My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the tag “Writer’s Block”

Sometimes An Idea Strikes

Sometimes this happens:

monkey_steals_the_peach

When an idea strikes, will you be ready?

An idea just grabs you and won’t let go. Sometimes you are just struck by an idea and you need to write it down (or else a ninja will rip your balls off). It burns its way out of your skull and there’s nothing you can do about it except close your eyes and let your fingers be guided by the inspiration alone.

And then sometimes inspiration takes a break before crossing the finish line.

A few weeks ago I was hit by an awesome idea for a short story. Miraculously, I got it finished over the course of a long weekend. “My Brother’s Keeper” is a sci-fi story about relativistic weaponry and interstellar war, except it’s not really about that, those are just the parts that make it sci-fi.

Then on Valentine’s Day I was hit by an idea that had absolutely nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, except that it is a love story. It’s about 93% coincidence that it was Valentine’s Day. I’ll grant 7% for the fact that the last puzzle piece for the idea fell into place while on a movie date.

Here’s what I should be doing:

  • Editing Root of the First‘s first 50 pages again.
  • Editing “My Brother’s Keeper” and “The Last Warband.”
  • Preparing for another round of agent submissions.
  • Preparing for WisCon35
  • Revising Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine*
*Note, I’m intentionally letting Lewis Mulligan wait until March before I begin editing.

Here’s what I am doing:

  • Working on a yet-untitled new paranormal literary fiction novel.

The idea for it hit me, and it’s still a little underdeveloped. I know where I want to start, and where I want to end. The paranormal aspects of it were just too cool not to build a story around because it flows so perfectly with the driving theme of the story. It’s incredibly rare that life gives you a high-concept, easy-to-interpret metaphor that is attached at the hip to the plot, all wrapped up in a neat little box.

All that’s missing right now is the big, empty middle. There’s a whole “middle” to this story that just isn’t there yet. And I have no idea what to put there. I haven’t even settled on a time period that this is set in. As I’ve worked on it this week, I have become increasingly enamored of the idea of leaving it deliberately vague. But I don’t know how long that will last.

Creativity Without Discipline

There’s a notion I’ve encountered in my time as  both a gamer, a writer, and even as an actor that states that any rules or discipline or direction “stifle creativity.” The reasoning goes something like: “Maximum creativity is achieved when you are allowed to express any idea, no matter what. Anything that constrains that amounts to censorship.” And usually, the use of the word censorship, with all its Big Brother connotations ends the debate almost as quickly as calling the other person a Nazi results in an invocation of Godwin’s Law.

But censorship is an integral part of the creative process. For example, last night, I had a dream about being an FBI agent tracking a child sex trafficking ring. We had traced it to a warehouse, and we were undercover, but the cover was blown when I refused to have sex with an underage kidnapping victim. So the sting gets foiled, and we need to escape, so we pile into the cars and drive off. While trying to get away, we go off the road and the only path to take is through a marina. Rows and rows of boat trailers were in our path, so the guy driving the car drove right over the top of them, and by the magic of Dream Logic, this worked. Around that time, the cat woke me up.

Now, be honest: How many skipped to this paragraph the moment you read the words “Last night, I had a dream. . .?” And how many went back to read it when they noticed the word sex? (And how many just went back to read it because they missed the word sex the first time?)

Point is, dreams are uncensored, undisciplined creativity. Lots of writers (and non-writers) keep a dream journal for all those ideas, but as anyone who has ever experienced someone else telling you their dreams knows: 95% of the time they are boring, uninteresting crap that doesn’t make sense, is not a coherent narrative, and at best can hope to be mildly humorous. (Yet, most people would never share the genuinely funny ones because they’re embarrassing. ) Therefore, we’ve learned to tune it out as soon as someone starts talking about them.

Granted, it can be useful to journal dreams for idea fragments that can later be developed into full-fledged ideas and stories. For instance, the car chase I experienced could make for some pretty interesting cinema if it were ever attempted,  and the “commit statutory rape or your cover is blown” creates a pretty fantastic dramatic intensifier for a real plot, but it isn’t a plot by itself.

Creating a film, a video game, a novel, or anything, really, requires artistic discipline. It requires working on it even on days when you don’t feel inspiration, and it requires self-censorship of some genuinely good ideas that just don’t work for this project. If you’re a dungeon master running a D&D game in a fantasy world, the crazy awesome idea you had for a spaceship encounter modeled after the movie Alien just doesn’t fit no matter how cool it is. I used to run into this a lot with DMs in our Neverwinter Nights server. They’d have a great idea, but refused to accept the flaws in using that idea unaltered in a setting that it was not appropriate for. It was probably the #1 conflict on staff: “Cool idea, but not appropriate,” vs “You’re stifling my creativity.”

Now, for NaNo I’m facing the same conundrum: lots of great ideas that just won’t fit into 50000 words. But they’re all near misses; I’d need to create a setting that is similar but not quite the same in order to use them since they couldn’t be used for a completely different setting. And that’s just not going to happen. I’m keeping a  record of them in my story binder, but I have a feeling some of them just won’t see the light of day.

Three Steps to a Better Plot

  1. What is the worst thing that can happen to your main character?  Make the villain do that to your MC personally.
  2. What is the best thing that can happen to your main character?  Have that great thing happen to the villain in full view of the MC.
  3. Write down 15 news headlines or gossip topics for your setting.  At least 3 of these will, with modification, be able to be dropped into your story to add setting flavor, connect your characters to the world they live in, and serve as minor obstacles along the way. I call this Headline Plotting (read more here).

How to beat writer’s block: Headline Plotting and Setting Development

Headline plotting is a technique I’ve developed for my own writing that has helped me connect setting to plot, and is something of a Swiss Army knife of plot. The technique has its roots in tabletop roleplaying games and creating “plot hooks” for quests and events, which I’ve adapted to the sphere of novel writing.

I created it out of necessity (like all great inventions, muahahaha!) when I reached a roadblock in Root of the First that sent me back to replot the book from the start after writing 300 pages of it. Part of the problem was that the setting felt very flat, and some of the events felt very “generic.” Background actors were faceless, stock characters and events felt very arbitrary. I needed a way to flesh it out based on the setting I’d created.

Setting Details

Setting is often described as being the backdrop against which the story takes place, like a text skene that only exists to prevent the real world from cluttering up the story. After all, say what you will of outdoor theatre (Shameless plug for the American Player’s Theatre here), who would want to see King Lear being performed if there was nothing to block out the view of the highway in the background? A tightly controlled setting keeps the unnecessary “stuff” in the world from getting in the way.

But without enough world detail, the events take place in a vacuum. Which setting details are worth keeping and which can be cut generally boils down to: does the protagonist or their main opposition interact with it, or does it have any consequence on the way events play out? If not, realize that it exists solely by author whimsy and not plot necessity. Some whimsical color is essential. But note the word “some” in that sentence.

So how do you create setting elements that intersect with the plot and justify their existence while making your world unique, vibrant, and lifelike? Headline plotting.

Headline Plotting

Put simply, headline plotting is where you brainstorm all the events going on in the world in which your story takes place. Whether it’s a headline in a local news story or a world shaking event, it doesn’t matter. It’s important. Here are some of the examples I came up with for Root of the First:

  • A woman claiming to be a scion of the Raven Clan has staked a claim to the Raven Throne
  • Labor disputes in Laes have sparked a rebellion
  • Rumors that the Duke of Deyledd is terminally ill has led to a succession squabble
  • Piracy in the waters off of Ca’grw has all but shut down trade with Veniea
  • A show of wonders has arrived in New Ca’grw and is open for business

Canny readers might recognize the first of these as a major point of contention in book 2. I knew I wanted book 2 to be about Calis’s struggle to gain the throne, but creating a true rival for her (rather than just generic opposition) makes that struggle far more interesting. The rumors about Deyledd’s illness allowed me to put a face on some border raiders. Instead of just attacking travelers indiscriminately, they are now intentionally destabilizing Deyledd to aggravate the succession struggle enough that its neighbors can take over a contested piece of territory.

The advantage to creating setting like this is that it ties together both the where and the what happened. If I were to describe Deyledd as a duchy, and indulge in flowery narrative about its pastoral landscapes, it would get dull very quickly. Deyledd is now a place where things happen. The succession struggle in Deyledd becomes the problem of the characters in the novel when those border raids catch them in the middle.

“Random” Problems – Applying Headline Plotting

Consider the following story: Steve is driving to work and can’t be late. We have two connected plot/setting elements here: Steve has a route to his destination, and a deadline. Presumably, to keep the tension high, he has just enough time to travel the route and get to work on time. If we say he is just starting a new job after having been fired from the last two for being late, we’ve added pathos but we haven’t added tension. The problem is still the same, and the difficulty is still the same. All that’s changed is we’ve added intensity to the motive. Raising the stakes is important, but it has precisely nothing to do with actually challenging the character.

So let’s add a challenge. But what? Let’s brainstorm some headlines.

  • Now that the rain has let up, the 18th Street bridge is being shut down to begin seasonal repairs
  • A person was shot on the corner of Lexington and High Ave and police have blocked the street while dealing with the situation
  • The depressed economy has led to the city implementing a massive budget cut for all police officers, firefighters, and teachers. As an act of civil disobedience, the police have used their squad cars to escort a massive protest march through the street Steve takes to work

Any one of these both explains more about the world Steve finds himself in, shows that the unpredictable events of the world can and do affect Steve’s life, and they do so in a way that does not make them “feel” arbitrary.

There’s a reason for these things happening. In our plot, the reason they happen is that Steve needs to be late for work and lose his job to kick start the novel. In our setting, though, the reason for their happening is what makes them feel genuine.

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