Pep Talk Week #2: Muck-Slinging and Word-Making

This week’s pep talk comes from Courtney Cantrell. Enjoy!

Greetings and Felicitations, Wordslingers!

And I mean that. Wordslingers. You’re past the gummy shallows of this splashy craze-fest known as JuNoWriMo. Here in Week Two, you’ve waded at least knee-deep into the ooze of creativity and subject-verb-agreement. Maybe you’re even hip-deep. (“Oh heck, it’s up to my neck!” as a certain Shel might say.) Either way, the Writer Is In, and it’s time to sling.

Sling those words. Plunge your arms into the raw, mushy heat of your story, clench your fists around whatever you can, and explode up out of that muck with verve and pizzazz. Fling those words around you like a monkey throwing poo! Don’t worry about what sticks and what doesn’t. You’ll clean up the splatters in July. Right now, your concern is smacking your immediate universe with all the gloppy characters and gooey plot points you possibly can.

If this slime-pit metaphor of wordy imagination is too ick for you, let’s move away from it for a moment.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo eight times and won seven; I’ve won JuNoWriMo once, but I’ve been loosely associated with it since its inception. And in this abundance of NaNo-ing, one of the challenges I’ve heard writers bemoan over and over again is the temptation to edit.

You know how it is, lovelies. You sit down at your computer, your typewriter, your pen-n-paper, your reed-n-clay-tablet — and you essay to re-read but a fraction of what you scribbled during your previous writing session. Just to get the juices flowing, y’know. Or maybe you don’t re-read. Maybe you just sit down and launch into the keyboard-pounding frenzy (don’t break your reed stylus, those are delicate). Either way, something catches your eye. Something you wrote prior to this session. You remember a phrase you were unsure about yesterday, and you need — you absolutely NEED — to check over it again. And the next thing you know, you’ve spent an hour nitpicking a paragraph or prodding a recalcitrant sentence into just the right shape….

And ya coulda spent dat hour writin’, kid. Ya coulda been a contendah.

(I just wholly dated myself, and I don’t care.)

(I make an awesome date.)

(I do not create fruit.)

*ahem*

Where was I. Oh yes. NOT TO WORRY. You’re still in the JuNoWriMo running. You’re still a contender. You are still fiercely amazing for even attempting these fabulous writing shenanigans. The point is this: during these month-long noveling capers, the Dread Pirate Editing is a temptation for all? most? many? of us. (I have no stats, just edumacated guesses.) The shadow of the Dread Pirate Editing looms over us, threatening to pillage our time and loot our first draft of progress. ’Cuz that be what ye’re pennin’, me hearties: a 50k-word first draft in the space of a month. (Note: that’s 50k more words than most humans in history ever wrote in their lifetimes.)

And if you give in to the Dread Pirate Editing, you’ll end up wanting to FIX ALL THE THINGS and your novel will taking a looooooong (not to mention wet) walk off a very short plank. (And there are sharks down there. They eat plot bunnies.)

Here I am with the metaphors again. Okay. So, in plain English: if you spend your time polishing words, sentences, and paragraphs — instead of generating new words — you will not reach your June 50k-word goal.

Thus…WHAT TO DO?

I can’t make you exercise self-control and ignore your editing urge. I can’t peer over your shoulder and remind you to get back to making new words instead of fiddling around with the old ones. I wouldn’t do any of that even if I could, because I wouldn’t be doing you or myself any favors.

What I can do is offer just a few practical tips that work for me. Your mileage might (and probably will) vary. If you wanna come find me on Twitter or at my sadly neglected blog, I’m happy to chat it out.

In the meantime, suggestions!

  1. Recall these tidbits from writers more well-known than I:
  • “It is perfectly okay to write garbage — as long as you edit brilliantly.”

—C. J. Cherryh

  • “You can fix anything but a blank page.”

—Nora Roberts

  • “Write your story, and don’t be afraid to write it.”

