Edited by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and Pati Nagle
Alien Eyes: Generating Fictional Ideas
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Those of us who aspire to write for publication have tacitly accepted a set of rules that go along with this sometimes onerous, sometimes euphoric task. Robert A. Heinlein, science fiction writer, stated them this way:
• You must write.
• You must finish what you write.
There are other rules that follow these, having to do with addressing manuscripts to the appropriate editor with stamped self-addressed return envelopes, putting them in mailboxes, etc., but the first two are the most essential. Obviously, to be a published writer, you must first write something. If you hope to sell it, you must first finish it.
This raises the fine point as to whether shopping lists, postcards, and diaries count. Experts are divided on this. In my opinion, postcards do not count, and though I get a real charge out of producing a particularly well-constructed shopping list, I think the unspoken conclusion of the sentence, “You must write,” is: “something publishable.” The last time I checked, shopping lists, postcards, and diaries failed to meet this important criterion. (Unless, of course, you do something so noteworthy as to make these items interesting to the general public.)
Published writers every year pour forth a wealth of advice aimed at helping unpublished writers adhere to The Rules. This advice ranges from the esoteric to the practical.
“The natural state for a writer is writing,” says Lawrence Block, creator of Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire. He’s right, but how often are we allowed to exist in our natural state? Between family, business, and community commitments, I sometimes think my natural state is juggling, and that I ought to run away and join a circus.
“No one on earth can keep a writer from writing.” This is from mainstream author Deborah Hecht. While Ms. Hecht was clearly not the mother of a small child at the time she uttered these words, I think what she says is fundamentally true. My daughter, Kristine, became involved in my writing at an early age. She was, in fact, responsible for the delayed debut of my third novel. She was due November 5; the novel was due November 12. Kris arrived two weeks early; The Crystal Rose was over a month late. My understanding editor, herself a mom, sent baby gifts and moved the publication date. The moral of the tale is that while life can slow us down, we can’t let it stop us.
Obviously, there are practical considerations that must be taken into account if our reality is even to approach these lofty ideals. It’s not enough to simply think about writing, or read about writing, or fantasize about writing—one must write. “A goal,” says Lawrence Block, “is something you want and are taking realistic steps to attain. A fantasy is something you want. Period.” This is an important distinction, one that gives the label “fantasy writer” a whole new meaning.
The first realistic step is to simply make time to write. “It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer,” says Gerald Brenan. “Those who do not do this remain amateurs.” We joke about adding days to the week, but it’s not terribly funny when you’re faced with a blank page or an immovable deadline. How does one make time in which to write, to plot, and to generate publishable ideas? Writing time can’t be fabricated out of thin air, but it can be borrowed from or “piggybacked” on other time.
Getting Gum Balls
One of the most time-consuming stages of writing, and one too often a victim of writer’s block, is the idea generation stage. “I want to write a story about…” you think. And then encounter (evil music) the Blank Brain. It’s not fair! The last time you had a story idea, the whole thing leapt, fully-formed, from your brow, and all you had to do was watch wonderful ideas pour out onto the page. It was like being a human lightning rod. You want that feeling back—but how?
Most writers probably experience the occasional epiphany. I’ve been blessed with them myself, but I certainly can’t schedule them, and I can’t afford to wait for them to arrive spontaneously. I have to do something to get at the ideas that I know are lurking somewhere just out of reach.
Imagine one of those gum ball machines that flank the doors of most grocery stores. A large bowl of brightly colored balls empties into a small aperture. A lever blocks the balls from pouring out onto the floor. To spring the lever, you must have a quarter—a catalyst.
The writer’s mind is like that gum ball machine. The ideas are in there, bright and colorful and sweet; the trick is in jarring them loose.
Here are some practical ideas—some thinking/writing exercises to catalyze your creativity and make use of what many of us have come to regard as “downtime” while doing it. They require the fabrication of neither time nor money. You can do any of them in minutes in such mundane places as your car, office, kitchen, bathroom, or even the local supermarket, stationery store, or bookstore. The only equipment required is a writing utensil and a notepad or a pocket recording device such as an iPhone.
Exercise 1: Writer as reporter
A fiction writer is a reporter of sorts. We deal most often with news from the inner human condition, but that condition is observable in such activities as dinner conversation, shopping behavior, parties, classes, or camping trips. You stumble across observable situations every day. Your task is to report on them. Your report can take any number of forms: a slice of conversation, invented biographies for the people you see, notes on the way a place made you feel, a sketch, a vignette, even a list.
Ray Bradbury makes copious lists of anything that catches his eye or ear—a phrase, a snatch of lyric, a word, a title, a word-picture. He looks at them every night and every morning and, he says, eventually every one of the ideas will find its way into a story. I think this is because if you feed such elements into a writer’s brain, it will handle them, study them, and attempt to make sense (a story) out of them even when the writer isn’t conscious of it.
Exercise 2: Deconstruct the world
Take a scene—any scene. It can be a scene on a street corner; a picture on a postcard, billboard, greeting card, or calendar; a photograph in a magazine; even a book cover (as long as you ignore what’s in the book). Study the picture and ask yourself these sorts of questions about it:
- Who are the characters in the scene?
- Which one of them is the point-of-view character, or key character?
- Is this character different: alien or magical, criminal or saint, tortured or jubilant?
- Where is this character from?
- Why does he/she/it appear in this form? (Is the alien in disguise? Is the saint pretending to be a sinner, or vice versa?)
- What is this character’s relationship to the other characters in the scene?
- Is there anything in the scene that evokes strong emotion in the character? Does this element frighten, anger, amuse, or please them? Why?
