Tag Archives: characterization

Writing Life: Clustering

How many of my loves use clustering as an initial plotting technique?  Anyone?  Well, I’m here to give you as many reasons as I can why you should.

Let’s start with this: clustering empties your brain.  The rules of clustering state that you need to write down ANYTHING that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t connect to anything else.  Write it down, no matter how ridiculous, because you never know when you’ll find that gem that connects points A and C with the ever-elusive B.  It’s like really messy, bullet-point free-writing.

My good friend Coffee over at The Land of Man-Eating Pixies recently posted about something her shop teacher said, and it’s really brilliant.  It’s the ENTIRE reason I swear by clustering (even if he wasn’t talking about clustering =P).

“Your brain is filled with stupid. There’s layers and layers and layers of stupid in your brain. So you have to give yourself fifteen minutes and a couple sheets of paper, and you have to write down every idea that pops into your mind. Even the ones that suck. Because you have to empty out all that stupid and maybe something halfway decent will trickle out. And you’ll be like, ‘WHOA WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? THAT’S ACTUALLY KIND OF GOOD.’ And the only reason you’ll have that halfway decent idea is because you emptied out all the stupid.”

I adore her for sharing this.  You guys need to visit her blog.  MOVING ON.  Yes, you need to empty out all the crappy ideas, because you never know when one crappy idea winds up as an integral part of your hook.

What is clustering?  Let me illustrate.

Messy photography, I apologize.

1.  Color-coded legend!  You don’t have to use highlighter, but I do.  Yellow for settings and locations, pink for characters and character relationships, and orange for groups and organizations.

2.  The actual cluster.  You start by writing a name, an event, a setting, plot point, etc. in the center.  From that center point, you write any connection you can make to it, then you branch off by making connections to the connections.  On the lines that connect them, you can write why their connected, catalysts, necessary information, etc.  Seriously, write ANYTHING that comes to mind.  If it doesn’t connect, don’t connect it.  If you don’t like it later, take it out.  In this way, clustering functions like free-writing; removing any mental blocks you may have between A and B and giving you deeper insight into the connections between characters and events in your story.

3.  Bullet points that detail this and that within the cluster.  If I hit on a point I like, I toss it up in the bullet points.  Sometimes it even turns into a faint starter outline.  It’s handy.

4.  Believe it or not, this is actually part of the original cluster.  It erupted into a detailed plan and layout of the city in which this all takes place.  All I’m missing is the drawing.  It’s easy to get carried away in clustering, after all, and that’s encouraged!  Anything that propels you forward.

Need a better view on each point?  I’m going to leave out number 1, since I think I can assume we all know how to work a legend.  I’ll also add another apology for the poor photography.


3.  (Don’t you love my handwriting?  It’s like someone blindfolded a toddler and handed him a Bic pen.)


Whew.  There we go.  See in 4?  Above the mess of setting details, it’s linked to my cluster.  It all connects somehow or other.  I’m sort of grateful for my crappy photography in the first two pictures.  It keeps some of my details super-secret.  =P

In any case, that’s clustering!

Do you use clustering?  Are there other pre-outline development techniques you prefer?  How do you handle your initial ideas?


Filed under Writing Life

Over My Head

So, I’m working on the next installment of Phae/Tully, and I realize that I’ll need at LEAST 6 MORE ENTRIES until I get to the point in the time line where Stitches took place.  And 3 more entries until I can introduce Felix again.  Ugh.

Right now, this is what it looks like:

1. A Letter from Count Malrais
2. Phaedra Meets Tully (Which I think I’m just going to call Tully, it’s less clumsy.)
3. Unreleased Entry. Phae/Tully  —  Posting Monday, 03/14/11
4. Unreleased Entry. Phae/Tully
5. Unreleased Entry. Phae/Tully
6. Unreleased Entry. Felix
7. Unreleased Entry. Felix
8. Unreleased Entry. Phae/Tully & Felix
9. Stitches

And so on.

So.  That installment was poorly timed.  =P

This week I’m posting a featured blog on Wednesday and another on Thursday to make up for my slacking last week.  Friday’s exercise is already in the drafts and ready for posting.  I’m on track, kids, I promise!  Just got a little sidetracked this week. <3

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Filed under Life, Writing

Exercise 3: Let’s Chat

I was having a rough time figuring out exactly what I should do for an exercise this week, but I know I promised you guys an exercise in characterization.  The week before last, during Exercise 1, I asked you to write a letter or diary entry from your character’s point of view, and it seemed like people had a harder time with it than I expected.  So I did some hunting.

