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BIBLIOGRIND

Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Where Do Writing Ideas Come From?

In the last week I’ve been asked by friends, fans and family what seems an obvious question (sometimes): “Where do you get your ideas?”

One way to answer this is simply to say what I really think, which is “I DON’T KNOW!” But that’s not exactly an answer, and certainly not polite. I’ve read that some writers formulate a stock answer to this question because, on their book tours and at book fairs (or just sitting down to dinner at a restaurant) they get this question asked of them constantly (often enough from two people in a row, with the second one having been standing right behind the first!); and if you can’t always come up with a unique answer, then say something that sounds good (even unique) but in fact is about as canned as SPAM.

Hemingway didn’t like to talk about nor answer questions regarding his writing, or where ideas came from. He said they (the ideas) were of a mystical nature and to talk about them “was spooky.” On the other side of the spectrum sat Eudora Welty, who seemed to find story just about everywhere, and took dialogue from anyone, and scene that happened before her eyes (at the post office, on the bus, walking through the park). Neither process is unusual.

I lean somewhere tripping toward Welty. One of my answers last week was, “I’m not so sure, but sometimes shit just flies out at me from some place. I catch it and see if it works.” Another answer I needed to temper for the audience: “They’re not so controlled, but I invite the ideas in because I don’t think too hard about the problem.” (In this case, “problem” refers to scene or character or dialogue or imagery that I’ve been thinking about before and LETTING ALONE for a day or so.) I used to say this very line (please follow the canned response) to my fiction writing students at Columbia College Chicago. More than half of them didn’t understand. And I know why.

You see, they lacked imagination, and writers do not lack this key ingredient to finding, seeing, developing, and … fucking drum-roll, please! … FINISHING the story (which is really not the end to the process because then writers rewrite the story numerous times to fill in those spots where imagination hadn’t been slip-sliding its best that day — get it?).

So then, I sit here to ask myself: Where do your writing ideas come from? The answer, for me, must be delivered as a list (in no particular order):

1. Imagination … 2. Life-Love-Death experience … 3. Inspiration … 4. Understanding Human Nature … 5. Misunderstanding Human Nature … 6. Having Been Divorced … 7. Liking People … 8. Not Liking (some) People … 9. Sexual Experience (and continual experimentation — wink-wink!) … 10. An Understanding for How & When & Why People Speak … 11. Tapping into My Dark Fantasies (read this as you may, or dare) … 12. My Love for One Woman … 13. My Sensitivity and Anger Issues … 14. Not Arguing with SOME Inspiration … 15. Noodling with a Scene … 16. Sleep … 17. Dreams … 18. Deep Thought/Memory … 19. Asking Questions of the Character (through the author, of course, because characters DON’T FUCKING SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES!) … 20. Letting the Characters Speak for Themselves

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

When the Writing is Good … follow it with another day!he

I’ve written about the difficulties of finding time to write day in and day out. Jobs, family, pets, books to read, and … what else? … oh, yes! … wife and friends. The priority list can be long.

Or it needs to be short.

The question is, How serious are you about your writing career? Hours in the day can be shaved; you can learn to write a AT LEAST a few paragraphs every day. Remember, “one page per day and I’ll have 7/8 of a book in a year.” That’s the pattern, that’s the goal, that’s the priority that must top the list. And you’ll still have time for everyone else in your life. Reading good books, too!

Today I had my 3rd writing day in a row. Saturday & Sunday morning, and Monday afternoon (stretching into early evening). That’s a total of sixteen hours or so. Today I was hot because yesterday I took a few afternoon hours to set myself up for today’s writing. When I got home from teaching two classes (money!), I had a snack and then sat down.

Did the blank screen frighten me? NO! I didn’t have a blank screen because I had a place where I had left off, and I had notes and story chunks to bring me further. This is all part of the preparation and continuance of deep thinking about your project. If you never let it go (for long), then it’s always going to be with you … and, with a project that can take two years or more, I need to live with my characters, the places in which they live and move, the ideas and emotions they encounter.

When writing is good, try to follow it up with more writing. The next day; the next afternoon; or the next evening. Just a few paragraphs on a scrap of paper while on the train can be a great encouragement for that upcoming day where you have a whole block of HOURS to write.

