It involved four dice rolls, and since I don’t carry around my gaming dice all the time (anymore), I used the “dice roller” app on my phone.
What? Of course I have a dice roller app on my phone. Now where was I?
Then I rolled a 6 and a 9. My story must feature A Locked Door and also A Tremendous Reward. Well. Those two go together quite well, do they not? So my challenge is to make it not quite so obvious. In other words, the locked door isn’t a way to get to the reward, at least not directly. That’s too . . . cliché.
So, let’s see what I can come up with. Watch this space. Well, not this space. But this blog. For a new post. Later this week. Containing a 1000-word(ish) story. Hopefully more polished than this blog entry. With sentences. With actual subjects. And verbs.
“For it turns out that the most significant connections between language, culture, and thought are to be found where they are least expected, in those places where healthy common sense would suggest that all cultures and all languages should be exactly the same.”
Professor Deutscher’s statement jumped out of the monotonous drone even as he continued to yammer on. Niyati, the girl whose presence occupied my every waking moment — and most of my sleeping ones — sat one row down and to my right, where I could only see her profile, today. I had meticulously learned how to properly pronounce a few phrases in Tamil, and thanks to the professor, today was the day that I would finally–
“Mr. Metzger, if you would kindly stop staring at Miss Vishwakarma for a moment, perhaps you could favor the class with the answer to my question?”
I slumped down in my seat as all eyes in the class turned to me, but I only saw one pair. They were flashing in anger.
- Grab the 7th book from your bookshelf.
- Open it up to page 7.
- Pinpoint the 7th sentence on the page.
- Begin a poem / a piece of prose that begins with that sentence
- Limit it in length to 7 lines / 7 sentences.
The first sentence, in italics, is taken from Through the Language Glass: When the World Looks Different in Other Languages” by Guy Deutscher.
One thing “new”1 writers often hear is “write what you know.” It’s told to us as a hard-and-fast Rule of Writing™ that Must Not Be Broken™. Or something.
“Class, write one thousand words by Friday.”
“But, Mrs. Teacher, what do we write?” ask the worried students.
“Just write about what you know, dear,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.
Well, sure. That’s easy. I could write about being an only child growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, going to a private school, getting together with my friends and riding bicycles all over town after school and during the summer. I could expound at great length upon being an only grandchild (on one side) or what it’s like to spend all day at the municipal swimming pool in chlorinated water, getting a sunburn, and then doing it all again for 90 straight days during the summer. I could wax poetic over what Halloween was like in the 1970s in small-town Alabama. I could go on for hours about computers and the Internet and all the books I read or the podcasts I listen to. Get me started on the wonders of the universe and science and learning for the sake of learning and you’ll have to physically restrain me to get me to stop.
But . . . I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy. You know, faster than light travel, teleportation, magic, vampires, werewolves, Things That Go Bump in the Night™, aliens, zombies, alien zombies, alien werewolf vampire zombies going faster than light using magic to escape from killer robots from the future . . . like that.
I don’t know any of that. And that’s where that “rule” breaks down. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great rule. For beginners. Because if you know something, you’re passionate about it. I think experienced writers and teachers tell learners that so they’ll want to write about something and therefore spend the writing time it takes to get the million words of crap out so the good words can start spilling forth.2
But at some point, you have to start writing about what you don’t know. Can’t know. One of the first stories I ever completed was about a pregnant woman who started losing time every day. Do I know what it’s like to be a woman? Or pregnant? Or married? No, no, and no.
But here’s the thing. As you mature as a writer, you develop the ability to extrapolate.
I am an only child. I was supposed to be the first of three. But I was born and was apparently (according to my mother) such a horrible child (colic) that they decided one was plenty. I try *twitch* not to let that *twitch* bother me. I think I’m doing *twitch* quite well, actually. So does my therapist.3But I can imagine what it’s like to have a sibling. My father had three brothers and four sisters, and I’ve heard many, many tales of what life was like for them growing up with so many people around. My mother has a younger brother, and I’ve also heard tales of their mutual childhood.
Aside from that, I have friends I consider members of my family. I have a housemate. I have twenty first cousins on my father’s side. I used to babysit for my mother’s friend, who had a boy and girl six and seven years younger than me, respectively. So I can extrapolate from all that what it might be like to have a little brother or sister, older sibling, or twin. Do I get it perfect? Probably not. But there are as many different types of families as there are people, so I figure if I get it wrong, people will assume that’s just how it is in that family and move on. :)
Now, here’s the funny part. As I was writing this post over the course of a few hours on Sunday night, I had a sudden realization. In my current work in progress, which I’m calling Death Scene, I have a main character Nick Damon, who had a brother Jacob, but Jacob died while they were still young. Another character Javier Ellis, is an only child. As is Charlotte (Chuck) Norris. And Manuel Gutierrez. And Lena Saunders. And Monique Johnson. And Terence Yamato. And Derek Meads. And . . .
I have managed to write what I know without realizing I was doing it. Literally all my characters are only children, essentially. How did I let that happen?
Time to rethink a few things. :)
Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 109 prompt: Sibling(s).
- I’ve been writing one way or another since I was 11. So I’m hardly ‘new,’ but since I’m also not a professional writer until I sell my writing (which, granted, would be much more likely to happen if I submitted frequently), I use ‘new’ here in that sense.
- There is a well-known(?) rule of thumb that says a writer must write a million words of crap and get them out of her system before she gets to the good words. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, and if all you do is glurge words day after day with no attempt at improvement, you’re never going to get to the “good” ones.
- I actually don’t have a therapist, but the joke was too good to let pass . . . ;)
I own a book called What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. One of the very first exercises in that book is to write at least one first sentence every day. With no requirement that it go further than just that: a first sentence to a story.
I’m not sure I even finished the book. I started doing that simple exercise, and it led me to several short stories (including the first one I ever finished back in 1992) and to my current novel series in progress. I did it for years, penning as few as one and as many as twenty or thirty first sentences every single day. Some of them were ridiculous; some were sublime. Some were speculative; some were mundane. Some were funny; some tragic. But the thing they all had in common was that they got my mental juices flowing. I’d think of a first sentence, and with it would come a sense of character, place, time, mood, theme, scene . . . pretty much everything but a plot.
It’s also how I discovered that I tend to randomly use the name Victor a lot. Usually in a negative manner. But I digress.
I no longer do this exercise, although I think perhaps I should start doing it again. Just to get my author juices flowing again. You see, I’m kind of blocked, right now. I have a ton of ideas, but when it comes time to put them down on paper/electrons . . . I instantly hate every syllable.
He was a dark and stormy knight.
“Feh! That sucks.”
As London burned, Victor looked down upon it with
“No! That’s even worse!”
Blood, red and sticky and still warm, dripped from my fingers into the still-open mouth of the corpse at my feet.
“No, no, no, no, NO!” <insert anachronistic image of ripping paper from a typewriter, complete with appropriate sound effects, wadding up the page, and throwing it at a trashcan overflowing with other crumpled sheets of paper, all with one sentence typed across the top>
I’m supposed to be working on my goal of writing short stories and sending them off to publishers. And I would be if I could stand a single syllable of anything I’ve written. I reached a point at which I simply could no longer look at my existing stories (editing stories I’ve already written is not my favorite thing about writing). My brain demanded that I work on what it really wanted to work on: my novel.
“Fine,” I told it. “You want it, you got it. Novel it is.”
There was a faint, gurgling squee from inside my skull. I would have been worried except that I’m used to things like that.
I churned out about 3000 words. A bit under two chapters of Death Scene, book 1 of the MCU Case Files, an urban fantasy series set in modern-day Atlanta, but with magic.
And I edited it and got it almost like I wanted it. And I triumphantly submitted it to my writing group. But with reservations. I wanted to change . . . something. But I couldn’t figure out what. Something was just not right. But what? Maybe they could help.
What I heard back definitely told me what it was. I think ‘uninteresting’ would be the polite term to use. I think the exact phrase one person used was ‘sterile and boring.’ Others used words like ‘slow,’ ‘no action,’ ‘stereotypical,’ ‘teaser-y/prologue-y,’ ‘not enough drama,’ and ‘no conflict.’
To be fair, they also said it was not info-dumpy (but was bordering on it), flowed well, drew them in, and was well-written, but as an opening chapter, it wasn’t enough. They wanted more from an introduction to a new world in which magic, the FBI, the police, and a body frozen in time during the act of being burned at the stake are all introduced.
And as each person said nearly the same thing, I nodded, because it confirmed what I’d been afraid of. And hey, it’s a chapter one. I should just move on and write chapter two, armed with the knowledge of the consensus opinion.
But that’s not what I did. What I did was start playing “What if?”
What if I increase the amount of magic the magical characters use? I mean, it’s frickin’ Urban Fantasy, right? Let’s get some magic in there from the get-go.
What if I start the chapter later? Closer to the action of examining the crime scene? Or, possibly better yet, what if I drop back a bit and start with the hapless individual who discovers the body looking for a place to get high and frisky with his girlfriend?
What if there’s conflict between the FBI and the Atlanta PD? Not stereotypical “turf wars,” but something different.
What if . . . ?
What if . . . ?
So, um . . . how do I turn it off? I’d like to write chapter 2, now, but instead I’m redesigning how vampires work and planning how I can introduce the bad guy from book 3. Yes, book 3. And ideas for the plot of book 2 are cropping up, as well.
So I guess ‘What If?’ can be a writer’s best friend or his worst enemy. At the same time. Which is a bit disconcerting.
Ooh! What if dragons . . .
Disclaimer: I am the exact opposite of upset with my writers group who gave me these critiques. I am, in fact, delighted. They were, as always, honest, thorough, and got right at the core of what was wrong with the chapter. To get angry at that would be hypocritical, since that’s the entire point of a critique group. I quoted some of their comments not because I was upset at them or was dwelling on them, but because they were particularly apt. I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.
I just wanted to say that because some of them will probably see this post, and I wanted to nip any angst on their parts in the bud. :)
This post was inspired by the GBE2 Blog On Week 108 prompt, “What If?”