I remember trying to start my first novel when I was younger. It was unbelievably overwhelming. Coming up with a story idea was easy. Trying to come up with all of the characters, setting up the universe in which the story takes place, giving background, and all of the other details just seemed like more than I could handle at the time. If this seems to be your situation, I have an idea for something that can get you started on your road to developing your skills as a writer. That's this week's vlog topic. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1Twi0SsDVU]
Today is Valentines Day. A day when many are enjoying expressions of the love of their significant other, or they are expressing their feeling for someone that they have long desired. Of course, there are also those that dread this day and see it as nothing more than a reminder that they are single. Most amusing among these people are the husbands that have failed to buy a Valentines Day gift for their wife. I remember watching a sitcom back in the 90's where men were fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on the last card and box of chocolates in the store. It was pretty funny. Well, I have a confession to make. I haven't bought a Valentines Gift for my wife in several year. I'm still alive and still married. Imagine that! Now don't misunderstand me. I have always been big on Valentines Day. I used to get roses or other flowers for all of my female friends in high school because I didn't think that any lady should be without a flower on Valentines Day. Yes, I gave my girlfriend more than I gave my friends. I tried to be creative every Valentines. This continued into my marriage. I was always trying to come up with something unforgettable each year. It started to become a rather expensive and stressful endeavor, especially since my wife felt the need to try and match my creativity. Then one year, and I don't quite remember when that was, we both started asking ourselves, "Why?"
It would be easy to start thinking that the romance has gone out of my marriage. After all, I have been married now for over fifteen years, we are parents, both of us work full time, and Netflix and chill for us actually means that we watch Netflix and relax. Add in the fact that we don't get each other Valentine's Day gifts and it's easy to think that we are just going through the motions. However, you have to take a look at the other 364 days in the year to see that this isn't true. I never miss the chance to tell her that I love her. We snuggle together on the couch every night. We are constantly holding hands. One of the reasons that we have stopped getting each other gifts (we often do not give Christmas gifts to each other either) is so that we can save money to go on trips as a family and have fun together in new ways. I can honestly say that I haven't missed the Valentine's gifts. I recognize the love that is there for me every day.
Now, if you happen to be someone that enjoys Valentine's Day, be my guest. I'm not trying to rain on your parade. Have a great time. However, if you chose not to give a gift this year, make certain that you have expressed your love every other day this year. What better Valentine's gift could anyone ever hope to get?
A character from one of my favorite shows once said, "We've done the impossible, and that makes us mighty!" Some of the most enjoyable stories and movies that we ever experience deal with a character that is overcoming major challenges. There is something uplifting about cheering on the underdog. Maybe it gives us a feeling of accomplishment to see that someone else can achieve what seems impossible. Of course, cheering on the underdog and being the underdog are two very different things. Do you get that feeling of accomplishment when you are the one having to face the challenges, or do you get a feeling of dread at what might happen if you can't overcome the odds? Most of my writing centers around fish-out-of-water, underutilized and disrespected characters. The usually don't recognize their own potential until they reach some new height, be it on purpose or on accident. Either way, the achieve what would have seemed impossible just a chapter before. I actually smile as I write, revise, or re-read some of those characters accomplishments. It can provide a sense of divine justice. The person most deserving receives the rewards. How can you not love that?
Of course, reality is a lot different from fiction. Many of us face challenges every day. Maybe it is a child whose behavior is slow to change. Maybe it is a job that is trying your patience. Maybe it is the difficulty of getting your finances in order. Maybe it is something as simple as the weather not cooperating with what you have planned. These are usually the challenges that don't make it into books, movies, or television shows. For all of the obsession that people have with reality television, it rarely deals with true reality. When was the last time that there was a show that followed one of its characters for two hours while they tried to figure out why their checkbook won't balance? How about an episode that centers on trying to figure out how you are going to get supper cooked, your child tucked in, your take-home work finished, and still have time to watch the show that you have been waiting all week for? Even Seinfeld, the show that famously claimed to be about nothing, never focused on the every day challenges that most people face. Why not?
My theory as to why we don't see shows, movies, or books that deal with these everyday challenges is because we all already have to. These challenges can stretch us to our limits. We don't want to see them again because we will either be reminded of how difficult it had been to take care of, or we will see a different approach that we had not considered and be angry because it is too late to change it. This is one of the reasons that I don't watch reality television. I watch television to get away from reality. I'm sure that most people would agree that they read or watch television and movies to try and forget about the challenges that they feel may have cursed their days.
