Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Category: Writing (Page 1 of 2)

A Sizeable Cool Link Roundup

Top 10 Gadgets From Iain M. Banks’ Culture Universe – I’m a massive Iain M. Banks fan, particularly his Culture sci-fi novels. This list breaks down some of the cool technology that exists in his storyverse, ranging from switching off pain to using knife missiles (yes, as cool as it sounds).

Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek That Ever Lived – This was posted on The Oatmeal a few years ago, but it is still wonderful and hilarious and lovely.

When Sci-Fi Crime-Prevention Tactics Aren’t Actually That Far-Fetched – how likely is RoboCop? According to this article, fairly likely. 

“We’re now producing airborne drones that have the automated intellectual ability where they are able to pick out a terrorist and make a decision whether to kill them or not.”

NASA’s Sci-Fi Vision: Robots Could Help Humanity Mine Asteroids – from Universe Today. More sci-fi future nerdery, but an exciting prospect. So if Armageddon really does happen like in the movie, we won’t have to send Bruce Willis up there to blow it up. That’s a relief. I’m pretty sure he would insist on wearing a dressing gown.

And here’s a great website called Urban Geofiction where people create maps of fictional cities and countries. From their site: 

But they all have in common that they do not strive to create fantastic worlds with its own physical and natural laws like Tolkien did, for example. Their aim is to imagine new combinations of all variables that affect our daily (urban) life on this planet in a spatial way. 

There are many possibilities for stories here.

Lady Froggy Steampunk Gatling Gun for Dainty Death Dealing – I really want one of these. So deadly and cute! This is the James Bond tech of the steampunk 19th Century.

Considering Theme and Motif, by James Broomfield at the Storyslingers (old) blog. The blog has since moved and while it’s no longer updated you can read the past entries here. http://storyslingers.wordpress.com Here is an excerpt from James’s post:

Theme exists outside of narrative, characters, genre, time periods and language. It may never be directly stated in the story, it may only ever exist between the lines.

Your Age On Other Worlds – This is just plain fun. Fill in your birthdate and the script will calculate your age on the different planets in our solar system. Does this mean I can now tell people “I’m 0.23 on Neptune” when they ask me how old I am?

[Publication] The Machinists’ Boy | YA Sci-Fi | 4,200 words

I have a short YA story called The Machinists’ Boy out in Youth Imagination Magazine, issue 39. It’s free to read online. I’m so thrilled that one of my stories is in such great hands!

Title: The Machinists’ Boy
Author: Jennifer K. Oliver
Word Count: 4,200 words.
Publication: Youth Imagination Magazine
Summary: YA science fiction horror. Two young boys crash land on a wasteland planet, only to find they are not alone.

Cailan’s mothers were dead on the flight deck, but Sum was alive in the hull, and that was something. The ship had shut most of itself down to conserve power, leaving only enough for basic systems and the faint, rhythmic surge of pressure waves logging leaks and cracks like a struggling heartbeat.

Many moons ago I workshopped this story at two venues: Storyslingers writing group and The OWW. Thank you to everyone who provided critiques of earlier drafts. They were all extremely helpful. Find more of my published stories on my Fiction page.

Weird Stuff You Learn Through Research

It’s amazing what weird stuff you can learn while researching. While looking something up for a short story, me and a friend discovered that there are a bucket load of weird patron saints floating around, and the list just keeps growing. Some of them are amusing, some make an odd sort of sense, but some are just plain mind-boggling. Who decides on the saint and the topic? And why would you want or need a patron saint for twitching, or arms dealers, or greeting card manufacturers? (Yep, these all exist.)

In case anyone is wondering, my research is in relation to the naming of a building in my story, so none of these will actually feature as characters. Which is probably a good thing. Or a bad thing? Hm.

So, on with some of the strange(r) saints, and believe me when I say this is not an exhaustive list.

Saint Monica, Patron of Alcoholics.
St. Fiacre, Patron of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Saint Magnus of Fussen, Patron of Caterpillars (I totally want to be this saint).
St. Vitus, Patron of Oversleeping.
Saint Barbara, Patron of Fireworks, Firefighters, and those who work with explosives.
St. Clotilde, Patron of Disappointing Children.
Saint Drogo, Patron of Unattractive People.
St. Jesus Malverde, Patron of Drug Dealers.
Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of Dentists.
St Isidore of Seville, Patron Saint of the Internet.

And these two battle for my favourite:

St. Bibiana, patron saint of Hangovers.
St Hubert of Liege, Patron of Mad Dogs (Protection from Werewolves).

Find extended lists here and here, and I’m sure there are others out there on the interwebs.

(Story research aside, there are a number of opportunities for fictional hilarity on these lists. I’d love to read some humour fiction about these odd saints, so let me know if you get inspired.)

Writing Ambitious Stories and my YA Novel

An excellent blog article that resonated with me is Writers and Ambition, by David B. Coe over at the sadly now defunct Magical Worlds. David writes succinctly about writing ambitious stories, and recently I’ve had to consider this issue myself.

“Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming. In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.”

I’m reworking a near-future sci-fi YA novel that I originally drafted three years ago. I checked back through my folders and found that I wrote the short story the novel is based on in 2012. Six years ago! I had a small freakout, just for a moment. I’m back in the room now.

The reason I put the novel aside once the first draft was complete was because it didn’t feel quite there. The characters were (and still are) interesting and have motivation, but the plot had holes. Great gaping maws that I could not figure out how to fill. For a while I wondered if the story just wasn’t meant to be. Often, writing involves hard choices, and sometimes it involves walking away from a story permanently if it won’t come together. But that wasn’t it. I never wanted to fully give up on this novel. The idea is strong, and I’m confident that a lot of my themes (social media over-saturation, celebrity culture, technology) would interest a young adult and adult audience. Author Theodora Goss said something years ago that stuck with me:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

Honestly? I don’t think the story was ready to be written. Or I wasn’t ready to write it three years ago. Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the novel with non-writer friends and colleagues, describing it as on hiatus, and in the process of thinking about it again I’ve changed some key elements of the main plot thread, which leads me to believing it’s time to give it another bash.

The changes I plan to make are more complex and ambitious than the original. All I had to do was give the book some breathing room and give myself enough distance so that I could look at it objectively. That, and discuss it with people I might not have normally discussed it with (non-writers), which helps to approach it from a new angle.

I have no idea if this will work smoothly the second time around. I do believe it will work better than the first time.

Writers don’t have to pull silly tricks to push their creative boats out. You must still write the story you want to write, something you can put your energy behind in good faith. But you can switch things up in small ways. You can weave in a sub-genre you haven’t tried before. You can change one of the bigger elements of the main plot. Or you can write a character who inhibits traits you have yet to explore. If you keep nudging into new territory with every story you write, you will find your plots more ambitious and interesting, and yourself a stronger writer.

Student Writing Workshop – Other Worlds

Back in 2013 I hosted a Creative Writing Workshop with a group of twenty-five Year 10 students at a local school. Year 10, for those of you outside the UK, consists of ages 14-15, though this workshop can be applied to all ages (even adults, depending on your stage in the creative process). The theme of the workshop was Other Worlds.

EXERCISE #1: Come up with examples of Other Worlds you could write about. (10 minutes)

  • Fantasy worlds, set on planets, continents, or in cities that you have created.
  • Fantasy worlds, set on our planet but in a different time (eg. Dark Ages, the Victorian era, in the future).
  • Space. Planets in other solar systems, or set on spaceships.
  • Worlds that exist on a layer beneath our own, such as alternative realities. Think: underground fae worlds, heaven/hell, parallel universes.
  • Dreamscapes.
  • Micro-biology. Worlds that exist in nature, beneath the ocean, etc.
  • Other countries, where you explore cultures that are different to your own.

There were some superb ideas and suggestions from the students in my workshop, with a lot of fantasy world suggestions. Popular ideas were fairies and mythical creatures, but we also came up with some silly ones (“One Direction World” I was half-expecting already. There was an “Ed Sheeran World” as well).

Once the students had chosen one of their Other Worlds I asked them to consider some of the rules those worlds would need to stop things getting unruly. 

EXAMPLE: In the Harry Potter series, magic exists, but it is governed by the Ministry of Magic, which regulates who uses it, what type of magic they use, and when and where they can use it. If there were no magic laws, we would have a big problem and things would quickly fall apart.

Consequences are massively important to how believable your worlds are. As above, if everyone could run around doing whatever they wanted, society would fall apart fast. Everything you invent, every action your character takes, will have consequences. You don’t need to get hung up on this, but just be aware, even if only at the back of your mind, that actions lead to consequences and you can’t just ignore them. Consequences can also bring a great sense of tension to a story, so never be afraid to explore them or let them unfold and take the story in new directions.

EXAMPLE: Consider a world where people never grow old. What are the consequences to this type of society? What sorts of rules might you need to set in place to deal with them? (e.g. Birth regulations, culling the population, harsher death sentences for crime, etc.)

Other things to consider:

  • Climate
  • Technology
  • Language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Natural resources (fuel, etc.)
  • Social structure (class systems, governments, etc.)

The moral roles your protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters take will often blur. This isn’t something you should shy away from–sometimes your hero will make a bad choice. This is when you can take advantage and show your character learning a valuable lesson. This is the pure essence of character development. Much as we learn and grow as people through our choices and mistakes, so should your characters. Similarly, your antagonist will not always be evil. They must have something about them that readers can sympathise with, even if only logically. Otherwise they will read flat and predictable.

During the workshop we had a go at coming up with some first lines to stories the students hadn’t written yet. I didn’t know how well this exercise would go down as I didn’t take any examples of opening lines with me, mostly because I didn’t want to influence their own creativity. 

EXERCISE #2: Come up with three opening lines to a story you’ve never written. This can be anything. The point is to get started—making that first leap. Generally one good first line will lead to a second line, and that will lead to a third line. Ultimately, this is what stories are: a series of lines that connect up and paint a picture in a coherent way. (10 minutes)

We covered mind mapping to keep a story organised. I have blogged about Mind Mapping for Fiction Writers before.

We also considered writing what you know and how a lot of new authors take this advice too literally. I used my zombie story Shuffle as an example of writing about an important theme that affects most people while still being free to explore a fantastical setting.

We generated characters using a Character Questionnaire. The most important thing is to figure out what your character wants most in the world, above everything else. This makes up the tension and goal of your story and creates boundaries and clear landmarks while writing forward.

I am available to do creative writing workshops, tailor-made for your writing class. Contact me to enquire.

Useful Writer Links and Blog Posts

A few of these useful writer links and blog posts are old now but the info and advice is timeless.

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes – at Litreactor.

Author Joanne Hall blogged about creative writing walls, those moments during a first draft that many authors hit and strangely they seem to hit these walls at similar times during the writing process. Read Another Brick in the Wall.

One of my favourite author blogs for many years is Rahul Kanakia’s The War On Loneliness. I am drawn to how open and honest Rahul is about creative struggles. If anyone ever says to you that writing is a cop-out profession, kindly point them to Rahul’s site.

7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t – from Daily Writing Tips. Breaking rules is fun, especially when the rules aren’t really rules.

25+ Pieces of Writing Software You Should Know About – Again from Daily Writing Tips.

My friend Yvonne linked me to this. Stephen King once spoke about a number of topics at UMass Lowell, including how he turns an idea into a story, writing screenplays, reading books twice, Randall Flagg (who is always around), creating characters, 50 Shades of Grey and how (some) readers (sometimes) don’t challenge themselves enough, and Lovecraft. Even if you’re not into King, it’s a nifty glimpse into his writing life. I wish he’d had more time to chat. Watch it on youtube here.

And I have watched this many times over the years, and it never fails to give me hope. An Evening With Ray Bradbury (2001), which I highly recommend even if you haven’t read much (or any) of his stuff. Even if you have and you’re not particularly fond of it, the advice in this interview is still relevant to you if you’re a writer. It’s free to view in full on YouTube, the whole glorious hour of it. What a charming, funny and intelligent man he was.

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” –Ray Bradbury

Random Action Cliches

A couple of random action cliches that bug me:

Movies that start with a chase, usually a person running through a city or woods, often panting and screaming and stumbling. This is invariably accompanied by loud crashing orchestral music. The problem is, you don’t see what’s chasing them, not even a flash or flicker or dark shape, so it ends up looking like a random person is randomly running, screaming and stumbling through a random city or woods. I’m not invested in the character right at the start so this set-up isn’t scary. I don’t think books are quite so guilty of this type of thing, but it’s something for writers and readers to consider. An opening scene with no stakes and a load of pointless action falls flat. Nobody will care if your protagonist lives or gets caught and skinned alive.

I also dislike it when a movie character obviously has a nightmare, wakes up screaming and sweating, and their bedfellow or someone nearby says, “Aw, did you have a bad dream?”

Duh.

(Yes, I watched a couple of movies that used these action cliches recently. I’m not saying it can’t work if done carefully, but often it looks uninspired and predictable.)

To make sure this post isn’t entirely full of my ranty-pants:

The Stephen King Universe – a very detailed flowchart linking his books and characters. I love book and character links. It’s something I’d like to do with my own stories.

Science Fiction Goes Hand-in-Hand With Real Research – via The Telegraph. Astrobiologist Dr Zita Martins says: “In Star Wars, there was the Tatooine planet, rotating around two stars. Recently the Kepler mission discovered a planet like that. Imagination always inspires scientists to go in a certain direction.”

Better Book Titles – A blog is for people who do not have thousands of hours to read book reviews or blurbs or first sentences. The author of this blog condenses book plots and puts the often amusing summarised text on the book covers.

Female Sexuality in YA Fiction – at Stacked. The post also links to a handful of other posts on the subject, and is well worth a read.

Inspiration Can Take Ages to Strike

First things first, HAPPY EASTER! Enjoy the chocolate and the bunnies, and the chocolate bunnies, and did I mention the chocolate?

The real reason I’m here is because it struck me the other day how incredibly odd inspiration can be. It can attack at any moment, including the wrong moment. It can hit suddenly, or take a long, long time to develop. This is what sparked my post:

I had an idea for a short YA story a few years ago, but I could not get it to work. The concept is unusual and I was fairly sure it could be a great story, but the characters were not clear enough and I couldn’t figure out how to get them from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end). I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other projects. Eventually I found the story again, and decided that perhaps it would work better if the characters were in a relationship, but this wouldn’t gel either, and they never quite felt right for the scenario. I put the story aside again and worked on other projects (again).

Years later, I’m playing a stint of Skyrim on the PS4 one evening to unwind and BAM. Inspiration strikes. The characters are in my head and instead of a budding relationship they are best friends. Plus one of them is missing. Suddenly the story drew together; I knew what my protagonist’s motivation was, and I knew the lengths she would go to achieve her goals.

This all happened two nights ago. I now have 3000 word first draft of a YA dark fantasy with a few areas that still need expansion. The first full draft will probably top between 3500-4000 words. I plan to finish it by the end of tomorrow and begin edits later next week.

This story has been years in the making, and it will only be up to 4k words, which is a reasonably short story in the grand scheme of things. My point being, sometimes stories are slow burns. They won’t unfold overnight, they won’t draw together into a neat bow at first, and sometimes it will be tempting to discard them altogether. Writer frustration is a real thing, yo. But perhaps hold off on deleting stories that won’t work, because some day, weeks, months, or years down the line, they just might come together out of the blue.

Notebooks, Notebooks, Everywhere

Notebooks play a massive role in my life, as I’m sure they do a lot of writers. All those crisp, tantalising pages. All the ideas and inspiration gathered under one perfectly-bound foiled and embossed roof. The smell of a new notebook can be heady to a writer, like the first hit of nicotine in on a winter’s day (OK, I’m exaggerating, but it’s still pretty awesome). I love the soft creak as I open a new notebook. A used notebook is like a box of dreams–it’s a personal artefact, but also something you wish to share. I am a particular fan of a couple of notebook manufacturers and generally go for their books before anything else. These are my recommendations.

Paperblanks – Their journals are exquisite. They are available lined or blank. The paper is a soft cream-colour and coated so you don’t get ink bleed (if ink is your thing; it’s not mine, but each to their own). The foil covers are vibrant and tactile. Some of the books have small ornate clasps, some have a magnetic flap, while others have no clasp at all. Their range is huge and I’m convinced that any notebook user would find something to adore in the Paperblanks collection. I own far too many of these and yet I always seem to need more (I fill them quickly with story notes, plot ideas and character sketches!). Don’t believe me? Here are mine:

I’m currently waiting for the Grolier Ornamental Ultra notebook to arrive from Amazon.

