Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ideas

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’

Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.

Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/08/ask-atwood-the-answers/)

newt in a fountainIt’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.

The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.

Capturing

John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.

Prioritising

I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.

Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.

Matching

You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.

Combining

One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.

This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.

Expanding and exploring

An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.

Expressing

Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.ideas land

You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.

  1. Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
  2. Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
  3. Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
  4. If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
  5. Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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‘Realistic’ dialogue

I recently read a draft of a colleague’s story. I was thoroughly enjoying the tension, the mystery, the literary craft of the tale – until, a third of the way into the story, the focal character began to speak.

He was an old man fold yorkshire manrom an English country area, and the writer had him using the idiomatic expressions of his class and county in a manner she later assured me was authentic: her great-uncles had spoken exactly that way.

Not only did the character speak entirely in dialect expressions, he also said exactly what one would expect him to say in his situation – his dialogue was made up of clichés. A fiercely independent old codger, he was refusing to go into a nursing home, and constantly made statements like ‘There’s life in me old bones yet’. My colleague reminded me that people do speak in clichés quite a lot: they’re the expressions that spring to mind because we’ve heard them so often. The dialogue, she insisted, was ‘realistic’. She’s probably right.

The problem is that, as a reader, I was jarred out of the ‘reality’ of the story the moment I began to read this character’s dialogue. My suspension of disbelief was shattered; instead of remaining immersed in the fictional world, I surfaced. For me, the tone of the story shifted abruptly from literary fiction to caricature. I can identify two reasons for this.

Firstly, we’re all accustomed to minor characters in novels, films, and (especially) TV shows, speaking entirely in clichéd colourful expressions to indicate their local, low-class status. Along with costume, it’s a short-hand way to tell the reader or viewer ‘this is all you need to know about this character – he or she is the equivalent of a Shakespearian mechanical, performing a function in the plot’. I’m sure there are real West Country people who say ‘Happen we mun’ do this or that. There are certainly real Australians – my dad among them – who say ‘Blimey Charlie’ and ‘strike a light’, but I know that as soon as I put these expressions in a character’s mouth, the Australian reader’s mind will switch from literature to television. Americans might consider their reaction to ‘Boy howdy’ or ‘Git along now’. We’re all steeped in the convention that certain geographically-linked idiomatic expressions indicate a particular kind of character not to be taken seriously.

Secondly, when a character who speaks a local dialect is intended to be taken seriously, the writer signals this, and uses various techniques to encourage the reader to look beyond the character’s surface presentation. The character usually won’t speak in clichés or catch-phrases: he or she will say things that are startling, provocative, evasive, intriguing, strange, witty, or otherwise unexpected. Sometimes, especially in genres like noir, thriller or police drama, the character speaks very little actual dialogue. Sometimes the character has a high degree of control over his or her use of language – a good example is Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, who chooses carefully whether to speak Italian, English or Venetian in any given situation, and consciously makes his accent and choice of vocabulary coarser or more refined depending on the effect he’s aiming to have on his interlocutors.

So, in literary fiction, we expect to see sophistication in the use of language, within the character’s dialogue, or at least in the interplay between dialogue and what happens around it. The fact that a character speaks in dialect or local idiom doesn’t disqualify him or her from the role of central character – but the writer needs to be aware of how cross-media conventions can undermine the desired effect of a character’s speech.

I’m reminded of a satirical scene I once saw, in which a writer’s work is being produced for television. The scene calls for a horse, so the writer is startled to see a saddled cow being led onto set. ‘It’s okay,’ the director assures the writer. ‘Horses don’t look like horses on TV; we have to use cows, cunningly painted.’ ‘What do you use for cows, then?’ ‘Two actors in a suit.’ Numerous sound effects for radio are produced by means other than the obvious: the sound of a farm gate closing can be mimicked by shutting up an ironing board, ice clinking in a glass may actually be dominoes, and kneeling on a pile of old cassette tape while squelching your hands in a bowl of yoghurt then dropping a wet towel off your shoulder creates a good approximation of a lamb being born (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00z44ff). Apparently, a microphone stuck down a geyser near Rotorua produces the sound of the inner workings of Mordor – but at least that makes sense.mordor

My point is, medium places demands on content. For fiction purposes, it’s not enough to write ‘realistic’ dialogue. As writers’ self-help books constantly remind us, in ‘real’ speech people um and ah, don’t complete their sentences, leave out key words, talk over one another, and sometimes say nothing at all, yet meaning is conveyed in a conversation through tone, gesture, facial expression and so on. These aspects of communication can only be reproduced in a limited way as words on paper. And, of course, in a piece of writing it’s not just the participants in the conversation who must understand each other: the reader needs to process the conversation in the context of the characters and their wider situation. So as writers creating characters, we must ask more of our dialogue than mere ‘realism’.

An exercise:

Look at a piece of your recent writing that features dialogue. Think about what is conveyed to the reader about each character through their speech: the words they use, the length and grammatical correctness of their sentences, the use of idiomatic expressions or slang, and so on. Does the dialogue ‘place’ the character in terms of age, gender, social background, geographical location, and so on? Does the character adjust his or her speech to suit different situations? If your character uses clichés, what effect do these have on the reader – do they build character or undermine it? Are any aspects of the dialogue working against your purposes as the writer of this story? Discuss with a writing buddy or reflective reader.

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

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Fiction Southeast

Fiction Southeast bannerI’ve just joined the staff of Fiction Southeast, an online journal dedicated to short fiction. You can check it out here. A wealth of short fiction, including an audio series, and great articles, reviews and interviews to inspire and encourage writers and readers.

To quote from the About page:

‘Fiction Southeast is an online literary journal dedicated to short fiction. The journal was founded by Editor, Chris Tusa, and Editor-at-Large, Michael Garriga. We publish fiction weekly (every Thursday) as well as an occasional essay, review, or interview on Mondays. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Aimee Bender, Donald Ray Pollock, RT Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Martone, Ron Carlson, and many others.

‘The mission of Fiction Southeast is to showcase short fiction from today’s most promising writers and to create an online literary journal that allows readers to quickly and easily access quality writing from their laptops, tablets, and cell phones. Since electronic reading devices (and to some extent laptops for that matter) make reading long pieces of writing less enjoyable, we have chosen to dedicate the journal to “short fiction,” in this case, fiction which is approximately 1500 words or less in length. Aside from limiting the stories we publish to less than 1500 words, we have also implemented a READ NOW feature for every story/article on the site (just above the article/story title) that allows the user to increase the font, export to epub format, even save in Kindle format.’

I’m looking forward to working with these guys. Please come across and take a look.

http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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