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The Lair Of Gary James

Archive for March, 2011

The Building Blocks Of Story – Finding The Ideas

Posted by BigWords on March 24, 2011

“Where do ideas come from?” is a question I seem to come across more than any other, and as the point has been raised again, I feel I ought to chip in with some of the things which trigger my synapses into action. The first thing you ought to know, because these disclaimers are important, is that I very rarely see anything another writer has done and think “man, that is an awesome idea… I wonder what I can do with it.” Ideas don’t just drop into my lap fully formed, no matter how rounded a first draft may appear to be – though given my recent outpourings, this may be all too believable for some. No, ideas come together slowly. They are, to use a clumsy and rather ill-fitting metaphor, like jigsaw puzzles which have no complete image to work from, nor any pieces which fit together at first. Stories, which are built off ideas in the same way that houses are built from bricks, tend to need a lot of work to get them into the right shape, so this post really isn’t about writing stories as much as it is about the ideas underpinning those stories.

Any story, whether it be a short story or a novel, has a triangle of requirements necessary to the propulsion of events – think of this in the same way as fire needs oxygen, heat and fuel. First comes characters: Without characters to inhabit the landscape of imagination, story becomes much more difficult to create (not impossible, but a lot harder), so I pull ideas for characters from all over the place. I don’t like uprooting existing characters from one story to serve another, so they tend to arise from “What if” questions, usually asked of real individuals. Amongst the people I have based characters on are Harry Price, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Valentine Dyall, Margaret Rutherford, Sidney James and Richard O’Brien. They share the common feature of not being overly “pretty” individuals (the ‘Hollywood standard’ bores me no end), and they all have, or had, strong identities which come through in the characters I loosely based off of them.

There are a lot of writers who seek a strong voice for their characters, and I have said (numerous times) that using individuals as templates for fictional characters is not a bad thing. As long as people have been writing, real individuals have served as inspiration. This is not “lazy”, or “cheating”, or any of the other negatives associated with appropriating the strong voice and presence of a person who could benefit the work. When I go through a work to refine the dialogue of a character, I often have a strong impression of how they sound and act, and using the impression (not a parody) of a real person is a great boon to the editing process.

With characters sorted, the second requirement I need to get into a story is place. Location is more difficult, as it assumes the story has form already, when, in fact, very often stories come to me as impressions rather than solid, linear stories. Scenes, adrift of context, need to be put in some form of context as I am working, and there is often the need for more work to be done on location than any other piece of the puzzle. A few of the longer works are, by necessity, already tied to a specific location, but sometimes I like to take locations and work in stories simply so that I can play with the history of a place. This, especially as I am throwing around the building blocks I use to craft my writing, deserves a bit more of an explanation than the characters – who seem to show up, demanding that I find them somewhere to carry out their activities.

I really like Poveglia Island, because… well, for no other reason than it makes for a great story in and of itself. There’s a nice piece of travelogue writing concerning the island, though other versions of the history of the island tend to attract my attention more. It’s as if someone deliberately went out of their way to find the most haunted place on Earth to build an insane asylum, then set loose a mad doctor to do experiments which wouldn’t be out of place in House on Haunted Hill. It is, unfortunately, uninhabited, so tales told of the island require a special kind of crafting to get around the annoying factual element regarding its’ current status.

The third part of the idea triangle is not, as you may have thought, the inciting incident. The motivation for the story may be important, but it lies in a more complex part of the formula than character and location – the third side of my idea triangle is The Item. It doesn’t have to be something which is ‘in play’ during the story – it can be a virus released before the start of the story, or an artifact which draws the characters to it, or it might be something as simple as a shared experience which is elaborated upon. The nebulous nature of the third part is akin to the ‘oxygen’ part of the fire triangle – it is something which needs to be there, but may not be as tangible as the other parts of the equation.

Once ideas for characters, locations and the MacGuffin have been thrown together – often wildly, and with little assurance of sense, things have a habit of coalescing into story. From here on, things tend to get more complex than is easy to describe.

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Posted in Over The Line, writing | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Marketing The Bible

Posted by BigWords on March 19, 2011

It occurred to me earlier today that the decreased attendance in churches has nothing to do with the basic message of the Bible, but the way in which the message is perceived. The image of churches is stuck in a fantasy world which is completely unrelatable to the majority of people, so anything that comes with the baggage of religion is immediately regarded as stodgy and as out of date as the clothing and rituals. Having spent a bit of time thinking about this, I realized that there was some merit in using commercial marketing ideas as a starting point to revitalize religion. What twelve-year-old child is going to relate to Jesus? None of them. The answer to this problem is simple – stick copies of the Superman trade-paperbacks collecting the Doomsday and Reign Of The Supermen sagas in front of them instead of bibles. It’s pretty much the same story (without, perhaps, the cyborg Henshaw), and it isn’t as if most people would know the difference.

The Ten Commandments are another area which needs work – ten simply isn’t a good number to use. It’s too high for a nifty mnemonic, and it is too low for the Pokémon trend of collecting variants and new cards. There should be a new commandment released each year, preferably coinciding with a tie-in computer game, comic book and cheaply made Saturday-morning cartoon (killing off the characters at the end of each season to encourage children to buy the new action figures to coincide with the new season), and limited edition commandments for the elite collecting market. If it wasn’t already taken, the “Gotta Collect ‘Em All” line would have been a perfect way to get children interested in the Ten(-Thousand) Commandments… And that’s without mentioning the associated action figures. Oh yes… I really have put some thought into this.

Action Jesus – Ready To Smite. Which, while I’m thinking about it, could have an awesome theme song based around the concept…

ACTION JESUS DESERT WARFARE PACK!!!

ACTION JESUS WITH ROCKET LAUNCHER!!!

ACTION JESUS SOUL RESCUE MODE WITH ASSAULT RIFLE!!!

GLOW-IN-THE-DARK JESUS – BACK FROM THE UNDEAD!!!

JOHN THE BAPTIST SCUBA-GEAR AND MINI-SUBMARINE!!!

LUCIFER, WITH AK-47 AND 3 PULL-APART MINIONS!!!

MARY, WITH INTERCHANGEABLE WEREWOLF HEAD!!!

“THE LITTLEST WHOREHOUSE” FULL INN PLAYSET!!!

Y’see, kids don’t want the tolerance and preaching. They want shit blowing up, they want overly-muscled men beating on each other in bloodless carnage which gives them the release they will eventually discover, upon puberty, with the mindless action films of Stephen Seagull and Jean-Claude Van Damn-Is-He-Still-Acting. By combining the best elements of He Man, Mask, Transformers, GI Joe and Thundercats (and making Mary hot for a change), the product will sell itself. Churches could have merchandise instead of the rather outdated “charity collections” – and really, would you rather have a cheap plastic action figure for your money rather than eternal salvation? Of course you would…

If anyone at the Vatican is interested in this exciting proposal, contact me immediately. I even have plans for a sequel to the bible… The plot threads hanging over from the original Bible are calling out for a blockbuster publishing sensation to rival the success of The Da Vinci Code.

Posted in Misc., Over The Line | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Mini-Fiction

Posted by BigWords on March 10, 2011

I know that the purpose of word wars (and the like) is to keep going until the time is up, but this came out “just right” before the time was up that I couldn’t add anything to it. It’s very short, but I found it hilarious as a first draft.

Okay, so I may have a very weird sense of humor…

Killing the man in the gorilla costume was a bad way to start the day, but it couldn’t be helped. Bobby made his way across the room, carefully stepping over the growing pool of blood and grabbed the baseball bat he had used, remembering that – at some point – he would need to wipe it down and dispose of the evidence carefully. The matted fur, where he had bashed in the man’s head, clung to the bat in clumps of brown and red – an intricate pattern not entirely unlike the viruses he studied through magnification all day long. Brilliant purples nestled in those stains, and blues of such purity that it was hard to remember that light once glimmered off the sleek aluminum. Placing it in a black bag, he moved over to the body and sighed – it had to be a fat guy… Killing a wiry little runt would have made this too easy. Biting the inside of his cheek, he hefted the man onto his side, so he could expose the zipper of the costume.

