Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

4 Steps to Writing Organically, Part II – Viewpoints, Mimicry and Imagination

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Lonely road

“[Creativity is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~E.L. Doctorow

Think of writing like sailing a massive ship. There are an enormous number of mechanical actions that synergistically combine to keep the ship plowing forward through the waves. It behooves you, as the captain of the vessel, to have an understanding of all of those mechanical workings. Yet if a ship’s captain spent all of his time below decks listening to the engine turbines for knocks, or examining the bilge pumps, or adjusting the steam gauges, he wouldn’t be where he is most needed—on the bridge, guiding the ship.

You need to be on the bridge of your story, standing at its helm, charting its course, guiding its objective, and keeping the story plowing forward. When you leave the bridge to spend your time developing characters that may or may not need to exist, or trying to chart the story’s course far in advance of your current position—without any reference points or knowledge of weather and currents—you’re no longer manning the helm of your story. You’re down below buried among the mechanical operations of the boat, and you have no real view towards your objective.

Organic writing produces storylines and characters that feel alive and real. Mechanical writing can feel formulaic, and characters created through formulas often feel like cardboard cutouts, stiff and unrealistic.

Last week I talked about two ways to help you write organically. Point #1 covered using milestones. Point #2 talked about the importance of capturing scenes as you think of them, but not writing the scene until you’ve reached its place in the story.

This week I’m covering the last two of the four ideas to help you write organically (plus a bonus idea):

3. Assume viewpoints.

Some writers struggle to invent characters who feel vibrant and unique. They turn to lists of traits and descriptions to help them fill in those character details. This is like the captain leaving the helm of the ship to fiddle with the engine’s mechanics.

Character creation is easy or difficult in direction relation to how well you are able to assume a viewpoint.

Assuming a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as seeing someone else’s point of view. Doubtless you’ve been in a discussion with someone where you were able to “see their viewpoint,” but in such instances, we’re still sitting in our own shoes, behind the window of our own view, looking across the road and through the other’s window from the outside in.

Assuming a viewpoint means being that person or character. Actors do this all the time. The really talented actors seem to become their character; you can’t see where the character ends and the actor begins. It’s a seamless transition.

Like anything else, truly assuming a viewpoint takes practice. It means standing in that person’s (or character’s) shoes and taking a good look around at how the world looks from their perspective—based on their education, their experience, their upbringing. If you don’t know these things for a character when you step into their shoes, you invent them then and there in order to frame their perspective. Assuming a viewpoint means imagining what the character would be feeling in each moment, and speaking and acting from those feelings. You have to understand why characters think the way they do in order to express their feelings realistically to the reader.

Until you put a character in a situation where they have to react and respond, you really can’t know much about them—no more than you know about the guy standing in line next to you waiting for his coffee. Even when you invent a character to fill a need (such as the pirate in my first week’s post on avoiding clichés and writing organically) you still can’t know much about him until you start thinking and acting from his point of view.

I’ve found that the characters I end up keeping the most notes on (in relation to their motivations or plans) are the ones I’ve spent the least time with as viewpoint characters. It’s rare that I need to record the motivations of my main characters. I know them too well; I understand them completely. I trust that when I’m writing in their viewpoint, I’ll decide in that moment what to do—and I’ll be capable of being true to their views.

If you invent and write your characters as the story calls for them, and if you let their personalities develop as the story develops, the characters will not only feel alive to the reader, they’ll also feel alive to you. They’ll take on their own personalities, and oftentimes they’ll surprise you with the choices they make and the things they say and do.

There is a great and wondrous magic that is created in this organic process. Don’t miss your chance to experience it by staying below decks messing with the mechanics.

4. Observe and mimic.

To become a good writer, it’s necessary to be a keen observer—not merely of the environment but also of the interrelationships of human beings.

Part of gaining success in conveying a character’s viewpoint is an understanding of human nature. The better you understand your character’s motivations and how his experience influences his ideas, the better you can show his rationale to the reader.

We gain an understanding of human nature through reading great works of fiction (both old and new), through a study of history and the humanities, and through our own experience and observation.

We can learn much from history, but there is no substitute for going out into the world and seeing what you see. Susha Guppy said, “It is very important not to become hard. The artist must always have one skin too few in comparison with other people, so you feel the slightest wind.”

Let life inspire you. The more you open your eyes and observe the world, the more inspiration you’ll find in it.

