10 by 10 Character Grid

Today I’m going to share another technique that I learnt from one of these writer self-help books (again the The Creative Writers’ Workshop by Cathy Birch for those interested) that I’ve adapted to my use and found extremely useful in terms of filling out characters. This time, the procedure is really simple: you use a 10 by 10 grid to brainstorm 100 facts about your character on 10 different areas. The original example shown was related to Red Riding Hood and contained information about her in the following areas: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Colour; 4) Music; 5) Talents; 6) Flaws; 7) Moods; 8) Past times and 2 others that I cannot remember but are likely to be other innocuous aspects. After all, the actual book suggested using this exercise as a pure brainstorming exercise. If anything odd comes out, it would have little impact on the actual characterisation while the occasional oddities might even bring out surprises when it comes to plotting.

I applaud this simple idea but I found almost half of the categories too innocuous and of little use in characterisation for me as a genre writer in fantasy. So I adapted them such that my 10 categories are: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Talents; 4) Flaws; 5) Past times; 6) Moods; 7) Values, fears and secrets; 8) Memories; 9) Reactions; 10) Mannerisms, quirks and little habits. I found that after my adaption, this brainstorming exercise involved substantially more meditation than its original form which I felt could be completed in one session uninterrupted. My revised form, however, sometimes required me to complete it over 2 days, especially for all of my main characters. A somewhat unfortunate side effect is that I could not find it in myself to complete the full grid for all of the characters in my book and I’ve found it through the hard way that some of the minor cast became quite hard to write when it came their turn to appear in the story.

Still, I feel lucky that I stumbled upon this approach. Previously, I was using a character profile approach where you basically complete a questionnaire about each character and it was just a dreadful experience. I was never a form-filling person but I can be matter-of-fact about that when required. However, this character profile thing just got on my nerves in some inexplicable way. But to each his own, I say. At the conclusion of this post, I would like to emphasise that what I wrote in my posts are purely personal insights into what worked and not worked for myself and should not be taken as broad-stroke advice on writing craft in any way. Thanks for reading.

Writing from a Sequence of Events

I’ve just realised one major mistake to my approach of transferring plots (or events) to words and this is what I will be sharing in this post. In case you haven’t figured it out, this blog is really more about sharing what I’ve learnt about writing and since I’m just freshly into being a wannabe writer as opposed to hobby writer, my posts will be more centred on how I tackle my mistakes rather than an article centre for all writing related things.

All right, preambles aside, let me first define what I see as the difference between event and plot so that we are all on the same level (not because I’m condescending but just in case everyone has their own definitions which are all different from mine, I’m not using any standard definition out of Fiction Writing 101 so it’s very possible). Event we all know, my own definition of plot is as follows: a plot is a sequence of events with a particular shape or theme.

Now, onto my personal discovery: I’m a bit of a planning freak and my most extensive planning is definitely for the plot aspect of a story. I would go through 7 different stages until I finally have a plan for each scene in each Chapter throughout a book before actually starting on it in spreadsheet form. On this spreadsheet, I summarise the events occurring in each scene in one-liners.  Then in Word, I have to actually pin down in details how events unfold in each single paragraph for a given scene before I can actually write down anything that can go towards my word count. In other words, I’m basically writing purely from the basis of how the sequence of events happen in my story. On this basis, I happily write up to Chapter 14 until feedback from my beta reader came back that makes me go back all the way to re-write from Chapter 2 onwards. His exact words were: “I think you have run rough shod over the story thus without taking time to properly develop plot points… There is a very interesting story there which you wrote but oddly did not respect.”

What exactly was he referring to? Basically, that I’ve kept my heroine too busy with new conflicts and situations that keep coming up in her life but no resolution to any of these conflicts within the first 5 Chapters. Also, that there is no linkage whatsoever between these conflicts that the heroine is experiencing. So what have I tracked down to be the cause of this mistake? The astute of you will probably pick it up already, it’s because I never check all my Chapters link up together. My way of saving each Chapter as separate docs makes worse this oversight. I also do not make adequate planning in advance for exactly how plot hooks that I’ve unconsciously planted, as in I know vaguely how they unfold but never thought about how to properly shepherd them in a given Chapter. Another thing that was picked up by my beta reader in relation to this was that in one scene, I introduced a minor character (who would act as a hook for character and plot development later) and she did nothing at all in the scene, just went by and said hi, prompted some minor changes in behaviour in the other characters before walking off again.

What actions am I putting in place to deal with this? Well, I’m not ditching the saving each Chapter separate habit because it makes editing easier for me in terms of addressing comments from my beta reader. So I’m thinking to take the time out to write a short paragraph of synopsis of last Chapter at the start of going onto a new Chapter. I can probably start making a plot summary document that tracks down the main plot and sub-plots that I’m putting into the story (have I already said that I’m a sub-plot maniac? It doesn’t help that I’m planning to write a 5-book series). I actually made one earlier for a work that I abandoned but somehow when I was planning the current book, the plots and sub-plots were just too fuzzy in my idea and I couldn’t make the same for it.

If you have insights about a similar issue or just want to let your opinion be known, you’re welcome to leave a comment. Otherwise, thanks for reading this post.

Most Ridiculous Excuse made up by a Villain

This is not really writing related but I’ve just finished watching a TV series where the villain made up the most ridiculous excuse I’ve ever heard to justify his actions. I thought it might serve as inspiration somehow as a means of shedding light upon the extent to which the human brain is capable of conjuring excuses as a means of self-defence or just for entertainment values.

