Category Archives: Writing process

Learning from other writers

The first thing you learned from another writer, most likely passively, was by partaking in their unique way of telling stories. If you’re a writer today, you’ve spent your whole life until now learning from other writers.

Writing is about shared meaning — through the spoken and unspoken agreements humans have about how the components of language work, as well as through the cultural movements that impact many aspects of a writer’s voice and life. Although it’s vital to being a good writer that you go out and live a life full of details worth writing about, it’s also vital that you sit quietly and listen, one way or the other.

Here are some ways you can set out to intentionally learn from your fellow writers.

Actively

Ask someone to review your work. You may not want to reach out to your favorite bestselling author to request their time in this way; save your burning questions about writing in general for those interactions. This is for your fellow hard-working laborers in obscurity! Reach out to someone you know who writes and see if they’d be willing to do a feedback trade. You can gain so much by listening to someone else who understands how to craft stories talk about your current work.

If you want a real burst of motivation, collaborate on a shared story with a fellow writer. It’s weird. I’ll tell you, trying to write on the same thing with a brain you have zero actual access to is weird. But it’s fun! And it can give you a real kick in the pants to get moving and produce something. Plus, trust me, you’ll learn a ton from the other writer(s) you work with — about style, characterization, and process (both what you’d like to steal and do yourself, and what you’d like to avoid ever doing).

If you’re lucky enough to get the chance, take a class from another writer. Workshops are also weird, but they can be really amazing if they go well. If you don’t have the opportunity to take a class, there are some online resources for watching video series from writers with credentials, such as Masterclass. Videos are nowhere near as good as the real thing, but I understand not everyone will have that chance.

Passively

Re-type their work so you know how it feels to write well (and in their voice). One of Jake’s favorite stories about his favorite writer, Hunter S. Thompson, is how he learned what it felt like to write like the big guns. He would take a novel like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and furiously re-type it until he had a sense of the “music” they were writing. You can do the same when you’re stuck on a certain passage or scene — find a writer you admire who has created similar scenes, and re-type away until you know what it feels like to write that kind of scene well.

Read their work critically. Instead of simply being entertained by a written work, a critical reader pays attention to what the writer left unsaid, and what is implied by adding up what they did say. The next time you want to learn from a writer, pick up something of theirs you’ve read before and go over it with a metaphorical fine-tooth comb.

Read what they’ve written about writing. Whether it’s King’s “On Writing” or Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing,” writing about writing has a storied (ha!) tradition. These days, a lot of authors write about writing on their blogs. I like to look at this kind of reading exercise as “curious consumption”: I’m open-minded, but I don’t let myself feel guilty if I don’t immediately click with another writer’s process. The point is to absorb a lot of different processes, and filter aggressively until I have my own system that works for me.

Some ways to write faster

Everyone these days wants to write more words. Or they want to teach you how to write more words. Either way, it’s kind of an ebook craze right now.

I’ve been reading a bunch of those “write faster” books lately – partly for research and partly because, well, I do actually want to produce more words – and I decided to put together a few of my favorite tips from what I’ve read. These are all really practical, and you can start doing them right away. As in, right now. Get to the bottom of this blog post and write, you animal!

Ahem.

Word sprints

Yeah, yeah, I know I harp on these a lot. But so does everyone else, because… they work. Chris Fox has it right: if you track your word sprints, you get a lot out of them. You start to really feel the progress you’re making, motivating you to keep writing, to keep sprinting. (Try out his tracking spreadsheet! I personally use something simpler, but he’s done a lot of work to make it easy.)

If it helps, challenge someone else – another writer or aspiring writer – to join you or participate in a friendly competition. NaNoWordSprints on Twitter is a great place to find strangers to sprint with, if you don’t personally know anyone who wants to participate in such chaos.

How to start: Set a five-minute timer, put yourself in a position to write using your favorite medium, and don’t stop until the timer’s up. Do this until you’re satisfied with your word count.

Invisible ink

As I wrote in a previous blog post, invisible ink is a tactic to keep you from looking at what you’ve been writing and therefore wanting to edit it.

How to start: Open your favorite word processing software of choice, and change the font to match the color of the window (in the case of Microsoft Word or OneNote, it would likely be white). Keep typing, because you can’t slow down to read what you just wrote!

The Parentheses Process

Another one I’ve written about before, the Parentheses Process basically goes like this: if you can’t think of it now, put brackets around the most useful description of what should go there, and move on.

How to start: Choose a piece of writing you’re stuck on, and use brackets right now to “skip past” the hard stuff. Keep skipping every time you reach something you can’t write right now, and you’ll get to the end faster.

Dictation

I’ve just started down this path, and I’m sure I’ll have updates for you soon. In fact, a good portion of this blog post was actually written with my voice! I’m lucky to have a very nice microphone, but you don’t really have to have a fancy setup to get started. All you need is a copy of Windows 10, a microphone of some sort, and a quiet room to talk to yourself.

I don’t actually recommend dictating everything. The system isn’t really optimized for fiction (not even Dragon Naturally Speaking, the industry’s leading dictation software). But this blog post, as mentioned above, was fairly easy to dictate. The style is conversational, and it’s not that hard to think about where I need to punctuate.

How to start: Make sure your Windows 10 computer is on (at least) the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. Use the shortcut Start + H on your keyboard to open the dictation bar (it seems to work in Edge and Microsoft Office products for sure), and start dictating.

To make things a little easier, here is a starting list of phrases you’ll need if you want to punctuate as you dictate (full list of what the native Windows speech recognition can do is here):

  • “Period”
  • “Comma”
  • “Exclamation mark”
  • “Question mark”
  • “Open quote”
  • “Close quote”
  • “New line”
Cheatsheets

I’m working on a how-to book right now, intended to help aspiring short story writers get their sea legs, and the way I’m structuring the content, I’m going to create myself a cheatsheet, a tactic I’ve mentioned before. Content that is repetitive or structured in a certain way is ripe for this kind of “hack.”

How to start: Take note of all of the elements in the repetitive content. Are there headers, sections, common transitions? Build yourself an outline that touches on each of these elements, and save it somewhere for easy copying the next time you need to produce that kind of content again.

Setting your scene

I recently read a book called Novel Shortcuts, Chapter 4 of which was about setting up a scene before you start writing it. Whitcomb writes about three tactics she uses to ensure that she skips past a lot of “shitty first draft” problems, which I’ve found incredibly useful as I revise my novel “Portent.”

How to start: List out your scene’s physical and internal actions, beat by beat, including the goal, the conflict, and what is unresolved (whether or not it gets resolved in your scene). Next, write the dialogue version of your scene – “write out what has to be communicated,” is how Whitcomb describes it. (When you actually write the scene, this will likely get distilled down into just a few key crisp lines.) Finally, write the “heartstorm” version of the scene (instead of a “brainstorm”) – focus only on the sensory details the character(s) will experience.

Now, when you sit down to write the real scene, you’ll already have all of this raw material to draw from. This keeps you from going off track and keeps the scene moving in the direction the story needs to take.

Invisible ink (a word sprint tip)

As a kid I thought invisible ink was awesome. The stuff of mystery books, to be sure, but still very cool and with its potential uses in real life. I never did get around to using physical invisible ink, but I’ve happened upon a rather funny way to utilize it in the digital space.

On the theme of “trick thyself into creativity,” here’s a tip for maximizing the effectiveness* of your word sprints: If you can’t see your words, you can’t edit them.

Instead of sticking with the defaults in the writing program you use (I happen to use Microsoft Word and OneNote), where the “ink” is usually black, set the text color to the same as the background (in my case, that would be white).

Is this disorienting? Abso-freakin-lutely. In fact, it sort of necessitates that you just keep writing, and writing, and going and going and going, because if you don’t keep moving you won’t remember what you’ve already written.

You could end up with a few repetitive lines of dialog, sure. And you could also end up with an actual, factual manuscript that you can then edit, or have someone else edit. Smile!

Grit your teeth, turn the ink invisible, and spill it onto the page.

*Word sprints are most effective when you just pour out words without stopping, and get as many of them onto the page as you can. You’ll be shocked to learn that it’s easier to edit something kind of terrible that exists than something perfect that doesn’t exist…

“I want an idea like that!”

When I’m perusing Half Price Books and spot a book with an amazing cover and jacket text to match, I often find myself muttering the title phrase of this post – half out of rage, and half out of sheer awe. How did not think of this? Oh, right, because I’m not as brilliant as the author who conceived of it, actually wrote it, and then got it published.

I say this despite having done this very thing. That’s because, it turns out, I approach every new idea with the same trepidation and terror I had with that first idea I successfully carried to completion. I’ve been writing for 25 years now, people, and I still get blocked in a major way.

And then there’s that feeling of despair that I experience when I’ve just read a marvelous book: How will I ever create something like this?!

If you, too, get this post-book angst, I’m writing this to intervene with your inner desperation. You can get an idea just like your new favorite one. It’s possible. I promise. It’s hard work, just like everything else in writing, but it’s very much a thing you can do.

Now that I’ve made that bold claim, I guess I’d better break down how I do it, huh? Disclaimer: This might not work for you, but the point of writing about writing is getting out something that works for me, just in case it could work for you too.

start by picking a focus, because the glorious problem with ideas is that they proliferate like mice as soon as you get two in the same room. So instead of starting a giant list of all my favorite everythings, I pick a single one that I’d really like to emulate right now, given my mindset and capacity. Then I answer all subsequent questions with that one favorite in mind. Otherwise, I’d end up in the same bottomless ocean of potential concepts I usually do, unable to pick the one that’s clearly better than the rest.

So you’ve picked an idea you’d like to emulate. After that, it’s time to make lists. And freewrite. Lots of lists, and lots of freewriting. Fair warning: that’s basically what the rest of this post is, so feel free to skip around between lists and illustrative paragraphs to find what inspires you to write right now.

Find the essence

This exercise is very subjective, but very, very important. You had this feeling of wanting an idea “like that” for a reason; the point of this exercise is to get at that reason.

You can choose how you’d like to go about this process: by making a list, free-associating, word-bubbling, freewriting… Whatever helps you write down what it is you love about the idea.

There isn’t a magical, pre-determined list of things that make an idea awesome or captivating or haunting. For example, if you ask me what I loved so damn much as a kid about The Last Battle, I’d start with the line that Jewel the unicorn cries out to his companions as they joyfully wend their way through the afterlife: “Come further up, come further in!” It captures the soul of the story in six simple words.

On the other hand, ask me why I adore Watership Down and regularly re-read it to this day, and I’m immediately put in mind of a character moment: Hazel, weighing up the flaws of a possible ally and deciding that kindness is more useful than criticism, tells Bigwig, “Good. We shall be glad to have you.” It’s Hazel who makes his story what it is for me, and if I were trying to emulate Adams’ novel, I’d likely begin with “an endangered family of creatures” and “a tenacious, reluctant leader as the protagonist.”

To keep things focused, as I’ve advised, I suggest that you make a list of no fewer than three things and no more than ten things that make the story what it is to you. Then go back and circle the ones it wouldn’t be the same without. I’ll call this the Love List.

This is what you’re going to start with to make your own amazing idea.

Gather the elements

Every story has certain components or elements, whether they’re explicitly acknowledged or utilized or not. These lists of exercises can help you understand the mechanics of getting to an idea “like that” by breaking the idea down into parts you can understand and change.

Start by creating an Element List that covers each of the following elements for your favorite idea, preferably in no more than 10-12 words at the most:

  • Title
  • Point of view
  • Voice
  • Character
  • Problem
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Device

This might feel like a book report, or just gushing to a friend about something you enjoy, but that’s exactly the point. Enjoy it! Then you can move on to fleshing out more details about your favorite idea.

You may find you draw from your Love List to populate the Element List. That’s a good sign.

Character

Characters are the lifeblood of a story, without whom a plot is just a timeline. Chances are good that even if you weren’t too keen on a story’s main character, the supporting cast at least stood out to you. Here’s your chance to find out why.

Before you get started, though, which characters in your favorite work would you gladly (or at least curiously) read some fan-fiction about? Those are the ones you should focus on for the other exercises.

  • List your favorite lines of dialog from these favorite characters. Try to limit yourself to the quotes that perfectly capture their personality and attitude.
  • Write down the physical and personality details about your favorite characters that make your heart squeeze when you think about them — the reasons you love them so.
  • What makes your favorite characters unique? Is it the contrast of their occupation (a thief) with their personality (a heart of gold)? Is it the way they don’t fit with their setting (a pot-healer in a synthetic future)? Capture these oddities.
  • What are your favorite characters’ secrets and inner wounds? List as many as you can remember.

Problem

What struggle does the protagonist face in the story you’re choosing as your inspiration? That’s the “problem” — also known as the conflict, or the central challenge. It lies at the heart of the story, and the protagonist’s (nearly) every move should be an attempt to solve this problem.

This problem is likely something simple and human at its core: love, family, home, safety, survival… Nearly all of us face these problems in our own lives, to some degree. It’s the specific mix of character, context, and setting that make the problem come to life.

  • What are the obstacles that stand between the protagonist and solving the problem in the story you’re using for inspiration? List them out one by one.
  • What one word or phrase (no more than five words) can you use to describe the problem (see the above list for inspiration)?
  • Go through the jacket text for the story you chose, and highlight the specific vocabulary words and phrases that refer to the protagonist’s core problem.

Setting

The where and the when of a story can inject personality in a way that nothing else can, not even perfect characters. Choosing a time and place that provides ample vocabulary and circumstance to flavor a story is a masterful art many skillful authors practice. Perhaps it’s the setting of your favorite story that makes it sing…

  • Describe the when and where of your favorite story in the simplest terms possible: “19th century England,” “a far-off planet in 2000 years,” “10 years ago in a city like mine.”
  • What are some of the unique features of the world that set your favorite work apart, even from other works in a similar setting? Jot these down.
  • How does the setting of your favorite story manifest in the narration? Come up with 4-5 examples.

Plot

A plot is a formula: character + problem + setting + time = plot. It’s what happens to who, because of where and when it’s set. Not all stories about naïve protagonists, set in space an ambiguously “long time ago,” will be Star Wars, in large part because of who those protagonists are and what happens to them. Think of the plot as the window through which you will see the characters: how long the audience is with them, and for what key events in their lives.

  • What plot twists do you find particularly satisfying in your favorite story? Spoilers are welcome for this exercise.
  • Which parts of the plot of your favorite story feel inevitable, but not cliche? Describe them in 3-5 words.
  • What is the cheesiest moment of the plot of your favorite work? How about the most dramatic? Where do these fall in the timeline of the story?

Devices

Devices are storytelling vehicles. They run in all shapes and sizes, from “one-syllable words only” to “Hans Christian Anderson-style fairy tale” to “the narrator watches the events unfold from a security room, so sometimes the story occurs concurrently.”

A good writer uses the device to squeeze the most emotional tribute out of their audience as possible. A fairy tale, for example, might set up the expectation of some sort of “happily ever after,” and if you choose this device, you can throw more and more seemingly impossible obstacles in the way and readers will still buy that things turn out alright.

  • What scenes or plot points does the device enable in your favorite story? (In other words, which would not be possible if the story had been told in another manner?)
  • Can you think of stories that are similar to the one you’ve chosen, but that use different devices? You may have to think hard on this one – a good device can disguise many elements.
  • Make a list of 10 or more devices you enjoy (from different stories). When you’re done with the list, go back through and circle any recurring themes.

Titles

OK, here’s a little secret: titles don’t really matter. Whoops! That’s going to get quoted out of context. Look, it’s not that titles don’t matter. It’s that you, the author, the person who’s closest to this work and its most fiercest defender, are probably not the right person to come up with a title that will matter. And when I say “matter,” I mean in selling your idea, in convincing a potential buyer to shell out some hard-earned money for it. Leave that to the marketers and publishers in your life; they’ll help you cross that bridge when you come to it.

But the right title sticks with you, and so if you’re inspired by the title of your favorite work – if you feel it’s so integral to that work’s meaning, it wouldn’t be the same without it – here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • What are some other possible titles that your favorite work may have been given? Brainstorm 8-10 options based on pithy quotes, character names or roles, dramatic events, cultural references, or whatever else was memorable material. How would these alternate titles change your perception of the story?
  • What is the cadence of the title? One syllable, or eight? Is it simple or full of complex meaning (or both)? Come up with some titles that “feel” similar, but are meant for entirely different works.

Point of view

A story’s point of view indicates both the perspective used (first-, second-, or third-person), as well as which character(s) the audience is privy to. Third-person limited point of view, for example, means that a character is not narrating the story themselves, but the audience will witness only that one character’s thoughts.

Genre and content can dictate point of view, but you should feel free to experiment on this element.

  • How does the point of view chosen for your favorite work help the storytelling? Does it keep the audience in suspense like the character, or does it give the audience a breath-stealing view into what will happen before the character is ever aware?
  • As a reader, you’re led along by the chosen perspective of a work. How does that of your favorite story help you better understand – or intentionally misunderstand – the protagonist?

Voice

Ahh, the buzzword of my industry. I purposefully chose to use “voice” here because it’s ambiguous. It means the writer’s own tone and word choice – and, by proxy, that of the protagonist – but it also means the characters’ dialog, the way they speak and what the writer allows them to say.

  • Go back through your favorite work and jot down 8-10 favorite lines. If these are dialog, even better.
  • Describe the style of your favorite work’s author in a few paragraphs. Pretend you’re writing a book report focused solely on the stylistic choices they made.
Put your spin on it

Ahh, 50 Shades of Grey. What a crazy thing! Someone took an extremely popular idea they loved that happened to inspire them, broke it down into its elements, changed just enough of those elements, and spawned another hit franchise in doing so.

Guess what? There’s an actual legal definition of “just enough.” It’s 20%. Twenty percent of your work has to be materially different from the original, and then it’s legally not the same idea. It’s derivative, sure, and maybe not every writer would be proud of themselves for walking as close to that 20% line as E.L. James did. But then again, she’s making bank, and I think artists should be proud of themselves for making something that people like enough to pay money for it. (I digress. That’s a topic for another time.)

So here are some ways you can put your own spin on your favorite idea. The thing is, even if you “only” change 20% of the elements you’ve been listing in the above exercises, your work will still be something unique born of your own voice, experience, and sense of wonder. Don’t worry too much about how far you’ve pushed the envelope. That can come at the revision stage, when an editor or sharp alpha reader can help you bolster the things that are unique about your work and downplay the things that aren’t.

Three degrees of separation

This is a pretty straightforward exercise. Take the Element List you created for your favorite idea, choose three of the elements, and change them. (Or use some of the material you generated in the more specific exercises.)

Now start exploring how these new elements affect the others. How would the characters act differently in another time period? What plot points would become irrelevant if the setting changed? How does the narrative change if you remove the device altogether?

Use this list for inspiration:

  • Make the story about a different character.
  • Give the protagonist a different problem.
  • Give the same problem to a different protagonist.
  • Put the same story in a different setting.
  • Put a different story in the same setting.
  • Tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.
  • Using the same point of view, tell the story of a different character.
  • Tell a different story about the same character.
  • Use the same device on a different story.
  • Frame the same story with a different device.
  • Throw in an unexpected twist to the plot.
  • Take the plot and set it in another time.
  • Give the story a different title.
  • Come up with another story that could share the same title.
  • Change the voice to tell the same story.
  • Try to emulate the same voice, but for a different story.
The final touches

By this point, you probably have something that you’re pretty excited about starting in on. Hold up, one last thing! Just to bring this whooole exercise full-circle, make a Love List for your new idea.

Of course, you don’t know yet what your future story won’t be the same without, or what your audience will savor forever about your story. But hopefully your writerly heart is beating a little faster and your word-ful blood is pumping a little harder, and you already kind of know what it is that makes you want to do all of the hard work of dragging an idea out of your imagination and into the world.

Whenever you falter, whenever you start to question why you bother, pull out the Love List for your idea – and remember why you once told yourself, “I want an idea like that!”

Dogfooding your art

For a while, when I was a wee overachiever, I was often called a perfectionist. It wasn’t true, though. I was (and am) just good at spotting things that could still be improved.

A perfectionist can’t bear to put something out into the world until it’s perfect, and thankfully I’ve never really had that problem. (I’ve been posting my drafts online since 2001.)

When I started working at Microsoft nearly five years ago (!!), I learned of a business term that crops up in software development a lot: dogfooding. It’s short for “eating your own dog food,” or, “using your own damn product.” It’s great. I think it’s really vivid and kind of nasty, and that’s why it’s the right word — because at the point at which you’re dogfooding something, it’s probably not ready for your real audience. It’s a messy, uncomfortable process that’s absolutely necessary.

Dogfooding usually refers to software, or on occasion other products like cars or soft drinks, but I like to use it in regards to my art. You might stop me here and say, “August, how the heck am I supposed to use my own art?”

Great question! Start by reading it out loud, or sending it to a different device from the one you create on. Break out of the way you’ve been creating to experience it in another way. Turn it upside down if you have to. Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

And then get your art out to your inner circle. Your squad. Your superfans who exist because they’re obligated by other social contracts: those people who, by blood relation or professional association or creative conglomeration, will happily consume what you make and then tell you what they think.

Bombard them with your art. Get a channel you’re comfortable with — whether that means making something private that’s invite only, or choosing a fresh username unassociated with your other online identities, or even just dumping your drafts on your regular social media platforms. Whatever you prefer, find a channel, set it up, and make it simple for you to post to it. Regularly.

That’s the secret. You have to constantly be updating, and pushing the latest to your dogfooders. The faster you get stuff out there, the faster you get feedback. And that’s what this is about: go forth and gauge your (limited and likely captive) audience’s reaction to what you create.

You don’t always need honest opinions from your dogfooders, or detailed breakdowns of their opinions. In fact, no answer at all can be very telling. Does your little sister “like” and comment on every one of your posts? Did she only “like” it this time? Take that as a tiny little point in the “no” column, make a few changes if you think she’s right, and test again, quickly.

Sometimes you might be uncertain of a detail or an approach you’re taking. That’s when you reach out and specifically ask for others’ perceptions of what you’re up to. You’ll be surprised to find out how often your audience is unable to see the flaws you’re stuck on, or how readily someone will offer exactly the perspective you needed to make it right.

If you want to improve, and if you want to truly speed up your ability to create, then you have to start getting feedback early and often. It turns out that the crappiest part of writing a novel is revising it; it’s tedious, frustrating, and confusing. And you’re only going to make any revision steps of your process easier on yourself by learning how to make good content the first time.

You get there by dogfooding.

Tensing up

I used to write short stories by sitting down and starting. Blank page, rough word count in mind, and go.

These days, I’m less inclined to begin without knowing where I’m going. (Yes, I traded in pantserdom for plannerdom.) I’ll start in my notebook, jotting down character or setting notes, poking at plot points. I might even start writing a paragraph or two by hand, to see if it feels right, before I transition to a Word document or OneNote page.

I’ve been working on my February short story for The Accidental Magic Project for about a week now, starting with the above notebook material. I’d actually come up with a potential starting place, and typed up five paragraphs of prose virtually…but then I’d stalled. It didn’t feel quite right.

I went over and over and over the words, looking for the weak spots. I tweaked something here and there half-heartedly. It didn’t feel like the changes were fixing the problem.

Then last night, I was reading it “aloud” in my head, and about halfway through it struck me — I had changed the tense from past to present in my reading.

The story came alive! My main character, Savas, wasn’t just dickish in the past, he was dickish now, and this gave the narrative the immediacy I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Off I went, speeding towards the plot points I’d outlined in my notebook.

Which brings me to the point of this post: If you’re stuck, try changing tenses. It won’t solve every instance of writer’s block, but it’s an immediate, powerful shift in purpose and perspective.

In present tense, I find that characters’ desires are more pressing, more present. I also find that even when I’m writing in third person, I draw closer to my main character when I write in present tense. (I use present tense exclusively in my [stalled] serial story “A Mutiny of Pirates.”)

Some stories demand the emotional distance provided by past tense. But if you’re sensing that yours doesn’t, give present tense a whirl and see how it goes.

Riding the wave

I’m starting to learn my own creative wave, my rhythm. It’s not exactly aligned to the mountain seasons, but it sticks pretty close.

For me, the cold, dark months are for curling up and digesting heavier stories, more thoughtful fare, including non-fiction. They’re also for browsing through full notebooks and harvesting old ideas, and shuffling virtual notes around to experience them all again.

Then the bright, rainy months are for slow, quiet progress, and revisiting old favorite stories. It’s a time for making new human connections too, who bring inspiration and fresh voices.

Then the warm, stagnant months are for frenetic weeks of inspiration and writing followed by languid weeks of wanting nothing to do with words. This is time for video games, movies, and outdoor experiences.

And then the crisp, chilly months are for forgetting how to write, except when it’s very structured, like projects for other people. It’s a time of extreme writer angst — right up until November, when a last-minute burst of guilty inspiration means NaNoWriMo is happening once more.

