Writers: So You Think You Have Free Will…

Let’s just clear this up for a start:


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.


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:


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…


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).


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.

Writing 101 – Outlining


(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Hello everyone. So…erm…yeah, I’ve done a great job so far keeping up with this resolution malarkey. Michelle has already threatened to fire me if I don’t show my face today and she (sometimes) makes a good point.

Here I am. Grovelling.

Please take me back, dear readers. I have…what do I have?…I have tips. I have tips on that most dreaded of topics – outlining a novel.

As I discussed previously, we writers tend to fall into one of two categories – Outliners or Pantsers. Which technique is right for you is all down to preference, but something I hear a lot from pantsers and those just starting out is what is outlining and how do I do it?

I don’t profess to be an expert (far from it). These techniques are based on what I’ve picked up through trial and error or through research and are in no way comprehensive.

What is outlining?

Outlining is a process for plotting out the key points and major events of your book, usually from start to finish. Although typically used for non-fiction writing, it does have its uses in fiction especially where there’s a need to juggle plot twists or multiple story lines. Outlines can be detailed, multi-page documents, or simple guidelines that serve as a road map through your novel’s plot, drafted onto index cards or sticky notes.

How to Outline

All these techniques assume you already have an idea for your book. If not, you may benefit from a brain storming session.

Using Index Cards/Sticky Notes

Until recently, this was my main method for outlining (more on this later). I’ll mostly be discussing index cards but this applies to sticky notes too. You need a few items before you can begin:

  • Index cards of a size to suit your needs (I use 3 by 5 inch cards (76.2 by 127.0 mm))
  • Coloured pens or stickers
  • Corkboard, index card box, or large floor
  1. On one side of a index card, write a single sentence summarising each of your story’s main plot points or scenes, ignore any subplots for now. Use a new card for each point and leave the other side blank.
  2. Number each card in sequence. This doesn’t mean you’re tied to the sequence but it’ll help if you drop or mix up the cards (trust me on this).
  3. When you’ve finished your main plot, do the same with your subplots. I tend to use a different colour pen (or sticker) here to help distinguish plot threads.
  4. Once you have worked through all your plot lines, arrange the cards out on the corkboard/floor.
  5. You can now move the cards around at your leisure and experiment with the sequencing/pacing of your story. Cards can also be grouped into rough chapter outlines.
  6. Use the rear of each card to further expand on the scenes, adding detail and snippets of text as it comes to you.
  7. Write your story

Text Document

This method is based on Microsoft Word package for Windows and Mac, although most wordprocessor programs have templates for outlines available for use. It’s less flexible than other methods as plot points can only really be moved through cutting and pasting text (although Office 2013, now allows you to drag and drop headings and associated text around).

I haven’t outlined using this method and so, rather than making a fool of myself, I thought I’d let Saikat Basu of www.makeuseof.com show you how it’s done.

Remember: each header should be a one-sentence summary of the key plot points of your story.


Writing 101 - Outlining

Scrivener’s Corkboard Feature

Scrivener is a recent discovery for me but is fast becoming my go-to program when it comes to outlining and plotting. Just like a real corkboard and index cards, the built-in corkboard feature allows for the creation of virtual cards which can be colour-coded in much the same way as the ones I described above.


Scrivener also has a separate outlining feature that gives a more traditional look to the outline (similar to the one created by MS Word). I intend to do a full review of Scrivener in the coming weeks but I just want to highlight that the software is available for both Windows and Mac operating systems and comes with a free trial download.


An index card is added to the corkboard automatically, whenever a new document is created and can be used as per the method above. I use the main face of the card to summarise a description of the scene, expanding on it in the document notes section (bottom right of the image).

So that’s about it from me, but before I go I want to mention a few things that you should considered when using outlines:

  1. The layout and format of an outline is a matter of personal preference – use one that suits you
  2. Outlines should never get in the way of the story – if the plot or pacing benefits from a change of direction then alter the outline, not the story
  3. Outlines should be organic, evolving as the story does – use it as a guide only.

Well, I hope this helps.

If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below. I’d also like to hear any tips you might have when it comes to outlining.


Writing Resolutions

It’s the most wonderful time…burp…hic!

Melly…Memmy…Happy Christmas, readers. It’s that time of year again. The kids are full of sugar, the turkey is a charred mess in the bin, and the local pizza parlour is cooking dinner.

“What are you going to do with all this spare time?” I hear you ask. I hope it was you; I may have had too much Christmas Juice.

Anyway…I’m going to write, of course. Thank you for asking.

If anybody has ever felt the need, or the urge, to write, then what better time to start than in the new year.

Most of us make our resolutions around this time – some of them even last as long as the 2nd January – and setting a writing goal should be at the forefront of every writer’s mind. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old hat or a willing amateur, we all benefit from targets.

“What kind of targets?” you cry.

It doesn’t matter but I’ll give you a few tips on creating ones you are likely to stick at.

1. Make them realistic

If you aim to write a nineteen-tome epic fantasy by January 30th, you may have set the bar a little high. Make your goals achievable but don’t make them too easy, otherwise what’s the point?

2. Allow yourself to fail

Not all goals are achievable no matter how hard you work. Life has a way of interfering with the writing process (I call it research). Do your best and allow yourself to fail. But, after that, get back on that horse and keep going.

3. Form a habit

The more your write, the easier it gets. Forming a habit will make it seem less of a chore on the days you don’t really feel like writing.

4. Don’t give up

I refer you back to the horse statement in point 2. Writing can be tough and it can be thankless at times, but it can also be exhilarating and indescribable. If you really want to write, make it happen, even if it’s only a few words a day.

5. Make it public

If you’re like me, you’ll hate all the media attention (pffft…) but be sure to announce your goals, even if this is only to your friends and family. Why would you do this? It makes you accountable and you’ll be amazed at how many people will give you their support and encouragement.

Okay. That’s all from me. There’s still a little more liquid at the bottom of these three bottles and so I will take my leave.

Happy holidays from all of us here at Sarcastic Muse.

What are your writing goals for 2015? Share them in the comments below.