Category Archives: Writing process

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!

Cool Things to Write About™

My favorite writing exercise of all time is from Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s very simple: you generate a list of nouns, conjured from your life experiences, as if they were titles. Bradbury always did this exercise in all-caps, and so do I; it makes the results feel more title-like, therefore conjuring sensations rather than simply specific images. How ominous does THE BLACKENED TRUCK sound? How mysterious is THE GEM SHOP?

If this sounds intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entirety of Zen for yourself!

Despite all of the genius ideas locked away in those childhood nouns, I was recently very, very stuck. To call it writer’s block would be putting it mildly; it was more like writer’s constipation, a time of deep drought. I was sure I’d never come up with another good, heartfelt idea ever again.

So one day, I threw up my hands and put a twist on Bradbury’s exercise. And it worked. It got me past my mental block.

I call it Cool Things to Write About™.

It’s a self-explanatory exercise: You sit down with a piece of paper. You write “Cool Things to Write About™” at the top of the page. Underneath, you list cool things to write about.

Not cool as in people around the world love reading about these things cool. Cool to you. Cool because little you, the still-excited nerd child inside you, thinks they’re wicked cool. Thinks they’ll always be cool. Guess what? They are. To you. That’s all that matters. If you think it’s cool, I promise, there’s a way to sell it.

Don’t hold back. Write everything down that comes to mind as you stare at the title. When you’re done, the list of Cool Things to Write About™ should start to stir up your inspiration. Consider them in pairs. Contemplate the connections between them, the potential energy they bring to one another.

Dinosaurs and telepathy? Charmed objects and sailing into the unknown? Alien planets and practical magic?

Can’t you feel the possibilities already?

Writerguilt

writerguilt, n. the intense feeling of failure and existential doubt that occurs when words are not being applied to pages

Writerguilt is the nagging feeling that the world is waiting for your words. Writerguilt is also self-indulgent. Breaking news: The only person waiting for you to write is you.

But someone’s waiting on me! I hear you insisting. Fine, sure. Deadlines are real things. But editors, agents, and publishing companies work with writers who produce. Readers want to read, well, books that actually exist. Spend your time despairing, and you’ll have nothing to show for it except a steaming pile of intangible angst.

As it turns out, writerguilt is very, very easy. It’s certainly easier than slogging through a thick research book, or crafting yet another post about how you’ve been absent from blogging but “oh this time I’m back, with a vengeance!” Or any of the thousands of other ways you might practice the craft of writing.

My theory is that we writers revel in writerguilt because feeling guilty about not writing is an activity mutually exclusive to writing. And if there’s one thing writers can agree on about writing, it’s the sincere and professional practice of avoiding it.

When I indulge, my own writerguilt takes on the form of a question wrought with existential agony: how can I possibly know which project is right to focus on next? As I’ve gotten older, the sharp edges of this quandary have been honed by the acquisition of knowledge. These days, I know all too well the myriad ways I might make the wrong decision.

At age 10, I had a very particular way of dealing with my writerguilt. I kept an inventory of works in progress, and I coded a random generator so I could select my stories one at a time and dedicate a tiny block of time to each.

Those five-minute writing sprints added a few sentences or mere words to each document. But I was making progress. On everything. Decisions be damned.

Trick thyself into creativity is my creator’s motto these days. It’s a nod to the irritating ingenuity I displayed 18 years ago: By deciding not to decide, I made a decision anyway—the decision to write. To produce. To put something down, even if it was just a single line.

At least that’s one more line than I’d had five minutes earlier. And eventually it adds up to a book.

I know the writers reading this are also afflicted by writerguilt. It comes and goes, and contrary to expectation, not in the inverse of inspiration. When guilt and ideas hit at the same time, the storm of despair can be monumental. You can really spin your wheels trying to decide which project will be a bigger hit with your audience, or bring in more passive income, or…whatever your Big Project Questions may be.

If you’re wrestling with writerguilt, do something for me, right now. Pick something you’re working on (randomly, if you have to). Open it up. Set a five-minute timer. Write at least one word. It’ll be one more word than you had before. Maybe it’ll alleviate your writerguilt, just a smidgeon.

The only way off this hamster wheel is to make a decision and write.

Cooking and writing

I’m extremely lucky to be married to a former chef who catered for sitting presidents. Yes, I certainly get all of the consumption benefits of having a chef under my roof — but more importantly, I get a world-class firsthand education in how to food.

I haven’t just learned “how to make a dish that tastes good.” That’s actually pretty simple: Follow a good recipe. What I’ve really learned is how food behaves. What the system of food is like. The science of food, the art and craft of choosing proportions for desired results. I’ve always known what good food tastes like, but now I know why.

This systematic knowledge took me from following recipes step by careful step in 2013 to freestyling it with substitutions and eliminations as the whim seizes me today. It’s also allowed me to develop a distinct style — I’ve come to love certain combinations of ingredients, and increased my ability to experiment within those flavor profiles.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation in my writing, too, though inversely. I used to freestyle too much; I’d sit down with a first line or a vague notion and punch out a few pages of something unstructured and full of interesting frayed ends.

Ultimately, those weren’t stories that held up under much scrutiny. I’d bore of them and wonder why I couldn’t finish anything.

In the last few years, in addition to the “writing about writing” books I’ve always read, I started scrutinizing good stories in all forms of media, and studying writers’ systems of crafting plots and characters. This has given me the vocabulary for my instinctual sense of how to story.

Now I can flip through a draft I wrote a few months before and not only spot the holes, but name them, and understand how to find fixes for them. I’m no master of fiction, but I’m a much more confident writer than I used to be.

The ingredients, the proportions of a good story — these are things I know when I meet because I’ve been a voracious reader for so long. But now I understand them and have the toolbox at my disposal to fix them in my own works.

Such is the magic of learning how to cook.

The Parentheses Process

I love details. They’re sort of the hallmark of my style, especially in my short stories — I choose very specific but arbitrary details, putting down broad strokes about a world I hardly know yet. I’ll describe how the clay coins of the realm feel in one’s hand, for example. Or the name and earthy smell of the new-fangled liquor everyone in the land is addicted to.

But sometimes, instead of getting caught up in exactly what I should call the god-leader figurehead role of a nomadic ice planet society, I need to crank out the skeleton of a scene. I can’t always afford to stop and get lost in random generator land. So instead of agonizing over a detail and allowing it to slow my roll, I use what my producer/hub calls “the Parentheses Process.”

In reality, I don’t use parentheses, I use curly braces. {These ones.} They make it easy for me to use Ctrl+F (the Find function) and track down all the places I left blanks without running into false positives, since I sometimes actually use parentheses. But whatever. Parentheses Process is catchy-ish.

I used the heck out of this method while I was working on my novel Daugment. I didn’t know much about Daugment when I started the book, other than the main character being a human-turned-dog, so I ended up leaving a lot of world-building details unspecified as I went along. Or, I would specify them, later remember that I’d made a decision but not what that decision had been, and then just put the general idea in brackets so I could come back to it later and cross-reference to my heart’s content, once I was wearing my editor’s hat.

The Parentheses Process is especially useful for NaNoWriMo and other speed-writing scenarios. If you’re trying to crank out an essay, wrap up your manuscript in a couple of weeks, or complete the first draft of a novel in a single month, stepping away from the details is a must. Plus, this method strengthens your stories and your world-building skills by letting the details percolate in your mind as your world and plot unfold in a more structured way.

Yes, even “pantsers” who don’t outline will benefit from leaving some things until the end. The brain naturally tends to make loose ends click into a neat package, if you let it sit idle on the problem long enough. Thanks to the fact that brains like patterns, yours will passively work to sort things out and make connections where you may not have seen them at first brush.

The basic premise of the Parentheses Process is, if you can’t come up with it nearly immediately, put it in brackets and move on.

Your goal should always be to get through the first draft as fast as you can. Even if the first draft is really a “zero draft,” just a few sentences that sketches out what you’re going for, you benefit from having something to work with rather than nothing at all.

It’s how you eliminate the fear of the blank page. Know that this is something I spent fifteen years of denying, despite reading all of those trusty books about writing, wherein every author ever coaxed me to get the first draft down quickly…

But I digress. Here are some examples of the Parentheses Process in action.

“{Something inspirational and foreshadowy!}” Leyla cried, one edge of her blade gleaming in the low-slung sun.

Dialogue isn’t easy. If you can’t hear it in your head yet, you may just not know your character well enough. That’s totally reasonable! Put it in brackets and move on.

He picked up the gleaming {swordthingname}.

Well, crap, you know you named that sword-thing in an earlier paragraph, but it’s at least four pages back, and you’re kind of on a roll… Put it in brackets and move on.

Their eyes met over the candle. Hers gleamed, and his answered with a mischievous twinkle.

{Cute thing that becomes an inside joke}

They were full of wine and sleepy, and even the promise of more kisses couldn’t keep them awake. They fell asleep with their arms around one another, their clothes disheveled in an innocent, sleepy way.

Sometimes you have a general idea of what needs to happen in order to make a plot point down the road feasible… But you don’t have any experience with that kind of scene and you’d like to read or watch a bit of research material. Put it in brackets and move on.

Fair game in the Parentheses Process:

  • World-building details you already selected*
  • Lines of dialogue
  • Names you haven’t chosen yet
  • Physical characteristics
  • Emotional content
  • Portions of scenes
  • Entire chapters
  • Literally anything

*Pay special attention to those details you feel the need to look up over and over — such as names of places, people and things; character continuity details; and timelines. If you need to reference stuff regularly, you may want to develop a system for yourself so you can easily reference it again.

If you’re anything like me as a writer, you want to make sure you get worldbuilding details absolutely straight. Especially if you know you wrote something down already, whether it was in your meticulous notes or your messy draft, you shouldn’t stop your writing flow to hunt it down! Getting out your first draft should always be more important than the details. That’s what editors are for. You should know this. Consider this a gentle love-whap. First drafts first.

The Parentheses Process is all about ensuring you stay in your flow when you find it. The most important rule is: Give yourself just enough to know what you meant later, and move on quickly to maintain your momentum.

(Another rule: Be consistent. If you use {curly braces,} stick with ’em. If you use [square brackets,] stick with those. Otherwise you’ll find your Ctrl+F process is much harder than it needs to be.)

The Parentheses Process eliminates a huge excuse that many writers rely on to keep from actually producing — research. Yes, research is absolutely key to a successful project. Yes, you can and should have research phases in your writing process…just not in the middle of your writing time. Random generators and web searches are just an excuse not to write, most of the time.

The biggest secret to my success is that I know now, the writing portion of the process should be satisfying. I try to exploit this fact by using the Parentheses Process to jump to the stuff I’m interested in writing right now.

If there’s something you’re excited to write about or want to get out of your head, jump to it. Jot down any notes or thoughts you don’t want to forget in brackets {like these}. Then get to where you want to be!

That’s it. That’s the whole Parentheses Process. It’s how you get through drafts, and fast. It’s how you plow through all those little distractions that add up to writer’s block. It’s how you identify details about your characters and world that are important to write down somewhere else for future reference. (Planning on turning your stand-alone novel into a series? Better hope you’ve kept track of the stuff that’ll matter for the next book and beyond!)

The Parentheses Process is not the same as “not knowing what happens” — i.e. not plotting your story or series. This method shouldn’t be used in place of outlines. At the very least, even if you’re a true “pantser,” you should have some vague notion of what your character’s motivation and goals are.

However, used in tandem with an outline, loose or otherwise, the Parentheses Process lets your brain work its magic. It will find patterns if you tell it, “Look, brain, I know what needs to happen, just not how it happens.” It’s likely that your story world already has a way for that plot point to not only be feasible, but probable. You may just not have unearthed it yet.

Put it in brackets and move on.

The Scribblers’ Club

As part of my creative philosophy, I try to participate every year in at least one big generative project, at the end of which I have something to shop around or develop. (I’m also a masochistic writer.) A lot of years, that project is NaNoWriMo. In 2012 and 2013, my good friend Jill Corddry and I teamed up to crank out short stories on a regular basis (almost weekly, in 2012, and monthly in 2013).

We took a couple of years off – she had twins and I got a heck of a job (same thing, right?!) – but our hiatus is over, and this year, we lassoed two of our other friends and dragged them with us. We call the project The Scribblers’ Club, and we’ve each promised to write one short story per month for the next twelve months, with a few appearances scattered throughout by guest writers. We’ve already done it at least once each, which is miraculous in and of itself. Eleven more stories to go (for me). No big deal. (If you like sad paranormal stories, my first one is called “Wanting”.)

The Scribblers exist because of our motto: “Trick thyself into creativity.” We made deadlines that feel a little bit like those school assignments we used to have. We found people to send us clever notes and evil writer quotes. We found that those same people hold us to our promises through guilt and sickly-sweet encouragement. We force ourselves into artificial boxes to see how our creativity shoves its way out of them. Most of all, we keep in mind that quantity produces quality.

More than any other tactic, this cooperative-but-not-collaborative approach to writing groups has really worked for me. I do love actually collaborating on writing, but even in a hyper-connected age, it can be hard when writers with very different ways of writing books try to write a book together. Having others set standards of success in the same little arena we’ve drawn out together is encouraging, inspiring, and makes me feel bad if I don’t turn in my story on time.

So. Back to tricking myself I go!