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Sep
13
Fiction inspires, and where it has inspired good in the world, it has also inspired evil. John Hinckley, Jr. is infamous for shooting President Ronald Reagan, in an attack that wounded three others, including the late gun control advocate James Brady. He claimed to want to impress Jodie Foster after he became obsessed with her from her performance in Taxi Driver.

More recently, two adolescent girls were arrested for attempted murder after luring their peer into the woods and attacking her, in an effort to impress the fictitious character Slenderman. Other attacks and atrocities have been tied to video games and music. Right or wrong, creators are often blamed for atrocities when perpetrators claim to have been inspired by the creators' work.

Thankfully, many creators have not stopped creating as a result of such crimes. In fact, they sometimes respond to the criticism through their chosen medium. After being blamed for inspiring Columbine attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, musician Marilyn Manson dedicated a chapter of his autobiography, The Long, Hard Road Out of Hell to the outcry against him. To this day, he continues creating.

Despite legal protections for creators against criminal liability in such cases, there are those who argue creators have a responsibility to abstain from content that could potentially inspire evil actions. Unfortunately, that argument does not take personal responsibility into account.

The nature of motivation comes into play, and it is imperative for creators to realize motivation is internal. To use an analogy, the sun may inspire an artist, but it cannot pick up a paintbrush for him. A person may claim they were inspired by something to do evil, but they still made the choice to commit the action. Therefore, a creator is not morally responsible for the actions of those inspired by their work.

That lack of liability on legal and moral grounds does not, however, release us as creators from any responsibility whatsoever. Early editions of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk were rumored to contain a recipe for an explosive substance. Later editions of the book and the movie the book inspired omitted certain details, so anyone seeking to create explosives would end up with an inert substance if they followed the instructions given by Tyler Durden.

More recent editions of the novel include a note from the author describing how people responded to the story. He tells of "fight club" themes in everything from rodeos to adult entertainment, mostly used as a marketing tactic. But there were also those who started illegal fighting organizations, committed criminal conspiracies, and even maimed themselves to be like the story's characters. It's clear from the story that the creators did not encourage these actions, yet people did them.

If we as creators wish to avoid censorship, we must censor ourselves proactively. Common sense dictates there is a difference between telling someone about a violent event and laying out the procedure for the event in detail. There is a reason movies and books about crime often fictionalize the names, locations, and layouts of buildings destroyed or otherwise attacked by criminals in a story.

The art of storytelling allows room for "telling it like it is" without providing an instruction manual for chaos. But even if we write a realistic story without providing too many details, there will always be the potential for someone to be inspired toward criminal activity because of our work. That's not our problem, frankly, and we would do well to keep from blaming ourselves for those actions.

In summary, a creator's responsibility is to tell a good story, while utilizing common sense and empathy to avoid details that make immoral or criminal activities easy. Certainly someone could find instructions for anything, but it's important that we aren't the ones to provide that information. While no one but we can decide what we consider immoral, there is always a way to tell a good story and steer clear of dangerous content.

If we do find ourselves at the center of controversy, we are at least in charted territory. Many creators have faced accusations and criticism for inspiring violence, but have continued to create in spite of--and often because of--those accusations. The most we can ask of ourselves is to live decently within the law, and tell a good story. If we've done that, we can be certain that anyone accusing us of inciting violence has no ground to stand upon.
Aug
09
Why are characters so important?
One of the most important aspects of fiction is the characters. Stories are all about people (and creatures or things which, to all intents and purposes, act like people). No matter how good your plot is, or how realistic your setting, if the characters don’t work your reader won’t enjoy the story.

Readers need to feel that they understand your characters. This means that their motives need to be clear, their actions need to make sense, and the reader needs to be able to empathise with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they like them, just that they can get inside the characters’ heads and understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why.

The problem of empathy in autism
There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. People with autism and aspergers often struggle with cognitive empathy, which makes it harder for us to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they know and do not know. Often we have to work this out logically from knowledge we already have or patterns we have observed previously, rather than doing it spontaneously or naturally through our interactions with people. Sometimes our understanding of other people takes more time, and we realise things about people after the interaction has already finished.

How does this problem of empathy apply in writing?
A character is not a real person. Even if it is based on a real person, the character itself is not real. However, empathy still applies when writing a story. When you are writing a story, there are two perspectives influencing what gets written down: the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the character.

Writing the story from the perspective of the author is a problem because the author already knows everything about the story. He/she also knows everything about all the other characters. So if the author’s own perspective ‘bleeds’ into those of the characters, it distorts the characters’ points of view. The character will appear to know things that they should not know; or they might think, feel, say and do things which do not make sense in the context of the story (for example if these thoughts, feelings, words and actions are those of the author).

So in order to correctly portray your character, you have to take their perspective. You have to put yourself into their mind and think not about what you are thinking and feeling, not what you know or would do in their situation, but about them. In other words, you have to empathise with your character in just the same way as you would with a real person.

Lets look at an example to illustrate this point. Our main character is a little boy called Simon. Simon’s parents are arguing behind a closed door. Simon can’t open the door, or his parents will know he is listening. However, he can’t hear his parents’ whispers well through the door, so only hears fragments. Later, Simon is telling his sister what he heard. In order to know what he knows, the writer has to empathise with Simon. What can he reasonably know in this situation? And which parts of the argument (which you, the author, already know) represent knowledge he cannot have? This is crucially important, because it will affect the realism of the character and of how he chooses to act on his knowledge. If he acts on information he shouldn’t know, his actions will appear unrealistic.

A further complication: ‘double’ empathy
Your characters are interacting with other characters. That means they also have to empathise. So you have to take the perspective of one character and then consider what he/she knows about other characters. So we have to get inside Simon’s head and work out what he knows about his parents’ argument. Now we have to think about how Simon will understand what his sister is thinking and feeling, and what she already knows or does not know, during his interaction with her. For example, when he tells her that he heard the word ‘divorce’ through the door, his sister will react. But what does this reaction mean? That depends. Does she understand what the word ‘divorce’ means? If so, she might be shocked. If not, she might be confused. Could she already have known that her parents were talking about divorce? And how does Simon know that she knows this?

As you can see empathising with characters is not simple. It’s easy to get tied up in knots thinking not only about what your character is thinking and feeling and what he/she knows, but also about what they know of the perspectives of other characters and how this interplay of perspectives affects their communication and interaction.

Strategies for writing characters
So empathy, which is a fundamental difficulty in autism, is central to writing realistic and consistent characters. But all is not lost. There are things you can do to make this easier, and they mirror the strategies you might use when trying to empathise with people in real life.

Ensure your body is regulated
Unmet sensory needs will affect your information processing. Empathy is a cognitive process, so sensory dysregulation will impair your ability to take your characters’ perspectives effectively. Before you start writing, or even thinking about writing, do what you need to do to regulate your body. That might mean moving around, fidgeting, or making some noise if you are a sensory seeker, or adjusting the environment (e.g. lighting, background noise, resonance in the room etc) if you are hyper-sensitive to any of these things. Take regular breaks while you are working to check you are still regulated, as sometimes bodily and sensory dysregulation can creep in and affect thinking without you realising it—especially if you are very focused on what you are doing.

Slow down
This is easier when writing than when interacting with a real person. Sometimes it takes time to process information about others’ perspectives, and this is true when writing fiction as well. When you are writing, you have the luxury of slowing down and taking the time you need to work out your character’s perspective.

Work backwards
It can be hard to start from a character’s current position, take their perspective, and work out their actions from that point. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what you want the character to do next. Then, consider what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it. Then you can fill in the gaps in the detail of the character’s perspective linking one action to another, while keeping their actions consistent with their state of mind.

Go back and forth between inner monologue and actions
When you’re re-reading, keep going back and forth between your descriptions of your characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the things they do as a result of them. Ask yourself if it makes sense that they would say or do what they did in light of their internal state.

Ask someone to check your characters’ actions
If you’re not sure, check with someone else whether your character’s actions make sense in light of what you have told the reader about them (i.e. what they think, feel and know). If they don’t, then it’s possible that you have misjudged or miscommunicated something about your character’s mindset.

Base characters on people you know
Because they’re not real, characters have the potential to do anything. That leaves a lot of scope for them to behave in ways which a real person might not. If you base your characters, even loosely, on people you know well, then it can be easier to take their perspective. This is because you can draw on past experience of interactions with that person when determining the actions they take as a result of their situation.

Include characters with autism
If your main character is autistic, you can be explicit about the fact that they don’t know certain things. This takes some of the burden of empathy away. This is probably a short-term fix, however. The reason for this is that in order for the plot to progress, they will need to learn things that they didn’t know before, which means you need to know those things and find ways for your character to learn them; you also need to be conscious of the things your character doesn’t know, which in itself requires empathy. However, it may be easier to empathise with an autistic character if their mindset more closely reflects your own.

Make detailed character sheets
This will help to consolidate your characters’...
Aug
07
Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.

What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.

In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.

The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.

That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.

For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.

How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.

Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.

Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.

Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!

Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and...
Jul
24
There are some fundamental differences between actual, spoken conversation and the dialog we expect to see in fiction. This means that dialog is one of the most difficult things to make "realistic" in writing, because the idea that we need to make is "realistic" at all is a misapprehension. I'm going to run down a few highlights.

