Not Quite Superman

When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”

Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers,” and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost--get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it. 

Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment. 

There is no place for disability in this environment.  

In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.

Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues: car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shu ffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issues were temporary and none actually disabling.

Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing. 

I am not “out” in tech because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym: I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. 

(Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.) 

Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. 

(It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)

In a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.

Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations) or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved. 

But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation) and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks. 

Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.” 

This contrast is startling. 

When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences. 

When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through. 

When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a wallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch. 

The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not. 

It’s good to be home.

 


Burnout, Guilt, and “Productivity”

This post is half explanation, half me yelling at myself.

After my book came out at the beginning of April, my
productivity levels plummeted to zero.

I kept trying to tell myself that it was okay, that it was
natural, that I’d been working almost continuously since November 2017 and I
needed a bit of a break. My husband and friends and editor all told me the same
thing.

And you know what? They were right. You know what
else? I knew they were right.

But I still felt incredibly guilty.

This is called “burnout,” kids.

And the last several weeks that I’ve been mostly AWOL from
writing have been me trying to work through that guilt for just being tired,
and why it exists.

I’ve identified two major reasons:

1) Recovering gifted child guilt

This particular guilt manifests in different ways for
different people, but for me, it’s the problem of “Well, I didn’t finish this
the first time I tried, so obviously it’s never going to work and I should move
on to something else.” Which is a terrible way of doing anything, but hey, it
worked in grade school, so obviously it should work in my adult life, right???

(No. No, the answer is “no.” And again, “no.”)

2) Capitalist / “gig economy” guilt

Productivity =/= worth as a human being

We’ve all been told the exact opposite by so many for so
long that this has to be repeated over and over and over again until hopefully
we can absorb it.

We’ve been taught to devalue the pursuits we enjoy if we’re
not getting something tangible in return.

But we need intangible things, too.

Doing other things besides earning money is not “a waste of
time.” Hobbies—non-money-producing hobbies—are not only important, they are
vital. They let you rest, and just enjoy things. It’s so important for your
mental health and your emotional well-being.

Writers and artists need rest. We need sleep, and non-creating
time. We need to kill the myth of the starving artist…with food. And we need to
do fun things for fun.

So in addition to identifying the guilt, I’ve also been
working on trying to let all of that guilt go, and instead of beating myself up
for not being superhuman, I’m trying very hard to just be kind to myself.

I try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, without worrying
about how many words I’ve written that day.

I spend more time in the kitchen, and pay more attention to
what I’m eating, instead of grabbing whatever’s quickest that I can shovel into
my mouth while I’m hunched over a keyboard. And I keep water around, to lessen
my temptation for caffeine.

When I do sit down to write, I set myself a limit as well as
a goal. I say, “Okay, I want to reach a thousand words tonight, but I’ve got
other things to do, so I’m only going to write for two hours, and then I’m
going to go do something else.” I find I work better with deadlines, so giving
myself a time limit means I have to get the words out—they don’t have to be
good words, but they have to be on the page before two hours are up. And
telling myself, “This time is set aside only for writing,” helps to free up my
brain from worrying about other things.

I do things that aren’t writing: I go bowling with my
husband. We have a weekly board game night where we try games we’ve never
played before. I knit baby blankets and watch Poirot. I stay busy and enjoy myself and get away from my desk for
a few hours. Sometimes the “You Should Be Writing” gremlin starts poking me,
and I have to remind myself, “No, this isn’t Writing Time, and I’m not going to
write until it is.”

And that’s where I am right now. I’ve had about six weeks of
doing more or less nothing except trying to build myself back up to get back to
work, and…it hasn’t exactly been fun, but I’ve learned a few things:

  • Sleep.
  • Eat food.
  • Remember to hydrate.
  • Set limits as well as goals.
  • Do fun things for fun.
  • Be kind to yourself.

You’re the only one of you, and you’re the only one who can make
the things you want to make.

Take care of yourself.

I’m trying to do the same. 


How do you combat burnout? Tell us on the forum post for this blog entry!


Science Fiction & Resistance

Science fiction has a thematic duality that has long
fascinated me. The core component of many works in the speculative field focus
on ways technology can and might be used against humankind. On the flip side,
many genre stories highlight the use of technology as a means of resistance.
Then there are the stories that feature both.

Technology is wonderful. Technology is dangerous. It’s this thematic duality that I (along with co-editor Lesley Conner) wanted to explore in our new anthology Do Not Go Quietly: Tales of Victory in Defiance. We selected writers with strong viewpoints (such as Brooke Bolander, Fran Wilde, and Sheree Renée Thomas) and challenged those writers to create stories with protagonists trapped in oppressive environments. Whether or not these protagonists overcome their oppressors was less an editorial concern. It was the spirit of defiance, of being heard, and creating change that we wanted to highlight. Revolution is never easy, nor does it always work. But the stories are always interesting (at least in our anthology, I like to think)!

The most memorable science fiction stories have a history of
challenging social dogma relevant to its times. It’s not surprising to me that
some of the genre’s most depressing and darkest works (from American writers)
occurred during times of extreme unrest and fear. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must
Scream” by Harlan Ellison is possibly one of the darkest parables to have been
written regarding the dangers of technology. Published in 1967, supercomputers built
by humans to better fight the Cold War become sentient and bad things happen.
George Orwell foretold the intrusiveness of a surveillance state in 1984
in response to the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s.

When you consider the last few years, cultural issues such as climate change, the rise of AI, and sovereignty of our bodies have been at the forefront of social concern. Examples of resistance fiction that tackle these issues can be found in Charlie Jane Anders’s excellent All the Birds in the Sky (ecology), Nexhuman by Francesco Verso (transhumanism), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (fluidity of sex and gender). What I like about these three novels is that they’re extremely dark, but in the end, they offer a glimmer of hope. Dystopia is interesting, but without hope there is little room for anything other than misery. The world is at a crossroads. I hope Do Not Go Quietly inspires you to take up a cause you believe in. There is victory in using your voice.


Do you use themes of resistance in your writing? What kinds of topics do you wish science fiction dealt more with? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry.


Interview with Holly Heisey

We sat down recently with powerhouse creator Holly Heisey to talk about how they balance their various artistic pursuits, and their thoughts on freelancing, representation, and professionalism. Enjoy!


Dream Foundry: You're a creator who wears many, many different hats. Can you describe some of those hats for us?

Holly Heisey: Hats! So, honestly, as fashion statements and labels for creative pursuits, I’ve never been that good at wearing hats. 

I’m always trying to figure out what I want to be. Just one thing, like you’re supposed to do. But I have this driving need to make art and writing and music and at least ten different sub-interests for all the above. I want to do everything. All at once. All of it! I really want that instant-learning Matrix chair to be real. And possibly cloning. There are so many things to make!

I’m not sure I’ll ever face the reality that I can’t do everything I want to do in one lifetime, but I am trying to learn I don’t have to do it all at once. I try to limit how many projects I have on my plate at any given moment, but I always have my hands in at least a dozen front and back-burner projects and shift between them based on my current interest level, energy level, if my skills are up to what I want to do, and finances… in that order. 

My very first paying job was as a web designer, which led to work as an illustrator, which led to cover illustration and designs like I do today. Somewhere in there, I took a break and decided I would be a full-time fiction writer. I quickly decided I hated being a full-time writer when I also wanted to make art and music. And then I became an almost-full-time book cover designer because it was shiny and I got to illustrate glowing things and starships—and also got reliably paid, which is a nice bonus—but after a while I really wished I could spend more time on my own art projects and writing. I also have overlapping projects I want to work on, like comics and interactive fiction games. 

So my hats and interest in projects are always pulling me in different directions, and the challenge is to find some balance between them all. But I’m starting to think that the tension between my dual careers (and triple, if you add the distant third and mostly stalled career of making music) isn’t that I don’t have enough time to spend on each of them, but that I’m still looking at them as separate things. 

Like, I have a writing career, and I have an art career. Both are doing decently, sometimes one pulls ahead of the other, etc. But the reality is that they aren’t that separate. Things like when I illustrate my own stories or work on music I might use for an art tutorial video definitely shows the overlap. Sometimes I’ll make a project, like my ongoing passion project of making found-document-style alien poetry, and I’ll stand there for a long time thinking, “Okay, which career does this belong to? Art or writing?” I don’t want that tension. I don’t want to be just a writer, or an artist, or a musician, or any one of the above—I just want to be a creator that does all the above and lets it flow and overlap as needed.

So… hats. Yeah, I have a thing about hats!

DF: Do you feel a tension among your different creative pursuits? How do you choose what to work on at any given time?

HH: Definitely, and for a lot of the reasons I said above. Within specific projects, though, my biggest causes of tension are deadlines and money. Without those two things, I’d be pretty happily bouncing from project to project, adding a little more to each as the whim hit. That’s what I did when I was younger, before making my creative projects into careers. And, that’s what I’m searching for a way to get back to. That sort of world-innocent creative storm.

It’s hard balancing creativity—which is so dependent on what my soul wants to do and say—with outside influences, which are dependent on other factors and sometimes (often) take me farther from what I’m really longing to do at any given moment. 

I create because I have to, because if I don’t, it’s like a volcano building up inside me. It has to come out. But if I have, say, five projects on deck, I often end up choosing for any given day the one that can bring the most immediate income, or has the tightest deadline. 

Which is tough. I might desperately want to spend the next three days blazing through the end of writing my novel but have an art deadline I have to meet. Or, I might really want to finish making an epic space battle scene for a client, but I owe edits back for a story I sold. 

More often than not, writing takes a back seat for me to art, because art is what’s bringing 9/10 of my income. It can also be hard with the types of projects I’m working on. I might want to spend a solid month learning how to make better space art, but my next month of client projects are all character covers. I also deal with a chronic illness, which can wreck extra havoc with scheduling and then I get none of the projects on my plate done in the time I need to. All of the above can create a lot of angst, frustration, and strain, and over time, it starts sapping the joy out of making things if I’m not careful. 

I’m not saying freelance life isn’t worth it. It is so, so worth it. Everything I do (minus paperwork and, blah, taxes) is creative. I can set my own hours, shift schedules around, work in my pajamas, choose the projects I want to take on. And any one of these projects, given their own timing, I’d be jumping over. But falling out of balance—either with art and writing, or with doing too much client work and not enough of my own soul-work—can be so tempting and easy, justified by life stuff and expenses. More income in the present is worth little, though, if I burn out and my physical and mental health suffer, taking away my ability to do good work or work at all. Which has happened to me more than once, and it’s not a fun place to be. It’s a place that requires honesty of what I can and can’t do, and what my heart really wants to do, to get back to making meaningful creations again.

I’m working on that balance. Allowing myself more time to do personal work is a huge part of it. Learning to schedule less and know how to market spec projects like tutorials or illustrations that clients can license vs commission has helped.

I think somewhere in freelance work there needs to be a bit of mystical trust—kind of like the trust you put into creative work in the first place. It will, somehow, all work out. You give it your all. You pour your soul into it. And if it’s just not working, you adjust accordingly. 

Self-care is so important. And I’ve learned, especially dealing with a chronic illness that can greatly affect times of burnout and vice versa, that self-care might be the most important freelance skill you can have. You have to nurture your joy in creating your work above all else. 

DF: What are some ways one type of creative endeavor has informed and unexpectedly bolstered another?

HH: I study movies, TV, books, art, music, and comics I love obsessively. Sometimes from a story angle, sometimes from an art/composition angle, sometimes trying to pin an exact emotion so I can understand it. If anything has ended up making my creative pursuits overlap in crazy ways, it’s from this.

My study of cinematic visuals has led to dozens and dozens of movie still studies, which has led to getting a better grasp of cinematic techniques and framing in book covers. It’s also informed how I portray the descriptions of people and places in my writing, and my own internal visual sense of story. I have this weird sort of synesthesia when I’m writing that if I don’t like the “feel” of the colors and atmosphere I’m creating, the cinematic language in my head, I have to shift something. The characters, the mood, something. Once that cinematic language is playing in the right colors, then I can keep going. 

On the flip side, storytelling has greatly informed my art—as an illustrator, I’m always looking to tell a story. To catch a scene or character mid-motion. To convey a sense that there was a moment before this image and a moment after and letting the viewer fill in what those moments are. There’s almost always some sense of movement in my art, and I’m always trying to make that deeper.

And of course, in starting to move into comics and designing my own games and music, it’s basically all the above. Everything informs everything.

DF: You've engaged with issues of representation and professionalism on several fronts in your career. Are there common themes or shared issues across different areas you work in, or does each have its own issues?

HH: A common theme across all areas of creativity right now is the lack of portrayal of underrepresented groups—POC, LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, different religions, neurodiversity, different body types, etc. And I think some creative fronts are better with this than others, and in different ways. 

The literary world seems more on top of representing these groups than, say, Hollywood. Comics, even big-publisher mainstream comics, are also making a lot of strides, and webcomics are often subversively wonderful and way ahead of the game here.

The world of illustration and commercial art, though, is behind the curve. If you go on Artstation.com, which is the largest portfolio site for artists working in the gaming, movies/tv, and illustration industries, you will see a lot of gorgeous art. You’ll also see a lot of art that objectifies women, almost no art that portrays queer people, and even less that portrays disabilities. Body shapes are idealized. And while there is a lot of wonderful art featuring people of color, as artists on Artstation are from around the world, it’s still less proportioned to art featuring white characters.

 I think part of the problem is that a lot of this commercial art is done for and informed by Hollywood and the gaming industry, which in turn informs the visual language and design of our movies and games, and so the cycle repeats. The same is true for book covers. The people putting out the big projects are more likely to keep doing what’s always been done, which is—unintentionally or not—minimizing representation of minority groups. Because it’s worked before. This is even pretty rampant in indie publishing, where authors tailor their branding to what other successful authors are doing.

In the indie book industry especially, there’s a large issue going on with the lack of diverse resources for photo manipulation artists and designers. Many large image resource companies have actively discriminatory policies against portraying LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities, and don’t have many good poses portraying POC and diverse body types, but there’s a grassroots movement to make these diverse resources available. Several current and former cover designers—like Dean Samed with NeoStock, Regina Wamba with The Stock Alchemist, and Rebecca Frank with Bewitching Book Stock—are forming their own stock image companies and releasing diverse images as fast as they can shoot them, which is a wonderful thing to see.

DF: What are examples of multi-media or multi-format projects that have inspired or impressed you?

HH: The moment I decided I wanted to be an illustrator was when I picked up Tales of King Arthur illustrated by Rodney Matthews. All of the sudden, the world opened up, and I realized the pictures didn’t just have to be in my head or on the cover. There could be whole worlds inside the pages, too. I think, from that early introduction to mixing story and art, I’ve always intertwined the two.

Really good cinematic trailers are also a huge inspiration for me—the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is almost perfect. I’ve been over it so many times. So much artistry goes into good trailers, in the leading of dramatic tension in such a short time, the colors, composition and mood, and the music which pulls it all together. Every moment has to be evoking or leading you to an emotional response.

I love pouring through concept art for movies and games. The beauty of the art, attention to practical details, and storytelling that goes into creating these images is astounding. Some concept artists have made incredibly detailed worlds around their art, like Noah Bradley’s Sin of Man project—which started with art and expanded to include stories as well. And the popular YouTube artist Ross Tran with his Nima project. I also love when writers like Brandon Sanderson incorporate worldbuilding in symbols, maps, and art into the books themselves, like in the Stormlight Archive series.

And I can’t forget comics! I have an obsessive love of comics. I especially love the art of Christian Ward in the recent Black Bolt series written by Saladin Ahmed—art informed story informed art. It was mesmerizing.

DF: If you had to share the most important lesson you've learned about craft in any format, what would it be? How does or doesn't it apply to other formats?

HH: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen. To not be set in any one way, or rigid in my ideas, but to flow with where I’m going and listen to whatever I’m creating has to say. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I need time to step back and listen. And this applies to writing, art, music, life, all the above.

It’s okay, and sometimes necessary to step back. Or set a project aside. I often set aside stuck art to dive into writing or vice versa, or go binge watch something, take a walk, or read to get my mind off the problem…but honestly, it’s just clearing the mental space so I can listen. If I’m trying to bring everything I know to the table, or trying to follow certain rules or a sure formula for success, it just doesn’t work for me. If I trust that the work itself will always bring something new, that’s when I know I’m listening. And that’s when the really cool stuff happens.

DF: When you're developing a new skill, how do you approach it? How does your breadth of experience inform that approach? (Or, does it?)

HH: I’m always learning, and always reaching for something more, and always analyzing every creative thing I take in. For me, it’s compulsory. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m taking in everything. And if it was particularly good, I’ll spend hours or days in my head analyzing it afterward from every possible creative and emotional angle. Same with books, art, music, etc.

I don’t approach skill building in a traditional way. I’ve never been very good with standard courses—I basically designed my curriculum in high school around what I loved and schooled myself (I was homeschooled), and never felt the need to go to college. I honestly don’t think I would have done well in that kind of learning environment. I find something shiny, something I want to learn, and I find a way to learn it. And I become obsessed with it and can’t think about anything else. Whether it’s analyzing why something works, or trying to recreate something myself, or using tutorials on YouTube, or courses targeted to certain skills, it’s always a compulsion for me. If the learning isn’t fun, or I don’t have a driving need to reach a goal… I just won’t do it.

This is how I’ve been learning 3D software (which is REALLY intensive)—I do make myself sit down and do some courses in there, but they’re courses that I want to do so much that it hurts more not to. And I give myself the freedom to move around in what I’m learning, not just focus on one thing, or on linear learning, or on getting the basics. (The basics are usually boring.) I dive right in!

I definitely have some gaps in my skill set from this approach. But then, I have some really broad areas of knowledge, too. Like my study of all things cinematic that’s informed almost all areas of my creativity.

But, this is my approach to learning. I know my brain is uniquely wired. And the best thing I’ve ever done to help myself learn is to let myself learn the way that works best for me. When I push, I often end up hating whatever I wanted to learn. Nurturing your own learning style is really important.


How do you learn new skills and methods for your art? What's your experience when it comes to balancing different aspects of your work? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry!


The Art of Story Mechanics

Originally published on June 13, 2017, at sfwa.org. Reprinted with permission.


The late Robert M. Pirsig, in his famous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wrote with some anxiety about the split between “classic” culture (maintaining a motorcycle) and “romantic” culture (riding a motorcycle). He was wrong about some things, but it’s certainly true that many people are creative in one way and not in the other.

I come from a long line of mechanics and tinkerers, but I didn’t get the gene. Not for me the pleasures of making something work. As a kid, I did well enough in math class, but I always felt like I was cheating. I was very good at memorizing how to follow a process, but I never really understood the underlying truth of what I was doing.

I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve never been a tinkerer.

Until now.

In March, I started working on a contract for Choice of Games. I’ve never written interactive fiction before, and other than a bit of BASIC and HTML, I’ve never coded before. I’m having a lot of fun. And for the first time in my life, I’m learning how to tinker. It’s already having an effect – a beneficial one, I think – on all of my prose, including the non-interactive stories.

The day I signed the contract and sat down to begin telling my story, I felt adrift for a moment. Choicescript, the language I’m using, is easy to learn and there are many resources for the beginner. So I understood pretty quickly what each command would do, the function of each tool. But what were the rules for using those tools? Which ways of using those tools were wrong, and which ways were right?

That’s when I had an epiphany: When my code works, it works; when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There are more or less efficient or elegant ways of doing something, and there are many examples to follow, but when it came down to it, I had the freedom to kludge my scene together any way I wanted. Although my editor will appreciate it, nobody really cares how clever my code is. What matters is the story that emerges from it.

Or rather, stories.

That moment of freeing myself from rigid concepts of right and wrong was also a useful reminder about storytelling.

We writers often treat our works-in-progress like imperfect versions of Platonic ideals, as if the Story Council has the ur-copy of every novel in its big library in the sky and we’re just trying to make our version as close to that as possible. We polish, and refine, and all of that involves making choices. Is this better than that? Will putting the exposition in Chapter 2 work better for the character arc than putting it in Chapter 3? If only someone would give us the answer key!

George Saunders recently described his writing process as a series of instinctive decisions: he imagines a meter on his forehead with P for Positive on one side and N for negative on the other. In a binary conception, every change moves the needle one way or the other. Good or bad, right or wrong. Decisions are not value-neutral. Edits move the novel closer to its potential greatness, until it either achieves that greatness or the deadline arrives.

With interactive fiction, the writer is making choices, but based on what works rather than what’s right. It might seem like a fine distinction, but acknowledging that more than one possibility can work at any given plot point feels a little subversive.

It’s a good reminder that editor or beta-reader feedback is only useful insofar as it helps us make the story work in the way we want it to work. There’s no right way to build a motorcycle: there are more elegant ways and less elegant, more powerful and less powerful, less expensive, more expensive, bigger or smaller, quieter or louder.

Sometimes, the well-meaning person giving you feedback is trying to tell you how to turn your motorcycle into a helicopter.

There are examples to follow and tricks of the trade, but there’s no one right way to tell a story. Story structure, like any engine, is amenable to tinkering.


The game that Kate mentions being in process of writing for Choice of Games in this piece has now been published! You can find out more about The Road to Canterbury and play the first three chapters for free, or watch a trailer and read an interview with Kate. We hope you'll check it out!


Do you find that you can tinker in your creative arts, or do you get caught up in the idea of doing things “the right way?” Are you comfortable tinkering with your story structure, or are you more comfortable with a set path for your narrative? We want to hear from you on our forum!


Going Interactive or: How I Learned to Relax and Let the Reader Take Control

One of the things I love the most about writing is finding
the rhythm of a story, whether it’s in the voice of a character, the flow of
the words around them, or the (hopefully) seamless transition from one scene to
the next. So when I decided a year or so ago to write a novel-length
choose-your-path game with Choice of Games (and, later, to write a short interactive
piece which appeared in sub-Q),
I was in for a challenge. Not only would I have to learn two new languages (ChoiceScript and ink) to write my
stories in, but I would also have to shift the way I approached the writing
altogether. 

Interactive fiction, even when it is tightly scripted by the
author, gives some control of the narrative to the reader—my job as a writer
was less to guide every step the reader/player took along the narrative path
and more to make sure that no matter what path they traveled, it was a
satisfying and engaging one. So how to make that happen and still tell the
story I was interested in conveying? I discovered that, for me, the best
strategy was to focus on having a strong and cohesive structure and let the
narrative take different shapes within it. 

In my Choice of Games work, this approach means having set pieces in each chapter—large events or goals that affect everyone in the game, no matter what choices they’ve made thus far. I grew up watching soap operas and I think of set pieces like the events they would have during “sweeps weeks,” when Nielsen measured ratings—a tornado comes to town, a killer is on the loose, the annual charity ball is in danger of being cancelled, etc. Not all of my set pieces are so dramatic, but in each one, any character in the world of the story will have some role to play or goal to achieve. The interactivity comes in why it matters to them, how they go about it, and, usually, what they choose to do at the end – all of which are tracked separately but feed back into the main story.

Here’s an example using the tornado set piece: if a tornado
descends on one of the farmhouses in town and our player character (let’s say
our player has decided to be a girl named Dorothy) chooses to go out in the
storm (vs. hiding in the cellar) in order to warn the townspeople about the
danger (vs. to save her dog Toto) because she wants to be mayor one day (vs.
out of the goodness of her heart), each of those decisions would be tracked a
little separately, on top of the actual difference in the story text in the description
of her frantic run towards town as opposed to her time crouched in the cellar.
I might track, for example, whether Dorothy was outside or inside when the
storm hit, how her relationship with Toto suffers slightly because she didn’t
try to help him, or her choice of ambitiousness instead of altruism.
Ultimately, whatever choices our player has Dorothy make in that moment, she’ll
end up in Oz – but depending on these and other choices, she might land in a
different location, have Toto not warn her later on when the flying monkeys are
coming, or see the famous Glinda the Good Witch more as a rival for power than
a potential helper.

As the writer, my job in all of this is to create all of those decision points and to give opportunities for them to matter in the story going forward. If I decide to track Dorothy and Toto’s relationship, I need to make that a part of the story, so that players can experience it being either good, bad, or neutral, depending on the choices they’ve made. If I track ambitiousness as part of the player character’s personality, I need to not only have opportunities for them to try to use that ambition to achieve their goals (and either succeed or fail in response), but also create opportunities in the dialogue of other characters or the narrative as a whole for that ambition to play a role. 

Luckily, this isn’t quite as complex as it seems—for my Choice of Games game, I’ve already decided which personality and relationship variables I will be tracking at the start of the game, along with any variables that will affect what happens in the end of the game or affect the world as a whole (like, for example, Dorothy’s popularity with the citizens of Oz or how much turmoil there is in the kingdom). In each chapter, my main job is then to create an outline that establishes what the set pieces are within that scene and details the plot points that lead into and out of that set piece. In our tornado scene, for example, plot points leading up to the tornado might include a tornado warning, establishment of Dorothy’s relationship with the workers on the farm, her encounter with a mean teacher, and the impending arrival of the storm. Each of those plot points will have a few choices within it that give the player the chance to make smaller decisions that will add up over time to a big impact on their actions, personality, relationships, and the world as a whole. 

