Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

It’s “Ask an Agent” time!

March 2nd, 2015 | Agents, Career, Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…

A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”

 

The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.

 

This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”

 

Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better technique, better structure, a more active voice. We can help them come up with a stronger story, more interesting characters, and a better setting. But what sets a book apart in my view is usually the voice of the writer, and I’m just not sure we can make an author sound different (though I do think that, with practice, we can sometimes help an author discover his or her voice). To get a better handle on this, think about American Idol, which, as I write this, has just started to shrink their list of singers. All of the singers in the current 24 can sing. But some have a more interesting, more powerful, or more unique voices. God just made them that way. They all can train to improve their sound, or use better breathing technique or something, but the basic quality of their voice is God-given. I’ve often wondered if writers are the same way.

 

This also came in on Facebook: “What makes a ‘killer’ One Sheet?”

 

You may not like my answer: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “killer” one-sheet. That is, they don’t land you a deal, they just help you take the next step. For those who don’t know, a one-sheet is a one page overview of your novel. It offers a brief description of your story, gives some detail on genre, word count, and audience, and tells something about the author. Often it’ll have some sort of graphic element to make it visually interesting. They tend to be used as a means of introducing a novel to an editor or agent at a conference. But they’re just an introduction – if they’re good, they will encourage the editor to look at the formal proposal. So I guess the best one-sheets are the ones that make the story sound interesting enough they get me to take the next step.

 

And this question was asked on my Facebook page: “Every agent I talk to says they can’t sell what I write. How do I overcome that?”

 

Um… write something else? I’m not trying to sound snotty, but if you keep hearing people say they can’t sell it, you’re either going to have to self-publish it, wait and hope to meet someone else, or write something they CAN sell.

 

Someone sent me this: “As an avid reader–about two thrillers a week–I am curious what your thoughts are about something. How does a poorly written book make it to the NY Times bestseller list, and riveting page-turners languish in obscurity? I just read a so called ‘thriller’ that has garnered close to 400 good reviews on Amazon and is on the NYT bestseller list. Besides the fact that the book reads like a rough first draft, as an ex-NYC cop I can attest to the fact that the author knows absolutely nothing about his subject matter, and even less about how police officers interact with the public and each other. On the other hand, I recently read two great thrillers by a new author who has garnered about 50 reviews on Amazon but no one seems to have heard of him. This sort of thing puzzles me. Thoughts?”cartoon

 

Life ain’t fair. Every agent can tell you of great authors he or she has represented that languished, and of weak writers who surprised us all by hitting a bestseller list. EL James sold millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I felt could have been written by a world-wise fifth grader, while Abha Dawesar’s fabulous Family Values is far more interesting and entertaining, written with polish and grace, and, while recognized by reviewers as a wonderfully written piece, has never hit a bestseller list. Like I said, life ain’t fair. Or, as the wonderful essayist HL Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

 

 

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The Perks of Being in a Writing Group (a guest blog)

February 27th, 2015 | Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

I posted on Facebook once: “Spending the day with my laptop. I know you all think I’m sipping Dom Perignon and writing the next great American novel from the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I’m actually down at the coffee shop, no make-up, hair tied up, wearing a pair of white sweatpants that are so big you could play a movie on my rear end if I bent over at the drive-in theater.” I added the hashtag #thuglife.

It took all of ten seconds for one of my smart-aleck friends to respond, “What’s playing?”

We writers know that we’re really not having tea and crumpets with JK Rowling every other week. I’ve never even seen a crumpet and have yet to meet Ms. Rowling. But there is one thing I decided to do to bring some bling to my writing career – start a writing group. Crazy, right?

How I ever managed to gather the caliber of writers that so divinely came to me is beyond anything I could have imagined. We call ourselves the Flying M-Inklings (pronounced Minklings), a nod to The Flying M coffee shop where we meet every Saturday as well as to those talented Oxford-lads across the pond.

I had no idea when I put the word out that I was starting this group that these individuals would become my best friends, proverbially greater than the sum of our parts. Of course, we share our writing and critique each other’s work – we’re a writing group after all. But the M-Inklings have evolved into much more than that. Part of what we do as a group is encourage other writing groups to find their own collective identities.

On behalf of my fellow M-Inklings, who believe that all writers should join forces with others, I would love to show here how worthwhile a writing group can be.

Ah, the possibilities…

  • Has your manuscript ever been passed over by a big publisher, not because your writing wasn’t good enough – but because your platform wasn’t big enough? In case you don’t know this feeling, it sucks, let me tell you. One of the most compelling perks of being in a writing group is that you are able to share each other’s spheres of influence, which instantly increases your reader base. On social media, my own “friends’ list” more than quadrupled by being part of the M-Inklings. Our friends’ lists increase together exponentially. This is an example of instant gratification in spades. The only thing better than stepping out onto your own platform to be heard is being able to stand on the platforms of others. Do the math. It’s pretty slick.
  • Don’t you wish all you had to do as an author is write? We can’t merely write! We have to know how to market and how to blog. Our tech skills are challenged every day. We need a website. We have publishing questions. We have a business to run. When you are part of a writing group, each individual brings their own area of expertise to the table, and everyone in the group benefits. Among the M-Inklings are syntax warriors and grammar geeks, website-teckie-blogging buffs and structure virtuosos. Your career goals, whatever they are, have an infinitely better chance of becoming reality when you’re working with others than they would if you were working alone. The learning curve shortens right up when you are working in tandem with writers who have similar goals.
  • Here in Boise we are lucky enough to have The Cabin whose mission is “…to inspire and celebrate a love of reading, writing, and discourse throughout Idaho and the region,” which is pretty well what the M-Inklings are all about too. It’s been amazing for The Flying M-Inklings to be able to hook up with The Cabin and participate in some of the events they host. Just recently, we went on one of our field trips to meet Markus Zusak who, we all know, wrote The Book Thief, my current #1 fave (subject to change, of course). Here is Brandon getting his books signed. We had waited in line for three and a half hours to see him. In that time, Brandon and Katie and Nic and I thought of at least a dozen new projects for our group which we will roll out in time. Never a dull moment.
  • Your writing group can become a living, breathing being. In fact, the Flying M-Inklings have become an entity all her own, and she has even launched her own website – flyingminklings.org. The site features our writing but also provides writing tips for other authors and bloggers. Not only do we collaborate with each other, we are also interested in collaborating with other writers who are willing to share their expertise with us and the rest of the world. So if you’d be interested in standing on our platform and guest blogging for us, let us know. We’d love to hook up with other writing groups out there.
  • Finally, check out this place! Our very own Brandon Paul has taken it upon himself to be the events coordinator for the group, and we are thrilled and delighted to let him. (We call him Julie, the Cruise Director, which… he’s probably about to figure out as soon as he reads this. Maybe he won’t read this?) This has got to be one of the best perks of having a writing group. The M-Inklings’ Annual Writing Retreat is the highlight of our entire year. It is a time where each one of us looks back at our own individual accomplishments as well as our achievements as a group. We set new goals, we strategize the best ways to reach those goals, and we provide a support for one another. Additionally, we definitely know how to celebrate ourselves and encourage each other over every hurdle. Priceless.We know that many of you are already in some amazing writing groups who have enjoyed extraordinary success, and we’d love for you to start a thread here on Chip’s blog. The M-Inklings will all be checking in and taking part in the conversation. Also, if you are interested in starting a writing group, let us know what questions you have, and we’ll get them answered for you!

Talk soon!

Daisy Rain

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Daisy Rain Martin is an author, educator, speaker, and advocate for those who have been marginalized by abuse and poverty. Her first book, Juxtaposed: Finding Sanctuary on the Outside, was the #1 top selling book for Christopher Matthews Publishing in 2012. Her second book, If It’s Happened to You, is available for free on her website: www.daisyrainmartin.com. Daisy is Editor in Chief of RAIN Magazine, a small online publication that features new, up-and-coming writers and raises money for three charities: Advocates Against Family Violence in Caldwell, Idaho; The City Impact Center in Las Vegas, Nevada; and Treasures of Africa Children’s Home, an AIDS orphanage in Moshi, Tanzania. Daisy is also one of seven members in the Flying M-Inklingswriting group which works to promote literacy and help other writers and writing groups reach their literary goals. She lives with her husband, Sean-Martin, and their lab, Sofia, near Boise, Idaho, and loves talking to other writers. Please feel free to friend her on social media.

Before You Write: Part 6, Next Steps

February 18th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m wrapping up my “Before You Write” series today with a post that’s a bit of a cheat, since it actually has more to do with the end of the writing process than the beginning; that is, what you’re going to do with the finished manuscript when you’re done. It’s worth mentioning because, as I’ve said once or twice (or seventeen times) during this series, the purpose of pre-writing exercises and plans is to make it easier to sustain your momentum during the actual writing process. To that end, knowing in advance what you’re going to do with your completed novel when it’s finished can help you avoid the post-writing slump and take some meaningful action with the result of all your hard work. Having a plan for your finished novel can also help motivate you to stick with it when you hit those middle-of-the-book doldrums.  Here are some suggestions for next steps you may want to have in mind on the front end of the process.

  • Take your manuscript to a writers’ conference. Even if it’s not ready to be published, a writers’ conference can be a fabulous place for a manuscript to continue to take shape. Between writing workshops, opportunities for private critique, and chances to pitch your book to agents and editors, you can leave a good writers’ conference with some really helpful feedback and a better sense of what should actually be next for your manuscript. If you’re an experienced writer or a really fantastic first-time writer, you might come away with some good leads as far as editors or agents who might be interested in your book, and if you’re newer to the writing scene, you will most likely get some valuable direction for how to improve your pitch or your manuscript before seriously attempting to get it published. If you have a rough idea of when you’ll be done with a draft of your manuscript, get online and find out what conferences might be taking place around the same time– if you register now, you’ll be doubly motivated to stick with your writing schedule so as to get the most out of your money at the conference.
  • Write a query letter and proposal for your manuscript. If you know your ultimate goal is to pursue traditional publication for your manuscript, you’re going to need a solid query letter and proposal at some point in the future, so why not harness the momentum that carried you through the writing process and get them down on paper right away after completing your book? You can always come back and polish/expand on a proposal later, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself something to work with before your enthusiasm/writing energy died down. In addition, having a proposal/query ready to go will make you more likely to take your manuscript to a writing group or conference because you’ve already created the documents you’ll need, and helps you to start to think about your novel in terms of the “pitch;” what the big-picture elements are that you’ll want to focus on when talking about your book to others. If creating these documents is part of your post-writing plan, add them onto your schedule/goals now so you don’t stop writing as soon as the manuscript itself is done.
  • Distribute it to a trusted group of beta readers. I talked a lot more about beta readers and where to find them in this post from a couple months back, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but deciding at the front end of the writing process that your first step post-writing will be to let a select few people read it and offer their feedback is a great first step in getting over the sometimes-terrifying hurdle of letting other people see and critique your writing. Newsflash: if you want to be published, you have to learn how to deal with the possibility that other people will read your book and will not like it. Even if you self-publish rather than pursue publication through agents and editors, you will eventually be in a place where people can access your work and make unlimited unsolicited comments about it. And I know that’s not an entirely pleasant idea, but it’s a LOT easier to get there via baby steps– starting out with two or three beta readers who will be honest but supportive before moving on to agents and editors who will be even more honest but potentially slightly less supportive before ending up in front of Amazon reviewers who will sometimes be honest and will occasionally be complete trolls– than it is to go straight to being judged freely by the Internet at large. If you don’t start out the writing process with a specific commitment, even just to yourself, to let certain other people see your work, you run the risk of chickening out once the manuscript is in your hands and shoving it in the back of a drawer for your grandchildren to discover once you’re dead. For extra accountability, inform/ask your beta readers now that you’re writing a book and let them know your target finish date so they will bug you for copies when the date arrives.

That’s it for the “Before You Write” series; thanks for reading, and come back next week when I’ll hopefully have thought of something else craft-related to blog about! As always, suggestions or questions for future posts always welcome in the comments.

Writing an Inspirational Memoir (a guest blog)

February 13th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

I remember running down the road by my house one day in fall, the fields ripe with gold, red silos on the horizon and the smell of chaff, the sound of the combines whirring. And I heard God say, “I want you to tell the world what I’ve done for you.”

 

Later, as I sat in the living room at my laptop, the boys in bed, Trent folding laundry for me in the office while he played a computer game, I looked out the bay window. What qualified me to write this story? All I saw was a very tattered, frayed thread, broken and retied in a number of places. And yet, somehow it wrapped around the entire story.

It was the thread of redemption.

With inspirational memoirs, what qualifies you to tell your story is your experience of redemption. That is the story being told, the journey your readers want to take. And if we can whittle down our lives to reveal how God has brought redemption to us, readers will be inspired to believe it may happen to them.

Show the purpose behind the pain and you may bring hope to many lives.

So what creates a good foundation upon which to build? We see three main considerations: Location, consistency, and solidification.

Wierenga

  1. Location

Location means context for your story. Of course, you are still living it, but to see how “large” your story is, where this portion will begin and end, consider what is the contained, distinct journey of redemption you have seen come about. It may be bold or subtle, but it defines what you share. Find specific words and phrases like “coming to my own faith,” “finding comfort in true love,” or “receiving permission to feel, deal, and heal.”

 

Then, where did the shift occur? What places? Who did it involve? When did it happen? And what unrelated info can be trimmed? Someone said memoir is life with the boring parts removed, and that’s true: but it’s both an internal and external adventure. The timeline will need to be reduced to keep readers hooked and not tangled in too much detail. Think through what events, people, places and specific struggles challenged you and made you move from despair to hope? In essence, what did God do, where did he do it and who was there at the time?

 

The stories with the greatest significance involve not the greatest excitement but the greatest pain and change toward growth.

 

  1. Consistency

Every redemption story needs specific sub-themes mixed in to add substance for a smooth consistency. Sub-themes remain largely unmentioned (like forgiveness, acceptance, repentance) but can be shown by anything big or small—a move, a job relationship, a new pet—that lent particularity to your unique experience of redemption, how God revealed it to you.

 

Including some of the many small, seemingly-unrelated things that contributed to your growth also surprise and delight readers as they discover connections in their own lives that often slip by unnoticed. Just like a house’s foundation, these mini-stories mix in to make the main structure stronger and well-supported. Often, writers find these hidden in what’s marked “unhelpful material.” So look for unusual experiences that could add to the picture of redemption beyond suffering.

 

  1. Solidification

Once you’ve identified the sub-themes and mixed them in to form a firm foundation, it will likely still be too soft to build on. There’s always a waiting period before the full scope of your themes and stories solidify.

 

To build the scenes and fill them with the right discussions and information, you need the clearest reasoning to hold it all up.

 

Logically, emotionally, and spiritually, inspirational memoir is among the hardest things to write well, primarily because it involves thinking objectively and rationally about all those aspects of life. A disciplined approach will produce disciplined results and this is often a key missing ingredient. You need to wait for the light to shine and the wind to blow on your thoughts.

 

Let God’s natural process set the foundation as you consider it in your mind, praying and anticipating how it hold all you hope to convey. Waiting makes space for Him to come and it is crucial to developing an inspiring story. The work is slow. But vital life is happening under the surface. So step back and take in the big picture, then go away for a while when you are more objective.

 

We wait for Him because we need his perspective to fix our own.

 

What would he have you write? What is the fuller vision he might want to show you?

 

Inspirational memoir is not really about us but what our Creator is doing in us. Stay with Him and hear what He’s saying so you can deliver the full message to our readers.

 

This is, in short, the work of being a witness. As Frederick Buechner has said,

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” (Telling Secrets)

 

Write your way out of spiritual poverty. See the events of your life as the beautiful wonder and the life-giving hope that they are.

 

It is for you first.

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An excerpt from How to Write Inspirational Memoir: 7 Essentials from an Author and Editor

 

Before You Write: Part 4, Assembling a Writing Strategy

February 3rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing techniques that can help position you for a more successful writing experience, I’m talking today about assembling a strategy to help answer the “when,” “how,” and “so what” of your writing process. A lot of the pre-writing exercises I’ve discussed can be used by the savvy writer to put off the actual novel-writing process indefinitely, but if you’re one of those authors who actually wants to write his story instead of just talk/think/brainstorm about it, you’re going to want to put some kind of a plan in place to help you manage your writing time and meet your writing goals.

When are you going to write?

There are lots of people more qualified than I am to tell you how to use your time productively, what time of day/year is ideal for maximum creative synergy, how to arrange your furniture for minimum bad karma, etc., but the fact is that none of those experts is going to be helpful if you don’t start by understanding your specific lifestyle. What works for someone else may not work for you, no matter how much sense it makes on paper. When establishing a writing schedule, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When do I feel the most energized/alert? If you can coordinate your writing time with the time of day you are mentally the most active, your writing time will be more productive.
  • When do I have the most free time? (Note: if you would argue that you don’t have any free time, answer the question this way instead: when do I spend the most time on Facebook? When do I watch the most TV? See what I did there?) Is there a way you can arrange your schedule so that your free time and your energized time coincide?
  • What can I eliminate/sacrifice in order to create more writing time? If you’re looking at your life and you truly don’t see a place to make writing happen regularly, you’re going to need to rearrange your priorities to make some room. Maybe you get up an hour earlier, or get rid of one show you watch regularly and write in that time slot instead, or plan to eat cereal for dinner one night a week to free up an hour of what used to be cooking time– if you want to write, it’s not just going to happen, you have to make space for it on your calendar.
  • Where have I struggled in the past with finding time to write? If you know that your personal Achilles heel when it comes to writing time is that you always end up spending it on housework, leave the house during your writing time– it’s hard to cheat on your writing time with laundry if you’re at Starbucks. If work email sucks you in every time you go near your computer, try writing on a spouse’s computer, or (radical measures here) turn off your WIFI during your writing time so no new emails can come in and distract you.

How/how much are you going to write?

Once you have your writing time on the calendar, the last thing you want to happen is to sit down and waste three-fourths of it figuring out how to get started. Once you know how much writing time you have to work with each day (or each week), set some realistic goals for what you want to accomplish during that time. Types of goals can include:

  • A word count– P.G. Wodehouse always wrote at least 1000 salable words per day before he’d let himself do anything else. Sometimes he’d meet that goal quickly and spend the rest of the day playing golf, and sometimes he’d spend the entire day in his study, presumably cursing. Some writers like this method of goal-setting because it’s objective– it’s easy to measure your progress and when you hit that magic number, you’re done, even if you didn’t finish a scene/chapter. This works fine for writers on a flexible schedule, but if your writing time is pretty limited, make sure your word count is realistic– you don’t want to set yourself up for frustration by choosing a goal you can’t regularly meet in the amount of writing time you have.
  • A scene/number of scenes– This works well for authors who have planned out their plots in a fair amount of detail in advance. If you already have an idea of the scenes that will make up your novel– the characters they involve, where they take place, what happens in each, etc.– you can chip away at your novel even in small increments of writing time by completing even just one scene each time you sit down to write.
  • A chapter– though this can be a sort of subjective unit of measurement, it can also be a reasonable goal for authors who’ve written enough novels to have a good feel for their normal chapter length/structure, or for authors writing types of fiction such as category romance that often has shorter chapters.

When establishing goals for your writing time, use what you already know about your writing style/preferences as a guide. For example, if you know you have a hard time beginning in the middle of a scene, plan to write a certain number of complete scenes during each block of writing time rather than making a certain word count your goal– this will ensure that you won’t stop in the middle of a scene when you reach your word count and have to face beginning in the middle of a scene the next time you write. If, however, you benefit from beginning your writing time with the momentum of a scene already in-progress, your goal could be to write from one point of tension to another, always ending your writing time at a moment when the stakes are high– a defining moment in a relationship, in the middle of an intense conversation, a situation where a character is in danger, etc., ensuring that you always come back to your story at a high-energy place.

How will you keep yourself accountable?

Sure, writing should (usually) be fun, or at least enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also not extremely difficult at times. There are a hundred other things competing for the time and attention you devote to writing, and even if you’ve arranged your schedule to create some dedicated writing time, there’s still a very real possibility that you’ll sit down and spend it online in the name of “research” or that you’ll find something else to do with that time while promising yourself to “make up for it tomorrow.” Having some accountability measures in place can make a big difference in your productivity. Some ideas for checks and balances include:

  • An accountability partner– someone who won’t take your BS excuses and who isn’t afraid to show you some tough love if you start slacking on your writing time or squandering it away. Maybe this is someone who’s willing to text you at the beginning of your writing time to make sure you’re on track, or who will encourage you when you meet your goals, or who will kidnap your dog and hold him hostage if you don’t text them a picture of some new pages every day. Whatever motivates you.
  • A writing group– if you belong to a writing group (either an online group or an old-fashioned meets-in-person group) where you’re expected to share new content each week or each month, it can motivate you to create content in a way that’s hard to replicate without an actual deadline from a publisher staring you in the face.
  • A reward system– if you know that you’re motivated by something, figure out a way to use it to bribe yourself to be productive with your writing time. Maybe you “pay” yourself by the word and give yourself permission to use all your writing money for a luxury, or maybe you treat yourself to a weekend trip when you finish the first draft of your novel. Since it’s easy to cheat on this one, you may want to enlist a friend or spouse to award the “prize” so that you have to show the completed pages or manuscript to someone before you can collect.

Establishing a writing strategy that works for you before beginning your novel can stack the odds in your favor for a productive and positive writing experience. I’d love to hear from what other time-management or motivational techniques you’ve found helpful in creating a plan for writing success. Thanks for reading!

Ask the Agent: Do I have to get my novel’s history correct?

February 2nd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 11 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “What is the author’s responsibility to the facts when writing a historical novel?” She noted she was writing about historical events, but wanted to know if she could change them. As someone else once asked, “What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
As I’ve said on previous occasions, I don’t think there is a line connecting them. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, maybe to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history.

 

So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and pineapples.

 

It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers. Have a look at the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds — in which the patrol sent to kill Nazis take out Adolph Hitler and the entire leadership of the Nazi party in a fire they set in a movie theater. (Um, for those who didn’t pay attention in history class, it didn’t happen exactly that way. And so what? It’s a story, for entertainment purposes rather than for education. Tarantino could have had Hitler taken up into a UFO with Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster, for all I care.)

 
With fiction, it’s the story that counts, not the accuracy of the events. Besides, if we all knew the deeds and motivations of historical events, there would be no need to explore them further. A novel allows us to consider alternative interpretations — that Richard III was actually a good guy, or that Sir Thomas More was a self-absorbed twit, or that Robert E. Lee wasn’t the military genius he’s been made out to be. All of those ideas have been played out in bestselling novels, and they all helped push forward dialogue while entertaining readers. Sometimes the ideas pitched in the novel are daft (Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was filled with tripe and innuendo), other times the ideas can be reasonable (take a look at Josephine Tey’s fabulous The Daughter of Time). But what your readers care about most is that the story is interesting, emotional, and readable.

 

5 Things Africa has Taught Me as a Writer (a guest blog from Curt Iles)

January 30th, 2015 | Deep Thoughts, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

Lagniappe.  It’s a French word denoting, “A little extra.” And it’s a common expression in Louisiana’s Cajun culture. In the local Lugandan language along Lake Victoria’s northern shore, the word is enyogeza. It means a little extra at the market. Two small potatoes added to the dozen you purchased. This story is lagniappe (or enyogeza.) A little extra for you to ponder from my personal journey in Africa.

My wife DeDe and I have lived in Africa for two years. Often I look around and am shocked at how far I am from my Louisiana piney woods roots. It’s been an eventful time full of growth, frustration, change, disappointment, and joy. Very similar to life back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I’d like to share five lessons loom large in what these years has taught me as a writer and person:

It’s always a draft. 

2013 and 2014 have been years of constant change:

  • Selling our home where we’d raised our family and lived thirty years.
  • Leaving the Southern rural culture for the red dirt of east Africa.
  • Learning Swahili to work in Democratic Congo, then being switched to South Sudan and Arabic. Hatuna matada for sure!
  • Our country, South Sudan, descending into chaos and anarchy as we watched our new friends suffer and doors close. The future is poised with more of the same. It seems change is the only constant.

Due to daily change, I’ve learned to live and journal in pencil. Life requires erasers. Our African journey has been similar to the process of writing a novel: sometimes our characters take over and send us in directions we didn’t choose. But the end result is almost always a better novel as well as a richer life.

In spite of the change and uncertainty, I’ve never been more excited about life, our mission, or my writing than today. I’m confident that God is still in control and still trustworthy.

It’s always about the story. 

Regardless of our genre, we’re all storytellers. Our challenge is putting down words that attempt to accurately describe we first heard, saw, or imagined.

I’ve stepped from one storytelling culture into another. African culture is rich in gripping stories, proverbs, and history. The best stories are always about the lives and struggles of people. Stories put a personal face on both tragedy and triumph. Instead of statistics about the daily struggle Africans face, I share about a ferry ride with a young island boy returning to the mainland for a new school term. His mother holds a long stringer of fish in one hand and a plastic bag holding two live ducks. The boy grins. “That’s how she’s paying my school fees.”

Numbers can be cold. “Over 1000 dead in South Sudan and 250,000 displaced.” But the story of one person’s journey is better than dry statistics. I think about our Nuer friend Kun, trapped in the capital’s UN compound for three weeks. He is paralyzed with fear that certain death by Dinka soldiers awaits him outside the gates. Our team listening to his frantic calls coupled with our inability to help.

It’s always about people. It’s always about their stories.  Our job is simply the struggle to tell them well. As poet Mary Oliver aptly wrote, our job is to:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Be astonished.
  3. Tell others.

That’s what I do. That’s who I am.

It’s always about humility.

