A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. – G.K.Chesterton. (Found on Writers Bloc @writers_bloc – I recommend following if you are on Twitter.)
Category Archives: ON WRITING
Not harsh, as such; good advice.
A lot of people think they can write or paint or draw or sing or make movies or what-have-you, but having an artistic temperament doth not make one an artist.
Even the great writers of our time have tried and failed and failed some more. Vladimir Nabokov received a harsh rejection letter from Knopf upon submitting Lolita, which would later go on to sell fifty million copies. Sylvia Plath’s first rejection letter for The Bell Jar read, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Gertrude Stein received a cruel rejection letter that mocked her style. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way earned him a sprawling rejection letter regarding the reasons he should simply give up writing all together. Tim Burton’s first illustrated book, The Giant Zlig, got the thumbs down from Walt Disney Productions, and even Jack Kerouac’s perennial On the Road received a particularly blunt…
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Believe it or not, ideas for stories are everywhere. Yet, it is one of the most common questions asked. Many writers are looking for a guide list. Some of the questions I hear are:
Where do you get your ideas from?
How do you know it’s a good idea?
How do I find an idea that no-one has used?
How do I make my ideas interesting?
Do you worry about running out of ideas?
What do you do when you don’t have any ideas?
Most people who struggle to find ideas want a list: a roadmap and guidelines. Often they’re looking for a plot for a short story, a novel, a book, even an essay; some type of dot-to-dot drawing.
One of the problems with writers is they are reluctant to accept that it is work, hard work. No matter what you want to write – poem, play, short story, novel or anything else, it takes work, persistence, determination, time, false starts, failures and frustration.
A teacher can help you learn techniques. The hard work is up to you. But, because ideas are so hard to come by, rather than make a list, I’m going to give three ideas and take them in two different ways each. There are as many ways to write these simple ideas into stories as there are writers.
1. A little boy hides from people searching for him.
2. A man has lost his job but not told anyone.
3. A woman hears a terrified scream.
A little boy is lost in bush land. It is dark and he is cold, hungry, frightened. Lights scoot over the landscape and feet crash nearby. Loud voices, stranger voices, call his name but he curls smaller, hiding. ‘Never go with strangers,’ he whispers to himself.
Will they find him? Will he come out into the open? Or will he flee and come to harm?
A little boy takes biscuits from the pantry, slips behind the heavy chair and settles behind a thick fold of curtain to eat. Mum said no eating before dinner, but he is hungry. He opens the pack and takes out a crumbly treat. It’s a wheat flour biscuit, laced with crushed nuts. He lifts it to his mouth, too young to understand his allergy to nuts.
How allergic is he? How quickly does he react? How many biscuits will he eat? Is he making a noise that someone hears? Are they even looking in that room? Perhaps a pet or a baby sibling makes the discovery. Will it be in time?
Every morning, he showers, shaves, puts on his suit, laughs during breakfast. He puts his briefcase in the car, backs out of the driveway and heads up the road, the same way he has done for twenty years. Only, at the end, he turns left instead of right. He has lost his job and not told his family.
What does he do? Look for another job? Go fishing? Start drinking? Find a rich widow? Keep driving? Why did he lose his job and when? What about money? Does he hide behind credit, savings or a payout? What is he feeling? What does he think will happen if he tells?
The alarm rings, he turns over. ‘Time to get up, love.’ His wife heads for the shower. He says he is sick. He is sick for a week, then a fortnight, but he refuses to go to the doctor. His family worries, take care of him, tell him not to worry, just get well. Always independent, he is surprised at how good it feels to have others take care of him for a change. But, his independence strikes back and he knows he needs to find ideas for his future.
Will he tell his family and get their input and support? Is there something he has always wanted to do but thought was a pipedream? Will he start giving his time for charitable works, or study and retrain, start his own business, travel? Perhaps he looks up old friends, calls in favours, how will that turn out?
The scream is long, high, filled with terror. Her stomach flips, her heart thumps, her knees go weak. For a long time she stands frozen, listening, waiting, too frightened to do anything. There are no other screams, no other noise. None of the neighbours have come out. A dog barks somewhere in the distance but apart from that, the world seems empty of everything except that scream.
Did she even hear it? Was it really a scream? Could it have been a car screeching? A cat? What if that drunk next door has just killed his wife? Or what if the young woman on the other side has just found her baby dead in his cot? Who screamed? Why? What will she do?
The scream motivates her into spontaneous action. She flies through the front door and into the road. People are everywhere, and everything is confused. Neighbours have hands to their mouths, their eyes round and glistening with shock. They mutter and stare and point. Someone notices her and it starts a ripple as people look at her from the corner of their eyes, move aside, throwing down a gauntlet.
Why are they looking at her? Has someone been killed, injured? Where’s her prize winning dog? What has happened? Has there been an accident, or a fight? Has someone been attacked? Perhaps there’s been a car crash. Or someone has had a seizure, a heart attack or a stroke. Are they alive? What will this mean to the woman?
These stories could go in a variety of directions. They could become flash fiction, a short story, the opening of a novel. These ideas aren’t new, exotic or fantastical. They could happen to any of us. They are simple ideas but they can become consuming stories.
The trick is to have a basic idea and write without thinking too much about it. Quality of the writing is unimportant at this stage. What matters is where you take it. And you do that by asking questions. See the action taking place in your mind’s eye so it comes to life. Think about the person it is happening to, how they feel, what affect it has on their life, what they can do about it, what they decide to do about it. If you are writing a short story, it might end there, with the decision. If you are writing a novel, the consequences of the decision will make up the story.
The world is full of novels in which characters simply say and do. There are certainly legitimate genres in which this is sufficient. But in real and lasting writing the character is.
Keeping a journal is a helpful tool which many successful writers use. It can include anything that stimulates you on any level:
cuttings from newspapers or magazines
things you’ve read
pictures you’ve seen and cut out or remembered or thought about
ideas, snippets of thought about anything, especially one of your projects
funny, beautiful, ugly, sad, shocking, strange things
something, anything that you thought was unusual, interesting, made you cross,
taught you something, etc
observations of people, places, moods, sounds, smells, sights, weather, fashion,
interactions – people are everywhere! But don’t just keep it between people, think about animals, the environment, technology, politics, food, media, news…
You might keep a journal that is specific to something your are working on. It might include any or all of the above. Jotting down thoughts and ideas and research relative to the project, whether you use it or not is helpful. Writing down a sentence or title or plot point or piece of dialogue or a description might do no more than develop the actual writing project in your mind. That’s ideal for adding to the overall texture and richness of the end result.
I was struggling for an idea for a play some years ago so I went through my journal. I had two female characters I had wanted to write about for some time but couldn’t get anywhere with either of them. So, I tried putting them together and voila, I had two opposites in an isolated situation who just had to rely on each other. The finished work, Shedding, was performed at the Gasworks Theatre in Melbourne in 1994.
There is no right or wrong in keeping a writer’s journal but a couple of cautions. It isn’t a personal diary. When we write what happened to us, unless we can put it into fictional context and it works for the character we have made up, it won’t work as anything other than a piece of personal writing.
The main caution, however, is DON’T USE IT AS AN EXCUSE NOT TO GET ON WITH YOUR PROJECT!