Thursday, 20 July 2017

Discovering the World's Best Writing Guide

What if the best writing guide you'll ever meet is in the room with you right now?  What if they could tell you which advice to follow and when to trust your own instincts?  Find out how to discover your strongest, most intelligent writing guide in this blog post. <3 | Something Delicious

Something that's been niggling at me quite often of late is the plethora of writing advice available to us, both online and off, and the quagmire of emotions surrounding that advice.  My latest Letter from the Burrow dove into this muddle headfirst, and I wanted to share it here with you, as well, because this is something I think every writer needs to hear.

Writing isn't something that we can learn from beginning to end and eventually discover we know everything there is to know.  There's always something we'll be unsure of or that feels new or that just doesn't seem to stick in our minds, no matter how hard we try.

With such an open-ended craft, it's no surprise that we can spend hours, days, or even weeks reading about writing and never actually writing.

What's just as bad is that, the more we read, the more we may start to doubt our own instincts.  Our creativity gets tamped down by all the rules and suggestions and "must haves" that we forget how to just sit down and let words spill onto the page.  We might even lose touch with why we're writing in the first place.

There's absolutely a place for writing advice beyond the scope of our own knowledge, but when we stop trusting what we do know and how we feel in our heart of hearts, we get into tricky scenarios.

For example ...

When you're working with an editor, there's a difference between looking at the red markings on the page and thinking,

Yowch!  Some of these feel a little off, but she's the professional, so I'll just go ahead and make all the changes ...

as opposed to thinking

Wow!  This is a bit painful, but most of these changes are going to bring my story even closer to the way I want it to come across, so I'll make those for sure and consider the rest.

When you hear about an upcoming writing workshop, there's a difference between thinking,

Oh, that sounds interesting!  I should really take that ...

as opposed to thinking

Hmm ... that's something I've been trying to work on and haven't had any luck.  I'm going to look into that workshop and see if it's a good fit.

Finding the Right Help at the Right Time

My personal hope is that the resources I provide reach the writers who are looking for them at the time when they most need them, rather than add to the confusion and the chaos.

Ideally, any book or workshop or service you partake in within the wonderful world of writing won't make you dependent on it but will empower you to carry on, walking your own path; learning to trust your creative instincts and know what works and what doesn't; when you need outside help and when you need to keep things up close and personal.

That ebook on outlining worked wonders for your last book but is tying you into knots with this one?  Let it go.

Feeling the urge to find some outward accountability, but fearing being told that you're lazy and unmotivated?  To heck with that!  Do whatever you need to do to put that accountability system into play and then start writing so you have something to be accountable about.

Getting lost in character questionnaires and still have no idea who your character is?  Set aside all the blog posts and workbooks and just sit down with a piece of paper and ask them, "Who are you?"

Trust Yourself

There are no right answers.  No perfect strategies.

However, I do believe we know, deep inside, when we're procrastinating and when we genuinely need help.

Writing can be mind-boggling, and at best that's one of the coolest things about it; at worst, it's one of the biggest things that can stop us from moving forward.

Rather than looking at outside help as the enemy or as laziness or as a creative saviour, let's develop a relationship with it that has our own gut feelings and creative eccentricities and passion at the core.  When you really, truly need help, draw it into your orbit without shame or fear, get what you can from it, and then gently release it.

Trust yourself.  Trust your instincts.  Trust your creativity.

That trust will guide you home to the most incredible stories you'll ever write.

You are the best writing guide you will ever meet.

Is this easier said than done?  Some days yes, some days no.  If the gap between here and there feels wider than you're comfortable with, spend a few minutes with these questions and see what comes up.  They'll help you find more ease and bridge that gap.

When it comes to writing ...

... do I feel like a novice?  an old hand?  a beginner?  a guru?  a hack?  a hard worker?  Why do I feel this way?  When do I feel this way?  Have I always felt this way?

... which characters hold my attention more than others?  What is it about them I love?  Are there any common threads?

... how do I know what to write?

... when do I feel most content?

... when do I feel most confident?

... when do I feel most unsure?

... when do I feel powerful?

