Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

An ongoing difficulty associated with writing fiction is generating new ideas that can be used for storytelling. Often we look of inspiration in our own life, whether it be looking in the past, what we have been through, or seeking stories in our present, what we are going through. But such methods can be finite and also involves things that are too personal, which one may not wish to share or simply, perhaps you have not experienced something that is worth writing about. Additionally, we take inspiration from writers we admire. But such inspiration comes with its own issues of authenticity for we come to sound like other writers or write a story that borders on plagiarism even if that was not our intent. 

This is where Neil Gaiman comes in. Specifically, his Masterclass lectures. In those lectures, Neil Gaiman gives four techniques that can be used to generate new ideas and all four have one thing in common, approaching a familiar story with a new perspective.

One of the techniques involves changing the point of view of a story. By choosing a different character through which we, as the reader, see the story, it changes the story itself. Also, by imagining an old, familiar story through the eyes of a different character, you can open your mind to new possibilities.

Neil Gaiman cites the novel ‘Foe’ by J.M. Coetzee as an example of this technique. In that novel, Robinson Crusoe’s tale is told from the point of view of Susan Barton.

Another technique is to modernize the theme. This technique also involves changing your perspective. By interjecting modern themes into older stories you are able to form new ideas.

Neil Gaiman uses Margaret Atwood’s novella ‘The Penelopiad’ as an example of this technique. In that novella, Margaret Atwood interjected the modernized female point of view and told Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

Switching of the story element is another technique that can allow for new ideas. Here you take an old classic story and simply have it take place in a different environment. By changing this one element you can get the idea of a new story.

‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer is used as an example by Neil Gaiman. Cinder is the story of Cinderella but unlike the classic fairytale, this one takes place in Beijing and with Cinderella being a cyborg.

Lastly, one can simply make the story their own. In this technique, you take a story that you are familiar with and then apply your own experiences and what you know to that story.

Neil Gaiman uses ‘The Godfather’ as an example of this technique. The author of the novel, Mario Puzo, was an Italian immigrant in post-war America and so, he combined his personal experience with the elements from ‘Henry IV’ by Shakespeare to create his own masterpiece.

These are all simple exercises that work one core value of fiction writing: imagination. You are essentially thinking “what if…”. What if we saw the Wizarding world through the eyes of Ron Weasley, instead of Harry Potter? What if the Odyssey took place in space? What if The Body had elements of my own experiences? What if our current understanding of trauma was applied to an older story?

Adopting a new perspective and view what you have already known in a different light can be all one needs as a writer to generate new ideas and hopefully tell good stories which can be used by others.

Writing Advice From William Faulkner

In an interview with The Paris Review, William Faulkner was asked how much of his writing was based on personal experience. The following was his response:

I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

I often think of this piece of advice from William Faulkner when I am struggling to finish a scene or transition into a new scene. Just remembering that either experience, observation and/or imagination is all one needs, gets me through those instances when self-doubt begins to seep into my mind. The scenes that seemed impossible to finish look like obstacles rather than dead ends when you sit for a few moments and think back to something you have observed in real life that could be applied here. Similarly, the practice of imagination, the “what if” allows one to create several different scenarios, allowing the writing to pick the one that fits the best. Experience meanwhile is like an intuition, almost a certain mindlessness state where you just know what should come next because you have either read enough or written enough to know. This experience can help with the flow of the story because you just know that what you have written isn’t quite right and there is something missing.

I think the most valuable aspect of Faulkner’s advice is that all three things, experience, observation, and imagination, are in your control. There is nothing external about it and neither does it depend on some genetic ability. One gains experience through writing and reading. Observation through the practice of an inquiring mind, trying to really capture your daily life and what you have noticed. Imagination is something that is grown through reading and experiencing life and keeping a sense of wonderment. All three are nurtured by you and all three can help you get through the troublesome parts of writing.

For me, the simplest advice works best. Whether it be Stephen King’s advice of read a lot and write a lot, or what Haruki Murakami considered to be the three essential aspects a writer needs or Ernest Hemingway’s belief of what to write about, it is all simple and to the point. Just as Faulkner’s experience, observation, and imagination.

Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists for each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s which may be contradictory to the public consensus. If that is the case then so be it. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks, takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not some external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent being innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what one can build and increase with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.

Naturally, in order to increase one’s focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running throughout his text. The idea is that just how one works his or her way up from being able to run 1 mile and then 2 miles and then 3 miles as their muscles adjust and grow and their cardio improves and their running technique gets better and so on. Similarly, one has to slowly work the focus and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase that to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.

It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that one just needs to write it all down and that’s it. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that one may discover that they have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what kind of novels he wished to write.

This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities that could then aid the talent he did have.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. Furthermore, the action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’t’s and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Conflict is typically central to a story. It can be some internal conflict that a character is trying to resolve, it can be a conflict with another character that needs to be addressed or it may even be a conflict regarding meaning or purpose in life that the character is trying to figure out. It is a need that the character must face and has to face.

In some ways, writing is about having a character and understanding what the character dislikes, hates, what he doesn’t want to happen, what he is avoiding, what makes him uncomfortable and then, having the character confront all of these things constantly throughout the text and see how he reacts and changes.

Knowing this, when one reads The Post Office by Charles Bukowski, the simple narrative structure gives rise to constant conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution cycles. As the reader, we follow the life of the main character, Chinaski, who attempts to find a stable job, a good relationship and to do something meaningful in his life while his self-sabotaging tendencies create conflict with other characters and ruin different aspects of his life which he then attempts to either mend or simply move on to some other woman or line of work, while still harboring conflict creating attitudes.