As part of mindfully observing life, make a practice of looking at both sides of an argument and really trying—not to “see” another’s point of view, but to truly assume their point of view. You’ll find over time that there is quite a difference in these two perspectives. Then take your observations and apply them to your characters and story.

Life mimics art, but art well done mimics life.

5. Cultivate your imagination.

“Great imaginations are apt to work from hints and suggestions, and a single moment of emotion is sometimes sufficient to create a masterpiece.” ~Margaret Sackville

Imagination is what connects us to divinity. It’s the thread linking creativity and the muse, the true source of inspiration.

If you’re one of the ones who struggles to imagine new things, cultivate this skill. Turn every cloud into an animal. Think of ways that what is, isn’t. Practice thinking up stories based on vignettes of observation. Let a sound or a brief comment spur a story idea. Watch the world and think of ways to describe it to others. Find whimsy in the mundane.

Some of us leave childhood with our imaginations unfettered. Others find that we’ve left imagination somewhere far behind us like a treasured toy, once loved and then abandoned. We may feel a deep desire to create, yet for all of this desire, we cannot seem to find that creative spark.

Imagination can become buried beneath layers of loss and experience, criticism, or too many “it’s time to get serious about your life” lessons–especially from those who’ve closed a door on their own spirit of play. Unburden yourself of the “now we must do’s” and “work is hard” attitudes, and you’ll find the buds of imagination making their way back to the surface.

When a man loses his imagination, when he loses the ability to wave a magic wand and make his world beautiful, he’s lost everything that’s truly important in this life.

Unburden your imagination, and the rest will follow.

* * *

Did you find any of these ideas helpful or similar to your own creative style? Do you have a completely different way of writing? Share your thoughts below.

How Not to Write Yourself into a Corner (in Your Novel and in Life)

Monday, July 28th, 2014

There’s something known as writing yourself into a corner. This phrase might be used to describe any number of authorial ailments, from the scene that mystifyingly “doesn’t work,” to the sinking realization—many chapters in—that your entire plot resolution hinges on something your protagonist can’t possibly know about. While trying to finish my third novel, Paths of Alir, I became mired in one of these situations. It felt like there was no way out and no way through.

The more I thought on the matter, however, the more clearly I began to see the real issue emerging. My problem wasn’t the plot, or the characters, or some other tangle. My problem was that I’d forgotten who was creating the story.

As writers, we make the rules. We decide what will and won’t be in our stories. For genre writers, this encompasses everything from new physical universe laws to the types and names of trees, but the concept applies for other fiction writers equally.

In those moments of prime decision, you the author are the omnipotent god of the universe of your novel. You’re the pinnacle of causation. You make decision after decision about how the world of your novel will function and where its story is destined to go. Maybe you have it outlined, or perhaps you have only a vague idea of its path. But you make decisions that lay the story foundations, and thereafter, you channel your characters through topography formed by these decisions.

In those early moment of creation, you are prime cause, but in the next moment, you go forward into writing the story and become the characters. The instant this happens, you necessarily become the effect of the rules (decisions) you established only moments ago as the omnipotent god. Creative writing really has to work this way. You must assume the characters’ viewpoints in order to tell their story, so you have to take that walk into terra incognita and forget you made the rules.

It’s inherent in that surrender, though, that when you become lost in the tangled threads of story, you forget how you got there. You forget that you’re the one who designed that maze of plot paths. You forget that you can change the maze into new shapes—or eliminate it completely. In fact, you can just make those topographic foundations disappear in the blink of an eye (and the pressing of a delete key). There’s nothing you can’t do in your story world.

Except, apparently, remember in the most important moments that there’s nothing you can’t do.

A writer is limited by what he can envision. Or as you’ll see it written in my series, the phrase is, “a wielder [one who works magic] is limited by what he can envision.” But it works out to the same meaning. We make decisions, and then we limit ourselves by them—most often by forgetting we made them.

This truth is readily apparent in the microcosm of novel writing, but if we take a deeper look, we’ll find decisions we’ve made about ourselves, our goals, our lives—decisions that limit our ability to reach farther and live life larger. Decisions that invalidate our potential and ultimately send us—just like those decisions framing our story—into a corner in our own lives.

So here’s the conclusion I reached after this inspection: we can’t avoid making decisions, but we can get better at remembering we’ve made them. And we can certainly keep a weather eye towards those decisions or self-invalidating statements that limit our potential, our goals, or our reach towards a bigger and brighter future.

We can be the gods of our own universes. We just have to remember, in those dark and cornered moments, who is actually writing the story of our lives.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I would love to hear how you found your way out of your proverbial corners.

My interview on Self-Publishing Review

Friday, July 13th, 2012

I was recently interviewed by Lela Michael for Self-Publishing Review on the use of languages in fantasy.  

Self-Publishing Review

Interview: Fantasy Author Melissa McPhail on the Use of Languages

SELF-PUBLISHING REVIEW: In my SPR review of Cephrael’s Hand, Book One in your series, I labeled it Epic High Fantasy, with Epic referring to a mythology the characters will play out and High referring to a fictional world you create for these characters to live in. I’m generalizing these definitions, of course, but I’m curious, did your characters come to you first, or did their world?

MELISSA McPHAIL: My characters are definitely the driving force of the story, and they’ve anchored it, as much as my interest in it, since the beginning. The world changed around them many times as I reworked the plot and expanded the nature of the conflict, but the core viewpoint characters barely altered from their original personalities. First came the characters, and the world had to evolve until it gained enough detail (and cast enough shadows) to become an adequate field for their stories.

This is simply my instinctive approach. It’s more natural for me to start with a character, a solitary point, and spin out the story linearly from his viewpoint, than to craft the broad world and then go back to fill in the details. The world is only interesting because of the characters’ interaction with it.

SPR: Ah, so let’s talk about this passage:

In the desert tongue, a simple phrase had a plethora of meanings—meanings often derived from the parable in which the phrase was first used, thereby necessitating an understanding of the kingdom’s history as well as the language itself. With the common tongue, in contrast, a plethora of words were used in place of a simple phrase. Thus, though it wasn’t his first language, Trell had come to find the implicit desert tongue far more appealing than its explicit counterpart—as any thoughtful, scholarly mind would, he felt.

In terms of your creative process, then, Trell of the Tides is a philosopher by nature, thus needing a philosophical language to be drawn to?

MM: Yes, you could certainly say that. Trell is a thoughtful, introspective character, and it would follow that he would notice this type of difference between two languages he spoke well.

Trell’s view of the desert tongue comes from his experience in learning it. In order to teach someone to speak the language fluently, it is necessary to tell them the history of the land.

I’m intrigued by the way languages are created. The desert tongue derives from the combined language of nomadic tribes—warriors, not scholars. There are parallels to the Native American languages in terms of customs and ceremonies (as well as superstitions and religious beliefs) incorporated into the language. It is a spoken language more than a written one, and therefore draws upon the stories of its history in defining terms and use.

SPR:  Yes, that’s what I got from this passage:

He knew just from speaking the common tongue that the culture of its peoples was very different. In the desert, as in the language itself, there were nuances—huge disparities, actually—in what was said and what was understood. 

SPR: My impression is that Trell’s thoughts about the two languages mirror his questions of origination and identity that are part of his quest to solve, that he is part of two cultures.

MM: You’re very perceptive to Trell’s state of mind. His conflict with the languages is certainly a harmonic of the struggle he feels over choosing a side. Though he has not yet been forced to do so, he fears—and rightly—that his family’s allegiances lie elsewhere than the Akkad. While inclining toward a philosophical language as a natural extension of his general outlook, were he to examine this viewpoint, even as you have, he would wonder if he leaned toward the Akkadian language—not because it is inherently implicit and therefore kin to his own nature, but rather in an attempt to avoid the fear that his native tongue held painful associations, that it was too closely associated with whatever tragedy (of birth or act) brought him to the palace of the Emir. The very fact of his nobility, though hidden from his knowledge, causes him to constantly question it.

Read the full article.


The Mysterious Character Syndrome: When a fringe character rears his head and demands mainstream attention

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I’m still on this subject of character development. It’s a hot topic among fiction writers—or at least among bloggers, who seem to think it’s a hot topic among fiction writers. In any event, all of the recent posts flying about the blogosphere on the subject have certainly garnered my interest and attention. So I’ve hooked my soapbox up out of the Oregon mud, and here I stand, slightly damp but no less opinionated for it. 

And my platform, ladies and gents, is but a single word: Organic.

I’m a big fan of the word organic.  It’s a nice, versatile word that can be applied to everything from how you grow tomatoes to the way you develop a story…or a character.   

I think character development should be a mutual experience of growth. You create relationships with your characters as you journey through the story, which itself is growing out of your mutual creation—that is, the creation shared between you and your characters.  Look, you can spend hours noting down every mundane detail about some character you’ve consciously set out to create—hair and eye color, even their favorite color—and still be nowhere in terms of knowing that character.  Trying to plan out everything about a character before you begin writing him—before he even says a word—is like attempting to paint the sunrise during the grey light of dawn. Sure, you’ll have something on the canvas when the sun finally comes up, but it might not resemble in the least what you’re witnessing in the sky.

As any seasoned fiction writer will tell you, characters have a tendency to create themselves despite your best efforts. Hell, you can’t even get them to do what you tell them to half the time—and these are the ones you already have “well developed.” You set out to write a scene that’s mostly outlined in your head, and when all is said and done, it comes out nothing like what you envisioned. Yet when this happens, I maintain that’s when you know you’re doing it right. Because in real life, you can’t predict what everyone will say in a conversation—or in any given situation, for that matter. You think you might know, but ultimately, people surprise you. When you find realism occuring while writing your story, you’ll know your characters are becoming real, too. 

One blog I read on character development noted that if you treat your characters like real people, you’ll find that getting them to behave like real people comes much more easily. This is a brilliant statement. Unfortunately, the same author went on to list out a hundred questions to ask yourself in order to create this “person.” I think we’ve missed the forest for the trees, folks.

If you sat down at Moe’s Diner with a real person and said to them, “Hi, I’m [your name here]. Nice to meet you.  Now, I have this list of questions…” and proceeded to rattle off a hundred and one points like an oral exam, the person would ditch you, and the tab, long before Flo came back with your pie. 

Well, so will a character. It’s actually a law (so sayeth I). The more you pursue a character outside of the dialogue arena, the more they’ll elude you. It’s communication that establishes what’s real, you see (and oh, isn’t that a heady topic for another blog post). Nevertheless, my point is you can’t create a “real” character unless you communicate with them.

Yes, you probably ought to know if your character has blue eyes or brown. But you don’t need to know this detail until it’s time to present it in the story to your readers. There’s a difference between character development and plot development. The latter needs to be well thought out (at least if you hope to minimize agonizing rewrites), but the former, in truth, can be as much of an adventure as telling the story itself.

Allow me an illustrative digression:

When I first began writing Cephrael’s Hand (the ancient date of which falling somewhere between the Santa Maria banging its hull against America’s toe and the genus of the internet), I created a character named Björn. In his entourage was an impudent zanthyr named Phaedor. Now, I made up the name zanthyr off the top of my head as I wrote the scene. It sounded cool. I wondered what a zanthyr would be and decided he would have two forms, one human, one animal, and since zanthyr rhymed with panther, I gave him wings because nothing is cooler than a gigantic predatory cat that can fly. 

Now, those of you who’ve read my novel(s) will shriek to know it was originally my intention to kill Phaedor off near the end of that first draft. Please try to contain your horror, for what happened instead is the proof for this post. 

True to form, Phaedor had no intention of being dispensed with like an inconsequential paper bag sticky with the remains of my kids’ PB&J. Though he was a very different character at the beginning of that earliest chapter, by the time I neared conclusion of my first draft, he had become so compelling, so pivotal, that I couldn’t conceive of losing him. And as my readers well know, now I simply couldn’t tell the story without him.

Not to belabor the point, but to be clear, Phaedor was not the product of a character schematic explored and defined with exhaustive detail. He was born into the story by the magic that is creation and grew as he built relationships with other characters, as my own relationship with him grew. I learned about him along with everyone else by observing his interaction in dialogue. Fourteen versions and seventeen years later, I understand him better than my kids.

Listen, you can’t know what lies beyond the next hill when the next hill doesn’t exist until you write it. Lists can be helpful, but they can’t be the end-all, be-all. Let your characters come alive as you write and relish the endless surprises they’ll provide you. That’s when you’ll find the thrill and adventure of storytelling really begins.

What works for you? Have lists been truly helpful or do you have another means of bringing your characters to life?

Exploring Time

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Do you ever feel caught out of time? 

I had a day recently where I felt I’d skipped out of the time stream followed by the rest of the world.  Like the needle on a record player suddenly dislodged backwards, I wound up running eleven minutes behind everyone else.  I felt constantly as if I lagged behind some ephemeral constant, and no matter what extreme measures I took, I couldn’t catch up.  I was eleven minutes late for every appointment, even when I’d finished the last one earlier than expected—even when I had ample “time” to make the next one.  It seemed that I’d been bumped from the main time stream of everyday life into the eddying swirls along the river’s edge, and though I struggled through the sluggish waters, I couldn’t rejoin the main channel.

