That time of year is upon us once again, fellow writers – National Novel Writing Month. While some of you may know that I have never attempted NaNoWriMo myself, I am an avid fan and follower of the influx of writing inspiration and advice the month invariably brings.
Characters are pretty much the most important part of any written work, so if you ever find yourself struggling with that aspect, this site provides all kinds of brainstorming questions, as well as insight into how to write characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences.
You are not alone! The lovely folks at It’s a Writer Thing have plenty of support and advice to offer if you’re struggling with an aspect of your story, whether it’s scene, dialogue, character – no matter how small it is, you can find someone or something that can help you here.
While author Sacha Black’s website isn’t dedicated specifically to NaNoWriMo, it is dedicated to her own journey as a writer and the experience that comes with it. She also offers writer resources and interviews other writers for their perspectives.
Shannon Thompson is another author whose blog is focused more on her own work and what’s relevant to her in the writing world, but I continue to find her experience incredibly useful and encouraging. Thompson is a YA author, so if that’s your genre you may find her writing experiences particularly relatable.
The Muffin is WOW! Women on Writing’s official blog. They’ve been online since 2006, so there’s no shortage of advice for women looking to break into the business and keep themselves motivated through the month.
This is a more of an “after” resource, but if you’re focused on publication and want to give your novel its best chance, this website has an endless list of competitions, grants, and literary magazine issues that can help you focus your plot and give you a prize to keep your eye on.
A few weeks (or has it been months? Who knows! Time is relative) ago, I joined Pinterest as a way of sparking some visual creativity, which some of you may know I’ve always been a fan of. And Pinterest did not disappoint:
(While we’re here, you can check out the Creative Quibble Pinterest Board here, and also check out this board if you’re only really here for the books).
But one thing I’ve noticed that I’m not so crazy about is the plethora of writing advice infographics along the lines of “Words to Use Instead of X.”
Before I start talking about why I don’t like this and don’t think it’s helpful, let me say that this isn’t a criticism of those dispensing this kind of writing advice, or even the advice itself. It’s not bad or wrong – I’ve personally found it useful in certain circumstances – but I think for aspiring writers to get the most of it, there needs to be a very specific approach.
Writing isn’t a science where you can replace one thing with its equivalent and get the same result. When you tell someone to use “enraged” instead of “very angry,” you could be legitimately improving their writing – or you could be ruining their work. The only way you can know for sure is if you see the word choice in the context of the piece itself.
Remember the scene in Friends where Joey tries to write Monica and Chandler a recommendation for their adoption agency but gets a little overenthusiastic with this thesaurus feature?
That’s basically what you risk when you follow this kind of advice willy nilly.
For example, one of these posts suggests “deafening” as a replacement for “very noisy.” But these two are not necessarily the same thing. What about “piercing”? It may well be a better replacement for the meaning you’re trying to convey. What about “cacophonous”? Riotous? Clamorous? Ear-popping? And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these words mean “very noisy.” None of them refer to the same kind of noise.
Another post gives 50 alternatives to the phrase “looks like,” including “mirrors,” “reflects,” “parodies,” “mimics,” and “parallels.” Personally I prefer this kind of post because it gives the writer a chance to consider what works best for their meaning, but that still requires one to be very familiar with the language and confident in what they want to portray. If you’re in that category, then you may well find these posts exceedingly helpful. But if you’re just starting to get comfortable with writing, I think you need to approach this type of advice carefully.
I think the best, most authentic writing comes from where you are naturally in your vocabulary and your environment. When I was in grad school, I had several people tell me that my writing wasn’t “academic” enough, because I tended to use short sentences and paragraphs and everyday language. That was a direct result of my training in journalism – it was what I was reading and writing naturally, and so it carried over into my graduate work. I rather liked it – I find a lot of academic writing cumbersome to the point of being unintelligible. Here’s a pro-tip: if you’ve hit line four but you’re still in the same sentence, stop and find somewhere to put a period. No one knows what you’re talking about anymore.
But I digress. My point is this: I could have tried to mimic the academic style I was told to by my peers (for the record, my professors never took issue with my writing style), but it would have come off as awkward and artless. Writing is not a “fake it till you make it” skill. It’s something that needs time to develop naturally, and it’s also unique in that to perfect your writing, you need to do something else – read.
