First Draft Woes…

First drafts are our agony and our ecstasy. This is where our glistening ideas spill onto the page. This is where we get to play around with our ideas, see our characters grow and our themes mature. First drafts are fun. They’re our creative playground.

But they’re also tough. Our words on paper rarely measure up to the sparkling perfection of the ideas in our heads. We run into plot holes, creative blocks, stubborn characters, and personal doubts. We want so badly to get our first drafts right—both on the general principle of wanting to do our story justice and to spare ourselves the work of intensive edits later on.

Instead of letting my words just pour out of me whenever I sat down to write these first drafts, I instead sat there and thought. And thought and thought. Write a paragraph. Read it. Think about it. Obsess about word choice. Obsess about how the characters are coming across. Fuss about thematic implications. Drive self crazy. Rewrite paragraph. Sit and stare at screen. Write a new paragraph.
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Sound painful? It is. I’ll bet it also sounds super familiar to a lot of you. Authors are under a ton of pressure to get it right. And instead of being mitigated once you have a reading public, it only gets worse. Instead of sitting at our desks and thinking about our stories, we sit there and think about How to Be an Awesome Writer.

Fiction is an amalgam of art and craft. We can think about craft. We should think about craft. Craft is an analytic, left-brain exercise. Art, on the hand, is a deeply subconscious, emotional journey. We shouldn’t think too hard about that—at least, not while we’re in the act. Thinking too hard dries up the creative side of the brain and dams up that subconscious flow of ideas, words, and images.

How do we fix this all too prevalent problem? The answer is simple. The implementation, however, isn’t always so easy. As soon as I stopped over-thinking my process, my infernal internal editor shut up, my characters started talking to me again, and my writing improved vastly. Turned out the very thing I thought was helping me be a good writer was holding me back.

Editing, as a left-brain aspect of the process, is supposed to be thought about. The first draft isn’t. The first draft is the place to smear your raw creativity onto the page. Don’t worry about being awesome. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just have fun. Live your story; find your awe. Don’t think too hard about what you’re doing until after you’ve done it.

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Conscious writing: Being authentic. What does it mean?

“I am always tuning my orchestra. Somewhere deep inside there is a sound that is mine alone, and I struggle daily to hear it and tune my life to it. Sometimes there are people and situations that help me to hear my note more clearly; other times, people and situations make it harder for me to hear. A lot depends on my commitment to listening and my intention to stay coherent with this note. It is only when my life is tuned to my note that I can play life’s mysterious and holy music without tainting it with my own discordance, bitterness, resentment, agendas and fears.”
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging.

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Conscious writers develop their intuition through conscious listening, and in the process, discover the sound of their authentic voice. If you’re an artist of any kind – writer, poet, painter, dancer, authenticity is an extremely important word, yet, it’s a concept that’s hard to define.

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What authenticity isn’t…
1. It isn’t your habits: It’s tempting to confuse an authentic piece of work with the first idea that comes into your head. If you don’t have to make an effort to think of it, then it must be natural, right?
2. It doesn’t mean always sticking to the facts: Authenticity does not mean you have to be precisely correct or fill listeners in on every detail of what happened to you. We all write about our personal experiences. The important thing is to get down to the universal emotions and eternal lessons beneath the facts of what happened.
3. It doesn’t mean writing in a vacuum: Authenticity doesn’t mean you have to entirely reinvent the craft of writing by yourself. It’s okay to learn from others.
What authenticity is…
1. Taking risks: It’s a risk to show your weaknesses, vulnerabilities, your feelings. It’s a risk to try something you’re not sure will work but to grow and learn we need to take risks, even if it means failing. Authenticity is not static but you don’t need to jump into the deep end of the pool before you can swim. Take your time. Take those little steps; just don’t stand still doing the same thing over and over.
2. Expressing a theme or idea in a way that is uniquely honest: No two people are the same. You have your own ways of seeing and thinking about things. It takes honesty, courage, and some hard work to really get to know yourself. What are the themes and characters that resonate for you? What kinds of books do you like to read? Why do you like them? What are the ideas and characters they deal with? These must connect with something inside of you or you wouldn’t find them so compelling.

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3. Communicating with listeners effectively and personally: Being authentically you doesn’t mean shutting yourself in an ivory tower. How you define yourself has a lot to do with how you relate to others. If your words are so dense, poetic, and personal that no one else can understand them, it doesn’t mean that you’re being more authentic than someone who writes unassuming, informal text that everyone can relate to. You need to find the voice that communicates with others and, at the same time, expresses your ideas, images, and emotions.

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Which story do I write?

After spending the weekend at a writer’s festival www.festivalofgoldenwords.com  my mind has come back brimming with ideas. Ideas about characters, stories, plots, with so many scenes playing themselves out inside my head I can’t sleep!

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One thing I did learn, and was somewhat a common theme, is that the most important decision a writer will ever make is which story to write. Sometimes that will be an easy decision: the right story can, at times, be staring you in the face. But sometimes the choices can be overwhelming.

So how do you choose?

This is never a decision for any of us to make lightly. Whatever story we choose is one we’re going to be spending an extra lot of intimate time with. If we choose the wrong story, we could end up wasting time and expending untold frustration on the project. But if we choose the right story, we’ll be embarking on an exciting and fulfilling journey that will help us grow as writers and hopefully produce a book we can share with others.

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The following are some thoughts that I brought home with me.

1. Look Beyond the Premise

If your story doesn’t have a great premise, you shouldn’t be writing it. But a great premise, by itself doesn’t make a great story. Where do you see this premise leading you? What kind of characters will populate this story? What will they be seeking? Who will be opposing them? What kind of world will they be living in?

2. Realize Loving Parts of a Story Isn’t Enough

Let’s say you have an idea for a story and you love the setting and the interaction between the characters, but, the suspense created simply doesn’t interest you too much. Before you commit to a story, you need to love everything about it. Think through the ramifications of your premise. Are you going to have fun and be able to maintain interest throughout all its logical progressions? Or will you grow bored with some aspects?

3. Make Your Own Head Explode

If you’re going to have any chance of blowing your readers’ minds, then first you have to blow your own. A story can be a great idea in itself, but if it doesn’t thrill you, then you need to question whether you’re going to have enough passion to see it through. Ask yourself: Is this a story you were meant to write? Is this a story you can’t not write? If the answer to either is no, then you might want to rethink.

4. Look for Characters With Strong Voices and Interaction

Not every seemingly great story idea comes complete with the rest of the trappings necessary to make a great book. Think about your characters. Are they already so vibrant in your head that you can sense they’ll have unique and powerful voices on the page? Will they be memorable and definitive? Will they interact with each other in meaningful and important ways? A great premise that lacks great characters is going nowhere fast.

5. Look for a Bigger Story

Most of my story ideas start out with the interaction between two characters. But, by itself, that’s not enough to fill a whole book. Consider your ideas. Can you sense the weight of a bigger story beneath the surface? What are the stakes? Who else will these characters end up affecting through their interaction with each other? If you can’t at least sense the possibility for greater depth, then the idea may not have enough strength to carry itself.

6. Figure Out What Kind of Story It Will Be

You’ve figured out your premise and your characters. So far, so good. But do you know what type of story you want this to be? Don’t sit down to write a story without knowing what you’re trying to create. Understand your story’s tone, from start to finish, into a cohesive whole. If you lack that understanding of your story, you won’t be able to create the cohesion and focus you want it to have.

7. There’s a lot to be said for instinct

Don’t Be OCD! I admit it: I like to do things in order, including story ideas. But just because a story idea is the next one in line doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one to be writing at this time. Get in touch with your instincts. Which story feels right? And, more importantly, which ones don’t feel right?

No matter how much consideration we invest in choosing our next writing project, we won’t always be able to predict which stories will be successful for us and which won’t. But by considering these factors, we can at least eliminate some of the ideas that definitely aren’t ready to be written.

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Plot Vs Character

Plot vs Character, we hear it all the time, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Either your book is plot-driven or character-driven. Can’t possibly be both, right? Let’s consider this a little more carefully. What would it take to make one or the other of these combatants more important than the other?

Firstly, let’s have a look at plot.

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Plot is story. It frames the conflict and thus the action. It generates high-concept premises. Speculative fiction, with its solid basis in high concepts, is firmly rooted in the tradition of plot-driven stories.

Plot is structure. It is what creates and guides a strong plot. No structure, no plot, no story.

Let’s have a look at character.

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Character is also story. More than that, character is the heart of story. What good is a killer plot without the actors who bring it to life? Readers relate to stories through the characters. Cool magic systems and world-ending conflict may be interesting on a surface level. But they’re only worth reading about because of the worth of the characters who use the magic and live through the conflict.

Character arc is also structure. Characters and their conflicting inner and outer goals create the thematic questions that frame our stories. We can come up with a perfectly structured plot, but if we haven’t also created a structured character arc, our stories are likely to turn out drier than the earth after three months of no rain.

So, are plot and character of equal importance?

To create a powerful story, we can’t afford to neglect either plot or character. Instead of having them wage war against one another, we need them to work together.

A perfectly structured plot will never live up to its potential without an equally solid character arc.

A compelling character arc will never be able to hold up its own weight without a properly structured plot.

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More than that, the various aspects of structure and character arc must be built one upon the other. The First Act in which we set up the plot by introducing characters, settings, and stakes is also where we will be introducing the beginning stages of the character arc; the character’s overall goal, his greatest need, and the lie he believes which is holding him back from achieving that need. They all mesh together.

No need to pick one over the other. When we understand how plot and character can work in  harmony, we get the best of both worlds. And so do our readers.

Creating Ideas

For some of us, creating ideas is somewhat a random, even mystical process. Sometimes we may feel stuck, but, we can also work our way through our ideas to creativity.

What is an idea?

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An idea is a connection. Any idea, even the simplest one, is an association with your previous and already known ideas. Our minds constantly form such connections, often spontaneously and unconsciously. Another interesting feature of these connections is that they cannot be predicted. Often, an idea will be formed when two very different notions merge in an unexpected or unusual way.

To bring an idea to life is to get rid of limiting beliefs such as “I am not a creative person. I’m not good enough.” Put away the prejudice that only a few chosen ones can create good ideas. You are a writer and your ideas have worth.

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Never focus only on creating great ideas. Strive for quantity instead of quality at first. Most people fail to come up with ideas because they fear their ideas will be “stupid.” Ideas that are considered stupid today may become the basis for the revolutionary ideas of tomorrow.

The more you deal with different situations, people, and places, the more fuel you give your mind to form connections. Learn to celebrate diversity of life: travel, try new food, read magazines you do not usually look at. Do not be afraid to do the usual things in a different way.

And read! The more you read the more experience and ideas you get. In the words of Stephen King;

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time to write. Simple as that.”

Whenever you come up with ideas for writing, be thankful for them. By developing this habit, you create an additional positive reinforcement, a stimulus for your mind, which encourages the creation of more new ideas. It may seem a little bit strange, but it works.

If you find you can’t come up with any ideas for a few days, do not worry, it’s normal. Ideas will arrive suddenly, one by one. Sometimes ideas arrive so quickly you will barely have time to write them down.

So, tell me, how do you make yourself receptive to coming up with ideas for writing?

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Story Structure. Is It Really That Important?

What is the single most overlooked and perhaps the most misunderstood part of storytelling? Most of you reading this would already know – Structure. Most of the time, as writers, we are using structure without even really knowing it. There are many differing theories of structure, all of which bear out the inevitable components found in all good stories.

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First though we need to consider a few of the reasons every author should care about structure and why none of us should fear it.

Structure is required in all of art.

Dancing, painting, singing, whatever art form you do or use, requires structure.Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as how to put its many parts into the proper order to achieve maximum effect.

Structure does not limit creativity.

Authors often fear structure will limit their ability to be creative. If they have to follow a certain road in their story and observe certain pit stops, won’t the story be written for them? But this isn’t the case. Structure presents only a shape—the curve of the story arc that we all recognize as vital to a novel’s success. The only difference is that structure allows us to be concrete and confident in our creation of that arc, ensuring the shape always turns out perfectly.

Structure is not formulaic.

Another fear is that if every story has the same structure, won’t every story ultimately be the same? But this isn’t any more true than is the idea that because every ballet incorporates the same movements, every ballet must be the same. Structure is only the box that holds the gift. What that gift may be is as wildly varied as the wrapping paper it hides behind.

Structure solidifies mastery of the craft.

Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already using on an instinctive level can only broaden your understanding and tighten your mastery of the craft. Learning about them then allowed me to strengthen my raw instinct into purposeful knowledge.

Structure is exciting, comforting, and liberating all at the same time. Is story structure that important. Yes it is. Whether you’re discovering the ins and outs of story structure for the first time or just brushing up, it isn’t anything to be feared. Go with it. You’ll be amazed as to what it lets you do!

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to love or to loathe?

Ten Ways to Make Readers Loathe Your Antagonist

Your story’s antagonist will make or break your book.

What’s that? What about the protagonist, you say? Well, yeah, he’s kinda important too. But, without a worthy opponent, he’s not going to have much of anything to do except sit around and admire his hero hairdo. As important as it is to create lovable protagonists, it’s every bit as important to create antagonists who can stand in your character’s way, prevent him from reaching his goals, and, as a result, create conflict.

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Just as your good guy doesn’t have to be a perfect person, there’s also no rule that says your bad guy has to be heinous. In fact shades of gray are almost always going to make him that much more of an interesting a character. The only true qualifier for an antagonist is that he be an obstacle interfering with the protagonist’s pursuit of his story goal. As such, the antagonist could be a nice little old lady, a sick child, or a virtuous social reformer.

But, with that said, it’s also true that most readers enjoy an entirely loathable bad guy just as much as they do a lovable good guy.

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1. The Cruel Antagonist

Nasty bad guys who are nasty just because they can be are always going to be scary. We all fear pain (physical, mental, or emotional), so the thought of someone who not only doesn’t mind inflicting pain, but even wants to do it is downright despicable.

Example: William Tavington in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

2. The Hypocritical Antagonist

Hypocrisy is loathsome. It’s one thing to bad and be proud of it. It’s another level of “eww” to be bad and pretend you’re really a saint. This façade can be something the antagonist honestly believes in or a pose for the sake of respectability.

Example: William Dorrit in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit

3. The Relatable Antagonist

Sometimes the scariest, most loathsome thing about a person is how much they remind us of ourselves. When readers are able to glimpse even the smallest bit of themselves in the motives or actions of an otherwise horrific person, it will make their reactions to him that much stronger.

Example: Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

4. The Arrogant Antagonist

Bad guys who hold all the cards—and know they hold all the cards—and want to rub the protagonist’s nose in that fact—are just plain obnoxious. Bad enough that they stand in the protagonist’s way, but do they really have to be so smug about it? Yes. Yes, they do.

Example: President Snow in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games

5. The Domineering Antagonist

A close cousin to arrogance is dominance. When an antagonist holds power over the protagonist and abuses that power in a way the protagonist can’t easily resist, he becomes not only obnoxious, but rightfully scary. Domineering antagonists come in all flavors, but often their most chilling manifestation is as a family member.

Example: Countess Rodmilla de Ghent in Andy Tennant’s Ever After

6. The Frightening Antagonist

Some of the best antagonists are those whom we don’t so much hate as fear. Serial killers, freaks, psychos—yep, they all have the potential to be visceral and powerful antagonists. As Carmine Falcone puts it in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins: “You always fear what you don’t understand.”

Example: Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star Wars

 7. The Imperturbable Antagonist

Bad guys who are so bad that nothing ruffles their feathers may occasionally walk the line of being boring. But when their authors pull it off, these bad guys can be infuriatingly, terrifyingly inhuman. Even though they undoubtedly have their weaknesses, they seem unstoppable.

Example: Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

8. The Skilled Antagonist

Presumably, your hero is pretty awesome in his own right. As such, he’s going to need an antagonist who can go toe to toe with him—someone who’s maybe even a little better than he is. Readers respect skill, even when they don’t like the guy wielding it. Skill is intriguing and, when used for evil, sobering.

Example: Syndrome in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles

9. The Insane Antagonist

Insanity means unpredictability. Unpredictable evil is always gonna be hard to resist. It puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, both because it does the unexpected and because it goes places the protagonist, in his sanity, would never dream of. As such, it make for one downright scary antagonist.

Example: The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

10. The Traitorous Antagonist

What hurts worse than a friend or family member who suddenly turns against us? Hate is often just love flipped on its head. A loved character who goes rogue can often become one of the most hatable of all bad guys.

Example: Nizam in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia

Mix and match these traits until you come up with a bad guy that gives even you goosebumps!

Tell me your opinion: Which category does your bad guy fall into?

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