Glorified People Watchers

The other day, Hubby and I were sitting at our favorite coffee shop. While I typed away at my my current WIP, he sat across the table working on a Sunday School lesson. Out of the blue, I said “Explain the Higgs boson particle to me.” He glanced up and launched into what the particle did and what the scientists had recently found. I peppered him with questions and he fielded almost all of them, which isn’t what I wanted.

See, I know what the Higgs boson particle is, I just hoped to ask him something that would confuse him. It didn’t work. I didn’t get a single confused look. So I tried again this morning with a different approach. While he picked out his clothes, I popped my head in the closet and said “strawberry higgenbotham Portugal sandwich.” This time I got more of a response, but not much. “Giant fish dog porpoise!” I yelled. He just looked at me like I was crazy, but he did not look very confused.

“Just look confused!” I cried.

“Why?”

“Because I need it!” I pleaded. “For my book!”

He blinked a few times and started getting dressed. Clearly he doesn’t understand how un-helpful (yeah, I’m pretty sure I made that up) he’s being. One of my characters in my WIP looks confused at a certain point. I’m not satisfied with just saying “looks confused;” I want to describe the face. Need to describe the face. But I can’t see it. And Hubby stubbornly remains expressionless. I mean, really, who can not look confused when someone yells “strawberry higgenbotham Portugal sandwich” at them at seven in the morning? Apparently my husband.

That’s when I realized what I am, what I’m sure most writers are: glorified people watchers. Sure, we write, but what we really do, is people watch. Go ahead, admit it. I know I’m not the only one sitting in public place eavesdropping on a conversation to hear how their dialogue flows, or watching the people argue at the next table to see how they move their bodies, or stalking the couple in a deep debate to note their facial expressions. I store it all away in my mental Rolodex until I need it for a certain scene.

This morning, after Hubby’s noncompliance, I cursed myself for not having a “confused” file in my brain cabinet. (Don’t worry, I will be on the prowl for confused stares now!). This isn’t the first time Hubby hasn’t responded the way I needed. I know saying “hey, look confused” doesn’t work.  It’s like asking someone “How do you say oil?” Instead of saying it naturally, their immediate response is to break down how they say it. So the results are tainted. You have to catch them off-guard. “What’s that stuff you have to replace in your car every 3,000 miles?” “What? Oy-yl?” That’s how  you do it (and you may catch yourself a confused expression to store as well).

Since the test subjects in closest proximity (i.e. Hubby) are tainted, I’m going to have to up my people watching. So if you see someone sitting on a bench in the park or at that back table in the coffee shop looking at you oddly and studying your face, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just a writer (good news, you’ll be in a book!).  Or it’s a creeper…in which case you likely should be alarmed…

Writers, do you people watch for writing tips? *Or do you just people watch?

*In the interest of candor, I’ve always been a people watcher. It’s only recently I realized all those years of people watching have helped my writing and started doing it intentionally.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle??

We all know the phrase.  It’s been drilled into our heads since the early 90s.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  Certainly you know the green arrow logo (these are my loving stylings in Microsoft paint):

Especially this time of year, with Earth Day looming and everyone getting in the “let’s save the planet!!” frame of mind for a month.  (Coincidentally, raise your hand if you remember Captain Planet.  Raise it again if you’re now singing the theme song.  Keep it up if, as a kid, you felt sorry for the kid who got stuck with “Heart” when you were pretending at recess).  I’ll admit, I don’t recycle.  Go ahead, throw the aluminum cans you’ve been hoarding.  Even though I’ve been beaten over the head with reduce, reuse, recycle since childhood, I never think about putting it into practice.

Maybe, however, that’s a good thing.  It seems like people have incorporated this into more areas of their lives than not throwing away newspapers and plastic bottles.  I’ve posted before questioning whether there were any original ideas left, but Michael Bourret at Dystel Goderich and editor Molly O’Neil raised a good point today.

They’ve been having a blog discussion on middle grade fiction (while focused on MG, their points are incredibly useful in all areas of writing).  Today, Molly brought up the subject of the viral internet and creativity.  She called it an “echo chamber” and it got me thinking: have we incorporated reduce, reuse, recycle into writing?  Sure, the internet can be a great tool to get your synapses firing and the creative juices flowing, but with trending topics on Twitter and viral videos on YouTube, and with the writing community being as small as it is, are we creating new ideas or recycling old ones based on what’s current?

Molly says “I’m not convinced that the viral internet is an environment that breeds personal creativity—for a few it might, but for others, it might actually stunt creativity.”  I tend to agree.  I know I have drawn inspiration from blog posts I’ve read and discussions in the writing world I was a part of at the time.  Heck, I did it with this post.  But where is the line between drawing inspiration and recycling the same old ideas?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to put a new twist on old ideas, or to write something “ripped from the headlines”.  The problem I see is when you find yourself in a rut of only discussing the same ten topics or being inspired by the same recycled ideas.  For example, I frequent the Young Adult section of the AW forum since I write mostly YA.  While I absolutely love being a part of this forum and learn so much from the people there, lately, I’ve noticed the same topics being discussed over and over.  “Is Dystopia dead?”  “What’s the next big thing?”  “What do you think of Dystopias?” “Why I don’t like the Hunger Games” “Love Interest Pet Peeves” “Teen boys becoming more romantic?” “Ditching romance in YA?”  These are all current topics being discussed.  I’ve taken part in most of the discussions, so I’m not knocking it or anything.  I don’t want anyone to misinterpret what I’m saying.  Do you see a pattern though?  The same basic topics are being recycled.

Molly and Michael implore writers to dig deeper.  Go beyond the trending topics and viral videos and memes and explore the depths of the internet (I don’t mean porn, get your mind out of the gutter), and other venues, for inspiration.  Oh, and in honor of Earth Day, go eat a dirt cup on Sunday (the 22nd), or plant a tree, or go see Disney’s “Chimpanzee” or something.  (I might add that I am totally in love with the Disney Nature movies.  Every Earth Day when they come out I am in the theaters, usually crying because they all have sad parts, but they’re so dadgum cute!  So far “African Cats” has been the best!).

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel inspired or stymied by internet trends?

The Triangle Game

I went on a mission trip a few years ago with a group of college kids.  To pass the time, they played a couple games that I found infuriating…until I learned the secret.  One was called the drummer game.  One person would say “I can play the drummer game,” then pat their hands around in some sort of beat and point to someone else saying, “Can you?”  That person would then try it and pass it along.  When it got to me, I said the words, drummed a beat, and pointed at someone.  “Nope,” they said.  “You can’t play the drummer game.”  Frustrated, I tried a few more times then settled in to watch others and learn the trick.  Another, the triangle game, was similar.  Someone would say “I draw a triangle between myself, John, and Mary.  Who’s the triangle pointed at?” and you had to figure it out.  Eventually, they would draw a triangle from the Empire State Building, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or something absurd like that, and it would always be pointed at someone in the room.  If you don’t know the rules, I’m not going to give away the trick to either game so you experience my initial frustration (that’s half the fun of the game).  Just know there is no math involved in either (yay!).  (If you’re really just dying to know, you can leave a comment and I’ll message you or something).

These games especially irritated me because I hate being out of the loop.  Hate. It.  I want to be in the know.  Sometimes, I feel like published authors have their own version of the drummer and triangle games.  For instance, one of the most common questions I read in author interviews is “where do you get your ideas?”  The answers are usually the same: vague and unsatisfying.  You know what I mean, right?  They all say, “from everywhere,” or “they just come to me,” etc.  Sure, some give more specifics, but it’s like there’s some big secret they’ve all conspired to keep.

I think that’s one reason I love “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King so much.  Hear me out.  People who don’t read King are usually immediately turned off by his name, but horror stuff aside, he writes some really amazing stories (“The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance).  If you’re not familiar with “Lisey’s Story” (first of all there’s a link on my Books You Really Must Read page so you can buy it, haha), the basic story is this: Lisey’s writer husband dies and Lisey is reflecting on their lives together.  Her husband would frequently disappear when writing, to his study, etc.  After his death, Lisey discovers where he went and it’s not what she expected.  He went to another world.  A place he called Boo’ya Moon and got his ideas from a pool there.  To fully understand her husband and the demons that plagued him, she has to travel to Boo’ya Moon.

