The Seed and Twist Revisited

I’ve mentioned a couple of times before (here and here) my method of coming up with story ideas.  I call it the seed and twist.  The seed is some humdrum, everyday thing.  The twist is where you look at the seed in a new way, give it some novel alteration.

By way of illustration, I’ll discuss the seed and twist for each of the stories I’ve had published to date.  Don’t think of it as a glimpse into how my mind works; you don’t want to know.  Think of it as a jumping off point for coming up with your own story ideas.  Sometimes my seed ideas aren’t very everyday things.

  • Target Practice
    • Seed:  a prison
    • Twist:  It’s a prison of the future, underwater, and prisoners are made to drive weaponless mini-subs to serve as targets for the country’s submariners.
  • Alexander’s Odyssey
    • Seed:  the legend that Alexander the Great descended in a diving bell
    • Twist:  How would the sea-god Poseidon react?
  • The Sea-Wagon of Yantai
    • Seed:  some obscure references I found that someone had made a submarine in China around 200 BC
    • Twist:  make it a tale pitting war against peace
  • Blood in the River
    • Seed: your standard vampire
    • Twist:  This is an Amazonian vampire-fish known as a candiru, that shape-shifts between human and fish forms.
  • The Finality
    • Seed:  the disaster to come in the year 2012 foretold by the Mayan calendar
    • Twist:  The disaster is the universal end of time itself.
  • The Vessel
    • Seed:  a ship and its crew returning home
    • Twist:  It’s a ship from Atlantis, and their home has sunk beneath the seas.
  • The Steam Elephant
    • Seed: the huge, mechanical elephant from a Jules Verne story set in India.
    • Twist:  Take the same characters, with a newly built steam elephant, and set them in African in 1879, in time for the Anglo-Zulu War.
  • The Wind-Sphere Ship
    • Seed:  the little steam toy invented by Heron (also spelled Hero) in 1st century Alexandria
    • Twist:  What would happen if he’d used steam to power a ship?
  • Within Victorian Mists
    • Seed:  a steampunk romance
    • Twist:  Lasers and holograms get invented early, in the late 1800s.
  • Seasteadia
    • Seed:  a story of young love between opposites
    • Twist:  The story is set against the backdrop of the world’s first permanent sea colony, or seastead.
  • A Sea-Fairy Tale
    • Seed:  a man learning that the world must have some fantasy in it
    • Twist:  He learns this from an oceanid, a mythological sea fairy.
  • Leonardo’s Lion
    • Seed:  the life-size clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515
    • Twist:  It’s about fifty years later and the lion is found by a small boy who finds a secret hidden inside the lion.
  • Against All Gods
    • Seed:  a journey to visit all seven wonders of the ancient world
    • Twist:  The gods of Greek mythology are angry with a pair of mortal lovers and will stop at nothing to ruin their love for each other.
  • A Steampunk Carol
    • Seed:  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
    • Twist:  The story is played out using the characters of “Within Victorian Mists.”
  • The Six Hundred Dollar Man
    • Seed:  the 1970s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man”
    • Twist:  It’s set in steampunk times.
  • A Tale More True
    • Seed:  the notion of man travelling to the moon
    • Twist:  The story is set in a time even before steam power, when the most powerful man-made source of energy was the metal clockwork spring.

It’s one way of coming up with story ideas.  So far, it’s worked for—

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 27, 2013Permalink

A Review of “The Six Hundred Dollar Man”






My story, “The Six Hundred Dollar Man,” received a favorable review by Lototy over at Coffee Time Romance.  Check out her review here; she really understood the message of the story, and knows how to craft a fine review.

I don’t know if Lototy even likes coffee, but someone should buy her an urn-full.  Someone like—

                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 26, 2013Permalink

Dear Dr. Asimov

You may have some difficulty reading this, since you’ve been dead for over 21 years, but I hope somehow this tribute finds its way to you nonetheless.  I just wanted to say thanks, however belatedly, for your books and the way they influenced me.

isaac-asimov2I started reading science fiction in the early 1970s, and by then you were a giant in the field.  I read dozens of your short stories, and some of your novels including Foundation, Fantastic Voyage, The Gods Themselves, The End of Eternity, The Naked Sun, and others.  Later I read some of your nonfiction books and essays and some of your non-SF fiction, including The Union Club Mysteries and Azazel.

In fact, I read more stories written by you than by any other author.  (Of course, there are more stories written by you than any other SF author!)

In the late 1980s or very early 1990s I had the opportunity to attend one of your speeches—a great thrill for me since I was then thinking of becoming a writer.  You had traveled (by train, of course, since you never flew) to my area to speak in a lecture hall.

Alone on stage, you began speaking in your thick Brooklyn accent.  “I’ve done a number of these things already, so to save time, I’ll ask the questions you would ask, and then answer them.  First question:  Dr. Asimov, how did you come to write so many books?  Well, I type ninety words a minute and before I knew it, I’d written five hundred books.  If someone wants a 5000 word short story, I type 5000 words and stop; with any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.”

You gave advice to budding writers like me that day also.  “My first draft is my final draft.  I don’t believe in rubbing words together until they sparkle in the sunlight.  As my good friend, the late Bob Heinlein said, ‘They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.’”

It was a great hour-long lecture, and you kept the audience laughing the whole time.  But that was just one hour.  Your impact on my life goes much deeper.

Your SF stories are based on sound science, and your characters confront bedeviling problems that spring from unalterable facts.  The science is a central part of each story.  I’ve strived for that in my stories as well.

Moreover, your tales are celebrations of science.  I don’t recall any stories where science leads humanity irrevocably astray.  Even your dystopian works end with hope for the future.  That’s true of my writing, too.

Others have spoken of your clear, uncluttered style of writing, and you’ve acknowledged that yourself.  My critique group tells me my style is similar at times.

Looking back over the list of my published short stories, I think I can see your influence in each one, to some extent.  Alas, I don’t type ninety words a minute, and I labor over several drafts, so I will never equal the quantity of your output.  But it’s my dream to write a story someday that approaches the quality of your fiction.

Here’s to you, Dr. Isaac Asimov!  Thank you.

Steven R. Southard


Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 20, 2013Permalink

Make Your Readers Cry

How can you cause your readers to cry?  No, I don’t mean crying about having bought your book.  That’s easy.  I want to explore how you should write so as to cause readers to experience a powerful emotional reaction, one you actually intend to cause.  It need not be sadness, but any powerful reaction.

I can’t find the precise quote, but Isaac Asimov once said the aim of writing good fiction is to maximize the emotional response of the reader.  That makes it sound so mathematical; simply take the multi-dimensional equation for reader emotional response, select the right combination of character, setting, and plot variables that result in a local maximum in the solution surface.


Except there is no equation, and none of those story elements are numbers.  In fairness to Dr. Asimov, I’m pretty sure he knew that too.

But what if we looked at this another way?  Maybe there’s some trick or shortcut that always works, some valve in the human psyche you can turn with just the right words, and cause tears to flow.

800px-Adele_2009Consider the singer and composer Adele, and her song, “Someone Like You.”  That song has a reputation for causing listeners to cry.  What is it about that song?

Over two decades ago, Dr. John Sloboda, a British psychologist, studied the phenomenon of music making people cry and concluded most of the sob-inducing passages (including, it now turns out, “Someone Like You”) contained a common element.

That common element is known to music scholars as an appoggiatura.  It basically involves delaying the resolution of a melody through use of an interfering note that creates a brief emotional tension prior to completing the melodic phrase with its logical conclusion.  There’s more to the definition, but I wanted to convey that this is a single, simple musical technique.

Really?  That’s all there is to it?  Composers have a simple trick by which they can make us cry, and there’s nothing we can do about it?  Of course it’s not that simple.  Appoggiaturas may be a part of it, but there’s also something about how the rest of the melody flows, the singer’s voice, and the powerful meaning of the words.  I believe it’s the combination of all those things that brings magic to “Someone Like You.”

Getting back to writing…is there, then, some formula for writing fiction that makes readers cry?  For us authors, where is our appoggiatura?  Here are some things that might work, but this can’t be an exhaustive list:

  • A character the reader cares deeply about.  (How to achieve that is a blog subject in itself.)
  • A “bad” event happens to that character.  Something like death, serious injury, divorce, leaving for a long time, etc.
  • A skillful management of reader tension, through use of words that jar a bit, and delay the resolution of emotion.  This relates to the appoggiatura in music.
  • Another character to experience the emotion intended.  I think this can be optional, since it’s the reader’s emotion we’re after, but it helps for the reader to experience the sadness along with a character.

I don’t know of any scientific studies of books that make people cry, analogous to Dr. Sloboda’s studies of music, but I suspect the above elements might be common features in anyone’s list of tear-prompting literature.

Please leave a comment on all this, if you can pull yourself together.  With a box of tissues by my side, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 13, 2013Permalink

The Techno-Thriller, a Tribute to Tom Clancy

Author Tom Clancy died earlier this week on October 2nd at the age of just 66.  During his writing career he reinvented and popularized the genre known as the techno-thriller.

Tom_Clancy_at_Burns_Library_croppedYou can read all about Clancy’s life elsewhere; my purpose today is to mention how he and his work influenced me.

When his first book, The Hunt for Red October was published in 1984, I was completing my first (and last) tour as an officer aboard a submarine and headed for two years of shore duty.

The novel didn’t really become popular at first, but the publisher, U.S. Naval Institute Press, was used to leaving books out and available for longer periods than traditional fiction presses were.  Good thing, too, because the book eventually caught on and became a best-seller.

The U.S. Navy benefited from that novel, I think, because it popularized the military at a time when it still suffered from the post-Vietnam stigma, and it rode the wave of the expansion of the military led by then-President Reagan.  It was a heady time for the submarine service.

I recall a cartoon at the time depicting a young woman addressing a naval officer seated at a bar table, drinking beer.  He wore sunglasses and had winged aviation insignia on his uniform.  She was asking, “Are you a submariner, like those guys in Red October?” and he responded, “Yeah, babe.”  The caption read, “The first recorded instance of an aviator impersonating a submariner.”

I enjoyed the book, and my familiarity with submarines probably heightened my appreciation for it.  I went on to read the first six of Clancy’s books, through The Sum of All Fears.  Although Hunt is the shortest of his works (I think), readers should not be intimidated by the length of his novels, for they are split up into short sections and chapters, and Clancy writes with considerable tension so that you won’t want to stop reading.

In the mid 1990’s, when Tom Clancy’s fame was assured, he actually spoke to the local writing group in my area, of which I was a member.  He waived his usual speaking fee, which was probably thousands of dollars.  Unfortunately for me, I was away on travel for my day job at that time and missed his talk.  I heard it went well and that he was inspiring.

As I mentioned, Clancy took the genre of techno-thriller to new heights.  Some complain about the lengthy paragraphs he devotes to describing how technology works.  But as an engineer, I never minded that.  I disagree with those who assert that technology itself becomes a character in Clancy’s novels.  He well knew that people operate technology, and he created memorable characters who had been well trained to work with the sophisticated equipment.

In fact, Clancy lavished much attention on those lowest in the military hierarchy.  His novels are filled with enlisted men from humble backgrounds who operate complex machinery with skill and great competence.  I think he greatly admired American enlisted men and women, and at one point I believe he said they were the real difference between the U.S. and Soviet militaries.  He said you’d expect officers from both countries to be top-notch, and they were, but it’s the American enlisted who far exceeded their Soviet counterparts.

Almost all of my stories deal with characters grappling with technology, too.  Moreover, many of my characters are low on the social pecking order, as are Clancy’s enlisted characters.  None of my works can be called techno-thrillers, but I think Clancy’s works did influence mine in some way.

Rest in peace, Mr. Clancy, and thanks for the pulse-pounding excitement!  You gave many enjoyable hours to millions, and to—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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