The idea of conflict is what sticks out as you read the text. Sometimes the conflict is resolved in a single page and other times the conflict runs the course of the text. Whether it is Chinaski’s conflict with the Jonstone, his boss at the post office, conflict over the placement of a hat at the workplace, conflict with his girlfriend’s father, conflict at the funeral over flowers, conflict caused by the schemas he has to learn, conflict with his coworker Janko, conflict with a pimp, conflict when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, the fire at the workplace is another conflict, the decrease in water fountains acts as conflict too and so on.

The text is riddled with minor and major issues that the character has to deal with and confront. These conflicts are either caused by other characters or they are a result of Chinaski’s character flaws. An example of such a flaw being the issue of the hat. Whether it is Chinaski’s attitude, pride or ego, he rather come into conflict with his supervisor instead of abiding by the new rule of placing hats in one’s own locker.

The story is driven by the main character but, it is the interaction of that character with people, things, feelings, emotions that cause conflict that fills out the text. In the Post Office, one is reading about a degenerate womanizer who is drunk most of the time however, it is still interesting and captivating because, through the resolutions or the lack of resolution of these conflicts, the reader can reflect on their own choices and decisions and take away either how to act or most likely in this case, how not to act.

Ernest Hemingway On What To Write About

I wish to write about things that are personal to me, things that matter to me, which cause me a certain sense of discomfort to write. The reason for this is that I view writing as a self-exploratory tool through which not only do I come to understand myself better and to formulate my thoughts but also to be able to express what goes unexpressed in daily life. There is always a sense of discomfort when one opens themselves up to others but this discomfort is needed if you wish to write about things that are of importance to you.

It is in this thought where Hemingway provides crucial insight. In his book, A Moveable FeastErnest Hemingway recollects his early days as a writer and the time he spent in Paris interacting with other great artists such as Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and many more. Hemingway also speaks on the art of writing, his struggles to write and his attempt to write his first novel. It is in this, where he shares his thoughts on what he wishes to write about, in particular, three ideas:

I would write one story about each thing I knew about.

What did I know best that I had not written about and lost?

What did I know about truly and care for the most?

It’s these three ideas that have stuck with me through my reading of the book. The reason is simple, they are personal and they require thought. In order to transplant those thoughts onto paper, I have to be truthful. This truth may make you vulnerable but it is in this vulnerability that I may be able to write something that has meaning.

 

Simple Writing Advice From Stephen King

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

This is from Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.

The advice is straightforward and simple. A writer writes. You can spend all your time researching writing tips, habits, routines, reading lists and things of that nature but that is not writing. You can find writing exercises that make you describe some lake from four different perspectives but that is not writing. You can even spend weeks reading books on how to write and by doing all of this, give yourself this false notion that you are writing but you are not writing.

It may seem like you are working on your craft and improving your understanding as you try a new way of writing and learn through the habits of other writers, however, all of this can trick you into thinking that you are getting better as a writer but you really may not be. After all the hours spent on such activities, you may still be exactly where you started.

The reason being all of that is supplementary. Additional work to your core work. The core is the actual writing, your writing, no matter if it is good or bad, you must write your own writing. The easiest way to do this is either set a block of time which is dedicated to writing and nothing else or assign yourself X number of words that need to be written each day to consider that day a win. This makes up your core. After this is when all the supplementary work like reading books on writing, grammar, editing, biographies/memoirs, and writing exercises can be added to the routine.

Don’t make the mistake of spending 60-70% of your time on supplementary work and the minimum on your own actual writing. On days when you feel like not writing, don’t find satisfaction on completing supplementary work while ignoring the core.

It is easy to do that because writing can be uncomfortable. It can be tiresome. In a way, reading about writing and doing writing exercises can be seen as procrastination or being satisfied with the minimum so you can be comfortable for a moment because your inner conscience is pleased. But this habit does not bring you closer to finishing a story or an article, so you go nowhere if you allow the supplementary to lead you. Instead, you have to do the work and commit to a writing schedule which takes precedence over anything else.

Along with writing, comes reading. Just as with writing, you have to assign yourself a certain number of pages to read or a block of time dedicated to just reading. What does a character do when he is in a heated argument? What will the landscape look like from the view of someone who does not know who they are? What creates an emotional connection with a character? How do you write a good battle scene? A good love scene? How can inner monologue flow? How do you incorporate symbolic meanings into the text? Questions like these and many others are all answerable depending on your reading. As a writer, professional or amateur, reading takes on a different notion. You do not simply read for pleasure. It is your job to read. Just as it is your job to write. That is how you approach the subject. You read in order to better understand writing, not just to get to the last page and be pleased that you finished another book. Another book for the bookshelf does very little to improve your writing ability.

Instead, read with attention. Take notes, understand what the writer has included and what he or she has omitted. Pay attention to the words used and how they differ depending on the character. See how an emotional scene was set up or a violent one. Take note of the details that bring a scene to life and the lack of detail that makes it mundane. Watch how the character struggles internally or how the character acts externally.

All books can be seen as textbooks for writing. The good ones make you understand what to do and the bad ones teach you what not to do.

Although the advice is simple, write a lot and read a lot, the application of it must be done with commitment and attention. In that way, the simple advice is all you need to become a better writer for the rest of the writing journey you will learn innately and those lessons are hard to forget while no matter how many writing tips and lists you read, the lessons will eventually fade from your mind.