APRIL 26, 2009
Feeding the muse. Keeping your imagination alive. Supplying your inner artist with material.
All expressions for the same general process. Artistic people, including writers, have a responsibility to their art and their craft to keep that wonderful faculty inside – their idea generator – humming and in good working order.
Did you know it’s possible to starve your imagination? You can’t kill it if you’re born with one. But you can sure stifle it and ignore it and neglect it and deny it until it’s practically in a coma. People who don’t understand that it has to be maintained wonder why they had lots of ideas when they were younger, but these days not so many. Other folks who wanted to be writers in their younger days have squelched the urge in favor of other activities and responsibilities until now, when they’re retired or the kids are in school and they finally have time to write ... can’t.
What’s to be done? Feed the muse, of course. Wake up the imagination. Get those ideas pumping.
APRIL 10, 2009
So where do fiction ideas come from? How do you find them? How do you recognize a good one from one that’s less than viable?
Experience has taught me to approach my quarry in two ways:
- 1. Be constantly open or receptive to the possibilities. Observe your environment, whether it’s your workplace or the highway you’re driving along. Look at the people around you and notice how they behave, their gestures, their clothing, their body language. Look at fields and road signs. Hmm ... Sanger is an interesting name for a town. Why did they call it that? Sanger makes me think of the root syllable for “blood.” What if I spelled it slightly differently and turned it into an exotic name for my alien character that I’m designing? Sangre? Sangyre? Of course! It’s perfect! And his food source will be ...
- 2. Deliberately sit down and demand an idea from your imagination. This second approach doesn’t usually go as smoothly as the more serendipitous #1; however, when you have a deadline you can’t wait for the muse to find you. You have to go find it, catch it, sit on it, and thump it until it finally coughs up some ideas you can work with.
So approach #2 is my working-writer, I-am-a-professional method where I play the “what if” game of plotting, ask myself if an idea has been done to death by everyone else on the planet, look at it outside the box to see if it can still be used in a more innovative way, and evaluate it in terms of market demand. While all that’s going on, I remain open to flashes of inspiration via approach #1 because they can jazz up a so-so idea from #2 and make it fun and alive, possibly even brilliant.
APRIL 5, 2009
During the winter, I landed the opportunity to write a short story for a forthcoming Twilight Zone anthology. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that amazing television show. Rod Serling’s widow Carol will be the official editor of the anthology to be published by Tor Books.
I was very excited about the chance to be a part of this project, but had only a short time to meet the deadline. All through Christmas I beat my brain ... idea, idea, idea ... need an idea. I came up with a couple of things, but they didn’t seem quite right. One was too science fiction-y and too complicated; the other was just too weird.
I was still mulling over the complicated idea one afternoon while walking my dogs. All my life I’ve found that the best way to generate ideas is while doing some simple or repetitive chore. Agatha Christie used to think about story ideas while washing her dishes. And given that she’s one of the most commercially successful writers of the twentieth century ... Growing up, I would invent all sorts of plots while putting my show horse through his paces, practicing every afternoon in an arena-sized circle. These days, I walk my dogs.
So on a mild January afternoon the dogs and I were strolling along between residential fire hydrants, and I was rather desperately sifting ways and means of how to simplify that over-complicated idea about clones, when I suddenly fell out of my imagination and realized the sun was going down. Dusk was closing in around us, and my neighborhood had grown very quiet and deserted.
I thought, what if a man lives in a tidy, well-regulated, modern, planned community such as mine, and what if there’s something very wrong beneath the surface, and what if he and his dog stumble across the answer ...
Bingo! I had my idea. The short story that resulted is called “The Street That Forgot Time,” and the Tor anthology will be published in September ’09.
MARCH 22, 2009
A few days ago, I was visiting an old friend – my college roomie, in fact – and I discovered that not only had she read the new book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, but that she actually enjoyed it. She manages a bookstore, which is how she’d received an advance review copy. I’d heard about the book from a NY Times article that came out earlier this month, and up till now I’ve been pretty uppity about the whole idea. I mean, come on! Zombies and Jane Austen? Is nothing sacred?
Yet, as I listened to my friend chortling and gleefully recounting how the dead of Meryton are rising and how the Bennett sisters are supposed to carry a sword with them anytime they go outdoors to avoid being bitten, I found myself becoming intrigued despite myself. I have to say that the notion of Miss Elizabeth Bennett drawing swords with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in a feisty duel has me wondering if I don’t want to read this book when it hits stores in early April. Why not? Jane Austen has been in print for over 200 years, and now the current rage for all things paranormal has found a way to link to her work. If that doesn’t say something for her literary universality, what does? Whether Mr. Grahame-Smith has produced anything actually worthy of Miss Austen’s genius remains to be seen. Meanwhile, let’s give him an A- for sheer audacity.
FEBRUARY 18, 2009
When trying to achieve a spooky effect, you should also use story tone to work for you. How? Through word choice. You don’t just throw words together into sentences; you carve out special effects with your selections of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.
For example, if you are going to describe a house, decide on its size. Large? Is it a mansion, a baronial estate, a castle, a rambling old Victorian, a sprawling ranch? If it’s small, is it a cottage, a tract house, a bothy, a post-modern cube?
Once you’ve settled on general dimensions, which specific nouns and adjectives are you going to use? That depends on what mood or atmosphere you want.
For example, if you want a light, happy mood, then describe your small house in the following way: The white cottage peeped out through a bonnet of climbing roses, laden with fat pink blooms that filled the air with fragrance.
If you want a spooky mood, you describe the house like this:
In the gathering twilight, the dilapidated shack’s white clapboards took on a gray, unhealthy pallor barely seen for the thorny tangle of roses strangling the building.
FEBRUARY 17, 2009
I’ve been working on a “spooky” short story lately for the forthcoming Twilight Zone anthology that Tor Books will be publishing in September 2009 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of that classic, wonderful TV show.
What makes something spooky?
Let’s start with suspense techniques.
A combination of elements go into suspense techniques. Two of the most effective are the creation of reader anticipation and establishing scary situation.
You create anticipation through raising threats over the protagonist, or characters that the protagonist cares about. These create an expectation that danger is coming. Once the threats are introduced, you let them hang. Occasionally you repeat them or remind readers about them, but you let them hang. You build up to when the protagonist will have to confront that looming threat or danger. You don’t rush it. Alfred Hitchcock was a genius of anticipation, and if you’re serious about learning how to write anything suspenseful then I highly recommend that you watch a few of his best films, especially Rear Window.
Scary situations are what, exactly? Well, things that frighten YOU.
What are you afraid of now? Snakes? Dark parking garages? Losing your job?
What were you afraid of when you were a child? The large, barking dog down the street? The dark? The creepy man that used to stand on the street corner?
Remember how, when you were little, you used to lie in bed at night, wide awake in the darkness while you listened to some mysterious sound that made your heart go thumpity? And did you believe, with all your heart and soul, that as long as you stayed under the covers, nothing could get you?
Writing something like that into your stories automatically heightens the suspense because readers remember their own fears and immediately empathize with the characters.
FEBRUARY 11, 2009
There’s been a sizable gap between my last blog entry and this one. Why? I’ve been preparing a book proposal.
What is that, exactly?
Well, when writers don’t want to take the risk of writing an entire novel on speculation, which means no guarantee of publication at the end of those many months of hard work, we pitch a proposed novel idea to prospective publishers. Proposals usually contain a plot synopsis or summary of what the story will be about, plus the first three chapters of the book as a sampling. Editors can get a general idea of where the plot is going, plus they can see how well you write, introduce characters, launch the central premise and conflict, etc.
Writers with a proven track record of published fiction can land contracts on this basis. This means the proposed book is purchased, and the author is paid a portion of the book’s purchase price up front. The remainder of the money will be paid once the completed book manuscript is turned in on deadline.
Writers who are new to the field and either have no prior publications or less than a handful, are generally asked to submit the rest of their novel manuscript by editors. So for newbies, a proposal is more of an introduction, a first pitch, but it’s still invaluable and saves everyone time.
JANUARY 2, 2009
I was recently asked how you go about creating a fantasy story that satisfies you, yet resonates with your audience. After all, how do you know what people “out there” like and dislike? How can a writer tell? Especially a new writer still trying to break in and get a novel manuscript published?
Okay, if any of this is something that you’ve been asking, here’s my advice:
- 1. Read the genre. If you’re planning to write fantasy, then read as much of it as you can. Read it until it’s leaking out your ears. Read the classics and the new stuff. Read the best the genre has to offer. Read the mediocre. Read some of what is less than inspiring but still made it to publication.
- 2. Be humble. If you read something you think is drek, don’t sneer. Be heartened instead. Yes, you do have a chance to be published, too. And while you’re at it, take some notes on what not to put in your own manuscript.
- 3. Network with other fantasy readers. Sure, talk to your friends, but branch out by attending a few local or regional science fiction/fantasy conventions. Listen to people’s opinions. Ask questions of panelists. Learn.
- 4. Track the topselling books in fantasy. And I mean current books, not the dusty old tomes penned by Lord Dunsany. Read their reviews – both from the critics and from readers on amazon.com. Discard the saccharine accolades and the sour eviscerations alike, and focus on the reviews that come from middle ground.
- 5. Balance all this input with your personal likes and dislikes. You have to listen to your heart, even if it’s giving you a plot idea that seems contrary to everything people are claiming they like. Writers can follow the market some of the time, but they have to take risks, too.
- 6. Eventually it all boils down to the following:
- Do I like my protagonist?
- Do I want my protagonist to succeed?
- Does my villain break me out with goosebumps?
- Does my story idea scare me a little?
- Does my story idea excite me a lot?
- Am I consumed and obsessed by my plot and characters?
At that point, you have to cling to faith in your idea and simply leap.
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