Tag Archives: Creativity

Lost in the story middle?

Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.

Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline.  The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards.  This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects.  My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story.  I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.

The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story.  I wanted to discover the story as I went along.  I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story.  I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened.  I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me.  This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?

Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach.  In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had.  Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem?  What was their life like before the inciting incident?  How would they react to sudden changes?  What inner demons do they struggle with?  What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem?  And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?

If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered.  Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia.  When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?

First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer.  You are the writer, not the first reader.  Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end.  How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot?  If you can do this without any planning, stellar.  I cannot.

Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else.  The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with.  How you do this as a writer is up to you.  Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character.  By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change.  Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.

Third, write an outline.  I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here.  An outline is a roadmap for your story.  Use whatever level of detail you wish.  Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story.  Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown.  I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts.  An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.

Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline.  Treat these planning materials as first drafts.

These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series.  I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters.  Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters.  I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.

My initial characters ideas were flawed.  One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable.  The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story.  The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them.  I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.

My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards.  Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes.  Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.

After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft.  I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.

For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.

I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.

I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill.  This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”

What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?

* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.


A Writer Reads

…but what does reading have to do with writing?

For most of us, we learned to write around the same time we learned to read.  It is likely our ability to read developed more quickly than our ability to write and if we liked reading, we did a lot of it.

I was such a child.  I read everything I could find that interested me, from story books, fairy tales, and fables, to Time-Life books about the planets, dinosaurs, Time, or the Earth.  I even read every word of those Publishers Clearing House envelopes stuffed with prizes and magazines to order.

What I most loved to read, though, were stories.  The Bookmobile stopped across the street from our house every Friday after school for years.  I found the selection limited, though, and began haunting my elementary school library and later the middle and high school libraries.  Once I could drive, I spent many Saturday afternoons browsing the racks at the city library.

Somewhere along the way, after reading the dozens of novels and hundreds of stories, all that reading flipped a switch inside me that illuminated my writer self.  I distinctly remember wanting to write a story for the first time in my early teens.  The story was about an evil janitor with occult powers to punish any kids who played hide and seek in the medical and dental offices near where I lived.  The story concept had some merit, but the writing itself was terrible.

Ever since I finished that short story, though, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

But what does reading have to do with writing?

The act of writing is putting a story to words so that another reader can experience that story as you intended to tell it.

The more stories and novels an aspiring writer has read, the more proper story structure, format, characterization, description, plot, and theme permeate the subconscious almost like osmosis.

There is a rhythm to storytelling that is not always innate, but can be learned through reading and studying how other writers tell stories.  How do they evoke emotion?  How do they paint images in the reader’s mind?  How often do they address all five senses?  Are characters revealed through thought, dialog, action, or all three?  What word choices to they use?  How is action paced and balanced with reflection?  Are scenes long or short?  How are the best stories begun?  How are the best stories ended?

Much can be learned by simply reading, taking no thought to how the writer did it, but just enjoying the story.  Even more can be gained by actually studying how the writer wrote a passage that resonates with you or impresses you in some way.

By reading a variety of authors, genres, and both new and old stories, you can learn from the example of others.

If you did nothing else but read avidly and write, you would have a head start over those who attempt to write, but don’t read and thus haven’t saturated their minds and souls with the rhythms of story.

As an example, I’m currently reading Brotherhood of the Wolf the second in the Runelords series by David Farland.  I subscribe to his Daily Kick newsletters on writing and publishing topics and find his advice is generally outstanding.  I like the Runelords world and like to see how he writes epic fantasy, especially his earlier books in the late 90s.

I’m also re-reading Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characterization to improve my current novel in progress, The Lost Tower.

Remember that a writer reads.  Stephen King said in his book On Writing that you really can’t be a writer unless you read a lot.  Good advice from one of the masters.

And with that, what are you currently reading and why?


Three Reasons Writers Need Music

The other day, a writer friend of mine and I discussed the value of listening to music while scribing.  We compared notes on the types of music we liked in the background as our fingers danced over the keyboards in story creation.  We also discussed which music genres we thought were best suited for which genres of writing.  We even discussed how the rhythm or repetition within a song or style of music can aid or inhibit certain types of writing.

This discussion lingered and got me thinking about my own musical tastes while writing and how it helps me.  I came up with three questions about music and writing, and many more answers.

1. Why do many writers enjoy listening to music while writing?

2. What are the benefits?

3. Is there music best suited for particular types of writing?

If you read “On Writing” by Stephen King you’ll discover that he predominantly listens to rock and roll music while he writes.  He is an accomplished rock guitarist and his stories and novels are populated with rock song references so it all fits in with his persona and preferences as one of the most successful novelists of all time.  Peter Straub, another horror writer prefers to listen to classical music while writing.  I’m sure most successful authors listen to music at one time or another, and some must have music on while writing.   It is simply part of their writing routine.

Why is this?

I can’t answer that question for other authors.  For myself, music helps me with the emotional undercurrents of a story.  In a movie, the score and soundtrack bring out the emotion of a moment, whether it is a suspenseful threat to the characters, a battle scene, or a moment of loss and reflection.  Music enhances the emotions and what the audience feels.  Music in the background while I write helps feed my subconscious with motifs, sounds, currents, feelings, and auditory ideas that I can draw from when the time is right in a story.  Music helps me go deeper into the story and hopefully to convey that to the written version of it.  Music is a source of inspiration.

Again, I cannot speak to the benefits of music to other authors, but I can share how music benefits my writing.  First, my writing desk is not isolated in my home and to aid in my concentration and to reduce background noise in a busy household, I use noise cancelling ear buds and listen to music via my laptop.  This helps create a writing environment that more conducive to concentration on the story and characters and reduces outside distractions.  Second, as noted above, music inspires the emotional content of writing when matched in genre.  I’ll discuss more about that in the next paragraph.  Third, music can directly influence your stories and bits of song lyrics you’ve heard may be appropriate for an event or scene in your story.  (Just beware of copyright issues and get permission for use of any commercially published music that is still under copyright.)

What music best matches what types of writing?  That is actually a question for each author to answer for themselves.  The correct answer is whatever works best for you.  If you don’t know what works best for you, try listening to different music during your writing sessions over a two-week period and see what music genre inspires you most or what helps you get into the story best.  What music seems to enhance your writing experience?  This is a personal decision.

For me, when I wrote horror stories earlier in my development as a writer, I listened to heavy metal.  The tone of the music seemed to fit the nature of what I wrote.  The past decade or so, I listen to more tailored music.  While writing my romantic comedy screenplay, I listened to popular music from our iTunes library.  A mix of all kinds of rock and all kinds of artists.  When I began writing epic fantasy, I began listening to classical music via Pandora Radio and eventually settled on a custom station based on the soundtracks of Braveheart and Gladiator.  Big, epic, deep, powerful music helps me with the type of epic fantasy novels I’m writing.  This works for me.

Musical tastes are very personal and should be.  Many writers find that music helps their writing.  Music can inspire, influence, seclude, and focus the writer’s mind during story creation.

Does music do this for your writing?

What works best for you?


How to break a slump

How often do we find ourselves struggling to progress in what we’re doing, be it work, sport, hobby, or writing? When an athlete known for his ability to score is suddenly not scoring points or goals, then it is noted that he’s in a slump. When a writer struggles to put words on paper, or thinks everything written is garbage, he is in a slump.

The reasons for the slump are actually not important. Part of the reason for a writing slump or any other is the over-thinking aspect of dealing with it. We go round and round in our minds about why we’re struggling and how untimely it is and how miserable it is, etc.

I know how it is because I just emerged from an extended writer’s slump. Why did it happen? How many reasons or excuses do I have created? How much did I analyze it?

Doesn’t matter.

The solution was simple.

I sat down, opened up my work in progress, The Lost Tower, re-read the previous chapter and started writing.

Sounds easy, right?

Not.

I had to just write. Not think AND write. I had to force off the half of my mind that wants to edit every keystroke that comes from my fingers as they dance across the keyboard of my laptop.

I’m writing the first draft and thus need to keep the editor mind on ice for a few more months.

That is the trick I used. I gave myself permission to write an imperfect first draft. I told my editor mind to take a summer vacation and to leave me alone.

I wrote in half a week more than I’d managed in the past six weeks.

Slump over.

What are your slump stories and solutions?

–Mark


How to cure writer’s distractions…

I’m not a believer in the existence of writer’s block which I consider one of those myths that far too many believe and often fear.  I am, however, a firm believer in writer’s distractions.

The first step to a cure is identifying those distractions.  Here is a little one question quiz to get the discussion started.

It’s 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday and you haven’t yet done your writing for the day.  You’ve just finished eating a delicious dinner with your family.  What do you do next?

  1. Excuse yourself and retreat to your writing space for two hours, where you write at least 500 words on your work in progress.
  2. Excuse yourself and retreat to your writing space and read e-mail, surf writing forums, read online book reviews, write a blog entry, or post on your favorite social media site.
  3. Tell yourself you’ll write later and turn on the TV.
  4. Tell yourself you’ll write later and perform some household chores.
  5. Tell yourself you’ll write later and run some errands.
  6. Tell yourself you’ll write later and play video games.
  7. Tell yourself you’ll write later and play with spouse, kids, or pets.
  8. Tell yourself you are just too (tired, uninspired, unmotivated, blocked) to sit and write.

If you answered anything but “A” then you are suffering from writer’s distractions.  Something all writer’s face at one time or another.  I fall victim to #2 – 8 all the time.

Note:  the 7:00p.m. time slot is arbitrary.  You may write at other times of the day.  So if your usual slot is 5:00a.m. and you sleep in repeatedly or get up and go to the gym instead, those are your distractions.  The point here is show examples of what writer’s choose to do instead of writing.

So, do you have a regular writing slot?  If not why not?

For most of us with day jobs, writing during the day between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. is impossible, so that leaves us with the 5:00 p.m. to midnight window.

The writing slot doesn’t matter, use what works for you.  If you have to, go to Starbucks during your lunch hour and write on a legal pad or pull out your personal laptop or iPad.

