A dozen different inspirations

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee. Image via Wikimedia commons.

No-one ever asks me where I get my ideas from. Why would they? I know lots of smart people, and they understand that ideas come from all over the place. But looking through the stories I’ve assembled in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves I was struck by what a wide range of sources I’d chewed up and spat back out in these short stories:

  • How We Fall – came from a deliberate decision to turn the next two adverts I saw on the side of bus shelters into a story – the adverts were far less classy than what I made out of them.
  • So Cold It Burns – sprang from a couple of paintings I saw in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in particular the blighted leaves that hint at sorrow to come in Frank Dicksee’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci – the guitar strumming cousin and his song about an actress is based on my friend Dan and his hilarious Keira Knightly song.
  • Distant Rain – my friend Nick, a naval architect, was telling me all about submarines while at another friend’s wedding, and this is the result (the wedding in question was that of occasional commenter on this blog Jon Taylor, at which I met several people who are now good friends, so it was an auspicious occasion all round).
  • Day Labour – inspired by Kris Drever’s song ‘Harvest Gypsies’.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56grtNzsRq8?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

  • Digits and The Extra Mile – both written for a competition in a magazine with the theme of ‘five’.
  • Second Skin – influenced by working for a company that analysed investments, where I learned about hedge funds and how awful they are.
  • The Harvest – inspired by a chapter in an anthropology book on the subject of agriculture.

The only story where I can’t point at the inspiration is ‘Our Man In Herrje’, and I wrote the first version of that so long ago that the process is lost in the mists of memory.

It’s amazing where you can find inspiration. Where have you found yours recently?

And if you like the sound of any of these stories, you can get them all in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, free from Amazon until Sunday. Why not give it a go?

Deciding what to write

Yes, I’m still thinking about NaNoWriMo

As I start planning for NaNoWriMo, I face the crucial question of what to write.

This might sound like an easy decision – I should write what I’m interested in, right?

Well yes, except that loads of things interest me. Steampunk adventures, speculation about bleak or hopeful futures, fantasy worlds of wild magic and stranger creatures, history and alternate history…

When I was focused on short fiction that was fine. I could write a new story every week, pander to all those different interests. But while short fiction’s a great calling card it’s not a great way to make money off fiction, and it’s obviously no good for a 50,000+ word novel. So I need to pick something to focus on.

I have two options I’m seriously considering, and that I need to pick between so that I can start planning.

On the one hand I’m taken with the idea of writing a historical novel around the Battle of Agincourt. It’s a period I know well, so the research I don’t have completed already would be fairly straightforward. I’m really interested in the Middle Ages. I think it could make an interesting story on what it means to become an adult and on the darkness of war. And next year is the 600th anniversary of the battle, which should make such a novel quite marketable in about six months time.

On the other hand there’s a steampunk detective story I’ve been contemplating writing for about a year. I’ve got a notebook half filled with the background of the world. It explores ideas of class, religion and what it means to be human, all of which interest me just as much as strange machines, curious inventors and sprawling industrial cities. And as I have some other steampunk stuff at the editing stage for release early next year, this is more in keeping with the brand I’ve been building.

As you can see, there are both artistic and writing-as-business reasons to go each way. I can write both books eventually, unless something more exciting drags my attention away, but the question is what should I write now? And with so many factors to consider, and so much enthusiasm for both projects, I’m struggling to decide.

So as the core of my small current readership is centred around this blog I thought I’d ask – which do you think I should write? Which book would you be more excited to read?

And how do you decide what to write? Maybe that’ll help me too.

Oh, and for any of you doing NaNoWriMo, I’ve now signed up to their website as gibbondemon – come find me as a writing buddy!

Favourite bits of history

As will be obvious to those of you who’ve been reading From a Foreign Shore, I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages. Like a lot of people who grew up reading about Middle Earth and Narnia, I loved the idea of knights and chivalry and everything that came with them. When I was a kid we’d always visit castles during our summer holidays, running around ruins and playing at King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I specialised in medieval history at university, and that took some of the romance out of it, but not the fascination. Sometimes the past truly is a foreign country, and the deep sense of duty and hierarchy that held up medieval Europe is all the more intriguing for being so different from my own values. Sure, the knightly ideal of chivalry was observed more in the breaking than the following, but it was still an ideal, and one that combined courage, romance and a twisted sort of concern for the people around you.

It helps that the era’s most staggering architectural achievements, its castles and cathedrals, never stopped being awe inspiring. I went to Durham University, and there are few sights more breath-taking than Durham Cathedral seen from below, lit up against the night sky.

The Middle Ages are full of great writing inspiration, from the spectacle of pitched battles to the delicate craft of monks creating illuminated manuscripts, the rough belligerence of Viking raiders to the fragile courage of Joan of Arc. If you’re looking for heroes, villains and strange settings then the medieval has it made.

I’ve grown past the point where the medieval is the only era for me. All of time’s rich tapestry is full of fascinating pickings. But the Middle Ages will always have a special space in my heart.

Now your turn – what’s your favourite period of history, and why?

Inducing inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It’s an idea that we romanticise, especially when talking about the arts. But it’s also a vital artistic tool, and one that we should constantly work on if we can.

Dylan Hearn wrote an interesting piece on his blog about this, and it got me thinking about my views on inspiration. So, because I’m a worse bandwagon jumper than revolutionary France, and because Dylan wanted to hear more from me  on this, here’s my take on how to encourage inspiration.

Muscular metaphors

We have a lot of different models and metaphors for how inspiration works.

Some people see it as a magical, mystical process. Something wild and uncontrollable that strikes out of nowhere.

I don’t buy into that view. Inspiration is something that happens in our brains, and one of the beautiful things about being human is that we can reshape our minds to do better. In fact, I think that mystifying inspiration is dangerous for an author. It implies that it’s something you can’t control, can’t work at and develop. That can give you an excuse not to put the words down – ‘I wasn’t feeling inspired’ – and of course it’s an excuse not to work on becoming more inspired – how can you if it’s not up to you?

I also don’t accept views of inspiration as a finite resource. Like you’ve only got so many great ideas in your head, and when the well runs dry that’s it.

In my view, the best way of understanding your mind’s capacity for inspiration is as something like a muscle. The more you flex it and train it the more it grows. Sure, if you over-use it you can get burned out in the short term, but in the long term you need to stretch it to do better.

Training regime one – the busy brain

One way to encourage your inspiration is through busyness, doing all the things that will get the cogwheels whirring in your head.

Research is one great way to do this, filling you full of facts, bouncing them off each other until they spark new ideas.

Practising coming up with ideas is another good way to develop those inspiration-making muscles. Nick Bentley’s 100:10:1 method is good for pushing yourself further, exhausting the obvious ideas so the great ones come out. Mumaw and Oldfield’s Caffeine for the Creative Mind has exercises for sparking creativity in different ways, and though it seems to be targeted at people in marketing it’s still useful for us mere writers.

And then there are exercises and guides to teach you how to think in different ways. Edward de Bono’s How To Be More Interesting has a terrible title and a sometimes pompous tone. But it also contains a really good breakdown of different ways to expand upon an idea, as well as some exercises to practice developing ideas.

But really what all of this comes down to is practice. However you do it, you should practice coming up with ideas and connections between them, because then more will come.

Training regime two – the quiet brain

Your body needs rest between bouts of exercise, so that it can recover and rebuild itself better, faster, stronger. The same applies to your brain. Spend the whole time busy and it will get overwhelmed.

Take some time to let your brain be quiet and relaxed. Not the distracted sort of relaxed that comes with the TV on, but the empty relaxed. Let your mind wander while you’re walking or washing up. Try emptying out your clutter using mindfulness exercises. Give your brain some peace and quiet.

The thing about that peace and quiet is that it won’t last, and that’s part of why it’s so valuable. Ideas will bubble up unbidden. I came up with the climax of an upcoming novel while driving, my brain drifting while on long straight roads and then ticking over at traffic lights.

Train your brain to come up with ideas, and then give them space in which to emerge.

Just like with this blog

My blogging is an example of this in action. I used to struggle for things to say, but for the past year I’ve written five or six blog posts a week. Now my brain is trained to come up with blog posts and so blogging inspiration strikes all the time. I’ve got a notebook of ideas, and some of the older ones will never see a computer screen because new ones keep flooding in.

So train your brain to be inspired. Don’t just wait for your muse to strike, because that way lies an atrophied inspiration muscle and a very long wait.

