Monday, December 29, 2014

A Short Story Challenge for the New Year

Last year on New Years Eve, I was hanging out with some friends online, and we decided to write one last story of 2013. And so we did. It was rather fun.

This year, we've decided to do it again, and this time we invite you to join us! The goal will essentially be to write a story (preferably on New Years Eve/New Years Day), edit minimally, and publish it online in 24 hours. (If you have a blog, you can publish it there. If you don't have a blog, my friend Liam, the mastermind behind this challenge, has worked out a way for you to publish it online a different way. See his post for details).

And before you start to protest that 24 hours is not enough time to write anything good, the clock only starts ticking when you write the first word. You can spend as much time as you want planning before you put fingers to keyboard.

Now that you've read my spiel, go read Liam's post, because it has all the details and rules and such you need to know. 

Last year we had a lot of fun doing this. I think of the three of us, I was the last one to finish writing my story, stopping sometime around 1:30AM on January first. It was awesome.

What happened to my short story, you ask? Over the next couple of days I marked it up with a whole bunch of editing notes, and I haven't touched it since. So, right now it's at the "edited minimally" stage mentioned above. And since it is and is therefore an example, I'm going to share it with you! The prompt I chose was: "I have coated my left hand in magical ink" (prompt from the Writing Excuses archives.)


    I have coated my left hand with magical ink. There is nothing normal about this ink. It glitters like tears, feels colder than harsh words, yet burns like rage. It smells of fear, and tastes like the most wonderful thing in the world.
Yes, I tasted it. Not on purpose, mind you. Some of it splashed on my lip, and my automatic response was to lick it. Not one of my brighter moments, I admit.
But, there’s always the chance that it won’t matter in the end.
I draw sloppy designs on my right arm. Now the ink burns more like passion than rage, but it feels slippery, like lies. It’s amazing. And as I revel in it, it begins to smell like wonder. I did not know that wonder had a smell. Apparently, it does.
The written word has always called to me. Black lines on white paper will forever be one of my favorite sights. I suppose that’s why I became a scribe. Now, as I drip more ink on myself, stirring a giant pot of the stuff with my fingers, that call becomes louder, until I can almost feel a buzz between my ears. What used to be fascination has turned into siren’s song.
The door bangs open, and I turn around quick, the ink on my arms mimicking the slicing feeling of surprised fear in my stomach.
Linwood stands in the doorway, just staring at me.
I let out a string of curses. I imagine that if I were to taste the ink now, it would taste like toilet water, or something equally disgusting.
“You betray me like this?” Linwood asks, taking off his top hat and holding the already crumpled rim in a death grip. “After all I have done for you. All I have taught you.”
Ha. Always so sure of himself and his “accomplishments.” “Yes. What can I say? You should have hired someone loyal as your second in command, not someone smart.” The ink smells like fear again, and the burn cools to something more like defiance.
Linwood’s face remains emotionless. “And I suppose you know how to use the ink and wield its powers. Tell me, when did you study it? Hmm? You fool. It has taken me three years to learn the secrets of the ink, and no one has seen my notes. You cannot possibly hope to control it.”
“What makes you so sure of that? I’m a scribe. I translated your notes. I may not have seen all of them, but I’m no ignorant lass when it comes to the subject of magic. And I’m very good at puzzles. Perhaps I will be a better master of the ink that you would have been.” I bring my left hand out of the pot of ink and let it drip to the floor, imagining it is blood.
I always did have a morbid imagination.
Horror etches itself on Linwood’s face. Horror is not a very good look for him. It’s as though a sculptor took a chisel to a block of paper instead of stone. “You’re wasting the ink.”
I look down at the drops. “I suppose I am. Good thing there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“What’s your plan? Kill me and take my notes and dreams for your own?”
I simply smile.
“And you think you can get away with this?”
My smile widens. The ink on my hands and arms grows slimier, and the scent changes to something more along the lines of… Knowledge? Deceit? Satisfaction? “My dear professor, I know I can.”
The ink warms to euphoria. It tingles.
So many emotions and memories held captive by what looked like nothing more than a simple writing medium.
But ink is used to make words. Words charged with hate and fear and longing and hope and sarcasm and slyness and love and humor and boredom and dozens of other emotions I can feel coursing through my veins.
Words, especially written words, have power.
Linwood had been clever, I have to give him that. It had been a brilliant plan: Set up as a reading and writing tutor, let the students use the magic ink to write whatever they wanted, encourage them to use his ink and pens, and collect the left over ink in a giant pot. I think it must have taken him at least three years to collect this much.
“How do you plan on making the converter without me?” Linwood said, drawing a bit closer. “You aren’t an inventor or engineer. You don’t know how to convert the ink. Without me and my inventions, you’ll never be able to take the power for yourself.”
I smile again. “Ink isn’t meant to control things.”
His eyebrows sink to meet in between his eyes. “Come again?”
“What you planned. It isn’t what ink is for.”
That doesn’t seem to have remedied his confusion. His eyes grow wide and fly to the picture on the wall of a sheep paddock. So that’s where his safe is. “You haven’t taken my plans, have you? Do you have someone else to create the machine for you?”
“I told you. This isn’t what ink is meant to do.” I smear the drips on the floor with my foot, sweeping them into a long, flat arch. “Ink is meant to be a comfort. An escape. A means of discussion. Whatever one needs it to be.”
Poor Professor Linwood still looks confused. “Ink controls emotions. That is where it gets its powers.”
“You do have a point, I will admit it. Ink does affect emotion. But it is not meant to control it. Not in the way you intend to. Ink is used for all manner of evil deeds. Blackmail, bribery, terms and conditions. But it was never meant to control minds and make slaves.”
Shock replaces confusion on his poor visage. I’ve enticed quite a few emotions it isn’t used to out of it tonight. “You knew more than I thought.”
“As I said, you should have hired someone loyal, not someone smart. And above all, you should not have hired someone with a love of the written word.”
With that, I kick the giant pot of ink over, letting the magical substance roll across the floor in a black flood.
Linwood jumps back and climbs atop a bench. No doubt he doesn’t want to get his shoes dirty.
“You would squander all that power? I thought you were—”
“No. I had no intention of completing your plans. I came to foil them.”
The ink on my arms is drying. The sensations I’d felt before are fading. It doesn’t burn, it isn’t so slimy. I wade through the sea of ink to the bench where he perches, trying not to slip in my bare feet.
“Look at what I’ve done. I’ve stopped you. Me, a simple scribe. You were clever, but not clever enough. Your plans always fail.”
What I am doing is mean, and I know it. I don’t like it, either, but I have to do it.
I see the anguish in his eyes. It’s working.
“How many years of plans have I ruined in just a few minutes of sabotage? It must be killing you.”
“You fiend. You’ll pay for this.” His eyes grow shiny.
I take a deep breath. This is it. “Oh, but you’ll never catch me, I’m too clever.” A blatant lie. Cleverness has nothing to do with it. “I’ve stolen your dreams from you.”
One tear forms on his cheek.
Don’t wipe it away, don’t wipe it away….
His arm goes up. Before I can think about what I’m doing, I reach out and leave a dark handprint on one pant leg. With my other hand, I steal the tear, and plunge it into the sea of ink.
The ink seems to freeze and become a gel for a moment, and then flows again. This time thinner, cold. No magic left. Just a simple writing medium, slowly soaking into the now-ruined rug.
Before Linwood can gather his thoughts, I bolt from the room.

There you have it. There are still big problems with this story (the magic system is inconsistent and vague, the end feels wrong, Linwood is a wuss...), but I love the character voice that emerged. Someday I will fix it and polish it up.

I haven't figured out what I'm going to do this year, yet, but I've got a list of plot bunnies going. Right now the top choices are "noir with dragons" and "girl with living gargoyle as a pet." We'll see what happens.

Hope to see you in the challenge!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Things Left Unsaid

 My friend Liam recently posted about the things characters leave unsaid on his blog, This Page Intentionally Left Blank. It's a really fascinating topic, so I've written a follow-up post.

People leave things unsaid all the time. Greg never tells Harriet he loves her. George never finds the courage to thank Charles for believing in his nutty dreams. Sandra tries to be a people pleaser and never tells Patty that Patty's whining drives her crazy. Mike never tells his wife that her cooking really is as terrible as she thinks it is. These things left unsaid, while not outright lies, will still influence who a character is and how they react to their situation.

There are lots of reasons for leaving things unsaid. A lack of courage. A fear that saying it will change things forever. A desire not to be seen as someone who complains. To illustrate I'm going to expound on those examples. 

First, we have Will. Will works for a mob boss. Will has no interest in making the boss mad and paying for it in blood. However, one day Will sees that there might be a better way of interrogating prisoners. He wants to bring this up to the mob boss, but he doesn't want to challenge the boss lest the boss see the suggestion as uppity and disrespectful. As a result, Will will be even more aware of how the boss reacts to Will's actions. He'll be thinking about ways he could make the suggestion that won't provoke violence. He'll be having nightmares about what will happen if it did. He may be trying to get on the boss's good side even more than usual.

Second, we have Roland. Roland is in love with Maria, whom he has been friends with for years. He wants to tell her he loves her, but is afraid that if he admits his love for her, it'll ruin their friendship. As a result, romantic stories and such make him a little uncomfortable, because they remind him of the secret he keeps locked up. Going somewhere alone with her makes him nervous. Maria and her friends notice these things.

Third, Claudia works for a man who loses his temper a lot. He's a nice guy, but he has no emotional self control. Claudia sees that some things could go a lot smoother if he just learned to keep a cool head. She wants to say something, but she also wants to be the good employee, and fears that talking to him would ignite his temper and get her fired. So, as the weeks pass and she doesn't say anything, she starts to get frustrated. Things could be so much better if he just made a few small adjustments. She works hard to control her temper, why can't he do the same? Her frustration keeps building and building, but she never says anything because she wants to keep her job. It stresses her out, so she starts taking kickboxing classes to burn off her frustration.

See how this works?

In some cases, leaving something unsaid may be directly related to bottling up emotions, which could result in an emotional explosion. For example, perhaps one day Claudia's boss does something that really ticks her off, and she can't control her frustration anymore and so she starts yelling and screaming at him.

Also, as Liam pointed out in his post, if the other characters see how one character is acting but don't know what that character isn't saying, they may make assumptions that aren't true, or they may have things they themselves aren't saying, and this will affect how the characters interact.

So, let's look at those examples from the other side.

The mob boss knows something's up with Will. Will's been acting weird. He doesn't want to say anything because he wants to see if he can figure out what's going on. But he has a growing suspicion that Will is an undercover cop who's trying to expose a great big drug trade that's about to go down. (In reality, Will is not a cop and has no idea about the drug trade.) So boss starts to plan how to deal with this.

Maria is also in love with Roland, and she's just as afraid of ruining their friendship as he is. But she sees his discomfort with all things romantic, and thinks it's because he's figured out she's in love with him, and he isn't in love with her. This depresses her.

Claudia's boss gets really annoyed at stupid people, and thinks the best way to deal with them is to let them know how stupid they are and how their stupidity causes problems. He also knows that he's screwed up with his temper before, and he's incredibly grateful to Claudia for keeping a cool head when he couldn't. But he can't tell her that because if he did he'd be admitting he has anger management issues and he's afraid that would make him look just as stupid as the people who trigger his temper.

And because character is inextricably intertwined with plot, all of this affects plot too.

The mob boss decides to make a deal with the police by holding Will hostage and saying he'll hand over Will if the cops back off, still laboring under the misapprehension that Will is a cop. If the cops don't back off, Will dies. When the big day of the drug trade dawns and the cops are there with guns pointed, the mob boss pitches his deal and the cops say "He's not one of ours." The mob boss is confused, Will is freaking out, and the police are trying to figure out what's going on.

Roland and Maria grow apart over the course of a couple months, both of them too wrapped up in their own interpretation of the situation to realize there's more to it than they think. Then Roland is in a car crash. He gets pretty banged up, but lives. Maria rushes to the hospital in tears. When she gets there, Roland is asleep. She starts sobbing, freaked out by the fact that she nearly lost him when they weren't on the best of terms and when she hadn't confessed her true feelings. She starts blubbering despite the fact that he's still sleeping, and he wakes up in time to hear her say "I love you."

Claudia and her boss argue. Her frustration erupts in a volcano of her opinions of his behavior, and the resulting ash cloud ignites his temper, this time as a defense mechanism (and because it's his default emotion when he gets upset.) But in this outburst of hasty words, Claudia mentions something about how her boss nearly screwed up a certain business transaction. As her boss takes a breath to shout something back at her, he realizes that what she says doesn't make sense with what he knows, and that if it went down the way she said it did (as angry as he is, he still trusts her) the other people involved in that transaction are the ones who have been skimming off company profits. When they confront the thieves, Claudia's newly acquired kickboxing skills come in very handy.

Pretty cool, huh? There are a whole bunch of ways one can play with this, both in regard to character and plot. Obviously it may not apply to every character in every story (I actually had a hard time finding something my MC leaves unsaid), but it can be lots of fun in the stories where it works.

Now that you've read this post, go read Liam's. He talks about several other cool things I didn't touch on here, like how stereotypes and how characters want to be seen fits into all of this. It's pretty sweet.

What are your thoughts on this concept?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blogiversary and TCWT! December Blog Chain

Today is my 3rd blogaversary! That's right, I've been blogging for three years. For some reason that feels like a long time.

It's also my 19th birthday, which means I'm now the same age as the MC of Noxumbra. I think this is rather cool.

To celebrate, I have a TCWT! blog chain post. It's been a long time since I participated in a TCWT! blog chain, and I'm glad to be doing one again. This month's prompt is:

“What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?”

When I suggested this prompt to John, I meant "what have books taught you about writing" but as a few of the other blog chain participants have pointed out, it's rather vague, and so there have been several FANTASTIC posts about what books have taught life lessons. Yay for different prompt interpretations! I'll be focusing on books that have taught me about writing.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
These books are amazing for many reasons. The characters are great, the plot twists are mind-blowing. The first book taught me about character arcs, and showed me how a character can change over the course of a novel. I understood the idea that characters should change during a story, but watching Vin change throughout the course of this book really cemented it in my head. 

Also, the magic system was very cool and taught me about how magic systems can work. 

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
HER DESCRIPTIONS, DUDE. MAGICAL. Again, these books had great characters and plot twist, but what I took away from them was the descriptions. Stiefvater chooses just the right things to describe. Not the basics like eye color and hair color and a weirdly shaped birthmark. She picked things like the smell of gasoline and mint (she used smell a lot, actually, which worked stupendously), the canvas trees and nine pairs of scissors in Blue's room, the high ceilings and marks left by big machinery in Monmouth Manufacturing. She picked details that brought the scene to life. 

Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas
I finished this book on Sunday night, so I'm still reeling a bit from the ending, but one thing that I noticed she did really well was the characters' internal conflict. Everyone in this book was conflicted about something or fighting inner demons, and it was done in a way that made the characters seem very human and relatable, and made the overall character arcs awesome. 

Also, there were several viewpoint characters who all interpreted the situation differently, and had different ideas about what would happen, and how that would be good and bad. That was awesome. It made each character his/her own person, and let the reader see several different opinions on what was happening.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Admittedly, I haven't finished reading the book, but I've seen the miniseries based on it a few times. What I learned from this one is that you can create a giant web of connections between characters and it makes for really cool story development. Now, it would probably be very easy to create a web that confuses the reader, but done right it's wonderful. 

I think that's all for this post. A merry Christmas to you all! 

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog chain: 
25th – [off-day]
31st – (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)