Ask your character what she wants

If I find myself just writing scenes where characters talk because I like the sound of their voices or the way they are together, I know it’s time to step back for a minute, re-evaluate, and do an exercise to refresh my brain.

One thing I do is get the characters talking about something different and that will actually move the story forward is to ask each of them in the scene this question: What do you want in this situation and why?

Then I let them have at it. I write in first person monologue for as long as each one needs to talk. And I free write. I recommend setting a timer if you haven’t done free writing before or if you really, really believe you won’t be able to get very far.

Commit to at least 5 minutes of free-writing, which means once you start, you don’t stop. You keep the pen/pencil moving on the paper (yes, you have to do this by hand), even when the character is being obstinate and won’t say much. When this happens, just keep writing, even if it’s just I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say. Eventually, he/she will say something new and different, and it will probably surprise you.

Try it. It works!

 

Start watching at 1:35…

Getting to Know You: Backstory – How much is too much?

In my Writing Through the Body workshop this week, we talked about backstory a little. Backstory is your character’s history. It’s everything that happened before the story you’re telling.

Knowing your character’s backstory will help you make informed decisions about her or his motivations, intentions, and behaviors in the story you tell.

Before we went into production on my feature film, FOUND OBJECTS, I wrote extensive and detailed backstories on all the characters and sent them to the actors who would play the parts. By the time we started production, they had clearly ingested their respective characters and showed up fully embodying them.

Even though we aren’t acting out our characters in fiction writing in the literal sense, in some ways, we are. We have to be able to slip into their skins to portray them with authenticity, and the best way to do this is by thoroughly knowing their backstories.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the backstory will wind up in your story, though. In fact, oftentimes it’s better NOT to include it.

In the video below, KM Weiland quotes Ernest Hemingway:
“Backstory is the nine-tenths of the story under the water.”

Watch the video to see what else she has to say about backstory.

And Libby Hellman has more to say about her process of creating backstory
for the main character in her novel, Easy Innocence.

 How do you create backstory for your characters?

Myths & Truths About Writing

Because sometimes, it’s good to remember…

Myth #1

Writing is easy for professional writers. Writing is easy for everyone but me.

Truth

Writing is an agonizing process.

“Writing anything is terribly hard but, alas for me, because I am addicted, a heck of a lot of fun. I often am sorry I ever started writing prose, because it is so hard. But I can’t stop.” – Judy Collins

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann

 

Myth #2

Writers know what they’re going to say before they begin writing. Writers get it right the first time.

Truth

Writing is a process of discovery. You write to find out what you’re thinking by writing.

“You know when you think about writing a book, you think it is overwhelming. But actually, you break it down into tiny little tasks any moron could do. – Annie Dillard

“One thing that is always with the writer–no matter how long he has written or how good he is–is the continuing process of learning how to write.” – Flannery O’Connor

 

Myth #3

You have to be born with the talent to write.

Truth

Writing is a skill that can be learned.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking about, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” – Joan Didion

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.” – John Updike

 

Myth #4

Other people, especially writers, don’t make the mistakes I make.

Truth

No pain, no gain. Writing is a series of mistakes and corrections.

“Mistakes are the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.” – C.S. Lewis

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” – James Joyce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Know when to quit

know-when-to-quitWhen many writers talk about writing, they focus on getting the machine started and keeping it running—that is, creating the right mindset and environment to allow flow to happen and actually get words on the page or screen.

But what about knowing when to stop?

And I don’t mean stop, as in quit or give up on writing altogether. I mean, how do you know when to stop on any given day?

Comedy writer Ken Levine writes about this subject and tells us how he and other writers know when to stop. And the answer to this question is most definitely the different-strokes-for-different-folks kind.

For me, as I’ve written in the past, achieving flow is not a problem. I have a busy brain that mutates ideas fractal-style, so I’m never at a loss. (Generally, I have too many things to write about or two many ideas for a story in progress. It’s a good “problem” to have, so I’m not complaining.)

Because I have my fingers in a lot of different things right now, I’m not able to write every day, so I’ve blocked out two full days each week – Monday and Thursday. These days are devoted to writing and nothing else. I don’t let anything interfere. I close my browser windows and leave my cell phone in the other room.

But two days isn’t enough writing time for me, so my tendency is to want to just keep going and going and going when I’m finally able to get back with my characters. I love them, and I love the world we’re creating together. But the reality is, for me, that after so many hours, things start to feel stale.

For instance, yesterday I was working on the beginning of the second act of my screenplay, Miranda’s Garden. I’m working from an outline (I can do this with screenplays, but not so much with fiction.), so I always set a milepost for myself at the beginning of every writing day and decide how far down the outline I plan to work.

Yesterday, about two-thirds of the way there, I caught myself writing scenes that did nothing in terms of moving the story forward. I LOVE dialogue, so I can just sit and listen to my characters perform idle chit-chat endlessly, but if I’m going to sell scripts or get them made into films, or if I’m going to write novels that have a reasonable page count that anybody’s going to what to publish, I can’t do that. That said, though, I never feel the time spent writing unusable prose or dialogue is a waste, as it always gets me where I need to go.

So yesterday, when I found myself acting like a person who was just hanging out with her friends rather than a writer telling a story, I stopped long enough to think about what I needed to accomplish to not just move the story forward, but to deepen character development and the relationship between the characters in the scenes I was working on. I did this knowing that on Monday when I sit down to work on it again, I will, more than likely, need to revise that section. I prefer this, though, as it gets my head back in the story and back with the characters. Then I’m off, writing forward until I start to go stale again.

Another way I know it’s time to stop is by listening to my body. If I’ve sat in a chair tapping away at the keyboard long enough that my back, neck and shoulders ache, it’s time to quit. Sometimes, though, I just have to forego the pain a while longer so I can get to the place that feels right. So I can start in the right place the next time.

*    *    *

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

 

Nobody does it like you: develop and know your process

For me, the hardest part of writing is getting my butt in the chair. Once I’m there, and I begin, everything flows.

When I’m wrapped up in a story and a character, I’m unable to turn it off, even when I leave said chair. Images and dialogue (mostly dialogue) filter through my mind, and if I’m not at my desk or near it, I have to put these fragments down. Otherwise, they fade away, like a dissipating puff of smoke.

Before iPhones, I collected the pieces of stories that landed in my brain like jigsaw puzzle pieces on napkins, old envelopes, concert program notes… Anything that was handy. This was especially true when my kids were little and writing time was a premium. I also carried a small hand-held tape recorder with me everywhere I went.

Now I use Notes and Voice Memos in my iPhone, but I still do a fair amount of scribbling on random remnants of paper and other things when I don’t feel like thumb typing. Then, eventually, I organize them in a digital file and keep it on Google Drive (along with the piece I’m working on) so I can access it wherever I am and no matter which device I’m using.

For me, it’s typical for this stage of jotting down random snippets to continue throughout the writing of an entire piece. Once the substantial writing begins, another process takes hold in which I do a fair amount of moving forward, then backtracking, adjusting so that what I’ve set up in the past makes sense for what I’m setting up now.

In an interview, Margaret Atwood describes this as the rolling barrage technique.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXEXX8bkLDI?feature=player_detailpage]

She also says she uses “a sharp object with a pointy end” (pen or pencil) and whatever flat surface is nearby when the beginning of a new novel comes. As she progresses, she uses sticky notes and a bedside notebook.

Knowing your process is crucial to your production. If you know your process, the writing will come more easily, and you won’t find yourself staring down the snout of the mythical monster called writer’s block.

As Atwood says, “If you’re not finding this happen somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity.”

*     *     *

I do a different kind of writing at the keyboard than I do by hand, and both approaches served different functions.

By hand

initial random snippets
editing drafts

Keyboard

mind dumping big thoughts so I can organize
writing the story

*     *     *

Do you start with pen/pencil and paper or with the keyboard? Do you know why?

If it works and you don’t find yourself sitting, stuck, that’s great!
If you do find yourself stuck, try changing up the way you work.

 

“I just have to plunge into it.” – Margaret Atwood