A Penny For Your Thoughts: My Two Cents on Internal Monologue

 

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I was talking to a friend yesterday about one of the housemates in this year’s Big Brother UK (how dare you judge me!) who had the annoying nonstop habit of thinking aloud in a random, babbling manner that made me sometimes feel as if I was reading her unfiltered thoughts. This, naturally, brought the topic of internal monologue to mind.

Whether you refer to it as verbal stream of consciousness, internal speech, or inner voice, internal monologue occurs when your characters engage in conversations with themselves, thinking in words at a conscious or semi-conscious level.

When used properly, making your audience privy to your character’s thoughts and internal struggles can add levels of emotion and intrigue that deepen your story nicely. But it’s not an easy skill to master, and in the hands of an inexperienced writer, the piece can quickly become a quagmire of unnecessary narrative.

Here are a few things you might want to bear in mind:

  • Mind your thoughts. The first thing to keep in mind–which should be obvious–internal monologues are always written from a character’s point of view, and the thoughts should match their personality and speech patterns.
  • Act first, think later. Avoid the temptation of beginning your story with expositional monologue. Sure, you’re eager to set the scene and establish characters, location, time period, etc., but you should consider capturing your audience’s attention from the onset by thrusting them into a riveting bit of dialogue, intrigue or action, before introducing the necessary exposition.
  • Don’t tip your hand, but don’t wait too long, either. You should never let a character’s thoughts introduce vitals details before they’re relevant to your story. Also, make sure you’ve provided your audience with everything they need to know before any tense scenes and definitely before you reach the climax. Never put a pitstop in your action sequence to sandwich in a bit of explanatory monologuing. Ick. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
  • Back the right horse. If you have a choice between using dialogue or internal monologue, go with the dialogue–if, of course, it can properly explain pertinent information or convey the internal battles of your character. When doing this, however, there’s a trope you need to avoid, affectionately known as the dreaded “As you know, Bob” where one character tells another character something they already know.
  • Show, don’t tell still applies… somewhat. If you utilize enough internal monologuing in your writing, you’ll come to realize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll need to tell what a character’s thinking instead of showing it. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
  • Everything you know, not everything I know. I watch a lot of martial arts flicks, especially the old Shaw Brothers chop socky ones, and a recurrent theme was of an undeserving young student turning his newly acquired martial arts skills on the old master. I only bring this up because of a line I heard during a showdown where the young buck is boasting that he not only knows all the old man’s techniques, but he also has the advantage of youth on his side. The old master shakes his head and corrects the younger aggressor, “I taught you everything you know, not everything I know.” This should be the same with your character. There is no reason on this green earth for your audience to know everything your character knows. Everyone likes a little bit of mystery and in your audience’s case, it’s what keeps them turning pages.
  • Thoughts do not drive a story. Chiefly because they’re a poor substitute for conflict. This is another one of those things that should be evident, since I assume you’re an avid reader. So think on the last book that really held your attention, I’m talking about the one you continued to read even though your eyes were burning because you were fighting off sleep. What kept you invested in the book? The character’s thoughts? The answer you’re searching for should be conveniently located in the “Hell, no” aisle. More likely than not, the things that held your interest–writing style aside–were the story’s action and dialogue, because they’re what defines your character best.

In closing, interior monologue is one of the more useful writing tools at your disposal, and if you economically pepper it amongst action sequences and dialogue, it should serve you and your story well.

Sally forth and be internal monologue writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Unlock Your Inner Story

Skeleton X-Ray - Locked Mind

They say, “Everyone has at least one good book in them” and while I think book might be a bit of a stretch, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone has at least one good story in them. The natural length—the pure story without padding or the encumbrance of unnecessary detail or description—of which can range from flash fiction (under 1,000 words) to short story (under 7,500 words) to novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) to novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) to a proper novel (over 40,000 words).

No matter how non-creative you believe yourself to be, your brain is nonetheless gifted with the special ability of imagination, and regardless of how infrequently you put it to use, you still are able to dream up intricate realities, despite your age or IQ level. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, projected a new reality in our minds in the form of daydreaming our desires? And no two daydreams are exactly the same since we each possess unique preferences, points of view, wants and needs.

Yet, even armed with the knowledge of this gift, we, as writers, tend to suffer because we either do not fully believe in or properly comprehend our true nature as creators. Sure, we continue to imagine “what if” scenarios but sometimes we find it difficult to allow those thoughts to flow through us—the conduit—and blossom into the stories they need to become.

