Sometimes, despite your enthusiasm for a story idea, you find yourself uncertain where to take the story next. Or a character just isn’t quite coming to life for you—which often, actually, is the reason why we’re finding it hard to move the writing along. One trick I like to employ when this happens is to interview my character(s).
I usually do it silently, in writing, in a separate document from the manuscript itself, though you can try conducting the interview out loud if you like. It could be that imitating the character’s voice is what really animates them for you. I recommend recording the audio if you do it that way, so you have a record of what you came up with. Whichever way you do it, ask them the basics about their background: what was your life like growing up, where do you live now, what are your hobbies and passions? Then ask them about the problem we’ll be dealing with in your fiction: how’d you get into this situation? What do you feel about it? What would you like to do to fix things, and what’s stopping you?
These are of course all the same kinds of questions you’ve already considered in coming up with the story in the first place. But I find you’ll get more lifelike responses if you put the answers in the character’s mouth, rather than in your own omniscient-narrator voice, which is likely to be more detached. This exercise also helps you hear how the character talks, what turns of phrase they’re inclined to use, what dialects or slang they embrace, what tone they take when describing their situation. Will they be polite and hold back emotions, even though we know they’re under there? Or will they rant and complain? Or perhaps display dry humor? Getting them to talk is the way to discover their individual voice.
Tomorrow I’ll post another idea for bringing characters to life, so check back for day 6. And have a great weekend!
Once you’ve chosen what your fiction will be about, how do you start writing? Well, this is where it comes down to the question: are you going to be a plotter, or a pantser?
Being a plotter has worked for me a lot of times, if I need to figure out what this story even is. If it’s going to be on the complicated side and/or my initial idea is still hazy, I benefit from writing out a synopsis of how things might go. (This always gets changed later, as I do the actual writing of the book, so don’t worry about having to stick to the outline too closely.)
However, if I have a good enough idea where the story will be going, and I have no crazy magical rules to figure out, nor intricate cat-and-mouse games to plot, I’ve also successfully written in “pantser” mode—that is, writing by the seat of my pants. (Apparently that’s the origin of the term “pantser.” But I also like the idea of “pantsing” the novel; i.e., just yanking its pants down and getting straight to business without any fancy planned striptease. Not that I actually think of novel writing as sex. Although…hm. You know what, metaphors can be a serious sidetrack. Moving on.)
I don’t think you need to commit strongly to one side or the other, outlining vs. discovery-writing. In my experience, every book’s creation has some elements of both. There are parts you’ll probably have to stop and work out ahead of time in order to proceed properly. But there are sure to be other parts you won’t know about until they happen, springing serendipitously from your keyboard and delighting you with how right they feel even though you just thought of them. So ultimately that’s my advice, which is sort of anti-advice in this case: don’t worry so much about “plotter vs. pantser,” a.k.a. “outlining vs. free-writing.” If you can’t figure out where to start or where it’s going, try some outlining. If you’re eager to get in there and write and just see where it goes, do that. You’ll be all right.
Welcome to day 3 in fiction-writing Ideas Off The Top of My Head! Today's tip...
3. Don’t write it unless you love it.
When choosing what to write your story about, pick the idea (perhaps from your story idea file) that excites you right now the most. Not what you think will sell the best, or what your friend says would be really cool to read, or what would make your high school English teacher proudest. Unless you get a crazily rabid fan base (which most of us won’t), it’s safe to say no one will care about this book as much as you do, nor spend as much time with it as you will. So pick a plot and a set of characters you will seriously freaking love.
That said: keep in mind you probably won’t love them immediately. It’s fine if you only like them at first. In fact, this rule, while lovely and simple and very important to follow, is actually perhaps one of the hardest to follow, because it’s not always easy to zero in on what you most want to write about. So start with the central bits, the idea(s) that you’re almost certain you want to include. A particular couple who should fall in love. A certain magical location. A historical time and place. A mood, even: funny, scary, romantic, suspenseful. Thinking back on stories you’ve loved will probably help you choose what you most want.
Then when you have your central kernel or two of inspiration, start embroidering around it. What might you do with this couple, this magic, this time in history, this idea of scariness or hilarity or what have you? Specifically, what do you want to do with it? Presumably this is going to be a book you wish existed in the world, because you would love to read it, so what kind of stuff would happen in a book like that?
It’s all yours. Make it happen. Keep working on it, and even if you don’t feel the love at first, it will engulf you as you write further, as long as you’ve chosen subject matter you can seriously dig.
2. Keep a story idea file.
You probably come up with a cool idea for a story from time to time, but are too busy to do anything with it, and in fact aren’t sure you’ll ever use it. But still, it is a cool idea…so write it down! Keep a story idea file. I use a regular old Word document, but you can use a notebook if you’re old-school, or a note-keeping app on your phone, or whatever you like. This is a small file; this isn’t where you expand your ideas into full story outlines. This is where you write down a sentence or two about your idea, so that later, if you want inspiration, you can look at your list of ideas and spark your imagination with one of these lines.
