Writing

Going beyond Writer’s Block

8550914112_72b040a3ac_qI’ve been thinking a lot about Writer’s Block lately.  It used to be a concept that I wholeheartedly subscribed to.  My novel never got finished because I was “blocked” among other excuses.  That’s the lie of Writer’s block, it tells you can’t complete your project and gives you an easy excuse to wiggle your way out of getting that writing done.

Sure, there are still times I sit and stare at a blank screen, but usually I either don’t do for long, or switch projects.  Here are some ways to help you get past those moments when you are feeling blocked.  Some methods are those I learned from others and some are just tricks I’ve found along my way as a writer.

The muse is fickle.  You shouldn’t be.

If you want to be a professional writer or even if you just want to complete some of your writing projects to have that glorious feeling of finished, you have to stop waiting for the muse.  I’ve written short stories where she shows up and does her job, but I’ve also written them when she hasn’t.  Guess what?  Both were situations yielded decent stories that still needed a little bit of revision before they were polished and ready to go.

The other thing I’ve found, is if you show up and do your work regularly, the muse may do the same.  If you show up occasionally, and you are unreliable, the muse gets unreliable too.  It’s only within the last two years that I’ve treated writing like a job.  I show up.  I do my work.  If she shows up too?  Awesome.  If she doesn’t?  I’m still going to get that writing done so that I can be one step closer to my goals.

Also most writers who do this professionally?  They don’t wait for the muse.  They have deadlines and mortgages.  Even if writing is something you are doing on the side, remember that.  It does take away some of the romanticism that surrounds writing, but trust me, you’ll still find your magical moments.

If you are stuck, switch projects.  

I’ve heard a lot of the comic writers I follow talking about this.  That sometimes when it just isn’t working, they put what they were writing away and work on something else.  I do this a lot.  If you’ve read my post on time management you can see my post-it notes have my tasks for the day.  I keep them in front of me partially so that if I need to switch it up, I know what other things I need to work on for that day.

I also tend to have a list of my writing projects on my wall in front of me, that way if I need something else to work on, I know what I have in progress.

Go for walk.  Run to the grocery store.  Get out of the house/office.

For me, this tends to mean a grocery run.  I either turn music or listen to a podcast while I shop and I put my story in the back of my mind.  My brain is still kind of working on it, but I’m doing other things while it does.  Sometimes an idea strikes me as I shop, other times it doesn’t.  Sometimes I get back to my desk in a different state of mind, more refreshed, less frustrated.  That can be enough to give me the renewed energy I need to keep going.

The most important thing to remember, is this:  Look for ways to keep going, not excuses to stop.  

Some of these suggestions could be abused.  Maybe you just switching projects so you never actually complete any of them.  Maybe you constantly leave your office/house in search of inspiration and never really get that writing done.  It’s all a choice you make.  If you want to get past the lie of Writer’s block, you choose to keep writing, keep working, and keep finishing that work.  If writing is just a fun way to explore the world for you, maybe it’s okay if that work never gets finished.  Either way, keep your goals in mind and I hope that some of these suggestions help you the next time you need to push past a block.
photo credit: Dead End Yield Sign via photopin (license)

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Time management

Time Management: Ways to increase your productivity as a writer

We all know it takes a lot of work to get better at writing, because the only way to truly improve is to keep writing.  I used to not worry so much about time management, but in the last two years as I started working towards a career in writing, it became a bigger focus for me.  Each day I have to direct my own schedule and for the most part, no one is looking over my shoulder making sure I get my work done.

So out of this need for self direction was born a need to productive with my time.

There are lots of ways to do this and I’ll show you some of the strategies that have worked for me, and some that haven’t but might work for you.

Sprinting

This one is probably my most simple tool. I set a time I’m going to work and I work for that time.  Usually it’s 25-35 minutes.  I also have sprinting buddies that I email when I’m ready to go, to see if they want to join in.  At the end of the sprint, we email each other again and report what we got accomplished.  Having a buddy is an awesome way to make yourself accountable…And honestly?  Writing can be a lonely job.  This is the writer’s equivalent of co-workers.

Also, if you’re a little competitive like me and you have friends who are sprinting with you, have them report their word count.  I’m a slow writer so seeing that my friends have twice the word count I do in some of our sprint, spurs me to write more and try to get faster.

The Pomodoro Method

I was originally introduced to this method by my best friend, the queen of time management.  It goes basically like this,

1, You work for 25 minutes and give that work your complete and undivided attention.  I use Chrome as my browser, and you can even get an add-on for it that blocks sites like Facebook and Tumblr while you’re working, so you have less opportunity for distraction.

2. Once your 25 minutes is up, you take a 5 minute break.  Play clash of clans, watch that youtube video your sister sent you, and check facebook.  When the 5 minutes is up, you jump back into your next work session.

3.  Focus on your work for another 25 minutes.  Then take another five minute break.  Once you’ve done this process 4 times (2 hours) take a longer break, usually 15-30 minutes.

I sometimes lose track of time, so you can use the timer on your phone or you can even get a tomato timer from The Pomodoro Technique’s website, you can also find more info about this method there.  I also tend to draw squares with my times on them, so I can keep track of what my work sessions were, like the picture below.

Ways of tracking Pomdoro work sessions
Ways of tracking Pomdoro work sessions

Kanban Tables

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to get myself into using these as much, but I have friends who they work really well for.  This is sort of a watered down version of it, I’ve seen people with much more elaborate tables.  Mine table is pretty basic, To Do, Doing, Done.

Where I fail with this method, is that I forget to move things around.  I will have things that were done, and forget to move them over.  So I think I’m more of a list maker and less of a table user.  Which leads us to our next tool!

kanbantables
My KanBan Table. You can also do them on a white board, I’m just a sticky note fanatic.

Goal Setting and Task Lists

Each week, usually on Sunday night, I make a list of what I want to accomplish for the week, then I break that down into daily tasks for each day of the week.  I generally write it on a google doc and put it on a post-it note that I can physically cross tasks off of, which will both be pictured below.  I also tend to write them in my day planner, and sometimes I put them into HabitRPG, which is awesome for productivity and for fun!

The great thing about goal setting, is it really feeds itself.  Each week you make a list of what you want to get done.  The most important thing to do when you make your list, is to make sure that these goals are getting you closer to what you want.  If I want to be a writer who writes fiction, if my goals are learning the trombone, I’m probably not going to be getting much closer to my dreams.

Also, make your goals things you can accomplish and things that are realistic.  For most people, writing the first draft of their first novel in a week isn’t realistic.  There are a few of us out there that can do it, but they are few and far between.  Make sure they push you a little too, we all need a challenge if we want to get better.

POSTGOALS
My Goal Post-its! I cross out as I go along and let that feeling of awesome accomplishment was over me.
Google Doc list of my goals.  This is usually the list I refer back to is all else fails.
Google Doc list of my goals. This is usually the list I refer back to is all else fails.

So those are some of the ways I keep myself on track as I work toward a career in writing.  How about you?  What methods have you found that help you stay on track?

Writing

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 3

Like I mentioned last week, today’s post is going to be about variance and diversity in your female characters personality.  Hopefully at this point you have more than one female character in your story, which is really the first step.

I know I’ve talked to other writers who sometimes feel like their female characters have to fit a certain box to a good role model or to be strong.  I think we get a lot of female characters that seem both similar and disposable, because they end up hitting the same tropes over and over again.

So today I’m going to walk you through an exercise to help you make your female characters more varied, so they have their own voices.

First, make a list of the female characters in your story.

Just the main characters for the purpose of this exercise, but you could later do the minor characters as well.  List them by first and last name.  Hopefully you’ve breezed past the Bechdel test by now, and you have at least 2 main female characters.  My characters in the example are going to have sort of funny names, but surely you will find better names for your characters.  I’m counting on you.

Example:

Hera Badass

Emily Sweetheart

Katie Timid

Second, make a list of their traits.

This is going to give you an idea if there’s the basic needed diversity between your characters. If they look sort of similar on most of the traits, then you may want to make some character revisions.  If they have some things in common, that’s probably not the end of the world.  I would avoid having all your female characters be timid and submissive or defiant and rebellious, unless you have a really good reason plot wise for that.  Just watch out for too much similarity based on traits.

 My mother, sister and I all grew up in similar places with similar cultural and familial backgrounds.  We do have things in common, for sure, but we aren’t copies of each other when it comes to personality traits.  My mom has a gift for honesty and analysis.  My sister is a joyous ball of endless energy who loves all things girly.  I’m sarcastic, overly caring and very sensitive.  I’m using this as an example to show you that even though we’re all from the same place and same culture, we’re all still very different people.

Example of traits list:

Hera – Strong, Persistent, Determined, Loyal, Brutal, Blunt.

Emily – Compassionate, Caring, Sympathetic, Anxious, Unsure, Talkative.

Katie – Shy, Smart, Capable, Enduring, Thoughtful, Quiet.

Third, make a list of what they want and what they fear.

By listing their wants you’ll get your characters goals and their motivations for those goals.  Most of have basic needs that are similar (See: Malsow’s Hierarchy of needs) so hopefully your character motivations go beyond that, but maybe they don’t.  Maybe the world you’ve built is a wasteland and her goal is to survive, but you may also want to go further than that and figure out what she is living for.  What is her motivation to keep going?  You can also use Malsow’s Hierarchy to think of other goals.  Maybe your character is a scientist and she wants respect from her co-workers, since she’s the only woman in the lab.  Maybe she is looking for romance, a companion, while fighting off space lizards from the plant Zoonan.  Figure out what she wants and why she wants it.

Fears are important too, because they tell us a lot about the character and what they want to avoid.  Maybe that character surviving in the wasteland fears the coming of night, because scavengers come out then and they will try to kill her.  Fears can lead to conflict, and all good writing has conflict.

You can and should go into more depth than the example below.

Example: 

Hera – Goals/Motivation/Fears

Goal: To protect her sister, Katie, at all costs.

Motivation: She loves her sister and Katie has the formula to cure a evil virus that is turning everyone into space lizards.

Fear: Her parents both became space lizards, and Hera fears that she will too, and that she will fail both Katie and the human race.

Check and see where your characters look similar and where they look different.  They may have things in common.  That’s okay.  I have things in common with my mother, my sister, my friends and even women I’ve never met, but it’s rare we have everything in common.  Having things in common is different than being the same.  That is a difference that you as the writer want to be aware of as you try to give each of your own characters a background that individual to them and a voice that is unique to them.

So go forth and analyze your female characters!  And don’t forget, don’t only give them diverse personalities.  The world is filled with people from different backgrounds, places and cultures.  Do your research and broaden your horizons.  It’ll be good for you and good for your writing.

In part 4, I’ll touch on the very murky water of tropes and stereotypes.  It’s likely to be sensitive material, so be aware of that as we go into part 4.

Uncategorized

Weekly Comic Review: Last Days of Black Widow, 19

bw2I’m a little low on time this week, so I’m this might be more of a comic recommendation and less of a review.

This week the only thing I picked up was Last Days of Black Widow by Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto and VC’s Clayton Cowles.  I’ve been following the series since it began, and I’ve really loved the art as well as the portrayal of Natasha balancing both her life as a spy and a superhero.

In issue 19, we’re starting to see the effects of Secret Wars effect her corner of the universe.  This is touched on, but then rest of the story is a flashback into one of Natasha’s missions for the Red Room.

Personally, I love anything that shows us more about Natasha’s past, since it’s often been written about in very different ways and sometimes even conflicting stories.  A lot of the fans chalk this up to the possibility that Natasha doesn’t have her own history straight.  This story does a great job of showing Natasha’s past, without stepping on previously narratives.

Noto again does a great job with the art. I especially liked the contrast between the first panel on page 1 and the first panel on page 2.  On the first page, we have the modern Natasha, ready to face down danger.  Her hair is whipping in the wind, the shot is very dynamic.  She looks at directly at us and says “I can’t save them all.” but she still looks determined to try. On the next page where we start to flash back to the past, the shot is framed similarly, but Natasha is turned away from us.  Her hair seems to be carefully combed under her beret.  Snow falls on Russian in the background.

The first panel seems full of movement and action that is about to happen, but the second panel is still and Natasha is a passive participant.  I thought it was amazing way to visually tell the difference between the two states Natasha is in, in respective parts of her life.

I’m a big fan of spy stories and Black Widow, so this comic series continues to be a favorite of mine.

Writing

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 2

Last time I covered ways to get you started on writing well written female characters.  Today I’d like to give you a few more tips and some exercises to help you look critically at the characters you’ve constructed.

I’ll get right down to it.

1.  Take your female character, and flip her gender, just as an exercise. Do any of her traits or plot points feel horribly out of place? Now, women are not men, but sometimes flipping the gender of a character can bring out some things that are possibly lacking or really wouldn’t work.  Clearly there are some gender differences that are influenced by things like culture, but sometimes this switch can point out cultural biases on what is feminine or masculine behavior, that may not really serve making the character a full fledged person.

The other thing this can do, is point out that you might not have given the female character as much to do, or as interesting a plot/backstory as her male counterparts.  I’ve read a few stories about plays where they had all the genders flipped, so men reading the female parts and women reading the male parts.  The women were thrilled, because they felt like the male parts were so much more interesting and had more to do.  The men by the end of it complained that they were bored and didn’t feel like they had much to do.

If you fail to give the female characters interesting and active things to do, there’s a good chance those characters are not going to connect with your audience, male or female.

2.  Is she just as capable as your main character, but instead of carrying the arc, she’s supporting/training the hero/main character?  So this a theme that keeps popping up in a lot of film and media.  You have a female character, she’s sassy, strong and smart, just as capable as her male counterpart.  He tends to blunder a bit through things, but she’s there to pick up the slack and guide him toward meeting his full potential.

If she’s able to get the job done on her own, please don’t make her babysit a bumbling would-be hero.  She might be your protagonist.  Maybe she needs to be the one taking the lead, and her male counterpart is actually the quippy sidekick.  We see a bit of this in movies like the Lego Movie.  Which I still loved.  I mean Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt?  How could I not love it.

3. Use the Bechdel test.  It amazes me how many times I’ll watch a movie or read story where there are 4-6 males characters and maybe 1-2 female characters. The men speak together a whole bunch about a bunch of different things, but the female characters either don’t speak to each other, or only talk about the men.

That’s the basis of the Bechdel test.  It was originally for film, and here’s what the movie has to have in order to pass.

– 2 female characters, both of them have names.

– At some point the female characters speak to each other.

– The conversation they have can’t be about men.

Please be aware, it’s a rather low bar to set for female characters, but you’d be surprised how many movies/books/stories/comics don’t pass this test.  It doesn’t take much to pass it.

4. Also use the Sexy Lamp test.  So, this test was coined by one of my favorite comics writers, Kelly Sue Deconnick.  I actually got to hear it first at a writing workshop that she taught that I was lucky enough to attend.

It’s even more simple and an even lower bar than the Bechdel test.

If you can replace your female character with a Sexy Lamp, and the story more or less still works, you need another draft.  There’s also a slight variant of this test, which includes if you could put a post-it with information she shares on the Lamp.  So for instance, if she just stands by and then tells the hero “Oh, no, if you don’t stop the magical influx, everyone will die!” and that’s her only contribution to the plot other than standing around looking good…It’s time to go back and fix your story.

Hopefully by looking at these 4 tips, you can see if the female characters in your story is active and independent, as well as relevant to the plot, or if they need some work.  I was supposed to talk about tropes in part 2, but that is likely to be covered in part 4, since a lot of it is touchy material that I want to spend a bit more time with.

Next time, I’m going to discuss how you can make your female characters varied and break out of common character types that women tend to fall into.  Basically Strong female character does not equal well written female character.  Now go forth, and write better!

photo credit: We Can Donut – Chicago via photopin (license)

Weekly Comic Review

Weekly Comic Review: Black Canary #1

I’ll be honest, it’s been awhile since I’ve picked up a DC title.  I followed Wonder Woman after the New 52 reboot, and a few issues that Catwoman was in, but other than that, my DC reading has sadly lacked.  I’m trying to change that, especially with all the awesome things I’ve heard about some of the new DC titles like Gotham Academy, Bombshells and Convergence.  I got to listen to Marguerite Bennett talk a little about Bombshells on the Arc Reaction Podcast (I believe the interview with Marguerite is in the Denver Con 1 episode), and it made me giddy to see it when it comes out.

Black Canary 1 was written by Brenden Fletcher, Annie Wu did the art, and Lee Loughridge was the colorist.

First of all, can I just say I LOVE the art in this issue?  I really enjoyed Annie Wu’s art on Hawkeye, and here it fits perfectly with the tone of the comic.  It’s slightly gritty, but still very sleek.  I like that, because you get the hard edged representation of the Black Canary band, but it still feels very feminine to me at the same time.  Also, the colors in this issue really accented the art.  There are bright pinks, dark purples, and the colors change as the tone of the story changes.  It really helps guide the reader tonally, because the can just look at the page and get a vibe for what is about to happen.

Similar to The Carol Corps, which I reviewed last week, Black Canary is taking a character that we’re familiar with, but she’s in a very different setting.  She does by “D.D.” and the name of the bad is actually Black Canary.  She’s wearing her classic leather jacket and fishnets, but now there’s more of a punk rock vibe to her.

This issue does a great job setting up the story and leaving breadcrumbs for reveals that will most likely happen in the future.  There are mysteries about D.D.’s past and the past of one of her bandmates, Ditto.  There are people coming for Ditto, and over the course of the comic, D.D and her bandmates make a pledge to protect her.

I really enjoyed seeing a character I’m fairly familiar with, in a different space entirely.  I also liked that it’s a band full of women.  It’s a very different sort of team than we’re used to seeing in superhero comics, but it’s a team all the same, and that’s clear by the end of the comic.

D.D. also defends a group of 3 women from danger at one point in the comic, and though we don’t explicitly know what the danger was beyond a group of scary looking guys, it’s a good moment.  We see D.D. jump from the stage, and put herself directly between these women and the danger.  After things settle, they thank her and ask about where she got her boots.  That moment probably stuck out the most to me in the comic, since often when we see people thanking a hero, they are gushing with hero worship.  This felt more like appreciation and connection.

I’ll definitely be picking up future issues of this comic.  I want to know more about D.D.’s past and the past of her bandmates.  All in all, it was a very intriguing read, and the art complimented the story perfectly.

Writing

Well Written Female Characters: A How to Guide, Part 1

Women tend to be vastly underrepresented in many sides of popular media, including video games (a recent study found that only 10-15% of primary and secondary characters were female) and movies (see: Bechdel test).

So to me it’s really no wonder that some writers find it difficult to write women that either don’t fall into familiar tropes or are more than 2D slightly cartoonish representations of women.  From an early age, girls are taught to identify with their boy counterparts, especially if they like stereo-typically “Boy” things.  Boys are more taught to shy away from “girl” things, and sometimes they are even perceived as weak or lesser for liking such things.

None of this is okay, but at the same time, it’s understandable that some writers feel like it’s hard to write female characters and write them well.  I’m a woman, I grew up and live with a female perspective and there are times even I stumble into bad tropes or poor characterization with my female characters.

I could continue to talk about why the problem exists, but I’d rather focus on how to fix the problem.  Here are some beginning steps that should help you write better female characters, and really, better characters over all (A lot of this advice could be extended to writing all sorts of characters that may have different life experiences than you have).  Because after all, women are just people.  Like everyone else.

1. Look at the women in your own life.  Write down some of their character traits.  Analyze why each woman is different and look at the similarities they share as well.  Sometimes taking traits and mannerisms from real people can help make your characters more real as well.

2.  Watch/read/enjoy media written by women about women.  This is not me saying go watch a bunch of chick flicks.  Find stories written by women in genres you enjoy and see what they come up with.  A lot of times people assume that women only write and want to read romance, but there is so much more out there that women enjoy writing about.  Planes, trains and automobiles.  The awesome thing about the day and age we’re living in, is that more and more women are in different genres and different types of publications.  I’m a huge comics fan, and right now the gettin’ is good.  I’ve got a lot of voices from both men and women to read from.

3. Also talk to the women in your life.  Talk about their experiences, ask them about what it was it was like being a teenage girl if you’re writing a novel about a teenage girl.  There are times that my husband and I talk about our youth, and it’s amazing to see how different our perspectives were, and even how different they continue to be.

4.  Remember that strength isn’t just physical.  At 46 my mother lost my father, her husband, to pancreatic cancer.  Prior to that, they had been married for 23 years, during which my father at times struggled with Bipolar disorder.  Many marriages where one person has Biploar end in divorce (Some stats say about 90%).  Now, she’s a little thing that I stand a good 5 inches taller than, I wouldn’t consider her to be stereo-typically strong (at least, not like Jean-Claude Van Damme Strong).  But that woman has endured and supported the people she loved.  I strongly believe that her strength and support is one of the key reasons my father was able to live a happy and productive life, including completing Medical School and two medical residencies.  Strength isn’t just being able to lift something, or fight someone, and I think with a lot of women that emotional strength shows more often than physical.

So, there are some things to get started.  In Part 2, I plan to talk about some common tropes, especially ones that are seen in comics books and other forms of fiction writing.

photo credit: Davis Sewing Machine Co. via photopin (license)