—Nnedi Okorafor

—> i.e. DON’T WORRY. JUST W̸̟̜̜͈͇̱̩̍̈́̿̊͜R̸̦̳̲̄̆̐Ī̸̗̮̗̲͙̳͖̳̌̊͋̓̄̐̕͠Ì̶͙̺̻̳͎͈̘͇̩͂͌́͠I̸̪̱̰̠͆͠Î̸̢͈̫Ï̸̧̲̝̝̭̪̽̈́͆̓̓Į̴̻̳͓̠͖̠͇̦͋͋̂͐́͘̕Ĭ̸͈̱̒͑Ì̸̢̛̱͎̭̑̂̃Ỉ̶͔͎̪̲̈́͑̈́͠I̶̗̯̹̱̰̐̽ͅỈ̵͚̻̮̱͎̖͙̖̣̆͆̄̏͊̾̾̾͜͝I̷̢̺͊́́̀̕I̶̡̛̳̥̻̞͎̠̱͂̆́͊Ȋ̴̧͔͔̯̺̙͕̬͖̒̋͝Ĩ̶̩̈͂̿̅̓ͅI̴̥̖͔̘̣̱͓̗͔̽͊̈́̓͊̋͐̒I̸̝͉͓̻̖̓̈̍̓̄̓̃͗͠ͅT̴̠͖̠͕̔̿̋͐̅̈͆̂͝E̶͇͖͙̰̮̾̔ (write).

  1. Do word sprints.

These are set periods of time — 10 minutes, 20, 30 — during which you force yourself to keep your butt in the chair and make words. Any words. It’s almost a free-association kind of thing.

Just write, write, write. (W̸̟̜̜͈͇̱̩̍̈́̿̊͜R̸̦̳̲̄̆̐Ī̸̗̮̗̲͙̳͖̳̌̊͋̓̄̐̕͠Ì̶͙̺̻̳͎͈̘͇̩͂͌́͠I̸̪̱̰̠͆͠Î̸̢͈̫Ï̸̧̲̝̝̭̪̽̈́͆̓̓Į̴̻̳͓̠͖̠͇̦͋͋̂͐́͘̕Ĭ̸͈̱̒͑Ì̸̢̛̱͎̭̑̂̃Ỉ̶͔͎̪̲̈́͑̈́͠I̶̗̯̹̱̰̐̽ͅỈ̵͚̻̮̱͎̖͙̖̣̆͆̄̏͊̾̾̾͜͝I̷̢̺͊́́̀̕I̶̡̛̳̥̻̞͎̠̱͂̆́͊Ȋ̴̧͔͔̯̺̙͕̬͖̒̋͝Ĩ̶̩̈͂̿̅̓ͅI̴̥̖͔̘̣̱͓̗͔̽͊̈́̓͊̋͐̒I̸̝͉͓̻̖̓̈̍̓̄̓̃͗͠ͅT̴̠͖̠͕̔̿̋͐̅̈͆̂͝E̶͇͖͙̰̮̾̔). Use a timer. When it goes off, stand up, walk

around, get a drink and/or snack, use the restroom, run around the block once. Ten minutes later, get your butt back in the chair and do it again. Look for Twitter hashtags #wordprints #wordmongering #wordgrab and find other Gorgeous Wordslingers Like You(™) online who are sprinting together (or against each other — maybe a little competition will light fires under that cute, melded-to-chair butt of yours).

2. End your writing session in the middle of a sentence that excites you.

I know, this sounds counterintuitive and even downright agonizing. But trust me. If there’s anything that can cannonball you directly into the goopy mass that is your story, it’s sitting down to your next writing session and plunging right into that cramazing sentence you so desperately wanted to finish. Finish it — and then keep going. Do. Not. Stop. Let the momentum carry you like a bulbous sludge-shark hauling you along behind it through the gook. It’ll take you to whatever miry depths you need to reach.

And so, I believe, we arrive back at the muck-slinging glop metaphor. You’ve got this, O Writer! Ye’re a wordslinger, Harry. You wield your words like a mage their wand, an Annie Oakley her gun, a seven-year-old her fistful of mud, a chimp his excrement. Sometimes you make magic. Sometimes you make slop. It’s FINE. That’s exactly what it’s like for every other writer in existence ever. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Welcome to the party. This is where we dive headfirst into what makes other people wrinkle their noses in disgust, and we have a raucous good time with it. So come on, writer. Jump in. The goop is great. Keep getting your hands dirty.

Slimily Yours,

Courtney

Courtney Cantrell is the author of twelve book-length works, including: epic fantasy series Legends of the Light-Walkers, paranormal series Demons of Saltmarch, and short story anthology The Elven Dead. She’s also a 7-time NaNoWriMo winner. Her writing career began when she was 8 with “a Tiger that growld”; continued with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing; and most recently grew to encompass epic fantasy murder mysteries (The Priestess Murders, coming soon!). Courtney lives in Oklahoma City with a husband, a daughter, and a hobbitcat.

You can find her at her blog: courtcan.com or on Twitter: @courtcan


Pep Talk Week #1: Kindness (to Yourself) Is Your Key to Success

To help us start this month strong, Angi Griffee gives a little encouragement for all of us writers.

