Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Selections from Pixar's 22 Rules for Storytelling


Note: This information comes from the following article. I cannot take credit for any of these rules.

When I stumbled on Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling, I realized the company knows exactly what they're doing. It's clear to me now why Pixar is the leading contender when it comes to film and animation. Here are a few of my favorite points:
#2: Keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. More often than not, the material that gets you unstuck appears.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#19: Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it is cheating.

#22: Putting it on paper allows you to start fixing it. If a perfect idea stays in your head, you'll never share it with anyone.

These are just a few of the excellent tips Pixar offers about storytelling. Interested? Read them all. You just might learn something.

What do you think? What is your favorite storytelling tip?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

How to Get Into Your Characters' Heads


As a writer, I know it's difficult to get inside your characters' heads, especially if a character is different from you. Creating believable characters means getting to know a character all the way down to the core of his or her being. If you're finding it hard to identify with your character and figure out everything that makes him or her tick, consider trying the following strategies:

Write an entry in your character's journal.

Write a letter from your character to a friend or loved one.

Walk, talk, eat, and move like your character for a set amount of time.

Write a bulleted list of important moments in your character's life.

Make a playlist of songs that remind you of your character.

These are just a couple of techniques for getting over writer's block where characters are concerned.

What do you think? How do you get into your characters' heads?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What They Don't Tell You About Writing

What they don't tell you about writing is the massive chore it is, even for writers. Many times a week I sit down at my desk to write, but nothing happens. Although I enjoy the finished creation, the writing itself takes a whole lot of energy. It's utterly exhausting.

Sometimes, too, the words don't come. I sit at my desk, fingers poised over the keys, and stare at the monitor in helpless frustration. My mind is as empty as the processor before me--this is the infamous "writer's block" every writer learns to fear, I change the scene, the character, the point of view--nothing works. Nothing inspires me.

Whenever this happens, I tell myself I can't leave my chair until I write something. All I have to do is convince my hands to move. Even if my words are crap, what matters is that I'm getting down words. I have plenty of time to edit much later.

Writing is tremendous work. It's hard to make progress without taking breaks. The problem with breaks? They can derail your focus. The passage of time in itself is a nightmare. Five minutes go by and it feels like an hour. I'm surprised when I look at the clock. I'm also mortified. How could I have made so little progress in an hour?

What they don't tell you is that writing is work.

Some of the cliches ring truer than I'd like. Writers are often impoverished creatures fueled by caffeine and a shot at immortality. Some are fueled by drugs and booze. Some even take the plunge headfirst into addiction.

It's also true that writers usually suffer from depression at least once in their lives. Writers are observant, curious, and introspective. We see the bad things in society, and we see that no one is trying to fix them. We wonder why the worst things happen to the nicest people. We're spending so much time with our thoughts, we forget there is also a bright side to life.

Writers are more prone to notice little pleasures. We notice the young man helping the young woman. We see the woman carrying someone's groceries. Humanity has a silver lining. We can, with practice, see the love in this sad life.

What they don't tell you about writing--not enough, anyway--is that it can improve. You'll always be able to polish your work. There is always hope, no matter what. With a lot of practice, you'll get better. You'll soon be seeing the bright side of life.

Writing is an instrument for reconciliation. It soothes the dreamer, the creator, and the optimist in us. It reveals the context of humanity in the grand scheme of the universe, and it helps us come to terms with our temporary being.

More than anything, though, writing nourishes the soul.

What they don't tell you about writing is that it makes up both the pit and the pinnacle of human existence.

At the end of the day, that's what makes the work worth it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The 4 "A"s of Characterization

Every writer understands the importance of creating believable characters. Story revolves around people--therefore, characters are arguably more important than plot. Whether you're writing a novel, short story, memoir, or personal essay, it's vital that you make your actors as three-dimensional as possible. Consider the following four "A"s of characterization:

1. Actions. What risks has the character taken in the past? How has he or she treated family and friends? What about enemies? What hobbies does he or she enjoy? What has your character done? What is he or she doing in the story?

2. Attitudes. How does the character feel about gay marriage, abortion, religion, and other  hot-button issues? What are your characters' views on the world?

3. Artifacts. What are your characters' prized possessions? What shelter do they have? What cars do they drive? What's the first thing they'd save in the event of a fire?

4. Accounts. What are some noteworthy anecdotes about these characters? What do other people have to say about them? What rumors have been circulated?

This is a rough list of just a few questions you can use to generate information for your four A's. If you want better characters, give this system a try. And good luck.

What do you think of this system? How do you like to flesh out your characters?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Importance of Daily Writing

If you've ever been an athlete or have known any athletes, you know that they practice often in order to improve their strength, skill, and stamina. When game day comes around, the football player wants to score a touchdown, so he runs drills and plays scrimmages to prepare himself for the real test. If athletes don't practice, nothing improves.

The same is true with writing. Unless you write a little each and every day, you can't expect to see any improvement.

Before I started writing every day, I was unhappy with my prose. I couldn't figure out why parts of it looked so clumsy and unskilled. Once I made a conscious effort to not only read more but to also write at least 500 words each day, I saw drastic results. My writing improved, my confidence soared, and I developed a deeper appreciation for the craft of written language.

How much should you write each day? Honestly, it's up to you. Stephen King pumps out no less than ten pages each day, but that terrifies me, so I aim for 500 words of anything before I go to bed. A lot of beginning authors start with 350 words. Some aim much higher, aspiring for King's lofty standards. Still others write not by word count, but by time. I know writers who set a timer for fifteen or thirty minutes and pound away until the buzzer goes off.

You should choose whichever system works the best for you. The only thing that matters is that you write every day, even when you feel uninspired.

What do you think? How much do you try to write each day?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Beginner's Guide to Daily Writing

When I first started writing on a semi-regular basis, I wondered why I didn't seem to be improving any. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to get better, I had to put in the extra effort. Practice makes perfect and all that jazz. It's only by writing every day that we can become more talented writers. If you don't write every day, I want you to start. Honestly, it doesn't take much. All you have to do is:

1. Pick a specific time to write. Try to make this the same time every day. For example, I write in the mornings before I go to class, while my brain is fresh and I'm feeling dreamy. Some people work better at night, though, so keep that in mind. Choose the time of day that works the best for you.

2. Get comfortable writing in bite-size chunks. Daily writing isn't about getting finished--it's about making progress. You don't have to write for three or four hours in order to move forward in your growing draft. Start by committing fifteen minutes to your work. If you think you can handle it, increase your time limit.

3. Consider writing to meet a word count. Again, this method doesn't work for everyone. Personally, I'd rather write on a time limit than trying to meet a word count. Try both methods and see what works for you. Set your word count low, but not too low. Make it challenging.

4. Reward yourself. Every time you complete a daily writing session, bake some cookies, buy a new shirt, or watch an episode of your favorite show. You'll be surprised how much these simple treats can motivate you.

5. If you miss a day, don't beat yourself up. Forgive your mistake and move on to the next day.

Basically, all daily writing requires is time, goal, and reward commitments. It's so easy to get started with daily writing sessions, so seriously, what are you waiting for? Get out there and write!

What do you think? What are your methods for writing every day?

Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Develop Stronger Characters


In contemporary fiction, one of the greatest tendencies of the budding novelist is to develop characters that are flatter than the state of Florida. One-dimensional characters create boredom, prevent your reader from sympathizing with them, and make your entire story fall flat. If you're looking for a way to improve your character development, here are some tips for building better people to inhabit your next story:

1. Watch out for cliches. We're all familiar with "the hooker with the heart of gold" (Pretty Woman) and the unreliable narrator with dissociative identity disorder (Fight Club, Secret Window). No one wants to read about a character they've met before. Put simply, if you've heard it or seen it in a movie, on television, or in another book, either throw it out or turn it on its head.

2. After you've managed to pick out the cliches, look for ways to defy your readers' preconceived expectations. For example, if your protagonist is a cheerleader who is sleeping with the football team, find a way to change it up and deviate from the stereotype. You could, for instance, paint a picture of an unattractive cheerleader who only made the squad because her mom is the school principal. See how much more interesting that is already?

3. Give your characters flaws. In the previous example about the unattractive cheerleader, the protagonist's flaw would be her homely appearance. Flaws are essential to characterization because they make your characters seem more human--and, as a result, much more sympathetic. When developing flaws for your characters, consider the emotional and mental as well as the physical. While there's nothing wrong with making a character fat or ugly, wouldn't it be more interesting to give them schizophrenia?

4.Don't go overboard with physical description. It doesn't matter too much what your character looks like. Just give a brief overview--with one striking detail, such as a beaked nose--and your audience will be able to come up with the rest.

5. If you can't get into a character's head, try writing up a one-page character history. On this page, you can include your character's age, appearance, wishes, dreams, failures, successes, possessions, love interests, hobbies, occupations, philosophies, and so much more. This piece of paper will be a guideline as you go through writing a draft of the piece. Not all of the information needs to make it into the work itself, but it's useful to keep in mind.

In closing, characters are one of the most significant elements regarding writing fiction. After all, most people read fiction to learn about people who are different from themselves. By improving the quality and depth of your characters, you can make your prose much more appealing to your readers.

What do you think about these tips? How do you go about creating your characters?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Magic of a Story

More Methods to Overcome Writer's Block

In my last post, I gave you several prompts and lines of dialogue to jump-start the creative process and help you get back to writing. Occasionally, a line or two of dialogue is simply not enough. When you find yourself facing writer's block again, give these techniques a try to get your work moving again:

  • Read a book
  • Clean your house
  • Watch television
  • Go for a walk
  • Turn on some music and dance
  • Cook or bake something
  • Call a friend or loved one
  • Go for a drive
  • Go shopping
  • Play with your pet
  • Take a long bath or shower
  • Work in the garden
  • Have a cup of tea or coffee
  • Write in your journal
  • Take a nap
  • Play a board or video game
  • Vacuum
  • Clean the toilet
  • Do the dishes
  • Go to the park
  • Plan a vacation
  • Light a candle
  • Do the laundry
  • Go out and take some pictures
  • Watch a movie
  • Listen to an audiobook or a podcast
  • Have a glass of wine
  • Cry
  • Sing like no one can hear you
  • Go shopping
  • Go shopping online
  • Go for a swim
  • Get some sunshine
  • Have a snack
  • Go to the zoo
  • Visit an aquarium
  • Go to a museum
  • Visit an art gallery
  • Go to a concert
  • Play in the rain

Here are a few suggestions to help you get unstuck whenever you're feeling creatively blocked. The key for getting past writer's block is distracting yourself from your work long enough to let your mind wander.

What do you think of these tips? How do you overcome writer's block?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Squelch Writer's Block with These Opening Lines

“I do not hate you.”
“Hit me again.”
“I need another.”
“Stay on this train until the end of the line.”
“This is all I have.”
She stared at him, saying nothing.

He knows it’s wrong, but he can’t help himself.

“What if he says no?”
“You really got ripped off.”
“What kind of woman does something like that?”
I told her I couldn’t.”
“I never said a word.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
She couldn’t talk to him anymore.
“Turn the music up, please.”
I’ve never been in love before.
“He’s just a friend.”
“Of course it’s stupid.”
“Do you think we should do it?”

All they needed was each other.

“Why do you ask?”
I had never imagined the end of the world.
“Get out of my house.”
“Do you ever get lonely?”
“I don’t need your help.”
She squints in the bright light pouring in through the windows.
“You never listen to me.”
“There’s a time and a place.”
“You promised me.”
“I’m so, so sorry.”
“Your hair smells like strawberries.”
“I don’t like the snow.”
“Funny weather, isn’t it?”
“Excuse me.”
“What do you think?”
“We’re out of milk.”
“What time is it?”
“You’re stupid.”

She was not a beautiful woman.

“How are you, really?”
“Do you find me attractive?”
“Are you married?”
“I’m a moron.”
“How could I have avoided it?”
“No, I’m not sorry.”

He thought he was better off without her.

“Forget I said anything.”
She had grown to love the sound of rain.

The Index Card Method

A little while ago, I introduced you to the Signpost Outline Method for plotting stories. This technique worked for me for a little while, but I’ve never been a fan of outlines. They can feel too rigid sometimes; too strict; too limiting, if you will. While using the Signpost method, you might also find yourself feeling trapped. You might be looking for another, less confining method, and if that’s the case, then I have a potential solution. This next method is something that I discovered around the same time as the Signpost method, but I personally feel that it is much more helpful.

First of all, get a stack of index cards. It doesn’t matter how many – just make sure you have enough to realistically plan a whole novel or short story. If you’d like a number count, I tend to shoot for twenty to twenty-five cards for a novel and four to five cards for a short story. Each index card will represent a scene in your work. On each index card, write a single action. By the time you’re finished, you should have a string of plotted actions that look something like this:

Atalanta leaves Anderson for Julian.
Atalanta stays the week with Julian.
Julian tells Atalanta that he yearns for control and power.
Julian refers Alaric to Atalanta.
Alaric meets with Atalanta for a consultation.

Alternately, you could put the actions down on paper. However, I prefer index cards because a) they’re informal, b) they’re portable, and c) you can move them around to change the sequence of events. Once I have all of my actions written down, I like to spread the cards out on the floor and rearrange them several times until I find the ideal sequence. Sometimes, when you do this, you’ll find arrangements that surprised you – sequences of events you hadn’t thought about before. This method also helps you get past writer’s block by reimagining the story arc.

The Index Card Method might now work for everyone, but I wanted to suggest it in case you were looking to try something new. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this technique! Have you used the Index Card Method before? Which method of outlining do you prefer? Leave your comments below, and I’d be happy to respond to them!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Importance of Reading in the Life of a Writer


The following content is taken from an article I wrote for Every College Girl called “How To… Find More Time to Read.” Reading is vital to the budding writer because it improves his or her vocabulary, teaches flow, and illustrates what does and does not work in the way of structure. Thus, it is absolutely essential you commit yourself to reading. If you’re looking to improve your writing, you must get in the habit of reading. I cannot stress this point enough. Here is the article:

As a self-professed bibliophile, there is nothing I love more than reading. I read whenever I can wherever I can, and I read almost everything that I can get my hands on. Believe it or not, you have more time to read than you think you do. Here are a few tips for finding more time to start that new series you’ve been dying to read.

Make a book your companion
First of all, get used to reading in small sips as well as big swallows. This means always having a book with you because the opportunity to read could come at any time, and you don’t want to be caught unawares. Read in lines, before a movie starts, in the bathroom, between classes, and before bed. Read whenever you have a few free minutes, not only when you can devote hours at a time to the book.

Expand your reading horizons
Also, read in the car. Now, I don’t mean that you should prop your novel against the steering wheel and have at it on the interstate. Today, thank God, we have audiobooks. You can download an audiobook to listen to while cleaning, doing laundry, or walking to class–not just while driving somewhere. Audibooks make it possible to multi-task, and what woman doesn’t want that?

Know yourself
My third and most important point is this: Read what you want to, and put the book down if you aren’t enjoying it. Just because millions of people before you have liked War and Peace doesn’t mean you should feel guilty if it’s not your cup of tea. Life’s too short to read boring books. Find something that piques your interest. If you don’t like something, move on. That’s all there is to it.

What do you think?
Do you love to read, too? What advice do you have to get the most out of your reading sessions?

How often do you read? I'd love to hear your input!

The Signpost Outline Method

Photo by JMC Photos on Flickr Photo by JMC Photos on Flickr
Recently, I’ve been researching different outline methods in an effort to find one that works for me. I don’t use outlines as a general rule, but there seems to be a lot of merit to them for everyone else I’ve talked to. Thanks to Writer’s Digest, I’ve discovered the signpost outline. It’s structured, but it allows for a high degree of flexibility. It looks a little something like this:
Scene 1: Action Scene
SETTING: The park, late afternoon
CHARACTERS: Shelly, a stalker
PLOT: Shelly sits on a park bench reading the paper. She feels like someone is watching her, but when she looks around, she can’t see anyone.
Scene 2: Interior/Contemplative Scene
SETTING: Shelly’s house, midnight
CHARACTERS: Shelly, an intruder
PLOT: Shelly wakes to a sound in the middle of the night, but she thinks she must be paranoid. She thinks about the effect that her impending divorce has had on her life as she goes back to sleep. Unbeknownst to her, she has a nighttime visitor.
Scene 3: Dialogue Scene
SETTING: Shelly’s house, an hour later
CHARACTERS: Shelly, the police
PLOT: The next morning, Shelly wakes up to find all of her underwear is missing. She calls the police, and they begin an investigation into the mysterious panty-snatcher.
I’m sure there are some flaws to this method, but it’s working fine for me so far. I don't prefer to outline, but if you do, this is a great strategy. If you’re averse to outlining, you might want to give this style a shot.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Write Realistic Dialogue

Bad dialogue is hard on the eyes and even harder on the ears. It’s as painful to read as it would be spoken aloud, and it doesn’t make anyone happy. There are so many problems with bad dialogue—it can be stilted, stuffy, formal, verbose, jarring, and even offensive. If you want to keep your characters from sounding fake, consider these tips.

  1. Read a lot. To write good dialogue, you need to read good dialogue. The most memorable characters are memorable in part because they’re so realistic. Good dialogue helps flesh out otherwise boring or one-dimensional characters, so chances are, the more you read books with interesting characters, the better your own dialogue skills will become.

  2. Eavesdrop. Go out in public. Sit on a park bench or in a coffee shop and listen to the conversations all around you. And really listen to people when they talk to you, instead of only hearing them speaking. If you want to take it a step further, record the conversations with a tape recorder or a notebook. That way, you can play it back or read it later when you’re looking for inspiration.

  3. Read dialogue aloud. More often than not, most dialogue issues can be discovered just through speaking aloud what you’ve put down on the page. If you feel strange reading your own work, try typing the words into a text-to-speech generator, or convince your friends to join you. Make it a game by assigning parts as though you’re rehearsing a play.

As you can see, writing good dialogue boils down to listening to the way that people actually sound when they talk to each other. Once you’ve got the gist of everyday speech, then the rest should be a piece of cake.

What do you think? What problems do you experience with dialogue?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beat Writer's Block by Casting Your Story

Whenever I come up with story ideas, I usually have a mental image of the story’s characters as well. For example, my characters are usually famous people. In the novel I’m working on now, my protagonist would be played by Mila Kunis, and my antagonist would be Johnny Depp.

  Atalanta l Mila Kunis   Alaric Silver l Johnny Depp

Why bother casting a novel if it hasn’t been made into a movie yet? Because visualizing your characters as they would actually appear in reality is fantastic.

Take a minute to calm your mind. Breathe in and out. Focus.

Now, I want you to imagine the world of your novel. Unravel the setting, the landscape, and the time frame. See the buildings, trees, and streets in your mind’s eye. Next, move on to your characters. Imagine them going about their everyday lives. Who do they look like? Pretened you’re watching a movie adaptation. Which actors come automatically to mind?

Once you’ve come up with some famous names, do a Google image search to find some photos of them. You can save them to your computer for reference if you want. Now, whenever you get stuck on a difficult scene, imagine the actor in your character’s predicament. Picture him or her in as much detail as you can. What does he or she do in that same situation? What does he or she look like? What does he or she say?

This exercise has proven useful to me, but it might not work for everyone. It’s been my experience that visual learners and writers with a more visual sort of memory have a better time with this technique, but feel free to give it a shot, no matter what your style.

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