Fiction, Flash Fiction

FLASH FICTION: Worst of All

At the stroke of midnight, the book opened with an unapologetic pang. Pages furiously fluttering,  it stretched its spine and spread itself across the dusty sideboard.

Then it moaned, quietly at first then louder, in a mounting crescendo until it settled on a double-page spread displaying the most treacherous spell in the book.

Muttering quietly to itself, it waited impatiently to be noticed but the house remained quiet. Another urgent fluttering of pages ensued. It sounded like a swarm of bats. Still no response. Waldo, the wizard who wanders, had wandered out of the place five days ago, and was yet to return, but his apprentice was there.

Fast asleep, the boy of no more than fourteen years old dreamed self-indulgently in the next room. The book sensed him, knew him by his shallow breathing. No wizard had ever breathed like that; fast and careless. A waster of air, yet, with a keen eye for opportunity.

Losing all patience, the book closed and opened again. This time louder and faster than before. The sideboard rocked slightly with each pang; knocking a neighboring shelf in the process. Empty glass jars and bottles rang like bells. Too quiet still to wake the apprentice. Too quiet indeed.

The book flew into an urgent frenzy; opening, closing, opening, closing. Ringing the jars and bottles continuously; moaning and fluttering, and groaning, and muttering. Until the first jar broke, then a bottle, then another couple of jars.

Then the apprentice was awake. The book noticed the quickening heartbeat; relished it. It spread open on the treacherous spell again. Laying in wait like a spider in its web, the book lay innocently flat as the apprentice approached.

Confused the boy surveyed the damage. His glance went around the room but he could not find the culprit. The book made no sound. This one is slower than the others. A quiet snigger let the apprentice’s blood run cold.

“Who’s there?” he cried in a high-pitched voice. Acutely aware of his lack of magical defenses, the boy grabbed a half-burned log out of the cold fireplace.  The snigger recurred. Louder this time. “Who’s there?” shouted the boy while raising the log above his head.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s only me,” the book finally revealed itself. The apprentice stared in confusion. “Come closer,” the book squeaked. “Try a spell.”

The log dropped heavily onto the dirty floor. “The master said not to touch anything.”

“The master also said to dust…oh, what’s the harm in a little spell? I won’t tell.”

The apprentice swallowed hard. “M-maybe a dust spell?” the boy probed.

“Yes! A dust spell! Oh, you are so very clever,” cried the book.

A shy smile spread across the boy’s face. The first one since becoming Waldo’s apprentice. The book fluttered its pages again – so fast the boy couldn’t make out a single symbol on any of them.

Eventually, it landed on the same double-page spell where it had started. “That’s the one! The very best dust spell I have to offer!”

“And you won’t tell the master?”

“I won’t say a word!”

“Alright.”

The apprentice hovered his hands over the double-page spread; palms down. Imitating his master, he slowly read the curly symbols as he had been taught to do in the year he had served the wandering wizard.

Nothing happened. There was no flashing light, no sizzling sound, no whirling wind.

“I don’t think it worked,” sulked the boy. His eyes filled with salty tears as he ran his finger through the thick dust that still covered the sideboard around the book.

“Oh, I think it worked alright,” sniggered the book as it watched the apprentice dry up and shrivel, like so many before him, until only a pile of dust remained next to the sideboard.

Apprentices really are the worst of all, mused the book as it flapped closed.

When Waldo returned three weeks later to find his apprentice gone, the book did not say a word.

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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Author Business, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Should you end your story with a cliffhanger?

So, you want to end your story with a cliffhanger…why is that? In this current world of social media, information overload, and big data it might seem tempting to put a flashy, attention-grabbing end to your story that leaves your reader salivating for the next book in your series and immediately follow up with: “click here to buy book 2!”

No doubt some of your readers will fall into your trap and click to buy (ka-tsching!) but how many of those readers will later feel betrayed, especially if book 2 isn’t living up to their expectations which were raised when you put that cliffhanger at the end of book 1?!

Cliffhanger Rule no. 1: Manage your readers’ expectations
Never raise expectations that cannot later be met (or exceeded). Readers who feel betrayed write fuming, 1-star reviews that say: “would give 0 stars if I could!” – or worse, result in requests for refunds. No need to learn the hard way! This one is common sense.

Cliffhanger Rule no. 2: Don’t use cliffhangers unless your story continues
The purpose of a cliffhanger ending is to keep your reader engaged. So, if you are not writing a series, or if your work is a short story, you can opt for an open ending but there needs to be a sense of resolution. Otherwise your reader will be very annoyed as you will have robbed them of their payoff and wasted their precious time. It’s like some network cancelling your favourite TV show mid-season!

Cliffhanger Rule no. 3: Avoid cliché
A good cliffhanger intrigues your reader. People go on reading your work because they want to know what happens next. Clichés are overused, familiar conventions that your reader has seen a million times. If they can guess what your cliffhanger is leading up to, your efforts are wasted. Try to work out what ending your reader is not going to see coming and see if there is a plausible way to use the unexpected scenario.

See ya next time 😉

If you have ended any of your stories with successful cliffhangers in the past, drop your link in the comment section below (I am nosy and Iike to read…a lot)! Also, in case you are a fan of Invasion, Girlboss, or The OA and will spend the rest of your life wondering how those series should have truly ended – please let’s commiserate!

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Plot, Story, Story Arc, Structure, Writing Process

How to know when your book is finished?

Even though this will drive you all crazy, I will have to say it anyway: a story should only be as long as it needs to be. That’s it. The end, see you next time…ah but wait! Didn’t I say this post was about how you know when a story is finished? Well, I suppose, every writer sooner or later comes to a point in their story where they have to ask themselves: to end or not to end?…THAT is the question!

And it’s not always obvious…even to the most seasoned of writers! For one, anybody here ever read The Green Mile by Stephen King? No? Then you better get on it! It’s a great book…apart from the lengthy waffle at the end of the book that goes well past where I felt it should have ended. No obligation for anybody here to agree with me, but if you have read it, I would be curious if you came away with the same feeling…that the book could have come to a close much sooner than it did.

So, every time I write a story, I try to start with the end in mind…even if I only have a vague idea. Because at least it will help me not to overshoot my goal. Easy to say if you’re a plotter (which I am). Although, I think that even for the pantsers among us at least a grain of an idea as to where the story should end could be of benefit.

My flash fiction writing (although I only started this recently) is already paying off in this arena. First of all, I am getting to finish a lot more stories which means that I am getting some practice recognising the natural finish point. And secondly, I am learning to fit my story into a specific word count (I try to keep my flash fiction around 300 words). So when I write longer, I can better gauge how many words I need to write to finish the story.

If I reach the word count for my story and my planned ending hasn’t happened yet, I know I have too much waffle and too little action in my story. If my planned ending happens far from the planned word count, I have a good indicator that my story lacks detail and might be too jumpy or sudden and I can go back and insert more scenes to give the reader more information about the characters and the world.

My writing style is very action driven and I sometimes lack the patience to describe much of the world, places, and characters in my story. Writing long is a real challenge for me but getting to a pacey first draft and then revising to make sure I have enough material for the story I want to write is a good strategy for me.

See ya next time 😉

If you recognise any of your own issues in this post, have trouble finishing a story in time for your planned ending, have a good reason not to want to plan the ending of your stories, or are so good at ending your stories perfectly that your books are a shining beacon of hope to the rest of us, please share your views in the comments below.

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Story, Structure, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Can you ‘doodle’ your story in 4 simple steps?

We have already discussed the pros and cons of having an outline (or map) to help with closing plot holes, ensuring you have the right number of characters for your story, and that there are enough scenes to tell a satisfying story.

What we haven’t talked about is how to start the outline. I know how intimidating a blank page can be when your story is nothing but a vague series of snippets in your head.

To help overcome this initial anxiety, some people like morning pages. Others keep a notebook and write down bit over time until there is enough material to pull it all together. Unfortunately, neither of these methods has ever been of much help to me.

If you have had similar experiences, you might want to try the doodle method. And it goes like this:

1. Start with a blank sheet of paper (I did mine with the doodle feature in Evernote but you don’t have to be fancy). Take any pen and write ‘story doodle’ at the top of the paper.

2. That’s a good way to cheapen it up a little and reduce anxiety of ruining the page. Expect it to look terrible. Don’t pressure yourself to make this pretty! That’s very important.

3. The put the working title (if you have one) of your novel onto the centre of your paper and draw a bubble around it. Then identify the main themes of your story and write them spaced out around the centre bubble. Draw bubbles around each of these too and connect them to the centre bubble. I like to include a bubble for ‘characters’ but this can be done separately if you prefer.

4. Now start filling in information around each bubble and connect your notes with relevant bubbles (connect notes to several bubbles if applicable.

When you finish you should have something like this:

Story Doodle for the fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ by Josie Cole (@WimpyWriter)

Tadaa! Your first draft outline is complete. This one took about 20 minutes, so perfect if you don’t have much time for your writing. I use my story doodle as a point of reference to help with populating my story grid and character profiles…and when I’m stuck.

See you next time 😉

If you try a story doodle or have a similar (or maybe even better) method to get a story outline started, please share your experience in the comments section below this post. I would love to hear from you.

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Backstory, Writing Process

History: what your novel shouldn’t ‘tell’…

Any world – real or imagined – is a product of past events. The characters who walked the earth long before your story even begins, planted the seeds for pretty much every political, biological, and technological reality your characters have to deal with. The history of the (story) world is an essential part of your story, and yet, it’s exactly the part that a writer should never ‘tell’…unless bad feedback about info dumping doesn’t bother you.

Yes, you guessed it, the current state of my world building is poor and one of the reasons for this is that my story world history is vague. I literally didn’t bother fleshing it out to any significant degree, which I am now working to rectify, before addressing any gaps in my character profiling for secondary characters. The reason for this being that that the story world history might change them and I don’t want to have to do it twice.

All I initially jotted down about my story world history were these notes:

  • The story plays at the end of a great war between humans and mages.
  • Mages lost and are now in the minority and severely persecuted.
  • There is a few people who specialise in tracking mages who are in hiding and don’t dare to gather – the best one at this is our antagonist (John).
  • The Forest also known as the ‘home of mages’ has existed longer than any human or mage can remember.
  • The Forest existed long before the first priestess bore magic (from of a sacred well) and erected the temple at its heart where spirits of all deceased mages dwell eternally to protect the sacred site.
  • The opposing force to magic is a religion that loosely resembles Christianity and that has been gaining support steadily over a series of decades.
  • Religious leaders have been spreading vicious lies about magic and the mage-born, fostering fear and separation and go back to the time before the birth of magic.

I know, right? Whatever made me think I was getting away with this? No detail about the war or what made it significant in the grand scheme of things. No notes about how this war has changed people (I’ll be starting a new research file on exactly this change in people, including soldiers and civilians and how war affected them potentially differently depending on their level of involvement).

Crucially, I didn’t work out how the people managed to win the war and defeat magic (I presume with the help of their god). Doing my homework will change my story, affect the magic system I imagined, and hopefully will make the end product much better. I have already re-written the first scene in light of some new information and feel positive about turning things upside down.

Whilst I am not planning to turn into a watered-down version of J.R.R Tolkien (the man invented whole cultures and languages, each with their own diverse mythology and belief systems, for goodness sakes), I do think that I need a little more than a few notes on the subject of story world history.

So, why never ‘tell’? Because if you do your job and work it all out first there should be no need to spell it all out for your reader. Your characters’ actions, beliefs, thoughts, and words – alongside descriptions of the story world in the present – should suffice to deliver a strong sense of legacy.

After all, one of the big criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that there is just too much explaining going on, and whilst I can’t always agree (the detailed descriptions of life in the Shire at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, helps to understand how much Frodo has to change to survive in much more hostile environments), I can see why readers moan about it.

See ya next time 😉

If you are also struggling to work out your story world’s history, or if you have the opposite problem and are consumed by coming up with more and more detail about what happened before your story began, share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Plot, Story Beats, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

What to do when outlining isn’t enough?

Calling all plotters! Let’s imagine the following: you have established your writing process, worked out your basic structure, completed a description of every scene…but when it gets down to writing, you struggle to come up with the all important details. The narrative doesn’t flow and you inevitably find yourself asking the question what else should I add into this scene?

If this scenario is foreign to you, consider yourself lucky! It’s the number one reason why I have faltered at completing a novel so many times! Following my renewed commitment to actually finishing my first novel during last autumn, I also sparked an obsession on how to force my brain to work it out. I thought NaNoWriMo was going to fix everything. If needs must, your brain can do it!, I thought…I was WRONG!

I had all the same problems but now I was also under unnecessary pressure to hit daily word limits. The more I wanted to win, the more I lost – sleep, productivity, and even the basic joy in writing evaded me. It was horrible.

Halfway through the challenge, I stopped caring about writing my first draft. I just started jotting down some story details that I knew and started elaborating on the things that I noted in my story grid whilst asking: how would it happen? Additionally I added snippets of dialogue that came to mind in relation to the events that were finally starting to flow.

The result: things shifted completely and I started typing furiously into my word processor every day (a shame I only came to this realisation on day 25 of the 30 day challenge).

The good news is that the concept of what I discovered is not new. Sterling and Stone (an incredibly productive fiction writing trio) have termed this ‘story beats’. A detailed outline of their whole story in long prose. Whilst I haven’t studied their method in much detail and can’t say how similar or dissimilar my version of this is from what they are doing, I can attest to the fact that the rough longform outlining of story really works very well.

Here’s a list of my key findings after writing a good chunk of my rough story beats (I didn’t make it all the way to end yet but I am working on it).

  1. Some extra scenes need to be added for the story to flow (even though scenes seemed to follow on fine from each other from the story grid).
  2. Supporting characters weren’t fleshed out enough in the grid outline and it was difficult to imagine how they would react in certain situations.
  3. Not enough worldbuilding had been done – this will be addressed as a priority this year as it might change some aspect of the characters.

I can’t wait to post about how I will be addressing the issues I have identified and share any resources that help me on my journey.

See ya next time 😉

If you are stuck with your own writing, share your issues in the comments below, maybe I can suggest something that helps (I know all about being stuck, after all). And if you have experience with story beats, I would love to hear how it’s worked for you (or not).

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Plot, Scenes, Structure, Writing Process

Is it OK to stray from your outline?

A prime question among writers! If you are a dedicated plotter (like me), you will appreciate the many upsides to having a detailed outline for your novel, short-story, work of non-fiction (or whatever else you are writing). You will know the feeling of sitting down to write with a good idea of what events, characters, scenery, etc. you need to put on the page and therefore be able give the finger (or two) to any #creativeblock that may be waiting in the wings to derail your progress – most days.

Then there are those writers (and if you are one of these, I am profusely jealous) who like to fly by the seat of their pants, discovering the story, characters, events, and scenery as they go. ‘Pantsers’ hate outlining and I get why. If you are not a plotter this post is not for you. This is for the writers who struggle to write without a map – welcome friends!

Eight scenes into my #NaNoWriMo project (Fearful Magic), I am not surprised to find that the scenes I have down so far are not the same eight scenes that fill spaces one to eight on my story grid outline. Creativity just works it’s magic that way. Once my fingers start flying over the keyboard, the unexpected happens and I let it…gladly.

First draft writing is not science. It’s a dark art. It’s perfectly fine to stray from your outline, especially during the writing of the first draft which is really about finding the right tone for the work and building the framework upon which to improve upon later. The only important thing is to make sure that you meet the key milestones of your story. So, a lose following of your outline is absolutely OK. I would say, it’s essential to ensure that you don’t get fed up with your story before it’s written.

There is always more to discover and you will never be able to come up with all the scenes up front. Does this mean outlining is a waste of time. NO! Of course not! The outline is there to get you writing. Once the writing is happening, do as you will. Once you don your editor hat you can amend your outline where necessary, then re-read, revise, re-think all aspects of your first draft…until your vision comes to life.

See ya next time 😉

If you have trouble following your outline, get frustrated with your creativity taking you down unexpected paths and alleys, or haven’t cracked this outlining thing at all, leave a reply in the comments below and share your experience.

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Structure

Can you write a story without a map?

Definitely! There is nothing more satisfying than writing out into the blue with inspiration dictating the way as you go. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for me. It just seems to lead me to more unfinished drafts as I eventually end up writing myself into a corner with no plausible way out.

So back to plotting it is. For this, my first ever full-length novel, I am using the story grid (a tool that was originally developed for editing books) by Shawn Coyne as an outlining device. Look out or new posts to find out how I adapt this for my own purposes – one step at a time.

See ya next time! 😉

If you you can appreciate the joys (and horrors) of being a plotter (…or a pantser), consider leaving a comment blow.

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