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how to write a book

How the Research Vampire Can Suck the Life Out of Your Book

SAMSUNGWriters frequently find themselves searching for answers to the strangest questions.

What’s the difference between telepathy and telekinesis? Have the Rolling Stones ever played a show in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? What actually lives in underwater caves?

If you’re writing a story—any story—chances are that you’ll run into questions that need answers. And these answers are usually relevant, if not essential, to your storyline. When you hit an impasse like this it suddenly seems urgent that you stop writing and turn to research instead. The rational, logical part of your brain steps in and advises that you can’t possibly go on creating your story if you don’t have all the facts yet. Continue Reading

Why You Deserve a Better Audience

SAMSUNGThis July I’ve been following along on the progress of Camp NaNoWriMo through different writers’ blogs. The impressive word counts, surprising ideas, and creative ways to push through that I see coming from all these writers are really inspiring. It’s exciting how the everyone’s-in-it-together energy becomes contagious and encourages writers to stretch their potential in ways they never would have before.

It’s also made me think a lot about motivation. Continue Reading

Does Your Hero Have a Hidden Dark Side?

SAMSUNGWe all know what “compelling hero” means. It can be the difference between a so-so manuscript and a potential bestseller. It seems like a deliciously layered character can almost hypnotize readers into devouring a whole series of books, and significantly increase chances of a long-dreamed-of movie deal for the author. Let’s consider Harry Potter. In the first installment, Harry was an average bookish, lonely, and misunderstood kid. But by the end of the series he had blossomed into a powerful young wizard, willing to take risks and wrestle with fate. The depth he gained came not only from the experiences we watched him go through, but more essentially from the ambivalent psychological texture of his changing motives.

To be plain, sometimes the good things people do come from a dark place.

Boring heroes never teeter on the edge. We never wonder what they’re going to do next, because we already know. Of course they’ll do the right thing. When this element of wonder is low, so is our urge to turn the next page. We followed Harry Potter’s adventures so doggedly because we all knew that he always had it in him to go dark side.

And we wanted to see if he actually would.

You also can craft your hero in such a way that the narrative of their journey inspires rabid devotion from their fans. To take personal story to the level of compelling mythology, dig deep into the dark muck of your character’s psyche.

If it came down to a deal with the devil, what would the devil offer your hero in exchange for their soul? Remember, the devil can see into your hero’s darkest secret heart—what’s the desire hiding in there that can’t be passed up? The devil rarely conjures up anything so easily won these days as money or fame. Think about people your hero has lost, deeds that can’t be undone. Regrets that haunt them in the middle of the night. Every character has their price, it’s just a matter of finding out how high.

So Jaded
No one remains unscathed by life, so what does your hero have to be cynical about? Were they part of a political movement that didn’t work out? Or did someone break their heart and turn them off love for good? Even if they’re the most optimistic character in the world, they still have at least one tiny area that’s been poisoned by an awful past experience. Dig up that little poison spot and expose it to the light. How does it affect your hero’s present-day actions?

Achilles Heel
This isn’t just any old weakness your hero might struggle against, it’s the weakness. The flaw that could bring them down entirely. It might be uncovered when using deal-with-the-devil temptation, or when turning over the stones of cynical bitterness, but be prepared for heavy duty excavation with this one. You’ll probably go back through childhood memories, and maybe even all the way back through a character’s ancestry to find the weakest link. The intense archaeological dig will be well worth it though. Once you find the Achilles Heel of your hero, you pretty much hold the key to everything.

Using any of these methods is going to make your hero uncomfortable, no doubt about it. It might even make you a little uncomfortable, since our heroes are usually reflections of ourselves. But you can use intuitive character development and your own natural artistic empathy to pull that kind of charged emotion out of the depths. And when you bring it to the surface your story will start rippling with beautiful interesting texture. Every ripple sends another chain-of-reaction outward, building those interconnected circles and layers of narrative.

To find the layers of your story, dig down into your hero. Dig as deep as you can go.

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Discovering Yourself as a Writer

SAMSUNGMany writers tell me they struggle with these three things:

Admitting they want to be a writer.

