In writing and podcasting about habits this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between what the world sees as success, and our internal motivation for writing.
I gave up on a story today.
It wasn’t a horribly-written story. In fact, it had amused me and a couple of other people who’d read it. My critique group had given me stunningly insightful feedback on what I needed to do to take it from ‘promising’ to ‘good’.
But instead, I put it away and will probably never look at it again.
How Do You Know When It’s Time To Give Up On A Story?
This is a question that comes up surprisingly often among writers.
Wouldn’t you think we’d KNOW if a story was worth working on, or whether it should be consigned to the darkest recesses of our cloud drives, never to be accessed again?Continue reading “When To Abandon A Short Story”
Last week in the podcast, I shared five tips for a successful NaNoWriMo. Lots of people have told me it helped get them through the first week so: yay!
In this week’s episode I talk about the difficulties of reaching the middle of creativity challenge at the exact same moment you reach the midpoint of the novel.
(Short story writers, stay with me because a lot of what I’m going to talk about applies to you too!)
You are not imagining things: this is hard. The middle of a novel is the notoriously hard, and the middle of the challenge is hard for different reasons.
The Midpoint of the Challenge
The midpoint of the challenge is tough because you’re tired. The novelty has worn off. You’ve started to question why are you ever decided to put in all this work. And you may feel that your story isn’t worth the effort.
Allow me to help.Continue reading “Mastering The Middle – Episode 144”
It is November and you know what that means? The whole writing world has been taken over by NaNoWriMo.
As someone who has been participating in and leading creative challenges for over a decade, I have some tips to help you make the most of this month of extreme creativity.Continue reading “5 Tips for A Successful NaNoWriMo”
September is almost here, and with it comes a hint of the changing season, maybe the start of a new school year, and…
This is your chance to spend a month figuring out how to put writing back at the center of your priorities, so that you can write more, write better and finally become the writer you were mean to be.
Are you in?
Sign up now and I’ll send you prompts every day in September, PLUS the StoryADay care package to help you prepare for the challenge and track your progress.
Can’t see the sign up box? Click here!Continue reading “StoryADay Sept’19 Sign Ups”
Plot happens outside, but story happens insideDonald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction
For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.
The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.
But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.
Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?
How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?
Step 1: Know Your Character
None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.
We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.
Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:
You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)
Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.
- The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman
- Psychology Workbook for Writers by Darian Smith
- Sacred Archetypes by Carolyn Myss
Step 2: Nobody’s Perfect
In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.
But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?
The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.
Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”
At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.
And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)
Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.
- Writing Excuses episode on character ‘sliders’
- The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman
Step 3: Show Their Inner Conflict In Action
In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:
- The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
- It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)
Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.
One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that
- Are symbolic of their inner struggle
- Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
- Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.
For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.
In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.
That’s the question the rest of the film answers.
And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.
Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.
- Die Hard (watch how the film makers slip in little actions that remind you of the inner journey of the main character, even as the bullets fly)
- The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass
- Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Big Final Caveat
All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.
If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.
All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.
And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.
Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.
If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:
- All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
- How best to interact with each
- What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback
Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.
Download the Critique Primer Now
‘Creative’ is not a noun…Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title, not the work.”Austin Kleon, Keep Going
I read Chapter 3 of Kleon’s latest book this morning and it stopped me in my tracks.
Not because I didn’t know and understand what he said.
I have, after all, made a name for myself as the person who entices writers to actually write during May & September every year.
But because it made me wonder: am I actually doing the verb?
What Do You Do All Day?Continue reading “Writers: Burn Your Business Cards”
I’ve been stalling on writing this blog post for about two weeks.
Don’t worry, it’s not bad news or anything. I just couldn’t write it.
You know the feeling, right? You want to work on a project, but every time you sit down, something is wrong. You can’t find your way into the story, or you are seized with a sudden urge to research the perfect lamp for your desk…
My Favorite Productivity Hack
To get this post going, I used one of my favorite, sure-fire tricks:Continue reading “What I Do When The Writing Stalls”
Catch the replay of me and Marya Brennan from NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program answering questions about short story writing!
Are you ready to get more creative, more productive, and finally figure out how to integrate writing into your life?
Make your commitment now, to spend May with us, writing a story a day or become a superstar!