Writing Microfiction

I’ve been feeling the itch to write short fiction lately. It’s something I haven’t done much in the last couple years. I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on another novel alongside Razor Mountain, so something shorter was really appealing.

I came up with a little project: an anthology of micro-fiction. Not just flash fiction (usually 1500 words or less). Not even a drabble (exactly 100 words).

It’s obvious what short-form writing actually defines our modern age: Twitter. Since 2018, each tweet provides a whopping 280 characters to work with. In my experience, that’s about 45 words, depending on your punctuation, white space and trendy hashtags. Is it even possible to write a coherent or interesting story in that tiny space?

Well, I tried the experiment. I wrote twenty-one micro-stories. I’ll let you judge whether the experiment was a success or failure. Every day for the next couple weeks, I’m going to tweet a new micro-story on @DeferredWords. I’ll also collect them into mid-week posts here on the blog.

What’s the Point?

Why bother doing this? The simple answer is “for fun, to see if I could.” It helped rev up my short story brain after a bit of a hiatus. But I was also hoping to learn something in the process. In fact, I learned a few things.

Don’t Be Precious

When you’ve written a story that’s barely a story and you need to trim ten more letters to get below your limit, you are forced to trim things that feel essential. That adjective or adverb feels so good, but is it really needed? What about those commas? Do you really need any articles, ever? Maybe that seven-letter name should be a three-letter name.

The limit is harsh, and it demands harsh sacrifices. I went through this exercise over and over again, and it turned out that the story was often better when I rewrote it around that one or two word edit. It made me think harder about the cuts I should be making in longer projects.

The Barest Bones of a Story

I keep long lists of little brainstorming ideas, which gave me lots of fodder for micro-fiction. When you actually try to write an idea out as the smallest possible story, it becomes apparent very quickly whether an idea has “good bones,” or just a setting or character without arc or resolution. This is a really good exercise to go through for a short story or novel idea, to prove that the concept is solid and to nail down the core of the story.

Form Follows Function

When I started writing these micro-stories, I assumed that any authorial voice would fly right out the window. In some ways, it does. I definitely had stories with phrases that I really liked but had to throw away, because they wouldn’t work in these tight constraints. However, as I wrote and revised more stories, I discovered that even in 45 words, there is space for humor, weirdness, and sometimes even an extra word here or there to achieve a particular effect. Voice is the sum of the choices you make within your chosen constraints.

Variety is Valuable

I’m a firm believer that every story, every book, every writing project teaches you something. As authors, everything we write is influenced by what we wrote before it, and what we learned along the way.

Granted, you can only learn so much from a tweet-length story, but I was able to write a lot of these in the amount of time it would have taken to write one “proper” short story. Each little story with its own fun. Each with its own challenges.

Join In

You can get in on the fun too. Try writing a micro-story in 280 characters. All you need is a little idea. No outline. Put it out on Twitter, possibly with #microfiction. Ping me or send me a DM. Let me know if you learned anything interesting.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.

Guessing the Future for Science Fiction

Taking on the role of oracle is one of the greatest joys and biggest challenges of writing science fiction. There’s something magical about reading a story that unveils entirely new ideas, technologies, or shifts in society, only to see those things come to pass a few years down the road.

It can be equally interesting to look at less accurate “futures” from bygone eras and see how they turned out wrong. What does the hopeful and often hubris-filled science fiction of the post-WWII era say about the society that generated it? What about the gritty and depressing dystopias crafted in the ’80s?

Guessing the future isn’t easy. Occasionally, we get it right and look prescient. More often, we get it wrong in some way or another. But we can at least perform our due diligence by building our fantastic futures on the mundane foundation of the present.

Hard and Soft Science Fiction

There is a stylistic split in the genre of science fiction. It’s not a hard line; it’s more like a gradient. “Hard” science fiction does it’s best to extrapolate from the present in a straight line. In hard SF, the future should be explainable. It should follow logically from what we see in the present. “Soft” science fiction cares less about explanations, crafting futures that are convenient to the story, without worrying so much about the through-line between the present and the future.

In practice, no science fiction story can completely describe all the events and technologies that led from the present to that particular future. There is no perfectly hard sci-fi. And some stories will simply have less to explain. They won’t be as concerned with the technological nitty-gritty of the future.

Still, when we think in these terms, it’s easy to start placing different stories somewhere closer to the hard or soft end of the spectrum. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is fairly hard, concerning itself greatly with the details of the technology and grounded in cutting-edge space travel research. Meanwhile, Herbert’s Dune books or the Star Wars movies are fairly soft. The setting and the technologies serve the story, and little explanation is provided for their provenance.

More distance from the here and now, be it temporal (“a long, long time ago”) or physical (“a galaxy far, far away”) is going to add softness. The future imagined in Dune is so many thousands of years in the future that the intervening time couldn’t possibly be accounted for within the text. In fact, after Herbert’s death, a whole swath of Dune books were written to fill in some of that intervening time.

Focus

If you accept that your story is going to be soft science fiction, you may not have to worry too much about extrapolating. Perhaps you’re writing an allegory, where the future setting only serves to contrast with the present day. Perhaps you’re writing a fantasy story, and the backdrop of spaceships and laser swords are purely aesthetic.

Assuming you’re writing harder sci-fi, you’re going to need to decide what your areas of focus will be. Do you want to explore future technologies? Do you want to explore how they might change life for individuals, or across larger swaths of society?

Science fiction must tell a story, but it has the added burden of building and explaining its world as the story unfolds. Every story has a limited number of words it can spend building the world. By choosing specific areas of focus, you can maximize those words, and cut passages that stray too far from those areas.

Find the Starting Points

To build a future, you have to start in the present. There are always interesting things happening in the world. Which of those things relate to your areas of focus? This is the research stage of the project, where you’ll need to look at what trends or technologies already exist, or perhaps what scientists are actively studying in the field.

For example, let’s look at some technologies I’m interested in for one particular story. I’m interested in augmented reality (AR), intertwining of digital and physical worlds, and the increasing power of hackers to affect physical objects and systems as they become integrated with the internet.

For this project, I would look into the various VR headsets and the sorts of applications people are running on them. What about low-cost alternatives, like Google Cardboard? What about prototypes like Google Glass? The AR functionality on modern smart phones allow me to see what furniture might look like in my house before I buy it. What else can I do?

I might also look into recent hacks that affect real-world systems. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was hacked to break their centrifuges. The US has a variety of concerns about the safety of their electrical grid.

For the combining of digital and physical worlds, I could dig into mobile games like Pokemon Go that follow the user’s real-world location to change the game-state, and use AR to project game objects onto the user’s surroundings.

Extrapolate

Once you have some starting points, you need to begin extrapolating. What are people researching today? What isn’t possible yet, but might be possible with one or two simple advances?

Computing power, internet speeds, and many other “base” technology enablers tend to increase steadily over time. If the only limitation on something today is the speed of computers, chances are good that the limitation will go away in the future. The price and size of popular technology tends to decrease over time as well. Any technology today will likely become smaller and cheaper in the future.

These are surface-level extrapolations. To go deeper, you need to think about how the technology might be used, and what it might enable. What might good and selfless people want to do with this technology as it advances? What might evil, selfish people want to do with this technology? Can it be an enabler of other technologies or societal shifts?

Technologies do not stay isolated. They don’t live in silos. They cross-pollinate, mix, and work in tandem. Sometimes they obstruct one another. How might this new thing affect other technologies, positively or negatively?

Back to the example of AR, digital/physical crossover, and hackers.

I imagine a future where AR is ubiquitous. It’s powered by mobile devices (something that’s already happening). It’s displayed on glasses (similar to Google Glass), and it’s controlled with a strap around the fingers, for motion control (a streamlining of Nintendo’s console controllers, Microsoft Kinect, and many similar technologies). I imagine that AR could use mobile location technology to provide location-relevant data. A bluetooth “beacon” might also transmit to nearby devices.

With this kind of ubiquitous AR, physical objects might be unnecessary in many contexts. A clothing store might not bother with a sign out front, or even outfits on mannequins. A sign that appears to nearby shoppers in AR could be cheaper and more eye-catching. The AR outfits in the window could be tailored to each individual shopper and their search history, or on a carousel that displays hundreds of options, one after another.

The crosswalks on the road could be virtual, communicating with local traffic to determine when it’s safe to walk.

On the other hand, hackers could graffiti an AR storefront without the bother of buying spray paint and sneaking out at night. They could graffiti hundreds of storefronts from their basement. Perhaps they could convince passing mobile devices that they’d made a purchase as they passed by. If they were nefarious enough, they might alter the crosswalk algorithms so pedestrians step out in front of cars.

Technology and People

Even the hardest, most tech-oriented science fiction has characters with motivations, goals, conflicts, and challenges. Technology is only interesting in context with people, even if those people are aliens, robots, or sentient jars of mold.

Technology sometimes affects us at a personal level, affecting our behavior as individuals. Sometimes these effects are more powerful in aggregate. Many of us are familiar with the changes in personal behavior we’ve seen in the rise of social media. As societies, we’re still in the process of working out how those changes will ultimately affect our politics and our social discourse.

Technology can affect our behaviors and the ways we interact with one another. One hundred years ago, relatively few businesses had branches in multiple countries, and those branches were more independent. Now, many people in large corporations have regular phone conversations and video meetings with their counterparts around the world. Products and services are launched globally, and directed by corporate leaders halfway across the world.

Back in our example, how might ubiquitous AR affect interpersonal interactions? If I run into an acquaintance on the street, and I don’t remember her name, a quick image search of her face could help me find it and avoid embarrassment. Of course, the privacy implications of this type of technology is considerable.

We already see many people absorbed in their phones on public transport and in public spaces. When AR makes your entire range of vision into a screen, will that exacerbate the effect. Will we finally be isolated in our own little virtual bubbles, as many doomsayers have been complaining about for years?

Final Thoughts

Extrapolation is hard. Of the thousands of works of science fiction that are produced, only a few are going to hit the mark, and only some of the time. However, even if we can’t always guess the actual, literal future, we can at least produce futures that are logical, well thought-out, and internally consistent.

Internal consistency means making sure that one technology doesn’t preclude or contradict another. Some technologies are mutually exclusive. Betamax and VHS can’t both take over the world. CDs and Zip drives don’t live side-by-side indefinitely.

On the other hand, conflicting technologies can precipitate interesting societal conflicts. Does it make sense to have a future where people grow organs in labs to increase their longevity, while also developing the technology to upload human minds into computers? Maybe not. Or maybe this is what precipitates a global crisis, where we have to decide as a species whether being human requires a specific physical form or not.

If you find yourself having trouble, you might be tempted to go into the far-flung future, because there’s so much room for things to happen in the intervening time. Instead, try getting as close to the present as possible. Extrapolate tomorrow. Practice working your way outward.

Have you seen any new technologies that inspired you? What did you extrapolate from them? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you in the future!

Writing Spikes

My day job is software development, and once in a while I find some useful crossover in concepts between programming computers and writing fiction. Today, I’d like to take one of those software concepts – the “spike” – and apply it to fiction.

What is a Spike?

In software development, a spike is an experiment. It is writing code in order to answer a question or test a solution to a problem. Implicit in the idea of a spike is that this is “throwaway” code. It’s not expected to go into production.

When to Try a Spike

The goal of a spike is to take an infinite number of possible storylines and reduce them down to the best one. The most obvious place to try a spike is when you know your story could go in several interesting directions, and you’re not sure which one is the best option. Think of your story in terms of alternate universes. Each choice, each universe, differs at this specific point. As the author, it’s your job to find the most interesting universe, and discard the others.

A less obvious opportunity for a spike is when you don’t know where your story is going next. You may be doing some exploratory writing, and run into a bout of writer’s block. Or you may still be working on your outline. Often, when we feel like we have no ideas, we’re really just letting our inner editors censor us. Chances are, you have some “bad” ideas that you’re reflexively throwing away. Instead, use them as fuel for a spike.

The other useful time for a spike is when you reach an important inflection point in the story. This could be a major event for some of the characters, a big reveal, or a turning point in the plot. These are the moments that people talk about when they discuss books they love.

This might seem like a strange place to experiment. These moments are often the seeds of a story that first take shape in my mind, and make me want to write it in the first place. Why mess with a good thing?

Well, the human mind is lazy. Tropes and stereotypes thrive in comfortable, familiar territory. When we run with the first idea that comes to mind, those same well-worn, rehashed ideas can start to sneak in.

If these are the shiniest, most important bits of the story, shouldn’t they be as great as they can be? The worst that can happen is that you come up with bad alternatives, and you confirm that your original idea was the best.

The Steps of a Spike

You can do a spike during outlining, while writing, and even in revision (although you may end up making even more work for yourself). You just have to tailor your scope and output to where you are in the writing process.

First, get your mind into brainstorming mode. Define all the options. If you have a hard time coming up with possibilities, consider setting a specific number of options, and forcing yourself to come up with at least that many. Sometimes, great ideas come when we’re struggling, and we force ourselves to reach for the strange or unexpected. These options don’t have to be detailed. A list of bullet points is enough.

Once you have enough options, you’ll need to decide how many you want to pursue. A good default is three options, but this is entirely up to you. You may only have one – an alternative you want to try. Spikes are a balancing act. Remember, they’re designed to be disposable. You’re going to do some work, and then throw some of it away. Let that free you. That work isn’t wasted – it’s ensuring that whatever you decide to keep is the best it can be.

Next, it’s time to define the limits of your experiments. You can set a number of pages, number of words, or a time limit for each option. Once again, balance is key. Spend too much time or too many words on too many options, and the project will never be finished. The goal is to be confident about which option is best.

Evaluating the Results

Again, every spike is an experiment. You made your choices, and you wrote something for each one. You may have some additional notes as well. These are the results of your experiment. Now, you need to evaluate them.

If you have a confidant, spouse, editors or beta readers, and they’re willing to take a look, you may want to solicit feedback. They might see something special that you missed in one of your experiments. They might also catch a gaping plot hole. They might react more or less strongly than you expected.

Whether you get feedback from someone else, it’s time for a final decision. Evaluate each of your pieces and pick with the confidence that you’ve now thoroughly explored your options.

Finally, do some revision. If you felt hemmed-in by the time/page/word limits you set for yourself, now is your opportunity to expand and improve. Maybe you thought of something in paragraph ten that you could have set up more effectively in paragraph two. Like a science experiment that gets refined into a commercial product, you can take your proof of concept and polish it to perfection.

That’s it! A spike really isn’t complicated – just a controlled comparison between a set of options. But it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s okay to try things out, even when it might feel like a waste of words. You never know when that strange idea you set aside might change your story for the better.

The Reference Desk – #1 – Start With This

Over the years, I’ve picked up useful information and ideas from books, websites, podcasts, and other resources about writing. In this ongoing series, I’d like to share some of those things with you. For the most part, these are going to be things that are interesting to other writers. However, if you’re a reader who enjoys learning “how the sausage is made,” you may find them interesting as well.

Start With This

Start With This is a podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. If they sound familar, it’s probably because of their most popular project, the podcast “Welcome to Nightvale.” Nightvale is something like small-town lovecraftian horror, with a healthy dose of humor, seen through the lens of local public radio.

Start With This is a writing podcast that comes in comfortable, 30-minute installments. Each bi-weekly episode focuses on a particular theme, like “Feedback” or “Collaboration.” First, the hosts talk a bit about their own experiences in that particular arena. Then they provide some homework: one thing to create (usually a short exercise relating to the theme) and one thing to consume (some work that exemplifies the theme).

The hosts have plenty of experience in theater and live shows, as well as podcasting, and since they’ve been working together for years, they have good rapport. The episodes feel snappy and focused.

Because of the pair’s experience, the show skews a bit toward podcasts in particular and theater in general, but there is enough content for a writer outside these media that I still find the show worth listening to.

The show also caters to various levels of listener enthusiasm. I’ve found that I get something useful simply listening, but the “create” and “consume” assignments add another layer for those who want to invest the time. There is also a subscription-based forum where true enthusiasts can discuss the episodes and assignments, and find collaborators.