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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays!

The Story Sensei blog is taking a break from Christmas to New Year's. Have a great holiday season!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting to know your characters better

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Knowing Your Characters

Some Tips for Getting Into Your Character’s Story

Here are some ways to know your character more deeply, which might solve plot or story problems as you write your novel.

Many times, when a writer has hit a wall when writing their novel, it could be that the writer just doesn’t know the character well enough.

It doesn’t take much to hinder the creative process. Even not knowing a character’s preference for vanilla or chocolate ice cream can cramp the flow of words. Not knowing more major things like the character’s deep core values behind their motivations can be equally deadly to a novel’s progress.

So whether the writer is someone who plots the story before he/she writes or who just goes at it, exercises for getting to know the character can be done either before or during a novel’s creation.

Utilize Character Charts

There are several good character charts available on the internet these days. One of the best ones available is this exhaustive one from Charlotte Dillon.

The busy writer doesn’t need to fill out the chart in its entirety. Some things might simply be irrelevant to the story.

However, making yourself think about these details of your character can often give you deeper insight into things you never knew about them. This insight can jump-start a stalled story or help the writer understand why a scene isn’t working.

Utilize Freewriting

One of the writer’s most powerful tools is freewriting. This free association writing is one of the best ways to unleash creativity at its most unhindered and unfettered.

A freewrite can be anything—a letter from the character, a letter to the character, an interview with the character, train of thought of the writer or the character, etc.

The beginning is always the hardest, but as you dig deeper and write longer, often things come out that will surprise you about the character or the story.

The reason this happens is because the writer is diving more fully into right brain creative mode and more likely to come up with more unique ideas.

One good object of a freewrite can be to understand the character’s core values. Brandilyn Collins discusses this in her book, Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actorsin chapter one.

A character’s core values are the deepest level of truth within a character, what he or she believes about him/herself. This can be obscure or cliché, simple or complex, but core values are the foundations of a character’s motivations and desires.

Doing a freewrite to discover a character’s core values can often give deep, significant insight into the character motivations and might help un-stick a stuck story.

Utilize Pictures

Another great way to get to know a character better can be to troll magazines for pictures that look like the character.

Often a writer will discover new insight into a character that is triggered by a particular photo of someone who looks like the character. There are thousands of subtle facial cues that can be conveyed by a picture, and sometimes a very delicate cue can inspire a writer to new ideas.

Remember the Importance of Character

Characters are the core of a story. Even a plot driven story needs a strong character or the reader won’t be interested.

It’s a writer’s duty to spend time to know and polish a character to make the best possible lead for a novel. So spend time getting to know your character, whether before you write or while you’re writing your novel.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Setting the stage

There are some stories I've read where the author didn't introduce the setting very well, and I felt like I was dropped into a black pit with two people talking in the dark (or, at best, surrounded by fog or fuzzy light). Ever feel like that?

Other times, the author opens with SO MUCH SETTING DETAIL I'm bored silly before the end of page one.

I was at Seekerville yesterday talking about how you can avoid both of those scenarios:

Camy here, talking about opening scenes and settings.

This is especially important for historical and fantasy/speculative fiction writers who need to introduce an entirely new world for the reader within the first few pages without sounding like a travel guide and without confusing the reader.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Career Novelist by Donald Maass

You can download the ebook FREE from Donald Maass's website:

The Career Novelist

“Packed full of fine analysis, solid advice, and thoughtful reflection on the state of contemporary publishing. It’s further distinguished by more common sense than any book of its type that I have ever read. A treasure.” — Dean Koontz, author of Intensity

“ indispensable volume for all libraries, and for anyone interested in learning about the world of publishing...” — Ed Gorman, Mystery Scene

Monday, December 15, 2008

Effective Brainstorming

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction, but I'm very careful to make sure my brainstorming time isn't just time wasted daydreaming. This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Effective Brainstorming

How to Make the Most of Collecting Ideas

Brainstorming all aspects of a story can be made more effective and efficient with these simple tips.

Brainstorming is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. A writer can brainstorm all aspects of a novel, from large scale to small scale.

A writer can brainstorm high level element like theme and premise.

