May 30, 2012

When Sets the Emerald Sun

I have formatted all the ghost drives in my brain: no typhonians left.

Now comes the hard part, replacing Ausir among the Eight. The Goddess waits for me in the antechamber with a knife in her hand, surrounded by fish cultists.

(What a strange, volatile species we’ve made together.)

But there Was No Whale to Swallow Me Up

Illustration by Bruce Jensen
Day four. The fish have begun to sing. One of them holds a coral stick like a maestro and leads the others in their anthems. Day five. I can almost understand. They circle the boat and mock me. Day six. Two male voices on the radio talking in Lithuanian.

May 27, 2012

Don't Lose Your Crunchy: Start Something New


My regular series, What can they teach you about writing, is brought to you by a human being, not a robot.

I’m like a clumsy potter slapping clay on the turntable and working it into something vaguely useful and maybe even nice.

For the past couple of weeks, this potter has been a lot busier than usual. He can’t simply plug into a wall socket and recharge his battery like the androids in the Swedish SF show Äkta Människor (“Real Humans”) – which you can’t miss if you enjoy intelligent science fiction that deals with difficult ideas. Find a way to watch it somehow. Beg, lie, cheat or steal, I don’t care. Just watch it.[1]

Two androids from the show. Oh, and did I mention AM was produced by SVT,
a state-run TV channel? Your tax kronor at work.

So I didn’t pick a remarkable person or character to write about this week. Like you, I have my limitations. But I am going to share some valuable things with you. Because I find them valuable, there’s a 50% chance you will.


Anne-Marie Clark drew my attention to the list of 36 dramatic situations drawn up by Georges Polti. It’s a good resource for your mental toolkit – a tinderbox to light narrative fires. Most importantly, the list is a great place if you’re looking for a beginning.

One thing that’s always helped me write is to change my frame of reference. I am also a photographer, and visual thinking has changed the way I write. We human beings are very visual animals – though what we see is a matter of interpretation.[2]
So my shtick is Write like a photographer, photograph like a writer. Everyone should have an artistic hobby. Outside of writing, that is.

Your art can be anything. Hannah Brencher writes love letters. Sydney T. Cat is a literary agent and also a cat. (Sydney herself is the work of art, in case you were wondering.) You can take up papercraft. Making things with your hands is good for your brain.

You can even drink like an artist.

Speaking of artists, I was going to write about Mark Rothko. So here are a few tidbits:
Rothko’s remarkable family fled from Daugavpils in the Russian Empire (they were Latvian Jews) and ended up in Portland.

Rothko dropped out of Yale after a year or so. Not before he’d started the Yale Saturday Evening Pest to lampoon the good old wasps’-nest. After 46 years, Yale gave him an honorary degree.

Here’s one of Rothko's paintings, White over Red.

Doesn’t look like much on the Internet. That’s why it’s important to look away from the screen from time to time.

On that note, John Magnet Bell signs off. What can they teach you about writing? resumes its regular weekend schedule next week – my brain/energy levels/midichlorian count[3] will be back to normal by then.

[1] If it weren’t a Swedish show, Äkta Människor would vie with Game of Thrones for… For the TV throne. Both shows work under the premise that “winter is coming,” but where GoT is about acknowledging the brutality of the past, AM looks at the brutality of the future. At any rate, there’s a glacier headed this way. What I find better about AM is that it asks more profound questions and, whether you like it or not, those questions are more relevant to the here and now.
[2] Not to mention the fact that we don’t perceive the world in real-time; your brain does a lot of on-the-fly editing for you. There’s a measurable delay between stimulus and response. Consider this: What you remember as real is partly fiction.
[3] The notion that the Force is sustained by a microscopic life-form is still mystical – I don’t think it really pushes Star Wars toward the hard-sf end of the continuum. 

Much like Brainiac is a "living computer";
he's still a fantasy.

P.S.: The only constructive answer to a slump is to begin something. Here's Ze Frank with a bunch of words you need to hear.

May 25, 2012

On Exile Road We Met

Empress Jones took two bucks from the register to feed the little boy waiting at home in the dark. In the back room, the store manager -- still wheezing -- opened a diet Coke. 

A tiny stranger sang to the boy of a queen who’d lost her way.

May 23, 2012

Stranded in the Garden of Plenty

This prompt is brought you by mothman

No, just kidding.

While we're on the subject of mothman, there's a movie. It confuses the hell out of some people. It confuses me also. That's why the movie's good: No easy answers. (Plus Laura Linney.)

Here's the prompt:


My exile begins where pale and wingless creatures move away at the sight of me. Their skin exudes strange and vibrant food. Now four creatures draw near inside a box that carries them. It makes food as well – I have to study it.

Duxra, you’ve banished me to paradise.


Take thirty seconds to learn a new word: Femtoengineering. I encountered it for the first time today as I read The Threefold Path of Virtual Reality.

Eat, Sleep, Avoid Everyone

There was this guy and he was so nondescript that sliding doors wouldn’t glide open for him. People smashed into him though he cried “Hey, stop! Stop!” – he was so not there, that he could walk through a flock of feeding pigeons and the pigeons would ignore him.

May 21, 2012

How to Come Up with Four Unique Story Prompts a Week

Seven days a week I sit at my desk and talk to people from worlds that will never exist.

No, I don’t have a magic mirror to help me peer into the secret places of the mind, but I have a storyteller’s brain. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve got one too.

Now I’m going to tell you how I come up with four unique story premises every week. No tricks, no shortcuts. 

Where do stories come from?

1. I always ask myself, 
Where's the conflict?

Basically, story ideas emerge from areas of conflict.

Wherever you have
a) science vs. superstition
b) objectivity and reason vs. magical thinking
c) hidden knowledge vs. a desire for clarity and transparency
d) want vs. possession
e) human nature vs. human law,
f) weird vs. normal,

there lies the overarching theme of a story. The six items I listed above aren’t the only sources of conflict and drama, mind you. But they cover a hell of a lot.

Antigone, by Sam Weber
Take e), for one -- human nature vs. human law. Antigone wanted to give her dead brother Polyneices a proper burial, but Creon, ruler of Thebes, forbade it. A rebel’s corpse should be left to the worms and carrion birds. Family ties being what they are, Antigone buried her brother anyway.

You can find this dramatic conflict in any story, even when it’s not the central concern. Don’t think human nature vs. law is confined to courtroom dramas. Even in the Alien movies a very human impulse – greed – drives the trilogy. Someone at Weyland-Yutani decided that the xenomorph would make an excellent biological weapon, so they decided to sacrifice six human lives to capture it. Of course, those six crew members were only a downpayment in blood; I don’t have a body count for the whole trilogy. (Yes, a trilogy. The fourth movie is an afterthought.)

So look for a conflict. ALWAYS. That little ‘vs.’ up there? That is the crux, the linchpin, the forward thrust.

2. Sources:
Where should you go for ideas?

Exposure to ideas isn’t enough to make you a great writer, but it helps to be plugged into the noosphere, the idea-space we all inhabit and the Internet makes so accessible.

I follow tons of blogs, most of which focus on something other than writing. Blogs for writers will not, for the most part, present you with great story ideas. They deal with craft, not with the fine art of teasing out stories from under a thousand metric tons of information.

Here’s a small sample of my reading list, just to get you started:

Art, Design and Architecture:

Psychology, Communication and Neuromarketing:

Alt-culture, magic, futurology, fringe-ology

12 jumping-off points. 12 promises. 12 windows into a world of hope, transformation and better writing.
And by better writing I mean informed writing that illumines rather than obscures.

3. Discipline:
Do you really need it?

If you want to fail at everything, just make tons of promises you can’t keep. Experience disappointment every day. Dream big, do nothing about it.

We can’t download skills just yet so, if you want to succeed, embrace the idea of training.

Get comfortable with scheduling your work. It helps. Now, how much time can you devote to your writing? Fifteen minutes a day? Ten minutes? Five? It doesn’t matter. Better stay sharp for two minutes than dawdle for ten.

That’s how I come up with four prompts a week.

Don't wait for inspiration. Make it come to you.
I made this for fun. If you want it as a wallpaper, all you have to do is ask.

