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

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

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

“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

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

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)


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
  • 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!

The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

Economics of Cons Roundtable

Dream Foundry Board President Jessica Eanes sat down over email with a panel of industry professionals recently to discuss cons and the details of how to make them work for you. You can find out more about each of our panelists in their author box at the bottom.

How do you know when you're far enough along in your career that it's worth it to go to cons?

Rachel Quinlan (artist): I'd say the basic requirements to start tabling at conventions is to have a small body of work and some money to invest in stock and a display. You can start at smaller local conventions to get your feet wet and slowly add new products and improve your convention set-up with each new event. And figure out some goals for the convention. I don't look at conventions as strictly sales events. It's also a way to network with other professionals in the industry, as well as being active in the community. I might have a convention where sales aren't great, but I get several original painting commissions later in the year, as a result of having tabled there.

Mike R. Underwood (author): For me, the first question when thinking about whether to attend a con is "what do I want to get out of the convention?" To me, that answer  is more telling than something dependent on your career stage. If you're not ready to submit fiction yet but you're writing and looking for more tools and perspectives on craft and business, cons might be worthwhile if you can find some that have good, informative programming. If you're submitting fiction and looking to connect with other writers at your career stage, attending a convention that has a workshopping element may be a good fit both for the specific feedback and for the chance to find critique partners for projects after the con.

Rachel: Mike makes a great point about the workshops. I go to a five-day convention in October that is specifically for illustrators (Illuxcon). In addition to having two nights where I table and meet collectors, I also get to take workshops run by some of the top illustrators in the field. It's an incredible experience.

Mark Stegbauer (comic artist): I don’t think there is a perfect time to start. You just go when you want to start. I started even before I had my first gig professionally. I went out to show my art and start establishing myself. I think it all depends on what you are offering. There is a market for pretty much anything out there. So if you feel like you’re ready and that it is worthwhile financially, then by all means go for it. I would recommend starting at a smaller local show. They are usually better for keeping finances down, and lots of the time if you tell them you are local to the show, they might give you a better rate for a table.

Rachel: I think it can also be worthwhile to attend some of the larger conventions before tabling, so you have a better idea of what everyone else is bringing in terms of stock and display.

Mike: If I'm selling at the con, I think about what I know about the con in terms of which sub-genres are likely to be popular, who the guests are, how big the con is, and how much of an insider SF/F prose space it is. Based on that, I adjust which books I'm bringing, how I'm preparing to pitch each book, and what my sales expectations are. I'm going to bring different books to a medium-size fan con like BaltiCon than I am to a big consumer show like Emerald City Comic Con.

The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan
The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan

What makes a con a good con for you?

Rachel: Nothing beats good organization, communication, and a short trip between the car and my artist table.

Mike: At this stage in my career, I attend some cons because of some combination of the following factors: 1) I want to keep up with friends in the industry, 2) I want to increase my visibility in the fan communities involved, 3) I want to sell books to this audience. I almost always want a con to fulfill two or more of these agendas to be worth my time and money. I revisit some conventions year after year (like ConFusion) because they're affordable, they let me maintain a presence in the Michigan fandom world (#2), and I get to see people I like (#1).

Mark: Any time I can make expenses back, it’s a good show. But also connecting with new fans, and meeting new fellow professionals makes a con a good one. It’s not always about coming out financially ahead.

Rachel: Mark and Mike are both right about making connections with fans and peers.  That’s the main reason I table at events.

What kind of preparation and planning do you do for cons?

Rachel: For me, it usually involves ordering prints of new paintings and taking an inventory of my current stock.

Mike: If I'm on programming, I make sure that I've done my research and/or preparation for the panels, especially if I'm moderating anything. Otherwise, I'll check to see who is attending in case there are people I want to schedule meetings/social time with and/or try to meet if I haven't done so yet. If the con is new to me, I do research on the types of programming it has, how affordable it is, and what the con's general vibe is—more professional, more fannish, small and intimate, large but still good for quality time, and so on.

Mark: I’ll usually look into what kind of show it is, if it’s more of a comic book show, or more of an anime show. If it’s something like a library show, I tend to bring more copies of my all-ages projects. I’ll also check inventory of my books and prints and see if I need to order more. I’ll also make sure my price list is accurate for what I’m selling.

Rachel: Mark's strategy of tailoring his stock for the type of event is super smart and I'll be thinking about that more for future events.

How do you evaluate whether a con was a success for you?

Rachel: Obviously, if sales are good, that's always a plus. If the community really seems interested and receives my art well, that gives me some validation that I don't receive otherwise. And it's great when I get to network with other creators. That can eventually lead to jobs and other interesting opportunities.

Mike: That depends on what I wanted from the con. Often a con can be a success just because I had a good time doing or trying to do what I wanted at the con—socializing, selling books, programming, etc.

Mark: Success is different for everyone. For some people it’s about doing better than their last show. For some it’s making more connections. For me, it’s about connecting with fans and making sure all my expenses are paid for.

The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan
The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

What's the most important thing you've learned, or the best tip you have, for ensuring you have a successful con?

Rachel: Just being friendly and attentive goes a long way.

Mike: I've learned to not build up hyper-specific expectations about the precise things that I want to have happen at the con, especially if they're not under my control. It's good to go in with a sense of what you want from the experience but it's also good to be ready to take opportunities as they emerge and to find a way to flow with things when things go unexpectedly.

Mark: I would say don’t set your expectations so high that you are disappointed when you don’t meet them. Also remember to not take rejection of a sale personally. What you do won’t always appeal to everyone, so always keep that in mind.

Rachel: Managing expectations is great advice for a creative career in general.

What's the weirdest or most surprising thing you've had happen at a con?  

Rachel: I once had a con-goer explain to me how a particular artist hero of mine created all of his work in oils, when in reality, he was known for using inks and watercolors almost exclusively.

Mike: The weirdest thing is quite possibly singing the Angry Robot theme song to the assembled populace of the opening ceremonies at Norwescon in 2017 when Angry Robot was the Featured Publisher. I'd listened to the theme song (cowritten by John Anealio and Matt Forbeck) a zillion times while prepping for my in-person interview to get the job I would go on to do for AR for five-and-a-half years, and then it never came up in the intervening time until that opening ceremony discussion, where I surprised not only the audience but also Managing Director Marc Gascoigne (aka my boss at the time) by being able to recall and perform the chorus of the song on command.

Other weird and surprising memories are almost certainly drawn from the various conventions I attended while running a publisher booth for Angry Robot and managing an unruly squadron of authors while we were all punchy and exhausted on the Saturdays and Sundays at the end of any given convention weekend.

Mark: I think probably having Jack Kirby, the king of comics, sit down next to me at an after-con party and just start chatting with all of us at the table. Awesome experience.

What have your experiences been as an industry professional (or newbie) at cons? Do you have advice for other readers, or questions to ask? Let us know and talk with others on our forum!

Writing Characters with a Compelling Romantic Spark

you're contemplating writing a romance or including a romantic subplot in one
of your novels, how do you bring it to life? The romance writer's ultimate goal
should be to throw two characters on the page together and have a reader crying
out in agony, "Now kiss!" So how do you ensure that your characters
have a spark? And how can you make sure your audience is rooting for them to
fall in love?

Hopefully, this article gives you some useful tools for building not only your characters, but also the romantic arc in your stories.

1. Get them to work together.

a lot of writing is about character arc, you can make learning to work well
together part of their arc. At first they hate it and each other. But then, through working together on a shared goal,
they find out how much they have in common. How their strengths complement each
other. How nice it is to have someone to rely on.

This really is the  satisfying conclusion the romance should be building toward. Not a kiss or an engagement ring, but the certainty for both characters that their love interest has their back. That they have someone in their corner who will help them reach their goals. Whether that means fighting back-to-back to defeat a vengeful demon horde, or helping them fill out a bank loan so they can finally buy that used spaceship they've always dreamed of.

2. Make them learn to communicate effectively with each other.

big part of being a team is communication, and in many popular romances the
characters are constantly bantering and quipping with each other. How fast the
characters can talk and make jokes together is a hallmark of the classic era of
screwball romantic comedies, for instance.

I love me some snappy banter, but part of what underlies snappy banter is two
characters having a similar communication style. You can't quip with someone
who doesn't quip back. Banter—when it's well done—can be another tool a writer
uses to show these characters are meant to be together. For example: Maybe none
of the other characters quite get your protagonist's sense of humor…until the
love interest comes along. Or maybe your protagonist has to learn to let their
sense of humor out and their love interest helps them with that.

A note on communication:
One of the big pet peeves for romance readers is a plot that hinges on The Big
Misunderstanding. This is a story (or subplot) where the conflict could easily
be resolved if your two characters would just sit down and have an honest
conversation. And there's no reason they can't…except
then the conflict goes away. Using a Big Misunderstanding not only annoys a lot
of readers, it can also weaken your romantic plot. I have often found myself
reading a book and thinking, "These two people can't even communicate
clearly, and you want me to believe they're going to live happily ever
after?" Try to find conflicts that are more compelling. Challenge
yourself. Allow your characters to tell each other the absolute truth and it still doesn't fix everything. Or, if
they must keep secrets, make sure the reason they're doing so is reasonable and

3. Let them (and by extension your
readers!) have fun together. 

last big tip for writing great romantic couples is fun. Your couple should have fun when they're together. Your
reader should have fun spending time with your couple. Even if your story is
angsty and dark, a few well-chosen moments where the couple can make each other
smile are really important to show the connection between your lovers. This
ties back into the happy ending too. How am I supposed to believe they can live
happily ever after if they never actually laugh or smile in each other's
presence? On the flip side, a protagonist who can always make their love
interest laugh stands a pretty good chance of convincing me they really will
live happily ever after.

there you have it, my top tips for writing romantic couples with a compelling

1. Get them to
work together. 

2. Make them
learn to communicate effectively with each other.

3. Let them (and
by extension your readers!) have fun together. 

What makes a romance work or not work for you? Who are some of your favorite fictional couples? Tell us your answers on the forum!

Making Descriptive Passages Work for You

Description can bring readers into your world, but if used
incorrectly, it can also slow the pace of your narrative or skew your
characterization. We can all think of writers whose descriptive skill we envy,
but how do you get there?

The first step, I believe, is to understand that everyone’s
experience of the world around them is colored by their past experiences, their
personal knowledge, their mood in that moment, and a million other little
details that we, as writers, need to be able to imagine for our characters.

As writing exercises may have told you at some point, describing the where your character wakes from cryo-sleep is going to be different from describing the room where your character walks in to look for their sister who should be in cryo-sleep but has, through a strange accident, died. By the same token, a tree seen by a botanist on an alien world should sound a lot different when described by one of the people who grew up on that world.

So in order to write good description, keep in mind the

  • Don’t use words that your characters wouldn't use. Be aware of the vocabulary that your character has access to because of their world, their upbringing, their education, their job, and think about the kinds of language and metaphors they would be comfortable with. Is your character poetic, pragmatic, brutally straightforward? Do they have different associations than you do with certain colors? You can have a lot of fun with this, but the first step is to always be aware of it.
  • Think about where your character is emotionally, and use that in your description. If they're sad, even something pretty is probably going to make them feel sad and think sad thoughts, while if they're walking on air even the dreariest setting is likely to seem pleasant to them.
  • Every description -- every time your character encounters a new object or person or location - is an opportunity to show who your POV character is and how they think. You don't want to go too far in this -- don't waste time in the narrative describing things for the sake of describing them -- but if you're deft about it you can get a lot across merely by how a character sees the world around them.
  • Consciously limit yourself to only the things that your character regards as important in that moment. You'll never get lost in painting an overly-detailed word picture that derails your scene or slows down your action if do this. Nothing else gets written down, because the character didn't think it was important enough to notice. If a character is racing to escape the evil sorcerer, they’re probably not going to take the time to think about how lovely the mosaic they’re running over is. Conversely, if they’re waiting for a contact who’s running late, they may spend a lot of time looking at that mosaic and analyzing every detail of it in whatever way suits them best.

Of course, that last item can require some tricky
manipulation, and as you practice you'll learn to manipulate this in order to
make sure your character notices what's important for the reader to see. If you
need a character to notice something that isn't the sort of detail that
character would normally notice, then you need to be clever about drawing their
attention (and therefore the audience's attention) to that thing. For instance,
if the character needs to notice the time but they're an easy-going sort who
doesn't run their life on a schedule, then something needs to draw their eye to
that clock.

Another theory I like comes from author James Alan Gardner. He recommends that writers think of every description as the story of the character's encounter with a place or object. I can't put the reasoning behind this better than he does:

Too often, writers describe things just by making lists of details. For example, when you want to describe a person, you may be tempted to list facial features, body type, clothing, and so on.

But that’s not how we actually experience other people. We don’t encounter people as static lists of characteristics, we encounter them in a temporal sequence of perceptions and resulting reactions: i.e. as a story.
James Alan Gardner, The Skill List Project

When we meet a new person or arrive at a new place in real life, we don't experience that encounter all at once -- we take in the details of it in a particular order, and react to them as a little mini story within ourselves.

Try a few of these hints out the next time you’re writing a description, and let us know on the forum or on Twitter what tricks you use to improve your description writing!

The Important Bits: Dreams and Writing

I have two burningly vivid memories of my
college writing professor. One is his insistence on making his students repeat
the same lesson on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” every single
semester. The other is when he called bullshit on Toni Morrison.

Specifically, he was calling into
question her assertion that one of her novels (probably Sula, which was the only
Toni Morrison novel I ever got to read in school) had “come to her in a dream.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume
that this is an actual thing that Toni Morrison said. In which case, yeah, it
is a certain level of ridiculous. Entire novels do not simply fall from one’s
subconscious fully formed and without any input from the author.

But that’s not to say that you can’t
dream up a story. Just not in the way that’s presented here.

Let’s take another example: Robert Louis
Stevenson is reputed to have written The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
after receiving the idea in a fever
dream, but what’s not often included in that story is that all of the elements
of the story had been in Stevenson’s brain for years. The tale of Deacon
Brodie, Edinburgh cabinetmaker by day and burglar by night, was one that Stevenson
had grown up with. He was educated alongside Joseph Bell, the doctor who
inspired Sherlock Holmes, and sat in the court galleries while an acquaintance
of his, a French man by the name of Eugene Marie Chantrelle, was convicted of
the brutal murder of his wife, having fooled everyone into thinking he was a
respectable family man.

So I do firmly believe that Jekyll & Hyde could have come to
Stevenson in a dream. But the story wasn’t created out of thin air. It was all
already there, in Stevenson’s head. He just needed his subconscious to turn it
into an unpredictable mélange before he could write the story he wanted to

The most tired writing advice of all time
is “Write what you know.” I would like to propose a modification to that. Rather,
“Writer, know thyself.”

There’s value in writers listening to
their subconscious and mining those bizarre jumbled-up ideas for all they’re
worth. The first short story I ever wrote came from a dream. (I may even be
working on a short story collection right now that was largely inspired by
dreams.) I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, which was, um…A while ago. And
one morning I woke up from a dream about a walled garden hidden behind a bunch
of ivy and went, "Huh. That was kinda…cool. And like, story-ish." So
I made a story out of it.

That dream gave me a complete, if simple,

  • Girl meets Guy
  • Guy tries to convince
    Girl to magically stay with him for eternity
  • Girl turns Guy down

It’s not much, but it was made up of
things that were important to a lonely, dreamy, melodramatic preteen who read a
lot of fairy tales and had memorized a huge chunk of The Secret Garden.

And that’s the critical thing: the
recognition of what aspects of the writer’s life created that particular dream
in the first place.

The story isn’t going to come to you all
in one complete lump. Honestly, if it did, dreams being the slippery bastards that
they are, you’d be lucky to remember half of it long enough to wake up, grope
for your phone or bedside notebook, and start sleepily scribbling and/or
typing. But it doesn’t have to come
to you as a complete narrative.

The things that matter are what I’m told
board game designers call “bits.” The bits are the parts of the game that make
the game fun to play.

Stories—narratives with plots and
characters, and events that propel those plots and characters forward—are
easier to come by than the bits that make the story fun to read. And I have found that the best way to do that, and
make the story resonate with the reader, is to make it resonate with the author
during the writing process.

You don’t necessarily have to pour your
soul into your fiction, but you absolutely do have to put something of yourself
into the story to make it resonate with you, and dreams, which have an
unnerving way of rummaging around in our darkest thoughts and most private and
closely held hopes and then running those bits through a blender, can sometimes
provide the best way of finding that resonance.

New Years, New Worlds

The New Year as currently celebrated in Western Europe (and
from there in European-colonized places like the USA, Canada, and Australia)
started in 45 BCE with the adoption of the Julian calendar, instituted by the
Roman emperor Julius Caesar. However, this was far from the only way to
celebrate the New Year, then and now. Traditional Chinese and Jewish New Years
are both calculated on a lunar cycle and typically fall in early spring and autumn,
respectively. The Iranian or Persian New Year is celebrated on the spring
solstice (around March 21). And during the Middle Ages in Europe, depending on
where a person lived, they might have celebrated the New Year on any number of
days. In fact, across history and the world, there’s not a single time of year
that hasn’t played host to the New Year in at least one culture. (Don’t believe
me? Check out this list of different New Year’s
days on Wikipedia

This matters to us as speculative artists because we are in
the business, one way or another, of creating worlds that don’t exist, and part
of doing that is thinking about how those worlds would work, and how the people
in them think and go about the daily lives that are about to be disrupted by
whatever adventures we’re plotting for them. This is particularly true for
writers, but I would suggest it matters to game developers, concept designers,
illustrators, and other artists as well to think about how the world they’re
creating works, and to make a conscious effort not to just repeat the
unconscious assumptions of our own cultures when we’re creating those worlds.

Give yourself a moment to think: When does the year start
for the people of the place I’m creating? Why? What’s the story that people
tell about that time? How do people celebrate? Is it appropriate (or even
required) to give gifts, or clean house in preparation, or wear new clothes, or
eat particular kinds of food?

In ancient Egypt, the year was divided into three seasons
based around the flooding of the Nile River—Flood, Emergence, and Low
Water. The year began with the flood, lasting roughly from what we think of now
as June to September. Why? Because for the common people, farmers on a thin
swath of fertile soil created by those annual floods and surrounded by inhospitable
desert, the river controlled what work needed to be done and when it could be
done, so the whole of their year revolved around that.

Think of the difference between both that and the four
agriculture-based seasons most of us live with, and a calendar created by, say,
a society that evolved underground, completely disconnected from the sun, moon,
stars, and the elements? Perhaps they would build their calendar around the
time when permafrost made the ground too hard to dig, or perhaps they would ignore
the cues of the natural world altogether and build their calendar around the
story of a god or cultural hero or historical dates.

Of course, this kind of reasoning doesn’t hold true just for
the start of the New Year. What kinds of holidays does your culture celebrate?
Spring and fall equinoxes and summer and winter solstices might be an easy
answer, but does that make the most sense for your culture? Or are there other,
more unique holidays that you could give them? The birth or death of a cultural
or mythological hero might be interesting, or the day that a particular monster
or villain was defeated. The day of the first frost might be significant to
them, or the rising of a nebula or quasar that’s visible from part of their
planet. Or maybe they reset their calendar when they left their world of origin

How are holidays marked? With group prayer, private
contemplation, community gatherings? With celebration, or with penance? If
gifts are given, are certain kinds of gifts traditional?

Most importantly, what do your characters think of all of
this? Does your heroine hate the fuss around the New Year, or miss being around
her family when it comes? Does your hero have the money to buy a new
traditional outfit, or does he clean up his old one as well as he can to avoid
pity and shame? Or maybe your point of view character is from a minority
culture within the larger one that celebrates its own holidays in opposition to
the dominant way in their city. How do people look on that minority group and
their practices? How do they think about the dominant culture and their ways?

Above all, remember that the people in this world of yours
are people, as varied as the ones in our world. They think and feel and believe
different things about the world around them. Give them a unique culture to
react to, but never forget that their reactions are still going to be their
own, not just a monolithic mirror of the worldview that you’ve created.

Whenever and however you celebrate the New Year, we at the
Dream Foundry hope yours is full of brightness, wonder, and creativity!

Setting Creative Goals... and Keeping Them

No matter what your art is (writing,
illustration, game design), you’ll often hear that you should work at it every
day. If you don’t do this, some people say, you’re failing as a creator.

Now, that might work for some people, but I’ve
tried writing every day on several occasions and it just doesn’t work for me.
It makes the whole thing a chore that I start to hate very quickly. Instead, I’ve
found that three scheduled sessions of at least a couple of hours keeps my
juices flowing, my motivation up, and my productivity on track.

The most important thing for me is that I have
a plan. Every time I sit down for a creative session, I plan out ahead of time
exactly what I want to achieve that day. And at the end of every session, I figure
out when my next one is booked for. That stops one or two days off from slipping
into more.

Another thing that works for me is to always
have deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, and to make sure that I’m accountable
to someone else for those deadlines. If the only person I have to answer to is myself,
I will inevitably let things slip. What I would recommend is having a partner
in creation, someone else who also wants to achieve things and may need a nudge
every now and then. If you can arrange to meet up physically and keep each
other focused, then great! If not, maybe keep a chat window or video call open
during creative sessions and check in every half hour or so, to make sure
you’re both still on topic. And, if all else fails, just email each other your
schedule and your plan, and then report back after the session to celebrate
your victories. If you’re a writer who is more motivated by spreadsheets,
streaks, or games than by a creative partner, consider using something like 750words.com, 4thewords.com,
or getyourwordsout.net
to encourage you to meet those writing goals. Artists might get practice ideas
from artprompts.org
or the challenges, timed practices, and random poses on quickposes.com.
And no matter what your art, if you respond to gamification, something like habitica.com
might be just the thing to get you making the most of your creative time and
give you a sense of accomplishment as you make progress toward your goals.

That last point is important—make it easy to
celebrate your successes. If you have a big project, then just looking at the
whole thing may make it seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into
small tasks with sensible deadlines, you can have the satisfaction of ticking
off tons of little victories that you should absolutely congratulate yourself
on. If rewards help you (like “I can have a chocolate after I finish this
chapter” or “I can watch an episode of my favorite show once I’ve filled a page
with sketches”), then don’t hesitate to use that.

Most crucial of all is to find a system that works for you and just go for it.

What works for me is a rolling spreadsheet of upcoming submission opportunities (theme, word count, hard deadline, and possible publication all right there), sessions scheduled outside my flat with an accountability partner, and a list of very specific targets for each session. But the thought of all that organization might make you want to curl up and die. So try things out to see what fits, and once something works, don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t make sense. The only person it has to makes sense to is you. And if it keeps you creating, then it’s doing its job and you should stick with it no matter what.