Your Story As A Person

All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit.  Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.

You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience.  They expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story that holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.

Problem is, if you keep your nose buried too far into the details, you might be undercutting the overall impact if you lose sight of how all the pieces work together.  We all get drawn deeper and deeper into our stories as we massage every little aspect individually.  That’s why it is a good idea to come up for air once in a while, step back, and see how your story plays as a whole.

One of the best ways to do this is to think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.

Here’s how it might go.  Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.

Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.

While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.

Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.

Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.

Your story is a person.  It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.

When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself.  If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.

Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

This article is drawn from my
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Tricking the Muse: The Creativity “Two-Step”

The concept behind this method of finding inspiration is quite simple, really: It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea.

Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you are working on a particular story and you run into a specific structural problem, you are looking for a creative inspiration in a very narrow area. But creativity isn’t something you can control like a power tool or channel onto a task. Rather, it is random, and applies itself to whatever it wants.

Yet creative inspiration is always running at full tilt within us, coming up with new ideas, thinking new thoughts – just not the thoughts we are looking for. So if we sit and wait for the Muse to shine its light on the exact structural problem we’re stuck on, it might be days before lightning strikes that very spot.

Fortunately, we can trick Creativity into working on our problem by making it think it is being random. As an example, consider this log line for a story: A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.

Step One: Asking Questions

Now if you had the assignment to sit down and turn this into a full-blown, interesting, one-of-a-kind story, you might be a bit stuck for what to do next. So, try this. First ask some questions:

1. How old is the Marshall?

2. How much experience does he have?

3. Is he a good shot?

4. How many men has he killed (if any)

5. How many people are in the gang?

6. Does it have a single leader?

7. Is the gang tight-knit?

8. What are they taking from the town?

9. How long have they been doing this?

You could probably go on and on and easily come up with a hundred questions based on that single log line. It might not seem at first that this will help you expand your story, but look at what’s really happened. You have tricked your Muse into coming up with a detailed list of what needs to be developed! And it didn’t even hurt. In fact, it was actually fun.

Step Two: Answering Questions

But that’s just the first step. Next, take each of these questions and come up with as many different answers as you can think of. Let your Muse run wild through your mind. You’ll probably find you get some ordinary answers and some really outlandish ones, but you’ll absolutely get a load of them!

a) How old is the Marshall?

a. 28

b. 56

c. 86

d. 17

e. 07

f. 35

Some of these potential ages are ridiculous – or are they? Every ordinary story based on such a log line would have the Marshall be 28 or 35. Just another dull story, grinding through the mill.

Step One Revisited

But what if your Marshall was 86 or 7 years old? Let’s switch back to Step One and ask some questions about his age.

For example:

c. 86

1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?

2. Can he still see okay?

3. What physical maladies plague him?

4. Is he married?

5. What kind of gun does he use?

6. Does he have the respect of the town?

And on and on…

Return to Step Two

As you might expect, now we switch back to Step Two again and answer each question as many different ways as you can.

Example:

5. What kind of gun does he use?

a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.

b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.

c) He uses a Gattling gun attached to his walker.

d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.

e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.

f) He uses a whip.

g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.

And on and on again…

Methinks you begin to get the idea. First you ask questions, which trick the Muse into finding fault with your work – an easy thing to do that your Creative Spirit already does on its own – often to your dismay.

Next, you turn the Muse loose to come up with as many answers for each question as you possibly can.

Then, you switch back to question mode and ask as many as you can about each of your answers.

And then you come up with as many answers as possible for those questions.

You can carry this process out for as many generations as you like, but the bulk of story material you develop will grow so quickly, you’ll likely not want to go much further than we went in our example.

Imagine, if you just asked 10 questions about the original log line and responded to each of them with 10 potential answers, you’d have 100 story points to consider.

Then, if you went as far as we just did for each one, you’d ask 10 questions of each answer and end up with 1,000 potential story points. And the final step of 10 answers for each of these would yield 10,000 story points!

Now in the real world, you probably won’t bother answering each question – just those that intrigue you. And, you won’t trouble yourself to ask questions about every answer – just the ones that suggest they have more development to offer and seem to lead in a direction you might like to go with your story.

The key point is that rather than staring at a blank page trying to find that one structural solution that will fill a gap or connect two points, use the Creativity Two-Step to trick your Muse into spewing out the wealth of ideas it naturally wants to provide.

This tip is taken from my StoryWeaver Story Development Software in which the whole first section helps you find inspiration and then grow those creative ideas into your characters, plot, theme, and genre.  Try it risk-free for 90 days!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Finding Inspiration for Writers

Finding Inspiration

We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something. But either way, the one thing we could always use more of is inspiration.

