Okay, so by “next week,” I apparently meant, “whenever I can get myself to actually write this.” Seriously, I’ve just completely lost my mind as of late.
What seems like forever ago, I explained a bit about what I’ve been up to. My struggle to get a freakin grip has been great, but it has allowed me to understand this part of the writing process all the better. Hopefully I can help anyone out there who is struggling or even keep someone from struggling like I have by explaining exactly what I wish I understood before I started this new career path.
Let’s just do this
There is a lot of writing that isn’t writing
This sentence may not make a lot of sense right now, but hang on to your hat.
My current WIP is a novel I started a loooooong time ago and then kept putting away. When I finally decided that it was time for me to finish something, I did a lot of writing. But it wasn’t really writing. It was planning and analyzing and worldbuilding and character creating. I summarized and outlined. Explored different options. Journaled.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I used all of this to avoid actually writing the damn story. I spent months on this, and not in a constructive way. I was afraid to try again, afraid I was gonna mess up what I had, or I didn’t really have it in me anymore. Every time I sat down to work, my inner critic kneecapped my ass. So I kept procrastinating by writing casual thoughts instead of actual prose.
I’ve gone back to refer to some of it, since not all of it was useless. It’s good to plan sometimes, it makes for a more organized story. But I was obsessing over getting it perfect, and “Perfect,” as the saying goes, “is the opposite of done.”
Because I spent so much time on prep, I felt everything I wrote should be exactly what I wanted it to be the very first time around, making it impossible to have an enjoyable writing session. Every word was painful, every sprint a slog, and my productivity and mental health completely tanked.
This brings me to the next thing I wish I knew:
Don’t worry about the “correct” way to write
Part of the problem I had with all this prep was that I kept worrying about how “real authors” wrote. I still do sometimes, and it’s (probably) literally killing me. Don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you write your book in one language and then translate it. It doesn’t matter if you write it all in order or in pieces. It doesn’t matter if you only write dialogue and then add in tags and actions later. Want to write a scene but don’t know what the scenery looks like? Fuck descriptions. Don’t know your character’s name yet? Gary. Their name is Gary now.
If you want to write utter trash in some dialect of Dumfuk and then translate it into Writer later? Ask yourself: “Does this advance my actual story at all?” If the answer is yes, do that shit.
This sounds like it contradicts the previous point, but it really doesn’t. The previous point was more “prewriting”: planning and scheming and building. This one refers to whether or not the actual book text has been added to, whether you end up keeping that text or not. The prewriting will help you understand where your writing will go (for now), but you have literally nothing until the actual writing gets done.
Finish your shit
YOU CAN’T GET A BOOK WRITTEN UNTIL YOU WRITE IT. Like all the way. For real.
There is a certain amount of encouragement that comes from having finished something. Anything. Once you can say, “I made this,” instead of “I’m planning of making this,” or “I’m trying to make this,” there is a slightly different flavor of pride there.
This doesn’t mean that if you are still working on your first book or whatever you aren’t a “real writer.” It just means you have something solid you can hold in your hands and show off, and that’s farther than a lot of people get.
I am struggling hard with this right now. I keep sitting down to write and then chickening the hell out. Because of this, today I promised myself that I will write however many words I can manage, no matter how terrible or casual or cliched or whatever they may be (and they will, I’m sure of it), just to get them on paper. This includes this post, so that’s a thing I guess.
If you used to be able to write all the time, then you decide to raise the stakes on and improve the quality of your writing and suddenly stop being able to write at all, go back to how you wrote before.
I used to imagine ridiculous scenarios that seemed exciting or scary and then wrote it down, editing for realism later. Then I tried to write professionally and something happened where I completely forgot my whole process, killing my ability to write much of anything for very long. The process turned into sitting in front of computer and trying to will words out of my brain that paint a picture. Spoiler alert: it was very unsuccessful.
When I finally remembered my old (useful) process, I felt so stupid. Don’t be me.
I feel like if I had known and understood all of these things from the beginning, I wouldn’t be in the state I am now. Maybe someone out there will read and internalize these ideas before they set out and have a much easier time, but more than likely you either already know these things or are already having a really hard go of it now.
Either way, unless you are literally depending on your writing to eat, it all comes down to: chill the f out and do what you gotta do. Which I am not very good at doing in the first place, so I have a long way to go. Luckily I have several writer friends who are helping me to remember this as I go, so we’ll see.
You’ve finished your NaNoNovel? Congratulations! Or maybe you got all 50,000 words down, but those don’t include “The End” just yet. That’s still freaking awesome. Or is it that you know you’ll cross that finish line, just not in November of this year? That’s okay too!
If you’re in the last two groups, keep at it! Don’t burn yourself out, of course, but don’t quit just because an arbitrary deadline has passed. If you’re a part of the first group, though, you’re probably wondering, “what do I do now?”
Let me say that again: PUT. THE NOVEL. DOWN. Don’t edit it, don’t read it, don’t think about it. Set it aside, covered, where you won’t be tempted to take a peek. I know everything in your being wants to get back to work (or burn it, even – I get that, too), but don’t. This is the resting period.
Nearly every writer will tell you that after you write something, you need to let it rest before you edit it, and that’s because you need to give room for the fairies to sneak in at night and fix everything that’s wrong wit–I’m just kidding. But once you get some space between you and your writing, it will seem to change. Passages you thought were terrible when you wrote it will actually seem pretty amazing, sections you thought were great will somehow be awful. Problems and plot holes will become more obvious, but also fixable. Let it rest. Trust me. Editing now will only harm what you have.
So what do I do?
Firstly, secure your novel. You might also want to back it up somewhere in a second location – off-site if you’re thorough – and then give some of these activities a try! Some are serious, some are fun, some are both. But all are worth giving a shot to distract you from your novel just waiting for you to finish it.
Things to do:
Plan how long you’ll let your novel rest. Stephen King says to wait at least six weeks before even thinking about it again. Other writers say anywhere from a day to a year. The longer you wait the better it’ll be, up until the point you lose interest in your book.
Update your followers on your NaNoWriMo success! Don’t have followers? Well…
Start working on your social media profiles, stat. I’m not an expert on social media just yet, but I’ll also work on this while I wait on my own NaNoNovel.
Flavia Young suggests that you plan your editing strategy for when it’s time to start editing. Figure out what your pace will be like, but be realistic: if you think you can only edit a page a day with your schedule or brain power, do that – a page a day for 365 days is better than doing 100 pages all at once and then never touching it again because you burned yourself out.
Be on the lookout for the editing post I’ll put out soon.
Suzannah Freeman suggests that you set new writing goals, and I agree. What are you going to write next? A suggestion I’ve seen before is to write the first draft of one book, set is aside and immediately start a new book. Finish that first draft, and only then start to edit the first one. Alternatively you can try your hand at writing short stories or your own blog about your NaNo experience. Or cats. Whatever – I’m not a cop.
If you want to go the traditional publishing route, I would recommend you start looking into agents and such. Not querying yet, but looking at their reviews and what kinds of books they represent to get an idea of where your novel fits.
For self-publishing, start looking into what you need to do this: editors, book cover designers, beta readers, sensitivity readers, etc. What platform are you going to publish on? Where does your novel fit in that realm?
Keep working on your writing skills:
Practice with short stories and take them to workshops and meetups for critiquing.
Learn new words.
Read read read!
Pick up a new hobby – getting hands on experience with the world can only be good for your writing. I started gardening in the summer, and soon I’ll be building a garden bed to get ready for Spring next year. I’ve also got a few other hobbies lined up for once that’s done, as I imagine this winter will be a long one.
Finish your research! Anything that you avoided looking up while trying to get your 1667/day is now open season. Go ahead and find the air speed velocity of a coconut-laden swallow, or whatever else you wanted in your story but used a placeholder instead.
