You Know You’re A Writer When…

You Know You're a Writer When...…you’ve spent the last forty minutes reading about the fire resistance of normal bedding to see if your character can use it to escape a burning building.

…you can’t remember the last thought you had that wasn’t immediately followed by “that would be a great line for X”.

…you’ve written the same line sixteen times because you can’t work out what the next one should be.

…you’re hoping that the seventeenth iteration will fire up the neurons.

…you get excited glancing at your word count because you’ve finished the day on a round number/just passed the exact half-way mark in your novel/realised your daily word count has been 666 for the last three days running and you’re considering calling in an exorcist.

…you see your total word count as a high score.

…you’ve just spotted that you’ve used the same sentence at least twenty times in your first draft.

…you name a walk-on character after the first thing on your right so as not to break your flow.

…you know you’ll change that name later so it won’t matter.

…you don’t change it because it has an exotic sound to it that fits the character.

…you start researching foreign languages because Mr Toaster sounds a bit weird but Monsieur le Grille-Pain could be a secret agent.

…your wife/girlfriend demands to know who “Alyssa” and “Victoria” are.

…you go back and check every word in the list to make sure it’s correctly spelled.

…you know someone will spot the one word you missed and it’ll really bug you.

…your first 250 words come so slow it’s like watching paint dry but the next 1000 pass in seconds.

…you still pause briefly to consider if “Who” actually begins with a “H”.

…you analyse every situation you encounter with “what would X do if they were here now?”

…your first action upon witnessing something horrific/funny/terrifying/weird is to reach for a notebook and pen.

…you spend hours editing descriptions of murder victims so that they don’t sound too much like that aunt everyone hates but would be instantly recognised by that mole on her face.

…you can recall the dates of your characters’ birthdays more readily than those of family members.

…you threaten unspeakable evil when you discover someone else has used your intended book cover.

…you’re only leaving the house for twenty minutes but your bag still contains a pen (plus one spare because, well, you never know), a pencil (in case both pens run out of ink), a pencil sharpener (in case the pencil breaks), a notebook, and a spare notebook (in case of aliens).

…despite carrying all of the above, you record all the ideas you get on that note-taking app you have on your phone.

…you struggle with dialogue when sitting down to write but the instant your head hits the pillow, you’re suddenly Martin Luther King Jr.

…the realisation hits that nothing you make up is crazier than the world outside of your head.

…you compose stupid lists like this instead of actually writing.


Lets keep this going by adding your own in the comments.

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Writers: So You Think You Have Free Will…

Let’s just clear this up for a start:

FREE WILL IS A MYTH.

You need proof? Okay, no problem.

Hands up all of you who write. Okay, great. That’s the majority. The rest of you must be weird lurker types. Kudos to you — everyone needs a hobby.

To all of you who write, hands up everyone who loves to write. Perfect, again we have a majority. Why are you putting your hand up? You said you didn’t even write the first time. Put your hand down…

If the fact that you all put your hands up to a computer screen, despite the fact that I can’t even see you (or can I?), doesn’t prove that you have no free will, I have one more test.

TRY AND QUIT WRITING.

Go on. I dare you. I double dare you.

How long did that last? Five minutes? Ten?

Did you start to get the cold sweats? How about when you overheard that juicy snippet of conversation? Y’know, the one that made that old woman sound like a serial killer.

Did your fingers twitch at the sight of a pen or a keyboard?

Now repeat to yourself:

I AM A WRITER. I HAVE NO FREE WILL.

There. Don’t you all feel better already?

To a serious writer, writing is both a curse and a blessing. It’s a dear friend and a hated adversary. There’s nothing better than sitting down and composing a piece of prose from nothing more than a spark of an idea and an overactive imagination. Likewise, there’s nothing more frustrating than a story sitting just at the periphery of consciousness. A story that needs to be teased with a steady hand and infinite patience (yeah, right!).

We are lost inside our own minds, live in our own worlds, and we love every minute of it.

I can think of worse ways to be a slave to a higher power.

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.

Writing 101 – How to Write Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Flash fiction is easy. Flash fiction is hard. And both of these statements are true.

Before January 2014, I’d never written a piece of flash, didn’t even know what it was. But once I started, I was hooked. It got its little spines into my noodle and wouldn’t let go…okay, that’s not true. It lets go every once in a while and, when it does, you’ll find me scrabbling around the floor trying to put it back in (what can I say? I miss the little guy when he’s gone).

Since then, I’ve been involved in numerous flash fiction challenges and I wrote (shameless plug alert) A Dictionary of Tales, twenty-six short tales of myths, monsters and legends which you should really check out.

Anyway, I digress. It’s on with the show…

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a literary term used to classify any complete story of 1,000 words or less (some argue 2,000). To be true flash fiction, and not just a snapshot or short scene, a story must have all the classic elements: a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. With an extremely limited word count, some of these elements may likely be implied in the narrative.

It is all too often thought of as an easy out by some writers and that its authors lack the discipline, skill, or commitment to tackle longer works. This is (excuse my French) shite…or is it merde? Anyway. Flash is no less important in terms of discovering your capabilities as a writer than is completing your novel. There’s an art to good flash fiction. It is a discipline all of its own and it take a lot of commitment (and a whole heap of editing) to write a story in only 1,000. I find that writers who knock flash fiction often end up with tomes full of excess words (but more on that later).

Tips

1. Know your (word) limits

It pays to keep your intended word limit in mind as you write. If you don’t, you risk telling more of the story than was intended and end up with a more substantial edit than may be strictly necessary. The word count is what makes the work flash fiction and it is all too easy to begin to expand out of control (see K.I.S.S. below).

I usually write to a 500 word limit which, depending on your font/font size, is about one side of typed A4. As the text gets closer and closer to that final line, I know I’m approaching my word limit. This is a helpful guide when it comes to assessing whether or not the story you are trying to tell is suitable for flash.

2. Start in the middle

No piece of flash fiction starts at the beginning. There simply isn’t the room. As its name suggests, flash is a sudden shock, straight into the action with little or no warning. To achieve this, you must think about your story as a whole and assess where in the narrative the action really begins. For example, in Crow, I explored the aspect of the goddess, Morrigan, and a battle she bore witness to. There were many places I could have started (the preparations for battle, the indignity that caused it to be fought, the call to arms of the soldiers). I chose to start after the fighting had already begun, right in the heat of the conflict. Any earlier and I’d have run out of words before I even gotten to the battle, any later and the story would already be over.

The key to good flash fiction is knowing where to start.

3. Leave ‘em hanging

Never finish the story. Well, of course you have to finish it but rarely does flash fiction (or even short stories) finish with ‘The End’. Start late and finish early, before the conflict or resolution has fully played out. Make the audience ask “But what happens next?” Flash fiction is as much about what you leave out what you put it.

4. Make every word count

Every word must pull its weight. Flash is not the place excess baggage. Likewise, it is not the place for strings of descriptive adverbs/adjectives. All stories need a few for flavour and to prevent the story from occurring in a vacuum but you don’t have the space to describe every detail. This shouldn’t be limited to adverbs/adjectives either. Ask yourself:

  1. Could I start this story later?
  2. Can I cut that without losing meaning?
  3. Does that word/sentence/paragraph add anything to the story?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 or 2, or “no” to question 3, then your word rationing needs looking at.

5. Write long, edit short

The story comes first and, as with all first drafts, what you’ve written is likely to need severe pruning. Concentrate on getting the words down first, don’t worry about the word count but do try to bear it in mind. Once that’s done: cut, cut, cut.

Remember: not all stories can be told in flash fiction.

6. K.I.S.S.

That’s right Keep It Simple Stu….sunshine. You haven’t got the room to develop multiple characters and twisting subplots. If you have an idea like that then congratulations, you have the makings of a novel, but these don’t work for flash. Flash rarely has more than one or two characters and usually only one plot strand (others may be implied). You’ll drive yourself mad doing it any other way. So, do your noggin a favour and K.I.S.S.

7. Write often

Flash fiction is a perfect medium in which to discover your ‘voice’. Because flash can be written in a comparatively short space of time, it is possible to explore many different facets of style, perspective and tense in the same time one writer might take to draft a novel. Do the maths: if a flash fiction story takes a day to write and edit, then it is possible to write thirty in a month (ignore February. It isn’t even a real month anyway). Although it’s possible to write a short novel in 30 days, there is no way you’ll have it edited in that time also. This means that a flash fiction author has the potential to explore twenty-nine different themes in the same time a novelist explores one.

Think about it.


 

Does anyone have any tips they would like to add? Any sage advice on crafting flash picked up through experience? I’d also like to hear people’s thoughts on flash fiction. Do you like it? Loathe it? Do you even see the point in it? Comments below, please.

Two Heads: A Guide to Working Collaboratively

Two Heads: A Guide to Working Collaboratively

A good handshake is a must! (c) Yoel

Writing is usually viewed as a solitary pursuit, insofar as it is typically one writer slaving away in secret (or Starbucks depending on your preference). Yet, once in a while, we get the urge to join forces with others of our ilk and write collaboratively be it as a pair or part of a larger group.

Last week, Heather B. Costa of the, often hilarious, blog Trials of a wanna-be-published Writer (go over there and show her some love) asked me if I had any tips for writers wishing to collaborate. As a matter of fact, I do and this post was born.

 Tools

The absolute minimum we require to work collaboratively are:

  • An idea (harder than it looks);
  • Something to write with/on; and
  • Some means of communication.

In the bygone days of yore (a period of history succeeded by the My dynasty), collaboration between writers was confined to face-to-face meetings, through letters or by telephone and was an arduous project.

But in this digital world we now find ourselves occupying, ideas and documents can be exchanged across the globe in the blink of an eye and the world of collaborative writing knows no bounds.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, there now exists some pretty good services and software that smooth the collaborative process, making it easier than ever to write as a team.

Online Notebooks

Most online notebooks now allow for and often include cloud storage and sharing of documents created within. Prime examples of these are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote which allow multiple users to update documents with the effects seen in real time.

Document Storage

Research materials, photographs and other imagery, and all the acquired material generated when working on a project require storage. Emails are okay but some limit the size of the document that can be sent. Dropbox, iCloud and other online storage sites allow for the creation of shared folders where this research (and even the manuscript) can be stored and viewed easily be all parties.

Communication

An essential part of the collaborative process is the need to communicate. If you happen to live in the same area, this isn’t an issue. Even international collaboration is possible these days through technology such as Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts.

Tips

So you have the tools, you have an idea, you have a willing partner, now it’s time to get collaborating.

1. Brainstorm separately as well as together

While two heads may be better than one, sometimes one head needs to plot away on its own without distractions before the diamonds are unearthed. Produce your own little mindmaps before you start to discuss the joint one.

2. Outline extensively

Without a clear direction (or, at least, a subtle steer), projects can easily go off on a tangent and risk ending up on the scrap heap. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sit down with your writing partner and bullet point the key events in each chapter/part. Keep this safe and return to it often, but remember that it is never fixed until the final draft is accepted.

3. Meet regularly

This is a bit of a no-brainer and yet we all get so wrapped up in our projects that we forget to talk to our writing partners. Set aside a regular time to meet and stick to it. Discuss the highs as well as the lows and use the time to iron out any plotting/writing issues that may have arisen.

4. Keep plenty of notes

A shared online tracker or even diary is almost as essential as an outline. When you encounter problems with a particular scene/character/etc. note it down in the diary. Likewise, note any changes needed to the manuscript and what resolutions have been found.

5. Plan for conflict

As much as we like our friends and colleagues, we’re only human (some of us have a certificate to prove it) and conflicts are inevitable. They could be minor disagreements over wording, differences of opinions about the last scene or the direction of the next one, or even major spats over rights and workload. Plan for these in advance. Decide between yourselves who gets the final say and stick to it. If you want to avoid that, nominate a trusted third party.

[N.B. consider what will happen to the project if one party decides to leave. Who will own the rights? Will the remaining partner be able to continue and complete the work?]

6. Reward yourselves

Working collaboratively isn’t easy and you should be proud of yourselves for your achievement. With that in mind, reward yourselves when you meet your goals. Even if that reward is taking a break from the project for a few days.

7. Patience. Patience. Patience.

This kind of goes with point 5 but many a writing friendship has been lost over an inability to not sweat the petty things.


 

Has anyone else had any success with working collaboratively? Do you have any tips to share/pitfalls to avoid?


 

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