Author Interview — Lauren Marrero

We’ve been meeting fascinating authors recently through my interviews, and that streak continues today with my interview of Lauren Marrero.

Lauren-Marrero1On her website, Lauren describes herself as a sapiosexual romance novelist, cat lady, and adventuress. She’s the author of the novel Seducing the Laird.

Here’s the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

Lauren Marrero: I was a writer long before I was consciously aware of it. Back in school, I became so excited about writing essays—my friends definitely thought I was weird. It wasn’t until college, while choosing a major, that I realized writing was my passion.

P.S.: You have a short story, “Her Majesty’s Service,” appearing in the anthology AvastYeAirshipsAvast, Ye Airships! What is your story about?

L.M.: After a passionate one night stand, a young woman discovers the man she slept with is caught up in a dangerous world of intrigue.

P.S.: You’ve written a historical novel, Seducing-the-Laird-CoverSeducing the Laird. Please introduce us to the main character, Verena.

L.M.: Set during the late middle ages, Verena is the perfect spy, working for the ruthlessly-ambitious Lord Gundy. Her mission is to recover a fabled cache of Roman silver, lost for hundreds of years beneath the stronghold of the Scottish laird Cairn McPherson. She must use all of her powers of seduction and intelligence to infiltrate Cairn’s household, but this mission may be her undoing.

Verena is an anti-hero, a woman forced to do whatever she must to survive. She is deeply disturbed by her assignment, knowing that her actions may cause the destruction of a clan she has grown to love. This is a story about redemption and realizing that it is never too late to be a better person.

P.S.: Reviewers keep saying they couldn’t put your novel down, that you had them from page one. Would you care to share your secret for how you achieve that?

L.M.: Honestly, I was a little surprised to see such positive reviews for a first novel. Sure, I loved it, but I wasn’t sure my audience would love the same characters and laugh at the same jokes.

I tried to bring my enthusiasm for the characters onto each page. I constantly asked the opinions of my friends and family while writing. Did they think a scene was realistic? How would they feel if a character behaved a certain way? That feedback helped to make the story much better.

P.S.: I see you enjoy traveling. Are all your stories set in places you’ve been?

L.M.: Unfortunately, no. Unlike Nandi from “Her Majesty’s Service,” I have never been to Cairo, but that is definitely on my list!

P.S.: The topic of food keeps coming up on your website. How do you use food in your fiction writing–just to show the characters being real, or to give credibility to the historical time and place setting, or to advance the plot?

L.M.: People say to write what you love. I am a foodie. I believe knowing people’s tastes gives insight into their character. Laird Cairn McPherson is a tough and capable leader, but has an incurable sweet tooth. Verena cleverly uses that knowledge during her seduction. When he is at his lowest moment, not knowing if he will live or die, Verena appears before him like an angel of mercy, offering all the comforts of home. It is no wonder he falls for her!

P.S.: If you could bring back a dead author to talk to over dinner, whom would it be, and what would you be anxious to ask?

L.M.: I consider Oscar Wilde to be one of the greatest writers. Few authors are so skillful at combining emotions. While reading his work, I want to laugh, cry, beat up some characters, and hug others. I wouldn’t presume to ask Oscar Wilde anything. I would just let him talk.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors of historical romance?

L.M.: I wanted my novel to be a more evolved story. There is intrigue, espionage, ghosts, malicious fairies, and the threat of war. Yes, the characters fall in love, but there is much more to the book.

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

L.M.: I am currently working on the sequel to Seducing the Laird. In the first book, I introduced an entire family of spies, each with complex stories and diverse backgrounds. I believe each of them deserve to fall in love.

The next novel takes place in France during the Italian Wars. Italy, France, and Spain are pitted against each other. It is up to the spies to resolve it –and break a few hearts in the process.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers? In particular, what do you wish someone had told you about writing or getting published that you had to learn the hard way?

Lauren Marrero: Make friends. I found that the best way to stay motivated is to be around like-minded people. Join writing groups and attend readings by local authors. It may take years before you see your work on a bookshelf, but if you can keep your attention on writing, it will keep you focused on your goal.

 

Thanks, Lauren! Luckily for readers of my blog, I know where you can find out more about Lauren Marrero.  She’s on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon. Her website is here.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 9, 2015Permalink

Fiction Elements by Genre

In earlier posts I’ve blogged about the various elements of fiction (Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, and Style). I’ve also blogged a bit about the various genres of fiction. Here I thought I’d explore how the various genres emphasize certain elements and de-emphasize others.

