JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

My Writing Process, or Dirty Dancing with the Muses

May
23

Some people are plotters, some people leave their characters adrift in hopes they will do something interesting. Stephen King is in the latter camp, adamantly a member of the let-the-characters-do-their-thing party. I imagine Tolkien must have been a plotter, and a big one. He started out building a language and then wrote a story for it.

I’m neither of these. Or maybe I am both. Am I bi-procedural? I don’t often plot things out in detail, at least not for short stories. Though I am not averse to writing basic synopses and outlines, just so I don’t forget my great idea.

I did do a whole lot more planning for my novel/full-book-thingy, which included outlines for each chapter, characters lists, world and city maps, and sit downs with friends to discuss concepts. I feel like the planning helped a lot in that particular case.

For the novella I am currently writing, I wrote a basic two-page synopsis (which was actually required by the publisher as part of the pitch), but that just included a cast of characters and some basic chapter breakdowns. When I actually sit down and write the chapters, I don’t look at the synopsis, but rather let the story go where it wants to go. But I also don’t like to leave the story completely up to the characters. They don’t know what makes for a good read.

I just wrote a new short story today in a blaze of creative frenzy. I was struck by a muse and it would not be ignored. I knocked out 2000 words in the first two hours of the morning, took a short break to ingest some calories, and finished the final 1500 words in another hour or so. A complete draft of a 3500 word story in four hours is not to shabby!

Sometimes muses come, and I feel the writing is always better than when I have to force it. I imagine muses are different for everyone. Mine can be particularly strong. I usually find a muse in one of two ways: either listening to music, or reading about some intellectual topic such a science or mythology. The former are more common and usually give me fantasy stories, the latter usually offer science fiction tales based on the science I am reading about.

I started getting into writing when I was young because I was a daydreamer. I was always playing scenarios and stories through in my head. After watching medieval shows like The Tudors for example, I usually imagine myself traveling back in time. What would I do to advise the king? Of course, I’d start by teaching them about basic hygiene. No more armies crippled by dysentery. Then I could start my own unit of ninjas. Take old England by silent storm. Princess being held in the tower? Get her back ninjas! My own medieval special forces.

Daydreaming is what sends me muses. After getting an idea or a muse, I usually mull it over in my head, playing through the scenario like a movie. This is probably why my writing is more action centered and visual, since the story is visual to me. The more I daydream on a story, the more potent it becomes, the more motivated I become to write it, and in the end, the better the result.

In the case of this morning’s story, I have been thinking about it since yesterday evening, when a few lyrics from a song I’d heard a hundred times suddenly decided to catch my attention. At that point, the first thing I did was replay the song a dozen times to milk it dry. There were a few more lyrics that inspired bits of the story. I woke up this morning and drove to my morning class, playing the song again, repeatedly, in the car. The story concept was so full at that time, I decided to write down some chronological notes.

Now, I’m not going to give away what song inspired today’s story, I will tell you I wrote a story a couple weeks back under similar circumstances. That one was inspired by A Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran (So Far Away)”. I let you imagine where that took me.

While writing the story, I never looked at my notes, it was good enough that they were there and the idea was secure. I started with the initial scene that had been in my head the night before and let the story build itself, but keeping it close to the road I had paved through all my previous thinking. This morning’s muse was particularly strong and gifted, so I had little trouble getting it all down. I think I had to stop to think through a paragraph or look up a word less than ten times. It was a great writing session. I imagine this initial session like taking a lump of metal and hammering it into the rough shape of a blade.

Now, a couple hours have passed since I have seen my raw draft. I am about ready to go back to it. I have my blade, but now I need to fix any flaws in it, mend the cracks, heat-treat and sharpen it, and affix a fancy handle (If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Forged in Fire). I will look over my raw draft and do a basic proof, while at the same time checking for consistency and continuity in the narrative.

After than, I need to have a friend or two take a red pen to it. That’s a critical step before something is truly ready to be published, at least professionally. There’s a limit to how much an author can see of his own work, like a sort of tunnel-vision or color-blindness. An extra pair of eyes will always improve your writing (well, unless the author has an extra pair, which is weird, and still doesn’t solve author bias). Get some comments, write some revisions and maybe then it’s ready to be sent to someone in a stuffy office somewhere just waiting to ease their stress by trashing something violently. Even if I can only help to ease one soul, maybe it’s all worth it…

Nah. Gimme money! Well, that’s my short story writing process. Usually. Sometimes. It is the ideal, anyways.

That’s my spiel. I hope it helps you think through your process.

So how do you write?

SHARE: 8 Unstoppable Rules For Writing Killer Short Stories

May
22

So like the last share, this is another article I came across in one of my Facebook groups that I almost never pay attention to.

The article 8 Unstoppable Rules for Writing Killer Short Stories by Charlie Jane Anders offers a lot of good advice. This advice is more applicable to genre stories like science fiction and fantasy, but if your write lit you might find something helpful in there, too.  However, I feel the author gets one important thing wrong about short stories.

Anders says to keep your character development simple “unless your story is really a character study with a bit of a science fiction plot.” I think what she misses is that “character study” is the very definition of the short story. Short stories are all about character, due primarily to the fact that you cannot sufficiently build a complex plot or setting in 3-5000 words. Plot is important, but character is how your story lives and breathes. Character is how readers connect to your story.

Some of the best regarded cience fiction novels have often gotten away with sacrificing character for plot. Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Foundation, are just some examples of works with very bland protagonists that still manage to be interesting due to their interesting plots and deep, complex world-building. (I believe Anders just won the Nebula for her novel, and was previously nominated for a novelette, so she certainly has chops in the long form.) You cannot get away with bland, unispiring protagonists in a short story. There simply isn’t enough space to awe your reader with your world and still have them leave the story feeling fulfilled. The only thing that can do that is a good character and their struggle.

This goes to Anders’s last comment, to not “fall into the character-based/plot-based dichotomy.” While this is a great tip, it is so for the opposite reason this writer suggests. You should not fall into this trap because there is no dichotomy, there are only character-based stories, anything else is not a story at all. It might be fun to read a flash fiction piece in the form of a list describing the history of some future culture of aliens, but that is not a story.

Yes, you must have a plot, something must happen. But what is critical is not the something that is happening, but rather how the character is dealing with it.

Anyways, if you’re looking to improve your story craft, reading up on these writing tips from a brand new Nebula winner wouldn’t hurt.

Link: “8 Unstoppable Rules for Writing Killer Short Stories

SHARE: Tips for novelists

May
21

The first rule of write club is: don’t talk about write club! The second rule of write club is: there are no rules! (Which, of course, negates rule one, and more interestingly, itself, which then un-negates rule one…)

I follow a bunch of blogs and Facebook groups that discuss writing. More often than not, the discussion is not very interesting, or even not good. But from time to time, a gem comes to the surface. This is one of those.

The article Essential tips for aspiring novelists by  has a lot of good advice. As is usual, I don’t agree with everything this guru has to say, but there’s a lot in here I like.

Such as McCann’s comments on character. Character is the most important part of any story, whether that be a flash fiction piece or a novel. McCann suggests “writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with.” What makes us fall in love with a person? It certainly isn’t what’s on their resume. It’s their quirky mannerisms, their character, their beliefs and world-view. Those things are what you should be focusing on when you describe your character the the reader.

Another good point McCann makes is the importance of the first lines of your book. This is something I am learning the hard way. If you plan to try to get an agent to represent your book, be aware that most will only look at the first 3-5 pages before they make a decision.

For me, I think my book’s initial pages are a bit too slow. The major hook for the entire work comes in at around page 12. This has to do with the unique structure of the book. Even though I have a reason for it, the slow start still seems to be hurting me. I am actually considering going back to my finalized manuscript and adding some new first lines.

One bit that I don’t fully agree with is the idea that you should not use dialogue to convey information. Most often, the opposite is true. If you can deliver the background information in dialogue, you should probably do that rather than an exposition info-dump.

That being said, this can be taken to extremes. Andrzej Sapkowski‘s first Witcher book Blood of Elves is perhaps the best example of dialogue info gone horribly mad. I have been listening to the audiobook for a while and I would not be surprised if some 80% or more of the entire book is dialogue. Worse, it is dialogue between a bunch of undeveloped side characters that I don’t care about. There are scenes in the book that are literally just a bunch of random lords sitting around a table discussing politics. I never got a good grasp of who these people were or why I should care. Those long, drawn-out conversations would have been much better as basic exposition, keeping the focus of the book on the protagonists. As it stands, the book often gets distracted with meaningless characters and information.

The tips in this article are targeted at novel writers, but I think most of them apply to any form of fiction besides the smallest micro stories. If you’re looking to improve your writing, you would be doing yourself a big favor by checking it out.

Link: “Essential tips for aspiring novelists

Resistance – 3LineTales Week 66

May
04
tltweek66

photo by Adi Ulici

They came in the dead of night, dropping out of the sky like autumn snowflakes. With their guns they took our city, but a few of us escaped to resist their tyranny. A bomb on the transmission tower will let them know we are not done fighting!

*Written as a response to the Three Line Tales Week 66 photo prompt.

New Release on The Flash Fiction Press

Apr
04

One of my Iric stories was posted today on The Flash Fiction Press. It was originally posted on this blog as Volume 11 of the “Adventures of Iric” series. With some editing and fine tuning, I was able to find a home for it at FFP. I am very happy about that.

Check it out!  —  The Phantom Thief

Here’s to breaking new ground! – Check out my story now on Eternal Remedy

Mar
30
1

I just love the colors here. Great cover photo choice!

Things seem to be picking up for me. I had another story published today, this time by Eternal Remedy. This story was originally posted on my blog under the title The Adventures of Iric, Vol. 7. A unique title was added during the submission process. The story is now called “Memories of the South.”

The stuff Etre publish is a bit more introspective and moody than what I usually write, so I am very happy I found something to their liking. This is new thematic territory for me, but the group is looking to build enduring relationships with their writers, so I will have to think of a good way to blend my fantasy/SF focus with the sort of emotional narratives they want. It will surely be an interesting exercise.

I have to say, I like what Etre are doing with their site. I think theirs is one of the best examples of a minimalist setup done right. They’ve added some imagery to my story, and I think they made some good choices. It reflects the mood of the story but is also in line with the general vibe of the site. And the subtle graphics like the fading thumbnails to text and the jump-out author’s bio are pretty cool.

But that’s enough blabber from me. Go check out my story Memories of the South, and when you’re done, take a look at the other stuff on the site.

My story is now live on FFM!

Mar
28

My story “No Longer a Pup” is now live on Flash Fiction Magazine. It is a background story for a character that plays an important role in my upcoming book. If you enjoy reading Wolf’s origin story here, you’ll probably love the misadventures he has in In the Valley of Magic. Check it out!

No Longer a Pup

SHARE: 8 Shows That Will Make You a Better Novelist

Mar
28

This is a really neat article that shows you can learn as much about storytelling from television as from reading standard novels. In the end, writing is just storytelling in a different form.

For me, TV and film have always been a major source of inspiration for my writing, which is probably why I tend to be more visual and action-focused and less concerned with fancy prose. I get a scene in my head and my writing is an attempt to deliver that image to other people in as efficient a manner as possible.

This list of 8 shows is a good start, but I think you could expand it quite a bit. And whereas TV shows are a good comparison for novels in terms of storytelling flow and style, films seem to me to be a good replica for short stories. I often think of how I would parse out my stories as short films, which helps me to arrange and structure the narrative. All in all, good tips here.


Netflix & Write: 8 Shows That Will Make You a Better Novelist

by Andrew Lowe

I’ll bet you have stacks of writing-advice books stashed away, unopened, on your Kindle, as well as reams of writing-advice features bookmarked in your browser or read-later apps. While you should absolutely adopt a learning mindset when it comes to writing craft, don’t forget that you can immerse yourself in a fine source of writing advice that’s probably already sitting right there on your TV, laptop, tablet and phone: streaming TV shows…READ MORE

A Wretched Sort of Desire – 3LineTales

Feb
23
tltweek56

Photo by Clem Onojehungo

Irina watched the young, handsome man returning to her–his powerful stride, his lean, fresh body with its smell of smoked ham. He was a good choice; he even came with his own truck. Of course, she would have to change the plates after she devoured him.

*Spells! What is wrong with me these days? Get your head out of the gutter, guy!

*This was written as a response to the Three Line Tales Week 56 photo prompt.

Give the People What They Want – 3LineTales

Feb
18
tlt-week-55

Photo by Edwin Undrade

The crowd roared, chanting a chorus of indecipherable mumbles. They pushed forward, reaching out to touch the moisture and static which was building on the platform ahead. They stood by, unsaited, waiting for the blade to drop on the defiant sacrifice.

*written as a response to the Three Line Tales week 55 photo prompt.