Chance Favors The Prepared Mind: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

inspiringwallpapers_net-fantasy-warrior-girl-with-blades-1366x768

Louis Pasteur said that ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’; and that’s a fantastic quote. His point, I’m assuming, is that your mind is your instrument or your weapon, whichever metaphor does it for you. Whatever you’re up to in life, bathe yourself in stuff that will help you get better at it. Let cool, helpful things soak in. Then you’ll be luckier because you’ll notice opportunities you might not have otherwise.

So what does the hot warrior goddess picture I’ve attached here have to do with that? I’ll get to her in a little while. Go with me here.

Recently, I was thinking about where writers get their ideas. People ask that literally all the time. I bought a book years ago called, ‘It Came From Schenectady’ by a science fiction writer plagued by the question so often he started giving that answer when people asked him. Schenectady. That’s maybe a little funny. If you’ve read even a few articles on this blog, in fact, or the philosophy, it hopefully shines through that breaking ground in speculative fiction is kind of a big deal to me. I want to do whatever I can for myself and for other aspiring writers to BRING NEW THINGS INTO THE WORLD.

So I was turning that over in my head while coincidentally making my way through a book on the ancient city of Ugarit. This was a cosmopolitan city full of diverse folks and multiple languages, flourishing in 1500-1200 BC even though it was sandwiched between two superpowers of the day: Egypt and the Hittite Empire. My aim was to learn about the city and what life was like there; but the notion of finding story ideas was buzzing louder, so I was finding them on almost every page.

The theme in my head was very helpful to the writer in me; and it was this: just look for the strain on people. When there is some kind of tension set up, pulling on a person, there is a story to tell. I saw it in the tension between the two superpowers tugging on Ugarit. I saw it in the 1930’s race of archaeologists and linguists trying to be first to decipher the newly found script. I saw it in the very architecture of the city itself.

For example, the main city itself had two massive temples, one to Dagon (head honcho) and one to Baal (fertility guy, had sex with a cow while hiding from the god of death), with a library in between. The palace was on the other side of town and was bigger than the temples. There was a very rich guy named Rapanou whose house had thirty four rooms and his own library. I went dark for a few paragraphs as my mind wandered to the image of a teenage priest in training, leaned against one of the big temple statues and staring up at Rapanou’s house jealously, maybe wondering about one of the daughters who lived there. Maybe one of the statues would start speaking to him one full-moon night…

A few pages later, I came across this bit:

“Priests also had a military function, as is clear from references to them in administrative texts describing auxiliary military personnel; they are also listed in an army payroll text. Their role was that of support personnel, providing advice of a religious or oracular nature to military commanders. They were, in other words, an intelligence corps, purporting to provide divine counsel with respect to strategy and military operations.” -‘Ugarit And The Old Testament’ by Peter C. Craigie

That got me going on my little guy, because I saw him caught up in a rebellion against the Hittites, when all he wanted was to be left to his stone tablets and dreaming. I could see war-ragged army generals desperately shouting for divine insight into a hairy battle when the little priest was coming to doubt his own beliefs. Maybe because of something the statues had said. Maybe because of something Rapanou’s wild daughter had said.

You see how this just kind of gets going, right? Spitballing. Weaving together stuff from everywhere like a jazz riff on whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m doing. That’s how it works for me. The book had just described the little port towns on the sea as having no more than maybe a hundred people in them. I know what little rinky dink towns are like; and so, probably, do you. Then I read this:

“It’s possible that naval conscripts were drawn from the coastal towns where men would already have seagoing experience in merchant and fishing vessels”

I saw a new guy, then, who’ll probably meet up with the other guy. This dude loved his quiet little foggy port-village, though he maybe dreamed of adventures…then he got pulled into this same conflict the priest was in. Now I had a couple of folks stirring into the soup, and the possibility  of massive naval battles, which I love, and talking statues that had offered a mystery of some kind. I’m also reading Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle Master” trilogy, so probably the statues had offered a riddle.

But it was still kind of plain, needed to go crazy. Needed something with pep. Riddles have been done. So I totally lost whatever I was reading and just put it down to ponder…what is REALLY going on with this mysterious riddle?

Ahhh…I had watched a couple of Harry Potter movies over Christmas, so Voldemort’s horcrux dealie-o was in my head too. The riddle was not given to the priest to help him at all, it was given him to become alive…to be spread among the minds of men enough to form a vessel for something to enter into. Something, obviously, terrible.

The warrior goddess up there was to represent Anat, the terrible war goddess of the Ugaritic Mythology who used to storm the throne room of the all-father so angry he would hide from her, and who would tear off so many soldiers’ heads and gut them with such glee she should laugh as she waded through all the blood. You should read some of Baal’s cycle of stories where she appears. She’s fantastic. Maybe it’s her that started all this riddle business, just because she’d be fun to write.

Like a late Christmas present, I realized then that history handed me a nice finish for all this. Around 1200 BC, Ugarit got blasted from history by a mystery invasion of people from the sea. We know almost nothing about all that. Fantastic. It writes itself.

Look, I’m never going to write this story. If you’d like to, have at it. Be my guest. It’s fun to dip into it, though, and make my overall point for today.

If you’re stuck looking for ideas…or if you’re interested in where (at least some) writers get their ideas, remember I said this: look for the strain on people, the forces tugging a person in more than one direction. Bathe yourself in fiction or non-fiction, or travel, or talk to people, or whatever information you can get lost in, and dig up things that shine. Then string them together and turn up the gas.

What I’m hoping…what I aspire to do…is not to forget that last part. Be original. Turn it up to crazy and do something new.

Louis Pasteur changed everything about disease and healing when he did what he did. His quote is a sound one. Let’s live it.

 

Just How Naughty Is It That I Didn’t Like ‘Rogue One’?

los-alamos-poster-tall-1536x864

Don’t get offended, man. I just didn’t like the new Star Wars movie. And I was the kid swinging plastic lightsabers at my pillow and floating in the YMCA pool like Luke Skywalker did in the bacta tank. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, in fact; and I don’t think I’m particularly grumpy. My brother suggested something though, that I thought would be interesting to chat with you about.

He said writers can’t enjoy movies.

Before I get to that, let me list for you just a few things about the movie that irritated me to the point of not liking it. Of course there are spoilers here, so do what you need to do.

  1. Forrest Whittaker can act better than that, I’ve seen it. Was horrible to hear the fake British accent and the weird grunting. Horrible.
  2. Felicity Jones offered us one facial expression the entire movie.
  3. Hollywood shorthand overuse:  main character fondly clinging to a memento given them by a lost loved one (Jyn’s crystal necklace). Come on, dude, we’ve even already seen this in a Star Wars movie!
  4. Hollywood cheap emotional trigger overuse:  not one but TWO freaking scenes where someone dies in somebody’s arms after saying something. Ugh. Disney should be above that sort of cheap trick. Also already seen in a Star Wars movie, by the way.
  5. Moustache-twirling villain (with a cape, no less!) stomping through his scenes who can’t see beyond just wanting to rule the world.
  6. I knew the Death Star plans got transmitted when I was six years old. The drama had to come from the characters and their sacrifices; but they were snoozers. I, as always, except Donnie Yen because he could just show up and be my favorite, so that’s not fair.
  7. The Hobbit Effect: they told this story in a couple of sentences in an opening scrawl decades ago, but had to drag out all sorts of obstacles and friction to make something of it. And it felt like it. My son yawned twice. My wife fell asleep.
  8. Shameless cameos: very cool to see Leia, obviously. Also cool to see Senator Organa and Mon Mothma. Those make sense in the story. But did we REALLY need to see the ‘You’d best watch yourself!’ guys from the cantina?
  9. Lazy ‘Braveheart’ speech: Jyn gave a half-hearted and snoozer of an inspirational speech, which even the guys on the mission with her were bored with.
  10. If they have computer files and the ability to store and transmit them, why in the world are they stored on hard drives in a tower where you have to access them with robotic arms? So the heroes could climb around and get shot at? Exactly.

I honestly hope I’m not coming off as too picky here. Maybe you disagree with some of this, but seriously – ALL of it? You’re killing me.

No, I don’t believe writers can’t enjoy movies. There are all sorts of movies I think are genius or just popcorn-munching fun rides. I can switch gears, man. I’ve binge watched about ten Hallmark Christmas romance flicks with my wife in just the last couple of weeks. See, I have depth?

It could be I have a very high standard for ‘Star Wars’ and expect more from them. I was trying to puzzle out, even before the movie was over, what it was that was bugging me so much and what I liked so much about the original movies…you know, whether I’m just getting old.

Harlan Ellison said there’s nothing worth writing about other than people. Chemistry and the dynamic between characters will hook us and keep us hooked with more impact than visual effects or nostalgia or plot twists or slick ideas. In ‘A New Hope’, Han Solo was funny and cocky and bold. Leia was tough and driven and beautiful. Luke was wide-eyed and innocent, but with ties to a deep mythic undercurrent on a hero’s journey. That trinity resonates even four decades later, which is one reason we’re still dealing with shameless riffs off that original story over and over. With ‘Rogue One’ – and maybe this is because of the cheap writer tricks they used to try and shorthand me into liking their characters – I just wanted them to die already so I could get to whatever the big scene was at the end I kept hearing about.

I’m curious what you think. If you loved ‘Rogue One’, please drop me some details on what it was you loved. I just don’t see it. I really, really, really want them to get better at telling ‘Star Wars’ stories.

Oh, and writers can definitely love movies. Maybe they just like to backseat drive too?

Go Be Audacious. We Need You To Be.

La-Sagrada-Familia-Barcelona.jpg

Many moons ago, when I had a vision of traipsing across Europe with only a baguette in my satchel and no idea what I was doing, I had the good fortune to be in Barcelona. Don’t think I’m entitled, my mom actually surrendered a chunk of inheritance money to give me the chance when she couldn’t afford to do that. That’s another tale; and yes – she’s awesome. My point here is how cool the Sagrada Familia was.

Of course, I’d never heard of the place or Antoni Gaudi, the mad architect who designed this melting crackpot of a building until then. It was a skeleton at the time; but the experience sugared my cookies that he was so unlike anyone else. Seriously, look it up. This guy had no boundaries. It struck me even then when my thoughts didn’t … ummm…run all that deep, that the way this guy went after stone was how I wanted to live my life. Whatever other people are successful with is just a floor, but let’s climb to the roof and see what’s there! That sort of thing. Didn’t work out that way, because life. Still, I was thinking today when I was complaining to my brother about how bad the TV show, The Walking Dead has gotten, that I’ve missed something along the way.

I really used to love The Walking Dead. Seriously, it was my jam. I’m sorry if you’re still into it and are insulted; but it’s growing disturbingly unwatchable for me. My overall feeling is they’re not pursuing the story’s possibilities like they should – that there is amazing potential in the world they’ve set up, but it’s not being turned up to the audacious, wild levels it’s begging for. For example, how can this tiny group of people still be drama-dragging (in their second state, by the way!) on back roads with nary a freaking Applebee’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart? I can’t throw a dead cat without hitting one of those. How amazing would it be to have a big post-apoc blowout with zombies and raiders in an abandoned amusement park! When you’re popping down the street tomorrow to go to work or shopping or whatever, look around whatever you pass and see if you don’t think it would be more interesting after the end of the world than featureless roads where you occasionally run into a single gas station and a couple of mean people with rifles. Untapped potential, man. Go bigger!

So I started doing flash fiction a while back, posted on Tumblr and Facebook, to drum up some interested parties willing to do reviews or who might enjoy my writing. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot about honing down my wordiness and trying to make words pop. Less fat, more meat. Sharp razor endings designed to make you think or dream your own story to what I’ve begun. That’s the idea; and it’s fun. It’s changing me; and it’s bleeding over into the novel I’m writing.

Now, I can hear all this in my head as I cling to the original inspiration for the book, because that’s what excited me to begin with. It’s hard to kill anybody off or fundamentally change them because I want to be safe and make you feel what I did when I first dreamed the idea or the people up. That’s all balls, of course. I know that; and I need to take my own medicine. The people who read those shorts on Tumblr or reddit or whatever aren’t always kind; but they have a point. Go bigger!

So I’ve scheduled a date with Armageddon. In a couple of weeks, I’m going deep with some actual, honest-to-God free time to sit down and write to push that book closer to the finish line. I have wild plans, that make so much sense given the characters and what they want. They’re finally – after all this time – speaking up for themselves; and I couldn’t be happier about that.

So why don’t you go do the same thing, over the holidays? Whatever you’re wordsmithing, ask yourself if you’re going big enough. Dream up different twists, and secret agendas your folks might have. People are layered, and don’t always do what you expect them to. Engineer that.

Here’s another architect to round home for us:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” -Daniel Burnham