The key here is to find and maintain a regular writing slot.  If that is not possible, an irregular slot is better than nothing.

What is an irregular slot?  Here’s an example:

Monday – Come home from work and write before dinner.

Tuesday – Lead a cub scout meeting after work, so you have a late dinner, and write at 9pm.

Wednesday – You DVR American Idol or your favorite shows at 7 p.m. and write while the show is taping

Thursday – Watch kids for spouse so she can attend a meeting or run errands.  Write after kids go to bed at 9pm.

Friday – Date Night – Write from 5:00 – 6:30 p.m.

Saturday – Write at 10:00 a.m. or at 2:30 p.m. after household chores are finished.

The point is it is more important to write every day than it is to write at the same time every day.  Sure the professional writers can get up and treat their writing schedule like a day job and “clock” in at their writing desk at 8:00 a.m. every weekday morning and write for six or seven hours.  Most of us don’t have that luxury, so find a spot or spots that work for you.

If you have a regular (or irregular) writing slot, do you often skip it or do something similar to answers #2 – 8 above?

Why?

Is the other activity bringing your book closer to completion?  Is the TV show helping you get published?  Will your pet rock feel neglected if you don’t take it for a walk right at 7:00 p.m.?  Don’t pet rocks like to take walks at 5:00 p.m. right after work or at 9:00 on a warm spring night?

Did that trip to Circle K for a Red Box movie really have to happen right during your writing slot?

Will the laundry turn into a horror movie monster if it sits unfolded for another hour or two while you write?

Okay, some of these examples are exaggerated a tiny bit, but you see my point.  Most of what we distract ourselves with can be done at a different time.

What if we do have the time available and have organized our other activities to give us a daily writing slot, but we still don’t write?

What is the distraction?  I can’t help with that other than to suggest that you need to identify it and remove the distraction.

If you can’t focus and write while the kids are still up, write after they go to bed, before they wake up, or while they’re at school or day camp.

If you can’t focus and write while the dishes are not done, assign the kids or spouse that chore, or quickly do the dishes and then sit down and write.

Identify and remove.

A writer writes.

There isn’t any better way to say this.

A writer writes.

A professional writer writes daily in sufficient quantities to produce publishable works that reader will pay to read.

So, define your goals (i.e. completing a novel or story, entering a contest, publishing an eBook, or just writing for yourself) and go for it.

Start new projects.

Finish what you start.

Prioritize your time.  People tend to do what is most important to them.  In other words, people usually find time to do what they want to do.

If you really truly want to write, you’ll not only find the time to write, you’ll make the time to write.

And if you really want to write, you’ll be far less susceptible to writer’s distractions.

Find the inner desire to write, prioritize some regular time, utilize that time, and write away.

That is the cure.


How to know if you’re a writer

I am not here to dispel any stereotypes or clichés or generalities about writers.  My goal is only to hold up the proverbial mirror and let you discern for yourselves if there is a writer within.

There is a phrase in the New Testament, Luke 4:23 specifically that reads “…Physician, heal thyself:”  I would like to adapt that to read, “Writer, know thyself.”

Why do this?  Writers are notoriously subtle creatures and often benefit from a good reflection now and then.

So here we go with a list of different mirrors.  If any of them resonate then you may have an inner writer after all.

You might be a writer if…

  • When telling friends about your root canal, you recite the event in three acts, with you as the hero and the oral surgeon as the evil villain
  • You think being social means posting to Facebook once a month
  • Your idea of “dinner out” is a trip to your dining room
  • You have a picture of an old typewriter over your desk
  • You have an actual old typewriter on your desk

Actually, I could go on, but there are several blogs that have done these lists before.  And honestly, they are mildly humorous only to writers who recognize the hyperbole in themselves.

For me, I don’t buy into stereotypes too much.  Since the age of fifteen, I have always considered myself a writer.  But what is it that made me think so?

I could tell stories.  I liked telling stories.  In fact, I thrived on telling stories.  Even the most innocuous event, when told properly, could be a compelling story.  Okay, so some of the bullets above apply to me, but not all.  Those who know me can likely guess which ones.

It wasn’t just about telling stories, it was about entertaining the listener.  I found an interesting paradox within myself at age 15.  I was painfully shy in most social circumstances, including classrooms at school.  But during our creative writing section, I was always the first to volunteer to read my story aloud to the class.  Those few stories were likely all the talking I’d done in class that semester, but I had no fear.  My shyness disappeared while I read and observed the reactions around me.  My first real audience.

Now I’m sure those early stories were horrible, not in the genre sense, because I tended to write horror stories back then, but in the sense that I didn’t know proper “craft” or narrative structure.  But I did thrive on using words to move an audience.  I had passion for story telling.  And at the time, that was enough for me.

So, that is why I know I’m a writer.  There are far more signs and evidence to consider and everyone arrives at the realization in different ways.

If you do not consider a writer, are you sure?  Do you like telling stories?  Do you have a decent vocabulary?  Do you enjoy reading?  If so, you may have an inner writer you’re neglecting.

If you are an admitted writer, when did you first realize you were a writer?  What signs led you to that discovery?  Are you actually writing, or just thinking about writing?


Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.