World-building, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

How to explain magic in a story?

Magic is a tricky thing to explain. If you’re not careful you end up saying too little, leaving your reader wondering what the rules around your magic system really are.

Other times, you might be tempted to info dump all the ins and outs of how the magic in your story works…running the risk of boring your readers to tears. How can you find the right balance?

While I can’t say that I have a definitive solution, the best way I have found to explain magic is to only provide the minimum amount of detail your reader needs to understand the limits and opportunities of the magic system you have created.

For example, in my recent flash fiction story ‘A Clockwork Bride‘ all of the rules of the magic system are simply explained by mentioning three specific aspects:

1. Magic requires the use of a key (vehicle) – this step is optional

2. The key contains magic silver dust that gets gradually used up by the clockwork body (limitation)

3. Every time the key is used, some magic dust residue remains within the clockwork body (opportunity)

To sum it up, bringing your magic system to life with clarity and in a way that engages and intrigues your reader may not be a piece of cake but it’s certainly possible.

Keep it simple, be selective in what information you need to share and let your characters do the rest. Their reactions and use of the magic is key to your reader’s understanding. Don’t info dump!

See ya next time 😉

If you are struggling to explain your magic system, are prone to info dumping or have an even better idea how to successfully explain magic in your stories, share your thoughts in the comments below! If you have a story that demonstrates your approach, feel free to post a link to it!

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Fiction, Flash Fiction, Story

FLASH FICTION: Owlternative

This week’s flash fiction is inspired by the #SwiftFicFriday – Week 72 prompt provided by the fabulous Katheryn J. Avila (Fiction Trials). 167 words. Enjoy!

The music reluctantly played – in his head. It was a soft, sweet sound; only faint but unmistakably clear. A tiny voice. It sounded like a bell made of glass.

He didn’t know what it was trying to tell him then. He still didn’t know it now. All he knew is that it seemed very important. It had been days since he’d played the piano.

“Why was the piano important again?” he asked.

“Who knows?” answered the therapist. “Tell me how you felt that day.”

“I remember…scratchiness…in my throat; all of a sudden. How it made breathing…hard. Panic and pain. Gagging. Clutching at my throat…and…I remember there being no hands…just feathers…feathers!”

He became agitated. The music swelled in his head.

“And then…?”

“More gagging. More pain. Scratching…with my feet. My feet were scratching. They weren’t even feet.”

His voice was barely a whisper.

“And then…?”

He put his hands over his ears but there were no ears…and no hands. Only feathers…and a tiny voice telling him to fly.

A note for creators:
This flash fiction work is subject to the following license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, to ‘Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)’, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses your use.

See ya next time 😉

If you have enjoyed this flash fiction piece, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. If you adapt this for your own creative project, feel free to post a link to your project or website.

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Worthless Waffle, Writer's Mindset

Why you should tell your story…

Once upon a time, a little girl had an idea for a story. It so excited her that she couldn’t help but run out into the garden and tell the story to the world…at the top of her lungs.

The neighbours weren’t exactly pleased – although I imagine a few of them were at least intrigued by the story about another little girl who couldn’t sleep and conjured a bunch of extraordinary creatures into being.

Those creatures were the mumble dwarves and the little girl was loosely based on the storyteller – you guessed it; that was me! I was eight.

To restore peace and quiet to the very conservative neighbourhood I grew up in, my parents made a rule. I had to write my stories down…instead of shouting them into the garden. At the time it seemed like a punishment. How would people find out about my stories if I could only write them down?

It later dawned on me that every book in our home (and in the world) had once been just a scribble on a piece of paper. And once I had grasped that concept fully, I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. I was thirteen when this happened.

Twenty years on, much has changed in my life. But one thing is still the same – I am still dreaming about being a writer. In fact, that is all I want to be. So, why am I sitting in my living room, typing this blog post in a hurry before having to start my soul-sucking full-time job that makes me nothing but tired and stressed?

You guessed it again – because I never got over the hurdle of actually showing my work to anybody after I hit sixteen…until last year, when I decided that enough is enough and that I can’t live with myself if I don’t at least try to get my fiction out there. Who knows what can happen?

The one thing I am sure of is that I am not the only person who is going through this storm. Although, I am sure that we are in different boats, it hurts all the same when a gale blows at us and when the waves crash down over our heads.

So, as a beaten and battered (and quite wimpy) writer, with impossibly big dreams, let me shine a tiny beacon of hope into the darkness. You should tell your story! Even if nobody reads it. Even if nobody who reads it likes it. Even if your writing is bad. Even if you never achieve your dream.

Why? Because the journey is worth it! If nobody reads your work, find a way of marketing it better. If nobody who reads it likes your story, find out why and fix it. If your writing is bad get feedback, READ, and STUDY the books you love, write more and get better.

If you are a writer, then writing is something you feel compelled to do. It most likely makes you happy. It most likely, makes you feel like you have a purpose. And that, in itself, is a massive reward.

See ya next time 😉

If you got any kind of value out of this post, share your own sop story in the comments below. No judgement! Everyone is loved…and maybe if we all share a little beacon of hope we can light up this darkness and feel a little less alone as we see each other struggle in our own, uniquely painful ways.

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Backstory, Characters, Writing Process

What trauma to give your characters…

Nobody wants to read about happy characters. Sorry, but it’s true. Misery loves company…and stories need conflict. And once you resolve your conflict, your story is over.

So, what is the best way to create conflict that is significant enough to keep going for the full duration of your story (usually anywhere between 300 and 100,000 words)?

Ah…yes…trauma. I am currently re-working the character profile for the antagonist of my YA fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ which I am planning to self-publish at the end of 2021.

The main reason being that I am slowly catching up on my world-building and character profiling deficits and there are certain aspects of John which simply no longer work.

One of those aspects is the deep-set childhood trauma which I didn’t appreciate enough in my initial outline. I did note that he is bitter about his mother leaving him when he is still young but…does this really warrant him turning into a mage-hating, relentless bounty hunter without mercy?

No, I don’t think so either. So back to the drawing board it is.

Whilst I am still sticking with the original trauma, I am going to introduce a second traumatic factor: John is a halfblood (half mage on his mother’s side, half human on his father’s).

I imagine John’s mother leaving when he was young is a first point of trauma…exacerbated by his experience of having to hide his halfblood nature from others throughout his childhood and adolescence which has made him isolated.

Finally, there is a third trauma factor – a necessity because of the environment in which the story takes place – John has been through a long and terrible war as a common soldier and now works for the Brotherhood (a human religious organisation that pretty much drives the mage-hating in the story).

John can’t trust anybody…he has never learned to empathize and grows to hate mages (going all the way back to his mother leaving him among humans to fend for himself).

Now, that sounds much more plausible already…don’t you agree?

So, in a nutshell, the most common considerations to go through when you are thinking about what trauma to give your character are as follows:

  1. Make it specific to the story – choose something that really hurts. Otherwise, you don’t end up creating a strong enough driver for the characters’ flaws and behaviour.
  2. Align the trauma with the world-building. Same as real people, characters are a product of their environment and traumatic events beyond their control. Don’t forget to traumatise your characters accordingly.
  3. Choose the right trauma for each character. They can’t all have been abandoned by their mother in their childhood. Think about how you want your characters to act and then work out what trauma would cause them to act that way.
  4. Be consistent. Once you have decided the trauma and the impact it has on your character, stick to that impact and ensure that you reference it consistently – it needs to drive your characters’ decisions and actions.

Now, go away and be horrible to your characters…I am certainly going to twist the knife on the trauma side as I continue to write my novel.

See ya next time 😉

If you have found even the slightest nugget of wisdom in this post, let me know if the comments below. Maybe you have a good method or rule of thumb to make decisions about your characters’ trauma that you would like to share?

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Fiction, Flash Fiction, Story

FLASH FICTION: A Clockwork Bride

This week’s flash fiction is inspired by the #SwiftFicFriday – Week 71 prompt provided by the fabulous Katheryn J. Avila (Fiction Trials). 292 words. Enjoy!

“My darling.”

The words belonged to a man named Gaspard. They floated to her through darkness; right on time. He came to her late at night; every night. Most importantly, he always brought the key.

Shimmering in the weak candlelight, it dangled from a silver chain around Gaspard’s neck. She shuddered with anticipation as the key turned in the lock between her collar bones with a familiar crunch. A burst of silver dust shot from the key into her system. Her gears jumped into movement. She ticked like a clock.

Gaspard watched as she slowly turned around on the bed, stretched, moved her stiff limbs, and cracked her mechanical neck.

“Welcome back, Anthea,” he growled.

“Thank you, master.”

Gaspard watched gleefully as his clockwork bride put on her make-up and danced for him. Anthea’s eyes were pinned onto Gaspard the whole time. Gaspard felt a twinge of sadness as, eventually, her movements slowed as the magic dust became used up.

“Just a little longer,” she begged as the ticks of her clockwork body became less regular and her gears were starting to catch, causing her body to twerk involuntarily.

“No. Not tonight.”

The temptation to give in to her was great. But Gaspard had to be careful. Too much of the magic could mean her escape. Anthea sank down on the floor as her legs gave way unexpectedly; her eyes still fixed on Gaspard. Only when she was sure that he had succumbed to deep sleep, did Anthea dare to push herself up from the floor.

She slowly brought herself into a standing position, hoping she hadn’t miscalculated the amount of silver residue in her system.

“Thank you master,” she said as she strangled him, never taking her eyes off the key.

A note for creators:
This flash fiction work is subject to the following license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, to ‘Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)’, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses your use.

See ya next time 😉

If you have enjoyed this flash fiction piece, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. If you adapt this for your own creative project, feel free to post a link to your project or website.

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Worthless Waffle, Writer's Mindset

How to find time to write with a full-time job?

Many of my friends and family don’t understand why I am still writing. After all, I finished university, got married, and snagged a full-time job. What more do I need? The creatives among us will have no difficulty rattling off a catalogue of needs that a job simply cannot fulfil. And I would happily plonk my signature under any such list – any time!

The deep, inner drive of the creative force within me makes my ordinary life unbearable at times. And the feeling that I don’t have the right to complain makes it at least ten times worse. Having my full-time job swallow my life is my biggest fear. The thought that I might die one day, with my stories still inside me, has me lying awake at night with a sprinkling of cold sweat on my brow.

Every glowing performance review kills a small part of my soul. Because each time somebody tells me that I am good at my job, the thought of leaving all this behind one day becomes scarier. And the possibility that my writing might one day pay my bills (if I’m lucky) seems more and more ridiculous the older I get.

So, I do all I can to fight the demons. This week the demons are full of strength and I feel weak. But I still have a choice. I can give up and let the demons win (in which case my worst-case scenario is certain). Or I can write. As long as I write there is a chance. A tiny spark of hope.

I am not going to sugarcoat things for you. Writing alongside a full-time job is HARD. Maybe the hardest thing I have ever done. It requires time management and the willingness to let bad writing happen. Don’t be afraid to write rubbish now and edit another day. Work out if you are a morning person or a night owl – then schedule your writing time accordingly. Make a realistic appointment with yourself..then show up. Otherwise you will be very frustrated.

In my twenties, I used to be a morning person with the ability to jump out of bed at 4:00am and get dressed by Disney birds. By the time I had to leave the house I would have already written at least 1000 words and feel like a rockstar. I miss that younger, more optimistic version of myself.

Now, in my thirties, I am a night owl. I no longer stress about writing early on in the day and accept that my most creative time will be at 9:00pm when I have done everything I need to do for the day (including my job, any housework, shopping, cooking, eating, tidying etc.)

When my reminder goes off, I go to my desk, write as much as I can for 2 hours and then go to bed. Some evenings I can write 1000 words, on others it’s closer to 10. But it’s my new routine and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It also means that I am able to produce 3 blog posts (including 1 flash fiction story) per week.

I make slow but steady progress on my debut novel (Fearful Magic) by chipping away at this enormous task. Just knowing I am getting closer to my goal and can write reliably is a big help when the demons show up. No matter what they say to me, I have some work to show.

The weekends are mostly for editing. On Saturdays I might still try to write (mostly outlines) but it’s usually less productive than when I write in the week. On Sunday evenings, I spend 1 hour planning ahead; including what scenes/ blog posts/ flash fiction to write next. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous…but it works.

See ya next time 😉

If you found this post insightful, have a great writing routine already, or are still looking for one, share your thoughts (and tips) in the comments below.

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Characters, Fiction, Story, Writing Process

How to write a compelling protagonist?

Writing your protagonist into being is much harder than you think…or at least that’s what I found out when I started writing down my stories about twenty years ago. A lot of new writers get caught up in the description trap.

You might be tempted to think: how can my readers connect to the main character in my story if they don’t know what this character look like? I totally get that! Of course it is possible to make your protagonist relatable by giving him/ her/ them specific attributes that hint towards a certain demographic (BAME, LGBTQ+, disability, working class, upper class etc.)

Nothing wrong with that! Diversity is an important issue to address and I am glad that more writers are championing underrepresented communities in their fiction these days.

BUT the description of the character alone does not necessarily guarantee that your readers will find them compelling. I would go so far as to say that your protagonist’s physical description can be entirely omitted from your story without negatively impacting how compelling your character is.

Shock, horror! I said it! If you don’t believe me, go read my short story ‘Original Magic’ (free to read on Wattpad) and tell me whether or not the characters are compelling. My current readers suggest they are. And none of those characters (including the protagonist) are physically described.

So, what makes a protagonist compelling? Contrary to what most people think, compelling characters don’t have to be likable. Compelling characters are characters about whom we care – for whatever reason.

Could it be that your protagonist is a victim? If so, then it’s likely that your readers will feel for him/ her/ them and want to find out if they are going to get out of their bad situation – whether they like them or not.

Or maybe your protagonist is a charming troublemaker who annoys everybody around him/ her/ them but your readers might secretly hope he/ she/ they get away with their next prank…because such characters are just too charming for jail.

Also, I imagine your protagonist could very well be a miserable old witch or wizard who doesn’t like people approaching their domain? In this case, the reader might find it hard to see any redeeming qualities in your protagonist but how compelling would this character be if an innocent child got lost and somehow ended up at this protagonist’s door…?

Wouldn’t you want to read on to find out what such an unlikeable protagonist would do to the child? Wouldn’t you want to know whether he/ she/ they live up to your expectations?

And there is one last thing that I would also caution you against: make sure your protagonist is NOT perfect! Who wants to read about a beautiful. skinny, popular, talented individual with no flaws? Nobody! If your protagonist has no flaws, you picked the wrong protagonist for your story.

See ya next time 😉

If you ever had trouble making your protagonist compelling but just couldn’t put your finger on the problem, I hope this post provides some clues. Comment below if you know this struggle is real and let me know if these tips brought you any value … or even if you think I am barking up the wrong tree. I am interested in your views.

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Fiction, Flash Fiction

FLASH FICTION: A Game of Runes

The game was rigged, Cassia knew. Designed to test the strengths of the hopeless, and break the weak. No chance of success. Only thoughtful, strategic failure was an option. The game was exclusively reserved for men.

Cassia threw a glance at the present king who was stuffed into his throne at the edge of the arena. His grey skin was flabby and wrinkled. There was something unsettling about how it folded in on itself around his neck. A snow-white, wispy cloud of a beard fluttered around his chin as he took one labored breath after another. The Game Master stepped forward.

“Defeat is a skill. All future kings of Iruzar must possess it. Only he who can fail five-fold is worthy of the crown. Today we shall find King Ormont’s successor.”

Cassia flinched. There was no turning back now. She pulled the hood of her black cloak deeper into her face. The rough fabric scratched her forehead as she did her best to conceal the mark on her neck. It was the only thing that distinguished her from the male players.

The gates were closed and the Game Master spun the gyroscope of fates. For the first time, a woman had entered the arena; albeit in secret. Cassia swallowed hard as the gyroscope finally came to a standstill.

“The fates have chosen the runes! A game of runes to test those who fancy themselves the next king!”

The Game Master plucked a piece of polished peridot from a chain on his neck. He kissed it gently, then threw it up into the air. It flew high at first, then stuck; hovering above the center of the game arena. A shrill voice erupted from the glowing gem; announcing the rules of the game.

“The runes can never be moved. The runes can never be touched. The runes can never be read. Only the runes hold the answer. The players must try to win. The last to fail will die. Six players, five rounds, one survivor. One king.”

“One king!” cheered the crowd.

Cassia could feel the ground vibrate under her feet. Guilian was the first to die. He touched the runes. An accident. The searing ray of peridot light hit him right between the eyes and burned a hole into his skull.

Player two died as quickly as the first; Aurelion. Nobody would remember his name.

Round three passed in a haze. Cassia came close to deciphering the runes. A close call. The peridot ray singed her cloak as it shot out at Marcellus.

Round four passed in silence. Cassia was the first to lose. A stroke of luck!

One last round, Cassia reminded herself. She was facing only Gilbert now; a dark soul and King Ormont’s ward. The dance began a final time. Gilbert and Cassia circled the runes. One more reach, Cassia thought. As her hand went out towards the runes, Gilbert’s arm shot forward. He had been watching her. He suspected.

Cassia held her breath as her black hood was torn backwards. A collective gasp went through the crowd as the mark of womanhood sparkled in the sunlight. Cassia looked around. Even the old king had heaved himself out of his seat. Tears stung her eyes as the peridot ray rushed towards her. It hit in the centre of her chest and passed through her like glass. Cassia felt no pain.

The crowd watched in shock as the peridot ray, subverted by Cassia’s body, hit Gilbert. The mark on Cassia’s neck glowed green. She was unharmed. It was a game designed for men, after all.

A note for creators:
This flash fiction work is subject to the following license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, to ‘Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)’, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses your use.

See ya next time 😉

If you have enjoyed this flash fiction piece, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. If you adapt this for your own creative project, feel free to post a link to your project or website.

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Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Process

How to start a flash fiction story?

Writing flash fiction is not an easy feat. But picking the right opening (especially the opening line) is amongst my favourite things when it comes to crafting brief but poignant stories.

I write a new flash fiction story every week and publish it on this blog every Friday. The main challenge is fitting a middle, beginning and end into 300-500 words…which is how short my flash fiction stories are. It started out with 300 words as the limit but the muse is a fickle mistress and, when I am inspired, even 500 words don’t feel like much room to play with!

Before I start writing, I always make sure that I have decided three essential things:

A. The point of view to tell my story from.
B. The main (and only) characters…I try to stick to two max!
C. The conflict between my two characters (otherwise it’s just waffle).

Once I have all of this straight, I write a brief outline – that’s the only way I can write on demand. Feel free to skip this step if you’re a pantser (I hear ‘discovery writer‘ is a more polite term for this in the writing community nowadays).

Armed with my outline and notes, I go straight to the opening line. Yes, that’s right. I don’t give my story a title until the very end. The reason for this is that even with my outline, there is no guarantee that I will actually stick to it. I use it to ‘cheapen’ the blank page and get me typing.

The most important part in choosing an opening line is to find a hook…your first sentence should be a statement that leaves the reader with one or more questions at the end of the first sentence. This is to signal that this story is worth reading. You are making a promise to your reader. For example:

She sat on her throne; unmoved for centuries.

‘Mythless’ by Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)
License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Would you read the rest of this story? I hope so. The questions that most readers will probably be asking themselves after this opening line are 1. Who is ‘she’? and 2. Why has she been unmoved for centuries? See how I did that? By using this opening line, I am promising the reader that I will reveal more information about this character if he/she/they keep reading.

Now, it’s your turn! Stop reading this post and go write a flash fiction with a killer opening line.

See ya next time 😉

If this post inspires a story, let me know in the comments below. And please remember to post a link to your work, too. I would love to read it.

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Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

How do you choose the best point of view for your own narratives?

One of many questions I have about writing fiction! And while I am sure that there is no perfect answer, I also believe that there might be some different answers, depending on who you are and what you write and who your audience is.

I recently touched on this when I wrote about breaking some writing rules

The main reason why this interests me has to do with productivity. I don’t know about you, but I have very limited time to write in my busy life. So, optimising my time and getting my fiction drafts as far as possible every time I sit down to write is absolutely essential. Otherwise, how can I make my dreams come true?!

One major stumbling block on the journey to becoming a successful novelist is having to rewrite your entire draft just because you picked the wrong point of view to tell your story from in the beginning. Once you write yourself into a corner it can be pretty tough to get out of it – especially if you’re writing in first person.

First person narrators are a popular choice in YA Fantasy and SciFi but many novels in these genres suffer from dissatisfying ‘miraculous’ solutions to problems that the protagonist can’t solve because their is no way he/she/they could have had access to the information, place, or powers needed to get out of their latest pickle.

I try not to work miracles in my stories. NOT EVER! And it’s very hard. But I also found that the better I plan (I’m a plotter, remember?) the easier it is to actually finish my stories. And isn’t that the ultimate goal for us novelists – to one day finish our novels so we can hit ‘publish’ …eventually…and without our readers feeling cheated?

The choice of which point of view you use to tell your stories is NOT arbitrary. Choose wisely. Think about what kind of story you are writing, how likely your protagonist will be able to convey all the information your audience needs so you can solve your problems in a clever, yet plausible way that doesn’t require miracles.

And don’t forget: if your are using magic to solve any problems in your story, you better not break any of your self-imposed limits and rules. Just inventing a new rule that the audience didn’t know about up to that point is cheating. Your readers won’t appreciate it.

How do I know this? Because I am a reader and I hate feeling cheated. And every time an author cheats me, I make a note of their name and never buy their books again.

See ya next time 😉

If you have experienced the pain of having to switch point of view in the middle (or close to the end) of your narrative, share your experience in the comments below. I would also love to know if you know of any clever tools (or at least aides) to help choose the right point of view from the beginning. I always love to learn new techniques.

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