May 20, 2012

What can Christopher Walken teach you about writing?

There's something dangerous about what's funny. Jarring and disconcerting. 
There is a connection between funny and scary. 
- Christopher Walken

Once upon a time there was Gabriel, who hated mankind and chased Lucifer from Heaven. Lucifer didn’t give two shits about us -- which makes him the more likeable character.

I’m talking about The Prophecy. That’s one movie where Christopher Walken (b. 1943) fully projects what I would call his ‘cold aura.’

Aloofness communicates one of two things: Either a lack of social intelligence or extreme dissatisfaction. With Walken it seems to be something of the latter. It’s in his eyes, that indefinable longing, that distance. Nobody looks heavenward quite like he does.

You know what Walken is? He is a wizard, that’s what. Now, to define a wizard… First and foremost, a wizard – or a witch – and I use these terms rather loosely – is someone who answers the call of the weird.
We’re talking about someone with such incredible focus and such powers of attention that they end up shaping the world around them.

Would you like to have magical powers? Walken enjoys the greatest power of all: being himself.

When you write, when you talk, when you walk your dog, butcher Lady in Red or Chain of Fools at the karaoke bar, unafraid of criticism, when your chattermonkey mind stops tearing you down for a moment and you just flow, that’s you at your wizardly best.

The moment of creation cannot be weighed down by thoughts of the outside world. Alan Moore said that creation is at its purest when you’re not concerned about outcomes or incomes – and your single goal is expression of inner truth, untouched by fear or desire.

Which leads us to…

May 18, 2012

James Killick Can Prove to You that Pants and Plots are the Same Thing

#RAOK is still on at The Bookshelf Muse and I have one of my own to perform.

So here's a shoutout to writer and fellow blogger James Killick for being as candid as he is. Like me, James thinks a lot about what you need to do before you begin a story. The moment I started reading his blog, I just knew -- here's a guy who doesn't believe in easy fixes. Here's someone who puts as much faith in hard work as he does in talent.

Just take a look at his Five Things the Writing Experts Won't Tell You:

"The second draft can be shittier than the first," he says, "particularly if it's your first work and you decide to follow all that advice everyone is falling over themselves to give you."

Or this gem from Five Brutal Truths About Feedback on Writing:

"It’s easy to have an opinion. It’s easy to say you don’t like something. It’s easy to think you know what you’re talking about. What’s hard is not just saying that something doesn’t work but understanding and expressing why it doesn’t work."

Oh, and if you want to ruin a good story?

"Have the best bits happen off-page."

James Killick deserves:
a) more readers
b) more readers
c) more readers
d) more reader feedback
c) recognition & gratitude.

Wrapping it up: Yes, pants and plots are indeed the same thing.

Three Custom Nightmares at Your Disposal

Autumn 1
I don't usually go for the kind of prompt that urges you to "write about" this or that. 

The thing is, I work under a self-imposed limitation on the word count; it's always fifty words or less. Some white-hot ideas can't be poured into such a narrow mold. That's why I'm breaking out of the straitjacket for a change.

OK, why "Three Custom Nightmares"? The answer's really simple. The three story premises I'm about to give you are clearly of the file-under-paranormal family. Also, the protagonists find themselves in nightmarish predicaments. 

Shall we begin this dreadful tour?

One. Write about a dog walker that starts seeing through a dog’s eyes. Over time, something draws her deeper and deeper into the dog’s consciousness until she fears for her sanity — and what's worse, the voice of a dead mother calls out to her through the dog's mind, begging her to rescue a three-year-old girl in a town she’s never even heard of.

Two. Write about a researcher in the near future who uses several self-directed avatars to conduct online interviews — and learns that one of his avatars is working to destroy his credibility and reputation.

Three. Write about a witch house duo who accidentally summon the three-dimensional shadow of a meta-being during a live performance and must now plug the hole they created before
a) the being decompiles all the neighborhood
b) rival programs leak into our reality through the hole, threatening further annihilation
c) breakfast. They would have to banish the meta-being before sunrise.

This is what witch house sounds like. [1][2][3]

Other atypical prompts you might like:
Five Proverbs from the Land of Injustice
7 Headlines That Will Make You Doubt my Sanity

May 17, 2012

What's Good on the Internet Today? Random Acts of Kindness, That's What

One of the bestest things I ever found online is The Bookshelf Muse, home to the Emotion Thesaurus.

Now, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, who have already given so much, are taking their generosity to new heights with a great initiative: Random Acts of Kindness.

Angela & Becca write "...we believe that the writing community is the best of the best. Filled with people who support and educate, we all learn and grow together."

I couldn't agree more. All of us writers-bloggers-readers are an ecosystem. 

"Today let's forget about the hitches and bumps on the writer's road and instead enjoy the great relationships we've built. A bit of kindness goes a long way, so we encourage you to use this as a reason to give the nod to your blog followers for visiting, your betas for reading, and thank any published authors who have offered you encouragement and counsel when you need it."

Oh, did I say there are prizes involved? Jump straight to Random Acts of Kindness Day 4.


I was the recipient of an unexpected (of course it was unexpected! It was random, you know?) act of kindness from the ever-gracious Ruth Long of the Bullish Ink blog. Only yesterday Ruth published her entry for National Flash Fiction Day.

Let me titillate you with a choice line: "When she rises from the water clothed only in twilight, the pirate stands waiting for her."


OK, now here's one for the fantasy writers among us. Science in My Fiction is discussing low-tech antiseptics, which is a great topic to learn about if you don't want to pack the story full of "temple healers."

Too much magic breaks the world, you know.


In other news, I've been hooked on Radiolab these days, and they have this fascinating episode on mutant rights. Are X-Men action figures 'toys' or 'dolls'? Find out how two lawyers tried to persuade the US government that the X-Men aren't human -- to save one of their biggest clients a lot of money.


On the art front, Nick Edwards has been turning out these really weird sketches -- which I find absolutely engrossing. 

Undiluted madness by Nick Edwards.

May 16, 2012

A Man Trapped in a Man's Body

The left side of me was hung over and pleaded for 5 more minutes in bed. Or 15.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked myself. I don’t sound like me at all.
“I drank way too many vodka shooters* last night,” I said. “Don’t wanna go to work.”

*Like these.

May 13, 2012

What can Ridley Scott's Alien creature teach you about writing?

Necronom IV, by H.R. Giger, designer of the original xenomorph

The hardest thing to do is to really, really frighten people.
Ridley Scott

[Giger’s] paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.
Dan O’Bannon

[T]he Aliens themselves serve, in their own endless abilities to transform, as a dark, lurid, terrifying allegory of the heroine’s own endless metamorphoses. They represent the terror and fascination of female transformation.
— David Greven

Alternative poster for Ridley Scott's Alien, by 84/5 Studio

Before Alien, there was a script called Star Beast and the titular monster was a bumbling bug-eyed abortion that we’d all be laughing at thirty years later. Maybe not the same way we’d laugh at Dark Star, but then, Carpenter’s sophomore movie was intended as a comedy.    

 To this day, I don’t know what the xenomorph is. And I like that. The element of mystery is what gives the story – and the creature – its fatal enchantment.

It’s the possibilities that make this alien interesting. Last week I confessed that Prometheus got me excited about mass-appeal cinema for the first time in years. Now, if the movie is any good, it will open up even more possibilities, and we’ll be walking out of the theater with more questions than answers. Even weirder questions than the ones raised by Alien, Aliens & Alien 3 -- I hope.

Prometheus seems to hint at the Alien’s nature as an evolving biological weapon and those who keep the rumor mill turning have already suggested that we may soon see a few of the Alien’s predecessors onscreen.

However, I can tell you what I think the Alien stands for...

May 12, 2012

How I Turned a Writing Weakness into a Strength - And You Can Too

I used to make up stories all the time when I was a kid, but never progressed beyond the midpoint. Sometimes it was even worse – the stories stayed in my head.

Terrible. Just terrible.

I was blind to the enemies within

Do you know what I was doing?

I was training my brain to give up on things. I was indulging laziness. Setting myself up for a consistent pattern of FAILURE.

No wonder I couldn’t follow through on any self-directed projects. Can you imagine what my greatest weakness was?

The answer may sound familiar to you. My greatest weakness was ambition. I had ambition but no focus and, because I had no focus, I always ended up biting off more than I could chew.

The other albatross around my neck was perfectionism. I wanted to be Joseph Conrad from the very first line. That didn’t work out for me. Don’t suppose it’ll work out for you, either.

Ambition and perfectionism were actually weighing me down.
  •  Because perfection is something to aspire to, not an actual goal
  •  Because Glenn Gould wasn’t born with a piano attached to his little baby fingers
  • Because no novel, song or play appears out of nowhere

Great things have humble beginnings. People kept telling me that and I was stupid enough not to listen.

Even Shakespeare had to plug away until Hamlet was done. Am I better than Shakespeare? No.

So. I kept starting projects I would never finish. And I knew this going in. I started out with a defeatist mindset. How the hell did I survive my self-sabotage?

(First I had to work on my humility, but that is a story for another day.)

The key, I realized, was to give my brain that endorphin rush you only get when you write THE END – metaphorically or literally. And to provide that rush very often. In a consistent way. Oh, if only I had encountered the Cult of Done Manifesto a few years back… and read item #2 on the manifesto, “Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.”

OK. I had to train my emotional brain to ignore the pain of boredom and get to THE END. But how?

The answer had always been obvious:

start small.

It had been right in front of me the whole time, I just didn’t want to see it.
This wasn’t about being good, it was about training. Baby steps. You’re not born with an endless supply of self-discipline – it takes practice. You have to want it.

So I started by writing poetry. I wrote enough of it to realize that pleasant verse is something I will never be able to write, but I didn’t care while I was in the zone. The best part was, writing thousands of incredibly awful poems taught my brain that it felt good to finish things. To get them done. Completion tasted better than a blueberry muffin straight out of the baker’s oven.

Discarding poetry as a broken toy* I turned my hand to photography. Photography taught me to think narratively but in visual terms. When you move from verbal to visual language you are forced to become intimate with symbols. Yes, forced, and in a strange, unfamiliar way. Making images brought me discipline. I learned to bring my projects to a close. I learned to ship.
*Which I never really did – I just thought so.

But I still had an ugly beast to conquer: Fiction. To be honest, I am still grappling with long-form fiction, still fighting my lazy brain.

THAT’S why I came up with the concept for this blog. I knew I had tons of story-seeds in me begging to come out. I also knew that I was lacking in discipline and must do something about it. Forcing myself to produce regular updates for a blog was the best thing I could have done for my writing.

Guess what? I’ve been writing unique story prompts for more than a year and I intend to continue for a very, very long time. I love writing these prompts so much, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

I found a way to make my rogue neurons work for me. 
You can do the same.

Now I have a secret to share with you. If you want to excel at anything – and by that I mean “if you want to shine a light so impossibly rich and colorful everyone around you will mistake you for a flock of ten thousand red macaws” – all you have to do is ask one simple question before you start down your path.

And that question is:

Could I live with myself if I didn’t ____________?

Answering this question truthfully will help you find your center. And when you do, you will laugh and cry at the same time. That’s what happened to me.

And then I turned into a macaw.

It took almost 300 people to build the Eiffel Tower.

So when you have too much on your plate, remember:

You are not an army


For the 'inspirational flash cards' up there, I used Museo Slab 500. It's free. 

Before you go -- Don’t forget that we’re discussing xenomorphs tomorrow.

May 11, 2012

Children of the Last Emanation

The dying robots plodded across the hard white field, beeping to each other about snug alcoves and buzzing power outlets. A0 led the network, compiling applets to himself.

“Stop,” said B1. A0 wouldn’t listen. He just kept going.
“This glacier will be the end of us,” said B1.


As I wrote, I kept this song playing in the background.

May 10, 2012

A Beauty that Crushes the World

When we chained him up to the henge-stone, the unseelie king said we wouldn’t survive the night.
“Shut up,” said Coin, my brother. “Tell us how to paint the stones.”
“Rach vel amaah,” said the wee king.
“Talk like a man,” Coin said.
“Our blood will poison you slowly.”

