Category Archives: Writing

Stop Buying E.L. James a Yacht!

E.L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey blight) is publishing a guide for writers, and it’s all our fault.

Can we just take a moment to sit down and think, though?  Cause I need a breather before I get into this.  And maybe a stiff drink.  (I said drink, cool it!)

It’s been four hours; do I need to call someone about this?

Personally, I feel sick to my stomach and I’m not sure I even recognize reality right now.  I look at my face in the mirror, and all I see is this disgusted look of bemusement, and I can’t get my eyebrows to stop doing that thing.

Why, Universe?  Why MORE Fifty Shades of Grey buzz?  Y U DO DIS??

I’ve been upset for a while, as many of you may know, about everything even tangentially related to Fifty Shades (including, but not limited to, the loss of the phrase “it’s all just shades of grey”), but just I can’t live in the negative space necessary to be the kind of upset Fifty Shades deserves. I actually have to step away from the topic entirely to de-stress and forget, for a minute, that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more copies than the entire Harry Potter series, that E.L. James is now considered one of the highest paid authors in the world, and that she’s about to publish a guide to help other writers be [sarcasm] as talented and successful as she is[/sarcasm].

My mind is reeling from that last statement.

First I experienced Disbelief.  “Oh my god,” I said to my little dog, who was fast asleep, and also didn’t care, “E.L. James thinks she has valid advice to give.  Which, of course she does, because she’s the Messiah of Writing, now.  Have you not seen her bank money?”

Following the Stages of Grief, I experienced the briefest flare of Anger.  “This is going to ruin writing (and therefore, all life,) forever,” I thought, with no trace of hyperbole.

Then I skipped on to Acceptance, because ain’t no one got time for this, and thought “I have to share this,” because suffering is more bearable when shared.

But . . . how?

How do I share this with the people I know?  Even if they don’t think Fifty Shades is Abuse, they can at least see the objectively terrible prose for what it is.  How do I share this without feeding the negativity spiral and have us all chanting Satanic spells in the hopes one of them puts an end to this, the Darkest Timeline?

 

My Darkest Timeline survival kit.

And then I remembered the only line of thought that allowed me to fall asleep the last time I was so upset by the series; change the conversation.

Instead of calling Time of Death on quality in literature as we know it, we need stop bad literature from winning.

Now, our first instinct in this situation is to be appalled at the very notion that a writer with as little appreciable talent as James could even begin to instruct other writers in the craft.  This is considered a native instinct, up there with “fight or flight” and knowing it’s only a matter of time before Justin Bieber becomes his own religion.

 

Clearly, this has already happened.

 This serves two purposes: 1) To prove you have a brain, and 2) that it’s still working.

Working brain intact, we are right to be appalled by this news, because new, impressionable writers may look at James’ success and think “Writing sounded hard when I talked to those masochists typing on finger nubs and drinking way too much coffee.  To hell with that noise!”, and the next thing you know the stuff the internet was ashamed to show you becomes the next best sellers on all the shelves, because E.L. James is to literature what “reality” is to TV.

At least, that’s the fear.

This is, of course, ridiculous, because as long as there are writers with passion, there will be quality in literature.  The bigger (and by far, scarier) question lurking within that fear, though, is “After this, will quality writing even matter?”

I say “Yes.  But only if you make it matter.”

If you want to see quality published, you have to put effort into quality writing.  No brainer, right?

But here’s a problem.  The majority of writers seeking publication face a real uphill battle far beyond applying every trick, tip, and hard-won skill they ever paid a workshop to learn; writers are looking to craft the best, most engaging story they can manage without killing themselves (please), but publishers are looking for something they can sell.  If the two happen to coincide, so much the better, but what the writer pours into their craft often isn’t what the publisher is looking for when they turn the first page.

And that’s all before E.L. James publishes the lazy self-help version of a writer’s guide. (It has blank lined pages at the end for writers to “set down their own ideas, or ‘inner goddess'”, as all good lazy self-help books do, not because fluffing out pages, but because people interested in writing never keep paper or, say, computers around to facilitate “setting down” their ideas, so it’s really considerate of James to make sure space is provided for them, and not lazy at all.)

But, it’s not like writers have been unaware just how screwed over they are when they plight their troth with an established publisher — those authors who are successful were at least somewhat aware of the flaming hoops they’d be forced to hump in order to see their manuscript polished and shipped to bookshelves across the . . . well, county, probably — country if the publisher thought they could push it.

  
SPOILER ALERT: Publishers haven’t softened over the years.

If anything, they’ve figured out how to squeeze even more money out of every venture with the least amount of effort or risk on their part.  The writer does all the writing, and most of their own marketing, and almost all of their own promotion and public event managing until the publisher feels they’re enough of a safe bet to offer more.  If the author is really, really good at this, and makes enough money for the publisher, the author might catch some breaks for the future, and even see a cozy profit themselves.  I’m not saying they could live comfortably off that profit, but they could celebrate with a reasonably priced meal out on the town, and an off-brand bottle of champagne, if they used a coupon.

And I’m not pulling this out of my ass, either.  Search for articles around the internet designed to help writers, and once you get past the craft itself, it’s all about how to promote yourself.  Building a solid audience before you approach a publisher, for instance, illustrates to the publisher that you have the ability to market yourself (one less thing they have to worry about, then), and increases the odds your book will sell if they publish it. [relevant links attached – find them*]  That makes you a safer bet than an unknown author with no following and no internet presence.

Being an author isn’t glamorous.  Authors like J.K. Rowling are the exceptions to this publishing house sideshow, not the rule, and it’s still not without monumental effort that they succeeded.  But, her success is the fairytale we tell ourselves when we’re wallowing in writer’s block and too much mescal.  Rowling is the bedtime story we whisper before falling asleep, because picturing ourselves doing a talkshow circuit to give the breathless public insight into the mysteries of our process makes it easier to keep plugging away at the keyboard to just finish the damn manuscript.

I know, I know.  All of this sounds really depressing, which is probably because it is really depressing.

That was the conversation.  This is why we’re changing it.

Until recent years, it was both difficult and not terribly profitable to self publish — even if you did it, it could actually cost you a lot, and you were unlikely to reach much of an audience — but, thanks to glory of the internet, now it’s as easy as hitting the upload button and spamming every community you’ve ever joined until someone reads it. (It’s like success . . . .)  You could also go through outfits like Smashwords and Amazon, and get yourself free ISBN numbers, or take a more hands-on approach to make physical copies through CreateSpace, and similar, to distribute yourself.  (Pros and cons are a completely separate topic.  Stop it.)  The point is, it’s not a choice between printing in your basement, or bending over for the Rod of Publishment, anymore.
 

Pictured: Please don’t search for “rod” and “punishment” in the same keyword string.

 

We have options; we shouldn’t be afraid to use them.

If the publishers don’t want to take the risk on good prose, and you’re expected to do your own promotion, anyway, why not check out the indie scene?

But there is a second component to all of this; the reading public.  If everyone today loved War and Peace, E.L. James would have been sacrificed before Justin Bieber on the day of his birth, and writers would be rewarded for investing the time, effort, patience, and bouts of screaming insanity it takes to do what we do.  But we are not fortunate enough to live in that reality.

There is something we can do about it, though: Starve the publishers of the kind of public grateful for a series of books as thematically complex as a holiday dinner at Honey Boo-Boo’s. (Logan, shut up.)
 

Pictured: Character Development

 

The only reason publishers can get away with printing books barely edited to prevent copyright infringement is because people keep buying them.  I know you probably don’t personally know three-hundred-million people whom you can convince to not buy something, but that shouldn’t stop you from talking to those you do know.  I mean, it’s probably too late for all those grown-ups you know, all approaching thirty for the last twenty years, and watching their bodies slow down to die, but the young people can still be reached.  Teach kids to appreciate complexity, critical thinking and facing new challenges, and you’re going to have a generation of readers who aren’t looking for a book so simplistic in its execution it’s actually easier to read by repeatedly slamming it against your head.

I know this isn’t a perfect world — not everyone is going to automatically leap for Nietzsche and Dostoyevski (holy butts, I spelled both of those correctly on the first try!)–, but it’s only this far gone because we let it happen.

So, here’s the conversation: If you don’t like the idea of new writers giving in to the inner idiot we all have screaming obscenities at us, keep being better.  Stop buying idiot books written by idiots.  Discourage others from buying idiot books written by idiots.  You know how idiots get published?  The idiot public makes it profitable for idiot publishers (same thing?) to support bad prose, because it will sell better than a complex story written well by an author who cares.

—-
Adalind Monroe is a writer from a depressingly sunny part of Southern Oregon,  and hasn’t eaten since breakfast, so she’s really, really hungry now.
*I didn’t find them. 😦 I was too hungry.  I have failed you.

[seppuku][/seppuku]

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Journey to the Dark Crystal: A Writer’s Tale – Chapter 1

The internet is fairly buzzing with the news that the Jim Henson company and an imprint of Random House are looking for a new writer to pen the next book in the Dark Crystal legacy.  I may have seen the Author Quest page the day it was posted, I may have not, but it wasn’t long after starting that it was shuffled my way via Facebook.  My heart flipped a little with the excitement of what could be done, and sank with the emptiness where a story could have sat, but didn’t yet exist.  The truth is, I had fan fiction ideas for Labyrinth before I was tempted by any other material.  Maybe it was David Bowie dancing in tight pants, or the dialogue between Sarah and the four guards in the (buh-buh-buh-BUM!) Certain Death riddle (OooOooOooo!), but it resonated with me in away I could cling to more easily, I think.  However, as much as I consciously thought I loved Labyrinth more, Dark Crystal had already taken up a deeper residence in my psyche, biasing me toward the unlimited possibilities of that hazy realm between fantasy and sci fi it so effortlessly embodied.

One of the things I remember the most from my childhood and watching Dark Crystal was the Gelfling Wall of Destiny.  There was so much timelessness buried in the carvings, this knowledge that a thousand years ago the wall had been carved by hands that knew the written word, by minds that understood the importance of recording history, it impressed on me the weight of ages and the fathomless passage of time marked occasionally by moments preserved in stone and prophecy.  A monument against time and the transience of memory, a glimpse into the minds of the ancestors and a promise of what was to come, the Wall of Destiny was the single most important aspect of the Dark Crystal to me, and became the seed of everything I’ve poured into Eleasia, Prince of Darkness, and nearly every other project I’ve held most dear.

When I was old enough to really analyze what Jim Henson and Brian Froud had done with their team to develop Dark Crystal, I realized I wasn’t merely watching a good movie, I was experiencing everything behind the movie.  To be specific, I could feel the influence of that special brand of fantastical sci-fi that was held over from the 1970’s; I felt the implied history of an ageless world with more whispered of off screen than could be expressed on; and, most recently, I felt the the sense of compulsory motion behind the actions of both the urRu and the Skeksis, which intrigued me most of all.

The opulent costumes of the Skeksis spoke of an almost vulgar level of flamboyance, each trying to outdo the others, but the faded lace and frayed hems spoke of a passage of time so great that all the posturing became a matter of course, happening by rote, not passion.  They had the same arguments, the same shifting alliances repeating over and over as their pool of comrades dwindled to eight, and the dull-edged blade of madness crept into the isolation of their reality.

The urRu do not appear exempt from this decay, though their activities do seem more benign, as they made their sand paintings with an air of meditative repetition rather than guided intent, and tracked the movements of the stars, and recorded their thoughts in the fabric of their coats.

For both, life is an imitation of living, a compulsory existence of movement and action punctuated occasionally by moments of lucidity.  They have spent so much time in their separate forms that the urRu and Skeksis have essentially reached a state of entropy, where memory of their origins and the why behind their actions has decayed to a point of equilibrium against the necessity to continue acting, because anything less would be to die, and I think enough of an urSkek spark remained to keep them clinging to routine so they could one day be made whole again.

I don’t have a plot just yet, and tonight I begin the adventure of The World of Dark Crystal, but I can tell you what will guide my hand throughout the writing process; paying homage to a man who never let the limitations of what others thought could be done define what he knew was possible.  I write this for you, Jim.  Thank you for never being anything other than who you were.  You are, and always will be, my greatest hero.

I was too young when I fell in love with the Dark Crystal to have a life established enough on any course to have it changed when I was exposed to his work, so I can’t say he changed my life.  What he did impart, or rather, what I took from his work, was the essence of what would help me define the shape I would want my life to take.  Without his vision and passion available to me at the time, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today, passionate about my art, dedicated to writing more than a well-told sequence of events, and reading up every extent Dark Crystal book I could get my hands on to deepen my affinity for the vividly painted and desperately ancient world of Thra.

Yes, I am throwing my hat in the ring for the Dark Crystal’s Author Quest, and I encourage all of you to do the same, because without our adoration of this work it could not continue surviving and thriving thirty years later, and I firmly believe the world in which we let the Dark Crystal die is a hollow word of less wonder, magic, and beauty than our own.

I’m terrible about chronicling progress on anything, but this is one of those projects that sings deep inside me, like an urSkek song of surpassing beauty, sorrow, longing, and joy in need of expressing, but not entirely native to my senses, and if I can help anyone else discover the unique and earnest wonder of The Dark Crystal, and of Thra, and of Aughra, of the intrepid Gelfling, the tragic Skeksis, and the lonely urRu through my own exploration and self-discovery, then it will be all the more worthwhile in the end.  With any luck, and maybe a little less procrastination, I’ll keep you apprised of the journey I take as I become a part of the world of The Dark Crystal, and the magic of Thra.

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The Teapot

The kids didn’t come ’round anymore. No one really came ’round anymore.

The teapot looked out from the china cabinet at an empty dining room, the table and chairs long since covered in sheets to protect against the dust. Wan, yellow light occasionally spilled from between the drapes hung across the windows to the back porch. It remembered warm summer days and tea with the children, their laughter echoing through its steaming interior, dampened only slightly by the tea cozy She would wrap around it. Those were the happy days.

All too soon it seemed its adventures beyond the china cupboard became rare and infrequent, only seeing the occasional tea cup when the nurses served Her in the cool shadows of the bedroom. Eventually, even the nurses stopped bringing it out, even to keep it free of dust and ready for Her need.

The lights went out, and the furniture was shrouded. The nurses left, and the house become still.

Then the lights came back, but She was not with them. People, people it had never seen milled about the house, touching chairs, moving paintings, and rummaging through drawers. The teapot was taken from the cupboard and turned every which-way. So many hands, so many faces.

Finally, a warm pair of hands, hands it knew had touched a life-time, held it close. These hands felt right. They weren’t Her hands, but they were like Her hands.

She spoke to a man and gave him something. The teapot wore newspaper as it had worn the cozy She had knit for it before. Nestled in its newspaper bed, it dreamed. It dreamed of new children, new laughter to hold in its belly on summer afternoons. It dreamed of new teas, teas it had never before brewed. It dreamed of a new kitchen and a new Her to whom it could belong and serve faithfully.

It dreamed. And when it woke, it was upon a new shelf, with new cups and chinaware. Light poured in through open windows with sheer, airy curtains spread wide to welcome it in. It woke to the feeling of home, and a new sense of purpose.

She looked at it, and it looked at Her, and She smiled.

It was home.

—–

[AUTHOR’S NOTE]

Came across a Tweet from TheWritePractice.com — I guess it’s a month old, but I only noticed that after writing my story.  The concept is still solid and fun, so I decided to go ahead and post it, since they’re the ones who Tweeted the page again.  Anyway, it was a fifteen minute challenge to write a story from the perspective of an inanimate object.  As soon as I thought “teapot watching life from a kitchen” I had the story.

I wrote it and edited it in the fifteen minute allotted time, and once my alarm went off I made no additional changes, so this is the result of the warm-up as is.  I hope you enjoyed it.

– Adalind Monroe

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The Escape [Pt 1]

A commotion outside intruded upon the fragile order Madame Tirenn forced upon her young wards.  Several stories below, in the barren courtyard between the orphanage and the old money lender’s, came shouting and the clash of sword upon cobblestone.  For a moment Madame Tirenn attempted to keep the children in their seats, but as the sound of battle grew more heated, her own curiosity conquered her protestations, and she joined the children at the window.

Anafyn’s heart leaped.  Not an eye in the room could tear itself away from the action; all backs were to her.  She could not have asked for a better chance than this.  Thanking the gods, as breathless in mind as she felt in body, she backed away from the long row of windows captivating her peers and inched toward the door.  If the gods were truly on her side, then this room would not be the only one distracted by the clamor in the courtyard and she could make good on the escape she had planned a million times and more.  That none of her meticulous plots had involved what sounded like it must be the heart of war itself only told her she needed to be more inventive.

The room gasped and cried out in shock collectively as a shaft of ice pierced the long arm of the money lender’s L-shaped accommodations directly across the way.  Fyn lifted a brow in surprise, turned on her heel, and bolted down the corridor. A child fleeing danger should be no surprise, right?  A lone child in an orphanage having the presence of mind to run away from danger should be able to get away, shouldn’t she?

Though panic gripped her heart, it lent urgency to her flight and forced her onward and onward, faster and faster, as fast as her well-toned legs could carry her.  She had prepared for this day, training in the courtyard and anywhere else she could without being questioned for unusual exuberance, readying herself for the day when she could finally free herself from the constant fear of being “adopted” out to “nice” men who, by all rights, should have been married, but weren’t.  The whispers about what these men wanted with girls her age were enough feed a lifetime of nightmares, but she wasn’t content to hope for the best and wait for her time to come; she was a girl of action.  Speedy action.  Wheeling through the deserted halls of Gao’aine Priory action.

In her dreams, it took an eternity to reach the Priory’s entrance where her new life waited to be claimed, and for some reason reality had decided to play by the rules of her dream lands.  What she knew had to only be two minutes stretched out before her with a timelessness that spoke of eternities unrealized, which gasped and gaped at her heels.  She whimpered at the thought, tears springing to her eyes as she finally lay eyes upon her prize.  If she could just reach the doors, she could be free!

Spurred on with the desperate hope that no obstacle now defeat her, she pushed herself into a savage sprint down the Priory’s longest hall.

The doors exploded before her without resistance when she crashed through them at full force, but as the blinding light of day robbed her of sight, something else robbed her of momentum.  She should have flown down the Priory steps and into the street.  Instead, she collided with something solid enough to knock the air from her lungs.  Before tear-slicked eyes could blink themselves right, she felt two strong arms wrap themselves around her, and before her feet left the ground, she found the breath to give voice to the scream of the damned.

[To be continued . . . ]

—–

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Welcome back!  The best motivation to get me writing again was hating that the last thing I put up was fanfic.  No matter how well received, that’s not what I want to be known for.  I want to be known for the above (but only if you like it).  Well, okay, even if you don’t, because at least then if you don’t like it you really don’t like what I love to write, and that’s valid.

Someday I may edit this further, but I doubt it.  Enjoy it for what it is, and welcome back to Flash Fiction Friday and my new layout!  I even have pages up there to such things as my short stories and where you can download them, and a compilation of all the Flash Fiction I have and will post on the blog for easy access.  And rules!  For Flash Fiction submission so I don’t have to keep adding it down here!  (In case you’re wondering: E-mail me your stories if you have them at CaffeinatedInspiration [at] gmail [dot] com, subject FLASH FICTION <Story Title>.  1000 words or less.  Go check the specs and get back to me.)

Also, in the mean time, I published my second short story, The Last Tower.  You might like it.  You know, if you’re a fan of the human condition and have any kind of soul.  It’s a short glimpse of the end of the world.  You know, the kind of thing everyone can connect with on every level.  Trust me, this is bedtime story material.  I would know, I dreamed it.

Speaking of dreaming, I need a nap before I head out to piano and the best Not-My-Birthday dinner ever with a woman who will absolutely end my life if I fall asleep before or during then, but after now.  (It’s her violence that keeps our love fresh and exciting.  You should try it.)

So, I hope you enjoyed the flash, and I hope you hate me for ending it on a cliffhanger.  I really, passionately hope you want to strangle me to within an inch of my life, and only that far because actually killing me would mean you never find out what happens next.  But I want you to hold on to that anger and let it simmer.  That’s it.  Stew in it and tell me all the horrible things you would do if I didn’t hold the conclusion in my wicked little brain.  That’s what the comment box is for, so have at it!  I’ll sleep easy knowing you’re out there, waiting for me.  Gosh I love you guys.

G’night everybody!

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Consequences

Whose child was this anyway?  She had been given nothing but sass and disrespect from the girl from the moment they met.  Unprovoked harassment from the snot-nosed little brat greeted any and all who entered the child’s radius, and she had reached the breaking point.  After losing Vorstag to what she could only call pretentiousness and jealousy, and learning the truth about Farkas and the Companions’ inner Circle, she had taken all she

Please shut up.

could possibly take.

“I’ll fight anyone,” she heard the child say.  “I don’t care if they are my elders!”

She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.

With a cry of pain and surprise, the child reeled away from her fist.  She knew it was wrong, but it was so very satisfying to give the girl a mighty wallop.  The vendors in the market square gasped and called or help as the sobbing child fled in terror.  Within seconds she was surrounded by city guards and disenfranchised soldiers looking for any excuse to fight and win the Jarl’s favor.  There would be no call for surrender this time, only blood.

In a flash she was armed, the air singing like a malachite bell as her elven axe-blade sailed through; one soldier of fortune off to Sovngarde.

Lydia, loyal housecarl and dearest friend, jumped into the fray without hesitation and drew several guards away from her.  Together they would go down in a blaze of infamy and disgrace with the name of the last Dragonborn staining the proud history of Whiterun and Skyrim forever; a fittingly ignoble way to die.

Two guards fell by her blade, their blood mixing with the first drops of rain falling from a bleak and hopeless sky.  But, quick as she was, strong as she was, alive as she was, she was not without injury.  Though Lydia was holding up far better than she, there was no way they could reach the city gates alive.  Spinning on the spot, she found a guard at her back and struck out.  She didn’t see the fourth approach, or feel the blade slip through a gap beneath her cuirass, but knew her luck had run out when her body crumpled to the ground in a useless heap.

The last thing she saw as the world began to fade, was Lydia valiantly and vainly fending off yet more city guardsmen as they swarmed the market square.

Goodbye, my friend . . . .

She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.

“Did you hear me?”  The child’s voice was grating, but a smile began to spread across her lips as the knot in her belly slowly unwound itself from the stone of anger that had been growing.  Without another word, she turned away from the little snipe and looked to Lydia.

“Your smile concerns me,” Lydia said, shifting uncomfortably.

She continued to smile her disconcertingly pleasant smile, and headed back home for a nice hot meal and sleep in a real bed.  Perhaps she would next imagine Vorstag’s face before being eaten by a dragon.  Yes, Vorstag eaten by a dragon, now that would bring true bliss.

——–

AUTHOR THINGS:

Another Skyrim short!  Hurrah!

Mumble mumble something about Flash Fiction Friday.  Let me know if you have a short you’d like to see featured on Friday and we’ll work something out maybe.  It’ll be great!

I am so darn sleephungry right now, it’s not even cool.  I’m going to drink some coffee and sleep for fifteen minutes and trick my body into welcoming awakeness and then do more writerly things, probably.  Also food.  If the ol’ brain kicks in, that is.  And eating.

If you haven’t taken the time to download and love “Don’t Let Her In“, then no worries!  It’s still FREE!  Go get you some, girl!

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Is It “Inspired by” or “Fan Fiction of”?

Photo by Mattox

The pen is only mightier than the sword if the sword is made out of papier-mâché.

It’s no secret I play Skyrim now.  Since buying the game it’s been a regular part of my life,

to the point that some of my dreams have been very Skyrimmy, both in terms of content and perspective.  As I addressed in my post about Skyrim’s surprisingly complex politics, I am THAT gamer.  I’m the gamer who reads all the in-game books and weighs the options carefully before ever choosing a side.  I’m the gamer that initially turned down a quest because it required my character to beat up someone she had just helped, and that made me feel bad.  I’m the gamer who stopped hunting because the sounds of elk dying made me sad.  So it should come as no surprise that I would also be the gamer who spontaneously writes flash fiction based on the imagined reactions of her characters to everything that happens.

Currently I have five official Skyrim shorts, and one short I can say was inspired by it, but this separation between being “inspired by” and “fan fiction of” got me thinking:  What really defines the difference between the two?

Before the emergence of Fifty Shades of Grey, I noticed less scrutiny given to where a writer would pull their inspiration as long as enough details were changed that it could be called an independent story.  Since it could be said that Fifty Shades follows this model, though, I’ve noticed an upswing in readiness to dismiss something as being “fan fiction” based on the source of inspiration, rather than the content or purpose of the prose.

I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I’d never felt compelled to write fan fiction, that my worlds and characters were all my own, so when I took an event in Skyrim and twiddled it around to fit Eleasia, there was a part of me that shuffled around in shame.  In the back of my mind was this tiny voice that said “Fifty Shades of Grey, dude,” (my inner voice is a surfer) and despite telling it to gtfo and shoot the curl, I couldn’t entirely shake it.  If I said nothing, no one would know and my story would stand on its own merit, but if I said “This was inspired by Skyrim,” I worried that it would suddenly be perceived as little better than fan fiction, and when I can’t bring myself to like fan fiction in general, it’s not something I would ever want associated with my serious work.

It wasn’t until I sheepishly, and self-deprecatingly said I had “Fifty Shaded” something from Skyrim, and then proceeded to defend the prose, that I really saw the biggest differences between the two.

To start, the most obvious indicators of fan fiction would be the use of canonical settings (Hogwarts, Middle-Earth, Tamriel, Terre D’Ange, the Death Star, the USS Enterprise, etc.)  Within these settings are often canonical characters, but they may not be the focus, as often the use of fan fiction is to allow the writer to feel like they’re a part of their favorite settings, so they create an OC (original character), and this is your basic Mary Sue.  The writer, and by extension the reader, can step into the character-vessel and ride them around the  narrative, which is usually something that comes off as being self serving and lacks dimension and depth in order to feed something in the fan.

But what if you change the names of the characters and locations, add in some original characters, and come up with your own plot for them to follow?  What might prevent it from stepping fully outside the stigma of fan fiction?  My answer would be the writer’s intent.  If a writer changes these elements but continues to write as if the characters are the same as they were in the original source, it’s still just fan fiction in the end.  It’s still an outlet for the writer to pretend they’re having adventures with their favorite characters, which is often (though not exclusively) the drive behind writing them in the first place.  It’s the literary equivalent of watching a Steven Segal movie:  No matter what his character’s name is or what the plot tries to tell you, he’s still just Steven Segal punching stuntmen in the face.

How can you determine how much of your inspiration is inspiration?  Well, what have you been inspired to write?  Can it be boiled down to a theme?  If it’s a scene, what could you say is the simplest motivation behind it?  If you can say “It deals with the struggles of overcoming emotional apathy and learning how to share inter-personal bonds,” or “It addresses the complications that can accompany mental illness” then okay, you’ve got valid inspiration.  If your answer sounds more like “I didn’t like that Legolas never had a girlfriend,” or “Harry Potter, but with schizophrenia” then you’re still trapped by the shadow of fan fic.  And really terrible fan fic, at that.

Most writers, I think, are not in danger of crossing into making lazy variations on established works, but that doesn’t stop some of us from wondering or worrying that a source here and there might have too much influence.  As long as you can identify the underlying theme and use it to tell your story, you shouldn’t be in any danger of letting the source of your inspiration become the only thing people see.

If you want to know what Skyrim inspiration looks like, go back and read The Retriever’s Body from Friday.  For contrast, here’s some unapologetic Skyrim fan fic.  You’ll love both.

—–

Ultimatum

She agreed to meet Farkas at Dustman’s Cairn, but whens she turned to inform Vorstag of their change of plans, he had vanished.  She searched the city, such as she could, until continued searching would mean delaying her meeting with the Companion.  Concerned, disheartened, and a little apprehensive, she left Whiterun.

With Artax saddled and ready, she headed down the main road to the West, thoughts of Vorstag lingering in her mind.  It was therefor, with no small amount of irritation, she instantly identified the lazy gait of the mercenary as he sauntered through the spreading evening gloom.

That idiot!  She thought venomously, spurring Artax to intercept him.  She dismounted to the jingling chorus of her elven armor, an acerbic quip at the ready as she confronted him about leaving so abruptly.

“I’d happily fight at your side,” he said, his pace hardly slowing, “but it looks like you’ve already got a companion.  Get rid of him, and I’ll gladly rejoin you.”  He turned from her and continued down the road, she knew, toward Markarth; his home.  Not once did he look back.  Not once did his step falter.

She was stunned.  Her heart raced, and it ached.  Her mind swirled in silent chaos as she watched the light of his torch bob into the distance until it disappeared around a bend, and once again all was night.

An ultimatum.  The thought echoed through her mind again and again.  An ultimatum.  How dare he issue an ultimatum!  He had no right!  He —A dull throbbing in her chest emphasized the hollowness growing inside her.  The thick steel walls she had felt so easily melting away while sharing his company began to rebuild themselves around her heart.  As she stared into the night, her jaw slowly set and her resolve da

rkened.

And so, let him leave.  The arrogant beast can go back to his inn and live out his days as the unscrupulous sell-sword he was when I found him!

I don’t need him.

The thought was a hiss that burned her, cauterizing the ragged, bleeding edges of her trust.

She didn’t need him.  She would never need him.
—–

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind is an international literary sensation who believes men over 6’4″ are actually just midgets in a man suit, no matter how convincing their totally sweet spin kicks are.

For more of her completely non-derivative writing, check out “Don’t Let Her In“, the weird fiction tale about a quiet hamlet in Eastern Europe consumed by an ancient evil.  “Pitch-perfect with elegant language and ‘missing pieces’ that drew me in and kept me thinking about it afterwards.” – John Fiore.

—–

He had dreamed over and over again of rushing toward some great precipice, over which he knew he must fall, but every time he approached the edge he was sent back to find it again. He wondered if that’s what the others had dreamed when they Faded, only nothing had stopped them from falling.”  –  The Last Tower, available on Smashwords in September!

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Here’s a Question: How Perfect is “Too Perfect” for Characters or Races in Fiction?

I don’t recommend using this method for writing your fiction, but I can’t really stop you, you rebel.

I tried asking this just earlier today, and was very nearly stoned to death by another writer who felt that the question was so old and over-asked that the answer should be part of the automatic mindset a writer gets the first time they decide to write, like a new writer benefits package complete with FAQ and club pin, but if it’s really asked often enough to be an “old meme”, as they put it, then doesn’t that mean there are people who still want to know? There are always new writers, new reasons to ask the same questions, and I don’t think it’s very fair to slam the book on a topic simply because you, as an individual, have found the answer that works for you.

It’s obvious,” they said. “Give them flaws.” But is it really that obvious? For some of you, you might be nodding your head yes, and saying “Of course it’s that obvious,” but we’d never be in danger of encountering Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Paragons if it was really that obvious to everyone.

A Mary Sue/Gary Stu, for those who may not know, is defined as a character lacking flaws that give dimension and credibility, and is frequently a paper-thin “wish-fulfillment” character for the author, allowing them to imagine that they are the ones having these adventures. When you see the term, it’s most often because you’re reading about fan fiction, but this doesn’t mean it hasn’t appeared in traditionally published fiction, either. Bella Swan, for instance, from the supremely popular Twilight Saga (as if you needed the reminder), could be called a Mary Sue. Though we’re not given specific details about her appearance, we are led to believe she’s both beautiful and popular, but for no obvious reason. She doesn’t participate in any meaningful school activities, but remains the center of attention at school so long as it serves the author’s interest, which is usually until Edward shows up, or is mentioned, or thought about, or missing. But this isn’t about my opinion of Stephanie Meyer and her Frankenstein’s Monster of a series, it’s about characterization! (And she has none! ZING!)*

Pictured: Character depth.

Now, Mary Sue and Gary Stu are the two-dimensional trope extremes of flawless fictional characters, and sometimes they can be easily avoided by adding a simple flaw here and there, but what if you’re writing a legendary hero in an epic fantasy? Say, Heracles. (Go on, say it. “HerAAAAACKles.” It’s fun, right?) Good. Now that we’ve got that out of our systems, our new story revolves around a Greek character named Heracles. He is the son of the king of the gods, but also half human! Is this a flaw? Well, that all depends on how you treat him. If his being half human diminishes his strength, allows him to be killed like any mortal, denies him the ability to ascend to Olympus, or lack all the rhythm it takes to win the ladies through the power of dance, then yes; you have yourself a successful flaw. If, however, being half human just means he’s not a god, but really he’s mostly a god, then you don’t have a flaw at all. What you have is a Paragon.

A Paragon is a peerless example of perfection, and when it comes to writing characters, a Paragon is often a two-dimensional protagonist who can never be defeated. No, not even by the evil Dark Lord of Evil, who has also never been defeated. When it’s obvious the Paragon will always win, there’s no reason to believe there’s any risk involved in the adventure. This is a problem when you want the reader to feel the tension when you give your protagonist obstacles to overcome. Paragons don’t struggle with obstacles, they explode through them and smell fantastic and don’t need to change their clothes ever, because they never get dirty or sweat. That might be great if you’re living in a romance novel where making naughty after a battle would be kinda gross if the protagonist wasn’t a Need No Shower kind of guy, but most of us aren’t romance ingenues, so, in my opinion this is a problem, because it disengages the reader from the character they should care for the most.

But what if we’re not talking about a single character as being flawless. What if we’re talking about an entire race of Paragons? What if we’re talking about . . . elves? Ooooo, mystical, shiny, immortal elves! Well, let’s rewind a bit here. Odds are we’re not talking about the kind of elves that can be described as “wee folk”, who mess about at night making shoes and cookies. We’re probably talking about Tolkienian styled elves, and that’s a problem, too. Tolkien’s elves were far from perfect. On the surface, in The Lord of the Rings specifically, it can appear that the elves embody a kind of perfection. They are immortal, beautiful, magical, in tune with nature, highly skilled warriors, healers, and mediators, but beneath that, many of them suffer from blinding pride. You need look no further than The Silmarillion for proof of the dangers this elven pride can produce.

In many instances Tolkien illustrated that anyone can become corrupted, no matter how innocent or impervious they may seem, from Frodo to Galadriel, yet in modern interpretations of the tall, beautiful, immortal elves what we see are facsimiles painted in perfection. These elves are the upholders of all that is good and moral (according to the author’s perspective), they are the stewards of nature, and they represent the highest moral judgment, all while being beautiful and ageless as everyone and everything else around them is flawed and probably horribly disfigured. Tolkien’s elves live on in our collective memory because of their depth, but when taken as a blank template, they lack any of the elements that make them worth remembering.

I think this quest for depth is what people are trying to address when they ask about perfection. They’re not looking for a chorus of “There’s no such thing as perfection,” a phrase that can mean “so just write whatever you want, and hang the opinions of everyone else”, or it can mean “so no one will believe it if you write it”. Either way, it’s one of the least helpful phrases I can think to offer in response to any question about the subject. I think one of the things we’re really asking here is “How close to ‘perfection’ can I write a character or race before the reader stops connecting with them?” and I think part of the answer comes down to both defining what “perfect” means to us as individuals (part of the “there is no perfection/utopia because no one can agree” argument) and defining what we consider to be the plausible flaws that bring a character or race away from the brink of perfection. It doesn’t have to be a huge flaw like “was blinded six weeks ago and is struggling to cope”, it doesn’t have to create a Damaged Character like “witnessed the death of parents and became obsessed with bats and vigilantism” , it just has to be believable for the character in their situation, like “extreme aversion to the color yellow, which happens to be the favorite color of the love interest”.

For me, a character expressing the idea of “perfection” is one that is no longer in need of personal growth. They are at the apex of development, and have no room for improvement. Where a Mary Sue or Gary Stu lacks flaws, the “perfect” character, the Paragon, lacks the ability to change. Regardless in what manner change would manifest, the absence of change makes a flat, boring, and sometimes very annoying character. What we want to see when we follow a character’s journey is growth. We want to see them change over time, to be effected by the events and people around them. Frodo’s shift from the happy homebody Hobbit of the Shire to the haunted soul who sails away with elves to Valinor. Luke Skywalker’s change from the naïve young mechanic on Tatooine to the self-assured Last of the Jedi, capable of putting a stop to his father and the Emperor. Rand al’Thor’s descent into madness via unrelenting harassment from shrewish women on all sides. This is what we want to see! Well, maybe not the last one so much. But what we don’t want to see is Heracles sweeping peril from his doorstep with a yawn before sitting down to a nice cup of ambrosia. We don’t want to see the Doctor and his companions walk away unscathed every time something threatens all life on Earth. We don’t want to see Dr. House show up to work with a smile and a bounce in his step, tenderly see to the patient and their family, and solve every mystery with sensitivity and as little conflict as possible before he skips home, whistling, to spend a happy, but uneventful evening with his family. That’s just not House, and love him or hate him, he’s memorable because of all his flaws.

So go ahead and make a character people hate, but make them hate him/her for their flaws and not the lack thereof.

—–

*Example of personal opinion. No looking to start a fight between Twilight supporters and non-supporters, so focus on the topic, not the zing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is a wildly successful novelist in her head, trying to get the world to catch up by producing quality blog posts and unbelievable feats of fictional daring do. She enjoys Chinese food and short walks on the beach. Actually, she prefers sitting on the beach; the sand is too hot for her sensitive baby feet.

Don't Let Her In (Cover)

If you enjoy her writing and want to experience the magic that is character growth in action, download “Don’t Let Her In”, a weird fiction tale that will chill the willies right out of you and replace them with more different willies. Worse willies. The williest of willies. Also, it’s free, damn you. FREE!

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Why Do We Read?

Pictured: An avid reader.

Maybe the first question I should ask is “Why do we stop reading?”

There’s a problem here. Do you see it? Here, I’ll help you find it: When you stop reading, you don’t SOLVE problems, you CREATE problems, problems you can’t even see coming, because you’ve put on blinders to keep out all the other voices, voices that could teach you things, voices that tell you what to avoid. And yet, this is a thing that many writers have done. Do you see how this might be a problem for you? No? Then how about this: As a writer, when you decide to stop reading, it’s like thinking you’ve figured out the key to never having body odor again is to stop showering.

Take me, for instance. No, I didn’t stop showering.  But, I know I’m not the only writer to have stopped reading the work of others in an attempt to keep the ol’ brain pallet clean of outside influences. The problem with that, however, is that the avid reader I was when I was a child, the reader who couldn’t put down a pencil and stop writing to save her life (despite also not being able to finish any story she started writing), became a shriveled up old hermit lady grumbling in some forgotten recess of my mind while the writer in me starved. The world builder and imaginist thrived well enough, but in the years I wasn’t reading (yes, years), I also wasn’t being very productive, either.

It seems to me that for some reason we think it’s okay for an artist to be influenced by other artists, to have artists producing similar work considered to be part of a movement, but when speaking of writers doing the same, we’re either derivative or “the next <famous author of the same genre>”. Yet H.P. Lovecraft quite openly borrowed from his peers, writing what he called his “Poe pieces” and his “Dunsany pieces” (better known as his Macabre stories [approximately 1905–1920], and his Dream Cycle stories [approximately 1920–1927] respectively). Though he perhaps perfected his unique voice when telling the stories in his Cthulhu Mythos (approximately 1925—1935), it was not for this decade alone that he’s remembered as being one of the greats, or as having a distinctly unique way of telling stories. So why are we so afraid of the influence other writers might have over our work?

Photo courtesy of MiiraT

Pictured: Derivative work.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and influence all you writing by making you emulate my own!”

Because we’re afraid of that blasphemous term “derivative”. Some of us don’t want to hear that a reader is reminded of Harry Potter, or of Issac Asimov, or of The Last Unicorn, but we don’t really have any control over what a reader’s exposure and experience will impose on the writing once it’s left the carefully crafted shelter of our minds, and limiting our own exposure to these sources only ensures that we’ll be completely incapable of identifying them, and thus incapable of removing or modifying them to avoid the inevitable comparisons.

Writer, teacher, and editor Lori L. Lake once wrote about two aspiring writers she had in a creative writing course who came in with a partially written fantasy story each. During a critique session where the class read sections of each writers’ work, it was expressed that they found their work was “derivative, repetitive, boring, and that it had already been done, re-done, and over-done.” They were crushed by what was news to them. These two aspiring writers had no clue they’d told stories as old as storytelling itself, as neither had read, nor had any exposure to fantasy stories prior to their own forays into the genre. “They spent a lot of time imagining worlds with evil dark lords,” Ms. Lake wrote, “and creating characters who may as well have been Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.” But, when you spend no time acquainting yourself with what already exists, this is exactly the sort of obstacle you face.

But what if you just don’t have the time to read? What if you’re a busy playwright with three murder mysteries on the line, and a three hour tragedy in the works and you can barely find the time to work on those, let alone find time to read someone else’s stuff! To this imaginary and not at all real person I spoke to last night about this very thing, I think Mr. Stephen King has something to say to you.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Yes, that was a smack down from one of the masters of modern horror. If you don’t have time to read,

Pictured: Writer tools.

you don’t have time to write. The same five minutes you snatch here and there to scribble on your note pad could be given occasionally to reading a few pages of a book. It’s harder to write while you eat lunch than it is to read, and that right there is pretty compelling as far as arguments go.

But what about these “tools”? Well, our tools are words, aren’t they? When an artist wants to improve their craft, they study the masters. When a writer wants to improve their craft, they read.

Consider this the next time you’re thinking about not opening a book: How, exactly, do you know what a well written story looks like if you’ve stopped exposing yourself to them? It’s easy to decide that most of the books published these days are rubbish, but do you even know why you think that? Have you sat down to really look at what you dislike? Is it the way the characters are written? The sentence length? The sentence structure? How can you avoid the things you hate reading if you aren’t sure what they are? You need to be a critical reader.

A critical reader is one who can analyze the prose in a way that opens up opportunities to learn new methods that might improve their own writing, and methods they might prefer to keep away from entirely. The successful writer is a critical reader. See, it’s not all about reading your favorite authors and saying “Golly gee, if I just use more metaphors about clouds, I’ll be a better writer!” Sometimes it’s about picking up a book by someone you can’t stand and pin-pointing all the little things that make them so difficult to enjoy. It’s not enough to say you hate the short protagonist, though; you have to really take a hard look at what you’re writing and ask yourself if you’ve been doing the same thing, and then correcting it.

In addition to asking yourself what a writer has done that you really enjoyed and practicing those methods, there are a couple of exercises that can help you grow both in your craft and as a critical reader. The first is to take a passage from an author you like and rewrite it with a new focus. Keep true to the events and plot, but change what is meaningful to the reader. The second exercise is to take a passage from an author you dislike and change it into something you wish they’d written. Personally, I think the second exercise is the more helpful, as it forces you to really focus on the methods the original author used to convey the ideas first, and then apply what you think to be better, all the while trying to consciously avoid what you disliked in the first place.

There’s a particular Australian fantasy author whom I personally cannot read. We’ll call her “Terrible”. I made it about six pages into Terrible’s first book in a series before I had to stop myself from setting it on fire. Now, Terrible hadn’t been doing well for herself at any point in those six pages, so she was already on literary probation, but when she used the word “doomed” in three consecutive paragraphs to convey the exact same concept with little to no variation, I threw the book across the room. What did I learn? Other than the fact that Australia needs more writers to challenge her and paperbacks have far too much wind resistance, I learned that repetition without variation infuriates me, and that I think Terrible stole the manuscript from an exceptionally talented five year old before slapping her own name on it.  I learned that the opposite of prose I enjoy is the sort that reuses words that really stand out at the same time it picks words that stand out, and reuses them.

By contrast, two of my favorite authors taught me not only that I can love a story written in first person, but one of them also reminded me that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination, and that it’s okay to take your time getting there.

Pictured: Not winning.

Writers have a responsibility to themselves and to the readers they hope to garner to always keep perfecting their craft. You’ll hear time and again from various sources that there are no new stories, that every story there is to tell has already been told a million times. That sentiment isn’t wrong. When you choose not to educate yourself on the methods used for telling that age old story, you shoot yourself in the foot before you even join the race. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to run a race with a shot-through foot, but winning is pretty difficult.  Mostly you end up passed out on the ground from blood loss just a few yards away from the starting line. Professional athletes call this a “disadvantage”. You put yourself at a similar disadvantage when you decide that reading is only going to distract you, or influence your style beyond your control. I argue that not reading limits your resources, inspiration, and that very same control you think you have in spades, but have diminished through ignorance.

So go on and read already!  What are you waiting for?!

—–

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is an uppity little kick in the pants with a heart of gold who only wants to help you get a jump start on reading to expand your horizons by offering her Lovecraftian short “Don’t Let Her In” for FREE.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

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Crap, I Need a Topic: Timeline Software (Or Why I’m Going Old School)

Google Image “Conspiracy Wall”. It’s like that, but with made up politics. Well . . . MORE made up politics. Here’s a bunny.

It really shouldn’t be this difficult.  Are we as writers really asking so much of software makers?  I mean, I really don’t know, because I don’t know how to code anything, but why is it we can’t just have reasonably priced software that allows us to create our own calendars, complete with freaky names for our months, odd numbers of days within them, not twelve in a year, and then organize plot events based on that unique information?

Not so many hours ago, I was working on Eleasia, taking advantage of the creative burst that can come from conquering an existential plot crisis that only thirteen years of world building can help create, when I felt the dawning of a new desire coupled with a new obstacle; timelining.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had the desire or need for such a mythical program, but it is something of a driving need this time around.  Unlike previous occasions, where it would be more convenience than anything else to be able to input my own months, days, and years to each point, this occasion comes wrapped up in the recognition that having so many events over an extreme length of time leaves me somewhat unsure of where my true beginning can be found.  I have beginnings I’ve always considered, but now I have new information to subtly weave into the fabric of the world to build an even tighter foundation than that which already exists, and while I’ve always planned to make each set of books accessible in a way that doesn’t demand that you read them in the order they’ve been released, to those loyal fans who would follow from the outset I would like not to leap so far back in time as to offer events that would, on the surface, seem completely irrelevant.  That is exactly what I think I might end up doing, however, without a visual timeline to play with.

There are always options out there, but most of them require a bit of compromise in order to enjoy, and I feel just crabby enough to not want to offer compromise for anything.  Dammit, I want the software in my brain to exist on my computer, and I want it now and better than I could possibly imagine!  Ideally, I would turn to my laptop, plug in my writing buddy Eloise (a flash drive), and open up some magical bit of software designed just for this occasion, and start injecting plot point and events as they occur to me, but, since I can’t have that, I’m resorting to a good old fashioned, low-tech solution: 3×5 note cards taped to my wall.  That’s right.  You either give me exactly what I want, or I’ll go out of my way to do things with what is quite probably an unnecessary level of effort on my part, which actually does nothing to inconvenience you at all.  That’ll show you!

You see, it isn’t enough to just know that things happen in a certain order (i.e. Gods are created > Eleasia created > Delinithiri created > Other races created > Seleäna does stuff > BLoT gets mad > Future things happen > The Present).  No, no, I set out from almost the very beginning with a specific plan in mind, and it was always meant to be something more complicated than most sane people would ever willingly allow themselves to attempt.  Building off of Jordan’s model, which shows how lives that follow divergent paths can all contribute to the same end, I decided to not only do the same thing better, but to set up concurrent life paths that intersect each other as they would in reality.  Of course this means I need to know enough about what will happen for a particular set of characters far enough in advance that anything I set up with other characters who may cross their paths doesn’t disrupt the necessary sequence of events to come.  Since I can’t use the convenience of software and computering to save space, though, this means that after I paper my wall with note cards and events, I get to dress them up with bits of colored yarn and rainbow thumbtacks like a crazy person looking for a conspiracy in their own high fantasy ramblings.  (“But I just know that given the opportunity, the King of Anovah would have poisoned the HELL out of the ambassador to Alegonfar just to start the War of Flames, regardless of what the historians say.  I never believed Sethrah was innocent!  There was a second mage on the knoll!”)

But now I have to wait, because I don’t even have note cards on hand to start building  my timeline wallpaper.  I think I’ll go play Sims Medieval and see if I can’t add to Seleäna’s story while I’m at it.

*EDIT*  I have the cards, but they’re not on the wall yet.  That is all.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Yeah, I saw that preposition, and I said “Meh.  Let it hang out at the end of that sentence.  I need coffee.” (07/10/12)

This post brought to you by The Past, when it was written.

Just a friendly reminder:  If you haven’t purchased a copy of “Don’t Let Her In” yet, now is the time to do so!  Until this Thursday (08/02/12) you can download “Don’t Let Her In” for absolutely FREE!  That is 100% less than it usually costs!  Just enter promo-code “SA36R” into the coupon field when downloading to pay absolutely none of the pennies in your piggy bank!  Declamatory statement of excitement here!!

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Flash Fiction: The Novel

French in action? Or another lie. (Spoiler: It’s another lie.)

La petite nouvelle the French call it. Actually, they don’t. They don’t call it that at all, I just lied to you because it sounded nice. They really call it micronouvelle, and it is what most of us know as flash fiction.

But what IS flash fiction, you ask? That’s a tricky question to answer with any specificity. There are those who would say that flash fiction is any story told in no more than seventy-five words, and some might call them Nazis for it (Me, specifically. I would.), but most can generally agree that limits ranging from five hundred to one thousand words are at least popular enough to sound like the new standard. Personally, I stick to a limit of five hundred words, because I feel that extending it to a thousand may as well open the door to a full-on short story, and nobody asked for that, so keep it in your . . . brain. Guy.

As this is my blog and we’re asking me what I think on the matter, I’m going to tell you my reason for this opinion briefly. Most of it comes down to the belief that in a piece of flash you are looking at one moment in time, and not the history behind it or the consequences that follow. You, as the author, may have ideas about how events transpired, what brought the characters to where they are, and where they might go when the moment ends, but that’s not for the words written to tell.

“If my ideas don’t fit in five hundred words, though, why should I bother with flash?”

I hear you, dude speaking out of turn, and I have an answer conveniently prepared ahead of time for this very occasion. The answer is, in my opinion, because it’s easy to meander around a novel-length story until you find what you need. It’s easy to embellish a scene with more ambiance and dialogue, and to pad out the length with exposition, but this can lead to that dreaded of all quagmires; the Infodump. When you’re required to think in the briefest of terms, to convey thoughts, emotions, and/or actions in the space it usually takes your character, the professor, to give his class (and the reader) the introduction to a primer on the history of the world, you force yourself to figure out the most conservative way to keep the reader informed without losing the story for it.

“Yeah, but I still don’t–”

Don’t be obtuse, and please raise your hand. The reason it’s important to learn how to do this in flash fiction, and short stories in general, is because it has immediate benefits to your writing in other mediums. When you train yourself to pack a sentence full of information without making it the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, you spend less time digressing from the plot and action and more time keeping your reader on the edge of their seat.

To put it in edible terms, a flash piece is a lean slab of beef with all the fat trimmed off, and then more beef trimmed off so you can eat it in one bite. Which, come to think of it, would be a really bad theme for a restaurant, especially if it meant they offered you the flash fiction version of a steak dinner. But, it works really well in trying to decide what you keep in your micronouvelle.

Yes, you there. I see you raising your hand, and that’s great. Go on then, what is it?

“How do I decide what to keep? Or, for that matter, what to write?”

To be fair, that’s two questions.  I was kind of expecting only one, but I can answer both of them together, so you didn’t throw me off too much.

Deciding what you keep depends entirely on what you choose to write. If, for instance, your story is about an apple being eaten, you wouldn’t spend your precious words telling us how it came to be in a position to be eaten. Alternately, if your story is about a man’s quest for food, you might not focus on the actual eating of the apple. When I sit down to write a shorter piece, I usually focus on what I think of as “crystallizing an atmosphere”. This is to say that I decide what I want the reader to feel, and then I craft a story to capture that feeling, emotion, or mood, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that end has no place.

Now, I’ve been chided before for expressing the opinion “if it doesn’t do X, it has no business existing”, but where X could be foreshadowing or establishing patterns of behavior/objects that will later be of relevance, to me it also means anything communicating something meaningful to the reader that relates to the content of the narrative. This could be as simple as a man eating a crayon, provided (and here’s where the kicker lies:) illustrating it benefits the narrative. In the context of short stories and flash fiction, though, this is all the more inflexible as you don’t have the space-luxury (on the page, not in outer– you know what I mean) to paint a picture in both broad strokes and fine detail. You pick one, and stick with it.

There you are again with the hand.

“How do YOU write flash pieces?”

Oh! How sweet of you to ask! I shall tell you in list form.

    1. Pick an Atmosphere

It’s hard to know what kinds of words I’m going to need, or what I’m going to find most inspiring if I don’t have a mood in mind. A single prompt can become any number of stories when envisioned through different emotional filters, so I find picking that mood first makes it easier to jump into the actual writing when it comes time for it.

    1. Pick a Prompt

For me it can be all too easy to fall prey to fancy when you have no true aim at the start of your flash fiction exercise. Your brain wanders, your eyes wander, your pen wobbles and taps against the page, and you’re not really sure what you want to write, so you bounce around ideas, and in the process might come up with something with more possibility than the restrictions of flash would allow. Because of this, I like finding a definitive seed around which the story can grow, like a pearl, because normal seeds are the things that grow, and that’s not what I said the story seed does, so more like a pearl than a plant.

I like to ask someone to provide a word or phrase, and whatever is offered is what I write. I don’t ask for a selection, or rifle through dictionaries until something jumps out at me. The very first thing I get is what I make work. If you don’t have a friend you trust to give you words you’ll want to work with, try opening the dictionary to a random page, or even an online dictionary or equivalent, and use the very first word or entry your mind registers. Personally, I prefer grabbing people off the street and demanding a word or phrase not related to my releasing them.

Whatever your means, don’t balk at whatever word you end up with; consider it a challenge to write outside of your comfort zone, and a chance for literary growth.

    1. Know Your Ending

You may have your starting sentence in mind already, but before you get too enthusiastic about plunging in, figure out your ending. Not knowing the end is a perfectly viable format for writing many things, but this is definitely what leads to more plot bunnies than quick resolutions. For this reason, I always decide what my ending will be before I ever type a word. Because I can check my word count as I go, I use this to keep track of how many words I have left to reach that end, and can give enough context before the conclusion to make sure it doesn’t feel like a slap-dash afterthought, because I ran out of space. This also makes the edit process easier when you run over your limit.

    1. Trim Down to Your Limit

You don’t have to get it all right the second you start typing. As writers we’re going to edit everything, and a flash piece should not be the exception. Use the language you feel is appropriate, get to your goal in as conservative a manner as possible, but don’t curtail your creativity to the limitations of the medium. Go ahead and exceed a little bit, because the act of editing out the excess is an important part of training yourself to edit bigger pieces. You learn to recognize the descriptions that may be nice, but aren’t necessary for the scene. You may find yourself cutting single words, or re-finessing a sentence to say essentially the same thing in less space, and, hopefully, more effectively. This is probably the most helpful aspect of all the tricks used for writing and self-editing, regardless of the genre or medium.

A flash piece is like any other story, and should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, even if the story you’re telling is as short and simple as “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” [Hemingway]. If you make sure your story contains just these three things (beginning, middle and end, not unworn baby shoes for sale) you’re well on your way to writing good flash fiction. You may find that only one or two of these steps work for you, or maybe none at all, and that’s fine. Just remember that not all methods are universally applicable, and that this is what I find works for me. If I didn’t feel they worked well, I’d print this post, crumple it up, burn it and scatter the ashes in shame for even thinking to write them out in the first place. Mostly, though, you should really give writing flash fiction a try, especially if you’re struggling in other projects.

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adalind Monroe is a talented young upstart from the West, who enjoys stories that incorporate apples, baby shoes, and bunnies, but not at the same time. She doesn’t always drive, but when she does, it’s in a Chevy named Keith. Keith is a girl.

Adalind now hosts her own Flash Fiction Friday here on C.I., so if you found yourself inspired to try the methods above, or you already have some micronouvelles under your belt and wouldn’t mind seeing them shared with the internets at large, send your stories to FlashFictionFriday dot ci at gmail dot com, subject line “FLASH FICTION: <Story Title>”. [OFFICIAL WORDS] All submissions must be written as flash, and may not be snipped from larger pieces. Strict limit of five hundred (500) words. Please include word count in the body of your e-mail, preferably right after the title. Stories must be received by Wednesday to be considered for Friday inclusion. Please include any links to previous works, official pages, personal blogs, biographical material, or pictures of bunnies you may want linked or included at the end of your story to direct traffic back your way, or to make Adalind smile extra hard.

To read more by Adalind, you can subscribe to this’a here bloggery, follow her on Facebook, or check out her stories at Smashwords.com.

Need a prompt?  Try:  Chronicle

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