Help for the NaNo-Panicked (Part 1)

Image courtesy of UncyclomediaOkay, it’s October 5th, 26 days until NaNoWriMo, and you don’t know what you’re writing about. You know folks who have been planning this year’s novel for months (we hates, them, Precious, what has they got in their pocketses? Index cards!), but you have–nothing. No plot, no characters, no ideas.

It’s a horrible place to be, but there’s hope. And that hope has a name–random generators.

As an experiment, one year for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a novel which was almost entirely based on the results of random generators. I started with the title. Then anytime I needed to name a character, create a place or object, or find a plot twist, I went to a generator. I can hear you laughing, but here’s a secret–that novel is one of the ones that I, in my ten-year expedition with NNWM, completed, edited, and am now doing the final line-edit pass on before sending it out to a publisher. It’s one of my best stories. So don’t be too quick to pooh-pooh the idea of generators.

The thing about generators is knowing how to use them. They are great for sparking ideas, putting together ideas that you might not have thought of combining, and pulling words up to the top of your subconscious where you can play with them. You don’t have to feel constrained by them…once that idea is sparking, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Here is a list of a few generators that I particularly like. Play around with them–don’t just look for loglines, bring up some plot twists, conflicts, character names, oddities, anything at all–and write down anything that sounds interesting. Maybe use a mind map like Freemind to gather together everything that speaks to you, and then look for connections in the jumble of ideas. Think of it as brainstorming, with the help of an outside brain. :) At StoryToolz, you’ll find a generator that gives you three conflicts, and a brief explanation of how to use them to flesh out a story idea. There’s also a random conflict generator, and a half title generator.

Seventh Sanctum: Here you’ll find a motherlode of generators, for all sorts of endeavours. You might want to start with the ones in the writing section for story ideas, but you never know where inspiration will strike!

The Writer’s Den at Pantomimepony: Another great collection of generators, including one for first lines. Sometimes a great first line is all you need to grow a story. (I tried it out and got: “That weekend, shortly before the parrot bit my Dad, Aunt Maude became a gangster’s tailor.” Now really, if you can’t grow a story out of that, there’s something wrong with you!)

Serendipity: Although recovering from a spam attack that took the old site down, the owner has restored some of the generators here and I hope will be able to continue to add more back in–this was one of my favorites.

Archetype: Three nice generators here, along with a link to a great article on all the different ways of beginning your story.

There are lots more generators on the net; if you don’t like these, do a search and find one that suits you. In my next post, we’ll take a look at a way to be your OWN random generator. Sounds like fun, huh?

Title Fight

This is not one of mine.

In a recent interview I (and a number of other authors) did over on the Third Person Press News Blog, one of the questions was about story titles–specifically the title of the story each of us had in the new anthology, Unearthed, and more generally, when and how we get our titles.

The title of my story in Unearthed is pretty simple: “The Cache.” It’s a story about what happens to two characters who go geocaching and find more than they bargained for, so the title seemed a no-brainer. However, it’s probably one of the least interesting ways to get a title that I’ve used, so I thought I’d elaborate a little here.

My two favourite ways to get titles are: 1) have the title come to me before I even know there’s a story to go with it, and 2) find a pre-existing line of verse and take the title from it (either directly or slightly twisted). The first way is a product of serendipity, so it can’t really be planned. It can be coaxed, to some extent–by thinking maybe in very general terms about a theme or setting and just letting the words dance and mix and float around until they coalesce into something. But most of the time it just…happens.

The second way, I go about very methodically. I surf over to (although I’m sure there are other searchable verse or literary databases out there) and start running searches on keywords that have something to do with the story or story idea. I jot down everything that speaks to me, and then usually at some point I know I’ve got the one I need. Some of the titles I like the best have come out of this process: One’s Aspect to The Sun, Spaces Sharp and Bare, and To Where the Aether Failed. (I see, looking over my list of stories and novels, that this method seems to work best for novels. Huh. I never noticed that before.)

Other titles have come from the subject line in a spam email (Operant Moon), online generators (The Murder Prophet), and song titles (The Light of the Silvery Moon). And then the rest…I guess mostly from a word or phrase that comes out of the story or story idea itself. Sometimes I don’t even know how the title ties in to the story for sure until I’ve written more of it.

I rarely change a title. Maybe it’s a holdover from the old superstition that it’s bad luck to change the name of a horse or a boat, but once a story has a title, that’s usually it for me. In truth, I can think of only one that I changed on the suggestion of an editor. So thus far I guess I’ve been lucky.

