Chuck Wendig’s Random Cocktail Flash Fiction Challenge: Cherry Blossum

Author Chuck Wendig of TerribleMinds put out a Flash Fiction Challenge for this week. Go to this random cocktail generator, take the title of the drink, and make it the title of your very short story. Go!

I got the Cherry Blossum, a brandy-based drink, and ended up with this short piece of 544 words. Here it is in its entirety:

Blooming-Pink-Cherry-Blossom-pink-color-34590866-1600-1200

Cherry Blossum

Jakob turned the delicate white hand over, his own grease-stained fingers leaving smudges on the porcelain finish. The fingernails looked all but real in the flickering factory floor lighting over his work station. On the fine wrist was the small black and pink stamp, branding this as a Sakura model S14 – an older geishabot. Must be obsolete by now.

 

He bagged and stamped the hand and sent it down the line.

 

The right knee joint, flawless, came next. Then the other hand, containing a small crack across the back side. He marked the damage on a yellow tag and sent the hand on. Perhaps that bit could be recycled.

 

Something lingered in the air. A spiced yet floral smell hung over Jakob’s table. It must have been the geishabot. He sniffed his own hands: sweet, cinnamon-like, powdery, and something green like springtime. Then the smell of burnt plastic from down the line took over and he crinkled his nose. The bot’s wrists must have been laced with the scent. Built in, most likely.

 

There was the back side of the faceplate then, a kind of smooth mask from this side. He hated handling the faces most of all. For a moment, Jakob pictured himself holding it up to his own face, this perfect doll’s mask that was like a miniature of his own features (though these bots’ faces were delicate, gently rounded, and fine where his own face was made up of a series of roughly hewn rectangles). With a small shudder he turned the faceplate over.

 

At first, it appeared flawless to Jakob. An eyeless but beautiful face with a small, narrow nose and delicate flower petal lips. It was lovely. It was perfection. Then he saw it: the tiniest warped spot just below the right eye. It was a small air bubble trapped beneath the uppermost layer of plastic finish. It looked like a small tear, frozen in time. Jakob breathed out through his mouth and bagged it up with a yellow tag.

 

When the end-of-shift bell rang, Jakob stood and wiped his hands on his apron. Hanging his things over the back of his chair, he reached over to turn out his light, forgetting that the bulb had been dead for days. The foreman said he would have to wait for a new one – they didn’t have any just now.

 

Jakob hummed a tuneless song as he walked through the misty almost-rain of the late evening. Neon signs flared and glowed in the particulate water drops that hovered in the air. The air around him declared halos of Girls! and Beer! and XXX. He turned left down a narrow alley and entered an unmarked green metal door. Sitting down at the glowing white and silver bar.

 

“You want company again tonight, mister? We got some brand new bots in from Suzaku. Real pretty girls.” The barmaid gave him a languid smile and stretched her dark, slender arm across the bar top toward Jakob.

 

“No thanks, Brandy. Not tonight. Just a drink,” he sighed and pulled his own hand back to his lap.

 

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and went back to polishing a glass. “What’ll it be?”

 

“The usual.”

 

The spiced lily perfume that hung in the air made his nose twitch.

Plotting Along: How Hard Can I Trope?


A trope is traditionally defined in literature as a figure of speech used for artistic effect. It is a kind of shorthand way of explaining or identifying something else – this is true of pop culture as well. Often, when we say “trope” we mean an oft-used concept, image, or idea. Popular ones include the Damsel in Distress trope, the Evil Twin trope, and the Attractive Good Guys/Ugly Bad Guys trope. In those cases, we are talking about painfully overused plot devices, gimmicks, characters, or resolutions to conflicts.

There are plenty of “tropes” out there that might be overused but, perhaps, they are popular for good reason – they work. If they can be tools to tell a good story, why should they be frowned upon so hard? Well, they can lead to some watered-down, half-hearted storytelling if the writer isn’t careful. As a jumping-off point, however, a story trope can be a handy tool to get started with. But they key here is, if you are starting out with an overly-familiar trope or concept, you had better be putting a unique and exciting twist on that starting point.

My worry is that my manuscript (soon-to-be premiere novel, I hope!) is so trope-heavy that it can work for it or totally against it. There’s an aspect of familiarity and cheesiness that I’m aiming for and I know I’m walking a fine, fine line between original success and tragically uninteresting failure. I wish I knew how to define that line, but I believe I’m safely away from it! Early beta reader response is that the manuscript is darkly funny and fast-paced enough to keep readers turning pages. That sounds like a potential success so far!


What’s my secret? Hard to say. I’ve taken some tropes (demon hunter, beauty and the beast, plucky sidekick, etc) but done everything in my author-ly power to make them interesting, different, and my own. The demon hunter works with a partner who happens to be a hellhound. The girl and the demon are NOT romantically involved (a BIG risk). The plucky sidekick actually saves the day twice.

I suppose, if there is a secret to be identified, it is that I like to turn tropes on their head a little. There’s no sense in telling the same story the same way more than once – find a new angle, a different narrator, an unusual setting! There are tons of ways to take the toolbox that tropes have to give us and to turn the, as writers, into much more interesting possibilities.

Plotting Along: Outlining a New Project

I didn’t use to outline my novels. In fact, I was grumpy and opposed to the whole idea until I was required to create one for part of a writing group project. I dragged my feet. I whined. I’m amazed I didn’t blog about it before, whining.

I thought that it would somehow squash or restrict my creative process. That it would ruin the way that I wrote. That it would take something away from me.

I’ve changed my mind, though. After being “made” to create an outline for my urban fantasy manuscript, I was forced to ask myself plot and character questions and then address them before I had more than a few chapters written. It was like getting advanced notice on what to watch out for in the near future, giving me time to prepare for it.

So now I’m working on the outline and characters for the second book in the same series (while the first manuscript is in beta reading this month). There are some important questions that everyone needs to ask themselves while in the outlining/plot planning phase:

  1. Are character motivations consistent?
  2. Is the conflict set up early and clearly? Is it resolved?
  3. Does the setting contribute appropriately to the overall mood or tone of the scene/novel?
  4. Does the narrative voice reflect character, genre and tone effectively?
  5. Is there a theme (or themes) you can identify in the story?
  6. Is this an original idea/characters? Is it too much of a familiar trope?

The Trouble with Editing

editing

I’m almost finished with a quick, by-the-seat-of-my-pants edit of my 1st draft manuscript. It goes into beta with about 7 people in just 3 days!! I’m thrilled but also feeling vaguely menaced at the same time. That’s not a lot of time to edit. Welllllll…

To be honest, I had this whole month to edit the 65,000 word piece (which is really very good odds, overall – less than 2,100 words a day to review!) but spent the first week of February celebrating the completion of my manuscript and the next week and a half sewing like a panicked woman for a hard deadline. That left just 13 days to edit the whole piece (more like 5,000 words to deal with per day). Only, wait! I also do freelance web copy writing and suddenly I had TONS of work. So now I was spending 7 hours a day doing freelance work and almost no time at all working on the novel.

Editing, one friend has said, is like being trapped in a gilded cage of my own devising.

I can’t wait to get out.

The Trouble with “Strong Female Characters”

We_Can_Do_It

I was inspired to talk about this topic thanks to a freelance job I have writing about gaming culture AND this great blog post from Chuck Wendig. Wendig addresses something very important to me in his post: the idea of agency. 

What is Agency and Why Does it Matter?

Agency and ego are tied together in a character, creating a fictional person who thinks, reacts, and – most importantly – acts to move the story forward. The character has motivation. She does more than reacts – she acts and, because of her actions, the story moves forward. In fact, without her actions, the plot would not and could not exist.

A “strong female character” who kicks ass but has no depth or human desires is no better than a damsel who exists solely to be rescued. It isn’t ass-kicking that defines a believable, human, interesting female character; it’s a metric we should rid ourselves of because, in the end, shooting and kicking and magicking aren’t what makes a character interesting. Ass-kicking does not inherently equal agency.

Identifying Agency and Evaluating Character

There are several simple “tests” suggested to identify if female characters are even remotely three-dimensional. The first and probably most well-known is The Bedchel Test which asks if two named female characters in a book (movie, comic, etc) talk about something other than a man. It’s a simple enough test, but a startling number of stories “fail” it.

Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offers the “Sexy Lamp Test” that goes like this: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ”

We are, I think, all of us looking for characters who are interesting, who think, who act, and who have drives and desires.

The Strong Female Character

So often, female protagonists are described as “strong” almost as a justification – a defense of the strange decision to choose to tell a story about a woman. Are we ashamed, in some quiet way, as a culture, to be telling women’s stories? Is it so bad and scary that we must defend our female characters with the traditionally male definition of “strong?” Next time you see one of these so-called “Strong Female Characters” remember to dig deeper and see what she’s really made of.

Destroying Genre Fiction, One Under-Represented Group at a Time

Last June (2014), something strange and amazing happened: women destroyed science fiction. It was far from a tragedy. Rather, prominent online literary magazine Lightspeed published a special issue featuring science fiction and speculative fiction by all female authors and guest edited by Christie Yant.
And somehow – somehow – the world continued to turn.
In fact, literature at large may have come out the other side of this terrible rebellion a little better off.
Why? Because in literature, as with all things in life, inclusivity makes a huge difference. Sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, region of residence: all of these voices are different and all of them matter. We live not in an increasingly-diverse world but, rather, in a world that is finally, increasingly, acknowledging its diversity.
This year, Lightspeed has returned to promote another underrepresented group of writers with their new Kickstarter (which has taken off like a rocket): Queers Destroy Science Fiction. This one will be guest edited by the incredible Seanan McGuire (who wrote WDSF’s anchor piece, Each to Each).
I know that I, for my part, can’t wait to submit something(s) to this year’s amazing guest edition and I hope that, my dear readers, should any of you qualify, that you submit something as well.

Beta Reading

IMG_4103.JPG
“Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow [you] to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.”
— David Shenk, Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

Well. I did it. I finished my urban fantasy manuscript. Draft #1 is complete!

And now it is time for the hard part: beta reading and subsequent drafts.

What is a beta reader and why do I need one?

An alpha reader or a beta reader is generally a non-professional (that is, not someone involved in the editing or publishing industry) who reads and critiques a manuscript before it goes on to publication. In my case, my beta readers are members of my writing group who have seen this manuscript go from a few opening pages through to a completed 65,000 word project.

These readers are invaluable. They will read my first draft as if it were a completed book and give me feedback on plot, character, style, dialogue, and everything in between. No writer is an island. We need feedback and an outside perspective to keep ourselves on track (or at least from getting too terribly off-track). We can get so bogged down in our own work that sometimes we get lost in it and can no longer see the big picture.

The best beta readers will provide a comprehensive written reaction to a manuscript. The best writers, then, should help their beta readers along. I suggest creating a short survey with open-ended questions, which will help the beta reader form and clearly explain their feelings and thoughts on the book.

So that’s my February project: clean up the draft so it’s readable (close any plot holes and tentatively create chapter breaks) and create the survey questions for my beta reading team. Easier said than done, I’m sure. What is your February project?