Countdown To Nano…

With three days, and counting, until NaNoWriMo kicks off it’s time for all of us lollygaggers to get our collective act together. Whether you have a few things left to nail down, or you’re entirely unprepared – do not stress!

I’ve got your back, guys, and together we can get off to a flying start this NaNoWriMo. So, what should you be doing? Well, that depends on who you are!

 

The Newbie

Bless your heart – you’re excited, you’re full of enthusiasm… you have no idea what’s coming your way. If this is your very first NaNoWriMo, welcome! Whether you know what you want to write or not there are a few things you should do to make sure that your first NaNo is everything you want it to be;

1) Make A NaNoWriMo Account; 

This one may be obvious, but make an account, enter the details of your novel, no matter how basic, and get yourself all set up before November 1st.

2) Gather Your People

If you have writing friends who are participating add them to your profile so you can encourage and track each other. Alternatively join a writing group on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr and find people who you can talk with about the stresses and joys of this writerly season.

3) Pick An Idea

The most common thing I hear people say when they are new to NaNo is that they have “so many” ideas; these people inevitably become conflicted about whether they’re following the right one! Develop your ideas and then pick the one that takes your fancy most. Remember you’re not abandoning all the others for good; you’re picking which one you want to work on first.

4) Set Reasonable Goals

If you’ve never participated in something like this before it’s normal to expect that you’ll be able to keep up a break-neck pace all month. You won’t; this is a marathon, not a sprint and so consistency and endurance are key. Set a low goal which you are confident you could meet on a bad day; if you exceed it you’ll feel great. If you set a goal which requires too much from you every single day you’ll fall behind and become demotivated!

 

The Last Minute Entrant

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So, you’ve skidded onto the scene with less than a week to go – you know the ropes, you’ve done it before… you just didn’t think you were going to do it this year. Alas the pull of NaNo was too strong, and now you’re scrambling to get ready.

So, what can you do?

1) Plot Some Shit

Look, I know you have nine billion ideas floating around; pick one, develop it, and create a loose structure. You’ve done this before – pick a genre and get ready to pants this shit.

2) Prepare Your Work Space

If you’re not as prepared as you would like, sorting out your work space is key; set up your writing station in a place you know will be relaxed and relatively undisturbed so that you can focus while you work.

You could even stash some treats and supplies nearby. Think cans of energy juice, your coffee maker, a blanket, some protein bars, or, hell, even a scented candle. Whatever you need to keep your arse in that seat while you write.

3) Inform Your Friends And Family

You know, so they don’t worry when you drop off the face of the earth for a month.

 

Perpetually Prepared Plotter

Piss off, you don’t need my help;

Go have a drink and be awesome until it all kicks off.

 

Everyone!

  • Create your ultimate writing playlist
  • Organise your notes
  • Treat Yo Self (*read: get yourself something nice to alleviate the stress*)
  • Look out your dictionary and thesaurus

 

And, finally, enjoy it!

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Building The Writing “Habit” (October #Authortoolboxbloghop)

This post was written for the Author Toolbox monthly Blog Hop – if you want to sign up you can do so right here!

One thing I always hear other writers complain about is the fact that they say they “can’t” write at a certain time; they lack motivation, they lack inspiration, they lack the right environment. While its true that all of these things can cause you to slow down and become stuck in a rut, I really don’t believe the should cause you to come to a complete halt.

There are some things we can do in order to minimise the effect of these various lacks and issues. The most effective, in my experience, is to get into the habit of writing regularly when you’re riding high on motivation, inspiration, and free time; while forming a habit might not help you to avoid losing motivation or hitting a writing wall, but it will enable you to begin pushing through such times in your writing career.

 

The Writing Habit

Habit – a recurrent, often unconscious, pattern of behaviour which is acquired through frequent repetition. 

There is a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, for example drinking a glass of water every morning when you wake up, but this, as it turns out, is very much not true.

According to various studies (one summed up succinctly in this site) learning a new habit can take a minimum of 21 days with many people taking closer to 3 months to form a concrete habit. This might sound less than comforting, but don’t stress too much; studies also show that if you miss a day here and there it won’t ruin everything. As long as you get right back on the horse you will be able to form the habit without having to restart the process all over again.

 

Laying The Foundation

So, while you’ll need longer to build the habit of writing than you may have anticipated the first two weeks can easily be classed as critical; these are the foundation for going forward.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of laying a strong foundation you need to be consistent and reasonable in your goals. Trying to write five thousand words each and every day will most likely be unattainable unless you have the time and means to make writing a full-time job. Try to set a routine that is:

  • Manageable
  • Reasonable
  • Intuitive

If you are a night owl, for example, and try to force yourself to get up early to write you’ll find that you become exhausted and fed up very quickly. When trying to build a new habit do so one at a time. At first, work with your body and mind in ways that they are used to.

For example, set yourself the goal of writing a single page first thing in the morning or last thing at night for the first two weeks. For the first two weeks do this every single day, including weekends.

 

Capitalising On It

Once the first two weeks are over you should begin to work into the grooves you have already laid out for yourself, so to speak. At this point, you should start treating your writing habit like a day job; five on, two off.

I can hear you screeching to a half – “what? Deliberately skip days?” I hear you ask… well, no, because you’re not skipping days as much as you are building a working routine that allows for decompression. The best way to fail to build a habit, or to build a habit that breaks you down, is to set a routine that does not allow for rest and recuperation.

When you’re hitting your single page goal each working day you can begin to up your quota; try going for a page and a half for a week, and then two pages per day for a week. Adjust your daily goal until you find a level that is engaging, but comfortable. This will depend on your personal situation; if you’re writing full time this could be three or four pages per day or more. If you have only an hour or two a day jump back down to one page.

The key is consistency.

 

Moving Forward

Once you have a good habit behind you, you can start to think about technique and style. Considering how to world build, how to develop ideas, and how to build characters.

The important thing is that you first get into a habit of consistent productivity and that you allow for your own nature; you will miss your goal now and then, but that should never dissuade you from trying the next day.

Genres In Fiction

Genre (Zähn-rə) 

  • A type or class.
  • A category of artistic composition.

 

If there is one thing which universally stymies new writers and authors, and even some experienced ones, it is the definition and borders of the genres into which works of fiction are classified.

Literary fiction, interestingly, is classed as being separate from “genre” fiction. There are some key differences between genre and literary fiction, of course, but this is all about genre fiction! There are many genres and sub-genres these days, but to save time we’ll cover the main ones. These are, broadly speaking;

  • Horror
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction
  • Romance
  • Comedy

 

Genre Breakdowns

Of course, every single genre has a set of characteristics, subgenres, tropes, and boundaries which bear consideration when you are writing and, especially, when you are pitching your novel to agents and publishers.

 

Horror

Fiction designed to frighten, shock, repel, and invoke a sense of dread. Common themes are supernatural creatures, biblical horrors, human horrors (think serial killers etc), and psychological horrors.

Horror can overlap with science fiction and fantasy, any other genre at all really, but in order for it to be a horror the key motivator must be the “fear factor”.

Popular horror novels are; Bram Stokers Dracula, Stephen Kings It, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Clive Barkers The Damnation Game. 

If you want a small sampler for how to write horror, start here.

 

Fantasy 

When you say fantasy, most people think of High Fantasy fiction such as the kind written by J. R. R. Tolkien which involves elves, dwarves, and epic heroism. But, in truth, fantasy is simply speculative fiction which contains a plot that could not happen in the world as we know it today. It is most common for fantasy to take place in worlds which resemble Medieval Europe in technological level and society, but this is a trope, not a boundary.

Famous fantasy novels (other than The Lord of the Rings) include Robin Hobbs The Liveship Traders, Joe Abercrombies The Blade Itself, and Lewis Carrolls Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

You can find tips for writing in the fantasy genre right here.

 

 

Science Fiction

Science Fiction, much like Fantasy, is speculative in nature but differs in that its basis is most often in the future or an alternative history where technological advances make the impossible possible.

Common themes are space travel, genetic modification, and artificial intelligence. The focus is very often on how these advances alienate people, cause the creation of new moral problems, or on colonial themes.

Famous Science Fiction books include Michael Crichtons Jurassic Park, Ernest Clines Ready Player One, and H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. You can find a few tips on writing Science Fiction right here.

 

Romance

Romance novels can come in many forms but revolve around the development and obstacles faced by a romantic relationship. Romantic novels can be supernatural, historical, or erotic, but no matter what their underlying themes the main focus is upon the relationship in question.

Good examples of romance novels are; Jane Austins Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontes Wuthering Heights, Jojo Moyes Me Before You, and Jenny Hans To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. 

A short breakdown of writing Romance can be found here

Comedy

Comedy may well be the most subtle and diverse of all genres, and while you may well have guessed that the aim of the game here is to amuse, many people find it hard to understand the lay of the land beyond that point.

Comedy writing may be dark, it may be satirical, political, vulgar, or even slapstick, but it is also most often a genre used to make some kind of commentary. Comedy does not always have a happy end, but more often than not is optimistic.

Good examples of comedy novels are; Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (anything by Pratchett actually),  Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Anne Donovans Buddha Da, and Oscar Wildes The Importance Of Being Earnest.

You can find a crash course on comedy writing right here.

 

When it comes down to choosing an agent, creating a query,  and writing your synopsis you should have your genre firmly in mind.

 

 

 

Ready, Set, NaNo

November is peak season for writers; when NaNoWriMo rolls around we’re all ready to power through novels that we’ve pushed back and back and back all year long. Every year the story is the same for thousands of people:

You start well, you beat your targets for the first few days, and then… something goes wrong. Somewhere down the line you lose motivation or you meet a blockage that you just can’t work around.

You fall further and further behind, and sure maybe you write until the last day, but you never meet the target. You never finish it.

 

Or maybe you just give up altogether.

 

I’d love to be your hero (baby) and take away the pain…

 

But I can’t… All I can do is help you to prepare for NaNoWriMo so that you can up your chances of success. Here are some things to keep in mind as we go on:

1) It’s a marathon, not a sprint;

Yes there are some truly terrifying individuals who can crank out ten thousand words (or more) in the first day, but I’d bet you that many of them burn out somewhere in the second week.

Nano is a test of endurance, planning, and determination. In essence it’s a microcosm for the experience of a writing career – it teaches you skill you should apply to every day life if you want to take this on full time.

2) Failure is an option, but it doesn’t define you;

You can do it all right and still not finish. You can finish and dislike the product. Hell, you can finish and like your book and still not get published; this is not a reflection on your potential, but on THIS project and your CURRENT skill.

Learn how to say “I’m not ready YET”.

3) This is not an excuse to neglect your body and life

I’ll say it again, NaNoWriMo is an intense and limited example of what it means to take on a writing career; you should be continuing your life as usual, but finding time to write. This may mean sacrificing small pleasures such as an extra hour in bed or gaming time – what it DOESN’T mean is not washing, sleeping, eating, or socialising and skipping school or work.

If you take the time to learn how to juggle you will build good habits that will increase your productivity in the long run. This is a worthy goal, even if you fail the word count goal first time round.

 

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

Your preparation doesn’t need to begin now, but I would recommend that you start it soon. There are three steps to preparing for Nano, and depending on what book you want to write you may already have completed the first two.

1) Idea and Plot Development:

If you want to make your life as easy as possible during Nano it’s advisable to develop your idea and basic plot before you start to write; this will minimise the likelihood of severe writers block.

Idea development is a topic I have discussed before in detail, so if you’re unsure about it check out the link provided. If you’re having trouble getting an idea at all, however, checkout some prompts and methods. 

Once you have your idea it’s time to make a basic plot and some characters. This booklet might be of use to you*. When you have a an idea, plot, and main character(s) you’ll find you can get off to a flying start.

 

2) Research and Pre-Writing

Once you have the basic outline of a story and your characters, you need to flesh out their world and experiences. This is the time to gather knowledge and understanding of any topics on which you’re unversed.

You should consider what genre your story will fall into, in broad terms, and look into the main tropes, cliches, and plot devices used in that genre. Worldbuilding might be on the agenda; if you find it hard to flesh out the tricky details consider these world-building questions to help you get the gears turning. If you’re working with in the ‘real’ world, but in a historic setting you should brush up on your historical research skills to make the most of what you read. Most of all remember that when you research for fiction you are focusing on the major events of the time, and the minutia of life for your characters.

i.e. in a story surrounding a weavers daughter there is very little reason why the reader needs to know about the intricacies of courtly life, even in the country in which the book is set, unless she must become immersed in them herself!

Pre-writing, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process of writing what I would call the “scaffolding” which will prop up your first draft. Think family trees, histories of towns and conflicts, personal histories, relationship development plans, and political information for your characters and your world. Your reader will probably never see any of this, but it will help you immensely (trust me!).

 

3) Real World Preparations

Ultimately this is the part that will make or break your attempt; you need to make time in your life for NaNoWriMo.

This can be done in a number of ways:

  1. Tell your friends and family you will be participating so that they can give you space and support.
  2. Create a workspace for yourself somewhere quiet and relatively undisturbed.
  3. Figure out the best time for you to write e.g. mornings, evenings etc.
  4. Begin building habits, e.g. if mornings are your time begin the process of gradually waking up earlier than usual. Set an alarm half and hour earlier than usual for one week, for example, and then move it back another half hour after you are used to this.
  5. Set a routine, build a habit; start sitting down to write, plan, or pre-write once or twice a week. Try to have a set time, and ensure that people know to leave you be (unless it’s an emergency) in that hour or two. Setting this habit early will help greatly when November bares its teeth.

 

Once you’ve done all of this you’ll be ready to give NaNoWriMo hell!

 

 

 

 

 

*This booklet is entirely free, but if you want to enable me to keep updating it (as well as producing more articles and resources) you could consider supporting me through Kofi.

 

 

Three Simple Ways To Level Up Your Prose

Once you’ve written a short story or novel, it’s tempting to start sending it out right away. Of course, writers with sense know that you need to edit and polish any work before you consider sending it away.

Once you have edited, dealt with any structural issue or plot holes, and otherwise refined the story, there’s still the matter of technique, or style as Strunk and White would call it.

It takes a lifetime to really master writing technique, if anyone can actually do it, but there are a few simple changes you can make to instantly level up your prose!

1) “Omit Needless Words”

Brevity and clarity are things every writer should aspire to. Words are precious; say what you need to as efficiently as possible by never repeating yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to make all sentences short. Just make sure that every word progresses the story. Here are some examples of words and phrases that are “needless”:

With regard to

In the event that

In a hasty manner

The reason why is

These can be replaced, in order, by:

Regarding

If

Hastily

Because

There will be times when you want to affect an archaic and formal writing style; when this is the case, you could consider reversing this process for a stiffer, less flowing style.

2) Beware The Plague Of Adverbs

Stephen King stated that adverbs are much like Dandelion; if you have just one or two in your garden they can look pretty, but when you let them run amuck they lose their charm.

This is the best explanation I’ve seen as to why you should avoid using adverbs. Notice I say avoid, not stop.

One or two well placed adjectives can add suspense, feeling, and flair to the right moments of your story. Too many shows a lack of confidence; you must be confident that the reader can understand your intent without them. If you’re not, something is wrong.

Adverbs tend to be words that end in -ly, e.g. firmly, happily, angrily, hauntingly. They modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and they are superfluous. If your sentence can’t stand without an adverb it’s a bad sentence. Start by removing them all, read through your piece, and add them in again if you feel it’s necessary.

When you do use adverbs, however, make sure you use appropriate and efficient ones. For example, tiredly is a trash-fire of a word that adds nothing to the world which wearily doesn’t do better. Think before using an adverb.

3) Don’t Qualify

Remove qualifying words and statements from your writing – be bold!

Qualifiers, much like adverbs, modify meaning. In this case the meaning of a full statement or sentence. They don’t add new meaning, however, but dilute the original statement.

Consider,

Tyrion Lannister could have been said to be the best man in his family. 

Not only is that a sentence full of needless words, it’s full of qualifiers. “could have been said to be” here means, ‘some people thought that, others didn’t, and I’m not sharing my opinion.

Consider instead:

Tyrion Lannister was the best man in his family.

Or

Tyrion Lannister was the worst of them. 

Both of these sentences are more effective than the first because they are bold, they are clear, and they are no longer than they need to be.

If you want to stand out, keep your prose lean and professional; you’ll notice a difference in no time.

If you want a more in-depth guide to an efficient writing style consider Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style. This is a seminal text and should be on every writers bedside table!

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World-Building 101

World-building, in short, is the process of constructing and populating a world and/or universe as stage on which stories can play out.

It’s complex, it’s time consuming, but it is, in fact, a basic and essential skill for a writer and despite what you may have been told it is involved in every single novel or story produced. You see, even when you set a story in the real world you undertake a degree of world-building; you edit and polish the world in which you wish to set your story. You decide which sections of the real world you represent to the reader just as you do when using a world of your own invention.

This kind of world-building, however, is not the matter at hand; we’re all about creating a new universe today.

 

What Does A World Need?

A question half as silly and twice and important as it seems.

What would you say a world needs? Well, land, water, sky, plants, and animals, right? All the basic stuff of life. Correct, and yet at the same time so very wrong;

Yes, if you wish your world to sustain life plausibly it should definitely contain all of these things. However, your world also needs a huge amount of other, rather more man made, things to make it a worthy stage.

Here’s a list of things your world will need.

Your (Very) Basic World-Building Checklist:

  1. Geography
  2. History
  3. Languages
  4. Society
  5. Culture (they are different, trust me)
  6. Religions
  7. Creation myths
  8. Magic  (?)
  9. Technology
  10. Industry
  11. History
  12. Transportation
  13. Agriculture
  14. Cuisines
  15. Flora
  16. Fauna
  17. Art
  18. Music
  19. Literature
  20. Multiple countries

…. Phew, right? That’s a lot of work.

Thankfully it doesn’t need to take you 30 years and a degree in linguistics to get all of this done; most writers will never do a Tolkien style historiography and language building exercise. The truth is you don’t need to, either; as long as you present the world in a way that makes sense your readers will follow what you’re saying.

World-building is rather like the guiding pencil strokes and artist makes before applying paint to a canvas; it should be invisible in the finished product.

 

The Three Truths Of World-Building

  1. World-Building Is For The Author: the majority of the work you put into world-building will go unnoticed, and that is fine. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Picture your world as a swan; what the spectator sees should be effortless while the legs, so to speak, work overtime beyond their sight.
  2. World-Building Is A Precursor To Writing: if your world-building process goes on and on and on and on… well, it may be time to stop. Remember the above point; create your world with broad strokes and nail down the structural integrity before and then put it to the test by writing a story set within it.
  3. The World Supports The Story: this is self-explanatory, but the clarify – the world you build should service and support the stories you tell. Your story should never serve the purpose of describing or otherwise showcasing your world.

 

 

Getting Started: Inspiration And Diversion

Every fictional world will have one foot in reality and one in some form of fantasy. By this I mean that it will take inspiration from the real world and from fiction, day dreams, or other fabricated worlds (as opposed to the fantasy genre). For those who write fantasy, the genre, Tolkien, Gaiman, Hobb, and Le Guinn (amongst others) are likely to be of great inspiration, for example.

The real trick is twisting and developing your own world until it becomes something new and different enough to be unrecognisable in almost every way.

 

How can this be done? Well, in the same way that you discovered the seed of your new world; by asking questions of the world that already exists.

Ask yourself what drives your world, which countries are at war, which support each other, and which stay out of it. Ask yourself if there is a main religion, or hundreds of small ones, or if there is no religion at all.

Ask yourself what your world considers to be the single, universal crime – what is the one thing that all cultures agree is morally abhorrent?

And then ask yourself what colour the fire is, because, you know, there has to be a goofy twist somewhere.

 

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Creating Characters That Wow

You can find complementary character sheets to use  here (basic) and here (plot centric). You can also find a fillable plot and character development booklet (in proto-stages) here. These resources are free to use, but if you wish to enable me to make more you can buy me a Kofi.

 

Once you have found and developed an idea for your next best-seller it’s about time to think about your cast of characters. Anyone will tell you that characters must be “rounded”, “have personality”, and “seem to breathe”… but people don’t really tell you how to do that.

The character sheets linked above can help you to make a note of the most basic information about your characters; their name, age, role in the plot etc, and the development booklet can help you to get a grasp of what kind of person they are (would they give someone their last bit of chocolate, or not? You know, the big questions).

 

But how do you get to that stage if you have not first created a well-rounded character?

 

World-building

The process of creating your story world is long and very often tiresome; the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labour of love are very often staggering. So why should you put all of this work to wast by not allowing it to inform your character creation process?

For the record, I don’t mean that there are people out there who just make a fantasy world and then have their character grow up in Brooklyn.

 

I mean that if you create a horrible, dystopic world with twisted morals your character will have some horrible and twisted morals too. Their story, their journey, should be slowly coming to see what the reader knows already, or not depending upon what you have in mind for them.

Morals, politics, and personal character do not exist in a vacuum; parents, family, teachers, friends, and colleagues all have an effect on how we develop over time. So do the politics of our time, key events in the world, and our level of education.

 

In short, if your character was raised by very conservative, very religious, poorly educated people in a very poor, conservative, and poorly educated community it is unlikely that they will become very liberal, very rich, and very educated without undergoing a process of change. It is your job as a writer to explain how this happened.

 

Taking Stock of the Facts

Think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; she learns from her very educated, fairly liberal (for his day) father, but is still influenced by, and exerts influence on, her friends. For those who have read Go Set A Watchman, you will also remember that as an adult Scout realises that Atticus is not nearly as forward thinking as she had thought.

Scout was informed by her town, her school, and her father, but did have her own moral sensibilities. When she left her small town she changed yet again, and returned to a place that felt strange to her.

 

This is excellent character creation and development.

 

Harper Lee did this by ensuring that Scouts family and childhood created her, but the world, the events of her life, and of course Lee’s own feelings, shaped her into something more adult, more well-rounded, and more deserving of our understanding than she might have been had she never developed.

 

Flaws and Strengths

One trick to creating truly believable characters is not to give them a plethora of strengths and skills, only to sprinkle a bad temper a low mathematical ability onto it in the guise of “flaws”. The trick is to make their flaws a result of their strengths. For example, “loyalty” and “possessiveness” could be two sides of the same coin. As could “emotionally strong” and “callous”.

Think carefully about what the downsides of certain strengths are because everything has its downside.

 

A Distinct Tone of Voice

Especially important for protagonists is their voice; the way in which they narrate and speak should be recognisable almost instantly. There are those who say that the reader should be able to tell who is speaking before you name the character, but that truly is a feat of incredible skill. Not even the best can do this all the time.

The way the character speaks should be a reflection of everything that has gone into creating them. Consider;

  • Their sense of humour
  • Their level of education
  • If they are speaking their first language
  • Who they are speaking to
  • What their goal is

Characters, unlike real people, never speak without purpose. They don’t waffle, rabbit-on, or give pointless information unless they have a reason to do so. Those reasons could be;

  • Anxiety
  • A desire to distract
  • A need to mislead
  • An attempt to communicate something covertly

 

Don’t get too fancy when it comes to creating a speech pattern for your character; it should sound natural and be consistent throughout the narration. To that end it is often easiest to base the pattern of speech on someone, or on a dialect, that you know fairly well. You can make small tweaks to make it less obvious, but a forced or stilted voice is the surest way to put readers off of a character, especially when the story is narrated in first person.

 

Mistakes and Motives 

Whether your character is the hero or villain you need make sure that they intrigue and infuriate your readers in equal measures.

This is achieved by balancing their mistakes with their motives; make their reasoning for doing whatever they do understandable. Ensure that anyone could see themselves feeling the same way in that position so that, even if they disagree with your characters choices, they at least see where they are coming from. Then balance this empathy inducing method with mistakes and trip ups which are innately tied to their personal flaws.