Reading is the only way to grow your vocabulary in a way that will organically feed into your writing. That’s the long and short of it. You can save all these posts and bookmark thesaurus.com and read the dictionary every night before you go to bed, but none of that will feed into your writing like reading does.
And speaking of reading…
Just say it!
One thing that really, really bugs me is when people give you a list of words to replace “said.” Guys. Guys. You do not need to replace “said.” In some cases, when you’re trying to really emphasize an attitude or a characteristic, it is appropriate to use “stammered,” or “demanded,” or “snapped.” In most cases, “said” is just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine.
Here’s why: your reader isn’t actually seeing the word “said.” That’s not how the brain works. It doesn’t read every individual letter or word. Instead, your brain scans and absorbs a context, and fills out the details from there. Have you ever been reading a page and suddenly stop and go, ‘wait, what,?” because what’s happening now doesn’t make sense with what you just read. So you go back, only to discover that you missed a crucial “not” in a sentence in the last scene, which is why the what happened afterwards was such a shock.
It’s not because you’re skimming or falling asleep or otherwise not paying attention. That’s just how your brain reads. When your brain sees quotation marks in the context of a story, it knows that there’s dialogue coming up, i.e., someone is saying something. It doesn’t need to read the word “said” to know that, so more often than not, it doesn’t.
So as a reader, you’re not registering the word “said,” and you’re certainly not nitpicking the author’s use of it. But of course as a writer, it’s a different ball game entirely. Because you’re typing it out so much, you become paranoid about your use of “said.” Is it boring? Is it evocative of what you’re really trying to express? You have an image in your head of exactly what your characters are doing and thinking and feeling; is “said” really doing them justice?
Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.
That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.
But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.
In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They’re so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.
Hart makes an important point about the anonymity of “said” and “asked.” When you write, you’re trying to convey a certain idea or image, and often you become so invested in that image that you become obsessed with making sure the reader sees it exactly as you do in their mind’s eyes. So you use these unnecessary words and add emphasis where you don’t need it because you’re trying to force the reader to conform to your vision of the narrative, and instead you push them out of their reading bubble and force them to recall this outside force, you, the author, that has created this imaginary world.
They were immersed in your world. Then you dragged them out and beat them over the head with your complicated dialogue tags.
Sometimes, it’s better to just go with your instincts and not overthink these things. You can always go back and edit. And when you do, you may find that your work is in better shape than you thought!
When it comes to writing, Canadian author Sajidah K Ali’s story is one of perseverance in achieving your dream.
Sajidah was born in South India and is Muslim, and is currently living in Toronto. For a while, her Creative Writing degree sat in the background as she pursued motherhood and a career in teaching, but she returned to her first love (don’t we all?) a few years ago. Now she’s getting ready to release her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” a young adult story. I talked to Sajidah about the book and her experience as a writer.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a professional writer?
I majored in Creative Writing in the early 90’s. Yes, that long ago. While I had every intention of become an author, I instead embarked on other journeys – that of becoming a mother, a teacher, and so on. It was only about ten years ago that I decided to put my all into something I’d wanted to do from the beginning: write stories.
Tell me about “Saints and Misfits.” What is the book about? What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s a story about a Muslim fifteen year-old who finds her voice and, essentially, meets herself, in the midst of something painful. I like to call it a Muslim girl power story. But it’s not told in a dark way; the book is peopled with characters that provide the main character, Janna Yusuf, an opportunity to see the absurdities, hopefulness, and humor of life in the different communities she moves in.
I can’t say there was one inspiration behind it; it was more like I wanted to explore several threads (some that are not frequently explored, like that of how religious messages of “patience and forbearance” may be internalized wrongly, especially by Muslim women) and in weaving them, I found this story.
What was the process of getting published like for you? Did you struggle to find a publisher, or was it a fairly smooth process?
My experience of getting published will seem short ‘n sweet but I have to tell you that it took me five years to write “Saints and Misfits.” After I had finished writing the story, I spent ONE WHOLE YEAR on just rewriting the first chapter! Once I was satisfied with the manuscript (after five years, remember), I looked for a literary agent – which is the only way to approach one of the big publishing houses – and once I found the wonderful John M. Cusick of Folio Literary Management, I worked on the manuscript a bit more with his feedback and then went on to submission. The amazing Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Salaam Reads, showed immediate interest and we had a deal. This process of finding an agent and selling the book took about three months.
