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.

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who encouraged and supported me throughout this year. Thank you readers, especially Dad and Mom, and thank you to everyone who ‘liked,’ retweeted, or commented along the way. You all made a big difference to me, and gave me compelling reason to push on during the hardest moments.

A special thanks to David Litchfield, whose TED Talk, “How doing a drawing a day changed my life,” inspired this endeavor.

After some rest, I will assess my accomplishments and decide how to further use this site, most likely as a place for discussing lessons learned, developing the craft, and publishing a story from time to time.

Please stay tuned.

Day 365 (Done): Four Dudes and the Space Zombies

The dudes had been dreading this part of the journey home. It was the most dangerous stretch according to the aliens who’d helped them plan everything out with their intergalactic GPS gizmo. The danger came from one primary issue. Space zombies.

Nate rested in the reclining fixture used by the ship’s previous owners, basically a vat of brown Jello. The ship was gigantic, but only that room had human life support. The merchant had rigged the roomed with the piloting controls and an airlock, so it was a lot like a space blimp, except the cabin was on the side. Windows gave a limited view to outer space.

It was an old ship with unused and obsolete pipes, conduits, and gadgets hanging loosely from the walls. The important stuff was colored blue, or so they were told.

Nate daydreamed about fighting off the zombies, steering the ship to safety, and looking good in a white suit, while Jack, Bradley, and Tim hailed him as their hero.

“Wake up, butthead.” Tim flicked him on the back of the ear and shook the vat.

“What do you want?”

“We’ve hit zombie space.”

Nate hopped out of the vat with a slurp. “Why didn’t you just say so.”

“I believe I just did.”

They crowded around Jack at the controls. The displays were visual, almost like a human’s computer screen, but everything had a green tinge. A thin yellow line demarcated zombie space, and it intersected the blob that represented their ship.

Jack kept repeating a song he’d made up, which wasn’t entirely unlike a reggae tune. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

Tim blew air between his teeth. “I think a half hour is long enough to be singing that song.”

Jack grinned wide and sang louder, adding hand motions, twirling his fists around each other and swinging his arms out on alternating sides. “C’mon, guys. Join me.”

Bradley joined him for a verse. “We should take this to Vaudeville.”

Nate studied the screen, but didn’t see anything worrisome. “Can we take this just a little more seriously?”

“What do you have to worry?” said Tim. “You ain’t got no brain.”

“Haha.” Nate noticed a shimmer on the screen close to their ship’s blob. “Hold on, guys. Look here.” He hovered his finger over the shimmer, and it grew more distinct as they watched.

“Damn,” said Tim. “It’s a whole fleet.”

“Just keep it steady, guys.” Jack bopped his head. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

“Seriously, Jack.” Tim frowned at the screen. “Can it.”

Jack sang louder. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

“Oh, come on,” said Tim. “It’s like the stupidest song ever.”

“He’s got to deal with things in his own way,” said Nate.

“When I trained in Dao Ling, we used song to focus our chi,” said Bradley.

“Well focus your ass on that screen. You remember what to do, right?”

“Yeah,” said Jack. “What do you think I’m doing? I cut to medium thrust, I set course for a hop trajectory that should bounce us away and around, but keep us in opposition, and I increased the air cycle in the cabin.”

“The air cycle’s not part of the procedure,” said Nate.

“I farted,” said Jack.

“No shit?” said Tim. “I thought someone was cooking rotten broccoli.”

They watched as their ship took an arc that would put them in parallel opposition.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains…”

“Kill me now,” said Tim.

“No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” Nate pointed at the back edge of the fleet. “Part of it’s breaking off.”

Tim spat. “Shit, he’s right.”

“Okay. Don’t panic.” Jack’s eyes darted everywhere, wide and terrified. “Nobody panic. Stay cool.”

“It’s okay,” said Nate. “They gave us a procedure for this. We’ve got to navigate through them according to their flight configuration. We can confuse and avoid a lot of their sensors. Get a close-up on the break-away ships. You ready for some maneuvering?”

Jack looked at Nate. “Maybe Bradley should do this. He’s the best pilot.”

Nate nodded. “Good idea.”

Jack and Bradley changed places. Bradley cracked his knuckles and fiddled with the controls.

Nate puzzled through the zombies’ flight configuration and instructed Bradley in some complicated flight patterns, taking them right into the ships. Jack sang the ‘oh-no’ song quietly next to him. They had a few maneuvers left to get out when Jack gasped.

“Wait,” he said. “The other way. The other way!”

“Why?”

“Just do it. They’re directing you straight into a trajectory with the other fleet, and it’s turning. We’ll lose opposition.”

“Holy shit, he’s right,” said Tim.

Nate sputtered. “I didn’t see that. Do it, Bradley!”

Bradley took them out the side of the smaller fleet, but one of the zombie ships broke off and followed.

