Writing Tools: The Idea Matrix

The Creative Process

In the beginning, stories are nothing but paper filled with ideas. Your ideas. Everything, from the characters to the story to the dramatic twist comes from your little head. You are the creative master. So why not make things a little easier for your noggin’ and add a little structure to your process.

Why a Matrix

Let’s use characters as an example for now. Anyone who had ever written something probably knows that you never ever just write a story about a boy. Your story of a boy eventually becomes:

The bullied – boy in school – who lost his mother at a younger tender age – and lives with his caring uncle  – who wishes the boy will crawl out of his shell one day  – to fulfil his fullest potential.

OR

The bullied –  boy in school – who loathes his mother for abandoning him – because his uncles hides the truth from him – thus making him think that she is the devil incarnated – which is why he cuts himself and just bit off the tip of Eric’s nose.

He doesn’t even need to be a boy, you can turn him into a girl, or a middle age accountant. The idea here is to identify the key traits of the character and put them down into a interchangeable grid format. In the above examples. the characters can easily be swapped with just a few key words. Boy – Girl, Angry – Sad, Fulfilment – Frustration.

And to do this efficiently, you need some sort of matrix. Here’s an example of a matrix that I have used to build my own characters thus far:

Simple Matrix

Looks simple doesn’t it? Yet, it still managed to serve multiple purposes:

  1. It clearly presents to you the choices to transform your character.
  2. It inspires you by allowing you to randomly mix and match.
  3. It saves you a lot of rewriting, forgetting and headaches.
  4. It acts as a database for your old characters if you ever need to reference them.

Using A simple Matrix

You can use very simple ones like the one above, which focuses purely on the characters and let your creative juices filll in the rest. Below are just some examples I just thought of literally 2 minutes ago:

E.g. The Hungry Video Game Nerd opens his fridge and grabs a coke, accidentally brushing against the head of his father. He wouldn’t let him game in peace, so he killed him.

E.g. The Jaded Pregnant Girl is sitting at the abortion clinic… again. All the waiting is making her mad, she has a hot date coming up in a few hours and just wants to get it over and done with.

Going further with the concept, you can even take a well-known, well-referenced character, change enough parts of it, and you get a new character completely unique to you and you alone!

Expanding the matrix

If you’re sort of a OCD freak like me, and would like to creative a more extensive matrix which extends the concept to plot, theme and what-nots, here’s my expanded matrix.

Big Matrix

Click for a better view

For an extended Matrix, the basic premises should be filled:

  • Who? The Main Character + optional major secondary characters or villains
  • Why? The Purpose + optional smaller conflict that leads to the big one + optional plot twists.
  •  Where? The Setting + optional smaller, more intimate start point and bigger end game
  • When? Time Frame + Optional jumping to and fros if your story calls for it.
  • How? The story of the character moving ahead + logic fail-safes + your gimmick

Of course, none of the above should be compulsory. If anything else, having a few gaps would allow you to get the creative process going. This full blown matrix should really only used for archiving purposes or just to stare at when you’re fresh out of ideas.

The combinations here are endless if you’re looking for zany wacky possibilities.

Jaded – Superhero – who attends a High School Reunion – but feels he has nothing else to live for – meets a WitchDoctor –  tell hims he can be someone else in another life – makes him goes back in time to kill his own parents – ending up in a alternate universe of his own doing – but climax and conclusion open for you to fill in. 

Will that work? I don’t know. But it is a hell of a original idea as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. From a bunch of old stories I came up with something new, in two minutes by the way. And I only have eight tracks to work with now. Think of the endless possibilities when you fill this up to twenty, forty.

If you’re a burned out writer looking for inspiration, give this method a try. It helped me, I’m sure it’ll help you too. 

Writing Tools is a series I wish to expand upon in future where I talk about the various resources and processes that budding writers out there can use to better their own creations. Most of this concepts should be easily replicatable and I will present them in the form of my own exercises. If you have any ideas of your own, kindly share them as well, in your own blog or in the comments below!

Update – Practical Exercise Example 

Forgot to include a practical example. Here’s how I came up with a story combining 4-5 elements of what I’ve written before into what is more or less 1/2 the material I need for an entire story. Using a Private Eye from an un-uploaded early work regarding a Demon pet, using the old man from The Biodegradable Urn, using Butterfly Lady from the self-titled prompt, using Japanese man from The Immortal Jellyfish and basically borrowed plot lines from everywhere else. I can easily throw in Irish Manager Bob from Pixel Land as a circus ring leader, and the sugar-loving crazy demon imp from my first story (which sadly I will never upload). Maybe borrow a few spiders from Peter’s work as well.

I just picked and matched this in 10 minutes

Instant Plot

Click for a better view

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Write Habits?

Writing

My Writing Habits

I’m a late-riser, and a late-sleeper. Since there’s no one who needs my time, I basically plan my own day, preferring to write at night, say from 11pm to 4am, when the house is quiet, and when I’m most productive. This is when I write most of my blog posts and do most of my writing. The rest of the time is usually spent doing other writerly stuff like reading or editing.

I get a ‘second’ wind around 5pm – 8pm where I find a can write a fair bit as well. In total, I try to keep about 6-7 hours of pure writing time a day. Anymore and my eye sight gets fuzzy and I just get too tired and go do some other stuff.

From this, you can tell my bio-clock is probably screwed from spending too much time in another timezone 12 hours away since I visit my fiancee in San Fran while I’m in Singapore. (Going back there again in April.)

It’s not right, but it’s how I write.

Writer Work Ethics

That got me thinking about the work-ethics and habits that writers should generally keep, since I know I’m definitely nowhere near role-model standards. So I dug up some recent articles that gives a brief glimpse into the life of writers.

Here is it. BrainPickings.Org – Daily Routine Writers

In it, it chronicles the best bits/habits that some writers have credited for their success. Note, this has nothing to do with writing skill or story-development, its just personal habits to make you more efficient and feel better about what you do.

And for a more detailed look at one of the writer’s routine – BrainPickings.Org – Kurt Vonnegut’s Routine

This post is awesome from the get go with this quote that most of us probably live with everyday.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

One of the habits that greatly disturbs me, simply because it seems to be emulated by many writers, including a famous one – Michael Crichton, is this one quoted by William Gibson.

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

[…]

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

This worries me actually. Is sleep deprivation and the closing out of everything but your story so essential to the process. One of my fellow bloggers, Lindaghill, just finished the first draft of her novel as well, and well, it mentions sleep again as the reward for her efforts. Then again, she has an epic 210,000 word novel, I’m not even to 5 figures.

I understand an artist must suffer for his work, but I wonder if there’s some brain chemistry involved here that turns you into a ‘finisher’ when your brain doesn’t get enough sleep. As mentioned in the Michael Crichton post, there seems to be a link between the pace of writing to the amount of sleep you get. Less sleep seems to equate to less description, more action oriented story-driving to bring the story to a close.

Good thing then, that I’m still in the honeymoon period of writing a book. But seriously, these comments seem a little scary. Stop trying to scare people from finishing their book! I’ll set a good example and wake up at 11am and sleep at 9pm and still finish my book.

So what kooky habits do you keep as a writer? Or in life in general.

Related articles

Lee Child: Write What You Feel

Lee ChildWhile trying to dig up more useful guides and resources to improve my writing, I got this tip from an article in Writer’s Digest on how to start writing a novel. Of five they posted, this was the one that caught my attention.

5. Instead of “write what you know,” try writing what you feel

In an exclusive interview with WD, bestselling Jack Reacher creator Lee Child explains:

The worse [writing advice] is probably Write what you know. Especially in this market. In the thriller genre, for instance, nobody knows anything that’s worth putting in. There are three people in the world who have actually lived this stuff. And so it’s not about what you know. [Write] what you feel is really excellent advice. Because if you substitute Write what you feel, then you can expand that into—if you’re a parent, for instance, especially if you’re a mother, I bet you’ve had an episode where for five seconds you lost your kid at the mall. You turn around, your kid is suddenly not there, and for five seconds your heart is in your mouth and you turn the other way, and there he is. So you’ve gotta remember the feel of those five seconds—that utter panic and disorientation. And then you blow that up: It’s not five seconds, it’s five days—your kid has been kidnapped, your kid is being held by a monster. You use what you feel and expand it, right up as far as you can, and that way you get a sort of authenticity.

In my personal opinion, this should be easier for fiction writers, especially those who work in alternate-reality worlds i.e. fantasy, sci-fi. But I’m thinking out loud that it might be possible to work on a simpler level. For example, writing in the first person view of say a famous person or a rocket scientist. You could interview a real one, but how exactly do you write how he is feeling, particularly pertaining to his field.

In my last story Alone In The Crowd, I tried just that. I had a rough plot and a sequence of events I wanted to write about, then i just went with it. The story was taking place from the point of view of a slightly deranged writer who was firstly, a famous horror writer, and secondly, someone who was ostracised and bullied in school.

Since Stephen King’s butler hung up on me when I told him I needed to interview the King, and also since I’m more of a bully instead of the bullied, I had experience in neither. So I just wrote, and tried to put myself in his shoes, i.e. writing based on a feeling / bluffing instead of writing what I know. Since I’m writing about a writer writing, I tried to put my own head into his as well.

The result was intoxicating. Reading through the roughly 1500 words I’ve written last night, of which only 600 or so were non-crazy or structured enough to post, I found my thoughts drifting randomly from the mundane to the perverse. He could be watching paint peel off the wall simply to avoid eye contact, or he might be smiling at an annoying person who he has no interest talking to, while thinking about how he would kill the person in a story. I tried to use this ‘feeling’ space to touch on the experiences he had in his past (to handle backstory).

I wondered what would happen if I tried to write all of that drunk.

I tried to put more feel / thoughts into the story instead of a direct do/say/describe approach. Personally, it felt very natural to write, especially in drafting. Thoughts and emotions rarely comes out in coherent forms, and I just went with it, so bear with me if you do read the story above. I’m currently free-writing the rest of the story and am already up to over 3000 words due to the ease of putting it on paper (editing will be hell later though). I kinda like this approach and might stick with it in future.

So, what do you think. Do feelings and whimsical emotions in stories appear too rambling for you, or would you prefer the meat and potatoes of just the facts of the story. (Michael Crichton / Da Vinci Code sort of books would fall into this category.)