Generating Ideas

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I don’t really generate a lot of ideas anymore. I don’t usually create stories from the ground up, working entirely from scratch. Even characters, which always seem to abound, don’t spring forth on their own anymore. (I don’t count characters created for fan fiction because they already have a ready-made world to plop into, and world does a great deal to inform the character.) I don’t think I’ve generated a “new” idea for a long, long time.

This might sound terrible, but it actually isn’t. Most of my story and idea generation came when I was a kid, before I’d absorbed over two decades of media. I made a lot of crazy, weird stuff up, and fortunately I wrote some of it down. The novels that I work on now really aren’t “new” in the usual sense. They’re refinements on something that had already been generated. It may seem like I’m coming up with new ideas, like with The Arcenciel Romances or Faylinn, but even those started out as pieces of fan fiction that evolved into their own thing. Everything else is moving stuff around, changing the trappings, figuring out structures and mores that make sense, and discovering the inner lives of the characters. I’m shaping the clay, not digging it out of the ground.

I think this process is actually a good one, at least for longer works. Youth generates ideas without regard for logical or logistical sense. The images and feelings are what get wrapped up in the idea and stick with it. Then, as one grows and gains experience, you can go back and pick through that motley crew of story ideas and characters and choose the ones that work. Sometimes you even combine parts of different ideas into something else, like I did with four short stories that became the basis for Rinamathair. Others can be refined, or discarded if they would take far too much time to shape into something coherent. The only time the lack of new idea generation gets me is with short stories. Novels are a slow burn, but short stories you’re supposed to just drop out and go. Obviously they require some refinement as well, but the shape of a short story is different and more difficult for me to tackle. I have trouble making characters feel fleshed out when I don’t have a lot of time to spend with them.

The only time I can say that new ideas are generated now is when I dream. I keep a dream journal by my bed, and if I remember something from a dream, be it a sequence, a snippet of dialog, an image, a character, or a feeling, I’ll write it down. (That’s how The Mariner Sequence got started actually.) There are dozens of story seeds and story parts littered among the barely-legible scribbles of that journal. It’s a little sad to think that I probably won’t have a long enough lifespan to turn all of them into stories, to use all of that material. But I keep it in mind, and when I get stuck on a current project, I check out those seeds to see if there’s anything I can use or incorporate. (Hint: Never throw any ideas away. Keep them in a folder; they may come in handy later.)

Let’s face it: it’s all a giant tossed fruit salad and mixing bowl of inspiration and experience, so it’s best not to get too hung up on the idea of “making something new.” Chances are you already have the ingredients to make something pretty spectacular. It’s just a matter of blending and seasoning to taste.

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The Deep Impact of Fictional Deaths

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My family is kind of weird when it comes to death.

So far most of the deaths in my family have not come as a surprise. It grieves us, but we keep moving forward. We cry, but not much and not in public if we can help it. We don’t go in for dramatic displays of grief. We tend to not even discuss it. (In fact, aside from a few short conversations with my brothers, all of these statements come from my own observations and perspective, so I could be completely wrong about all of this.) But, on the surface at least, my family and I tend to be very pragmatic about the whole thing.

And yet I will break down into gut-wrenching sobs and go through all five stages of grief when a fictional character I love dies.

On the surface, this seems strange, even sociopathic. I don’t cry for my dead relatives but will bawl my eyes out for someone who never even existed? It seems backwards, almost wrong somehow, and has bothered me for quite a while. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. But I think I may have solved the mystery.
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Dangerous Stereotypes: Rebels

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the ScientistBad Boy, and Alpha Male stereotypes.

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We all love stories about underdogs. We like hearing tales of right and justice and the forces of good beating evil and injustice, no matter what the odds are against them. We like stories about lone wolves who find out the truth about “the system” and fight against it. We love our Rebel Alliances, our Neos, our Team Avatars. We enjoy following the stories of characters who are outgunned but still pull through with cunning, bravery, and a hefty dose of luck. We admire the vigilante characters like Batman, Zorro, and V who uncover the truth or see injustice run rampant and refuse to follow protocol in order to do what is right. We’ve all read those stories, seen those movies and TV shows, played as those video game characters. The fact that we can be outmatched and still come out on top is a heady, even addictive, feeling.

But real life usually doesn’t work out that way.

And sometimes… it shouldn’t.
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The Wyrding Way

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Wyrd: a concept in Anglo-Saxon culture roughly corresponding to fate or personal destiny.

Wikipedia

 

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Anglo-Saxon symbol for “wyrd”

Few lines make my hackles rise more than hearing, “It is your destiny,” particularly if it is said by some old guy in a black robe. I have some serious issues with the concepts of prophecy, destiny, fate, and Chosen Ones. From a practical standpoint, they are overused tropes and cliches in works of fantasy. Predestination is a lazy cock-and-bull story made to justify plot threads or character motivations. But on a deeper level, the concept is actually rather disturbing. I’m a big believer in free will, so the idea of having everything I have done, am doing, or will do laid out for me with no ability to change it is both creepy and frightening.
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The Heart of the Story

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In the Character Module of DIY MFA 101, Gabriela postulates that, even if there are many characters of great importance, there is actually only one protagonist in a story. Of course there are exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. My first inclination was to reject this statement. After all, almost every one of my stories has a pair of central main characters: Ryn and Scion for Ravens and Roses; Samuel and Amaris for Seahawks and Storms; Nathaniel and Shakti for Courting the Moon; Asa and Tal for Faylinn; and Melyin and Ciar (see-are) for Rinamathair.
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Controversy Over Casting Fictional Characters

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SPOILER ALERT: This entry discusses the casting of the Thirteenth Doctor! (In case you don’t already know and would like to preserve some mystery. Good luck doing that until Christmas.)

Whenever the Doctor’s regeneration is imminent, I always greet it with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. There’s always that little voice that says, “I really like this Doctor. I really hope I like the next Doctor.”
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Dangerous Stereotypes: The Alpha Male

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist and Bad Boy stereotypes.

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Every culture has certain expectations of how people are supposed to behave. Sometimes these social rules apply across the board, but others are gender-specific, and this is reflected in our media. While a lot of scrutiny is given to the short stick that women get instead of proper representation in books, films, and video games, less attention has been paid to the toxic masculinity that pervades so much modern media.

John Carter of Mars carrying Princess Dejah Thoris

When you picture the hero of a story, especially in science fiction or fantasy, what do you see? Chances are the kind of man that comes to mind is tall, physically fit or imposing, and who can win a fight with style, even if violence isn’t their first choice. Many are handsome, cocky, reckless, often abrasive, and tend to fill the leadership role with a sense of natural ease. They are almost always heterosexual playboys, exuding a charisma that draws women to their bed and encourages other men to either follow their lead or to become their competitor. Some prime examples of this archetype can be found in Captain Kirk from Star Trek, John Carter from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, any incarnation of James Bond, the half-demon Inuyasha from the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and mythic idols like Thor and Robin Hood. Even heroes who start off shy, awkward, nerdy, or reluctant, like Harry Potter and Peter Parker, eventually become independent leaders and warriors thanks to their adventures. Expressions of emotion, empathy, or sensitivity are often shown as weaknesses to be hidden behind a wall of witty banter, arrogance, or stoicism. It is the stereotypical “Alpha Male” who always comes out on top.

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Temporal Frameworks

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"Creation of Time" by Max Mitenkov
“Creation of Time” by Max Mitenkov

They say that timing is everything. While it may vary in prominence and importance for a story, it’s always a good idea for a writer to know how long it takes for things to happen. Having the ages of characters and timeline of events written down and referenced periodically during the rewriting process will help you maintain both continuity and pacing.

Note that I said, “during the rewriting process.” Timelines and continuity checks are part of the many cycles of editing. Unless you are one of those ultra-detailed planners who lays all of the groundwork before picking up a pen, a timeline isn’t something you should be using until after at least the first draft is complete.

For example, when I write, I usually have a month or so of planning where I pull together a basic plot line, character descriptions, and overall tone of the work. In the character descriptions, I put at least an estimate of how old they are supposed to be. This can fluctuate later, but usually only within a few years of the initial age-setting. As I write my first draft, I have a rough idea of how much time passes between events. It’s a day or two from their initial meeting to their first fight, a week until their marriage, a few hours until that important breakfast, and they spend two or three months in this locale. These aren’t set in stone, nor do they have to be 100% accurate at this stage. In Draft 1, it doesn’t matter so much if I say it only took a week to travel 200 miles on foot or something like that. All I need are estimates, if that, to give a basic temporal framework.
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Writing Ethnic Characters

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unity-in-diversity
Okay, right off the bat, we have a problem.  Actually, I suppose it’s a problem with how we’re approaching the problem.  Read the title of this entry again: “Writing Ethnic Characters.”  It’s making the assumption that most readers (or listeners) for this entry will be white writers trying to figure out how to create and describe characters who are not white without relying on stereotypes, over-used cliches, or offensive terms.  It also could be said that it makes the implicit assumption that white is the “default” while everything else is “other” or “ethnic.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to segue into a discussion of this challenge that white writers face. While writing All’s Fair, I found that I had to research how to describe certain characteristics of people who are not white since I have had very little contact with people of color in real life.  (A slightly embarrassing example is my search to find out what black people look like when they blush.  They might feel their cheeks heat or burn, but what does that look like to someone who is watching them?)

This is something I’ve started to struggle with now that I’m aware of how lacking in diversity many of my stories have been.  I don’t want to have token non-white characters, but I also want to take advantage of how many variations there are in the colors, sizes, shapes, and looks of humans.  It’s easy to describe non-human characters; usually your protagonist will be a human and if they are encountering elves, orcs, or dragons for the first time, they are going to notice how they look.  But how do you work in descriptions for characters without waving your arms and shouting, “Hey!  Look!  Here’s a black person, and Asian person, and a Hispanic person!  Hooray for diversity!”
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Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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