What Criminal Minds Taught Me About Creative Writing

One of my favorite TV shows on right now is the crime drama “Criminal Minds.” It’s different from the normal cop show. Usually it’s detectives following the clues, or sometimes the forensic evidence, trying to find out who dunnit. And both we who watch and the officers on screen don‘t know until the last fifteen minutes of the show.

“Criminal Minds” is different. It’s about FBI profilers who ask “Why did he do it?” in order to narrow their search and eventually capture the killer, or the rapist, or the kidnapper. Another way this show is different is that quite often we see who the criminal is before the end, sometimes from the opening shot.

What I love about the show is more than its unique approach to the crime drama genre, but the characters are wonderfully developed. Both the good guys and the bad guys are very interesting. You may want to Boo the villain, but he is still interesting, if not altogether creepy. I think about this show and it seems to me that “Criminal Minds” has something to offer the Creative Writer, particularly when it comes to character development.

Everyone Has Motivation

Like I mentioned, the FBI agents of “Criminal Minds” ask and answer Why did he do it? to find out who in fact did it. These profilers are terribly overtaken with the motive of the criminal, and it works. You often hear the agents talk of the unsub’s (FBI-speak for unknown subject) stressers and triggers. For example, an unsub might have been abused by his mother when he was growing up. That would be the stresser. And when his mother dies, that might be the trigger that sets this criminal off.

We can’t write interesting characters who do interesting things if we don’t know their motivations. People do what they do for a reason. Before we decide what our characters do, we need to know why they do it. This is not limited to antagonists. Each one of the agents has a reason for working for the FBI as a profiler. Even our heroes need motives, too.

Bad Buys Are Crazy

Almost always the lawbreakers on “Criminal Minds” are suffering from some sort of psychological disorder. To put it plainly, they are as crazy as a pet raccoon. We are all familiar with the mad scientist, and even the evil genius is somehow a little bit off. I remember how agent Graham told Hannibal Lektor in the movie “Manhunter” that even though the doctor was a genius he had the disadvantage of being insane.

I’ve talked to other Creative Writers who don’t like to make their bad guy crazy. They feel as if it makes it too easy for the hero to overcome him. But if done carefully, it could case more difficulty for the hero. The villain does not think the same way as the hero, which could itself be an obstacle to the good guy. We don’t have to have the bad guys ready for the straight jacket and the rubber room only to live out their days drooling into a cup. But something in their mind is not right. And let’s face it, crazy people are fun to write about because they are so different. And for that reason, that are a pleasure to read.

Even Good Guys Struggle

Each of the FBI agents have difficulties in their lives, and this often lays over into their professional life. We have seen agents on the show deal with everything from drug use, poor heath, divorce, loss of family to death, failed relationships, and even the stress of another job offer. And maybe the biggest source of stress for these agents is their bureaucratic boss. She really gets on my nerves. Our main characters should have other difficulties in their lives that just the conflict of the plot. This adds layers to our writing and helps build tension throughout our stories.

Some of the most basic struggles for these people are the same ones we all deal with, the internal struggle. The cares and anxieties of life can distract us or complicate our attempts to get done what needs to get done. We see this also in the lives of the profilers on “Criminal Minds.” Without these difficulties, our characters and our stories fall flat. Consider the example of Hamlet. His external conflict is avenging his father’s death. But his internal conflict is “To be or not to be.” This might be the greater difficulty for Hamlet. And let’s face it, it often is for each one of us. If we all struggle with common difficulties and basic affairs of life, then why not our heroes? To create this tension gives our hero more to overcome and makes his triumph that much more grand, or his failure that much more pathetic.

If you regularly watch “Criminal Minds,” then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t watch it, start now. You’ll be thoroughly entertained, and maybe like me you’ll gain some insight about Creative Writing. If you found this article of some value, please Share it with other Creative Writers. And I would love to know what you think, so leave your Comments in the section below.

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How To Ensure You Writing Is Creative

As Creative Writers, we want to do a good job. The problem is that sometimes we want to get it perfect on the first draft. The end result is that we are greatly slowed down or blocked altogether. When perfection doesn’t pop right out, we get frustrated and stop all writing until suitability resumes, and it doesn’t, so we do nothing. The answer is simple: put something down and move on. Here are a few tricks I use to keep the writing ongoing.

A Car Does Something Down The Street

When I get stuck for a single word, it’s usually for a verb. I’ll write a sentence with a verb that is not quite strong enough, and my little pre-editor says, “Find a better word.” This is where I get stuck if nothing manifests itself within fifteen seconds. So I put an absolutely non-sense word and go on. That way I keep on writing and leave something behind I cannot miss in re-writes.

For example, if I write, “the car drives down the road,” and I want to replace “drives” with something better, I might make it read “the car lollipops down the road,” or “the car fishwifes down the road.” There is no way that will get passed me the second time.

Somewhere A Dog Barks

Sometimes we need some activity, but our minds are stumped as to what kind and where. I once heard that when you are locked for some action, simply write, “somewhere a dog barks,” and this will be the clue for you in re-writes to put in some action.

I have a bad habit of writing longer bits of dialogue that reads like a screenplay. All talk, no action. I know this, and it might as well be a script for a radio show. So what I do is that I write the dialogue straight through. Then when I am done, I go through it and break up the conversation with “a dog barks” every several exchanges. In re-writes I put in activity that makes the work come alive with real people talking and doing things.

This dialogue-breaking action can be by the parties in conversation or some accompanying background movement. The key to using these incidentals is to make the action mirror the mood of the conversation. One of my favorite examples comes from the movie Good Will Hunting. Will and his girlfriend are having a conversation in the park. In the background you see two old men playing chess. This perfectly reflects the manipulation of the dialogue.

A Man Walks Into The Room With A Gun

Sometimes your scene slugs and you need something almost out of the blue to happen to make your characters react. I once read that Raymond Carver used to write “A man walks into the room with a gun,” whenever he got stuck like this.

Try my trick. Write down between a dozen to twenty phrases like Carver’s. When you get in a spot, pull three of them out at random. Pick one and write it in. Make your people react.

I have pulled three of my own phrases out and here is  what we got. “A ball bounces and stops at his feet.” “A bird flies into the glass door.” “From overhead, water drips on his head through the ceiling.”

This makes you write something creative that will probably be bad but may be ingenious. Either way, you keep on writing. And have fun with these phrases. I have one involving a sudden appearance by Darth Vader and another with the Doctor coming out of his Tardis, so you can do anything with these.

Remember, keep on writing and don’t get hung up. It easier to continue when you use a few tricks that help you get over the need to write flawless first drafts. Give your self permission to fix things. Just keep on writing.

 

What trick do you use to get over the hitch? I would love to hear about them. Tell me about them in the Comment section below. And if you found this material helpful, please share it with other writers you know.

 

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My New Facebook Author’s Page

It’s been a long time coming, but I recently put together my Author’s page on Facebook. I would like to encourage everyone to check it out, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you would Like my page. And if we aren’t Facebook friends yet, send a friend request to my personal page and I’ll be glad accept.

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We Are All Lil’ Engines

We all have people in our lives who support us no matter what we try. If we weren’t Creative Writers, they would tell us how good we are at music or painting. Likewise, each of us has friends and family who are really good at telling us what we can’t do. In fact, we all have folk who love us and want the best for us who will tell us in detail why Creative Writing is not a worthy pursuit. Either we are not talented enough or it’s a waste of time or something like that.

As well intentioned as they are, and as dear to us as they may be, their opinion is toxic. And to drink full from their words will hemlock your dreams until they are as dead as Socrates. If you want to be a writer, then be a writer. Tell these people, that although you love them and they love you, they need to Shut Up!

Creative Writing begins in the mind before it ever reaches our fingertips. And by the mind, I mean more than thinking of a great story plot executed by interesting and individualistic characters. It is our attitude that serves as the starting point. You need to think of yourself in terms of Being a Creative Writer (and I mean Being in its fullest Existential sense).

Other people may encourage or discourage you, but in the end, each and every one of us as Creative Writers have the greatest potential to build ourselves up or tear ourselves down. The first positive voice you need to hear is your own. In order to Think Like A Writer you must maintain the proper Focus and Confidence. These two mutually feed off each other. The greater your Focus, the greater your Confidence, and the more Confident you are, the more Focused you will become. It is the perfect compositional perpetual motion machine, creative and artistic, and it is beautiful.

We all grew up hearing the tale of The Lil’ Engine Who Could. It was designed to encourage young people to feel self-assured in their abilities. But just because it is a children’s story, that doesn’t mean that the meaning is childish. It affirms a truth that endures as long as you do. The Creative Writer who develops his Focus and his Confidence can then Think Like A Writer in the fullest sense of that phrase.

This may involve finally taking a Creative Writing class or getting around to writing that novel you’ve always wanted to compose. It could be any number of things, and will become a great number of things all at once when you’ve fully committed yourself. It all begins by being a lil’ engine who thinks he can, and then gets to tracking. And once you’ve topped that mountain and cruise into that literary valley of fulfillment, you can remind yourself that you got yourself there because all along you thought you could.

 

I am in the final stages of editing a book for Creative Writers entitled Think Like A Writer. Be looking for it soon, and I will let you know when it is available and how you can get a copy.

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Top Ten List of my Favorite Poems by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson

Poetry is the music of Creative Writing, and great poetry is the Classical Music. My all favorite poets are Lord Byron and Alfred Lord Tennyson. I have put together a Top Ten List of my favorite Tennyson poems. Each of the titles is a hyperlink so you can read the poem just by clicking on the title.

 

10. “Break, Break, Break

9. “Recollections Of The Arabian Nights

8. “To Virgil

7. “Of Old Sat Freedom On The Heights

6. “Milton

5. “Charge Of The Light Brigade

4. “The Higher Pantheism

3. “The Lady Of Shalott

2. “Ulysses

1. “Crossing The Bar

 

It was difficult to bring it down to ten. Maybe someday I’ll come up with a list for Byron. I hope you enjoyed reading these poems. Make a top ten list of your favorite poet. If you’d like, include it in the Comment section below.

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Your Protagonist’s Needs

No author when asked about his book says, “It’s about some guy …” Our novels are about people who, although fictional, are real. If you like flat, two-dimensional characters, then read Rudy Anaya. But if you would like to creative interesting and compelling characters, there are 7 things your main character needs.

Desire

Everybody wants something. What a person wants factors into the choices made. Literary characters cannot be different. What our hero desires is almost what defines that person. David Copperfield wanted a wife. Henry Sutpen wanted a big house. No write can obey the precept, “Show, don’t tell,” if a character’s actions are not anchored to his desire.

Obstacles

Something needs to get in your heroes way and keep him from getting what he wants. If not, the main character succeeds in the first chapter, and your novel becomes a short story. The bigger the obstacle, the greater the tension, and the greater the tension, the more interesting your book is. The page-turner, the book someone can’t put down contains grater tension because of higher obstacles.

Flaws

Nobody’s perfect. In fact, a perfect hero is boring. His challenges end up being no challenge at all. Flaws make your main characters real. Flaws may be thought of as internal obstacles. There may be plenty of things that keep your hero from getting what he wants, but one of them has to be himself.

Uniqueness

People are people, which means we’re all the same and we’re all different. Our characters must be as individualistic as we can make them or they will be boring. What we want, what we do, what we say, and so many other things go into making a unique main character. Plain and indistinctive heroes are found in books that aren’t read.

 

Antagonist

One special obstacle is the villain. He can want the same thing as our hero or he can want our hero to not get what he wants. Possibly our antagonists acts in some way that is determines what out main character wants. A good example of this is the typical vengeance tale. Our villains, like our heroes, need to be individuals. A little bit of humanity or even sympathy makes them more intriguing.

Angels

This life is hard, and we all need a friend once in a while. Your main character can benefit from a Yoda or a Merlin. It doesn’t even need to be a mentor-type, or someone older. It may be a good friend who is there for encouragement or inspiration. They may teach something or give a gift that somehow helps your hero.

Demons

Just as your hero needs angles, so is he in need of demons, as well. He may not want them, but he needs them. Different from your antagonist, and more like a foil to your angels, a main character’s demons may tell him he can’t get what he wants. This may be a friend, even a very well intentioned friend, or someone looking out for the welfare of the hero, as incorrect or misguided as they may be.

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Writers & Hashtags

Most Creative Writers have a heavy online footprint. Not only do many of us have a blog, but we keep several social media accounts working in order to network with other writers, as well as agents, publishers, markets, and even readers. We use Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, GoodReads, RedRoom, and many others.

Twits can use what is called a Hashtag (#) to make it easier for certain folk to read their tweets. Hashtags are a way of grouping tweets into themes or subjects. Hashtags are always one word and are not case sensitive.

Also, people who are not your Followers can read your Tweets if they follow a certain Hashtag you use. It gets your name out there, and can even get you new Tweeps.

And while there as many available Hashtags as Johnson’s got pills, we are only going to consider how a Creative Writer can use Hashtags to his best advantage.

Hashtags for Writers

Certain Hashtags help you find other Authors. I will only mention a few, but there many more than what I am listing.

