Inspiration

Where do you get your inspiration to write stories? You can find inspiration everywhere and in everything. Often, I get inspiration from quotes by either real or fictional people. The news gives me tons of inspiration. Movies and books also provide me a plethora of new story ideas. No, I’m not ripping them off with fanfic! It’s more like “how could I’ve made that better”. Or “that side character was interesting, how can I expand on her?”

But what if you’re stuck? What if you are mired in soul-crushing writer’s block? Perish the thought! I read a great article on Torforgeblog.com called 5 Gaming Tools to Help Your WritingThe author of the article, Michael F. Haspil, gives insight into how some tabletop games can help you when your stuck. I took his advice and purchased 4 of the 5 games on the list, not because I’m getting blocked that much, but because I found these games and tools to be really fun and cool.

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DIXIT from Asmodee:  This storytelling card game has 3-6 players drawing cards that have abstract art on each one. In the game, players take turns each round being the Storyteller. Their job is to draw a card and verbally somehow describe the image on the card. The pictures on the cards are difficult to define thematically and that’s the point! You say what you think you see; sort of a well-crafted Rorschach inkblot test. There are no wrong descriptions by the Storyteller. The card is then mixed up with cards pulled by the other players, then they are placed on the board. The other players try to guess which card the Storyteller described. Points to the Storyteller and the players with the correct guesses. This is how the game is played. But how does this game help with writing through block?

Following the story prompting purposes, suggested by Haspil, I took seven of the beautifully illustrated cards and laid them out to see what story they might tell.  Later, for a quick hit, I took just one card and tried to ascertain a theme from the singular image. From there I came up with a writing prompt and a log line. Maybe one day I’ll write the entire story.

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Rory’s Story Cubes from Gamewright: This isn’t a game. Story Cubes are nine dice with images on each side. You can roll one die or up to all nine dice, then line them up and check out the images to see what story they tell. Quite similar to Dixit.

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StoryForge by B.J. West: Also not a game. It’s a deck of cards created by West, a writer, filmmaker and graphic artist, for the sole purpose of generating story ideas and busting through writer’s block. Each card has a concept or theme on the top of it and if you flip the card upside down there is the opposite concept. Deal the card out in particular “spreads”, ala tarot cards, in order to create characters, plots, or story direction.

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FATE DiceThis is a set of 12 dice that are used with the Fate role-playing system. These are typical six-sided dice, but instead of pips they have ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ signs on them. Two sides have nothing at all. In the game, Fate, skills and attributes are assigned a number. When attempting to use a skill or attribute the player must roll four of the Fate dice. The pluses and minuses are tallied determining your score. Positive numbers mean success while negative numbers mean failure. Great for freeform RPGs.

When using the Fate dice as a writer, there’s no need to assign outcomes a number. Just roll the four dice. The more pluses in a roll mean success, more minuses mean failure. Roll them when you don’t know how your character should react to a plot point or to mix things up when your plot is moving too much in a stereotypical direction. This’ll make things interesting. Haspil calls these moments, Gary Stu, moments. The products the article suggests get the thumbs-up from me. Below are products that I already have that aid me with inspiration.

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Funny thing is I’ve been using role-playing games to help in my creativity for years going back to the granddaddy of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. I used to make up silly little stories based on characters I’d randomly generated from the rulebooks. The Player’s Handbook is perfect for this. Even today, I scour the handbook for spells and skills, picking one or two from the list that stand out to me or I’ll take a 20-sided (die) and generate at random.

Two other RPGs I like to use, are The Doctor Who Role-playing Game (both Cubicle Seven and Fasa editions. Fasa edition shown) and DC Heroes Role Playing Game. The Doctor Who RPG is great for creating planets and aliens. I recently used the alien creation chart to randomly create some strange lifeforms for the novella I’m currently revising. The randomness I generated was so crazy and weird that I had to tweak the creatures into a real-world animal variant, which made them quite intriguing. Meanwhile, the planet generator was used to create the planet which my novella is set. There’s also a Time Travel sourcebook that is indispensable when writing that wacky time travel story you’ve been holding out on. This guide gives you some points to ponder so your time travel set up doesn’t come off as ridiculous or write yourself into a paradox.

DC Heroes, my other RPG resource, is great for creating superheroes or heroic-like characters based on your favorite DC Comics characters. It’s also helpful in choosing a kick-ass superpower or an awesome skill for your story’s protagonist and understanding how these would work in your tale. Writers can just roll a die, pick a power and give it to your main character. Better yet give it to your villain!

