Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

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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?)

Bad Bunny Logo Design

Logo design originally created for a small cosmetics startup company. Yes, there is some tongue-in-cheek here with the rabbit + cosmetics, which worked alongside the essence of Bad Bunny – the colour palettes of the cosmetics were going to be vampy and loud. Nothing came of the startup, sadly, which leaves me with a logo that I still like. That’s not to say that Bad Bunny Cosmetics won’t happen in the future, but for now it’s on hold.

There is a dark version and a light version, and both work depending on where they are used. The dark would have been on bottle labels and boxes (nail polish, lipstick, eyeshadow) as both would have had black backgrounds. The light works on marketing materials, such as letterheads, business cards, and flyers, or on merchandise like t-shirts.

Interestingly, Bad Bunny has garnered some attention on my Behance portfolio. Someone approached me asking if they could buy the logo. Unfortunately they wanted to use it as the logo of their adult toy shop. Needless to say, the sale did not go ahead, but it was nice that my work caught someone’s eye.

You can see more of my graphic design at my other website J. Oliver Designs.

Young Adult Markets and Blogs

Young Adult fiction has exploded in popularity in the last decade, spawning a number of huge movie franchises, TV shows, games and spin-offs. But fiction is where it all begins.

There are a number of online resources catering to young adults and adults who love to write and read YA fiction. The list below is not exhaustive, so it pays to check regularly to see the new publications that spring up. As the genre grows, so will the fan base and the need for more YA fiction venues.

If you’re a writer of YA and you’ve been looking for places to submit your stories, these magazines and blogs should give you a good starting point:

Cicada – A literary / comics magazine whose purpose is to speak to teens’ truths. They publish fiction, poetry, essays, and comics by adults and teens. They have a submission page for writers. You can find them on Tumblr and Twitter.

Cast of Wonders – Young adult fiction podcast featuring tales of the fantastic. They are open to submissions, up to 6000 words in length. They also have a forum where listeners can discuss books, TV, movies, as well as the podcast episodes.

Cricket – A magazine aimed at 9-14 year olds. It features fiction and non-fiction, and each magazine is illustrated.

Youth Imagination – YI encourages young adults to submit their creative writing, but it is also open to adult writers of YA. They feature a blog on their website where short fiction is available to read for free.

Seventeen – An entertainment magazine aimed at young people, from 13-21. Seventeen invites its teen readers to submit their real life stories to be featured in the magazine.

YARN – A magazine that aims to publish the highest quality creative writing for young adult readers, ages 14-18, and those in other age groups who enjoy young adult literature. They also have an active blog.

Twist – A magazine aimed at young adults, featuring pop culture news, as well as advice, fun stuff, and fiction.

There are also a few publishing houses on Tumblr who either cater specifically to or have YA imprints. They offer insights about the publishing industry, and update with new releases and news. To list a few: Random House, HarperCollins, Chronicle Books, Scribner Books.

Go Book Yourself has a YA section where readers recommend books based on other books of a similar type. A good place for readers to find new YA authors to try.

If you know of any other YA-centric markets or blogs, feel free to post about them in the comments.

Mother’s Day Creativity 2018

My mother always loved that I made her cards in school when I was little. This is something I’ve never grown out of and I still try to make her cards whenever I have time. To mark Mother’s Day 2018, I spent Saturday afternoon making cards. One is for my mum and one is for my boyfriend’s mum.

Mother's Day Cards

My mum loves cats and sparkles, and my boyfriend’s mum loves labrador dogs (she got sparkles too, regardless of whether or not she loves them). Can you guess which card belongs to whom? We took my mother out for lunch and gave her the cat card, then went to see Jon’s mum afterwards. I’m so happy they like the designs.

Materials used: card stock, a glue gun, brush pens and some diamantes that I originally bought for my fingernails.

[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.

[Publication] Death Car Alley | Fantasy-Horror | 3,900 words

Back in 2012 I announced on my old blog my first story publication, a dark fantasy horror with a dash of tongue-in-cheek. I’m reposting this here because I’m still fond of my first venture into magazine submission and publishing. The story is set in a not-too-distant future where monsters have overrun the world, but people are still trying to live as normal lives as possible. Even the monsters have grown lazy, but feel a faint obligation to put in a little effort to hunt.

Title: Death Car Alley
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Humour
Word Count: 3,900
Publication: Jersey Devil Press (Issue 27)

Evan stops dead as the shiny black Shogun 4×4 creeps around the corner up ahead like some giant prehistoric insect, liquid-metal smooth shell glistening.

A massive thank you to Yvonne Anisimowicz and Dabs Lyons for their superb beta reading and encouragement.

I designed a story cover for Death Car Alley in Adobe Photoshop. I’m happy with how this turned out, and it remains in my portfolio to this day!

Find the rest of my published fiction here.

Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker (Anime)

A gaming friend once gave me the Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker anime on DVD and I re-watched it last night. See the official trailer.

I’ve been in more of a Bethesda Softworks mood these past couple of years, though I do love Bioware games and got massively into the DA series years back with Dragon Age: Origins (OMG Alistair!) and then Awakening (OMG Nathaniel Howe!). Origins is still hard to top, even with current graphics and gaming hardware. (I’ll post about DA:O sometime soon.)

So, Dawn of the Seeker. The animation style is different, but I ended up enjoying the tangle of traditional animation and CGI. At times it has a comic book feel which works well during action scenes, and the overall dreamy style lends to the fantastical element of the franchise. There were things they could have tweaked to make it more immersive, however, like characters getting dirty and scraped as they trek around engaging in battle. The creators said they used a lot of negative space so you focused on the characters. As a designer I get the effectiveness of negative space… but I don’t know if it worked here. In the games there’s a lot of detail and the world has real depth. But OK, this is an anime and a completely different medium.

The story focuses on Cassandra Pentaghast, who we first meet interrogating Varric in Dragon Age II. I never warmed to her as much as to the others in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I do like her design in Dawn of the Seeker, where she’s a little younger and less war-scarred.

For me, the anime fell down slightly on story, with a handful of hackneyed moments that had me eye-rolling. There is also a fairly predictable character motivation: as a child one of Cassandra’s family members was cut down by a mage, and she’s grown up aloof and anti-mage. Cue having to work alongside a mage and find mutual understanding. I’m not saying this trope doesn’t work, but I feel that the betrayals within the Chantry would have been enough motivation for her to rethink what she stands for, without the “You killed my brother, prepare to die!” element.

I’ve always liked the way Bioware writes the political aspect of their series. Overall Cassandra was fun and there were weak glimmers of Alistair in Galyan. Definitely worth a watch for fans of the game series, particularly those who love backstory and lore.

Find the DVD on Amazon here.

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.

Graphic Design for Writers

My graphic design website has had an overhaul, with an updated portfolio and option to contact me using a contact form. Graphic design is a huge part of my life. It is my day job, an on-the-side freelance business, as well as something I do for pleasure. I prefer graphic design for writers and can create logos, infographics, as well as story and book covers. I’m going to share a few of my graphics here over the next few weeks, but if you are already interested check out my alter-ego J. Oliver Designs.

This first design was made for fun, simply because I a) love bunnies, b) love texture and vibrant colour, and c) wanted to try my hand at creating a mandala. I’m rather proud of the outcome. The texture used in the background was also custom-made by me for this design. It’s available to download as a texture on my Instagram. Eventually I plan to have a dedicated resources section on my other website for textures and vectors, so keep an eye out!

Run Rabbit Mandala | Adobe Illustrator CC

J. Oliver Designs

Run Rabbit Mandala by J. Oliver Designs

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.

Bubble.us – 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.

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