How To Set Exciting Writing Goals for Next Year — And Actually Meet Them, This Time!

This time next year, you could be staring at a list of achievements that are directly related to the goals that matter to you…

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The Allure of the Fresh Start

I love the idea of a fresh start, don’t you?

It doesn’t matter when it happens (New Year, the first day of spring, the start of a new academic year), I’m always ready with my list of “this time it’ll be different” resolutions.

  • This time I’ll get my assignments done ahead of time!
  • This time I’ll write every day, even if I don’t feel inspired!
  • This time I’ll floss three times a day!

    And What Happens Next?

    You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?

    I’m excited to follow through on my plans for about three days.

    Then I start to force myself to stick to the new regime.

    Then I start to miss a day here or there…

    …and suddenly it’s June and I’m flipping through my journal and I find that massive, guilt-inducing list of Things I’m Going To Do Differently This Year, and my shoulders slump, and I spend the next three weeks in a slump, wondering why I can’t get anything done.

    Sound familiar?

Continue reading “How To Set Exciting Writing Goals for Next Year — And Actually Meet Them, This Time!”

[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character

InterviewToday’s writing prompt is ripped straight from my 6th Grader’s homework folder, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. 

I’m steeped in (as well as 6th Grade homework) Lisa Cron’s fabulous latest book Story Geniusin which she makes the compelling point that you cannot begin to tell your character’s story until you know about their past.

It’s a delightfully obvious (and surprisingly overlooked) observation that ought to be front and center in every writing class. So here we go.

The Prompt

Interview a character from one of your stories. Find out as much as you can about their past and what formed the character they possess on Page One of their story. Continue reading “[Writing Prompt] Interrogate A Character”

[Writing Prompt] Steal A First Line

The Prompt

Steal the first line of your favorite book and write a totally different story

Tips

  • Don’t agonize about your ‘favorite’ book. Just go to the shelf and pick one.
  • Type out the first line and then think of ways you can take that introduction in completely different directions.
  • Read Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars, for an example of how you might do this. Or listen to the audio collection it comes from.
  • Consider writing a tiny, flash-fiction story that you can start and finish today.
  • If you’re brave enough, post your story in the comments.

Go!

[Writing Prompt] Regrets, I’ve Had A Few

With Our Eyes Wide Open...This week’s writing prompt is completely stolen from the first story in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories (edited by Junot Diaz)

In the story, a man visits his elderly parents. A chance remark reminds him of an incident in his childhood where he was clearly in the wrong, and someone else suffered.

Without being heavy handed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allows her character to reminisce, taking us through a bright moment in a child’s life, before showing the act the man would later regret. There is very little commentary, just lush scene-painting and evocation.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by one of your regrets

Tips

  • Write this story using a nugget from your own past: an act or words of which you were later ashamed.
  • Alternatively, combine a story you heard from someone else with the emotions you felt when you did something wrong.
  • Don’t use this as a vehicle to feel sorry for yourself, now. Rather, use your experiences to conjure up for the reader the feelings, the physical experience of your shame.
  • Don’t write this autobiographically (unless you really love memoir). Give your feelings to another character.
  • Consider giving the feelings of shame to a character who is very unlike you, and see how they would react to facing the consequences of their own actions.
  • Try to not consciously teach the reader a lesson. Instead, explore the experience and let them draw their own conclusions.
  • Try to evoke the experience of doing something you know to be wrong, getting caught, or getting away with it but regretting it anyway, in ways that a reader might recognize from their own experience (that’s why I suggest focusing on the physical reactions).
  • If the point of storytelling is to connect with other readers, sometimes its our worst experiences that give us the vivid emotional memories that allow us create a vivid story.

[Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This story opens the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.

It begins with a man visiting his parents, where a chance comment sparks a memory from his childhood. It’s clear, as the story goes on, that the man regrets his action as a child, but the author manages to convey this without ever being as heavy-handed as to say so.

The Opening Line

The story opens with a line that tells us a lot and paints a vivid scene in delicate brush strokes.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

Think about how much we know:

  • The son visits, but is only acting ‘like a dutiful son’. He doesn’t want to be there, but he goes, by rote, because that is what one must do.
  • “Enugu” tells us that where this story is taking place. Even if we don’t know where Enugu is (do you?) it tells us where it is NOT taking place.
  • “Small, over furnished flat” suggests that the parents have downsized after a retirement or other change of circumstances
  • “That grew dark in the afternoon” – the son is not happy with this place. It suggests to me that the parents once had a larger, lighter, more expansive home. The son feels claustrophobic in this new flat – how much of that is real and how much psychological, we can’t know yet, but it certainly introduces the concept straight away.

The second sentence begins

Retirement had changed them…

For me, as a reader, this pulls me in straight away. I know this is not going to be wholly a naval-gazing story about a middle aged man. It’s inviting me to ask questions: how has it changed them? How has/will retirement change me/my parents?

And the changes that the son chooses to focus on are interesting: his parents are more credulous than they used to be. Several times he insists “my parents would have scoffed at these stories”. It’s not clear where the story’s going, but the ‘first act’ of the story ends when a lurid story relayed by his parents bring up a former acquaintance — a servant or ‘house boy’ — from his childhood, who has got into trouble as an adult.

“…the ringleader was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago, I don’t think you’ll remember him.”

I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.

My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”

But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.

And we’re off. Of COURSE we’re going to keep reading, because once again the writer has invited us to ask questions. Why does he remember Raphael? What went down between them? And what does it have to do with his later rabble-rousing?

The rest of the story recounts the narrator’s life as a twelve year old boy, the son of older, intellectual parents who could afford to have servants help raise him and tend the house.

But Aidiche doesn’t really tell the story. She paints it. We live through the boy’s obsession with Kung Fu; we feel the sanded down wood of the nunchucks Raphael makes for him out of old mop handles; we see a still-life of the ‘patient’s altar’ his parents make by his bed when he is sick (“orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray”)

And when the story ends, we know that the seeds of the man’s later regret are planted in the moment the twelve year olds. The author doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to infuse a moral message into a story without making it read like a fable. It also illustrates how to introduce readers to a different culture, without great sections of exposition, but rather through select details and dialect/language choices.

[Writing Prompt] It’s Time For Holiday Stories

It’s Write On Wednesday Day! (That’s really clumsy. I’m going to have to never do that again!)

Thanksgiving dinner decor
Photo by Karin Dalziel


The Nov/Dec/Jan holiday season is fast approaching. I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you’re interested in putting out a short story for the holidays, this is actually kind of last minute.

Publications have long lead times for date-specific stories, so if your holiday stories aren’t already written, now’s the time. Magazines and online pubs LOVE themed stories (Christmas stories; New Year issues; Thanksgiving horror stories!).

Or perhaps you’d like to create a story for friends and family to say thanks for all their support (or: na-na-na-na-na-na-you-see-I-wasnt-lying-around-watching-daytime-TV-all-year).

The Prompt

Write a story tied to a Nov/Dec/Jan holiday

Tips

  • You can use this to flesh out characters from a longer work in progress.
  • You can include characters from your real life.
  • You can use this as a calling card/thank you note/Christmas letter if you send holiday greetings cards
  • Mine your own memories, but don’t feel you have to write memoir. Take an incident from one of your family holidays and recast it on a steampunk airship or a city made of living bone towers or at the Tudor court.
  • Don’t feel it has to be a narrative story. One of the delights of the short story form is that it can be much more than that. Consider writing a list of holiday gifts your character has to buy, complete with passive-aggressive commentary; or a series of increasingly frantic tweets from the Thanksgiving dinner table…
  • Create a compelling character and set them in a ridiculous situation, or a ridiculous character and put them in a banal situation.

Have fun with this. Amuse yourself. Remember, nobody ever has to see this story, so you can be as cruel or as kind as you like!

[Reading Room] The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale by John Chu

Oh, this was fantastic: experimental science fiction by John Chu

Supposedly the story of a technological development, as told by one of the inventors, this is not an easy read. It doesn’t sweep you up in character and stakes and plot points. It does, however, do all the things I love about short fiction: confuse, confound, sweep you along on a torrent of language, and spit you out at the other end, shaking yourself and going ‘whoa!

(For the record, I also like nice narrative stories with heroes and adventure and all the traditional elements of story, but short stories have a unique ability to skirt all that and still give you a good time)

Just throw out whatever anyone’s ever told you about short story structure and read this. The story is not where you think it should be.

Since I’m no computer scientist (and perhaps even if I was) I found myself having to let the words pour over me, for the most part, and search for the story where the author had cleverly hidden it. (Take a look. You’ll see what I mean).

Clever and artistic and unlike anything else I’ve read. I’m not saying I’d like EVERY short story to be like this, but it certainly was refreshing and kind of exciting to remember that short fiction can be … this!

Read it here
Have it read to you

Consider supporting Clarkesworld by subscribing (they are one of the few newer publications that commit to paying their authors. Gasp! I know!)

The Reading Room is a series of short story reviews that are posted (usually on Tuesdays) in order to inspire you to read more short fiction in order to become better at writing it

Week Four: Your Storytelling Strengths

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feelBy this point in the challenge, you’ll have discovered some of your strengths and weaknesses.

This week we’re going to explore those areas further.

Look back, and think about which stories flowed the best for you, and in which your voice was strongest.

This week we’ll:

  • Work on the tone of your stories
  • Write in your favorite genre
  • Write in an unfamiliar point of view
  • Think about emotion, and the business of making readers feel.

