‘Google Translate’ For Dream-Speak: Beginning With Pictures

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I’ll tell you something interesting about how your subconscious works; and I’ll do it without referencing Jung. Maybe. Anyway, there was this girl in my elementary school that I thought was kind of cool and who’d call me every once and a while. She was pretty and one of the popular kids, so I was into that but not because I had any great fascination for her. She often forgot how good a friend I was when we were back in school on Monday anyway, strangely; but we’ll just let that lie there. It’s important to my point here that you get this – I wasn’t in love or like or even considering it until a particular turning point. A dream.

Nothing nasty here. I just had a dream about her one night where we were hanging out on a farm looking at the stars or something when she tried to kiss me. That was all, seriously. I can still describe to you now, however, the incredible attraction she had in that dream…like a mask with the power of all of human myth behind it just hanging over the dreamwork cardboard cutout of this girl. She was everything about girls in that dream, all girls who are fascinating and maddening. From that point on, I had a thing for her I couldn’t understand at all. Weird, yeah? Hold on to that. I’ll come back to it.

A nightmare I had when I was probably thirteen is as clear to me now in my forties as it was the night I dreamed it. The plot is thin; and you probably won’t get what’s spooky about it. I was outside my house bouncing a basketball alone; and it echoed. I remember it echoed. I knew in the dream no one else was home. Yet when I felt someone watching me, I turned around to look up in the second story living room window. The curtains were split open; and a pale old man was grinning widely back at me. The end. I chilled up just now typing that because of the malevolent feeling I had about that guy up there. It wasn’t what happened or that I recognized him or even knew his intentions. It was the mythic power of everything that’s dark and frightening and wicked pasted into a mask hung over the cardboard cutout of a stranger in my living room window. It was the feeling then that is still with me now.

I understand that my subconscious has these basic universal ideas about the feminine mystique and about bad things and a host of other patterns that are incredibly fundamental to how we perceive and filter information. The feeling of adventure and new horizons, for example. What it means to me to be a man. You can imagine others. One thing that happens to me and which I know happens to many other authors is we either have these patterns laid over an image we encounter by happenstance, or we dwell on an image we find striking on its own and overlay the pattern ourselves to make something of it.

In It All Began With A Picture, C. S. Lewis explained that he carried around a picture in his head of a faun carrying parcels in the snow with no idea what it meant for years…till he finally sat down to ask questions about it. I imagine it carried the sense of adventure with it, which is why it stuck around. George Lucas explains in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplay that he really just wanted to remake Flash Gordon because he was looking to recapture the sense of exploration and adventure from the serials he watched as a kid. Stephen King explains in one of his introductions to Wizard And Glass that he walked out of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly pondering the unearthly western imagery he’d seen and knowing he needed to recapture the way it made him feel watching it – a journey that gave us the amazing Dark Tower series. What I’m offering you is that images we find interesting are all around us or inside our heads. What we can do as writers is poke and prod on them a little to see why they’re lingering with us…which mythic pattern overlays best on them and makes them most real. They fit like a lock and key when you figure that out.

In my case, I was in a rock gorge in Oman with some friends particularly missing John Wayne movies on a long Navy deployment and making my way through the first three Dune books. The picture of a guy in a torn and dirty uniform slamming open saloon doors and drawing all eyes on him came to my mind all on its own. Everyone in the bar was afraid of him though he was unarmed. I knew him to be a leftover of some war, and that somehow he had people with him. He felt tired to me, and dangerous…desperate. That came with the picture. I held on to that for a long time, till I ultimately sat down to write Tearing Down The Statues and put him in a different setting to answer all my questions about him, and just what those people were frightened of.

See? No Jung. Now go think of an image that’s stuck around in your own head and start asking which pattern did it bring with it to unlock whatever story it’s trying to tell.

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Imagery With Teeth: Learning To Write For Millenials From Treehugging Haiku Poets

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Call me a dork if you want; but haiku is like a cherry Starburst for me. When you’re in the mood and they’re just right, it’s like a shot of happiness straight to your cortex. My point here is going to be that this poetry form and its old masters have plenty to teach a 21st century wordslinger how to write fiction. Try this one, from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A bee

staggers out

     of the peony.

No picture needed. The word choice is fascinating because the bug isn’t said to just be there; and its little hairs or whatever aren’t described. He says the little guy is staggering in the center of a flower after blasting down a bunch of nectar. If you’re at all like me – and this is one of his famous ones so I’m not alone here – then this image pops right into your head like zooming in with your iPhone. I basically stole this one for a Salt Mystic quote in chapter 5 of Tearing Down The Statues. Here’s another one I stole from (Sylhauna’s gift in chapter 9):

First snow

falling

     on the half-finished bridge

And another (chapter 9 again, referenced in the computronium ruins they sail past):

Summer grass –

All that’s left

     of warriors’ dreams

Give me a minute on this. Hear me out. We’re bombarded by pictures in all our entertainment now and have been for a while. Most of us think in pictures. We absorb information more quickly that way. Interesting images grab us as readers and stick around maybe even after the plot has faded. I read something from a cyberpunk guy (maybe William Gibson, not sure) way back in the nineties that I couldn’t begin to tell you the title or story or even the point of it all. I just remember a line where the narrator described some rain on a lake as ‘furring it over with needles’. The image popped for me and was really an interesting way to describe that. I saw it and liked the way he said that. If you’ll just stop playing around and go read either Viriconium or Light by M. John Harrison, you’ll see what I mean about crazy-cool ways of describing imagery that are uniquely wired to the way our brains work…basically interesting images that are pregnant with stories.

The classic example of an image pregnant with a story is the six word flash fiction (probably) wrongfully attributed to Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ugh, man. That’s heartbreaking. Lean and straight for the jugular! Their baby died and never got to wear the freaking shoes. That’s awful. Usually haiku isn’t trying to rip your heart in pieces like that, but is often saying something more than what you’re looking at. How about this one by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827):

     The old dog

leads the way

     visiting graves.

Dogs are always awesome. I can see a loyal little guy with his tongue hanging out and that fuzzy white fur on his snout, not even knowing this is a sad thing, being in the graveyard. Since he knows the way, he’s been there many times before. That leads my mind off into all sorts of imaginings about the dog’s master, and just which graves he’s going back again and again to visit. I may have to wipe my eyes here – hold on.

If we’re wired for images, if we absorb information more effectively and make it stick more effectively with images, and if a writer can successfully convey an important message through that mechanism – or at least resonate with an important theme, then the work has a shot at immortality in someone’s mind. That’s what this whole gig is all about, right?

Here’s what I get from all this:

  1. Stay lean, avoid a bunch of useless words that don’t add value
  2. Craft a striking image that’s memorable and describe it in a novel way
  3. Consider resonating the image with a theme from the story – make it mean more than the picture itself if you can

If you’re ever stuck for coming up with something, go steal from Basho and Issa. They won’t mind.

Getting Over Free And Rewiring Your Imagination

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Back in the day, pre-internet and when the only way to hit it big was to get signed by a big publishing house, you hounded magazines to sell short stories as much as you could. You got in print. All the names you’d recognize from those days offered that advice; and I sadly admit to listening to my dot matrix printer bweh-bweh-bweh in the corner of my desk while I bent those little metal clips on the manila envelope time and time again patiently sending off stories so I could make a name for myself to finally see the way clear before me. The only cool story I have from those days is a terribly cruel rejection letter from the guy who ran Asimov’s magazine accusing me of stealing the story idea (naming some obscure piece I’d never heard of and saying the other guy did it better). Now that I think about it – there was a guy named Vampire Dan who ran something called The Story Emporium at one point, who said nice things about what I sent him and always said I was ‘close’. He was awesome; but that’s beside my point.

Where I’m going with this is – you sold everything. Nothing was free. Guys like Harlan Ellison were brutal about it, chasing every dime for reprints and mentions and ripoffs. Basic economic common sense says you don’t give your hard work away because it has value. Giving it away means it’s crap and you couldn’t sell it. Right? Hold onto that for a minute.

My brain builds up steam. What I mean by that is my job can be technical; and if I’m not careful, I’ll be exclusively reading science journals and history books, learning statistical programming, building robotic arms, or whatever my left brain decides to chase with precious little stretching of my imagination. It can make my writing a little dodgy and stiff, and the ideas a little plain-Jane and cardboard because I’m not exercising that part that mishears things on purpose, that plugs and unplugs things I see around me to rewire them into something else. Everybody says you’re supposed to write every day; and they’re of course right about that. It matters. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning you can rewire them yourself just by what you think about. It would be incredibly helpful for a writer to be able to dredge up an inspiring idea to stretch on like taffy any time he needs it. Confidentially, it helps me tremendously at work too because I’m always being presented something people are stuck on. Different ways of thinking break out of that kind of rut.

When I recently started in earnest to build a platform for future book launches, I finally got the light bulb to spark on – that old school thinking about not giving things away for free doesn’t hold true in the internet age. Nothing gets attention on-line like FREE. It’s amazing. Book giveaways are critical because of how you get reviews; and no book sells without reviews. Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads or whatever media you want to talk about, they’re all swamped and crowded with authors pumping books. Nonsense. Sales are about trust; and somebody who’s looking for an author needs to trust them. It is an incredibly intimate relationship between author and reader…a joining of the minds that must be honored and treated as precious. What this all means is it’s not only okay to give your work away for free, it’s important to do so. Setting up a place on Facebook where you can share a piece of flash fiction or a story idea you never intend to build a book around – that gives you a fantastic place for people to get to know your style, to trust you, and also forces you to sit down once a day and do it!

Go see what I mean here and let me know which ones you like best. I’ve come to notice already that people seem to appreciate most the ones with images attached. Give it a shot yourself and see if it doesn’t stretch you to look for slick story ideas around you more often.

The Making Of A Mind-Bender

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Standard warning – this is not a book review! I’m going to analyze how a science fiction author twists a story idea around like a diamond to craft a fascinating mind-bender of a book. Though I’ll likely spoil the crap out of it, we’ll hopefully pick up on best practices for anybody looking to squeeze novelty and freshness out of a concept they might have for a book or story.

“With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialized on the windswept plain. Fifty ships of the line, the pride of the empire and every one built in the huge yards of Chronopolis, were suddenly arrayed on the dank savanna as if a small city had sprung abruptly into being in the wilderness”

Because I’ve read it a jillion times and because you should too, I picked for this exercise a 1974 time travel novel by a guy capable of turning your brain into salt water taffy but still leave a smile on your face. Seriously, why are you not reading Barrington Bayley? Go get Knights Of The Limits if you want a sampler pack. The book we’re going to look at is The Fall Of Chronopolis.

The core idea:

There’s an empire that stretches across time instead of space

Time travel has been done to death; and it’s usually stupid and full of holes. Look, you’re probably nowhere near the Doctor Who fan I am – I adore that show in all its forms; but mostly they contradict themselves at will and skim over uncomfortable goofs. Admit that, so we can move on. Here, Bayley has an interesting twist on the galactic empire idea that’s been around since the 1930s. Already a good start. People go back to those 1930s pulps even now. They did a lot of things right; and so did he with this one.

But how to make that work?

Bayley built a theory of how time is structured to try and solve how his core idea could function, how the citizens would travel across the empire and how they’d be ruled. It’s a natural progression once you have an idea, right? Just answer the obvious questions about your idea. He tells us time is like a frothy ocean with our reality and perception of it like stable skim on the surface. Yet under special circumstances, you can go deeper into the potential realities lying below, a horrid and ghostly place where souls can be dissolved into nothingness. Nice – loads of chance for drama and action there.Giant freaking time barriers were set up at the rearward past and forward future like walls around the empire. Specially protected ‘achronal archives’ exist inside buffers which are compared to duplicate archives outside the buffers enabling them to become aware of any disruptions to the timestream…like people or cities disappearing from history. There’s your empire.

Which raises more questions…

There are obvious problems that are going to come up with all of this…you can imagine the debate that went on in his head at this point. Like a courtroom, putting his idea on trial, my guess is he knew right away he needed a way to smooth contradictions, and a way for them to have a conflict of some kind. So his theory of the ocean of time needed to expand a bit. If you can imagine standing ripples on the water, no different from you and I holding a rope at the two ends with me popping up and down quickly so my end goes up when yours goes down…that point between us where the direction switches is called a node. Bayley imagined us existing at a node in time – stable points that move forward one second per second. There are just several of these; and the empire stretches across seven of them. Since they’re all that’s stable though, wrecks in the hinterlands between nodes dissolves all souls onboard into the terrible sea of potentiality. Come on! Once you stretch out an idea like that, of course it’s going to happen in the story! It’s writing itself at this point!

…and implications…

I can also imagine in Bayley’s spitballing session on this idea just trolling over everyday things to bounce his time empire idea across them and see what comes out. Relationships, for example. He imagines a young narcissistic prince who seduces his future self into a romance at node 1. He constructed a religion around how his empire would view the sea of potential, and the special reverence attached to the sacred moment when a Physics lab assistant first discovered the principle which would enable time travel.

Add the conflict and stir…

Once the initial idea is set up, it just needs tension. I imagine Bayley still working his central idea, twisting and turning it to see what war would look inside this framework. Giggling maliciously, I’m sure, he gave us an enemy empire existing in the future beyond a long period of unpopulated nuclear wasteland, begun by dissident time travelers from the empire itself. Cool beans. Conflict was automatic with this one, wasn’t it? Suddenly, the archivists start reporting entire sprawling cities have vanished from history, which no one remembers. The automatic rule of science fiction is to keep pushing the idea – how far can this go? Bayley describes the ultimate goal of a time war as disrupting the founding of your enemy – basically, get behind them and muck it up. It’s really fascinating to read all this…just incredibly innovative.

I’ll wrap it up to leave at least a little mystery to it all. The overall point this time around is the ideas will come from mishearing something around you, from hammering differences into something you see in a movie or book or something somebody tells you, whatever. The job then is to twist it around in the light for:

  1. Your first-pass explanation of how things will work with this idea
  2. Answers to the obvious questions resulting from step 1
  3. Teasing out implications of all that on everyday things
  4. Finding conflict that leverages the idea, not something boring that didn’t need it

That’s my take on it, anyway. You can go read Bayley now.