We’ve heard from Jenna that you should write honestly. We’ve also heard from Codie that you should find that sweet middle spot between planning and over-planning. I think both staff members gave great advice. Sometimes you can’t predict your brilliant moments. Sometimes your honesty creates more humor or pain or heartbreak than any fictive plot could ever hope to surpass. And sometimes being (slightly) meticulous is the only way to get anything accomplished.
So, if you listen to Jenna and Codie, you’ve got your plot covered: you’re going to write your truth and you’re going to semi-plan. (Phew—glad we figured that out!) But what about your characters? Do you wing it or do you write out their life story before you write one word? Like Codie said, I don’t think there’s one clear-cut answer or plan of attack. Some folks go above and beyond to detail their characters with birthdays and sibling names and strange talents or habits (no, I am not talking about sixth grade me…). Others stick to the basics—first name, last name, hair color, and eye color—and go from there. We typically see those characters fleshed out as the story goes on, learning specific details as they relate to the story line.
But sometimes, we don’t. Some writers (inadvertently) leave their characters one-dimensional and bland. And that’s a big no-no. Characters—especially the main characters—are there for a reason. You are telling their story for a reason, and for that, you might want to give your character a personality. Does your character fear anything? Did she play a sport in high school or did he see his favorite band with his dad when he was fourteen? Any annoying habits or pet peeves? Does your character like his or her job? His or her family? Himself or herself?
Think about it: would you see a movie that simply details a day in the life of [insert name here]? You know next to nothing about this person. Sure, the plot can help plug the holes and the setting can provide a nice backdrop, but other than that, you’re clueless. You don’t have any reason to care because you’re watching a cardboard cutout walk around, living some random life. If I was watching that movie, I’d probably walk out of the theater.
Try making a social media page for your character. (No, you don’t really have to make a fake page.) Is your character into Facebook, or does this person like the brevity and instantaneous gratification of Twitter? Or, would your character stay far, far away from social media? That’s probably a small-but-important nugget of information for your readers. However, I would definitely warn against a laundry list of character facts. Just because you know something about your character doesn’t mean your readers need to know right away. Be sly. Be coy. Slip in little facts along the way. It’s like making a friend: you learn more and more as time goes on. In the literary world, each chapter is like another lunch date with your new acquaintance. By the end of the story, your readers should know and care about your characters, no matter if they’d like to give that person bear hug or hit him or her over the head with a frying pan. Either way, you’re creating something.
In short, don’t take any less time with your plot or your setting. Plan what you’d like and/or write from the heart. Most importantly, though, make sure your characters have more than just a name and a face. Give them their own thought process, their own reasons for making decisions. Remembers, characters are real people, too.
#10 Turn off your phone: It does not help to have five million people texting or calling you when you are trying to write something. It is best to just power down your iPhone or at least put it on "Do Not Disturb." Your friends will survive for an hour or two while you get down to business.
#9 You know what? Just turn off all electronics: As with cellphones, other electronics provide unlimited ways to divert your attention. I doubt you can crank out a good story or poem while having Facebook open in a separate tab - unless maybe you are writing about social media.
#8 Listen to music: So for people like me, this technique does not help; music tends to distract me. I know several people, however, who have musical muses from whom they gain inspiration. A friend of mine loves to paint while listening to the instrumental soundtracks from Tim Burton movies. She claims that listening to this music is inspirational for her.
#7 Find a quiet space to focus: If you are on the opposite end of the spectrum and prefer to work in complete silence, then welcome to my world. Remove yourself from any noisy animals, crowded living rooms, or talkative roommates to reduce interference. If I am in my apartment and here so much as a whistle from down the hallway, I am screwed. A quiet space is not such a bad idea when trying to make a piece even Vincent van Gogh would weep over (or cut his ear off for).
#6 Go to the gym: Getting your blood flowing does wonders for both your mind and body. Working out on the elliptical or running on the treadmill can reduce stress for some people. Once you have showered off and feel relaxed it should not be a problem to think of at least one idea.
#5 Write about completing a daily task: While this may seem odd, it actually helps a lot. I learned this trick from a professor here at Towson during my junior year. He challenged us to write a prompt that involved a lot of action verbs instead of littering every sentence with multiple adjectives. We could write about anything we wanted, but he suggested explaining a daily task. After describing my pain over cleaning the dishes in my apartment, I felt inspired to continue with the story. I learned that even something as insignificant as taking out the trash could lead to a whole new story. Give it a try!
#4 Grab a bite to eat: How can you really work on an empty stomach? Food fuels you in so many ways. Before you sit down and start working, save yourself some stomach-rumbling and get some food. This advice also goes in line with gaining some inspiration from completing a daily task. You just killed two birds with one stone - how does it feel?
#3 Get a decent amount of sleep: This goes along with the idea of self-care. If you cannot function as a proper human being, chances are you cannot function as writer. Take some time to catch some z's and wake up feeling ready to get at it! Little sleep leads to little focus.
#2 Go for a walk to clear your head: Fresh air does the mind and body good. Stop staring at your desk; there are not many ideas there. Instead, go find a penny on the sidewalk or talk to a friendly stranger. Random acts like these are likely to help the cogs start turning again.
#1 Take a shower or a bath: This is my favorite thing to do when I am trying to gain inspiration. Simply standing under a warm stream of waters seems to let my thoughts flow more freely. Taking a shower or a bath is a time of relaxation that does not force you to think too hard about anything in particular. You would be amazed at what you can come up with when your mind is truly free to think about anything.
Grub Street Team Member
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.