Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Month: February 2018 (Page 1 of 2)

Developing Fictional Characters, Part II

I’d like to go into more depth on developing fictional characters, particularly character voice. I can only speak for the way I do it; some of these methods might not work for others.

Years ago when I was trying to strengthen my character voices, I watched, read, and listened to stories that had solid, distinctive characters. I took note of the rhythms and phrases those characters used—not only in their speech, but also in their internal monologues. There are subtle differences between “Please make me a cup of tea” and “So are you gonna make me some tea, or am I gonna have to do it myself?” The latter is wordier, yes, but the voice is more distinctive. Voice, be it dialogue or thoughts, doesn’t need to be spectacular in early drafts. But how characters talk and think should be considered during later drafts and editing.

Here’s a trick to see how distinctive characters are: take a scene or chapter where there’s interaction, and select only the dialogue. Paste the dialogue into a fresh document without any speech tags, names, or other identifying descriptions. Read through it, or have someone else read it, and check where the voices merge or sound too similar. Is there confusion as to who’s speaking? If yes, either try loosening up one of the voices or make it more formal. Give one of the characters a verbal tick (like the tendency to say ‘you know?’ at the end of some of their sentences), or a light accent (though use accent carefully) and then re-read it. Better? It should be.

Another way of tempting out voice is figuring out how your characters feel about what’s happening. This will inform their attitudes and moods, and consequently what they’re saying and how they say it. Have them react, let them feel, give them passion and the ability to speak up. Let them tell lies. We all do it. An angry character might speak faster in short, snappy sentences, and they might swear or exaggerate, whereas someone speaking calmly and formally might use longer, more complex sentences and have a precise thought process.

Listen to conversations on the street, in your workplace and at home. I’ve mined real people I know for turns of phrase and verbal ticks. But also remember to look for people who are more guarded, who speak neutrally and try to maintain status quo. You can have fun with a conflicting internal dialogue and thought.

I mentioned in the previous post shoving characters out of their comfort zones, and this also goes for shoving them at other characters. Bring in the type of person they despise, or someone they’re intimidated by, or someone they’re attracted to, and see how it changes what they say and how they speak. Character/character interaction drives plot and gives scenes energy. If everybody gets along all the time, dialogue can become lifeless. Even if your characters are friends, have them disagree regularly, or give them a rivalry that you can mine for little tensions.

Most importantly, you’ll only get to know your characters well by writing them. Outline and do questionnaires and mind-map them, too, but they have to act and react to really shine.

If you missed it, you can read the first part of this topic here: Developing Fictional Characters, Part I.

Developing Fictional Characters, Part I

Developing fictional characters can be tricky. A well-rounded character has both good and bad traits, much like we do. A character doesn’t have to be particularly likeable, either, but readers must be able to empathise with them in some way. This is what readers connect with (and how we keep them reading). They see a little of themselves or someone they know in a character. Yep, even in the bad guys.

When I’m trying to find a character’s unique voice, I always use their surroundings to influence how they would speak and act. I try to consider the time period, the social background, even the genre I’m writing. All these things will (and should!) affect voice. Saying that, I also think we often worry too much about finding a voice before we’ve even started, when all we really need to do is write and uncover it along the way. (Of course, it’s always nice if a character comes along with a strong voice already.)

And if they still refuse to cooperate, you can always throw them into random and difficult situations that take place outside your main story. Write some drabbles or flash pieces and toss your characters into a crisis. Dig up someone from their past and make them deal with it. As their actions and decisions take place, you should get to know them better. It will help you figure out what makes them tick.

Also, the naming process often does my head in and sucks up hours of time. Three great resources I’ve used in the past for finding names and name origins and meanings are Behind the NameBaby Names, and The Surname Database. Total nerd out when a character’s name has a hidden meaning!

Research is good, but ultimately I find the best way of developing my characters is to just write them. Write them in their own stories. Write them in side-stories. You can even shove them into other people’s stories.

I’m going to post a follow up to this post going into more depth on character voice. Watch out for Developing Fictional Characters, Part II soon.

Mind-Mapping For Fiction Writers

Today I’d like to talk about mind maps—what they are, how to use them, and where to get them—as a way of brainstorming, solving problems, keeping track of your events and timelines, and generating new ideas.

Sometimes stories are straightforward: you begin with your basic idea or outline, and then you sit down and write it from start to finish. But not all stories are that easy-going. Quite often you find they grow and become complex, unruly things, and before you know it you’re buried under a mountain of notes and plans, maps and research—and that’s before you’ve even tried to structure your plot or study your characters in depth.

This is where mind maps could come in handy.

I’m fairly new to mind maps, but so far I’ve found them helpful for keeping my novel timeline in order. They’re also an excellent “quick-reference” if you’re looking for a specific detail and you don’t have time to wade through page after page of notes.

What is a mind map? 

From Wikipedia – A diagram used to visually outline information.

How do I use a mind map? 

You start with a central theme or idea, usually placed at the centre of your map/page. This could be anything from a single word prompt to a phrase or topic, problem, character or concept. From there, you create sub-nodes and attach anything associated with the central theme. These sub-nodes grow outwards, generating more and more sub-themes and ideas, very much like a spider diagram. The best way to understand how a mind map works is to see one in action. Take a look at this hand-drawn mind map and this computer generated map (both images from Wikipedia).

How to make a mind map

You can create easy, free mind maps using paper and coloured pens or pencils (see example map above). But if hand-drawing isn’t your preference, there are also a number of programs available for the computer—some free and some paid.

Free Mind – Free Mind is a Java-based software that is free to download and use. They have a helpful website that provides instructions on installing and running the program. Works on PC and Mac.

Simple Mind – A simple, easy to use program. This is also a Mac app, but I’m linking to the desktop version as you can use it on a PC as well. You can only download a trial for free; you’ll need to buy the full version if you want to keep using it after 30 days. – I’ve not tried this one, but it looks like it could be useful. You create your mind map directly in your browser. You can print it out, or download it to your computer when you’re done.

Mindomo – This is a paid program. The website states: Human thought is characterized by expansion in multiple directions.  As a mind map software, Mindomo is a perfect match to work the way your brain does reflecting your thoughts.

MindMeister – This mind-mapping tool allows you to share your mind maps with others and collaborate easily. There is a free trial, though it should be noted that you have to pay a monthly subscription for the full program.

There’s also a list of (rather pricey) paid mind map programs for Mac here, and a list of freeware programs for Mac here.

And there’s a list of free mind map programs for PC here.

[Fiction] Mundane | Light Sci-Fi | 430 Words

Title: Mundane
Genre: Light sci-fi
Words: 430
Author: Jennifer K. Oliver. Find more of my fiction here.

Mundane (pop. 1,112), Dorset, is a dense little market town hunkered in a cradle of rollercoaster hills and sparsely dotted woodland. Its only claim to fame, aside from its generous turn-out of livestock, is that it’s a well-documented UFO hotspot.

Old Norm runs the Wind Whistle Café on the A3-“Intergalactic Highway”-05. Out-of-towners constantly jibe and debunk him, so go right ahead if you want. He’s long in the tooth and he’s heard it all before. What’s with the limp, Norm—one anal probe too many? (Old Norm’s a veteran; took a bullet in ’51, and was one of the 2,674 wounded British to come out of Korea after the war, but he’s tired of relaying this, and nobody cares these days anyway.) Wouldn’t Starbucks be more up their alley? Why would aliens waste their time in Mundane when they could go for our natural resources or world leaders?

Any Mundane resident would tell you the aliens aren’t here to harvest our water or mine our oil or metal or politicians. They’re here for one thing only: Norm’s prized sausage rolls. As Norm himself would attest, they’re the best damn sausages rolls in sixty-eight galaxies.

Take Wednesday last: a spaceship hovering low over a nearby field (with extortionate parking charges, can you blame them?), four lanky figures sitting at the café window, their weird eyes blinking diagonally; their spindly fingers prodding paper food wrappers; their grey, lipless mouths slurping sausage bliss through a funnel of pastry. A more contented picture couldn’t be found—not in Dorset, not on Earth, not anywhere.

Weekenders from London chuckle and purchase their Little Green Men souvenir mugs and t-shirts and key rings, and they ask to try the sausage rolls—never able to resist a gimmick, they say. But over the course of lunch, their laughter turns nervous and their gazes dart to the window too often, and when they leave Mundane, they choose not to remark on the crop circles stretching out of town like gargantuan Spirograph designs, or the fact that Mundane’s livestock flourishes fatter, happier, more robust than any other in the country, possibly in the world. Perhaps they realise it unwise to look too closely at the piglets in the piggeries with their grey-hued skin and small, black eyes that blink diagonally.

That’s fine with Old Norm, though. It works for him. Because as Old Norm would say, it’s far easier taking the odd joke on the chin for the sake of his prized hog lot. It brings in the business from far and wide, after all.

To Outline A Story, Or Not to Outline A Story

Recently there has been few discussions about the benefits and pitfalls of outlining stories. More than a few authors have expressed a dislike for outlines, which is fair enough—our individual writing processes are different. But it made me look closely at which of my stories I outline, which I don’t, why I might or might not, and what my outlines actually look like.

Generally, anything over 1000 words will have some form of outline. Mine are usually hand-written in pencil in my notebook. I take a scene or a chapter, and summarise it. I’ll do this for all of the key scenes and chapters. Often they are not in order in my notebook–ordering takes place when I open a Scrivener document and start typing. But that is my broad outlining method. Pencil. Paper. Scenes (or chapters).

In theory, I love the idea of throwing caution to the wind and just writing off the cuff, seeing where the unfolding plot and characters take me. Some writers I know find outlining in detail can spoil the fun of writing because it eliminates the element of surprise and wonder, and ruins the discovery process. Not using an outline intrigues me and I’m sure it’s exhilarating, though it’s still too far on the side of disorganised and directionless for my taste.

As with most of these things, it depends greatly on the story and author. Often I’m struck with inspiration at inopportune times, like when driving at speed to work, or in the middle of a conversation with a friend. These are not the easiest of moments to grab my notebook. So I will make it my mission to write these ideas down as soon as possible because otherwise I’ll forget them. In this way, I absolutely have to outline and work out where these events are going to occur in the story.

As for flash fiction (anything under 1000 words), I rarely need to outline these as they are so small that the structure is usually pretty clear at the start. Flash fiction can explode onto the page without the need for pie charts and timelines and eight million summaries.

I have the utmost respect for writers who dive right into a new story without inflatable armbands and come up with something awesome.

So, fellow authors, do you always outline? If not, when do you choose to outline? Or are you a writer who tosses outlines to the wind and writes without a clear plan where you’re headed? Do you ever end up lost, and have you ever had to abandon stories when they lose their way?

Other Resources

Joshua Palmatier has a good article about this here.

K. M. Weiland also has a helpful article at Writer’s Digest: 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline For Any Story.

My Micro-Fiction and Twitter Stories

I’m sharing the handful of micro-fiction I’ve had published across Twitter story venues. These are old now, but I’m still fond of them.

The Clockmaker’s Heart, at Nanoism, December 2012. Bittersweet and steampunky.

The Thinning, at 50-Word Stories, December 2012. Contemporary supernatural.

Robogrrrl@onefortyfiction, March 2012. Light-hearted sci-fi.

Morning Jaunt, at 5×5 Fiction Issue 4, January 2012. Stories in 25 words. Apocalypse fiction.

Patio@trapezemag, October 2011. Twitter fic. Tongue-in-cheek horror. Can also be found here.

Grey Matter@onefortyfiction, August 2011. Twitter fic. Contains zombies.

It sounds easy enough to write something interesting in 140 characters or less (these were all pre- the 280 character expansion), but it takes care and thought to pull it off and make a micro-story worth reading. Hopefully my little offerings aren’t too dire! This is an art form I would like to get back into some day, although it seems that many of the micro-fiction venues have closed to business now.

As a side note, I can’t believe it’s been six years since I’ve written any short-shorts. These days I’m far more focused on graphic design and longer fiction, though submissions have dwindled in the last few years due to increased day job hours and, as I said, lots of graphic design.

About Literary Agents

There are a few misconceptions about agents–what they are, what they do, whether they cost or not, and how it all works. I thought it would be good to briefly clarify a few points in case anyone is unsure.

The number one factor you should be mindful of when searching for an agent is this:

You should not pay agents to represent you / look at your work. If an agent asks you to pay them up front to read your manuscript or represent you, run away. As fast as you can.

The agent gets paid when you sell your book to a publisher. An agent will take a cut out of your royalties that the publisher pays you. Usually this is around 15% – 20% (it can vary, depending where in the world you are and who you sign with). Again, be extremely wary of agents that ask for payment up front. They could be frauds. If you’re not sure, there are a number of excellent websites that list known fraud agencies. Writer Beware is probably the best.

So what are agents and what do they do? Jane Friedman says it clearly and concisely on her website:

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire are sold to them by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work. 

Most importantly, agents negotiate the best deal for you and ensure you are paid accurately and fairly. They run interference when necessary between you and the publisher.

Ask an agent who else they represent. Or you can research this yourself online. Agents unwilling to mention any of their authors by name or any recent sales could be dodgy.

Be wary of agents who refer you to an editing service you have to pay for. As says:

There is, however, a common scam where the agent recommends an editorial service. There’s a good chance the service is paying the agent a kickback to make that recommendation.

Also be watchful for vanity presses who expect you to pay them to publish you.

You do not necessarily need an agent. It depends on what publishing route you prefer to take, as well as the type of work you’re trying to sell. Not everybody wants an agent or a traditional publisher, and there are other options available, such as self-publishing and e-publishing.

When I Met Terry Pratchett

My poor 2012 Macbook Pro is struggling with my heavy-duty graphic design, so I have sorted through all my photos before I move to a new iMac. There are so many wonderful memories from years ago, I’d quite like to share some of them here to break up the writing chatter.

The first one is the day I met Terry Pratchett and the brief conversation we had.

It’s no secret that Good Omens is in my Top Three Books of All Time. The day I went to Terry’s signing I had my dogeared copy clutched in my hands. Most people in front of me passed him his newer books, but when I got to his table and gave him Good Omens, this is what happened:

Jen: “I wasn’t sure which of your books to have signed. But since Aziraphale is my favourite angel ever, it had to be this one.”

Terry: “Oh really? Even though he’s probably gay.”

Jen: “He makes me laugh, no matter how many times I read the book.”

Terry: “We [him and Neil Gaiman] had a conversation about it, and decided that angels were sexless and therefore could be whatever they wanted.”

Jen: “I wouldn’t love them any other way.”

(Please note: I don’t know the other people in the photo. If this is you and you are uncomfortable with this post, let me know and I will remove the photo.)

Was Aziraphale’s sexuality ever disputed? I figured him and Crowley were pretty much asexual. Aziraphale could be considered camp in his mannerisms, so I can see why Pratchett and Gaiman originally had the idea that he was gay.

I love this day in my past and I loved revisiting it recently. A number of years later I went to see Neil Gaiman during his The Ocean at the End of the Lane book tour, so I have had the pleasure of seeing both of these incredible authors in person. Now if only I can meet Stephen King!

Creative Writing Retreat Advice

A few years ago I went on a writing retreat, where I frolicked, wrote, and generally had a blast. I also took notes and filed those notes away. I just re-discovered them and thought I’d post them, in case anyone finds them useful. Most of this is common sense or tips you would pick up early in a writing career, but I do think we often forget this stuff when we get caught up in the chaos of the Writing Process.

01. Getting Started

Authors discussed their favourite times to write. Many people agreed that harnessing the unconscious, open mind was probably the freest form—writing first thing in the morning before your brain has had chance to become distracted with the day’s schedule/what’s going on around you, or writing at night, when the brain is too tired to hold on to all the stressful, stuffy matter of the day (this is my favourite time to write).

A few of the writers also mentioned how difficult they found it to prioritise writing over other activities, when writing was all they really wanted to do. We get paralysed by fears, nerves and paranoia, but these are obstacles we need to overcome if we’re to make progress. Don’t overthink writing, just write.

Conversely, if writing always feels like a chore or you’re genuinely not enjoying it at all, it might be worth digging deep and asking yourself “Why am I writing in the first place?”

There are two types of re-reads you can do after you’ve finished your story. First, read it back as a reader, purely for pleasure, ignoring the mistakes and problems. This can help you see the bigger picture. Then, read through as a writer, looking for technical issues but also looking for things that work particularly well. This can help you get your head around the details. Observe all that you can. Be objective to begin with. Make side-notes, if it helps. And remember to take little breaks when you start to grow weary.

02. Writing Combat

This workshop didn’t apply to me so much as far as my current stories are concerned as none of my characters are engaging in physical battle (mental battle is a different story!), but it was incredibly interesting and exciting because we got to play with real swords, bows, shields, and armour (I had no idea chain mail was so damn heavy).

I learned that swords were often dug up from graves in Germanic wars. Chain mail was hand riveted and more of a rich man’s game—poorer folk would either have to dig up dead bodies and take it, or steal it from the living.

The best advice I took from this workshop: when writing battles pay attention to all five senses, not just sight, touch and sound. The smells and tastes would be vivid, too.

03. World-Building

In anything based in an alternative reality, it’s good to set up rules and laws and boundaries before you begin writing, or at least early in the story. That way you don’t write yourself into so many ruts, or have to keep backtracking to change details and fix inconsistencies.

Study other cultures and their laws in real life, and take inspiration from them. Remember, countries have different levels of technology; not all countries are the same. This also goes for your fictional universe.

Figure out how magic and technology work—or don’t work—together early on, too. ( this is the one I’ve had problems with when writing steampunk fantasy.)

04. Keep Writing

Don’t be afraid to ask your characters questions. Get to know them like you would a friend (or co-worker). Questionnaires and quizzes can be insightful, if that method of character workshopping works for you (it doesn’t for everyone).

Ask yourself what your characters want. This gives them purpose, and gives you reason to propel them and the plot forwards. Once your character(s) have a goal, you can share that goal, which should help you to keep writing.

Meme: Seven Things About Me

This is a re-post of an old blog entry from 2011. All of it is still relevant (the past hasn’t changed) and I thought I’d share a few things about me in case anyone who has read my stories or seen me on social media is curious. Originally I was tagged by Helen Ginger at Straight From Hel to do the Seven Things About Yourself meme. Here are mine.

1. I have two tattoos. The first I got during the summer of 2000, and is of the Indian symbol for OM. I chose this because I spent a blissful three months in India and while there got a henna tattoo. Once I returned home I decided to have the henna version immortalised with a real one, a memory of my time travelling. My second tattoo I got a year later and is a small black and red dragon on my stomach, but alas, I do not have photos.

2. When I was thirteen I wrote a short story about a murderous demon dentist. This says a great deal about my feelings toward going to the dentist at the time. Those feelings haven’t changed much over the years–I still hate it and get that nervous wibbly feeling beforehand.

3. I spent my 20th birthday riding an elephant through a jungle in southern India. Best, and bumpiest, birthday ever.

4. An ex-boyfriend had a star named after me when we were together. I have a chart and certificate and everything; it’s something I just can’t throw out. If you’re wondering where the star can be found it’s 47m13s +19°34’43, in the Pisces constellation (apparently).

5. My first job when I was 15 was as a kennel maid at a boarding kennel and cattery. I basically got paid to walk, feed, groom, and snuggle dogs all day during school holidays and at weekends. It remains one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

6. When I was but a wee young thing, I would remove a small drain cover outside my house and dangle my feet down the well. My parents have photos of me doing this. It signalled a lifelong love affair with water. Sadly, I also lost a wind-up toy fish originally intended for bath times, which wasn’t so great.

7. Possibly my favourite book of all time is The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. To me, it is unadulterated epic dark fantasy, unhindered by pasted-on romance and silly narrative devices. For this reason, I can forgive its sometimes long-winded descriptive passages. Jack Sawyer and Richard Sloat are two of my favourite coming-of-age characters, and their pure, bittersweet friendship moves me every time I read it. And lovely, loyal Wolf! Wolf! I was devastated by the sequel Black House (not even going to link to it). It was like reading a book from an entirely different fictionverse.

Feel free to take this meme and run with it on your own blog. Drop a link here too and I’ll check it out.

D Is For Disillusionment

Ever found an author, actor, musician, or artist’s website or blog and found that they are not as peachy-keen as you first thought and hoped?

This sense of disillusionment has happened a couple of times over the years. I remember hunting for a particular author whose books I loved as a teenager. I read their blog, and quickly noticed how regularly rude they were about their readers. The author isn’t writing as much nowadays, but it’s still bad form. Fans are still buying their books, which is the greatest praise. It shouldn’t matter whether or not a writer likes their old work. If the bacon is still coming in, the least an author can do is be quietly thankful and not insult the people who are spending money on their product.

I try not to let someone’s personal attitude get in the way of my enjoyment of their work. But sometimes it’s hard to look beyond their public conduct. This is why, when I discover someone new, I try not to dig too deep. The internet, social networking, and online marketing makes everyone incredibly accessible. But this can work against people, too.

We are entitled to our opinions, but how far do we take it? And how do we recognise when we’re not only damaging our reputations, but also unnecessarily hurting other people? It’s usually not until after the proverbial shit hits the fan, and by that time feelings are hurt, opinions are formed, and it’s hard to backtrack. It’s almost impossible to make people forget you’ve acted like an ass on the internet, because everything we say is copied and pasted, screen-captured, stored in caches, and caught on way-back machines and freeze-pages.

The lines between sharing our thoughts and airing dirty laundry are getting blurrier. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about our feelings, but bear in mind that sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. We don’t have to leap head first onto every bandwagon that comes along just because we want to be heard.

There are certain topics I’d never discuss at a dinner party, and those same topics will never be discussed here.

What If Your First Drafts Fall Short of the Mark?

A topic that’s caught my eye recently is whether an author should over-write or under-write the first draft of their story. A number of people find it much easier hacking unnecessary words, paragraphs and scenes from their first drafts, rather than trying to pad out existing scenes or add new ones later. I think this is down to personal preference as well as practise. What works for one person won’t work for the next.

I have a first draft of a YA sci-fi novel which I estimated to turn out 70-80k words. I usually aim for around 80-100k for finished YA stories, so that additional 10-20k words is my leeway during edits. However, the first draft of this particular novel is currently 58k words. A number of my chapters are sparse and I hurried them just to get my ideas down. This has never happened before, and immediately upon completing the draft, I panicked. It just seemed way too short. I needed to remind myself that early drafts can work as skeletons, giving you networks and boundaries (the bones), but the story does not end there. It will continue to grow its internal organs and flesh as I rewrite. Panic over. I think, with this particular novel, I was crashing through the first draft so I didn’t become distracted by the important plot milestones. Hopefully that’s a good thing, and it means I was more focused on the bigger picture rather than too tangled in the finer details.

I have writer friends whose first drafts have come out hundreds of thousands of words too long. Key plot and character development has become lost beneath all the worldbuilding and scene-setting. This is fine. They work hard to chip away the bits that readers don’t need to have spelled out. Most smart readers can fill in the gaps themselves, if you leave enough hints.

What about you? Do you spill every idea or thought onto the page then cut away the excess afterwards? Or do you start with a skeletal foundation and build up from there? I’m also interested to hear who’s tried it both ways, and which way has worked best for you.

On the Pesky Nature of Giving Creative Writing Advice

I love the writing article There Are No Rules – Just Results, by Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher! Why? Because this is exactly how I try to approach not only my own writing, but the writing of fellow authors. It’s about creative writing advice, and how much or how little to give. To quote from the post:

Please. Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. It will be judged only on the result. Don’t get hung up on method, or at least on other people’s methods. You will find what works for you and that’s all that matters.

This is sterling advice. There’s nothing at all wrong with reading about an author’s methods and rituals (we all have them). There’s nothing at all wrong with trying out their hints and tips. It’s often helpful finding out different places writers find inspiration and motivation. But don’t hang all your hopes on someone else’s lifestyle working for you. We should always discuss writing, the how and why and where and when; it’s healthy to be open about these things because it could help somebody out there who is struggling. The key is not to expect it to make a massive impact on your craft or output. That’s still ultimately all down to you and how you apply yourself.

I tend to steer clear of articles where authors outright tell others The Best Way to write or What Not To Do when writing. Writing is such a deeply personal and sometimes very solitary activity (unless you’re actively collaborating with others, and even then there can be stretches of solitude). I would never want to be responsible for putting a fellow author into a stressful tail-chase, just because Method A works for me. I can, however, let that author know what works for me, and then they can try it if they think it might be beneficial.

The same goes for reading. While I star books on my Goodreads account to show which ones worked for me and which didn’t, I’d never say “Don’t bother reading this.” One person’s trash is another person’s masterpiece.

So, if anyone ever asks “How do I…?” my automatic response will be, “Well, I do it like this, but you should explore all options until you find one that works for you.” It seems like the best advice I can give.

On Countersinking: Showing and Telling

This article about showing and telling is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that clog up a story. The article has sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn. We wanted to track our improvements, see where we made creative leaps and bounds. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors full of excitement and dreadful clichés. We lacked finesse and attention to detail but we had so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to meet the kid version of yourself. It’s also extremely eye-opening.

I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people’s work—sometimes even popular published authors. It happens to everyone.

Here is an example of countersinking:

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

This is what’s happening: 

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and telling”. A writer shows something with action or dialogue and then immediately explains what it is with description, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody urged someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, it’s clunky, and it makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky show-and-tell. And if there are any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings.

Things I Liked in 2010 – Nano-Fiction

If you’re ever stuck for story prompts, inspiration, titles and summaries, or you’re simply looking for a bit of a giggle, head over to the Urban Dictionary and lose a few hours of your life. I’m surprised how many times I see something there and think “That’s so ridiculous, it could make a good story / title.” If nothing else, the ideas can make for fun and random flash pieces for practise, if you have a spare ten minutes on your lunch break or before bed.

Of course, there’s a downside to everything. A couple of times me and my co-workers have invented some weird word or meaning. “Mornoon” was the latest, for that indistinct period of time between 11:50am and 12:10pm. Sadly we found it already exists on Urban Dictionary. Alas.

I’ve updated my Fiction page with the nano-fiction / twitter-length stories I wrote years ago. A lot of the good Twitter-length fiction accounts like One Forty Fiction and  Trapeze Magazine are dead now, but a couple of them are still going, and most of them still archive the old stuff.

Nanoism – This has been around for a long time. The quality is high and the author voices are fresh and varied. I’m happy to see this is still active.

Very Short Stories – Also still active. Written by the same person and, as far as I know, he does not accept submissions (correct me if I’m wrong).

7×20 – This is on WordPress and Twitter. They only accept 140 characters, despite the recent increase in length. But that’s part of the challenge.

Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies

A few years ago I had a small zombie story published (more about that soon, including a cover I designed for the story) at a wonderful magazine called KaleidotropeAt the time I submitted the story I was extremely nervous. I knew damn well that selling anything containing vampires, werewolves and zombies was a hard sell. Back then a lot of the submission guidelines I encountered specifically stated that they would not entertain these creatures. It was pretty disheartening.

The story sold. It was a genuine surprise. It wasn’t that I had no faith in my idea or my characters – I was and still am happy with the piece. But getting a zombie story through slush readers and onto an editor’s desk seemed like a miracle to me.

I’m so grateful to Kaleidotrope for publishing it. That little story even earned a short review at Locus Online, which is ever so groovy.

Vampires, werewolves and zombies still seem to have a fairly bad literary reputation. A handful of authors and magazines I’ve checked out over the years have written – and published – well-written, strong monster fiction. You often hear the phrase “there’s no such thing as an original idea” banded around the writing community, and yet writers reinvent ideas and genres all the time. It’s what we’re born to do.

I’m interested in fresh (or maybe that should be decaying, in the case of zombies) spins. Damnit, bring me the undead in all their slinking, salivating, putrid glory. But give me something new as well, even if it’s only a detail here, or a nudge there to some unchartered territory.

All this said, I can imagine how tedious it is to wade through the same generic plots day in, day out. The general frustration is apparent in a lot of submission guidelines, and as I’ve never read slush or edited a publication, I can’t fully sympathise with slush readers and editors.

So here is a small handful of monster fiction that I’ve liked.

  • Feature Development for Social Networking, by Benjamin Rosenbaum. What spreads just as fast as a zombie outbreak? News on social media. (Zombies)
  • Up, by James Hargrave. A brutal night-in-the-life. (Vampires)
  • Teeth, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, featuring stories by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Catherynne M. Valente, and many more. (Vampires)
  • Finisterre, by Maria Deira. (Werewolves)
  • The Days of Flaming Motorcycles, by Catherynne M. Valente. (Zombies)

I’ll add to this list as I find more stories. I’m not including all novels and anthologies, as they’re easy to search for on sites like Amazon or Goodreads.

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