Nerd for Hire

Freelance scribbler exploring worlds real and imagined

Juan Villoro (trans. Kimi Traubb) 136 pages George Braziller, Inc. (2015)

Read this if you like: Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolaño, Mexican culture

tl;dr summary: Magical realism without the magic in modern Mexico

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There are always stories all around us, waiting to be told. Finding those stories is often just a matter of looking at things in new ways, taking the time to uncover the narrative within them.

That’s the goal of the exercises below: unlocking the stories that are inside objects you see and use every day. You can use them to start a new story from things in your environment, or picture the objects in your characters’ environment in a work-in-progress when you’re stuck in a story and not sure where to take it.

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I have a few manuscripts I’ve been shopping around to agents and presses: A linked short story collection, a speculative micro-fiction chapbook, a 200,000-word sci-fi novel—in short, not the types of projects most publishers are look for.

This has, naturally, gotten me thinking about self-publishing. Especially since I know a good number of people who have done it successfully: My partner self-published his novel, Hungry, through Amazon; a member of my writing group released his comic book series, Theme of Thieves, with funding from Kickstarter; another workshop colleague serialized his novel on the now-defunct platform JukePop, leading to its eventual publication by Spaceboy Books as Lars Breaxface: Werewolf in Space.

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I’ve been cleaning up some relatively-new stories to submit to journals lately. I tend to overwrite on my first drafts, so this process of “cleaning up” usually consists mostly of cutting and condensing—sometimes removing entire characters and scenes that I realize I don’t need, other places removing words and sentences to give the voice the right rhythm and keep the story’s momentum pushing forward.

The ending is one place I consistently overwrite, especially when I’m writing a story that’s driven more by emotion or relationships than narrative. Even when it’s a plot-driven story, though, it’s not always obvious exactly where it should end, and just getting to the narrative conclusion doesn’t necessarily give it that satisfying sense of resolution that great short stories have. 

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Dialogue is a powerful tool. It gives your readers a chance to hear the characters speaking, efficiently revealing aspects of their personality and inter-personal relationships that are difficult to show in narrative.

Something you quickly learn if you read and write fiction, though: realistic dialogue isn’t easy to write, and even great writers sometimes get it wrong. If you’re looking for ways to enhance your dialogue, here are some tips that can help.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman 120 pages (Herland), 117 pages (With Her in Ourland) The Forerunner (1915-1916)

Read this if you like: Mark Twain, Gulliver’s Travels, utopias

tl;dr summary: Women do things better, and that includes building a civilization.

See Herland on Bookshop See With Her in Ourland on Bookshop

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High fantasy has a long-standing tradition of borrowing from myth and religion, and anyone with even a surface knowledge of world mythology will see that right away reading Wheel of Time. I think I noticed some of this even when I read the books as a kid, but my current re-read coincides with a deep dive on world mythologies, making the familiar names and concepts stand out even more vividly than on my past reads through the series.

(Note: Thar be Wheel of Time book spoilers ahead—if you haven’t read the whole series and care about such things, probably best to stop reading now)

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I’ve been reading novels in Spanish for about a year—successfully, at least. One of my main motivations to become fluent was so I could read Marquez in Spanish, and as a chronically impatient human, I made an aborted attempt at Cien años de solidad a few years ago, well before I had the skills to navigate it. I had to stop multiple times every sentence to look up words I didn’t know, making it impossible to just sink into the story; I set it aside after about a page.

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Mythology and folklore can be an excellent source of storytelling inspiration. In the past, it could be tricky to track down info on myths outside what I’ll call the Big 4 (Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse). Even for these well-known pantheons, a lot of the available info was over-simplified, or filtered through the view of writers who misconstrued (or sometimes straight-up rewrote) the original story.

Today, scholars, folklorists, and mythologists from around the world can share their knowledge without going through an academic gatekeeper. The result is a wealth of information about mythologies, pantheons, rituals, and folk tales, both ancient and active. While the internet is still shockingly incomplete in some areas, there are tons of resources available for writers seeking inspiration from myths and folk stories. Here are some of the sites I’ve found most useful for my own research.

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In the simplest terms, point of view can be defined as the perspective through which a story is being told. A story’s POV identifies three things:

  1. Who is telling the story

  2. The relationship between the narrator and main character

  3. The distance between the characters and readers

Those things are all critical to how a story comes across to the reader, and shifting the POV—even if it’s just from one 3rd-person close narrator to a different one—can have a huge impact on how the reader interprets the story (and how much they enjoy reading it).

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