A Day to Write Without Walls

I hope today, if you have time to write, you'll spend a bit of time with the wisdom and knowledge you already possess.  There can be a beautiful sense of space and ease in writing with no outside forces at work: no prompts, no guidelines, nothin'.

If it feels strange or unfamiliar or even a little uncomfortable, that's okay.  Doodle on the page or watch your mouse cursor move in lazy circles for a few minutes if it helps you relax.  Just spend a bit of time with yourself and your writing and see what happens.

Happy writing, creative soul!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Writing Secrets Hidden Within Mass Effect

One of my favourite science fiction stories of all time is not a book or a movie or a TV show. It’s a video game trilogy by the name of Mass Effect. This is a series that’s incredibly fun to play not just because of the game mechanics, but because the characters feel like real people and the universe feels rich and diverse. As a writer, playing (and replaying) this game holds even more appeal: as I navigated the Normandy amongst the stars, I was unlocking valuable lessons about fiction writing.

The Mass Effect video game series is full of incredible characters and rich worldbuilding.  As I navigated my ship amongst the stars, I unlocked valuable lessons about fiction writing, and now I want to share them with you. | Something Delicious

Your readers will surprise you

Garrus Vakarian is one of only two characters throughout the trilogy that isn’t just on the Normandy with you but a squadmate you can bring out on missions. If you choose to have him as a friend, he’ll become your best friend. If you choose to romance him, you’ll be treated to some of the dorkiest, sweetest interactions in the series. His character arc throughout the series is fascinating, especially if you encourage him to reform his vigilante ways, and the conversations you can have with him about the global conflict within the Mass Effect universe are thought provoking.

He also happens to be a turian, a humanoid alien with avian features.

Because he looked so different from your average heartthrob, the game developers didn’t bother making him romanceable in the first game. This changed in Mass Effect 2 and 3, after they realized that Garrus was a fan favourite. Many players (myself included) find it difficult to romance anyone but Garrus, even on a repeat playthrough.

Lesson Learned: No matter how you think your characters will come across, there will always be a reader (or a legion of readers) who think differently. Do your best to write your characters as consistently and genuinely as possible, and your readers will take it from there.

Give readers something or someone to root for

The overarching plot of the Mass Effect trilogy is a universe-wide crisis that could result in the destruction of all life. Definitely something to root for. Shepard is also a compelling hero/heroine you can’t resist cheering on.

That’s not all there is to it, though. The sense of impending doom gets its hooks into you because you meet people like Charr, a krogan (one of the most trigger-happy, warmongering races) reciting sappy poems to woo his love interest. You can discourage this - boo! - or nudge her in his direction - yay! Then there’s Erinya, an asari widow who blames aliens for the death of her entire family: her partner was on a different world studying quarian music, and her daughters were both working for aliens on the Citadel, a massive space station that suffered a devastating attack. Erinya slowly comes around when she remembers her departed family’s love for other cultures, and her partner’s belief that quarians possess old souls, something that comes across in their art and music.

It’s largely because of these people, their lives and stories and hopes, that you feel compelled to see things through, to save the day, not just so you can say you beat the game but so these people have a chance to realize their dreams. In the words of my boyfriend, “[They] add to the gravitas of the galaxy and what you're fighting to save. You're after a future that lets the quarians have their music again. Or maybe you're willing to sacrifice that future for everyone's sake.”

Lesson Learned: Writing about a universally understood theme is only half the battle. Don’t just write another war story or post-apocalypse story or meeting a perfect match story. Find the little moments and nuances that make it matter.

Avoid avoid easy, cut-and-dried scenarios

The Mass Effect series has no shortage of examples for this, but let’s highlight one in particular. In Mass Effect 2, you run into a friend from the first game, someone who, until recently, thought you were dead. This run-in not only confirms the rumours that you’re alive (and didn’t tell them) but that you’re working for Cerberus, a group that seems like little more than a terrorist organization in the first game.

The approach you take to this conversation, and to Cerberus throughout the game, is intriguing, to say the least. There are no easy answers. Even though Shepard’s reasons are understandable (it’s a “for the greater good” kind of thing), they’re still questionable, and sometimes that’s a good thing. There are a lot of people working for Cerberus who are themselves well-intentioned, which blurs the lines even more. I much prefer this to an across the board “they’re actually the misunderstood good guys!” approach.

Lesson Learned: If everything a character or organization ever says or does is 100 percent defensible, with no room for debate, they’re not going to seem real. Some scenarios have no easy answers, and memorable scenes result from your finding a way to write about them regardless.

Don’t write skippable fluff

There’s a difference between scenes and dialogue exchanges and moments that make the story world feel real or endear the characters to you, and ones that are all fluff and absolutely no substance. If every single one of your beta readers is telling you that they took a nap during a particular section, you need to think long and hard about whether it’s worth keeping. The aim is to write a story where readers, generally speaking, don’t want to “skip to the good bits,” at least not the first time they read your book.

When playing Mass Effect, you have the option to skip through cutscenes and most conversations if you want to. Even when I’m replaying the trilogy, however, I will still let the vast majority of the game play out rather than just speedreading the subtitles because the conversations and characterization and world are so nuanced and interesting. I can’t resist experiencing it all again, even if I’m making all the same choices in the dialogue wheel, because it’s that good (and because I inevitably pick up on something I missed the first time around).

Lesson Learned: Whether you’re writing description, dialogue, or narration, focus on what subconsciously and consciously matters to your characters. Does a scene feel too woolly? Read it line by line and ask yourself, “Why does this matter?”

Poor endings poison the whole experience

Talk to anyone who’s played the Mass Effect trilogy and you’ll find someone with a strong opinion about the ending. It was originally so unsatisfying that, for many players, it overshadowed what had up to that point been an incredible experience. People felt cheated after having invested so much time and emotion into the trilogy. Bioware released a patch after the game’s release that added some content and made the ending somewhat more palatable--I, for one, was appeased by it--but it wasn’t enough for some.

Conversely, the endings to various subplot missions throughout the trilogy were handled so well that I’m still thinking about them. They weren’t cut off and never mentioned again once they’d finished. For example, after doing Tali’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you’re prompted to go back to your ship. However, if you ignore that prompt and stick around, you can strike up conversations and get a sense of how your choices throughout the mission have impacted different characters. Some of these conversations influence the third game, as well. This ripple effect is what makes a story feel grounded, relatable, and memorable (in a good way, this time)!

Lesson Learned: A poor ending will linger in a reader’s memory and overshadow even the best of experiences. It’s not enough to say your heroes won; you need to show they won.

I’m not the only one who thinks Mass Effect has some amazing writing lessons to teach us! Let’s have a look at what E.M. Welsh, a fellow writer and Mass Effect aficionado, has to say …

Side characters are as crucial as main characters!

Mass Effect, like nearly all Bioware games, has taught me first and foremost how to craft unique and authentic characters. Despite having a party of up to twelve people in Mass Effect 2, I can still to this day envision each character and how they stood out. That’s something that is incredibly hard to do in something like a movie or book, so I was really fortunate in that I was able to learn about how to explore character’s backstories via video games.
The fact that as a player, you get to have in-depth conversations with Garrus and Liara, Miranda, and Jack, Thane, and Legion, and learn their backstories not only through conversation but through a direct engagement with their own side stories, made me realize just how exciting side characters and their own personal backstories could be.
I used to think that people only cared about the main character’s backstory in movies or books, but Mass Effect quickly made me understand that if the character is complex, with a worldview different from your main character’s, they can supplement the story and the world in a way that no protagonist can.

This, in turn, led me to understand another facet of writing that I believe Mass Effect explores so well – possibility with said side characters. Take, for instance, when you wander through the Citadel, the main hub in the game. Depending on who you bring to the Citadel in your party, you’ll get different reactions and different comments from people in the city. Additionally, certain people in the party will have conversations – or maybe arguments – as you walk around, and this really led me to think about how different characters interact with one another and how the world receives them, not just your main character.
Of course, I could go on and on about the world building and the lore that Mass Effect introduces, intriguing you from the get go and providing just enough information to keep you satisfied, yet still inquisitive. But if there was one stand out feature Mass Effect has taught me about, it was how to write fascinating and unique side characters who stand out as strongly as your protagonist.”

