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NaNoWriMo Thoughts: Ideas & Inspirations

Inspiration can strike in the strangest ways. This is probably why most authors hate the inevitable “Where do you get your ideas from?” question.

 

This is my attempt to answer that question: I get my ideas from the world around me. I think everyone does to a certain extent, which is why one of the most common mantras is “write what you know,” though I do think that advice is a little misleading. After all, if I’m writing a period piece or so me far-flung space opera epic, then what I know as an English computer dude living in Delaware really isn’t applicable.

 

So what can inspire you? One source is dreams, which is why it’s a good idea to keep a pen and notepad on your bedside table to jot down the ideas as soon as you wake, because you WILL forget if you decide to wait until later, as I’ve learned to my cost. An infamous example of the dream as inspiration is the “Terminator” franchise. It began when James Cameron had a dream that consisted of a metal exoskeleton walking out of flames (Harlan Ellison might disagree on that form of inspiration and there’s legal reasons for Ellison’s credit on the first film, but Harlan is infamously cranky and litigious so who knows?). That dream became the finale of The Terminator and is, in my opinion, one of the best “holy crap” film moments of the 1980s.

 

Another obvious source of inspiration, and one partially alluded to in my Ellison aside above is whatever you might be reading. I know one of my earliest short stories was inspired by me reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon and thinking “I could do better than this!”

 

Thankfully, there are no extant copies of that story online as it was typical of a new, young writer in that it was terrible. That’s beside the point though. I read a lot of non-fiction, and listen to a couple of different history podcasts. And one of my most frequent thoughts are generally “what if this happened instead?” which leads to alternate history ideas or cross-pollination between disparate historical events and genres. What would the Roman Year of the Four Emperors look like through the lens of a fantasy world? I don’t know, but I might well find out by the end of National Novel Writing Month as that seems like fertile ground for at least fifty thousand words.

 

My current plan for the 2016 edition of that exercise revolves around an eighteenth century naval battle with a commander who was very much conflicted about whether he was even on the right side, which means I’m going to be hip-deep in geographical and historical research for the next couple of weeks. And that inspiration came from a single line in one of the “…for Dummies” series of books.

 

I also have dumber ideas inspired by mass media such as movies or television. Like most of the residents of the United States right now, I’m drowning in Presidential election coverage. Watching bits and pieces of the debates not long after finally succumbing and watching The Silence of the Lambs has lead me to a short story parody idea which so far involves Donald Trump looking in a mirror and asking “Would you vote me? I’d vote me so hard.” It’s very stupid, and I’m not sure I need the mental image of Donald Trump as Buffalo Bill, but since I inflicted it on myself, I figured I’d inflict it on my loyal readers, as few as you might be.

The last source of inspiration I’m going to consider is people watching. As I type this, I’m sat in a coffee shop facing a large window that opens to the street. This is both because I’m clearly a terrible cliché and because it’s a fantastic spot to observe the small section of the world that is my street. For example, about five minutes ago there was an African-American woman in a purple halter top engaged in an animated discussion with an older gentleman in a wheelchair. I don’t know what they were talking about, but judging by the wild gesticulations, it was clearly something both parties felt passionate about. I created a backstory in my head that it was the first meeting in around fifteen years between a school custodian and an infamous vandal who made his work a living hell. They’ve both long put such things behind them, but were reminiscing about old times in the way that people who aren’t quite friend sometimes do.

 

So, how do you get inspiration for your stories? I submit that the easiest way to do that is simply to keep your eyes and ears open.

 

Lightbulb stock photo by Kyryl Lakishyk

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 1 day

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As I write, NaNoWriMo is scant hours away from kicking off (I’m on Eastern Summer Time currently), which means that this is the last entry in my “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series. Parting is such sweet sorrow.  There’s really only one subject that I can write about as this series comes to a close, and that is endings.

While there’s a certain satisfaction in typing those two words “The End” as you finish a long draft, it’s not always easy to achieve that satisfaction. I’ve already mentioned how I never arrived at that point in my 2012 NaNoWriMo entry a couple of times in this blog series, and how that was a catalyst to the more structured approach (including bits of the hero’s journey and snowflake method) I’m taking for my 2013 entry.

For me there are really only three basic types of endings. There’s the happy ending, the downbeat ending and the ambiguous ending. I’m a fan of all three but I find that my writing tends towards ambiguity. The archetypical happy ending is, of course, “And they all lived happily ever after,” which can work well, but to me is just a shade unrealistic. Happiness seems too fleeting a feeling to be an “ever after” thing. I think my favorite take on this ending is from Stephen King’s otherwise unremarkable The Eyes of the Dragon:

“Did they all live happily ever after? They did not. No one ever does, in spite of what the stories may say. They had their good days, as you do, and they had their bad days, and you know about those. They had their victories, as you do, and they had their defeats, and you know about those, too. There were times when they felt ashamed of themselves, knowing that they had not done their best, and there were times when they knew they had stood where their God had meant them to stand. All I’m trying to say is that they lived as well as they could, each and every one of them; some lived longer than others, but all lived well, and bravely.”

Ironically, it’s one of the few King books that has a satisfying ending.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward happy ending. The evil is defeated. The hero gets the girl. All is good and right with the world. Sometimes it’s immensely satisfying to have everything tied up and resolved in a neat little bow, especially if the characters have been through some real torments to get to that point. I prefer endings that have just a hint of unease, such as in the film A Boy and His Dog which (SPOILER ALERT, but I am discussing endings here, so it goes with the territory) finishes up with the titular boy Vic and his sort of love interest Quila re-uniting with the dog, Blood. Quila and Blood both have very different ideas on further survival though and it comes as quite the shock when Vic and Blood solve their desert survival dilemma by eating Quila. It’s a discordant note in what is a fairly upbeat conclusion to a very strangely-toned film.

Of course some endings are just bleak and depressing. Sometimes this almost nihilistic approach works fantastically with the tone of the story. After all, I can’t think of any way 1984 should end except for “He loved Big Brother.” It’s simply tonally perfect. I think you have to be an incredibly strong writer to get away with such a downbeat ending without causing the reader to hurl the book away in frustration and curse your very name unto the seventh generation. Perhaps that’s why I’m fonder of Shakespeare’s tragedies than his comedies. Nothing like a bleak ending with nothing but death to attract a reader.

M personal favorite endings are the ones that leave readers and audiences guessing. I think that’s why I enjoy the last shot of the top in Inception so much. Does it fall?

I honestly don’t want to know.

How about you? Do you have a preferred ending style?

(Photo by Billy Alexander)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 3 days

 

Why do we feel the need to pair off our lead characters?

I’m curious about something. When I talk to other people doing NaNoWriMo, or other writers in general, it always seems like that if they have more than one main character, there has to be a romantic relationship between them. This is more prevalent when the characters are of opposite genres, but I’m going to assume that’s because most of the writers I know and talk to are heterosexual. All part of that “write what you know” mantra.

But why does it have to be that way? I don’t think it’s something that’s always true to life. After all, I have several female friends and have a great time hanging out with them, trading stories about the things we’ve done and generally gossiping. That doesn’t mean I have an interest in any of them in a romantic fashion. Sometimes it’s really nice to be just friends.

Perhaps it’s just the still slightly bitter divorced guy in me speaking, but that dynamic seems largely absent from a lot of fiction. It seems like, especially on television, if a male and female character are friends, things start to revolve around a certain “will they or won’t they” tension. Or their orientations are conveniently incompatible. From the media it seems like every women’s best friend is a slightly sassy gay guy with excellent taste in shoes. (Or maybe I just consume trashy media)

For example, for much of the X-Files, Mulder and Scully are shown as colleagues who respect each other and gradually become friends despite his inclination towards the spooky and her scientific skepticism. Despite this clearly established professional relationship, a lot of reaction towards the show was about if and when the two of them would kiss and progress to a distinctly less professional relationship. What was wrong with having the two of them not be into each other in that way?

It’s a little worrying that the only literary example of friends remaining “just friends” that I can think of crops up in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (a title that Blackadder III ruined for me due to punnery.) Elinor and Colonel Brandon work well as friends, even if the other characters in the novel seem to want them to end up as more. I hope somebody can give me some examples from a book that is less than two hundred years old.

I understand that a love story is a great font for drama (and in the case of NaNoWriMo, word count) and that it might allow for more varied situations, but do we always have to sacrifice a well written friendship to get to that? After all, if a relationship with a good friend goes wrong (which happens quite a bit in fiction and reality) you lose a friend that you can dish out the details to, or who can act as a shoulder to cry on.

Basically, I’m arguing that Billy Crystal’s “Harry” in When Harry Met Sally is wrong when he says:

“No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.”

It’s just that the way that most media portrays relationships, he’s unfairly proven right.

 

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 4 days

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Okay, I’m currently writing this blog entry with about twenty-seven minutes to go before I hit my self-imposed deadline (If I miss it, you’ll see a “belated posts” tag somewhere around here) and the well of ideas is drawing rather dry.

I thought I’d write about the things that bug me in a work, so by necessity, this is going to be rather less focused than my usual “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” blog entries. It may even get a bit ranty. No promises.

But here are some of my dislikes about works I’ve read:

A spellchecker is not a substitute for proof-reading! (I’m sure I’ve violated this myself here on the blog, but these are more ephemeral spur of the moment pieces, and I mentally hold blog entries to a lower standard than full written works.) Something that spell-checkers will not catch are homophones and near-homophones. The ones that seem the most notorious on the internet are “you’re/your” (Hint, if you’re going to call someone idiotic, getting this right rather than going with the classic dumbass line “you’re an idiot!” is the first step in proving that the target of said insult might deserve it.) and “lose/loose,” the latter of which infuriates me beyond all reasonable capacity. To loose something is to let it free, to lose something is not to win or tie. These aren’t difficult things to figure out, people!

Also, you’re character might be a scoundrel, a thief and a braggart, but they are not a “rouge” unless they are a form of sentient make-up, a Canadian Football thing that eludes me (I can do proper football aka soccer, and American Football, don’t confuse me with a third form) or French for “red.” The word you are grasping for is most likely “rogue.”

Let me loose (see!) another complaint. A thesaurus is not a blunt instrument. You don’t need to search for a synonym for every word, but if you do decide to reach for the thesaurus, make sure the synonym you select makes sense for the context you’re using it in. And please remember literally is not a synonym for figuratively. When it comes to synonym usage, I’m torn between two quotes to illustrate the pitfalls. Mark Twain’s “Use the right word, not its second cousin” is definitely pithier and from a more well respect source, but the alternative, Inigo Montoya’s “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” is so much more fun to say. Basically, when in doubt, go Princess Bride.

The final thing that bugs me is one of the more common violations of “show, don’t tell” where I’m told a character is smart, or witty, or clever but never given any proof to back it up. As I’m currently busily re-watching every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations (why, yes, I am a massive nerd. However could you tell?), I came across the episode of The Next Generation entitled “The Outrageous Okona.” While the episode is terrible for more reasons than just this (Joe Piscopo) , we are introduced to a guest star, the titular Okona, who does nothing particularly outrageous. Okona’s introduction in the show comes in the form of an info-dump from Counsellor Troi, thusly:

“His emotions suggest that he’s mischievous, irreverent and somewhat brazen. The word that seems to best describe him is rogue. “

Apart from being wince-inducing exposition, it’s inaccurate. Okona is none of these things in the episode, though everyone reacts to him as if he was so. The guy is bland, beige and wallpaper-like. (Though at least Deanna didn’t confuse us and call him a rouge)

That’s my rantings and bugbears out. What are your writerly pet peeves?

(Photo by J. Gabriel)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 5 Days

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For tonight’s blog entry, I’m returning to the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Specifically, I’m going to be talking a little bit about what Joseph Campbell referred to in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, as the “Belly of the Whale,” after the biblical story of Jonah. (Though in my bible, the book of Jonah never mentions a whale, the passage refers to the creature as a fish throughout, for example Jonah 1:17 “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”)

Despite that overtly literal reference, what Campbell means by “Belly of the Whale” doesn’t necessarily mean a literal swallowing. Like much in mythology, it’s a metaphorical image. Typically, this represents the point in the hero’s journey where the hero has answered the call to adventure, and now must defeat the obstacles that represent the guardians of the threshold between the everyday world the hero has known and the world of the truly unknown where the adventure takes place.

Frequently, this is the moment that represents the greatest personal danger to the hero, as they have yet to mature enough to face the trials ahead that the guardians represent a gateway to. Indeed, Campbell compares being in the belly of the whale as akin to dying. Truly, this can be a character’s darkest hour.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. George Lucas famously used Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey as the template for the original Star Wars movie. So, at what point does our protagonist, Luke Skywalker enter the belly of the whale in that story? Well, that moment actually almost has a literalized image of crossing into the belly of a great beast when the Millennium Falcon (and Luke) are pulled inside the Death Star by the station’s tractor beam.

For a more literary, and perhaps less obvious example, take Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, the point in which he enters the belly of the whale is not, as you might think, when he is imprisoned, but four years into his imprisonment when he realizes he has no hope of release and falls to his darkest hour, replete with an attempt to kill himself. The threshold is less physical and more to do with Dantes well-being.

Conquering these moments (I guess the literal event in the Jonah story would be the whale vomiting, but I don’t think “puking whale” sounds good as a term for a putative and important story beat) often become the first truly heroic action of your protagonist, and will often be the highlight of the novel’s first act. It represents the first point in a movie where the triumphant, awe-inspiring music first appears on the soundtrack. In my opinion, the hero escaping the belly of the whale and crossing the threshold into the narrative world should be the moment when your reader punches the air and shouts “Yes!” (Not that I’ve done that and got some very odd looks in a public library or anything…)

So, do you have a formal point in your story where the protagonist is facing their darkest hour before crossing over into the true heart of the hero’s journey? Is the belly of the whale in your story as literal as the examples in Star Wars or the biblical story of Jonah? Perhaps a less obvious one, as is the case for Dantes?

 

(Photograph by Keran McKenzie)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 6(ish) days

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(Quick Note: Yes, this is yet another one of these blog entries that is running a little late. In my defense the eight-week-old gentleman in the photo above is magnificently distracting.)

Even the greatest of individual plots isn’t enough to sustain an entire novel length narrative entirely by itself. To avoid a flagging pace and the dreaded specter of “padding,” you need subplots, and they can be tricky things to deal with.

First, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of subplots in a novel:

  • They add depth to the story and characters (never a bad thing.)
  • If the subplot focuses more on secondary and tertiary characters, it helps those character seem more well-rounded and realistic, and thus less “flat” compared to your protagonists
  • As hinted at above, a sub plot adds to your word count, which is vital in the mad thirty day dash to fifty thousand that is NaNoWriMo.
  • It helps build tension as you can leave a cliffhanger or particularly suspenseful moment in your main plot at the end of a chapter and then start the next chapter with an unrelated subplot. Sometimes it’s almost as much fun to torture your readers almost as much as your characters

Of course subplots, like any story element, are not without their pitfalls. One of the most common is that instead of your story having one clearly defined main plot with subplots dovetailing, paralleling or otherwise mirroring it, you end up with subplots that grow to take over the story, or rise to prominence so that you have two or even three “A” plots, which can be satisfying, but can also end up being a somewhat disjointed read, as if it were multiple separate novels mashed up into one thing.

As one of the most common sub-plots is a romantic entanglement between characters, this is also an element that can strangle the life out of a story incredibly quickly. For proof of this, go up to a random nerd you know (and if you’re reading this blog, you know at least one nerd, I guarantee it) and utter this infamous quote from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”

They winced, didn’t they? That’s because the utterly chemistry-free “romance” subplot between Anakin and Padme overwhelmed the story of the rise of a Galactic Empire and the genesis of Darth Vader that the Star Wars prequels should have been about.

Sometimes the subplot overwhelming the apparent main plot can be done effectively. For example, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the main plot seems to be about smuggling and revenge against a backdrop of galactic politics, an almost Han Solo-esque story. Then, the dead start coming back to life and the true main plot of the novel and the trilogy it’s a part of starts.

Another temptation with subplots is the impulse to lard up your story with some many of them that it becomes a dense and impenetrable maze to everyone except the author (and even they’re not immune in some cases, I’m pretty sure Chris Carter himself  couldn’t explain the main plot of The X-Files by the end of the 6th or 7th season). This seems to be especially prevalent in the genre I’ve opted to write in for 2013’s NaNoWriMo, fantasy, which is why so many planned trilogies often end up with anywhere from four to seven books.