How I write – the writing path blog tour

Fellow writer J H Mae recently invited me to take part in IC Publishing‘s writing path blog tour – an opportunity for authors to connect up with each other while talking about their craft. That seemed like an interesting thing to do, so here I am, touring from the comfort of my living room. Thanks for the invite!

Seriously, it’s really comfortable here. I’m sitting in Laura’s big armchair, set up perfectly to face the flat screen TV. For her, this is the Skyrim setup. For me, it’s how I write.

Speaking of which…

1. How do you start your writing projects?

Brainstorming. Whether the project’s a short story or a novel, whether it comes to me in a flash of inspiration or comes after trawling my notebooks for hours looking for the right idea, I go from there to brainstorming. I note down ideas relating to the central concept, looking for inspiration for characters, setting, plot and thematic elements that relate to it. Sometimes ideas connect back in with each other, which is great. Sometimes not so much.

Then I develop the main characters, often using Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, because I find templates helpful. I think about background, motives, desires, conflicts. Based on the conflicts I plan out a plot, usually using Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because, again, I like templates – they remind me to put important things in. Somewhere in all of this I’ll do some research, usually at the brainstorming stage, to give me interesting and authentic details to bring my setting alive. If it’s about an alternate history Baghdad I want the history convincing. If it’s about an alien race then I might want tribe formations to seem anthropologically convincing. A few good details will provide a lot of inspiration and a lot of grounding for a story.

Then it’s time to write.

What passes for my office
What passes for my office

2. How do you continue your writing project?

I’m lucky. Because I work at home as a freelance writer I can mix my schedule up to try to create a balanced life. So writing six hundred words of fiction a day is just part of my routine, to be slotted in wherever it’s convenient between other writing, household chores, a bit of mindfulness and maybe a trip to the gym. Sometimes I do a lot more than 600 words, but having that routine is what keeps me going. If I get stuck I use the Write Or Die word processor to force myself to put words on the page, but these days that’s seldom a problem.

I’m usually thinking about my projects between writing them. Many of my most vivid ideas have sprung to mind while driving over the Pennines to visit family.

And no, getting distracted by plot isn’t why I crashed my car, though it was on that route.

3. How do you finish your project?

For most short stories I get a first draft written pretty quickly, then do one or two editing passes (one with input from a friendly reader) and then send them out into the world. But that’s seldom actually the finish. I have about a 5% acceptance rate, so my average story gets rejected nineteen times before it gets accepted. And a few of those rejections come with useful feedback, which I use for further re-writes. So really, a short story is finished when someone accepts it (or I do the edits they request after acceptance) or when I decide that it’s never going to see the light of day and stick it in my ‘abandoned’ folder.

It’s a big folder.

That means that by the time one story’s done with I’ll have written a dozen more, so I don’t really struggle to let go – I’m writing so many things, I get to endings all the time.

4. Include one challenge or additional tip that our collective communities could help with or benefit from.

The best inspiration comes from other creative fields, different disciplines sparking new ways of thinking. So go take ten photos of different sorts of boundaries, or dance around the room like your character, or watch a video about how computer games are structured and see what you can learn.

Next up…

Now I get to pass the tour on to some other fine writers, who will answer these same questions in a week’s time.

First up is Russell Phillips. Russell is an award-winning author of books about military technology and history. His articles have been published in Miniature Wargames,Wargames Illustrated, and the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers‘ Journal. He has been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia. And you can read my previous tribute to the awesomeness of Russell here.

Next is another fantasy author from my neck of the woods. Manchester-based R. A. Smith is an occasional time travelling historian, a keen gamer and a wannabe petrolhead. He counts war gaming armies and several bears amongst his extended family. Authors the Grenshall Manor Chronicles, Oblivion Storm and Primal Storm out now, book 3: WIP 🙂

Last and by no means least comes the blogger whose beard and enthusiasm I most envy. Josh Stanton is crazy about steampunk. When he’s not reading and blogging about it, he’s writing it. He is currently working on a steampunk horror, called Choke City.

Go check out their blogs, and look out for their blog tour posts in a week’s time.

Taking writing seriously

The most important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking ones self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second disastrous. – Margaret Fontey

I stumbled across this quote in a book yesterday. I know nothing about Margaret Fontey. She only turns up on Google as the originator of that quote, rephrased enough ways that I’m not even sure how she worded it. But the sentiment is always the same, and it strikes a real chord with me.

Taking your writing seriously is important. Having enough self-worth to say ‘this is really worth doing, and I’m going to commit to it’. Not doing work you can’t take pride in, whatever that work is. Knowing that, if you take pride in it, it’s worth committing your full effort to do it well. Because when you take your work seriously you become ready to constantly refine and improve, to reach towards excellence, to put your effort into a few great pieces rather than a bunch of rubbishy ones.

Taking yourself seriously on the other hand closes you down to criticism and improvement. You risk becoming pompous and defensive. No matter how great the things we’re writing, we all have our faults and our absurdities, and it’s very important that we aren’t too attached to our own pride and dignity, that we’re open to criticism and improvement.

Speaking of which, I’ve not done nearly enough work this week. Better go get down to it, or I’ll never improve.

Fostering ideas – the 100:10:1 method

It’s hard to resist writing the first story that comes into my head on any given theme. That worked out great early on – it got me writing, kept the prose flowing – but recently I’ve found it’s trapped me in some corners, persisting with stories I’m not passionate about because of the importance of completing things.

I think I may have stumbled across a solution, in this blog post on game design by Nick Bentley. You can go and read that post for details, but it boils down to coming up with loads of ideas, then refining the best few, then producing the best one of those few.

I tried it last night. I knew I wanted to write a steampunk samurai story, so I sat and wrote a long list of core concepts for that story. Just single sentences trying to evoke character and conflict. After the first twenty it got quite challenging to make them interesting and different, and by the time Laura got home and broke my reverie, somewhere in the sixties, it was hard work to keep coming up with new ideas.

Now to add some smokestacks
Now to add some smokestacks

 

Looking back over the list it was well worth it. My first few ideas were obvious and brought nothing new to the story telling table. That strained period towards the end was bringing out real novelties, and though some of them were junk, some really engaged my brain.

Later today I’ll try refining that list. As well as picking out my favourites I’ll probably combine some for stronger story seeds. Then I’ll work on their characters and plots before picking one to write. It means a lot more effort in the initial stages, but if it results in a better story, one I’m more likely to enjoy writing and that readers are more likely to enjoy reading, then it’ll be well worth it.

Nick’s process could be used in any creative field. Go have a read, give it a try, and let me know how you get on with it.

 

Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons.

Writing for themes

Ghosts in the Gaslight, my new story in the Desolation anthology, was written for a theme. Ironically it wasn’t the theme of the anthology it ended up in, though that fitted too. But it’s a great example of why I like writing for themes.

Themed anthologies get advertised all the time. A quick glance at Duotrope‘s upcoming deadlines calendar reveals such wildly divergent  themes as ‘barbarians of the red planet’, ‘dare’ and ‘stories of unwise lesbian desire’. Even when I don’t think I can meet the deadline, these themes often give me inspiration for what to write. They send my brain in directions I didn’t expect. They give me the boundaries and limits that are so crucial to successful creativity.

Steve Snodgrass

I never would have written Ghosts in the Gaslight if I hadn’t seen a call for submissions for a gaslight fantasy collection. That wasn’t where the story ended up, but it got me thinking about how to combine the Victorian era and fantasy. It even inspired the central fantasy element in the story – a spirit who’s actually visible in the gaslight.

So if you’re looking for inspiration for your next story, or for something interesting to read, take a look at themed anthologies. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there.

 

 

Picture by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr creative commons

But it’s what my character would do…

Several of my posts this week have been inspired by Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You. But there’s one thing she discusses that I really don’t like, and that I hear authors doing all the time.

She talks about the characters taking over.

My character made me write it

A lot of writers talk about the points at which the character takes over. When they want to go one way but the character won’t fit with that direction. When the character takes the story in a direction they didn’t expect. When they feel like the character has gained a life of its own and taken over. For many, the character then becomes the one directing the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and sympathise with this outlook. Characters are absolutely central to story, and sometimes that comes into conflict with the plot you had intended. Sometimes you realise that the way the character’s heading and the way you wanted to take the story don’t match, so you change course. That direction didn’t seem to come from your ideas, so it must have been the character taking over, right?

Wrong.

So very wrong.

Mystifying vs empowering

Lets face the uncomfortable truth. There are ideas in our heads that we aren’t aware of. There are emotions and instincts that take over and try to warn you when you’re heading in the wrong direction. That’s called the subconscious.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to think that we’re not in control of what’s going on in our brains. So we mystify it, we externalise it, in the case of writing we talk about the characters having lives of their own.

But they don’t. Everything about them comes from you, from your ideas, your passions, your emotions. The person telling you that your plot and your character aren’t consistent isn’t the character, it’s you. That uncomfortable niggle when something doesn’t fit doesn’t come from your character or your muse, it comes from you, from the skills and awareness you don’t even recognise that you have. Your brain is capable of far more than you realise. Accept it. Revel in it!

Wait, that came from me?
Wait, that came from me?

 

Sure, the metaphor of the character taking over is a useful one, but it still muddies the waters, stops us carrying this through to its logical conclusion. It makes the character seem like something whole and complete, beyond you to change.

Again, wrong.

Facing the conflict

If your subconscious is telling you that the character and the plot don’t match then you don’t just have two options – write your plot or listen to your character. Once you acknowledge that the character, that little nagging voice, is just as much you as any other thought, then you have three options – the bad option, the standard option and the other option.

Bad option: Ignore it, let the character behave inconsistently for the sake of plot. Terrible idea, it’ll annoy readers and make a worse story. This is why people usually take the second option.

Standard option: Change the plot to fit the character. Keep things consistent through different events. This is usually the right option. It keeps the character, the driving force behind your story, consistent.

Other option: Change the character to make the story work. This is lots of hard work, as it means going through the rest of the story and altering the way the character thinks, talks and behaves, but if you really want that plot twist then it is an option. It might even lead to a better character.

Facing the cold, hard truth

Openly acknowledging that the character is part of you, and just as open to change as anything else in your story, is an uncomfortable but an empowering thing. There’s a useful part in the ‘my character says…’ approach, and that’s acknowledging the voice of your subconscious. But lets go further. Lets recognise that voice for what it is, own the insight it brings us, make it our own. It’s more honest, it gives us more options, and it can lead to better storytelling.

Taking responsibility for what your character ‘says’ also means empowering yourself as a writer. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

 

Photo by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons

Technology, psychology and the rise of AI – my science fiction inspiration for the day

One of the good things about working as a freelance writer is the endless sources of ideas. It’s not that I never got ideas out of my old job – just people watching from my desk gave me moments of character inspiration, and any job with a bit of analysis to it gets you thinking. But the insights were few and far between.

This is your brain on ideas
Practising levitation, or something

Now they come at me all the time.

Take today. Today I was writing about smartphones for a guy who sells – guess what? – smartphones. I’m not terribly interested in smartphones in general, but researching his articles has led me down some interesting paths.

The Blackphone – almost as sinister as it sounds

Like last week when I did some reading about the Blackphone. You’ve probably never heard of this device, and you certainly haven’t seen it as it’s not yet on the market. But it’s a phone whose designers have put all their focus into protecting the user’s data, providing them with security and anonymity. It’s a smartphone response to the ongoing battle between forces of privacy and intrusion. It’s a change in the market to make phones more varied. It’s a business acting like something more than a profit making machine. And it’s also a cool little slice of near future potential, a source of inspiration for science fiction gadgetry.

Building addictions

I also read about some legal and PR battles surrounding King, the company behind many simple but addictive smartphone games. And that led me back to some things I’d read before about the psychology behind these games, the way that they’re built to tap into particular parts of your brain and manipulate you into keeping on playing. You may be using your phone but now maybe your phone is using you. Look at all those tasty conflicts – business vs business, business vs press, man vs machine, man vs himself in a fight to stop playing Candy Crush Saga (seriously, knowing it’s manipulative and addictive is one thing, putting it down is another). That’s some story fodder right there.

Putting it all together

Mix those pieces together with this week’s Writing Excuses episode on AI and I had a story idea bubbling in my brain, all before lunchtime.

And what’s the point of all this reflection? Well, it’s cheered me up, so that’s something. There’s the old lesson that you can find inspiration everywhere. There’s even an element of pointing and going ‘look, our science fiction future is here!’

Beyond that you can take whatever lessons you want.

So what have you seen today that’s inspired your inner story teller? And what cool story ideas have you stumbled across at work? Share your thoughts in the comments, inspire each other.

 

Image by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons