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Archive for November, 2009

I read a lot about other writers (published or no), agents, musicians, and movie directors. I’m curious to hear from creative people, and those in creative industries, about what makes a good story. It gives me a chance to connect with others when I see that I’m doing something similar. I love to absorb any knowledge from people who are successful in their particular field.

Invariably, the question comes up: “Where do you get your ideas from?” And equally consistent, the response is a drawn out version of “I’m not really sure.” I find this fascinating because that’s exactly how I feel.

Perhaps they peer at us through the looking glass, leap out of the wardrobe, or maybe they come to us from the second star on the right, having traveled straight on till morning.

I used to use a really bad simile to answer this among my writing friends. “It’s like I’m trying to catch invisible butterflies in a net with gaping holes in it. I know they are fluttering around me and only through blind flailing and luck will I capture something.”

Awful, yes, but it still felt like it answered the question for me. I know there are ideas all around me. And if I flail about at the keyboard long enough—and have a bit of luck—I will catch an idea worthy of sharing with others. That said, I do have a few moderately reliable exercises that I use. Here’s a short list of how I (try to) find my story ideas.

  • Brainstorming or “How I tuned out the world and let my mind wander” – Sometimes you just need to stare into space and think. I’ve missed lectures, sermons, and television shows because I let my mind wander a little. But sometimes, I just fall asleep.
  • Names Without Characters – One of my structured brainstorming activities. It’s as simple as trying to find an interesting character name, such as Filo McTavert or Meredith Snow, from which an idea will spring to life. Sometimes, I might want something a little more focused, like a Western character or hostile alien. Now, I don’t really have any ideas for a Western or Sci-Fi story, but I might start to feel the tickle of an idea when the name Old Bart MacIntosh or Kreslohk Temuk suddenly appears on the screen. I have long lists of names, many of them unusable and awful, but every once in awhile, I’ll check a list and find something inspiring.
  • Titles Without Stories – My other structured brainstorming activity. Much like my character exercise, I start writing down titles that I might find intriguing as a reader. They might be as bad as “The Johnny and the Amazing Coconut”, or they might drive a hundred hours of writing as did “The Demon and Mrs. Chang”, which sat on my list for over ten years.
  • Sudden inspiration – Both wonderfully satisfying and horribly frustrating. Completely unreliable. It’s like getting the perfect surprise gift for Christmas, except it doesn’t fall on the same day and it might not happen every year. It’s like staring at a patch of sky where I once saw a shooting star and hoping to see another (it was probably an airplane anyway). But sometimes, I get that X-wing fighter toy or a Leonid meteor shower.
  • Stuff I see (I might need to brainstorm a better name for this one) – It’s as simple as seeing the mundane and thinking differently about it. What if my loveseat finally came to life? or What if I look under this rock and see a deep pit with tongues of flame near the bottom? or What if a person’s unusual name were deadly to others?
  • Dreams – They show us the vast capacity our minds have for imagination. I sometimes try to plant the seeds of an idea as I fall asleep, though I want to vomit when I hear the phrase “dream journal”. I did briefly keep one. For about a week. I’m not a morning person and it became a chore. Regardless, there are few things as inspiring as a delicious nightmare that raises the hairs on your neck as you try to tame it to the page.
  • The Idea File – Most of the ideas get stored here in a number of different documents. I don’t open them often enough, but when I do, it’s sometimes like going into your closet as a child and finding that amazing toy you forgot you owned.

Did I say short list? Well, I just used my brainstorming exercise, and look what happened. But that’s the beauty of having reliable exercises. Suddenly, there’s that rush of adrenaline that fuels the furious typing of my fingers. There’s the feeling that something wonderful is about to happen. Time slows down as the words begin to appear on the screen, giving me a chance to get everything out of my brain.

And sometimes, nothing happens.

I’ve written stories, long and short. For some, I know exactly where the idea originated, but often I don’t. The idea wasn’t there, then it was.

Where do story ideas come from? I really don’t know. To be honest, I’m glad I don’t. It’s much more fun.

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I discovered flash fiction over the summer. Seemed like the perfect way to churn out quick little stories that I didn’t want to flesh out further. I’m fan of O. Henry and fairy tales, both of which are often very short. For me, sometimes there wasn’t much story to tell, and that was fine. And with a word count of 500 to 1000 words, it should be no problem cranking something out in less than an hour, especially for someone who’s been typing for more than half his life and finds himself bursting with ideas.

So, oh yes, it was very easy to type quick stories: 1200 words, 2500 words, 5000 words! How in the hashtag was I going to edit down stories of those lengths? Well, for the longer ones, I couldn’t. They would sit, untouched, until I had the time to flesh them out into longer short stories (the 5000-word one has now doubled in length).

But the 1200-worder posed a delightful challenge. I just needed to trim my story by 17%. That’s probably about what I should be looking to do with my writing anyways. In a story of this length, that was about two paragraphs. I reread the story, looking for a section to cut. And read it again. And again. I was stuck.

Every paragraph seemed to drive the narrative forward. Every detail seemed critical. After all, why would I put in anything that wasn’t essential, especially when word count was a key consideration? I felt like I had laid a path with paving stones and was now trying to determine which ones to remove. At first glance, it seemed my smooth story would soon be filled with potholes.

All right. I’ll nickel and dime the heck out of it and see what that gets me.

Over the weekend, I searched for “was”, which really helped eliminate some of that pesky passive voice. I’m generally hyper-aware of passivity in my fiction, but I was still able to rewrite about six instances (I’m aware I just used “was” here!). 

Hearkening back to one of my English teachers, I removed “that” when it made sense. Another five or six words.

I eliminated my character’s last name. An unimportant detail in such a short piece, right? Three words.

Did I need to describe trees as “green” or old clothing as both “threadbare” and “tattered” or other rich adjectivenessness? Another dozen words.

I did the math. After one pass, I’d only cut about 50 words. Hoo boy. I did another pass, looking for additional extra adjectives (I like multiple descriptions: the shirt was bloodstained and torn; the sword was sharp, long, and cold; and other better examples). After all, this was a piece that needed to move quickly and lots of description would slow it down. Another 40 or so words. Edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite. Another 50-some.

This morning I still had 54 words to go. I thought I was going to have to remove one of my paving stones. There was just no way to force out any more words. I was starting to wonder if I was wasting my time: I’d spent more time editing this thing than I’d spent writing it. Maybe I should just replace the words I’d removed and add more detail to make it a short story.

But I realized something interesting. Stepping away from the story, even for just a day, gave me back some objectivity. Suddenly, unnecessary words leapt from the page like they were printed in the Arial Bold font. I rewrote a little more: 40 words remaining, then 34, then 11.

Suddenly, I was at exactly 1000 words. Done.

More importantly, this work had really given me a chance to work on my editing skills. Sure, in longer stories I had more flexibility in terms of word count, but…just because I have the space, it doesn’t mean I have to always use it. Sometimes, less is more.

So, I will continue to write flash fiction, not only because I enjoy it, but because it is a useful exercise to help me tighten up my writing. Another tool in the toolbox, so to speak.

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Imagine: Google library

Imagine: You have access to a library that allows you to read any book ever written. Or, you can browse the text of millions of books for a particular phrase or subject.  You don’t even have to leave your home.

I hope that’s what Google or someone else eventually offers us. My preference would be a public, international library system, but I think you’re more likely to find the motivation in the private sector.

Certainly, there have been many people against Google’s idea—more around publishing terms than anything else, I expect. I don’t see that Google is doing something different than what a traditional library does, and I imagine that if a library system had made a similar proposal to Google’s, people who make their living in the book industry would have had similar concerns.  

As they should.

From a business point-of-view, a major difference between electronic and physical books is the increased potential for copying and distributing a text without paying for it. This creates a very real danger when combined with the ease at which data can be shared with millions of people across the internet. As we have seen in the music industry, illegal sharing equals fewer dollars in everyone’s pockets.

Having worked in the music industry for the last five years, I’ve seen what can happen when people start to believe your product is overpriced. Or that it should be free. To complicate things, the rise of the digital single also drained album sales.  Whereas the book industry might suffer from illegal copying, at least it can rest assured that no one is going to pay a fraction of the book’s price because they only want a particular chapter.

Is a massive online library good for the world? Absolutely. Is it good for anyone who makes a living from the creation and sale of books? It could be. We just need to ensure those people critical to the book-writing process can still make a living do it.

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I’ve always loved spelling, partially because it came naturally to me. Additionally, I didn’t like how misspelled words made my writing appear–even in elementary school this bothered me.  Twenty-some years later, I still see gut-wrenching typos every day, even with the invention of spellcheck.

But I’m not talking about typos. I know typos have been a part of our lives since the first keystrokes of the typewriter, and things are more complicated with the arrival of many other devices that use a keyboard: in our house we have computers, phones, Xbox, and Wii. Seems like everyone has to do a bit of typing every day. No, typos can generally be caught if someone takes the time to proofread (saying this will ensure I have a typo somewhere in this post). What bugs me nowadays are words that are misspelled because someone didn’t take the time to look up the correct spelling of a word they had not typed before.

Here are some of my faves from this week:

Whore-mungering – I’m not sure what it means to mung a whore. But let’s keep this blog PG-rated.

Roam – Took me a couple rereads to discover this was supposed to be “realm”.

Trantula – Could be a simple typo, but it was spelled this way more than once. Perhaps this is a cross-dressing arachnid.

Writting – Came from a writer. Oy.

Midevil – I shouldn’t count this one because tons of people misspell it. It makes me laugh thinking about something mid-way between “a little evil” and “really evil”.

Madding – Another softball. Made me wonder if it was a Thomas Hardy reference. Probably not.

Now I must furiously review my own writing to ensure I do not end up on a similar list from someone else!

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Five-minute poem #amwriting

For love, a man does foolish things

He stands before the wrath of kings

He shakes the hand the Devil brings

Stands stoic as the Siren sings

For love, a man does foolish things.

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A weekend to write…

…but it wasn’t. I shouldn’t have planned it, since I knew I’d be watching the kids much of Sat, and we had family plans Sun. I hoped to get something done, nevertheless. I really didn’t. Just couldn’t get the writing started with the distractions, fun though they were. I’m sure many writers have had the itch to get typing and felt the frustration when it doesn’t happen. I had a bit of that.

I decided to work on my WordPress pages instead. The whole point of setting up the WP account was to have a place to send people when they asked about my writing history and philosophy. And talk about writing and grammar. I’d also been thinking about a page that showed some of my successes, another to show some of the tools I find helpful, and another to perhaps lay out a rough draft or two so people (mostly other writers) could get a glimpse of my process. I’m not saying I think my process is something to emulate–quite the opposite: I think the disorganization level would drive others crazy. But, many of us have taken comfort by seeing how someone does something and then realizing that our own way is better. In turn, I hope that another writer says to me “This is the way I do it differently”, and a dialogue will start. I’ve found that talking about the way I write with other writers helps me take another look at the way I do things. If I find a way to do things a little better, great.

Another page I’m toying with is one that would function as a companion piece to my writing. One that describes my dedication to my work, as well as my willingness to partner with others or take criticism. A manuscript tells a partial story about its author. It doesn’t necessarily convey that person’s personality or work ethic. I plan to write several books and I feel my flexible attitude and willingness to work hard will make my work an easier sell. We’ll see.

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Blog, again

I almost didn’t start this blog. This is the third one I’ve attempted, and the previous two died slowly, alone and abandoned. It takes a lot of work to maintain a blog, and eventually, I decided that if I was going to spend hours at the keyboard, then I was going to do it writing stories. I also considered each sentence a block of wood that I needed to carve with a fine blade until the image within appeared, which meant it took far too long to write anything. I could no longer wait endless hours for the sweet whispers of Lady Inspiration. Looking back, it seems there was a thought lingering in my mind, telling me I only had so many words in me and I was wasting them if they were not used in storytelling.

Yet, here I am, dedicating time, energy, and words to something that is not, on the surface of it, storytelling. Like so many other writers have discovered, I have finally realized that the more I write, the more I write. I understand that all the writing I do is like sharpening the aforementioned sentence-carving blade. I had heard that before—I just didn’t understand it.

And perhaps I have something to say this time. About writing, about grammar, and about storytelling. I’m not necessarily more qualified than anyone else in the world, and less so than many. But this burning desire to learn more about each guides me like a blazing torch through the darkness. I consume information from writers and lit agents and grammarians and musicians and artists and anyone else who has something to say about the love of their craft. Incorporating this information into what I already know allows me to see things from another point-of-view, meaning that I am evolving as I go. Perhaps, I will find knowledge that I can then share.

At the heart of the work I do here, I’m interested in discovering something about my own writing. I’m expecting a catharsis. Its herald is Inspiration, and she is already here.

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