“Whomsoever lifts this hammer, if he be caffeinated, shall possess the power of words.”
Four days. One thousand, one hundred and eighty one words. In the grand scheme of things it’s not very much, coming out at less than three hundred words a day. Unfortunately, that’s all that my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) efforts for 2017 have been able to yield so far, and I think I’m going to have to junk them. So I’m now on day five (Or at least will be after I publish this blog entry and get some sleep) and have to either write a consistent two thousand words a day for the rest of November or somehow write eight thousand, three hundred and thirty-three words tomorrow, as well as a plot or novel outline so that those words have some kind of propulsive direction to them. Then I can return to the accepted NaNoWriMo pace of one thousand six hundred and sixty-seven words a day. Since both of those figures are rather larger than three hundred daily words, I am understandably a little skeptical and nervous about them.
What makes this frustrating is that I’ve hit the dreaded block much earlier than I typically do during NaNoWriMo. It’s usually well into the second week, where I’ve slipped a little behind pace but still have round ten thousand words written. I’ve always had at least one thousand, five hundred written on day one, and frequently more thanks to all the resources at my fingertips, especially word sprints from either the nanowrimo.org forums or the @NaNoWordSprints Twitter feed.
Another frustration is that it feels like I have a genuinely good hook here, even if it is a bit pulpy. The idea started out (almost in fun) as “Knights Templars vs. Vampires,” with the Templars as the good guys, since they so often get pegged into the historical villain slot in fiction and popular culture. Though I can only currently recall that being the case in Raymond Khoury’s novel The Last Templar and of course the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise at the moment, I know it’s a pretty common trope across media. That log line evolved, as these things are wont to do, into the current short synopsis I have for my 2017 NaNoWriMo entry:
“In 14th century France, the Knights Templar stand accused of heresy, treason and demon worship. It’s seen as a ploy by the King of France to discredit them.
In reality, the order’s secret rites are there to bound the demon Baphomet in the catacombs beneath Limassol, Cyprus having moved it there from beneath the Temple at Jerusalem. Whatever the creature was, it now bears the Mark of Cain, making it essentially untouchable by Men of God. The Mark afflicts the creature with an aversion to sunlight and an unquenchable thirst for blood. And if it ever escapes the Templars, it can pass Cain’s Mark to any creature it drinks from.”
Which at least contains the germ of an idea. There’s stakes there, an antagonist and perhaps even a whiff of conspiracy, something that’s never too far away when you invoke the Knight’s Templar. Do you know what’s not there? Any sense of a plot, compelling characters or a reason to want to read the entire boondoggle. It doesn’t even have a protagonist! Since I’ve also found that the most readable and important part of any novel (at least any novel not written by H P Lovecraft) is definitely dialogue (It’s also the fastest to write , and boost word count, never a bad thing considering the insanity that is NaNoWriMo), the lack of any characters to have that dialogue is something of a problem.
What I currently have in my head, and in those ill-fated one thousand, one hundred and eighty one words are a series of cool vignettes, maybe even scenes, but with no connective tissue between them. It’s all visual niceties with incoherence and no underlying skeleton to bind it. That’s less of a novel and more of a lesser Michael Bay movie, and the world definitely doesn’t need more of those.
It probably doesn’t need my latest attempt at a NaNoWriMo novel either, but at lest I’m putting in effort to have something that might be confused for almost being good on a cloudy day.
That said, does anyone have any outlining or structure tips that could turn that skein of a synopsis into something resembling a plot skeleton? Please, please let me know in the comments. You may be my only hope.
Computer Frustration stock photo by channah.
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
“There are some things a man’s got to do himself.”
He’d heard one of those cowboy actors say that. It was either Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. Right now, Scott couldn’t remember which. Either way, he thought, they were wrong. Scott leaned on the shovel and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the flannel sleeve of his shirt. He was drenched. He’d give anything to have someone else dig this damned hole for him.
Scott thrust the shovel into the ground, more reddish mud spattered against the bottom of his ragged black jeans. He’d either have to get them straight in the laundry or just toss them in the trash. Stomping on the top of the shovel’s blade with a steel-capped boot and feeling it reverberate up his leg, Scott moved another shovelful of dirt.
As far as he was concerned there were only three good reasons for digging a hole. Here in the twenty-first century, Scott worked as a bank teller rather than a pirate of the Barbary Coast, and so was unlikely to be burying a wooden chest full of doubloons. Hell, he’d never even seen a doubloon and he worked with money literally every day.
That meant his first good reason, digging up buried treasure, no longer counted as good and hadn’t for close to three hundred years.
His second good reason would be to plant something. After all, there were always plenty of people using the allotments in the community garden center the city council opened last summer. Scott frequently saw women (it was nearly always women, for some reason) carrying shovels around. They had to be digging something. Based on half the cooking shows he caught on the TV, Scott figured the women were all planting some green weed called “kale.”
If anyone had ever said Scott had a green thumb, then either they were lying, or Scott had caught an unfortunate infection in the hand. He knew he wasn’t a gardener. Hell, even the cacti and artificial plants he’d tried to take care of withered and died.
That left Scott with exactly one good reason to dig a hole, to hide something. Scott chuckled to himself, as that was kind of the reason he had been digging for the past couple of hours. It also explained why he wasn’t able to hire someone to do this particular menial task for him. Another firm stomp on the shovel’s blade sent the vibration up his leg and the tool’s wooden handle bucked against his hand burying a splinter in the fleshy arc around the base of his thumb. Scott cursed, dropped the shovel, which bounced against the ground, and started to pull the wooden slivers out of his hand.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Scott said, “No bad one either, I guess.” Scott manhandled the plastic-wrapped body of his wife into the freshly dug hole and started to shovel the red dirt back into place.
“They’ll never know you’re here,” he spat at the corpse.
The inspiration for this piece of 500-word Flash Fiction was a prompt I found online (I forget the site, or I would link it) that read “Three Good Reasons.” A It’s a first draft, but feedback and comments are always welcomed.
Shovel photograph by Mark Preston
It smelled like pork roasting in a barbecue pit. The crackling sounded like the campfires of his youth in the boy scouts. If not for the searing pain as the flesh bubbled and burned away from Seth’s legs, it would be pleasantly nostalgic.
As things stood, though, being cast into the pit of fire was an exercise in pain tolerance. Aside from the agony as his lower legs burned through to the nerves and bone, Seth’s lungs screamed as he tried to breath through the belching plumes of jet-black smoke. He coughed, involuntarily and tried to hold his breath out of habit.
Intellectually, Seth knew that he no longer had a physical form that needed to breathe or feel pain, yet the spectral form he assumed was his soul thought otherwise. He knew himself to be as insubstantial as the black smoke that filled the pit, but somehow whatever remained of his brain was telling him that he was in an unending tumult of pain and fire. Seth clawed at his ethereal throat as once again his spirit tried to breathe through the thick, dark fumes.
How had he gotten here?
Intensive care nurse Sarah Chapel shook the thermometer, willing the mercury to settle at a saner temperature number. The red gauge in the thermometer was bubbling as the fluid began boiling. There was no way the patient had a temperature of over six hundred degrees and a regular heartbeat.
As Sarah went to dispose of the obviously faulty thermometer, the unmistakable smell of smoke buffeted her nostrils. She turned to look at Seth Adams’ bed as it erupted into flames. As the hospital’s sprinkler systems kicked on, she heard the distinctive whine of a flat line from the patient’s EKG monitor.
Nurse Chapel tried to help put the fire out, and wondered why there weren’t any doctors nearby to officially pronounce Adams dead.
What the hell had happened?
Seth reached a pain singularity. The inferno consuming him had overloaded his nerve endings and he could no longer feel pain, or anything else. His spirit was as numb as his spectral body. He stared ahead with dull, lifeless eyes.
The smoke wreathing him began coalescing into a coherent form. At first, two snake-like eyes formed level with Seth’s own. The thing took shape, starting with three spiraling smoky horns jutting from the top of its head. From within the noxious vapors, a fanged mouth distended into existence. As the form in the darkness developed wings of shadow, it spoke, its voice a multitude of sepulchral tongues speaking out of synch.
“Seth Adams,” it boomed with a thousand echoes, “your world has forsaken you as it has for so many before you.”
Seth barely managed to choke out a strangled “Why?”
The smoke form’s eyes bored into Seth’s own as a cacophony of its voices breathed, “You know why. Remember.”
Seth saw the naked crimson body of his wife with stab wounds in her abdomen. His hand held a bloody knife.
The inspiration for this piece of 500-word Flash Fiction was a prompt I found online (I forget the site, or I would link it) that read “Suitably Warm.” A It’s a first draft, but feedback and comments are always welcomed.
“Fire” photograph from Rick Cowan.
She always wore candy apple red lipstick. Ethan never knew why, but every time she came in, those candy apple red lips stood out against her pale skin. She didn’t wear any other makeup.
Ethan sipped at his bourbon and coke, looking at her across the bar. He hoped she noticed him, without noticing him looking at her. He’d been coming here after work every day for three months. Three months of wistful glances and cheap booze for a pair of red lips that didn’t know he existed.
Her eyes drifted over to him. Ethan immediately looked at his wrist, hoping that she couldn’t tell he didn’t have a watch on.
An hour, and two bourbons and cokes later she slipped away from the bar and walked out to the street. Ethan noticed that her high heels were the same candy apple red as her lipstick.
Ethan gave himself a couple of minutes before following her outdoors. The doorway was wreathed in blue-grey cigarette smoke. He bent at the shoulders as he coughed. Ethan stood up, straightened his tie and muttered a prayer to himself. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and walked over to her. She was leaning in the doorway of the sushi restaurant over the road and talking on a cell phone.
“No, Rick,” she said in a surprisingly deep voice, “I said 10:30 TONIGHT. It’s been two damn weeks, you had plenty of time to make arrangements,” she said.
Ethan caught himself smiling and tried to bury it before she could spot him eavesdropping on her. He strode forward, and gave her a nod of familiarity as he walked past. He pushed on the door of the restaurant as if to go in. Unfortunately, the door was locked as the place was closed.
She laughed. “You’re going to have to get your California roll somewhere else,” she said. Her voice was just loud enough for Ethan to hear.
“I guess so,” he said.
“Let’s cut the bullshit. I’ve seen you watching me for a while now. I don’t know why you haven’t at least come over to say ‘hi’ or anything,” she said
“Well, I – “
“I promise you I don’t bite. Often.”
“That’s handy to know. I don’t think I ever caught your name?” Ethan said.
“I never said it. I’m Jacqueline. Jackie to my friends.”
“Which do I get to use?
“Jacqueline. Definitely Jacqueline.”
“Do you want to go for coffee sometime? Or sushi?”
“Sure. If you’re buying, I might let you call me Jackie by the end of the meal. Give me a call.” Jacqueline gave Ethan her phone number. He returned the favor.
The next night, Ethan slunk to the bar again. He looked around for Jacqueline and her candy apple red lips. She wasn’t there. Ethan slid into a darkened corner booth and dialed her number.
Immediately, something exploded in the parking lot. Running outside, he saw a Volkswagen Beetle burning. It was candy apple red.
The inspiration for this piece of 500-word Flash Fiction was a prompt I found online (I forget the site, or I would link it) that read “Candy Apple Red.” A It’s a first draft, but feedback and comments are always welcomed.
“Lips” photograph from Laura Tulaite
For months now, the world stank of piss and putrefying flesh. The constant drum-roll of German shell impacts drowned out the buzzing of a billion angry flies. But what really bothered Private Liam Jenkins was the omnipresent mud. The filthy stuff coated everything and you never truly got clean. At the rate things were going, he’d still be breathing this foul mud by the year 2000.
He hoped that he would escape out of this Belgian shit-hole by then. A hubbub of activity among the non-commissioned officers sure made it seem like they had heard something from the brass. He assumed that old Haig had given the order to go over the top and hoped to God that the Hun’s machine guns would make Jenkins’ inevitable death come quick.
Not like Thompson, whose death seemed to stretch on for hours. The only reason he knew it wasn’t days was because the sun never set. Jenkins ended the man’s burbling screams of agony with a bullet to his throat. He could still the body entangled in the barbed wire.
He could remember when enlisting seemed like a good idea, back when a young woman handed him a white feather. She branded him a coward for not “fighting for King and country.” What the King wanted with this rain-soaked bog of shit, mud and corpses eluded Jenkins. Still, the Kaiser obviously gave it some importance, so Jenkins and the rest of his unit tried to take it back inch by painful inch.
By the flurry of activity, Jenkins assumed the unit were about to fight for another inch. He wiped the grime off his wedding ring and kissed it. He doubted he’d see his Lizzy again. Three men either side of him knelt in prayer. It’s true, Jenkins thought, there really are no atheists in foxholes. Jenkins didn’t know what he believed about God, but he damn sure believed in Hell. He’d lived in it since the mid February.
Two minutes later, as the setting sun bathed the mud-choked battlefield in an ugly crimson hue, Jenkins finished answering nature’s call and pulled the duckboards away. As he clambered out of the trench, his foot stomped down on gristle and bone of a severed arm. A fading stripe on the sleeve suggested the arm had once belonged to a corporal. Jenkins kicked it away as he crept on to the battlefield, his rifle at the ready.
He felt the shock wave of what he fervently hoped was the last artillery shell launched at the German lines seconds before he heard the roar of impact. Maybe it would kill a few of the enemy, or better yet, flatten some of the infernal barbed wire. Jenkins slithered forward on his stomach, trying not to think about the staccato bullets of the enemy machine guns as he advanced. Then came pain and blood as his earlobe ripped away.
Unable to go on, Jenkins stood up and bolted back past his own lines as bullets zipped all around.
The inspiration for this piece of 500-word Flash Fiction was a prompt I found online (I forget the site, or I would link it) that read “shreds of doubt.” It’s a first draft, but feedback and comments are always welcomed.
“1st World War Statue” photograph from FreeImages.com/David Walsh