Writers, what’s your favourite way to get a title? Readers, do titles ever turn you off before you even read the back cover blurb?

Tales of Tales ~ Part 7: Common Ground

Staying on the science fiction side of things, today I thought I would talk a little bit about “Common Ground,” another story in my collection To Unimagined Shores.

I actually can’t recall the “inciting incident” or the idea spark that led to this story. It’s based around a colony ship arriving at a new planet to find that it’s not as empty as the colonists expected. It also has a lot to do with parenthood, and I suspect the idea first came to me not long after our daughter was born. I do vividly remember lying awake one night thinking about the story and how excited I was to start writing it. There was a particular idea in it that, at that time, I thought was one of the best things I’d ever come up with. It’s a magnificent feeling, when you know you have a great story idea and it’s just waiting to come to life under your fingertips. The wonderful feeling doesn’t always last, and the story doesn’t always turn out to be as fabulous as you thought it was going to, but those moments of excitement and the feeling that you really have something are priceless.

“Common Ground” was published at Nuketown in 2001. Later, in 2003, the aliens from “Common Ground” formed the basis for one of the alien races who showed up in the novel I was writing for National Novel Writing Month, “One’s Aspect to the Sun.” I had obviously enjoyed writing these aliens. They were one of the first really well-developed alien races I’d created, and they have stayed with me. Years later an editor would tell me, “You really do write great aliens.” She wasn’t talking about these aliens in particular, but I’m quite proud of that comment, and it makes me strive, whenever I create an alien race, to make them very believable.

Once past the end of the garden we saw the cave. A dozen yards distant the shrouded entrance gaped blackly in the rock wall. And under a natural outcropping, half obscured by shadow, stood three aliens.

My stomach churned. My own breath made a hollow whistling sound in my throat. These were the creatures who had our babies. I could not even see them clearly yet, but a fist of fear tightened in my chest.

One of them held up a hand, but we had already stopped. The others were armed, not overtly menacing but standing easily erect, perhaps five feet tall and garbed in wrapped shirts and loose leggings.

The apparent leader gave a short speech, the words a tumbled gibber of growls, yips, and barks. It ended on a questioning note.

It’s the last day to enter my contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from,, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Image “Planetfall by Moonlight” copyright 2010 by Sherry D. Ramsey

Tales of Tales ~ Part 6: On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule

Writing some stories is an uphill slog from start to finish, while others are so much fun to write that they practically seem to write themselves. “On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule” was one of those pure-fun stories for me.

Yet another of my stories that was idea-sparked by an anthology call, this one was originally written for an anthology looking for road trip stories–with, of course, an element of the speculative thrown in. The idea of a human-alien partnership in that road trip materialized quite quickly, as I recall, and as I said, the story seemed to write itself. This was one that I actually finished before the anthology’s deadline date, submitted and had accepted. Alas, something went wrong with the project, the anthology itself never made it to print, and I had to send the story out looking for another home. Such are the vagaries of the writing life.

The good news is that it did find another home, in the premiere issue of the Canadian Neo-Opsis magazine. If you look carefully, you can actually see my name on the cover. That was a first for me. Cool!

This story doesn’t follow a strict chronological timeline–there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between the “present” of the story and flashbacks to the past and the events leading up to the story’s “present.” I think I was experimenting a bit when I wrote this one, and I’d probably just been reading something that recommended starting a story “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. To illustrate what I mean by that, here’s the opening:

The worst moment of the whole trip came just before three a.m. on Friday. I stood in the driving rain, mud seeping insidiously into my shoes. The alien’s outline looked enormous in the dark, and the tire iron in his hand even more so, silhouetted against the probing glare of the police car’s headlights. When the cruiser had driven past a moment ago I thought we might be in the clear, but no, it had turned and was coming back.

My credit card was still being held hostage by the jerk at the service station and I had lost the rest of my ID in the motel fire. We had to make it to Ottawa by noon the next day or the entire mission could fail. I had about thirty seconds to think of something to tell the police, and if I didn’t get rid of them quickly, the alien would give himself away and we’d both be in the soup.

What was I, a previously normal at-home-mom of two, doing here? Tim was going to be furious when he found out.

Definitely the worst moment of the whole experience. Well, except for what happened later.

“In medias res,” indeed. I think I might have been testing to see just how far into the action one could really start a story. :)

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from,, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 5: The Ambassador’s Staff

Keeping to the SF side of the equation, I thought I’d take a look today at “The Ambassador’s Staff.” This story was originally published in the anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments. There’s a lot of interesting data on the website, compiled by the editors during and after the process. If you’ve ever thought about putting together an anthology, it makes a very interesting read. You can also read the entire anthology there.

Funnily enough, what I didn’t realize when I submitted the story to this anthology, was that they were particularly looking for stories that had been previously rejected by other markets. I don’t know how I missed that, but I did. This was actually the first place I’d submitted the story, and it was accepted. Oops!

The editors liked it, but wanted me to rewrite the ending to some extent. They gave very clear suggestions, but my first reaction was panic—they wanted it done over the weekend! At first I honestly didn’t know how to tackle it. But after some calming breaths and a hot drink, I got to work, and the editors were happy with the result.

Where I live, there’s talk from time to time of building a launch base for boosting things up into orbit—apparently our geographical location makes it a prime spot for this. It has never materialized (and I somehow doubt that it will, although I would love to be wrong about that), but I did start thinking…what might it look like here in a hundred years or so, if such a thing were built? The result was Cape City, a spaceport town. The other big idea in this story came from—spam! The subject line of a spam email made me imagine a drug called Level…and once again, two ideas clicked and decided they needed to be together.

I followed him to the door and he headed into the street. I watched him through the window, weaving his way through the folks milling around the spaceport, a few going to or from jobs, more just wandering—the street vendors, the homeless, the dealers and the Levelers.

One of those was sprawled in the doorway of Kugar’s video shop across the walklane, and I could tell the way he just stared, not moving, not blinking, that he was Leveled ‘way up. Kugar wouldn’t like that, but if he wanted the Leveler moved, he’d have to pick the guy up and carry him away. Once that white liquid finds its way down their throat or into a vein, they’re living in an alternate reality, and they don’t see, hear, feel or care anything about this one until they come back down.

I sighed and turned away from the window. The joke is that Leveling is the furthest you can get from Earth without actually boarding a ship. If I’d gone off-planet when I’d had the opportunity—well, who knows what would have happened. But chances are I wouldn’t be living in a tiny apartment above my office in a place like Cape City. Even if it was my own office.

“The Ambassador’s Staff” mixes genres, something I’ve realized I really like to do. This one puts a sort of hard-boiled female detective character on the streets of a spaceport town. I’d like to do more with this character as well, and I have a couple of ideas percolating. When she’s ready, I’m sure she’ll tell me how they turn out.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 3: Winter Bewitched

Today I’m thinking about the story, “Winter Bewitched,” another tale in my collection To Unimagined Shores. This one was described by a colleague who critiqued it as a genre noir story in disguise. It’s set in an unusual fantasy setting, but it is a detective story at heart.

In a chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum, I can’t recall whether I saw this piece of fantasy art first and that inspired the characters of the scribe Jalia and her shapechanging companion, Gemmel, or if I had the characters in mind and went looking for a piece of art to help me visualize them. In any case, this is how they exist in my mind (except that Jalia has no magical abilities, though they are depicted here). The art is by Kay Allen, a wonderful artist who had a gallery at for many years but who seems to have disappeared from there. The only place I can find some of her art now is at, and this picture isn’t there, so I’m very grateful that I saved a copy of it for my reference.

I initially wrote this story for a winter-themed anthology (themed anthologies again!), which did not pan out, but it was included in the first Third Person Press anthology, Undercurrents. The original title was slightly different, but one of my editors suggested that perhaps it gave away the end of the story, so I followed her wise advice and changed it. However, now I always have to stop and think to remember which is the actual title.

We were six days out of Salabad when we crossed the sudden border into winter. One moment the air was warm and dry blowing down from the steppes, and then a frigid breeze sprang up, a rime of frost appeared on the trail ahead, and the sky darkened to the colour of yesterday’s gruel.

I reined in the mare to slip my warm Surcyian cloak over my head, and Gemmin scampered ahead. When his paws hit the frost he turned back, a look of unmistakable dismay on his feline face. Three leaps took him from the ground to my shoulder. He kneaded his long toes into the collar of my cloak as a lock of my hair blew over the crown of his head, giving him a comical auburn topknot.

Enchantments, Jalia, he nuzzled into my ear, in a tongue few mortals would have understood. Gemmin was most comfortable conversing in the words he’d taught me, the language of the strange, inaccessible place of his birth.

