You know how it goes…
It’s late summer, and you’re holding court at some corporate Tiki Bar in the middle of the banker district. There’s a beautiful sunset overhead, but you ignore it because, at the moment, one hand is feverishly flipping through your news feed on your phone, while the other is wrapped around your third Suffering Bastard. Right now, all you can think about is where your next gig is coming from.
Your buddy’s Hawaiian shirt is so loud it could be heard over the soulless banter of the Mid-week Happy Hour crowd and whatever piped in audio sedative treacle they have playing at the time. It must be a Tuesday. His gait is wide as he clears a path back to your table. He removes his cheap, ill-fitting sunglasses from his pockmarked face, and he reveals a very serious expression. He orders a Red Stripe, turns to you and says, “That was the main office. They want to know if you can write a novel.”
“A novel?” You ask with heavy indignance, “Can’t those bastards find anything else to do in this godforsaken time? They had plenty of time to unleash this task last month. Novel. Pfft. They must be getting desperate.”
“I dunno. It could be important,” says your buddy as he gives the glass back to the waitress and takes a mighty swig from the tiny bottle. “As your attorney, I advise you to consider this option. Pack up the car, leave town for at least 48 hours. It could be just the thing you need to get out of this rut.”
“Those barking jackasses won’t get a word from me,” you say as you adjust your amber tinted aviators and turn your attention back to your Twitter feed. “Don’t they realize this country is going to hell in a handbasket? There are more important things out there than just casual reading, dammit!”
Next thing you know, you wake up in some horribly painted unfurnished apartment out by the railroad tracks on the edge of town. You are surrounded by stacks of notecards, a mountain of hastily written drafts that seem to be propping up a tower of pizza boxes, a minefield of empty coffee cups underfoot, and huge goddamn WiFi bill that your buddy stuck you with.
You squint at the Dollar Store Adorable Kitten calendar affixed crudely against the kitchen wall with duct tape. You notice it’s November. You notice this not because of the fluffy baby tabby kitteh posed perfectly on a pumpkin in pilgrim attire, you notice this because the name of the month circled and underlined repeatedly in red marker with an equally urgent treatment given to the date of the 28th.
You look over at your laptop and you notice a jibberish laden manuscript flickering on the screen with a bold heading that simply says Chapter 3. You panic. At least, you think about panicking if it weren’t for the dull nausea in your gut that you get from too much coffee and not enough food. It has garnered your full attention and is quickly amplifying the hell that you found yourself in.
Everywhere you look is chaos. Nothing is making sense. Seriously, where did this cat come from? Do I even own this much paper? These aren’t my pants. Did someone actually use a highlighter on my screen? You’d be more inclined to think that you’d been robbed, but nothing appears stolen. But then again, you don’t even know whose place this is.
You turn around and come face to face with a wall-sized cork board completely choked from corner to corner with more notecards, color-coded and frenzied. A few are stitched together in some random network of colored yarn and thumbtacks. Confusion fills your head because you can’t recall any conspiracy theories that you’re following at the moment. Then, it hits you. It’s NaNoWriMo, and you’re about to go down in flames.
I know, I know. We’ve all been there.
My experience wasn’t any different.
With a little restraint, I’ve managed to control the impulse to do something like this, and it has gone down a few notches since then.
Write Smaller, Not Harder
Before signing up, I honestly don’t think I had a cohesive idea for a novel at all. I had the beginnings of an idea. A spark. I had the willingness to elevate the way I use this craft, and the desire to see it through to the end, only to have the wind knocked out of my sails by the end of week two.
I was ill-equipped, and perhaps just a little full of myself. I ramble, in case you haven’t noticed. And as such, I thought I would be able to make it to the finish line. Most of my blog posts average around 2000 words so it should be no problem. True, there are times where it takes me a few days, sometimes longer to finish. I accept this because time and privacy are both luxuries I do not possess. These are the things that I would need in order crank out more, if not better and more consistent posts. These things would facilitate a decent showing at the end of November.
At least I’d get a t-shirt out of it.
These are also the things I will probably never get by being a stay-at-home dad. So, in order to reach a compromise, it made more sense to set my sites a bit lower and work smaller.
Writing prompts and Flash Fiction contests are great to make sure the imagination keeps flowing, but these days, I tend to gravitate more towards static art. Building a story around a painting just makes sense because…well… they are worth a thousand words, after all. So, why not figure out what they are and write them down? You know… for kicks!
At Home Among A Gaggle of Geeks
When you post a work of art on your social medias, you’ll get your usual, obligatory likes, and random one or two-word comments. You feel this fleeting moment of satisfaction where you think someone might have the same taste you do.
Post that same work onto a community space that is inhabited entirely by a nerd herd of people with similar likes, interests, and experiences, and you’re bound to get something a little more fleshed out.
Examples of this can be found on Tumblr, Medium, Facebook (I’m presuming) and in this case, Charlie Hoover’s Geekscape of the Day. There is no contest he constructs. He offers no direction. One would think that he would posit a challenge at the very least, but he doesn’t. He simply posts a work of art that he likes, something that can easily fit with the community’s namesake, along with the name of the artist who made it and a link to where they originally posted it. That’s it.
To the average person, this is just another post on just another social site.
To a person who is predisposed to letting their mind wander, it’s like catnip.
Sooner or later, the word nerds from the nerd herd would gather and start clicking away at their keyboards like little nerdy word birds. What ultimately ends up happening isn’t a competition or even a round-robin type thing. It’s more like an unofficial open mic night at some bar that only the locals know about. One person would leave their related micro-fiction as a comment. Then another would leave their interpretation, then another, and so on. This is what happens when you show something interesting to a group of smarter than average people who read a lot in their spare time. This is how I often thought an ideal social media interaction would take place.
This is also how I came to travel down the road to my first official publication. Fingers crossed.
I’m about 1200 words in, and I still haven’t provided anything actionable yet.
For some reason, I’m still thinking that the point of writing this post is to show what my thinking process was in writing a short story, or anything else for that matter. I’ve been fighting with this part for about a week now because there’s a big part of me who is convinced no one will care.
As I’ve stated before, do you really want advice from someone who isn’t a professional? Advice, good advice, should be dispensed by smarter people than me.
But then again, advice isn’t gospel.
The best I can do is impart a tiny bit of wisdom through experience and hope that it might be beneficial to someone.
Where To Start?
The painting that I based my current story on, is found here. Take a look. Take a good long look at it. Absorb it. Spend a few minutes with it, then get back to me.
Welcome back. Now, answer me this. What did you see? Who talked to you? What was said? What did you smell? This way of doing things accounts for the majority of my present and future drafts. I’m not saying that it will work for you. It may, but it may not. Looking at the source material is the first step. This is what I normally do next.
1.) Remember The Basic Rule.
“Every play has to have a beginning, middle and an end. Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘Not necessarily in that order.’ And that’s why French movies are so effing boring.”
I will acknowledge that liberties are ours for the taking. We as writers, professional and amateur, will always have the freedom to do what we want with our own work.
Mix it up ‘Memento’ style?
Go ahead with your bad self!
Sticking with the ‘Once Upon a Time’ to ‘Happily Ever After’ formula?
Well, look at YOU in your Sunday Best!
Whatever route you follow, always remember that every story will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Absorb the source material. Think about a beginning, you don’t have to get into too much detail. Then a middle; will there be conflict? What will that conflict look like? Then the end; what would be the result?
If you can fill in these blanks, then you’re well on your way.
2.) Keep Asking Questions.
Imagine you aren’t a writer chained to your desk to finish your latest work of fiction. Imagine you’re a journalist who just arrived on the scene of a botched robbery. Your job is to get all the important details out of the way first. The rest will take care of itself.
- Who was involved? Who was the victim? Was there a perpetrator?
- What happened? What is the evidence? What are the facts?
- Where did it happen? Home or business? City or suburbs?
- Why did it happen? What was the motivation? Who stands to benefit?
- How did it happen? What was used? Where was it acquired?
The principle is the same regardless if you’re creating worlds for your next novel, or writing a fully detailed article for the Washington Post. Once you get all the important information down, ask yourself, “Is this all to the story, or is there something that I missed?”
3.) Stay Curious.
Right around this time, Imposter Syndrome kicks in, and I go back over everything to see if it’s slightly original, or just another worn out trope.
If it starts ringing familiar, then I try to steer the narrative into a new direction. If it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t make it any less challenging.
Can you work with it? Are you willing to work with it? Is it something you’re willing to put the hours into? If the answer to these is no, then it probably wasn’t meant to be, but that’s okay. There are plenty of other motes of inspiration out there waiting to fly into your nostril cavity at any time. All you have to do is to keep an open mind and stay curious.
It’s been over a week on this post. I’ve spent long enough away from my draft, and I should return with a fresh set of eyes. Revisions will be the house in which I will be moving into soon, but for now, something else has my full attention. Something awful.
In the course of writing this post, an American radicalized by a White Supremacist Terrorist Group walked into a Florida high school and murdered 17 children.
He walked in with an assault rifle. Passed metal detectors. Passed armed guards. 17 children, 3 adults, murdered. In school. On Valentine’s Day. It’s now two days later. No motive has been given.
I know it’s our job to stay on task and finish the article and stick to the program, but shit like this makes it hard to talk about anything else. Everything else seems small in comparison. I’m writing about some stupid book that I’m trying to publish. Meanwhile, 17 kids were slaughtered on Valentine’s Day. That’s 17 kids who will never have the opportunity to make the world a better place. 17 voices silenced. Hundreds in mourning. Thousands enraged. A country fed up.
Right now, there isn’t anything else.
Right now, there are more important things that need discussion.