A SERIES OF POSTS ON MOTIVATION: CERTAINTY

Assuming we’re all reasonably okay with the “Six Human Needs” I introduced last week—and I’m not entirely convinced myself, but this list is at the very least a good starting point—let’s dive in to the first of the six: certainty.

It’s not at all unusual or difficult to understand why someone would want to feel certain of something—certain in a belief, in a method, etc. This quest for certainty is behind both scientific and religious thought. A religious person might feel certain that God is looking out for him, and a mathematician can feel certain that 2+2=4. Everything from the Ten Commandments to Newton’s Laws are the results of a quest for certainty. This behavior is always bad. If this happens then this result will follow, for sure.

We actually can be certain of things like gravity. If I climb up onto my roof and jump off, I am absolutely certain that I will fall, and I am equally certain that I will be badly injured as a result. This prevents me from jumping off my roof.

So then worldbuilders take note. I have that certainty in the laws of physics in the universe in which I live. But what if the rules change? What if I have something like D&D’s ring of featherfalling? I could jump off my roof and rely on the magic of the ring to float me gently to the ground. What if I’m not on Earth at all, but on the Moon, where gravity is only one sixth of Earth’s?

I know people who are certain of the existence of God, replacing the need for evidence with faith. People absolutely do not require experimental evidence like two broken legs immediately following the jump from the roof, to be as certain of Heavenly Rewards as I am of gravity. Likewise, for us worldbuilders… I’ve looked around the real world for more than fifty-three years now and feel certain that there is no God, but if I lived in, say, the Forgotten Realms world, I would be much, much more certain of the existence of those gods, who occasionally interact with the mortal world. How does that change the idea of religion, in both the larger sense of a personal spiritual feeling and in the various human institutions—churches and temples and cults—that surround them?

Though there are a lot of things we can feel certain of in either our real-world or invented physics, there are at least as many things we can’t feel certain about at all. Looking someone in the eye, listening carefully to the way she’s talking, the words she uses, might convince you that that person is lying, but you can’t actually be certain—until, again, the rules change and now you’re psychic and can hear that person’s inner dialog. So magic or SF tech can lend certainty to otherwise uncertain situations.

Characters who seek out certainty can sometimes be tragic characters when they look for that in the wrong places—in the existence of some mysterious force that refuses to reveal itself, or in a lie or misconception. At the same time, certainty in a hero can propel that character forward against considerable odds.

When something works against a character’s sense of certainty, whether that character is a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between, bad things can happen.

In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Mark Manson offered what he called Manson’s Law: “The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.” And a lot of what comprises our “identity” comes from our various certainties. To some extent, at least, we become what we believe we are.

I didn’t have to dig too deeply to find an example of certainty in action. I’m just finishing up the science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald, a blind pick from my Sci-Fi Paperback Grab-bag. In this novel from 1950, alien Watchers use advanced technology to inhabit the bodies of Earthlings in the future world of 1975 in order to sabotage our efforts to explore space. After the intentional destruction by sabotage of Earth’s first starship, our heroes see their efforts scuttled, their warnings of an alien conspiracy dismissed, and former allies selling them out. In this bit from a hearing on the incident, we see a character—not a villain, and not one of the alien agents—expressing with full certainty, his opinion of the matter:

I read this edition from the 70s.

“You will find in my record that two years ago when Project Tempo was being considered, I read the survey reports and filed a negative opinion. That girl—I should say Dr. Inly—inferred that the military has attempted to block Project Tempo. I wish to deny that allegation. I am a soldier. I follow orders. Once Project Tempo was approved, I gave it my wholehearted cooperation. The minutes of my staff meetings in connection with Tempo are available as proof of this cooperation.

“However, in all honesty, I must confess that from the beginning I considered Tempo to be a wild scheme. I believe that with persistence, with the application of discipline and effort, we will succeed in conquering space in accordance with the plan outlined by General Roamer sixteen years ago. First we must beef up our moon base. The moon is the stepping stone to Mars and Venus. Gentlemen, it is sound military thought to consolidate your own area before advancing further. Project Tempo put the cart several miles ahead of the horse. The old ways are the best. The known methods are tried, and they will be true.