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One final product I have is not a game. Not so much a card system, like the previous products I mentioned, but it’s more like a writer’s resource tool kit as the box proclaims. It’s called The Observation Deck. What’s so cool about it is that it not only inspires you with ingenious ideas on each card intended to jostle your brain and get you thinking differently, but it also comes with a book that works in conjunction with each card, offering practical advice and strategies designed to help you break through writer’s block. One card I pulled recently said “Listen”. What did it mean by that? The strategy book’s take on the card was to stop what I was doing, close my eyes, and just sit and listen for ten minutes. We are surrounded by sounds, so just take them in. Identify these sounds. You should become relaxed and focused. And then just write what you are experiencing. I did this at the library in which I experienced silence (Duh!), the clacking of keyboards, and the rumbling of my hungry stomach. For the story I’m outlining, I thought about having a scene where my protagonist experiences hunger.

At some point in time we will all experience writer’s block in one form or another. Everyone has their own ways to tackle this troublesome foe. You may not need or feel comfortable using games and cards to get you through. That’s okay. Do what works for you. The above products are just a few fun ways to break out of block and possibly achieve our writing goals.

 

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Safe Spaces

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It’s been a long time since my last post. I know. I know. But I’m back, Baby! So let’s get on with the topic of where to write.

Every writer has and needs a place to write. It would be awesome to mimic a rolling stone and set up shop wherever you may be. But the reality is that’s just not the case for most of us. We need that place, dare I say that safe-space, where we can quietly concentrate, contemplate, and be our truly creative selves.

Some people make fun of the concept of the safe-space when referring to its original concept, which is:  an autonomous space for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus. I’m not using the term in that way.

What I’m referring to is that place where the writer can go and be free of distraction and outside influence. Typically, this is your favorite spot to write like in your home office, at your local cafe, the backroom of a library, maybe by a lake, a porch, a diner, on the beach, or on the grass at the park. Wherever you find that place that allows you distraction-free creative work, that is your creative safe-space.

Now if you don’t have one, then you need to get yourself one. Your creativity will jump by leaps and bounds, I assure you. I have a home office that I share with my wife. I have an expensive high-back office chair that’s pretty comfortable (I’ve fallen asleep in it) and my computer desk is at a proper height that it doesn’t literally cramp my style. For the most part, my space has been relatively positive to my writer’s life.

Sharing a writing space can be problematic though. Now I’ve mentioned that I share this home office with my wife. On one side, I’ve got my desk; cluttered, semi-organized and lived in. On the other, she has her desk; neat, clear, everything in its place. When I work at my desk, I like to have Battle Music playing (some call it Epic Music). I find this type of music gets my creative juices flowing. While writing, battle music stimulates my imagination causing to me to picture what types of warriors are going head to head to this soundtrack. My imagination becomes unleashed. So it would follow that Battle Music helps me against writer’s block. Block is that enemy warrior to be defeated utterly! Hard driving and loud, battle music can be disturbing to those around me, so if my wife is in the office with me I’m usually blasting these tunes through my headphones. Even when alone I use headphones. The battle music comes in, the outside world is kept out.

My wife, meanwhile, likes to do her work with the television playing or listening to comedy from Pandora on her Amazon Tap. Whatever gets you through the day, I don’t knock it. And yes we have a television in the home office. Since the home office doubles as our guest bedroom (or vice versa) we’ve provided a television for our honored guests.

For me, of course, television is the Great Distractor. There is much sports, Netflix and CNN that requires my attention. Even if I have my headphones on and I see a television playing, I need to know what it is they’re talking about, so using headphones doesn’t help. When this situation arises, I have been going to the living room or kitchen with my laptop. Unfortunately, both locations are not conducive for writing. Both places provide even more distractions than a home office with two computers and a television would. There’s a wide-screen television, blu-rays, a super-comfy couch, and video games in the living room, while food, drink and yet another television beckon in the kitchen (We have four televisions in our apartment).

On top of it all, my wife requires my attention and affections as well, which while sweet and necessary, still distracts you from your writer’s life.

