June 25, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Description

Yes, heath is pretty. No, it is NOT exciting, Mr. Hardy.

 NOTE: Sorry this post is a day late! I was in Oklahoma competing in a national debate tournament all last week, and spent most of yesterday sleeping. ;)

Anyone who's read a book before has experienced the frustration that comes with setting or character descriptions. Sometimes authors go on for pages about irrelevant details (like Hardy's description of Egdon Heath in Return of the Native, which is a running joke in my family) or don't provide enough to paint a good picture in the reader's mind. 

Thus, when we get down to writing ourselves, describing stuff can be scary. How much detail is too much? Will the reader get bored of all the detail I'm putting down? What if we're not putting enough-- do they have no idea where our characters are? This fear or confusion can stifle our creative processes, so it's important that we address it.

Is Description Slowing You Down?

It’s possible that an inability to describe a setting is slowing your writing down if you’re having a hard time mentally envisioning your scene. When you imagine your characters, do you see them talking in a blank white room, or do you see them walking beside the road, with the smell of hot asphalt stinging their nostrils as they sweat in the midday sun?

Do your characters have all their important conversations while sitting at a table—in the kitchen, or the cafeteria, or at a restaurant, or at the park? If so, it’s time to think outside the box and take a realistic view of setting.

What about when you try to describe your characters’ appearance’? Do you always fall back on their hair, their eye color, their facial expressions?  

How Do You Find the Words to Describe?

There are three quick steps to being able to describe a setting/character appearance.

1- Identify It
Obviously, before you can describe something you have to know what you are describing, but many writers actually forget this step—hence the blank rooms and the repetitive appearances.

As far as settings go, challenge yourself to find a backdrop for your scenes that will provoke an emotion in your characters or provide something new for them to interact with. Many writers encourage seeing your setting as another character—is it hostile, or friendly, or deceptive? Does it provide a strong contrast to the mood your character is in, or does it reinforce their perceptions? For example, in one of my stories the character is being interrogated by another character, and as he is asked questions, he watches a spider ensnare a moth under the interrogator’s desk—this reinforces his feelings that he is trapped.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match contradicting ideas, either. In fact, having a depressed character walk through a fun carnival may be more impactful than having them sit in the rain.

In sum, identify where your character needs to be for maximum effect on the scene, and then go with it.

The same idea applies to describing characters. Identify something you want to convey about them—do you want them to appear stern, or silly, or nervous? Once you know what you want to portray, you can move on to the next step.

2- Envision It
In this step, in order to describe a setting, you need to imagine what it would be like to BE in that setting with all of your five senses. What would you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste if you were there? Many writings stop at the first sense—vision—but it’s the other details that make a scene truly come alive.

Imagine yourself at the beach. Yes, you might see the white-capped waves, the golden sun, the bright sand. But close your eyes and experience all of that through your other senses! The waves crash against the shore with a calming beat. They smell salty but fresh. The sun warms your neck like an embrace, and your toes dig into the soft, silky sand. Gulls wheel overhead, their cries echoing in your ears like a distant memory.

Or maybe it’s a different kind of beach! Maybe there is an odor of rotting fish hanging heavy in the cold, damp air. Maybe rocks and broken shells crush under your feet and pierce your flimsy shoe soles. Maybe you have to pick your way around piles of sour-smelling sea weed, and the beach is silent but for the grumble of waves on the rocks. The sun is suffocated by the clouds, and little raindrops prickle your skin.

See? Immerse yourself in your setting, and imagine ALL of it. This website has an awesome list of settings that you can use to fill out all the details of a scene, but remember, the most powerful images will come from your own imagination.

As far as character descriptions go, think about the last time you were at Walmart on a Saturday afternoon. I guarantee you, that people’s hair and eye colors were not the biggest thing you noticed about them. Their clothing choices, piercings, tattoos, level of cleanliness, told you a lot about them (or you thought so, anyway).

To describe a character, completely envision what they look like. Not only the everyday things like what they wear and how fit they are, but also the little changes that people undergo depending on their mood. Are their muscles tense with frustration, is their chin titled back with contempt, are they straining forward with eagerness?

Also, check out the above mentioned website as well. It goes through all of body parts to help you learn how each part of the body can tell you something about a character: their feelings, lifestyles, etc.

3- Make a Selection
Once you’ve completely imagined your character or setting, pick the important details that convey what you want to convey. You can’t completely described how every location effects each of your character’s five senses, so pick the ones you think they would notice based on what is occurring in your scene.

For example, if your character is sad and they are walking through a carnival (as mentioned before), they might not notice the sweet smells of cotton candy or caramel apples like a happy person would. They might only see the trash and food wrappers and soggy fliers littering the ground, since they are staring at their feet as they walk. They will barely feel as they bump into other people, not watching where they are going. Every once in a while, their thoughts might be interrupted by a shouting child (like the character, they’re not getting what they want) or a ringing bell (their time is up!) Focus on the details that effect their mood, and let the rest go.

As far as characters go, just pick the details that express the desired trait about the character. Maybe there is a woman who is not pretty, but she has perfect knees that catch your male character’s attention (hidden beauty or goodness). Maybe your female meets a guy for the first time at the office, and his tie is off-centered and hands won’t stay still, so she gets the impression he is nervous and unreliable.

In sum, once you start consciously thinking about the stuff you would notice about a setting or person in real life, you can use that information to describe a scene in a meaningful way. Identify what you want the audience to learn or see, envision a character or scene in its entirety, and then pick the elements that express/contrast with what you want the audience to see.

Next week is the last section of the series discussing specific story elements that might be slowing down your writing, as the next half will discuss lifestyle changes you may need to make to overcome long-term writer's block. Adieu until next week, with part five of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK. 

June 17, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Dialogue

Tony Stark... now there's some dialogue!
Most people only have to learn how to have a good conversation once in their lives. Writers have to learn twice: what sounds good on paper often sounds terrible aloud, and what sounds good aloud looks terrible on paper. Finding a balance can appear to be an insurmountable challenge that makes writers’ creative juices dry up on the spot.

Never fear—I’ve got some ideas to make your brain salivate at the thought of writing dialogue. :) Let’s dive right in!

Is Dialogue Slowing You Down?

If dialogue is preventing you from writing, you probably already know this without having to do too much self-psychoanalysis. Whenever you throw two characters in the room and open their mouths to talk, you suddenly feel like an awkward preteen trying to talk to his crush. Everything you write sounds so stilted and artificial, you feel like throwing your computer (or writing pad) at the wall!

How to Get Talking

I really, really, REALLY love writing dialogue in my stories, and when a book has good dialogue, it’s often the best part to read. The key to character conversation that flows naturally is—quite simply—not to over-think things, just like in real life. There are only a few basic elements to consider when writing, beyond which you just need to relax and write.

The first question you need to ask yourself when characters begin talking is “What is the purpose of the dialogue?” When it comes to writing conversations, LESS = MORE. While in real life, people often take pleasure in talking just for the sake of it, no one enjoys reading pointless discussions. You shouldn’t make characters talk just to make them talk.

So what should the goals of your dialogue be? Really, it comes down just to two things: advancing the story, or revealing something about the character.

Using dialogue to reveal the story could include things like characters asking questions to find information from other characters, or to invite them to an event that impacts the story (like to a party where the protag’s boyfriend will be killed), or to confront them about a problem. Dialogue that reveals character traits might be a scenario where the protag asks his best friend to come to his wedding, and the friend says he’s busy (when the protag knows he’s not, thus revealing that the best friend isn’t much of a friend).

Always know what you want to prove or establish with the conversation, then work backwards from there.

Once you've established that your conversation will be worthwhile, there are a few tips and pointers to spice it up:

            •Skip or condense all the boring introductions like “Hi, how are you?” “Oh good, how are you…?” Cut right to the chase: you’ll notice in your favorite movies and books, they don’t include almost any fillers.

            •Really know the characters that are having the conversation and their speaking styles. There’s a world of difference between “John, could you please wipe up the milk you spilled?” and “Johnny, clean that mess up or you’re gonna lick it off the floor with your tongue.” Know whether your characters have direct or indirect speaking styles, whether they’re long-winded or terse, how good their vocabulary is, and even their favorite filler words, slang, and expletives.

            •Use humor! Dialogue is the best place to make your readers laugh. This also ties into knowing your characters well, as different people use different kinds of humor (sarcasm, puns, jokes, hyperbole, insults and subtleties). (NOTE: Write me a comment and maybe I’ll do a post on humor in writing later!)

