Prep for NaNo – New Characters!

NaNoWriMo starts 6 months from tomorrow, and I’ve already started mentally preparing for it.

Last year I didn’t even know about NaNo until a week or so before it started.  I signed up to participate 3 days in advance of the opening day.  Fortunately, I had an existing story idea that I could work with and I wrote 50,000 words of Life in Dreams in 29 days.

I don’t have an existing story idea (other than Chasing, which is going to have to simmer on the back burner for a while longer) so the sight of the winner’s certificate from last year made me start to worry about this year.  I decided to start contemplating ideas, so perhaps when November rolls around I’ll have something to kick-start the writing.

Once I set my creativity a task, it usually delivers.  This time was no different.  Last night I decided on my main characters!  I don’t know their names, or much of their story.  All I’ve got so far is a conversation between them and a little bit of background for one of them.  It doesn’t matter, though, since now that I’ve met them I can start finding out more.  I’m not too worried about it yet, since I have six months to develop my idea!

Taking a Moment For Myself

I finished the first phase of revising Dragon a week or so ago, but now I have the second phase ahead of me.  This is the part that requires creative energy on my part, fleshing out sections, rewording sentences, building in details, and so forth.  I’m ready to get started, but the problem is time.

My life has gotten busy lately.  Friends are asking for help with projects, social plans are made, and without warning all of the time I have to myself is filled with dishes and laundry and things that need to get done around the house.  Suddenly a couple of weeks have passed and now it’s almost May.  (How did that happen?!)

This is why I am planning to take another Writer’s Retreat.   Last time the projects were to finish the short story With Honor and start Dragon.  This time, I’m getting the second draft of Dragon finished.  For those of you who are unfamiliar or forgot, my writer’s retreats are actual retreats – I go into the woods camping by myself and spend a couple of days reading, hiking, and (most of all) writing.  No people, no pets, no chores, just me, nature, and my writing.

I am very much looking forward to some time for myself.  I spend a lot of time around people, so taking time away from people is often the best medicine for me.

Now I just need to find some time to finish the planning!

A Picture is Worth…

Okay, I had one request for a photo to use as a story prompt, but it’s enough for me.  Here is the photo that you can use, if you so choose, for an imagination exercise or even writing practice.  I know the story that goes with this photo, but you don’t, so this should be interesting.  🙂


A Thousand Words

The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Have you tried?

Granted, some things are hard to describe accurately, in which case even a thousand words won’t have the impact of a single image.  But many images make for great stories.  (This goes with the “I wonder” concept from last week!)

Look at a picture that you didn’t take, preferably one with a “character” like a person or an animal.  This works best if the image is out of context, so you don’t know any background on it.  Now make up a story to fit the picture.  What’s going on?  What happened just before?  What might take place next?

It’s a fun imagination exercise.  You can even turn it into writing practice pretty easily – just write the story that goes with the picture!   I’ll bet it won’t take 1000 words to capture the idea of the photo.

If you want to try this but need a picture, comment!  I’d be happy to post a random photo (from the thousands that I have) for you to use as a starting point.  It might be fun to see what kinds of stories you come up with for one of my photos.  🙂

Under the Couch

I moved my couch to vacuum today.  It was part of a larger cleaning spree which was started by my regularly scheduled dismantling and cleaning of the bird’s cage.

When is the last time you moved your couch?  Mine is large and heavy, with a recliner on each end, and as it is in the only logical place for a sofa in my apartment, it stays put most of the time.  Needless to say there were some interesting things under it.

On the end closest to the kitchen there is a side table that collects mail and receipts.  It was no surprise to find a piece of junk mail and a couple of old receipts under that end of the couch.  There were two hair rubber bands that I use for ponytails – not sure how they ended up under there – and a business card (mine).  I expected to find the couple of pieces of lightweight paper trash, but there weren’t any random coins or other objects that can slide through.  Those could still be trapped inside the couch, I guess.

Why am I telling you about moving my couch?  It doesn’t seem writing related at all.  Have you ever sat on your couch in a new spot in the room?  Have you tilted your couch to look at it from underneath?  Moved the couch and looked at the collection of things underneath?  These are all great ways to change your perspective.

If you are stuck in your writing, or you want to try a different approach, or you are just getting bored with a character or story, try something to change your perspective.  It can be a real thing, like moving your couch and sitting in a new place to think.  It can be a variation to your writing routine, like moving outside or switching sides of the cafe booth where you always sit.  It can even be an exercise, like writing the same scene from the eyes of a different character or changing from third person to first person.

This doesn’t have to be reserved for times when you are stuck.  I enjoy taking my writing outside on occasion, just for a change of scenery.  It usually reinvigorates me and the creative juices flow a little faster.  Try changing your perspective to see what happens.

Or just move your couch to see what’s underneath.  🙂

Personality Traits

When you are writing and want to throw a romantic obstacle in the path of your couple, this is one that needs to be built-in from the beginning.  Personality Traits (or flaws) are an interesting obstacle to overcome, because sometimes it takes convincing on the part of the non-flawed person and sometimes it takes self-reflection on the part of the flawed person.

There are many types of Personality Traits that can inhibit the growth of a romantic relationship.  Lack of confidence is a big one, which comes out as “I’m not good enough” or “she couldn’t possibly love me.”  That lack in a character can either be explained in your story or not; you don’t have to tell us why someone is this way, you just have to write them so the trait is believable when it appears.  This can be either an overall lack of confidence, or a negative perception of some trait that is related to lovability.  Someone who is confident and capable in other areas can still be unsure of themselves in romance.

Another trait that can play a part is the hard heart.  “I’ve been hurt before so no one is ever going to hurt me again,” is the overall impression of this aspect of a character.  Again, it is entirely up to the author to decide if the reader needs the background information of this trait or not.  A great example of this is the character of Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You. She was hurt, so she decided to swear off dating to protect herself.  In her case, she also took on an attitude of “I don’t care what others think,” which is often used hand-in-hand with this personality trait.  It takes a bit of coaxing on our non-flawed partner’s side to get past this, but it can be interesting to play with as a writer.

There is a fun trait that may take some careful writing on your part: arrogance.  It often appears as a “playboy” attitude.  This is the character that is too good-looking, too rich, too awesome, etc. to settle down with one person.  (Think Barney fromHow I Met Your Mother.)  It’s usually a guy, although it can be a girl, but either way they will resist the growing attraction to the other half of the romantic equation.  It takes some skill to write this kind of person into your equation, mostly because you still want the reader to like the character and cheer for the relationship.  If everyone likes Bob but can’t stand Katie, they are going to question why you have the couple together no matter what reason you give them.

There are lots of Personality Traits that can be used as obstacles for a romantic couple.  I’m sure you can think of at least one that I missed.  Just remember to use them in a way that is both believable as an obstacle and also possible to overcome!

Character-Driven Documentaries

I am currently watching one of Ken Burns’ amazing documentary series.  If you’ve never seen any of his work, it is definitely worth watching.

Ken Burns has made several documentary series for PBS, on an interesting range of American History-related topics.  I’ve seen Jazzand The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  I’m now watching The War, his series on World War II.  The coolest thing about the work of Ken Burns is how he tells the story.  He focuses on people, rather than events.

I’ve mentioned it plenty of times, so you probably already know, but I am a character-driven kind of person.  In my reading, my writing, and even tv and movie watching, if I’m not attached to a character, I’m not involved enough to keep going.  This is why I like Ken Burns.

There are many “characters” that a documentary about World War II could follow, and I’m sure you can think of some.  Ken Burns didn’t choose those people.  Instead, he chose soldiers and families, working-class Americans whose lives were impacted heavily by the war.   The documentary actually follows four towns and the people from those towns, which makes an instant connection: here is what your life could have been like, if you were alive at the time.

He’s selected his characters well, finding people who were involved in key action (the first episode has the Bataan Death March and the Battle of Guadalcanal, for example) so the documentary doesn’t miss important events.  These same people, at least so far in the series, are still alive.  Pause for a moment to realize the value of this; these are people who were actually involved in turning points in the war who can tell their stories now, for the camera, in a documentary.  Add to this equation that the people we are following are also strategically from four specific towns, and you begin to understand the intelligence and attraction of a Ken Burns film.

Before you tell me, yes, I know there are many soldiers from WWII who are still alive, and all of those key battles involved lots of people.  There are many, many stories that can be told from the war.  The point is not that this is a difficult group of people to find; the point is that Ken Burns chose to find them, and follow their stories, in a way that is both educational and involving.

The “I Think” Statement

My dad knows a lot about a lot of things, but I have always been the science nerd of our family.  This means that I was the one asked anytime someone had a science-related question.  This was especially true with my mom.

Starting in late elementary or early junior high, if my mom asked me a question I wasn’t sure about, I’d start with something I knew and extrapolate the rest of the answer.  Ok, so it wasn’t extrapolating, it was more like a mildly educated guess.  (Sometimes more educated than others.)  And she’d believe me.

At some point at the end of one of these fictitious answers, I mentioned that I didn’t really know, I just made it up.  After a brief talk in which the frequency of this behavior was discussed, my mom asked how she’d be able tell if I actually knew what I was talking about or I was just guessing.  I can’t remember whose idea it was, but we settled on the phrase, “I think.”  I was to add this to the end of the sentence whenever I didn’t really know but had an educated guess on the answer.

Now, as an adult, I know better than to simply make up the answer.  “I don’t know” is an acceptable response in my line of work, and I use it without fear.  However, in my family, the “I think” phrase persists.  In fact, if someone questions the validity of an answer, we have a typical response: “Is that an ‘I think’ statement?”

Important Details

As a writer, I notice details in books and movies.  What appears to be simply random or just extra action may, in fact, have future bearing on the plot.

For example, in the movie Tangled, a mirror falls and breaks in a scene.  It seems to be simply a dramatic event, adding flavor to the moment but not actually adding significance.  Yet later, one of those shards of mirror ends up being an important tool for one of the characters.  If the mirror doesn’t break, he might not have had anything to work with.

This type of thing makes me think of those quest-type video games. The one I played as a child was called “Eco-Quest” but I know this is not an unfamiliar genre. In these games, it pays off to pick up random things throughout and stick them in your bag, especially if another character gives something to you. That fishing line you cut off a trapped sea turtle? Keep it! You’ll end up needing it (and a few other things) to complete a task four or five levels later.

When writing, you can add spice to your story with things like this.  Sure, the guy who needs to cut a rope can simply find one on a table when he needs it.  But it gives the reader a satisfactory “Aha!” moment if he happened to be given or randomly pick up a knife earlier in the book that he hasn’t needed until this moment.

It also gives you a good reason to go back and re-read your favorite book or re-watch your favorite movie, just to see if there is anything similar in the story.

I Wonder…

Growing up, my mom used to start sentences with “I wonder” a lot.  We’d see a car driving north with Florida plates: “I wonder where they’re going.”  A strange dog would run through the neighborhood: “I wonder where he came from.”  We’d see an interesting grouping of people who were obviously together: “I wonder how they know each other.”  You get the idea.

Now, I have no idea if my mom’s mind continued on to explore the possibilities of her wondering.  (My mom reads the blog, so maybe she can tell us.)  As a child with a big imagination, I can tell you for sure that my mind did.  I would make up stories to follow those “I wonder” statements, and even to this day I still do.

Sometimes the stories are simple.  The lady driving up from Florida?  She’s going to visit her brother’s family in Wisconsin.

Sometimes they are elaborate.   The strange dog in the neighborhood?  He and his mama ride with a trucker who’s stopped for a while at the gas station a few blocks away.  His mama’s done this route dozens of times and knows dogs all over, but she’s too old to climb up and down at every stop anymore.  So she sends him around to visit all her friends and acquaintances, carrying her greetings and bringing back all the latest local canine gossip.

And sometimes I try to make them as outlandish as possible.  All those people together in an interesting configuration?  They work together.  As spies.  From Mars.

These creations of my imagination have proven to be rich ground for developing my writing mind.  I’m glad my mom’s offhand comments made their way into the habits of my mind!

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