For the chart, I used the genres listed in the Wikipedia “List of Genres” entry. As the entry itself points out, people will never agree on this list. Even more contentious will be my rankings in the chart for how much each genre makes use of each fiction element.

Fiction elements vs GenreFor each genre, I assigned my own rough score for each fiction element. I’ve placed the genres in approximate order from the ones emphasizing character and plot more, to the ones emphasizing style and theme more.

Go ahead and quibble about the numbers I assigned. That’s fine. There’s considerable variation within a genre. Also, the percentages of the elements vary over time. If we took one hundred experts in literature and had them each do the rankings, then averaged them, the resulting chart would have more validity than what I’m presenting, which is based on my scoring alone.

But the larger point is that the different genres do focus on different elements of fiction. In my view, character is probably the primary element for all but a few genres. Theme is probably the least important, except for a limited number of genres.

Of what use is such a chart? First, please don’t draw an unintended conclusion. If you happen to know which elements of fiction are your fortes, and which you’re least skilled in, I wouldn’t advise you to choose a genre based on that.

Instead, look at the chart the opposite way. Find the genre in which you’d like to write, and work to strengthen your use of its primary fiction elements in your own work. You might even glance at the genres on either side of your favorite one and consider writing in those genres too.

I can’t seem to find online where anybody else has constructed a chart like mine. Perhaps the only one you’ll see is this one made by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 28, 2014Permalink

Formula for Success

Have you ever written formula fiction? Is it good or bad to do so?  What is it, exactly?

formula 2If your story re-uses the plot, plot devices, and stock characters of other stories, then you’ve written formula fiction.  It’s different from the term genre, in that genre fiction makes use of the same setting and style as other works within the genre, but genre fiction may vary plot and characters considerably.  I termed such writers formulists in a brief discussion here.

Although literary critics tend to dismiss formula fiction, there are so many published stories, it’s difficult to come up with entirely new plots and characters.

Usually there’s a good reason why a writer chooses a formula.  It works!  It’s a curious thing that readers enjoy reading formula fiction.  They’re comfortable with the character types, and although they know how the story will come out, they follow along anyway.  Readers can forgive a great deal if the author tells the story in an interesting way.

I’ll discuss plot types in a future blog post, but with formula fiction there’s no real attempt to vary from a proven plot line too much.  Just re-use what’s been done before, perhaps with slight deviations in setting or style, or specific plot events.

The use of stock characters frees the writer from having to include a lot of explanation or description.  After only a few words, the reader understands all there is to know.  Again, it’s possible to vary a bit from the standard character type, but there’s little need.

I said it’s a curious thing that readers would enjoy formula fiction, but perhaps it’s not so mysterious.  Before there was a formula, there was an enterprising writer (or oral storyteller) who conveyed the story for the first time.  It struck a chord.  It was successful.  After that, why not just do variations on a popular and effective theme?

Examples of formula fiction include romance, horror fiction, and space opera.  Each of these has withstood the test of time because each has appealing characteristics that really reach an audience, and keep on reaching generations of new readers.

In the case of romance fiction, readers enjoy the odd or awkward meeting (the ‘meet-cute’) between man and woman characters who seem opposite or ill-fitting at first, then they warm to each other, only to have a parting of the ways, and finally reunite in love at the end.  An overdone plot line?  Apparently not yet, since this formula sells more books than any other by far.

In horror fiction, at least the cinematic type, the audience sees a mixed-gender group of characters who are isolated in some way and face a horrible entity bent on their destruction.  One by one the characters are killed until only a lone female—the so-called final girl— is left to either defeat the entity or escape.  Another plot line that has not run its course.

For space opera, readers are treated to a heroic character in the distant future, somewhere in outer space, confronting a menace threatening the survival of the hero’s people.  The hero strives against the evil force, and just when it appears all is lost, the hero is able to defeat the menace.  This formula continues to work.

Despite what critics might say, there’s nothing wrong with formula fiction, particularly if you’d like to sell your stories.  There’s plenty of room within the constraints of the formula to display your creativity as a writer.  So, like a mad scientist (Mwahahaha!), go ahead and use your (fiction) formula to take over the world!  Good luck, says—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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Romancing the Short Story

Bet you didn’t expect me to write a blog entry on writing romance short stories, did you?  Well, for one thing, if you desire to become an author, you should learn to write about anything, even topics or genres you know little about or have little interest in.  You never know what you’ll end up being good at.

