The Story Starts Here

Originally published at The Stiletto Gang on 03.25.15

One of the most common question a writer gets asked is “Where do your ideas come from?”

Once my brother made me lay on his floor so he could tape outlines of me all over his bedroom carpet as though his room had been the site of a mass murder; we found it was surprisingly difficult to get just the right pose so that all the limbs were showing and you didn’t just have weird potato shaped outlines. (Yes, I know that was an odd transition, but I’ll circle back I promise.) When was 12, I told my Dad I had a stove box to make a Halloween costume out of he got out the black and white spray paint and turned my best friend and I into Two Fools in Pair-o-Dice; our heads came out the one dots – naturally. My mom’s friend once had eye surgery and had a rather large bandage, so my mom painted on an eye over the bandage and added a great set of false lashes. Why did we do these things? Honestly, the question never occurred to us. Had you asked at the time we probably would have said, “Why not?” My family has a culture of creativity and odd projects from passing thoughts are the norm not the exception. And as is often the case with cultures, I didn’t think to question it until someone from a different culture asked, “So why don’t you put mayo on fries?”  Or in the case of my writing, “How do you come up with your ideas?”

The people asking don’t mean anything by the question, they are genuinely interested. The problem is that at any given time I’m vacillating between two of my personalities, Helpful Instructor Bethany and Diva Artiste Bethany. Helpful Instructor is usually nice, but Diva Artiste is kind of… well, I won’t use the B-word as we are in a family friendly forum, but you get the idea, and sometimes it’s a struggle to rein Diva Wench back in. Helpful Instructor realizes that the questioner was not raised in a culture of creativity and they are asking for help understanding the creative process. Diva Artiste imperiously demands how anyone cannot have ideas. Ideas are literally littered on the sidewalk, in the newspaper, on the radio, sleeting through the universe like a tiny meteorite looking for a receptive brain (Terry Pratchett, you are missed) and all you really have to do to have an idea is make your brain receptive. It’s easy to do – read blogs by creative people (thanks), buy creative people presents (ok, maybe not really on that one, but I like books, you know, just in case), try new things. But the number one tip that Helpful Instructor or Diva Artiste both agree on, is to ask “What if?”

Any topic can work. Earlier this week there was a news story about a man who ran from the police and got stuck in mud.  What if you had been that man – up to your knees in river mud, unable to move, sinking slowly? What would you do?

What if I… What if you… What if they… The story starts there and you can decide the ending – just answer the question.

Good Days & Bad Days

Originally posted on Girlfriends Book Club on 03.12.15

Writing, as a profession, has many drawbacks – low pay, near constant rejection, and of course, the perception that anyone with two fingers and maybe a toe for the spacebar can do whatever it is an author does. In popular imagination what a writer does seems to consist mainly of drinking, living in dilapidated, Miss Havesham-esque hovels, and pulling genius 500 page books out of their butt in 6 weeks or less. And most people think they could manage that – you know if they sat down and really tried. I’m not entirely sure what they base this on other than the fact that Havasham-esque dilapidated drinking while turning random crap into a term paper is how most people remember college.

Now physically it is possible that typing 40 words per minute for 6 hours a day (I’m leaving 2 hours per work day for eating, bathroom breaks, and cat videos) could get you a 500 page work in about 9 days. (40 words x 60 min. = 2400 words, 250 words per page = 9.6 pages per hour & 57.6 pages per day x 8.75 days = 504 pages with time left over for an extra cat video). The problem is that the words don’t already exist – they have to be invented, discovered, and strung together in the right way. Even for this blog (currently a mere 229, 230, 231 words) I’ve already deleted about as many words as I’ve written. You need words that not only mean the right thing, but sound like the thing, and conjure imagery so that the reader can see the right thing. Basically, finding the right words is not as easy as it looks. But it’s also one of the best things about writing.

Not every word I write is gold. But I have written a few things that have a beautiful symmetry, a fricative taste in the mouth, and leave a crunchy thought in the brain. Those are the good days. And those are the days that keep me pursuing writing. Because sometimes, if I work hard enough, I get to make something wonderful, artistic and meaningful.

But now here’s a picture of a cat in bread – because today is not one of those days.

bread-and-cat

Genre Bending

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang Blog 03.11.15.

I read Marjorie Brody’s post yesterday “Passion Knows NoGenre” with interest. Marjorie was discussing that she hates being tied to one particular genre, but that the general industry wisdom is to do exactly that – stick to one thing! I love Marjorie’s rebellious flare, but the topic also tied into something I’ve been pondering for awhile: pen names and branding.

As a graphic designer with over a decade of industry experience I have referred to myself periodically as a “branding expert”. Branding is about capturing the concrete and implied qualities of a company or person in their visual, advertising, and on-line representations. Branding seems trivial to some, but as human beings we do it ALL the time. Only most sociologists call it “stereotyping”. Humans seem to prefer to have a short little label to stick on people. We don’t really like being forced to confront the broad spectrum of human reality – it takes too long and we’ve got better things to do with our time. What I do as a graphic designer is try to lodge the preferred stereotype in a consumers mind before they apply their (usually not as complementary) own.

Which is why I don’t usually tell my graphic design clients that I’m a writer.  It confuses my brand.  I can see the thought bubble form: If she writes, then she can’t really be a graphic designer; everyone knows you can’t have TWO talents.  Fortunately, the writer brand is equivalent with “poor” so when I tell writer friends that I also do graphic design they just nod.  But industry wisdom has the same “does not compute” problem with genre.  “But she writes Mystery, she can’t also write (fill in the blank).”

And up until now the only way to write something different was to use a pen name. But with the online world being what it is and with lawyers being blabbermouths, keeping a pen name identity a secret is hard to do.  The other problem is that as writers have become more and more responsible for their own publicity they realize that it’s hard enough getting recognition for one name, let alone building buzz for an entirely new, second name.
Which is why I find the development of the new style of pen name so interesting.  “Wrting as” has become the marketers new favorite phrase. Such as: Laura Spinella writing as L.J. Wilson pens Ruby Ink! (I’m half way through my advance copy and it’s a fantastic, saucy romp of a book – pick it up on March 31!)  “Writing as” is now code for “I’m not writing in the same genre, so be prepared for something different.”  And I couldn’t be happier about it. At last writers have found a way to break out of the genre trap! Perhaps in a few years Pen Names will be the new industry wisdom. We’ll just have to see which pen name Marjorie chooses.