Category Archives: Writing

Where Ideas Come From

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me where I get my story ideas. I was thrilled because it seems like this question is some sort of rite of passage. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how fans ask him (and every other author he knows) all the time. His answer is basically that good ideas just come to you sometimes and you have to remain open to and aware of those sudden flashes of insight. Comic artist Warren Ellis said something to the effect that he fills his mind with a lot of junk and stories sometimes emerge, sort of in a primordial soup kind of way.

My favorite, and the one that resonates most with me, is the observation, I think it was Neil Gaiman, that, “The difference between a writer and other people is that when a normal person brakes their arm they shout, ‘Take me to the hospital,’ but when a writer breaks her arm, she shouts, ‘Get me a pen!'”

Everyone has great story ideas all the time, whether real of fiction, it’s just a matter of writing them down. I’m not saying every time you have a flash of insight you immediately sit down and write out a story, but most of the time you just have to give your intuition the benefit of the doubt.

My story, “Where You End and the World Begins,” has a frankly bizarre genesis, and it didn’t come to me all at once.  It started with a friend of mine mentioning that his mother used to belong to some cult-like church that kept trying to compel the family to come back. One day, when the acquaintance was a little kid, some of these church members apparently came to the house while his mother was in the shower and tried to lure him into a car. His mother’s parent-sense tingled and she ran out of the house naked, grabbed him, and yelled at the parishioners to leave her family alone.

Somehow, that’s where the zealot in the story came from.

The second component, the main character who has a preternatural talent for finding things, was a little more personal and ongoing. I lose things a lot. I’m forgetful and I have a bad habit of setting things down in places the don’t belong. I’ve long wanted to be able to hire a contractor whose job it is to find all the things I’ve misplaced.

That’s it. Two weird bits of information that became a story.

So, if you’ve ever wondered where ideas come from, you already know. It’s just a matter of paying attention and writing them down when you can.

And if you’re doing Nano, get back to it.


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Innovation, like Greed, Is Not Good

When you work with words all day, you start to develop strong opinions and Feelings about them. For instance, I love the words “intransigent,” “autumnal,” “evanesce,” “obtain,” and “logic.”

Likewise, there are words I loathe, and most of them are the kind you run into all the time if your a grant writer, like me, in RFPs, advertisements, and “About” pages. Words like “utilize”, “synergy,” “actionable,” “scalable,” “impactful,” “resourceful” (actually, pretty much any time you turn a pithy noun into a active-sounding adjective), and the list goes on.

For one thing, most of these words are substitutes for perfectly good and more simple words, like writing “utilize” instead of “use.” And those that don’t indicate that the writer is frantically shuffling through a thesaurus for a term that sounds more sexy, these words are typically meaningless. What does “actionable” Mean? Okay, yes, it’s obvious what it’s implying, but that’s the problem: it’s implying, not explaining. These words are deliberately vague. They allow the writer the dodge the messy business of actually giving you a detailed account of what’s going on.

The word I hate most, and I think is used far too often, is “innovate” (or any variation thereof… though that’s just ahead of “unique” in the list of words I think no one uses correctly).

This word is used so often by businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and everyone else that it is meaningless. What’s worse is that the concept itself (“new,” “different,” “pioneering,” etc.) has developed a devoted following and cult of personality.

I have noticed in the past few years that more and more philanthropists, businesses, and activists have made “innovation” their central goal. In other words, people have taken up a Gordon Gekko-esque mantra of “Innovation is Good.”

What bothers me about this is that, particularly in the area of philanthropy, more grant programs and prizes seem to be exclusively focused on “innovation.” Certainly, trying something new is a good idea. But in the growing enthusiasm for originality and uniqueness, it seems like people are sacrificing the ends for the means.

Innovation is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. Because of our insistence that everything be innovative, perfectly good and productive projects and organizations are overlooked in the pursuit of the New.

Take Catholic Charities, for example. Sure, they change their programming every so often and check to make sure what they’re doing is working, but generally they are pretty good at delivering social services to people in need because they have been doing it since forever. Or Good Will. Or Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have been operating for decades and are very good at what they do,  but there is a growing pressure from foundations and corporate giving programs that being effective isn’t enough. You have to be innovative. You have to be Different and Cutting Edge.

Is Innovation Good? If it leads to better results, sure. On its own, it’s just a buzzword.

This buzzword, however, is becoming a problem. When the obsession with Innovation overshadows the actual work that needs to be done to help people and solve systemic problems, we have left the realm of reality and entered a weird space of entrepreneurial ideology where the definition of Good is being Different-from-the-other-Guy.

Nonprofit service is about addressing a need and creating benefits for society. Anything that advances those causes is good, but praising the means over the ends is like building a house to make a better hammer.

