Au Contraire workshop – From First Draft to Final Version with Jeena Murphy

The first thing Jeena asked us to do was to tell the group about the work we are currently editing in 25 words or less. This was incredibly helpful for me. I got 24 for WtWTCH? “I’m writing a superhero chick-lit about Shelley, whose super power is that she can see the worst possible outcome of her choices.” Nice.

We did some exercises in this workshop too, so my notes are sparse. She put headings up on the windows and got us to stand in a spectrum from the people who write by getting a bunch of random scenes and forming them into a story to organic shitty first drafts and those who plan and structure everything before you start writing. I stood right on organic shitty first draft because that’s how writing works for me. I’ve tried the random scenes thing with Kiki and ended up with a disconnected, episodic story. The planning thing is what stopped me from writing for so long because I just can’t work that way. It was really interesting talking to my buddy in organic shitty first drafted-ness about how we work and what we’ve learned. Sharing stories about the creative process is really fun, it turns out.

In terms of knowing when a story is done we talked about how you stop when you feel like it’s done which isn’t terribly insightful. Getting to the climax and then ending, etc. We all agreed that you ‘just know’ when the story would end.

Jeena had these points about revision and getting to the final version:

What is going to make or break your story? Work to your strengths.

You must get feedback. A fresh pair of eyes is essential. When you ask for feedback you have to be very specific about what you want back from people.

Know your writing style (see above) and work with it. Give yourself a break, don’t tell yourself you have to work another way.

We then brainstormed in pairs about aspects of good writing. Me and a lovely lady I have forgotten the name of worked on ‘Pacing’, writing down ways you know that the pacing is good. Then we all went around the room making notes of what we believe we can do well under each kind of thing. This gave us our strengths and weaknesses, which is pretty exciting.

Here’s my results based on that exercise:

Structure: Good at the ‘shape’ of a story (climaxes and ebbs), ensuring things make sense chronologically, plot hooks.
Bad at having a seamless flow (maybe?), making sure the internal logic of the story is consistent.

Pacing of story: Good at fast paced action and can’t-put-it-downedness, no scenes that achieve nothing, creating a physical reaction in my readers (I hope!) and absorbing the reader into the story by making them care about the characters.
Bad at varying fast and slow paces and knowing when it’s good to be slow.

Description: Good at an appropriate level of detail to the scene (sweet FA if lives are in danger), keeping description from interrupting the story and making the details given relevant.
Bad at cutting out adverbs and engaging all five senses.

Themes: Good at keeping them subtle or making them obvious if it supports the story.
Bad at knowing if there is the right level of theme in a story. I’m also bad at knowing what my themes sometimes.

Characterisation: Good at making it fit the part, creating believable, realistic characters and having them be credible.
Bad: my characters may be too similar ans the characters may be taking over the story rather than serving it. (I’m not convinced that the last point is necessarily a bad one, but other people seemed to be all ‘keep your characters under control! The story is all!’ which is not what I do at all.)

Plot: I’m pretty confident in my handle on story arcs and shapes, so I think I can pull off twists, strong beginnings and endings, conflict and keeping the plot tight – really restricting the tangents.
Not sure on my abilities on cliffhangers and having a plot that matches the themes…

Au Contraire workshop – Nicole Murphy on characterisation

This workshop write up is a bit slimmer than the others because we spent time doing exercises.

To this workshop we brought a character from our own work that we were struggling with and Nicole showed us a number of exercises we could do to explore the character and hopefully develop them more fully. We talked a little bit about our characters. I chose Jake from Rain. I worry that he is a bit on the two dimensional side and I want to make sure he is more real.

We did a worksheet exercise here, filling out details for our character. Some of the boxes had things I wouldn’t have thought of un-prompted such as Spiritual beliefs (which is quite complicated for Jake as it turns out), Education/Job (education was patchy, but he did study through high school), Loves/Hates (loves to win, being the one who knows things and his big brother/hates people who get away with bad things, hypocritical behaviour and ghosts) and Hobbies (collects exorcism stories in his journal). I was surprised, while filling this sheet out, with how much I did know about Jake. I was remembering little moments in various scenes from the book and what it meant about him. So although I felt a little bit like I was back in school it was a helpful thing to do. I ended up writing all over the margins with complicated details of his family background and what it meant for how he acts now.

The first impression you get of someone is physical, you see what you see. Then as you talk to someone you get details of their personality.

Ways to go deeper with a character: think about why you love them (if you do), ask what their motivations are, think about details of their background (esp childhood and adolescence), this is where they have come from after all.

Nicole mentioned that one of her ways of finding names is to look for the meanings of names first. Figure out what traits define your character and then find a name that means something like that.

