Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated – I’ve just been working hard on the second draft on the new novel. We’re close – we’re very close. Anyway, my bad for letting the blogging duty slip. So, here is a little list of writing hacks that I use that may be helpful to you.
For those who don’t know what life hacks are this sums it up nicely:
Life hacking refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life; in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem of a person in a clever or non-obvious way.
- Character names: Stuck for character names – pick up a phone book, a registry, a membership list or anything that lists names. Believe me, real life can offer up names that you couldn’t think up in a million years. Also, pick up a couple of baby name books from the used bookstore.
- Make notes as you write: Sometimes when I’m writing, I remember things I have to add or change but I don’t want to stop what I’m doing. In Word, you can use the INSERT feature for making notes on manuscripts. To make a note, click on INSERT and then COMMENT – write your note and keep going.
- Visit locations from your desk: If you can’t visit a location, you can use Google Map street view feature to help you describe physical locations. Depending on the location you can find an amazing amount of detail by arrowing around the area. Of course you can’t get the feel, sound or smells – so do visit locations when possible.
- White noise: Need background noise in order to write but don’t want to drag your laptop to Starbux? Try this
- Capture your flashes of brilliance: Always have the best ideas when you’re walking the dog? Use a digital recorder or your phone to record your sudden bursts of brilliance while you’re walking.
- Describing physical action: Great tips on describing body language
- Use props to get in character: If your character is French, put on a beret and striped shirt and play Edith Piaf on your iPod. If your characters are in Italy, play opera and eat Italian food. Is your hero a bicyclist? Get into those biking shorts and a helmet. No, I’m not kidding, dress like the character, walk like her, talk like her, listen to her playlist, eat her favorite food – immerse yourself in her world (as much as possible). You’d be amazed at the difference it can make.
Well that’s the short list anyway. I’m sure there are many more and when I have time to think I may do another list.
What are your favorite writer hacks? Share your tricks, tips and advice in the comments. In the meantime, keep writing people – the world needs your work.
How I find monikers for my characters
We fiction writers have our tips and tricks for how we do what we do. And sometimes we get stuck. Personally, I can get stuck on a character name for days. And I can’t go forward until I fight the right name. It has to look right. It has to feel right. It has to sound right. And it has to sound like a real name. Like somebody you’d meet in your daily life.
Let me count the ways
Over the years I had many ways that I’d try to find just the right name. Sometimes it came out of the blue. Sometimes I’d go through phone books or other directories to find one that grabbed me. I’d scan through the obits of newspapers. But usually I’d end up thumbing through several baby name books. Yes, I have several and they have proven the wealthiest source of character names for me.
Is there meaning in the meaning?
One of the things I love about my baby name books is that they not only have hundreds of names to choose from – but that they tell you what the name means. And this was my ‘aha!” moment with these resourceful little books. If I knew the characteristics and purpose of my characters I could find a way to match them to a name.
For example the main character in my book False Witness (insert link here) is Billy Frayne. William means ‘determined’ and Frayne means ‘stranger’. Put the two together and you get a determined stranger. This for me worked incredibly well because Billy goes off looking for a stranger to get to the truth he is determined to find. Another character in an upcoming novel is named Kennie. To ken is to know. This too is applicable to this character.
Exception to the rule
Now I don’t always use this method. Sometimes the name just comes to me. The universe just serves it up on a silver platter and I’m off to the races. But when I get stuck thumbing through my books looking for the meaning of names often does unearth just the right one for me. It’s not always easy and it’s not always quick but it does work for me. So, if you get stuck – give it a try.
How about you? What are you secrets for find the right character name? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’re like me, you both love and curse a huge influx of work. Being self-employed is an adventure and freelancers are always looking toward the next job, next new client or new lead. We freelancers work hard—often into the night, on weekends and in between meals and the other necessary parts of life.
My first year as a freelancer produced practically no income. Requiring a lot of fancy dancing, using up savings, doing other freelance work and unfortunately relying on credit cards. It’s hard to break in because there is so much to do and only you to do it. You must market, sell and then do the work. Then you must collect for the work you have done— and sometimes the checks arrive late and sometimes the checks don’t arrive at all.
In my second year as a freelancer, I hit the mother lode. Out of the blue a friend and fellow freelancer contacted me and asked if I could help her with an ongoing contract she has with a legal service. At about the same time, another colleague contacted me to write for a start-up web design company. Overnight, I had more work than I could handle. It was exciting and scary. Exciting because of the potential of regular, good-paying work. Scary because I had to learn a lot in a short space of time, meet deadlines and write in several fields I wasn’t personally knowledgeable about. Necessity is the mother of invention and I managed to ride the learning curve, meet the deadlines and get the work done. And I became pretty good at it. But…
What day is it?
The fast and constant workflow was never-ending. I certainly didn’t want to turn the faucet off, because I wanted the work. But I also realized that I needed to do laundry, buy groceries and occasionally take my dog for a walk. As my dirty house, unwashed dishes and uncaptured dust bunnies crowded around me, I couldn’t remember the last time I had a day off. While adrenaline and the profound desire to succeed drove me and enabled me to get the work done and to a high standard, I knew I couldn’t go on in this mode forever. So, I had to figure out how to maintain the workflow but prevent the certain fate of burnout.
The small things make a difference
While I couldn’t just walk away and take a break, I did find small ways to give myself a break without stopping the flow. Most of them quite simple, but ever so helpful:
I started to schedule my day, not just the work but personal things like laundry and grocery shopping.
- I made an arbitrary decision that my computer was turned off at 8 p.m. no matter what. It’s good for human eyes to look at something other than a computer screen.
- I made a point of calling a friend every other day. Not for any particular reason other than speaking to another human being. Freelancing, especially freelance writing is very solitary and it’s easy to lose touch with the outside world.
- When I needed break but didn’t want to stop the writing flow I switched to a creative piece—a story, a poem, a limerick. When you’re burning your brain exclusively with non-fiction writing you can lose something. Switching to the right brain side of things actually helped me when I later returned to freelance work.
- Laughing is also good for those of burned out brain. Mindless comedies, stupid jokes, funny pictures of cats, whatever tickles your funny bone can help pop you out of your head for a while.
- Sleeping a few extra hours didn’t hurt either.
Keep yourself in fighting shape
We freelancers get used to doing it all ourselves, sitting in front of computers for 16 hours at a stretch and just muscling through all that needs to get done. But honestly, that type of strategy can lead to total burn-out and even more serious problems so don’t forget to:
- Exercise and eat right
- Drink lots of water
- Organize during down times
- Develop files that help you become more efficient
- Make time for family and friends
After all, the reason we are in this freelancer life is so we can do what we want right?
How about you? What do you do for writer’s burn out? Let me know in the comments below.
I am a visual person and I find that using this type of cue enhances my writing. For instance, if I want to write about a place I haven’t visited, I find pictures, movies or videos about that place and use them to ‘learn’ that location.
One of the best visual aids I’ve used when putting a story together is a character board. I’ve always believed that before you sit down and type Chapter One you should have a firm grip on who your characters are and using character boards is an easy and effective way of doing this.
Creating a character board is simple – start by grabbing a stack of magazines and page through them, looking for your characters. “Ah yes, that blonde in the toothpaste ad is perfect for Suzie Jones. And that mutt chowing down on Purina is just the right sidekick for my hero, Joe.”
Clip out pictures of anything that relates to your characters – whether pictures of people, the cars they drive, the homes they live in, the bistros they frequent or the brand of poison they drink. You don’t need to stop at pictures either, you can add ticket stubs, a favorite poem or quote, a piece of hair ribbon, whatever you feel represents the life and experiences of your characters.
Once you have collected the pictures, mementos and items you want to use, sort them by character. You might find you have too much for some characters and not enough for others but don’t worry, the board, like your story will evolve over time. You can add, change, or completely overhaul it whenever you feel the need.
Putting it Together
These are the general steps I follow:
- On a large piece of poster board or bulletin board, plot out a section for each character.
- At the top of each section, write the character’s name on a piece of paper and use that as a heading.
- Assemble the pictures and items in a way that communicates your character to you, attaching them either with glue, tape or push pins.
- If a character has a long lifespan in your story, use pictures and items that show her progressing in age and how her likes and dislikes change throughout her life.
- Continue this process until you’ve got all your characters added and the entire board done.
If you have several major characters in your story, you may need two boards or one very large one—it’s your choice. Make it as sparse or detailed as you like, it’s your character board, and the cues are for you and you alone to inspire your story and your characters.
