NaNoWrimo · Writing Guide

Getting ready for National Novel Writing Month

If you are a budding writer and finally want to get that book that’s been inside you on paper, now is the time!  November will be here soon enough and it is known to many writers as NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month.  

This will be my third year participating.  Okay, that’s not completely true.  I had said for many years I was going to do NaNo, but didn’t truly commit or make a plan to accomplish it.  Whether you are a planner or a pantser (I’ll explain those terms in just a minute) having a map for the month of November is the best way to give yourself a good start to completing that book.

Failure to plan is a plan to fail.

You definitely don’t have to outline the book you want to write, so don’t think that is what I mean by planning.  In NaNo there are often two kinds of writers.  Planners, who do a lot of work before they write their novel, outlining and perhaps researching their story so they are ready to dive in.  There are also Pansters, who “Fly by the seat of their pants” and write whatever comes to mind.  No matter what camp you fall under, it’s still a good idea to ready yourself for NaNo and plan ahead for a few things.

Are you going to start at midnight October 31st?  A lot of people use that time to gain both momentum and word count.  You won’t be alone, at least online, because other Nano participants will likely be writing as well and tweeting about it.

Set aside time each day to write.  Before you get started, plan a time each day to get those 1,667 words in each day.  You’ll be glad you did, because you will be less likely to fall behind and then feel like it’s going to take forever to catch up.  Plan ahead.  If you know you’re going out of town for Thanksgiving or to see family in November, maybe plan to double your word count for a few days before you go.  You’ll be glad you’re ahead, rather than behind, when you get back to your story.

Find some writing buddies.

Once you’ve signed up on the Nanowrimo.org site, find some buddies.  You can do this by lookin through the forums or adding friends from your real life.  Each year you get to watch as your buddies work toward their word count, and let me tell you, watching them blast their way past you is a great motivator to catch up to them.  It’s not really a competition, but that edge can help me at times to work just a little harder.  If you’d like to add me as a writing buddy on Nanowrimo.org, my screenname is Freudianslipped.

SPRINT

No running shoes required!  A writing sprint is where you buckle down for an allotted set of time and just write.  At the end you check out your word count and give yourself a pat on the back.  If you’re sprinting with friends, you might share word counts and encourage each other.  It’s a great way to shut off the world and get some of your writing done!

So there you go, there are my tips for NaNoWriMo!  Hope you have a fantastic National Novel Writing Month!

Writing · Writing Guide

The Power of a Paragraph

Formatting my writing has always been something that did not come naturally to me.  Since I spent a good portion of my early writing days on roleplay forums and writing fanfiction, I quickly got into some bad habits when it came to how my paragraphs and dialogue looked on the page.  From roleplay writing, I learned to use big, blocky paragraphs with dialogue peppered in wherever I saw fit.  It made my writing look dense and long, but it did not necessarily help my narrative in anyway, and that is what good formatting should do.

In my high school English class, I remember learning that a paragraph is usually 5-8 sentences.  For a typical essay in English class, this rule is perfect.  As a writer, it is one of those rules that is meant to be broken.  Some paragraphs will be longer, some will be shorter.

I recently read the book “On Writing” by Stephen King and his approach to paragraphs got me thinking.  He discusses how the format of words, sentences and paragraphs can cause the prose to breathe and dictate pacing as the reader goes through the book.  To show you how this works, I’ll provide you with an example using the same set of prose:

Example 1

She knew it was a bad idea to go back.  The worst idea, in fact.  Eleanor could not help but think of herself as a sober person about to hang out with a bunch of addicts.  Nothing could go wrong with that, right?  Sure, they were all creative minds like her, brimming with ideas and colors to put to canvas.  Creative minds also had a tendency to be self-critical and depressive.  If she threw her lot back in with them, she might find her inspiration again, but it all that creative energy might just end up flowing back into the people around her, as she tried to help them and hold them up.   Eleanor sighed as she came to a stark realization. It just wasn’t going to work.

Example 2

She knew it was a bad idea to go back.

The worst idea, in fact.

Eleanor could not help but think of herself as a sober person about to hang out with a bunch of addicts.  Nothing could go wrong with that, right?  Sure, they were all creative minds like her, brimming with ideas and colors to put to canvas.  Creative minds also had a tendency to be self-critical and depressive.

If she threw her lot back in with them, she might find her inspiration again, but it all that creative energy might just end up flowing back into the people around her, as she tried to help them and hold them up.  Eleanor sighed as she came to a stark realization.

It just wasn’t going to work.

By breaking up some of the paragraphs and utilizing the one-sentence paragraph, I give the reader moments to breathe and focus on parts of the story I want them to concentrate on.  I want them to know that Eleanor knows this is a bad idea, but she’s perhaps still willing to go back to it.  Changing the format can really change the way an entire passage is read.

Another thing I do, now completely subconsciously, is I vary my sentence lengths.  If all of your sentences are 15+ words, your writing will start to feel drawn out and long.  If it’s all short sentences it may feel more like a song on the piano played in staccato, sharp and punctuated, but the reader will never feel like they have a moment to take a breath. Varying your sentence size and structure is a way to give your writing a more even flow.

Just being conscious of both these aspects of your writing is a wonderful way to improve your formatting.  Do you have any other tips or tricks to help with formatting?  Please comment and share them if you do!

Writing

Why Feedback is your friend

It might even be your BEST friend.  I know that may sound a little crazy, considering how painful feedback on your work can be.  People want you to delve deeper, to kill your darlings, change your setting, edit or delete that line of prose you were super attached to.

Also, honestly?  It feels great when someone just gushes over your work and tells you how wonderful it is, but in the long run that sort of thing doesn’t help your writing.

Getting feedback and giving feedback will help you improve your writing.  People with fresh eyes can find errors and holes you are not going to see because you are too close to the work.  When you in turn look at their work, you may see things like grammar or spelling errors that will make your mind more acutely aware of those sorts of mistakes in your own work.  When giving feedback, remember these simple tips to make sure it is construction criticism, rather than destructive:

Remember to include some positive with the negative

I got my degree in teaching, and in my undergraduate program there was one particular lesson I heard over and over again.  “For every 1 negative, you’ve got to give 5 positives.”  Now, I don’t think you have to be that drastic when you are helping someone revise a piece of writing, but it sure is easier to swallow the salt with spoonful of sugar.  If you give both positive and negative feedback, you may bolster the writer’s motivation to finish or revise their work.

Ask the person what kind of feedback they are looking for

I usually ask if they just want basic grammar and editing, plot help, or something else entirely.  This can help solve a lot of confusion for both the person giving feedback and the person getting it.  If they just wanted you to proofread and you come back with a brand new outline of plot points for them, it may be kind of disheartening.  On the opposite end, if you just proofread and they were hoping for some in depth analysis, they may not ask you again to help them with their work.  That means you’ve lost an opportunity to grow as a writer through feedback.

Another way this helps, is you then have an idea of how much time the feedback is going to require.  A dear friend recently asked if I would help edit his book.  He has a phenomenal story to tell, but as I looked at the manuscript I realized that I probably did not have the right skills for the job and that I did not have the time to do it.  This way, he was able to go on to find someone really right for the job and I was able to decline a job that might have taken time I didn’t have to spare.

Try not to rewrite the entire piece of writing

This probably seems like pretty straight forward advice, but you would be surprised how often writer’s I’ve known have fallen prey to the need to rewrite an entire piece.  Your voice is going to be different from the other writers you interact with, and that is a good thing!  It also means that you have to let their voice shine through in their pieces of writing.  The only time I can recommend trying to do a heavy rewrite, is if their grammar is heavily broken.  Even then, I suggest you show them how to fix the grammar in some of the opening paragraphs and then suggest they take some classes to help them improve their writing.  There are lots of places on the internet where they can take classes and learn some of the basics for free, even some Universities off classes.

By reading the writing of others, I’ve found that I have learned so much about myself as a writer.  Two of my best friends write pieces that sound like poetry, and though that is a skill I don’t have, it is one I would like to develop.  By providing them with feedback, I am able to learn more about their process.  When it boils down to it, one of the best ways to learn to be a better writer is to think critically about writing, and what better way to do that then to provide feedback for others and help them improve along the way.

Writing

Procrastination Station

photo credit: 156440 Arrives at Liverpool Lime Street via photopin (license)
photo credit: 156440 Arrives at Liverpool Lime Street via photopin (license)

You may or may not have noticed, but it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted on ye ole blog.  Life got kind of hectic with a family reunion and a convention, both of which involved travel and not a lot of time to write.  This post isn’t about that though, it’s about the dread I felt when I got home and realized I had not written a blog post in two weeks.

A tiny voice inside my head whispered something like this:

You didn’t post for two weeks!  Maybe you should avoid your blog…  Even better, just give up.

Now, that voice was super quiet and obviously went against all reason.  I opted not to listen to that little voice.  It sounds a lot easier than it really was.  When I perceive something as hard, I often put it off.  The problem with that sort of thinking is that the problem doesn’t really go away.  I also really enjoy blogging and sharing my little bit of knowledge and experience with the world.

I am by nature a procrastinator, so this kind of behavior is something I’ve had to train out of myself.

So the big question is, what do we do when that little voice tells us to avoid something?  To give up on it?

My process goes something like this:

  1. Is it something I really want?  Is it something that moves me toward the goals I am trying to achieve?  If the answer is “Yes” I move on to question 2.
  2. If I put it off is it going to become an emergency (or at least, a dire situation where I’m going to be behind on a deadline)?  Is putting it off going to cause my work to suffer?  If the answer is “Yes” then I start to make a plan.

My plan is pretty simple.  If the thing I need to get done doesn’t have a deadline, I create a deadline for myself.  In the case of this blog post, I made the deadline that I had to have it done by the end of the day today.  Even have a deadline, I tell myself that it has to be done a few days early.  That gives me time to go back over the work and edit it if needed, or I just get a good feeling that I finished ahead of schedule.

How about you?  What do you do when that little voice in your head tells you to just put it off a little longer or give up altogether?  I’d love to hear your strategies.

Writing

Fail Better: Improving your writing and facing your fears

When I tell people that I’m working towards a professional career as a writer, I often get this sort of response from other people who want to be a writer/want to write a book:

“Dude!  That’s what I want to do!  How are you doing that?!”

Or

“That’s my dream, but I don’t have the time.”

Or

“Oh, I’m a writer too, but my stuff is just too much/too good/too innovative for the industry.

I’ve heard these kinds of comments from people I’ve met at writing groups, writing communities and other spaces that involve creative minds.

When I ask about what they are writing or what they are working on they seem to share it with me with 1 of 3 attitudes:

1. They either are too worried or too self critical to have written much and therefore they’ve self-sabotaged to the point they never finish or never start

2. They share a completed story/script and they aren’t open to any constructive criticism.  They deem the document perfect as is and want no feedback.

3. They have several excuses why they don’t have time to write.

I think all of these attitudes have one thing in common.  A fear of failure.

One person never finishes because they fear once they finish, someone might read it and realize they’ve failed.  The second isn’t open to criticism because that is someone saying they’ve failed.  The third isn’t even going to give themselves any opportunity to fail.

Just like anything else, if you want to get better at writing, there is some failure involved.  The trick?  Is to fail better.  

What does fail better mean?  

It means you seek outside feedback and you work to improve your craft.  It means practicing telling your inner editor to hush as you write.  NaNoWriMo is a great way to get some practice in.  You’ve got 1,667 words to write every day during Nano, you don’t have time to argue with your inner editor, you have a story to write.

If you find that you really can’t get your inner editor to shut up, there are services like Ilys.com, which doesn’t allow you to see what you’re typing.  It basically prevents your inner editor from doing anything until you’ve reached a certain word count.  They have a free trail period, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you can’t get your inner editor to shut up.

Feedback and Constructive Criticism are important part of failing better

Share your writing with groups that you trust and listen carefully to their feedback.  Change the things they suggest if you feel like it works for you story, and watch for patterns of things you might often make errors on.  On of my go to reviewers is my good friend and in the first several pieces I shared with her, she commented on my description and the fact that some of my characters lacked depth in their perspective.

Her input helped me see areas that I really needed to work on.  I may have failed, but I had the chance to fix my draft work before I submitted it.  Feedback can sting, but it’s better to clean up the work and improve it, then to never get better, isn’t it?

Give feedback, get feedback

Reading and reviewing the writing of others will also help you improve your work.  You might find things in their work you want to do in your own work or things you want to avoid.

I once had a fellow writer who was really excited to share his work with me.  He sent me a piece filled with spelling errors and when I tried to give him feedback about it, he kept telling me he didn’t care about the errors, he wanted to know what I “really thought.”  After further conversation about his work, it became fairly clear to me that he didn’t really want feedback, he wanted praise.  He believed his work was already on par with the professional work out there, and that despite that, people in the industry were actively ignoring him.

If someone doesn’t want feedback, you can’t help them improve.  You can only use it as an opportunity to improve your own writing.

The errors were so distracting to me, I had a difficult time getting through the piece of writing, and that was my main feedback.  I wanted to be excited about his work, but from that point on I did not want to read pieces for him, because I knew my feedback would not help him.

I did learn that I needed to be careful about my spelling.  If I didn’t want to read a piece riddled with errors, I doubt an editor is going to want to.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes by Samuel Beckett:

“Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.”

Now go out there and fail better!

Writing

Capturing the Muse: How to Spark Creative Ideas

photo credit: I have an idea @ home via photopin (license)
photo credit: I have an idea @ home via photopin (license)

A few years ago when I set out on my path to become a writer, I remember being filled with dread that I only had one good idea in me.  I had been trying to write the same book for about 7 years and had not really ever tried to outline or spark another idea.

Luckily around that same time, I drove 4 hours to attend a workshop by Kelly Sue DeConnick, one of my favorite comic writers.  She at one point said something to the effect of “Ideas are the easy part” and it struck a cord with me because it is still something I remember to this day.

At the time, I was not sure that I believed her.  It took me a while to realize part of the reason why I didn’t have more ideas, was that I had not put the work in.  I had not devoted chunks of time to brainstorming, free writing, or just reading new things.

Like I’ve said before, you will meet people that just have seem to ideas constantly bestowed to them by the heavens. You can spend your time envying their blessed gift, or you can put the work in to get ideas of your own.

Now, onto ways to help you spark those ideas, while you’re starting to get your writing routine established and need some ideas to get you off the ground.

Writing Prompts

There are tons of sites all over the web devoted to writing prompts.  Some are just one word, some are a concept, a snippet of dialogue, either way, they are a way to get you writing.  Find which kind of prompt works best for you.  I don’t really write well with a single word prompt, but things like image prompts or quotes tend to really inspire me.  Here are a couple of my favorite prompt sites:

Sing in me, Muse Prompt Community on Live Journal

http://sunday-reveries.livejournal.com/

Though there aren’t any new prompts, this community has a great archive of photo and quote prompts.  I usually look through them until something catches my eye.

Writing Prompts that don’t suck

http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/

Tumblr has several prompt sites, so feel free to use your google fu to find others.  I like this one because most of the prompts are fairly practical and quick to spark ideas.

Pinterest

www.pinterest.com

Just put “Writing Prompts” in the search bar and you will get a bunch of prompts!  You can also search through them to find sites that provide prompts that speak to you.

Read.  Read a lot.

If you’re anything like me, you may always feel like you don’t have enough time to read.  It’s worth making time for.  I read on my Kindle for a few minutes at my allergy shot appointment each week.  I read instead of playing a few more minutes of Candy Crush.  I try to always keep a book in my car, just in case.

I also subscribe to Audible, and once a month I use my credit to get an audio book.  I love the ease of an audio book and I usually listen at night as I’m winding down for bed.  Audio books are a great way to hear a story while you do other things.

Audio books are not a complete substitute for reading old school style.  Reading either a real book or an ebook, let’s you see grammar and paragraph structure, something that is also important to writing.

So do both.  Absorb what you can.  Enjoy the process of diving into a story.  Note what you like.  Note what you don’t.

If all else fails, grab a friend

I usually do this when I’m stuck on an idea.  I may have a few kernels or a general feeling of where I want to go with the idea, but I just can’t get it out.

Sometimes nothing is better than just throwing it out there and talking through it.  Do it with someone you trust, of course.  I tend to grab either my best friend who is also the creative sort, or my husband.  My hubby isn’t so much the creative sort, but he’ll let me talk myself out when I’m stuck, and generally that’s all I really need, a good sounding board.

I also do virtual sprints with people I know, where we tag each other via email, and report what we’ve done.  Motivation is one way you can help get the ideas to flow.  If you know you’ve 30 minutes to write and you have to report back at the end of the sprint, you’re more likely to sit down and do your work.

If you ever want to sprint with me, feel free to send me a shout out on twitter @xvalkyrieofodin.  It’s always the more the merrier on sprinting for me.

Keep writing!

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times I sit at my desk and just blankly stare at my screen while I try to work through an idea.  I also do my best to give up, even if I switch projects for a bit and come back to something.  What are some of the ways you find that creative spark for new ideas?  Share with me in the comments.

Writing

Going beyond Writer’s Block

8550914112_72b040a3ac_qI’ve been thinking a lot about Writer’s Block lately.  It used to be a concept that I wholeheartedly subscribed to.  My novel never got finished because I was “blocked” among other excuses.  That’s the lie of Writer’s block, it tells you can’t complete your project and gives you an easy excuse to wiggle your way out of getting that writing done.

Sure, there are still times I sit and stare at a blank screen, but usually I either don’t do for long, or switch projects.  Here are some ways to help you get past those moments when you are feeling blocked.  Some methods are those I learned from others and some are just tricks I’ve found along my way as a writer.

The muse is fickle.  You shouldn’t be.

If you want to be a professional writer or even if you just want to complete some of your writing projects to have that glorious feeling of finished, you have to stop waiting for the muse.  I’ve written short stories where she shows up and does her job, but I’ve also written them when she hasn’t.  Guess what?  Both were situations yielded decent stories that still needed a little bit of revision before they were polished and ready to go.

The other thing I’ve found, is if you show up and do your work regularly, the muse may do the same.  If you show up occasionally, and you are unreliable, the muse gets unreliable too.  It’s only within the last two years that I’ve treated writing like a job.  I show up.  I do my work.  If she shows up too?  Awesome.  If she doesn’t?  I’m still going to get that writing done so that I can be one step closer to my goals.

Also most writers who do this professionally?  They don’t wait for the muse.  They have deadlines and mortgages.  Even if writing is something you are doing on the side, remember that.  It does take away some of the romanticism that surrounds writing, but trust me, you’ll still find your magical moments.

If you are stuck, switch projects.  

I’ve heard a lot of the comic writers I follow talking about this.  That sometimes when it just isn’t working, they put what they were writing away and work on something else.  I do this a lot.  If you’ve read my post on time management you can see my post-it notes have my tasks for the day.  I keep them in front of me partially so that if I need to switch it up, I know what other things I need to work on for that day.

I also tend to have a list of my writing projects on my wall in front of me, that way if I need something else to work on, I know what I have in progress.

Go for walk.  Run to the grocery store.  Get out of the house/office.

For me, this tends to mean a grocery run.  I either turn music or listen to a podcast while I shop and I put my story in the back of my mind.  My brain is still kind of working on it, but I’m doing other things while it does.  Sometimes an idea strikes me as I shop, other times it doesn’t.  Sometimes I get back to my desk in a different state of mind, more refreshed, less frustrated.  That can be enough to give me the renewed energy I need to keep going.

The most important thing to remember, is this:  Look for ways to keep going, not excuses to stop.  

Some of these suggestions could be abused.  Maybe you just switching projects so you never actually complete any of them.  Maybe you constantly leave your office/house in search of inspiration and never really get that writing done.  It’s all a choice you make.  If you want to get past the lie of Writer’s block, you choose to keep writing, keep working, and keep finishing that work.  If writing is just a fun way to explore the world for you, maybe it’s okay if that work never gets finished.  Either way, keep your goals in mind and I hope that some of these suggestions help you the next time you need to push past a block.
photo credit: Dead End Yield Sign via photopin (license)

Time Management

Time Management: Ways to increase your productivity as a writer

We all know it takes a lot of work to get better at writing, because the only way to truly improve is to keep writing.  I used to not worry so much about time management, but in the last two years as I started working towards a career in writing, it became a bigger focus for me.  Each day I have to direct my own schedule and for the most part, no one is looking over my shoulder making sure I get my work done.

So out of this need for self direction was born a need to productive with my time.

There are lots of ways to do this and I’ll show you some of the strategies that have worked for me, and some that haven’t but might work for you.

Sprinting

This one is probably my most simple tool. I set a time I’m going to work and I work for that time.  Usually it’s 25-35 minutes.  I also have sprinting buddies that I email when I’m ready to go, to see if they want to join in.  At the end of the sprint, we email each other again and report what we got accomplished.  Having a buddy is an awesome way to make yourself accountable…And honestly?  Writing can be a lonely job.  This is the writer’s equivalent of co-workers.

Also, if you’re a little competitive like me and you have friends who are sprinting with you, have them report their word count.  I’m a slow writer so seeing that my friends have twice the word count I do in some of our sprint, spurs me to write more and try to get faster.

The Pomodoro Method

I was originally introduced to this method by my best friend, the queen of time management.  It goes basically like this,

1, You work for 25 minutes and give that work your complete and undivided attention.  I use Chrome as my browser, and you can even get an add-on for it that blocks sites like Facebook and Tumblr while you’re working, so you have less opportunity for distraction.

2. Once your 25 minutes is up, you take a 5 minute break.  Play clash of clans, watch that youtube video your sister sent you, and check facebook.  When the 5 minutes is up, you jump back into your next work session.

3.  Focus on your work for another 25 minutes.  Then take another five minute break.  Once you’ve done this process 4 times (2 hours) take a longer break, usually 15-30 minutes.

I sometimes lose track of time, so you can use the timer on your phone or you can even get a tomato timer from The Pomodoro Technique’s website, you can also find more info about this method there.  I also tend to draw squares with my times on them, so I can keep track of what my work sessions were, like the picture below.

Ways of tracking Pomdoro work sessions
Ways of tracking Pomdoro work sessions

Kanban Tables

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to get myself into using these as much, but I have friends who they work really well for.  This is sort of a watered down version of it, I’ve seen people with much more elaborate tables.  Mine table is pretty basic, To Do, Doing, Done.

Where I fail with this method, is that I forget to move things around.  I will have things that were done, and forget to move them over.  So I think I’m more of a list maker and less of a table user.  Which leads us to our next tool!

kanbantables
My KanBan Table. You can also do them on a white board, I’m just a sticky note fanatic.

Goal Setting and Task Lists

Each week, usually on Sunday night, I make a list of what I want to accomplish for the week, then I break that down into daily tasks for each day of the week.  I generally write it on a google doc and put it on a post-it note that I can physically cross tasks off of, which will both be pictured below.  I also tend to write them in my day planner, and sometimes I put them into HabitRPG, which is awesome for productivity and for fun!

The great thing about goal setting, is it really feeds itself.  Each week you make a list of what you want to get done.  The most important thing to do when you make your list, is to make sure that these goals are getting you closer to what you want.  If I want to be a writer who writes fiction, if my goals are learning the trombone, I’m probably not going to be getting much closer to my dreams.

Also, make your goals things you can accomplish and things that are realistic.  For most people, writing the first draft of their first novel in a week isn’t realistic.  There are a few of us out there that can do it, but they are few and far between.  Make sure they push you a little too, we all need a challenge if we want to get better.

POSTGOALS
My Goal Post-its! I cross out as I go along and let that feeling of awesome accomplishment was over me.
Google Doc list of my goals.  This is usually the list I refer back to is all else fails.
Google Doc list of my goals. This is usually the list I refer back to is all else fails.

So those are some of the ways I keep myself on track as I work toward a career in writing.  How about you?  What methods have you found that help you stay on track?

Writing

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 3

Like I mentioned last week, today’s post is going to be about variance and diversity in your female characters personality.  Hopefully at this point you have more than one female character in your story, which is really the first step.

I know I’ve talked to other writers who sometimes feel like their female characters have to fit a certain box to a good role model or to be strong.  I think we get a lot of female characters that seem both similar and disposable, because they end up hitting the same tropes over and over again.

So today I’m going to walk you through an exercise to help you make your female characters more varied, so they have their own voices.

First, make a list of the female characters in your story.

Just the main characters for the purpose of this exercise, but you could later do the minor characters as well.  List them by first and last name.  Hopefully you’ve breezed past the Bechdel test by now, and you have at least 2 main female characters.  My characters in the example are going to have sort of funny names, but surely you will find better names for your characters.  I’m counting on you.

Example:

Hera Badass

Emily Sweetheart

Katie Timid

Second, make a list of their traits.

This is going to give you an idea if there’s the basic needed diversity between your characters. If they look sort of similar on most of the traits, then you may want to make some character revisions.  If they have some things in common, that’s probably not the end of the world.  I would avoid having all your female characters be timid and submissive or defiant and rebellious, unless you have a really good reason plot wise for that.  Just watch out for too much similarity based on traits.

 My mother, sister and I all grew up in similar places with similar cultural and familial backgrounds.  We do have things in common, for sure, but we aren’t copies of each other when it comes to personality traits.  My mom has a gift for honesty and analysis.  My sister is a joyous ball of endless energy who loves all things girly.  I’m sarcastic, overly caring and very sensitive.  I’m using this as an example to show you that even though we’re all from the same place and same culture, we’re all still very different people.

Example of traits list:

Hera – Strong, Persistent, Determined, Loyal, Brutal, Blunt.

Emily – Compassionate, Caring, Sympathetic, Anxious, Unsure, Talkative.

Katie – Shy, Smart, Capable, Enduring, Thoughtful, Quiet.

Third, make a list of what they want and what they fear.

By listing their wants you’ll get your characters goals and their motivations for those goals.  Most of have basic needs that are similar (See: Malsow’s Hierarchy of needs) so hopefully your character motivations go beyond that, but maybe they don’t.  Maybe the world you’ve built is a wasteland and her goal is to survive, but you may also want to go further than that and figure out what she is living for.  What is her motivation to keep going?  You can also use Malsow’s Hierarchy to think of other goals.  Maybe your character is a scientist and she wants respect from her co-workers, since she’s the only woman in the lab.  Maybe she is looking for romance, a companion, while fighting off space lizards from the plant Zoonan.  Figure out what she wants and why she wants it.

Fears are important too, because they tell us a lot about the character and what they want to avoid.  Maybe that character surviving in the wasteland fears the coming of night, because scavengers come out then and they will try to kill her.  Fears can lead to conflict, and all good writing has conflict.

You can and should go into more depth than the example below.

Example: 

Hera – Goals/Motivation/Fears

Goal: To protect her sister, Katie, at all costs.

Motivation: She loves her sister and Katie has the formula to cure a evil virus that is turning everyone into space lizards.

Fear: Her parents both became space lizards, and Hera fears that she will too, and that she will fail both Katie and the human race.

Check and see where your characters look similar and where they look different.  They may have things in common.  That’s okay.  I have things in common with my mother, my sister, my friends and even women I’ve never met, but it’s rare we have everything in common.  Having things in common is different than being the same.  That is a difference that you as the writer want to be aware of as you try to give each of your own characters a background that individual to them and a voice that is unique to them.

So go forth and analyze your female characters!  And don’t forget, don’t only give them diverse personalities.  The world is filled with people from different backgrounds, places and cultures.  Do your research and broaden your horizons.  It’ll be good for you and good for your writing.

In part 4, I’ll touch on the very murky water of tropes and stereotypes.  It’s likely to be sensitive material, so be aware of that as we go into part 4.

Writing

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 2

Last time I covered ways to get you started on writing well written female characters.  Today I’d like to give you a few more tips and some exercises to help you look critically at the characters you’ve constructed.

I’ll get right down to it.

1.  Take your female character, and flip her gender, just as an exercise. Do any of her traits or plot points feel horribly out of place? Now, women are not men, but sometimes flipping the gender of a character can bring out some things that are possibly lacking or really wouldn’t work.  Clearly there are some gender differences that are influenced by things like culture, but sometimes this switch can point out cultural biases on what is feminine or masculine behavior, that may not really serve making the character a full fledged person.

The other thing this can do, is point out that you might not have given the female character as much to do, or as interesting a plot/backstory as her male counterparts.  I’ve read a few stories about plays where they had all the genders flipped, so men reading the female parts and women reading the male parts.  The women were thrilled, because they felt like the male parts were so much more interesting and had more to do.  The men by the end of it complained that they were bored and didn’t feel like they had much to do.

If you fail to give the female characters interesting and active things to do, there’s a good chance those characters are not going to connect with your audience, male or female.

2.  Is she just as capable as your main character, but instead of carrying the arc, she’s supporting/training the hero/main character?  So this a theme that keeps popping up in a lot of film and media.  You have a female character, she’s sassy, strong and smart, just as capable as her male counterpart.  He tends to blunder a bit through things, but she’s there to pick up the slack and guide him toward meeting his full potential.

If she’s able to get the job done on her own, please don’t make her babysit a bumbling would-be hero.  She might be your protagonist.  Maybe she needs to be the one taking the lead, and her male counterpart is actually the quippy sidekick.  We see a bit of this in movies like the Lego Movie.  Which I still loved.  I mean Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt?  How could I not love it.

3. Use the Bechdel test.  It amazes me how many times I’ll watch a movie or read story where there are 4-6 males characters and maybe 1-2 female characters. The men speak together a whole bunch about a bunch of different things, but the female characters either don’t speak to each other, or only talk about the men.

That’s the basis of the Bechdel test.  It was originally for film, and here’s what the movie has to have in order to pass.

– 2 female characters, both of them have names.

– At some point the female characters speak to each other.

– The conversation they have can’t be about men.

Please be aware, it’s a rather low bar to set for female characters, but you’d be surprised how many movies/books/stories/comics don’t pass this test.  It doesn’t take much to pass it.

4. Also use the Sexy Lamp test.  So, this test was coined by one of my favorite comics writers, Kelly Sue Deconnick.  I actually got to hear it first at a writing workshop that she taught that I was lucky enough to attend.

It’s even more simple and an even lower bar than the Bechdel test.

If you can replace your female character with a Sexy Lamp, and the story more or less still works, you need another draft.  There’s also a slight variant of this test, which includes if you could put a post-it with information she shares on the Lamp.  So for instance, if she just stands by and then tells the hero “Oh, no, if you don’t stop the magical influx, everyone will die!” and that’s her only contribution to the plot other than standing around looking good…It’s time to go back and fix your story.

Hopefully by looking at these 4 tips, you can see if the female characters in your story is active and independent, as well as relevant to the plot, or if they need some work.  I was supposed to talk about tropes in part 2, but that is likely to be covered in part 4, since a lot of it is touchy material that I want to spend a bit more time with.

Next time, I’m going to discuss how you can make your female characters varied and break out of common character types that women tend to fall into.  Basically Strong female character does not equal well written female character.  Now go forth, and write better!

photo credit: We Can Donut – Chicago via photopin (license)