Nicole asked us to think about the most interesting people in our actual lives. What is it about them that is so interesting? How are they thinking what they are thinking?

There was a bit of discussion about what makes fictional characters more compelling. Heroes with elements of evil in them, for example, or someone who is doing good in spite of himself. (Han Solo was mentioned as an example.) The way the character relates to the setting can give them more depth. How do they interact within society? What are the implications of what they do within the world?

Some exercises/tools for getting inside a character’s head.

If you can’t work out how your character will react to something, try interviewing them. Like, think up some questions and ask the character. Apparently Nicole did this once and got through some writer’s block. It’s especially good if you can make the interview itself important to the story (debrief after a mission, for example). Think hard about what question(s) your character will not want to answer.

Try writing your character’s CV, or filling out a census for them. Even a quiz from a magazine, as the character.

Think about what your character’s star sign is and use the recommended traits for that sign to flesh them out.

Write a random scene of your character interacting with someone else. (I did this one, a flash back with Jake at 13 and his big brother. I quite liked it.)

You need to be able to demonstrate character in the frame of your story by showing how the character acts, reacts and interacts. Do not just spell it out for the reader. One suggestion for checking this from another person in the workshop was to use Ctrl + F and search for ‘was’. If you’re using it to describe something (Jake was sad) then you should probably take that out and replace it with an action that shows what they are.

Au Contraire writing workshop – Jay Lake on Fast Writing, Revision and The Muse.

I spoke to Jay for a while before the workshop started. Sally had met him before and introduced us and I didn’t realise for about five minutes that he was in fact, running the workshop. Jay is an excellent speaker and said lots of great motivating stuff. You should check him out here. This workshop and therefore my write up, was pretty unstructured but it was probably the most valuable session I have ever attended. I am a total Jay Lake fangirl now. And I haven’t even read any of his fiction.

First and foremost Jay endorses psychotic persistence. If you want to become a successful writer you must demonstrate persistence, and at the somewhat psychotic level.

He said that he’d noticed people making commitments to writing a short story a month for a year. He suggested that instead, you try to write a short story a week. Think about it: at the end of the year you have 52 (ish) stories. That’s a lot more output than 12, a lot of practice as well. You cannot wait for The Muse to inspire you, you must start writing and keep writing and The Muse will ride along with you as you write. His essential message was: do more of what you do and finish what you write.

Remember that you must write an entire first draft to be able to do anything. It’s like felling a tree. You need to go up the hill and cut the tree down and drag it back with you so that you can give it to the mill and have it turned into something. If you don’t have the log you can’t do anything with it.

Jay suggested limiting yourself to working on one project at a time, see if it helps your writing flow. It will prevent any bleed over of voice.

You must get out of your own way. Turn off your critical inner voice until you have done the first draft. Don’t stop drafting. Push yourself through the process. Lock up the inner editor. Some people discussed ways they achieve this. Jay said he just writes fast enough to drown out the voice, that’s pretty much what I do too. Sally said she listens to the critical voice, placates it, agrees and then goes ahead and writes all the same.

Jay talked about learning about the craft of writing not as something you hear about and can then immediately apply, it’s more like you take a lot of stuff in and then something will bubble up in your head later on. Maybe even years later. He described his own process of letting ideas steep or rest in his head, saying his subconscious will do the hard work of fleshing out the story and then when it comes to be time to write it he has a good first draft. I wish my brain worked like that, I have to write stuff down immediately or it’s forgotten forever.

Elizabeth Bear’s hand of cards theory: You need a bunch of things to write a story. You need to know about plot, style, tone, language, character, etc. Most people are naturally good at one or two of these things. The trick is to think about what’s in your hand of cards; what are you good at and what are you weak out. Once you have worked out what you’re bad at, you can then work at those things and get better. Thereby strengthening your hand and winning the game. Or something. We did some brainstorming around the table of what the “Cards” might be and came up with this list: setting, plot, chatacter, description, sensory detail (using all 5 senses), dialogue, world building (especially important for crime and science fiction stories), style + voice (your choice of words, pacing, the length of the words you use), tone, person and tense (e.g. Third person, past), grammar, vocabulary.

In flash fic you only have room to focus on one of the cards in your hand. Jay also described the basic story as a person in a place, with a problem.

You can extend your writing by talking to and hanging out with people who are experts on things. They have a different perspective and deep knowledge of their areas of interest. You can learn description from them, ask them what they see? Jay gave an example of a time he went to a river with a fly fishing enthusiast and they saw so many things that he didn’t, just from their experiences fishing in the river.

I have this note, which I have to admit I don’t really understand now: Take the fundamental structure of a story to explore different aspects of writing. Practice opening the door to your muse. If anyone can shed some light on that one, please do so in the comments.

Jay suggested as an exercise in voice to try writing something in the style of someone else. For example write as Phillip K Dick or Robert Heinlen. Choose established authors and have a play around.

Publishing is a meritocracy, but it isn’t just that. you can control the quality of your story. If you write as well as you can AND keep sending work out there then you vastly improve your chances of getting published. There’s that psychotic persistence again. Jay mentioned that there are no publishing ninjas. No one is going to sneak into your house in the middle of the night and steal your manuscript to publish it. You have to put it out there yourself.

You must learn to fail. In fact, reinterpret rejection as feedback from publishers. Jay demonstrated by tapping my shoulder and asking me out for dinner that night. I took a second to catch up and remember that he was talking about rejection before I said “No, thank you.” Perversely I felt guilty about it later on. Again he said do more of what you do and get it out there.

Revision: A writer is the worst judge of their own work. You have to fix it as best you can and then send it out to someone else. Other writers will tell you how *they* would fix it, which isn’t always what you want. But they will have valuable feedback as well. Ask a non-writer what didn’t work for them, that way you get some balance. Jay suggested breaking down your revisions into multiple passes, focussing on just one thing at a time. Do a revision for plot. Do another pass looking at just one character, making sure their voice and actions are consistent, etc.

His advice for the best possible exercise was to write a story of 1500 words then cut it down to 500 words. You learn what you do wrong. The viciousness of the editing can lead to very tight plotting at the end.

…and that was it. Go check out Jay on his website.

Au Contraire writing workshop – Ripley Patton on flash fiction

Ripley Patton is a lovely person. I’m just going to lead with that.

For the purposes of the workshop Ripley defined flash fiction as any piece of writing under 1000 words. Definitions are different all over the web, so it was good to have this as a spring board. She further defined it as: a fictional story of extreme brevity. They can be a little bit subversive. In the first place, they subvert the regular length of a short story, but also it’s a rebel form of story telling, playing with structure and conventions.

OK, so what’s a story? In terms of flash fiction it is “any narrative that fulfils the reader’s desire for a story.” That means what we are working towards in flash fiction is reader satisfaction. Flash fiction is also a great form for experimentation, and it’s a short time investment. You’re not going to need a couple of years to get it finished.

Why write flash?

Ripley mentioned this quote from Mark Twain “Every story has its true form.”
Some ideas are best in the tiny form. You can experiment by taking out something that doesn’t work and rework it as flash fic. What will you lose?

Writing flash can improve your craft. Even for novels you need to be able to write blurbs, synopses, elevator pitches, the text on the back cover of the novel etc. They are basically flash fic pieces of a longer work. In flash you are forced to work out what elements are essential to the story, because some things will have to be ditched for length. You’re also given great practice at editing and trimming. Ripley mentioned that you shouldn’t have the word count in mind when you start writing the story (unless you’re going super short, like twitter fic) just write the story as it needs to be and then trim it back to fit the word count.

Flash if fun and quick. Ripley likened it to speed dating for writers. (Where writing a novel is getting married, and a short story is a fling ;p )

There is a large market for flash. The internet loves flash, because it’s quick and easy. Exposure is good. If you get your work out there, more people will read it and the more people who read it the bigger your chance of catching someone’s eye.

Ripley talked for a while about the different forms of flash fic (Twitter fiction = 140 characters or less, 55 word or 69 word stories. Drabble = 100 words no more no less, etc.) I have a hand out covering them all but it feels a bit like stealing to copy it out here. She detailed a couple of types of flash as well, for example the Organic found form, where you write like a field guide, or an instruction booklet or a tour guide.

We talked a bit about twist endings, which are over used in flash. There does need to be a punch at the end of a flash fiction story, but twist endings aren’t always easy to use and they can be used incorrectly. If you get the twist wrong the reader might feel cheated rather than satisfied. The reader should be able to read a story with a twist two ways: once not knowing the ending and once knowing. There can’t be any information left out, you just have to lead the reader to make an assumption that is wrong.

Then we took a break to write some flash fiction. In the 15 minutes we had I wrote a 69 word story which was a bitchy wee thing about the correct way to act in writing workshops (not sure what I’ll do with that one…), two twitter fics (one of which I have since sold to nanoism) and a 55 word story which I published on this blog on Saturday. I read out the second twitter fic for the group and had a very positive reaction from everyone, which is probably why I felt like it was good enough to sell.

Ripley then talked us through her things to think about when writing flash.

Break the rules – combine forms (make an organic found 55 word story for example). One person in the course wrote a column of numbers down the margin and wrote a word for each, that’s how he did a 25 word story. Unlike in most story writing, you need to tell not show. Flash fic has to be about telling because you don’t have the luxury of description. You can use dialogue to tell, but it’s alright to just tell as well.

Start with something familiar to the reader as well as to yourself. The reader will add the details in themselves which means less work for you.

Farm other stories – you can use the same ideas for a flash fic that you use for a longer piece. The longer form is still usable.

Punch – you should pack a punch with your writer. Like a joke’s punchline. Ripley mentioned Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons as an excellent example of flash fiction. You can use Far Sides for practice by writing a new caption for them. Play around.

Brevity stick to a maximum of three characters, one point of conflict and a maximum of three scenes. You should use as few setting elements as you can.

Word count. Kill your darlings. Every word has to count. Don’t be afraid to cut what looks like too much. You can always add back in if something doesn’t work.

Random wisdom from the end of the workshop included the best ways to submit fiction online: story in the body of the email as much as you can, word count is crucial; follow it exactly, follow the magazine’s guidelines or you’ll win no friends, check for whether the title of the story is included in the word count or even if they want one. Flash fic usually doesn’t have a writer’s contract so don’t be surprised by that.

Ripley recommended selling reprints as much as you can, there are a number of markets that accept reprints and again, the more exposure the better. Response times are slow from magazines, they have so much to get through, and be wary of markets which don’t state a response time. (They might be extra, super slow!)

Go hard on promotion. In a lot of cases you are the only person who will promote your work, so promote yourself as much as you write. Ripley suggested having a writing blog/website separate to your private/personal one so that you have a more professional platform. I’m still thinking about that. You must also be findable online, if someone sees one story of yours somewhere and wants more, they should be able to Google you and find more.

Payment = don’t expect the world. Flash fic will not make you rich! But it’s worthwhile exposure.

Cool links:

Flash fiction markets:
Flash Fiction Online
SmokeLong Quarterly magazine
Vestal Review

Awesome stuff for writers:
Duotrope Digest is a market finding tool and freaking amazing. You enter what kind of story it is, how long, whether you want to get paid, etc and it will come up with a bunch of matches you can try submitting your work to. is an online community where you can trade criticism of work. They also have a black hole which tracks the amount of time markets take to get back to you after you’ve submitted. has a similar feature, tracking response times.
Sonar 3 from Spacejock software is a free, easy to use programme for keeping track of where you’ve submitted what and when. It is amazing! Up til now I was just trying to keep notes in a book and it was *not* working at all. It tracks how long since you submitted as well, which can be good for chasing up if it’s been too long.

Au Contraire writing workshop – Sean Williams on Collaboration

This workshop started excellently, with the lovely Sean Williams giving me a chocolate frog. He had chocolate frogs for everyone. He’s some kind of genius basically. Anyway, he started by talking about what fears might be stopping us from collaborating with others. For example you might be afraid of opening yourself up to other people in that way. You might be afraid that they’ll reject you or your ideas.

But he said that it’s worthwhile to overcome these fears, because it’s impossible to say this is the only way you can tell this story. There must be another way, you just can’t see it. Working with someone else can open that up, and their way might be better.

A neat list of reasons why collaboration is good:

It can help you get through the dip. There’s always a time when you just don’t want to keep writing, for whatever reason. If you’re writing with someone they can motivate you to finish it. Either by actually motivating you or because you feel you owe them.

Another person can revitalise dead ideas. They can provide you with a new view on something that you thought was broken. Besides, you have nothing to lose if you have a dead story, so what’s the harm?

It can be a career booster. If you write with someone more famous than yourself, you get a bit of their fame. It could start a career, or restart a career as well.

You can fix each other’s blind spots. Two pairs of eyes are obviously better than one, this is excellent for writers because you can catch each other’s mistakes.

If you get stuck work can continue without you. This is pretty huge. The other person can keep on writing if you’re blocked. Or you can talk your problem through with the other person. Maybe ask them to do the next bit. “I can write something awful and he would fix it.” ~ One of Sean’s quotes on working with Garth Nix.

Creative Rush. You get to do brainstorming with another person. This helps you to think things through and work out the plot points.

It’s harder to deviate from the plot. If you’re working with someone else you kind of have to stick to the game plan, at least the basic one. Wild tangents are fun but they’re not always good. By being courteous to the other person you are (hopefully) keeping the story tighter.

You get to surprise your collaborator. You might write something new and awesome that you know your collaborator will love. Imagine the fun when you send it to them, and they like it! Sean also mentioned you can write in-jokes into the MS and you can laugh about them and then edit them out. Maybe.

Mythical Third Writer. You can end up with something that neither of you could do individually. The whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts, and you can get this kind of virtual third writer. A combination of the two of you, with a distinct voice.

Above all: it’s fun! It teaches you things about your writing, it motivates you to keep on writing, you get to spend lots of time with your collaborator and Sean described amazing times with Garth Nix where they just get together and eat lots of pizza and talk and it sounded awesome.

OK, so if you’re convinced and you want to collaborate, you’re gonna need some kind of idea of how to go about it. Sean gave us these guidelines that have worked for him in the past. As with anything in writing, you can probably ignore most of these and still have a collaborative success and you can probably do all of them and have a collaboration not work out. Continue reading

Au Contraire writing workshop – Juliet Marillier on Voice

I’m going to do a series of posts on what I learned in the writing workshops at the Au Contraire convention, in the hopes that I can shed a little light on my own writing as well as making a record of the events. This is the first one, which I attended first thing Friday morning. Please enjoy!

The facilitator for this workshop was Juliet Marillier.

She started the workshop by asking us to do a short free writing exercise on the topic of “Empty Space”, I think for ten minutes we did that. The idea here is that if you aren’t thinking hard about what you’re writing, if you’re just leaking words out of your pen so to speak, your voice will come through stronger. I’m not sure it worked for me, since I came out with something rather pretentious and odd. I hope I’m not pretentious. A couple of people including Sally were brave enough to read their pieces out loud.

Juliet talked then about some examples of strong voice, we read passages from famous books aloud and she recommended some spec fic titles that include strong voices.*

Then she had us break up into groups and talk about our childhoods, with special attention on what accents we may have been surrounded by, who spoke to us, what ethnicities were around us and what stories do we remember. Thinking back to look forward as it were, since all of these things must be informing our writing in some way. This was slightly depressing for me, growing up in a white wash of middle class Wadestown. However the stories thing was interesting. I was fascinated by myths and legends as a kid and I remember getting all sorts of stuff out of the Wadestown library: Anansi stories, book after book of English fairy tales (The Red Fairy Book series) , Greek myths and treasuries of stories from other cultures as well as Usborne books of ‘real’ monster and ghost encounters. Those have definitely informed me and my writing style.

Other questions to ponder if you’re playing at home, and my answers from the workshop: What are your favourite five novels of all time?
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson
The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (These were all off the top of my head, and I chose them because I frequently want to re-read them. Seems like as good a method as any.)

What was your favourite book when you were 12?
~ I’m pretty sure it was Alanna the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

What writer or book in particular made you want to be a writer?
~ I always wanted to be a writer, way back when I was tiny, but the author that motivated me to do something about it was Neil Gaiman. The depth of characters and the rich mythological content in American Gods, in particular.

What book(s) do you wish you’d written?
~ This one was easy: Tithe by Holly Black. It’s about dark fae and teenagers, it’s exciting, rich, the characters are intriguing and it examines what it means to be human.
Also The Hunger Games. Because damn. That’s some awesome stuff.

When you examine your own writing, what do you keep on visiting? What themes keep coming up? What places? Time periods?
~ Gosh, I really don’t know. Ghosts? Monsters? Teenagers? People who worry a lot and are conscious of their breathing? I’d really appreciate it if people who have read a few pieces of my work could wade in here…

What do other people respond to most in your writing?
~ Again, quite tricky. I think I have a strong sense of character, and Sok said my pacing’s good in the last third of Rain. I think I have a certain knack for creeping horror. Again, suggestions from the floor are appreciated.

We did another writing exercise then. Write a scene from Little Red Riding Hood focussing on putting in a distinct voice. Suggestions for challenging yourself included using a different person than you would usually (2nd person?), having a character that speaks in dialect, or at least very distinctively, working on your own strengths as a writer (helpful if you know what they are.)

I wrote a piece about Red finding the wolf in her Grandmother’s bed which I’m quite fond of and may submit somewhere so I won’t share it here. I read it out to the group and got some very good feedback: the humour worked, the twist I put on expectations was good, I had good characterisation (Red as a cynical teen who still loves her Nana).

Some final advice from Juliet on the subject of voice: You have to get of any prejudices or assumptions about other people/ethnicities to write well. You have to inhabit your characters to give them true voices. Successfully using voice is half technique and half instinct. You have to use your intuition and your empathy for other human beings to make them real. That’s what gives writing real spark.

In the end you are a product of your experiences, your background and your personal history. You use those unique things when you write, so you might as well be aware of what they are and what you’re doing.

Au Contraire
Interview with Juliet Marillier.

* Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds