TTT – Developing Characters through Short Stories

To write your character’s story, you need to know them as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. This isn’t an easy ask. There are so many questions, so many things to learn. Where do you start? A chat over dinner and wine? A long, drawn out interview? I find actions speak louder than words.

The majority of my characters have been developed through short stories and, more recently, flash fiction. I like to put them through their paces, maybe torture them a little (a lot), and find out how they tick. Like a scientist (or just some kid with a bug in a jar), I immerse them in scenarios and study their reactions. You’d be amazed by how much you can learn and, if nothing else, it’s a whole heap of fun…

Tips

1. History

Backstory tells you a lot about your characters. Experience and past encounters shape who they are and what they’re capable of. Living through those experiences, alongside your character, is the perfect way to understand their motivations, goals and abilities. Flash and short fiction are the ideal media for this. They allow you to focus on individual events that had the biggest impact. They also allows you to gauge the condition of relationships in the character’s immediate circle. For example, does a loving husband find the relationship with his wife strained when they argue, or is he certain they’ll come out fine? What about their friends? Do they speak kindly of them when they are not around? Write the scene, learn from it.

Exercise: Choose three key moments in your character’s past and relive them in three flash/short stories. Be sure to pay attention to how your character reacts in the heat of the moment.

2. Test of time

When done correctly, character development takes an incredible investment of time. This is doubly so if you intend to use them as the main character in your novel. Ask yourself, are they worth all this effort? Often, it’s hard to tell. We might start writing and soon find they are not all they appear to be.

When I get an idea for a character, I write them into a short story, either as the main character or as supporting cast. There are two benefits to this:

  1. I’ve already started to test them in conflict; and
  2. I get a good idea if their story is the right one to tell.

Sometimes the person you think is right to tell the story is more of a supporting character, at best. Likewise, the character you gave a bit part to sometimes has the stronger voice and the better story.

Exercise: Choose a character you haven’t fully developed and write a story involving them. Do they come across as a strong character? Do they entice you to explore them further?

3. Trial by fire

Knowing how a character will react to a given crisis…situation is half the battle. The only real way to do this is to test their reaction, both external and internal, to conflict by throwing them to the proverbial, and sometimes literal, wolves. When you write with your characters in mind, you’ll find that they have a habit of steering the story down their own paths and in ways you never expected. This is a great indication of the extent that you know your characters, that you have started to adopt their mindset. It’s also as frustrating as it gets.

If you really want to find out how the character will react to conflict, write the conflict and, while you’re doing it, listen to what they’re telling you. It pays to listen to their thoughts and emotions too.

Exercise: pick an intense scene, one filled with conflict, and then throw your character into the thick of it. Do they sink, or swim? Do they react how you expected? If not, are they likely to react like that again?

4. Voice

Short fiction, especially that written in the first-person, is the perfect way to explore and develop your character’s voice. Writing from their perspective puts them in the driving seat and gives you a unique opportunity to discover the way they communicate with each other and with their audience. This is exceptionally useful for secondary characters, ones that play a significant part in your story but are not main characters. It’s all too easy to give these characters a generic, even stereotypical, voice. Don’t let that happen, coax it out of them with flash.

Exercise: Take a secondary character and write a scene, or short story, from their perspective. How do they talk? What mannerisms do they have? Do they seem educated? To what level? Do they favour slang and jargon, or do they avoid it?

5. Day in the life

Day to day activities are not the kind of thing that makes it into novels and stories. It’s not often that a character will have a typical day in a novel (these things are, and should, be edited out). You’ll never go into detail about their paperclip collection (unless you’re setting them up to be The Paperclip Killer, or his patsy), what they had for lunch, or give the blow by blow on their lunchtime meeting (Le Carré-esque spy thriller, anyone?). How a person lives tells a lot about who the person is. Short stories and flash allow you to live a day in their lives. It won’t make for exciting reading, but it will reveal all sorts of juicy secrets about them and their ‘ordinary’ life.

Exercise: write the story of your character’s typical day. What does it reveal about them? About their family and support network? How do they feel about their job?

Has anybody out there just short stories to learn about their characters? How has it worked out? Comments below please.

TTT – Flash Fiction and Novel Writing

I know it seems contradictory that writing flash fiction can help you to finish a novel, but it’s true. How does writing a 500 word flash fiction piece help you to cultivate the skills you need for novel writing when the two are at different ends of the writing spectrum?

Ways that flash helps longer works
1. Concision

A novel is a vast entity with an almost unlimited capacity to store words. What difference does an extra 500, 1,000, or even 5,000 words make when you’re taking about a word count of 80,000+? A big difference, that’s what. Novels are simply long stories, or a series of interconnecting ones, and like all stories should be treated with respect. They should be fed and nurtured and tended to in order to allow them to grow to their full potential. They are not a dumping ground for excess words the author can’t be bothered to prune.

Flash fiction has a word limit. To write it successfully, you must make every word count. There’s no room for hangers on. Flash fiction teaches the writer how to edit (and I mean REALLY edit). It teaches that, for a word to survive the cut, it must add to the telling of the story, to be more than just window dressing. Far too many novels could benefit from shedding a few excess words.

2. Character exploration

Flash is a perfect way to flesh out and explore a character’s personality. Use it to put them through their paces before you invest your time in writing their story. Use it to develop backstory and answer those all-important ‘What-ifs’.

Writing a novel’s going to take you months, even years, it’s only sensible to find out if the character is worth sticking with for all that time. Maybe there’s a better character waiting in the wings? Maybe the character isn’t all they profess to be? Maybe your character is just a dick? If I had a pound for every character I’d fallen out with…actually, I just have a pile of character bodies. Harlequin, you have been warned.

3. Just for fun

Picture this: you have a scene in which an immeasurably powerful spirit is meeting with a, slightly green, mage. The mage is trying to secure an item from the spirit, one that the spirit is never going to surrender. The mage needs this item to save someone’s life. How does he get it? Dunno? Yeah, me neither. I encountered this problem a long time ago, trying to find the solution to something that occurs in Harlequin’s backstory (It’s not even important to the plot in any of the books, but I NEEDED to know). What did I do? I wrote it out. I wrote sixteen flash fiction stories; each approaching the problem from a different angle. When I read back through them, I had my solution.

It happens to all of us. Half-way through your novel, you’ll encounter a problem you hadn’t anticipated. Brainstorm with flash fiction. It’s a great problem-solving tool, not to mention how much more fun it is than staring at a blank screen and willing the imagination faeries to appear (if they do turn up, let me know: the buggers owe me money). No problems encountered? Good for you, but why not use flash to consider alternate scenes you may have dismissed at the time? One of them could be the scene that lifts your novel higher up the bestsellers list.

4. Empty your mind

Ideas are like buses. You sit around for hours in the freezing rain waiting for one and then twenty turn up all at once. Trust me, when you start to write your novel, your subconscious batters on the door like a child, showing you all kinds of new and shiny ideas. Often it’s enough to exorcise the little menace by jotting the idea down in your notebook, but sometimes you have to bring out the big guns. Use flash to get that idea out of your head and firmly down on paper, freeing your sub-conscious up to generate ideas relevant to your novel.

5. Trust your audience

Something I see time and time again with new writers is over-explanation. This is often caused by a lack of confidence in their own ability to communicate their ideas. They worry the audience won’t understand what they mean, so they add a side note e.g. The green-skinned woman licked her lips with a forked tongue, because she wasn’t human. I know, I know, this is an exaggeration but not by much. I’ve seen things worse than this and, more than once, in (self) published work. Now, the forked tongue and green skin can only mean she’s not human (either that or body modification has gone too far) and your audience will pick up on that.

‘What’s all this got to do with flash?’ I hear you ask. The extreme limit on word count in flash fiction gives no room for detailed explanations, and I would urge anyone, especially beginners, thinking of writing a novel to give it a go. If nothing else, it will teach you to trust that the reader will pick up on clues and arrive at the same conclusion you did. They’re smarter than they look, give them a little credit.

If any of you out there are using flash fiction to help write your novel, or if you have any tips and suggestions of your own of how flash and novels go hand-in-hand then I’d like to hear from you. Please use the comments below.
Next week: Character exploration through short stories.

TTT – How to Write Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is easy. Flash fiction is hard. And both of these statements are true.

Before January, I’d never written a piece of flash, didn’t even know what it was. But once I started, I was hooked. It got its little spines into my noodle and wouldn’t let go…okay, that’s not true. It lets go every once in a while and, when it does, you’ll find me scrabbling around the floor trying to put it back in (what can I say? I miss the little guy when he’s gone).

Since then, I’ve been involved in numerous flash fiction challenges, most notably Thain in Vain’s weekly prompt, and I wrote (shameless plug alert) A Dictionary of Tales, twenty-six short tales of myths, monsters and legends which you should really check out.

Anyway, I digress. It’s on with the show…

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a literary term used to classify any complete story of 1,000 words or less (some argue 2,000). To be true flash fiction, and not just a snapshot or short scene, a story must have all the classic elements: a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. With an extremely limited word count, some of these elements may likely be implied in the narrative.

It is all too often thought of as an easy out by some writers and that its authors lack the discipline, skill, or commitment to tackle longer works. This is (excuse my French) shite…or is it merde? Anyway. Flash is no less important in terms of discovering your capabilities as a writer than is completing your novel. There’s an art to good flash fiction. It is a discipline all of its own and it take a lot of commitment (and a whole heap of editing) to write a story in only 1,000. I find that writers who knock flash fiction often end up with tomes full of excess words (but more on that later).

Tips

1. Know your (word) limits

It pays to keep your intended word limit in mind as you write. If you don’t, you risk telling more of the story than was intended and end up with a more substantial edit than may be strictly necessary. The word count is what makes the work flash fiction and it is all too easy to begin to expand out of control (see K.I.S.S. below).

I usually write to a 500 word limit which, depending on your font/font size, is about one side of typed A4. As the text gets closer and closer to that final line, I know I’m approaching my word limit. This is a helpful guide when it comes to assessing whether or not the story you are trying to tell is suitable for flash.

2. Start in the middle

No piece of flash fiction starts at the beginning. There simply isn’t the room. As its name suggests, flash is a sudden shock, straight into the action with little or no warning. To achieve this, you must think about your story as a whole and assess where in the narrative the action really begins. For example, in Crow, I explored the aspect of the goddess, Morrigan, and a battle she bore witness to. There were many places I could have started (the preparations for battle, the indignity that caused it to be fought, the call to arms of the soldiers). I chose to start after the fighting had already begun, right in the heat of the conflict. Any earlier and I’d have run out of words before I even gotten to the battle, any later and the story would already be over.

The key to good flash fiction is knowing where to start.

3. Leave ‘em hanging

Never finish the story. Well, of course you have to finish it but rarely does flash fiction (or even short stories) finish with ‘The End’. Start late and finish early, before the conflict or resolution has fully played out. Make the audience ask “But what happens next?” Flash fiction is as much about what you leave out what you put it.

4. Make every word count

Every word must pull its weight. Flash is not the place excess baggage. Likewise, it is not the place for strings of descriptive adverbs/adjectives. All stories need a few for flavour and to prevent the story from occurring in a vacuum but you don’t have the space to describe every detail. This shouldn’t be limited to adverbs/adjectives either. Ask yourself:

  1. Could I start this story later?
  2. Can I cut that without losing meaning?
  3. Does that word/sentence/paragraph add anything to the story?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 or 2, or “no” to question 3, then your word rationing needs looking at.

5. Write long, edit short

The story comes first and, as with all first drafts, what you’ve written is likely to need severe pruning. Concentrate on getting the words down first, don’t worry about the word count but do try to bear it in mind. Once that’s done: cut, cut, cut. Ask yourselves the questions above and those we discussed in a previous post on editing.

Remember: not all stories can be told in flash fiction.

6. K.I.S.S.

That’s right Keep It Simple Stu….sunshine. You haven’t got the room to develop multiple characters and twisting subplots. If you have an idea like that then congratulations, you have the makings of a novel, but these don’t work for flash. Flash rarely has more than one or two characters and usually only one plot strand (others may be implied). You’ll drive yourself mad doing it any other way. So, do your noggin a favour and K.I.S.S.

7. Write often

Flash fiction is a perfect medium in which to discover your ‘voice’. Because flash can be written in a comparatively short space of time, it is possible to explore many different facets of style, perspective and tense in the same time one writer might take to draft a novel. Do the maths: if a flash fiction story takes a day to write and edit, then it is possible to write thirty in a month (ignore February. It isn’t even a real month anyway). Although it’s possible to write a short novel in 30 days, there is no way you’ll have it edited in that time also. This means that a flash fiction author has the potential to explore twenty-nine different themes in the same time a novelist explores one. Think about it.

I’m going to cast the floor open once again. Does anyone have any tips they would like to add? Any sage advice on crafting flash picked up through experience? I’d also like to hear people’s thoughts on flash fiction. Do you like it? Loathe it? Do you even see the point in it? Comments below, please.

Next week: How flash fiction can help you write your novel.

Flash Fiction Friday – Oblivious

The urgent thumping on the door made Lillian jump.

‘W-who’s there?’ she called, inching toward it.

‘This is the police, Mrs Sonne. Is everything alright in there?’ A stern voice called from the hall, muffled by the heavy door. ‘Can you open the door?’

She let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding in and rushed to unbolt it. She flung it open and found two uniformed officers standing on the threshold. A corona of yellow light from an ancient wall sconce surrounded their capped heads. Lillian shielded her eyes from the light and resisted the urge to throw herself at them, to embrace them.

‘Thank you for coming.’

She stepped aside and motioned for them to enter. The first officer, a tall man with a narrow face and heavy-lidded eyes, stepped inside, removing his peaked cap as he did. He tucked it under his arm. His colleague, a short, stocky woman with cropped blonde hair, cast a glance up and down the hall before she followed.

‘We’re responding to a report of domestic disturbance,’ the first said. ‘Did you make that report, Mrs Sonne?’

‘Call me Lillian, and yes, I reported the “disturbance”,’ she chirped and walked them into a dim lounge. Black candles littered every surface. Their burning wicks caused the shadows to dance. She pointed them to a cream-coloured couch.

Narrow face sat and took out his notebook. Blondie excused herself to look around.

‘Tell me what happened, Mrs Sonne.’

Lillian sat beside him, knees close to his.

‘My husband has never been an observant man, officer…?’ she said.

‘Winters.’

‘Officer Winters. Lovely. I abhor unobservant men and my husband rarely noticed anything. I’d buy new shoes and he’d no idea. I changed my hairstyle and he’d fail to realise. Today is our anniversary and I’d cooked for him. Beef wellington, his favourite. I’d done my hair just as he liked it and I’d put on his favourite dress,’ she indicated the blue, satin gown with a wave of her hands. ‘What did he do? He ignored me, went to watch the football in the den.’

‘The disturbance, Mrs Sonne?’

‘Hush, I’m getting to that. I’d had enough and confronted him about it.’ Her voice lowered, almost inaudible. Winters leaned closer to hear. ‘He got abusive and he hit me.’

‘And where is your husband now?’

‘Why, Officer Winters, he’s dead. I killed him.’

‘You killed him?’ the officer said slowly.

Lillian smiled, nodded.

She leaned in close, her breath hot on his cheek, and whispered, ‘the devil made me do it.’

A scream echoed from the next room, followed by a wet thud and the cracking of wood.

The officer snapped up straight and stared at Lillian.

‘What was that?’ He demanded.

She ignored him, ‘can I ask you something, officer?’

He didn’t answer, couldn’t turn away from her.

Lillian’s eyes flickered bright and, from deep in her throat, a twin set of voices purred in unison: ‘Do you notice anything different about me?’

TTT – Staying Power

Writing a novel is the dream of most writers, but finishing a novel can become the bane of our existence. A novel is a huge commitment, a long haul. It requires stamina, fortitude, and coffee (a LOT of coffee).

Some writers find novel writing a breeze. They sit down at their desks and, by lunchtime, they have a first draft. Okay, that’s not true, but some writers do find it easier than others. Those who don’t always have the same excuse: no time. They don’t have the time to write a novel, don’t have the time to do the research, don’t have the time to edit, don’t have the time to submit. Don’t, don’t, don’t…

[Insert music from a very small violin here]

We all have the time. No one has more of it than anyone else. Twenty-four hours is all we get. The real problem is a lack of staying power.

What is staying power?

Staying power [noun]: the quality or ability that allows someone or something to continue to be effective… for a long period of time (Mirriam-Webster, 2014)

In this instance, staying power refers to the writer’s ability to invest the time and energy required to get from the first word to ‘The End’. A pretty big ask, especially when you think of a novel being between 60,000 and 100,000 words. I typically write for an hour or two every day (longer if I lose track of time), averaging around 600 words. At that rate, the first draft of a short novel would take 100 days to complete.

A hundred days?! But, I have other projects to work on and new ideas to research…and therein lies the problem.

This year, I will be participating in my first ever NaNoWriMo event (in 8 days, to be precise) and my staying power needs are at an all-time high. So, how do we keep ourselves excited and motivated through the novel writing process?

Tips
1. Accept that you’ll have rough patches

You sit down at your desk, notes ready, fingers poised and…mind blank. You’re lucky if you manage twenty words before you give up in frustration. That, my friends, is a rough patch and they happen to all of us. Don’t force the words. If they won’t come, give yourself a break for that day, or better still…

2. Write a different part

This used to trip me up all the time. I’d start writing, have a great idea for a scene mid-way through the book, then I’d stall before I got anywhere near it. If the idea for the scene is persistent enough to be distracting, why not get it out of your system and write it now? Write it and then put it to one side, then get back on with it.

3. Reconnect with your characters/story

During the long haul, we often forget the reasons why we started writing the story to begin with, why we felt so excited at the beginning. Take some time to reconnect with your story, reread your old notes, or talk it through with a sympathetic (writer) friend. If possible, why not experience life through a character’s eyes? Try out their favourite hobby (Note: the author accepts no liability for your actions, so be sensible), visit their favourite place, even eat their favourite food. Any of these things may be enough to re-light that initial spark.

4. Write your book’s blurb (or you award acceptance speech)

We all write for different reasons and, when we’re at our lowest, these reasons are often forgotten. When you feel your mood getting low, do something that reminds you of why you started writing. If your only goal is to see your novel completed, take some time to design the cover and write the blurb. If it’s fame and fortune ye seek (ahem…sorry), write your literary award acceptance speech and then get back to work.

5. Take a break

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and sometimes a break is all you need to rekindle your desire. Give yourself some time (two weeks, maybe) where you don’t work on your novel. Pack up all notes and sketches and don’t look at them during that time. When you return to it, it’ll be like the return of an old friend. I find this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in a rut. The time away allows my brain to work the kinks out of the novel and I find I know exactly how to proceed when I get back to it.

Bonus tip
6. Dealing with new ideas

We’ve all done it: sat down to write a story and, BANG, one thousand and one new ideas spring from the mists, each one better than the last and all of them vying for immediate attention. They offer promises of fortune, fame, and other prizes. It’s enough to make you scream. So, what do you do if this happens mid-novel?

That’s easy:

  • Write it down
  • Give yourself a little time (a day/two days) to explore the idea
  • Once the time is up, put all your notes on it away
  • DO NOT REVIEW YOUR NOTES
  • Make yourself a promise to return to it AFTER you’re finished.

Alright folks, I’ve waffled long enough. Does anyone else have any tips for keeping your novel on track? Any methods of resisting temptation? Please put them in the comments below.

Next week: how to write flash fiction