Here you’ll find musings about writing, reading, science fiction and more:
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…
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?!
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.
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.
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
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.
In part one, we established the meaning of and difference between the following terms: protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator.
Now, let’s look at other character terms.
Last time we established that a protagonist is the character that drives the story by pursuing a goal. Following this, the antagonist is someone who tries to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal and creating conflict. Every story needs conflict, so every story needs an antagonist. A story can have several antagonists or a main antagonist and supporting antagonistic characters or forces.
An antagonist is defined by their relationship to the protagonist and their goal, not their moral alignment. They don’t have to be the “bad guy.” They don’t even have to be a person.
The terms “antagonist” and “anti-hero” are sometimes confused but mean different things. An anti-hero is basically a morally flawed hero, or a hero without the traditional heroic traits. They may act out of self-interest or revenge and do morally grey things, but usually still choose the greater good (e.g. Jack Sparrow). Anti-heros often play the part of protagonists or allies, but they can be antagonists allies too.
Types of antagonists
The terms “villain” and “antagonist are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. A villain is a type of character who is intentionally malicious or criminal, they aim to hurt others with their actions and the readers will generally agree that they’re the bad guy/girl. Villains often play the role of an antagonist, but not every villain is, and not every story needs a villain. Memorable villains are usually complex, can possess likeable traits and/or convictions that there are valid reasons for their actions.
- Authority figures
Parents and guardians, teachers, bosses, law enforcers — authority figures often make effective antagonists because they can exercise real power over the protagonist, making the conflict difficult to overcome. They may not be evil or ill-intentioned, they may even think they’re acting in the protagonist’s interests, but they stand between the protagonist and their goal. E.g. The Capulet and Montague families don’t intend to harm Romeo and Juliette, but their feud prevents the lovers’ from being together. Javert, a police inspector in Les Mis, is obsessed with upholding the law at any cost.
Someone competing with the protagonist for the same goal. E.g. in Ender’s Game, Ender and Bonzo Madrid are on the same team, but they compete for leadership. Bonzo, threatened by Ender, tries to get rid of him, which makes Bonzo an antagonistic character. In in the Queen’s Gambit, Vasily ‘The Russian’ Borgov is not a bad person and has no ill feelings towards the protagonist Elizabeth Harmon. However, he is competing for the same world chess champion title as she is and can be seen as an antagonistic character when he repeatedly wins against her.
- Internal conflict
This when the protagonist is also the antagonist. They don’t need to have a split personality like Tyler Durden in Fight Club (although this is a valid example), but their internal conflict prevents them from reaching their goal. I would argue that Beth Harmon, or rather her trauma, is the main antagonist of the aforementioned Queen’s Gambit. Her trauma fuels her addictions and self-sabotage. Once Beth is able to confront her traumatic memories, give up substance abuse, stop pushing people away and accept help from friends, she is able to reap the boon.
- Inanimate forces
As I mentioned, the antagonist doesn’t need to be a person, it can be a force of some kind. My favourite example is a short story by Jack London called To Build a Fire. In the story, a man travels alone through a Yukon forest in subzero temperatures. He is overconfident and assumes he can survive by building a fire. One by one things begin to go wrong and he is unable to build a fire and gradually freezes to death. Thus nature is the antagonist of this story. This example is also useful if you’re studying “setting as character.”
Other examples of inanimate antagonistic forces are illness, poverty, war, aspects of society as a whole, isolation (e.g. Cast Away).
Whereas an antagonist or antagonistc characters ally is somebody who helps the characters towards their goal. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good or bad
Have you figured out who’s who in your story?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you assembled a full cast of enneagram types and sent them on an epic quest?
Here’s my take on it:
To learn more about enneagrams visit https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions
While learning the writing craft I found that examples of flat-arc characters, especially protagonists, are pretty hard to come by. There tends to be a belief that a protagonist must undergo a big transformation as the story progresses. I like to question this premise.
Most writing advice suggests that a protagonist must start off either with a fatal flaw or believing in a big lie. A character on a positive arc, will overcome the flaw/unravel the lie and become a better version of themselves. A character on a negative arc will fall deeper into the flaw or the lie, which will lead to their demise or corruption. A character with a flat arc will end up believing the same truth they started off with.
You may ask, is there even a story if the character doesn’t change? Good question! Yes, the story is in the conflict between the character and whatever tries to push them off their path, make them give up their truth or corrupt them. This can include their own doubt.
I believe Disney’s Moana is an example of a character with a flat arc. At the start of the film, Moana is already brave, responsible, empathetic and has leadership qualities. She already believes the sea is her friend. But her father and her community try to change her. They are the ones with the fatal flaw/lie—the fear of the sea.
Moana tries to conform, but when the villagers come to her saying there is no fish, she suggests going further out to sea (returning to her truth). The idea is shut down by her father. Moana still believes she is right and tries to cross the reef by herself, but is stopped by the big waves. Thus, her father and her environment are examples of antagonistic forces that create the conflict.
When Moana’s grandma (her ally) gives Moana new information (that her people used to be seafarers) and tools (a better boat and the heart of Te Fiti), Moana braves the reef again. Along the way she faces many obstacles that lead her to doubt and question her truth, path and identity, but she perseveres.
Once she succeeds in her quest, she returns to her island, essentially proving she had been right all along and teaching her community the seafaring ways. The Motonui community is transformed as a result of Moana’s journey, not Moana herself. (Compare this with Anna from Frozen, whose understanding of love changes as a result of her journey, i.e. a positive arc). That’s why I believe Moana’s is a flat arc, and it works great for the story.
I hope you found this helpful and it will encourage you to experiment with different types of characters and arcs.
Can you come up with other examples of characters with flat arcs?