How to Hack your Writing Method

Own your Writing Style

A writer writes, but how do you conceive an idea and make it come to life? Do you daydream for hours on end and develop scenes in your head before you ever write a word, or do you sit in front of your computer and wait for inspiration to strike?

Your writing can get carried away. By spending to much time plotting and outlining, you might find it hard to gather all of the information into one compelling narrative. On the other hand if you’re a pantser you might end up with a narrative that dances around beautifully sculpted details, convoluted to the point you lose track of the story arc.

In this article we will discuss how to keep track of creative ideas. We will cover how to organize ideas into a well scripted piece of writing. That way a story can be written effectively that readers will enjoy effortlessly.

Einstein’s desk photographed a day after his death

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

If you are a pantser then and you sit down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants. If you are a plotter then you craft detailed outlines before you put pen to page. Whatever style you write you should have a vague idea of where the story is headed before you begin.

For more information visit Cindi Myers Article: Plotter or Pantser: The Best of Both Worlds

Stephen King claims that his story ideas come form a “what if” question. What if a classic car hunts people down? (Christine) What if a man on death row has a gift to heal the sick? (The Green Mile) What if an outcast teenage girl develops telepathic powers during puberty and burns down her high school?(Carrie) Stephen King answers these questions by typing out a narrative scene by scene. He claims it is like digging for dinosaur bones. The story is there. He simply finds it and digs it up. Stephen King is a pantser style writer.

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For more information about Stephen King and his advice on writing I highly recommend his book: Amazon: Stephen King, On Writing

Avoid the Premise Novel

A lot of pantsers and first time novelists fall into the habit of writing a premise novel. A premise novel is a story built around an idea. Premise novels typically have no solid protagonist, no narrative drive, and no personal stakes. These stories are usually told from multiple points of view because the writer wants to show all aspects of the idea. The stakes feel high but none of the characters have anything at stake.

For more information visit Janice Hardy’s article: Look! It’s an Idea Going form Premise to Plot

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The Snowflake Method:

Fiction by Design

Whether you consider yourself a pantser or a plotter, it is a good idea to sit down and plan a few things in the beginning. If you don’t get somewhat of a grasp on your theme you might end up spending 500 or more hours on a rambling first draft. One method that seems to work well is the snowflake method.

This method is useful and necessary if you are writing a mystery or a historical narrative so you can keep your plot points accurate.

Step 1) Write a one sentence summary of your story. This is also good to remember for when you are sending out agent or publishing queries.

Step 2) Expand your sentence to a full paragraph that includes story setup, major conflicts, and the ending.

Step 3) Write a one page summary sheet about each of your characters. Include: names, one sentence summary of character’s storyline, the character’s motivation, the character’s goals, the character’s conflict, the character’s epiphany. After you do this for each character expand the one sentence summary or your character into a paragraph summary?

Step 4) Expand each sentence in your summary paragraph into a paragraph unto itself.

Step 5) Write a one page description about each major character and a half page description about each minor character.

Step 6) Expand your story synopsis. If you wrote one page then expand it to four.

Step 7) Expand your character descriptions into fully realized character charts.

Step 8) Make a list or a spread sheet of all the scenes you’ll need to turn into a novel.

Step 9) Take each line of the scene list and expand it into a paragraph summary.

Step 10) Start the first draft.

For more information visit: The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

Outlining and Brainstorming Tools

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Scrivener: a writing program designed for novelists and screenwriters. I use Scrivener software to help me outline and keep track of character notes and research. Learn more about Scrivener from my previous Scrivener Editorial

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Evernote: an organization tool for all aspects of your life. It is good for jotting down a plot point if you are in the supermarket. You can save voice messages, pictures, webpages and many types of information and organize it however you want using notebooks. I have lists of books to read, quotes, jokes, research topics and much more.

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Trello: a multi-tasking project managing platform. I use Trello to keep my unwritten story lines organized for when I do get around to writing them. With moveable cards it is easy to shift scenes and notes around to organize what you have written and what you need to work on.

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bubbl.us: a simple free brainstorming website you can use in your browser to let ideas branch out and take shape.

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xmind.net: another free website for more comprehensive brainstorming. (There is a premium package that comes with more tools for presentation and export capabilities). New features with xmind include an option to save to Evernote.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you should have a vague idea of the story’s theme and be able to write a one sentence summary of your story before you write a word of your first draft.

Find a method that works for you. Hone your skills and develop your own unique process so it comes natural. I am reminded of an inspirational message I once heard: amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

Use tools to help you organize your thoughts and develop your ideas into a working cohesive artfully crafted piece of writing. This will save time and headaches.

Are you a pantser, a plotter, or a little of both? Does your method work for you? Would you be willing to try a different method and test yourself to develop your creative process?

Try it out and see. That is why it is called the writing process.

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Characters with Contradictions

It’s all about the but

This is a re-blog from my site at brianphilipsen.com

con·tra·dic·tion

ˌkäntrəˈdikSH(ə)n/

noun: contradiction; plural noun: contradictions

  1. A combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another.
  2. A person, thing, or situation in which inconsistent elements are present.
  3. The statement of a position opposite to one already made.

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Search Google for the word contradiction. The definition that first appears on the web page isn’t a vague description; it is actually quite to the point—as it should be, after all the dictionary is meant to be clear and concise. So, how does contradiction apply to you the writer?

Simple: contradiction is complexity.

I have read and learned from many books about the craft of writing, (Stephen King’s On Writing is my stand out favorite) and countless writing blogs on character development. Some say: you don’t want to have a character that is a cardboard cutout; you want your characters to be three dimensional; you want your characters to be likable. The first two statements are merely complimentary. The latter of the three is just pandering, like the mother that sends her child off to school with cupcakes for the whole class, so the other children will overlook the kid’s snaggletooth smile and play with the poor tike.

In order to engage your reader, don’t make your characters likable, make them relatable. Advice I often hear from author blogs is: give your characters flaws; Give your characters weaknesses; give your characters motivation—even if it’s simply a glass of water; give your characters layers. Contradiction encompasses all of these themes.

Take for instance the debt collector that torments people over the phone for late payments, but can’t pay her own student loan bills and has to work a low income office job just to get by, or the politician with a tough pro-life stance, but is forced to pay for a mistress’s abortion to preserve his candidacy hopes. Think about the thrill seeker that base jumps off of tall bridges, but fears the sound of popping balloons. These are interesting characters because they are in a constant struggle to reconcile their own conscious contradictions.

Giving contradictions to a traditional character archetypes is a great way to freshen up a stale, overused hero, villain or sidekick. Personally, I love the challenge of reinventing an established, tried-and-true, character archetype, and twisting them into such a contradiction that the reader is forced to analyze every step of the narrative to figure out how the character came to being.

Nuns Lighting Cigarettes

There are many characters that drip contradictions in literature, television, movies, and video games that make them— not likable—but relatable. To name just a few:

  • Holden Caulfield, of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, wants to stop time. He wants to be a protector of innocence—a catcher in the rye, as the title would suggest—but also wants to stay innocent himself. Not wanting to grow old, Holden covers the patch of early onset grey hair with a cap which becomes his trademark. As a first person narrative Holden Caulfield is subjective to the environment around him, and it is easy to see the contradiction in his thoughts and actions.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the portrait of the American dream: fame, fortune, and recognition—but Jay Gatsby is reserved and mysterious during the lavish parties at his estate. Gatsby later reveals to, Nick Carraway (the narrator), that his ownership of such gaudy trappings is a ruse to gain the attention of Daisy Buchanan: the object of great obsession to Gatsby; the one thing he can never have.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduces us to a strong female character that defies the stereotypical cheerleader archetype. Buffy is a ditsy high school teenager—but also happens to slay demons when she’s not engaging the football fans in a rousing call to arms.
  • John Haught, a character from my new book The Prick of Time, is a man that works as a CPA for an accounting firm, but has no control over his own finances, and embezzles money to further his own reckless spending. Also, John cheats on his fiancé, but when he admits his own transgressions to her, John is taken aback, and plays the wounded victim when John’s fiancé reveals that she vengefully cheated on John when she became aware of his philandering nature.

Contradictions don’t make a character likable; they make the character real—and therefore relatable. In my personal life, the people that I have the strongest emotions toward (good, or bad) are the people that are so similar to me that it makes me feel uncomfortable as if I will be held liable by their actions—guilty by association if you will. If your reader finds similarities in your characters to themselves it will create an emotional response that is engaging and memorable.

People say this, but do that. People are this, but act like that. Well written characters are no different. Contradictions are everywhere; they make the world interesting and keep you guessing.

It’s about the but

Hemmingway used a Royal Quiet de Luxe typewriter; I use Scrivener

Several years ago when I first began writing I had no method of organization. Microsoft word was my writing software of choice. I used it to make notes on numerous documents at a time. My open tabs looked like a recycle bin full of yesterday’s newspapers. The bin of newspapers might have been better organized than my times roman scribblings. I couldn’t keep track of drafts and I was always losing research notes. I’ll admit it became extremely aggravating to find the trinket of information I needed months after I already published the document.

Then came my saving grace:  Scrivener-Logo

I discovered Scrivener on the blogs dedicated to the craft of writing I follow. Numerous authors mentioned the writing tool with the exuberance of a paid advertisement, so I paid attention.

Scrivner home

Scrivener’s homepage lists several prestigious awards the program has received. PC World called Scrivener one of the best 100 of 2012. Most of the accolades Scrivener lists on its homepage are from Mac centric organizations. After reading the honorable mentions by Apple loving groups I, being a PC guy, became concerned that Scrivener was a writing program geared mainly for the Mac. Wow, was I wholly wrong—as the 30 day free trial resoundingly demonstrated. Yes, Scrivener comes with a 30 day trial, and no, you don’t have to give them your credit card information right away to reserve the software.

After I downloaded the free trial I opened the program I’ll admit it overwhelmed me. The home screen looks and functions like a cockpit, and like any pilot, you have to take a few flight lessons before takeoff.

Scrivner tutorial

Scrivener provides interactive tutorials that guides you through the first few steps of learning how the various functions work.

Scrivener is intuitive to the point that using Scrivener suggests a writer designed the software, and not a computer programmer with a writer in mind.

Video tutorials are available along with the interactive tutorial, so the people behind the software set you up for easy accessibility from the onset. I was able to understand how to use Scrivener within a few hours and mastered Scrivener within a week.

The organization of the program is clutch. I am a planner; I outline my work. The cork board feature makes for a great way to keep tabs on drafts revisions and notes in a visual way. Scrivener has a place for research notes, links, videos and recordings. It also comes with easy to use templates that you can add pictures to so you can visualize your characters and settings. My favorite feature is the full screen mode which places the curser in the middle of the screen. I turn off spellchecker for a distraction free writing process. With the many tools available on Scrivener it does not detract from the writing process. Scrivener frees up hours I’d otherwise spend searching through notes, drafts and other writing tools.

The only downside to Scrivener is that I can’t save to the cloud. I saw a tutorial on how to save the project on Dropbox for the Mac but the PC is not so easy. I can’t save the entire project in dropbox, what I must do is copy and paste my work into a word doc and save it in dropbox (God bless ctrl+c and ctrl+v). If there is a way to save the project in the cloud on a PC, please message me.

What I foresee happening in the future is for Scrivener to become a monthly platform allowing several people to access the same project at the same time similar to Google Docs real time browser editing features. For authors and writers that can not work together due to distance constraints this feature would be absolutely amazing.

I may be bias. I haven’t used Final Draft or any other writing software, so I am not aware of where Scrivener fits overall into the spectrum of writing programs. Overall, Scrivener is elegant and solid. I would be at a loss if I went back to using my old methods to organize and write or adapting to something else.

The link can be found here for Scrivener’s free 30 day trial as well as a link to the tutorials.

Scrivener Homepage

Scrivener Tutorials

Enjoy.

If you have any suggestions or comments, please, fell free to reply. Thank you for your time. I am glad to help, and by all means—write already!