I nodded. “A witch, a curse, the usual sort of thing,” I told him. “If you can believe tavern tales told by a half-drunk barkeep.” We were still in the steppes, and at least another fortnight’s travel from the higher altitudes where snow might normally be expected.

Jalia wrote it down? Gemmin asked.

“Of course I did. What kind of scribe lets a good tale go to waste? At any rate, a frosty ground means we’ll have to find lodgings for tonight, whether we can afford it or not. I doubt we’re still being pursued. It was only the price of a meal, after all.”

Jalia beckons trouble always, Gemmin chided me, his whiskers and hot breath tickling my ear.

I’d like to write more stories about these characters; their relationship is complex and is a lot of fun to write. Perhaps someday soon one of them will come knocking on my brain with a problem they need to solve…

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from,, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 1

To celebrate the release of my short story collection, To Unimagined Shores, I thought I’d do a series of blog posts about some of the stories in the collection. Where the inspiration for the story came from, or maybe something interesting that happened while I was writing it, or where it was published.

I’m starting with a little story called “The Big Freeze,” since it was one of the stories I read at last night’s launch. It’s also one of my favorites (although as writers, are we supposed to say things like that? I don’t know…but I guess I also don’t care!).

As I look through the table of contents for To Unimagined Shores, I realize that many of the stories I write have a common idea spark: a call for submissions for a themed anthology. I begin pondering ideas to fit the theme, and usually after much mental cogitation come up with a story idea. Now, I don’t always finish writing the story by the anthology deadline, so in many cases I end up sending the story elsewhere. But that’s all right, because the idea spark has served its purpose.

“The Big Freeze” is one of those stories. It was published in Australia’s Semaphore Magazine last year, but I initially wrote it years ago, in response to an anthology call. The idea of the anthology was that all of the stories should be based around a saying about “Hell”–going to Hell in a handbasket, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, etc. I started thinking about “when Hell freezes over”–what might cause such a thing to happen? How would the denizens of Hell react? And what would be the repercussions on Earth?

Here’s a little snippet from “The Big Freeze”:

“Is it getting…chilly in here?”

Beelzebub, the Devil, the Prince of Hell, (or Lord B., as he preferred his most intimate minions to call him) shifted uneasily on the polished red marble of his throne and stroked the tips of his horns. There was no doubt about it. They felt decidedly and unnaturally cool.

He’d been thinking it for some time, but now that he’d finally spoken the words, they hung hesitantly in the sulphurous air like lost souls unsure if they were in the right place. Imps ranged at humming computer terminals around the perennially smouldering room looked up, then glanced at each other. One rubbed his scaly hands together.

“You know,” he chittered slowly, “now that you mention it, my mouse hand’s gone a little cold.”

Another imp nodded. “And my tail. I thought I was getting a chill in my tail, and now I’m sure of it.”

“Right.” Lord B. straightened on his throne and bellowed, “Mr. Snizzle! Get in here!”

A slight, harried-looking demon entered the room at a trot. A pair of tortoiseshell spectacles perched on his nose, and he wore an unexpectedly conservative waistcoat tailored in tasteful ebony silk. “Yes, Lord B.?”

“Mr. Snizzle, run a diagnostic on the temperature controls. This room is falling below acceptable heat standards. Even the imps have noticed it.”

Mr. Snizzle, Lord B.’s administrative assistant, was well-versed in interpreting the subtleties of his employer’s speech. After several centuries in his current position without a vacation, that was hardly surprising. The relative politeness of the Devil’s request worried him. He nodded briskly and hurried back to his own computer to run the heat diagnostics…

As you might guess, “The Big Freeze” is meant to be a fun story—and it got some laughs at last night’s reading. I also read it for an audience in Second Life a while back.

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from

To Unimagined Shores launches December 6th

I’m just going to quote the Press Release here (which I did NOT write, by the way, because it would have been much briefer and more modest had I done so. That’s why one of my editors/publishers wrote it. :) )

Third Person Press announces the release of its third book, “To Unimagined Shores,” a collection of speculative fiction stories by Northside native, Sherry D. Ramsey.

Sixteen stories were previously chosen for publication in an impressive array of international magazines, collections and anthologies including On Spec, Simulacrum, Fantasy Magazine, The Day the Men Went to Town (Breton Books), Michael Stackpole’s The Chain Story Project, Gateway S-F, Neo-opsis and others. The seventeenth is a bonus story, never before published.

The collection is divided into three parts. Part One, Science Fictional Shores, includes seven stories about such intriguing topics as a road trip with a hitch-hiking alien, stolen embryos on a colonized planet, and inter-planetary intrigue involving a savvy Spaceport detective. The second section, Fantastic Shores, contains six fantasy-based stories on such deliciously intriguing subjects as a Victorian time machine, climate change in Hell, and a daughter’s redemption with the help of an unconventional angel. The last section, Magical Shores, boasts four stories which revolve around one main character: a young female apprentice to a crotchety but wise old wizard. The stories are by turns funny, tragic, light-hearted, serious but are always adventurous and unusual. Mark Rayner, author of The Amadeus Net and Marvellous Hairy, writes: “Sherry D. Ramsey’s short stories are filled with vibrant characters, good writing, and thrum with humanity, even when there aren’t many actual humans in the story.”

Ramsey, a former lawyer, is a full-time writer whose unpublished novel, “One’s Aspect to the Sun,” won second place in the 28th Annual Atlantic Writing Competition’s novel category, the H.R. (Bill) Percy Prize. She participates in the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia Writers-in-the-Schools program, and serves on the boards of The Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia, SF Canada and the Northside Victoria CBDC. She has been editor-in-chief and publisher of the award-winning online writer’s resource, The Scriptorium, for a over dozen years and is one of three founders of Third Person Press, local publishers of speculative fiction.

A book launch will be held Tuesday, December 6, 2011 from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Wilfred Oram Centennial Library, Commercial Street, North Sydney. Refreshments will be served, and the author will read from the collection and be available to sign books. The book can be purchased at the launch or anytime from Third Person Press at in both print or e-book formats, as well as through other online book sellers.
So, what more can I say? I’m very excited and pleased about this volume, which is a pretty good representation of my short fiction published over the past fifteen years. Come to the launch if you can! I’d love to see you there. :)

15k Short Fiction Writing Challenge

Back in January, I threw out a challenge to my Quillian colleagues: write 15k words of new short fiction by the end of June. It could break down any way at all–one 15k story, three 5k stories, fifteen 1k flash stories–any combination was acceptable. The only stipulation was that they had to be new words (revising old stories would not count) and it had to be short fiction (not work on novel-length projects).

I came up with this challenge for a couple of reasons. Although we hear a lot about the “death” of short fiction, I think there’s a lot of life in the form yet. Newer writers can finish short stories much more easily and quickly than long projects, which in turn provides something to edit, workshop, and get feedback on. Short stories provide a great introduction to one’s writing and can be offered freely on websites or sold as .99 ebooks as promotional material.

Still, a lot of writers feel they aren’t doing “real” work unless they’re writing novels. Perhaps this is in part that some writers don’t particularly care to read short stories, either. For myself, I really enjoy short fiction, so maybe I’m just partial to it.

At any rate, I threw out the challenge. I think the first to reach the mark was fellow Quillian Chuck Heintzelman who, unknown to me, had already set himself a short fiction writing goal for the year: 50 new short stories. Whoa. I was blown away by the audacity of that goal, secretly struggling as I was with the question of how many new short stories I should challenge myself to write in the year–3, or 5? I felt suitably dismayed, and secretly promised myself to write 5, although that is strictly off the record, you hear? So far I’ve finished one and have three others in various stages of completion. But I still have six months!

Ahem. So anyway, Chuck hit the 15k in short order (and is still writing, of course; you can find a lot of his stories on his website. And you should!) I’ve been trundling along, and yesterday, I hit the goal! Which is good, because, you know, it would have been pretty sad if I’d been the one to throw out the challenge and then proceeded to fail.

I’ll be polling other members of the group at the next couple of meetings to see how they’re doing, and encourage them along to the finish line. At the end of June, I’ll post links for the other challenge-meeters here.

Photo: me. It’s the magnetic poetry on the side of my fridge. And I think the ‘beautiful spine’ poem is by my daughter.

The Chain Story

A while back, I wrote here about The Chain Story Project, Michael A. Stackpole’s ongoing online anthology. Today my own story in the chain, “The Longest Distance,” went live.

You can reach it from the main project page at, or since you’re already here, from the link in the right-hand sidebar. :)

It’s been an interesting process and fun to participate. It helped me finish a ten-year-old story, and creating the “cover” artwork was cool. And much, much easier (and faster!) than writing the story itself!