My latest Drabble (100 word story), is available on the Martian Magazine’s website.
Author: Alla Zaykova
The Perfect Woman – A Poem
Farewell Prime Minister
Yesterday, with mixed emotions, the country watched the resignation speech of New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
These are my thoughts…
As a public servant I am required to be politically neutral. And to be honest, in a moderate country like NZ, it doesn’t matter too much who makes political decisions as long as they’re made with the right intent, advice and evidence. Having served for 10+ years and under two governments (three if you count the coalition), I have seen laws made and unmade. And often the differences in policy are a matter of verbiage rather than substance.
BUT as a woman, I cannot undermine the impact she’s made. Especially on the parts of feminism that have suffered from toxic masculinity.
For a long time and for obvious reasons, women could only make it in politics and leadership at large, if they had the biggest balls in the room with a hardy whiff of Thatcherism, i.e. were more manly than all the blokes. Books and workplace seminars that were meant to empower women, only ever told them
to grow balls that adopting the qualities traditionally known as masculine was the only way to get ahead and to be a leader. Ironically, their male bosses were not advised to become more feminine.
However, as Ardern rose to power and international headlines praised her for what they called “feminine leadership,” I watched workplace conversations change. The definition of leadership expanded, and femininity got elevated (if only slightly) from the ranks of a flaw incompatible with professional achievement.
I wonder if things would be much different, had her career fallen on less “interesting” times. Yet, even as a jaded cynic, I bought into and have been inspired by her relatability; as a woman, as a mother, as a human.
And as a PR professional… I have been genuinely impressed. So much so, I must echo the words of John Key (her predecessor and a very different NZ Prime Minister): “I think she’s an outstanding communicator.”
I wish Ms Ardern and her family joy and equilibrium. I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of her.
A Halloween cautionary tale
The Fairy Godmother waved her curling wand, turning Thirtysomethingella’s limp strands into passable locks. “Have fun at the ball, deary, but don’t forget to be home by midnight.”
“Why, what happens at midnight?” Thirtysomethingella turned her head from side to side, admiring her hair in the mirror.
Dark clouds gathered around the Fairy Godmother and she lowered her voice. “At midnight… you will turn into a pumpkin!”
Thirtysomethingella arched her filled-in brow. “You mean my carriage will turn into a pumpkin?”
“Don’t be silly, you’re taking an Uber.” The Fairy Godmother slipped a pack of anti-hangover magic dust into Thirtysomethingella’a purse. “But imagine what happens to a pumpkin under the wheels of a carriage. That’s what your head will feel like in the morning if you’re not in bed by twelve.”
Thirtysomethingella sulked. “That sounds grim.”
“You think?” The Fairy Godmother cracked her stiff neck. “Just you wait till menopause.” She dropped her head back and laughed and laughed…
Brain hacks for writers with executive dysfunction
Have you ever had sleep paralysis?
Waking up to find yourself unable to move and speak?
To me, that’s what executive dysfunction can feel like. But instead of not being able to move completely, you just can’t move in the right direction. You can’t force yourself to open the book, to pick up the toothbrush, to open that word processor. Instead, you’re pacing up and down the hallway, panicking.
ED is like a goodie bag that comes with ADHD, a disconnect between the brain and the body. It makes it difficult to initiate tasks, to switch between tasks, to control impulses, to focus and to not focus on the wrong thing. It’s not laziness or lack of motivation. It’s not anxiety or overwhelm (although it’s definitely anxiety or overwhelm-inducing).
Tips like “build a habit” or “start small” don’t always work for ED because you can feel paralysed by the tiniest things. What works then? Creativity! Coming up with hacks to outsmart your own brain and then switching it up before it catches on.
Here are 10 brain hacks that help me switch from mum/work mode into writer mode:
- Taking a power nap. Set the alarm clock for 10-15 minutes and have a snooze. If that doesn’t work just lying down with your eyes closed, doing breathing exercises, meditation or whatever helps to do a quick reset.
- Taking a shower. Running water helps to calm the mind and get the creative juices flowing.
- Taking a walk. Works on the same principle as the first two, but especially great for working through plot points you’re stuck on.
- Working on an unrelated writing task. E.g. I find Drabbles (100 word stories) extremely satisfying, because it’s a new, tiny, finished product. They only take a few minutes to draft, and you can ride the wave of satisfaction into a more difficult task (e.g. your WIP).
- Set time aside to do another important task like… cleaning or budgeting. And procrastinate by writing.
- Check in with your bodily needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Toileted? No, seriously. Those can be distracting. Plus if you happen to reach the nirvana of hyperfocus you may not get a chance to check in with your body for the next ten hours.
- Write on your phone (this is my favourite one). They say smaller tasks feel less overwhelming but so do smaller screens!
- Incorporate movement. When sitting still feels like torture, I pace back and forth while typing on my phone (but make sure you do it safely, not around moving cars and stuff).
- Cheat on your WIP… with your WIP. If you have a synchronised app like Google Docs or Office360, have your WIP open on multiple devices like your laptop and your phone. Switch between the two when feeling like you need distraction.
- Writing at odd times and locations. Creatures of habit thrive on doing things the same way. But monkey-brained creatures of chaos need novelty. Change things up often, accept that brain-hacks only work until they don’t, and be prepared to invent something new.
What are your favourite brain hacks?!
Your “easy” is someone’s “impossible”
Have you discovered the book-writing secret that will help everyone? We need to talk.
I often see privileged and/or ableist statements floating around the writing and creative communities.
E.g. “I’m a single mother with five jobs, and I wrote 50 books last year.”
Okay, good for you. You should be proud. But somewhere there is a person with zero kids and zero jobs, and just one chronic illness. And that person has written zero books because on their good day they only managed to shower. And you have zero rights to judge them.
The fastest person in the world can run 45 kilometres per hour. Doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Not with all the self-discipline in the world. And just because you’re managing to do all the things, doesn’t mean others can keep up with your level of productivity.
“You need to prioritise your art.”
Fine. What do you suggest I de-prioritise? My kid? Or the job that keeps a roof over our heads? Because that’s literally all I have time and energy for. I barely watch TV. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks while driving her to school. I skimp on cooking and cleaning. And I’m STILL flat out.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses. I HAVE written a book. I AM getting short stories published. I’m doing it. Not as fast as I want, but I’m making it happen. And it’s through none of your “shoulds”. It’s NOT through having a routine, or writing every day, or setting a timer for fifteen minutes. It’s not through self-discipline or building a habit. It’s through constantly coming up with new hacks to trick my stubborn brain. It’s through seizing every unplanned downtime. It’s through radical opportunism.
“But my advice is proven to work.”
That, my dear, is called survivorship bias. I’m sure your approach worked for some people who have similar inner-workings to you, but there are many for whom it didn’t. Yet those people aren’t accounted for. It’s not the failed attempts that get the airtime.
Yet, your experience IS valuable. I’m absolutely not saying that you should stop sharing it. No, no, no. I’m just asking that you share it with compassion and kindness. Because you can’t shame anyone into improvement. You cannot invalidate people’s struggles and limitations because “you have struggled too,” or “you have struggled more.” You can’t help anyone by making them feel less than when they don’t fit into your one-fits-all mould.
Trust me, I know. I’m good at school, at work, and at solving big problems. I’m useless at the little stuff, like remembering appointments or closing the fridge door. And if I had a penny for everytime someone said “you should just pay attention” or “you should just write it down,” I would’ve paid off my mortgage long ago. Instead, I’ve spent hours of my life crying over spilled milk, wishing I was “normal.”
But I’m not “normal.” Not in the neurotypical sense. And understanding this, I have accepted that certain things – things that don’t even cross most people’s minds, like how much eye contact you should be making with the supermarket checkout operator — are going to be really, really hard for me. And “just setting fifteen minutes aside for my art” isn’t going to cut it. Because my brain buffers. And it buffers a lot.
So, when I share tips or experience, I try to present it as personal and subjective, e.g. “This is what works for me.” “This is a hurdle I’ve faced and this is how I’ve overcome it.” “This is what I tried and it worked until it didn’t.”
And if you’re offering coaching services, you can similarly use examples from your work that don’t imply a one-fits-all solution. E.g. “Jane Blogs was going through such and such, I taught her to do X and Y, and this was the outcome. I can show you how.” And when somebody tells you they don’t have time, or energy, or can’t stick with a routine or a habit – believe them. Just because it’s not your experience, and perhaps not most people’s experience, doesn’t mean it’s not theirs. And maybe you aren’t the right person to help them, and that’s okay. The least you can do is make them feel seen and valid and not like a failure.
And for the odd-balls like me, who don’t fit the mould – don’t despair. Just because you haven’t found something that works, doesn’t mean you won’t. Keep searching, keep asking, keep speaking out. Share what works and what doesn’t, so we don’t feel so alone. Be radically opportunistic and make art. Once a week, once a year, or once a decade. I believe that you are doing your best.
Your Enneagram Type in One Quote
Enneagrams are a fun tool for fictional character development. Unlike other personality tests, they don’t only focus on personality traits, but on the drivers underlying these traits.
As a fun exercise, I’ve picked out nine popular quotes from the internet to summarise each Enneagram type.
Do you agree? Which one resonates most with you? What about your characters?
I’m convinced no two grief experiences are the same. And because there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to write about grief. As long as it’s honest and nuanced. And nuanced doesn’t mean melodramatic.
Sometimes, plot-driven stories present grief somewhat one-sidedly: a character loses someone, they hurt and miss them, then something reminds them of that person, they miss them again, then they avenge them/reconcile the loss, and move on.
But I think in reality, missing the deceased person is only a small part of the grieving journey. If you lose someone important to you, especially if they’re gone before their time, it can alter how you relate to others, yourself, and the world.
Here are a few ways in which grief can affect your characters.
It redefines their relationships with others
Maybe the way somebody else is grieving is annoying your character(against their best judgement), maybe they’re resentful of those who haven’t experienced that kind of loss. Maybe they reevaluate who they want in their life and in what capacity. Maybe the deceased was the glue of their social group, and they have to relearn to interact with the others. And maybe they never do and now it’s compounded grief for the lost friendships/familial bonds. And sometimes things can get really ugly, where you least expect it.
It redefines the characters identity
Being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, for example, can be a big part of your character’s identity and when they lose a key relationship, they can begin to question everything about themselves. They may realise they had relied on the deceased person for their support, advice or opinions and may feel lost. They’ll have to find substitutes for whatever need that person fulfilled or learn to do without.
It redefines the character’s view of the deceased
Sometimes, when you lose someone you were close with, it lets you see who they were more objectively. For better or worse. You may realise there were times they wronged you or you wronged them, and you can have bouts of anger or guilt. Sometimes at the same time. And it’s okay for your character to feel all those things, they’re not mutually exclusive, and they don’t mean they didn’t love whoever they lost or vice versa. Everyone’s just misguided in their own ways, and your character might start seeing it for what it is.
It redefines the character’s world view
Sure, it can make them reevaluate what’s important in life. Or not. But also, losing someone, especially before their time, can force your character to become keenly aware, not only of their own (potentially sudden) mortality, but also of the mortality of everyone they ever loved (especially if they’re younger and this is their first big loss).
And then, depending on the circumstances of the loss, they can experience anticipated grief, delayed grief, compounded grief (you’re going to have to research those yourself). And did I mention trauma? Often loss can be or can be accompanied by a traumatic experience, that will leave your jumping up in cold sweat every time the phone rings, or the door creaks, for example, if that’s how they found out about the death.
Furthermore, I’d suggest staying away from well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes like “time heals”. Maybe it does, but that healing isn’t uniform. Your character can be doing pretty well after the initial shock fades, and then two, four, ten years down the track, when they realise they haven’t seen that person in all that time, it can hit them with the force of a thousand trucks.
Hope that was helpful and gives you something to think about.
Anything else worth mentioning? Let me know about a time you had to write grief.
Defining character terms — Part 1
Protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator — these terms are often used interchangeably in fiction. This is because in many stories they’re all the same person. But that is not always the case.
Read on to learn the difference.
All fiction stories need a protagonist. This character drives the plot and pursues the main goal of the story. Usually they change or grow while they’re at it. Their decisions impact where the story goes. The protagonist’s arc is defined by the pursuit of the goal, whether they achieve it in the end, or not.
Can a book have more than one protagonist? Yes. But they’ll usually need their own arcs. A book with multiple protagonists is usually not one, but several stories that are intertwined. In The Song Of Ice and Fire several characters drive their stories and have their own distinct arcs. The Cloud Atlas is an example where the stories and protagonists are tangentially connected but have a unifying theme.
A hero is a type of character. They tend to be virtuous and put others before themselves. Typically the reader is rooting for them to win. All stories must have a protagonist, but not all stories need a hero.
Often, the protagonist is a hero but they don’t have to be. Protagonists can be anti-heros, sidekicks, villains (e.g. villain origin stories), or anyone else.
A main character (MC) is a central player of the plot, but they don’t necessarily drive it. The MC is often defined as the character “closest” to the reader, so the reader is getting their perspective. They’re often the same character as the protagonist, but not always.
For example, The Moon and Sixpence is about the artist Strickland and he is driving the plot as its protagonist. The story, however, is told from the perspective of an unnamed journalist who is trying to understand Strickland’s journey.
Other examples where the protag and MC are different people include Sherlock and Watson and Gadsby and Nick Carraway.
Any character whose point of view (POV) the story is told from. It doesn’t have to be a main character. One of the scenes in Lord of The Rings is written from the perspective of a fox. Authors may include minor character’s POVs to offer distance, objectivity or a different perspective.
With a first person narrative, the POV character is telling their own story, as themselves. With a third person limited narrative, it’s as though the narrator is standing where the POV character is and is describing what that character is seeing and experiencing, in some cases, including their internal dialogue.
A narrator is anyone who tells the story. They can be a character from inside the story, such as a POV character, or outside the story, e.g. a granny telling the story to her grandkids.
Sometimes, the author is the narrator and they can choose how “visible” they want to be. In the third person deep POV, the author is almost invisible. They’re reporting the narrative as the POV character is experiencing it. With a more distant POV, the author may interject with their own thoughts and opinions.
I often compare this to the concept of “the artist’s hand” in painting analysis. Is there evidence of the creative process like texture and brushstroke? Or is it smooth and polished like it’s come out of a printer (or painted by a renaissance master)?
Stay tuned for Part 2
Upcoming Anthology publication
Exciting news! My post-apocalyptic short story, Windy Wellington, will be published in the SpecFicNZ Anthology later this month, along with (I think) 24 other stories from Kiwi authors of speculative fiction.
Note: The interview below was first published on the SpecFicNZ blog.
Aftermath: Tales of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is SpecFicNZ’s new anthology, due for release in early April.
The anthology explores Aotearoa in a post-apocalyptic world. Disasters have occurred around the country and the world. New Zealand, in our isolation down under, may have escaped most of what happened around the world, but it was pretty bad out there. As Kiwis are apt to do, though, we’re “getting over it”. You know, she’ll be right …
This is not just an anthology of disaster stories. The pages are filled with hope in the form of short stories, poems, flash fiction and artwork about what comes afterwards. The contributions are exclusively from SpecFicNZ members and reflect the diversity and breadth of this country we love to call home … even if the edges are a bit torn and tattered.
We’re interviewing all the contributors to the anthology so you can get to know the brave souls who’ve battled zombies, aliens, earthquakes, volcanoes and more to bring you the stories you’ll find between its covers.
Today, we’re chatting with Alla Zaykova
- Aftermath includes a variety of disasters set all around Aotearoa New Zealand. What disaster / location combination did you write about and why?
I got the idea for my short story from re-reading Dune last year and the harrowing desert wind described there. I transposed that wind to New Zealand’s capital, where I have lived and worked for the past decade, to see what happens — a speculative twist on the “Windy Wellington” adage.
- How do you think the Kiwi approach to life after disaster is unique?
The pandemic proved Kiwis are pretty sensible in a crisis and look after one another.
- What are your most valuable post-apocalyptic skills?
I hope to never find out but I’d like to think I can spin a pretty kick-ass tale. It may not seem like much, but stories are vital for the survival of civilisation.
- They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Being a writer, you must have lots of pens. What creative use would you put them to in a post-apocalyptic New Zealand?
I lose pens, so I prefer to write digitally. However, in the most recent sci-fi book I’ve read, a metal pen was used to perform an emergency tracheotomy. So there you go.
- What are you working on now?
I’m currently revising a gritty space opera novel called Blackjack Interstellar. It’s a bit of a modern take on old-timey pulp fiction like The Stainless Steel Rat.
- Where can readers find out more about you and your writing?
I post about my writing journey on instagram under @azaykovawriter
I can also be found at www.azaykova.com
Please visit https://specfic.nz for more info.