General Writing

How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Letting Your Characters be Who They Are (A Deeper Look Into Point of View)

Point of view is one of those tricky subjects we often struggle with as writers.  I know I’ve been trying to get a solid understanding on this since I started seriously writing back in late 2007.  Just the other day while I was reading one of my children’s newsletters from school, I came across something that gave me an “a-ha!” moment.

idea for blog post

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(You know you’re a writer when you read something totally unrelated to writing and make it relevant to writing.)😀

So anyway, this tidbit in the newsletter was about student behavior.  Here’s the gist of it…

An event happens.  The event in itself is neutral.  BUT it is the person’s perception of the event that influences their behavior.

And that’s when the lightbulb lit up above my head.  So what did I do?  I did the first thing any writer trying to come up with a blog post topic would do.  I made notes on what I wanted to write for this post.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend (and fellow writer) who was getting stuck in her story.  Her character wasn’t doing or saying the things she would say and do.  That being the case, she didn’t know how to proceed with the scene.

That got me thinking.  How many times do we impose our own mentalities onto our characters instead of letting the characters be who they really are?  Our job as writers is to tell the character’s story.  It is their story, not ours.  If we want to tell our own story, we need to write an autobiography.  If we want to do fiction, we need to let the character tell his or her own story in the way they want.

So when we’re writing, I think we’d be better off putting ourselves in the character’s shoes.  See things through the character’s eyes.  Take into consideration the character’s background, religious (or lack of) convictions, prejudices (we all have them), hopes, and goals.  When an event in the story happens, we need to perceive that event through the character’s point of view.

Your job as the writer is to step aside and let the character believe what they want about the event, regardless of whether or not they are right.  Misunderstandings about something can be a great way of opening conflict in a story.  How often have you heard one side of the story and then learned the other side?  How often would you say two opposing viewpoints both had valid points after you listened to each person tell you what they think?

It’s no different with characters.  One character might see an event in a very positive light while another might think it’s the worst thing that has ever happened.  That is fine.  Go with it.  Let the character with the point of view have that perception. And when that character has perceived it in a certain way, have him react to it based on his personality.

blog post on character and point of view

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When I was in high school, I was in a play, and to this day, I remember the director (aka drama teacher) saying, “Good acting is reacting.” In the same way, good writing is allowing the character to react in a way that makes sense for him, given his history, baggage, prejudices, etc, to react.  The character might change eventually or might not.  But either way, that character has a right to react to an event that makes the best sense to that character.

For example, a character who has spent his childhood hiding from bullies isn’t likely to react bravely to someone who threatens him.  He will need to build himself up and overcome that tendency to run off before his is ready to confront the person threatening him.  It won’t happen overnight.  That’s where personal growth and struggle can come in for the character.

Even if you, as the author, face challenges head on and tackle them right away, your character might not be the same way.  It’s okay for your character to be different from you.  In fact, I think it’s great if you experiment with different personality types when you’re writing.  Too many times we try to impose who we are on the characters, and this can be very limiting.

Think about it.  If you write the same type of characters all the time, how different will your stories really be?  There are only so many plots available.  It’s how the characters react to the events (aka plots) that make the story unique.

You might get feedback from a reader who says, “I hated that character.  I never would have done (fill in the blank).”  The reader has every right to hate the character because the character didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations (based on the reader’s background, personality type, etc).  But does that mean the character was wrong to do what the character did?  Absolutely not.  The character has his own way of looking at the world, and this particular way of looking at the world just happens to be at odds with the reader’s way of looking at the world.

Remember: you will NEVER please EVERYONE.  So don’t even waste your time trying.  It’s okay to have haters on your book.  It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer.  It just means your book isn’t that reader’s cup of tea.  Books, just like points of view, are subjective.

Back to the post:

Think about real life.  We all have our own point of view on everything that happens around us.  We react to these events based on our point of view.  Another person we know will have a different point of view and react differently than we do.  It’s normal.  Life would be boring if we were all the same.

So embrace these differences when you’re writing.  Give your character the freedom to be his own person.  Even if that character is different from you, let him react to things that are appropriate for him.  I think it will help you develop more well-rounded and meaningful characters if you embrace differences instead of trying to fight them.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, General Writing, storytelling | Tags:

Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

As we all know, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is just around the corner (though considering it’s done all over the world these days, it might need a name change). If you are not familiar with the tradition, it’s basically that every year authors try to write a novel in the course of a single month, usually one that’s around fifty-thousand words, and always in November. Of the authors that choose to participate each year, some do it independently, while others do it through an international organization that can hook them up with other participating writers in their region and even let them know about local events centered on helping authors during the month.

I’m on the fence on whether or not I’ll be participating this year. I’ve three other books at various stages of editing and I have to decide if one of those books needs to be rewritten (if so, then I’m participating because that’s basically starting from scratch). Even so, I thought I’d serve the writing community and do my civic duty by posting some notes on how to survive and get through NaNoWriMo with all your fingers still attached to you and your sanity somewhat intact.

Because let’s face it, writing fifty-thousand words in thirty days? I don’t know about the rest of you, but normally that many words takes me six to eight months. Cramming all that work into a month, we need all the help and advice we can get.

So first off, don’t get stressed about the word count. To get fifty-thousand words written in thirty days, you’d have to write approximately 1,667 words, or about 6.7 pages per day.* I know for a lot of writers it’s difficult to get that much out in a single day. The thing to remember is not to feel upset if you can’t force yourself to get that many words out per day. Remember, all good stories take time, and there’s no prizes for meeting daily quotas (the NaNoWriMo organization hands out badges, but they’re like the ones from Audible, nice to have when you get them but they don’t make much of a difference after you get them) or getting the full fifty-thousand words written out besides bragging rights. Besides, if you have to force yourself to put out words when your heart is not in them or just to meet a quota, your first draft might not turn out so well.

That’s another thing: remember that this is a first draft. And a rushed one, too. So if you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the heck you were thinking, that’s a normal reaction to a first draft. They’re supposed to be full of errors and passages that make no sense to you upon the second read-through. It’s during that second read-through that you touch it up and get it closer to the gem that you know it’s going to be.

Now that we’ve gotten the tips that’ll keep you in a good frame of mind out of the way, let’s cover how we actually survive NaNoWriMo:

Prior to November, research and prepare. We’ve still got twenty-two days till NaNoWriMo kicks off. During that time, it might help for you to get an idea of what you’re working on, where it might be heading, and maybe learn a bit more about the subject matter you’re writing, especially if it’s a topic you don’t know very well (like a murder mystery in Tang China or a coming-of-age story set in an ROTC unit). Now I know a lot of you might like to write by the seat of your pants, but just doing a little bit of prep can be helpful, especially if it means you don’t have to stop midway through writing because you realized you don’t know a thing about car maintenance and you lose four days because you got a car maintenance manual and needed to cram all that info in.

It also helps to prepare so that you can make plans in case you have to stop writing for any reason. Whether you need to attend a wedding midway through the month or you have to put the metaphorical quill down because you have a Poli Sci exam coming up you need to study for, having a contingency plan in case that happens can work wonders.

Speaking of which, while it is important to get out as much writing as possible, make sure not to neglect your life just to write. Many of us have day jobs, school, families, friends, and a variety of other things that require our attention. While it is important to write and maybe give up a few social obligations or fun outings to work, don’t neglect the real world entirely. I find the real world can not only give me great ideas for stories, but also reenergize me so that when I sit down to write, I’m not restless and looking for a distraction or yearning to go out and see the latest horror movie or something.

And while you’re working so hard, remember to take care of your health. In some ways, NaNoWriMo is like the last three weeks of a college semester: you’ve got a ton of work to do, only so much time to do it, and you’re willing to get maybe four hours a night of sleep and eat ramen noodles three times a day if that’s what it takes to get through it on top. I’m advising against that. There are no consequences to not getting out the full fifty-thousand words, so your health shouldn’t be a consequence of trying to. Get plenty of sleep each night, eat healthy meals, and get some exercise too if you can, even if it’s just going for a walk. You’ll find you’ll have more energy for writing if you do, believe me.

It’s also healthy to take an occasional break. We all need time to recharge and let our brains focus. So if you feel approaching burnout or writer’s block, or if you can’t figure out where your story should go next, or if you’re just so tired of writing about a princess trying to cover up her father’s murder so she doesn’t have to marry against her will, then maybe a trip out to the movies or to the bar with your friends or some fun family time or an all-night Mario Kart tournament with your roommates might be what you need. Studies actually show that ideas come more easily to you if you’re distracted, so there’s even more reason to take a break right there.

And if you need a little motivation to keep you going, reward yourself for certain milestones. For every five-thousand words or so you put out, reward yourself with something fun. This could be a favorite dessert, watching Netflix for a little while, whatever you want. Give yourself something extra special when you reach fifty-thousand words and/or finish the book (I suggest some wine, some celebration music, and later a good movie with a friend). You’ll find it much easier to write if you have something to look forward to after all your hard work.

And let’s not forget to build a support network around yourself. The NaNoWriMo organization attempts to do this by putting you in touch with other participants in your area and with community events, but whether or not you decide to participate in these events, you should still have people around you encouraging and cheering you on. Friends, family, lovers, authors you’re friends with online or offline, they should all be there for you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have people cheering me on and willing to read my work every time I publish during the rest of the year. Imagine how motivating it’ll be when you know there’s a group of people standing behind you when you do the writing equivalent of a 5K.

Finally, take a long break when you’re done. Not just from writing so you can get your creative juices to recharge, but also take a break from whatever novel you were working on once you’re done. I always feel that a month or more between drafts allows for writers to come back to their first drafts with fresh eyes so they can see where they made mistakes in the first draft and correct them. If you start editing immediately after finishing the first draft, you can only see it as the baby you just poured so much time and energy into and miss quite a lot. Better to take a break and let it lie until you’re ready to look again.

I’d like to wrap it up here and wish everyone participating next month good luck. Whatever you do to make the month of November one of the most productive and crazy of the year, I hope you found these tips helpful and that you have fun trying to get a full novel out in thirty days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

What tips do you have for getting through the month and writing as much as you can in so little time?

*That’s if you write like I do, which is Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double spaced on 8.5” x 11” paper. Otherwise it varies.

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, Rough Draft, Schedules & Routines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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