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Writing Tip #14: Write What You Know

Not what you know about life or history or your interests–but what you know about your story.  For example, suppose you have a character who is developing slowly.  Much of his past and his motivations are still a mystery, but you do know that he values trust ultimately.  Write that down, and build on that information.  Because he values trust so highly, does that mean he will never betray anyone–or perhaps he did in the past, and that’s why he values it so highly now?

Or suppose you don’t know for sure when scenes come next in your story, but you have general ideas of what events happens when.  Rather than trying to organized this right off the bat, just write down whatever you picture happening at different plot points, and you can add to it or revise it later.

Writing down what you already know about your characters and your story gives you a base to build on, a kind of a foothold.   It also keeps you from getting bogged down in what you still have to figure out–because you’ll already have made a start!

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What if They Don’t Like My Layered Female Character?

I have read (and applauded) multiple posts about how to write a strong female character–a truly strong character, one who is strong because of her convictions. Her compassion. Her personality, rather than a superhuman ability to punch stuff and sass the guys.  So many posts, I can’t include them all, but here are my favorites: Hannah Heath’s input, Christine Smith’s guest post, Bella’s thoughts during her Writer’s Camp, and K. M. Weiland’s opinion.

What these posts do not cover, however, is how to banish fear–fear of seeing your female characters soundly bashed on Tumblr by readers who think that to actually like dresses will perpetrate the constraints of patriarchy and that a woman being physically weaker than a guy is sexist.

Maybe I’m the only writer who’s considered this. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at my character Mary from Gentle Fire and wondered how much of a verbal beating she’d get from critics. Mary is married with two children, and most of her focus is on helping her husband build their farm and raise their sons (and later, daughter).  Plus other plot-related goals and struggles after this doesn’t work out the way any of them want.  Yes, she has dreams, and she has strengths, flaws, talents, and quirks–in fact, Mary’s drive is to do her job (whatever that may be at the time) and to help those who need her.   But at the end of the day (and the story), her job and her main sphere of influence is in her home.   And I just know that’s going to be popular with the general readership.

So I’ve thought a lot about how to handle this concern. Here’s my input to writing that true strong female character–without being afraid that others will criticize your characterization.

  1. Write a layered character.  Easier said than done, of course, but if your character is constructed with agency (she drives her parts of the story) and has strengths, flaws, quirks, talents, and non-talents–then you can take comfort that you’ve written a solid character, regardless of who criticizes her enjoyment of knitting, pride in cooking for her family, and hatred of snakes.
  2. Pinpoint what you’re afraid of.  What is all this imaginary criticism directed toward?  Your character’s general personality–or specifically that she spends a lot of time in her home?  (Or that she has a cleaning job, or that she’s the soft-spoken type, or whatever else is unpopular these days.)  If you can easily imagine someone criticizing the fact that your character doesn’t really contribute to the story, that could be your intuition telling you to make sure she’s a legitimate main character.  If, however, you can picture someone nitpicking your character’s interest in embroidery or that she’s skilled in household economy–those are details, not fundamentals.
  3. Adjust your thinking.  Here’s where I might really offend people, but I’ll try to be diplomatic.  Somewhere along the way, the idea of a homemaker became synonymous with the term “doormat”.  Along with the idea that she’s wasting her life.  Or wasting her talent.  But here’s the thing: being a homemaker takes incredible discipline, perseverance, patience, and diligence.  Double points if you add children into the mix.  You are responsible for protecting and guiding these children, 24/7.  How is that weak?  How is that a waste of time or talent?  And why do we applaud a male character who is willing to serve and care for others, but condemn a woman who does it for her family?  A homemaker character has to be strong in many different ways to do her job.  Strength comes with the territory here, just like we expect a fireman character to be physically strong.
  4. Let it go.  As the song says.  🙂  But seriously, unless your imaginary critics are offering polite, constructive criticism–why do you care what they think?  Or what any real critics say, for that matter, unless, again, they’re offering intelligent input on the fundamentals of your character.  If any critics, real or imaginary, whine only about the facts that your character loves children, likes make-up, and cooks a mean clam chowder–ignore ’em.

So, those are some ways I’ve found to beat the fear.  Feel free to add what tips and tricks have worked for you!

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Writing Tips for Perfectionists – Fear Formulas vs. Writing Tools

Has this ever happened to you?–you read an article with really solid writing advice.  All the tips make sense, and the author features a published book that used those techniques.  And you’re not exactly sure how to apply the advice to your work-in-progress—but you’d better figure it out.  Because if you don’t, your story will be somehow inferior.  Right?

This is called the Clever Mask of Insecurity Syndrome, and I used to suffer from it frequently.  It’s not a passion to learn about the craft of writing as much as frantic fear that you MUST apply the writing advice in ALL the articles you read.  Or else your story will stink.  The article authors are published, or they cite published authors who used the techniques–either way, all those authors know how to tell a good story, or else they wouldn’t be in print, right?  And if the writing advice makes sense, you’d be a fool not to take it.

The problem with this reasoning is that other writers, even skilled, published ones, don’t necessarily know what techniques will work for your story.  Suppose you come across an article explaining how to write in a thrilling, cinematic style.  But if your story’s scope and style is like the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion–you’re better off analyzing Howard Pyle’s books or Tolkien’s and Stephen Lawheads’s stories.  The techniques that work for a modern thriller just won’t work for an old-style saga.  (If anything, it might create dissonance and pull readers out of the fictional world!)

I’m not saying to reject all writing advice out of hand.  Just make sure you understand what story you’re telling: the conclusions, the themes, the styles.  Everything that makes it what it is and that makes it original.  Techniques and writing advice are simply tools, and not all tools will work for your story.  You’ll gain a good understanding of what tools work for your novel the more you write and the more you research!

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The Art of Storytelling – Creating My Compass

(Thanks to Bella for her title suggestion!  I was truly stuck.)

NOTE: I initially published this back in January, but decided to tweak the style and post it again.  This isn’t a guide for How To Write the Perfect Story; but the principles that have worked well for me.  ?

I once had no idea how to keep my stories focused.  I had good ideas, but I had a lot of ideas and couldn’t discern which ones truly belonged in my work-in-progress.  Was this phrase a better explanation of the theme?—or that paragraph a couple pages later?—or that note on my digital sticky notes?  Cue the pile-up of 172 pages of notes.  And I inevitably got overwhelmed.  Even more frustrating, after I sorted through those notes and reworded ideas (again), the story pieces added up—to the wrong picture.  Finally, through trial and error and through analyzing books and films, I created this list of points that help me build my story more easily and to keep it focused.

Articulate the Story Concept.  Or the general idea behind the story.  It could be a question to explore, such as “Where to draw the line in giving loyalty?”  It could be a character or situation: “A girl who was never taught to discern properly,” or a simple plot: “A girl takes up multiple hobbies to find her passion and talent.”  Or it could be a general theme, such as “different kinds of power (social, legal, abusive, and others) and what they can and cannot accomplish.”

Actually, I know the concept from the get-go; whenever I say, “Well, I have an idea for a story about…” that’s the concept.  But it could be narrowed a little–a general idea can become many different stories (which cleverly disguise themselves as plot bunnies).  So here’s a question that narrows the field: What draws me to this idea?  What do I love about it?  This not only helps keeps my story focused, it also explains what’s original about the idea, and it articulates my own passion for the subject.

As an example from my writing, one story idea is about two families whose children marry for mutual social and financial benefit.  This is the general idea.  The more specific idea is how these characters respond to the various social and familial expectations of them.  And what I like about the idea is the mindsets, values, and relationships of the characters as they handle situations in which they do not have a lot of control.  All very general, but it tells me at once that my idea about the fight between Enlightenment vs. Romanticism doesn’t belong in this story.

And then I tinker with the wording of the concept until it expresses exactly what I have in mind.  My ultimate goal is to understand what story I’m telling.  Not just the genre, but what I’m personally trying to say.  (More on that later.)