Jo Gatford has a (great) list of things to do after your first draft as well, including some bits that involve your novel, if you can’t stand to completely step away.
Get back in touch with all the loved ones you alienated during November! If you were smart, you stayed at home during the holidays, but you probably should have called them once or twice. Or showed up to shove food in your face during your Thanksgiving zoom call. I don’t really know how that goes, honestly. Whatever leafs your family’s tree, I guess.
Make up fun phrases, like I just did there. Make sure to write them down so you can shoehorn them into your next project.
Do your laundry. No doubt you skimped on anything you could during this month, and laundry is one we’ve all been slacking on recently anyway. Who cares if your pajama pants smell a tad ripe? We’re in the apocalypse! Well, now is the time you can start thinking about how you appear to others, if only to rebuild your self-confidence after a month of doubt, pain, and disappointment. Or, if you actually got to 50 thousand words, use your excess energy to get cleaned up for all the rounds of bragging you’re going to do.
Catch up on all the video games, TV, and movies you missed out on.
Get some new pajama pants. I’m assuming, if you’re anything like me, you wore a hole in every single pair you own, since no one is wearing real pants nowadays. Spruce up your winter wardrobe with a whole new set of PJs and sweats.
Feed your pets. You…you did have someone take care of that for November, right? Oh dear…well:
Regain the trust of your feral house animals. Since they were forced to go lord of the flies on your pantry while you pecked away at the keyboard, they no doubt have a little lingering mistrust toward you. Try to earn that back with treats and scritches.
Go for a walk, or at least see the sun.
Practice your signature! While it’s too early to start to really dream about success, it might take some time to figure out the perfect way to sign your name on your new novel. And lord knows you don’t want to be caught off guard with a weird scribble.
Find some new bloggers to follow.
Eat a damn vegetable. If you’re anything like me, you eat like shit when you’re busy. Here’s your chance to try to off-set an entire month of pizza with a carrot or something.
Journal about your month. Think about what could have gone better, or what ended up working really well. How did this month feel to you? Rushed? Exciting? Painful? Why?
Breathe: you made it! Whether you actually got to 50k or not doesn’t matter. You gave it a shot and made it to the other side. If you’re reading this, it means that you still want to write, and that’s a win in my book. Again, if you didn’t quite get to the finish line yet, that’s okay. I didn’t either! What’s a problem is if you decide to quit altogether.
Maybe you came to the conclusion that you just don’t like writing as much as you thought, and that’s okay. But if you do like writing, don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t get to a made up goal set by someone you’ve never met. And if you did make it, make sure to take a moment to celebrate how far you’ve come. Which is only part of the way, I hope you know.
Editing and rewriting (yes, you get to do all of this again!) is a big part of the process and can be daunting. So catch your breath. Enjoy the view. You’ve earned it.
Plot is one of the hardest parts about writing a book (for me at least). You might have a great character and an awesome world, but it’s going to be really hard to sell if they read all day.
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 2 to 21 different plots (from “happy or sad ending” to “man vs. man,” “man vs. self,” and so on). This means a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you, with regard to overall structure of plot. This doesn’t mean you have an excuse to plagiarize, but at least you can easily look up simple things like pacing and progress.
Along with plotting a novel, there’s the idea of outlining it. Some people balk at this idea, being true “pantsers” – those who go into a novel blind, just a general idea of genre and a character or two and then let them run around doing things. In contrast, you have your “planners” who outline everything down to the very scene. Most of my life, however, I have been a combination of the two: a “planster.”
How I used to do it
I used to think of a vague backstory for why everyone is where they are and who they are, and then think about something that could happen to them. This usually means writing a chapter or two to get an idea for everything.
As I write the characters, I would close my eyes and imagine actually being them, and trying to think of how they would react to anything thrown their way. Each character got their chance to react as required, and then their reactions (or proactivity) would trigger something new to happen and so on until I reached the end.
If I had certain scenes I think of during this process, I might skip ahead to write it in a vacuum, or I’d skip over parts that weren’t as interesting. But this ended with me without a real ending, or, if I had an ending, I had a squishy, terrible middle. Side plots might become important but didn’t actually line up chronologically with the rest of the story without adding a bunch of fluff. When it came time to edit, my story was a mess and none of it would be salvageable without a complete rewrite.
Enter in the research
In doing research on plotting, I’ve found quite a few great resources I am officially stealing from:
The inside outline from Author Accelerator, is a concept that includes the advice I already applied naturally, but inconsistently. The way you should be able to tell your story is not, “This happens and THEN this happens” – it is “this happens, and BECAUSE of this, that happens.” They have a LOT more information about plotting, and I recommend you check them out. They will occasionally have free webinars available teaching the basics of this process.
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (as I’m sure some of you are sick of hearing me reference), is all about finding your character’s emotional third rail and making sure everything happening in your story pertains to it – whether that’s helping to resolve it or aggravating it. This helps keep you focused on the plot that truly matters and you don’t accidentally end up with a bunch of stuff happening to people with no reason for any reader to care.
I recently began watching Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures on Youtube and in his episodes on plot, he mentions another somewhat intuitive-but-also-entirely-not-at-all concept: progress. What keeps people turning the pages of your novel is being able to track your characters as they make headway into whatever it is they are doing. This might be collecting all the magic artifacts to defeat the evil sorcerer or checking each town to see if the princess is hiding there, or even just obviously having incremental progress in overcoming their fear of other people. It’s anything concrete you can check off a list and see the story is, in fact, going somewhere.
My new, experimental method of plotting
Step one: Decide what kind of progress I want my characters to make based off of the goals I gave the characters already.
Step two: Connect that progress with the emotional third rail of my characters/story.
Step three: Write down the barest of outlines. The beginning, each progress step, a climax somewhere, and the end.
Step four: Start connecting those bits of progress with scenes that happen with the idea of “because this happens, this happens” as with the inside outline concept.
Step five: Repeat step four until I have every progress point, the beginning, and the end connected.
Step six: Begin to outline all the chapters and scenes and figure out exactly what will be told by whom (since I currently have two points of view to deal with).
…this is working pretty okay. I fell back to outlining the first chapter or so to get an idea of where it’s starting and to build a sort of momentum. It’s also difficult to jump so far ahead in determining when and where the progress points will happen. I have this fear that by the time I get to where one was supposed to be, the story will be dramatically different and it won’t make sense where/how I put it.
But that’s the beauty of the frist draft: I can change anything I want in any way I want. If I really get going with writing the scenes and realize it’s not working, I am allowed to completely abandon the prep work I did and see where it goes.
My goal is to finish the damn book. I have left far too many novels unfinished in my time, and I have vowed never to do it again. In fact, the plan is to finish this one and then go back to the others, even if I need to gut them entirely. Wish me luck!
How about you? What have you been plotting? How have you been plotting? How’s it going for you?
There is so much to write on this topic, but today I’m going to cover what you need to get started for NaNoWriMo. I also won’t be talking too much about my novel’s world, as discovery is a part of the story I’m writing. This post is more the process I’m using to do worldbuilding.
What is worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like: you are building the world your characters live in. This can be as simple as “the same town and neighborhood as I live in” or as complex as “I have created an entire universe and multiple languages from scratch.” Neither is better than the other, so long as it fits the story you’re trying to tell.
A (terrible) example of why you should worldbuild first
Rafael finally got to the last stair in the building, huffing as he stumbled onto the office floor. The windows opened to the massive cityscape, awakening for the day. He only had a moment to appreciate it before a shuriken whooshed by his ear, implanting itself into the wall.
“Great,” he muttered.
He ducked under the nearest desk and managed to get a clear view of the stairwell. Ninjas poured in from the floors both above and below, but he knew just what to do. Out of his pocket he pulled a spray bottle labeled NINJA REPELLANT and sprayed every one of those pajama’d assholes until they ran back up the stairs. All except one who was immune. Rafael had to take out his gun and shoot this one in the face.
“My hero!” cried the prince. He stood and embraced Rafael, covering him in flop sweat.
“Let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you a beer.” They then opened the door to the street on their left and shared a horse to the honky tonk down the old dusty road, stars settling upon the prairie.
This story is a mess. Ignoring the brilliant writing (I’m just trying to prove a point, okay?), it can’t seem to decide on a location, time period, or even the make up of the building. Let’s break this down a bit, just in case you missed it due to my amazing storytelling:
The very first sentence suggested Rafael had reached the top floor of the building (“the last stair”). However, once the ninjas started pouring in, they were coming from “the floors both above and below,” and at the end the ninjas “ran back up the stairs.” Then Rafael and the prince opened the door “to their left” and stepped out onto the ground.
The description of the view out of the windows suggests it is early morning in a city (“massive cityscape, just beginning to wake for the day”), but this quick encounter ends with them riding away on a horse and “stars settling upon the prairie.”
The weapons used (specifically the ninja repellant) didn’t have consistent rules, working when it was convenient, not working when it was dramatic.
Finally, we have ninjas, a prince, a modern day cityscape/country town, and a guy who carries a gun and rides a horse. What era is this? Why are all of these types of people cobbled together?
Sure, you could come up with all sorts of reasons why the details line up this way, but you won’t have the opportunity to explain it to your readers. Too many inconsistencies makes it a lot harder to suspend disbelief and, unfortunately, this is exactly what you need to do when you’re reading a story involving ninja repellant.
Proper worldbuilding gives your readers something to stand on: rules, physics, culture. Actions have consequences in a world fleshed out.
Worldbuilding also allows your reader to fully disappear into the world. When I first saw the Cantina scene in A New Hope, I could see a whole world of possibility open up before me. I could imagine myself living and working in Mos Eisley. This not only made the events happening there feel grounded, but it also made me go back for the Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina book that came out afterward.
Finally, if you weren’t yet convinced, worldbuilding can help you if you get stuck. Going through the process of building a world, looking at its history and geography and cultures, can generate a heck of a lot of ideas. If, for example, you know there is a war going on between two factions, why not have your protagonist stumble upon a group of soldiers?
Even if you’re writing a story based off of a real place, it is important to understand things such as how long it takes to get from one part of the city to the other, or the history of different areas, all for the same reasons listed above.
How do you build worlds?
To reiterate, there are so many books and blogs and videos covering how to create a world, and there is no way I can cover everything in one blog post. Because of this, I am going to cover just the very tip of the process I’m using for NaNoWriMo. So how am I building this world.
Imagine your world. Your real one. IRL. Meatspace. Let’s start with the simple things: what’s the name of the planet? The name of the country and the state or province you live in? Go farther down: city, county/parish, the part of town, your neighborhood, your building. Now think about places you go: restaurants, friends’ houses, work.
This is a lot of very important information, but all this does is create a map.
Think about why things are the way they are – maybe read up on your city’s history. Was it started by merchants trying to scrape by on a popular trade route? Was it founded by a religious group looking for freedom or a promised land? The farther back you go in history, the more it sounds like a story anyway, but you’ll also learn credible ways to establish places in your fictional world. This is important, because it sets a sort of foundation for how and why your city was set up. Is it mostly markets or museums? Are there a lot of hospitals in your area? Did the city form organically, with winding streets that make little sense today or was it meticulously planned and set in squares? Is there a distinct divide in your town? Why? What’s the dividing factor?
Now think of all the systems you encounter: governments (federal and local), employers, HOAs, public transit. How and why were they established? How do you interact with those systems and how do those systems interact with each other? Do they at all? Do they conflict? If they do, who wins out and why? How does this affect the way your world runs? How does this affect supply runs and emergency services and utilities like running/potable water or electricity? Could this be easily exploited or is it solid and secure? How does this affect the people’s attitude about where they live and who governs them?
This isn’t always just “‘MURICA” (or whatever other places exist out there*). There is a subtlety to everything. Such as: who do you consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Who does the culture you’re a part of consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Are these the same? Why or why not? What about your neighboring cultures? Are there any other cultures around you or are you in a bit of a culture bubble? Why? How does this affect the cooperation and attitudes between people in your area?
*I kid, I kid, I’m sure there are…a couple of other countries besides us…right?
Other questions to think about: Who do you live with and why? Why do you live in the place you do? Is it common for others to live in similar situations as you? How common is it for others to travel far from their place of birth where you live? How does this affect attitudes regarding “outsiders?” Do you celebrate holidays? Why? Do you celebrate the same holidays as your neighbors? How common is that answer in the country you live in? Why? What about religions, superstitions, rituals (religious or otherwise – think handshakes or promposals)?
One more thing to think about when it comes to culture are your characters you’ve already created. Make sure they fit this world, and if not, then there should be the proper consequences. Are they loud and obnoxious, even though they work in a monastery library? Make sure they get hushed and punished appropriately. Are they openly a part of an illegal religion? Maybe they are being hunted down by the law enforcement of that town. Are they hiding their involvement? Maybe they’re just being watched – and you know in either situation they probably aren’t too pleased with authority.
Putting it all together
This is a ridiculously small sampling of the different things you can plan out while worldbuilding. You can also go back as far as you want – even to the beginning of time if that has any kind of bearing on your story or its setting. In my novel I’m having to decide on the nature of the universe and how existence came to be, even though that’s not revealed in this particular novel.
Most of what you write in worldbuilding won’t be used directly, but it will help to shape and color your world to make a story that feels like it actually happened.
I suggest you give this a try for NaNoWriMo. See how much of a difference it makes. The questions here aren’t enough to make an in-depth world, but it is definitely enough to inspire your own questions. Look at your day, your inconveniences, your friends, your activities, keep asking why, and see what kinds of ways you can draw parallels between your actual world and your fictional one.
As this is my favorite part of writing, I will definitely be posting more on this in the future.
CW: This post briefly mentions fictional suicide as I talk about backstory for a character I created for my story.
For Prepapalooza so far, we’ve talked about the parts of a story and how to get ideas. Today, let’s get started with creating the heart and soul of your story: your characters.
Who are you?
Write down a list of facts about yourself. Eye color, height, weight, hobbies, your favorite kind of tea, how do you eat your toast, are you a lefty or a righty…now take another look at this information. How well do you think someone could get to you know you based off of this information? Do you think they could judge if they should trust you or not?
Alternatively, write a scene in which you had an argument with a friend. Write about a time your beliefs were changed and what happened to those beliefs. What about a childhood fantasy – your “I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up” story? Can someone make judgements based on those?
We are not a collection of facts. We are our dreams, our beliefs, our desires, and our stories…and the same goes for our characters.
Characters are so much more than their appearance and favorite foods. They are more than if they are messy or organized. These are all superficial traits that can be changed at the drop of a hat with a little bit of description here, a line of dialogue there, and pow – your Mary Sue just went from liking apples to despising them. Don’t get me wrong, you need to know basic facts about your characters as well as things like their daily routine, but you shouldn’t stop there.
So what should I ask them?
After doing research on how other people create their characters, I have managed to combine their thoughts about personality traits, etc. into one succinct list of questions that I’m going to put into practice for this novel. It seems…odd I suppose, but just roll with it. So far it’s been helping immensely.
Who is your character?
I swear this isn’t the only question. That’d be some high-level trolling if it were.
Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius is more about how to construct a story, but it revolves around a character’s “third rail” or the emotional charge throughout the book. She believes that each character starts off with at least one desire and one belief that keeps them from obtaining this desire. This fact is what she builds her stories on, and is actually the reason I put this article before the setting and plot posts. Once you know what your character wants, you can figure out how they go about getting it.
For my NaNo novel, I have two main characters. One of them is named Pers, and they are the one I am going to use as an example of this process. Pers’s father committed suicide when they were young, and they would like nothing more than to learn how to help others dealing with mental illness. They also, however, believe that they cannot deal with emergency situations or would be strong enough to cope with the stresses of providing mental healthcare (or healthcare in general). They generally believe that they are weak and weak-willed, and this holds them back from their dream job.
They have a lot in their history that has sculpted their disposition at the beginning of the novel, mostly dealing with the fallout of that tragic event and the changes that took place in their mother as she went through the grieving process. I won’t outline them all here, but it’s something you can use to start to work on your own characters.
Why is your character?
Most of these questions aren’t exactly grammatically correct, but you’re just going to have to deal with it.
Is your character shy? Outspoken? Quick to anger? Are they messy, a go-getter, a cheat, a liar? Do they tell the truth even when it will hurt themselves or someone else? Knowing the answers to these questions is great, but knowing why these are the answers is even better.
For everything you arbitrarily assign your character, you should find out why they are like that. And don’t read too much into the word “arbitrarily.” We all will assign traits willy-nilly because that’s what we picked out of a hat or that’s what the plot needs. What makes these assignments meaningful is what we do with them.
Figure out why your character turned out an angry person, and you can start to build a much deeper backstory for them than just “they are mad all the time.”
Pers, for this example, is the type of person to not stand up for themself. In order to make this a more solid trait, I asked why – why aren’t they more assertive to get their needs met? After looking into their past I decided their mother fostered these feelings. They were already going to be living with their uncle (the other MC) at the beginning of the story because their mother kicked them out. So they had a father that committed suicide and a mother that was the type to abandon them later. This means that they would have attachment issues, making sure they don’t drive anyone away. Attachment issues easily translate into “I would say something but it might make them angry, so I’ll just stay quiet and deal with it.” Knowing reasons for their personality gives me some character development for their mother now, too.
How was your character…?
Sometimes, you can’t ask “why.” “Why does your character have red hair,” yes, could be explained by saying “it was the postal worker” if their parents both have blonde hair. However, asking “how was your character affected by this” helps in determining what their mindset is at the beginning of the story. This is the backwards version of the previous question. Look at each one of the basic facts about your character – their family size, their socioeconomic status, their race – and really delve into how that affected them growing up and how it affects them now in your story.
When developing this system, I thought this question was kind of a stretch (hindsight, okay?) but gave it a shot anyway. It actually got me through most of my creation process. I won’t go through every little item here, because there is a lot. Since they study psychology and their are from a family that has a history of poor mental health, they are prone to doing more self-care items: journaling, meditation, etc. but only when it is convenient and doesn’t get in anyone’s way (see lack of assertiveness/attachment issues above).
Both them and their uncle have issues with abandonment, for some overlapping reasons, but their uncle has a tendency to hold everyone at arm’s length. Pers tends to take this personally, and so this makes them feel very self conscious about themself and how much space they take up in the house/their uncle’s list of concerns.
When is your character?
“When” in their life are they? Technically this is a where question, but just go along with it. Are they full matured and at the end of their natural life? Are they fresh-faced and ready to party? Think about this while keeping in mind that your character should have a lot of room to grow. The exception is if they are a static character like Sherlock Holmes in the original series. Another consideration is where you want them at the end of the story. What’s the progression you want them to make?
Pers is primed and ready to become a functioning adult, but is too damn afraid to make that leap. There’s lots of room for growth for them: they need to develop the ability to stand up for themselves, they need to get rid of their fear of the unknown, and they need to learn how to trust both themself and others.
What is your character?
This is more about how they fit into the story mechanics. Are they the main character or the antagonist? Are they a love interest anywhere? Are they necessary? Some people create a truckload of characters when they should combine most of them into just a couple of people.
Pers is one of two point of view (POV) characters. This means they are a main character whose story will be told through their eyes. They are very necessary to the plot and are the ones that will provide a lot of context for what’s happening through what they discover in the course of the novel.
Other things to consider
Stereotypes are traits or entire characters that embody an individual in a specific group. This can be based on race, gender, body type or any number of categories. They are not only offensive, but also make for boring, lazy writing.
There are a lot of resources out there to help you avoid problems when writing diverse characters. A book I’m currently reading and cannot recommend enough is How to Write Black Characters: An Incomplete Guide. Obviously there are far more categories out there, and Salt and Sage Books is developing an entire series. The other one I saw is How to Write Asexual Characters, so it seems like they will be hitting quite the spectrum of diversity.
If you aren’t in a specific group, it doesn’t matter how many books you read or movies you watch, you will still never fully understand what it’s like being a part of that group. That’s okay so long as you try in earnest and make sure you get some sensitivity readers. Not to mention, y’know, actually including all types of people in your social/professional circles…
Depending on the world you are creating and the particular scene you’re building, you may need a lot of background characters. I consider background characters more a part of setting/worldbuilding than actual characters. They vaguely represent the world your story takes place in and do not have “speaking roles” unless a snippet is overheard here or there. However, when your main characters interact with an individual, you start to get into side characters.
These are the characters who appear several times throughout the story but only serve a tiny part in the plot. They speak, they have personality, they might even have a home, but they aren’t necessarily as deep as your main characters. Even if you create them to be as deep as your main characters, you won’t be putting all of that on the page.
This is where I quote someone much more experienced than I, Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
If they have a speaking role of any kind, make sure they have a purpose and a desire. Otherwise it will seem oddly hollow. You don’t have to completely spell it out, but make sure you know what it is. Maybe the clerk really does want to help check your MC’s bags. Maybe the barista would like to be anywhere but in that particular coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be life-altering, just something to make them seem more human instead of a prop for your scene.
Motivation and Stakes
This is another bit of advice from Cron (seriously, you need this book). The idea is to think about not only the “why” of your character, but “why is the why a thing?” You need to keep asking why until you have something super specific so you understand their exact state of mind, and what they feel is at stake in the story. This helps to build empathy. There’s a difference between “they want to save the world because if it blows up there’s no world any more” and “they need to save the world because if they don’t, their abusive step mother would be right about how worthless they are, and they will disappoint their little sister who admires them yet again.”
I can’t relate to needing to save the world, but I sure as hell know what it’s like to let someone down or prove an asshole right.
This is NaNoWriMo – you are writing the absolute first draft, a.k.a. a pile of literary poo. Your characters might not be perfect from the start. Hell, your characters might be completely different by the time the month is over, and I don’t mean because they learned lots of life lessons. You will change your mind, get rid of characters, combine characters, add characters, and possibly fall in love with one that doesn’t really fit but you’re going to try to jam them into the plot anyway because you can’t bear to part with them (remember, you can use that character in another story one day so try not to do this last one, yeah?).
The important part, in this series at least, is to have something – anything – to start with come November 1st.
What about you? Who are your characters? Do you have any insights from the way you created yours?
Now that we’ve established what parts make up a story, let’s get to work answering the question that is the bane of many authors’ existence: “Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s not because this is a bad question. If you didn’t have this question, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. But a lot of writers have superstitions surrounding this process and some don’t know how to answer.
I’m not saying I have all my shit together, but seeing as how I had to get out of a deep slump in order to get ideas again, I have a little bit more insight into how it works than someone who’s never had to coax it out of themselves before.
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
What IS an idea?
An “idea” is any thought or a unrelated pairing of subjects that come together to form what could become the basis for a character, plot point, setting, etc. This pairing can be deep, shallow, brief, a flash of an image, or even a super detailed world straight from the forehead of Zeus kind of inspiration.
Ideally (heh), an idea will come to you, get you started, and then everything kinda rolls out in front of you like a tapestry. Words fall from your fingertips like a stream of water when you pretend to have water laser powers in the shower (what, just me?). Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can always take these ideas and save them later.
So then HOW do you get one?
They just happen. This is such a boring answer, but it’s true. Our brains constantly process thoughts, events, and previously consumed content on an unconscious level as we go through our lives and occasionally just…spit something out that you can label as an idea.
