Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Words of Wisdom to Inspire

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Please read each word listed below individually.  Close your eyes and see the vision each word brings forth.  Is it not amazing how one word can paint a vivid picture in your mind?

Joy—Peace—Love—Explore—Magic—Laugh

Depression—War—Despair—Fear—Cry

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We writers use words daily to paint pictures in reader’s minds.  We also use them to inject the remainder of the senses: sound, taste, smell, touch.  But what are the other uses for the tiny insect looking expressions of language which magically flow from our brains, through our fingers, and on to a page, or computer screen?

Words, the right sequence of words, when read at the right time as evidenced above in the few I’ve listed, can fill us with hope or bring us down to the dark depths of despair. The world in which we live at various times in history has plunged entire populations over the cliff of despondency.  Thus, I am using my blog today to give examples of how I’ve chosen to use words, in my own humble way, to help alleviate some of said gloom.

At any turn in our lives each and every one of us are in need of inspiration, positive reinforcement.  In every aspect, be it personal, work related or in the midst of an artistic block when our muse is silent, a few simple words can help to move us forward.   Give us that much needed shove to get over the hump, see the sunshine through the fog, or simply get out of bed.  For myself one of the ways I gather encouragement is through positive/inspirational quotes.

My first venture in to this realm began years ago with a deck of affirmation cards called Positive Vibes.  I pick two to four at random monthly and place them on the mirror where my morning rituals begin.  It is surprising, and then again perhaps not, how on the mornings when I would prefer to climb back in bed and pull the covers over avoiding life one of those cards tells me exactly what I need to hear.  I then carry it like a mantra throughout my day.

In my work life (as a business manager) I tuck one of the many inspirational note cards I’ve collected in each employees monthly paycheck.  I am always seeking new, fresh cards.  These cards are small tokens of knowledge discussing topics from Joy, to Dreams, to Being Thankful, to Being Successful.  I started this practice over ten years ago.  Only once did I run out of the note cards.  Unfortunately I had no time to replenish them, so no words of wisdom fell from my co-workers envelopes when opened.  I received many more comments of disappointment around not receiving those small tokens than I’d ever received over a missed hour or two of time worked, but not reflected in their pay. Now, I make certain I always have a surplus.

In another area of day to day life called social media, we encounter many negative comments. However, I’ve also found a plethora of not only inspirational stories, but also those positive quotes I seek out daily.  In turn, I personally attempt to post at least one inspirational quote a week.  I also pull some of these quotes off the internet, print them, and hang them in my art studio.  They are hung like precious clothes on a line, and interchanged often.

In the vein of all of the above I have collected some positive quotes on this solitary art form we’ve chosen called writing.  I hope you find them helpful.  I hope you print some of them, cut them out and place them where they will be seen when most needed.

What is your favorite inspirational quote?

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Gratefulness: The Stone in Community Soup

FB1FBD85-58CF-4860-9801-6906C8C78E09By Cynthia Ray

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she says:

It is said that only humans have the capacity for gratitude. This is among our gifts.  It is such a simple thing, but we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity. We know that appreciation begets abundance”

It is almost as if appreciation and gratitude create something from nothing. There is an old folk tale called “Stone Soup” in which hungry travelers without resources or food put a stone into a pot of boiling water.  Curious villagers stop by to see what is going on and are told that this is stone soup, and if only they had a bit of garnish to improve the flavor it would be quite tasty.  Intrigued, the first villager contributes a few carrots for which the travelers are grateful.  The next passer-by contributes an onion, and so on, until a delicious soup is created and shared by all.  The inedible stone becomes the catalyst for sharing and nourishes everyone and generates gratitude which begets abundance.

The value of connection with a vibrant, generous, and creative group of writers and artists cannot be overstated. Through the miracle of connection, a wonderful community soup emerges, that nourishes all of us as writers, as artists, and as a people.

When I took a writing class at a local community college, many years ago, I had no idea that it would launch me on a lifetime journey of discovery, of becoming, and of connection.  In that short fiction writing class I met writers with a similar mindset and purpose.  They were quirky, off-beat, had a sense of humor, and loved to write and read fiction of all kinds.  The teacher, a well-known published author, made her living as a full-time writer.  That in itself was inspiring, but she also had a heart for mentoring and encouraging budding and would be writers of all ages and abilities.  She created community just by who she was and what she believed in.   Just like in the folk tale, giving creates community, and is reciprocal, ongoing, and ever-expanding.

One key piece of advice that I took from her class was to join a writing critique group, and to attend writing conferences and workshops.  Since then, I have been a member of several writing and critique groups and facilitated one for several years.  In those circles, one comes to know people on a different level.  These groups provided a place to share the knowledge, expertise, challenge and joy of writing.  The connection and friendships that came from those critique groups continue to unfold.

Over time, the connections that I have made with writers, artists, and mystics, have supported me, have inspired me, and have amazed me.  When someone I know publishes a book or story, I feel pride for them.  I buy the book, read it, review it, and share it.   I know what it takes to write a story, I know what they put into that book. Perhaps I heard them read an early version at a critique group, or perhaps they shared the struggle to produce that beautiful piece of work, and I rejoice with them that it passed out of the valley of the shadow of possibility, and through their efforts into a real contribution to the community soup.

Another gift connection brings is the synergistic and creative collaboration that is born out of artistic community. Two examples from Shadowspinners include the collaborative “Collection of Dark Tales”, and the Labyrinth of Souls Novels, which started as a collaboration between Matt Lowes as the creator of a game called Labyrinth of Souls based on Tarot cards, and an artist in Germany. The game inspired a collaboration of writers to produce novels loosely based on the game, with the common theme of a journey to an underworld.  Some incredible writing came and continues to come from that collaboration.

I am eternally grateful for the indelible friendships, for the generous, open-hearted hands that helped me along the way, with feedback, with encouragement, with a kick in the backside when needed, and everything that went into the community soup, even the stones. No, especially the stone.  It’s the catalyst.

 

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Friends are Forever….

 

Nostalgia For What I Never Had

By Lisa Alber

I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.

Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?

Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.

Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”

I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.

Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.

Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.

It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.

I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.

Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.

I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …

She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.

Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.

Lizzie Borden on Tour

by Elizabeth Engstrom

My publisher, IFD Publishing, is launching a new line of books, Horror That Happened. My Lizzie Borden book was re-released under this new imprint, in the Based on a True Story category.

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We decided to do a blog tour with Silver Dagger Book Tours to promote this new release of a much-published book.

The first step was to decide when to do the tour, and how long the tour should last. We chose the entire month of July. Now I say a month is too long. I can blog, and post on social media, but my universe is small, and I can only annoy my readers/followers so much. A month of such posts turned out to be too much for me. Two weeks would have been perfect.

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Maia, of Silver Dagger, did a stellar job. She asked me for all kinds of materials, from answers to interview questions, to history behind the writing of the novel, to personal information. This, she parceled out to her bloggers, who quite faithfully posted the appropriate information on the day they said they would. Maia also posted it all on her Silver Dagger website, which got quite a bit of attention. Could be the $25 gift card we offered to participants. Could be she just has a nice following.

This was not the first time I’ve done a blog tour with Maia. When Benediction Denied came out through ShadowSpinners Press, the publisher set me up for a tour with her. This was in Maia’s earlier days and most of her bloggers turned out to be geared toward the romance market. Definitely not a good fit for my dark fantasy Labyrinth of Souls book. But Maia has grown her business and branched out into what appears to be all genres.

The results aren’t in, of course. Did I get book sales? I won’t know yet for a while, as Amazon reports their book sales in a weird way. But I can tell you that I also blogged about it several times on this blog and on my personal blog, and the publisher also did a fine job of blogging, all during the month of June. I think I picked up north of 30 new subscribers to my personal blog. So it’s all good.

Fortunately, this coincided nicely with a bump in Twitter subscribers because When Darkness Loves Us has had an astonishing resurgence with its new publication under the new Paperbacks from Hell imprint from Valancourt Books, curated by Grady Hendrix.

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There is more news, but I will keep that for another post at another time. Suffice to say, it’s good to have a whole new audience for my favorite books. Consider booking a blog tour and report back your successes.

Karmic Law for Becoming Writers

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Karmic Law for Becoming Writers, by Eric Witchey

We write stories for as many different reasons as there are people who write. Some people write as personal therapy. Some write to set the world straight. Some write to heal others, and some to heal wounds from their childhoods. We have stories that instruct, deny, teach, explore, and warn. We have stories that do all these things at once. Yet, people still ask these perennial questions:

  1. How do I become a writer?
  2. Where do I start a story?
  3. What should I write?

In order, the truest answers I know are:

  1. By writing.
  2. With the writing.
  3. And whatever you write.

You may have chuckled in humorous agreement after you read the questions and their answers. You may have become a bit angry and resentful at my apparently useless and flippant answer. You may have just skimmed forward to get to the bits you think you need. Please don’t laugh, resent, or skim. The questions are legitimate. The answers are true. We have all asked them, and we have all had to answer them for ourselves and others.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

How do I become a writer?

The word “writer” is the agentive nominalized form of the infinitive verb “to write.” In the strictest sense, a person who writes is a writer. If that’s as far as we take the answer, the writers were justified in their little chuckle. The haters were justified in their little moment of resentment. The skimmers were justified in moving on.

However, I want to bring a bit of karma into the concept of becoming a writer. Some writers are born into families where professional writing parents read stories to them in the womb, where the family played endless word games for fun, where no TV was allowed, where a giant dictionary lived in the living room, and where telling stories to one another was a form of entertainment every night after dinner. From families like that, writers emerge into academic and commercial circles carrying the burden of “talent.” Those writers are not kidding at all when they say things like “Just tell the story,” “I know if it sounds right,” and “the characters just do what they are going to do.” For those rare and highly talented people who were genetically predisposed to solid language skills and then internalized the patterns of success in language and story at very early ages, “Just write,” is a true, complete, and self-sufficient answer to the question.

I wasn’t born into one of those families. Most people weren’t. Sure, we all have some degree of the magical thing called talent, but talent is just the degree to which you were genetically predisposed to then trained to early life fluency in language and story. Luckily, many successful writers had little or no talent when they came to the craft. They compensated by working hard. It turns out that behaving like a writer creates writers.

That’s what I mean by karma. One definition of karma is that every choice we make turns us into a person who has made that choice. Having chosen, we benefit from all the pleasures and pains that go with that choice. If we choose to drive on the wrong side of the road, we gain the freedom and joy that comes with being unconstrained by law. We might even live through the experience. We might also experience the accident and death that can come with having made that choice. Either way, we create ourselves into the person who experiences the result.

By writing, we become writers. Showing up every morning at the keyboard causes our bodies and minds to adapt to the task of writing. By attending seminars, classes, and conferences, we train body and mind to become sensitive to the patterns of success in behavior and technique that make a writer a writer.

A person who says, “I am a writer,” but doesn’t touch the keys is the same person not writing today that they were yesterday. A person who says nothing but does sit down at their desk and reads, studies, and practices the craft becomes a writer. Mind and body adapt to what we do. Writers write. Writing makes writers.

Where do I start a story?

The entry point to any story can be any moment in the story. By entry point, I mean the first text on the page. I do not mean the opening line. As you would guess from what has come before in this little essay, it means that writers write in order to figure out what they are going to write.

Since the first shaman spit pigment onto a cave wall, writers have been struggling with blank stone, clay, or page. I can’t count how many different methods of beginning I have studied over the years, and all of them have been correct. I will say that my all-time favorite came from the woman who taught the Carlo Rossi Method of mystery writing, but that’s another story and not really mine to tell. Here are a few non-Carlo Rossi entry points along with an example of each:

  • Start with A Theme: Developing listening skills creates understanding, deeper respect for others, and greater success in family and life.
  • A Social Issue: Prejudice against intelligence
  • Personal, Emotional Issue: Unrequited love
  • Trauma: Limitations in relationships because of early life sibling abuse
  • Random Topics: A dirty coffee mug, a newspaper article about hauling ice from glaciers in Canada to L.A. as a water supply, and a Country Western Song. (This starting point actually became my sold short story “Running Water for L.A.”)
  • Idea in The Shower: What would it be like to be a spider living in the sewer?
  • Image or Images: My reflected house on a dew drop on the rust-damaged petal of a blue rose.
  • A fast Scene: Just wrote five pages as fast as I could. Now, is there anything in there to work with?
  • The Beginning: Her first day at Garver Road Middle School was triumphant and terrible in equal parts.
  • Someplace in The Middle: By the time Gordon arrived at the farm, the dogs had eaten most of the flesh from Millicent’s corpse.
  • The Climax: She held the flame of the sword close enough to his head to singe the hair of his beard and raise acrid smoke. When he closed his battered eye to avoid the flame, she said, “For my sister and my village.”
  • The Final Moment: Susurrate waves tickled his toes and tugged at the beach sand, washing away his foundations and forcing him to shift his footing from time to time. The Corrilla’s black flag disappeared over the horizon. The breath he’d been holding slipped past his lips in a long sigh before he turned toward home, his wife, and their new child.

Any one of these could become the entry point for a story. Any one can provide the spark that allows the writer to begin asking the questions that define context, present a problem for solution, and result in answers that drive the project forward toward completion.

What would it be like to be a spider in a sewer? Replace spider with rat and watch the film Flushed Away. Go back to spider, and ask what makes the spider worth following in the sewer? She loves her children—deep fried with vinegar and salt. Nothing in the sewer can satisfy her hunger. Why does that matter? Because she is the only spider of her kind in the sewer and the other sewer spiders shun her for her culinary peculiarities. So what? She can solve murder mysteries in the sewer, and that will bring her back to the bathroom where she meets her grown children but no longer only sees them as food. So, the sewer is a metaphor for her exploration of the shadow self and her resentment that her children are a part of herself she wants to recover by eating them, and the murders force her to recognize the deeper value of every life and the interconnectedness of each life to all….

The above example of uncensored, question-driven brainstorming would not end with the ellipsis. It would go on and on until enough silliness and non-silliness appeared on the page to allow the writer to begin to see a story worth telling.

The point is that writers start by starting. Any start is a start provided we keep going.

What should I write?

Did you read the bit about the spider? Did you shake your head and think, “Oh, for the love of…” Now, go back and look at the list of starting places. Which one is the one we should pick as the story we want to write?

Exactly. Any of them. All of them. Just pick. The one that you picked is the right one. Don’t pick. Start a different way. Toss a coin and write about the glimmer of it spinning in the sunlight. Travel to a festival and write about carnies. Write about not being able to write. However you start is the right way to start. Whatever shows up in your writing is the right thing to write about. Later, you can do the work of turning it into a story.

One of the most disturbing phrases I hear from writers at conferences and in seminars is, “My story is about…” Compare that opening phrase to “This story is about…” Writing a lot of stories allows writers to learn faster, understand story more deeply, and discover which stories, themes, concepts, and issues are most powerful for them. Additionally, writing a lot of stories results in, well, a lot of stories. More stories provides a broader range for possible sales and reduces the worry surrounding any one story.

Let’s change the question just a little bit. Instead of asking “What should I write,” ask, “What the hell did I just write?” The answer will often be, “Huh. Well, I’ll be damned. That was fun.”

Portal Home

by Cheryl Owen Wilson

Portal Lrg“Portal Home”  original painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Universal fingers crawl along the edges of darkness as I doze,

pulling the shades of my word’s light to a finite close.

While fanciful creatures come out of their hiding,

wanting to soar on night stars, riding.

They speak to me in words never before spoken,

unveiling worlds waiting to be woken.

I accept their invitation to roam through the Universe,

amidst ancient galaxies we magically traverse,

embracing this knowledge eating at the edges of my being,

setting my soul on fire, forever seeking.

Centuries pass in the blink of an eye,

minutes and years blurred by times fateful sigh

These are the wonderings of my mind,

as it plays hide and seek though infinities of time

Words continually unfold through portal’s pricked by night.

I am at peace as I once again, take flight.

The poem wove through my mind, as I created the painting, and would not leave after the painting was completed until placed on the page.   I am forever in search of the beginning, the spark, the muse causing an artist to create. Can you remember the first thought sending you off in a months/years long quest to create a work of art, a story?  I enjoy hearing artist’s answers.  Please give me yours.

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