Friday Exercise – Pantheon

I feel like throwing out a purely-for-fun exercise today.  Maybe someone will get something out of it (maybe I will), or maybe it’ll just be fun.  Fun is never a bad thing, though, right?

If your main character were a member of some ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses, what would he/she be the god or goddess of?  Which pantheon would he fit best in – Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, or some made-up fusion…?  What symbols would her temple be decorated with?  What animal would represent him?

The character I’m currently working on, I’d probably put in a made-up pantheon, and he’d be a minor trickster god of luck, brotherhood, and woodlands.  A god you want to stay on the good side of, as he thinks he’s exceedingly funny when he’s bringing down bad luck on someone.  I’m calling the birch tree and the otter as his sacred symbol and animal representative, respectively.  Why an otter?  They’re clever, slick, deceptively charming, and adaptable.  That’s why!

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Friday Exercise – Nightmare

The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade.  Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character.  Yes, you read that right.  I cut the main character.  The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist.  She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.

Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit.  See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both.  And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying.  No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons.  Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly.  Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.

I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise.  I’m just verbose today.  Or loquacious.  Either word is a good one.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability.  NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces.  This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.

The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years.  And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had.  I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character).  The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.

So the exercise, finally, is this:  Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist.  Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them).  Just see what comes out of it.  Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare.  What underlying fears does this expose?  Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)?  What do the other people in the dream represent to your character?  The places?  What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc?  Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?

Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

10 Ideas About Ideas

10 ways to come up with ideas for stories (when you aren’t feeling inspired):

1.  Writing exercises.  There are many excellent books and websites full of them.  Keep some on hand!

2.  Listen to the conversations of strangers.  People say some crazy stuff!  Even when they say “normal” stuff, it’s interesting sometimes to “pretend” more about them than you actually know – basing it off of the way one talks to the other and vice versa.  Are they relatives, friends, co-workers, romantically involved…?  Make up a context for their dialogue, imagine a conflict or dilemma they could be facing.

3.  Research something.  Have you always been interested in learning more about the RAF’s role in WWII?  Or the history of the police force in your city?  Or the new developments in neuroscience?  Or how a bourbon distillery works?  What a day in the life of a timber wolf entails?  Read up on it.  Go on a tour appropriate to your subject.  Check out websites and forums.  Learn how to do something new.  You never know what new information will spark an idea for a story or a character.  Museums of all kinds can be stellar places to find unexpected inspiration.

4.  Brainstorm with another writer (or two, or three).  Just throw ideas out, have fun, and write down notes when anything exciting comes up.

5.  Think of things that bug you in movies and books – specific types of plot holes, stereotypes, or character inconsistencies…pet peeves you have about how OTHER people write.  Write something better!  Did the movie in question have a great idea for a bad guy, but the storyline left him falling so short of his potential as a character that you wanted to throw the DVD case across the room?  (*cough*  Nothing specific in mind there, noooo….)  Write your own bad-ass, and give him a story he can really shine in.

6.  Read some mythology or fairy tales (not the Disney versions, folks, I’m talking about the old, dark, disturbing stuff here – Hans Christian Andersen and prior).  Public domain plots, themes, and characters you can use to get ideas for your own, original stories.  I’m not saying “write fairy tales”; it’s just interesting to play around with the ideas, and some of the themes are powerful and deep-rooted in the human psyche.

7.  If you have ANY ideas for a story or character you want to start working on, but don’t know where to start, make a list.  10 things you know about your character.  10 things you know about your setting.  10 things you know will happen in your story.

8.  Free write.  Sit down and just start writing whatever you’re thinking, and keep writing without stopping for 10 to 15 minutes.  Stream of consciousness, without worrying about punctuation, spelling, or any kind of correction.  After your time’s up, if there are any phrases or ideas or even word combinations you like, highlight ’em or underline ’em.  Keep free writes together in a folder, and flip through when you’re looking for ideas.

9.  Brainstorm using Tarot cards or I Ching wands.  Facade.com has various types of divination readings available online.  You can use the readings to come up with characters and character interactions, conflicts and obstacles for your protagonist, strengths and weaknesses of characters, and story events.  Like reading mythology and fairy tales, this has the benefit of bringing strong symbolism into your work.  Just be sure not to be too heavy-handed with it.

10.  Do something else creative.  Doodle, color, listen to music, finger-paint, play with Lego, cook, do a craft project, improv on the piano for a while, whatever.  Whatever other creative outlets you have, pick one and do that for a while.  Don’t STRESS about coming up with an idea for a story.  Relax and let it come to you.  Sometimes, like a cat or a kid, all it takes is you ignoring it to do something else, and your story suddenly wants your attention.