One of the things I love the most about the Choice of Games model is that there are no wrong decisions per se—no chances to turn to page 46 and suddenly find out that the door you picked leads to the vacuum of space. Similarly, personality traits are never about choosing good vs. bad—they’re more like choosing introvert vs. extrovert or risktaker vs. cautious—and no matter what the variables look like at the end of the game, they are expected to present a satisfying and non-judgmental conclusion. That said, it’s always fun to shake things up, which is why I took a somewhat different approach to my shorter interactive fiction piece, Thanks for the Memories

In Thanks for the Memories, the player takes the role of the main character, who wakes up with no memories (not even of her own name) and has to buy them back to understand more about who she is and how she got into this situation. It’s not too complicated of a concept story-wise, but to turn it into a finished piece I had to follow a few beginning steps that would serve anyone who wants to write interactive fiction well – figure out the best story and interactive structure for your piece and then choose a language/tool that fits that structure (and that you’ll actually use).

(Note: As with traditional prose, one of the best ways to understand and get great ideas about interactive fiction is to experience it – check out IFDB, places like sub-Q Magazine, Choice of Games, and the entrants in major interactive fiction competitions like IFComp and The Spring Thing for ideas.)

Figuring out the
story and the structure.
There are many different
structures and formats for interactive fiction – choice-based stories, games
that take typed input from the player and turn it into an action for the game
to respond to (also known as parsers), experimental hypertext approaches where
you replay the same scene over and over but can click different things each
time, and so on and so forth. I had to keep my eyes on the prize – focus on the
core of the story that I wanted the player to experience (experiencing
different memories to learn more about the life of the main character) and the
primary reason that I was using interactivity to explore that story (it meant
that the memories could be experienced non-linearly and that the player had to
choose which ones to read through).

With
choice as such an important element, for example, I knew I wanted the
interactive elements to be presented as straightforward choices on the bottom
of the screen. (If instead, I had wanted the player to feel like they were lost
in a series of disjointed memories that they had to piece together, I might
have had the player select words within one snatch of memory that take them to
another.) Similarly, because choosing one memory after another was a key part
of my idea, I had a good idea of the structure I needed – a central frame story
that gave the main character a way to get access to memories and then come back
to the main narrative (a simple version of the loop-and-grow structure
mentioned in this great round-up of patterns in choice-based games).

From
there, the rest of the structure was developed by asking “how” questions of
myself to and then answering them – “how does the player pick the memories” led
to the development of a Alexa/Siri-like device for the main character to
interact with, “how does someone without memories know what to ask for” became
the development of keywords that the main character recognizes during either
the main narrative or other memories and the player can then decide to explore,
“how do I keep narrative momentum going” became the addition of an outside time
pressure in the frame narrative. I’m a pantser by nature, so I made a lot up as
I went, but by staying true to my original intent, I was able to keep my later
decisions and additions in line with the story I wanted to tell, even when I
was deep in the code.

Choosing the right
language and/or tool.

Speaking of code - there are a lot of different tools and
languages for creating interactive fiction
. Twine is probably the most popular for
choice-based fiction – it requires very little coding language and almost
resembles Scrivener in its “put text on index cards and then link them
together” approach, but can be used to do a TON of very sophisticated things.
I’ve used it a bit, but the languages I am most familiar with personally are ink (which I used to write Thanks
for the Memories) and Choicescript (the language developed by
Choice of Games for their games). Both are great (and free!) – ink can track
every piece of text your player ever sees, which was key for me in being able
to subtly change the text of the Thanks for the Memories based on the memories
the main character has experienced, and Choicescript is wonderful for keeping
track of statistics and making sure that every choice the player makes has a
long-term consequence.

Really though, the best language is the one you’ll use. Most choice-based languages will have a lot of tools in common – the ability to define and use variables (i.e. set the color of Riding Hood’s to red and her name to Sally), if/then statements (i.e. if Sally the Riding Hood is more than 20 minutes late, the wolf has already eaten grandma), and the ability to link a choice to a new piece of text. While each has things it excels at and others it does a bit less intuitively, the only way to really see which one works for you and your story is to read up on the languages, play games made in them, or (my favorite) get in there and get your hands dirty! There’s no real cost to most interactive fiction tools, so jump on in! (Note: I have never written a parser, but have heard great things about Inform as a tool to create it if that’s what you are most interested in.) And that was just the beginning. As much fun as it would be to go into things like which types of interactivity (conditional statements, variables, state-tracking) to use in which story situations, what to do when your code just isn’t working, and approaches to testing, there just isn’t enough space or time. I’ll probably chat about this a bit more in the future on my very new Patreon, but really the person to go to for epic wisdom about interactive fiction and the #1 person on my to-read-and-listen-to interactive fiction list is Emily Short. She does game reviews, reviews of books about games, in-depth articles on approaches to IF, a round-up of places to meet up with other enthusiasts, and more. Check out her work and her writing and most importantly, give interactive fiction a try!


Have you tried writing interactive fiction? How did it go for you? We want to hear more from you! Check out the discussion post for this blog entry on our forum.


Lightning on a dark sky

Flash Fiction - A Primer

(Released under a CC-BY-SA license)

Flash in a Flash

Flash fiction is a form of storytelling in
a very short amount of space.

Ta-da! Now you’re ready to go!

Okay, maybe not:

Structure, or Lack Thereof

Structure is a blessing and a curse. It
can help you stick to word limits, or force your way out of them. If you’re
trying to tell a traditional three-act story it can often help to pare your
structure down to the bare minimum.

Three-act Storytelling

It’s darn hard to tell a story with a
typical beginning, middle, and end in 1,000 words or less, but it can be done!

In my view, the easiest way to conceive this
is that a three-act flash story answers four questions in order:

1) What conflict does your protagonist
want to resolve?

2) What does your protagonist do about it?

3) What happens as a result?

4) What is the resolution?

If you answer each of these in under 250
words, you’ve got a 1,000-word story.

Laurel Amberdine’s "Airship Hope" is a good example. In
fact, it's even more condensed, with Numbers Three and Four smooshed into one
question and answered in a single sentence right at the end of the story! But
all four questions are there, nonetheless.

You can also get away, many times, with
just implying some of the questions.
By telling part of a story, you can show that there’s a world beyond the page,
and engage your readers by letting them figure out what happens next.

Three-act storytelling isn’t the only
traditional narrative structure in town, either. Kawabata Yasunari wrote a
series of “palm of the hand” stories, which tend to follow the Japanese model
of kishoutenketsu. Noh plays follow a contrasting
three-part structure called Jo-ha-kyuu.

Non-Narrative Stories

With flash, it’s also possible to tell an
effective story by breaking out of traditional narrative conventions
altogether. Tell a story as a list of bullet points, as a series of tweets, as
a set of GPS instructions. What’s crucial, though, is that you still need to tell a story, not just
show off a clever list of things.

For example, consider Alex Acks’s “List of Items in Leather Valise found on Welby Crescent.

Even though all we get is a list of items
found in a valise, it’s possible to figure out the story behind those items.

Copying from Patterns

Another flash shortcut is to look for
patterns in nature or other kinds of art, and fit your story into them. Patterns
are literally everywhere, so they can give you a boost if you’re stuck.

This technique works best when the pattern
you choose actually relates to the story you’re telling.

A good example is Takamichi Okubo’s “Shinbu Unit 99,” the form
of which mimics a haiku: five paragraphs, then seven paragraphs, then five
paragraphs. Eleanor R. Wood’s “Fibonacci” uses the
mathematical sequence of the same name.

Description and Detail

In flash, you can’t spend twenty pages
describing the origins and history of a dress (Sorry, Robert Jordan!), but you
can say it was eggshell yellow, ankle-length, and tented. (Although, come to
think of it, “describing the origins and history of a dress” sounds like a
pretty good non-narrative flash fiction story…)

On the other hand, you probably don’t want
to write a story that features talking heads in a white room.

Gustav Flaubert supposedly said, “Three
details are enough to fix a strong picture in the reader's mind—if they are the
right details.”

But how do you find the “right” details? By
focusing on your viewpoint character (if there is one) or the person central to
your story. What are the details that are most important to this character? What
do they notice, and why? The right details will not just describe your setting,
they’ll tell your reader about your character.

Three Signs of Ineffective Flash

In his management book Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick
Lencioni describes how anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability can be
warning signs for miserable employees. Oddly enough, they can also make a
pretty good benchmark of whether or not a piece of flash fiction is working.

A story evokes some sort of feeling in the
reader (horror, wonder, love, misery) by introducing us to a person (or people)
who are doing something (or things).

Anonymity

In management, employees hate being
unrecognized for their work. In fiction, it’s the reader who’s affected by
anonymity.

A story where the viewpoint character is
referred to throughout as “he” or “she” or “they” risks killing a reader’s
interest, because it’s harder to relate to a shadowy everyperson. Even if you
give us no more information about your character than a name, that’s worlds
better than referring to them as just a pronoun throughout.

Names can carry a surprising amount of
implied information, and as humans our brains like to glom onto detail. Even in
totally fantastical or science fictional settings, they help make your
character seem more real, less of a cipher.

Irrelevance

This one is fairly self-explanatory. Nobody
wants to be irrelevant!

In writing flash, if it’s not important to
your story, plot, character, etcetera, why are you including it? This is
especially important to remember in flash fiction, where you don’t have the
space to go on digressions, no matter how interesting.

This doesn’t mean don’t worldbuild. It
means limit your focus to elements of worldbuilding that are directly relevant
to the story you’re telling right now.

Immeasurability

In the management world, this refers to
how employees need to know they’re making progress toward some kind of goal.

In flash, effective stories tend to show a
character making progress toward their goal(s). Or they could do the opposite:
show them not making progress and how that affects them.

Some kind of plot arc or character arc
usually makes for a more engaging story than four pages of nothing happening.

Wrap-up

To summarize, an effective piece of flash
tells a story about a specific person (or persons!) who have specific goals,
and do something to try and make those goals happen.

Of course (as with the famous advice from
Vonnegut about storytelling), any of these can be deliberately broken to good
effect.

Happy writing! :)

Further Reading

Nancy Kress, Beginnings,
Middles, Ends

Randall Brown, A Pocket Guide
to Flash Fiction

David Gaffney, “Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction,” The Guardian


Have you tried writing flash fiction? Do you have questions about the format, or advice to share with others? Join the conversation on our forum to chat more about this subject with other speculative artists!


Old-fashioned fuzzy dice hanging from car mirror.

Worth a Thousand Words: Using Pictures to Inspire Fiction

I’m primarily a novel writer. I don’t really write short
stories.

But, Lin, didn’t you just put out a book of short stories?

…All right, I’ll rephrase that.

For me, the process of writing short stories is much harder
than the same for novel-length fiction, largely because I have no sense of
self-restraint when it comes to a draft. If I’m writing something interesting,
I want to keep going with the story, with the worldbuilding, with the
characters, and obviously that’s far easier to get away with in something that
goes past the 5,000- to 7,000-word mark. And when I hit a wall in a novel, I
can just change scenes, or switch character POVs. That’s not as much of an
option with short fiction.

So I’m always on the lookout for any trick or technique that
will help me build a cohesive short story draft with an actual beginning,
middle, and end.

Right now, the technique that’s working for me is using Story Cubes. All these dice with little pictures on them? Those are Story Cubes.

A number of dice rolled out on a table, showing pictures instead of the traditional numbers.

Technically, Story Cubes is meant to be played as a game. I’ve never used them that way, myself. I bought them to use for what I’m doing here: as ways to randomly generate elements of short fiction. There are many different themed sets, like Fantasy, Science Fiction, Medical, and Prehistoric.

It’s very simple: I pop all the dice into a bag, pick five dice at random, roll them, and write down what pictures I get.

Five Story Cube dice in a row, showing an eye, a piece of paper being lit by a match, an ambulance, someone giving or receiving a gift, and a stick being broken.
  • Eye
  • Lighting something on fire
  • Ambulance
  • Giving/receiving a gift
  • Breaking something

Then I sit down and write a rough draft of a short story
that incorporates all of these elements. You can read what
I made out of the above for free at my Patreon, if you’re interested.

It’s by no means finished, but it’s a whole draft of something and that’s what counts!

If you’re not able to purchase Story Cubes but you still
want some way of randomly generating a series of story elements, another great
tool is the “Random File” function at Wikimedia Commons.

The Commons is where all the images and sound files used on
Wikipedia are stored. Clicking “Random File” in the left-hand menu will…do
exactly what it says on the tin: it will take you to a random media file. It
might be a photo of an elephant, a baroque painting, a sound file of Winston
Churchill—the possibilities are nearly endless.

Here’s what I got for my five files:

I know, it looks like a mess of word salad, but don’t panic
just yet. Go ahead and simplify these down to the very generalized objects,
people, or places that the images represent, like the pictures on the Story Cubes.

  • Clouds
  • A bus
  • Baseball
  • Race cars
  • A bird

You can add details or signifiers back in (storm clouds, a tour bus, a black bird, etc.) but the important thing is to whittle your elements down to the barest essentials. Once you start building your story, you can layer details back in. There’s a story in everything, if you know how to look for it and work with it. Good luck!


Did you try Story Cubes and get something interesting out of it? Do you have any tricks for how to generate random story ideas? Let us know on our forum!


Creating Realistic Non-Humans

If I don’t like a piece of science fiction media, I often
find myself saying that it was too focused on the humans. I get enough of that
in real life. Give me the aliens.

Obviously this a little bit of a joke… but not entirely. For whatever reason, throughout a long life of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, I’ve been drawn to the outsiders and the non-humans. I got a degree in anthropology in part because of my obsession with learning about other cultures, and in sci-fi and fantasy I get to indulge that love in reverse: I get to create them from the ground up, with none of the rules of history and specificity that Earth cultures have. But I’m often disappointed in editing or watching or reading other media by cultures that are cliché, shallowly developed in ways that often don’t make sense. So I’m here to help you with that.

Start With the Basics

You probably have some concept of what story niche you need a
creature to fill. Are they a mindless devourer, a haughty warrior adversary, or
noble-but-distant ally for your heroes to cautiously rely on? How many of them
are we going to meet in the course of the game or story or script? Are they
potentially playable or POV characters, or only enemies, set-dressing or NPCs?
The more time your story spends with these people, the more detailed you’re
going to want to get about who they are, and the more you’ll need to embrace
the fact that these people are individuals with their own attitudes, ideas,
talents, and personalities. Which brings me to…

Avoiding the Planet of Hats Trope

The Planet of Hats
is a world where every single inhabitant shares a certain trait. They’re all obsessed
with gangsters, or effete artistic types, or hardened warriors. I won’t point
fingers, because just about every sci-fi franchise and most fantasy series has
this going on. It’s attractive shorthand – and didn’t I just say you needed to
start out with what story niche you need these people to fill? This makes it
easy! All of these people are noble-but-distant allies or haughty warriors or
whatever. But… it also makes them feel very samey and unrealistic. If everybody
in this society is a scientist, who’s making dinner? Who’s cleaning up the lab
at night? If they’re all warriors, how is the laundry getting done? Even the Spartans
had traders, and pillaging was more of a seasonal job for the Vikings than anything
else – they went home and were farmers or traders and so on the rest of the
year. No society can function on just one kind of work. They may try, but they’ll
inevitably become unbalanced, which usually leads to revolution of some kind.
If you want to show a culture teetering on the edge of that kind of upheaval,
by all means go for it! But be aware that otherwise, someone needs to be growing
food and washing the floor and changing diapers while everyone else is talking
about art or philosophy.  

Examine Your Assumptions, and Think About Subverting Them

If that last section sounded like I might be talking about
gendered jobs, consider who you automatically assumed would be doing the lower-status,
domestic work… and consider whether or not maybe some or all of those assumptions
might be different in this strange new world you’re creating.

Get Down to Biology

Don’t be scared – you don’t have to have a doctorate in biochem
to do the kind of biological work that I’m talking about. You just need to have
a little curiosity, some mental flexibility, and an internet connection. Let’s
say you want to have a reptilian society like I suggested above, and you want them
to hatch out of eggs. Great! (I hope you’re not thinking of giving your female
reptilians breasts, though, because if they don’t nurse, there’s no reason for
them to have mammary glands. Please don’t do this.)

Since these people are reptilian, let’s also assume that
they have some of the other
traits we would expect from non-avian reptiles on Earth
– let’s say they’re
cold-blooded and have what is scientifically called a “horny epidermis” (scales,
for us lay people). They’re going to need to shed their skin as they grow, then,
and not be active in cold temperatures due to a lower metabolism that’s reliant
on heat. I’m guessing their cities aren’t big on nightlife, given that second
fact, and, given the first, they probably have to take time off from whatever
they’re doing (work, making war, etc.) when the time to shed comes on them. Or,
at the very least, they’re going to be itchy, irritable, and distracted during
those times. How could the daily and yearly patterns of their culture and their
lives be set up to accommodate  those traits?

What else? They might have infrared (heat-sensitive) vision
like some snakes, which could be interesting. Think about how different the
world would look to you if you could see the visible color spectrum and also
heat. Now think about how useful that could be in certain professions. An engineer
with that kind of vision could find leaks in engine construction at a glance,
and I bet a blacksmith with that kind of skill would be in high demand –
particular if she’s highly adapted to hot temperatures. Maybe they can see when
the human characters are sweating or have a fever.

How does being an egg-layer change their society from what
we mammals would think is normal? They might be significantly less attached to
their young, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re heartless – it just
means they’re different from us. (If you’re interested in this idea, take a
look at what Becky Chambers does with the Aandrisks and their social structure
in The
Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
.)

Consider Working Against Type

In general, if a piece of media presents us with insectoid
or reptilian creatures, they’re going to be evil, while if the creatures are
fuzzy, big-eyed, mammalian, or all of the above, they’re almost certainly going
to be good guys. There’ve been a few counter-examples over the years (District 9 being an obvious
one), but if you’re interested in doing something unusual with your creatures, working
against audience expectations in this way can be a great way to break out of
the mold and do something that will surprise, and therefore interest, your
viewers.

Worried about alienating your audience with creatures who
don’t look like what they expect? This can be trickier in visual media than in
written media where you as the author have more control over what adjectives a
reader associates with your creatures, but if you don’t believe me that it can
still work, look at what Mass Effect
did with some of their species. The horny-toad looking Krogan are rough and
tumble, for sure, but they’re not baddies, nor are the Turians (who are a lot
harder to classify but are definitely not fluffy), and they are generally (but
not in all cases, because individuals!) allies and friends.

Of course, you don’t have to stay within the classic bounds
of insectoid, reptilian, cat-people, and so on. Stretch yourself! Combine
traits from different classes of Earth animal, or use more obscure creatures.
Make sentient species based on sea stars or jellyfish, anemones, or slime
molds. What about an intelligent culture whose people go through something like
the chrysalis process that moths and butterflies do, or who carry their homes/defenses
around with them like hermit crabs? What would that kind of culture look like
by the time it developed cities or became spacefaring?

The universe is your petri dish, my friends. Go out and
design interesting nonhumans to fill your worlds.


What do you think? Share your tips and tricks for writing realistic non-humans on our forum!


Writing Around the Edges

(I hope you like
marshmallows)

“Where do ideas come from?” is one of those nebulous
questions that can be impossible to answer. There’s no one simple solution,
although I’ve always loved Neil Gaiman's response that he was signed up for an
Idea-of-the-Month club.

Some people are constantly coming up with wonderful ideas
and lack only the time to see them through. I am not one of these people.
Wonderful ideas do sometimes come to me, but each time I'm pretty sure that it
will be my last one ever.

Unfortunately, to be even mildly productive, I can't afford
to sit and wait for the next wonderful idea to appear; I need to go out and
hunt it down. Over the years, I have come up with a basic process that has seen
me through a number of short stories, essays, a serial and three novellas. So
now, when there is a need or even just a desire to create something completely
new, I simply have to convince myself to trust in the process, which is in
itself not that easy.

My trick is to break the project into three parts. The first
is to brainstorm an idea. If I could just sit down and come up with something,
I would, but that's sadly not how my brain works. Instead, I set a timer and I
start writing the requirements for the project: what genre, what I am trying to
achieve, cool things that I'd love to include, possible theme songs – anything
at all, really, as long as it is on topic. Initially, I do this for just five minutes
or 500 words, because in the beginning when I don't know what I'm writing,
forcing myself to write more really doesn't help.

I write like this every day, usually in the morning. I am
not someone who claims that you must write every day to be a writer or
that certain rituals are required whatever the circumstance, but for this
brainstorming stage, I find that I really do need to write every day in order
to keep my back-brain working on the problem. If I keep it up, then the meta-story
thoughts slowly start to devolve into specifics: a character sketch, a setting,
snippets of dialogue. It's all a bit nonsensical, so it does require a leap of
faith to keep going. It's just words, there's no clear path to something useful
and every single time, I wonder why I'm wasting my time. But then something
changes.

Have you ever made marshmallows, or seen them being made?
Initially it’s just this thick syrup (actually sugar syrup and gelatin) with
nothing in common whatsoever with marshmallows. It's the wrong colour and the
wrong consistency and you boil it up hot and still nothing about it looks in
any way like it could ever be a marshmallow. You need to blend it hot and fast
in a standing mixer. Slowly but surely the golden liquid changes and there's a
frothiness to it that turns into a foaminess that turns into something white
and sticky which slowly gets fluffy. You can smell the difference at this
point, unmistakably marshmallowy. It takes about eight minutes.

This pre-writing is, for me, exactly like that, except for
the part about it only taking eight minutes. Each day I'll start to write a
little bit more and it'll feel a little bit less like pulling teeth. Over the
course of a week, I start to see the premise and get a feeling for what it is I
am writing. In the second week, I start to see a story-shaped thing in all of
that mess of words. My morning writing starts to shift from completely random
ideas to filling in the gaps that have started to appear for me. At some point,
I find myself longing to take all these words and reshape them into something
coherent. The brainstorming becomes a distraction, expanding the story idea
begins to appeal to me. At that point, I start to structure things and consider
the order in which events should happen and from there, real scenes start to
appear.

These words are nothing like a draft, not even a zero draft;
they’re really just a mess. But like the way that simple mixing and patience
ends up turning syrup into marshmallow, I can see the potential of it. I can
smell it.

There is still, of course, the writing to do, the second part of the process. And then there’s the rewriting, which can turn into an endless cycle. But at least now I know what I plan to write. I just need need to make myself do it — an entirely different problem. This generally requires bribery, but luckily, that's another thing that can also be solved with homemade marshmallows.


Brownie Points Blog’s Basic Vanilla Marshmallows

(via Creative Commons – alas, the original website is no longer available)

INGREDIENTS:

4 gelatin envelopes
¾ cup water
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 cups sugar
1 ¼ cup corn syrup

¾ cup water (for later)
½ tsp salt
rice flour
confectioner’s sugar

MAKES: A LOT OF MARSHMALLOWS. If you prefer, you can use
Sylvia’s conversions for a half batch:

  • 14 grams of plain gelatin (or 8 sheets leaf) (about
    2-3/4 tsp)
  • 90ml water (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons high quality vanilla extract or
    paste
  • 200g plain sugar (about 1 cup)
  • 120 ml golden syrup or corn syrup (or even maple
    syrup) (a little less than 1/2 cup)
  • A pinch of salt
  • Rice flour and icing/powdered sugar to coat

Line a 9” x 13” (8” x 8” if doing Sylvia’s half-batch
version) pan and a loaf pan with parchment paper. Coat the paper with vegetable
oil or non-stick spray. Fit a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. In the
mixer bowl combine the ¾ cup of water with vanilla extract. Sprinkle the
gelatin over the liquid to bloom (soften). Add the sugar, salt, corn syrup, and
remaining ¾ cup water to a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil with the lid on and
without stirring. When this mixture is at a boil, remove the lid and continue
to cook without stirring until it reaches the soft-ball stage (234-240 F). With
the mixer at medium speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of
the bowl into the awaiting gelatin mixture. Be careful, as the hot syrup is
very liquid and hot at this point and some may splash out of the bowl —
use a splashguard if you have one. When all of the syrup is added, bring the
mixer up to full speed.

Whip until the mixture is very fluffy and stiff, about 8-10
minutes. Pour marshmallow into the parchment-lined pans and smooth with an
oiled offset spatula if necessary. Allow the mixture to sit, uncovered at room
temp for 10 to 12 hours.

Mix equal parts rice flour and confectioners sugar and sift
generously over the rested marshmallow slab. Turn the slab out onto a cutting
board, peel off paper and dust with more sugar/starch mixture. Slice with a
pizza cutter into desired shapes. Dip all cut edges in sugar/starch mixture and
shake off excess powder.

Marshmallows will keep several weeks at room temp in an air-tight container. Enjoy!


Do ideas come easy for you, or do you have to work at them? What are your strategies for developing ideas? Let us know on the forum!