A few months ago, I was sitting in the audience of a literary panel for “Writing Characters with Agency” at Balticon, a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore. During the panel, one of the audience members asked for writing advice on how to keep characters internally consistent when making them do something essentially “out of character” using an example of a lawful good character doing a bad thing. While the panelist shared many a insight, this question got my brain turning and coming up with answers that were not brought up at the time.
So I’m sharing them here.
So how you keep a character “in-character” and consistent while also working to a moment where they break that mold?
For the sake of this, I will use the audience member’s example of a character who is lawful good do something bad. (“Lawful good” is a Dungeons and Dragons moral alignment that writers, readers, and nerds all over the internet will align their favorite characters too. Learn more here.)
So let’s break down some different ways to get characters do believably do “out of character” things.
The Break Down
1 - Character Development
Character development can be either positive (with the characters become more brave, heroic, or “morally good”) or negative (with the characters becoming crueler, more selfish, or more evil). I bring this up, because many people only think of a character development in the positive direction -- becoming a better person -- but it can work in the other direction. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great example of negative character development, in that he becomes a more morally bankrupt person as the show progresses, starting out with understandable and sympathetic motives for his life of crime, but slowly becoming more power-hungry and/or more willing to do more and more drastic things (like murder) to keep on top.
A character can start out good and then through a series of circumstances, conflict, and drama that we will call the plot, slowly turn into a worse person.
2 - Conflicting Motives/Trolley Problem
Another point to remember is that people are complicated, conflicted, and complex. We have multiple belief systems, motivations, wants, and needs in our head at the same time.
Say we have our lawful good character. He is sheriff, a law man, who believes all crime should be stopped and put to justice because them are the rules. But he is not just a sheriff. He’s a family man whose family is the most important thing in the world to him. He loves them and would do anything for them to protect them and keep them happy.
And now it turns out his adult son is the no good head of the gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the local towns. And it is a trusty sheriff that has been called on to stop him, dead or alive.
Opps, now our character has to choose between upholding his moral system about the law or his moral system about his family.
I like option above because it is very internal, but you can also give your characters bad and worse options in an external conflict. Give them a trolley problem. Think of all those superhero films where the villain gives the hero an option to save like their girlfriend/sidekick or some innocent kids/the entire city. Usually the superheroes come up with the third option to save everyone, but not always (Ahem, the Dark Knight.) But much better is when the character has a much more active hand in the dark, bad and worse option. The ending of season 3 of the BBC show Torchwood had one of these. Make your character’s options a trolley problem.
3 - Breaking Points
Human beings… we’re complicated. We have belief systems but we are often hypocrites. We give ourselves or loved ones a pass when we wouldn’t give the same benefit to strangers or acquaintances. Beyond hypocrisy and exceptions, we have breaking points. On tv tropes, that can sometimes be called a berserk button.
Find a character’s breaking point and them drive to it.
But this all these examples lead up to this ultimate fact of writing characters and stories:
It Needs To Be Earned
We say that a lot in storytelling and fiction writing. That… twists need to be earned. That sad deaths need to be earned. That endings need to be earned.
Relevant to here -- when a character is driven to that breaking point, you as the writer need earn that. And all the other examples listed above.
But what does that mean?
In screenwriting, because I watch a lot of film criticism youtube videos, the idea is phrased as: set up, reminder, and pay off.
In writing, we talk about foreshadowing. I had a professor in college who always called these things “rehearsals” which is a really apt metaphor that I think should exist more preventable in the creative writing discourse. When I took dance classes as a youth at the end of the season we had a dance recital, but not until we had the stage rehearsal and dress rehearsal beforehand. If you are going to have a lawful good character do something morally reprehensible, you need to hint -- and in an escalating manner -- that he can do something bad.
To remix the earlier example … you have the lawful good lawman who always brings in his guy alive because they should stand before a judge and jury. He’s never killed and never will. Then he does when his son is threatened. Now a lot of readers might find that reasonable because of our understanding of family bonds, but you want to set that up in the story. Show how close he is with his family. Have a minor threat happen earlier in the story for him to break his cool over. The reader may not straight out know the character's breaking point before it happens, but it should feel natural once they get to that point. There would have been hints. We should’ve maybe guessed a second before it happens.