1. People say "um" and "uh." Characters do not.

It's not that characters are that much more intelligent than the average person, but rather that the reader hasn't got time to filter out a lot of "Er... Um. Hm," every time your protagonist needs to order a sandwich. These interjections are one of a set of several things that we add to dialog only as seasoning: a dab here, a pinch there, and you're done. You can throw in one of these to demonstrate that a character is taken aback by something or confused by some strange circumstance. Use too many, however, and what you're signaling is not that something weird is going on, but rather that your character is stupid, apt to be confused by the most mundane things.

I don't bring this up because it's a thing people commonly get wrong--writers rightly see the "hmmmm" in their stream of consciousness as their own grasping for what comes next rather than the character's--but because this concept of "spice" or "seasoning" is a good one to carry forward.

2. People work blue. Characters are PG-13.

If I had to guess how often I used the word "fuck" throughout my college years, I would be too ashamed to actually give you a number. It's dropped off a little since then, believe it or not. This is a thing that real people do: put them in a blue collar situation and they will swear a blue streak up and down the road. Characters don't have this luxury.

"But Tom Clancy's characters swear nonstop!"

You're right; his works are a prominent exception when I think about this topic. But how would his characters express an extreme sentiment in a trying time? Like, what if someone were to drop a bomb on their garage? Well, they'd have pretty much the same reaction to that as they would to sour milk on their Cap'n Crunch. "God dammit to hell, stupid expiration date..."

By all means, let your characters swear, but use some restraint so that profanity doesn't lose its impact. Do that, and it's also possible to portray a character as being "foul-mouthed," a thing that becomes far more difficult to pull off if everyone in your cast is screeching four letter words nonstop.

3. People make small talk. Characters make points.

I've had two people ask me how I'm doing today and a third talk to me about their dog. None of that has a damn thing to do with anything I'm trying to accomplish. It's called small talk, and it's something humans engage in when stuck together on an elevator, or when waiting for a taxi after someone has dropped a bomb on their garage. I assume. Anyway, the point is that your characters should not do this. They should not have time to do this. That's not to say that every line of dialog has to relate directly to your plot. Not every spoken word relates to the Death Star: some of them are about wampas, or nonsensical euphemisms for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like "Toshi station" and "power converters."

Dialog is one of your most powerful tools. It's highlighted with a pair of quotation marks, it is often offset with whitespace, and it tends to take up less room on the page than your exposition, which means that readers almost always read dialog. (Fun fact: they will skim pretty much everything else!) This makes dialog prime real estate for anything important that you want to say to the reader. Keep your blathering to a minimum. If a little bit of color commentary is important to a character or to the setting, sure, go for it! ...But don't waste my time with a grocery list unless those groceries are about to get MacGuyvered into a miraculous escape or a bomb for someone's garage.

None of this is realistic in the least.

Spend a little time watching Bob Ross on YouTube. He has not once painted a tree, or a rock, or a bush, or a lake, or a mountain, or a cloud, or a sky, or anything at all. He just bangs the brush on the canvas with the right technique, and your brain will tell you that you are looking at all of those things because you've seen them before, and the illusion works. Your objective in writing is very similar: you want to give your reader the illusion of realism (we call it "verisimilitude" when we have extra $64 dollar words lying around). but your writing needs to be better than real.
Apr
03
Joseph Campbell said to follow your bliss. My bliss is making up stories and experiencing them as if I’m inside the character’s head. (Sometimes I hear their voices, but they shut up once I put them on paper.)

At one point, however, writing became as excruciating as pulling teeth and jamming them back in.

A little background:

I always believed that in order to write professionally you needed to outline. So I did an outline for a novel that I always wanted to write. I had everything completed. I had a scene list, a timeline and a character sheet.

I was prepared.

But when the time came to write, I choked.

For some reason I couldn’t write. I had been enthusiastic when I was creating the outline, but that enthusiasm didn’t translate over to actually writing the story.

I went into writing depression for months. I got out of the funk when I read that Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and, to some degree, George RR Martin were discovery writers. For those who don’t know, discovery writers don’t do outlines. They’d jump in the story without an outline to buoy them.

Writing without an outline? Sounded crazy. And scary. But at that time, I had nothing to lose, so I experimented. I started small, wrote a short story without an outline.

Tell you what, it was fun.

I felt like a kid again, that kid who tapped on his daddy’s typewriter, writing stories, conceiving of worlds and scenarios that delighted me and me alone. Bliss. Oh childhood bliss!

After that, I learned I was a discovery writer . . . to some degree. You see, I still outline. I enjoy outlining actually, mapping out how the story unfolds in those ugly bullet-points. But here’s the kicker: I outline only after the first draft.