“Is this time-jump theory something you can see, feel, hold on to? No. It is a theory. I personally do not believe that there is any variation. I think time is a constant throughout all the galaxies and all the universe. Lane was a dreamer. I am a doer. You know my record. I do not want this fiasco to make you turn your backs on space flight. We need a vastly augmented moon base. From a moon base we can look down the throat of Pan-Asia. We must reinforce that base, and not dissipate our efforts in humoring the more lunatic fringe of our nation’s physicists. Thank you, gentlemen.”

This manner of thinking is not unusual for a military character, someone who has been drilled in the uniform chain of command, in standard operating procedures, and other certainties that can be relied on (we hope) in the rather uncertain environment of the battlefield. We can see why this guy wants to be certain about what he’s doing and what he should be doing, based on that training, that military mind-set. This is only reinforced by the clearly absurd story our heroes are telling of otherwise unprovable alien intervention. The nature of the way the aliens infiltrate seemingly random people at unpredictable intervals without any outward sign makes their presence even more uncertain, at least to the many people who haven’t experienced it for themselves. It’s easy for someone to be certain that there are no aliens, that the destruction of the starship was either an accident or human sabotage, especially when the technology behind the starship was still untested.

As you’re building your characters, consider the degree of certainty they might have in a particular component of the world, the plot, and the other characters. How does that help and/or hurt them? A need for certainty like the soldier in the above example exhibits can hurt, helping to forestall humanity’s spread into the stars, unwittingly assisting an insidious external force, while at the same time it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to move into space with a bit more caution. Given the information available to him, this guy isn’t wrong. But it’s his need for certainty, in large part at least, that’s holding him back from seeing the bigger picture.

 

—Philip Athans

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A SERIES OF POSTS ON MOTIVATION

I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time now, gathering up notes and so on, and decided to take the plunge this morning and finally get into it. Though I have been writing a bit lately on motivation in terms of motivating ourselves to sit down and write, this series is about motivating our characters.

A strong character has a strong motivation. People do things for reasons. Those reasons may be simple, clear, forthright. Those motivations may be subconscious, selfish, even evil. But we are all—all real people—driven by certain things and those drives affect our behavior, our outlook on the world, our personal connections and relationships—everything, really.

And because we want our characters, even in fantasy and science fiction, to feel real, well motivated characters are vital to a successful work of fiction.

Octavia Butler, an author I admire greatly, made this note for herself:

We should all have this note next to our desks. This is the goal, ultimately, of any author of fiction—and any author of non-fiction, for that matter.

But how do we make people (our readers) FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!

This is where motivation comes in—at least as a starting point.

What readers want out of every work of fiction is a shared experience. And not, alas, an experience shared with you, but an experience shared with your characters. J.K. Rowling seems like a nice lady, but her readers love Harry. They didn’t go on J.K.’s journey of writing the book, they went on Harry’s journey of going to wizard school.

Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances, wrote in her 1941 article “Magazine Chief Warns Against Loss of Originality”:

The writer’s job is to create people who live and move—real folks in whose existence the reader can believe. Therefore the characters in a good western story won’t be so very different from those in any other kind except outwardly. They may do different things but they will be moved by the same motives, react to the same stimuli. Cowboys and prospectors and ranchers’ daughters surely love and hate and fear and dare much as any other people. You may, because you are writing of frontier country, heighten their daring, accent their courage, but these characteristics will be aroused in them by the same springs of action that activate any other group of people.

Motivation—what drives your characters into and through the story—is not all you need to make your readers FEEL! FEEL! FEEL! but it is a major component. In this series, we’ll look at some basic concepts around motivation, what motivates us, what we respond to as humans, and talk about how we can extend these ideas into the imagined lives of our characters.

Starting with some basics, a dictionary definition of motivation: “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”

Pretty simple on the surface, but this works in two ways, usually simultaneously. In his book Unstoppable Confidence, Kent Sayre asks: “Are you moving toward your goals or are you moving away from your problems?”

Aaron Sorkin, in a Hollywood Reporter Writer Roundtable, boiled it down to two things:

“Intention and obstacle: Cling to that like a lifeboat. Somebody wants something, something’s standing in their way. Intention and obstacle. Once you have that, that’s the drive shaft of the car.”

Motivation is the beginning of intent: I intend to write this blog post motivated by a desire to help people write better. I’m happy to report that there’s no particular obstacle in my way, which is why the details of me sitting down to write this wouldn’t make a good story. Again, motivation starts your characters, drives them forward or prevents them from driving forward, and plot is the series of obstacles placed in their way.

Okay, so then what motivates people? Is it stuff we tend to fixate on in fantasy and other genre writing? Revenge, power, etc.? Or is there at least a slightly deeper level to this?

Bear with me while I invoke Tony Robbins just after he got in some hot water by publicly misunderstanding the intent—dare I say it: the motivations of the #MeToo movement.

As with anyone, myself included, advice can and should come from a variety of sources and none of us always gets it right. Tony Robbins got it wrong about #MeToo and has fallen behind on a few other subjects in the past. Though I’ve listened to some of his CDs and read a few of his books I’ve always found myself editing out some of his advice—ignoring his pitch for diet drinks and other sales add-ons, identifying some incorrect information like a Yale study on goal setting that doesn’t actually exist. Let’s not focus on what he got wrong, though, when there are some valuable things he got right.

In his program Personal Power Tony Robbins said:

“The differences in people are not their needs, we all have the same needs, the difference in people are merely the vehicles we’ve learned to try to fulfill them.”

Translate that as “needs” equals “motivation,” and “vehicles to try to fulfill them” equals what Sorkin called “intent.”

We all need food and water, we all need to feel safe (which he should have kept in mind re: #MeToo), we all need to breathe, we all need to sleep… simple basics like that. But beyond those physical needs, we have a common pattern of emotional needs, and these emotional needs, for good or ill, motivate us to do almost everything we do beyond taking care of our basic physical survival. Here, based on the work of others before him, are Tony Robbins’s six human needs:

Certainty

Uncertainty

Significance

Connection

Growth

Contribution

In this series, we’ll break down each one and talk about how that could motivate a character in a story.

See you next week.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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I HAVE A LARGE PROBLEM WITH THE WORD LARGE

Frequent readers of Fantasy Authors Handbook know that I am willing to own my own personal biases. Like everyone, I have opinions, many of which can not be supported by facts, but I try to have the maturity to avoid presenting those opinions as rules. Yes?

Okay, then, here’s another one. This week I fully own but at least attempt to explain (and therefor, like a psychic virus, spread) my personal distaste of the word large.

Large is, indeed, a word, and like other words, it often has a perfectly fine place in fiction of all genres. According to my dictionary app it means “of considerable or relatively great size, extent, or capacity.” For me, at least, it’s primary use is in describing the number of fries in an order or the size of a cup of coffee or soft drink. You may have had a large fries and large Coke with your large burger for lunch today. It’s also the clothing size they always seem to have left after all the XLs and XXLs have sold out. Not sure what that says about America, but there it is.

So… yeah. It’s a fine word.

Except when it shows up in fiction to describe pretty much anything else:

The large starship warped out of orbit.

Galen was a large man with an even larger ego.

The monster looked like a large crab with a squirrel’s head.

Large doors opened onto the castle’s inner bailey.

And yes, I have seen variations on these sentences—more than once—and I have always suggested that author find a better word to say the same thing, the same thing being: it (whatever it is) is bigger than normal.

Author John Grisham wrote, “There are three types of word: words we know, words we should know, and words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”

Good advice, in general. I don’t think we should all go down the Lovecraftian rabbit hole and fill our work with head-scratchers just to show off the fact that the same dictionary app also has a thesaurus in it. But still, fiction should come alive. Your writing should have a life to it beyond the obvious qualifier, and “large” is just as obvious a qualifier as you can find. As such, I find it boring and clunky—and I know we’re not going for boring and clunky, so what else then besides large?

First of all, the obvious synonyms:

The massive starship warped out of orbit.

Galen was a big man with an even bigger ego.

The monster looked like an immense crab with a squirrel’s head.

Huge doors opened onto the castle’s inner bailey.

Simple, right? And all four of these match to what Grisham would call “words we know.” But these are words that at least have a smidge more poetry to them.

A “large starship” really doesn’t have much character. Not that making it “massive” is all the description you’ll ever need, but it’s assumed that, though both words are generic in that there is no precise quantity that matches directly to either large or massive, massive is bigger than large. And why can’t your starship be massive? Why can’t the castle doors be huge?

A “big man” fits the idiom better. I’m a good sized guy but no one has ever referred to me as “large.” That just doesn’t sound right. I buy clothes from the Big & Tall section, not the Large & Tall section. In college, my friends used to call me Big Phil because there was another guy in our circle of friends also named Phil and I was physically bigger than him. Things may have gone slightly differently if my name were Marge, but otherwise, it’s going to be Big Phil, Big Jim, Big Pussy*…

Easy enough, but then let’s challenge ourselves to go a level deeper than the synonyms.

When the starship warped out of orbit the planet shuddered in its wake.

This shows the effect of the thing—it’s so big it has a gravitational effect on the planet beneath it.

Galen towered over the others, feeling taller still when he looked down on them.

Here we see Galen being an egotistical prick.

The squirrel-head’s eyes rose five, ten… twelve feet over Bronwyn’s head as the shadow of its crab-like body descended over the whole street.

Now we see the effect of the size of the crab and use a few careful specifics to convey a sense of movement.

War elephants plodded three abreast through the doors that swung open onto the castle’s inner bailey.

Here I’m showing you how big the doors are by providing three things you know to be big fitting through them at the same time.

Showing, being the operative word in all these examples. I’m not just telling you that something is, accurately but dryly, large.

 

—Philip Athans

*Did I just break a rule from last week’s post? Blame The Sopranos.

 

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DOING MY OWN WRITING EXERCISES, PART 4: A LIST OF LISTS

In an effort to actually do the writing exercises I’ve recommended here (and elsewhere), I’ve already done my list of titles, writing to an image, sort of a failure on a dialog exercise, and writing to a random story prompt. Over the weekend, though, I added to my list of behavior prompts the category WRITING EXERCISE. Inspired by my online Writer’s Digest tutorial Six Strategies for Breaking Through Writer’s Blockthis prompt will pop up on my calendar and get me working through some of these exercises. The category asks for an additional roll on the following subtable*:

  1. List of 10 murder methods
  2. List of 10 character names
  3. List of 10 writing prompts
  4. List of 10 plot points
  5. List of 10 interesting locations
  6. List of 10 words you never use
  7. Write to a prompt
  8. Write to a random image

Having done the last two, let’s try all of the first six today…

 

List of 10 murder methods

This is, of course, taken from Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, which we use in my online Pulp Fiction Workshop (starting up again in a couple days, by the way).

  1. Crushes his victims in a commercial trash compactor.
  2. Lures her victims into an airlock then blows them into space.
  3. Injects his victims with a bioengineered virus that seems to be a different fatal disease in each victim.
  4. A gun that acts as a sort of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) tuned to the human brain.
  5. A giant fish swallows people but doesn’t digest them—it feeds on the heat energy generated by their efforts to escape.
  6. Plants make you want to kill yourself. (Wait, no… that’s a terrible idea.)
  7. A poison that mimics an allergic reaction.
  8. Slowly “gaslight” an innocent person until he kills your intended victim himself.
  9. A psychically controlled swarm of bees.
  10. A teleporting spike that can simply appear inside your intended victim, killing him, then it teleports back to a remote location leaving no trace.

 

List of 10 character names

Today, let’s go with names for characters from a far-future space opera science fiction story.

  1. Vexx
  2. Captain Exten
  3. Gurrax
  4. Nillarra
  5. Ouron
  6. Gavull
  7. Pieceworker Ten
  8. Epeen
  9. Jimblest
  10. Towler

I made these up right off the top of my head, but should Google them before I use them for anything. Chances are at least one of them shows up in a book, movie, or video game. I tried Nillarra and got a musician named Nil Lara, but no exact matches, so I’m good to go on that one, at least.

 

List of 10 writing prompts

Keeping it in the Fantasy Author’s Handbook family, I’ll generate these using my post from a couple weeks ago: “The Five-Minute Story.”

  1. A remote piloted drone that the hero Captain Jenkins must destroy or risk the destruction of his homeworld and that Lord Frixx must possess at all costs so he can use it to blackmail his father into making him sole heir of the family estates.
  2. Silanna has to find a vial containing a virulent plague that was stolen from her laboratory before anyone finds out it’s missing, but her intern, Hellux, the one who stole it and sold it before he understood what it was, is trying to get it back first and cover his tracks.
  3. The Sacred Dagger of Vermivex has brought Goran nothing but misery, so he brings it to the Swamp Witches to be destroyed, but one of the witches has other plans for the demonic weapon.
  4. Intergalactic thief Teenia stole the little scout ship to escape the hellworld of Kleeveland one step ahead of its owner, Borb the Slugmaster, who’s eggs (unknown to Teenia) are stowed in the ship and are almost ready to hatch.
  5. The last bottle of Champagne in the galaxy is Mula’s father’s prized possession but has made him the target of every smuggler and crime boss in the galaxy. When he’s kidnapped and the kidnappers demand the bottle as ransom, how can Mula tell him she accidentally drank it?
  6. Captain Hatton immediately regrets agreeing to transport the slime weevil across settled space to the new game reserve, but he’s committed to making the delivery no matter how many big game hunters are fast on his trail.
  7. Linda never understood why people were so afraid of snakes until she started turning into one.
  8. When Sergeant James went AWOL and hid in a huge plastic box in a truck parked outside the base, how could he know the box would be loaded onto a remote-piloted cargo ship headed for Mars in advance of the first human mission to the Red Planet?
  9. Grax and Keebo never liked each other—in fact, they hate each other—and now they find they’re the last survivors on their starship, which is slowly losing air, and there’s only one spacesuit left aboard.
  10. The last man on Earth stumbles across the last woman on Earth, then discovers that the global cataclysm that killed everyone else was her fault.

 

List of 10 plot points

A plot point is, y’know, anything that happens.

  1. The main engines fail to fire.
  2. Swarms of rats begin to flood the streets and they seem to be whispering to each other.
  3. The missing crewman is finally found—in pieces in the food locker. They’ve been eating him for the last six weeks of the long flight to Titan.
  4. Every cellphone on Earth gets the same text message: It’ll all be over soon.
  5. The fingerprints on the murder weapon don’t match anyone on the starship’s crew manifest.
  6. The particles making up the ring around a Saturn-like gas giant turn out to be trillions of individual living creatures.
  7. The spinning space station begins to accelerate out of control, increasing the pull of artificial gravity to dangerous levels.
  8. The baby turns out to be a half-orc.
  9. A powerful ion storm suddenly blows in.
  10. A sniper destroys an important item with a long-range laser rifle.

 

List of 10 interesting locations

Places where a plot point might happen, a story might start or end, or otherwise be interesting to explore in our created-completely-on-the-fly space opera setting.

  1. A ruined cathedral on a distant planet.
  2. A fast-spinning asteroid.
  3. An abandoned space station.
  4. A haunted, derelict starship.
  5. A planet covered by a giant sentient fugal colony.
  6. An extradimensional laboratory in close orbit around the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy.
  7. The roof of a thousand-story skyscraper.
  8. A volcano lair—because how can you not have a volcano lair?
  9. The quiet, dusty streets of an abandoned Mars colony.
  10. In a space elevator, going up.

 

List of 10 words you never use

Then either consider using them, or be proud of yourself that you don’t and never will!

  1. Pussy
  2. Triggered
  3. Voluptuous
  4. Instantiated
  5. Libtard
  6. Towards
  7. Dove (as past tense of dive)
  8. Rightsizing
  9. Spooktacular
  10. Shart

Yeah, I’m not going to start using any of those.

You may have noticed that some of the items on all of the lists are obviously goofy, clearly here for comedic effect. But does that make them bad? Who says a space opera story can’t have a little humor in it? And what might start as a joke could, if treated seriously, make for a perfectly exciting and interesting drama. But in the end, the point of these exercises is to have fun while getting your creative juices flowing. If any one these things lead to an interesting story, this was a couple hours well spent.

Okay… your turn!

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Yes, I am a giant nerd who makes actual decisions in real life based on d20 and d8 die rolls. Got a problem with that? Roll 1d6:

  1. Take a long walk on a short pier.
  2. Yes, you can use a random number generator app.
  3. He who is without weird personality quirks can cast the first stone.
  4. Try it, you have at least a 1-3 chance on 1d8 of liking it!
  5. Do you really think your 401(k) is managed any better?
  6. No, I will not give you my lunch money.

 

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CAN I PAY ATTENTION MORE? SHOULD I?

Before we go any farther, please click on over to the TED Talk site and watch Amishi Jha’s talk “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind.”

Got it?

Okay.

I have no idea how this video came to my attention, but it was in my bookmarks list I call FOLLOW UP ON THIS. That’s a folder in which I dump web articles, blog posts, etc. that are of at least passing interest to me, to be read and maybe shared via Twitter at a later date. Anyway, this one came up over the weekend and I went in with some interest. My daughter was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder several years ago, and the more I learned about it the more I started to understand that it explained a lot about my own life. Getting a doctor to believe that, though, turned out to be an insurmountable challenge. Clearly they thought I was just trying to score some Adderall, because, y’know, I’m heavy into the teenage rave scene.

But anyway, I was interested in the subject matter going in and generally find that I can track TED Talks pretty easily. This one’s eighteen minutes and nine seconds long. I can pay attention through that, right? Sure. Anyone can.

But very quickly I realized I wasn’t.

Or was I?

I’m not sure how far into the video it was that I opened another window on my computer and scheduled a tweet to draw attention to my upcoming Pulp Fiction Workshop, but I did that fairly early on.

But that was only after my mind started wandering to my own TED Talk—imagining what that would be about and what I would say. I started mentally delivering a twenty-minute speech on monsters—at least for a few minutes—while Amishi Jha was speaking.

Then I started to wonder, What does it say about me that I’m not paying attention to an eighteen-minute speech about why it’s of paramount importance to pay attention?

That’s when I looked at the time remaining in the video: 10:35. I’d made it less than halfway through before I needed to know how much more time was left because that was… important?

It was at about 9:30 remaining in the video that I started taking notes in the cheap spiral notebook that’s always open on the desk next to me. Those notes begin:

FAH POST re: Concentration & Attention.

So, that’s what’s happening now.

Off in the margin I wrote:

Also listening to The Comeback from downstairs.

It was Sunday and my wife was home, re-binge-watching Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant faux reality show. I’m used to working while activity is going on around me. I don’t require silence to work. Right now, my daughter’s watching cartoons downstairs and I’m typing away just fine.

I did manage to pay attention when Amishi Jha got to that bit about four of eight minutes, but that’s what my notes say. It’s been two days and I have no recollection of what that was, so I’ll now pause to go back to the video to check that part out again.

Stand by.

I’m having trouble finding that bit, but I wanted to copy this text from one of her slides:

Mind-Wandering Leads to

ERRORS

Missed Information

Difficulty Making Decisions

Okay, back to trying to find that four of eight thing…

I clicked on the progress bar looking for it and happened to stop just when she said, “…died of a massive heart attack at age forty-six” and that totally freaked me out, making me feel as though I’m fully seven years overdue for that. Unsure of my math skills, I came to that seven year figure via the little calculator widget on my computer.

It just occurred to me that I could take eighteen minutes and nine seconds to just watch the whole thing over again, but… why don’t I want to do that?

Found it!

With 8:41 remaining she shows a slide that reads:

You will be

UNAWARE

of what I’m saying

for 4 out of the next 8 Minutes

I think I jotted that down because I didn’t believe her. I may not have been aware of what she was saying more than 50% of the time, and yet, as I’m writing this, I feel fairly confident that I have the gist of what she’s presented: Inattention is bad for you, causes stress; and mindfulness practice can help you be better at paying attention to stuff.

This seems to indicate that I need mindfulness practice, and lots of it, right now.

But then, had I been mindfully in the moment, paying strict attention to every second, or even 50% of Amishi Jha’s TED Talk, would I have then written this blog post?

If I don’t allow my mind to wander, will I miss that elusive story idea? Would I have made these notes over the past couple days in that same notebook?

“I got this bottle of… what the fuck…” he squinted down at the label, “Voove Click-kwott… whatever. I think it’s French for ‘Eighty Fuckin’ Dollars’ or some shit.”

or…

Turns out, shooting this guy’s finger off was the best thing that ever happened to me.

…which then goes into a short story idea.

I scribbled both of those while paying strict attention to work.

And I can, and do, by the way, pay very strict attention to the work at hand. I wouldn’t have made it this long as a professional editor if I couldn’t. And I have learned to pay attention to my own attentiveness and stop myself, deadlines be damned, if my mind is wandering to the point where I stop adding value to my client’s work. I come back to it only with a clearer mind.

Do we actually want to be forever and always in the moment?

Setting aside my strong feeling that no amount of meditation is going to actually make that happen for me, I don’t think I want it to.

I like the ideas and inspirations too much.

I live on them just as much as I live on attention to detail.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE FIVE-MINUTE STORY

Well, the idea for a story in five minutes, anyway. Actually writing it will take somewhat longer!

I’ve described my own efforts at writing to prompts and writing based on images—but what if we can’t draw or want to actually create our own prompts? What do we do when we’re just plain stuck, or we’re looking for some kind of random inspiration just to try something new, to launch ourselves into a new genre or just to experiment without the occasional silliness that can come out of those random prompt generators? I have talked about just sitting down and letting things flow out of you, but that isn’t always so easy—sometimes it just doesn’t come.

So this week I’ll submit my “five minute story” method—or what really comes down to a method of creating your own simple writing prompt. It’s a three-stage approach, which I’ve tweaked for the various genres, starting with:

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, or THRILLER

  1. Write down the first valuable thing that comes to mind—literally any one or two words: a magic item? A computer file? Enlightenment?
  2. Write two people’s names, male or female (or whatever). One person does not want that thing. This is your hero. The other person absolutely requires that thing. This is your villain.
  3. What would have to happen to make the first person absolutely have to have that thing or absolutely have to destroy that thing? Add to that, what the second person would do—however extreme—to get that thing.

That’s the simplest version of it. I switched it up a bit for…

HORROR

  1. Write down the first scary thing that comes to mind—literally any one word: spiders? Snakes? Isolation?
  2. Write one person’s name, male or female (or whatever). That person is not afraid of that thing.
  3. What would have to happen to make that person afraid of that thing?

…but I think this second version could also lend itself to a thriller (which in many cases is essentially a non-supernatural horror story) or a fantasy or science fiction story, too, for that matter. Go ahead and play with these, almost Mad Libs style:

Write down the first [adjective] thing that comes to mind—literally any one word: stinky, magical, high-tech, disgusting, dangerous, mysterious… You get the idea.

The real value of this comes not in the distillation of all stories into three simple elements. By now everyone should know that I tend to rail against ideas like that. But instead I hope this will point out that “a valuable thing” and reasons people may or may not want it leaves infinite combinations available to you.

For instance, the “thing” does not have to be a physical object. This would be the simplest version of the concept. Everyone wants to have or destroy the Maltese Falcon or the One Ring… the so-called “MacGuffin.” But blow that up in the same way I encourage people who participate in my Pulp Fiction Workshop to explode the definition of things like “murder method” from Lester Dent’s pulp formula to include, essentially, anything that makes how that character operates unique and interesting—even in a story in which no murder in any form takes place. That “formula” still holds up if you rename that bit “seduction method,” or “divination method,” or “boxing method,” for any of the various genres. Maybe this “thing” is an idea or feeling: enlightenment or isolation, as I mentioned above.

Either way, the trick is to get specific as quickly as possible. You can start with something like “piece of jewelry” but the sooner you decide it’s a diamond tiara once belonging to Princess Diana the quicker a story starts to take form. If the hero is not interested in isolation, then the horror story starts with the hero forced into isolation (The Shining, anyone?) or forced to keep the villain in isolation (The Thing).

Also note that I asked you to write down not just a placeholder like [HERO] or [VILLAIN] but an actual name. Do that first—start with “Galen wants this” or “Bronwyn doesn’t want the other thing.” The sooner you have a name for those characters the sooner they start to mean something to you, and then so does the story. Think of it this way: Which is a more eye-catching headline, which is a story you’d rather read?

A GUY DIED YESTERDAY

or

DAVID BOWIE DIED YESTERDAY

Stories are about people—the sooner you start to get to know those people yourself, the sooner you’ll start telling a story.

Anyway, give it a try and let me know what you come up with. I’ll do the same!

 

—Philip Athans

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NOTES FOR A NOVEL THAT I WILL (PROBABLY) NEVER WRITE

“The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.”

I have two notebooks going at any given time. One has notes on ongoing projects, it’s where I keep track of work time, jot down things like “find: bio of Arthur Conan Doyle,” which I scribbled just this morning while listening to the Overdue podcast episode on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I added one to my Amazon wish list a couple hours later, but not all of these little notes end up anywhere—they don’t always get re-read. I’m not even sure I’ll ever get around to ordering, much less reading, that ACD bio. But when I get to the end of a notebook, or for a variety of other reasons including idle curiosity, I flip through and try to act on things I’ve jotted down.

Then I have a second notebook I’ve called RANDOM WRITING. In that, I write—by hand—whatever it is I’m currently working on. Yesterday I finished a short horror story. There’s still part of a jungle pulp story in there that needs to be finished.

But carrying that notebook around to work on that story, I noticed that on the first page—or, actually, the sixth page since there’s the remains of five more pages carefully torn out at the serration, but the rest still clinging to the wire spiral—there’s an idea for a novel that, should I suddenly decide to be honest with myself, I’ll never actually write.

Typing this, as best I can, to mimic my scrawling handwriting in the cheap spiral notebook, I give you…

 

——-

 

↓DO NOT USE THAT TITLE!

Cthulhu Warming idea

 

horror from beyond the stars lands somewhere—giant Lovecraftian horror that gives birth to monsters, starts changing the environment

 

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT:

How a global disaster is experienced by people in different parts of the world

 

NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

—Soldier on scene—uneducated “there”/kill

—Reporter on scene—educated “there”/understand

—Poor, 3rd world person—has no idea

—20something from LA—doesn’t care

scientist: can’t get access

—NY comedy writer—funny? too soon?

—small town preacher—desperate to seem to have answers

—cable news producer—managing the crazy, reporting everything

 

Start with: what the monster does

set a clock—everyone else reacts

there’s NOTHING you can do about it.

there is NO explanation of it, ever.

EACH experiencer has some combination of mutually exclusive theories, which are proven incorrect—but in many cases they stay with that idea.

 

* EACH experiencer has relationships/secondary characters and STORIES/CONFLICT of their own!

 

This is a book about THESE PEOPLE, not the monster or fighting the monster.

 

——-

 

I have dozens of these.

How many of these do you have?

How many of them have actually ended up as a completed novel or short story?

I said I have dozens of them, but there might have been hundreds over the years. Reading it again from maybe a year later (the page isn’t dated but if it’s in that notebook it’s from on or after February 28, 2017) I can see so very much that needs to be rethought before it’s worth writing—especially that list of characters. But whatever else this is, whether or not it ever becomes more than a page of notes and a blog post about jotting down ideas for stories, this was not wasted time!

None of these have ever been wasted time.

This is a vital, early, and essential part of the writing processes—my writing process, anyway. When an idea for a story strikes you, have a place to record it in one form or another. Keep it. Sit with it, dismiss it if you have to, tear it apart and remake it into something else, but write it down in the moment.

You never know.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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