And now for something completely different. I have a post from a friend and fellow author, Jon Richter. He has a new book coming out in a few days, follow the links and get your copy!

Hi everybody!  My name is Jon Richter, and I’m lucky enough to be a stablemate of Don’s at TCK Publishing, who recently published my first ever cyberpunk novel, London 2039: Auxiliary. I’ve also been known to dabble in crime thrillers and even short horror fiction, but whatever your preferred genre, there are a lot of tips and tricks that are common to any writing project.  I’ve really enjoyed Don’s recent series of writing tips, and thought that for my guest post I’d contribute some of my own!

Inspiration for Writing

Now that I’ve confessed to being something of a genre-hopper, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of my sources of inspiration.  I know a lot of writers, both successful and aspirational ones, who have found themselves in the grip of the dreaded ‘writer’s block’, unable to commit a single word to paper.  I’ve also had similar bouts, and although I think the notion of ‘writer’s block’ is misguided and can make a creative barren spell seem like a much bigger deal than it actually is, I do sympathise* with anyone struggling to get going with a writing project.  There are a number of things that can cause such stagnation, but I know that one major blocker can be the perceived lack of A BIG IDEA.  How are you supposed to write when you can’t think of anything good to write about?

Thankfully, there are a number of remedies for this.

Let It Flow

The first is to stop filtering yourself.  If I had a gun to your head (don’t worry, I promise we won’t need to go that far) I’m sure you could come up with ten ideas in the space of a minute, even if they were half-baked or borderline plagiarism.  This doesn’t mean they’re all good ideas, but my point is that you might be writing them off too quickly, even the ones that seem like thinly-veiled rip-offs.  There are a very large number of successful, and indeed some very good, books that are largely devoid of any original concepts.  Many writers choose to riff on traditional tropes or expand on another’s ideas, and that’s fine – and often an original spin will emerge during the writing process.

Get Your Fingers Working

This leads into my second point: I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage ‘writers write’, and there’s no idiom more annoying when you’re stuck in a rut, but it really is the best advice out there.  Stop waiting for inspiration, and just start writing anyway.  Write whatever comes into your head.  Even if it’s autobiographical.  Even if it’s just wallowing in self-pity.  Even if it feels like the worst piece of microfiction ever written.  You’ll find that your brain and your fingers start working together to open up some new synaptic pathways… see, there I go, utter bollocks, but at least I enjoyed writing it!  The point is that just the act of writing itself will generate inspiration.  And if it helps to imagine me with that .44 Magnum levelled* at your temple, go right ahead!  (I’m British, so the closest I’ll ever get to a Magnum is the ice cream variety.)

Quit Filtering Your Creativity

Similar to this is the idea of ‘brainstorming’.  Here, the goal isn’t to start an actual writing project, but instead to create a list of bullet point ideas, just a completely unfiltered mind dump of anything and everything you can think of.  Imagine that Magnum again (not the tasty chocolatey one) and imagine you’ve been told to scribble down twenty story titles, or plot ideas, or character sketches, or settings, in the next two minutes – then pick your favourite* one and start writing about it!

Riffing

Short stories are also a great solution.  Not every paragraph you write has to be the opening to a future Booker Prize winner; sometimes they can just be a throwaway piece of short fiction.  This can really take the pressure off, and you might find yourself really happy with some of the results.  This is how my first short story horror collection came about!  The point here is to take the pressure off yourself: you’re writing because you love writing, not because your work is going to be judged by some faceless scrutiny panel.

Writers Write… And They Read

Another tonic is to make sure you are consuming fresh fiction yourself.  Whether this is books, movies, TV shows or even video games (there are some great stories in the gaming world if you can avoid all the Candy Crush and Fortnite rubbish), you will find the ideas of other creators a goldmine of new inspiration… and remember, without exception, every one of them was in turn inspired by a piece of literature they themselves experienced.  There’s nothing at all to be ashamed of if you want to write something inspired by someone else’s work – after all, isn’t that how genres came to exist in the first place?

Make It A Habit

My final suggestion is to schedule your writing time, like an inescapable appointment with yourself.  This prospect may fill you with dread (it definitely does with me!) but the point here is to force yourself to avoid procrastination.  Do you constantly delay the start of your writing session because there’s laundry to do, clothes to iron, work to catch up on, a TV show you want to watch?  You can still do all of those things… just not right now, because this is your designated writing time.  I find that playing music while I write helps, because it gives me something to look forward to alongside the writing itself.  A two-hour writing window with a 1,500-word minimum target can sound daunting, but two hours of listening to your favourite* movie soundtracks while you have a bit of creative fun seems okay, doesn’t it?

I hope this has been useful, and has given you some useful suggestions for your next literary lull.  If you want to find out more about my weird dark fiction, take a look at www.jon-richter.com, or search for my new cyberpunk thriller London 2039: Auxiliary on Amazon, where it’s available in paperback or for your eReader device.  My enormous thanks go to Don for letting me invade his blog for the day, and I’d urge you to check out his gripping debut thriller The Guilty Die Twice too.  Whatever remains of your day, I hope it’s a good one!

JR

*Jon’s English, he lives in London, so we can excuse his spelling.

This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

This is the fifth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Is The Obstacle? – Conflict

Every scene needs conflict, otherwise, why spend your precious word count on it? But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what, exactly, conflict is. Does it mean a fistfight? Well… obviously. But every scene can’t have a fistfight, unless it’s one of the Fast and Furious movies.

Think of ‘conflict’ as something that stands between the hero and her goals for that scene. Let’s remember that there’s always an Actual event for your main characters, something they want to achieve, a goal they need to reach. The conflict is something that prevents them from reaching that goal.

If you want to take a third-grade understanding of this, the obstacle is a physical thing. An actual barrier. If you’re writing an adventure story then a physical barrier is a real possibility. That big rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re writing a story about star-crossed lovers, however, the obstacle is almost never going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. The boy is forbidden by his parents from seeing the girl, who is herself torn between the safe choice and the boy. The path of true love never runs straight.

The Obstacle Can Be Another W

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. We have the hero who intends to tell her ex-husband she’s taking their son across country. Why can’t she just come up and tell him? Tear the band-aid off, metaphorically speaking?

Good question. If a dilemma could be solved by people simply talking, the world would be a much nicer place. But it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting. In our hero’s case, the obstacle – the conflict – could be that she’s done this before. Maybe she did it a few years ago, and faced legal repercussions because of it. Or maybe the obstacle is that her husband is an angry control freak, and she knows that when she tells him she’s leaving, he’s going to marshal all his considerable resources to stop her. Or maybe the obstacle is the son himself, who learns of his mother’s intentions and tells his father he doesn’t want to go before the hero can.

In all these cases, it’s the Character and Relationship that provide the conflict.

Conflict Should Be Resolved, Not Necessarily Overcome

The hero doesn’t need to physically conquer every obstacle. A story like that quickly becomes boring. Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He didn’t conquer that rolling boulder, he didn’t stop it, he didn’t divert it, he didn’t step out of its way. He ran. As fast and as far as he could until he got out of the cave and the boulder rolled away somewhere harmless. He didn’t overcome that boulder, he out-ran it.

The same principle applies to more metaphorical challenges. In our birthday party example, say the son tells his father what the hero – his mother – intends. So what’s our hero going to do about that? Stand and fight? Face off against her ex-husband who has far more cash and friends in high places? No, she’s going to thinks sideways. Maybe she’ll just up and leave anyway and take the boy with her. Or maybe she’ll pretend to go on a road trip, which is really her absconding. Which, of course, creates an entirely new obstacle for her to overcome.

However you do it, you need to resolve the conflicts you set up. This is the pay-off for the set-up. It doesn’t have to be smooth, or elegant, or even pleasant. But it has to work with the other Ws.

This is the fourth of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Who Are You? – Character and Relationship

We’re over halfway through the process of constructing a scene and now we get to the characters. About time. When going through this exercise as an actor, you really only have to worry about your own character. When you’re a writer, you get to worry about all of them.

I could (and probably will) spend a lot of time on constructing a character and how best to do that, but for our purposes here, let’s assume you’ve done that work. You know your character, her flaws, her aspirations, her habits, her quirks, and what she does and does not know about herself. Now you have to take that character – or those characters – and place them in the scene you’ve created using the first three of the Ws.

Sticking with the birthday party example, let’s say the hero is at a birthday party for her son at her ex-husband’s house. The apparent event is the birthday party, the actual event is she intends to tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country and taking the son with her, the environment is her ex-husband’s house, not a friendly environment for her.

Now what? You put the characters in that situation. Let’s say the hero is not good at conflict at all, but has resolved that this discussion has to happen this day, at this time, before she loses her nerve.

Can you feel the tension building? The situation is set to explode.

The Setting Changes Characters’ Relationships

This seems simple enough, but too often I see characters whose relationship seems equal on both sides all the time, and that just never, ever happens in real life. There’s always a power dynamic, and that balance shifts over time, or even over an afternoon, and especially when they have a change in venue.

Here’s a concrete example: you have characters who work at a restaurant, where one is the manager and one is a waiter. There’s a power dynamic there, boss/subordinate. No matter how friendly they are with one another, Jeff is the boss and Mike is the employee.

Now switch the location. Move Jeff and Mike to, say, a seedy pool hall. Mike comes here every Friday night after his shift, he knows the people, he’s one of them. Jeff is a newcomer, sticks out like a sore thumb, and – God forbid – is still wearing his restaurant manager’s tie. Who’s the boss in this situation?

Same characters, but their relationship, and thus their interaction, changes with a simple trip a couple of blocks away.

The Scene Can Change The Relationship

As a matter of fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every scene should alter the relationship between its main characters. That’s not to say it has to be a positive change, but if there’s no tension to resolve there’s no movement in the plot and there’s no growth in the characters.

Back to the birthday example. The hero is at her son’s birthday party at her ex-husband’s house, where she’s going to tell him that she’s moving away. As the hero works up her courage to have the conversation, her ex-husband surprises her by confessing that he’s not over her and asks if, maybe, they could give it one more try. With a few words the ex-husband has completely changed the tenor of the scene, and subverted the hero’s intentions.

Does the hero stick to her guns and tell him she’s leaving? Does she back down? How is she going to deal with this surprise?

You tell me, you’re the writer.

This is the first of a 6-part series on the W’s. This is a foundational tool I learned as an actor that’s become my go-to as a writer. I use the Ws for every scene I write, every time.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

WHAT Is Happening? – Apparent Event

The Apparent Event is not the set dressing. That’s the Environment. The Apparent Event is what someone looking through a keyhole might see going on; what’s happening in a very broad and obvious sense.

For example: a birthday party. To Western eyes, at least, every birthday party follows a certain pattern. Just think of all the YouTube videos you’ve seen of a birthday party: if you turn off the sound, the scene could be set anywhere in the world, there’s nothing unique about candles on a birthday cake to tell you where in the world that party’s taking place.

Another example: bad news in a doctor’s office. Same thing, if you turn off the sound on any bad-news scene, you can still tell immediately what’s going on. Doctor comes in, hesitates, patients looks on with hope until she realizes that the doctor’s not going to have good news. Shake of the head, sincere look, tears.

A third example: being called into your boss’s office. The worker’s at his desk. The boss appears over his shoulder. Some brief words. The boss returns to her office. The worker hesitates – is it good news or bad? – then follows.

The Apparent Event Grounds The Action

When you set the apparent event – and all scenes must have an apparent event – you immediately have a handle on what’s taking place. You can then move your characters around inside that event as you see fit.

If the scene’s at a birthday party, for instance, you know the beats of that process. Your character will (probably) know the beats of that process too. They’ll react to what’s going on according to the other Ws – see the list above – and to their own nature. Do they hate birthday parties? Love them? Resent the people attending?

You Can Subvert The Apparent Event

What does this mean? Sticking with the birthday party example, suppose you follow the regular beats of a birthday party, but we find out the birthday ‘cake’ is a vegetable concoction instead of devil’s food chocolate. And suppose your main character only discovers the old switcheroo when she’s handed a piece of the broccoli-beet cake.

In that example, your apparent event has changed from ‘birthday party’ to ‘terrible birthday party the main character never expected.’ We’re still not into the actual event, or even the environment (aside from the specific about the cake), we’ve just subverted the audience’s expectation of what the event really is. This is perfectly acceptable. Just not every time.

No. Get back to work.

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What? You want more information than that? Okay. Fine.

Writers Aren’t Unique, Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Have you ever heard of a sculptor who just couldn’t sculpt? Or a baseball player who forgot how to hit a fast ball? Or a nuclear physicist who just couldn’t bring herself to do math any more? Of course not. So a writer who Just. Can’t. Write. does not exist. Writers write.

However… everyone gets in a slump. Sculptors lose their inspiration, baseball players just can’t seem to connect, and physicists get bogged down in details. Writers can get into a slump too. But, unlike other professions, writers have invented a reason to wallow in the slump, and an excuse to abandon the thing they love most. “Writer’s block.”

Fran Liebowitz notwithstanding, you can’t make a living NOT being a writer.

Having A ‘Block’ Means Something’s Wrong

All writers face resistance. All of them. If you talk to a writer who says all his work is effortless and nothing but peak flow, he’s lying, and not even really trying hard at that. We all – ALL – have better times and worse times. Sometimes the muse is at your shoulder, sometimes she’s gone to the convenience store for some smokes. You don’t have any control over when a slump happens.

But when it does happen, it means something’s wrong. And that something isn’t necessarily your writing. Being a writer, like being any accomplished professional, takes enormous concentration. It’s draining, mentally and physically. When you resist working on the thing that gives you joy, you need to realize that something is broken.

Figure Out What’s Broken To Fix The Block

The ‘something’ that’s wrong could be anything. It could be your narrative – this is most common for me. If I’m resisting working on my writing it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going. Maybe I don’t like the plot twist, or maybe I don’t like the actual words on the page, or maybe I realize I have no idea where the story goes after that difficult part.

Sometimes the problem could be in your life. Maybe you have money troubles, or partner troubles, or health troubles, or you see the sorry state of our culture and can’t help but despair. We’ve all been there. This too shall pass. When you figure out what’s the root cause of your resistance, you can sweep it away.

Name It And Shame It

Once you figure out what the problem is – which may take you some time, I admit – call it out. And I mean out loud. Verbally. When you name the thing that’s holding you back you gain power over it. When you have power over it, it no longer has power over you.

Often, when you name the problem and call it out, your resistance will disappear. At least that’s how it works for me. You’ll realize how silly it was to let that one thing dictate how you work at your passion And it’ll make dealing with the next time (there will be a next time, guaranteed) that much easier.

Now get back to work.

I don’t see me getting any less stir crazy in the next two weeks, so today’s tip is about plotting: how your characters and your plot connect.

Character Drives Plot

This is the first principle. You have events set up, things are gonna happen. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen to your characters. How your characters react to the setup drives the next event in the plot.

Think about it in real life. No two people are going to react to the same stimulus in the same way. Someone can be in a fender-bender and be mildly annoyed, while another person might become a gibbering mess. This can be true of passengers in the same car. What happens to each person next depends largely on how they react. Character drives plot.

Plot Drives Character

Excuse me? Didn’t you just say…?

I did, and that first part is true. This second part of plotting is also true. The events of the plot spur character development. In the fender-bender example above, the person who is mildly annoyed probably wouldn’t think much about the accident other than to register it as an inconvenience. The person who is devastated by the accident, on the other hand, might make changes – good or bad – to their life as a result. They’d be substantially different after the accident than they were before. Plot drives character.

Character Drives Plot Drives Character Drives Plot…

This knot, this dance, is what a good writer masters. There is a feedback loop between plot and character and it’s in this tension that you’ll find the best story.