Writing a character sketch can be a great idea…as long as that’s not the way we introduce the character in the final story…
or: How I Met Their Father (and what it tells you about introducing characters)
After our first proper date, the boy who had taken me to the theater sat across from me in a smoky pub in Edinburgh and told me stories from his life.
We had somehow managed to claim the coveted armchairs near the fire (because pubs in Scotland have such things). As we talked, one or other of us would lean forward to pick up our pint glasses from the low table in front of us. Gradually, we started to do it in unison.
It would have been noisy and it must have grown dark while we talked, but I don’t remember any of that, because I was laughing, and listening, and piecing together a person from the stories he was telling me.
He told me about his boss at the university, the stupid games they played in the lab to pass the time while experiments ran, the (very) daft things he’d done after too many pints, and – and this is where I remember thinking ‘you should careful with this one’s heart’ – the story of an ex-girlfriend or two.
It wasn’t until much, much later that I learned about his hometown, the granny he loved, the games he invented alone in his room on rainy Saturday afternoons.
I learned about him backwards.
It’s how we meet most people, if you think about it.
And yet we tend to make a fuss when stories are deliberately written that way, as if the author is somehow breaking the rules.
How To Introduce Characters
When we make character sketches and biographies, it makes sense for us to start at the beginning (where were they born? Where did they grow up? What formative experiences did they have?)
But if we try to do that when we introduce them to readers it feel like an info-dump…because that’s not how we get to know people in real life.
It feels stilted. Awkward. Weird.
So don’t be afraid to introduce characters in the moment and gradually peel back the layers gradually, and only when it becomes important for us to know why they are the way they are.
How do you think about character development vs introducing characters on the page? Leave a comment:
There’s a memorable scene in the movie Silence of the Lambs, when Jodie Foster’s FBI supervisor points out that assumptions are treacherous “Because when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and me…”
I was thinking about that today, as I prepare for another Critique Week, here at StoryADay.
When I interviewed Matthew Salesses, author of Craft in the Modern World, he talked about the difficulty of giving meaningful feedback to other writers if we don’t root out our unconscious biases.
Chances are, if you’re like me, most of the literary greats you were exposed to at school were white, male, and dead.
“Good stories” were those that were modeled after Faulkner or Joyce, or Poe.
But what if you’re being asked to read a story by your friend who is queer, 25, and an immigrant from Nigeria? How do you ‘judge’ that story?
How To Be A Sensitive Reader
In my experience, the best way to give helpful feedback is to get into conversation with the writer.
Some useful questions include:
Who are you writing this for? (Accepting, humbly, that I might not be the target audience.)
How do you want the reader to feel at various points in your story?
Are there any cultural storytelling norms you’re using that I might need to know (if I’m not your target audience)?
I hope this gives you confidence to say ‘yes’, next time someone asks you for feedback.
Crafting a writing life isn’t all about knowing where to put commas and how to develop characters. It’s also about engaging with other humans. This week I’m in conversation with Larissa Sjarbaini, a high performance coach, about how to do that and why you might want to, even if you’re an extreme introvert. And stay tuned for an opportunity to develop your own game plan for a writing life
This year, for the first time, I’ve created a Fun-Size StoryADay challenge—one month, one story—to ease you (back) into a daily writing practice that fits your life.
Your Perfect Writing Day
Imagine opening your email each morning of May and finding an encouraging note, writing prompt or tiny task that will start you off on the right writing foot.
No guilt, just an invitation to let your inner writer come out and play.
What’s In the Fun-Size Challenge?
Each day you’ll receive a tiny task to lead you through the process of writing one story during the month
Week 1 – Ideas and preparation
Week 2 – Developing your ideas and beginning to write
Week 3 – Working through the middle and ending the story well
Week 4 – Tidying up and planning ahead
PLUS anyone who signs up will have the option to enter the ‘review lottery’ and may get feedback on their writing, live on a group call.
By the end of the month you will have a draft of a story that didn’t exist 31 days before.
Perhaps you, like StoryADay writers Gabrielle, Marta, Kim, and Lex, will have created the draft that gets you your first, second or fiftieth fiction publication.
Or maybe, like Laura, or E. Rankin, you’ll make your first paid sale.
And how great would it be if, at the end of May, you are like StoryADay writer Michele who finally created “that daily writing habit”, or Robin who says “I have become a real writer”? Or Jeff, who says “every day, I have that desire to put in a little time with my writing and I’m confident that will always be there for me, now.”
Even if you need to take a day or two off, the tasks are manageable enough that you’ll easily be able to keep up. Importantly, you’ll keep making progress towards your goals, throughout the month.
(And don’t worry, for all you hard-core challenge fans, the classic 31 days, 31 prompts, start-and-finish-a-story-every-day version is still an option, with new writing prompts every day, and a lively community to keep you going!)
If you’ve been looking for a way to break through your blocks, fight the fear that comes with perfectionism and high expectations, and simply have some fun with your writing again, join us this May for the free StoryADay May challenge.
keeping one foot in each world—living up to your obligations to other and saying ‘yes’ to your need to write—-takes time and practice.
I took a week away from my writing. And I want to tell you why, and why it might (or might not) be a good idea for you to do the same.
It’s not like the timing was perfect…I’m two weeks out from putting on the 13th StoryADay May challenge, and this year I decided to make it easier (on you, not me) by creating a whole new Fun-Sized Challenge. (Have you signed up yet?)
But frankly, the time is never right. Not for vacation, not for a crisis, and certainly not for you to become a writer.
Do you believe that you have a right to write? Not that people in general have a general right to be creative. Do you believe that you, specifically, have a right to write? Even if it takes time away from your partner, even if it takes time away from your kid, even if, even if, even if…
Do you believe you have a right to write? Do you believe your voice is important? Do you believe your voice matters?
Mindset is I’m coming to believe more than half the battle when it comes to writing. Everything else? We can, we can learn as we need it. I think getting that in place is huge.
Some writers become discouraged by the Morning Pages practice: It can feel like running on a treadmill to nowhere, never sure if you’re making progress.So how do you know if you’re ‘doing Morning Pages correctly’?
This morning when I had a realization that might convince you to try (or enjoy) Morning pages, yourself.
Do you write Morning Pages?
Julia Cameron popularized this free-writing practice in her book The Artist’s Way and many writers swear by it.
The idea is that you write 3 pages of no-obligation, possibly-stream-of-consciousness ‘stuff’ every morning, to warm up.
But some writers become discouraged after doing Morning Pages for a while. It can feel like you’re running on a treadmill to nowhere, never sure if you’re making progress. So how do you know if you’re ‘doing Morning Pages correctly?
I’m sporadic with the ‘morning’ part of Morning Pages, but I do tend to journal most days and/or free-write before I try to write anything ‘proper’.
That’s what I was doing this morning when I came to a realization that I thought you might enjoy sharing. it might even convince you to try Morning pages, yourself.
Julie’s Morning Pages 21 Jan 2022
I am at my desk and facing the classic writers’ dilemma: there is so much I could work on. I can feel the clock ticking away the minutes I have carved out for writing and the first stirrings of panic bubble low in my chest.
I want to write. I don’t want to waste this precious moment but the task seems so huge—and it is! I either find my way back into a dormant story or begin building a whole new world full of decisions about the world (is there gravity? Are we even on earth? Which Earth? When? Where?) and people with full, complex histories before we meet them on the page. And then, how do I make something interesting happen, and keep happening?
The whole thing weighs on me like heavy cloth and I begin to feel the gravitational pull of busywork, the need for the affirmation of a thumbs up or little red heart on social media (It’ll just take a moment to check and I might get an idea for a story!) or perhaps it’s time I learned to use Scrivener properly—whatever that means. (I’m sure I bought a whole course on that.Surely when I have mastered a new tool, THEN it’ll be easier to write…)
Luckily for me, I have been pursuing my writing goals with a will for over a decade now and I know, beyond a doubt, that my only hope of doing anything like ‘good writing’ rests in one practice:
Here at StoryADay I talk a lot about the importance of not just starting, but also finishing your work.
Finishing (and sharing) your stories allows you to improve your craft with words, but just as importantly it helps you get to grips wiht your process as a writer.
You might wish you were the kind of writer who could get up at 5 o’clock every morning and write 2,000 words and then get on with your day. And maybe you can white-knuckle it for a week or two.
But maybe your process is different.
And would it be so terrible if you allowed yourself to start with what comes naturally and build on that?
My Customary Freak-Out
I’m preparing a new workshop and was getting discouraged about my apparent lack of progress.
I had a little freak-out as I sat down at the blank page to make myself start work on the outline.
Then I laughed.
Because the words ‘customary freak-out’ popped into my head and I remembered that this isn’t new. This is my process when i’m creating anything new, whether it’s a workshop, a story, or a whole course.
It goes like this:
Come up with an awesome idea
Mention it to people, who say ‘yes, please do that’.
Do loads of research and get excited.
Back away and look at my project only out of the corner of my eye.
Berate myself for procrastinating
Have a small freak-out
Realize that what looked like procrastination is actually percolation and what looks like me backing away from the work is actually me backing up, so I can see the whole thing clearly.
Sit down to create The Thing, and have it pour out of me in one messy-but-promising first draft.
Revise and polish and get excited all over again.
Deliver the thing. Have a blast. Help people.
The Upside of Knowing Your Process
Since we’ve been through this before, my brain has started to move the ‘freak out’ date further from the delivery date (thanks, brain!) so there’s more time between the messy first draft and the production copy.
But it has only done this because I’ve finished and delivered things (workshops, essays, books, articles, speeches, launches) so many times before.
You Can’t Be Someone Else
I envy people who can work on a project for an hour a day for a month, making steady progress. That doesn’t seem to produce my best work, or make me happy.
I’m reluctant to say that I can’t change that, because clearly things can change. I’m not pulling all-nighters. I’ve discovered I can work at any time of the day, not just my beloved vampire-hours. Mindset controls a lot.
But I suspect that working with, rather than against, our natural inclinations, makes for an easier route to productivity. My process isn’t all rainbows and sprinkles, but it works for me.
Finding Your Process
Your process may be different from mine (I hope it is!) It very likely is.
If you think you don’t have a process, it may be that you’re not paying attention OR that you’re not finishing and ‘shipping’ products.
There is an inherent stress in making all the decision needed to call a piece ‘finished’. There is anxiety in showing it to people. You’re raising the stakes. But raised stakes cause us to pull out all the stops. Extra effort builds muscle. The adreneline rush of promising to show your work makes you strive to do your best work.
The more often you go through the whole process of producing and sharing work, the better you will your own process.
And the sooner you can recognize your process for what it is, stop fighting and start tweaking it so that you can produce more, get more creative, and be more fulfilled.
Have you noticed what your creative process is? What do you do that other people might not recognize as forward progress? Leave a comment!
Have you ever lost an afternoon reading all about how to market your novel…before writing the novel, never mind figuring out how to revise or publish the thing?
Or figuring out if you should take part in the latest writing challenge all your friends seem to be doing?
Or maybe you spent way too much energy deciding whether to invest in a new writing workshop or class instead of buckling down and practicing our creative writing skills.
Yeah, me too.
Instead of trusting that the work we’re doing will inevitably lead to progress, we get distracted by Shiny Object Syndrome!
But going down endless rabbit holes will leave us no closer to our goals than we were before.
In fact, it can leave us overwhelmed, discouraged and stalled.
How can we make the courageous choices that really lead to progress in our writing life? And how can you decide if that new writing course, challenge or book is Shiny Object or a Shiny Opportunity?
Spend Some Time With Future-You
What do you hope for when you open a new book about writing, sign up for a course, or embark on a new writing project?
You don’t just hope to complete the course, or the book or the challenge.
When tempted to try a new Shiny Object, you probably build an image in your head of Future-You, a you who has unlocked something with a magical key that is this Shiny Object.
What does Future-You look like? Happy? At ease?
When they sit down to write, does it feel inevitable that they will write and write well?
Hope motivates us to learn that new thing, take that new course, or start that new project: the hope that we will become the writer we’ve always wanted to be.
And that this Shiny Object will be the one that gives it to us.
And it maybe it will be, if we do it properly
(Download the workbook for some tips on how to do that).
But sometimes it backfires and we end up discouraged, and no closer to our goals than we were when we first caught sight of the Shiny Object.
The ABCs of Learning The Writing Craft
We can’t absorb everything at once, nor can we progress faster than we progress!
When considering how to learn the craft of writing, we should do it with care.
What are you trying to achieve?
Ask yourself when do you want to achieve it by/when you will reassess and see how much progress you’ve made?
Ask yourself what resources you already have on tap? A bookcase full of books on writing? The StoryADay site’s prompts, feature articles and podcasts? Online courses that you have signed up for but not completed? Course notes from conferences and courses you took in the past?
What wealth is hidden in those treasure chests?
Might you find the answer to ‘how should I show that my heroine’s heart is breaking, without saying that?” in one of those resources?
Sometimes we’re tempted by Shiny Objects because of our own lack of confidence.
Can you become your own best cheerleader and give yourself permission to keep working on what you’re working on now?
What do you already know how to do well?
In writing – what are you doing when writing seems easiest?
In life – and how might those skills support your writing. Are you already an expert organizer? Can you schedule (and stick to) writing/learning time on your calendar? Are you excellent at connecting meaningfully with other people? Can you use that to write powerful emotional scenes? Or are you the one people trust to set up writing dates, for accountability?)
Now that you’re feeling secure in the skills you already possess, you should be able to more clearly assess whether or not you really need the Shiny Object and whether it’ll really help you, right now.
A Process For Investing In Yourself
Sometimes, of course, a great opportunity comes along: a teacher you’d love to work with, a writing challenge that seems exciting, a book recommendation that you can’t stop thinking about.
Sometimes taking advantage of those opportunities is the right thing to do.
How can you tell which Shiny Objects are actually Shiny Opportunities?
Don’t stress, I’ve got you covered. Here’s the StoryADay Shiny Object Decision Flowchart. Go through it any time you need to make a decision. But, before you go, download the free workbook that goes along with it and expands on each of the flowchart questions.
Download the StoryaDay Shiny Object Workbook now (with bonus Decision Flowchart!)
Download this flowchart and the accompanying workbook now
Leave a comment: what Shiny Object/Opportunity were you most recently wrestling with? How did you make your decision? How did it work out?
I found this in my Free Little Library the other day and it prompted a powerful lesson that I thought I’d share here as advice for writers. If you’re struggling to write and wondering if you’re any good, Snoopy has a lesson for you.
This guest post, from Michele Reisinger, combines the wisdom of many of the StoryADay Superstars. Make sure to leave this open in a browser for the people in your life to ‘accidentally’ read! 😉
My husband would deny it, but he is a romantic at heart.
We’re all struggling with the effects of pandemic pandemonium, but recently he’s given me some pretty awesome gifts that have not only helped me cope with our “new normal,” but also develop a writing practice that will last far beyond this shared crisis.
Even better, while their value to me is priceless, their cost was almost zero. As writer Chari Schoen points out, “Sometimes it is just the little things” that mean the most.
So, what are the most romantic things you can do for the writer in your life?
The herd instinct is only a problem if you’re following the wrong herd.
Let’s see if we can put it to good use. Let’s circle the StoryADay wagons and help each other to write more of the stories that people need to hear—to distract them, to entertain them, to uplift and connect them.
Some things I’ve shared with people over the past few days
This is a wonderful time to catch up on your reading. Everyone has a pile of books they’ve been meaning to get to. Turn off the TV and open those books!
If you can’t get to a writing group because you need to protect your health, ask other people to turn on the voice memo feature on their phone and record the group discussion for you.
If you’re a member of a real-life writing group, ask the organizer to sign up for a free Zoom account. You can get everyone together for 40 minutes at a time under the free account, and chat about writing, or hold your critique meeting, or whatever you usually do.
You don’t have to be writing fiction if it doesn’t feel right, just now. Write letters to friends you haven’t seen recently. Write journal entries. Work on a non-fiction project you’ve been meaning to get to. Advocate for a favorite charity or write postcards for a political candidate’s campaign.
Use writing prompts to write tiny, throwaway stories that are only intended to amuse and distract yourself.
What other ideas do you have?
What can I do to help you?
Do you need an online writing hangouts this week, to keep you from obsessing about the news, or keep you sane while you work from home?
Do you need daily SWAGr check-ins at StoryADay.org for the next week, to keep you accountable?
Would it be helpful if I put together a bundle of links to the most popular articles on the site, so you can read something that isn’t virus-related?
Is there something else I can do to help you?
Leave a comment and tell me how you’re doing, and what you need. Also, if you’ve found something that helps you, please share that too!
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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)
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.
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: