To trace the trajectory of the various mutations of what ended up being “Barter for the Stars” would be long and convoluted. The element that remained the same was that there was a speakeasy-esque-slash-nightclub-esque singer in the future who wanted to get off her planet. Usually that planet wasn’t earth. In one version she wanted to get to earth. In the final version, she wanted to leave earth. The destination didn’t matter really, but the yearning.
Even more so, my singer morphed over time. In a variation of this story that was more a mystery, she was a femme fatale being, playing leading lady in a film noir-inspired story. (If that sounds cool, please understand that didn’t get very far because I didn’t know how to write film noir style mystery.) In a more recent attempt she was a deconstruction of this type. Still, that version of the story didn’t quite work.
Thus the story idea got put on the back burner again and again.
“Barter for the Stars” is part of an interesting project -- a shared universe anthology: Five Minutes at Stormcove Hotel. The editor had an extensive history for the fictional Stormcove Hotel provided and requested pieces of short fiction that happen sometime during this history -- stretching from prehistoric to the future -- somewhere on the hotel grounds, and that takes place within five minutes. Wooh, that’s a mouthful.
Reading these parameters, it clicked almost immediately that my singer might’ve finally found her home. All of the grand ideas and yearnings and deconstruction of archetypes pared down into six hundred words… And it was successful.
No idea is lost just because it doesn’t fit into the shape you first think it should. Ideas can fester, grow, shrink, mutatate, evolve, change, and be reshaped over time, just sitting in the back of your head. I’m glad this idea, after all this time, found its place. I’m glad that it taught me that all those unused or unsuccessful ideas of the past are not lost. They just might just need a little more time to firment
The Five Minutes at Stormcove Hotel Anthology where “Barter for the Stars” is featured can be purchased HERE.
2018 was an up and down writing year.
Five short story acceptances and five short story publications... Yay!
(I know this sounds like the same five stories, but it’s not. Some stories were accepted in 2017 and not published until 2018; somewhere accepted in 2018 and will not be published until 2019.)
Falling short of my yearly writing word count goal... Boo!
(Yearly writing goal was 300,000. Had to be lower to 250,000. Will likely make that.)
Getting to read my second place winning short story on a panel at a Sci Fi conference (and getting to attend that conference for free)... Yay!
(The Pawnshop of Intangible Things got second place in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Ametuer Writing Contest. Later it was published in Deep Magic, my first professional sale, thus making me not an ametuer anymore. The con was Balticon. It was really cool.)
No one showing up for the panel… Boo!
(Except the readers, the panel moderator, and one other panelists three family members. Still worth it though.)
Establishing official social media author accounts on facebook and twitter… Yay!
(Find me on facebook @margerybayne and on twitter @themargerybayne.)
Not really knowing how to use twitter… Boo!
(WTF is a subtweet?)
Learning much from my ‘write 1000 words a day for 30 days’ challenge… Yay!
(This wasn’t NaNoWriMo. Podcast on my experience to come.)
Struggling with original fiction… Boo!
Still making progress with original fiction despite the ups and downs, changing jobs, and making my halfway point through graduate school… Yay!
A few months ago, I was sitting in the audience of a literary panel for “Writing Characters with Agency” at Balticon, a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore. During the panel, one of the audience members asked for writing advice on how to keep characters internally consistent when making them do something essentially “out of character” using an example of a lawful good character doing a bad thing. While the panelist shared many a insight, this question got my brain turning and coming up with answers that were not brought up at the time.
So I’m sharing them here.
So how you keep a character “in-character” and consistent while also working to a moment where they break that mold?
For the sake of this, I will use the audience member’s example of a character who is lawful good do something bad. (“Lawful good” is a Dungeons and Dragons moral alignment that writers, readers, and nerds all over the internet will align their favorite characters too. Learn more here.)
So let’s break down some different ways to get characters do believably do “out of character” things.
The Break Down
1 - Character Development
Character development can be either positive (with the characters become more brave, heroic, or “morally good”) or negative (with the characters becoming crueler, more selfish, or more evil). I bring this up, because many people only think of a character development in the positive direction -- becoming a better person -- but it can work in the other direction. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great example of negative character development, in that he becomes a more morally bankrupt person as the show progresses, starting out with understandable and sympathetic motives for his life of crime, but slowly becoming more power-hungry and/or more willing to do more and more drastic things (like murder) to keep on top.
A character can start out good and then through a series of circumstances, conflict, and drama that we will call the plot, slowly turn into a worse person.
2 - Conflicting Motives/Trolley Problem
Another point to remember is that people are complicated, conflicted, and complex. We have multiple belief systems, motivations, wants, and needs in our head at the same time.
Say we have our lawful good character. He is sheriff, a law man, who believes all crime should be stopped and put to justice because them are the rules. But he is not just a sheriff. He’s a family man whose family is the most important thing in the world to him. He loves them and would do anything for them to protect them and keep them happy.
And now it turns out his adult son is the no good head of the gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the local towns. And it is a trusty sheriff that has been called on to stop him, dead or alive.
Opps, now our character has to choose between upholding his moral system about the law or his moral system about his family.
I like option above because it is very internal, but you can also give your characters bad and worse options in an external conflict. Give them a trolley problem. Think of all those superhero films where the villain gives the hero an option to save like their girlfriend/sidekick or some innocent kids/the entire city. Usually the superheroes come up with the third option to save everyone, but not always (Ahem, the Dark Knight.) But much better is when the character has a much more active hand in the dark, bad and worse option. The ending of season 3 of the BBC show Torchwood had one of these. Make your character’s options a trolley problem.
3 - Breaking Points
Human beings… we’re complicated. We have belief systems but we are often hypocrites. We give ourselves or loved ones a pass when we wouldn’t give the same benefit to strangers or acquaintances. Beyond hypocrisy and exceptions, we have breaking points. On tv tropes, that can sometimes be called a berserk button.
Find a character’s breaking point and them drive to it.
But this all these examples lead up to this ultimate fact of writing characters and stories:
It Needs To Be Earned
We say that a lot in storytelling and fiction writing. That… twists need to be earned. That sad deaths need to be earned. That endings need to be earned.
Relevant to here -- when a character is driven to that breaking point, you as the writer need earn that. And all the other examples listed above.
But what does that mean?
In screenwriting, because I watch a lot of film criticism youtube videos, the idea is phrased as: set up, reminder, and pay off.
In writing, we talk about foreshadowing. I had a professor in college who always called these things “rehearsals” which is a really apt metaphor that I think should exist more preventable in the creative writing discourse. When I took dance classes as a youth at the end of the season we had a dance recital, but not until we had the stage rehearsal and dress rehearsal beforehand. If you are going to have a lawful good character do something morally reprehensible, you need to hint -- and in an escalating manner -- that he can do something bad.
To remix the earlier example … you have the lawful good lawman who always brings in his guy alive because they should stand before a judge and jury. He’s never killed and never will. Then he does when his son is threatened. Now a lot of readers might find that reasonable because of our understanding of family bonds, but you want to set that up in the story. Show how close he is with his family. Have a minor threat happen earlier in the story for him to break his cool over. The reader may not straight out know the character's breaking point before it happens, but it should feel natural once they get to that point. There would have been hints. We should’ve maybe guessed a second before it happens.
Like plot twists, character twists should make sense in retrospect.
Those big, defining moments for a character, good or bad, have to be earned. They have to be deserved. These are the results of character development.
In the debates of qualities between 1st person narration versus 3rd person, or 3rd limited versus 3rd omniscient, or the absolute scorning of the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ there is one point of view that is more polarizing than any of them: Second Person Point of View.
Que the dramatic music.
Quick primer if you’re rusty on your terminology.
1st person pov - I said.
3rd person pov - he said/she said.
2nd person pov - You said.
After seeing that list, you might be thinking you’ve never seen anything written in 2nd person, or you’ve never seen it outside poetry or fanfiction (which tends to allow for more experimental forms). If you’ve been around the block submitting short stories to literary magazines, you might’ve noticed that “2nd person” often ends up in the “What we’re not looking for” list of their submission guidelines.
Not only in 2nd person rare in fiction writing, it is also often unwanted and unliked in fiction writing. If you drop a 2nd person story in a writing critique circle or workshop, you will probably get people who hate it because it is second, with no other consideration. You’ll have people quote the writing rule “No second person” at you. You might have some people who just like it because it is different and they’ve never seen it before. Amongst that, maybe you’ll get someone who gives you actual, meaningful feedback.
But this is not a rant about critique groups. It is, however, a commentary on how second person is received by writers and readers in general. But me? I believe in second person and its potential.
I first experimented writing second person when I was fist experimenting with writing overall: in high school while writing fanfiction. I’ve always harbored belief in the potential of second person narration even through years of hearing nothing good about it from most corners of the writing community.
In my adult writing life, I’ve written two original short stories in second person, one speculative and one literary. How have they fared?
One of my second person stories placed 2nd in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Scoeity’s Ameteur Writing contest, which allows entries from across the state of Maryland. Meeting the facilitators of contest, I was told the competition was particularly tough that year. A few months later that same story made me not an ameteur anymore as I made my first pro sale with it to Deep Magic E-Zine. They told me it was the 1st time they had published a second person story.
The other second person story of the realistic literary genre has just made the long list of finalists for a different writing competition, the top ten percent out of 600 entries. Fingers crossed for how that will turn out.
What this proves? That people can like reading second person. That second person stories are publishable. That they are able to place in contests. That my long held believe in the potential of second person stories has been validated.
But wait, you say, that’s only two short stories.
Yup, that’s right. I usually write in 3rd person, and very occasionally first. Second person is definitely not a point of view that should be used for most stories. It is very particular and, as I stated before, very polarizing.
Second person should not be used willy-nilly. Sure, experiment with it. Have fun. Learn. Practice. That’s what writing is about. But if you’re looking for direction on when to use second person… I’ll get in to that right now.
For both of my original second person stories, I chose to use second person for a particular reason. For -- to use a wonderful term I learned from Larry Brooks in Story Fix -- a narrative strategy.
The concept and the plot are the story.
The narrative strategy is how we tell said story: POV, order of events, narrator, length, style of prose, etc and so on. These are things we consider to tell the story in the best way or with maximum impact.
Second person, when used, should be a deliberate part of your narrative strategy.
In my speculative story, I was trying to create a Twilight Zone-feel. The second person was supposed to enable the reader to step in the main character’s shoes, and for the “character” aspect to almost vanish. I go out of the way to avoid gendered details. The character doesn’t have a name. The character is you-the-reader living through the motions.
In my literary story, I had quite a different reason for the strategy of second person. The character is very particular, has a name, and has a detailed life. She is also suffering from depression. The second person, with all it’s “you” statements was used to create a sense of dissociation, like the character was watching herself go through the motions.
So that’s two different reasons I used second person and two different ways I used it. There are probably plentiful more to be discovered.
I think it stands to reason, like most writing rules, guidelines, and cultural preferences, when you as the writer are going to break them, you have to do it with a sense of strategy. Or… just to have fun.
(Or Reaffirmed The Fact)
((In Roughly Reverse Order))
4 & 5
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I’m pairing the four books of Stiefvater's Raven Cycle and Rowell’s Carry On for two reasons: (1) I read them for the first time the same year, just a few months apart, and (2) they reaffirmed the same main emphasis.
That emphasis being that YA lit could be complex and told complexly, with alternate character POVs, and lots of tangled history behind the infrastructure of the story that holds up the main narrative. As a writer who was struggling with writing a tangled, multi-character narrative that was more heavy on character than plot, I was so frustrated by conventional wisdom about YA lit -- the narrative needed to be simple, follow one character, not head hop, and so on. I was so pleased, reading these book, to realize that these complicated stories were things you were allowed to write as a writer, and that readers want to read.
More individually, The Raven Cycle enriched me with a beautiful, clever, original prose style that I want to make love to. Carry On, in how it riffs on Harry Potter and fandom, showed me that they words of fan culture and original story were not opposites, but could flow together.
Both of these YA marvels were door openers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book came out a few years ago to some acclaim, popularity, and award-winning, and it showed me what was possible in genre-mashing story. I was formally trained in literary fiction in my undergraduate writing program, but my reading interests have always fell on to the sides of things not considered the highest quality amongst the literary elite: ya, children’s, scifi, fantasy, chick lit, mystery, and fanfiction.
In this post-apocalypse story in which a band of actors and musicians in a traveling caravan try to live out the importance of art and meaning in a world previously decimated by a sudden epidemic and the following violence, Station Eleven takes the best of speculative fiction -- the imagination and what ifs -- and the best of literary fiction -- the character focus and thematic resonance -- and put them together. Additionally, it didn’t focus on action plot beats like post-apocalypse fiction usually does and injected the ending with a big dollop of hope. Station Eleven showed me the potential for stories and how they did not have to be neatly packaged into one genre box or the other, with all the surrounding conventions.
Literally, when I got to the end of this book I said to myself, “This is the kind of book I want to write, but I didn’t know I was allowed!” What a freeing read.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I feel like so-called “classics” are getting a bad rap as of late as things that no one actually wants to read or likes reading. But, heck, I sure liked this one when it was assigned to my AP Lit class in my senior year of high school. I’ve since then had to reread it for college, and have reread it for myself.
It is not so much this entire book -- which is slim and bit a heavy on detail and a bit slow on plot and very much a portrait and condemnation of the time and place and the people -- but moments in it. Moments profound and powerful in their twisting poetic prose, in their themes, and in how they pay off for what had been built to before.
I think that’s an important thing to a note of a book that has slow or beleaguered parts that ultimately have a wallop of a payoff at some point -- that the payoff is robbed of its power if that build up hadn’t been put in place.
But, yeah, I totally flip back to different passages and pace around reading them outloud because they’re so good.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” ←I know you can’t tell, but I totally typed that from memory. No lookups.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Ah, the mother of them all. The Outsiders is often considered first modern YA novel. While in the big picture this novel about a group of brothers and friends struggling with poverty, classism, and gang violence in 1969 Tulsa may have helped birth a genre, it was also the novel that showed me that books could be profound.
It was assigned reading by my 8th grade teacher. For years before then I had been a greedy reader of Nancy Drew and other mysteries, American Girl and other historical fiction, as well as Lord of the Rings and other fantasy. Being such a vicarious reader, what made The Outsiders such a changing point for me? Perhaps it was the character focus. Perhaps it was the realism. Whatever it was, I definitely had that ‘I’m being moved by great literature’ moment that most English teachers probably hope to inspire in their students.
Knowing that a book, a story, a narrative could have that much power, could mean so much, could real, could move me… well, it was something I wanted to try my hand at too.
Going into 2017, I had several writing and writing-adjacent New Year’s Resolutions. I had some somewhat successes and some outright successes, and along the way many lessons.
The Outright Successes:
1 - Finish draft of (Name Redacted) project.
I had started this particular project many times (It was an idea I’ve had since high school) and written a two-thirds draft the previous year. In 2017, I did finish a complete draft, around 70,000 words. Since then, some attempts were made to redraft, but I think the story needs more time in the drawer, so to speak.
2 - Write 300,000 creative words, counting all original fiction, fanfiction, and creative nonfiction, including this blogging, but nothing school or work related.
I have not reached this yet, but I plan to within the next few days before 2018. (Or get to a close enough negligible amount.) I’m a few thousand words away, but a few thousand that is doable. I used this wonderful word tracker called write track. I knew to achieve this or any word count goal I would need to track it like goodreads tracks reading or the nanowrimo cite tracks the nano word count. Searching around, I found write track which lets you set yearly and project-specific word counts, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a tool like this.
This word count achievement is all the more meaningful for the writing endurance it built up in me, writing (almost) daily and often writing when was I’m not initially inspired. It also helped me finish many, various projects.
The Somewhat Successes:
1 - Submitting two pieces a week to literary magazines/writing contests/publishers.
I started out strong, but withered away as the year went on. However, I continued to submit throughout the year, at least a two or three a month. I found some new tools, as such as the Submission Grinder, (which I promise you is indeed a writing website and not an erotic website) to use to find places to submit. I also have several acceptances! (3 short story acceptances and 1 contest 2nd place win).
I will continue submitting regularly into 2018. Because its become a habit, I think I won’t put specific numbers and keep doing what I am doing. Two a week wasn’t necessarily realistic with the limited number of short stories i had to submit and dealing with the deadlines, submission periods, and turn around times of the literary magazines themselves.
2 - Writing two blog posts per week (for this very blog).
Again, strong start, and then it withered away. I will continue to blog, but I think it is better to write when I have something to say than to force content. I will follow the advice of the one of the writing blogs I follow and ‘slow blog’ as I have been for the last few months.
(It’s not a failed resolution if you learned something about yourself!)
Writing Resolutions for 2018
I want to start journaling! For writing so much in my life, I have never been much of a journal or diary writer. In particular I want to keep a ‘mindfulness journal’ that I write in the morning as a way to start off my day. I have not particularly know what that means yet, but I’m going to do this. (I want this to be part to a bigger ‘morning routine’ resolution, which journaling is a part.)
2 - Write smarter not harder.
There was some consideration into increasing my yearly word count, which you read above was 300,000 for 2017. However, I think that is a good amount to shoot for, being a heft, y’know 300,000. It’s also manageable with my life with a full time job, being a part time grad student, and having a social life and other hobbies. So I do not want to write harder… I want to write smarter. So what the fuck do I mean by that? Several things… (Because when one sets goals they should be measurable and have a plan to accomplish them)...
a) Stop writing in front of the TV like I think I can write into the TV.
b) Use more structure/prep before writing novel-length original fiction.
I find I can ‘wing it’ when it comes to original short stories and to fanfiction of any length. (I believe this type of writer, in certain circle, is called a ‘pantser’ as in a seat of your pants writer, and as opposed to a ‘planner.’) Perhaps I can be a pantser with these because I’ve had more practice with both of those genres and perhaps because they are bit more low stake. However, I struggle with novel-length original fiction, often starting strong and then the story drifting away somewhere 30,000-40,000 words in. I want to finish things goddamn it! I need to prep better. My first plan it to use the advice I’ve gleaned from a wonderful writing book I just read called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.
I also have personal resolutions such as above mentioned morning routine and maybe, finally, getting myself to stop biting my fucking nails, but writing dominates a big part of it. Remember when you formulate your New Year’s Resolutions or any big goals throughout the year to plan them properly. Set yourself up for success! And good luck.
Back in 2015, I wrote a short story titled “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things,” approximately 1500 words then, and approximately 1500 words now. I had a very clear inspiration, vision, and shape for this story almost from the get go.
It was about a mystical pawn shop, one where you could trade in intangibles such as emotion, memories, and ideas. The vibe I wanted to impart was something a la Twilight Zone and Welcome to Nightvale. Despite knowing how polarizing it was, I knew it had to be in second-person. Yes, second-person, where the pronoun of the story’s protagonist was the vague and strange and damning ‘you.’
I’ve always believed in the possibilities of second power narration.
I did edit that first draft, mostly to make the beginning hook better and the ending clearer, with the core middle of the story, the part with the main character in the pawn shop, staying mostly untouched save for a few nips and tucks of language.
A deadline for a lit mag that I believed the story would be a good for had a looming deadline, so I sent it off. I also sent it to my closest friend for feedback. The feedback bantered back and forth, and more from my own insecurities than my friend’s suggestion, I rewrote “Pawn Shop” in a much safer, more conventional third person perspective.
I sent that third person draft off to a number of lit mags.
Form rejections poured in.
Then, that first magazine I applied to, the one where I had sent my rough, second-person draft, responded. They really liked it. The editors didn’t have room for it in the nearest issues, but they would like to consider for a future issue in 6 months’ time.
I learned something in that moment about trusting my storytelling instincts. In the case of “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” third person could never catch the vibe, the aura, the strange-twilight-zone otherworldliness I was aiming for. All that spark, that clear-sighted inspiration I had the beginning of the project had been sanitized away for a version of a story that might tick off the correct checkmarks of conventional writing wisdom (don’t write in second person!), but lose everything that made it unique.
While that initial interest and hold for further consideration from the first magazine didn’t pan out, I started sending out my second person draft again. I received plenty of form rejections, but I also received a number of personalized recognitions, more than I was getting for my other circulating stories and way more than I ever received for my third person draft of “Pawn Shop.” There were some almosts and some ‘we really liked it but it wasn’t the right fit for our magazine and/or issue at this time but we’re going to list it as an honorable mention.’ (No lie.)
Two years later, in June 2017, I submitted said story to Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest. In August I received notification my story was a finalist. In September I learned I had won second place. On October 7, I got to go to a real life awards ceremony where I was invited on stage and had people shaking my hand afterwards like I was super important.
The award from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society is not attached to publication when it comes to second and third place (but it had come with a nice monetary prize), meaning ‘The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things’ had yet to find a home to be published.
However, it’s a winner. While second-person might be polarizing, might not be mainstream or conventional, and while I primarily write in third and sometimes in first, it was the right choice for telling this particular story. And winning, and getting those ‘almost’ personal rejections meant that there are people out there who are getting it, appreciating it, liking it.
The moral of this story is… do not give up after a few rejections, or a few years of rejections. Taken feedback in consideration, but make sure that you are staying true to your instincts and be willing to take the unconventional risks. Ultimately the vision of a story is yours, and sometimes success and finding the people who ‘get it’ takes time, but taking time is worth.
And while you’re waiting, keep writing.
Here is a very simple but very effective tactic I use to overcome writer’s block, and it something I do by sidestepping and ignoring the boulder that has dropped down in front of me and blocked inspiration for my story.
Here’s the trick: Write something else.
I usually have at least two, sometimes more, ongoing writing projects at a time. One very often has priority and the most of my attention, but the others are things I’m interested in and excited about as well. So, when one of my stories is giving me trouble, I hope on over to something else that day or two or a week, and then hop back to my priority story later.
This is actually a wondrous case where ignoring the problem sometimes just… fixes it. Sometimes you really do just need some time away to think and breathe to figure out whatever was blocking you -- a plot point, a character motivation, just overwork on the same story -- and giving time away lets your subconscious surprise you with solutions when you're driving home from work or taking a shower or just about to fall asleep. (Isn’t it great how the human mind works?)
Another benefit is that you are still writing even when the focus is off your main writing. All writing, even writing that’s never seen but by your own eyes, is good for your writerly life. It’s practice, it’s experimentation, it’s fun, and most importantly, keeps you writing juices flowing.
So when writer’s block hits you, move on to write something else. If none of your ongoing projects are getting you jazzed, try starting something else. Maybe that little piece of whimsy that has been wiggling in your head to get out or that piece of self-fulfilling fanfic you’ve been burning to write. Heck, sometimes you have writer’s block for one story, because a new idea is demanding your attention like a screaming toddler. Give it attention and then it will stop!
Writer’s block can be so frustrating and I, a perfectionist, find not being productive frustrating on top of that, so as long as I am writing something, I am much happier. So go one, flip between different writing projects and kill writer’s block with abundant productivity.
When I was an undergraduate earning a creative writing degree, we were challenged in a literature class to define what made literary fiction... literary. A classmate's hand shot into the air. “Sad endings” he said to the amusement of the class. And followed was a rousing debate about the definition of literary fiction. I don’t remember the end conclusion. Perhaps that is one of those unanswerable questions.
Although that question or similar was probably proposed in many classes during my educational career, I remember this class in particular. It was a comic book and graphic novel literature class. So, all in all, a pretty cool class. We learned about the history of comic books and graphic novels and read examples of different genres, from superheroes to manga to memoir to informational, but also some literary graphic novel fiction.
These literary graphic novels didn’t have sad endings. They had ambiguous endings.
There is a lot said about sad endings and happy endings, but ambiguous endings? My question -- to you and to myself -- is: Are ambiguous endings a cop out?
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies