Monthly Archives: June 2014

Stereotypes – Pros and Cons


Writers have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. Beginning writers are told to avoid stereotypes at all cost, as it is lazy characterization. This is true. A stereotype is flat and uninteresting. You certainly want avoid having a main character who is nothing but a cipher.

I work better with examples. Let us examine the stereotype of the mad scientist. Oh, the issues I have with this stereotype! Scientists are meant to be rational and logical, but for some reason Doctor Frankenstein has become the model for every scientist in fiction, as he is the classic mad scientist who has meddled with forces that ‘humankind should know not what of’ and has been turned mad. The subgenre of this stereotype is the absent-minded or muddled scientist … too interested in her/his work to keep contact with the realities of day-to-day life. Writers – who have often been characterized as airy-fairy and out-of-touch-with reality as absent-minded professors – should know better than to buy into the hype.

On a tangent: an absent-minded scientist in academia would have the survival value of an ice cube in hell. The concept was the invented by the Disney corporation, the same people who brought to the world the ‘lemmings jumping off cliffs’ scenario.

Back on topic: If I write about a scientist who is a main character, like my main protagonist in my Steampunk novel, I do not depend on the stereotype as a part of process. I try to ignore the stereotype and write a well-rounded character based on what I know of real-life scientists.The character will have flaws and foibles, but she (or he) certainly isn’t mad, insane or bewildered.

However, what if you writing about a ‘walk on’ character that might have just one or two sentences dedicated to their appearance in the Work-in-Progress (the WiP)? In a case like this, you can use a stereotype to help round out the incidental character without having to waste more words on their description than is necessary. You need a scientist to invent a new gizmo? Turn the stereotype on its head, and have her (or him) be focused and fun and completely sane. That is when you can make a stereotype work for you.

So, how does this relate back to the writing experiment? Currently, I am still working on the first draft, and I have several incidental characters. One of them is a diplomat. Instead of making him smoother than an oil slick, I am making him a gentle, almost shy man, with a warm smile. And all the scheming is being done by fathers who want the ‘best’ for their children.

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What is happening with the Writing Experiment?

I am in the process of still writing the first draft. Why is it taking so long, you may ask?

I am currently unemployed. I have been applying for jobs with a feverish intensity. As well, I have three weeks before the Steampunk Charity Ball to get my costume into a perfect state … and I am a terribly slow sewer.

I haven’t forgotten. The experiment is still moving forward. But this is also a part of the writing process … life gets in the way.

Please feel free to grumble at me.

As an update, the story of the draft is twisting under my hands and turning into something entirely different to my original visualisation. This is what often happens with a first draft. What you see in you head doesn’t work on paper, and what seemed unimportant suddenly struggles to take over the entire thing. This is the ‘whip & chair’ stage, where you – as the ringmaster of this circus – have to maintain discipline. I love this stage.



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The Writing Experiment: the First Draft

A first draft is ‘getting the story down’. It isn’t meant to be pretty or perfect; in fact, most writers would never share a first draft with anyone. I am nervous about sharing the first draft of the Cake short story. I am about two-thirds of the way through, and I am very tempted to clean it up some before sharing it. It is very rough. Parts of it are truly dreadful.

I am letting my creativity run as unrestrained as I can manage.

The second draft is where the structure and discipline will be imposed.

The first draft is meant to be messy. This is surprisingly hard for me. I started my writing life using pen and paper, and I was used to trying to get it right first time. I couldn’t afford to spend pages just playing with a concept. Then, for several years after I started using a computer for my writing, I was still in the habit of editing as I went. This restricted my creativity. I wasn’t prepared to take risks.

You need to take some risks with your writing. It is the only way you will ever learn anything.




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Leaving the Muse to do his Work


If men have female muses, it makes sense a woman would have a male muse. In the halls of my imagination, my muse resembles James McAvoy, shuffling through my files to come up with suggestions and solutions. Over the past five days, I’ve been giving my muse a chance to consider several writing-related issues. He is feeling a little stressed.

I’ve been shuffling ideas around for the Cake short story. I’ve been researching food allergies – which seems to be a rather fashionable topic on the internet. There is so much misinformation as well as nuggets of gold. I prefer to base my stories on real science, even when they are set in an alternative universe, and so I’ve been focussing on actual medical research.

As well, I’m still working my way through the editing of my two novels, and editing a story for Tiny Owl Workshop’s Lane of Unusual Traders anthology.

As well, I had a rather full weekend of social engagements. I can’t say that I am bored!

All of this means that  – even though I am not actually writing – I am doing a lot of writing-related activity. It is important to remember that writing is only part of a writing career. Still, I always try to find an hour every day to just sit and write in, even if nothing useful comes from the words I put down. To my mind, writers write. At the moment, I mostly am making notes about food poisoning in that hour. I’m sure my muse is working hard in that hour.

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Writing Experiment: Getting to know my characters and exploring the plot.


Last night was Writing Race night. This is an hour of self-propelled writing, knowing that all over Australia other writers are doing the same thing. It isn’t a race against each other, but against ourselves. I used my time last night to make a tentative exploration into the characters from the cake-themed short story of this writing experiment.

To be truthful, I generally don’t do this exploration of character for a short story. This would be a first draft … for my eyes only. But I promised to share everything, and so you are getting this first draft, warts and all. As you can see, there is no setting … but I did warn you all that setting was my weakest skill. Most of this will be discarded, but I can already ‘hear’ my characters. Elena is not as ‘no nonsense’ as I first conceived her, because she is genuinely fond of her boss, Sir Bozz. The princess is likeable, but I need to work more on her personality. Sir Bozz is quite as charming as I imagined him …

Foelddim was a tiny country, its main exports were perry and people. It monarchy had survived into the 21st century by good luck rather than good management. But time and inbreeding had thinned the royal blood, and now the monarchy consisted of a single surviving princess. The monarchy was shaky, and so it was decided by the parliament that their princess needed a husband, a consort…

Elena was going through a list of possibilities with Princess Royal, Odette.

“The English royal family has a prince or two to spare…” ventured Elena.

“Oh my. I hope you aren’t suggesting the baby,” exclaimed Etty, screwing up her nose, “and do I come across as a cougar?”

Elena just rolled her eyes. The Princess Royal had a whimsical sense of humour. “I was thinking more of one of older young men. The red-headed adventurer seems sweet.”

“He also seems to have a roving eye. He is rather handsome and he knows it.”

“Well, the bachelors of the British Crown isn’t limited to just him,” said Elena. “But he is probably the best of unmarried ones.”

“Indeed. And British men do have such lovely accents,” said Etty. She sighed. “I’m not trying to be difficult, you know.”

“I know. But the parliament fear for the succession. Why not agree to approach this British lad, and see what happens? It will get those old fogeys off your back for a while, if they see you are at least making an attempt.”

“Will it get Uncle Bozz off my back?” asked Etty.

Elena fell silent. They both knew the answer to that would be ‘no’. His Excellency, Sir Bozz Sciocco, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, was Elena’s boss; she was his Under Secretary. He wasn’t really Etty’s uncle; he had been best friends with the King and was Etty’s godfather. He had watched her growning up, sending her presents and letters from all over the world as he travelled for his position. With the death of the King, he had taken it upon himself to be Odette’s advisor and main supporter. However, he was very old-fashioned. He sincerely felt that Etty’s position required her to marry and provide an heir (or six).

As if called by the mention of his name, Sir Bozz wandered into the Elena’s office, his head down as he went through his notes. “My dear, could you rearrange my afternoon appointments so that I have a chance to visit the Erehwon embassy around four o’clock?” Then he caught sight of the Princess Royal, smiled fondly and said, “Odette, my dear! How are you?”

“Just peachy, Uncle Bozz,” replied Etty. “You’re looking well today.”

“Thank you, thank you,” said the ambassador. “I’m wearing one of my new vests. I believe it does suit me.” He did a sober spin to show off his garment, a dark plum confection striped with threads of bronze. There was enough fabric in the vest to make a ball gown for both Etty and Elena.

“It’s lovely,” said Etty, and meant it.

Elena suppressed the urge to grin. She didn’t want to hurt Sir Bozz’s feelings, and not because he was her boss. She said, “The tailor did a fine job, you Excellency. And I will contact the Erehwon embassy immediately to make the arrangements for your visit. Last meeting of the day?”

“Yes. I’m certain to be asked to stay for an informal dinner.”

“Did you want me to come to take notes?” asked Elena. She knew the ambassador did most of his real work at the so-called informal dinners.

“Yes, my dear. I hope you didn’t have any other plans for the evening?”

“Only with me, Uncle Bozz,” said Etty. “And it was only to share a pizza and watch a movie. We can do that another night.”

“Excellent. I’ll make it up to both of you. I’ll shout you the pizza for tomorrow night.”

Both the girls grinned and Etty hugged the ambassador. “Thank you, Uncle Bozz.”

“Tut-tut,” muttered the old gentleman, but he looked pleased all the same. He wandered out of the office again.

“I’m sorry you have to work late again,” said Etty to her friend.

“I’m used to it. It means I’ll get to sleep in tomorrow, as his Excellency won’t be up until noon.”

“The joys of the diplomat’s life,” said Etty, half enviously. She hardly ever got the chance to sleep in. If she didn’t get up early, she would rarely have a chance to exercise. Later in the day was taken up with engagements and meetings.








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The Writing Experiment: the Antagonist


 My antagonist is going to be the cake. I don’t want the cake to simply be a MacGuffin, an item that could be replaced in the plot with some other device. If I am going to write about cake, then dammit, the cake is the central pivot to the plot.

The World’s Most Expensive Cake will not be an anthropomorphic evil. However, its mere existence with fatally endanger one character and set in motion the possible fall of civilization as known in Foelddim. I am taking for my inspiration a couple stories I have come across over the years: ‘Fifi and the Chilean Truffle’ by Orson Welles and ‘The Secret Ingredient’ by Paul Gallico. Neither story is about cake, but both stories have the preparation of food as a central plot point.

Of course, the cake has no motivation. It just exists. And the people making and eating the cake are not targets of revenge or murder. But the cake will be a villain, all the same.

If I was writing this story with a human villain, I would be all about motivations and such. I prefer my villains to have real motivations, realistic personality flaws, and virtues to balance their vices. A rounded villain gives a plot a better balance. It is only in stories aimed a younger readers that you can get away with a cardboard cut-out of a villain, and even then I feel that is bad writing.

(The accompanying image is a Steampunk-themed cake.)

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I can see that I might need more than a week for the Writing Experiment.

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Writing Experiment: Getting into Character (Part Two)

I have been playing with some of the characters for the short story. I find it much easier to write if I can ‘hear’ how a character looks and speaks. Yesterday, I spoke of the Ambassador whose nickname was the Embarrass-ador. I see a genial and charming man, someone who has obtained his position through who he knows rather than what he knows, who was never meant to have a position in diplomacy. He isn’t even close to being an evil man, but he isn’t clever enough to be a force for good either. This makes him something of an embarrassment to both his staff and other diplomats.

Since this is a man with an absurd lack of common sense, I want him to have a name to reflect his nature. In Italian (such a beautifully descriptive language), I discovered the word ‘sciocco’, which means silly, foolish, stupid, daft, doltish, goofy. Isn’t that just the perfect name for the gentleman I just described? So now my character has a name: His Excellency, Sir Bozz (as in Bozo) Sciocco, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, of the fictional country of Foelddim, next to the country of Erewhon (in other words, the middle of nowhere).  


