5 Simple Brain Unblockers

There is no blacker void than writer’s block. You might have the best intentions in the world of sitting down with a giant mug of tea for a few hours and resisting all your usual distractions but for some reason… nothing. You draw a blank. An hour ago you had so many ideas you thought they might start to leak out your ears but now… nothing. You think you may never write another word. We all know it happens to the best of us but that just doesn’t make it any easier.

I won’t lie to you; this post is pretty much the result of an afternoon spent swimming in the ocean of writer’s block, clinging on to the driftwood of terrible ideas. There are millions of different websites and books out there offering various suggestions on how to beat writer’s block and I’ve concluded that there is simply no ‘one size fits all’ method of getting back into the groove but here are a few techniques that I find myself employing on a regular basis.

Audition a Character

Characters, as I may have suggested previously, are the beating heart of any good story. If your story is still in the planning stage where it lacks a definite plot you might benefit from scribbling a few disjointed scenes featuring various different characters. Don’t worry too much about whether or not they are going to make the final cut of your story. That’s not the point. In fact, if you’re suffering from a truly chronic case of writer’s block, you’ll probably find it easier to write a very simple scene featuring only one or two characters doing something very every day, such as making the breakfast. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. With a little patience, your characters can take on a life of their own (and if they don’t, you’ve lost nothing!) and  the scenes you write will often help to develop your plot (or come up with a brand new story idea!) more than you might imagine.

Enjoy a Different Kind Of Story

If you’re like me, you probably enjoy stories of all kinds of different genres and mediums. If you’ve got the time to spare, leave your writing for a little while and immerse yourself in a story utterly different to anything you’ve been enjoying recently.

Have you been watching a lot of Star Wars recently? Maybe it’s time to try The Bucket List instead.

But perhaps you’ve just been watching too many films in general. In that case, ditch Star Wars and go and read Dune.

Better yet, ditch both genre and medium and instead find a production of Hamlet and go and watch it. Or, if you need something more interactive, find a computer game with a compelling story. Or perhaps it’s time for a true story. Or maybe you need something that will make you laugh instead of cry or something that will disturb you instead of amuse you. There are no rules. Find a brand new kind of story to love and let its different moods and textures inspire you.

Writing Exercises

It really depends what’s causing your writer’s block, but sometimes all you need is something to give you a little nudge. Ask the internet for writing exercises and you’ll find plenty of useful websites and apps which offer all kinds of different springboards to productivity. WritingExercises.co.uk is a personal favourite of mine which includes a whole plethora of tools to spark the imagination such as name generators, plot generators, word games and random first lines but there are many, many more.

Better yet, if you know roughly what sort of thing you’re interested in writing, do a Google Image search and pick one of the results as a stimulus. This works best if you search for an abstract term. So, if you’re wanting to write a medical drama (for instance) you’ll probably find it a more effective exercise if you search for ‘health’ rather than ‘doctors’, since the latter is likely to only bring up a million pictures of folk wearing stethoscopes.

(I couldn’t resist Googling these things to see what happened. I was quite right; lots of people with stethoscopes and white coats appeared when I searched for ‘doctors’. When I searched for ‘health’ I got the odd stethoscope, but I also got a variety of other images such as a cartoon heart lifting weights, a little boy dressed as a superhero and an x-ray of a man running).

The Fear

Anyone who has ever been in any kind of education is probably very familiar with The Fear. The Fear is a severe but good-hearted non-corporeal taskmistress who enters your life about a day or two before your dissertation is due to be handed in and tortures you into producing some of your best work.

If you’re struggling to write your story, it’s time to give the old crone a call by imposing a deadline upon yourself. The best way to do this is to tell someone else who will hold you accountable (my wife usually is more than adequate to the task) that you have planned to write so many words by such-and-such a day and if you meet that goal… we can order a pizza!

Now my marriage and tomorrow’s dinner rest on whether or not I get another 1,000 words written by tomorrow.

Ding-a-ling. The Fear is on line one for you!

Visit Your Bathroom

Don’t ask me why this works but it does. Maybe it’s something in the tiles or perhaps it’s the added moisture in the athmosphere. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve had most of my best ideas in the bathroom.

If all this doesn’t work, then you’re probably working too hard at it. Take a break. Do something else. Come back the next day. It is ultimately better to delay productivity than to drive yourself to hate a hobby or career you once loved…

… Unless, of course, you’ve got a genuine deadline coming up in the next day or two. In that case, you’d better give The Fear a call and find out what the heck’s keeping her!

Auditioning Characters

There are more genres of fiction than there is sand on the shore; more mediums for telling your story than there are stars in the sky; more stories to be told than there are clichés in a blog; but if there is one thing that nearly all fiction has, it’s characters. 

Characters really matter. No matter what kind of fiction you’re writing, characters really, really matter. You’ve got make them as lifelike as possible but you’ve also got to create them in such a way that the reader responds in the way you want them to. We don’t want them to reach the end of your story and feel disappointed that the good guys won but we also don’t want to make them two dimensional, so it’s worthwhile spending a bit of time refining your characters. I like to do this by ‘auditioning’ characters, which I tend to do this in two stages: the Dull Stage and the Fun Stage.

The Dull Stage

Before I begin ‘auditions’, I need to know a thing or two about the kind of characters I’m hoping to create. If I was writing a piece of historical fiction set in the First World War, for instance, it would hardly do to have a cyborg for an antagonist. So at this stage, the main thing I try to do is write a simple character profile which includes all the non-negotiable elements. This will almost certainly include key details such as their name, age, gender, religion and nationality as well as any other relevant or essential detail (distinguishing features, superpowers, etc.). What I would not worry about too much at this stage is personality, physical appearance or behaviour unless it is directly relevant to the story. For example, let’s pretend I’m writing a fantasy novel about a prince who decides to live as a commoner. It’s important that he has a name befitting his royal position and his family background is clearly important also. Is he the eldest son of the reigning monarch or not? This is surely relevant, since in most monarchies the eldest would become king. How does he feel about this? This is also essential because it would have a fundamental impact on the plot and is probably directly related to why he abandoned his royal position in the first place. Perhaps he wants to marry a common woman or perhaps he dreads the responsibility of being king. Heck, since it’s a fantasy, he might abandon the throne because he wants to become a dragon-jockey instead. So, let’s see…

Name: His Royal Highness, Prince Lawrence II

Age: 19

Family: Eldest son of the king. Two brothers.

Likes: Dragons and adrenaline rushes.

Obviously my character profile would normally contain much more information than the example I’ve given above. The more details I have about the character I’m wanting to create, the easier it will be to create a character I’m proud of. I know I’ve called it the ‘Dull Stage’ but I can’t stress enough how important this stage is. The more you know about the character you want to create, the easier it will be to create a character who seems real to you.

The Fun Stage

So, we know what we’re looking for: a dragon riding youth of royal blood. Now we can get down to the serious business of turning that profile into a person. After all, there’s far more to a person than their vital details. Think about your friends on your favourite social networking sites. No doubt they all have various personal details on their profiles; a million different photographs from different stages of their life and a thousand-million status updates telling you everything about their average day, their (least) favourite foods, books they’ve read and everything else besides. But no matter how much stuff they put on their timelines, you just don’t get the flavours of each moment or the sensation of what it’s like to be around that person unless you actually spend time with them in real life.

Obviously it’s not possible to actually spend quality time with a figment of my imagination so what I do instead is open up a new document and write a scene with my character as the protagonist. It doesn’t matter if they’re the actual protagonist of my story or if the scene even makes the final cut. What matters is that they be given a scenario to act out where I can play about with their overall persona until I get it just right. Let’s take HRH Lawrence II for example:

‘I say!’ Lawrence declared, his voice quaking only slightly as the beast raised him higher and higher from the ground. It was hard to believe they were not flying already. He gripped the reigns tightly. ‘He’s a good deal taller from up here than he was from down there!’

‘Adan’s a girl.’ Hakan corrected him. ‘Actually, she’s a mean spirited old crone, but she can fly an’ she’s not too bad with strangers. Long as you don’t make her mad.’ He added, slapping the dragon’s feathery side. It snorted loudly. ‘Well, let’s see what you can do. Try do a lap of the field.’

Lawrence grinned widely in spite of himself and cracked the reigns as hard as he could. ‘Ha!’ Immediately, Adan was up on her hind legs, screeching angrily and spewing out flames into the sky so that Lawrence would have been thrown off had he let go off the reigns. Hakan was at her side, trying to soothe her.

‘No, no, no, stubborn, arrogant, stupid boy!’ He called up angrily to the young prince, continuing to rub the dragon’s side. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Fool! Idiot! Do you think this is just another ass that you have to beat and flog or it won’t move? Imbecile! You told me you knew how to ride, you thick headed half-wit! Get down from there at once!’

Lawrence was speechless. Hakan’s naked anger continued to break out against him in a way he had never witnessed before. How could he speak to him like that? How dare he?

As before, the above example is much too short short and I haven’t put nearly as much time and effort into it as I would if I were doing it for real but I hope you can see how this would help to develop Lawrence as a character. Notice for instance how he attempts (and fails) to handle the dragon. Clearly he has no knowledge of how to pacify such a powerful creature, yet he assumes that he can just wing it. This shows a certain character trait that we did not include in his profile: arrogance. Also consider how outraged he is when Hakan voices his anger towards him. Clearly, he is not accustomed to having people speak their minds to him like this. He might have fled his royal position but certainly hasn’t left behind his expectation that everyone must revere him.

Is this all strictly necessary for creating a character? Technically, no, I don’t suppose it is. You could probably just as easily develop a complex and substantial character simply by writing out a lengthy biography but frankly, it’s more fun this way. Not only that, but I also find it helps to get the creative juices flowing for other parts of my story. For instance, in writing this little audition for Lawrence, I had to give him somebody else to talk to. Thus, Hakan was born with a personality all of his own. I also found myself developing my own idea of what kind of animal a dragon might be; not ‘just another ass you have to beat and flog’ but a creature with a certain level of intelligence and dignity which demands respect. Auditioning characters not only makes the planning stage more enjoyable, it also unlocks a whole host of other avenues your imagination can wander down to see what might be there.

The Much Maligned Movie Re-Make

‘The book was better!’ was the cry.

You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.

Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.

So, do re-makes ever have any value?

It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.

For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).

Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.

He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.

I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.

To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).

So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.

The Fireplace Coppers

But first, a little foreword: I wrote this story earlier this year as an entry for a short story competition. Alas, I did not win and therefore was not published in print or online so I’ve put it here instead. The rules of the competition were that it was to be fewer than one hundred words long and given my frustrating tendency towards long-windedness, I thought it was worth having a go at. I can’t remember the original title I gave it, so I’ve given it a brand new one. The one thing I do remember that I was given ‘A Bottle’ as a prompt, which had to be included somewhere in the story. I hope you enjoy it.

The Fireplace Coppers
By A. Ferguson

Instead of a fire, my great uncle Carmichael used to keep an enormous glass bottle filled with coppers in the centre of his fireplace. It did nothing to warm the living room, which was always too cold, but instead radiated a subtle blend of Old and Stuffy all around the room.

‘How many?’ He would grunt, gesturing towards it with his stick whenever I visited with my parents.

Nine hundred billion! Eleven! Seventy-four thousand and twelve!

I was so consumed with guessing that I never realised that he didn’t know himself. It was only there to break the ice.

3 Useful Android Apps for Writers

If you’re anything like me, the motivation to write and the floods of inspiration tend to come at the worst possible times. While I’m a firm believer that there is no substitute for sitting at your desk for hours with tea constantly being fed to you intravenously to get stuff done, there surely has got to be some way that we can utilise that spark of inspiration or motivation when it strikes… right?

You bet there is. The following apps are all available for Android OS and have served me well for all my writing needs:

Notebooks

No doubt if you enjoy writing you will have heard this advice: ‘Carry a notepad with you everywhere you go!’

It’s good advice, but if you’re anything like me you will almost never remember to bring a notepad with you and even if you do, your handwriting will be completely illegible. Another thing I find frustrating about physical notepads is that it is difficult to keep notes on individual writing projects separate from one another (unless you can be bothered carrying multiple notepads around with you, in which case, power to you!).

Notebooks by DroidVeda LLP is a neat and tidy little app which allows you to keep virtual notebooks on your phone or tablet. With it you can easily create a bookshelf of virtual notepads with as many or as few pages as you desire. Each page has the option of being given its own individual title and (as far as I can tell) has an unlimited word count. This allows for easy note taking on multiple projects without them getting muddled up in any way.

The separate pages in each book also make it easy to find what you’re looking for. For instance, I often use Notebooks to ‘audition’ characters for my stories. This allows me to write as long or as short a note as I want for each character and to keep them apart from other characters (I’ll maybe write a post about this method of developing characters in another post; I’ve found it most beneficial and enjoyable!). I also use it to write rough drafts of stories, blogs and even to write song lyrics (another hobby of mine!). If you’re organised enough, you could probably even use it to draft a full length novel, using individual pages as chapters.

Other features include: password protection, a search feature, font/colour customisability, hand-writing/drawing, page bookmarking, online or local back-up of all notebooks and the ability to convert your notepad into a PDF.

I will admit there are a few minor improvements to be made (I really wish you could re-arrange the order of your pages, for instance) but considering it costs no more than the price of drawing a breath, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Lists for Writers

Thinkamingo’s tagline on Google Play says ‘We create tools that engage the creative core’. That is precisely what this app does for me. Whether I am trying to come up with a brand new story idea or simply develop a character for a current project, Thinkamingo’s Lists for Writers helps me to do exactly that.

It’s very basic in some respects. It really is just a collection of lists divided into categories, but what a splendid collection it is. I can’t possibly list all of them here but suffice it to say it contains an extensive collection of lists under the following categories:

  • Character – Naming,
  • Character – Phyiscal Characteristics,
  • Character – Occupations,
  • Character – Milestones,
  • Personality – Thoughts (includes everything from general characteristics and emotions to phobias and obsessions),
  • Personality – Behaviours (habits, hobbies, etc.),
  • Plots (includes lists of possible types of conflicts and issues, etc.),
  • Settings – Geographical,
  • Settings – Countries by Continent,
  • Settings – Other (includes other terms relevant to setting such as forms of government, types of weather, etc.),
  • Genres,
  • Miscellaneous (there’s quite a lot of these, including animal sounds, colours, styles of dance, etc)
  • Words – Grammar,
  • Words – Fun (for instance, ‘Aussie slang’)

My main criticism of this app is that only some of the lists, such as the list of phobias, include definitions of each term; others do not. At £1.99, it was perhaps a little pricey for not-a-lot-of-app but I can’t deny that it gets my imaginative juices flowing in a big way.

Mindly

If mind-maps are your thing then Mindly by Dripgrind is one not to be missed. It is easily one of the least  cluttered looking mind-map apps I’ve ever seen, in that it displays only the element you are working with and its immediate child-elements. Visually the elements are all very simple; suitably proportioned circles, each with a visible title and a small icon (if desired). If you want to add detailed notes to any of your elements, this is easily accomplished simply by tapping the appropriate element on the mind-map and typing your note in the box that appears. The note will be saved to that element and can be accessed later, however the actual text of the note will not be visible on the mind-map itself, keeping it easy on the eye.

If you’re the sort of person who prefers an image to a word, it is also possible to make elements out of photos stored on your device (as far as I can tell, however, there is no way to add notes, titles or icons to these photo-elements). It is also possible to make elements which serve as hyperlinks to whatever website you fancy.

Other features include the ability to view your mind-map in its entirety, the ability to print your mind-map, customisable colour schemes, sharing, dropbox sync and a visual ‘clipboard’ which allows you to easily move elements around. It will set you back £4.49 if you want to enjoy all the export options this app has to offer and there is a relatively generous limit on how many elements you can have on the free version (though I’ve not reached it yet!).

Honourable Mentions

I can’t deny it; I have quite a few apps on my phone that I write/plan with, so here is a whistle-stop tour of a few others I can recommend:

Dubscript Screenplay Writer by The Production Company – Allows you to write your screenplay out in plain-text and quickly converts it into screenplay format for you. Price: free

Jotterpad by 2 App Studio – Distraction free text editor. Price: Free but with £5.50 upgrade available

Story Plot Gen by Arc Apps – There’s lots of plot generator apps out there that mix random elements together to get your creative juices flowing but this one has a much higher chance of giving you plots that actually make sense. Price: free or £1.49 for pro version.

Until next time!