Every character needs a description, but how do you include that description without stopping the story's flow? How do you include it without creating a situation that feels contrived? How often should you describe your characters?
Read Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold and learn description techniques from a master.
To describe or not to describe
Should you describe your characters at all?
Some writers believe that offering too much (or any) description of the main character distances readers from the story because then readers cannot simply picture themselves as the protagonist.
Some writers want to control their world and characters and therefore want to describe those characters so completely they cannot be confused with anyone else. Ever.
Either of these choices is reasonable (altho the second can easily become tedious). These choices are style issues: some readers want a lot of character description while others don't. You get to pick what you want to do.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
If you decide to describe your characters, you must repeat that description throughout your story. Not as a solid block, but with key words placed strategically here and there to remind readers who they are reading about. Readers need these reminders because, while some will sit down to devour a book, most have to set it down to eat, sleep, do homework/laundry, go to school/work, and they will forget what the characters look like during their time away from the book. (Or worse, if they are like me and have two or three books going at once, a lack of description can make it harder to keep the separate story lines straight.)
BEGUILEMENT and Fawn Bluefield
Bujold had some 14 published books under her belt before she wrote Beguilement, the first book in the Sharing Knife series, so she knows a thing or two about writing. She has a clear idea of what her characters look like and keeps offering up reminders for the reader.
Fawn Bluefield, the book’s female protagonist, is described as short, with pale skin, dark curly hair, and big brown eyes. All those descriptions are offered up, again and again, in different ways and from different viewpoints.
From Fawn’s point of view, we learn her appearance through her thoughts (and note the page numbers, to see how often the simple description of being short, or having curly hair, is repeated, and how late into the book it appears):
We are also reminded of Fawn’s appearance through her actions:
Other Characters' Thoughts
We see Fawn’s appearance through the eyes and actions of others, most often from Dag, a Lakewalker patroller who is essentially a foreigner in Fawn’s lands. Note again that these descriptions are consistent, and appear even very late in the book.
A good way to continue reminding readers of a character's description is to compare one character to another. With living characters, you can provide info about both characters with the description. With dead characters, you can give us description without being too contrived:
She looked in the mirror and noticed her face now looked like her mother's. No wonder her father turned away from her.
Note that this technique is almost common enough to be a cliché, or at least a trope (at least in the fantasy I've read), but it can be useful, especially if the comparison between two characters helps explain the relationship between two other characters.
Why did I read this book?
Uh, ‘cause I just loves me some Bujold? Seriously, Lois McMaster Bujold is, like, my favorite author EVER and I reread her stuff with surprising regularity. Now to be honest, this isn’t my favorite Bujold book, and the first time I read it, I really didn’t enjoy it. I was reading it with the YA rules for new authors in mind: all first books in a series must satisfyingly end before the second book can start. This one doesn’t do that. It just stops, rather like the first part of a four-part book than a complete story in itself. When I read it a second time, as the first part, I liked it much, much better (tho the third book in the series is, in fact, my favorite).
I started reading the series again because I wanted something familiar and comfortable. I had a sinus infection when I started re-reading these books and I just didn’t want to struggle with a new author/story while struggling with massive headaches. (Whine, sniffle, whine.)
Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Book 5/1000.
About 1000 Books
Reading widely changes your writing. For the better. Many published writers credit their success to having read voraciously, both in and out of their chosen genres. But most people don't read like editors; they read for enjoyment, not to learn a new writing technique.
I read for a zillion reasons, and one IS to learn writing and story-telling techniques. Occasionally, I'll write about what I learn and share it with you here.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
If your main character is … non-standard: overly mean, vapid, or maybe just plain dumb, learn to evoke sympathy in your readers to keep them engaged in your story.
I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and State of Grace by Hilary Badger back-to-back. That order wasn’t intentional. I read Flowers because I saw the title used in another book (Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything), remembered it was classic sci-fi, decided I should read it *because* it’s classic, and I put it on hold at my local library. I read it when it came in and then… had nothing immediately queued up to read next.
I was skimming my book list and stumbled on Grace. It’s not actually my book. It’s my son’s. He asked me to buy it for him because he made a deal with his friend: He’d read her favorite book (Grace) if she read one of his (Harry Dresden). He never got into it. I figured, well, I read and edit YA and fantasy and *this* YA fantasy is a teen’s favorite, so I should read it. (A large number of the books I read are “shoulds” to keep myself up-to-date with current trends in novels. I don’t mind; it makes it way easier to pick out a book to read when I’m reading for a zillion different reasons, only one of which is pure entertainment!)
So, I read these seemingly very different books back-to-back and was stunned by the similarities in story-telling technique. Both books start out with a not-obviously interesting character: Keyes’ Charlie is a literal moron (“retarded” in the mentally deficient meaning used in the late 1950s) and Badger’s Wren is a vapid teenager, obsessed with having fun.
On the surface, these characters shouldn’t work. There’s no “hook” that lets us latch on to them. Most of us who read are not morons or vapid. How do we see ourselves in these main characters? Neither character is a deep thinker or even observer of the people and situations happening around them. Neither character seems to be a driver, or even able to drive, their own destiny.
And yet… somehow Keyes and Badger are able to evoke sympathy in us for these seemingly simple characters, and that sympathy propels us along the story until the characters grow into themselves.
Flowers for Algernon
Flowers is written in first person POV, and Charlie is a moron. It’s rather difficult to read Flowers at first (unless you’ve had practice with a kid whose school told students to write phonetically and worry about spelling later):
Those misspellings aren’t mine. This is how Charlie hears the words and translates them to the page. Every time Charlie writes (in the first few chapters), it’s this painful phonetic writing with a lot of repetition (Keyes and his editor are GENIUSES, keeping just enough repetition to show us Charlie but not so much we want to gouge our eyes out).
But… Charlie is also earnest in his single-minded desire:
It’s this earnest desire to “be smart” that keeps us reading. Charlie wants very much to be smart, and I found myself reading more: why does Charlie want to be smart? What does he think he’ll get in return? Can the scientists help him?
As Charlie writes more, we see events that have happened to him during his life, some of them awful, but Charlie never saw them as awful when they happened. We see these stories from two points-of-view: Charlie before he is smart, and Charlie after. (Spoiler alert: the scientists DO make Charlie smart.) His first viewing of events pains us because we see the subtext he didn’t. We see him laughing along with his own degradation as people he thinks are his friends make fun of his deficiency.
Worse, we see the events AGAIN as Charlie re-processes them once he’s “smart” enough to see the subtext himself. (Honestly, this is one of the most relentlessly tragic books I think I’ve ever read.) Our hearts break all over again.
As Charlie “gets smart,” our sympathy for him grows and becomes sympathy for ourselves because NOW we can begin to see ourselves in him. The pre-smart Charlie couldn’t question anything. The smart-Charlie wonders about everything.
What does it mean to be human? How do you live a good life? How do you create a loving relationship with someone else? These are all questions we often struggle with and watching Charlie come at them from an educated innocence lets us see these issues from a new angle.
Keyes uses our sympathy for Charlie’s innocence and child-like desires to draw us along the story until Charlie becomes sophisticated enough to lead us on his own.
State of Grace
State of Grace starts out with a similarly child-like character. Teenaged Wren (she’s 16 or 17-ish) appears singularly interested in having fun:
Wren has both the simplistic desires of a child and the childlike ease of accepting and following authority. (And if you’ve raised/are raising a teenager, you know this is SO not the typical case!)
The first few pages are all about Wren pursuing hedonistic activities with very little responsibility of any kind. Even the teens for whom this book is written aren’t living this life, so what keeps us going?
It’s that sympathy again. Quickly, Badger shows us that not all is right in Wren’s world, and even when Wren can't (or won't) see it, we do.
Wren is experiencing something strange, something she “shouldn’t” and it’s her fear that evokes sympathy in us. We’ve all felt (especially when we were teens!) that we didn’t fit in and that not fitting in is dangerous because it means we’re all by ourselves in this big scary world. (Isolation is a cruel punishment/torture in almost every culture.)
We keep reading Grace to see how Wren handles her fear and doubts, to cheer her on when she’s feeling “prenormal.” Our sympathy keeps us reading until Wren has grown sophisticated enough (in her doubts, in her searching for truth/meaning) to lead us in her own story, just like Charlie.
Everything you read has the capacity to teach you something: about yourself, about your world, and (perhaps most importantly) how to write better. If you like this idea of engaging a reader's sympathy, you may also want to consider reading the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson's anti-hero's actions are profoundly unheroic. About half the people I know who read this series (it came out in the late 70s and is STILL in print) threw the book across the room and quit forever and the other half kept going, grudgingly, after they picked the book up off the floor. That anyone kept going at all (and I was one), is, I think, a huge testament to the power of sympathy.
A thousand years ago* I wrote a post about how reading 1000 books changes your writing. I wrote a few articles*** about different techniques you can learn by reading different books. I wrote about how I really don’t like rating books. So much of rating is based on personal preference and what I like you may not and vice versa.** And then… I didn’t write anymore. Hah! That changes now.
* Three. Three years ago.
** Plus… I know just how long it can take to write, rewrite, edit, re-edit, format, re-format a book. Who am I to judge its quantitative worth? I liked it, I didn’t like it. I loved it enough to ready it a zillion times; I learned enough from reading it once. My 4 stars means nothing to you…
*** Related articles
My plan was to stop there. Wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and then be done.
I started thinking about the first time my husband (then my fiancé) had Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s home. I remember his surprise at all the different dishes we served, his disgust at one of them*, and his confusion when he caught me and my cousin flipping the cookies upside down**. Your family traditions are a gold mine. Mine those memories to practice writing description and editing down that description to a few key details.
Family traditions are typically rich in description opportunities: What do you eat? What activities do you do? Who joins you? Where do you meet?
Food is one of the easiest things to practice describing because it’s accessible (we eat literally every day***) and it hits all the five senses: The sight of a perfectly baked pumpkin pie; the scent of cinnamon and cloves and ginger; the sound of a knife slicing thru the crisp crust and hitting the pie plate underneath; the taste of that first bite; and the smooth texture of the custard contrasting with the flakey crust.
When you’re writing a story, you probably don’t want to include all five senses in every description opportunity. Your story can easily become tedious to read! Instead, you want to pick and choose key details that help propel your story.
Show us something about your character: she hates ginger so that’s the detail you share, along with her reaction to it. Why doesn’t Mom ever remember I HATE ginger?
Show an awkward silence (instead of tell) by describing the sound of the knife hitting the pie plate. It’s a small sound and easily missed when the room is full of chatter. If it’s the only detail you share, your readers focus on it and understand all that you don’t say.
That brings me to another thing: show vs tell. It’s arguably one of the cardinal rules (if any writing rules really exist!) of fiction writing, but a lot of writers don’t know what it means. What is the difference between showing and telling and when are you doing one or the other?
Description helps show (rather than tell) a scene. Consider:
This certainly isn’t the greatest writing (shitty first draft, baby!) but it should be enough to show the difference between showing and telling. The obvious: showing is generally longer than telling. And the less obvious: I never once wrote “Steve was worried” in the second sample. I didn’t write that the cigarette ash might fall into the food. By describing the scene, by showing it, you as the reader infer that Steve is worried and what he’s worried about. (And if that didn’t come across in this first draft, I’d revise!)
So if you find yourself with some quiet time this Thanksgiving, or any celebratory event, duck away and write about it. Start with the food and try to capture all five senses. Move on to the activities. Describe people’s actions to show their emotions****. Lastly, think about picking and choosing those details to use them in a scene. How can you show this mood? How can you show increasing tension? What can we learn about this character?
And then get back out there with the family and have some pie!
* Hard-cooked eggs, boxed croutons, canned cheddar cheese soup. I can’t even find it on the internets… My mother never cooked anything without a recipe, so it had to have come from somewhere.
*** Um… *I* do. I suppose you may be fasting on occasion.
**** This also gives you the benefit of studying people so that when you write your fictional people, you have natural actions at your fingertips.
More words help provide you with more ideas, write tighter (by killing your “helping” adverbs), provide your readers with better description, and even offer a sense of “realness” or honesty to what you describe.
Back in 5th grade, my kid got vocab words. I only remember “abut” because… well… we ALL adopted the 10-year-old’s sense of humor. The vocab words stopped coming home in 7th grade and I found I missed them. Yes, I am an editor and I like words, so that was part of it. But it was more than that: your ability to communicate is based not only on how you use words, but also on which words you use. More words gives you more options.
TL;DR? New words make you write gooder, so learn more.
Ideas, more ideas!
In a previous life, I was a linguistics major (for a semester). At the time, scientists were trying to determine whether the thoughts we are able to think are determined by the language we speak. The questioning went (if I remember right!), if you don’t have a word for something, can you even think about it?
I’m sure this argument is much more complex than I’ve just written because I can still feel overcome with emotions, and think about what it feels like, without knowing the Yiddish word verklempt. And I can understand taking pleasure in someone else’s pain even if I don’t know the German word schadenfreude. (But then… I’m not always a nice person…)
On the other hand…
If I don’t know what an orrery is, then I can’t have one sitting on my character’s desk to show either a) his delight in having an antique or b) his patronage of this new field of engineering.
If I don’t have multiple words for various types of snow, do I pay attention to what kind of snow is falling out the window? (I do not. I hate snow.) Snow has no importance to me or my culture, so it’s all just snow. Snow to Inuits, however, is a pretty big deal, to the point it’s estimated they have more than 50 words to describe it.
Language helps us make sense of our world, and writing helps us make sense of our world, and reading what others have written helps us make sense of our world. The more words we have at our disposal, the better job we can do sharing our ideas.
Or the more ideas we can have in the first place. I’m not saying go out and learn all 50 words that the Inuits use for snow. That’s crazy. But… knowing there are 50 words for snow sorta* makes me want to create a frozen world where that sort of knowledge might drive an interesting plot…
* And by “sorta” I mean not at all. I’m getting cranky just thinking about how much snow must fall and for how long throughout the year for there to be 50 different kinds of it. I want you to know: I really, truly hate snow.
Kill your adverbs
She used very few words to express herself. vs She was laconic.
He was very mad. vs He was furious.
She was very hungry. vs She was famished.
The orrery was very, very old. vs It was antediluvian.
These are simple sentences that don’t necessarily capture the true essence of a better vocabulary, but bear with me here. I started writing this on Halloween, so I was in a bit of a sugar coma…
(And then I stopped writing it because I had to answer the door to some 200 little beggars. Though some were totes adorbs and some were truly scary. Kudos to the two middle-school girls dressed up as the twins from The Shining. Shudder… And then I got busy with other things and forgot to come back here. Sigh.)
Adverbs weaken your writing because they can’t be visualized. What does “very” look like? Once we’ve skipped over that “very,” all we have left to work with is “mad,” which may not be as powerful a word as you wanted.
More words at our disposal allows us to tighten our writing by ditching adverbs and other modifiers.
New words give you the opportunity to describe your scenes better.
Part of reading is creating scenes in our heads: how does what we’re reading translate to sight and sound and touch?
A leafy bush vs a hydrangea. Fruit vs a peach. Fretful whining vs querulous.
For people who know what a hydrangea is, they get a beautiful mental picture of what you’re describing. For those who don’t, maybe they’ll look it up, but even if they don’t, they’ll get “plant” from the context.
Fruit doesn’t give readers much to work with. Peach gives us everything: the feel of its skin, its color, the firmness of the flesh when you bite into it, its scent and taste. For some of us, we even get an idea of what time of year it is (or whether that peach has been imported or magically ripened).
(Sure, you probably don’t need to learn what a peach is, but you might want to learn about rambutans or dragonfruit. (I learned about these while visiting a chocolate plantation in Hawaii. Slimy little fu- Er… I did not enjoy them.))
“Mad” isn’t very nuanced (Gah! Very!). Irate, ballistic, indignant are all shades of “mad” that better describe the emotion your character is feeling.
You don’t lose anything by using a better, fancier, and/or more descriptive word except maybe a few adverbs.* But you gain a vivid mental picture of whatever you’re creating, which draws your readers in and keeps them coming back for more.
* Well, that’s not entirely true. The more specific a word you choose, the more baggage is attached to that word, so… you may need to do your research. For example, if you have a farm-to-table culture (like in, say, a pre-industrial society), then you need to know that strawberries are not typically still in season when apples ripen.
New words help you evoke a scene and add verisimilitude.
(That’s a twofer of vocab words right there in that sentence!)
If you’ve never lived in a place that has graupel or freezing fog, you may not know that these things exist. If you decide to write about a character who lives in the Seattle area, in the late fall/early winter, and you DON’T include these things, your readers who HAVE lived in Seattle may get a little testy. Pfft, they’ll think. She doesn’t know squat about Seattle. Her story better be good so that I can just ignore those problems…
Using words that are specific to a place, or even to a time, create a more realistic scene in our heads, which gives us confidence that what you’re writing is true. And having that truth in place allows us to more easily follow you into the make-believe portions of your writing: you’ve engendered trust in us.
Studying doesn’t have to stink like it did in school. You won’t be graded. You’re SAT scores won’t be affected. (Well… unless you are still a high school student, in which case… studying may stink but it will all be worth it in the end!) Far as I can tell, all the major dictionaries offer word-of-the-day or word-of-the-week posts on Pinterest and Instagram. Start flagging the words that appeal to you. You can ask for a word-of-the-day calendar next gift-giving season. When you read on your Kindle*, look up words you don’t know, or you only think you know. Look out for those writers who stretch your vocabulary (Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson for me) and read more of them.
And, perhaps most important, practice! New words may magically appear in your daily speech and/or writing, but only after you’ve seen them some large number of times. Quicken that process by trying them out in your writing!
* Let’s be real here: I love love love my Kindle and I have no idea whether those other ereaders are still a thing or not.
So, you want to create a writing practice, and you’ve tried WOOPing that practice into shape, but… something’s not working. No matter what you do, you find yourself on the couch watching TV instead of writing. Learn how to harness the Power of Habit to finally get writing.
Let's talk about habits
You know how I read and then I tell you about it?
Yeah, buckle up because in this blog post we’re diving deep into Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Why are we discussing habits in the middle of a series about creating a writing practice? Because creating a writing practice is all about creating a writing habit: something you do automatically.
You may need to create a new habit, but, chances are good that whatever time you’ve picked for writing already has something going on. You want to write in the evenings after dinner, which means you have to stop watching TV and go write. You already have a habit of watching TV after dinner, and now you want to change that habit.
You know you want to do something different, but you’re on the sofa again. How did that happen? Duhigg quotes a Duke University paper that suggests more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
Think about that: just shy of half of all the actions you do each day, you don’t decide. You just do. Driving to work, cleaning up the kitchen right after eating, brushing your teeth right before you go to bed? Chances are you no longer decide to do those things. You don’t even think about doing them. (Ever get to school or work and wonder how you got there?) You just do them.
So, we need to know if there’s a habit already in place for the time and location you’ve chosen for your writing practice. If there is, then we need to know how to change it. If there isn’t, then we have the simpler task of creating a new habit.
Which means we get to talk about:
PS: You can use WOOP to create a new habit, but if it isn’t working for you, this is an alternative. WOOPing an existing habit may be troublesome because, as we’ll see soon, you can’t kill an existing habit, merely modify it, but you have to know how.
What is a habit?
Duhigg breaks habits down into three parts that he calls a “habit loop:”
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
For example: Turning the TV off at the end of the day is a cue to do whatever you do before bed. (Even our cats are cued by the TV turning off…) The clock showing 3:00 signals it’s time to get the kid from school. Feeling lonely triggers the need to “just check” Facebook.
The routine is the set of actions, some quite complex, that you automatically perform.
When I say complex, I mean seriously complex: watch a kid learn to drive to see just how many behaviors can be routinized until you can drive to work without paying any conscious attention at all. A few of those behaviors include:
Finally, a habit loop ends with a reward: a dopamine hit from seeing your best friend “liked” your kid’s photo on Facebook or satisfaction that you’ve taken care of yourself by brushing your teeth.
Why are habits formed?
o, now we know what a habit is, why do we create them? And why so many of them?
The TL;DR version is: our brains are lazy.
Our brains are energy-sucking beasts that are expensive to operate. Shunting some actions to habit frees up brain energy.
Our brains are also really really really powerful: we’d get overwhelmed if we truly stopped to pay attention to each and every piece of data our brains collect and then make a conscious decision about which data to pay attention to and then make another conscious decision about which data to act on.
When you drive from home to work, you probably no longer notice your neighbor’s Suburban parked in their driveway, the plum trees lining the streets, the fountain in your other neighbor’s yard, the peeling paint on the other other neighbor’s front porch, or the playground in front of you. But you WILL notice when a ball rolls into the street and a child chases after it. If your brain paid attention to all those other unchanging things, you’d probably be unable to stop in time.
So: habits free us up to, really, just get anything done.
How do we create a habit?
So you’ve chosen a time and location for your writing practice. And you’ve reviewed what usually happens during that time and it’s a big ball of nothing. Maybe you’ve just changed your school or work schedule so you now have an hour free that didn’t exist previously. Maybe your kid just got his license and now you don’t have to sit in the karate parking lot anymore. Whatever. You have a fresh clean space to work with. Lucky!
To create a habit, we create a habit loop:
The first time you do something, your brain pays a lot of attention to it: it’s looking for something consistent it can use as a cue, so you not only need to create or choose a cue, you need to ensure you can repeat that cue.
A cue can be the time of day: after I get home from work, I will go write.
It can be a physical action: Whenever I make tea and light a candle, I will go write. (This one also includes senses: when you smell mint tea or a beeswax candle…)
It can be a feeling: I feel lonely, so I’ll go write a letter (that I may never mail) to someone I love. Or hate. Or admire. Or fear…
It can be a combination of things: I felt something was funny and I just laughed, so now I will write on the notecard I keep in my back pocket what it was that made me laugh.
You can also stack a new habit onto an existing one. I already brush my teeth every morning. I’ll use finishing up as a cue to go to my desk to write.
Once you’ve chosen a cue, then you need to choose the actions. “I will go write” isn’t precise enough for most of us.
Something like this is:
I will sit down at the kitchen desk, select a writing exercise and write by hand for 7 minutes in my green notebook. Then I will open my WIP on my computer, read the last page I wrote, and then start writing from where I left off. I will finish when I’ve written 500 words, or when I’ve written for 3 hours, or at 3:15 when the kids come home and I want to greet them.
You’ve created your routine, now you get to choose your reward for putting in this effort. This, essentially, is the doggy treat you give your brain being such a good girl. (Who’s a good girl? You are! You know you are!!) This reward encourages your brain to shunt all these new behaviors to a habit so you no longer think about whether or not you’re going to do it, you just do it.
Rewards can be anything, so long as it works for you: a piece of especially fine chocolate, five minutes spent completely by yourself outside, the satisfaction you feel when you cross off today on your calendar and note that you did not break the chain, the pride you feel for doing something that’s important to you. The knowledge that you are now 500 words or three hours closer to your goal.
When you finish your writing routine, make sure to take a moment, especially in the early days of creating your habit, to recognize what you’ve done. That will reinforce to your brain that this is important, and it gives you time to feel the good feels that also reinforce to your brain that this is important.
A final note on creating a habit: if you decide to do something as a reward, like have that chocolate or go outside, then GO DO IT. Otherwise your brain (and I’m not making this up) will now think that you’re a big lying liar who lies and that this whole habit thing isn’t really all that important to you. Your brain basically says, “I’m out!”
How do we change our habits?
OK, now let’s say that you’ve looked over your schedule and you see that the best time for you to write is right after dinner, when you usually sit down to read or watch TV. You’ve been doing that every night for the past month, year, several years. (Gotta keep up with The Walking Dead…) That’s a big ole habit that you need to change.
But, it turns out you can’t get rid of a bad habit; once you’ve created a cue-routine-reward loop, you’re stuck with the cue and the reward. (This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to beat addiction. I tried to summarize why, but then decided I ain’t touching that with a ten-foot pool. Go read Duhigg’s book for details.)
Changing habits, it turns out, is simple. It’s not EASY, but it is simple. Identify the cue, replace the routine, keep the reward.
So, take a look at the habit you want to change. What is the cue? It may not be obvious, so be prepared to watch yourself for a few days and take notes. In our TV-watching example, the cue may be the time of day, or putting away the dinner dishes, or feeling tired.
Next, figure out the reward you receive. This can be tricky to suss out, so again, be prepared to take notes. If necessary, do experiments. (Duhigg has a great example in his book about how he lost weight once he changed a get-up-and-get-a-cookie-in-the-afternoon habit.) Is the reward you get for watching TV immersing yourself in a great story? Relaxation? Finally quieting your busy brain?
Once you’ve figured out the cue and reward, you now insert a new habit: your writing. When you put away the dinner dishes, stop, look around, and start your writing practice. If you love getting immersed in story, hopefully you’ll find that in your own writing!
Get some help
Changing habits can be hard; it turns out you also have to believe you can make that change. Turns out believing you can change is easier when you’re surrounded by a community who is all working towards the same goal.
Creating a new habit is hard in a different way: you’re building a new set of neural pathways and that takes time.
In either case, you’re much more likely to succeed if you find a writing partner or group with similar goals so you can cheer each other on.
Knowing how habits are formed can help you move your writing practice from the “someday” category to the “Wow, I don’t even remember sitting down to write and yet here I am banging out more words” category. (Yes, that is a long category name. No, it will not fit on a file folder tab.)
On a final note: you can combine your new knowledge of habit forming (you’re welcome!) with WOOP to create your writing practice. The process of how to develop the practice isn’t important. What’s important is regularly getting words down on a page. How will you do that?
You've tried everything, but you just can't figure out how to make time to write. It's time to WOOP up your writing habit.
Let’s say you read the previous article in this series (3 Practical Reasons You Need a Writing Practice) and you’ve been convinced by my scintillating arguments that you need a writing practice. Fantastic. Away with you! Go! Write!
How? You’ve tried to make time to write, but it hasn’t happened yet. Something keeps getting in the way.
It’s time to WOOP a writing habit.
What is WOOP?
WOOP is a strategy for setting goals and changing habits.
WOOP has four steps:
W: What is your wish?
O: What is the best outcome [if you achieve your wish]?
O: What is your main [inner] obstacle for pursuing your wish?
P: What is your plan for overcoming your obstacles and achieving your wish?
W: What is your wish?
My wish for you is to create a writing practice. You want to publish a book, I want to edit it. Neither of us gets paid till you finish writing your book.
A writing practice trains your muse to show up when you do. It ensures you have a crappy first draft you can revise later. It gives you a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Look: everything else may have fallen apart, but you have 500 more words on your WIP.
Now, creating a writing practice may not be your wish. Your wish may be to write your grandma’s memoir. Creating a writing practice is just a way to do that.
But writing grandma’s memoir may not be your actual wish either. Why do you want to write grandma’s memoir?
I am practical to a fault, so I get that this sounds a bit woo-woo hokey, but… if you don’t know your why, you won’t do the work. If you try to do the work for the wrong why, you won’t do the work. (Your brain is sometimes smarter than you… And tricksy.)
Keep asking yourself why until you get to the root answer. You’ll likely find one of two things.
You may find a really good reason for your wish: I wish to preserve grandma’s courage and humor in dealing with breast cancer to use as inspiration for me and my sisters; we’re all readers and love books.
Or you’ll find… you don’t really want to write a book at all. You hate reading (this seems unlikely, if you’ve made it this far, but work with me) and wonder how you will preserve Grandma’s sweet Southern accent in writing. You decide to preserve grandma’s courage in some other, better way.
If you learn you don’t really want to write a book, that’s OK. Now you don’t have to! You don’t have to fret about making time for something you “should” be doing and can move on to something else instead, something you really want to do.
But if you come to a really, really good why, and now you really, really want to write that book, well… keep reading.
O: What is the best outcome if you receive (earn) your wish?
If your wish is fulfilled, if you do the work and earn it, where will you be? What is the best, most positive outcome? What will you have? How will you feel?
This step may also seem a bit woo-woo-y, but this is where you get your motivation. Pursuing any new goal can be a slog (I don’t wanna sit down and write 500 words! The sun just came out for the first time since November!), so you need to know you’re going to get some sort of reward for pursuing that work.
O: What is your main [inner] obstacle for pursuing your wish?
What’s holding you back? Rational or irrational; bad habit or belief? Fear of failure, fear of success? Fear of failing to capture Grandma’s voice in time? Right now, all you need to do is identify anything that’s holding you back.
P: What is your plan for overcoming your obstacles and achieving your wish?
In my opinion, this is the most important step. What will you do to overcome your obstacle? What mantra will you tell yourself, what sign will you post, what action will you perform?
Think of an if this/then that scenario:
If [obstacle], then I will [action].
If I feel fear of failure, then I will breathe deep and say to myself, “The only failure is not writing at all.”
Lather, rinse, repeat
This is where I diverge a bit from the original WOOP training: I think these last two steps (Obstacle and Plan) are a loop. Once you discover one obstacle and create a plan to solve it, you may uncover two more. These obstacles may run the gamut from the profound to the absurd. It tends to depend on the creativity and resistance of your brain to change. (See? Tricksy.)
I'm sorry. I cannot write today. There's a cat sitting on my laptop...
Identify and solve just enough obstacles so you can get the job started. Don’t run into analysis paralysis. And don’t worry about perfection. Done is way better than perfect, and perfect is impossible.
Breaking it down further: A specific writing plan
You may need to jump to Plan before you can go back to Obstacle (and then back to Plan…). The more specific your plan is for your writing practice, the more obstacles you can suss out and solve.
When you think about creating your writing practice, consider:
What's your specific plan?
When you have a specific plan, you can think about specific obstacles, and then come up with specific solutions.
I plan to write in my kitchen, on my laptop, right after the kid goes to school.
Obstacle: the kid is home sick.
Plan: If the kid is home sick, I will turn the TV on low and let him watch a show while I write.
So? What’s your plan? Brainstorming is one of my hobbies, and a great way for me to procrastinate... feel free to comment about any obstacles you need help planning around!
You want to write a book, but… it ain’t happening. You tell yourself you’ll make time to write, but you don’t. You tell yourself you’ll wait for the muse to strike, but she doesn’t. If you truly want to write that book, then you need to create a writing practice: a plan that develops into a habit that trains the muse to wait on you.
“Making time” isn’t working because, you’re busy. We’re all busy. We’ve got to make dinner and help with the kids’ homework. We’re desperately squeezing in a visit to the gym before work and a call to our moms after. We're exhausted after a full day at work or school and running errands on weekends.
And that busyness and exhaustion just prevents the muse from ever striking, unless it’s in the shower. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep pen and paper in there.
You need a writing practice.
But “practice?” Come on! You left daily practices behind when you were old enough to tell your mom you didn’t wanna play flute anymore!
Benefits of a writing practice
When I talk about a writing practice, I do sort of mean those hated flute practices: A consistent time and place and goal for your writing.
Writing regularly gets you three benefits:
You actually write
But that won’t happen if you don’t put your butt in your chair and put your fingers on your keyboard.
You have to actually write instead of just dream about it.
You create a habit by writing regularly
A habit is a set of behaviors or actions that you do without deciding to do them or without thinking about how to do them. Habits explain why you can still sing songs you first learned in your teen years, even if it’s been 5 or 15 or 25 years since you last heard the song. Habits explain how you can drive yourself to work or school without remembering how you got there.
If you want to write a single novel, you need, on average, 75,000 words. If you write 500 words every weekday, you’ll have written a book-length work in 30 weeks (if I did my math right!) or 8 months.
8 months to write a single book may seem like a long time. But if you have to decide and plan each and every one of those 150 days when and where you’re going to write… you won’t see a book at the end of those 8 months. You’ll be kicking yourself, again, that you’re still not writing.
You need to create a writing practice to avoid trying to “make time” every single day.
You improve your writing by practicing
Writing crappy words and then revising them is all well and good, but that can sure get tedious. With practice (i.e., repeated effort), your writing WILL get better and you’ll have to revise less. Or, more likely, you’ll be able to spot different things to revise, things that you used to need a critique partner to point out to you.
Perhaps when you first start writing your novel all you do is tell, tell, tell and you never show anything. That’s OK. That’s what revision is for.
But, if you write regularly, you’ll learn to catch yourself when you tell, tell, tell. You’ll know that now is the time to add in some action or dialog or description to break that telling up.
As you read regularly in your genre, the conventions of that genre will start to show up in your writing. If you read how-to-write books, some of that advice will also show up in your writing. Your writing will improve.
You’ll still need to revise, but your revision will go up a level. Instead of looking for show-don’t-tell, maybe now you’re looking for story structure: does this scene work in this location?
In other words, the better your writing, the more self-editing you can do, the less you’ll pay someone like me.
You need to write regularly so you can save mone… Er…
You need to write regularly to improve your skills.
What's your plan?
A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without ever putting a word on paper.
When you think about creating your writing practice, consider:
The more specific you can be in your planning, the more likely you are to succeed at creating a practice to write regularly, and the more likely you are to complete that book.
How can I help?
What's your plan? What are your obstacles? Share them in the comments. Maybe one of us can help you get around those obstacles so you can start writing!
Writing prompts ripped from the headlines...
To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called "dirty" radioactive bomb.
Usage note: klaxon is a trademarked word that has become used generically, like Band-Aids, so you'll sometimes see it capitalized Klaxon.
My early-warning system set off an imaginary klaxon.
(The Dresden Files)
It was only on the third thought that she recognized them, as from the corridor outside, muffled by the door, an alarm klaxon began to hoot rhythmically.
Shards of Honor
Louis McMaster Bujold
I read, and then I tell you about what I've read. Whether you want to hear about it or not...