Distraction is the anathema of creativity as I’m sure you know. So when you get yourself that writing space, guard it with your life. Treat it like a panic room! Guard it against anything and anyone that would violate it. That may mean family members; especially family members since they will most likely be the ones violating your space. Talk to them nicely. and Be sensitive to their feelings, but be direct. Don’t get angry with them. Explain to them what your are trying to accomplish before you start your writing day. And when writing time is done, let them know you are available. This is why you should set an exact writing time so you don’t neglect loved ones.

 

Submit!

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I’ve been submitting a lot lately (Yay! It’s about time!). With due diligence, my fantasy story is still being shopped around the science fiction/fantasy mags. Currently, it’s out among four publications. Here’s hoping it lands with one of them. So far one these publications (who shall remain nameless) has rejected it. The editor said, “…it didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid.” Damn. I could’ve at least gotten some notes as to why. My online writing instructor teaches that when your story is in the submission phase, only revise on request. Which I’ve done for the rejections that gave me useful notes. I didn’t receive any notes this time around, so I’m not revising jack! And with that, I just have to suck it up and keep submitting!

When submitting, a major key we need to remember is: Am I submitting my story to the right publication? You may think, “Well that’s a pretty obvious assessment there, Zeke!” Not so fast, Missy! It’s not as simple as, “Here’s my fantasy story. Should I send it to a true crime magazine?” No, it’s more like, “Here is my adult dark fantasy story, should I send it to this children’s fantasy magazine?” Or “Here’s my space opera novel, should I send it to this magazine that only publishes hard sci-fi?”

What I’m trying to say is, make sure you know what type of story you’ve written and make sure you are submitting it to the right type of magazine. Make certain you are cognizant of the devils that are in the details of the publication’s content. In order to insure this, a good idea is to read the publication first. Most submission guidelines tell you to do this. It’s solid advice and that’s what I’ve been doing lately.

I’ve bought, downloaded and read some of the publications I’m submitting to and I’m trying to get a good sense of what they tend to publish. Some questions we should be asking are: Does my story fit their criteria? Is my writing style compatible with what they’ve published in the past? Is my skill level up to the task of what the particular publisher has put out? If the answers are ‘yes’ then submit away my friend! If the answer is ‘no’, then submit a more compatible story or submit the story elsewhere. I know this stuff sounds like common sense, but you’ll be surprised how much editors complain about how often they come across this issue.

Submitting to different publications can get a little hectic. What story did I send? When did I send it? Who did I send it to? Have I heard back yet? When should I query about my submission results? This can be very daunting. A good thing to create for yourself is a submission list. In order to keep track of what and where I’m submitting, I created an excel spreadsheet. This has been a godsend!

My submission list spreadsheet contains the:

  • Title of my submission
  • Submission date
  • Response date
  • Publisher
  • Category/Genre of the submission
  • Submission status (ie. rejected, accepted, in progress, etc.)
  • Publisher’s website and/or URL of the submission guidelines page
  • Contest (yes or no)
  • Publication genre type

So don’t just read the submission guidelines to the publication, read the publication as well. Know it. Understand it. Become one with the publication. Then submit!

 

At the Feet of a Master

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I didn’t post last week, not because I was inactive. No Sir! I was fairly active in my writer’s life. I dug into my reading. I attended a panel discussion at The Center for Fiction (more on that in a future post). I finished the second draft of my novella. So I was pretty active. I didn’t blog because I didn’t know what I wanted to blog about specifically. But this week I come back with a vengeance, baby!

My reading consisted mainly of the book Stephen King On Writing, which I just finished. This is King’s definitive work on the craft of writing with a ton of insightful memoir thrown in. King wanted to do a book on craft but also wanted to do a memoir as well. So the master that he is, decided to put the two together. This book succeeds on both counts.

The first half of the book is memoir. King relates pivotal events in his childhood (constant ear infections, school, reading interests as a child), his single mother’s trials and tribulations raising two sons alone, his extended family, his first forays into writing, college life, meeting his wife, his alcoholism and addiction. He links his life’s adventures to what inspired some of his story ideas and his opinions on craft. For instance, Carrie was inspired by two outcast girls in his high school. Graveyard Shift is based on King’s time during college working at a textile factory one long hot summer.

The second half of the book is on craft. King’s take on writing is most insightful. King states, “…good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your ‘toolbox’ with the right instruments.” King believes that, “…it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” I’ll put myself in this category for now, if I’m being honest.