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Getting to the point

There’s a(n I assume apocryphal) story about Hemingway and Salinger’s first meeting in which the latter started to tell the former about the novel he was working on and Hemingway said, “Stop. Tell me in a sentence what it’s about. Otherwise, you’re not a writer.” Salinger responded, “I can sum it up in a word: incest.” That novel became The Catcher in the Rye, unsurprisingly.

For a long time, I used this as an example of why I really didn’t like Hemingway – that and the fact that he was an asshole and snobs bash you over the head with his Iceberg Theory in every writing and analysis class I’ve ever taken. In high school, I hated reading his stories and novels and it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I read The Sun Also Rises and realized, to my horror, that I liked it. Ever since then, I’ve been struggling with ambivalence about all things Hemingway.

But in the past few days, I’ve started to reconsider the advice he supposedly gave to Salinger. When I first heard it, it sounded like an extension of his whole philosophy of writing that if the reader can’t pick up on the subtext then they don’t deserve to get it. Now, I think I’ve found something useful.

My job is to write grants, and in most proposals there is an “executive summary” section where you more or less have to sum up the document in one or two sentences. It’s an exhausting, but rewarding and necessary exercise, because if you can’t do an elevator speech for whatever it is you’re doing, then: 1.) the people with money won’t give it to you and, 2.) you probably don’t have a firm grasp of what you’re doing in the first place.

Looking back on it, I think that most of my best stories, essays, and plays, I can usually pitch in a sentence or two. The bad pieces are the ones where I meander around the point for twenty pages wondering why I’m spending so much time on it. For that reason, whenever I’m stuck on a project, I have found it useful to step back and say aloud, as simply as possible, whatever the hell I’m trying to say.

Try it. It’s cathartic.

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I’ve fallen behind on my word count – and I don’t care

This is an apology for all the slackers out there (like me). “Apology” in the archaic sense of “defense.”

It’s November 21st and I should have written 35,000 words by now. Instead, I’m hovering around 28,600 words. The thing is, I don’t feel compelled to meet a word count and never did. I’m glad I went into this with that attitude, because I would have been doomed to Failure if not.

Too many people start out in NaNo full steam ahead and crank out ten thousand words in the first few days and then give up when they miss one day of writing. I’m hopelessly behind now and have accepted that I won’t reach 50,000 words. But I’ve written almost every day and I’ve cranked out material that I like. Before this month is done, I expect more of the same. After this month is done, I’ll keep going.

Too many people give up at the first sign that they see they might not meet their goals. If you’ve decided that the project is dead and haven’t written in a week and are hopelessly behind, then this is for you: you’re pardoned. Don’t expect for 50,000 words by November 30th, because you won’t get it. There’s Thanksgiving to consider, after all. And while this isn’t a blessing to procrastinate indefinitely, stop holding yourself to impossible standards.

If you hate the story you were writing and need to throw it aside, that’s one thing. If you love whatever it was you were working on, don’t let a few days of laziness make you lose a good thing. Or, if you hated the story and discovered something else that inspired you, go for it.

While I wouldn’t advocate this philosophy universally (particularly for your professional life), please remember that no one’s paying you to do this and the only expectations are your own. Take this moment to reevaluate your goals and methods. Because you can either see this as a year you failed NaNo, or the year you started writing your novel in November and it just took a few months longer than you hoped it would.

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The Survival Rates Need to Improve (Review: You’re Next)

(Yeah, spoilers – you’ve been warned.)

I was surprised when A suggested going to see a horror movie. Usually, she refuses to watch anything that could conceivably be described as “scary,” while I seek out any and everything with a twisted, sinister heart held in the vice grip of some Cthulhu-esque monster. Having grown up terrified of my own shadow, I sometimes find it baffling that I’ve become a horror-addict. If you want to analyze it, I assume that I’m always trying to prove to myself that the monsters aren’t real.

“It’s supposed to be a new take on the Survivor Girl,” A explained. “It’s getting great reviews.”

We went on opening night and there were only a handful of people in the audience. I hadn’t seen the previews or read anything about You’re Next and was going solely on A’s vote of confidence. Within the first ten seconds I knew that everyone in the room was a horror fan because of the laughter and ostentatious, disgusted scoffing.

The film opens with a deeply uncomfortable sex scene followed by a grisly double-homicide as if to remind everyone that, yes, we were watching a horror movie. From there, it follows a formulaic plot of a rich family being hunted and killed by home-invaders for reasons that, if you’re familiar with the genre, are dead obvious from the beginning. I would go into greater detail, but that would require throwing buckets of blood at you because that’s about about all that’s left of the movie.

But I like bad horror movies. In fact, I deeply appreciate and am entertained by them. I prefer psychological over body horror, but I can roll with the occasional foreboding message scrawled across the wall in the victim’s blood if there’s more to it than that. What baffles me is that people seem to think this good horror movie. Reading the reviews, I seriously question whether or not I saw the same movie everyone keeps talking about.

And see that’s the thing – there are merits to You’re Next, but a unique take on the Survivor Girl is not one of them.

Erin, the Survival Girl in question, is unarguably a badass. The final scene between her and Crispian is genuinely funny and I can forgive all the bad acting for that one perfect disbelieving look she gives him as he comments, “But there’s a silver lining to all this,” as she stands there covered in gore from the half-dozen or so people she just dismembered. But, Erin’s resourcefulness is explained away almost immediately when we learn that her parents were obsessed with the societal collapse and subscribed to the John-Conner-prepare-to-take-on-the-robot-apocalypse method of child rearing. In other words, Erin did what any self-respecting commando would do in a situation like You’re Next: mercilessly kill the idiots who thought they could get the best of her.

But there was a moment, before the revelation of her upbringing, that I thought Erin was different. When everyone else is reduced to screaming hysterics, Erin keeps a level head and calmly throws out orders on how to barricade the house and get everyone to safety. That, I thought, was interesting. For once, instead of making herself an easy target, an average young woman in a horror movie is confronted with a crisis and finds it immediately in herself to be a deal with it.

I’ve craved in horror. It’s a depressing genre about atrocious things happening to people and usually, as Stephen King points out in The Danse Macabre, has deeply conservative undertones. The most blatant example would be, “Don’t do something stupid like venture into the dark, spooky forests where there are wolves howling,” (i.e. stay on the straight and narrow) or the more explicitly socially conservative rules laid out first in Scream: don’t have sex, don’t drink, be a good kid and you’ll survive. Horror is usually about punishment or divine retribution, and the scary part is that the reasons are vague but the consequences are painfully real.

In most horror, the protagonists are paralyzed, at least at first, by terror or disbelief. The former appeals to our sense of reason – after all, no one ever believes that they’re in a horror movie at first. The latter plays to that gut feeling, the unconscious, that which we can’t control about ourselves. It makes sense that when faced with horrendous violence most people scream and curl up into a ball, but that gets old fast in movies and literature, and verisimilitude is only entertaining for so long.

It’s Disbelief and Terror that get people killed in Horror. While this is innate to the genre, I find it refreshing when someone does it different, like in Scream. Sydney is an average high schooler who, when confronted by a knife-wielding psychopath, takes him on in a stride. And it’s not just Sydney. Casey and Tatum, the other two female leads, both rise to the occasion. They fight. Neither surrenders or begs, but instead does what she can to survive.

No one knows what he or she would do when thrown into a situation like You’re Next, but that’s sort of the point of the genre: speculation. What happens when worse comes to worst? It’s easy to find examples of failure because it’s predictable and understandable. But it’s far more interesting to see the stories about the people who accept that they’re out of the realm of the Everyday and aren’t afraid to do something about it. That’s when things get interesting. That’s when it’s hard to know what will happen next.

Yeah, horror is a usually a genre about the worst of us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be optimistic. I’d like to believe that we are all, if not heroes, at least survivors.

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A matter of indifference

I haven’t tried to do Nano since I failed to complete a novel in 2005. Even that was a poor attempt since I didn’t actually try to write a novel, but instead a play, which ended up being 17,000 words, or 33,000 shy of the intended goal. Still, I consider that a win, in the end, because that play got me to New York through Young Playwrights Inc. (if you know any young playwrights, refer them – YPI is great) during which I learned: 1.) I hate NYC and 2.) If you feel like you shouldn’t write something, you should.

That’s beside the point. Sort of. You see, I haven’t tried to do Nano in seven years because I’ve had a plenitude of good excuses. For five years it was essays to write for class and after that it was grad school applications. Since neither of those are obstacles now, I’ve run out of excuses, which is as good a reason as any.

There is a seed of triumph in this commitment, though. For the first time in years I am admitting that I’m not too stressed out to try writing a novel in a month. Looking back there’s something very wrong with that sentence, but I’m pursuing a thought now and can’t be held back.

John Barth, though I loathe him, made an observation I agree with, that writers usually fall into two categories: the marathoners and the sprinters (i.e. novel and short story writers). I’ve fallen into the latter category and that probably has something to do with having never been taught or encouraged to do the other. I’m a product of my education, what can I say?

Last year, I tried writing out two ideas for full-length work, but kept struggling with how to weave a plot together over 50k+ words. Nano provides a great incentive: indifference. I like both ideas and, paradoxically, really need to get to the point where I don’t care enough that I can write a lousy first draft.

Will it be any good? Of course not, but at least it won’t be rattling around in my skull any longer.

