5 Times to Ask for Help

a picture of a beat up truck in mudWriting is a solitary pursuit much of the time. While this keeps me pretty happy most of the time (not having to depend on anyone, being alone with my thoughts, having no one to answer to), sometimes it can be a real drag. Sometimes I need to reach out and ask for help, which can be difficult. But when I get to these points, I do:

  1. When Inspiration leaves

Sometimes inspiration can be fickle. It flits through the window late one summer evening, only to trudge out the door the minute I turn my back. That idea that sounded amazing yesterday? Yeah, that was just a rock. And now I’m worried that it’s becoming a stone around my neck and Ill drown any second (I have a flair for drama.). So I reach out. Find someone. Breathe. The truth is, inspiration is probably still there. My inner critic probably just beat the crap out of it when I wasn’t looking, like Cinderella’s stepsisters. Now it’s hiding like a wild animal, and I need some help coaxing it back out again. So what would you do to recapture a frightened animal? You’d ask for help! So call a friend. Tell them you had an idea and you think it sucks. Talk it through. If they’re your friend, they’ll help you bring it back out from the shadows, make any necessary repairs to it, and release it back into the wild of your imagination.

  1. When I Don’t Know Enough

I know someone who is writing a script about competitive roller skating. Yep, you read that right. When she told me about this idea, I felt my heart beat faster with excitement. It was a fantastic idea! And then as a knot grew in my stomach, I became grateful that it wasn’t my idea or my project. Because I already knew I knew nothing about it. Knowing nothing (or not enough) can be death to momentum. You find yourself, staring at a blank page, wondering what the difference is between an Asian Swallow and an American Swallow, and why it’s important to your character, and how that shapes your plot, and why you wrote a swallow into your book in the first place. Why did you have to get all fancy and call it a swallow in the first place? Why couldn’t you just be normal and say it was a fucking bird?! Stop. Breathe. Reach out. If you don’t have a friend who knows about birds, try the Google machine. Try a zoo. Or a university. Or another book! Just try to find more information. You may decide the difference is not important, freeing you up to write whatever you want. Or you may learn that there are marked differences, which will affect your story in new and exciting ways. Either way, knowledge has given you the permission and the ability to move forward.

  1. When My Character Gives Me the Silent Treatment

Now and then, my protagonist stops talking. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t like the clothes I gave them, or if they’re too ugly or too short, but they just stop telling me what they want to say and do. And I feel like I’m dead to them, which is a horrifying place to be. If you find yourself here, call your buddy. What would they do if said story circumstance happened to them? What would another person they know do? Or how would they react? Talk about your character as if they are real (because really, aren’t they??) and work with someone else to talk through their problems. It’s like gossip, but without the harmful side effects.

  1. When I’m Tired

Sometimes I type a word and think, “What’s the damn point? No one’s going to read this crap anyway.” This is the height of self-deprecating crap that indicates I’m tired and cranky. I may be writing words, but I’m not feeling them. I’m drained, and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. So, when your farm truck gets stuck in the mud up to the rims (or deeper), and you’re not going anywhere, and mud is just spewing in every direction, what do you do? Well, you don’t keep spinning. You go have a beer. I’d have bourbon. But the point is, find someone and unwind. Unburden yourself while the mud congeals and dries. When you come back to the truck, you may just see a new solution as if you’re looking at the problem with new eyes. Only then can you get unstuck.

  1. When I’m Almost Done

This is a two-fold time. It’s time to start celebrating, and time to double down on the seriousness of what I’m doing. Why do people always hang out at mile 25 of the marathon instead of mile 1 to cheer? Because that’s the hardest mile. It’s the place when people need the most encouragement. Their bodies are about to give out, they’re shaking and wobbly, and seeing that cheerleader yelling away and clapping is the ultimate transfer of energy. So find it. Use it. Finish, and celebrate.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/

Photo credit: pixabay/925282/

5 Unconventional Ways to Develop Your Characters

multi-colored wooden game piecesYou already know the single most important question to ask about your protagonist:

What does he/she want?

