Pick a Number

Pick a Number

“Pick a number, any number!” probably makes you think of the lottery or a carnival.  In writing, picking a number can mean so much more.  I have this number I like to call my “magic number.” Every time I am writing or brainstorming, I always refer to that number and try to use it to define my universe.  My magic number is three, your mileage may vary.

“What’s all this nonsense about magic numbers?” You ask.  “I’m an English major, I hate numbers!” I’m not particularly a fan of numbers either, but this is a situation where I always make an exception.  Let’s say that you’re trying to decide how many main characters to create for your story.  You want something manageable, but you want enough characters that you can bounce around your ideas between them.  You want them to be fully developed people, so you cannot create so many of them that you can never describe them all.  Here’s where your magic number comes into play.  Let’s say your magic number is four– you would come up with four main characters, develop them, then set them loose in your universe together!  “What universe is that?”  You wonder.  Use your magic number:  They are traveling the four ancient kingdoms at the four corners of the world to meet the monarchs of each kingdom and collect the four treasures handed down by each nation to bring to the center of the world to unite all peoples.  You can go really crazy with this and use your magic number everywhere.  Each kingdom’s royal family could have four people in it, there could be four donkeys along on the journey to carry supplies, there could be four towns they stop at in between each kingdom, etc.  It’s a way to create structure.

You don’t have to be strict about using the magic number.  The point of magic is that it’s fluid despite its rules.  The magic number is mainly there because it can be a huge help when you’re brainstorming or you’re stuck.

Example #2:  Your hero is trapped in a cave by the villain who has (of course) kidnapped the hero’s significant other and left the hero stranded and essentially dead.  How is your hero to escape this situation?  If your magic number is five, try to think up five different ways he could get out of the situation. 1) He has magical earth shifting powers and shakes the rocks from the cave-in loose to escape.  2) He discovers a hidden passage and when he is weak and thin enough to fit, he crawls out to safety.  3) He labors over moving the rocks for hours and is about to give up and despair when his buddy/sidekick arrives on the other side and frees him.  4) Secretly, the hero meant to get trapped in this cave to lull the villain into a false sense of security and previously set up a contraption to release the rocks with minimal fuss at the press of a button.  5) There’s always magic lamps and genies.

Having multiple ways to approach the situation can help you learn a lot about your character.  If, as you’re thinking of them, you think, “My hero is way too dumb to come up with the trap thing,” then you realize he’s more the “I’ll be rescued by my buddy” type and you’ve taught the reader and yourself something valuable.  This also leaves you with four valid ideas to use in later pieces or that you could substitute later if you decide “Getting rescued by a friend” ends up being too cliché.

When picking your magic number, try to stay in the single digits.  Ten might work, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than that because things will get complicated.  Ten kingdoms, yes.  Ten main characters, not quite so much.  Pick something that works for you and go for it.  You’ll be surprised by how much of a difference it makes.

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If You’re Bored, So Are We

If You’re Bored, So Are We

Every book has one:  that scene you feel like you have to write because it’s important to the plot.  Meanwhile, you’re thinking that scene is the most boring thing in the world to write and you’re banging your head on your desk hoping it’ll be over soon so you can get back to the good stuff.

Put your feelings about the scene into perspective:  if you don’t want to write it, why is your reader going to want to read it? Examine the scene for what it is you really need to convey and ask yourself:  “Is there another way I can get this information across?”

Have a character discover the ancient prophecy under the squeaky floorboard in their room instead of droning on about it for three pages in the beginning of the book.  Have that scene where some old guy tells you all about the burning of a local village change into a scene from the villain’s perspective as he actually burns the village down.  Instead of that footnote at the bottom of the page, include the tale of how the town statue became famous in a funny story about how the main character’s best friend got drunk and threw up on it one time, then was arrested for defacing a local landmark.

There’s always another way.  That’s why we call it “creative” writing.

Build a World Just Like a Character

Build a World Just Like a Character

Building an entire world for your characters to live in can be a daunting task.  There are places to consider, cultures, rules, geography, modes of transportation…the list goes on and on.  You can set about this task any number of ways, but I think the best advice I ever got for this was:  Build your world like you would build a character.

For me, building a character is the easiest part of story-crafting.  I have lists of character traits and questions and things I should consider when creating characters and I used to spend hours filling these lists out and making more characters just for the fun of it, even if I would never use them.  Finding out their quirks and filling their backgrounds with the details that make them into the person they are when the story takes place was thrilling for me.  When I took this approach with world-building I was astonished by the difference it made.  When your world is a character instead of just a place, you ask different questions.  What is the world’s personality?  Is it a gloomy place with sagging buildings and icy rain?  Is it a place of wonder with the latest technological marvels and flying machines and mechanized walkways?  What are the world’s quirks and idiosyncrasies?  Do people like to ride on giant chicken-like birds for fun even though the latest airships are readily available? (Final Fantasy). Is there a forest around the town that residents are told never to go through because a monster lives within, and yet the only girl brave enough to venture into said forest is blind? (The Village) Is there a castle up on the local hill that spews smoke and changes location daily? (Howl’s Moving Castle). Knowing what your world looks like is part of portraying how it acts.

So the next time you have a world to create, build it the same way you would build a character and see if that makes a difference.  The results may just surprise you.

Defeating Your Inner Critic

Defeating Your Inner Critic

There will be millions of voices that say, “This isn’t good enough.” The hardest one to overcome is the one that comes from inside yourself.  It’s the dark monster in the pit, whispering (sometimes shouting) in your ear, “No one is going to like this, I don’t even like this, this is the stupidest thing anyone has ever written, why would anyone read this? I don’t want to write this anymore.  It just isn’t good enough.” Sometimes that inner voice, the inner critic, can become so loud it’s deafening.  Soon you’re editing more than you’re writing, and the red pen comes out and one big slash goes across the page and your inner critic is laughing with glee, but you are crying in despair.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Fear is one of the most paralyzing foes of the writer.  It creeps up behind you, latches onto your back and refuses to let go.  You have to find a way to punch through that fear, say, “get lost” to your inner critic and fight on.  Yes, there will be a time for you to nitpick every little word and piece of punctuation you have written.  That’s what editing is.  When the inner critic is more hindrance than help is during the initial writing process, when the fingers first hit the keyboard.  If you’re constantly doubting every key you press, you’ll never make it past the first line, let alone the first paragraph.

So what to do?  Kick the inner critic to the side, tell it firmly to wait its turn, and then move along.  There are all sorts of ways to do this, but it basically comes down to two main tactics:  discipline and distraction.

The Discipline Method

This is literally forcing yourself to keep going.  No matter what mistakes you make, no matter how loud the inner critic yells, you keep going.  No backspacing, no erasing, no scribbling out the words with a furious pen.  You just keep going until you hit the point you want to stop.  Yes, you may end up with a train wreck you’ll have to fix later.  The point is that you can fix it.  You can’t fix it if nothing’s there.

The Distraction Method

This is exactly what it sounds like:  distract your brain.  Multi-tasking is really just the brain ping-ponging its attention from one thing to the next.  The brain can only handle so much back and forth, so distracting it is a great way to make the inner critic go from “This is so stupid” to “Oh, look, candy!” You can put on the TV in the background, play some music, munch some literal candy, whatever it takes.  Just make that inner critic focus on the shiny background stuff instead of whatever you’re writing.

I’m not going to say this is easy, but it is worth it.  Remember that even a small step is still a step.

Your vs. You’re (And Why You’re Tearing Your Hair Out Over the Difference)

Your vs. You’re (And Why You’re Tearing Your Hair Out Over the Difference)

Ah, grammar.  That lovely friend who likes to trip us up all the time.  Even when you’re trying to be polite, it rears its ugly head.  When somebody says, “Thank you,” you want to reply in kind.  But is it “you’re welcome” or “your welcome?” Let’s go over which one the grammar gods have deemed correct and why. (It’s “you’re welcome,” for those who like to skip to the end.)

Once again, it’s a matter of possession versus contractions.  This was also detailed in my its vs. it’s post: Its vs. It’s (And Why It’s So Confusing!)  Now let’s go over possession versus contractions in the case of your versus you’re.

Possession is ownership.  Nemo’s anemone, Ella’s curse, etc.  So how do we show ownership when we’re talking about what someone owns without naming names?  Your.

“It’s your painting, I don’t know why you want me to take it to the gallery.” or “Your house is so pretty!” are two examples of “your” showing possession.  The most common error I see with “your vs you’re” is people get so tired of figuring out which is which that they just slap “your” on everything and forget the other option exists.

The other option, “you’re” is actually a contracted word.  It stands for “you are.” So everywhere you see the word “you’re,” replace it with “you are” in your head and see if it works.

“You’re so pretty!” becomes “You are so pretty!” Which works.

“You’re house is so pretty!” becomes “You are house is so pretty!” Which does not work.

So “You’re welcome” is right because it stands for “You are welcome,” which is the “proper” way to say it.  If you have any fancy ye-olden characters, feel free to just have them say “You are welcome” and forget the contraction all together.  For the rest of us slang-ridden mortals, “You’re welcome” works just fine.

Your Ideas, All in One Place

Your Ideas, All in One Place

There are a few essential tools in every Writer’s arsenal:  the pen or pencil, the laptop or typewriter, the ever-present red pen.  There’s one tool you may have been neglecting, and which will make your writing life so much simpler.  An Idea Notebook.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical notebook:  you could use programs like Evernote or Sticky Notes on your laptop or your One Note program on your Microsoft tablet.  Whatever you choose, keeping all your ideas in one place makes it much easier to find them later.

How many times have you had an idea that slipped away before you could jot it down?  I did exactly this recently when I had an idea for two separate and related blog posts while riding in the car.  I had left my idea notebook at home and by the time I got there I had no earthly idea what those ideas had been.  Writing the idea down allows you to look at it later and remind yourself what you were thinking about and what you wanted to do with that idea.  (So long as you don’t write and drive at the same time.)

It isn’t enough though, to just jot the idea down any old place.  The numerous sticky notes cluttering my drawers can attest to that.  That is why having a catch-all place or a “notebook” is so key to success:  you don’t have to rifle through drawers or under your bed, you just have to find your notebook.  I would also recommend dividing it into sections or categories, that way you can find specific ideas easier.  I have a separate section for each book I want to work on, a section for blog post ideas, a section for random ideas, etc.  This organization makes it so that, when I’m stuck, I can go back through my ideas for inspiration.

So whether it’s a notebook and a pen tucked into your wallet or an app on your smart phone, keep your ideas with you.  You never know when you’ll need them.

Why Scheduling Your Writing Time is so Difficult

Why Scheduling Your Writing Time is so Difficult

So you want to be a writer.  How many times have you googled “ways to be a productive writer” and gotten the advice, “Make a schedule”? Schedules are helpful when it comes to planning appointments and crossing items off your to-do list.  Schedules allow you to structure your day and figure out where, when, and how.  So why is it, when we make a schedule for writing, we always manage to find excuses not to write?  “I need to go to the gym instead,” Or “But it’s taco night and I’m in charge of the cooking,” or “You know, I really just want to finish this crossword puzzle first…”

We basically set ourselves up for failure when we do this.  “I didn’t follow my writing schedule last week, so why would I follow it this week?” Sure, sometimes life gets in the way.  I think we get in our own way just as often.  Our fear that we won’t stick to a schedule or that sticking to a schedule won’t get us any results paralyzes us and causes us to avoid writing all together.  It won’t matter how flexible your writing schedule is.  So long as you live in that place of fear, you will always find reasons not to write.

So you want to be a writer.  Why?  Does it fill you with a crazy energy, does it make you feel alive, does it make you happy?  Then write.  Push your inner judge and jury to the side and just let yourself write for the sheer pleasure of it.  Before you know it, you’ll be writing more often, and scheduling less often.  When it comes to something you enjoy and are determined to do, it won’t matter if it’s on your schedule, you’ll make time for it even it it’s not.