Near 500 words: The What-if Principle

What if you are stuck starting a story? Or what if the dreaded writer’s block has attacked you in mid-sentence? You are siting in front of your computer and there’s that monster of a blank screen. As the Ghostbusters used to sing, “Who you gonna call?”

Well, I have a simple solution to those dilemmas. It’s worked for me hundreds of times. it’s called the What-if Principle.

When you can’t think of what to put on paper, write the words “What if.” Then think add a phrase to that. Like “What if the boat sank” or “What if Mr. Darcy told Elizabeth Bennet that he was gay” or “What if your character got hit by a bus” or “What if I wrote a funeral from the corpse’s point of view.”

Once you have written down that What-if phrase, then ask Why. And keep doing that for as long as it takes for you to start writing a scene. Here’s an example of the process:

1.What if my character, Joe, doesn’t get out of bed on Monday morning.
Why? His girlfriend DeeDee dumped him the night before.

2.What if DeeDee hears Joe didn’t show up for work and she calls him.
Why? She’s having second thoughts about dumping Joe.

3.What if Joe doesn’t answer the phone.
Why? He finally drags himself out of bed and takes a shower.

4.What if Joe’s sister, Marsha, shows up at Joe’s house.
Why? She is worried about Joe because he was dumped.

5.What if DeeDee drives to Joe’s house and leaves angry.
Why? DeeDee doesn’t know Joe has a sister. She see’s Marsha’s car and thinks he has a new girlfriend.

By the fifth or sixth What-if, there’s at least enough to provide momentum for the next few scenes.

Try it and see if it works for you. I know it does for me.

Near 500 Words: TW starts a novel

Episode 3 of The Writer.

TW (aka The Writer) was a short story man. Over the years, he had written short stories. And not of one genre. There were science fictions, romances, mysteries, literaries. He had written flash fiction. He had written long stories. He had written novellas. But nary a novel. Novels scared TW.

And not just scared. I’m talking white knuckle fear. It was the kind of fear some actors experience before they go on stage. And more.

TW had read all the books on stage fright. There were three. Almost as many as there were on writer’s block.

Recently he had decided that he was determined to take this psychosis head on. It was time to lay some happiness on himself. Since he was a kid knee high to a grasshopper, he had believed only a novel would fulfill him as a writer. Here he was fifty-three years old and still no novel.

To put him in the right mood, he re-read his two favorite novels by his two favorite writers: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Now it was time to write that novel. Today was the the day. It was Saturday. His day off. At eight a.m. his eyes popped open. But it was from the anticipation of writing the novel. Cat was letting him know that it was feeding time.

He wiped any leftover sleep from of his eyes. He pulled himself out of bed. And fed Cat. Then he let her outside.

It was a beautiful day. The air was cool and the sun shined. Flowers were blooming. A bird or two scooped through through the water of the birdbath and refreshed themselves.

It seemed like a perfect day to enjoy the outside.

Start the novel. Start the novel. Start the novel.

TW swore, “Okay, okay.”

After an hour of running around in the yard, chasing lizards, rolling in the dirt, chewing on the grass, Cat came to the back door and patiently waited for it to be open. Either she was ready for her treat or she had to litter the litter box.

He opened the door. It was the litter box. Then the treat.

So now it was breakfast time, then his writing session. After an omelet, he looked at the dishes stacked in the sink. I should wash them.

He reached over for the sink faucet.

Hold on, you have a novel to write.

“But what about the dishes?”

The dishes can wait.

He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth and washed his face. Then he realized he didn’t have anything to wear for work on Monday.

Write the novel.

“But it’s only ten o’clock. I’ve got time.”

Write the novel.

From the kitchen came a meowing.

“I’d better let Cat out.”

She’s already been out. Write the novel.

TW took his seat at the desk and booted his computer up.

The doorbell rang.

Ignore it. Write the novel.

“But–”

Write the novel.

He looked at the clock. How did it get to be eleven o’clock?

Write.

“Okay, okay.”

TW looked at his computer screen and opened his browser to check his email.

Write the novel.

He gave his conscience three okays, then opened a blank document on his word processor. He saved the document and named it “My Novel.”