A writer can also brainstorm mid level story elements like character personality, external goals, backstory, career. Also story setting, possible villains, etc.

A lesser known but equally powerful use for brainstorming is for very small scale elements like a character’s goal for a particular scene, possible character decisions in a scene, variety of conflict or obstacles in a scene, etc.

It is possible to utilize brainstorming time efficiently.

Don’t Criticize Ideas

When a writer is in the flurry of coming up with a variety of ideas, that creative process utilizes the right side of the brain.

Criticism and analysis utilizes the left side of the brain.

When a writer is fully in right brain mode, the ideas tend to come faster and be more creative. However, most people have problems getting themselves completely in that right brain mode.

One way to do that is to try to shut down left brain activities as much as possible. This includes analyzing any ideas you come up with.

If a writer can only keep spitting out ideas, without pausing to analyze any of them, the brainstorming time will be more creative, colorful, and effective. The writer will come up with more unique ideas, more interesting plot points, more unusual characters.

After the brainstorming session is over is when it’s best to switch to left brain mode and start analyzing and culling those ideas just generated.

Have a Specific Goal

Sometimes it helps when the writer has a goal being targeted. For example, the writer may start the brainstorming with the firm goal of only brainstorming ideas for the character’s career.

When the brain is targeted this way, the brainstorming time can be much more efficient. A specific aspect of the story is being investigated and ideas are being generated for that story element. Once enough ideas are down, the writer can move on to some other element.

Utilize Tools That Work for You

Each writer is different, so experiment to figure out which tools work best for you.

Some writers simply type ideas or write them on a sheet of paper.

Others use Post-It notes or index cards and write one idea per note/card. The advantage of this is for visual writers who like seeing the ideas arranged spatially—Post Its can be stuck on a wall or a door, and index cards can be arranged on the floor or a table.

No way is the “right” way or the “only” way, so determine your way and go for it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Building a blog, part 7

Read part 6 here

Blog Content, continued

Focus on your blog readers.

Your blog might be about you, but to build a blog readership, you have to think about what you can give to your blog readers.

People visit a blog because of what they get out of it. What do people get out of your blog?

Hopefully you’re entertaining. Get some feedback.

Figure out which are your most popular posts—and why they’re popular. Can you write more like them?

What are your more unpopular posts? Why were they unpopular?

Are your blog posts all about you, or do you have things that might be interesting or informative to your readers? Remember to post things that your readers would want to read.

Are your blog posts mostly information with very little about yourself? Add some personality to your blog posts.

Building a blog readership will take time.

Don’t be discouraged and don’t have expectations too high for your blog traffic. All blogs take time to build.

Just keep blogging consistently, and also do a few things to help yourself get noticed:

(a) Participate in Blog Carnivals and Memes (you can do a Google search to find some)
(b) Comment on other blogs.
(c) Comment on email loops and forum boards with your blog in the signature line
(d) Comment in groups and forums with people who might enjoy your blog themes

However, DON’T BE AN AD FOR YOUR BLOG. It’s discourteous and slimy.

Here’s examples of what NOT to do:

“That’s interesting you mentioned putting down your dog, Lois. By the way, I talk about the pink bow I put on my dog the other day on my blog:”

“That sounds like a great online writing class. By the way, I talk about my latest poem, which I wrote during my last poetry writing online class, on my blog:”

Post on blogs, email loops, and forum boards as yourself and people will find your blog because they like you.

Go forth and blog!

Just do it. Don’t wait for the planets to be aligned or for your web designer to free up or for your family to finally leave you alone. Just blog.

You’ll make mistakes—who cares? The world isn’t going to end if your blog isn’t perfect.

Just do it—and enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Building a blog, part 6

Read part 5 here

Blog Content, continued

Blog about personal themes.

Think about any personal themes you might have. They can be deep or shallow—but everyone has personal themes.

So blog about them.

