Monthly Archives: January 2014

Serendipity for Fiction Writers: Non-Fiction

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Find out below.

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Can you afford to not read this post and find out?

Writers look everywhere for inspiration. History. Dreams. Family and friends. Our own faces reflecting back, toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.

Of course, it’s no revelation that non-fiction inspires fiction. If you do historical romance, you probably read about the time period that interests you. Sci-fi authors surely devour the latest popular-science books to stay current on new discoveries and speculations. But what about those happy accidents? Not when you’re conducting research for a novel or checking maps in a quest for geographic accuracy but when you’re reading a non-fiction book simply because the cover looked cool when you saw it in the library. Or it was a birthday gift from Bill, your brother-in-law who’s a marine biologist, though that has nothing to do with anything.  Or because you had 11 bucks left on an Amazon gift card and were feeling whimsical that night. This hypothetical non-fiction book has nothing to do with your novel’s setting, genre, or time period, but just as you flip from page 19 to page 20, the epiphany strikes. “Son of a gun,” you say, “There’s my theme!”

You don’t actually say “gun,” but you remember that your blog can be read by your employer, so you decide to clean up the language a bit.

This has occurred twice for me recently. That is, a non-fiction book serendipitously provided me with a story core in one instance and the impetus for an unusual scenario and setting in another. These stories of mine are early works in progress, so they are too naked and raw to discuss in detail, but I’ll tell you how they were informed and will, ultimately I hope, be strengthened by unrelated works of non-fiction.

Project Two is a survival story about three preteen girls fighting to stay alive after a global catastrophe. I had most of the elements in place: A setting, a scenario, characters with motivation, and a plot (sort of…  I avoid outlining). What I didn’t have was a core. Once you have the mechanics of writing down, you can write a competent novel if you have a concept, a setting, characters, a threat, and a plot. You can write a good novel if your story as a core. A theme. A heartbeat.

Enter Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick, a music professor at a university in Canada (as of the book’s publication a few years ago). I was reading it because I am a fan of 1960s pop and soul music and because I am a civil-rights advocate, and this non-fiction work promised to discuss the former against the back drop of the latter. What I got was that and a fascinating examination of how these performers bonded as sisters (or didn’t) while touring relentlessly and being totally removed from a normal lifestyle. Say, it’s almost a metaphor for what’s happening to the young women in… my…

novel.

To quote Christoph Waltz in the film Inglourious Basterds, “Ooh! That’s a Bingo!” And, as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, I need all the bingo I can get.

angela smithProject One is a reveal/twist kind of thing that will be ruined if explained, but I can say it’s dark science fiction/ tech horror (you choose the label). This time I had the plot, characters, threat, setting, scenario, and core, but I needed a “why” that was less of a contrivance than “because.”

My question was answered last month when I read Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, the title of which is so long it took up all the space I had for explaining what it’s about. Suffice to say, the discussion of the early 20th century Eugenics movement (in part, a philosophy on genetic and racial superiority that advocated for sterilization of disabled and chronically ill people) lit the proverbial light bulb over my head. Why did I bother bringing this up since I’m not explaining what the novel is about?

My contrived answer: Because. Because it still cements my point, which is that writing inspiration can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it.

I don’t know if I’ll finish either of these projects. I put #1 on hold to work on #2, which I put on hold to work on a short story collection, so who knows? But won’t it be cool if I do finish them, and they are published, and you read them, and you track down this post, and read it again, and say, “Son of a gun!”

Only you don’t actually say “gun.”

So tell me about your serendipitous inspiration. That thing that improved or inspired your fiction when you least expected it…

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Raising the stakes for characters, using Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” as an example

WARNING: There is a 1 in 470,000,000.27 chance your monitor will explode while you are reading this, causing shards of glass to fly out and injure you. Also, SPOILERS regarding last night’s Sleepy Hollow season finale appear in this post. Ooh. Scary!

Characters: Abbie Mills, Icabod Crane, Katrina Crane, Captain Irving, Jenny MIlls

Characters: Abbie Mills, Icabod Crane, Katrina Crane, Captain Irving, Jenny MIlls

Sleepy Hollow is a ridiculous show. Every time I think it can’t get campier or more over the top, the producers say, “Oh yes it can.” Zombie George Washington anyone? Many times this season I’ve decided they are just making stuff up to be weird and have flirted with abandoning it, and I almost sort of 15% thought of skipping last night’s season finale. After all, Doctor Who is returning one of these months, and I’m ready for a grown-up, grounded, reality-based show again.

[That last line was a horns-blaring, chaser-light-arrow, flashing-neon work of sarcasm]

Not steaks. Stakes! Jeez.

Not steaks. Stakes! Jeez.

I’m glad I did not skip the Sleepy Hollow finale. Because I, like many writers, hold back too often, and sometimes I need a reminder as to what “raising the stakes” really means. The Sleepy crew capped the season with a 5-way cliffhanger that will not be resolved until the show returns in the fall. Of course, not everyone writes fantasy horror, so take this example in spirit if you lean toward realism in your work.

For the uninitiated, Sleepy Hollow is about Revolutionary War hero Icabod Crane, who kills one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in battle, but not before being fatally wounded by his opponent. His wife Katrina, a witch, casts a spell on him that keeps him in suspended animation for 250 years. He wakes up in the 21st century, just as a demon named Moloch is about to unleash hell on Earth. Crane teams up with a cop named Abbie Mills who, based on prophesy in a heretical gospel, is a “witness” destined to take a stand against the forces of evil and (maybe) save the planet. Did I mention this show is over the top? Oh yeah, her crazy sister Jenny and her boss, Captain Irving, are along for some demonic possession, corpse reanimation, and other alternative lifestyles.

OK, I’m running the spoilers now, so don’t get mad at me if you DVRed it and still haven’t watched: By the end of the season finale, Captain Irving is being charged with 2 murders he did not commit; Jenny is bleeding to death in a mangled truck that has crashed on a deserted road; Katrina has been abducted by the Headless Horseman; Abbie is trapped in Purgatory (yes, that Purgatory); and Icabod has been buried alive by his own son. Who, if I’m not utterly confused, is also War, one of the Four Horsemen.

Not that kind of stake, either! Well, maybe.

Not that kind of stake, either! Well, maybe.

Whew! Those are some high stakes, and, other than perhaps Jenny’s crash, none of these events seemed wedged in at the last minute for contrived tension. The groundwork had been laid in earlier episodes. Cool. Consider me inspired to up the threat level next time I put fingers to keyboard and resume my novel (Hahahahaha. Haha. Ugh).

As a blank pager (aka pantser), I’m doubly enthused. My best writing happens when I throw something at a character without knowing what it’s going to mean until I get to the end. I don’t know if Sleepy Hollow’s writers have a master plan, but I’d sure like to take a crack at writing the first episode of season 2, just for the chance to resolve a 5-way cliffhanger that I did not set up. Hello! Hollywood? I will work for cupcakes.

How about you? Do you ever hold back and play it safe in your writing, though you know it’s keeping you from finding your voice and realizing your true potential? And forcing bloggers to close out posts with a cliché that, nonetheless, has merit?

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P.S. I would never abandon you, Abbie Mills. I was just talking.

 


Content

This blog post is not content

This blog post is not content

I’m curious as to whether you read my post title as content or content. What does your choice say about you?

Eh. I don’t actually care what it says about you. Do I look like some kind of psychiatrist or something? I’m not your therapist! Stop being so needy, you big baby!

Er, sorry; I got a bit carried away. I was talking about content as in “the stuff you write on your blog.” As someone whose greatest fantasy is to be a levitating super-villain with lighting shooting from his fingertips, blowing up traffic and malfunctioning ink-jet printers while he laughs maniacally, I am probably not your ideal guru if you are seeking contentment. However, I’m sure we can all relate to this content-based question:

What shall I write today?

I read and enjoy a lot of writing-themed blogs on WordPress. Consider me impressed by those of you who blog exclusively about writing and continually come up with worthwhile content post after post. I can’t do that. When I write about writing, I do it with passion, but many days I have nothing to say on the subject.

Chicks dig Mole Men

Chicks dig Mole Men

On the other hand, I love to talk TV shows, music, and other forms of popular entertainment as well as spread the good word about Mole People, and I even whip up silly poems once in a while (yeah, I know my poetry isn’t nearly as bad as I suggest… that’s just part of my shtick). I write those things for fun and because I try to produce content you find enjoyable and entertaining.

Sometimes, when I’m going “off topic,” I wonder if my readers are thinking, Dude, I followed this writing blog for the writing discussion, not to hear about some obscure Motown singer or to compare hockey player beards. Those posts are still about writing, in a sense, because I’m a writer with range and am demonstrating it. But I do fear turning people away.

That is, until I read this post by my friend Janna, currently rebranding her own blog, which up-to-now has focused almost exclusively on writing. It turns out at least some people think my anything-goes-as-long-as-it-entertains approach is good marketing. Son of a gun!

So what about you? Do you prefer to stay on topic with your blog (whatever that topic may be), or do you like to branch out? Either way, what inspires your content?

Look, I’m asking for real. Are you still upset because I called you a big baby up top? Sorry, but I have to toughen you up. One of these days a levitating super-villain might try to blow up your car with finger lightning and you have to be ready!

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Haiku limericks… and other vapid verse

Let’s be clear: This post does not offer Haiku. It offers limericks—Haiku’s inbred second cousin—about the Japanese poetry form. However, I’m sure the hypothetical Haiku I’m discussing would be lovely if we could only see it…

Here's...

Here’s…

A man once wrote some Haiku

He thought it was brilliant, too.

It turns out he blundered

His readers all wondered,

“What, is this guy sniffing glue?”

~~~

Haiku’s made of 17 bits

It sure can give some writers fits

When in such a funk

Writers tend to eat junk

Which later gives them the… gastrointestinal distress

How...

How…

Who writes a poem about poems?

Strange thoughts under cranial domes

Surrealistic scenes

No one knows what they mean

Not even old Sherlock Holmes

~~~

I have to admit it is true

I have no more to say on Haiku

I doubt you are sad

You might even be glad

Since the three poems above this one blew

I...

I…

I think we all can agree

Focus in writing is key

I should be creating

Not procrastinating

As I sit here binge-watching TV

~~~

I haven’t got too many vices

Neither smoking nor drinking entices

But if you happen to bake

I could sure use some cake

Though anything with sugar suffices

Troll...

Troll…

Being a governor is handy

Using people as pawns is just dandy!

But can Chris Christie handle

When it turns to a scandal?

And we forget about Hurricane Sandy?

~~~

“I want every voter in reach,”

The governor said in a speech

He closed lanes to a bridge

While raiding his fridge

Now he might get impeached

For...

For…

Do people really look like these folks?

Or is it some Photoshop hoax?

If I’d shown Chris Christie

Would you have dismissed me?

Lord knows, Haiku pics are jokes!

~~~

Bloggers are searching for clicks

We’ll try all kinds of tricks

It seems such a shame

When our content is lame

That we lure people with pretty pics

Clicks...

Clicks…

 

 


There’s Always Somebody Better

Trying to write the next Grapes of Wrath and getting blown away like so much dust? Dreaming of outselling J.K. Rowling with an epic fantasy series that knocks Harry Potter off his broomstick… but ending up with a migraine instead? Outraged that people don’t notice your religio-art conspiracy detective thriller (?) is ten times more brilliant than anything by Dan Brown?

Bad News: Whatever you try to do, there’s always somebody who does it better.

Take me for example. I’ve been known to sport a pretty decent beard. In fact, I get compliments on it from a lot of dudes (and the occasional dudette). Here’s a picture of me wearing it:

 Eric's beard

Guys tell me they wish they could get such solid, even coverage. Women tell me their husbands and boyfriends try to grow beards but end up getting frustrated because it looks bad and shave it off. But the truth is, I’m only semi-pro. If you want the King of Coverage, the Baron of Body, the Thunder god of Thickness, the Heavyweight of Hair (that all grows in the same direction)? I give you hockey player Hank Zetterberg, all-star forward for the Detroit Red Wings:

Henrik Zetterberg

Zetterberg is to ______ as Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting. (Answer: beards)

 hank

Not even Chuck Norris would mess with Zetterberg’s beard!

 Zetterberg

I could become despondent over the fact that I’ll never have a beard like Hank Zetterberg’s. But remember what I said above? Lots of people tell me they wish they could grow a beard like mine, and some ladies’ husbands are indeed envious. To boot, it only takes me about a week.

Once upon a time I became frustrated that neither of my manuscripts landed me an agent or a publishing contract. I’d glance over the shelves at the bookstore, randomly picking up new novels and scanning the beginning pages. A lot of them were drivel, honestly. I’d grumble. I’d furrow my brow. My manuscript was better than this junk!

You may have had the same experience. Or perhaps you didn’t sell nearly as many copies of your self-published novel as you dreamed. “Darn it,” you’d say, “How come this other thing got popular? Mine is better. It drives me nuts that that one particular writer is more successful!”

But, guess what… You wrote a novel! And it was pretty good. On the planet Earth, how many people can make that claim? Not many. And you learned a lot, so much so that your next novel will be ten times better. You might not be the next John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling, or Dan Brown, but you are already the first you. That is a worthwhile and unique achievement.

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