Lessons Learned — I Have No Idea. (But I have style!)

My flash project was largely a test to see if I had what it took to be a writer. Did I even have 365 brain cells, each with a story idea, that could produce? By the end I was scraping the back of my skull’s interior for ideas, but along the way I found things other than ideas that could generate a story. Things like style, esthetics, absurdity, emotion, character, or voice.

That may seem obvious to most writers. After all, “character-driven stories” is a very common term. But for a novice—which I still consider myself—you don’t really understand it fully until you’ve done it. One of the payoffs of writing 365 stories in a year is that desperation to produce pushes you in directions you might not otherwise go. I was an “idea man,” but I fell into these other approaches, and they were very rewarding.

Part 1: Style

If I were to be honest, I’d have to admit that at this point I really mean “mimicry” when I say style.

My first example of this was the Muck-About Gang stories. These stories were inspired by the “The Mad Scientist Club” books, but “inspired” I think doesn’t give fair enough credit. Although my characters and situations are very distinct from the MSC books, I must confess I was trying to capture the style of those stories. Of all the flashes I wrote during this project, these are probably closest to fan-fiction. These books engaged a diverse group of friends with creative pursuits and formidable challenges dealing with the troublemakers that tried to thwart them. That’s pretty much what I tried to do with the Muck-Abouts.

In spite of that, and in spite of the lackluster responses from my readers (all four of them!), I loved writing them. If I was in that zone, all I had to do to make a story was choose a few characters, give them a project, and create complications. Sounds easy, right? Well it’s not, but occasionally something would pop from this approach. Style propelled them, and they energized the project as a whole. You can check out the first one, “Day 40: Zip Line,” and click on the “Muck-About Gang” tag to list out the rest of them.

I’m also a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse. I’d written whimsical stories before, but never to the lengths of absurdity, exaggeration, and mischief you would find in the average Wodehouse. I wanted to see if I could achieve such a thing. This required eloquent, well-to-do characters with insouciant wit and farcical morality. My determination to create an American variety of this style eventually produced “Day 185: Mauri and Tish Get It Done.” Considering it was my first attempt, I was quite happy with the results. I tried again with a little caper/mystery in “Day 231: Liberty Head Nickel,” and I revisited Mauri and Tish in “Day 240: The Racing Solution.”

The method I used for writing these were two-fold. First I needed to plot out a caper of some sort. Something silly like getting two people together, correcting the behavior of an over-adventurous spouse, or winning the neighborhood costume contest—whatever. The caper didn’t have to be complex, it just had to be silly. Next, I would create a few characters, figure out their attitudes and biases, put on my whimsy hat, and let the banter roll. A caper with nonchalant banter—doesn’t that about sum up our old friend Pelham Grenville?

All in all, I think I acquitted myself quite well, by Jove!

By the way, you might notice a Wodehousian influence on three stories about a Bichon Frise (“Day 193: Darwin’s Huckleberry,” “Day 196: Emergency Grooming,” and “Day 197: The Rise and Fall of a Bichon Frise”), and your perception would have merit. However, far more than style, those stories were motivated by—an actual dog.

What does this all mean? I think it means that mimicry is a very positive aspect of the art. You may not want to publish something that skirts the edge of copying, but it’s a good feeling to know you can write stories a lot like the ones you are very fond of. Furthermore, it can give you the proof that once you have developed your particular style, you will be able to crank those stories out.

So, what are you waiting for?

By the way–you no longer have to scroll like mad to see my flashes in order. In the menu I’ve included a page of links listed in order for easy access.


Lessons Learned — Flipping the POV of Withholding

If you haven’t heard or read someone pontificate about the repugnance of withholding, you probably haven’t participated in any kind of fiction writing community. In fact, take your pulse just in case.

I’ve participated in writers groups where members railed against breaking every kind of rule. “Kill the adverbs! Fervently!” The obsession against withholding, however, bordered upon the occult. If you withhold, you are going to hell.

For those who don’t know what withholding is, an author “withholds” when he hides something from the reader that is readily known by the POV character and clearly relevant to the situation, only to spring it on him at a time that the writer hopes will twist his little brain. There are some variations, but at the end they generally pull the rug out from under the reader with a flourish and a “Fooled ya!”

The most annoying thing about it is that the railers are absolutely right… except when they’re not.

What I mean is, the vast majority of the time it’s a bad idea, but once in a while a particularly skilled writer with a particularly great idea can spring one that everyone likes. When they pull it off, it’s usually something big. When such an anomaly appears along with its fanfare and adulation, the withholding occultists tend to look away like an atheist confronting a ghost or a mid-Nebraskan encountering a Democrat.

But it’s very rare, and in general such subterfuge is ill-advised—even for the pros. I read a Jack Reacher novel that riveted me through half of the book. Reacher played psychological cat-and-mouse with three other characters, the implication being that two were killers and one was a captive. Half way through, however, we discover that it was nothing of the sort, and that the only person in any real danger was the bad guy. It completely deflated all the tension that Lee Childs had built up to that point, and the rest of the book was a big disappointment, never able to regain that tension.

And that’s why withholding almost never works. It builds up fake tension, and that tension is inevitably completely lost, leaving the reader disappointed and disillusioned.

What do you do, then, when you have this totally awesome idea, but it seems to require withholding?

In the throes of my 365 days of flash writing, I confronted this issue a number of times, and I discovered a remedy. If the idea is really that good, it will work even better by telling the reader up front what you are doing, and show the story from the point of view of someone who knows what is happening—because that’s where the real tension is. Instead of puncturing the built-up tension, you see real tension build as you watch how the perpetrator of the ruse and his victim respond to it. When the secret gets revealed to the victim, you feel the catharsis of his tension relieved without losing the effect of the real tension built up to that point.

I must have been tired when I wrote Day 212: Freak Show because I did it wrong and hid what was really going on. It’s okay, but far less satisfying than it could have been. So if I ever rewrite it for publication (these are all first drafts), I will flip the POV.

I did it right with Day 138: Make Him Feel Small and Day 339: BIID. If I remember correctly, the first one is where I discovered this tactic. I wrestled with it for a while, but both of these stories turned out much better by flipping the POV of the original idea and letting the reader in on the secret.

I don’t have any advice for how to craft that rare story that pulls off withholding well, but this is a tactic which seems to work well for me, and, so far, no pitchfork-bearing mob of withholding occultists has shown up at my door.

Idea Generation Strategies — Little Gems of Self-Indulgence

Trying to write without self-indulgence is like striving to eat a sundae without ice cream. Conceit permeates the endeavor, which can degenerate into excessive naval-gazing or into painful tedium that’s barely even interesting to the writer. Examining previous writings is often like looking back on my teenage years when I thought I knew something about philosophy, or religion, or the virtues of lederhosen… ouch. Don’t do that.

But is a little self-indulgence a bad thing?

During my 365 days of story, self-indulgence was sometimes all I could manage to regurgitate into a submission. Although the results were of an “insider” nature, they often turned out pretty well in the scheme of things, and they carried me through some barren moments of brainstorming.

Did they satisfy the reader, though? I hope so.

One type came through reminiscences, such as elements of my childhood in Day 52: Snakes and Tadpoles and Wasps and Things or such as the mood of an actual frat-house Tupperware party evinced in Day 83: The Pampered Chef Party Crashers. I suspect I enjoyed these a lot more than the readers because they reflect the little entertainments of my own life. They’re interesting in their own right, but not the kind of “gem” I always hope for. Still better than naval lint.

Another species arises from triumphs and survival. By their nature they were more indulgent than reminiscences, yet these had more real-life emotion and irony built into them. Day 112: Nice Throw tells an event I experienced almost exactly as it happened, but through the eyes of a fictional character. Surviving a three-tailed tornado (yes—three tails) drove the writing in two stories, Day 290: Big Wind and another that I kept in reserve. “Big Wind” is one of Garbol the wizard’s stories, while the one in reserve reflected my true experiences more realistically—again, through the eyes of a fictional character.

In spite of the raw emotion in these, I still think “Snakes and Tadpoles” is more satisfying among them, but the stories became much more gratifying in a third species of self-indulgence—raging at the world. These stories rise above the rest.

Early this year with only a few months left of the 365 project, I took a job with a significant commute north of D.C. For a few weeks I took rush-hour traffic down I-270, I-495, and I-66 to my home in eastern Virginia. For a corn-fed Nebraska boy, the traffic was horrendous, but it still might have been livable had it not been for the complete disregard every driver had for every other driver. I submit to you that your hope for humanity will plummet if you regularly take this commute. There were no stereotypes—every color and creed behaved the same. The middle finger and the car horn were the cultural features that united them all.

Who better to act as the surrogate for my spleen than Garbol the wizard? In Day 306: Rush Hour with Garbol, the wizard endures very much the kinds of things I endured on those commutes, but with a little magic in the mix. I really enjoyed this one, and it was an effective… er… vehicle for exorcising my demons.

Also during the Flash-a-Day-for-a-Year project, I received a lease renewal document from my apartment managers, and the document revealed some despicable practices in the way they price gouge their captive market for the purpose of coercing them into alleviating their vacancy risk. It demonstrated unbelievable crooked disregard for their tenants, and it enraged me. I started arrangements to move away almost immediately after.

You will find sprinkled among my stories several slams against apartment agencies and bean counters in the greater Washington D.C. area, and they probably seem quite odd, but I had to get it out of my system and leak it to the world. Maligning these turds in random places probably didn’t enhance my stories any, but ultimately I dumped it all into Day 265: A Job Fit for a Robot. In this story, you can learn some of the details of what they did through the eyes of a robot decommissioned from dock work and reassigned to an apartment complex. The ending tells you very close to what I think of these real-life people. Something beneath lint, anyway.

As a writer, you might as well allow yourself a little self-indulgence. The bottom line is it can help you produce, and like any other method you might use, some stories will be better than others.

Lessons Learned — “I’ve got nothing” is the new norm

Getting something from nothing is magic. We can argue about the “cost” of magic or how indistinguishable it is from “sufficiently advanced technology” or whether or not Mom’s rhubarb pie constitutes magic (It does! It really does!), but if you start with nothing and produce something, that’s magic.

When I began the Flash-a-Day-for-a-Year project, I expected to wring every last drop of story from my noggin and close up shop around day ten… maybe twelve. Truthfully, I figured I had thirty or so ideas, which I’d follow up with another ten or fifteen adventures of Kevin the talking kazoo until I just petered out.

I’m not good with writing prompts—never have been. I’ve checked out web sites, books, and podcasts, and not one prompt inspired a story in me. Rambling gobble-dee-gook from someone else’s brainstorm was not going to do for this project, and I refuse to write a story prompted by the question: “What if the refrigerator fell in love with the toaster?” So when I used up the last idea I’d been sitting on, I figured the end was near.

Funny thing happened, though—the ideas kept coming, sometimes out of nowhere. I discovered a few tricks to come up with new ones, which kept me going a little while longer. (I will blog more about these.) I constantly brainstormed to fill my “flash ideas” file, but the brainstorms grew stale fast, and soon I was spending a lot of time fretting, sweating, and wetting to find something—anything—that I could spin into a tale. Some nights were long, but the magic kept happening.

Some of my characters and scenarios offered inspiration, but because of the non-stop nature of the project, I continuously tapped out those sources, and that brought me to many long, dark nights of the soul, where day after day I would sit down to write and realize “I’ve got nothing.”

Imminent failure scared and discouraged me, but by the time I’d gotten to Day 200 or so, I’d faced the “I’ve got nothing” bugaboo about a hundred times and gotten through it. “I’ve got nothing” became a familiar adversary that I would march against with anticipation and resolve.

Before this challenge, I would have quit many times, but to give up during that year meant failure, which forced me to confront that phantom, “writer’s block.” I’ve come to know that writer’s block just means it’s time to hunker down and push. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, there’s only lack of will. But you have to know that—you have to believe in magic—to beat it.

Idea Generation Strategies — Ticking off Monsters

Should authors just give up on originality?

I’ve heard a lot said about there being nothing new in fiction. In script writing I frequently run across the saying “the same only different.” Let’s face it, though—a writer wants to convey unique ideas, and such a hope drove most of my efforts this last year.

Classic monsters provided fertile foraging ground. I wrote three such stories in the first fifteen days. Looking for the “different” in the “same only different” among monsters became a routine part of my brainstorming. And why not? Monsters are cool.

By the way, if these “Idea Generation Strategies” amount to mere navel-gazing, it’s all good. It sometimes feels that way to me. Keep writing and more power to you. My intention is to give examples of strategies that got me through three hundred sixty-five stories in three hundred sixty-five days. If you get something out of it, all the better.

Back to business.

(If you want to prevent any spoiler effect, read Day 3: All for Amila before reading the next paragraph.)

I wrote about a zombie in Day 3: All for Amila. I have lots of opinions about zombies, and getting me to talk about them is a lot like asking a few teenagers who the best Avenger is. You’re going to get an earful, and it may or may not be entertaining. So I figured I could find my own angle. I asked myself what kind of person would be most resistant to a zombie infection or curse, and what I came up with provided me immeasurable satisfaction.

Before starting the Flash-a-Day project, I already had a couple ideas regarding vampires that I put into Day 6: Unrelenting Baptism. It’s possible the ideas in this story are the most original in the entire run, and I’m quite proud of it. I’d have to dig a lot deeper into my navel to explain. The story didn’t come from ticking down the list of monsters like the others did, but it highlighted them as a potential fount of new angles.

I struggled to write Day 15: The Mummy’s Last Redress. That day began my third week, and ideas grew thin. I had already floundered late into the night, so fatigue dogged my mind. The decision to write about a mummy pushed me even later because it created the need for research into Egyptian stuff to find realistic names, determine religious references, and assure the geography made at least a little sense.

In spite of the difficulty, it was an important turning point. I’d already burned through some reserves, and completing the story, for the first time, made me feel like I might actually be able to follow this project through. To find that original angle, I asked myself who a mummy might be and how anything in the modern world might be relevant to him at all.

This poor creature from one of the longest lasting civilizations known by man woke up in a completely unrecognizable world, only stone remnants of ancient Egypt still remaining. What could he possibly care about? What could possibly persist? By answering those questions, I found a gratifying new angle for a mummy story.

There’s no specific method to this other than keeping a list of classic monsters and going through it again and again until some original angle occurs to you. Are there any questions you have about their natures that are unanswered? Answer those questions and discover some cool stories.

Here are some questions that I asked and answered:

—How does a little girl deal with a bullyish ghost? (Day 43: Isabel and the Ghost)
—How is Frankenstein’s monster adjusting to the modern world? (Day 278: Interview with Frankenstein’s Monster — 1-2-3-D!)
—What is so horrifying about a werewolf’s transformation that his friends won’t talk about it and refuse to take a video? (Day 295: The Burdens of a Werewolf)
—Who among acquaintances at a dinner party is the werewolf? (Day 32/33: Dinner at Horton’s – Part 1 & 2)

Occasionally I would find a second story for a particular kind of monster, like Day 311: Don’t Blaspheme the Mummy, but most only gave me one. Attempts at sequels didn’t work well for me, either. Although monsters were a finite source, they provided happy moments when I discovered them.

I don’t know if these stories were truly unique, but they were new and original to me. They benefitted the development of my craft, and made this project well worthwhile. And, wow. Look at that. My navel is fuzz free.

Idea Generation Strategies — 1-2-3-Done

Writing is as easy as 1, 2, 3… sometimes.

In my flashes this past year you will find a lot of threes. In fact, I’ve tagged many of them with 1-2-3-D, which stands for “one-two-three-done!”

I first learned of the “rule of three” in humor, which basically sets you up (1), strings you along (2), and hits you with a surprise (3). It’s applicable for many things, but I found it especially useful in creating flash fiction, and I probably wouldn’t have completed a year of flashes without it.

The first thing I realized about 1-2-3-D stories, is that they’re usually much easier to write than most others. When I found such a topic that inspired me, I knew I’d be writing three short vignettes with some kind of twist at the end, and the twist often fell naturally into place. Most likely I’d get to bed at a decent hour.

The second thing I realized was that there were lots of possibilities. I wrote flashes with three dates, three interviews, three wishes, and three iterations of any number of things.

One character had a blind date with three different kinds of creatures, a wood nymph, a vampire, and a zombie. In another flash, it took three interviews for a couple guys to find the right kind of fellow to be a vampire hunter. And what happens when a genie grants three wishes to a zombie? Or an alien? Or a robot? What happens when a genie grants wishes to a thug that conflict with the wishes a leprechaun granted to a little girl? I wrote at least six stories involving three wishes, all of them very different from each other.

There were two ways I would come up with 1-2-3-D ideas. One way was to be on the lookout for situations that would fit that approach. Got a cash register controlled by Artificial Intelligence? Have it interact with three customers—one-two-three-done! Got three Sirens trying to lure sailors to their deaths in the modern world? Have them attempt it on three different ships—one-two-three-done! Here’s one I haven’t done: Trying to perfect a potion that makes someone irresistible? Try it three times with the same person, or once on three different ones. Already I have a feeling a troll will be involved, and that’s the beauty of these kinds of stories—they get you thinking about the twist right from the beginning.

I also intentionally brainstormed for things that can come in threes. Three wishes, three chances, three strikes, three clues, three viewpoints, three flavors, three trips, three tries, and on some of the more desperate nights, three-cheese macaroni.

There’s no hard and fast rule how to implement these; however, they generally write towards some kind of twist for the third iteration. Take the troll twist for the irresistibility potion mentioned above. To get to that twist, the first iteration needs to provide the set up and establish the stage, which usually makes it the longest of the three. Things usually don’t go right in the first iteration. Perhaps the subject is a cat person, and she runs into a bunch of dog people. The second one might go worse or become problematic in a different way. That section can be long or very short, whatever it takes to provide the pattern. For the third iteration, the tester might try it on himself (Ack! Where’d all these trolls come from?), or he might test it on a troll while forgetting to put on his immunity hat. (What beautiful trails of snot you have!)

Yeah—what do you want from five minutes of thought? The imaginative mind will see many possibilities here.

Occasionally I came across happy accidents where the first iteration generated its own story without the need for two more iterations. Usually that meant its substance had greater meaning than intended. “Day 126: Mr. Travio’s Flower Shop” was one of those cases. I started writing it as a slapstick piece with a hitman’s three failed attempts to kill someone. It turned out to be something entirely different. If that happens, embrace it.

In spite of the rich lode 1-2-3-D has to offer, it only went so far for me. Eventually story ideas of that kind became harder to come by, at least ones that inspired me. They would also become monotonous if it was all I did. All the stories would start to seem too similar and formulaic. It was a welcome boost to keep my 365-day project going, but not all stories could be 1-2-3-D, and I wouldn’t want them to be.

On the other hand, some of them were gems.

Let’s see… introduced the concept with examples and experience (1), discussed how to use the method (2), and took a new turn by mentioning some limitations and ending with something upbeat (3). One-two-three-done—I’m outta here.