All The Things I’ve Tried

I have tried many many different tactics to get myself to write and develop a meaningful story.

Think about trying some of the following, if–like me–you’re new to the game and looking for inspiration:

1) Write at LEAST five minutes a day, every day, no matter what. Trust me, you can do this one.
2) Revisit your story as you lay in bed, drifting off to sleep. This nightly connection helps remind your subconciousness to percolate on your story as you sleep. Plus, I like being connected to my story.
3) Have your Sketch Outline (what I call a free-form, flowing, informal style outline) broken out by chapters, or acts, or parts, or however you think.
4) Also keep a “freewrite” section, where–when structured ideas don’t come ready-made to be plugged into your Sketch Outline–you put musings, thoughts, random wandering and writing about stuff related to your story. Hell, on one particularly challenging day when nothing came to me for my story, I just wrote in that section about the quandary I’m facing trying to decide which new computer to buy (I think I’m going to go for the 13″ Macbook Air, as my wife wisely suggests). But most days I’m able to either write in the Sketch Outline section, or in the even more informal Freewrite section which could also be considered my “Percolation” section. It’s where I explore ideas without censoring myself in the slightest bit.
5) Write what appeals to me. Many times, when I sit down to write, I imagine walking up to my story and meeting it as it is at that very moment; or opening an ornate old door on the magical world my story is set in and peaking in to find out what’s going on there… But whatever metaphor you use, I find that using a metaphor to approach my story helps me discover what aspect of the story has been percolating in my absence and what’s to be put on paper. Today it was a discussion of how a revolution works. Does someone just decide to revolt? Answer: No. So what happens? Pressure gradually builds until a match lights the tinder which has been carefully piled high. It seems to me that very few revolutionaries start out thinking of themselves that way. And that is exactly the sort of thought I wrote in my freewrite/percolate section tonight.
6) Keep track of when you write and for how long (I use a free/intuitive service called Toggl.com). This helps you know when you’ve achieved your five minutes. Often I find that once I start time flies by and before I know it, Toggl tells me I’ve been writing for fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s time for bed. Well, I tell myself it’s time for bed. Toggl only tells me how long I wrote.
7) Keep track of your productivity. I find it is VERY motivating to be able to see that, yes, I did my time every day AND to see my word count grow over time. And yes, I value keeping track of my Sketch Outline/Freewrite writing. It’s not any lesser an effort than the story itself will be when I write it.
8) Look at things from every angle. Don’t allow yourself to make assumptions. Hah. Yeah right. Okay, so initially you’ll make assumptions. Note them. When you’ve made assumptions, or exercised your cliche-bone, these are the opportunities to really enrich your story. Like me with my realization that I had a whole bunch of revolutionaries in my story and no idea how the revolution had started… I didn’t even know how a historical revolution like the American Revolution started. I mean I knew the hyperbole (we wanted our independence and freedom SOOOO badly that we were willing to fight and die for it…which is only partly true), but I didn’t know the step-by-step, paint-by-numbers path to that revolution. Turns out that even hundreds of years ago, humans being humans and following their incentives is what led a bunch of people who had no plan to revolt, to revolt. Surprise! Having discussed and researched this area of assumption will make the revolution aspects of my story more believable–even to those who don’t know any more about revolutions then I did.
9) And this is related to #8: Constantly shift gears. The only way to keep building a story is to bounce from aspect to aspect, turning them upside down, inside out. Look at your characters, who they know, who they don’t know, what they know, what they don’t know, where they live, where they wish they lived, the religions, the architecture, the government, the mythology, the texts, the schooling, the geography. Relentlessly examine every last iota of your story. Doing so will reveal new opportunities to develop your story in unforeseen, worthwhile, dynamic ways.
10) Talk to someone you trust. But only as much as you need to get unstuck. And make sure they understand that your story will shift many times as you mold and shape it and the character who is passive may become active; and the angel you describe one night, might be a diabolical villain the next. It’s quite the roller-coaster being around as a writer shapes their story, it takes a special person to enjoy the process without becoming frustrated that the ground constantly shifts between their feet.
11) Go for a walk or do the dishes. Seriously. There’s nothing like doing something repetitive and straight-forward that precludes writing to fire my idea-center. Sometimes procrastination and simply giving ourselves permission to do so are immensely helpful. If you find yourself procrastinating: forgive yourself, do your five minutes, and call it a day.

This post is about all the methods I’ve attempted as part of beginning to write. Five minutes a day. Keep track of how much I write, and when and how long I write (Metrics). Don’t be rigid. Whatever comes, comes.

Real Characters

We in fantasy are renowned for our use of stereotypes. Granted, there are exceptions, but many fantasy works feature stock characters. These stock characters are often the primary element of a story which detracts from its impact and entertainment value.

You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, handsome, daring, infinitely resilient, endlessly whiny, destined characters. The stock nature of many of these characters is either 1) physical, or 2) emotional. Both types play a sour note in many a tale. The irony is that other than stock characters, many of these tales also feature well-imagined, exotic lands and places; complicated cultures, societies, and religions. In other words, everything but the characters is vivid and riveting.

But what can be done about these drab, run-of-the-mill characters? Much.

Start by looking around you at the people in your life: coworkers, friends, acquaintances, bosses, ex-bosses, the guy behind the counter at the gas station. All our rich sources of inspiration for much more dynamic, real, characters. And don’t forget yourself. You pick at yourself inwardly and externally; you twitch, wince, scowl, and faun. Inwardly, your thoughts differentiate you even more from someone who otherwise could be your physical carbon copy. And this is where you have to dig fearlessly. Really get to the core of your own idiosyncrasies and bequeath them on your unfortunate characters.

Beginning today, start a mental diary (or physical, your choice) of all the idiosyncratic stuff you observe in the people around you. Note physical oddities as well as mental and emotional discontinuities. The more you observe those around you, carefully noting what makes Patrick unique from Corey, or Corey unique from Al, the more you’ll find your growing thesaurus of foibles spring readily to you as you write.

By imbuing your fantasty characters with the stuff you see in the banal real world around you, I guarantee your characters will become more dynamic, more engaging, and a heck of a lot more interesting. Your story will be the better for having characters which don’t distract from the rest of the very cool world you’ve created.  In the Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) and The First Law Series (Joe Abercrombie) are both excellent examples of generally well-written fantasy which feature exceptionally interesting, unique characters.

Getting to the heart of it (Part 1)

As I’ve been wrestling with the beginning of my WIP, I’ve been trying various strategies for discovering other characters and situations which must organically exist in my story.

One of my first efforts was to get in deep with the characters in knew about. This worked, but only insofar as I learned a lot about my characters and a couple other intimate connections who will matter (a father, for one). But there were still many holes in my story sketch (or outline, as it were).

My next thought was to draw up a conflict /tension diagram. Mine was on a single sheet of paper with all the entities in my story written around the border. Then I drew red or orange lines between the entities representing first-order conflict or tension, and secondary sources of tension. A useful exercise, but not one which yielded much immediate fruit.

My next exercise, on that approach will be to dig into each entity and see what forces are at work within them (the military, for example). While I suspect this approach will be useful (let’s be honest, every approach is useful to a degree), I’m afraid I’m still not going to unearth the other characters I’m looking for.

This is why I have another idea, another possibly useful approach: free write a day (or week) in the life of each character that I know about. Hopefully, as I do so, I’ll discover which other characters they come in contact with and whether those characters are minor, major, or one-offs.

The point is that writing, I’m discovering, requires the author to be immensely adaptive… Always looking for another angle to try in search of the characters and substance or their story. Whatever methods work for you, or a specific story, are inherently good because they move you on your way, one step closer to your story. So keep on digging, trying new things, attacking every angle, until you find what you need.

What works for you? Please comment below!

But I don’t have time to write… (part 2)

My last plan didn’t work so well. As anticipated, when life is already rocking and rolling in the morning, it’s difficult–nay, impossible–for me to buckle down and write, even when the opportunity presents itself.

But you’re only beat when you cease to try, try again.

My initial mistake was in shooting too high. Yes, 2000+ words a day (5000-10000 ideally) is the eventual goal. But when I’m just trying to get started and build the writing habit I need to start small. Rather than trying to block out two hours a day, start with five or ten minutes. Or simply require yourself to write a smaller amount, like one hundred words, two hundred words, or a couple sentences. The goal is simply to write consistently.

Along those lines, my new plan: write ten minutes, every night, right before bed. But, recognising that I have a strong dislike of missing out on bedtime with my wife (I’m a sentimental chap), here’s the twist: I’m going to write IN BED. I’ll grab my laptop, set it on a very dim setting so I don’t keep her or the baby awake, and write for at least ten minutes every night. This way I get to have my cake and it it too. I’m not alone in another room thinking how much I’d rather be in bed with her, and I’m also getting SOME writing done. And every day I write SOMETHING is a good day, a day I AM a writer.

Judo for Writers

Another excellent suggestion from Immediate Writing: judo for writers.

This technique is one that lends itself to the Five Minute Rule. Remember, the rules is:always, always, always do at least five minutes of writing a day–even when you’re ill, busy, don’t feel like it, are traveling, dog dies, etc.

Sometimes, perhaps even often we writers find ourselves in front of our pen and paper, or keyboard, simply sitting. This is okay. Sometimes you’ll just sit for your five minutes; but, often, if you use writing judo you’ll be able to unleash whatever has percolated deep in your subconscious while you’ve been busy doing everything else your life entails. The practice of writing judo involves simply going with the flow. Rather than stewing and ruminating in your chair, put what your thinking on paper. Write (or ride, your preference) it out. If you’re thinking “I can’t do this” or “I’m tired and just want to go to bed” or “I need a cup of coffee” or “what am I doing here? I can’t write. I’m a fraud. Who am I kidding?” Just start typing all that garbage out of you. Then start questioning. Ask, “why do I feel like a fraud? Why can’t I write? Why do I need a cup of coffee right now? Why do I want to go to bed?” Then write out the answers you get. Sooner or later you’ll uncover what’s bothering you, and it’s almost always related to the story you’re trying to tell. Bingo! When this happens just continue to flow with it. Perhaps after all your judo, you write, “I’m tired of this character/setting/whatever. It just doesn’t seem realistic.” That’s something useful that you can corral and work with. Why doesn’t it seem realistic? Why are you tired of X? Questions are your friend. Use them.

Don’t be afraid if you find that, after getting to the meat of the underlying issue, if you devolve back to self-doubt or sitting in confusion thinking. Just start again. Use your judo and soon you’ll find yourself back in the meat of things.

The key with writing judo is that the resistance you’ll often face is overcome to your benefit by using the force of resistance against itself.

What are your experiences with resistance? How have you overcome the resistance you’ve faced writing? Comment below!

Where Do Stories Come From?

At some point, every writer feels the lull… A time where they feel bereft of ideas for stories. Some want to write, but not having a perfusion of ideas, never start. I’ve been in both positions and here’s what I’ve found. If you don’t have stories spring upon you fully formed never fear, I don’t either. Mine typically come in bits and halting pieces: a setting, and ideological quandary, a character, a feeling, and image, and experience, and insight. Sometimes the idea springs from something real, or something imagined. Today, for instance, I met a Bob. As I shook his hand and looked him in the eyes, it stuck me that a man who goes by Bob has unseen depths to him. He must. Bob is possibly the most generic name in the history of the world, so someone named Robert might obscure his depth by going by Bob. This prompted me to think what kind of man goes by Bob, what tale would Bob inhabit? All good, inspiring stuff. Ideas spring from small kernels.

In my WIP, The Unchosen, I started with a similar small seed. In this case I had been musing about how many fantasy books feature heroes and heroines that are, essentially “chosen” for something grand from the get go whether they know it or not. This has always bothered me as a reader. In contrast, one of my favorite series, The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, has a hero (Tavi) which is not apparently suited to anything great other than being very quick witted. He’s smart, but small, and in a society where anyone who’s anyone has magic, he does not (this changes as the series progresses). Similarly, I wanted to tell a tale about someone who wasn’t Chosen in a society where being Chosen is an explicit time-honored event. This was my small kernel from which I began. But there’s no clear story in that kernel, is there. It’s not even a lot to go on. So what next?

Questions. Lots of them. I asked myself who might be Unchosen? Why it would matter to them? What would the costs of being Unchosen be? What kind of society Chooses so explicitly? Where did this Choosing traditional come from?

My many questions bore fruit: more seeds for my story planted in the ground, growing and yielding more fruit as I threw more questions at every answer.

Other story ideas I’ve had sprung from this questioning method. Imagine a person, give them a name, where do they live, why, what happens there, what do they care about? Or imagine a place, who lives there, what’s going on, what do they hate, why? Almost anything can be a seed: something your boss or peers say, a person you meet, something you see, a word, a picture… Let your mind roam and a story will slowly reveal itself.

Note that this take on things seems (in my opinion) to be contrary to how the process is often described in writing books. When reading many of those books you’ll frequently get the impression that every other writer births a whole idea and all they have to do is start writing, or break out an outline then write it all down. My guess is that the truth is that those steps (either “pantsing” by starting to write right away or outlining first) are, in fact, later steps which occur after an idea has gestated. This then suggests that there’s room for the above discussion: where do ideas come from and how do you develop them?

Your take? Comment below!

Conflict = Want + Obstacle

One of the topics of an excellent writing book I’ve been reading, Immediate Fiction, struck me in an encounter in had with a clan of wasps at work. In Immediate Fiction, the author describes real conflict as the result of a want or need and an obstacle.

I work at the airport as a Fueler. This means I’m one of a number of guys who refueles aircraft after they land at our private terminal or at the airlines. Part of my job is refilling our trucks at our fuel storage facilities, or “farm.” The picture you see associated with this post is of an overhang in the open shed where we hook up the fuel hoses to trucks being refilled. This was also the spot a clan of wasps decided would make an excellent site for their new home. Arriving to refill a truck today, I discovered one wasp after another crawling into a hole in the metal framing. Being adverse to being stung in the course of executing my job duties, I decided to frustrate their efforts. I taped over all the holes in the shed frame and waited to observe the results. I hoped that the wasps would see the route in and out of their home blocked, and relocate. Problem solved. What I underestimated was the wasps desire to make their home in that location. Not only did the wasps get frustrated and leave, more arrived and they coordinated trips all over the frame, examining every joint and flaw for an entry to their home building site. Finding none, they hovered mid-air for minute after minute surveying every angle of the shack and its framing. Unbelievable. Not to be easily dissuaded the began landing near the tape I’d placed over the hole and canvassing the area. It soon occurred to me as they began crawling over each other that perhaps they had decided to relocate their home: right beside to taped over hole. Crap. But their resistance was matched by my insistence on their vacating the premises. I located a can of lubricant (not unlike WD-40) and sprayed the entire area. I hypothesized that if the area was too slick, perhaps they wouldn’t be able to build their new home. I hoped. So far, an hour later, I’ve only succeeded in making them desperate, but no less resolute. They continue returning–the whole family–to see if access to their preferred building site has been restored. A coworker is on his way with more toxic chemicals. (Update: toxic chemicals which proved attractive to wasps as they flew toward me while being sprayed!)

Back to the point of the story. As in Immediate Fiction, my face-off with the wasps was an excellent real-life example of conflict. They wanted desperately to build their home inside the frame (want). I frustrated their desire by first taping over the entry to the frame (obstacle #1), and then by spraying the area with lubricant (obstacle #2). When they continued to resist, I sprayed them with toxic chemicals (Prist). From their perspective they were in the fight for their lives. After all, most creatures will fight hardest and most desperately when their home is attacked, or their ability to make a place for themselves is frustrated.

As Immediate Fiction suggests, our best writing occurs when we have characters with strong desires/wants/needs… Life-threatening, life-changing, life-improving dreams, hopes, and fears. Then when we’ve instilled (of discovered–depending on how you want to think about it) those in our characters, we need to frustrate them at every turn. They just want to go home, we block the road, break the car, kill the horse, derail the train, tape over the hole. When they refuse to take no for an answer, we sell the land to someone else, raze their home, plant bombs on the property, or spray toxic chemicals all over. The result, grand conflict.

And conflict is essential to story. No conflict (as Immediate Fiction stresses), no story.

Note that while genuine conflict is essential, it is only one of the ingredients. To really have a story in the case of Me vs. The Wasps, we’d need a resolution. In this case, you could have the wasps sting me to death, rally and drill through the tape with their stingers, or have them decide things are a little dicey in Montana, and fly to Bermuda where they can build a pleasant palace on the beach. Either way, Conflict + Resolution = Story.

But I don’t have the time…

This is a post in search of answers.

Let’s be clear on one thing: most of we writers don’t have the option of writing full-time early in our writing careers. Most of us have many other things competing for our time and energy: family, relationships, work (the original of the paycheck which feeds us and our families), school, and so on. Which is why the most common excuse for those who say they’d love to write is “I don’t have the time.” The problem with this excuse is that almost every author who has “made it” did so while juggling a full-time job and other responsibilities while also somehow finding time to write. In essence, such writers got their start by making their writing a part-time job they took seriously.

But- – say you–I have a wife, kids, a job, and perhaps even school (high school, college, or grad school), to juggle and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. I hear that. Truth is, I’m wrestling with the same issue as you are.

I have a wonderful woman for my wife, and we have an adorable six-month old daughter. I have a full-time job, and grad school will be starting in a mere three weeks. I’m sure there are many others out there who crave the writing life but have even more going on than I do. This isn’t an excuse fest, or a pity party, what I’m trying to do is think about the issue pragmatically and determine what solutions exist.

My particular situation involves a job which runs 1-9 pm, five days a week. I leave a 12:30 and get home (most nights) at 9:30. After arriving home I have several appealing options: connect/talk to my wife (which I immensely enjoy), shower, go to bed (difficult because it takes a while for me to wind down after work), write, or do some preparatory programming for the grad program in Computer Science.

Most nights, upon my return home, I connect with my wife. We talk for an hour or two, until 11ish. Then I brush my teeth, shower, and do my best to avoid being sucked into reading pointless fascinating news articles on my smartphone, or hopping on the computer to wander around the Internet. There were a couple of nights that I stayed up and wrote until after 1 am, but I hated missing out on going to bed with my wife (call me sentimental).

There is another way I could do nights after work: as soon as I arrive home I could brush my teeth and hop in the shower. Then I could go directly to bed, connect with my wife,  and fall asleep. This would help me avoid being unproductive until late in the AM (last night I was up till 2 AM doing absolutely nothing which matters to me, grrr). Reliably being in bed and asleep by 11 pm could help me get earlier.

But mornings aren’t without their own set of tradeoffs. If I wake any earlier than 8 am, I’m likely to wake up both my wife and our daughter at the same time. This is bad because being awoken early makes them, and therefore me, cranky. But we all sleep in the same bed so it’s unavoidable. Option 2: realize that waking before 8 am is simply unworkable and work around it.

I’m hesitant to call mornings a viable writing time because it’s difficult to concentrate when our daughter is awake and therefore making noise. Also, while my wife assures me that I can have some protected writing time in the mornings where she’ll watch the baby, I feel that it is reasonable to assume that there will be days when she’s having a rough day and I’ll want to help out. I don’t think she’d impose on my protected writing time, but if I observed her having a rough day, I would impose on my own protected time. Additionally, the morning after 8 am is widely recognized among Americans as a legitimate time to conduct most forms of business: deliveries, phone calls, training, etc. In other words, it may be difficult to cordone off a two hour time block, when the morning air is buzzing with life.

Ideally, I think the best time to write would be waaaay early in the morning, assuming one had enough sleep and a effective gentle way of awaking which wouldn’t upset the baby. But then there’s the damn work schedule.

So my choices seem to be these:
(1) stay at work after getting off shift and writing for an hour or two on my laptop
(2) change my work schedule to accommodate my writing needs (difficult to do: probably take a couple months to implement)
(3) throw hands up in despair and admit defeat
(4) after work,  shower and go to bed right away and wake up at 8 am to do a couple hours of writing. After writing (at, say, 10:30 am) go with wife to see the horses. Bounce baby during her morning nap while brainstorming in notebook as wife plays with horses. Do this until 12:10 at which point we return home so I can pack a lunch and go to work. Unresolved: when do I do an hour or two of programming?

Upon elaboration, #4 seems like it could work. It would regularly provide my wife with over an hour of horse time every day (probably not as much as she would like, but a lot more than she’s been getting), and it’d provide me with almost two hours of writing time a day. I would just have to be a Nazi about protecting that time and absolutely refusing to do anything else during it other than writing: no web surfing, no fixing of electronics or reinstalling of applications or operating systems, absolutely no baby (which would be hard cause she’s awesome). Just writing, outlining, research, and editing. And, as research involves web surfing, it would be wise to relegate that to an at-work task which I could do on my smartphone. Although, a smartphone isn’t an ideal research platform for one reason: no Evernote built into the Chrome Android browser (which I use for “clipping” web pages which contain relevant information). I need to look into this more and see if there’s a way around this obstacle. In the meantime, #4 it is. It’s worth a shot.

I guess that’s the bottom-line: methodically try different scenarios to find what works for you. It is immensely frustrating to do, but it’s probably the only way for those of us still launching our writing careers. After we get to the point that we can afford to write full-time then the issue is finding where and when we are most productive. We will cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, the first step to becoming a professional writer is to develop the writing habit by finding a time that you write consistently and doing it rain or shine, preferably every single day: 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

See? All of us writers, or at least those of us still in the early phases, face similar difficulties. I feel for you as you try to figure out what works best for you.

If you’ve found a way to juggle your myriad responsibilities and still write, I’d love to hear it! Please comment!

The Good Guy

I’ve been struggling with a Good Guy. He’s a character who I see as inherently good, but where’s the drama and conflict in that? Hence, this post: how do you make a good character come alive for the reader: rout for him, care for him, fear for him?

The character in question is the father of my protagonist. The protagonist has been raised fairly spoiled as part of the ruling class. Her father, part of the ruling council only wants what is best for her, and loves her only second to his wife. He would never do anything intentionally to harm his daughter or wife because of his deep love for both. So where does this leave him as a character? Boring. Yet he needs to be a pivotal character because there is nothing stronger for conflict than a parent at odds with their child. But is there a way, other than playing the tough-love card to make him engage in conflict with his daughter?

I’m not sure yet, but the inkling of an idea for conflict may lie in his love for both wife and daughter, and in his desire to do what’s best for her. Perhaps he doesn’t see his choices which put him into conflict with his daughter as being unloving. Perhaps his hand is forced by some external threat to him, his family (one or both wife and daughter), or his internal ideology. For example, perhaps a threat to his nice compartmentalized view of life drives him to send his daughter out of harms way (which she of course views differently). The challenge is avoiding the tough-love card which I tend to feel gets overplayed in many stories. How many characters are motivated by anonimosity toward their parents and a perceived raw deal from their parents or parents? Too many. I don’t want my protagonist driven by such angst toward her parents (or father). There can be confusion and uncertainty certainly, but outright angst and poison in their relationship, no. Perhaps the protagonist is informed (to a degree) of the reasons for her father’s actions. The actions still sucks and the consequences are dire, but some part of her recognizes them as necessary. Yes, now we’re on to something.

While I’m on the subject, I will note that as writers we’re often faced with such difficult quandaries. Great writing is that which explores these nuances for conflict without ever opting for the easy road: the bad baddie is one very common mistake in all fiction and fantasy… Characters who aren’t driven in genuine ways, but instead by the authors perception of what is evil and bad. Similarly, good characters are often played heavy handedly with the typical 2D constructs of morality imposed upon them, rather than springing organically from within in the face of adversity.

More on this topic in future posts.