Tag Archives: Ideas

Leaving Books Behind

[For those interested, my book Unwilling Souls begins a week long Kindle Countdown Deal at 8 AM EST TODAY, February 2nd, 2016! For the next two days, it will be just $0.99 on Kindle, with the price going up steadily every couple of days after that. So act quickly!]

Owing to my post last month which directly related how experience shapes writing, I’m going to take a slightly different tack in approaching the topic this month. Show of hands: how many of you have read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series? It’s an interesting set of books for a number of reasons. The first is that fantasy isn’t generally King’s genre. I’ve often found that talented writers who don’t usually write straight fantasy then choose to attempt it come up with very unusual entries into the genre. It’s as if not being immersed in the rules of the genre, both written and unwritten, means they approach a fantasy story with a very different mindset. Justin Cronin’s series The Passage has similar traits.

But I digress. The real reason The Dark Tower is such an unusual series of books is that King published them over a period of twenty-two years (1982 – 2004, and thirty years if you count The Wind Through the Keyhole, which came out in 2012). And since books 5-7 were published within a year of one another, the publication frequency became even more lopsided.

This is an impressive feat. Keeping the enthusiasm for a series of books up for that long is pretty much unprecedented, at least recently. As much grief as George R.R. Martin gets, his series has been ongoing since 1996, so he’s just second place on this list of two I’ve generated. There were plenty of Stephen King fans who, prior to 2003, thought they would never get the end of their beloved series.

It’s tough to keep up enthusiasm for one idea for that long. To be a writer requires a lot of enthusiasm, because there is very little in the way of positive feedback, especially in the early going. Certainly there’s no monetary feedback. It’s almost impossible to put fingers to keys if you aren’t excited about the ideas you are putting down, or at least excited about finally finishing those ideas. What readers ended up getting with The Dark Tower was a series of four books, each of which was written in a different style and with a vastly differing plot. No two of those first four books were really anything alike. Each was its own, unique animal, with strengths and weaknesses that largely differed from any other entry in the series. The overarching plot connecting them was very loose and free-form. By contrast, King wrote books five through seven back-to-back-to-back in an effort to finally put the series to bed. As a result, those last three books demonstrated a much more uniform style and a renewed focus on the overarching plot of the series. In the end, the main seven books of the series were written by five different versions of Stephen King over a period of a quarter century.

Talk to enough writers, and you’ll start to hear the same refrain over and over again: ideas are easy, execution is hard. And it’s true. My friend Gama Martinez is famous among his friends in the writing world for being able to take any weird or random notion you throw at him and sketch out a story concept within a few minutes. Most every author has more ideas knocking around inside their head than they can ever write about. And the sad truth is that plenty of those ideas, as excited as you may be about them when they pop into your head, may wither on the vine before you get to them. People change. The things that interest or excite them change too.

After my first Superstars seminar, I returned home with renewed writing vigor. Over the course of two months, I wrote a 100,000 word first draft of a superhero novel. It flowed out of my brain faster than anything I’d every written before. Then I started looking at it and realized how many problems it had. Ultimately, it was a series of mostly cool scenes and chapters that didn’t really fit together into a single, cohesive story, and I wasn’t sure, at the time, that I could find a way to make them fit. I put the book aside and began work on something new, my burst of excitement over my superhero story fizzling.

I told myself I would come back to it, rewrite what needed rewriting to fix the structural problems and not waste all that time I spent coming up with that world and those characters. And yet here I am five years later, and I still haven’t rewritten that novel. I’m neck deep in a four book series, now, unwilling to break my momentum with major side projects. After that’s done, the possibilities of the blank page may call to me more than a massively flawed novel first draft.

Time marches on. Our lives take us in different directions, and the topics we focus our thoughts on shift in compensation with these changes of direction. Sometimes, as writers, we outgrow ideas, or even entire stories. That’s okay. In fact, it’s perfectly natural, change being the only universal constant and all.

Write down your most exciting ideas when you have them. Even if you can’t get to them for years, you may find a way to spin them together in another story. And if nothing else, they are a snapshot of the kind of writer and the kind of person you were at the time.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens and A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

 

Only The Best – A Challenge

This month we’ve had a lot of great posts with tons of concrete advice on how to break through a wall or break out of a plateau where we might be stuck. But what about life in general? Do we ever feel stuck, unmotivated?

Breaking out of those ruts can be harder than overcoming writer’s block. One of the keys is to try to identify what motivates us. What makes us smile or laugh or cry, helps renew our enthusiasm, or drive?

Something that dives deep, strikes a chord, resonates with our deepest held beliefs. Something that inspires hope or love.

The bestThe greatest books and movies are those that touch such a chord, that drive us to tears when they connect with our reality. Think Rocky, Gone With The Wind, Titanic, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Think The Help, or Pride and Prejudice.

It might be a romance, like An Affair To Remember, or it might be a heroic drama like The Dirty Dozen (I love the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where the men and women get emotional over these two different films – watch the clip here).

Whatever the story, the truth is someone put together the right sequence to touch your heart deeply. Those kind of stories can inspire us to be better people, help us break out of an unproductive rut, or change our lives at a fundamental level. That’s one of the reasons I love good stories so much, and why I work so hard to write them.

I want to try an experiment. What is one movie or book that touched you in a deep, meaningful way? It’s useless to put together a top 50 best books or best movies of all times because different stories touch different people. It’s too subjective. But each one of us has a personal list.

So what book or movie moved you the most?

It’s all too easy to find works that speak to me. When I read a book or watch a movie, I deep dive. I get sucked in completely. For me it’s a vivid, powerful experience, and so I find myself responding emotionally all the time. Whenever the hero faces the ultimate test and risks all to achieve their goal, I find myself choking up and responding to the stakes that they’re feeling because I feel them too.

In movies, I get sucked in almost too easy. From Wreck-It Ralph to The Avengers to October Sky, I’m fighting tears at the end of all of them. In books, most of my favorite authors trigger a powerful emotional response. From Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson to Hard Magic by Larry Correia to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

But even so, some works stand out and make a deeper impact. In books, both Enders Game by Orson Scott Card and The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson impacted me greatly with their fantastic twists at the ends. But one of the stories that I found even more powerful was The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Kal, one of the main characters, pushes himself to the utter brink to save others, and that heroism demands a reaction from any reader.

In movies, a couple of my all-time favorites are Star Wars and Avatar. But I was also powerfully moved by The Shawshank Redemption and Remember the Titans.

There are many others, but that’s enough for today. This is not an easy question, but taking the time to find an answer can give you a clue as to what motivates you, what themes or qualities you respond to. In life, perhaps you’ve just identified qualities you want to emulate more every day. In writing, perhaps you’ve just identified what element you need to add to our own work to make it really shine.

Please add your comments, and then share the challenge with friends on Facebook or Google+ or whatever other media you use to connect. See if they’re willing to share an example too.

I think we’ll find some common themes, and a few surprises.

Let’s find out.

Exploring Story Concepts Prior to Writing

Slot canyonThis month we’ve discussed great games that inspire, games that highlight effective storytelling, or that identify pitfalls in the creative process. We’ve also discussed some of the dangers of trying to port game scenarios directly into book form (review that excellent post here).

I’m going to visit that topic from a slightly different angle and discuss the effectiveness of finding avenues for creative input. It’s hard to build a great story, and harder still if we try to do it in a vacuum. Utilizing creative input sources can prove effective in developing foundational concepts for your story. The goal is not to try writing a book directly from a game scenario, particularly if it pulls in any material that may be copyrighted elsewhere. However, it is possible to utilize a RPG or other creative input source to explore some of the general concepts you might be kicking around as the foundation of a story.

For example, if you want to flesh out a new magic system, inviting your gaming friends to utilize that magic system in a game scenario can really help. They’ll try to break the rules, and they’ll try to use it in ways you never expected. The experience will force you to think deeper and broader than you might have on your own, and lay down rules and boundaries you had not realized you needed. This is particularly useful if you don’t have someone who makes a good sounding board to brainstorm ideas and plumb the depths of your new concept.

You can also explore other aspects of the world building in a game. What are the nations and races that exist in this world? Do they get along? What motivates them? What do people eat? What kind of money do they use?

diceIn my family we play a customized RPG that utilizes only one 20-sided die for all decisions. It removes a lot of the technical hassle of similar games and relies more on the storytelling skill of the person leading the game. It’s also an excellent creative workout routine. I rarely plan out the details of a game beforehand, so am forced to come up with each element in a just-in-time delivery sort of way. I’ve found it helps break down creative barriers and triggers some exceptionally creative moments.

I’ve used this process as a way to explore multiple story concepts. Many of them prove mediocre or uninspiring, so we drop those and try something different. A few have resulted in ideas with lots of potential. Those I set aside for later exploration, or launch secondary game scenarios to consider further.

Once I’ve got what I need, I throw away the specifics of the game, including the characters, and start building my story from scratch – drawing upon the foundational concepts we explored through the game.

Storyteller
The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870

But RPG gaming is not the only creative input I use, and it’s not even my most productive. Even better is good old storytelling. In our family we tell a lot of stories, and I’ve used that verbal story time to develop magic systems and explore plot concepts with my kids. It’s proven highly effective. Kids (2 of mine are teen-agers now) provide instant feedback, and they are brutal critics. If an idea isn’t working, I know about it instantly. On the other hand, if a story generates lots of enthusiasm from them, I might be on to something.

The danger there, just as with using RPG games, is to recognize that the novel you write will not be the same as the game (or verbal story). A couple years ago, I spent a lot of time developing a story line with my kids. They actually came up with the original magic system idea, which I then fleshed out and used to launch into a series of stories where we explored many other aspects of the world building. The resulting story proved so engaging that I decided to write a book based on all the material we produced.

At first I tried to follow the story line we’d developed, since we were all so enthusiastic about it. However I quickly ran afoul of the hazards lurking down that road. After those hard-learned lessons, I threw away that unproductive plotline and made a hard break – the story would not be a novelization of our hours of storytelling. Instead, I would craft a novel from the ground up, building upon some of the foundational elements we explored in that storytelling, but the plot and characters were entirely new. The resulting novel is a YA fantasy titled Set In Stone, which is now in the hands of my agent. Hopefully we’ll find a home for it soon.

Take Away: Use any creative avenue available to you to explore creative ideas, but remember the limits of what you can accomplish. Take the foundational elements, strip out the rest, and go build a great novel.

Where else do you turn for creative input to explore story concepts as you begin working on a new novel?

What if? – Two words to unlock inspiration

Have you ever had a great idea for a story that thrilled you with the possibilities, only to struggle to develop it into a fully realized manuscript? You have that scene that burns so bright in your mind, but just can’t seem to expand it into a full novel, or that character you know as intimately as yourself, but lacks the right scenes to shine? Or, maybe you just finished a work and you’re searching for the next big idea, but aren’t sure where to start?

Whatever stage of your project you happen to find yourself struggling in, there’s a simple yet powerful tool you can always turns to for inspiration.

The “What if?” game.

This game casts you beyond all bounds, out into the realm of pure imagination. There are no limitations, no hesitation. No idea is too crazy, no disaster too terrifying that you cannot consider it. Don’t hold back when playing the “What if?” game. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst possible thing that could happen in this scene, or to this character?” and then explore the possible answers.

The results can be a little scary. We need to torture our heroes, but sometimes we cringe back from the awful reality of just how bad we can make things for them. Or we hesitate because if we follow the newly illuminated road our ideas have revealed, it’ll mean a lot of mental struggle to figure out how to guide the heroes through the new difficulties to their eventual triumph.

Don’t hold back.

These are exactly the moments to take a second look and ask “what if?” again. That new, twisted, crazy idea might just be what our story needs to drive it from mediocrity to excellence. It might require more work on our part, it might torture our characters until we cry out with them, it may challenge assumptions we’ve made.

It may be awesome.

Of course, it may kill our story too by taking it off a cliff. In that case, discard that idea, ask “what if?” again, and explore a different road.

Sometimes we play the “what if?” game in the middle of free-writing a scene, when we’re struck by a sudden burst of inspiration and type a few lines that veer the story off the expected course. Again, we need to explore it, consider it, and decide if it was a false start or an exciting new twist.

In one manuscript, I wrote a scene where one character’s powerful magical weapon, which was critical to the plot, unexpectedly fell into the sea and was lost. I hadn’t planned it, but while writing the scene, I realized this was the worst thing that could happen, and I wrote it. The resulting scene became more powerful by entire magnitudes, although it left me quite literally shaking from the shock. At first I wanted to delete it, to shy away from the disaster I’d revealed, but that would have weakened the story and been the easy way out. Eventually, I figured out how to deal with it, and the story proved the stronger for it.

Recently I played the “What if?” game with a friend to explore the deep back story of a current work in progress, and after traveling far afield, we came up with some wonderful ideas I never would have considered without casting myself out into the world of limitless possibilities opened through “What if?”. Those answers now tie in aspects of the plot that were hanging a bit loose, and the resulting whole is consistent and far more powerful.

What experiences have you had with the “What if?” game? If you’ve never tried it, what are you waiting for?

What if it revitalizes your story?

What if . . . ?