With that alone, you can make it pretty far into your story. But then something happens. You realize you still don’t know your protagonist. Maybe you have some backstory worked out, you know her education level, even her family history, but there’s a difference between the what of it and the who of it.

Does she like her environment neat and organized or prefer it messy? Does she value money or people more? Does she shut down and deny her involvement when something goes wrong or own up to it?

These are the questions that start to give your protagonist (and all your characters for that matter) the multi-dimensions that they and your readers deserve. Creating distinctive personality types ensures your characters aren’t, well, acting out of character or worse—reacting to situations in the same way. So here are five resources to check out that will help you understand your characters better:

1. The Enneagram Institute

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com

I recently learned about this one from author William Craig Reed at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (you should check out his newest book and support a worthy cause here: 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership: What Top Military Commanders, Neuroscientists, and the Ancient Greeks Teach Us about Inspiring Teams).

The Enneagram Institute breaks personalities down into nine major types, falling under the “Thinking,” “Feeling,” or “Intuiting” categories. Those types can then have “wings,” meaning someone can share traits of another personality. And each type can also “integrate” or “disintegrate,” becoming a better or worse version of that personality.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, right? For the purposes of defining characters, you can start with reading about each of the nine types (enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions) and try to categorize your characters accordingly.

2. Astrology – Zodiac Signs

I might as well put the Google search link for this one because you’ll find plentiful articles and horoscopes out there for Zodiac signs. Astrology never resonated with me until I found out there was more than just a sun sign. There’s also a rising sign, a moon, a bunch of houses, ruling planets but without getting carried away, the two most useful categories are:

Sun sign: This is the sign that the sun was in when your character was born. This is your character’s essence or who they are at their core.

Rising sign aka Ascendant: This is the sign that was rising over the eastern horizon when your character was born. This is your character’s surface personality or how they appear to others.

For instance, your character might have a Leo sun and Libra rising sign. This means that, while she would run headfirst into battle to protect her own, she also has a harmonious side—a side that might try to stop a war or argument from happening in the first place. See how these two signs can interact and add some dimension to your characters?

3. Numerology

Again, there are many online resources for numerology, even a Numerology for Dummies book that will get your pretty far. Like Enneagram, numerology also has nine distinct number types. The most important number is the “birth number.” That is, the number you’re left with when adding up the birth date. For instance, someone born December 22, 2017, would be an 8:

1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 0 + 1 + 7 = 17

1 + 7 = 8.

Okay, you don’t actually have to assign your characters birth dates and do a bunch of math, but you can read about each number and its basic traits and then assign a number to each character.

A 1, for instance, would be much more independent than a 2. A 4 would be a worker bee, while an 8 values money and power. A 7 would be very inward and pensive, while a 3 might be an artist. Once you get to know the numbers, you will see how assigning each character a different one will produce interesting conflict within your scenes.

4. Myer’s Briggs

16 Personalities.com

There’s been some backlash on this one recently, but I stand my ground as an INFJ and still believe there’s some merit to it! Myers Briggs claims there are sixteen possible personality combinations. They are broken down into polarities:

Introverted vs. Extroverted

Observant vs. Intuitive

Thinking vs. Feeling

Judging vs. Prospecting

Assertive vs. Turbulent

Since it would be an undertaking to read up on all sixteen types, you can work with these basic questions:

Is your character more introverted or extroverted?

Do they analyze their surrounding or go with their gut?

Do they use their head or their heart more?

Are they organized planners or flexible improvisers?

Are they self-assured or self-conscious?

Once you decide which way they sway, you can read up on that specific personality type.

5. Secret Language Birthdays

TheSecretLanguage.com/check/day

It’s actually scary how accurate this one is! The data was collected from a forty-year empirical study of the life stories of more than twenty thousand people, analyzed by date of birth. If you select your birthdate, you will get a two-word description of yourself. I, for instance, am “Revelational Winner.” My sister is “Wondrous Explosive.” See how fun these can be?!

Under the title, there are specific traits and then larger descriptions of each aspect. While I don’t recommend painstakingly sifting through hundreds of birthday combinations, try searching for yourself and a few friends or family members. Start to pick up on traits and how those simple, two-word descriptions can define someone. As a bonus, you can choose a second birthday and read about how two personalities would be in a relationship together.

*

There are many other ways to develop your characters, but these five techniques will give you a jump-start. The technique that resonates with you may be different from project to project. On my last book, I used both numerology and astrology to develop my characters, whereas on my current project I’m finding the Enneagram personalities incredibly helpful. There’s no one right way, and not many wrong ways either!

 

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

 

Scared to Write the Full Truth About Your Family Members? I Hear You

The Power of AND When It Comes to Writing the People in Your Life

a woman with two faces on either side of her head

I’m going to write a sentence that shocks even me: 

My father was both a racist and not a racist.  

When I go to write about him, I find I can’t write one without the other. Writing about one would be only half the picture. It is only when I capture both that I capture my father.  

Let me explain a bit more.  

My father struggled with people of color. He also fought in the Civil Rights era. In 1964, he stood with a baseball bat outside polling places and made sure that black people were allowed to vote safely.  

He sometimes said disparaging things about Mexicans. Yet, at his funeral, the Mexican waiters from his retirement home came and cried over his casket. He had become their champion, sent them cards or money for college, and cheered on their victories. One of them held my hand as we placed dirt on the grave, and he said, “I will never forget him, he helped me see what I could be.”

But how can this be, you wonder? How can someone be both a racist and not a racist? Or a sexist in some situations and not a sexist in others? Or wildly selfish and also unselfish?

The reason is that we are complex beings who live in the real world of “and.” We travel in the light, and we travel in the dark.

In my experience, we are often afraid of the “and.”

We often have a hard time reconciling that people may be multi-faceted, contradictory, and complex because we yearn for simplicity. We yearn to understand, to have real and true clarity. We want our good guys to be good guys and our bad guys to be bad.

We hold people up in the public eye as good or bad, innocent or guilty, compassionate or cold, angry or calm. Then when we see the other side, we are shocked, saddened, or dismayed. Our worlds don’t make sense anymore. “But I thought he was one of the good guys…” I sometimes hear people say.

I believe the main reason we do this is because our own primal, darker side scares us. Maybe it’s because we have been ostracized, condemned, shamed, or shunned when we have shown these sides. Maybe it’s because we fear the consequences if we show these sides. Maybe it’s because we were never taught how to hold both parts of the self—the dark and the light—and be okay with the whole package.

I’m continually inspired by one of my bold and brave writers, Donna, who is capturing the complex picture of her husband in her new memoir. Her husband was a problem gambler who spent all of their money and ended up taking his own life. But, as we read the book, we see the full picture. He was a good man and a loving father. He was bright and hard working. He provided respite, sanity, and support in the places her family of origin never could. For many years, he was a strong partner and an excellent provider. In the end, he was both a gambling addict and a really good man.

Or Kelly, who writes about her drug-addicted parents who were always one step away from homelessness or jail, and who used their food stamps only on themselves while Kelly worked three jobs as a 16-year-old just to get by. Yet, when I read her first draft, I realized the book was a love letter to her parents. Free-spirited and full of life, her parents taught Kelly the joy of now. They loved her fiercely, danced with her, shared their love of nature with her and instilled a sense of adventure within her spirit that shines to this day. Her parents were both self-absorbed drug addicts and loving magic makers.

My advice?

Don’t shy away from the “and” of it all. I mean within yourself and your writing. If your dark side comes a calling, acknowledge it—give it a voice. You don’t have to act from that place, but allowing the space for it can be amazingly healing. You are not sick, twisted, messed up, or worthless because you have a dark side. You are human. And the chances are that if you start providing tolerant compassion to yourself, it might extend to others in your life.

And get this:

If you can appreciate the complexity of the human experience and strive to capture it on the page, then you will be offering your reader the nectar they have been most thirsty for—understanding that they are not alone.