I wonder sometimes if there really is a time stream we can disconnect from, even if only in short bursts, which somehow gets reset at various times of the day to equalize us all back to the same continuum. Other times I wonder how any of us manage to operate on the same time stream at all, what with the myriad billions of lives splaying hither and yon across each other’s paths, each of us in a sense making our own time with the process of thought itself as we forge our way through life.

There are widely held viewpoints on the concept of time. One idea, posited originally by Sir Isaac Newton and therefore sometimes called Newtonian time, is that time is part of a fundamental cosmic structure, an actual dimension, in which events persist like a film strip spanning the entire line of existence.  Time travel would be supported by this theory, since the individual frames (or moments) would persist as part of the universe’s existential fabric. In this view, time and space have  relationship, and Einstein’s general theory of relativity draws upon this relationship, pinning gravity, space and time into one interconnected structure.

Another philosophical view, espoused by Immanuel Kant, among others, believes that time is part of a fundamental intellectual structure, which humanity uses as a means of comparing events—essentially, a measurement of the rate of change. In this view, time would not be a thing at all—having neither dimension nor place in space—and time travel as we know it (as often posed by SF writers) would be denied by this idea structure.

What I like about this second theory is the idea that each individual might be creating his own time, within the universe of his own mind.  If there is no stream upon which we are all traveling, but rather a number of “times” as vast as there are minds to think and compute, what fodder this provides for a writer’s imagination! If we could all be little black holes, bending space-time within the framework of our individual “universes”… well, it’s an intriguing initial concept from which to explore further extrapolations. 

When writing science fiction, many authors look to the first view, which supports the idea that time might be bent, skipped or otherwise manipulated.  Yet within science fiction, the author is still constricted in his manipulation of time by the existing fundamental concepts supported by our various sciences. 

Fantasy is bound by none of these restrictions. The only laws binding the concept of time within a fantasy world are those laws the author himself has created. This makes time an incredibly appealing concept to play with in a fantasy structure, and I’m surprised that more authors don’t include its manipulation as part of their magic systems. 

Time plays an integral role in my series, though we will only begin to touch upon this truth in book 3.

Which idea of time do you think is true?  Or do you have another that is uniquely your own?

The Lie

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I was reading an article recently by Sherrinda Ketchersid on The Writers Alley Blog, where she introduces the concept of The Lie. Sherrinda wrote:

“Character development hinges on The Lie. You see, your hero needs to overcome something in his life. There needs to be some lie he believes that taints every part of his belief system, every action, and every thought process.”

This article is a great introduction to this important concept, and I agree with its value wholeheartedly. Yet it got me thinking: is it possible to place too much attention on the mechanics of story-building and lose the story in the process?

During a writer’s group workshop, I read a story from a writer who was still fairly new to his craft (new being qualified in my terms by his having written less than 100,000 words). It appeared to me that this writer was attempting to use every word he knew, every grammatical rule he’d ever learned, and pour them all into this 5,000 word piece. It was so chockabock with grammatical clutter you couldn’t see the story for the trees.

There is a magic to good storytelling, and like most artistic forms, practice makes it powerful. I wonder if a writer can truly know his craft without having produced half a million words or more in pursuit of it—much of which will land in the shred bin if they ever even make it off the screen. But the benefit of all of this wasted creation is the experience gained in using the rules of writing until they become second-nature, until the writer no longer thinks about them. Like the Adepts in Cephrael’s Hand, the rules form the patterns with which the writer thinks, laying a framework upon which to build.

In my fantasy novel, Cephrael’s Hand, the young Prince Ean is struggling with The Lie mentioned above. I didn’t build his story arc with this concept in mind, yet I knew a good story needs to have a conflict. Similar to game theory, there must be barriers in your story, and the happiness the reader derives from the story (game) is in overcoming those barriers along with the protagonist, not necessarily in gaining the goal. An intriguing story centers around this element of conflict-resolution (and creating believable, compelling characters certainly helps it along as well). So while The Lie is central to Ean’s tale, I didn’t set out to craft the story around this concept; rather, the story unfolded along its own logical path, wherein its existence was revealed.

When I see new writers placing so much importance on the mechanics of world-building and character development, I worry that they’ll lose sight of what seems to me to be the most vital element of all: conveying a story worth telling.


What’s your take on this idea?  Do you think we can get lost in the mechanics of writing?