Writing · Writing Guide

5 Ways to Stay Creative

  1. Keep a Pinterest board for inspiration

When I see prompts, pictures or other things that spark an idea in my head, I usually save it to one of my pin boards, either for writing ideas or story inspirations.  Pinerest boards are great to look at when you get stuck and want to feel creative again.

2. Schedule time for your creativity

I know it sounds like this goes against the way we typcially picture creative types, but I promise having a routine can really boost your creativity.  If you schedule a time each day to write, paint, create, you will start to find you no longer need to wait for the muse.  You can work without her.  I think you will find that the work you produce when you are not inspired is likely as good as what you created when you thought you were inspired.

3. Be patient

Sometimes, especially for writers, you need to sit and think for awhile before a creative idea can form.  Matt Fraction calls this kind of moment “Catching Butterflies.” This is where you just need to sit, think and make sure your mind is not distracted by facebook, or the laundry.  It may look or feel like you are not doing anything, but the wheels are turning and things are happening as long as you are not distracted.

4.  Don’t force it

If you’ve sat down to catch butterflies for two hours and have nothing to show for it, it is probably time to change tactics and give your brain a break.

My best friend has a thing called a “Meta” list.  On that list she puts all the things she can’t quite process yet, but still needs to think about.  It’s sort of like putting your creative problem on the back burner for a bit, allowing your unconscious mind to work through what your conscious mind isn’t ready to tackle yet.  So switch gears, find another task to work on, and go back to your project after you’ve taken a break and washed a floor or folded that laundry you weren’t thinking about earlier.

5.  Follow people that inspire you.

Social Media can be full of posts that drag you down, but there are lots of tools and places to find posts that lift you up or get you thinking.  If you follow posts that make you feel depressed or like you are not doing enough creatively, unfollow those pages and seek out the kinds of content that make you want to do something new or make more of your art.

 

What are ways you stay creative?  I’d love to hear what you do when your mind/muse just won’t help out.

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

I am not great about setting goals.  I mean, I do set them, but I am the kind of person that will easily be distracted from the things I am pursuing.  The thing is, without a goal a dream is just that, something intangible and not achievable.  The goal is the thing that gives you a map to work towards, a way to get to that dream.

I’ve met lots of writers who have said something to the effect of “I could have a story published if only I had all the time you have.” or “I could have a story published if only I didn’t have other obligations.”

I do not have a 9 to 5 job, but I don’t lack for distracting obligations that would love to keep me away from the writing desk.  Writing gets done thanks to dedication and goals, not thanks to a wealth of time (though that may help).  Many hugely successful writers were not able to sit at their desks all day, but they still managed to write and finish their stories.  This is because of dreams, deadlines, and dedication.

If you aren’t sure how to start or what kind of goals a writer should set and how to go about being successful at them, here are some tips for you.

Set a daily word count goal

It doesn’t have to be an ambitious goal like 1000-3000 words a day, it can be something small like 200-500 words a day.  It adds up quickly if you stick to doing it each day.  In a week, 200 words a day will equal 1,400 words.  500 words a day will equal 3,500.  You do not have to set goals that are hard to achieve in order to be successful.  Set a goal that you know you can accomplish and then see if you write more and need to set your bar a bit higher.  There are lots of word trackers out there, but my favorites are from Svenja Gosen, who has several available here.

Treat writing like a job

Don’t get me wrong, writing should still be fun, but if you treat your writing like you are a professional, you will get very different results than your friends that treat it like a hobby.  I still write for fun, but I also have set hours each day during the week that I devote to my “Job.”  I show up on time and I do my work.  For some, this will mean writing for 30 minutes each night, uninterrupted and not distracted.  For others it will mean spending a few hours doing writing sprints each day, working toward their goals.

Give yourself a deadline

Make a deadline and do your best to stick to it.  Tell others about your deadline, so that they can help hold you accountable to it.  Your deadlines may shift, mine almost always do.  If you write shorter fiction, find places to submit that have deadlines that you can’t wiggle around.

Be accountable to someone

This can be a writer’s group, a group of friends, or just someone on the internet.  Just make sure it’s someone who knows what you are working on and will expect you to finish it.  You should do the same for them.  I have a group of women (including my best friend) that I email when I want to do writing/work sprints, most of them are working on their PhDs.  We might be doing different work, but we are excellent at making each other accountable and cheering each other.  Writing can be lonely work, and sometimes a good “Hooray” or a good kick in the pants can be just what you need.

