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Monday, June 19, 2017

Coming up with a Plot (from scratch)

Anonymous said: I often have ideas for a scene or a character but there is no plot. How can I expand these ideas into stories? I just don't know what to do with my ideas to get a story out of them. Most plotting tips require that I know at least the beginning and the end of my story. But I don't even have that.

Hi Anonymous,

I've heard of other writers having this same problem, so you are not alone! Here are some ideas that come to mind when I think about this.

First off, you have ideas for characters or scenes, and that's a starting point, and you probably (I'm assuming, because it wasn't that long ago) saw my post What to Outline When Starting a Story, which can give some guidance on what to consider. However, if you have no idea where to even come up with a concept for your plot that post can only be so much help.

Monday, June 12, 2017

How Many of These Writing Books Have You Read?

As I've talked about on my blog several times, an important part of growing as a writer is learning about writing. For years I've wanted to compile a list of writing books I've read, liked, and recommend. Today I'm happy to say I now have that list to add to my blog (perfect timing for anyone who likes summer reading). I'm sure over time, this list will be added to.

Many writers I've talked to have read quite a few of these books. How many have you read? And is there one I need to look into? (You can comment at the bottom).

If you haven't read any of them, cool. Now you have a list to chose from should you ever want to.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Writing Villains Who are Slightly Insane

luna-barry said: I love all of your super helpful and informative writing advice, and I was wondering if you have any tips on something I've been stuck on for a while now? I'm trying to write a villain who is insane, but not over-the-top (like the Joker, or Jim Moriarty etc.) Someone who feels more like they should be on medication, then a completely hopeless nut-Job. Any tips?

So I’ve been trying to think of how to answer this. To be honest, it might be a bit beyond me, as I don’t have much experience working with this specifically, also, I don’t struggle with insanity or other forms of mental illness.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Are Your Conflicts Significant?

Every once in a while, I hear writers talk about the importance of writing about significant conflicts. And they're right. Stories need to have significant conflicts to be interesting. Often the promise of significant conflicts is where tension comes from. Significant conflicts are particularly important in the opening page or pages of your story.

Significant conflict does not necessarily mean an extreme conflict, and this is where I see people get confused. We are often told that something extreme needs to happen in the opening to get the reader's attention, like a bomb going off. While stories can open this way, they don't have too. While those conflicts are significant, they aren't the only kinds of significant conflicts.

I have seen plenty of story openings with insignificant conflicts. This might be something like the protagonist being out of toothpaste or a cat being bored. Sure, there is a conflict of some sort, but it's insignificant. Who really wants to read ongoing paragraphs about a character being out of toothpaste and how inconvenient that is? It's little better than having no conflict.

Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Outline When Starting a Story

Last week I started talking about outlining, specifically focusing on story structure and what to outline. You can visit that post here.

Usually when people talk about outlining, they are either referring to what to outline or how to outline. So today, I'll be talking about different ideas on how to outline.

One thing that I probably should have mentioned last time that I'll mention today is that much of outlining stems from brainstorming, so if you are having a difficult time writing down an outline, it may be because you haven't brainstormed enough. Some writers brainstorm and do an outline simultaneously. So if you are having trouble, ask yourself if you have brainstormed enough.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What to Outline When Starting a Story

Anonymous asked: Hi, I visit your tumblr frequently. Creative writing is my passion and I am learning a lot reading your posts. I have also read books about screenplay (and the book by Lisa Cron about how our brain works). I love writing fantasy young adult novels but for me it's hard to outline. Could you give me some tips? :-) (Forgive me for my grammar errors. English is not my first. language) :-) Thank you so much. When you publish your novel, I will love to read it :D 

Hi anonymous,

Well, talking about outlining can be a little tricky because just as people write differently, people outline differently. For creative writing, there aren't a lot of rules for how you outline. Some writers don't outline at all. They simple start writing and find their story as they go. Personally, I'm a big outliner, but I also leave myself some room in case I come up with better idea along the way.

Now, for some, when they talk about outlining, they simply mean planning things out ahead of time, and how and what to plan, but others mean the actual physical process of outlining (physically writing down and organizing their outline), so I'll try to talk about both.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction

Hi everyone, this week I'm over at Writers Helping Writers, talking about how to make complex characters by giving them contradictions. Here is a preview:

You’ve likely seen countless posts and resources related to creating great characters, but almost all of them seem to be lacking in one aspect I’ve found to be perhaps the most powerful: giving your characters contradictions.

Some might read this and say, “Huh? Isn’t that inconsistent characterization? Or undefined characterization?”

The contradictions I’m talking about aren’t continuity errors or mistakes. They can relate to internal conflicts, but they are not internal conflicts. If you don’t like the term “contradiction,” many of the things I’m about to talk about also work as “contrasts.”

When writers are given methods to create characters, the approaches often include giving the character strengths and weaknesses, likeable attributes, a unique appearance, and a nice backstory, or a secret or fear. These are all wonderful and useful things. But how do you make your character more complex? More interesting?

The answer lies in giving them some sort of contradiction. Let’s look at some examples of characters and the contradiction or contrasts surrounding them.

Read the rest Writers Helping Writers

Monday, May 1, 2017

Why Being Boring is Awesome

In his advice book for creatives (Steal like an Artist), Austin Kleon has a chapter titled, "Be Boring."

"Be boring," Kleon says. "It's the only way anything gets done."

"I'm a boring guy," he goes on, "with a nine-to-five job in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and his dog."

Like Kleon, I'm a boring person. I do the exact same thing every day or every week. I haven't been on a trip that wasn't writing related in years. I almost never miss a day of work. Saturday mornings I work on my blog and every Sunday I go to church. It's a good thing I'm a Hufflepuff, because I have the tenacity of a rock.

But things get done. (And money gets saved.)

Once in a while, I get messages from people online that go something like this:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"

A common piece of writing advice is to avoid using "was" or any "to-be" word in your writing. But most professionals use them in their writing--so what gives? Over my years editing, I've seen stories that were crippled from the author's quest to avoid using "was," and I knew I needed to do a post on it. Here is the "was" rule, why it's a rule, and why you (probably) shouldn't follow it religiously--with some of the most common problems I see in avoiding it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Context vs. Subtext (Context Should Not Become Subtext)

Context First, Subtext Second

Subtext, especially good subtext, can be tricky to write. But in order to write good subtext, you need to have context first. And in order to do that, you need to understand the difference between them and where each one fits in storytelling.

Some writers make the mistake of trying to make the context into subtext. This is a problem for several reasons, one of the main being that it makes the story very vague. In vague writing, the audience can't really tell what is going on. Without proper context, they aren't sure how to interpret information and actions. Often, this sort of writing manifests when the writer is trying to follow the "show, don't tell" rule too religiously, which usually leads to writing that is too cinematic.

However, creating context does not necessarily mean you have to "tell" straight-out all the time. It can also come from taking advantage of connotations, words with specific feelings attached to them. With that said, though, it's impossible for most stories to have proper context without some telling.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Character Traits that Hike up Tension


Weeks ago, I did this post on the difference between tension and conflict. As a short recap, I mentioned that tension is not necessarily conflict, and I like to think of it as the promise of conflict, that anticipation and worry of what will happen.

As writers, we should definitely take advantage at the elements in our plot, world, and (yes) our conflicts to create tension. But over the years I've noticed that some smart writers really hike up the tension of a book through the traits of their viewpoint characters.

You see, some traits are natural tension-hikers.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Writing What's Evil >:D (without Promoting it)

Last week, I did a post on why it's important that the world has fiction stories with dark content. You can read that post here. Today I'm going to talk about how to handle dark content--without promoting it.

Long ago, in my first year of blogging, I did a series of posts about the value of shock in writing, explaining that not all shock is bad. Today's topic overlaps with some of those ideas and is yet different from them.

Handling Dark Content Correctly

Before I get into how to deal with evil behavior, I want to explain why it's important we handle dark content correctly. In the writing world, you may have heard of "gratuitous" content. Gratuitous content is graphic violent, sexual (or any other dark subject matter) content that is thrown into a story for little to no purpose other than to shock the audience. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators want to be taken more seriously, which is, ironically, the equivalent of a middle-schooler throwing out cuss words because he wants to sound "mature." It might be thrown in just to get a PG-13 or R rating. Sometimes it might be thrown in because the creators think that it's what their audience wants.

There is a poor way of handling graphic or dark content and there is a right way.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Why We Need Stories about Dark Things

One of the things I get tired of from time to time is the perspective that if something shows evil behavior then that means the story, song, game, whatever, is inherently bad. But there is a difference between illustrating evil behavior and promoting it.

Not all appearances of bad behavior invite bad behavior.

While one purpose of storytelling is to entertain, another purpose is to teach or educate--a purpose that in today's world, most people seem to have forgotten.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tension vs. Conflict (Hint: They aren't the Same Thing)

I used to think tension and conflict were the same thing. I mean don't they go together?

Well, a lot of the time they do, but it's entirely possible to have one without the other. They often go hand-in-hand, but they aren't the same thing. Conflict doesn't necessarily equal tension, and tension doesn't equal conflict.

Lately I've been editing stories that seem to have so much conflict and no tension! I don't care about the conflicts. I don't care about the characters. Because there is no tension.

Tension isn't the conflict.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Writers' Most Frequently Asked Questions

Writers get asked a lot of questions. They have an uncommon job and an uncommon pursuit. So I decided to go through some of the most frequently asked questions and provide some general answers, sprinkling some of my own answers in, too.

Where do you get your ideas?

This is the most common question writers get asked, and often the answers aren't that amazing. Ideas come from everything--interesting facts, song lyrics, life experiences, people-watching, movies, other books. Sometimes I get ideas sitting in Sunday school class. I've gotten ideas listening to college lectures. A lot of the time I get them because I'm sitting down with a paper brainstorming; I force myself to come up with ideas. Some writers get them from dreams (I never have). Sometimes inspiration strikes out of the blue. Most of the time, for me, it comes because I'm working hard at coming up with them. A lot of times I think about what others have done in storytelling, and how I can twist or morph that in a way that's new or interesting or surprising. I might try to think of a way to top it.

Askers will almost always get a more interesting answer if they are a bit more specific, "Where did the idea for this book come from?" "How did you come up with this character?" "Such-and-such was my favorite part, how did you come up with the idea for that?"

Specific aspects are pretty interesting, but talking about ideas in general can be rather vague.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Long Road

The path to being an exceptional writer is long. The road is marked with goatheads and brambles, and other times there are small stretches of gold bricks. The long road is not necessarily measured in time, but it can be. It can be time. It can be effort. It can be in written words.

But in the end, it's a long road.

Lately I've been thinking of that long road. It's difficult to move from a beginning writer to a good writer, but the work is even greater and harder to move from a good writer to an exceptional one. It can take blood, sweat, tears, and more than that.

I do a lot of editing, and in the process, I find myself reflecting on the magnitude of such a feat. . . . so many writers who have worked hard to get where they are, and they still have a long way to go. I've edited manuscripts from military professionals, people who work for NASA, university professors, and employees in Hollywood, and do you want to know a secret?

We all start at the beginning.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"

You may have heard the writing rule that the only dialogue tag you should use is "said." And if not "said" then "asked." Sometimes even "stated" gets mentioned. In this post, I'll explain what that rule means, why it's in place, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

In writing, the dialogue tag is the bit of text that tells the reader who spoke what dialogue:

"Are you hungry?" Jimmy asked.
"Please don't suggest we have raw fish," Oscar said.
"You only hated it because the first piece you had wasn't fresh," Jimmy insisted.
"Or because it tasted like gym socks," Oscar complained.

There are dozens if not hundreds of dialogue tags--blurted, groaned, sighed, cried, shouted, yelled, griped, moaned, and the list goes on.

But there is a rule in the writing world that we should pretty much only use "said" and "asked."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing Relatable Descriptions to Power up Empathy

There is something that has been rattling around in my subconscious for a while, and it finally clicked into the forefront of my mind: relatable descriptions.

I have found unrelatable descriptions in my own writing.

I have found them in other people's writing.

It's not that the unrelatable is always bad or wrong. It's that, like everything, it has a place it should be and a place it shouldn't be.

And where it should not be is in empathetic writing--when you want the reader to feel, empathetically, what the character feels.

Let me give you an example to illustrate.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Drawing out the Dragons (Required Viewing for Creatives)

Hi everyone! A couple of weeks ago I attended the Superstars Writing Seminar in Colorado for the first time. And (apparently) every year author and illustrator James Artimus Owen (Here, There Be Dragons) does a talk called "Drawing out the Dragons." Now, I've heard the name of this talk tossed around a lot in the writing community--I know it gets presented at other workshops and in schools, and I've heard a lot of positive comments about it--but I admit I had no idea what it actually was. When I saw it on the schedule, I just knew it would be good.

I'm now convinced that it needs to be required viewing for any creative. I rarely use the phrase "any creative," because people are so different, and there are always exceptions. For example, there may be things you find yourself disagreeing with in the talk. That's okay. I still think every creative should watch/listen to it.

Luckily, they recorded the one at Superstars that I was at, so you can watch exactly what I did. So rather than give you my own writing tips for today, I really want to encourage all of you to listen to "Drawing out the Dragons." It does have some visual components (mainly at the beginning and the end), but if you are too busy to sit down and watch it, then listen to it when cleaning, cooking, exercising, or commuting. I promise that if you just take the time to listen to it, 99.99% of you won't regret it, and it will leave you feeling better about yourself and life than you did before. And even if you don't have time to listen to all of it, just listen to the first half hour, first 20 minutes, first whatever. It's worth it.

This was a live recording on Facebook, so I don't believe I'm able to embed it. This also means that you will need to skip to 49:50, as we had a countdown going on until that point, and that's where it really starts.

You can watch "Drawing out the Dragons" here.

Now go live life deliberately.

Next week I'll be back with my own writing tips ;)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Creating Stunning Side Characters (and Why They Matter)

Several years ago I attended a writing workshop at LDStorymakers that was focused entirely on creating side characters. One of the points made that struck me most was that when you create strong secondary characters, you make your novel feel authentic. You make it feel real.

This is because as an audience we don't feel as if all the side characters exist for the sake of the main character or the plot. They feel like real people with lives that extend beyond our protagonist. And yet sloppy side characters aren't uncommon. You've probably seen them before--the love interest that is only there to kiss the protagonist, the mentor that's only there to give the main character special skills, that poor geeky kid who's only there so that the main character can show off how kind and caring he is by sticking up for the weirdo, and of course, how can we forget the two-dimensional bully that every hero has these days?

Keep in mind that none of these character roles are bad or wrong per se. In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling gave Harry a bully, a mentor, and a bunch of geeky kids he stands up for, but Rowling is a master at creating real, authentic secondary characters, to the point that it's not uncommon for fans to point to one as their favorite (Luna Lovegood, Fred and George Weasley, Dobby, McGonagall).

The trick is to make your side character feels real, and in this post, I'll give you some tips on how to do that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Writing Realistic and Complex Dialogue

Anonymous asked: Hi! Congrats for your blog. I think your posts are very interesting :) How do yo write realistic and complex dialogues? Thank you!

Hi and thank you! ^_^

Great question. I used to be pretty clueless about what made good dialogue. I even bought two books on dialogue, and they were helpful, but didn’t give me the answers or depth I was looking for. They were more about the basics. I’ve tried to study dialogue over the years and I’ll share what I know. This is assuming you already know the basics. If not, or you need a refresher, here are some great articles:

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 1)
Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part 2)

To be honest, I don’t agree with everything in those articles, but I agree with 99% of it and all of those points are what you will hear taught in the writing world. But here are more tips beyond that:

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sherlock Season 4 Thoughts (Spoilers)

I'm still dying from the awesomeness of Sherlock. I've been super busy the last couple of weeks, but I just had to take time to jot down something about the latest season. </3 Even if I don't have much time to polish it. It is what it is. ;)

Here are some of my raw Sherlock thoughts for season 4:

- This is still the best bromance of our day. The show does a great job of including high highs and low lows between Sherlock and John, which is just one of the reasons that their friendship is so powerful. It's the contrast of extreme emotions that give depth to their bond and strength to their personal understandings.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dealing with Identity

I've never been someone who has had an identity crisis. Or at least, I've never felt like I've had an identity crisis. While other kids and teenagers experimented with extremes and lifestyles to try to figure themselves out, I felt like I generally knew who I was and where I was going. It seemed I've always had a solid foundation in my identity. But it wasn't until several years ago that I realized that although I had a solid foundation, I had other junk in my identity cluttering up the space between me and my foundation.

I've met people who define themselves by their career. And frankly, it's hard not to in the society we live in. It starts at a young age, when people ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and as a people, we know that what they really mean is, "What do you want to do for work when you grow up?" And just that simple question shows that our society equates "being" with "work." In other words, from a young age, we are being taught that our identity and value is defined by the job we have.

I've met other people who are defined by relationships. Their identity is founded on who they are dating, and who they are is rooted in their relationship status. I've met people who define themselves by titles and medals and achievements. Others who have their identity founded in talents, hobbies, and abilities. I knew a girl who defined herself by her likes and dislikes.

But my identity issue did not come from standing on shaky foundations such as these. It came from not letting go of them.

See, I envision people's identity-foundation like a tower of blocks. Each block is something that is a part of us. Some "parts of us" don't give us a very stable foundation.

The examples I gave have foundations like this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Accepting that You'll Disappoint Readers


I've been having some good things happen to me on my writerly path the last six months, but as some of you may have noticed, I'm missing something: a published novel. I've published other pieces, but I'm still working on "The Book."

After sharing some good news with my brother, he asked me if I was worried about how my book would be received. After all the opportunities I've had, and the friends, connections, and followers I've gained, and the continued growth of my blog, would people have expectations that were too high and difficult to meet?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Selecting the Right Sentence Structure for the Right Emotion

Today's post builds off some other posts I've done:

Pros and Cons and Types of Third-Person
Point of View Penetration
Exactly How to Create and Control Tone
Writing Empathetically Vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally
Let Your Reader Do the Work
Raw vs. Subdued Emotion: Getting Them Right in Your Story

But you don't have to read them to get something out of this one.

It's just that today's topic relates to deep point of view (the deepest point, point 4), creating emotion in your reader (instead of on the page), and controlling tone.

Hopefully if you've been following my blog for very long, you understand the importance of getting your reader to feel powerful emotions as opposed to just writing about the emotions.