The real question is how do you speed up this process?
Do something different
You can’t think differently if you don’t do anything different. Though it’s possible that you are different, in which case your ideas will be unique for now. This doesn’t last forever, especially when you first start using these ideas on a regular basis.
“Different” doesn’t have to be crazy. Listen to different music, take an alternate route to work, try to have a meatless Monday or eat a new ice cream flavor. No matter what you do, be safe about it, and make sure to savor the experience.
Have you ever been a part of a brainstorming session at work?
“No stupid ideas,” your boss says, but the second you mention duck costumes, they tell you to be serious. pfft.
Judging shuts down your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow. One undisturbed idea is like a seed for a tree. One stupid seed. Leave it in place – don’t judge it, don’t belittle it – and it will start to produce the wackiest, tastiest fruit you’ve ever had.
What does it mean not to judge it? Don’t say anything negative about it. Don’t try to make it “fit” into something that it’s not. It doesn’t matter if the idea is too childish or gross or even mean itself. This goes for people, too. Try not to say negative things about people and you’re already a step ahead of the game. Let everyone be themselves without trying to make them fit into some arbitrary mold and then be surprised at how easy this becomes.
This doesn’t mean you have to spout some positive nonsense, either. If you have an idea that you aren’t super jazzed about, then instead of saying “this is dumb,” tell yourself, “this is, in fact, an idea.”
It sounds simplistic, but it works wonders.
Along this same vein, don’t tell anyone your ideas. Not yet. An idea that is still a seed is too unformed for others to understand, and if you aren’t allowed to be negative about your own ideas, you certainly don’t want anyone else saying mean things about them, either. This kills the seed.
As you go through life doing weird shit that you aren’t being a negative Nancy about, also consider the “what if” possibilities.
What if – I were to smack that guy in the face?
What if – character X from that one movie witnessed that person over there complaining to management?
What if – character Y from this movie hooked up with character B from this book series?
What if – there was an airlock in this grocery store and it opened right now?
Always try to think of random scenarios like these (better than these, I hope), and then play them in your head as far as you can. Go deep down that rabbit hole if you need to. The more you do it, the better you get – it’s all a skill, so practice!
Read things that are challenging. Read things that are good. Read things that are bad.
Take them all in and think critically about them – not in a judging way (no judging, remember?), but in a “critical thinking” kind of way. Why did this work here, but not there? Why did this character act this way in response to that? Why did so and so use this word when they could have said this one?
This will also help you as you try to improve your writing on the whole.
No, not plagiarizing!
There is nothing new under the sun – there are anywhere from 2 to 21 basic storylines possible depending on who you ask, so you will probably not find a new one. That doesn’t mean give up! That means you need to take what you find and make it your own.
Think about how you would rewrite something – a fairytale, a classic story, an ancient myth – and keep changing it until it is unrecognizable. Or not, honestly. There are a lot of well done stories that are a retelling of a classic, and they are not lacking in creativity.
Even if you don’t get anything publishable out of this, you have done something different – which is, if you remember, one of the things you can do to generate more ideas. Yes, ideas can generate more ideas.
Prompts and pictures
My favorite way to get an idea is to look up pictures online. Go to google’s image search and type in “scary” or “spooky” and you are going to have pages of pictures to spark your creativity. Use this in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this list and you’re pretty much golden.
For prompts, you can also go to places like awesomewritingprompts where they will have one or two sentences or even a list of words for you to take and use in a story. Most sites and books of prompts don’t require that you credit them with ideas you use (and for the record, I don’t either), but some ask that you do. Please be polite and either don’t use those ideas or credit them accordingly.
Write everything down
Record thoughts, dreams, nightmares, conversations. Even the most mundane of shit can be useful. Remember, no judging!
Keep paper by your bed at night so that when your brain spits out your million dollar idea at 2 in the morning, you can record it before it disappears. Every idea you get, write down. Even if it doesn’t seem like it could go anywhere, writing it down and occasionally reading it over can foster more ideas in the future.
Eva Amsen wrote an article for The Writing Cooperative about a great way to keep track of ideas that I immediately stole for myself.
There are so many more things you can do to get ideas, and more specific ideas within the ones I’ve shared, but I bet this is enough to get you started in time for NaNoWriMo.
My NaNo idea
To tell the story of how I got the idea for my NaNo novel is to tell the tale of an idiot. Or at least a forgetful and/or drunk person. The order of events as my memory serves goes like this:
I was looking through some files in my google drive and happened upon one called “Haunted soul cavity thing??” Inside this file was a description of an idea that I do not remember writing down at all. It talked about a guy who has to go to abandoned buildings and then I asked myself why.
Then past me rambled on about something like a missing soul and a demon haunting this guy. It was a weird idea. The words were written like I woke up from a dream or severely drunk when I thought of it.
Then I remembered that for a while I was looking at a lot of pictures of abandoned buildings and was wanting to write about someone who went to them all the time, but I couldn’t quite think of a reason why. I guess in my drunken stupor/sleepy haze I came up with a reason.
Now in a more…coherent state, I decided to combine this idea with the world I started building in my first successful NaNo Novel. I’m not sure if I will continue with that part of the idea, but it spurred me on to start with my researching.
Where do you get your ideas? Are there any specific websites or books that you would recommend?
There are a million different articles and texts written about each component of a story and what they mean, and I’m sure MFAs could rattle them off in their sleep. But this is my blog dammit, so I’ll be explaining it my own way. Who knows? Maybe this explanation will be the one to click for you.
Most of these sections will be the focus of future articles, so don’t worry if I seem to be glossing over them. I only want to point out the basic building blocks. This gives you something to start with for NaNoWriMo, and the rest of the “Prepapalooza” series. Not to mention any other time to start to write a story.
So what makes up a story? My oversimplified version is: It’s something that happens to someone, somewhere, while making a point.
A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…
First up, the something/someone/somewhere: your plot, your characters and your setting. Nothing can happen without these. If we were building a building, these would be the bricks in the walls.
Something that happens
This is the plot, the sequence of events, in your story. If your story was about someone who went to a store, then the plot would be all about encountering traffic, fighting for a parking spot, and so on.
I say “something that happens to someone,” but there are some options here. If things keep happening to someone regardless of what they do, this would be a plot-driven story: the characters don’t have much influence over what happens, it just kinda…happens. If you have someone who goes out and does things on their own, however, this is a character-driven story.
There might be perfectly valid reasons for having a plot-driven story, but it is generally considered more interesting to have a character with agency over their destiny.
Side note: this is also something to keep in mind about your own life.
This is your setting: where and when the story takes place. This can be as broad as the entire universe since the dawn of time stretching all the way until the end of time, or you could have a story happen within a single place, during a fraction of a second. Setting is also a great place to get started with worldbuilding, but that’s another post.
This is your main character (MC). Besides the MC, you also have supporting characters, villains, disposable characters, etc. They need not only be people, either. There are many stories where there are animals and even cities as characters.
An important thing to think about when it comes to your characters is their arc – who is this person before the beginning of the story and who will they become over the course of it? It’s rare that a compelling story is told without the transformation of at least one central character, and in fact, you can base your entire story on how they change and why.
How You Tell the Story
If the previous section described different types of bricks you put together to create a building, then this section is the mortar that holds them together. Without the glue that binds your characters, setting, and plot, you won’t know what any of it looks or sounds like, and you wouldn’t understand what’s going on.
What it looks like
This is description, where you talk about how the light reflects off of someone’s hair or the motion a person makes as they swipe with their knife. It’s the way we communicate plot and setting, otherwise it’s just a list of action words and place names.
There’s a bit of a problem with description: a lot of writers tend to overdo it. Some want you to see every inch of their world how they see it. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, it gets boring fast. I have a tendency to skip over large descriptive paragraphs when reading unless masterfully written (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Too little description, however, and it becomes confusing: “Where are they again? What’s happening? Which guy is talking?” It’s like trying to watch a movie mid Twitter argument.
What it sounds like
This is dialogue – what your characters are saying. Many writers struggle with this part, especially when it comes to characters from a different demographic.
Dialogue is not a way to pad your word count, by the way. What your characters say and how they say it can be clues to their backstory, ideals, and morality, especially when coupled with what they do. If someone is always gently reassuring your main character then turns around and stabs them, then you get a better idea of who they are.
What’s Going on
This is not plot exactly, but a way to explain the plot or the world, exposition being the technical term. Exposition is outright saying exactly what’s happening. Instead of painting a picture of a military force destroying a castle and killing the inhabitants, you would simply state that a military coup is underway. This is a mechanic of storytelling that has a time and a place and should be used sparingly. It’s usually written as dialogue, in fact, and comes in the form of one character explaining something to another.
For example, there’s a Sci-fi trope of what I call the uninitiated observer: in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, you had the completely ignorant Arthur Dent. He is accompanied by Ford Prefect, who is there to explain how life in the rest of the galaxy works. Arthur also has access to the actual guide mentioned in the title, which does more of the same.
It feels natural in this scenario, because we’re starting with the same knowledge that Arthur has, learning with him. However, this is easily overdone. “Expositional dumping” is just having paragraphs of information about your world, a character, or the plot, and comes off dry as all hell. “Show don’t tell” is the adage, and for good reason.
The point of it all
If the first two sections were bricks and mortar, this next bit is the reason why everything was built in the first place. You don’t typically start with this why, however. Many writers write an entire story, then on the first editorial pass, they decide which incidental pieces to develop. These inform the first of many rewrites. These last pieces of your story are theme, moral, allegory, and metaphor.
The theme is a recurring thought or idea in a story. For example, you can have the theme of loss throughout your entire piece, physical and emotional.
The lesson behind the story. If you start writing a story with a moral in mind, you will most likely end up writing something very preachy. Think of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example. I mean, do whatever you want, I’m not a cop.
I had to do quite a bit of reading on this topic to grasp the difference between a metaphor and an allegory. Metaphors are a way to illustrate something else in a simpler way. For example, if you wanted to use a rose as a metaphor for a couple’s relationship, it could slowly die as their marriage falls apart. It doesn’t add any extra information, just simplifies what you already have.
I had to look this up just to make sure I understood it. Allegories are like a metaphor that explains a concept in ways you are more likely to understand. For example, while the rose might be a metaphor for the couple’s marriage, the decline of their relationship might be written in just such a way as to describe, I don’t know, the decline of the millennial’s relationship with capitalism.
Note: you do not need to have a metaphor linked to an allegory, this was just a way to contrast the two.
Every one of these pieces has a lot of information to read up on, but I hope this is enough to get you started for now. Please take the ideas you come up with and have fun trying to work some of these in there. The last section you can definitely use as a way to stretch yourself if you are already comfortable with the rest of them. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still not sure how to incorporate them in your writing. We’ll work on all of these concepts together later.
Do you know you struggle with any of these story parts? Which one and why? Check back in next week when we’ll be talking about where to get ideas.
Your voice is an amalgamation of many different factors, and understanding each one will help to determine how you want your voice to sound if you are creating a new one. It will also assist in refining your natural voice once you’ve found it.
Faulkner once said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” In response, Hemingway said, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
I’m not condemning big or little words here. Reading pieces that cause me to learn new words is challenging and satisfying. Reading pieces with simpler language is engaging and relaxing. These are simply two different ways of approaching your writing.
On top of if you use big words is also a question of how often you use them, too. While you can use them as often as you like, I would keep your audience in mind. If you are a walking thesaurus and your audience is second graders, you might lose your readers.
Formal vs. casual
An article from Masterclass.com talks about making the decision on how to fashion your sentences and choose your words. This blends in with the first point and the next point, but it’s worth having a mention in between. Are you going to write in a formal, rules-adhering style or in a casual, colloquial manner? Will you make sure to never have a preposition at the end of a sentence, no matter what? Are you going to pepper your writing with Southernisms or slang?
How long are your sentences going to be? Will you write long, descriptive, flowing prose designed to titillate the senses of the reader, or will you be concise? Are you going to stick to writing novels or flash fiction? Essays or dissertations? Or, alternatively, will you write everything in between?
How personal will you be?
Writing has many different purposes, but not all of them have to stay separate. You could write pieces that are specifically for expressing yourself and then other pieces specifically for informing your readers about something. You could only write one or the other, or more commonly, you could write both at the same time. Tell personal stories that relate back to the topic of the article. Express yourself and your thoughts with a bit of useful information snuck in occasionally. This isn’t directly related to voice, but is an important consideration for style.
Flow and rhythm
Henneke from Enchanting Marketing suggests adding rhythm to your writing to make your voice distinct. And, while I personally wouldn’t recommend adding things to find your natural voice, it’s a great thing to keep in mind when constructing a new voice. This doesn’t mean you have to write poetry, either. Just keep in mind the way that your words and sentences flow together. Read poetry or a very “lyrical” piece of prose (like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) out loud and then an instruction manual for your fridge and spot the differences in sound.
Description vs. action vs. dialogue
The aforementioned Masterclass article suggested balancing your dialogue and description. This is another piece that I think would be great to play with when it comes to crafting an artificial voice. Some people write using a lot of description and others, like The Witcher’s Andrzej Sapkowski, can write entire scenes with only dialogue that somehow still has plenty of action.
Plot- vs. character-based stories
I will, of course, end up writing more about this. For the sake of a quick definition, however, plot-based stories are where everything happens to your protagonist and they react to it all. Character-based stories are where your protagonist goes out and finds adventure. There are a lot of opinions on these two methods, but that is not the focus of this article.
Point of view
Point of view can be taken in a technical manner: first, second, third person limited/omniscient, or you can look at it as incorporating experience into your writing or in the voice of the character narrating. Someone who knows everything about a situation will be able to describe the scene completely, and might not explain everything they mention. An outsider to a situation, however, may not notice important things, or be able to describe anything in a coherent manner.
This is somewhat similar to the second point above: using your experiences. However, this might be including allusions or references to famous literary works or mythical characters/creatures. You might write a character who’s storytelling style is heavily influenced by the oral traditions of an indigenous culture, or the dark, cautionary style of Germanic fairy tales.
Anything you write naturally is your style. Anything you decide to add to a narrator’s voice simply is their voice. Feel free to experiment with any of these and find other things to tinker with as well.
How to find your voice (finally, right?)
Please don’t look at the above list and feel overwhelmed. You do not have to use all of these consciously, and when you’re finding your own voice, you might want to steer clear of using any of them consciously at first. This is merely a list of things that you might want to think about when considering a voice or what might make one’s own voice unique.
This next part reflects advice I found around the internet, followed up with my own thoughts on the matter.
Reading is the second most common piece of advice I found online. I am not sure how reading other people’s work will allow you to find your own voice (which is specifically what I was researching), but it is definitely worth it to study how others can be distinct. Enough reading is also required to start to be able to spot cliches and ineffective methods of writing voice, such as poo’ly wri’en accents or ye olde difficulte too reede voyses.
This was also surprisingly common. Many writers suggested you write down adjectives to describe yourself, jot down thoughts on how you see yourself or how others see you, or ask others how they see you.
I say “surprisingly common” though I don’t think it’s bad advice. It sounds like a great way to start to refine your voice once you’ve found it and to develop your personal brand.
This, of course, was the most commonly found advice. Write, write, write, write, write.
Journaling can help you discover what it is you care about and what your ideals are. These are great for refining your voice and finding topics you will want to write about in the future.
Emulating others, which was also suggested, is a more “hands-on” approach than reading, in that you feel what it’s like to write in different voices. How it is to resist your own natural voice, and may even help you understand your more natural voice through the process of elimination.
Experimentation gets you exercising your creative muscles, coming up with different voices on your own.
Try combining all of these different options: emulate a distinctive style, then try writing the same thing in a style you think could be considered opposite that you’ve created, then write in whatever “journaling voice” you use about how the two felt – what did you like about one over the other? Was there something good or bad about the both of them? How might you change either voice to suit you more?
I found a few pieces of unique and interesting advice I wanted to point out here as well.
Consume challenging content
Brian Kurian wrote for Writing Cooperative about this, and suggested consuming content that challenges you. This basically means anything that makes you think or consider different viewpoints. I like this advice because, while reading a lot exposes you to a lot of words, reading content that challenges you exposes you to a lot of different voices. This also applies to podcasts, videos, Ted Talks, etc. Vary what you expose yourself to and you will get a breadth of experience.
Read your work out loud
Laura Davis of The Write Life wrote about how, even once you found your voice, you might get too caught up in description or other technical aspects of what you’re writing and stray from your own voice. If you see a lot of instances in my blog posts where I didn’t use contractions, this is probably because I didn’t read it out loud. I have zero idea why I write like Data speaks, I just do.
I would argue that this is also a way to find your voice as well. Assuming you don’t have a speech impediment or disability of some sort, if you read your work out loud and stumble over every other word, this may not be your natural voice.
Don’t write how you speak
To refer back to Henneke again, they mention that you should not write how you speak. I balked at this at first, but then the explanation was that we all use too many filler words and sounds – ahs, ums, likes, etc. – to be used in our writing. This is very true. If I wrote with as many filler sounds and textually trip over my own words as often as I do verbally, this blog would be unreadable.
I even agree that how I write and how I speak are not super similar at all. However, as I’ll explain in a moment, that is how I got where I am now.
My thoughts on all this
I’ve gone through all this advice and more on the internet and I have my own thoughts as I went through this myself. You can follow my advice or the others’, I just hope that something here will resonate and help you get where you want to go!
Finding your voice, Charlie-style
Find a topic that you care about. It doesn’t have to be anything super controversial, just something that gets you a’talkin.
Start talking! Yes, out loud.
Transcribe yourself. This can be done either as you’re speaking if you can type fast enough, or you can record yourself and transcribe on playback.
Clean yourself up. In the spirit of not writing how you talk, take out any filler words, misspoken words/phrases, etc. You can experiment with swearing if you are so inclined.
Repeat. Do this over and over. If you don’t want to journal, go online! This might seem like a strange thing to do, but I did this naturally since I grew up with AIM and now use Discord all the time. I don’t typically use a lot of shortcuts when chatting unless I’m tired or being silly, and I used to naturally talk to myself as I chatted (I occasionally do that still, but only when I’m alone I promise).
Eventually you are going to get really good at writing exactly how you would say something out loud. Then comes phase two: refining your natural voice. This means that you are taking all of those parts of speech at the beginning of this article into consideration and tweaking how you write to match how you want to appear to others, or the tone you’d like to convey in your writing.
Once you can get to a comfortable spot writing how you want to sound, you can start working on better dialogue, or in-character narration, or even, as mentioned in the previous article, writing in the “house style” for collaborative projects you might want to join.
It might sound like the long way around, why not just learn how to write other voices right now? You can do this, and I’m sure you can become very effective this way. However, I personally feel you would be remiss if you didn’t study voice from the inside. For example:
Why do you write the way that you do? What part of you says to use that word versus this one? How much of what you say is calculated, or traceable to an actual reason over happenstance? Your answers can inform your choices for characters for the rest of your life.
For those of you who have already, how did you find your voice? For those who haven’t, what methods do you think you might use? Who else out there feels deeply uncomfortable when Brent Spiner uses contractions? Discuss in the comments below!
I did research on writing voice assuming that I didn’t have as much to say as others did, but found most give about the same pieces of advice. I also found, when explaining how frustrating this was, that I have way more opinions than I realized.
There are many different parts that make up a “voice,” but today I’m going to talk about why you want to find yours. Next time I’ll write more on the technical bits.
What is voice?
Voice is basically how you are going to write something. It’s the way your words will feel or sound inside your readers’ heads. This doesn’t have to be your own, natural voice either. As we’ll discuss in a moment, many situations call for the use of a brand new one or for you to match someone else’s.
But why bother?
A case against it
Noah Berlatsky wrote an article about this in the Atlantic some time ago. He argues that, while it is commonly given advice, it has been a distraction if not a detraction to his career. In this article he talks about changing his voice to submit to literary magazines, and how he had to force himself to sound more like the other writers when collaborating. Even when writing on his own, he says that he had to modify his voice for his intended audience.
It is an interesting read, so I recommend taking a look, however I must respectfully disagree with the premise. Please allow me to explain:
Benefits outside of writing
Even if you decide not to publish another word, I truly believe that finding your writing voice is important. Why? Because it all comes down to confidence.
I’m not saying that you are going to go from socially anxious wallflower to politician just because you can write an essay. I am saying that it’s a good first step. Think about it this way: finding your voice is mostly about figuring out who you are. Once you know who you are, and you’ve developed the confidence to express that in your writing, you are once step closer to confidence in the “real world.”
There are obviously a lot more steps after this one, and confidence is not just a matter of following instructions. Getting there is outside the scope of this particular post, however.
Voice helps both fiction and nonfiction writers
Voice is one of those things that does a lot of heavy lifting. It helps you to stand out, it contributes to your personal brand, it helps with your interaction with your audience, and even helps you to write faster.
When you collaborate with other writers on a project where you all are writing together on all the same parts, or different parts that should be pasted together into a whole, you can expect that you will have to write with the same voice. However, you will still need to actually get that job.
You will most likely communicate with someone via email, submit writing samples, have your Twitter feed/Facebook examined, etc. If you write with your own, unique voice, you have a chance at standing out among all the other writers hungry for that job. You won’t disappear in a fog of rambling words while trying to say, “please hire me!” There’s another point related to this that I’m going to talk about in a second.
Even when trying to find an agent, or pitching your projects to publishers, you want to have your voice figured out. Having an interesting, consistent voice that sounds like you know what you’re talking about is a great way to grab someone’s attention.
I know, I know. So many people hate this phrase. I promise you, though, that it is not what it’s made out to be. I’ll write more on this topic later, but for now I’ll just say that it is literally how you appear to the rest of the world. Working on your personal brand isn’t making a fake persona, but making your impression a little less scatter brained.
As far as writing voice goes, your personal brand is represented in everything you write, and finding your voice lends to a successful personal brand.
It is recommended time and again that you interact with your audience. That can be in the form of answering questions, giving updates on projects, or just posting cat pics online, but you are sharing words with them in some form. Your voice can make or break this type of relationship – or, more specifically, not having a voice can.
Yes, I know it sounds unlikely. But think about it this way: once you know how you are going to write something, doesn’t writing it go much faster? Why not develop a steady, consistent voice so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of writing anymore? Once you stop waffling over tone and word choices, you can focus on your content and research.
Voice helps nonfiction writers
Along with everything above, voice can assist nonfiction writers with making dryer material more interesting and lend credibility to your work. Imagine the Ben Stein versus Bill Nye talking to you about the molting habits of insects. Or as far as credibility, imagine Bill Nye referring to every tool of his as a “thingy” and glossing over his explanation with “then some science stuff happens I think.”
Voice helps fiction writers
Finally, my favorite part! Earlier I mentioned that there was an idea related to writing collaboratively I was going to write about later. Now’s that time. Knowing how to find and refine your own voice, means you will be able to find and refine many voices.
This will help you when you work collaboratively, in that you will be able to easily adapt to the “house” style, but it will also be a boon for writing characters and narration.
For characters, everyone speaks differently. The parts that make up dialogue are going to be very similar to the parts that make up one’s voice. If you are able to figure out how to personalize these parts to your characters, every one of them will sound unique. Working on believable and interesting characters is a different post.
When you watch a movie with Tom Cruise in it, you know you are watching Tom Cruise. This is because when he is in something, it is Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise playing [insert character’s name here]. This is not a bad thing necessarily. It’s an artistic choice.
Similarly, there are writers who, when a familiar reader sees just the very first line of one of their books, can automatically be identified.
But then we have Gary Oldman. I have been midway through a movie he was in and swore when I realized he was in it, because he melts into his characters. When the camera is rolling, Oldman no longer exists.
Writers who take this approach use the narrator’s voice purposefully. Maybe they need to have an unreliable narrator, or one that has no idea what is going on in general. Maybe they need to have a narrator that understands what’s going on as a sort of anchor while the main character bumbles about. Horror novels tend to have a different voice from romance novels – and you aren’t forced to write one or the other.
Voice is essential to enhancing your writing, your career, and your life, even if you don’t use it very often.
Next week I’ll post more about the parts that make up your writing voice as well as advice (both mine and others’) on how to develop your own.
Do you have your own opinions on if you should or should not develop your own writing voice? Please share in the comments!
As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a new writer. I have been writing since I could hold a crayon and have loved every moment of it. I like writing reports for school, blog posts, journal entries, grocery lists, short fiction, long fiction, D&D campaigns, songs…(though I kinda suck at the last two to be honest). I am, however, new to the publishing game.
I knew going into this that I would be getting rejections. That’s all a part of this life – you literally cannot please everyone and you should never try. However, it is tiring. I know some of you are looking at the rejection counter and thinking “Three rejections has you frustrated? I got twice that last week!” But it’s that plus feeling stressed to the point of exhaustion at work, things going on in life in general, a lack of blog views and self-promotion always makes me feel a little weird about myself.
And it’s perfectly natural to be at this point right now. It can take up to a year of consistent posting before a blog gets any significant readership, I haven’t done a whole lot of promotion (mainly just throwing links up on Twitter and Instagram), and I definitely haven’t been putting in enough hours for me to start getting squirrely.
What I’m saying is I’m feeling a bit of unwarranted self-consciousness and it’s annoying.
So what am I doing about it?
I’m going to write my way out.
“Writer’s block” is caused by a number of things, mostly internal. You might have doubts about your abilities like I do now. Sometimes you feel like you “peaked” with your last story or post. Maybe it feels like nothing you write is original enough (this is also part of my problem). Other times you look at the project on the whole and immediately decide you need a nap.
To work through our writer’s block, we first need to understand what is causing it. Do some journaling about it, write about every thought that comes up every time we start to put pen to paper or finger to key. This isn’t for anyone else to read, just for us.
Let’s take a look at these different causes and how we can work around them:
1. “I suck at writing/I peaked with my last piece”
This might be the most common block out there. You sit down to write something that you know other people are going to read (or at least, you hope they do), and suddenly every word you put down is wrong. Sentences fail to flow, your writing voice sounds hoarse, you can’t seem to get to the point, and dialogue comes off like it was written by robots. Not the hilarious AI writing, either. How do you fix this? By not giving a shit anymore. Boom – next problem!
Just kidding. But also kind of not.
I have two different strategies for dealing with this, depending on how bad I feel at the time. If I am feeling more lukewarm about what I’m doing, I just write what I tell myself are journal entires. If something good comes out of it, then sure I’ll use that, but I don’t expect it at all. For example, if I want to write a blog post but feel like it’s not going to be good, I just write a journal entry about what I was wanting to write. This isn’t anything that anyone will ever see, so it allows me to let go of the perfectionism holding me back.
If I am completely down about my abilities, I like to not only write something I know will never be read, but also cheer myself up with some ridiculousness. In the example of trying to write a blog post, I sit down and pretend that this is the final draft and write something patently horrible. Break all of the rules, fill that mother up with cliches, swear to your heart’s content. Use the same word twelve sentences in a row. Make your topic terrible too: write about something completely insane, or completely inane. “An ode to my…um,” looks around, “post-it notes.”
Though not at all healthy, I am also a fan of picking up something that’s been published that is way worse than anything I write. Somebody paid for that, friend. And someone will pay for what you write as well.
2. “Nothing I write is original enough”
This is another problem I’m running into right now. I decided to start doing my “learning out loud” series which involves doing research. But then this ends up showing me just how many people write about the things I’m trying to write about. Obviously others have written about these things, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do much research on them, but my brain immediately decides to discount anything I could say.
But I’m not just writing about, say, researching. I’m writing about my view on it, what information I found and what I plan on doing with it. Eventually, after I’ve put that plan into action enough times, I’ll be writing about my own personal experience with it. Some people won’t connect with what I write, but others will only connect with it.
When it comes to writing fiction, it’s the same. We aren’t just writing a ghost story or romance novel, we’re writing about our whole experience with the subject. If we write with our own, unique, authentic voice, then we will be writing something original.
I will be writing about this topic soon, I think. It’s worth exploring even if just to ease my own mind about if I have done enough for this or not.
3. “I need a nap”
Oof. I get this feeling so hard sometimes. This usually happened to me with school projects. You know that there is a ton of stuff to research, a bunch of pages to write about something you’re not super excited about, and then you have to give it to someone who is going to judge it harshly, which can affect if you’re able to go to college or not, which in turn affects your career choices and how much money you’re going to make in the futu–
Hold up, buddy. Take a breath.
You don’t even know what your paper is about yet.
If you haven’t guessed yet, I am anxiety-prone and can be easily overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed makes me sleepy. It’s almost like my body is sizing up some kind of beast in the wild it needs to chase down, and decides it needs to gather some energy and strength first. But we aren’t hunting buffalo, we’re researching and then writing a paper. So how do I approach this?
Back in the day, I would just take that nap and then scramble on the last night, driven by adrenaline to stay up until it was done. Today, however, I have a much better way to deal: breaking it up into chunks.
First, pick a topic. Nothing matters until a topic is chosen. You can’t hand in a paper with no topic, because you can’t write a paper with no topic, so don’t bother thinking about that part yet. Same thing with a novel.
If you look at writing a novel with the “everything done at once” mode, then of course you’re going to want to take a nap. But you haven’t even thought of a plot yet! Don’t waste energy on the publicity or editing or reviews until you at the very least have a plot.
Once you get the plot, you can start to do your research and world building – one tiny detail at a time. Once you get your topic, you can start your research. Gather your source citations, figure out where your main character lives, etc. Break up whatever your project is into the smallest bites imaginable, and don’t even think about the others yet.
But what if…?
What if we do suck at writing? What if we did peak with our last piece? What if we really are writing what everyone else is writing? What if our project really is too big?
Then we need to keep writing! It might be hard, but if this were easy, literally everyone who ever said “I wanna write a book” would have done it already. Why must we keep writing? Because it’s what we want to do – and we can’t get better until we have done what we want to do over and over and over again.
So write until your hands cramp and your eyes dry out.* Write until you have no more words to write. Finish your projects as best you can, figure out what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you can do better in the future, and then do it all over again.
*Don’t push yourself too hard, for reals.
So then what do I write?
Anything! As I mentioned already, now is the time I’m going to write myself out of this slump, but what does this mean? Broadly speaking, it really does mean write more and with sheer abandon. For me, however, this means that I am going to give the “personal essay” thing a shot.
In between researching for blog posts and my novel, I am going to write a boatload of essays. And they are going to be terrible. It’s something I haven’t actually done since I attempted college, and I’d like to publish some on Medium eventually. Those will be what I turn to when I get stuck again while writing posts. Something new, something without a deadline, something I understand I will be terrible at to begin with. Anything to get words flowing again.
What do you think you might turn to when you get stuck? Which one of these blocks is more common for you – or is there another I didn’t mention here you have trouble with? Let’s talk about it in the comments!