In the work-a-day world, some of us must labor at uninspiring jobs, which dries up our creative juices. Others may be so driven to write a novel or a screenplay, but haven’t yet found a thing to say, sometimes leading to the doldrums we call writer’s block. For all of us, though, life intrudes, making it difficult to find and fan the spark within, Yet even in the worst of it, we all share the immutable desire to express ourselves through the written word.

So how can we break our Muse free from that straight jacket and let the ideas flow? Here are a few suggestions to try.

You might begin by writing about yourself. Even though you want to create fiction, writing a short autobiographical piece is like a warm-up exercise. This works because you don’t have to invent anything, just choose the words. Think of it as priming the pump.
Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.

You can do this exercise on social media and share with friends, or if it is too close to home, you can just keep it to yourself. But in either case, you’ve greased the wheels and the is absolutely the first prerequisite to finding inspiration.

Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be salable as extended anecdotes, essays on personal growth, or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else. No matter, though. It has done its job and now I am ready to work on the story I really want to write.

If writing autobiographical material isn’t your cup of tea, try this: Pick three random words out of thin air. I’ll pick Red, Ground, and Rover as an example. NextI’ll ask myself what those words might mean, if they were all taken together… Red, Ground, Rover. Rover could be a dog. Ground Rover could be hamburger… No, that’s not right… Moving on… Maybe these three words could be about someone roving over red ground – perhaps a Johnny Appleseed kind of guy on Mars. Now we’re cooking Okay, let’s run with that idea.

(Remember, the point here is not to create an actual story but to jog your creative process.)

Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.

If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.

Now if you still aren’t ready to write, you can carry this a little further. Going back to my example, I’m thinking, Mars is red, and the Martian Rover explored the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.

But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.

Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To create an actual example, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. And once they are out there, just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.

More than likely, none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, yet we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are will just as likely be surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

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Trouble Finding Inspiration for Your Novel?

For many authors, the hardest part of writing is the raw invention needed to come up with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, a meaningful theme, and an involving genre.

Often this is because authors tend to focus so hard on what their stories need that they aren’t even considering what THEY need to be inspired.

Here’s a tip: Next time you find yourself feeling particular creative and motivated to write, take note of your surrounding and yourself. Assess the situation and conditions that might be contributing to your proactive mood.

Keep these observations in a log so that you can look for recurring patterns over time or at least common elements, such as the time of day, the location, having had a good night’s sleep, lunch with a friend, after watching a particular genre of movie or listening to a particular style of song.

The first benefit is that you can begin to see ahead of time when these elements are expected to be present and to be prepared to take advantage of a visit from your Muse. The second benefit is that you can arrange your life to bring these elements into conjunction so that you can more easily write-on-demand whenever you choose.

This tip is taken from our StoryWeaver Story Development Software in which the whole first section helps you find inspiration and then grow those creative ideas into your characters, plot, theme, and genre.

Learn more and try it risk-free at Storymind.com

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Smothered in an Avalanche of Ideas

One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.

Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:

I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.

You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.

The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them.  I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.

Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.

I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.

You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.

So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.

But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.

In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.

This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.

That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.

One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.

Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.

So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”

Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Finding Your Story’s Core

Every story has a core – that concept at the center that pulls all of the story elements into a cohesive whole, establishes meaning and message, and provides the story with an overall identity.

There are four fundamental kinds of cores, though each has endless variations.

1. Situation stories that are all about a fixed situation people must grapple with, such as being stuck in an overturned ocean liner, locked in a high-rise building with terrorists, being handcuffed to a murder, being the only member of a group with a particular gender or race, having a physical deformity.

2. Mind stories that are all about fixed mind sets such as exploring or overcoming prejudice, belief in something that defies all evidence to the contrary, an unreasonable fear, a determination to accomplish something even if the reason for doing it has vanished.

3. Activity stories that are all about external efforts such as a trek through the jungle to obtain a lost treasure, the attempt to build the first self-aware artificial intelligence, a race across a continent in the 1800s, the effort to find a cure for a virulent new disease.

4. Psychology stores that are all about the thinking process, such as trying to come to terms with personal loss, grappling with issues of faith, overcoming addiction, growing to become a true leader, or manipulating someone.

Which of these four kinds of cores best describes what you want your story to be about and how you want it to feel?

By picking a core, you will have a central defining vision for your story that will keep it on track during development, and your completed story will come across with a powerful unified impact on your readers or audience.

This “core” concept is at the heart of our Dramatica story structuring software.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Writing Tip of the Day

Lose your Muse?

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Writing Tip of the Day

Trouble finding your author’s voice?

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Writing Tip of the Day

Stalled on your first draft?

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In Search of Your Writer’s Identity

Sweet potatoes are the best.  And they are best described in Ralph Ellison’s story of a black man coming to terms with his identity entitled “Invisible Man,” in which he has always avoided eating his favorite childhood food, hot buttered yams sold by street vendors, so he would not be stereotyped, as he now works in an office in a suit.  At the end of the book he finally accepts his true love of the food, stops by a vendor, puts down his briefcase and eats the wonderful sweet salty treat with abandon, proclaiming in his mind, “I yam what I yam.”

Personally, in 7th grade art class, we were given an assignment to bring in pictures to illustrate how to show distance.  One techniques was loss of detail.  I brought in a picture from Mad Magazine where a little boy had just cut off the tail of a cat with a pair of scissors and labelled it “Loss of De Tail.”  He looked at it for a moment and said, “You want to add this to the other examples in your portfolio?”  Man had no sense of humor.  He lost it by living a life as someone he wasn’t.

In each of the two narratives above, one fictional and one a true story, two different people for completely different reasons had stepped away from who they really were to fashion lives that didn’t reflect them at all.  They felt justified in doing this when it started because they never imagined the path would lead them to where they ended up.

It starts with a single compromise to oneself – doing a job you hate to achieve something you want or putting your own art on hold to pay the bills.  But to maintain that compromise, you need to make another, and another in support of it until you’ve built up a whole network of interconnected dependencies that form the bars of a framework behind which you are self-imprisoned.

You’ve put so much effort into building this thing called “your life” that you can’t bear to let it go – like a cancerous tumor you’ve become really attached to, to the point you won’t let anyone remove it from you for fear of the consequences.

Captain Kirk said, “I need my pain,” when he was offered the chance to become “magically” angst-free in one of the movies.  Our angst is the scar we wear, the badge of honor for all the suffering we endured on the way to the life we have fashioned for ourselves that we never really wanted.  It defines our struggle, so it defines us, or at least who we have become.

But is that who we really “are” much less who we would want to be?  Of course not.  But are we willing to change?  Hell, no!  We’d not only be risking everything and everyone we have, but would then have to face that fact that some of those aren’t the things and people we really desire.  And then there’s the kids, and all those who depend upon us, and our responsibility to future generations….

Shakespeare said,

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

But in this case, it is not the after-life we fear, but life itself.  Can we really face having to acknowledge we’ve spent years of our lives weaving a fabric with a horrible pattern that doesn’t reflect us at all?  And wouldn’t THAT be dandy, to not only have to face such knowledge, but then to crash it all down in order to be ourselves so all we end up with is lost time and nothing at all to show for it?  Gambler’s syndrome – if I spend a little bit more I’ll eventually score big enough to cover all of my loses and still come home a winner.

No, it’s not an easy place to go.  But as artists, we head right for that place like lemmings, subjugating our Muse “until later” or because we need to be “responsible.”  Seriously?  What kinds of lame excuses are these?

Don’t lie to yourself that it will happen someday, because it never will – not on its own.  It will only happen someday if you make it happen.  And there’s no time like the present.  Yeah, sure, okay,  you’re not going to abandon your family and head off to another continent to rediscover your Muse (though some have done just that).  But you probably won’t.  I never have, but then I’m no example of much of anything, ‘cept to myself, of course.

No, you’ll probably want to write the great American (or some other nationality) Novel or Screenplay, and you’ll “grunt and sweat under a weary life.” to try to make that happen while still trying to maintain everything else.  After all, J. K. Rowling did just that, didn’t she?

But honestly, how many J. K. Rowlings are in the world?  One, of course,  So give up the dream of writing what you want and expecting it also to make mega bucks.  Could happen, but you’ll probably have better odds with the Lotto.  Besides, as soon as cold, hard cash enters the picture, your Muse seizes up in a mental charlie horse, all twisted up and contorted into a Gordian knot of creative deadlock.  Oh, yeah. That’s fun.

Listen my friends (I can call you my friends, can’t I?) if you want to be happy in writing, just write whatever you freaking want.  And write it how you want.  And tell it the way you want it told.  And never sell out your Muse for security – oh, no…

Sure, take words-for-pay job on the side but realize it has nothing to do with your creative self.  Be truthful, it’s just for the money.  Differentiate between your worker-bee self and your inventive spirit self, and don’t ever, not now, never, under any circumstances lock the two together or they will both go down into the deep and you along with them, waving to you like Ahab on the whale of reality as your inspiration sinks below the waves leaving no one to tell the tale because the writer in you just drowned in self-pity and was never heard from again (though some mindless husk continues to crank out text under the same name).

You yam what you yam.  Eat it.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

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