#NaNoWriMo When You Have No Freaking Clue What Happens Next

Hile, wordslingers!

With neither ado nor adon’t, Ima splat you right in the face with a lemon meringue writing advice pie. It’s November, and that means NaNoWriMo, and though I ain’t perticipatin’, I know there’re plenty of you crazy kids out there who might need a little scribbling inspiration as the end of Week One approacheth. So here y’all go:

This Hoopla We Call Writing

Writers are people with ideas. Or so the story goes. Most of us, when we sit down to start writing, don’t seem to have much trouble finding something to write about–after all, if we didn’t have the idea, we wouldn’t have sat down to write in the first place. (This might be what’s called circular logic, but I’m gonna go with it anyway.) (Also, this might not apply to the dreaded monster known as Undergraduate Thesis Paper; but in this case, if the list of ideas grows short, there’s always coffee and foolhardiness.)

Hitting The Wall

But I digress. (Shocking, innit?) We writers are people with ideas…except when we’re not. The initial sit-down-and-start-scribbling-like-mad ideas are not a problem. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve got that covered. But what happens after the first bout of hectic, joyous franticness fizzles out?

Oh yes, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t you dare shy away. Make eye contact with me, kiddos! We’ve all been there: You’re slashing away with your pen at that bountiful pad of lined, yellow paper. You’re hammering away at those keys as if they’re tiny square culprits who drank the last of the milk and stuck the empty carton back in the fridge. Things are flowing, story’s moving, characters are sparkling–and BOOM. Dead end. You smash face-first into a wall, and you’re pummeled by that most horrid of questions: What happens next??? You don’t have a clue, because you. Are out. Of ideas.

Part of the solution to your difficulty is that most horrid of pre-writing exercises, The Outline. But that’s another story and shall be told another time. What we’re concerned with today is ideas, and we’re going to turn to a seasoned pro for advice on where to get them.

Elmore Leonard Gets Ideas…

In “Making It Up as I Go Along” (AARP Magazine [don’t ask], July/August 2009), Elmore Leonard describes some of the ways in which he generates ideas for his stories. Considering his novel-pub cred (Get Shorty, Three-Ten to Yuma, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, among many others), I figure the man probably knows what he’s talking about. So take a look at some of these and see if any of them resonate with you:

…From Photos

Leonard describes how the main character of his novel Out of Sight started life as a photograph of a woman deputy marshal holding a pump-action shotgun.

eleonardAs some of you, my darling readers, already know, I am a very visual person. I can see myself picking up a magazine like National Geographic, thumbing through to an article about some 19th-century adventurer, and feasting my eyes and my creative brain on the sepia-fuzzy image of a hood-eyed man in a weather-beaten hat. Maybe he’s wearing a heel-length overcoat and carrying a pack. BOOM again–but in a good way, this time. Suddenly, I have a character named Mac Finchley, and he just stepped out of the magazine pages and into my dead-end chapter–to do what? Shoot my main character in the leg? Build a fire and cook supper? Juggle spoons? Release two badgers and a wombat? The possibilities are endless, which means the ideas start piling up and the story can roll on, dude.

…From Other Writers

When Leonard needs spare style, he reads Ernest Hemingway every day. When he wants to flavor his prose with humor, he picks up Richard Bissell.

Me, I turn to Stephen King when I have trouble with characterization, and to Tad Williams when I need a refresher on world-building. In my opinion, though, it’s best to use caution when reading other writers specifically for help with your own writing. Especially when you’re reading one of your favorites, it’s easy to adopt that person’s style instead of developing your own. It’s natural to imitate what you love. But if you focus on finding your own voice and remain aware of your literary surroundings, you should be able to glean what you need from other writers without transplanting their entire crop into your own creative field.

…From History

Moonshine and the library gave Leonard the seeds for his novel The Moonshine War.eleonard2 Speaking of war and not-so-shining historical moments, I have long thought that the epic battles described in the Bible’s Old Testament provide great framework for battle descriptions in fantasy stories. And in ancient Roman tradition, a slave whispered “you are only a man” to the great leader as he made his triumphal entry into the city; in my novel Rethana’s Trial, I turned this bit of real-world history into a character’s final test of manhood. Humanity’s past abounds with facts and people and scenes that will spark a fire of what-happens-next in your mind. Grab a history book, open it to a random page, and let what you read be the next challenge your characters face. How does the real-world snippet “translate” to the world of your story? How will your characters handle it? Let them tell you.

…From Real People

Leonard based a fictional judge on a real-life friend in the judicial system.

For my novel Shadows after Midnight, I needed someone to get my main character into a heavy metal concert without a ticket. On the day I wrote that scene, I happened to be texting with my friend Bryan, who listens to the kind of music my MC was hearing. Jokingly, I asked Bryan if I could put him in my book. He said sure–and suddenly, my MC had the knowledgeable insider he needed, complete with a T-shirt bearing the name of Bryan’s favorite heavy metal band. Later on, it turned out that Bryan had information my MC was desperate to get, which moved the MC and other characters halfway across the country.

So look around at your friends and family and see who possesses the traits your characters might need to move your story forward. You know these people–their habits, hang-ups, foibles, and faces. Once you start pondering, I promise you’ll find you know exactly who is going to help your characters take over the world. Of course, you should always ask permission before you assign a real person the role of Evil Overlord, lest you acquire too-intimate experience with a lawsuit for defamation of character.

______

So there you have it, sweetlings. A few ways to generate ideas that will poke, nudge, prod, or blast your story forward when you’re stuck. But plenty of other options exist, and I don’t doubt you’ve thought of some while reading this post. The mental block of what-happens-next can seem as intimidating as a 2001 monkey-hysteria space-monolith. But it need not lay you low. Use some of Leonard’s methods to generate some ideas, or follow some of the methods that have worked for you in the past. (Share them in the comments! We all need ’em!) You’ll be skipping gaily around that monolith in no time. Or at least hacking dementedly away at it with a hammer and chisel.

To wrap up, a few particularly enjoyable and helpful quotes from Leonard:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

“Dialogue, in fact, is the element that keeps the story moving. Characters are judged as they appear. Anyone who can’t hold up his or her end of the conversation is liable to be shelved, or maybe shot.” (I, Courtney, heart this one with gusto.)

“A photo of a woman marshal with a shotgun, and a prison break, gave me what I needed to write a love story.”

“After 58 years you’d think writing would get easier. It doesn’t. If you’re lucky, you become harder to please. That’s all right, it’s still a pleasure.”

May we all be able to say that after 58 years. 🙂

Why I Break The Spines of Books

Last week, my dearest, most darlingest readers, I wrote about my right brain’s sometime conflict with my left brain.  I used examples from my sordidly disorganized past, juxtaposed (ooh! big word!) with tales from my less messy present, to show that somehow, the two sides of my brain are learning to work together.

Pondering this ambi-brained-ousness reminded me of something particularly nit-picky I used to do but have abandoned in these, my wiser years.  (Insert guffaws here.)  So, here’s another look inside the mind of Courtney; please, pardon the dust bunnies and random (memory) holes in the floor, and do watch out for low-hanging whatnots and any underfoot baubles or doohickeys.

Behold! Beauty! Pristine perfection!

The Girl Who Ate the Book

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Courtney who loved books. She read pretty much anything she could get her hands on, and she devoured it all without ever getting her fill.

She borrowed books from friends and family. She bought new ones (books, that was, not friends or family) whenever she could scrape together enough cash to make a trip to the bookstore worthwhile. She brought the books home, tucked them into their special (alphabetized) places, and read each one in its turn. Her every book received its due attention and care, and all was well with Courtney’s reading world.

But, as is so often the case in utopias, there was a slight problem. You see, Courtney was something of a hypocrite concerning her books: She felt at ease in asking to borrow others’ books, but she was terribly reluctant to loan out her own treasures. Her selfishness didn’t extend to saying “NO!” when others asked to borrow a book…but she did feel a heaviness of heart and a quiet sort of desperation as the friend or family member in question departed with the loan.

You see, Courtney had rules for her books. And even though she tried to impress upon others the importance of following each rule, few people ever took her concerns seriously.

Don’t get the book wet.
Don’t get the book dirty.
Don’t write in it.
Don’t turn down pages.
Don’t dog-ear the pages.
And, whatever you do,
DON’T BREAK THE SPINE.

Courtney would admit (privately) that most of her friends and family could handle most of the rules. Nobody ever got one of her books wet. There might have been a single incident of a friend’s returning a book with a smudge of grime on the cover. Turned-down pages were a rarity. The dog-ears posed a greater challenge to the borrowers; but Courtney cooed over these returns and patiently folded each and every dog-eared corner back into place.

Alas, however, the most important rule was also the most difficult rule to obey. And once it was broken, there was no fixing the result.

When Courtney bought a new book and brought it home, she treated it with such care that, when she was finished reading it, it still looked as though it had just come off the shelf at the bookstore. Courtney never dog-eared the pages. Above all else, she never broke the spines. Her bookshelves were row after row of pristine, smooth, unbroken paperback glory. She read her books over and over, and not a single one looked used. Her bookshelves could have been featured in magazine articles on How To Make Books Last.

This, of course, meant that she read each book half-open, squinting at the pages and turning the book to and fro as she tried to decipher the words hidden in shadow closest to the spine. But who cared? The effort was so very worth it, when she could look at her pure, perfect bookshelves and know that all was right with her world!

Courtney, to the detriment of right honorable ideals of literacy and self-perpetuating inspiration, expected others to treat her books the same way she treated them. Whilst handing a loaner book to an as-yet-unsuspecting fellow bibliophile, she went to great pains to explain her reasoning concerning her rules. As she spoke, she didn’t seem to notice the increasingly deer-in-headlights look that swept the listener’s face. She certainly didn’t see when those eyes glazed over. All she knew was that she was making her rules quite clear, and she was doing it with a smile.

A well-devoured novel

When the loaned-out book came back with its spine creased, she felt devastated. The poor, precious book! White, ragged lines marred the former pristineness! Of course, of course, the book would be forever beautiful because of what was inside it…but those marks, those tiny cracks, those fractures would never mend. The treasure was tarnished. Past hope, past help.

Then, one day, Courtney grew up, figured out what “devouring” a book really meant, got the stick out of her you-know-where, and started breaking book spines the way a wild animal cracks the bones of its prey to get at the marrow inside. Her friends and family heaved sighs of relief, started asking to borrow books again (for they’d stopped doing so after all of Courtney’s put-upon complaints and sorrowful looks), and everybody lived happily ever after.

THE END.