When you capture a person or a character that lives in both the light and the dark places, just as your reader does, they will see a reflection of themselves, of their own human experience.

By writing in this way, you are lifting the veil that reveals that not one of us is truly alone—but in fact, we are all living in this complex, confusing, and beautiful land together.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3017747/

The Unporridging

a whisk mixing porridgeI’m working on a newish project. I’ve got characters, most of a plot, and a few dozen thousand words down. It’s enough to hang onto and wrestle with, and oh God is it better than the blankness of waiting for a new idea.

But it’s not fully there. I want to fall in love with this book, and I haven’t yet, not the way I loved my last project. This one has been sticky, lumpy, and gray.

Porridgy.

This month I’ve sorted out a lot of that. I could be wildly wrong (I’ve been wrong about this before), but I think I’ve found tweaks to make this a book I’m excited about.

In case you too are facing porridge where you hoped for transcendence, I will list some things helping me find the spark.

Characters I Love

Here’s what makes a character pop: A desire and a goal. Unacknowledged needs at odds with that goal. A default strategy for dealing with the world. A lesson and an arc. Vulnerabilities. And at least one pretty impressive skill.

I’d been missing the skill and I knew it, but I’ve finally (hopefully) pinned it down. That and a haziness of goal (isn’t it always a haziness of goal?) were making my protagonist lumpish.

A Vision of Plot

I found this list of novel plots online, and, guys, oh my gosh. Lists of plots are almost never as inspiring as I want them to be, but this was amazing. Picking my story off that list reminded me where I needed to focus my conflict. It reminded me why I’m writing the damned thing.

Stakes and Scale

As a writer and reader, I like intimate stakes and close relationships. I’m drawn to situations that arise when characters know each other well.

That’s a wonderful element in a story. It is not a whole story.

Think of it this way. You know the musical Hamilton? It has a really great love triangle. Really great. Sympathetic, nuanced, interesting, with a deft use of I-understand-you moments I haven’t seen elsewhere.

If you kept the Hamilton love triangle but removed the politics, the music, the cultural context, the commentary on race, the American Revolution, the building a new government, the deaths, the rivalry, and the duel, you would get the mushy porridge I keep ending up with.

You don’t literally need a war. But you need a wider world, even if it’s background. You need institutional forces, social upheavals, cataclysmic events, or just the eternal uncertainty of huge things shifting beyond our control. Otherwise, your stakes will be things like “if Jane doesn’t get what she wants, Jane will be unhappy.”

Porridge.

Villainy and Power

I’ve got this thing about evil villains. I find them desperately boring.

Just like with the stakes stuff, this causes trouble. I keep writing conflicts between equals who are basically nice people. Nothing escalates.

So this month, I re-read Harry Potter. (Bonus unporridging advice: read books that do well at things you do poorly.) I find Voldemort fine, if a little generic, but the terror he sows opens up room for a huge cast of more interesting characters to scramble to survive. Everything great about those books happens in the drama-charged space Voldemort creates.

Here’s my theory: I suspect the essence of a good villain isn’t evil, it’s power.

Remember: power is what turns a doddering, racist, raging, incompetent old man from somebody’s obnoxious uncle into an object of terror for (I suspect) most people currently reading this. Even with a villain a lot (a lot) more sympathetic than our forty-fifth president, a goal contrary to your protagonist’s needs combined with the power to hurt your protagonist will make them terrifying. Suddenly the world has structure, and the conflict has stakes.

Use that.

*

Implementing solutions is always way harder than brainstorming them, and I may come back next month still with a book full of porridge. Hopefully not. I’m hoping some of these revelations help me, and maybe help you too.

Good luck!

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com.porridge

 

3 Tricks to Keep Your Climax Climactic

Disco ball in black and whiteNot that type of climax, sheesh! This is a writing blog. These tricks are for fiction writers but are helpful to keep in mind for all of us who put words on a page.

