What Writing a Novel and Quitting Smoking have in Common

Former SmokerWhen I quit smoking everyone I knew still smoked. I didn’t have to buy a pack for the temptation find me. A friend would see me standing with my hands in my pockets and wave a cigarette in front of my lips. I didn’t have to ask for it. Hell, I didn’t even have to light it. As far as they were concerned, I looked wrong without it.

I was the type of smoker other smokers pointed to and said, “At least I’m not as bad as him.”

When I saw the cigarette smoking man, on The X-Files, hold a cancer stick to his tracheotomy, I took it as a signal to light one up myself. The filter in my mouth was trigger enough for me to light another.

My smoker’s cough sounded like a donkey heehawing. My phlegm was the color of coffee. My nicotine headaches lasted for days.

Smoking was a part of my writing process. At the end of every page I’d reward myself with a cigarette. When I was blocked I huffed and puffed throughout. I did my best Hunter S. Thompson impression, balancing the filter in my lips while my hands were busy typing. My keyboard looked like an ashtray.

All of my characters smoked. I wrote long descriptions of the clouds they blew. I used smoke as a tool for expressing how they felt in the moment.

I didn’t measure my walk to work in blocks. I measured the distance in cigarettes. The walk to the coffee shop was two American Spirits. Blockbuster Video was three. The walk to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts was four.

I smoked a pack and a half a day. I’d walk to the gas station at two in the morning to make sure a pack was waiting for me on the night stand.

Cigarettes were an extension of my body. My mannerisms required them. My eyes said more with firelight. My smile was always lopsided. The habit was part of my expression.

Even my self portraits featured cigarettes.

Selfportrait

I smoked indoors, before and after I’d brushed my teeth. I ashed into sinks, cans, and beer bottles. I smoked in bed. My cat stunk of ash. The smoke was so thick in the apartment anyone who stepped outside had red eyes, like they’d emerged from a pool of weapons grade chlorine.

One day I got so sick I couldn’t raise a cigarette to my lips. I had night sweats and fever dreams. I lost time, lying in bed for days. When I became lucid I tried to light a cigarette. It made me nauseous and lightheaded. This sensation was familiar. I’d gone a week without a cigarette before. The physical addiction had sweat its way out of my system, all I had to do was reacquaint the tobacco with my lungs.

Then I got an idea. What if I tested myself to see how long I could go without smoking? I wouldn’t tell anyone. My roommates, coworkers, and classmates smoked. If I told any of them I’d feel embarrassed when they caught me lighting up again, or worse, they’d test my resolve.

A friend who’d failed to kick the habit gave me the last of her nicotine gum. I had one precious sleeve of it, so I had to ration. I saved the pieces for when I felt like I was having an irrational anger attack, then I’d pop one in and park it in my cheek for as long as I could take it.

I didn’t out myself to my fellow smokers until I’d committed to quitting. It took months for many of them to notice. By then my cat was sniffing under my roommates’ doors to get her nicotine fix.

When It’s Safe to Tell People You’re Writing a Novel

If you tell someone you’re thinking of writing a novel prepare to be heckled in a couple of months if you find yourself working slow.

Writing a novel is a lot like quitting smoking. It’s best to tell people once you’ve already commit to it, once you’re a few chapters deep. Identifying yourself as a writer isn’t the first step to becoming one. You have to develop the problem before you can admit to having one.

When I started coming up with stories I became annoying company. I read some information on writing online and took my false authority out on the town. I talked a good game, but I wasn’t really a player. I used my desire to be a writer as a conversation starter. I was a cocktail conceptualizer, a party going poet, and a social satirist.

I changed plot details based on reactions I was getting. I switched genres depending on my audience’s tastes. I renamed my heroes on the go. I spoiled my stories before I even started writing.

I got good at pitching, but failed to realize that I wasn’t writing. I was more of a bard than anything. I could tell a scary story at a camp fire, but I was a long way off from getting one on the shelf of a major retailer. By identifying myself as a writer I’d made it harder to become one. The instant gratification I got from telling stories substituted my need to jot them down.

Why You Should Keep Some of Your Story a Secret 

When a screenwriter pitches a movie to producers it’s not uncommon for them to compare it to something else. The script reader who gave the thumbs up to Alien said it’s like Jaws, but in space. Often the comparison is this meets that. It’s Die Hard meets Titanic. It’s 28 Days Later meets Love Actually. It’s Predator meets Jurassic Park (no wait, they already made that movie).

The problem with this strategy is it sets false expectations for your story. Everyone’s vision of Die Hard meets Titanic is going to be different. One person will imagine an action movie set on a sinking ship. Another will imagine a period piece about hostages, with a romantic subplot. Others will imagine Under Siege with Steven Seagal.

This is why most screenwriters will tell you not to pitch with a comparison, but to have one in the tank in case you’re asked for one.

Fledgling novelists might have comparisons impressed upon them when they pitch their story to friends. You might mention you’re writing a young adult novel with a strong female protagonist.

A friend might say, “Like Katniss Everdeen?”

If you say, “sure,” your friend’s expectations could warp your story into a dystopian future like something out of the Hunger Games. All of that friend’s suggestions will try to shift your story in a direction they understand. Do this enough times and your audience will suggest you write something homogenous and bland.

People want stories that are familiar only different, but if you invite comparisons before draft one you’ll forget the “only different” part.

When you turn writing a novel into an exchange expect this type of input from everyone.

Hollywood producers throw out “what if” questions to test a screenwriter’s flexibility during pitch sessions.

“What if it’s not a musical? What if it’s a martial arts movie?”

“What if the Hindenburg doesn’t crash in this version?”

“What if Hitler isn’t the bad guy? What if he’s the love interest?”

Your friends will do this because they want to hold up their end of the conversation. The problem with their suggestions is that they’re fleeting. Your friends might not be as invested in their ideas as they’ve led on. It’s just that the only thing you feel like talking about is writing, so they feel pressured to weigh in.

On the other hand, sometimes friends can get too invested. They’ll check in to see how their suggestions are coming along. If you say you couldn’t make their ideas work they’ll debate you into putting them back in.

I’ve had to explain to friends why I don’t want to name characters after them. I fear I’ll imagine that person in the role and I’ll feel weird about making their character do anything embarrassing. Now I have a rule that if you pressure me into naming a character after you that character is guaranteed a brutal death. No exceptions.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re telling people about plot developments you haven’t written, or outlined, you’re not writing. If you’re telling people you’re almost done, it will be a long time before you have anything worth showing. The half way point doesn’t come once you’ve reached the middle of the story. The halfway point comes when your first draft is finished, sometimes not even then.

