Should You Write Faster?

The more time you spend laboring over each sentence in your novel, the better it will be, right? I always thought so. But recently, I’ve been taking a look at the facts, not my instinct, and what I’ve found is a little surprising.

First of all, let me explain what I mean by writing faster. I’m talking words per minute. Personally, my typing speed is around 120 words per minute, but my writing speed has probably been anywhere from 20 to 80 words per minute, depending on whether I’m writing dialogue, prose, action, inner dialogue, etc.

So with that out of the way. Here is what I have found. If I write faster, not only can I write for longer, but my prose comes out cleaner and my dialogue reads better. The two caveats are that A) everybody is different and B) how my dialogue “reads” is subjective. Either way, I have some ideas on why this may be working so well, and even if you think you’re better off writing slowly, I may just convince you otherwise.

Why You Should Write Faster

I was talking with my brother recently and he said something that really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of, “you’ve spent so much time writing that it should be like muscle memory by now.” When I thought about it, I realized  he was completely right to think of writing as a skill that used muscle memory.

Think about anything you’re really good at. Or even pretty good. Now imagine trying think really hard about it and analyze every movement as you do it. Granted, if you were thinking about your job as a slow-motion re-inactor or something, what I’m about to say won’t qualify. Otherwise, you probably would not be able to do it as well in slow motion.

I thought about tennis. Athletes can move through the motions of a swing or a motion slowly to warm up, but there’s a difference. I’m a little bit of a nerd about tennis and I have recorded myself in slow motion to analyze various strokes like my serve. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m swinging at a ball in regular speed, my legs, hips, core, shoulders, arm, and wrist all connect in a “kinetic chain” like they are supposed to. When I try to move through the motion of a serve slowly to work through kinks, the kinetic chain falls apart. My legs release too soon and my hips un-coil too late.

What’s the point?

If you’ve practiced writing, it is no different. Slowing down too much breaks apart the natural “kinetic chain” of your writing.

Try It!

My brother was the one convincing me to try writing faster, and a tool he recommended was Write or Die. It is a free website that gives you various options to keep yourself from slowing down when you write. You can set time goals and word count goals. I really don’t recommend “Kamikaze Mode” by the way. I just clicked it when I first tried the site, and then left the 2000 words I had typed in the box to copy over to my story later. When I came back, every-single-vowel had been removed from my work. I ended up just re-writing the section. You could also just hit pause when you’re finished, but really, who wants their vowels deleted. That’s too masochistic for me.

I’d suggest just trying the site a couple times to show yourself that you really can write quickly. You’ll realize pretty fast that what is actually slowing you down are likely those “speed bump” mental moments. Maybe you hit a sentence that you just can’t find the right words for. Blaze right through it! You can always come back later to fix it.

Why It’s Worth Trying To Write Faster

Benefits to the quality of your writing aside, let me dazzle you with some incentives to write faster.

1.) If you have 1 hour a day to write and you write 1000 words an hour, that’s 100 days or 14 weeks or roughly 3 1/2 months to finish a 100,000 word draft. 

OR

You could write 2000 words an hour and finish that same draft in 50 days or 7 weeks or roughly 1 3/4 months.

OR

You could write 3000 words in an hour (it can be done with practice) and, well, you get the idea.

2.) I know authors aren’t supposed to care about money, but let’s talk money. Let’s be pessimistic and say you’re going to profit $4000 for each book you self-publish.

If it takes you 3 1/2 months to self publish, that’s roughly $12,000 a year from writing. Not bad for an hour a day, but still not enough to quit your day job.

BUT if you double your writing speed, that’s $24,000 a year. And if you’re able to write more than one hour a day or squeeze in extra hours on weekends, the possibilities go on.

3.) If your book flops (I know it’s not fun to think about) you can have another book hitting shelves around the same time you realize your first book failed. And you can console yourself by knowing you only put in a few weeks instead of the better part of a year.

Final Thoughts

The numbers above are just to help you realize that if for no other reason, it’s worth thinking about writing faster to get more books published. Maybe it’s time to stop laboring over your little project and start churning and burning!

I believe it was Mr. Miyagi who said, “If you love your book, let it go fast.” Wise words. . .

 

 

mr-miyagi-smiling

Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?

Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:

Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.

Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.

Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.

Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.

Non-Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.

Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.

Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.

Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.

 

Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.

If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.

Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict. 

So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.

 

 
photo credit: Hunt Peck via photopin (license)

If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

edward-lear-81515_1920

 

The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.

 

 

Are Your Characters Three Dimensional?