Hey there JuNoWriMo-ers! How you doing?

This summer has been a challenge for me. This year, actually, has been a challenge for me in the writing department. There’s always something telling me I don’t have time or I’m not good enough, or maybe I’m even being left behind.

But you know what? None of that is true. And it’s not for you either. If you’re joining us for JuNo, writing matters to you. And we always find time for what matters. It’s not a hobby or extra or whatever, it’s your soul trying to get out on the page – and that matters.

You matter.

You’re good enough. Remember, this is a first draft. If it’s perfect on the first draft, please come teach me your ways, you word wizard! But you are making words and telling a story and that is good enough.

And I know as writers we tend to get into the comparison game, but you know what’s great? If one bookshelf gets full, we can just make another. There’s no getting left behind, it’s just a matter of endurance. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And you’re doing awesome.

Just remember to feed yourself, get up and stretch, and hydrate. Races are long, even if you’re only competing with yourself. And you’re close to crossing that finish line.

So no matter how it’s going, keep going. One word in front of the other.

It’s always easy to sit down and write when the words are flowing. Those are the best days. You sit down, stretch your fingers over the keys, and with that gentle tap-tap-tap the world that lives in your brain comes to life in front of your eyes. True magic

But what about those days when it’s hard to put a sentence together? What about the times when life stands in between you and the keyboard? The days when you’ve convinced yourself you’re not a writer. Those are the days I’m talking about.

First – everyone has those days. Every. One. If they say different, they are selling something.

Second – it’s gonna happen. Sometimes I can sit down and pump out so many words I have to double check the count to make sure I actually did that. Sometimes, I can’t do anything but read over my last chapter and delete the ten times I used the word Justandalso and so.

Third – One bad day does not equal a wasted month. (Or year, or book, or whatever our brains would like us to believe)

When I get stuck I try to remember those three things. I take a deep breath and think them through.

Don’t get inside your head. Just keep going. You can mold and edit and fix what you write, but if the words aren’t there, it’s harder. We tend to take a slow day of writing and turn it into OH MY GOD I’LL NEVER WRITE ANOTHER WORD WHAT AM I DOING HOW DID I GET HERE WHERE ARE THE SNACKS IS IT FIVE OCLOCK YET?????

But remember – feed yourself, being kind to yourself, stretch, hydrate. It’s amazing what a little grace toward yourself and a deep breath can do

When you start to struggle, think about what you would say to someone else who is struggling. I bet you’d encourage them, tell them they got this, and give them permission to have a slow day. Talk to yourself like you would a friend. Some days you might need tough love, some days you need a break, but every day you need kindness.

So now, do that for yourself. A lot of us think we’re not writers because of where we are in the process. Some of think we’ll never finish that second (or third or tenth) book. All of us worry it won’t be good enough.

If you are writing, you are a writer.

You will finish whatever you put your mind to.

And your words will speak to the people they are supposed to.

All it takes is a whole lotta bravery and a little patience with ourselves.

So happy writing, my friends!!

Now, take a deep breath! Drink your water. Eat some fruit. Because I believe in you. You got this!!! And slow or fast, you’ll get there. Happy writing!

With magic words and love,

Xo,

Angi

Angi Griffee is a dance and theater instructor whose love affair with words helps her create books. She also bakes, sings, and owns Wise Owl Words Editing.

Pep Talk Week 4: The Final Push

Hey everybody! Week 4!! We’re so close to the end of the month!

I thought about talking about word counts, final pushes, or finding something super inspirational—but instead I’m going to say this:

Good job!

Look at what you’ve accomplished! 5 words? 50 words? 50000?? Great! You decided to do a thing and you did it. You’re a writer. You made art. You did something original.

You still have this last week to meet your goal, but if you don’t, that’s okay. You can still write in July. You can write in August. You can set a new goal and try again in November.

As long as you keep writing, you simply can’t fail. There aren’t any wrong answers here or only one way to do it.

Your way is the best way for you. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

So, my writing friends, here’s to the last week of June. It might be the end of JuNoWriMo 2018, but it’s only the beginning of your journey. So keep on writing. Keep on making art. Keep on believing in you.

Peace, love, and words,
Angi

Angi GriffeeAngi Griffee is a dance and theater instructor whose love affair with words helps her create books. She also bakes, sings, and owns Wise Owl Words Editing.

Pep Talk Week 3: Strategies for Writing through the Middle

We’re entering week three of JuNoWriMo. Some of you have already crossed the 50k line, some of you are close, and some of you are writing madly while knowing you won’t make that goal. The thing that all of these have in common is that you are writing and that is fantastic.

Today, I’m mostly speaking to the folks who aren’t finished yet and are trying to jam out a whole bunch of words. Yes, you can just write random stuff and bump up your wordcount that way, but wouldn’t it be nice to have words that you’ll be happy with later for more than just the quantity of them? Here’s a list of strategies find words you’re excited about.

  1. Remember that you are telling a story and you are telling it to yourself first and foremost. We are, all of us, readers. So when you’re sitting there staring at the page, don’t think about what you should write next, think about what you would want to read.
  2. Remember what excited you about the story in the first place. Bring it back. You liked the flying monkeys in chapter 2? No reason they can’t make a reappearance here.
  3. Doodling for writers. Write description from your character’s point of view. Ridiculous descriptions. Describe the woodgrain on the desk sitting in the corner of the room that your character is in. At some point, your brain will say, “Really? We’re talking woodgrain? I have some plot here. Would you like some plot?” That description isn’t wasted. It tells you about the space that your character is in and you can often cut those words up and put them in other places in your novel
  4. Pick a technique to practice. Dialogue. Setting. Internal monologue… Now doodle for writers with that, until you find your way again.
  5. Gift your character with your indecision. They don’t know what their plan is either, so think about the smartest thing that they can do — but think about it on the page and in their point of view.
  6. Figure out what your character wants overall and also in this scene. Now. Systematically deny it to them. They want a glass of water? Fine, break the faucet. They go to call the plumber? Tough luck about the phone coming off the wall like that. Be mean to them.
  7. Brackets are your best friends. If you are on a roll, don’t stop to look things up. Put it in [square brackets] and come back to it.
  8. Bored with a scene? Just jot down what happens next so you can get to the part that you really want to write. Sometimes, you’ll come back later and find you didn’t need the part you skipped.
  9. Set a timer for twenty minutes and tell yourself that your fingers cannot stop moving. Before you hit start, pick a goal for the scene — something specific like “they break out of prison with a mason jar” or “she realizes she loves him.” Now write.
And if you don’t hit 50k by the end of June? No big deal. There’s always next month. Sure, JuNoWriMo is in June, but dude– writers write. And you, my friend, you are a writer.

Mary Robinette KowalMary Robinette Kowal is the author of historical fantasy novels: The Glamourist Histories series and Ghost Talkers. She has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’sClarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit maryrobinettekowal.com.

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Pep Talk Week 2: How To Keep Writing

This week, Angi Black helps you sail through the halfway point of JuNoWriMo (and probably also your diet if you’re on one).

Hey there JuNoWriMo-ers! It’s week two and we’re nearly halfway done!! 

How you doing? 

Two weeks in is always the tipping point for me. If I’m sailing, I only build steam. On the other hand, if I’m struggling, I think about quitting. And that’s what today’s pep talk is about. How to keep going no matter how it is going. 

It’s always easy to sit down and write when the words are flowing. Those are the best days. You sit down, stretch your fingers over the keys, and with that gentle tap-tap-tap the world that lives in your brain comes to life in front of your eyes. It’s like magic and you are the wizard. 

But what about those days when it’s hard to put a sentence together? What about the times when life stands in between you and the keyboard? The days when you’ve convinced yourself you’re not a writer. Those are the days I’m talking about. 

First – everyone has those days. Every. One. If they say different, they are selling something. 

Second – it’s gonna happen. Sometimes I can sit down and pump out so many words I have to double check the count to make sure I actually did that. Sometimes, I can’t do anything but read over my last chapter and delete the ten times I used the word Just. 

Third – One bad day does not equal a wasted month. (Or year, or book, or whatever our brains would like us to believe).

When I get stuck I try to remember those three things. I take a deep breath and think them through. 

Have you ever been on a diet? That was a silly question. I’ll rephrase. Remember the last time you were on a diet? And you ate that pizza and then you had a birthday party and ate cake and then because you’d done all that you finished the day with one (or three) too many glasses of wine? No? 

Oh. Me either then. But hypothetically speaking… Because you’d felt like you’d blown it you decided to make your little bonfire into the explosion behind Ironman as he walks away. This is the same thing we do to our writing when it doesn’t come easy. We take a slow day of writing and turn it into OH MY GOD I’LL NEVER WRITE ANOTHER WORD WHAT AM I DOING HOW DID I GET HERE?????

And you know what’s great? It’s the easiest thing not to. All you have to do is this – be nice to yourself. 

I know, weird, right? 

When you start to struggle, think about what you would say to someone else who is struggling. I bet you’d encourage them, tell them they got this, and give them permission to have a slow day. 

So now, do that for yourself. A lot of us think we’re not writers because of where we are in the process. Some of think we’ll never finish that second (or third or tenth) book. All of us worry it won’t be good enough. 

If you are writing, you are a writer.

You will finish whatever you put your mind to. 

And your words will speak to the people they are supposed to. 

All it takes is a whole lotta bravery and a little patience with ourselves. 

So happy writing, my friends!! 

Now, take a deep breath! Because I believe in you. You got this!!! And slow or fast, you’ll get there. Happy writing!

With magic words and love, 

XO 

Angi

Angi GriffeeAngi Griffee is a dance and theater instructor whose love affair with words helps her create books. She also bakes, sings, and owns Wise Owl Words Editing.

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Pep Talk Week 1: Writing Isn’t Just Writing

Get excited for this month’s challenge with a poignant and funny reminder from author Chuck Wendig that writing is so much more than “just writing.” 

The good news, and the bad news, is that there is nothing I can tell you that you don’t already know.

You already know it’s going to be hard. Writing, despite what some assume, isn’t easy. It’s an act of mining – except instead of chipping rock, you’re chipping away at ideas, at emotions, at the schist and bedrock of your own mind.

You already know that it’s going to be weird. I mean, c’mon. You sit in front of a computer, basking in the glow, and you look at that glowing square and try to impress upon it the breadth and depth of a whole story. You also make people up. Like, you invent them. Wholecloth. Thin air. Entire beings that are you, but aren’t you, at the same time.

You already know that nobody will really appreciate it. I’m a NYT-bestselling author, and I still meet people who know I’m a writer, and their response is basically, “That’s nice.” And then they tell you a thing as if it’s somehow equivalent: “Oh, I found a sale today on a nice jacket,” and you want to respond, “I CREATED A WHOLE UNIVERSE WITH MY MIND, IT ISN’T THE SAME, JANICE,” but they just blink and smile and you can’t really crack that nut.

You already know that to write, you need to write. You need to quantum entangle YOUR BUTT with THAT CHAIR and herd those words. Writing can’t happen without writing, can it?

You also already know that writing isn’t just writing. It’s also a whoooooole lot of wandering and dreaming and thinking and worrying. It’s showering and mowing the lawn and then reading and re-reading and editing and weeping and eating cake under your desk.

You already know that desk-cake is the best cake, but also the most worrisome cake.

I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

But you and I both know, too, that no matter how weird and how hard it is, writing is what you do and who you are, and it’s worth doing just the same. Stories are sublime. Books are amazing. You don’t come to this ignorant of that. It forms part of a fantastic tradition – a tapestry of words and tales to which you wish to add your very own thread. You know that it matters. That being this thing and doing this work is important to you. Because you’ve read so much already by so many others that has left an indelible print on your soul.

You know you’re going to do it.

You’re a writer, and a writer writes. You know that, too. In your heart. In your gut.

So go write. Show us all what you know.

See you on the other side, penmonkeys.

Chuck WendigChuck Wendig is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Aftermath, as well as the Miriam Black thrillers, the Atlanta Burns books, Zer0es/Invasive, and his upcoming epic, Wanderers (Del Rey, 2019). He’s also worked in a variety of other formats, including comics, games, film, and television. A finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the cowriter of the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus, he is also known for his popular blog, terribleminds.com, and his books about writing. He lives in Pennsylvania with his family.

Social Media: @chuckwendig on Twitter and @chuck_wendig on IG

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 4: Character Family Trees

The very first time I tried NaNoWriMo, I found out about it and joined mere days before the challenge. I didn’t prep anything save to decide I wanted to write Fantasy. I thought, for some reason, that Fantasy would be the easiest genre to write because I could make up my own rules. Having read Tolkien before, I don’t know why on earth I imagined this would make the task easier.

I managed to do some halfway decent worldbuilding on the fly, but aside from my two main characters, the others were mere afterthoughts—place holders for actions and dialogue that needed to move my two protagonists forward. (Yeah, because I also decided two main characters was a great idea for my first ever novel. Maybe I suffered from temporary insanity back in ’08 brought on by the recession? I’m running with that.)

Anyway, I reached a part in the novel where I didn’t even have a name for a character, so she got the label [PM1] for “protagonist’s mom.” Talk about an identity crisis.

Let me fast-forward a few years to when I was doing some personal genealogical research. I realized just how fascinating it is to think about where we come from, generations back. Take what I say next with a grain of salt because I haven’t verified it by going to England seeing the records for myself, but I managed to trace one line of my family tree back to the time of Alfred the Great. Stories came to mind for all those individuals—regardless of whether I’m actually their descendant. One of them helped inspire my protagonist for my current work-in-progress.

Understanding his family tree and how those people moved in the world helped me understand him better, which is why this week, in my fourth and final pre-JuNoWriMo character development post, I’m recommending you make your character’s family tree.

For Family Tree Newbs

If you’ve never made a family tree before, the process can seem daunting. But, if you take it one step at a time, I don’t doubt that you’ll have fun! There are a number of programs and apps you can use for this sort of thing, but as many of them actually link your tree to real people, I’m going to suggest you go with old-fashioned pencil and paper for this exercise. You can always take a photo of it if you want to store it digitally.

So, I’ll talk you through my process for making a family tree. By all means if you come across a different method, especially those recommended by actual genealogists, feel free to follow that guidance if you like. For this exercise, it doesn’t really matter how you create the family tree—just that you create it.

How I Make Character Family Trees

I start out by writing my character’s name in a square. Seems easy, no? I also write their birthdate. I draw a line to the sides to connect them to any siblings—circles for gals, triangles for guys. I know, in our progressive-thinking world it seems horrible to differentiate by gender. I’m a feminist, I promise. But if you’re making a large family tree, some kind of pictorial distinction can help. If you don’t want to use these shapes, or you don’t want to separate by gender but by something else, please be my guest!

I draw a vertical line to my protagonist’s parents, who are connected by a double line to signify marriage. If they had the children in the branch below theirs out of wedlock, I put a slash through that double line. You can already see how I tell a story with simple lines, names, and birthdates. I continue the process, moving up the family tree until I’ve gone back as far as I feel I must.

Even though I went back about 1200 years on my own family tree, I didn’t go back so far on my protagonist’s. But, his family are descended from the aristocracy, so I did go back several generations at least on his paternal side, since that’s how surnames are passed in British history. If your protagonist is from a matriarchal society, you’d want to follow their maternal line.

Okay, one more step to go—a special step I take for character family trees. For each person on the tree, I write one or two notes about who they are as a person, what they did in their life, and/or any metaphors I want to attach to them. This is a ginormous help to me in my drafting process, especially if I have many characters to keep track of.

Final Thoughts

Have you ever made a family tree for your characters? Is this an exercise you plan to try this year? If you’ve been a pantser in the past, have you thought about becoming a planner this year, or do you thrive on the spontaneity of going into a 50K in a month challenge completely uncertain of what you’ll write?

I’d love to know! Check in on the comments or catch me on Twitter! Happy pre-writing and writing!

Margaret McNellis has been volunteering with JuNoWriMo for years. She holds an MA in English & Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her WIP is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Margaret’s short fiction has appeared in Fictitious Magazine, See Spot Run, The Penman Review, The Copperfield Review, and Dual Coast Magazine. To check out some of her fiction and poetry, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 3: Personality Tests

In the previous instalments of this series, we looked at tools to help you create characters. This week, I want to shift gears and discuss how to develop characters that have already sparked. This exercise is ideal for when you know a few things about a character, or maybe you just have their vibe, and you’re looking for ways to bring them into a story.

This week, we’re all about personality…and more specifically, testing that personality. There are tons of personality tests out there, such as Myers-Briggs, IQ, and EQ tests. Some have image-based questions, where you choose your favorite image, and this reveals something innate about who you are. Others ask you questions that you answer on a sliding scale, for example.

For the purposes of this week’s discussion, I’m going to use 16 Personalities. When it comes to personality tests for characters, this is my personal favorite. I’m going to guide you through how I took this test for my protagonist, and what was revealed about him. It’ll be a treat for us all to see if the results match up with what I wrote for his character profile/study.

I’ve not used this tool for him yet. Let’s see what happens!

For questions that aren’t historically appropriate to a 17th-century fella, I either chose the neutral position or imagined the historically-accurate version of the question if possible.

As you can see, I filled out every page of the 16 Personalities test. I tried to free James from my input and go with my first instinct for him. I didn’t want to shape the results of the test at all, especially as this is a character I have already developed.

The Results

James came out with an ISTJ-T personality type. According to 16 Personalities, he is:

  • Introverted
  • Observant
  • Thinking
  • Judging
  • Turbulent

I’m not sure if I’d consider him turbulent over assertive, but he was pretty close to a 50/50 on that. As for the other key traits, I’d say they’re spot on with how I’ve already developed him.

What follows this result is eight pages of in-detail reading. I’m only going to show and discuss two of those pages. Mostly, this is because this blog post would be about thirty pages long if I got into some of the other results pages—but if you use 16 Personalities for your character (or yourself), I recommend reading each results page because there’s plenty of insightful information available there.

I’d say of these strengths, the only one I’m not so sure my character has in spades is calmness. He’s not a total loose cannon but he does have a short fuse.

16 Personalities really hit the mark with James’s weaknesses. These aren’t his only weaknesses, but they certainly encompass the most important ones—especially his stubbornness early in the book and his insensitivity later in the book.

Final Thoughts

The nice thing about having these tests available on the internet for free is that I don’t have to hunt down my old college psychology textbook. I hope you’ll take the chance to poke through some of the tests available out there and see which ones can help you develop your characters.

Also, sometimes I get ideas for ways I can challenge my characters just from reading through the results.

Check in next week for one more character development exercise to help you prepare for next month’s challenge!

Margaret McNellis has been volunteering with JuNoWriMo for years. She holds an MA in English & Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her WIP is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Margaret’s short fiction has appeared in Fictitious Magazine, See Spot Run, The Penman Review, The Copperfield Review, and Dual Coast Magazine. To check out some of her fiction and poetry, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 2: Character Resumés

Last week, I walked you through creating character profiles designed to help you get to know your character. But not everyone has the time or desire to write a 10-page profile, so this week I have another suggestion for how you can get to know your characters (and their story).

Write their resumés.

I know writing a resumé can sound like a drag, but I promise I have more fun writing them for my characters than myself, with all the satisfaction that accompanies finishing this task.

The only tricky part is for authors who are writing stories that don’t exist in our modern, contemporary, tangible Earth sort of world. Being that my own novel is historical fiction, I’m going to show you that it’s possible. I’ll write James’s from the start of the Pequot War, the main external conflict of my novel.

My Protagonist’s Resumé

James Stanworth

Fort Saybrooke

Connecticut

SUMMARY

James is skilled in negotiations and foreign languages. Skills include reading, writing, diplomacy, animal husbandry with an affinity for horses, carpentry, swimming, and archery. With experience as a trapper, trader, and interpreter, James is a natural leader and possesses a growth mindset. He’s an intrepid traveler, having crossed the Atlantic on the Bonaventurein 1633.

OBJECTIVE

To become an interpreter for the colonies of New England, to continue developing deeper knowledge of both the languages and cultures of First Nations within those colonies and foster a mutually beneficial relationship between settlers and First Nations. To own and run a trading post.

EMPLOYMENT EXPERIENCE

Assistant Trapper and Trader to Jasper Peterson, The New World, 1633-1635

  • Learned Iroquois and Algonquin tongues
  • Hunted both deer and beaver
  • Carved a canoe out of a cedar trunk
  • Traded with First Nations and other settlers

Contract Negotiator, Colony of Connecticut, 1635-1637

  • Negotiated land deals between Governor John Winthrop Jr. of Connecticut and First Nations
  • Translated contract documents from English into Algonquin languages

Interpreter, Fort Saybrooke, 1637-Present

  • Negotiates on behalf of Lieutenant Lionel Abner
  • Reports regularly to Governor John Winthrop Jr. about progress in preventing war between First Nations and settlers
  • Liaises with Dutch military allies and trade competitors

Discussion

James was not formally educated for reasons that will be revealed in my book, even though he comes from a wealthy family. But his father did impart him with the skills to read and write, which serve him well throughout the book and become some of his most relied-upon abilities. However, because he didn’t go away to school, I chose to omit an “EDUCATION” section.

But you can see how I’ve brought this 17th-century character into the modern world. I kept the dates of his employment honest to his time, but obviously he wouldn’t fill out a resumé. If I truly wanted to be as close to accurate as possible, he might have a referral letter from a previous employer—maybe Jasper Peterson (this name might change, by the way—I haven’t decided yet).

There are also some areas where I brought James’s personality through. He prefers hanging out with horses to hanging out with people, and he doesn’t like the Dutch all that much—but then, as a tradesman from England at a time when England will soon be at war with the Dutch, that’s not that hard to imagine. My point though is that you can bring your character to life through your choices in wording elements of their resume.

By the way, this exercise only took me about twenty minutes, which makes it a great pre-writing exercise.

As a bonus exercise, you can write a scene with your character interviewing for a job!

