Thursday, May 25, 2017

Research often gets a bad rap in fiction-writing circles. Everyone seems to know at least one aspiring author who got lost on the Planet Library, having followed one interesting tidbit after another deep into the stacks, never to return. Never to actually turn the acquired knowledge into a story.

No one wants to become that guy.

One the other extreme, some consider doing any research a waste of time, since fiction is supposed to be "all make believe." But make believe that doesn't have some grounding in researched reality will likely be drawn from your limited experience, or worse, from cliches.

Somewhere between these extremes of no research and nothing but research is the sweet spot of doing some research. As Robert McKee says in Story, “No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.”

Today, I'd like to touch on a few areas of research that will help you build fantastic, memorable characters. When you take the time to know your characters' worlds deeply, you'll be able to develop more dynamic plots and relationships, and you'll be more equipped to develop each character's unique voice in dialogue.

Knowledge base

In order to write realistic characters and create believable plots, you need to know what your characters know—or at least a big enough slice to accurately represent their daily activities and thought patterns.

How educated are your characters? What special areas of knowledge or training do they have?
Read up as much as possible on topics that would interest your character. Educate yourself about the routines and general lifestyle of their particular vocation, whether an elementary school student or astrophysicist, a milkmaid or Baronet. Use written resources to build your general knowledge, develop questions to ask experts, and create lists of things you’d like to observe.

Cultural/historical influences 

If you’re writing a protagonist who isn’t an autobiographical stand-in for yourself, chances are this person has a different history and may be shaped by different cultural influences. She might be from another generation, another socioeconomic class, another geographical region, another subculture.

Familiarize yourself with important historic events that happened during their lifetime, as well as the lifetime of key family members (parents, siblings, grandparents). You might be surprised especially when writing younger characters: events that shaped your life may have no relevance to them at all. Characters from previous generations might have had contact with technology you’ve never heard of, and be deeply shaped by problems long forgotten in our day (are you noticing a pattern here?).

People from other cultures have different sets of stars and heroes. They value different virtues, and overlook (or punish) different vices. They have different ways of interpreting history and their own circumstances than you might looking in from the outside. So dig in. Get to know your character’s cultural world.

Your goal should be to understand your character’s surrounding influences and the choices s/he is likely to make based on those influences.

Family dynamics

No matter what genre you write, it’s helpful to do some reading in the social sciences. Because everyone is typically born or adopted into a family, research on family dynamics can be useful.

Some helpful sub-categories to explore:
Marriage dynamics
Birth order and personality
Sibling dynamics
Intergenerational influence and conflict
Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history

If you write about a futuristic setting, these works may become jumping-off points for world building. Consider a world in which no middle children exist, or where marital bonds are for a fixed period, say ten years. How would that affect individual families and culture at large? Speculative fiction writers might also find it helpful to read about family dynamics in ages past, such as texts from ancient Rome about family life.

Associations

Associations are “tip of the mind” thoughts that, like icebergs, show only a portion of the whole story. Most of the mass is hidden under the surface, whether it’s a mass of history or emotion. Associations can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. Associations show up in the way characters describe things, and especially how they make comparisons, such as similes and metaphors. Here are two examples from my novel Never Gone:

Images burst in my mind like sudden sun through stained glass.

This person is someone who frequents:
a. sport arenas
b. churches
c. suburban malls

“Crikey,” Uncle says. “We’re in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.”

This person is...
a. a man of the soil who works with his hands
b. an Irish dancer who dreams of becoming the next Michael Flatley
c. an educated bloke who has studied Classical literature

The simile and metaphor in each of these examples pours a great deal of back story into the characters without my having to tell you “Dani grew up attending church every Sunday without fail,” or “Uncle Philip took a First in Classics before attending law school.” As a reader, I’d be bored being told these rather dull facts. It’s far more interesting to see how life experiences shape the characters’ minds.

In the second example, I used a particular kind of association, a reference to other literature (or film or music) called an allusion. Allusions can be used strategically to bring themes of the other work to bear on yours. My example alludes to Dante’s Inferno. In it, the eighth circle of hell (ditch nine) is for “sowers of discord”—people who cause conflict and dissension between others—and their fate is to be cut to pieces. This is thematically important to the story, and the uncle’s role especially.

Before you begin researching associations, brainstorm to determine a few key environmental pieces for each character, whether they are career, family of origin, hobby, or other influence. Having more than one will make for an interesting, multi-layered personality, rather than a repetitive, one-note character. These elements should be important for how the character interacts with others and move the plot along, otherwise they will become tangents that muddy the story rather than enhance it.

Research the environmental factor and record key terms, images, events, allusions, etc. that can be worked into your character’s conversations and thought life.

Which of these areas of research intrigues you most? What things do you need to research to make your current project's characters more vibrant and realistic?

Thursday, May 25, 2017 Laurel Garver
Research often gets a bad rap in fiction-writing circles. Everyone seems to know at least one aspiring author who got lost on the Planet Library, having followed one interesting tidbit after another deep into the stacks, never to return. Never to actually turn the acquired knowledge into a story.

No one wants to become that guy.

One the other extreme, some consider doing any research a waste of time, since fiction is supposed to be "all make believe." But make believe that doesn't have some grounding in researched reality will likely be drawn from your limited experience, or worse, from cliches.

Somewhere between these extremes of no research and nothing but research is the sweet spot of doing some research. As Robert McKee says in Story, “No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.”

Today, I'd like to touch on a few areas of research that will help you build fantastic, memorable characters. When you take the time to know your characters' worlds deeply, you'll be able to develop more dynamic plots and relationships, and you'll be more equipped to develop each character's unique voice in dialogue.

Knowledge base

In order to write realistic characters and create believable plots, you need to know what your characters know—or at least a big enough slice to accurately represent their daily activities and thought patterns.

How educated are your characters? What special areas of knowledge or training do they have?
Read up as much as possible on topics that would interest your character. Educate yourself about the routines and general lifestyle of their particular vocation, whether an elementary school student or astrophysicist, a milkmaid or Baronet. Use written resources to build your general knowledge, develop questions to ask experts, and create lists of things you’d like to observe.

Cultural/historical influences 

If you’re writing a protagonist who isn’t an autobiographical stand-in for yourself, chances are this person has a different history and may be shaped by different cultural influences. She might be from another generation, another socioeconomic class, another geographical region, another subculture.

Familiarize yourself with important historic events that happened during their lifetime, as well as the lifetime of key family members (parents, siblings, grandparents). You might be surprised especially when writing younger characters: events that shaped your life may have no relevance to them at all. Characters from previous generations might have had contact with technology you’ve never heard of, and be deeply shaped by problems long forgotten in our day (are you noticing a pattern here?).

People from other cultures have different sets of stars and heroes. They value different virtues, and overlook (or punish) different vices. They have different ways of interpreting history and their own circumstances than you might looking in from the outside. So dig in. Get to know your character’s cultural world.

Your goal should be to understand your character’s surrounding influences and the choices s/he is likely to make based on those influences.

Family dynamics

No matter what genre you write, it’s helpful to do some reading in the social sciences. Because everyone is typically born or adopted into a family, research on family dynamics can be useful.

Some helpful sub-categories to explore:
Marriage dynamics
Birth order and personality
Sibling dynamics
Intergenerational influence and conflict
Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history

If you write about a futuristic setting, these works may become jumping-off points for world building. Consider a world in which no middle children exist, or where marital bonds are for a fixed period, say ten years. How would that affect individual families and culture at large? Speculative fiction writers might also find it helpful to read about family dynamics in ages past, such as texts from ancient Rome about family life.

Associations

Associations are “tip of the mind” thoughts that, like icebergs, show only a portion of the whole story. Most of the mass is hidden under the surface, whether it’s a mass of history or emotion. Associations can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. Associations show up in the way characters describe things, and especially how they make comparisons, such as similes and metaphors. Here are two examples from my novel Never Gone:

Images burst in my mind like sudden sun through stained glass.

This person is someone who frequents:
a. sport arenas
b. churches
c. suburban malls

“Crikey,” Uncle says. “We’re in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.”

This person is...
a. a man of the soil who works with his hands
b. an Irish dancer who dreams of becoming the next Michael Flatley
c. an educated bloke who has studied Classical literature

The simile and metaphor in each of these examples pours a great deal of back story into the characters without my having to tell you “Dani grew up attending church every Sunday without fail,” or “Uncle Philip took a First in Classics before attending law school.” As a reader, I’d be bored being told these rather dull facts. It’s far more interesting to see how life experiences shape the characters’ minds.

In the second example, I used a particular kind of association, a reference to other literature (or film or music) called an allusion. Allusions can be used strategically to bring themes of the other work to bear on yours. My example alludes to Dante’s Inferno. In it, the eighth circle of hell (ditch nine) is for “sowers of discord”—people who cause conflict and dissension between others—and their fate is to be cut to pieces. This is thematically important to the story, and the uncle’s role especially.

Before you begin researching associations, brainstorm to determine a few key environmental pieces for each character, whether they are career, family of origin, hobby, or other influence. Having more than one will make for an interesting, multi-layered personality, rather than a repetitive, one-note character. These elements should be important for how the character interacts with others and move the plot along, otherwise they will become tangents that muddy the story rather than enhance it.

Research the environmental factor and record key terms, images, events, allusions, etc. that can be worked into your character’s conversations and thought life.

Which of these areas of research intrigues you most? What things do you need to research to make your current project's characters more vibrant and realistic?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

image credit: Felicia Santos for morguefile
As the school year enters its final weeks and summer fun is so close around the corner, homework is about the last thing kids feel like doing. I don't know about you other parents out there, but homework battles in my house have gone from bad to worse in my home of late.

Research nerd that I am, I went on the hunt for advice about how to get through the final marking period, ending strong without bloodshed. I tripped across a short e-book by life coach Dennis Bumgarner, Motivating Your Intelligent but Unmotivated Teenager.  What I found most striking in his approach to the whole "movtivating" and "unmotivated" issue is his breakdown of why sticks and carrots rarely work, and also WHEN motivation happens.

Hold onto your hats, because this concept is a game changer:

"Performance precedes motivation." 

Bumgarner argues that beginning a small piece of a task will motivate continued steps. Not cheerleading. Not rewards and punishments. Not lectures or logic.

Doing.

I think this insight has broad applications for nearly every step of the writing, editing, submission, design/formatting, marketing parts of creating written work.

Trying to "get in the mood" to write or chasing one motivational strategy after another is a waste of time. Simply start a little something. You only discover the intrinsic rewards of writing by actually writing, not by dreaming about writing, talking about it with other writers, pinning pithy quotes on Pinterest, or whatever other supposedly motivation-building (but useless) strategy you've attempted.

Write some words, any words. Flow comes when you overcome that initial inertia.

What do you think of the maxim "performance precedes motivation"? Can you think of instances where this idea has proven true for you?
Thursday, May 18, 2017 Laurel Garver
image credit: Felicia Santos for morguefile
As the school year enters its final weeks and summer fun is so close around the corner, homework is about the last thing kids feel like doing. I don't know about you other parents out there, but homework battles in my house have gone from bad to worse in my home of late.

Research nerd that I am, I went on the hunt for advice about how to get through the final marking period, ending strong without bloodshed. I tripped across a short e-book by life coach Dennis Bumgarner, Motivating Your Intelligent but Unmotivated Teenager.  What I found most striking in his approach to the whole "movtivating" and "unmotivated" issue is his breakdown of why sticks and carrots rarely work, and also WHEN motivation happens.

Hold onto your hats, because this concept is a game changer:

"Performance precedes motivation." 

Bumgarner argues that beginning a small piece of a task will motivate continued steps. Not cheerleading. Not rewards and punishments. Not lectures or logic.

Doing.

I think this insight has broad applications for nearly every step of the writing, editing, submission, design/formatting, marketing parts of creating written work.

Trying to "get in the mood" to write or chasing one motivational strategy after another is a waste of time. Simply start a little something. You only discover the intrinsic rewards of writing by actually writing, not by dreaming about writing, talking about it with other writers, pinning pithy quotes on Pinterest, or whatever other supposedly motivation-building (but useless) strategy you've attempted.

Write some words, any words. Flow comes when you overcome that initial inertia.

What do you think of the maxim "performance precedes motivation"? Can you think of instances where this idea has proven true for you?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Creative slumps can happen to anyone who strives to bring creative works into the world, be they written works, visual art, music, or handicrafts. Slumps can come on slowly or all at once. Often you aren't entirely aware you're in a slump until you've spent some time there, stuck and unmotivated.

Slump thinking sounds like this:

"I'm so stressed out, I can't focus."
"My brain is so full of noise, I can't hear my characters."
"These ideas are just a big mess."
"This project feels rangy and shapeless."
"I can't remember why I ever thought this was a good story idea."
"Why can't I make any progress?"
"I want to write, but feel adrift every time I sit down."
"I used to have things to say. I'm not sure what I believe or care about right now."
"I should be farther along than this. I'm such a hack/poseur/failure."

Slumps tend to happen after you've expended a lot of energy in one direction (say finishing and releasing a new book) and in the midst of crises in your personal life.

Very possibly it's a temperament thing, that some bounce back quickly from burnout and/or crises, and others of us slip into slumps.

If you're one of those bouncy types, I beg you not to douse your slumped friends with buckets of positive thinking mantras. They make us feel worse--inadequate and deeply flawed, rather than simply different from you. Instead, remind us that you care. Listen without dispensing advice. Invite us to join you in some activity we can enjoy together that's not too demanding--taking a hike or walking tour, poking around cute shops, playing cards or board games, visiting an art opening, crafts festival, outdoor concert, or mellow jazz club. Something fun that gets us out of the house--and out of our own heads for a few hours.

Make no mistake, slumps can morph pretty quickly into full blown depression. If you're prone to it, seek professional help. If your slump feels more like creativity blues--you're functioning okay in other areas of your life, but aren't creating at all--some self-care may be your road out of the Slough of Despond.

Here are some ways you can help yourself:

Go someplace new

Get off the couch or out of the desk chair and leave the house--explore someplace new, even if it's a ten minute stroll down a side street in your neighborhood you've never been on before.  Take a slightly different route to work, try a new restaurant, shop at a different market. When "something different" feels beyond your grasp, little forays out of your routine can be a powerful way to prove that mental message wrong--different is ten feet from boring, old, usual, not ten thousand miles. And you can get there in a few steps.

Care for your body

Times of stress can make it difficult to maintain an exercise program or sleep schedule. Stress eating can leave you even more lethargic. Look for small ways to begin giving your body the care it needs, starting with good sleep hygiene, then good food choices, simple exercise (like walking), and a little pampering like a haircut or new outfit. Some change can work from the outside in.

Seek some small accomplishments

Emerging from a slump is a gradual process. Look around for a few small things you've been avoiding and accomplish those things--whether it's making some overdue doctor appointments, weeding that ugly patch in the corner of your yard, or reorganizing a dresser drawer. That sense of pride can energize increasingly larger projects.

Reconnect with old loves

Slumps can feel like a source of joy has taken off, abandoned you. Think about long-lost hobbies or enthusiasms you haven't tried in a while, whether it's going back to earliest memories of finger painting or biking with your elementary pals, playing an instrument you gave up after high school, or a craft you've forgotten about like knitting, sewing, or leather craft, decoupage or beading. Creativity begets creativity.


Draw on sources of strength

Connect with people who love you, like an long-term friend, a sibling, or a grandparent. Chances are after a brief phone call you'll realize how deeply you are valued and valuable to others. Pick up an inspiring book like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, or Rising Strong by Brene Brown. Resume or take up new spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation, or scripture reading. Talk to a counselor or mentor.


Take baby steps with your dreaded project

In the peak of a slump, you're going to view everything about your unfinished writing project with a jaundiced eye. But once you've begun the process of emerging from it. look for ways to reconnect with it. Glance over your notes, and perhaps organize them. Research some aspect of the story, whether it's details about your hero's job, the psychology of the family dynamic in  your story, floor plans of the buildings in your setting, or cultural influences on your characters. Create an idea board on Pinterest. Brainstorm concepts for the cover design. Interview your characters or write journal entries in their voices. Bit by bit, these fictional people and their world will come alive for you again.

Have you ever suffered a creative slump? What helped you emerge from it?
Thursday, May 04, 2017 Laurel Garver
Creative slumps can happen to anyone who strives to bring creative works into the world, be they written works, visual art, music, or handicrafts. Slumps can come on slowly or all at once. Often you aren't entirely aware you're in a slump until you've spent some time there, stuck and unmotivated.

Slump thinking sounds like this:

"I'm so stressed out, I can't focus."
"My brain is so full of noise, I can't hear my characters."
"These ideas are just a big mess."
"This project feels rangy and shapeless."
"I can't remember why I ever thought this was a good story idea."
"Why can't I make any progress?"
"I want to write, but feel adrift every time I sit down."
"I used to have things to say. I'm not sure what I believe or care about right now."
"I should be farther along than this. I'm such a hack/poseur/failure."

Slumps tend to happen after you've expended a lot of energy in one direction (say finishing and releasing a new book) and in the midst of crises in your personal life.

Very possibly it's a temperament thing, that some bounce back quickly from burnout and/or crises, and others of us slip into slumps.

If you're one of those bouncy types, I beg you not to douse your slumped friends with buckets of positive thinking mantras. They make us feel worse--inadequate and deeply flawed, rather than simply different from you. Instead, remind us that you care. Listen without dispensing advice. Invite us to join you in some activity we can enjoy together that's not too demanding--taking a hike or walking tour, poking around cute shops, playing cards or board games, visiting an art opening, crafts festival, outdoor concert, or mellow jazz club. Something fun that gets us out of the house--and out of our own heads for a few hours.

Make no mistake, slumps can morph pretty quickly into full blown depression. If you're prone to it, seek professional help. If your slump feels more like creativity blues--you're functioning okay in other areas of your life, but aren't creating at all--some self-care may be your road out of the Slough of Despond.

Here are some ways you can help yourself:

Go someplace new

Get off the couch or out of the desk chair and leave the house--explore someplace new, even if it's a ten minute stroll down a side street in your neighborhood you've never been on before.  Take a slightly different route to work, try a new restaurant, shop at a different market. When "something different" feels beyond your grasp, little forays out of your routine can be a powerful way to prove that mental message wrong--different is ten feet from boring, old, usual, not ten thousand miles. And you can get there in a few steps.

Care for your body

Times of stress can make it difficult to maintain an exercise program or sleep schedule. Stress eating can leave you even more lethargic. Look for small ways to begin giving your body the care it needs, starting with good sleep hygiene, then good food choices, simple exercise (like walking), and a little pampering like a haircut or new outfit. Some change can work from the outside in.

Seek some small accomplishments

Emerging from a slump is a gradual process. Look around for a few small things you've been avoiding and accomplish those things--whether it's making some overdue doctor appointments, weeding that ugly patch in the corner of your yard, or reorganizing a dresser drawer. That sense of pride can energize increasingly larger projects.

Reconnect with old loves

Slumps can feel like a source of joy has taken off, abandoned you. Think about long-lost hobbies or enthusiasms you haven't tried in a while, whether it's going back to earliest memories of finger painting or biking with your elementary pals, playing an instrument you gave up after high school, or a craft you've forgotten about like knitting, sewing, or leather craft, decoupage or beading. Creativity begets creativity.


Draw on sources of strength

Connect with people who love you, like an long-term friend, a sibling, or a grandparent. Chances are after a brief phone call you'll realize how deeply you are valued and valuable to others. Pick up an inspiring book like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, or Rising Strong by Brene Brown. Resume or take up new spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation, or scripture reading. Talk to a counselor or mentor.


Take baby steps with your dreaded project

In the peak of a slump, you're going to view everything about your unfinished writing project with a jaundiced eye. But once you've begun the process of emerging from it. look for ways to reconnect with it. Glance over your notes, and perhaps organize them. Research some aspect of the story, whether it's details about your hero's job, the psychology of the family dynamic in  your story, floor plans of the buildings in your setting, or cultural influences on your characters. Create an idea board on Pinterest. Brainstorm concepts for the cover design. Interview your characters or write journal entries in their voices. Bit by bit, these fictional people and their world will come alive for you again.

Have you ever suffered a creative slump? What helped you emerge from it?