Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.

Little Word, Big Meaning: Prepositions

Little words can have big meaning. What exactly are prepositions? Well, they are words that begin prepositional phrases. You may be thinking, “Okay, what the heck is a prepositional phrase?” Simply put, it’s a modifying phrase that includes a preposition and the object of the preposition (in other words, a noun). It is any word that introduces a modifying phrase that indicates time, place, direction, or introduces a particular object. There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language, including words such as in, with, for, and about (just to name a few).

To give an example of a prepositional phrase:

She’s going to the movies.

“To the movies” indicates where the subject is going, making it a prepositional phrase. It includes the preposition “to” and the object “the movies.”

You may also see prepositional phrases with adjectives.

He’s taking her on a fun, romantic date tonight.

It’s also possible to hear people talk about prepositions followed by verbs. These are gerunds, which are -ing forms of infinitives that function as a noun in a sentence.

She won by cheating in the race.

Let’s not forget about compound prepositions, which are made up of more than one preposition. For example:

as well as
aside from
in front of
out of

Here is a list of some common prepositions:

  • aboard
  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • anti
  • around
  • as
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • besides
  • between
  • beyond
  • but
  • by
  • concerning
  • considering
  • despite
  • down
  • during
  • except 
  • excepting
  • excluding
  • following
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • inside
  • into
  • like
  • minus
  • near
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • opposite
  • outside
  • over
  • past
  • per
  • plus
  • round
  • save
  • since
  • than
  • through
  • to
  • toward
  • towards
  • under
  • underneath
  • unlike
  • until
  • up
  • upon
  • versus
  • via
  • with
  • within
  • without

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have any comments, questions, or anything to add, please leave a comment!

Time Tells All: Understanding Tense

Past. Present. Future. Many folks think there are just those three tenses. There are actually different subsets of each tense, such as continuous (also called progressive), perfect, and perfect continuous. Each tense and its subsets are all written a different way, and all have different meanings. Now, tense differs from grammatical mood, such as conditional, subjunctive or imperative. That’s something we’ll touch on another time.

Tense is essentially when the verb is happening. It relates to time. Did it already happen in the past? Is it happening now in the present? Will it happen in the future? I wrote. I write. I will write. The four subsets of tense are:

  • Simple
  • Continuous (or Progressive)
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous (or Perfect Progressive)

I’ve created a chart to show examples for all the tenses and their subsets. Feel free to save it, download it, share it, etc.

There’s also the topic of infinitives with tense. As a refresher, the infinitive form of a verb is the most basic form—its “to” form: to write, to read, to walk. When a verb is followed by an infinitive and you’re changing tense, only the main verb should change. This happens with words like “want” or “need,” and they are frequently followed by an infinitive to show the desire for a particular action. For example, the verb want would look like this in the various tense:

Past Simple: I wanted to write.
Present Simple: I want to write.
Future Simple: I will want to write.
Past Continuous: I was wanting to write.
Present Continuous: I am wanting to write.
Future Continuous: I will be wanting to write.
Past Perfect: I had wanted to write.
Present Perfect: I have wanted to write.
Future Perfect: I will have wanted to write.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been wanting to write.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been wanting to write.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have wanted to write.

When it comes to writing a novel, consistency is important. You don’t want the current action to jump back and forth between present and past, but things that happened previously (as described by the narrator, whether that’s first person or third person) can be written in past tense. Most fiction novels are written in past tense, although I have seen some in present tense. Some great novels, actually. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich (based on the Tony award-winning stage musical by Steven Levenson), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are all great examples of stories written in present. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Hunger Games to show you a novel in this particular tense:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

Notice that not every sentence is in simple present. The narrator, Katniss, tells some things in perfect continuous present: “She must have had bad dreams. . .” She also describes her mother’s former beauty in simple past: “My mother was very beautiful once, too.” Much of the text, however, is in present tense. So, no, not every sentence has to be in simple present if you’re writing in that tense. Just bear in mind when the action is happening in your sentence.

I hope you found this post informative and useful in explaining tense. Questions? Comments? Leave a comment for me! They are much appreciated.

Is Said Dead? Writing Dialogue Tags

If you’re a writer, you probably have heard the phrase “Said is dead” given as writing advice. When I search that saying, I come up with hundreds of blogs that offer alternatives to the word said. (I also come up with some song on the first page of results. Interesting.) People say that this particular dialogue tag is overused and overdone, and that writers should use more descriptive tags that show the speaking character’s emotions and that describe how the character is speaking.

The thing is? I don’t think said is necessarily dead.

Dialogue tags are a funny thing. “Said” is an invisible word. Your eyes gloss right over it while reading, and it’s like your brain barely registers that it’s there. That’s the beauty of this funny little four-letter dialogue tag. You can lose yourself in a book when your brain can forget that you’re actually reading.

Some writers think bigger, fancier verbs are better as dialogue tags. Sure, I think they can be used occasionally, even sparingly. The problem with constantly using bigger verbs as tags? It reminds the reader that they are reading. If you’ve set up the scene right, set up the characters’ emotions, readers don’t always need big words to tell them what the character is doing or how they are speaking.

The real purpose of dialogue tags? To simply tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes, you don’t even need a dialogue tag if it’s clear who is speaking. You could surround, precede, or follow the dialogue with action. If two people are alternating speaking and it’s still clear who is doing the talking, you could drop some tags here and there. Here is an example from my book, The Days Without You, in which the characters Adam and Samantha are talking:

Samantha cleared her throat while her hands quickly mixed the drink order. It was almost an art, Adam thought, how fast she did it.
“Thanks for ditching me at the concert on Friday, by the way,” she said, her lips pressed into a thin line.
He held back a snort. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m serious. I couldn’t find you after the show. I tried calling you.”
“Had my phone on mute.”
Her lips puckered into an even thinner line, her eyes narrowing. “Seriously, I had to call my friend to pick me up.”
“Sorry, sorry. Had an incident during the show, had to help someone. I’ll make it up to you one of these days.”
Her puckering lips loosened into a smile. “Fine, you can take me to lunch one day.”

The Days Without You, pg. 18, Skylar Wilson

Again, as long as it’s clear who is speaking, you could technically drop some dialogue tags. But, bear in mind that said is invisible. Unless it’s absolutely necessary for the reader to know exactly how something is being said (i.e. the need for a more descriptive dialogue tag), use said or no tag at all. Use your best judgment to decide when to use said, no tag, or a stronger verb.

No, said is not dead.