Nerd for Hire

Freelance scribbler exploring worlds real and imagined

I took last week off from posting because I was on my way back from the annual AWP Conference, which this year was in Kansas City. We decided to drive since we were bringing along bunches of books to sell—and, on the plus side, we did sell bunches of them, which didn’t make the 12-hour drive any shorter but did at least make it feel worth it.

I love conferences, and the AWP conference in particular—I’ve been to most of them that have happened over the last 15 years. What I love about it being such a huge conference is that you really can tailor your experience to what you need in that moment, and that plus the moving location gives each year’s a slightly different feel.

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It can be tricky to figure out the right place to start and end a story—at any length, really, but it can be particularly challenging for a short story, when it’s coincidentally the most important to find the right moments. A novella or novel gives you a bit more time and space to breathe. You have the freedom to mosey a bit more, taking some time to explore the world and get to know the character before you dig into the meat of the story. With a short story, though, conventional wisdom says to introduce the reader to the core conflict from the first page, and that’s certainly what you need to do if you want to get your short fiction published in most markets. 

I’ve discussed strategies to find the right place to start and end a story in the past, and there are tons of different approaches you can take to do this. One that I’ve only recently become hip to is Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient, which is a nugget of storytelling wisdom that I’m mildly annoyed with myself that I’ve only discovered now, because it’s an incredibly useful way to categorize and think about stories.

In the MICE Quotient, stories are categorized into 4 groups depending on what provides the driving energy of the story: the world, information, a character, or an event. You can identify roughly where the story should naturally start and end, along with how the story should move between these points, based on what category the story fits into.

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A lot of the mythological and fantasy creatures that have endured in cultural awareness are European in origin—things like fairies, elves, dwarfs, mermaids, or ancient Greek mythological creatures like gorgons, sirens, harpies, or cyclopes.

Using these familiar creatures in your fiction has advantages. Your readers have likely already heard of them, in some form, so they come into the story with some background and details already in mind and you don’t have to provide as much description or explanation in the text.

That pre-knowledge can also be a kind of baggage, though, and could limit your creative freedom to use the beings the way that best suits the story. They can also run the danger of reading as cliché or referential.

And the truth is—these European-derived critters are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of other mythical and supernatural beings from all corners of the world and all eras of history.

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Toshikazu Kawaguchi 272 pages Hanover Square Press (2019) 

Tl;dr summary: Intersecting stories of the employees and patrons of a café with a time travel seat.

Read this if you like: Haruki Murakami, Twin Peaks, magical realism

See the book on Bookshop

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I adore Star Trek. But one common (and fair) critique of the series is the fact that most of its alien characters are really just humans in a mask—and not just on a physical level. Many of the aliens in Star Trek generally act and think the exact same way that people do, and it’s far from the only universe that’s guilty of this. Star Wars has more weird-looking aliens, but a lot of them are still functionally humans. The Mon Calamari look like squids, for example, but they use the same spaceship controls and don’t seem to have issues breathing air.

I use a lot of non-human characters in my stories, so this question of what makes them truly feel like a distinct being—and not just a human in an alien suit—has been at the front of my mind lately. The key, I think, is ultimately in the worldbuilding. The writer has thought through the environment and culture these beings would live in, and that is reflected in how they look and act. This makes the details of their appearance or behavior feel purposeful, like they’re driven by an in-world logic.

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Getting feedback from a workshop group or beta reader can be a great way to refine and polish your writing in preparation for submitting stories or poems to publishers.

Journals that have a feedback option, on the other hand, offer you a different kind of insight. It’s a way to hear straight from editors who choose the work for journals, anthologies, and other publications. At minimum, they’ll give you some insights about why they rejected the piece, and usually they’ll offer some other tips about areas you can improve, to increase your odds of getting an acceptance the next time you send it out.

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When I’m reading submissions for After Happy Hour, I try not to make any judgments about the writer. We read things anonymously for a reason. We don’t want anything to sway our decisions except the work itself.

That said, I am still human, and humans are adept at noticing patterns. There are some things writers do that give me the impression they haven’t been writing fiction for very long. Usually, when I see their bio after we’ve made our decision on the piece, I find that I’m right.

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Elwin Cotman 89 pages Nomadic Press (2023)

Read this if you like: mythic fantasy, punk poetry, Haruki Murakami tl;dr summary: Combination poetry collection and story about a galaxy-traveling wizard

See the book on Bookshop

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Christmas-themed things can be a bit of a landmine for storytellers. It’s pretty easy for them to veer into cliché or maudlin territory, and a lot of the familiar themes and plots have been written to death.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get inspiration from the holiday season, though. Here are some prompts that can get your brain going on some stories in the Christmas spirit.

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Reality television is one of the more decried entertainment genres. And, sure, it’s got its flaws. I’m not going to claim it’s high art—but I do enjoy watching it. Competition-style shows are my reality genre of choice, and I’ll gladly watch people do just about anything if they’re competing on a TV show while they do it: cooking, designing clothes, modeling, doing drag, surviving in the wilderness, making piñatas, you name it. They don’t even need to be that good at it. Honestly, sometimes it’s better when they’re not.  

I also do feel like this content has value for a writer, and I’m not just saying that to justify the hours of it I’ve consumed. Here are three lessons that storytellers can learn from reality TV, arguably better than from any other television genre.

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