Writing Guide

A Guide to Writing Werewolves based on Real Wolf Packs

For the last few years, I’ve dug into a lot of research on wolves for a werewolf book I want to write.  It’s been both interesting and alarming to see how much actual pack culture is different from the tropes we see in movies and TV about werewolves.

Typically in werewolf media, we see a pack that is led by an all-powerful Alpha Male.  He’s stronger and meaner than the other werewolves and that’s why he’s the go-to leader.  He knows how to get the job done.  Though many people believe by default this is also how wolves act in nature, that is not the reality of the situation at all.  Wolf packs are usually led by an Alpha pair, who are a mated male and female wolf.  In some cases, the female wolf will actually be the more aggressive of the two and the one that tends to keep the pack members in line.  This is not necessarily the female establishing her dominance, it’s more similar to the way your grandmother might keep you and all your cousins in line at a family gathering.  The mated pair that leads the pack more or less serve as the “parental” units of the pack.

A single male alpha as the lead of a pack is just something that has been fabricated over the years, and is likely more of a reflection of human culture, than that of wolves.  I’ve gotten to the point that when I see this trope reinforced over and over again in TV shows and movies, I have a hard time watching them.  This trope also tends to make it easy to exclude or leave out female characters, since male characters tend to be the central focus of the trope.  Female wolves are essential to the pack’s life, and therefore I think it would be good if fiction also reflected that.

Packs also share other similarities with human families, as many smaller packs are just the mated alpha pair and their cubs.  As I mentioned before, packs are often like human families, whether related or adopted, and function in somewhat similar ways.

In the wild, packs will fight for territory sometimes, especially if food becomes scarce in one area or if another pack seems to be dying out.  Packs can die out for a variety of reasons, including harsh winters, fighting with other predators, cubs being eaten by competing predators. These are things you can think about as you craft your werewolf story.

Obviously, fiction does differ from reality, but many of the tropes that surround werewolves are both erroneous and create stories where female viewpoints often get lost or are nearly non-existent.  If you are looking to do more research on wolves in the wild, there are a number of books written about wolf packs, especially those in Yellowstone.  Yellowstone also releases a yearly fact sheet about the packs in their area, that gives an account of how many wolves are in their packs, what sizes they are, what color their coat is, etc.  The Yellowstone wolves tend to be a unique opportunity for humans to closely monitor and learn more about wolves, since they were only recently re-introduced into the park and there is so much activity in Yellowstone.

Writing Guide

Don’t dabble – Tips To Stay Committed To Your Writing

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite authors for self-help, Gabrielle Bernstein, posted a video about staying on course for what you want.  At the bottom of her post, she had the option to tweet about it and the tweet basically said: “Stay committed, don’t dabble.”  This concept is something I’ve talked a lot about with those in my little circle of productivity, the group of women that I email and do writing sprints with.  The truth is, I used to dabble a lot.

This was both in and out of writing.  I’d start a book, or write in online communities and happily proclaim I was a writer, despite the fact that I had no goals with my writing and I rarely finished anything.  I dabbled in writing.  There were no stakes with my writing, I did not take it seriously.  I dabbled in other things too, which took my time and attention away from the writing I did.  Part of this was due to the fact that I struggled to say “No” to people.  If someone wanted my time, attention and help, I would bend over backward and put my own projects aside for months on end.  There are times I still say “Yes” when I should say “No.”

This leads us to what I really wanted to talk about, how to stay committed and avoid dabbling, for writers and artists.

1. Learn when to say “No.”

Successful people know when to say “No.”  They have learned to say it with conviction.  I do my best to think very consciously when people ask me to work on projects with them. I often get asked to proofread things for friends, or to help them with their own projects.  I will say “Yes” only if there is a reciprocal relationship when it comes to helping with these friends, or if I believe editing their project will help me become a better writer.  It sounds harsh, but it also isn’t fair for them to expect me to beta/edit chapters upon chapters without some kind of give/take.  I also will take on a project here or there that I just really have an interest in.  Some of my friends are brilliant writers and I aspire to be more like them, so helping them would also warrant a “Yes.”

2.  Practice makes perfect.  Take your practicing seriously.

If I had a dime for every time someone said, “Oh, I like to write.  I could be a writer just like you if I had all the free time you have.”  Though I may have a flexible schedule that allows me to devote a lot of time to writing, that would mean nothing if I was not devoted to the practice.  I write nearly every day.  I manage my own schedule and I stay committed to the work I want to do.  I read books, I write, I read more books and I work to improve my writing.  Publishing credits are not something a magical fairy bestows on you and leaves under your pillow as you sleep.  You get the by writing often, sharing your work with others for eyed back, learning how to be a better writer, and then sending that work out into the world.  If you have a day job, commit to a word goal or an amount of time you will write each night.  There are writers who got published with small word count goals like 200-500 words a day.  If you write every day, those words add up quickly to short stories and novels.

3. Set goals and deadlines.

Every short story I’ve submitted has a deadline of some sort.   Usually, it’s a date by which you must submit your story.  You can set your own deadlines and I suggest having them somewhere they are easily visible.  I usually post my long-term goals up on my wall and keep daily and weekly goals in my bullet journal.  Deadlines give you something to work towards and they encourage you to finish your projects.

4. Finish what you started.

This does not go for every project and you will get to a point where you can identify when it is time to set a project aside and work on something else.  That being said, you still need to finish things.  I have not been great about finishing some of the novels I’ve worked on, but I’ve finished many short stories and comic scripts, even if they all did not make it to publication.  If a writer has 100 unfinished short stories, they aren’t likely going to be able to find a place to publish them, but if you keep finishing projects you can find a way to get them out to the world, either by finding a traditional publisher or through self-publishing.  If nothing is finished, there’s nothing to publish.
If writing is truly something you want to do, stay committed.  Don’t dabble.  If you keep at it, I am sure you will find a way to get what you want to say out to the world

Writing · Writing Guide

Capturing the Muse – Writing for the uninspired

With the advent of the internet, it’s easier than ever for writers to connect with one another.  Because of this, I have met lots of writers who have very active muses, those that do not wait for the muse, and those that can only write when their lazy muse feels like it.  I consider myself to fall in the second camp, I don’t wait for my muse or for inspiration, to write.  If you’re like me, this can mean tricking yourself to producing.

Okay, tricking sounds simple.  It’s not really a trick, it’s a series of carefully planned habits and practices that help me make sure I show up to write even when my muse doesn’t.  Here are some tips to get you started down that path:

  1.  Create a daily writing habit – Stephen King and several other professionals will give you this advice.  Whether it’s setting a word count goal, or setting aside 20 minutes a day to write, create a goal and stick to it.  Even if you write just 200 words a day, that’s 73,000 words a year.  That’s a small novel.  That’s several short stories.  This writing may not feel inspired at first, but if you show up to do the work, you’ll be surprised how often it starts to feel inspired.
  2. Find a process that works for you – I have several work sheets for story planning.  When I start writing a story, especially short stories. I pull one out and start the very fundamental process of character building on them.  I usually start with 3-4 characters, give them names, 4 personality traits (at least one negative trait).  From there I add a setting if I didn’t already have one in mind and I build from there.  I am the sort of writing that likes plot that stems from character, so that is why I start with characters.  Once I have plot, I work on world building and theme.   The worksheet I use the most is here, which I based off a story workshop I attended taught by comics author Kelly Sue Deconnick.  It gives me a great building block to start with, whether my muse had chosen to show up or not.  Sometimes the traits I choose are literally random ones.  Other times I have an idea of the characters and they come naturally.
  3. Writing prompts – Find a prompt you like, set a timer (15-30 minutes is usually the best) and write.  The scene can be random or with characters you’ve already created, but write and see what happens.

If you want advice beyond what I can recommend in the space of this small blog post, I have a few books to recommend.  They are as much about creating a writing practice as finding inspiration, but they have helped me immensely over the last few years.

Both of Pressfield’s books are relatively quick reads, but they shine a good light on the practices of a “Professional” even when you don’t feel like one yet.  He also just released a another book, Nobody wants to read your Sh*t, which he released for free to start out, so you might still be able to grab a free copy.  I’ll be reading and reviewing that book, in a couple weeks.

  • On Writing – Stephen King

I’m not a fan of horror, but I’m smart enough to know that Mr. King has some amazing advice on writing.  I listened to the audiobook, which he reads, and it’s one I’ve gone back to time and time again.

  • Fantastic Mistakes – Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” Speech

I own the hardcover book, but you can also watch Gaiman give the speech here.  This is something that is great to read or listen to when you feel like you can’t do this.  His voice is kind and encouraging, which makes it seem almost like his advice is coming from a dear friend.

 

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

Bleed on the Page

You’re probably looking at the title of this blog post and going, “Umm, that’s a little violent, Aubrey.”  It’s okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds.  Let me explain what it means to me.

I usually have my best friend proofread/edit my writing before I send it off into the wild blue yonder to be published.  Sometimes her feedback includes, “Bleed on the page, Aubrey.”  What this has come to mean for us, is that the writing is either not deep enough or it doesn’t have enough of my voice in it.  I need to dig deeper, I need to expose more of my core in the writing.  My blood needs to go into that story.

The hard part about writing, even writing fiction, is that you tend to expose the parts of yourself that make you vulnerable.  Not only do you bare it for the world to see, but then the world can come back and say they don’t like your weak spots, they don’t like the things you love, and the worst of all, they don’t like you.  There’s a flip side to that, though, and really, that is what matters.

Pain and vulnerability are universal.  If you are speaking from the heart about real feelings, it is more than likely that your story will feel real and weighty to your reader.  They will be able to relate to your characters because you’ve put real emotion into them.

That is why we bleed on the page.  I let my life force drain from me into the words I craft, in the hopes that someone will read it and go, “I see myself.  That’s what’s inside me too!” as they read.

The first piece I ever got published was all about a verbally/emotionally abusive relationship I was in.  It was raw and sore and I got to write a better ending for my character than perhaps the one I got myself.  It was cathartic and I’ve had more than one person ask if they could share that piece with a friend or family member that had been in an abusive relationship.  I think that is part of why we bleed on the page, to share our stories and to feel a connection with others.

Neil Gaiman put it much better than I could in his book Fragile Things:

“I believe we owe it to each other to tell stories.”

I believe that too, and when we bleed on the page and dig a little deeper, we’re sharing our truth.  That’s what makes good stories into great stories.

 

Writing Guide

What Does Your Character Want?

When I was a teenager, I used to cut out pictures from magazines and comics and post them around my room.  Usually it was stuff like Batman or Wonder Woman or NSYNC, but occasionally it would just be an ad I liked.  One image in particular has stuck with me.  There’s a male model giving someone an incredulous look.  He sits on a box and the text above his head says “What’s my motivation here?” It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would understand that phrase, I just thought the model was good looking.

Like many writers, I dabbled in high school theater.  I wouldn’t say I was a particularly great actor.  I could sing and I’ve always loved to pretend I was other people, but my interest in acting was more about loving characters than being on stage.  Motivation is something that’s talked about a lot in when you act.  Your character needs motivation to cross a room, to pick up the phone, to say something.  They don’t do anything without motivation.

And that?  Has helped me a lot as I realized I preferred creating the characters over acting them out.

Every character in your story has to want something.  That’s art imitating reality, every person you meets want something.  It might be something small, like a turkey sandwich, or something big, like taking over the world.  They have to want it and as the author, it’s your job to put things in their way as they try to get it.  It’s often good to have a character with an internal motivation that is completely at odds with an external motivation.

For example:

Ally wants to be loved, but Ally lives in a dystopian society where love gets you killed.  Ally also wants to survive.

And tada!  Conflict.

If you don’t know what your character wants, just ask them.  Have a dialogue in your head, or on a piece of paper, and ask them what they want.  You can take small needs and find ways to make them bigger and put other needs in direct opposition of them.

This also may help as you are revising a story.  If something feels off, or if the character feels off, look at what the characters in that scene want.  You might find that what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually match their motivations.  It’s a lot easier to fix something once you know why it’s broken.

What about you?  Do you have any tips and tricks for figuring out what your characters want?  Let me know in the comments!  I’d love to hear from you.

Writing · Writing Guide

Write What You Know… Or Don’t

I tend to write a lot of fantasy, sci-fi and superhero stories.  Sadly, I have never been given super powers by a science experiment go wrong, nor have I ever been a werewolf or been to space.

But, some days I fake it pretty well.  Or at least, my characters do.

“Write what you know” tends to be a confusing and limiting piece of advice.  People assume it means you can only write from your perspective about things you’ve experienced first hand.  While I do think research and experience are important, the stories I dream often outside of my area of experience.

It also comes back to writing the emotions you know, because that is what will resonate with your audience.  You may not know what it’s like to be an alien princess, but you probably know what it’s like to have your heartbroken.  Most of us, at some point in our life, have felt pain, loss, joy, exhaustion, anger.  If you think about the books you’ve read, even those with some mistakes about setting or details that research could have helped, you may still love them despite their flaws, because they made you feel something.

If you want to write a story about a mental illness, but you have never had one and don’t know someone who does, that is what research is for.  Many people want to share their story, so the best way to learn more, is to ask them.  I’d suggest this for any subject you don’t “know” but especially real places, real people, and real conditions that exist.  Readers will forgive small errors in these factual things, but too many will pull them out of the book.

In the end, it is all about balance.  Share what you do know about life, feelings, emotions and research what you don’t.  Try to remember the kinds of inaccuracies that pulled you completely out of a story, and the things that kept you in the story despite them.

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

Finding Theme.

About two and a half years ago I went to a writer’s workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick.  I talk about that workshop a lot, because it pretty much changed my life.  I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but that workshop was the first time I really started to see how stories are made.  She also said she often starts with characters, which leads to plot, which leads to theme.  

Not everyone writes this way of course. In both novels and comics, there are great writers out there that start with plot, or theme, and work at it from another angle.

Do what works for you.  If you are not sure what that is, play with with different ways of approaching a story.

This is what works for me, most of the time:

I start with character, sometimes I have a plot or backstory in mind for them.  That’s when I start to think about theme.  What do I want this story to say?  What do I want to say?  I may have a draft started or even finished at this point, or I might be half way through and not sure where the story is going.  Theme helps me focus those ideas.

I’ve been working on a lot of shorter stories lately (along with revisions on my first novel and the first draft of my second) so theme has been on my mind often lately.  For me, theme definitely does spring from character.  For short stories especially, you want that theme to run throughout the story, but not be so obvious that the reader feels like they are being hit over the head with it.

Theme can often be a way for the author to share their voice in a more subtle way.  In my story Teeth, Nails and Pain the theme was about overcoming an abusive relationship.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t write that story with a theme in mind.  That story sort of wrote itself, but the ones that followed were not quite so easy.

Once the story is written, the theme maybe clearly stated or just implied.  It is up to you as the author the approach you take.  In one of my more recent stories, the first words we read the characters saying are actually the theme.  I felt that it set the tone for the story and let the reader clearly know what I was about to write about.  Your story may start out with something like “The world is a wild place.” and follow with a plot about living in the wild, or maybe it’s about how humans live in cities, but we’re still savage animals deep down.  Either way, you’ve mentioned your theme, and in that story, your reader will know what to expect.

In  Teeth, Nails and Pain, I did the opposite.  The theme isn’t completely revealed until the twist ending.  Though my theme may have been less intentional in that story, the twist was not, and that is what ties my theme and plot together.

If you have written a story but you’re not sure what the theme is, go back through it and look at what the characters are fighting for or against.  What do they want?  What have they done to get it?  Why is it important?  Did they fail?

What does that all say?  What do you want it say?

 

Writing Guide

Short Story Elements: Themes

I’ve been studying up on what makes a good short story lately, as I work on my own short fiction and submit it for publication.  During this time I’ve learned a few things along the way that I wanted to share with you.  I have listened to several podcasts, watch youtube videos and read articles about what makes a good short story and there was one thing that came up in most of them:

Your beginning needs to match your end.

What does this mean exactly?  It means that if you read your beginning and your ending one after the other, that some of the same elements should flow through each of them.  For example, if your beginning is all about saving the planet from aliens, your ending should not be about how your hero has decided to be a chicken farmer.  They don’t match thematically.  Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be fully triumphant, she can fail, but it still needs to match your beginning in terms of theme.

In this video about short stories, David M. Harris discusses how to get ideas for short stories, but he also discusses how the protagonist can fail.  You simply need to make sure the failure is still a satisfying end for the story.  Going back to my previous example, maybe our protagonist fails at saving the planet from aliens, but she manages to steal a ship, save a portion of the human population, and plot a course for a different planet where the human race can start over.

She failed, but it’s a satisfying end for your reader, if you do it right.  It can leave them thinking of what the planet is like, what the possibilities are for this new version of the human race.

All parts of the story must contribute to the story as a whole.

“Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”
– Kurt Vonnegut.

Because short fiction is condensed, you cannot have fluff or parts that are not doing the work of moving the plot forward in some way.  Kurt Vonnegut has great advice about this (As well as some great guidelines to short fiction, here), “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”

If a sentence or paragraph is not showing us something about the characters or moving the plot forward, that you may want to consider either revising or cutting that section of the story.

The way I write characters drive the plot.  Plot drives the theme.  This is why both of these elements are things you should carefully consider as you craft your story.  If your theme does not match the story you’ve written, it may be time to reconsider the theme and do revisions with your new theme in mind.

Look to what the characters do and the plot to determine what themes would work for you.  As for the alien story, the themes we could play with could be something like “Woman faces her fear of her alien overlords and rebels.”  If we boil that down a bit more, it might look like “Woman rebels against corrupt system.”

What are your favorite tips about writing short stories?  What are you favorite short stories? I would love to hear them.