Margaret McNellis has been volunteering with JuNoWriMo for years. She holds an MA in English & Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her WIP is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Margaret’s short fiction has appeared in Fictitious Magazine, See Spot Run, The Penman Review, The Copperfield Review, and Dual Coast Magazine. To check out some of her fiction and poetry, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 1: Character Profiles

You’ve decided to write a novel…now what? Whether or not you intend to do some planning this month before JuNoWriMo kicks off, I’m going to help you start to think about ways to develop characters. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or seasoned writer—thinking about characters in new or different ways can energize the development task and get you revved up to bring them to life come June.

For the next four weeks, I’ll guide you through four different approaches to character development. Hopefully one of them will strike a chord with you. I hope too that if you have any questions, you’ll comment on these posts.

This week, I’m going to start off with writing your character’s profile. If you want to write with authorial authority, you need to know as much about your character as possible. I’m going to encourage you not to write backstory.

You’re probably thinking, “What? No backstory? Did my character just hatch out of the ground fully formed?”

Well, maybe—maybe not. That’s really your call. But the main reason I’m going to encourage you to steer clear of backstories is they’re often arbitrarily created when they’re used as a starting point.

The Backstory Dilemma

Say you have a character who is a cop. You decide, based on that career, that the character’s father was a cop, too. Maybe, because when the father was alive, he was always working and never around, your character has issues trusting people.

It’s not terrible. But I think it’s going about things the wrong way. What if, instead, you decided that your character has trouble trusting people first? What if that leads you—when thinking of the father—to his having a second, secret family? Maybe halfway through the story, one of your character’s secret half-siblings commits a crime. Your cop character is blackmailed into making the charges go away in order to keep the secret and avoid embarrassment (for self, for the character’s mother, etc…).

Can you see how the second option—developed from a flaw and not a backstory—created both the backstory and some kind of struggle for the character?

If you start with backstory, you risk developing backwards and missing opportunities for conflict.

Character Profiles

What is a character profile, and how do you write one?

Let’s start with what a character profile isn’t. It’s not a listing of your character’s 100 favorites. It’s not a set of prompts to determine what your character looks like. All of that is superficial.

Rather, a character profile is an in-depth examination of what makes your character tick. When I wrote a profile for my protagonist, it came out at ten pages long. To be fair, one of the reasons it was ten pages was that I was doing it as a writing exercise, with the length dictated by my MFA mentor. But the freedom to take up that space allowed me to work out the less tangible qualities of my protagonist.

Character Profile Sections

For those writers who want a little more guidance, don’t worry; I won’t leave you high and dry. I’m going to break down for you how I approach character profiles, in hopes that it gives you a starting place. You don’t have to hold to it exactly if you don’t want to.

Also, for the sake of not worrying over differences in document formatting, let’s presume that you’re going to write a 3,000-word character profile (that’s 10 pages at about 300 words each). This is how I suggest breaking it down:

  • Character’s fears – 500 words
  • Character’s goals – 500 words
  • Character’s strengths – 500 words
  • Character’s weaknesses – 500 words
  • How the character will grow by the end of the book – 500 words
  • What/who hinders the character and how – 250 words
  • What/who helps the character and how – 250 words

Three thousand words in a character profile really isn’t all that much, when you break it down into parts. Take each part one at a time. You don’t have to write them in this order, either. I tend to, but I also believe in letting inspiration guide your energy output.

Using the Character Profile

When June 1 arrives and you’re about to start writing, are you going to take out this 10-page document and comb through it for quick facts? Probably not. That’s why I’m going to suggest just one more step:

After you write a character’s profile, make a list of the basic elements you determined in each section.

For example, if you write 500 words about why your character fears relying on others, his own mortality, and heights, you don’t want to comb through those pages to find those fears. Make a list of them for quick reference.

Final Thoughts

Do you have to create 10,000-word profiles for every major character in your novel? It’d be really nice to do that, if you have the time. But if not, start with your protagonist. I’ve found, when pressed for time, that just having my main character fleshed out like this can be enough for me to decide how other characters should be developed on the fly.

For example, if my character has trust issues, I know I’m going to put another in my protagonist’s path who either is or seems untrustworthy.

Give it a shot—write a character profile in the next week. Then, come back to try another way to develop your character pre-JuNoWriMo!

Margaret McNellis has been volunteering with JuNoWriMo for years. She holds an MA in English & Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her WIP is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Margaret’s short fiction has appeared in Fictitious Magazine, See Spot Run, The Penman Review, The Copperfield Review, and Dual Coast Magazine. To check out some of her fiction and poetry, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter