Dream Every Day: Story Cubes

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I used to think that if I ran out of spontaneous story ideas (those that came to mind on their own, and were not sought after in any way), it would be the worst thing in the world. There have been gaps in my writing that came from not being able to go forward on my current work, but not having new ideas that interested me much, and so I simply did nothing for months at a time. Though I love NaNoWriMo, I’ve skipped several years since my first time participating in 2007, because I didn’t know what to write.

I used to think that not having an idea readily available would mean I’d have to sit and stare at a wall, racking my brain for anything that could be a story. It’s not a pleasant concept, which is obviously why I chose to do nothing instead. Most of you, I’m sure, know how ridiculous that is. I regret this attitude, and those lost NaNo chances. In the last few years, I’ve finally come to see that not having a story to write may not be so terrifying. There are all sorts of tools and exercises that we can use to find ideas. Writing prompts, plot generators, and many other things can lead to an idea.

The one I’m looking at today is called Rory’s Story Cubes. It’s a set of dice that is billed as a game–two or more people rolling the dice and using the images that come up to create a story. There are several variations of game play, including one where several people roll the dice, one at a time, in turn, and add to a group story as they go.


These cubes prompted a story about old flames, murder, and the mafia.

story cubes2

This chain of dice turned out to be about awards, thieves, and Greek detectives.

I’ve played with the cubes in groups a few times, and it’s fun to see what we come up with. When we first got the dice, my husband thought they may be useful for me as a writer, though I didn’t think it was likely. I believe one of the first things I said was that I didn’t know if the themes of the dice would really fit into my story world.

I’m still learning how prompts, seeds, and other tools can be beneficial to writing practice. I tend to think that if I’m not generating new ideas for my current project, it’s a waste of time. I have failed to understand that even the most innocuous writing practice can lead you to a new character, plot device, bit of dialog, or even just a feeling you want to explore.

So when I went on my writer’s retreat, I took the cubes and tried out using them alone. The method I chose was simply to mix all the dice together (we have 4 sets), choose one without looking, and roll it. Then I wrote a line or two based on the image. I proceeded to do this until i felt I had reached an adequate ending. That took 21 out of the 30 dice.

I enjoyed writing something completely unrelated to the world I’ve been so immersed in lately. Something with no importance whatsoever. I enjoyed it so much that I feel it would help keep my mind fresh for my writing if I were to do free writing practice more often. Most days, though, I barely have time to do my normal work, let alone finding extra time for that. Maybe when I can devote more of my life to writing (i.e. when my kids are older).


This one involved aliens and their bodily functions.

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Here we have the tale of an elderly beekeeper; it turned into a government conspiracy with DNA-manipulated animals and giant graphite men.

One thing about using the story cubes that I’ve noticed and want to mention is that I have to be willing to let whatever comes from using them be completely ridiculous. Often, the dice will lead in some sort of impossible direction, and the stories end up being supernatural or dream-like in some way. One of these days I should try the method of rolling several dice at once and looking at them together to find a way to piece them together into a story, rather than going one at a time and not knowing what might come next.

Dream for yourself: You don’t have to have a set of story cubes to be able to give them a try. I have included 4 pictures above of chains of the cubes that you could use for your own writing practice. Use the dice in order or mixed up; look at the chains as a whole, or only one die at a time. See what comes to mind. Below, I have shared the picture of the dice I rolled during my writer’s retreat. Feel free to write your own story from any or all of the cubes below, and then share it with me somehow. If you want to read what I came up with, you can find that here. (Note: If you’re thinking about writing your own, don’t read mine yet!) It would be fun to compare what other people come up with.


What are your thoughts on story prompts and other such tools? How do you fit free writing/writing practice into your day?

Write Every Day: Writer’s Retreat

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I haven’t posted a daily progress update in over a week. My family took a 5-day trip to Toronto starting last Thursday, and returning Monday. I have spent the rest of this week recovering, and also purposely avoiding my writing. When we got back, I was tired and unfocused and gave into the laziness.

I think I may have needed a little rest after Camp NaNo, though I know that’s not in the spirit of writing every day at all.  Still, I knew my chance to dive back in would be coming soon.

My in-laws have a trailer set up at a local campground, which they’ve visited now and then throughout the summer. Several weeks ago, while thinking about our family spending a weekend out there, I realized something. That could be a great place for a quiet weekend away from all of the distractions of home. The initial idea wasn’t necessarily for it to be full of writing, rather simply time alone, after a chaotic summer.

School is about to start, and I homeschool my kids. I have a son who is starting 8th grade and a daughter who is about to start a more structured daily routine for kindergarten. And this summer hasn’t really been the most relaxing “time off” any kind of teacher might hope to get. Hence the weekend getaway. My husband is the one who mentioned the idea of making it a writing weekend.

So I am leaving this evening, with food that won’t need much preparation, my laptop, every notebook I think I may need, printouts of two different stories, and no real chance at having internet (the wi-fi is terrible there, I’m told). I am bringing some DVDs to watch for a break now and then and plan to get out and take a walk when I need to stretch my legs. I’ll likely stay up until I’m too tired to think, sleep until (most likely) noises from neighbors wake me up, and keep going.

Come Sunday evening, I may have a very different post to share about the realities of my writer’s retreat, but for now, I have grand plans to get all sorts of work done, and to recharge before school starts up again.

Have any of you out there ever had a sort of writer’s retreat? A day, weekend, or even more away from normal life, during which you focused on writing?

Plan Every Day: Those With Whom We Spend Most of Our Time

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Character creation is an important part of developing a story. It’s one of the key elements of fiction, right up there with plot and setting. A unique character can make a stale plot seem new again. Alternatively, an overused character type can drag down a brilliant plot. So what do we do? We plan. We carefully craft our characters before we start to write. Sometimes, before we even start to outline.

(Obviously not all characters are planned in advance–you’re not always able to plan for everything that may come up as you’re writing. And maybe pantsers don’t have any characters figured out before they start. Is that a thing? I don’t even know. If so, though, at some point, I would think they’d have to slow down and flesh out the characters that came as they wrote.)

For me, character creation can sometimes go hand-in-hand with the outlining. As I’m weaving the plot, the characters are being defined by what the story needs. Sometimes, an idea for a character is sharp in my head before I’ve even figure out what may ever happen to that character.

In my early writing, I wasn’t great at making various characters have their own distinctness. That doesn’t mean there were 5 of the same person, but with different names and genders, wandering around interacting and moving the plot forward. Rather, I seemed to have a general nice, friendly type of character and a general crabby, anti-social type of character. I noticed that a lot of my side characters almost mirrored the main character.

In the time since then, I’ve been more careful to give each character their own sense of being. It has been an important part of my current revision of “Pithea” to flesh out side characters who are actual people in my head, but don’t get a lot of “screen time,” so to speak. Just because they have small parts doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be as much themselves as I can make them in those parts.

There can be a question, though, of how to really craft your character into a real person. Character sheets are an obvious answer, and you can find different forms of those all over the place. I’ve tried that before, but I’ve realized I don’t care for them. For a while, I thought that if I couldn’t answer a question like, “What is your character’s philosophy on death?” it was because my characters weren’t deep enough. Obviously I needed to answer that to have a really good character. But the truth is, no matter how I answered, it felt silly. It felt forced. It just didn’t work for me. (Character sheets or profiles can be a great tool if it works for you. I’d never discourage anyone from doing it. I may even try it again someday. Maybe I just need the right template.)

To get to know my characters, give them their own voice, or discover why they are who they are, my favorite method is just writing. Write a scene unrelated to the plot, centered around the character in question, maybe even from the point-of-view of that character, even if the main story isn’t. Writing prompts can come in handy for something like this, if an idea doesn’t readily present itself. But the general idea is to write out a scene and let that character shine in their uniqueness, and it gives you a better feel for that character.

As I’ve been working on “Pithea” with my sisters, one of them defended a character that was meant to be disliked by other characters and readers alike. My sister said, “He’s tactless, but everything he says makes sense. Why does everyone else always jump on him? They’re all really mean to him.” I was shocked and confused. He was a bully! Rude! Horrible! But as I read through his parts in the story, I realized that she was right. He wasn’t the nicest guy, but the other characters reacted to the man I saw in my head, not the one on the page.

So I spent some time getting to know him. I started with the personality I wanted him to have and asked what in his life could have led him to be that way. Then I wrote out important points about his early life. Over the course of a couple days, I did some writing practice from his perspective. None of this would ever make it into the story, but it was important to me. I shared it with my editing-partner sisters so that they could understand how I saw him. Then I changed some of his parts in the story, based on the deeper understanding I have of him now.

One more thing–while I don’t fill out a pre-made character sheet, I do make sure to write down traits or other important notes about my characters that I realize along the way.

Plan for yourself: Think about any characters you may have that you feel are not very well developed. Or that you feel have confusing motivations. Consider why they are in the story in the first place, and what specific personality or outlook on life their role would require of them. Then go backwards from there and think through why that personality might develop in them. Does he look down on women because he had three older sisters who treated him harshly? Did she become a nurse because when she was younger, she remembered how her sick grandfather’s nurse had brightened his stay in the hospital?

Spend some time getting to know them. Fill out a character sheet if you like and haven’t already, but go further than that. Write more with them than you might plan to for your story. Write as them. How would they describe themselves? How do they see the world? What do they think of the main character? Put them into a conversation with someone else, about something important or just what to have for dinner. How do they talk, react, or move during the conversation?

Make sure to write down anything you learn about your character during this time, somewhere that you can easily refer back to it.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you have a character sheet template that you use for every one? Do you ever struggle to avoid copy+paste characters, or do you excel at creating unique individuals? How many times do the words “character” or “characters” appear in this post?

Dream Every Day: Fanfiction That Isn’t

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Full disclosure: I used to write fanfiction. A lot. All for one MMORPG called Ragnarok Online, which my husband and I played for around a year. It was where my love for writing fiction resparked, after having dimmed during high school. I’m never sure what’s going to happen when I say I write fanfiction. Plenty of people have no real opinion. Some say they have written or currently are writing fanfiction as well. And some scoff, laugh, roll eyes, or quietly assume the worst about what that means. There are many misconceptions about fanfiction, but that’s not what this post is about.

This post is also not about convincing you to write fanfiction—at least, not precisely.

One of the biggest benefits of fanfiction is that some of the work is already done for you. Characters are already in play, relationships built (or at least started), sometimes a plot is left dangling that you can pick up and run with. At the very least, in the case of a mostly story-less, character-less world like was in the game I wrote for, a setting has already been established—a whole world built, with mechanics in place that I didn’t have to create myself.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying fanfic writers are lazy, but let’s face it—it’s easier to start writing when some of the work has been done. And that’s where I’m going with this post.

As writers, we are often reflections of what we take in. My dad is a blacksmith, and so is my main character’s dad. I have a character that I created long ago who is jovial, always enthusiastic, outgoing, and sometimes annoying; in recent years I actually met someone in real life who reminds me of that character, so now when I write that character, I keep this other person in mind as a guide.


Now when I write Aeldrim’s dialog, I think to myself, “What would Errol say?”

The same can be said for books we read, movies or television we watch, or even music we listen to.

A major character in my story “Outcast” was partially inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, mostly in that I decided to give her a physical mark that reminded people of her mistake.

I have grand plans for a dramatic scene in a story that I never finished when I was writing fanfiction (but will likely pick back up someday and finish in my new story world) that was heavily inspired by a song called “Letters From War” by Mark Schultz.

And the entire premise of a short story I wrote years back was drawn upon the question, “What if the girl had to save the guy?” which I asked myself after watching a movie with my sisters. (For years now I’ve been certain it was the movie Last Holiday that led me to that, but after rewatching the climax to that movie, I don’t see how it could have been. So now I’m not sure what the movie was.)

As a whole, writers get ideas and inspiration from everyday life all the time, so none of this is special. Most writers that I talk to seem to always be neck-deep in ideas that they have to choose between when deciding what to work on next. This advice is more about what you can do if you’re looking for new material. A fresh idea, a different direction to take your plot, or a new character to introduce.