            •Study the experts: take lots of notes when you watch your favorite movies and read your favorite books. See if you can identify the goal of each conversation: whether to advance the story, or reveal the characters, or both!

Dialogue should be fun to write, not a brain-killer. Let your characters do the talking—all you have to do is write it down!

Next week is part four of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK. See you soon!

June 10, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Character

Meeting new people for the first time can be really awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you're supposed to work on a project together. You're on unfamiliar turf, trying to figure out what kind of people you're dealing with without offending anyone or making a bad impression.

Writing can have all the awkwardness of introductions if you don't know your characters well. This can totally kill your inspiration, making it hard to plot your story (or if you're past that stage) even to write.

Today we're going to explore how to identify whether your imaginary friends are your creativity's enemies, and how to put them in their place! 

Are Your Characters Slowing You Down?
It’s possible that your characters are at the root of your troubles if any of the following apply to you:

•You can’t explain in a sentence how your characters change by the end of the book.
•The problems your characters face only come from events they have no control over instead of from personal choices.
•You don’t know what your characters think of other characters.
•You don’t know what your characters imagine their perfect life would be like, or what they would do anything to avoid.
•You don’t know how their past has had an effect on them.

Many stories take a plot-first kind of approach, where the characters are only secondary—kind of like sticking a bunch of mice in a maze, where the mice are the characters and the plot is the maze. If your story is this kind, you still need to know your characters well because they will determine how the mice get out of the maze and how fast.

In character-based stories that follow the adventures of a specific person or set of people, it’s even more important to know your characters. Otherwise, trying to write will be like being forced to chat with a bunch of people you don’t know—awkward, forced, uncomfortable. It’s way more fun and inspiring when, every time you sit down to your computer or writing pad, it’s like getting together with your best friends (and enemies!)

How Do You Get to Know Your Characters?

By the time I get around to writing, I know my characters better than I know my best friend. I know how they would react in any given situation, and what their opinions would be of people and events. I know why they act the way they do, and what it would take to make them change their lifestyles.

This first step I often take in getting to know my characters is to find a picture of someone who resembles them or to draw one myself. It’s much easier to visualize a person and get to know them when you can see them, especially if you’re a visual person like me!

Next, I set out to fill in the information I listed above. How does my character solve problems at the beginning of the story, and how does that change by the end? How does my character’s initial outlook on life compare to their final outlook on life? (NOTE: if you use the Dramatica theory I mentioned in the last post, it will ask you whether your character is a steadfast character or a change character.)

Does your character recognize how they are causing problems for themselves? Does your character like/dislike certain kinds of people more? What kind of person really gets under their skin? Has your character been raised in hardship—are they tough, or bitter, or wise because of this? Or have they been raised in comfort, so they are na├»ve and/or struggle more to adapt? What is the best/worst life they can imagine for themselves, and are they trying to achieve it/run from it?

Asking all of these questions (and more!) about all of your characters will help a LOT to kill your writers block. Once you know all of this about your characters, you can play off of what you now know about them to come up with cool conflict ideas or to fill in plot holes, like so:

•Character A hates bossy people like Character B—what if they had to work together?
•Character C and Character D are enemies and need to be friends by the end: what goals/attitudes/experience/problem-solving styles do they have in common that they can base a friendship off of? What scenarios would help them to see this common trait in each other:?

Brainstorming becomes a science experiment: what if we throw all these chemicals in a vial—will they explode, or change color, or stink, or create a cure for cancer?

Final note: Discovering your characters has practical application in life, too. Once you learn how mindsets affect actions, it’s easier to understand why people do what they do.

If you have a hard time getting inside your character’s heads, start with personality typing, which attempts to help people learn about other people’s thought-processes. MBTI and socionics are the most useful theories—many businesses use them. Read the type descriptions to find the one that sounds the most like your character, and then learn about it to see how that type attempts to solve problems, and what they tend to like/dislike.

Make writing fun again-- make your characters people you want to spend time with and enjoy writing about! See you next week for part three of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.

More Links:
More questions to ask about your characters:

June 3, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Plot

"Your lipstick stains..."
You’ve been working on your story idea for weeks—or maybe days, it doesn’t matter—and you are ready to write. Your fingertips are on the keyboard and a steaming cup of coffee rests at your elbow to keep your energy up—but somehow, it drains out of you anyways as you stare at the blank page in front of you.

My experience (gathered by talking to other writers, and through my own writing life) has convinced me that the number one cause of writer’s block is a weak story premise and poor outlining. Take an analogy—drawing. Some artists can grab a paintbrush and just start flinging paint around without an idea of where they’re going with the piece. Sometimes that works, but more often then that, the audience ends up just as lost about its direction as the painter. Most painters like to plan out their painting so they know exactly where they’re going, and do when they sit down to the project, their creative process comes out in the details—like color and expression. The outline is already there.

I think it works the same way in writing. After all, can you really expect your muse to function properly if it has to think “what’s going to happen next?” AND keep track of your characters AND pick the best way to phrase the next sentence AND come up with good dialogue AND visualize the setting all at the same time?

So the first key to freeing your muse and killing those blank pages is outlining your story in a logical, interesting manner. Use the left side of your brain to plot your novel so the right side can write your novel.

Is Your Plot Slowing You Down?

This is a fairly easy question to answer. When you sit down to write, is trying to figure out “what happens next” the first thing you do? For the most part, when you sit down to right, you should have (at least) a pretty good idea of what you’re about to write.

How Much Should You Plot Out?

Once you’ve decided to plot it, the next question becomes, “how detailed does my plot need to be before I am ready to write?” The answer to this question depends on you. Different writers feel comfortable plotting to different levels of detail—but there are some hints and tips I can give you.

First off, be wary that “over-analysis leads to paralysis.” If you plot out EVERY SINGLE MOMENT of the book, you’re likely to burn yourself out. Don’t use your left-side brain to do what you should leave to your muse. When you sit down to write, there should still be some exciting element of “unknown” and “adventure” left to explore.

Next is another caveat. Some writers do write better with less preparation. Some write better with more. I’ve tried both, and my suggestion is that you start with more, and once you’ve got the hang of successful novel structure, you can begin downsizing how much you prepare beforehand.

So now you’re thinking, “Ok, you’ve told me to start more, but not too much. HOW MUCH IS THAT?!?” Keep your shirt on, I’m getting there.

I’ve tried hundreds of plot outlines over the years, and the one with the MOST detail in my opinion would be the “snowflake” method. Unless you’re like a super control freak (no offense, Randy), this is way too much detail. I tried it once, and died—or well, the story did. It’s been sitting on a shelf deep within my computer files for a couple years while I recover from the attempt. If you like this approach, I recommend only doing steps 1-5, or at most 1-7. I also like step 8 (even if you don’t do steps 6 and 7)—but I’ll get back to that later.

Another setup I thought was brilliant comes from Dramatica. It’s a very technical and BRILLIANT look at how to layer theme, plot, and character—if you think you’re in the writing business for the long haul, I recommend you read the entire book. The chapters on story-forming and story-encoding are the best, but the most useful tool out of the entire (free!!) book is this. I used almost the entire book to plan out my first novel, but the thoroughline concept was pretty much all I needed to plot out the second novel (along with some stuff on “thematic variation,” found towards the bottom of the chapter on story-forming). If you use Dramatica, you may need their dictionary because the terms can be hard to understand.

If you browse the web you can find a lot of “6 step plots” or “7 step plots”—but the above mentioned tools are, in my opinion, the best way to set up your story to the point where it’s writable. Using steps 1-5 of the snowflake method will help you get your story started. Follow it up with a few tools out of the Dramatica toolbox, and if you’re REALLY smart you’ll finish out with step 8 of the snowflake method.

It may seem like a lot of work at first, but trust me—it’s totally worth the effort, especially as it becomes subconscious and you no longer need to do all the steps. Don't feel limited to what I suggested here, though! Research other ways to plot if you find this doesn't work for you. The important part is having a logical, meaningful outline to follow. The better you know where you’re going with your story, the more depth and direction it will have. You will immediately stand out from the crowd because your story will no longer be a one-dimensional mess of random events, and your writing will be better because your muse can focus on creating art instead of building structure.

Best of all, you can kill the blank pages and get to writing, which is really what you want to do. Stay tuned ‘til next week for part two of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.