It is my process. It is my bliss. Some are discovery writers. Some are outliners. Some are just maniacs who type gold.

Campbell said to follow your bliss; for us writers, it’s find your process.

Everyone has their own way of writing a story. For me, I’m slowly discovering it although I’m not sure I have it pat down. Take a gander of my trainwreck of a process:
  • WRITING PROCESS (SUMMARY)
  • 1st Draft
    • Write the damn story
    • Keep a free writing file to keep track of thought process
    • Outline as you go. Use the beats format below. (VERB-ING, Etc.)
  • 2nd Draft
    • Phase 1: Read through, note taking and commentary
      • Work on a print out for this
    • Phase 2: Create Proposal Outline for 2nd Draft
      • Don’t fill in the Action/Reaction Beats. If there’s Action/Reaction Beats that needs to appear, make note of it, but don’t fill it all.
    • Phase 3: Write the 2nd draft with an Active Outline as a guide
      • Similar to “outline as you go,” fill in the Action/Reaction Beats on the outline
  • 3rd Draft
    • Phase 1: Silent read and revise as you go.
      • Do 10 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 2: Read out loud and revise as you go.
      • Work on the computer using a pacer
      • Do 4 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 3: Read out loud, and apply final edits, polish and touches.
      • Work on a print-out of the manuscript
So how do you find your process? Well, think back on how you crafted your novel or short story. Go through the process in your head and write the steps down. You can outline it or whatever. It’s your process. Do what you want.

Break them down in drafts, like the one I have above. Next step is to label the phases for each drafts. Phases are actions or to-dos or special rituals, like summoning Cthulhu, within each draft. With my process above, you can see the phases I go through on the second and third draft. Use that as a template, then fill out your own process.

You hear about how artist steal. Well, my fellow artist, here you can steal my writing process. (But why?) Your brain might be repulsed by it, and to that I say, “good.” My brain was repulsed when I outlined my story. Oh, here’s a secret: the writing process above is stolen from multiple writers. It is literally a Frankenstein of writing processes.

But why write it down? The very act of writing it down makes it tangible. You can see areas where you can improve, innovate and, more importantly, experiment. If I hadn’t experimented on writing without an outline, then I wouldn’t have finally finished my first novel. And having it written down is like capturing your trade-secret as a writer.

Does that mean you have to follow your process every time you write a story? Of course not. Like I mentioned earlier: improve, innovate and experiment.

So,

follow your bliss; find your process.
Dec
24
I'm not some great Author.

I'm not published, and I may never be published. One day I hope to hold my own book in my hand, but I don't follow market trends or try to write what's popular. None of that matters to me, because I've written since I could read. I'll be writing on my death bed. Because I know why, guys. I know why we're all doing this.

Writing is the language of life. No matter what you've done, no matter how you've changed throughout however many years of life, your writing is always there for you.

I was eight when I crafted my first narrative. It was a crappy fan-fiction, but I loved Starcraft and Buzz Lightyear. I wanted to be Sarah Kerrigan, leading the Alien knockoffs against boring, redneck humans, and I wanted Zeratul to have more narrative than the games gave him. So I changed the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command movie into a Starcraft story, with the space rangers as Protoss and Zurg as... the Zerg. It was horrible. I still have it. My kids love it.

When I was in Afghanistan I lost friends to pieces of trash and fertilizer combined into mines capable of peeling the armor off of tanks. I watched brothers, literal brothers, loose each other. They had joined together and trained together. Now, one walks with a cane, the other's soul haunts Afghanistan. That Marine was better than me, and he died. The only thing that kept me going was writing about those brothers; private stories that no one will see. In my stories about them they WON. Every time. They crushed their enemy.

When I almost died in Okinawa I was stuck in a hospital bed for a week, with forty-five days afterwards spent thinking my right arm would never work right again. But, while I was trapped in the barracks, I could still prop my gimp arm on a desk and write a nasty, sex filled cyberpunk romp. I didn't fantasize about blazing through the sprawl of Neo Tokyo, guns blazing; I wrote it. I lived it.

I wouldn't be alive if not for writing. Sure, I'd exist in the world somewhere. You'd see me walking around. I'd have a job, watch TV, like facebook stuff, but I'd be dead. I'd be one of a billion boring people tweeting their butt flexes for subs. I wouldn't be alive.

Writing helps us express our lives in ways nothing else will. Give us one paragraph, we will give you a whole new world to love, and break, and fuck, and cry for.

Please, never stop writing. Never stop telling stories. You know you love it.
Aug
12
I have an idea for a rough outline that’s tailored for discovery writers. I’m no expert (and not a published author yet) so this is a system devised by a budding author.

