The Writer and–Ooh, Shiny!

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I was going to title this post the Agony of Choice, but let’s be real. No one wants to talk about agony, right?  And we are all familiar with “Squirrel Syndrome.”

Sometimes a shiny is just a shiny. It attracts our attention and we wander after it as happily as a child chases a butterfly. However, we are soon back with our project, the shiny object now a mere smile on our lips as we forge ahead on our original track. To carry the analogy further, most of us know that catching those butterflies can damage them, so we have learned to wait patiently for them to land on their own.

Sometimes, though, the shiny (or squirrel, depending on your preference) is a mask. It’s not just when we can’t decide between existing options . . . this character or that plot, this project or that. Those moment s of indecisiveness are hard enough when the choices are clear-cut. It’s when we have too many really good ideas worth pursuing to settle on any of them. It’s like being in a field filled with butterflies, mesmerized and still, as they flutter, land on us, flutter again. It’s a beautiful place to be, but man is it hard to pick a favorite, you know?

When so many ideas have so much potential, it feels so impossible to pick just one. So we stand there in the agony of choice.

It’s all well and good when the options are butterflies, beautiful to watch. But, on occasion, those pretty wings turn into a cage (or worse, hail or stinging rain) and we become trapped, frozen,   That’s the agony. That’s the pain of indecision.

If you have ended up there simply because you are afraid you’ll lose all the other ideas if you choose one, there’s good news. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The writer is never short of ideas. They come from everywhere. They land like fairy dust on the pillow, the breakfast table, the conference room. All we have to do is sweep them up. Only the new writers are worried about lack of ideas or losing those they have captured. More ideas will come to us than any of us could write in a lifetime. Grasping this truth leaves us free to pursue one idea, knowing dozens are lining up for our attention later.

If you ended up there due to fear (fear of producing, fear of judgment, fear of choosing), there’s also good news. Either your drive to write will overcome fear long enough for you to get started (and begin negotiations with that fear) or that fear will distract you from writing all together. Either way, you’ll move beyond this point.

The true agony, for me, comes when I’ve developed a couple of ideas enough to see where they are headed and what their potential is. I like them all, the characters are active, the plots creep into my dreams. I would count it a great success if I only had one, or a great one and a good one. The choice is easier then, of course. Once in a while I have even managed to combine two of them into a stronger story. My painful indecision comes when two or three are actively campaigning for my attention.

I think it’s helpful for writers to have a clear idea of their goals at moments like this. If you plan to write only historical romance, or to focus on science fiction, it’s simpler to eliminate all the good ideas that don’t fit. If you are publishing your work, continuing your series probably carries more weight than writing a stand-alone novel. Knowing your goals gives you something by which to judge each idea and concept.

To make the process easier, I’ve developed a list of questions to answer when I am stuck in the agony of choice. I’ll draw columns for each idea and use the questions as rows. My goal is to find out which story has the most meaning for me personally, (which is usually directly correlated to how much it make me uncomfortable), and which seems to have the most “juice.” Some ideas look fantastic when first developed, but not all of them have the juice to carry a full novel.

Every writer develops their own list of questions. I’m sharing a few of mine in case you need a starting point.

  • Which of these stories am I dreaming about?
  • Which of these stories pops into my head most often?
  • Which of these stories feel like they can wait?
  • Which of these stories brings emotions to the surface?
  • Which of these main characters is most/least like me?
  • What is the Truth for each of these stories/characters?
  • Which of these stories or characters makes me most uncomfortable?
  • Which character makes the most profound change in their arc?

You get the idea. I use about 16 questions on average. Generally speaking, it’s worked for me to go through a process like this. What’s most telling (and kind of maddening, in a good way) is when I write a lot about one idea and feel it’s the best option only to throw it all out the window and run after the other idea full speed. I don’t think I’d have found the hidden commitment for it if I hadn’t put it through the process.

Squirrel Syndrome gets us all at one time or another. The Agony of Choice will, too. In both cases, however, we can take control.


How have you resolved your Agony of Choice? If prone to Squirrel Syndrome, how often do you let it pull you off course?

 

 

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The Sport of People Watching

(c) hotblack

(c) hotblack

Characters abound in everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction. One just has to know how to find them.  Human interaction floods everyday senses, and for most people, the experience passes without a thought. But not writers. Not writers. We feed off the essence of other humans, absorbing personalities, quirks, facial reactions, likes / dislikes, features, looks, clothing. Every day human beings taking shape and form in a writer’s mind to influence characters that reside in poems, stories, novels.

All authors should partake in the event of “people watching”. It’s a rather addicting sport once you start, and one that can be done at any time, anywhere in public.

There is very little equipment needed to partake in people watching. All one needs is their favorite writing tools:  Pen & notebook, tablet, laptop, smart phone, blood on your t-shirt… well maybe not that last one. Best to remain inconspicuous whilst people watching. The goal is NOT to draw attention.

How to people watch:

Essentially you have to become a wee bit “stalker-ish”.

  • Find a nice comfy place to sit,
  • Arrange yourself with your favorite writing tool,
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself,
  • Hone in on a subject,

And then take it all in:

  • Observe interactions with one another.
    • How are two people communicating? Are they laughing, arguing, staring romantically into each other’s eyes?
    • How does a large crowd of people act? Are they boisterous, jovial, fighting, or singing their hearts out?
    • How does a person on their own act? Is she tucked away in the corner, is he confidently out in the open, is she reading a book, is he staring at his smartphone?
  • Watch facial expressions.
    • What kind of look is the subject making?
    • What is causing them to react in such a way?
  • Pay attention to little movements, like brushing hair behind an ear or fiddling with a ring.
    • What is motivating those actions?
    • What kind of emotion does the person emit when they make these motions?
  • Listen to conversations.
    • What kind of conversation is it? Friendly chatter, romantic sayings, heated arguments?
    • How is each person handling their side?
    • What kind of reactions or little movements are the subjects making during the conversation?
  • Inhale and take in the scent of the atmosphere around you.
    • Is the smell of the location influencing your subjects, like in a coffee shop or bakery?
  • Feel the temperature of the location.
    • Is it too hot because there are too many people around?
    • Is it too cold because there are only a few?

What are the benefits?

There are too many benefits from people watching than I could possibly list, however, for the context of today, the main benefit is that people watching helps to develop characters and build scenes. It provides a catalyst of inspiration to those who may be struggling to get a character formed, or it provides enhancement for others who are trying to write a wider of characters. Scenery can also be fleshed out whilst observing people. Since an environment has an impact on how one is acting, pull some of that influence from the scene in reality to enhance a scene in your fiction, connecting that with how your character exists within that scene.

How often should this be done?

As often as need be. The thing is, once you become obsessed with the sport of people watching, you sometimes struggle to turn off the channel. You will soon catch yourself observing everything and anything around you. And it will all become embedded in your brain. Not only is people watching going to help you grow as an author, it is also going to help you grow as a person. You will learn to better analyze those around you.

So go forth and take in all that people watching has to offer.


Where are some of your favorite places to people watch? What are some of the most bizarre things that you have observed that influenced a character in your fiction?

 

Developing Personal Characteristics for Your Character

What's In Your Character's Wallet?Some characters are shy or too private to get to know easily. One way to get to know your character and develop their personal characteristics is to use what I call the “What’s In” technique. Just ask the following questions. Think about the answers and take notes.

What is in his/her closet? What kinds, styles, and colors of clothing hang there? Any memorabilia stored on the shelves? Is the closet organized or chaotic? Wire, plastic, or wooden hangers? Are there dry cleaning bags? Anything kept hidden at the back? What about dresser drawers? What is kept beneath socks or winter sweaters? What sort of undergarments and sleepwear do you find? In what colors and fabrics? What do these spaces and clothing tell you about your character?

What is in his/her purse or wallet? Look in every pocket. Are there photos? Phone numbers? Ticket stubs? How many credit cards? What are their limits and balances? What membership cards do you see? Stores, restaurants, gym? Is there a library card? Security access passes? How used or worn are any of the cards? Did you find anything unusual? Is the wallet/purse always on your character’s person or casually stored? What is the quality of the wallet or style of handbag? What do these things tell you?

What is in his/her car? Start with make, model, and year. What color is the car? What color is the upholstery? Is it cloth, leather, or vinyl? Is the car messy or fully detailed? What’s in the glove box? The console? Which radio stations are programmed? Are there luxury add-ons like GPS, Onstar, satellite radio? What’s on the floor on the passenger side? In the back seat? How does your character feel about the car? Is it a tool or is it a status symbol? Are they regular about maintenance? Does the car have any mechanical or electrical issues? How common is the make and model in the same town? What can you learn with this information?

What is in his/her desk drawers at work? (If the character doesn’t have a job, substitute a junk drawer). Are there any office supplies your character hoards such as paper clips, pens, or staples? Where are personal items kept? What sort? What sort of snacks are in the drawers and how fresh? Is the desk shared or used only by your character? Is it organized or messy? Sit at the desk and describe all you see. Open each drawer. Look in each cubby. Examine the desk top and every item on it. What does your character reveal about personality and attitude about the job?

If you like, extend questions like these to other areas of your character’s life such as medicine cabinets, bedside tables, pockets, lockers, backpacks, whatever you can think of that might contain personal, professional, and hobby items belonging to your character.


What is the most unusual item in your wallet or purse? What does it say about you?

Your Hero Has Two Brains

Your Hero Has Two BrainsHow many times have you read a novel and been annoyed because one of the characters makes a stupid decision? You know it’s stupid. The author knows it’s stupid.

But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. She thinks it’s smart. She reasons it all out using horrible logic and comes to a stupid decision, because the author needed her to make a stupid decision so as to add some plot twist to the story.

What’s gone wrong is that the author got lazy. He knows that people make bad decisions all the time. He needs a bad decision to get his character in trouble.

And he lets the character use bad logic to reach that bad decision. He makes the character be stupid.

But that just makes the author look stupid.

It’s the wrong way to make the right thing happen.

Yes, you absolutely must throw your characters into danger. Over and over. Your characters must do stupid things.

But they’d better do them for the right reasons.

And yes, there can be a good solid reason for behaving irrationally.

I’ve just finished reading an amazing book on what makes people do stupid things. The title of the book is THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.

The author is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who never took a single course in economics, yet won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Kahneman has spent his long career studying why people do things. Why do they sometimes make irrational decisions? (The conventional wisdom among economists for many years was that people act in their own best interest. Kahneman and his collaborators showed that people often don’t.)

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the past year. If you’re a novelist and you care about how people think, you need to read this book.

It’s a long book, but it’s not hard to read. Prepare to be astonished.

In this article I’ll give you a few (a very few) tidbits from the book.

Your Intuitive Brain

Let’s switch gears for a second. Here’s a simple math problem for you:

Suppose you’re at the store and you see a baseball bat bundled with a baseball. The price for the ball and bat together is $1.10. You ask the clerk how much the bat costs all by itself.

The clerk grins and says, “The bat costs exactly $1.00 more than the ball.”

Quick, how much does the ball cost?

Have you got the answer?

If you’re like most people, your mind’s first reaction, almost instantaneous, is to say that the ball costs 10 cents. That’s your intuition speaking.

And your intuition is wrong. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.

If you work this out with your rational side, it’s an algebra problem that takes a couple of seconds.

But your intuitive side instantly barrels in, suggesting the wrong answer much faster than your rational side can do the algebra. Unless your rational side intervenes and insists on checking the answer, you’ll get the problem wrong.

More than 80% of US college students get this problem wrong. Even at elite universities like Harvard, more than half get it wrong.

The human brain is a funny thing. Your intuition is incredibly fast, but it can lead you astray without you knowing it. And this, I think, is a useful thing for a novelist to know when he needs to get somebody in trouble.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, gives hundreds of examples of the strange foibles of the intuitive side of the brain.

Would you rather receive $3400 right now, or $3800 a month from now?

Most people would take the money now. Their intuitive side wants the money right away, even though it’s rationally better to wait.

Your Risk-Averse Brain

Would you bet $100 on a single fair coin toss if the payoff for winning was $110?

It’s a rational bet to make, but most people wouldn’t. Their intuitive side is terrified of risk. If they take the bet, they could possibly lose $100, and human intuition is designed to avoid losing. The typical payoff that makes a human’s intuitive side happy is $200. That’s enough to balance out the fear of losing $100.

Yes, the rational thing would be to take the bet if the expected win is positive. But your intuitive side doesn’t like it. The pain of losing is greater than the good feeling of winning.

This was one of the most surprising things I read in the book, because lots of people go to Las Vegas and gamble on bets that have a slightly negative expected payoff. Kahneman doesn’t discuss the psychology of this, but my best guess is that it’s related to the following fact.

The very strange thing is that people really like gambling when the payoff is huge, even if the odds are heavily against them.

Suppose you have a chance to win $100 million in the lottery. There are 200 million tickets, and each one costs $1. Would you buy one?

Most people would, even though the ticket costs twice the “fair” value. Why? Because the payoff is huge and the cost is low. Buying the ticket gives the possibility of radically changing your life. Your intuitive side loves possibilities.

Your intuitive side sees that you stand to gain $100 million and you stand to lose only $1. Your intuition doesn’t care a fig about the odds. The amount to gain is vastly bigger than the amount to lose. Decision made.

So why do people go to Vegas to gamble? Kahneman doesn’t say, but here’s what I’m guessing. Even though the odds of each particular bet are against you, it’s possible to have a long run of luck and let your money ride and come home with a big payday. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

We’ve all heard stories of people who did it. So the trip as a whole has a possible big payoff, even though each individual bet is against you. And your intuitive side lovespossibilities.

In fact, your intuitive side is heavily swayed by the way possibilities are presented. Here’s an example:

  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a 99% survival rate. You feel highly optimistic, and you’re eager to have the operation. Because the doc focused on survival.
  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has  a1% death rate. Oh my god! You have a 1 in 100 chance of DYING right there on the table! No, no, no! You’re scared out of your wits. Because the doctor focused on death.

Notice that the surgeon is giving you the exact same information in both cases. A 99% survival rate means a 1% death rate.

Your rational side gets this, but your intuitive side doesn’t.

Yes, your rational side can talk your intuitive side off the ledge. But only if you give your rational side a fighting chance. If your rational side is out of practice or it’s been misinformed or it’s dulled by alcohol or it’s shouted down by your intuitive side or it’s smothered by lust, then you have all the ingredients you need for a bad decision.

Your Associative Brain

Your intuitive side is also very strong on making associations between words.

If you play a word game and happen to see the words “Florida” and “forgetful” and “bald” and “wrinkled”, then for a short time after you finish playing, you will walk more slowly than normal. You will act old, even though you didn’t actually see the word “old.” Your intuitive side does that free-association thing and it affects your body.

When you read a sentence that uses a lot of long words in it, you tend to disbelieve it more than if it were written using short words. Your intuition tells you that somebody is trying to snow you.

If you read a sentence that has an internal rhyme, such as “Woes unite foes,” you tend to believe it. Somehow the rhyme gives it credibility. And that’s bizarre. What do you think? Is it really true that “Woes unite enemies?” But that’s the same thing as “Woes unite foes.” Even though your rational side knows this, the rhyme still rings more true to your intuitive side.

Your intuitive side is eager to accept the easy answer. But here’s a strange thing. Remember that baseball bat problem? If you read that problem in a font that’s nearly illegible, your rational mind will have to work harder just to read the question. And you’ll be more likely to get the right answer. Just because the font is bad. Just because your rational side is more engaged in the problem.

Your intuitive side loves to jump to conclusions. Your rational side is perfectly able to check those conclusions, but it’s way slower than your intuitive side. Your intuitive side requires no effort at all. It’s always on, always tossing out answers. Your rational side takes time and effort to work. If you max it out, your intuitive side may just step in and solve a simpler problem. And you may not even notice.

This means that your intuitive side can quickly and easily leap to a wrong conclusion. Your rational side will have to work hard to check the conclusion, and it’ll take much longer. So a lot of times, your rational side just doesn’t bother to check.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. The reason you have intuition is because it’s often right, or close to right. Intuition is good. It’s just not perfect.

The Lesson For Novelists

When you need your character to make a bad decision, you can’t afford to let him use his rational side. You have to do an end-run around that.

You need to appeal to his intuition. You need to find a way to get his intuition to cheat him.

How do you do that? There are zillions of ways. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, and you’ll learn a few hundred ways.

And once you’ve absorbed a few hundred examples, your intuition will be trained and you’ll be able to easily invent a billion ways to defeat your characters’ intuition.

Yes, really. Your rational side can train your intuition to get other people’s intuition to do an end-run on their rational side.

If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
 
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visitwww.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Writing 101 – Developing Characters Through Short Stories

Developing Characters Through Short Stories

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

To write your character’s story, you need to know them as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. This isn’t an easy ask. There are so many questions, so many things to learn. Where do you start? A chat over dinner and wine? A long, drawn out interview? I find actions speak louder than words.

The majority of my characters have been developed through short stories and, more recently, flash fiction. I like to put them through their paces, maybe torture them a little (a lot), and find out how they tick. Like a scientist (or just some kid with a bug in a jar), I immerse them in scenarios and study their reactions. You’d be amazed by how much you can learn and, if nothing else, it’s a whole heap of fun…

Tips

1. History

Backstory tells you a lot about your characters. Experience and past encounters shape who they are and what they’re capable of. Living through those experiences, alongside your character, is the perfect way to understand their motivations, goals and abilities. Flash and short fiction are the ideal media for this. They allow you to focus on individual events that had the biggest impact. They also allows you to gauge the condition of relationships in the character’s immediate circle. For example, does a loving husband find the relationship with his wife strained when they argue, or is he certain they’ll come out fine? What about their friends? Do they speak kindly of them when they are not around? Write the scene, learn from it.

Exercise: Choose three key moments in your character’s past and relive them in three flash/short stories. Be sure to pay attention to how your character reacts in the heat of the moment.

2. Test of time

When done correctly, character development takes an incredible investment of time. This is doubly so if you intend to use them as the main character in your novel. Ask yourself, are they worth all this effort? Often, it’s hard to tell. We might start writing and soon find they are not all they appear to be.

When I get an idea for a character, I write them into a short story, either as the main character or as supporting cast. There are two benefits to this:

  1. I’ve already started to test them in conflict; and
  2. I get a good idea if their story is the right one to tell.

Sometimes the person you think is right to tell the story is more of a supporting character, at best. Likewise, the character you gave a bit part to sometimes has the stronger voice and the better story.

Exercise: Choose a character you haven’t fully developed and write a story involving them. Do they come across as a strong character? Do they entice you to explore them further?

3. Trial by fire

Knowing how a character will react to a given crisis…situation is half the battle. The only real way to do this is to test their reaction, both external and internal, to conflict by throwing them to the proverbial, and sometimes literal, wolves. When you write with your characters in mind, you’ll find that they have a habit of steering the story down their own paths and in ways you never expected. This is a great indication of the extent that you know your characters, that you have started to adopt their mindset. It’s also as frustrating as it gets.

If you really want to find out how the character will react to conflict, write the conflict and, while you’re doing it, listen to what they’re telling you. It pays to listen to their thoughts and emotions too.

Exercise: pick an intense scene, one filled with conflict, and then throw your character into the thick of it. Do they sink, or swim? Do they react how you expected? If not, are they likely to react like that again?

4. Voice

Short fiction, especially that written in the first-person, is the perfect way to explore and develop your character’s voice. Writing from their perspective puts them in the driving seat and gives you a unique opportunity to discover the way they communicate with each other and with their audience. This is exceptionally useful for secondary characters, ones that play a significant part in your story but are not main characters. It’s all too easy to give these characters a generic, even stereotypical, voice. Don’t let that happen, coax it out of them with flash.

Exercise: Take a secondary character and write a scene, or short story, from their perspective. How do they talk? What mannerisms do they have? Do they seem educated? To what level? Do they favour slang and jargon, or do they avoid it?

5. Day in the life

Day to day activities are not the kind of thing that makes it into novels and stories. It’s not often that a character will have a typical day in a novel (these things are, and should, be edited out). You’ll never go into detail about their paperclip collection (unless you’re setting them up to be The Paperclip Killer, or his patsy), what they had for lunch, or give the blow by blow on their lunchtime meeting (Le Carré-esque spy thriller, anyone?). How a person lives tells a lot about who the person is. Short stories and flash allow you to live a day in their lives. It won’t make for exciting reading, but it will reveal all sorts of juicy secrets about them and their ‘ordinary’ life.

Exercise: write the story of your character’s typical day. What does it reveal about them? About their family and support network? How do they feel about their job?


Has anybody out there just short stories to learn about their characters? How has it worked out? Comments below please.