Writing and the subsequent attempt at being published is an extremely humbling experience. Sharing our thoughts and words with the public is akin to running down the street in your underwear. (Do other writers have that dream as often as I do?)

This public inspection and attending rejection is so deflating that many abandon the journey due to the disappointments that are part of the process. I know about rejection. I can proudly assert that my rejection folder is as thick as anyone’s. However, Africa has humbled me like nothing else.

I speak the local language on about a three-year-old’s level. The nationals laugh, correct me, yet still show me grace. The taxi driver who delivers me to the market is fluent in five languages. I’m an American so you can easily guess how many I’ve mastered. I’m greeted daily with cries of “Mzungu” and requests for money or assistance in “coming to America.” Each day gives me opportunity to look odd, stupid, and awkward and I seldom disappoint. It’s part of the experience. It’s all about humility.

I’ve always believed the humble writer is truly the best writer. Africa has allowed lots of practice. I wouldn’t trade it for all of the tea in Kenya or coffee in Rwanda.

It’s all about being a servant. 

Africa rewards the curious soul. During this past year, I’ve filled up numerous journals, taken hundreds of photos, and recorded dozens of voice memos. I have frustrated myself and others with my obsession to capture every image, thought, and face or smile. Our favorite word has become, “Wow.” It can mean many things in Africa.

Our missionary term is nearly half completed. I have mixed emotions about that, but am more determined to observe it all and capture it in my mind and heart.

It’s all about having a gratitude-filled life. 

My African teachers are so grateful for everything. Oftentimes, it seems they enjoy their little much more than our largess. Africans have so little compared to Westerners. They understand “Give us this day our daily bread” and thank God for the bread when it appears. I’m honing my degree of gratitude from this experience. Being thankful is simply a habit as are the twin sins of ingratitude and arrogance.

So I’ve been reminded of the real reasons I write. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. Presently I’m not entering contests or seeking daily for that ever-elusive contract. I’m simply writing. Last week, I started Journal #74 of my life journey. If I never published another word, I’d still write. It’s who I am.

A writer is someone who wrote today. My job in Africa is researching the unreached people groups of South Sudan. My assignment is to tell their stories in a way that will lead Americans to pray, give, and come over to help. My calling is writing with influence and impact for a reason. It’s Kingdom work and I believe it matters. Influence and Impact for the Kingdom.

Influence is how far our message can go. It’s the ripple effect of our writing. Impact is how deep our stories can dig into a person’s heart. It’s about depth. I hope wanting to have influence and impact isn’t sinful. If it is, I have sinned greatly.

The Internet Age opens so many doors for influence. I can tweet about a refugee camp in northern Uganda in real time as I share prayer needs and faces. As I write for influence and impact, my reward isn’t a glowing review, award, or publishing contract. It’s a Facebook reply that states, “I feel as if I’m over there with you.” It’s that volunteer, moved by a story, who comes to Africa and returns home with a fresh passion burning in her heart. That’s influence. That’s impact. It’s why I write.

===========================

CurtIles

Curt Iles currently writes from Entebbe, Uganda, where he and his wife DeDe serve with the International Mission Board. The author of eleven books, you can find out more about Curt at www.creekbank.net. This story comes from his new short story collection, Trampled Grass, now available as an Amazon ebook. All proceeds will benefit the IMB’s Lottie Moon Mission Offering.

Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:

  • distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
  • get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
  • develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)

There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.

1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line

At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:

  1. Stasis (the way things are)
  2. Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
  3. Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
  4. Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
  5. Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
  6. Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)

Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
  • You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
  • You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
  • You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
  • Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
  • Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven

2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet

Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.

The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
  • You often struggle with writer’s block
  • Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
  • You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
  • You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion

3. The Guided Tour: The Outline

A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.

If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You’re a control freak– in a good way
  • Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
  • You’ve been told your plots are confusing
  • You have a short time frame for writing
  • You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
  • You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past

Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?

 

On Crime Fiction and Sales (a guest blog)

January 16th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Trends | 1 Comment

Analyzing sales trends is a tricky business. Predicting them is almost impossible. But when thinking of what type of crime novel sells, be it the cozy or the more violent thriller novel, there are a few clear issues that emerge. Are readers looking for reassurances that traditional narratives offer, or is violence the allure?

