Blocked? Get to know your characters

It can happen any time: during the outlining, the drafting, the rewriting or the editing process. You feel blocked. No worries, there are a number of ways to get you going again. One of them is getting to know your characters. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Character sheets

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I used to love creating character sheets, then abandoned it because “hey, I know my characters, they’re mine”. But I’m starting to do it again, except I don’t write the same things I used to. For example, I used to skip the part about inner conflict. “Why, it’s all over the pages!” I’d think. Except summarizing it is an excellent way to see whether it “holds up”. A story is a bit like a labyrinth: the characters and the reader don’t know its exact configuration, but the writer must know it to make sure it is sound. It wouldn’t do to have holes or too many ways leading to the center (or climax) or none at all.

There are a plethora of templates online, from basic to elaborate. I find the basic ones useful while I’m outlining, but while editing I use one that’s much more elaborate. For instance, in the past couple of weeks I wrote several pages of background story, inner conflict, motivation, and ghosts (aka those things that haunt people). Doing this helped me realize that I didn’t understand my main character quite as well as I used to think.

Character interviews

carouselleriecreative_pinkishblooms_elements_berries-11You get to mimic your own favourite interviewer and ask your characters all kinds of questions. I don’t actually watch interviews, so I use Marcel Proust’s questionnaire to get me started. My characters don’t always tell me the truth… but I know when they’re lying and what they’re lying about tells me a bit more about what they’re ashamed of or how they’d like people to see them. Then I go deep, CIA agent-like, and discover the truth. This might sound weird, but I think reading Get the Truth made me a better writer.

Another way of “interviewing” your characters would be to make them complete a personality test. I have already stated my love for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI), but I know a lot of people like The Enneagram too. If you’re more esoterically oriented, name meanings and astrology can help, too… even tarot cards or runes, if you’re into that. You can even sort them in one of the houses at Hogwarts!

Simulations

I’m not sure whether a lot of writers do this, but sometimes I like to momentarily take a character out of their normal context and see how they react. Write a scene or two of them meeting people they’ll never actually meet in the story, or make them do crazy things that they’d never actually do. Sometimes, those can end up in the actual story as a “fantasy” of theirs. Most of the time it only serves as fuel, but it’s an exercise that I find so fun and entertaining it also provides powerful motivation.

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Finally, we tend to want to focus on main characters, but do not forget to do it for your secondary characters, too. They have their own agenda and can sometimes impact the main plot in unexpected ways (as they should).  In fact, in my current project, it’s a secondary character that helped me get unstuck. I also like to imagine what a story centered on their lives would be like… though that’s dangerous. It can make you want to make them more important in your main character’s story than they should be, or give you more story ideas than you could possibly write in a lifetime. But it’s a good problem to have, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to share your own techniques to get to know your characters.

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Spotlight on K.M. Weiland

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on story structure. Like I said in my previous post, I found a few structural issues in my first draft that needed fixing.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00015]

Last year, I’ve read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which contains close to a hundred pages on story structure. It was interesting, but I was still a bit confused about a few things, so I figured I’d get a second opinion. That’s when a writer friend from my NaNoWriMo community shared K.M. Weiland’s 5 Secrets of Story Structure (5SoSS), a free e-book. I felt like the book had been written for me, by a friend (unlike Story Engineering, which felt like it had been written by a grumpy and sour creative writing teacher). It explained everything I needed to know.

It can be read in an afternoon, which is great when you’re eager to start getting to work. And it is so packed with information that I’d think it’s easily one of the best free e-books on writing you can get out there.

Because most of the terms in there are linked to the “hero’s quest”, you’ll find terms like “confrontation” that might not be very eloquent for, say, a romance novel. However, the writer happens to have a story structure database, so you can go and see how other novels in your genre have handled this or that particular point.
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Curious, I proceeded to read her other freely accessible work, including Crafting Unforgettable Characters. You have to subscribe to her mailing list to get that one, but if you ask me, you should subscribe anyway. I can’t say that it was as eye-opening as 5SoSS for me because I already knew most of what’s in there, but it definitely is worth the read. This one too is short enough to be read in an afternoon. It also includes a list of pointers to perform a “character interview”.

For podcasts aficionados, she’s also posting one episode a week dealing with varied subjects like “How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing” or “How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel”. I’ll certainly listen to those while knitting.

I love how the website is organized: there is a Start Here! page where the author gives you a quick tour of her website and most popular resources, which I find so clever that I might shamelessly steal the idea and implement it on my blog. Then, in the left menu, she has six big categories of resources for outlines, story structure, character arcs, scenes, common writing mistakes and “storytelling according to Marvel”. Each page leads you to a list of the articles in that category, in a recommended reading order.

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If writing isn’t your thing, but you enjoy reading, she also has a free e-book titled Dreamlander. I haven’t read it, but it has great reviews on Goodreads. I might review it myself later…

Last but not least, the website has been awarded 3 years in a row the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Website for Writers. I didn’t know that such an award existed before I saw it on her page, but then I started noticing it on others pages I sometimes visit.

I don’t know if her resources are going to “help me become an author”, but they’ll certainly help me edit my novel!

Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

Letter to myself: The emotional ups and down of editing

In my last post, I mentioned the technical hardships I faced when trying to edit a novel for the first time. Today, I’ll talk about a much different aspect of editing your very first novel first draft, the emotional hardships, in a letter to myself:

So you’re editing your first draft. You’ve read the glorious parts, those that made it worth being written in the first place. However, you’ve also read all the worst parts, those that will have to be completely rewritten or even reimagined. It was part of the deal from the beginning. But you might have come to feel that those ugly parts make up 75% of the book. As for the remaining 25%, there is still much work to do there.

You’ve spent so much time on your first draft, and it was so hard to get to the end of it, and now it’s like you have to start over. You thought you had 50% – at least – of the job done, but it turns out that wasn’t even 25%.

Now, you don’t want to get discouraged. You want to push through, that’s how things get done. But a novel is long. After having spent a great many hours rereading and critiquing your own work, writing “rewrite this section completely” and “this is terrible” and “this scene has no point”, it’s obvious you’d start feeling down at some point. No matter how intense your passion, too much negative comments directed at you every day is bound to have some impact.

So, now you’re down. You’ve avoided your novel for a few days, to spare your feelings, recharge your battery. It’s tempting to start feeling guilty for those days when you didn’t work on your novel, on making your dream come true. But self-loathing at this point is the worst you could do. Self-loathing is always the worst you could do.

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Relax, don’t feel guilty. You have the right to feel down, it doesn’t mean your resolve is weak. You have the right to a short break to regroup. You can use the break to read or to work on some other story. But then, you have to snap out of it and keep going.

You might want to give up the whole thing. Start a new and “better” story. I can’t tell you not to do that. If you hate the thing, if you can’t even find 25% worth saving because you’ve come to hate the story, you can recycle it and work on something you can love. You don’t have to feel guilty for giving up on a story. It’s not wasted time; it still gave you some experience.

If you love your story, but are disappointed that it didn’t come out as good as you expected, though, you have keep going because that’s what pros do. I love the saying “fake it till you make it: if you want to be a professional writer, do like they do. Follow their process: planning, first draft, rewrite, edit, professional edit, beta reading, edit. Then you can think about finding an agent or publishing.

The good new is: that first draft is so terrible that you can only make it better now. Every change makes it better. Not to mention that seeing how terrible it is (and why) is a power in itself. You know what should be done to make it better, or at least part of it.

Eventually, you’ll have to let it go; accept that your first novel can’t hold a candle to genius first novels like Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter, that it might not even be worth a 5/10 on your own book review-scale. You’ll have to be content with having finished a novel properly, like a professional writer, and gaining experience doing it. You’ll maybe have to be content with publishing it online and receiving only a lukewarm response to it. You’ll do better on the next book.

But you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. For now, keep calm and carry on.

Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

The most important of my New Year’s resolutions was to rewrite my first novel. I thought it’d be long, sure, but I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be.

I tried in January, failed, then proceeded to write something else. I’d let the story rest so I could see it with new eyes. I tried again in March and failed again. I figured I’d edit the thing after I was done with my creative writing courses… which I plan on starting this fall.

Eventually, I realised that stalling wasn’t the solution. I needed a method: baby steps to bring me where I wanted to go. There is no doubt taking creative writing courses will make my writing better. But so will writing on my own. Stalling, on the other hand, just makes me waste my time.

I had the idea that I should do several rounds of edit: IMG_20170717_110113a
1) A rough edit, in which I correct anything related to themes, conflict, story structure, and anything related my overall appreciation of the story.
2) A finer edit, in which I correct anything related to character development, facts checking and scenes fine-tuning.
3) A language edit, in which I correct mistakes, remove unwanted repetitions, tighten sentences, and basically make every sentence as elegant and effective as possible.

Each of those rounds may, in turn, be divided as necessary.

I suspect rounds 2 and 3 won’t give me too much difficulty: character development is my greatest strength, scenes fine-tuning can’t be all that different from short-story fine tuning, and language, well… I’m a language professional. It’s round one that’s a bitch.

The main problem I was faced with was that a novel is so long that it’s difficult to remember every little thing that happens in it. Yet, as a perfectionist, I feel the need to know everything that happens. I don’t want scenes to get repetitive, for one; I don’t want to hammer my themes into the reader’s head, but I do want them to be clear; and finally, I want my characters to be consistent and to evolve at a natural pace.

I had seen “scene cards” here and there, but I thought people mostly used them to plan their stories. I can’t use them in that manner yet, my plans are not detailed enough and I do like to surprise myself while writing the first draft. However, I figured I could use them to summarise everything that happens in every scene of the book.

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I found Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and printed a bunch of them. But as I filled them, I realised they weren’t optimal for my needs. Scene cards should probably be tailored to every writer and every book. So I made my own version in MS Word, three per letter-sized page. Feel free to use them or modify them. Here’s a PDF version in case that works better for you.

My novel has a little over 60 scenes in it. Just like that, I reduced an 85,000 words novel into a very manageable 20 pages.

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However, as awesome as it may be, it’s still just a way to make a very detailed summary. There is almost no visible relationship with rewriting or editing.

I must admit I spent a few minutes hours staring alternatively at my cards, then at some part of my manuscript, until I figured the next step: reread the book from cover to cover and critic every scene on the back of the page. Critics include everything from very precise comments about a detail to “rewrite the whole thing” to “delete this scene” (I can safely delete stuff because I’ve kept a copy of my first draft from which I can restore deleted scenes if need be). This method has the added benefit of making me see every scene in relation to the rest of the book. This process doesn’t take too long: I can do a few scenes every day.

The next step will be, most likely, to look at my detailed scene cards and reflect upon the story and everything that happens in it and add even more comments on the back of my scenes and in a note book that I keep for more general comments about the story.

When that’s all done, I can start rewriting efficiently, because I’ll know exactly what needs to be done. And efficiency is important because… basically the whole thing will have to be rewritten to some level.

Yep, you read that right. I honestly thought, when I finished the first draft, that it was “clean” and didn’t need too much editing. But in the meantime, I’ve read and critiqued great books, and I’ve raised my expectations for this novel. That also allowed me to take some distance from my beloved first draft and see it’s worst flaws, at least. For the rest… I’ll find alpha/beta readers and hire an editor.

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
– Justice Brandeis

Second post in this series: Rewriting a novel: self-critique

Declutter your text: beware of repetitions

Repetitions can take different shapes: multiple occurrences of the same word, synonyms, pleonasms, redundancies. When used wisely, repetitions can be an interesting stylistic device. When used unwisely, they can severely harm the elegance of your text.

The easiest repetitions to spot are the multiple occurrences of the same word (or the use of a word in the same family). Of course, some words have to be repeated: “repeat” or its substantive “repetition” have been repeated 7 times by this point. However, it is wise to reduce their number as much as possible.Camouflaged cat c

When trying to avoid reiterations of the same words, don’t succumb to the temptation of the thesaurus. Using a synonym won’t get you rid of the repetition of ideas, it will only camouflage it a little. Or if you use synonyms, know that you are creating a repetition.

To really get rid of the repetition of ideas, you can first see if you couldn’t just delete the phrase or the whole sentence without deleting any useful information. Otherwise, you have to reword the sentence or the two or three sentences in which the repetitions occur until you are convinced that you express your ideas in the best possible way.

