You’re going to look at the title and the first few paragraphs and be confused, but stay with me. It will all make sense… in the end. 😉
Authors frequently say “write what you know,” but it doesn’t always mean what you think it does. You don’t have to be a spy to write a spy thriller, and you don’t have to know how to ride a horse to write about them (although you should ask an expert if you got everything right enough to not look stupid). What you should “know” is emotions and conflict and human behavior and all that good stuff. Fortunately, life usually gives you lots of material, as long as you pay attention.
Can’t you make it all up?
You can try, but your readers will probably notice. However, you can cheat a little. You don’t need to lose a boyfriend to write about losing a boyfriend. If you lose a friend, you ought to understand the loss of a relationship well enough to make your readers believe the emotions. You don’t have to understand wanting a bike more than anything in the world, you just have to understand wanting SOMETHING that badly.
What about the conflict in your story? Do you have to have an archenemy to write about one?
Nope. Remember, you’re allowed to cheat. What about that neighbor that always puts up fancier Christmas decorations, or the student across the aisle who got ONE measly point better than you on the final? Or what about the serial killer you read about, even though you never met him? (Whew!) You know, the one who reminded you of that weird relative who is certainly not a serial killer but has a really peculiar collection of something?
Even better, think about the conflict in your own life and find a way to apply it to your story. You can tweak it. You can bend it completely out of shape! But keep the emotion so your readers will feel it when they read.
Trust me, life will provide you with plenty of opportunities to collect conflict.
Can’t you have a story (or a life) without conflict?
Let me sit down for a minute. When I can stop laughing enough to catch my breath, we can talk about this.
No. Neither stories nor life are worth much without conflict. Think about it. If you’re reading a book and everything falls in the hero/heroine’s lap without any effort or opposition, is it an interesting story? Even more important, when you get to the end of the book and the happily-ever-after, do you think the character has earned it? Do you put it down and say, “that was great,” or do you slam the book shut because “nothing happened!” Why should the girl win the prince without even a bad date in the process? Why should the guy get his dream job without struggling through a degree (and the interview)?
In order for the happy ending to be believable and satisfying, it needs to come after a struggle to achieve. And the character at the end of the book is stronger and bigger and better because he/she has overcome challenges and grown to conquer.
And since we’re writing what we know, and because we want to earn our own satisfying happy ending, we need to remember that our lives will also be full of struggles. (Don’t go looking for trouble; trouble will find you just fine.) While frustrating, that’s not entirely a bad thing. (But take note of the sad feelings so you can write them later. If you aren’t a writer, take note anyway, so you’ll be ready to comfort your friend when he/she feels sad.)
So I have a challenge for you. This Thanksgiving, while you’re giving thanks for your blessings, take a moment to give thanks for the challenges that have—and will—shape you into a better person. It will all be worth it. In the end.
Happy writing, and good luck with your struggles,
Marty C. Lee
Short term: Write down what is distracting me and promise to deal with it later. (This does not work for depression…) Play music. Talk briefly to a friend. Write in my journal. Don’t distract myself with things that can be done later. (Email, I’m looking at you!)
Medium term: Schedule time to deal with things, even before deadlines. Plan ahead so I’m not running against the wire all the time. Improve my physical habits. Figure out what time of day I usually write better and try to take advantage of that time.
Long term: Try different stress-busting techniques so I know what works best for me. Get serious problems solved/treated (this includes depression). Improve my valuable social relationships and eliminate things that don’t matter. (Don’t eliminate valuable relationships!)
I don’t know what I’m doing
I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know what to do with the characters. The story (or scene) is broken, and I know it.
Short term: Work on something else. Pick a different project or a different section. Do a brainless physical task while I ponder (perfect time to wash dishes or fold laundry).
Medium term: Do some plotting or talk to a rubber ducky. Look at my goals for the story/scene. Brainstorm. Figure out the last time I knew what I was doing and work from there. Fix a story question in my brain right before bed and hope to wake up with an answer.
Long term: Study story/scene structure. Develop a plotting method that works for me. (This is a very personal and varied thing. Don’t assume your method will look like someone else’s. This is mine.)
I don’t know–I’m just stuck!
I have a plot (of whatever sort works for me). I’ve been writing, but it just fizzled out. I shouldn’t be stuck, and it’s very annoying!
Short term: Eliminate other causes. Mark it [insert argument/fight/discussion/whatever] and work on something else for now.
Medium term: I’ve been learning that when I’m just mysteriously stuck, it’s sometimes my subconscious objecting to a story problem my conscious brain hasn’t noticed yet. If I suspect that might be the case, I’ll try talking to a rubber ducky, reverse-plotting my story, or skipping to another spot. If I keep working on other projects or other sections or hacking away at the stuck spot one sentence at a time, sooner or later, my brain will admit what the problem is, and then I can work on fixing it.
Long term: Write every day (or almost). Study story structure. Read a lot. Learn to meditate or ponder.
What did I miss? What else causes writer’s block for you, and how do you fix it?
(This post originally appeared as a guest spot on Jami Gold’s site. For her introduction or her many plotting resources, please visit her website.)
I’ll start with a brief history of my plotting evolution, so you can understand why I do what I do.
When I started writing, I thought I was a plotter.
I mean, I had a one-to-three sentence note for all six chapters of the short story I had in mind. Isn’t that an outline? (Those of you who actually outline can stop laughing now.)
But as I wrote and the middle of the story expanded, I had to keep bumping plot notes from one chapter to the next. By the time I finished my “short story,” I had a novel of 104,000 words that included all my original notes, plus a lot, lot more.
Does Our Story Have Structure?
Then I heard about plot beats and story structure. No worries. A story is structured however it is made, isn’t it? And I had beats. I could prove it…
I took several different story-structuring methods that mostly made sense to my warped brain and smooshed them together into my own little chart (which I will discuss later). Then I reverse-outlined every chapter of my book and marked every plot beat.
That proved something all right, but not that I had proper beats. So I revised the entire book.
Are Goals Pulling Our Story Forward?
Then I learned about chapter goals for characters and chapter page-turners. Did I even have those? So I created a second chart for my little reverse-outline.
It became very obvious why my story slowed down in the middle. I had four chapters that had the same (boring!) chapter goal.
Oh, sure, there was important stuff in the chapters. There was funny stuff. There was… too much stuff without something happening to make the reader care. After deleting half of those chapters and rewriting the rest, I had to redo my reverse-outline.
By the time I revised that book enough to be good (and 15,000 words shorter), I had outlined it so many times. Outlining up front—once—was becoming a more attractive option.
Next time, I could do better, right?
We Learn What Doesn’t Work
For my second book, I planned the beats in the handy chart I invented for reverse-outlining the first book. Then I got the book half-written (in random chunks), realized I was trying to stretch too little story over too much book, and had to redo half the organization.
What had been the midpoint moved to the first quarter, and a whole new event landed in the middle. And, thankfully, my plotting chart let me realize I had problems before I wrote the entire book wrong. Yay!
Discovering the best writing process for us often means figuring out what *doesn’t* work. I also noticed that one of the things that made me write more slowly for the first two books was trying to figure out the “steps” of a chapter as I was writing. Sure, I knew where I was going, but how do I get there?
So for book three, after completing my charts, I also tried outlining a little more detail for each chapter. After a little experimentation, I aimed for about 10% of the anticipated finished words for each chapter. (Your mileage may vary.)
Now it’s time to discuss my actual method…
How to Turn a Beat Sheet into a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline
As I describe it, I want you to keep one thing in mind: You can stop after any step that makes you feel ready to write.
Maybe you’ll make it all the way to the end. Maybe you won’t. You won’t hurt my feelings. *smile* Use what works for you.
Step #1: Define the Story Concept and Beats
First, I write down my concept. What’s the one or two sentences that tell me what my story is about? That goes below my Beat Sheet chart for reference.
Next, who are my point-of-view (POV) characters? I write with four POVs in my YA fantasy series, but this still works with only one POV. Each POV character gets a vertical column (and I add a column for anything special, like a romance subplot), while each beat point gets a horizontal row. (Stay with me, I’ll get to the beats.)
Now, looking at my concept sentence(s), how does each character end in the book? That goes in the last beat slot for “resolution.”
What is their opposite starting point (in some way)? That goes next to their name in the top row. The differences between the two rows are the character arcs.
Between the beginning and the resolution, I have seven beats. I have to hit:
the Hook (10%)
the Point of No Return (25%)
the Midpoint (50%)
the Crisis (75%)
the Climax (90%)
Optionally, I can add Pinch Points at 37 and 62%. When I’m writing, those percentages are just estimates, and I might hit the beats early or late depending on the needs of the exact story.
You may know these beats by other names or use other percentages. That’s okay. I have seen beat sheets with many more beats. (Jami has some great examples.) They tend to make my brain explode, so I stick with this list.
Step #2: Get Creative with Brainstorming
Now is crazy brainstorming time. What are some things that could happen in this story to my characters?
I make a list of as many ideas as I can think up, without discarding anything yet. Once I have a long list, I go through and mark events that could force my characters through their arcs, or that could turn the story in interesting ways, or that will just plain be exciting.
Next to the ideas I want to include, I write the name of the character most affected by that event. Then I play around with the events to see how they would work in different beats.
The Climax should be the most exciting, physically and/or emotionally. (Emotionally is harder to write, but I prefer it.)
The next most exciting beats should be the Hook and the Midpoint.
Sometimes I just go with Pixar’s strategy: Everything gets worse until the end.
Whether or not I include Pinch Points depends on how many great ideas make the cut.
By this point, the story is starting to come alive in my mind.
Step #3: Adjust If Multi-POV (Skip Step for Single POV)
Because I write multi-POV, I have another step that I started with book three.
First, I highlight each character’s column in a different color and number the beats in order.
Then I cut the chart into little pieces (one box per piece).
I place the colored boxes in a rough sort of order, making characters take turns somehow.
I keep early beats before later beats for each character, but one character’s Midpoint might come before another’s Pinch Point, for instance. Whoever is the main POV for the book gets roughly half the chapters, and the rest are more or less evenly divided among the other three. (That is just my style for this particular series and might change in the future.)
I make sure the major beats are POV-centric, but some of the minor beats for one character might be seen through the eyes of another character if space requires. This part of my process tends to take a while as I arrange and rearrange. If you have a headache right about now, I unfortunately empathize.
Step #4: Add More Definition to Story Ideas
Once I have the order of events and POV settled, I start my Summary Sheet chart. (Remember, you can stop anywhere in the process you like.) The second chart contains a horizontal row for every chapter, and several vertical columns.
The plot/character beats go in the Summary column, though sometimes they copy to the Question/Surprise column later.
The Summary and POV columns are the ones I always fill out before I write, based on my first chart.
Other than the chapter number, the Chapter/Timeline column stays blank for now.
The other columns might not get filled out until I write, for story analysis as needed.
Chapter Goal is for character goals, not author goals. What are the characters trying to accomplish in that chapter?
Success means “did they get what they want?” and answers might include “yes” (rarely until the end), “yes, but (made it worse),” “no” (semi-rarely), and “no, and (made it worse).”
The Question/Surprise column is where I look if my chapter endings are boring, and frequently derives from either the Summary or Success columns.
Step 4: Outline
Now I start my actual in-text outline. For each chapter in my new book file, I type whose POV it is in and the Summary/Beat info from the second chart.
Then I go back and brainstorm each chapter. “If this is the beat/chapter goal for the chapter, where does the chapter start? What are the characters trying to accomplish? What’s the setting? What happens first? Next? After that? What clues need to be in the chapter? Etc.”
I work in random order, with lots of bouncing around, until I have about 10% of my finished words in rough summary. (I’ve been known to write things like “they argue,” or “add emotion,” or “drama llama, struggle and smash” for a fight scene.)
What If This Isn’t For You?
Some of you pantsers might be cringing about now. That’s okay, you keep pantsing. I admire your crazy brain. I started doing this because wandering was too time-consuming for me. You might have a better sense of direction than I do.
Even with this outline, I still have enough wiggle room to make my pantsing brain happy. Sometimes my 10% outline ends up wrong and I wing the chapter anyway, but I know the most important parts to include. Sometimes a little planned part expands unexpectedly. (“Oh, one of the diplomats is his cousin? He has a cousin? And she’s going to show up in the story again? Cool!”)
Some of you plotters might also be cringing. “My outline is half the length of my book,” you cry. “I hit twenty-five beats!” That’s okay. You keep plotting like a maniac. I admire your crazy brain, too. I wish I were as organized as you. As for me, my crazy brain finds this mishmash of a method to be just about right.. *smile*
Whether you plot or pants, I wish you happy writing and a perfect amount of “outline.”
Marty C. Lee
As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.
Poison 101 Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).
Oaths & honor Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.
Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc) Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.
Lost Technologies Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.
Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?
When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?
Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.
I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!
As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This post covers structure/plot topics. There will be another next month on character & setting, and one after that on business topics. Whew!
