Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tip O'Day #395 - Where Ideas Come From

“What do I write about?” is a commonly heard plaintive question, whether from novelists, poets, essayists or short story writers. Often we start our writing career with a focus on things we are drawn to: our favorite literary works, character types, hobbies, sports, movies and TV shows. However, it doesn’t take long to exhaust those topics, or to feel we’re treading down a path already trampled by far too many authors.

Instead of the subjects that naturally attract you, consider exploring the abhorrent ones. What was it about the idiot truck driver during rush hour last week that made road rage seem justifiable? What is it about the other members of your critique group that makes you grind your teeth? What is it about a particular literary agent, political candidate, waiter, traffic cop, retail clerk or blind date that makes you wonder about the cost of a contract killer?

For example, look at Jen Campbell, a London bookseller, poet and writer. She loves her day job, and probably could write 25 pages or so about the joys of selling books before running out of steam. One day, she was surfing the ‘Net when she came across the question, “What are your pet peeves?” Having had occasional encounters with the customer from Hell, she thought the subject of wacky things said in bookshops had enough material to fill a series of books, and would appeal to retailers as well as writers, publishing professionals and book lovers the world over.

Jen wrote down all the goofy situations she could recall. She also started blogging on the topic, and contacting other booksellers about their experiences. The result is the recently published WEIRD THINGS CUSTOMERS SAY IN BOOKSHOPS in the UK (or …BOOKSTORES in the US and Canada). I’m an avid follower of Jen’s This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog, and the excerpts I’ve read are simply hilarious. I can’t wait for my hardcover edition to arrive in the mail. (Not sure if an eBook version is imminent.)

Getting back to our pet peeves, those are merely situations. How do you turn one into a story? Take a look at the first example: the pickup-truck-driving moron who cuts you off in traffic and nearly forces you into a ditch. Did his father mock him when he played with his Hot Wheels? Did a pint-size neighborhood terrorist enjoy knocking him off his trike? Did the school bully hold his bike hostage for lunch money? Or did he truly emerge from the birth canal angry and aggressive, elbowing his more passive twin out of the way?

As for the victim in your story, what is her reaction to nearly getting road rash? Does she storm after the idiot, honking the horn while she scribbles down the truck’s license number and scans traffic for a police car? Does her reaction change when she notices the rifle in the truck’s Easy Rider gun rack? What if she loses sight of the truck, but then notices it three vehicles behind her, following her home? What if she catches up to the reckless driver, who turns out to be her son’s schoolteacher?

Every decision fleshes out the situation into something closer to a story, and each unique decision you make moves it away from every other road rage incident you’ve read about or seen in the media. With each decision, you will see more scenes taking shape further up the road. As E.L. Doctorow once wrote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Jen Campbell’s book is available through Constable (UK/Commonwealth) or Overlook Press (US/Canada), as well as Amazon.com and Amazon.UK. Her This Is Not the Six Word Novel blog can be found at http://jen-campbell.blogspot.com/.

By the way, popular and prolific author Scott Nicholson has been kind enough to provide a guest post about the changing publishing environment for my humble Wredheaded Writer blog, and it will appear here tomorrow (Monday, September 17th). Mark your calendar.

No comments:

Post a Comment