Like plot twists, character twists should make sense in retrospect.
Those big, defining moments for a character, good or bad, have to be earned. They have to be deserved. These are the results of character development.
In 2017, I entered a Maryland-based writing contest and ultimately had my short story submission “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” place second. It was a pretty amazing experience that has involved an awards ceremony, a nice check, and free admission to a sci-fi writing conference where I read my story on a panel. Last but not least of all the honors, I was asked to be a judge for the 2018 contest.
I was sent the five finalists' stories that had been selected by the first round of readers. With the other finalist judges I was charged to rate each story between 1 and 10, and those ratings were be compiled and totaled to determine the first, second, and third place stories. I was also able to write commentary that was sent to the authors.
While I gladly volunteered, there was a little dread when I received the attachments of the stories in my inbox. See, I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing, and if you are familiar with creative writing classes you might know that they are usually done in the workshop model. We would read two to three of our classmates’ stories in preparation for each class, write critique letters, and discuss them in round table fashion during class. I read a lot of boring, not good, and pretentious stories in my pursuit of that degree to the point where I lost all perception of what was good and what wasn’t.
Had I just volunteered to relive that experience and read through five dull stories?
I clicked on the first one, opened it, read the first line and had my fears realized. The line was outright amateurish -- bland and generic. I was back in undergrad.
Thankfully, that did not end up being the case. After reading the story in full -- although avoiding it by saving it for last -- it did improve once it got into the story proper. It was still a weak opening, but fears did not realize completely.
What I ended up doing was reading five stories ranging from decent to heart-eyes-emoji (that’s the technical scale) and learned a lot from it.
What I Learned:
Point 1: Story is King.
The story I subjectively thought was the best wasn’t the one with the best prose. It was the one with the best story. Of course, story is both concept (but ideas are cheap), and the execution of that concept.
Point 2: Execution makes all the difference.
All the stories had interesting concepts. The contest was SF/F focused, so they were ‘high concept stories.’ Listen: AI’s as narrators, folk tale demons, space-time travel, visions of the future, and werewolves. Come on. That’s a goldmine. But as I (and of course many before me) have already stated, ideas are cheap. It’s all about how you present those ideas.
As one would expect, to get this far in the competition all were competent stories. It’s that fine polish of execution that makes a difference between competent and awesome.
Language and prose are part of the execution: the narrative strategy of POV, timeline, voice, and what not. When to start the story and when to end it and when to hit the other beats in between. All important.
Point 3: Setups and Payoffs are a balancing act.
Reading this selection of stories, one aspect of execution I became very aware of was ‘setups and payoffs.’
My favorite ‘heart-eyes-emoji’ story was a well-paced space adventure with the setups and payoffs interwoven from the first page to last. In contrast, there were stories with not enough setups, or not early enough, sapping the pay off of its power. There were stories that had a lot more setups than were ultimately paid off, which is like having a question without an answer.
That balance is so important to the reader because a story needs to make sense. It’s like laying out the clues in a mystery novel. All the plot workings need to be laid out for the reader bit by bit.
Point 4: Pacing is Important.
Like setups and payoffs, good pacing is essential to a well-balanced story. I saw one particular pacing hang up occur over a few of the short pieces I reviewed. The stories were… front-heavy. They spent too long in the beginning on things that weren’t the main point of the story.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great pieces of writing advice is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Every writer should take that to heart. I often think about this, if not in the drafting stage, than the editing stage. (It’s very common in first drafts to start too early.)
To bring back another memory from my undergrad creative writing days, I recall how often a particular fiction writing professor of mine would often instruct students in workshops that their story actually started on page three, or five, or nine. There was always some sort of silent-eyed horror that passed over the face of whoever’s story it was, because there was a lot of hard-worked prose in there they were being asked to cut, but it was an important lesson. Remember you can integrate backstory in a lot of ways without starting at the very beginning!
My heart-eyes-emoji story dropped the reader right into the moment. All the world-building and character growth were part of the actual scenes.
Point 5: The Little Things Don’t Matter (When Everything Else is Right).
There will always be stuff to nitpick. There will always be an awkward sentence, or a moment that could’ve been tweaked to be stronger.
But when a whole story is a strong, compelling, and well-balanced all the nitpick-y sand falls from your eyes as a reader. You're too engaged being carried along by a well-crafted story to let the other things ruin the experience.
So… that’s what I learned. Maybe other people judge stories for competition by other criteria. Maybe they have a checklist or grid, giving out points to certain factors like this was an episode of Chopped: Presentation, Taste, and Creativity.
I read with my intuition. I can never exactly turn off my writerly brain when reading, seeing the tricks of how a writer pulls off a certain twist or thinking how I would’ve differently. I acknowledge there is always a measure of personal taste in something like this and any judging of the creative arts is subjective.
However, we humans are storytelling animals. We are surrounded by stories from birth on -- books, movies, television shows, the stories we tell each other, narratives in video games and other media, and on and on and on. We love a good story and absorb some feel for when a story works or when it feels off. We might not all be able to identify exactly what is off, or have the vocab for it, or be able to analyze it or write it ourselves, but we have the intuition.
I was glad I was able to use my storytelling intuition, in combination with my learned and practiced knowledge of creative writing and literary analysis, to learn about making and reading a good short story.
In the debates of qualities between 1st person narration versus 3rd person, or 3rd limited versus 3rd omniscient, or the absolute scorning of the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ there is one point of view that is more polarizing than any of them: Second Person Point of View.
Que the dramatic music.
Quick primer if you’re rusty on your terminology.
1st person pov - I said.
3rd person pov - he said/she said.
2nd person pov - You said.
After seeing that list, you might be thinking you’ve never seen anything written in 2nd person, or you’ve never seen it outside poetry or fanfiction (which tends to allow for more experimental forms). If you’ve been around the block submitting short stories to literary magazines, you might’ve noticed that “2nd person” often ends up in the “What we’re not looking for” list of their submission guidelines.
Not only in 2nd person rare in fiction writing, it is also often unwanted and unliked in fiction writing. If you drop a 2nd person story in a writing critique circle or workshop, you will probably get people who hate it because it is second, with no other consideration. You’ll have people quote the writing rule “No second person” at you. You might have some people who just like it because it is different and they’ve never seen it before. Amongst that, maybe you’ll get someone who gives you actual, meaningful feedback.
But this is not a rant about critique groups. It is, however, a commentary on how second person is received by writers and readers in general. But me? I believe in second person and its potential.
I first experimented writing second person when I was fist experimenting with writing overall: in high school while writing fanfiction. I’ve always harbored belief in the potential of second person narration even through years of hearing nothing good about it from most corners of the writing community.
In my adult writing life, I’ve written two original short stories in second person, one speculative and one literary. How have they fared?
One of my second person stories placed 2nd in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Scoeity’s Ameteur Writing contest, which allows entries from across the state of Maryland. Meeting the facilitators of contest, I was told the competition was particularly tough that year. A few months later that same story made me not an ameteur anymore as I made my first pro sale with it to Deep Magic E-Zine. They told me it was the 1st time they had published a second person story.
The other second person story of the realistic literary genre has just made the long list of finalists for a different writing competition, the top ten percent out of 600 entries. Fingers crossed for how that will turn out.
What this proves? That people can like reading second person. That second person stories are publishable. That they are able to place in contests. That my long held believe in the potential of second person stories has been validated.
But wait, you say, that’s only two short stories.
Yup, that’s right. I usually write in 3rd person, and very occasionally first. Second person is definitely not a point of view that should be used for most stories. It is very particular and, as I stated before, very polarizing.
Second person should not be used willy-nilly. Sure, experiment with it. Have fun. Learn. Practice. That’s what writing is about. But if you’re looking for direction on when to use second person… I’ll get in to that right now.
For both of my original second person stories, I chose to use second person for a particular reason. For -- to use a wonderful term I learned from Larry Brooks in Story Fix -- a narrative strategy.
The concept and the plot are the story.
The narrative strategy is how we tell said story: POV, order of events, narrator, length, style of prose, etc and so on. These are things we consider to tell the story in the best way or with maximum impact.
Second person, when used, should be a deliberate part of your narrative strategy.