Specify the Story Conflict.  This definitely helps me discern which ideas (and subplots and side characters) belong in the plot.  And when I fail to specify the conflict, my story becomes crowded and confusing.  (*stares sadly at mountain of unfinished drafts*)  So do other writers’ stories—I may offend people with this example, but the film God’s Not Dead had a plot thread completely separate from the main conflict.  The conflict of the film is ultimately between skeptics attacking faith in the God of the Bible and Christians defending that faith.  While this is going on, a liberal feminist news reporter learns that she has cancer, and she eventually gets saved.  (Whoops, spoilers.)  But she does not meet or influence any of the other characters.  And since she gets saved near the end of the story, she doesn’t have time to contribute to the main point by defending her newfound faith.

I get why this plot was included: so that a character (and by extent the audience) could hear the Gospel.  But that character and her story does not enhance or contribute to the ultimate conflict.  That detour simply uses screen time that could have been spent on the main characters.  And on that note, a better way to include the Gospel would be to have the ex-Muslim girl remember the Gospel to strengthen herself in the face of persecution or perhaps try to share the Gospel with her family.  That would have contributed to the conflict, and it would have been an awesome addition.  (Seriously, the writers should have explored that character and her situation further!)

So, defining the story’s conflict will thin down those plot bunnies.  But here’s a catch: conflict often has two layers: surface conflict, and then what I call “root conflict.”

Surface conflict is a clash that fits the story’s concept, but that happens apart from—or because of—the root conflict.  The root conflict is the ultimate battle of the story, the clash that explains what’s really at stake.  It’s often internal conflict (but not always).  A good example of these two layers is the film Inception.  The “surface conflict” is the attempt to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams.  This is something that had never been successfully done—oh, and there’s a deadline for this attempt.  But the root conflict is Cobb battling his own guilt and fear and grief.  He cannot let go of the past, and at first refuses to confront his problems.  His stubbornness and his burden endanger his goal and the safety of his team.

So I write down the obvious conflict in my story and then ask how that conflict came to be, which helps identify the root conflict.  (Or vice-versa, and I think about what action might be prompted by the root conflict.)

Make the Setting Influence the Action or Affect the Characters.  Years ago, I entered a short story contest with several guidelines: the required setting was the Titanic, and the contest theme was “Women and Children First.” I wrote the story of a couple who met on the ship; and though they weren’t close friends, the man stepped back so the woman could get into a lifeboat and escape.  Measured by the contest guidelines, the story and setting worked.  But when I looked at that story a few years later, I asked: how does the Titanic enhance the plot?  Sure, the event is a classic example of chivalry, but without the contest parameters, my characters could do what they liked and could be moved to a different setting with no big change to the plot.  Red flag that the setting was just painted scenery, and not a place with impact.

In my story Empty Clockwork, however, the setting is a late-Victorian world with strict social norms and tradition but with a steampunk twist:  scientific dabbling is a popular hobby for the rich.  And “secret” labs in the basement are an essential part of any grand house.  This setting creates conflict for Lord Fredericks, a brilliant, self-taught scientist, who can’t capitalize on his skills because he is also an aristocrat and not supposed to do manual or tradesman’s work.  The setting also affects Henry*, a doctor who is passionate for his work, but who can’t get the wealthy hobby scientists interested enough in his ideas to fund his experiments.  The third character affected is Lennox, a young man who teaches classics at Cambridge and therefore can’t get anyone to take him seriously as a scientist.  Because art and science don’t mix, y’know.  And Susan, heiress and Lord Fredericks’ ward, can’t find an endeavor she thinks worthy to support with her money because of the complacent attitudes in society.  The setting directly affects the main characters, creates conflict, and points to my theme (which I will not reveal here because spoilers).

*inspired by Henry Jekyll from the 1994 concept album of Jekyll & Hyde.  As such, I might eventually change his Christian name so as not to be sued by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Discover why the Story Matters to the Characters—and to Me.  Goal, stakes, conflict…those can be found anywhere.  A character could set the goal of opening his own business, with the stakes of providing for his family, and face obstacles in the lack of money and an affordable building to rent.  But why doesn’t he go another route to provide for his family?  Why does he choose this hill, the hill of the story, to fight and possibly die on?

This point is a cross between the character’s motivation and the stakes of the conflict–it’s why the goal matters to the character.  Not just the external repercussions of failure, but the internal consequences.  The more personal the story conflict and stakes, the more the readers will care about the characters and their struggles.  For example, Inception deals with complex concepts: the actions of the subconscious, the unique nature of dreams, and how each can be manipulated.  Truly engaging stuff—but the principles matter because of how personal they are to Cobb.  If he can complete the inception attempt, he can go home to his kids—but ironically, experimenting with dream manipulation and inception is what tore him from his family in the first place and created the guilt that plagues him throughout the story.

The author also needs personal motivation, and a second question I ask is: why does this story matter so much to me?  What are my own personal stakes?  This is partly practical; I’m more likely to finish the story if I’m passionate about it.  But understanding the personal stakes is another tool that narrows the focus of the story.  Suppose a writer believes that it’s ridiculous for 18-year-olds to choose their life passions before college.  They only just got out of school; they haven’t observed and experienced life to the degree that a 30-year-old has; how on earth can teens be expected to know what they want to do with their lives?  With that question, that drive behind the story, the writer can quickly discern that his other story idea about how the elderly are ignored doesn’t fit in the plot of this story.

Work Backwards from the Conclusion.  Articles and tutorials say “figure out your ending first.  Write toward your ending.”  I never understood this.  Doesn’t the outcome depend on what the main characters choose?  Won’t choice A create one outcome and choice B create another?  Should I just make up events regardless of what the characters chose to do?

Not necessarily.  The ending is more than the final dramatic events.  It’s also the conclusion of what the story says.  Which is an extension of what the author is trying to say.

Oh, please.  There’s no need to ask “What am I trying to say?”  Stories are just to entertain, right?

Right.  And wrong, because every story, even the fluffiest, feel-good novel makes some statement.  Even as untrue as “everything will turn out okay if you dream hard enough.”  Or whatever.  Continuing to offend people with my examples, The Battle of Five Armies film had no idea what it was ultimately saying.  Fight Ye Olde Evil?  All Gold is Evil?  Something Vague About True Love?  Reclaiming the Characters’ Ancestral Homes?  Hobbits Are the Saviors of the World?  (Epic fail on that last point, as Bilbo was demoted.)

By contrast, the Lord of the Rings (book and film) made a clear statement with its ending: sacrifice is the price of freedom.  When Frodo leaves Middle Earth, it highlights the price that warriors and defenders pay so that others may live in their homes in peace.  This theme is shown throughout the story.  Didn’t Frodo leave the Shire in the first place to protect it?  Didn’t Sam help Frodo no matter the cost to himself?  Didn’t Aragorn conceal his lineage and walk in humility for years and protect the Shire unseen? Didn’t Tolkien lament the fallen defenders all through his story?  Sacrifice is the conclusion—sacrifice for the land and peoples of Middle Earth.

Once I recognize what I’m saying with my story, it’s easier to work backwards from that and figure out what events and final conflicts would fit the story.  (And I often have an inkling of how everything will turn out, even if it’s cliche and obvious.)  Then I ask: where do the characters need to be, emotionally, physically, and mentally to drive the final events?  Then I create conflict and events that push the characters to that stage of readiness.

What’s ultimately important is that I understand what story I want to tell.  This means more than the genre.  It’s the big picture: the concept of the story, the tone, the stakes, what I’m trying to say, and what I want the story to accomplish.  Do I want it to be lighthearted or a cautionary tale?  Is it just a practice project or something I’m passionate about?  Do I want it to amuse or criticize or inspire?  If I don’t know what story I want to tell, it will end up dissonant.  It will read as though it tried to say one thing, but ended up saying something something very different.  It has happened in the past–and I’ve seen it happen to too many other storytellers.  The makers of the Hobbit films clearly did not know what kind of story they were telling.  In a film trilogy called The Hobbit, Bilbo is almost a side character, and the story focuses on the other races of Middle Earth.  The franchise tried to be dark and epic, but the slapstick humor and roller coaster chase-and-battle sequences undermined that tone (not to mention that when Smaug’s fire doesn’t burn rotting tapestries, tension vanishes anyway).  The main plot was the quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain, but the subplots didn’t really enhance that—Thranduil’s white gems, for example, and the romance between Kili and Tauriel, and Tauriel as a character in the first place.  *ducks volley of rotten avocados*  The result is three films with some good aspects, but with so many conflicts, characters, and plot threads that the story feels stuffed.  *ducks more flying vegetables*  And the root problem is that screenwriters didn’t seem to know what story they wanted to tell.

Now, confession time: I don’t have every one of these points articulated for every one of my stories.  Several are missing the ending.  A couple are missing the general concept.  One does not have specified conflict.  And that’s okay.  Stories take time to develop.  Some take more time to grow than others.  And these points are just general guidelines to help me build a strong foundation for my story.

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Writing Tip #12: Use Your Feelings

Not in the Jedi way, but as ideas or prompts for your story.  For example, earlier today I was frustrated at the slow progress while writing my story.  I was also unsure how to record and file my notes; it had been so long since I finished a story that I needed a quick system and wasn’t sure which of my options was faster.  Then I thought, “I can use this.”  So I jotted a note that my main character drives himself at various points because he thinks he’s not making progress/doing enough.  He deliberates too long at other points because he’s afraid of making a wrong decision.

So next time you’re angry, frustrated, sad, about something specific–think whether your characters experience that problem and emotion (or something like it) and describe the feelings in notes.  Imagine at what points in the story those discouragements might occur, how your character might react, what the consequences of that reaction is.

And that note-writing might just get your mind off your own feelings for a little while.  🙂

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Writing Tip # 11: Skip Ahead

Who says you have to write your story chronologically? It can be helpful–but then again, it can also get you stuck. If you know generally where your story is going, you can jump ahead to a less difficult spot, to a segment where you know which events happen and what the consequences are. Jumping ahead and working on a different part of the story could spark ideas for that trouble spot as well.  Anyway, the story is a draft, right? It doesn’t have to be a smooth read from start to finish that first time. 🙂

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Writing Tips for Perfectionists–That Elusive Perfect Standard

The problem with perfectionism is that it is both an extreme standard and a constantly changing one.  In the first place, no human being will create perfect artwork or writing.  We are imperfect creatures with imperfect ability, and perfection simply cannot come from imperfection.

In the second, place, your standard for perfect will always change, and the market standard for perfect (or simply for good artwork) will always change.  Say that you’ve gotten your piece of writing as nearly perfect as you can make it.  Finally, it’s ready for the world!  Then you take a quick look at it again.  You are going to see something you want to change.  And if you make that change and then look at the work again later, you’ll see something else that could be improved.  (Cue an indefinitely delayed publishing date!)

Even if this specific scenario isn’t a problem, you will grow and change and mature as a writer or artist.  And your standards for your work will constantly improve—meaning that your old stuff just won’t match that mark.  Remember, it’s not a matter of throwing away your standards.  Just of accepting that “perfect” is unrealistic because those standards will change as you grow and learn.  In fact, that change is a good thing—it means you’re  improving your craft and learning more about it.

So, recognize what is good about your current artwork.   Also recognize what is still good about that old art or writing that you wish you’d never shown to anyone.  Acknowledge that it was good for your skill level back then.  Now keep improving your artwork.

Not only will your personal standards for your artwork change, the market changes.  Constantly.  Grab a Dickens novel off the shelf and read a page.  (And if you don’t have a Dickens volume, get one.  A Christmas Carol is a good place to start.  :-))  Then read a page of Tolkien’s work, a page of Stephen Lawhead’s, and finally, a page of whatever YA book you happen to have on the shelf.  There will be marked differences between all four volumes.  Once upon a time, writers used run-on sentences, lots of narration, and multiple qualifier words.  Nowadays, writers can’t get away with that—at least, not if they want to be traditionally published (generally speaking).  Point being, pursuing perfection in hopes of being published is futile.  By the time you finish 10 years of revising and polishing, the market standard for good writing will have changed, and chances are, your novel will be dated.

Again, it’s not a matter of throwing away high standards for work.  Just of accepting that some of those high standards are unrealistic because the market changes, and because you will grow and improve in your craft.  Embracing growth is better than wrestling a piece of artwork into “perfection” anyway.  And guess what?  The more you learn and improve–the closer your work will be to your high standards!

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Writing Tips for Perfectionists – Of Artistic Vision

I think it’s obvious by now that I am a meticulous planner/outliner and a perfectionist. I’m forever trying to get the artwork on the page to match that perfect vision in my head. Just imagine the nights of anguish when time after time, that didn’t happen.

But I’ve learned to fight (and occasionally conquer) my perfectionism. It’s not a matter of lowering standards–merely of approaching them from a different direction. Because here’s the thing: we perfectionists have incredible artists’ visions. We have drive and discipline (when we’re not procrastinating out of fear, that is). We have the willpower to make those visions a reality. And that’s a good thing.

What’s not a good thing is poring over the work so long that it never sees the light of day.  Or driving yourself into the ground. Refusing to finish in pursuit of that elusive perfect standard. The whole idea of making good art is to enjoy it, right? Creating something for you and others to admire. But that cannot happen if you refuse to let it go.

So here’s the deal: recognize that your vision for your work is good. That your high standards for your art is wonderful–because, let’s face it, a lot of mediocre work gets put out there. (Fantastic Four remake. That is all.)  So congratulate yourself for having high standards and the willingness to pursue them.

But then assess what is most important about your artistic vision.  In the case of a writer–is the goal to write beautiful prose, or inspire, encourage, make readers think?  A watercolor artist–is the goal to have every detail perfect, or to capture the emotions of the viewer?

That’s not to say details should fall by the wayside, but you should assess what your ultimate goal is for the artwork, and what you can realistically do.  And then pursue that rather than focus on making every aspect perfect.  The good news is, the more you work, the better you’ll get!

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Writing Tip #10: Take a Short Break

Say you’ve spent hours planning, plotting, writing, and rewriting a portion of your story.  When you’re not at the keyboard or hunched over the notebook, you’re thinking about the problem during other activities.  Desperate to get this snarl worked out.  I know the feeling.

But it often helps to walk away from that portion or even that whole story for a little while.  Work on another story, or pick up a hobby you haven’t touched in a while.  Getting stuck is natural to writers.  Getting unstuck comes with time and a little brain break.  🙂

For instance, I was recently stuck over a portion of my outline–I couldn’t specify or articulate the conflict well enough to keep plotting.  I spent maybe a week playing with ideas, pushing forward, and pondering the problem in my off-time.  Then my family and I were busy over the weekend, and I had no time to think about the story.

But when I came back to my notes, the problem wasn’t that bad.  Sure, the conflict could be more specific, but my notes were actually clearer than I’d remembered, and they gave me enough information to continue plotting.

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m a planner.  🙂

Point being, when you get stuck (and you will), it may work to just walk away from the project temporarily.  This gives your mind a break, and you can return to the project and assess with a clearer head.

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Writing Tip #9: Learn How You Work

Every writer has a different writing process.  Some writers need more time to make notes and outline than to draft.  Others need to create well-developed characters before starting chapter one.  Still others may need only the general concept, and they’ll dig deeper into it while writing.  Other writers just write and see what happens.  You get the idea.

Learn your own writing process–what works best for you.  Whether you need to spend more time outlining (if at all), developing characters, organizing themes.  Whether you find it easier to focus on the details or to start with concepts.  Whether you need lots of notes or only general ideas.  Discovering the writing process that suits you best will take time and experience—and failure, but all this pays off.  Because once you know your own approach, you can be flexible in non-essential areas and prepare adequately for a project.

For instance, I’m the planner sort.  (Can you tell?  🙂 )  I need to know the general concept of the story, the conflict, and the conclusion of what I’m trying to say (see this post for further explanation of those points).  I also need characters developed pretty deeply before drafting.  And I’m definitely an outliner.  It took 10 years, a lot of trial-and-error, and about 7 abandoned or paused stories to figure that out—but now that I know, developing and planning any story is much easier!