I’ve quoted her before, and here is an especially good time to do that again: Isak Dinesen – “I write every day, with neither hope nor despair.”

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Three Books at Once! … the height of attention-span degeneration

That’s right … I’m reading three books at once. “All the King’s Men” by Penn Warren, “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher, and “The Ecstasy of Influence” by Jonathan Lethem. Good books, all—a fabulous novel, a thought-provoking meditation on language-culture influence, and essays on books & arts culture.

These are mood-related books for me. And time-space related, as well. As I’m trundling around Prague, or writing at home, and always trying to avoid everything re socio-politico-televistic, I have options. Lately, one option has not been wholly engrossing/intellect-grabbing. And since I’m very story oriented, I’ve wanted to read more non-fiction to fill out my philosophical cravings. Novels pull me into their world and don’t let me go. That’s okay. I prefer the ephemeral stage than the actual. Life would be terribly boring for me without the written story.

But here’s where I become contradictory. This love of story comes from passion for language. Deutscher has this fascinating theory about “why the world looks different in other languages.” This is not science, but culture, politics, the passage of time, and … science, too! He begins with the concept of color. Sounds as easy as primary and secondary. It’s not.

Likewise a deflection from fiction is Lethem’s collected essays. I’d read his journalism in Harper’s and the NYT and elsewhere. While I’ve tried to stay away from criticism and cultural essays over the past 8 months or so (mainly because what I’ve found written is done poorly, in my opinion, or taking such esoteric angles on subjects, that all I could do by the middle of such essays was to sigh. Sigh.) there’s that other tug at my conscience that asks me to “please” keep up with society (or at least with one of its subheadings, “culture”).

The Lethem essays focus on art and writing and book culture topics. I hadn’t known Lethem was a science fiction writer. And a good writer, too. His passion for the works of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are enough to draw me toward that genre. Which, well said by many before me, in their capable hands transcends any notion of genre. On the other hand, both of those authors are dead, and their greatest stories were written between the time I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parent’s eyes (they hadn’t even met each other yet, in Dick’s case) and while I was in my Stephen King phase. Which makes it fortunate that good stories transcend contemporary and, especially, pop culture.

At some point soon I’m going to dive back into “King’s Men” to finish this masterpiece. It’s worth savoring, actually, so I’m not un-happy that I’ve had it going so many weeks. (to confess, I put it aside when I found a copy of “Cloud Atlas”) Also, I want to begin “East of Eden” soon; it’s a story I’ve wanted to read for many years. As for the other two: books on language and of collected essays can be read just about anywhere; and on those odd days where I find myself torn between fantasy and uber-reality, the short-form comes in handy.

Vegetable Stir Fry w/dill-flavored rice

“Can you read my palm?”
“No.”
“Can you read tea leaves.”
“No.”
“Do you look into a crystal ball.”
“No.”
“Well then, what do you do for this $5 reading?”
“Order off the menu. When the food comes here, I’ll find your fortune in the eyes, the faces, the animals, the bodies that I see in the food.”
“Wouldn’t that be reading the fortune of the chef who prepared the dish?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“You ordered the food. It’s how you came to that order, in your mind, that settles matters. There is no other.”

Short-answer, short-comment, dialogue is effective to communicate a single idea through the personalities of your characters. Allow your story to tell itself. Don’t allow “line-length” to dictate how your scene plays itself out.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Gnocci w/Pork cubes & shaved garlic

“Eat it, it’s good. That plate is filled with homemade food.”
“You made gnocci?”
“I boiled it properly.”
“You raised the pig?”
“No, I didn’t raise the … Do you see pigs in my house?”
“You could have a sty out back you’re hiding from the neighbors. Did you grow the tomatoes.”
“No.”
“The carrots?”
“No.”
“The peas?”
“NO. Hey, I didn’t say home-grown or home-raised, I said home ‘cooked.’ Don’t you know the difference? Now eat before I take your plate away, send you out back to pick wild carrots and dandelion leaves for a mud-yard salad.”
“Hey, this is good chow!”
“See!”
“A bit cold though.”

Drama can be about the misunderstanding of words, actions, and intent. Great comedic moments can come with a simple (often universal) interaction b/w characters. It becomes cliché only when the context is left ungiven and scene shortened just to highlight this moment.

