A strange story prompt that can really get you outside of a rut, is to write from the point of view of an inanimate object. Bring it to life. Anthropomorphize a mailbox, a building, an elevator, or a tourist attraction. The latter was the prompt that led me to this little story.
By Andrew Ingkavet
Hey there! Welcome aboard. I got a question for you. What’s the first thing anyone coming here wants to do? No answers? Come on think a little bit. It’s your first time in the fragrant harbor, what are you going to do? Give up?
You’re going to ride me. That’s right, good old HKF. Yeah sure there’s plenty of fancy shiny buildings, the Giant Buddha, the Peak and stuff. The airport, that’s not an attraction, you have to go through it to get here. No, I’m talking about what’s the first thing people thing of.
Tooooooooot! Sorry, couldn’t help from tooting my own horn. He he he. Get it? Ha ha.
Yeah, you could say I’m not really a destination. I take anyone who comes on and take them to the other side. And sure, I’m visited everyday by millions, well, maybe not millions, it’s more like thousands. But back in the day, I was the only game in town. You couldn’t reach Kowloon or Hong Kong Island without getting onboard. And then when cars were starting to get popular, I would take them too.
I do miss them old days. I got to know everyone. Literally. Well, anyone who had to get out and about – the real movers and shakers. We had lots of Brits back then. Then, a boatload of “Phillippinas”, just the ladies, only a handful of the gents. Then we had a bunch of Indians and Pakistanis. They mostly hung out on the Kowloon side in the Chung King mansions. But occasionally they made the crossing to get to the court house for some infraction or to register a new corporation. The Yanks really never came here in any great numbers. Some of the Brits would say, yeah, most Yanks can’t go without their McDonalds. But we got a McDonalds right across from me on both sides. I think they’re just not the worldly types. Brits, you can put them anywhere and they’ll have tea time ready at 3 on the dot. They built me ya know, so I got a lot of affinity for them. Lots of the stuff around here was made by them. But they got pushed out in ’97. That was a while back. Now most of the fancy folks riding speak Mandarin. How weird. So polished and proper. Me? I like that gut-wrenching steel mouth Cantonese. It’s like their always arguing even if they’re just talking. So dramatic.
Nowadays, there’s the bridge, the metro, and even other water taxis. I’m kinda pissed about it, but what can you do. Progress! It’s lucky that they kept me going out of nostalgia. My old buddies the junks are pretty much gone. Once in a while I see one of them and it’s like wow, where you been? It’s always some billionaire’s wedding or some crazy new company outing that needs to have the old Chinese sailing junk.
I get my share of parties too. It’s kinda fun. They usually get some lame Canto-pop singer ruining my ears for awhile. I really love it when I get to give them a blast on the air horn. Whoops. That was a navigational necessity. It always throws them off because they can’t hear their backing track and they start flubbing the lyrics. Awful stuff.
Hey there’s one of them hydrofoils. They think they’re so slick racing back and forth to the casinos in Macau. Bunch of show-offs!
You may recognize the Hong Kong Ferry and some of the details. Yes, I lived there for about 5 years in the 1990’s.
Here’s a great little film that does a great job personifying some rocks with a great social commentary on man over the eons, Das Rad Rocks. Enjoy!
There’s a funny paradox about creativity. It’s more difficult to create if you have all the options in the world available to you. You know how they always say think outside the box? Well if you don’t have a box to start with, then you have no focus.
When I worked in advertising, there was always a “box,” rules to the creativity. And we hated it! We were dragged kicking and screaming, art directors, copywriters, designers, animators, all of us, to get back in the box. But the funny thing is, having a box makes it easier. The box was created by the client who wanted such and such target market and had to be yellow and used the latest lingo or whatever. Whatever it was, we pushed the limits of interpreting those rules and usually found a successful and creative solution.
By creating limits, you actually free up your brain to start making choices. In writing, I like to usually start with a mind map or clustering. I first came across this concept with Gabriele Lusser Rico’s excellent book Writing The Natural Way.
By writing a core concept in the center and then clustering ideas outward from there, you bypass the judgmental thinking into a more natural non-linear way of thinking. This used to be called right brain versus left brain, but it’s been discovered it’s a bit more complicated than that. But there are regions of the brain that are more linear and other more non-linear.
I use mind maps/clusters daily for everything from brainstorms on business problems to planning an event to creating music to writing lyrics to writing stories.
I recently joined a wonderful writer’s workshop run by NY Writer’s Coalition and the whole time is spent using writing prompts. This is just short timed writing periods about a topic chosen by the facilitator.
One fun prompt was “write from the point of view of a tourist attraction.” That was a rather unusual topic, but the stories generated were fun and truly unique dependent on the writer’s experience, personality and point of view.
The next time you’re stuck, use a writing prompt. The prompt is the box. You need to stay in the lines but really push it to the limits.
There are books of prompts, devices and even writing coaches who you can subscribe to to get a daily writing prompt.
I’m working at being more open on my process. As I’ve realized that what I most enjoy reading about my favorite creators, whether they be authors or composers or painters or designers or filmmakers, I love to hear how they arrived at their solutions. So…gulp…I’m trying to be more open and vulnerable.
I have a mess of scenes and dialog and some characters for my novel in progress tentatively called Akamaea. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel where a young boy named Henry (12) and his sister Amy (8) get swept away in a freak tidal wave and end up on a lost island. The island is called Akamaea and is a magical place (of course).
Yes it sounds like a Robinson Crusoe story or maybe like the TV show Lost, but I do find myself resonating with those adventures on deserted isle stories. HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and Lord of the Flies, why do all these interesting stories happen on islands?
In my researching this setting, I’ve been thinking about the whole genre of fantasy and the alternate universes. How did the characters get to their alternate universe? In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the kids enter Narnia through a wardrobe. In the Wizard of Oz, the tornado lifted Dorothy away. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice falls down in a hole following a rabbit, who she saw in the real world! A modern twist on Lord of the Flies is the Mazerunner series by James Dashner where the island is a maze set somewhere and the boys enter this world without memory and via a mysterious elevator.
There’s always this door to the other world. The door in the Mazerunner is the elevator. Sometimes it’s a two-way door where you can easily go between the worlds. In Richard Bach’s One, a strange light flash during a small plane flight brings the protagonist, also named Richard Bach and his wife into a new world where they can touch down in alternate worlds. They can get back and forth between times by imagining the throttle of the plane in their hands. Lovely. In the film the Matrix, we have a direct descendent of Alice in Wonderland. Neo discovers that the real world isn’t real at all and he has to take a pill to get him to see reality.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus
Just the other night I saw a trailer for an upcoming movie called Tomorrowland which features an alternate reality entered by touching a talisman of sorts. Love it! I need to say that.
So why the need for alternate reality? Well, escapism of course. We need adventure. Wouldn’t you want to go visit a magical island with mysterious creatures? Life is a magical adventure has been my motto for 20 or so years. I’ll share more about what’s in my world of Akamaea tomorrow.
Last November, I finished the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo ) challenge successfully with 50,000 words. I knew it was just a start. It was a brain dump – a hazy idea of what could later be sculpted and crafted into a novel.
But what next?
I was a bit lost. Yes, I’ve read a lot over the years, but haphazardly. I didn’t have a great books list. I knew I liked fantastical stories and really resonated with HG Wells, Jules Verne, William Gibson and Kafka. I also love the magic realists Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino. I also just love the wonder of Ray Bradbury, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the characterizations of Dickens. But I felt like I was trying to write a rock song having never heard Elvis. Or a symphony without knowing Beethoven. I didn’t have enough context.
I went to NYU for music and missed out on a lot of the great history and literature courses. I always felt that was a mistake and am thrilled to finally be correcting that. So I began searching for the 10,000 foot view. I usually look for the meta book, the one that will give me the greatest context.
I found a lot about writing mindset and technique which are great. But for historical context, I’ve found nothing quite matches the Great Courses (formerly called the Teaching Company). Thesea are college classes online which you can download to your smartphone or have on DVD, or CD.
So over the last few months, I’ve been inhaling vast quantities of method books, college lectures, historical overviews and source materials. Here’s a partial list of my consumption. I hope you find it helpful.
Story by Robert McKee – the classic. I read it over 10 years ago and recently repurchased as audio book. McKee is an actor and he really brings to life his sage wisdom. Highly recommended.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – I’ve had this in my collection for over 10 years when I was originally creating a libretto for an original opera. That project is still gestating. But what a great book.
The Creative Penn podcast by Joanna Penn – Joanna is an inspiration for all writers. I’ve discovered many great resources on her podcast including Dave Farland – see below.
Greek Tragedy by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver – a little dry at times, but a fast overview.
Some short video clips from great writers like Robert McKee, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Jonathan Safran-Foer, and others. Good for a quick hit of inspiration.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – I like how Larry has made this easier to visualize. You can also see hitpoints in every story, film, novel, whatever, based on his engineering blueprints.
History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective – Professor Gregory S. Aldrete – If I’m going to be creating fantastical fictional worlds, I better know what the real history has been. This course is wonderful and well presented. 48 half hour lectures which you can binge on as you work out or clean the house.
Million Dollar Outlines by Dave Farland. Dave has taught writing to so many successful authors and makes so much sense in this book. I also heard his podcast interview at the Creative Penn. I was so impressed, I enrolled in his online course. See below.
If you have any suggestions to add, I’d be happy add them to the list. Write in the comments below.
And, if you find any of these helpful, some of them contain affiliate links so I receive a small commission. Just so you know.
It was a very interesting experience. No, it’s not like I can crank out a novel and then have it instantly for sale in a month. But having a discipline of writing a daily word count goal of around 1500 to 2000 words is extremely motivating. And, the group support and knowing that you’re not alone is invaluable. Basically, it’s a first draft of sorts.
How Did I Get Here?
Writing a novel has long been one of my hidden desires. I’ve taken writing courses over the years, read many books, took part in a writers weekly workshop and even wrote a libretto and music for an opera – still incomplete.
I have kept a written journal almost everyday since college. I have written publicly mostly in a non-fiction capacity beginning with music industry trade journals, fan magazines, MTV’s short lived MTV-To-Go and then writing scripts for The Headbangers Ball in the late 80’s early 90’s. I even wrote a financial newsletter for a while under the name Doctor Money. But, fiction is what I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was 8 and I discovered how to lose myself in the worlds of fiction which was so much more interesting than my everyday surroundings.
[box] The Storyteller’s Creed I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge, That myth is more potent than history, That dreams are more powerful than facts, That hope always triumphs over experience, That laughter is the only cure for grief, And I believe that love is stronger than death. —Robert Fulghum[/box]
About a year or two ago, I had a short session with the famous author and psychic Sonia Choquette. Within the first 5 minutes, she said, “You’re a writer. You need to write.” Sonia is one of those gifted, loving spirits who can help you find your true life path among other things.
So taking her advice, I started writing first about myself, memories, things that affected me, kindnesses done to me and things that still pain me and I regret. It was a strange period of feeling the blood return to areas of my emotional body that had long been cut off. I had repressed so many painful moments that I was hit by a surge of memories of events I had long forgotten.
And then, I happened across the announcement for National Novel Writing Month. Here’s my chance!
[box] A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation….Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger. —Ben Okri[/box]
What Did I Learn?
Because I didn’t have a clear outline of what my story would be about, I just had to write freely. I did have a character and some basic thoughts about an issue, setting, time place – a world; but there were many times when I was really just writing scenes that I felt were not really going to be included in the final edit. This was harder than I thought. I am someone who likes to get the big picture, plan it all out then go to work with as little waste as possible. But, to make the challenge, I had to go forth and write!
Pockets of Flow
By doing this daily, I did begin to experience what I think of as “pockets of flow.” It would usually be in bursts of 200 to 500 words in dialogue or a scene. A lot of times I didn’t even know who was saying these things, but I knew it would have to be said. That was interesting. I can only thank my connection to the source, the muse, my guardian spirits for opening these channels.
Showing Up Is 80%
By doing this on a daily basis, after about a week, I began to notice that my every idle moment I would start to daydream about my world, characters and stuff. I even began to dream about them. This is really cool! Because then it’s just like taking dictation. So, by making my “writer’s appointment” with my muse, he/she started to deliver. Hmm. I should just make a decision of is it a he or she? I think a He.
[box] Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. —Robert McKee[/box]
Limitations Are Your Friend
Well I already knew this from my creative work in advertising, music, drawing, etc. By having a defined set of limits, you actually spur your creativity onward. So having to define some limits is the first place I set to work on. At first I wanted to make it like a parable, a short meaningful symbolic story. Boy that’s a hard thing to figure out. And as I free wrote, it kept drifting further and further towards a thriller of some kind. My protagonist was a young boy. At first he was 10, then 12 and now he’s around 14. So that too has shifted as I wrote.
Genre Is A Good Defining Structure
What genre was I writing in? As I explored further and further, I was finding myself in part thriller, part coming-of-age, part fantasy and then even drifted into writing middle grade humor scenes like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I was a mess! All over the place!
About midway through, I took an online webinar on writing for Young Adult, Middle Grade and New Adult fiction. It was awesome. It’s similar to writing songs of which I used to do professionally. If you know you’re genre cold, then it gives you a limited set of choices. For example you wouldn’t start your teen pop song with a 3 minute guitar solo. That’s not part of that genre. Maybe if you were in a jam band genre like Phish or Grateful Dead, that would work.
So right now I think I’m in Young Adult Fantasy.
50,000 Words Is Just The Beginning
The NaNoWriMo event really was just a start to exploring what story am I trying to tell? Now, comes the crafting part of how am I going to tell it? What should I cull away? What should I keep? How can I weave in elements of the story in the beginning to create suspense and foreshadowing. It’s actually fun. But you still need discipline
Tools of the Craft
So as I explore these things, I’ve been going back to tools and books I’ve read and highlighted to death, such as:
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
by Robert McKee – masterful. I just download the audio book version. I had the print but it’s so dense. This i can listen to as I clean the kitchen. The master that has influenced so many writers and filmmakers. His examples are mostly from the world of film, but are equally applicable to novels. He also has an intensive 4 day live workshop that Quentin Tarantino went through among others.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. Very clear, well written and helpful. I read this 10 years ago and still pull it out all the time.
Story Engineeringby Larry Brooks. A fantastic visual way to see the structure of successful stories. Actually he doesn’t ever show you the visual graphic. I think I will upload my own soon.
Outlining Your Novel by KM Weiland. This was written based on the principles in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and I think is clearer in it’s writing in many ways.
The Creative Penn – Joanna Penn is such an astonishing inspiration to me. She started from scratch 6 years ago and now is a celebrated best-selling author, speaker and presenter. Besides her super-informative blog, she also has an incredible podcast where she interviews all kinds of great authors, editor, book cover designers and keep you up to date on the worl do self-publishing .She was a champion of using book trailers to promote her books and wrote about my music licensing site 300 Monks Royalty Free Music, years ago. Thanks Joanna!
The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts– these are gems. You can hear great writers reading their favorite writers all of which appeared in the New Yorker. Short stories are a great treat and you can listen on your way to work or while working out. I’ve even re-started my subscription so that I can create a clippings file of my favorite excerpts.
Scrivener – This is an awesome text editor that is designed to help you write a long-form work like a novel or screenplay. And yes I took advantage of the NaNoWriMo winner discount which is 50% off.
[box] The universe is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser [/box]
Last Friday, friend Tonya came up with an idea to reinvigorate our creative processes. We’re both creative souls and require daily nurturing, input and output. The idea was to work on 3 small areas of creativity because, as we discovered together, that the creative flow that comes about from actually doing the work is totally transferrable. In other words, if you are stuck as a musician, then perhaps work on a painting. Or if you’re having trouble finishing your Great American Novel, then perhaps it’s a daily doodle or restoring an old chair.
So I chose as my 3 small daily practices drawing, writing and reading fiction (which I never used to give myself permission to do!)
I read fiction by Dean Koontz, Edward Bloor, Ernest Hemingway, and Daniel Defoe.
Drawing A Hundred Heroes
This past week I did a daily drawing of one of my “hundred heroes.” I’ve had so many wonderful role models, mentors and teachers over the years, some who I personally knew and others who I’ve only touched from afar.
Here’s who I drew:
Day 1 – Robin Wiliams
The world is still in mourning for his loss. I’ll never forget how hard and loud I laughed when watching Mork and Mindy as a teenager. My neighbors must have wondered about the wild cackling coming out of the house.
Day 2 – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It was as if the world was in black and white before I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Since then I’ve read almost all his books and was led into a world of magic realism and writing of others like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende among others. It also helps that my late mother-in-law gave me this book and said, “Now that you are dating my daughter, you need to read this. He is the national treasure of Colombia.”
And what a first line for a novel: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Day 3 – Alfred Hitchcock
I never went to film school, but watching Hitch’s films makes me feel like I should sign up today. So wonderfully artful and chilling! I also love the music scores by his many wonderful collaborators like Bernard Hermann and Alex North. Did you know that Saul Bass (another hero) actually conceived, storyboarded and directed the Psycho shower scenes?
Day 4 – Steve Jobs
Without Steve, where would I be? Where would we all be? I’ve been using a Mac since 1985 and went to one of the first MacWorld conventions. I’m an Apple fanboy if there ever was one. Thank you Steve for all you have done and continue to from somewhere…
I had some trouble with the eyes. I also realized that I made Steve look a bit like Freddie Mercury (another hero!)
Day 5 – Thich Nhat Hanh
I was trying to sign up for an acting class in the early 1990’s with a famous teacher in NYC. She had every prospective student come in and meet with her first and then gave us a required reading list. I thought, “how weird and presumptuous!” On this list were many books about self-growth, identity, new age stuff and The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book changed my life and continues to blossom within me. Years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to go on a silent retreat with “Thay” (which is what we call him – it means teacher.)
By the way, I never took the acting class and can’t even remember her name. I thank you wherever you are!
I’m a self taught artist so I know there are some technical issues in these drawings such as proportion and balance. Anyway, it’s a daily practice and I think I’m getting better!
What practices do you do to keep your creative edge honed? I’d love to know. Share them in the comments below.
My head is high above the clouds. The air is cooler up here and there is a gentle breeze from my right. I can see down into the darkness the long string that is tethering me to my body. It goes down, down, down until it disappears into the dusky depths. Somewhere down below is my body seated in lotus pose. Or at least it’s trying to stay in that pose. It seems that lately it’s been easier. The clouds of thoughts drift by below. Far below I can just make out the lights of my ideas rushing past.
Sometimes I drop 10,000 feet in a sudden rush of forgetfulness and I’m in the traffic of my thoughts – loud, brash, stinky with fumes and the accompanying adrenaline rush that goes with it. But today, I’m staying afloat high above. It’s so quiet up here. It’s like the only thing that is here is the gentle wind and a slight whisper of my voice from time to time, checking to see if I’m really here.
Meditation is so strange. It’s like a stopping of time. I think today I’m closest to ever getting it all to stop. Other times I’ve thought I succeeded only to find myself deep in slumber, snoring and dreaming away.
Life is good. I’ve been having an excellent summer. Why? Mostly because we planned some great recreation like a trip away to Puerto Rico, time on the beach, visit to the vineyards and just time to think and read. Summer is a time for renewal, re-creation and getting inputs to creativity. You can’t create if you’re empty!
Here’s some of what I’ve been thinking and reading lately.
An awesome article by the most generous Steve Scott with all the tools and strategies an author used to launch a Kindle book