Chocolate or Whips and Chains: When Your Characters are Still Ignoring You

Not too long ago I wrote suggesting advice for what to do when your characters are ignoring you and inspiration is lacking. Well, I happen to have a set of characters who are STILL ignoring me. Is it time to pull out the whips and chains to beat them into submission, or chocolate to either bribe them or make myself feel better? I’m writing this week about getting your characters to talk to you and get back to work, which, of course, is where we all want to be.

Sometimes you just have a manuscript or idea that isn’t gelling. This could be personal issues glutting up the creativity, or just plain stubborn characters. I (hopefully) can offer some solutions. And as much as whips and chains sound a far cry from bribing with chocolate, they’re just two different means to the same ends: productivity and answers. Some refer to it as the carrot (I like chocolate better) or the stick (yes, you probably already know I like beating my characters and muse – only in my head, promise!).

Some would suggest starting by playing nice, but I’ve tried that a lot already with my two characters, so let’s move right on to violence, hmm?

Pull out the whips and chains – no more nice, pushover writer:

  1. Open the door to the wardrobe hiding all those terrible instruments of persuasion. Write anyway, whether the character is fully “there” or not. You’ll figure it out later. Maybe you’re just in a difficult spot. There is a caveat to this: eventually, when the character does appear (and they will … in their own sweet time) you will have a lot of rewriting to do. Also, this can sometimes lead to problems where you tried to force your characters into situations they’re not comfortable with. However, as you write, you often discover things you hadn’t before – is your character a secret artist? Why would he respond in a puzzling way to a certain situation? Oh, wait! It’s his terrible fear of crickets brought on by a dreadful night trapped in the cricket-infested stables, locked there by his father!
  2. Reach in, and touch one of the whips. With your character now fully aware of your intentions, start the interview. Who are you? What do you want? Why are you being so difficult? This is similar to the character sheet (we’ll get to that with the chocolate) – and often done in free-write, but combine the two: write the question, write an answer, question, answer, etc. If your character really were in a situation where they were being threatened and questioned, how would they react? Why? What would make them angrier, or comfort them?
  3. Pull out the first whip. Force your character into an unusual situation. Try to understand how they’d feel in your shoes – we write from life, right? Is your boss giving you a hard time? Have you been fighting with everyone lately? Babysitting? Cleaning house? What would make your character have to do these things or place them in this situation? How would they react? Why? Is this plausible enough to include in your latest work? Why would it be interesting? My character, for example, may take up house cleaning, even though he’s homeless. This is an unusual task and attribute for him, but it strangely fits him – probably because he’s a creature borne of me – and will add an unusual, personalized quirk to his character. Don’t add quirks just for the sake of adding them, but if you imagine your characters have mundane and exciting lives, how could the mundane become exciting?
  4. Snap the whip for effect. Define the geography of your story. This may seem odd indeed to include in an entry on character development, but sometimes plotting out the journey and your character’s lives on a map – even if it’s a rough drawing on the back of an envelope – can help lay out the plot, or draw you into the character’s perspective: how do they get from A to B? Why would they choose these methods? Have they been to these places before? How do they feel about these places? This is one where the whip is probably harder for you than for the character.
  5. Another snap of the whip. Jump through time and space. Have you considered that perhaps it’s only the section you’re working on? Is there a section you keep thinking about? What appealed to you about this character in the first place? Why not write it out of order, even if it’s only a rough sketch? It can be incorporated later, and you could catch your character off-guard in a less stubborn moment.

Now that they’re miserable, switch it up with the chocolate – I highly recommend finding a literal chocolate bar to help with this metaphorical journey:

  1. Open the wrapper, and start the conversation. Who are you? What do you want? What do you need? Why are you here? A good start to this is by filling out character information sheets. These are a great reference to have on hand later, with handy info like description, history, relevant names of family, etc. And sometimes, you’ll find the character starts revealing themselves – who knew they’re a second child who was horribly abused by their sibling and have only ever wanted their mother’s love? These are important – and interesting – tidbits to use later.
  2. Break off the first piece, and offer it tentatively. Character sheets can be dull, and another way to fill them in – and to get to know your character – is to write first person, their perspective. Try free-writing, letting them lead you where they will. Start with the simple phrase: “My name is …” followed by things like “I want …” or whatever questions you want answered.  Let it be long and meandering, and the solutions and answers will come to you.
  3. Break off another piece, and eat this one yourself. As you contemplate the taste, does it inspire you? What does? What frees your creativity and inspiration? For some people, it’s music. Others, taking a walk. For me, water. Taking a shower or having a bath, even when it rains: it helps free my creativity. When were you last most inspired? Can you repeat the process?
  4. Another piece of chocolate, to the character this time. What kind of movies would he watch? What kind of books would he read? What would he think of the TV show you just watched, or your daily activities? What would he be doing instead? Why? Immerse yourself in who you think the character is. You might be surprised at the answers.
  5. Another small tidbit of chocolate. What does your character look like? Is he inspired by an actor? Someone you saw in a great movie? Find these images for yourself, and stare your character right in the eye – or as close to it as you can – and sometimes the picture will start talking (only metaphorically since literally would be scary).
  6. Break the last of the chocolate bar in half – some for you, some for the character. You’ll need it, since this is hard work. Go back to essence of the character. What made you create this character in the first place? What appealed to you? Do you remember? Is he the right character for the job? If not, who is? If all else fails, go back to the drawing board.

Well, it’s been raining all day, and both my character and I love the rain (as long as I’m not trapped in it). So, it’s back to writing for me. Did these solutions help? Have I missed any? Please, leave a comment, let me know what you think, or any of your ideas on how you deal with stubborn characters.

Top Ten Reasons to Attend a Writers’ Conference

Oops! I seemed to have forgotten that just because it’s a long weekend here, it isn’t necessarily everywhere else, so my apologies for being so late posting on a Monday. I’ll try to be more prepared next time, and belated Happy Victoria Day Long Weekend, Canada!

I’m already looking forward to the RWA National conference in July, which inspired this blog. It’s aimed at all of you out there who have never attended a writers’ conference, or have wanted to but the price seemed prohibitive, or have never seen what all the fuss is about. I, too, was a conference virgin, and attended my first (again, RWA) last July. It only took one to be hooked, which led to the second in October (SiWC), and plans greater than my pocketbook will allow.

The prospect of attending a conference – especially a very large one – can be nerve-racking. Indeed, they do tend to be rather pricey, as well as the fact you have to get there, and once you’re there you have to have somewhere to sleep, never mind discover ways of feeding yourself. While these are all worthwhile concerns, they aren’t the focus of this post. What I want to do is inspire you to get that far in the first place.

So, as promised, my top ten reason to attend a writers’ conference:

1)      Meet industry professionals, network, pitch. Many conferences offer pitch sessions or the opportunity to try to convince editors and agents your manuscript is worth looking at in person, without the pesky query letter. While this is a great benefit, if this is your focus or what you really want to get out of conferences, I’d advise smaller or regional ones with fewer attendees which often means greater opportunity to network and make more pitch appointments.

2)      Reaffirm your belief in the future of the world. Okay, it isn’t precisely a utopia. Most fellow attendees (at least in my experience) will be very friendly and as excited and eager to chat as you are; just ignore the other ones and approach any minor glitches with a good attitude. Instead, look at this reaffirmation of the future since these people, like you, want to continue literacy into the future, and do not believe either the book or the English language is dead.

3)      Return to the excitement and fun of youth, which likewise can return this to your writing. Get a roommate, and if you choose, this can be like a big knowledge-sharing slumber party. Like out on the playground, say hi, mix and mingle with others between workshops and at meals; you never know what this could spark.

4)      Learn. Workshops offer a great opportunity to learn new things, whether it’s honing your craft or learning more about the industry. Some won’t be for you, but there will be at least one which will make you want to leap to your keyboard!

5)      Feedback. Some workshops offer opportunities for immediate feed-back, like blue-pencil sessions where you sit down with an agent, editor, or published writer who looks over a few pages of your work with you there and offers critique and impressions. This is something you rarely find when just querying from your computer.

6)      Meet people so interesting and at times darn-right unusual, often the most imaginative writer couldn’t have dreamed them up. Sure, you can meet them out on the streets, but let’s face it: writers, a.k.a. people who tend to make up stories and talk to characters in their heads, can be a rather unusual group. And, while there’s a wide array of “unusual” you can meet some fantastic larger-than-life characters literally walking around the conference (most of them are fellow writers).

7)      Socialization. As writers, we often spend a lot of time plugged into our computers, pounding away in solitude. This is not entirely healthy, and we need to lift our heads up and meet other people every so often. Where does the conference take place? Many could be somewhere you’ve never been before, so do be sure to take time to explore a bit, too. By greater outside experience, opening ourselves to other people and events, our experience and muse inhale, which makes us better writers. Isn’t that what we all want and need?

8)      Books. Sometimes there are free books, other times just books offered for sale, but outside of a writers’ conference, there is rarely a time you will see so many books dedicated to the craft and career of writing than displayed and for sale. DO take advantage. DO seriously think about that book you picked up which was exactly-what-you-were-looking-for-but-you-put-back- because-you-could-get-it-later; often, it will cost you more to get it later.

9)      Inspiration. This was unexpected for me. But think of it this way: you’re together with tons of other writers, many of whom are in your level, some higher, some lower. Give and take inspiration from them, whether this is in the form of hearing the remarkable things they have achieved, or brainstorming your next book.

10)   Interacting with people like you. We have family and friends who love us and support our writing, but there is nothing like interacting with people in YOUR industry, who actually do the same thing you do, even if they don’t write the same genre or are in different stages of their career path. These are people who you automatically have something in common with!

So, are you ready to sign-up for a writers’ conference? No, not every one will be perfect, and yes, there will be glitches at even the best. But, go with a good attitude, be ready to search for the positive, and you’ll find it. Did I miss anything? Are there some fantastic benefits to writers’ conferences I missed? I’d love to hear from you!

Slaying the Negativity Gremlins, Or, Staying Positive, Patient, and Persevering

Negativity gremlins are a nasty lot. Things are going fine, then bam! They’re on you, biting and tearing away your confidence and happy thoughts. You quickly go from: “I’m great at what I do! I have what it takes! Everything is up from here!” to: “What was I thinking? Why did I ever think I could do this? This manuscript sucks! Maybe I should just quit.”

We’ve all been there, as artists, as writers. Sometimes it comes in “spells” possibly related to the weather and other life events, other times it’s brought on by rejection letters or dashing of great hopes.

How do we take hope? What can help us slay those gremlins – which also tend to reduce creativity and productivity – and get on with being happy, well-balanced individuals on the path to success?

First, sometimes it helps to identify why you’re down. Was it a rejection letter?

Here are five reasons to celebrate a rejection letter (seriously!):

  1. You’ve been submitting; this takes courage. Congratulations!
  2. Was the reply quick or slow? This may give some indication how working with this agency / editor will be.
  3. Was it a bad form letter? Perhaps this group wasn’t for you. Now you know.
  4. Was it personalized? Suggestions? You can learn from this. If they cared enough about the work to offer suggestions, this is very good.
  5. Think how much happier you’ll be when you get the Call because of all these rejections. You’re one step closer!

Not a rejection letter? Hmm, back to the hunt. Here are a few general gremlin hunting and slaying tricks:

  1. Identify why the gremlins appeared. Did someone say something? Did you have a bad day? Are you tired? Was there a specific trigger you can avoid or deal with?
  2. Tell someone else about it, let someone else comfort you. Sometimes when the gremlins are firmly entrenched, we can’t see past them. Let someone else help you to do so. Tell a friend, share and rely on supportive writing groups – these make great gremlin-slayers.
  3. Do something that makes you happy – even if it means stepping away from writing for a little while. What brings you joy? Joy and happiness are to gremlins what sunlight and stakes are to vampires – use these weapons often.
  4. Focus on the positive until positive thoughts drown out the negative gremlins. You can also use these positive thoughts to attract positive things. Just as misery and gremlins like parties, so too do happy thoughts and happy events. Set the seeds of happiness in your head for happiness in your life.
  5. If nothing else works, try to remember: this too will pass. A bit clichéd, perhaps, but for a reason: those who persevere, will succeed … even if it does take awhile. Brighter days are ahead!

If nothing else, whatever you do, DO NOT GIVE UP!

Five reasons to persevere and keep writing:

  1. If you give up, you’ll never succeed. If you keep going, you WILL succeed.
  2. Remember rejections are part of this career; they aren’t personal.
  3. You have a story to tell. Tell it. Only you can.
  4. You are a writer. You must write.
  5. Why did you start writing? Remember that joy, keep it, and keep going.

How do you slay your negativity gremlins? Please share – we all need new tricks to do so every so often. Below, I’ll leave you with a great quote about writing from Winston Churchill.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.”

-Winston Churchill

When your characters are ignoring you, and inspiration won’t come

While there are many days when things are going terrific, and everything is sunshine and rainbows, there are perhaps just as many which aren’t. These are the days when you’re stuck with a sagging middle – or get to the middle to decide you hate all that’s come before. Sometimes your characters won’t talk to you. Sometimes, things were going fantastic, you were writing up a storm, you’re eager to get onto the next book and … nothing. The characters won’t talk, the plot won’t gel, nothing is working.

Now what? You wonder.

Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I’m a bit towards the beating and whipping the muse into submission, which is probably why at this point, the muse is either cowering in a corner, or mulishly refusing any action or assistance. When something is no longer working, it’s time for a different approach.

First, try talking to the characters. Yes, yes, of course they’re in your head. So perhaps free-write from their perspective. Imagine yourself as a medium, a conduit for these characters. Write the questions you want answered, then just keep writing and see what appears. You’d be surprised at the blocks this can get you past, the answers it can provide, or the sudden revelations you may not have expected but which your manuscript and story needed.

Did it work? Have you discovered all the answers you were searching for? No, hmm? Well, onto the next method.

Second, get inspired. What inspires you? Is it good music? A great movie? A new author or book? For me, I personally find dry as dust research tomes are perfect, probably because half of my brain gets bored and searches for something else to amuse itself, creating stories in the margins of my notes. If you don’t know what inspires you, this requires some research. When I was working on my post-apocalyptic book, I watched as many movies in what I considered a similar tone and subject matter, or, that is, as many movies I had like this at home. Listen to great music. Surf the web for pictures to use as inspiration which look or feel like characters or places in your book. Do whatever it takes until inspiration sparks. Then, back to work.

Success? No? Hmm, well, we’re not whipped yet.

The third method is doing an analytical reading of another book. Nope, no more research tomes, but probably something in your own genre. What book have you been waiting to read? What’s your favorite book? Or sometimes better yet, grab a random book. Whether the book is good or bad, it offers lessons. Because you’re not just reading it for pleasure. You’re going to analyze what works, what doesn’t, and how you can apply these same things to your book – the parts that work, of course. A favorite book can sometimes provide the perfect inspiration: why is it you favorite book? What did the author do or create that makes it your favorite? Does your manuscript include these elements? How can you incorporate them?

Did this send you down the path to success? Are you even now itching to put fingers to keys? No? Well, moving on …

The fourth method is harder, no doubt about it. This is a method I use for two different but similar reasons. The first is when I’ve reached a point where I think I hate the manuscript and want to start over. The second is during rewrites. Essentially, do a chapter by chapter analysis and break-down. What works in the chapter? What is the conflict? What is the emotional change? Why is it important to the plot? And perhaps most importantly, do you like it or not? What would you change? What’s wrong with it? In this way, I’ve decided to salvage chapters when I’ve scrapped many others, because there was something I still liked about the salvageable ones. Once you’ve created this chapter by chapter outline, it also lets you sit back and look at the manuscript as a whole objectively. Between chapters 24 and 25, is there a hole? What seems to be missing? Are all aspects of the plot where they’re supposed to be and as strong as they can be? From here, you can go back and correct chapter by chapter, you can see where you’ve been and where you’re going, and you can decide more objectively what’s worth keeping, and what’s not working and needs to go.

Was this finally the solution? Still no? Well, there is one last solution …

The fifth method is: walk away and go do something else. I do not mean you shouldn’t write. I don’t mean you will walk away forever and leave this poor, squalling, incomplete manuscript unloved and abandoned forever. I mean leave for enough time until you have reached the epiphany you need to continue and complete it, discovered a new vision for it, or simply have allowed greater distance and objectivity which will allow you to return with new eyes and renewed perspective. If this is not an option, then go back through the previous four steps. Simply sitting there, banging your head against the keyboard will accomplish nothing (other than, perhaps, the need for a new keyboard).

Hopefully by the end of this, the rain has cleared up and you’re back to sunshine and rainbows, you and your muse skipping happily hand in hand. Either that, or you’re just back to whipping the muse again, hard at work. Whatever the case, did these methods help you? How do you get past these kind of blocks? I welcome and look forward to your comments.

Break Free of Redemption: Time to kill your villain

I have a confession to make: the power of redemption enslaves me.

While I once suffered from cardboard villains with no motivation other than thwarting my hero and heroine (one was named Captain Plunder, I kid you not), I have now swung completely in the other direction. Now, my villains have a tendency to get too interesting. So interesting, they keep demanding their own books. Thus far, three so-called villains are slotted for their own stories of redemption, self-discovery, and love.

Usually, this isn’t a problem. The issue, though, is that I know the path my series is going to take, and there’s no more room for new and suddenly interesting characters … even though I’m in the process of creating a new villain right now. He will be interesting. I will torture him. And yes, my inclination is to “save” him, but after what he will do, this cannot be possible.

So, I have determined he must die or be punished. Now I’m just trying to come up with the reasons why (because he’s darned well not getting his own book!). Together, hopefully we can both decide when a villain needs to suffer and be punished for his sins.

1)      His sins have been too great and too many. This is plausible enough. But these sins need to be truly great, placing him beyond redemption. I already have one pseudo-villain who plotted to destroy the mortal plain, and she’s redeemable (based on the fact she was crazy and didn’t really mean it). Another two who sought to assassinate my heroine, and they get to fall in love (they were pawns of this uber-villain, so it wasn’t really their fault). What does this mean? It means the sins of this villain need to be so great the only redemption can be through traditional literary means: fire, water, sacrifice, and/or death. What he does needs to be unforgiveable.

2)      He wouldn’t really want his own book anyway. Admittedly, I’m reaching. But I think for this villain, he isn’t “hero material.” He doesn’t play by the same rules, does not desire a happy ending in which everyone wins, but only wants one in which he wins, everyone else loses. This is not a happy ending, and grounds for punishment.

3)      His death or punishment can bring about the redemption or salvation of one of the protagonists. If placed in a situation where it’s life or death for only one of the characters, either villain or hero, my hero has to win. Therefore, the villain has to die.

4)      The villain’s personal desire for death and punishment as redemption. This has potential. It means I can still save my villain, but he has an arch of personal growth rather than simply growing madness or “evil.”

5)      The villain’s motives and convictions are too strong, he will never accept defeat. It has never occurred to him, and when it does, he refuses to accept it. He can’t be redeemed because until the end, he never believes he’s done anything wrong. What he did was the only thing possible, and is still the right decision, no matter the consequences. He cannot go back to the way things were. In this situation, he may well take his own life to avoid accepting defeat, or being returned to the status quo.

6)      At the end of the war or great battle (as my series concludes with), someone has to be blamed for what happened. A scapegoat is required, whether deservedly or not. My villain really is responsible for the war, though of course, it takes two to have a fight. Nonetheless, could a reader be satisfied with a war which ends with no one being punished? Though war and its consequences may be punishment enough, historically someone is usually “blamed.”

7)      His very villainy leads to his death. This is like Gollum at the end of Lord of the Rings, when his last grasping effort to gain the ring results in his death, though Frodo’s salvation. This demands a path where the villain does increase in desperation or villainy on a path which can only lead to his destruction.

8)      The villain and his sins are symptomatic of every “evil” or “bad-guy” in the real world which goes free, but which in fiction may finally be punished for his sins. In this situation, readers would only be satisfied with punishment of the villain, the most thorough usually being death.

9)      Someone has to be punished. If everyone else escapes or is redeemed – including all the other villains or heroes with less than perfect slates – then doesn’t someone need to be punished? Should someone be the scapegoat for all their sins? Symbol of punishment, and in his sacrifice redeem the others?

10)   The problem is solved once and for all. If the villain dies, whatever problems he caused or actions which made him the villain are punished and are supposedly eradicated with the death of their puppet. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it could be. If the villain who wants to take over the world is killed, HE can’t try to take over the world again if he’s dead (though this says nothing for the legion of would-be-villains waiting to fill his shoes).

Well, fine then. I guess I have to kill my villain. Am I convinced? Not entirely. Like I say, I’ve become a slave to redemption. Why do you kill off your villains? Do you have better reasons why a villain needs to die or can’t be redeemed than I’ve provided? Please, share, and help me understand and accept the death of my villain.