Firming Up a Sagging Middle Use cliffhangers every chapter, such as physical danger, new characters, bad news, epiphanies, messages, romance, what’s behind the door, something to cheer about, decision to make, foreshadowing, awe, death, blow up something.
Everything about writing in 3 minutes Stories are ripples in status quo.
Hero has problem. Acts. Makes problem worse! Deal with worse problem. Hero solves problem or problem solves hero. Can’t return to prior status quo.
To help your subconscious, clearly state the problem, then give it 1-2 days to work.
Write down the ideas.
Feed your subconscious with books, movies, walk, zoo, etc.
Story Mapping Plotting or outline 3 ways:
1) Intuitive (pantser)
2) Plotters (story map), sometimes start at end & work backwards
Character-driven stories lend themselves to intuitive writing.
Plot-driven stories (mystery, thriller, sci-fi) have to know outline.
Historical & fantasy can go either way.
Why create story map in advance? Shorter writing time, place clues/red herrings, force reader to turn page by placing & answering questions, avoid dreaded blinking cursor, easier revisions, most publishers require story map in advance, helps with unexpected problems like ghostwriters/dead authors.
Proposal for trad pub is first three chapters + outline.
Does plotting story in advance stifle creativity? Depends.
Story mapping process.
1) Start with really cool idea.
2) Let idea marinate.
3) Record ideas.
5) Write synopsis.
6) List of scenes.
7) Write book.
Some people like to color-code by POV or character.
Light in Darkness: Horror Stories Horror is 7% words, 55% body language, and the rest is voice.
Subtlety/description is better than all dialogue/narration.
Horror as genre is a myth, created by booksellers to sort books, first invented for Frankenstein.
Hollywood can’t replicate the feelings in books, so they use gore and shock. Books can convey feelings.
Uniquely moral setting genre–good vs evil.
Two kinds of horror: hostile (not good) and redemptive (you can climb out of dark pit of soul).
Bible is godly horror (redemptive story).
Future of Fantasy RPG is going into fantasy & ebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure.
Noblebright is next trend, trying to do good & right.
Need motivation that makes sense. Need to elicit emotional reaction from reader. Does character impact reader?
Covers for youth are different than covers for adults.
Jen Lyons uses footnotes in ebooks to do worldbuilding. (Big debate: distracting vs expansive. Runs risk of breaking narrative.)
If you rely on a map, rewrite it to let readers know where characters are.
Mental health stories (heroes & villains) are upcoming trend. Makes them more relatable.
Second-world fantasy will always have place but needs to be relatable to humanity.
Lines Between Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Fantasy: magic, nature
Marketing might be only difference. Genre exists for shelving purposes. Trappings determine how book is classified & need to be at beginning of story.
Star Trek is soft sci-fi (about people). Inception is hard sci-fi, then fantasy in dream machine.
Tailor presentation to audience.
Gandalf is soft magic system. Hard magic system/science needs same tone throughout book.
Don’t spend too much time worldbuilding. You can get away with anything if it’s entertaining.
Structure vs Character-Led Stories
Rules base vs follow heart type
Writer needs to know ending of plot-based story or will have issues.
Review structure & character journey
If you paint yourself in a corner, is that the story?
Needs to be a set up and pay off
Need red herrings
Get readers involved by the how (thought & motivation)
Character & world building is the what
Types of structure:
Aristotolian structure: boom, everything goes
Characters: What do they want? Include foreshadowing/hints.
Sometimes you pants it, then go back & structure
Don’t write directly to story beats
Look at ending, promises you made.
Need a good motivation for characters.
Understand difference between plot (logical sequence of evens to reactions) & conflict (creates plot)
Characters in relationship & environment create conflict
Character vulnerabilities: why?
Character needs to CHOOSE, not be blown in wind.
Anything that makes you want to write is good for you.
Goal, motivation, conflicts (relationships), should be felt.
Need smarts & hearts.
Stereotypes & Tropes
Stereotype: usually demanded by fashion
Cliche: overused ideas, becomes tiresome
Trope: literary shorthand to achieve emotional effect. Can’t be the rule & the journey.
2nd world fantasy: have stereotype, then break it.
Stereotype reveals a lot about a character. They exist for reason–why? It’s reasonable to expect certain things, cultural expectations.
Make your villain somewhat identifiable.
Characters are more compelling when there are dynamic aspects.
Zombie: no reasoning, no race, an elemental force.
Write a story from the POV of an orc.
Tropes: when to avoid? When used wrong. What does it accomplish? Use for emotional response. Reflect reader’s expectations in your genre. Do not use trope to replace plot.
Romance: happy ending
Horror: evil villain
Thriller: master mind
Action: needs romp at start
Sci-fi: tech, sounds futuristic
Fantasy: discover, sense of wonder
Western: watch Silverado
Things not to do:
Romantic comedy: She’s been terrible to him & he still kisses her. Or honorable the whole time & then turns bad.
Don’t use stereotype to avoid character development.
Read short stories to learn tropes.
Read reviews on genres you want to write, pos or neg.
If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂
I’ve had lots of people point out problems in my writing. That’s actually a good thing, since it lets me fix the problems. I’ve also had a few people say mean personal things to me because of my writing, and that’s not okay. So today, I’m going to talk about the difference between you and your writing.
Wait, you say, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the same as my writing. I’m a person, not words on a page.
You’d certainly think so, but it doesn’t always work that way in real life. First, your words can be a reflection of yourself, and they’re a product of your creative soul. When someone is tearing into your heartfelt words, it can feel like they’re attacking you personally. (Usually they aren’t…) Second, some people forget there’s a difference between who you are and what you write. A few unfortunate souls DO attack the writer instead of the writing. Instead of saying “I’m confused at this point,” they say say “You don’t care if your reader is confused.” Instead of saying, “I didn’t believe the motivation,” they say “You can’t write good characters.” Instead of saying, “This plot is too convoluted,” they say, “You’re stupid if you think anyone is going to follow this.” Can you see the difference?
Here’s the lecture part of this post: don’t be that person. Yes, point out problems you find, but do it nicely, with specifics, and only about the writing. That does not mean keeping your mouth shut “to be nice.” Friends don’t let friends send their writing public when they know it still has problems. It just means to focus on the issue in a way that the writer can fix the poor thing.
Here’s the encouragement part of the post: if this happens to you, and it probably will at some point, go ahead and cry (preferably in private). Then pick yourself up and repeat with me: “Their bad manners are not my problem.” Did you repeat it yet? Several times, maybe? Rinse and repeat until you believe it. Now repeat this: “I am learning. Though my writing needs work, I can learn from my mistakes and grow as a writer. I’m better than I was last year, and next year, I’ll be better than I am now. I am not defined by my skill, especially not by my current level.”
Okay, now sit down and edit their rude comments. Look for words you CAN use. “You don’t care if your reader is confused” becomes “confused.” Granted, that’s not the most specific advice, but at least it tells you where to start looking for specific problems. If they flat-out insult you with no actual advice included AT ALL, take a nice red pen and enjoy striking out the entire sentence.
Now, take your edited comments and solve what you can. Anything left over, run by a trusted friend/critique partner for help. “I was told this section is confusing.” (Yep, just skip the rest of what they said.) “Can you tell me where and/or why you get confused? Thank you!”
If you have no choice but to work with the insulting person again (English class, maybe?), it might or might not be worth talking to them about how to give feedback. (It depends on their personality and a bunch of other stuff.) If you can’t talk to them about giving better critiques, then buckle on your Impervious-to-Insults armor before you meet with them, and keep it firmly in place until you’ve finished going over their comments. If you do have a choice about working with them, it’s worth considering ending your critiquing relationship. (Please note that I didn’t say “end your entire relationship.” If they’re a friend/family, don’t do that…)
Remember, you the writer are a person, inherently worthwhile and full of potential, no matter your current state of anything. Your writing is not you, no matter how much it feels like a piece of you. Both you and your writing can be improved if there is a problem, but they are still two different entities that should be judged entirely separately and not by the same people.
Go forth, improve your writing and be a better person, but don’t confuse the two.
I don’t know if any of you are prospective writers or not, but since somewhere around 80% of the people in the United States have thought about writing a book, I figure there’s a pretty good possibility. Some of you may already be writing and doing well (at the writing–I’m not talking about publishing today). This article is not for you. Today, I want to talk to those of you that are still wavering about whether or not to write.
If the idea of writing a book sounds fun, in theory, but you aren’t sure if you’d like it in real life, could I suggest a trial run? NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) made me think of this post, but since it won’t be published until late November, it won’t actually help you with the trial this year. (Note to self: plan ahead next time!) Nonetheless, the idea is sound.
