Don’t Know What to Write for NaNo? Don’t Worry!

NaNoWriMo is only a few days away. Are you excited? Are you ready? I wasn’t until this past Saturday. I was having a really hard time thinking of an idea to work on this November. More specifically, I had 1,000 different ideas, and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write. Are you having that problem, too?

It’s okay if you are. You still have several days before you have to know what you’re doing. Just in case you’re still trying to find an idea, I thought I’d share some quick tips.

1. Brainstorming
If you’re anything like me, you probably have tons of ideas floating around in your head, and you aren’t really sure which ones are viable. By brainstorming, you give yourself the freedom to explore all kinds of ideas and see which ones might work the best. You can do this by making a list of ideas, mind-mapping, drawing pictures, or tons of other techniques. The point is that you explore any idea that comes to mind without judging it. NaNo is all about ignoring that critic in your brain, so practice by letting yourself go wild with ideas.

2. Talking
Talking about your ideas can be really liberating. This is especially true, when you’re sharing your thoughts with another writer. He or she can help you work through your mental blocks to get to the idea you really love.

If you don’t want to talk about your ideas, you can also talk to a friend about important events in his or her life, powerful emotions, or even just vague concepts. Your friend doesn’t even need to know that you’re trying to decide what to write. Just having a conversation and thinking about it like a writer can help you generate new themes to explore.

3. Using Other Media
If you need help coming up with an idea to write, try letting other types of art influence you. Maybe a painting at a local museum will give you an idea. Maybe music will help you set the tone of your novel. A movie might give you a concept you can spin another direction.

Sometimes when I’m stuck, I like to create boards on Pinterest that capture the tone or feeling of the work I want to create. Other times I use it to pin images that match my vision of a character’s look or actions. There are all kinds of great inspiring images online, so use the internet to help you, just don’t get too distracted. Another cool and relatively new feature on Pinterest is the ability to create private boards, so if you aren’t ready for the world to see your idea, you can keep it private.

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but hopefully it will give you some ideas in time for NaNoWriMo. If you need other resources, feel free to reach out to other writers in the NaNoWriMo forums, or send me a message.

I’d love to learn about the ways you like to find inspiration. Share your ideas in the comments.

In Defense of NaNoWriMo and An Announcement About Upcoming Posts

I know plenty of people argue about whether NaNoWriMo is helpful or harmful to writers, but I can’t help thinking that anything that makes us sit down and actually put words on a page is great. I love the creative, competitive atmosphere fostered by the event and the fact that unites people with similar passions.

For those of you who don’t know exactly what NaNoWriMo is, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month. NaNo is an event held in November of every year where writers all over the world commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. The idea is to write a novel that you start working on in November.

(Tip: While NaNo is about writing novels, you can write anything you want. There’s a group called Rebels that do this every year, so don’t be afraid to try it with something else, too! You can also choose different goals if you want to commit to more or less. You can also work on an older project if you really want to, like a rewrite.)

In all fairness, NaNo gets tons of criticism, and, sure, some of it’s valid, but it doesn’t concern me. Am I bothered that most NaNoers don’t get serious about their writing? Nope, they learn about writing and have fun doing it. What about the fact that most will never be published? How is that different from any other novel written at any other time? Besides, some do get published, and some of those published books are pretty big. Ever heard of The Night Circus? How about the idea that fast writing can equal sloppy writing? Every draft is sloppy. Might as well get it done fast and spend time editing later. You’ll have to edit it all anyway.

All I care about is that NaNo gives people a reason to sit down and write. It gives them a deadline, even if it’s ultimately meaningless. It gives them a goal, even if 50,000 words isn’t the right length for a novel. Lots of NaNoers have never written that much before in their lives or written with so much consistency.

I support NaNo because it gives people a reason to try something new and difficult. It gives writers a reason to keep going. It helps people actually work towards their dreams. It helps writers build writing habits.

Sure, you can do all of this any other time, too, but there’s something about the community and the frenzy of writing so much in a month that makes NaNo exciting. The best part of Nano is the community.

It does so much good for writers while fostering a supportive environment that encourages sharing with, commiserating with, venting to, and helping other writers. Actually, people are able to accomplish the above because of the community fostered on the NaNo site. We tend to be a lonely bunch, and I love that there is an event that encourages writers to reach out to others. It creates bonds from similar experiences.

Who cares if what NaNoers write is a sloppy mess? I’m betting that most novels that weren’t written in a month-long period are sloppy messes, too. NaNo is about ignoring the mess. NaNo is fast, so it makes you get ideas down on the page without worrying, and at the end of the month, you have something to show for your diligence. Sure, it won’t be ready to go out into the world. It probably won’t be a finished draft. It will be ugly. It will be confusing. What first draft isn’t? Still, writing 50,000 words in a month is an impressive feat, and you have something to work with at the end.

