Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer contrary to what many who know me think of me. I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing. Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it is the driving force behind your characters’ actions.
As a “machine” the brain is very inefficient. Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities. (Rent the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story.) In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious. A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful. It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word). Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories. A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.
As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That is your mind working even when you consciously aren’t. You will also run into “writer’s block” which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story. This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in. I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing: the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%). It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.
There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people. You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity. Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.
I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.
If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others. Therapy can be a very useful tool for a writer to dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from. Yes, if you’re a writer, you need help as I recommend in Write It Forward.
After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels. There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning. The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing. For example, there is the issue of outlining. I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write. However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline. Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting. But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.
Also remember that there are two sides to the brain. The right side is your creative part while the left is more analytical and logical– this is where the editor part of you resides. Sometimes you have to silence that editor while creating or else nothing will get done.
Are you left brain dominant or right brain dominant, or just plain nuts?
I’m still continuing posts for Nanowrimo, focused on craft, since it’s not over yet, is it?
Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. I’m not saying you can write sensual material, but rather the way the art impacts your senses. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music. The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different. But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper. You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs. Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way. It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.
A book comes alive in the reader’s mind. You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s. It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing. Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head. Isn’t that a fantastic concept?
Writers learn by writing. And before that, by being voracious readers.
In essence, writing is no different from any other profession. It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore: the more you write, the better you will become. Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing. I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot. That is one of the reasons so many people are participating in this month’s Nanowrimo. One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published. I’m currently around word five million and still learning so much.
Let’s look at the positive side: The odds are strongly against getting published. But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words and participating in Nanowrimo, you are increasing your odds. By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds. Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed. What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change. Note that Grisham did not sit still and bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel. He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance. He worked on the one person he knew he could change: himself (a tenet of Write It Forward).
From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough to publication. How many people are willing to do that much work? Not many, which is why not many succeed and how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds. Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer. When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline. Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages. As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the absolute first thing you must do is begin writing your second. With self-publishing, I recommend having at least three books before putting much time and effort into marketing.
Publishing has changed drastically and there are new opportunities for writers to get their novels into the hands of their readers. Traditional publishing isn’t the only viable option for the 21st century author. Self-publishing is quickly becoming the new medium for mid-list authors, and new authors. Amanda Hocking self-published her way into a two-million dollar contract with St. Martins Press. Myself, Connie Brockway, Barry Eisler, LJ Sellers and JA Konrath have all either written ourselves out of NY contracts or turned down a NY contract and ventured out on our own and have been successful.
As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business. Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme: a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came. I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous. Musicians who sang back-up for years before becoming lead. Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.
Study the lives of writers. Read interviews with authors and see what they say. Go to conferences and talk to them. Listen to them talk about several things: how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write. Many worked very strange jobs before getting published. Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded. I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself. Most writers enjoy writing.
People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before even their first novel was published.
Simple perseverance counts for a lot. I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place. It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, so therefore their mind is fixed. Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.
Let’s get back to where I talked about people in other professions doing a work practicum. Besides writing novels and reading, the other advice I would give would be to attend conferences and workshops. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to workshops and conferences. Not just to learn, but also to network. Because of that, the first Write It Forward ‘short’ my publishing company released is How To Get The Most Out Of Your Time And Money At A Writer’s Conference.
A college student once interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to become a better writer. I replied with my usual “Write a lot,” then thought for a second, looking at this nineteen year old woman. Then I said: “Live a lot. Experience life, because that is what you are eventually going to be writing about.”
What things do you suggest writers do in order to help themselves become better writers?
Conflict is the fuel that keeps your story going. Conflict revels your character and draws the reader closer. It gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Without conflict, your idea cannot be translated into story.
Conflict keeps a story going and reveals much about your characters. Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. There are 3 levels of conflict for your characters:
- inner (inside the character) In many cases inner conflict occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
- personal (between characters)
- universal/societal (characters versus fate/God/the system)
You have to consider what your main character faces on each of these levels.
There are five major sources of conflict for people (although you can probably come up with more):
(Three books in one: The Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
Remember all characters have to have an agenda/goals they want to achieve. That gives them a driving force, even if it is a passive or negative one. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively or subtly. Or they could not pursue their goals, which also says something about them.
What is Conflict?
- A serious disagreement or argument
- A prolonged armed struggle
- An incompatibility between two opinions, principles or interests
- (v) be incompatible or at variance, clash
Basic Story Dynamic
- The Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .
- The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse)…
- Because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .
- Goals (the external things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing)
- Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with: smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different.
- Must seem real; flawed, layered, blind spot.
- Must have a unique voice.
- Must be in trouble, undeserved if possible, but usually not random.
- Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred.
- Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.
- We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist.
- We must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly.
- The protagonist’s blind spot can be fatal flaw, but at least brings about the moment of crisis.
- The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene.
What does your protagonist want most?
- Drives the story.
- You have one for one main story line.
- Does not have to be the hero/heroine or even good.
- If she fails, what is the result? (Stakes)
- Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, defeating the . . .
- Must be someone the reader respects (fears): smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different.
- Must seem real; flawed, layered, blind spot.
- Must have a unique voice.
- Must be in trouble.
- Must be introduced as soon as possible, even if by proxy.
- Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.
What does your antagonist want most?
- You have one.
- Drives the plot initially.
- You must do the antagonist’s plan and it should be very good.
- If removed, the plot collapses.
- Should be a single person so the conflict is personal.
- Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, fighting the protagonist because . . .
Their Goals Conflict
- The reader must believe both will lose everything if they don’t defeat the other.
- Their goals are difficult to achieve because of external barriers, primarily each other.
- Their goals are layered, usually in three ways . . .
- External: The concrete object or event the character needs.
- Internal: The identity/value the character is trying to achieve via pursuing the external goal.
- Relationship/communal: The connections the character wants to gain or destroy while in pursuit of the external goal.
- People want to achieve their goals because of their . . .
- The reason your character needs his or her goal.
- Everyone has an agenda.
- Every character has a primary motivator; Frankl’s ‘One Thing’.
- Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life.
More on Motivation
- The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
- Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
- The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers.
- Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers…
What is stopping your protagonist from getting what he/she wants most?
What is stopping your antagonist from getting what he/she wants most?
The Central Story Question
- Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal?
- When the reader asks that question, the story begins.
- When the reader gets the answer, the story is over.
Central Story Question Examples
- DON’T LOOK DOWN: Will Lucy defeat Nash and save herself and her family?
- AGNES AND THE HITMAN: Will Agnes defeat Brenda and keep Two Rivers?
- This question leads us to the . . .
The Conflict Box
The Conflict Box is a tool that is used to diagram visually your protagonist’s and antagonist goals and conflict.
You can either have conflict because
- Protagonist and antagonist want the same thing.
- Protagonist and antagonist want different things, but achieving one goal causes conflict with the other’s goal.
The Conflict Box
The core conflict based on goals that brings the protagonist and antagonist into direct opposition in a struggle that neither can walk away from.
Conflict Box: Same Goal
- Agnes wants to keep her house, which she bought from Brenda.
- Brenda wants to steal back the house she just sold to Agnes.
To see if your conflict is inescapable: Draw a line from Agnes’ goal to Brenda’s Conflict. If Agnes is causing Brenda’s conflict, you’re halfway there.
Then draw a line from Brenda’s goal to Agnes’ conflict. If Brenda is causing Agnes’ conflict, you have a conflict lock.
The key to the conflict box is one character must cause the other character’s conflict. You have that, you have conflict lock.
Conflict Box: Different Goals:
From Lost Girls. Gant wants to find out who is kidnapping and killing young girls.
The Sniper wants to continue killing the daughters of those he feels betrayed him.
Go to the below box and fill it out for your book.
Slideshare of the Conflict Box:
Video of Bob explaining the Conflict Box
WRITE IT FORWARD!
