7 Random Distractions to Keep You From Noticing There’s No Real Content In This Post

seven-box1All indications are that it’s Friday. And apparently, it’s a holiday weekend, too, though I didn’t realize this until my fictional next door neighbor started setting off fireworks in his driveway. I think it’s some sort of holiday to celebrate man’s dominion over dogs. I didn’t verify this in the “current holiday we just made up” section at the Hallmark store, but previous experience and the ain’t-that-cute tweets of complete strangers on Twitter give me reason to believe July 4th is known as “Make Your Dog Cower Under Your Desk” Day. I could be wrong about that.

I don’t have a dog.

So, in honor of this fine holiday, I’m going to fill this space with words so you have something to read after you’ve enjoyed six pieces of corn on the cob, five slices of watermelon and four hot dogs (hot dogs, eh? I see what you’re going for here, but don’t you think the sudden loud noises and subsequent cowering are enough to make your point?).

Anyway, the things below are typical Friday fare. In other words, they’re random and potentially meaningless. Enjoy.

  1. A friend just sent me a copy of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Yes, this is the Nabokov of Lolita fame. My friend says it’s a surprisingly modern read. This, despite having been published in the year of my birth. Go ahead, look it up. Shed a tear for me if you want, I’m a thirtysomething on the inside and that’s what matters. But back to the book – don’t you love that title? I’ll let you know what I think.
  2. I’m falling in love…with the TV series Mad Men. Yes, I am slow to the party, but thanks to Comcast’s On Demand feature, I’m making my way through the first season four episodes at a time. I can see why it’s an award-winning show. Much thanks to a different anonymous friend (not the unnamed one above) for the recommendation. You were right.
  3. One of the projects I’m wrestling with in my “free time” is a movie screenplay. Well, I’m actually not that far along yet, I’m still arranging the scenes into a detailed treatment. I’ve been working on this for two years now and it has changed dramatically during that time. What began as a dark, edgy story about a mysterious character who brings redemption to a corrupt town has morphed into a lighter, quirky story about a mysterious character who brings meaning to the lives of a few people in a small town. (Reason for most of the changes? Anticipating a low budget to work with.) I’ll keep you posted.
  4. Want a fix of beautifully poetic narrative writing? Go to Amber’s website and read her posts. The My Love Songs thread is particularly amazing. I told her she has to write a book someday. You can tell her that, too.
  5. Thus far, my limited experience with Twitter has granted me a brief conversation with Augusten Burroughs, a re-tweeting by uber-nerd and former Star Trek: TNG whipping boy Wil Wheaton, and a kind three-word response from the American God himself, Neil Gaiman. Oh, and a rather significant number of my tweets are going to appear in the book The World According to Twitter, by NYT columnist and techno-geek David Pogue. Twitter is fun. Especially when used to stalk famous people. You should follow me. Sometimes I actually tweet something witty.
  6. Dark Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups = Happiness.
  7. For some strange reason every time I hear the Indiana Jones theme I feel compelled to salute. In a related story, every time I hear the soundtrack to Legends of the Fall I want to marry Julia Ormond.

There. That’s seven things. If you’re still reading the dog has had way too much time to plot his revenge.

Step carefully.

Finding Stories

Where do you get ideas for your stories? If you’re like lots of writers, you probably draw from your own life experience. Someone once said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. I happen to think that every novel a writer writes is at least somewhat autobiographical. (What this says about Dean Koontz, I’m not quite sure.) But what if you have a boring life? Where do you find your ideas for non-boring novels?

Start by coming up with a compelling protagonist. The really good ones write their own stories.

But where are they? you ask.

Well, they’re all around you. You know that quiet man down the street who compulsively washes his car every afternoon at three fifteen? He’s a murderer who was never caught but now regrets his actions and wants to make amends. And your quirky Uncle Ken? He’s a millionaire inventor who keeps his money in pickle jars stashed in secret locations around the city. And what about your best friend Jenny? She’s actually a former child actor who’s just about to be re-discovered for the role of a lifetime.

Another good way to spark a story idea is to listen creatively to the conversations around you.