Wait to tell people you’ve been working on a novel until you’re several chapters in. Tell them what it’s about when you’ve already committed to a direction. Keep some details to yourself and learn to have a conversation about something other than writing.

How to Keep Intrusive Thoughts from Ruining Your Writing

How to brush those intrusive thoughts away

How to brush those intrusive thoughts away

Writer’s block doesn’t always come from within. Sometimes obstructions fall into our path. One of the most difficult challenges writers face is when real life drama proves more compelling than our dramatic narratives. I’ve blogged about how it’s hard to keep our memoirs out of our fiction. Sometimes it’s harder to keep our minds clear enough to leave a figment for our imaginations.

Here’s what happens. You finish writing a sequence full of reveals: your heroine learns the hallucination that’s been haunting her is real. Her husband has known all along. He’s been lying to convince her she’s crazy. These twists move your story into the eye of the storm. You want to give your audience a chance to breathe before diving back in. Then something happens in your life that’s more insane than your writing.

Surprise, the girl you thought you were dating wasn’t as far along in her divorce proceedings as she’d led on. Surprise, the entire time you’ve been paying rent your landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage. Surprise, a squatter has been living in your basement.

These situations get your imagination racing in the wrong direction. It’s exhausted when you need it for storytelling. You end up bringing your own tension to scenes that would be better off without it.

Only so many thoughts can fit in the same brain. When facts are stranger than fiction your fiction can’t compete with your situation. Your story pauses, while your imagination cycles through worst case scenarios. When something terrible happens you can’t help but wonder what kind of state it will leave you in. When the dust settles you fantasize about how things can get better. You’re too busy telling a story to keep yourself functioning to turn around and tell one to an audience.

How can you find the spark of inspiration when you’re so busy looking for a light at the end of the tunnel? First you have to acknowledge the situation. Then you have to develop an understanding of how your mind copes. Finally you have to come up with a system for working through it.

The Extent of the Problem

We all experience intrusive thoughts from time to time. If you’re afraid of heights you can’t help but picture yourself falling over a guard railing. If you’re responsible for children you can’t help but imagine something terrible happening to them. If you have to deal with a rude coworker you can’t help but hear yourself telling them off. Most of the time these nightmares are fleeting, but when you’re in the middle of a tough situation they haunt your daydreams.

These fatalistic flashes become obsessions you can’t help but dwell on, scabs you can’t help picking, songs you can’t get out of your mind. Your fantasy worlds are light years away while these terrestrial scenarios orbit you. You see triggers where you once found inspiration.

Writers are prone to neurosis in a crisis. We can’t help but imagine every outcome when we’re stuck in a bad situation. So what can we do to work this compulsion out of our systems?

Think About the Pink Elephant

Don’t think about a pink elephant. Don’t imagine a big pink elephant stomping through the dry wall. Don’t visualize it with a top hat on its head and a cain in its trunk, and whatever you do don’t imagine that elephant dancing.

If you tell yourself not to think of something while you’re trying to write, you’re going to think about it. That’s the irony of negative suggestion. The more you fear failing, the more likely you will fail. When you consciously try to push a thought to the back of your mind, the more it moves into the foreground. When you try not to think of the thing that’s bugging you, the more thought you give it.

If you have a pink elephant stomping you down: think about it. Think about the elephant in the room until it blends into the furniture. Run the elephant around your mind until its exhausted.

This is called exposure therapy. The idea is that everyone has triggers that call up their intrusive thoughts, things that remind them of their bad situations. Conventional wisdom would tell you to avoid those triggers to spare yourself the pain. This can turn the creative process into a minefield of ideas you need to avoid to keep yourself working.

If you have an intrusive thought, list as many of your triggers as you can. Expose yourself to the ones you can stomach and wear them out. Dwell on the thought until it’s a broken record, and becomes redundant. Think about your pain until you can predict how it will hurt you, until you go numb.

Tell people what you’re going through. Vent about the elephant. Give yourself a reasonable time frame to discuss your situation and cut yourself off when it feels like you might be getting too exhausting.

Cloud busting

Cloud busting

Methods for Writing around the Elephant in the Room

Outline

The easiest method for preventing a bad situation from derailing your train of thought is to map it out in advance. If you draft each scene, numbering them all before you write the first one, an intrusive thought won’t have a chance of making you forget what comes next.

This isn’t the ideal solution for writers like myself, who prefer to be surprised, but it never hurts to have some structure to fall back on. This is why I always have a vague ending in mind before I get started. I can always change it if I come up with something better along the way.

Keep a Routine

If you commit to putting your ass in the seat everyday, and keep meeting your word count goals, your routine will withstand a traumatic life event. You might falter, but once you prove you can write through a bad situation it’ll be much easier when you encounter another.

Compartmentalize

If you know what direction your story is heading, but something terrible happens to you while you’re writing, you might feel a strong desire to put it in your story. Your pink elephant will want a walk on role in your production. Ask yourself, if I wasn’t me would I like this story more or less with this new plot point? If the answer is “less” then put that pink elephant someplace else.

Closing Thoughts

Writing is always challenging. It’s even harder to spin a yarn when your head is tied in knots. Sometimes the best way to keep writing through a tragedy is to already have a routine going. Sometimes the best way to cast out an intrusive thought is to accept its presence. Sometimes the best way to avoid thinking of a pink elephant is to get used to it.

Do Writers Have any Responsibilities to Reality?

1. Cracks Begin to Show

Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?

The Power of Urban Legends

There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.

If I cycle through all my conversation starters and the hairdresser says, “You know I’m really not that into movies.” Then the weather better be doing something incredible, because there goes most of my material.

The last time this happened I decided to pitch a subplot from my work in progress We the Damned. It went like this:

Morgan lives with her husband, Tim, in a small town in Northern California. They’re surrounded by a curtain of giant redwoods, trees as old as the common era. Morgan is a popular gardener. She’s the breadwinner of the family while Tim aspires to be an entrepreneur.

Tim is literally trying to build his own job. He wheels woodworking materials out into the forest. He’s found a trail long forgotten by the forest service. He lines it with fake landmarks so he can give haunted tours. Tim lays out an orphan graveyard and grows moss on the stones. He hangs wind chimes and rusts the metal with chemicals. He builds an old shack, caves the roof in, and ages the wood.

Morgan gets concerned when Tim starts spending his nights in the woods. Afraid her husband might be cheating Morgan enables the tracking feature on his phone. One morning she traces Tim’s signal to the trail. She follows the chimes to the shack she’s seen on Tim’s computer. There’s something about it she hadn’t anticipated. It reeks of death. It’s possible a raccoon fell through the roof. Morgan decides not to check, but then the wind blows the door open and reveals a wall covered in crimson. There’s a mountain of animal skins on the floor, and a grid of corpses mounted to the wall. Worse yet, their blood is still wet.