- What things in the immediate environment does he/she find familiar?
- What things, conversely, are alien (that is, strange)?
- What things does he/she mistakenly find familiar (or alien)?
- Can erroneously thinking these things are familiar (or alien) be detrimental or dangerous to your character? Can they be serendipitous?
There are probably lots of other questions you might ask of the players in the scene. Merely answering them can cause ideas to tumble forth. Of course, then you have to organize them, but that’s a different article.
Exercise 3: The Dig
Find an ordinary human artifact in your environment. What sort of artifact? Well, sitting at my desk I have within arm’s reach a tape dispenser, a baseball cap with an alien on the front, a staple remover, a clever Japanese pencil sharpener, a little black and white stuffed cow—just to name a few. All of these items are worthy artifacts. When I do this exercise with a writer’s workshop, I often snag such things as tea balls, garlic presses, hand drums, incense burners and the like—fairly everyday human stuff.
Once you have “dug up” a suitable artifact, sit down and look at it as if you’ve never seen it before. Then, think about it as if you’ve never seen it before. Then, write about it that way. Write a snatch of story, dialogue, descriptive prose, or even poem or song about this alien thing.
I’ve tried this exercise with both adults and children and am always amazed at the wonderful, imaginative stuff that pours out of people who didn’t think they had it in them. In one such workshop, a travel writer, who had (she said) “not one ounce of the kind of creativity it takes to write fiction” turned a mundane tape dispenser into a sacrificial altar for a very tiny race of insectoid people.
No matter in what genre you write, these exercises can help unlock new perspectives on familiar surroundings.
Putting It into Words
Ursula K. Le Guin has said that the writer of speculative fiction must “put into words what cannot be put into words.” Writers of any form of fiction—mainstream, horror, magic realism and fantasy as well as science fiction—have accepted this job for uncounted centuries.
Some writers—Ray Bradbury, Tim Powers, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Shirley Jackson leap to mind—write from observation. They observe the everyday world and turn it into an alien landscape. They’re reporters of things that cannot be put into words. This is not confined to science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Writers of any genre look for fresh perspectives.
What sort of things are we trying to put into words? A good sampling can be found in the fiction of the writers mentioned above. In Something Wicked This Way Comes Bradbury gives a completely unique description of the month of October. In The Martian Chronicles he shares a familiar domestic scene that takes place on Mars. Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House presents us with an ordered stack of mortar and brick that is the story’s brooding, possessed, villain. In her turn, Siddons tells her own tale of a house that dominates the action and becomes as much a character in the tale of The House Next Door as its human protagonists. Dean Koontz has made a career of giving names to the unnamable. Tim Powers creates layers of reality that exist within and around each other, daring the reader to explore them.
What I am suggesting, of course, is that you read these authors’ works to see how they do their job, to witness how they make the alien familiar, the familiar alien, and the mundane suddenly incomprehensible. They may perplex you, terrify you and amaze you. I hope they will also inspire you.
The Writer’s Mantra
- First, don’t think when you write—write. Don’t agonize over every word while you’re working on your first draft; think, edit, and agonize after you’ve got the shape of the story down.
- All writers are unique. We write what we are. I can’t write someone else’s story and no one else can write mine.
- Another writer’s success does not diminish yours, it only serves to show you what can be accomplished.
- Reading is learning. Seeing other writers’ weaknesses alert you to your own; seeing other writers’ strengths help you find yours. Reading how other writers have put into words what cannot be put into words can help you learn to do the same.
For those of you who wonder if these writing exercises actually work, I’d like to share this little anecdote of something that happened over the Fourth of July weekend 2010. I attended WesterConChord (a wacky combo of the West Coast SF and Filk conventions WesterCon and ConChord) as a writer and a filker. As part of the writing track, I did the two hour workshop on Generating Fictional Ideas that this article is based upon.
I had a nice turnout, and my class was thrilled and intimidated when SF writer Larry Niven strolled in and sat down to take the class.
Now, I’ve known Larry for years. We’ve been on a few panels together, and my husband and I are deeply involved in filk, which Larry loves. He rarely misses one of our concerts, and hangs out in the filk room a lot, but I admit I was surprised to have him turn up in one of my writer’s workshops.
I chatted about the subjects that form the body of the article, then I had my class do a writing exercise in which everybody comes up and picks out an object from a bag of oddball goo I carry around for the purpose. There were such things as capos, egg separators, paper clips, computer mice, tape dispensers and weird little drums. The exercise is to write a scene around the object. I let the writers decide if they want to treat it as an alien artifact they’ve never seen or a mundane article.
Everyone came up with great stuff. I had poetry, SF, fantasy, detective, magical realism, etc. People made the object they’d picked the center of the piece or just a spring board to something completely other (hey, they’re SF and fantasy writers—that’s their job). Larry wrote a funny little piece of flash fiction featuring a butterfly clip (a sort of claw hair clip) that he had his character refer to as “the toothy thing.” It started with what appeared to be a kidnap attempt and gradually revealed itself to be something entirely different. (And, no, I can’t tell you what for reasons that will quickly become apparent.) After everyone read their pieces, Larry handed his pages to me.
As I wrapped up the class, I suggested that the writers try to expand on their ideas maybe even consider publishing them. Larry came back up and sheepishly asked for his pages back. “I’m going to finish this and try to publish it,” he told me. Of course, I made him promise he’d let me know if he did sell it. I’d love to see what he did.
So… do these writing exercises really work? Just ask Larry Niven. And if you see a new Larry Niven story in one of the SF magazines that features a “toothy thing,” you’ll know where he came up with the idea. (Wink.)
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