Cloud of Cough Syrup Induced Crazy

After a hiatus for the holidays, I’m ready to get going on my writing again.  I tried to write over the last few weeks, but my brain just didn’t want to get in gear.  I think it was a mix of all of the food/goodies making me want nothing more than a nap and of all the rest of my brain power being used for planning/packing for trips and buying gifts.  I kept saying “as soon as the new year starts, I’m going to get back on a good pace”, and I meant it, but unfortunately, my year has kicked off with a cold.  Sore throat, bubbly head, stuffy nose.  Instead of writing, all I want to do is lie down and nap.

The frustrating thing about it is that I recently came up with a new story idea.  Plot lines and characters and whole chapters have been scrolling through my head, itching to get put down on paper.  The mixture of cold medicine and coffee that’s keeping me going right now can’t be conducive to writing though.  I’m afraid what will come out will look like Lewis Carroll crossed with Hunter S. Thompson.  Of course, that combination of wackiness and crazy might end up being genius…or, more likely, it would just be incoherent ramblings (much like this post I’m afraid) and the story I have in my head would get all crossed up and come out wrong.  I have this image of my characters’ arms coming off their heads and mouths on their legs, their eyes boring into mine imploring “Why?  Why did you do this to us? We had such promise!”.  See?  That’s exactly the type of strange writing I’m afraid will come out right now.

So, dear writer friends, what do you do when you’re sick?  Do you push through the cloud of cough syrup induced crazy and write anyway?  Do you plot?  Outline?  Or curl up under a blanket and wait until you’re well again?

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.

No Original Ideas?

I’ve heard many people say that there are no more original story ideas.  That everything has already been done in one form or another.  Is this true?  Have we run out of completely original ideas?  I don’t know about you, but that thought depresses me as a writer.  It’s like I’m doomed to repeat what someone else has already done better.  It reminds me of an episode of South Park (yeah, I watch it.  Believe it or not Trey Parker and Matt Stone weave some really poignant social commentary into those foul mouthed cartoon kids).  On this particular episode, Butters has an alter-ego called Professor Chaos who wants to take over the world.  He enlists a side kick and sets out on his journey for domination.  Every time he has a new plan, however, the sidekick chimes in, “The Simpsons tried that in episode 149” and so on for every plan until it just becomes “Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!”

Are we all Butters/Professor Chaos, destined to redo things that have already been done?  It seems Hollywood has completely given up on original ideas with all of the remakes and sequels (prequels, three-quels, four-quels, five-quels; I wish I was exaggerating).  I mean, seriously, how many different plots can The Fast and the Furious come up with?  The first one was bad enough.  I love Indiana Jones, but do we really need 5 of them?  They just remade Footloose, are remaking Dirty Dancing, have yet another Mission Impossible and Step-Up movie coming.  Seriously?  When will it end?  I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a completely original (recent) movie and I’m drawing a complete blank.  Is publishing destined to fall into this well of repeats?

I write YA, so I constantly scan the shelves and read the book jackets in the teen sections of my local bookstores.  I read query critiques on agent blogs and on the AW forum.  I can’t tell you how many of the same story I keep reading.  How many variations of girl falls in love with vampire/werewolf/angel/fairy can there be?  How many times can the normal-teen-discovers-they’re-the chosen one/has magical powers storyline be done?  I literally read four book jackets in a row with that story.  Of course, they’re getting published so I guess they’re doing something right (or hit the trend at the right time).  Right now retelling of fairy tales and angel/demon books are popular, but even these stories are the same.  As much as I love Harry Potter, a boy wizard in a magic school wasn’t original either.  I read something similar when I was in the seventh grade (which was in 1995) and that had been out for a while.  And anyone who thinks the Hunger Games is original should take a look at The Long Walk and The Running Man by Stephen King.  I love Collins’s series, but she basically melded those books and made the main characters teenagers.

Personally, I get so frustrated when I come up with what I think is a great idea for a story, only to find out its already been done.  I think trying to come up with an original idea is part of the reason I’ve felt writer’s block lately.  Of course, I’ve read lots of agents and other writers who say it doesn’t have to be a unique idea, a new twist on an old story would work (such as Wicked), and while this is a great and interesting approach, it doesn’t answer my question: are there any original ideas left?  Or must we face the fact that everything has been tapped out and relegate ourselves to recycling?

Flash Fiction- “Hunger”

Last night’s flash fiction prompt on the AW forum was “Hunger.”  Here is my story based around this prompt.  If you like to write and haven’t seen the Flash Fiction Challenge, head on over and see what you can do with the prompt.

                                                               “Tantalizing”

It had been three weeks since the game had started. Jack paced across the kitchen floor like a zoo lion who can smell the zebras and antelope in the neighboring pen. The tantalizing aroma in the next room was almost too much. But he couldn’t give in. Not when he thought about the source of those smells.

Just that thought was enough to stop his stomach from growling for a little while. He had to win. It wasn’t just the money on the line, although a million smack-a-roos would change his life, his sanity precariously teetered like a playground seesaw. Even the smallest nibble would send him over the edge.

Hell, he thought he’d go crazy just smelling the barbecued flesh next door. He’d seen the spread. They had showed all of them on the first day. A buffet table ran the length of the long room, piled high with meat cooked in every manner possible and replenished daily. Stews, steaks, ribs, hamburgers, fajitas, cheesesteaks, chili…

Jack crouched and leaned his too thin frame against the kitchen cabinets with his hands over his ears. Like that would stave off the hunger. He rocked back and forth and tried to focus on something else. Anything else.

His stomach rumbled. He thought of roaches and maggots crawling through the meat. Of the food floating in slimy green cesspools. He thought of where the meat came from. It was enough…for now.

Then he heard footsteps and the sound of breaking glass. Someone was in the next room. He tried not to listen but the groans of pleasure were too loud. A lion had breached the fence and snacked happily on a gazelle.

Without realizing it, he’d risen to his feet and approached the door. His hand touched the knob. He forced himself to retract it, to wait. He had no idea how many others had given in to the temptation. They switched rooms every day. Some were closer to the dining room than others. Since he’d been in the kitchen, he’d heard two other people dining on the disgusting spread.

How many were left?

How much longer would he have to hold out?

How much longer could he hold out?

Jack knew humans could survive a long time, weeks, months even, without food. But how long could they make it knowing food was just next door? His stomach growled again. He grabbed the knob. If he turned, if he looked, there would be no going back.

Just as he twisted the knob, a scream erupted from the other side of the door. The most pathetic, horrific, insane scream Jack had ever heard. He released the knob like it was on fire. Loud crashes followed. Something hit the wall and clattered to the floor.

Jack stumbled back and fell on his rump. A glint of silver shone through the crack under the door. Beside it, a chunk of meat stared at him. Tested him. Tempted him.

He lay down and looked at it. The explosion of sound had ceased in the buffet room. The contestant must have been carried away, losing more than just the contest.

Jack inched closer. Smelled the meat. He could almost taste it. Surely one little lick would be okay? He wouldn’t really be eating it, right?

The buzz of the loudspeaker interrupted his thoughts.

“Congratulations to contestant number twelve, Jack Kreacher! Winner of the tenth annual Tantalus Contest!”

The door burst open and a man in a sleek suit appeared.

“Mr. Kreacher, you’ve just won a million dollars! What do you have to say?” He shoved a microphone under Jack’s nose.

Jack looked past the mic to the room beyond the man. At the smashed table and the scattered human flesh. It was over. He couldn’t believe it was over.

“Mr. Kreacher?” the man asked, a nervous twinge to his voice. “You just won. What do you have to say?”

Jack turned to the man, and sighed. “I think I’m a vegetarian.”

 

Flash Fiction

I frequent the forums at Absolute Write (which is an excellent source for any writer, aspiring or published.  There are forums for query critiques, beta readers, questions about agents/agencies, and the answer to pretty much any writing and publishing question you might have.), and have recently found the Flash Fiction Challenge.  Basically, every Sunday night, a moderator posts a prompt.  You have 90 minutes to write and edit a story based on the prompt and post it.  It’s a great exercise to get your mind working and to get you writing.  I decided to start posting my flash fiction here each week.  Bear in mind, these are things I came up with on the fly, so they won’t be perfect.

To kick things off, here is last week’s story.  The prompt was “Pleat”.  What kind of story (or poem) would you write based off the prompt?

“In”

Maria smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt and took a deep breath. A thin sheen of sweat covered her arms and face. She slid over to the nearby water fountain and took a long drink. Don’t throw up. Whatever you do, just don’t throw up. There wasn’t time to be sick. And this was her only shot at proving herself.

She glanced at her watch. Eleven minutes til two o’clock. The second hand crept around the face. Maria closed her eyes and breathed deeply again. The bell clanged from somewhere up the hall. Doors flew open on either side of the hallway and students poured out, yelling to one another and chattering about whatever class they’d just left.

No one noticed as Maria slipped into the throng, weaving seamlessly among the actual students. She glanced at the other girls’ skirts as she passed. I didn’t do such a bad job after all. Her hand rubbed the pleats again. It didn’t seem like anyone would notice her homemade skirt anyway. They were all too absorbed in their own worlds. Talking about the classes they just left, or the boys who passed them notes.

This would be easier than she thought.

A large clock on the wall caught Maria’s eye as she passed. Eight till. She’d need to pick up the pace. She hitched up her backpack and quickened her step. The crowd thickened as she approached a bank of lockers. Maybe I should have done this during the class period after all. She pushed through, keeping her head down but her eyes on the prize. No. I’m less likely to be noticed in a group.

The hallway intersected with another, making a “T” shape. There, centered on the wall was the statue. A twelve by ten gold leaf eagle. Its wings were tucked in and its eyes stared directly at Maria. She pushed towards it and swung her backpack around to her chest. Within seconds she had it unzipped and ready.

It was now or never. She’d only have one chance and if she flubbed, well…she would have more to worry about than whether she got into the Anchor Society.

Maria approached the statue and in one fluid motion swept it off the base and into the backpack. It just fit. The hall was too loud to hear her skirt rip, but she felt it snag on the corner of the pedestal as she walked away. She zipped up the bag and slung it back over her shoulder, then glanced at her skirt.

One of the pleats was torn. A single red thread waved in the wind she created as she hurried to the exit. Oh well. Not like I’ll ever wear it again.

The cry erupted as she reached the double doors at the end of the hall.

“Hey! Where’s Spirit?” a boy shouted.

Maria didn’t wait for a response. She pushed open the doors and strode out into the warm afternoon, pleased with herself. By the time the bell rang for last period, Maria had put good distance between her and the school. They’d have to let her in now. No one had ever stolen such a grand prize for their admission challenge as this. And from their rival, Weston Prep!

The golden eagle in her backpack was her ticket to popularity. She’d have to make sure and wipe her fingerprints off of it before handing it over to the Anchor Society though. If she played her cards right, it wouldn’t only guarantee her a place in Carson High’s elite, it would be the first rung on her climb to domination. The second would be unseating Amanda Malone from the top of the food chain.

And Amanda’s fingerprints on a stolen statue would do the trick nicely.

Maria stepped into the bushes in a nearby park and stripped off her homemade Weston Prep uniform. By the time she stepped out back on the sidewalk, she was just another scantily clad teenager walking home from school.

No one noticed the plaid pleated skirt and red sweater she left behind.

Writer’s Block

Those are two of the worst words in the english language.  I shudder when I read them.  I want to cover my ears with my hands when I hear them. and sing “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you!” like it doesn’t exist.  Except it does.  And I have it.

I have been trying to write a particular story for a long time.  I posted the first chapter a little while ago (see “The Terminal Circle”).  The story won’t come to me.  I know the general plot and what happens to the main character, and I finally know who the main character is, but I just can’t get past the first chapter.

Heck, it’s taken me over two years to get the first chapter down.  I sit at my computer screen and beg the characters to come to life.  I lay down and close my eyes and try visualize them.  How they act, talk, and walk.  What they say and how they say it.  Their movements and mannerisms.  I just can’t do it.  I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to, which then causes me to seize up like a kid about to bungee jump.  I’m standing on the platform all suited up and ready to leap, but my feet won’t move forward.

What scares me the most is that this isn’t how I write.  This is a plot my dad and I discussed.  It was his idea, not mine, but he wanted me to write it.  Now my dad isn’t here anymore and I can’t even discuss it with him and talk it through, which usually helps when I’m stuck.  The big problem, though, is that I write spontaneously.  I’ve written two books so far, and both of them came from middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep ideas.  They weren’t something I thought through and analyzed.  For both, I laid there in bed and saw the characters every time I closed my eyes.  Before I fell asleep, I knew their names, saw their faces, knew how they moved and acted instantly.  I knew what they were going to do and why.  When I woke the next morning, I put it on paper and just didn’t stop writing.  Of course it needed polishing, but getting everything down in a first draft was a snap.  For the most recent manuscript, I had a first draft done and to betas within two months. (So thankful for beta readers by the way!)

I’ve written short stories in this manner as well.  It’s like the story comes to me and begs to be written down, no matter what I’m doing at the time (even while studying for the bar exam…okay, especially while studying for the bar exam).   However, I have short stories that I’ve tried to write that don’t get past the first few pages, even though I know I have a good idea, because I sat and thought it through too much. 

I recently read “On Writing” by Stephen King (excellent read whether you’re a fan of his or not), and he describes writing as finding a fossil.  You trip over it in the back yard and start digging, then keep digging until bit by bit the fossil reveals itself to you.  I completely agree with this analogy.  The characters I’ve written about, I don’t feel like I’ve created them so much as found them.  Then I just had to keep writing to discover more about them until I had the whole story.

These stories that I’ve found, they write themselves.  Sure, I’ve had to put some thought into it, but once I sit down and my fingers hit the keys, it’s like my fingertips take on a mind of their own.  They fly and dance over the keyboard and before I know it, I’ve got 60 or 70 thousand words.  It’s like that in my legal writing as well.  I always had to wait until the mood struck me to write.  Sure, I would get things out by the professor’s deadlines in school (in my working life I was left to my own devices), but I did my best work when my fingers could think for themselves.  Sometimes that was down to the wire, but I’ve never missed a deadline in class or the real world and never made a poor grade (or below an A minus for that matter).

So I’m not entirely sure what to do with this…writer’s block (shudders like the hyenas in the “Lion King” when they hear the name “Mufasa”).  Do I try and push through and write the story anyway, or do I let it breathe and hope the characters come to life?  I’ve already let it breathe for two years, but maybe that’s not enough.  Stephen King said he encountered a block when writing “The Stand” (one of my favorites) and only got unblocked when he realized that his characters were too comfortable and needed a shake-up (i.e. a bomb in a closet).  That was a mid-book block though.  Mine always occurs in the first stages of a manuscript, and so far have all been stories I eventually abandoned (bless their little hearts.  I see them now, huddled in a forgotten folder on my desktop.  Ragged shawls draped around their shoulders, tin cups at their feet, begging for me to revist them, to try again.  I want to help, but what can I do?  So I ignore them and keep moving with hollow promises to one day return and do what I can). 

How do you handle writer’s block?  Do you work through it, or take it as a sign that the story isn’t meant to be written right now and move on?