Let me back up and tell you about NaNoWriMo. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month (an average of 1667 words per day). Writers and prospective writers all over the world participate. There’s an official website, Facebook groups, and more. There are badges to collect along the way, buddies to encourage, a tracking chart to see your progress. It’s kind of fun. If you win, there are usually cool digital prizes (mostly discounts on things). The best prize, though, is the progress you make on your book and the chance to discover if you like writing well enough to make it through an entire novel.
But you don’t have to do NaNoWriMo to get those last two prizes. All you have to do is write. Every day. For weeks, or months, or years. If that sounds like fun, you might be a writer. If that sounds like torture, or if you just don’t know… well, maybe you want to try that trial period I suggested. Pick a month, any month. (November is the official NaNoWriMo, and they have Camps in April and July if you want to participate in their buddy system, but the calendar also has nine extra months you could use on your own.) Pick a goal (50,000 words, 20,000 words, “X” words per day, whatever). Now, for that month, write every day (or at least almost every day). Track your word count. Don’t worry about editing right now, though you should certainly put that on your to-do list for a different month. Just write. Keep writing. Write more.
If you start dreading your daily writing session, then writing might not be the profession for you. Consider dropping it to hobby status and only writing when inspiration strikes. If you look forward to sitting down with a computer or pencil and find yourself plotting when you’re washing dishes or driving or supposedly working, then keep writing. Write the whole month. Write like a crazy person, if that’s your style.
At the end of the month, look at what you’ve accomplished. Did you write (almost) every day for a whole month? Did you meet your goal? Did you come close? Did you enjoy yourself? Did the writing become easier? Do you want to keep doing it?
Notice that I’m not asking you right now if your writing is any good. I’m assuming that you will let it sit and then edit it before you try to make that assessment. Besides, quality can be practiced, researched, and improved. Enjoyment and dedication are more inherent, and that’s what this experiment was about.
So, what do you think? Now that you’ve tried it, do you still want to be a writer?
I’m imagining your faces now. “What in the *world,*” you say, “do rubber duckies have to do with writing? Or reading?”
That’s a great question! 🙂 First, let me assure you that no ducks, real or rubber, were harmed in the writing of this article. Second, this is not an article about bathtime or babies. Third, this is a writing post, thought the general idea is actually applicable to life in many ways. Fourth, a rubber ducky falls under the “writing tools” category in a very special way (when it isn’t applying to other life situations).
A rubber ducky, in the non-bathtime way, is a person who lets you bounce ideas off them. The “bouncing” explains the rubber. As for ducky… I have no idea. Maybe it just sounds like more fun, or maybe it falls better from the tongue.
Let’s make up some FAQs about rubber duckies. 😉
Q. Why do I want a rubber ducky?
A. Rubber duckies help you think through sticky writing problems, provide randomly generated [fill in the blank] choices, provide a check for “would character X really behave like this?”, and solve a lot of other writing problems.
Q. Oh, so, I should choose a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky?
A. If you have a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky, count yourself blessed! But no, your ducky doesn’t have to be any kind of writer at all. It’s frequently helpful if they’ve read some of your stuff (or listened to you talk about it ad nauseum), but sometimes even that isn’t required. Your rubber ducky might be a complete non-writer who knows nothing about your story.
Q. Wait, I’m getting really confused. If my ducky doesn’t have to be experienced OR informed, how do they help me?
A. And now we’re back to the “rubber” part. A good ducky bounces ideas BACK to you, so you can hear how they sound from another perspective. By restating your problem or idea and/or by trying to anticipate your next step or how it links with your other stuff, they can help you find plot holes, logic mistakes, character anomalies, and so forth. Because you have to simplify your problem for your poor ducky to even follow your explanation, it forces you to boil everything down to the essence, and mistakes are less able to hide in the minimalist forest.
Q. So all my ducky has to do is repeat back what I said?
A. That might be enough. A really GOOD ducky, though, will follow up by asking you questions. I don’t know what questions, because it totally depends on your ducky, your story problem, and what you proposed as a question or solution. But they might ask how that would affect plotline A or what character B would think or how clue C fits in now. And that might spark your brain into the next answer and the next answer and the… where’s my notebook to write this all down? Or it might bounce your answer right back in your face so you realize that if you change THAT, it’s totally going to break THIS thing over here, so you’d better not do it!