So, long story short: it was a blessedly smooth process after years of being that quintessential writer tapping away at a keyboard, ready to throw in the towel but not doing so only to prove to my 12 year-old self that you have to try your dreams.
What do you have in the works now?
I’ve finished a picture book, working on a second and in the drafting and outlining stages of another YA novel.
What inspires your stories generally? How does your background as a Muslim Canadian influence your work?
Ah-ha moments inspire my stories. Those moments that something becomes clear to you and could only become clear to you because the juxtaposition of all circumstances in your life allow it to be so. They occur throughout our lives and I like to capture that in writing. I think that’s what my short stories & narrative essays (that I write under another name) and “Saints and Misfits” are all about: that moment of clarity.
I’d like to think my background as a Canadian allows me a sense of ease when I’m writing about diversity within diverse communities. Multiculturalism is an important aspect of our Canadian identity and that plays out in our daily lives, which then spills over into my writing: the easy friendships between my diverse characters in Saints & Misfits is an example of this. And, as a Muslim, I’m naturally inclined to explore the diversities within the Muslim community – and not just the diversity of cultures, but diversities in religious understandings.
What’s your advice to young novelists trying to get published?
First, the one everyone says: read, read, read. Artists need a medium to make art and for writers, that medium is comprised of a palette of words and sentences and voice and forms and so on. The more you read, the more you have up there to work with to make your own art, your own stories.
Secondly, find your writing rhythm. Not that it will stay the same throughout your career, but read about how different writers do their job and try different things out. For years, because I was a very successful pantster in university (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, relying on inspiration, fueled by the fear of deadlines approaching), I thought I had failed because that style didn’t work for me later on in life. But then, every time I’d try methodical outlining and plotting, that didn’t work either (fall-asleep boring!). I found out my way was to balance the two: pants & plot, pants & plot, pants & plot…repeat until the book is done.
And lastly, don’t write to trends. Write the stories you want to tell, using the palette you’ve assembled (that will be unique to you because no one else in the entire world is the sum of all things you’ve read & experienced) and your audience will find you.
Actually, another lastly: don’t give up. That’s the common thing that all published writers have – they didn’t stop trying.
Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.
I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.
The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.
From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.
Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.
After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.
I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?
Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.
(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)
Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.
It’s December. You spent a whole month slaving away on a manuscript that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you can’t wait to get out to the world…up until you start rereading it.
In writing, as with any profession, it’s important to be able to accept criticism of your work and use it to your benefit. Editing is crucial part of the writing process, after all, and to do that you have to be able to approach your work with a critical eye. It’s admirable, healthy even, to be approach your work with the intention of improving it.
What’s not healthy is that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re work is terrible and you’re terrible and you should just bury yourself neck deep in the woods somewhere as penance. We call it the inner critic, but that’s really misleading. A critic evaluates. This little dude is just cruel. And more often than not, he’s a liar too, because burying yourself in the woods never solves anything.
That voice (James Chartrand at “The Write Life” refers to it as the inner demon) is essentially the manifestations of our insecurities. When we allow that voice to be takeover the megaphone in our mind, so to speak, it warps the way we see ourselves and our work. When we think negative thoughts, we feel badly, and when we feel that way, it becomes the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Work that we loved two days ago seems ridiculous. Language that was poetic last week becomes pretentious and cheesy.
When you start to hear and recognize that demonic voice (because sometimes we don’t recognize it until it’s been talking for a while), you have to nip it in the bud right then and there. Once you’ve been able to do that, revisit the positive thoughts feelings you had when you were working on the piece earlier. If you liked it last week, it can’t possibly be utter garbage today. Try to move away from the piece emotionally and view it in a more objective way, so that if you do find that there are areas that need improvement, you’re at least not taking that on as reflection of your own self-worth or your skill as a creative actor.
