Tag Archives: inspiration

Building a Mystery

2 Mar
~ original image from wiki commons ~

~ original image from wiki commons ~

I am no stranger to writing myself into corners. As a lifelong ‘pantser’ I frequently stop writing and wonder what the hell has happened to my narrative. Seat of the pants can still work for me, especially with short fiction. I love the weird surprises and unnatural connections that spring to mind when I’m putting together a short story. In those cases, it’s usually my readers who are wondering what the hell happened (hopefully in a good way).

The worst experiences I’ve had with this kind of work is with mysteries. I’ve dabbled in all manner of genres, and my brain was somehow designed to get a thrill out of mixing things up. But the strange constraints of mysteries and detective stories hurt my brain. And the more I write about double-crosses, red herrings, and dangerous coincidences, the more I get lost. Even straightforward tales seem to curl up and die after I run out of steam. Honestly, some of my favorite work has been abandoned too soon, just because I can’t untangle the mess I’ve made of things.

Looking back at my favorite authors offers some help. My love of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle have all informed me in various ways. I’ve pretty well run through their work and have moved on to Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) for a more modern turn of the screw. But I still feel like I’m doing things the hard way.

As an aside, here are some choice words that Chandler had to say about Hammett:
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish… He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

This inspires me to simplify, tell the goddamn story, and not get caught up in being cute about it. I try, but it is a ongoing chore just keeping a lid on my weirdness. After a long distance from this kind of work, I am diving back in. I am plotting, working out the bugs, and outlining my schemes. I’ve been honing up on my “rules” of the game, and I have some fun ideas. But this is a kind of writing that I’ve never felt successful at before. I have an appetite to do the work, and yet it somehow still feels like work. That’s an unpleasant feeling.

If this focused effort doesn’t bear any fruit, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Probably drugs. Or something. Maybe take notes from both Hemingway and Hunter? Perhaps the seat of my pants has been the wrong place to drive this process from? Well, sooner or later, some kind of combination of hard work, planning, and illicit chemicals ought to shake something loose. We’ll see if it turns out to be readable.


An Old Post

30 Jan
Just a nasty old post

Just a nasty old post

This is one of the telephone poles in my neighborhood – right at the corner of a busy intersection. And while I know it isn’t anything special, it always catches my eye when I walk past. The damn thing is covered, from knee high all they up to 8 feet or so, with the remains of past notices. But the papers always get taken down – usually pretty quickly. I’m not sure if it’s a city services deal, or if posters are just conscientious about recycling. Either way, nobody pulls out the nails, staples, and… uh, what the hell is that? Paper clips? Washers? Cripes, people are weird.

Anyway, there is an unconscious history at work here. It’s not as cool as the cross-sections of poles I’ve seen online. But there is an artless, accidental beauty to this. Like a human skeleton – at once familiar and maybe a bit horrifying. Especially with the sun at an oblique angle, the topography jumps out, stands as testament to messages past. In an existential sense, these are the ghosts of messages that have come and gone. I like that.

Just weird and random

Just weird and random

And then there’s this piece of surreal, urban sculpture. What the hell is this about? I don’t know. People just randomly began to add things to this pole, a few months ago. Every other day, some odd article of clothing, or a toy, or strange ephemera would appear. I really took notice when the shoe showed up, but even before that – when the doll heads were stuck in there – you could tell it was going to be a strange thing.

These are the kinds of stories of objects that we don’t even look for. How many of these crazy things have I walked or driven by? It’s a compelling element to my creative eye. If I don’t see these things, I sure as hell won’t create them from whole cloth. Sometimes, reality is so bizarre that it goes beyond my imagination. Little details, tiny accidents, circumstantial art: I spend my some of my time looking for it now. It’s a crazy world, and I want to keep it that way. Maybe this kind of attention – this dumb urban exploration – is just the thing. Then again, I could be making a big deal over nothing. All epiphanies are personal, after all. But you gotta take your inspiration where you can.


Not the End of the World

28 Jan
( wikipedia commons )

( wikipedia commons )

I have a perverse fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories. When I was young, movies that involved the apocalypse, or near destruction of society grabbed me like nothing else. I’m thinking of Road Warrior, Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Dead. Real juicy stuff like that. My budding storyteller brain got stuck on those scenarios and I would try to adapt them to my own life. “How would I survive the zombie holocaust?” That was a very popular one in my imagination.

Maybe it was because I grew up with the constant idea of nuclear war. Movies like Threads, or The Morning After certainly chilled me – terrified me, even – but there was no happy fantasy I could play with there. I mean, the real end-of-the-world is a whole bunch of no fun. My own, personal, imaginary, post-apocalypse might have been a morbid place, but it one that was on my own terms. I don’t know. Maybe I’m psychoanalyzing too much. But the appeal of this imminent ‘sunset of civilization’ stayed with me – and grew and grew.

Here’s an excerpt from a story I’ve been working on. The origins are relatively mundane, really. There are these characters, and their lives are in shambles, they’re unhappy, and they split up. The fact that it happens in a city that has just barely escaped total devastation at the hands of an alien attack is a bonus. Well, kind of. It’s a complicated story, and I’m working the bugs out. But this section really made me smile.

    They looked at each other in silence. Their faces were mirrored in mutual confusion and regret. His jaw was clenched, her eyes were puffy. He lit another cigarette and she sipped her tea. Pete tried to understand the tangle of love and lust, hate and sadness that he was trapped in. He couldn’t grasp why he couldn’t move. This whole encounter was a microcosm of the last two years of his life, and it didn’t take another woman or another man to break it free – it took an alien invasion, and an entire city falling on their heads. She shifted in her seat and searched his face. He wanted to give her closure, something – anything – as a going away gift, to make it easy. She wasn’t going to cry, she wasn’t going to kiss him, or hit him. She just wanted to leave.

As I return to these weird themes, over and over again, I’m the lesson I’m learning is very simple: write what you want. I’m working with whatever turns my crank and gets me motivated. A lot of it is going to be trash, but I’m okay with that. Every piece of trash can be reused, recycled, made better. Which would be a nice point in a post-alien invasion story, huh? Think of all that junk in landfills. Hmm…

Pictures and Words 02: Beautiful Tools

22 Oct
Yes, the 'new' is fully ironic - sorry.

Yes, the ‘new’ is fully ironic – sorry.

This is my favorite writing instrument and it is responsible for hundreds of thousands of words – and some of them are good, I swear! In fact, I just finished up a draft of my newest novel on this machine. My guess is about 85% of the final pages came through the typewriter before I put them on the computer. It might seem like a time-consuming process, but I am actually lazy and super efficient. This type-first method gives me a chance to edit on-the-fly, as I retype it into a Word document. As a bonus, there is a stack of raw pages for me to look at – complete with all my spellcheck-free errors and grammatical gaffes.

Note to self: burn all original pages; the embarrassment would kill me; there may be collateral shame-deaths.

Now, it does have a few temperamental issues. The ink ribbon doesn’t auto-return. So I have to open the top and push a little lever to change the direction it advances. And, regardless of how much I use it, a couple of the keys stick – for no good, goddamn reason. The ‘m’ and the ‘j’ keys are the worst offenders, but some of the other keys like to get on the action too. There is very little to match the frustration of having to stop every time I use those letters.

But it has a solidity – a real, tangible quality – that is perfect for my work. The sound of the keys hitting the paper is like music to my ears. The feel of the impact in my fingers makes me feel like I’m actually making something. There is an uncanny rhythm and sensibility to the action of typing. The keys slap, I move the carriage back, I mark the page number when I pull out the paper, and I carefully insert another, and roll the wheel to line it up.

Now and then I forget what I’m doing and I reach for my wireless mouse. You take for granted how easy it is to distract yourself from writing. I can’t check my email, or look something up “really quick” on Wikipedia. Those short moments when my mind is idle don’t lead to a destructive cycle of procrastination. Instead, I just plow on, until I get done. Yes, it’s ‘just’ a machine. And yes, I am totally in love with it. No, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Pictures and Words 01: Art and Work

19 Oct
Bless you Angelica - wherever you are!

Bless you Angelica – wherever you are!

I suppose it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, these pictures are only worth about 500 – tops. Gojira (pictured) reads over my shoulder all day, but I don’t mind. For a giant, radioactive dinosaur, Gojira is a very good guardian against terrible grammar errors. I swear, not a day goes by that I don’t look at this big print and smile.

The artist – a long time friend – made it for a school project. She gave it to me for a ‘song’ basically and I feel so lucky. I don’t think she ever really understood how much I appreciate it. Not only do I have a life-long love of Godzilla movies, this kind of bombastic, pop-art treatment is right up my alley. And, of course, it means a lot that she made it. I have precious few works of art by my friends.

Obsessions and Habits

7 Feb
Jens Rehr

“Obsessions make my life worse & my work better”
photo by Jens Rehr

I write. Often and without any significant reward or payment. Even when the intangible elements of appreciation or praise are factored in, the ratio of work-to-reward is totally out of whack. From any reasonable perspective, writing is just not a viable path for me to take. Objectively, this might be correct. However…

When I am at my most honest and candid about my work, it can be a bit frightening. My life is ruled by Muses that could be described as ‘inscrutable’ at best. It feels as if these forces push and pull me into one project and then into another. I resist at my own peril – quite seriously, because if I don’t get work done my Muses can be cruel. Inspiration dries up, depression sets in, words become dull and flat. The best description of this compulsion I have ever heard goes something like this:

I do what I do because I cannot NOT do it.

I’m riding my wave of obsessive devotion like a feeble surfer atop an apocalyptic rogue wave. In my distracted hours, I hope and pray that my hard work will hone this habit and obsession into skill – I’ll get better at riding the wave. In my darkest hours, I feel as though I am already drowning under an oppressive sea of chaotic, impossible… well, ocean. Of something. All hyperbole, doom and gloom aside, it feels like an urge that I cannot fight against. And for the most part, I don’t try to fight it.

I pick over bits and pieces of stories. My mind disassembles and reassembles turns of phrase, and dialogue, and character motivations. When I watch a movie I have to suppress my internal editor, who wants very much to talk to the director. If it sounds like I am describing madness, or some highly functioning psychosis, then I’m being accurate. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve considered my behavior from an objective standpoint and come to the conclusion that my sanity is severely lacking. ‘Madness’ is probably endemic in the arts for a reason.

Sagmeister Inc

photo by Stefan Sagmeister

Given that, I have found my best and most enjoyable work comes from collaborations and writing groups. And I don’t mean online forums and groups – as nice as they can be, they just don’t replace good, old face-to-face. If there is a balm or curative for this affliction I call ‘writing’ it is found in the company of my fellow artists. Of course, it can’t really be cured, but at least I can treat the symptoms. Maybe we can recognize in each other that strange sense of other? Maybe there is an aspect of group therapy to all artist/writer groups? Regardless, I consider myself lucky to have worked with some wonderful folks.

I know that I need that outside touchstone to work well; someone or something to touch base with. It’s just another unforgiving factor of being extroverted. But even if I was left alone, stranded on a deserted island or marooned in space, I would be impelled to work. I’m sure it’s just a matter of practice and skill – the never-ending effort of honing my craft – but I couldn’t really stop. There probably is some clear and easy separation between habits, obsessions, and addictions – but when I try to apply it to my own work and life it all gets murky.

I can’t tell the difference between healthy, productive habits and unhealthy obsession anymore. And I should probably be more worried than I am. But I am enough of a realist to know that it doesn’t matter. I just need to keep writing. Eventually, I’ll figure out how to stop.

How to not write

27 Jan
A face full of bad ideas.

A face full of bad ideas.


Sometimes, I try to build up a strange construction of ideas. I want to stack them up, until they are teetering on top of one another, just on the edge of collapse. And then – through the magic of my own rhetorical brilliance – I prop it all up with just the right missing piece. Partially, it’s just to see if I can do it. It feels pretty good when I can pull it off – like a mad scientist of words. But when it fails, man it sucks like the cold vacuum of space: in all directions, painfully.

See, there’s this beautiful image of a crappy hangover remedy. It’s like ice cubes stuck all over your head! That’s crazy, right? I mean, sure it could work, but that’s not high up on my list of things to do when I’m hungover. Ice on my freakin’ face: Ugh. So, I take that idea and I start building up my ludicrous notion. The ingredients come to me pretty easily:

Superstitions; home remedies; Old Wives Tales; the subconscious, mythic ‘power’ of Bad Things; some high-horse pontification; very sloppy psychological assumptions; humorous diversions; and, of course, some kind of perfect insight to pull it all together.

Except I can’t come up with any particularly genius fix to it all. There’s nothing there to make it all hang together. I’ve pushed and pulled and thrown a bunch of half-formed ideas at the problem. All I’ve got to show for it is this: sometimes, the obvious solutions are hard to see.

For example, putting ice cubes on your head while you’re hungover is a BAD idea. But just being a “bad idea” never stopped anyone from doing things. In fact, that might just make people attracted to the thing. It is a clear answer, even if it’s uncomfortable – at least it’s not wishy-washy. And for some folks, the illusion of movement/change is better than nothing. The obvious solution here is that something really is better than nothing. Whether we’re talking about crazy hangover cures, or getting words down on paper.

So that’s me. Mea culpa. Maybe somewhere in this mess of a post there is something useful for someone else. I’ll be over here, with the ice cubes all over my freakin’ head. Hey, at least I’m trying to do something.