Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is taking the outlined idea and turning it into words on the page. It’s great to know that X and Y need to happen, but how do you make them happen in writing? How do you take that character and bring him to life? How do you take that villain and make her fun yet terrifying? How do you unravel those conflicts in words? There are a lot of different methods for bringing a story to life, but here are the few that I find help me the most when moving from the outline, to the page.
Before I begin writing a character I spend some time figuring out at least 3-4 concrete details about his or her personality. I think about their dominant personality trait that people see, their core moral value that guides most of their decisions, and a personality trait that they have that’s a flaw. I also sometimes figure out a minor personality trait that most people may not notice, but it’s a core part of who that character is. Beyond that, I like to find one physical trait I see very clearly to help me visualize the character, and I like to understand at least one solid relationship they have with someone, be it family or friend. The other two things I think you should figure out is what the characters main goal in life is, and perhaps what they’re afraid of.
I think these core details give you enough that you can easily visualize the character and write them well without having to figure out every last ounce of the characters life. These details give you an overall sense of who they are, and as you work out more while writing you can develop the character more clearly. If you need to do more to figure out the character in order to write them, try doing a free-write so you can ease yourself into the character’s voice. If you write 3-5 pages in your character’s voice, you’ll learn a lot about them and find it easier to write the character’s voice for the story.
To get your setting from outline to page, I think the important thing is to ask yourself what’s important about the setting. What about it is vital to your story? Why does the story need to take place in that specific spot? If you know these details then you know what elements of your setting to emphasize in your story. The more important a detail is, the more you want to describe it unless you’re trying to keep it subtle for some sort of plot reveal. At the very least, when writing a setting I feel you should give enough detail about it to help create a solid visual image in your reader’s head. You want them to be able to visualize where the characters are, how they’re moving throughout the scene, and why we’re in that specific place.
The hardest part of taking your outline and bringing it to the page in my opinion is how to portray the plot. You have your outline that says “Amy goes to the park. Amy runs into Ryan. They fight. Amy leaves upset.” If you write it that way, that’s an incredibly short story and has no real depth or development. So how do you write that short sequence of events and make it interesting? What parts do you expand on and what do you rush through?
For the first step in your outline “Amy goes to the park,” you want to show Amy’s mindset, give a sense of the setting, and establish some form of a goal for why she’s going to the park. Is she meeting someone? Is she trying to find some privacy? Does she have a kid she’s taking to play? Set the tone of the scene, and choose your tone with the thought of how it will change in the upcoming scenes in mind. Then as you go to the next scene, “Amy runs into Ryan,” start thinking about the implications of that scene. How does meeting Ryan change Amy’s mood? How does their interaction start? How do they meet up? On purpose or accidentally?
As you go into the final scenes, “They fight, and Amy leaves upset,” start to think about how to transition there as well. What upsets Amy? How quickly does she leave? What’s the environment around them look like? The questions can go on forever, but it’s important to focus on things that involve the tone, the setting, the characters, and the sequence of events.
If you’re really struggling to transfer your story from outline to page, remind yourself that a story isn’t just about action and a sequence of events. The details you bring out in the story will help take your story from an outline of X and Y happens, to something that has depth and is fun to read. So explore the layers of your story and try to bring them out. Remember, it’s often easier to remove details if you put too much rather than trying to add more later on. So write and explore, and see what kind of story evolves.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
This past week my thesis for my screenwriting emphasis arrived in the mail. I opened the box and there, carefully wrapped inside was my thesis project bound in a hardback cover. I opened it up, and inside I found my analysis of screenwriting and my walk through the process, as well as my screenplay for Bonnie in script form. I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment that made me feel.
If you’re interested in my analysis or the screenwriting process, you can see the blog adapted version of those portions of my thesis in my four part series, The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process: Part 1 covers story origins and the tools used to shape an idea into a movie plot, Part 2 discusses the tools used to sell a screenplay, Part 3 covers the research that goes into writing a screenplay, and Part 4 talks about rewriting.
I turned in my thesis back in August, and there was a sense of accomplishment in doing that, but to see my script in print just about made me burst with pride. Glancing through it reminded me of what a really good script Bonnie is. Now I just have to figure out a way to get it in front of someone who will read it and fall in love with it as much as I am, and want to make it into a movie.
That’s the hard part. There’s some tough competition out there and it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Bonnie has commercial value and I need to get someone in the business to recognize it,There are those who claim it can’t be done unless you move to L.A. (“Hollywood Game Plan” Prepares Upcoming Screenwriters to Hit the Ground Running) Although I really want to sell Bonnie, and many other screenplays, I don’t see such a drastic move happening in the near future.
Most of the screenplay competitions are a bit more expensive to enter than my pocketbook can afford, so I have to be careful to pick the contest that are the best for my screenplay. In the literary community, you face the same challenge. You must determine which publisher is best to submit to, matching your work to a publisher, agent or writing contest.
The only way I know to solve the puzzle and match story or script to contest, or find a publisher or a producer who might be interested in your work, is good old fashioned research. These days it’s easier. Because of the Internet, we have the information at our fingertips now, where we didn’t thirty years ago. To find the right contest, or publisher, or producer today, we can sit down at the computer or pick up our phones and find out what kinds of work they are interested in to see if ours is a good fit, or check out their track record to gauge how successful they are. All it takes is a little time.
I’ve entered a short screenplay in a screenplay contest, and submitted a couple of my scripts to production companies, and I’ve collected a few rejection slips from them. I was almost ready to give up on the screenwriting and concentrate exclusively on my fiction. Even though I know rejection is expected in this business, and a lot of it, it doesn’t make the sting any less when it happens. On Jeff’s God Complex Wednesday, he offers some really good ideas that make sticking with it in the face of adversity much easier. I took it and felt refreshed when I sat back down in front of my laptop again.
Receiving that bound copy and seeing my thesis script reminded me of why I went for the second emphasis in my degree. I am just as passionate about my screenwriting as I am about my fiction. I know my work is good and it’s only a matter of time before I sell a script or a book. I’m currently negotiating a contract for my western novel, Delilah, so I’m not just being optimistic here. It’s is easier to move forward in my career when I have a real sense of accomplishment, and my bound thesis reminded me of that.
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How do you find the time to write?
Can you be a writer when you have a full-time job?
Or a family?
I have a brilliant story idea but I’m just so busy…
The above are all questions are just a few ways people have essentially asked me “how can I be a writer if I don’t have time?” Every time I hear it I have a mixed reaction. I like it because it shows that these people understand that writing is a craft that takes time and work and dedication. It shows they respect that it doesn’t just magically happen. As a writer, I appreciate that because many, many people think writers just throw some words on a page, easy as pie.
On the other hand, I absolutely abhor the question. The reason I dislike it is because writing is like anything else someone wants to do, if they really want to do it they find the time. There’s no magical secret to how writers find time to write, they just make it happen.
That being said, I know some people will still want ideas for finding time to write, so here are some ways I find time to write when I am slammed with other life responsibilities:
If you really want to write, then you’re going to have to find the time elsewhere. If you don’t want to cut back on work, hobbies, free time, etc., then your other option is to cut back on sleep. Either get up an hour earlier, or go to bed an hour later, and use that time to write. You don’t have to do it every day, even an hour a week will add up in the long-term. The point is, the time has to come from somewhere and sleep is something everyone can cut back on now and then without too much consequence. So pick a day a week to try it and go from there.
Can you eat lunch and type at the same time? How about when you’re watching a movie or listening to music? Can you talk while you do household chores? What about when you’re driving or hiking or whatever your hobby is? When I’m on long road trips I use a tape recorder to plot and outline, develop characters, and sometimes even write a few pages. You can do this while out and about doing things like hiking and such as well. I know several authors who do this, and some even send the audio out to be transcribed for them to make things easier. It takes some adjustment to get used to writing in this fashion, and it’s not always your best writing, but getting something down on the page so that the next time you have a break you can revise it makes for better progress than not writing at all.
Every Spare Minute
Basically, this is the main option. Every spare minute you have you try to write. Even if it’s just you wake up in the morning and jot a line down, take a shower, jot another line, eat breakfast, jot a line, go to work, jot a line a lunch, work some more and jot a line again a dinner and before bed. If you do that all day you should at least have a paragraph if not a whole page. Writing is done one word at a time, and while it’s not the most efficient method for writing, the little lines add up throughout the days/weeks/months and before you know it you’ll have a finished piece of work. So anytime you can add another word, sentence, paragraph, and so on, you should.
I know the above advice is nothing brilliant or even particularly new, but sometimes as writers we all need reminders that if we want to write, we have to find time for ourselves. There’s no magic secret or perfect writing opportunity that’s going to appear in your schedule. You use the time you have, any way you can, using any medium available, to get words on the page. Yes, it may not be efficient or look anything like the “dream writer’s life” but you’ll be writing, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t write.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Since this month’s memo date falls near Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about how to pick your protagonist’s love interest for a story. I find you can’t always decide on the dynamic between a couple until you write out their first meeting. So with that in mind, here is how I go about doing that.
To start, we need to first pick your core protagonist. If you have one in mind, that’s great, skip to Step Two below. If not, begin at Step One.
Step One: Pick your protagonist.
An easy way I find to create a core protagonist when I’m really struggling is to think of three people I know. Then I think of a prominent personality trait for each of them.
Person 1: Talks too much, and rambles.
Person 2: Is obsessed with dogs.
Person 3: Is always negative.
Try to pick traits that don’t overshadow each other. So don’t pick traits like one loves cats and the other loves dogs. Once you have the three traits, combine them to create the partial personality for your new protagonist. Using those traits as a jumping point, come up with other details about the character you are creating. Male or female? Age range? Occupation?
For mine, we’ll say it’s a female, who is a vet, and who is in her late 20s.
Keep expanding the details of your protagonist until you feel like you have a good general idea of who they are.
Step Two: Find the love interest.
If you already have a protagonist in mind, make sure you can describe them as if they were one of your friends you’ve known for years. What’s their hobby, what’s their job, what’s their secret wish, what’s their favorite thing in the world, and what’s their biggest pet peeve? You should be able to at least answer the above questions, but preferably much, much more.
Once you have the general idea of the protagonist, it’s time to find their love interest. Whenever I have to find a love interest, I always make a list of the places my character is most likely to be because these are the places the love interest is most likely to be found.
For my example: My character is most likely to be in her vet’s office, at home, or maybe volunteering at an animal shelter. So the place she’s most likely to meet her future love interest is in one of those places. Let’s go with at the Vet’s office.
Once you choose where they may meet, then it’s time to choose who the love interest is. What kind of person would go to that place? For mine, it’s clearly going to be a pet owner, or maybe a vendor selling vet supplies, or even a coworker. I chose the easy one, pet owner.
Now go through the character building questions again – what does this love interest look like? What do the like to do? Why are they at this place interacting with your protagonist? Do they share any of the same personality traits as your protagonist? Do they starkly contrast to any traits? I usually like to have one strong thing that the two characters connect with (for mine, a love of animals), and then I have two or three things they can disagree on and fight over (for mine, attitude and the proper treatment for the pet).
Step Three: The first interaction.
The key to every love story, in my opinion, is the first interaction. In general, I find that love story first meetings go one of three ways: either the couple feels an instant spark, they instantly hate each other, or they barely notice each other at all except mild acknowledgment. So decide which of the three ways your meeting is going to go.
If they’re going to get along, decide what they instantly connect on and go with it. Write the scene and let try to make it last a few pages in the first draft. Show the strength of their immediate connection. Is it just physical, or is it mental, or both? Do they plan to meet again? Or never again? Explore the scene and free write a bit, you can cut it down later.
If they’re going to fight, then what is it that’s going to make them hate each other? Since my protagonist is always negative, I think it would work best if she and the pet owner get in a fight initially. She wants him to treat his dog with a specific medicine, but he’s adamant that he wants to treat the dog naturally. Whatever your characters are fighting about, write the scene.
It’s generally works better if they can both be somewhat right, because you want them both to be likable. So for mine, I wouldn’t make the illness for the dog anything serious, maybe something minor like fleas, and then the fight isn’t something that would make the owner, or the vet, unlikable.
If they’re barely going to notice each other, they still have to connect on some small scale so there is something to build their relationship on as the story progresses. So what is the small detail they’re each going to remember about each other? Do they both buy the same item in a store? Do they both do something kind for the same stranger without knowing it? Does something one does have a positive impact on the other somehow?
Write the scene and see what transpires between your protagonist and new love interest. Remember, you aren’t writing the entire relationship, you’re writing the first meeting. You want to leave room for their relationship to grow and develop. So make sure when the pair parts, there’s room for things to continue changing between them.
I really think the first meeting is the key to developing any relationship because it sets the tone for everything to come in the story for that couple. Once you have that first meeting right on paper, then you can build the rest of the relationship from there.
Until next month, happy writing!
As almost every writer knows, anywhere you go to discuss writing will always have someone proclaiming their tried and true rules for writing that you MUST follow. Post on any writing forum whether it be for screenwriting or fiction and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of eager “expert” or “professional” writers ready to tell you exactly which rules matter and which are hogwash. Yes, many of these writers have published novels or sold scripts and are professionals in the industry, but does that mean their rules are THE rules to follow?
Let me say that again – Absolutely not. Just because someone has sold a script or published a novel or piece of writing doesn’t mean that they will be able to give you rules to writing that will be guaranteed to work on your story. If you put every writer who ever sold something in a room and asked them to come up with a master list of writing rules it’d be impossible. There’d be factions who think you can never write in present tense and others who think a description of the weather should never start a novel.
There’d be groups who think the epitome of literary or cinematic genius is one specific piece of work, and others who think that same work is a crock of shit. If the people who are actually selling works of writing cannot agree on what makes good writing, and which writing rules are always true, then how on earth can a newbie writer even dream of making it in the industry, let alone be brave enough to even try to put words on the page?
Ultimately, all of this boils down to one single fact about writing: There are hundreds of rules for writing, but one of those rules is that there are no rules. Now before you dip out of this article, because that’s a useless piece of advice in the previous sentence, give me a chance to elaborate.
Writing is a subjective thing. Every story is going to require following a different mix of rules to make it work. That’s why whenever I write a post about the “rules” of writing, I try to explain which situations the rule applies to, and where it might not apply. Also, every writer is going to have different opinions about what makes a good story, and every publisher/studio/audience is going to have a different opinion about what they find marketable and worth buying. If this is true, which based on the evidence presented through comparing a wide range of published and produced pieces of writing it is, then the one and only real rule for writing is that you have to know the “What” and the “Why” of your story.
Essentially, knowing the What’s and Why’s of your story is all about researching the genre or style of writing you want to write by studying the existing works in that genre, and being conscious about your story and your writing choices so that you can answer the following questions on each project you work on:
- What writing “rules” do you have to follow for this particular story? In general, writing rules are not actually rules at all, but rather they’re typical or common guidelines of storytelling that work or don’t work based on previously existing works. So knowing what “rules” you have to follow just means you know which “rules” actually apply to what you’re writing, and which don’t. If you’ve done your due diligence and prep work before writing by studying other works that are similar to what you want to write, then you should have a general idea of what the common rules of that style or genre of story are, and which might apply to your story.
- Why are you following or ignoring these rules? Every time someone tells you a “rule” for writing, it’s important to understand why the rule exists, and where it applies. For your own work, always be able to justify why you’re breaking one set of rules, and why you’re following other rules. You may not have to follow all the “rules” in your writing, but people come up with these various rules for a reason, so understanding why they exist will help you understand why you need to follow certain ones and ignore others in your work.
- What is your setting, characters, plot, etc.? If you don’t know this when you’re writing, then your writing will probably be all over the place. Some people can free-write and discover a lot of these details as they go, but it is almost universally true that having these elements solidly in mind before writing will make your writing stronger.
- Why are you choosing these characters, this setting, that plot, etc.? Ultimately, the core of writing is to make deliberate choices and to be able to justify those choices as being ones that serve the story. Every character, setting, plot device, and elements of your story down to word choice can have a major impact on your writing. The more deliberate and conscious you can be in your choices, the more your writing should come together to tell a successful story.
As you can see, this one and only writing rule really boils down to being conscious about each choice you make in your writing and constantly asking yourself why whenever you are presented with a “rule” that someone thinks is universally true. All of these “rules” people come up with regarding writing are the results of people looking for the magic formula to a guaranteed sale on a piece of work, and they find it by looking for common elements across sold pieces of writing. While it is often true that these elements do exist, there are also just as many pieces of writing out there that break these trends.
Every story is its own thing and has its own identity, and I’m a firm believer that if you focus on serving the story rather than trying to force it to fit pre-existing rules or expectations, then your story will be better for it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to sell it, no one can guarantee that, but I am saying if you stay true to your story even if it means breaking the rules, your story will be stronger.
The important thing is to know what “rules” exist and to be able to justify why you broke these preconceived rules that people have and to show that you did so consciously. Ultimately, people aren’t going to focus on whether you broke the “rules” or not with your writing when deciding to buy it, they’re going to focus on whether you’ve put in the work to construct a compelling story that people want to read. If you do that, nothing else matters.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice once a month on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
The life of a writer. It’s what we all aspire to, right? But what do you envision when you think of yourself living the writer’s life? What exactly is it that makes it so appealing to us? And how close is it to the reality of being a working writer?
Many aspiring writers picture working in their pajamas, sleeping in or working late, running a schedule tailored to our own personal needs. Aspiring authors may envision book tours and readings to promote their published books, maybe even autographing copies for our fans, having strangers recognize us from our book covers. Others may see themselves traveling and attending writing events and conferences, meeting others in our field and networking. All of these are beautiful visions to have and they can be a part of what is referred to as a writer’s life. They are all worthy things to aspire to, but we may not be seeing the whole picture.
A writer’s life can be all that and more, but as with anything in life, it’s not all champagne and roses. Writers often spend more time on non-writing activities such as marketing and promotion, or networking than they do on the actual act of writing. Or they are forced to spend their time not on the creative process, but on promotional writing, such as query letters and resumes.
It’s true. Freelancers spend a lot of time promoting themselves in job queries, resumes and CVs. Aspiring authors spend much of their time peddling their completed works to editors, agents and publishers. Aspiring screenwriters peddle their scripts or ideas to agents, producers, directors or anyone else who is buying scripts and is willing to listen. And published authors peddle their books online, as well as at conferences and writing events, and perhaps even, like one author I know, at the local hardware store.
As was discussed in Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing (Part 10): Conclusion, as well as in the preceding series, in today’s publishing industry, even traditionally published authors are expected to do a lot of the promotion and marketing for their books. Everybody is selling something. Whether it’s your writing or yourself, promotional activities take a lot of time.
Networking is another necessity. It’s really another part of marketing and promotion. We can’t get our work out there to be discovered without networking. In screenwriting, the thought is that you must also live in L.A. to network advantageously. I know at least two aspiring screenwriters who recently moved there in hopes of being discovered, but it’s too soon to tell if they will reap any benefits from it.While we may dream of attending writing events and meeting others of like mind, the reality is that these activities take both time and money, and the time you invest into networking, is time that isn’t spent writing.
Then, with all of these extra-curricular activities, a writer also has clients, editors or publishers, and a screenwriter has agents, producers and directors, breathing down their necks to meet deadlines. Of course, most aspiring writers or screenwriters consider themselves lucky to have deadlines. A deadline means that you have work that involves writing, so that’s a good thing. But it can be very stressful, especially if you’re actually trying to make a living from your writing, and struggling to make ends meet.
The fact is, writing isn’t all glamour and parties. Writing is a tough way to make a living. Especially in today’s market, when everybody wants to be a writer. Self-publishing has provided the means to make that dream come true, although there are no guarantees that your book will be a huge success. And self-published authors must do all of their own promotion and marketing, too.
Writing is a lot of work, starting with the creative process and moving through the motions to promotion and marketing. You might be able to do some of it in your pajamas if you so chose. Most of what writing is, at least for those of us who are still looking for a big break, is being grateful for every writing job that comes your way, searching for that one acceptance in a mountain of rejections, and endeavoring to persevere.
Is it worth it? You bet. There’s nothing like it when you find that one acceptance and know the whole world will be able to read your work, and you may be able to put food on the table for another month, or pay your car payment, or your rent. Writing is truly a labor of love, and this blog is the proof of that. It’s Writing to be Read, and I don’t make a dime off it. My reward is in each comment that is left, each blogger that takes the time to ‘like’ a post, and each new follower or subscriber I get.
Of course, I still search for a publisher for one of my two completed novels and I submit my short fiction and poetry everywhere I can. I still want my work to be discovered, naturally. But it does my heart good to know that my writing id being read, even when it doesn’t put food on the table, even when I have to get an outside job to supplement my income. I don’t have to dream about living a writer’s life, because for better or for worse, I live it.