Category Archives: Inspiration

On One’s Start

I was reading something, I think it was Ken Liu’s interview in the May issue of Locus, and saw talk of where any particular author got their start, and how whatever story they tell is likely to be at least partly fictional, and that got me thinking about where my start was in genre.

I can tell the story of how I started writing sometime, but I feel like that’s less important, and in some ways I think it directly follows on how I got started as a fan of SFF. (As far as I can tell, all fans are also writers to some extent—we read these stories, and, at some point or another, we want to tell our own stories as well—it’s just that some folks continue writing, and others don’t.)

I grew up the child of fans. The first novel I remember having read to me, at the tender age of three or four, I think, was The Hobbit. I must have asked my dad to read it over to me half a dozen times over the next few years. My dad collects foreign-language editions of Tolkien’s bibliography, and as he read to me, if there were a choice illustration from another edition of the book that he thought would enhance my experience of the story, he would have it on hand. For many people, Peter Jackson’s depiction of Gollum is the be-all end-all; they cannot think of him any other way. For me, it was the illustration of “Riddles in the Dark” found in the Japanese edition of The Hobbit.

Afterwards, there were many other books and authors that followed who grew my love of story—Redwall, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit—but my dad and Tolkien started me down the path I’m on.


Today’s Writing Prompt

A quick one for you today.

Take an unpleasant smell, such as burning hair or roadkill skunk, and write a scene or story that explains why someone would find that smell pleasant/comforting/positive.


Today’s Writing Prompt

The following image was sent to me today by my partner with the accompanying text, “This is a writing prompt.”


So there you go. Your writing prompt for the day.

Plug: The GameMaster’s Apprentice

Full disclosure: I know the person behind this Kickstarter personally, and I like to see my friends succeed whenever possible.

When I’m writing or running a game, sometimes (often) I run into situations where I need more information, and I need it fast.  Often this means that I need an NPC or side character.  If I’m writing, this inevitably means opening a web browser, looking up a list of names associated with a culture/language/region, and then opening Wikipedia and falling down a link hole, never to return.

That is sub-optimal.

That’s why I’m excited by The GameMaster’s Apprentice.  It’s a deck of cards that can help keep you off of the internet when you should be writing.  I suppose you could also use it for its original purpose of saving face with your players when you’re running a game and they go and do something you weren’t expecting.

In addition to knowing Nathan, the project’s creator, personally, I also know his work.  As he mentions in the video above, he worked on the Serenity RPG, which is a system that I absolutely love using when I want to run or play a swashbuckling adventure game, whether I’m in the Firefly universe or not.  At the time of this writing, the project is a bit over 50% funded, which is great, and if this looks like a useful tool to you, I’d encourage you to back it yourself.

Spurious Writing Prompt

Ok, time for a writing prompt, because I don’t know when the last time was that I posted one.  This exercise is inspired by an exercise I did way back in my freshman year of college (thanks, Gary!) where my class was asked to base a story around a picture selected from a book of pictures of mid-century America.  Rather than a picture, though, inspiration comes from a graph (yes, I know that graphs are pictures of data).

Specifically, your story should draw from any of the graphs at Spurious Correlations: a collection of curious statistical correlations generated by a computer from publicly-available data.

Correlation: 0.915876

Of course we know that correlation does not imply causation, but for the purposes of this writing exercise, it might well be more interesting to assume a causative relationship between the data.

I can think of an xkcd for almost any situation.

If you write anything that you want to share, post it (or a link—if you try to post a novel in the comments, it won’t make it out of moderation) in the comments.

Getting Started and Getting Un-Stuck

Sometimes, after finishing a story, it can be difficult to start your next project.  Sometimes it’s a matter of losing momentum, and sometimes you just don’t have any ideas and need a prompt to get you started, even if what you end up writing next has nothing at all to do with whatever the prompt was.  Writing prompts don’t have to dictate what you write–they’re just a mechanism for dislodging whatever idea has been stuck in a dark corner of your brain where you can’t see it.

While browsing Boing Boing the other day, I ran across what I think makes for a great source of inspiration.  Nine-eyes is a blog devoted to striking images from Google Maps Street-View, and it serves up some great inspiration.  In my first undergrad writing class, my first semester of college, my professor had each of us look through a book of photographs of America from mid-nineteen-fifties (or so, my memory’s a little fuzzy on the details now) and use a picture that we selected as the jumping-off point for our fiction piece, and I’ve gotten a fair bit of mileage out of that technique since, so I’m glad to have found a great source of evocative images online that’s always serving up something interesting and new.

That guy, with the pan over his face. He must have a story to tell.

Of course sometimes you’re not stuck on a blank page but stuck in the middle of a story and feeling like you don’t know where to go.  Well, there’s an app for that.

No, seriously, there is.  Actually, there’s a deck of cards which has been transformed into apps and websites.  Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards created by Brian Eno wherein each card contains an aphorism to get us creative types to do a bit of lateral thinking to get around our problems, the idea being that when you get stuck, you draw a card at random, and even if you don’t do what the card says, it helps you get your mind un-stuck.  I had never heard of this magical invention until Jeph Jacques, author and artist of Questionable Content, mentioned it during his recent appearance on the (Hugo Award-winning) Writing Excuses podcast.

You can find one online implementation of the Oblique Strategies here, though it is by no means the only place to go.  There are also a number of app implementations on Android (and probably on iOS, too).

So, go out and start something new or find a new way to look at an old problem.  Create!

Kickstart a Writing Prompt (That’s Also a Cool-Looking Card Game)

On the heels of my last post about using the game Man Bites Dog as a tool for writers comes this: Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination.  If you read many webcomics, you’ve probably run across Wondermark, by David Malki! once or twice; you may even read it regularly.  You may also have heard about the anthology Machine of Death, which topped the Amazon charts a couple of years ago.  It’s a collection of stories based around the idea of a machine that can accurately predict your death but often has a twisted sense of humor–you might, for instance, get the prediction “Free Falling” and attempt to cheat the machine by never again flying, only to be trampled to death by concert-goers during Tom Petty’s classic.

Sample picture of what you get with the physical copy of the game [via Kickstarter]

I could try to tell you all about the game that’s being made based on this premise, but I’ve never played the thing, so I’ll let the game’s creators, who have actually played the game, tell you more (I was trying to embed the video, but after working for half an hour, I’ve decided that it’s just not worth it–, take note).

The game has already funded at this point, so there’s no risk of being disappointed that the thing doesn’t fund.  Just put down your money to help make the game even more awesome.

Note: I am in no way affiliated with this project.  I am not getting anything by plugging the project here other than any additional stretch goals that get unlocked if any of you help overfund the game.  I have put my money where my mouth is and helped back this game because, seriously, it looks awesome.

Dog Biter

Here’s something quick for you that’s part writing prompt, part game review.  Man Bites Dog, from University Games.  The premise is simple: given a hand of five cards, each of which has a noun, verb (or verb-phrase), or adjective and a point value, construct a high-scoring, hopefully funny headline that the majority of players agree is cromulent.  The first to 500 wins.  You can play with two people, though it’s better and funnier with a bigger group.


So what’s this got to do with anything?  Glad you asked.  In one of my non-fiction classes at Warren Wilson, we did an exercise using a writing prompt with a similar premise; we were each told to write down some occupations and some unusual locations and put them in two pools.  Then we each drew a few at random and mixed them around until we had a character and situation that provided good grist for some writing.  Well, Man Bites Dog works just as well.  The standard rules work just as well if you’re just using it as a writing prompt: draw 5 cards, take a look, and exchange up to three.  Then start writing.

In case you’re wondering, my most recent productive headline-prompt was “Native Dreams of New Dog,” out of which I’ve gotten over 1000 words during a 45-minute sprint.

Magic Systems and Worldbuilding

There comes a time at the start (hopefully) of any fantasy project where you must tackle the question of magic.  Magic is an integral part of fantasy, and given Clarke’s Third Law, it can be argued that it’s integral to science-fiction, too.  That’s not to say that every author or every story will handle magic the same way.  There are many fantasies with no magic, formal or informal, but which still qualify because of some other fantastical element, and there are fantasies where magic is the only fantastical element in an otherwise-normal world.

Whenever I begin to consider a new story, one of the first questions I ask myself, whether consciously or not, is whether there will be magic (or magic that isn’t dressed up as science).  If the answer is no, well, that’s not what’s I’m talking about right now, but if the answer is yes, that opens up a whole host of new questions.  The presence of magic is, in some ways, just the tip of the iceberg.  Magic can be a nebulous force for which there are no explicit rules, such as the magic in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or it can be very formalized with rules governing its powers and limitations, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels (or just about anything else he’s written).  Somewhere out beyond Mistborn and its like are Dungeons & Dragons licensed properties–books where the knowledgeable and the geeky can identify the exact spell that’s being used and will complain if its effects aren’t in line with the game, and where you can sometimes hear the dice rolling if the author isn’t that good.

Then there’s this sort of stuff, which happened long ago in a fuzzy version of history. [Via Wikipedia]

In case you’re wondering, Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle–there is a formal-ish magic system, but its rules are not deeply delved into.

No matter where your magic falls on this scale, it is important to do some worldbuilding in advance to keep yourself from running up against problems later, either in your initial drafting or in revision when one of your alpha- or beta-readers asks, “why couldn’t that character just … ?”  No matter how few rules your magic has on the page, you should know its limits from the outset.  Readers are very fond of asking tricky questions, and editors even more so.  Prepare to defend yourself.

My take on magic in stories so far has tended towards the light end of the scale.  I find the idea of building big formal magic systems to be interesting on an intellectual level, and I admire it when done well by others, but at this stage, I’ve not found myself wanting to do any of that myself.  Put me down for a bit of handwavium any day.  That approach helps me not to fall into a common trap I’ve seen when writing magic: the distraction of the cool factor.

While there are many books that balance an interesting, well-built magic system with well-developed characters around whom a plot forms, there are many many others where all those important things fall by the wayside because the author wants to tell you just how damn clever they’ve been with their magic and expect that just because the complicated system they made up held their interest for tens of thousands of words, it will carry you past the flat characters and idiot plotting.

Don’t do this.

If you’re afraid that you’re doing this, take a look at your characters.  Ask yourself lots of questions about them; questions like “what’s this character’s favorite Wawa hoagie?” or “what subjects interested them when they were in school?”  If you can answer this sort of question about your characters, you’re probably doing alright, though if you can ask someone you trust for honest feedback, that’s even better.  You don’t necessarily have to tone down the magic, though you should make a pass to cull all the inessential telling you’re doing, but you should focus more on your characters; they’re hopefully who your readers care about.

There’s more of this subject than I can really cover in one short post, so I’ll probably return to this topic periodically, but until then, I want to leave you with this episode of Writing Excuses, which has stuck with me from their first season (which makes it most of five years old now–congrats, Writing Excuses!).

Monster Links

This isn’t a proper post, sorry.

Image credit: Retronaut

First: some Japanese monsters from the Kaibutsu Ehon, via Retronaut.  Pictures of monsters are cool, yo–especially monsters from another culture.

Second: an article on the science of monsters from NPR‘s Science Friday.  This piece is actually an excerpt from a whole book on the subject.

All the time that I would normally spend blogging this month is being filled up with finishing a second draft of a novel and also trying to write another novel for NaNoWriMo.  No, I don’t really expect that I’ll win this year’s NaNo, but it’s always good to get the writing juices flowing and produce some new content.

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