Remembering Alan Rickman and David Bowie

This week two people who played some of my favorite characters in this story we call life turned the last page on their earthly journeys. It’s hard for me to imagine their passing. The characters they played will live on, but there are people, real live people, who play the parts of the characters that touch our lives. And because we live in this real world where death comes to all, no matter how revered or reviled, there comes a time when we must say goodbye, even if we aren’t ready.

These two men through the wildly different characters they played taught me something about myself: about the value of steady, true affection; about the cost of doing what is right; and about how to face and even embrace my shadow nature.

The story is changing, as it always must. And so today I light a candle for these two, and remember the characters they played that first and most impacted me.

JAH_Colonel-Brandon-Alan-Rickman-jane-austens-heroes-9173033-1024-576
Alan Rickman as the ever tender and noble Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility
snape
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series
jareth
David Bowie as Jareth, Goblin King in Labyrinth

Rest. Peace. And thank you.

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How Well Do You Know Your Main Character?

Two Elizabeths

There’s nothing worse than getting a manuscript back from beta readers, or losing stars on Amazon reviews, because your character did something that those readers didn’t believe they would do. How do you write your characters so they stay true to themselves?

Your characters are the most important piece of your story. So knowing them like they are your best friends is the best way to make sure that you tell their story in the most consistent and compelling way. How well do you know your main character?

The two Elizabeths* above are similar in many respects. Both women have the same name, are from similar time periods, and want to find love. But beyond that, these two women are as different as can be. If you don’t know which Elizabeth you’re writing a story for, you might find yourself in trouble.

Check your scenes and your characters’ actions. Will your reader say to herself, “That’s so Elizabeth Bennett,”? Or will she be confused as to why your character acted the way she did?

Sometimes, though, you can get so caught up in carrying out your story’s plot that you force your character to do something that is… out of character. So how can you make sure that your Elizabeth Swann stays true to her character throughout the story?

First, know as much as you can about your character, where she comes from, what motivates her, what she hates and what she loves. You can do this by the simple use of a character questionnaire. Character questionnaires push you to answer all the nitty gritty little questions about your character that make her who she is. When was she born? What is she afraid of? What is the one thing that she would never do in a million years, even if her life depended on it?

Knowing what your character loves, what she absolutely would or would not do, will help you when it comes to those problem moments in your manuscript. It will also help round out your character, making her seem more three-dimensional.

If you’re worried about how your character would act in a given situation in your manuscript and you want to test out her reactions first, you can try writing a “sandbox” scene. This scene won’t go in your manuscript (unless you REALLY like it), so you can feel free to push the boundaries on your character, make her as uncomfortable as possible and see how she responds. And don’t hold back. Don’t go easy on her or you won’t learn anything new.

Don’t forget, if your character absolutely refuses to conform to the scene as you intend it to be written, you’ll have an easier time changing the scene than you will trying to change what makes her who she is. Your story will become much more real and believable if you let her choose the direction she goes, rather than forcing her into patterns of behavior she wouldn’t normally choose for herself.

But you won’t know which direction your character would choose if you don’t know everything about her. So get started answering questions about her. Learn everything you can about her, about what she wants, about why she’s decided to take this adventure. What’s most important to her?

So how well do you know your main character? If the answer is “not very well,” download this questionnaire and get started learning more about her.

*P.S. I realize that both of the above women played the SAME Elizabeth as well, so I hope my example isn’t too confusing. And, if you would like to discuss the merits of the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice versus the movie made with Keira Knightly, I’m here for you. But I will never betray Colin Firth. He is my Darcy now and forever.

Darcy

 

Write Big and Dream Big in 2016

Happy-New-Year-2016-Images-4It’s New Year’s Eve! Time for taking stock of what’s behind you and looking ahead to what you want to accomplish in the coming year. There’s something special that happens when that clock rolls over to midnight and we break the seal on all the potential energy of the year to come. It’s that special magic that makes people resolve to make changes or to shoot for their dreams!

I love New Year’s resolutions. Not because they’re so often kept, or even very effective in the long run, but because of the hope and imagination that they represent when they’re made. Sure we all regularly screw up, fall off the wagon, or backslide on our best intentions. It’s part of being human. But the act of imagining our lives could be different than we are now? That’s powerful magic.

So out with the old and in with the new! In this new year, what are you resolved to do? How are you going to make 2016 your best writing year yet?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m starting a “Write Every Damn Day” challenge for 2016. I’ll be spending 15 minutes a day with a writing prompt, and working on consistency and “intentionality” in my writing practice. I’d love it if you joined me. You don’t have to work on the same prompts as I do, just sit down and write. Butt-in-chair. It’s proven to improve your writing craft!

Maybe writing prompts aren’t what you need this year, though. In that case, I challenge you to figure out what it is that your writing practice needs and then scrape together the motivation and go do it! You’re the only one who stands in the way of your dreams of writing a novel. You have the magic in you to make it happen.

Don’t let the hugeness of your dreams overwhelm you and keep you from taking the first steps to achieving them. Figure out what those first steps, and then the next steps, and then the next steps are, and pretty soon, you’ll be standing at the peak of Dream Mountain. You can be the writer you want to be. It just takes determination and a little humility.

Make 2016 your year. Finish writing that book. Or get started! Write big! Dream big!

Write Every Damn Day

write every damn dayWrite every day. It’s something they tell you to do if you want to be a writer. And it seems like both an easily achievable and a hopelessly insurmountable task all at once.

I mean, of course you should write every day. How long does it take to sit down and scribble out a few words? It’s the easiest thing in the world to do… until it isn’t.

Life gets in the way often and, unless you’re aggressively intentional about setting aside your time to write, it’s easy to find that you’ve gone days and days without making any time to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keys (well, for anything other than updating your Facebook status, right?).

3 reasons why you can’t write every day

Think you don’t have time to write? Here are 3 reasons you can’t write every day and why they don’t actually matter.

  1. You’re too busy
    Understandably. Most of us are busy somehow. But you prioritize what you want most, and that gets done first so, sit down and think about whether you can’t take a little slice of time from binge-watching that Netflix series, or right after you put the kids to bed, and give your writing your full attention.
  2. You don’t have the time for a big project
    Guess what! You can do this in tiny increments. As little as 15 minutes a day will keep you moving forward with your writing practice, keep the gears oiled, and help you grow as a writer. Or if you like word counts better, pick something reachable and start there… 250 words. You can totally meet that.
  3. You can’t think of anything to say
    If you’re stuck, not finding anything about your current work inspiring, then try writing prompts. You can find them on-line or buy a book full of them. My cousin David goes through old family photos and makes up stories to go with the people in them. There’s always something you can spend your 15 minutes on.

The thing is, people will tell you that after you do this for x-number of days, you’ll develop a habit and you won’t think about it anymore, you’ll just do it. I’m honestly not convinced (and neither is this study on building habits). But just because you may have to be extra diligent about making sure you find your 15 minutes a day, doesn’t mean you should skip it altogether. The diligence is part of the point.

Sure you’ll miss days. It happens to everyone. But if you set your intention, if you put your mind to it, and if you remind yourself how important your writing practice is to you, writing every day is a realizable goal!

This new year, I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m going to write every day for 15 minutes. I challenge you to write along with me. Comment below and let me know you’ll be participating so that I can cheer you on! Share your successes and your failures with me, too. Let’s make 2016 our best writing year yet.

If it’s important… If it’s something you want more than anything in the world… If you’re really serious about this writing thing… then just do it. Write Every Damn Day.

Don’t Let Mental Monsters Stand in the Way of Your Goals

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareI ran 70 miles during the month of November. I also wrote 50,000 words of a novel. Both of those numbers are HUGE when you think about the average amount of running and writing I normally do. No, I don’t have super powers suddenly. I didn’t do it all at once. I took it a day at a time, followed a prescribed regimen, and when I wanted to quit I  didn’t allow myself any wiggle room.

November is National Novel Writing Month. I used the momentum and accountability of that group event to propel me through my writing goals. I made sure to meet or exceed expectations every day because I’d made a public commitment that I wanted to uphold. But more than that, I’d committed to myself and to my characters to tell their story and I didn’t want to let myself or my characters down.

Does it always come easily? No! Do I ever have days where I want to just give up and go back to my old habits? Yes!

Old habits die hard

With both my running and my writing, I have days when I wake up and think “Oh god, I just want to stay in bed.” Those are the days when I need the running and the writing the most. The mental monster, the one that’s telling me I’m too tired to run or too boring to have any good ideas to share in my writing, that’s the one that I confront with my schedule, with my commitment, with my determination.

When I let that monster win I feel terrible. My self-esteem and self-talk go down a dark, even abusive path. I hate how I feel when I allow myself to shirk my goals, when I give in to the monster talk and let another day go by without working toward my dreams.

But!! Every day that I get up and refuse to listen to that monster telling me to shut up and stay in bed, I kick that monster’s ass again. It doesn’t get easier over time. Every time I have to fight that mental battle, it sucks and it’s painful and I want to cry before I finally convince myself to do the hard thing, to do what I committed to do.

And yet, the more I choose to fight for what I want for my life, the less often that monster speaks up.

Take that first step

My running is another story but it follows a very similar mental track. Who knows why I decided that November, when I started my most intensive month of writing, was a good time to kick off a half-marathon training program? Maybe the timing wasn’t ideal, but then maybe it was. I have a larger goal with my running. Before I turn 40 I want to run a marathon.

And as with writing, I have to start if I ever want to finish. I know that if I want to reach my goal of 26.2 miles, I have to step out the door. And if I ever want to see my name in print on a novel that I’ve written, I have to write the first words. And then the next words, and the next step, until I get to the finish line.

There are bound to be set-backs along the way, but just because I know I will fail sometime, does that mean I should never start? No! I cling to my dreams and push myself forward, pick myself up when I fall down, and start again.

So why am I telling you all this?

I know I’m not the only one who goes through this daily ritual of talking down the monsters, of putting the fears aside and taking a risk to achieve my dream. And I want you to know that you CAN do this. You’re not crazy. That dream you have of publishing (or of running a marathon), it’s yours. You should cherish it, commit to it, and show up every day to prove how much it means to you.

It helps if you can find your tribe. The encouragement and accountability you get from people with similar goals, or even just people who unquestionably believe in you–that’s solid gold. When you find it, never let it go.

But sometimes you have to go it alone. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that your goals are for you, and that even if no one else understands why you’re doing what you do, you have to commit to them. That’s not an easy place to be, but it’s no excuse to quit. You owe it to yourself to follow your heart, to reach for your dreams and never give up.

So… Show up. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather not. Even when it seems like the finish line is so far away. Every step you take, every word you write, brings you closer to achieving your dreams.

Writing Characters with Magic Powers

Harry Potter I love magicAs a reader, writer, and editor of fantasy fiction, I love a good magic ability in my characters. (I mean, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Name of the Wind… these stories make me so happy!) Something that sets them apart, makes them different from the rest of the people in their world. A secret weapon that they can pull out to use when it seems like they’ve reached the end of their rope. Magic and the possibilities that magic creates in a world are the reasons I read fantasy fiction.

However, in order to have a well-crafted story, you have to give serious thought as to how you use magic. If you don’t, you risk breaking faith with your reader and ending up with a story whose conclusion falls flat instead of creating a sense of satisfaction for your reader.

Here are four things to watch out for when writing characters with magical powers.

  1. Magic has rules. Figure out what yours are, tell your reader what they are, and then don’t break them. Make sure you set up what the rules are fairly quickly so that your reader doesn’t get the impression that you’re going to take advantage of them and stretch their suspension of disbelief too far.
  2. Magic powers should be set up fairly early. Don’t add a new power for each problem that your characters face. Let them test the limits of their power and, more importantly, let magic fail them occasionally. The story you’re telling will be infinitely more interesting if your characters don’t succeed every time they face a challenge.
  3. Magic has consequences in direct proportion to the power of their effect. If you’re going to give a character the power to save the day, it needs to cost something. If all your characters use magic for is cleaning up a mess, the cost goes down.
  4. Magic is not a convenient way to explain some difficult part of your story. Don’t give your character the power to read minds in order that they can have access to information they wouldn’t otherwise know. Remember that it’s a character’s weaknesses that make them interesting, not their all-powerful abilities.

What’s one of the first things that happens when a story with magic is released to the public? They try to figure out where the magic systems break their own rules or fall short of adequately explaining themselves.

If you can master these four facets of writing magic into your stories, you’re well on  your way to building a stellar magic system that your readers will enjoy for a long time to come.

4 ways to avoid stereotypes in your writing and create rounder, more realistic characters

StereotypesIt can be really hard to avoid stereotypes in characterization when you’re setting up your novel. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

We all use stereotypes in everyday life, whether at the grocery store or filling up at the gas station or at a scientific symposium. For better or worse, they help us categorize the world around us.

But they can also get us into trouble when we forget to allow the people around us to be larger and more complex than we expect them to be. Stereotypes are so embedded in our conscious and subconscious that they end up on the pages of our novels before we really have a chance to process why we have chosen them.

These are a few reasons why you should avoid stereotypes in your characterizations.

  • They are unrealistic. People are wide and varied in their looks, interests, and self-expression. Fiction does not always have to reflect reality, of course, but if anything it should push the boundaries and create more options instead of less.
  • They are limiting. Once you decide to allow a character to conform to a stereotype, there’s not much left for them to do. You’re stuck having them act according to that stereotype instead of allowing yourself room to write the story outside those limits.
  • Stereotypes mean flat characters. There’s nothing to a stereotyped character. No motive, no real depth or dimension to him.
  • And once they stop having depth, your characters become uninteresting. Why would you want your characters to be predictable and boring?

If you want your novel to be memorable, you’re going to have to take some time to examine your characters and root out as many stereotypes as you can. Here are four ways to avoid using stereotypes in your writing to create rounder, more realistic characters.

  1. Spend some time people watching, and especially people that are different than you. I know this sounds a little stalker-like, but if you take the time to observe (or better yet, get to know) people who are remarkably different from you, you’ll begin to see how varied their actions, interests, body types, and style preferences are. Inform your writing by learning as much as you can about the people you are trying to portray and writing them as realistically as possible.
  2. Challenge convention. If you can’t find people similar to the characters you are writing, that’s ok. Take a few minutes to ask yourself why you portray each character the way you do, what purpose they serve in the story, and whether your story would be better served if that character did something completely contrary to what people expect. Why constrict your writing and your characters’ potential by forcing them to conform to a specific trope?
  3. Create rounder characters. The definition of a stereotype speaks for itself. It’s oversimplified–a caricature. You owe it to your characters to make them as deep and complex as possible. Again, this comes back to why you portray a character a certain way. Ask yourself if there’s a deeper, more meaningful way to describe that character or their actions.
  4. Make your characters unforgettable. How do you do that? By having them do unexpected things. If a character is flat and unimaginative, if he/she/it conforms to the expectations of your readers in style, language, and actions, then he/she/it will probably not leave much of an impression. Readers remember characters that shake up their world and challenge their preconceived notions of reality.

Discovering stereotypes and conscientiously eliminating them from your writing is hard! It requires that you do some deep self-reflection as well as some heavy developmental editing. But your writing will benefit so greatly from the exercise. And your readers will deeply appreciate the effort.

3 ways to turn off your inner editor

just writeAh, the inner editor. She’s so helpful when you want to be eloquent. But when you’re drafting she can be the bane of your existence, especially if you ever want to finish a manuscript.

If your inner editor is anything like mine, she’s anxious and picky and painfully overbearing. She insists that everything be perfect, so perfect that she makes it difficult to move on to the next scene, or even the next sentence sometimes!

If you take a step back from your frustrations for a moment, you can see that your inner editor is just trying to be helpful. But she can kill your momentum and your self-esteem, getting in the way of your ability to complete a project.

Here are three ways to turn off your inner editor so you can get some writing done!

  1. Put your editor away – Like, physically put her away. You may want to pick an object, or draw a picture, to represent your inner editor, however you visualize her. Then, once you’ve completed it, thank her for her services and put her in a closet, or a box, or somewhere out of sight where she can’t look over your shoulder and offer criticism. You can pull her back out of the closet when you’ve finished the manuscript. But for now, she needs to shut up and let you do the work.
  2. Break down your writing sessions into manageable pieces – When you think about writing an entire manuscript (all 50,000+ words) your inner editor freaks out. There are too many opportunities to screw things up in that giant project, she says. How can you keep track of it all? Instead, think of each writing session as a separate project. Pick a word count (500, 1000, 1667 words) and focus on that. Don’t worry about the larger picture yet. You and your inner editor can have fun working that out later. For now, your manuscript just needs to get written.
  3. Add a little pressure – Don’t give yourself too long to linger over those 500 (1000, 1667) words. The longer you linger, the easier it is for your inner editor to creep back in and start criticizing what you’ve done and what you haven’t done yet. Set a time limit and push yourself to get to your writing goal before she has a chance to stop you in your tracks!

I use Write Or Die, a fabulous little app to keep my fingers flying over the keys and get me to my daily word count goal as quickly as possible. It’s not very expensive and a great motivational tool. You can try Write or Die out for free here if you’re not convinced yet. Or just set a kitchen timer and get to typing! Whatever you need to do to get the words on the page, do that.

Your inner editor can be a helpful tool when the time is right, so don’t banish her forever. Just remind her that, until you’re done creating, it’s not her turn yet.

Why NaNoWriMo is a great cure for writer’s block

NaNoWriMo
National Novel Writing Month

It’s no secret. I’m a HUGE fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo). The event takes place in the month of November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 new words of a novel in 30 days. In those 30 days, literary madness ensues, fast friendships are forged, barriers are broken, dreams are made realities.

As we get closer to November, more and more posts begin to pop up giving you advice on how to get the most out of your NaNo experience, how to plot or pants with the best of them. (Don’t know what I mean by plotting or pantsing? Click here.)

Some posts, however, argue that NaNo makes worse literature, that NaNo is bad for writing, that it’s a fad diet that won’t keep the pounds off when you get back to daily life.

To those people I say, get out of the way and let people create in whatever way they choose. It’s fine if NaNo doesn’t fit your process. If you need to create in a different way from NaNo, you go right ahead. You do you. But don’t rain on our parade!

Now I agree that 50,000 words does not a novel make, but who ever said that the draft you create during NaNo was supposed to be perfect and publishable? Sure there will be problems with sentence structure, plot holes galore, and overused adverbs in those “winning” NaNo manuscripts. That’s what revision is for!

NaNo provides inspiration and opportunity for all. People who have always wanted to try writing a novel find motivation, encouragement, moral support, and success through NaNo. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, right?

Why NaNo is a great cure for writer’s block

I think it’s easy for some people to get so hung up on choosing the right words or expressing their idea in the perfect way that they freeze and can’t write a thing. NaNo can fix that problem. If you have to write 1,667 words a day, you can’t freeze and worry about finding the right words, you just have to write. And spending 30 days regularly meeting a certain word count, whether or not your muse wants to come with you, can unlock your voice in a way that no Creative Writing course could ever do.

What better way to get past writer’s block? So you can’t think of what should happen next in your story, but you have 1,667 words to write that day? Grab a writing prompt, a weird little plot bunny that takes you in a completely different direction for the day. Even if you end up not using that day’s words in your final draft, you will have shown that writer’s block that you’re the boss of your writing.

NaNo is the perfect time to tell your internal editor to take a hike and make yourself sit down and write every day. The best part is, when you get to the end, you can decide whether the NaNo process does or does not work for you and adjust your writing habits accordingly. But if you’ve been telling yourself that there’s no way you could write every day, much less 1,667 words or more a day, NaNoWriMo is your chance to challenge yourself.

At the end of November you might decide to pursue the manuscript and keep working on it, or you might decide to shelve those words and never look at them again. But no words are wasted words! It takes a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing. So pour it all out onto the page and don’t worry. You can edit in December.

3 Ways to Trust Your Readers More

Captain ObviousOne main problem that beginning writers have when drafting their novels is making sure that they get their meaning across to their readers without beating them over the head with it.

It might seem like you can’t leave any room for ambiguity in that one scene– you know the one–because it’s important that your reader knows what’s going on so that they understand what happens later. But never fear! Readers are really good at picking up subtext and connecting the dots.

In fact, you’re more likely to lose your readers’ interest by spelling things out in too much detail because you’ll leave no room for their imagination. Here are three ways to trust your readers more and keep your writing from seeming coarse and redundant.

  1. Use fewer “creative” dialogue tags – It might seem like you’ve used the word “said” a thousand times in your manuscript. And you probably have. But do you know how many times your reader has noticed it? Zero. If you change it up, however, she’s guaranteed to start noticing and possibly getting irritated at having the dialogue explained to her, and that’s going to draw her out of the story. Unless it’s really important to know that a line is whispered or shouted and the context of the dialogue is not going to help the reader get there, you can stick with said and not worry about boring anyone in the slightest.
  2. Try not to spell everything out – Occasionally you might need to clarify what your characters mean, but more often than not you’re wasting words by stating the obvious. And your reader is going to notice. This includes “on-the-nose” dialogue. In real life, people rarely say what they actually mean. Your characters should be no different. Choose your details with care and have your characters keep some of what they mean to themselves.
  3. Resist the urge to reiterate – Repetition has its place in a novel, but there are limits to where you can use it without causing your reader to feel talked down to. You don’t need to remind the reader of major plot points every few pages, or tell her more than once that King Triton is Ariel’s father. She’s going to remember.

The writer-reader relationship takes cultivation, certainly, but remember you don’t have to do all the work. Stop stating the obvious and allow the subtext of your novel to shine through. Your reader will thank you for the opportunity to let her imagination run wild right along with yours.