There was no zipper. Fumbling, he searched the man’s back for whatever device was used to keep the costume together – Buttons? Nope. Velcro? Again, the answer that came to him was a negative. Bobby’s mind reeled. How did the fat guy get into the costume in the first place? It was possible that he had been sewn into it, but everyone needs to take a piss every now and again, so why would a person go to such lengths… Letting the body drop back onto the floor, he moved to the kitchen. If he couldn’t get the guy out of the dumb costume the easy way, he would have to do it the hard way. Fingers playing a half-forgotten tune on the counter, he finally selected the right knife – not too long, and sharp enough to cut through the costume and the flesh.

As he turned, thinking of the zipper again, he realized that there might be another explanation for the lack of a way out of the costume. Heart racing, he looked to where he had left the body…

Growling, so tall in the confines of the apartment, the thing was making ready to lunge. Holding the knife in front of himself, Bobby said a quiet prayer under his breath and closed his eyes. This, he thought, is why people get away with wearing these dumb costumes. No-one ever wants to fuck with a real monster.

Posted in Misc., Over The Line, writing | Tagged: , , , | 9 Comments »

Writing Techniques 101.2

Posted by BigWords on March 6, 2011

[ETA – I scheduled this post, but forgot to hit the ‘post’ button. Belated Sunday post now resumes…]

Having covered original material, it is time to look at the longstanding tradition of writing with a view to an existing property. You should have read at least some fanfic by now – the form goes all the way back to the earliest known stories, in one way or another, and has seen a serious increase in popularity with dedicated websites hosting thousands of stories by fans of television series, films and books. You may consider this to be a rather shady corner of the writing world, or have moral concerns about writing a character created by an established author, but this is a neat way to stretch your abilities. Before moving on to the ways that such writing can be therapeutic for the blocked writer, I should point out some of the basic rules which you should stick to if you intend to do anything with the material generated by this method of writing.

1. Only use characters which are in the public domain. This clears the use of the story for publication, if that is what you want.
2. Don’t post material to fan fiction sites unless you’re using characters covered by copyright. No-one wants to publish a previously-published story.
3. If you want to explore the world of the character in more depth, create an expy of the character for your exclusive use.

There are so many ways in which this has helped my writing that there is no way to properly list of the ways I have appropriated ideas without this post running long. The majority of material generated by looking to old characters tends towards the in-jokey end of the spectrum, but I’m sure you can find ways to present stories without dropping names and references every few paragraphs. Having said that, I will avoid the problem of relaying the origin of The Ghost Bureau novel here again, and quickly move on… There’s a similarly connected (though slightly different) way of using existing works to spur your ideas on – the shared universe. There are various incarnations of the concept of a shared universe, the most blatant being comic book continuity, though much more interesting (and rounded) characters are to be found in such series as the Wold Newton books and commentaries, the Anno Dracula books, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

There have been so many Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes stories written that I really shouldn’t have to expand on the notion of using already known characters to help the creative process on its’ way a little, but this is where most people tend to fall into traps which are very easy to avoid – Don’t pick the most obvious characters, nor the ones which have had most adventures. There are hundreds of minor characters who could sustain a story of their own, and many, many objects which could benefit from a more detailed history.

Today’s post is a challenge of sorts: Find a character from a novel published between 1870 and 1900, who has not been cast as a main character in a subsequent novel, and provide them with a short story which expands on their experiences. You don’t have to share it with the world (this is all no-pressure writing tips), and you don’t have to agonize over any of the elements you use. Have fun with the material…

Posted in Over The Line | 4 Comments »

Writing Techniques 101.1

Posted by BigWords on March 5, 2011

If you haven’t managed to write in the last few weeks, you might begin to think that your writing muscles are atrophying. That’s a strange way to begin a blog post, yet I can’t help but think that some of my online peeps are a tad over-stressed at the thought of writing. I’ve seen a bunch of posts recently where the writing process has crawled to a stop, and it worries me that there isn’t enough help out there for those writers who might require a hefty nudge back into the routine of actually writing. Real life tends to get in the way of the creative process, bringing up the kinds of problems which give cause for people to think that maybe they aren’t cut out to do the business of writing on a regular basis. Hell, even the best of us have off days – I’m sure most of the names on the list of all-time greats have sat at their parchment, or typewriter, or computer, and thought “Why am I bothering – this isn’t working…” Do not let the voices in the back of your mind paralyze you through fear. There are a bunch of ways you can start writing again.

I mentioned the series of posts I was planning to do on writing exercises on Twitter, and had to immediately state that these were not about finesse. If the editing, rewrites and crits which get a project up to speed are the fourth innings, then these posts are pre-game warm-ups. Don’t drop everything you are doing to play with them if you are already in the middle of a project, but save them away for the time you need that extra bit of encouragement.

Without further ado, I’ll leap into the first exercise…

Grab yourself a list of words (I suggest Moby Word Lists by Grady Ward as a good place to start) and pick a few words at random (or, if you are feeling brave, let randomiser do the work for you) so you can begin thinking about what you will write – this is all prep which you should have to hand if you are intending to write a lot of material in as quick a time as possible. Taking the first word you get, expand the word into a sentence. For example, if you take “car” as an abstract term, it doesn’t mean so much, but if you describe the vehicle in detail (the make, the model, the condition it is in) you are on your way already. This, as you may have gathered, is merely telling – telling is bad, but there are times when information has to be imparted to the reader, and thus this is an important step in building a piece of writing. Describe where the vehicle is, then pick out another word. Once you have pulled maybe a half dozen words from this particular bag of tricks and spun them into sentences you should have a couple of paragraphs of text. Don’t wory too much right now about crafting story, because this is the baby steps to get you into the habit of writing something each and every day, and it isn’t at all important how you get those words out.

Run through this exercise five times. Don’t second-judge yourself, nor do edits to what you write.

You will be looking at what you have written with a quizzical eye by now, unsure of where these fragments are going. You’re going to need a story to hang the material on, as paragraphs of descriptions might not be igniting the sparks of imagination for you yet. Don’t worry – even if you are coming up blank on story there are ways of generating stories which don’t require a lot of time, and which can sometimes have the effect of bringing out further ideas for you to explore.

The simplest way to get inspiration is using a two line description of an existing story. When I first encountered this technique, even I was dubious – isn’t that cheating? What if someone calls plagiarism? How do I come up with a story different from the one I am retelling? Why isn’t this easier? If it makes you feel any better, use the word ‘prompt’ to describe the sentences you will be using (which, after all, is exactly the purpose we are using these things for here), and try not to dwell too much on the other questions ringing through your head. Those questions are stopping you from writing, and the objective here is wordcount. Everything else can be fixed, but if there are no words to work with later, the writing process will continue to stagnate.

Using something like TV Guide, or a big annual film guide (save for the more verbose tomes) you should pick out a simple description of a story to begin this part of the process. As much as I would like to pimp The Virgin Film Guide (and would, in other circumstances) it contains far too long descriptions of the films it covers – Halliwell’s Film Guide should be on your bookshelf, not only for these writing techniques, but for the wealth of old films and serials it covers. I was going to pull a few choice pieces from it, but I am reverting to type and dragging out The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series. For those of you who question using television series as prompts, I have a shock for you soon enough, but first lets look at a few of the episode entries to get a feel for the kind of synopsis we are looking for when trying to pull a choice tidbit to get the writing process into full swing:

A deadly prank is pulled on two fraternity boys who pass out after drinking too much.

(Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955); ep235 – Beta Delta Gamma)

A demolition worker unearths a sealed chest, and after opening it discovers a toy horse filled with malevolence.

(Ghost Story; ep16 – Dark Vengeance)

A psychiatrist believes that an autistic girl has uncanny understanding and power.

(Playhouse: The Mind Beyond; ep2 – Double Echo)

The scope each brief description offers is wider than you might think – allowing for both supernatural and psychological interpretations of the story. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the episodes in question (arguably, it is better if you haven’t seen them), the main point of using these little snippets of possible story ideas is to get you thinking about how those couple of paragraphs you created with the first exercise can be expanded into a larger work, with characters, events and locations coming together to give a satisfying story. I mentioned another way of generating story as I was leading up to the second part there, and it is one I often try when there is some free time in my schedule, but it is one which is slightly more complex, and has the worrying side-effect of leading writers to believe that watching television can, in some instances, be passed off as “research”. Seeing as I have tormented you thus far, I might as well give in, and lay it out for you.

Pick a series with no continuity between episodes. The more isolated the story is, the better. Now work out how long the episode is – you might want to record the episode, or buy a DVD of the series, because this is slightly more complex a method of getting the words to flow. Having selected the episode, watch one scene (roughly one third of the episode) and try to write an explanation of the events which places that scene into context. It doesn’t have to be the start of the episode, nor the end of it, but any scene throughout – using chapter select on a DVD is a great way to ensure you do not go over the alloted scene into another scene. Do not watch the rest of the episode just yet – keep working on the story until you are happy with it, and then compare what you have written to the finished episode.

For everyone thinking “Aw man, this is such bullshit” – and there will be naysayers – I’m going to reiterate the purpose of these techniques: This is merely to generate words. We’re filling that daunting white space with text, not setting out to oust the latest bestseller from the top of the book charts. If you are paralyzed by the mere thought of creating something interesting, the use of word lists can be one of the most effective spurs you can try. It removes so much of the inherent stress of trying to be original. Really, even the most lauded works of the last decade have come packed with plenty of cliché, as there is nothing truly new for you to write about.

Don’t fret about your writing so much, and enjoy the process.

Posted in Misc., Over The Line, writing | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Corrections

Posted by BigWords on March 3, 2011

“While the Deparment of Corrections are correcting the corrections from the last round of corrections, on the corrected corrections rather than the previously corrected corrections, it is becoming clear that correcting the misconceptions about the corrections carried out by the Department of Corrections is rather tellingly required.” Bob paused for breath, mentally noting the chain of words (and thought) necessary to get his point across, “In addition to correcting the misconceptions regarding the Department of Corrections, a correction about the Department of Biographies should be included in the departmental notifications, notifying everyone of the correct manner in which to correct inaccuracies in biographies. Such inaccuracies in biographies should be corrected for the Department of Biographies, and correct corrections passed on to the Department of Corrections to add to the history of Biographies for the Department of Histories.”
Straightening his tie, Bob was acutely aware that assembled heads of department were in attendance, “In addition, the corrected corrected corrections forwarded to the Department of Corrections will be notarized by the heads of both the Department of Corrections and the Department of History, for the benefit of the Department of Notarization. I note that the Department of Notarization has not needed notarized notifications of the corrections in the past, thus a correction of the notarization process in order to notify the Department of Notarization of corrections carried out by the Department of Corrections will be made forthwith.”
“And citations?” A shrill voice echoed through the hall.
“The Department of Citations will be allocated, by the Department of Allocation, a stipend from the Department of Payments to ensure that citations used in corrections of biographies at the Department of Corrections for the Department of Biographies, will – once copies have been made available to the Department of Notarization – be forwarded to the Department of Citations.” Bob smiled at his deft handling of the situation, “I do hope that clears up any misunderstandings regarding the corrected corrections being handled by the Department of Corrections. I wouldn’t want there to be any problems for the Department of Clarifications to become involved in. Now that the correct manner in which the corrected corrections being dealt with by the Department of Corrections has been dealt with, it is time to look at some efficiency ideas the Department of Efficiency has for us.”

As I tumble down the rabbit hole, I wonder – Is the wordplay getting out of hand?

Posted in Misc., Over The Line | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »