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Get Unblocked! National Novel Writing Month Workshop Insights: Week 1

November 6, 2014

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)!  CHAW is thrilled to present four workshops in partnership with the DC Public Library – SE and led by published author Hannah Sternberg that are designed to help writers open their minds and break through the blocks.  Every week, Hannah will be sharing her reflections from that week’s workshop with us here on CHAW Beyond the Walls.  And if you’d like to share your thoughts on writing, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

We’re offering these workshops every Monday in November, so if you’re a writer looking for inspiration, an avid NaNoWriMo participant, or someone just starting out, we’d love to see you!  Check out the event page here for more details and to RSVP.

Without further ado…here’s Hannah:

Teaching Artist & Published Novelist Hannah Sternberg

Teaching Artist & Published Novelist Hannah Sternberg

Week 1: Quite a Character!

Unless you’re a hermit, you encounter interesting characters every day. If you don’t think the people around you are interesting, you’re not paying close enough attention. For the writer, inspiration is everywhere, in the form of the complex and diverse human beings that surround us. To write is simply to be a human, with eyes open.

An interesting cast of characters forms the core of virtually all fiction. (Yes, I know, there are many fascinating experimental works that try to overturn that pattern. But if you’re blocked, let’s just start simple.) So when you’re feeling stuck on your National Novel Writing Month project, get back to basics, and think about what makes your characters special. A good character has the power to annihilate writer’s block, because your most vivid character creations will tell your story for you – their unique flaws and strengths will determine the direction of events. Think of characters, from Odysseus the proud to Elizabeth Bennet the snarky, whose personality traits were the driving force for the events of the plot.

In this week’s “Get Unblocked!” writer’s block clinic, we discussed how to use character to kickstart your writing process, and get the creative juices flowing again. Here are a few tips and exercises you can do at home:

  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try reimagining it from a different character’s point of view. That might inspire a new detail, or direction, that will get your story moving again.
  • On your next commute, start imagining the stories of the people around you, even the people who seem very ordinary. Notice little details of what they’re wearing, or carrying. We’re surrounded by lush detail every day; you just have to retrain yourself to notice it. Let those details inspire you, and begin a story in your mind about the other people on the train. You may be surprised by the inspiration that you find. Take some time away from your project to write a short vignette about one of the characters you encountered today.
  • Every character has a past. If you’re not quite sure where to go with your character development, it may be time to try going backward. The next time you get stuck in your story, write a short side story about your character’s childhood, even if you don’t wind up using it in your final work.
  • If you’re still having trouble fleshing out one of your characters, give them a flaw. We often imagine the good qualities of our heroes first – we want to create characters that represent the things we want to be. But sometimes a great villain or a deeply flawed hero is one the most challenging, and interesting, characters to write about.

In this week’s class, we played a game in which each person described a character from their current project, and then the person next to them wrote a short scene featuring that character. It was a pretty scary test of how well we knew our own characters, and how well we were able to articulate their special attributes. Along the way, we discovered gaping holes in our knowledge of our own characters: our neighbors filled in details we’d forgotten to cover, such as age, or even created friends for the character that we hadn’t mentioned. What it revealed to us all was that if you’re feeling out of inspiration, there is probably alwayssomething else you could explore about one of your characters.

I hope to see you next week, when we’ll be discussing the use of timelines to break free of writer’s block. If you thought this week’s character-sharing exercise was eye-opening, just wait!