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The Lair Of Gary James

Posts Tagged ‘writing ideas’

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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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 »

Hybrid Writing / Art Experiment

Posted by BigWords on December 13, 2009

If you saw my response over here, you’ll know what this post is about.

The big idea:

This would entail the pages to be printed full-bleed, and I’m sure it would give people a headache if they tried to read a full book printed this way. Damn. It was such a good idea when I had it.


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My NaNoWriMo Novel Is A SF… And A Horror… And A Thriller… And…

Posted by BigWords on October 21, 2009

It isn’t surprising that I couldn’t work out what I wanted to write for NaNo, given that the blank canvas laid out before me could take any number of turns. The work, as has been pointed out, doesn’t have to be a novel of outstanding brilliance and originality, it is merely required to hit the fifty thousand word mark before the end of November. Most of the ideas I generated in the last week have been short stories, maybe novellas at best. Not a problem.

The thought that I might be able to tie these disparate elements together in a patchwork of overlapping events was one which only came to me this morning as I sat down with a cup of coffee and a smoke. Maybe it was a moment of divine inspiration, it might have been desperation… Hell, it could possibly have been an injection of caffeine to the system which finally nailed the concept in my brain. I’m gonna be writing a novel made up of novels…

Which is a dumb way to think of the idea, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. There seems to be quite a lot of history building in my subconscious already, and I have the feeling that I may be writing closer to 400k rather than 50k when I’m done with this. I’ll try to get the main story out of the way during the month, and – if I have time – begin filling in all of the strands which aren’t essential to the overall universe.

Exact information would be hard to give without me beginning anything, but I’m sure the SF elements will be heavy to the front, with horror and comedy bubbling beneath the surface. The thriller aspect should be handled with the nature of the plot, but I’m not sure how many other genres I can draw from. This might work after all…


The first person to say “cyberpunk” gets poked with a sharp stick.

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Notes On The Zombie Apocalypse

Posted by BigWords on October 12, 2009

Back when I started writing the zombie novel (my records show that to be 2003) I decided to take copious notes on anything and everything that could possibly be referenced. One of the first things which was considered was the weather, due to the usual horror bullshit of everything happening in the rain – something I was determined to avoid. It’s kinda an unusual way of approaching a story like this, but still…

With the dead walking there would be no scheduled flights taking place. The only record of such an event taking place is 9/11, so I looked at the weather reports which were taken in the weeks after the attack and noticed an increase of 1° in the three days after flights were grounded. Global dimming – where the reflection of the sun by clouds – is counteracted by Mother Nature, along with slightly clearer skies, would mean sunny days ahead.

If the infrastructure of emergency services is compromised early there would be massive fires, making city living impossible. The toxic fumes from the smoke would replace some, but not all, of the pollution which has been eliminated by normal life. While the oft-publicized greenhouse effect has been warming the planet, global dimming (thank you airlines of the world) has been cooling things down. With air pollution minimized we would be facing very hot days.

All of which amused me, as writing rainy scenes with running zombies seemed to veer deep into parody. And, knowing my sense of humor, I would be forced to use slapstick scenes of the shuffling undead kicking water into the air in amazement at their surroundings…

The interesting bits of info from my notes mostly cover world-building and organization (reorganization, actually) of society, but some neat visuals came from medical stuff as well. There are nine pints of blood (roughly) in a human body, so – working back from the endpoint – I managed to estimate that one human could sustain five zombies for a day or so. It gets more complex as time moves forward, due to the desiccation of the zombies, but as a starting point I thought it pretty solid.

The fact that a severed femoral artery is capable of spraying claret six feet also added to an idea which came to me during an episode of a nature documentary. Sorry to say that I didn’t note the program, but it dealt with sharks being able to ‘smell’ blood. So… They know that there is an injured person nearby because they can sense the presence of fresh blood which isn’t zombified. It takes quite a bit of workaround to sell their heightened sense of smell as a logical plot point, but one which works for the betterment of the story.

Interestingly (or so I think) I chose to call the small interludes ‘INTERMEZZO #1’ etc., rather than the (expected) movie-referencing INTERMISSION. The following is from the first of these pauses, but I’m not sure if it would have ended up being included or not:

Infrastructure is underrated. The societies we build around us depend on independent and subtly woven tapestries of companies, individuals and entire industries which – over decades – have coalesced into an efficient illusion of simple everyday occurrence. It is only when the morning newspapers fail to arrive, or public transport is discontinued, or some other inconvenience shatters our routine that we are forced to confront the possibility that we rely too heavily on the continuance of things which are out of our control.

Wordy and obvious. Meh.

The following is a conversation from near the end of the first chapter.

“Do you want the long version or the short version?”
“Readers Digest version.”
“We’re fucked.”
“Maybe I will take the Director’s Cut after all…”
“Okay, we’re fucked and the dead are walking.”
“Isn’t there a bunch of other information on the commentaries. Like, how-they-did-that segments on the dead walking?”
“Just look out a window.”

Not exactly subtle, but zombie stories aren’t meant to be subtle, right?

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The Idea Store – The Laws

Posted by BigWords on October 11, 2009

While I was searching through my folders looking for suitable stuff to share, and there are many, many hopeless stories in the wings, waiting for their moment, I came across a television pitch that reeks of badness. It isn’t just awful, it extends to a place beyond the edge of the terrible to a new location which has yet to gain a descriptor. Really, the dialogue is so bad it is painful to read. The idea however…

Ah, the ideas. I like coming up with ideas, and the one which caught my attention was a twist on the Murder She Wrote / Columbo / Kojak ‘concept crime drama’ with a twist that hasn’t really been touched on. I would liken it to the early-to-mid Seventies wave of gimmick-television, but that seems somehow counter-productive. This is one idea which – under other circumstances – I would eagerly follow up on, but I have enough on my plate right now and the idea is one which will take time and work.

Feel free to mock…

The Laws

Murphy’s Law (pilot episode)

if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong

During the course of the episode the MC is widowed, has his car stolen, his dog runs away, is fired from the police force and his house burns down. That is just the start of his problems, because he is then implicated in the massive crime case being brought against a local businessman who is believed to be a crime lord…

The set-up is so that he has a mission to work to for the first season: to clear his name, and then to get his job back. I even re-wrote the pilot as a two-parter, with the second episode (O’Toole’s Commentary) ramping up the misery to show just how bad his life was going to get before it was gonna get better.

Hanlon’s Razor

never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity

At some point in writing the first episode it became clear that having a ‘big bad’ hovering behind the scenes was merely a distraction, and rather than adding plots it was confining ideas. Exposing the ‘crime lord’ as merely being an idiot was a neat subversion of the familiar trope of crime lord geniuses, and segued neatly into one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to write.

Scheier’s Law

any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can’t think of how to break it

The murder of a security specialist throws fresh suspicion on Murphy, as he was the last person to see the man alive.

The impossible-murder scenario has been so well-ploughed that I couldn’t get through the writing without some major cheating. The murderer his in the house, then fled when the police arrived – dressed in a police uniform. Lame, I know.

From giving myself a headache trying to open up the complex world of crime drama, I decided a story set in a location I knew about would be something easier. Nope. Trying to write about software programming is one of the more difficult aspects of the modern era. You either simplify the subject to make people feel like they can understand things, or you write about the subject realistically and lose half of your audience.

Conway’s Law

any piece of software reflects the organizational structure that produced it

A cracker’s attack on a server exposes a murder at a large company which has been in the news due to financial irregularities.

In the end I decided to drive the story with a comedy element that felt forced, and even with heavy re-writes this feels out-of-place alongside my general idea for the show – which is stated in the title of the pilot episode. This was meant to be the most miserable, downtrodden, beaten-up character who had ever been seen, and terrible things were meant to happen to him in every episode.

I suppose this goes to show that when I have an off day (lasting, in this case, several weeks) I can produce ideas that are decent, but my writing still sucks ass worse than anyone’s writing really should.


One more snippet before I put this to rest. It’s from a file labelled as ‘analecta’, and hasn’t got anything of real value in it, but this struck me as being the beginning of something rather than a neat self-contained idea:

Orange and green numbers clatter from the typewriter at machine-gun pace, obscuring the sounds of dying angels. There are feathers floating down from heaven tonight. Billy is busying himself with his studies, head down in a book on necromancy, while in the corner of the room Sarah is cutting off her face with a razor blade.

Richard inhales from the cigarette hanging loose on his lip, fingers bleeding on the keys of the new typewriter, turning red the universe he writes.

Not that I’m able to say what the hell it should be, but it brought a smile to my face as I remembered it. Might be a post-modern take on The Rapture, might be a neat little horror story…

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Pacing To And Fro Doesn’t Help

Posted by BigWords on September 8, 2009

I took today off, and I guess the constant walking in the rain has had more of an effect on my immune system than I thought. My left ear is screaming out in pain with the worst earache I have had in years, and my cheek, jawbone and the side of my neck is throbbing away with sympathy pains. It feels like I’ve been punched in the side of the face, so I’m not much use at the moment for anything other than snide comments and irritable complaining.

Last night, around 11pm, I had a really dry eye, and I thought that it might be the case that I was spending too much time reading stuff online. I switched off the laptop and started reading printed material, hoping that the achey pain would go away, but it turns out that the problem wasn’t with my eye. It’s my ear… And boy, does it ever hurt. Yeesh, it’s like a slow torture. Not painful enough to be bothering the doctor with, but sore enough to make me constantly distracted.

I’ve never experienced a painful nostril before, and somehow – because the human body is connected in ways that are unimaginably complex – I now have a noseache.

This feels like I’m venting somewhat with this post, but I need to share.

So the title of the post says precisely what I was doing for most of the night. And no, it doesn’t help. Neither does painkillers, thanks to my dumb-ass body refusing to recognise whatever is tucked inside painkillers that sends masking signals to pain receptors. Taking my mind off the ache with DVDs has yet to prove effective in any regard (not that Ben 10 season 1 is exactly gonna set my world aflame) and reading is… Difficult to concentrate on.

You remember the game kids play, where they hold a seashell up to their ear so that they can hear the sea? Well, I’ve kinda got that at the moment, only it sounds more like thunder. It’s annoying and disconcerting, but I’m sure I can think of a way to use this in a story… Which is the fucked up way writers think when something happens to them, right? I’m not alone here am I? Uh, right? Jeez, I’m in agony and all I can think about is using my current condition in a novel.

Maybe I should get my head checked out, and I ain’t talking about my ear…


I popped a couple Nurofen 200mg caplets about an hour ago, and they seem to be working better than the mostly useless Askits. Here’s hoping that they keep working their magic.

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