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

Binge Writing: When To Stop

Writers Block

This is a personal experience piece, not a writing guide. Just want to make the distinction clear here.

My Own Binge Writing Experience (Plus Updates)

Okay, things have been a bit weird lately. I’ll go on a writing binge on Monday and in a half-trance, cough up over 3,000 words (plus another thousand over words on other stuff), then the very next day, wake up feeling very lethargic and braindead to a very ineffective writing session. I’m just writing Mark of Child for now, which started as a rewrite of another story, though I intend to re-look Alone In The Crowd in future.

Mark of Child isn’t proving itself to be popular, but whatever, I’m enjoying myself. Up to 7,000 words now with large chunks of rewriting. I already know the major plot points, it’s the minor ones in between that I need to work out. You won’t be able to see much from what I’ve posted, but these two stories are some of my most complete start-to-end stories in that I already know what I want for both of them. If nothing else, I enjoyed myself writing them. Alone gave me a lot of trouble as I tried to play with the tenses, but it got me going and I’m getting the hang of present tense now, even preferring it. But we’ll see, I’m still learning the ropes. There’s more to the writing then I initially though.

For Mark of Child, as long as it goes swimmingly and I don’t suddenly hit a dead end, I should be good to go the distance for a mini-novella at 20,000 – 25,000 words with a hard limit of 30,000 I’ve set myself. I don’t like horror fiction that goes on forever, since well, horror plots tends to be pretty thin. Should be done in 3 weeks so please forgive me if I ignore my blog for a while. That is usually a good sign however as it means I’m doing something more productive.

Is Binge Writing Acceptable?

Then again, I ask myself if this famine or feast approach to my work is acceptable. Going back to the topic my previous article on Write Habits, I asked the question of how do most writers write. That is a question I’ve been asking myself, since lately, I’ve been questioning my own dedication to just sit down and write. For example, a very popular writing boot camp, NaNoWriMo advocates a sort of disciplined approach to getting out that first novel. 1,667 words per day for a month and you get a 50,000 word novel. That methods works for a lot of people since the time factor forces them to ‘just do it’ and realise the writer in them.

Lindaghill seems to be a prime example of someone who found her mojo after taking part in one of these boot camps and has completed the first draft of a 200,000+ epic. She has done something probably less than 0.001% of this world has done. I’ve been giving her a lot of shout outs lately since I am learning a lot from her.

But, like a round hole and a square peg, I just can’t do it. The more I try to adhere to a “write this amount of words,” “sit down from this time to this” approach, my mind just goes blank. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the process, but I seem to be someone who goes with the flow more than the method. So rather than force myself to write, I decided to stick to my approach and try to refine it.

Binge Writing Help

Turn’s out I’m not alone, and what I’m doing isn’t that wrong from a creative perspective. An article from Scriptmag that seems to understand what I am going through, and has some sound advice from seat-of-the-pants writers like me, to balance our style with the discipline of method writers. The motive of trying to achieve this balance is most aptly put by Ernest Hemingway.

“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

The article in Scriptmag actually speaks out against writers like me, but in a good way. It tries to teach us to control the force within instead of curbing it altogether. This control is to combat one of the biggest problems people like me face – We write without a plan, we write with the flow, we write to our hearts content, then suddenly brick wall. You look back and you see what you have written and how you can angle it to go forward, but no deal. Eventually you give up, move on and start the whole process over again.

Some useful tips from the article include gems like this:

2. “Leave yourself a rough edge.”

Cory Doctorow says, “When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the ‘hint.’ Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.”

Reading the article, I’ve come to several conclusions

Do not binge write to the point you are writing for the sake of writing Ideas are flowing, but haven’t had time to cook in your imagination. You’re just filling the page with empty words as you try to lead yourself somewhere, meandering through pointless dialogue. Just writing when you run out of ideas is GOOD, but not when you’ve ready gone a couple of thousand words in and refuse to stop.

Do not binge write trying to squeeze every last possible idea This is the reason why I binge write. One idea comes, leading to another, then another. OMG! I need to put all this down, then you start writing and writing until you’re drained. Turns out the next morning, you don’t know where to begin. Refer to the Ernest Hemingway quote above.

Do not binge write and expect the same results every single day This is one of the biggest killers for me. I’ve wrote 3000 words on Monday, why can’t I do it again? A good day tends to set us up for failure especially if you try to hold yourself to the lofty standard of one day. It’s better to look at the average over say a week, since binge writing takes the energy away from the very next day.

Declare yourself satisfied with your work I like this idea from the article and used it for a while. You have a goal in mind for today’s writing. You hit it, STOP! You have some other ideas in your head, make some notes, put down the key points, move on. This links to the second point about letting ideas stew for a while. You realise you end your writing on a high and eager to go the next day, instead of drained and fatigued.

To conclude, since I’ve done it again, and written another thousand word post. Let me just say find a method that works for you, learn it, explore it, question it. But more importantly enjoy it. This applies to the bigger world as well, not just writing. There is no just thing as black and white, right or wrong. Be it 250,000 essays on bondage or 20 word haikus. But not trying to learn more about your craft is a deadly sin. I will always keep questioning and learning, until the day I die.

Related articles

Ernest Hemingway: How to Write Fiction

Image

Saw this recent posting on the Open Culture website. It’s an article that referenced the compilation Ernest Hemingway On Writing on some of the best advice Hemingway ever gave to aspiring writers. While Hemingway never really published any material specifically targeted at educating writers, he did write several interesting things about his opinions on writing through various sources in his lifetime.

This article is not a writer’s guide per se, and don’t expect it to be. It’s about Hemingway talking about how he works and why he writes the way he writes. I enjoyed reading it very much, and if nothing else, this article gives you a brief glimpse into the minds of one of the literary greats of our time. To me, that’s more important than a random person of the internet trying to teach me how to write in a step 1 to 10 fashion. I’m not a particular fan of his work, but he does give personal anecdotes on several writing rules or habits that you might have heard of, or even perhaps, are using right now.

I particularly appreciate this one:

6: Use a pencil

If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.

Even though I do not practice writing with a pencil, due to my god-awful handwriting (I failed an economics paper before due to illegible handwriting), I still enjoy the practice of writing and rewriting my work. Whether I’m making the story any better is not something I can comment on, but I find I can make the story flow smoother through rewriting.

Take a gander at the article if like to see his personal interpretation of the writing rules. You can find it here on the Open Culture site – Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

P.S: Why do successful novelists all look so scholarly? Maybe it’s time to splurge for a nice pair of reading glasses to give myself that intense sophisticated look.