A pleonasm happens when you put together two words, one of which was already included in the other’s definition. Some examples would be “false pretence” or “safe haven”. By definition, a pretence is false and a haven safe.

marie_cecile_thijs_4Close to pleonasms are redundancies. How many times a year do you see or hear the phrase “plan in advance”? My own experience is limited, but I’ve never seen anyone plan anything after it was done. Or even plan it as it was being done. The act of planning is done in advance. If you really must stress that the planning process takes time and it should be started X time before the D day, then be specific!

In the same vein, you have the tautology: the act of repeating the same idea back-to-back. “I saw it with my own eyes”, “In my opinion, I think…”, etc.

You can find lists of redundancies, tautologies and pleonasms through search engines or… start analysing each and every word, wondering whether they’re absolutely necessary. Yup, studying writing will make you paranoiac. You’ll learn to live with it.

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Tired of cat photographs yet?

Redundancies can also be a repetition of ideas whether in the same sentence or paragraph or through the entire text. I’ve had started a book quite recently, but the writer’s insistence on the love interest’s beauty and sexiness got old quick. It was like a broken record. The reader is not so stupid that you have to remind them all the time of the aforementioned ideas. Besides, it’ll make you look like you have nothing new and fresh to say.

If you really *must* repeat an idea, do it with intent: introduce it early and “prove” it in your conclusion; change the outcome and make it a progression as in the Three Little Pigs; make everything the same so that one thing stands out.

When finding a repetition while editing my texts, I ask myself 3 questions: 1) Is it there for artistic purposes? 2) Does it serve the text? 3) If the repetition is clumsy, is there any way I could reword the sentence to avoid it?

I think this will be the last post in the series for a while. If the subject interests you, however, I warmly recommend you to read On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

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Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation.

Declutter your text: use modifiers in moderation

Modifiers are adjectives, adverbs or phrases whose only purpose is to modify a noun or verb. They are to language what accessories are to clothing. Used unwisely, they can ruin the whole thing.

Let it be clear: I love adjectives and adverbs. They’re an essential part of every language. But as with anything in life, they must be used in moderation.

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Decora fashion shows it is possible for “too many accessories” to look great, but it is difficult to achieve; the same is true with modifiers.

Behold the following sentence, written by me 10 years ago:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plant handwritten in a book bound with ribbons.

This sentence has… ahem… potential, but as is, it’s terrible. It’s a translation, but the original is hardly better. We’ll leave all of the other problems for some other time and focus on the modifiers:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plants handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

21 words in that sentence, 14 of which are modifiers or part of a modifier. There are even modifiers within modifiers. Worst: the same exact thing could be said in a tighter and more elegant way.

A white hand with fine and long fingers

Except in certain horror scenes, hands and fingers usually go together… no need for both words. Only talking about fingers make the reader picture a hand in their head. Also, there’s a word for “fine and long”: slender. Let’s use that instead.

faithfully transcribing

When I originally wrote this, I wanted to make the character look as devoted as a monk transcribing the Bible. I could leave it there, but I prefer to take it out.

plant properties handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

There is such a thing as too many details. I won’t talk about it in depth here, but know it: some details do nothing for the story and are therefore clutter. Here, it is unnecessary to point out it is bound with ribbons, but I do want to give it a homemade look… Well that’s it: “a homemade notebook”. Now, let’s change the verb for “written”, since it is implicit that it is written by hand from the very word “notebook”.

Revised sentence:

White, slender fingers were transcribing the properties of plants written in a homemade notebook.

That 21-word-sentence is reduced to 14, with now only 7 modifiers. It is still “flowery” enough, but much more elegant.

girl-4-copieAnother trick to get rid of an excess of adjectives, adverbs or other modifiers, is to use stronger nouns (skyscraper or tower for tall building) or verbs (exhausted for very tired), or more precise modifiers (like slender for long and fine, etc.). If I don’t recommend you to use the thesaurus to avoid repeating the same adjective twice in one sentence, I encourage you to use it to find the right word.

Finally, it is often a good idea to “show, [not] tell”. For example, if your character is moody, it should reflect on his actions and words; that’s how people understand others’ moods. Same with most character traits, weather, etc. Compare: “It was cold outside” and “The cold bit my skin as I walked out”.

Oh wow, there is a lot of information in here, but you made it to the end. You did great.

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
– Mark Twain, letter to D.W. Bowser, 20 March 1880

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeBeware of repetitions.