Posted in Exercises, writing

Exercise: Defining Unique Characters

Characters are people, and like people, they should have unique qualities to them that help them stand apart from anyone around them. This might be a bad habit, or a particular turn of phrase, but something should help your characters stand out. A quirk or a habit they have.

Building these quirks and habits doesn’t need to be hard. It also makes characterization easier when you have a bank of features to fall back on for each character.

As an exercise: To help you build a bank of features, make a list of characters you want to flesh out more and answer these questions:

  • What’s one bad habit they have?
  • What’s one item they always have on them?
  • What do they call their grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents? Which set of grandparents gets fun names like Grammy and Gramps, and which ones get Grandad and Grandmom?
  • What is their favorite treat?
  • What do they do when they’re nervous? (Think about this one carefully, some people stammer, others fidget, and some people even flush when they’re nervous. Your characters should reflect this.)
  • How do they react to being shouted at suddenly? (Again, think about this, but don’t forget to reflect on their background. Someone who’s been abused will react very differently to someone who’s grown up in a safe, noisy household).
  • What are they likely to collect? Books, stamps, figurines, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
  • What do they usually say to greet someone?
  • What do they say when they’re saying goodbye to a friend?
  • How do they communicate affection without speaking?
Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Word Association

Word association games are great because they let you ignore the usual rules of grammar and sentence structure. The base idea of a word association game is to say the first word that comes to mind. So, for example if someone says blue and your first thought is berry, then you’d say berry. The next person might say pancake, and so on and so forth. They’re a great way to get your creativity flowing.

Thankfully there’s also two to play them!

Option 1 Grab a partner or two and set a timer for five minutes. Pick up the nearest book, open to a random page and use the first word on that page as your starting word. Go back and forth until the timer goes off.

Option 2 If you don’t have a partner, grab a thesaurus and set a timer for ten minutes. Again, grab the nearest book, open to a random page and use the first word on that page as your starting word. Then pick synonyms for that word, looking up each synonym and choosing a word from their synonyms. When the timer goes off, compare your starting word and your ending word to see how far your association traveled.

Now that you have a list of words–get writing! Try to write one sentence per word and make a coherent story out of your word list.

Posted in writing

Word Confusion

There are some words that are all too easy to get confused. While there are entire lists debating how to keep them straight and offering helpful tips and tricks for pairs like lose and loose, there’s always a few more than slip through. And, dependent on which words you know best, you might be surprised at the ones that get mixed up. Here’s a few.

Definite vs Defiant 
Definite means something is clear and obvious. It’s applied to things like ideas or of a person’s certainty. Defiant however is the state of opposing an authority. It’s applied to things like young rebels and angry mobs.  You can keep them straight by remembering that defiant has an a to show anger.

Affect vs Effect 
The case of affect and effect is easy to understand: they’re one letter off from each other, and they both mean a change. Affect is a verb meaning to change or impact, where as effect is a noun meaning the end result of a change. If you can remember affect as the action, and effect as the end result, they’re a little easier to keep straight.

Lose vs Loose 
These two are ones I miss all the time. Lose is to fail or misplace. Loose applies to things that aren’t tight, or are unsecured (such as a loose dog). Loose has an extra o, making space for all the things that aren’t tightened.

Advice vs Advise 
These both have to do with giving opinions or information with the intent of guiding someone. However, advice is is a noun you receive from others where as advise is the verb you do when you give advice. Remember, take advice from a council and advise with a soft voice.

Desert vs Dessert 
Don’t get these two mixed up when you’re looking for a late night snack. Desert is a dry place of land. Dessert is a sweet treat. It’s easy to keep track: you want more dessert, which is why it has an extra s.

There are plenty of other words that get mixed up. If you’re ever in doubt about the word you’re using, try checking synonyms: if you get words that would make no sense in the context of your sentence, chances are you’re using the wrong word. It might also help for you to make a list of words you mix up personally, and make sure to check that you’re using the correct one when you’re editing.

Posted in General

How to Be a Pantser

No, this is not a guide on how to properly pants others. Rather, this is a guide on how to survive being a pantser-type writer. You may have also heard them referred to as discovery writers or gardeners. Regardless of the name, the idea is the same: these are the writers that dive into a story without a plan.

Before anyone starts on which type of writer is better, I’m going to stop you. There is no one ‘better’ type of writer. A lot of how you find a story best comes down to how your brain is wired. Pantsers are not inherently more creative than plotters. Plotters are not automatically better organized than pantsers. It’s not a polarity, it’s a spectrum. Most writers don’t fall solidly into one group or the other, but sit somewhere in the middle, working with a mix of both approaches: A little random writing, a couple of guides to keep them straight and an end goal that sounds something like ‘the end’.

That said I, personally, tend to be more of a pantser. Given an outline and I can write, but I find the story tedious. That comes down to feeling as if the story has already been told. Part of the delight in being a pantser is finding a new story, with new twists and turns.

There’s downfalls that go with that however. For one, a lack of ideas on any story can make it tough to get through it. The other part of that is that while I might know what happens six or seven scenes down the road, I’m clueless on how to get there from where the story is currently.

Lesson one: To be a pantser, keep inspiration close by.  This doesn’t need to be clear-cut ideas either. It might be something like a mood board, or a playlist of songs. When it doubt, I love prompt generators to help kick start other ideas and help piece things together. Fashion photography also tends to have dynamic poses and unusual settings you can use to create characters and scenes. Try a quick freewrite based on the idea that the photo is a perfectly normal day for the character.

You can also collect inspiration from every-day places. Out of context conversations are great fodder for sparking ideas. When out and and about, try to come up with stories for each of the people you see on the street. What do they look like? What could be going on in their world?

Along with lesson one, there’s lesson two: Rules don’t matter. Stuck in the middle of a scene? Throw in something ridiculous, or unexpected, or completely illogical. You can make it work later when you edit. Your goal for the early drafts is to just get them down. It’s much easier to cut out parts that don’t work than it is to shoehorn in a scene that does work later.

Which, brings us to the third and final lesson: blindfold your editor. Every single writer has an inner editor, and they often get cranky about things like grammar, glaring plot inconsistencies and broken character arcs. Your job as a pantser is not to listen to that inner editor. Your job is just to write so you have something to edit later. That’s not always easy, but there are plenty of tricks you can employ.

  • Blocks of text are great for hiding errors. Your eyes are naturally inclined to skim over them, rather than try to read. Try justifying your setting and removing any indents. Don’t forget to remove any spaces between paragraphs. It’s easy enough in most word processing programs to adjust these again later when you want to edit.
  • If your processor underlines mistakes in a certain color, change your font to match that color. When everything looks the same, it’s harder to pick out individual mistakes.
  • Have a seperate list of notes for things to look at when you do the next draft. These don’t need to be detailed notes, but a quick jot will usually help satisfy your inner editor about any structural mistakes.

What are your favorite pantser techniques?

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Culture Introduction

Now that you’ve got a world and maybe even a city or two to populate your world, you might need to think about culture. In very broad terms, culture is the customs, arts and intellectual achievements of a given region. Culture is in itself, a broad term because of how much in encompasses. Although culture is has an extensive reach and is deeply engrained in society, society only dictates the people and hierarches of those living in a particular area. Culture dictates the beliefs, cuisine, art and morals of that same group.

One form culture takes is that of customs. These might be the customs of social behaviors such as etiquette or manners. Custom also includes tradition, such a how you celebrate a holiday or even just a birthday. Here in the US, we tip servers and bartenders, it’s expected and often when it’s not done waitstaff will grump about being stiffed–largely because it’s so ingrained in our culture their wages are  based on getting those tips. Over in England, tipping isn’t done.  It’s one social custom that changes between culture, and there are plenty of other examples as well. Handshakes, greetings, even terms of endearment vary across cultures.

Another place form of culture is in the arts. Not only is this in paintings, sculpture and literature, but also in the music and performing arts such as dance and theatre. Music is an exceptional case for this. Latin music uses a variety of percussion instruments such as bongos, the guiro, and pandeiro among others alongside string instruments similar to guitars, which create lively beats. Heading into music from China and Japan, we find more string and wind instruments such as the dizi, erhu, shakuhachi, and the taiko drum, resulting in more somber and calming music. Both types of music are beautiful, but very different from one another.

The final place for culture I’d like to mention is in intellectual achievement. This doesn’t mean in how smart a culture is. This applies to the beliefs, laws and morals they hold to be true. That leaves a lot of room for variation, and a lot of conflict between cultures and nations.

Also keep in mind that culture is a learned thing. Most cultural behaviors are taught to us by our peers. These aren’t just the manners we learn from parents like please and thank you, but the jokes we learn from our friends we wouldn’t share in front of our grandparents.