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Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

More on Short Story Origins

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?

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Of Characters and Cobbler's Elves

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.

Magic??

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!
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Mythic Structure & Storytelling

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.  Read More 

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Writers at the Beach, 3/28/10

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  Read More 

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Writers at the Beach, 3/25/10

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.
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The Tale of a Tale

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. Read More 

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Potchking

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.  Read More 

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What You (probably don't) Know

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.
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Failure to Launch?

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 ...  Read More 

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