1) This is my favorite climax trick, and it comes straight from the amazing John Vorhaus: take a situation that could happen in real life and kick it up a notch. We writers are already good at this one, right? We play out what-if scenarios a lot. Some might say too much, but  I would argue that this is who we are and why we’re good at what we do, so naysay elsewhere! Now then, where were we? Oh yes—take the gift of playing out scenarios and tweak it a smidge—what could almost happen if? This is fiction, so push your climax just outside of the reality box. Take off its acrylic sweater and help it plug in the garage sale disco ball that clicks every time it spins past 9:00. Now dance with it!

2) Go somewhere. What is the setting for your story? Can you switch it up for your pinnacle scene? Move your readers in every sense at this juncture; take them on a journey in more than one way. As your main character is changing on the inside, describe a new locale on the outside. Move us, ground us, shake, and serve.

3) Don’t get stuck on expectations. You’ve made it this far! You’re almost there! While writing my climax, I felt suffocated by the pressure of the first 90% of the book. What if this part sucks? Isn’t this the most important part? What if it’s not as good as the rest of the story and the whole thing unravels and the ending is terrible? Stick the thumb back in the mouth of your inner critic. Pro tip—put peanut butter on the thumb first, so she has a harder time removing it. Then write. Still stuck? Do this exercise: describe the climax scenes in the last five fiction books you’ve read. Can you? I couldn’t. Because the climax is less important than its name implies. What matters is your protagonist and how (s)he/it makes your readers feel. About the world, about themselves, about everything. A compelling central character is what matters most. Just make sure the climax rings true to this unforgettable character you’ve created. Or rather, just outside of true (see trick #1). Then, switch up the setting (see trick #2). And write it.

Now go! Your disco ball awaits.

 

Photo Credit: Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

 

The Familiar Girl

Astronaut on planet with pyramids“You look familiar,” she says as she shakes my hand. Her brown eyes peer at me expectantly over the rim of her glasses. “Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, and we sit down opposite each other at the rustic wooden table. She’s the hostess of a wine tasting dinner my friend invited me to, in a neighborhood I’ve never been to, with people I’ve never met—or have I?

The following ten minutes I spend racking my brain for where I could’ve met this woman. I watch her slender hand swirl the wine in its glass. Watch her curly hair bounce as she turns her head. Maybe we have met. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention when we did. Sometimes I do that. Maybe I just have a bad memory.

This is not the first time someone has said, “You look familiar.”

It started in high school when my classmate, Andres, turned to me in math class and said, “You look like my friend, Jennifer. I’m going to call you Jennifer.” And he did—for the rest of the year.

It instilled in me a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, until it got weirder. Many people after that, into my adult life, mistook me for a Jennifer. Even people who already knew my name.

Someone once told me I looked like Anne Hathaway. Someone else, like Rosamund Pike. I do this to people too—I walk the streets and mutter to my friends:

“That’s Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom mixed together.”

“There’s Norwegian Brad Pitt.”

“Don’t you think she looks like our cousin?”

I’ve been pondering this concept of familiarity for a long time. Do I have a twin sister named Jennifer who my parents never told me about? Could I have multiple doppelgängers trotting the globe, grown in the lab from my stolen DNA? Do people look at my general features and compartmentalize them under “brown-haired, brown-eyed girls with small foreheads and big smiles?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe the why of it isn’t as important and the what of it: we seek out the familiar because we are comfortable with the familiar. We resonate with it. We relate to it.

We do it on the street corner. We do it at work. We do it while traveling. And we do it when we read a book.

The familiar, the relatable, it’s what draws us.

When characters feel like old friends, when we can taste a meal, smell a setting, hear a song.

The story could be set on Mars—The Martian’s main character, Mark Watney, is stuck on a hostile planet with no one to interact with but himself. Yet, his sense of humor remains intact and brings him “down to earth,” so to speak: “Turns out the ‘L’ in ‘LCD’ stands for ‘Liquid.’ I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10” (pg. 150).

The story could be set in a country we’ve never been to before—in The God of Small Things, set in India, Arundhati Roy transcends her homeland, using similes to exemplify the human condition: “Both she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot—that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes” (pg. 122-123).