In my speculative story, I was trying to create a Twilight Zone-feel. The second person was supposed to enable the reader to step in the main character’s shoes, and for the “character” aspect to almost vanish. I go out of the way to avoid gendered details. The character doesn’t have a name. The character is you-the-reader living through the motions.
In my literary story, I had quite a different reason for the strategy of second person. The character is very particular, has a name, and has a detailed life. She is also suffering from depression. The second person, with all it’s “you” statements was used to create a sense of dissociation, like the character was watching herself go through the motions.
So that’s two different reasons I used second person and two different ways I used it. There are probably plentiful more to be discovered.
I think it stands to reason, like most writing rules, guidelines, and cultural preferences, when you as the writer are going to break them, you have to do it with a sense of strategy. Or… just to have fun.
Cut all Your Adverbs (and Adjectives too!): A Breakdown of The Overstated (and Under Explained) Advice
One of the often lofted pieces of creative writing advice that is tossed around is that one should eliminate all adverbs from their prose. A few months ago, a literary agent on Twitter extended the axe to include adjectives, and it kind of exploded into some drama in writing and publishing circles, including Chuck Wendig who engaged in a wonderful take down and break down of said remark which you can read here.
Now, I have never agreed with the starkness of this advice even when it was only applied to adverbs (and extending it to adjectives just blows my mind, Adjectives? Like even colors?). This is even though I’ve been hearing it repeated for years, since I started in my creative writing BA in 2008 (#old).
But I also do not not believe in it. By which I mean, underneath the rule™ is an actual kernel of helpful truth. We just have to mine it out a bit.
Writing Rules Overall
First of all, writing rules are more like guidelines than actual rules. To all rules there are exceptions. All rules can be broken.
Second of all, writing goes through trends. Many are long term trends. Still, trends. That’s why they split up literature classes into various periods and artistic movements. Writing rules that are repeated like fact right now have all the potential to change.
Third of all, writing rules are opinions. They reflect certain tastes and preferences. There is quite obviously many different types of creative writing being published in the world right now, and not just amongst different genres. There are wordy things and Ernest Hemingway-like succinct things. There are things that follow the strict rules of grammar and those that go with a dialectal grammar or voice. First person and third. Writing better at prose than story and writing better at story than prose. And so on.
Just as there's all kinds of writing (and the writers that created it), there are all kinds of readers who want to read different things and have different tastes.
Quick Definition Time
Adjectives are words that modify nouns. Ex. The large [adjective] house [noun].
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Ex. The really [adverb] fast [adjective] car. He ran [verb] quickly [adverb].
You know how I mentioned the kernel of truth up there? Also, do you know how the cut adverbs (and adjectives!!!) advice comes with no or minimal additional information? Yeah, that’s where that kernel of truth is hidden. There is actual logic and reasoning and in depth writing advice in the notion of cutting adverbs, but is rarely or minimally discussed. Instead, people treat it as a call to begin an adverb cross out word search on your draft.
And honestly, it’s less of a case of cutting adverbs, but replacing them.
Let’s took at the cases of when/why you should cut (but really replace) adverbs.
Why #1: The specific adverb is clunky/awkward
Some adverbs are common place and fit smoothly into a sentence.
“The blood red car” (Yup, “blood” here is an adverb as it modifies “red” an adjective.)
“She said loudly.”
“He ran quickly.”
Some are awkward to get your mouth around.
“She said shakily.”
“He ran jaggedly.”
If it is awkward to say or awkward to the ear, that might be a sign that it will stick out like a sore thumb to the reader. In writing critique circles, when discussion the minutiae of prose, we often discuss things that ‘take us out of the story.’ Those are the awkward or confusing turns of phrases or sentences can confuse and stop up the reader, ruining the flow of the story. If you adverb is awkward and ruining the flow of the story, you should definitely considering cutting/replacing it.
Why #2: The verb/adverb pairing could be replaced by a stronger verb.
Taking the samples from above.
“She said loudly” ---> “She yelled” or “She shouted” or “She screamed”
Now, all of those alternatives have slightly different connotations and are not interchangeable, but that’s also part of the point. “Said loudly” can mean a lot of things, while the other options are more specific/more detailed, aka stronger verbs.
“He ran quickly” ---> “He sprinted”
In your mind’s eye, can’t you just see how much faster this fictional he is running when he sprinted. Isn’t it such a more powerful word?
While I am also do not fall on the side of ‘everything should read like Ernest Hemingway’ (I definitely love flowery F. Scott Fitzgerald too much for that), one of your writing considerations should be ‘How can I explain this fully but with the least amount of words?’
This ‘Why #2’ applies to any instance of the word ‘really’ (except all the exceptions for dialogue and voice and the cases you just 'really' need to use it). (In fact, I had a high school teacher who banned all uses of the words ‘really’ and ‘very’ in our papers, but that was academic writing not creative writing.)
You might rebuke me here and say ‘what if one of the stronger verbs doesn’t fit what I mean?’ Such as, what if you mean ‘said loudly’ and not ‘yelled.’
To which I say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to cut every adverb’ and also ‘Think creatively, though, about what you want to say.’
Which segues into…
Why #3: Can you say it better way?
In the case of this example, ‘she said’ is a common dialogue tag, and dialogue tags are rife with their own conflicting writing rules. One common rule that is mostly accurate is that most of the time you just want to use ‘he/she said.’ In the cases were you don’t, taking on an adverb might not be the best option to add emphasis to your dialogue.
For example, instead of ‘She said loudly’ ...
What about: She raised her voice to speak over the crowd. “Blah, blah, blah.”
Or: Her voice reached a pitch it only did when she was under the max amount of stress.
Or: She tried to tap down her anger, but her voice came out booming regardless.
Or: She said, like a roll of thunder.
Notice how these all say more than the adverb ‘loudly.’ Notice how they all even say more than the ‘strong verbs.’ When you choose to say it in a more creative or more detailed way, you as the writer have the opportunity to tell more than the pitch of a character’s voice (in this example), but can use your descriptive words to impart theme, reveal character, create mood, set the scene, and/or impart your voice/style into the prose.
Am I saying that you should replace every adverb with a piece of lyrical prose?
No. A hundred times no. Because that would be just as (or more) ridiculous than saying to cut them all. And as I said in the beginning, all writing rules (even mine here) can be broken, are trends, and are opinions.
What I am saying is that if it is so important that you added that adverb, that the reader know it was said ‘loudly’ that you balk at cutting it, maybe there is more in the story to mine.
Why #4: Adjectives
I… I just don’t know what to say about cutting adjectives. That’s just ridiculous. The traditional advice is ‘cut all adverbs’ but this literary agent added adjectives to the chopping block and… really. Adjectives? Like color, shape, and size. Like saying brown hair or green eyes. How sparse and unimaginative that writing would be.
Like, the only sense I can come here is that maybe, sometimes, consider if you are relying on adjectives instead of interesting descriptions, such as…
The musty cave/The cave smelled musty ---> The cave smelled like a damp sponge
Her gossamer skin ---> Her skin was as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper.
(And those changes use adjectives. The real rule there is… your creative writing projects shouldn’t be about showing off all the vocabulary you memorized. It should be about creating eviseral images and emotions).
Keep your adjectives, folks. Like all things in creative writing, use them wisely, but keep your adjectives.
Hey folks, don’t take the ‘cut all your adverbs’ advice like it’s time to pull out the red pen and ink up your in progress manuscript. But also don’t ignore it totally and throw in all the adverbs.
Sometimes your adverbs will just flow and get the job done. Ex. The blood red car.
(Sometimes I think this adverb advice is really directed at -ly adverbs.)
Sometimes your adverbs/verb pairing can be turned into a stronger verb.
Sometimes your adverb means you want to focus on a detail of something, and then you should really dig into the details of something by using a more creative approach.
Sometimes in your writing you just need to get from point a to point b, and the adverb serves the purpose.
And sometimes your should cut it.
Instead of drawing blood with your editor’s pen, instead ask a series of questions:
Do you really need it? Is there a stronger option available? Can you make your writing stronger by exploring one of those stronger options?
The advice to cut all adverbs (and adjectives) is so misguided. But hidden in that advice is suggestion to give your adverbs a second look, and not to rely on fancy vocab words to convey images, imagery, and emotions.
Going into 2017, I had several writing and writing-adjacent New Year’s Resolutions. I had some somewhat successes and some outright successes, and along the way many lessons.
The Outright Successes:
1 - Finish draft of (Name Redacted) project.
I had started this particular project many times (It was an idea I’ve had since high school) and written a two-thirds draft the previous year. In 2017, I did finish a complete draft, around 70,000 words. Since then, some attempts were made to redraft, but I think the story needs more time in the drawer, so to speak.
2 - Write 300,000 creative words, counting all original fiction, fanfiction, and creative nonfiction, including this blogging, but nothing school or work related.
I have not reached this yet, but I plan to within the next few days before 2018. (Or get to a close enough negligible amount.) I’m a few thousand words away, but a few thousand that is doable. I used this wonderful word tracker called write track. I knew to achieve this or any word count goal I would need to track it like goodreads tracks reading or the nanowrimo cite tracks the nano word count. Searching around, I found write track which lets you set yearly and project-specific word counts, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a tool like this.
This word count achievement is all the more meaningful for the writing endurance it built up in me, writing (almost) daily and often writing when was I’m not initially inspired. It also helped me finish many, various projects.
The Somewhat Successes:
1 - Submitting two pieces a week to literary magazines/writing contests/publishers.
I started out strong, but withered away as the year went on. However, I continued to submit throughout the year, at least a two or three a month. I found some new tools, as such as the Submission Grinder, (which I promise you is indeed a writing website and not an erotic website) to use to find places to submit. I also have several acceptances! (3 short story acceptances and 1 contest 2nd place win).
I will continue submitting regularly into 2018. Because its become a habit, I think I won’t put specific numbers and keep doing what I am doing. Two a week wasn’t necessarily realistic with the limited number of short stories i had to submit and dealing with the deadlines, submission periods, and turn around times of the literary magazines themselves.
2 - Writing two blog posts per week (for this very blog).
Again, strong start, and then it withered away. I will continue to blog, but I think it is better to write when I have something to say than to force content. I will follow the advice of the one of the writing blogs I follow and ‘slow blog’ as I have been for the last few months.
(It’s not a failed resolution if you learned something about yourself!)
Writing Resolutions for 2018
I want to start journaling! For writing so much in my life, I have never been much of a journal or diary writer. In particular I want to keep a ‘mindfulness journal’ that I write in the morning as a way to start off my day. I have not particularly know what that means yet, but I’m going to do this. (I want this to be part to a bigger ‘morning routine’ resolution, which journaling is a part.)
2 - Write smarter not harder.
There was some consideration into increasing my yearly word count, which you read above was 300,000 for 2017. However, I think that is a good amount to shoot for, being a heft, y’know 300,000. It’s also manageable with my life with a full time job, being a part time grad student, and having a social life and other hobbies. So I do not want to write harder… I want to write smarter. So what the fuck do I mean by that? Several things… (Because when one sets goals they should be measurable and have a plan to accomplish them)...
a) Stop writing in front of the TV like I think I can write into the TV.
b) Use more structure/prep before writing novel-length original fiction.
I find I can ‘wing it’ when it comes to original short stories and to fanfiction of any length. (I believe this type of writer, in certain circle, is called a ‘pantser’ as in a seat of your pants writer, and as opposed to a ‘planner.’) Perhaps I can be a pantser with these because I’ve had more practice with both of those genres and perhaps because they are bit more low stake. However, I struggle with novel-length original fiction, often starting strong and then the story drifting away somewhere 30,000-40,000 words in. I want to finish things goddamn it! I need to prep better. My first plan it to use the advice I’ve gleaned from a wonderful writing book I just read called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.
I also have personal resolutions such as above mentioned morning routine and maybe, finally, getting myself to stop biting my fucking nails, but writing dominates a big part of it. Remember when you formulate your New Year’s Resolutions or any big goals throughout the year to plan them properly. Set yourself up for success! And good luck.
Here is a very simple but very effective tactic I use to overcome writer’s block, and it something I do by sidestepping and ignoring the boulder that has dropped down in front of me and blocked inspiration for my story.
Here’s the trick: Write something else.
I usually have at least two, sometimes more, ongoing writing projects at a time. One very often has priority and the most of my attention, but the others are things I’m interested in and excited about as well. So, when one of my stories is giving me trouble, I hope on over to something else that day or two or a week, and then hop back to my priority story later.
This is actually a wondrous case where ignoring the problem sometimes just… fixes it. Sometimes you really do just need some time away to think and breathe to figure out whatever was blocking you -- a plot point, a character motivation, just overwork on the same story -- and giving time away lets your subconscious surprise you with solutions when you're driving home from work or taking a shower or just about to fall asleep. (Isn’t it great how the human mind works?)
Another benefit is that you are still writing even when the focus is off your main writing. All writing, even writing that’s never seen but by your own eyes, is good for your writerly life. It’s practice, it’s experimentation, it’s fun, and most importantly, keeps you writing juices flowing.
So when writer’s block hits you, move on to write something else. If none of your ongoing projects are getting you jazzed, try starting something else. Maybe that little piece of whimsy that has been wiggling in your head to get out or that piece of self-fulfilling fanfic you’ve been burning to write. Heck, sometimes you have writer’s block for one story, because a new idea is demanding your attention like a screaming toddler. Give it attention and then it will stop!
Writer’s block can be so frustrating and I, a perfectionist, find not being productive frustrating on top of that, so as long as I am writing something, I am much happier. So go one, flip between different writing projects and kill writer’s block with abundant productivity.
Having writer’s block? Switch up the way you’re writing: typing, by hand, by dictation, by smoke signal…
For example, I primarily type on a computer when it comes to writing, but when I get stuck one of my surefire battering-rams to take out that writer’s block is to switch to pen and paper.
When we change the method we are physically getting words down, we are also changing the process of our thinking. I’m a fast typer, so it is conducive to my thoughts coming in fast. When I’m blocked, it’s frustrating to sit at that screen with nothing to write. It takes me longer to write by hand, so usually by the time I finish up jotting down my current thought, another has already gotten to form.
Because handwriting is harder to alter, I think ahead more to get the scene put in the correct order. Writing on a computer means I can jump around. Never mind that the notebook I’m writing in doesn’t have any internet connection to distract me.
This is probably very individual depending on which method you usually write, and which methods are slower and faster for you, but I bet the principals will still apply. A change up from the norm will help jog some ideas loose.
Some actually useful, applicable writing advice I’ve gleaned from different sources after very much reading on the subject
For: Writers, Indie Publishers, Self-Published Writers, Writers thinking about indie and self publishing
By: Dean Wesley Smith, a career science fiction author and indie press publisher
Hop on over to the ‘Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing’ page of Dean Wesley Smith’s website to get some advice from an author who has been in the publishing game for decades. He gives perspective that many advice givers on the internet can’t, because his comes from a wealth of experience. This is a combination of creative and business advice that has changed my perspective on the writing process and my potential publishing future. I regularly revisit this series of posts, and also have followed up by purchasing some of Smith’s writing advice books and checking out some of his youtube lecture series videos.
As you will see, these blog posts were later arranged into books you can purchase, but Smith kindly left them up for visitors of his website for free. Furthermore, there is one series still (slowly) ongoing. You can also check his daily blog on his main page for other shared insight.
Link to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing
As a writer, I truly believe, your most important audience is yourself. You are the first person you need to write for. This is not a call to disregard all others, just to prioritize yourself. As a reader, I firmly believe that readers can pick up on the joy and enthusiasm of the author.
This is also a matter of personal motivation. I have wasted years of my writing life trying to write for a certain audience instead of myself. The enthusiasm isn’t there, and when the enthusiasm isn’t there, the motivation isn’t there.
Sometimes you temporarily lose enthusiasm and motivation for a project you love or for writing in general, but that is a matter of the human spirit. And again, temporary. We all have down days or other parts of our lives that drag us down.
But if you find you can't spurn up that love to write because you are trying to write for a marketable genre you don’t personally care for, or a prestigious audience you’re trying to impress, or can’t get that dream project out of your head… that might be a sign.
Write for yourself. Don’t overthink your audience. Let the enthusiasm run through you. Let your creativity and individuality break free on the page. Write what you want, write what you love, write it your way.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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