Playing to Refill Your Creative Reservoir

Sometimes writing is a joyful thing for me. The words flow and the act of putting together a story fills me with creativity and excitement.

Other times…it’s not so joyful. It’s stressful and draining and takes more out of me than I feel I have to give, especially when there are external, real-life sorts of things going on to distract me. Some people might write well in that state, but I certainly am not one of them. (And if you are one, I am deeply envious of you!)

So what can you do when you feel empty of all creativity? When you know what you want to write and how the story should be, but you just can’t seem to figure out how to get there?

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One thing I’ve found that helps me through those times is to take a break and to play. Last summer, right after finishing my first semester in my MFA program and feeling pretty drained, I spent hours and hours with my hot glue gun making wands for a Harry Potter birthday party. And I loved it. I never had a firm plan in mind for each wand, I just messed around with the glue, playing with it until I liked the shape I ended up with. The same thing happened when I painted them. I let myself play with different colors and thicknesses. The act of creating, of letting myself play, filled me and I was able to return to my writing both inspired and rejuvenated.

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Even something as simple as playing the piano or singing as I clean the bathroom can be rejuvenating and leave me in a better mental place to come back to my writing. I have friends who sew or do calligraphy or draw in order to refill their creative reservoirs. And sometimes, I’ll even play around with other writing projects. Picture books and silly poetry are especially good for me.

We recently moved and, I have to admit, my creativity levels have been at a rather low point. (Who knew that the exhaustion from packing up your life and moving around tons of boxes could be so draining?) But I still have deadlines for school and things I need to get done. So what am I going to do?

I’m going to go play.

What about you? What do you do to refill your creative reservoirs? What’s your favorite way to play?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Learning from Picture Books and Why Non-Picture Book Writers Might Want to Try Them

Recently, I took a picture book class. Although I’d played around with picture books in the past, this was the first time I’d seriously applied myself to it. To be honest, picture books had always kind of scared me. I’d hear people talk about them and they would talk about how hard picture books are, how every word counts, and basically how every page is born out of blood, tears, and pain.

And I don’t really like blood, tears, and pain. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs.

I signed up for the class, though, because I wanted to try something different. I needed a break from what I was working on and picture books—despite the blood, tears, and pain—would be vastly different.

Rather to my surprise, I found that picture books aren’t born solely from the author’s misery. There are miserable, hard moments, yes, but there’s also joy and fun and play involved in them as well. I learned many things from that class that have helped my writing in other areas.

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1. Freedom to write badly. One of the best things for me about this class was how freeing it was. I had no expectations of writing anything great, especially not a first draft, and that let me experiment and try things I never would have tried before. All too often, I have an idea and a story that I love, but the first drafts are so very drafty. It’s discouraging, especially when I thought it would be so good! (I know first drafts are supposed to be bad, but I often don’t internalize that.) Writing in a new genre and giving myself space to write imperfectly, to learn, and to grow was so freeing for me.

2. Structure. I also loved looking at structure in a new light. I’ve often struggled with structure, but picture books were short enough that I could really start to pick out how the author was using structure to tell the story. This was so helpful for me!

3. Playing with Words. Another thing I learned from picture books was how to compact words to speed up a story or how to spread them out to slow it down. This kind of goes along with structure, but applies to the individual scenes instead of to the story as a whole entity.

4. Visualization of scenes. I am not an artist, but trying to visualize my words, trying to imagine them as illustrations, was such a good exercise. It’s one I’ve started to use with my work aimed at older audiences. If the scene couldn’t be illustrated with more than one picture (ie, if no one is doing anything besides talking for pages), then there’s a problem.

5. Change in Perspective. Most picture books are aimed at kids between the ages of 3-8 years. Kids that age see the world very differently. For me, the exercise of trying to slip into that very young perspective was both challenging and exhilarating. They are fascinated by things I scarcely notice, they want to learn and to know and to understand. This was an exercise that has also helped me with my work for older readers. I’ve started to think of my characters in terms of how they see the world, what they notice, what they want to know, and what they want.

I don’t know if I will become a picture book writer or not, but the things I’ve learned from this class will be invaluable for me in the future. If you’ve never tried to write them, go ahead and let yourself play! Give yourself permission to write badly and you just might learn something.