Second, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the romance genre has a vast and insatiable readership.  Perhaps not so much in the short story length as in the novel length, but again, what if you’ve got a potentially great romance writer inside you, but you never try the genre to find out?

And, it turns out I have written a couple of short story romances.  “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance, and “Against All Gods” is a romance story set in Ancient Greece.  So I am nominally qualified to discuss the topic.

To figure out what’s special or different about romance short stories, let’s start with basics.  Any fictional story must have certain elements, including character, plot, conflict, setting, style, and perhaps theme.  We’ll dispense with the last three by saying that romance stories can take place in just about any setting, be written in any style, and can explore just about any theme.

Romance stories are character-driven.  The characters must be intriguing and complex.  The point-of-view character should have aspects with which readers can identify and empathize.

The plot is the emerging love between the characters.  Choose your events such that they enable the characters’ love to either develop, or be tested, or both.

The conflict is the protagonist’s struggle to attain love itself, not the sexual act or the fleeting emotions of love, but the deep and shared realization that the two major characters cannot live without each other.

In a short story, you’re going to have to be choosy.  It’s very difficult, in just 1000 to 10,000 words, to encompass the typical progression of a love story in its entirety, from the first meeting, through the burgeoning attraction, through the testing or challenge, to the final realization of love.  There’s a natural pace to the process of falling in love, and the short story length doesn’t fit that pace as well as the novel length does.

Consider selecting one vignette, one emotion-charged event of a larger love story, and leave the earlier parts as backstory, and just hint at the later events.  To explain what I mean, let’s consider what Christie Craig and Faye Hughes describe as the plot points of a romance story, the events that sum up to the plot arc:

  • Introduction/meeting
  • First acknowledgement of attraction
  • First acknowledgement of emotional commitment
  • Dark moment (what I’d call a test of love’s strength)
  • Resolution

Your short story could consist of just one of those events, and hint at the rest.  Charge your story with emotion, and ensure the protagonist experiences an internal change in the direction of love, and that could be sufficient.  It might be all you can manage within a short story format.

Have you written a romance short story?  Submitted it for publication?  Leave a comment and let me know what happened.  When you began writing did you ever think you’d write a romance? No?  Neither did—

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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November 11, 2012Permalink

Writing “Against All Gods”

In a previous blog post I’ve explored how writers take a basic idea and build it into a story.  Here I thought I’d show you that process at work in the development of one of my tales.

Recently, Gypsy Shadow Publishing launched my story “Against All Gods.”  It’s the latest tale in a series called What Man Hath Wrought.

How did I come to write that story?  I’ve long been fascinated with ships, ship design, and the beautiful vessels of the past.  Among these is the trireme of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Well suited for naval warfare in the Mediterranean, triremes sailed and fought for hundreds of years using a basic design that changed little during that time.  If Hollywood made a movie featuring the adventures of a trireme crew, I’d stand in line when it opened.  Can’t you just see the deadly ram; the painted eyes; the jutting prow; the churning rows of oars; that single rectangular sail; and the graceful, upward curve of the stern?

As an engineer, I’ve also been enthralled by the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Using only the simple materials available to them, Bronze Age people of the Mediterranean constructed architectural marvels whose memory lingers across the millennia.  Six of the seven are gone, but that only heightens their grandeur, for our imaginations build them anew to a magnificence the originals probably lacked.

How, I thought, could I write a story featuring a trireme and the Seven Wonders?  Clearly a sea voyage to each of the Wonders seemed in order.  Moreover, it must have some appeal, some relevance, to modern readers who might not share my interests.  As to that, it had not escaped my notice that my only previous romance story, “Within Victorian Mists,” had been selling rather well.

Could I manage, then, a tale involving a trireme, the Wonders, and a romance?  Time for a mind map to brainstorm various plot ideas.  First, all seven Wonders had to be in existence, and since that was only true between 280 B.C. (when the Alexandria Lighthouse was built) and 226 B.C. (when the Colossus of Rhodes collapsed), those dates roughly fixed the story’s timeframe.  Early on I abandoned the notion of bringing the woman character along on the voyage as being too far-fetched.  That meant my two lovers would be separated for most of the story.  And what should the woman do at home while the man voyages on his sea adventure—strum her lyre and pine for him?  No.  Today’s readers seek strong and independent female characters.

