Tag Archives: Writing

How to Generate Story Ideas!

Having come down with a nasty case of the dreaded Writer’s Block the other week, I figured now was as good a time as any to do a post about it. More specifically, I want to share with you some of the techniques I use in generating fresh ideas for short stories. Whenever I’m in the throes of a dry spell I try not to redress the Block itself as much as I focus on getting invigorated by a new idea. This method is not reactive, but proactive. What works for me is thinking back to my previous stories and replicating the conditions in which they were written. It’s important to keep a note of where each idea manifested; its very inception. One of the most common questions that writers get is “Where do you get your ideas from?” and let me tell ya this: if they say “I just get them” then either they haven’t bothered to look back into their subconscious or they’re a liar. Ideas don’t come from nowhere. Writers aren’t some kind of unique subcategory of X-Men whose power is to excrete creative ideas out of pure bodily instinct. Ideas are attained, extracted, solicited- be it consciously or unconsciously. And that’s one of the key skills of being a good writer- the ability to identify and hunt down these ideas.

The first thing I ever published was a short story called “Stray Dog”, when I was 21 years old. And it’s a memory I return to whenever the going gets tough. I had the initial inspiration- the image of a boxcar- that was no doubt lodged in my subconscious from watching a documentary about the Scottsboro Boys around that time. All I had was this image of “hoboing” on a boxcar across the United States, and I just played with it. What became “Stray Dog” just started as a simple writing exercise. You might even say I was pissing about. I started writing about this hobo that gets approached by these two bad men who start abusing and torturing him. And I know now where the image of the two men came from- as a child in either the late nineties or early 2000s I was taken to a video game store and I remember seeing this game (most likely for an old console like Dreamcast, but I honestly have no idea) and on the front cover were these two creepy cartoon men. One was fat and one was thin and for some reason it scared the living shit out of me as a young boy. The image became burned into my mind and I had nightmares about it. So I think, a decade later, that influenced my creation of the “bad men”. I had no notions of high art or great literary ambitions, I was simply writing a scene. And I that’s why I am sharing this idea with you- you never know where something might take you. So much of what makes up my stories is discovered in the process of writing. There are many ways to write, so don’t ever let anyone- even a professor- tell you how it ought to be done.

When I was a student at the University of Winchester, the emphasis was very much on planning things out, but everyone I met had their own unique process. When asked about how he approaches writing stories, Stephen King described a method that reminded me of how I started “Stray Dog”. He denied having produced blueprints and step-by-step outlines of his work, saying only that he thought of a situation, and then applied the old “What If…” premise to it. I looked back at my story and saw that I had my situation, and that I had applied the premise of “What if two bad men show up?”

In a sense, the story writes itself at that point. You have to trust in the process and see where the characters take you. It’s certainly something I have used multiple times. So if you are struggling with ideas for stories, I suggest the following things:

  • Reading books (duh)
  • Looking at paintings and photographs
  • Watching movies
  • Reading the news
  • Keeping a written record of dreams
  • Writing vivid memories down in journals
  • Getting outside and interacting with people (I got an idea once when simply walking to the local library and applying for a membership)

Some of these will prove more useful to you than others. Personally I’m an extremely visual kinda guy, and a particular painting or photo can have a profound effect on my psyche. It doesn’t even have to be artistic- I was bored one time and checking out some pictures on Facebook, and somehow I got a poem out of it, simply by imagining the emotions and dynamics of the people in the photo. I know that sounds creepy, but we’ve all done it. Take what you want from people, places and things and recreate them according to your own fucked-up brain. To be a writer is to be a plunderer.

I started “Stray Dog” as a joke, but the story gained meaning to me the more I wrote. By the end I was happy with it, but I didn’t dare show it in class. I dreaded class during that particular semester because my professor did not like the story I was workshopping- a little story set in Northern Wisconsin called “The Coach’s Wife”. Every week it was getting ripped to shreds and my confidence was low. But then the same professor informed us of a short story competition being held by The London Magazine, saying how swell it would be if someone from our university were among the winners. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I submitted both “Stray Dog” and the unedited first draft of “The Coach’s Wife” and come the spring of 2014 both stories were published as winning entries. I’m hoping that this little story can inspire those out there to not only write whatever the heck they want, but to submit stories even if you aren’t confident in them! So what’re you waiting for? Go write something!

 

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Have you had similar experiences with writing? If so, let me know in the comments. I’m looking to connect with others and I love hearing what you have to say. If you enjoyed this piece and want to see more content like this, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe! Thanks for reading!

