Claerie’s Golden Writing Rules Part 3: Write What You Know

We’ve all heard the age-old saying “write what you know,” at some point in our creative journeys. Most often, it’s used as a way to explain the benefits of writing something while drawing from our own experiences, surroundings, and emotions. While this is undoubtedly helpful advice, I’d like to take it a slightly different direction as a follow-up  to last week’s Step Outside Your Normal, post.

As of Tuesday night, the outline for my current project is complete (for the most part). There is, of course, work that will need to be done as I write, because it’s impossible to outline everything, but the hardest part– coming up with a “rough sketch” of the story and tweaking any major plot holes or problems that arise, is behind me.

A two week turn-around is the fastest  I’ve ever been able to outline any long-term project thus far, and a big part of my success is thanks to the strategy I embraced in my last post; breaking out of my usual routine. I did not, however accomplish this step by “writing what I know.”

My current work is a fantasy romance. Since I did not live in the 1920s, the era in which the project takes place, nor am I a fairy, genie, or any other magical being, (Or am I?), it was rather difficult to use this advice in the traditional sense.

Instead, I did the following:

Writing Rules 3 part 1 BG

Whenever you’re starting something new, it’s difficult to find the perfect place to begin. I mentioned before that I usually write in chronological order, but this time, my element wasn’t time, instead, it was the world. Once I figured out the basic skeleton of my society, it was so much simpler to craft a  story around the functions, fears, and abilities that not only belonged to the main character, but those around her as well.

If you’re not a world builder, don’t worry, there are plenty of other jumping off points you could use. In romance stories, the major conflict is the relationship between two characters.. In adventure stories, there’s almost always some kind of quest or journey that poses challenges for the characters to face and overcome, developing their personalities in the process. Take whatever element sticks out to you and start there; gaps can always be filled in later.

Writing Rules 3 part 2 BG

After you’ve picked your focus, start typing whatever pops into your head. It can be in a bulleted list, a paragraph, random notes, even scribbles in a journal if you prefer.this is also known as an “Idea dump.” Nothing has to be realistic or make sense. Even  if you write something down and immediately think its the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard, or that it’s ridiculously obvious, don’t scrap it, just keep going. Who knows; two days from now, it might sound brilliant.

To demonstrate this, I’m going to use a romance story as an example:

  • They have to meet, obviously. But how?
  • Maybe the girl has a secret that keeps her from wanting to get too close.
  • Maybe the guy is the suspicious type, so when he sees the girl being shady, he goes around and tries to find out the secret from her family and friends.
  • Do they like each other when they first meet, or not?
  • Maybe she’s really rich, but her father used to be involved in criminal activity and that’s the only reason they have all this money; she’s constantly worried about him being caught.
  • What happened to her mother? Is she alive? In hiding? If she’s not alive, why?

Write until the ideas stop flowing. This may not seem all that helpful at first, but I guarantee that if you write long enough, at least one line of chicken scratch is going to spark your interest, and hopefully get going a little bit on its own.  

Writing Rules BG 3 part 3

I kind if already did this in the brainstorming example, but after you’ve gone through your notes a couple times, star any ideas you like/need for the story to work, and expand that idea into a few sentences. (Or, if you’re wordy, like me, a few paragraphs). How do you do that? You question everything.

Let’s take my first bullet point: They have to meet. How do they meet? On the street? At the fair? Shopping at a market? At a meeting? What social class does the guy belong to? If It’s not the same level as the girl, what would bring them together? Is it normal for classes to mix, or is it taboo? If it’s taboo, what happened to make it that way?

By doing this, not only are you developing the details of that particular part of the story, but, hopefully, the fictional world as well. In my above demo, I raised the question about social status and its importance to society. The places I mentioned could also be important, as depending on the time period in which you are working, you need to determine what those atmospheres would be like, and how the differing environments might  influence the meeting.


From here, my ideas just kept tumbling out on top of each other, and the rough outline of the story wrote itself. I hope these tips will help all you struggling writers out there get your gears turning again, and let me know if you have any other recommendations!

Challenge of the Week: What does the phrase “write what you know” mean to you?      

Claerie’s Golden Writing Rules Part 2: Step Outside of Your “Normal”

Over the past three months, I have been mapping out what will be my 2016 July CampNanoWriMo project (click the link if you don’t know this site). It started in early March. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but nothing structured had come together except for the fact that there was going to be magic involved.

Usually, I am a chronological writer. Since I didn’t yet have a plot to work from the idea simply sat there stewing, trying to shape itself from an abstract inkling, into a story worth telling. Finally, I decided I’d had enough. If I wanted this tiny seed of an idea to turn into anything, I knew I had to get off my lazy butt and start trying. And dammit, I wanted this to be something, so try I would.

In this case, trying meant experimenting  with something I’d never done before. I had to work out of order and start with what I knew, instead of what I wanted to happen. So… What did I know?

I knew that I wanted magic to somehow exist.

I knew that in order for that to happen, and create an interesting plot, magic would have to affect the outside world in some way or another.

Seeing as this project will hopefully become my debut novel, and it’s the first time that I’ve written fantasy since I was a teen, I also knew I needed a refresher course in the ins and outs of creating a magic system. I turned once again to Jenna Moreci’s YouTube channel. (I’m aware that I mention her quite often on this blog, but as a new novelist, I find her advice extremely helpful. She never offers solutions outright, but has a knack for understanding the needs of her viewers and giving them enough examples to work out the conclusions for themselves.)

Her video refreshed my knowledge and kept me from leaving gaping holes in the magic system. As I began to formulate the beings and their powers, elements of the plot also fell into place. With the bare minimum skeleton mapped out, rough sketches of characters came into mind, and then conflict, and plot, and so on and so forth. Within a little under three weeks since I first came back to the story, I have been able to establish the origins of my world, create a society and jobs based on magical abilities, determine the rules of magic as they apply to magical beings and mortals of the outside world, and establish a basic backstory for the main antagonist, as well as a backstory for one of the main character’s (MC’s) parents. I’m currently drafting the backstory for my secondary MC, and last will tie it together with my primary MC’s backstory before scrambling all of the elements to create the layout of my novel. But none of this would have happened if I had stuck to my initial way of thinking, and waited for the plot to come to me before I did anything else.

Leaving my comfort zone has helped my progress immensely, and I encourage everyone to see where a new way of thinking will take you.

Challenge of the Week: Describe one time you’ve stepped out of your normal writing routine, and tell whether it enhanced or hurt your progress.

April Showers Bring May Flowers-But Don’t Let Them Distract You

Let’s face it, coming up with a stupendous, mind-blowing idea can be ridiculously difficult and at times, even exhausting. It takes a lot of thinking, brainstorming, and the ability to really hone in on everything around you before that triumphant “Ah ha!” moment happens. But when it does, your brain goes into overdrive. You’re more excited about starting this project then you have been about anything in a really, really long time. It’s all you can do not  to jump up and down and start cha-chaing around the hall because you finally found it. The most brilliant, wonderful, awesome idea you can possibly imagine. It’s sure to be a massive hit.

So, you sit down, all jazzed up on creativity juice (and sometimes a full pot of coffee), open up your document, touch your fingers to the keys, just seconds away from typing (or writing, if you’re a notebook lover) what will be your greatest work ever aaaaannd….

Ding! An email from a friend you haven’t heard from in two months. You think: Okay, I’ll just answer this really quickly and then I’ll be right back to work.

Or, how about…

Buzz. A text. “Go check Facebook right now! Lucy’s engagement pictures are up!” What? You didn’t even know he proposed! A quick scroll becomes an hour long affair, but you promise yourself that you’ll get back to it… Right after you read this post.

Then….

“Honey, can you come here a minute, please?” That minute turns out to be a three hour project.

And of course, there’s the ever annoying writer’s block. You’re plugging along, doing just fine, when suddenly… Roadblock. You have no idea where to go next. Or worse yet, if you’re a planner, like me, you start staring at the giant mountain of, well, stuff you have to do before you can actually get to writing– worldbuilding, character sheets, outlining– it’s a ton of work. So much that you think it might be simpler to just back out and do something a little more feasible.  

