Guided Writing Session Notes

On Tuesday I led a guided writing session for the CIC Virtual Arts Week. The theme for this week was Transformation, so I tailored the writing exercises to showcase the transformative power of words. Here are those exercises for anyone who attended and wanted to have notes, and for everyone who would like to play along on your own time.

The times in parentheses are suggested times if you want to use a timer on your own. It’s okay if you go faster or slower, and it’s also fine to ignore them completely. If you use them and you find that you don’t finish certain parts, that’s also fine! If you feel like you are on a roll and want to keep writing after a timer is up, go for it! The point of these exercises is to get things started so you can build on them. If you feel like you’ve got a good flow, that’s great, and you can skip exercises and follow your instincts at any point.

I’m including my own example responses for your reference, but yours might look very different, and that’s okay! You can use these with a specific character or writing project in mind, or start with nothing in particular in mind (which is what I did).

Exercise 1 (30 seconds)

Write down three words that you associate with transformation. They can be specific and concrete or abstract. They can be objects, adjectives, actions, or concepts. They don’t have to make logical sense. Follow your intuition.

Here are the example transformation words I came up with:

Exercise 2 (1 minute)

Think of times when you (or a character in your project) might change from one thing into another. This could be as simple (going from work clothes to pjs), or complex (changing from a peasant to empress of five galaxies). The changes could also be less tangible and more emotional. Write down two examples.

Here are the examples I came up with:

Being single to falling in love
Being afraid to becoming brave

Exercise 3 (2 minutes)

Write down five words (one for each sense). If you are working on a specific project, do it with the project’s setting, characters, or other specific details in mind. If you are stuck, use things in your immediate surroundings. As with the previous exercise, these can be abstract or concrete, and are open to your interpretation.

Here are me example sense words:

see: purple
hear: styrofoam
smell: fresh
taste: sweet
touch: soft

Exercise 4 (2 minutes)

Take one of your five words and make a sentence about is as perceived via a different sense. If you are using a fictional character you can imagine how they might perceive a certain word though another sense. Again, this can be specific and concrete or abstract. You do not have to use the exact word. You can use the actual word, or you can think about the context in which you might encounter the object or concept and let it inspire you.

A concrete example is the sound word styrofoam perceived through touch as, “She winced at the feel of styrofoam squeaking against her teeth.”

In this first example, I thought of the awful squeak styrofoam can make as my sound word, and then I used that directly to combine with the feel of accidentally rubbing a styrofoam cup against one’s teeth—a touch sense as well as a sound.

An abstract example is the taste word sweet perceived through sight and scent as, “An ostentation of pink frivolity hung in the air.”

Image description: A pink cloud of cotton candy in focus against the blur of bright lights, possibly at a carnival

In this second example, I imagined what might taste sweet, and the first thing I thought of was cotton candy. Often cotton candy is pink, so I thought it might smell like a pink scent to my character, who might be perceiving this at a carnival.

Exercise 5 (5 minutes)

Take one of your transformation words and apply it to one of your sensory sentences to make a larger paragraph exploring that perception through the transformational word.

For example the sweet pink cotton candy, if I use the transformation word flight, I might then explore this carnival setting with flight. How does my character feel about it? Is the sweetness now scary because she is afraid of heights and knows she has to ride a ferris wheel?

Image description: A carnival midway at night with brightly lit rides.

This does not need to be a conflict or challenge, and the original word does not have to appear in that paragraph.

My example paragraph was:

A pink ostentation of cotton candy and frivolity hung in the air. Marissa looked up into the blinking lights of the midway, and shuddered. Ethan was laughing and tugging her hand, which was sweaty tingling. He would want to do the rocket flyers next. He always did. And she would have to go with him because mom had said they had to stay together and that meant doing whatever Ethan wanted, whether Marissa liked it or not.

Exercise 6 (5 minutes)

Imagine how your setting or character might transform. What would it take to make that happen? Would it be good or bad? What is an obstacle to that transformation? What is an incentive?

This is a brainstorming exercise and it can be structured or loose. It could use complete sentences and paragraphs or single words. You’re stepping out of the narrative here and letting your mind explore.

My example:

Carnival, fear of heights… not speaking up for self. Could get over fear? Could learn to speak up? Obstacle… fear of getting in trouble? What if she is afraid because it will be dangerous? What if she’s got a psychic ability? Obstacle: not wanting to “be a baby” not wanting to go against parents’ directions. Incentive: not wanting to die?

Exercise 7

Build on your first paragraph by introducing one of the incentives or obstacles you brainstormed. How does your character react?

“Hurry up, Mriss!” Ethan said, but Marissa dragged her foot until she started to stumble and then crouched down on the dusty pathway. 

“My shoe’s untied,” she said. It was a lie, but she made it true, surreptitiously tugging one lace downward as she lowered. She knew in the pit of her stomach that she could not go on the rocket flyers. Not today. Not now. And she couldn’t let Ethan go either.

I didn’t finish my thought in this exercise period, but that’s okay. I know from my brainstorming exercise that I am working toward having Marissa figure out a way to stop them from going on the ride because she knows it is dangerous, and even though I haven’t yet written how or why that happens, the context has informed what I’ve written so far. Depending on your writing process and speed, you may come out of a 5 minute timed segment with a lot more than one paragraph, or with just one or two sentences. Either option is okay, as is anything in between. There’s no magically “correct” amount of words.

Exercise 8 (5 minutes)

Imagine the events of this scene from a different perspective. How do they perceive the same setting and events? Does the new perspective recognize that there is a moment of transformation happening?

This doesn’t have to be an exact reimagining of the scene. It could be a continuation, moving froward in time. For example, in the case of the girl who is afraid of heights at the carnival, this could be someone else witnessing her experience of that moment, or it could happen a few moments later.

My example:

The ring toss barker scanned the crowd looking for his next mark, and grinned when he noticed the small girl being tugged along be her brother. Siblings were always good for a little competition. Of course competition was always the most satisfying when it came with big prizes. And big prizes meant money.

Image description: a wall of colorful plush toy prizes at a carnival.

“Hurry up, Mriss!” he heard the brother say.

The girl didn’t hurry, though. Instead she stopped, untying and retying her shoe.

“Ring toss!” he called. “Come play the ring toss! Special for families, two for the price of one for the next five minutes!”

The little girl darted a calculating glance at his booth. As though she was trying to figure out how long she might stretch a midway game to avoid the thrill rides her brother craved. Well, he was certainly happy to help her find out.

“How about you, sir?” the barker called to her brother. “Can you throw a ring better than your little sister there?”

This started in the action I had already written, but moved forward from there. I’m not sure if I will write more of this, but I started with nothing and used these exercises to come up with a setting, three characters with three different agendas, and some obstacles and incentives for changing the status quo. That’s not quite everything you need to tell a satisfying story, but it’s a good start!

Thanks to everyone who attended the guided writing session on Tuesday! It was a lot of fun! For everyone else, let me know if you try these and how you like them!

Come see and hear me!

Hello! I have been hiding in an isolation hole for a long time, but I am finally starting to feel better enough to emerge! Not to get together with people in person, of course, but here are some places you can find me:

CIC Guided Writing — 2pm Eastern US time, Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

This is part of the CIC’s Virtual Arts Week, and it’s free to attend! You can register here, and come for an hour long guided writing session on the theme of transformation. This is going to be a fun and generative session, not based on critique. I’d love to see you there!

Image description: A black and orange butterfly (post-transformation) perches on a green leaf.

Book Discussion on the Spectology Podcast

Adrian and Matt, the hosts of Spectology, invited me to discuss a book with them. I chose The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard, which is a Sherlock Holmesian mystery space opera story with Vietnamese cultural elements. It was a lot of fun to read and discuss! Here’s the pre-read episode where we talk about Aliette and our anticipation of the book, and here’s the post-read episode where we discuss the book after having read it. The post-read is full of spoilers about the book, so I recommend buying and reading the book before listening to that second episode. It’s a fun book, and we all enjoyed it!

This Is Why We’re Like This

We managed to keep putting out podcasts even when I got sick, thanks in part to having a couple of episodes we’d recorded back in February when getting together in person was an okay thing to do. Our most recent episodes were about claymation with The Adventures of Mark Twain and The California Raisins, The Simpsons, And Soviet television in the 1980s. I am in the middle of editing the episode on he 1985 Soviet production of The Hobbit right now, and that should be up sometimes in the next day or two. You can see a list of all our episodes here.

So that’s where you can find me right now. I hope wherever you are, you are safe and well!


Personal Update

Image Description: Adare Manor, seen from the back garden. I took this photo when we had afternoon tea there in August of 2019. It was probably the most impressive of the castles we saw in Ireland, though not our personal top favorite castle. Still, I thought maybe all of us would like to see a castle today. Would you like to see more castles? Let me know in the comments!

Hello! I hope this finds you well.

I myself have been sick for the past couple of weeks. I don’t know with what. It started with a very mildly sore throat and a tiny dry cough. For a few days I had some trouble breathing, but that, thankfully, seems to have passed now. Now my coughs are a bit more frequent and productive, which is annoying, but something I can deal with. I never had a fever as far as I know. I did at points have body aches and chills and a bit of nausea. Could this be COVID-19? Maybe. But I will likely never know. It’s mild, thankfully, and the criteria for testing here is very hard to meet without actually being in need of the hospital. I certainly hope that doesn’t become necessary for me, and I am optimistic about my continued relatively mild annoyance as I cough for a bit longer here.

Because of this, Moss and I went into full isolation on … the 11th? I think? A bit ahead of most of the people in our area, but not by too much. Moss appears to be fine, and we’ve isolated me in a separate room in the hopes that whatever I have won’t pass to him.

That said, I was consumed by pandemic news for other reasons before this personal bout with illness. I’d lose whole days to watching as the shutdowns and the outbreaks spread globally and wondering exactly how to reconcile that with my personal and professional welfare, and now… well, I guess everyone’s on the same page. It’s exhausting, and worrying, and financially and physically and emotionally difficult.

And while I have many friends and colleagues who have rushed to make online classes and concerts and virtual meetups on Zoom and Discord and Slack and so forth, I have mostly not had the energy for that. “Here are things to do instead of being bored!” they all say. To which I have mostly responded by falling asleep, because the energy it took to read their posts tired me out. Again. It’s been all I could do some days just to focus on breathing, and on other days to scrape by on editing and uploading episodes of This Is Why We’re Like This mostly on time.

But now that I am starting to feel a bit better, it’s time to try to figure out what this new normal of being at home ALL THE TIME can and should look like for me. Because of course I will still be staying home for the foreseeable future, even once I feel all the way better, because there’s a really good chance that whatever I have right now is not the main thing everyone’s worried about. Since I don’t know, I have to assume I may still be susceptible to catching and/or spreading it. And goodness knows I definitely don’t want to do either if at all possible.

Movement, for instance. I am the kind of person who loves to go on walks, but that’s not at all practical in a larger metropolitan area at present. Current jealousy level of everyone I know who has a large backyard or lives in the country: HIGH. And don’t even get me started on people who have their own pools! But! My yoga instructor has started livestreaming classes, and so yesterday and today I did a bit of extremely modified gentle yoga—the blessing of livestream classes is that I can do them with mic and video muted so that no one has to be distracted whenever I must stop to cough or take several moments to catch my breath. That seems like a good start, anyway.

Still, this new landscape of social isolation is going to take some more adjusting. We’re all in this together, though. How are you coping? Are you well? Do you need help of any kind? What has brightened your day of late? This is an open comment thread, and I invite you to share whatever you feel like sharing.

Where to find me at Boskone

Hello! This weekend is Boskone, a science fiction convention in Boston, MA. I’ll be doing a bunch of things there, so please come say hello if you are attending!

Here’s where to find me:


Reviving Printed Short Fiction

Format: Panel
14 Feb 2020, Friday 17:00 - 17:50, Burroughs (Westin)
Jeffrey Ford, Steve Davidson (Amazing Stories), Theodora Goss, Julia Rios (M), Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books)

Short fiction is a major form of published speculative fiction. Writers write it. Readers read it. Publishers want to publish it. So why is printed short fiction struggling? What new ideas can publishers and authors use to attract readers? How might we rethink anthologies and magazines to help make them more affordable and accessible?

Adam Stemple and Brimstone Rhine Present Distant Stars and Irish Bars

Format: Concert
14 February 2020, Friday 20:00 - 20:50, Lewis (Westin)
Adam Stemple, C. S. E. Cooney, Carlos Hernandez, Faye Ringel

Brimstone Rhine is C. S. E. Cooney’s rock star name, and she’s sharing a 50 minute concert slot with Adam Stemple! I’ll be singing with her on some of the songs, which are from her Ballads From a Distant Star project. Her brother Jeremy is flying in from Arizona to be part of the show, too! Faye Ringel and Carlos Hernandez will also be part of the band. This one is sure to be a ton of fun!


Themes Within Latin American Speculative Fiction

Format: Panel
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 12:00 - 12:50, Burroughs (Westin)
Julia Rios, Carlos Hernandez (M), Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Latin American speculative fiction has some of the planet’s most haunting and elegant themes woven into the fabric of the genre. What are some of these themes? What do they represent within the genre, as well as through a larger literary view? How do cultural traditions, regional histories, and religion develop deeper meanings within the fiction? What are some of the best examples that will open new readers to Latin American SF?

Shaping the Genre

Format: Panel
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 13:00 - 13:50, Marina 2 (Westin)
Julia Rios (M), Steve Miller (Liaden Universe), Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), Shahid Mahmud (Arc Manor/Phoenix Pick)

With the evolution of print, ebooks, and audiobooks — not to mention other digital media — the speculative genre keeps changing. How has SF shaped and been shaped by society? Past transformational writers included Asimov, Bradbury, Butler, and Le Guin, to name a few. What authors are reshaping the genre today? How much do current technology and delivery media affect the power to mold SF? What role do publishers, large and small, play in the genre's evolution?

Books That Get Kids Reading!

Format: Panel
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 - 18:50, Burroughs (Westin)
Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Juliana Spink Mills (M), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge

Hundreds of new children's books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children's classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children's books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.


Lost in Translation?

Format: Panel
16 Feb 2020, Sunday 11:00 - 11:50, Marina 1 (Westin)
Julie C. Day, Julia Rios, John Chu, Max Gladstone (M), Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It’s a familiar phrase — but what actually is lost in translation? What does a good translator privilege: literal meaning, connotation, cultural significance, wordplay, poetry or musicality? What can she discard first? What must she insist on keeping? What are some of the best translations of the literature of the fantastic? What makes them so fantastische, harika, and downright kediegwu?

The Unlikely Imaginarium: A Group Reading

Format: Reading
16 Feb 2020, Sunday 13:00 - 13:50, Griffin (Westin)

Authors C. S. E. Cooney, Zig Zag Claybourne, Carlos Hernandez, Julia Rios, and Elaine Isaak gather around the dark bonfire of their collective imagination to tell stories of women, wolves, woods, bones, enraged ninjas, AI toilets, the end of the world, and basically, the whole entire multiverse. Or maybe something completely different. Attend our wild and rambunctious reading to find out for yourselves!

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