My Creative Process: Generating Ideas

8 07 2021

A stage magician’s soul is forced into a grub eating his mother’s corpse. An abused housemaid is drawn into a world within a kaleidoscope. A steamship doomed by the ghosts of colonialism and personal trauma.

Many people liked my novel “The Flesh Sutra” for the same reason I enjoyed writing it: it had a few digressive “Monsters of the Week” (or rather “of the Chapter”) which added depth and variety to the world, and frankly were also really cool ideas.

I’m working on a sequel and a re-release of an improved “Flesh Sutra”. The sequel’s plot has been fun so far. But the plot is moving too quickly and I think I and the characters need a breather. So I want a “Monster of the Chapter”.

The plot so far: A woman named Gretchen is possessed by Olivia, a transcended spiritualist. Olivia has had keepsakes taken from her and Gretchen is driving across country in a used car, from San Diego to Hartford, to retrieve an item. Olivia is a Strange Attractor and Gretchen sees into the spirit realm. What happens during the road trip? I didn’t want to play where anyone else had played.

The first thing I did was track that trip with Google Maps. I noted what was on that route every mile of the 3000+ drive. (I had decided to keep their car a safe space so as to not disrupt the actual progress). I came up with this list. Then I highlighted the places where I had personal experience. And noted items that would be seen along the way.

List of things along highways: 

Cemeteries, factories, grain silos, truck stops, suburban developments (if you lived here, you’d be home by now), South of the Border, Tourist traps, airports, bays and inlets, bridges (truck hanging off bridge, suicide attempt), railroad, military bases, prisons, rest stops, corn and wheat fields, dangerous turns, crumbling infrastructure, cities, slums, museums, gas stations, zoos, state parks, police barracks, refineries, overpasses driving over neighborhoods (car drives off overpass and disappears), billboard, fairground, racetrack, campground, reservations, recreational farms, casinos, horseback riding services, hospitals, Hard Rock casino, Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, Blue Gate Resaturant, university, wildlife area, Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay, sports complex, golf course, Splash Lagoon, little colleges, Veterans Administration, museum of glass, Howe Caverns, a museum for an author I found witty but penurious in outlook 

The yellow signifies places where I have personal experience. I put “billboards” in purple because it is a recurring sight and has some horrific potential. The “museum for an author” is the Mark Twain Museum, which Olivia would have an opinion about.

Then I mined TVTropes.com. This wiki is awesome. Its contributors drill down into all media, define their correlations, and link similarities. You can lose hours of your life just wandering through educational, witty, startling critiques. David Lynch talks about “gathering wood” for inspiration, that is, pulling together inspirations. Here’s what I gathered and may use.

An ad for The BBC had a head made of disembodied heads. People complained. 

This Duracell Ultra commercial accidentally evokes this trope. In some of those shots, those little pink Duracell Bunnies look more like a mass of squirming maggots. 

A public service announcement from the USDA APHIS regarding accidentally bringing in invasive species was spoken by a man made out of various insects wearing gentlemanly clothes. He talks to the camera about his desire to spread himself elsewhere, then lifts up an arm and disperses the insects it’s made of. This was intentionally played for creeps. He’s basically the Affably Evil spokesman for their “Hungry Pests” campaign. 

Downplayed example: Azhi Dahaka, a three-headed dragon associated with the Zoroastrian apocalypse, has scorpions instead of blood. 

The Portuguese Man o’ War looks like a floating jellyfish, but is, in fact, a colony of four organisms known as polyps. Its tentacles can grow to twenty metres in length (ten is the average) with a sting that can be very painful. Definitely not something you want to get tangled up with, especially since Portuguese Men o’ War are most commonly found in large groups. 

The Portuguese Man o’ War is one of a number of creatures in the order Siphonophorae, of which there are three suborders. Counted among them is the gigantic Praya dubia, which can grow to lengths of 130ft/40 metres, making them the second-longest marine organism on the planet. 

Clinic is a short film about a series of bizarre, Medical Horror-themed nightmares had by an elderly patient in a hospital. 

Zdzisław Beksiński 

Francisco de Goya‘s “Black Period”. 

Come and See uneasily swirls together the nightmare reality of war with the surreal weirdness of regularnightmares to very disturbing effect. Several sequences in the movie are implausible and downright surreal, and intentionally so. 

The Third Policeman is a darkly comic novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien, best known for his earlier work At Swim-Two-Birds. Written between 1939 and 1940, it didn’t receive publication until 1967, after the author’s death. 

The story concerns an unnamed narrator and his tenant John Divney, both of whom are in dire need of funds (the narrator wishes to publish a commentary on the writings of a philosopher named de Selby; Divney wishes to get married). Divney proposes killing the local miser, Philip Mathers, and stealing his cash-box. However, while the narrator is in the process of retrieving the cash-box, he encounters the ghost of Mathers. Thus begins a series of surreal, disturbing and hilarious adventures as he attempts to recover the money. 

sudden falling 

K-2 is synthetic marijuana that has been banned from Michigan. The drug seems to slow time like regular marijuana, but it gives an extreme high that lasts a short period. It can react poorly in some people and cause them to be confused and dangerous to themselves and the people around them. People who take it can still move freely (if they don’t faint) and can become easily frightened by the strange sensations they are experiencing. Non-violent people will suddenly assault seven people in half an hour. The experience messes with time perception and memory so badly, it can feel like a person has been trapped in some kind of prison for years. It can also cause a user to have periods of what feels like a panic attack monthsafter use. 

There’s also Salvia divinorum, which takes the horror to even more horrifying degrees than K-2. 

These invoked some dread and nausea. Some seemed related to the terrain being crossed, in that the US is steeped in drugs and war. I avoid social issues in writing, because I don’t do it very well. But the drug description had some potential and the war…well…old battlefields and old hatreds fuel a lot of ghost stories.

My next step is to explore this stuff until I’m bored with it. I set it aside and see what ideas pop up this week, next week, whenever.

If you’re interested, I ‘ll keep you posted on what appears.





I Didn’t Get Published Until…

5 07 2021

…I learned how to love my characters.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but seeing as you seem to like writing advice the most, then “loving your characters” strikes me as the most important advice I can give.

We all know that all characters should have arcs, even the antagonist, even a villain, even incidental side characters, and I’d argue even the setting deserves to show development.

About eight years into writing, I’d made some vague discoveries. Do not write just to express disdain for something. All characters need internal lives, that is, lives and interests implied outside the story. Give the characters values that live beyond the story.

These discoveries became a checklist of disconnected needs to tick off when I finished a first draft. You probably see the problem already, in that having any “checklist” kills spontaneity and serendipity; I’d latch onto the checklist instead of latching onto the darlings I mentioned in my last post.

How do you create living characters who surprise you? How do you accomplish a plot when a character “behaves” but does not “live”?

I wish I could remember where I first read this advice that gave me a leg up. Whatever, what it suggested was casting people I knew as characters in the story.

This helped my writing in a few ways. Casting friends made the writing more pleasant in that it wasn’t work, it was reminiscing about the funny, pleasant, aggravating things done by people I knew. It helped by using the traits of those people to create surprises in the dialogue and behavior. It got me more out of “what I wanted to accomplish” and more into “what was possible”.

As the draft progressed, sure, the plot would tailor my cast. I’d cast my friend Michael as a wizard, obviously he is not, but he would need the faculties associated with wizards. So I gave moments of rumination and calculation that wasn’t quite part of his personality, but still worked with his bookishness. Martin was a salesman, and I cast him as a salesman, but Martin was also widely read and spoke four languages. Martin’s personality allowed me to expand the salesman role and have scenes in ethnic neighborhoods where I wouldn’t have thought to go.

By there end of the first draft, well, the cast still resembled the people, but less so, and they still struck me as refreshing. If they struck me as refreshing, then chances were good they would strike editors as refreshing.

Of course in later drafts, if I felt the resemblance was still noticeable, I will discuss my casting with the original people. Always, my friends are flattered and give permission. Even the guy who insisted I have him torn apart by vampires. There are two risks, though.

There is the eternal risk of the “Mary Sue”. My temperament makes me hunt out and squash favoritism. Being a horror author, everyone suffers in my stories, at least a little. Part of avoiding “Mary Sue” is not idealizing the character. Remind yourself “how would my friend respond to being confronted by a vampire? I mean, re-e-eally?”

The other risk is casting people who you do not like in the story. I once set my coworkers in a toxic work environment (a faceless corporation that collected Evil, so yeah, real toxic). I liked only a few of my coworkers, but I did pity almost all of them, and that helped me keep their humanity. That story came out a little flat, I think. It certainly was draining to write.

If the plot needs characters not suited to your friends, only then do I suggest using characters from other sources. Once I needed a pair of men who fell together as friends; I used the singers Nick Cave and Tom Waits. Each man has distinctive physicality and helped bring my plot along.

Be careful that you do not cast within tropes. You could cast the maniacal boss with Captain Ahab, but haven’t we seen Captain Ahab bosses before? You could cast against type and cast the boss with Bob Newhart, but make allowances that Boss Bob is going to take your dialogue and maybe your plot in unexpected directions.

Frankly, Boss Maniac Bob is kind of like Lundberg from “Office Space” (“uh yeah…gonna chase him around Perdition’s flames this weekend. Need your help there. Yeah.”)

Keep all options open. Love your characters and give them permission to surprise you. This may be the best writing advice I have at this moment.








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