Thursday, October 11, 2012

Creating An Imaginary Panel to Get Unstuck

By Jess Keating

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: Let's give a big welcome to author Jess Keating today, who's continuing this week's theme of kicking your muse in the butt to get her going. Jess has a unique tip for getting unstuck in an early draft, and one that I bet would be useful in the early planning stages as well.

Jess is a Canadian fiction and nonfiction writer who spends most of her time eavesdropping on children, wrangling animals and climbing trees. She's also a sculptor on the side, has a degree in Zoology (which technically makes her a zoologist), and a Masters of Science (which technically makes her annoying at parties because she never shuts up about random animal and science facts). She's always loved writing and making up stories. She even started a library in her room when she was 8 so she could charge her brother late fees. To this day, he still owes her 8 bucks. Most of her books are for humor loving middle grade kids, but she dips into young adult and picture books when the mood strikes. Her agent is the brilliant Kat Rushall of MLLA.

Take it away Jess...

Show of hands: Who here has ever been told they have an overactive imagination? *looks around*

Ahh, yes. That looks about right.

As writers, we must have overactive imaginations. We talk to characters that don’t exist (at least, not corporeally), we have arguments with our main characters, and sometimes, we even fall in love (oops) with our favorite tragic heroes or bad guys. I’m still waiting for Dustfinger to return my phone calls.

But here’s the thing. Overactive imaginations or not, the mechanics of writing can be sticky. Writing is hard, guys. Seriously, utterly, ridiculously, smack-your-head-against-the-keyboard-until-you-bleed hard. Sure, there will be good days. Sometimes, the words will flow from your happy, little fingertips and you will laugh maniacally at your beautiful world while simultaneously yelling at your spouse/dog/houseplant to “Keep quiet because THE GENIUS IS AT WORK”.

But not all days will be like this, my friends.

Some days, you will probably want to set your dear computer on fire, so that it may feel the bitter ash of resentment embodied within your current manuscript. (Yes, that was a tad dramatic, but YOU KNOW I’M RIGHT.)

Stuckness can strike in the blink of an eye at any stage of the writing process, particularly when you find yourself slogging through the craptastic first draft, developing character arcs or even worse, battling my personal nemesis that I like to call ‘the Wretched Middle’.

So what’s a poor writer to do when faced with all this stuckness? Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, this trick can help. I like to call it ‘THE OVERACTIVE IMAGINER’S PANEL OF UNSTUCKITUDE”.

Or, more simply, The Imaginary Panel.

What is it?

You’ve probably heard of interviewing your characters as a creative exercise. Although your characters don’t exist, that’s no reason why you can’t talk to them, right? But why stop there? Well, we’re all writers here, so I won’t have to duck too much when I say that this trick is, quite literally, an imaginary panel of people that are going to help you figure out your story.

It is the epitome of creative exercises! Hear me out.

How does it work?

*bangs gong*

1. Imagine a table. Any table you like. It can be a round table, a la King Arthur, or wooden table in a woodcutter’s cottage, or even a pile of pillows on the floor in a gigantic cave light by fireflies. This is, as they say, your party. The whole point is to give your mind a place for your imaginary panel to sit.

2. Pick 6-10 people that amaze you, with really strong personalities. Now here’s where things can get interesting. You can pick real, living people, like your favorite authors. If you want to get J.K Rowling’s help with your midpoint, go right ahead! But you can also pick your favorite fictional characters and some of your own creations as well.

Tailor your choices to the type of story you’re working on, and mix in a few ‘wild cards’ from another genre to keep things interesting. Try to include some bad guys, too, because they often see the quickest way to add precious conflict.

For example, if you’re writing a fantasy with lots of action, you might put Neil Gaiman at your table (shh! He doesn’t need to know!), Severus Snape, Indiana Jones, Gandalf, Dustfinger (swoon), Katniss, Jane Eyre (wildcard), and Hermione Granger. Just for jollies. Imagine that they know the story you’re working on, and are eager to talk about it with you, like some sort of All Star Book Club.

3. Write your panel down so you don’t forget anybody. Now comes the fun part. Ask them any questions you have about getting unstuck. Obviously, the real people are not going to answer. But here’s the kicker: much like interviewing your own characters, this method uses your own imagination to solve problems, without letting you overthink them.

Why does it work?

As a writer, your subconscious knows a LOT about these characters you love so much. They represent dramatic ideas and hold a special place in your writer’s heart. So, you’d be surprised how often answers come up here, when you give yourself another ‘voice’, such as the characters on your panel. We are always braver when wearing a mask, and in this case, ‘wearing’ imaginary characters bypasses the judgmental, internal editor part of your brain that makes you say “No, that’s a terrible idea!”, so you can actually stay open to new ideas.

In other words, you’re using your own overactive imagination to help you out, without allowing your ‘stuck’ characters or internal editor to get in the way. It’s a cheat, but it works like a charm.

Because each character embodies such a drastically different personality, you’re going to get some wildly different answers. This variety will give you lots to work with, and you can sift through to find what’s right for your story.

Here are some sample questions to try. Don’t forget to circulate your panel, getting an answer from each character.
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to my MC? How can I make that happen?
  • What isn’t there enough of in this story?
  • What trouble am I overlooking that could lead to some great conflict?
  • What is my main character’s greatest fear that I don’t see? (Note: Snape would probably have a great answer to this!)
  • Through what lens does he/she see the world? Pain? Innocence? Desire to prove themselves?
  •  Have I gotten lost somewhere along the line?
Some people find it easiest to talk out loud to their panel, or write it down quickly. Whatever way works for you is best, just give it a shot!

You may have seen Neil Gaiman’s amazing commencement speech. (If not, finish reading this and then go watch it now!)

In it, he said: “Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could.”

This imaginary panel is just another way of pretending you can do it, by borrowing the voices and personalities of those you love! The great thing is, you can regroup the panel anytime, and it’s free!

So, let’s hear it. Could you put your overactive imagination to work? Who would you put on your panel?


  1. Ha! I love this. Thanks =)

  2. I think my panel would consist of authors such as Stephen King, Tananarive Due, Audrey Niffenegger, the late Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor and the late L.A. Banks. they are all my favorite fantasy writers. I would also bring to the table JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins.

  3. Fantastic idea! I would have my tertiary characters, along with such writers as Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, Robin McKinley, and Juliet Marillier.

  4. Such a great idea! Love this. Off to contemplate who will be summoned for my panel...

  5. You know, sometimes it helps just to hear another writer confirm how hard writing can be. Thanks Jess.

  6. Ooh, brilliant. I want Lloyd Alexander and Inigo Montoya on my panel and maybe Edward, the evil prince from King Lear.

  7. This is one good way to get a crack team of experts behind me. I'll try it!

  8. Love this! Brilliant. Thanks so much. Can't wait to hear what Snape has to say about my WIP....

  9. I think it's a really cool idea! I especially like the suggestion to invite people from other genres. That can help avoid cliches and stereotypes.

  10. Thanks for the enlightenment. It's like putting many minds to work! Two heads are indeed better than one.