This is also true if you’re getting back comments from an editor or a beta reader. Just because they don’t like parts of your piece, doesn’t mean that the whole thing is terrible or that you are terrible. Even if they hate the whole thing, that’s okay too. Not everything is going to be a home run every time, and not everyone is going to like every thing you do. How many people tore into the “Twilight” series as everything that’s wrong with modern fantasy fiction? And yet the series was wildly successful, and Stephanie Meyers herself is living the high life – she’s written more books that have been able to piggyback off of “Twilight’s” success, and now she has her own film production company.
Clearly, the negative opinions of others do not necessarily equal failure. So why should your own opinions hold any more weight? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.
If you find that you are simply too invested in the piece and it’s really wearing on you emotionally, put it aside. There’s no law that says you have to publish something withing 20 days of writing it. Leave it alone for a couple months, and then come back to it. Not only will probably be able to edit it better, you won’t feel like your personal integrity is attached to it – which, you know, it’s really not.
What advice do you have for dealing with the demonic voice in your mind? Share below!
Everyone’s got that thing about writing that drives them up the wall. For me, it’s the plot: I can write dialogue and character descriptions all day long, as long as none of them have to actually do anything. This, as you can imagine, is a problem.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the other problem: you have a riveting plot riddled with characters that move through it like zombies on a full stomach.
The truth is, there is no plot without characters. People can sit around doing nothing, but things cannot happen without people to do them. So if characters have been a pain for you, you’re in luck because I’m here to help!
Character Tip 1: Plan it out
In “How to Write and Sell Your Novel,” thriller writer R. Karl Largent says that before he begins writing, he creates distinct personalities and background stories for each of his characters. Even the most minor characters who only appear in a single scene get this treatment (although if you ask me, that’s overkill. Then again, what do I know? I’m not the bestselling author here.).
As I’m creating the character profile, I make a point not to rely to heavily on character tropes, especially those that I believe to be either harmful or unrealistic. (“Magical minority,” “evil for the heck of it,” and “Mr. Angst” are a few of the ones that really make me cringe.) Creating the profile also helps you track the character’s behavior, so that you can be sure that your character acts in a manner that makes sense within the universe you’ve created. If you’re not feeling very inspired or feel like you can’t get away from predictable tropes, try scrolling through illustrations and artwork on Tumblr. There are some very talented artists out there, and being able to picture a character in your mind’s eye can help you figure out how they act and react, how they speak, their mannerisms – all those little things that take a character and turn them into a person.
Character Tip 2: Make them matter to each other
To put it simply: if the characters in your story don’t care about each other, why should your reader care about them?
In my experience, the best novels have stories that create and build strong relationships between the characters. It’s why the death of Fred at the end of the “Harry Potter” series is so devastating: not only have we as readers grown to love him, but we know that he has family and friends who love him and will grieve for him in the world of the story. It’s why we care about the fate of Fix-It Felix when he goes looking for Ralph – even though the two are set up as antagonists, they have a relationship that is integral to the story. It makes sense that Felix would look for Ralph, and because Felix is invested, so are we.
Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds.
Character Tip 3: The more things seem to change…
After you’ve built a character profile based on Tip 1, you have to figure out how that profile is going to change by the end of your novel. Because if your character stays the same from the beginning of the book to the end, why’d you write the thing in the first place?
Writer Brian Klems gives a detailed breakdown of how to make your character grow and change throughout your novel, but to break it down: the plot has to have a significant, noticeable, and logical impact on your characters. Harry Potter goes from sweet, naive little boy, to angry, hot-headed teenager, to focused, strategic, slightly older teenager over the course of seven years, in response to the twists and turns of the plot. It makes sense because his growth follows the patterns of the plot itself. In the same way, your characters have to respond to the plot in ways that make sense given the character profile you’ve created.
Character Tip 4: Everyone is special in his or her own way
It’s a lesson we learned from that lovable purple dinosaur and it’s just as applicable to fictional characters as it is to real people. Your character can’t just be good at something, they have to be the best. This is a piece of advice that comes from story consultant James Bonnet, who writes, “Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements. Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king.” The quintessential makes for a more interesting story, Bonnet insists.
He goes on to add:
The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.
I know, I know: didn’t I just say that I hate tropes? And isn’t the quintessential character practically the definition of a trope?
Yes and no. Yes, the idea of the chosen one, the strongest villain, the strongest superhero, the superbly intelligent detective, are all examples of tried and tested tropes. But the trope itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, it became a trope for a reason. It’s how you apply the trope that matters. The Chosen One has to face some kind of moral dilemma that calls into question his status. The super-smart detective has to stumble on a case, start to worry that she’s losing her edge, before finally solving it. That’s how you keep your character, and by extension, your story, interesting and unpredictable.
Hello quibblers! In celebration of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be shelving the book reviews and media commentary to focus on the craft of writing. Hopefully, aspiring NaNoWriMo-ers will find this information helpful as they write and, ultimately, rewrite their stories.
In this installment, we’ll be discussing an oft-asked question by writers old and new: what are the flaws that I should avoid when writing?
I did some research, and there are the five flaws in fiction writing that I think writers should be most aware of:
Telling instead of showing
This is a crucial part of all kinds of writing, but especially in fiction. You are the reader’s lone guide through the story you’ve made, and as vivid as it may seem in your own head, that won’t translate to your reader if you continously tell your reader about the story instead of show them what is happening. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing “Maria had always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, but lately she’d been cold and distant.” Instead, describe a moment where Maria goes to her mother about something and the mom is unenthusiastic and unengaged. Show Maria being heartbroken, feeling that her mother is ignoring her, uninterested in her. That will translate to your readers so much better.
Troping your story to death
Look, there’s a reason why tropes exist, and it’s because they’re familiar. They make sense to us. And it’s fine to use tropes within your story if you feel that it’s what the story needs. What’s not fine is for every character in your story to fit in some kind of trope, and for every storyline to follow the well-worn paths of those before it. If you’re motivated to write a novel (in one month!) then it’s probably because you have a unique story in you that you want to get out. And yeah, maybe it follows the traditions of its genre, but it shouldn’t be an amalgam of everything that tradition has to offer. Think outside the box a little. Throw a wrench in there that’s atypical to the style of stories in that genre. Flip a trope on its head and see what happens. Sometimes, little things like that executed well can make a story stand out from others in the genre.
But! Be extra careful with tropes that are clearly racial or sexist in nature: the Ice Princess, the wise old tribal leader who speaks in cryptic imagery, the nagging housewife, etc.
This is one that I wouldn’t have considered if I was just writing this post off the top of my head, but pacing is actually crucial to a story. In many ways, pacing is your way of manipulating time within your story. In “Writer’s Store,” Gerry Visco advises writers to look at their story scene by scene (so basically, storyboard it) and see how the scenes fit together. Are some scenes to fast, to slow? Does the sequencing need to be changed to make more sense? Is the climax followed by an immediate drop in the action, or is there a more nuanced slow-down in the pace? These are all things you can see better when you take the story apart scene-by-scene.
Remember, too, that a story doesn’t have to move at a break-neck speed to be good. A lot of the advice online about pacing your story discusses speed, but it’s important to give your characters (and your readers!) moments to breath, collect themselves, and get ready for the next adventure.
There are lots of types of inconsistency in writing, but the ones you really want to watch out for are the kinds that directly impact your characters or your plot. Things like inconsistent characterization (is he a level-headed thinker or an impulsive fire-cracker? Because he can’t be both.) and warped timelines can really throw a wrench in your reader’s concentration. In fact, many authors start their writing with a timeline of events and a character description for each person in their story so that they can stay on track.
This one almost goes without saying, but it’s still worth saying because it happens all the time. Especially with secondary characters, it’s easy to for you to forget about them as your hero trudges on through your story. But every character in your story should serve some purpose, and that purpose will not be truly fulfilled if we only ever see one aspect of them.
This happens a lot with villains, too, where their only goal is chaos for the sake of chaos, evil for the sake of evil. The villain in your story should have a purpose, something that drives them to do what they’re doing, and that purpose can’t just be “I want everything to go to hell!” Make us understand where they’re coming from, why they’ve chosen this path. The X-Men in particular does a good job with this, where although Magneto’s goals (and his methods for achieving them) are obviously horrific, we can see why he is the way he is. Although the trauma he’s experienced doesn’t justify his actions, it does shed light on his motivations, and gives a logic to his refusal to join the X-Men.
