Explode Your Ideas

“When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea.”
– Ernest Hemingway

This quote describes my idea process fairly well. Many of my ideas come from that liminal state of mind between sleep and wakefulness. This can get frustrating, because who remembers to grab a pencil and paper when half-asleep? I’ve trained myself, thankfully, to keep a pad of paper within flailing distance of my bed.

But that’s the end result of an involved idea process. How do ideas begin? I’m a people-watcher, for one. I often will sit in a crowded place with my headphones on, and my music turned down really low so I can hear the conversations around me. This isn’t to spy on people, but rather to grab impressions.

Maybe Lord Hartwell walks like that man, and scratches the back of his head like that little boy. Maybe Mary twitches her nose to the side like that woman when she smells something she doesn’t like. Mr Spencer sneezes like that old man over there, despite his only being 26 years old.

I take these impressions, along with snippets of stories I hear and read throughout the day, and do…nothing. I think about them for a while, try to decide why I find them interesting, and then I continue with my day. As a graduate student, I have a lot to do, so it’s almost never a problem to let my ideas stew.

A couple of days later, my idea will explode like Hemingway’s stove, and I’ll scramble for pen and paper. I’ll write furiously, scratching out words that don’t work because it takes too much time to erase. I’ll feel triumphant if I catch everything in the first attempt, and then I’ll fall asleep with a smile on my face.

The next morning, I’ll wake and examine what I wrote. Sometimes, I’m pleased with it, and decide it will definitely go in the new draft. Sometimes, it’s complete trash, but I tuck it into my journal anyway, because it’s a piece of writing and all writing counts, whether it’s trash or not. Practice makes perfect, right?

How do your ideas come to you? Do they explode into being, or do they sneak in unawares?

Break the Seas

A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.
– Franz Kafka

We all know that a story in which nothing bad happens to the character isn’t much of a story. The character needs something to fight against, so the reader has a reason to root for the character. This can be for heroes and villains, believe it or not.

That being said, when you write, who do you keep in mind as you write? The characters? Your overarching plot? Your theme? Your reader? Or all of the above?

When I began Trentwood’s Orphan, I had no idea who or what I was writing for. I simply had a character (Mary Winslow) who, like many of you mentioned in the comments two weeks ago, wouldn’t leave me alone. And that was good enough for me, then.

Now, I find that I’m writing not only to learn more about Mary, but also about how the world affects her and how she affects the world…that world including the reader. Can I make my reader cry? Can I make them frustrated? Will they be drawn into the story and wonder how Mary will get past her grief? Will they be desperate to know whether she will allow love, in any form, to break the seas frozen in her soul?

Some might discount this as a romance thing, only. As in, only in romance would an author try to tease such an emotional response from their reader. I beg to differ. Many a literary fiction has done much worse to me than the majority of the romances I’ve read. And perhaps that’s why I want to bring emotional turmoil, real emotional turmoil, to my romance.

Romance is a part of life, as is tragedy. Oftentimes, they come hand-in-hand. Is this so in fiction? Not always. Does this mean romance and tragedy should never happen together in fiction? Not necessarily.

In fact, if an author can touch me in such a way that I feel as though my very soul was burned, I’m much more likely to recommend the book to a friend. That is what I strive for, something so…fierce, I suppose, that my reader is scorched, forever changed by my writing.

Tell me, is this something you’ve considered? Do you feel breaking the ice of your reader’s soul is applicable to your genre? Explain why or why not, I’m very curious to know how you feel about this.

Mark Twain’s Tips on Writing Well

We all know Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc. In literary circles he is known for his lambasting essay, The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, where he writes his Nineteen Most Important Rules of Literature. The essay claims that James Fenimore Cooper, another well-known American author, broke eighteen of them. How do you make out?

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. The people in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The people in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the people of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a person in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a person talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a [slave] minstrel in the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. People of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. Characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Whoosh. Twain really didn’t like Cooper’s writing! And he isn’t done yet. Additional requirements for authors include…

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

For the life of me, I can’t find the 19th rule, the one Cooper didn’t break. If you want to read Twain’s complete essay, check it out here. You have to admit, though, Twain is onto something here. Especially #5, where characters should only talk when they have something interesting to say that also has to to with the plot. So come on, fess up: How many rules have you broken?

Plot Snafus and Hasty Research

snafu (adj) : situation normal – all fouled up

Things were going really well with the WIP until the middle of December, when in the middle of the night I woke up in a sweat with the awful realization that the beginning of the WIP is in February, during a rainstorm. Why an awful realization? It occurred to me that I don’t even know if it rains in February in England, let alone showers. It is winter, right? They’re on an island, so maybe I can just get by with the assumption that the ocean keeps the island from getting too cold, thus allowing and encouraging a healthy February shower?

After allowing an hour of feverish plot contemplation, I decided I had to have it rain. Which either meant more research to discover what the weather was like in the Wantage/Swindon area of England during February 1887, or, change the timeline of the story. Since the story has to start in February, research became my only option.
1886-1887 Girl in Winter
Do you know how hard it is to look up 120 year-old weather patterns for a relatively obscure location? I stretched my Google-fu to the limits, searching everything from “UK weather archive” to “Swindon almanac feb 1887.” (My location is actually a small community relatively near Swindon, but that community is so small you might as well say it doesn’t exist on the internet.) After searching for an hour, I found two sources saying there was a December 1886 snowstorm in southern England so fierce that school was canceled, overhead telegraph lines and trees around London were felled, and Kent received 30cm snow (11.8 inches). My community would have experienced that snowstorm, then. But what about February 1887? What happened then?

White Horse HillI don’t suppose I ever mentioned how I love the internet, but I do. I found the UK meteorological office which states it rains one out of three days a year on average, and more often in the winter. Snow occurs more over hilly areas than by the sea, which is handy to know because my town is right by the Berkshire downs and White Horse Vale. Hill fog is extensive over hills and potentially dangerous to walkers. But lo! and behold, I found the historical record from Oxford, which is also relatively close to my town (if you’re generous)! One of the many wonderful reasons to set a historical fiction novel in England…they like to keep records. So now I know that in Oxford, during February 1887, the average high temperature was 7.5C (45.5F, so no snow), the average low was 0.5C (32.9F, which could result in snow), there were 17 air frost days, and the rainfall for the month was 15.2cm (about 5 inches).

I don’t know if that’s enough to say a rain shower occurred by my town, since Oxford is about 40mi north of where my novel is set. But hey, I have a weather pattern! And it’s plausible, in any case, that there was a rain shower, which…as I’m writing historical fiction, it only needs to be plausible, right?

What do you think? Should I continue the search, or work from this plausible assumption that it rained in February 1887? And am I the only one who does frantic searches so my plot is sound?

Article: Hold on to Your Plot Part 3

And now, the finale for the article on how to hold on to your plot!

Article found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module27p

Complex Structures
The credibility of most plots depends on their logic and consistency, but whether your readers will find them gripping will also depend on the elements of unpredictability, surprise and tension. What you need is a strategy for revealing or withholding details of the plot – in other words, a structure.

One persistent model – an epic poem which begins with birth of a hero and ends with his death – goes back to storytelling in its earliest forms, and features three distinct phases: the beginning, the middle and the end. In the past, these have followed a strict chronology, but over the last couple of centuries storytelling itself has been affected by the progress of modernity. This has largely been in the form of urbanization, mass communication, and our subsequent separation from ‘natural’ chronological and seasonal cycles.

Take any news story. Usually, you’ll hear the climax of the story repeated several times from a bewildering variety of viewpoints. Later on, we’ll receive various kinds of information about the origins of the story and its background. More often than not, we’ll be teased over a matter of days, weeks and even months about the final resolution, if there is one. In these circumstances, the neatness and predictability of traditional storytelling becomes literally incredible.

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Article: Hold on to Your Plot Part 2

A continuation from the article I posted here, read about how you can hold onto your plot by working with your characters, etc.

Article found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module27p

Plot and Characters
This is a good point to begin learning more about the characters, because there is an intimate relationship between them and the story and plot. You can plan a carefully detailed, workable plot before outlining the characters but if you do, they run the risk of being unconvincing, mechanical plot devices. So it is important to see your narrative as a complex interaction between the plot and the characters.

To make your story work, the characters need to be comfortable with the demands of the plot. I have often found my characters refusing to do what the plot dictates, simply because it would be against their nature. When this happens the problem is more than likely to be that the characters were fleshed out too late in the process, and the solution may be to change the course of events, alter the emphasis or abandon the plot altogether and start again. This sounds drastic but rethinking the characters and their relationships is much less satisfactory than making changes to the plot. Tailoring your characters to fit the plot risks narrowing their potential, making them less interesting and lifelike.

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Article: Hold On to Your Plot Part 1

When we begin writing, we have this core idea, this main plot that keeps the story together. But as we get deeper into subplots and secondary/tertiary characters, sometimes we lose our main idea. We obsess over the little things. We forget the forest for the trees. We see the colors but not the rainbow. I could go on, but I won’t, for your sake. The following series of three entries will focus on Mike Phillips’s essay showing how he keeps his plot in line, with his hints on how to help you stay focused.

Article found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module27p

Losing the Plot?
by Mike Phillips

New Ideas from Old
Plots are always based on a story of some kind, and there are only a limited number of basic stories in any culture. Boy meets girl, for instance, or the eternal love triangle. Look hard enough at any story and you will always find the fingerprints of an earlier one.

My own first novel, Blood Rights, was based on a reworking of the story of Oedipus – boy meets dad, kills him and marries mum. This is a fairly unusual family crisis but, in principle, most plots draw on stories which have universal and familiar themes, both within history and for our own times. Exploring and developing stories of this kind is a reliable and interesting way of starting to construct a plot.

Exactly how you go about doing this is a matter of individual temperament. I have sometimes found that it requires nothing more than the impulse to get something down on paper, rather than having planned it out meticulously before I pick up a pen.

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