In the book Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, there is an article about taking an existing story and simply adding a different element to it. Examples were moving the story to space, adding dragons, setting it in an alternate dimension, or adding time travel. The idea is not to literally rewrite the same story with the same exact plot with that one added element, but to use that as a starting point. Once you start plotting and/or writing, you make it your own. By the time you’re done, it will most likely look very different from the original.

And that is really where I’m going with this post. Take a cue from fanfic writers and let other stories around you inspire you. What you liked or didn’t like about them, what you’d change or how you think it would have continued.

Dream for yourself: For the rest of this post, understand that “story” can refer to any work of fiction in any medium—print, big or small screen (even a single episode out of a series), or audio.

Think of a story you really liked, but just didn’t like the ending. Or wish a character had been given a different side-plot. How would you have done it differently? What would have been better?

Or think of a story you absolutely hated. Starting with the same premise and same characters (or different characters, if they were part of what made the story so horrible), rewrite it so it’s better.

What character do you really despise? I don’t mean the kind that are meant to be hated, but one that fell flat for you. The character who grated on your nerves. Who was meant to be a comic relief but was just stupid. Or maybe one who was indeed an antagonist, but the villain factor was taken too far. Even a protagonist who you just didn’t sympathize with and couldn’t care less if they lived or died. What would you have done differently? How would you have made that character better for the story?

Yes, this is what some fanfiction writers do. But it doesn’t have to turn into literal fanfiction. If you do not purposely hold yourself to the world the original story is set in, you can make it your own. Or simply use these questions to spark an entirely different idea.

So how about you? Are you now or have you ever been a fanfic writer? Have you noticed real life or fictional stories seeping their way into your writing?

Revise Every Day: Losing Your Voice

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If you’ll notice, the image above is missing this particular step of writing. The motto is meant to remind myself and others that writing every day isn’t necessarily limited to the actual writing. Apart from full-time writers, most of us don’t have the time to write as much as we’d like. And when we do find time, there will most likely be some need for time spent doing the other stages apart from the actual writing–dreaming and fleshing out new ideas, pre-writing (if you’re into that kind of thing), and, afterward, revising. I’ve come to understand that any time I do any kind of writing work in a day, I’ve made some progress, and that’s good. Thus, the motto that I’ve since drawn out into a series of posts.

As I mentioned before, though, the revision stage is missing from my motto. There’s one reason for it: I hate revising. (Technically there’s a second reason, being that the motto wouldn’t have sounded as good with it included.) I take a lot of joy in the actual writing, but when it’s time to revise, I drag my feet. I avoid, procrastinate, even give up.

When I do get around to revising, I’m really just no good at it. I’m so attached to my original words, I give a pass to areas that I know should be changed. Mostly, though, I simply don’t notice the problem areas. I don’t feel I have a lot to offer anyone else in the area of revision that can’t be found many other places.

Thus, posts about revision in this series will probably not come up as often as the other stages. The topic of this post, however, stemmed partly from my revision work with my sisters during our Skype meetings, and partly from my attempt to help one of those sisters with her own writing. So now, onto the actual post.

I’ve done a lot of research on voice lately, even before I’d decided to write this blog post. I didn’t fully understand what it was, at first, or how one goes about defining it. And I don’t just mean the literal definition of the term “writer’s voice.” I thought one could describe the voice the same way a sommelier would discuss wine: “This writer’s voice is oaky and complex, with a harsh finish.” (Okay, I know nothing about wine, so I made all that up.) I no longer think a writer’s voice can be defined that way. At best, you could probably compare an author’s voice with another’s, such as, “His writing reminds me of Michael Crichton.” I would be interested to find out if I’m wrong, and that there are professionals out there who have terms they use to define various authors’ voices.

Every writer has a voice, whether they’ve written one short story or 200 novels. It’s not something you have to go looking for, it simply is. It’s there, in the way you write. For some, it may be the same as the way they speak, but I know I speak a little differently than I write. I think it’s just because I put a little more thought into my written words, even when my fingers are flying to get a scene out, than I normally put into my spoken words.

From my research lately, I’ve come across people who are adamant that you do not have to find, or even develop, your voice. I agree with that, though I do think that one’s voice can change over time. Various elements add to or change a voice, like growing up and maturing, moving to an area with a different way of speaking (ex. moving from New York to Arkansas), or just spending time with someone whose own way of speaking influences yours. Then there are people who purposely work to develop a voice different from their own, whether because they think it’ll better appeal to the audience they writing for, or because the main character or first-person narrator would have a different voice, or whatever other reason. However, when writing naturally, your voice should come out on its own.

While you shouldn’t have to find your voice, it is possible to lose your voice. However, this won’t happen during the writing (unless, as mentioned previously, you intend it to). What I’m referring to happens during the revision process, if you’re not careful. I didn’t think about it until my sisters and I had already been working on my first novel for months. One of my sisters made a suggestion about how to reword a sentence that wasn’t incorrect. I took my time considering the suggestion, because I had no problem with the way it was. I remember her words then: “Or would changing that change your ‘voice’ or something?”

I hadn’t really considered it before. I did have a voice. And so did she. And her voice would find its way into her revision suggestions.

In the time since then, that same sister has told me that she now skips over some notes she’d made in her hard copy of my story, because she realizes those notes are just her changing my voice into hers. It’s been interesting to view my revision in this new light. I’d wondered before how writers choose between two ways of wording things that both seemed right. Consider the following example:

Governments around the world tried to grasp the meaning of these events. Some of the people exhibiting this new Power were studied. They were examined next to a group of other people who had none of these abilities. That’s when the real shock came. The people in this second group began to show signs of the new Power. That’s when they realized this Power had spread throughout the entire world.

Governments around the world attempted to make sense of these events. They studied the people in whom the new Power had manifested, alongside a control group of others who had none of these abilities. When those in the second group began to show signs of the new Power too, they realized it was far bigger than anyone had thought. It had spread all over the world.

You may be able to pick out one of these paragraphs that you prefer over the other, but can you really say one is better, or more specifically, more correct, than the other? When you ask someone else to read your work and make notes, they may (hopefully unintentionally) try to replace your voice with their own. When deciding whether or not to make changes based on each suggestion given by another, you first have to ask if the change would be taking the words out of your voice.

Even when I agree that my original words should be changed, either because they’re grammatically incorrect or because they are clunky, I still often take the suggested change and think about how I would word it. To me, it seems important to maintain the integrity of the author’s voice in their work. If your story is often shifting in voice, it might be disorienting to the reader; they might have a hard time following it or at least be jolted out of the world they’ve been creating in their mind while reading.

Revise for yourself:  There is no direct suggestion I can make for you to try this out for yourself, unless you happen to be in the same stage of writing as I am–revising a story for which you have asked someone else to help. If by any chance you’re doing exactly that, keep your eye out for rewordings that will take the story out of your voice. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d say or write, you should leave the original or find another way to fix the original.

Something anyone could try, though, is seeing how your own voice is different from others. Do this exercise with me:
Write a scene about someone making a peanut butter sandwich. Start with this sentence: “She finally grew hungry enough to set the book down and make herself some lunch.” To keep the paragraphs as close together as possible, include only these activities in your paragraph (however you want to combine or separate the activities is up to you):

  • Walks out to the kitchen
  • Gets bread
  • Gets peanut butter
  • Gets a knife
  • Spreads peanut butter
  • Puts bread together
  • Cleans up

Then make sure to share your paragraph with me. Mine is pasted below, but don’t read it until you’ve written your own.

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Write Every Day: Camp NaNoWriMo

dream plan writenanowrimo logoIf you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, let me introduce you to a world of creativity, productivity, and caffeine. In November, when NaNo proper takes place, you will find me a drooling, tired, ecstatic mess. It’s harrowing, exciting, and so much fun. I am rarely happier than when I’m writing, as opposed to my current revision nightmare. Every year I learn something new about NaNo, writing, or myself. I love it and never want to miss another year.

But November is a long way away (especially in December, when I’m usually worn out, yet already looking forward to the next NaNo).

Camp-Participant-2015-Web-Banner During the months of April and July, the folks who run NaNoWriMo hold two sessions of Camp NaNo. Essentially, that just means extra sessions for people who want the experience, fun, or push of NaNo more than once a year. Or an alternative time for those who can’t participate in November.

I am a huge NaNo geek, though I know at least one person who’s even more crazy about it than I am. However, I do strongly prefer the November event to Camp. I’m sure when November approaches I’ll write enough about NaNo to annoy most people. But there’s still something to be said for Camp, and since the July session starts soon, it seemed like a good topic for my first “Write Every Day” post.

Camp NaNo has more differences from proper NaNo than just warmer temps. For example, as more people participate in November, the social aspect is much bigger then. During Camp, there aren’t likely to be regional events (though some bigger regions may still have stuff going on). The forums that are busy and crowded during the fall are still available, but the focus is on camp cabins–smaller groups of Wrimos urging each other on throughout the month.

Another big difference is that during Camp, you can set your own word count goal. While that can include raising your goal beyond 50,000 words, the real benefit is being able to attempt a smaller amount. For me, November is a month of intense creative output, during which I shirk a lot of other responsibilities. My husband and kids are warned up front that I’ll be hiding away a lot, chores are neglected, and I even go into work less (I work for my dad and have a lot of flexibility in my schedule). I can get away with all of that for one month out of the year, but wouldn’t want to push it past that. So for Camp, I set myself a lower goal that still forces me to work more than my average amount when left to my own devices.

There is also one more difference between Camp and proper NaNoWriMo, but I’ll admit this one is probably only from my perspective. There are rules for NaNoWriMo, but not everyone strictly follows them. Some people rebel, writing several short stories, two books at once, nonfiction, screenplays, or even comic books. I know someone who during NaNo wrote the script for a computer game she was making with a friend. I’m a complete traditionalist during November, attempting to write at least 50,000 words of a new, single work of fiction. Camp is when I let myself rebel. I’ve participated in four sessions of Camp, and each one was used for revision. A big push forward on the work I’ve been dragging my feet through for over a year. That’s how you’ll find me again come July, though I do plan to change it up a little this time.

Write for yourself: Okay, so the obvious thing to say here is, “Participate in Camp NaNo!” And yes, that was obviously the point of this post. Camp starts in ten days, and it can be difficult to jump into an event like that with little warning. (Though plenty of people, myself included, have joined NaNo after only hearing about it in October, sometimes days before, and survived.) Just remember, you can set your goal to whatever you want, to give it a try with less stress, or if you’re not sure you could write enough on this short notice, or whatever else excuse you may have. As I understand it, they’ve recently changed cabin formation so that you can actually set up a cabin with a group of people of your choosing (it used to be largely random). If you decide to sign up, or if you’re already a participant and have no cabin yet, we can form our own. Just let me know your username, and we can spend the month encouraging each other!

Then, at summer’s end, consider turning your mind toward NaNo proper. You wouldn’t believe the fun, community, and productivity you can get out of the event. I’ll be back to this topic in a few months.

If you’re not a fiction writer, or simply have other creative pursuits you wouldn’t mind the same kind of push for, look around for something more up your alley. As I understand it, there are events like this for a lot of areas (FAWM for musicians, VEDA for video blogging, PiBoIdMo for picture book writers, and all sorts of others. Seriously, just do some research, you may find an event for your creative output).

What are your thoughts on events like these? Do you participate, stay away, or simply have no opinion? I know they’ve become a fad and some people are thoroughly against them. Let me know what you think.

Plan Every Day: Our Frenemy, the Outline

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Something else I learned in my high school creative writing class is that planning (or pre-writing) can be your friend. Thinking solely about research projects and essays, as much as I disliked doing them, writing an outline first always made the actual writing easier.

Cut to now, when I have no classroom to work in, no teacher to force me to do every tedious step of pre-writing, and no grade for my effort, or lack thereof. And you know what? I still do pre-writing, at least to some degree.