It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words. So let’s get that out of the way. You aren’t normal. You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. You’re cursed. You write because you have to. You will have to go the therapy. Sorry. That’s the reality of being a writer. It’s that simple.
If you desire to write a novel because you want to have a bestseller and make a bundle of money, my advice for you is to play the lottery; it will take much less time and your odds will be about the same, if not better, and I can guarantee that the work involved will be much less. The publishing business makes little sense and it’s changing faster than ever before. However, I do believe that the more you know, the greater your chances of success. The vast majority of writers are flailing away at the craft and the business blindly. Armed with knowledge, you greatly increase your ability to rise above the rest. (Three books in one: The Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
You write for you. You write because you have a story in you that has to come out. This is the core of the art of writing. Pearl Buck said:
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create– so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out his creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
I believe that passion, which fuels long-term perseverance to be the single most important factor. I also believe that too much discussion on the topic of creativity can actually stifle the drive in some people. They start thinking that they have to do and think exactly like everyone else in order to succeed and that is not true. That is why I say that there are no absolutes, no hard and fast rules in writing. Follow your path.
I have listened to many writers speak, read many books on writing, and while much of what they say is the same, there is often something that is very different. Usually that different thing is part of their creative expression, the way they approach their writing. However, on a core level, I think most creative people operate in a similar manner.
I see people who do #nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where they try to write a certain number of words each day, every day and I have two views of that: it’s good they are getting words down. But are they the type of writer who works that way? I know writers who don’t write every day, but work in creative bursts. They might not write for a week, then knock out 20,000 words in three days. #nanowrimo doesn’t work for them. Stephen King says he write 10 pages a day. That’s great for him. Does it work for you?
Additionally, that is what he says. Does he actually do it? Probably, but maybe not. He’s the only one who knows the truth. Most writers feel a subliminal degree of guilt over getting paid to sit at home and create stories. So sometimes we says things to make it more apparent that we ‘work’. Because it’s hard to explain how hard it is to simply be sitting still, doing nothing, while we develop blinding headaches trying to work our way through our plot while remaining true to our characters. So we use things like word count and page count instead, even if they aren’t true.
When I discuss how to write a novel in The Novel Writers Toolkit, I talk a lot about the craft of novel writing. The art is woven into the craft with deeper insights and when you take craft and twist it by breaking rules. But the first rule of rule breaking is to know the rule. Thus we must learn craft before we look to art.
Craft is the intellectual aspect of writing. The art is the emotional aspect. A great writer engages both the reader’s thoughts and emotions, thus being both a good craftsmen and a good artist.
One of the paradoxes of writing, and something to keep in mind when listening to people talk about writing: They present techniques, ideas and formats that are the “accepted” way of doing things; yet the “accepted” way makes you the same as everyone else who can read a writing book and follow instructions, and your work has to stand out from everyone else’s. So how do you do that? How do you do things the “right” way yet be different?
Everything is a template; do not allow anything to stifle your creativity. Remember the paradox. The best analogy I can come up with is that if you were a painter I am telling you about the paint and the canvas and lighting and perspective, but ultimately you are the one who has to decide what you are going to paint and how to paint it.
Another thing is to understand the techniques and methods, and then use your brilliance to figure out a way to change the technique or method to overcome problems and roadblocks. To be original– an artist– with something that’s already been done. Also to mix techniques and methods in innovative ways.
- Write a lot.
- Before writing a lot, be a voracious reader.
- I also am a big fan of watching a lot of movies and TV specials and series. There are writers who dismiss the television, but there are great writers putting out excellent product in that medium. And we all can learn from any artistic medium. Watching a different medium can also allow you to see new ways of looking at your writing.
- Learn the proper way to do business things in the world of publishing such as having a strategic plan for your career, which is covered under my Write It Forward program and book.
How do you approach writing? Do you do a daily word count like Nanowrimo or do you write in bursts? Do you think watching TV is good or bad for you as a writer?