Go to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop or grocery store or bus station. Observe. Listen, but not too closely (it’s more fun to fill in the blanks with made-up stuff). Before you know it you’ve got an idea for a novel about a Starbucks barista who falls in love with every man who walks in the door and orders a soy latte with light whipped cream. Or a novel about three angry moms who plot to take over a poorly-run daycare center, by force if necessary. Or a novel about a teenager who is taking his feeble, nearly-blind grandfather cross-country to meet his first love after more than 50 years apart.

Of course, compelling characters and interesting conversations are just the beginning place for fully-realized novels. But you’ll be surprised how a story can grow from something so simple.

What if your compelling character or interesting conversation seems to go nowhere? Start over. Or, try combining some of your discoveries and see what happens. Maybe that nearly-blind man being escorted cross-country is the former child actor and his grandson only discovers this as they trek together. Maybe the three angry moms learn about the man who hides the money-filled pickle jars and try to find them all so they can afford to buy the poorly-run daycare center from a suspected murderer.

I think you get the point.

And as you can probably tell, I’m sorta tired tonight. I think I’ll turn this post over to you now.

So…where do you get your best story ideas?

Fiction Trends of the Future!

Yesterday I was in the future. Wait, I mean in the future, I zipped back to yesterday. Or was it tomorrow that I…never mind. It doesn’t matter. Bottom line is what’s important here and here’s the bottom line: I know what book trends are going to be hot in three years. Yes, you heard me. (Really? Did you just hear me right now? Like in an audible voice? Because that’s either the coolest thing ever or a sign that you should schedule an emergency appointment with your psychiatrist.)

While I was in the future, I did a little historical research. All because I love each and every one of you like Stephen King’s literary agent loves Stephen King. In other words, a lot (pending your decision to utilize my editorial services for a perfectly fair fee considering how famous you’ll be someday thanks to all the information I’m providing).

The following seven trends are going to be huge. I’m talking Dan J.K. Meyer Brown Stephenie Rawlings huge. You have just enough time to complete a novel in one of these genres so that it will be ready for the literary agent of your choice to sell to the highest bidder.

At great risk, I’ve included the actual title of the trendsetting novel for each genre to make it even easier for you to succeed. I have not, however, listed the authors. Did I see the authors’ names? Yes I did. But I don’t want to mess with the future any more than I already have. You know how this time travel stuff works. It’s delicate and wonky and there’s always a chance of the universe folding in on itself. I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to be folded out of existence.

Okay. So here they are. Pick one and write it. And remember, if you need editorial help from a sharp editor (who has already seen the finished book), just email me.

Future Fiction Trends

1. Science friction fiction – Read that again, carefully. This genre is devoted entirely to stories about scientific things that rub against each other. This might seem an impossible challenge, but you’ll be happy to know “scientific things” includes hot scientists. You do the math.

Future Bestseller: Iris and the Spectrometer of Doom (Mostly it’s about the Spectrometer. Iris is just there for eye candy. And for rubbing up against things.)

2. Hamish love stories – I know. I had to do a double-take on this one, too. In case it’s not clear, these are love stories featuring a protagonist named “Hamish.” And that’s all you need to know.

Future Bestseller: Gwen’s Eggs and Hamish (No, not those eggs. It’s not about procreation. Gwen is a breakfast cook at Denny’s. A really good cook.)

3. Plant fiction – Think Charlotte’s Web, except with talking plants. Most of the books in this genre apparently are set in the jungle, though the chart-topping bestseller listed below was obviously set in a backyard garden. So if you’re the lucky author of this one… sorry about that.

Future Bestseller: Rutabaga’s Lament (NYT review: “A literary, vegetarian masterpiece of Dickensian brilliance!”)

4. Gaimaniacal fiction – This one threw me at first. Any guesses? Yep. It’s a genre of paranormal novels in which every character is a creative interpretation of real-life author Neil Gaiman. (This is because Neil is a fantastic author and a tremendous human being and everyone likes him. Plus, he just responded to a Tweet in which I mentioned referencing him in this blogpost and it is quite possible that in so responding, he triggered the very event that will result in the future Gaimaniacal fiction phenomenon described here. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?)

Future Bestseller: Neil Before Me (It’s really quite amazing. Did you write it? Can I have your autograph before Neil sees this on the front table at Borders?)

5. Historical fiction: 1970’s – This might seem like the easiest of the bunch, but there’s one little detail you should know: every chapter has to feature a detailed description of orange shag carpet. The noted book below did this with subtle grace, by the way. If you’re the author, I salute you. (And you owe me a box of Kleenex.)

Future Bestseller: Shag ‘n Me (This was huge in Britain – first day sales of 500K. But then they read the book and discovered it was about carpeting. That’s when it took off in America. Go figure.)

6. Adverbial mysteries – Save those adverbs. You’re gonna need ‘em for this genre. Basically, it’s a mystery genre – but each page is packed with a plethora of adverbs. I guess people like adverbs in the future.

Future Bestseller: Beautifully, Seriously Killed Dead (I know. That’s a terrible title. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. And who can argue with 3 million units sold? Well, you could, stupidly.

7. Neurotica – I don’t have to describe this genre do I? Good. Because I’m not sure I could do it well enough to satisfy the critics who will spend upwards of three months obsessing over an accurate definition before ultimately decrying the genre as meaningless, purposeless soul-sucking crap.

Future Bestseller: Does Distress Make Me Look Fat? (I’m not going to tell you any more about this one.)

Well, there you have it. Enjoy writing your bestsellers. And let me know how I can help.

Until next time…

Finally, the Post About Novels and Love Stories

So here we are. Last Friday I made a rather bold claim – that all novels are love stories. Since then, a few of you have chimed in with opinions and ponderable things relating to my claim.

Headless Mom (gotta love that name) wrote:

One could argue that regardless of topic, all novels are love stories: the love between the author and his/her words, the author’s love of the story.

Amber asked for examples.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let’s be simple. Like if there were a great children’s story about a doggy wanting a bone and how the doggie hunted for the bone, would the love story be between the dog and the bone? What about the good stories that are just lust stories?

And then yesterday, Seth (who happens to be Amber’s husband) had all kinds of things to say about the claim, including these words:

Can’t an author delicately and intentionally pick words that convey a story that he does not love, but that he is compelled to tell?

And these:

I think that well constructed characters seem to write themselves and I hope that they can chose to move in a way that is beyond the author’s discretion. If so, can characters lack love? Can a situation, or entire string of them, be constructed without love being found within either central or peripheral proximity? Don’t characters and scenes move, from time to time, with hatred, violence–or worse, ambivalence–sometimes without redemption? And if that happens, a novel can be birthed devoid of love.

And also, these:

My point is this: sometimes a story should be allowed to write itself, much like life. If that removes love from the equation, so be it. If that requires love, so be it.

Okay. First of all, thanks to all who have weighed in on this (and will yet today, if you feel so compelled).

Let me begin with the first comment from Headless Mom. In a word, “yes.” This is one of the two reasons I believe all novels are love stories. Now, it needs to be said here (and below) that not all authors love their words or stories equally well. Some may love the act of writing – the discovery of it. Some may love every word they put on the page (don’t let these writers near an editor). Others just may love the dream of being a published author someday.

I believe Seth is right when he says it’s possible to write a story you don’t truly love, that you are “compelled to tell.” But why do you still write it then? Pure obligation? What is the compulsion? Couldn’t there still be a “love story” in there somewhere? Maybe it’s the “love of getting paid” or “a love for the way words sound” or could it be the “love of storytelling” itself?

This is where I segue into the second reason I believe the claim is true. But before I do that, allow me to clarify what I mean by “love story.” I am not suggesting that all novels include a character who falls in love with someone else and then they live happily (or not) ever after. While I think you’ll be surprised to discover just how many novels – in all genres – include this plot element to varying degrees, my definition is broader. For the sake of argument, I’ll use the horror genre to explain.

Consider a novel where evil and blood drip off of every page. Where is the love story? Well, in my broad definition, the love story may be found in the protagonist’s actions. Let’s presume for a moment that the protagonist is a Jack the Ripper style killer. He is in love with… inflicting pain, watching others suffer, and most likely, the color red. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What sort of love story is that?” Well, remember, I’m stretching the definition here.

“Okay,” you argue, “but what if he has no concept of love? What if he’s truly crazy?” Then let’s back up and look at the people trying to stop him. What drives their actions? Is it purely a sense of justice? Or are their actions ultimately driven by the love of life? If so, there’s your love story.

Seth made an excellent point about characters writing themselves. Let me take a moment to agree with Seth’s argument here: Always write, just write. Let the characters tell the story truthfully, according to how they’ve defined themselves.

Now, could some characters write themselves in such a way that they are devoid of love, devoid of any sort of redemption? Absolutely. And that means it is entirely possible you could end up with a loveless story filled entirely with loveless characters as written by a writer who is compelled by something other than love (obsession, maybe?) to put the words on the page. And if this is possible, then my claim is false. (Seth’s a lawyer. I could be 99 percent correct in my assumption, but I’m sure he’d be quick to tell me the claim as written is entirely false even if there’s only a 1 percent chance I’m wrong.)

If such a story exists (or even theoretically could exist), then I’d have to modify my statement to read: Most novels are essentially love stories.

Hmm…I like the way that reads better. I sure don’t want to be someone who denies characters their right to be loveless. Truth is fiction’s greatest ally, after all. So…yes, I think I will change my statement. Good discussions often lead to enlightenment, right? And I have no problem being wrong – especially when I learn something in the process.

However, let me add that, in practice, I can’t recall reading a novel that didn’t include some element of a “love story” either directly described or implied. Granted, sometimes they’ve been messy love stories, or misguided ones, or selfish ones – but they’ve been in there somewhere, driving the characters’ actions, propelling the plot forward. Love matters to storytellers and their stories.

Now it’s your turn. What say you about all this? Have you read a story that is completely void of any love at all? If so, tell us about it.

Oh, before I call it a night, I did want to say something about VenetianBlond’s comment. She wrote:

Meryl Streep said something to the effect that every utterance of “I love you” is actually a question.

This makes me think: Is it possible that a novel devoid of love could actually be asking the question, “do you love me”?

Okay. Have fun with all this. I’ve got to work on my novel now. It’s a love story. Really, it is.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Since today’s post is so philosophical, tomorrow’s is going to be pure fun. I’ve just come back from the future and brought with me a list of 7 upcoming fiction trends. You’ll have just enough time to write your book before the trends hit full stride. Thank me tomorrow, then thank me again when your book has usurped the entire front display in Barnes & Noble. See you tomorrow.

All Novels Are Love Stories (But This Post Isn’t)

I think it’s Monday. Is it? I had these great plans to write a clever post about how every novel is essentially a love story in disguise, but those plans got derailed by Real Life. So instead, I’m just going to offer this bit of writing advice (I’ll get to the “love story” post another day): Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say.

I don’t mean “sometimes you don’t have anything of value to say.” I mean sometimes you just don’t have anything at all to say. When these times come, it’s not about writer’s block – it’s about being empty. There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are related to the Real Life we live apart from putting words on paper. Maybe your cousins showed up unexpectedly and in the midst of the noise and chaos your muse not only ran away with all those brilliant ideas, she took your laptop, too. Maybe you’re over-tired because your child has been sick or the dog keeps puking in the middle of the night or your spouse suddenly decided it was a good time to take up snoring. Maybe your One True Love left you, and while there are a thousand broken-heart stories lining up in the queue and preparing to spit and spill onto the page, in this moment you are simply stunned to silence.

Whatever the reason, you’ve just got nuthin’.

If you have a deadline and that deadline is today, you’ll have to find a way to put words on paper. Even if they suck. (Unless you can buy another day – but you know my feelings about deadlines, right?) What if you don’t have a deadline? Or if the deadline is self-imposed (like the one for this blog)? Then it’s perfectly okay to say nothing at all. Don’t beat yourself up for not meeting your word count.

It’s just a season.

Meanwhile, deal with the Real Life stuff in front of you. Catch fireflies with the cousins. Take a long nap. Or curl up in the fetal position and cry. Whatever the Real Life stuff calls for.

When the time comes, you’ll have plenty to say again. Probably more than ever before.

And remember: Just because you aren’t writing right now doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer.

You are.

And so am I. And maybe tomorrow I’ll write that post about Love Stories.

Or not.

Peace.