Morgan flees the scene, hacks into her husband’s cloud documents, and finds his plans to build an attraction around a ghost story about a wronged woman. In the text he muses about how he wishes Pilgrim Valley had a suicide in its recent history. It would corroborate his claims of a haunting. At the end of this document Morgan finds instructions on how to tie a noose.

The hairdresser cut me off. “Wait, did this actually happen? She seriously found instructions on how to tie a noose?”

I shook my head. “Yeah, it happens in the story.”

The hairdresser tilted her head back and forth. “So this is based on actual events, right?”

“No, but if you follow urban legends you start to see storytelling patterns. Writers play with these archetypes until they create something that feels real.”

“But that’s a real town?”

“No. I built Pilgrim Valley with a well trodden template.”

A funny thing happened during this conversation. The more I kept trying to convince the hairdresser my story was fiction the more she believed it had actually happened.

I was tempted to say, “Actually, this was based on a local legend.”  just to see how far it would travel. Maybe one day I’d pitch it to a hairdresser across town and they’d say, “Wait, I’ve heard about this. This really happened, didn’t it?”

As a horror writer I love playing on people’s fears, but I can’t help but wonder how horror stories impact readers’ realities.

2. A Hole in Reality

Is there a Relationship Between Fiction and Superstition?

In The Omen, Father Jennings quotes a cryptic verse from the bible:

“When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet rips the sky, and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, till man exists no more… The Book of Revelations predicted it all.”

People continue to quote this verse in anticipation of the end times. The only problem is it’s not in the bible. Revelations is written in the first person, there are no references to comets, and it never rhymes. Screenwriter David Selzter made the quote up and viewers assumed it was buried in the scriptures somewhere.

In the weeks after The Exorcist premiered in 1973 a Boston Catholic Center was flooded with requests for exorcisms every day. Since then there have been dozens of films about demon possession. Many claiming to be “inspired by actual events.” According to a 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling 57 percent of American voters believe demon possession is possible.

As a horror writer, I love the idea that scary stories have such a powerful impact on people, but these superstitious beliefs can have deadly consequences. In 1973 Anneliese Michel started taking anti-psychotics to deal with the intense seizures she was experiencing. In 1975 she went off of her medication. She underwent a series of exorcisms, twice a week over a period of ten months. She stopped eating. In 1976, Anneliese died in her home. She weighed 68 pounds.

During the trial it was revealed by one of Anneliese’s physicians that she had epilepsy. The exorcists were convicted of manslaughter.

Anneliese’s story was adapted into The Exorcism of Emily Rose which implied she was possessed, not epileptic, and exonerated its priest of any wrong doing. It perpetuated the same superstitious beliefs that cost Anneliese her life.

Horror writers should be able to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but the thesis of our stories shouldn’t be that our fiction is really happening. We can use demon possession as a way of addressing mental illness without convincing people to go without treatment. Films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose make a compelling argument for epileptics to think they’re inhabited by Satan.

Why Writers Shouldn’t Dust Off a Superstition That’s Been Disproven

In the 1980s the United States was in the grip of something called “The Satanic Panic.” People were coming forward with stories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The popular allegation was that cultists were raping family members, dragging them to black masses in the forest, and forcing them to sacrifice the offspring of incestuous unions. It was believe cultists were getting away with this because the victims repressed their memories. That all changed when regression hypnotherapy came into popularity. More and more people were going to see therapists and coming out with stories of blood soaked alters in the woods.

It seemed like a massive conspiracy was coming to light. Farms were dug up. Families were torn apart. Communities were shaken. Then the FBI investigated. Some of the women who believed their babies had been sacrificed were revealed to be virgins. The bureau found that none of the sacrifices had actually happened. It turned out that mass hysteria and regression hypnotherapy were the cause of the conspiracy.

Now in 2015, Hollywood is putting out a film called Regression that appears to portray these events as if they’ve actually happened. It is entirely possible that this film will come down on the side against superstition, but given Hollywood’s track record I wouldn’t count on it.

Suspension of disbelief matters, especially if your story hinges on a busted myth.

Closing Thoughts

I just watched a documentary on sleep paralysis called The NightmareI myself have suffered from sleep paralysis throughout my twenties. It got so bad I had to see a neurologist.

In the documentary, the subjects describe the same hallucinations I experienced: shadow people with big red eyes standing at the foot of their beds. The filmmakers even shot reenactments of their subjects’ terrifying visions. Half of the people interviewed believed their experiences were caused by demons trying to suck out their souls. I watched The Nightmare documentary right before I fell asleep.

That night I slept like a baby.

I know there is more academic information about sleep paralysis than the subjects of the film wanted to admit. Some preferred to perpetuate the shadow man urban legend, others wanted to believe they were important enough to be targeted by demons. I know better.

I know enough about the origins of monsters to build monsters of my own. I’m not about to lose sleep over someone else’s superstition.

How to Keep Writing From Weighing Your Life Down

1. DraggingI’ve blogged at length about how a writer’s life experience can improve their fiction, but I haven’t written on how the reverse is true, how fantasy can improve a writer’s reality. If the responsibility of writing weighs you down use it as an excuse to go outside and do something.

A Life Worth Commenting On

In screenwriting class our professor had us keep a journal, a place to document our fears. It was not a diary. It was a tool for scene building, a method for adding authenticity to atmospheric descriptions. We were to venture into unknown territory and write about it, to find a place that put us on edge, where the adrenaline heightened our senses, so we could chronicle everything we felt.

Turns out a lesbian bar wasn’t that far outside of my comfort zone, not because I was leering at the ladies, but because they seemed fine with me. Their DJs had good taste, the absence of frat boy posturing was freeing, and I even got drawn into a dance off (author’s note: if your best move is the moon walk save it for the end).

From there I went ghost hunting in caves along the Mississippi. The city had filled the entrance in with rubble, which meant we had to crawl with our backs covered in limestone and our chests full of gravel. It also meant the tunnels had poor ventilation. We risked running out of air and joining the spirits we were pursuing (author’s note: if you decide to venture into these caves, DON’T, but if you do bring your own oxygen).

I followed some friends onto a high bridge in the middle of the night. We were half way across the St. Croix River when a train came. Our legs dangled over the side, like we were reenacting a scene from The Lost Boys. The waters raged 180 feet bellow. If I leaned back I’d have gotten a metal massage. We had to wait for a fifteen minute eternity as the boards quaked beneath our asses (author’s note: I’ve always been afraid of heights and I consider this experience proof that fear aversion therapy doesn’t work).

These locations were beyond what my professor had in mind. Writers don’t need to go to such extremes for inspiration, but they should, to quote comedian Pete Holmes, try to “live a life worth commenting on.” This is something many of us forget to do while we’re sitting in silence working. As writers we want to prove we have what it takes to go the distance, but we have a habit of being so driven that we pass life by.

Many of us use our vocation to justify isolation. We’re less afraid to write 2,000 words a dialogue than we are to have an actual conversation. We’re less afraid to write a death scene than to go through a new life experience. Our therapeutic outlet takes up the majority of our time.

Life is Research

Colleges require students to take generals because they want to produce well rounded individuals, graduates who are more than their majors. This might be an excuse to squeeze more money out of students, but writers should take a page from these academic institutions.

Authors need a versatile knowledge pool to write about other professions with an heir of authority. I read a lot of social psychology nonfiction to inform my writing, but I find the best information comes from friends. If you’re having trouble turning off your drive to write, think of socializing as part of your process.

In the same way a great book can be a conversation starter so can a great work in progress. Survey your friends on issues raised by your story. They might help bring your characters more emotional authenticity.

Use writing as an excuse to pay attention to people. Listen to them vent. Note how they talk differently when they’re in the heat of the moment, and how they frame their memories once they’re past them.

Reconnect with friends in interesting professions. You’ll learn more about the physical reality of ERs by talking to an EMT than you will combing through wikipedia. You’ll learn more about criminal investigations talking to a retired detective than you will watching a marathon of cop dramas.

Use research as an excuse to call your parents. You’ll get more emotional material talking to people who’ve lived through events of their era than by watching the history channel.

This shouldn’t feel like a chore. It should be a springboard to have interesting conversations. Research should enhance your life just as much as it enhances your work.

2. Tie

How to use Everyday Conversations as Research

There are ways to get ideas from your friends without quoting them verbatim. There are ways to capture their spirits without having to pay likeness rights. Pay attention to the behaviors your pals are not aware of. Ask yourself questions like this:

  • Do you have a friend who can’t help but slip new fifty cent buzz words into casual conversation?
  • How do they react when you tell them they’ve been misusing the word all along?
  • Do they blame their word-a-day calendar or do they argue for their warped definition?
  • Do they insert phrases they just learned into every discussion?
  • Can you trace the phrase to the movie, book, or Ted Talk they got it from?
  • Do you have a friend who refuses to censor themselves no matter their surroundings?
  • Do they notice the angry looks they’re getting?
  • Do they double down on their polarizing statements or do they backpedal when they realize they have an audience?
  • Have you ever caught a friend trying to pass a political pundit’s words off as their own thought?
  • What does their expression look like when they do this?
  • Do they pretend to form the words in real time when you know they’re really quoting something?
  • Have they ever misquoted their sources?
  • How do they respond when you call them out on this?
  • Do you know someone who can’t help but over share on a first date?
  • Do they lead with a conversation about their crazy exes?
  • Do they go on about an interest their date doesn’t share?
  • Do they intentionally put embarrassing details about themselves out their to test to see how much their date can tolerate?
  • How are they at handling their date’s own embarrassing details?

Learn to ask these kinds of questions. Make use of your friend’s truth or dare answers. These are the details that inform characterization.

Closing Thoughts

Writers need support systems outside of their fiction. Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about our hero’s needs we fail to look out for number one. You have to have a vested interest in the well being of other people if you want to write characters worth caring about. You have to exercise empathy in the real world if you want to write sympathetic characters in your fiction. You have to try to live a life worth commenting on.

How to Write With Your Back Against the Wall

1. Hands Up

There are a lot of quotes on writing in need of correction, like this one:

If writing isn’t fun don’t do it.
CORRECTION
If writing isn’t fun don’t do it. do it anyway.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut:
If you don’t think writing is fun you’re not cut out for it.
CORRECTION
If you don’t think expect writing is to be fun all the time you’re not cut out for it.

A work ethic is one of many things that separates hobbyists from professional writers (the others include: talent, an education, connections, a body of work, and luck).

It’s been raining all week. I haven’t felt like writing the entire time. I just wanted to lie on the couch and binge watch all the TV shows my friends are always assigning. I forced myself to write the first paragraph of a new chapter, some setting description to remind myself where the story was going.

I’m one of those writers who pauses in the middle of a scene so I’ll have somewhere to go when I come back. I kept adding details to make my life in the future a little bit easier. I wrote some dialogue and decided to press on until my characters finished their conversation. When I wrapped up the chapter I was working on I realized I had to set up the next one.

Needless to say I never did hunker down and watch Arrested Development.

It’s the weeks when I’m convinced I’m burned out that I get my best work done. Here are some of the ways I trick myself into getting started.

2. Let's see where this takes us

Life Hacks to Get Your Writing Started

Take It to the Notebook

Sometimes you need to take the “formal” out of your writing formula. You need to trick your mind into thinking you’re dabbling instead of writing. This can be hard to do on a computer screen where the text resembles the format of published work. This is why you should keep a notebook on hand. Your handwriting is far less formal than Helvetica or Times New Roman.

A notebook is the perfect place to workshop ideas before committing to them. If you’re working on a novel you shouldn’t just start journaling and expect to stumble upon something.

Stockpile a Term Arsenal 

If you’re writing a first person story think about some of the phrases your character is likely to use in different situations. Jot each of their preferred terms in your notebook. Draw a checkmark next to the ones you end up using. Not only will this help you find your narrator’s voice, it will help you figure out how to start the next sequence.

Here are some questions to help you figure out what expressions you should be listing:

– What lingo does your hero use to describe their surroundings?

  • What inside jokes do they make at the other characters’ expense?
  • What professional jargon seeps into their casual conversations?
  • Where do their favorite metaphors come from: sports, gambling, or the bible?
  • What famous phrases are they likely to quote from movies?
  • What generation-specific slang do their circumstance call for?
  • What are their dumb default phrases, the dad jokes they’re always telling that never connect?

Brainstorm Bullet Points

If you’re afraid the next scene you’re working on will be too boring, but you can’t cut it because it reveals obligatory information, list a series of “what if” statements. They might help you make the scene more interesting.

  • What if a character teased a reveal they were saving for later?
  • What if a character who was set to be cooperative in the scene was given reason to be conflicted instead?
  • What if there was a sense of urgency added to the event, like a blast door coming down, a ticking bomb, or a fire?
  • What if there’s room for subtext: gestures and language that reveal the characters’ secret thoughts about each other?