Q. You’ve sold me! Where can I get a ducky of my own? A really good, top-quality one, please.
A. Alas, they are not found in stores, not even online. But look around, and you might already have one you can use. Pick a test question and start bouncing it off potential duckies. Make a note of who gives the most useful responses (which doesn’t necessarily mean they know the answers, just that they make YOUR brain start moving in the right direction). There, now you have a starting-level rubber ducky, all your own. As for the really good, top-quality ones, they’re always homemade. Take your level 1 ducky and train them to level up!
Happy duck hunting (don’t harm any real ducks, please),
M. C. Lee
If you’re a writer, or a prospective one, you might hear a lot about “rules” of writing. What you don’t always hear is a good explanation of when to follow the “rules” and when to break them, or even an explanation behind the “rules.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that lead to some really bad writing. I’ll work my way gradually through some of these rules, but the one I want to address today is “forbidden words.” (Did you hear the spooky theme music? No? Let’s try again… “FORBIDDEN WORDS…”)
You might think these are the kinds of words you disguise by typing on the top row of your keyboard, but that’s not what I mean. (Although you might want to watch those, too.) No, I’m talking about when other well-meaning people tell you to never use an adverb. Or an -ing word. Or was or were. Or “just,” or any other particular word. Don’t take their advice.
I’m not saying to ignore the advice, either. I’m saying you should understand it so you know when to take it and when to ignore it. I think it’s time for some examples. (Cue suspenseful music…)
If you search the internet, you can find lots of lists of “words to avoid in writing.” Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to look. Done now? They usually list words that are overused or nearly meaningless, like really, just, or completely. What’s the difference between beautiful and really beautiful? Maybe nothing, or maybe you want to use gorgeous as a stronger word choice for the second example. But sometimes you do need those nearly meaningless words. (They were invented for a reason.) For instance, “he slid into his seat just before the bell rang” is considerably more urgent than “he slid into his seat before the bell rang.”
Let’s look at adverbs for a minute. When shouldn’t you use them? When they merely reinforce a word that doesn’t need reinforcing. He whispered quietly. she smiled cheerfully, the bell dinged musically. Yup, we got the idea with the verb, thanks. When should you use adverbs? When it either clarifies something the verb can’t do alone (she painted frantically) or turns the verb on its head (“Death kindly stopped for me.”–Emily Dickinson).
In other words, if you CAN cut an adverb or a “meaningless” word, do, but if cutting it changes the sentence, keep it for the sake of the poor reader and your dear story.
Now let’s talk about verbs. You might have heard about “passive writing” and the horrible use of “was, were, and -ing.” Take a deep breath while I tell you the rumors of their demise ought to be greatly exaggerated. “If you can finish the sentence with ‘by zombies,’ then it’s passive writing and ought to be destroyed” (by zombies) is one I frequently hear. Okay, fine, I added the second “by zombies” because I wanted to make a point.
There are reasons to use passive sentences. Here’s one: you don’t know the acting subject. “She was murdered!” but we don’t know by whom. Here’s another: you don’t want the emphasis on the acting subject. “She was murdered!” and until we get over the shock, we don’t care who did it. Does that mean its okay to blithely sprinkle passive sentences all over your writing? No, I didn’t say that, either. Use them when you need to use them, and for the sake of your action, don’t use them when you don’t need them. (Which, really, is the basic rule for all writing techniques.)
One more point about was, were, and -ing. It might shock you to know that sometimes they are ACTIVE verbs, not passive! “The apple was red” is an active sentence. (Not a very interesting one, granted, but still active.) When you usually start getting in trouble is when you combine was/were/are and -ing verbs, because even if the verb is active, the sentence might not be as strong as it could be. “The robot’s eyes were glowing” is weak, while “the robot’s eyes glowed” is strong. But if you try to cut every being-verb in your story, you’ll end up with monstrosities like “She seemed a pretty girl, despite her plain brown hair.” She SEEMED pretty, or she WAS pretty? Don’t laugh; I didn’t quote, but I’ve seen sentences that were even worse, that didn’t make any grammatical sense at all because the author “heard WAS is bad” and cut them all without regard to necessary sentence structure. (Read the “pretty girl” sentence without either *seemed* or *was* to see what I mean.)
So, next time you see a writing rule, figure out the reason behind the rule before you start applying it wildly across your writing. Your readers will thank you.
This morning, I woke up realizing what problem was behind certain recurring issues in the books of a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m going to use her work to explain the difference between author goals and character goals, why they SHOULDN’T be the same, and how the conflict between them makes a better story.
