Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

5 Ways to Write a Terrible Novel

You might recall, if you’ve been putting up with this blog long enough, that I once wrote a post on how to avoid becoming a writer. Of course, if you are a writer, you’ll know how insistent that little Inner-Writer’s voice can be, constantly banging on about the different ideas he’s come up with that you absolutely have to write. You might find it simply impossible not to write.

But fear not, ye who are enslaved by the urge to write. Your salvation is at hand. If you dread becoming a full time author, but cannot resist the urge to write, there is another solution: write badly.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Use Dry Descriptions; Avoid Figurative Language

How you describe things can often be the difference between an excellent story and a terrible one. I can’t labour this point enough. Using metaphors, personifications and other forms of figurative language can turn even the most unexciting passages of narrative into a thing of sheer beauty, whereas dry descriptions can make even the most intense scenes seem duller than the Phone Book. Allow me to demonstrate using the first few lines of John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold:

All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that Winter was come sliding down over the world from the Pole; and riverward there was the faint moaning of new ice. It was a sad day, a day of gray unrest, of discontent.

Steinbeck, J. (2000), Cup of Gold, Penguin Classics, UK. p. 1

This is what you want to avoid. All Steinbeck is doing here is describing the weather, yet it’s so chock full of figurative and poetic language that it’s an absolute joy to read. It flows beautifully and really makes you feel like you’re there, in the Welsh glens, feeling the cold of winter rolling in from the Pole. If you write like that, everybody will want to read your novel. Instead, aim for something like this:

It had been windy all afternoon in the black Welsh glens. You could tell it was nearly winter. In fact, the river was starting to freeze. The sky was grey and the mood was sad. There was a bit of a breeze and a bad feeling in the air.

Considering the above paragraph is only two and a bit lines long, you’ve got to admit… it’s a tedious read. I got bored writing it! You can be sure your reader will get bored if you write your whole novel that way.

2. Use Stock Characters

You know how I’m always saying that characters are people, and should therefore have all the wonderful complexity and contradiction that make up a real person? Well… forget all that. If you want to write a bad story, you’ve got to make sure your characters are as flat, predictable and stereotypical as possible. So, you might have characters like this:

Johnny Famous (our dashing hero). He’s strong, noble and righteous in all things. He neither smokes nor drinks, has no skeletons in his closet and knows neither fear nor selfishness.

Emperor Zorg (dark lord of all). Wears a black cape and wants to conquer the universe. Thinks love is a weakness. Lives in a black castle, or maybe an underground base.

Daisy Divine (love interest). Stunningly beautiful and serves no function in the story except to be rescued by and fall in love with Johnny. If you must give her a back story, don’t let it be anything that might interfere with her living happily ever after with Johnny.

3. Use ‘deus ex machina’

Even the most well written story can be ruined at the last minute by deus ex machina (‘God in the machine’). This is a technique writers sometimes use (usually when they can’t figure out how to progress the story in a way which is believable and satisfying) which essentially involves a random, improbable or otherwise unsatisfying solution to your story.

Just the other day I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called ‘Twisted’ in which a spacial implosion ring is slowly twisting and crushing the entire ship from the outside in. Eventually the regular cast find themselves trapped in the one and only unaffected room on the ship and are desperately trying to come up with a solution to save themselves before that room also implodes. Finally, they accept that they can do nothing but accept their fate. The implosion ring enters the room and begins to crush the remaining crew…

Then it suddenly disappears and everything is fine. Turns out the implosion ring wasn’t nearly as deadly as it seemed. In fact, it was trying to communicate.

I wasted an hour of my life watching that. Take note: deus ex machina is a great way to make your readers hate you forever.

4. Employ Numerous Cliches

Actually, just between you and me, you can sometimes include a tiny amount of small, carefully camouflaged cliches in a story and still end up with a good story… but as a rule of thumb, the more cliches you have and the more obvious they are, the more terrible your story will be.

There’s an almost endless list of possible cliches you could use to make your story extra-awful, but a few examples include:

  • The Chosen One: Our hero thinks he’s just an ordinary guy but it turns out he is actually the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy and must save the world because it’s his destiny (in a good story, the protagonist will act in a way which is in keeping with their own motivations and desires).
  • Love conquers all: Just when all seems lost and the world is doomed, the bad guy’s evil plans are utterly thwarted because someone performs some great act of love (usually either involving sacrificing oneself for another or just plain old fashioned snogging).
  • The Final Battle: The whole story culminates in final dramatic fisticuffs between the noble hero and the evil dark lord in which, after a bit of a wobbly start which is supposed to make the reader think all is lost, the noble hero inevitably wins.

5. Info Dump

To understand what is going on in your story, your reader must be aware of certain facts. Characters’ backstories or particulars about how your fictional world works, for instance. Good writers feed this information to their readers in small doses and, where possible, will subtly weave it into the narrative so as not to drag the pace of their story down to a tedious belly-crawl.

But you don’t want to be a good writer! You want to write a terrible novel, so make sure your novel reads like a textbook of facts and figures about the history of your characters and the world they inhabit. Ideally, if you can devote the first chapter or two entirely to providing facts and backstory without getting down to telling the actual story, you can be sure your reader will put your book down without finishing it. If that seems too hard, try to info-dump in a character’s dialogue instead. For example,

‘I was born on the 29th of May 1982 at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital to Jean and Philip Jones.’ said Peter Jones. ‘I lived with them in the leafy suburbs of Anytown all my life until I met Miss Backstory who broke my heart and now I can’t handle adult relationships at all…’

Follow even just some of these steps and I can guarantee you, you’ll never write a good story in your puff. No matter how many manuscripts you complete and submit for publication, you can still return to your tedious office job day after day, secure in the knowledge that you’ll die at that grindstone before you ever have to take the plunge to become a professional, full time author.

My Thoughts on FocusWriter

There’s an old saying I tend to adhere to: you need to use the right tool for the right job. For me as a writer, that means I have lots of different writing tools depending on the kind of writing I’m doing and what stage of the writing process I’m at. For instance, I use Scrivener to write my novel and other large projects; Hemingway Editor for times of editing; Jotterpad to scribble notes and song lyrics on the go (you didn’t know I wrote music too, did you?) and FocusWriter for short and flash fiction, which is the subject for today’s little review.

There are, of course, plenty of “distraction free writing environments” out there. In fact, even the other apps I mentioned at the start of this post boast distraction free modes which hide most or all of the toolbars to allow you to focus exclusively on your words. What sets apart FocusWriter from these, however, is how highly customisable that environment is and how many features of a typical word processor are still available without being intrusive. Personally, I sometimes find that even the best distraction free interfaces can be a little too sterile when it’s just you and the blinking cursor on a blank screen, daring you to write a word. With FocusWriter, that’s not a problem. You can make the interface as pretty or as sterile as you see fit.

When you first download the app (for free, I might add, though you can give a “tip”), you will find it is already preloaded with a selection of themes. Some, such as the ‘old school’ theme are very plain featuring nothing but plain text on a plain background. Others include background images and coloured pages for your text to appear on (as you can see from the screenshots below). If none of these themes are to your liking, you can customise them by changing the font; margins; line-spacing; text background colour and opacity and much more besides. You can also create, save and export your own themes using (or not, if you prefer) images from your own library.

There is a traditional toolbar and a selection of menus at the top of the screen which includes all the basic features you would expect from a word processor; however, this is all invisible except when you hover the cursor over it, thus giving you easy access to all the basic features without getting in the way while you are trying to write.

There is also an option to grey out all text save the sentence, sentences or paragraph you are working on. Personally, I have not found much use for this feature but I suppose I can see why it might help you to focus on a particularly troublesome few sentences, especially if you decide to edit your work with FocusWriter. And of course, there is also the option to make FocusWriter full screen.

For those of us who like to keep careful track of our progress or who find it helpful to time ourselves as we write, FocusWriter also includes features for setting yourself daily word count or minutes-spent-writing goals. Again, this is not visible on the screen unless you hover your cursor over the very bottom of the window, where a tiny little bar will appear and tell you your exact word count and how close you are to achieving your daily goal. If you wish, you can also record your progress so you can see how often you are reaching or exceeding your goals over a longer period of time.

If you wanted to, you could probably easily use this application to write almost anything, including novels and other long and complicated works. However, I personally find it most useful for writing shorter works, such as short stories or flash fiction. It’s easy to create a different theme for every day and every mood so that your productivity is never hindered by niggling distractions or the pure white horror of a completely blank screen, no matter what kind of person you are and no matter how you feel. The main reason I don’t use it to write novels is because, unlike Scrivener, it is not so easy to gather together your notes and story bible all in the one place. In general, you will be focusing on one document at a time, but sometimes, that’s all you need. Personally, I don’t really like using Scrivener for short stories or microfiction because I find it can be a bit too cluttered, when all I really need is space to write.

Other features include (but are not necessarily limited to) a spell checker, ‘smart quotes’ which manages how you use quotation marks throughout the document (personally I’m yet to find a use for that) and ‘sessions’; an interesting little feature which remembers which document(s) you had opened and which theme you were using so that they’re already opened and waiting for you the next time you open FocusWriter.

All in all, I think it’s a fantastic app and well worth a look for anyone who’s serious about writing. It’s a real favourite of mine which I use often; far more often than some of the other apps I’ve given written positive reviews about in the past. And did I mention it’s free?

Well it is. So go have a look. I think you’ll be pleased.

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!