The TV series is a spy thriller set in modern day China and basically the villain is the father of the main character. The setup was that the son works for National Security whereas the father had been the secretary to a City Mayor, just recently retired due to terminal illness. When exposed for being “the mole” who’s been leaking out confidential information to international spies, the son went to visit the father and asked him why he betrayed his own country. His father’s answer was, “I did it for you.”

It was mentioned in passing in previous episodes that the main character’s parents had divorced during his childhood, with his father being re-married and totally neglecting him such that the main character was still harbouring a grudge against his own father now. Going back to the scene of the final confrontation between father and son, his father tells him that apparently he regretted his negligence of his son and wanted to make amends. Then the father went on to tell a story where he was tutoring his friend’s son (who was in primary school, at an age that brought back to him fond memories of his own son) on an essay whose topic is “Is money all-powerful?” and how he had originally told the child that he should write, “no, money is not all-powerful, in fact, it is quite dirty and lead people towards corruption.”. The child’s response to that was, “But money can help out children in Africa. Also, if money is dirty, then why is Chairman Mao printed on it?”. According to the father, this then led him onto the stray path he wandered onto because it suddenly occurred to him that he needed to set aside x amount of money for his son so that he can live a good life. He went on to see how through taking small bribes for a period, he achieved his original target but then inflation set in and he had to amend his target and the snowball effect basically set in.

My first reaction upon hearing this was “What?!” and I picture the main character falling into utter confusion over hearing this obviously made up excuse for falling towards the seduction of money.

And that’s all I want to share, for now.

 

Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci Fi or Fantasy

A good reference for world building

Curse Breaker Series

Like I have mentioned in past blog posts, it took me ten years of writing and collecting rejection letters to get to level I am today. And even so I’m still working and still climbing. Always working and always writing to improve my craft. The bad part about going through those ten years is obvious, even the annoyingly cliche parts. The form letters, the future uncertainty, people not interested in looking at your work, people telling you you’re wasting your life and you should do something else. But believe it or not, some good things came out of those ten years. I learned to be a better writer, I developed thick skin, and I learned more or less how to market myself and my work and on top of that I learned how to world build. Like I said before my techniques might not work for everyone. But before you…

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Daily Inspiration Prompt

Given that it’s the new year (it’s the new year over here in Australia), I’m putting up my very first post on the topic that I feel has the closest association to the concept of freshness, about finding inspirations.

I’m going to put up a long comprehensive article about the different ways that one could find inspirations, just share with you the one way that I’ve been using so that I’ve been producing with ease 1 entry per day that goes into my Idea Journal for 3 months ever since I started on it. By the way, my Idea Journal is just where I file away any random ideas popping up that can go into my writing, for those unfamiliar with the term.

The mechanics:

My way is a simple exercise where random words are picked out in clusters and then free association is used to create an idea that links up all of them. I first got the idea from a book called The Creative Writers’ Workshop by Cathy Birch that I borrowed from my local library. I call it the 10 column exercise. As the name indicates, you make ten columns in a spreadsheet. In my case, they contain single words that fall into the following categories: locations, objects, personal characteristics, words that I like or unusual words, verbs, races in my settings, adjectives, catalyst events, systems of world elements and divination elements. Each column is of different lengths although I’m trying to build my spreadsheet so that each column will have 100+ entries. So far, there are still 4 columns that haven’t reached this requisite length and one of them is actually very close.

Besides this 10-column spreadsheet filled with words, you also need a calculator and some books for the process of picking out words according to my method. However, you can always make up your rules if you find that cumbersome.

My rules for picking out words were/are in 3 steps:

I would pick up a random book and flip to a random page. The last digit of the page would be noted down in my spreadsheet as the number of categories from which words will be picked out of. Lately, I’ve changed to the more convenient practice of looking at the time whenever I embark on this exercise. So if it was 9:05 when I opened up the spreadsheet and wanted to pick a bunch of words, then I would be pick out 5 words in total for that day.

I would then essentially repeat this page flipping exercise for the subsequent stages of picking out which specific columns to use and then the actual words themselves. I change books at each stage. At the last stage, I use the actual page number rather than its last digit and I divide this page number by the total number of items in the column and the actual word chosen is the one with the same row number as the remainder derived from this division. If the page number is a multiple of the total number of items in the column, then the last word on the column is chosen.

A further note about my method is that words from the same column can be picked out multiple times. For example, one day I had three locations turn up: steppes/lea, waterfall and palace.  On rare occasions (2 so far for me), the same word turns up twice. Come up with different rules of selecting words if you don’t like such aspects.

An illustration of what this process could yield:

One a particular day, this process had given me 6 words: fortune, oasis, pristine, satyr, ocean and dance.

I formed the following idea that link up all of them that could be dropped into any fantasy setting:

  • Pristine oasis forming on a desert next to an ocean
  • Satyrs dancing on the oasis which was taken as a sign of fortune by those who see the sight

On another day, a set of 5 words (oath/geis, steppes, smother, crystal, damask) yielded the following idea of a location for another in-work setting of mine that I have no real use for in terms of converting to fiction and so only occasionally get attention from me:

  • A crystalline steppe- where the grasses are actual crystals
  • The grasses can be woven into weapons of damask steel quality
  • The steppe becomes smothered by a geis that shrouds over it palpably