Just back from three days at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Three days of sessions on the craft and business of writing, as well as keynote speakers (Cory Doctorow! Chuck Wendig! Laura Bradbury! Others!) and a whole lot of networking. I listened to Don Maass describe how to write settings that readers will want to live in. Robert Wiersema gave his ideas on how to make readers cry and drove his point home by bringing his audience to tears. Chuck Wendig made his case for how to develop kick ass characters (we ended up outlining a story about a missing child whose parents opt to cope with the tragedy by CLONING the child). David Corbett steamrollered my brain with his rapid-fire erudition and thoughts on how writers can use various types of moral argument to develop plot and character. Larry Brooks and I had a wonderful chat about story structure and character (my notes from his book Story Engineering live on my office wall). Peter Rubie discussed voice and how you can make yours better (hint: practice the right things). By Sunday my brain was ready to hesplode.
The last session I attended was Liza Palmer’s “Your Voice, Your Career.” I expected another class full of tips, and there were plenty of those (including creating a Pinterest page for your characters!) but, for me, much of what made the session work was just Liza herself. She stood in front of her audience, laughing, digressing, talking a mile a minute, sometimes forgetting her place but then getting on with things anyway. None of the hiccups mattered.
Last week the amazing Danika Dinsmore invited me to participate in a “blog hop.” After much consideration (.00257 seconds), I said, “Abso*****lutely! What’s a blog hop?”
A blog hop, it turns out, is a themed pass-it-along blog post. The theme for this one is Writing Process and, specifically, these three questions:
Well, gird your loins folks because here are my fascinating and informative answers.
One of my favourite shows in the history of ever is Doctor Who. I remember a little of the original series and though I enjoyed it, it never captured me the way the new series has. Now I just need to hear the theme song and my mood improves. I get all dork-buckety and start speaking in a mock English accent. Ehlaoh.
There are a hundred reasons to love Doctor Who – the adventure, the humor, the wildly inventive stories – but I think the biggest reason I’ve come to love the Doctor is character.
I started with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. His devil-may-care attitude and his ability to convey intense emotion with the merest shift in facial expression held me spellbound. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler was impossible not to watch, and impossible not to root for. She seemed human. Fragile. But also blessed with an intrepid curiosity that made us believe she would climb into that phone box with a Yorkshire-voiced alien. Rose and the Doctor were a winning team and I was ready to follow them anywhere across space and time.
But then the unthinkable happened. Christopher Eccleston left. Regenerated right out of the Tardis. Sure, it was part of the script but I was heartbroken. The role of the Doctor would now be played by some guy called David Tennant. It was a sad end to what could have been the best television series ever. No one could replace Eccleston as the Doctor because he was so perfect: muscular, energetic, occasionally manic. He was, as he would say, fantastic. Now I was stuck with a wispy Scotsman I’d never heard of. This would suck. This would be the end of the show…
It’s an age old question: Where does inspiration come from? Is it some magic fairy dust that sprinkles its electric twinkle on a lucky few? Is it something that wears overalls and looks like work? Is it 99% sweat? There have been many different opinions over the centuries, from sages and scholars of many stripes and feathers, so I might as well offer my own filthy bird mess. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin inspirare meaning to “inflame” or “blow into.” To the ancients, inspiration was something that came from outside – the spirit that came in. Similarly “genius” was not something possessed, like a skill or a faculty, but rather a separate being that worked through someone (hence the root word “genie”). I like the idea that there’s a transcendental gnome in the corner just waiting to explode the bonfire of my imagination. But not so much that I’m willing to shrug off responsibility for my own creative flammability. Even if the spark comes from a mysterious source, I can chop the wood, lay the kindling, and have a little gasoline on hand – just in case.
In other words, it’s the getting ready that matters.
A great way to get ready for inspiration is to engage with life, to notice the grade 3 girl on the bus with skeleton patterned winter gloves (they even glow in the dark!), or watch a favourite movie, or prance around to an epic soundtrack, or read a great book, or get a massage, or go to the grocery and talk to strangers in the fruit aisle. These and similar strategies can get you out of your rut and on to something fresh – but they’re not, by themselves, inspiration. At least not dependably so. The problem with that favourite movie or a kooky trip to the grocery is that the effects wear off fast. A first viewing’s brilliance is a second viewing’s continuity error. Even the best writing workshop winds up in dull pencils. Life has a way of taking over.
So how do you keep that mojo a-flowin’ when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep and the sink is plugged and your credit card is putting on weight? How do you show up when you’re a complete fraud who’s never had a single original idea and only manages the occasional nice sentence through sheer monkey-at-the-typewriter, law-of-averages, dumbass luck? Because self-help is all fine and well. Workshops and courses can be life-changing and motivating. But when the coffee is poured and I’m sitting at my desk in front of an empty page, listening to the hum of my computer and watching the cursor go blink, blink, blink, I’m eventually going to run up against the burly, lipstick-wearing gorilla of action. I’m gonna have to ACTUALLY WRITE SOMETHING! And if I don’t, that gorilla is gonna peel my ego like a banana. Oh god, I need inspiration now! I need a great idea, fast!
Except that I don’t.
Really, I don’t.
A writing acquaintance recently asked me if I use an app called Flipboard. I recalled seeing it some time ago and I think I even installed it, but I didn’t find it very useful. At her prompting, however, I checked it out again. Wow. Whole other experience.
Billed as a “social news magazine”, Flipboard is a mobile app (for ios and Android) that allows you to create your own magazines on the fly. There are lots of other apps that let you to collect content from the web (Evernote springs to mind) but Flipboard does something that no other app I’ve found does. It makes content LOOK AWESOME. By stripping the content from the usual bilge that mars most websites, Flipboard lets you read the stories you’re interested in and JUST the stories you’re interested in. How does it do this, you ask? I have no clue. But I can tell you how to do this.