Have any of you tried writing in a completely different genre?How did it go? What did you learn?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Writing Whiny Characters

I picked up a book the other day that sounded like it might be a really fun read and just the kind of thing I was looking for. But after struggling through the first chapters over a couple of days (which is unusually slow for me), I finally put the book down in puzzlement. Why was this book not working for me? The writing was fine, the situation was interesting, so what was the problem?

The problem was that the main character was so whiny. All she did was complain about her situation, how she didn’t like being the poor relation, and how it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. This made her really unlikable and not someone I wanted to spend hundreds of pages with.

It’s hard to have an unhappy character with legitimate complaints about their lives and still make them likable to readers. Or, if not likable, at least to craft a story that still pulls readers into it. Since there are times when you might need to start a story with a character like this, I wanted to talk about some of the ways I’ve seen it successfully dealt with.

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1. Add humor. Often a character can go from irritatingly whiny to someone readers like and cheer for by giving them a sense of humor, whether it’s self-deprecating or dry or whatever fits them best. Adding humor is a great way to make an unhappy character more likable.

2. Contrast them with another character. This is something J.K. Rowling did well in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like the book I mentioned earlier, Harry is also a poor relative in unpleasant circumstances. Some of his unhappy thoughts are even voiced in the 3rd person narrative. But Harry (at least in this book) does not come across as whiny because he is in such stark contrast to Dudley. Dudley who is throwing a massive fit about only having thirty-six presents. Harry has much worse things to complain about, but because Dudley is being so awful about something so absurd—who gets thirty-six birthday presents?—readers identify with Harry and sympathize with his predicament.

3. Give readers another character to care about. One memorable example of this is the Korean drama The Great Doctor (or Faith, depending on where you’re watching it), which I’ve heard described as “A love story between a man with nothing left to live for and a woman who lives only for herself.” And the woman, Yoo Eun-Soo, in the beginning of the show is absolutely awful. Whiny, spoiled, selfish, and all that. But so many of the other characters (like Lee Min-ho with a sword…) are fascinating and so I was able to overlook my dislike of her in favor of them until she grew and changed into a strong, likable character.

(Not that all characters need to grow and change like that, but I do admire storytellers who can take someone I dislike and make me love and cheer for them as they struggle.)

4. Change the Point-of-View. The book I mentioned earlier was told in first person point-of-view, which be grating if you need to have your character in a miserable situation and so obviously unhappy about it. Harry Potter, in contrast, is in a third person point-of-view, which makes the unhappiness more palatable for readers since the complaining and unhappiness isn’t so close. So if you need to start your story like this and are struggling with making an empathetic character, consider changing the POV.

5. Change the Tense. This worked well in The Hunger Games because readers only get the emotions Katniss feels at a particular moment in the present tense narrative. So even though her situation is awful and the story is told through her first person POV, it’s filtered through each moment so readers aren’t forced to deal with all of the years of pent-up anger and frustration dumping down on them in the first couple chapters.

What about you? What are some ways you’ve seen authors deal with whiny characters, particularly at the beginning of a story? Who are some whiny characters that you loved despite their flaws?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Revealing Character Through Dialogue

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the dialogue in movies and TV shows, particularly ways that writers differentiate each character’s voice. One of my favorite moments is in The Avengers movie. (Joss Whedon is a genius at creating unique character voices.) There are lots of great moments in that movie, but this one really highlights how important a character’s background is in creating their dialogue.

When Nick Fury says he wants to know how Loki turned Hawkeye and Selvig into his flying monkeys,

Thor responds: “Monkeys? I do not understand.”

“I do!” Captain America says. “I understood that reference.”

This moment works so well because Fury references an iconic movie, one that most people are familiar with even if they haven’t seen it. Thor, though, isn’t from our world, he’s probably never heard of The Wizard of Oz (or the musical Wicked), and he has no basis for understanding Fury’s reference. (Just like Coulson has no reference for understanding when Thor compares himself to a bilge snipe.)