We’ve all been there for one reason or another. I like to call it Squirrel Syndrome. We get so distracted by all of the other things in life that need our attention that we often find ourselves not getting nearly as much accomplished as we’d hoped with our own creations. Well, dear readers, I have a few solutions for you.

Recently, I shared my Top 5 Ways To Get Inspired, so in honor of the start of a new month, and all of the beautiful, flowery distractions that come with it, today I thought I would share my Top 5 Tips for Staying Focused.

    1. Figure out your perfect environment: Everyone has their own conditions in which they work best. For me, this means I have to have some kind of background noise. Those of you who read my previous post already know how much I love music, so nine times out of ten, it’s Pandora blaring from my headphones. I absolutely detest working in silence, whether it be for fun or for school. It makes my skin crawl, and causes every teeny tiny little sound to become a distraction. Even if I don’t have the music on, I almost always have earbuds in. Sometimes it’s so the computer can read my work to me as I edit (A great cheat tool to catch things you may not have seen after staring at the screen for countless hours.) Sometimes I have the radio up online, and sometimes, I just have the earbuds in. I’ve discovered that for me, along with being a source of creating background noise, having earbuds in is a great tactile cue for my brain. It helps me tune out everything else, and focus on what needs to get done. Find out what works for you, and work in spaces like that as often as possible.

 

  • Manage Your Social Media: Notice I said manage, not turn off. If you have to block certain sites for a time, or logout of your accounts to be productive, fantastic, do that. If, on the other hand, you’re like me, and you get encouraged by interactions with other writers and project-doers while working, use that skill. Or, if both of those are a bit extreme for you, perhaps make a compromise: for every hour you work on your project, spend fifteen minutes on social media. Determine the best way to make it work to your advantage, and stick to that plan.
  • Set time limits: And speaking of plans… Through NanoWriMo, (click the link if you don’t know this site,) I recently discovered sprints. Ten to fifty minute long increments in which we type as much as we can, as fast as we can. That’s it. No editing, no reading, no stressing over sentence structure, just writing. By doing this, i’ve been able to type about 500 words every forty or so minutes. It’s amazing, and really helps me push past roadblocks. The first draft might be crappy, but at least a “rough sketch” is done. I can always go back and polish later. This can help in all kinds of situations. Art projects, papers, anything big that you’ve been putting off because it just seems too overwhelming, try this. I know first hand that the results are worth it.
  • Split large projects into smaller chunks: I’ve always done this to some degree, but it was only after watching Jenna Moreci’s quarterly goal videos that this method was really cemented in my head. Any time you’re working on something that just seems like it’s going to be an absolute bear to tackle, break it up. For example, I aim for my chapters and short stories to be between 3k-4k long, which is about ten single spaced pages, give or take. That sounds like a lot, but instead of looking at it as one giant chapter, I break it down into scenes. So, for kicks, let’s say my short story is about a little girl who finds a stray cat curled up in a box on a snowy night on her way home from soccer practice. She takes it home and rescues it. Ok, great. But how do I get there?

 

    1. Scene one: We meet the little girl, and she finds the cat. Maybe this takes about 300-500 words.
    2. Scene two: The little girl tries to find the owners, but no one is around, she’s cold, and her parents are expecting her home for dinner. This is probably 500-700 words.
    3. Scene three: She can’t just leave the kitten to freeze, so she wraps it up in her coat and decides to take it home, only then discovering that, along with being abandoned, it has an injured paw. This is another 300 words.

And so on and so forth until we reach the story’s end. Don’t worry as much about word count as I did there, that, again, can be trimmed in editing. The point is, instead of trying to cut up the entire steak, which will get cold and ratty by the time you reach the last bite, cut off a few pieces, eat those, and then cut up more if you’re still hungry (i.e. in need of more story or have the energy to write another scene, or both.)

  1. Don’t push yourself: I stand by the idea that if you’re stuck on a certain story or scene, exercises like sprints can help you get over those rough spots without worrying about perfection, but if you’ve been working for hours and your brain feels absolutely fried, stop! Continuing to write at this stage is the fastest way to produce lackluster work in my experience, and nothing makes you want to shift focus more than feeling like you’re work is absolute garbage. Instead, step back, marvel at your what you’ve accomplished, binge on a favorite Netflix, and get ready to put your nose back to the grind in the morning. Good luck!

Challenge of the Week: How do you stay focused? Did I miss your favorite method? Do you use any of mine? Come chat about it on FacebookTwitter, Tumblr, or comment here!

Top 5 Ways to Get Inspired

Stuck for inspiration? So am I. All. The. Time. But just because we are out of ideas, doesn’t mean we should stop looking for new ways to find them. We’re eleven days into through April’s Camp NaNoWriMo,(More information on what that means HERE.) so, in honor of that, here are five ways I like to get inspired, from the one I do the least, to the one that never fails to get my creative juices flowing.

5. Observe: Anything can inspire a good story.  Even random conversations or simple, everyday acts can be morphed into the craziest tale if given to the right writer. What about that cranky neighbor across the hall? Is she just a bitter old lady, or does she have something to hide? Take in everything you can. You’ll be amazed what hidden gems might pop up.

4. Read: This one probably seems obvious, but I feel like it needs to be said. Read everything you can get your hands on. Pick up an old favorite, or dust off that hardcover you kept meaning to read but never got the chance to. As we grow and change, so do the things that keep our interest; even in our favorite books. You may pick up on subtle details you never noticed before, or you might find that your demographic has changed completely from what it was when you first started writing. Reading is not only a great way to get inspired and figure out what you like, but it’s also a way to study your target audience. What’s lacking in the market? What have you seen so much of, that if you see it one more time, you’re going to throw the paper back across the room? (I’m looking at you, YA love triangles!)

These are all wonderful questions to ask in order to learn more about your writing style, the things that attract you to a book, as well as cliches you want to stay far, far away from.

3. Research: When I say research, I don’t just mean scour through the shelves of your local library or scroll through endless pages of books on Amazon while you gather all the necessary facts to write your next best-selling novel. Nope, when I say research I mean research anything you want. Do you like punk rock bands? Look up their history and how they started. Or what if you like to bake? Make three new recipes and chronicle your experiences. I, personally, have a real affinity for anything “behind the scenes. From red carpet premieres, to the making of a student film, to how they put the set together for my little sister’s school play. I love all of it. And the stories and ideas I get from watching or hearing about these things often shock even me. Find an interest and run with it. I bet you’ll be surprised what you can come up with.

2. Talk: One of my favorite ways to get inspired is to simply talk. I don’t know about you, but my family and friends have some pretty funny conversations, especially given that they know that I’m likely to take anything they say and put it in a book. You can talk about anything, even, and especially, the particular project that you’re stuck on. I find that it’s always immensely helpful to have another perspective. Even if the other person only knows the story based on what I’ve told them, they can often take things in an entirely different direction that I never would’ve seen. Sometimes, their suggestions work wonders, and sometimes they don’t. But they always, always, get my wheels turning.

1.Listen to Music: I would argue that if you listen closely, every song has a story. And not just the story the composer intended either. Blown Away by Carrie Underwood is a song about a girl whose mother died and whose father is a drunk. When a tornado comes, she takes shelter, but is unable to wake her passed out father to protect him. She wants the house to be destroyed in the storm, thinking it will give her freedom from her shitty life.

This is a pretty standard plot that anyone can get from listening to that song. But I was most curious about what  happened after the tornado hit.  Why was the father such a drunk? Had always been that way or was it the mother’s passing that caused him to drink? Did he survive the storm, or was it swept away with the rest of the house? What kind of life did the young girl lead after that? Did she get the freedom she always wanted? Was it worth it?

By looking a little deeper into a simple two-minute tune thousands of ideas can come to the surface.

Challenge of the Week: Get writing! Post a 100-500 word story in the comments, on my tumblr,  Facebook page, or shabased on something that inspired you. I’ll do the same and share it with my normal Flash Fiction Fridays. Let’s see what gets everyone’s juices flowing!