Writing Tip of the Week: Get to Know Your Narrator

There’s more to a narrator than just deciding whether you’re going to write from the first- or third-person (let’s be real, how often do you see second-person out there?). Knowing your narrator can change the entire feel of your work, from a narrator who’s very present and has personality to a narrator who tries to remain invisible. It’s not very often that a novel is strictly one or the other, they usually fluctuate. It is these fluctuations that I want to talk about today.

There are levels of visibility of a narrator, which I won’t go into today, as knowing them won’t necessarily make you a “good” writer. But, the awareness of them is incredibly important and could make you a better writer.

Your narrator is who your readers see your story through. Yes, you may have your main character speak in the first-person, but there is still a narrator describing the events taking place. This narrator can be omniscient or limited. This narrator can have a sense of humor or strictly dole out information. This narrator can speak for your character or simply repeat what was said.

Like I said, there’s a lot to it.

I’ve put together 3 simple questions for you to ask yourself of your narrator. Take some time to think these over as you write. See where you may have done some of these naturally and what needs improvement.

Questions to Ask About Your Narrator

  1. How transparent is my narrator? The more your narrator talks about your character and their circumstances rather than through them, the more visible the narrator will be. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s simple a style and what you want your reader to experience. For example, telling me about Cindy’s hair and how it curls and frizzes in the Seattle rain makes me very aware of the narrator. However, showing me how Suzy nervously pats down her hair as she leaves her Seattle apartment, does not.
  2. Will your narrator be first- or third-person? I’m not even going to touch on second-person here. This question is obvious in itself, because whatever you decide, you should stick with. Jumping between the two will give your readers whiplash and shows inconsistency. Not to mention it shows a lack of editing on your part.
  3. Will your narrator be like an additional character or will they be a floating voice? There are so many options with this. Your narrator does not have to be in the body of the protagonist/antagonist. Your narrator could be watching from the outside. It’s a complicated topic, which is discussed more thoroughly in Creative Writing and Stylistics by Jeremy Scott, which I definitely recommend you read (granted it’s very dense, so take it slow). Regardless, you need to decide who your narrator is and what they are like. Some narrators have a personality, some are straightforward. The ones with a personality almost operate as an additional character. For example, a book about a group of popular girls told from the view of an outsider. The outsider may not be a character in the story, but they are definitely not a popular girl and the story isn’t necessarily coming from within the clique. This is a difficult one to digest, and works better in practice.

Working through some of these might be difficult at first, but so is writing, so you probably should have picked a different career if you didn’t want to be challenged. What you need to remember is that although you may feel like your sloshing through your work right now, things will become clearer the more you try to understand the entities within your story. Yes, your plot is important, but if you don’t get your characters or narrator, the plot will be a muddled mess.

[Follow me on Twitter at @tclem91]

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Writing Tip of the Week: Play the ‘Hot Seat’ Game

Lately I’m all about the characters. Making them relatable, round, interesting, the works. Last week I posted a link to the Proust Questionnaire (which if you haven’t done it yet, I suggest you take a look now), but this week I have a little game for you to try. It’s called the ‘Hot Seat’ game and it’s an exercise used by many actors to get into the minds of the characters they are going to portray.
It’s fairly easy, but you may need a friend to help you out as your interviewer. As your character, answer a list of questions as you feel they would. This can be like an actual job interview or simple questions like in the Proust Questionnaire. It’s really up to you and what you need/want to get out of it.
The trick is to really make sure you’re answering like your character would. If you aren’t sure what they would say, pass on the question for now. Don’t answer until you can answer honestly. You should be able to answer faster and more accurately the more you know your character. Try to speak as they would, too. Are they excitable? Disinterested? Snobby? Those traits will change how they talk in addition to what they say. Have a friend ask you the questions and take an honest score of yourself when you’re through.

Here are a couple questions to get you started:

1) What do you do for a living? Do you enjoy it? What would make it better?
2) What do you hope to accomplish in your life?
3) What do you want people to say about you when you die? Who would you want to speak at your funeral?
4) What is your goal at work? In life? What do you desire most above everything else at this very moment in time?
5) What do you like to eat? Would you rather go out or stay in?
6) Are you a morning or night person? Do you sleep well?
7) What is your daily routine? Do you like consistency or spontaneity?
8) Are you an introvert or extrovert? Do you wish it was the other way around?
9) What did you want to be as a child? How close are you to that? Do you still want that or something totally different?
10) Do you like children? Do you like old people? Which would you rather work with if you had to choose (think teacher vs. nursing home)?
That should get you started for now, but feel free to add, delete, or change any questions. Have your friend ask you some curveball questions, too. When you’re done, see if they find your character interesting or kind of flat. After all, they’ll be the one reading your published book one day.
[Follow me at @tclem91 on Twitter.]

Weekend Inspiration: Learning from the Greats

I’m currently writing an analysis of Matilda by Roald Dahl and Coraline by Neil Gaiman for one of my graduate classes. Looking up information on Dahl got me to thinking. I so often take inspiration and seek out the opinions of my favorite current writers that I tend to forget to look to my favorite classic writers. Writers like Bradbury, Lowry, C.S. Lewis, and Dahl shaped my childhood and now shape my adulthood. How can I have forgotten to include them in my research on writing?

So today, I encourage you to find quotes and interviews and articles on writing from your favorite classic writers. Soak them in this weekend and see how you can use the words from the greats to influence your writing today. I mean, obviously they knew what they were doing…

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Here’s the link to the website I found on Roald Dahl. Listen to the answers he gives for each interview question. So simple and yet so graceful. We could all learn from people like him.

http://www.roalddahl.com/create-and-learn/write/roald-dahl-on-writing

Pre-NaNoWriMo Worksheet

If you Google NaNoWriMo, you’re bound to get 500+ blog posts and websites gearing you up for November 1st. But let’s be real, everyone’s advice starts to sound the same after the third or fourth post you read. It can feel overwhelming. But don’t give up before you even start! Below I’ve put together a list of questions to answer going into this year’s NaNoWriMo. This is NOT to help you plan out your writing. This is to help you determine your goals and what YOU want to accomplish in the month of November.

NaNoWriMo Goal Worksheet

  1. What do I hope to accomplish during NaNoWriMo? How do I want to feel about myself and the work I have finished by the end of the month? What have I failed to accomplish in previous writing events like this?
  2. Roughly outline your goals that you’d like to achieve (you’ll finalize them in a few questions).
  3. What are three specific things I can do to achieve those goals? (Ex: I will set aside 1 hour of uninterrupted writing time every night.) What are three specific things I can avoid in November to achieve those goals? (Ex: I will not watch 2 hours of television every night.)
  4. What is my writing personality? Do I write quickly or slowly? Do I pre-plan or wing it?
  5. How can I make my goals more specific based on what I KNOW about my personal writing style? How can I make them more realistic? Rewrite your goals to be specific, including what date you want to accomplish it by and the steps you will take each day to get there.
  6. Who can I contact when I need a pick me up? Can I find an accountability partner to make sure I meet my goals and I’ll do the same for them?
  7. How can I plan out other areas of my life so I can optimize my writing time? (Ex: pre-packing lunches, easy dinners, ask my significant other/roommate to watch Law & Order in another room so I’m not tempted)

I hope this simple guide helps give you a better approach going into NaNoWriMo than just running at it full force. Sometimes we get so excited, we miss the “slippery when wet” sign, and our eagerness spirals us out of control. Don’t let that happen to you!

Did this worksheet help you? Comment below your thoughts and answers.

[Follow me on Twitter at @tclem91.]

Writing Tip of the Week: The Proust Questionnaire

If you haven’t heard of the Proust Questionnaire, check out this link first: http://www.openculture.com/2014/06/the-manuscript-of-the-proust-questionnaire.html

Okay, so now that you know how awesome it is, here’s what we’re going to do: for the main characters of your current work in progress, fill out the questionnaire, answering as them. Get into their brain, feel around in their mind, and see what you find. Maybe your character is a little more into superheroes than you originally thought (mine was). Maybe your character has deeper feelings about a particular issue than you realized.

To make the reader believe your character, you need to believe your character. You need to treat them as a real living, breathing person. One with hopes and dreams and a history and a future. Give them that. Make them pop. The why speaks for itself.

The more dynamic your characters are, the more your readers will enjoy the story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve crafted the best plot in the world, if you don’t have dynamic characters to fulfill it, no one will want to read it. I read a book recently that had a great storyline, but the most annoying characters. It completely ruined the story for me, and now I won’t recommend it to anyone else, which is practically the driving force of book sales (word of mouth).

So do yourself a favor and spend some time with your characters. Take the Proust Questionnaire and see what happens.

[Follow me on Twitter at @tclem91 because.]

So avoid that

Weekend Inspiration: Go Somewhere New

I know there are quite a few of you who only write in one place and refuse to budge from it. That’s totally fine, and I commend your stubbornness. However, if that particular spot is all you see of the world, your writing may suffer.

One of the biggest pieces of advice for writers is to write what you know. Well, how can you know much of anything if you don’t allow yourself to experience something new.

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So this weekend, take your paper and pen (who am I kidding, just grab your iPad), and find a new spot. Even if it’s just sitting at Starbucks and people watching (something I had a little too much fun doing yesterday). Go to the beach. Sit outside under a tree. Take a walk in a different direction from where you normally go. You don’t need to spend any money to go somewhere new.

You also don’t need to write when you’re there. If you do, awesome! If not, that’s fine. Soak in the experience. Watch those around you and see what they do. Are they interacting with each other? With nature? Are they withdrawn? What about nature itself? What is it like? Raining? Snowing? Sunning?

The goal of this exercise is to shake up your perspective. Things can start to look hopeless or difficult if you look at them from the same angle. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Experience life, don’t just write about it.

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[For more quotes and silly thoughts, follow me at @tclem91 on Twitter!]

People Profile: Starbucks

I’ve deemed Thursday to be my random post of the week, and today as I sit in Starbucks, I can’t help but notice a trend. A people trend, as it were.

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So as I sit in Starbucks, this is what I see:

The Young Hipster: this is a given. Find a Starbucks, find a hipster. Unless there is an underground coffee shop nearby that charges even more for vintage, vegan, cage-free, trade-free, gluten-free, GMO-free, all-natural, fairy dust sprinkled coffee as black as their soul, you’ll find them here. On their Macs.

HipstersDrinkingCoffeeOutside-850x400As you can see, these Young Hipsters found their refreshments elsewhere.

The Old Hipster: this is in fact, a thing. The Old Hipster is a classier version of the Young Hipster, often wearing vintage suits and using leather briefcases. They could have once been successful businessmen, who found a calling in sipping coffee and sitting in plush seats, reading classic authors. You many find them in the armchair section (every Starbucks has one) reading Ray Bradbury or Ernest Hemingway, depending on their mood.

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The Tutorer: this is a tricky one. They can be young or old or somewhere in the middle. They can be wearing literally anything. There are two I can see at this given moment. Both older women, one in a crochet white sweater she probably made herself (which you can probably find at Urban Outfitters for $500), the other in a general satin shirt, which I bet she bought at Kohls. They can also be tutoring for anything, math, language, english. Starbucks has no rules. Starbucks doesn’t judge your faults.

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You can see here how young they start them out. Cup of milk one day, cappuccino the next.

The Quiet Ones: I probably fall into this category. Talk to me at Starbucks and I will rip your head off. This is my quiet place. My happy place. I don’t wear headphones because they hurt my oddly shaped ears, but this is usually a trademark of theirs. Right now I’m two for two on Quiet Ones with headphones, not counting myself.

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These are my people.

The Study Groups: You have no place here. Get your coffee and go to the library. We don’t need you rearranging the entire shop because you need more seats. Usually filled with Basic girls (who I can’t even bear to give them their own category. They have RUINED PSL for me.) and/or med students.

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Four or less is acceptable as long as they don’t ask for my empty chair.

The Chatterers: Hands down the worst, next to the Study Groups. If I’m forced to sit near you for lack of seats, that does NOT mean I welcome idle conversation. I came here for a purpose, and that was to get crap done. If you are talking to me about the weather and what you do for a living, my crap is not getting done. My polite smile was not an invitation for you to tell me your life story. There’s a place for people like you, and it’s called therapy.

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One of these people is not like the other, because this person decided to drop in and chat with a perfectly happy group of friends. (Coincidentally, they are okay because they are four or less.)

This is in no way a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t even touch on the people who actually work here, who would need a post all their own.

Who else have you seen at Starbucks? Comment below! This could be fun.