I think Emma and I could go on talking about Mass Effect all day (this won’t be the last time it pops up here!) but right now I want to hear from you: what writing lessons have you learned from video games? I’ve kept this post spoiler-free, but feel free to get more detailed in the comments!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

How to Add Characters to Your Writing Bullet Journal

Bullet journalling can be both a tantalizing and an overwhelming prospect. You might love the idea of using it to store notes on your characters but have nary a clue where to begin. Today we're going to break down the collections I use in my own bullet journal to keep track of all the information you gather during character creation.

Creating a bullet journal for your writing is an amazing way to stay organized.  Find out how to keep track of your characters in collections within your bullet journal by clicking through to this post! | Something Delicious

Start with the basics of character creation

Every character has its quirks, but, given time, chances are you'll narrow down your character creation process to some key questions and prompts. Start a collection to keep track of these go-to questions and you'll save valuable time the next time you start writing a novel.

Haven't figured out those go-tos just yet? I went over the basics of character creation in a recent blog series, or you can go beyond the basics in Create an Epic Character Foundation.

Once you've gone through any resources or books that catch your fancy, jot down the prompts and questions that appealed to you most in this collection in your bullet journal. Next time you create a character, you'll know exactly where to start!

Create a collection for each main character

Each of your main characters will require a space of their own. I'd suggest setting aside two pages per main character from the start. If you need to add more later on, you can just add them to your index: that's the beauty of bullet journalling!

For main characters, I include things like:

Their name. This could be just the name or the significance behind the name, too.

Their gender and approximate age. Self-explanatory!

Their background. What events from their past inform the person they are today? What events play into the story you're writing?

Their evolution. What is it they want and need at the beginning of the story? How is this achieved and/or how has this shifted by the end of the story?

Their priorities. What do they spend the majority of their time on right now? What short and/or long-term ramifications does this have?

Their motivation. What is their 'why'? What drives their current goals and ambitions?

Their relationships. Who are their VIPs? Who would they hate to disappoint? Who would they turn to when they need support? Who would they take a bullet for? Describe each of these relationships.

By the way, here's one of the awesome things about bullet journalling: when you start a section elsewhere for one of these other characters, you don't have to repeat the whole description of their relationship. Just say something like "see page 'X' for info about their relationship with 'Y'."

Their appearance. Any time you mention something about their appearance in your WIP, jot it down here. That way they won't shift from being 5'9 to 6'3 without your noticing. Not that that happened in one of my rough drafts or anything. >.>

On the other hand, if they cut their hair or change their appearance in some other way, write down what happened and when. Consistency is crucial.

Their speech patterns. What's one word they always use incorrectly? What curse words do they use? Do all their sentences sound like questions?

Don't fret if you can’t fill all of these sections in at once. Just do as much as you can and fill out the rest as you write your way through the story and get to know the character more thoroughly!

Conversely, don't limit yourself to just these sections. Add sections for the people they admire, their favourite quotes (this gives you some good insight into their worldview, sense of humour, and philosophies on life), their hobbies, or anything else you can think of.

Don't forget to put a limit on these optional categories. It can be addicting to discover more and more about the people inhabiting your story. Just make sure you actually tell that story too, eh?

Create a collection for supporting characters

I'm a big believer in supporting characters being as well-drawn as the main character(s), because it contributes to a well told story and a believable world within that story. For the most part, though, I don't go into quite as much depth with supporting characters, so I like bringing them together in one collection, even if that collection does end up spanning a multitude of pages.

For a supporting character, I like to know some or all of the following, depending on the character's relative importance:

Their name. Walk-on characters may not need a name, but supporting characters should at least have a first name, if not a surname.

Their gender and approximate age. Again, self-explanatory.

Their importance to the main character. How do their lives intertwine? How would the main character's life be different without this character in it? How will their presence affect the main character's evolution?

Their interconnections with other characters. Does this character solely interact with the main character or with other characters, as well? What are these connections? Are these connections in flux, subject to change throughout the story, or will they stay static?

Their associated subplots. If this is a relatively minor character, they'll likely play into few of your novel's subplots. Whatever subplots they are involved in can be written down here.

Their current state of affairs. This is where I do a few quick jots about things like their relationship status, employment, and/or current passions. These might not factor into the story at large, but a random friend named Sue who always happens to be free for coffee whenever your character has something to run by them might not be quite as interesting as their librarian friend Sue who has a few minutes on her lunch break but needs to get back, because the book she'd chosen for storytime got coffee spilled all over it and she needs to pick a new one.

Their identifying features or dialogue quirks. If this is a character who you've introduced as having pink hair or a tendency to speak in self-centred monologues, that's not something you want to drop halfway through. Consistency is key to a believable storytelling experience.

Don't forget some master lists

I love lists. I could make lists all day, partly because they're fun and partly because they're as useful as someone who actually knows how to drive the TARDIS. When it comes to keeping characters straight in my bullet journal, there are a few lists that come in handy:

Story appearances. I list each character's name and which chapters they make an appearance in. This way, it's easy to see if a character stops showing up a third of the way through, never to be seen again. You might also notice that, say, your main character's love interest and best friend rarely show up in the same scene. If that's intentional, no problem! If it's not, you can write a scene or two to rectify the situation.

Homes and workplaces. These can be brief descriptions, but the idea is to list the job each significant character has and where they live. Unless you've done it on purpose, if all of your characters live in bohemian apartments or none of them have 9 to 5 office jobs, you might want to rethink a few things so it doesn't come off as overly coincidental or samey.

Updating the index

Don't forget to update your index to account for each of these new pages!

A collection for Character Creation Basics can easily have its own listing in the index.

I'd suggest giving each of your main characters their own listing ("[Main Character Name] for [WIP name]"). Add the page number for their character-specific collection. Then, any time you reference them in one of your other collections, add that page number, as well.

Truly significant supporting characters could each have their own listing, too, or you can just add them to the index under "supporting characters for [WIP name]".

For easiest reference, if you create some of the lists we talked about earlier for story appearances or homes and workplaces, you’ll want to add those individually to your index.

As it stands, that's the gist of how I keep track of characters in my bullet journal! If that evolves over time (and I'm sure it will), I’ll make sure to update this post with any new developments.

Feeling overwhelmed? Please don't be! This takes a bit of time to set up (maybe a couple of writing sessions, if you're really focused) but once you have, you'll love how easy it is to look back and reference all the important information about your characters, especially once you've indexed everything.

To help you get started, I’ve created a checklist of everything we’ve talked about today. Just click here to pick it up.

Any questions?  Feel free to run them by me in the comments below!  Otherwise, go forth and bullet journal! ^_^

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my introductory post on Bullet Journalling for Fiction Writers, where I share some of my favourite tools and other must-have collections, or Decluttering for Writers, a resource to help you declutter and organize all of your writing paraphernalia!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Why It's Beneficial for Writers to Get Organized

When I was growing up, the visions of writers floating around in my mind were full of glorious chaos. They wrote notes on whatever paper/napkin/skin/piece of furniture was handy, had a pen in every room except the one they were in at the time, and were surrounded by precarious stacks of books.

As I got a little older and became a writer myself, I realized that … well … it’s not necessarily that far off from the truth. We’re a little more careful with our books, precious goods such as they are, but for many writers, chaos feels inextricably linked with creativity.

Words like “order” and “organization” fight against that romantic image of the scattered but brilliant writer, and so we burrow deeper into bedlam until suddenly, one day, we realize we’re spending more time trying to find that bit of research or that character idea or the most recent story draft than we are actually writing.

Is this realization always so sudden? I doubt it. The important thing, no matter how much time it takes, is recognizing that you need a change, and sometimes the best way to figure that out is by looking at everything you stand to gain.

Unlike the traditional, romantic notion of writing amidst chaos, aka piles and piles of paper, I've found that decluttering and getting organized has done wonderful things for my writing.  Find out what's so great about it, and some action steps to start your own decluttering journey, by clicking through to this blog post! | Something Delicious

Finding what you need, when you need it

No more do I embark on fruitless searches for crucial bits of information, wasting valuable writing time. Everything now has a home, somewhere I immediately know to look.

You know those moments when you could swear there are only five places something could be, but you’ve searched through all of them and, darn it all, it’s still nowhere to be found? What a nightmare!

It’s a lot harder for that to happen when you know that:

  • all of your research material lives in a folder in the top drawer of your filing cabinet,
  • every unexplored story idea gets written down in a bullet journal, and
  • the draft you promised to send to your beta reader lives in a folder on Google Drive

And so on!

Action Step: Assign a specific, consistent home for something in your World of Writing, like unexplored story ideas, and stick to it!

Less makework → more consistency → better storytelling!

Before I got organized, there were times when I would outline scenes in a story, only to find the outline I’d started a few days before; hammer out the dynamics between two characters, only to discover that I’d already done so (and in a much better fashion); or write a few thousand words on Draft version 2.5 when the one I should have been working on was version 3.

Usually this only elicited an exasperated sigh, but sometimes these unintentional overlaps created major inconsistencies that were a pain to sort out. Untangling them sometimes left holes that were difficult to stitch back together, and still feel like a raggedy lump to date. There are so many puzzles to decipher and tangles to unravel in writing a story as it is; I’d rather avoid the unnecessary, self-induced ones, thank you very much!

The process of sorting, purging, and organizing my writing was a hefty one, but not having to deal with nearly as many of those wee little mishaps has been worth it.

Action Step: Are you unnecessarily holding on to multiple versions of story drafts? Look through them, decide which one(s) need to be kept, and delete or recycle the rest.

Saving time and space

Getting everything organized (and tossing what you can along the way) means it’ll take far less space. This means you’ll:

  • use less of your computer’s hard drive;
  • take up less of those precious space limits in Dropbox, Google Drive, or other online storage spaces;
  • have less to tidy up and around in your physical space;
  • need less time to back up files to a USB drive; and
  • have less of a load to tote to your local coffee shop, a writing conference, or a writing retreat!

All of that “less” means more time and headspace freed up to write!

Action Step: Spend an hour looking through old writing notes and recycling/deleting/crossing out any that no longer interest you or that you’ve since made use of.

Peace of mind and elevated powers of concentration

The more you pare away the unnecessary and clarify what you truly want and need to keep, the less chaos will surround you. The less chaos surrounds you, the easier it’ll be to focus.

As writers, we don’t just write. We have families, friends, knit nights, movie dates, chores, and all sorts of other things that pull our attention away from writing. It’s rarely an easy thing to focus on our writing, especially not when we get caught up in self-doubt or one of the other nagging monsters that blocks our creativity.

The more we can do to help ourselves focus, the better. What better way to begin than by clearing away the writing detritus that no longer belongs in our lives?

Action Step: Gather all of the clutter in your immediate vicinity (making sure to keep with you anything actually relevant and important!) and sweep it into a basket, a box, or some other container, and then conveniently misplace it for a week. See how it feels to write when you’re not surrounded by chaos.

Here’s the truth of the matter: organization doesn’t swamp creativity, it encourages it. Being organized gives creativity room to flourish and grow, rather than allowing it to be hemmed in by mountains of physical and electronic clutter.

A little bit of chaos is okay (and the tipping point is different for everyone), but let’s throw more of the chaos our characters’ way, mm?

I’m not going to lie; organizing takes effort. That effort is worth it and then some, but sometimes it helps to start small. That’s why I’m going to suggest you start with one of the action steps we talked about in today’s post. If you thought of another one, share it in the comments below! Let’s inspire each other to clear the chaos.

When you’re ready to declutter your World of Writing once and for all, I’ve created a four-step guide to help you do just that. You can take a gander at Decluttering for Writers right here.  Getting organized made a world of difference to the amount of focus and care I was able to give my writing, and I’ve put together everything I know about making that happen in this ebook so you can do the same.