Of course, in the end, are these daily challenges really curses or blessings in disguise? Well, I would venture to say that they are both. The challenges stretch us to our limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's easy to see that as a curse. However, they also keep us moving forward in our lives, accomplishing the tasks necessary to be the people that we need to be for those that depend on us. That makes them a blessing in disguise. Of course, that disguise is so well done, that we hardly ever see it. That is why we seek out the underdog stories. They motivate us to keep pushing forward in the hopes that we, too, will do the impossible. So, you keep pushing your way through that daily grind (as will I), and I'll try to help provide that underdog motivation to keep us going. I figure that combining those two things will go a long way towards making us mighty!
I had the pleasure of getting to be there when my best friends became parents recently. I have watched over the last few days as the things that they think are important have changed. It is a great lesson in life as well as a great lesson for writing. Watch my vlog to see why.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8xoJv5wVBY]
It is the holiday season, and it is a common practice to list all of the things that we are thankful for. I have many Facebook friends that list something that they are thankful for every day for the entire month of November. This is a great exercise in making certain that you are aware of the world around you and the blessings that you receive regularly. As great as this is, I wonder if we get the most out of listing the things that we are thankful for. Maybe we shouldn't be worried about what we are thankful for, but instead ask how we should express that thanks.That is not only a greater challenge, but also one that might impact more people and help you as well. It was once said that nearly any man can withstand adversity. To truly see a man's character, give him power. That thought occurs to me when I read the list of things that people are thankful for. It oftentimes shows what has helped them to get through troubles in their lives. Don't misunderstand me. I understand how difficult adversity can be, and it can test you in ways that you never expected. However, if you are making a list of things that you are thankful for, you are probably past that difficult time or able to deal with it. Now that you are past it, how will you use the "power" of being past a tough time? What type of character will you show when realizing that you are thankful for something or someone that helped get you through tough times? I am asking myself this question, so don't think that I am on the other side of the river and expecting you to cross the same bridge that I did. The most obvious idea is to be for someone else the inspiration that someone else was for you. If you are thankful that someone was there to help you through a tough time or to inspire you to get somewhere that you are, do the same for someone else. If you are thankful for the position that you have achieved in life, why not mentor someone to reach the same position. If you are thankful for your family, let them know that every day, even on the days that they may frustrate you. Be a model. Be an inspiration. Be the person that someone else might be thankful for. It is a great thing for us to look at what we have and where we are and recognize those things that we should be thankful for but sometimes overlook. It would be great if we could do that more often. However, what we do with that knowledge can make a big difference not just for us, but also others in this world. Let's not just think of what we are thankful for,, but also how we can be thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving!
I will preface this by saying that I am not a poet. I have read some wonderful poetry in my day, and none of it was written by me! I accept that limitation without complaint. However, there are times when you feel the need to express something, and you do so however you can, even if it is not in your area of strength. Such was the case several years ago when it was the anniversary of my grandfather's passing. Family can be a great source of stories, but it can be a great source of pure inspiration as well. PawPaw
He would not have read this poem
Even if he were still here.
Poetry was not his style.
He would have put it on that table next to his chair
But still talk about it with that crooked smile.
I tried to tell him in my own ways.
I think that he still truly understood.
There had been so many things
Some others couldn't forgive him for,
But all his grandson saw was good.
He knew how much that day meant
When we drove around for hours
And how his opinion was everything,
But was he speaking the day we laid him down
When there was thunder but no showers?
My son shares your name now, PawPaw,
But he doesn't have your crooked smile.
That is something that you gave to me.
I will place this next to your stone,
But you don't have to read it.
I still know you love it. That was your style.
I do admit to being a bit of a sic-fi geek. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy twice a week every week throughout my entire childhood. Modern sic-fi just can't compare, with one exception: the short-lived series Firefly. I stumbled across reruns of this show and was so depressed to discover that it only ran for the one season, but I've learned so much from it. I understand why the fans of the show, known as Browncoats, are so dedicated. Firefly is, in essence, a sci-fi western. Some hi-tech, lots of low-tech, and no aliens. This show was very character-driven, and boy did they have some characters! The young, spoiled doctor. His schizophrenic yet brilliant younger sister. The much less brilliant and trigger-happy fighter. The list goes on, but the character that has influenced my writing the most was the main character, brilliantly portrayed by Nathan Fillion, Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds had fought on the losing side of an interplanetary civil war, and now he just wants to take his cargo ship and stay as far away from the central government as he can. He can be very witty and charming, then turn right around and be violent and insulting. As one of the passengers on his vessel once said, she never knew which personality she was going to have to deal with.
I learned something important from Captain Reynolds and Firefly: you don't have to make people love, or even agree with your main character in order to have them cheer for them. I'm fairly certain that if Captain Reynolds and I had met in real life, he probably would have shot me, or at least hit me with a pool cue. I doubt we would have seen eye to eye on much. Even so, I cheered for that character throughout the show and the follow-up movie, Serenity. He was a character you would follow anywhere just because you felt that you should. I try to remember this whenever I am writing a new character. No character is perfect, so put a little bit of a bad side in them. They will be more real to the readers and they will still cheer for them. As Captain Reynolds once said, aim to misbehave!
As I mentioned in a previous blog, family stories can be a treasure trove of inspiration for stories to write. It can also be a great source of characters, jokes, and memorable lines. Outside of writing, they can also be a source of personal inspiration or laughter, both of which are things that we all need. One of my biggest sources of inspiration and laughter is my son, Joe. He has such a unique way of looking at the world, can be so matter-of-fact, and is so unpredictable that you cannot know him without learning things from him. Here are a few brief glimpses at stories that can only come from a child. Joe showed me an assignment that he had completed at school. It contained sentences that had to be completed by the students. One of the sentences caught my eye. The sentence was "Sometimes I feel ______." Joe filled in the blank with the word "small." As a parent, reading this bothered me.
"Joe, what do you mean that sometimes you feel small."
Joe gave me 'the look.' He has this incredible ability to look at you as if he is asking why you don't already know. "Daddy," he replied in the accompanying know-everything voice, "it's a big world." At least he didn't add the word "duh" to the end of his sentence. I stopped being bothered.
Joe also has a remarkable way of being able to entertain himself. When he was about three or four years old, he went to visit his grandparents in another state. I picked him and my wife up at the airport and started driving them home. Partway home, it occurred to me that my poor son had been stuck in his car seat for untold hours and was probably bored out of his mind. I thought I would strike up a conversation and maybe sing a song with him to brighten things up. I glanced in the mirror to begin that conversation, but realized I was too late. He had begun a conversation of his own. He held both of his hands up like puppets, and he had them talking to each other.
"You talk a lot," stated Character 1.
"Yes I do," replied Character 2.
"You talk a lot," said Character 1 more strenuously.
"Yes I do," replied Character 2 in the same calm voice.
"You talk a lot!" Character 1 shouted.
"Yes I do," Character 2 continued in the same calm voice once again.
This exact conversation continued for ten minutes down the interstate while my wife and I listened in amused confusion. Later that day, I walked up to Joe, made my hand into a puppet, and said, "Hey Joe! You talk a lot!" He looked at me like I had lost my mind. I just nodded and walked away.
This all just barely scratches the surface of the wonder of my child...or any child, to be honest. So what stories make you smile?
Today I find myself with an unexpected snow day off from work. Since my brain is a little slushy working on my new story, I thought I might as well go ahead and share another influence on my writing and even a little bit on my personality. It is a movie beloved by several of my co-workers and almost every student that I have taught: The Princess Bride! If you have never read the book, I suggest that you give it a try. It is quite good. If you have never seen the movie, what is wrong with you! Run out and buy a copy immediately! I watched this movie dozens of times as a child, but the VCR tape that we had it on (no age jokes, please!) was damaged, so I never saw the ending until I was in college. The Princess Bride is not especially hilarious, it isn't especially action-packed, and it doesn't bring tears to your eyes. Sure, it has a few memorable lines (Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya...), but there are other movies whose lines have become more of a part of our culture. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beloved movies that you'll ever watch. Inconceivable? Not really (see what I did there?). If you watch this movie, you will get done with it and then go on with your day wondering why I thought it was such a big deal. Then the next time you see it on television, you will watch it. It doesn't matter what else is on, you will decide to watch The Princess Bride. You won't be able to explain why, but you will do it every time. And you will thank me for it.
So what influence did I receive from this movie? Chemistry. I learned about chemistry between all parts of the story. The Princess Bride may not have one characteristic that sets it apart from other movies, but all of its individual characteristics combine to gel into one story that is so memorable and so instinctive to appreciate that you will watch it over and over. So your story doesn't have to have one unbelievable character or event, it just needs to coalesce into one unbelievably good tale. The individual parts might be junk, but put them together and you have a story, and it will keep flying in people's minds if you have an audience even half awake. If you recognize that paraphrased last line, then you might guess my next influence. Want me to tell you later? As you wish!
Middle school must have been a good source of literary influence for me, because my next influence comes from a book I read in middle school as well. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was a book that I read a few times before I could say that I truly appreciated it. It wasn't that I didn't like it at first. I did. However, I didn't appreciate some of the dynamics of the characters before I had read it a few times. When I was assigned to read Huckleberry Finn, there was some controversy around the nation from people trying to get the book banned. I agree that there is racist language in the book. It was truly uncomfortable to read at times. However, I have to remind myself the importance of its historic setting. Besides, there is a moment in the book where Huck Finn has to decide if he would be willing to commit what he had been taught was a sin in order to save Jim. If Huck still saw Jim as property, a slave, then he wouldn't have taken the chance. But Jim had changed him. Huck didn't see Jim as property anymore. He had grown to see Jim as a person. A friend, in fact. He was a friend worth saving, even if others would condemn him for it. What I took from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a lesson about people in real life, as well as characters in a story. Change can be a necessary and amazing thing. People can grow and see things in an entirely new light. Sure, Huck was still an immature, troublesome boy, but he had grown to see some people for who they really were. I learned that it is important to have your characters grow and change just like people should.
I promise my next influence is more entertaining. In fact, it's inconceivable!
I had someone recently mention to me that I should try writing about my influences. I also read recently that blog entries should be kept short. Well, I'm usually convinced that no one wants to know what makes me tick (I'm kind of scared to know myself!) and I am in the habit of being long-winded, so this is going to be a new challenge for me. Here it goes! (no duct tape handy)
I always read as a child, but the first novel that I remember reading and truly appreciating was in seventh grade. We were assigned to read the novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I'm sure that most of you are very familiar with this book, and if you aren't then you should certainly go and get a copy. I still have the same copy that I read originally in seventh grade (yes, the printing press had been invented by then). I think that the thing that stuck with me about this book is the fact that it was so real. S.E. Hinton said that she was annoyed with all of the books written for young people showing some idyllic life that most of the people that she knew had no chance of ever achieving. She wanted there to be a book about how things really were. I would say that she achieved her goal. Students in my eighth grade class have to read that book each year, and I have never known of a student to complete it and say that they hated it. All these years later, it still resonates with the young and with those that remember being young.
So what did I take from The Outsiders? I took reality. Whenever I write, I don't look at what the invincible movie protagonist might do. I try to imagine how true, everyday, regular people might react and, more importantly, how they might feel. It surprises me how often that is missing from our stories.
As I was folding laundry today (does it never end?), I turned on the television to have something to watch. I turned on an episode of Doctor Who and I heard the Doctor say something that I loved. "We are all just stories in the end." That line says so much to me. There are so many things that can be taken from that line that can affect both life and writing. Most people tend to think of stories as fiction that takes us away from life. Looking through a bookstore that appears to be true. However, think of all of the stories that you tell about friends and family. Think of the stories that you tell to friends and family. What about the stories that they tell about you? This is an untapped resource of ideas and revelations for writing about. Obviously, you don't have to tell the full story as non-fiction, but instead use it as a basic idea or premise for something larger. Your source of ideas becomes infinite.
It is in life that I truly find the most wisdom in this saying. We are all just stories in the end. What is your story? My grandparents are gone. I tell many stories of them whenever I get the chance. My grandmother had an obsession with the Wendy's chain of restaurants. She once wrote a thank you letter to Dave Thomas for creating the 99 cent value menu. The story of her eating at the drive through usually leaves people in tears with laughter. My grandfather got run over by a parked car. I'm not kidding! He actually did! The story would be nowhere as meaningful if he hadn't told me about it himself in his matter-of-fact style. Though they have both been gone for over a decade, I know that they remain here whenever I tell one of their stories.
What is the story that you leave? Will it be a drama, tragedy, mystery, thriller, or comedy? Who will tell it? Everyone thinks of their legacy. As you grow older you often do things to try to secure your legacy. I'm less worried about that. Legacies are told by those that know of you, though they do not know you. Stories are told by those that have been there with you and seen you at your best and worst. They are shorter, more memorable, more personal, and more enduring. With each action you make, remember that you are creating your story. It may be told. It may wind up being written by someone with talent you have not yet realized. We can't spend all of our time second guessing ourselves or worrying about other's images of us, but we can still help shape our own stories. We are all just stories in the end.
Several years ago, my principal sent a video to the faculty to help us start the day with a smile. The video was a simple one in which a baby is sitting up and is being handed pieces of paper. The baby would tear the paper and then laugh with such glee that you can't help but join in. I've watched the video hundreds of times over the years and I still love it. The baby finds such joy in something as commonplace as ripping paper. I have watched my son find the same simple pleasure with scissors and paper. He can spend long periods of time making cuts in pieces of paper with a pair of scissors. He loves it. It actually became a problem. We had to lock up the scissors in the house so he wouldn't cut up all the paper in the house! I watched the video of the baby today and thought about the joy my son can find in cutting paper. Have we lost that ability to find simple pleasure like that as we've become adults? I will go ahead and answer that question. We can certainly still find the simple pleasures as adults. Two words: bubble wrap. I have had to separate some friends when they were arguing over who was going to get the bubble wrap from a package. For me, it is the perforated spiral-bound notebook paper. Whenever students turn in assignments with that perforated paper, I can't not tear off the ragged edge at the perforation. I don't know why I enjoy that, but I do. Yes, we adults can still find the simple pleasures.
What I think that we can't find is appreciation of those simple pleasures. Sure, we will pop the bubble wrap or tear off the ragged edge of the paper or dissolve the Styrofoam peanuts or whatever brings you that simple pleasure. What we no longer seem to be able to do as adults is carry the joy from that action beyond the moment. We can pop those bubbles and feel that stress relief, but then we step right back into our office or get out our phone and turn the stress meter right back up. I am as guilty, if not more guilty, than most. I'm not like my son who can walk away from cutting a piece of paper with a big smile on my face. Even when I am finding some joy in a simple action, I often don't allow that joy to take control of my emotions enough to smile. I think that we all miss out because of this.
Grab a piece of paper and some scissors. Mix some baking soda and vinegar. Draw a funny stick figure. Whatever it is you do, don't be like me. Let that joy show on your face. Giggle like that baby and make your day, and the day of everyone around you, that much better.
Here is a video similar to the one I mentioned. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP4abiHdQpc
Why not watch it and then share what your simple pleasure is?
Nothing is more devastating than running into a complete roadblock when you are trying to think of good ideas for a story or book. Humans are storytellers. We love to spin a yarn about all kinds of things. Sometimes we want to be scared, other times amazed, and still others we like to be reminded. Some of us, though, like to do the scaring, the amazing, and the reminding. For some of us, it is almost like a high when you are sure your audience is reacting to your words. It is also an unbelievable low whenever you can't find the words to say. I'm probably not the best person to be creating this short list of place to look for ideas since I'm not a best-selling writer or anything, but I firmly believe that all of these things can work, and work well.
#1 Read, read, and then read some more!
Never steal another writer's ideas. There is nothing more low among writers than the pilfering of another's thoughts. However, reading someone else's work provides you with some great new perspectives. The style of writing may help push you towards a new approach. One of the characters may mention something that you are unfamiliar with, and in researching what it is, you may find something that spurs a storyline. You may find a concept that you think needs more exploration. You may even come up with a completely spontaneous storyline that you had never considered before and may never have thought of if you hadn't taken your mind off of things by writing. In the end, there is very little downside to this suggestion.
#2 Talk, listen, then talk some more!
As I have already mentioned, people are storytellers. We spend all day telling stories of some kind or another. That is the nature of being social animals. If you can't seem to find a story to tell in your writing, it is time to get around some other people and start telling stories. Once again, I am not suggesting that you try to steal some of their ideas. You are looking for inspiration. So many things in our regular interactions can inspire. Just remember that as often as you speak, you also need to listen. Get out of your isolation and interact.
#3 Open your eyes, you fool!
Look at the world around you. I mean really look. There are things that happen all of the time, right under our noses, that are remarkable. Sometimes you don't even need to move in order to see them. Have you ever watched a speck of dust floating in the air? Have you thought about where it came from and how it came to be in the middle of your living room? How does it get where it is going? What has it seen? Is it watching you, too? Just think, you may have found the inspiration for a unique story all because you forgot to buy Pledge at the store. Just think of what you might find if you venture out of your house!
#4 Turn up the radio!
Very little spurs emotions among humans more than music. Why else would the various MP3 players be so remarkably successful? Why not sit down, turn off the computer, and just listen to the radio for a while. Let the songs take you away from the stress of writer's block and everyday life for a few minutes. Come back to your writing quest refreshed, ina different mood, and with a different outlook. Even if you are like me and usually listen to NPR, the stories you hear can really get your mind working and put you back on track to starting, continuing, or completing that story you are looking for.
#5 Write something!
"If I could write something, Slater, I wouldn't be reading this stupid list now would I?" I said something, as in "anything." Write a limerick. Write a short story. Write a blog. Change your Facebook status. Write a chronological list of your day's activities. Whatever it is, just write it down! If you crumble it up and throw it away afterwards, that is still one thing that you have written. You have broken the drought. The only thing that overcomes defeat is success, no matter how minor that success is.
An idea drought can be devastating to anyone that considers themselves a writer. Don't let it wipe out your hopes or plans. There are always methods to dealing with an obstacle. You can go around it. You can go over it. With appropriate application of force, you can go through it! What you can't do is sit down in front of it and declare "You win."