I thought of this rough outline based on advice, how-tos, interviews and lectures from different authors. This also borrows concepts from “Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne and “Take off Your Pants” by Libbi Hawker.

A bit of background on myself. I am finishing the 3rd draft of my novel which began as a short story, which mutated into a novel. The 1st draft was written by the seat of my pants. I didn’t have an outline nor did I have any guides to where I was going. I just wrote and wrote until I reached the ending.

I liked my story, but 80% of it needed to be rewritten. Although time is never wasted when you’re having fun, I still feel I could have saved time for myself.

An outline was off the table. I had used outlines before, and I don’t like it. Pages upon pages of bullet points felt like a chore rather than a journey. So I looked for other solutions, a compromise between a pantser and a plotter.

“The Story Grid” had a concept called “Foolscap Method.” You can search it up and see for yourself. Basically, it is a one-sheet that delineates your three acts, and in each act, you list five essential scenes that ends with a bang. I grew interested with this concept, but the details it required was daunting and felt like outlining. What I liked about it, however, was its restriction of keeping it on one page.

The next one was Libbi Hawker’s quick outline. In there she asks you to list your main character their flaw, their goal, their ally, the antagonist, the ending and theme. Good points to keep in mind, but she then asks you to outline some essential scenes.

With those in mind, I borrowed some of their concepts and created my own system. I call it a compass because it’s only four items, and it will be limited to only one page.

---

Here are the items:
  • What If Statement
  • Inciting Incident
  • Protagonist’s Weaknesses/Flaws
  • Potential Climaxes/Endings
With these, you have enough to cook up a novel and enough room to play and discovery write.

WHAT IF STATEMENT

The What If statement captures the uniqueness of your story and the enthusiasm you have towards it. It is something akin to a mission statement. Almost all stories can be captured in a what if statement (What if we’re inside a pedophile’s mind? What if people are used as batteries for robots? What if you woke up one day as a cockroach?)

INCITING INCIDENT

This is the event that pushes the protagonist out of his comfort zone, the moment when their problem begins. The inciting incident is not necessarily the first scene of your story. It could be a scene or two until the fun begins.

Write down the inciting incident. You can be terse by writing one sentence that begins with When (example, When the power dies in Jurassic Park; when Humbert meets Lolita; when Neo meets Trinity).

PROTAGONIST’S WEAKNESSES/FLAWS

When you start with your discovery writing, you don’t want to have a cardboard cutout of your protagonist. You might already have a character sketched in your head, have a certain trait or quirk in mind, but writing down their weaknesses or flaws would help limiting them.

Here you will list possible weaknesses and flaws for your protagonist. You could put one or more, but don’t go crazy. Their weaknesses or flaws must be pertinent to the story. Positive traits can be a weakness or a flaw.

POTENTIAL CLIMAXES/ENDINGS

This is your target, your destination. I labeled it as “potential” because you might discover a better ending as you write your novel. Having a potential climax or ending gives you direction for your story, preventing you from snaking around or writing endlessly.

---

There you have it. Four points, just like a compass. Anything between, from inciting incident to the ending, will be discovery-written.
This is just a tool, a simple one at that. If you have any questions or feedback, please post below. It is a work in progress that I’m trying out myself.

EXAMPLE
What If...
  • What if humans had lost a war against robots? Then they were enslaved and then used as batteries to keep them alive?
Inciting Incident
  • When Neo meets Trinity
Weaknesses/Flaws
  • Inexperienced. Neo is new to everything and is still fresh from being awakened from the matrix.
  • Self-Doubt. Neo does not believe he is the chosen one despite people telling him otherwise
Potential Climaxes/Endings
  • Neo becomes the ONE and destroys Agent Smith
  • Neo doesn’t become the ONE, but still destroys Agent Smith
  • Neo dies, but returns to become the ONE, then destroys Agent Smith
Feb
13
I've been participating in writers' groups for a very long time. More often than not these days, I'm the one answering the questions, and I'll be very forthcoming about why people like listening to my answers. It's not because my answers are the best, it's because my answers are unique.

Because I've been around so many writers' groups, workshops, classes, labs, and forums over the last ten years, I've been able to collect a lot of data. And what does that data show? It shows that people have been giving the same lame answers to writing-related questions for at least ten years. My goal is to buck that trend, because I know that hearing “you should read more” for the ten-thousandth time is not going to help you write.

The writing community is still asking the same basic questions, and that tells me that the answers they're getting are garbage. Plain and simple. As writers helping writers, we owe it to our contemporaries to not waste their time by regurgitating the same cookie-cutter advice that has been floating around for decades. The writing community needs new answers, smarter solutions to the problems that plague us all.

Toward that end, I'm going to answer the most commonly-asked question I've ever come across:

Where do you get ideas?”

This is not a simple question, yet so many people give it a simple answer. “Read more fiction” is a simple answer, but it's also a crappy one. Yet, so many writers say it, repeat it, and swear by it. Why? Because we all enjoy reading and, heck, it sounds like a decent way to get ideas, right? Not so much. It's more likely to set you up to steal ideas, and you won't even be doing it intentionally.

You know darn well that many new writers produce work that reads exactly like someone else's story. That's because knuckleheads keep telling them to read more, and then these new writers take the advice and read their 900th R.A. Salvatore book. Then they're surprised when their own work continues to read like a bad R.A. Salvatore fan fiction. What do you expect?

Now, I've seen even worse answers to the “where do you get ideas?” question. Some folks will talk about sitting on their porch, taking walks, or playing with their kids, offering these up as advice to “get ideas.” These are also crappy answers. They are ephemeral, personal exercises that aren't universally actionable. At best, they're distractions. They can play a part in the innovation process by freeing up your subconscious mind, but that's still not an answer to the underlying question.

Why am I so obsessed with getting down to the hard answer? What's wrong with telling another writer to sit on their porch when they need a creative boost?

Look, when someone is asking how to come up with ideas, it's like they're asking for help finding food. They're starving for a creative spark. If a hungry person were asking how they can eat and not die in front of you, you wouldn't tell them to go for a walk. “Go play with your kids and maybe you'll think of a way to get food!” No.

You also wouldn't tell them to watch you eat until their stomach is no longer cramping from hunger. Watching someone else succeed at eating won't sate their hunger! We all know this, yet so many writers are quick to apply that stupid logic to writing. “Go see how another writer created a novel and you'll get creative ideas!” Nope. It doesn't work that way.

Let's go all “parable” on this; If someone needed to feed themselves, the best course of action is to teach them to fish. In doing so, you're showing them where the food comes from (the river) and how to get it (hand grenades. Or a fishing pole. Whatever.)

Likewise, the best answer to “where do you get your ideas” is to explain where ideas come from and how to catch them.

The problem, right off the bat, is that most people have no clue where ideas come from. That's why I'm here. I'm going to tell you.

Ideas are produced by a largely-subconscious synthesizing process. The human mind is incredibly good at taking multiple concepts and combining them into new ones. It takes A, adds it to B, and creates C. Every new thought in your head is a product of that math, although you don't see it happening.

It's like this: At some point in history, someone looked at a potato, then looked at a hammer, and mashed potatoes were born. The idea of mashed potatoes didn't just fly into someone's head while they were playing with their kids. The idea was a synthesis of two existing concepts within the creator's mind; In this case, it may have been “I can smash things with a hammer” and “potatoes taste good.”

The point of that barely-adequate illustration? If said person had no idea what a potato was, they couldn't have come up with mashed potatoes. A+B=C. They would have lacked the required conceptual raw materials to assemble the idea.

The more concepts you have in your mind, the more creative you can be. Think of knowledge as a pile of Lego bricks. The more of them you have, the more things you can build. Therefore, the first step to becoming a never-ending wellspring of creativity is to stockpile your mind with conceptual raw material. Yes, this means learning about the world and experiencing its many facets for yourself.

Now, go back to the Lego analogy. You may have a pile of blocks as high as your waist . . . but what if they're all blue 4x4 blocks? You can only build so many things when you have a pile of the same block, because your creative options are so severely limited. You get the same outcome when you learn about, read, or experience the same things over and over again. You'll have tons of “stuff” in your head, but it's all variations on a theme. Thus, the second step to unlocking your creative mind is to diversify your conceptual raw material. Reading nothing but science fiction novels will fill your brain with all the same blocks. Where's the fun in that?

I never run out of ideas. When other writers are stuck with their own stories, I can usually come up with a solution in seconds. Why? Because I have a huge, diverse stockpile of raw concepts. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I haven't read a fantasy novel in two years. I read naval history books, magazines about celebrities, National Geographic, biographies, and non-fiction books about photography. And guess what? I've gotten more original ideas for fantasy fiction from reading photography textbooks than I ever did from reading fantasy. The reason is obvious: if you're getting ideas for your fantasy story by reading fantasy novels, you're going to have a hell of a time being original.

When it comes to raw innovation in storytelling, you can forget “The Hero's Journey.” Forget outlining and all of the technical methods. It's the assortment of knowledge, the raw materials, in your brain that matter. Star Wars exists because George Lucas watched Flash Gordon and old samurai movies. His creative mind combined elements from what he knew to assemble what he created. He didn't just pull the ideas from the air . . . nor did Lucas ever claim to. He'll openly tell you where his ideas came from, and if he'd never learned about a variety of genres, Star Wars would not exist. That's that.

Ideas do not come from some other dimension. They are not magical or bestowed by the muses. They are the product of intelligence. They are the product of diverse knowledge. There's a good reason why most successful writers are bright-minded folks. If great ideas magically appeared from space, everyone would have them. There would be no bias leaning towards intelligence, but there is. If you want better ideas, focus on learning more about the world.

Don't take offense to that previous remark. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that average people don't aspire to write. (These days, statistically-average people don't even read.) If you desire to be a storyteller, you're already ahead of the curve on the whole “smart” thing. The next challenge is to feed your brain with a diverse spread of knowledge. Reading fiction is easy, but reading to learn can be a challenge. And that's where most aspiring writers cut their own throats. They read novel after novel, usually in their preferred genre, thinking that it will have some impact on their own ideas. Reading non-fiction, especially if it has nothing to do with what you're planning to write, will give you a far greater creative advantage. I promise.

As a writer, it's your job to constantly learn. Broaden your horizons, and do not have a “wheelhouse.” You don't want to specialize, because specialization will kill your creative mind. Learn about psychology, history, dancing, agriculture, textiles, stock markets, auto repair, avionics, biology, and everything else. It's what you don't already know that will be assembled into your next great idea.
Oct
06
Writing through Experience: Put the Phone Down.

By Justin C. Miller

How many of you witnessed the lunar Eclipse (if you were in the correct part of the hemispheres.) just recently? How many of you just sat there and watched it? Listened to the crickets chirp, or the cars drive by, the wind blow rustling the trees? Who soaked in the feeling of something you may only get to see one or two more times in your life? Who did it without their phone?

Ah see that’s where that question gets tricky. We experience amazing things, and yes we capture them on our phones and share them with the world around us; and it’s one of the most foolish things as writers we can ever do. Of course we never want to forget this moment and so it’s best to record it… until your storage space is maxed and then it’s not that important anyway.

We rely so much on our technology to remember things for us and capture things for us that we miss out on a very important part of it all. The feelings, the emotion, the smells, the sounds, the life of it.

When 9/11 happened in American I remember the moment of the second crash vividly. I was in school, Journalism class. It was a pleasant day outside. The sun shining through the windows. It was a warm day too, we had the windows open and I remember smelling the fresh cut grass from the lawn being mowed earlier in the day. The teacher was teaching us to pay attention, not to him but to everything. Now he was teaching this as an important lesson to journalism telling us that news can happen anywhere, and not more than 30 seconds after he stated that the TV turned on and I witnessed the tragedy that almost all the word knows of. I remeber thinking it was a video he put into the player. I remember the announcement telling students to get to a classroom and wait for further instructions, I remember the panic that night the fear in my parents faces... the quiet of the streets... no one was anywhere but home. And I remember crying for all those poor people, none of them who I knew. ( I am sorry if this part of the article brings back bad memories by anyone affected by that horrible day. Not my intention, just one of the most vivid memories I have)

The life lesson learned there is that it’s important to look, not with just your eyes but your spirit or soul or whatever else you want to call you’re something that makes you who you are compared to the guy next to you. Those little details missed while worrying if the shot if centered in your phone or if the sound is right, can never be brought back and can never fully be appreciated later. your terror, joy, calm, peace, love, happiness. These feelings cannot be recorded. The acts of them can be, but the memory of them cannot be.

This article is obviously an opinion, but I feel it’s true. For any creative type. Instead of sharing x even y moment or z happenings with the world… Just put down the phone, be a little selfish, and soak it in.

We used to tell events by retelling them as stories, it was never about the accuracy of the story... just the telling of it. That is why we want to be writers after all.

10/06/2015
May
10
terryshowingturtle.jpg

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Ervin, a longstanding member of writingforums.org. He's one of the first members I came to know who had been published and I was delighted to get his insights on the world of Fantasy.


WF: What's your take on the conversation concerning what is and isn't Fantasy, High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, etc.?


Terry: I don’t put much stock in the exact ‘labeling’ of a novel or series as very few novels published today fall 100% into one category or another—depending on how each type of fantasy is defined.

That said, labeling or categorizing has value. It helps readers find something similar to what they’ve already enjoyed.​

WF: What's your take on how large, sweeping Fantasy stories like LotR and ASoIaF have affected the general view of Fantasy?


Terry: I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and enjoyed it, but I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe that will make some writers scratch their head, as ASoIaF is quite popular and often discussed. It’s just that there is so much out there, meaning an author (or reader) can’t read everything.

One thing I’ve noticed is that fans of the LotR movies often don’t enjoy the novels quite as much. They’re different—the novels contain areas with extensive description and detail, and they have a far different pacing than the movies.

Tolkien’s classics were written and published when television wasn’t as prominent. The internet didn’t exist. Readers experienced places they’d never seen or even imagined through printed words. TV, movies and the internet have changed all of that. Mountains or forest trails or monolithic statues don’t need to be described in such detail, at least many modern readers don’t feel it necessary. I think this affects the content and pacing of successful sweeping fantasy novels published today.​

WF: I find the same to be true with Science Fiction. When you read classics like DUNE, the exhaustive detail in description is evident, and quite different from what one finds today. Do you think this has changed the tone of Fantasy novels as well? If there's less emphasis in detailing a world with rich ornamentation, what other tools does the Fantasy writer rely on to bring the reader into the world he or she is creating?

Terry: I’m not sure if it’s changed the tone too much. For example, many current epic fantasy novels still echo The Lord of the Rings or Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (one of my favorites). The goal remains for the author to engage the reader’s imagination. No combination of words or descriptions can match the images conjured within a reader’s mind.

My preferred method, one that I’ve observed over the past couple decades, is to provide just enough information—description/details—giving the reader what’s needed, and within the context of the story whenever possible. For example, instead of simply a paragraph of description, insert bits through character observation, and/or interspersed within dialogue, and/or incorporated with character actions.​

WF: What is your take on the role of female characters in fantasy stories? How they are/should be/could be portrayed?


Terry: I think it depends on the world the author has created, the story to be told, and the intended audience.

For me and my First Civilization’s Legacy Series, a female character can be a powerful, intimidating enchantress, or an adored leader. Other times a woman is more along the lines of a worrying wife or a lowly maid. But that’s the world I created, where an individual’s initial social status, opportunities, and choices have impacted what she is or becomes.

Every reader has different views based upon life experiences. When a reader opens a novel those experiences influence how he or she interprets characters, including their status, their actions and motivations. That’s not something I attempt iron-hand control or influence over. It’s not my place as a storyteller to direct or force readers to see my characters in a certain way—like it’d work anyway. My primary purpose isn’t social commentary. It’s to entertain.

I do find it interesting what readers think of my characters (male and female), what ones they like and don’t like, respect and don’t respect, and more. They’ve read the same words, but come away with widely varying opinions.

For example, one reader described Supreme Enchantress Thulease as authoritative and ruthless. Another found her accomplished and powerful, yet lovingly driven, with cracks of vulnerability.

In the end, characters are tools used to relay a story to readers. And if I create and use them properly, the readers enjoy reading and learning about characters, discovering who they are within the context of the story while being entertained.​

WF: With that said, where is your leaning as regards a story being driven by characters vs. characters being shaped by the needs of the story?

Terry: It really depends on the story to be told. My protagonists aren’t powerful individuals—not master swordsmen or highly trained Colonial Marines. They’re not renown spellcasters or unparalleled nuclear physicists. They’re regular folks that find themselves in challenging circumstances. They don’t always have the big picture, with events and choices often beyond their immediate control.

Their responses, learning, relationships, successes and failures, and sometimes a little luck are what pulls them through. Here’s a quote with respect to the protagonist of Relic Tech which should clarify what I’m getting at: "The tech level premise is fascinating, but what really makes the novel special is the spirit of Krakista Keesay. Kra is a hero to root for—often underestimated, adept with brass knuckles, bayonet, shotgun, and all sorts of old style weaponry. He proves that, while technology matters, so do courage, intelligence, and daring."
—Tony Daniel, Hugo-finalist, author of Metaplanetary and Guardian of Night

It’s the balance between plot driven and character driven storytelling where, in my works, neither dominates.​

WF: That's high praise from a Hugo-finalist! One last question: Knowing that there are many forum members who are both avid readers and writers of Fantasy, if there were one thing, one piece of advice you could give them concerning success in their writing careers, what would it be?

Terry: Thanks. I am quite honored to have received Tony Daniel’s positive words.

My advice would be to finish your projects.

Many people talk about writing, and some even start, but very few do what it takes to finish. Hammer out that first draft. Revise and edit, research, and repeat, learning along the way. Get input and weigh it. Go at it again, improving the story through a third and fourth draft, and more. Writing a novel can be fun and interesting, but it’s also hard work and takes a long term commitment in time and energy and a willingness to learn, knowing that, in the end, there is no guarantee of success—however one might measure it. But if you don’t finish that story or novel, there’s absolutely zero chance of success.

Oh, and after you finish that first piece, proceed with crafting a second.

Finally, thank you for your questions and this opportunity to speak to the members here at Writing Forums.
Thank you, Terry, and best of luck in all your future endeavors. :agreed: