Starting is the hardest part about writing. I mean, seriously. That first sentence? It’s terrifying. Especially if you’ve taken a break between projects, when you first start out, it’s…just…ugh. It sucks.
You’re afraid to start because everything you write down is ugh. So you procrastinate. Eventually an idea will hit you, right? After you get your epiphany, you’ll dish out some super fantabulicous writing hash, and you’ll be the next best seller.
Wrong. You have to suck first.
Video Credit: Maureen Johnson via VLOGBROTHERS
Writing is like exercising: The more you do it, the stronger and more confident you become. You get to know yourself by learning your limits and testing to see how far you can push them.
And just like any true workout, sometimes writing sucks. We make our goals, we plan to achieve them…and then, after a full day of school and homework and paperwork and workworkwork, that pillow looks a bit more enticing than the computer.
While we see other writers plowing through 30 pages a day, we look at them and think, What? How the heck did you manage that, you freak?
My aunt is one such freak—but for literal exercising, not writing. After her “morning stroll” (a 30-mile bike ride) she finds time throughout the day to weight train, work her horse, or run. And it’s not like my aunt has a lot of time to waste, either: She just knows how to get ‘er done.
So how can you become a freak? How can you train to run a 30-page marathon if your usual jog is 2 pages? You start small…and then you grow.
- “Set a goal, make a plan, and follow the plan!” – (That’s my aunt talking, by the way.) Although many writers make vague goals, they don’t always plan out how to achieve them. Say you want to finish your book within a year. That’s an awesome goal—and it’s achievable if you plan out how to pull it off. Make yourself a schedule. What will you need to do each month? What assignment do you want completed by the end of the week? What will you do today?
- Don’t Let Yourself Slack Off – You brush your teeth every morning, right? Do you ever think, Gah. You know, I just don’t feel like brushing my teeth today. I don’t have the energy. No! Or, if those thoughts do cross your mind, you suck it up and brush your teeth anyway so that you don’t gas out your fellow man. Try waking up a half an hour earlier and get in a few more words before work. If you can’t write as soon as the alarm goes off, fine. Get yourself all prepped and beautiful first…and then write. Whatever you do, make sure you write every day. Make it a habit—and don’t break it.
- Get a Buddy – It’s a lot easier to bail on your goals if you only have yourself to deal with. However, if you partnered up with someone and checked on each other’s progress, that might give you an extra incentive. Competition is healthy.
- Mark Your Calendar – Every day you work on your project, mark a nice, fat “X” on the calendar. It provides a visual so you can see just how productive (or unproductive) you’ve been for the month.
- Write Down Your Goals – Post them on the mirror, on the bathroom door, over the “snooze” button on your alarm clock…wherever you’re bound to see them. This is another tip from my aunt, and it’s one that works.
- Become Handy Smurf – (For those of you that are unfamiliar to the blue crew, Handy Smurf is the inventor who drives everyone crazy. He’s creative, helpful, and kind of annoying. Basically, if you took Flik out of Disney’s A Bug’s Life and turned into a blue dude with overalls and a pencil stuck behind his ear, you’d have Handy Smurf.) The best part about this guy? Handy Smurf doesn’t pause to wonder what other people will think of his ideas. He just goes. So as soon as you get an idea, act on it. Even if it’s just a smidgen of a thought, take that pencil from behind your ear and write it down. Chances are that, as your pencil starts going, more ideas will follow.
- Break it up – You don’t have to bulk your writing sessions into hour-long paper crunchers. I don’t know about you, but my attention span isn’t that long. Set a timer for, say, 20 minutes. Before you start, set a mini goal: How much can you accomplish before the dinger sounds? After time’s up, take a five-minute break to run on the treadmill, visit the pets, or snatch a snack. Then make a new goal and set the timer again.
Can you guys think of any other tips that I didn’t mention above? Add your comments!
What do dossier, derriere, Medusa, and lollapalooza have in common? Nada. Absolutely nothing.
And that’s the beauty of it.
Ideas creep up on you. They stalk you and only appear when the moment seems the most absurd. I mean, think about it: You don’t plan on having a sudden inspiration. It just happens.
Byron Gordon and I had an…interesting…conversation in response to one of his posts, How To Write Compelling Characters. The write-up in itself was rather awesome, and you should read it. But more magic happened when our two minds combined, and we created our own writing prompt.
Meshing random words together.
We started with dossier and derriere, simply because they sounded fantabulicious together. Byron wrote his poem and challenged me to write my own.
Of course I couldn’t back down.
So I added a couple more random words to mine (Medusa and lollapalooza)…and threw this together. However, before I publish my own response to this writing prompt, here’s yours:
Get a list of random words together. For ideas, I listed a few awesome words below, but you could also Google “awesome words,” check out this website, or try out dictionary.com’s word quizzes.
Okay. Now. Write something. Anything. It can be a poem, a paragraph, or a song. Whatever you like. Just take a few words and link them together.
- Lay: to set something* down
- Lie: to rest (or to tell an untruth, but nobody really cares about that definition at the moment)
* The “something” is important. Just in case the underline wasn’t enough to point that out.
Present tense isn’t that hard. Either you lie on the bed or you lay the pillow down; either you rest on the bed or you set the pillow down.
Notice that there is no “something” when you use the verb lie. You just lie down. That’s it. End of action. All you’re doing is resting. However, in order to use the verb lay, you need a “something” – a subject. In order to set something down, you need that something to set down. So you lay the pillow down.
Past tense is…interesting. Why? Well, the past tense of lay is laid. And the past tense of lie is lay.
If you wanted to say that you rested yesterday on the couch, you would say that yesterday you lay on the couch. And if you wanted to say that you set the pillow down yesterday, you’d say that yesterday you laid the pillow down.
Stupid, I know.
While we’re at it, why don’t we get into past participles? As a quick definition, you use the past participle of a verb if something has happened. This is more than just past tense; you also need the word has, had, or have. (Example: Bobby, despite all odds, has graduated.) If someone refers to “passive” language, this is what the person is talking about: using past participles.
Lie’s past participle is lain. Lay’s past participle is laid – the same as regular past tense.
A few examples?
Lie: The dog has lain in the mud.
Lay: The owner has laid a blanket on the ground for the dog to step on.
Still confused? Here’s a chart that organizes the different tenses:
|Present Tense||Past Tense||Past Participle|
So you’ve decided to write a story. Yay! Congratulations. First step complete.
Now. While you can write about shiny vampires and zombie apocalypses all you want to, just so you know, I won’t read them. Why? You need to come up with something original to make your story stand out.
Kill the clichés.
But say you really wanted to write about a wizard school. Okay. Fine. But you sure as heck had better come up with something that’ll make your readers think, Oh. Okay. So this isn’t a complete cop-out of Harry Potter.
And how the heck do you do that?
As writers, we need to be creative. Sorry, but there is no way to get around it. If you want to write about Harry Po—about wizards, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
But don’t worry! Remember: A story isn’t comprised of a single idea. You need a setting and characters. Subplots. Themes. You can do this. We can do this.
Continuing with the wizard idea, let’s make a new story that’s completely different than Harry Potter. But it will still center on a boy who goes to wizard school.
- Setting: Underwater. Duh. That’s why we non-magical folk haven’t found the wizards yet: They’re buried under the ocean. Of course, this’ll open up a few more opportunities, too. How do the wizards get oxygen? Do they have gills? Do they even need oxygen?
- Protagonist: Harry Potter’s noble. He’s the all-around hero. So let’s do the opposite of that: In our wizard story, our protagonist will be the antagonist. Mean, creepy, clumsy, and loaded with sarcastic comments. He’ll be tall. Gauntly. But he can’t have black hair. Nope. How about…blonde? And icy blue eyes. And crooked teeth.
- Subplots: Wait. We didn’t actually discuss our main plot here. Okay. So, say our protagonist wants to exploit the school and show it to all of the non-magical folk. That’s not a very creative idea, but whatever. We’ve got subplots on our side. Why? Because we need a “why.” Why would our protagonist want to show the school to the non-magical folk? What’s his back story? And who tries to stop him? How does this person (or group of people) find out about our protagonist’s plans?
- Themes: What sort of a message do we want to send to our readers? What should they learn after reading this story? Maybe that change is good. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the non-magical people found out about the wizards. Or, perhaps if our protagonist fails in his mission, that failure isn’t always the end of the world.
Okay. So we have our story outline complete (though it is rather bare). Does this sound anything like Harry Potter? No. Not at all. (And, by the way, if anyone wants to write this story, feel free. Just make sure that you give me a link to the finished copy—because I would love to read it.)
What we have here is a three-dimensional story idea that actually might turn out somewhat okay if someone decided to write it. And the best part? It’s original.
It sounds pretty simple, right? Telling the difference between these two words should be easy shmeezy? No problemo?
Well…that’s because it is simple. Most of the time, anyway.
Usually, “passed” is the verb “pass” in past tense. (Ha! See what I did there?) So if you said, “Bobalababingbong passed us,” “passed” is the verb in the sentence.
However, if you said, “Bobalababingbong walked past,” “walked” is the verb in the sentence. “Past” is only an adverb. (Depending on the sentence, “past” can also be a noun, adjective, or preposition.)
Here’s a nifty trick: If you can’t tell if “passed” is the verb in the sentence, rewrite it in the present tense.
- For instance, instead of saying, “Bobalababingbong passed us,” you could write, “Bobalababingbong passes us.” – “Passed” changes, so it’s a verb.
- However, if you tried to change “Bobalababingbong walked past” to present tense, you would say, “Bobalababingbong walks past.” – “Past” does not change, so it isn’t a verb.
Most of the time, as described above, “passed” is a verb, and “past” is everything else.
We all know that the English language is stupid and random. Therefore, to follow the pattern of the English language’s randomness, the Rule Makers decided to make things difficult by making a few exceptions to the otherwise simple rule.
So. Here are a few examples of the random exceptions when “passed” is used as an adjective or noun (I took this list from dailywritingtips.com … but I added my own notes as well.) :
- “Don’t speak ill of the passed.” (noun)
– This comes from the phrase “passed-away” … You could also insert “deceased” here instead of “passed.” Of course, if you were talking about “the past,” as in the time that has gone by, you could also say, “Don’t speak ill of the past.”
- “A passed pawn” (adjective)
– Term used in chess.
- “A passed ball” (adjective)
– Term used in baseball.
- “A passed midshipman/fireman/surgeon” (adjective)
– Someone who has passed a period of instruction and qualified through examination – apparently this usage arose in the navy.
Hello from the grave!
Okay. I know I let you guys down by being a lazy bum and letting this blog slide into Davy Jones’ Locker. But no more! I’m peeling away the seaweed and shenanigans that have buried The Writer’s Guide, and I’m letting it rise from the sand.
So no that I’m back, I made a few additions. (See the beautiful drop-down menus? Yeah. Those are new.)
Note to anyone who cares: Most of my posts will be published twice, once as an actual “post” and once as a “page.” If you know what this means, yay. If not, ignore me. It’s really not that important, anyway.
The important thing to remember? I’m here, ready to breathe some life into my dead blog.
Believe it or not, there’s more to the setting than your high school teachers let on. In fact, the setting just might be—aside from characterization, plot, and point of view—the most important element of story writing. Think back to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado; most of the story centers on a description of the catacombs and walls smothered in human remains. The foreshadowing Poe uses by populating the crypt with skeletons creates the suspense and horror necessary to depict a revengeful murder. Even if you’ve never read the story—and if you haven’t, then you most certainly should—doesn’t the image of a dark tomb send shivers down your spine? What if Montresor had killed Fortunato in broad daylight or out in a town square filled with people? The story wouldn’t have the same thrust that Poe intended it to have.
So how do you choose the right setting?
Consider all time frames, planets, climates, and dimensions. Would your story work better if set in the 1600’s or in the future? Mountains or plains? Village or city? Desert or rainforest? Castle or sewer? During a war? If so, which one would best fit your plot? Should the character be by him/herself or with other people? Perhaps your story takes place in a secret society that only a few people know about. Or maybe you would rather shape a new world of your own that no one has ever heard of. Are the laws of gravity the same? What do people drive—or can they drive? Think about the governmental issues that circle the world today…can you think of any that you can relate to your story? Ask yourself questions such as these to make YOUR setting fit YOUR story. Don’t just copy someone else’s.
Do Your Research
If you want your story set in the past, you’re going to have to figure out what daily life was like back then. What did people do on a day-to-day basis? Were there telephones? Electrical lights? Cars? Segregational issues? Would it be possible to interview someone who lived back in that timeframe? If your setting is in the future, you’ll have to think up some cool inventions…take a look at current scientific experiments for ideas. But don’t just use the cliché flying cars idea; be original.
Keep it Consistent
No matter what setting you choose, you have to make sure that it all makes sense and that you keep the rules of your society consistent throughout your story. Do not make the mistake of changing something halfway through to fit your story…your readers will pick up on it, and they will be annoyed. I guarantee it.
Set the Mood
Remember Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado? His setting was perfect for his story because it helped to establish the eerie mood that he was looking for. If you want your setting to be bright and cheery, don’t abandon your characters in a place full of shadows and whispers. Likewise, if you want the creepy effect, don’t plop your character on a purple unicorn and send him/her on a quest to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Use your common sense to your advantage.
DETAILS, my Good Son!
Now that you’ve got your setting all planned out, don’t skimp out on your readers. Remember: Live your story! Have fun with it. If you can’t picture what’s going on, your readers definitely won’t be able to.
In order for your readers to fully appreciate your story, you must have realistic characters that they can relate to. Why? Everything that happens in your story—the entire plot line—centers around what happens to the characters. If you can’t make your readers connect to your protagonist—if you can’t create that bond between character and reader—no one will care about what happens in your story. For example, would you spend hours on end worrying about the stranger that you heard about on the news who just got in a car accident? I mean…yeah. You would feel bad for him/her. But as soon as the doorbell rang, signaling that the pizza guy had finally arrived with your dinner, your mind would shift back to your personal life. The situation might be a little different, however, if it was your best friend’s name that appeared on the news.
So. How do you make your characters relatable? How can you make your readers care about what happens to your protagonist? Step One: learn your characters from front to back. I mean, if you don’t understand your characters, how do you expect your readers to? Know their quirks, habits, personalities, reactions, mood swings…everything. Among other methods that you can try, such as checking character trait lists or filling out character charts, one of the best ways to get to know your characters is to complete a character interview.
And what the heck is a character interview? …Well, if you read the name, you can kind of figure out that it’s an interview…for a character. 😉
Pretend that you’re a reporter and your character is the interviewee. Now, in order for a character interview to be successful, you should act like it’s really happening. In other words, write the entire thing in story format. Develop a setting that fits your character’s personality—possibly one that appears in your story—and have him/her react to the questions as if he/she were a real person. Note how your character looks and speaks. Does he/she mumble and keep his/her face toward the ground? Or does he/she stand tall and look you straight in the eye? What is he/she wearing?
Still don’t understand how this works? Check out my sample response in the “Comments” section.
Of course, you need some questions for your interview, right? I’ll list some below. But remember that—depending on your story’s plot—some of these might not apply to you. Answer what you can. And if you think of another question to ask that I don’t have listed here, please feel free to share!
- Why did you want to come to this place for the interview? (This is referring to the setting that you chose. Does it play a part in the story?)
- What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
- Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done? What’s keeping you from doing it?
- Are you a morning or night person?
- What time do you normally get up/go to bed?
- Do you like to show off?
- What’s your most prized possession? Why?
- Do you have one sense that’s more highly developed than another? (In other words, do you see more than you hear or vica-versa? Or do you rely on the famous sixth sense?)
- What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Why did you do it? Did you ever do anything to make up for it? If not, why?
- Do you have any birthmarks or tattoos?
- Do you have a hot temper? Or can you keep your cool?
- Do you get along well with other people? Or would you prefer to be left alone?
- What’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?
- Does anybody live with you? Who are they? Do you get along with them?
- Tell me about your parents and siblings if you have/had any. How well do/did you get along with them?
- What were three things that you liked to do when you were a child?
- What were you afraid of when you were younger?
- What is your greatest fear now?
- What would you change about yourself if you could?
- Do you have a secret that you’ve never told anyone?
- What do you want most in the world (or out of this world…whichever…)?
- Do you believe in destiny?
- Have you ever been married? If so, how many times? Have you ever been divorced?
- Are you—or have you ever been—in love? What happened to that person? Did he/she love you back?
- What is driving you to keep going—to keep fighting toward your goal? Greed? Power? Love? Revenge? Respect from others?
- Are you a leader or a follower?
- Do you depend on others or do you handle things for yourself?
- Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
- Do you like to crack jokes? Or are you serious all the time?
- If you could bring someone back to life, who would it be and why would you choose him/her?
- Are you comfortable with your appearance? If not, what would you change?
- You’re watching a tear-jerker….What do you do if you’re alone? If you’re around other people?
This next section is for the protagonist (the good guy) and the antagonist (the bad guy) to answer about each other.
- Describe your relationship with the antagonist/protagonist. Were you ever friends? Could you ever be friends?
- How did you and the antagonist/protagonist get to know each other?
- What do you hate the most about the antagonist/protagonist?
- What is the antagonist/protagonist’s BEST quality?
- Could you ever forgive the antagonist/protagonist?
- What are the antagonist/protagonist’s weaknesses? If you don’t know them, how do you plan to figure them out?
- Why are you enemies with the antagonist/protagonist?
I want you to either: go outside, check out the newspaper, grab a magazine, turn on the TV, or search “person” on Google Images. Find a picture of a complete stranger (or just get a good look at one—just as long as he/she doesn’t catch you staring). Then, based on appearances alone, make up a short paragraph or two about this person. Give him or her a name, a family, and a personality. Make this stranger into a fictional—but believable—character.