Hit PAUSE at Just the Right Moment

This was Hemingway’s life hack for making the next day of writing easier.

He said, “Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day… you will never be stuck… But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

My addition to Hemingway’s hack is to give yourself options. Utilize the comments feature of your word processor and list some details in the margins (in MS Word it’s under Menu BarInsertNew Comment).

Use this space to list potential developments. Think of it as a choose your own adventure for your next day of writing. This is just in case you forget some details while you’re sleeping.

3. Okay I'll Write

Take It Outside

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk writes in public. He refuses to chain his muse to a schedule. I imagine him going to parties with a notepad up his sleeve, a reporter getting the scoop on his friends. I picture him dressing up as a priest so he can take a memo pad into a confessional, or posing as a bartender so he can jot closing time quotes on napkins. Palahniuk’s party going process is perfect if you’re an extrovert. If you’re an introvert try…

The Egg Timer Method

Speaking of Chuck Palahniuk, another trick he recommends trying when you don’t feel like writing is to set an egg timer for an hour and write until it rings. If it’s still not working for you you’re free to leave, but hopefully you’ll be so enthralled that you’ll keep going.

Closing Thoughts

When I used to write poetry I’d find myself running out of the shower to jot my ideas down. I kept notepads in my work shirts, and covered my hands in words when I ran out of paper. As a poet, I was on call for whenever my muse needed something dictated. I waited for inspiration to strike and dropped whatever I was doing when it did.

Now that I’m writing narrative fiction my greatest moments of inspiration come after my ass has gone numb, after I’ve struggled through the introductions of my scenes, and I’ve been laboring for some time.

Sometimes writing needs to feel like work before it becomes fun again.

How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

1. TitleThe Case Against Editing as You Go

When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.

By the end of the day my word count hovered around the same number I’d started at. Sometimes it was in the negative. My effort to fine tune the perfect page kept me from finishing my stories.

Writing is hard. I was making it harder than it needed to be, writing the way I’d seen authors work on TV. They’d type THE END, pull the last page out of their typewriter, set it on top of the stack of pages, pat it, and hand the completed work to their publisher. Their publisher called them back before the sun had gone down.

“Why, this is your finest work yet!”

Yeah, writing doesn’t work like that.

As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “first drafts are always shit.”

When you accept this your output increases. You give yourself permission to experiment, to stop worrying about grammar and punctuation, and press on without editing. Your focus shifts from quality to quantity. You can side step writer’s block and keep the momentum going. When you focus on the present you get more done. You measure your commitment to your craft not by your bibliography, but by your recent word count.

It’s easier to commit to writing every day when you don’t have to worry about publishing by sundown, about your reviews, or your target audience. You don’t have to bow to your inner critic, because you have no need to reread your story until its finished.

You have to paint a base layer before you can start adding the other colors. You have to carve out the rock before you can chisel out the sculpture. You have to shoot the scene while daylight is burning. You can fix it in post later.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing he recommends putting your first draft in a drawer for at least six weeks before coming back to edit. That way you can see your story with fresh eyes. This will make your darlings easier to kill, because your emotional attachment will have waned. This will make unnecessary scenes easier to cut, because you’ll feel like you’re working with someone else’s story. It’ll make everything easier to fix, except for spotty continuity.

2. Chalk

What Plotting and Knitting Have in Common

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the easiest parts of editing. Fixing a broken continuity is far more challenging.

A story’s continuity is what makes it believable. It keeps your characters consistent. If your hero has a fear of heights they shouldn’t be eager to check out the view from the balcony of a skyscraper. If your hero swears in church they shouldn’t have a polite streak when they’re talking to a police officer. If you break your hero’s arm in one scene they shouldn’t be throwing any punches in the next.

A story’s continuity allows readers to follow the plot, to understand the timeline, to trace its causes to its effects, and appreciate the ending. When you write by the seat of your pants, with a focus on quantity over quality, you do so at the risk of your continuity.

Continuity is a string that knots up every time your plot twists. Whenever you knit a new subplot into the story you risk forgetting the pattern you had going. Whenever you take a thread in a new direction you risk tangling the things you’d already set in motion. Whenever you follow inspiration away from your plan, you risk turning your first draft into a big ball of yarn.

If you leave a story with a spotty continuity in the drawer for too long you’ll forget which strings need to be cut and which ones to be rethreaded. You’ll have a lot of knots on your hands. I have two methods for fixing a broken continuity. The first is a bandaid solution. The other requires planning earlier on.

How to Fix a Continuity Error Without Going Back to Edit

A temporary solution for when you feel a plot hole forming is to let characters draw attention to it. This way you ensure your audience that you have every intention of filling it. This can be done organically if you’re writing a mystery. Let’s say you dressed up a crime scene with inconsistent iconography.

Your hero could say, “Why would the killer carve the Satanic goat of lust into the victim’s back, then draw Devil’s traps on the ground around the body. One symbol is made to summon evil. The other is meant to repel it.”

Just remember that every time the detective asks those questions, they’re promising the reader a mind blowing revelation. If you tie up a loose end with a cheap explanation you’ll reveal that you didn’t know what you were doing all along.

How satisfied would you be to learn the explanation for the above scenario was that the killer didn’t know the difference between the symbols?

Let’s say your hero does something out of character. They step out onto the balcony of a skyscraper and lean over the railing. A few chapters later you remember that they were supposed to be afraid of heights, but the story needed them to venture out onto that balcony. Do you go back and delete all mentions of their fear of heights? Do you rework the entire scene to keep that character trait consistent, or do you have another character comment on your hero’s strange behavior?

“I thought you were deathly afraid of heights, but I looked out my window and I saw you leaning over the balcony.”

“I know. I’m not sure what came over me.”

This exchange repairs the continuity by acknowledging the hero’s inconsistency, but it isn’t a very satisfying explanation. If anything it only promises better explanation later on. If you do this too often you run the risk of making your story feel convoluted.

3. Time Travel

What Editing and Time Travel Have in Common

In the story I’m working on, I’ve strategically placed moments of foreshadowing. I left comments in the margins of my documents to make them easier to find. I plan on coming back to them often. They will be the most frequently edited pages of my novel.

In these chapters, there are crime scenes where every detail is pivotal to solving the mystery later on. As I strive to make the solution to the mystery more satisfying I find myself returning to these crime scenes and making adjustments.

In my first draft I make sure to use the exact same phrases for each piece of evidence. This may sound redundant, but if you have a needle in a 90,000 word haystack you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to find. By using the same terms I can search out any element I need to go back and change.

