Category: Brainstorming & Inspiration

Big ideas and how to get them.

Shining A Light

We went to a lighting design center this week, and the main thing that we learned is that a lighting design center is a dangerous place for us to be left unsupervised. In addition to all the stuff in the showroom, they also have big, thick catalogs of amazing and weird stuff that you can hang from the walls and ceilings of your actual house and connect to the wiring therein.

There was a not insignificant chance that we would have decided to remodel our entire house (again) so we could have excuses to buy all the fun things. Perhaps it’s a good thing these items are so expensive, as that might be what brought us to our senses.

We knew what we were shopping for when we went in there: something modern and sleek for above the dinner table. We knew what the dining room looked like, and we knew we weren’t really going to redo it. Yet, all the pretty lights in other styles (craftsman, deco, neo-Victorian, space-age retro, regular retro, and vintage industrial {which, let’s be honest: that’s steampunk}) tempted us sorely. In the end, we stuck to our program if not our budget, and ordered a minor masterpiece of modern elegance that will harmonize with our home’s style.

The experience reminded Kent of something he’s heard said about font design. “Not a bunch of pretty letters; a pretty bunch of letters.” The same applies to the words those letters create.

Writing fiction is a lot like decorating a room. It’s less about how cool, or how gorgeous, any individual element might be. It’s certainly not about how many nifty things you can festoon the page with. It’s about the overall effect. You have to know when a humorous beat is needed, and when to lay off the rimshots and allow the moment to breathe. When you’re choosing a strong verb, you must choose the one that matches the flavor of the scene and the personality of the character doing it.

It’s hard to take out the stuff that doesn’t belong. When it’s good stuff, just not the right stuff to bring the room together, the killing of the darlings can feel literal. But you don’t really have to kill them. Just send them out of the room.

It’s Good to Get Out — of the Country

The Writing Cave has been very quiet lately, because no one has been in it. Rune Skelley is only just returned from a seagoing tour of some of the birthplaces of Western thought.

We began in Venice, Italy. A fascinating and crowded place. If you go, wear your most comfortable shoes. Learning your way around the narrow, twisting streets (more like roofless hallways in some cases) is challenging, but finding Piazza San Marco is easy. If the crowds are getting denser, you’re headed toward San Marco. Also, there would seem to be exactly one music shop in Venice, and no two people will give you matching directions for how to reach it. We think it may be enchanted.

Next up: Dubrovnik, Croatia. A gorgeous place with a rich and tragic history (ancient and otherwise). It’s a major filming location for Game of Thrones, a show we don’t watch. But we know people who do, so now we get to tease them about this. Nearby is Cavtat, known as the Croatian Riviera. Due to extensive propaganda when we were young and impressionable, we had entirely the wrong image of Croatia in our minds. It has palm trees and crystalline waters. Some of the “roads” are… well, to call them inadequate would still imply that they qualify as roads in a meaningful way, and they don’t. How about, there are single-lane shared delusions that people drive on in both directions.

Then it was on to Kotor, Montenegro. Another ancient walled city with modern development surrounding it. The Montenegrin language is very similar to Croatian. Both are slavic languages. As one of our guides put it, the people from those countries can understand each other perfectly — when they want to. In Montenegro, we saw signage using three different alphabets (Latin, Montenegrin Latin, and Cyrillic). Sometimes more than one alphabet appeared on a single sign.

In Greece we visited Olympia and Athens. Our visit to the site of the original Olympic games was the day after the lighting of the torch. It was here that we started to slow down on taking pictures of olive trees, because we began to realize that they are everywhere. We visited a farm to learn about how they’re cultivated and processed, and had a nice feast and enough wine to get us dancing in public. We hit Athens during a strike that had the metro shut down, meaning the traffic was even worse than usual. But we still got to go up to the Acropolis and see the Parthenon. If you go, wear grippy shoes — the stones of the Acropolis are polished smooth and slick from the passage of millions of feet.

We bought lots of souvenirs and gifts. So many in fact that we needed to buy an extra suitcase to pack for the trip home. But the best item was one that we didn’t even have to pay for. The shopkeeper gave it to us for free when we bought something else at a store in Athens. It’s a CD of disco bouzouki music (stay with us) including, as a special bonus: recipes! Yes. Not a typo. And they gave us this treasure FOR FREE. We can’t promise such miracles will befall every visitor, but obviously we recommend that you go to Athens.

A writing partner is someone to help you see the world, and join you on inspiring journeys.

PS: back stateside, our rental car had this indispensable feature.

Juggling

Elsewhere’s Twin continues its sojourn in its chrysalis, preparing for its glorious emergence next month as a beautiful butterfly of prose.

Grandson of Science Novel is chugging along, approximately a quarter of the way to the first draft finish line.

Sibling of Music Novel, which is next in line for composition, is like a snowball rolling downhill, getting bigger and bigger, collecting more and more plot complications and character details. Soon we’ll have a full-blown avalanche of an outline on our hands.

We’ll talk more about each of those in the coming weeks. Mark your calendars!

Right now we’re splitting our time between writing, brainstorming, and research for a variety of projects. Our current research topics include brain structure, the history of the New York City skyline, cancer, the Mandela Effect, and birth videos. And there’s a TV show that touches on subjects somewhat similar to some things we’re working with, so we’re binging our way through that to make sure the similarities stay in the realm of “slight” and don’t require us to restructure anything. So far so good. And it totally counts as research. It’s not a distraction, honest!

Plus, of course, we’re keeping up with Twin Peaks. Our son comes home every week to watch with us. No, your family is weird.

The Circle of Life

Earlier this week we launched our latest book. It’s called Tenpenny Zen — perhaps you’ve heard of it? Now that all of the champagne corks have been swept up and the fancy alcoholic milkshakes have been drunk, it’s time to look ahead.

As we’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s important for us to keep several projects in motion. When a draft of a novel is resting before editing (or between editing passes) we need to have different works to turn our minds to. Publishing the Divided Man Series means we have less fodder for that. We’re currently sitting on 4 novels that are at least at the first draft stage, so we’re not in danger of running out. Yet.

But as Jen finishes up the major edits of the final Divided Man book and we look ahead to pushing it out into the world this fall, we start to become a little bit nervous. If we don’t plan ahead, we will run out of finished novels to rotate between.

For quite a few months (in between editing and polishing the Divided Man books, and designing their covers, as well as writing Son of Science Novel) we’ve been batting around ideas for our next story world. The Divided Man books are done, at least for now. The Science Novel series is plotted to the end, and that’s what we’re working on. The Music Novel series is 2/3 done. What comes next?

I hope it’s not too spoilery if we say Ghosts. Ghosts are next. We’re both drawn to the general concept of a ghost story, but it took a lot of brainstorming to figure out how to put the Rune Skelley twist on it. We don’t want to tell a standard ghost story. There are a lot of writers out there who do that very well. So how to take some of those tropes and make them our own?

As is often the case with us, inspiration came from an unusual source. In this case, an article on Cracked. We’re obviously not going to say here what the article was about, but when Jen read it, a whole Vegas Strip’s worth of lightbulbs went off. There were a few fascinating nuggets in the article that acted as a catalyst to bring together almost all of the nebulous ideas we had floating around. It all crystalized into the most beautifully twisted story world. Jen typed it up and sent it off to Kent at work, and it sparked his fevered imagination, too.

We spent a good chunk of time that should probably have been spent writing Son of Science Novel bouncing ideas off each other and getting very excited. It felt great!

The circle of life continues.

Where It All Came From

r-avatarBackstory is a fraught topic for writers. Without getting into the debate about how much, if any, belongs in your finished product, we can say definitively that it serves a crucial purpose in our writing process.

The outline for Son of Science Novel is complete. This sequel introduces many new cast members, whose lives have been complicated since well before they intersected with our story. There’s a lot to know about them, so we are formally outlining the backstory, giving it the same kind of development attention as the “proper” narrative. Not only is it beneficial in getting to know these new people, but it also serves a debugging function, keeping us from basing story events on flawed reasoning. It’s alarmingly easy to overlook gaps and contradictions when you view things from 30,000 feet. A lower-altitude pass is essential.

Another place where backstory has been tremendously important is in the music novel. The protagonist’s outlook on life, and the experiences that shaped it, can’t be sketched in. A sketch would rely on the reader’s preconceptions to fill it in, and that would make it misleading. None of our readers has said, “I don’t need to know this.” Which raises the philosophical question of whether it really constitutes backstory. But to us, there’s no question at all. It’s pertinent, interesting, and unexpected, which places it within the scope of the narrative regardless of its chronology.

Working with a partner gives you a great resource for gut-checking things like how much backstory is needed. And, someone to listen when you do your thinking out loud, to catch the inconsistencies before they undermine your plot structure.

Scouting the Locations

r-avatarWe have a habit we’re trying to break, wherein we do online research to discover exciting locations in which to set our novels, write a rough draft of said novel, and only then visit the location. This leads to edits to punch up the atmospheric details, and occasionally reblock scenes.

Last year we were a little smarter and took our field trip before we finished the first draft. We didn’t need to make any changes, and were able incorporate some fun details to give the work more verisimilitude.

This year we were brilliant! We made our pilgrimage before we set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

Son of Music Novel is in the hands of beta readers, and we’re revving up the engines to start composing both Son and Grandson of Science Novel. The location we visited last week is one we’ve been to before — it was our inspiration for the main setting of Science Novel — and we wanted to refresh our memories, get the feel for it again so we can do it justice in the sequels.

Sadly we won’t be able to visit all of our inspiration sites. One no longer exists in the real world, and some of the others are in Russia. We have, in fact, been to Russia, but it’s been a few years, and we stuck to the touristy stuff when we were there. No secret labs or long-forgotten cold war bunkers on our itinerary, alas. But if we ever decide to set a novel in St Petersburg’s Hermitage or the Peterhof Palace, we have a ton of pictures to use for reference.

The Harshest Critic, The Biggest Fan

r-avatarSome pretty smart people, including Harlan Ellison and JK Rowling, recommend that authors write to please themselves. We embrace this advice and encourage you to do likewise. Trying to predict the market is a recipe for frustration, as is trying to imitate the style that you imagine other people want from you.

In practice, this is a bit more complicated when there are two of you. We pointed out way back in the Skellyverse’s earliest posts that a writing partner has to be someone whose tastes and interest align with yours, because the first thing you’ll have to agree on is what to write.

If you can do that, next comes agreeing on how to write it. Even if you both love science fiction with strong female characters, you’re still working in a huge space. That’s a good thing, because you have lots of room to work. But it does present the possibility that you and your partner might get separated.

If you can collaborate within a framework, so you know you’re both writing the same book, then you can fly in loose formation. If you don’t have a good feel for the voice, and you have to check in with each other over every sentence, then you’re not getting the value out of your collaboration.

Working with a partner, you have to write to please each other.

Archeology

r-avatarThe spring cleaning bug bit Jen this year. We’ve both known for a long time that the writing cave was way overdue (yes, it was way overdue a long time ago; we were verging on eligibility for a depressing reality show appearance). The excavation is well underway and has led to some very interesting finds.

In addition to the kids’ old school papers and mementos, manuals for appliances we junked years ago, and other miscellany, Jen uncovered some primitive forms of writing from many eons ago when Rune Skelley first formed. Deciphering these ancient inscriptions taught us much about the way of life as it was practiced back then.

We used to do our first drafts longhand, on lined paper. We’d use the process of typing them up as a chance to do minor edits.

We used to print out each draft and do all our revisions on paper. Any lengthy new or altered passages, we wrote out longhand, just like with a first draft.

We used to dive in and make up the story as we went. There would be a premise, and some notion of the inciting incident, and a shadowy impression of where it should all lead. Then we’d just go for it, and when it wasn’t quite right we redid it. Then we redid it again. (And again.)

As we moved away from so much handwritten output, we had a stage where we would write scenes, dozens of scenes, and then print them out and fan them on the floor to decide what order to put them in to form a story. Then we’d write whatever new material was needed to spackle over the seams.

We found a binder that Jen created for the Music Novel, containing notes about the whole cast and the band’s discography. Several characters’ names are out of date, as is the whole plot, but the inspiration is still there, still resonating.

We’ve come a long way, from such primordial techniques to our current state of rainbows and wrenches. It’s good to be reminded of how things once were, if only to be glad you don’t operate under such conditions anymore.

It Happens When You Aren’t Looking

r-avatar[Location: auxiliary writing cave, interior. Kent and Jen enter with hot beverages, colorful paper squares, and steno pads. While Kent relearns (again) how to sit on a couch, Jen starts filling a steno page.]

Kent: What are you —

[Jen holds up exactly one finger for exactly one second, then resumes her mad scrivening.]

Kent: Should we start marking things on the cards?

Jen: Shhh.

[Five minutes pass, then Jen presents the still-glowing steno pad for inspection. Kent is moved almost to tears by the majesty he beholds there. On a single page, Jen has captured the essential form of Grandson of Science Novel, that which has resisted them for weeks. It’s like the surgeon’s photo, mysterious and evocative and somehow all the more true by dint of its artifice.]

Kent: What’s with the three lines that have stars?

Jen: Those are the places that aren’t really there. Deep, huh?

[Hold for applause.]

Ever since we decided that it made sense to do the outlining now for both sequels to the Science Novel, we’ve been hammering away at the third tale in the set. We confirmed that there would be plenty of story left to tell after the middle volume, but it was just sort of all in a pile. And we knew stuff was missing from the pile, but we couldn’t tell how much; how big were the gaps, and where were they?

The other night, some kind of threshold was reached in Jen’s creative faculties. As we’ve described previously, after you tell yourself things enough times they feel true, and when they feel true they become sturdy enough to lash together into a coherent structure. (Or, maybe the pieces are fastened by means of a goose wrench.) In this case, it was a structure that had three “and then a miracle occurs” linkages. However, that very night we filled in two of those gaps. The third one remains, but discussions about how to fill it have been fertile and are revealing new levels we can explore over the course of the book as a whole.

Having a variety of ways to look at your ideas is important to help you get unstuck. Having a partner doubles (at least) your chances of someone being lit from within by the creative spark you need to get past a particular obstacle.

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun

r-avatarDouble your plotting?

Sure, why not!

The outline for Son of Science Novel came together pretty well about a week ago. We don’t know all the details yet, but we have a complete through-line, beginning to end. The ending that we envision allows for this book to stand on its own while also throwing to the next book, Grandson of Science Novel, which will finish out the trilogy.

In a fit of madness and/or brilliance we decided to go ahead and plot out Grandson (Novel #8) before hammering out all of the details for Son. (The plot hammer is another tool in our writing kit, used in conjunction with the goose wrench and the monkey wrench.)

Our previous trilogy was not written this way. We were still learning what worked for us, and developing our process. Now, though, we are geniuses, and we’re ready to tackle anything.

The advantage of getting into the final book before tightening everything up in the second is that we have the freedom to make adjustments all throughout the story. The downside is that too much freedom can be paralyzing. When you try to keep too many options open it’s impossible to hold the whole thing in your head. The plot threads ramify and peter out in dead ends instead of cascading smoothly through a flow chart to a satisfying conclusion.

In the week that we’ve been talking about Grandson, we’ve made a lot of progress. Almost all of the characters will carry over from the previous two books, so very little work is needed on their backstories. That leaves us free to really tighten the screws and make their lives miserable. Fitting fates have been devised for almost everyone, much to their chagrin.

Had we waited to outline this third book until the second was written (or even just thoroughly outlined) we would have felt constrained by what was on the page. Changes could be made, but would have meant a lot of wasted effort. So far we haven’t devised anything new that necessitates big changes in Son, but we have uncovered some thematic elements that will resonate more if we introduce them earlier, and we discovered the solution to a lingering question. In Son we had gotten as far as “there’s something wrong with this character’s process,” and by talking through Grandson we’ve decided what that “something” is.

Will we write the two stories back-to-back? Doubling up on everything else (right down to the number of writers we are!) has worked in our favor, so it seems quite likely.