The Prompts

Day 22Finding Your Voice

Day 23Watch Your Tone

Day 24Exploring Genre

Day 25All Change

Day 26So Emotional (Baby)

Day 27Write At Your Natural Length

Day 28Pace Yourself

Keep writing (and commenting) throughout this week, and get ready for The Last Hurrah in the final couple of days of the month.

[Reading Room] The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

I found this richly-detailed story in the Nebula Showcase 2016.

This story is structured in sections, each one headed up by a scientific description of one of the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Each, loosely, represents a theme for the following segment.

The story is deeply personal and universal (dealing with the challenges faced by those living in modern Pakistan) and at the same time veers into a kind of magical realism that opens it up wide.

Reading this story brought home to me the difficulties and rewards of reading stories from different cultures:

  • It’s difficult because the language flows differently, and because cultural details and assumptions can catch you out.
  • It’s rewarding for all the same reasons, plus you get to challenge your own world view and assumptions. Best of all, you hear poetry in the language that you’d never encounter if you only read within your own culture.

This story slowed me down, and rewarded me for savoring it.

Read it online here

Week Three – StoryADay September 2016 prompts

This week is Rescue Week!

You’ve been writing for 14 days now and this is where it really gets tough. The novelty has worn off, you’ve used up a lot of ideas, you might be getting a little tired and a little dry.

So this is your rescue week.

Day 15Rewrite A Story From Week One

Day 16Write A Twitter Story

Day 17Ripped From The Headlines

Day 18Tell the Story of a Painting

Day 19Retell a Fairy Story

Day 20Write a Fan Fiction Story

Day 21A Classic Story Starter

And don’t forget you can listen to all of these prompts as a podcast – The StoryADay.org Write Every Day, Not “Some Day” Podcast
delivered to your mobile device, daily:

iTunes | Android | RSS

[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell

clarkesworldmagazine.com

If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.

(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)

Just look at this opening: Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell”

Welcome to Week Two

Okay, you made it! Welcome to Week Two.

| jump to this week’s writing prompts |

Week 2 Elements of Story

[Remember, if you want ALL THE PROMPTS NOW you can get them in the ebook A Month of Writing Prompts 2016, and help keep StoryADay free at the same time!]

This week we’re going to get a little more serious, but still keeping the stakes very low. I want you to remember that nothing you’re writing this month needs to be brilliant. The point of all of this is to get you writing a lot so that you can find out

  • what it is you really want to be writing
  • what your strengths are what your weaknesses are and
  • how to get over that hesitation when you start to write, and instead find your way to the place where the writing is flowing.

Having said that I don’t want this to be a waste of your time.

So this week we’re going to work on some skills that you’re going to need as you get into crafting your stories when the month of short story writing is finished.

This week I’m going to give you three different story structures that you can use with the story sparks that you’ve been collecting (you have been collecting stories parks haven’t you?) We’re going to take a look at

  • Setting and incorporating setting into your story so that readers feel like they’re part of the action.
  • Ways of making your protagonist a rounded character by giving him or her some flaws.
  • Antagonists and villains and how to incorporate them without making them flat but also without letting them take over the story.
  • Sidekicks and secondary characters to see what they can do for your protagonist and your story.

If you’ve already written a story a day for seven days I’m confident that you are discovering your best practices. Hold onto that knowledge while we dive deeper into the nitty-gritty of storytelling this week. Work when your energy is highest. Squeeze writing into tiny pockets of the day if you have to. Harness your community and your support group and get them to keep you accountable. It’s going to get harder this week, but it’s worth it. Keep writing.

This is important to you.

You deserve this.

Tips For Success In Week 2

It’s getting harder this week so take all the lessons you’ve learned from last week and make them work for you.

  • What was the best time of day to write?
  • What did you do on your most successful days? How can you replicate that this week?
  • What did you do on your worst writing days last week? How can you avoid those things this week?
  • Did you read any short stories last week? Try reading some this week, to help recharge your imagination.

The Prompts

Tips For Taking Part

  1. Write a story every day (you don’t have to use the prompts)
  2. Come back to each day’s post (or this one) and leave a comment telling us how you got on.
  3. Encourage other people to keep going!
  4. Even if you’re not using the prompts, click on the links above, because the comments of those blog posts are where the community discussion’s happening for StoryADay September 2016!

Keep writing!

P.S. Want me to read all the prompts to you in my soothing Scottish accent? Check out the new podcast on iTunes, Android, or any other podcast player.

StoryADay September 2016 Begins Here

Welcome to Week One!

This weeks’s theme: Limits

(Keep scrolling for this week’s writing prompts!)

I know you’re excited.

I know you want to get started on your great masterpiece. But putting that kind of pressure on yourself is the fastest way to create a crippling case of writer’s block!

This week I’m going to impose limits on your writing that will make it almost impossible for you to write something great. This is my gift to you.

Continue reading “StoryADay September 2016 Begins Here”