, and the corn is roasted first in a seasoned iron skillet and…So I better learn how to write. I’ll keep at it. Thanks for this insightful post. You’re awesome.

  4. Thanks Ned, another cracker in your line of mildly helpful posts …

    Are you totally sure about the chihuaha? I need to know as I’ve just bought one and may need to find the the receipt … 😉

  5. Thank you for making me smile thinking back to how much I loved writing when I first attempted poetry in Grade 6. It’s been the true love of my life since then.

    I have been slowly gaining blog followers but the numbers are not important to me. The people who are following read and relate to what I have to say and that, to me, means more than the numbers. Oh, and I’ll pass on the creamed corn, thanks….eeewwww!

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Susan, and I’m always glad to know when I can make someone smile.

      And in regards to this post, one thing I learned that has been very rewarding is how many people really dislike creamed corn 😉

  6. Since I can’t spell Chihuahua (I copied and pasted), I’d never put it before my cart, but the visual is… well disturbing in a compelling kind of way. Great post.

  7. Several points and a question:

    – On “Friday,” it’s still Thursday if you haven’t slept around the clock.

    – The inclusion of creamed corn is rather cruel of you, since creamed corn is disgusting and diminishes the pull of survival, should survival depend on, be rewarded by, or occur in spite of it.

    – The “pregnant three-legged Chihuahua with trust issues” in lieu of my horse, is oddly endearing to me, and I’m thinking that may be a problem in my pursuits.

    – I wish for all wives to have husbands who reference them as often and admiringly as you do yours.

    – I’m grateful for posts such as this because they satisfy my need as a reader for both content and style. The writer aspect in me also thanks you for very valuable suggestions.

    I forgot my original question, so I skimmed the post again in hopes of remembering. No go, but I have a new one:

    Do you think it negatively ruffles the viewer / reader if you kill off a character in your first act that you’ve written with protagonist attributes (and no expendability clues)?

    1. First, thank you for what I am certain is the most well throughout, lengthy and thoughtful comment I’ve had from any reader — on this blog or otherwise. And beyond a shadow of a doubt, your analysis of creamed corn and its merits as a survival tool has caused me to rethink my entire post.

      Ok, not really, but it was very impressive.

      That said, if you were fortunate enough to be married to my wife you would admire her as much as I do — but not more; I don’t think it’s possible.

      In answer to your question, as long as the death of that character has meaning and purpose — not just as a character but as a necessary plot point that advances the story — you will be forgiven. Possibly even admired if you handle it with style. It definitely sets an “anything goes” tone right away, which can be very exciting for a reader. The only exception would be if his name is Ned. Never kill off Ned.

  8. Was that a reference to ‘The Green Mile’ I spotted? Thank you for visiting my blog and thank you also for this helpful post. My blog started off as a piece of writing for me and I didn’t really expect or need anyone to read it. I must admit though, it is nice to have feedback (thank you for yours). My desire to write comes and goes which is OK by me but probably not great for an audience. At the moment I am studying Psychology and so satisfy my writing need (and capacity there). I do have plenty more to write though and hope you pop over every now and then even if it is to read a bit more of what I have already written.

    1. You’re the only one to catch the “Green Mile” reference, so cheers, Jen. And I can understand how studying psychology could fill the writing void. Good luck with your studies and all pursuits. I’ll check back in to see how things are going when my email chimes 😉

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Nancy! Seldom am I and the word “wisdom” used in the same sentence — at least with a straight face 😉

      I’m glad you stopped by and am particularly glad to know you’re a fan of Michael’s… something we have in common.

  9. PS I have lost count of this fall’s submission rejections and have, thus far, resisted the temptation to send submission letters containing the following- “Please do not hesitate to forward your immediate rejection of my work, I depend on it to confirm my very existence.”
    I kill me.

  10. I write for myself and for the first person I’ll eventually come across who doesn’t find me boring.

No one is watching, I swear...

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