The debate of whether it’s better to be a plotter or a “pantser” rages on out there in cyber space. I’ve seen more than one comment of, “I’m not much of a planner. I write out broad plot points, but I have to give room for my story to go where it wants to go.” I have a response to that, but I’ve already ranted (jump to point 3) a little on that topic.

Planning might just help more than you expect. Don’t ever think that pre-writing locks you into anything. Very rarely do I even outline an entire story. Often, I outline to somewhere in the middle, then start writing. Sometimes when I get to the end of the outline, I’m on track. But more often than not, I derail before that point. Then I either just keep going or stop, regroup, and outline from there. Various sites call that a downside to being a planner, but is it really that big of a deal? Most likely, if your story has gone off-track from your plans for it, then there’s a reason, and you’ll likely be happier following the new path. Yes, you might have to write a new outline, or you might just pants the rest of the story (it’s okay to be a hybrid planner/pantser).

Have you ever had a story or scene rolling around in your head, maybe even playing itself out? There have been times that I feel like I’ve written half of the story before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But when I do sit down to write it out, one of the following things happens: I’ve forgotten many of the important parts; what was playing through quickly in my mind takes a lot longer to write out and I can’t get it all done in one, two, or even several sessions, leaving me again in danger of forgetting what I don’t get to for a while; or I simply can’t figure out how to start.

So instead of going directly to writing, I make an outline. Then I can get a lot of story out before I forget it. Even aside from potential forgetfulness, outlining a lot of the story at once can let you see how it will go from a distance, which sometimes lets you catch mistakes or fill in plot holes before they happen.

One last note I want to be clear about–don’t think that in order to make an outline, you have to use the formal format.


You know the kind, with the Roman numerals and all the indentation.

That’s great if it works for you. I tried it once, but I didn’t care for it. Normally I just write broad plot points one line after another, sticking in details when I think of them and want to remember. Here is an example:


Plan for yourself: It’s not easy to practice or try out planning or writing outlines, but I do have a few ideas. And keep in mind, I’m not trying to convince you that planning is better than pantsing. If you already know you work better without an outline or much forethought, then you should feel free to skip this whole thing. However, if you’ve never really given it a try, now’s your chance. If you’re like me, you have at least one story idea rattling around in your brain, waiting to be given form. Take some time now, even if you weren’t planning to write that story now or even soon, to start planning that story. Write out the key plot points, make a sketchy outline, and get it out on paper before it disappears into the void.

Another option, if you’ve written a story (or part of one), have characters you’ve created, and don’t have other ideas just now, is to take those characters and the world they live in and just think up a new situation for them. Something unrelated to the story they’re already in (or it can be related too), even something crazy that you know wouldn’t happen. Outline a scenario, long or short, and see how it feels. The idea is just to see how outlining can feel, with just a random scenario that doesn’t have to have any further purpose. Though who knows, maybe this will spark a more solid idea simply because you’re pushing yourself for a new idea. But even if not, get a feel for the outlining and see what you think. You may like it, you may not.

Of course, if you do write an outline for a story that interests you, the next step would be writing from that outline. You can’t fully evaluate whether you’re a planner, pantser, or hybrid, without going past the outline. But the actual writing is a subject for another post.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the great debate, or anything you produce from the above ideas that you’d like to share.

Dream Every Day: Revisiting High School

 dream plan write

When I was in high school, I took a creative writing class. It’s the only one I’ve ever taken, and I couldn’t tell you how alike or different it was from other such classes. There was a process we went through before we ever started writing for the short story part of class that has stuck with me for fifteen years. It was a process of coming up with multiple story seeds, before then choosing the one we wanted to develop into a story. One day we were instructed to come up with a setting and character that didn’t really go together. For example, I chose a British soldier at a Minnesota lake. Under that, it says:
“Why–the queen of England decided she wanted a vacation in a secluded spot and he was assigned to guard the family.
Conflict–the people who live around there are secretive, don’t know why he’s there, and don’t want him there.”

The scenario sounds ridiculous to me now, and I never wrote any further with that idea. However, for some reason, this exercise has stuck with me for a long time.

On the other hand, what is just an innocuous picture–a field of wildflowers–became the short story I turned in for that class. A short story the teacher loved and helped me to remember that I enjoy writing (I had written a lot in elementary school, then abandoned it for poetry). In an essay in that class, though, I apparently wrote that I didn’t think I’d have much reason to write fiction again in the future. That was fun to dig up from my past.

flowers prompt

This colorful, foggy field became the setting of a frenzied, fear-filled search for a briefcase and a race against time for the protagonist in the story I wrote from it.

At the same time I was taking this creative writing class, I had the same teacher for English class. In English, we would get vocabulary lists, and for every list, one assignment was always to write some sort of paragraph or short story that incorporated at least 5 of the vocab words. A few of those ended up being great sources of creativity for me. One, a one-page short story, my teacher said was written well enough and had good enough character development that I could have turned it in for my short story in creative writing.

The point of all of this is to say that, while inspiration can certainly come from anywhere and sometimes nowhere, it is possible to create ideas using various methods and stimuli. Images, sounds, prompts, word lists, outlandish character/setting combos, even story scenarios provided by someone else, can produce seeds that may or may not be worth developing. The key is to keep all of the potential seeds somewhere that can be referenced later. One important rule of writing–never throw anything out. You never know if you’ll want to be able to look back at it 15 years later and write a blog post about it.

Dream for yourself: If anyone reading this wants to try their hand at some of these story seed starters, I encourage you to look at the image above, describe it in vivid detail, and use it as a setting for a scene. Then see where that takes you. Or, use the following list of words to create a paragraph or two–it can be a setting, a short story, or even a scene from something larger. (Remember, it’s from a school vocab list. If you don’t know the words, look them up! Expanding your vocabulary can always help with writing too.) It doesn’t have to produce a full story–just spark an idea. If anyone does write anything from my suggestions, feel free to share with me! I’d love to see what others come up with.

sub rosa
a capella
quid pro quo

Continue reading below to read the short story I created with the words above (if you’re considering writing from the list yourself, don’t read mine yet; it’ll skew your ideas).

Continue reading

Dream, plan, write…

dream plan write

This has been my motto for the last year. I have tried to make sure every day contains at least a little writing work. For me, this can take more than one form:

Dream – This is the part where you ask, “What if…?” and “Why?” What if space were filled with vampires? What if the guy was the one who needed rescuing? Why would a British royal guard be camping in the woods of Montana? How different would the world be without shrimp? There are ways to force these ideas out of your head, but just as often, they just come on their own. When you’re driving, washing dishes, showering, even sleeping.

Plan – This is where you take that idea, that seed, and run with it. Meet and flesh out the characters. Decide on the right time and place. Start plotting. Not everyone does this step; some skip right from dreaming to writing. That’s okay too. But for the rest of us, it’s important to spend some time in the planning stage.

Write – This is the most self-explanatory stage, but often the most difficult to do. It is helpful to set goals along the way. Also important is saving the editing for later.

Revise – This is my absolute least favorite stage, but it has to be done. The question, though, is how to do it and how much to revise. My own mindset on revising has changed a lot in the last year, and I think I’m hating it less than I used to.

These different stages are often mixed up. Currently, on any given day, I may be working on revising one of two books, plotting another one, writing for a shorter bit that has no real plans, or who knows what else. And I’m always dreaming.

I’ve come to realize recently that, though I am not a published author, I have a lot of experience as a writer. I’ve been writing with some seriousness for 10 years and have grown a lot in both knowledge and skill. I’ve finished the first draft of two novels, which I’m told is an accomplishment in itself. And just in the last two years, I have learned a lot about all of these stages of writing. This blog has always been focused on my writing progress, but I have decided it’s time to branch out. I want to start sharing some of what I’ve learned, even extending to areas outside of those I mentioned above (like finding the right writing atmosphere). Hopefully someone will find some usefulness in my words.

I won’t try to say when or how often these posts might come out, because my family life is too unpredictable. The first post, about the “Dream” stage, will be shortly following this introductory post though.