Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Magical Idea Generator

I've heard this called a writing prompt before, but I don't think that's necessarily right. I’d call this an "idea prompt." it is a simple formula to create possibilities that challenge writers to create a story. It’s a tonic for creativity and it has never failed to offer me something interesting.

I forgot where I first ran into this, sometime late my careers, last couple years ago and even then I realized it was gold.

Now I incorporate it in my writing classes. I use it to stimulate ideas and give my writers a story plan if they don’t already have one.

It’s simple and magical. It is this:

What if…?

Then suppose…?

Ask these two questions, answer them and then, if you’re good, throw on a couple more “and then supposes.”

Not all of them will be good, but if you do, say, five or ten of them, I bet at least one of them will have legs.

It might be an entrance to your main character, a sleuth for you mystery. It might be an opening into a plot, a setting. A theme. It's a "twist" generator.

You don't need to have the answers to the questions right then, but some of the questions will surely stir the little grey cells.

As my class works this very homework this week, I joined them and this morning came up with the following ideas. Tell me what you think and try it yourself. Add your ideas below and store this little trick in your writers toolbox for a quick and creative exercise to get you going.

What if… 

Then suppose…

What if a spaceship runs out of fuel mid flight and wakes the passengers and crew to address it.

Then suppose the ship is found to run on a bio-fuel that can only come from humans bodies.

What if a man can start fires with his hands.

Then suppose he’s blackmailed into helping a criminal steal a priceless painting.

What if the devil were real.

Then suppose his goal was not the destruction but the liberation of mankind.

And then suppose he approaches a tailor to help him.

What if the a museum archaeologist examining what he thinks an ancient skeleton discovers it to be modern.

Then suppose he finds them to be from a housewife reported missing two years from a small town.

And then suppose that the whole town she came from are hostile to his investigation and obviously hiding something.

What if boy living out a car with his dad is suddenly abandoned at a desert gas station.

Then suppose he gets a cryptic message from his father asking for help.

And then suppose he discovers his dad is on the run and supposedly has millions of dollars hidden somewhere.

What if a plane takes off with eight celebrities on their way to a film festival.

Then suppose when the plan lands, there’s no one aboard.

What if an audiophile browsing a pawn shop buys an old dictaphone.

Then suppose he finds on it a suicide note.

And then suppose he discovers also a secret taped meeting of important people planning the overthrow of the government.

And then suppose that he sees some of what they planned happening now.

And then suppose they come looking for the dictaphone.

What if a man watching television sees a woman in the background of a news report about a protest.

Then suppose he falls in love with her on the spot.

And then suppose he’s driven to abandon everything he has to pursue her.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

He kept absolutely still as the footsteps got louder —WonHundredWordWednesdays

I play again with flash fiction and the WonhundredWord Wednesdays. This week I incorporate the writing prompt for the flash fiction, the writing prompt for an upcoming anthology submission, and my never-ending obsession with death.

Seventy-three years, two cancers, six operations. Now never a conscious moment without pain.

Three children and eight grandchildren. Susan pregnant with another. Tomas on scholarship, Betty dating that cute boy from the medical school. Ron through rehab, now in Gambia teaching school.

All well and accounted for. Alice would be proud.

The darkness warmed a bit.

He has heard the footsteps for years. Distant and approaching. Stopping for Alice, now come for him. Unstoppable. Undeniable. Now in the house. In the hall. Outside the door. 

At the side of his bed.

“I’ve come for you.”

“I know,” he said.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New Spring Classes

This semester I have the opportunity and privilege to teach two classes at the University of Utah Lifelong Learning Center.

Lifelong Learning is a continuing education program. No grades are given, no roll is taken, the pressure's removed for students to pursue their interests and enthusiasms. It's a great setting, intimate, lively, energetic and full of good stuff.

This semester I'll be teaching first my popular A STUDY IN MYSTERY.

A STUDY IN MYSTERY (LLWRC 837): Look behind the curtain of the formulaic, but eternally popular genre: the Mystery Story. Learn about the constructions, tropes, types and methods that make the modern whodunit. Designed for both writers and fans of the mystery genre, class will include assignments and activities on plot, character web, record keeping, suspense, tension and conflict. Refine your work as you’re asked the questions: Did you hide the clue well enough? Does the audience care about the victim? Is the suspense tight enough? By the end of the course, if the crime is writing a mystery story, the “Whodunit” will be you!

I get a week off (which will probably be spent watching a mystery movie with the class) and then I'm back at it.


LITERARY QUERYING-THE ART OF REJECTION (LLWRC 844): So you've written a book. Now what? Approaching the publishing world can be a lonely and daunting task. This class will give you a jump start by providing the knowledge and skill required to navigate the world of agents and publishers. It is recommended (but not necessary) that you bring a finished piece of work you are trying to place. This is a workshop heavy class, where we'll polish your pages and develop a plan to give you the best chance in the great publishing hunt.

I modeled this class after Sun Tzu's The Art of War because, let's face it, getting past the gatekeepers of literary publication is war!

I invite you all to join me this Fall for some writing theory, workshop and publication. Click on the links above for registration information and costs.  Both classes have limited space and are subject to cancellation, so don't delay.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rant—Fast Food Art

Allow me a little rant today.

I’ve been thinking about nutrition lately. I’ve been on this diet, you see, and one of the keys to it, and I suppose to any diet, is simply a change in consumption. It is an effort to alter habits and acquire an appreciation for things that are better for you though perhaps harder to access.

The truth is in our society, food is easy. Fast food for it’s quick carbs and easy availability is as ubiquitous as smog. It’s always been faster to do a drive through than a sit down and it’s now cheaper to go out that cook at home. Fast food, once the exception, a treat for special occasions on the road. and that day when you’re out of of leftovers, is the standard and everything else, vegetables and roasts, must fight for attention against it and is the holiday exception to pizza and ten inch “foot long” sandwiches.

I make the connection to entertainment. There’s a fast food variety of story telling. Like McDonalds we’ve all been raised on it. Unless we had a couple of hippie parents who pulled the cable and fed you kale and organic cheeses, you are accustomed to the three act structure and the fifteen point Save the Cat narrative timing. You can sense a coming reveal by the commercial breaks and are confident that you can plug away on your iPad sure that you can passively absorb the explanations at the end with little need to digest more than the quick cutting and special effects. The same plots and characters, situations and timings, like Taco Bell’s famous six ingredients, are rearranged slightly, renamed and then served in disposable cartons. It is ideal for the lazy consumer and a population of jaded entertainment junkies with short attention spans strung out on instant gratification and reruns.

It’s not healthy.

But it sells.

Books are better than most entertainment delivery devices. They books cater to a different audience, one willing to dedicate real time and actively—yes, I said ACTIVELY, participate in their own entertainment. But there is still a fast food component to the mass market. Stereotypical plots and characters, patterned structure, voice and pacing dominate the publishing world. Poor writing is excused and artless tropes are allowed for the literary equivalent of explosions.

I’m often surprised by how shallow some modern books are, how they don’t experiment or express, how their themes are as simple and accessible as a car commercial’s. How they are meant to be consumed, forgotten and thrown away—the very notion originally behind the invention of the paperback novel, I might add.

The problem lies in the self-replicating expectation of easily digestible story-telling. There is no patience for difference. Nowhere do I see this more evident than when I’m trying to get a book picked up. The hook—the almighty hook—is all that matters. Dare, as I often do, to create a slow build for greater later effect and you’ll most likely be passed over, called “boring” or “slow.” It’s an insult of course, and usually says more about the reader than the writer who might very well know what they’re doing. The problem, my dear Horatio, is that there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The narrow-minded, sugar-craved, consumer-centric stereo-type focussed editor gives little opportunity for an artist to push boundaries of thought and expression and share their art. You can still make it, but god help you getting it past such gatekeepers to put it effectively before the public.

Long Arc - not so new after all
The sad truth is the editors think they know their audience, but I’m not sure they do. They know the disposable stories, the retreads and flavors of the months. They keep the pipeline full of safe saccharine stories, ignoring the exciting stuff that connoisseurs hunger for. It’s telling that occasionally someone will take a chance with something new and it’ll be a hit. Look at Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, for. the impossible multi-year, long arc fiction, or The Revenant, an Oscar winning movie with less dialog than a Swedish porn. Not all flavors are for all people, but given a chance they can find an audience. Arrival blew everyone's mind because it was structured to theme and challenged the audience to understand. And they did. These broke convention and were successful, like a quality steak house in a strip mall, or a vegan kiosk in the food court. People cannot live on junk alone.

It’s risky to break out of the patterns, to celebrate novelty over imitation, but eventually these very safe techniques get old. Movies bomb, pizza franchises fold, and vampires are not longer chic.

I’m sick of superheroes and space teenagers, speeding cars and orange fireballs. Italicized thought bubbles and dragon riding love-sick pubescents. I crave adults. I want some depth and meaning. Repercussions and theme. Yes, theme—what are you trying to tell me?

True art, like healthy food is out there, but usually not promoted. Word of mouth and active pursuit are required to find it. It’s hard.

Was this book any good
because not even The Wachowskis
could save the movie.
There’ll always be a place for the fast food, the for the mental margarita. Michael Bay will be in demand for a while still, Burger King ain’t going anywhere, but there is more than constantly shooting for and accepting the lowest common denominator. Not everything needs to be all things to all people.

Living on fast food is unhealthy for a person and a society. It reinforces laziness and conformity while promoting the basest affinities of taste. The problem is that we’re so used it, inundated with it. All the promotion goes to it. Unless we force ourselves to turn away, it’s all we’re fed. We must consciously find alternatives, boycott the crap. Once we break out of the habit, we can realize how unhealthy it’s all been and how wonderful the other possibilities really are.

Culture will move on eventually, if only from boredom, and those tales that managed to be brought out only to be forgotten may yet be found to be one of those wonderful things called "ahead of their time," "cult classics," and "avant-garde."

In the meantime, I'm sick of the pablum, the fourth grade reasoning levels, and simplistic designs of most of our stories.  I have a personal hunger to experience something other than a re-tread and a professional desire to find editors with vision who’ll see difference not as wrong, but as, well… different. Gatekeepers who can think beyond paint-by-numbers simplicity and appreciate the beauty of a rough edge, an unfinished phrase, a new pattern, a different pace, a thematic moment or an interpretative ending that all conspire a greater artistic whole.

You know, nutrition.