What if?

There are many ways to come up with a story idea. Some of the best stories start with the simple question of what if?

The what if can be reasonable, i.e., what if a boy meets a girl and they fall in love and then break up?

Or the what if can be outlandish, i.e. I like the idea of what killed the dinosaurs. We’ve heard several different reasons, but the most popular one is the idea that an asteroid hit the earth and blocked out the sun long enough to kill off the vegetation and without food the dinosaurs met their doom.

What if that was not the way it happened? What if the dinosaurs had a bloody war and killed each other off? What if the dinosaurs found a powerful drug, which they became addicted to and they died as junkies? What if the dinosaurs found a powerful bomb that had been left on earth by aliens, and they accidently detonated it? The last idea is little more far out than the other two, but as you think about it more there are so many things that could have happened and no one really knows because we were not there.

I know that science says something else, but how many times has science been wrong?

Let’s go with the dinosaurs and the aliens, but lets not stop there. Let’s also add in the drug aspect. So it goes something like this:

Aliens have landed on a planet dominated by dinosaurs. The Aliens appear friendly at first and find a way to communicate with the dinosaurs. What the dinosaurs don’t know is that the aliens are in search of guinea pigs. There is a deadly disease on the planet that the Aliens come from and now they need some other life form to test their drugs on. They secretly begin testing their drugs on the unsuspecting dinosaurs, just a few at first. The results are great, better than the aliens could hope for, but it would be years before the final cure was found.

Over the years the toll on alien life is high, as the dinosaurs wreak havoc when they have the drug and even when they don’t have the drug. When the drug is in their system they turn from a peaceful species of plant eating animals into violent flesh eating animals, but the aliens are so close to a cure they are willing to sacrifice a few of their own in order to accomplish their goal.

The dinosaurs would whip themselves into a frenzy everyday beating on the outside walls of the make shift lab setup by the aliens to do their drug testing. On a typical day the pounding on the walls would go on for hours until the aliens would shoot what look like a giant drone into the sky. Once the drone was high above the planet it would begin to fire rockets toward the planet. On impact huge plumes of smoke would rise from the ground, the smoke filled with the drug the dinosaurs craved. The grayish mist looked like dense fog as it spread for hundreds of miles. The dinosaurs breathed deeply as they bathed in the enslaving gas.

It had taken 50 years, but the aliens had finally found the cure they so desperately sought. A new generation of aliens had been born on earth. Many had taken over the research started by their grandparents.

Over the last ten years reports from their home planet had been bleak. They were not sure if there was enough time to save what was left of their own planet, which was millions of miles away.

The day had come to leave earth and go home to save what was left of their planet. Some of the Aliens felt ambivalent about leaving the planet in the condition that it was in. The dinosaurs had gone from a peaceful species of animals to one that was deranged. The inbreeding alone was causing some dinosaurs to be born with long hind legs and short legs in the front and cranial deformations were also noticeable among some of the young.

In the end all of the Aliens agreed to leave earth, go home and save their own planet and return one day to reverse the damaged they had caused on earth. After all it could take another 50 years to find the cure for the drug addicted dinosaurs.

On the day of departure the Aliens awoke to the familiar pounding of the dinosaurs when they craved the drug. Except this time the pounding was against the ship that would take them home. Something had gone wrong. In anticipation of leaving the Aliens shot off several drones the night before with impact locations far from the ship. Why had the dinosaurs not followed the normal pattern?

The pounding on the ship had become intense. It was much more forceful than it had ever been. If it kept up the ship would be damaged. The Aliens had to make a decision. Should they fire on the dinosaurs or fire more drug releasing drones into the sky in hopes that it would pull the dinosaurs away? In the end they would find out that they would have to do both.

The Aliens released the ships weaponry against the dinosaurs. Because it was a ship design for science expeditions the Aliens wondered if the weapons on board would have much impact. They were encouraged at first, but it only work against the dinosaurs for a short while.

Thousands of dinosaurs had been killed but thousands replaced them. It wasn’t until the ships computers blurted out that the hull of the ship had been compromised that the Aliens decided to shoot off all of the remaining drones.
Mass plumes of grayish smoke dotted the landscape as far as one could see.

It worked. The dinosaurs stopped the attack on the ship and lumbered toward the billowing smoke plumes that seemed to be everywhere.

The ship had been damaged beyond repair. A flight home would be impossible. The Aliens immediately began to make plans of how to survive in caves that they had explored while on the planet the last 50 years.

The Aliens knew that life would not be easy on a planet inhabited with drug infested flesh eating animals, but they also felt that they could wait the dinosaurs out, as a new disease had infected them a disease that caused them to die within months after mating. It would take hundreds of years, but what was the alternative?

As the Aliens began to pack up the things they would take to the caves they wondered what would become of their own planet? What would happen to the wives, husbands and children left on their plant? They also wondered how their species of humans would/could survive on this planet they had named earth?

The End

This just small example of what can be accomplished by using the “what if” approach when trying to come up with ideas to help with a story. The beauty of it is that you can go back into the story and pick out things that you like and write a story just based on that, for example I like the idea of drones on carpet bombing runs dropping drugs instead of explosives. The end result is to control someone or something anyway. So maybe your story is about controlling an entire society via drones.

Whatever your story ends up being just keep writing.

Food for Thought: On Being Read and Reread

Every once in a while, I go to a website where I can listen to people tell stories about their lives.  The tales are entertaining and inspirational and represent, to me, the ancient tradition of oral storytelling that is all but gone today.  Sure, grandma and grandpa may share memories with their grandchildren, but the passing of information from generation to generation does not carry the reverence or importance that ancient peoples worked to establish.

Writing and publishing played a role in changing that perspective.  When important events can be written down and mass produced, there is no reason to commit things to memory.  You don’t even have to do the writing yourself.  Journalists and authors fill libraries, websites, and all manner of e-media with accounts of the major happenings of the world.

But what if you want to add your viewpoint to the public record, or just have a good story to tell?  You can share your observation and reaction in a short tweet.  If you want to express more than that, you can write something longer in a blog.  You can even self-publish a 500 page treatise with any number of e-book distributors.  The thing is, once it’s out there, is anyone going to read what you have to say?  Will anyone even find your story to read it?  Will it be good enough for people to recommend to others and come back and read more things written by you?

If it’s important to you for your writing to be read and reread by other people, there are three things that will help you build your audience:

  1. Learn and practice your craft – If your writing is unpolished and you don’t take steps to improve, it’s unlikely that anyone but your closest family and friends will stick with you.
  2. Decide how you want to get your story out in the world – Are you after the traditional brick-and-mortar path to a book deal?  Or, do you want to enter the world of electronic publishing?  Maybe social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or blogging is where you want to express yourself.  There are many options in today’s world and it takes some exploration to find what is right for you.
  3. Build an audience – Draw attention to your work through traditional marketing and social networking – today’s e-media enhancement to ‘word of mouth.’

My goal from this blog is to share ‘Food for Thought’ in these three areas.  I want to foster a conversation that is as fun and helpful to you as it is for me.  You see, I enjoy the discussion that comes from putting my words out for people to read.  Whether it’s giving and receiving feedback with my fellow Deadwood Writers, or an exchange of comments between me and my Facebook friends, this is fun for me.

If you think about it for yourself, I suspect you’ll realize these interchanges are fun for you as well, because writing alone in a vacuum is a very lonely place to be.  Come join me in the conversation and let’s enjoy the journey to being read and reread together.

What makes a story suspenseful?

Reality makes fiction writing suspenseful. That may sound like an oxymoron, but fiction also includes science fiction and fantasy, both of which skirt reality, and in so doing also skirt suspense.

For example, ever met Superman? Me neither. His character is suspenseful though, and great fun to read or watch.  But I know it is fantasy, it can’t really happen and I don’t feel any compassion for sidekicks Lois and Jimmy because, well, he’s Superman! I am strictly a tourist on a bus. But take a character clayed from mortal man and make him the hero instead. Now successful rescue becomes only one of several outcomes. Suddenly the bad outcomes take on new tension and you can feel this time it really will not end well. Like your favorite uncle, the hero is a little flawed. When everything is at stake, it’s their blemishes that must be cleansed first before they can save Lois and Jimmy, or their house from falling into foreclosure.

At the end of each story, the characters walk off arm-in-arm into the sunset, but which hero stands taller now? It is much more gratifying to take ordinary people, thrown them into extraordinary circumstances and then watch them try to wiggle out of it.

From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, it is the common man facing unsurmountable odds that holds our interest and keeps us turning the page. If Stowe’s Uncle Tom had been treated like a white man, would we still choke up when he dies? If Stein’s Danny wasn’t a suffering, single-parent would we still root for him to get custody of his daughter over his rich ex-in-laws?

Ian Flemming’s James Bond Series is nothing short of suspenseful, but it is suspense hung 15 minutes into the future. Fun stuff. We’re blown away by all his gadgets, but are we really sitting on the edge of our seat when the sharks smell blood? No, we’re waiting for him to pull the Shark-B-Gone out of his perfectly pressed suit. At no time do we feel for 007 because we know he’s always got something up his sleeve. Fifty years on, he’s still good fun to read and watch — and very collectable I might add — but it’s the author’s techno-candy that keeps us coming back, not the car chases, sharks and men with razor teeth.

A word about why.

I want to write this blog for two reasons. I hope to be able to pass along some of the wisdom I’ve learned over the past twenty-odd years to those just coming into this sport. In the beginning, I had three wonderful mentors who took hours-at-a-time out of their busy schedules to help me, without ever asking for compensation. It’s time for me to start to pay that forward.

I also hope to advance my own publishing success by finding enough folks who think my writing is entertaining and want to buy it and recommend it to others. I am on the lookout for a good agent and publisher, too, someone who can help me turn modest sales into moderate or more.

Next Month.

Can you envision a future where reading — and by that extension writing — is strictly digital? A time when all printed books are antiquarian? A day when everything ever written by every man will live long and prosper in cyberspace? We’re facing that future. Next month, we’ll take a look at what this means to the suspenseful writer.

Finding Something to Write About

I think one of the hardest parts about writing is finding something to write about, especially if you decide to start thinking of a topic at your computer. There’s nothing like that large, blank, white piece of paper staring back at you from the screen to drive all the ideas that were playing at the edge of your consciousness straight out of your mind. It’s the quickest way I know to get your mind to go completely and utterly blank.

When I go to bed at night I find it hard to fall asleep right away, so I’ve read a lot of articles on “sleep hygiene”. “Sleep hygiene” is all the things you can do to help yourself fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling refreshed in the morning. There are a lot of articles out there. But they all start the same way, even if they use different words: Empty your mind, don’t think about all the things you meant to do that day and didn’t, don’t think about all the things that are wrong with your life and you need to fix, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve never been able to empty my mind. There’s always a thought or two buzzing around: I need to get the car washed tomorrow. I forgot to buy lox. I need to start rereading this book for my presentation to … You get the idea. My mind is busier when I’m trying to fall asleep at night than it is during the day when I can actually do something about these things.

So the one thing I’ve learned from all this is: Sitting down in front of that big, blank, white piece of paper on the screen is not where I should go when I’m looking for ideas.

I’m curious. When you’re looking for ideas for something to write about, what do you do? Where do you find the spark that gets you going?

The Writer’s Life

I have been a writer since age 5, but it has taken years for others to realize that.

I was always a writer, or, more directly, I was always writing.  The act of writing does make one a writer, but the subtleties of that are profound.  Writing is an activity that kids do as a school assignment or what adults do in their serious job.  Writing is an element of something else, not a stand-alone profession.  Why should writing be considered anything more than a hobby?  It is for the reader.

I was a child who was not good at sports and had no siblings to annoy or be annoyed by.  I had the time, and I recognized at that early age that I was creative.  My parents encouraged me or at least positively tolerated the hours I spent hunched over a pad of paper.  I kept diaries of thoughts, personal struggles, observations, conversation snippets and story ideas.  My middle school English teacher let me write stories for extra credit.  I continued that in high school, writing one teacher-acclaimed sequel to some book we read in class, some sort of social commentary combining 1984 and the character K-9 from the British TV show Doctor Who.  Then came the big moment: I was editor of my high school newspaper.  I made it; I was a writer.

I guess I was.

Wanting to learn more about the craft of writing, I took enough college poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction classes to obtain an English Writing minor.  Despite this, in my mind I was just a kid writing words.  I was not a writer.

Non-writers defined–and still does to an extent–that a “writer” is someone who earns enough money writing to pay the bills and put food on the table.  I had a full-time “real job”, but I did not define myself by that.  When people asked what I did, I said, “I write.”  Inevitably, the next question was, “Ooh, what do you write?”  My reply was always a bit choked: “I write in my journal.”  Because I could not point to a genre much less an actual published anything, people’s eyes glazed, they gave me a polite “oh,” and then looked over my shoulder as if at a dinner party looking for someone more interesting to talk to.  Society dismissed me.  It’s hard to argue with that; they’re right.

A coworker mentioned that she knew someone at a newspaper who was looking for writers.  The editor and I connected on the phone.  After an introduction and some discussion of my experience, the editor asked, “We really need someone to write a singles beat for us.  Do you know where all the 20-somethings go for fun?”

I was 20-something.  I was single.  I wrote.  “Absolutely!” I said.

No sooner did I hang up with the editor–my editor!–with an introductory article assignment, than I picked it up the phone, called my friend, and asked, “Hey, where do single people hang out around here?”

With a foot, or at least a pen, in the door, that first assignment led to another and then another.  My name was in print in a real publication, a free weekly newspaper.  Yes, you did not pay for it, but the paper had advertisers as well as columns on local news, sports and event.  I was legitimately published, and got paid; therefore, it counted as real.

I wanted some of that non-singles writing action, so I approached the Arts editor.  She gave me an assignment, and suddenly, I had a writing portfolio.

She called me after I submitted my third article and said, “Let’s discuss this piece.  You need to make some changes in your writing.”  She proceeded to take me through my article, line-by-line, and pointed out where my writing needed improvement.  She told me where a verb should be more active (she gave an example), where sentence length should be tweaked (gave example), where a description could be tighter and stronger (gave example) and so on.  I learned more about writing in that hour than I did all my years in college.  I followed her invaluable, free advice, and my writing got stronger.  I noticed it and so did she.

I’ve since written award-winning articles for newspapers and magazines, all a bit of luck, opportunity and skill.  I’ve had my queried ideas accepted, giving me freedom and confidence in my skills.  I published my first eBook in 2013, the first of many.  I’m here to share my perspectives and the struggles I have.  I hope you’ll learn with me as I continue my journey of writing.

I mean, my journey as a writer.