My Biggest Writing Distractions

Know your enemy. If you’re a writer, the enemy is distraction. For me, I’m much more likely to be pulled away from my story by a distraction than by running out of juice. I have found it helpful to identify my distractions so I can actively work to minimize them during my writing time.

Distraction 1 – Family

Before you stab me with a pitchfork, distractions are dangerous because they are things we love. As a husband and father to a five month old (as well as a needy Cockapoo, a parkour-practicing cat, and a closet-dwelling pervert cat) I have a lot to distract me around the house. I can’t exactly reason with my pets or my daughter, but I have talked to my wife about disturbing me while I write. She knows I won’t snap at her or get angry, but that she’s likely going to break me out of my writing. She’s also kind enough to grab my daughter if she starts crying when she knows I’m writing.

So whether your family is big or small, take the steps within your power to keep it from slowing you down once you get behind the keyboard.

Distraction 2 – Hobbies

I’m lumping hobbies together because it all falls within the group of “the first thing that comes to my mind when I’m in a difficult place in a story”. If I can’t think of what to have a character say next, where to have a scene jump to, how to fix a problem I just introduced, what to name some sort of creature or idea, hobbies are the first thing that pop in my head. Usually I get tempted to pop open a game on the computer or my phone. If not that, it’s opening the internet browser and checking Reddit or watching some random cooking videos on Youtube. Sometimes I convince myself that getting up to exercise is a nobler goal so I’ll go play tennis.

To help minimize this, I have a laptop devoted entirely to writing. It’s a little extreme, but I have no games on it and I turn off the wi-fi when I sit down to write. Even though it’s just adding the small obstacle of getting up to go somewhere else if I want to play a game, it’s often enough to squeeze out a few more minutes of writing. Speaking of which, I haven’t been using my laptop for the past week and my productivity is way down. I wonder why?

Distraction 3 – Work

I don’t know any kind of full-time job that doesn’t follow people home. As a teacher, my job doesn’t just follow me home, it stalks me and watches me sleep. Seriously though, I have about 80 essays I should be grading right now instead of writing this post. Either way, work distracts me in a different way from writing in that it often uses some of the same energy that writing does. Hobbies tempt to pull me away from my writing, but work usually causes me to never start writing. If I just finished grading a bunch of essays or planning a lesson, my mind feels too fried to do anything creative.

It’s not always possible, but to avoid this, I try to get as much work done as I can at work, and I go in early in the morning to do most of the rest. This helps keep me from doing it after work when I should be writing.

Distraction 4 – Ego

My own insecurities and expectations for my writing are often the real nail in the coffin. Family, hobbies, and work might push me off the track here and there, but nothing will bring a halt to a story faster than doubt. For me, it creeps up around 25,000 words. Once I’ve had time to  hit speed and transition into the point of my story where I can really look back at what I’ve put down on paper, doubt sets in. I’ll start to ask myself if the story is really turning out as I planned. I’ll tell myself that it should be better than it is. I’ll even feel that what I have written doesn’t honor the great idea I had for the story. These thoughts will come, but I’ve learned to have a plan in place when they do.

I don’t let myself read backward more than necessary to remind myself of where I left off. This keeps my eyes forward. I also remind myself that my favorite stories once existed in a muddy pile of questionable material like my own. It’s only through multiple rounds of editing that the real story comes through. That idea is particularly helpful for me when I get stuck in a moment because it reminds me that putting down something I know I’ll edit later is better than closing the word processor and losing the 500 or more words I might have gone on to type after the speed bump.

If everything else fails, I just think on all the mistakes, plotholes, typos, bad dialogue, and long-winded description I’ve read in otherwise amazing books. Nobody is perfect; granted, that’s no excuse not to try to be. Just remember that perfection comes in the editing. Just create a secret word for yourself (mine is rhubarb). Type this word near any extremely questionable moments. I can force myself to keep moving because I know that when I come back to edit, I just need to type ctrl+F and enter “rhubarb” to find all those terrible moments that were painful to push past. Yes, I would’ve found them anyway, but there’s a power in peace of mind. Sometimes I have seven rhubarbs in one writing session, but there’s a lot of delicious, delicious bacon in between (did that even make sense?)

 

 

Are You Reading Like A Writer?

Read Like A Writer

 

It’s hard to look at any collection of advice from writers without seeing the proverbial statement: to write well, you must read. Don’t worry, I’m not about to disagree. However, if you value your time as much as I value mine, you may want to give me a few minutes. Taking a few minutes to read this post may make the countless hours you’ll spend reading more fruitful. Reading is great and will absolutely make you a better writer. But. . . You do have to be careful. One danger is not using your time efficiently, or even worse, wasting a good book.

Reading Efficiently

So you’ve slapped around a few books? You’ve got a huge bookshelf full of your conquests? Good for you. Did you learn anything from them or did you just gobble them up without stopping to taste? Chances are, you learned from some and inhaled others. That’s natural, but every writer owes it to themselves to learn from everything they read. It can be hard to stop and really analyze a page-turner, but those will often teach you the most about what compels you. So how do you do it? Change your mindset before you read the first page.

Get Your Mind Right

The difference between reading like a writer and reading like a consumer is a mentality. It’s like visiting a theme park. You could visit as a casual tourist, or as an aspiring entrepreneur who plans to start his own theme park. Can you still wear your Mickey Mouse swag and enjoy the rides? Yes! But now, instead of closing your eyes on Space Mountain, you’ve got to shine your light into the dark places and figure out how it works.

Maybe your gut reaction is, “that sounds like work,” or, “that doesn’t sound fun.” First of all, even if it wasn’t fun, I would still advise you to do it because it will make you a better writer. But the good news for you is that peeking behind the scenes of a book can enhance the experience. You’ll also find yourself entertained by a wider range of books, because it can often be fun to pick apart less established authors as you read, learning from their mistakes as much as from their triumphs. As an added bonus, it’s great for your self-esteem as a writer to see published authors with large followings doing things poorly that you do well. To paraphrase Stephen King, the moment you read a published author and say, “I can do better than that,” is when you will really feel like an author. It’s also great to see that even really popular authors make mistakes and still find success despite it. Keep that in mind the next time you’re down on your own work.

Getting The Most From Each Book

You can either learn from a book or you can consume it. You may learn a few things from consuming a book, but it’s like tearing through a candy wrapper that explains how the candy was made and tossing it aside. You enjoyed the candy; maybe you can even guess at a few of the ingredients, but you definitely could have learned more. Reading to learn is about knowing where to look. As someone who has been reading like a writer for a long time, I can save you some time and point out the key areas.

  • Learn the common tropes. Even if you are not writing in a traditional genre, every field of writing has common practices and themes. In the fantasy genre, for example, readers expect a certain number of the tropes to be fulfilled. The best way to learn how many of those tropes are expected and what they are is to look for them. Over time, you’ll build an understanding of what is done and when it might be okay to break from the mold. It’s also a good idea to look out for gimmick ideas that are used again and again. For example, many authors try to create a drawback to the magic system in their worlds. This is both a trope and a gimmick. The magic system is somewhat expected, and the gimmick should be unique. The Wheel of Time had men going mad from using magic; Mistborne requires they eat certain metals, which could be exhausted; The Cycle of Arawn simply has “nethermancers” getting too exhausted if they push themselves (and the extremely underdeveloped “ethermancers”); The Warded Man requires physical symbols or glyphs; A Crucible of Souls requires the use of “trinkets” that channel and augment magic. But you may notice that fantasy authors aim to create a unique magic system and they typically introduce a drawback. So keep reading so you build your background knowledge – if your readers know more than you, you’ll risk boring them. 
  • Get a sense for what is overdone. I spent most of my previous writing career and early career reading relatively dated fantasy like Lord of The Rings and the Wheel of Time. So it shouldn’t have shocked me when I learned that my treasured idea about a fantasy world that was actually in the future, set on earth, had already been done. In fact, of maybe ten fantasy books I’ve read in the past year, only four did not allude to a past civilization of more technologically advanced people.
  • Absorb the basics. Have you ever wanted to maybe have a crowd of unidentified people shouting snippets of dialogue? Maybe you want a character to hear bits of conversation from around the room or as they walk but don’t want to stop and identify everyone who speaks. So keep an eye out. When you see unusual things being done, take a second to make a mental note. It will save you trouble down the road.
  • Study the middle. Another useful idea to keep in mind is that, as I mentioned in my post about the miserable middle, figuring out what to do with the middle of your book can be the greatest challenge you’ll face. To ease your burden, try paying special attention to what happens in the middle of the story. Is the author just stringing together scenes that appear random? If so, what makes them feel random and how can you avoid that in your own writing?
  • Look at characters. Do you have a vivid image of one but not another? Figure out why. You may find that characters who are described in great physical detail are harder to picture than characters with brief but efficient descriptions, as I mentioned in my compelling characters in ten minutes post. Seeing something like that for yourself will hammer the point home more firmly than any amount of advice.
  • Study their dialogue. Does it feel natural? Does it drag out? If so, why does it seem that way? Watch to see if each character has their own voice. Does any character have such a unique voice that the writer could almost get away with never tagging their lines? Try to figure out how they pulled it off.
  • Notice voice. Pay attention to how the author uses his or her unique voice to enhance the story. For many readers, a great voice is what keeps them coming back more than any other element of the story. It can make up for a lot of shortcomings and it’s worth your while to pay attention to how skilled authors convey it.
  • Mark places for reference. If you ever read a section that really just works, like an action scene, a conversation, a inner-monologue, or a section of prose, save it! It’s easy to say you’ll remember and can come back if you need to some time. Chances are, you never will. Take the time to write it down or mark the spot in the book so you can reference it when you’re writing. The time will come when you feel that a scene is dragging and you can’t find out why; you can refer back to examples to help yourself find out where you went wrong.

Final Thoughts

 

For some, my words may fall on deaf ears. Many people would rather jump into a sport and learn as they go. But some prefer to put in extra effort at the outset to learn proper technique and avoid having to go back and fix bad habits later. I can tell you that the former group is often slower to develop and does not reach as high of a skill level. While reading is hardly a sport, it is still a skill. The same principles apply. If you put in the work to make the most of it, your writing can only improve.

If you take your writing seriously, treat your reading even more seriously!

The Miserable Middle and How To Get Past it

I’ve noticed something interesting. For many writers, myself included, the middle is the hardest part of the story to write. The beginning is great. You come in, guns blazing, all full of great expectations for your characters and plot. You realize that, like Neo, you can finally see the code behind it all. Writing stories is actually pretty easy after all!

Two weeks later, and well. . . The honeymoon phase has passed, to say the least. If you’re like me, you open up your story and immediately get an urge to go back to the beginning and change things around. So what is the problem? Why is this chunk of the story so hard to push through and why do so many writers struggle with it? Because they aren’t taking the right approach. I’ll break it down for you and make it simple.

Navigating the Murky Middle

The middle of a story, in my humble opinion, is what separates the amateurs from the pros. Anybody can start a story. Honestly, anybody can finish a story as well. How hard is it to slap on some resolution, maybe a twist, maybe a character reaching their goal? Not so bad. The hard part is finding what to do in the middle—how to not just delay the ending but to enhance it with every scene.

I know this is going to seem anti-climactic, but the trick is to just keep writing. Wow, really? Yes! But let me explain why this is how you have to approach it. When you start your story, it’s like starting a new drug (not that I can relate to that experience) or a new relationship. At first, you can’t get enough. But as time goes on, you calm down a little. There are days when you’re fine not hanging out with your new girlfriend (or your drug of choice). That’s because your body is building up a tolerance. Unfortunately, writing isn’t really rewarding in the moment like a drug or a girlfriend. It’s rewarding like playing the lottery. We’re looking for a payoff at the end, whether it is an audience, money, recognition, or satisfaction. So for a while, just imagining all of the former is enough to push through the slow moments in the creative process. The good news is that your chances of finding any of the former from writing are astronomically higher than from the lottery.

But a point comes for all of us when that fades. You may look at your novel in progress and wonder why you’re bothering because no one is ever going to read it. Not with that attitude they won’t! That’s why this stage of the writing process separates the professionals from the amateurs. You have to be able to look at your story, maybe even hate your story and yourself for ever starting it, and keep writing. The trick is to not slow down. Don’t let yourself go back and edit. Don’t let yourself think and dwell on whether what you’re writing is great. Just get one word after another and push through because you’ll find the top of that hill. Once you do, the momentum of approaching the end will carry you the rest of the way.

So if you’re finding yourself in the miserable middle like myself, do what I’m doing: Put one word after another. Don’t look ahead or look back. Just look down (unless you have some strange monitor or laptop setup where you need to look in another direction, but you get the point).

Happy writing!

 

Should You Bother Outlining and Planning Your Story?

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The first word you put down says a lot about what type of writer you are. Is it the first word of your story, the first word of your outline, the first word of a text to a friend that you’re about to start a story? For many, very little thought goes into  this aspect of our writing because we assume that what’s natural is what’s best. Well, maybe you owe it to yourself to challenge that assumption. Planning out aspects of your plot, setting, and characters can benefit all writers. On the other hand, allowing a little more flexibility can get the creative juices going.

The Types

To understand why you should care what type of writer you are, it makes sense to first familiarize yourself with the possibilities. There are two broad types of writers. To put it simply, there are planners and doers. However, each type is more similar to a spectrum than a box.

Planners

Planners, as the name implies, plan. For some, planning is an extensive process that can take weeks and involves collecting research and planning out the smallest details of their characters and settings. For others, it’s a much more brief process of creating a skeletal framework for your story to fill in. Most writers do at least a little planning, even if it is mental.

Doers

Doers let the story and characters come to them as they write. How will the story end? They may not be sure, but believe the right ending will reveal itself as they become more familiar with their story. How will the chapter end? It will end when they reach a point that feels like a good ending. And if they don’t reach that point, maybe they’ll just try again. It’s all about discovery and letting the story unfold naturally and organically.

Advantages of Planning

Planning has a few very nice advantages. Probably the biggest advantage is that it allows the author to provide very satisfying endings. Think of the type of ending where “it all comes together”. One of my favorite authors who exemplifies this is Brandon Sanderson. The endings to his books are typically very satisfying because he knows how his story will end. This lets him methodically build in clues and steps that lead naturally to that ending. It also allows for the satisfying realization that you actually had enough clues earlier in the book to figure out the unexpected aspects of the ending, but would have had to read carefully.

Another advantage is that books, particularly in the science fiction or fantasy department, can become as complicated and intricate as you want. If you have a document tracking characters first and last names, relations, rank, or physical descriptions, you can avoid the moment when you forgot what name you gave to that guy forty chapters ago and avoid having to go back and sift through until you find it; writers have closed their word processors for the day over less.

Disadvantages of Planning

While it offers great advantages, planning does have a few drawbacks. For example, there is a sense of satisfaction and fun from jumping into a chapter and letting it take you where it will. If you have already planned your story extensively, it can feel like you’re just going through the motions when you sit down to write.

Many want to jump right in and get started. The idea of sitting down to think about their story in detail before they start it is enough to keep them from starting all together.

Others will argue that characters are more realistic and relatable if they are created organically. Though I would step outside the point of this section to say that very few writers will create natural and believable characters just by winging it. The natural human tendency is to make our characters do what we would do. We also tend to make them do things for the reasons we would do them, or the reasons we would like to see them get behind. It takes a little artificiality and a meticulous mindset to systematically avoid this.

Advantages of Doing

One of the biggest advantages of casting aside the planning and just jumping in to your story is that it’s fun. At first. It’s as close as you can come to reading your own book as a reader would. You don’t really know what someone is going to say next and everything is a surprise. How exciting!

Disadvantages of Doing

Disadvantages already? I forgot more advantages of doing? Nope. That was all. I’m admittedly a little biased, but I also come from the perspective of a former “doer” purist. I was the kid who would sacrifice a letter grade on my essays in school out of spite because I refused to outline my essays. So naturally, I approached writing the same way. I always loved my first chapters. My second chapters weren’t quite as good, then my third chapters started to drag. It started feeling like I was at the head of a runaway train before long.

Eventually, I would be stopped in my tracks by the overwhelming feeling that each new “discovery” I made about a character, the setting, or my plot, seemed to contradict something I had added earlier. “Dang,” I would think. “This scene is only going to make sense if X happens, but if X happens, I have to go back to scene 2 and make Y happen. But to make Y happen in scene 2, Z can’t happen in scene 1. . .” That was usually when I would close the word processor.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what. You’re disorganized and I’m not. I don’t have that problem.” Maybe you don’t. But even the best writers who write as they go create a very different style of book than planners. The style isn’t necessarily worse, but a true “doer” is going to write a story that has fewer connective themes running between scenes. They will also likely feel more episodic and meandering. You might not even feel like you know what a character wants or who they are until a third of the way through the book because the author probably hadn’t figured it out yet.

Final Thoughts

The message I want to send is that every writer can benefit from planning. Refusing to try is a disservice to yourself as a writer. To claim that planning stifles your creative juices is to lump all planning into one box. Imagine planning a painting. Would you just grab a random color and start making a line? Hopefully not, because most painters realize their art will be more beautiful if they take a second to think of composition.

Try it out. If you’ve never planned and think you’ll hate it, try it anyway. There’s nothing more detrimental to your writing than believing you are an expert.

New to Writing? Don’t Make This Common Mistake

I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of beginner fiction. Once I recovered from the eye-bleeds, I noticed a universal truth: new writers try too hard to sound like writers. If you’ve never seen this in action, you may be wondering what I mean. After all, isn’t the point of writing to sound like a writer? No! If you’re writing fiction, the point is to tell a story.

I’ll break down the ways to identify “writerly” writing in your own work as well as methods to eliminate it.

What Does “Writerly” Writing Look Like?

It looks ridiculous. Kind of like a baby in a business suit. But really, let’s go through some examples. I’ve noticed a few categories where beginner writers really over-do it, and I’ll demonstrate each.

The first is verbosity. The biggest word is not always the best word. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. There’s a few ways this problem can show itself. The more innocent is in a replacement scenario. The sentence goes as it normally would, and suddenly, a nine syllable beast appears.

“She affianced in fisticuffs with her alarm clock, exhibiting a promptitude for vehemence.”

Looks silly, right? This comes from the belief that being a good writer means impressing people with your vocabulary. The truth is that what impresses people isn’t a large vocabulary or using words they have to look up. People are impressed by clarity and a good story. Don’t let your writing get in the way of the story.

Verbosity’s Ugly Cousin

The other common form of verbosity is even more of a problem for your writing. It is a huge separator for writers with experience and beginners. So what is it? What could be worse than affiancing in fisticuffs? Refusing to delete sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes because you really liked how one part sounded.

Maybe you mentioned the way your protagonist saw their reflection in a window, and it was warped and you thought that was just seemed so cool, because her soul is warped at that point! Perfect! So what’s the problem? The problem is that you realize while editing that all the details surrounding that one sentence you liked should probably be cut from your story. Experienced writers will maybe light a candle or say a small prayer before laying down on the delete key. Beginner writers usually can’t bear to sacrifice a good sentence or idea.

My advice? Never get too attached. You have to be able to kill any single sentence or word you put down. If it makes you feel better, throw it on a document somewhere and tell yourself that you’ll find a way to bring it back from the dead some day. But for now, be ruthless

Over Description, or The “All-Points-Bulletin”

Maybe you’ve read this kind of description before. Crime novels and mysteries are particularly common perpetrators. Beginner writers love to over-describe as well. In fact, I met a beginner writer the other day. He was about six foot three, looked like he has about a size 32 waist, brown hair, blue eyes, strong jaw-line, calloused hands, walked with a limp, had a lazy eye, chewed on a toothpick—you get it. This problem comes from a lack of confidence. As a writer, you need to trust in your readers to read between the lines and fill in details. Your job isn’t to describe every single detail, but to give just the right details so your reader can picture the scene.

The common adage is that authors should “paint a picture” for their reader. I think this is a little misleading. It’s more like playing a game of connect the dots. Often, one or two strong details are more than enough for a reader to get the right impression of your character or scene. You could mention the way your character always checks to be sure the Gucci logo is facing outward on her purse. Maybe even that the purse seems well-worn. That’s a fun description. Readers get the satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, so maybe she’s kind of obsessed with how people see her. The purse being beat up probably means she’s actually not that wealthy but made a sacrifice to seem that way. So she’s probably a pretty superficial person.” You could throw in bleached blonde hair to complete the image. Granted, this description saves some words because it’s in our contemporary society.

Look at the following description from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

Short, sweet, and to the point. The image will stick with readers and help them visualize scenes involving this character for the rest of the book. It’s unique and likely causes them to sift through people they know for an example of a “Coca-Cola” shaped man, which adds to their engagement with the text.

Setting The Scene Efficiently

Setting a scene works the same way as describing a character. I always remember from the Wheel of Time series that the scene descriptions were painful. Every room was full of gilded cabinets, dressers, drawers, mahogany bed stands, intricate carpets, and lavish curtains. Worse, I knew this because the author spent about a paragraph each time a character entered a new room (and another paragraph describing what they were wearing). Obviously no writer is perfect and readers are okay with that; after all, the WoT series was hugely popular and successful despite the over-descriptives being a common complaint. But what could he have done differently? He could have trusted his readers to fill in the gaps.

Would you be able to figure out that a room was likely decorated richly if the wine was poured from a gold cup lined with gems? Probably. Would you be able to even assume the room was richly decorated if it belonged to a wealthy merchant? Probably. So am I telling you to never describe a room? Not exactly. A room that says something about its owner is worth describing. A prince’s room being Spartan, for example, is somewhat interesting. It makes the reader wonder why a wealthy person has no interest in wealth, and what he is interested in.

Final Thoughts

 

The lesson of the day here is to be concise. If you’re just jumping into the writing business, remember this. Seasoned writers will spot you like blood on snow if you try to sound like a writer. Also remember that all those authors you read in high school and college were probably at least a generation or so behind our culture today. They were writing for a difference audience, one with attention spans longer than seven seconds. If you’re writing for a wider audience than college professors and indie book-shoppers, the hard truth is that you can’t write like Flaubert and expect modern audiences to respect it. Just look at the biggest and most popular new books of the last decade. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. If you’ve never looked between the covers of these books, I can tell you the writing does not strive to be literary. It’s all about telling a story.

Today’s reader wants a good story, and they want one that goes down easy. Every big, dense word is like a chunk in their literary smoothie. They don’t want to stop to chew. If it tastes good enough, you can get away with a few chunks, but if the flavor isn’t great, you had better make sure that baby goes down smooth and silky.

 

 

 

How To Create Compelling Characters In Ten Minutes

Photo Credit: Collegemagazine.com
Photo Credit: Collegemagazine.com

There seem to be countless schools of thought when it comes to creating characters. But no matter the method used, there is a universal truth to characters: they need to change and experience tension to feel real. Sounds easy, but for many, it’s anything but.

Plan It Out

Whether you consider yourself a natural, spur-of-the-moment type of writer or a meticulous planner, this is an area where every writer can benefit from a little forethought. Creating compelling characters that feel real and relatable can be relatively easy. Let me give an example:

Character Name: Gary Mordon

Why he resists change: His father always wanted him to do something meaningful—become an engineer, join the military, go into politics, etc. But his father abandoned him and his mother when he was fourteen, so he resists anything that seems like it would’ve made his father proud.

Opportunity for change 1: He really enjoys soccer and it looks like he might get a scholarship if he keeps with it, but his new friends at school sell drugs. He can start selling and using the drugs, but he knows he might get drug tested and kicked off the team.

Choice for change 1: He chooses the drugs. Ultimately kicked off the team.

Resulting change: He has moved toward what he thought he wanted, but feels a deeper disconnect. Struggles to know if he wanted success for himself or if he had only wanted it because his father did.

Opportunity for change 2: Dealing drugs is quickly becoming more serious. Harder drugs and more dangerous clients. If he wants to continue in his social circle, he will have to rip off a few gangsters to stay afloat. He’s terrified, but initially decides to go through with the scam because he knows his dad would’ve wanted him to get out safely. In the middle of the deal, he decides to back out and give the drugs to the men, making enemies of his former friends and putting himself in an even worse situation.

Resulting change: He realizes that the destruction he’s bringing to his life isn’t worth it. He decides that he wants success for himself, whether his father wanted it or not. But now that he wants to turn his life around, he fears it may be too late.

Final opportunity for change: His friend murders someone over a drug deal gone bad. He can turn his friend in, but will implicate himself in the process and risk a prison sentence. What will he choose?

What Does This Do For Your Characters?

To use the old cliche, it “fleshes them out.” I made up Gary Mordon for that example. Creating characters has never been my strong suit. In fact, I would consider it a weakness.

But using the method above, you shouldn’t need to be a great character writer. The first step is most crucial. You may have heard that every character should “want” something, even if it’s just a glass of water. I’m not trying to dispute that, but you may find it hard to write a compelling character just based on his wanting water. What works better for me is to identify want they want to do and why. Then, your story should essentially be a constant stream of them reaching for what they want and either getting something different than what they expected, or getting knocked farther away from their goal.

