Monday, August 7, 2017

Got Ideas? Yes! You have! (Article)

Here's one of my columns from the late great FUTURES magazine. Modified a few times over the years, but still amusing. . . . (I wouldn't write the same article today. For one thing, Mama's crossed over now, and my family/friends say different things about my work. But this is a good flashback about inspiration, anyway.)

By Shalanna Collins

When asked (for what must have been the billionth time) "Where do you get all your crazy ideas?" Harlan Ellison reportedly said, "From a crazy-idea factory in Hoboken." Others say there's a mail-order catalog source. A few writers are likely to retort, "I wish I knew! I'd go right back and get some more!"

But there are those of us who feel there just aren't enough years in a lifetime to write all the novels that we'd like to finish. (Although we'd also say, like Woody Allen, "I don't really want to live forever through my work. I want to live forever by not dying.") We're filled with story ideas that just keep coming, and we despair of having enough time to work on them all, to keep them alive and exciting in the backs of our minds or notebooks until the current project is complete. What's our secret--if there is one?

There's a secret to it, all right--but it's not so secret. It's nothing more than learning to recognize and cherish the great ideas that bombard us every day from all corners, and being unashamed of writing them down, no matter where you happen to be. You can learn to preserve and use all those story ideas that escape your notice every day, but you must be methodical and persistent. I suggest using four steps to uncloak the mystery of finding those story ideas and then to conjure the courage to put the plan into practice. I write fiction, but the same method could be applied to finding article topics.

1. Don't buy the hype. The act of creation only seems esoteric and mysterious to us because it has so often been advertised that way by instructors (and reinforced by the eccentric film and television portrayals of creative people.) It seems that unless you experience some magical "inspiration" all at once, you aren't being creative. Everything has to leap forth fully formed like Athene from the mind of Zeus, and it must be as dazzling as "Creation," the Sistine Chapel fresco with God's hand touching man's, or it's not Art. No second try with that slab of marble: you carve it right the first time. No wonder that's daunting to many people, who think (or have been told by educators--professional educators, who "must know what they're talking about") that they're "not creative." Unlike being not-female or not-Chinese-Irish, this is more a state of mind than a permanent condition.

Sometimes the spontaneous Song from the Muse does fill my ears, and when it does happen, it's wonderful. (Often it's Thalia, in charge of comedy.) But the rest of the time, it's more practical for the working writer to remember what Einstein said: all great inventions result from 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Creating a novel, poem, story, or essay "out of nothing" is a fantastic accomplishment, whether or not it ever sees print. It seems weird, extraordinary, difficult, tiring, an act of God (though I'm not saying it isn't all of these--at least just a little). It's something that could never happen to you. . . .

Not unless you let it.

I might compare the way I come up with a story or story idea to with the mundane act of deciding whether to ring a doorbell. First I hesitate on behalf of the people inside: should I bother them? Shouldn't I have called first? What if I'm interrupting something? My fingertip goes slowly forward; hesitantly, I touch the bell. But, at last, there's a moment of heedless courage when I experience the flash of decision--Just do it now!--a moment when I give myself permission to reach out and BEGIN.

I have to be typing or penning something--anything; a shopping list, titles of books to read, baby names--before I can hope to capture those ideas. Sit before that blank page. The idea is coming--give yourself permission to freewrite, to succeed, to fail, or just to amuse yourself. First nothing's there but the "ether"; then, all of a sudden, a phrase, scene, or situation is ready. What if. . . that old man sitting on his front porch as I drive home every evening were really a spy in disguise? . . . a visitor from another planet? . . . a Nazi war criminal, still in hiding? Has he ever left this little town? Will he ever? Does he sit there all day, just watching? Or waiting for someone? Anyone in particular, or would I do? Hundreds of possible ideas could come out of this "I wonder." Yet most of us would dismiss it all with, "But it's been done. I can't do anything new with that idea."

Don't extend that thought to its concluding absurdity, saying that, since "there is nothing new under the sun," you couldn't possibly invent a different slant on it. You are a new and unique person. Start typing. You can always recycle the "good parts" later on if it doesn't work out; at least you'll have something. To get started, type out one sentence out of a newspaper article, a joke told on the elevator, a chance remark you overheard down the hall at the copier. If it's written down and allowed to germinate, to change, to percolate through the wrinkles in the gray matter, it can become the basis of a short story; inspire a scene, character, thematic idea, or some other part of a novel; or even lead to an article like this one.

Hope your family and friends aren't as nosy as mine. But if they are. . . .

2. Start today. I used to put off everything so long that by the time I was ready to start writing it, either the deadline had passed or the freshness of the idea was just completely gone. It was dead, and it was like trying to make grass cuttings into a fragrant lawn full of interesting bugs: it just wouldn't work. So don't let it all get away. Let the stream of words flow freely now and edit later. Make time today for those things that have set you aflame.

This is the simplest of the four rules, but so often it is the one ignored. "When I get the time. . ." can turn into "if I'd only used my time" before you realize it. Remember the doorbell analogy: there's no catalyst but yourself. Set the alarm for 3 AM and write for those hours before work. Do whatever it takes. How badly do you want to write? Or do you just fantasize about having written a bestseller, without desiring the act of creation itself?

Nobody will remember tomorrow whether you vacuumed the carpeting or folded the towels. Possibly not even in two hours, after the kids have tracked in mud and the cat has made a bed out of the laundry basket. But your writing has the potential to speak to future generations and give you literary immortality. Which is more important?

3. WRITE things DOWN! Somewhere, right when you find them. You might have the germ of an idea that you think you'd never forget, but if you don't write it down right away, it is gone. Even if you're working on something else at the time, you must record these ideas. Once I kept a little notepad in my purse on which to jot down these things, but I'm ashamed to say that, after many scuffles with the family (who would steal it for phone messages, or just read it and snicker), I changed my methods. I think I invented coded speedwriting after the morning my husband announced to the contents of a crowded van pool, "What do you mean by, 'She's all over me like baby poop?' We don't even have a baby." (He had read one of the "interesting colloquialisms" I'd recorded for later use.) In fact, I used that line of dialogue as the first line of a short story for young people; eventually, it was "tightened" out, but it had started the whole thought process that led to the story "Mademoiselle Kate."

It would've been even worse had he found the list of elf names for my fantasy trilogy. Trust me on this one.

These days, I also hide gems like these electronically: they reside on my computer's disk in word processing files I name sequentially, such as "Ideas.001" (and .002, .003, etc.) When I'm driving, I also write ideas on Post-Its™ and stick them in the zippered pocket of my purse. (I pull over first.) They survive the trip back to the computer much more often this way.

Actually, you probably shouldn't even let the wrong person read the first draft of your pieces. It can be quite uncomfortable if while they're reading your story thinking it's them in the bad guy mode and you were about to ask them to please do the laundry. There are many people who won't comprehend (or can't handle) your subject matter, and can ruin your story in its incubation stages--before the caterpillar has unveiled its gossamer butterfly wings, if you will, or has at least turned into a moth, if such be its destiny. I once experienced a terrific scene when my mother read some stuff I'd left lying on the sofa by mistake after a full night of editing:

"Where in the world are you going to send these crazy stories?!" she yelled in exasperation, waving a sheaf of papers as I walked in bleary-eyed (this was before breakfast, and normally I don't get up before eleven unless it's Christmas morning and I heard reindeer on the roof the previous night; I don't even see in color until noon.) "Like this one about the two LDS missionaries who walk in on the meeting of the snake-handlers' church. You can't exactly send this one in to the Baptist Standard!"

"Relax," I said. "I'm working on a novel."

This sent her into a serious vale of tears, as she apparently had hoped to hear I had an interview at Penneys that afternoon. "Get a real job!" I could hear her moaning through her sobs.

This ugly scene could have been avoided if only I had kept those early drafts out of sight. And, please, don't ask people who don't read for pleasure to read your work! If they can't be amused by anything that moves slower than MTV on fast-forward crack-cocaine speed, how can you expect them to give you any helpful feedback on the romantic beginning of your historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance? Most of your co-workers, unless you know them to be leisure-time readers, will develop the attention span of a three-year-old when confronted with a sheaf of boring old manuscript pages. They are the types who walk into your living room where the bookshelves are and exclaim in astonishment, "Have you really read all these books?!" And they're serious. Trust me on this one, too.

4. Don't waste it on "telling" or kill it with over-research. These two are insidious. I've been so excited about some of my ideas that I rushed right out at lunchtime and blabbed the whole storyline to shocked or appalled co-workers. DON'T do it. If they don't completely discourage you with their complete apathy ("Uh-huh. What?" "That's nice, dear," or maybe "Aw, mom! I'm trying to watch TV"), they'll either think you're strange, or they will pick away at flaws in the unformed idea as if they were helping rid you of an old scab on your knee, so fiercely that you go away thinking your great idea was completely stupid.

Also beware of the allure of endless research. (Don't we all love libraries?) You may find you need to ask a question of someone who knows about snakes or plumbing or whatever (this is called either an "interview" or an "imposition," depending on your viewpoint), but be careful. For example, say you need to ask a computer whiz whether, when you delete a file on a certain type of PC, the file is actually erased, or is just marked for deletion later. Your fictional detective needs to "undelete" a file to catch the killer. and you need to put it on the proper computer I'm not telling you that if you have a difficult part in a tale that you shouldn't go to an expert and ask, but I don't recommend you let on that "it's for a story." (Asking is the lazy way out, because everybody knows you should really research this in the library--but I try to stay away from the library during months in which I hope to get some work done; they appreciate it, too, because then someone else has a chance to check out some books.)

Go ahead: ask your expert--how about that co-worker who happens to be an enthusiastic computer hobbyist?--those enticing leading questions. Only keep the reasons for asking to yourself. Just imply (in the perennial student's famously vague and preoccupied way) that you need to know the answers for school or work--a research paper, or something; match the reason to what you think the person being questioned would consider "worthwhile" (translation: "real work"). Not everyone is willing to answer questions if you let it be known that you ask because you're writing a story: to many, that's an open invitation for them to start asking you about your publication credits or to start laughing because you are "wasting your time with that." There are so many ways to flatter a person with a question that you should have no trouble getting an enjoyable ten-minute lecture on the subject, if you have chosen your teacher properly.

If you ever had parents, you already know how to do this. My mom, for example, has little time for novel-writers and story-crafters, but will drop anything to tell you all about (any one of her diverse areas of expertise, such as) wallpaper hanging or bread baking or finding the area under a curve or what Hamlet's tragic flaw is--if she thinks it's for something "legitimate" like a term paper, a book report, your continuing education class, or (in my case) if you've really changed your lazy ways and are ready to learn homemaking at last, after all! You know how to do similar "adjustments" to the truth without exactly lying--after all, you will take that college course one day, won't you? If not, you're a writer--use your imagination. Once you know so much you're sick of the entire subject (or when your hidden tape recorder runs out of tape), thank your helper. Then smile enigmatically.

And don't do all the research up front; just circle or underscore the facts you need to check, and continue with the flow of the words. After all, how do you know you won't edit that out before you need to know whether all flamingoes are the same shade of flamingo pink? (They aren't.) Then you know all the things you'll need to find out about after the first rough draft is finished. I know research can be slightly embarrassing. In fact, I'm known around my workplace and my neighborhood as a nice but slightly eccentric person who's apt to pipe up after church, "Does anybody know the easiest way to pluck a chicken?" But they're used to me now.

As a result of my bravura and curiosity, I've learned even stranger things than that. I can't spend any more time discussing it, though, because now that I've given the secret away, it's working for me again. I can't wait another moment to begin the tale of the little girl who just appeared in the doorway of my imagination, and said, "Come quickly! I need to show you something. . . ."

With my finger on the proverbial doorbell, I begin to write.

-The End-

Friday, June 9, 2017


I've changed directions because I got hopelessly bogged down in the YA non-fantasy I have been working on. Everyone says what they want to read is a sequel to MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS. So I already had the opening, and now I've got five chapters of it and a good idea what's going to happen. I think I am finally in a good place to write (the depression is still here but not as heavy, and I've gotten the cataracts fixed).

Here's the opening.

Porpoises have sonar. RuPaul has gaydar. My sister Zoë has Zodar.

"Something's about to happen." Zoë handed me one of the Pink Thing ice cream treats she'd just bought. Who'd have thought a thirty-two-year-old would be hooked on a kiddie treat? But she loves them, and I often suspect we seek out roadside carnivals just to find them. Sometimes I eat one to be nice.

"Please. Not in the mood. We're here to have fun." Standing in the midst of the crowd on the parking lot of the old east Renner mall with the music from the carousel drowning out the screams of the teens on the Barf-a-Whirl was no place hear predictions of doom and gloom. "Let's ride something. How about that?" I pointed at The Spyder, a large and menacing-looking contraption in which each car spun horizontally as the spider's arms rotated vertically, just to irritate her.

"I do not ride things that go around and around." She glared at me under the Spyder's flashing colored lights. "I like to keep the contents of my stomach from reversing back up. But mark my words. Something's afoot. Something not good."

On cue, my cell phone trilled.

She frowned. "Did you forward your stupid work phone again?"

I peeked at the Caller ID. Unavailable. "I had to. Remember, I cover evenings on Tuesdays."

She waved me away. "They won't be able to hear you."

I stepped under the awning of a cotton candy vendor where it was somewhat quieter, plugged my free ear with one finger, and picked up. "Aqualife Tech Support, The Fishes' Lifeline. This is Ari French. How may I help you?" I recited mindlessly.

"Yes," said a strained voice. "Are you"--the voice consulted a rustling page--"um, Arnelle. . . ."

The voice trailed off, unsure, as most do when they encounter my full name. I go by Ari, but it's actually Ariadne, pronounced "R. E. Oddney" and straight out of Greek mythology.

"Ariadne Diane French?" I prompted.

"Yes. The niece of Agatha Suzette French of Pacific Grove, California?"

A spider eight-footed its way up my backbone. "I am, at least one of them, I mean."

"I'm sorry to have to be the bearer of ill tidings." The voice went on for a minute or so, but I could barely comprehend it. When it quieted, I thanked it and poked at the screen to terminate the call.

Zoe wandered back over to me as the teens on the parachute ride shrieked in freefall. "What?" She eyed my Pink Thing, now dripping all over my hand.

I handed her my melting treat, not having taken a single lick. "Aunt Suzette. She's dead."


"She had a good run." Zoë tipped back her bottle of Bubble Tea and drained it before settling back into one of her rattan dinette chairs. "You know Mother's family doesn't make it far past seventy. Eighty, max."

"But sixty-eight. That's still young." I looked down at the information the voice had given me. "It doesn't make any sense that she'd have an aneurysm. It runs in families, but not in Mother's. I can't accept it."

"This person gave you the date and time for the service?" She stood, apparently unable to stop pacing for long. My legs were too heavy to walk around just now.

I nodded. "Auntie had a pre-arranged plan. Her sisters in Eastern Star are taking care of a lot of the other things."

"I don't know why they called YOU when Suzette is my middle name." Her lower lip threatened to push out.

"They got my number somehow. I don’t know. Maybe off her cell phone. I call every year on her birthday and at Christmas."

Before she could look up sharply at me (I wasn't implying she should be doing the same, merely explaining), I add, "Someone has to keep the family in touch because you know Mother certainly won't."

"You know they won't go."

Meaning our parents.

"Probably won't even send a 'floral tribute.'" My sister put the phrase into air quotes.

"I know." Mother had been estranged from her sister for years after a nasty fight over our grandparents' estate. It had been worse because of that crazy extremist church they'd joined soon after. They weren't as devout about it now as they had been back when Zoë was sixteen and pregnant and they threw her out of the house to survive on her wits, but they hadn't gone back to mend any fences or un-burn any bridges or whatever it was, either. "I kind of want to go anyway. I want to pack up Auntie's photographs and family stuff that I know she'll still have. There's nobody else who'll care, but I don't want to see her and Mama's baby pictures hit a flea market. And just to see her house again. I love that area so much."

Zoë held up both palms. "We know, we know. The world has heard it over and over every day."

"Maybe not every day."

"Trust me, we know that the Pacific Grove area is beloved of monarch butterflies, sea lions, and my sister." Zoe hit her freezer and took something out, then loaded it into her microwave. She and I both have this comfort eating thing, but I haven't settled into being zaftig yet, or at least not as zaftig as she is. After all these years I'm still stuck with the fifteen pounds I gained as a freshman at Southern Methodist University, but men seem to like me with a bit of pinchable flesh on my hips, go figure.

Zoë calls herself "statuesque" or "Rubenesque." She's not only two years older than I am at thirty-and-a-half, but also three inches taller and quite a bit wider. No one will ever hear me say that aloud.

Her hair isn't naturally red, either, but a sort of chestnut with auburn highlights like mine. You can bet your bippie nobody'll ever say THAT aloud, either.

The microwave buzzed, and she handed me a Twinkie. She buys them in bulk when they're on sale., then freezes them. When she wants a snack, she microwaves a Twinkie and garnishes it with chocolate syrup out of a bottle. I sometimes eat one to be nice.

"God, I hope she didn't have some smarmy Holy Joe in her church that we have to deal with like we did with Aaron." Zoë rolled her eyes. Privately I think she had sort of a crush on Gil, Aaron's neighbor and pastor who led us through the circumstances of Aaron's death. But of course she'd rather have her toenails pulled off by a team of rabid pit bulls than admit to it.

"No, like I say, the Eastern Star ladies are doing most of the stuff. I don't think you have to worry."

"Maybe we should just send a nice floral tribute."

"We have a moral obligation to go as the representatives of the family. And the butterflies will be returning to Pacific Grove next month."

"Who can afford to lollygag around out there for a month?" She could, that's who. Me, that's a different story. "You can get a color postcard from the Chamber of Commerce." She squirted the chocolate syrup on a plate. "I found out it's better to dip the Twinkies so they don't get soggy."

I made a noncommittal noise. She was just making the requisite protest. I waited. Zoe adjusted her half-moon reading glasses (she's far too vain to admit she needs them, so she won't wear bifocals, just gets Wally World cheapies with purple frames) and looked down at the folded newspaper in front of her. She does the crossword puzzle every day. In ink, naturally.

Today she had filled in less than a third of the blanks.

She pointed her Twinkie at me. "Of course you understand I will not fly." She'd made an exception for me when my ex-fiance Aaron died last year, and she never let me forget it.

"It's only a three-day road trip from here. We'll get to drive all the way across Texas"--Renner is one of the northern suburbs of Dallas--"and New Mexico and Arizona as well as California." I made my voice happy. "We need a road trip."

Her glasses slipped a few millimeters down her nose. "We can't afford that. My old Mercedes would never make it."

"We can take the Navigator."

"You still making those payments?"

"Well . . . mostly." I had "inherited" Aaron's Lincoln Navigator along with the payments. They were a little steep. I might be behind one or two months.

"Get real, Airhead. You're going to get a call to surrender that any day."

"They're working with me. I might be able to catch it up." Unspoken between us was, "If she left me any money."

Zoë shook her head. "Forget it. Auntie always said she'd be leaving her entire estate to the Cat Rescue Crew of Greater Carmel. I believe her."

"Well, maybe. Let's wait and see." I searched my denim hobo bag for a scrunchie and pulled my long hair back into a ponytail. "That's not why I want to go, though."

"I know."

Aunt Agatha had been the only family member who was willing to help Zoë and shelter her until Ricky was born. She'd paid for Zoë's plane ticket to Pacific Grove and then another to get her and the baby back here and settled. She even helped her get work at a day care center here in Renner through a lady in the Eastern Star who'd moved here when California became too expensive for her on her retirement income. Zoë had made good on her own and now she was the owner of two day care emporiums nearby. She checked on them now and then, but she had others to manage them. She didn't like to go inside because since Ricky died she gets sort of sick whenever she sees little kids, especially six-year-old boys for some reason. If Ricky had survived the leukemia, he would have turned fourteen last month.

She squinted. "You going to eat that Twinkie?"

I handed it to her. ~~~ This is going pretty well. Yay?