Dimensions are often thrown around when discussing characters. Maybe you’ve heard this before: “Your protagonist was very one-dimensional.” Or, “your protagonist was flat.” If you’ve only vaguely understood what that criticism meant, I’m here to dispel your confusion in plain language. Let me emphasize that last point, because I think it’s important. Plain language. If you’re like me, you’re dead tired of hearing authors discuss the craft, especially character. The reason you’re tired of hearing it is because every author romanticizes the process, pretending it can only be explained in poetic language and vague metaphors. Breathe life into your characters, we are told, or make them jump off the page. That’s all well and good, and maybe somebody out there really takes something away from that kind of fluff, but that’s not what this post is about. This is about pulling away the skin of the robot and explaining what makes it work at the most basic level.

Dimensions

Characters are essentially made up of three dimensions.

1st dimension – This is what you see on the surface. All that meets the eye, so to speak. For example, if you see a guy walking into a gas station covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, you now understand him in a one dimensional way.

2nd dimension – This is the backstory. It’s the explanation for what you see on the surface. For example, if the biker guy in the above example mentions to you that he’s an accountant but is riding across the country in memory of his brother, who was a hardcore biker before he passed away, then you understand him as a two-dimensional character.

3rd dimension – This is what the character does. For example, if the biker guy tears off his jacket at the end of the ride and throws his helmet into the bushes before calling a cab back home, we see what kind of person he is despite or because of his backstory and appearance.

For some of you, this might be enough to understand a lot more about effective characters than you already knew. For others, you may be wanting a little more.

The First Dimension

Before I get deeper into the first dimension, it’s worth noting that no dimension is more important than the other. It would be like saying that a support pillar is more important than the foundation of a building. Take away either and the building will fall down. However, you can have a foundation without a support pillar, just like you can have a one dimensional character without layering on more dimensions.

Should a character ever be purely one-dimensional? Absolutely. A common mistake is to get carried away by giving every single character a backstory and trying to create a character arc for them. Save that for your protagonist, antagonist, and key supporting characters.

One common mistake in giving first dimension details to a character is to give eccentricities for the sake of eccentricities. For example, you might decide to make your protagonist OCD and describe him organizing his refrigerator by expiration date. Why? Well, because it’s kind of interesting to read about? Maybe it is, but unless you can manage to tie the OCD into your characters 2nd and even 3rd dimension, it will end up feeling clunky and unrewarding. That’s not to say you shouldn’t add quirks and unique flavor to your character, just make sure they are relevant to who your character is.

The Second Dimension

Many writers understand intuitively that a character needs to have a backstory. However, they tend to make a mistake in either over-showing or more rarely under-showing. Also, keep in mind that a flashback is rarely the most effective way to show backstory. There are certain story types that lend themselves to flashbacks, but unless it’s a major part of the story, you’ll be better suited by finding creative and effective ways to weave backstory into your story. Implying backstory, if done well, can be extremely effective as well. For example, a character who masquerades as a hard-ass being seen leaving a dance class or a soup kitchen (cliche, but you get the idea). The previous example ties together the first and second dimension. His masquerade is part of his first-dimension, but the fact that he’s trying to be seen as a tough guy when he’s clearly something more implies a certain level of backstory. This is an example of how you can more effectively layer a character. The first dimension should make a reader crave the second dimension, which should enrich the first dimension. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The Third Dimension

Satisfying character moments can only come when a strong first dimension and second dimension have been lain. Skilled writers make it clear to readers what is at stake for each character. If we return to the biker example, you can see and even extrapolate so much from just three snapshots of the character. On the surface, he’s a biker. Look a little deeper and he’s actually a loving brother paying respect in a very touching way. But then follow him through his journey and see something perplexing, but not all-together unbelievable. Why did he throw down the helmet and seem to disrespect the memory of his brother after such a long show of devotion? Is he such a principled man that he valued his word more than his brother? Did his brother die on a motorcycle and the man now resents everything about riding, only fulfilling his promise out of respect?

With the proper foundation and support down, the actions of your characters become much, much more interesting. If we knew less about the biker character, his actions wouldn’t invite nearly as much speculation.

In common practice, the third dimension, or your characters actions, will often follow the expectations laid by your first and second dimension for about the first half of the story. If the character is a bad employee who always shows up late and does a terrible job (1st dimension) because he knows his boss stole his girlfriend from him during high school (2nd dimension) then the third dimension is how you show character growth. For much of the story, the character would act resentfully toward the boss – perhaps struggling with a desire to get over it and move on. As an author, you can show his growth when his actions finally confirm who he is, at least temporarily. Maybe he’s called to put his resentment aside when his boss suffers an accident. Does he move in to help, or does he let the man die or suffer? His actions (the third dimension) will define his character. The moment will be all the more powerful if the first and second dimension have been clearly laid out for the reader.

It’s also worth noting that even if your character does save the boss, for example, he can revert back to his old ways while still having shown growth. The third dimension is all about culminating moments. When it really counts, how did your character act, and how did that action reveal who he or she truly is?

 

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!

Why You Should Forget Traditional Publishing

file0001657242870

If you’re writing a book right now, one of the most important decisions in your future is whether to publish traditionally or to self-publish. The good news is that the choice may be easier than you think.

Unless you’re an extremely young writer, you grew up in an era dominated by traditional publishing. The dream was to have your book “on the shelves”, to stroll down a brick and mortar store and see it right there with your name in bold letters. Why? Because you were only a successful writer if your book was in stores. After all, what other option was there?

The New Reality

Electronic book sales are quickly outpacing physical book sales. This fact alone underlies the majority of advice I’m about to give. To understand why, let’s take a look at why traditional publishing used to be essentially mandatory.

  1. Books cost money to print. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars to print as many books as you expect people to buy. So if you didn’t have a big publisher to put the money forward and did it yourself, you could stand to lose a lot of money if fewer people bought your book than you projected. Also, if you went cheap and printed too few, you might not have the resources to quickly restock before demand for your book fell off.
  2. Advertising is expensive. Big publishers used to be one of the few ways you could manage to get the word out about your book unless you were willing to sink your own money into advertising.
  3. You can’t just grab 20 copies of your book, slap price tags on them, and put them on the shelves at bookstores. Publishing companies have deals worked out to get your book on shelves, but you don’t have that kind of weight to throw around.
  4. Publishing companies have internal resources to handle things like designing a cover for your book that will appeal to readers, edit it for the obvious but also for your intended audience, and make suggestions that come from their experience in your genre.

Okay, so if you’re planning to self-publish, the bad news is that the above is still true. The good news is that little factoid I dropped earlier changes everything. What if you didn’t have to predict sales of your book and print them ahead of time? And more, what if there was a type of book store that didn’t have to worry about physically holding your book? What if you could even market your own book with a little time and effort?

You guessed it. You can! Seriously, though. I can’t overstate how huge the e-book revolution is for new authors.

Why You Don’t Need A Publisher

If it’s not clear why e-books are such a big deal when it comes to self-publishing, let me break it down.

  1. E-books do not cost money to print. There’s no predicting sales and calculating the risk of printing too many versus too few. You can literally upload your work to a digital bookstore like Amazon or Kindle Direct for exactly zero dollars and collect money for every purchase. Pure profit! 
  2. Advertising can still be expensive, but the social networking age gives new authors more ways to market their work for free. My own blog, for example, is a platform that I hope will market my own work. You can use sites like Reddit, Twitter, Digg, etc to build interest and a small following for your book by posting a few chapters or collaborating with the community. You can guest post on blogs about writing in exchange for shout outs for your book. You can give your book away to reading lists to have reviews from day one of your launch. The possibilities are only limited by your creativity and willingness to put in time.
  3. Amazon only stands to benefit from having your book on their site. Even if you only sell ten copies of your book, they still earned a profit. You don’t need any muscle or influence to get them to put it on their site.
  4. You can again turn to social networking for cover ideas. There are enough tutorials out there and software that even a novice could design their own cover. I wouldn’t advise this, by the way. But if you’re going for the zero cost method, it’s there. Alternatively, you could likely find aspiring artists who would be happy to design a cover for free in exchange for the chance for their work to be seen and generate interest for themselves.

The Numbers

The facts are clear. Electronic books are getting more popular, which takes away the relative monopoly publishing houses had. But just how much more popular are they?

trade-pub-author-earnings-split

Photo Credit: Authorearnings – The Data Guy

I recommend reading the entire article from authorearnings.com, but here’s the takeaway: author earnings from fiction e-books were 28% higher in 2014. A quick look at the rest of the data in the article indicates that 2014 was just a point along a rising trend. Even big name authors are earning more money from their e-book sales than print sales, and the gap between the two has been increasing.

10k-earners

Photo Credit: Authorearnings – The Data Guy

Keep in mind that this data was only about 1/4th of the way into 2014, meaning you could almost triple the figures seen here to see that the indie publishing group is still growing. It’s also worth noting that the trend was the same for authors earning 25k, 50k, and 100k+ per year.

Final Thoughts

Traditional publishing still offers some great advantages if you’re able to land a deal. However, publishers will need to quickly catch their business model up to the changing times. The current trend of publishers expecting new authors to do most of their own marketing and handling of auxiliary tasks involved in getting their book pushed out will likely need to fade. If publishers want to entice authors to pass up the quick, easy, and profitable route of self-publishing, they need to make the cut they take seem worth it to an author.

Until then, self-publishing is far less time consuming, far more doable, and far more potentially rewarding.

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?

ID-10065923

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

Untitled

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.