The following list isn’t a step-by-step “how to” guide, because no one can tell you precisely what you need to do to access your inner story. You are a totally unique entity, after all. View it more as a broom to help you sweep away the clutter piled up on the footpath to your personal tale.

1. Examine your self-image.

The first battle you must face is the one against your self-image. You are more than pen and paper, more than a keyboard, more than “just another writer” or more than whatever obstacle your past or conditioning has placed in your path. The main reason why most writers fail to connect with their inner story is because of their limited knowledge of who they truly are.

As flawed human beings we are so engrossed with the perceptions of who we are that we fail to see that we are usually the source for the reality we have created for ourselves. Sure, the walls of the prison may have been constructed by events of the past, by family, peers or environment, but we continue to fortify the walls and never once open the lock–the key is always in our possession–push the cell door to step out into freedom.

This in no way suggests you have to deconstruct your self-image–unless that’s your goal, then by all means, have at it. You’re merely peeling away the layers of the identity you’ve created for yourself for societal purposes and exposing your core self, the real you. Don’t worry, it’s only for the exercise of writing. You can reapply your layers once you’re done.

Your secret identity is safe with me.

2. Take note of your gifts.

Different from writer traits–talent, the hunger for knowledge, and diligence–a writer’s gift can range from an eye for detail, to a flair for description, to a talent for dialogue. Or, you might not even be aware of your talents, so I want you to grab a piece of paper and something to write with and in 60 seconds jot down a list of what you’re good at. Don’t think about it. Simply jot down, off the top of your head, the things that come easiest to you when you write.

All done? Now take a long, hard, honest look at your list. The things you don’t concentrate on, those bits and bobs that just sort of come naturally to you when you write… those are your gifts. You’d be surprised to discover how many writers aren’t aware of their innate skills because they aren’t utilized in their everyday work lives and wind up being placed in the “Hobby” category.

3. Exploit your strengths. 

Since you’re bothering to read this, my guess is that you’ve written a couple of pieces already and maybe even finished a few of them. Now, if you’re an avid reader, you will have no doubt compared your piece to your author idols, and have developed the brutally honest ability to cast a critical eye upon your own work and spot areas in your writing that aren’t as strong as others. And since the writing isn’t perfect, you are therefore a horrible writer who should no longer legally be allowed to string a sentence together in an email, let alone write a story.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe you really are a bad writer–hey, they exist–but that’s not my call to make. I don’t know you, so I’ll assume you at least have some fundamental writing potential. However, no matter how good you are, there is one basic truth you must learn to face: Your writing will never be perfect. Why? As stated in a previous post: Because wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and perfection isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time. Still, you should always strive to get your writing as close to perfection as you can manage, and accept the fact that: It. Will. Not. Be. Perfect.

Maybe you can’t write a convincing love scene. Maybe you struggle with organic dialogue. Maybe you get stumped when attempting to create a character’s internal arc. Maybe you’re rubbish at tying up all your story’s loose threads. Console yourself in the knowledge that you wouldn’t be the first. A few of these “weaknesses” and more are true for authors of published works, some of which even make bestseller lists.

And because, as a writer, you are always a student and ever pushing yourself and learning new ways to hone your craft, you will eventually learn to strengthen your weaknesses. In the meantime, put all of the aspects of your writing into perspective, make a deal to stop beating yourself up so much, and focus on your strengths. They’re your “A” game.

4. Gird your loins against the enemy.

In addition to dealing with possible self-image barriers, there are other obstacles that can block your path: Fear, intimidation, procrastination, and self-doubt. The problem with these buggers is that they often take the form of lies you tell yourself. And they happen to be effective as hell because they insulate your brain from facing unpleasantries, in this case the difficult portions of the writing process that you need to slog through in order to strike gold.

The biggest lie you can tell yourself as a writer is, “I’ll do it later.” It’s a dishonest postponement because later never comes. If you don’t confront the enemies that keep you from your writing and tamp the bastards down long enough to complete your piece, then you don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Staring into the gaping maw of the harsh realities that terrify you is one of the most important parts of the process.

Slap a “H” on your chest and “Handle” it.

5. Identify your genre.

At this point, you arch an eyebrow and ask, “Rhyan, how can anyone not know the genre of their story?”

The answer lies within the fact that writers are creators. Some are resistant to the notion of placing labels or classifications on their work. For others, classification difficulties arise when their piece contains elements from several genres as some writers disagree with the act of limiting creative freedom in order to adhere to strictly delineated genre segregation.

For your audience, knowing the genre sets not only the stage, but their expectations as well, and puts them in the proper mindset to both understand and accept the rules of your story.

At this stage in the process, the importance of identifying your genre has to do with story mechanics. Certain elements step to the forefront and operate differently depending on genre, so you should be aware of the rules of the category–even if you decide to break them because of the maverick you are–as you’re arranging your idea into the proper story structure (see: Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline).

6. Plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story.

This is your story. First and foremost, it must feel natural to you. No matter how fantastical the environment, how outrageous the yarn you’re spinning, if you don’t feel confident in the pocket dimension you’ve created, there’s little chance of you selling the story as being credible. Your job is to take utter nonsense and portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

7. Go with your gut.

Some people seek permission to write. Thinly disguised under the “Oh, it’s just an idea I’m toying with” veil, they will ask family and friends if they should write about such-and-such or if this-that-or-the-other-thing would make an interesting topic.

I urge you not to be this person.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jerome Lawrence, “The whole point of writing is to have something in your gut or in your soul or in your mind that’s burning to be written.” So, if you can actually feel inspiration or instinct churning like hot snakes in your gut to write, forget the opinions of those around you, disregard the idea of “should” and just go for it.

Never live with regret, if you can help it.

8. Do it now. No better time than the present. 

To snatch a line from Pixar’s Ratatouille “Why not here? Why not now?”

By now you know you must show up for writing everyday, and there’s no time like the present. So, why not find yourself a quiet spot, practice listening, and trust what you hear. That’s your inner story talking to you, and it not only has to be unlocked but it must be accessible at will.

I know it’s become hackneyed to instruct you to follow your bliss, but if you deny your instincts to do what you truly want to do, then the problem becomes one of trust. Do you trust the voice within you or do you trust reality as you are made to perceive it? Or, are you willing to trust the voice and write what you hear, no matter how crazy it sounds?

You have to learn to be compassionate with yourself, as well as having compassion for yourself. Especially during the vulnerable times when you’re blocked and can’t bring yourself to write because you’re scared you’ll be rejected. Take some small comfort in knowing you’re not alone in this.

Since all art must be criticized, every single published author had to overcome fear of rejection. What you need to keep in mind is that your audience–human, just the same as you–can only relate to your writing from their own experience, and sometimes their feedback will be negative. That doesn’t necessarily indicate problems in your writing, and may simply reflect a varying viewpoint.

But fear of rejection has no business rearing its ugly head right now as it’s time for you to honor your inner story by listening to the words it shares with you and writing about it. Trust me, if you’re willing to enjoy the process, you can write damn near anything.

So, why not sally forth and be inner story writeful?

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

A Special Brand of Bravery

In yesterday’s post, villains took center stage so it’s only fitting that the heroes receive a little equal time. In a future post I plan on discussing the anatomy of a hero (all right, guttermind, give it a rest) but today I’d like to explore the key ingredient your protagonist must possession to some degree in order to attract your audience and keep them invested:

Bravery.

And it should come as no surprise to any of you that if I’ve brought the subject up, there must be more than one type of courage you may either instill or bestow upon your hapless hero:

1. Heroic Bravery is the most typical brand of courage found in fictional characters nowadays, where the protagonist places themselves in jeopardy for the protection of others or to further a cause in which they passionately believe, knowing in their heart of hearts that the risk to their own well-being is completely worth it.

2. Steadfast Bravery is usually displayed by someone who routinely endures a mental or physical dangerous situation and challenges fate by meeting it head on with patient doggedness every single day.

3. Quiet Bravery, often confused with cowardice, is an offshoot of steadfast bravery where the situations are less physically dangerous. Protagonists maintain their sense of self-worth and hope as they handle their business with grace and patience.

4. Personal Bravery is exactly what it says on the tin. The protagonist risks everything for a chance at a better life as they pursue their seemingly impossible dreams. This type of bravery speaks to us all as we’ve all experienced it in some fashion at one time or another.

5. Devil-May-Care Bravery comes from protagonists that feel they have nothing left to live for–the loss of everything dear to them, a terminal illness, etc.–so they display insane courage in order to meet their inevitable death with open arms on their terms.

6. Frightened Bravery is easily the most interesting type of courage to explore within a protagonist. A character that normally chooses flight in fight-or-flight situations that has either mentally or physically been backed into a corner and forced to face their fears and rise above them can be viewed as the bravest of all the courageous archetypes (and it makes for one hell of a character arc).

The best thing about these? You’re not limited to one type per character, in fact, your protagonist may display each and every one of these types of bravery as they trod along their hero’s path. Your job as creator is to recognize which category suits your character best in order to fully flesh them out on the page.

Sally forth bravely and be writeful.

 

Every Villain is a Hero

“Every villain is a hero in his or her own mind.” – Allison Brennan

What suits a hero best? That which opposes them. Despite the fact your protagonist is an expert in whatever field applies to your story, the very best at what they do, they’re only really as strong as their antagonist.  And how do you create a strong antagonist? By not treating them like a mustache-twirling villain.

While your shouldn’t limit yourself to the suggestions below, here are the most common antagonist archetypes writers tend to use for ideas and inspiration:

The Immoral Antagonist

Easily the most popular form of antagonist–the person your audience will have no trouble hating. They’re usually set in clear contrast against the hero. The lines are drawn in varying shades of black and white, and readers have no problem choosing whom to root for.

1. The Hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. They may be guilty of all sorts of treachery and evil, but on the surface they’re all sweetness and light. They put a righteous face on their misdeeds–perhaps even accusing the protagonist of hypocrisy to disguise their own–but the audience knows the truth: this person isn’t just bad, they’re a fraud, which makes them all the more hateable.

2. The Psycho is simply evil through and through. No excuses, no thread of goodness leading them back to redemption. They’re rotten to the core… and crazy to boot. Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill and if you do your job properly, your audience will not only hate the psycho, but fear them as well.

3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for an Illegitimate Reason who has let their weaknesses get the better of them. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do extraordinary evil.

The Moral Antagonist

In the moral antagonist we find a more complicated—and often more compelling—character, since they presents more parallels than contrasts with the protagonist. This is a person who is doing the right thing—as they see it—and usually for the right reasons, but who has nonetheless been forced to do battle with the hero, thanks to the requirements of your story’s overall conflict.

1. The Good Guy on the Opposing Side is usually present in stories where the conflict is between good people with opposing views who appear on both sides of the battle lines. Lawyers fighting each other for causes in which they each believe passionately, football teams competing for a championship, two love interests trying to win the same girl—none of them have to be inherently bad. Stories of this nature can provide all kinds of interesting possibilities for exploring the grey areas of life, relationships, and morality.

2. The Crusader can be insanely scary in their own right, someone who fiercely believes they’re doing the right thing, and indeed may well be fighting for a good cause. They may be someone who believes they’ve to choose between the lesser of two evils in their decisions. Or they may be someone driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by their passion for the cause. In fact, they may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.

3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for a Legitimate Reason because they feel they have no choice. A character who robs a bank to pay for their family member’s operation or to save themselves from the Mafia’s threats may be a hero in their own right—or they may be a compelling and relatable antagonist to the detective protagonist who has to go after them.

So, what are you waiting for? Walk a mile in your antagonist’s shoes, see the world from their point of view, empathize with their plight, understand the justifications for their actions. In other words, treat them with the same love and respect you do your hero for they’re equally as important to the overall success of your story.

Sally forth and be writeful.

I Question Your Character (and so should you)

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As stated in a previous post, hand in hand with creating a strong premise for your story, developing believable characters to fill your imaginary world is an essential part of constructing fiction. The best way for your audience to identify with characters lies in your ability to understand them fully, and the best way for you to accomplish this is to talk to them, or better yet, ask them a series of questions. It’s important that you don’t allow them be evasive and certainly do not take no for an answer.

Don’t worry, you won’t be asking them complicated things like their strategy on balancing the nation’s budget, why the burning sun doesn’t incinerate itself, or how do you solve a problem like Maria? The list of questions below are relatively basic, some which have occurred to you and others that most likely haven’t. And even though most of their answers aren’t particularly relevant to your story and probably won’t come up in conversation, it will aid you in understanding the inner workings of their nonexistent minds.

You’ll notice that the questions have been broken up into bite-sized nuggets, thus making the task of developing your characters less insurmountable, and offering you a coffee or ciggie butt break between your interrogation, should you need it. Now, without further ado:

101 Character Development Questions (grill ‘em like a steak!)

Character Development Questions #1 – The Basics

These are the first questions you need to answer about your character – the stuff you probably need to know to get started.

  1. Name?
  2. Age?
  3. Approximate height?
  4. Approximate weight?
  5. Hair color?
  6. Eye color?
  7. Skin tone?
  8. Do they speak with an accent?
  9. Where are they from?
  10. Where are they now?

Character Development Questions #2 – Backstory

Developing a solid backstory for your characters is essential – even if you don’t put much or any of it in the narrative. The more you treat your character as though they are a real person, the more real they’ll become.

  1. Who are their parents? Biologically and socially.
  2. What is their earliest memory?
  3. What did they want to be when they grew up?
  4. What did/do their parents want them to be?
  5. Do they have siblings? Older or younger? Brothers or sisters?
  6. Do they have or have they ever had children? How many?
  7. Do they or have ever had a significant other? Are they still with them? Why? Why not?
  8. What were they doing right before the story starts?
  9. Up until now, what’s the most noteworthy thing they’ve done? To them? To the people around them?
  10. What was their education like?

Character Development Questions #3 – Tastes

Your characters likes and dislikes is possibly the most overt part of ‘who they are’.

  1. What’s your character’s favorite color?
  2. Do they/would they choose to wear a scent? What would it be?
  3. Do they care about what things look like? All things, or only some?
  4. What’s their favorite ice cream flavor?
  5. Are they a tea, or coffee drinker? Or soft drinks, or do they drink a lot of alcohol? What kind?
  6. What kind of books do they read? What TV shows and movies do they watch?
  7. What kind of music do they like? Do they like music at all?
  8. If they were about to die, what would they have as their last meal?
  9. Are they hedonistic? In all cases? Or does practicality sometimes/always/often win out?
  10. Do they have any philias or phobias?

Character Development Questions #4 – Morals, Beliefs, and Faith

A character’s moral code and beliefs can offer a lot of insights on their motives, and the likelihood of their taking a given course of action.

  1. Do they have an internal (something that they’ve come up with for themselves) or an external (something handed to them via religion, family traits, etc.) moral code?
  2. To what extent are their actions dictated by this code?
  3. Do they believe in a God or Gods/Goddesses/Higher being of some description?
  4. Are they superstitious?
  5. Do they value faith/instinct more highly than reason?
  6. Do they believe in an afterlife? If so, what’s it like?
  7. Do they have any specific beliefs that manifest obviously?
  8. Are the respectful of the beliefs of others? To what extent?
  9. Have they ever had to stand up to criticism for being religious? Or not being religious?
  10. Would they be more likely to act for the good of the one, or the good of the many?

Character Development Questions #5 – Relationships

It would be difficult to write a character who never interacted with anyone else. We learn more about a character from the way other people react to them than by their actions alone.

  1. Do they make friends easily?
  2. Do they have a best friend?
  3. Can they get people to do what they want them to? If so, how?
  4. Do they have a lot of romantic relationships? Serious, or short term?
  5. Do they fall in and out of love easily?
  6. Do strangers and acquaintances actually like them when they meet?
  7. Do they have a network (people they’re connected to without necessarily knowing)?
  8. What is their relationship like with their family?
  9. Are they still in touch with non-family people they were in touch with a year ago? Five years? Ten? More?
  10. Do they like children? Do they want children of their own?

Character Development Questions #6 – Physical Appearance

Time to play dress up!

  1. How does this character dress? How would they choose to dress, if all options were open to them?
  2. Do they have any tattoos? What do they mean?
  3. Do they have piercings? How many? Is this culturally appropriate for them?
  4. Do they have scars? Where did they come from?
  5. Do they alter their appearance in some way on a regular basis (make up, hair dye, etc.)?
  6. Is there something they’d choose to change about their appearance if they had the opportunity to?
  7. Is there something about their appearance they’re particularly proud of/happy with?
  8. Objectively, are they physically attractive? Fairly plain? Unattractive?
  9. Do they have an accurate mental picture and opinion of their physical appearance?
  10. How much time do they spend thinking about their physical appearance?

Character Development Questions #7 – General Knowledge

How well acquainted is your character with the world around them?

  1. Can they navigate their own local area without getting lost? To what degree?
  2. Do they know who the top politician or monarch is where they live? What about elsewhere?
  3. Do they know if/where there are any major conflicts going on right now?
  4. Do they know the composition of water?
  5. Do they know how to eat a pomegranate (or any other tricky item of food)?
  6. Are they good with the technology available to them? Average? Completely hopeless?
  7. Could they paint a house… without making a mess of it?
  8. Could they bake a cake? Would you eat it if they did?
  9. Do they know how to perform basic maintenance on the common mode of transportation?
  10. Do they know the price of a loaf of bread?

Character Development Questions #8 – Specific Knowledge

What about special skills?

  1. Do they have a specific qualification in a narrow area?
  2. Is there something they do or know exceptionally well that most other people don’t?
  3. Do people often comment on a particular skill or area of knowledge to this character? Behind their back?
  4. Is there an area this character could be considered top of their field or a genius in?
  5. Have they deliberately sought to gain knowledge in a specific area? If so, why?
  6. Do they speak more than one language? More than two? Why?
  7. Does their cultural background effect what they would be expected to know?
  8. Have they ever been publicly acknowledged for being well-versed in something?
  9. Have they ever been bullied for knowing a lot about something?
  10. Do they actively seek new knowledge, or let it come to them naturally?

Character Development Questions #9 – “What if…” Questions

These questions are designed to give you a different perspective on why certain things are important about your character – or why they’re not.

  1. What if they’d been born with a different biological sex?
  2. What if they’d have more or less siblings?
  3. What if a key formative event in their past had gone differently?
  4. What if they lost a limb?
  5. What if someone close to them died unexpectedly?
  6. What if they’d been born 50 years earlier? 100 years? 1000?
  7. What if they’d done something completely different on the morning when the story starts?
  8. What if they found enough money to make them wealthy for the rest of their life in a bag?
  9. What if they were stranded and deserted?
  10. What if they were betrayed by someone they trusted?

Character Development Questions #10 – Miscellany

These are just questions that any real person would likely be able to answer, but a fictional character often can’t.

  1. What did they have for breakfast this morning?
  2. What ridiculous beliefs did they have as a child?
  3. Do they like marshmallow treats?
  4. Do they sleep on their side, front, or back?
  5. Do they work better with sound or silence?
  6. Do they have a strange obsession with something minor?
  7. Do they like art?
  8. How fast can they run?
  9. Do they prefer to sit on the floor or on a chair?
  10. What do they want, right now?

Question 101 – Why Should Give A Tinker’s Damn About Your Character?

Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?

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Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of the tedious, yet invaluable character question list. Hopefully it helps. Now stop standing around here gawking. Sally forth and be writeful.

Enjoy your holiday weekend (and you really should have invited me over for barbeque. Next year, eh?)

50 Questions That Can Help Free Your Mind (to concentrate on writing… hopefully)

The common advice for freeing your mind to write is to create a journal. I’m fairly certain that most of you have either 1) created a journal that you may or may not keep current, or 2) heard the advice and decided journaling isn’t for you (hey, it happens).

So, what other options do you have when you’ve lost your self in a quagmire of self-pity, mundane daily obligations and insurmountable life woes and can’t quite seem to maintain your true identify or nurture your creative center?

Why, you slap on your pith helmet, turn your gaze inward, and explore that largely ignored country of your core self, naturally. And the best way to accomplish this is with the list below. Why a list? Because you’re a writer and writers love lists.

Be advised that there are no right or wrong answers because sometimes simply asking the right questions is the answer.

  1. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
  2. Which is worse, failing or never trying?
  3. If life is so short, why do we do so many things we don’t like and like so many things we don’t do?
  4. When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
  5. What is the one thing you would most like to change about the world?
  6. If happiness was the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
  7. Are you doing what you believe in, or are you settling for what you are doing?
  8. If the average human life span was 40 years, how would you live your life differently?
  9. To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
  10. Are you more worried about doing things right, or doing the right things?
  11. You are having lunch with three people you respect and admire. They all start criticizing a close friend of yours, not knowing she is your friend. The criticism is distasteful and unjustified. What do you do?
  12. If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
  13. Would you break the law to save a loved one?
  14. Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
  15. What is something you know you do differently than most people?
  16. How come the things that make you happy don’t make everyone happy?
  17. What is one thing have you not done that you really want to do? What’s holding you back?
  18. Are you holding onto something you need to let go of?
  19. If you had to move to a state or country besides the one you currently live in, where would you move and why?
  20. Do you push the elevator button more than once? Do you really believe it makes the elevator faster?
  21. Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
  22. Why are you, you?
  23. Have you been the kind of friend you want as a friend?
  24. Which is worse, when a good friend moves away, or losing touch with a good friend who lives right near you?
  25. What are you most grateful for?
  26. Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
  27. Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?
  28. Has your greatest fear ever come true?
  29. Do you remember that time 5 years ago when you were extremely upset? Does it really matter now?
  30. What is your happiest childhood memory? What makes it so special?
  31. At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?
  32. If not now, then when?
  33. If you haven’t achieved it yet, what do you have to lose?
  34. Have you ever been with someone, said nothing, and walked away feeling like you just had the best conversation ever?
  35. Why do religions that support love cause so many wars?
  36. Is it possible to know, without a doubt, what is good and what is evil?
  37. If you just won a million dollars, would you quit your job?
  38. Would you rather have less work to do, or more work you actually enjoy doing?
  39. Do you feel like you’ve lived this day a hundred times before?
  40. When was the last time you marched into the dark with only the soft glow of an idea you strongly believed in?
  41. If you knew that everyone you know was going to die tomorrow, who would you visit today?
  42. Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by 10 years to become extremely attractive or famous?
  43. What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
  44. When is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards, and just go ahead and do what you know is right?
  45. If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
  46. What would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you?
  47. When was the last time you noticed the sound of your own breathing?
  48. What do you love? Have any of your recent actions openly expressed this love?
  49. In 5 years from now, will you remember what you did yesterday? What about the day before that? Or the day before that?
  50. Decisions are being made right now. The question is: Are you making them for yourself, or are you letting others make them for you?