  • #AmWriting – by far the most used by Creative Writers for other Authors
  • #WW – Writer’s Wednesday, a good chat to follow
  • #LitChat – chat on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
  • #IndieAuthors – I like this one #WriteChat – a bit broader than the other two I mentioned

Hashtags for Business

There are plenty of Hashtags for those in the publishing industry. Here are a few common ones, although I have not used these much and cannot comment or recommend anything. As always, friends, do your own research.

  • #GetPublished
  • #Publishing
  • #AskAgent
  • #AskEditor
  • #BookMarketing
  • #PromoTips

Hashtags for Readers

This may be the boon for Creative Writers. You can find book fans here, the very people who may want to buy your book. The temptation would be to Tweet your book to all these Hashtags. The problem is that many bookies check out more than one of these Hashtags. So if they see your same Tweet with different Hashtags, you’ll look spammy, because you are. Also it’ll bore your Tweeps stupid. Follow these Hashtags before you select one, two at the most, to add to your Tweets to help you find readers. Even then, most of your Tweets to these Hashtags should be something other than hocking your wares, especially at first.

  • #MustRead
  • #LitChat
  • #StoryFriday
  • #FridayReads

Knowing the various social media shortcuts will keep your use of these from becoming a time suck. It’ll give you more time to read great books and write great ones.

These are just a few Hashtags. If there are some you like, tell me about it in the Comment section below.

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You Don’t Have To Waddle Any More

I don’t know where I first heard it, but there is a lovely little tale known as “The Parable of the Birds”: One Sunday all the birds put on their bird suits and their bird dresses and waddled down the bird street to their bird church. And there they sang their bird hymns and offered up their bird prayers. Then the bird preacher waddled up to the bird podium and said, “You’re birds! You can fly! You don’t have to waddle anymore!” Afterward he waddled to the back of the auditorium just before all the other bird members waddled past him, each saying, ‘Good bird sermon.’ They each waddled out of the bird church building and waddled all the way back to their bird homes.

Waddling & Will

We all know most of the same basic things that are expected of anyone. We know about diet and exercise, but we still hit the pizza buffets. We know about what smoking does to the lungs, but we will still spend more on cigarettes than baby formula this year. We know that alcohol leads to a lack of control in driving, in relationship, and every moment tainted by a lack of sobriety, and yet we will numb our brains as soon as we get home, just before we go to bed, and partake in excess this and every weekend.

I’m not trying to preach on vices, but I want to demonstrate that people do a lot of things they know they are not supposed to do. It’s not just a matter of knowing better. And even if you watch your diet and abstain from smoke and drink, there is something else in your life you do regularly, and you know better. Whether it’s too much TV, Internet, or shopping, we are all made of the same common clay, and all equally weak.

To put it bluntly, mankind suffers from a problem of will more than understanding. We all do what we want to do. Arthur Schopenhauer said, “You cannot want what you want.” Is that true? Do we have no control over what it is we want? Sorry, Artie, but I disagree. It takes discipline and self-control, but we can change what it is we want to do and alter our actions thereby.

Will & Writers

So what does that have to do with us writers? How many of the composition regulators do we all ignore, me included? Every writer knows to write every day, but I don’t. Why, because I’ve never heard anyone say that? No, simply put, I don’t want to. We all know to show and don’t tell, use strong action verbs, cut back on modifiers, murder our darlings, and so forth. But do we all do these things? Successful writers do all of these things and more.

What it takes, for me and you, is to change what we want. I want to be a successful writer, so I will write every day. We can want what we want, but it’s hard to change habits. With determination and a new will, we can accomplish that in which we aspire. Remember, you are a bird! You can fly!

What do you think? Waddle on down to the Comments section and tell me what you’re thinking.

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How To Create Interesting Characters

The Characters in your novel have layers, just like ogres, and onions, and parfaits. If for some reason your want your Characters to be flat and boring, then read Rudy Anaya. But if you want your Characters to be interesting and stimulating, each needs to be as unique and individualistic as possible. There are a few things the Creative Writer may want to keep in mind to spread out the dimensions of your Characters.

Childhood

We are all shape by our childhood, so why wouldn’t our Characters be, as well? You don’t have to detail the events of childhood to show how they affect the Character. For example, James Tyrone, the patriarche of the Tyrone family in the Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is a skinflintery miser. That may sound like it feeds into every Irish stereotype, but O’Neill lets it slip that James grew up dirt poor, so he felt compelled to cling to every cent he could. This not only shapes him as a Character, but feeds into the story itself, in that James is too thrifty (let’s be kind) to spend money on a good doctor for his wife or his youngest son. Even as a much older man, his actions, based upon the type of person he really is, are shaped by his childhood.

Relationships

There are some novels where the relationships of all the Characters is the story. But even in tales not so based, the Characters in all tales are affected by how they relate to others, friends and family, and foes alike. Pick one of your Characters. Did he get along with his parents, or does he still have daddy issues? Is he married? Does he dote on his wife, or is the marriage strained? Who are his friends? How does he treat them? It is clear how these relationship go far in determining what kind of person each of your Characters are.

Livelihood

What your Characters do for a living matters. Moby-Dick just wouldn’t work if Ishmael sat on the Executive Board of Greenpeace. In Faulkner’s The Hamlet, Flem Snopes is who he is based upon his work, but only because it demonstrates his takeover of the town – from the general store to the horse exchange, the story reveals him basically because of his work as it reflects the advance of his Character.

Hobbies

It is easy to give provide pastimes for your Characters that mirror your own interests. I would love to for all my heroes to be baseball fans. Certainly, I’d write about what I know, but there needs to be variety in my Characters, so there needs to be a difference in their hobbies. Maybe I need some Characters who enjoy opera and others who listens the Opry. While I’d like for my favorite Characters to de dedicated to Mozart, maybe I should have someone listening to Cool Moe Dee once in a while. But the hobbies should reflect the personality. A rock shaper should have a patient and meticulous nature, while a photographer might by known for his perspective on the world.

Worldview

We all have an outlook on life. Our Main Character may be Catholic or an Atheist, Republican or Democrat, given to hedonism or dedicated to sacrifice. Worldview has everything to do with what a person wants, and what someone wants moulds the individual motivation. Our Characters need motivation, each must want something very specific. What motivates out Characters begins with every one of their worldviews.

All these add layers to your Characters and makes sure they stay interesting. But this is of course only a starting place. You can think of many other layers to add to the richness of their personalities and details to fill out their being.

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Why Dogs Would Make The Best Novelists

“Everything you need to make a novel takes place at dog height.”  Garrison Keillor

We’ve all heard the bit about a roomful of monkeys at typewriters trying to replicate Shakespeare. The best they ever got was something that looked like “banana,” but that could have been an accident. And I wonder, why monkeys? Why not dogs? I would be much more interested in something written by a dog than some smelly monkey. In fact, I believe that dogs would make great novelists.

Dogs work hard

Dogs are some of the hardest working animals out there. They pull our sleds and rescue us from avalanches. They sniff out drugs and help us when we can’t see. Dogs work almost as hard as novelists. Yes, novel writing is indeed difficult. We sit at a keyboard and type – for hours a day, for months or sometimes years. And that gets us the first draft. Then we go through it again, pushing in and pulling out. I’ll say nothing of the work that goes into finding representation, publication, and notification. Novel writing is hard, and if anything out there could do it, it’ll be a dog.

Dogs come in many breeds

There are a variety of dogs, just as there are a variety of writing genre. Dogs and their breeds are perfect for the different kind of books you see at the bookstore. For example, I would have the German Shepherd write crime novels. Beagles would be great for kids books. Yellow Labs are the most popular breed, so I’d let them write Poplit. I can see Dalmatians writing action stories. And Border Collies can write the literary novels because they are so smart.

Dogs are playful

One thing you just have to admit about dogs, and that is they are playful. They are people pleasers if there ever were such a thing. But shouldn’t that also describe the novelist? Not that a writer should ever write just what they think someone else wants. But we need to be aware of the market, and keep that in mind as we write. Moreover, who are you writing for? Any novelist wants to be read and liked. It seems dogs are perfectly suited for this job, because they are the greatest people pleasers ever. Dogs simply make you feel good, just like a good book should.

Dogs are man’s best friend

From our time in caves and through the rise of civilization, in times of hunting, harvesting, or laboring, the dog has always been man’s best friend. If you love a dog, you live longer, it’s that simple. Dogs are God’s proof in Creation that we are loved and should show love. And as long as man could talk, he’s had something to say. And if it’s really worthwhile, he’ll write it down. In history, the story has also been man’s best friend. Books are valuable and serve a purpose. As with all of the arts, novelists help make the world a better place and contribute to the elevation of humanity. Novelists and dogs are both man’s best friend. In fact if I were a dog, I would want a writer to be my owner because we share so much in common.

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