On Writing: Frog Marching the Muse

Tuesday, November 22

3340067512_83836dee8f_b-525x350(From the Writer Unboxed archives.)

Here are eighteen tips I use to help me produce words when my creative muse packed up and left me, leaving no forwarding address. You can, in fact, get an entire book written this way, although it is not the most joyful of processes.

Some of the things on this list are about assembling the raw materials you will need to write the story. Others are about priming the writing pump to get the words flowing. Often, the suggestions will do both. But all of them are about building forward momentum and finding a way—any way—to get those damn words on the page.

I tend to think of them as the equivalent of hauling the bricks, bag of cement, mortar, etc. over to where I am going to build the wall, assembling all the things I will need. Sometimes, having them all there and ready provides motivational juice. Other times I still have to build brick by brick, but at least I don’t have to go hunting for all the parts.

And look! Just in time for NaNoWriMo!

1. Write in short bursts of 20-30 minutes or 500 words.

2. Take a short 10-15 minute walk. Bring a small notebook or recording device.

3. Even if you’re not an outliner see if you can at least find your story’s turning points. It is much easier to build drama and write across shorter distances and can seem more doable. Exploring either of the internal or external turning points can often produce scene ideas and help propel you forward.

External turning points are those moment when everything shifts for your character; surprises or twists are revealed; or the stakes suddenly become higher. (And if none of those happen, then brainstorm some immediately.)

Internal turning points—think about your character’s emotional arc, who she is at the beginning of the story and how she will be different at the end. Be sure there is enough there there, then look at the incremental steps she will need to take in order to achieve that emotional growth.

4.  Assemble the story’s descriptive details and building blocks. Map out the world of your story so all the info you need will be there when you’re ready. Map of the word, the neighborhood, history of the players involved, floor plan of the castle, whatever. This is not procrastinating because at some point you will need to be grounded in the story logistics enough that you can block your scenes and character movements.

5.  Journal your characters wounds and scars and early life traumas. Once your character is fleshed out more, you often get a better idea for the sorts of obstacles she will need to face in the story, which in turn creates dramatic events and scene ideas.

6.  If your antagonist is not a POV character, consider writing a few short scenes from his POV anyway, just for your own benefit. Knowing what your antagonist is doing, thinking, planning  often helps you understand what needs to happen next and what your protagonist will need to do.

7.  Repeat the above for the love interest, especially if they are not a POV character. It gives you a better feel for the push/pull of the relationship dynamics.

8.  Plot out the beats of the main romance/relationship. What characteristics/attributes/specific moments/personality details feed the attraction between the two characters. Writing them down will help you see what needs to be woven into the story and will often generate scene ideas.

9.  Create character cards. This can be especially helpful for secondary characters and creates a wonderful shorthand to help you focus the way the character interacts with other people, which in turn can help provide scene momentum. Oftentimes just being reminded of character’s dominant traits and the way they move in the world can help get things started.

Take a 3 x 5 index card for each character with their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
List three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Add a hidden core motivation for both his personality traits and actions: impotent
Next, list a handful of dominant physical features that will help you key into that character and can also act as tags to help anchor the reader:

pale read beard hides a weak chin,
blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine,
barrel chested.

Lastly, come up with two or three mannerisms the person uses:

stroking his beard,
shifting eyes,
rocking back on his heels


10. Assemble a list of physical actions for the story in general, individual scenes, and for each character. These physical actions characters perform are a great way to pull action into the scene—action you can then tweak to create DRAMATIC action and subtext. For example, let’s say one of your characters whittles wood to keep his hands busy whenever he is sitting still. If he does that enough times, at some point he can fumble the wood or drop it or the knife can slip and you won’t even have to tell the reader that he was surprised or perturbed by what just happened. How he whittles–slowly, vigorously, carelessly–will add depth of emotion and subtext to the scene. And really, there are thousands of everyday actions that can be used to give the scene some extra layering.

11. Write whatever scene is most vivid in your mind, regardless of where it will come in the book. I know this is hard for a lot of people, but sometimes those vivid scenes will provide story juice or clues or touchstones that we can then use to work back from. Yes, it does involve some scene stitching later on, but if you are on a deadline and that’s all you’ve got to work with, you sometimes can’t afford not to try it.

12. Assemble a book specific thesaurus. We all have words we overuse, and each manuscript has it’s own special set of words we use too often. Mysterious, dangerous, dark, compelling, whatever words you see coming up thematically in your work. Take some time and a really good thesaurus and fill your word well with new choices that you haven’t used or thought of before. (Not overly fancy words or those that force people to use dictionaries—this is more of a way to break out of your word rut.)

13. Scene sketching – This is a great tool for brainstorming a scene and getting some bare bones down that you can then fill in with more detail. You can pick one of these per scene or throw the full monty at it, depending on how utterly blank your mind is.

a) gather the descriptive details you will need for the scene, location, weather, clothing

b) block out the physical action and logistics of the scene

c) list what has to happen here—what is the reason the scene exists.

D) write the dialog only—as if you are listening in on a conversation—what can you hear the characters saying to one another.

14. Write transitions. These are those chunks of writing that propel the reader from one scene to the next or across time and space where nothing happens. It’s a great way to jump through swaths of time and keep moving. You also might find in the end that you don’t actually need anything there. It’s a great way to avoid boring daily accounting of characters’ activities and keep the story moving forward.

15. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to ‘tell’ the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to ‘tell’ helps you keep moving forward.

16. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to research visuals for your scene—the location, the room, the clothing, a picture of what your character either looks like or expressions that convey the emotion she is feeling. Sometimes it can be easier to describe what we can actually see.

17. Pick five or six dramatic events that you know occur in your story. Take those moments and really dig deep, delving into your characters deepest layer of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the story stalls out not due to lack of action, but because we don’t truly understand what our characters would be experiencing in the moment and how that would impact their future decisions and actions.

18. Turn off the internet. No, really. Just turn it off.

And there you have it! All my quick and dirty tricks for getting words on the page.

On Writing: Spackle

Sunday, November 20

A lot of us are feeling woefully behind on our word counts right now and doing anything we can to move forward. One of my the things I rely on in these sorts of situtations is the literary equivalent of spackle.

Spackle, you might ask? You mean like that weird, white plastery stuff that you use to cover holes in the wall?

Yes. That is exactly what I mean.

Spackle when writing is just what it sounds like: a flimsy lick and a promise to get back to a spot and create something better. Stronger. Heftier. When I am in the zone and the story is unfolding before me, if I take too long in trying to capture the words, they’ll disappear before I can get them down. For me, always, the race is to get the story down while I’m in the heated flush of that writing zone. I can linger and dally over language all I want later, once the bones of the story are firmly in place.

Or, conversely, if I am having a hard time getting the words to flow, or flow in a jumbled, out-of-order sort of way, I use spackle to fill in the blanks so I can at least maintain my forward momentum. Sadly, this is the situation I find myself in this month.

Spackle often shows up as a set of brackets [like this] when I know I need a better word or simile but I don’t want to stop the writerly flow and search right then.

Something in his face made me [uneasy].
His eyes hardened like [sharp flat stones].

Sometimes though, spackle can be an entire action.

[Heroine and hero escape stronghold and make their way to safety. Will need to learn something on the road that will be critical to final solution/climax.]

As you can see, that’s no mere phrase or word choice, but an entire plot point that needs to be worked out.

The thing is, with rough drafts I know I will need a series of scenes in there. Some of them are showing up, right on cue, and others aren’t. But I still need a placeholder in this new draft I’m building, something to help me capture the pacing and the rhythm of the scenes. In that case, I spackle entire scenes, which go something like this:

[They arrive at court. Hero leaves her to talk politics with duchess’s advisors. She pretends she’s bored and wanders away. Uses this as excuse to eavesdrop on other’s conversations. Learns Count Z has returned, sees Lord X and Lady Y in tete a tete, wonders what they’re up to. Protects one of the serving maids against an overbearing baron, accidentally runs into the French ambassador, then herofinds her and invites her to dance.]

In that bit I list all the things from the various plot threads I’m juggling that I know have to happen then, in that scene. It also helps me capture in really broad strokes what the scene will encompass, while also giving my subconscious time to figure out more of the details and the nuance and even what the scene will actually be about. (Because clearly, from looking at that list, I do not have a clue. Yet.)

Oftentimes, I’ll figure out major epiphanies for that scene in subsequent scenes—scenes I never would have written if I’d let myself get totally stuck and stymied in one spot and not allowed myself to use spackle.

So if you aren’t currently using spackle, you might see if there’s a place for it in your writer’s toolbox. Because honestly? Sometimes a lick and a promise and a healthy dollop of spackle is what finally gets us to the end of this first, rough draft.

On Writing: What’s In A Name?

Monday, October 31

For me, naming is a huge part of character. In fact, I cannot get very far in a novel until I have the correct name. I can be brainstorming and jotting down plot notes and some basic character sketching but until the true name clicks, I’m rudderless. The character doesn’t become real to me until that name solidifies.

The truth is, names matter. A lot. Both in real life and in fiction. So much goes into a name; parental hopes, ancestry, gender, ethnicity, and social status.

Because names carry all that weight, they can also be a hugely valuable tool in terms of world-building, setting an emotional tone, creating an integrated setting, and of course, characterization. The right name can also help anchor us in the story world, whether it be historical or contemporary or Other. Think how different the name Araminta is from Jennifer, or Carradoc is from Justin.

Plus all words have connotations, even names. The way they sound, feel, roll around in our mouths as we say them. All those elements affect how we perceive a name as well. As writers, we can use that, make it work for us. The names can do a significant amount of “showing” so we don’t have to waste time “telling.” [click to continue…]

Someday, I will write a book that does NOT have a cast of thousands. Some day. But for now, that seems to dog me with every book I write. Here then, is a trick I devised to not only help me keep track of the characters, but to help the ones that need to be memorable BE memorable.

When one’s novel is populated by hundreds of people, not every one of them can stand out, nor should they. It would be exhausting and overwhelming. Even worse, it would risk diluting those characters who truly were important. It is perfectly acceptable to have some characters in one’s novel simply be part of the backdrop, the bodies that populate the room for realism’s sake while the true drama unfolds among a select handful of your characters. For those walk-ons and stand-ins, its okay, necessary even, to use quick broad strokes, perhaps even, dare I say it—stereotypes—since their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Because their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Those words are key.

[click to continue…]

On Writing: Arcs

Thursday, October 20

Okay, I’m going to get all math-ish on you here, but bear with me a moment. And I say this as a person who hated geometry. (I liked algebra because it mimics life–in life we are always trying to solve for the unknown–but that’s the subject of a different post…)

In geometry, an arc is the path between two points. It is exactly the same with a character arc. A character arc marks the path between your character at the beginning of the story and your character at the end of the story. The change in the character does not happen all at once, it happens gradually over time, a series of small steps before the final climax when the character is remade into his new and improved self.

Think of a baby chick or a butterfly. It pokes and wriggles, attempting to free itself from the egg or the cocoon, until the very end where it makes a heroic final burst and breaks free. And as any naturalist will tell you, it is hugely detrimental to help the creature break free too early because it is in the actual struggle itself that the chick or butterfly will gain the strength to make that final valiant effort that frees it from it’s old trappings. That pretty much sums up a character’s internal journey and arc.

Here is a picture of one of my character arcs: [click to continue…]

On Writing: The Basics–Now Make It Worse

October 14, 2016

Let’s say you’ve spent some time and come up with this perfect conflict for your character. There is even something at stake if she fails. Go you! Now think of a way to make it worse. Seriously. I had an opportunity to attend one of Donald Maass’s all day workshops, and he asked this question. […]

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On Writing: The Basics–Speaking of Conflict

October 13, 2016

Conflict drives the story. It’s pretty much that simple. If you don’t have conflict on some level, you don’t have a story. The good news is, conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, flavors and colors. The bad news is, most people tend to avoid conflict, so it can be difficult to grab it with […]

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On Writing: The Basics–Plotting: Baby Steps

October 12, 2016

Okay, so let’s say you’ve figured out—kind of—what your characters motivations and desires. You even have a pretty good idea as to what is standing in their way—a bad guy, a raging storm, a stalking fae, a lovesick werewolf, whatever. Now how do you take what you know and shape it into a plot?

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On Writing: The Basics–How To Grow Plot From Character

October 11, 2016

In order to understand what actions will effect a transformation in your character, there are a few things one needs to know. Debra Dixon addresses this brilliantly with her concept of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and if you haven’t read the book, I highly, highly recommend it. She talks at length about needing to have […]

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On Writing: The Basics: Plots–Getting Started

October 10, 2016

So this week I’ll be talking about the writing basics–plot, character, conflict, and stakes. Again, this is all stuff I look at and try to work out in the pre-writing stage, so it’s fair game if you’re prepping for NaNo! So, if, as Julia Cameron says, transformation happens through action, then plot is simply the […]

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