Good Writing Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

A book is the solid manifestation of a shared experience between a writer and their readers. The difficulty lies in the fact that the readers don’t join in until after the book has already been written, so the writer won’t receive any feedback until it is too late.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should lock yourself up in a tower with nothing but your writing and a solid supply of cookies and hope for the best. It is much easier to write well if you don’t shut yourself away. Talking about writing, letting others critique your work in progress, and sharing tips and tricks is the easiest way to become a better writer overall and keep yourself sane while you do it.

Yes, the thought of sharing your unfinished manuscript might be terrifying. I understand that and believe me I empathize. But I promise it isn’t that bad. Every writer has at least one manuscript from back in their early writing days that makes them cringe. Learning is an iterative process, and good quality feedback is important.

So, how should you go about removing yourself from the vacuum and improving your writing skills? There are several strategies.

  1. Read more books. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years, so as a group we have figured out some things along the way. The best way to learn how to be a good writer is to expose yourself to good writing in different genres. Want to write Science Fiction? Then yes you are going to want to read Science Fiction, but you should also read other genres. Pick up some Fantasy, some Romance, some Crime Fiction, and even some Non-Fiction. A good story is never just one plotline, so why not experiment with your subplots? Yes, your work may be primarily a fantasy novel, but is there any romance between characters? How about any mystery or political intrigue? Reading lots of books, and making sure your reading list is well rounded, will help you learn to be a better writer.
  2. Do some research. Reading is great, but if you want more direct answers about how to be a good writer then do some research. Websites like Tv Tropes offer good general starting points and can help you avoid tired, overused cliches. You should also check out the blogs and websites of other writers. Blogs like Now Novel are a great resource that can help you get started on your book, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed. They can help break down the writing process into smaller, more digestible steps and help you create a really solid world full of interesting characters and compelling stories.
  3. Join a writer’s group. Writing can get lonely and is one of those professions that every layman thinks they understand. I mean, you think of an idea, sit down at your computer and bang it out. How hard can it be? In reality, writing can be stressful, frustrating and anxiety-inducing. Having someone, or a group of people, who understand the trials and tribulations that come with the territory can do wonders for not only your writing but also your well being. I recently joined a local writing group and I feel much better for it. You can seek out something structured like I did, or just check out a website like Meet Up and find something more casual. Whether you want something that provides critiques, workshops, conventions and what not or just something more like a book club (but where you read each other’s work instead of other authors) there is bound to be something out there. And if there isn’t then maybe consider organizing something. Because sometimes you just need someone to commiserate with.
  4. Swap critiques and feedback. Writing may be a fairly solitary act, but to write is actually quite a social activity. Very few writers create books just for their own enjoyment. The ultimate goal is usually to share their stories with others. The best way to test out your work in progress before it goes to the publisher (or even just the editor) is to get together with other writers, or even just a non-writer friend, and ask them to look over your work. A good writer will be able to empathize, offer concrete and actionable feedback, and perhaps even offer suggestions about how to fix the parts that need to be fixed. That being said, if you have a friend that reads a lot but doesn’t have any writing experience that is still a valuable resource. They should be able to point out things that aren’t working, even if they aren’t sure how to fix them. That being said, no one wants to be constantly put upon and never offered anything in return. Offer to read the other writer’s work in progress in return, or at least bake them some cookies or something as a thank you.
  5. Take writing classes. Even if you already “know how to write”, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take classes. Honing your craft should be a lifelong endeavour, and as my grandfather always tells me it is never a waste to learn something new. Learn however you feel most comfortable, but you should learn. Some people prefer structured classes like you find in a university, some people want something online where you can work at your own pace, and some people just want to read an interesting article or blog post once in a while. Find something that works for you and try your best to set aside some of your writing time for learning more about your craft.

Thank you for joining me again this week. I hope you found this post useful!

The Seven Best Tools for Writers

A writer needs more than just a laptop or a pen and paper if they really want to make their lives easier. While there is something romantic about spending our time in dusty attics, bustling coffee shops or sunny gardens with only the bare essentials writing any large piece requires a high level of organization. As such a good writer typically has a few more tools in his or her tool chest.

Most people don’t realize that a book is so much more than its manuscript. It is piles of notes, endless charts and graphs and way more string and thumbtacks than you thought possible. When you write a book, especially if it is science fiction or fantasy, you aren’t just telling one story. You are creating a whole new world. To help keep all of your notes straight, and help you produce a polished manuscript here are a few tools I have learned to embrace wholeheartedly.

As an aside, this is not a paid post. I am not receiving any compensation for any of the products I mention by name. I just really like them and find them very useful.

Scrivener

Scrivener is an outlining tool and word processing program designed specifically for writers. Whether you are creating a novel or a screenplay it offers a great way to format your manuscript.  The interface isn’t always intuitive, and sometimes you need to fiddle a bit to get it to do what you want but most problems can be solved with a quick Google search and a little bit of patience.

Scrivener is available for both Mac OSX and Windows, and offers a free 30 day trial. The best part about the trial is how it runs: If you use it once a day for 30 days it will last for 30 days, if you use it once every two days it will last for 60 days and so on. So you actually get 30 full days of use.

The full version costs $45 for lifetime access, though they do also offer a discounted education licence for academics and students which costs $38.25.

Storyline Creator

Storyline creator is exactly what it sounds like. It is a program that helps you plot out your storyline, add characters and keep track of where everyone is and when important events happen. It is essentially the modern-day version of sticky notes and string and is so much easier to update and change.  It also offers you a place to keep all your notes on your various characters.

There is also space in the Storyline Creator to actually write your story, but I find that Scrivener offers a better solution for that task.

Storyline Creator offers a free version, but it is quite limited. You may only have a total of five characters and a total of five scenes and you cannot add any notes. It will let you export your work as a pdf but you can only access your work via the online portal.

The paid version costs 19.99 € for a yearly subscription and you can access both the online and offline versions. You are also not limited to any specific device, and can use it on a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone. As an added bonus you also get the full offline version for free, and even if your subscription expires you still retain access to the offline version.

A Good Notebook

This seems really basic, but a good notebook and a decent pen are integral tools in any writer’s toolkit. What notebook you buy depends on a lot of factors. I actually have two: I have a Leuchtturm1917 with dotted pages that acts as my travel notebook and bullet journal and I have a large sketchbook by Piccadilly where I keep most of my notes, charts, maps and other items. You can’t buy items from Piccadilly directly, but I bought my sketchbook at Chapters.

I don’t tend to brainstorm in a linear fashion, so I find the blank pages of the sketchbook and the dotted pages in my notebook make it easier to plot everything out using boxes and arrows, but this is personal preference.

A Reliable Pen

I have several pens that I enjoy working with, but my two favourite types are my Triplus Fineliners by Staedtler (I have the 20 piece set) which I find great for colourcoding. For most of my writing though I tend to stick with my trusty Optiflow pens, which you can get at both Staples and on Amazon. I first started using these in University and I still love them.

A Whiteboard

Whiteboards are magical. They are really great for mapping out huge ideas (like plotlines, family trees, political factions etc.) and make things easy to change. I tend to work things out on my whiteboard and then transfer them to my sketchbook once I am happy with them.

A Corkboard

Corkboards are very useful if you are a sticky-notes-and-string type person like I am. It gives you the space to map things out, and the ability to easily change things like the whiteboard does but it reduces the risk of your work accidentally getting erased. I like my corkboard for plotting out things I need to refer to regularly.  For example, in my current Work in Progress, there are three political factions, each with different goals and worldviews. I have each one plotted out, and can immediately see which characters belong to which factions a well as what each factions goals are and who is allied with who.

Google Drive

I would die without Google drive. I love the ability to switch seamlessly between my desktop and my laptop and know that my manuscript is always up to date. I love it for storing notes (sometimes I’m in a hurry and I don’t want to take the time to write an idea out by hand). You are also not limited to just Google Docs. I have the Scrivener file for my manuscript in my Google Drive. You can also use Google Drive to store scanned receipts (for tax purposes) as well as any other bits of information you need to store.

I hope you found this article useful! Remember, these are only the tools I found useful. Use whatever works best for you and happy writing!

The Brunch Brigade

This post is a vignette, a snippet of time or a short episode depicting characters and helping establish what sort of world they live in. This post serves as an example for another post, which is located here.


Clementine sighed and pulled out her phone. As usual she was the only person in her group of friends who bothered to arrive on time. Normally she wouldn’t be quiet so annoyed but this restaurant was almost impossible to get a reservation at, and if you didn’t show up within ten minutes of your start time they would give your table away without a second thought. She had booked this reservation, and planned this get together, nearly six weeks ago.

She was always the one to organize their monthly brunch group, unofficially called the Brunch Brigade, and she definitely resented it.

Always punctual, she had left her tiny bachelor apartment with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, she had been spotted by her landlady, who had chosen at that exact moment to regale her with tales about her seven cats. Clementine had eventually been able to excuse herself politely, but the entire encounter had made her late. She had arrived just eight minutes after their reservation and managed to keep their table by the skin of her teeth.

Would it have killed the others to be on time just once? She thought to herself, sullenly scrolling through Instagram. She was always the one to arrange everything, always the one who ensured things went smoothly. She was sick of doing all the planning, but she knew if she didn’t do it then it would never get done.

Ten minutes later the first of her friends trickled in. Lola was chatting on the phone (as always), and gave Clementine little more than a cursory nod of acknowledgement as she sat down and continued her conversation. Finally she hung up the phone.

“Oh, hey Clem. Sorry about that. That was Bruno. His backpacking trip through Brazil is going really well, he got some beautiful photos for Instagram. I can’t wait until he gets back! I miss him so much!”

Bruno was Lola’s wealthy, trust fund fiance, a fact she never let anyone forget. As the first in their little group to get engaged she had declared herself the unofficial trendsetter regarding all things wedding related. As Lola turned her phone towards Clementine to show her yet another wedding dress she was considering (“This one is vintage Chanel! Is that too much?”) Clementine did her best to act interested. In reality she didn’t really care much for Bruno, and secretly felt Lola was only marrying him so she could gain access to his trust fund and use it to fund their perfect, Instagramable life together. Clementine dreaded the day they had children.

Luckily the arrival of two more of their friends saved Clementine from too much wedding talk. Hugo and Pandora, another couple, weaved their way through the crowded tables, bonking a few seated patrons with their large reusable shopping bag as they went by.

“Hey, sorry we are late! Hugo found the BEST selfie background on the way over here so we just had to stop. And I found the cutest pair of vintage sunglasses at Goodwill yesterday, so I needed some new photos of me wearing them.”

Goodwill? Yah right. Thought Clementine grumpily, taking a sip of her overpriced Minty Arnold Palmer. I saw those same sunglasses at Urban Outfitters last week. Those aren’t vintage at all. That was so like Pandora though, to try and pass something mainstream off as being something vintage or rare. Clementine knew Pandora was jealous of Lola and her, now seemingly bottomless, bank account and couldn’t resist the urge to try and show Lola up at every turn. Hugo was almost as bad, with his handlebar moustache and his man bun. They both had this drive to show the world how quirky and unique they were by being quirky and unique in ways that were considered cool.

As her three friends cooed over Pandora’s new selfies Clementine craned her neck over the packed room, scanning it for the last member of their brunch group. Clementine had been friends with Atticus since they had met at the Rays of Sunshine Montessori school as little kids. She would never admit it to anyone but herself, but she had always had a huge crush on him.

She really hoped he hadn’t bailed on her.

Finally she spotted his signature mop of black curls over the top of the crowd and her heart flip-flopped in her chest. Atticus was the brooding artist of the group, a persona Clementine found very appealing. He went everywhere with his vintage leather satchel, and that mysterious bag was always stuffed full of half-written manuscripts, obscure books and high brow literary magazines. Clementine didn’t know how much he actually read, or whether or not he was actually working on his manuscript, but she didn’t really care.

As he made his way towards the table their eyes locked, and Atticus favoured her with a small smile. In that instant she felt like they were the only two people in the world.

“Atticus! There you are!” Lola jumped up from the table, nearly toppling it, and rushed around to give Atticus a big hug. Clementine fummed. She had always suspected that she wasn’t the only one harbouring a secret flame for Atticus, but she had hoped that now that Lola was engaged to someone else her path would be clear.

“Oh, hey Lola. How’s the wedding planning coming?” Atticus slid into the chair next to Clementine and gave her a secret little wink as Lola launched into a complaint filled tirade against one of the venues she was considering. Lola paused while they ordered drinks (two Blueberry Moscow Mules and one Coconut Lavender Lemonade. Hugo and Pandora were on a cleanse, so they stuck to their travel mugs of cayenne lemon water).

Clementine would have been content to let Lola tire herself out, but Pandora clearly had other ideas. When Lola paused to come up for air Pandora cut in.

“So you guys, Hugo and I have some really fabulous news. We are getting married!” The table burst into obligatory cheers and Pandora basked in the flood of congratulatory attention. Hugo busied himself with the menu, clearly more interested in brunch.

“So you know how Hugo and I were in Marseilles last week, well we were doing this amazing bike tour and we came across this beautiful little picnic spot. It was in a meadow and there was this huge tree. Anyways, we sat down to enjoy our lunch. We had some really amazing champagne and did a cheese and charcuterie platter with the most delicious pickles

“Cheese? Charcuterie? I thought you guys were going to go vegan with me. You agreed!” Huffed Lola, rudely interrupting.

“Did we? Hugo and I talked it over and while we really appreciate your viewpoint we just don’t share it, so we aren’t doing that now. Anyways, don’t worry. We will make sure there is a vegetarian option at the reception.”

“Vegan.” Hissed Lola through her perfectly white teeth. “I’m Vegan, not Vegetarian.”“Oh whatever, that is what I meant.” Pandora waved her hand dismissively and continued on. “Anyways, after the picnic we were enjoying the afternoon sun and reading French poetry to each other when Hugo changed one of the lines to ‘Veux-tu m’épouser?’ which is, of course, French for ‘Will you marry me?’ At first I thought he had read it wrong so rolled over to correct him and I look down at the book in his hand and I see that there is a ring in it!”

Pandora stretched out her long, slender tanned hand to show off the ring and Clementine nearly choked on her drink. The ring was gorgeous, a huge shiny emerald set in a stunning vintage setting.”

“It was Hugo’s great grandmother’s! Her husband bought it for her when they were in Paris for their honeymoon.”

“No, that isn’t true.” Interjected Hugo. “I found the actual ring it in a second-hand shop, but the stone was really badly damaged. I got it for a steal and then convinced my Mom to let me have the emerald, which is from a ring that belonged to my Grandmother.”

Pandora rolled her eyes. “Yes I know that Hugo, but I thought we agreed that my version was much more romantic. It’s all about crafting the right narrative.”

Hugo shrugged and returned his attention to his free-range eggs benedict and Pandora continued.

“Anyways it was so romantic! I’ve already started looking at venues and there is this amazing vintage diner in Midtown that just screams-.”

“Wait… the one between the record store and the cold brew coffee shop?” Asked Lola, narrowing her eyes.

“Um, yah. Why?”

“Because that is the venue Bruno and I were looking at for our official engagement party!” screeched Lola.

“Oh, was it? I must have forgotten” Pandora was a terrible liar, but that didn’t stop her from doing it. Clementine thought Lola was going to blow a gasket.

“And you are getting married in June.” Lola stood up and leaned across the table. “ You can’t get married in June, I’m getting married in July and I have to get married first!”

“What? Why?” Demanded Pandora, standing up as well. Hugo and Atticus, who had mostly been ignoring the wedding talk looked up confused.

“Because Bruno and I got engaged first, that’s why! I get to be the first to get married!”

“Well I’m not changing my date, so you will have to change yours!” Screeched Pandora, practically frothing at the mouth.

“Let’s get out of here before they bring the building down. We can settle up our portion of the bill with them later” Whispered Atticus in Clementine’s ear, his beard tickling her ear and neck. She accepted his hand and the two of them scurried out of the way and threaded their way towards the door.

“I’m so glad you aren’t like that.” Atticus said as they stood outside blinking in the bright summer sunlight. He was still holding her hand and Clementine wasn’t in a rush to let go.

“Thanks. I can’t stand those two.”

“Really?” Atticus turned to her, confused. “Then why do you invite them to these things?”

Clementine stared at him, taken aback. “Because I thought you loved hanging out with them. And even if Lola is engaged she is still definitely into you.”

“Me? But I can’t stand them either. I only put up with them because I thought you liked hanging out with them.”

Clementine laughed nervously. “Then why don’t we go do something just the two of us?”

Atticus squeezed her hand.

“I would like that very much.”


Sorry, this vignette ended up being much longer than I intended. Still, let’s unpack:

This story clearly takes place in a fairly contemporary setting and revolves around a group of frenemies going for brunch. The whole group has a distinct millennial hipster vibe, and at least three members of the group (Lola, Pandora and Hugo) are quite well off. It is implied that Clementine, the narrator, is distinctly less wealthy, as shown when we mention her tiny apartment.

Lola and Pandora are both pieces of work. They are vain, shallow and narcissistic. They are discourteous (they arrive late for the brunch, and Lola doesn’t even bother to get off the phone when she first arrives.) Lola is concerned with status, and might only be marrying her fiance Bruno for his money. Clementine considers this to be a terrible reason to get married, and her views are not indicated to be anything out of the ordinary.

Pandora’s main goal seems to be upstaging Lola. Once Pandora and Hugo get engaged her first order of business is to book the same venue as Lola (admittedly for her main reception, not her engagement party. This may indicate a wealth disparity between the two of them) and to make sure she gets married first. This sends Lola into a frothing rage and the two girls argue, loudly, in public. This scene was to demonstrate how crass and rude they are. Lola is also a very forceful personality and clearly tried to force her vegan lifestyle on Pandora and Hugo. Pandora and Hugo, instead of telling her outright to back off, instead eat cheese and charcuterie while in France and then tell her after the fact. Hugo remains largely in the background and only participates in the conversation in order to correct the facts in Pandora’s story.

All three of them are just generally awful.

We don’t know a lot about Atticus aside from the fact that he either is a writer or is at least trying to convince people he is a writer and that both Lola and Clementine have crushes on him. Out of the whole group Clementine and Atticus seem to be the most grounded and likeable, but even they have flaws. Clementine clearly has trouble standing up for herself (she risks being late rather than offend the landlady and is always the one to do all of the organizational work for the group). She has also had a crush on Atticus for years but is reluctant to act on it. This changes when she asks him if he wants to do something just the two of them after they abandon the disastrous brunch. We also learn that both Clementine and Atticus have some communication problems and avoid conflict since neither spoke up about how much they hated Lola and Pandora until after they leave the restauraunt.

I hope you found this example useful!

 

Nutra Bar

This post is a vignette, a snippet of time or a short episode depicting characters and helping establish what sort of world they live in. This post serves as an example for another post, which is located here.


The shrill sound of the alarm pulled Trill from his sleep. Still half asleep he groped around for his pants as the lights in his room slowly raised themselves. After splashing some water on his face and giving his teeth a quick scrub he joined the other residents of HomeCube 329, Floor 8 on their way down to the cafeteria.

He spotted his friend Mart in the line and elbowed his way over to him, causing some grumbling as he cut into the line.

“Morning Mart.” Said Trill, stifling a yawn. “How did you sleep?”

“Terribly, as usual.” Grumbled Mart, rubbing his back. “I swear the mat in my sleeping pod gets harder every day.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Said Trill as they approached the counter. “They probably think soft beds are irrelevant to a good night’s sleep.

A shiny metal robot, little more than a sentient vending machine, waited for them on the other side.

“Good morning Resident! Please present your thumbprint!” Said the robot in what some programmer clearly thought was a cheerful, friendly voice. Trill stuck his thumb on the touchpad, which flashed green.

“Hello Trill! Please enjoy your breakfast, courtesy of Nutra Bar! Nutra bar, for all your nutrition needs!” The door on the front of the robot popped open, revealing a small bar wrapped in silver foil and a metal cup full of hot liquid. After Mart had verified his identity and obtained his breakfast they made their way to one of the long tables that stretched the length of the room.

Trill opened his Nutra bar and bit into it, grimacing at the taste. The bars had a texture like wet cardboard and somehow managed to taste like an unholy mix of sweaty feet and farts.

“I know the robots don’t taste anything, but you think they would at least try and make these appetizing.” Grumbled Mart, choking down his Nutra bar. “I mean this is the only thing we ever get to eat, three meals a day for the entire year. It’s inhumane.”

Trill took a swig of his Nutra Coffee, which was really just the same ingredients from the Nutra bar served in liquid form and heated. No one he knew had had real coffee in decades, though it was rumoured that some of the elites were still able to gain access to real food.

“I heard a rumour the other day that they were experimenting with making a cherry flavoured Nutra bar, but the whole project had to be scrapped.”

“Cherry? Probably closer to cherry cough syrup. Do you remember how awful that stuff was? Anyways, at least it would have been different. Why did they stop?”

Trill took a swig of his Nutra Coffee, trying to wash the last sticky bits of Nutra Bar out of his throat. “Apparently it had a tendency to make the test subjects glow in the dark.”

Mart frowned, swirling the dregs around in his mug. “That isn’t so bad though. I mean it would probably be annoying at first, but you could get past it.”

“That may be true,” replied Trill, gathering up his cup and wrapper. “And that was considered an acceptable side effect. They were all ready to send it to the next stage of testing when all of the original test subjects dropped dead a week later from acute radiation poisoning. Even the robots have to admit that being dead is an unacceptable side effect for a food replacement bar.”

“I suppose you are right.” Replied Mart as they headed towards the exit. “Still, what a way to go. At least they got to spend their last week knowing they were the only people in the world who got to try flavoured Nutra bars.”


So, what did we learn about this world? First of all, it at least appears to be run by robots. Individuals live in large, anonymous, standardized dormitories and receive three meals a day that consists of food replacement bars called Nutra bars. Nutra bars is also clearly a brand name, signalling the existence of a mega-corporation. Even though the individuals do not get to choose whether or not they consume Nutra bars or Nutra coffee they are still subject to advertisements.

Before they receive their breakfasts both Mart and Trill have to verify their identities via thumbprint. This means their actions are tracked, and this technology is likely used to constrict their actions. Maybe individuals are only allowed one Nutra bar each meal, and the system is there to ensure no one tries to sneak an extra one. Maybe individuals who skip meals are reprimanded, or even punished.

When the characters drink their Nutra coffee Trill remembers what real coffee tastes like, and speculates that some elite individuals may still have access to “real food”. This implies that there is a class system in place as well as vast income inequalities. Both Trill and Mart remember what cherry cough syrup tastes like, implying that these huge societal changes are fairly recent and likely have only occurred over the course of one generation.

We don’t know what Trill and Mart do for a living, or even if they have jobs. How do they spend their days? This is a question you will want to ask yourself about your own characters.

The Food Peddler

This post is a vignette, a snippet of time or a short episode depicting characters and helping establish what sort of world they live in. This post serves as an example for another post, which is located here.


John stood up, stretching his aching back. The noon-day sun was at its zenith, signalling that it was time to break for the midday meal. He followed the other farmers to the edge of the field where the Food Peddler had his shack and joined the long line.

As he shuffled slowly forward, acutely aware of his rumbling stomach, he listened to the chatter around him. The line was one of the best places to pick up gossip. Some might scoff at gossip as nothing but a pastime for idle tongues, but John knew better. Gossip gave you the temperature of the current state of affairs. Who was fighting with who? Who was courting who? Who was sick? Who was looking plumper and healthier than usual?

Finally it was John’s turn, and he approached the cart.

“One rat on a stick please.” He grunted, fishing the last few coins out of his purse. He wouldn’t be paid until tomorrow after work, so unless he managed to bring some bread from home he would have to go hungry tomorrow.

“All out of rat. You want pigeon on a stick?” The sweaty man in the window said, leaning out and looking down at John.

“Pidgeon gives me indigestion. What else do you have?”

“Vegetarian option.”  Granted the man, clearly eager for John to make a decision and move on.

“What’s the vegetarian option?” Asked John, trying not to sound eager. Almost anything was better than pidgeon on a stick.

“Potato on a stick.” Grunted the man, narrowing his beady eyes.

“Does it come with any spices?” Asked John. He hadn’t always lived like this. His childhood had been comfortable. There was always food in his belly, and on Sundays they had even eaten chicken. He could almost taste the juicy, delicately spiced flesh in his mouth.

“Is dirt a spice?” Asked the man, getting more irate. Most farmers had been born and bred to be submissive, ask no questions, and accept their lot. John had never managed to get the hang of it, not that he wanted to.

“No. Dirt is not a spice.” He said tersely. His stomach rumbled angrily. “One pidgeon on a stick then please.”

The sweaty man took his money and passed him the lump of meat. The bird still had a few feathers stuck to it, and its empty eye sockets stared at John accusingly. At least they cut the heads off the rats.

He took his food and stepped aside, looking for a comfortable spot of ground to sit on. He heard a female voice behind him and turned suddenly.

“One rat on a stick please.” It was Molly, beautiful, vivacious, charming Molly. John turned red and looked down at his feet. He should have paid more attention! He could have spoken to her in the line, or at least gazed upon her face until she frowned at him to stop.

He held his breath and both prayed she would notice him and begged God to make him invisible.

“For you my darling girl. I kept this one aside just for you.” The sweaty man arranged his features in what he probably thought was a charming smile as he handed over an enormous rat on a stick. It even had a little bit of cotton string tied to its base, forming a crude bow.

“Oh, thank you.” Molly, initially startled, smiled gratefully and the Food Peddler beamed. John fummed. What was Molly thinking, letting an oaf like that sweet talk her? He sighed and turned his attention to his pigeon. Still, at least the Food Peddler would keep her warm, fed and happy. That was more than John could ever hope to offer her.

As Molly and the Peddler chatted John skulked away, mournfully chewing on a stringy bit of pigeon meat.


What did we learn about this world? What did we learn about John?

This world is at least partially agrarian, and wages are low. Food is dull and most people are too poor to afford anything of real nutritional value. The fact that John’s back hurts indicates that the farming labour is hard work, and that he is a low-status individual (since higher status individuals undoubtedly do not engage in hard labour). We also learn that in this world there is a God, or at least religious beliefs, as demonstrated by John’s plea to be both rendered invisible and get Molly’s attention.

John is now a farmer, but it is implied that he once lead a much more comfortable life. He also has a crush on Molly, but has never approached her about it, instead preferring to observe her from afar. The food peddler gives Molly a rat that he specifically set aside for her, and he even decorated it with a small bow. This shows he is infatuated with her as well. The fact that she responds so well shows that she, and possibly the larger world, tends to appreciate gifts of a practical nature. Molly is also willing to flirt with the Food Peddler in order to secure more resources for herself. She may even consider marrying him in order to ensure her survival and obtain access to a steady supply of food and a somewhat comfortable existence.

This shows just how food insecure a lot of people in this world are. The Peddler gives Molly a large rat, thereby ensuring she gets more to eat than most of his other customers, as a way to show his favour.

We also learn about John by seeing how he reacts. At first, he is jealous of the Peddler for flirting with Molly, and wonders what she sees in someone he finds so uncultured and repulsive. Then he concedes that she might be doing it for economic reasons, which in this world may be more important than marrying for love. John also comes across as entitled, and even a sexist. He feels that he is entitled to Molly’s affections, and feels that she might not be the best person to decide who she ends up with.

World and Character Building through Vignettes

Vignettes are brief glimpses into your world. Like photographs or paintings they capture small moments in time and preserve them for future review. They are also an excellent way to give yourself (and potentially your readers) a feeling for your world.

You can either write these vignettes entirely for yourself or incorporate them into your larger manuscript. The choice is yours.  If you craft them with care and a strong attention to detail vignettes can be a very useful tool.

In this post my vignettes are going to focus on food. Food is universal because everyone, everywhere across time and space needs to eat. Food is cultural, in that it is a vehicle that is both steeped in tradition and constantly evolving to meet our modern needs. Food is also very personal, in that each person has dishes they like and dislike for various reasons.  Food is also a very social item, bringing people together and establishing in-groups. You eat lunch with your friends, not your enemies. You have dinner with your family, not with strangers. To eat alone is an isolating experience, especially when you are surrounded by groups of people who are eating together. Food is also a vehicle for social norms. Jewish and Muslim individuals define themselves, in part, by what foods they eat, how those foods are prepared and what other foods those foods can be paired with. Christians, in part, define themselves by ignoring the food-related rules of their Jewish predecessors. Vegetarians do not eat meat, vegans do not eat any animal products (including meat, eggs, dairy or honey).

My undergraduate degree is in Anthropology, and anthropologists LOVE to talk about food. Food offers tremendous insight, and it is delicious.

In this post I am going to include links to three examples I have written: One takes place in a fantasy, medieval setting. One takes place in a futuristic science fiction setting and one takes place over brunch.

 

Example: Frank and the Vending Machine

This post contains a very short story. This post serves as an example for another post, which is located here.


Frank stared at the vending machine, his stomach churning. Work had been hell these past few months and it was wreaking havoc on his stomach. He hadn’t been to the gym in months and his once carefully calibrated diet had fallen by the wayside. His once taut torso had recently acquired a stubborn layer of fat, and he was convinced it would never really go away.

Tonight was going to be another long night, and he didn’t even have time to run down the street and grab a burger. So here he was, in front of the vending machine.

He stared blankly at the selection as his stomach tied itself in knots. He would sell his own mother for a handful of kale chips right now. Or a green smoothie. God he missed green smoothies so much.

He selected some sun chips and watched the tiny bag flop listlessly to the bottom of the machine. He opened the bag and forced himself to eat them.

At least they are baked instead of fried, he told himself as he trudged back to his desk. That had to be worth something.


What did we learn about Frank from this one short scene? Well, we know he is a health nut who goes to the gym regularly and enjoys healthy foods. Kale chips and green smoothies are popular right now, so he likely is also at least somewhat conscious about health trends. He is currently working long hours, but normally he doesn’t. He is stressed out, and his sudden change in diet is having negative effects on both his waistline and his psychological state of mind.

Let’s expand on the vending machine scenario. Your character makes his or her selection, pays, and waits for their item to drop. Instead, the item gets stuck. What does your character do? Does he smack the side of the machine angrily? Does he complain to management? Does he flag down a passing coworker and try to convince them to buy the same item so that hopefully the machine will drop them both? Does he shrug it off and simply buy a second one, unconcerned about the money he lost?

Example: Linda and the Vending Machine

This post contains a very short story. This post serves as an example for another post, which is located here.


Linda was starving. This new diet she was on was brutal and she could feel it sucking the life out of her like some green, leafy succubus. She hadn’t wanted to go on the diet, but her sister had pressured her into it and so here she was.
She had spent the morning thinking resentfully about the mournful little bag that contained her allotted food. One wilted kale salad. One handful of plain, unsalted almonds. One baggie of soggy carrots. When the clock struck noon she sighed and decided it was best to get this over with sooner rather than later.

Like she did every day Linda ate alone at her desk, mechanically shoving the bland food between her fleshy lips. Linda didn’t really care for diets and had never really been concerned about her weight, but her husband could be very persistent. Mark thrived on creating order from chaos, from making sure everyone toed the line. And he always got his way, and his latest improvement project was the family’s waistlines.

Linda had never been one to openly rebel, but she had her own ways of expressing her dissatisfaction. She had eaten the crappy lunch Mark had packed for her, as she had promised to do. But now it was time for her to make a choice for herself.

So here she was, standing in front of the vending machine with a couple of coins clenched tightly in her hand. She carefully weighed her options, considering the pros and cons of each.Finally, she plunked her coins into the slot and made her selection, jabbing the worn buttons decisively.
The ancient metal spiral churned, making a sad wheezing sound as it did so. Then, it stopped, leaving her M&Ms dangling. Linda sighed, staring mournfully at her trapped treat. She could go get more coins from her desk, but then she would have to come all the way back downstairs again and she had a lot of work to get through by the end of the day.

Her shoulders slumped forward and she sighed a long, drawn-out sigh. Slowly she turned and made her way back to the elevator, her thick heeled high heels clicking against the worn linoleum. As she waited for the elevator she heard several voices approach, chatting animatedly.
“Oh sweet, lets see if we can get two packs of M&Ms for the price of one!”Then she heard the beep of the vending machine buttons followed by two soft thumps.

“Yes!” Linda turned to see the two men high five each other before they made their way back down the hall.

Some people get all of the luck. She thought to herself.


So what did we learn about Linda? She has a controlling husband, is unchallenged at her job (she spent her whole morning thinking about her lunch), and avoids conflict. Instead of telling Mark she doesn’t want to eat the lunch he made for her she eats in anyways, then goes and gets a snack from the vending machine. She won’t play by his rules, but she also won’t speak up for herself.

When her bag of M&Ms gets stuck she accepts it and does not try to change the situation. She doesn’t try to jostle them free, or try and find someone to open the machine and retrieve them for her. Instead, she simply goes back to her desk. When the other men get her M&Ms plus their own she calls it luck, but really they just took advantage of an opportunity that was presented to them.  Linda is unhappy with her state of being, but she makes no effort to change it.

How to Experiment on Your Characters

Characters are what drive any story. That memorable trip to the coffee shop last week? You remember it because that woman in front of you in line spent ten minutes berating the barista for daring to put foam on her latte. Character building and world building are almost as important as creating a good plot. All of which are integral to writing a good story.

Creating believable characters is a time-consuming process, and if you don’t put in the effort your characters can come across feeling flat, cliche or heavy-handed. One way I like to get to know my characters better is to experiment on them.

Create a situation, insert your character, and see what they do. One I like to use is the vending machine situation. Your character approaches a vending machine. What do they select and why? I have created two examples, here and here.

I hope you found this post helpful. Experimenting on your characters is a great way to determine how they view the world, how they conduct themselves, and how they find solutions to problems they are presented with.

 

Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

Writing can be a daunting process. Whether you are trying to tackle your first novel or just trying to hammer out a good short story getting started can be intimidating. To help you achieve your goals, and not tear your hair out during the process, here are a few tips I have picked up over the years.

Embrace the non-linear process

I like to call this the myth of the first draft. No piece of literature emerges from your head as a fully formed first draft, and that is okay! I tend to view my writing in my head as more of a series of nodes and strings, some of which are arranged linearly. If staring blankly at your page and trying to organize everything in your head doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere then stop doing it and do what works best for you. Some people like to start with a specific event or a particular character. Some people (myself included) like to work things out with pen and paper, or map out their ideas on a whiteboard instead of proceeding directly to their first draft.

It is also useful to keep a separate notebook or folder to store these tidbits of information in. You want to be able to access them easily and keep them from getting lost but you don’t want them cluttering up your manuscript

Try a few different methods and decide what works best for you.

Embrace the urge to putter

Sometimes you just need to stand up and step away for a minute. Some of my best ideas come to me while I am doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom or knitting. Find a task that is engaging enough to help you dispell that nervous energy but mindless enough that you can focus most of your attention on the problem you are trying to tackle.

Find a rubber duck

Your rubber duck could be a friend or family member, your pet or even an actual rubber duck. Sit down and try to explain your story, its characters or your current conundrum to someone. Actual feedback is useful, but not always necessary during the early stages of the creative process. Sometimes you just need to talk about your work aloud in order to untangle it and figure out how to proceed.

Find a second set of eyes

Having someone else look over your work is an important step. The person you chose doesn’t have to be a professional writer, or an expert on whatever topic you are exploring. You just need someone with a critical eye to spot things like unexplained out of character behaviour or logical inconsistencies (“earlier you state that your character is harsh and unfeeling, but now you have them tearing up over a video of a sad puppy. Why the sudden change in heart? You need to explain this”). Having someone look over your work is also a good way to help catch spelling errors, grammatical errors and awkward phrasing.

Do your research

No story is told in a vacuum. This is true whether or not you are writing fiction, non-fiction or that work presentation we mentioned earlier. Give your readers (or audience) some background on the topic. What is the world like? How do these events shape the main narrative? Provide context, and make sure when you check your facts that you are doing so against truthful and verifiable sources.

Make time for your writing

I understand that most people have busy, hectic lives. Between work, family obligations, hobbies and other commitments it can be hard to find time for your writing. It is easy for me to say “If you want to be a writer just find the time”, but that really is the solution. Start with setting aside thirty minutes each week for your writing. Schedule it into your calendar, sit down at your desk, close the door and get to it.

If you aren’t really feeling inspired that day, don’t worry. Even if you spend that thirty minutes reading over what you have, doing a bit of background research or just writing about whatever comes into your head remember that that time has not been wasted.

Experiment on your Characters

Want to find out who your characters really are? Put them in various situations and see how they react. I go over this idea in more detail in another post.

Accept that not all of your ideas will be good ideas

Sometimes you will have a brainwave at three in the morning, or experience a flash of inspiration during your morning commute. By all means, write these ideas down and see what you can do with them. However, not every idea you have is going to be a good idea. If something isn’t working don’t beat yourself up about it and don’t delete it. Instead, create a separate folder for these ideas and set them aside. You may come back to them, and maybe some of them will turn into something, but if that doesn’t happen then that is okay too.

Writing is like any other skill, the only way you are going to get better is if you practice. So