Flame Tree – The Flame Tree books are a similar to Paperblanks in their tendency to use embossed, foiled covers, though the books themselves are a little thinner than the Paperblanks Ultra, and the pages are not as thick and luxurious. The quality is still high and they are extremely pretty journals. I own 4 of these and I’m looking to get a couple more soon.

Peter Pauper Press – Again, similar in style to the others, with some lovely cover designs. These are a good back-up journal. I really want one of their Timeless Tree journals. That cover!

On a related note, Paperblanks once interviewed me for their blog. You can read the interview here: In which I ramble about notebooks, creativity and inspiration.

The (Vast) Difference Between A Critique and An Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help an author see where a story might still need work when they edit.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1. How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2. Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

The N+7 Machine

I’ve been having silly fun with The N+7 Machine today. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend playing with this tool, as it will not only entertain but it might also throw out some unexpected writing inspiration.

From the site: “The N+7 procedure, invented by Jean Lescure of Oulipo, involves replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary.”

You can make fifteen different versions of your text. Here are a select few of mine (#0 being the original paragraph) from my YA sci-fi novel in progress:

N+0: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in progress.” The lie soured his tongue. If only he didn’t feel so brain-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky title for the new post, or a decent tagline, or the content itself. But he caught Pendergast’s threat; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boss might pass the story to someone else.

N+8: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in projectionist.” The lifestyle soured his tooth. If only he didn’t feel so brandy-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky tobacco for the new postman, or a decent tagline, or the contingent itself. But he caught Pendergast’s throne; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boudoir might pasta the strand to someone else.

N+13: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in promise.” The light soured his tootle. If only he didn’t feel so brat-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky toddy for the new postponement, or a decent tagline, or the contour itself. But he caught Pendergast’s thrum; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boulder might pastime the stratagem to someone else.

(Is anyone else trying to figure out what the heck a tootle is?)

[Flash Fiction] Ring-Ring | Speculative | 156 Words

This is a short speculative flash piece called Ring-Ring I wrote a few years ago. I still quite like this one.

Title: Ring-Ring
Genre: Speculative
Word Count: 156 words.
Credits: Many thanks to Dabs for beta reading this!
Notes: You can find more of my published fiction, as well as free fiction, here.

She doesn’t know why she keeps the old phone. At first it was because its faux-metallic body represented some space-age 60s bourgeois dream, the ultimate in retro cool. But it doesn’t have a cord—its severed spiral wire hangs limply like a lone gut over the back edge of the table.

Her friends keep telling her to, “Junk it,” tell her to, “Throw the damn thing away.” They tell her it just catches dust, doesn’t fit with her décor anyway.

Easy to say, but the phone doesn’t ring for them, now does it?

When you lose people, the world becomes hollowed out, husk-dry and quiet, and yet it’s heavier, too. The phone rings, and she knows the receiver will be leaden.

But she doesn’t fear recognisable voices that shouldn’t be there, crackling down the line—it’s not that.

What she fears is the static pulse of silence, repeating through her ear and through her bones forevermore.

Social Networking for Writers

Today I have a big blog for you about social networking, content generation, and how it can benefit new or up-coming writers. Discussions are welcome and if you have any questions or comments about this post feel free to drop them below.

The Importance of Networking

Reaching out to your readers and potential readers both offline and online is majorly important if you want to draw in the crowds. With an ever-widening market for e-books as well as print books, it’s easy to sink beneath the ocean of other writers struggling to be seen and heard, and most importantly—read. A good place to start building your author presence is online, particularly if you’re a busy writer or can’t afford to attend book and writing conventions.

To someone unused to social networking, the sheer amount of websites, blogs and forums can seem daunting. The key thing to remember is you really only need to pick one or two to visit regularly, at least at first. It’s about cultivating a presence in your niche, not spreading yourself too thin. When you’re relatively unknown, it might be tempting to create accounts on every social site you find, but realistically it’ll be difficult keeping on top of everything.

Choosing the right social networking sites for you is a little bit down to personal preference, although there are a couple of biggies that you should be aware of. These are generally the best places to create accounts due to their immeasurable popularity and how current they are.

Facebook has always predominantly been about friends and family, although their Fan Page function can provide businesses with a platform and they are worth looking into.

Twitter is back in favour, after a strange drop in interest a few years back. It seems popular again as a venue for writers to network and share advice, so I’d say this one is a must.

Getting Started

Social networking doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavour. You can put in as much effort as you want. But bear in mind that you’ll probably get out of it about as much as you put in, sometimes less. This is why it’s advisable to log in at least once a week and drop a note to update friends and connections on what you’re up to (read on for advice about content creation).

Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre. Try to find a balance of both self-promotion and supporting your peers. If you rarely post and never comment on anyone else’s page, you might find people will stop commenting on yours. The secret is in the name: social networking. Give and take. Communication. These are the things you’ll need to build up a solid network—and hopefully a solid fanbase.

The Secret to Networking Consistently

Time for the big reveals. A lot of authors are doing this already, and if you’re struggling to stay on top of your social networking, or you’re just starting out with new accounts, here are my top two pieces of advice for generating content and posting regularly:

1. Soundbites! If you only have one post on your author blog, you can mine it for soundbites to share on your social feeds. I do it. In fact, I will do it for this very blog post you’re currently reading. I have a chunky post here which is focused on writing and content. I can legitimately mine it for three or four tweets linking back here. This is what my tweets might look like:

[#writing blog post] How Social Media Can Help Authors – [Link] “Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre.” #amwriting #writingtips

In two or three weeks I will create another tweet, and choose a different quote from this post, then share that for the people who missed the first one. The trick is not to post too many and too close together. But three or four links back to the same post over the course of a few weeks is perfectly reasonable.

2. Schedule posts! If you invest in anything to help you manage your social networking, make it either Buffer or Hootsuite. Both have free versions where you can link a handful of your accounts. You can load posts in advance and set a date and time for them to be posted. Load 10 tweets / Facebook posts into Buffer to cover the next fortnight and you don’t have to think about it again for two weeks. Perfect.

Additional handy links

Social Neworkingfor Writers – These are all writer-specific, rather than the more general (and often busier) venues like Facebook and Twitter.

Social Networking and Message Boards for Writers – Similar to the above, though this one covers the lesser-known boards and forums.

Goodreads – One of the more popular books and writing websites. Goodreads is a cunning amalgamation of different things: a virtual library, book club, discussion board, blogging platform, and a place where authors can connect personally with their readers and hold competitions/giveaways.

Shelfari – Similar to Goodreads, this site is dedicated to books and reading. It also gives authors the opportunity to reach out to readers and vice-versa.

Dadaism and Letting Go of Authorial Control

A few years ago my writing group experimented with Dadaism, a cultural movement that started during WWI. We attempted to let go of our authorial control and generate story ideas. First, a little about Dadaism, from Wikipedia:

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

Our own Dada exercise focused less on politics and more on creativity. It’s easy to do at home or work: simply pick a magazine or book, and then chop out words and short sentences. Mix them up and reassemble them without thinking too hard about it. If you’re worried about destroying books you can scan or photocopy the pages too. One key thing and one of the things I found most difficult to start with is allowing word order to be totally random. I wanted to put certain words next to each other to form coherence, but this is not what Dadaism is about.

We used excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I don’t know if I’d call it a poem as even that suggests some kind of order. Let’s just say it is what it is:

Patriarch’s Ponds. Associations, dressed in a Berlioz, an awe horn-rimmed glasses my utterance / And and with who called Massolit / broad-shouldered drag drink deep and by thee, O torments me. Hair, eternal my.

And these are my semi-Dada pieces, where I’d not quite let go of control and there was a little conscious placement:

The lips should utterance. One of you pseudonym of Homeless. And his conduct and vengeance

I must excited quickly dark-haired. Plump, bald. Destroy him by perish. The spirits their murderer. The poet feel, poet agony; this shall feel the dead over

Sharing our results was most of the fun. Some of them were hilarious, others a little eerie. All contained interesting concepts or prompts that could be expanded into longer pieces.

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.

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