In other words, your character should resist changing in at least one major way. Maybe they resist giving up alcohol, fighting, loving, helping a particular person, forgiving a particular person, forgiving themselves, accepting a part of their personality, accepting that they are a good person, accepting that they are a bad person, quitting a bad habit, etc. Once you’ve identified this, it’s pretty easy to throw obstacles in the way of their resistance.

Each time you challenge your character in this way, you give them opportunities to change. Maybe they thought they could resist but don’t, and that will shift their personality in some tangible way. As a reader, those moments are what make characters interesting. Maybe they even resist change through several trials, but in the end they do change, and because they resisted for so long it becomes interesting and rewarding to read about.

Creating a Satisfying Conclusion For Your Character

Writers Digest provides a great list for crafting a “moment of truth” for your characters. You will find this to be extremely easy if you’ve plotted your character out based on resistance to change and moments of opportunity. Their list is as follows:

  • Make it fit—It (almost) goes without saying that the moment of truth has to be the collision of the two contenders in the hero’s life. You’ve got the old way and the new way. In your character’s moment of truth, she decides between those two options.
  • Make sure both options are compelling—Your hero is stuck in the old way, which is hurting him on some level, and yet it gives him something he values. The new way has to be at least as attractive to him as the old way, even if he doesn’t see it at first. It must give him everything the old way is not giving him, and it must solve problems for him—but not without cost.
  • Include the cost of purchase—The moment of truth is not complete unless the hero understands not only what he stands to gain by choosing one option over the other, but also what he stands to lose. If he lets go of his self-loathing to embrace a positive view about himself, it will be a betrayal of his father, who always said he was worthless. If she lets go of her fear and moves on with her life, it will mean risking failure again.
  • Provide smaller moments of truth along the way—We’ll discuss this fully in the chapter on the escalation, but for now just keep in mind that you will need to think of ways for these two opposing options to skirmish before the decisive battle. Just as Frodo had temptations to use the ring at multiple junctures in the story (and in some of these, he chose wrong) and as Luke saw the promise of the Force over the limits of technology, your character will need to make minor yes/no choices between these two options before the big moment of truth.

Final Thoughts

This is just one method for planning. There are obviously many many more ways to plot out your characters, setting, story, etc. However, as someone who personally does not enjoy planning, this method is arguably the most complete and succinct way to gain both depth to your character and develop your story. I feel like I could write a novel about Gary after spending just ten minutes sketching him and his problems out.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

Happy writing!

The Five Biggest Mistakes Busy Writers Make: Mistake Two

Beware the Routine

Routines can be helpful if you’re busy. Your day may be full of projectile-grade baby poops, urgent emails, unexpected traffic, and appointments—not to mention your day job. It seems like it makes sense to find a regular place to sit down and peck out your thousand words for the day. So what’s the problem?

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The problem is that you are training yourself to wait until conditions are perfect to write. You’re making it okay to pass up all the little moments that present themselves throughout the day to spend some quality time with your writing. Not only that, you’re only tapping your brain at one specific point in time each day for creativity. If you sit in the same chair with the same atmosphere day in and day out and do the same thing, how likely are you to be able to think of new ideas?

Write Everywhere

First of all, let’s tackle the physical side of this problem: where you are writing. I’m not advising you to only write in strange and unusual places. It would benefit you to have a standard location for your writing. What I’m advising is that you let yourself write in the between time and the between places. For example, I spent ten minutes working on this blog post after eating my lunch while students were beginning to flood into my room for class. I spent another thirty minutes working on it in the time students are allowed to come see me if they need extra help after school. Then I finished it in my “normal” writing spot. It’s easiest for me to go back and make my sentences more concise and clear and to organize in my normal spot, but I come up with my best ideas outside my bubble. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but give it a try for yourself and see if you don’t find some strengths you didn’t know you had when you push your comfort zone.

How to Find the Time

So if you’ve been telling yourself that you don’t have enough time, what you’ve probably meant is that you don’t have enough time to write in your special, preferred little bubble. So write outside of it. You’ll also find that your brain does not think the same throughout the day. If you measure cognitive performance for any individual, they will have peaks and low points. As a general rule, younger people tend to peak intellectually and creatively in the late afternoon, while older individuals peak in the early hours through noon. You’ll find that some parts of the day are better for you to organize and structure your writing while others are better for you to create new and interesting ideas. You’ll also find that writing in new situations stimulates your brain in different ways, making your writing more varied and alive. Not to mention, you could potentially avoid establishing a routine at a time of day where your cognitive ability is naturally at its lowest without realizing it.

Make It a Priority

My last point on the topic is one that works especially well for me. When the universe takes away your time to write and create, write anyway. Write as if the universe had a personal grudge against you and you’re writing to spite it. Find the small cracks and the places it overlooked. Wouldn’t you do the same thing if the universe said you weren’t going to have time to sleep? You would catch sleep whenever you could, even if it was five minutes on the train or in a waiting room. If you care about your writing, make it a priority, a part of yourself that is and will always be regardless of outside forces.

The Five Biggest Mistakes Busy Writers Make: Mistake Number One

Mistake Number One: Not Setting Goals

“But I did set a goal,” you say. “I want to be a famous, wealthy, inspirational author!” Okay, sure. That is a goal. Is it a goal that’s going to make your life any easier? No. So for now, take that goal, put a little bubble wrap on it, and toss it in a cabinet. I only want you to worry about goals that are going to take advantage of your own brain chemistry and psychology to make writing easier for you. After all, it’s all about results.

Set a Writing Goal and Track Your Progress

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I started with this tip because it’s the most important. Often, the first thing that goes out the window when our schedules get busy is writing time. This tip will help you prevent the biggest and most detrimental hazard to your writing: not writing.

The right kind of goal helps your brain chemistry work for you. When you set a goal and reach it, your brain releases dopamine, which is like a Scooby Snack for your body. Even no-brainer goals that take seconds to complete will give you a dopamine fix and help you establish a positive association for your brain between writing and satisfaction.

What does that mean? It means you need to set short-term, easily obtainable goals. My suggestions are to set at least three goals for yourself every day and track them.

Three Goals That Work For Me

Goal number one: Open the word processor every day. Whether you write in Word, Scrivener, Evernote, on the cloud, Yarny, or on your uncle’s hairy back with a sharpie, make goal number one to open the word-processing program every day (or un-cap the sharpie).

Goal number two: Write one more sentence when you feel like stopping. Even if you only write two sentences and just aren’t feeling it that day, write one more and check that goal off on the spreadsheet you will be using. As an added bonus, forcing yourself to write just one more sentence after you want to stop does two great things. It forces you to push past whatever obstacle made you want to stop, which often will lead to many more sentences. It also helps build your mental muscles and strengthen you against the desire to just call it a day whenever you run into a sticky situation in your writing.

The first two goals are your freebies. They protect you from the inevitable moments when something comes up and you can’t meet your word count. This gives your brain two shots of positive reinforcement to outweigh the negative feelings that can come from failing to meet your third goal.

Goal number three: Write X amount of words per day. A lot of authors swear by 1000 words a day, but you can find what works for you or even plan to write more on days before a holiday or an event that you know will have you out of commission.

Try Svenja Gosen’s beautiful and artistic spreadsheets for tracking your words.

You can also use a more utilitarian approach through google sheets. 

Isn’t There Research Against Setting Goals?

Yes. Kind of. If you set goals like the ones above, you’ll be fine. If you set goals that are too hard to reach, your brain gets confused. It has a lot of trouble telling the difference between “want” and “have”. So your identity gets wrapped up in what you want. This can feel good at first. Think of the New Years resolution syndrome. It felt great to promise yourself you would go to the gym every day for the rest of your life. For a while, you even started identifying as a gym-goer and started thinking of yourself as a healthier person. But even if you do keep going, the results often don’t match up with your expectations.

The problem is that big results like a better physique (or a successful writing career) take a lot of time. Eventually, cognitive dissonance will begin to sap your motivation and get your brain to send out chemicals that are in no way good for your progress. So it is okay to have that goal on the back burner, but don’t put it in the trophy case and show it off to everybody you meet. Focus on the small goals.

Keep It to Yourself!

The last tip about goals is probably the toughest. Don’t tell people about your goals or that you’re planning to accomplish them. Your brain gives you the same feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction from receiving praise for having a goal as it does for completing the goal. So if you read this article and got hyped up about writing and planned to go tell your significant other that you’re going to start writing 1000 words a day and tracking your progress and so on and so on; well, don’t. You’ll get the same feeling of accomplishment from talking about it that you would’ve gained from doing it and chances are that you won’t actually do it.

In short, keep your goals daily and simple, keep track of your progress, and keep it to yourself. You’ll be happy that you did.