Writing Forward, by Melissa Donovan, is a fantastic creative writing blog that offers the reader dozens of ways to improve their writing.  If you have even the remotest desire to get into writing, I really recommend you go there to at least check it out.

This is part of a post about getting into character, and your exercise this week:

Exercise #1: Chat

Launch your word processing software and start up a conversation with your character. Most of us have engaged in online chat or instant messaging. This is the same idea. If chat is not a comfortable medium for you, then try composing emails back and forth between you and your character.

Before you start, you might want to come up with a list of questions to ask your character. Also, this is a great exercise to use when you get stuck in a story that doesn’t want to move forward. Simply chat with your character to try and find out what’s holding him back from taking the next step.

Your chat might look something like this:

ME: So, you’re hearing voices in your head and you’re not sure whether you’ve gone crazy or are telepathic.

CHARACTER: Obviously, I’m telepathic. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in telepathy. I know you do.

ME: How could you possibly know something like that?

CHARACTER: Because I am reading your mind right now.

–>>I want to make it clear that all credit for this post goes to Melissa Donovan over at Writing Forward.  I didn’t change or tweak the exercise in any way.  It is completely her work.  Also, her blog is fantastic and you should read it.  =]



Jessi at A BA in BS – A conversation with George.


Filed under Writing, Writing Exercise Friday

Featured Blog: A BA in BS

For my ‘Featured Blog’ post every Wednesday, I decided that I only wanted to feature blogs that offer tools or insight to budding writers.  And after two solid days of scouring WordPress, going through my blog roll (and there are quite a few of you that are on my list to be featured, by the way), and agonizing over who I would choose for my first blog post, I decided on… *drumroll*

A BA in BS by Jessi Peterson

I know, I know, it looks like I’m playing favorites, but I swear I’m not.  =P  Jessi’s blog includes a new series of posts called “The Writer’s Toolbox” and also a whole string of webinars related to the content presented at our Inkwell Imaginings (a weekly workshop and critique circle) meetings.  Along with useful tidbits like the aforementioned, you’ll also catch her posting fantastic tidbits of flash fiction and character studies.  Definitely worth a look (and a place on your blogroll) so get to it!

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Filed under Featured Blog, Writing

Exercise 1: “Dear Diary”

Very first writing exercise for G&L! Keep in mind that there are no rules, really. Tweak the exercise as you need to tweak it. If you participate, but don’t feel like sharing, that’s just fine, too.

We all have characters that we don’t know as deeply as we should, and as a result they come across as flat and drab in our fiction. In a night class I took several years ago, my teacher insisted that those of us having a hard time hearing our characters’ voices try writing a diary entry from their perspective. It doesn’t matter if the character is your hero, your villain, or a side character whose purpose seems lost but you know belongs in your story. Even if you come up with multiple entries, as long as you provide a link (if you plan to share) you’re welcome to share as many as you like. Remember, you have from Friday until the following Thursday to send me your links to include on that exercise’s post.

To recap!

Exercise for February 18, 2011: Write a diary entry for a character you don’t know very well, detailing the bits about him/her you’re unsure about. Use his/her voice. Don’t edit, let it come naturally, and you might be surprised what your character has to say. =]

Good luck!


Jessi at A BA in BS  – An entry by George

Chris at Expiscor ex iter itineris

Moi! – A letter from Felix


Filed under Writing, Writing Exercise Friday

The Role of Gaming in My Writing

I’m a gamer.  Well, a lapsed gamer as of late, actually.  This new lack of gaming in my life has led me to consider just how role-playing affected my writing.

Have you role-played?  Table-top, play-by-post, LARP?

The role-playing process starts with creating a character.  In table-top gaming and LARP, there will be a set of rules, guidelines, and restrictions you create your character by so that s/he fits into the universe transcribed in the handbooks and players manuals.  In play-by-post, it’s usually left to the player’s discretion, however, combat has it’s own set of guidelines depending upon the chat client, forum, or individual combatants.

My first role-playing experience was with play-by-post in Yahoo chat rooms back in 2000/2001.  I wasn’t very good at it, mind you, not at the time.  But within a few months, I began using role-playing as a way to test out characters and give them life before I plopped them into a storyline.  My writing was just as awful as my role-playing posts back then, and I recently dug out the notebook that housed some of those ventures and… I have to say it made me cringe.  It also reminded me how much fun writing used to be, using my characters in different mediums before I gave them life in a story.

I still do a little play-by-post RP now and then, though now it’s more for recreation than to test out my characters.  If you’ve never done it, I advocate trying it out.  Taking a character, giving it life in an alternate universe, giving it the option for romance, drama, anguish, and anger outside of your daily writing.  It pits your character against the character created by someone else, it makes your character have to react to what that other character is saying and doing.

It keeps you thinking on your feet.

It gives your character a new sort of life and consciousness.

It makes you separate what you’d do, and makes you think what s/he’d do.

I’d like to get back into role-playing for that reason.  My characters have new life that way, new quirks, and a much more 3D personality.  Bring me back to my roots!  Maybe make writing fun again and break through this awful barrier.

Table-top RP is fantastic too, but the structure is much more rigid and offers you the chance to act as your character in the situations the GM/DM throws at you.  Still fun!  But not as useful (to me, anyway) in working through my writing and character blocks.

Any spiffy gamers among my readers?  What are your experiences with role-playing and your writing?


Filed under Writing

Kill the “conflict argument” – Holly Lisle

So, you guys have probably learned my ridiculous love and respect for Holly Lisle by now, I’m sure.  Well, this is her latest e-mail tip.  I thought that my awesome writer friends wouldn’t mind a peek.

Holly’s Tip — Kill the “conflict argument.”

I get some questions in my mailbox that just HAVE to go out to a
wider audience that the person asking them, and this question from
Shanice is a perfect example.  She writes:

Dear Holly,

I am a beginning writer, who on the recommendation of a friend of
mine, subscribed up to your “Holly’s Tip” email… thingy… (Sorry
at the moment I cannot think of a better word than thingy) and I
would like to say that it has helped me so much I cannot begin to
describe it (well I could but it would bore you to death).

However, one problem I continually run into, when writing, is
conflict. I cannot write anything above a minor argument, I just
don’t know how to. I’ve tried looking over conflicts that have
happened in my life, and I’m lucky to say that they have only been
minor, which doesn’t help my writing unfortunately. Whether it be a
fight between two friends, or a fight which leads to a war, I just
cant seem to write what would happen, and if by some chance I do
manage to write a conflict, its so easily resolved it essentially
becomes useless for me to put it in there in the first place. So, I
was wondering, would you be able to gave me a few tips on writing

Yours Sincerely,


The first thing you HAVE to know to write good conflict is that
while arguments and fights are conflict, CONFLICT IS NOT ARGUMENTS.

On a sheet of plain paper, draw a HUGE circle—the biggest you can
put on the page.  It’s okay if it’s lopsided.

Now, somewhere inside the circle, draw a tiny, tiny circle.  TINY.
You can see a little bit of white on the inside of the circle, but
an ant could not turn around in it without crossing outside of it.

Label the big circle CONFLICT.  Label the little circle ARGUMENTS

Arguments are about the worst and least interesting form of
conflict to put into fiction.  They’re rarely relevant, they’re
frequently bitchy, and they almost never move your story forward.

If you’re looking for conflict, you address the following three

POINT ONE: WHAT does my character NEED to do more than
anything else in the world?

This question is the heart of whatever story you’re writing—if it
isn’t the actual summary of your story, you’re either writing about
the wrong character, or you’re telling the wrong story.

(In scenes featuring secondary characters, you ask the same
question, but the need will be different, and generally less
directly connected to your main story).

POINT TWO: WHO OR WHAT stands in the way of your character
RIGHT NOW to prevent him from doing what he NEEDS to do?

You ask THIS question on a scene-by-scene basis, and it will cover
everything from direct attacks by your primary antagonist to the
woman on the subway having a baby to your hero’s bad head cold,
depending on your scene and its circumstances.

POINT THREE: WHY does your reader care?

You can also ask this question as “WHAT are the stakes?” but you
can convince yourself to hang on to a pointless, boring scene with
that question.  From personal experience, I’ve discovered if you
ask why your reader should care, it’s a lot harder to lie to
yourself about needing the scene.


Bob NEEDS to rescue his girlfriend Kate, who has been kidnapped by
a wacko admirer and would-be rival.

Three potential conflicts for the scene:

1) He’s spotted her in a crowd, and is racing to her.  A woman
stops him to ask him the time, delaying his pursuit and causing him
to lose sight of her.


2) He gets the phone call from the kidnapper, and afterwards argues
with his buddy—who was with him during the call—over whether he
should go to the police or not.


3) He’s taking ransom money to a designated drop point when he
realizes that the drop point is a trap and the kidnapper wants to
kill him to get him out of the way.

Take a minute, and write down why you would or wouldn’t use each of
these conflicts.  I’ll wait.   :-)



. . . . These dots are me waiting, and giving you some white space
so you won’t read ahead and see my answers. . .







Conflict #1 just sucks.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
does something stupid/ Bad thing gets worse BECAUSE character does
something stupid.

You don’t sell a story using stupidity as your plot device.

Your hero sees the love of his life in a crowd, being dragged away
by a lunatic, and he actually allows himself to be stopped for a
pointless question from some equally pointless stranger?

HOW can your reader care about an idiot whose priorities are so
obviously nonexistent?

He can’t, he won’t, and you’ll lose a reader.

Conflict #2 is irrelevant.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
does nothing/ nothing changes.

Heroes take action.  They do not sit on their butts arguing with
their friends about whether or not they SHOULD take action.

TALKING IS NOT ACTION, no matter how many bull-session yakkers
think that arguing the future of the world over pizza is going to
actually affect the future of the world.

Any argument that does not happen WHILE characters are DOING
something that actually moves the story forward has no place in
your story.

Your reader will watch these two fools sitting on their couch
arguing, and he’ll think, “What’s the kidnapper doing to his victim
while they’re doing nothing?”  And he’ll close your book and go
shoot evil aliens on his X-Box.

Conflict #3 is solid.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
takes action/ Action takes character deeper into trouble.

Bob does SOMEthing—and it’s something that should fix the
situation, if the kidnapper were an honorable man.

But kidnappers aren’t honorable, and as Bob and his bag of
hard-earned bucks are walking into the dark alley, Bob’s sudden
realization that the kidnapper can have his money AND his life, and
get his girl at the same time, will give your reader something to
care about.

WHAT your character needs.
WHO stands between him and it.
WHY we care.

Write with joy,


P.S. These are conflict’s baby steps, and I cover this material in
much more depth in How To Think Sideways
as well as from a completely different angle in in How To Revise
Your Novel.

But this will get you started, and will keep you from making the
awful “argument as conflict” mistake while you’re writing.

This email is Copyright Holly Lisle. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any portion of this email is strictly
prohibited without the express written consent of
Holly Lisle.

Get your own copy of this newsletter here:


While doubting that Ms. Lisle will ever read this, I’d like to extend my well-wishes.  She’s been ill, and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong (except that it’s not a brain tumor or an aneurysm), so “Get well soon, Holly!”

I hope you all enjoy the tip.


Filed under Life, Writer's Group, Writing

Write What You DON’T Know!

Back on the third of June, Miss Rosemary posted a blog entry entitled Write What You Know. I’m here, not to counter it exactly, but to expand upon it.   I know, it’s taken me a lifetime getting this posted, but life exploded, and let me tell you… the hunt for the article I got this from was a nightmare.  I give full credit to Ms. Holly Lisle, who has taught me so many things over my years trying to write seriously.  Her site, wisdom, and encouragement has been with me since I was a sophomore in high school, and I appreciate everything that she’s offered the writing community.

Write what you know.  Seriously.  It’s absolutely critical that you draw from your own experience when you’re writing.  It makes your characters, settings, senses, and story so much more believable when there’s a human connection and experience linked to it.  I would never tell anyone to abandon writing what they know.  That would be ignorant and stupid.

What I do want to say is that: what you know is incredibly limited. I don’t care who you are, you can’t possibly know everything to muddle through certain parts of writing.  You don’t have to have been a corrupt general of the US Army to write about a corrupt general of the US Army.  One of the many amazing things I love about writing is that it forces you to learn, to research, to better yourself intellectually to take that leap into believable fiction.

Combine your experiences with research.  If you aren’t willing to research, you’re going to look stupid.  You’ll end up showing a 14th century Scottish Highland woman drinking coffee one morning as she stands looking out of her door.  We don’t want that ridiculosity, do we?

‘Ridiculosity’ is a word.  I penciled it into the dictionary myself.  You’re welcome.

In any case, a writer’s job is not just to write, but to give the reader a sense of reality beyond their own.  (Holly Lisle even suggests reading quantum physics books to build a better system of magic.  I’m not quite so gung-ho, but you get the idea. =P)  Read fiction and non-fiction.  Science, history, and philosophy.  Religion, romance, plays, and poetry.

Read and research so that writing what you don’t know once again falls into the realm of writing what you do know.


Filed under Uncategorized, Writer's Group, Writing

CPR from Other Artists to Get Your Creative Flow Going

At a recent gathering of friends, my best friend’s fiance made a statement at breakfast that made me think about how I get my inspiration.  He said:

“Writers never read in their own genre for fear of contaminating their writing.  It’s a fact.”

Um.  Is it a fact?  Because I don’t see any statistics posted on this topic.  Let me just make a few points from my OWN experience.

1.  I’ve never met a writer who has only written in one genre.

2.  I’ve met at least a handful of writers who get irritated that their writing has to be classified as a genre.  (Mostly because certain bits of fiction are hard to categorize, not so much for a hatred of labels. Labels aid in marketing after all.)

3.  As far as I’ve experienced, it’s essential for a writer to read within and outside of the genre s/he is currently writing, if only just to see what’s been done to death.  Combining and twisting genre barriers is a great way to get a fresh spin on something that has been done to death, and how can you do that if you don’t get a wide sampling of what’s out there?

Books are not the be all and end all of inspiration, either!

Movies, music, art, and life are all massive contributors to my plot soup!  And why shouldn’t they be?

For instance, I’m watching Inkheart right now because I loved the book, and I have a ridiculous crush on Paul Bettany — the movie gives me the best of both worlds.  It inspires me, not to plagiarize the story or the bare idea, but to breathe that kind of believability, conviction, and life into my characters!  Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book, and think, “This is the feel I’m going for–if I strike out this, this, and this, and add a little this, that, and the other thing.”

Crushes on Paul Bettany are inspiring, too, right?

Artists, writers, musicians… they create to inspire. I see no reason to deny them that because I’m too afraid I’m not capable of creating something of my own mind and heart.

After all:

“I’d rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer.”

~Jack Smith


Filed under Life, Uncategorized, Writing

Now, Without Further Ado ~ King Rue!

This character came to me during a play-by-post RP with a friend, and really, I think he’s my favorite ever.  And he solves a HUGE problem for that weekly-installment project I’ve been working on.  The go-between for Shia and the Otherealm has been ridiculously hazy– until my brain met King Rue.

Let me give you a preview of just how King Rue behaves:

My friend’s character James compared Rue to Loki upon first meeting, after Emil introduced him as “King Rue of the What the fuck is it now, Rue?”

Rue grinned at James.  “I like your friend, Emi-Emi.  Trickster God of the Northmen is too much work for Shiny King of Green Things.”  He puffed his chest out.  “Gods of men are slaves to men, and King Rue is slave to no one.”  He ruffled James’ hair as if he was a little kid saying cute things.

I love him.  Thank you 30 seconds of confusion for exploding Rue into that IM box.  Would you like to hear him explain an age-old treaty?

“Treaty for living with the wood folk.  You make new homes, new clans, new lives, all you want, as long as the clans are respectable.”  Rue stated and tilted his head, his feet still swinging over the edge of the roof, oddly childlike for what appeared to be a grown man.  “Your mama and papa, they teach you things, yes?  They teach you to conduct yourself with trees and wood folk, yes?  You don’t burn us or hurt us, and you give back what you take when you can.  The green ones protect the wood and plant the trees and the red ones protect the waters.  The Silents are like the air and they give us rain.  The three are like the island heartbeat, and the wood folk live with them in peace.  The Dark Ones came against our will, and we fight them always.  A Dark One makes the clan of others now, trying to cause the houses to break.  But you CAN’T break.  If you break, and things fall apart, King Rue and the Fay will have to cleanse the island.  King Rue likes Emi-Emi and his friends here, and doesn’t want that to happen, understand?  King Rue will take the ruined ones away, and give back the ones who are still loyal to the three houses.”

Maybe it’s the fact he talks like he’s five, and in the third person, while still being completely serious…. I dunno.  He makes me squee though!  Yay for Fay!


Filed under Uncategorized, Writing