I’m all for NaNo and the benefits it brings writers, which is why I’m happy to announce that I will participate in my third NaNoWriMo this year. I’m so excited that we’re less than a month away, and I’m working hard to plan my novel. In honor of the event, I’m going to be posting some helpful guides and resources over the next few weeks to help you prepare for NaNo and have a successful month of writing.

If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, don’t know what it is, or are considering doing it this year, check out the site. Even if you decide NaNo isn’t for you, I encourage you to try it at least once. It’s an exhilarating experience. Plus, if you’re serious about your writing you won’t regret setting goals for your novel and working hard to achieve them.

So start planning now and commit to making an ugly, sloppy, messy, beautiful draft of your own in November.

Do you have any resources you want to see? Any thoughts about NaNo? Share them in the comments.

6 Reasons Why Your Dialogue Sucks (And 7 Ways to Improve)

Improve Your Dialoge

I don’t care what anyone says, dialogue is hard. Every writer struggles to make character conversations seem realistic. But the good news is that it does get easier if you know which traps to look out for and how to fix them.

1. Your Characters Sound Alike

No one talks like anyone else they know. Sure, friends and family may pick up some of the same vocabulary, like slang and regional word usage, but no two people talk exactly the same. People use different sentence structures, nuances, and tropes in every day speech. The same person may even talk completely differently depending on the context of the conversation. Work on discovering the different ways people talk and representing them on the page. Each character you represent with dialogue should sound different from every other character.

2. Your Characters Think Alike

People don’t think the same as others. They don’t all follow the same logical paths. Streams of thought that seem logical to one person are nonsensical to another. When your characters talk, they should have different thought patterns, opinions, and ideas. Good characters can be picked out from the rest in a book even without dialogue tags, just because the reader knows how each character thinks. Don’t make your characters’ thoughts too similar.

3. You Don’t Write How People Talk

Grammar is fantastic. I love grammar, but all rules are meant to be broken, especially in dialogue. No matter how many times parents and teachers correct people as kids to speak and write correctly, speech is messy. Check out this great post on the Write Practice about how messy real speech is, if you’re curious.

Now, I’m not saying to go crazy and make an unreadable mess, but it’s ok to break grammar rules for the sake of character. Use good grammar when you can, but don’t do it if your character would not use correct grammar in his or her everyday speech. Don’t make your characters stiff with formal speech. Try to make them seem like real people by making their speech a bit messy.

4. You Use It As An Excuse to Tell

Show don’t tell. You’ve heard that over and over. Too many writers are convinced that tons of back story is necessary for readers to understand the plot of a story, and rather than cut it, they think they can cleverly hide it in dialogue. The truth is that real people don’t talk about back stories all that often, especially if they already know each other. When you talk to your oldest friend, do you always bring up how you met her? No. You’re characters won’t either, because you treat them like real people. While having your characters talk about actions in the past may seem like an easy way to get around info dump and tell everything about the plot.

What’s worse is that some writers use dialogue to avoid showing characters acting in scenes. Don’t fall into this trap. Just don’t do it. Dialogue is meant to explore characters and move the plot, not supplement it. This brings me to my next point:

5. Your Dialogue Doesn’t Advance the Plot

Yep, sometime writers think dialogue is just there as filler and nothing happens. It just takes up room on the page. When you talk to people in real life do you just talk for no reason? Well, sometimes people do, but that’s usually an indicator that someone is uncomfortable and something else is happening.

Dialogue is a great tool because its applications are so diverse. You can use it to give more detail about a character. It can show the truth someone’s mental state. It can advance the plot when characters come together for some reason.

Don’t cheat and use it as filler. Make sure your dialogue is essential to the advancement and clarity of the story.

6. You Use Annoying Tags

“Hello, John,” said Jane.

“How are you, Jane?” John asked.

“I’m fine, John,” said Jane.

“That’s delightful, Jane!” exclaimed John.

Please don’t go overboard with dialogue tags. As an avid reader, I’m begging you. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story more than unnecessary and distracting dialogue tags. Do we need to see who the speaker was at the end of every line? Nope. We can guess who’s talking based on the flow of the conversation, and if the writer has paid attention to points one and two, the way the character talks and thinks. Do real people use each other’s names throughout a conversation? Nope. Usually they are only used to get someone’s attention. So seriously, stop it. Get rid of all that unnecessary stuff and let people talk.

Okay, so now you know how people fail at writing dialogue. How can you fix it? Try these methods to get ideas:

1. Listen to Conversations

It’s simple. Listen to how people talk.

2. Watch Movies

Guess what? Movies are almost entirely dialogue. Study movies you love and see how the characters interact.

3. Read Dialogue Masters

Read writers who are great at dialogue, like Hemingway. Hemingway is the master of omission. He almost never gives more back story than is necessary. Read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” or the novel The Sun Also Rises and take some notes on how you can figure out what the characters want and how they feel without Hemingway saying it all for them.

4. Read It Out Loud

If you want to know how a conversation sounds, say it out loud like a conversation. This is an easy way to tell if the writing seems unnatural.

5. Try to Make Every Character Sound Different

Spend extra time making sure each character thinks and talks differently to help your readers get distinct impressions of each character’s personality. Enough said.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

Grammar is a helpful and wonderful thing, but don’t let it hold you back in dialogue. When you’re listening to conversations, make notes of how people ignore grammar in conversation, and don’t be afraid to do the same in dialogue.

7. Practice

No part of writing will ever be easier if you don’t practice. Write lots of dialogue, and then write some more. You’ll start to learn what parts you struggle with and what to pay attention to in your edits. You’ll learn how to fix your mistakes, and before long, you’ll stop making so many. Write stories entirely out of conversations. Write stories with conversations as limited as possible. Write dialects. Write about different ages and cultures speech. Practice different patterns of speech and thought. Try it all, but whatever you do, don’t be afraid of it. Learn to love dialogue, or hate it and work past it, but you have to write it to improve.

Do you have any great dialogue exercises to share? Have you read any particularly good or bad dialogue recently? Have you written any? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to Stay Sane When Your Plot Changes

Improve Your Writing By Sticking To an Idea

You’ll sit down to write, and things are going well. You’ll pause to think, and you come up with a great new idea that will make your story better, so you scribble a note on the margin of your outline. You start working on your new idea in, and then Bam! You get another idea.

Well, the last one is panning out well so far, and this new one just makes it all flow better, so you cross out a few lines on your old plan, draw some arrows on your outline, and start moving towards the new idea. Then you get this other great new idea, but now you have to stop. You’ve changed so much that you can’t even see the story for all the changes.  Your draft is a mess of dead ends leading nowhere, and you can’t even remember what you were trying to accomplish with it in the first place.

This changing and rechanging of plot ideas has happened to me many times, and I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. I like to think of changing plots more as evolutions of the story, but it doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s going to happen. You can count on it. If it already has happened to you, then bet that it will happen again. No matter how much plotting or pantsing you do, your story will undoubtedly change in some unexpected way. So what can you do about it to keep yourself from screaming?

1. Take a Break

You may be itching to get to work on your shiny new story ideas, but that may not be a good plan.  If you’ve had several changes to your original plan, your head is probably spinning, and it may be time for a break.  When we’re writing, we love creativity, but maybe your mind has been stuck in inspiration mode.  Writing is a delicate balance between creativity and logic, and you may be in creative overload.

If you think you really need to change your story, you may be right, and some time away from your draft might give you a bit of perspective to make the right decision. It probably is not a good time to start writing when the wheels are still spinning, and so is your head, so get some air, take the afternoon off, do whatever you have to do to clear your mind.

2. Revisit Your Original Idea

Usually when I’m having idea overload on a particular story, I find that the changes usually center on some problem I have ignored or avoided. It’s easy to jump into new ideas when you’re coming up with your story, and there is even a lot to be said for working it out as you go, but maybe your subconscious is telling you that there is a problem and it’s trying to come up with solutions. I would caution you not to assume that there is a problem, but this is a great time to look for one. Usually I know exactly what it is if I’m being honest with myself. Is the idea flawed? If so, then you may need to look at some of your new ideas or come up with other ones to solve the problem. Once you’ve identified the issue, you can think through your options for fixing it.

3. Weigh Your Options

If you’ve determined that there is a problem or that the story can be improved, chances are that you have identified several ways to improve your story. Sometimes deciding is tricky. You may have two or three great, but totally different ideas that might all work, and in that case, you may have to go with whatever excites you. In these situations, I try to think about what feels most natural for the story, what is the closest to my original concept of the story, and whether the new idea is really a new story that I’m forcing into this context or if it truly does fit. You still may have trouble deciding, and at that point it may be wise to discuss the ideas with a writing buddy or trusted friend. He or she may be able to shed some insight. Also, keep in mind what is usually done in your genre.  Would this new idea change the genre, or is it overdone in your genre? Maybe you are trying to conform to your idea of what the story should be like when your idea is totally different. Don’t make changes for the sake of someone else. Make changes that will truly benefit the story.

4. Go with It

Once you have a fair idea about what you want to do, you have to go with it.  Find what you can get excited about and write that sucker! It can be scary to commit to one idea, but you’ll never finish if you don’t, so work on sticking to the idea.

5. Stay the Course

While you’re writing, particularly something long, such as a novel, you may have more ideas as you work. Start thinking through your ideas again like you did before, but don’t change anything unless it’s addressing a problem. Of course we all want to listen to our great ideas, but if you change the story too many times, you’ll never finish, and you’ll find yourself writing a completely different novel.  Solve major problems, such as ones that mean the plot cannot go on, if you need to, but try not to resist changing as much as possible and just write.  Make notes of your ideas, finish the draft, and then weigh your ideas. You can review your ideas later, and if any of them seem particularly good for the draft you finished, you can add them in after you finish to help flesh out the story.

If you keep trying to make too many changes while you write, you’ll keep rewriting your scenes and never get to the ending. You’ll end up with a messy draft with major holes from each change you made, and it will make editing the draft more difficult. Besides, you never really know what will work for your story until you get to the end anyway. Push for finishing, then address your new ideas.

Have you had a plot change on you while you wrote? What did you do about it? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

Writing Roundup – The Best Writing Advice This Week

Here’s a list of some of the best writing articles I’ve seen this week:

Tuesday Tip on Write of Passage – This is a great resource for new novelists all about starting your novel. This post includes background information on what is needed in a scene and a helpful lists of things you shouldn’t do at the beginning of your novel.

The Craft of Voice – Guest post on Vine Leaves Literary Journal by JJ Marsh – This is a great beginner’s introduction to Voice including tense and point of view. Check it out if you’ve ever been confused about these topics.

How to Write a Book: The 5 Draft Method – Jeff Goins on Goins Writer – This article breaks down the 5 draft method for writing a book. This can be really useful if you’re starting a novel or another long project and you’re unsure just how all those drafts will work.

One Surprising Way to Write Better – Emily Wenstrom on The Write Practice – Surprising, but valuable advice on the importance of rest to writers.

Have you seen any great articles this week? Share a link in the comments.

 

11 Essential Traits of Talented Writers (And How to Learn Them)

Be a better writer

I’ve heard many times the argument over whether writers are born or made. Can you teach someone to write, or is it inborn talent? I think that argument is too simple. I think the question should be what is talent, and how do we foster it? I’m not talking about knowledge of story structure and principles of grammar. I’m talking about the intangibles that make great writers great:

1. Love of words

I think this is common sense. A passion for words is the most important requirement for writers. You won’t get far in putting words on paper if you can’t stand them. Talented writers are lovers of words and communication. They appreciate the nuances of how words convey meaning. They are never satisfied with a decent word when there is a better one, and they have a good understanding of when there is a better one, even if they don’t know what it is yet. They are unafraid of playing with sentence structures and never doubt the power of language.

As a writer, studying words and grammar is a necessity to the craft. You must understand how to use words and language effectively to convey meaning. Make a study of the works of other writers.  Look at how Nabokov plays with language in Lolita. Learn about how Shakespeare crafted at least 1300 new words and many phrases when existing ones did not fit his purpose, which we still use today, by the way.

2. Love of reading

Good writers are made from good readers. I haven’t heard of a successful writer yet who hates to read. How can a writer grow and learn if she isn’t concerned with the works of other writers? How can a writer build on the work of past writers if he never reads them? How can she know a good story if she never experiences them for herself?

Reading makes writers better. It stretches us and teaches us. It gives us successes and failures that are lessons. We learn about the elements of a story and about how words work together to tell it. Reading teaches us about genre, about conventions, about how to take valuable risks. It teaches us about compassion and emotion and how words can convey feeling. Reading is essential practice for a writer. Read everything you can. Read fiction, drama, poetry, nonfiction, manuals, textbooks, anything you can get your hands on. Read widely. Read to learn. Pay attention not only to story, but to how the writer accomplished his or her task.

3. Curiosity

One often-overlooked trait of good writers is insatiable curiosity. Writers must ask questions and love learning to generate ideas or to decide how to present them correctly. They must be open to new ideas.

Question everything you know. Ask questions of everyone you know. Don’t accept something because it’s common knowledge, or because others say so. Be passionate about learning and follow your interests to new ideas.

4. Tough skin

Even the best writers face criticism. It is impossible to be universally liked, and taste is a fickle thing. You will fail as a writer, and you will have successes, but understand that your successes can often feel like failures when you listen to the criticism. Good writers may listen to criticism, but they move past it. It doesn’t hold them back. The best writers learn that they can’t please everyone and don’t try to appease everyone. They have learned that for a work to be a success, it must please one person, and if it please others along the way, so be it.

