Monday, March 28, 2005

Evoke the senses

Draw your reader into your story by making references to touch, smell, taste, temperature, and other sensations. I just finished an audiobook (Justice Hall by King) where the author vividly describes the character standing in a cold room next to a warm fireplace, turning this way and that to warm herself. Much better than simply stating, "the room was cold." -- Rachel Holmen

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Poul Anderson's approach to science fiction

I'm told that Poul Anderson's approach to writing science fiction was to ask himself, "Suppose we were wrong?" (Presumably he asked this question about established scientific principles, then set about devising an alternate explanation -- and then based his story on that.) -- Rachel Holmen

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Odd facts can liven a story

What are the three oddest facts that you know? What whole fields of knowledge are familiar to you? A solid factual background makes fiction interesting, and adds a foundation of believability. -- Rachel Holmen

Beyond dragons

If you want to have a fantasy animal in your story, consider the whole pantheon of such creatures. Dragons fascinate us with their power and intelligence, but consider unicorns, selkies, griffins. Study the folklores of other cultures to learn about their magical creatures. (There's a local bank named after the Nara, and the logo shows a bird with three legs. Now I want to know: what's a Nara?) Baba Yaga, a Russian witch, was famous for her house on bird legs; so if you want to create a magical animal, it doesn't even need to be a whole animal -- use parts of one. -- Rachel Holmen

Monday, March 14, 2005

Appropriate names

Give your characters appropriate names. If you are striving for the feel of a particular era, do some research into names, not just fashion and food, housing and transportation. -- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Don't preach. Yet if you have no agenda, you have no story.

You can't hit readers over the head with your views; most of them won't stand for it. Yet you -- and by extension, your characters -- must care passionately about something or else the story won't matter to anyone. I guess this is a variant of the old adage, "Show, don't tell." Show the reader that your characters are passionate about something, rather than saying, "Meredith thought that music was more important than anything." -- Rachel Holmen

Simple definitions

It's a science fiction story if it uses new technology. It's a fantasy if the characters ride horses. It's horror if the main character, through no fault of his/her own, is punished. It's boring if all the characters are unlikeable. -- Rachel Holmen

Do you have too many characters?

Classic short stories tend to have only two or three characters in them. More are too difficult for the reader to distinguish. Use "character compression" -- if you need a character who is the hero's brother, and you need a character who's a painter, the hero's brother had better be a painter. If a character merely walks onto the scene briefly, furthers an action for a major character, and then leaves -- DO NOT GIVE THIS CHARACTER A NAME. Merely mention the character by job title, or function, or some other brief means. Otherwise you distract the reader needlessly. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Write Longhand

I discovered a while back, while I was using pen and ink to write notes while I was on a plane (and where I particularly wanted to record my thoughts during takeoff and landing, when you're not allowed to have even a Palm Pilot in use), that I write somewhat differently when I can't type. During high school, I taught myself to write drafts on a typewriter, so when computers came along I fit right in. But handwriting is a wider window to emotion, even as it enforces brevity just because one cannot possible write as fast as thought without a keyboard.

Secondly, try to dictate a story into a recorder. Again, you'll discover yet ANOTHER small variant in your personal style. (For this exercise, I suggest a standard cassette recorder or see if your MP3 player makes recordings. I specifically advise AGAINST using a "talk to your computer" program such as Dragon Dictate or ViaVoice.) If possible, tell the story to someone else who is present in the same room or at least at the end of a phone line. You may discover you are clearer, more expressive, with a direct audience.

There are four kinds of aphasia: understanding speech; speaking; understanding the written word; and writing. So it stands to reason that there are different parts of the brain which handle these closely-related but not identical functions. -- Rachel Holmen

Search for commonly-mistyped words

Search for "form" and "from", for "you" and "your" and "you're". I'm sure I'll think of some others. Remember that there's a single letter difference between "win" and "wind", "whiny" and "whinny". As we say in the trade, porfreed carefilly. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: chop it up, use a database

Take the disk version of your file. Save it to a new name -- perhaps "EXERDATA.TXT" -- as a plain text file. Close the original story and open EXERDATA.TXT. Use a search-and-replace routine to put a hard return after every word (or, if there are some names that are phrases, such as "Arthur Rex" or "Queen of the Sky", leave these phrases together and put a return after each). Save the file. Create an alphabetical list of the words you've used -- you can either sort the file from DOS (instructions later), or load them into a spreadsheet or database program and perform a sort there. If you want to use the DOS method: run, and change to the directory where the file is located. Enter this command:


Exit from DOS, and open the file EXERSORT.TXT. Interesting things will be revealed, such as the six different ways you spelled "Deirdre". You will realize how limited, or grandiose, is the story's vocabulary. You will see every single character's name, every place name. You will note how many times you have started sentences with the word "And".

-- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Look hard at your opening sentence

Does it immediately grab your attention?

Exercise: Rewrite a "Gunsmoke" plot from an old radio show

See "". Listen to a Gunsmoke episode. Rewrite it as a fantasy or as science fiction. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Record moments that are emotionally intense

I keep an informal log where I list emotionally-intense moments. Maybe some day I'll hang some of them together into a plot. -- Rachel Holmen

Exercise: Read a collection

Read collections* by other authors in the field. Read one author's novels in chronological order by copyright date. You'll develop a sense of how the author is growing, and also see patterns. For instance, Tim Powers' novels almost always make a reference to the (non-existent) poet Ashbless. You'll notice plot devices, dialog styles, and other things which will make you more conscious about the craft of writing. -- Rachel Holmen

*an anthology is a group of short stories by different authors. A collection is a group by a single author.

Friday, March 04, 2005