Saturday, August 1, 2020

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS? AND AN IDEA FOR A NOVEL


 

Most fiction writers write from a parallel universe. We drop into an altered reality by using written words to create whole worlds, people, and stories about those people. It all comes from thin air. Or does it? 

 

I started my novel playing with this idea about imagination. It’s not much of a thought, not developed in any way, but you don’t need much, just a spark. What this spark has to have, what’s essential, is that it’s enough to catch fire. 

 

But when readers ask writers where their ideas come from (some come up with elaborate stories, some just fall back on claiming the Idea Store and so on), they’re really asking where the initial spark comes from. No one knows. Here’s Neil Gaiman on where he gets his ideas. Spoiler alert. HE DOESN’T KNOW. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C48jAkVlI0

 

 

My advice to writers is trust your intuition. Brainstorm. Come up with many ideas. Find one that will catch fire.  In other words find one that you have enthusiasm for. The characters and setting and story will come if you you’re excited about your story and you can keep that excitement. I’m not saying it will be great or even good novel but I am saying you will likely finish it. That’s a big step and a fine accomplishment. If you finish a work, you have a chance to make it the novel you hope it will be when you start.

 

In my new novel, A True Story from a Parallel Universe, I began with thinking I would write a true story from another universe because who, given our current restrictions on travel, could say it wasn't? Then I wanted that world to be different and interesting. So I did the what if question-- what if there was a world where any creature, fantastic or otherwise, that our creators of myths, books, and movies have imagined were real? I could have fun with that. Off the top of my head I thought of vampires, zombies, wizards, witches, ghosts, characters from Greek myths, Egyptian myths, legends like Big Foot, but as I wrote  I came up with many more. What if they were just natural to that world?

I started with this idea and with the idea of a main character who would have supernatural abilities but wouldn't know he had them at the beginning of the novel. Often I start with just a little thought about character and setting and tone and I'm off. The tone for this would be humorous--a little goofy, a little dark in places. My favorite funny people--those who do it for a living and those who do it just because they do--are the ones who mix a little serious in with their funny. One of my favorites right now who does it for a living is Russell Brand. He’s got this goofy absurdism about him—his delivery and his riffs—but there’s something more—astute observations about people and all kinds of things that give his comedy a little bite. All in good fun but it’s there.

 

So I had a spark, and developed a few ideas about character, a little about tone, a little about setting. I was excited. That got me started on my process for working on story and I was off. The result is this novel.

 

Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s a link to my novel. I’m launching this week so I’m discounting it down ito 99 cents thru Saturday and giving it away for free  next Sunday, August 9 and Monday 10. https://www.amazon.com/Story-Parallel-Universe-Detective-Agencyebook/dp/B08DYFYL9Q/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Brian+Yansky+A+True+Story+from+a+Parallel+Universe&qid=1596311023&sr=8-1

 

 

Keep writing.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

How to Begin a Novel

How to Begin a Novel

 

One school of thought to beginning a novel is do not plan or you’ll smother the life right out of your story. Discovery write. Put words on the page Think of it as puking on paper  (not the most enticing image, but there you have it.) And this method works great for some people. In the other corner would be those who want you to plot it all out. Often these hardcore outliners want you to plan not just the plot but also setting and character and then break  plot up—write out subplots and  chapters and scenes all in outline form. They think if you get this whole design down on paper you will know where you’re going all the time. You won’t get lost. To the Discovery writer getting lost is  the point since they think getting lost will lead to interesting places. They know they’ll have to revise a lot and they don’t care. The outliner is appalled. How can a person not know where they’re going when they don’t know where they’re trying to end up? Chaos. Absolute chaos. Order is how you efficiently get from point A to point B better known as beginning to end. Boring, the Discovery writer thinks. If you aren’t excited and discovering things as you write your reader won’t be excited by your writer either. 

 

An example of an outliner  extraordinaire would be John Irving—bestseller and winner of numerous awards for books like The World According to Garp and Owen Meany and many others. He swears by detailed plotting of a book. He says he spends anywhere from 6 months to a year and a half just planning his novels.. He begins his outline at the end and works his way back to the beginning. BUT 6 months to 18 months! Then he writes. And he writes great books. They take him years to write but they’re good.

 

In response to John Irving’s method of detailed plotting before writing a word of his novel Stephen King has said that though Irving writes great books he can’t imagine writing a book that way. If he knew where he was going it would take all the fun out of the trip. He does not plot at all. He starts with just an idea of a character and situation and off he goes into the night.

 

Both of these methods have plenty of true-believers. So which is it? Who is right? 

 

Therein lies the rub. They’re both right. And they’re both wrong. Because the truth is you have to find what works for you, your method, and then go with that. If you’re completely new to writing you should try out both or versions of both that give emphasis to one side or the other. If you’ve been writing for a while and you feel like things are not working—you’re just not getting where you need to go—then maybe it’s time to try to take at least some lessons from the other side of the writing process spectrum. Add some outlining to your discovery or some discovery to your outline. 

 

That’s what I’ve done.

 

In my experience most writers do come to a process that isn’t completely discovery or completely outlining but does lean strongly one way or the other. 

 

So my process has changed and these changes have made me a better and faster writer. I am a big consumer of writing about writing so a lot of my process comes from things I’ve read, advice taken from here or there from other approaches, and my own trial and error. 

 

I used to do a points on the map kind of outline which is what it sounds like. You have an idea where you’re going to end up in your novel. You have an idea where you’re going to begin. You plot out a few points in between. You’re on your way. I did this in a very limited way. I scribbled out a few ideas. I didn’t pay much attention to them once I got writing. They were more like brainstorming.

 

I still do a version of this but now it is much more detailed and I put some thought into those points. Just this one change has saved me a lot of time and helped me feel more confident about my fist draft.

 

EM Forster famously wrote, “How can I know what I think until  I see what I say.” He likely wasn’t the first to express this notion but he spoke for many writers. I NEED to write things down to understand and dig into the story I’m trying to tell. I can’t just work it out in my head. It’s too vague that way and what I need is more detail and some concrete direction. Writing it down gives that to me.

 

I start with a general idea of what story I want to tell.. It’s a Space Western set in a world like the old West or Roman Empire. A love story between an atheist and a believer or a country & western star and a heavy metal rocker. Whatever… 

 

Then  I work a little on the character and situation. What’s my main character’s situation at the beginning of the story and what will the inciting incident be that starts the plot moving forward thirty or forty pages in?  What does my MC want and what or who gets in the way? 

 

Next I try to come up with X number of big plot points. I brainstorm anything that comes to mind.  Then I brainstorm potential scenes—just one or two sentences to describe each scene. For example-- the hero meets his best-friend and they eat breakfast and talk about his girlfriend that the best friend doesn’t approve of. Anything that comes to mind. Then  I try to generally order the scenes. But, YOU WILL ADD AND CUT SCENES…all of this is just a guide. As you’re writing you’ll discover scenes that you couldn’t have seen before you were in the process of writing. You have to be open to following your intuition even though you have this outline.

 

When I have a couple of pages of potential scenes in a potential order,  I start writing. As I write, I’m not married to the scenes or the order of the scenes but just having these scenes helps me feel like I know where I’m going.

 

The next part is essential. I keep to the idea of writing out things first. Before I begin a scene I write for five minutes about what will happen in the scene or what I want to happen. I intellectualize what I’m doing in the scene, write bits of dialogue sometimes, maybe write how the characters feel and what their conflict is. Somehow just writing this down clarifies for me what should happen in the scene.  I SEE WHAT I WANT TO SAY. Then I write the scene. I don’t look at what I wrote usually. I just let the characters direct what happens.

 

So you can see this is a bit discovery and a bit outlining. I’m trying to use both.

 

The first draft still gets messy, of course. I still follow the motto LOW EXPECTATIONS for the first draft, but even though it will need several revisions it won’t—and this is the important part—require me to rework large sections. I haven’t wandered away from the story in big ways because of these outlining steps. It will allow me to focus on smaller problems and improving language much faster. And I still get the discovery in the actual writing of scenes.

 

So that’s how I begin a novel.

Friday, July 3, 2020

When Characters take Control

Most writers feel this, I think. I certainly do. I want to feel it. I strive to feel it. I’m talking about when your characters seem to take over and make things happen. Now, I’m not going to argue the authenticity of the feeling. It's happened to me so I believe I’ve felt it. Maybe it is just finding the groove, the altered state, which allows you to access that part of the brain that makes intuitive leaps. Or maybe you’re connecting to a higher power, any higher power.

Whatever it is that makes it happen, your characters come to life in the sense that it feels like they are writing the story. They take you places you hadn’t thought of or intended to go and these places are the right places for your story. Some of the truest writing comes from these moments because it’s coming from inside the world of the characters and story. You aren’t forcing it.

Often these moments will come when I’ve got the conflict right in a scene and characters are acting and reacting to one another. 

If it happens to you my advice is go with it. Thank the writer gods and write on.

Of course there will be other  times when you have to coax and force your characters forward so you can move the story. Alas, that’s the way of writing. Sometimes you have to get crafty and drive those words like a herd of wild horses or stubborn mules or angry cats. Writing fiction-- sometimes you fly and sometimes you crawl.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I’m back

It’s been a while but I’m back. I want to blog a couple of times a month about writing issues. For example, I’ve changed some things in my own writing process and I’ve learned some new strategies for writing better and faster. I’ve been focusing on voice and particularly storytelling—plot and structure—over the last year. There’s a lot of new in my writing world and I’m hoping some of the new in my approach to writing fiction might be helpful to other struggling writers. In particular, one thing I’ll get to soon is strategies for writing better first drafts. I think my first drafts have become better and I’ve also written them faster because of new strategies. Yes, my first draft still sucks in many ways. Yes, I still believe a first draft slogan should be LOW EXPECTATIONS. But the way my first drafts have improved is that they have fewer structural problems. I don’t get forty pages into revision and realize that my first draft went in the wrong direction. I’ve done that many times and what it means is completely rewriting entire sections. It’s frustrating and time-consuming. Now, I can focus on the other numerous weak areas more as I go through my revisions because it has a narrative foundation.

 

 

For me personally, one new direction my writing has taken is I’ve finished a novel for adults that is a comic urban fantasy (sort of—bit of genre blending going on) about a detective who works for the Poe Detective Agency in a parallel universe. I say it is a true story from a parallel universe because, come on, who can prove it isn’t?. Unlike my five YA novels, which were traditionally published, this one will be an independent publication. Which means I’m behind the whole thing though I hesitate to call it self-publishing because I’ve had an editor, cover designer, and copy-editor/ proof reader’s help. If I write more YA, I’ll probably try to keep that in the traditional publishing world but I want to try the independent  approach for my adult Poe Detective novels. So I guess I’m what is called a hybrid author, which I must admit I kind of like the sound of. 

 

 

Anyway, happy to have returned to the blogosphere. Appreciate your reading this ramble. Hope to carry on soon with my story creating stories.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Key to Finishing A Novel

I've written many novels--some awful, some pretty good, I think. Five have been published, but I think I'm writing my best work now (though an author always thinks this. Let's be honest we have a love/hate relationship with our work. We write a note about what to get at the grocery store and we're really pleased with a turn of phrase about apples and we think to ourselves--that is one great note--really very nice. But then we look at it latter and we think to ourselves--well, it could have been better if only, if only). Still I've finished many novels.

How?

By not thinking about writing a novel, not thinking about all I have to do to complete the daunting and ridiculously difficult task of finishing a novel and then somehow revising it into something that not only makes sense but that is a great story with interesting characters told with beautiful language in a unique and powerful way. SEE the problem? These kinds of expectations are deadly to a writer's finishing a draft of the novel. So, yes, it's important to have low expectations for the first draft. That's helpful. But what is essential, in my mind, is that no matter how much you think about different aspects of the whole novel, when you sit down to write you just think about writing a scene and then writing another scene and then another. A novel is made up mostly of scenes. Think of it in those terms to keep pushing forward.

For me, personally, I keep trying to come back to my characters and what they want and what gets in the way. So as I'm writing, I'm thinking about situations that will force my character to act--physically, emotionally, intellectually---to overcome the threat or difficulty in that situation and move on to the goal of getting what he/she wants/needs. I do think of other situations sometimes that might develop aspects of the story or theme--again always coming back to doing this through my characters. Still, in my humble opinion, it all begins with scenes and keeping your focus on scenes and not on the major task of finishing a whole novel. Just think of moving forward, bit by bit. In a few months or a year, you'll have a draft. Then revise.

The key to finishing a novel is not thinking about finishing a novel while you're writing your first draft. Think about your story and characters in scenes that keep building toward an ending. You may, at first, only see this as a vague destination in the distance. That's fine. Trust your instincts. Keep pushing on.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

nothing to say, no skill in saying it

I have nothing to say and no skill in saying it--which is something I remember (not exact quote) reading John Steinbeck writing in a letter.  I recently heard Joyce Carol Oates expressing a similar worry--at least how uninspired the work seemed-- when talking about trying to start something new. AND SO I AM a little lifted by knowing that these great writers, and many other writers, when facing the blank page, even though they've faced it many times before, have the same doubts I have. Each time.

SO, fellow writers, PUSH ON.

Though the winds be fierce
The waves hard and cold
The land far away
The night dark
PUSH ON PUSH ON

Write through the crap you will write. It's the only way to get past the  clumsy and downright ugly approximations of what your work will one day be. You have to have faith that you will find the right words and the lightning to guide you. It will likely take many drafts. PUSH ON. PUSH ON.

BON VOYAGE fellow travelers.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A little Writing Advice 101

You need to learn some things. Live, read, watch, think, feel and more.

 Then you need to learn writing skills--fiction writing skills. How to use language. How to create and develop characters. Create real emotion. Create conflict. Setting. Dialogue. Storytelling. There are so many skills that need to be learned that are particular to writing fiction.

And then you need to be able to execute these skills--which takes practice and time. A lot of time. A lot of failure and learning from that failure. At least it takes most of us a lot of time. There are exceptions.

You need to be able to communicate your own unique way of seeing into your writing. So important. When I pick up a book and something about it feels different and I'm attracted to that difference, I'm in heaven as a reader. I'm excited to read on, and I don't want to stop.

You need to develop your imagination.

You need to be bold and take chances.

And the rest is up to the gods-- but if you do all these things you at least put yourself in a place where you might find success--whatever that might mean to you.

Or so I think today.