Showing anyone their writing.

Writing anything at all.

Why is this so hard for writers? I mean, it’s not like you meet accountants who say, “For years I wanted to do other people’s taxes but I didn’t think I was good enough. I kept a calculator hidden away in my drawer and looked at longingly every now and then.”

It’s because writing is a calling. There’s a difference between a job and a calling.

When you are called to do something in life part of the agreement is that you follow your path in your own unique way. That means that guides, books, classes, teachers and mentors, are only going to help you along so far. The rest is up to you. It’s up to you to discover the way you write best, the voice you write in, and your message behind it all.

This process of discovery can get overwhelming. When you’re tired, or discouraged, or having a bad day, it’s so tempting to look at other writers or someone else’s career, and start to believe that you should be doing it like they are, or that there is something wrong with the way you’re doing things. This perspective is absolutely inaccurate, and it’s also not helpful.

To set yourself up for success in your writing, begin with the very basics and go from there.

Prime the Pump
Your brain is at its very best usually around the same time each day. For instance, if you’re at your most alert and optimistic between 9am and noon then protect these hours. Devote them solely to your writing. Or if you’re a night owl, try to leave your evenings as free as possible so you can sit down and work.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t have that kind of leeway with your schedule and can only fit writing in on the run, then sit for five minutes to clear your mind and re-center before you start writing. Have a small high-protein snack like some trail mix or an avocado to feed your brain and take a few deep breaths. Many writers have highly sensitive nervous systems; taking care of your body can go a long way toward feeding your creative flame.

Assess Your Personality
Even if you don’t care at all about the particulars of your psychological makeup, it’s still helpful to determine which side of the fence you fall on in one important area: Do you work better with Intuition or Logic? It doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other. It comes down to type of writer you are and which works the best for you.

If you lean heavily toward intuition, plotting your novel to adhere to a preconceived outline is not going to work for you. You’ll feel constricted and repressed, and then you’ll explode and rebel by scrapping the whole project. If your brain uses logic as its natural course and you try to spontaneously free-flow your whole book with no plan, you’ll feel utterly lost and frustrated. And if you fall squarely in the middle, you’ll need some planning, and also some room to run with your story in order to feel satisfied in your creative process. Nail down what it is that works best for you.

Let Go of Creative Expectations
I’m lucky enough to have an extremely talented fantasy writer in my weekly writing group. Every time I read her newest work I’m in awe of her stories. Her characters kick down doors, commandeer spaceships, and fight ninja-style duels-to-the-death—and they do this stuff all the time. In contrast, the characters in my stories do very little. They sit on tree stumps and think a whole lot. Or they meet for coffee and talk about records. It took me a long time to accept my characters and stories for what they are, instead of trying to make them into something else.

You might be writing a story you didn’t expect to come out of you, or characters you feel weird about. It might feel like too much is happening, or not enough. That’s totally okay. In the writing stage, concentrate only on writing it all down. Later, when you’re editing, you can truly determine what needs to be added and what can be cut. Always keep the writing vs. editing separate, even if you’re sticking to an outlined plan.

Influence is Invaluable
One writer told me he feels like his work is unoriginal because he is so heavily influenced by classic science fiction authors and movies like Star Wars. I told him that he was worrying for nothing, because no matter what you do as a writer you cannot rinse the YOU out of your writing.

For instance, look at David Lynch’s movies. He’s an artist very heavily influenced by 1950s doo-wop culture. You can hear it in the music in his movies, and see it in the imagery of his characters, in the way they dress and their hair. You can even see it in the iconic diner of Twin Peaks. But no one would ever say David Lynch is “copying” the rock n’ roll vibe of the 50s. His work has too much Lynch in it to be anything other than what it is—totally original. If you’re honestly writing down something that’s dancing around in your head, then it’s yours and there’s no getting around it.

Writing is an emotional journey, which means it’s ongoing and messy, and you’ll be discovering and learning new things about yourself all the time. Resist the temptation to compare and judge yourself against other writers. Keep your eyes on your own next step and what you, personally, need to continue moving through the pages.

And keep in mind: If you’re writing on a regular basis then you already are a success.