Believe in the Process of Writing

There’s a great thing that happens after you’ve spent a morning writing, and you think I haven’t got anything there, not anything, and then you go away and become depressed, and when you come back, you find a good sentence or a good speech buried somewhere in the yards you’ve written. It’s in those hours of writing crap where you find a little thing that’s worth it, that makes you believe in the process of writing.  ~Emma  Thompson

I was cleaning out my ever-growing pile of notebooks yesterday and found six of them from mid 2010 through late 2011. I tend to keep them at least until I can go through them and pull out any promising story bits. It’s also nice to see how much I’ve grown in some areas and whether I’ve made progress in others. But I digress.

Believe in the Process of WritingThese years were a time of stress.  We relocated from Tennessee to Texas, we lost a beloved pet, and my husband spent seven weeks in the hospital. I wrote when I was worried and when things weren’t going well and when hope was ebbing. But in these writings I found three story starts that are actually pretty good (and half a dozen others that will go into my seeds file). The tension is there, the flavor of the back story is there, the attitudes of the characters are  hinted at. One is quite developed. One short story was written twice and I like them both.

Most of my story starts are much rougher than these. It’s always interested me that, while writing crap, worries, or just nonsense, how often little gems, golden descriptions, and amazingly clear prose sitting right in the middle of it all.

It’s as if they slip secretly through our pens when we are most distracted. That’s one of the many things I love about this thing called writing.

No matter how many notebooks I fill with complaints about a circumstance or worrying over things I can’t control, reading them later always reveals some treasure that restores my faith and love for writing.

Keeping a journal has given back far more than the effort it took. I’ve transferred these recovered seeds to a binder. I’ll ponder them and hope to take at least one of them to completion. I’m still excited about the short story.

If you don’t keep a journal, I encourage you to do so. Keep them until you can dig  out those gems and bits of gold. Destroy them afterward if you like, but keep the best bits that you find. I find them very encouraging when I’m at a creative low.

I hope a journal does the same for you.


What  gems have you discovered in old writings?

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The Power of Flash Fiction

The following is from Randy Ingermanson. I am currently reading his Double Vision as part of the Thrill Ride box set.

Writing flash fiction is good for you, in the same way that running hills is good for you. It makes you strong.

Flash fiction is very short fiction with a strict word count limit. That forces you to do three hard things:

  • Get your story structure right before you start
  • Make every word pull its weight
  • Make every sentence do “double-duty” in plot, characters, story world, and/or theme

Last summer my friend Ben Wolf asked me to write a story for Havok,  one of the flash fiction magazines he publishes. The story had to be 1000 words or less, and this particular issue’s theme would be “mixing genres.” Writing flash fiction in one genre is hard enough, but making it work in two is even tougher.

I’m not sure what possessed me, but I agreed to write a story for Ben. I decided to mix werewolves with space travel.

 

The Power of Flash Fiction

So I wrote a story, “The First Werewolf on Mars.” I’ve already published a couple of Mars novels, so I know a thing or two about the Red Planet. And when my kids were very young, I used to tell them I was a werewolf. High qualifications for writing a werewolf story.
It turned out to be tougher than I expected to write the story within my 1000 word limit. I had to make a series of decisions and then live by them. In this article, I’ll talk about what I learned.

You might find it helpful to read the story first. You can get the entire issue for free here. My story begins on page 12.

Here are the issues I faced in writing the story:

Issue 1: Story Structure

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m used to writing a novel where I’ve got tens of thousands of words for each of these.

But with 1000 words total, I had to make a strict word-count budget. I decided on this plan:

  • Beginning: 250 words
  • Middle: 500 words
  • End: 250 words

I also decided that I’d use the usual Three Disaster Structure that I use for novels. The three disasters are equally spaced, which means I had to have disasters at roughly the 250-word, 500-word, and 750-word points in the story.

What I learned: The Three Disaster Structure works even for very short fiction. There wasn’t a lot of time to develop each disaster, but when you’re on a tight budget, you can make it work.

I decided to make the stakes of the story life-or-death. And I also wanted the werewolf to be the person in jeopardy.

That led me to a key decision on my story world…

Issue 2: Story World

According to the usual rules of werewolves, you become a werewolf by being bitten by a werewolf. At the full moon, you transform involuntarily. While transformed, you’re extremely dangerous.

But I wanted my werewolf to be the protagonist. I wanted him to be likable. And I wanted him to be able to transform at will. So I changed some of the rules.

In my world, werewolves are pacifists. They hate violence. They don’t fight. They don’t bite. Which is a problem. If they don’t bite, where do they come from?

In my world, werewolves are born, not made. Werewolfism is due to a rare recessive gene. A werewolf is a human who inherits the werewolfism gene from both parents.

It’s generally agreed that werewolves, when in human form, are often very attractive. I kept this rule for my story world.

What I learned: Rules are just rules of thumb. If you don’t like them, you can change them—as long as you make the rules of your story world clear.

I also wanted my werewolf to have more than just one problem. I wanted him to be a loner among werewolves. So I decided to give him Asperger’s Syndrome. To understand the problems this causes for him, we need to know more about the backstory…

Issue 3: Backstory

As my title makes clear, my protagonist is the first werewolf on Mars. What’s he doing there?

Answer: he’s on the run. Earth is currently in the grip of werewolf hysteria. Humans don’t understand that werewolves are harmless, and they want all werewolves killed.

When not transformed, werewolves look exactly like humans—at least to human eyes. Recently, geneticists have found a DNA test for the werewolfism gene. Privacy laws prevent universal testing in principle, but in practice, you can be forcibly tested if there’s probable cause.

The werewolves are being decimated, and because they’re pacifists, they don’t fight back.

Werewolves can often guess who other werewolves are by subtle facial cues that are invisible to humans. These cues are not 100% accurate, so it’s become very dangerous for werewolves to try to find others like themselves.

Unfortunately, our hero has Asperger’s, and he has always been unable to recognize these facial cues. Feeling desperately alone, he emigrated a few years ago to Mars, where he hoped to escape werewolf hysteria. He is currently Sheriff in the small community Mars Colony 1.

Being a werewolf makes your life difficult. Being Aspie makes your life difficult. Being both makes your life massively more difficult.

What I learned: When it comes to having personal problems, 1 + 1 = 10.

So I threw in a third personal problem. Our hero is in love with the wrong person. She’s his new deputy, a brand new immigrant from earth. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she’s brimming over with werewolf hysteria.

The story begins when this deputy, Katja, discovers proof that there’s a real live werewolf on Mars. That’s the logical place to begin the story, but the question was how to end it…

Issue 4: Surprise Ending Or No Surprise Ending?

As I read through some past issues of Havok (and its sister publications), I found that a lot of the stories had surprise endings. I’m not a big fan of surprise endings. Not if that’s the whole point of the story.

If the payoff of the story is nothing more than the surprise, then the reader who sees the surprise coming won’t get any payoff. And the reader who doesn’t see it coming may feel like you intentionally withheld information to make the surprise work.

The story I had in mind ends with a twist. I assume that some of my readers will see it coming and some won’t. Should I change the story to avoid having a surprise ending?

I decided to use the twist. It seemed a natural ending to me, which tells me a lot of readers will see it coming. That’s fine with me. In my view, there’s still an emotional payoff to the story, whether you see the twist coming or not. I’ve edited the story at least twenty times, and I still like the payoff, even though I know what’s coming.

What I learned: If you don’t like a particular writing technique, ask yourself why. It may turn out that it’s not the technique you dislike, it’s something associated with the technique.

Writing the Story

Writing the story was both easier and harder than I expected.

The first draft was easy to write. Working from my three-act/three-disaster structure, I drilled out the story in about an hour. I knew how long each part had to be, and I kept them all on budget.

That’s an important lesson: Setting the word budget up front is much easier than imposing it after the story’s written.

Revisions were hard. When you have a strict limit on word-count, every word you add means there’s a word you have to subtract somewhere. It can get infuriating. I wound up working over the story for several hours. When I sent it in, it had exactly 1000 words, which was the limit.

My editor sent back comments fairly soon. He liked the story. As I’d expected, he saw the ending coming. But there was one point he didn’t understand—it looked to him like a logic error.

It wasn’t a mistake. It was a miscommunication, which is just as bad.

So I had to do some serious revisions to clarify that point. I added a couple of extra sentences to make the story logic clear, but now I was over-budget on my word count.

I solved this problem by trimming the section that debunked the usual werewolf myths. That reduced my word count and simplified my story world.

That’s another important lesson: You can always cut more. You may have to simplify things, but you can always cut more.

Your Turn

Flash fiction makes you a better writer. It forces you to write tighter, more strategically.

Have you ever tried it?

Give it a whirl. It’s harder than it looks.

Once you’ve written it, consider submitting it for publication to one of Splickety Publishing Group’s three flash fiction magazines:

  • Splickety Prime—multiple genres.
  • Havok—SF/fantasy/steampunk/horror/superhero.
  • Splickety Love—romance.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
 
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 12,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Have you written any flash fiction? If so, what was your experience in terms of craft? If not, would you try it?

Writing 101 – Developing Characters Through Short Stories

Developing Characters Through Short Stories

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

To write your character’s story, you need to know them as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. This isn’t an easy ask. There are so many questions, so many things to learn. Where do you start? A chat over dinner and wine? A long, drawn out interview? I find actions speak louder than words.

The majority of my characters have been developed through short stories and, more recently, flash fiction. I like to put them through their paces, maybe torture them a little (a lot), and find out how they tick. Like a scientist (or just some kid with a bug in a jar), I immerse them in scenarios and study their reactions. You’d be amazed by how much you can learn and, if nothing else, it’s a whole heap of fun…

Tips

1. History

Backstory tells you a lot about your characters. Experience and past encounters shape who they are and what they’re capable of. Living through those experiences, alongside your character, is the perfect way to understand their motivations, goals and abilities. Flash and short fiction are the ideal media for this. They allow you to focus on individual events that had the biggest impact. They also allows you to gauge the condition of relationships in the character’s immediate circle. For example, does a loving husband find the relationship with his wife strained when they argue, or is he certain they’ll come out fine? What about their friends? Do they speak kindly of them when they are not around? Write the scene, learn from it.

Exercise: Choose three key moments in your character’s past and relive them in three flash/short stories. Be sure to pay attention to how your character reacts in the heat of the moment.

2. Test of time

When done correctly, character development takes an incredible investment of time. This is doubly so if you intend to use them as the main character in your novel. Ask yourself, are they worth all this effort? Often, it’s hard to tell. We might start writing and soon find they are not all they appear to be.

When I get an idea for a character, I write them into a short story, either as the main character or as supporting cast. There are two benefits to this:

  1. I’ve already started to test them in conflict; and
  2. I get a good idea if their story is the right one to tell.

Sometimes the person you think is right to tell the story is more of a supporting character, at best. Likewise, the character you gave a bit part to sometimes has the stronger voice and the better story.

Exercise: Choose a character you haven’t fully developed and write a story involving them. Do they come across as a strong character? Do they entice you to explore them further?

3. Trial by fire

Knowing how a character will react to a given crisis…situation is half the battle. The only real way to do this is to test their reaction, both external and internal, to conflict by throwing them to the proverbial, and sometimes literal, wolves. When you write with your characters in mind, you’ll find that they have a habit of steering the story down their own paths and in ways you never expected. This is a great indication of the extent that you know your characters, that you have started to adopt their mindset. It’s also as frustrating as it gets.

If you really want to find out how the character will react to conflict, write the conflict and, while you’re doing it, listen to what they’re telling you. It pays to listen to their thoughts and emotions too.

Exercise: pick an intense scene, one filled with conflict, and then throw your character into the thick of it. Do they sink, or swim? Do they react how you expected? If not, are they likely to react like that again?

4. Voice

Short fiction, especially that written in the first-person, is the perfect way to explore and develop your character’s voice. Writing from their perspective puts them in the driving seat and gives you a unique opportunity to discover the way they communicate with each other and with their audience. This is exceptionally useful for secondary characters, ones that play a significant part in your story but are not main characters. It’s all too easy to give these characters a generic, even stereotypical, voice. Don’t let that happen, coax it out of them with flash.

Exercise: Take a secondary character and write a scene, or short story, from their perspective. How do they talk? What mannerisms do they have? Do they seem educated? To what level? Do they favour slang and jargon, or do they avoid it?

5. Day in the life

Day to day activities are not the kind of thing that makes it into novels and stories. It’s not often that a character will have a typical day in a novel (these things are, and should, be edited out). You’ll never go into detail about their paperclip collection (unless you’re setting them up to be The Paperclip Killer, or his patsy), what they had for lunch, or give the blow by blow on their lunchtime meeting (Le Carré-esque spy thriller, anyone?). How a person lives tells a lot about who the person is. Short stories and flash allow you to live a day in their lives. It won’t make for exciting reading, but it will reveal all sorts of juicy secrets about them and their ‘ordinary’ life.

Exercise: write the story of your character’s typical day. What does it reveal about them? About their family and support network? How do they feel about their job?


Has anybody out there just short stories to learn about their characters? How has it worked out? Comments below please.

Stephen King’s Advice: Writing Short Stories

So one of these days I’ll write a ‘real’ post (I’ve got one planned for next week), but for today, I’ll redirect you to writer legend Stephen King. A couple weeks ago, Chris gave tips on writing flash fiction. Many (if not all) of the points he made for flash fiction, however, are applicable to any form of short story. As an editor of short stories for a small but growing speculative fiction magazine, I’ve learned a lot about what I want to read  just from having the privilege of reading the stories I receive there. But more importantly, it’s given me some insight on how I’d write them, too.

The short story is an art form. But it’s also essential to learning craft. I jumped into writing as a kid with images of a novel in my head, but as Stephen King mentions, back then I simply wasn’t ready to wade the novel ‘quagmire’. I still had a lot of growing to do and the craft to learn. It wasn’t until I wrote and completed my first short story in college that I began to see what it was I had been having problems with. The novel quagmire — though never easy — is easier than it used to be for me. And I think this is in large part because of the short story.


How do you feel about writing short stories? Do you read them?