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My newest novel is “Max, the blind guy” — the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. Read an excerpt here that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.

 

What Beauty is  a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Foamy Coffee w/chocolate & cinnamon dust

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“Cup’a jo?”
“Joe? What’s that?”
“Coffee. Haven’t you ever seen a war movie.”
“Yeah … ‘The Hurt Locker’ is my favorite.”
“Not THAT war, dummie! World War Two.”
“Oh. That’s like really old, innit?”
“Your grandfather’s war. Maybe. Nineteen thirty-nine to ‘forty-five.”
“No, I mean the movie … it’s in black and white, right?”
“Of course its–”
“No-no, I can’t watch black and white films. It hurts my eyes.”
“So you’ve only read books about that war?”
“What’s a book?”

When you listen for the unintended response, your characters define themselves. Make your characters “try out” for their parts by letting them be what you half-imagine/half-invent. When you hear your main character’s voice, that’s when you begin to understand what he/she is about, and therefore what the story can become.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Hot Thai Soup w/Beef, and a Beer

“Do you want to be alone?”
“Sure, today. Tomorrow is another day.”
“That’s being fickle.”
“What the fuck is ‘fickle’? Are you calling me gay?”
“Does fickle sound gay to you?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“Take me through that process … you’re brain, as it comes to the conclusion that fickle means something gay — whateverthefuck ‘gay’ means to you, anyway. We’ll put aside for the moment that we’ve been talking about getting you off your girlfriend to fuck another women, then sneak back into her heart — or at least bed — the next day. Okay?”
“Hey, man, I was just asking.”
“The wrong guy. That’s who you were asking.”
“Okay okay … hey, you gonna eat that? It looks good.”
“No, you can’t have it. This is ‘gay’ soup. It’s not for the fickle-brained.”
“Well is there anything on the menu I can eat?”

Writing dialogue takes more than listening to a character — although that is a lot — but you have to have a thread of story that connects (always connects) with the overall theme of the story.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Thai Curry, in the pot

“What’s for dinner?”
“This.”
He set the plate between the spoon and knife and fork.
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.”

Intimacy comes in many forms. We touch, we speak, we send looks to the one we love. We do things for that person. Food can be an extreme intimacy, particularly when its done alone, for someone, with love.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Hennessy Cognac w/Dark Chocolate

“The ‘active lifestyle’ tours are filled with middle-aged couples complaining after their horrible children, failed stock options, property taxes, and getting old.”
“You’ve come on the better tour then.”
“Yeah, we know. You retirees known how to live it up. Nothing to lose.”
“Nothing to lose? Say, join me in a cognac. Do you like cognac?”
“Never tried it.”
“Too expensive. See, that’s the thing–”
“Hold that thought. Waiter! Three snifters of Hennessy, please. Okay, you were saying?”
“I’s just saying a bit of grateful jabber. You old-timers know what life is like cuz you’d lived it.”
“Still living it, I’d say. Maybe enjoying it more, is what you mean.”
“Umm … okay. That is….”
“Let me give you a tip. Can you take some advice?”
“Sure thing.”
“Get a good paying job that doesn’t drive you nuts. Make some fucking money — excuse my French — and get yourselves in position to enjoy life, if you can’t do that now.”
“How do we do that?”
“Do what?”
“Get good jobs.”
“Hmm. Okay. You get things done by doing them. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Writers, be ready for the surprise characters who ask questions that open a vein for philosophical possibility, while at the same time defines characters and moves the story along.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Meatball Sandwich … to share

Jack came through the door in a hurry, whipped around and slammed it closed.
“Wine.”
“The red, or the white?”
Jill looked at the pots on the stove. Silver pots. Boiling water. Simmering sauce.
“The red. No, wait … bring ’em both.”
“Where’s the screw?”
“Check the drawer.”
“Not here. Where did we leave it last?”
“Anywhere. The food’s done. What’ll we do?”

Writing for context gives you a lot of wiggle room when using dialogue. The characters shall give away their presence of mind with just the right words, and delivered the pace with established context. Let your audience figure some things out to share their presence with the story. Give them a place, and that one extra image to establish connection.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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