Where do you get story ideas? Anywhere, really. Could be an anecdote someone told you about their grandma. Or a quirky story in the news. Or a vivid dream you had. A piece of art (visual, musical, you name it) that enthralls you. Anything that triggers your curiosity. For me, books of fairy tales or mythology are instant story-idea generators, so that’s another good source: take an old story you like (as long as it’s in the public domain) and tell it in a new way, with your own unique changes. (Given I wrote a trilogy based on Greek-myth characters, and also a novel inspired by a Christina Rossetti poem, I obviously am fond of this source of ideas.)
Gender-swap is another fun tool for adapting old stories or common tropes into something new. Imagine a Sleeping Beauty who’s male, and a female in armor trying to fight through the brambles to reach him. Or a Taming of the Shrew where the tamer is a woman and the shrew is a guy. POV change is also interesting: pick a character whose point of view we don’t usually see, and tell the story from theirs. (Disney’s Maleficent, for example.)
So brainstorm a few crazy ideas, even if you aren’t going to use them anytime soon. It’s a good exercise in creativity, and no one’s going to see and judge your file except you; and hey, maybe you will turn one of them into an awesome story someday.
1. Analyze books you love. And TV shows and movies. Stories anywhere, really.
Take one of your absolute favorite novels, or TV episodes, or films, or plays, or other form of storytelling. Read (or watch or listen to) it again. Pick out exactly what the features are that make you love it. The setting and the way it’s shown and used? Certain characters’ personalities, and the way they change (or refuse to) over the story? The dialogue? The beauty of the language? The overall atmosphere and mood?
Then once you’ve listed the stuff you love, make another list; or rather, more like an outline, a sequence. What happens in the story, briefly, and in what order? Reverse-engineer the plot. How does it begin? How does the story introduce us to the characters and the conflict? How does it make us care what happens? Notice pacing: how quickly (or slowly) does the story unfold? What are the big events, and how much time do we (and the characters) have to recover and react between them? Notice mood too: how does each scene make you feel, and how did it accomplish that? Also notice what each scene is there for, because each one most likely serves some important purpose in the story.
Once you’ve vivisected a beloved story in this way, you end up with a better idea of how to construct one you’ll enjoy working on yourself.
That’s all for today. Come back for tip #2 tomorrow!
A very belated happy new year! I'm glad to have this news to share with you today: my new novel The Goblins of Bellwater, though it won't be out until fall, is at least up for pre-order now on Amazon and other sites, and you can admire the cover art in the meantime:
If you're a Goodreads user, I also encourage you to add the book to your shelves over there. It's no commitment or cost, and it will help your friends learn about it, and lead to more readers being interested in it, or such is the theory.
You can read the back-cover blurb on those sites, but I'll put it here too to save you from clicking through:
A new novel inspired by Christina Rossetti's spooky, sensual poem "Goblin Market"...
Most people have no idea goblins live in the woods around the small town of Bellwater, Washington. But some are about to find out. Skye, a young barista and artist, falls victim to a goblin curse in the forest one winter night, rendering her depressed and silenced, unable to speak of what happened. Her older sister, Livy, is at wit's end trying to understand what's wrong with her. Local mechanic Kit would know, but he doesn't talk of such things: he's the human liaison for the goblin tribe, a job he keeps secret and never wanted, thrust on him by an ancient family contract.
Then Kit starts dating Livy, and Skye draws Kit's cousin Grady into the spell through an enchanted kiss in the woods. Skye and Grady are doomed to become goblins and disappear from humankind forever, unless Livy, the only one untainted by enchantment, can unravel the spell by walking a dangerous magical path of her own.
By the way, you can read Rossetti's "Goblin Market" for free online. It's one strange Victorian paranormal ride, I'll tell you right now. Great fodder for a modern paranormal romance.
In related news, you can read a new interview with me here about my writing. I tackle, among other topics, that infamous "Which books would you take with you to a desert island?" question. Actually, I evade it, more like.
Hope you are reading lots of good books lately! Touch base and say hi.
It’s been easy for everyone to bemoan how much 2016 sucked. I don’t need to rehash the more traumatizing parts of the news for you.
Instead I’m going to write a post of things that were good in 2016. For me, at least.
Of my novel-writing projects:
Immortal’s Spring was released in June, and wrapped up my Persephone-myth-based trilogy. By that time I had also finished writing The Goblins of Bellwater, about which you’ll hear more soon, and started writing (rewriting, actually) Boy in Eyeliner, a guy/guy love story in modern day with many a nod to '80s new wave music and fashion. I just finished a complete first draft of that and will be hitting up some beta readers to critique it in a couple of weeks here. I have been completely loving it, proving that immersing myself in a creative project I genuinely dig is the way to save my sanity.
The Monkees released a new album, and it was awesome. Yes, I was as surprised about that whole sentence as you are. Such a treat for us lifelong Monkees fans.
A few other groups I’ve discovered this year and adore (not to say they all have new albums this year, just new to me): Bleachers, Børns, Nicole Atkins, Julian Casablancas, Temples.
Grantchester has been a British-murder-mystery delight.
New Girl is appealingly funny so far.
Gilmore Girls ran their revival (discussed in an earlier post).
I’ve watched the first episode of Call the Midwife and am much inspired and will watch more.
New Sherlock underway, hurrah!
Of skin products:
My fussy, sensitive skin is actually liking the routine I give it now, with many of these products being ones I first tried in 2016. None of them cost ridiculous amounts, either, which is good because I’m also fussy about not spending too much on products:
Wash morning and night with CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser (and wash really well, but with fingertips only, no washcloth or other harsh scrubbing)
In morning: simple rosewater as toner (I like the food-grade Cortas brand; comes in cute glass drink bottle, and you can in fact put some in your drinks or cooking too if you want), and follow up with a little bit of Toulon Cellular Defense Face Moisturizer.
In evening: I usually don’t bother with toner, and put on some Oz Natural Super Youth Retinol Moisturizer.
Special treatment for the aging eyes: I like the movie-star trick of dabbing a tiny bit of petroleum jelly around my eyes, morning and night. Also, DON’T RUB YOUR EYES. Yeah, it feels good, but you drag the skin around and cause more wrinkling, bagginess, and discoloration over time. Crow’s feet from smiling, though: I embrace those.
Some tried in 2016 that I loved:
Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel: a “Dad’s aftershave” kind of scent, nice and cheap too, but especially fresh and bracing. Hint of powdery violet in the mix as well.
Agent Provocateur: also nice and cheap. Considering I usually only LIKE rose scents, not love them, I’m surprised how much this has grabbed me. Musky, elegant, reminiscent of red lipstick; reminds me of something Satine in Moulin Rouge might wear.
Gres Cabochard: yet another that’s inexpensive. Handy that way. A lot of similarity to Robert Piguet Bandit (which I also love), in that it’s a strange but captivating green-plus-leather blend. Bad-ass in an old-fashioned way.
Etat Libre d’Orange The Afternoon of a Faun: “vegetal” is a good word for this one. It almost smells like celery sometimes, but in a sweet and earthy way, thanks to the immortelle and other notes. It lingers and stays warm and alluring, and is decidedly unique.
Tauervillle Incense Flash: this is a big YES for those of us who like smoky incense scents. With a suggestion of campfire in this one. Beautiful.
Profumum Roma Audace: vetiver done smooth. Warm and green like an overgrown humid summer riverside.
Solstice Scents Sycamore Chai: warm slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, drying down to a lovely and non-cloying marshmallow-vanilla.
Solstice Scents Maplewood Inn: sweet mug of chai with a fire burning in the hearth and freshly split pine logs next to it.
Papillon Salome: makes me think of Colette’s stories: a woman's apartment dedicated to shameless sensual luxury; cigarettes and long-slept-in bedsheets, but also fresh pretty flowers brought in daily, and the nicest of soaps in the bath.
...and I'll stop there. For now.
Look at news, see Carrie Fisher has died.
Step 1: Don't cry.
Step 2: Fail step 1.
"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out..."
Carrie, you were unvarnished and eccentric and troubled and hot and smart and sassy, and showed us that a female icon can be all those things at once. Thank you.
Love to her friends and family, and to all the hurting fans whom 2016 has trampled thoroughly. (Shout-out to George Michael's memory too...sigh.)
While (badly) playing songs on piano tonight from my book of Christmas sheet music, I found myself amused, as I am every year, by the repeated insistence on figgy pudding in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." I mean, it's the subject of three of the four verses. So I tweeted about that, and got an even more amusing response out of the blue within minutes.
Speaking of holiday carols: as someone slightly more inclined toward paganism than Christianity (though I have a Christmas tree in the house and Christmas music and all that--I count as a "cultural Christian" when it comes to some of the holidays), I have to tip the hat every year to "Deck the Halls," which is possibly the only popular carol that doesn't reference Christmas or Jesus anywhere in it. It's all about Yuletide and greenery and harps and gay apparel and fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. Also it's ridiculously cheerful.
So, I wish you a merry Christmas, a happy new year, a joyous Yule, a happy Hanukkah, and good times in whatever else you might be up to at the end of this calendar year. And of course I really hope you get figgy pudding. If that's actually any good. I'm not sure I've tried it, to be honest.