Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings

 

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Me and Edgar Livin’ the Dream

I’ve known all my life about authors who were inspired by alcohol or a drug-induced stupor or a dream:  Samuel Coleridge (Kubla Kahn), Edgar Allen Poe (just about everything), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Hunter S. Thompson (just about everything), to name just a famous few.

And of course, we members of the rock ‘n roll generation are all-too-familiar with the concept of drugs and alcohol as fuel for creativity, since too many of our heroes have died as a result of overindulging in one while trying to capture the other.

I think the idea is that a second layer of creative consciousness is released during times when the brain is active, but not really alert and bothering itself about its immediate, high-level daily tasks, like keeping us from stepping into traffic or remembering to eat our spinach.

I don’t think I really believed it until I had the experience myself last week.

Before you decide that an intervention may be needed, let me assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. But I did wake up in the middle of the night with the idea for a character, a McGuffin and the opening paragraph of a new novel. I don’t remember actually dreaming about it, but it was very much on my mind as I opened my eyes. In the first few minutes of wakefulness, before I was completely awake, I fiddled a little with the details and by the time I was truly awake I had something rather interesting.

Now I’m an Olympic-level heavy sleeper, so it’s unusual for me even to wake in the night, let alone feel inspired to leave my bed. But I’ve learned never to spurn inspiration whenever, and in whatever form, it may strike, so I tottered out of bed to write it down. And damn if it wasn’t pretty good. It was so good that I decided to concentrate on the resulting story for a while to see where it took me.

I’ve been trying to write a humorous novel for some time; it’s actually difficult to write humorously without working really hard and the hard work seems to stifle the humor—just one of the many apparent contradictions we writers face. But over the next few days, while I was writing my dream-inspired book, I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and in a few places actually laughing aloud. I’m not certain the book is actually funny, or if I’m just so delighted at how easily the book is flowing that I’m chortling with glee at how clever I am.

Either way, I’m pleased with it, I’m happy to know that the dreaming thing works, and I’ll keep you posted.

Luddite Rant

I TRY NOT TO BE a Luddite, I really do.  I have a laptop and use it daily to write my mystery novels. I have a cell phone and even take occasional photos with it, although that still seems wrong somehow. I communicate with friends via Face Book.  I own a Kindle and download books. I use Wikipedia. And hey, look—I write a blog.

And yet, all of my electronic marvels are like the bastard child of Marvin and Arthur Dent in the Hitchiker’s Guide–they only use about 5% of their brain capacity because I’d really rather be making a cup of tea.

It’s not that I despise or fear technology (although, truly, SkyNet and the Clone Wars seem only moments away most days) I’m just frustrated by the necessity of learning about all this crap, then re-learning it when the newest iteration is “released,” and then listening to people talk about it constantly. Seriously–when did “app” become a word? Worse–when did we all learn what it meant? Even worse–when did we start hearing people talk about the latest ones? Did you know you can “download” an app that allows you to pretend to pop the bubbles on bubble wrap?  I kid you not.

If the internet is the 21st century equivalent of the telephone—meaning that it changed the way we wish each other Merry Christmas, learn about revolutions and the latest fashions, research our term papers and contact each other from vacations in Australia and Bora Bora—then why is so dam’ difficult to use?  Every new tool to access it seems to require a skill set tantamount to running a nuclear power plant (and don’t get me started on actual nuclear power plants).  If telephones had been this complicated in the beginning, we’d still be using semaphore flags. Or maybe telegraphs—which was another simple-to-use technology that changed the world.  Tap a button, send a message. What could be easier?

You know what I miss?

I miss picking my photos up from the drug store and then sticking them in actual albums. And then turning the pages of the albums and enjoying the photos.

I miss people dropping in.  Remember that?  Until about ten years ago (not that long ago really) people used to visit their friends because they hadn’t been in touch for a while.

I miss calling people on the ‘phone and actually reaching them and talking to them. And then picturing them in their living room or bedroom or kitchen and not interrupt them hanging from the side of a cliff somewhere or worse. When did “How are you?” get replaced with “Where are you?”

I miss handwriting.  It’s been a long time since I received any kind of hand written note or letter or card. Hell, it’s been a long time since I sent any.

I miss feeling smart because I know the difference between pica and elite.

Yeah, yeah, it’s all great.  GNP is up; information has largely replaced extractive and industrial production; standards of living have risen all over the place; no parent ever needs to lose a kid because they can “track” them with their iPhones; lovers can break-up without having to meet face-to-face (ye gods); plagiarists have an easier time of it (ye gods again).

We’re all in touch constantly and seem more detached from each other than ever, mostly because we’re so busy trying to figure out the latest version of whatever amazing thingy we’re using to keep us in touch.

I’m never out of touch, and yet sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I was. Maybe I’d feel more connected.

Paying Attention. It Builds Character

I SPENT A DAY recently hiking with a friend. We were taking it slow and enjoying the day when a Park Service truck pulled up next to us and the guy inside stopped to chat.

He had what is sometimes described as “a shock” of white hair and a white beard.  He’d have no trouble playing Santa Claus is all I’m saying. He was wearing a Park Service Smokey Bear hat and one of those bright orange safety vests and the passenger seat of his pick-up was filled with loose rolls of toilet paper. A lot of them. Maybe two dozen.

My first thought was: what kind of person buys loose rolls of toilet paper by the dozen? And then I realized he was probably making the rounds of the park’s outhouses to re-stock them, which was just as interesting in its way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given a thought to that particular job, or that it would be Santa Claus in a pick-up truck who did it.

Our conversation, which started with a discussion of my red hair and his formerly red beard, quickly moved to the Vikings (who had red hair) the design of the keel on Viking ships and the contributions to sailing technology by the ancient Phoenicians.  In short, our conversation was a tribute to the efficacy of the History Channel.

Our hike that day was within easy reach of the city, but it occurred to me that in a different kind of park, perhaps more like the national park where my heroine finds herself, he would probably not only pick up his toilet paper in bulk, but his evenings would be long and dark and tv would be a welcome diversion.

I happen to be building a new character into my novel.  I want him to be a bit of a mountain man, but not uncouth or strange enough to cause anxiety, and I want him to have an unexpected hobby or interest to give him some depth.

My Park Service friend had quite a number of interesting quirks I could borrow for my mountain man. For one thing, those rolls of toilet paper are hard for me to relinquish. Or maybe my new character has made a study of Viking and Phoenician ship building. Or maybe he just watches a lot of the History Channel during the long dark evenings. Or maybe all I’m taking away from the encounter is that my mountain man has a white beard.

This is what fiction writers mean when we say our characters are not real people.  We pay attention and we use bits and pieces of real people. A white beard. An interest in ancient history. Buying toilet paper in bulk.

These are real things to build a fictional character on.

Do You Like It? I Made it Myself.

THE UNEXPECTED is one of the joys of writing fiction and one of the most mysterious.  Where the heck does all that stuff come from, anyway?

I’m a voracious reader, so I guess some of it comes from the minds of other writers. It floats around in my unconscious mind like a little life raft, unneeded and unheeded until one day I’m in desperate need of a new simile or a phrase to describe someone or something and it pops up, bright and yellow in the murk, ready for me to leap aboard.

But other stuff really does seem to come out of the ether: surprising, delightful, mysterious.

For example: I was a nail biter for years and then, with no small amount of concentrated effort, I stopped. So I coddle my nails with clear nail polish twice a week to help them stay strong and long.

I file them into gentle ovals (stick with me here) because the shape takes advantage of every micro-millimeter of length, and I do this even though it’s more fashionable to file them straight across, leaving the nails squared off and blunt.

So there you have it. Twice a week I pay particular attention to my fingernails for five minutes, shaping them and polishing them.  For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of trouble getting the oval shape just right and I thought: The heck with it; I’ll just file them straight across.

And in my head I suddenly saw a woman getting her nails done in a new salon.  She normally has them filed into ovals followed up by a discreet French manicure. But her new manicurist files them straight across, and paints them iridescent green with purple daisies. My heroine hates them. (As who wouldn’t?)

Now why would she hate them and yet make no objection to the manicurist’s flight of fancy? Because, of course, she is in a witness protection program. She’s been moved far from home, told to dye her hair, quit her job and dress differently, and because she’s a thorough sort of girl, she’s decided her camouflage must extend to her manicures.

The manicurist, for no explainable reason, is a Native American. Aha! She’s Shoshone or Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation near a  small town in Wyoming. I’ve vacationed there in a river-side log cabin belonging to friends. So suddenly I have two characters, a home for my heroine (she’ll live in the log cabin), a small-town setting and the beginning of a plot.

These details, including the colors of her nail polish, all came to me as I was writing, with no forethought at all. I was describing the manicure, then I was explaining why she hated it, then she was talking to the manicurist about life on the reservation, then I showed her reaction to the small town, and finally went along on her difficult drive to the log cabin as she revealed the bare bones of her troubles with evil men who want her dead.

Before I knew it I had 3,000 words and I swear to God it all began with me sitting in my study, thinking of nothing except brushing clear polish on my fingernails.

I’m not saying all of these things individually were conjured out of thin air. I’ve seen manicures like that; I don’t hate them, but I’m not a particular fan. I’ve visited the Wind River Reservation, I’ve vacationed in that small town, and–this is the capper–I know the town has a branch office of the FBI.

So these things were floating around in my unconscious when I sat down to write about a manicure, but the way I put them together was new and wholly my own. I wrote an outline for the novel starting with that scene which led to where I am now, at 15,000 words.

But here’s the punchline, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read Outline or Mishigas:

The scene isn’t in the book.  I decided that the manicure was a bridge too far, even for someone in the witness protection program. My heroine is smart and she’s scared and she’s careful, but she’s not an obsessive nut. If I wanted her to be an obsessive nut I might have left the manicure in place as written.

The manicure in any case had served its purpose–I’d climbed aboard a life raft from my own unconscious and paddled like hell for shore.

Outline Or Michigas

Thanks to my friends Graham Beattie and Lia Matera for this wonderful quote from Raymond Chandler which fits so well with my thoughts today:

“I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”

**

IF WRITERS ARE TELLING THE TRUTH about their process—always a risky bet—then a lot of us develop an outline before we begin to write, while an equal number eschew the restraint that an outline imposes and just wing it. (Can you tell I’ve always wanted to write a sentence containing ‘eschew’? The opportunities are less common than you might think.)

For years I was a dedicated camp follower of the wing it brigade.  It felt more creative to just let things happen. I’m not such a devotee nowadays, but I still jump-start a new novel by writing a dramatic scene for my heroine without bothering with context. This isn’t necessarily the opening scene; it can eventually end up anywhere in the book. Sometimes, it doesn’t make the cut at all. But  I develop the story and characters organically using that scene as a platform. And then I reverse engineer an outline to guide the rest of the novel.

This is a result of techniques honed during my master’s degree in writing and afterwards, teaching writing to others in a workshop setting. Writers throw challenges at each other as part of the learning process: “Invent a new god for Greek mythology. Two minutes”  “Write a scene with your main character eating a meal alone. Five minutes.”  “Describe a Christmas tree. Three minutes.”

Unfortunately, when applied to a novel this method tends to produce a series of unrelated scenes, character sketches and plot lines which then have to be linked into a coherent whole.  No carefully-drawn outline survives the mishigas when the book can go off in any direction at any moment.

I’ve worked like this, (Chandler, too, apparently) but it’s not ideal for me.  It was fun and challenging in its way, but it was a bit like doing a jig saw puzzle with the pieces turned over. I had the shape of the pieces as a guide but no idea where I was headed. The “picture” at the end was a surprise to the reader (a good thing) and to me (less so).

For a murder mystery (almost always a highly disciplined type of novel) I really need to work from some sort of outline.  Sure I always have at least one corpse, which makes the dramatic center of the novel a sure thing. But it’s a good idea to know how it got that way and why and by whom before I get too far in. I can still incorporate unexpected characters, scenes and action I run into along the way.

It’s a bit like having a sculptor’s steel armature; when it’s rock steady I can be as carefree as I like throwing clay at it—the thing will stand up and hold together.

Indecisive? Maybe.

HONESTLY, THE DAY AFTER I began this blog didn’t go well for me in a writing sense.  I’d spent the best part of a day setting up the site, writing the first post, then blabbing about it on Face Book.  There was no writing getting done on the novels, but I felt as if I was priming the pump, which felt good.

The blog was serving one of its purposes; it was keeping my writers’ muscles flexible. And of course I got the strokes of having written and published, no matter in how limited a fashion.

But the next morning, instead of leaping to my laptop to work on one of my novels, I found myself practicing some fairly advanced avoidance techniques. On-line shopping, Face Book, gardening, checking out my first blog post in case something had changed since the last time I checked it, and then admiring how it read and how it looked on the page.  (Very cool actually.)

A trip to the drug store was suddenly imperative.  It’s important to have two extra tubes of toothpaste and some hair conditioner in case you run out. A read-through of the past week’s work to date—this is one of my best avoidance techniques—gave me another hour’s distraction.  And then suddenly it was time to get ready for a dinner date with friends and the opportunity to crow in my next blog post about how productive I’d been was lost.

The truth is, I’m at the stage with all three novels when I have to buckle down and get serious about the next stage in the action and I’m postponing the commitment. I’m facing a junction with multiple roads heading off to all points of the compass.  Almost any journey is possible now, but the next step will limit the roads I can travel, and the step after that will narrow down the route even more as I get closer to my destination.

I can’t decide if I’m excited and enthralled by the number of paths open to me, or if I’m just really, really indecisive.

In one view I’m empowered by the possibilities; in the other I’m sort of a coward, unwilling to commit, right?

Difficult to decide which.

Kindling

THIS WEEK I WAS without my Kindle for three days because I left it in a friend’s car. The fact that I had it with me in her car may give you some idea of how attached I am to it. Maybe its enough to know that being without it was like being without, say, my crack pipe.

There was a time–about 18 months ago–when I didn’t have a Kindle. Whenever I finished a book, in common with nearly everyone else except the truly geeky, I went to a bookstore to buy another. There were limitations, because bookstores weren’t open 24/7, and no bookstore contained every book I wanted, so sometimes I had to order it and wait. And those limitations provided their own limitations on the amount of reading I could do.

Now of course those limits are gone. Setting aside the disdain with which Amazon is viewed by a lot of my thinking friends, I’m a good customer. When I finish a book at 1:30 in the morning, I press a couple of buttons and–lo and behold and voila–I have a new supply of crack… er…reading material. This has played merry hell with my credit card balance, and also with my ability just to put the dam’ Kindle down. I have no reason any more to ration my reading. I can read 24/7 if I want to. I’ll never run out of things to read.  Unless I lose my Kindle.

How does this affect me as a writer? Well, apparently our appetite for reading is more voracious than ever. We are all reading more, not less, than we were before the e-books revolution. This seems to bode well for me finding a receptive audience for my work when I’m a published novelist.  Also, e-readers can pick up material that is self-published on the web, so that if I don’t have a traditional publisher for my work I may find a virtual one.  That seems to bode well for me, too.

All of which should encourage me to write my novels and, in fact, being without my Kindle this week has meant that I have additional hours to devote to writing.

But here we run across the dichotomy: Owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m contributing to the possibility that my own writing will find an eager market. But, owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m devoting more hours to reading and fewer hours to my own writing, opening up the possibility that I won’t have work ready to publish any time soon.

Having lost it–even temporarily–has made me very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I doubted the wisdom of getting it back.  Fortunately my friend returned it today and so the decision was out of my hands.  It’s sitting on my nightstand as I write.

So far, I haven’t turned it on.

But the night is young.