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Billy’s Rain: How One Book Changed My Outlook on Poetry

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Hugo Williams might be my favorite modern poet. I keep a copy of Billy’s Rain close by my writing desk, and I never hesitate to consult it, whether I’m looking for inspiration or for pleasure. It’s actually a funny story how I ended up with the book, and how it came to form such an important part of my library.

I touched on this in last week’s post “Notes on Productivity and Procrastination”; I had trouble getting inspired at school. I was always more interested in reading the books I bought for myself on the weekends than the ones assigned to me in class. I could never get disciplined enough to read them, and it reached a point where I just sort of accepted it and stopped buying the assigned reading altogether as a matter of course. I know, I was a twat (see, I admit it so it’s okay!). In my time spent at school, college, and two universities, I never once read a full length book that was assigned to me. I tried sometimes, but I could never concentrate. I had the attention span of a newborn pug at a Polka Dance.

In my third year of university, after giving up any idea of becoming a poet and thinking instead that my best bet was with fiction or screenwriting, I ended up taking a class in poetry writing largely because of my disinterest in the other options. I think it was called Modern Poetic Writing or something like that. Anyway, the class was being taught by my favorite professor and I figured I would give it a go for a semester. At first my expectations were low; the reading list was set, I didn’t buy any of the books, and I had to do the embarrassing routine every week of searching through my bag and going “Well, I must have left the blasted thing at home”. I would have felt less guilty if it weren’t my favorite professor I was deceiving. But there was always some kind person that let me share their copy. The theme was decided to be Confessional Poetry. We started with Robert Lowell (whom I have also since come to appreciate), and then moved on to Williams.

I remember being in a sort of haze one day, thinking about something far removed from the room I was in. It could have been anything. At the time I was mutilating the same short story every week to please another professor (only for the original version to get published as a winning entry of a competition months later), just getting hooked on The Walking Dead, and I had a Skype date where I was set to be introduced to my best mate’s girlfriend- a larger than life personality I was sure I was going to disappoint (she’s now my BFF). All this was on my mind and I was really just trying to get by with my classes and stay afloat. Then, I remember being suddenly snapped awake by my professor’s reading of “Blindfold Games” from Billy’s Rain. I was all of a sudden existing in the present. I was captivated by the words. Something about it just seemed to ring true. The feeling I got, listening to that reading, was of being inside someone’s head, seeing out of their eyes and feeling what they felt. Jealousy. Plain and simple. That was the theme of the poem, and in a very simple yet very profound way it resonated. I wasn’t particularly infatuated with any one lady at that point in my life, but it nevertheless seemed like such a universal and timeless part of the male psyche that was being communicated through that poem. Perhaps at some point I would feel about a girl the way that narrator did, I thought.

The book as a whole chronicles a love affair, which ends, and the aftermath of it. You can read the book like a novel, from front to back, if you want. As you get further into the book, you see William’s emotions and anxieties laid bare, as he goes from being the recipient of this woman’s affections to an observer of it. “Blindfold Games” is, roughly speaking, in the middle of the book, and details the narrator imagining his ex-lover going off to bed and making love to her new boyfriend. There’s just something very human and engaging about the narrator’s insecurities, and something very male about his keen interest in her sharing the intimacy that was once his, with someone else. I read an article a while back, which reported on a scientific study that examined the different ways men and women recover from the breakup of a relationship. The study found that women, at some point, are better equipped at putting it behind them, whereas men- even if they do find a new partner- will be troubled with it for the rest of their lives. I’ll put a link to the article below in case you are interested.

Anyway, you want to know how the story ends, no? I couldn’t get the poems of Hugo Williams out of my head, and “Blindfold Games” in particular. I wanted to write poems like that. During that semester I fell in love with poetry again, and it was all down to that class I almost didn’t take, and that book I never bought. My entire outlook on the genre had changed forever. I started to write poems that could be described as “Confessional” en masse, and I was extremely excited about the end of semester assignment where we had to produce our own portfolio of poems. My confidence soared in my ability not only to write poems, but to share them as well. I was always the last person to contribute in class, and I tried to get out of it any way I could- even if it meant skipping. But I reached inside of myself, the way Lowell and Williams had, and wrote this personal poem about being sad and lonely one time during an intramural soccer game at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The response I got from my fellow writers was great, and one girl even said it tugged at her heart strings. My professor said in a private chat that I was finding my voice as a poet.

The poems stayed in my head long after that class ended in the winter of 2013. They laid dormant in my subconscious for a while, as I became focused on writing my dissertation and then heading off to Wisconsin for a summer of eating ice cream, snuggling with that pug, and tubing on the Chippewa River. But afterwards, when I got down to writing again, the poems came back. So I ended up going out and buying Hugo William’s Billy’s Rain about a year and a half after it had been assigned to me! And now it forms a core part of my writer’s library. It’s a book I often return to, reading the same poems over and over again. Here’s “Blindfold Games” for you to enjoy:

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References

http://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/love-sex/relationships/news/a48019/scientific-study-men-never-get-over-breakups/

Notes on Productivity & Procrastination

Today’s post is one that I have wanted to write for a long time. I would like to think that my experiences and methods for battling procrastination (not just writer’s block), detailed herein, will be relevant to everyone- and hopefully useful too. But it is needless to say that this post will be especially relevant to those of you trying to get some writing done. Now, I am sure those who know me will laugh at the very premise of me authoring a post about productivity, much as they would a lecture by Charles Bukowski on the merits of abstinence. But I have been on my grind for a few months now with my writing and reading targets. Seriously- just call me Waka Flocka Flame, because at the moment I’m going Hard in the Motherfucking Paint.

Anyways, any kind of discussion of my productivity begins with my early school years. I was always a hyperactive kid, and never too interested in what school had to offer. I got bored easily and caused trouble. This was especially true in those younger years, and it didn’t take long for me to be placed, without much exactness, on the Austistic Spectrum. Long story short, by the time I was 10 I was seeing a child psychologist, and when I got to Secondary School by the age of 11, the new regime was fully prepared for my arrival and assigned me a series of teaching assistants to sit with me in science classes (where I struggled most), who helped me concentrate. Now, all that is a blog post for a later time, and without being too much of a tease, there’s a lot more of that story to tell. But the point is, I was faced with the same conclusion: that I just couldn’t concentrate. That was the message delivered to me by my teachers throughout my academic career. I wasn’t the worst student ever- perhaps average- but my problem lay in my short attention-span and my discipline. I just couldn’t get passionate about any of the work, no matter how important the exam or the essay might have been to both my immediate and long term future.

So I grew up with the sense that laziness was something innate to my character, as permanent a fixture of my identity as my eyes are brown. Throughout school and university I always got away with the absolute bare minimum of effort. I’ve lost count of the number of literature exams I have entered into without ever having read the book. I could not will myself to care. But I have, over the years, employed various techniques to give myself that get-up-and-go, that thirst for the day ahead, that everyone else seemed to have. For periods of time, they all worked. But sure enough, be it circumstance or a lack of the necessary willpower, I would return to lethargy and I told myself that laziness was here to stay and the plans were not. However, in recent months I have found a growing strength within myself that is threatening to cast those long-standing doubts aside.

I was given a piece of advice last summer, during my stay in Houston, TX, that has completely changed my outlook. My hope is that fellow people- both writers and non-writers- who are reading this, will be given some modicum of belief that procrastination isn’t here to stay- not if we don’t want it to. It was at a very vulnerable moment in my life- a moment of intense doubt- that my close friend told me, with as much conviction as if she were explaining that day goes into night, that laziness is not a trait, but rather, a temporary condition- one which can be borne of several factors. It must be stated at this point that this lady is something of a genius in the field of behavior analysis. She knows the human mind about as intimately as a seasoned thespian knows the works of William Shakespeare, and much like the veteran stage actor can quote at will with perfect memory a line from Hamlet, so too can she draw upon the teachings of Skinner and the other great behaviorists.

I was reminded of her words months later, when I was writing and reading every day with a fresh and boundless enthusiasm morning after morning. I thought to myself, well if I- of all people- can get out of the rut of procrastination, and even change my sense of self, then there is hope for just about anyone. So rejoice, lazy folks- you’re not a lost cause. You’re probably wondering at this point what my secret is- why have I suddenly started living my life differently? Well the truth is there is no life-altering switch, no single reason, and I more or less surprised myself with the abandonment of years’ worth of behavior. It was the removal of several habits, and the addition of new ones, which with continued incorporation into my daily routine, became less of a conscious effort, and more a natural and automatic component of my day as showering and eating. Now, I ain’t a behavioral therapist, so I won’t presume to tell you readers anything about the complexities of human thought and action, but I am fairly confident now that who we are is not set in stone, that we can through practice and a healthy environment, mold our behavior to become the person we want to be.

I will now go through the habits I find conducive to productivity, and those that I believe are detrimental. I should state right now that whilst I am confident I’m on to something (given this year’s unprecedented progress), I am merely detailing what works for me. I’m sharing with you my writing environment, and the methods I use for success, and I am not so ignorant as to suggest that this is some kind of golden and universal path to becoming the next Wallace Stevens. Right off the top of my head I can think of techniques that don’t work for me, but which propelled other writers to becoming absolute ballers- namely, Hemingway’s having to stand up as he typed his manuscripts, and Marcel “The Michael Jordan of Modern Literature” Proust’s finding that he worked better living a nocturnal lifestyle.

  • A Healthy Sleep Cycle. This, I think, is absolutely crucial. I have a tendency to be a bit of a night owl. My bad habits include going on Youtube on my phone whilst in bed, and doing things like watching NBA highlights, gaming videos, or listening to those creepy real-life horror stories from Reddit and such. This would result in me being unable to get to sleep until the early hours of the morning, sleeping in until noon, and being stuck with that awful feeling of being tired but unable to sleep. I was told by my best mate that the reason for this was that the artificial light produced by my phone was essentially tricking my body into stopping its production of melatonin. So now I read before bed, which helps tucker me out. And the earlier I can get to sleep the better- since I find that I am most prolific in the morning. The hours of 9am-12pm are basically my golden period for writing efficiency. Not only do I tend to work well then, but having gotten stuff done early I find that I am much more upbeat and happy throughout the rest of the day, even if my energy levels wane later on.
  • The Use of Music. This is perhaps a matter of personal preference, but I have found that I can only get some writing done with a limited use of music. For me, writing is very much a testosterone-fueled endeavor; it’s what gets me pumped. My feeling at having completed a short story or a blog post is akin to that of a ball player dunking over someone, or an MMA fighter producing a knockout blow. I get seriously jacked. So I often prepare for a period of writing much in the way an athlete might try to psych him or herself up before a game. So my choice in music has to reflect that. Last summer during my stay in Texas I would work on my travel blog every morning, and often ask my friend what song I should choose to get started. It would often be something like “Bleed it Out” or “Run This Town”. I’d pick the baddest rap song I could find, play it once, and often begin writing during the song. Once the song was over I would write in silence. I generally find music with lyrics in it to be quite distracting whilst trying to get some writing done, so I will employ it only in the form of these pump-up songs, which I will listen to once and only once, at the very beginning of the work. If I am looking for some ambience whilst writing, it will either be something instrumental and relaxing, like the soundtrack to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, or more often than not, it will be one of those videos you can find on Youtube of rain falling on a tin roof or the sounds of a summer night from the deep south, alive with the soothing clicks of bush crickets. My favorite recently has been listening to the songs of whales, which I find so majestic.
  • Kinetic energy. Writers are by and large a sedentary bunch. But if you are struggling for ideas, or just can’t get into the right frame of mind, then get your ass moving. To quote from fitness guru Lauren Gleisburg, “physical strength translates to inner strength”. To be a writer you have to be strong. You have to be a bull moose. I have no illusions about half-assing it the way I did my schoolwork. Great mental fortitude is needed, and I have found that regular exercise is extremely helpful in getting my mind sharp and creative. It gets the blood pumping and helps generate ideas. Most mornings in the last two summers I spent in the US (in Wisconsin and Texas respectively) my roommate and I would hit up the basketball courts and enter into intense, hard-fought and competitive games of one-on-one, before returning to the apartment and trying to get some work done. But even if you can’t exercise in the morning, or you don’t have a basketball court, I have found that simply moving is enough. For a while I based my whole productivity scheme around movement and kinetic energy. Just taking our border collie for walks in the Texas sun last year, and breathing in the fresh air, was a great way to feel consistently active, alert, and would be a nice opportunity to clear my head. In the mornings, either as a cool-down after exercise or as its own thing, I like to go for a walk before getting back and opening up the ol’ laptop.
  • Eating heartily. Now this ain’t a fitness blog, so I won’t tell you what to eat. Go see Lauren’s blog for that. But simply eating a lot and being well fed will make a difference. Writers need fuel. I have seen a massive improvement in my energy levels over the past year by the rapid expansion of my appetite. I’ve gained 3 stone (approx. 45 pounds) in that short period, and I guess it is just common knowledge at this point that yeah, if you are going to be on that writing grind, you need to have an aggressive attitude towards the fridge and the pantry.
  • Know what you are going to do the night before. This is the piece of advice I feel most strongly about. For me it works every time. Whenever I am implementing a new productivity schedule or am deciding on new writing targets, I always do it before bed. It is imperative that I don’t leave it to the next day. For me it makes a world of difference waking up and knowing straight away what I have got to do. When I think back to my most lethargic and lazy stretches, I remember waking up without much purpose or idea of what to do with myself in a given day. I would either stay in bed or start playing something like Fallout 4 or Bioshock Infinite. And once I start that, it becomes so much harder to get something done that day and the hours start slipping like sand through my fingers. Like I said in my first point, whether I have a successful day or not is largely contingent on me having a good start.
  • Create a list. I think lists are good for writers, I really do. When trying to force myself out of a rut, the best strategy I have is designing a list of targets to be met the night before. There is nothing like the satisfaction of crossing them off. I haven’t had to use one for a while now, because my productivity has become second nature and I have some large ongoing projects that will be around for a while- but I often draw up plans for blog posts and stories in preparation for the next day. And I know that, should I slip back into a particularly bad rut, all I have to do to get out of it is create a list of targets before bed, and keep doing that until meeting those targets seems effortless.
  • Get off social media. In my earliest productivity schedules I put a total ban on certain things. In this point I will address what- for me- have been habits detrimental to my efficiency. Social media- checking Facebook and Instagram- is the obvious one, and probably not one you really need me to tell you is a waste of your valuable writing time. Youtube is something I completely prohibit throughout a working day, and I use it only for the sole purpose of putting on a two-hour video of whale songs, like I stated above. When I was in my first year of university, and I committed to spending my spring semester writing one short story a day, I was able to do so by taking certain things away. I would not allow myself to play video games or watch Youtube videos until after dinner. I guess you could say it was like a reward system, and I would spend my evenings quite satisfied that I had earned my indulgences.
  • Alcohol. Personally I have not had any success whatsoever in writing whilst drunk. I think people like the idea of being a “literary badass” that never sits at his or her typewriter without a fifth of whiskey at hand. They point to the great drunks of the literary scene, like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Jack Kerouac and perhaps mistakenly attribute their genius to their love of alcohol. But, as a complete Faulkner fanboy, I can tell you that he didn’t drink whilst he was writing, but rather, he would go on a massive bender upon completing a project. As for McCarthy, he has been on record as saying that he can’t imagine anything worse for a writer’s productivity than being a lush, and that the likes of Faulkner and Hemingway most likely succeeded despite their drinking, and not because of it. As for Kerouac, he was dead at the age of 47 due to a massive abdominal hemorrhage, so yeah.
  • Create a Literary Scoreboard. This is something I used to great effectiveness in my third year of university, when writing my dissertation. I had to write the first 10,000 words or so of a short novel. For some reason I was set on writing this creepy story about a priest in Panama who goes insane and wanders off into the jungle, returning years later to bloodily murder the children at the Catholic mission/orphanage he used to run. Anyway, in order to keep myself productive, I grabbed a sheet of lined paper, filled in the dates in the margin, then created columns that read “Fiction”, “Poetry”, “Dissertation” and “Other”. In each one I would record how many words I wrote in a given day. This helped keep me from messing around binge watching The Walking Dead or wasting hours upon hours of my life playing Star Wars (*sigh*) The Old Republic. My motivation quickly became getting as high a number as possible and avoiding getting the dreaded blank spaces. It was a scoreboard, plain and simple. I hung it on the wall above my bed, and after showing my roommate (a fellow writer) one time, I swear he said “You know, that ain’t a bad idea”.
  • The Pomodoro Method. This is something I have used since studying for exams as far back as my school days. It’s an excellent technique for someone like me who has struggled concentrating and being attentive. If you haven’t used this before, it’s basically a system whereby you pick a task, go at it for 25 minutes or so, then take a short break. I often set a timer on my phone. It basically makes work (be it a single endeavor or multiple projects) seem a lot less daunting, by breaking it up into little bite-sized episodes divided by short breaks. This is something I still use, to help me manage getting work done on my blog, with my short stories, with my poems, and with my reading.

To conclude, I would say that my main piece of advice for creating a schedule that works for you, and trying to adjust your behavior to being more productive, is to understand your own pitfalls, to identify and isolate those ways in which you have gone wrong in the past. You have to regulate your own energy levels, and understand your fatigue, to essentially comprehend how best you respond to something and try and design your life accordingly, to find a lifestyle that suits you.