Stranger Than Fiction

I may have rambled on the topic of research for fantasy (why I do it) before on this blog, but I’m gonna do it again anyway.  My favorite reason to research for fantasy is that I couldn’t possibly make up anything crazier than the things that have happened in the real world throughout its multitude of cultures and time periods.

I set out to do some research about the history of immunization yesterday, for example, and ran across this article on theriac, a “cure-all” used in ancient Greece.  Scroll down to that insane list of ingredients!!  I couldn’t make anything up weirder than that.  Turpentine, viper venom, opium, and…carrots and black pepper?  Wait a minute, the first three are weird enough, but then to combine them with something as normal as carrots and black pepper is just…over the top.  And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that went into this substance – there were 64 ingredients.

It isn’t that I’ll necessarily use this particular tidbit of information.  It’s that I run across so many odd little scraps and details, and all of it rattles around in my head (sort of like the 64 ingredients of theriac) and shifts and combines and ignites into something new, and that’s how I get a lot of my inspiration.

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Friday Exercise – Wish List

Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book).  If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use.  For example:

  1. three friends as the central characters
  2. lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
  3. scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
  4. adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
  5. a dog

And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.

Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story.  List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with.  Fill in the details.  You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre?  Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different?  How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before?  You want an exotic setting.  Otherworld or real-world exotic?  If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research.  If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?

The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

Friday Exercise – The Tool of Music

I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before that what music I listen to can really color the tone of what I’m working on – and so while I’m actively writing, I pick my music very carefully, or don’t listen to any at all.  It gets to be sort of Pavlovian, too – a certain song or type of music will become associated with what I’m working on, and anytime I hear it, I’m in Writer Mode all of a sudden, ready to dig straight in.

I like picking out “soundtracks” – Hey, this song would be perfect for that scene where so-and-so happens, if they ever make a movie of my book!  And sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene from listening to a song and daydreaming – I’ll start to picture action or dialogue that fits somehow with the music, or some emotion will well up in the piece that makes me realize some new level of what one of my characters might feel at a given point in the story.

For me, music is a great brainstorming tool at any point in my writing process, from the initial spark of, “Ooh, I have an idea for a story!” to “OMG!!!  I KNOW HOW IT ENDS!!!!!!”

So this week’s exercise is this:  Listen to a song/piece that takes you someplace, through emotion or connotation or whatever, and explore it.  Daydream or free write, whatever works best for you.  What could it mean to one of your characters?  If there are lyrics, would they become ironic in association with your imagined scene, or no?  Does the emotion of the music reflect a particular character’s attitude, or the story as a whole?  Are there multiple layers of feeling expressed – upbeat tempo but lots of minor to the melody?  Where there’s dissonance and resolution, what does that speak to in the story – again, is that how one character feels in the scene, or is that a clash between characters?  Maybe this works best for musicians – I play guitar, myself – but I would think it would work for any writer who likes music!

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Friday Exercise – We’re All Mad Here

I’ve had a series of interesting discussions (based around quantum mechanics) this week which have touched on the orderly/chaotic nature of the universe, the nature of consciousness and/or linear time, probability and the multiverse, and, well, to be Douglas Adams about it, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

This in itself is good fuel for the fiction fire, especially if you lean toward speculative fiction (as I do).  Gets the gears of imagination turning (yes, I know I just mixed metaphors, but it was in two separate sentences and this is an informal blog post, not high literature, okay?) and sparks all kinds of ideas (maybe the gears of imagination have little metal shavings rattling around which are fire hazards, which would make all three of the metaphors I’ve now mixed in these two sentences tie together into one cohesive and acceptable metaphor).

Anyway, there is plenty of inspiration to be had from reading/discussing quantum theory, but even without getting into the complex and confusing scientific end of things, I love a good long look at different perceptions of reality.  Are events random and coincidences meaningless, or are they shaped somehow?  If they’re shaped, what shapes them?  A divine being, a sub-cellular connection of some sort, the influence of a conscious universe trying to work through an identity crisis?  Is there predestiny?  Is it easy to alter the course of events, with one tiny decision changing the whole world through a ripple effect?  Or does reality re-align itself, pulling in other little coincidences to re-stablize what was thrown off?

For that matter, concepts as simple as pessimism and optimism are realities that we live in or fight against.  In the same world, we have people who function from a reality in which all good things are possible with a little kindness and effort, and others who function from a reality in which all things have an ulterior motive and the best you can hope for is to avoid falling into traps by being naive about how devious the world in general really is.  Sounds like two different worlds entirely – and yet, it’s just two different perceptions of the same thing.  And neither is entirely right nor entirely wrong.

So with all this kind of thing in mind, pick two viewpoints on reality which, at least on the surface, completely contradict each other.  Now, assume that both these viewpoints are entirely correct, and that they’re both entirely incorrect.  Free write about it, just mulling it over to yourself.  Or if characters come to you – one conflicted character who is faltering between these two viewpoints, or has a simultaneous belief in both; two characters at odds with each other because they have opposing viewpoints, or two characters who have opposing perspectives but still get along, balancing each other – then give your characters a scene to play out.  Or if it gives you an idea for an entire plot, start writing it and let this clash of ideas be the theme behind the story.