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The Laziest Critic

While we were workshopping his play, my friend K asked, “But, the question I’ve been wondering is, ‘Does this story need to be told?’ I’ve heard of so many writers who hear that question and realize, ‘My god, what have I been doing?’ Does this story need to be told?”

I have only heard that question a handful of times. The person asking typically offers this and nothing more to the conversation and everyone stumbles around trying to answer, eventually arriving at “No,” because there is no way to answer that question. I’ve never bothered trying because the question deserves no response.

In my first workshop, R said that for every story there is some merit to compliment and some deficiency to criticize. I agree with that, but I’ve met too many people that favor the latter over the former.

There are a lot of good questions to ask when you’re critiquing a story. What’s at stake? What do the characters want? Where is this going? Etc. (and insert specificity). If things are unclear and you’re pretty sure they aren’t meant to be, you should ask a question.

“Does this story need to be told?” is the laziest critique I’ve ever heard.

If you can’t come up with a better reason to question the merit of another person’s story, you’re not trying hard enough.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong with the story (there is always something that could be better), but asking “Does this story needs to be told,” probably means 1.) You don’t like it for aesthetic reasons (which is perfectly fine, but useless to the writer), or 2.) You think it’s unoriginal, which I would argue is not necessarily a bad thing.

As Zero Punctuation pointed out, there was absolutely nothing original about The Last of Us. It was just a typical action-adventure, zombie-post-apocalyptic, survivor-horror video game. If you know the genres, you probably could’ve gone down a checklist of all the tropes and not missed a single one. However, what makes The Last of Us stand above all the others is that it was a Great action-adventure, zombie-post-apocalyptic, survivor-horror game. Yes, there wasn’t anything new, but damn did they do it better than everyone else.

Others have said it more eloquently than me, but if your sole criteria for whether or not something is good is originality, you probably hate a lot of things (like Zero Punctuation, but he’s at least entertaining), which is unfortunate. It’s bad for your heart and quality of life.

But the question of whether or not a story should be told isn’t just ridiculous – it’s offensive. It expresses discomfort or value judgement to subject matter. Good criticism (at least in a workshop) is about craft.

Last Wednesday, I listened to a slam poet friend perform a story at Kieran’s Irish Pub about the first time he masturbated and he turned it into a meaningful commentary on Americans’ discomfort with sexuality. In the same hour, I struggled to pay attention to a man talk about his first-hand experience with rural poverty.

A better anecdote: A teacher of mine told me about how when she was 19 she won the right to go workshop with some Great Writer. When it was her turn, the Great Writer tore her work to pieces and made her cry in front of everyone present. Afterwards he spoke to her privately, “For the next five years, don’t write another word. Go to Rio Grande City in Texas and work there as a waitress for five years. Then you’ll have stories to tell.”

“Bull shit,” my teacher concluded.

Bull shit, I say. An old man tells a young woman that the only worthwhile stories she has to tell are those she gleans from someone else’s tragedy.  No one has the right to tell you your story doesn’t deserve to be told.

We all have worthwhile stories to tell and it’s the telling that matters.

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Spare Your Darlings

Without fail, every single workshop I’ve ever been in, someone has quoted Faulker saying, “Learn to kill your darlings.”

It sounded like sage advice at first. But the second time I heard it, it started to sound like a mantra, or a pass-code that everyone else who took writing workshops knew and I didn’t. After hearing it for the n-teenth time, I finally decided that it had long since passed into the realm of Meaningless Shit.

The message is good, but not the sentiment. As I have interpreted it, the command means, “Just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s good,” so you’d better be prepared to cut it if necessary. It took me a while to come to that realization, unfortunately. People tend to repeat Faulkner without context or explanation, and usually as a bludgeon when they are trying to convince a writer that she should obliterate something despite her fondness for it.

As a person who despised the revision process at first, I needed someone to tell me this, but, unfortunately, no one fully explained it. Now I rewrite and revise obsessively, but for a long time I did worse. If I wrote something I enjoyed, I would assume it should be destroyed and then did so. Even now, I feel a little strange when I realize that I like what I have written, like it’s a guilty pleasure. So, I lost a lot of good material because I took “Kill Your Darlings” as a bylaw of writing, but that isn’t as great of a loss as my damaged relationship with my hobby and passion.

I love writing. For too long I tried to make it into work. Sure, objectivity, editors, and an understanding of one’s audience are really important, but I think that too many writers and teachers, in an attempt to make their work and craft seem more legitimate, try to make the act of composition seem like a harrowing process. It’s not and it shouldn’t be.

So, I’m going to take a stand and say that if you are a writing teacher, do not tell your students to kill their darlings unless you add a lot of caveats.

If you’re a writer, be merciful. Spare your darlings. Remember why you started writing in the first place – probably because it was enjoyable and you liked your stories.

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