Dec 18, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 18: Mirrorfolk and Shadowplay

Today we're going to explore two useful concepts: mirror characters and foreshadowing. Even if you're not familiar with the concepts, chances are you've used one or the other in your writing.

A mirror character is just what it sounds like: a character that acts as a reflection of the protagonist. It can be a mirror that shows the character the way forward, as in a secondary character who knows the "truth" the character is searching for (as in character arcs and "the lie the character believes"), a contrasting, opposite character, or it can be a dark mirror, usually an antagonist with a similar background, showing where the protagonist could be with a few bad choices or if she gives in to the "lie." Scrooge and Marley from Dickens' A Christmas Carol are a Christmassy example of this, a few others are Frodo/Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Harry/Voldemort from Harry Potter. Mirror characters often embark on parallel plots, like Han and Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Mirroring is a useful tool; in addition to characters, you can mirror plots, scenes, and dialogue to add subtext and depth to your story. 

Have you ever read a story where the plot twists seem to come out of nowhere? One way to fix this kind of issue is foreshadowing. It means dropping a hint of what's going to happen into an earlier scene. Remember the dead direwolf in the beginning of A Game of Thrones (spoiler alert!) that just happens to have the exact number of pups as Ned Stark has children? And the bit on the trip to King's Landing where Joffrey gets attacked by Arya's direwolf (totally his own fault) and insists that it be killed? Both of these foreshadow Ned Stark's death at the end of the novel. I feel the best way to use this technique is to keep it as subtle as possible. The best foreshadowing works on a subconscious level; the reader doesn't even notice it but it can make the most outlandish plot twists feel inevitable.

For today's 350 words, add a bit of foreshadowing into your story or explore mirroring as technique.

Dec 17, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 17: Feeling Conflicted

You're probably getting close to the midpoint of your story, congratulations! This might be a good time to go over what you've got so far and think a bit about conflict. Every story needs conflict, be it external or internal, preferably both. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do you have your main conflict figured out? Is it powerful enough? How does the main character resolve it? Is the solution interesting and unexpected?
  • What about internal conflict? Does it work with the story's external conflict on a thematic level? Is resolving the protagonist's internal conflict key in solving the external conflict?
  • Are your scenes structured properly? Scene is composed of goal->conflict->disaster, the following sequel of reaction->dilemma->decision. Basically this is all about action->reaction. Watch out for displaying the reaction before the action that causes it, both on a micro (sentence) and the macro (scene) level. Here's K. M. Weiland's excellent post about scene structure if you want to read more
  • Is your protagonist getting off too easy, just sailing through the story and clearing every obstacle with ease? You probably need more disasters. Basically, nothing should go smoothly for the poor protagonist: even if she by some miracle accomplishes her scene goal, she should be in more trouble because of it (the yes, but -approach)
  • Is there a personal, emotional component to the conflict? Maybe add one?
  • Think about the story's climax: in what order will the conflicts be resolved? Are you going from minor to major and impersonal to personal?
In today's 350 words, write a scene that's structured properly and enjoy the results.

Dec 16, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 16: Beware Captain Obvious

Ahh, Captain Obvious, he's ruined countless perfectly fine stories with his annoying, rub-your-face-in-it ways. The stories he's touched have that same issue: a lack of subtlety. (You can have the opposite problem also, but that's not as common.)

And how to spot if Captain Obvious has visited your story?

The worst part is that we writers tend to be blind to this in our own work, so that's another good reason to have a beta-reader or a critique partner read your stuff. There are some tell-tale signs, though: on-the-nose dialogue, overly insightful characters, wordy description that leaves nothing to the imagination, repetition of information, and stating the story's message outright multiple times so the reader can't possibly miss it.

And how to fix it?

A lot of information is clear from context, and readers actually like filling in the blanks with description: don't waste valuable word count on obvious, banal description, but pick a few interesting, original, and meaningful details to show. The reader will fill in the rest. Regarding your message or theme, it's most powerful when it remains unsaid. Don't make your subtext a text, let it your characters make your point for you, and don't forget to balance it with an opposing view.

Subtlety is always better, in my opinion, and that goes for backstory, too. Give the reader only what she absolutely needs to know. Beware long paragraphs of exposition and pointless flashbacks, especially at the beginning of your story. Odds are that the reader doesn't care about what happened to your protag's dog when she was five, at least in the first scene. If the dog's fate figures in the story and you absolutely need to show it to the reader, leave the flashback until later, when the reader has gotten to know your character and is invested in her fate.

Talking about exposition, have you met Captain Obvious' annoying cousin, Bob? Full name: As You Know, Bob. Where there's exposition, there's Bob, ready and willing to discuss info he and the other character already know for the reader's benefit. Again, subtlety goes out the window. There are other ways to insert the information into the story. Drop a chunk here, a tidbit there. Filter the info through character, use internal monologue, etc. Dialogue is fine, too, as long as it doesn't slip into a science lecture. It's also a good idea to think about how much the reader needs to know. Is all that information necessary?

Today, go over your story for these issues and give Bob and the Captain the boot. It'll be worth the extra work, I promise.

Dec 15, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 15: The Deep End

Today I thought we'd discuss writing deep point of view. For me, understanding this technique was a real game-changer. I've always had trouble with conveying character emotion, and this really helped. 

So what is deep point of view?

Basically it means writing in a way that the reader can really get it the character's head and feels like she's living the story, not reading it. 

To achieve this effect, the idea is to pay attention to distancing words and to eliminate them entirely. These include:
  • Sense words like "saw," "felt," "heard," etc. Simply state the sensation, or see if you can rephrase the sentence.
  • "thought"  or "wondered"
Here are a few more tips:
  • Avoid passive voice
  • Stick to the limits of the character's POV, so no head-hopping or omniscient POV
  • Utilize internal monologue and try the stream-of-consciousness technique
  • Remember to show, not tell
  • Keep the character's voice consistent in internal monologue also
  • Filter description through character observation and emotion
You can find a lot of resources about the technique online, but a book that helped me understand this was Rayne Hall's Writing Deep Point of View, if you want to check it out.

Today might be a good day to skip writing your 350 words and to go over your story and eliminate  most of these distancing words. Is there anything else you can do to achieve a deeper point of view? Does it work for your story?


Dec 14, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 14: Getting Emotional

I'm betting your story is off to a good start by now; the plot is rolling along, the setting is coming to life, and your characters sparkle like the unique snowflakes they are. But you feel like there's something missing. The story feels clinical, lifeless. So, what's wrong?

It might be that your story is missing a heart. The bad news: even the coolest concept and the wildest, most original plot twists won't make up for this lack. The good news: you can totally fix it. Writing character emotion is hard, especially if you're a beginner, but like most things, it gets easier with practice. For me, it still takes a few drafts to get it right.

So how do you find your story's heart?

It's usually pretty obvious once you start looking. Your main character is a good place to start. What's at stake for her? Are the stakes personal enough? Say the fate of the world is at stake in your story. Pretty massive stakes, right? Well, that's fine, plot-wise, but that's not where the story's heart is: it should be something that has to do with relationships between characters, like maybe the loss of a loved one, dealing with pregnancy, getting revenge, losing one's job, something relatable. Big emotions like love and hate are great for powering a story. Odds are that the story's emotional core is closely related to your message or theme or the argument the story is trying to make. If you know one of these you're off to a good start. 

Sometimes the problem isn't a lack of heart but the way you're (not) conveying it. Does it feel like you're holding the reader at arm's length? The deep point of view technique can be helpful here (More on that later), and sometimes just adding more internal monologue and tapping into the character's stream of consciousness fixes the issue.

But what if you notice that your character is actually pretty bland and is just wandering through the story world so you can showcase your cool ideas? Well, you might consider going back to the drawing board with the character and giving her a secret or a handicap. What's her greatest fear? Can you adjust the story so that she has to face it? Make sure the stakes are big enough and that the decisions the character must make are truly hard, almost impossible. There must be consequences, painful ones; if they aren't devastating, you're not thinking big enough.

Once you discover the story's heart, think of ways to showcase it on a metaphorical level. Maybe tinkering with the setting, adding a recurring simile, or a subtle use of mood and theme could work?

Readers love character emotion. Even if the story doesn't have much else going for it, realistic portrayal of character emotion can make it successful. Why do you think people buy those dollar store romances? We're naturally interested in relationships, and having the protagonist get the girl (or guy) gives us a thrill and a certain feeling of satisfaction on an emotional level. Think of a book you really loved. It probably resonates with you, emotionally speaking.

Find your story's emotional core and remember, it's never too late for a heart transplant.

Oh, and don't forget to do your 350 words today. Once more, with feeling!


Dec 13, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 13: Speaking Metaphorically

Let's get a few definitions out of the way: a simile compares one thing with something different (usually has the word "like" or "as" in it), while a metaphor is a direct comparison that isn't true on a literal level. So "the clouds hung low over the school, like dirty cotton balls in Masie's mop bucket" would be a simile, "the dirty cotton-ball clouds" would be a metaphor.

Similes and metaphors are a way to play with language and make your voice stand out; you just have to come up with your own. When we think of a way to describe something, the first thing that comes to mind is the same old thing that we've heard over and over again, maybe "strong as an ox," or "lightning fast." Those aren't bad, but they're not exactly original. Well, how to be original, then?

  • Come up with your own. There is a trick to this, though: you have to have a certain sensitivity to what works. You can't compare things that are too similar (the cat was as soft as a kitten) or things that are too different (the cat howled like a dishwasher). The things have to make sense on some level, as in if you use a word for sound, then the comparison should fit that. The dishwasher thing fails on that level too, as the sound a dishwasher makes could maybe be described more accurately as a hum or a sloshing sound, maybe). Unexpected comparisons are great and make the best metaphors, but they have to make sense on some level. You can experiment with this, though. Think about what the reader expects and play around with some other options.
  • Twist a worn metaphor or simile to make it your own. "Strong as an ox" might become "strong as a pitbull on steroids," maybe.
  • Synesthesia is also a great way to come up with interesting stuff. It means using a different sensation to describe something else, like tasting a colour or hearing a sensation. "A burnt-velvet whisper," or "the cool, green tang of lime," for example. 

Don't overdo it, though, or your prose might begin to sound unintentionally comical. For a fantastic book on the subject, check out Word Painting by Rebecca McCalahan.

Bonus: It's not really a metaphor or a simile, but zeugma is a useful instrument to have in your toolbox of descriptive writing. It means using one word to modify two others in a different way, like "She lost her watch, then her temper."

In todays 350 words, try to include one original metaphor or simile and use zeugma at least once.

Dec 12, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 12: The Dialogue Dilemma

So, now that you've written a few hundred words, chances are that you'll have some dialogue in there already. Bad dialogue can make the reader groan and stop reading, while well-crafted dialogue zips by and manages to convey information, build character, and entertain all at once. But how to manage that? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do all your characters sound the same (like you)? Is there a way to make them sound more individualised? Think pet phrases, accents, slang, and, most importantly, what they say and how they say it. Let their personalities show. If you cover up the dialogue tags, can you tell who's speaking? That's what we're aiming for.
  • Speaking of accents, don't overdue it. Accents and dialects written phonetically are a pain to read, in my opinion. Less is usually more.
  • Is the dialogue too "on the nose"? Is there a way to make it more subtle. Characters don't have to give straight answers to direct questions, in fact it's usually better for the story if they don't.
  • Dialogue is a good way to convey exposition, but you have to be subtle with it. You can have  one character explain how something works to another, but the other character shouldn't know that information beforehand, otherwise you've got an "As you know, Bob" type of situation. (As an aside, I kind of love Jim Butcher for thumbing his nose at the whole AYKB thing by inserting a "talking head" Bob the Skull into his story. Bob is an ancient spirit who knows a lot of stuff that he's always discussing with Dresden, but it never feels like clumsy exposition.)
  • Is the dialogue consistent with your time period? Are you using words that feel too modern, for example? But don't take it too far in the other direction, either. Reading real 1600s dialogue would be really annoying and confusing.
  • Have you taken the character's age into account? Kids are really tricky to write, at least for me.
  • Sometimes what's not being said is the most important part. What can be read between the lines? (Subtext, baby!)
  • Sometimes your characters just want to talk and talk and talk. That's fine, but maybe cut the three pages of discussion about what to have for breakfast before submitting the piece?
  • Writers are always saying that dialogue should sound realistic. Note: realistic doesn't mean real. You can cut all the ohs and umms and get right to the point. For great dialogue, check out Gilmore Girls. Nobody's actually that witty in real life, but the dialogue flows effortlessly, and it's usually doing at least three things at once.

Okay, that's all for today. If you have more tips to share, do post them in the comments, and that goes for all the posts in this series, of course.

Now go do your 350 words (of dialogue)!

Dec 11, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 11: An Awesome Opening

Yay, it's finally time to start writing! As we're aiming for 3,000 - 5,000 words, about 350 words per day should do it. Have trouble getting started? Set an egg timer for thirty minutes and just start writing. You'll probably end up with more words that that, easy, especially if you're writing in English. (Finnish is a lot harder, no articles or prepositions to beef up the word count.)

You can start anywhere in the story, but I tend to start at the beginning. Your opening is maybe the single most important bit of the story, because you need to hook the reader so she'll bother reading the rest of it. Here are a few things to think about before you start writing:

  • Are you starting at the beginning? As in where the story begins, not with what your main character had or breakfast or something like that?
  • Are you opening with action?
  • Is your first line interesting, surprising, and original?
  • Do you introduce your protagonist in the first paragraph, or even better, the first sentence?
  • What about the main conflict, you should probably get to it as soon as possible?
  • Does your first scene contain at least one hook, preferably several?
Okay, that's pretty much it. Ready, set, Write!

Dec 10, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 10: A Matter of Style

Okay, so tomorrow we'll start writing, but first, a few words about style. You have a voice of your own of course, all writers do, but have you thought about the fact that you actually use several writing styles? At least for me, my style changes to accommodate the story I'm writing: prose poem stylings won't do for a sci-fi adventure, and plain but functional prose might be frowned upon in a literary piece. The story should of course still sound like you, but just the version of you that fits this particular story.

So, take a moment to think about your story. Is there something you need to take into account, style-wise? As we discussed yesterday, point of view is a part of this process as well, especially for a first person narrative when you're filtering the story through the mind of a character.

Genre also presents some restrictions. You don't want your Gothic romance to sound too modern or your cutting edge cyberpunk tale to sound twee, and having your teenage protagonist sound like a sixty-year-old curmudgeon probably won't work too well. And who is your target reader? Will he be able to handle all those big words you're throwing his way?

This is also a good time to take note of any personal stumbling stones that tend to crop up in any story you write. Do you use too much passive voice? Do you have a tendency to keep the reader at an arm's length with unnecessary sense words (we'll talk about this more when we discuss writing deep point of view)? Are you sensitive to flow, or does your prose get clunky or overly complicated if you're not paying attention? Do you easily slip into clichés instead of coming up with your own metaphors? Are you overly fond of the word "obsidian"? (Yep, most of these are or have been mine at some point.) You can fix all this when editing, but it can save you a bit of work if you keep it in mind while writing and try to avoid going there in the first place.

You're writing the story first and foremost for you, for your own pleasure, but if somebody else reads it, you don't want your style to mess with the reading experience but rather to enhance it. (Unless you're James Joyce. I'm pretty sure he took a perverse pleasure in messing with people's heads.)

So, show us your style!

Dec 9, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 9: Points of View

You're pretty much set to start writing your story now, but there's still an important decision to make: which point of view are you going to pick?

You can't go wrong with third person limited (he/she). It's probably the most popular choice. It gives you the intimacy of getting in the protagonist's head, but still retains a bit of distance. You can get away with a bit more regarding the character's voice with third person than with first person, and the majority of books are written in third person, so it might feel familiar and easy to write. To avoid head-hopping, third person limited is probably a better choice than third person omniscient, though it might feel familiar from a lot of classics and children's books. It's tricky to do well, though. If you have a very strong voice as a writer, the best way to showcase it might be third person omniscient, where you're acting as a kind of narrator to the story.

The other mainstream option would be first person (I), which has the advantage of being easier for some writers, because you're automatically in one person's head and point of view and it's easier to convey that person's thoughts and feelings when you're writing first person. The tricky part is that character voice matters a lot more in first person narratives, and it's easy to slip up if the character voice is very different from your own.

Second person (you) . . . Well, go there at your own peril. Not the easiest sell, and tends to annoy readers and editors alike.

Once you've settled on a point of view, you also need to pick a tense, past or present. Past tense is the more common of the two, but present tense can go well with first person narratives.

Not sure which point of view to pick? Do a practice run. You can always change it later.

Dec 8, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 8: Do Your Research

So, you've got your characters, a rough outline of the character arcs and story structure, and maybe an idea of the story title and theme. It's almost time to start writing, but do you know enough about the subject matter to write the story?

Check your outline. You're doing a short story, so you don't really want to spend weeks and weeks on research. To avoid wasting time, come up with specific questions that you need answered. Do you need to research the protagonist's profession? Maybe she does a specific operation that you need to know more about, or if you're writing science fiction, you might need too brush up on how black holes work, for example. Time to hit Google, or maybe the local library. Or, if you're writing about lion tamers and you happen to know somebody who happens to be a lion tamer, go pick their brain, maybe even ask them to read the finished story later if they're willing. (Be sure to follow this up with cake or pie or maybe some movie tickets unless they're your critique partner and you can pay them in kind.)

Sometimes you can't find the info you need. It might be easier to circumvent the problem by changing the story, if the issue is a minor detail. Think about your options, just don't get stuck. If an issue comes up while writing, just make a note and keep going so you don't lose momentum. Much easier to figure out that detail later.

While doing research, pay attention to interesting details and anecdotes. Those help make your story feel more real and unique.

If you're writing a period piece or setting your story in a foreign country, don't forget to research the language stuff. You don't want your 16th century knight to talk like a modern emo kid, now do you?

Museums are pretty great for research, too. Many have informative websites that you can browse even if you can't manage a visit.

And above all, have fun!

Dec 7, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 7: Thinking Thematically

Nope, we're still not starting to write. I know theme is a slippery subject, and many writers prefer to let it develop organically, as in they don't give it conscious thought before writing, but as you now have a rough sort of outline, it might be beneficial to see if something stands out.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • What are you trying to say with your story?
  • Is the story accidentally saying something offensive that you absolutely don't want to say? If so, how to fix it?
  • Are you making an argument with the story? Are some of the characters symbols? Do they represent different sides of the issue? Have you given space for different viewpoints without taking sides, letting the characters speak for themselves?
  • Does the story come across as preachy? (Nobody likes being lectured to.)
  • Why this particular story? Is it saying something important to you or are you figuring out some issue in your own life by writing the story? (You probably are, even if you don't see it right away.)
  • are there multiple themes?
Once you've figured out some of these questions, you might think a bit about your story title. Ideally it will resonate with your theme or be a metaphor for that theme on some level while making sense, story-wise.

Dec 6, 2017

Happy One-hundredth, Finland!

Finland is one hundred years old today! Here are some pics from celebrations here in Turku.

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 6: Arc-ane Knowledge

Now that you've tinkered about with the structure of your story, let's talk a bit about character arcs. Is you main character on a positive change arc, a flat arc, or maybe a negative change arc?

  • The positive arc is basically the 'hero's journey,' where the character embarks on an inner journey to become a better person (involves rejecting 'the lie she believes' and discovering a fundamental truth about herself that allows her to solve the outer conflict of the story (the plot)). You can even think of the plot as a metaphor for the character's inner journey, a handy tip I learned from reading K. M. Weiland's blog.
  • The flat arc is about a character changing the world, not herself.
  • The negative change arc, or the fall arc, has the character going from bad to worse, usually. Or from good to evil, maybe.

As with story structure, with character arcs I'll refer you to K. M. Weiland's excellent series of posts for a thorough review of the subject.

So that's one way to look at it. You could also try Chuck Wendig's method of coming up with three beats for the character, like if you were describing the Count of Monte Cristo, it might be: naive sailor -> mysterious figure without pity seeking vengeance-> lets go of vengeance and embraces mercy, man at peace with himself.

However you approach it, some kind of change is usually a good idea in a short story, or you might discover that you don't actually have a story at all, just a vignette or an essay or a mood piece.

And don't forget about the secondary characters. They could benefit from a character arc too.

Dec 5, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 5: Structural Integrity

Want to learn story structure? The place to go is K. M. Weiland's blog Helping Writers Become Authors. I'm not going to repeat all that here, because I couldn't explain it half as well as she does, but I do recommend you check out the site if you're not familiar with it.

A short story has more room for playing around with experimental structures than a novel, so the traditional structure might not fit, but if you're doing an adventure/action story, you might benefit from hammering together a crude structure before beginning. Once you know the key scenes of the story, it's much easier to write it without running into a narrative brick wall at some point. And how to do it? Don't worry, it's easy:

  • inciting event
  • 1st plot point (25 % of story)
  • 1st pinch point 
  • midpoint spectacle (50 %)
  • 2nd pinch point 
  • 3rd plot point (75 %)
  • climax (90 %)
  • denouement
Basically, that's all you need. The inciting event draws the character into the story, the first plot point is the disaster that locks her in. The pinch points have the antagonist show her power and illustrate what's at stake. The midpoint is where the character goes from reacting to acting because of a revelation about the nature of the conflict, and as this bit can feel a bit slow, that's usually a good place for a few explosions and other exciting stuff. The third plot point is the moment of despair before the final showdown which forces the protagonist to make some hard choices. Climax is the final showdown, and denouement is a humorous, warm and fuzzy, or contemplative moment that allows the reader to say goodbye to the characters.

I'm not saying you need to use this structure for your story, but if you do, you can be pretty sure the story will work on a structural level.

Previous posts:

Day 1: The Big Idea
Day 2: Cool Characters

Dec 4, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 4: A Stunning Setting

You've probably thought a bit about setting already, but let's take it to another level, shall we?

World-building is a lot of fun and very important for your story; if you're writing speculative fiction, doubly so. Too often speculative writers resort to those old, worn settings, like the ubiquitous medieval fantasy setting, when the setting could be virtually anything, the only limit is your imagination.

Writing a mainstream story and think you can get off scot free, world-builng wise? Sorry, you need to build your version of the real world setting, too, and it can be even tougher because the place actually exists. If you get something wrong, the reader can call you on it. So do your research. It might also simplify things to use a made-up neighbourhood in a real city, for example, to avoid these kinds of issues.

For a short story you don't need a story bible, but pick an interesting environment and make up what you need as you go. As with all description, the key is to pick interesting and unexpected details and to present them in an intriguing way that tells us something about the character experiencing them. Use mood and internal monologue to your advantage, here.

So now you've got an interesting setting. Is that enough? Maybe, but here are a few more things to consider:

  • Is the setting the best pick for your story? Can it enhance the story's message, or help you use dramatic irony to your advantage? 
  • Can the setting act as a metaphor for something in the story, or make a scene more poignant, or maybe add conflict? 
  • Do you want the setting to enhance the mood of the scene or to add contrast? A boneyard of broken ships can evoke images of lost dreams, or a mother feeding her child in front of a wrecked spaceship might be code for life continuing after a crisis. Another fun trick is to use the same setting with a contrasting mood in a different part of the story, maybe the opening or closing.
  • Does your world have an inner logic to it? You can't bend the rules just to make the writing easier. Actually, the creative solution within the rules is usually more intriguing anyway.

Play with your setting, make it a character in its own right.

Previous posts:

Day 1: The Big Idea
Day 2: Cool Characters

Dec 3, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 3: Plot Play

Okay, so you've got your idea and a bunch of interesting characters. What now?

Time to get plotting. (Cue mad scientist laugh.)

Without rehashing to the old pantser/plotter argument, I do feel it's good to have some loose idea of the plot before you start writing your story. Bare minimum? The ending. It might change as you write, it probably will, but at least you know what you're aiming for.

There is something to be said for a short outline, though: it's much easier to spot and fix plot holes at this stage. If you jot down the major twists and turns of the plot and then think about what the reader expects you to do, you can come up with something very unique and original instead. If the reader expects you to zig, maybe you should zag? It's a fine line, though. Do too much of this and you'll risk alienating the reader. Sometimes it's fine to do what's expected, especially if it's something that defines the genre. People reading a love story expect the characters to end up together. If they end up getting horribly killed by mutant zombie dinosaurs instead, your readers might get a bit miffed.

For a short story, side plots can add extra weight, but they can add depth as well. Does the side plot explore the story's theme from another point of view, or maybe mirror the main character's journey in a way? How will the side plot merge with the main plot at the end? For a cohesive story, the side plot should have a point to it in the context of this particular tale, not be separate from the main storyline. Figure out what's best for your story.

We'll talk about story structure and character arcs later, but for now, think about how your protagonist will change during the story. Is the change positive or negative? What will she learn? Or is it a flat arc story, as in the protagonist changes the world in some way instead of changing herself?

If you want an example of great plotting in the speculative fiction genre, check out any book from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. I guarantee you won't see the plot twists coming. Harry gets into all kinds of scrapes, but he never takes the most obvious way out, or often it's not an option, so he has to be more inventive, which makes for a very entertaining story.

Previous posts:

Day 1: The Big Idea
Day 2: Cool Characters

Dec 2, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 2: Cool Characters

Okay, now that you've got your story idea, you need characters. I realise that for some writers it's the other way around, which is probably even better in terms of having the characters create the story. However you go about it, you want your characters to have agency, have them shape the story instead of being swept along, or worse, being just mindless automatons you're moving around on a whim.

For a short story, it's better to have a limited cast, only a few fully realised characters. Of course you get to have some extras and secondary characters with more limited roles, but you don't want to squander your word count on nonessential personnel. Short stories are all about economising, so think about which characters you need for the story. Can some of them be combined so one character will do instead two? Can they perform multiple functions on another level, too, like acting as an archetype (a mentor, for example) and also be a mirror character (more on these in a later post, but they provide a reflection of the protagonist, distorted or clear).

Have the main characters figured out? Okay. Which one's your protagonist? Are you sure? She should be the one with the most to lose and she should be interesting enough that people will want to stick with her for the duration of the story. Fine, sometimes you want the bland everyman protagonist or the story isn't told from the protagonist's point of view, like Dr Watson narrating Sherlock Holmes' adventures to maintain a distance and mystery, but this should be a conscious narrative choice, not stumbled into.

All your main characters should feel individual and not like stock characters or stereotypes. A lot of the time it helps to add backstory (not necessarily into the story, but you should know it) and some quirks and habits to the character. Think about what the audience would expect this kind of character to be and then subvert that expectation.

So, what makes a character interesting? Think about the people you know, anyone interesting there? Does someone stand out? Why? Is there a trait you could borrow for your main character? Google eccentric individuals and think about what makes them tick, or pick a favourite character from a movie or book to base your main character on. Don't copy a character outright, but make him or her your own. What if you too the basic essence of that character, separate from the story he inhabits? Changed his gender, added twenty years and different life experiences?

To have agency you need to have the character want something, and there needs to be something at stake. Don't think too small with the stakes, go for broke. Odds are your story will be more interesting.

You'll probably need an antagonist too, although the environment can also act as the antagonist, for example. Take the same care with building the antagonist as you did with the protagonist and the secondary characters. Also this about the story from the antagonist's point of view. She is the protagonist of her own story. And don't make the antagonist pure evil. Shades of grey are much more interesting. She doesn't have to be a good person, but we should understand why she does what she does.

I'll talk about dialogue in a later post, but do take a moment to think about how your character talks. Does she have an accent? Does she use big words? How does her gender and background affect how she speaks? And most important, what about her personality, how does that affect word choice, what she says, and how she says it?

Also think about what the characters look like, how they move, things like that. Is there something you can use to "tag" the character in the reader's mind, something that they subconsciously associate with the character?

You can also start to think a bit about how the character will change during the story, but we'll get to the specifics later.
Okay, that's it for today. Happy character building!

Previous posts:

Day 1: The Big Idea

Dec 1, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 1: The Big Idea

December's here, and so are advent calendars. I thought about doing a book one this year, but then decided to try something a bit different: a calendar that will help people write a short story by Christmas.

I know a lot of you have just finished Nanowrimo and just want to kick back with a pint of Cherry Garcia and a Stranger Things marathon, but what about everyone who didn't finish? I've tried Nanowrimo a couple of times, and it just isn't for me. I can't write that fast and come up with anything half-decent. So, think of this as Nanowrimo light.

The sweet spot for a short story is around 3 -5k words, so that's what we'll be aiming for. The idea is to do prep work first and start the actual writing on day 11, which would mean about 350 words per day until Christmas Eve, with a few days off factored in. I'll be breaking up the prep into nice, bite-size pieces, so it'll be 90 % pressure-free.

You in?


Okay, so first you'll have to come up with a dazzlingly original story idea with a thought-inspiring message and characters that jump off the page.

Okay, you've probably got one, let's go.

Just kidding!

Don't worry if you're drawing a blank. Despite what some writers say, not everyone can pluck a story idea out of thin air at a moment's notice. It's called brainstorming for a reason. Sure, lightning can strike from a clear sky with no warning, but sometimes you need to chase the storm.

For a good short story you need multiple ideas, and you need to be original. Yeah, yeah, everything's already been written, there are only like five different stories, etc., etc. I'm not saying anything's off limits, just that mixing a few story ideas or twisting a trope can give you something that feels fresh. So writing a zombie story or a Harry Potter clone is probably a bit boring. But what if you mix them up and add a different setting? Harry Potter in space with zombies? I'd read that.

The process of sparking ideas can vary a lot from writer to writer. Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges are a good place to look for inspiration, especially the X meets Y type ones and the ones where you pick an image from Flickr for inspiration. Or you could do a Google image search for something like "weird weapons" or "bizarre Victorian ghosts" and go from there. There are also random story title generators and websites full of story prompts, and anthology calls are practically writing prompts in disguise, a good choice if you're aiming to submit the story (just give yourself enough time for editing).

For originality, don't go with the very first idea that comes to mind. If it's a trope, twist it a bit or add another element. What would make it original and unexpected?

Okay, see you tomorrow for the next step.

If you have any tips and tricks for coming up with story ideas, do post them in the comments.


Nov 29, 2017

Christmas Surprises

So, I've been working on a bit of a surprise for you guys. Check back on December 1st to find out what it is :) I'll give you a hint: it has to do with writing. I hope you'll like it!

Nov 28, 2017

An Ice-cold Story

The latest issue of Portti magazine is out, and my story "Kylmempi kuin jää" (Colder than ice) with it

Check out the illustrations, pretty cool, right? (Pun intended :))

Nov 21, 2017

A Letter From Santa

I just have to share this. The Finnish postal service is offering something special this year: a letter from Santa Claus. Best of all, you can order it from anywhere in the world. Here's the info from the Posti online store:

A letter from Santa Claus - What a great gift! 
Receiving a personal letter is a special occasion for any child. If the letter should come from Santa Claus himself, it will obviously be extra special. 
Santa Claus writes his letters at Santa Claus’ Post office. Each letter is sealed with a Christmas stamp and with the Arctic Circle postmark. 
With each letter, Santa Claus will enclose a certificate of niceness and a postcard to colour in. 
The letters are available in 13 different languages, so you can surprise children or friends all over the world. The letter is personalised, addressing the recipient by his/her first name. 
Place your orders to European countries by December 7th and other countries as early as December 1st. Orders to Finland can be placed by December 14th. 
The language options for the letter are Finnish, Swedish, English, German, Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian and Dutch and recently also in Portuguese and Polish!

How cool is that? This will make quite a few little ones very happy.

Oct 26, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

I took a break from baby stuff to see the new Blade Runner movie. Considering that Blade Runner is one of my all time favourites, I was a bit apprehensive about the new film, but I loved it! The movie captures the strange, dreamlike feel of the original but still feels fresh. So many movies nowadays are chock full of action and incomprehensible plot twists just for the sake of having them, no matter if they fit the story or not. This movie has An Actual Plot with Actual Complex Characters and it takes the time to tell the story, lets it breathe. There are enough nods to the original Blade Runner to keep the fans happy, but you could enjoy the film even if you haven't seen the original. And I love the fact that this is actually an independent sequel, not a remake, or a remake masquerading as a sequel (Star Wars, I'm looking at you. How many times can you blow up a Death Star anyway?).

So, great movie. Definitely go see it if you like the original. 

Oct 14, 2017

Greetings From Babyland

The coolest baby gift of all time: a Cthulhu puppet! You can stick your fingers into the tentacles and make them move. 

Yep, still alive, though it's been awhile since I had the energy to write a blog post. The Babe is finally sleeping for more than a few hours at a time, which means I'm no longer in survival mode. (You know Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs? There's a reason why sleep is one of the essentials.) We're settling into a routine and I'm trying to get an hour of writing time a day, because I'm getting that antsy feeling that happens when I go for too long without it. Apart from the constant freakouts about keeping the baby alive (Is she still breathing? She's isn't sleeping? OMG, is she sick?/She's STILL sleeping? Now she must be sick! What does whooping cough sound like? Is baby poop supposed to be green?) this stay-at-home-mom gig isn't too bad: lots of Netflix marathons and reading in addition to feeding the baby and changing diapers. 

And what about writing? Well, I didn't get much done over the summer, mostly because my focus was on the baby and I was pretty tired towards the end. I did enter a few stories in the Nova competition, but they didn't make the cut. (I'm not surprised, they weren't my best work, not original enough.) The story I wrote for the Portti competition is still in the rough draft stage, so I didn't enter this year at all. For Writers of the Future, I missed the June deadline, but I managed to edit the story I was supposed to enter then for the last quarter. Oh, and I got the certificate for the Silver Honourable Mention in the mail from a previous quarter, yay!  

The English Cosmos Pen issue  turned out really nice and came out at Worldcon, and the Varjojen lumo anthology is also out. I learned a lot from the editing process and really enjoyed participating in this project.

The online writing courses I was supposed to participate in during the summer also fell by the wayside. I was just too tired. But maybe it's better to know your limits rather than try to do too much. There will be other courses, and I can always go back and watch the lectures if I have the energy. On the other hand I participated in a one-day writing course in Tampere in the spring, and I'm happy I got to do that. 

Even if this year turns out to be a dry spell writing-wise, life's pretty great right now. Long walks in the crisp autumn air with The Babe sleeping in her stroller, a new Blade Runner movie and the new season of Stranger Things to look forwards to, and artisanal breads from the very hipster-y new bakery that opened just around the corner from where I live, what's not to love? And I'm no longer pregnant. I can have brie again. And sushi, and a gin and tonic once in a while. And Finnish salt liquorice, salmiakki. Oh salmiakki, I missed you most of all!

The blog will probably be a bit quiet, but I'll try to check in once in a while. 

Okay, The Babe is making her pooping face again, and I have to go change her. See you guys later!

Oct 13, 2017

Varjojen Lumo is Out!

The Varjojen lumo anthology, including my story "Kun nokkoset kukkivat," is out, just in time for Halloween :) I got my contributor copies a few weeks ago and I love the cover! 

If you want to check it out, the book is available here:

Aug 31, 2017

The Tiny Alien Has Landed

Yep, she's finally here! Turns out giving birth is a lot like the chestburster scene from Alien, except that when you're done they wipe off the gore and expect you to take the little critter home with you. (John Hurt could probably have used an epidural, am I right?)

Gotta go, the little one is screaming for her mothership.

The milk must flow.

Aug 22, 2017

Loot Crate: Mass Effect: Andromeda

I haven't finished playing Mass Effect: Andromeda yet, because at some point I started thinking about the wisdom of playing first person shooters while pregnant. (I guess it's fine if you don't get too immersed in the game and avoid the adrenaline rush, but where's the fun in that?) I finished the Havarl missions, so I'm somewhere around "A Trail of Hope," I think. But here's the limited edition Loot Crate, which is, like the game, not as good as the original Mass Effect, but still fun. 

So, what did I get?  

An Andromeda Initiative hoodie.

A miniature Nomad. (Which I hate almost as much as the Mako, for the record.)

Cereal bowls. These are so fun I almost wish Blast-Ohs were real. And they're plastic, so the baby can have her cereal in style by the time she's that age. (And no, she still hasn't made an appearance.)

Vortex bar glasses.

Assorted pins and patches.

And a Mass Effect comic.

Aug 19, 2017

It Can't Happen Here

But it did.

Last night a man brutally stabbed ten people in the center of Turku, killing two and sending eight to hospital. His motives are still unknown, but it appears he chose his victims at random. The investigation is still ongoing, but terrorism hasn't been ruled out.

My heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. The central market square is a place I visit regularly. This could have happened to me or any of my friends or family. I'm incredibly relieved they're safe.

When something like this happens in your home town, it gets under your skin, but that doesn't mean you should let it fester. This kind of thing is almost impossible to prevent, but we have to remember that the police stopped a terrorist attack on the Temppeliaukio church in the spring and are doing everything they can to keep us all safe.

Here are a few things about last night that make me proud to be Finnish:

First of all, the police response yesterday was very efficient: the call came at 4:02 p.m. and the police had stopped and captured the man at 4:05. You can't ask for a better response time than that. They shot the man but caught him alive (because in Finland the police shoot to stop not to kill, and even then as a last resort), which may help us understand why he did what he did and if there are ways to stop such tragedies in the future. If he's mentally ill, he'll get treatment, if he's a terrorist, he'll answer for his crimes.

Second, the authorities flat out refused to jump to the conclusion of terror attack before the matter had been thoroughly investigated, even though the manner of the attack fit and the fact that the perpetrator "appears to not be of native Finnish descent," but took immediate precautions in case it was. Our political leaders have condemned the attack and the President traveled to Turku last night to take part in a church service held to comfort people and help them grieve. The Turku University Hospital and the EMTs took the situation in hand, treating the victims and offering trauma counselling.

Third, many people risked their lives to help the victims. Swedish tourist Hassan Zubier rushed to help a woman bleeding out and got stabbed, as did Finnish entrepreneur Hasan Alazawi. A doctor stayed to perform CPR, and a woman tried to comfort the small child of the victim and helped contact the child's father. A bunch of bystanders grabbed makeshift weapons and chased the man with the knife away from the market square, screaming warnings to those in his path, probably saving many lives. It could have been much worse.

Yes, there are monsters out there. But there are heroes too.

I take comfort in that.


Aug 15, 2017

Worldcon 75

Yay, I made it through Worldcon in one piece! I'm probably the only pregnant woman ever to be totally okay with missing my due date... All in all, I'm glad I took the chance; the baby seemed happy to stay where she was and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. According to the organisers, this year's con turned out to be the second largest Worldcon ever, with 10,516 members and day passes and 7,119 people on site. 

On Wednesday the con site was very crowded and a lot of people missed the panels they wanted to attend, including me. I didn't get into the opening ceremonies or the Tea and Jeopardy podcast afterwards, but as both can be viewed/listened to online, that wasn't the end of the world. Not that much could have dampened my spirits anyway; I was just so happy that I could attend the con after being sure it would be impossible for me to go because of the baby. 

I caught a panel on fashion in science fiction, but unfortunately they had technical difficulties and didn't get much discussion in. By then I had wised up about the queues and turned up an hour early for the next panel I wanted to see: Creating Effective Dialogue with Elizabeth Bear, Nalo Hopkinson, Nina Niskanen, and Ran Zhang. Most of the things they talked about were familiar to me from writing books, but the panelists did have an interesting discussion about incorporating dialect in dialogue and also about how writing dialogue is different in different languages. Hopkinson and Bear had taught Niskanen at Clarion, and both seemed like they'd be great teachers, not scary at all. If I have a chance to attend a workshop with one of them, I definitely will. This time I didn't sign up for any workshops because I didn't want to take up a spot and then have to skip it if I started to have contractions or felt ill. I'd have liked to see a few more panels, but the ones I wanted were full, so I decided to check out the art show and the Hugo awards on display. Nice, huh?

Hugo awards through the ages.

On Thursday the organisers had limited the sale of day passes, closed down the sale of memberships, and negotiated with the venue to get a few larger rooms. It made all the difference! The first two panels I attended, In Defence of The Unlikeable Heroine and Appeal of The Bland Protagonist, were both interesting. I missed Nalo Hopkinson's GoH interview though, because I didn't want to lose my seat. (My friends later told me that there had been plenty of room, but you can't have it all.) I especially liked the unlikeable heroine panel and the way the panelists pointed out the double standard happening with unlikeable male and female protagonists. Have you noticed that most unlikeable female protags are conventionally attractive to compensate being so unlikeable? And how readers will forgive a male protagonist a multitude of sins while condemning a female protagonist for something relatively minor? (Case in point: Jaime Lannister vs. Catelyn Stark. One throws a child out the window, the other one dislikes her husband's bastard. Who do the readers turn on? You guessed it...)

I also made it to a panel on working with editors and one on military science fiction by women authors. By then it was almost five o'clock and I was so tired I went back to my hotel to rest.  

On Friday I made it to astronaut Kjell Lindgren's space medicine lecture and learned some fascinating facts, like how they have to be extra careful on the ISS about looking for things in small compartments (the CO2 builds up and makes you sick) and that all the calluses slough off the soles of the feet in zero gravity.  Can't wait to use all this stuff in a story! Turns out space medicine is mostly about prevention: they pick the healthiest candidates to go up, have them do regular exercise and eat specially designed food to keep them healthy, and take lots of test to catch any problems early. If something unexpected happens, they'd rather send the patient down to Earth than try to treat him or her on the station. 

This is how they sleep on the station. Notice the puffiness of the face caused by fluid redistribution in the absence of gravity.

Another highlight was the Military SF: Pro-War or Anti-War panel with Joe Haldeman, a living legend. I also made it to Nalo Hopkinson's GoH presentation where she read excerpts from unpublished work. Intriguing. Can't wait to read more of her work. I also checked out a panel on monsters, which was fun. 

And of course I attended the Hugo awards. Extremely cool. 

On Saturday I made it to the Legacy of Buffy panel, a lot of fun and very nostalgic. The panel was so full that not everyone got in, so I guess Buffy is still going strong. Then I went for the Finnish Weird panel and a panel where authors talked about their cats. (Yes, really.) Again, I missed out on the extremely popular world-building panel with George R. R. Martin, but was first in line for the Joe Abercrombie interview, so that turned out okay. Abercrombie is a very entertaining speaker, so definitely go see him if you get a chance.

After the interview I hooked up with my Finnish critique group for some writing talk over smoothies and then headed to my last panel, Does Familiarity Breed Contempt in Horror?, before the Masquerade. 

My husband and I had decided to skip Sunday's program earlier, and it was nice to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before catching the train home. There's one good thing about being very pregnant when attending a con: I did almost no shopping despite all the glorious steampunky goodness on display at the trade hall. The idea of having to carry anything extra around with you while dealing with backache and joint pain etc. is a good deterrent. 

All in all, a great experience. I'm definitely happy I went, even though I caught a cold somewhere along the way. (The infamous con crud, maybe?) Hopefully it'll pass before the baby decides to make an appearance. The next Worldcon is in San Jose, but it'll be held in Dublin in 2019. Here's hoping I'll get to attend that one too.