writing tips

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

Writing in Bursts: Quick Progress for Busy Writers

I’m starting to enjoy a new writing strategy: writing in three-minute bursts. Three minutes feels like almost nothing, so it’s completely non-threatening and makes no real disruption to your day. Once you’ve done a handful of them, though, the word count starts building up. If you don’t have large patches of free time to give to your writing, this is one way to keep making progress each day.

I use the Session Target tool in Scrivener to make this even more fun and productive. Session Target is a progress bar that fills as you approach a word count target you get to set. I set it for my three-minute word count record and see if I can beat it in the next burst.

[Edit: Bursts also pair well with this new motivational tool I made for myself: Writing Mission Generator]

Yesterday I peaked at 157 words on my second burst, which is pretty crazy. My usual rate for composing new prose is 10-25 words per minute, so I doubled the high end. I never quite reached that rate again over several more bursts, but it pushed me hard and several bursts hit 120 words or more. Best of all, the quality was comparable to what I usually create.

Short version: I wrote over 1,500 words yesterday without setting aside any major writing time.

Your numbers may be higher or lower than mine; that’s not really the point. A page a day is a book a year. A page is 250-350 words. Even if you only manage 30 or 40 words per burst, that’s 6 or 8 bursts. Three-minute bursts.

You can do one instead of checking Facebook one time. You can do one while you wait for your Pop-Tarts to pop or your tea to brew. Shave 3 minutes off each break you take. Squeeze in a burst between phone calls. Three minutes is nothing. There’s three-minutes-es all over the place. And if you’re pushing yourself to go faster with each one, you’ll be pushing your upper limit. It’s not hard to sustain ridiculous speed for a measly three minutes.

Two things to bear in mind:

1. For this method to work, it needs to be frictionless. Have your writing up with the cursor in the right place, ready to pick back up immediately. Have a three-minute timer easily accessible. I like e.ggtimer.com/3min. Have some idea what’s next in the story; using your first burst to quickly sketch out what you’ll write today may be a good plan if you’re having trouble with this. And being a fast typist is a big help.

2. This method is for busy writers who don’t have the time (or, as the case may be, discipline) to set aside large chunks of writing time. If there’s any way you can manage uninterrupted chunks of an hour or more, do that instead. You’ll build writing momentum and have less overhead to deal with in the form of remembering where you left off and getting your head in the right space.

If you really want to supercharge your writing, I highly recommend Rachel Aaron’s incredible post, How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Part of her strategy is to set aside longer chunks of time for writing. If you want to dig deeper into her method, she’s expanded it into a book as well: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron.

That said, if you’re not free to go write for hours in a coffee shop, three-minute bursts will keep you limber and, more importantly, keep your word count rising. Making writing bursts a regular habit will also help reduce friction in your writing overall. The more I scatter quick bursts of writing through my day, the more I find myself able to pick up and make useful progress on a moment’s notice, which is an incredibly useful skill for a writer with a busy life.

I also find that it seeds my thinking. The quick dips back into the world of my story leave me attuned to the next story decision, the next scene or moment or action. My brain works on it in the background because it knows that any moment it may need to dive back in and produce at breakneck speed for a few minutes.

Best of all, it’s really fun. It adds a bit of excitement and challenge to my day, and it feels awesome to recapture bits of time I would have just been spacing out or transitioning between activities and turning those useless moments into cold, hard word count.

If you try this out I’d love to hear how it worked for you. Any similar writing strategies you’ve used in the past? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

Cheers!

—Ben