May 9, 2012

In the Caverns of Lordship

She tried to catch the glowing mites that flitted from hole to crevice, the little green-yellow things that scurried across the black walls of her cell. She was hungry.

The mites studied her, the tidal mass that bore down upon them, their cities. What was she that desecrated the sky? 

Bells and Whistles
by Alyssa Deville

You Do Not Talk Politics in Fairyland

Every year they picked a beggar to preside at the Council of Kings. 

Ten scribes sat on their woven mats and took the minutes.

King Folifeis rose from his gilded chair.
“Broth—” he said. 

The beggar had exploded, blasting six kings to chunky bloody bits.

May 6, 2012

What can Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens, Alien3) teach you about writing?

She’s not a sidekick, arm candy, or a damsel to be rescued.

She didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her.
— Sigourney Weaver

Ripley’s very female, but she has the authority of a male.
— Ridley Scott

So. Prometheus is coming and, for the first time in a decade, I’m almost excited for a new movie. I might even go see it when it opens which, to be honest, is something I haven’t done since the Harpagornis went extinct.

But you’re not here to read about my indifference to popcorn movies.

No, you came because you love science fiction as much as I do – and good science fiction, not just any old crap that looks shiny and new on the surface but already hits the theaters smelling like a bong water tsunami.

Think about Ellen Ripley for a second. She was the original “strong female character” in science fiction film before there was any significant talk of strong female characters. Usually, when there’s tons of cross-chatter on any given subject, that only indicates a lack. An emptiness in search of meaning.

These days, strong-female-character is shorthand for "man with boobs" or what John Scalzi so aptly termed “spinny killbots.”

Kate Beaton knows what we're talking about. Click here to read the rest of the comic.

Alien is what happens when you try to put human beings in the same conceptual space as H.R. Giger’s visionary art. Humans don’t belong there, and the two worlds reject each other as violently as they possibly can. That makes for compelling drama.

It’s us versus a relentless force that wants us gone. Just take a look at these biomechanical landscapes and tell me: Do they look like nice places to visit?

 The alien – or the xenomorph, if you will – is a creature born somewhere in this nameless Tartarus. An angel of death, neither male nor female, it pushes Ellen Ripley to the limits of human endurance.

So, what can Ellen Ripley teach you about strong female characters?

May 4, 2012

The Pyramid on my Back

by Jen Mann

The first time I met Kiera, she asked me to smuggle her favorite panties into the detention center.
“You’ve known me for a total of five minutes,” I said then.
“Five minutes is more than I need,” she said.
Kiera winked at me.
“Bring me my bruja panties, handsome.”

You Need a Shave, a Suit... and a Muzzle

Good Night
by Anton Marrast

I was young. I was dumb. I called my car The Pimpinator.

Now the Pimpinator’s gone – and my house – and everybody’s a secret werewolf. They all set their clocks to the full moon.

I’ll be double-plus-extra dead if I don’t find a regular person in four days.


You know what else is great on the Internet today?
Visual News brings you Graffiti Around the World.
Brainpickings reviews a 5-step technique for producing ideas.
Check out these Titanic infographics from 1912

May 2, 2012

What can Superman's Friends and Foes teach you about writing?

What can they teach you about writing?Anniversary Edition, Part 3 
Read Parts One and Two

Part Three
Fake Supermen, Real Enemies, 
and Lois Lane, Who is Insane

Superman has been around for a long time – 3, 4 generations or so. How does a character stay popular for that long? I mean, why Superman and not The Shadow?

Change. Change is the reason. Superman has evolved and found ways to stay fresh. I have my Superman, you have yours, and ten-year-old kids will have their Superman which is unlike yours and mine but still recognizable.

Superman has found himself reflected on a dozen shattered mirrors. Let’s pick up some of those shards right now, shall we?

O City that Never Was, O Darker Seas of Parting

First I want you to see the little blond boy floating face down in the tidal pool. Then move your eyes to the boy’s mother who leans on a white rock and can’t bring herself to cry.

A ghost stands by the pool, trying to ask a question. Silence hurts.