Quotidian Writer Episode 1: Starting New Writing Projects

Diane Callahan
12 min readFeb 13, 2024

This is the transcript of my Q&A writing advice podcast, Quotidian Writer, which can be found on Spotify, YouTube, and other platforms.

Hi there! I’m Diane Callahan, fiction editor, YouTuber, arts marketer, and writer of all the things. I’ll be answering questions from writers and giving my two cents based on my personal experiences. For this first episode, I’ll be talking about starting new writing projects — a very appropriate beginning because this podcast is a new project for me, branching off from my YouTube channel, Quotidian Writer.

I asked some of my friends and critique partners to submit questions for this first episode. I hope you find this useful and inspiring in some way. Let’s dive right in!

Question 1: What’s the most engaging way to start a story?

I always recommend opening with something that makes the reader ask a question. So, if you’re gonna open with a dead body, it naturally sparks the question of “Who died and why?” and what exactly happened. But it doesn’t need to be this big, violent conflict. Say you have two neighbor kids arguing about who gets to keep an abandoned puppy they found, and then the reader’s going to wonder what’ll happen — who’ll get the puppy in the end, and how will one of them convince the other that they deserve the puppy more? It’s more about the question of “How will that conflict be resolved?”

And this isn’t just about the first line; it’s about that first opening scene as a whole. I specifically remember really loving the opening chapter of A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. It’s a fantasy novel, and the opening goes like this: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.”

I just had the biggest smile on my face when I read this opening chapter because I immediately felt welcomed in as a reader. It gives off this fun and fantastical tone right away. It goes on to talk about how each side of this coat serves a different purpose, and it lets the character move between worlds, these different versions of London. So, this opening chapter is about Kell delivering a message to a king between worlds.

And there are also all these memorable little details in the first chapter. It’s said that the magic of Red London smells like flowers — for some it’s roses or tulips. But Kell can’t smell it because he’s from there, and there’s this line that goes, “He could smell Grey London (smoke) and White London (blood), but to him, Red London simply smelled like home.” To me, this is just a killer detail that’s just enough of a tease about what those other places are like. It makes me ask, “Oh, what’s going in Grey London and White London?” And it makes me look forward to seeing all these different worlds. You get world-building and characterization at the same time.

So, essentially, if you can make the reader feel curious, they’ll keep turning pages.

Question 2: I am a pantser, for the most part, but I recognize the need to stick to specific word counts for submission calls. Do you have any advice on how to help me “budget” my words from the get-go?

This is an important question because when we think about starting new projects, sometimes we think in terms of plotting or outlining, so that kind of leaves pantsers without much concrete writing advice. And for those who don’t know, pantsers are writers who “write by the seat of their pants” and don’t really plan ahead.

But I do think there’s a happy medium, where a pantser can write with an ending in mind and maybe two or three specific plot beats for a short story. Doesn’t need to be super detailed at all, but knowing “Okay, here are the three major things that happen, and each of them needs to happen within 1,000-word chunks.” So those three things can serve as goal-markers for what you’re writing toward, and that will help make sure the story doesn’t balloon out of proportion. Because I do see that happen all the time, and I’ve done it, too, where a short story becomes a novella, which becomes a novel, which becomes a series — and it’s a whole thing. For me, it’s because I’m writing without an endpoint in mind, which means the story is going to just keep going off on tangents as I throw more and more stuff into it because I’m thinking, “That would be cool!” and “Don’t I need another character here?”

So, knowing the ending and big plot beats at a high, high level is one method for keeping your story small. The other is just to write and then cut later. This can actually be a faster process for some writers than trying to contain the story while they’re writing, especially because in my experience, pantsers are paradoxically faster writers and plotters are slower. That’s not universally true, but sometimes the story feels more natural if you just get it all out, because otherwise what ends up happening is that the ending is rushed or unsatisfying as you start getting frantic about how horrifyingly gigantic the word count has grown.

You can just let the story be the size it wants to be, and you might end up cutting the first, you know, five pages because it’s all throat-clearing, as they call it, where you’re getting to know the style and characters, but then it ends up being unnecessary for the narrative.

I actually find trimming down stories to be pretty enjoyable because it feels like cleaning out the fridge, throwing the expired stuff away. When I’m over a word-count requirement for a short story, it usually takes me three passes at least — with my mind solely focused on deleting things and shortening things — to get it down to that right length. It helps to take at least a day or two between edits because you’ll always find more you can cut.

And some people will say that stories will be a pain to edit if you write them without considering the word count — and that’s absolutely true. But in a way, you’re just moving the time and energy you would’ve spent plotting and outlining to a later point in the process.

Question 3: I’m testing out some different flash fiction ideas related to AI and all the ways that it can go wrong. How do I go from “this would be a really weird scenario” to an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end? Are there some common structures, genre conventions, or obligatory scenes that I can reach for in structuring a piece of action or thriller flash fiction like this?

So, here’s more of a plotting/structure question, and it ties nicely to the previous one, actually. If we’re talking about flash fiction, that’s a story that’s usually under 1,000 words, which means you don’t have much room to deliver something impactful. The ending of a flash story really makes or breaks it, even more so than in a short story or novel, because there’s so much weight given to that final moment. You don’t get pages and pages to build up emotion and have these motifs or themes or character growth. You get a page or two to make the reader feel something.

Literary flash fiction is often more about the language, the emotion, the imagery, less about plot. In more “genre” flash — fantasy, sci-fi, horror, mystery — I’d say those stories usually end on a twist or some type of character-revealing observation. With an AI-related premise, I feel like the twist is either the AI outsmarts or surprises the human, or the human has some quality the AI can’t replicate. With sci-fi in particular, it’s important to know what the story is trying to say about technology or the future, and that comes through in whatever ending you choose.

And I think if you’re combining sci-fi with thriller or action, that’s going to change the tone of your ending. Thrillers tend to have darker endings, where things go wrong. But action stories often have more triumphant endings — you know, the humans win, or the character makes a sacrifice, but they survive in the end, whatever that survival means in the context of the story. And obviously there are differences in the tone of the writing, with thrillers being about the build-up of tension and a foreboding atmosphere, but then action stories are more fast-paced with characters who tend to have strong, reactive goals — they’re fighting a bad guy, they’re going on a quest, they’re confronting somebody in a conversation.

The question-asker mentioned genre conventions and obligatory scenes, and I think that’s a great way to approach writing in a genre that’s new for you. And of course the best way to learn about those genre conventions is to go out and read a lot of flash fiction in the genre you want to write in, and I know this writer has already read tons of good stuff in magazines like Daily Science Fiction.

With the twist ending approach, a good example I came across recently was this flash fiction piece on this website called Sci-Fi Shorts. The story was “Time Travel Paradox” by Rod Castor, and it was about this scientist who was going on the world’s first time-travel trip. She plans to go into a future where she’s already dead, to avoid the time travel paradoxes. But the twist at the end — spoiler alert — is that she ends up inside her own casket, with a plaque that has her name on it. So, the assumption is that this is how she ends up dying, which is ironic, kind of toying with the idea of the unintended consequences of time travel.

When you’re thinking about that type of flash fiction, one general structure you can use is to open with conflict or the anticipation of action. In that story, the scientist is being interviewed at a news conference as she’s about to time travel for the first time. So that’s creating anticipation for her to actually travel. After that initial anticipation, then the character makes a choice. The time traveler successfully travels into the future. That’s followed by the resolution, the outcome of that choice, with some type of unexpected turn or detail. The time traveler ends up in a pitch-dark space, and they turn on their flashlight to see a plaque that reads, “In loving memory,” with their own name beneath it.

Question 4: Sometimes a new project is just a second start on one you’ve already begun. Any advice on how to approach returning to an old project that you’ve stepped away from for a while?

I love this question because it’s so true. This has happened to me a lot in my own writing, where I have these stories I started four years ago, but then I feel inspired for whatever reason and I drag it out of my trunk and dust it off and convince myself I’ll definitely finish it this time. For me, rereading the story from the top always sparks my appreciation for it again. It reminds me what the story was about and what I was trying to do with it and really inspires me to pick up that thread again.

Now, that’s not always feasible when you’ve got a novel you’re returning to, which I’ve also done too many times. You don’t want to spend all this time reading and revising like 50,000 words when you want to be writing new words. In that case, I think it can help to talk to someone about the story — to summarize it for them. That refreshes your memory, and it hypes you up about it; it gets you interested in it again. You’re like being your story’s wingman. You can talk to a critique partner, or a friend or family member who’s willing to listen.

There are also writing coaches out there that you can hire; it’s a paid service a lot of editors offer. I offered that to my clients and gave them notes. I’m not taking new clients right now, but I do love writing coaching. All the writers I’ve done it with have found it super helpful. I’ve also worked with a few writing coaches on my own novel, and the best part about it is one, the validation, and two, the thoughtful questions that force you to expand and clarify your ideas. You get to rant about your problems, and then the coach or editor will be like, “What makes the main character do this now instead of earlier or later?” And it puts you on the spot in a really good way, and you have to problem-solve your way out of that predicament.

Talking about the story and the problems you’re facing with it can really put you in the mindset to sit and write your way through those problems.

Question 5: When you start a project, where do you start? Voice? Characters? Plot? Theme? Something else? Why does that work best for you?

I feel like I always start with a premise, some type of enticing hook that raises eyebrows. I don’t usually know who the characters are beyond their roles, or where the story will go from there, or how the problem will be resolved. That takes a lot more mental energy for me.

To be honest, I don’t know that this premise-first approach works best for me, but it’s just how my mind works naturally, so I’m kind of stuck with it. It took me a long time to turn ideas into narratives, to shape a premise into a plot, usually because I didn’t know where the story was going or why it was even going there.

There’s this famous E.M. Forster quote that goes something like “‘The king died and then the queen’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” The difference there being causality. A story is just a sequence of interesting events, but plot has a chain of events that show cause and effect.

People argue about that quote all the time, but to me, it’s helpful to remember that distinction between story and plot because sometimes I tend to have a sequence of interesting events that don’t necessarily build toward anything larger. There’s a lot of causation, with a domino effect of one event leading to the next, but the payoff — the “so what” — isn’t quite there.

But I’ll tell you how my most recent short story came to be. It’s a contemporary story, around 4,000 words, and it’s probably the fastest I’ve ever gone from idea to full draft for any story, basically within the span of a week. I’d just watched the Taylor Swift Eras Tour documentary — don’t judge me! I do like Taylor Swift, but I’m not big enough of a fan to shell out half my paycheck to actually see the concert. But watching all those superfans with tears streaming down their faces and all this emotion, I really wondered how much a true Swiftie would pay to touch Taylor Swift, to even just put a hand on her arm for a minute.

And that was the story seed I started with, where people are paying big bucks and waiting in line in the freezing cold to touch a musician with Taylor Swift-level fame.

From there, I came up with the characters and some of the “world-building” details about how the whole touch-a-celebrity process worked. I didn’t want to start writing it, though, until I knew what I wanted the story to be about thematically, including my ending — especially my ending, because I really struggle to deliver good payoffs sometimes. I talked it through with one of my critique partners, and I figured out exactly where I wanted the story to go. And even though there’s this what-if type of celebrity premise, the story is really about two sisters and body image and social class.

Beyond premise, I also tend to start stories based on a particular narrative approach or writing style I want to try, like a story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator or a story that focuses heavily on the setting. I use that as a style constraint to give the piece a particular vibe, to bring out a specific flavor. The short story I mentioned is told through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old girl, and the predominant energy is insecurity and self-consciousness, and I wanted that to come through on every page.

I’m getting past my 15-minute mark, so that’s a wrap! You can find the full transcript of this episode on Medium, and I collect questions for my upcoming podcasts on my YouTube community page. If you want to support this podcast, you can buy me a coffee on Ko-fi at ko-fi.com/quotidianwriter. Feel free to check out my videos, articles, and publications on my website at quotidianwriter.com.

Whatever you do, keep writing.