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, 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 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

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).

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).

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.

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.