In this post, we explore how writing routines enhance your writing.
This past week, on two separate occasions, I was asked about daily writing habits and writing routines and meeting deadlines. There is a lot of advice out there. The lists of what you should and shouldn’t do are long and often contradictory. Here’s what works for me.
How Writing Routines Enhance Your Writing
Should You Write Every Day?
We’re always told that we should write daily, and this is great advice, but what happens when daily writing becomes a chore? We know that routine trumps talent, but must we really write EVERY day? How will we find the time? How can we find the joy again?
Instead of writing daily we can rather focus on writing regularly.
The word ‘routine’ does not specify how often you must write. Google says routine is ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed’. That is all you need to do. If daily writing is not working for you right now, or never did, make an appointment with yourself whether it is once a week or three times a week, but regularly is the most important word. (Once a month though, may not be enough. You need to write as much as possible, but every day isn’t compulsory.)
The first challenge is, of course, to find the time. We literally need to make it or find it. Shorter, more regular appointments may help. Finding three hours to write is a challenge but finding ten minutes is do-able. I find starting my day with a writing session or ending my day with it is easier, but if lunchtime is the only time you have, go for it.
What To Write?
The second challenge you’ll face is what to write. If you are in the middle of a novel, well, you’ll write the novel, but what if you are not?
Consider journaling or writing to a prompt or both. This will also work if your novel has stalled.
Writing is an excellent cure for not writing, but that is easier said than done. Doing mundane chores have been known to get the ideas stared, but prompts are always a win for me. The journaling is often good for the warm-up, then you can try a prompt and hopefully you can end with a few pages of your novel.
It depends on the time you have. If you only get 500 words in ten minutes between meetings that is awesome and more than enough.
It is important not to wait for inspiration to write. The inspiration arrives while you are writing the uninspired stuff. Put pen to paper. I don’t want you to force it, but keep writing. The prompts will help.
I was on a coaching call the other day and the coach spoke about valuing your time and spending it on the things you love. That made me think about my writing. I know, above all, that it is what I want to do, but why do I moan about it?
So anyway, during the call he suggested changing your phrasing: Instead of saying ‘I have to…’, rather say, ‘I get to…’. (You can read more about it here.) It is such a small change, but it sure made a difference. Writing is a gift and I get to do it.
Another trick I use to shut up my inner critic is to publicly declare my intentions, goals and deadlines. It works for me to know ‘someone’ knows what I should be doing and is waiting for my work. It really helps.
The Last Word
I hope this post on how writing routines enhance your writing helps you with yours.
It was Dorothy Parker who said, ‘I hate writing, but I love having written.’ Forgive yourself if you don’t find joy in every day and on every page, but be grateful that you get to write a story, after all, it could have been an annual report. (If you do have to write annual reports, remind yourself that you get to write something fun afterwards. Hehe.)
You’ve finally carved out a spare moment to write. You open up a blank page, and set your fingers on the keys. But then nothing comes. You need a strategy for how to get ideas for writing—now!
You check Facebook thinking you might find something to inspire you there. No luck.
You wonder if your muse is hiding under the stack of dirty dishes, so you clean every bit of grime you can find but still come up empty.
You’re at a loss for story ideas, and your creative writing time is dwindling quickly. In this post, we’ll explore some ways to help you come up with writing ideas that can inspire a premise for a great story.
How to Get Writing Ideas: 9 Guaranteed Ways to Inspire You
Whether or not you’re looking for your an idea for your first book or you’re feeling stumped after finishing your latest (published) story, you shouldn’t wait around for the muse to bless you with a brilliant book idea.
Instead, rely on yourself—trust your own imagination and passions.
To help you find inspiration instead of wait around for it, try one of these nine guaranteed ways to help you brainstorm a solid book premise: “ Coming up with story ideas doesn’t have to be a struggle! Learn how to come up with great book ideas in this post. Tweet thisTweet
1. Look Around
As we head into the holiday season, it’s likely we’re all going to be traveling at some point or another. Instead of pacing back and forth across the airport or diving right into that bestseller, take a moment to notice the people around you. They may be the protagonist and antagonist of your bestseller.
See that Mom and Dad with their toddler in the stroller? What’s their story? Who are they going to see?
See the salesman running through the terminal? Who’s he in a rush to get home to?
If you’re traveling by car, look at the family in the minivan next to you. How did they decide to watch that movie? How much stuff is in their trunk, and who’s going to call for a potty break first?
Sometimes the best way to overcome writer’s block is taking a moment to watch your surroundings. And when you’re looking, don’t forget to listen to conversations that are happening around you, too.
Sometimes the best stories come out of a regular conversation or question that you never expected.
Good writers look at real people and life experiences for story ideas—and you might be surprised how many you find when you look up!
2. Pay Attention
Author Ron Rash said his New York Times bestselling novel Serena began with the image a confident, tall, strong woman on a large white horse. He saw details of the scenery, the horse, and woman but didn’t know that meant. He just knew he couldn’t shake the image from his mind, so he wrote about it.
That woman became the main character of her own movie.
Similar to the first point, “look around,” you can pluck an interesting story idea out of everyday events.
Sometimes you can be inspired by something posted on social media or one of your favorite books. Maybe you have a few favorite podcasts that talk about something other than writing, and this is where you pick up your next great story idea.
Pay attention to the world around you—and how you digest life, news, and current events. “ Pay attention to the world around you. Sometimes the best book ideas are right in front of your eyes! Tweet thisTweet
If there’s a topic that strikes your interest and motivates a call to action, stop for a second and think about it. Journaling about ideas that inspire you is a great starting point for you to come up with story ideas that might withstand the length or a novel—and if not, maybe it’s something that could work well for a short story.
While idea generators and creative writing prompts are great, you don’t need a list of collected ideas to spark your imagination.
Sometimes, you just need to pay attention to what already catches your attention. Taking the time to focus on something other than writing is actually an important part of the writing process.
3. Day Dream
Close your eyes for a minute. What do you see?
Brainstorming good story ideas, especially for fiction writing, requires precious time set aside for your imagination.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to leave your bed to get inspired for a book idea.
If day dreaming is how you like to come up with story ideas, maybe one of these meditative strategies will nourish your imagination:
Meditate for fifteen minutes. You can find lots of great resources on YouTube.
Wake up and participate in some morning yoga.
Go for a short walk.
When you wake up, keep your eyes closed for an extra ten minutes and listen to the world around you. What comes to mind?
Try this grounding technique. Acknowledge (1) Five thing you see, (2) Four things you can touch, (3) Three things you can hear, (4) Two things you can smell, and (5) One thing you can taste.
4. Change the Scenery
Look back at the little boy in the picture under “Day Dream.” He could be practicing piano in his living room. He could be practicing in a concert hall. But instead he’s outside.
Maybe his fingers work better there. I don’t know.
Maybe your fingers work better in a coffee shop. Or they prefer the library. The river. A floor.
Try sitting someplace different or in a different position and see what happens.
Sometimes all we need for new motivation is a change of scenery. However, no matter where you end up writing, I don’t recommend depending on a change of scenery for inspiration.
Before you change up your writing space, head into your writing session with a plan. This will help you focus, but also feel rejuvenated by something different when you actually write.
What if the referee didn’t show up to the basketball game because he’s been murdered? What if the airplane lands in a different destination than expected?
What if the turkey burns the house down?
A game of “What if?” is one of the best ways to come up with story ideas that you never expected. Just when you think you’ve figured out the best direction for your story, questioning “What if?” actually takes your story where it needs to go.
Want a writing tip when you play try this strategy?
Don’t hold back! You have a much better chance at coming up with fantastic story possibilities if you don’t judge your ideas before writing them down.
To do this, I recommend setting a timer for 10-15 minutes and writing down a list of as many “what if” possibilities for your work-in-progress as possible. Don’t stop to think, just write!
When you’re done, you can eliminate all the ideas that don’t work. But you’re way more likely to find an idea that does work if you have a large list to consider. “ Asking “What if?” is a staple way to come up with your next great story idea. Use this strategy, or any of these nine ways to come up with a book idea, when you’re feeling stumped. Tweet thisTweet
Allowing inspiration to come from books or movies isn’t plagiarism. Watch or read the scene then hit “pause” and let your own creativity take over rather than following the established plot-line. Think about how you would have crafted the storyline differently, and then run with it.
In fact, there are no original ideas in storytelling. The best ideas are ones that are simple, but have an edge to them.
And when you come up with a new angle to an idea that’s already been done, you know there’s an audience looking to watch or read it.
Ever heard of comparable titles? You want these when you pitch to a literary agent or editor.
You also want to be able to say why your story is the same as THIS TITLE, but different.
Go find five of your favorite stories in the genre you’re writing
Write a premise for each of these books
Change the big hook that makes them this story and replace it with your own edge—something that shows irony in the story
A timid clownfish needs to swim across the Pacific Ocean in order to rescue his son. (Finding Nemo)
A [change the description and animal, make it ironic] needs to [something different, a new setting] in order to rescue her daughter.
You’ve got some moments of “Is this really happening?”
You can’t make up those things.
Borrow some moments from real life and turn them into a premise that could drive a whole book (just change enough details to protect the guilty).
And don’t forget, every main character in a book needs a want—a goal. Give your protagonist this goal, and establish the stakes they are willing to get in order to get it.
8. Revisit Your Favorite Characters
Maybe they’re your own or maybe they’re someone else’s, but we’ve all got favorite characters. Put them together in a box and see what happens. Trust them to come up with a clever story all on their own.
You just get to be their scribe.
9. Start Writing
With your fingers on the keys, just start moving them. Sometimes words will come out and sometimes they won’t. Eventually something worth saving will appear. It just might take awhile.
Whatever you do just don’t keep staring at that blinking cursor. It’s a demon who whispers lies.
How to Get Ideas for Writing? Don’t Hold Your Back!
Story ideas exist everywhere. However, choosing the best idea for your book—one that inspires you to write to the end—means finding an idea and main character that you love.
Using the nine ways to find story ideas in this post is a great strategy to have when looking for your next great book idea.
At the same time, it’s important not to judge your ideas before you give them a chance.
Who knows? The next bestseller could be caked in an idea you initially thought was ridiculous until you asked, “What if?” Or maybe your own story dramatized with an event you read about on a blog is your next great hit.
Coming up with ideas doesn’t have to be the rocky mountain generating ideas sometimes feels like.
So don’t hold back. Try out one or all of the nine strategies covered in this post. Finalize an idea that you loved, and maybe even take it to the next stage of writing by planning it out—test if it’s something that will move and inspire you until the end.
Stop worrying about the best idea. Write the idea that makes you motivated to write.
How do you find ideas when the well seems to run dry? Let us know in the comments.
Characters are the heart of a story, but what really draws readers in is their emotions. Only…showing them isn’t always easy, is it?
Like us in the real world, characters will struggle. Life is never all cherries and diamonds; in fact, it’s our writerly job to make sure reality fish-slaps our characters with painful life lessons! Big or small, these psychologically difficult moments will cause them to retreat and protect themselves emotionally, believing if they do so, it will prevent them from feeling exposed and hurt in the future.
And while we know “shielding” behavior is psychologically sound (we do it, too) and it means our characters will try to hide it when they feel vulnerable, this causes a real problem at the keyboard end of things. Why? Because no matter how hard a character is trying to hide or hold back their emotions, we writers must still show them. For readers to connect, they have to be part of that emotional experience.
(Reason #63027 why writing is HARD, right?)
A wounding event also causes emotional sensitivities to form, meaning your character may overreact when certain feelings draw near. A man who was mugged may verbally lash out at a stranger who touches his arm to ask for directions. A teenager may be unable to answer an easy question in class after forgetting the words to a song during her school’s talent show.
Not only can our characters be easily be triggered and give into their flight, flight, and freeze instincts, they may also project feelings onto others, deny them, become self-destructive, act out, or a host of other things…all of which we will need to show in a way that fits the character’s personality, comfort zone, and circumstances. It’s a tall order.
Three Tips to Show Emotion Well…Hidden or Not
Know your character. So crucial. It’s the key to everything, so when you have a second, read this post to find out why. (No point reinventing the wheel.)
Understand the character’s emotional range. Their “baseline” comfort zone & preferences are tied to their personality and will guide you to emotional expressiveness that will align with who they are, meaning what they do, say, and experience will ring true to readers.
To avoid telling, think about the many unique ways emotion can be expressed. Writers can sometimes rely too much on expressions or gestures, so think past that steely glare or stomping foot. These tip sheets are gold:
Another challenge when it comes to showing readers what our characters feel is that emotions rarely show up alone. Most situations or events generate a mix of feelings, some of which may conflict with one another. For example, a character may feel…
Anxiety over what comes next while feeling relieved at being spared a worse fate
Happiness at an outcome yet being worried about what loved ones will say
Elation at winning but beneath it, insecurity over whether it was truly deserved
Gratitude at surviving along with the crushing guilt that comes with doing so when others were not so lucky
I think we can all think of moments like these. A surge of emotion hits, and we laugh through our tears, collapse in jubilation, or even attack a loved one for delivering news that nearly destroys us. While it takes a greater effort to show multiple and/or conflicting emotions, experiencing more than one thing at once is true-to-life, and so can make these story moments more genuine and gripping.
Three Tips for Showing Multiple or Conflicting Emotions
With multiple emotions, show them in order. For example, if a sibling were to jump out and scare the protagonist as she’s heading down the hall toward her room, she’ll feel fear, then relief, then mock-anger. If you showed this, it might go like this: jumping back with a shriek, sagging against the wall, and then charging her sibling and shoving him to the ground.
If you need to, slow things down a touch. Focus description on what is causing the character to feel a specific emotion (stimulus), and then show what they do because of it (reaction). This helps readers see an event, person, situation, etc. is affecting a character and directing their behavior, action, and choices.
If the emotions are complicated or in conflict, you can also use a carefully placed thought (if it’s a POV character) or dialogue (if not). The important thing is to show the context of what’s happening. This doesn’t mean to fall into the trap of telling, rather to use realistic thoughts, questions, or comments that indicate something is influencing your character’s emotions (and therefore explains their actions).
Showing compelling emotion can be challenging, but thankfully there are many, many terrific ways to do it well. With effort, using a mix of expressions, behaviors, dialogue, thoughts, visceral sensations, vocal cues (and more!) will convey our character’s personal moments authentically, drawing readers in.
Every writer fears the dreaded complaints about being too repetitive.
“I thought the book was great, but the author tended to repeat herself.” – “Fantastic information, but too much repetition!” – “The author is a moron, kept repeating the same lesson over and over―I got it the first time. WTF!”
In non-fiction, which this post focuses on, and in some fiction, there is a tension between repeating something too much or too little, and as writers, we must master this skill if we are to use it in the powerful, necessary way intended.
If readers do not learn from your book or article it might not be that you didn’t teach your point well enough the first time. No, the real problem could be that you didn’t teach your point enough.
Repetition is vital in the learning process because that’s the way the human brain learns and stores memories.
Repetition is a necessity
Let me say it again, repetition is a necessity.
In our fast-paced world, we are so busy that we can’t stand repetition, we simply don’t have the time for it (we say), and yet we wonder why so many talents and skills are being lost.
It’s because people don’t want to be bothered to take the time to learn something the right way. They can’t be bothered to take the necessary amount of time needed to master their talents. Welcome to the 21st century where everything is supposed to be instant. It’s just too bad the human brain hasn’t caught up.
Without repetition, there can be no mastery
Often, when people complain about repetition it is because they believe they “got it” the first time.
The brain simply isn’t a one and done machine. When we treat it like it is we forget lessons, we fail tests, and we never truly master any skills.
Imagine your favorite song without its chorus.
Now you know the reason why one-night-stands are so regrettable, unless it was with the entirely wrong person it’s because we want to repeat such a fantastic experience.
See, repetition isn’t always so horrible.
Okay, let’s refocus.
If you want the information you are sharing to stick, you must learn how to repeat yourself, hopefully without annoying your readers too much. Repetition, therefore, is also an art, which we must practice. You must master the art of rephrasing, hiding, and being boldly deliberate when there are no other options. Because otherwise, repetition can be annoying and counterproductive.
Do your readers a favor, when a point is important, repeat it; however, mix it up enough that it’s refreshing in of itself each time. Don’t get lazy by simply copying and pasting, tell a story, and show it through a different lens. I’ll give you a few examples in a moment.
It’s this fear of repeating one’s self today that has so many people failing to teach others how to become masters of their art. It goes for the students as well. We see people giving up because they’re not willing to put in the time and practice playing the same notes over and over again until their instruments, and they themselves, sing beautifully.
It’s not always about learning something new, it’s often more about learning what you already know better.
New is overrated when the student hasn’t fully embraced and mastered what she already knows.
Bruce “One-Inch Punch” Lee
Bruce Lee was remarkable not only for his skills as a fighter but also as a teacher.
Due to Bruce Lee’s intense repetitive training of one single punch thousands, perhaps millions, of times, he was able to deliver a force from one inch away that could knock an opponent off of his feet.
Some claim the punch could kill.
The punch was made so famous by Bruce Lee that today it is known simply as the One-Inch Punch. Mention the One-Inch Punch to any professional fighter and they’ll instantly know to what you’re referring to and who made it famous.
The One-Inch Punch is not possible by just any layman without intensive training, in order to master it one must attempt it thousands upon thousands of times, and even then it might not be enough. Only the truly dedicated will eventually master the famed punch.
And yet, us poor little scribblers complain when authors repeat themselves even once.
If you read any book from Bruce Lee you will soon discover how he hammers home his philosophies over and over again. His lessons have taught legions of fighters over the last half-century and are still among the most sought after books on martial arts.
So the next time you are afraid to repeat yourself because you feel you still need to bring the point home, do it. A reader might complain about it today, but years down the road when she remembers the lesson well and uses it as a master, perhaps even without realizing it, she will owe you thanks.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” ―Bruce Lee
Mix It Up
With that said, you don’t want to repeat yourself simply by copying and pasting what you already stated. What you want to do is mix it up. Here are a few ways you can do that:
State it directly, as a matter of fact.
Tell a story.
Use personal experiences.
Give readers a practice assignment.
Offer a quiz to help your readers remember.
State it a final time in your closing remarks.
Use comedy by stating the point in a humorously unexpected way, if possible.
If you research reviews from some of the hottest non-fiction bestsellers on Amazon, you’ll find that many reviewers complain about repetition, you’ll especially find this in reviews from books by Seth Godin, Jeff Goins, and Jon Acuff, authors who happen to be some of the very best teachers of our time.
As an experiment, whenever you have a free moment, consider doing a search in the reviews from the below books for “repetitive,” or “repeats themselves,” or other variations and see how many results you get:
Quitter by Jon Acuff (New York Times Bestselling author of six books including a Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller.)
Don’t be too shocked that the book with the most acclaim also has the most complaints of being too repetitive, but all of the above have negative reviews claiming the authors were too repetitive.
Here’s the thing, all of the best teachers repeat themselves, and frankly, by and large, students hate it. We’ve had to put up with this since grade school and teachers can’t seem to stop doing it and the best teachers do it the most.
Damn them for being so good.
Aristotle took the matter so seriously that he stated: “It is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency.” Perhaps it is of no coincidence that one of his most famous sayings is:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle
(Translated by Will Durant from Aristotle’s texts.)
Whatever you’re great at, wherever your talent has led you, you’re here because you practiced, again and again, you repeated the methods, you repeated the exercises, you memorized them over and over again, instructors, teachers, parents, friends, whoever helped you, did so by repeating processes and instructions over and over again.
Here’s something to consider (and if you think about it, you might be one of these students), students that become true masters of their chosen art are most often the ones that come back and thank their favorite teachers for hammering home the lessons they needed to learn.
Repetition is the true kick in the ass every artist needs
An important paper on this is:
Repetition is the First Principle of Learning
University of Virginia, by ROBERT F. BRUNER
One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is to forego the return or repetition. The learning process is one of slow engagement with ideas; gradually the engagement builds to a critical mass when the student actually acquires the idea. Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process. If one cares about quality of learning, one should consciously design repetitive engagement into courses and daily teaching. To do this well is harder than it seems.
As a pool player, I used to get frustrated with one of my instructors because he would have me practice one certain routine hundreds of times and, if I’m being honest, I grew to hate that routine, but eventually, there came a time when I could shoot through the entire routine with my eyes closed.
Without realizing it my shots became fluid and reflexive, I didn’t have to think about them anymore, I could free my mind while playing and shoot more true to my goal, and I won a lot more.
If you ever get the opportunity to watch a professional billiards trick shot player and he or she closes their eyes to make a fantastical shot, it’s because they practiced that shot hundreds of times with their eyes open and thousands of times with their eyes closed.
A Few Tips on how to use Repetition to Learn Better
Learn lessons at least thrice, this includes tips, articles, and books, to name a few.
Space out repetition, the brain learns better when you take pauses. In other words, don’t read a book again the day after you finish it, instead wait a month or two between readings. Give yourself enough time to absorb the information and then go over it again.
Use short burst repetitions. With regard to my pool routine, it was rather short and quick so waiting a month on such a routine isn’t the same as it would be for longer curve learning. In this case, I repeated the exercise directly after finishing, I did this hundreds of times a day for several weeks, then paused a few days before repeating. Basic rule: The shorter the lessons the more frequent the repetition.
Learn from different mediums, such as if you read a book about, let’s say, marketing, and it’s also available as an audiobook, first read it and then listen to it, and perhaps on the third go-around, read and listen simultaneously.
This last one I like a lot, but it’s a bit controversial, listen to audiobook versions of what you want to learn while you sleep. I’ve woken up from dreams about the subject I’m listening to, so I know the brain is listening even while we sleep. How well does this help? I have absolutely no idea, but belief is a powerful thing and I believe it helps me learn skills better.
With all this said, I leave you with one more lesson from Bruce Lee, perhaps the most important:
”Obey the principles without being bound by them.”
We’ve all heard that characters need backstory, and in particular, an emotional wound that they’re carrying around when we meet them on page one. (As an aside, if you haven’t checked out Angela and Becca’s Emotional Wound Thesaurus, you’re missing out. It identifies and explores just about every major wound a character may have from life before your novel starts.)
But what happens when that wound is murky because you haven’t written out the origin scene that gave birth to it? Or, as I see even more commonly in client manuscripts, you have more than one major emotional wound for your protagonist? Giving a character a primary emotional wound is a must. But giving them excess baggage can start to sound like a stereotypical country song. It’s not uncommon that I edit manuscripts where excess baggage is wreaking havoc on both the written story and the reader’s ability to connect with it.
Consider a character who is hiding who they truly are from their parents and they are struggling with addiction and they lost a sibling and they were the victim of a crime. This type of complexity may seem like a good idea. Who doesn’t want lots of conflict, right?
But what winds up happening in a story that starts off this way is that your reader doesn’t know where to look because bags are everywhere. And perhaps worse, there’s nowhere to go in the manuscript in terms of rising tension, rising stakes, and rising action. As a result, the reader is overwhelmed by all the problems your character already has, and they don’t have a clear idea of the misbelief the character needs to let go of by the time the climax rolls around. In the same way games oftentimes have one objective, the reader seeks a sense of the character’s internal objective in order to gauge success or failure come the end of the book. They need to know how this game, otherwise known as your story, is played.
An analogy I use often with editing clients when describing what an opening must function like is the ski jump. The emotional arc “rails” you build in scene one will set up the trajectory for the rest of the novel, long after your character has taken off. If your character has a past loaded like that country song, the ski jump won’t create a strong, clear path for either your character or your reader. Instead, the beginning will feel more like a complicated freeway interchange, and you’ll have failed to give the reader the directions that point them toward where to go.
By employing one major emotional wound at your story’s onset, you ensure that the character and the reader engage in a smooth emotional trajectory because you’ve given them directed rails. Yes, complications will be born out of the primary wound as your story plays out. For example, having someone die on your watch might lead to depression or fear of trusting one’s self, which might lead to broken relationships and decreased risk-taking. But trust yourself and your story to carry those obstacles out within your story. As the obstacles build up and things become more and more complicated, the stakes will rise, as will tension. This is the arc you want for your story as it moves along, not when it starts. If the character is carrying excess baggage when we first meet them, there are very few places for them or your story to go.
Challenge yourself to identify the one primary emotional wound your character has in the very first scene. If you have more than one wound, how might you narrow down your character’s backstory so that it creates those strong, directed ski jump rails that will keep the rest of your story on track? One option is One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder, which is great for helping you zero in on just one primary wounding event.
Consider how that wound might lead to secondary difficulties throughout the course of your novel and think about how you might plot those as complications. Above all, give yourself the clarity in knowing the emotional need your character has that your story sets out to fulfill.
How do you defeat procrastination, write more in less time, and do it with less struggle? Two words: writing sprints.
Word sprints are an amazing writing tool that you can use to improve your writing. Sprinting pushes you to write more words fast, by forcing you to start writing and ignore your inner editor.
They also get you to concentrate on one of the most important ways to improve your writing life: consistent practice.
With continuous practice, word sprints can even help you develop a writing habit that will empower you to write and actually finish a novel or a screenplay—and maybe even develop a career as a writer.
But what are writing sprints? And how can you use them effectively?
I’ll teach you in this guide!
Writing Sprints Combat a Writer’s Fatal Enemy: Procrastination
I’ve taught thousands of people how to develop a writing practice that works, to use that practice to write more in less time, and to finish their best novels and memoirs. And recently, I developed a three-part series to help you write more (and better), too.
But out of the thousands of writers I’ve trained over the last ten plus years, most of them have struggled in their writing in some very predictable ways: things like procrastination, writer’s block, perfectionism, lack of ideas, and other things that make their writing a miserable experience, and ultimately keep them from finishing their projects.
And if I’m being completely honest, I also struggle with these writing pitfalls. I’m a professional writer, but writing has never come easy for me. Just ask my teachers growing up.
Over the last couple of decades, I’ve also figured out a set of really simple tricks, writing routines, and practices that have enabled me—possibly the worst procrastinator you know—to write fifteen books, dozens of stories, and hundreds of articles.
One of these writing tips is writing sprints. Why?
Because sprints work. They’ll change your writing life—and impact your writing craft in immeasurable ways. If you do them right.
Before a Sprint, Set An Intention
Before joining a writing buddy or your fellow sprinters for a writing sprint, pause for a second. Ask yourself, “Am I entering this sprint with a focus? Do I know what I’m going to write today?”
Even if you’re a pantser, you’ll have a more positive experience in a writing sprint if you set an intention for each sprint.
What is an intention?
Studies on productivity and goal setting have consistently shown that when you set an intention, when you visualize what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and where you’re going to do it, you’re much more likely to actually accomplish your goal.
Think about that for your daily writing. What if you started each writing session not by just pulling out a blank page and starting to write, but instead by setting a clear intention on what you’re going to accomplish that day? How much could that change your writing?
Intentions could be as simple as:
A word count
A page count
A scene count
A certain amount of time writing
A sprint word count (amount of words in a sprint you want to meet)
To learn more about how to set an intention, sign up for my free writing practice.
But for now, just consider how participating in a writing sprint will feel even more rewarding if you set and meet your writing intention.
The thought feels good, doesn’t it?
Write Fast and Imperfectly
Most of your writing problems, whether it’s procrastination, writer’s block, or just not having fun with writing, come from perfectionism. Which sounds like a relief, right? Because then all you have to do is beat perfectionism, and you’ll be a productive writer!
Not quite. First, because perfectionism is incredibly tough to overcome.
After all, you want to write something great, something that will connect with millions of people, something that will inspire people like the books and stories you’ve loved have inspired you.
And so, perfectionism takes hold. “ Writing sprints will help you reach your writing goals—and write better books. This post teaches you all about writing sprints and how to add them to your daily practice. Tweet thisTweet
You write a sentence that doesn’t quite measure up to your standards, and then spend a few minutes fixing it. You finally move on to the next sentence, but that isn’t right either. And then, oh by the way, is your book idea itself right? Is it original? Is it inspired? Is it working at all?
Before you know it, you’ve been staring into the distance for an hour, or worse, scrolling through social media, and all you have to show for your writing time is two lousy sentences and a couple of a handful of likes that you gave on Instagram.
There has to be a better way, right?
Most writers have to overcome procrastination at some point in their career. They can be first time writers working on a first draft, or they can be seasoned writers with multiple bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list. They could rank high in Amazon for certain genre. It doesn’t matter.
Almost every writer, at some point, will have a moment where they’d rather do anything than write their book. Even it that itch is only temporary.
Luckily, there are writing tools to help you get around it.
The best way to do that is to write fast. Really fast. Like, as fast as you’re able, with no editing. This way your perfectionist brain never gets a chance to judge your writing bad.
That’s why writing sprints are so great. They don’t give you time to procrastinate. You have to focus.
You have to write. Now.
What is a Writing Sprint?
A sprint is when you set a timer and write as much as you can for that period of time without editing or doing anything else.
You can enter a sprint with a very specific focus, like a writing prompt. Or, you can use a sprint to add pages to your current WIP (work-in-progress).
You might join a sprinting group only for certain times of the year, like November for NaNoWriMo. Or you might find a tight-niche writing community that you meet each day on your lunch break. By the way, sprints are an amazing way to get you to write each day, even while working a full-time job.
Regardless of when you sprint, it’s important to track your progress in a sprint. To help you do this, I’ve created a worksheet for you to use, which you can download:Daily Word Count Tracking Sheet >> Keep track of your writing, one day at a time, with our word count tracking worksheet.
After you download it, look at your worksheet. On it, notice how there’s entire section where you can keep track of your writing sprints.
And here’s the beauty of it—you choose how long you want your sprint to be. It could be twenty minutes, or even just a minute sprint. The point of the sprint is to get you to write: fast, and consistently.
Say, for instance, a writer wants to sprint for thirty minutes.
This is how to use the spreadsheet:
Set a timer. By the way, don’t use the timer on your phone, since this might distract you. Turn your phone notifications off. Use a timer on the microwave or oven—something not directly next to you. Or use a free timer on your computer like this.
Get writing. Try to stay focused and not do anything else during that period. See how using a timer not on your phone will help with this?
Stop when the timer goes off.
Count how many words or pages you wrote. Don’t skip this step!
Let’s say I wrote three pages. I would write that down, and it’s great. Let’s say this means that I finished my word count goal that day. It’s rewarding and encouraging.
At the same time, if you want, you can keep going and see if you can write even more during your daily writing time.
How Long Should You Set Your Timer For?
There’s no perfect amount of time a writing sprint should last. It depends on how you’re feeling.
If you’re feeling really focused, you might choose to set your timer for thirty minutes or ten minutes or five minutes. Or take a note from the pomodoro method and set it for twenty-five minutes.
If you’re feeling really distracted or like you don’t want to write, you might set it for a shorter period.
For me, I often like to set my timer for just three minutes, because sometimes I’m so busy and so distracted that I only have three minutes of focus in me.
On top of that, I don’t always have much will-power, but I know that I always have three minutes of will power in me. So I set my timer for three minutes and write as quickly as I can.
What Happens When the Timer Goes Off?
Ding, ding! That’s it. Your timer goes off—but are you done? What should you do next?
This is my routine:
I count my words or pages to see how I did.
Why do I track this? Because measuring your output is so important. What you measure gets managed. “ Don’t forget to track your output after a writing sprint. This is important.
What you can measure, you can manage. &via=write_practice”>Tweet
Notice that I didn’t suggest that you measure how good your writing is, or how your writing made you feel.
Instead, measure how many words you can write in a certain amount of time. This will allow you to track your progress.
Which only gets better the more sprints you complete—the more you practice your writing.
What Should You Do After a Sprint?
You have two options: you can either decide to take a break or schedule the next time for your next sprint.
What you can’t do is go back and edit. That’s because we want to stay in our creative, productive, fast writing side of the brain. And editing will get us into our perfectionist, slow writing side of the brain.
Resist the urge to go back and edit until later.
Instead, if you feel like you’ve used up all the focus and willpower you have, take a break. You’ve earned it!
But chances are, now that you’ve started, you will probably want to write a little more. So then you can set the timer again, and it’s off to the races.
Once you finish two sprints, here’s where this gets really fun, because you can compare your score.
And so on.
Use Sprints to Prove Your Progress
After a few sprints, compare the worksheets you used to track your progress.
Say you write fifty words in the first sprint and 100 words in the next sprint. Well, maybe you can write 125 in the one after.
The focus can continuously be on beating your score, writing as much as you can as quickly as you can on the topic or chapter or story event that you’re working on for that day.
The benefit of this is that it brings the focus to tracking your words, not how good your writing is, which actually encourages you to write more—and the more you write, the better of a writer you’ll become. “ The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Writing sprints will push you to write more, writer faster, and eventually, become a stronger writer. Tweet thisTweet
Believe it or not, it’s the people who don’t write much, who get stuck in perfectionism, that never become better writers. And it makes sense, because they’re not practicing writing.
But by focusing on quantity over quality, you actually can improve the quality of your writing faster than if you only focused on quality.
That’s why sprints are one of the best daily practices you can use in your writing, you might even call them the write practice. (Good one, right?)
So give that a try today!
Set your timer, write as fast as you can, count your words, and then, if you’re up for it, set your timer again. See if you can beat your previous score.
Do this alone or with your writing group. Regardless, get going with it and watch as you become a more productive and stronger writer.
By doing this, you will not only accomplish your word count goals, you’ll be on your way to finishing your writing project—all while having more fun doing it.
Have you ever participated in a writing sprint? What did you like about it? Let us know in the comments. Don’t miss out! Download our new Daily Word Count Tracking Sheet and keep track of your writing, one day at a time. Start today!
It’s time to sprint! For today, try out a writing sprint for fifteen minutes. Before you set your time:
50 years from now, how do you want to be known as a writer?
Each great author has a unique way of getting their stories across, a method for which they are known and loved. Edgar Allan Poe used a lot of description. Ernest Hemingway used many short sentences. William Shakespeare used strange, rhythmic diction. You can have a distinct professional reputation, too – you just have to create your writing style!
The style you create is a compilation of who you are as a writer, and only you can determine how it reads for your audience. Others will look back at your work and appreciate the specific way your writing speaks for itself.
Not sure what your style is yet? Don’t worry; it takes time and practice to discover it, but that’s just all part of the fun!
The two best things you can do to discover your style are reading and writing.
As you read, you are constantly absorbing the techniques of the greats, which can point you in the right direction toward discovering your own. Here are some tips to finding your writing style as you read:
Pay attention to the catchy sentences that get your attention and make you want to read more. Is there a certain style the author utilizes to make reading an enjoyable adventure? How can you make a sentence like that one in your own work? You may not be fond of using big words, for example, but if you read a sentence packed with huge words, and that happens to add a comical effect, you may want to try expanding your vocabulary in the future.
Notice the sentence styles you dislike. Have you ever read a story that seemed like a complete waste of your time? Determine why that was. Maybe it used too many words to describe one thing. Maybe its dialogue wasn’t engaging enough. Make notes on what writing styles and techniques you find ineffective or boring so you can avoid them in your own writing.
Keep a notepad handy while you read, so you can note the methods that do and don’t work when forming a story. Jot down anything from punchy sentences you love, to interesting diction you want to try out in your own tales.
Your specific writing signature will differ from anyone else’s, no matter how much you mirror past writers. Whatever your writing ends up looking like, it is yours, and only you can determine what best shapes it moving forward. Explore the styles of other authors to determine what you want your writing to become – or what you definitely want to avoid – but don’t be afraid to add your own special twist to set yourself apart from the rest.
Time to start crafting your words into a masterpiece! Take note of the way you write, and what your finished product says about you as an author. Here are some tips to finding your writing style through practice:
Get into a comfortable environment that allows you to express your ideas well. Personally, I have found listening to music helps motivate me to write, and relaxing jazz is especially effective when I need to clear my thoughts and structure my words. Whether you write better sitting under a tree with a notepad, or in bed with a neck warmer, do whatever helps you get those creative juices flowing and your pen moving across the paper.
Write what you like, so it isn’t a chore. If you enjoy science fiction, then writing about an astronaut that crash-lands on Jupiter is probably going to keep you excited and engaged as you work. Creating a story you’re passionate about makes it much easier to keep writing, and less likely to lose steam.
Keep a journal to help you find your voice. You can start with simple things such as writing how your day went. A diary is an effective way to get your ideas onto paper, and you can analyze the finished entries to help you find your strengths as a writer.
Try out random, out-of-context sentences. For example, “As I looked at my exam results, I knew it was going to be a long day.” They don’t have to make sense or go anywhere other than in your notebook, but they help you experiment with putting words together and making them sound great. You might even get some workable story ideas out of it!
Experiment with new things. All writers have niche genres, and whether you’ve found yours or not, you can always go dabble in more. Try your hand at poetry, a mystery, or whatever else you think you might enjoy. You may even discover you’ve got a hidden talent for sketch comedy writing that you never even knew you had.
Writing is more than putting words together; it’s about crafting the perfect sentences to form a masterpiece.
6 Sentence Structures to Try in Your Writing
Creating an outstanding writing style starts with outstanding sentences. Among the many literary devices you can apply, here are six effective sentence structures you can use to refine your writing.
1. Long and Short Sentence Variation: Both long and short sentences have a purpose in your writing. Long sentences create rich detail, while short sentences get right to the point. By using both types of sentences in your work, you create an interesting, varied piece that readers can’t pull away from.
Example: “As the ink bled into my parchment, I savored the joy of writing and created the last sentence, finally finishing my novel. It was a great last sentence.”
Analysis: The first sentence adds depth and describes the excitement of writing, something the reader can feel. The second sentence is like a punchline that ends the story nicely without having to say too much. A short closing sentence is something impactful that a reader will remember.
2. Items in a Series: Organizing ideas in a series with punctuation offers a detailed sentence that isn’t too wordy.
Example: “Becoming a writer is not easy; it takes immense creativity, constant perseverance, and hard work.”
Analysis: The use of commas and the semicolon gives the ideas room to breathe while still crafting an informative sentence.
3. Varying Effects: If you want to show the powerful applications of something, this structure lays out a large scale of results, from just sort of interesting to fascinating.
Example: “From drafting an essay to creating a best-selling book, the applications for writing are all around us.”
Analysis: Instead of explaining all the things that writing can do, this sentence only demonstrates a couple of specific examples. This leaves the rest up to imagination, yet demonstrates how many possibilities there are under one subject’s overarching umbrella.
4. Parallelism: This technique involves using a similar construction in multiple sentences, or similar sentence parts. For example, repeating words or phrases with minor differences.
Example: “Writing enhances your brain. Writing creates new dimensions. Writing turns the raw material of the world into a symphony. It all starts with writing.”
Analysis: All four sentences begin or end with the word “writing,” which shows the extensive applications this one occupation can have.
5. Avoiding Unnecessary Repetition: This is a simple tactic that makes your writing significantly more exciting. You may need to occasionally repeat a word (whether for parallelism or a comedic purpose) but do what you can to change up your verbiage and use a synonym instead.
Bad Example: “My essay was finally finished, and as I emailed the essay to my professor, I knew he would love my essay.”
Good Example: “My essay was finally finished, and as I emailed the masterpiece to my teacher, I knew he would love it.”
Analysis: Reusing the word “essay” makes the sentence boring and needlessly repetitive. When we change “essay” into different words like “masterpiece,” we establish other elements in the story such as the speaker’s attitude and pride toward what he wrote.
6. Cause and Effect: This is a simple method to fit an entire story into a sentence. You can give the reader the result, then easily clarify how you got there.
Example: “In order to write, you must learn the basics.”
Analysis: Using a conditional, or if-then statement, is a smart way to change the sentence around a bit. You could say something like, “You must learn the basics in order to write,” but turning it into two clauses makes it easier to read and follow.
Make Your Writing Yours
These six sentence styles and strategies may work for you, or they may not. Regardless, you should always make your writing your writing. Your personal style is what makes it appeal to the reader. If you dislike using parallelism, but love short sentences, then go with the latter. And if you keep trying things out as you continue writing, you can fine-tune that signature fingerprint you want to leave on your sentences, one nobody else could produce.
Ernest Hemmingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing is personal, and once you find a style worth developing, your readers will fall in love with your unforgettable words.
Freedom is a contradictory word, don’t you think? The official definition of freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. However, follow that to its extreme and chaos reigns.
But that’s the dream of every author, right? To be free to write on our own schedule, without the hindrance of other obligations. We want our book sales or family life or work schedule to provide us this freedom so we may be the best author we can be. But what happens when we get exactly what we want?
The patooties are heading back to school for the first time in seventeen months, and I am nose-to-nose with this concept of freedom, experiencing its contradictions in all its forms:
Fear of the unknown
Excitement for an actual work day
Trepidation about what to do with uninterrupted hours (or, let’s be real here, minutes)
Uncertainty about the right path forward
Elation about having a few quiet hours in the house to write and to work
Doubt I can meet my writing goals and deadlines again, as it has been so very long….
I don’t feel very free.
With the world finding a new normal, are you experiencing something similar? Whether it be back-to-school, back-to-in-office-work, or simply the end of summer approaching, it’s not surprising if we find ourselves wrestling with conflicting emotions about the next season of our life.
Ronald Reagan says we need order to have freedom.
“There can be no freedom without order, and there is no order without virtue. ”
The musical Hamilton says our freedom can never be taken away.
“Raise a glass to freedom, Something they can never take away.”
Turns out, feeling free is different from freedom. Breaking it down further, I believe that in order to feel free and experience true freedom, we must first break free…
Expectations are a sticky bog. Whether they be our own expectations for ourselves, others’ expectations for us, or even our expectations of others, when we start making decisions based on expectations, and our attitude and mood are affected by expectations, we lose our freedom. We are no longer able to feel free.
What expectations are you or others placing on your creative life?
A golden first draft
To make a story fit into a specific genre
To meet every deadline (self-imposed or contractual), regardless of what is going on in your personal life
Five star reviews
This book must do better than the last book
This book must be better than the last book
Reader feedback, suggestions, wish list
Must engage your community on social media
Write X amount of words or write for X amount of time every day
Can you feel the pressure building? Just writing that list made my breathing go shallow.
Now take a moment and imagine…how would it feel to let all of that go?
What impact would it have on your creativity if you approached it with zero expectations, if you allowed yourself to simply enjoy the moments in which you have to write?
I bet it’d be pretty freeing.
From Old Habits
I don’t know about you, but I have developed some…let’s frame it as not helpful…habits over the past year.
Now is a good time to assess what lifestyle changes we’ve accepted that may no longer be beneficial to what we actually want for ourselves.
What do you want? What habits are holding you back from getting there?
As with all change, baby steps that are achievable, measurable, and realistic are key. Can you commit to taking a brainstorm walk once a week? How about going to bed 30 minutes earlier? Or meal plan once a week?
Being free to be our best creative selves starts with self-care. Self-care is not selfish. It is essential.
There is freedom in understanding what it is we want for ourselves. Now’s the time to take the steps away from unhelpful habits and move toward affirming rituals that lead us further down the path we’ve chosen.
…or rather, the anxiety that upheaval can cause.
And, as I’m sure you well know, anxiety is a huge drag on creativity. 2020 was a huge upheaval year. 2021 continues to be a huge upheaval year. Throw in any personal or family changes and, well…anxiety is a fairly common emotion that’s been floating around.
Our brains are wired to avoid change. Why? Change means we’re introducing something unknown into our safe zone, triggering our brains to think we’re no longer safe.
When we begin to understand the scientific why of our reactions to change or new information, we gain the ability to better handle the anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with upheaval. Knowing that anxiety is normal when something new is introduced into our life makes it easier to breathe through it, to know that this too will pass.
It is okay if your creativity suffers during a time of upheaval. It is normal.
So break free from the guilt surrounding not being able to be your most creative self during a time of upheaval. Let it go, give yourself grace, and I bet you’ll quickly find yourself feeling free.
I wish I had a magic button or a code word that could open a heart and mind to accepting freedom without hesitation or restraint. But I don’t.
What I do have is persistence and faith. Persistence to keep trying, to keep doing a little better each day in letting go of expectations, accepting change, and breathing through anxiety. Faith that despite the uncertainty of the immediate future, I will choose to do what’s best for me, my creativity, and my family and friends.
Easier said than done, I know. So here are some practical tips on how to move into a new season with acceptance, grace, and hopefully, some creative productivity.
Find a quiet time in the mornings to meditate, pray, or journal about your creative vision for this new season. Even five minutes will allow you a more centered start to your day.
Reach out, talk to a friend. Connection with our trusted circle of loved ones is healing, and allows for us to navigate change with a cheer squad in the background.
Accept that your creative work is important and necessary.
Finding the right motivation for writers can be hard, especially when every blank page feels like an accusation. Whether this is your first creative project or if you’ve had years of practice, procrastination and writer’s block will rear their ugly heads when you most need to be productive, while words of encouragement may grow scarce.
You know the feeling. You’ll do anything to distract yourself from the gnawing discomfort of what you should be doing. Suddenly, it seems like the perfect time to take a coffee break, make a shopping list, or clean out your linen closet, and maybe even master the art of how to fold a fitted sheet.
How can you hit your word count when the gears just aren’t clicking? How can you finally write that great American novel, or at least create enough of an income stream to quit your obligatory day job? The good news is you can self-motivate, even when it feels like you’ll never reach that next breakthrough — here’s how.
Why You Struggle to Write
You’ve always loved writing, so why is it so hard to put the words on the page sometimes? Writer’s block often boils down to three key things:
1. You lack a clear objective. “I want to start a blog,” isn’t going to cut the mustard. You need a general topic and a memorable domain name. You’ll also need to generate ideas for content, but this part is super easy. A host of online tools exist to help you. If you’re writing a book, what chapter are you working on? Pro tip: outlining clarifies your objective for each day’s work.
2. You’re distracted. Even if you have the best ideas to work on and you’re ready to go, distractions are time thieves. When you can’t think of what to say next, and your phone is sitting next to you, why not check that Facebook notification? But the next thing you know, you’ve scrolled away 30 minutes of production time. Lock your phone in a drawer, shut your office door, turn off the television — whatever you need to do to eliminate those distractions!
3. The payoff takes time. Writing is a work of the heart, but other than a personal feeling of satisfaction, you might not receive an immediate reward for hitting your word count. This hits you especially hard when you haven’t received a dime for your work yet. After all, you still need to eat and pay the rent, which means you might already be tired from your day job when you sit down to scribble. Though the competition remains fierce, you have to put the work in well before you see any payoff and turn your writing dreams into reality.
Tips for Staying Motivated
What can you do when the words won’t flow? Give these tips a try to supercharge your motivation and make meaningful progress toward your writing goals.
Set a schedule. This tip works particularly well if you’re in the beginning stages of your writing career, and you haven’t yet quit your day job. However, it’s imperative even for full-time writers. Set aside a specific time each day to write, then stick to it. For example, if you dream of writing a novel, pencil in 30 minutes three days per week to work on your book. Honor that obligation, even if you end up staring at the screen for a half-hour doing nothing. Eventually, boredom will drive you to type at least a few words.
Establish SMART goals. Sometimes, you overwhelm yourself with lofty goals like, “I’ll finish a novel in a month.” You can set SMART goals by establishing a reachable daily word count. There’s no magic number. If you’re working full-time, writing 250 words, or one page, per day, might not seem like much. But at the end of a year, you’ve completed a book!
Create a sacred space. If you’re currently writing at the kitchen table while the kids do their homework or your dog begs for treats, it’s no wonder you’re distracted. Even if you don’t have the room for a separate home office, create a special corner where you can don earbuds and shut out the world for a while each day.
But switch it up sometimes. Hey, the great part about the writing life is you can do it anytime, from anywhere. Feel free to head outside for inspiration on a sunny day. Just be sure to protect your equipment and your eyes from the sun’s glare.
Eliminate distractions. If you have to keep your cellphone with you — for instance, if you’re on call — turn off distracting notifications from all other apps. If you need to work in a common area in your home or in public, don noise-canceling headphones. Tell family members or roommates that when the earbuds are in, you’re off-limits (unless the house is burning down).
Ask questions. When you’re stuck on what to say, think about your audience. What would they want to know more about? Why does a particular character act the way they do? What motivates them?
Ask for help. Writers are typically solitary beasts, but when you get stuck, other people can help dissolve the glue. If you’re writing nonfiction, research what the competition has said on the topic. If you’re working on fiction, have a loved one help you brainstorm — sometimes, the silliest ideas turn out to be the best ones. How else do you explain the success of Sharknado?
Join groups. You might dig your solitude, but writing groups offer a world of ideas you can borrow. Plus, you don’t have to interact in real time. You can converse via discussion threads.
Make it a competition. If you have a friend who also writes, design a contest to see who can hit their word count first. Riding solo in the game? Set a timer and see if you can beat it!
Plan some rewards. This tip is super important if you’re not getting paid for your work yet. Reward yourself for each success, no matter how small. Did you write the page per day you promised? Relax with a bubble bath or treat yourself to that outfit you’ve been eyeing up. Recognizing your own successes, no matter how small, keeps you motivated for more.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Finally, remember that you’re a writer. Sit down and describe what your dream will look like when you achieve it. Do you want to write the next Agatha Christie-esque thriller? Do you want to make readers laugh and relate to your work? Do you want to capture some elusive truth in a coming-of-age tale that will top the best sellers lists? Pen out your goals in detail, and read them again whenever you feel the urge to procrastinate. It’s good to stop and remember why you’re working.
It’s possible to achieve your writing dreams. After all, if others have made it, you can too. When you’re feeling less than motivated, make these tips a priority and stay persistent. If you push yourself towards your word count and your goals, you’ll see your work come together, piece by piece, until one day, you’ve done it.
Everybody loves their heroes, some people even love their villains. But it’s a rare author that actively loves and spends equal time on their side characters. Sure, some of them are fun to write, but they’re not who the story is about, which is why so many of them are simply slapped on and ill-thought out. Today, I’m going to help you combat that by giving you three mistakes to avoid when creating your side characters.
Mistake 1 — Weighing Side Characters Incorrectly
Not all side characters are created equal. While some craft teachers talk about archetypes, I prefer to look at side characters in terms of their effect and influence on the story.
Here are the three main types of side characters:
Cameos are brief and fleeting, usually nameless or with a generic label “guard, receptionist, girl with the teddy”. They leave no mark on the story and are forgettable. Think the woman in the red dress in the Matrix, or Marvel comic writer Stan Lee’s appearances in the Marvel films.
Minor characters are still fleeting, they still don’t leave much of a mark on the story save for transactional exchanges like a barman or a shop owner. Think Mr. Filch in Harry Potter.
Major characters are usually scarce, only a handful of them in most stories. They have their own subplots and character arcs, they should represent the book’s theme too. Think Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter.
Too often, writers try to give minor characters character arcs, or they don’t give enough attention to a character that’s supposed to have an arc or subplot. Understanding the different types of side characters should enable you to give the right amount of page time and depth to each character.
Mistake 2 — Thinking You Need Comprehensive Character Arcs
Character arcs are easy for protagonists, you get the entire book to explore it. But side characters don’t get as much page time as protagonists. So how do you show the depth of arc you need without the side character taking over?
Well, you can’t. At least, not exactly anyway.
What you can do is create the illusion of an arc.
You’ll need to show the “what” of what they want (and the fact they don’t have it) at the start of the story. For example, early on in the Harry Potter series, we see Hermione wanting to be academically brilliant and pass all her exams. After that, you need to show a struggle to achieve the goal somewhere in the middle of your story. And, if we’re talking Harry Potter, then Hermione gets her own subplot devoted to this where she uses the Time-Turner to take more lessons than is scientifically possible. Near the end of your book, you’ll have to show the resolution i.e., Hermione passes all her exams and does well, or by the end of the series she realizes it’s not really as important as she once thought.
The beauty of a side character arc is that you can flex it up and down. Want to show a little more depth? Add another scene or two with the character grappling to change. Need to cut down your word count? Then reduce the number of scenes focusing on side character arcs.
The trick to making a side character arc work well is to connect it to the protagonist and, if possible, the theme. In Hermione’s case, her academic brilliance both impedes her friendships with Ron and Harry but also helps them at various points when she has useful bits of information about spells or wizardry.
Mistake 3 — Not Having a Reason for Existing Outside the Protagonist
To create more depth in your side characters and to make them seem realistic, use the three “whys” method.
Each side character should have:
· A protagonist why
· A life why
· A scene why
The Protagonist Why
Even though you want your side characters to look like they’re full and comprehensive, ultimately, in story terms, they exist to either help or hinder your protagonist. That’s their “protagonist why”. Are they in the story to make the protagonist stop and think? To help them reflect? To protect them? Teach them? Or perhaps put obstacles and barriers in their way? You need to know what their “protagonist why” is.
The Life Why
Protagonist aside, to help create the illusion of depth, your major side characters should have something they want outside the protagonist. Do they need to come out to their family? Are they trying to get a big important job? Maybe they want to win an award. Whatever their own “life why,” if you can make it serve the story by reflecting the theme or perhaps allowing the side character’s goal to interfere with the protagonist’s all the better. For example, in the above Harry Potter example, Hermione’s “life why” is to do well academically. It interferes with her friendships in both positive and negative ways.
Have you ever read a scene where half a dozen characters enter, two or three of them have a conversation, and then all six leave again? I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read where that happens. When you have a group of characters in a scene, each character must do one or all of the following:
Cause a problem
Or fix a problem
I’m sure there are other things a character could do in a scene, but the point is, they must be doing something. If they’re not engaged in dialogue, tension creation, tension easing, or action of some kind, then they’re surplus to requirements and need to be removed. Too many instances of “surplus to requirements” and you have to question whether you need the character at all.
f you can avoid these three mistakes you will craft stronger characters. Knowing the importance of a cameo versus a major character will help you manage your cast more effectively, focusing on those characters that need the attention for the sake of your story. Remember, with side characters, it’s only the illusion of an arc you’re creating, not a comprehensive one like a protagonist. Last, try to ensure each major side character has three “whys”. Do those things and you’ll avoid the most commonly occurring mistakes with side characters and build better stories.