“No!” said Nate. “They’re coming.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Tim bent close to Bradley. “Pull off this way. Lead him away from both fleets so we can deal with him alone. Drive like it’s the Daytona 500.”

“I once subbed for Jeff Gordon in—”

“I’m sure you did, Bradley. Focus.”

Bradley smiled stupidly and worked the controls. The ship and their pursuer got farther and farther apart.

“He’s doing it,” said Nate.

“Now we’ve just got to shake this last guy.”

Their ship stopped turning and went in a straight line.

Tim grabbed Bradley’s shoulder. “Why aren’t you turning?”

“The controls stopped working.”

“What do you mean?” asked Nate.

Tim pushed Bradley’s hands away and worked the controls. “Shit. I’ve got nothing.”

Bradley shook his head. “Not good.”

“Damn,” said Nate.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brain. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

The zombie ship zipped up next to them, a rust-colored mass of cobbled together technology. A loud clang sounded as they attached.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

“We’ve got to get the controls back,” said Nate.

“Oh, really?” said Tim. “Cause I thought we should break for tea.”

“You’re not helping,” said Nate.

The warning light for the outside airlock turned on.

“Knock it off, guys.” Jack pulled an orange pipe off the wall. “Tim and Bradley, figure it out. Me and Nate will hold them off.”

Nate grabbed another piece of pipe, and they both held them up ready to swing.

“Got it!” said Bradley.

The inside airlock door lifted.

“Too late,” yelled Jack.

An Incredible-Hulk-sized alien that looked like a mushroom with distended bellies on his stalk and five legs rotated out. Several mouths with vertical teeth snapped and drooled from the side of the mushroom cap, and a horrible snort came from the top, which seemed to have some kind of opening that spat green stuff. Behind were five more just like him.

The translator sputtered and snapped. “BAAAAAAWK braaaaaaains!”

Tim shot past Nate and propelled himself into one of the zombie’s distended bellies, hitting it with a forearm and taking him down back into the airlock.

Nate grabbed Tim’s ankles and pulled him back in as Jack hit the button to close the airlock.

“Go,” yelled Jack.

The vessel shuddered and separated from the zombie ship. Tim sprang up and hit the button to open the outside airlock, and the zombies tumbled out into space.

“Get us out of here,” yelled Nate.

After a tense hour hovering over the screens, getting farther and farther away from the zombie fleet, Nate allowed himself some relief.

“Good job, Bradley.” Jack patted Bradley on the back and chuckled. “Not a lot of people are going to believe this one. But we’ll know.”

Bradley grinned wide. “Not since my brothers in arms in Vietnam have I had such comradeship.”

Tim scoffed. “You’re not old enou… Ah, hell. Take a break, Bradley. I’ll drive for a while.” They traded places.

“Thank you, Tim. I can practice my Blues Clues meditation techniques now.” He tugged on Jack’s shirt. “You want to try?”

“No, thanks, Bradley. I’m more of a Sesame Street guy. I’m gonna take a nap.” He went to his usual corner, wrapped himself in a blanket, and snored.

Bradley went to the middle of the room and assumed the lotus position.

Anxiety squeezed Nate’s chest as he thought about the many galaxies and empty space they still had to travel through to get home. “I hope this really is the worst of our trip.”

“Hey.” Tim gripped Nate’s shoulder. “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. Go sit in your Jello. I promise you’ll feel better.”

Taken aback by Tim’s kindness, Nate plodded over to the tank and sunk in. The cool comfort soothed his nerves. His mind drifted to pleasant thoughts of home as the sound of Tim’s voice drifted softly through the cabin.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

Day 364 (T minus 1): The Happening

Damien ran into the cafeteria and squeaked his sneakers to a stop where Al and I ate lunch, plopping down on the bench next to me. He looked at me, then at Al, breathed out sharply and nodded. “The Men in Black are here.”

Al dropped his sloppy joe.

“Where?” I asked.

“Palm Street, just off Main.”

“What are they doing?” asked Al.

Damien threw up his hands. “No idea. But they’re all over the place.”

The clock on the wall said twelve sixteen. Nine minutes left of lunch break. “Gonna have to play hookey,” I said. “Let’s grab Harry.”

We intercepted Harry coming up the west wing and filled him in. We had a well-established escape route down the street side of the gymnasium and across through an antique store’s parking lot, then down a back alley.

Damien was right. Literally dozens of men milled about Palm Street, almost all of them in black clothing. Black shirts, black pants, black shoes, even black hair. They chatted in groups smoking cigarettes, sat alone, or went in and out of the local businesses. Some of them wore cowboy hats. We walked by and stopped in front of the thrift store.

“It must be a big happening for so many to work openly like this,” said Al.

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Damien.

“I thought they’d all be in black suits,” said Harry.

“Yeah, they’re probably lower level operatives,” I said.

A lot of them went in and out of the Golden Recording Studio. Two of them spoke quietly and leaned on the mailbox in front, as if they were guarding the place, but trying not to show it.

I tapped Al on the chest. “Hey, you guys think that’s a temporary headquarters?”

“Maybe it’s permanent,” said Damien. “Right under our noses this whole time.”

“Let’s talk to them,” said Al.

“They’re not going to tell us anything,” said Harry.

“Can’t hurt, though.” I was pretty keen on talking to them. Our UFO Hunters club could really use some contacts in the organization, and—who knows?—maybe we could get involved. “Let’s try the guys by the mailbox.”

The man on the left was taller than most and smoked a cigarette. No hat.

“Hey, mister.” Damien walked up to them. “I’m Damien Scorelli. May I ask your names?”

“Johnny Stone.” The tall one held out his hand and Damien took it.

“Is that your real name?” asked Harry.

“Of course not.”

I exchanged glances with Damien and Al.

The short one extended his hand to me. “Jason Ghostrider.” He smiled. “Mine’s not real, either.”

“You… you’re men in black,” said Harry.

They both nodded and smiled. “Yeah. That’s right.”

“You know Johnny Cash?” asked Jason.

“Huh-uh,” I said.

Damien let go of Johnny’s hand. “Was there some space alien activity around here?”

Johnny straightened, a funny look crossing his face. “There’s been a lot of activity around here.” He furrowed his brow. “Who wants to know?”

I stepped forward. “My name’s Jimmy Dickerson. This is Harry Crawford and Al Kaiser. We’re UFO hunters, and we’d like to get involved with your organization.”

Johnny chuckled. “My organization?”

“Yeah,” I said. I wasn’t happy the way he didn’t seem to take us seriously. “We do investigations all the time. You’d benefit from our experience and resources.”

“It’s dangerous work, hunting aliens,” said Johnny.

Jason scoffed. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be telling them that.”

Al stepped up. “We can handle it.”

Johnny pursed his lips. “I believe you could.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s an initiation for joining our team.”

“Johnny!” Jason pushed him in the arm.

Johnny glared at him. “Leave it alone, Jason.”

Jason shook his head and walked off.

“You want to be part of us, go inside there.” Johnny pointed to the Golden Recording Studio. “Ask for an audition, and do whatever they ask you to do.”

I looked at my pals, and we all nodded to each other solemnly.

“You know any Johnny Cash songs?”

I shrugged.

“My parents listen to him sometimes,” said Al. “But I don’t know any.”

“That’s all right,” said Johnny. “You know ‘This Land is Your Land?’”

“Yeah, of course,” said Harry.

“Just sing that.”

“They want us to sing?”

“Don’t question it,” said Johnny. “If they let you join, you’ll understand then.”

It didn’t make much sense to me, but, who knows? Maybe singing could be used as a way to paralyze aliens.

We walked into the studio. It was dim, but pleasant. I grabbed Damien and pointed to a poster on the wall that said ‘Man in Black Retrospective, Coming this Summer.’

“Is it code?” he asked.

I shrugged.

A big bald man sat in a chair in the reception room. He looked up from his tablet.

“Hello, sir,” stammered Damien. “Can… can we have an audition?”

“You all together?”

Damien nodded.

The man reached onto the counter next to him and grabbed a clipboard. After examining it for a minute, he handed it to Damien. “You can have the last slot in ten minutes.”

Damien wrote on the clipboard and handed it back.

After seventeen minutes, baldie ushered us into the recording booth. Two men sat in the dark on the other side of the glass.

“What is this?” asked a voice.

“We’re here for the audition,” I said.

They murmured to each other. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“On my count,” I whispered. I counted to four, and we all sang ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you. You may leave now.”

“Did we pass?” asked Al.

“We’ll let you know.”

When we got outside, the Men in Black were gone. Whatever the happening was, it must have cleared up.

All four of us were as excited as we’ve ever been.

“We could be real UFO hunters,” said Harry.

I scowled. “We are real UFO hunters.”

Harry frowned. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

I smiled. “But you’re right. This could be really good.”

I don’t know how long it takes to process this kind of thing, but I was stoked. I went home and started a page for case number five. At the top I put “Unknown Happening.” In the middle, I took notes about our initiation audition to be bona fide Men in Black.

That was about two years ago, and I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that they were never calling back. I stopped in the studio several times, with the guys or alone, but whenever we asked for the Men in Black, they claimed no such people worked there.

Yeah, right. Had it been temporary? Did they vacate after we found out they were there? We’ll never know, but it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to the real Men in Black.

I thought it was finally time to close the case. Underneath the notes about the initiation I wrote ‘Rejected.’ At the bottom of the page for the happening, I wrote ‘Unsolved.’