“Ways to Jumpstart your Creativity” — a guest post by me on Leonard Tillerman’s blog — is out today! If you’re having a little trouble generating ideas or getting through the next stage of your writing project, check out this post for some ideas that have worked for me.
I’m delighted to be a guest this week on Lorna Suzuki’s blog, “All Kinds of Writing”. Lorna asked some interesting questions about my writing process and about the two Color Mage novels. Check out the interview here!
Last week I posted my Magna Carta I, a look at what elements I enjoy in a novel. Here’s my take on the Magna Carta II, a corresponding list of things that bore me in a novel. If they’re bad enough, these factors can make me roll my eyes, skip sections, or possibly even make me stop reading.
The lists are called “Magna Cartas” because they’re to be used as a sort of master list of Dos and Don’ts of novel-writing as I prepare for NaNoWriMo in a few days. Credit for this idea goes to Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, in his book No Plot? No Problem!.
My Magna Carta II:
Openings that try to pull me into the book in a manipulative way. For example, a first sentence like: “Harry’s fingers slipped as he dangled from the cliff edge.”
Long prologues, especially in italics.
Bad grammar and spelling!
Long passages of exposition or worldbuilding.
Exhaustive character descriptions. I don’t want to hear about the planes of the face, the aquiline nose, the shape of the eyes, etc. At least, not at length.
Ranting about real-world politics, religion, etc at the expense of story.
Stereotypical villains that aren’t real.
Main characters who don’t seem three-dimensional.
Battle scenes that detail every troop movement and tactic. *closes book*
Too much action at the expense of dialogue and characterization. Rushing around here and there.
Starting the novel with a lengthy passage about the character’s ordinary day.
Lack of relatable characters. (I want to like at least one of the characters.)
These are a lot of things, and a Nanowrimo novel by its nature might be prey to some of these. After all, the Nanowrimo novel is a rush product that hasn’t been rewritten or edited. Sometimes there hasn’t even been much in the way of prior planning for the novel. So, my first draft might end up with some of these problems. Still, they’re things for me to keep in mind and try to avoid as I write. A goal to strive for!
Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote a book called No Plot? No Problem!, in which he outlined his steps to writing a novel in 30 days. One of the very early steps is to make a couple of lists, which will serve as the writer’s “Magna Carta” during the frantic rush to write 50,000 words in one month. List One is a personalized list of What Makes a Good Novel; List Two, things that bore or depress you in novels. The idea is to hang these lists up and use them as your personal Dos and Don’ts.
Just for fun, here’s my own take on the Magna Carta I:
Speculative fiction! (I love it best.)
Complex main characters.
Main characters that change.
Not too many points of view.
If there’s magic, it should require some cost or consequence.
If there are aliens, they should be developed as carefully as the human characters.
Excellent, in-depth worldbuilding that’s obvious in the story and dialogue, where there is a real reason for things in the world to be as they are — but not too much time “describing” it!
Attention paid to diversity, BUT —
Diversity that doesn’t hit me with a hammer.
A touch of humor.
An antagonist who’s real (more than a paper cut-out villain).
Good, realistic interpersonal relationships shown in dialogue and action, not just sex.
Some sort of religion/belief system/code that may vary by social/occupational class or culture — because that’s part of life.
Well-described but short action/battle scenes.
That’s a long list. (It would’ve been even longer, but I forced myself to stop thinking of things.) Some novels I like quite a lot wouldn’t meet all these requirements. But still, these are the things that keep me reading, and things I can aim for in my next attempt at NaNoWriMo.
Note: I’ve done NaNoWriMo twice. (A third time I used the event to begin the process of finishing and polishing my previous NaNoWriMo novel.) Once I thought the event was useful, and one time I quit in frustration. My previous posts about NaNoWriMo are here and here.
Photo Credit: The header image is from a photograph by Anastasia Zhenina, from Unsplash.com.
I recently spoke to a new writer who didn’t see the point of a critique group.
There might be people who can write outstanding fiction without feedback. Maybe experienced authors with lots of novels under their belts. Maybe someone who’s studied writing for years. Maybe an outlier — a newbie who has a gift.
But most of us live too closely with our work-in-progress to know what’s really on that page when it’s “done”. We’ve revised. Maybe the plot has changed since our original outline. Maybe we’ve changed a character’s name or backstory, or added new characters. What’s in our heads NOW isn’t necessarily what’s on that page when someone new reads it. Only a critique group or beta reader can tell you how your work comes across to a new reader.
“But why should I change my novel based on someone else’s thoughts?”
This is a great question. The answer is: You don’t have to change a single word of your novel. It’s your world, your characters, your story you’ve lived and breathed maybe for years.
But you’re going to WANT to change it.
A good critique group approaches feedback NOT with the intent of making your writing just like everyone else’s. (If this is how your group functions, then run.) Instead, their feedback should help you make your story the best it can be.
Are you doing things that detract from the clarity of your sentences? Is the plot twist you are so proud of in Chapter 20 really clear to the reader? Does your main character come off as loyal and proud or just conceited? These are the kinds of things it really helps to know before you send your story off to an agent or publisher.
I don’t change my story with every bit of criticism I receive. But well-considered comments received from someone outside my own head can help clarify my thoughts about my story, like silt settling out of water. The value of this is huge.
That said, there can be a downside to over-reliance on critique groups. I’ll link to this post by Kristen Lamb, who explains it all much better than I can.
This advice is both empowering and limiting. But I think a lot of people experience it as limiting.
When many of us think about what we know, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Our daily lives may not strike us as story material, and unless we have personally experienced something amazing, strange, or unfortunately traumatic, our own lives may not seem to inspire.
When it comes to what genre to write, I prefer to think of it as “Write what you love.”
I love science fiction and fantasy, for many reasons I’ll save for another post. When I thought about writing, I always knew I would write speculative fiction. Not because I personally have battled an enemy mage, or leaped to another star in a hyperdrive ship. But because that’s what I love.
And some things I do know, as every writer does. We know what it’s like to feel things. We know how our hands shake when we’re frightened, how tender our touch is when we love someone, how powerful is desire, or fear, or the need to escape. We know the taste of hot chocolate, the sounds of rush hour, the burn of a scraped knee.
That’s what we need to know – how to be human. That’s what goes into making good characters – understanding of ourselves and of what it might be like to be others, maybe different, but still human.
And that’s what’s empowering. Because we all know this! We just have to learn how to write it. Learning the craft is not always an easy process. It takes time. But it’s possible.
Then we get down to the nitty gritty. There are actually a lot of things we need to know to write. But, except for empathy and curiosity, we can learn those things. Better not try to write a story set on a seagoing vessel if you don’t know what a deck is! Better not write a story about an expedition to a massive planet if you forget the heavy hand of increased gravity.
But you can learn those things. Research, read a lot, write several drafts. Go out and get on a ship. Talk to someone who knows about other planets. Practice, practice, practice. Then, run your story past a good beta reader or critique group for feedback on what you might have missed.
It’s a lot of work to make sure you get the details right. A story can turn on a fact that must be correct.
But you can learn all that. You already know the rest: empathy, curiosity, experience of life. Those are the things you need to give your characters life. And the most important thing is to always write what you love.
When you write something as complicated as a novel, you’re bound to get stuck sometime.
Plots, no matter how well-developed in advance, can come unraveled as your characters interfere with whatever you had planned for them. (Sometimes characters refuse to follow directions.) In my case, the more threads I’m weaving into my story, the harder it can be to find my way through. Then, I get stuck.
For me, getting stuck is usually about connections in my brain. I get so tangled up it’s like being in the center of a big ball of rubber bands. I need ways to break out and make some new creative connections.
Here are a few tricks I use to become unstuck.
Take a walk. A long one, preferably somewhere green with no one else around to talk to. Something about walking frees constraints in your mind.
Introduce a new element into your story. You can do this if you’re not too far along in the plot, and if maybe you’ve allowed things to bog down. How would your characters react if something unforeseen happened?
Take your next chapter to your critique group, even if you know something’s missing. Someone else’s comments might spark new insights.
Go back to an old character. I just did this with my WIP. I am near the end and basically satisfied with how things will turn out. But that next chapter wouldn’t come. I was able to look to an old character for a change of pace that also happily added a new dimension to the work.
Put it away for a while. Do something completely different. When you return, you’ll see your work with new eyes.
I’m sure there are many techniques that other writers use. The key to getting unstuck is to step back, get away from the intense focus that can end up giving you tunnel vision. And give your creative mind a chance to do its thing.
Before sending your story off to your critique group or beta reader, it’s a good idea to do yourself (and them) a favor. Use the “search in document” feature in your word processor to find and fix your bad writing habits.
We all have writing quirks we’re well aware of. Sometimes they’re so ingrained we don’t catch all of them when we proof our own work. When we request feedback from others, we don’t want them distracted by little things we already know about – we hope for new insights.
Also, finding these things can help you improve and tighten up your writing.
Here are a few ideas:
* Had and was. I search for these frequently (because it’s one of my own bad habits). Using “had” or “was” usually means I’m using a verb form that slows down my writing. Why say, “Laren was standing by the door” when I can say “Laren stood by the door”?
* Suddenly. It should be clear in my writing that something happened suddenly, without me saying so. Usually this can be deleted with no further rewriting.
* Very. If I have to say something was “very attractive”, for example, I should find another word. The word “very” is filler. It adds nothing.
* Saw. This word is often used to say your POV character perceived something. But if you’re writing in a character’s point of view, then everything is perceived through that character’s eyes anyway. There’s no need for me to say things like, “Maggie saw the sun rising”, when I can say, “The sun rose”.
* Watch for repeated words; each writer has her own favorites. I’ve seen “clearly” pop up multiple times per chapter in a published novel. It drove me crazy. 😉
A last pass over the manuscript before sending it for review will make it easier on your beta reader, and help you tighten your writing. I try to remember to do this before every critique submission. It makes the story read much better!
In case you’ve never heard the term, “pantser” is short for seat-of-your-pants. Many writers now call this a “discovery writer”, contrasted with a plotter or outliner.
A plotter structures her story first. She’ll outline – sometimes she’ll have trouble deciding when to stop outlining and start writing. When a plotter sits down to write that first sentence, she knows everything that will happen in her story, including subplots and exactly what will happen when. She can finish the first draft faster, and she’ll probably need fewer rewrites.
A pantser, or discovery writer, begins writing without knowing all that. He knows his characters, setting, the basics of his story. But for a discovery writer, the story changes and evolves as he writes. This can lead to characters and story that seem more alive, but it also makes it easier for the writer to get stuck, with no idea what to write next.
It can also lead to a lot of wasted effort.
For the first half of my novel, I’m a discovery writer. When I get to a certain point, I sit down and do a chart of the novel. Sometimes some of my work has to go.
This is a slow way of writing a novel, but it seems to be the only way for me.
E. L. Doctorow said, “[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”* That’s discovery writing, in a nutshell.
What brought this on? Well, I just threw away two chapters of my work-in-progress. I struggled with them for days. They seemed lifeless and boring. Then I realized my story had changed, behind the scenes so to speak. Now I’m rewriting.
Which is the right method? Neither, or sometimes a hybrid of both. In something as complex as writing a novel, there’s no formula that works for everyone. The most important thing: keep writing, and finish your novel.
*Doctorow quote from an interview in the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 94, Winter 1986.
My critique group is a wonderful bunch of speculative fiction writers who’ve played a big part in helping me improve my work. I think a critique group is a tremendous help, especially for beginning writers. But once you’ve found a group you think will work for you, how do you make the most of the experience?
Give them your best. – In a critique group, people spend time reviewing and commenting with the intention of making your good work even better. Give them your best work: already spell-checked, and written to the best of your ability. Pre-check your work for things like passive voice and repeated words and any other bad writing habits you know you fall into. Then your group’s feedback will focus on things that matter to you, instead of on trivial things.
Put in the time. – One of the things that surprised me was how much I learned from critiquing other people’s work. Give a good critique. It’s not wasted time. BUT:
Be jealous of your writing time. – As important as critique groups are for new writers, your writing time comes first. When the time demands become too much, it’s time to think about strategies your group can use to cut the workload a little.
Learn how to accept comments. – You’re not going to agree with every comment on your work. Your group will come at your work from many different angles and provide all kinds of feedback. Some might give you negative feedback – that can be hard to accept. But barring attending a workshop, this is the best chance you’re going to have to receive insight from other writers – and other writers look at things very differently from family and friends you may have asked to be first-readers.
Your work is your work. – In the end, it’s your story. You won’t use every suggestion you’re given. Give every comment consideration, because your reviewers are coming at your story with fresh eyes, but don’t turn your story into someone else’s fiction. The purpose of the group is to help you make your work even better, not turn it into a clone of someone else’s work.