Think, for a moment, about the story you might have written given those constraints.  As for me, I explored a few options in my mind map, considering pros and cons of each, rejecting ideas with unsolvable flaws, weighing the remaining notions, and finally selecting the one I believed held the most promise.

As it says in the book blurb, “In ancient Athens, trireme commander Theron and the woman he loves, Galene, have each earned the wrath of jealous gods.  To marry Galene, Theron must voyage to all seven Wonders of the World.  At every stage the immortal gods test their love with all the power and magic at their command.  While Galene suffers anguishing torment in Athens, Theron faces overwhelming challenges at every Wonder from Ephesus to Rhodes to Babylon.  Theron and Galene may be devoted to each other, but how can mere mortal love survive…against all gods?”

There it is…a glimpse into the mind of a creative writer at work.  Comment if you found it helpful.  Or unhelpful.  It’s all part of the service provided by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Can’t You Stick With One Genre, Steve?

Today I’ll explore the reasons why some authors write in only one genre, and why others don’t.  If you’re a beginning writer, most likely you picture yourself staying in your favorite genre.  Don’t be too sure things will remain that way.  When I started, I never imagined I’d write a horror story, or a romance.

Here’s the list of the genres in which I’ve had stories published, along with the stories that apply to each (and yes, some stories reside in more than one genre):

Science Fiction “Bringing the Future to You,”  “Seasteadia,” “The Finality,” “Target Practice”
Alternate History “Leonardo’s Lion,” “Alexander’s Odyssey,” “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” “The Vessel,” “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai”
Steampunk “Within Victorian Mists,” “The Steam Elephant”
Clockpunk “Leonardo’s Lion”
Romance “Within Victorian Mists”
Horror “Blood in the River”
Fantasy “A Sea-Fairy Tale”

Consider things from a reader’s perspective.  With limited funds and little free time, they’re forced to be selective.  They tend to prefer reading in one or two genres, and if two, the pair of genres are often related.  Readers seek good, consistent, and dependable authors.  Once they discover an author they like, they stick with that one for a time.  Readers do not like surprises from authors, either in quality or in change of genre.

From the author’s perspective, there are two needs to satisfy–the reader and the muse.  Many authors seek to make money from their writing, and the only way to do that is to delight a lot of readers.  Other authors write for their muse, their creative mind.  That often causes these authors to dabble in several genres, since the muse is fickle and easily bored by sameness.  Since authors are aware of the preferences of readers mentioned earlier, they will sometimes use pen names when they write outside their main genre.

As you might have suspected, I’ve been writing for my muse so far.  How have readers been taking to my stories?  I get some data from Amazon, but even so it’s hard to tell.  Several of my stories are combined with other author’s tales in anthologies, so sales of these anthologies do not necessarily indicate readers like my stories.  Only a few of my stories are sold as ‘books’ in their own right.  Further, I’m unable to get sales data from Amazon on two of my stories–“Bringing the Future to You” and “Target Practice.”

With the data I was able to gather, I decided to rate my stories by number of sales per year rather than total sales, to account for the different publication dates.  Here’s the list, starting with the best-selling:

Story Genre
“The Finality” * science fiction
“Blood in the River” * horror
“The Steam Elephant” * steampunk
“Within Victorian Mists” steampunk, romance
“A Sea-Fairy Tale” * fantasy
“The Vessel” * alternate history
“Alexander’s Odyssey” alternate history
“Leonardo’s Lion” clockpunk
“The Wind-Sphere Ship” alternate history
“The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” alternate history
“Seasteadia” * science fiction

* published in an anthology or magazine

This suggests I should be writing more science fiction, horror, and steampunk if I want to maximize sales.  However, sales do not always equal income.  The anthologies all paid a single advance, so my earnings from them do not reflect sales.

Still, I’ve decided to continue to follow my muse, and to keep writing under my own name rather than under a pen name.  I’ll keep track of story sales as I go.  If stories in one genre really take off, then it makes sense to keep riding a winning horse.  What do you think of my strategy?  What will yours be?  It might be very different from that of–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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Book Review — Soulless

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Soulless by Gail Carriger put out by Recorded Books, and performed by Emily Gray.  I’m not a regular reader of romance novels, but I do enjoy steampunk so I thought I’d give this one a try.

The book is set in an alternate version of Victorian London in a world that has come to accept the co-existence of werewolves and vampires with humans.  In fact there is a Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) to keep track of all the supernatural creatures.  Alexia Tarabotti is not supernatural, but is a rare breed of human born without a soul.  However, this status as a “preternatural” allows her to turn any werewolf or vampire into its human form at her mere touch.

The book begins with a vampire trying to attack her, and dying in the process.  How could a London vampire not know she was a preternatural?  Thus the investigation begins, which requires the services of Lord Conall Maccon, head of the BUR.  Soon we learn about Alexia’s overbearing mother, catty sisters, best friend Ivy Hisselpenny (she of the always outlandish hats), and flamboyantly gay vampire Lord Akeldama.

Oh, yes, and Alexia falls in love.  I am not the best judge of romance novels, but I did enjoy many aspects of this book.  Carriger captured the sense of the time and locale well.  The characters were well-drawn and had a few complexities and interesting quirks.  The love relationship was, for the most part, believable and well-paced, and I think the book’s target audience should be well able to identify with Alexia.  The reading by Emily Gray was excellent; she made the characters come alive and her accent helped transport me to the novel’s world.

However, there is a long stretch of very little action between the opening scene and the final confrontation.  A long epilogue follows the final actions, perhaps in order to set up the later books in the series (of which this is the first).  There are frequent character point-of-view switches, but in general they are executed in a clear manner.

Using my book review rating system, I’m going to give this book 3 seahorses.  I recommend it if you enjoy quirky romances, or supernatural fantasies.  It’s teetering on the edge of what I’d call steampunk though.  If you’ve read it and have a different view, please leave a comment for–

                                                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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January 10, 2012Permalink

Pioneers and Giants

For this blog post I’m dividing the great writers into two categories–pioneers and giants.  I define pioneers as those who start a new genre of fiction by themselves, and giants as those who come along later and take an existing genre to new heights and greater popularity.

Here is a table listing a few literary genres and some of the pioneers and giants in each one:

Genre

Pioneers

Giants

Adventure Heliodorus, Homer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne
Comedy Aristophanes Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, William Shakespeare, R. L. Stine, Kurt Vonnegut
Crime Steen Steensen Blicher, Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie
Fantasy Homer Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien
Historical Chariton of Aphrodisias Pearl S. Buck, Ken Follett, Robert Graves, Eleanor Hibbert, James Michener, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ryotaro Shiba, Leo Tolstoy
Horror William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, R. L. Stine, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde
Mystery E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe Jiro Akagawa, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Kyotaro Nishimura, Edward Stratemeyer
Philosophical St. Augustine Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Soren Kierkegaard, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, Jean Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, Voltaire
Political Plato Edward Bellamy, Benjamin Disraeli, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas More, George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Gore Vidal
Romance Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Ann Radcliffe Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, Catherine Cookson, Janet Dailey, Eleanor Hibbert, Debbie Macomber, Stephenie Meyer, Nora Roberts, Denise Robins, Danielle Steel, Corín Tellado,
Satire Aristophanes Ambrose Bierce, Anthony Burgess, Candide, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut
Science fiction Jules Verne Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, H. G. Wells
Steampunk James Blaylock,  K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Thriller Homer, John Buchan Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean
Urban Robert Beck TN Baker, Kole Black, De’Nesha Diamond, K’wan Foye, J.Gail, Erick Gray, Shannon Holmes, Pamela M. Johnson, Solomon Jones, Mallori McNeal, Miasha, Meesha Mink, Jeff Rivera, Big Rob Ruiz, Sister Souljah, Vikki Stringer, Nikki Turner, Anthony Whyte

You can quibble with the names in the table and that’s fine; I don’t pretend that it’s 100% accurate or complete.  But as I look through the table a couple of things are apparent:

  • There are a lot of genres, and probably more for you to invent.  (I didn’t list all genres, or very many subgenres.)  There will be more pioneers.
  • Just because a genre is old (the pioneer long dead) doesn’t mean new, modern giants can’t emerge.  It’s never too late to be a giant.

In general, the pioneer lays down some of the rules for the genre and takes the first tentative steps within its boundaries.  The pioneer faces the difficulty of convincing a skeptical publisher to take a risk on a book that doesn’t fit in any known category.

But it is the giants who really explore the full extent of the genre and help to popularize it for more readers.

Perhaps one day you’ll be looked upon as a great author.  Which type will you be–a pioneer or a giant?  There’s glory in both.  Which would you rather be?  Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  Hoping to become one or the other, I’m–

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 18, 2011Permalink

What’s the Use of a Muse?

Like some writers, and people who pursue other creative endeavors, I use the term ‘muse’ to mean an embodiment of the concept of one’s own creativity.  To the ancient Greeks it must have seemed a supernatural phenomenon when some individuals produced poetry, sculpture, and music out of nothing, as if some deity were whispering guidance in their ears.  The process can still mystify us today when we encounter a great creative work and wonder how a mere human could have made it.  No wonder the term ‘muse’ has survived even into our scientific, rational era.  

Some writers have imagined the physical characteristics of their muse, even named it, and go so far as to speak to it, appealing to it for that spark of insight only the muse can offer.  Stephen King described his own muse, I think it was in his book On Writing, as a grunting, cigar-smoking old man.  I imagine my muse in a more conventional way, as a young Grecian woman with flowing robes.  She stands only about seven inches high, but is able to hover near my ear when she wants.

Here I’ll pause to offer a free idea to all you web entrepreneurs out there.  If piano students can have their busts of Beethoven to serve as inspiration, why can’t someone manufacture small figurines of muses for writers and other artists?  I wouldn’t underestimate the power of physical symbols to stimulate the desired mental activity.  If such a figurine was not too expensive, I’d buy one!

Every writer asked to describe his or her muse’s behavior would certainly list at least two major characteristics.  One is a perverseness with respect to summons.  My muse appears at the time of her choosing, not mine.  Pleading, wishing, praying, even sacrificial animal offerings leave her unfazed.  (Okay, I haven’t tried that last idea very often.)  I could be all set and ready to write, my materials before me in a well-lit and quiet room, several hours at my disposal, and the cursed muse will remain hidden.  But let me be somewhere without a notepad—say, taking a shower or mowing the lawn—then the whispering starts and I can’t shut her up.  Some of the finest prose ever imagined has been whispered to me at such times—trust me on this—only to be forgotten for lack of a pen and paper, and to remain forever unwritten.

The other behavioral trait of my muse is easy boredom.  A half hour or hour at a stretch is the longest stream of inspiration the muse will bequeath.  Moreover, the very project she was so excited about just a few days ago has become passé, no longer worth her time or interest.  She’s moved on to some other idea and demands I write about that.  Should I ever start writing ‘formula fiction,’ such as romance, mystery, or series books can often be, I think my muse would quickly grow bored with the formula.  She specializes in the planting of seeds, not the toil of watering, tending, or harvesting.

My muse craves the new, the different, and the untried.  Once, I noticed a call for horror stories to be part of an anthology associated with fish or fishing.  I, the writer who hated horror stories, quickly clicked elsewhere.  Silly me, thinking I was in charge.  My muse was turning the idea over and over, and wouldn’t let go.  Mere rational logic would not sway her.  My insistence that I disliked horror, had never written it, or read much of it–all those arguments meant nothing.  The result was my story, “Blood in the River,” which appears in the anthology Dead Bait.  I never thought I would write a romance story or a fantasy either, until the muse suggested the ideas for “Within Victorian Mists” and “A Sea-Fairy Tale.”  Often I’ve carefully outlined the plot for a story only to have the muse guide me in a different direction.  On occasion I’ve created a character intended to be minor, but the muse has other ideas and brings that character into the foreground.

So you can’t beckon a muse and expect her to arrive, and once she’s close it’s never for long.  How can any writer deal with that?  How does one channel that fleeting, inspirational energy into something useful?  Ah, there are ways, but they shall have to remain the subject of a future blog post.  So stay tuned!  In the meantime, feel free to contact me with comments.  With the occasional assistance of my muse, I remain…

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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February 27, 2011Permalink

A Trip to the Idea Store

At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have.  Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them.  I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them.  Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.

Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from.  For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me.  You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you.  I think I can at least give you the store’s address.

First, let’s clarify.  An idea is not a story.  An idea is not even a plot.  The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.”  The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.”  Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great.  The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more.  So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique.  Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.

I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’  The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine.  For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain.  For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.

The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it.  It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?”  Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways.  “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”

Here are a couple of examples from my own writing.  For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship.  The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys.  What if—?  For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era.  I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally.  Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology.  What if—?

Story ideas need not involve technology, of course.  Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre.  The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.  You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.

This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving.  Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive.  They were all twists on the basic seed technology.  How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry?  Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc.  The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons.  The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.

Back to story ideas.  In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity.  In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist.  Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea.  That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought.  Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea.  That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot.  I suggest writing from your best ideas first.

Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 20, 2011Permalink