Runaway Characters: When They Write Themselves

Some days my characters write themselves. The words spilling onto the page are not mine but my characters’. They’ll say and do things I had never intended them to say or do. They will interact with each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. They’ll redirect the action to outcomes I hadn’t wanted. All because one or two characters get minds of their own.

How is this possible? How can characters, who exist because I have created them, get minds of their own? They are not sentient beings; they are fictitious and exist only on the page and in my mind. If I determine who they are as characters and bestow upon them everything that they have, how can they develop beyond the bounds I give them?

But they do. Words come unbidden to my fingers, and I can do nothing but write them down.

I don’t understand the process behind this type of writing. I don’t even know what to call this kind of writing—character-led writing? subconscious writing? out-of-control writing? hooey gobbledegook? All I know is that, from time to time, my characters take charge of their destinies, and I, their creator, am no longer their fortune teller. I am merely a scribe, recording all that I see.

However, once the character-self-writing spell passes and I am once again in control, I am left to wonder whether I should take possession of my characters’ writing. Should I go back into the passage and rewrite it as I had envisioned it in the first place? Should I force the characters back into their molds? Or should I follow where my characters have led and develop their new paths further?

I follow. Writing that happens of its own accord, that writes itself without any hassling or straining from me, is a blessing. It’s a bit like free writing: in some part of my brain, my creative energies have unlocked and ideas free flow to the page without thought. No censor, no mediation, no plan—just words. Knowing how hard words are to come by, I will embrace those that do come.

Besides, my characters are their own best judges of character.

Thursday Boggle #127

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Boggle 127

Free Write

Don’t prepare, don’t plan, don’t think. Just write. Let the words lead, and follow where they take you. But do not stop writing. As long as you keep writing, everything else will fall into place.

…fall like mud, that is. Have you read someone else’s free write before? It’s messy, ugly, often nonsensical, and perhaps a bit painful to read. It’s also a direct line into the writer’s thought processes and is a sampling of the writer’s raw voice and style.

Free writing is the technique or exercise of writing for a period of time, usually ten to twenty minutes, without stopping. I’ve discussed writing with a timer before, but free writing is a little different from timed writing. In free writing,

  •  you cannot doodle or type nonsensical letters when you run out of ideas. You must keep writing down words.
  • you cannot backtrack. No editing, deleting, or even reading what you’ve written. You are always writing and looking forward.
  • grammar, spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, and other technical aspects of writing do not matter.
  • you write the first thing that comes to mind. No censor and no thought.

Why Bother Free Writing?

Free writing can be a bit like stretching. It opens up the passageways between your mind and the page, helping your internal thoughts flow freely through the pipeline and become external written words. It can warm up your writing muscles before you work on your writing project or massage them when you are stuck on your project.

Free writing is a sort of brainstorming as well, helping you explore your own ideas on a topic or writing prompt. Like free association, free writing can reveal what you don’t know you think or feel.

Free writing can also help you overcome your anxieties about writing, as I’ll touch on more after the free write below.

So, Let the Words Fly.

Here’s my five-minute (to keep it short) free write, with the prompt “I am stuck writing because…”

I don’t know what to plan. My story started out from a short story I wrote years ago for a writing contest…well no, it was for a magazine. Anyway, I loved the idea I had for it and the world I knew was developing. Finally, I’ve kicked myself into gear to start working on it. But I’m stuck. Already. I don’t know where to go, that’s the prolblem. I try planning it out but I ome up empty, which is odd for me, considering that I’m usually a planner.

I like to plan my writing nefore going in. but to a certain degree. I can’t outjline chapters and hwat happens in them chatper-by-cyapter. I wish I were that organied, but I need to see where the writing goes. So I tried sitting down..well, I did sit down, hah, and plan out this story, or novel. Yes, it’s a novel. Well, it will be, eventaully. I had my basic premise, and I wanted to flush out the world, the society, how it looks, how ot works, how it functions, what the people are like in it. And I have these ideas in my head, but I ahve trouble putting them down on paper. So I moved on from that, since I was stuck, tow working out a basic plot. And again, I just couldn’t get apst this stuckness. I didn’t know where I really wanted to take the story, on a detailed level. All I can thnk of is the high level view point, where this or that might happen overall, and maybe this is the direction I want to take the story, but again, I can’t go chapter-by-chapter.

After being stuck again, I moved on to my characters. I had names for them, the general cast of five. But I wasn’t happy with some of their na,es so I changed them. Now I’m happy with them. And then I worked on their appearances and their overall character traits. I have decent views in my mind of what they look like, so I was happy at least there with that. Not too detailed, but enough to go on.

So go I went. I threw them in a scene, started it easy, and just wrote. I didin’t know where I was going, or why they were there or really what they were doing. But I started with two of my five main characters, had them talk a bit to develop a reapport of sorts and see how they would interact, then moved on to another scene viea a time break and had two other characters interact…but not for long. I wanted to dive into the action so that it woujldn’t be too boring. So i

Time’s up!

Notice the typos, spelling errors, incorrect grammar, repetitiveness, simple sentence structure, etc.? It reads like a stream of consciousness narrative, minus any editing. The writing itself is quite terrible.

Embrace it. All that messiness is one of the important aspects of free writing. You don’t have the luxury to be self-conscious or critical or doubting. You write. You force words out of yourself until the timer dings. For me, self-consciousness and criticism and doubt are the biggest barriers to writing and the most frequent causes for getting stuck.

If I can ignore those negative forces in a free write, then maybe I can overcome the negativity when writing my novel. It doesn’t feel bad to write poorly. It feels good—because I’ve written something.

In a short period of time, I’ve turned my thoughts into words rather than churning over in my head the perfect articulation that ends up choking out my ideas and halting my momentum. I can return later and work with poor words and rewrite and revise; I can’t return later and work with nothing.

The act of writing itself, no matter the results, feels good. Try a free write yourself and see where it leads.

Free-Writing Prompts

  • I am stuck writing because
  • I write because
  • What I really want to do today is
  • If I could, I would
  • I’m not proud of it, but
  • I’m sorry I
  • [Character name] ran from
  • [Character name] was laughing at
  • [He/she] didn’t want to, but [Character name] had to
  • For some reason, [Character name] once thought this was a good idea, but

Thursday Boggle #126

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Boggle 126

Amazon’s Faulty-Ebook Labelling Program

Amazon’s Kindle ebooks will bear a label warning customers of content and formatting errors starting February 3, 2016. If publishers don’t work to correct the errors in their ebooks, they could be facing hundreds, if not thousands, of their products being deemed faulty in some way.

As a proofreader of a prominent Canadian publisher, I was informed of Amazon’s new quality-assurance program for ebooks last week. While my publisher is officially happy to comply and improve the quality of its ebooks, it is also unofficially unhappy to be strong-armed into addressing issues that are so trivial to most readers they are non-existent.  And us proofreaders get to do all the glorious grunt work.

But let’s take a step back to understand the situation with Amazon’s new program.

A Two-Pronged Approach

Amazon defines two levels of errors: non-critical and critical. Which error level an ebook reaches determines how Amazon will label it and whether or not Amazon will pull the ebook from their digital shelves.

Non-critical, or minor, errors are those that don’t affect customers’ ability to read an ebook. Typos, spelling mistakes, incorrect punctuation, soft hyphens, and unsupported characters are all non-critical. These issues will create a label in the ebook’s details page that specifies the errors. It is up to the consumer whether the non-critical errors warrant refraining from purchasing the labeled ebook.

Critical errors do affect an ebook’s readability. Some of the critical errors include the following: poor image quality covers; formatting errors, such as extra-wide margins, poor line breaks, and improperly separated paragraphs; duplicated text; and missing content or wrong content. Ebooks with critical errors will also have a label detailing the error. However, if Amazon determines that the errors make an ebook unreadable, they will make the ebook unavailable. Even if consumers wanted to take a risk and purchase ebooks with critical errors, they wouldn’t be able to.

The full rundown on their error classification system can be found on their website, here.

Reporting to Publishers

Because an error label could be harmful to an ebook’s sale and the publisher’s and author’s reputation, Amazon is reporting the errors directly to the publisher. If the publisher remedies the errors and resubmits their ebooks, Amazon will not label or will remove the label from the corrected ebooks.

Amazon promises to deliver weekly error reports to publishers until further notice. Already Amazon has delivered reports to publishers with an initial list of problematic ebooks, giving a week for publishers to address the worst offenders before the program goes live.

In its reports to publishers, Amazon lists the specific version of the ebook in question and a short description of the error. Even though Amazon may specify the location of the error on the ebook’s details page in the Kindle Store for customers, Amazon does not notify publishers of the error’s location.

Who Is Finding These Errors?

You, the reader. Consumers can report errors online for any ebook they have purchased. Consumers with Kindle e-readers can also report midread with a few taps through the menus on their Kindle devices.

Error reporting is nothing new, though. Consumers have always been able to report problems with their products to Amazon, and Amazon has endeavored to ensure and maintain the quality of its products. Publishers have also always welcomed feedback directly from readers via mail, email, phone, and customized reporting forms on their websites.

This is the first time, however, that the reported errors will be made public on the ebooks’ product pages until amended.

The blogger John Dopp in his post on the issue states that he spoke with a Kindle Direct Publishing representative. The representative said that Amazon employees must confirm the error reports manually—no computer tricks here—before Amazon sends its reports to publishers. By manually validating error reports, Amazon will ensure that they do not provide false reports to publishers.

The Benefit for Consumers

From a consumer stand point, Amazon’s new program is nothing but good. The program itself is  encouraging to consumers insofar that it shows that Amazon takes its quality control seriously. The program might even encourage consumers to report errors in ebooks if readers now know that their efforts can truly make a difference.

Which is important in the world of ebooks, where self-published and digital-first or digital-only products are pumped out much quicker than print ones are. Quality concerns have long been plaguing the ebook world. Unreadable ebooks are unacceptable—consumers pay good money for ebooks and have the right to expect them to be in good, readable form.

That consumers will be unable to purchase and download ebooks with critical errors saves consumers time and money from purchasing faulty product. In addition, Amazon’s push for publishers to fix the critically faulty ebooks is a soft promise to consumers that the ebooks will be corrected and available for sale once again, hopefully in a timely fashion.

The label for non-critical errors in ebooks is more to the personal taste of consumers. If consumers do not want to purchase ebooks that have typos, misspellings, or improper punctuation and the like, then consumers can make more informed ebook purchases.

Either way, the consumer-generated error labels alert potential consumers to the technical errors contained in an ebook—errors that consumers otherwise would have to swim through piles of reviews to find or might find out only after purchase.

The Problem for Publishers

The problem is that Amazon, so far, is not being transparent about its policies regarding the program—at least not to publishers.

For one, Amazon has not told publishers how many consumers must report an error before Amazon moves to validate it and report that error to the publisher. Is one reader’s report of a misspelled word enough for Amazon to respond, or must dozens or hundreds of readers report it?

For two, Amazon has not told publishers that it will validate reports (I got that little detail from the blog article by John Doppler), and nor by what methods. If that one reader reports that “favourite” is misspelled, will Amazon confirm what dictionary the book is using and ignore the report if the book is following the Oxford English Dictionary? And if a publisher decides to stet an error Amazon has flagged, will Amazon accept the publisher’s decision?

For three, Amazon has not provided timetables for when it will apply its labels to ebooks. In its initial reports to publishers, Amazon has detailed which titles will receive a label when the program first goes live, but all the other titles that Amazon has identified as problematic do not have dates for their labels. How much time will Amazon give publishers to correct their ebooks before Amazon labels them as faulty?

For four, the majority of publishers do not have the resources to address all the reported errors in their ebooks. Since Amazon doesn’t detail the locations of the reported errors and lists the errors for only one edition of an ebook, publishers must find the errors themselves and find them across all editions and reissues of that text. That means if one book was first released as a standalone, then rereleased in a two-in-one, then included in a box set, and finally excerpted in other books, the publisher must find all those editions and correct every one of them. Many publishers, especially small or independent houses, do not have enough people or time to go on these scavenger hunts in addition to their usual busy, deadline-driven workloads.

The last concern is really for consumers, and that is whether or not Amazon will provide customers for free with the new, corrected versions of previously labelled ebooks. Will only future customers benefit from the error reporting and mending process? If Amazon does provide customers with the corrected versions, readers will surely lose any highlighted text, notes, and bookmarks they had on the old version, since the text itself has been altered.

The Fallout

The program is nearing launch, and the one question publishers have is “How will this affect sales?” How will consumers respond to the new labels on Amazon? Will they refrain from purchasing ebooks with a label indicating non-critical errors?  Will consumers care?

Publishers won’t know until the numbers come in and their sales decrease, increase, or stay the same. Many publishers don’t want to take the risk and are jumping to fix the errors Amazon has reported. No one wants their books labelled as faulty, and certainly no one wants their books pulled from Amazon’s shelves altogether.

Amazon is powerful. Just by enacting this one new program, they are making publishers jump. If all publishers banded together and refused as a unit not to respond to non-critical errors (critical errors are still important to fix because all ebooks should be readable), they could tell Amazon that they will not be bullied into worrying over piddling errors. Together, publishers might have the strength to influence Amazon to remove its non-critical error labels.

We proofreaders, typesetters, editors, and publishers do our utmost to ensure that our books are of the highest quality and meet the highest standards. We welcome feedback to widen our knowledge and improve our skills and to better ourselves as members of the publishing and literary communities. However, branding our ebooks as faulty or of poor quality because of a few non-critical mistakes like typos is extreme.

Human mistakes and errors do happen. Most books will have one or two typos and other inconsequential errors. Unless a book is mired in such mistakes, the overlooked typos don’t make a book unreadable or any less enjoyable. Oftentimes, our brains fix the errors without our realizing it—that’s often how the errors are missed in the first place. I challenge you to find a book that is free of any error.

So the question readers have to consider is “Do you want to see the majority of ebooks bearing a label warning against typos and spelling errors?”

Thursday Boggle #125

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Boggle 125

An Honest Compliment

When last were you happy with your writing? When did you last sit down, read a piece of your work, and enjoy it? When was the last time you complimented your writing?

I’ll answer that for you—not recently and not frequently enough.

We writers mire ourselves in self-criticism. By our nature, we are introspective, reflective people who like to think, and think, and think, and in our musings, we wonder if there isn’t some way we can be better writers. If we could only better capture the struggle of that human spirit, better portray the reality of these living conditions, or better envision the unimaginable, we could be worthy writers.

As naturally as the never-ending self-criticism comes to us, we are also taught to be ruthless to our craft. We are supposed to kill our darlings, after all. Although said in various ways by various people, the saying is the same: good writers seek continually to rewrite their work; the best writers are never satisfied with what they have written. Only hacks like their own writing.

And we almost take a weird sense of pride in our self-deprecation. We think that there is something respectable about writers who talk about their works with a modesty so seething it is debasing. It is as though our harsh words about ourselves demonstrate the keen perfectionism and obsession only writers can possess. We can prove our writerly worthiness through our disparagements.

But worthy of whom? Worthy of our readers, our critics, our teachers, our peers? What about being worthy of ourselves? Can we ever be worthy of ourselves if we do not stop criticizing?

Admitting our mistakes, learning from our failures, and recognizing our weaknesses, while character- and growth-building, can turn our focus on nothing but the negative. Too much self-criticism can lead to self-defeat. In trying so hard to grow, we can cut ourselves down.

There is strength in praise, too. If we can rejoice in our successful works, appreciate how our writing has improved, and simply praise a well-turned phrase, we can renew our faith in ourselves as writers. With a strong faith comes motivation, energy, passion, and life. We can remind ourselves why we love to write rather than tell ourselves why we shouldn’t.

So go ahead, give yourself and your writing an honest compliment. Don’t hold back. Published or not, established or aspiring, you are a writer worthy of yourself and your accomplishments. Only you can write what you have written, and there’s a special sort of magic in that.