1) Fill the tanks with ideas from other creative sources. The most important part of this is making sure you watch or read something new. Read a book, watch a movie, listen to some new music, etc. It's all going to add up in the back of your brain into something new.
2) Fill the tanks with ideas from real life. Tolkien created LotR from religion, Nordic, Finnish, and Greek influences. Find a topic you really like and go deep. If you find it interesting then you can make it an interesting part of your next story. I've personally been looking into 1600s Italy lately, but any particular time, place, or culture can work! Not sure what to look into? Try reading random articles on Wikipedia until one sets the sparks flying.
3) Fill the tanks with ideas from nature. All books have a setting, so the more in depth and detailed it is the more interesting it would be. Battling with nature's wrath can be just as interesting as a main character and their rival having a duel. This could be as simple as going out for a walk or watching a documentary on Youtube.
4) Read inspiration from other authors. No one understands the trials and tribulations of writing like other writers. Feeling like you aren't alone might be the exact thing you need to spark an idea or sit your butt into a chair to write. My favorites include Neil Gaiman, Rob Sawyer, and Brandon Sanderson.
5) Talk to your character, where are they living? What are they worried about? Maybe you don't know, but that guy who has been talking in your head all night does. Or the alien. Or the sentient space ship. Sit down and set a timer for five minutes and answer those questions. Perhaps the answer itself is an interesting idea.
The days are long and hot. Yard work calls with the temptation of the after work lemonade. House repairs that have been waiting for months are finally finding the right conditions to work. Through all of this where is the time to write?
Right now I'm editing and the most productive way to work on these summer days is to read over the scene that I'm intending to edit before going outside. Then I'll tend to my flowers and continue to chop up the trees that fell over the winter, all while thinking about what needs to go into those edits. By the time my physical work is done I'm ready to drink my lemonade and work on the mental task of editing.
Some days I try to get up early to edit. I know that work that day is going to take up a lot of my energy, so I take some time while drinking my morning coffee to edit a scene or two. This has the added bonus of leaving the whole afternoon to enjoy the sunshine and relax.
This last option works year-round; schedule time to write! For me it works best if I say that I'm going to be at a certain place for a dedicated length of time and ask if others would like to meet me there. Even if they don't come there's the chance that they will come, and that encourages me to stay for the entire time. Just make sure to do writing sprints, because meetings like this can end up with a lot of chatting.
How do get in your summer writing?
I like to keep a lot of different writing goals going at the same time. Last year I had eight, and this year I've tried to narrow it down to the most important five. In fact two of those goals are six month goals, so it's only four at a time, and the big goal is to fully edit the novel I wrote for NaNo last year.
It's been taking up all of my writing time for the last three months and I've made some great progress. But I went to check in with my goals I realized that I hadn't been writing any flash fiction.
So this weekend I sat my butt down in a chair with a pen and paper and wrote three pieces of flash fiction. I could feel the cogs starting up again, parts of my brain getting oiled and used for the first time in too many months. But then, it all started to click. The words flowed and I ended the day thinking, "This is what I've been missing. Writing my heart out and not worrying about an outline or the next scene or even the next chapter."
I didn't mean to get into a writer's block, I was simply too focused on a goal I considered more important for my writing career at the time. Now that I see what it was I'm glad to get out of it. Writing is in my blood, and writing every day is my meditation, and if I don't switch gears occasionally I forget that.
I'm not one for resolutions. I personally find them to be to nebulous. "Lose weight. Write more. Spend less." They're fine aspirations, but what's the plan? How is this going to be achieved?
Good goals should have a defined end point. For example during National Novel Writing Month the goal is to write 50,000 words. An experienced goal setter will give themselves milestones before the end goal, and that's exactly what NaNo does, splitting up the goal into daily milestones which can be celebrated each and every day.
Good goals should have a time frame. In NaNo a writer is attempting to write those 50,000 words in one month. I find that choosing a time frame is the hardest, and most important, part of setting goals.
Successful goals include some social accountability. On the NaNo website your total word count so far is posted under your username on every post. Everyone on the site knows if you're ahead or behind and it can encourage writers to finish their words for the day before posting.
There is one more thing one can do to make goals more likely to be successful, but I don't even do this one.
Successful goals stake money on the outcome.
Our company goals for the year? (By posting them here we'll get some social accountability!)
1) Publish a new anthology before November 2018.
2) Attend one new marketing event a quarter.
What are your goals for the year?
I am ecstatic to be the one to tell you that our initial publication "Dark and Bitter" has been sent to the printer! We got the proof copy last week, it was very exciting, and looked amazing. As expected there were a few minor changes to make. These have been implemented and will make the final product look even better.
Through this publication process we have learned a lot. There have been trials and tribulations which could never have been predicted. I think it's important to review big projects like this for 'what worked' and 'what didn't work' so that we can improve on the next go around.
What Did Not Work:
Ordering local promotional materials. I personally thought that it was important to try and keep our purchases local. If we're trying to make sure that half of our authors are from the area then half of our products should be from the area too. This backfire in my face. We went to a local place to order our mugs. We were prepared for the cost to be higher than if we ordered them online. What we didn't expect was to have the product take four weeks nor the company to accidentally order twice as many mugs as we originally wanted, then try to charge us for it.
Doing the formatting for the ebook ourselves. This ended up taking a lot of time and making us far too frustrated. Next time we'll be hiring someone to do this for us.
Working with Susan Blackley of Written Image Press as our editor. She was absolutely fantastic. She went above and beyond what was requested. Her dedication and exceptional comments helped our authors bring their stories to the next level.
Working with up-and-coming local authors. Seeing their stories grow through the editing process, and seeing the author grow through the publication process, has been an absolute pleasure. It makes me really glad that we started this company. While I'm ready for a break for the holidays I'll be glad to get back at it with our next publication "Exploits in the Adirondack".
I personally like the character sliders that Brandon Sanderson talks about in his YouTube classes on writing.
A friend of mine likes to choose a couple characters from TV and combine them in unique ways. This particularly helps if he gets stuck while writing later, since he can go watch an episode of TV, which almost always helps him get rid of writers block.
Others will do interviews with their characters. I find that this can work if the questions are both interesting and open ended enough.
Another option is a list of likes and dislikes. This can come in the form of favorite foods or colors etc. I don't find this as useful since it doesn't really show off the inner workings of the character. That doesn't mean it can't be relevant occasionally; a character might hate gravy because their parents argued about it as a child. But it's not always the best use of my time.
The last option I'll talk about today is designing a character like they're from a role playing game such as DnD. I mention that one because it's the most well known, but I personally love using the hindrances page from Savage Worlds. It's a list of things that were designed to affect a character in a way that will affect game play. As such it feels almost inevitable that these choices will affect the plot, thus creating more tension and interest.
How do you design or learn about your character?
Since I’ve started to write in earnest I’ve started to read differently. While great books still draw me into their nebulous depths those books that are on the borderline of good have me asking a lot more questions. Why isn’t this as great? What could they have done to make this better? Can I apply this to my writing? These are all useful questions for improving my writing, but they do distract from the story at hand.
I’ve tried to channel my analytical mind by filling out a book review while I’m reading. Sometimes getting the idea on paper is all I need to let the problem go, and enjoy the story more.
The questions are simple:
What are the themes of the story, and are they working?
What are three things I liked?
What are three things I disliked?
I think the key is limiting both the liked and disliked to three things. When I write a review for a great book it’s hard to limit the things I liked, and often I can’t even think of three things that I disliked. Yet when reviewing a bad book it’s important to know that there are still things that I can learn from it (by filling out the things I liked section), and that just a few key changes would drastically improve the writing.
Since I’ve started to use this questions to review others novels I’ve started to subconsciously apply them to my works when editing as well. They mindset that even if it seems bad there are still good parts to my writing helps my writing confidence. Knowing that just a few changes can improving my writing makes the editing seem more manageable.
Do you notice different things when reading now that you’re a writer?
What are the most useful things you can do to help get more writing done?
Bonus - Have fun! Writing is about creating something that you enjoy. Take a minute to enjoy it!
I’ve tried a lot of different ways to learn about my characters before I start to write my novel, yet none have really clicked yet. I know these methods work for other writers so I thought I’d talk about the ones I have tried and see if anyone has a method to suggest.
The Questionnaire – Asking a long list of questions and answering them in character. Often I find these to be too superficial. If a character loves food I might talk about their favorite food once or twice, but for those that focus on other things food isn’t relevant to their character.
Of course there are also questions that are too broad. What’s important to your character? I don’t know yet, that’s why I’m filling out this questionnaire. Perhaps if I found a good mix of questions that worked together more this would work for me, but the ones that I have tried do not.
The Monologue – Having a character fill out a diary entry/letter/generally talk for a while. This will usually tell me what the character wants and what they find annoying. It can leave the character feeling one sided. To be fair I haven’t tried doing both a diary entry and letter for the same character, which might give me a more well rounded feel of their private v public life. I recently heard of pretending your character is going to a therapist, or have a character write a letter to the author, either discussing all of the horrible things that they've had to endure. I’ll be trying these next.
The Pinterest board – Putting together a collection of pictures of what the character, their home, and their general living arrangements are like. I find that this encourages me to spend too much time describing what the characters look like instead of their actions and emotions. Although adding some pictures to my general character notes helps me remember some of their physical descriptions.
Writers Coloring Book by Rachel Funk Heller - This is a particularly unique way to learn about your characters and plot around them. The book uses color to show the different levels of a characters psyche. One of the nice parts is just choosing colors that go well together and then figuring out how they fell together that way later on. This seems to work visual writers.
How do you learn about your characters?
I think one of the biggest draws of the novel is the idea of having written a novel. Depending on the author this can be a pro, con, or both. There’s something romantic about being able to say that you’ve written a full novel. It’s one of the reasons that National Novel Writing Month has so many people take on their challenge.
Yet the idea that a writer can only write novels, or maybe should only write novels is a disadvantage. For the first two years of my writing career I stayed away from short stories because of this idea. While it did help my writing progress it also hindered my editing progress.
Pros of writing a novel: You can say you have written a novel. If written from start to finish that’s a lot of time spent writing, which is great for honing the craft. It’s better for working on long term foreshadowing, long term character arcs, and pacing.
Cons of writing a novel: It’s a big time investment. It’s an even bigger time investment when it comes time to edit. Because it’s a large piece an author can sometimes feel overwhelmed, or bored, with the project.
As a fledgling writer I didn’t write short stories because they’re only a short story. That perception is one of their biggest drawbacks. To a writer it almost feels like dabbling in the art, instead of taking on a ‘fuller’ piece of work.
Yet artists do warm up sketches before working on professional pieces and athletes stretch before playing in a big game. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to think of short stories as warm up pieces. Works writers use to practice new techniques, or just have fun with.
Pros of writing short stories: They can be started, edited, and sent out in a week or two. Because they’re short they’re a great way to try a new writing technique, prose style, tense, or view point. There are a lot of markets for short stories, all of which have the potential to improve a writer’s audience. When trying to market a novel it’s nice to show previously published short stories.
Cons of writing short stories: Because they aren’t as big of an undertaking they can feel like less of an accomplishment. Since they‘re short they aren’t as good for figuring out long term foreshadowing, long term character arcs, or pacing. It can be hard to fully explore an idea in a short story.
Now that I’ve had experience writing both novels and short stories I find that figuring out which ideas would work best in each format, using the pros and cons listed above, is one of the most important decisions I have to make.
- Shannon Kauderer