Do you “cast” your characters in your head?

It’s part of character building: figuring out their biographies and motivations, yes, but also their eye color and hairstyle. How they stand, sit, and speak. I spend more time on my characters than a plot outline because my usual strategy is “Put them together, give them an inciting incident, and chase after them.”

Sometimes I work up complete character sheets with all of this info actually written down, and then I do include a photo of a celebrity as a reference. At times it’s a specific screen shot from a specific role that celebrity has played, so my character is more cued in to that role than the person whose face I’m using. Other times it’s a specific expression that just captures what I’m going for. I can remember one specific character from 2012 where I just searched for “redheaded man” and found one perfect shot of an actor whose name I don’t know, with the exact expression that captured my character. Googling the actor at the time didn’t give me any other angles that really spoke of my character, but that one photo was just *chef’s kiss.*

Picking the photo – or the actor I associate with certain traits – can be key to helping me write the character consistently. In 2019, I had a character in my NaNoWriMo novel who was supposed to be calm. About everything. No matter what I threw at him. And I, myself, am not like this. So.

I picked Patrick Dempsey as my casting for that character even though they don’t really look alike. I’ve just seen Dempsey play a number of characters who are soft-spoken no matter what the situation. When things were getting exciting in the plot, I’d picture Dempsey in one of those roles saying my character’s lines, and it helped me focus on the character’s (almost unnatural) calm. It helped me get out of my own head and my own reactions and into the character who, being an immortal warlock, had little in common with me.

Or take my upcoming novel, which you’ll actually get to read. Not Your Mary Sue opens with two characters, Marcy and Jay. Marcy is a televangelist’s adult daughter, a white woman in her early 30’s. Jay happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer. He’s also white and in his thirties, but … a male serial killer. That’s not within my personal realm of experience.

For Jay, I was playing with the idea of an actor who presents as someone absolutely horrible onscreen, but who is apparently a very nice person in real life. Jay is, of course, the opposite: the “nice person” is his act and the “absolutely horrible” is his real self, but it was a good jumping off point for me. I started thinking about that sort of character around the time when Sherlock and the Loki fandom were big, so you have Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston playing these characters who are, at best, jerks, and yet who have fans fawning over them because they’re apparently really nice people. I mean, you’ve got Loki killing 80 people in two days and Tom posing with kids for UNICEF. That contrast spoke to me.

I’ll say at this point that I haven’t done any looking into Benedict and Tom to actually confirm any of this. Their real lives, that is. Tumblr posts praising their public lives? Sure. Just this idea that they can have these two incredibly contrasting public faces, no matter what their private lives are actually like.

Jay is more Loki than Sherlock, and having that idea of someone who could present such a range of emotions – and inflict such a range of emotions on other people – helped me start sorting out his background, and his various reactions to things, and his view of himself. He had to be changeable, and secretive, and that’s got to take a toll on his mental health even before we add in the Fresh Coast Killer aspect.

I’m looking ahead to NaNo this year, and I haven’t cast my characters yet. I’m debating doing picrew versions, building them from the ground up instead of trying to find the absolute perfect actor and image. (I don’t draw, so that’s out.) I’ve got the basics – hair color, eye color, height differentials, that kind of thing – but sometimes being able to just look at a face really helps things fall into place for me and help me get into that headspace of who a character really is.

How about you? Do you cast your characters at any point in your writing process?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?

What we leave out when we talk about writing

I’m working on knitting a sweater right now. It’s far enough along that I tried it on to check for the sleeve length and posted a mirror selfie, and one of my friends commented that the body is a perfect fit. Which meant I made a list of all the steps I’d gone through to make sure of it. And then got me musing on knitting patterns and writing books.

Bear with me.

When you buy a knitting pattern, you get instructions on how to make the exact object in the photo, sometimes in different sizes. Let’s focus on a sweater. You choose your sweater size off the bust measurement – how big around you want to make it – and go, right? Because all the information is right there. Nyoom! Sweater!

Well.

When you walk into a store and can try on clothes, they’re sized. You know what one to start with and what generally fits, but if it’s more expensive, you’ll take it back and try it on and see how the standard measurements actually look on you. So yes, you can make a sweater following a pattern exactly – and that’s the easiest way to do it the first time – but … it’s not just about customization. It’s about apparently commonly-known tricks and hurdles that patterns often leave out.

If you’re just knitting on your own, without a community, you might wonder why the heck your armholes always end up holier than they should be. Maybe it’s just you. It takes communication with other people – people willing to show the mistakes and oopsies, even – to learn that hey, actually, lots of people have that issue with armholes, and here’s an easy trick to fix it.

Or, until you knit more than one sweater or talk to other people, you might not consider all the ways you can customize a sweater. Neck, sleeves, shaping, length … top down or bottom up … seamed or in one piece … you can adapt the things you like about a pattern and swap out the things you don’t like.

Patterns also use shorthand like “take time to check gauge” for things that actually take a lot of work. The sweater I’m knitting right now, for example: I’m not knitting the size of my actual measurements. I’ve got another sweater using the same yarn and needles (which, for the record, is very important when you’re using it to do the math) and I measured that, plus a couple other shirts I own that are similar in construction to the pattern I’m knitting (and which I like to wear), and I did a lot of math. Like … a lot. That’s before I even started knitting. But a normal knitting problem doesn’t tell you all that. It assumes you either know about checking gauge and substituting yarn, or you’ll google it on your own.

Non-knitters, you still with me?

Thinking how much gets left out of knitting patterns – how much knowledge you’re assumed to already have at the ready – started me thinking about writing advice. What do writers leave out when we’re talking about writing because it just seems so essential to us, so much like habit, that we forget we once had to learn it? Is there advice out there like “take time to check gauge” that tells you plenty if you already know what it means, but is confusing and overlookable if you don’t?

So much of writing is invisible to the reader, if the writing’s good. All of the stuff that goes behind “take time to check gauge” – measuring the already knit and washed garment in multiple places to calculate stitches and rows per inch, and then measuring clothes of a similar style that give me a good fit, and doing the math to figure out circumference, and then making sure things like armhole depth aren’t going to be completely out of whack, and remembering that my own gauge changes when I knit flat versus knitting in the round …

Do we always share all the stuff that we, personally, had to learn the hard way? (Pro tip: make the sweater that looks like the sweaters you’ve already got in your closet. You know you’ll wear it. And you won’t put in 50+ hours of work on something that looks different and you won’t actually wear.) Or do we just internalize it and think everyone else already knows it, too?

I’ve had some good conversations lately with my writing buddy and a friend of mine who asked me things about my writing, both the nonfiction and the fiction, and I’m compiling a list of those questions to answer in blog posts moving forward. Things that other people want to know, and not just the things I think other people want to know.

If you have any questions about the writing process, or things you’d like to hear me muse about, please share them! I love talking about my research, and I love talking about writing, so if there’s something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask … now’s the time. Let’s de-mystify the writing shorthand.

(Oh, and the part about how you can change up a sweater pattern to add your favorite sleeves or preferred shaping? That also goes for writing advice. It’s not one size fits all. You pick what works for you, and maybe set some pieces aside to look at more later, and move on from the stuff that doesn’t. The more you read or talk about writing, the more options you’ll have.)