Tag Archives: Writing inspiration

I Wish I’d Written That #1

Jacques-Louis David "Patroclus"

“Patroclus” (1780) by Neoclassicism’s most revered painter, Jacques-Louis David

I scarcely need to ask: Have you ever come across a sentence or phrase so exquisitely capturing an idea or feeling that you were compelled to shout, “Why didn’t I write that!”

Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde might be popping into your head about now.

It happens to me all the time, but I then I forget because I’m a flake. Well, guess what. I’m going to keep track now.

Today’s entry belongs to art historian Hugh Honour and appears in his book Neo-Classicism, which was published in 1968 but not discovered and bought by me until two weeks ago at the Princeton Public Library’s used book section for $1.

Honour was talking about conventions so familiar to writers and artists that we master their use but no longer think about what they mean on a cultural or philosophical level.

He called such conventions “Furniture of the Mind.”

You have achieved total victory, Hugh Honour.*

*unless someone else thought of it first and I’m too much of a Philistine to realize that Honour was simply borrowing it.

Please share a thought or phrase below that made you go, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

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When Bad Books Get Published

book of the dead

There are two realities: The one we insist upon and the one that actually is.

For writers, the insisted reality is that nothing less than perfection will get us a sniff at publication. Agents, publishers, editors, other writers, and bloggers don’t mind telling us everything we’re doing wrong in our quest, either.  Taken in toto, their advice demands that our stories have intriguing, likeable, and flawed (but not too flawed) characters who interact via engaging, authentic dialog and whose arcs roll out in perfect synchronization with an expertly paced, surprising (but not too surprising) plot, within which we have woven the perfect balance of descriptive details and crisp verbs while employing a narrative style that utilizes all five senses, avoids adverbs like bubonic plague, layers in foreshadowing that is not too obvious yet not too obscure, and speaks to the human condition in an original, innovative, and commercially viable way.

The actual reality is that most books fail to meet these demands yet are published all the time. Go to any bookstore, and within 5 minutes you should be able to find at least one novel that is a derivative, bland, and cliché-ridden exercise in tedium, the sole purpose of which seems to be: I dare you to finish this. Within a half hour, you can probably find a dozen more like it.

book of the dead2I say this because I am currently reading a debut novel that is, at its very best, mechanically competent on a sentence level. I’m reading it because it’s set during the early Italian Renaissance, a period that intrigues me, and because someone lent it to me.

None of the characters offers anything close to a personality or motivation, tedious exposition stands in place of a plot, and tension is nonexistent. I’ve invented the following dialog exchange for your amusement, yet I feel it captures the character interplay quite accurately:

“It’s not fair that you are sending me to the monastery. You know that all I long to do is paint and to become a great artists like my father!” said Luigi with a wince.

“You know what is not fair?” replied Super Mario. “It is not fair that you stole that apple from the street vendor, forcing me to give 3 florins to the jailer to secure your release! It is not fair that your mother died of consumption those five years ago and left you in my care, for, prior to that, I had no worries in the world. Oh, what else can I do with you, Luigi? It’s a monk’s life for you, I’m afraid.”

This followed by a three pages of exposition detailing the hitching of the cart, the ride into town, the condition of the roads, the oppressive atmosphere at the monastery, and so on.

To end up in a bookstore, this manuscript had to interest an agent then be pitched and sold to a publisher, edited, printed, and distributed, despite the writing being objectively poor.

As would-be professional novelists (presuming no best-selling authors currently read this blog), we show good form by not whining in public about our struggles to find success, not trashing our contemporaries by name, and taking our lumps from experts with humility. But you know as well as I do that lots of awful books get published and sometimes—admit it—you think, “Geez. I would have written that so much better.”

Which leads me to this question: When you browse a novel that forces you to stifle your gag reflex over its dreadfulness, do you end up feeling bitter or motivated?

monty python book


Summertime Blogging Blues – 2014 Edition

What is it about summer and blogging?

It’s not as if my days are appreciably different this time of year. I’m doing mostly the same stuff, only in short sleeves. Who the heck is staying up all night at beach parties listening to Beethoven and dancing with space robots? Not me. I work every day.

Still, I’m not alone. I’ve read your “I’m burnt out on blogging and taking a break” posts. They always seem to crop up in June and July.

Being that this is a writing/editing blog, I’m ever mulling over ideas for future posts on the subject. Fact is, though, composing such pieces is time consuming. If you’ve got the summertime blogging blues, you don’t always feel like hammering away at one for three hours (especially when you’ve got a second draft deadline for your future best seller coming up in 7 weeks).

Since I have abandonment issues, I shan’t be “taking a break,” lest you forget me. What I shall be doing is indulging whimsy. If you were here last summer, you know what that means: countdowns, limericks, random observations, and other fluff is coming your way. Fluff is easy! I bet I can still make you laugh.

I recognize that this post did not offer worthwhile content. Nothing brilliant, insightful, or even interesting if you think about it. I’d go as far as to say it was 255 words of drivel. To make up for that, I share with you the unique genius of Mr. Trololo. 19 million YouTube viewers can’t be wrong.


Second Drafts

misery

I’m still sticking to that self-imposed August 31, 11:59 p.m. 2014 deadline for a complete second draft of my novel. I have to say, everything is going fantastically well! I work on it for hours and hours on end. It’s all I can think about and, whenever I’m doing something else, I can’t wait to get back in there and…

Oh, who am I kidding? I hate second drafts. On first drafts I lose myself and forget time, intrigued by the mystery of where my story is going and what will happen to the characters. With the second draft, it’s:

Wait, wasn’t her shirt red back on page 47? [press “PgUp” key until I find the previous reference, which turns out to be p 39] Nope. It was blue like I said.

Am I overselling the snow in this scene? Are people going to get that it’s snowing? What’s another word for snow?

Oh crap. Last chapter was also “Chapter 5.” How did I end up with two chapter fives?

Hold on. Do they even have maple trees in Poland?

Really? The submarine ascended upward? Good thing it didn’t ascend sideways. That would mean the ocean got tipped over.

On second thought, I don’t think she would scream “Geronimo!” in this scene. She’s more of the “Vengeance is mine!” type.

And so on.

My big plan this weekend was to knock out large swaths of text, get ahead of the game, and then sit back and sip margaritas from a tiki glass whilst wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, surrounded by the cast of Sorority Babe Heat Wave 4, each of whom thinks it’s too hot in here. Instead I worked on my WiP for a collective total of 2 hours, and, despite an entire month passing since I finished draft one, I haven’t hit page 70 yet. I did vacuum a bit and give myself a haircut, and I went to the supermarket to buy stuff to pack for lunch. Which is, you know, something.

I’m still gonna hit that deadline, fickle muses be damned!

How about you? Do you find revision a drag?


What do you write and why?

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it's not as pretty to watch.

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it’s not as pretty to watch or as hard on the knees.

We only have so much time to write and so much energy to devote to each project. I know many of you can relate, because you blog about it.

This week I’ve begun pushing myself to work on my novel. Yay me! Unfortunately, I have finite writing mojo, which means that I am too lazy to come up with an insightful post tonight. My mental energy went to the novel. Fortunately, I have you, so I am going to put you to work!

Please, in the comments, tell me what you write and why you choose (or are compelled) to write it. The “what” is up to you. It can mean poetry, fiction, or non-fiction or even blogging. It can be genre, like Romance or Haiku or Personal Essay; as long as it’s writing and it’s for creative expression. Shopping lists don’t count because I know why you write those. Duh.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

I’ll go first:

What: I write fiction that falls in the general category “speculative,” typically thought to include horror, science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural. If the description “twilight zonish” resonates with you, then you probably have a good sense of my material.

Why: I enjoy speculative fiction for the freedom it offers. I can set a story anywhere in the universe, or even outside the universe. I can change the rules of physics. I can go anywhere, anytime, and do anything. At the same time, I can and often do keep it very close to reality. An odd coincidence in an otherwise ordinary setting and situation is enough to set a character on a strange journey, physical or metaphorical or both. I’m a sucker for a surprise ending or a twist as well, and the possibilities for such in speculative fiction are limitless.

There; that was easy. You don’t have to be so long-winded if you don’t want, or you can post a gigantic comment and text the very limits of WordPress’s comment processor. You take it from here…


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…