Regarding craft, King also says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I might have mentioned this in another post. My online instructor agrees with this philosophy. Not only that but my instructor attached a number value to it. A writer should write 20% of the time and read 80% of the time. Whoowee! That’s a lot of reading. Not sure if I’m at that level, but it makes sense. King says, “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

King continues, “Good writing…teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.” The horror master brings it home with this straight-to-the-point nugget: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” It most certainly is as ‘simple as that’!

Near the end of the book (pg 271), King displays an excerpt from a rough draft of his tale 1408First he shows the rough unedited version, then he shows the version again, but this time with all his notes and edits for revision. Then King explains his reason for revising the particular sections. It’s a great look into the mind of the master and how he first drafts, then revises and why.

The book is just chock full of ‘aha’ moments that you can take to heart or not. Here’s a good one: eliminating adverbs from your writing.

Over a year ago, I started removing adverbs from my writing after reading an article on the subject. It stayed with me. Now I’m a firm believer. Stephen King subscribes to this belief, as well. Although King still uses adverbs, he does so at a bare minimum. King states, “The adverb is not your friend.” Goodbye Lolly, Lolly, Lolly and take your damn adverbs elsewhere!

King goes on to say, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind…the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously…With adverbs, the writer tells us he/she is afraid, isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” King uses the process of revision to seek out and replace any adverbs he may have lazily used as filler in his first draft. Be as clear as can be in your writing and you won’t need most adverbs.

At the very end of the book, King lists the books that he likes to read. It’s fairly extensive with over 200 books he recommends, and you can be sure those were just the tip of the iceberg. They were pretty much what he could think of off the top of his head, more or less. But before King gets into this list, he has a section called, On Living, that is set aside for him to discuss his road accident.

On the 19th of June, in 1999, King was hit by a Dodge van while walking against traffic on the shoulder of Route 5 in western Maine. Bryan Smith, the driver, had a dozen vehicular offenses to his credit long before he allowed himself on this night to be distracted by his dog. Smith rode up on the shoulder of the highway and sent Mr. King flying. The writer barely survived and needed months of recovery.

Since King was in the middle of writing On Writing  when the accident happenedhe wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get back to finishing it or any other book for that matter. King had to dig down deep and find the reason why he wrote in the first place; and that was for the love of it. Writing made his life “a brighter and more pleasant place.” This is why we should write; to create a brighter and more pleasant place for our readers and ourselves. King had to learn that again in order to write again.

I’m going to end this post with King’s words from the end of the On Living section of his book:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

and…

“…the rest of it (this book) is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Folks, I know King is right. I/We have the permission to write, so let me/us fill ourselves to the brim!

New Vision for this Site

 

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Originally, the concept for this site was to be a place for me to post my literary scribbles. Any short story that came to mind, I would put here for the world wide web’s approval and maybe I would submit these shorts for actual publication. But as I traveled along this not so lonely road, I learned that many publishers do not like to publish stories that appear on blogs. Many sites consider posting a story on your own blog as published. So after posting two stories, I had to stop. Dejected, I began to lose interest in my little site; letting it languish, not knowing what to do with it.

Six months later this past summer, I took an awesome Gotham Writers’ Workshop class. It was both enriching and enlightening. My instructor, Scott Alexander Hess, was both extremely knowledgeable and encouraging. At the end of the 10-week class, I’d come away with two workshopped shorts, a handful of great writing exercises/prompts and a writing group made up of the more active members of my class. Also I learned that an author blog was still a good idea if not a necessity.

Then I read the book DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira. It’s a fine book on how if you just create writing practices for yourself, like writing with focus, reading with purpose, and building a writing community; you can skip the MFA programs and save a ton of money. This book really resonated with me. I found that many of the suggestions that Ms. Pereira makes, I was already doing. This gave me the confidence to know that I’m on the right track. Also, I don’t have a ton of money to spend on an MFA program. But more importantly, the book stresses a need for an author page or blog. Convinced, I dusted off the old blog, refocused it and re-purposed it. And here we are.

What is the new purpose of this blog? The blog will now be a place for me to write about my trials and tribulations as a burgeoning writer. I will write about my failures, my triumphs, my rejections, my writing space, my attempts at creating a writing practice.

Join me as I embark on this journey with renewed purpose and focus. Maybe you will find that you can relate to some of the trials and tribulations I am and will go through. And together, maybe we shall find the right path to our writer’s life.