February 11, 2021

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Heard—and How to Implement It

Years ago, I came across a nugget of advice that transformed my writing process...

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Heard—and How to Implement It

Years ago, I came across a nugget of advice that transformed my writing process, opening me to a next-level understanding of my story and where it needed to go. Think Stranger Things next-level, when Eleven does sensory deprivation in a kiddie pool and ends up between two worlds, treading a line so dark and intangible you can’t even see the ground she walks on. Or The Neverending Story, at its neverending end, when it’s just Bastian and the Childlike Empress, speaking, surrounded by darkness.

The second I put this piece of writing advice into practice, I experienced a total shift in space and time. I was pulled into a pitch-black, silent hollow between the dimensions of my world and the world of my book. How?

Write to your character.

It’s so simple, and yet just strange enough to not necessarily come to you on your own as a worthwhile thing to do. It’s breaking the fourth wall. My character isn’t supposed to know I’m here! The author doesn’t belong on the page! Way to ruin the magic! Right?

Wrong. Your characters wouldn’t be telling you their story if they didn’t know you were there. They want you to listen to them. They want to be heard. And if you write to them directly, it’s so much easier for them to tell you everything they need to say.

Making the First Move

I was shy at first. I’m pretty sure I just wrote, “Hello.” But that was all it took to pull me out of my room and into a space that I couldn’t have imagined existed. My character said hello back.

Lucille Ball as Lucy, eyes widening in surprise

And then it was like a freakin’ dam broke. She wouldn’t stop talking. I learned SO MUCH. I saw my story through a deeper, more well-rounded lens, driven by emotions and desires rather than where I thought the plot needed to go. And most helpfully, I became unstuck in a story that had ground to a halt due to my lack of understanding of its deeper narrative.

I began using the technique as a way to validate my plot, and not just with my main character. To make sure I was nailing the reactions and actions of my supporting characters, I’d drop them a line, too.

Me: Hey Milena, how’s it going?

Milena: Be a dear, and shut the hell up, would you? You know precisely how it’s going, and I’m sick of it. Not only am I forced to endure this monstrosity whose very existence is a source of nausea—the ignorant brat is growing on him! He likes her. THERE IS NOTHING TO LIKE.

Perhaps the most fun part of it is how strongly their voices come through. The novel I was working on when I discovered this trick is written in the third person limited; most of my characters’ voices are only heard in moments of dialogue. But when my characters write to me, it reads more like their stream-of-consciousness thoughts than dialogue—much more personal, honest, and direct. Not only that, one of the characters is mute, so I’d never heard her voice in any form. Hot damn is she a fierce one. 🔥💃

It doesn’t take much to get my characters talking. Usually all I need to write is a question—a small one even. “Where are you?” “Are you worried about X?” “What will you do?” Then they take over the pen.

Taking it to the nth degree

Recently, I did A THING I haven’t done in years: I bought a college-ruled, spiral-bound, five-subject notebook in which to draft my next novel… 😱

As a mother of two small children with a full-time day job, this felt rather courageous, dare I say foolhardy—(I’ve been primarily working on picture books of late). But much like my two small children, my characters won’t let me be. They insist on having their story told, and they insist that I am the one to do it.

The notebook arrived in the mail, heavier and more demanding of a firm grip from my hands than I’d expected. Its subject dividers can be plucked from the spiral and repositioned to suit its owners needs—my needs. But what are my needs? I need to write a story—a long one. And unlike all the previous long stories I’ve written, I need to plot it out in advance (ex-pantser turned die-hard plotter).

I’m a big fan of best practices, so I googled “how best to write a novel in a college-ruled, spiral-bound, five-subject notebook”, expecting a flood of results featuring post-it notes and color-coded highlighters and my oh-so-enticing repositionable subject dividers.

Instead, I found nothing. I was left to figure it out on my own. And I’m so glad I did.

I’ve decided to make writing to my characters a fundamental part of the process. Using the dividers, I’ve partitioned the 200-sheet notebook as follows:

  • 20 sheets (40 pages) for general plotting and worldbuilding notes
  • 20 sheets (40 pages) for writing to my protagonist
  • 20 sheets (40 pages) for writing to my supporting character
  • 20 sheets (40 pages) for writing to their nemesis
  • 120 sheets (240 pages) for drafting

It makes me giddy to think of all the (very one-sided) conversations that will fill those pages. The richness of their voices. The depth of their emotions. The growth of their convictions.

I have a strong plot already outlined. My goal isn’t to write a purely character-driven story. It’s to write a believable story, backed by the nuance of individual personalities, thought processes, and emotions. And what better way to do it than to dive as deeply as possible into those individuals’ minds?

Also, it’s fun as heck to work through these conversations with your characters, without worrying about crafting the language for a readers’ eyes. It’s just you and your MC—or you and their nemesis. And everyone, including you the writer, gets to let down their guard.

Have you tried writing to your character before? If so, how’d it go? If not...what are you waiting for?

Author photo of Chiara Colombi

Chiara Colombi

Author, Reader, Wonderer

Chiara Colombi is the author of Rocket Ship, Solo Trip, illustrated by Scott Magoon. An Italian-American bilingual wordsmith dedicated to the art of engineering with words, she worked for a decade as a translator before pivoting into product marketing at a Silicon Valley startup in the data privacy space. She is as comfortable talking about PII (personally identifiable information) as she is talking about PBs (picture books), though she'd love it if you asked her about Jupiter's moons.

About Chiara

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