A Writer’s Homework

I’m on Ch. 5 now. I’m feeling good about this part of the novel. I always knew that the 1st Chapter was going to be the most challenging one. From there, things would get not necessarily easier but a lot more clear and straightforward if that makes any sense. I predict the last Chapter will be my next big challenge. Beginnings and Endings are really difficult. I think you might have an idea why, even if you are not a writer. Once you pass the “who” “what” “where” and “why” of the story the rest of it can coast a bit more. Until the end, where wrapping things up can either disappoint a reader because it was all to predictable from the start or disappoint the reader because what they wanted to happen in the end, didn’t happen. But I smile, because it won’t be a while until I have to worry about that.

Now here’s where I enter an area where I get asked the question:

“Ollin, do you already know where the book is going and how it’s going to end? If you do, then how do you do that? How does the story come to you? Just out of the blue?”

Here we go again.

Typical (Fake) Answer: It just comes to me! I don’t know how or why. Yeah. I take a crowded train to London and while I sit there, the whole story and plot come to me and when I get back home I frantically write it all down as fast as I can. It’s magic.

The Unconventional (Real) Answer: No, the story doesn’t come to me all at once. Sometimes the “magic” does come and help me, but most of the time it doesn’t. What really helps me to get the plot and story down is something else. What is it that I do?  I do my homework.

Yes, writing is part inspiration. About 10% I would say. It’s an essential 10% and you can’t build anything without that 10% because it’s absolutely necessary. 40% is the actual writing.  The daily grind, as you have already witnessed, has its high and lows. Then there’s the other 50%. The Writer’s Homework.  What is The Writer’s Homework? I would imagine it would be different for different people. But here’s what it consists of for me:

√ Character Biographies: One for each character. Your main character’s should be the longest and the most detailed.

Character Breakdown: If you have only two characters in your novel, lucky you. All this homework would probably be done in a week. But my novel deals with a main character who basically meets a new character each chapter, so I need a quick way to remind myself about the characters I am writing about. So I tend to have a separate document for each character. I would personalize it for your needs, but mine usually has: Name, DOB, Age, Physical Appearance, Attire, plus any other quirks you think are necessary as you write. I like to add random ones like “favorite animal” and “color,” it just helps me to get a little snapshot so I can go “Oh yeah!” and continue writing without asking myself: “What was that character like again?”

√ Character Q & A: Sometimes characters won’t tell you important information, unless you ask. Sometimes you won’t get to who a character really is, unless they go through a nice little interview. What you should you ask them? What you are dying to know and what you are most curious about! My main character mentioned sometime off-hand that I realized was so essential to her character that now there is a scene with her doing exactly the thing she mentioned. Sounds like crazy talk, huh? It might be. (Read: “Conversations With Imaginary People (In My Head)“)

Setting Backstory: This might be dependent on what kind of story you are writing. If your novel takes place in a random warehouse, I guess you don’t really need to delve deep into the warehouse’s history. But I found that digging into each setting in my novel really helped me fill in some gaps in the plot, that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize were missing in the first place.

√History andMythology Details: If you are writing realistic fiction this probably won’t be necessary. If you are writing realistic fiction, I’m sorry for you. Because this is one of the most fun times you can ever have with writing. To be able to create a world with a whole new set of rules, ideas and history–it’s great! And there is absolutely no pressure, because no one will ever read this stuff. It’s all for you.

√ Maps: I think this one is a must for any writer. You should draw a map of all the settings your character or characters will be in. Simply having it in your mind is not enough. No, you will not go into detail about ever single room when you actual write your book, but you need to know what details need to be left in and what needs to be left out, in order for the reader to “get it.” For instance, I drew a map for one of the settings in my story, and it revealed something to me that not only fleshed out one of my characters but revealed to me a very important plot point in the story, that I would have missed if I hadn’t mapped the setting out. So map it, or flap it! (Oh, that was lame. I’m kinda off today. Can ya tell?)

√ Family Trees: Other than being a whole lot of fun, family trees can tell you a lot about your character, and may even reveal to you that a character is missing in your story. When I did the family tree for my main character, the grandmother seemed so essential that when I went back, I realized that she had to be one of the main characters. I had originally written her as dead, so I resurrected her. And she was just what I needed! And I am still very happy with the decision.

√ Drawings: Draw out each character, each setting, and maybe even some scenes. Do it even if you draw stick figures. It’s just like drawing a map, you need to know what is essential for the reader to know when you describe your characters and settings. It’s very easy to miss important points. Because I work with words and not photographs, I discovered a while back that if I missed one little essential descriptive point, a reader would have a whole different read on a character that I really did not intend. Readers should have some freedom to interpret your work, but only the freedom that you decide to allow them. So draw it, or flaw it! (Better, but still lame. Bleh.)

√ Outlines: Outlines, outlines, outlines. I’ve heard that there is a debate on whether you need to do an outline or not. I say, “Really, what debate? Is this a debate between 6 year olds and adults?” Because I’m sorry, you need to have an idea of where you’re going in a story! You don’t go out to sea without a compass, do you? That would be dangerous! No different with writing. Now,  plot outlines are the most obvious, and I think each writer should decide for themselves how detailed or not they should be. I also like to outline each character’s journey, what some might call building a “character arc.” The emotional journey reveals a lot to me, especially whether or not the emotional journey I wrote for a character is believable or not.

√ Timelines: My novel takes place in the present, but the present is very much influenced by past events. (Unless you ditched history class, you know this already.) Some of the past in my novel either comes in flashbacks, or its mentioned in a subtle way. So I need to make sure the past is in order so it’s believable. The last thing I want to do is distract the audience with some blatantly obvious anachronism. Also, it’s good to have a timeline for the present action of the story. This was a bit easy for me since my novel takes place over the course of only two days.

Hmmm… okay.  That about covers it.

The important thing to know about The Writer’s Homework is that it should serve as a sort of shorthand for the writer–it’s all about making the writing easier for you. I guess you can write without The Homework, but really you are only making things harder on yourself. And why would you do that? You will be surprised how much this homework will truly provide a depth and integrity to both your story and your characters when you return to your writing. It fills in character holes, plot holes, and holes holes. (You know, I think it’s because I’m tired. Oh, boy.)

much wingardium leviosa!

Ollin

P.S. I’m a dork.

What do you think? Am I missing something important? Would you like to add any other necessary homework assignments, teacher?

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6 comments on “A Writer’s Homework

  1. Lua says:

    Haha yeah you are- but I guess we’re all dorks and we make it look so cool!🙂
    Wow- reading your post made me think, “Am I crazy for doing this?” I am a homework freak when it comes to writing- I plan and plan and plan before I begin the actual writing so I guess for me it is %10 inspiration, %25 actual writing %65 homework. I especially go overboard when I write my character biographies.
    But I like that fake answer, it makes us sound like we have super powers!🙂

    • ollinmorales says:

      Haha, thanks Lua. No, I don’t think your crazy for doing 65%. Again, I think it varies with each author. But I believe the more homework you do the easier and better your writing will be. So I think it’s a good sign, rather than a bad one. I would be worried if you said I only do 25% homework. The more homework the better, I think.

      Oh and the fake answer was in reference to JK Rowling and how she got inspiration for Harry Potter, I’m not sure if anyone got that lol.🙂

  2. If you’re a dork then I’m a dork…but not as much of a dork as you are, JUST KIDDING!
    The first and last chapters are the absolute hardest, and broken down from that, the first and last SENTENCES are the hardest. SO much depends on them and if you blow it, you won’t get read either by agents or random people in bookstores. Guess that’s why I have both so many unfinished and unbegan (word?) novels/ideas.
    I should work in this homework thing. I have all this in my head, but not actually out on paper/on my computer. I KNOW I should do this but I usually have neither the time nor the patience b/c when I get on writing I want to get the story out…guess that’s why I’m not published yet. The throes of youth perhaps?
    J. K. Rowling reference noted.

    • ollinmorales says:

      I used to be the same way. I just wanted to get it out already… but like I said, the Homework will only help you. I guarantee it. I sound like a car salesman, but it’s true.

  3. Barb says:

    We’re all dorks, so what? Normality is boring!😉
    My homework:
    Character biographies (usually ignored during writing)
    History and mythology details (I’m a world-creator after all!)
    Maps (even the same continents at different times of its history…)
    Family trees (considering that I tend to write family-sagas…)
    Drawings (or more often a “virtual cast” very clear in my head)
    Outline (very short and basic, I love to improvise)
    Timeline (of course, I have a whole history to remember when I write different novels set in the same world at different times…)
    Sometimes I tell the story to myself first, and then write it down – not always working, when I put it in writing, I always lose something, so I’m not doing this anymore…
    Happy writing!😉

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