#10 Writing About Your Childhood

It seems a bit obvious for people who write for children, doesn’t it? Write about your childhood. Tell the story of little you learning to dress, dealing with bullies, finding that dragon egg on the beach and hatching it at home, building your first robot–you have a thousand unfiltered stories.

And so do your characters. Showing where a character has come from can quickly answer why they are the way they are.

It doesn’t need to be extensive, just a subtle touch to show the reader where your character came from.

Here’s an exercise:

  1. Close your eyes and think of your earliest childhood memory. Picture as much as you can: where you were, who was there, etc. Now, write what you’ve remembered as a scene in a story and tap into the senses.
  2. Think about something that happened in your early life that you now realize has shaped who you are and how you make decisions. Write that scene as a story, then write a later passage showing the long-term effects of the event on the character.
  3. If you’re already writing a story, find the opportunity to give all of your characters more depth by showing a scene from earlier in their life.

#9 Fevered Writing

So many wonderful pieces have a bit of the otherworldly, fantastical, or horrific in them. We’re often told as writers to “write what you know” but it is so much more surprising to write what you don’t know.

To lie.

To pretend.

To imagine the worst and the best “what ifs.”

When you write about what you know, attempt to flip it on its side, to create some experience that is truly unique.

One amazing way to jump-start the imagination and create imagery, yet remain emotionally connected, is to tap into your dreams. Dreams come from your own experiences and imagination. They are ready-made and filtered through your heart, mind, and obsessions. Pre-twisted and flipped on their side to be something strange and wonderfully new.

The trick is to grab these ideas while they’re still hot and fresh and write them down quickly. You can do this with fevered writing (also called automatic writing), writing without stopping or editing in one continuous flow.

It is best to do this as soon as you wake up so that your mind cannot begin to forget to filter anything.

Here’s an exercise:

Wake up. Do not think.

Grab your pen and paper.

Do not think.

Set a timer for 12 minutes.

Write without stopping. Do not lift your pen from your paper. Do not stop writing. Do not think about what you’re writing.

Record your dream as you remember it, and if you don’t, just start writing about what you think you may have dreamed.

Allow yourself to be as crazy as possible.

Do not read your work until your timer goes off.

You can do this exercise at any time. After coffee, after dinner, when you’re bored at work–any time!

#8 Working Outside Yourself

This exercise works best in a group of four. Yes, you can do it on your own, but it’s best to pull ideas and images from outside of yourself.

Where does the good work live? As writers, we grope around for something substantial, and the groping is important. There is a stifling pressure on ideas that we hold sacred and there can be freedom and invention when stories come from unexpected places.

If you have a work that you’ve held dear to heart, consider tapping into the less-traveled territories and try to apply ideas that come from other writers, even if–especially if–it doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Here’s an Exercise:

  • You will need four people, paper, and a timer.
  • Each person should rip off three strips of paper.
  • On one, write down a type of room in a house. Could be an ordinary house or a big fancy one. Fold it in half and write 1 on the outside.
  • On the next slip of paper, write down a luxurious material. This could be a rare mineral or a gem or a type of glass. Pick something sumptuous. Fold it in half and write 2 on the outside.
  • On the last slip, write down something organic, something that can decay. Something that would transform if left alone in a room over time. It can be alive or dead at that moment. Then fold the paper in half and write 3 on the outside.

Now pass these slips around so that everyone has a 1, 2, and 3 that they did not create. I find the best way to do this is to sit in a circle, pass 1 to your left, exchange 2 with the person across from you, and pass 3 to your right. The set up is a bit formal, but it helps to make sure everyone gets something from someone else.

Set the timer for 10 minutes. Timer can add a helpful element of intensity.

Open up 1. And then 2.

Leave three off to the side.

The room in this house (1) is made entirely out of the material on 2.

How unusual! Describe it! How did it come to be? What does it look like? How did the architect plan such a structure? Why was it made?

The timer dings. Now, somewhere inside this gorgeous room is 3. Perhaps it is starting to rot. Open up 3. It’s not at all clear how 3 got there in the first place.

Set the timer for another 10 minutes and write about this new presence. All the tone to darken here.

Here’s an Exercise if you want to do it alone:

If you’re alone (or adamantly don’t want to do a group project) fill out the slips of paper yourself and make a few piles so that the combo is a surprise. You can also go online to use a random word generator and fill in your papers with words you didn’t generate.

Alternatively, you can ask your friends to submit their own choices and use those options.