Does it Work?
When you have finished, step back and look at your character board and ask yourself:
- Is it a good representation of your characters?
- Does it give you good visual cues that will facilitate your story and character development?
- Does it make you smile because your characters now feel more alive, more real to you?
If the answer is yes, then you’re done. If not, rework the board until it feels right to you.
Hang your completed character board over your desk or in a prominent place in your writing space where you can easily see it, while writing. Not only will it help you keep your characters firmly in your mind, but it will also inspire you to continue writing their story and keep your characters on board.
How about you? Do you have a technique that you use to make your characters more real? Share it in the comments.
I admit it, I was a Sex in the City junkie. Although I never watched the show while it was on the air, I did start watching it when it went into syndication. Again and again. One of my favorite episodes is when Carrie laments about losing her SSB – secret single behavior- because she was now living with her boyfriend. SSB is the stuff you love to do when you’re alone. Whether it’s jacking up the sound system and playing air guitar with Clapton, chowing down on some Hagan Daas, or chatting on Facebook in your undies, SSB is a guilty pleasure. And I think that most of us can identify with the concept, male or female.
I won’t divulge my SSB but I wondered if SSB also extended to other things, like writing for instance. Do you have any secret writing behavior (SWB)? I know I do and it includes things like:
- Cursing all the way through a writing project I hate. Let’s face it, not all your projects are going to be fun or interesting. Many of your projects will be tedious and for clients who are difficult to please. For me, giving in to my angry cussing side makes it easier to get through the pain. I pound on the keyboard and let the cursing rip like I’m a parrot on Thunderbird.
- Talking to my characters. Now this may not be too weird to another writer but when your room mate is in the next room and hears you scolding, cajoling or encouraging people who only exist in your head it’s not easy to explain.
- Acting out the scenes. Yep, that’s right. If I am trying to write a scene where the character is doing something a little weird, I literally put myself in that situation and see what it’s like. For example, a current story I’m writing involves a character who is blind, so I practiced walking up and down the hallway with my eyes closed. Another thing I wouldn’t want my room mate to see or have to give an explanation for.
- Writing naked. Sometimes you just have to let it all hang out to get those writing juices flowing, right? Okay seriously, am I the only one?
- Getting into character. If I am writing a character who has an accent, affliction or some other unusual characteristic, I become them. Whether it’s a southern drawl, a Midwestern twang or a bow legged stance – if I have to don a cowboy hat and do the two step to get it right, I’m game.
Now I don’t know if any of my SWB really makes me a better writer or enables me to write more effectively but I do know it’s a lot of fun and not stuff I like to do when others around. And maybe that’s why writers like to be alone when they write. They may say that it’s because they need the quiet to focus and concentrate but I’m willing to bet it’s because there is some secret writer behavior going on too.
How about you, what is your secret writer behavior? Has any non-writer caught you in the act? Tell me about it in the comments.
Anyone who has blogged or has a website is familiar with the concept of stats. We all want to see how many hits we got and what posts people liked, traffic sources, time spent on pages, conversion rates, and so on. And as writers we can take a cue from our blogs and websites and consider keeping some stats of our own.
What kind of stats might a writer keep? I can think of several off the top of my head:
- # of words written (can be tracked daily, weekly, and/or monthly)
- # of submissions
- Income/royalties (weekly, monthly, quarterly)
- # of promotional pieces sent out (could be emails, newsletters, info packets, prospect letters, etc.)
- # of reaches/inquiries
- # of assignments landed
- # of pages edited
- # of queries sent
- # of completed projects
The above are just examples of stats you might want to track, depending on what kind of writing you do (freelance or fiction, or both) and naturally you would tailor your stats to your own production and specific activities.
Why keep stats?
There are several reasons you may want to keep stats aside from the obvious stat of income derived from your writing. By breaking down the process and tracking and monitoring other stats you can see how much activity results in income or publication or your desired result. For example, if you had a completed novel and your goal was to get published, you would track how many queries you sent to publishers and as you start to get a response you can see how many queries you have to send in order to get a response. The same would be true for a copywriter looking for more clients, how many promotional letters do you have to send out to get someone reaching back for your services? And then how many bids do you have to give in order to land a client?
The same would hold true for fiction writers who want to publish short stories. How many submissions before you get interest in your story, or publication?
Even if you are just setting out to write a novel, targeting a completion date can help you to get that novel written. Tracking daily and weekly word counts can help you ramp up your efforts if you are falling short or keep you on track if you are clipping along.
In fact, anyone who has their own business or even a large goal they want to accomplish can be helped by using statistics to track their progress. Statistics can help to motivate you and keep your eye on the ball.
While writing is a creative endeavor it is, like any other activity, also a numbers game. The more writing you do, the better you get, and the more consistent you are the better result you reap. And while keeping stats won’t make you a better writer, it will make you a more productive writer and that, as Martha likes to say, is a good thing.
What do you think – would keeping stats help you as a writer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Whether you are a freelance writer, a fiction writer or both you probably have times when you don’t get a lot of writing done. Because let’s face it, life gets in the way and most of us harbor a certain amount of guilt in being writers— because we do it at home and often in pajamas, maybe it just doesn’t seem like real work. But the guilt goes both ways, we also can feel guilty for not writing. For not getting in our precious writing time because if we don’t, how are we ever going to write that best seller or become one of the top copywriters in the country, or the next awesome indie writer?
I don’t know about you but I have a whole list of ‘reasons’ why I didn’t write today. (Not that anyone is keeping track of my writing schedule but me.) Perhaps like you, my inner taskmaster demands explanations for these writing lapses and I’ve developed a list that you may find helpful too:
I didn’t write today because…
- It’s just too damn hot.
- It’s just too damn cold.
- My doctor told me I am allergic to blank pages
- My dog had a weird eye thing and I had to figure out why.
- I had to catch up on Facebook.
- I got paid today and needed to buy things.
- I looked fat in my jeans.
- I’m too damn tired.
- My mind is a sieve.
- I started my diet and couldn’t focus.
- I needed to work out because my ass has gotten too damn fat from all the writing.
- There was a new episode of Master Chef that I had to see.
- I had to go to Starbuck’s and eavesdrop on conversations because I forgot how to write dialogue.
- Writing is hard.
- My story idea needed to percolate more.
- My character is going through a mid-life crisis and I thought I should let her work it out on her own.
- I have writer’s cramp.
- I have writer’s block.
- An editor was mean to me.
- An agent turned me down.
- Zelda talked me into going to a Zumba class.
- I deserve a break for finishing that short story.
- I was looking for a real job.
What’s your excuse for not writing?
How about you, what’s your favorite excuse for not writing? Leave it in the comments and let’s all have a good laugh and then get back to that blank page, eh?
Just do it!
That is the motto of a very famous footwear company which happens to make my favorite brand of shoe – but the idea isn’t new or even original. It’s basic. It’s fundamental. It’s the command we give ourselves when we have whittled things down to the simple truth of life and the pursuit thereof.
My ‘just do it” has to do with working on that novel and entering that contest and sending out that submission. I haven’t been just doing it – no, not at all. And frankly no matter what my excuse is and I’ve had plenty, I still feel like crap when I don’t just do it.
So here and now and before witnesses I promise I will just do it. I will just do the writing because it won’t do itself. I will just sit down and finish that story and enter that contest and be a writer. Instead of a working stiff, a dog mommy, a housekeeper, cook, errand runner and TV watcher.
No matter what your goals are as a writer, the only way to get where you want to go is to just do it. Make the time because life won’t make it for you. Your kids or husband or friends or family won’t excuse you so you can go write. The television will always have some movie or show you are dying to see but that’s what TiVo and recorders are for.
And while you may not reach your ultimate goal, you will get somewhere – eventually. If you just keep at it. Keep making notes and eavesdropping on interesting conversations at Starbucks and watching interesting characters at the local saloon and then rush home to write about them and it – you will get there. You will write and you will write and one day someone will read it and maybe lots of someones will read it and they will wonder where you and your stories have been all their lives.
If you don’t. If you nap instead. Or watch that rerun of Desperate Housewives or even opt for laundry, rather than that next chapter. No one will ever know what stories you had to tell.
So I hope you’ll sharpen your pencils, uncap your pencils and fire up your computers and just do it. I know I’m going to.
In fact I’m thinking I’ll be finishing another novel in the not too distant future. Fun, eh?
What about you? What is your next project? Are you putting it off or just doing it?
In the writing world much is said about plots and plotting in general can lead to many a writer’s frustration. There are many theories about plots but perennial favorites are that:
- There are only two basic plots
- There are 36 basic plots
- There are no new plots
- Every plot possible has already been used/created
No matter where you may stand on the above, knowing the difference between plot driven and character driven stories can only help you strengthen your story.
Plot driven stories are tales in which the story is more important than the individual characters. It is the type of story that Hollywood calls ‘high concept’ and often involves stories that are larger than life like, alien invasions of Earth, a global outbreak of a virulent disease, or some other disaster that will affect the human race on a large scale. Think, Jurassic Park, Outbreak, Meteor, and The Matrix.
Conversely, in character driven stories the characters take center stage and drive the plot. In fact, the story is the characters themselves, how they change, what they learn, wisdom gained or not. Hollywood may refer to these stories as ‘small films’ and foreign films are often character oriented and tell the story of the characters. Think Taxi Drive, Silence of the Lambs, and Rocky. In these stories we come to know the characters generally on a deeper level and care more strongly about what happens to them.
Examples of each type
Examples of character-driven stories include:
- The Quest – the protagonist searches for a person, place or thing and the story usually results in the hero experiencing a large personal change and a gain of personal wisdom about something. Think Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz.
- The Transformation – the protagonist goes through a process of change and ends with a clarifying incident that enables the character to understand the nature of his experience and how it has affected him. Think My Fair Lady, Ordinary People, On the Waterfront, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Examples of plot-driven stories include:
- The Pursuit – this type of story is one character or group of characters chasing another. Generally the story is the chase and there are no large characters arcs or introspection. Think, The Terminator, Sugarland Express, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
- The Riddle (mystery) – this story is pretty well known by most – something happens we want to know why and whodunit. Clues, are tucked among the story for the reader to discover the answer to the riddle. Think Memento, Rear Window, and The Maltese Falcon.
Of course some stories can be a combination of two or more types within the plot-driven and character-driven categories. If you’re interested in knowing more about character and plot driven stories, I recommend you pick up a copy of 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias. The book is easy to read, very informative, and will definitely help any writer determine what type of plot will work best for their story.
Not long ago I was talking to a friend about writing and he mentioned that though he was doing well with non-fiction, his fiction was problematic. Specifically he complained of two-dimensional and flat characters that failed to come to life.
A lot of writers are very good at creating characters and some even have a natural talent for creating, living, breathing, three-dimensional people without working up a sweat. While other writers have to apply all manner of life support in order to just get their characters to breathe on their own. Most of us are somewhere in between the two extremes. While not all stories are character driven, characters are an integral part of any story and the more real you can make your characters the more memorable your story will be. Following are a few tips for adding dimension to your characters:
- It’s all in the details. Even in the sprawling acreage of a novel, you simply cannot slow the story down in order to fill in everything there is to know about a character. Rather it’s the details that you reveal about a character that tells the reader who he or she is. For example, rather than spending several paragraphs describing your character’s miserly ways, make him a lousy tipper, who uses coupons when dining out, and takes advantage of the endless bread basket or soda glass.
- Keeping dialogue real. As a fiction writer you have an obligation to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, and spend inordinate amounts of time listening to people. Pay attention to regional accents and phrasing. Southerners speak differently than northerners. Sad people speak more slowly and insecure people may stutter. And while punctuation and proper grammar is important in prose, people rarely are grammatically correct when they speak. The point is, no two people speak exactly alike, neither should your characters.
- Modeling characters after real people. While it’s probably not smart to use your mom or your cousin Elma as a character in your story, you could borrow a characteristic or two from them – a turn of phrase, a quirky habit. For example when I have a character who is on the crusty side I think of my dad. I don’t fashion the character after him but I think of his habits, phraseology, and what his responses would be to certain circumstances. It kind of puts in that universe where that type of character lives.
- Physical descriptions. Many writers like to give a full physical description of a character, others give little to no physical description. Personally, I like to sprinkle the character’s physical description through dialogues, the viewpoint of other characters and in attributions. For example, “He trembled so violently that I thought his giant ears would begin flapping and take wing at any moment.”
No matter what your process I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri .The man was a veritable genius on characterization and his book could help any writer with character creation.
How about you? What is your process for creating three-dimensional characters?