One model of analysis that is illuminating is the Nietzschean dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian energies [1]. If Apollo represents law and Dionysus chaos, then crime fiction is built on a fundamental friction between the two. And proportionally, the largest part of any crime novel is the narrative showing the seductive uprising of forces that threaten to destroy society. There may be a certain voyeurism at play here, as the reader is allowed to witness things he would not ordinarily see, as he is given a peek into lives that are as exciting as they are flawed. But ultimately the narrative thrust is towards the vindication of law.

That is one thing that is a recurrent feature: most crime fiction is redemptive. The plot and story are often driven by criminal subversions and focus on the damage done to peoples’ lives by criminals, while the protagonist, often a detective, struggles to catch the culprit, but in the end order is restored and justice served, often lawlessly where revenge is part of the plot. Justice is a prevailing theme, but it is one that is interpreted in many ways. The police procedural traditionally relies on the investigation and the judicial system to restore order, while other novels mete out poetic justice to the wrong doers. These are some of the shared themes of crime novels, but the approaches are all different.

Agatha Christie wrote addictive cozies that centre on a period of English history when class dominated social interactions. Her core strengths are her plotting and protagonists. Poirot remains an undeniable force among detectives. Christie’s novels are addictive because she uses a familiar pattern when she constructs a plot, and the reader knows that while everyone may come under suspicion, by the end all questions will be answered and life will return to normal. And this is the main reason why I believe she sells. She tips a microcosm on its head, we see the small village torn apart by doubt and fear, then she puts it all back together again. Her reassurances are based on the innate sense her fictions contain that social order will prevail. And the backdrop to the events is the unshakeable class system that remains a constant.

By contrast, a writer like Thomas Harris straddles the line between crime and horror. The creation of a new monster is always popular, since the fear factor is a driving force in a good page turner. Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the last great monster to have been written, and he is chilling precisely because he appears so normal. His derangement involves no loss of control, he is a manic with no social signs of mania. His ability to reason his impulses and to analyse the pathology of others places him firmly on the rational side of pathological, and as such he epitomises the dialogue between criminality and normality that informs many great crime fictions. His appeal is violent and permissive. He embodies the Dionysian in crime fiction.

I think Harris gives a good insight into the mind of a psychopath in The Silence of the Lambs, and that is one reason his novels have sold so well. Readers want to be entertained, but I believe they also want to understand something about a subject that they feel is closed from them. If a writer shows the reader a glimpse into the world of say, the Colombian drug cartels, and gives a realistic portrait of that he has engaged the reader’s interest. That sense of realism is key.

When you read an Elmore Leonard novel his criminals feel real. Part of that is due to his brilliant dialogue. Leonard writes superb fast paced novels that are dialogue driven. He attributes this style to the influence of George V. Higgins and his seminal novel The Friends Of Eddy Coyle. Higgins showed you can structure a novel almost entirely out of dialogue and reading The Friends at times feels like listening in on a group of criminals talking. Leonard’s crims are street smart, dumb, flawed and you know they are going to mess it up. Therein lies the reassurance, these guys are not going to get away with it.

Violence may sell a novel, certainly, especially if it is part of a revenge plot, but not on its own. A writer whose novels contain a good degree of violence is James Lee Burke. Burke has written some of the greatest crime novels today. His characters have depth and his two detectives, Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, balance law and lawlessness well, with Robicheaux the voice of order when Purcel may want to take the law into his own hands. And this is their appeal: the criminals commit atrocities that make the reader want to see them punished and when the law fails to do so there is satisfaction in what is meted out by Burke’s protagonists. They act as a narrative focal point, taking the reader into the world of crime in order to stop the criminals.

While the cozy may lack the violence of many crime novels, it shares with them the narrative drive towards resolution of the things that threaten order. Ultimately, that is the appeal of a good crime novel: the reader is allowed a safe trip inside crime, one which he may learn from, and be entertained by. But at the end order is expected to be restored, unless you have to wait for the sequel and then surely you are selling. The reader has had the thrill of watching crime at work and ended with the pleasure of seeing it dealt with.

[1] Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy.

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Richard Godwin is the author of such critically acclaimed crime novels as Confessions of a Hit Man, Noir City, One Lost Summer, Mr. Glamour, and Meaningful Conversations. A published poet and playwright, he was educated at King’s College. He lives in London. 

Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters

January 14th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:

  • you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
  • you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
  • you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
  • you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
  • you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.

If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.

Interview Your Characters

I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.

When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.

Visit Your Characters’ Pasts

Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.

A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.

Role-Play with Your Characters

Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.

As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.