Let’s start with a basic definition of character and author goals. Characters want “something” that will make their life better. The lover, the job, the house, the winning goal. Whatever it is, they think it will make them happy. Authors, on the other hand, want their characters to be unhappy. Temporarily! Because good stories are made of conflict against desires. It is the tug of war between what a character wants and what they get that leads us down story lane. Will they succeed or will life/villain/better team defeat them??
Now, on to the examples.
Example #1: Author “Jane” (name has been changed) has the goal of a big reveal at a dance. The reader knows earlier that character “Hero” is turning his life around and coming back to church, but the other characters don’t yet know that. Because Jane wants a dramatic scene at the dance, she decides that Hero must also wish to save the reveal until then. He feels nervous and secretive and unready to tell anyone about the changes in his life, but thinks unveiling the surprise at the big dance will be exciting. That’s great writing, right?
Well, no. There are a few problems. First, Hero is hiding things from people he’s close to, which is odd for his character. Second, Hero is hiding things from his desired “Heroine” which would knock down some of the barriers between them, AS HE HAS BEEN WISHING. Third, most people who are coming back to church are relieved and happy and want to share the good news with their family and friends. (There are exceptions, but those haven’t been set up in this story.) Fourth, if he doesn’t want to reveal it now, privately, why would he want to save it for a public event? So all this means that his idea of hiding everything until the dance feels very unrealistic.
Does that mean Jane’s hope for a dramatic reveal is sunk? Not at all! In fact, by acknowledging Hero’s desires, yet making his life detour according the author’s wishes, we can make an even more dramatic reveal. Let me illustrate how it COULD happen, with “old” and “new” examples from the story.
Old #1: The desire. Hero doesn’t want to tell his family, friends, or wannabe girlfriend because… they will tease him? They won’t be happy for him? He wants to shock them? This scenario, besides being poorly explained, makes him seem selfish and weak and makes his loved ones seem like jerks.
New #1: The frustration. Hero wants to tell everyone (notice the change in character goal and how it opposes that of the author). He decides to do so in person, as such good news deserves. Hero calls, gets a busy signal or answering machine, and doesn’t want to leave a message. He goes by in person, but people are gone or busy with the doctor (in the case of the friend in the hospital). Hero tries composing an email, but it just doesn’t feel personal enough. He will have to try later. This scenario has us rooting for Hero, who is trying to do the right thing and keeps hitting obstacles. When is the poor guy going to get a break? Now when Jane does the big reveal at the dance, we cheer that Hero finally gets to tell his family, and the author’s goal conflicting with the character’s goal has made a better story.
Old #2: The weekend. Hero attends a different church to avoid seeing his friends and family. Ouch! Again with the selfish and weak…
New #2: The unavoidable weekend. Hero is sent out-of-town for his job. Obviously, he won’t be attending church with his family, but it’s not his fault. Again, we get to root for Hero.
Example #2. In this case, Hero has been trying to find “Lady” who saved his life and then disappeared. Author goal: Keep the characters from realizing the other’s “secret identities” until the big reveal. Character goal: Find each other! Remember, the way we’re going to get the two goals to meet is not by aligning the character goals with the author’s or by letting them give up, but by yanking our poor characters off their chosen path and ramming them into obstacles until the only way left is the author’s way.
Old #3: The picture. Hero, who is a reporter, sees a picture on Heroine’s laptop that makes him realize she is probably Lady. When he says he wants to ask about “some picture,” (without mentioning Lady or the rescue), she tells him to go away, and he does. He’ll ask later. Wow, a reporter who gives up when his source isn’t cooperative? Since when? He gave up much too easily. Author goal has taken over at the expense of the story, and we no longer believe his goal is important.
New #3: The investigator. In this scenario, our intrepid reporter wants to actually tell Heroine which picture he’s talking about and ask if she is Lady. Remember, we’re going to FORCE Hero into the author’s path, despite his desire to follow his own goal. So, some ways to do this would be to have Heroine cut him off mid-sentence and walk away or tell him to mind his own business (she’s mad at him), or to have someone else interrupt with something that can’t wait, or to have his boss suddenly call with an urgent message, or… You get the idea. Keep the goal, create an obstacle! Now Hero can say to himself, “Well, if I can’t find out that way, I’ll put my reporter skills to work on the problem.” Jane will string Hero along for a while longer with more obstacles, while the reader chews on his/her fingernails. By the time we get an answer to the dilemma, we’ll be excited for it.
What examples (good or bad) have you found (or written)?