It’s beautiful really.  And it was the first thing I’d read that described where I felt my stories came from.  It’s like Steve was writing me (yeah, we’re on a nickname basis…although he doesn’t necessarily know that…).  I’d mentioned something similar to my husband before when he asked about the source of my own story ideas.  Steve’s image perfectly captures what happens to writers when we write.  We recede within ourselves and visit a place of ideas, then we transplant those ideas to the page.

But that’s not the most satisfying answer as to where ideas come from, is it?  Nor is it particularly honest.  Sure, there is a pool of stories inside me begging to bubble out, but something inspired them.

It hit me yesterday while I was, of all things, cooking dinner.  Hubby and I had just finished weeding and mulching a flower bed.  We were covered in soft, black dirt and our hands were stained dark brown by the damp mulch.  The air smelled like Spring: light and cool with a hint of grass and flowers and earth and rain.  Our growling stomachs told us the time, so we moved to the back yard to plant a couple blueberry bushes and fix supper.  The dog bounced around our ankles as I soaked the roots in a pail of water and Hubby dug the hole.  I went inside to cut up fresh yellow summer squash and zucchini and smoked sausage for grilling.  It reminded me of Springs and Summers as a little girl, picking fresh vegetables and shelling peas with my grandmother.  As the sausage and veggies sizzled on the grill, and my husband watered the newly planted bushes, I glanced around my yard (our property backs onto a nature preserve) and thought “there’s a story here.”  Not so much a story though, but a description, and, for me at least, the best stories grow from a great description.

I could see two teenage guys, Yankees, visiting one of their grandmother’s in the South for the Summer.  The air hangs around them like a wet blanket.  Blueberry bushes and muscadine vines run along the chain link fence that separates the cultivated yard, full of flowers and herbs, from the expanse of pasture full of cows.  Crickets chirp and lightning bugs flash as the sun sinks, casting a faint bluish gray hue over the world.  Somewhere, a bug zapper buzzes to life and fries mosquitoes before they can suck the boys’ blood, leaving red, itchy welts.  Dogs bark and the cows low and chain creaks as the boys sit on a wooden porch swing, waiting for supper.  The soft drawl of the grandmother stands out, sweet and slow, against the harsh tones of the boys as she calls for them to wash up.  Butter slides down cornbread, hot in its iron skillet, and fresh fried okra fills a small kitchen with a greasy, yet mouth-watering aroma.  In the house, the air is still and warm, the only relief coming from a soft breeze blowing through the screen door and open windows.  I knew that one of the boys was named Henry and the local guys called him Hank the Yank.  I don’t know what the boys are doing there yet, or what their story is, but I know the feel and the tone, and that’s where it all starts.

This morning on the way to work I found an old cd I burned in college.  Scratched though it was, it still played well enough.  As I listened to “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, I really thought about the feel of the song, especially the beginning.  Janis portrays the imagery so well.  “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.”  From that one sentence you know exactly where she is, what she’s doing, how she feels and how she looks.  It inspired me.  Maybe it will weave itself into the story that popped in my head last night, or maybe it will evolve into something new.  It doesn’t matter.  The seed is there.  It’s in the bottom of my pool, and one day when I need it, a plant will rise to the surface for me to pick and use in a story, like fresh herbs pulled from the garden for supper.

That’s the trick to my personal triangle game and I have a feeling it’s the way it works for other writers as well.  But, then again, I’m not published (yet), so maybe there is some big secret all published authors have conspired to keep.  What do you think?  Where do you get your inspiration?

Story Through Song

I love music.  I mean really love it.  I’m not so good at playing it (although I attempt to sing), but there is nothing like cranking up an excellent song, rolling down the windows, and rocking out.  The thing that amazes me about music is the story an artist is able to tell in such a short space.  In two or three verses, you can tell an entire story, catch a feeling, set the mood and scene, and relate to others.  Wow.  I’ve tried songwriting before, and quite frankly, I suck at it.  Of course, most of these attempts were between the ages of 11 and 14, so they were full of childish rhyming and teenage angst.

A few examples of what I’m talking about.  Whether you like the songs or not, look at the story in the lyrics.  I played with the formatting a bit to make them flow:

“All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die,” says the man next to me out of nowhere

It’s apropos of nothing. He says his name’s Will but I’m sure he’s Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy. And he’s plain ugly to me.  And I wonder if he’s ever had a day of fun in his whole life. We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday in a bar that faces a giant car wash.  The good people of the world are washing their cars on their lunch break, hosing and scrubbing as best they can in skirts in suits. They drive their shiny Datsuns and Buicks back to the phone company, the record store too.  Well, they’re nothing like Billy and me, ’cause all I wanna do is have some fun. I got a feeling I’m not the only one.  All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard

I like a good beer buzz early in the morning and Billy likes to peel the labels from his bottles of Bud.  He shreds them on the bar then he lights every match in an oversized pack letting each one burn down to his thick fingers before blowing and cursing them out. And he’s watching the bottles of Bud as they spin on the floor.  And a happy couple enters the bar dangerously close to one another The bartender looks up from his want ads, but all I wanna do is have some fun.  I gotta feeling I’m not the only one.  All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.

Otherwise the bar is ours.  The day and the night and the car wash too.  The matches and the Buds and the clean and dirty cars.  The sun and the moon”

– “All I Wanna Do”- Sheryl Crow

You can definitely catch the feeling.  At least I can.  I imagine an empty bar, the sun filtering in through dirty windows.  Dust motes dancing in the light.

Here’s another that captures a completely different mood:

“I never thought I’d die alone.  I laughed the loudest who’d have known? I trace the cord back to the wall.  No wonder, it was never plugged in at all.  I took my time, I hurried up.  The choice was mine. I didn’t think enough. I’m too depressed to go on. You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.

I never conquered, rarely came.  16 just held such better days.  Days when I still felt alive.  We couldn’t wait to get outside.  The world was wide, too late to try.  The tour was over we’d survived.  I couldn’t wait till I got home to pass the time in my room alone.

I never thought I’d die alone.  Another six months I’ll be unknown. Give all my things to all my friends.  You’ll never step foot in my room again.  You’ll close it off, board it up.  Remember the time that I spilled the cup of apple juice in the hall?  Please tell mom this is not her fault.

I never conquered, rarely came, but tomorrow holds such better days.  Days when I can still feel alive.  When I can’t wait to get outside.  The world is wide, the time goes by.  The tour is over, I’ve survived.  I can’t wait till I get home.   To pass the time in my room alone.”

-“Adam’s Song” -Blink 182

I can see the boy sitting in his dark room, tears spreading the ink as he writes his suicide note.

And one more:

“I can’t remember anything.  Can’t tell if this is true or dream.  Deep down inside I feel the scream.  This terrible silence stops with me.  Now that the war is through with me I’m waking up, I cannot see that there’s not much left of me.  Nothing is real but pain now.

Hold my breath as I wish for death.  Oh please God, wake me.

Back in the womb it’s much too real.  In pumps life that I must feel, but can’t look forward to reveal.  Look to the time when I’ll live.  Fed through the tube that sticks in me, just like a wartime novelty.  Tied to machines that make me be, cut this life off from me.

Now the world is gone I’m just one.  Oh God help me.  Hold my breath as I wish for death.  Oh please God, help me.  Darkness imprisoning me.  All that I see, absolute horror. I cannot live.  I cannot die.  Trapped in myself.  Body my holding cell.

Landmine has taken my sight.  Taken my speech.  Taken my hearing.  Taken my arms.  Taken my legs.  Taken my soul.  Left me with life in hell.”

-“One”- Metallica

Can’t you see him?  Lying there in a hospital bed alone.  Pretty much a vegetable, but his mind still works.  Still knows.

Really, these bands/artists have done nothing more than write stories.  They created characters and told us about them.  Songs like these inspire me, and also put me in awe.  It takes me so many words, so many pages, to write a story and build characters that people can connect with, and here these musicians did exactly that in such a short space.  I didn’t do the flash fiction challenge this week, but I think it would be fun to expand on these songs and finish writing the story.

What do you think?  Do songs that tell stories inspire you as a writer?  If you haven’t really paid attention to the words of the songs you’re jamming out to on your daily commute, I challenge you to really listen and think about the story.