I’m learning to lean in. (It says that on the front of my current notebook. That’s how serious about it I am.) If I resist writing, I fill up with material instead, until I’m so full I can’t help but write. If I’m drawn to throw a ton of words down, I try to eliminate my distractions and allow myself to work at a frantic pace.

If your creativity is tied to the weather, and the weather is different where you live or has different effects on you, your rhythm might not be the same. But start to keep an eye on your patterns, and when you tend to want to write, over the next year or two — and see if you can spot when you give yourself plenty of good books to read and when to get out of your own way and just write.

Irresistible

I’m sitting down with a “Now Write!” exercise book for speculative fiction (thank you, Half Price Books!) in front of me, and I’m having a little writercrisis.

See, I love brainstorming. And taking notes. And organizing those notes. And then brainstorming based on the incidental connections firing in my imagination.

But I guess I don’t really let myself call that “writing.”

As I was doing one of these exercises, I got that grippy hoarding feeling at the top of my stomach. (what? you don’t get that when you suddenly have an overflowing of ideas and want NO ONE ELSE TO KNOW ABOUT THEM until you have a chance to make them AMAZING for YOURSELF?! …oh. just me then.)

I started to think about all of the notes I wanted to write about these goofy composite ideas (The Lion King, but with aliens! and so on). And I realized I was about to chastise myself for wasting my time on more notes when what I really could be doing is writing another novel and…

SHUT UP, ME.

No. Seriously. Hold up. What about this, me? Try this on for size:

What if by brainstorming whichever random idea I want to brainstorm about, I develop a bunch of ideas to the point that I just. can’t. NOT. write. the stories?

Revolutionary, I know. Radical. Game-changing, even.

…but seriously, what if.

The best kind of theft

Until recently, I would start the process of creating a character by addressing a need: a genre need (like “strong heroine,” “handsome lover,” “funny sidekick”), a plot need (such as “someone to give my hero advice”), or a world need (as in “this stable needs a groom”). Then I would sketch out the vaguest outline of a character, and fill in the details as they became relevant.

As you might imagine, one-dimensional characters were a hallmark of my early stories.

KC the kitty cat’s entire thing was being stubborn and hating his name. Willow the otter could be (and often was) summed up in two words: steady leader. Ata, griffon-riding warrior that she was, only ever expressed herself by swearing in gibberish (Wu zxy Sohn!).

Much to my chagrin, I’ve never been one of those writers to whom full-fledged characters present themselves, ready to be written. (I envy my dear friend Jill for having this particular writertrait.) Instead, I have to hunt them down and make them reveal themselves.

Because I wasn’t very good at hunting them down, every line my characters used to utter sounded wooden and hammy. It isn’t uncommon to find lines like this scattered throughout my largest complete manuscript: “Then if it be the will of those whose bodies are not whole…I will allow it.” Blegh. Nope.

While I was writing Daugment, trying to capture Pitney’s reaction to a well-intended but ill-timed gesture, a realization sort of struck me. (Sort of, because every good writing book I ever read probably mentioned it somewhere, and it took one weird moment of clarity for everything I’d ever read and heard to fall into place.)

I just had to borrow the heck out of the people I knew in real life.

It only took a minute or two longer to identify someone in real life who shared traits with Pitney, ask myself what they would do under the circumstances, and waltz past my writer’s block.

Now, I start with someone I know. I still consider the genre, plot, and world needs I’m addressing when sketching out my characters, but I immediately choose a real person who at least shares some core traits. Even if I know I want the final product to stray far from the source, or be a composite of multiple people, I ground my inspiration in reality.

So what kind of things do I steal from my friends, family, coworkers, and mortal enemies?

Their mannerisms. So much about how a person uses their physical presence tells you about their personality and motivations. The way they walk, the way they sit. Their ticks and tells. How they shrink into themselves or expand outward when surrounded by an audience. The specific ways they gesture when they speak; their personal sign language. A list of all of the little aspects of body language and paralinguistics might go on forever, and each one you add to your character is a tiny brushstroke of relatability.

Their physical traits. You can directly rip off entire descriptions of people you know, but risk of “resemblance to real people” aside, I think the best characters are composites. They’re the kind of people who make your reader say, I know someone just like this! But I do advise snagging especially striking physical details from your dear friends and frenemies, and mixing them with less notable details from others for a realistic blend.

Their speaking styles. My dad has a peculiar way of butchering common phrases (“You couldn’t hit a brick!” is a family favorite); I’d recognize it anywhere. Take these tendencies to mis-speak, repeat certain words, lay the catch phrases on thick, drop into phony accents, and invent colorful swears… and watch your dialog perk up and come to life.

Their reactions. People don’t all grieve the same way. They don’t all process anger in the same way. They react to times of self-doubt, hunger of the soul, or intense joy differently from one another. In the interest of “show don’t tell,” watching how those around you uniquely express their strongest emotions will give you more to say than, “He grieved deeply,” or, “She was gripped by a deep joy.”

Their secrets. Some secrets would be dark to anyone, but the little secrets one person is desperate to keep are simply the daily routine for someone else. (For instance: a “secret” of my own I’ve often given my characters is a fear of water + darkness. Not such a juicy secret for a writer, but could be a great secret for a world-class diving instructor…) Collecting these from people you know gives you a good variety of shameful and silly. Caution: you must be very gentle when stealing someone’s secrets, lest you pin them on their keeper in the public square. If you’re going to use someone’s secret that you know about, make everything else about the character you give it to different from the real secret-bearer.

Their personal histories. What was her first job? Where did he have his first kiss? Who gave them the advice that catapulted their career? Where someone comes from, their formative experiences and the places they come from… these things can really inform how someone presents, thinks, speaks, and acts in the present.

Their family relationships. Depending on the family, it represents a juicy source of conflict or a solid grounding force in someone’s life; comedy gold, or a ball-and-chain tragedy. Choose a genuine family dynamic you know and can observe, and draw from their interactions to inform your character’s relationships with their own family members. Figure out who advises whom and whose praise is impossible to win. Jot down the kinds of conversations held over an ordinary dinner or a holiday dinner.

Their Meyers-Briggs profiles. This last one is a tried-and-true technique I use to quickly draw the “boundaries” around a new character. Once I’ve picked someone I know who shares some traits on the above lists with my character, I then take a free Meyers-Briggs personality test as if I were the other person. I answer the questions the way I imagine they would answer them. Then, using the results, I browse the myriad web resources on Meyers-Briggs personality types, which give me a sense of the strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, and conflict management techniques I should give my character.

Cheatsheets

Not so long ago, we Damn Shames took on an interesting project that lasted about a year. We love writing about digital spaceships, and so when a client wanted us to make some buyer’s guide-style content for their website using Star Citizen game assets and our imaginations, we went for it.

First, we created something we thought the client might like and sent it off for feedback. Then we incorporated the feedback and got the first final product approved for text and images. At that point, knowing that I would be one of two writers on the project, I set out to make a template we could both follow.

I took that first product, knowing what the client liked about it and what we should emphasize going forward, and sketched out a basic template: introduction, elevator pitch, physical description, full sales pitch, anecdotes, and conclusion. I knew that structure had produced a successful outcome, and it was broad enough to be applied across a spectrum of spaceship styles.

From there on out, the other writer and I leaned heavily on that template. We used it to sketch out what we needed to deliver every two weeks. Every guide we produced felt tailored to that specific ship – but overall they felt like they all belonged to the same series. And we always knew what was left in the project.

Much like the five-paragraph essay format, a “cheatsheet” like this gives you a comfortable structure to fall back on when you just can’t pull something truly creative out of your ass. It’s okay if you don’t always feel original. Life – and writing in particular, I think – falls into a set of familiar tropes for a reason: people like when something feels right. You don’t have to be lazy – just learn when to rely on a formula that works.

Paid writers get repetitive projects. It’s not a sin to make yourself a cheatsheet. I look at it this way: any time I can free up in my paid writing process, I can spend on my creative writing. (Does that always happen? Nah.)

Here’s how I suggest going about making your own repetitive project cheatsheet:

  • Make at least one that you’re happy with (or that your client is happy with). Set it aside for a few days.
  • Go back through the piece and mark out its basic structure. What elements hold it together and make it work? Look for repeatable patterns and distinguishable segments.
  • Write up the template. Make sure you have examples or explanations where necessary, especially if others will be using the same cheatsheet.
  • Copy it each time you want to start a new project so you don’t have to begin with a blank page!