My story is filled with these foreshadowing portals; places where I can go back in time and make safe alterations without upsetting the balance of everything else I have going. I have a prophetic story within my story that I adjust to fit future events. I have a tarot reading whose meaning I keep changing. I have an autopsy report that I keep fine tuning.

Another way to keep track of your continuity is to color coat certain setups and payoffs the same color. That way if you alter the payoff you can save time by cycling through all the setups that need fixing. For instance you could color code references to the murder weapons red, and references to the killer’s motivations in green. This way if you decide you’d rather the weapon be a lead pip instead of a candlestick you can go back and adjust the crime scene to reflect that.

Closing Thoughts

With these methods you can edit aspects of your story as you write. You can keep your momentum going while keeping your continuity consistent. This will leave less knots for you to untie when it’s time to edit the rest.

How to Ruin Your Favorite Stories By Adapting them for TV

This week I'm talking all about Cop Dramas

This week I’m talking all about Cop Dramas

The Procedural Formula 

Here’s a simple formula for destroying an original idea by adapting it for television: take a film (or comic book) series and shoehorn it into a format suited for syndication. The defaults you’ll find on network television are: ER clones, law firm look a-likes, New York ad agency stories, the monster of the week, and the cop drama. When in doubt, go with the cop drama.

Find someone in the source material with a unique ability. Reduce them to a roving freelance detective who plays by his own rules. I specify “his” because the maverick on network TV is almost always a “He,” (iZombie is one of the few exceptions).

Pair your maverick with a by the book detective who happens to be without a partner. This role is usually played by a buxom bombshell, the type of woman Chris Carter said Fox wanted him to cast as Agent Scully on The X-Files.

Use your maverick’s quirky ability to solve the murders of bland under developed characters. Tease an overarching mystery to keep us hooked: the type of serialized mythology we wish we were watching all along. Finally hint at the possibility that the platonic partners have a romantic interest. Draw their feelings out beyond believability. Wait to cash in their feelings at an awkward time in their relationship, like when your show gets canceled.

If this formula sounds familiar it’s because you’ve seen many variations of it on: The Mentalist, Castle, Sleepy HollowJohn DoeForever, and many other shows.

This fall season’s latest crop of cop-schlock ensures audiences will see all those tropes again.

Minority Report is a sci fi thriller that dares to ask the question if our fourth amendment right to reasonable searches and seizures extends to our possible futures. The TV show is about a psychic who can’t help but betray that moral, by using his gift to thwart crimes before they happen… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Limitless is a film about a loser writer who discovers his potential with a brain boosting wonder drug called EZT, and all the horrible things he has to do to maintain his dosage. The TV show is about a guy who uses EZT to solve crimes… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Lucifer is a comic book series about the devil retiring from hell and doing everything he can to flee God’s creation. The TV show is about how Lucifer retires from hell to help solve crimes. In this case, Lucifer’s arcane knowledge proved too abstract for TV, so they borrowed Daniel Radcliffe’s ability to make sinners confess from the film Horns… Oh, and Lucifer has a by the book female partner.

Also, based on these three trailers, stubble seems to be in this year.

2. Does this get me in?

Let’s Turn Everything into a Cop Drama

Here are some more film franchises the networks can ruin by adapting them for television:

Idiocracy… as a cop drama

An average unremarkable police officer accidentally runs down a mob boss during a raid. A career making arrest turns into a suspension hearing when it’s revealed the officer forgot to read the boss his rights. Down on his luck the officer submits to the Human Hibernation Research Study, believing he’ll be put under for five days. Instead he’s frozen for five hundred years.

The officer wakes up to find the world has devolved into a waste-scape where morons have outbred intellectuals, where everyone is dependent on technology that’s been automated for centuries, and the police are hapless to stop the violence. The officer re-enlists in the force where he discovers he’s the Sherlock Holmes of his time. The department quickly pairs him off with the most decorated cop on the force; an up-speaking valley girl by today’s standards, but a genius in the future.

Together they catch the dumbest criminals imaginable: thugs caught playing with the murder weapon when our duo comes knocking. The ongoing mythology could pit the officer against an average criminal who’s also woken up in the future (think Demolition Man if both characters were morons).

A Nightmare on Elm Street… as a cop drama

Unlike the previous Nightmare on Elm Street TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares, Freddy Krueger will be the star.

The quiet midwestern town of Springwood is being stalked by a sadistic killer. Each victim is eviscerated in broad daylight and there are always signs of a struggle. The town’s folk have whitewashed all records of Freddy Krueger, the serial killer that haunted their children’s nightmares, but Nancy, a head strong police officer, remembers hearing whispers. She looks into Freddy’s supernatural slayings and finds that this recent string of deaths don’t fit his M.O.

Still, Nancy can’t help but fall asleep with Freddy on the brain. Her fear of Freddy Krueger is enough to summon him into her nightmare. Nancy finds Freddy an emaciated husk of his former self, starving for souls. He doesn’t even have the strength to injure her. As Nancy investigates the daytime slaying she realizes they were done by more than one culpret. When she tells the sheriff she senses a conspiracy, he tells her to drop it.

Desperate, Nancy turns to the weakened dream dweller for help. She offers Freddy the conspirators’ souls if he can uncover the mystery. Reluctantly he agrees.

Mary Poppins… as a cop drama.

And you thought P. L. Travers hated Disney’s adaptation.

Bert is a grizzled cockney copper with one last assignment before retirement. He has to find out who killed George Banks, an investment banker with ties to London’s criminal underground. When he arrives at the crime scene at Cherry Tree Lane he learns the children have hired their own investigator: Mary Poppins. She introduces herself as a private detective “Who’s practically perfect in every way.”

Bert finds himself lagging behind Mary at each stage of his investigation, arriving at crime scenes she’s turned upside down. Bert decides that if he wants to get anywhere he’ll have to tail her. He learns Mary’s results come from her magical abilities, contacts in the supernatural underworld, and the enchanted objects she always keeps on her person. The pair pool their resources. Bert gives Marry access to the department’s files while she shares her tools: a bottomless evidence bag that contains an entire forensics lab, a surveillance drone in the shape of a kite, and a talking gun.

Bert can’t help but admire Mary’s methods. She’s an expert interrogator, making her suspects sing through actual song, infiltrating hideouts by floating on the ceiling, and getting intel from talking animals. The pair make a formidable team.

3. I got a prize

Here are More Franchise to Ruin by Putting Them on Television:

  • A Harry Potter procedural where Potter consults on cases involving wizard on muggle violence.
  • A Santa Claus procedural where Santa repurposes his network of elf confidential informants to tell him which suspects have been naughty and which have been nice.
  • A Tron procedural where Sam investigates cyber crimes represented by actual crime scenes on the game grid.
  • The Matrix as a procedural about an agent charged with tracking down rogue programs who casue glitches that threaten to expose the system.

Can you think of a franchise to ruin by adapting it for television? Please share your pitches in the comments.

How Writers Can Keep Time From Slipping Away

1. Hour Glass

The Real Reason Joss Whedon Left Twitter Should Make Sense to Writers

Writer/director Joss Whedon just left twitter for reasons that should concern every writer. Reasons, as it turns out, that have nothing to do with the social justice warrior blame game twitter’s been playing. In an article titled Joss Whedon Calls “Horsesh*t” On Reports He Left Twitter Because Of Militant Feminists he told Buzzfeed:

“I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place,” Whedon explained. “And this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life… It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella. It’s like, Um, I really need to concentrate on this! Guys! Can you all just… I have to… It’s super important for my law!”

Of all the reasons angry twitter users have given for Whedon’s disappearance this one makes the most sense. Whedon is following Stephen King’s advice and writing behind a closed door, something those of us building our brands online have a hard time doing.

This week’s article is about time management, the burden of social media, the fallacy that distractions serve our creativity, and the virtue of delayed gratification.

Managing Time in the Era of Social Media

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar the average person can maintain up to 150 stable social relationships at once. Technology allows us to spread our relationships further than ever before. While most of our connections online are casual, many of them require maintenance. For writers looking to build an audience that can be a challenge.

Whedon’s decision to leave twitter illustrates how much of a burden a large following can be. It’s hard to acknowledge criticism and launch a new project at the same time. It’s hard to clammer for relevance and do relevant work. It’s hard to participate in the larger conversation when you need to listen to the thoughts in your own mind.

For those of us who develop our stories while interacting with the community we need to find a balance. If we’re compulsively counting connections we won’t be able to give our own characters the same attention. If we check every notification, every phantom vibration, we’ll interrupt the flow of our writing. Stat addicts, with restless reloading syndrome, will be watching their blogs’ numbers at the expense of their word count.

Twitter sends notifications to say two users I’m following are talking about the same film. Facebook sends notifications to see if I know someone who hadn’t even sent me a friend request. Sometimes it just wants to let me know my friends are in the same neighborhood. I don’t have time to wish strangers happy birthdays, to congratulate them for their work anniversaries, and ‘Like’ their pottery zines.

Some authors use extensions like StayFocusd to help them temporarily block social media websites while they’re working. I use Hootsuite to schedule some of my tweets, especially during the hours I know I’m going to be writing. I tweet so often that I’ve turned abstaining from social media into a game. I use it as a reward for getting a page written. I let myself indulge in it more on Mondays. That’s when people spend the most time reading blogs.

2. Hour Glass

How Our Minds Trick Us into Thinking Our Distractions Are a Type of Training

In Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, he tells the story of how the 5 day work week forced people to manage something they never had to manage before: free time. This gave way to generations raised on television. We started managing our free time differently when new technologies made creating and sharing almost as easy as consuming.

This could be why we’re living in a new golden age of television. Showrunners know they have to work a lot harder to compete for their audience’s attention. For those of us who want to create more than we consume we have to learn to resist the temptation of watching. Especially when we trick ourselves into thinking that consuming will serve as a springboard for creation.

Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote about this phenomenon in his book Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life Through an Addiction to Film. Between the summers of 1995 and 1999, Patton watched 3 to 4 movies a day. He rationalized this by thinking an education in the history of film would improve his screenwriting.

The theater owner kept asking, “When am I going to see your screenplay?”

Patton would’ve had something to show had he not been spending so many nights watching all these films.

Smart people are good at justifying bad behaviors. Even I have written about how replaying movies takes writers behind the scenes, but there’s only so many times writers need to learn the same lesson before they should get going.

We’re told the best way to become a better writer is to read more. Writers can get an education in storytelling by reading as many stories as we can, but at a certain point all that consummation becomes a distraction. We end up sublimating our creative drive, absolving ourselves of the self doubt that comes with fleshing out a new idea. By occupying our minds we let our own creativity off the hook.

Our heads can be overflowing with other people’s stories, but that doesn’t mean a fresh one will ever spill out of our own.

Binge reading can teach us style and structure, but those lessons come at the expense of our work ethic. We’re not going to learn everything we need to know about writing before we commit pen to paper. We need to be willing to learn while doing. We need to be willing to fail.

Books give our imaginations a workout, but our diligence will weaken if we abandon our writing routine for too long.

3. Hour Glass

How to Delay Your Gratification and Get Your Writing Done

In the late 60s and early 70s psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study at Stanford University. Children were offered the choice between a single marshmallow or two if they waited 15 minutes. In follow-up studies, the researchers found the kids who held out for what they really wanted tended to have better lives. They had higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, and better paying careers.

What does this marshmallow study have to do with writing?

Let’s say you have an hour lunch break at the office. You could spend it streaming an episode of something, or working on your writing. The TV show promises to give you a complete experience in one viewing, your writing will take many more sessions before its done, but will ultimately feel much more rewarding.

For writers sometimes marshmallows take the form of smaller pieces. I get instant gratification whenever I share a short story online. I don’t get ‘likes’ and comments when I’m fleshing out long form writing, but while my short stories are forgotten my novel has the potential to resonate for a longer time.

If you’re serious about writing you need to think about how many marshmallows you really want. I used to blog 2 to 3 times a week. I’ve cut that down to once a week. Why?I’m working on a novel and I’ve got my eyes on a whole hill of marshmallows.

The best piece of advice you’ll ever get on writing is: sit your ass in the chair and do the work. You can wait until your blog accumulates comments and respond to them all at once. Your @ replies will be there when you check them later. Wait until the end of the day to count all of your new followers.

If you want to make writing your profession take a close look at your free time. Think about what little rewards you can stave off now in favor of the bigger one down the line.

How to Build Character Profiles… For Writers Who Hate Planning

1. The Best Laid Plans

How Architects Build Character Profiles

When I started screenwriting I discovered my characters as I wrote them. It was fun to meet them for the first time, but when I went back to edit their personalities had problems. They seemed less like themselves in the first scenes than they did toward the end. Their dialogue drew from stoic clichés in the first act. Their voices didn’t sound distinct until the third. I decided to take screenwriting courses to help fix the problem.

George R.R. Martins says, “There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.”

My screenwriting professor was an architect. He worked from blueprints. He had us summarize our scenes before we could write a single line of dialogue. There are only so many pages that fit into a script. That’s why he had us edit our screenplays before we ever wrote them down. Our hero needed to make an impression early on. The professor wouldn’t let us start writing our stories until we’d proven we knew who our heroes were already.

My screenwriting professor gave us a character research template with 40 questions, each with 5-10 subquestions of their own. This was the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Index of character profiles.

It got Freudian. We needed to know the relationship between our hero and their parents, their siblings, how they were disciplined, schooled, the religion they were brought up in, their travel experiences, and their economic situation.

We needed to define our heroes’ political beliefs, even if we had no intention of airing them. We needed to dress the set of our heroes’ homes, even if our story spent no time in them. We needed to take our heroes in for a checkup, even if their health never came up.

The descriptions of our characters’ physical features needed to go way beyond their fashion sense. We needed to know the gestures they used most often, their most common facial expressions, the tonality of their voices, their manners, and their posture.

The psychological profile of our heroes ran the gamut of the Meyer-Briggs Type Indicator. We needed to know how they managed stress, without knowing what the stressors were. We needed to imagine how they dealt with errors, without knowing the circumstances. We needed to know how they coped with suffering, without knowing the causes of their pain.

The problem I had with front loading all of this character information was that it was hard to remember once I started writing. It turns out I’m not an architect.

How Gardeners Build Character Profiles 

I’m that second kind of writer George R.R. Martin was talking about: the gardener. I plant my ideas. I have a sense of the type of flower I’m nurturing, but I let it branch out in directions beyond my predictions.

My screenwriting professor’s character profiling exercise told me a lot about who my heroes were when they were sitting down. Those details changed once they were in motion. His exercise gave me a baseline for my heroes’ emotions, but did little to predict the fluctuations.

People don’t know who they really are until they’re given opportunities and faced with challenges. As a gardener, I need to see how my characters react to fertilizer and how they fair through stormy weather.

Here’s a character research exercise to help you imagine how your hero would react to things beyond their control. The goal of this is to help you build a profile that reveals who your character is when they’re outside of their comfort zone, when their nightly routine is broken, and things don’t go according to plan.

2. Hammer Time

The Party Scenario

What’s your hero’s ideal gathering look like?

  • A dinner party where everyone does their best to accurately quote scholarly articles, where drinking wine is a procedure, and there’s a special fork for every course.
  • A marathon viewing of a cult TV show where the guests come as their favorite characters and all the horderves resemble props from the series.
  • A place where the kegs are vaulting horses for inebriated athletes, where girls take turns holding their breath in each others’ mouths, and there’s a trail of red cups leading from the entryway to the boulevard.

It’s a thought experiment so feel free to come up with your own scenario. Just identify your hero’s comfort zone, so we can take them to the opposite place.

What does your hero do when they walk into a party and realize it was a mistake?

  • Do they make a beeline for the booze?
  • Do they note the locations of the bathrooms an other hiding places?
  • Do they find the one person they know and attach themselves like a barnacle?
  • Do they pretend to text on a dead phone?
  • Do they orbit the most attractive people, hoping they get invited into the group?
  • Do they stand on the porch and wait for someone else to acknowledge them?
  • Do they turn tail and run?

Where does your hero end up spending most of their time?

  • Do they camp on the couch with their head down?
  • Do they eavesdrop on a conversation waiting for an opening?
  • Do they gage the interests of the party goers so they can lie to fit in?
  • Do they think they’re hitting on someone until that person’s significant other enters the room?
  • Do they get drunk and tell jokes that aren’t suited for the room?

What is your hero’s breaking point? How much social anxiety can they take?

  • Do they feel their age, when the millennials around them reminisce about the boy bands they grew up listening to?
  • Do they get beached whale drunk and pass out on the floor?
  • Do they get up when a couple starts making out on top of them?
  • Do they get into a punch up with a jealous lover?

How do they leave?

  • Do they shake hands with everyone they spent more than a second speaking with, giving out business cards as they pass?
  • Does your hero wait for the person they came with to turn around before giving them the Batman goodbye?
  • Do they get tossed out on their ass?
  • Do they leave with the first person who hits on them?
  • Do they linger until the last cabs arrive and walk home alone?
  • Do they drive home drunk?

The point of this exercise is to help you identify your character’s social disposition, to find the core of your character on the introversion extroversion spectrum. Your hero’s reactions to a bad party should give you some idea of how they’d function in a lot of social situations.

More Scenarios to get Your Imagination Going

How would your hero deal with being pulled over when they’ve done nothing wrong?

  • Would they keep their hands at 10 and 2 and just take their ticket?
  • Would they dispute the officer’s claim?
  • Would they lay down some legal jargon?
  • Would they lay on the charm?
  • Would they presume they actually did something wrong?
  • Would they play dumb?
  • Would they pump the gas and keep going?

You can put your hero’s feelings about authority into a character profile, but it helps to imagine how things would actually play out in the real world. Who knows, you might even find an idea for scene in this.

How would your hero react to the sound of a scream coming from a dark alley?

  • Would they call 9-1-1 and then check to see what’s going on?
  • Would they charge in that direction, never mind the odds against them?
  • Would they gather a crowd to go in at once?
  • Would they throw a rock through a shop window to trigger a security alarm?
  • Would they keep their head down, move on, and spend the night telling themselves they didn’t hear what they thought they heard?

What kind of hero are you working with? Are they a coward, action oriented, or levelheaded? Imagine the same scenario again, but this time the odds are stacked against them. If the rush into the alley with the intention of fighting they’ll lose. If they run the authorities will not respond in time. How does your hero react now? Do they bargain with the attackers? Do they appeal to the attackers sense of reason? Do they work out some kind of con?

3. It All Falls Down

Characters Should Be Defined by Actions

Come up with your own version of one of these scenarios and run your characters through it. If a few of them do the exact same thing, combine them. If the entire cast does the same thing you need to tweak them. You need a diversity of personalities to keep the conflict going.

If you’ve already written a draft ask yourself if your hero would answer your questions the same way when they’re introduced as they would in the end. If their answers differ make sure the story justifies the change in their opinions.

Your hero’s past, physical features, mannerisms, and surroundings matter, but their actions matter more. Research your hero’s personality in order to predict their behavior. Come up with your own guided meditation challenge course and put your hero through the rigor. Then you’ll know who you’re actually working with.

As the old Gotham Proverb goes, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

The Narration An Audio Drama By Drew Chial

Check out this audio drama based on my short story The Narration produced by the good folks at Fancy Pants Gangsters.

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Every person has an internal monologue, a place where they can speak their innermost desires and private thoughts. But what if those secret musings didn’t stay secret? Find out as four friends encounter The Narration by Drew Chial.

Find it here:

Redshift Season 1 Episode 3 – The Narration by Drew Chial

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