Get used to readers not appreciating your work. Learn to understand the difference between criticism to help your work and criticism due to taste. Ignore the latter. Taste is fickle, and when people don’t like your work, that’s their problem. Learn to accept valid criticism about how to make your work better from editors and other writers. Practice by finding beta readers, critique partners, and writing groups.

5. Stamina

Writing isn’t a quick way to earn success. The act of putting words on the page, one after another, takes time and effort. Writing a story can take hours or days, and a novel even longer. Then there’s editing. Then there’s the wait for submissions. During the process, no one will tell a writer that his or her work is needed. No one says, “Writer, I think the one thing missing from the world is your novel.” The writer must motivate herself to finish. He must work tirelessly on a manuscript with no promise of success. She must lock herself alone in a room and writer. Oh, and did I mention that writing is lonely? You have to be okay with being alone with your own company for a long time.

Write when you’re tired. Write when you’re lonely. Write when you’re sad. Write when your story is driving you crazy. The only way you’ll be a writer is to write. Put in the long hours and the hard work, and you will see the benefit of practice. You will benefit from completed drafts. You’ll learn a lot about the process.

6. Daring

Good writers take risks. It isn’t about what is popular or what will sell. Writing is about telling a story and doing what needs to be done to make it work. Good writers take risks with plot, character, setting, grammar, and every other element of a story. They play with language and structure and make it work for them, rather than chaining themselves to outmoded conventions that do nothing for the work. Good writers understand the rules, and break them. More importantly, they understand when to break them. They don’t take risks for risk’s sake, but they are unafraid of the risks when necessary.

Don’t break rules for the sake of breaking them, but don’t be afraid to break rules when it will help your writing. Don’t shy away from subjects because they may hurt feelings. Don’t stay away from topics because you’re afraid of how you’ll be perceived. Learn when taking risks is beneficial. The best literature does not exist because it was easy or safe to write. It is great because it challenges ideas or challenges readers. Sometimes it challenges the writers.

7. Emotional strength

Good writers are unafraid of good stories, even if they are painful to write. They don’t shy away from the difficult ones. In fact, they embrace them. They don’t worry about what the public or their families will think if they write on certain topics. They don’t worry about perceptions, they simply create their art.

They have the emotional strength to subject themselves to sadness and fear. They brave the darkest places in their own minds if it means they can create a better story. They test their own emotions and capture them for audiences.

Try writing about your person traumas. Write about what scares you. Write about what makes you sad or angry. Those are the subjects that you can write well about because you are passionate about them. Don’t write something because it’s easy. Stay away from writing something that doesn’t challenge you. Write what challenges you. When you leave your work, you should be emotionally drained, but you should be proud of the challenge of tackling your own monsters.

8. Understanding of human nature

Good writers have a finely developed sense of the essences of human nature. They understand how people act and react. They understand tensions under the surface. They recognize subtleties of character and speech. They understand that when faced with a decision, humans make said decision one way because that is how their natures allow them to react. Writers don’t look at the other humans in their life merely as company and entertainment. They dissect interactions. They watch. They listen. They learn, then they create.

Spend time watching and listening. Don’t always be the first to jump into a conversation. Try to understand what lies beneath the surface of each person you meet. What are the struggles that challenge each person? How do underlying tensions affect his or her behavior? Make it your goal to study people. Ask them tough questions about the meaning of life, about love, about emotions, about perspectives. Get to the root of human nature.

9. Desire to improve

A good writer understands when her skills are lacking and attempts to improve them. He understands when a story isn’t quite right and tries to find the solution. The act of writing is the act of constant growth and change. Writers want to adapt to become better and look for ways to grow. They seek feedback. They try to learn from mistakes. They want to discuss craft with other writers in hopes of learning the secret to success. Good writers are never stagnant.

Make an effort to figure out what you are weakest at in writing and try to improve it.  You may need the help of a writing partner to help find your weaknesses. You may need to work with a mentor or take a class to improve. Whatever the struggle, don’t just accept it and move on. Make it your goal to learn how to improve.

When you’ve written a messy draft that feels like a failure, learn from your mistakes. Figure out how you can improve it or write a better draft next time. Don’t simply accept your failures. Learn to improve on them.

10. Have a persistent skewed vision of reality

Good writers tend to ignore the realities of life in favor of creating good art. Sure, there are bills, and the chances that art of any kind will earn enough money to live off are slim, but it doesn’t matter. The chances of being published are slim, and the chances of a book selling once it is published can be even slimmer. They believe that if they just take a chance and put in the effort, it will be worth their while. It doesn’t matter what past results were. They keep trying. The world needs their work, even though no one will say it.

I’m not saying to quit your job and stop paying bills. I am saying that good writers work past those setbacks in order to become great writers. You may have struggles, but you have to focus on writing. To a great writer, none of those struggles matters. Here’s why:

11. They need to write

Great writers are the ones who write because they love it. They don’t do it for money, though most admit it would be nice. They don’t write to amass followers or to become famous.

Great writers write because they love it the act of creating a story. They love to examine people and express the nature humanity. They love to represent culture. Their brain comes up with stories and they can’t shut it off until they tell it. They may agonize during the process of putting words on the page, but when they finish, they agonize until they can start again.

Sure, it’s probably accurate to say that writers are masochists who enjoy suffering, since writing can be a very unpleasant task; however, true writers know that they would go crazy without it. They don’t care if it hurts. They don’t care if they won’t be successful. They write because they need writing. They believe that the world needs writing.

If you don’t feel the need to write, put down your pen. Shut down your computer. Stop. Don’t bother. Writing should be done out of a need and a passion and not for any other reason.

If you need to write, then do it. Don’t make excuses. You won’t be happy until you do. Make an effort to work at it. Give writing everything you’ve got. That means working at it until you think it will make you crazy. That means dedicating your time to improving. That means doing everything in your power to become a successful writer. It will be difficult, but if you’re truly passionate, it won’t matter.

I’m not saying that if you do all these things you’ll pick up these traits. I’m not saying that if you pick up these traits you’ll be successful. There are many factors that play into a writer’s success. I am saying that if you make an effort to improve as a writer, particularly in these aspects, you will be a more successful writerYou will learn to be a better writer in the process, but whatever you do, don’t ever stop trying to learn. None of the best writers ever gave up on improvement. Do your best to foster a life of literary growth, and you will be a better writer.

What are your thoughts on the traits of successful writers? Do you have any other ideas? Do you have tips for improving as a writer? Share them in the comments!

5 Lessons on Creating Amazing Characters from A Song of Ice and Fire

(I think I kept all the spoilers out, but if you haven’t read the books yet please be advised, and read it already!)

The trailer for A Game of Thrones Season 4 has been released, and like most fans, I can’t wait for the season premier.  Since the countdown has me thinking about George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, I thought I would share some thoughts on what I believe makes the series so addicting.

When I started reading A Game of Thrones about a year ago, I was immediately hooked on the series and read them all as quickly as I could.  As a writer, it made me wonder what it was about the books, and then the show, that was so wonderful. I know that the plot is exciting, and writing is lovely, and the world is amazing, but I think it all goes back to how dynamic his characters are.  Readers would not keep turning the pages unless they were interested in what happened to the characters.

Here are a few ways Martin made them so interesting:

1. No Two Characters Have the Same Goals and Motives

Every character in this book has a  different goal, or at least a different motive.  You won’t find the large groups of characters banded together for a cause all for the same reasons, because that would be boring and unrealistic.  When people share goals, they all have different reasons for wanting that specific outcome.  In ASOIAF, characters that share a similar goal, such as the desire to see a certain house on the throne, want it for different reasons.

For example, while many characters may want Stannis on the throne, the reasons why vary.  Some believe he is the rightful heir to the throne, others want power that he acan give them, and some want to aid him out of a sense of loyalty or duty.  Davos’s reason for supporting Stannis is very different from Melisandre’s, and yet they support the same king (in a sense).

Furthermore, these goals, or in this scenario, allegiances, develop because of each character’s individual past.

2. The Characters All Have Rich Back Stories

Each character’s back story is completely different.  These stories develop depth beyond what readers see in the actual context of the story.  There are lost loves, deaths, and triumphs before we ever meet the characters, and each of these things has impacted the way the characters think.

SIn ASOIAF, Even characters who have similar upbringings, like each of the Lannister children, for example.  Jaime, as Tywin’s heir, was raised to take his place, whereas Cersei, who was his twin, had a very different experience because she was a girl.  We learn that she feels she is just as competent as Jaime and should have been treated the same, but Cersei was destined to be a political pawn in her father’s quest for power.  Tyrion’s upbringing was completely different from either of his elder siblings.  He was the most intelligent, and perhaps most suited to Tywin’s aims, but as a dwarf he was treated cruelly and never taken seriously.

All these different experiences formed the children in very different ways.  Jaime is brave and skilled at combat, but afraid of power.  Cersei wants power and is resentful that she was never given the chance to earn it.  Tyrion learned to compensate for this looks and lack of physical ability with wit and protects himself through crude and often hurtful humor.  Their experiences then influence Martin’s treatment of their dialogue and thoughts.

3. Each Character’s Voice is Different

Martin makes things difficult for himself by writing from many characters’ perspectives throughout the series, and we’ve all probably read books in which the author attempts this poorly because all the characters sound the same.  Martin, however, does not fall into the trap of making characters sound the same and goes far beyond the basics of accents.

For example, Northerners and Southerners in Westeros use different words and look at the world through different perspectives.  Southerners who are raised in the new religion think of things in terms of the “Seven,” even naming and counting objects and places in groups of seven, while Northerners think of the world in terms of the “old gods” and focus more on the natural world.

Martin ensures characters are different internally.  Just as external dialogue varies between characters, when I read a chapter from Tyrion’s point of view, there is no confusion about who is narrating because Tyrion’s internal thoughts and observations, which are typically more humorous and witty, are completely different from Jon Snow’s, which are generally more serious.  What Bran notices, usually small details and nature, is different from what Brienne would notice, competitors and aids for survival.  Every character thinks differently and puts information into the context of his or her own experience and goals.  These different points-of-view don’t just tell us a different part of the story, they show us how different humans react to different sets of circumstances.

4. Every Character Has Something to Lose

There isn’t a single character in the series who isn’t risking something at every point in the story.  When Martin’s characters act, they all know that there are consequences, whether good or bad, just as real people do.  What makes this even more interesting for readers is that Martin never fails to deliver the consequence and follow it to the end, even if it means death.  Authors often put characters in difficult situations and get them out without little personal risk, or without any pain.  Every character in Martin’s world takes risks, and every one of them loses from time to time, some more than others.  There is not a single character in ASOIAF that is exempt from pain and loss. 

5. Every Character is Good and Evil

(It is difficult to avoid spoilers on this one, but I believe I have managed…)

A major pitfall for many authors is making characters too archetypal.  For example, some stories have a chivalrous knight who is always good and never falters in loyalty and obedience, but we know that this isn’t realistic.  Humans are not singularly natured, and our characters shouldn’t be either.  Writers have to show the good and the bad.  Heroes must fail or falter, and villains must be redeemable, otherwise characters are inaccessible and there is nothing that will tug at the hearts of your readers.  Martin is an expert at showing both sides of human nature.

No matter which character you choose, each character is both good and evil, at least in the eyes of another character.  Cersei is ruthless, but she is fiercely protective of her children.  Tyrion, though usually wise and even-tempered has his own inner demons that he addresses at the end of the third book.  Rob Stark is both fiercely loyal to his cause and impetuous in the face of passion.  Jaime believes in honor and loyalty, but pushes Bran off the tower to save his reputation.  What of the kingslaying?

Even Ned Stark, the paragon of honor in the series, is called an adulterer (I won’t go into theories… ok, ok… R+L=J!  Believe it folks!).  Besides, weren’t Ned and Robert traitors?  How much more interesting is the story because the characters are dynamic?  Joffrey may be the only truly evil character, but can you blame him?  His mother spoiled and smothered him to death!

Just think about what Martin has done:

You Care About All The Characters

Whether you love them or want them dead, you have strong feelings for all of them, and haven’t those feelings changed over time?

How many times have you flipped sides back and forth cheering for different characters?  Didn’t Ned’s story devastate you?  Don’t you want Tyrion to be successful at King’s Landing?  Don’t you want Rob to win the war?  Don’t you want Daenerys to dominate the world?  Not all those things are compatible, and even knowing that, we want it all.

Reading these books overwhelmed me with so many feelings for so many characters, and I felt like I was pulled back and forth between them, but that’s a good thing!  I want to read a book about characters that I love and hate.  I want them to make me feel something.  I want to throw the book in outrage because of what happened to one of my favorites, even when I don’t understand why they had to die yet (it’s ok, we just have to keep trusting that GRRM knows what he’s doing!).

Martin’s characters feel like the people we know, even if their experiences are different.  Isn’t this what we all want?  Doesn’t every author want a devoted fan base ravenous for the next installment because they love the people the author has created?  I think every writer can take a lesson from Martin.  It certainly won’t hurt!

I found some lovely resources for you:  If you are interested in hearing Martin talk about his characters or his process, watch these videos.  They were super informative!

This is an interview Martin did with Amazon answering fan questions.  At 6:25  he talks about his thoughts on writing so many different characters.

You may have already seen this one.  This interview with George Stroumboulopoulos went viral because Stroumboulopoulos asked how Martin writes women so well.  See his epic answer at 18:35!  I think the whole think is fabulous, and I would encourage watching the whole thing, but if you’re short on time, here are two more key moments:

2:20 – Making mistakes in writing a large series (To remind us that all authors are human)

3:20 – Two types of writers (The ever popular planner-panster argument)

What are your thoughts on Martin’s characters?  Who is your favorite and why?  What have you learned about writing by reading ASOIAF?  Leave your answers in the comments:

What’s Your Book About?

Image by jscreationzs, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image by jscreationzs, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I am really curious about what everyone else is writing.  I think there are few things more interesting that what types of stories interest different people and for what reason.  Leave me a comment about what your book is about and what happens in it, but first, let’s talk about the difference in those two questions.

My number one pet peeve is when people ask, “What’s your book about?”  Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to people about what I’m writing.  When I get excited about a project, I want to share it.  I love getting people’s reactions, and the different followup questions they ask can be really useful in figuring out new elements of a story.

What I hate is the way the question is phrased, and that’s because the question that’s being asked usually isn’t what that person means to say.  What most people mean to ask is what happens in your novel?  They want to know what the plot is.  Of course we know what that person wanted to say, and sometimes I’ll satisfy it, but I think there’s an important distinction between those two questions.

I know what they mean, but I’ll often answer the question they actually asked to prove a point: “My book is about man’s self-discovery in the face of adversity.   I normally get a strange look from that.  They were expecting something about how the main character runs away from home, and then he’s chased by the police, and then he gets shot, etc.  They didn’t realize they were something different.

Are they really different questions?

One question asks what the book is about, while the other asks what happens in the book.  To me, what a book is about is what the meaning is or what the author attempts to convey.  The difference is in theme versus plot.  It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but they really are different questions.

Readers are normally there for the experience.  They will probably pick up on the message along the way, but most of the people I know don’t pick up a book because they heard its themes were particularly deep.  They want to read it because they heard the story was good.  What they don’t realize is that the feeling you get at the end of a book that says there’s something deeper about it than the surface is the theme.  Let’s look at the difference.

Plot

Plot is the series of events that occur in a specific sequence to tell a story.  It’s the events that get your character from A to B and makes the story unfold for readers.  It’s the driving force of the book.

For someone who hasn’t studied literature or writing, plot is what the book is about.  This story is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole, and weird things happen to her.  That’s what the reader sees happening.

What the reader doesn’t see happening is theme, but they get it and they feel it.

Why I think theme is more important

Theme is something deeper in a book.  While plot drives the action, the theme or themes (there are usually several themes with one big overarching one) are what holds the story together and gives it meaning.  You don’t find themes on the surface of the book, even if they are obvious.  The themes are what the plot is trying to show you.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout learns that her community is racist.  She watches her father defend a man who no one else wants to believe because of his race.  (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it, and if you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, you need to!).  Yes, racism is a theme, along with many others.  But the book is about a lot more than just racism.  Probably the biggest overarching theme is about how people’s prejudices keep them from seeing the truth in others.  It’s about social injustice and how people can let hatred turn them into monsters.

Themes are the elements of the book that don’t depend on the plot for meaning.  The plot is the example that accompanies the argument and gives you the hows.  The trial in To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how people can let their prejudices blind them.

Most casual readers don’t have the framework or practice with texts to tell you what the theme is outright, but they can understand the message.  Readers understand that racism is a serious issue in the book, and that’s because the plot conveys the theme.

Without framework to tell the difference between theme and plot, though, readers still think they are talking about the plot.  A reader doesn’t have to understand themes to understand a book.  I think it’s a good thing that more people don’t.  It means that they can enjoy the story without worrying about how the writer gets you to understand.

So why does it annoy me?

I don’t mind that readers don’t know about themes if they still get the point.  That means the author has done his or her job.  I can’t blame people for not knowing the difference and asking a legitimate question.

What actually bothers me is the importance this seems to put on plot.  I think it confuses a lot of writers into focusing too much on the events in their stories and not the meaning.  You can have a great plot with interesting events, but no meaning.  While the plot is important for conveying your meaning, writers should be more focused on what they want their novel to say.  If they keep that in mind while they create a plot, then their story will be more focused and have a deeper meaning than just having a series of events that don’t matter.

I don’t mean that you have to have a point when you start, although it can really help.  I have no problem with art for art’s sake.  I bet many writers don’t set out with a message they want their story to convey, but I think as we write, a meaning evolves, even when you don’t try to find one.

Even I don’t usually start with a message, although I do know what the idea I want to focus on is.  I am a firm believer in meanings beyond the plot, and I think it trivializes the importance of books as messengers when someone asks me about the plot and implies that this is what the book is about.  To me, a book is only really about its overall meaning.

What my book is about vs. my book’s plot

So in light of the conversation:

My book is about figuring out what matters in life.  It’s about duty vs. passion.  It’s about how we make our own destinies for good or bad.  Do outside forces always control what happens to us, or are we always living off the consequences of our own actions?

What happens in my book is that two characters are thrust together, torn apart, and left picking up the pieces.  Each problem they face is a lesson in consequence and fate.

So, let’s talk.  Tell me what your story about and what happens in it?