He looked at the blank screen. He thought and thought and thought and nothing came. He’d always been a seat-of-the-pant when it came to short stories and poetry. And he always had ideas up the wazoo. But today, the first day of writing his novel, his mind went blank.

He finished his first cup of coffee, then a second, then a third. Then he started getting desperate. The document was still blank. Very blank.

About the time he was going to give up, he typed, “This is the first chapter. And there will be a lot more from where that came from. Monkey looked at Shark and fired his gun. The bullet hit its target, Shark’s heart.”

“There. Are you satisfied?”

Fermenting

One of my favorite words is fermenting. It’s such a fine word. Letting something sit on the brain and allowing the subconscious to work on it. That’s fermenting for you. I get a line like: “I am a horse, have always been a horse, would always be a horse. Until the witch turned me into a boy.”

The first thing that happens: I am startled. Where did a line like that come from? I don’t know but I am ready to follow wherever it leads. Whatever dance it chooses to perform.

Now some may think I should whip it into shape, make it become what my little pea-sized brain wants.

But that’s not the way of the tao, as Laotse let us know over twenty-five centuries ago. I let it go fermenting. I stick it in the back of my mind, check in every so often. Used to think I was the only one who did this. Then I heard the playwright Edward Albee talk. He said that he will get an idea, stick it away to allow the subconscious to work on it. Check in six months later and see where the idea has flown. Then back into the subconscious again. He does this over a two-year period. Eventually it is full-grown, and a work of art.

After a bit of fermenting, I pull it out for the old look-see. Just so you know, a bit may be six months, sometimes shorter, sometimes more. Nope, it’s not ripened and back into the old subby-conscious it goes, tucked away in the cool, dark places where it gets a chance to grow healthy. From time to time, I pull it out for some nourishment.

Once the idea is ready for the garden, I take it out into the warm sunlight of consciousness. Water it some. Feed it some plant food. And off it sprouts. Soon I have a full-blown work.

It takes a lot of patience for fermenting. It is well worth the time I give it. Look at what it did for Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. What a lot of writers blame on writer’s block, I call fermenting, giving a work time to sprout muscles and spread its roots.

So be patient. Do some fermenting.

Do you have a favorite word?

An Uncle Bardie Writing Tip: The Odor That Keeps On Giving

So this is the twenty-seventh month of writer’s block. You look at your last few words of Chapter 13, better known to you as “The Martians Need Tweezers”. You love the characters and you love the plot. But somehow your muse slipped on a banana peel and had to go to the ER. The doctors tell you she is going to recover, but, for now, she is in a coma in intensive care. You just don’t know what to do. You have a royal case of the stuck in a holeskies and don’t know how to dig yourself out.

Well, Uncle Bardie is coming to your rescue. He has the perfect first aid to get you through.

All you need do is introduce a new character and a new smell. Every time Mr. Newby walks into a room, the other characters discuss the character and the smell. Here’s an example of how that might work:

It’s a party. All the neighborhood is there. Two neighbors are in the corner, discussing the world situation.

Then Neighbor 2 asks Neighbor 1 asks, “What’s that smell?” He has concern in his voice.

“Oh, that’s John,” Neighbor 1 says. “Quite pungent, isn’t he?”

“Who invited him to the party?”

“The Author.”

“Well, can’t we get rid of him?” Neighbor 2 wants to know.

“I wish,” Neighbor 1 says.

Neighbor 2 is ready for some action. “Then let’s do it.”

“Hold on now. You know what happened to the last Character who tried to do something like that?”

“No,” Neighbor 2 says, kind of worried now.

“He ended up in a lake with a bullet in his head. Author was not pleased at Mr. Character’s reaction to the introduction of Character 2 in the story. I think Mr. Character was a bit jealous. After all, he had done all that work, slogging his way through ten chapters. Then Author has to introduce Character 2 at Plot Point One to give him some competition for his Lady Love, Miss Sure Thing. Well, Miss Sure Thing was no longer Miss Sure Thing. Mr. Character sure took care of Character 2 all right. Author was real mad about that turn of events. Not only did Mr. Character end up with a hole in his head. Author made him suffer before he went to the Character Graveyard.”

“Hmmm…” Neighbor 2 says.

“But John over there, I don’t know about. He sure has a good case of fouluptheroomitis. Unfortunately it’s quite common in new characters these days. I do hear that they have a vaccine in the works for it.”

“That’s good to know. You think I would get some brownie points from Author if I went over and talked to Smelly John.”

“I doubt it,” Neighbor 1 says. “But you can try.”

Neighbor 2 drifts over to the other side of the room.

Neighbor 1 says to a friend, “Guess there goes another smoozer.”

Friend says, “Yeah, the smoozers are always the first to go. Author sure hates a butt kisser.”

As you can see by this example, this exercise should get the story back on track. It sure helped me.

The Beast That Is Nanowrimo

PrintI completed 55,004 words last Saturday to qualify for Nanowrimoship. A good deal of the month I worked on back story and extracurricular scenes for the novel I began in November. I wrote six chapters toward the final product. I plan on continuing with 500 – 1000 words a day until I have completed a first draft. The nice thing was that I gave myself permission to write a Titanic load of unreadable crap. 

Having done my Nanowrimo this year, I have come up with an image that kind of goes along with the exercise. Writing a nanowrimo is like riding a bull or a bronco at a rodeo. You get on, then you are in for a wild ride. And it ain’t like riding that mechanic bull you see in some bars. This one’s wild as wildness can be. He’s bound and determined you ain’t going to get far on his back.

That’s why the prize money for bull riding is good and the respect you get from your peers is second to none. You’re a champion indeed if you can stay on even for eight seconds. It’s like John Lennon said in the song, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy.” Or Ringo sang, “It don’t come easy.” That’s the way it is with the bull we call Nanowrimo.

No matter how you practice for that sucker, it ain’t like riding the real thang. You get on, then the chute opens and you’re in for the write of your life. I ought to know. I’ve done four of ‘em. Nanowrimos, that is. Not bull rides or bronc bustings. I may be a little nuts but I’m not crazy, you know.

I started out well enough. October 31 I had my spurs and my chaps all ready to saddle up and write that fellow into the dust. I had my outline. I had pictures of my main characters. I knew who they were and they knew who I was. And to cliché a phrase, I was chomping at the bit to get at that Nanowrimo. He was not about to best me this year. Sure, he was a little red-eyed and had that snarl. That’s to be expected.

So it was Sunday morning, November 1, and I rose from my bed. I grabbed my big mug of coffee. One thing was for sure. I knew I wasn’t going to get a good ride out of that bull without a cup of joe. I strapped on my chaps and my spurs and headed for the chute. I lowered myself easy to the chair, then I faced the future. The blank page.

I checked out my outline. I perused my notes. The bull just wasn’t ready to fly from the chute. He’d gone tame on me. What was I to do? Go choose another bull. It was too late. It was this one or it was nothing. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I found my way to getting this bull to get up and go.

I started on a scene not in the outline. “What? You can’t do that,” you say. But, oh, I can. It is written by the scribe who writes such things that I can. I took a gander at my outline and started to wander what really happened to get this booger going. Why was Mr. Main in the mess he was in? Had he been messing where he shouldn’t have been messing? Well, you can imagine my surprise when I finished almost a thousand words that first day. I was going to write this bull or it was going to ride me.

Over the next few days, well, actually it was more like over the next week or so, I wrote 25,000 words and more. I was up to that first scene. If I didn’t know where I was going, I let the beast take over and lead me wherever. I would sit down to work on a scene and start writing, then somewhere a character, a prop or even a setting showed up unplanned. All I could say, “Very interesting.” Then continue on.

Now after thirty days of sweating the blood, sweat and tears it takes to ride a Nanowrimo, I actually have six chapters of my 80,000 word novel that I began as a nanowrimo. It’s been a tough ride but I managed to stay on that bull’s back for the entire thirty days of November and then some.

Yes, the novel is unfinished. I fully expected that. I wasn’t even expecting the complete first draft to be done. I will continue to work on it in December and into 2016. Once it’s done, I shall take the seventh day off and do some well-deserved resting. Then it will be back to shaping all that bull into one heck of a novel. And it will be good.