That’s my take on some of the major flaws in fiction writing. What do you guys think of these flaws, and what are some you think writers should avoid? Share in the comments below!
You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?
That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.
Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go, you’re right back where you started from.
So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)
In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”
[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]
When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.
What’s a gal to do?
Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.
The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.
Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.
James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.
So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.
What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!
Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, having an anti-hero character is becoming increasingly common. The reason is simple: anti-heroes, being much less determinedly honorable, are often easier to relate to. We see ourselves more easily in the anti-hero, someone who is far from perfect in a world that seems determined to make them miserable.
It’s here where a lot of confusion can start to crop up, because from where I’m sitting there’s a lot of overlap between the Reluctant Hero type and the Anti-Hero type. If you think about it, the anti-hero has plenty of reasons to be reluctant. Maybe they’ve done this before and don’t want to do it again. Maybe they know their abilities aren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t want to have to sit through another one of the hero’s “Love, Honor, Friendship” speeches for the 40th time. And it is within these insecurities and annoyances that we find a kind of camaraderie, a parallel in our day-to-day lives.
Do we have to save the world?
So you’ve got your anti-hero. She doesn’t want to save the world, and she’s being kind of a jerk about it already. But of course she has to go, otherwise you have no story and that simply won’t do. How do we motivate her? Let’s use that friend of all Tumblr geeks aficionados, the Alignment Chart:
Your traditional hero would be in the Lawful Good or Neutral Good categories – both want to achieve a goal they see as being moral. The former’s focus on is on achieving that goal while following the rules, while the latter is more flexible on following the rules to achieve said goal. Your anti-hero, on the other hand, is probably going to fall either into one of the neutral categories, where their motivation has nothing to do with the morality of the goal in question, or they’ll be in the chaotic good category, where they do what needs to be done to achieve the moral good.
One of my favorite examples of a neutral anti-hero is Rincewind the Wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is described as being such a coward he’s gone all the way around to being a hero again. Rincewind isn’t a reluctant hero, he is adamant that he will not go on this quest, spending all his time and energy trying and failing to avoid confrontations that will require him to do anything remotely heroic. When he’s first introduced to us in The Color of Magic, he offers to help out a tourist visiting the city of Ankh-Morpork, only to find himself smack in the middle of an interstate diplomatic spat. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also induces our sympathy. Rincewind didn’t ask for this. He was just trying to do a nice thing (and yeah, okay, make some good money, fine. But that’s not a crime!) and now he’s on the hit list of a minister in a country he’s never even seen before.
(Or something along those lines. I’ll admit now that it’s been a while since I’ve read The Color of Magic.)
An anti-hero that’s a better fit under Chaotic Good is Jessica Jones of MarvelxNetflix’s (Marvflix?) Jessica Jones. Jessica, like Rincewind, is our protagonist, and she’s absolutely the hero in the sense that she has actual superhero powers. But again, she doesn’t want to be the hero. Given the choice, she would trade her powers and her trauma for a quiet life private detectiv-ing. But once she sees what must be done, she throws herself fully into stopping the psychotic and powerul killer on the loose. Once she’s made her decision, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
Putting the parts together
So what does this tell us about effective anti-heros? They need to have a couple basic characteristics:
Personal reasons to root for them: In any story, we don’t just root for the good guy because they’re not the bad guy. This is not an election. We root for them because of some inherent characteristic within them that makes them “worthy” of the win. With Jessica, we want her to defeat Killgrave not only because he’s a terrible person and a murderer, but because we want Jessica to overcome her trauma. Jessica deserves to defeat him because of everything he did to her, and we sympathize with that. Yes, it is a revenge, but revenge is arguably the oldest and most relatable motive in history.
Ultimately be good people, for a given amount of goodness: Kris Noel writes that even the hero has to have a balance of negative and positive characteristics to make them real. This is of course true for the anti-hero as well. They can’t just be surly, unlovabale jerks who happen to be in the right place at the right time for our story. Take Rincewind: he’s a coward, and given a choice he would go home and let the world around him explode. But he’s also a humble, kindhearted, and helpful person, and definitely much less of selfish, short-sighted jerk than many of the other wizards we encounter over the course of Discworld.
They have relationships that create human stakes: Someone needs to care if these people die. After all, if no one in the actual story cares about them, why should you? Jessica Jones has an adoptive sister who loves her and a kinda-sorta love interest. Rincewind has his friend the Librarian and the Luggage (which technically isn’t a person, but can still feel so it counts). Throughout his many adventures, he’s also able to make enough of a pathetic positive impression on people that someone somewhere will care enough to try to help him escape whoever’s chasing him this time. This is actually a crucial part of all Rincewind’s stories. Someone has to help hide him, because you can only run for so long.
Within these basic structures, there’s plenty of room to develop a character that drives your story. Maybe she’s more reluctant than anti, or more anti than reluctant. Maybe she’s the anti-hero of the bad guys, or the anti-hero of law enforcement. Go wild.
Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes in books, television, or movies? Comment below!
Diana Abu-Jaber is an award-winning author, with multiple books exploring identity and heritage through the lenses of language and food. She’s also written for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, among other publications, and today we have the distinct pleasure of featuring her in The Quibblerview! Diana talked about her inspiration and her new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe.
When did you first begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I started writing before I knew how to write. My family was filled with story-tellers, so the experience of making stories, their shape and arc and form, was very familiar to me. Summer vacations, starting around fourth grade, were taken up with writing novels in my school notebooks. The first real work I published was actually some poetry when I was an undergraduate in college. The Windsor Review published a couple of my poems and sent me twenty dollars-it was thrilling.
Your new book is a culinary memoir, but this isn’t the first time you’ve written about the impact of food on your life. How would you say cooking and writing intersect for you? What are the ways in which the craft involved in both is the same, and what are the ways in which it is different?
Writing and cooking are both creative, intuitive, improvisational pursuits-they also rely on focus, testing, and revision. And cooking is a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of human experiences and ways of seeing. But there’s a real timer on food that makes it a challenging, evanescent medium to work with. You have to time your dishes; you have to make sure ingredients are ripe but not overly so; you have to serve hot or cold or just so. The great mercy with writing is that-at least most of the time- you can take your time. The longer you work on most writing projects, the richer, better, more developed they become. Unless, of course, you’ve worked something to death, then you’ve got another problem.
Your books seem to cover a wide range of topics. What inspires you to write? What are some of the things you try to explore in your writing?
I write to remember, to tell my truth, to entertain myself and my friends, and in large part, I write to try to better understand myself-what I feel and think-as well as to try to better understand those around me. I seem to be haunted by issues of culture and identity, family and community, and of course food-that always seems to show up in my work, even when I’m not trying to write about it.
How do you go about constructing your novels? Do you start with the characters, the plot, or a mixture of both?
I don’t usually follow the same path-it changes from project to project. But in general, I prefer starting with a storyline of some sort-not really a whole plot, but some sort of hook or angle. My thriller Origin started when I woke up one day with a character’s voice in my head telling me her life story.
My first memoir was organized around specific food memories about cookies and baking. But my new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, began as a response to the advice I got from my writing teachers that I could be a parent or a writer but I couldn’t be both. I’d felt haunted by those voices and, after years of writing-and parenting-I wanted to answer.
What is the very first thing you do when starting a novel? And what is the last thing you when you’ve completed it?
It’s a pretty organic process for me, so I don’t have a kind of identifiable ritual or pattern. Novels start in the imagination, in dreams and conversations and observations; they accumulate. For me, there’s a lot of thinking and note-taking. Once I’ve dreamed up a story-arc, I’ll usually try to cobble together an outline, maybe do a bit of research, and soon after that I’ll attempt writing a first page.
“Completion” is an even more approximate term– there are drafts upon drafts upon drafts. I beg friends and family to read and give me feedback. Even after my agent has weighed in and my editor has sent me notes, there are more revisions as well as copy edits. Through it all, I’m plagued by uncertainty, the eternal sense of incompletion, that it can’t possibly be done. Eventually, I try to console myself with that wonderful quote: art is never finished only abandoned. And, as soon as I can, I try to start something new.
Who are some of the authors whose styles you admire?
Virigina Woolf; Michael Ondaatje; James Joyce, Ray Carver; Chekhov; Marilynne Robinson; Annie Proulx; Anton Shammas; M.F.K. Fisher, Louise Erdrich, and about a million others.