Five Writing Exercises for @ben_brainerd (and Anyone Else Looking for a Prompt) #writing

Hey Ben (and the rest of the world),

Sorry this took so long to put together.  Life happened.  Here goes:

  1. “There is a corpse in the barn!!!”  X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation.  (Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact.  You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’  Go!”)  Who are X, Y, and Z to each other?  Why must X inform Y of this situation?  Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know?  What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
  2. Eschew the Voodoo  We all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever.  For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.”  Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever.  Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
  3. Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?  That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
  4. Rewrite What Vexes You:  Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking.  Something that’s for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring.  Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
  5. Write to the Formula:  I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch.  Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution).  Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff.  Draft from there.

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Rewrite What Annoys You

It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing.  Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live.  Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.

You can do two things with that annoyance:

  1. You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
  2. You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!)

PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.

Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:

This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?

The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration.  This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration.  The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean?  Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here).  Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.

And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.

So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:

  1. Social Isolation
  2. Singing/Music
  3. Sexual Frustration

And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice.  The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.

So let’s look at the Resolution:  Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.

As an audience member, I’m kinda let down.  As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!

How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so).  It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)

Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.

The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos.  Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:

“A lonely young boy.  A savage warrior princess.  An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.

Boom.  That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.

RECOMMEND LISTEN/READ: PseudoPod 592: “Free Balloons for All Good Children”🎈

In almost all regards—from title through execution, in the fears it tries (and fails) to exorcise, right down to its final graff—this is the 100% perfect short story for me.  (And it’s likely no coincidence that it’s just about a perfect fit for my favored story formula, the 45/45/10 Three-Act.)

PseudoPod 592: “Free Balloons for All Good Children

Recommended Read (Listen): “Bring Rope” by Liam Hogan

An excellent little horror story; starts ~4min 30secs into this episode of Tales to TerrifyTales to Terrify 306 Liam Hogan Franz Kafka.  This podcast is usually pretty solid, if you like straight-up traditional audiobook-style readings of short horror fiction.  Puts me in the mind of Kathe Koja’s The Cipherbut more for art reasons than horror reasons.

F&SF Interviews Dave-o about Witches, Guns, Lawyers, Ohio Militias, etc.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction interviewed me about my latest horror story, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta.”F&SFNov-Dec2017small

…when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:

I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them:  They are getting screwed.  We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.

This story is about that, in a fundamental way.

I also tell an anecdote about seeing a homeless guy get ejected from a Coney in the mid-1990s, and make mention of Michigan trespassing laws, the sovereign citizen movement, my neighbors from Chennai, and Dave-o’s patented “magpie and junk drawer” speculative-fiction drafting strategy.

The Nov/Dec issue of F&SF is still on newsstands—but only for a few more days. Nab your copy soon!

Dave-o’s patented “magpie and junk drawer” speculative-fiction drafting strategy @fandsf

If you write fiction long enough, interviewers will start to ask you “Where do you get your ideas?”

Readers love this question (it’s also a dreaded chestnut of con Q&A panels). Writers hate it.  It’s like asking “Where do you get the time to write?” Every one of us gets the same 24 hours each day; doctors spend some of those doctoring; drug addicts spend some of that getting high; writers spend part of one of those hours writing stories.  One person can be any or all of those, and more.

Likewise, we all see/hear/mis-hear/read/misread/imagine all sorts of crazy crap every day.  Those are ideas. That’s where ideas come from.

But that’s maybe a cheap answer, because it takes the question too literally.  I think maybe what folks are asking when they ask “Where do you get your ideas?” is “How do you store/catalogue all the weird shit you see every day so that it’s useful to you later?”

And to that, my answer is this:

My brain locks on to odd shiny things and hordes them.

Most of the fiction I write comes out of a collision: I’ll stumble across some interesting fact or idea or snatch of plot or dialogue, but won’t really have any use for it, and so it just sorta bobs around in my head. Sooner or later, as other shiny ideas catch my notice and get tossed into that cranial junk drawer, several will bang together and stick in some interesting way. When ideas stick together they make a distinctive POP!ing sound. I listen for the pop, then start writing.

This is the essence of the “magpie and junk drawer” approach to research and writing. I stumbled into it as a kid having to do research papers, and it’s served me well ever since. Go forth, apply this in your life, and sin no more.

Amen.

RECOMMENDED READ: “Angel, Monster, Man” (with props to @sentencebender and @nightmaremag)

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this (and the audio version—also free on the Nightmare Magazine website—is really good).  

Nominally a horror story, Sam J. Miller’s “Angel, Monster, Man” is, in fact, a really interesting piece of speculative fiction.  Gets me thinking about how frequently fiction that speculates on a disenfranchised group getting power gets slotted into “horror”—and once you start thinking that way, all horror starts to look like a liberation fantasy as seen through the establishment’s eyes: Is Night of the Living Dead more about zombies, or more about the terror experienced by rural whites and the patriarchy when confronted with a competent black man? Is The Exorcist about demon possession or the threat of women’s liberation (see also, Carrie)?  Is Psycho about a “psycho” or about the terrifying prospect of homosexuals no longer shackled by shame/guilt?

“Of Archival Interest Only” (on artists who behave despicably)—UPDATED

I normally would have skipped this (“Vulture—Louis CK Is Done”), because I don’t particularly care for Louis C.K.’s work one way or the other.  But do yourself a favor and give this article read; it’s bigger than this moment, and starts to get its arms around something that we finally need to wrestle down:

When disturbing stories about respected artists come from the distant past, we treat them dispassionately, as just one detail among many. Present tense or near-present tense revelations hit us differently because we share the same world as the artist, breathe the same air, feed the same economy. We think of them as contemporaries, even as people we know. This kind of revelation changes the relationship between the artist and the art, in a way that places an unasked-for, unfair burden on the audience. This is what’s happening culture-wide. And it’s not the fault of people who didn’t report it, or audiences who aren’t sophisticated enough to separate the art from the artist. It’s the fault of the artists for being secret creeps or criminals, and the fault of the system for making it possible for them to act this way for years without being punished.

UPDATE:If you’re the sort of person who uses storytelling to help them understand the world, then this horror story might maybe help you understand Louis CK right now: “Hello, Handsome

Come Read a Transcription of Dave-o Babbling!

I was interviewed by Lisa Haselton for her Reviews and Interviews blog this past summer.  This was technically part of the publicity for Expiration Date, but mostly ended up being about other things.  I tell a long anecdote about “When I First Knew I Was a Writer” (i.e., “The Most Important Thing I Learned About Writing at 15-years-old”) and “My Most Interesting Writing Quirk”:

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I subvocalize almost constantly. Like, this sentence I’m typing right now, I’m thinking about saying it as I’m typing it. I can feel it on my tongue. It’s the same when I’m reading (and a big part of why I’m such a slow reader). Almost every thought I have is composed as an imagined dialogue with someone. Very little of what I say is spontaneous at all. I guess, for a lot of people, their process of reading/writing as actually fairly divorced from their process of speaking/hearing. For me they’re mashed into a single thing.

A good read, I guess, if you have a deep and persistent interest about what the heck is wrong with me.