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#7 Make It Believable

In his essay “Wood Knot Dew,” Piers Anthony defines science fiction as “the literature of the possible” and fantasy as the “literature of the impossible.” His idea that SciFi is based on making an untrue fact true and fantasy is the understanding that all the facts are contrary to what is, really comes down to making your work believable.

The crux of the issue, most of the time, is less about what your world does (we expect dragons, robots, and epic fights) and more about how your characters react to it and each other.

Friends get into a fight? Believable. Friends get into a fight and immediately apologize to each other? Unbelievable. You’ve never had an experience like this. And neither have your readers.

One popular piece of writing advice is to have ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, and extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances. Well, I side with Piers Anthony that what you really want is believable characters in unbelievable situations.

Regardless of your genre, your cardinal rule is to make it believable.

All you need is the right approach. You should strive to get the reader on your side, willingly and eager to suspend their disbelief.

A key point is to be consistent in your framework. Unless inconsistency is a key part of your story. Another is to have small human details referenced throughout the work.

Consider that if an ogre stubs his toe, he will nurse the injury.

Dragon’s get itchy wings.

Bullies get upset at bad grades.

Robots… are robots… they don’t have feelings. Unless they do in which case we need to talk about what it means to be sentient.

All of this humanizes things. You remember when you stubbed your toe, and when you had an itch on your back that you couldn’t reach, and when you got bad grades, and when you were a robot… wait…

When you identify with the cast you can then accept the ways in which these characters and this world are different and still root for them.

Difference is important. Consider how hard you roll your eyes whenever you read something like “I’m not like other girls.” Or you see yet another character who just likes to read and doesn’t fit in anywhere. You don’t want them to be like every other character you’ve ever read. As Piers Anthony says, “You know, strong, handsome, beautiful, smart, talented yet intriguingly vulnerable. These qualities are fine, but they don’t suffice.” The differences you create should be significant, they should distinguish your characters from all the others in existence, without making them too different to be appealing. Remember, we don’t want to see perfection–we want to relate to these human characters.

Here’s an exercise:

Find some minor but nice ways to distinguish your main character from all others in the past or present, or who may in some alternate future come into being. Maybe even make notes of prospective traits you can draw on at need.

Keep an ideas file or notebook just for that purpose.

Alternatively, take a popular character and explore that world with one key aspect of their character changed. How does Curious George read if George isn’t curious at all?

#6 Making a Hero

As writers, one of the most important things we do is create characters. Specifically, heroic characters. Our character needs to do more than look the part, they have to act like one too. Their actions must back up their character in a way that makes them worthy of our interest and their role in the story.

It is critical that writers take the internal and external events in the story to shape their characters into someone relatable and/or empathetic.

In a paranormal story, the hero/heroine is usually saving the world from some apocalyptic event. Saving the world makes your character pretty darn likable, almost immediately. It doesn’t matter what he’s shooting between the eyes, because he’s saving us all. Stories might include demons, monsters, or just bad people who are interested in conquering or destroying the world. That’s a lot of external conflicts. And when there are a lot of external conflicts, it’s easy to forget that things happen within our characters as well. It’s important to answer the following questions about your character:

  • Who are they?
  • Who were they as a child?
  • Who do they want to be?
  • How do the answers to those questions influence everything they say, do, desire, despise, and love?
  • If romance is involved, how do those answers make the story and the relationship between your characters stronger? Weaker?

For example, if your character is suddenly turned into a vampire and needs to feed, what does this do to them emotionally? Does feeding bring back memories of some horrible tragedy in their past? Try to go beyond just what is occurring to your character and remember that you’ve created a person, and people have feelings and thoughts about what is happening to them.

Particularly in a romantic plot, consider what internal conflicts pull your characters together and what pushes them apart. External conflict matters, but internal conflict and growth have to occur alongside those happenings.

External conflict should move internal conflict forward.

In a suspense story, you have some sort of macho character (not always though, turn those tropes on their ears). They’re larger than life. They’re doing something by choice to save a tiny part of the world. Maybe a loved one. Maybe themselves.

Their actions give them the assumption of being a hero, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.

Surviving and searching for the bad guy becomes the conflict and that can quickly take over the story. Remember: external conflict should move internal conflict forward. So consider these questions as well:

  • Why do they do what they do?
  • What has molded their viewpoints?
  • How do their choices influence the story and their relationships?
  • Are they a reluctant hero or gung-ho?
  • Do they have a need for vengeance and is it a driving force or is it destroying them?

Contemporary stories have conflict too. It’s not all about genre fiction. (For some people anyway)

In most cases, the genre elements have been removed from the story. No guns. No monsters. No magic. Nothing too intense. Only… that’s not entirely true. There are demons in contemporary literature. Real-life demons like losing a job, watching a loved one die, losing your confidence, having your dreams swept out from under you. These are real events that happen every day, and they don’t require much suspension of reality.

It’s important to reach out to the reader with emotions and not just events, as events can get boring real fast. You can take a mundane scene and use your craft to make it emotional. Make your main character really pop off the page.

The trick is: create a platform that allows your hero to be a hero and don’t allow that platform to be limiting or contrived. To make a true hero in your world, you have to allow them the chance to shine in your storytelling.

Here’s an exercise:

  1. Outline your story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Don’t forget the emotional arc. Write down your events and then, in a different color, write the emotional toll this takes on your characters.
  2. Now outline your characters.
  • Who are the main and secondary characters?
  • How do they fit your main character? Make them better? Make them worse?

Here’s an example character outline:

  • Basics – name, hair, eyes, age.
  • Siblings – ages, names, relationship status with the main character
  • Parents – Who are they? What do they do? What are/were they to your main character? How have they influenced your main character’s life? Alive? Dead? Rich? Poor? Alcoholic? Drug addict?
  • Home life – growing up verse now
  • Favorite stuff – foods, sports, clothes, tchotchkes, books, candy, soda, drink…
  • Events that formed the MC
  • Events that torment that MC
  • Past loves – how and why they ended
  • Jobs – past and present
  • Education
  • Tragic events – past experiences equal present reactions

It’s nice to keep an ongoing list, especially if you are planning a series so that your character doesn’t change. They should have an emotional arc, yes, but their history should stay the same and not fluctuate based on what you do or do not remember.

Repeat this exercise for secondary characters and villains.

#5 Credibility

You might think that writing for children means you don’t need to fact-check things. But in middle grade and young adult literature, the credibility of the story is not that hard to gain, and incredibly easy to lose. And one sure-fire way to ruin that credibility is factual inaccuracy.

This includes facts you’ve made up. Your magic system, the way technology works, even the animals. If you say geese lay golden eggs then we should be shocked to discover one who doesn’t.

I think it’s important to note that no matter how obscure a field of knowledge is, someone out there knows you’re wrong.

Here’s a fun fact: in the film TITANIC, the starfield shown during the scene when Rose looks skyward after the shipwreck is wrong for that place and time. Neil deGrasse Tyson called the director, James Cameron, out on this error on the red carpet. Cameron later corrected the issue in the film.

It seems inconsequential. Who cares if there are two moons or the planet has no sunlight, if dogs and cats can talk, or if there’s a secret magic school in the woods? What should matter is the scene in which the character is fighting for her life. But it only takes one small error to pop an audience out of the story.

It may seem silly to check the star charts for historical fiction or your futuristic sci-fi novel or even to keep a log of celestial events for your fantasy world, but once a reader gets a whiff of inaccuracy, it’s all downhill from there.

Here’s an exercise:

Let’s develop good researching habits. Start with other writers’ works (you’re not likely to be too forgiving with someone else’s work as you are with your own). Choose any book on your shelf or e-library and select any chapter or story in it.

  • Go through the chapter carefully and make note of a clear statement of fact that would apply to the real world and not just the world of the story.
  • Then fact-check it.
  • The hero in a fantasy novel rides a horse for 60 miles. Possible or not?
  • A rancher in 1850 uses barbed wire for his fences. Possible or not?
  • A cop shoots a tire on a moving vehicle and it stops quickly. Possible or not? And are police officers allowed to do that or did this officer bend the rules?
  • Leave no assertion unchallenged. Your readers won’t.

#4 Objects

Let’s talk about objects and how they can enhance your writing! Creating objects can help bring your characters off the page and help to create stories for them.

Look at the objects you have nearby. You probably have at least one of the following:

  • a family heirloom
  • photos of family, friends, holidays, festivals, and vacations
  • posters and or other images hanging on your walls
  • special clothes for special occasions
  • books
  • ornaments
  • everyday useful things like mugs or silverware

Every item has a history-including that plastic fork you have yet to throw out. They help paint a story of their surroundings. Wherever you can create an object in your writing, you build the world out a little more.

Here’s a few ways to use objects in literature:

  • as a plot device: sometimes the plot can revolve around finding or destroying an object (see Lord of the Rings)
  • to represent a character: sometimes, personal items say more about the character than the character’s actions. Think of the wands in Harry Potter and how crooked Bellatrix’s is.
  • as a symbol representing something larger than itself: for this the most famous example I could think of is the green light in The Great Gatsby, and how it represents Gatsby’s hopes, dreams, and his connection to Daisy.
  • as a clue: maybe you’re writing a mystery or detective fiction. Objects can be used to reveal all sorts of significant things. Channel your inner Sherlock and consider how people use objects every day to really drive this home.
  • to foreshadow something: sometimes a gun hanging on the wall will come up later.
  • to trigger a memory or flashback: sometimes things just look too familiar and they spark something within us.
  • as a device connecting characters’ separate stories: maybe your object, magical or otherwise, has been around for significant moments in history, sitting in the corner and lifelessly observing things as life happens around it.

Objects are useful because characters can find them, lose them, receive them, gift them, steal or have them stolen, search for them, treasure them, neglect them, lock them up, and even destroy them or toss them aside. And the symbolism of their actions can add to your story.

Now for the exercise:

Pick an object in your home that has some meaning for you. Study it for a moment and describe it in as much detail as you can.

Now construct a scene around it.

Was the object stolen or found?

Was it a gift?

Was it inherited?

Make sure the object triggers a significant event for your character (or you, if you’re writing about yourself). Let the object help them make a decision, understand something that happened, or turn their life in a different direction.

#3 Fairy Tales

Let’s take a brief tour of fairy tale techniques, all of which can help any writer if given the chance:

Intuitive logic: fairy tales don’t conform to the rules of our world, but it does have rules. They will not be explained by insistence. Furniture will sing and dance. Paths will appear when you need them. Children can outsmart ancient witches. Disarticulated limbs will turn silver and you can sell them to save yourself later. Resist the urge to explain the logic and let your readers just accept what’s happening. Remove transitions like “therefore” and “because.”

Flatness: In fairy tales, characters aren’t deep, psychologically anyway. Snow White doesn’t have depression or PTSD after getting hunted by her stepmother, Belle doesn’t have a psychotic break after the candelabra and clock talks to her, and little red riding hood doesn’t have a panic disorder after finding her grandmother had been eaten by a wolf. But they all had reactions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with adding psychological depth to fairy tales (in fact, this is beneficial if you’re going for a longer piece). But flat characters leave space to exceed limitations surrounding individuality, uniqueness, and self.

Happy endings: J.R.R Tolkien once defended happy endings as a vital technique in literature, because joy can be as poignant as grief. Creating poetic joy in your prose is okay. A lot of fairy tales end with dark, terrible lessons, but you can let the sunset on a girl in a white dress smiling at the tide. Happy endings aren’t bad.

Fairy tales are some of the first stories we read and often the first kind we attempt to write.

So now, go find an old fairy tale or myth and look for instances of intuitive logic, flatness, and happy endings in it.

Then look at your own new stories and look for examples of explained logic, character depth, and tragedy. Remove efforts to explain logic, tighten character depth, but do not remove the tragedy. Instead, quickly add a unique and strangely blissful image afterward, your own Grimm gesture to emote through your setting.

#2 Mind Mapping

You can start a piece in a number of ways; for example:

  • From a personal experience: some experiences are so powerful you can’t get them out of your head.
  • From more gradual inspiration: something that has been nagging at you for years.
  • From an incident in the news: find something that happened today and grab a few articles about it for your research folder
  • From an anecdote that someone tells you: ever find yourself wondering if that tale your uncle tells at dinner could possibly be true? Explore it!

It doesn’t matter what gets you started, so long as something does. But the real problem is how to develop the idea into something more substantial.

One way to build out your work is the mind map.

Map out a set of characters for your piece so you can play with who your characters will meet, love, hate, rescue, or fight.

  1. Write the full name of your main character in the middle of the page. Add in any nicknames or pet names they have.
  2. Insert all the people in the main character’s life around the name in the center and connect them to the protagonist with bold lines. Include names and details for family, friends, work colleagues, neighbors, lovers, and such.
  3. Add people who the main character doesn’t know but who might play a part in the story. Don’t connect them to the main character just yet. Just come up with a supporting cast.
  4. Draw connections between the other characters but leave your main character out of it for now. Try color-coding them so you know which connections your main character knows and which they are in the dark about.
  5. Identify potential enemies among the characters in these groups. Underline the characters with potential for evil in a different color so you can find them easily.

As you begin to define the relationship your main character has to the rest of the cast, consider writing it down along the lines you’ve drawn. As the map develops, you may begin to get a much more complete and complex picture of your main character.

And the plot of your novel will begin to reveal itself as you find possibilities for connections and further development.