This is fairly close to how I imagine the Embarrass-ador looks, based on his name. He loves his slice of cake, and he’ll have another, thank you. Rotund. Old-fashioned. Well-mannered. Avuncular. Flustered by ‘modern’ ideas and technology. Not a mean bone in his body. Somewhat vague. Not a risk taker. Dependant on his staff. Loves the sound of his own voice, and sometimes speaks before thinking. Enjoys a tot of rum, a dram of whiskey, a snifter of brandy, a glass of gin … all in the one day.

Can you see this character coming together? When he talks, his voice resembles Wilford Brimley’s endearingly gruff voice, but with a very posh British accent (as English is not his first language). When he says jump to his staff, they don’t ask ‘How High?’, but ‘In which direction?’

What are his motivations? Mainly, he wants a quiet life. He took the diplomatic job because he thought it would be a doddle. He isn’t too worried about his own honour, but he is very loyal to his country; it is his greatest virtue and the main reason he was given the job. He is looking forward to retirement.

Now, this is probably ten times more information than will be revealed in the short story. But as one of the backbones of my story, I need a three-dimensional person. I quite like this gentleman, as he should be fun to write about, and he is complex enough to create surprises. A two-dimensional character, or a stereotype, can’t provide too much in the way of surprises, without breaking character. There is very little tension or pleasure in a ‘flat’ character.


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Reading into a Character

I know that some writers don’t spend as much time on characterization as I do. This is a personal choice issue, and those other writers aren’t doing it wrong, nor am I doing it wrong. I am a firm believer that characters should drive the plot along, and that your plot would be completely different with another set of characters. Conversely, if you have a specific plot in mind, you have to tailor your characters to that plot.

So, what kind of characters spring to mind when you think about the world’s most expensive cake? The Chef? The World’s Fattest Man? The Birthday Girl? The Dieter? The Woman Deathly Allergic to *whatever*?

I like the idea of the cake being some sort of surprise gift, while at the same time being completely inappropriate. Diplomatic bungles affected the personal lives of a few, and the lives of millions as well. This is a kernel of a plot. So who would be the actors in this little drama? An Ambassador, who is more like the Embarrass-dor, and his long-suffering staff. Our protagonist can be one of his staff members … efficient at her job but secretly kind-hearted. An arranged marriage between to feuding states (who doesn’t enjoy a story of thwarted love), with a couple of reluctant marriage prospects. A party planner with a hidden agenda…

The plot is just about writing itself!

So, these characters now have to be ‘filled’ out. I’m off to spend a couple of hours chatting with these characters and getting to know them. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to share them!


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Exploring a Topic for a Short Story


The suggested topic for my writing experiment is cake. Now, that is a fairly unrestrictive topic, because you can have a cake of soap, something can be caked with a substance (for example: the car’s tyres are caked with mud), the edible dessert, and the word ‘cake’ is part of a lot of metaphors (for example: she takes the cake; piece of cake; sell like hot cakes; have your cake and eat it too). Where to start?

In fact, the first thing I did was sit down and make a list of as many cake-related ideas and terms as I could think of. I call this ‘chunking’, because I am setting down a huge chunk of unrelated information. I prefer to do this with pen and paper, so that I can draw in links and arrows between a flow of ideas. My imagination was caught by the idea of the most expensive cake in the world.

Ten minutes of research gave me a list of some of the world’s most expensive cakes and desserts. As with the example in the image, most are made expensive by their decorations – jewels and gold and such knickknacks – or in this case, huge diamonds. At first I was kind of disappointed, because I was hoping to find cakes made expensive by their ingredients, and so ‘rich’ in both flavour and value.

Have you read the Narnia books? In ‘The Silver Chair’, there is a scene where an unground dweller, Golg the Gnome, is describing living jewels, “-I’ll pick you bunches of rubies you can eat and squeeze you a cup full of diamond-juice.” I have always loved that idea. Imagine drinking champagne made with diamond-juice? Eating a fruitcake made with those living jewels. Now that’s roughage!

So, there is the map of my exploration of the topic of cake. Next I have to invent a plot and characters…


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