Your story could be set in your childhood home—but, inevitably, your nostalgia, your memories, they’ll feel familiar to your readers too.

So the next time you spot someone you think you might know, ask yourself, “What is it about them that makes me think that?” and you may have the beginnings of a new character.

The next time you walk into a restaurant and feel a sense of deja vu, ask yourself, “What is it about this place that makes me think I’ve been here?” and you may notice some nuanced details that will enhance your set description.

And the next time someone tells you that you look familiar, recognize that they’re giving you the highest compliment—that you comfort them (And maybe try to figure out what about yourself brings that familiarity.).

Soon enough, you’ll have your readers seeing themselves in your work, turning the page, and coming back for more of the familiar.

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1900352/

Lessons About Foils From the Musical “Hamilton”

I know, I know, I’m really late to the Hamilton party. It’s a brilliant play, for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with character foils. You know what, though? The way it uses foils is amazing.

To review: “In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character—usually the protagonist—in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.” -Wikipedia.

Now, on to things I’ve learned about foils from Hamilton.

Difference is about similarity.

Alexander Hamilton is an orphaned genius who rises from nothing to join the revolution and later plays a key role in the new U.S. government. Aaron Burr is … also those things. Their lives run strangely parallel from their first meet up until (spoiler, I guess?) Burr fatally shoots Hamilton. Their similarities let us see what utter opposites they are.

If you want to show someone is a genius, put them next to somebody smart.

It’s counterintuitive, right? Foils rely on contrast, and isn’t the opposite of a smart person a stupid one? But no: the opposite of an exceptional person is an averagely capable one. Hamilton portrays its title character as a genius who fights his way into the company of other brilliant people—and still excels. That’s far more impressive than being the smartest person in a room where nobody else is smart.

Put a genius next to idiots … sparingly.

There’s only one song (“Farmer Refuted”) where Hamilton argues with someone who can’t rise to his level of debate. He argues circles around the guy, who repeats his solid points over and over until an infuriated Hamilton resorts to shouting insults. It works, it’s hilarious, and we don’t need more than two minutes of it.

Don’t always make your protagonist look good.

Even in the idiot vs. genius exchange, Hamilton looks smart, sincere, principled … and given to pointless anger, childish insults, and poor impulse-control. And that’s when he’s right. He spends most of the play surrounded by people who understand truths he doesn’t, and the play is better for it.

One character can have many foils.

Hamilton vs. Burr: driven (“Just you wait!”) vs. cautious (“Wait for it…”)

Hamilton vs. Eliza: ambitious vs. appreciative of the present moment

Hamilton vs. Jefferson: hungry vs. established

Hamilton vs. Washington: restless vs. at peace

Notice how consistent Hamilton is here: driven, ambitious, hungry, and restless. The way each character clashes with him illuminates their personality while confirming Hamilton’s.

“Foil” is not a character’s only role.

All these characters have important stories of their own. Nobody is just a foil.

Show who people are through their personal philosophies. Then make them fight.

Every character in the play brings a strong and different philosophy (“I will not throw away my shot,” “Wait for it,” “How lucky we are to be alive right now,” etc.), and they collide. This can spark political debates, irreconcilable personal differences, or character growth. Characters often don’t understand why they drive each other up the wall, but we know: their personal philosophies clash.

Nobody needs to win these debates.

Is it better to “talk less, smile more” or to “rise up”? To work “non-stop” or to “wait for it”?

Who cares? It’s about contrasting characterizations, not finding a right answer.

Sometimes, somebody needs to win these debates.

Jefferson is ultimately portrayed as a fairly principled statesman (and an insufferable ass), but his positive traits only appear long, long after Hamilton rips him to shreds for his complicity in slavery. The play doesn’t always take sides, but “slavery was evil” is not negotiable.

Foils show how people change.

When Hamilton reaches out to his betrayed and grieving wife by echoing her personal philosophies (in “It’s Quiet Uptown”), we understand he’s finally learned something.

Foils show how people don’t change.

The Burr and Hamilton of the final duel clash for the same reasons they always have. Yes, Hamilton has grown somewhat—he does throw away his shot—but he’ll never back down or learn to take his time. I’ve got immense respect for a story that lets a difficult protagonist stay difficult.

That’s what I’ve got. So … what’d I miss?

 

Photo Credit:https://www.publictheater.org/PageFiles/2747/Hamilton%20new%20production%20photos/Hamilton0044r.jpg

World Building: The Dreaming

I would often get the following advice from writing coach and thefeistywriter.com founder, Marni Freedman, especially when I was feeling stressed, flustered, and blocked-up in my creative process: take some time to dream. And, of course, it’s great advice and something that I feel like I used to be good at, before I actually became a writer (but more on that some other time). I want to write about the dreaming, because it’s important and it’s something that we often overlook, especially as we get older, and life gets in the way of us exploring our creativity.

A great way to dream that specifically relates to your world-building is to place yourself in your novel. I know that writers have been doing this since Neanderthals were etching charcoal fanfic on the walls of their caves, but sometimes it’s worth remembering those things that seemed to come so naturally to us when we were just baby writers. Dreaming lets you get inside your world from your own point of view (no messy unreliable narrators to worry about) and gives you a chance to explore.

I usually create a persona to delve into my writing, and you might want to try this, too. Maybe you want to be like Melisandre from Game of Thrones, or like Q from Star Trek. I prefer to cast “myself” as someone superhuman so that I don’t die. The worlds we build as writers can be scary, and I’m not about to go running around a place I’ve created without the ability to cast a magic shield or blink into another realm. Save the problem-solving for my actual characters; I’m just there to hang out.

Now you can travel in your world and really explore. Sit down with your characters and read their fortunes in the campfire. Eat the food they’ve made. Do battle with your main antagonist using your Red Lady magic. Maybe you’re writing sci-fi, and you’re an outer-space trickster god who’s posing as a spice merchant and has a chance encounter with your protagonist at a docking station. Let yourself go. Be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re paying attention to your world while you’re doing it.

It’s up to you if you want to take notes on this kind of stuff. Obviously, you’re not going to use other people’s characters in your work (unless you are writing fanfic, I guess), but it’s safe to write down what you’ve discovered about your world and your own characters in the process. In fact, that’s the whole point!

So get out there and dream! Finding time, though…that’s the Holy Grail of writers everywhere. If you’ve got that one figured out, feel free to drop me a line. I’ll be here, dreaming about dreaming.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/collections/342769/dream?photo=rMmibFe4czY

Keep Your Opinion to Yourself: How to Prevent Authorial Bias From Poisoning Your Writing

black and white photo of person wearing gloves holding a mirror in a snowy forestAll artists have a distinctive style, but have you ever thought about how they acquired it? I’ve worked alongside character sculptors for many years and noticed that whether they sculpt animals, monsters, or humans, each creation resembles them to some degree. It’s not a conscious effort but rather a subconsciously learned habit from looking in the mirror every day and seeing the same familiar features staring back.

For writers, it’s not so different. There’s no way to turn off the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, ideas, and annoying jingles swirling around in the figurative mirror of our minds. So, just like those visual artists, our writing is imbued with “features” of ourselves.

By “features” I don’t mean in the sense of “write what you know.” Anything you create will reflect your personality and interests. But there are other “features”—the subconscious ones—that you don’t intend to include.

While you inform how your characters think and act, this doesn’t mean they should think and act how you would in a given situation, or that your opinion of them should affect their identities. In my current project, my protagonist has two love interests vying for her attention. About halfway through my first draft, I realized that not only did my critique partners dislike the second love interest, but so did I (and so did my protagonist)! Far from making him compelling and attractive, I made him deplorable! His actions and dialogue completely discounted his strengths. Upon reflection, this was because the first love interest was someone I would want to be with. So when I was knee deep in the writing trenches, the mirror in my head had a thing or two to contribute to the second love interest’s character. Luckily, with a few dialogue tweaks and sequences where he could be more active, I was able to redeem him.

This is just one example of how the internal mirror can take over. It can also manifest in dialogue, plot, or theme. And although sometimes it will enhance your project, it won’t always. So be aware of the “features” you pour into your writing and then decide if they should stay or go. Here’s how:

  1. Write uncensored. Especially in a first draft, it can be hard to discern where you’re giving away too much information and where the integrity of certain characters falls short. So get the first draft out with no regard for the mirror.
  1. Identify where the mirror takes over. Some instances you’ll notice as you’re writing and others upon immediate review, but certain cases—the ones that have infiltrated an entire character arc or thematic message—you’ll have a hard time identifying. So start with dialogue and plot revelations, and then look at the larger picture of arcs and themes.
  1. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to depart from what you know and love. Remember that removing the mirror’s influence doesn’t mean the writing’s gone forever; you can always relocate it to your ‘killed darlings’ document.
  1. Let others read your work. While they may not know you well enough to recognize where the internal mirror takes over, their critique may show you where your story is suffering. Not to mention, they could help you solve a problem you may not have noticed on your own.

All that being said, this is your story—of course, your “features” will be reflected within! So allow the internal mirror to take over once in a while, and then evaluate if you need to fog it up, shatter it, or give it a good polish.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/search/mirror?photo=aUYmEjU6mvY

5 Ways to Make Your Protagonist Better

woman holding plaid scarf in front of her faceThere are certain characters that leap off the page and others that just kind of mosey from it, only to be forgotten moments later. Obviously, having a memorable and dynamic protagonist is one key to a great story, so, as you wade into their lives, here are some strategies for making that protagonist leap:

  1. Get to know her.

This person should literally talk to you. You should have the sound of her voice in her head. You should be able to talk about her as if you are childhood chums, and you’ve known her your whole life. Think about her past before this story. Not just the big stuff, but the little stuff too. Has she always lived here? What is her favorite thing she’s ever done or seen? Who are her heroes? What is her favorite color? Her favorite movie? TV show? Book? These are all things that will most likely not be in your story, but they will shape who she is and affect her reactions to things. Make her clear as day.

  1. Give her a clear goal.

What does she want? If you find yourself stuttering something like “well she just wants to find love but she also really wants cake and is sort of annoyed by her mother” (whoops, that’s my life), that’s not clear. Nor are those goals. (Sidenote: NOT getting that goal should also have a clear consequence so we know how important it is) She wants to marry the prince is a clear goal. She’s searching for the best cake in the world is clear. She wants to reconcile with her mother, who is on her death bed, is a clear goal.

  1. Give her a flaw.

As we all know, nobody’s perfect. And your heroine can’t be either. Now I know, (for those of you who do, in fact, have female protagonists) that you want your gal to be strong, empowered, and in control of her destiny. But the truth is, people who are perfect are boring. They have no conflict in their lives, and stories with no conflict are boring. In reality, even empowered women have flaws. Maybe they have a secret shame, or maybe they are so powerful, they lack empathy for a certain person. Maybe they are too tough to recognize the power in vulnerability. Maybe they have a self-esteem problem. And sometimes, strengths can double as weaknesses. Example: Loyalty. She will always 100% have your back, but she may also be blinded to the facts, or take that loyalty too far and beat up some jerk who said something mean.

  1. Tell us what she loves. Better yet, show us.

Everybody loves something, and we need to see it. This is how we start to learn what makes your character tick. And as with everything, make it as precise as possible. Rather than a character that loves cats, which cat? A specific object or being makes it personal and relatable. We may not all have a cat we love, but we all love something, so we can get on board with your character right away.

  1. Make her active.

This is a pitfall many writers experience, particularly if their character is shy. Instead of being someone who does things, they’re someone that things happen to. It is critical that your character is proactive, rather than reactive. She needs to decide to do something, then go do it. Having other characters decide and thrust their will upon her makes her weak and uninteresting, and it will feel like she is standing still while the story moves around her. Make her move, or your story will stand still anyway.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/search/woman?photo=Z3IrYTlf_WY