Wednesday, June 1, 2016

1 Free Writing: How to get out of your head and into your character

We are thrilled that Louise Hawes, author of THE LANGUAGE OF STARS, chose to stop by for today's Writers On Writing post! She has some great advice on how to get outside of your own head and into the minds of your characters. 

"You have everything you need to share your character’s internal world"

When readers or students ask me about my writing day, I’m always embarrassed. Frankly, I have no set routine, and there are days when I’m ashamed of how little I get down on paper. If people ask where I get my ideas, or what lucky charms or rituals I use? I’m equally unhelpful: sometimes a story or novel pops into my head, fully formed; other times it takes months to turn a gesture I see on the street or a single sentence I hear in a dream, into a substantive character and plot. Sometimes slashing through the air with my SFX star wars sword (yes, I keep one near my desk!) helps; sometimes it doesn’t.

In other words, my creative process is not easily definable, and like lots of us, I’m all over the place. So when I was invited to contribute a piece of advice for this WOW post, I had to ask myself, What’s the one thing that doesn’t change from book to book? What stays the same, whether I’m writing a short story or a novel? No matter whether it’s for adults or teens? The answer, the one tool to which I always turn, is free writing.

Like poetry, free writes are a way to loosen up, a method I use to ditch my inner critic, and make the switch from common sense to felt sense, from thoughts to emotions. Most important of all, though, free writing builds a bridge from my heart to my character’s. Without editing, without revising or second-guessing, the free flow of this fast form transforms my instincts and experiences into those of my fictional people.

"Your role is to be a supportive, affirming witness"

I can give you a brief description here, but your particular project (or character) may need something else. When I first started free writing, I was the only author I knew who used this tool, but now there are as many ways to “get inside” as there are authors to ask. So feel free to question your fellow writers and adjust this approach to work for you:

I never free write without first doing a meditation with the fictional person I want to get a bead on. So before you do anything else, close your eyes and spend five quiet minutes with your character, visualizing him (or hearing her -- some authors are auditorially inclined, while others are more visual.) Picture in detail the clothing, mannerisms, facial expressions, posture, gestures, voice color -- every thing that makes him or her unique. Let the character do what he needs to; she may sit down beside you to talk—if she’s feeling friendly; if he's scared or mad, he may turn his back and walk away; she may need a hug. Your role is to be a supportive, affirming witness.

After five minutes, open your eyes and pick up a pencil. (A computer works for some, but never has for me.) Ask your character a question and then ask her to write the answer. The question may be as general as, Why do you want me to write this book? Or it may be as specific and nitty-gritty as, I’m having a terrible time with this scene. Can you tell me what you feel when X confronts you about Y?

The answer you write will be in first person, directly from the character, not you. So you’ll need to write without taking the pencil off the page, without editing or worrying about the final "product." This writing isn't for publication; it's for you and your character. As soon as either of you feels tempted to erase, change, or edit, stop. The result may be a few paragraphs or a few pages. Regardless, you’ll now have one of the most valuable creative resources you can hope for—something your character wants you to know.

Almost always, you’ll find on re-reading what’s on the page, that you’ve received raw, usually intense material the character (or the part of you that is the character) needs to get "out." It can include language you'll actually use in the book or story, words that are directly, compellingly linked to the character and his situation. Even if the language won't be used word for word, you'll almost always come away with new information about the character or a new way of looking at one of his/her issues.

Yes! You’ll find out things you had no conscious awareness of—from “small” things, like your character’s middle name and favorite actress, to much bigger surprises, like the scar on her hand that happened when she pulled her baby brother out of scalding wash water. What’s most surprising and precious, though, is that, for as long as the free write lasts, you have captured your character’s voice, the way his sentences rush ahead, the way her language is prickly with consonants, how circuitously, fearfully, he expresses himself. Believe it or not, I have even pointed out to students how the physical nature of their handwriting changes from one character to another. (Something a mere, schmere computer could never show you!)

This last aspect, voice, is of course, crucial. It’s what distinguishes this character from others, your new book from the last one. I keep a whole notebook of free writes (from both main and secondary characters) beside me as I work on a project. That way, if I need to take a break (or am forced by an emergency to put the story aside) for weeks, or even months, I have a way back in. I simply pick up the notebook and read it out loud, hear all those vital voices come alive again. And I’m right back in the world of my book!

“But is this real? Or am I just fooling myself?”

It’s funny. No matter how much new information about their characters they learn from a free write, no matter how much more clearly their fictional people’s voices come through, some students always ask me, “But is this real? Or am I just fooling myself?” The answer should be obvious: Yes, on both counts.

Free writes are as real, as true as the act of writing itself. Unfiltered by your left-brain editor, they are, in fact, probably more honest and direct than most of the other writing you do all day long. (Emails, book proposals, first drafts, after all, are intended for a certain audience. But free writes? They’re not for public consumption; they’re for you and your book’s characters only.)

But it’s equally true that you have to fool yourself into giving up that internal editor, into removing the blocks between you and the parts of you alive in your character. When a student wonders how they’ll ever be able to write a scene in which someone’s father dies if they themselves haven’t lost someone close to them, my answer is simple: write from the place in you that has known loss – whether it’s a pet that died, a friend who moved, even a novel draft that got wiped off your hard drive. In order to make a fictional character “live,” you only need to find an emotional bridge between your experience and theirs. That bridge is a free write.

So yes, you’re fooling yourself. You don’t, after all, live in medieval times; you’re not imprisoned at the bottom of a well; and you certainly aren’t a mermaid. But trust the bridge: you’ve known what it’s like to be without modern “conveniences.” (Remember that hurricane? when the power went out?) You’ve experienced being isolated, cut off from others. (If sitting by yourself at the refreshment table in the gymnasium when no one asked you to dance, isn’t alone, what is?) And you also understand what it is to feel like a whole different species. (How is it that no one else in your sixth-grade class understood your love of classic silent films?! Why were you and the projectionist the only ones who showed up for your special showing of City Lights?)

You have everything you need to share your character’s internal world. You don’t even need to know why or how it happens. You simply need to invite the character who’s come to you to help you learn more about her or him.

“Close your eyes. Open your heart”

If you’re new to free writing, here are some great questions to ask your characters. (Try asking different characters the same question to see how powerful this can be!)

1)     Why do you want (or not want) me to write about you?

2)     Tell me about your father/mother. What was the moment when you were most mad at him/her? How about a time you felt most tender toward her/him?

3)     What’s your very first memory of water? How old were you, and what happened?

4)     Do you have a recurring dream? Can you share it with me?

Thanks, everyone. I’d love you to check back here after you’ve done some of these free writes, either with a brand new character, or with one you’ve been working with for a while. Let me know how it goes!


The Language of Stars 
by Louise Hawes
Margaret K. McElderry BooksReleased 5/31/2016

Sarah is forced to take a summer poetry class as penance for trashing the home of a famous poet in this fresh novel about finding your own voice.

Sarah’s had her happy ending: she’s at the party of the year with the most popular boy in school. But when that boy turns out to be a troublemaker who decided to throw a party at a cottage museum dedicated to renowned poet, Rufus Baylor, everything changes. By the end of the party, the whole cottage is trashed—curtains up in flames, walls damaged, mementos smashed—and when the partygoers are caught, they’re all sentenced to take a summer class studying Rufus Baylor’s poetry…with Baylor as their teacher.

For Sarah, Baylor is a revelation. Unlike her mother, who is obsessed with keeping up appearances, and her estranged father, for whom she can’t do anything right, Rufus Baylor listens to what she has to say, and appreciates her ear for language. Through his classes, Sarah starts to see her relationships and the world in a new light—and finds that maybe her happy ending is really only part of a much more interesting beginning.

The Language of Stars is a gorgeous celebration of poetry, language, and love from celebrated author Louise Hawes.

Purchase The Language of Stars on IndieBound
Purchase The Language of Stars on Amazon
View The Language of Stars on Goodreads


Louise Hawes is the author of two short fiction collections and over a dozen novels. Her work, for readers of all ages, has won awards from Banks Street College, the NJ Council on the Arts, the New York City Public Library, the Children’s Book Council, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the International Reading Association. Dark Pearls, A Faerie Strand (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), a collection of retold fairy tales, earned the Gold Award, Hall of Fame at 

She collaborated with four other authors to produce A Flight of Angels, a graphic novel named one of the Ten Great Graphic Novels of 2013 by the American Library Association. Most recently, her work has been included in the 2015 YA anthology, Things I’ll Never Tell; Stories of Our Secret Selves. And now? A brand new novel, The Language of Stars, is out this month from Simon & Schuster’s Margaret K. McElderry Books.

An academic as well as an author, Louise helped found and teaches at, the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She has also guest lectured at the Mississippi University for Women, University of Mississippi, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, Duke University, Meredith College, the University of New Mexico, Staten Island University, and the University of Southern Florida.

Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter

-posted by Michelle Taylor-

1 comment:

  1. This article is wonderful, I like reading but if a review isn't good I won't read a book! :) That's why I think that reviews are very important and I'm proud of people who can write them :) But when I need to do it, I look for website for writing and crafting papers  to help me because I'm a good student and I need to have good marks :)


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