Friday, June 2, 2017

5 Creative Ways to Find Writing Inspiration

Sometimes the creative brain just goes blank at the worst possible moment (like when you're knee deep into act 2 and suddenly forget the protagonist's name). It's just a part of being a writer. Either you have too many ideas (at the worst possible time) or you have so little your brain feels like a wasteland. 

Que internet swooping in to save you.

Whenever I've got a massive block in the middle of a project (or after the fact), I've got a list of five gotos for inspiration and help.

Pick Your Genre (Or, Define it)

Everything hinges on genre.

Are you writing in a popular genre? Maybe drill down into your niche (going through Amazon's sub-genres is really helpful here). 

Whether you're writing coming-of-age fantasy, or historical romance, there will always be tropes that hinge on genre expectations. While this might sound a bit daunting, working inside the box (or, at least starting there) can give you a stepping stone. Say you're writing coming-of-age fantasy fiction with a romance subplot. Readers may expect to follow the childhood life of a protagonist. From that expectation you could create a family tree for the protagonist and find inspiration in their quirky family life.

If your genre is epic fantasy, expect some politics. Do some world-building and you'll almost always find something intriguing about the world you've come up with. 

Maybe you're genre is cyberpunk. If so, readers expect evil corporations or high-tech/low-life. Take current culture and turn it on its head. How can Facebook harm us socially but help with technology? How could the robot revolution turn work culture on its head?

Perhaps fairy tale retellings are more your thing (a sub-genre of fantasy). Readers may expect clean romance, but will always expect a happily ever after ending and a popular fairy tale with a twist. Take Mulan and throw her into a steampunk environment. Take Cinderella and make her a queen, how does that change things?

Genre conventions can give you something to start with and branch out from. Don't be afraid to add a twist to what readers expect!

(TV Tropes is pretty useful for finding genre expectations.)

Research Your Genre

In a shellnut: read reviews of your genre's top grossing books.

Check out Amazon's top 100 list for your chosen genre and pick out three covers that really stand out to you. 

Read the blurbs. What stands out? What do you like? Dislike? Recognize a pattern between the three?

Check out the five-star reviews. What do reviewers rave about? Demand more of? Then, move on to the one and three-star reviews (three-stars tend to be the most thorough of the critical reviews...I have no idea why). What do they absolutely hate? Is there a pattern between the five, three, and one stars? Is it starting to get a bit hypocritical (five stars loved something that one stars hated)? Remember the pattern.

This exercise is probably the strangest of them all. But after you've looked through the reviews and blurbs you may start to get some ideas on how you can turn genre conventions on their heads. 

Read Bestsellers

This one really speaks for itself.

Joanna Penn talks about "refilling the creative well" once you've finished a project (or are aspiring to begin one). What this basically means is that if you set out to start writing something, first you must read (or check out TV series in your genre). 

This one can be insanely easy, or incredibly hard. You might not have time to read (let alone write) and that's okay! Or, maybe you just hate reading (surprisingly, a lot of writers do). Personally, I use a thing called the Pomodoro Technique to get two hours of reading in a day. 

In a shellnut, all you have to do is set a timer for 25 minutes and read. Once the timer dings, set a timer for 5 minutes and do something else (perferably not phone, TV, or computer related). Do this three more times, and after the third trial set a timer for 15 minutes and relax. 

You can up the time or lower it based on how well you're able to concentrate, but that alone will give you about two hours of awesome reading time.

Look through Pinterest (or your favorite art site)

Trekking through Pinterest or Deviantart for specific images (for a specified amount of time) are great ways to find inspiration.

Here's what I got just by searching Cyberpunk Landscapes and Cyberpunk Cityscapes:
Via Pinterest
Via Pinterest
Images can be pretty inspiring. They can help you see scenes, settings, and even characters in your minds eye. 

Looking for a character idea? Just search something outlandish! Maybe begin with "Character Concept" or just search a title like king or mage.

When coming up with ideas for Winterskin, I searched for a lot of Nordic images (Skyrim was a major inspiration for the setting). Beautiful, twisted, creatures were the main inspiration for the monsters populating Winterskin and Blade and Soul. 

If All Else Fails...

From plot generators to species generators (even star systems and biome generators), you'll find them all on Google. These things are nifty and fun to play around with. It might give your brain a break and maybe you'll even get an idea or two out of one! 

There are hundreds of ways to generate ideas, but these five are my favorite ones! What's your favorite? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Death

A scarlet tongue lolls from the mouth of a decapitated head like a fat caterpillar.

Bloated bodies hang from the gnarled limbs of twisted trees, swinging like shrine bells.

And, at this, your main character shrugs and continues on her way. Why?

It's almost as if we've forgotten the psychological effects of seeing death firsthand. So, let's talk about that.

No Skin Off My Back

We see death every day. Sometimes it pops up on our social media feeds--an entire video of someone murdering someone else. Other times, we see pictures. We see doctored videos and we watch as life escapes from the milky eyes of a corpse, unblinking. Have we dissociated? Crawled so far from the psychological consequences of seeing so much death that we simply don't care anymore? Or, have we drowned our feelings toward death in the pool of our psyches?

The right answer? All of the above. I call it No Skin Off My Back Syndrome because, if the person we see die isn't a friend or a relative--are we really affected by their death? No, and yes.

Truth is, it shows in our writing.

Murder and Mindlessness

What are the psychological effects of seeing a fresh corpse up close? Of witnessing a murder? What would happen to your protagonist? 

Fact one: Your protagonist will change. For better, or for worse. 

Your protagonist could be an experienced marksman with hundreds of kills under his belt. She might be a headhunter who revels in death. He might be a soldier coming back from Iraq. No matter their prior experience with death, seeing it will change them. Again and again and again and again.

Let's say your protagonist hit someone with their truck. Crushed someone's skull with their lifted pickup. It's their first time witnessing death, what would they do? She might dissociate. Literally watch death happen like she's at home watching Netflix. She might feel guilty immediately after, but at the time, she's seeing it almost as if it's not even happening to her. She goes back home and talks about it incessantly. To the point of where no one will listen to her. Someone might even tell her to shut up and get over it. It happened. What can you do?

Or, maybe she explodes emotionally. Maybe she slams on the breaks and tumbles out of the truck, sobbing and vomiting over the splatter of blood across her windshield. Unable to accept the fact that she could not control when that pedestrian would simply stroll out into a busy intersection, she blames herself. She has nightmares. Drinks to cope. She might never drive that pickup again. Might pale at the sight of anything red. Panic attacks whenever she sees someone crossing the street might cause her to seize up and relive the incident over and over again.

Fact two: Your protagonist must cope.

Or, she could just bottle it up. Wait for it to explode in the future. We all cope differently. But the fact still stands that we must cope. Not stare death in the face blankly and continue on with our daily lives as if nothing ever happened. Carelessly talking about the incident like it's something that just happens sometimes, shrugging it off like it's nothing.

Incidents in Commercial Fiction

Careless death is something I see a lot in commercial fiction. Specifically fantasy fiction. An army might charge through a township, leaving a pile of bodies in its wake, and the townspeople just respond to the incident like it's a minor annoyance. A protagonist might be a vampire hunter that kicks all sorts of supernatural ass but never reacts, doesn't bat an eye when a gallon of royal purple blood stains her boots. 

In some instances, death is treated like it is so commonplace that it is just mildly irritating. Like a traffic jam, or a stubbed toe. Even if the protagonist is doing the murdering, she does it so dispassionately you might begin to wonder if these characters are even human (or just lacking empathy altogether). 

Showing a protagonist's dislike of death--or even fear of it--doesn't require a long ruminating paragraph about the characters emotions and feelings after the deed is done. Something as a simple as a reaction--a grimace, a wave of nausea, fists clenched so tight that her fingernails break the skin--is really all you'd need to show that your protagonist does, in fact, have a soul. But neglecting to show your protagonist's reactions to beating someone senseless or murdering a demon can alienate your audience. Or bring them out of the story as they ask themselves why the protagonist mentions murder with such a careless abandon. Maybe it's just our culture?

Who knows? But I will tell you one thing: careless death is a trope I'd like to see die sometime in the near future. And it is not something I'd mourn.

What about you? What are your opinions on death in fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Best Writing Tip Ever: Use Music. Seriously.

Sometimes silence can be deafening. It can bring out your doubts, fears, and worries. Silence might even make you step away from your keyboard and give up for the day. Silence can silence you.

Here are some ways music can help you avoid that.

Music and Brainstorming

We've all been there, staring at the blank page wondering--what's going to happen next? Or, maybe even--where in the hell do I even start?! You've got an outline, you've got a beatsheet, but just thinking about fleshing that out into an entire novel makes you freeze up like a deer glaring into an oncoming truck's headlights. 

That's where music comes in. Swoops in like a superhero. When I'm frozen in place, I turn to soundtracks from movies or video games. They've always got a throughline beat, which makes it extremely easy to just loop a track and get lost in the music as you backtrack and visualize the scene you're trying to write. 

Music and Focus

Have you ever entered a writing flow state? While writing to the beat of Erik Satire's Gymnopedie during a transition scene, it's easy to get lost and simply flow with the story. Now, while achieving flow is also possible with complete silence, I've found that it's easier to kick out my inner critic if I've got a piece of particular piece of music playing.

Flowing with the story may also require that you understand your story's structure before you move along and let your characters be. Story structure comes naturally to us--as long as we're ignoring our inner critic as we write. What's the best way to ignore a frustrating know-it-all buzzing in your ear like a mosquito? Music.

Music and Inspiration

Writer's block and writer's burnout are all too common when you write every single day. It can be unavoidable, especially when new ideas just aren't coming as fast as they used to. Or, if they're coming so fast you feel as if you simply cannot finish the current project you're working on because you've got this burst of inspiration nagging at you telling you to start another. With both problems, listening to music can help you in two ways: 1. in brainstorming for your next novel idea, and 2. in brainstorming for your current project. 

If you've got the urge to throw your current project in the recycle bin, try closing it. Try sitting back in your chair and visualizing the ending you're working toward. Pull up Youtube and search out epic soundtracks (Two Steps from Hell make some pretty inspirational tracks) that you wouldn't mind blasting in your headphones for ten or so minutes. With the music, write down everything you love about your current project (or, what you used to love, anyway). Get excited about finishing--about writing your next scene, about pulling through to your next plot point. 

And if you're absolutely determined to just scrap your novel and start fresh, try brainstorming about that awesome new idea. Chances are, you'll find that it's not as shiny and special as you thought it was while plowing through the doldrums of your current project. If it is, take the time to journal about it. Find some fresh new music and let that be the soundtrack to your brainstorming session. This is something I recommend all writers do especially if you're like me and you get loads of new ideas every writing session that you can't just drop into your current project. Brainstorming new ideas is a great mental workout that will often pull you out of the doldrums and set you with the inspiration to write.

What are your thoughts on listening to music while writing? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 5, 2017

One Weird Trick for Boosting Your Writing Productivity

What's the difference between 10,000 word days and 500 word days? Or, maybe you're having a bit of writer's block and can't seem to stop surfing the net for a cure? We've all been there, trust me. What's the cure-all for slow writing days and days where you feel like you can't write anything at all?


There, I said it. Time.

When we feel as if a project is too big for us we freeze up. Maybe there's a pretty awesome fight scene you've outlined thoroughly, but when you're about to place pen to paper you worry--am I really fit to write this? I am ready?--and eventually, that worry turns to inaction. Not only have you not written the fight scene, but you've turned away from your word processor to google--fight scenes, fight scenes, fight scenes--and no article is turning up the information that you need. Trying to get past a block like this? It's easy.

Set a timer.

That's it. Set a writing timer for 30 minutes--maybe even just 10 minutes--and in that time, see what you can get done. Break the scary scene or the big bad project down into little blocks of 10-15 minute writing sprints. Then, tell yourself--I can do anything for ten minutes--because, the truth is, that you can. When we break seemingly impossible things down into bite sized chunks they don't seem so big and bad anymore. Like running a marathon or getting through one of George R.R. Martin's tome-sized novels, break it down into chunks if it seems too big, too dastardly, and begin again from there.

Novel writing is kind of like long distance running (to me, at least). Running that three miler, you're always going to feel like stopping. Your lungs will burn, your thighs will ache--but every moment, every second of that jog, you decide to keep going. That decision isn't something you just make at the beginning of the run and hold onto, it's a decision you continue to make every single time your sneakers hit the pavement--I'm going to keep going. I can do this. Just like in running, while writing you must consciously make the decision to keep going. Break it down if you have to, just keep writing. Because no one else can write your story like you. And it's a damn good feeling knowing you've done what most aspiring writers don't ever do--finish. You've finished the race.

Set a timer. 30 minutes on, 5 minutes off; and keep going. 

If you need some tools to add to your toolbox, I've got you covered. If you have an iPhone, I personally use the Focus Timer application. But, the truth is, you don't even have to download anything--iPhones have a timer right on the clock app!

As for Android users I recommend Ovo (it's got a beautiful interface).

This week I wrote my first beat sheet line for line, scene for scene. Normally I'm an organic writer, so why change now? Well, for me the difference between 500 word days and 10,000 word days is knowing what I'm going to write next before I write it. So, I've gone to the outlining side of things in the hopes of keeping up with a personal challenge of a book a month (NaNoWriMo every month! Can you believe that?). 

Have any suggestions for timers? Or maybe I've missed something? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, April 28, 2017

3 Thought Provoking Questions For Crafting Unforgettable Antagonists

Your antagonist can breathe a little extra life into your story, or flatten it. Wholly. Just like we know our heroes as well as we know ourselves, we should get to know our antagonist as if they are the hero. Because it's no secret that every antagonist believes they're the hero of their own story.

1. Why do I love this character?

If you've ever read James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure (which I recommend you do!) you may have come across this question. Getting to know your antagonist--finding qualities that you not only adore but respect--can help you understand your antagonist more and see him as more than a villain with a villainous top hat. Your antagonist is a living, breathing, person that doesn't only exist to create barriers for the hero. He has massive stakes in your story that may have bigger consequences than your protagonists! 

2. What draws the line for this character?

Would you antagonist refuse to pursue the hero if he had to destroy a pet cemetery in the process? Perhaps your antagonist hates modern weapons with a passion and only uses spears (think No Country for Old Men). Maybe this character is extremely spiritual and only does battle using words and manipulation. Maybe he is well liked in his community, so he only uses goons to do his dirty work? There are millions of possibilities here. Finding out what your antagonist wouldn't do under any circumstances humanizes and empathizes him. It makes him seem that much more real and all the more dangerous.

3. Is there a way out (for your antagonist)?

Is there a way for your antagonist to avoid any dealings at all with the hero? Is there a way for him to avoid being the antagonist? Just like how your protagonist must be locked in this situation, the antagonist must be locked in too. Maybe he is forced to stand as a bulwark against the hero because of blackmail. Perhaps his daughter is in the hands of a higher power, a greater evil. Or, maybe he's just plain old obsessive. Whatever your reasoning, make sure your antagonist has one. Your antagonist shouldn't be able to just pack up and leave town--there should be stakes. Clear reasons as to why he's vehemently against your protagonist winning.

Those are the most important questions that help me unravel my antagonists! Have I missed anything? What questions do you use to flesh out your antagonists? Let me know in the comments!