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Bullets and Butterflies: A Blog by Weldon Burge
February 23, 2011
A common question writers are asked is, "So, where do your story ideas come from?" Stephen King, on his official Web site, answered the question in this way: "I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it's seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question 'What if?' 'What if' is always the key question."
I totally agree. Ideas come winging at me like missiles from anywhere and everywhere--overheard snippets of conversations, newspaper items, TV commercials, even graffiti on a city wall! There are so many ideas that I couldn't possibly write all the stories that occur to me. I have notes everywhere, jotted in moments of hot inspiration. Writer's block? What's that? The trick is just being open to whatever occurs to you, and then asking that magic question, What if?
January 11, 2011
If you know any writers, you’ve probably heard something like the following: “I started to write a scene in my novel, pretty much following my outline. But then one of the characters went into a totally different direction. Before long, the characters ending up writing the scene for me, in a way I never expected. And it’s better because of it!”
Non-writers scratch their heads at this. Is this some form of magic? Is there really a muse that usurps the writer’s brain and writes the story? Is this something like the cobbler’s elves?
I was just working on a chapter in my police procedural novel, tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow. In the chapter, the body of a child is discovered in a remote area of a county park, and the murder may be related to similar murders in a nearby city. This brings up a case of jurisdiction (county vs. city police departments) that I hadn’t considered earlier, and this required that I create a new character, a detective from the county PD. The character was originally only a walk-on, but I quickly realized he was a more significant character, and he changed the chapter as I wrote it. He will appear in subsequent chapters.
The January 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest includes an interview with Harlan Coben, best-selling author of numerous thrillers such as Tell No One, Just One Look, Long Lost, Hold Tight, and Caught. During the interview, WD asked, “So do your characters ever surprise you—do they become real to you in that way?” He answered, “Oh, they surprise me all the time. … I don’t like it when people make it seem more magical. It’s not. It’s work. It can be wonderful, and it can be thrilling, but it’s not really magical.”
When I first read this, I honed in on Coben’s claim, “It’s work.” I know what he means. Characters may seem to take on lives of their own, but only after the writer has given great thought to those characters, has worked with them in the story, has fully developed them. Maybe, as a writer, you’ve learned something more about the character as a scene progresses, and the character moves into that new area as your broaden that character’s role in the story. Magic? I don’t think so. It comes from hard work, from the writer being intimate with the characters he/she has created.
Maybe, as the characters have matured in your mind, they no longer fit the outline you originally devised, simply because it forces them to act out of character. This may be a surprise, that a character may go through door B instead of door A as you originally envisioned. But, it’s really no surprise at all—you’re subliminal thoughts were headed in that direction as the character was being developed. No magic. Just hard work.
When characters take over a story, it’s almost always a good and desired turn of events. As a writer, go with the flow. Think of it as a reward for the work you’ve already put into your work-in-progress!
November 12, 2010
I've always loved horror movies and horror fiction, going back even before I learned how to read. I remember my Uncle Donald and his box of EC comics, which he shared with me despite my mother's admonition, "Don't show him that trash! You'll ruin his brain!" Too late, too late. I was probably 4 or 5 at the time, and I came to love those comics filled with the walking dead, vampires, and gruesome death.
I also remember going to the Everett Theater in Middletown, DE every Friday night. The theater often showed Hammer Film double-features and many other horror movies in the late '60s (yes, I'm dating myself!) that scared the crap out of me. I loved every minute of it. I read every ghost and eerie story I could get my grubby hands on.
But, I was experiencing horror only as entertainment.
I can pinpoint one story that changed my life and inspired me not only to read horror, but to write it. This happened in 1969, when I was 13. I can thank Anthony Vercoe, the author of "Flies," for starting my freelance career.
The story appeared in the fine little anthology, 11 Great Horror Stories, published by Scholastic Book Services. That's right, I now write nasty stories thanks to Scholastic! The book contains mini-classics like "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft, "The Oblong Box" by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Judge's House" by Bram Stoker, and "Thus I Refute Beelzy" by John Collier. What 13-year-old wouldn't be impressed?
But Vercoe's story was unlike anything I'd ever read before, it was so in-your-face, so no-holds-barred when it came to the gross out. I've certainly read stronger stories since then, and there were many other pulp stories of similar caliber, but "Flies" made a difference for me.
April 20, 2010
During the Writers at the Beach conference last month (and particularly during Khris Baxter's workshop, Screenwriting Techniques for Fiction Writers), I was forced into the realization that the novel I began way back in 1987 was (1) worthy of resurrection, (2) poorly structured, and (3) in need of major rewriting. (See my earlier blog entry, Writers at the Beach, 3/28/10.) In the intervening weeks since the conference, the novel has been flopping around in my brain like a fish on deck. But, the more I contemplate the story, the more frustrated I become. And the problem is clearly structure.
So, I've decided to once again read The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. I've read Joseph Campbell's work on mythology, most notably the Bill Moyer interview, The Power of Myth, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's dense reading and highly academic, to be sure, but the truths concerning the importance of mythology in our lives (and our writing) are clear and illuminating.
Vogler's book, borrowing heavily not only from Campbell but also from Carl Jung's archetypes, nails down mythic structure for the writer in the most succinct and user-friendly form I've seen. Some may say it takes an approach to writing that is too formulaic. Well, only if you're looking for a lazy, cookie-cutter approach. For the true writer, Vogler's book is a "bible" of sorts, providing a foundation for story structure that does not necessarily stifle the writer's imagination and style. As with any tool, it's all in how you use it. Read the book. Learn it. Absorb it. Most important of all, USE it in your storytelling. And that, my friends, is the lesson that I must now learn—knowing is not the same as DOING.
I'm aware of character archetypes, and I think the characters in my tale are fairly well defined in that regard. But the story structure of my novel does not follow the three-act "hero's journey" in Vogler's book. And I now think it should. I managed to write about 150 pages of the novel, years ago. Most of that will now be scrapped. So, back to the blackboard, so to speak.
The novel, a suspense/thriller tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow (yes, it's coincidentally a Metallica song), will fit beautifully into the stages of the "journey"—the Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting with the Mentor; Crossing the First Threshold; Test, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward; Road Back; Resurrection; and the Return with the Elixir. Yes, my story will indeed work with these stages—I just haven't structured the novel that way yet.
I have work to do.
And, once the novel structure is determined, I'll be free to let the story grow from that solid foundation. Perhaps the final novel will be far different from the way I currently envision the story. And that would be superb! I'm all for story evolution, particularly if the characters usurp the storytelling.
A few years back, Ed Dee, excellent writer of police procedurals, told me that writing a novel is much like driving a car at night on unfamiliar roads. You may know your destination, may even have a roadmap on the seat next to you or the GPS glowing on the dash, but you can only see as far as the headlights extend on the road in front of you. You have no idea what may be on the road ahead, or what detour you may have to take en route. No matter how detailed you've structured and outlined your novel, be prepared for—indeed, welcome—side trips and detours as your characters and plot mature in the storytelling process.
But, I'm not even in the car yet.
Back to work!
I'll keep you posted ...
March 28, 2010
Well, today ended the Writers at the Beach conference for 2010. I'm crossing my fingers there will be a conference in 2011. I'd like to make this an annual event!
Only one workshop today:
Screenwriting Techniques for Fictions Writers (10:30-12:30)
Khris Baxter was the leader of this workshop, and it fit nicely with the earlier workshop of his, Building Dramatic Scenes That Work, that I took Friday morning. The session today focused on structure and how techniques used by screenwriters can be adapted when writing a novel. I was familiar with much of the material (the three-act structure, story arc, the hero's quest), but I still picked up on some key thoughts.
The main thing I took to heart was Khris's statement, "Structure is form, not formula." He's absolutely correct, and even though it may seem simplistic on the surface, I suspect this is something with which many writers (including myself) battle.
The workshop today forced me to rethink the novel I started back in 1987 (yes, I am THAT old!) but never finished. I realize now, the reason I never finished it, despite my laundry list of excuses, is because the novel was never adequately structured. For our writing exercise this morning, Khris had us apply the three-act structure (including an inciting incident and plot point in Act I, the Setup; a midpoint and second plot point in Act II, the Confrontation; and the ultimate climax in Act III, the Resolution) to our current writing project. I couldn't complete the assignment! Even though I KNOW this stuff, I've never actually applied it to the novel!
I would like to resurrect the book I started over 20 years ago, but it will clearly take far more attention to structure than I'd previously planned. Perhaps, back in 1987, I wasn't a mature enough writer (and maybe that's just another excuse).
Regardless, Khris inspired me to reconsider my approach and develop a stronger, better thought-out story structure for the novel.
I guess I learned something today!
March 25, 2010
I’m attending the Writers at the Beach conference at Rehoboth Beach, DE, held at the Atlantic Sands Hotel right on the boardwalk overlooking the ocean. The first thing I did after checking in and going to my fourth-floor room was to open wide the balcony door and gaze out over the waves. It’s chilly and certainly not “beach weather”—but, man, that fresh ocean air is welcome in the lungs! There is definitely something calming, refreshing, maybe even primal about looking out over the ocean, water as far as the eye can see. (I’m sure the locals would say, “Sure, whatever.”)
I came for early registration (the workshops actually start tomorrow) and met Maribeth Fischer, author of the novel The Life You Longed For, founder of the Rehoboth Beach Writer’s Guild, and organizer of this annual conference. Quite a herculean task, judging from what I’ve seen so far. Kudos and thanks to Maribeth for pulling this all together.
Tonight, there was a “meet & greet” in the hotel restaurant for conference attendees. Light food, drinks, live music, and plenty of conversation. There are quite a few people here already! I met a couple, the Hagartys, who make a living selling “virtual land” on the Internet. Long story, but a fascinating one—they actually met long distance online and developed the business. Amanda is writing a fantasy novel. This is her first conference, and I think she’ll learn a lot this weekend to help her along.
I’m pretty sure I will, too! I’m looking forward to a great weekend of workshops and networking with fellow writers, editors, publishers, and agents.
March 11, 2010
Let me tell you a story--a history, actually--of a story.
Back in 2004, I decided to write a short story about a hitman, from the hitman's POV, that takes place in the Chesapeake Bay area. I ended up with a nasty little story titled "Welcome to the Food Chain." I had just sold a story, "Another Highway Fatality," to the Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and the editor at the time was pulling together an anthology. I sent along "Welcome to the Food Chain" and, after a slight rewrite, the editor accepted the story.
Then, about four months later, Futures Mysterious folded its tent; the anthology would never be published. My story was homeless!
I threw "Food Chain" in a drawer for about a year, letting it "ripen." I do this at times so that I can, at some point, resurrect the story and examine it with different eyes. On second perusal, I thought the story still had legs. So, I rewrote it a bit more, then sent the story back to market. (more…)
August 20, 2009
The September 2009 issue of Writer's Digest contains an interview with science fiction writer Cory Doctorow (who is one of the key authors now pushing for Creative Commons licensing to allow posting of free online versions of authors' works--but that's a discussion for another blog entry). Doctorow claims that many writers are heavily into potchking, a Yiddish word for fiddling around instead of getting the job done. Poseur writers tend to talk about and daydream about writing, but rarely place butt in chair to actually do it. Then there are bona fide writers who will find every excuse imaginable not to write.
I have to admit, I've done my fair share of potchking over the years, particularly when it comes to writing a novel. (more…)
August 11, 2009
I attempted to catch up on my magazine reading this past weekend. I came across an interview with Brad Thor, author of The Last Patriot and other thrillers, in the December 2008 issue of Writer's Digest. (Yes, I'm very behind on my reading!) Near the end of the interview, Thor said, "'Write what you know' is the worst piece of advice you'll ever hear as a writer. If people only wrote what they knew, we never would've had a Ray Bradbury; we never would've had a J.K. Rowling."
I see Thor's point. I'm sure Jules Verne never journeyed to the center of the Earth, traveled around the planet in 80 days, dove 20,000 leagues under the sea, or hopped a rocket to the moon. Yet Verne certainly wrote classic novels on each of those topics.
But I also think Thor's statement is too simplistic.
July 20, 2009
Freelance writing is like dancing in a minefield. The more you dance, the more likely you are to lose a leg -- or worse.
In my years of freelancing, I've only been stiffed a few times by magazines either failing to launch or suddenly going under. That's why I typically work only with pay-on-acceptance publications and avoid pay-on-publication enterprises. Problem is, most fiction venues are the p-on-p types, and I love to write fiction. So, I dance ... (more…)