For example, my personal themes are:

(a) Asiana because I grew up with a lot of things that are new and different to my blog readers
(b) humor because I’m naturally rather irreverent and like funny stuff
(c) Christian fiction because I’m an avid reader
(d) knitting because I’ve gone gaga over my new hobby
(e) my dog because I don’t have children

Cheryl Wyatt has themes of both military related things and also funny embarrassing moments for herself (her “Blush and Cringe” posts are hilarious!). Sharon Hinck has a theme of encouragement, so she blogs short encouraging devotionals rather frequently. ChristianFictionQueen blogs not only about Christian fiction but also on BBC movies and miniseries, and also on musicals and other CDs.

Look at your own personal themes and build on them. Go with them. Develop them.

Discover your personal themes.

Look at the kinds of blog posts you like to read on other people’s blogs—and write them.

Devotionals, funny stories, recipes, patterns, pictures, travel, poetry, etc. The sky’s the limit.

Visit lots of blogs and pay attention to the types of things people blog about. Pay attention to the blog posts you especially enjoy. What kinds of blog posts are they? Could you do something similar with your own spin to it?

Be observant. And then be creative.

Ask your friends and/or blog readers.

Often other people will notice trends and themes in your blogging that you might not even realize. So go ahead and ask people who regularly read your blog.

Feedback is always a good resource for someone trying to become more professional and more unique as a blogger. Feedback will help you refine your blog and make it more interesting and targeted.

Next: Building a blog readership.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Comfort reading

My friend forwarded me this really inspiring post on Murderati, which is both encouraging and energizing for writers:

Comfort reading by Toni McGee Causey

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Building a blog, part 5

Read part 4 here

Blog Content, continued

Post about your hobbies.

Most of us pursue hobbies that lots of other people around the world pursue also. So post about it on your blog.

This is a great way to add some personal touches to your blog posts, and it also draws people to your blog who have the same interests as you do.

Pull in all the things you’re interested in. Anything can make a blog post—your current knitting project, your garden’s first tomato, your spin class’s new instructor, etc.

This adds points of interest to your blog and also helps create a community between yourself and your blog readers.

Post about current events.

Blogs that post about talked-about items tend to get lots of traffic from people Googling those items. If you have something to say about some news or popular item, then blog about it.

It doesn’t have to be current news events—it can be anything people are talking about. World events or fashion, politics or cooking. Anything.

For example, when the seventh Harry Potter book was about to hit the shelves, people who blogged about it got a jump in hits because everyone wanted to read up on the new book.

Be aware that blogging about popular topics can also attract trolls—people who like to leave argumentative, denigrating, and/or downright nasty comments on blogs just for the fun of hurting someone or riling someone up.

However, blogging about popular topics can also boost your blog stats and might gain you some readers you otherwise wouldn’t have had.

And if you’re not comfortable blogging about certain events or news, don’t feel pressured to do so. Blog about what you’re comfortable blogging about.

Next: blogging to your own personality.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Building a blog, part 4

Read part 3 here

Blog Content

If your blog logistics are all correct (see previous posts), it’s the content on your blog that keeps people coming back.

Return visitors are very good.

Here are some tips for creating great content for your blog.

Be personal.

Blog readers like to hear about personal stuff about you. Anything you’re comfortable sharing.

A blog that’s purely theme or product related can be boring. Successful blogs have both information and some personal touches.

For example, in Stephanie Quilao’s Back in Skinny Jeans blog, she blogs mostly about health issues, body image encouragement, and comments on health and fashion related news on the web.

However, Steph also blogs about her own personal struggles with weight loss and body image, making her posts personal as well as informative. Her writing style is also funny and entertaining.

Be safe.

The flip side of including personal information on your blog is to also be very careful about what you post. Do not post things that are too personal, and always be aware that there are some weird/dangerous people out there.

Don’t post personal financial information, obviously. Also don’t post your home address or anything that would enable a stalker to come visit you.

Some bloggers don’t post their children or spouse’s name, either. I think this is wise.

Some bloggers don’t post their children or spouse’s picture. I think you could go either way with this—whatever makes you most comfortable. I don’t post my husband’s name, but I do post his picture on my blog. It’s up to you what you decide to do.

So while it’s good to include some personal things about yourself in your blog posts, also be smart and safe. Don’t post information that you wouldn’t want a perfect stranger to have about you.

Next: More on what you can blog about.
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