writing tips

Jump-Start Your Writing With Ridiculously Easy Goals

I’m not a firm believer in writer’s block, but I have my tough writing days just like anyone else. Today’s one of them. Or rather, it’s becoming one because I’m forcing myself to work on Frobisher instead of Hubris Towers. Writing Hubris Towers is currently about like eating kettle corn. Once I’ve written a few paragraphs, I can’t help but write a few more. Frobisher, on the other hand, is getting so long and clever and funny and deep that it’s starting to feel like there’s no way I can bring it to a satisfactory fulfillment, and now I’m getting toward the end where I really need to figure out the extra-clever solutions to the very interesting problems I’ve been raising.

And the thing is, if I were to just sit down and write some stuff, it would probably be, on average, just as good as all the other stuff I’ve written, which is currently intimidating the hell out of me. Worst case scenario, it wouldn’t be, and I could delete it and write some more. It’s not like I’m facing bears or razor guns or something.

razor-gun by wiledog via DeviantArt

A razor gun, apparently.

But I managed to get myself into a mindset that’s more focused, I guess, on trying to figure it all out in advance rather than just writing it and giving myself more raw word count to shape into something exceptional. I’m finding every excuse and non-essential task I can find to avoid sitting down and actually writing.

It doesn’t help that my monthly target is looming, with 7,500 words left to write in the next few days (when I usually shoot for 5,000 per week).

I got out of it by making my goal easier. 7,500 more this month is too much to think about. Let’s start by adding 1,000 today. No, still intimidating. Maybe 500. Better, but that’s like half an hour unless I hit a groove, which isn’t looking likely. 250? Not at all scary, but what would I write? That’s still nearly a page and the whole point is I’m not sure what’s next

Bear in mind, of course, that if I were to just look at the page I’d probably manage to figure out what’s next. But so far I’m just arguing with myself while working on other things.

So I set a goal of 50 words. Seriously. That’s three minutes, one if I’m fast, five if I’m being ridiculous.

And it worked! Or at least it’s working. I’ve gotten moving on the writing, and as usual once I get out of my head and start spilling story it gets the flow going and soon I don’t want to stop.

There are a few reasons this works so well:

  • It cuts out the cost of trying – I can attempt 50 words any time I have a couple minutes to spare
  • It also cuts the cost of failing – who cares if I have to delete 50 words?
  • It gets my logistics in line – once I’ve done my 50 words, I have my tools in place and my Scrivener project open and ready for more
  • It forces me to look at what I’ve got so far, which gets me thinking about the story again
  • It provides an easy win. Once I’ve got 50 words (which is almost immediately), I can go for another 50. Then another. Then why not 100 this time? And by then I’ve finished 250 and that’s a quarter of a day’s production. A few more of those and I’m breaking actual targets.

So that’s what I’m dealing with today. Really am excited to see what I come up with for Frobisher now that the story’s open and growing again, though. In other news, I’m nearing completion on the paperback layout for The Stone and the Song. So much exciting in so little time! Stay tuned.

Cheers!

—Ben

What’s More Important: Progress or Discipline?

What do you do when your passion for one worthwhile goal edges out your progress on another worthwhile goal?

My goals for March include writing a whole lot of Frobisher and a tiny sample of Hubris Towers.

But Hubris Towers has proven incredibly fun to write, with the result that so far this month I’ve written a whole lot of Hubris Towers and a modest amount of Frobisher. More precisely, I’ve hit a third of my minimum goal for Frobisher, and maybe ten times my stretch goal for Hubris Towers.

That raises an interesting question: Is it more valuable to make fast progress or to stick with the plan?

My guess is most people would vote for fast progress, assuming it’s good-quality progress on a worthwhile task. And there’s a good argument to be made for that. If each of several tasks (say, work on 3 different drafts) will be contributing to your overall goals (say, publishing lots of books), then it stands to reason that the more quantity you can achieve, the sooner you’ll reach your overall goals. If you can write 100 pages of one book instead of 20 of the other, why not go for the easy win, right?

But if you’re dealing with a well-designed long-term strategy I’m going to argue for sticking with the plan. That’s right. Given my March plans, I’d ultimately rather hit 12,000+ words on Frobisher and 500 words on Hubris Towers than 4,000 words on Frobisher and 12,000+ on Hubris Towers, even though it’s adding less to my total word count, and even though it seriously could mean not reaching some of my publishing and financial goals as quickly.

Because in the long term, patterns matter.

Right now any time I choose to write the quick, easy, fun story over the tricky, deep (but fun) story, I’m training myself to do the work that appeals to me in the moment, not the work that is strategically valuable. And I’m training myself to act like the goals and deadlines I set for myself don’t matter.

Every writing project—really any important project you love—is going to hit a point where it gets tricky, where the ideas aren’t flowing as smoothly or the next steps aren’t as much fun as they used to be. A new project or a new system or a quick win can feel like a delightful escape, like you’re finally making real progress again and your work is fun and meaningful.

But every new project will, at some point, start feeling tricky and unglamorous too, and the real key to success lies in that decision point: push through and finish, or start developing the next fun, interesting idea?

In the end I’d rather know that I can keep the promises that I set and that no matter how tricky or complicated or unglamorous a goal feels in the moment, I can reliably push through and deliver anyway.

In the end, I’d rather keep finishing important projects than keep reaching the unglamorous halfway point of fun new ideas.

Catching Your Reader’s Eye. Also Tapirs!

A writer wants to express how amazing her books are, but she can’t seem to pin down which details are the ones that will catch a new reader’s attention. Will she be able to overcome her misleading instincts, or will years of effort and emotion be wasted as her stories gather dust in endless obscurity?

Ok, so that was a prototype.

I just read a book by Libbie Hawker called Gotta Read It! – Five Simple Steps to a Fiction Pitch That Sells. I recommend it. It’s an inexpensive purchase and a quick read, and gave me good insight into what I currently find one of the trickiest parts of my job as an author: writing compelling product descriptions.

Baby tapir!

A couple quick takeaways (one of which is from her recent appearance on the Self Publishing Podcast, which also includes tapirs):

– Authors tend to write about what’s unique about their books, while it’s often more effective to show a reader how the book is like other books they’ve loved.

– Authors often try to summarize the plot and/or describe the awesome story world, which can do more to dilute the story than to promote it.

While the main substance is fairly familiar territory if you’re at all acquainted with how stories work, I found a lot of value in the simple and effective way it gets applied to writing product descriptions and the extremely practical, actionable steps. Plus Ms. Hawker just seems very fun and smart (in fact, she’d probably want me to call her Libbie), and she also writes historical fiction, much of it set in ancient Egypt. Can’t argue with that.

Through all this I also discovered Libbie Hawker’s blog, which has some great posts on the writing life and the publishing industry, from the perspective of a smart, frank, and funny successful full-time novelist.

Link: Gotta Read It! by Libbie Hawker

Cheers!

—Ben

Hubris Towers: My Secret Master Plan, Mk. I

Ok, so writing Hubris Towers is officially getting addictive. This is my first deep fiction collaboration—working with Bill, who blogs here—and it’s so much fun that I want to give you a behind-the-scenes peek at our process, my personal goals, and some fun new things I’m trying with this project.

Before I go further, a caveat: This is all highly speculative and subject to change. Part of the fun of this project is the freedom to try things out and experiment freely.

Serial Structure

Right now we’re planning on writing episodes of 12.5-15k words each—that’s about 35-45 pages—with eight episodes to a season. That lets us bundle each season into a solid, novel-length book, idea being that we could sell the book at a discount to reward loyal readers who know they’ll read the whole season, while also serving everyone who’s eager and likes a steady drip of new stories as they come out.

It wouldn’t be out of the question to release an episode a month, though for now we’re both sustaining day jobs, families, real lives, and other writing projects, so we’ll see. But even with a slightly slower pace that’s a steady output of a full season each year in steady, snackable chunks.

Our Collaborative Process

Bill and I have been friends for decades. We were friends in grade school in Ankara, Turkey, where we would routinely spend the night at each other’s houses on short notice and spend long hours reading and writing and plotting together, and now we live a few blocks apart in Baltimore, where, along with some other friends, our families have dinner together several times a week and we spend long hours sipping whiskey and reading stories and talking philosophy or theology or writing.

So you could say we’ve got an understanding of one another by now. I pray everyone who’s reading this has or will one day have friends like mine—it’s a massive blessing and one of the most fulfilling parts of my life.

Mushiness aside, here’s how we’ve got the collaborative process set up so far.

We met for a couple big-picture brainstorming sessions to lay out the story concept, setting, and characters. At the last of those meetings we sketched out the overall arc of Season 1, then developed it into paragraph-length summaries of each of the eight episodes, along with a few ongoing hooks and interesting ideas that will take us into Season 2.

I’m great with characters and settings, and my prose skills are pretty solid, but I have always found plots a lot harder to develop. Bill is a veritable fountain of brilliant plot turns and devices. I can say something like “We just need these three impossible things to happen. All at once.” And then he’ll think for a second and lay out a plan for how all three of them can happen at once, with this other clever twist developing in the background. So the plotting went pretty quickly with Bill in the room.

Short version: We had a four-hour meeting where we made each other laugh constantly.

Then Bill expanded Episode 1 into a detailed summary of a few thousand words, say a quarter to a third of the total projected length.

I’ve taken that summary and am fleshing it out into the full draft. We have very compatible senses of humor and are both being pretty unselfish with the plot, so it’s really turning into the best of both worlds. He’ll put all his best ideas in the summary, then I’ll take those, run with them, and add my own. I suspect it’s going to start turning into a sort of contest of trying to make each other laugh out loud. Certainly that’s where it’s going so far.

A Series That Pays Minimum Wage

This is a little ambitious, but I want to see if we can make this a project that pays minimum wage or better on average. Our plan is to keep it light, fun, and fast, and it occurred to me that I can actually track all the time I spend on it and calculate my overall hourly earnings for the project.

With our collaborative process it’s a pretty speedy production cycle, and I bet the serial structure will help us be efficient with post-production and may even net some economies of scale like, say, repeating cover design elements within seasons or bulk purchase of ISBNs.

My part of the planning for Season 1 is basically done, and took about 4 hours. I’ve since maintained an overall average of 15 words per minute composing the draft. If I can maintain that, writing a season of 100,000 words will total around 111 hours of writing time. Let’s add 20 hours to account for post-production. That may seem optimistic, but I’m only counting my own time here. With Bill’s help my time on editing should be minimal, and I think we can get the compiling and publishing down to a science.

I’m going to assume the average reader (who goes on to finish Season 1) buys one standalone episode then gets the full season. With that assumption and a 50/50 income split, some back-of-envelope calculations indicate we’d need a little under 600 readers for me to make minimum wage on this. And that’s not out of the question by any means. If I can bump my speed up to 25 words per minute the minimum-wage point drops below 400 readers. That’s really not out of the question. The Stone and the Song passed 100 sales in its first month and that was just my very first short, preliminary test run, with no product funnels in place and minimal marketing. Hubris Towers will be building on itself over months and will have both Bill’s network and mine drawing readers.

Anyway, that’s all kind of pie in the sky, but it’s fun to think about.

More to the point, at this stage the writing is cracking me up constantly. It’s so much fun I’m stealing time from other projects, even Frobisher, which I love, to write more of Episode 1. I’ve already written about 10 times as much for it as I meant to this month, to the extent that it’s almost becoming a problem. Except not really, obviously. Glee! I can’t wait to unveil it in all its Wodehouse-y (Wodehouse-ish? Wodehomely?) glory. Patience.

Cheers!

—Ben

Write Like the Wind!

Today is looking really busy. I may not get much time to write, but if I do I want to put it into building word count on books.

But that’s boring, so let’s make it a challenge. My starting goals for the day are:

Minimum: 500 words

Target: 750

Stretch: 2000

I’ll check in in Comments with how it went. If you want to join me in the challenge, reply in comments with your own goal(s) and let’s spur one another on. To victory!

—Ben

Absolutely Critical Miscellany. Well, Miscellany, Anyway.

All right, guys. Not much new to report and I’m severely feeling the itch to get my actual word count up, so just a few quick news items and a mysterious noise today.

Readers! Only a couple days left to pre-order Kara Jorgensen’s The Winter Garden for $0.99. I ordered mine today. You can get yours here. Congrats, Kara!

Writers! Joe pointed me to a pretty cool-looking new writing tool at Novlr.org. I haven’t done much with it yet but I’ll be trying it out and will report back if I find new value in it. Or you can just try it yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Night Vale Listeners! What was that noise? There. There it was again. That silent, brooding noise in the back of your mind, like a heart beating a little too slowly, like the sound of still, cold air. There! Did you hear it that time? No? Well. It’s probably nothing.

Brilliant Friends! New section of The Dream World Collective should be up to read for free later this week. A problematic offer of free beer. Simmering romantic complications. And Otto tries to gather some intel. Hilarity ensues. In the meantime, catch up here or start with Chapter 1.

Also? The Stone and the Song is still regularly selling copies! It’s been three weeks, people! I didn’t expect this sort of thing until I had a critical mass of at least 3 books out, maybe 5. Many thanks to everyone who’s buying, reading, sharing, and reviewing. You are making my days figuratively magical. Maybe even literally. It sort of depends on what ‘magical’ means.

Cheers!

—Ben

Secret PS – Yay! Hi, Ivy!

Book Launch: Detailed Breakdown + Debrief

Kara Jorgensen, author of The Earl of Brass and The Winter Garden, asked about how I marketed The Stone and the Song during its recent launch. (For those just joining, this was my debut launch and hit the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings, selling nearly 100 copies in the first ten days with no budget and no pre-existing mailing list.)

My reply got way too long for comments, and I’ve been wanting to share this anyway in case it’s helpful to any other authors out there, so here it is.

Results

  • Nearly 100 sales in first 10 days
  • 4 days on the Top 20 Amazon Best Seller list in Fairy Tales
  • Broke the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings
  • Multiple five-star reviews on Amazon within first few days of release. (It appears a couple have since disappeared. I’m looking into this.)

Wave 1: The Big Facebook Bonanza

For this launch the announcements went in two waves. I announced the pre-order on Facebook, and a bunch of friends were really excited and shared the announcements and/or made announcements of their own. I probably had around 10-12 friends who shared/announced at least once, including 3-5 friends who went crazy and put it up once or twice a day or more for the first few days.

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

I’ve lived in multiple cities and have always been working to become a professional author, so I had a pretty wide base of friends excited for me. I think the great cover and professional presentation helped push a lot of people into taking the book seriously and being genuinely intrigued or excited about it, not just casually happy for me, and the pre-order discount (99 cents) made it pretty low-commitment.

So people started ordering, which gave me an early surge in rankings and Hot New Releases, and I shared screenshots (on FB) to keep the excitement going and help legitimize the book as a serious endeavor, not just a “cool thing my friend did.” Then my crazy-cool friends shared those, etc. This first burst lasted 2-3 days, during which I got 50-60 pre-orders.

Wave 2: Building A Mailing List

A few days later, I launched my mailing list (more details here) with a broadcast to 420+ old friends and acquaintances. Of these about 60 bounced, and of the rest about half opened the note and 30-40 signed up for my mailing list. During the day or two after that email my total pre-orders went a little above 80, with a few more trickling in since then. By then I’d fallen far off in rankings, but this second The Stone & the Song hits Amazon Hot New Releases!surge pushed me back up into the Top 12k-15k in Amazon Paid (and top 15-25 in Fairy Tales, and Hot New Releases again) for a couple days.

Note: I’m not keeping the huge list. I may send one reminder, but otherwise I’m only emailing the people who actually opted in.

I was also fairly shameless about telling relevant friends and coworkers about my book, but (hopefully) without being too weird about it. It’s tricky riding the line between helping people find it if they’d be interested but not making them feel obligated or awkward if they’re not. Main thing there is to think from their perspective. I try not to spew my announcements to everyone, but to think about who might genuinely enjoy what I’ve got and let them know it exists.

Initial Follow-Up

My real goal from this launch is to get 25 Amazon reviews by March 7, two weeks after release. With over 85 sales, a ghost army of amazing supporters appearing from nowhere, and consistent messaging that this is the best way for readers to help me, I think that’s realistic. These reviews will harness the goodwill and momentum of the launch and put it in a lasting form that (I hope) will drive Amazon to start putting the book in also-bought lists and recommendation emails and convince new readers to buy it.

I contacted my shiny new mailing list with a last-chance reminder on the final day of pre-orders. Going forward I’m going to send an intro email describing some exciting upcoming projects and ideas, but mostly the goal is to figure out cool new ways to delight my list. I’ve got them preliminarily self-segmented into readers, writers, adventurers, enigmas, etc., along with asking who’s interested in what (updates, collaboration, friendly notes, experiments), and my philosophy is that the list is more for them than for me. More to come on that. Sign up here if you’re interested in joining in.

The book itself has an unobtrusive sign-up link on the copyright page and some pretty carefully-thought-out calls to action in the back, inviting people to sign up for my mailing list, support me on Patreon, or email me. It also has a sample of my next novel followed by links to where you can read it free for now and a reminder to sign up for the mailing list. The goal is to find those who liked my story enough to read it to the end, give them a taste of what else is available, provide an overabundance of fun and value, and get a way to stay in touch. I’m excited to see how this develops over the next couple weeks as my 80+ initial buyers get time to read and finish the story.

Lessons Learned

This was a test run and I’ve learned a lot. Knowing what I know now, I would have done it a little differently.

1. I’d just release directly (with a limited-time discount) instead of making a pre-order. I could have had readers leaving reviews on Amazon or sharing their thoughts about the story on social media throughout the launch week rather than just going on hearsay and product description.

2. I’d have been ready to send out the email as soon as momentum started dying down. I was still figuring out mailing lists and refining my contact list, and ended up having about a 2-3 day delay between the two big surges, and my sales rank dipped to 100k (and even, briefly, close to 200k). I think if I’d timed it better I could have had a sustained 10-20 sales/day for 5-6 days in a row. I don’t have details, but I get the impression that’s getting close to where Amazon’s algorithms would start picking it up a little more seriously and it might have started getting some organic sales and building on itself a bit.

3. I’d have contrived a way to keep up the engagement on FB through the day. I have a day job (and no smart phone) so wasn’t able to respond to peoples’ shares, encouragement, questions, etc. during the day. My bitlinks and my friends who were watching corroborrated that the action fell off around 11am. My wife and I have since realized that she can help keep things going from home while I’m at work :]

4. I’d have proofread a little more carefully. I ended up getting a little impatient and loading the final compile at 2am a day or two before deadline. It turned out there were still a few typos. Luckily I was able to fix some of these early on and upload the fix during the pre-order period. A hard lesson was that Amazon freezes the design 2-3 days before launch. I had a couple final adjustments to the manuscript that unfortunately didn’t make it to the pre-order customers even though I uploaded the changed version within minutes after Amazon unfroze the book. Not critical, and they can set their accounts to get the updated version, but it bothered the perfectionist in me.

5. I wish I had figured out a way to get a list of people who bought the book. It would make it really easy to express gratitude, remind people to leave reviews, check for interest in future releases, notify buyers about the changes in 4 above, etc. Anybody have a good way to do this?

It was all a ton of work and a ton of fun. I’m trying to mostly put it behind me and get back to work on actual writing now. This has more than ever driven home for me how good it will be to have a catalog of other books I can direct eager parties to.

Any ideas on things I could have done better? Questions or experiences of your own you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Cheers!

—Ben

When Characters Make Up Characters

I’m not sure if this is the sign of a horribly fractured psyche or what, but my characters not only help me with my creative process, but they’ve even been known to make up their own characters. I mean, it’s pretty routine to hear authors talk about characters “taking on a life of their own,” but this is at a whole different level.

Best example is probably Otto, resident geek and aspiring technomage of The Dream World Collective. Partway through the story it became evident that he has a “consortium of highly skilled gremlin and gremlinoid adventurers” that he consults and/or bickers with from time to time. Funny thing is still get them mixed up—Griphook and Grumbles and Tickleback and…I think there’s another one—but Otto has a live and vibrant relationship with them. He does know that they’re imaginary, though. That’s key. (Intriguingly, so do they.)

The part that really interested me was when Otto’s characters took on a life of their own. In one chapter Otto finds out that Grumbles is married. Otto didn’t know it, and I certainly didn’t. It really took me by surprise, though I suppose it stands to reason that if a character can develop an independent identity to the extent that he’s making up characters, those characters could do the same.

So that’s all fun, but where it becomes useful is in letting those characters who have developed a rich independent identity start pulling their weight in the creative process. I’ve done this in various ways. Sometimes I interview characters to learn more about them and get insight into where their story is headed. Lately I’ve been experimenting with character improv, where I just give two characters a prompt and let them play off each other—this has been a ton of fun and I’ve started releasing some of these as patron perks.

One of my favorites, though, has been holding board meetings with my characters. I basically imagine a boardroom with all of us in it, provide and/or ask around for agenda items, and let the discussion unfold sort of like I would when writing a scene or dialogue. With richly-developed characters it can result in surprisingly productive discussions.

In fact, early on in the development of The Dream World Collective there was a character named Max. During a board meeting he started being a jerk, and we realized we didn’t want him in the story. I think he came to the same conclusion and left. Then we held auditions to fill his spot, and that’s how Alex joined the book.

Fun fact: Max makes a cameo in Episode 1.

DWC 46-51 Text Art

The Big (Tiny) Amazon Self-Publishing Experiment Begins! (+ Cover Reveal!)

I just learned an important and slightly disappointing lesson about putting a book up for Amazon pre-order. Logical in retrospect, though. But I should back up.

I’m finishing up a couple novels and plan to self-publish them when the time comes. I’m looking forward to sharing the process of completing them, getting them ready, publishing them, and getting the word out. Thing is, they’re both major projects—150k and projected 120k words—and I’d kind of like to have a little experience with the basics of self-publishing so that I can put them up without wasting time on errors or inefficiencies, especially when it’s a time sink that would scale up with the length of the novel.

Recently I remembered a fairy tale I wrote a few years ago. It’s early work but it’s actually quite beautiful and the ending still brought me to tears when I re-read it, and it’s a story that’s worth getting out there. Thus was born the Big (Tiny) Amazon Self-Publishing Experiment. The story is around 30 pages long and in mostly finished form.

I realized if I can put aside my perfectionistic tendencies I could put on a pre-made cover, convert it with minimal editing, and publish it on Amazon within weeks or less with very little effort.

Big if.

I ended up ordering a pre-made cover and, while the designer was incredibly friendly and responsive and did a beautiful job adjusting the background image for me, it turns out I have pretty strong views on matters of design (and I like getting my hands dirty and testing different options out), and the “make a suggestion, wait a day, make a suggestion, wait a day” cycle was killing me.

So—don’t try this at home—I basically took the second or third version he gave me, completely edited out the title in GIMP, and did my own typography for the main title. Here’s the result. I’m pretty excited.

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

And the disappointing lesson about pre-orders? I decided to put the book up for pre-order to give me a chance to make a few final edits and complete post-production while already having a legit Amazon product page I could direct people to.

The way this works is that you enter your book information and upload a cover and a content file (either draft or final—mine was a draft because the whole point is that I’m finishing it up while pre-orders are open).

Then you pick a future release date and Amazon generates a deadline by which you have to upload the final copy, about 10 days before the release date. This deadline is all very scary and official and bold and red, especially because before your final submit you have to confirm that if you don’t get your final version in before the deadline, you’ll lose access to pre-orders for a whole year.

That’s pretty serious stakes for what started out as essentially a lark.

I decided I needed a kick in the butt to short-circuit the perfectionism and ship the book. So I gave myself a nervous-makingly short deadline of about a week and carved it into stone. That’s when I learned that it doesn’t actually put up the product page until you submit the final draft anyway. So the whole pre-order thing is kind of moot. Either I get a few days to finish post-production or I get a few extra days with a legit Amazon pre-order page, not both.

Lesson learned. And really that’s what the experiment was for all along.

Have you guys done anything like this? Anything I should be aware of going into it?

Cheers!

—Ben

An Unexpectedly Funny Trick For Writing Better Dialogue

One of the things that’s tricky about writing realistic dialogue is that there are often several layers going on at once in a conversation. This especially applies to emotionally complex scenes, where a character may have multiple conflicting motivations at once.

So if a dialogue is becoming really troublesome, what we need to do is split those layers apart. This technique brings a lot of insight. It also regularly makes me laugh out loud, even for serious scenes.

Start with the subtext.

Well, no. Start with an example.

Calliste: I wrote something. If you want to see it.

Banks: <continues playing a video game>

Calliste: It doesn’t really matter.

Banks (distracted): No, go for it.

Calliste: <uncertain pause>

Banks: <keeps playing his game>

Calliste: I should get the water boiling. <turns to leave the room>

Banks: <pauses the game and half-stands> Were you going to read it out loud or—?

Calliste: Don’t worry about it.

Banks: <sits back down and resumes game>

Ok, back to the subtext. Strip away all the games and hiding and just write what the characters would say if they were naively shouting exactly what they felt and wanted. For some reason I find this step easier in all caps, but I will spare you the visual assault.

Calliste: I wrote a poem about how deeply I love and appreciate you and I want you to read it and love it and love me.

Banks: I am frightened by the intensity of the emotions that might evoke in me because I love you so deeply and am secretly afraid that I’m not good enough for you and you will figure that out and leave. Also you’re a really good poet and I’m threatened by the fact that you might actually be better at it than me even though I’ve spent years aspiring to be a great poet.

Calliste: This really really matters to me.

Banks: It would be unconscionable to not even acknowledge what you’ve done for me, but I’m still scared for the aforementioned reasons. Beyond all of that I am nevertheless curious to hear what you wrote.

Calliste: I am scared that you will not give this costly and beautiful poem the attention it is worth. I would rather just abandon my efforts than risk the pain of revealing myself and being ignored.

Banks: That was a close one. I am relieved that I may be able to avoid this complicated and potentially painful moment of intimacy without accruing blame for avoiding it.

Calliste: I am increasingly confident this will not end in a way I find satisfactory. I am going to find a reasonable pretext to not do the thing I was initially wanting to do.

Banks: I regret the apathy and emotional flabbiness that is leading me to avoid what could be the deepest and most beautiful moments of our life together. That said, I am apathetic and emotionally flabby and am finding it difficult to muster the bravery to potentially lose control of my emotions if I let myself realize how much you actually love me. But it sucks to so obviously be the bad guy, so I hereby make a gesture that should, I trust, look at least vaguely genuine.

Calliste: The moment is past. Maybe I will try again some other time.

Banks: I hope you do. I think.

Heh, heh. “That was a close one.”

In writing out the unadulterated, unhidden thoughts and feelings of the characters, we find out a lot of what’s going on behind the scenes. And it’s relatively easy as long as you’ve got a good bead on your characters. It’s a lot easier to figure out the psychology behind the scene when you’re just looking at the bare motivations, not trying to understand them, combine them, hide them (as the characters), and reveal them (as the author) all at once.

Often this step is enough for me. But if it’s not, the next step is to lay out why the characters are not being exactly that open about each of the things they’re thinking and feeling.

Calliste: I wrote a poem about how deeply I love and appreciate you and I want you to read it and love it and love me. [But if it turns out you don’t return my feelings as deeply, or even if you’re not as appreciative of the poem as I hope it deserves, it will be humiliating and painful, so I don’t want to oversell it until I have a sense of how likely you are to appreciate it.]

Banks: I am frightened etc. [That is a very complicated set of feelings and I’m not sure how to express it succinctly, and also I’m not sure how you’d respond because I think I’m supposed to be more confident and all. Lacking any better course of action, I’m going to not say any of those things for the moment.]

And so on.

We’ve now sketched out the tensions that are running through the conversation. What remains is to resolve those tensions into specific actions or surface messages.

I posit a third step, though I’ve never actually gone this far in practice. I could sketch out what gimmicks, tools, or devices are available to the characters and how they use them to help play out the actions or surface messages they end up with. Banks has a video game to disappear into. Calliste apparently needs to boil some water.

But what if Banks resorted to picking apart the poem instead of avoiding it? What if Calliste started yelling instead of leaving? There are all sorts of strategies people turn to, and finding the actions and words that express characters’ inner motivations will go a long way to making them rich, deep, and believable.

How do you guys figure out the psychology of your characters and how it should play out in actions? Any tips for me?

Cheers!

—Ben