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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


Flash! A-ah! Savior of the Universe


I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the Queen reference for a title here. I’m actually talking about Flash Fiction.

It began, like most of my less sane writing ideas, with me procrastinating on Facebook rather than actually writing. Specifically, I was looking at the Richmond WriMos Facebook group, and one of the local writers had posted this link to a Flash Fiction challenge.

Now, as I have mentioned before, I’m quite competitive when it comes to anything I can rank or score or break down to numbers. So, I see the word “challenge” and I immediately sign up for it.

I read more thoroughly, and now I realize that I just committed to writing sixty-four Flash Fiction stories over the curse of a year. No problem, I think. Just one relatively minor question occurs to me:

What in the world is “Flash Fiction?”

As a lazy internet researcher, I do what comes naturally and go search Wikipedia for “flash fiction.” Lo and behold there is an entry.

The most relevant part of that entry is the definition at the start, which reads:

Flash fiction is a style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category. Some self-described markets for flash fiction impose caps as low as three hundred words, while others consider stories as long as a thousand words to be flash fiction.”

I find it fascinating that there isn’t a definition that sets a hard limit of length on something that is almost entirely defined by its length. After all, at what point does Flash Fiction become a short story?

Since there isn’t a coherent definition, I’ve decided to go with my own length which will be “between 300-500 words.” I’m not great at brevity, as anyone who has read my prior blog posts will undoubtedly have noticed, so these short lengths will hopefully inspire me to trim the fat away from scenes to get closer to the 300 word mark than the 500 word one. I know I tend to write flabby though, so I fully expect all 64 stories to end up clocking in at over 450 words. Perhaps I’ll prove myself wrong, which means that i have grown as a writer over the course of the last couple of years. Here’s hoping.

Of course, when I signed up, I wasn’t aware that my job plans are likely to lead to a relocation and a move right in the middle of one of the standard months the challenge describes. In fact the very first month of the challenge, March is the likely victim of that (assuming every last paperwork snafu resolves itself).

And as I type this on the 27th of February, that first month is rapidly approaching, or as I like to think of it: March Attacks! I currently don’t even have any ideas or inspiration for the flash fiction beyond a single title “The Fall,” which is a bit of a problem since I’m supposed to be cranking out sixteen pieces starting Saturday.

So, faithful readers, I’m requesting writing prompts and ideas that I can cannibalize and use as part of this challenge.

I found two sites with ideas, but I’m certain you can all do better than either of these, am I right?



(Edit 3/3/14: Added the prompt resources suggested by Doug Daniel in the comments)



(Edit: 3/31/14: Added some prompt resources suggested by Brandy Spicer)



Stock photo courtesy of Prashant Jambunathan

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 13 days



Why do you write?

I was asked this question today and it caught me rather off guard. After all, how often does someone ask “why?” when it comes to other hobbies?

And it’s not like you can go with the standard mountain climber’s answer of “because it’s there.” After all, for most of the things I’m writing it’s not there until after I’m finished with, at the very least, the first terrible draft.

So, I actually had to think about the question for a little while and actually figure out, why do I write?

The answer I’ve usually given is that I write because I dream one day of being published, and leaving behind some kind of physical legacy that I once occupied this insignificant little blue-green planet. Of course, that was before I had a child, and he is certainly a much better legacy than just a book could be, even if he can be just as infuriating sometimes.

At the simplest level, I write for three reasons, which I think of as the three C’s (a commenter used a different set of three C’s to describe the process of writing realistic villains but I had these C’s in mind first):

Firstly, I write because I enjoy the act of creativity. I get to shape worlds in my own image, and that has a certain appeal to my colossally oversized ego.

Secondly, I write because it gives me a sense of control. In the real world, I’m basically the least important person in my own life, whereas in fiction I am like unto a god. I can tell all these characters exactly what to think and do, and why they should do it. Even better, they actually listen to me and obey my every whim without protest. Sure, occasionally characters will take over the story and act contrary to what I had planned, but it’s still ultimately in the service of my plans and my will. The power is all mine. Bwa-ha-h-a-ha-ha-ha! Ahem.

And the third reason and the reason I started really writing in the first place is for catharsis. A lot of writers will tell you that writing is a form of therapy for them, and I certainly count myself within that number. You might have noticed something of a running theme of powerlessness for myself mentioned in the prior two reasons, and this is an extension of that. Sometimes, when you feel like venting all your rage, misery, sadness or other negative emotion, you don’t want to vent at another person. At least, I don’t, because very few people deserve that. In a fictional world, I can take out all my anger on the protagonists, or the villains, or the sidekick or even upon the world itself. There’s nothing quite as cleansing to the soul as imagining and enforcing an apocalyptic scenario on a world, and it’s a lot easier to do that on a world of fiction than it is in this real world. There’s a lot less cops and soldiers to deal with that way too.

Those are the big three reasons why I write. What are the reasons for you?

(Photograph by Adam Ciesielski)

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 25 Days

Writer’s block. It strikes us all, often at the most inopportune moments. Your brain might be a whirling kaleidoscope of plots, characters, idioms and ideas but as soon as you’re presented by that blank notebook page or the relentlessly blinking cursor it all drains dead away.

I’m not saying writer’s block was involved in the process of coming up with a blog entry for tonight, but I’m also not not saying that either…

So, how do you deal with writer’s block? Everyone has their own methods, but these are the ones I employ:

  • Take a break. Though this isn’t the best strategy if you’re a chronic procrastinator like me, sometimes just the physical act of leaving your writing area can re-invigorate the old brain matter. Also walking around some is probably a good idea, as writing tends to be a sedentary pursuit and sneaking in exercise can’t hurt.


  •  Write something different. This approach won’t always help your NaNoWriMo word count during November if you’re going strictly by the rules, but it helps nevertheless. You might not have ideas for what you’re trying to write now, but perhaps you have the idea for a scene three chapters hence crystallized absolutely perfectly in your mind’s eye. Write that scene instead. Perhaps switch to a different project entirely to try and stimulate those stubborn writing neurons. Perhaps you’re having trouble getting a plot outline for your novel together and switch to creating a 40 part “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” blog series with no forethought or idea beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”Not that I can think of anyone who has done that.


  • Talk it out. Sometimes discussing the blocked scene or where you need the story to go with another person helps. Whether it’s a collaborative process of using them as a sounding board, or you just kind of bounce ideas around and see what sticks. Plus the social aspect seems to boost endorphins and reawaken the ol’ brain chemistry to help ideas flood out. This is a big reason I like to go to as many write in events as possible during November, as my word counts in those are often two to two and a half times as large as they would be if I was just writing by myself. I wonder if using a Skype video chat would work for that to. Maybe I’ll try bugging a few fellow WriMos and seeing if that works.


  • Put the kettle on. Yes, it might be clichéd of me as an Englishman, but I find there are very few problems that can’t be helped with a decent cup of tea or coffee. (It’s been mostly coffee as my Twitter feed and the steaming mug of Simply Enjoy Pumpkin Spice I’m currently sipping can attest.) Sure, it’s become something of a running joke that writers depend on coffee to do anything beyond breathing and ablutions, but there’s more than a kernel of truth to that.


  •  Imagine the scene in a new medium. Sometimes, if I can’t visualize the scene I’m trying to write in prose, I might imagine it as a comic book page, and figure out how it might be framed, or what the big “splash panels” would be. It might help me figure what beats I need to hit for the writing. Or I might try to imagine the scene as a moment from a movie or television show. That also gives me the luxury of imagining who I would cast as the characters, and imagining the acting style of that casting might help me flesh out the character more and give weight to other actions in the scene or story. I know that a long time ago I imagined the main female character in a short story (the details elude me now, but it was some kind of mystery set on a broken down train) as played by Ellen DeGeneres, and the main male character being played by Pierce Brosnan. The interplay between those incongruous characters really helped the dynamic of the piece.


Those are my strategies, I’m sure some of them are yours as well (I know the casting thing is very common) but do you have any suggestions I have missed?

And who would you cast in an adaptation of your 2013 NaNo?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 28 days


What’s the soundtrack for your writing?

I ask because, for me, I need more aural stimulus than just the sounds of a clacking keyboard or a pen scratching on paper. I find I absolutely need background noise to be productive, and the least disruptive background noise to other people is anything I have pumping through my headphones.

As I’ve discovered that a lot of my most productive NaNoWriMo writing has come at write-ins, and many write-ins come at coffee shops, I ended up creating for myself a big Spotify playlist based off of Starbucks pick of the week tracks. It’s great background music without being hugely intrusive, so it’s something of my default soundtrack when I’m writing at home.

If I want something different, I tend to look towards film scores. Being instrumental, I don’t find myself distracted and singing along to lyrics or even typing them as I write. The other great thing about movie scores is that they are designed to underscore scenes with specific moods and so it can become useful to pick certain tracks if you’re writing a scene that might have that mood. For example, if I’m writing fairly dark, desperate battle scenes then having something like “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” from the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack.


Last year, I was writing a superhero story for my NaNoWriMo project and thanks to the absolute glut of superhero movies in recent years, I was able to listen to essentially nothing but superhero scores for the entire duration of the project. I don’t think narrowing my soundtrack focus like that really paid off and don’t think I’d repeat that genre restriction for 2013, especially as I’m not entirely sure what genre I’ll even be writing in.


I know some people who are able to write even with television or movies going on as their background noise. I’ve tried that approach and I don’t have the focus or the attention span to manage that without getting sucked into the narrative and just not writing. If you can manage that, more power to you, but it’s a compartmentalization level I’m unable to achieve.


Of course, not all background noise for writing is music. At write-ins, I honestly prefer the susurrus of people in conversation and the general energy of people as something to feed off of. It energizes me in the weirdest way. One place that I find is full of energy and inspiration is an airport lounge, so if you have to travel, get there even earlier than you have to and just sit with your notebook or laptop and drink in the sounds of the people there.


Also, for anyone reading this who’s local to my area, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a great little café, called Best, for writing in. It has a terrace and reflecting pool and large windows for inspiration from outside, a decent background hum from the people there and good coffee. And if you hit a case of writer’s block, a few minutes wandering the exhibits can really re-invigorate the mind. I’m not associated with them in any way, but it’s probably my second favorite place to write, especially during the summer when they have live jazz bands.

(Photo by Carlos Koblischek)

Ode to human fuel

It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion.
It is by the beans of Java that thoughts acquire speed,
The hands acquire shakes, the shakes become a warning.
It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion.