Exploring the Craft

Suffering the Fear of Missing Out During NaNoWriMo Prep

You don’t have to write a novel this November

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) hits many writers at this time of year as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparations begin. We fear we don’t have any ideas, won’t have the time, or maybe just don’t want to write a novel but something else. What we’re afraid of missing is NaNo’s collective support and energy. All those write-ins, sprints, forum and Discord conversations, they provide a shared energy around writing like nothing else.

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

But if we don’t have an idea for a novel, or don’t feel we can commit to 50,000 words in a month, we’re going to miss all that writing positivity, and that hurts.

Any words written in November are words you won’t have to write in December.

But you don’t have to write 50,000 words of a novel to participate. You don’t even have to write 50,000 words of anything. Just write. Write when you can. Soak up some of that positive energy for yourself. Any words written in November are words you won’t have to write in December.

Here are things you can do instead of writing a novel. I’ve measured them out to be the equivalent of 50,000 words, but if that’s too big a commitment, set a smaller goal. Remember, the point is to participate in the community and energy.

  • Write 2 novellas or 4 novelettes. This allows you to switch projects if you wish to get a fresh perspective, or if you get blocked on one. Getting stuck is a reason some people don’t finish their November novel. Each of these suggestions has the advantage of not getting bogged down in a single project. With these projects, you’ll also have more works ready to revise and send out or publish later.
  • Write 12 short stories. I did this one, and 6 stories ended up as the basis for a novel later, but I spent the month writing a dozen short stories ranging from 1,500 to 7,000 words. If you submit regularly to fiction markets, this can be a good way to boost your submissions in 2022.
  • Write 30 poems. This may or may not hit 50k words, but has its own reward. I know there’s National Poetry Month and NaPoWriMo in April, but why not use this one too. This is the project I’ll be doing this year and my goal will be to have 30 revised and edited poems by the end of November, so my work level will be the same as if I wrote a novel.
  • Write 50 Flash pieces. Assuming 1k words per flash.

You get the point. Yes, to officially ‘win’ NaNoWriMo you must write 50k words for a novel, but I think winning at NaNo means participating in the worldwide community of writers and sharing in the creative energy that participation creates.

During October, I’ll help your NaNoWriMo prep by publishing prompts and tips for each of these project types. Sign up for the Exploring the Craft newsletter for a monthly digest of articles. You can also join my Discord Community for writing related conversation, support, and co-working.

Exploring the Craft

Writing Short to Write Stronger

How writing short can sharpen your narrative.

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined. ~Paolo Bacigalupi

This, like most of this series, isn’t prescriptive advice. It’s me exploring the nature of SFF craft. I’ve written over a hundred short stories, which by most professional accounts, isn’t very many. As of this writing, I have two out on submission to professional markets and a mound of others rejected multiple times. But I’ve also self-published several that readers have told me they enjoyed.

Short SFF craft is something I work on a lot. I read it. I love it. I love how such a small narrative can explode to create entire worlds and capture entire relationships. While many writers think only in terms of the novel, there are others who make short fiction the focus of their career. There are some wacky myths associated with short fiction, particularly around speculative and fantastic fiction. I was once told you can’t write epic fantasy short stories. I took that as a challenge, and yes, you absolutely can write epic fantasy short stories.

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

There was a panel on worldbuilding in short fiction at this year’s Nebula Conference. The panel agreed, you can convey anything in short fiction, you just need to find the right words because each word is more valuable. But in those few words, you can not only setup a mood and tell a tale, but you can convey an entire world.

Writing short doesn’t just train for economy, it also teaches how to convey emotions or moods in the most effect manner, not just the shortest.

I’ve read that the art of the short story is particular to the form. But that is not my experience. While the form demands techniques to support brevity, we can also use those techniques in novels. Writing short doesn’t just train for economy, it also teaches how to convey emotions or moods in the most effect manner, not just the shortest.

When an exhaustive play-by-play narrative will bog down the pace of a novel, a scene written as if it were part of a short story, and evokes an experience for the reader, pacing can be maintained while bringing the reader more with fewer words.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Working with some techniques:

  • Refer to an event in the past to reveal worldbuilding:
    • The Century of Misery, the wars of his his parents and grandparents generations, could visit his generation with a poorly worded letter between the two kings.
      • This gives a sense of history, how terrible life was for the character’s parents and grandparents. It tells the reader something about the current situation: at least two countries are at peace and that the peace is fragile.
  • Use the story title and character names to do some of the work:
    • Selkie Stories Are for Losers (by Sofia Samatar)
      • Tells exactly what the story is about (a selkie story) and gives us the character’s voice before we’ve even started reading.
    • Introduce a character using their full name and where they’re from:
      • Duchess Alice Bremway of the Alverines pranced through her gardens.
      • Oscar ‘Jammer’ Ridgeway hiked to the creamery, guiding his father’s oxen.
        • Both examples use the names to suggest social status, which suggests the world in which they live. Oscar’s nickname hints at an interesting story behind it. Places like a garden or a creamery solidify the social levels of the characters. All in a single sentence.
  • Find an evocative tag to represent something larger.
    • The house leaned in the manner of old farmhouses, always sagging; leaning but never falling.
      • The farmhouse describes not just that house, but the others nearby. The area is rural and old.

Poets try to produce an effect or experience in the reader using the deliberate choice of words, their sounds, and their shape on a page. All writing, long or short, can benefit from creating such effects. If a reader can imagine a deeper history, a wider world, or even reminded of a smell, the story becomes more real.

Here’s an exercise:

Try replacing a paragraph of description with a single sentence to get across the same information.

This is a sizeable chunk of my revision process. I want one image to convey who someone is, or where something is taking place. That single sentence will usually be much more effective than a paragraph of description. The restriction of writing short forces us to find more meaningful words; words that cause a reader to react, to see or feel something. The one thing we writers want to achieve above all others.

<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

Exploring the Craft

Story Ideas: One More Question

This is part of the series, Exploring the Craft: Writing SFF Fiction.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Closing out my look at generating ideas and turning them into workable stories, there is one more question I think writers should ask during the writing:

Why this story?

Author Shanna Swendson recently wrote about a similar version of the question. I agree with everything she says. And I’m going to delve into one of her uses for the question a little deeper.

Once we’ve developed our initial setting, character, conundrums into a story idea, we can ensure we stay on track with that original idea energy by answering why we want to write this particular story. I’ll use one of my works in progress about a family of magical acrobats as an example.

As I plotted and started drafting, I kept looking for a big baddie for my characters to thwart. My instinct was to find an external character or situation, and I was getting nowhere. In fact, I felt I’d lost my desire to write the story. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I already made a habit of writing up a little author note for each of my stories because some publications want that and even publish it along with the story. After revising an incomplete draft of my acrobat story, I added the author note and answered Why This Story.

The answer made clear what the story needed. What I needed in terms of creative energy to finish it. The conflict had to come from within the group of characters. One reason for writing this story was to explore the magic of grandmothers. While there was an overt expression of magic in the story, mastered by the grandmother of the acrobats, it was also a metaphor for the magic many of us have experienced through our grandparents. The tension for the story was wrapped in losing that magic.

The story came together after that, and matches my original vision better than it would have if I hadn’t asked that question. The idea of a story in the writer’s mind always being better than the one that ends up on the page is so common it’s become a meme. Explore the reasons a story idea compels you to write. Let that be your guidepost to finishing the story. It may help you stay closer to the original vision of it.

<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com/">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

Exploring the Craft

3 Steps to Turn Ideas into Stories

Don’t dwell on searching for something perfectly original. You’re unlikely to find it, and if you do, it may be too unfamiliar for editors and readers if you want to sell the story.

I’ve heard some authors say they can turn any idea into a story. Not always a great story, but a workable, fully functional solid story. How do they do it?

The Work Begins

I wrote earlier about finding ideas, or at least, priming our brains to make connections to discover ideas. These raw ideas aren’t usually enough to turn directly into stories. They may be a what-if, an interesting character, a situation, or a setting. We might immediately connect some of these like a character and a situation. A good start, but even for a short story, we need something more. Something has to happen; a realization made; some change in the situation or the character.

Then there’s the process to reveal the change. A beginning, middle, and end. Even in non-traditional, non-Western story structures there’s an entry into the story, things happen, and an exit. Maybe in three parts, five, seven, or a serial structure. Stories also have a tone, a voice beyond character voice.

“True alchemy lies in this formula: ‘Your memory and your senses are but the nourishment of your creative impulse’.”

― Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

So how do we find the story? Personally, I have to build the story. I rarely find it.* 

 3 steps to build a story framework

My process is to write these down on a piece of paper or into a note-taking app. I am less successful entering ideas directly into my drafting document.

1. Take inventory and ask: 
  • Is there a character? The story has to involve someone or something with recognizable human needs, wants, desires, goals. An alien protagonist in a science fiction story has to share some traits with readers if the story is to be comprehensible, even if many of the characters traits are, well, alien.
  • Is there a setting? Where will the story take place? My early drafts are often just dialogue in empty space, but I do have a rough idea where the characters are. I just haven’t taken the time in early drafts to work out the details.
  • Is there a situation? A problem the character must solve? This could be internal like wanting to change something about themselves, or external with an antagonist or force of nature. The more I read and write, the more I’m leaning away from the idea that stories must have conflict and into the idea stories need tension. This allows me to explore many types of conflict that result in tension, which is what keeps the reader reading, and less on the form of the conflict itself. I’ll delve into this in a future post.
2. Iterate

For me, this is where my best stories have come from. Once the questions in #1 have answers, I go back and answer them again. I Look for deeper, less obvious answers. My first answer is likely close to a cliché, if not actually one. I iterate through this several times until I feel my story has unique or at least an interesting, uncommon take. Don’t dwell on this searching for something perfectly original. You’re unlikely to find it, and if you do, it may be too unfamiliar for editors and readers if you want to sell the story.

3. Build Structure

From those base elements, I build the story’s structure. I’ll also look at structure in a series of posts because entire books exist on the subject. For now, all we need to get started are: an entry point into the story, an idea of what achieves the end of the story, and that exit from the story.

  • I find even if I think I have a beginning; I need the ending next. I need to know where/how to leave the story. Once I have that, I may revisit the beginning. I like stories where the end echoes the start. That’s not universal, but does often make for a satisfying ending.
  • When I know the beginning and ending, figuring out what happens starts with taking an understanding of my character(s) and checking how they would genuinely react to the situation, and in context with the setting. I note a general list of events or actions that need to happen between the start and end. This may not hold up once the drafting starts, but it can be enough to have the confidence to start.

Time to draft

At this point I have enough to draft. It may be all I need for a short story. Novels take additional work. Additional ideas, settings and characters, iterated through these steps and questions for as much breadth and depth as the novel needs.

Whether plotting or writing into the dark or a hybrid of both, having these basic elements defined helps keep us on track. Completing a full draft is often the most troublesome part of writing, especially for new writers. I think you’ll find using this process you can produce a draft you can work with through revisions. Revising is also a topic for another day, but go forth. Conjure ideas and write a first draft.

*Okay, full disclosure. I’ve had instances where all the elements of a story came into my mind at once. My brain made all the connections for beginning, middle, and end. The character, setting, and central conflict or tension were there at once. The mind can operate in amazing ways. But this is rare. Expecting it to happen is like expecting perfect weather every day for a two-week vacation in New England. It could happen, but it’s highly unlikely.

Kevin Fellows
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.