On the other hand, Captain America missed out on 70 years of mainstream culture, but The Wizard of Oz was released before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and before the Unites States entered WWII. So he actually got that reference, unlike so many other references in the movie.

This exchange provides some humor and lightness in the movie, yes, but more than that, it reminds the viewers of who the characters are and where they’ve been. Also, because each line of dialogue is so true to who the character is, it makes this movie with the flying ships and superpowers feel more grounded. It feels real because the dialogue is consistent with who the characters claim to be. If Thor caught pop culture references or compared himself to a hippo instead of a bilge snipe, it would make him less believable as a character.

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Knowing your character’s background, knowing what references they will catch and what they’ll miss, is an important part of creating unique character dialogue.

So who is your character? What do they know? What don’t they know? Do they know what palimpsest is? Would they they understand the joke if they heard someone say: A scarab walked into a bar and asked, “Can I have this stool?” Or would they groan and roll their eyes if someone said: “Did you hear about the chemist that got stuck in England? London forces…”

Once you know who your character is and what their frame of reference is for the world, you can use that understanding to create dialogue that is unique to them.

What are some of your favorite techniques to help with dialogue? Do you have any recommendations for TV shows or movies that have excellent dialogue?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Role Playing Games: An Unexpected Resource for Writers

My daughter’s class is doing a fantasy writing unit in school. As part of this unit, she was assigned to create two characters as homework. The assignment wasn’t coming together the way she wanted it to and she was getting more and more frustrated. I tried to help her, but that, uh, didn’t work well.

Finally, I picked up the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook and handed it to her, suggesting she look specifically at the sections on backgrounds and personal characteristics.

And it worked! She didn’t necessarily find the answers she was looking for, but the exercise sparked ideas that led her to figuring out her own problem.

This isn’t a huge surprise that this helped with character creation since the point of games like this is to create your own character that can move through stories guided by the dungeon master or the DM (sometimes called the game master or the GM). One of the main purposes of the Player’s Handbook is to help players create interesting characters by having them think about things like the character’s alignment (are they good or evil? lawful or not? Etc.) and their background.

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One of my favorite additions to the newest Dungeons and Dragons edition is the inclusion of tables for different personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for the different backgrounds. If you like randomness and are writing a fantasy, you can even roll a dice to determine who your character is. What I prefer, though, is to flip through it and look at the different options. Like my daughter, I usually don’t find things that perfectly fit the character idea I have in my head, but it gives me ideas that lead me to the right answers. For me, it has a similar effect to brainstorming aloud with another person.

These traits and characteristics don’t just apply to high fantasies, though, but almost all of them can be translated into a contemporary or historical context. For example, one of the personality traits for a Folk Hero is that they “misuse long words in an attempt to sound smarter” (131). Most of us have met someone like this.

Mostly, I like that the Player’s Handbook gets me thinking about my characters and my story in a different way. Plus, it’s a pretty fun game and we’ve found that, with a few adjustments, it works well on long road trips.

But what about you? What resources have you found recently that have you looking at your work in a different way?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Tips for Getting Through a Revision

I love to draft stories. I love the freedom to play with ideas, to go wherever my imagination takes me, and the lack of pressure that comes with that messy first draft.

Revision? Yeah…not so much.

I expect my first draft to be terrible, so I’m not undone when it isn’t amazing. When I revise, though, I start to expect that the story is going to be good, but it often isn’t, at least not right away, and I get all dramatic and woe-is-me about it.

Lately I’ve been working on revising a project. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on, but it’s also taught me a lot. So even though it often feels like this revision is going to eat me alive, it’s been a very valuable experience.

What I have learned so far:

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1. Don’t give yourself an out

As soon as I tell myself I don’t have to do it or I let myself start to dabble with that shiny new idea, I’m lost. The shiny new idea takes over and soon I have another messy new draft that needs to be revised and the cycle begins again. I can’t let myself even think about not finishing or I won’t do it.

2. Break it down into manageable parts

One of the biggest problems I faced with this revision was knowing where to even start. There was so much that needed to be fixed that I was completely overwhelmed. (And, yes, there may have been a couple of days of sulking.) I finally identified a couple of the bigger issue things that were, in my opinion, the most important to fix and started there. When I get ideas for one of the other issues I still need to fix, I write it down, but don’t stress about getting it done yet. This allows my brain to focus on solving the problem at hand instead of bouncing all over the place.

But, seriously, write the other ideas down. I’d forgotten about a couple of things until I found notes to myself on what I wanted to do. They were good ideas, too, but ones I never would have remembered had I not written them down.

3. Point out what is working

Often in a revision I spend so much time looking at what is wrong that I forget to think about what is right. I get caught in a negative spiral and soon I start to wonder what’s the point of revising. I mean, the whole thing is so terribly, irredeemably awful, so why bother trying?

It’s not a helpful mindset.

Instead, when I come across a sentence that flows well or an idea that I like, I try to acknowledge it and that positivity helps me keep going.

4. Don’t be afraid to tear it apart and put it back together

One of the hardest things for me is the fear that I’ll make the WIP even worse through the revision. I’ve done it in the past and revised the life out of a piece, so it’s not an unreasonable fear. But it is one that haunts me and keeps me from moving forward. With this revision, I made a copy and then deliberately messed it up. I changed things around and then left it like that for a while to see if it worked. And it did! But more than that, by ripping part of it up, I freed myself from the fear of making it worse. It wasn’t perfect, but I could see that it was getting better. This fear was holding me back, making me afraid to even start, but by messing it up on purpose, I was able to acknowledge the fear and work through it.

5. Deadlines

I’m fortunate to have a due date for this revision and knowing that someone else is expecting to see a revision and will hold me accountable makes a big difference for me. If you don’t have an agent or editor or professor or whatever, find someone who will hold you accountable for getting the revision done.

6. Bribery

And, yes, when all else fails, I resort to bribing myself. The hardest part of a revision for me is starting it. After that, the second hardest part is finishing that last 15%. When I’m so close that I can see the end, I find myself doing a slapdash job just to race to being done. But that’s not actually finishing, not when it’s a revision. So, yeah, I bribe myself to slow down and do it right.

What about you? Do you prefer to draft or revise? Do you have any other revision tips you can share with me?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Building Up Others Through Critiquing

A couple months ago, I heard someone talk about his experiences with a demolition project in a nearby city. He talked about surveying the property and how they set up the charges and what it felt like watching the building come down.

But then he made the comment that they were able to destroy in less than a day what took months—or possibly even years—to build. He said, “It is much, much easier to destroy something than it is to build it.”

I’ve thought about this a lot since then and about what, within my sphere of influence, I can build up rather than destroy. And I’m trying to do those things. Somethings are small things, like trying to smile and say, “Good morning,” to more people as I walk down the street or choosing to be happy instead of grumpy (which is often harder than it looks).

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There are other things, too, like critiquing manuscripts. It’s easy for me to be impatient and see only the perceived flaws in something. But that’s not the best way. One thing that has really impressed me with the workshops in my master’s program is how kind almost everyone is. They are so good at pointing out the good and encouraging growth instead of tearing down. This kind of attitude, where no one is trying to prove how much better they are by trashing someone else’s project, allows everyone to learn better.

I know I learn better that way. I learn so much better when someone points out what I’m doing right rather than focusing solely on what I’m doing wrong. And I know in parenting that kids do much better when they’re praised and encouraged instead of constantly yelled at. That’s just human nature.

But it’s oh, so much easier to destroy something than it is to build it up…

Wait, you might be saying. Isn’t critiquing supposed to point out the problems?

In a way. Critiquing is intended to help writers improve, but they first need some idea of what’s working. It’s also important for writers (who tend to be neurotic and in need of lots of reassurance) to know what they’re doing well and to feel like they have potential. And then, once they know that, you can encourage them to improve the other things, the things that aren’t working so well, to the same level as the good.

It’s not always easy to critique a manuscript like that, but I’ve found that when I go to a manuscript looking for the good, I can always find it. And when I start focusing on that, I can start to see where I can improve my own writing in subtle ways that I hadn’t noticed before. So instead of picking up a critique looking to find out what’s bad in it (and no book is ever perfect), try to look for the good and help that to grow. Try to build up and encourage and you might be surprised at what you learn along the way.

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.