Sally forth and be free-mindedly writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Writer’s Rut Is A Pain In The Butt

Calvin and Hobbes PanicWell, it is if you actually believe in it. I’ve run into more than my fair share of scribes who emphatically state that writer’s block is about as real as Santa, the Easter Bunny, or Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs. I’m of the opinion that if it’s real to you, then it exists. But whichever side of the fence you personally stand on, there’s no denying the fact that writers, somewhere during the process of penning their magnum opus, can get stuck.

The first telltale sign of blockage is Oculos Computator, better known as The Stare. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know exactly what I mean. Hinder parked in your favorite writing chair, knuckles cracked, fingers nimble and hovering above your keyboard… when you become mesmerized by the siren song—I always hear Bali Hai from South Pacific—of the vast white void of your computer screen.

But you’re a determined writer, so you shake it off, gird your loins, and make resolute your desire to put words to paper. The problem is you can’t. That scene that’s so clear in your mind has suddenly become uncomfortable and difficult to write. Your synopsis refuses to mold itself into story form. An unbridgeable chasm has open up between you and the end of the story. The next scene (or chapter) is an empty pit of nothingness that stares back at you like the abyss and mocks your talent and very existence. Somehow—not through any fault of your own, surely—your characters have all been written into inescapable corners. But you have to write, that ache is in your bones, so what do you wind up doing? You rewrite, edit, rewrite, and edit what’s already been written instead of moving on.

That, my friend, is the kiss of death for creativity.

So, what are the workarounds? Hate to break it to ya, kiddo, but there ain’t no one surefire method. It’s like that line from the Diff’rent Strokes theme, “What might be right for you, may not be right for some.”

What’s that? You think that’s a cop out answer? You want what? Actual advice, even though everybody and their mother uses a different approach? Fine. Here are some of the more popular methods, in a nutshell:

Plot the story out beforehand. It’s akin to knowing the destination before you begin the journey. Stop whinging, you artsy bastard. Sure, preplanned structure can be viewed as limiting the creative spontaneity of your currently unwritten baby, but it’s only a suggested story path that you can alter along the way. Nothing’s written in stone—rewrites’ll drive that point home soon enough, trust me—until your work has been published.

Gender swap. As silly as it might sound, tinkering with the XX and XY chromosomes of your protagonist or antagonist actually helps change the character’s viewpoints and perspective. Or if you’re not up to playing God—who are you kidding? You’re a writer. You think you’re God, go on and admit it—try switching up your writing style. If you normally write in first person, why not give third person a go?

Dora, of Explorer fame, is keen to shout, “Swiper, no swiping!” But you ain’t her and no one’s watching, so why not rip a page from the Star Trek TV series plot device book (from Next Generation to Enterprise) and give your characters a mini goal they must accomplish and pair them up with other characters they absolutely cannot stand. Conflict is story. Just ask Moses. It was written on the back of one of the stone tablets. Trust me on this.

Don’t allow yourself to get hung up on formatting, grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and all that crap, and save editing for the very end. Right now, your goal is to transport that nagging story from the ether of your mind and plunk it firmly down on the page. You’ll have plenty of time to go back and gussy it up later.

And the simplest bit of advice I can offer any of you lazy sods who positively hates following patterns and formulas or doing any sort of precursor to writing; the quick and dirty solution to putting the boots to writer’s block is to stop waiting for your muse—she’s really not that into you and it’s embarrassing how you chase her around like a lovesick puppy—and simply write. Let your thoughts spill out and let it be awful and unstructured and nonsensical, just as long as you’re actively engaging in the process of writing. Hell, start a blog. Works for me.

Now, what are you doing still staring at this? Stop procrastinating. Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Your Writing Says More About Your Character Than You Realize

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Creating worlds? That’s the easy bit. Populating them with three dimensional characters… that’s a bit trickier. Whether you write for a living, a hobby, for sport, or just to have a laugh, you will eventually reach a point in your storytelling where you’re forced to pluck the innocent bystanders from your life and slap them smack dab in the middle of your literary dreamscape. Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to us all.

But just because a fictional character has a fleshy counterpart, imbued with their quirks, verbal crutches and personality tics, it doesn’t always mean they’re actually memorable.

So, how do you combat that? Dig, my friend. You need to burrow underneath the surface layer affectations and unearth the true source of their core character and examine what piqued your interest in the first place.

Even the most boring person you know can be a source of inspiration in your writing if you scratch the surface carefully enough. As corny as it sounds, we all carry within us a wealth of creativity and inspiration. Your job is to look deeper.

One of the most important parts of being a writer, aside from textual flourishes and clever turns of phrase, is the ability to see the world, both the one you’re creating and the one you live in, through their eyes. What are their views on major and minor things? Are they blessed or cursed with odd perceptions of the way the world should and/or actually works? Do they engage in activities that exist outside social norms?

Once you’ve identified these tidbits, you have the first building blocks for your memorable character’s foundation. But it’s only the beginning. You’ll need to build on this in order to make your newly birthed person dynamic.

Since you’re not creating a clone or an exact replica of your best bud or the nosy neighbor down the hall who tracks you via her peephole every time you leave or enter your front door—seriously, lady, get a life—you’ll want to take a few pages from Baron Victor von’s notebook and Frankenstein your creation up a bit.

If you do your job properly, your patchwork person will seem more believable because they contain traits your friends have that you secretly covet—we covet what we see everyday, Clarice—family member habits that absolutely drive you up the wall, as well as the little insecure bits of yourself you pray nobody really notices (FYI: they do, they’re just too polite to bring it up in conversation). Stop moaning, you’ll always be a part of the mix. You can’t help it. You’re the person you know the best. Yup, it’s true and you heard it here first.

The best thing about your ethereal Prometheus is only you will be able to see the stitches that hold the monstrosity together. To everyone else, the jigsaw pieces fit together seamlessly. But you’re still not done.

You can’t have your bouncing baby entity walking around all starkers—well, you can if you’re writing one of those 50 Shades thingies—so you’ll need to dress them with your imagination and layer in true life details like articles of clothing, substantiating them as a new independent life form while better solidifying your understanding of them.

Then, to top things off, dab them with a little Eau de real desires—just behind the ears—and spray obstacles in the air and have them walk through the mist, before you powder them down with motivations.

And voilà! Take a step back and view your bonafide multidimensional, absolutely-fictional-but-seems-so-damn-real-it’s-scary character. Now all you have to do is repeat the process several more times.

Hey, I never said this would be easy.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Various Rules for Writing Fiction by Famous Authors

1. Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

2. Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

3. You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Diana Athill

Roddy Doyle

1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–

3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.

4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.

6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.

8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

9. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.

10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Roddy Doyle

1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3. Read Keats’s letters.

4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

5. Learn poems by heart.

6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.

7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9. Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.

Helen Dunmore

1. Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”

2. Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3. Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4. If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes  ­”photography” and so on. ­Genius!

5. Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6. Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

7. Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

8. Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

9. Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

10. Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

Geoff Dyer

1. The first 12 years are the worst.

2. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

3. Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

4. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

5. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.

6. Try to be accurate about stuff.

7. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

8. You can also do all that with whiskey.

9. Have fun.

10. Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Anne Enright

The Best Judge of Character? Why, 10 Famous Authors, Naturally

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1. “Creation of character is, like much of fiction writing, a mixture of subjective feel and objective control.” — Julian Barnes

2. “Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.” — Elizabeth Bowen

3. “The characters that I create are parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find out what I don’t know yet.” — Gail Godwin

4. “I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.” — Joan Didion

5. “I visualize the characters completely; I have heard their dialogue. I know how they speak, what they want, who they are, nearly everything about them.” — Joyce Carol Oates

6. “When I write, I live with my characters. It’s like going to work. You see the people at the next desk in full regalia all the time, and you know where they came from and where they are going. The point is to define the nuances of everything that’s happening with them and to find the element of their lives that is fascinating enough to record. That takes a lot of doing.” — William Kennedy

7. “Don’t write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story.” — Ethan Canin

8. “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler

9. “It doesn’t matter if your lead character is good or bad. He just has to be interesting, and he has to be good at what he does.” — David Chase

10. “Think of your main characters as dinner guests. Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you’ve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they’d better be compelling.” — Po Bronson