What’s the Big Idea?

“I’ve just had the most scathingly brilliant idea!”

~ HAYLEY MILLS, The Trouble with Angels

Ideas are the most common things around.  I have them.  So do you.  So does everybody.  They’re as common as air, I think, and about as vital, at least to a writer.  And they’re moving targets.  When you first acquire one, it seems to come to you out of nowhere, but I don’t think that’s really what happens.  You encounter things all the time that seem to have nothing to do with your field of creativity, and you pay them no mind at all, but it never fails.  You’re watching an infomercial on gunkulator oil when here comes something, completely unbidden, that fits into your Weird West story in the most perfect way possible, and you have no idea what led to it.  How the hell does that happen, you may ask?  I’ve spent probably more hours than are warranted thinking about this, and I’m going to share my findings in a bit, but first I have to ask where the direct connections are.

Direct connections are what don’t get made for me.  We here at chez Tyler have gotten into the habit of watching old TV series one per day until we’ve worked through a season.  We have watched New Tricks, Battlestar Galactica, Hawaii Five-0 and Downton Abbey.  Looming ahead are Shogun and The Murdoch Mysteries.  During the course of these shows, I see dozens, scores, of plot points that cause me to think they would go great in this story I’m working on, and then it never gets regurgitated when I’m writing.  Which is good, I guess, I don’t want to become famous for my plagiarism, but how is it that they go in, but they don’t come out?  And that question, of course, brings me to the subject of the muse.

I have had people tell me that the muse is a myth.  You’re a writer; sit down and write.  I have had at least one writer, one I suspect of self-publishing drivel, though I refuse to read his work to find out, tell me that the whole idea of a muse was invented by lazy writers seeking an unimpeachable excuse to avoid writing (like Plato and Aristotle, I presume), and that a “real” writer, i.e., him, could just sit down and rip off thirty-five hundred words any time he wanted to.  I suppose he’s right.  I can sit down and knock out thirty-five hundred words any time I want to, as well, although it most often becomes a thirty-five hundred word trash can weight.  As Bret Easton Ellis said,

“I’m not a big believer in disciplined writers.  What does discipline mean?  The writer who forces himself to sit down and write for seven hours every day might be wasting those seven hours if he’s not in the mood and doesn’t feel the juice.  I don’t think discipline equals creativity.”

I don’t either, and I’ve long-since learned to stop wasting all those precious hours on writing things that I’m just going to have to throw away.  So all that leaves is the question of how these muses work, anyway.

Most people I’ve discussed them with describe their muses as beautiful women who come on a whim, leave their inspirations on gilded scrolls, and depart, as unbidden as when they arrived.  That’s a nice picture.  My muse is the most crotchety old man you’ve ever seen, on steroids.  This old guy…

Look, everybody, writer or not, is exposed to thousands of mysterious stimuli every day of their lives.  You pass people in the street and overhear half a sentence from a five-minute conversation; a police car speeds by, siren blaring, on the way to an exciting destination that you’ll never know anything about; a crowd is gathered outside an office, talking in hushed whispers about… what?  Sane people go through their lives with events like these sliding off of them like water off a duck, but an author…  Oh, sane people, you miss so much!

You might compare experiencing one of these little vignettes to finding a lone jigsaw puzzle piece on the sidewalk, and picking it up to look at it.  It’s a smudge of colors on a tiny canvas, and could be part of Buckingham Palace or The Poker-Playing Dogs.  You can’t tell what it is, and in all likelihood, you don’t care, discarding it moments after you’ve picked it up.  But we writers are wired a little differently, aren’t we?  We keep it.  I know I do.  I send it down to The Warehouse.

That’s how my head is organized.  Behind my eyes is the bridge where “I” stand watch, observing, evaluating, and controlling everything (or so I think).  Downstairs is The Warehouse.  Think of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark where a forklift is taking the crated Ark into the depths of that giant warehouse with crates, boxes, and gunny sacks stacked on racks, row on row, disappearing into haze in the far distance.  Now imagine that every one of those puzzle pieces I’ve ever encountered has gone into a lawn clean-up bag, and when the bag is full, it goes on one of those racks.  Billions of stray puzzle pieces are stored there, most of which I’m not even aware that I’ve collected.

Now imagine a crusty little man who wanders the aisles, taking a piece from this bag and a piece from that, and trying to fit them together.  This guy is my muse.  Once in a while, he finds two that sort of fit, and then he goes looking for a third.  Once he has succeeded in forcing five or six together into some sort of pattern, he puts it into one of those transit-tube canisters that you may have seen at a bank, and shoots it up to the bridge for further development.

This can arrives on the bridge with a bang and a clatter, and if you’re with me when it happens, you can almost see the impact.  Sometimes there’s a vocalization, “Whoa!” or something of the sort.  If you ask me what’s up, I’ll tell you, “I’ve just had the most scathingly brilliant idea!”  If you then ask me to elaborate, I’ll describe something that has absolutely nothing to do with what we’ve been talking about, and the next question is usually, “Where did that come from?”

The only honest answer to that question is, “I don’t know.”  That isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s all I’ve got.  I don’t know what that old guy has stuck together down there, and I’m not allowed to question him.  All I can guess is that he’s been wandering the stacks with something that came in yesterday, and he’s stuck it onto something I picked up in elementary school, jam-fitted the result onto something from my navy days, and topped it off with a piece I picked up working the counter in a dry-cleaning shop.  Presto, here it is!  Run with it.

How does your muse work?  Or do you not have one?  If you do, I’d love to hear how he works, what he looks like, and whether this fine creature allows interaction.  Bring her along and introduce her.  Let’s have a meeting of the subconscious minds.  Might be fun…

In Other News…

My fantasy novel, The Stone Seekers, was released last week.  It’s my longest work to date, over 350 pages, and is my priciest sale in paperback, even though I have it set to the minimum price I can charge.  However, for the next three months it will be 99¢ US in its Kindle edition.  I’m hoping to build an audience for my fantasy, or at least find out whether I should plan anything else in the genre.  I would never ask anyone to buy a novel, sight-unseen, and there is a three-chapter sample at the tab above.

StoneSeekersFront

The cover photograph is by one Mr. Richard Schulte, and features a hiking trail in the Laguna Mountains in San Diego’s back country.  It first appeared on Richard’s photo blog, Cool San Diego Sights as one of over 15,000 photographs of a beautiful corner of our great nation.  Here’s the point of mentioning this:  Richard has announced on his blog that anyone is welcome to use any of his pictures that are a good fit for their project, and the only payment he wants is an acknowledgement of him as the artist and a link to his blog to drive more potential readers.  Anyone who has ever priced cover art or illustrations knows what an incredible deal it is that he’s offering.  There are photos of every nook and cranny of the San Diego area, from the beaches and cliffs of the coast to the desert of the far east county.  They aren’t all world-famous landmarks; many are quiet little corners, or panoramic vistas such as the one I used.  They’re organized into over fifty tags for easy sorting, so if you find yourself in need of a picture, check with Richard first.

My next scheduled post will be a Blimprider Times on May 2nd.  Regular readers know that I promote my friends’ activities as the lead segment of the Times, but the next issue will be devoted to ME, because May 2nd is the brightest, shiniest, neon-red letter day on my calendar.  Be sure to visit Wednesday and find out why!

Wheels within Wheels

Last Sunday I was able to publish my first foray into fantasy, The Stone Seekers, a sample of which can be read by clicking the corresponding tab above.  I mentioned it in Issue #7 of The Times, but placed it at the bottom of some other promotional material, and think that some folks may have burned out on what was essentially a bunch of ads before they got down to it, so I’m mentioning it again…  First, this time.  It is classic sword-and-sorcery, you can read three chapters in the sample, and if it strokes your zither, as it were, links and ordering info are at the top of the sample.

And with that bit of business taken care of, we’ll now move on to the real post.

“I suppose I am a born novelist, for the things I imagine are more vital and vivid to me than the things I remember.”

~ ELLEN GLASGOW.

In this article, I am going to look at plots and subplots, and the folks who drive them.  I’ve been toying with this idea, and have come to liken the relationships between them to the relationships between bodies in a solar system.

royalty-free-planet-orbit-clipart
Many beginning writers formulate the idea for a plot; this little manlike creature is going to carry a magic ring on a long, dangerous quest, and drop it into a volcano.  Along the way, a big mean guy with a lot of power is going to try to stop him.  That’s a good start, but a lot of beginners get this down in their notebooks, and say, “Okay, there’s my story.  Time to get writing!”

But not so fast; something is missing!

Think about your own life.  You, of course, are the hero.  You have a quest to complete.  You have to replace a broken-down car, put sealer on your deck, get your taxes done, some major task that has a loudly ticking clock associated with it.  You are perfectly capable of sealing a deck, shopping for a car, or whatever the quest is, and if you could just concentrate on it, it would be the work of a day.  But you can’t do that, can you?  Your boss needs you to work overtime, your brother-in-law wants you to help him move, you have to put new weather stripping around your windows before Friday’s storm comes in.

These are subplots, and they are the lifeblood of high-quality fiction.  Imagine your leading man is an attorney, a government prosecutor who has just stepped up to being the lead attorney in his office’s prosecutions.  Imagine one of the first cases in which he is leading is that of a high-profile drug dealer who has committed several murders in the course of his business dealings.  If this prosecution is botched, this animal goes free to continue his ravages on society.  That is your plot, and it makes for powerful dramatic tension.  Now imagine that this prosecutor has a vindictive ex-wife who has just informed him that she is about to marry an Australian and move to his home in Sydney, taking his five-year old daughter with her, likely never to be seen again.  That is the subplot, and it ramps the tension up to a whole new level.  The comparison I like to make is that the hero can’t give his full attention to the wolf at the door, because he has a rat gnawing at his ankle.  This is why subplots are sometimes called “distractions.”

So, where does this Solar System analogy come in?  As you can see from the diagram, a solar system consists of a number of planets orbiting a star.  The star is the plot, and everything in the story ultimately revolves around it.  Planets may be up close and fast moving, or at a distance so removed that they are barely influenced, but all revolve around the star.  These planets represent characters who impact the story, and the closer they are to the star, the more important their influence.  The Protagonist is generally the closest one in, followed by the Antagonist.  These two have the most vested interests in the plot, and affect, and are affected by it more than anyone else.  Further out revolve the Confidant, the (main) Henchman, a minor character, if you’re using one, that supports the protagonist, and a minor character that supports the Antagonist.  I never use more than six viewpoint characters, and rarely more than five.  If I need more than six, that means I am writing a series.

All right, we have the planets established in their orbits, what do we add next?  The moons that represent subplots.  The protagonist, the closest planet to the star, has one large moon, much like Earth.  There can be two, but at the risk of overly complicating the story.  Anyway, this large subplot keeps crossing in front of the planet, eclipsing its view of the main plot.  That’s what subplots are to the Protagonist, distractions, pure and simple, important developments demanding attention that must be taken from the main quest.  Referring back to the Lord of the Rings allusion that I started the article with, remember when Faramir’s men captured Frodo and Sam, and almost hauled them back to Minas Tirith?  Subplot.  It wasn’t necessary to the overall story, but it fed the plot by ramping up the tension, and delaying the destruction of the Ring, which gave Sauron more time to search for it.

By contrast, the second planet, the Antagonist, can look more like Jupiter, with a dozen smaller moons.  The Antagonist’s subplots will generally serve to help him, being minions that are performing various actions to interfere with the Protagonist.  Again from Lord of the Rings, one word: Saruman.  Of course, not all subplots serve to further the Antagonist’s schemes; you need look no further than Captain Hook’s crocodile for an example of a major hindrance.

The third planet, the Confidant, is a character who stands to gain little of a personal nature if the Protagonist wins, but he or she works on behalf of the Protagonist anyway.  Depending on the story you are telling, the Confidant may gain a great deal from the Protagonist’s victory, such as the survival of civilization, but the rule of thumb is that this character is completely altruistic.  To have them motivated by money or the promise of power makes them unsympathetic, and seriously harms your story.  They may start out that way, but should come to believe in the Protagonist’s cause before the end.  The Confidant has one serious limitation:  He or she cannot solve the Protagonist’s problem for him.  The Protagonist has to defeat the Big Bad all on his own.  If the Confidant is going to win the Final Battle, then the Confidant is actually the Protagonist, and should be written as such.  He can come to the Protagonist’s rescue once, but if it becomes an ongoing event, people are going to start wondering why they aren’t reading a book about this guy.  Finally, while the Confidant exists to support the Protagonist, you can’t have her come skipping down the garden path with a ready-made solution every time the Protagonist runs into a problem.  Again, that raises questions about who the hero of this book is, anyway.

The fourth planet, the Henchman, looks at first glance like the Antagonist’s Confidant, and while it is true that the two may be friends, the Henchman following the Antagonist blindly, the resemblance is superficial.  The Henchman can do all the dirty work for the Antagonist, who never has to get blood on his own hands.  He can be a respectable businessman, a bank president or senior attorney, who sends out his Henchman to “reason” with those opposed to him.  The Henchman, in turn, may send Minions to do the actual dirty work (these are the fourth planet’s moons); the Confidant, as a rule, has no such equivalent helpers.

I don’t have a name for the character represented by the fifth planet.  He helps the good guys in a minor sort of way.  An example should suffice.  Imagine a fantasy quest story in which the Hero and all his entourage, having assembled all the available data, set out to confront the Big Bad.  After they are well on their way, the scholars uncover additional information showing that the plan they are following will lead to certain disaster, so they find an apprentice warrior, someone who wanted to go but was turned down, give him the information, and send him out to find the heroes and redirect them.  That is the fifth character.

If the heroes have, unsuspected in their midst, a spy who is somehow sending or leaving reports for a Minion to pass on to the Big Bad, that would be the sixth character (and planet).  But a few planets and moons do not make a complete solar system.  There are other forces at play.

These are comets and asteroids, and as bodies in eccentric orbits that can land anywhere with devastating results, they represent random events, and minor characters respectively.  You never know how these things are going to play out, and just as an asteroid put paid to the dinosaurs in our own Solar System, a group of nomads might capture a vital character, or a talkative bartender might casually toss out a piece of information that changes everything.

So that’s my grand theory, that solar systems have a lot in common with the tightly-woven threads of a good, convoluted plot, and that you can learn a lot about one by studying the other.  What do you think?

News Updates

NightfearManhattan

Steve Moore, a British Ameriphile and speculative fiction author, is putting the finishing touches on his new novel, which he describes as a “steampunk lite erotic vampire horror” story.  He is currently looking for beta readers, so anyone interested in trading your honest opinion for an advance reader copy from the cutting edge should contact him at the link above to arrange the details.  Incidentally, the eye-catching cover was created by Bryce Raffle, whose web page is linked in the sidebar under Illustrators.

*          *          *

DoctorJackmug_512

Karen J. Carlisle, author of such series as Viola Stewart, Doctor Jack, and Aunt Enid, is also an artist in her own right, and is offering a series of mugs with tie-in art to her books.  Whether you’re a fan of Viola, as I am, or a collector of rare mugs, you should definitely take a look at these.  Her current post is promoting in-person purchases at a local convention she is attending, but you can arrange on-line purchases using the Contact form at her website above.

*          *          *

DownJerseyDriveshaft

Today and all weekend, William J. Jackson has set the price of his dieselpunk opus, Down Jersey Driveshaft at 99¢ US for readers in the UK, so don’t miss this sprawling story of war, personal suffering, and triumph!

*          *          *

And that’s today’s offering.  Be with me next Tuesday for another issue of Blimprider Times, when I’ll once again be rounding up the week’s news, and taking an in-depth look at one of my sister websites.  See you then!

Blimprider Times No. 4: The Ads

I’m trying something new today, something to support my friends and readers, and I expect it will become a recurring feature.  I have polled my author friends, my readers I’ve just met, and any writer who stumbles across my site to send me information on any books they have published in the last six weeks, will publish in the next six weeks, or any promotions they have coming up in the near future so that I can publicize them here.  Without a whole lot of extra fluff, then, let’s get started.

Terror in the Shadows by C.W. Hawes

TERROR-IN-THE-SHADOWS

An eldritch terror.  A lurking fear.  And death on our doorsteps.

Special Agent in Charge Pierce Mostyn is on a collision course with a nightmare.  And he doesn’t know it.

While investigating a mass murder, Mostyn and his team discover a gothic horror tale being played out in the hills of Appalachia.  But can he stop his team from becoming the next victims?

Terror in the Shadows is the third book in the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigation series.  If you like tales of Lovecraft’s Mythos, humor, weird adventure and horror, then this series is for you.

Open the door today — if you dare!

Terror in the Shadows releases Monday, March 26, and will be available on Amazon.com.  An excerpt from the first chapter is available at C.W. Hawes.com.

Aunt Enid: Protector Extraordinaire by Karen J. Carlisle

Aunt-Enid

Daemons, fairies, magic:  It’s all real!

The Otherworld is bleeding through cracks into our world.

And Adelaide is ground zero.

Something is coming.  Something dark – trading souls for passage.  And only one person stands between The Dark and the fate of the world.

Aunt Enid is just your average seventy-something year old.  She loves to cook, is a regular at bingo and spends hours in her garden, talking to her army of garden gnomes and fussing over the color of her hydrangeas…

When people start disappearing, her great niece, Sally, is drawn into a secret world and soon discovers her great aunt is a Protector Extraordinaire.

Aunt Enid:  Protector Extraordinaire is the first book in ‘The Aunt Enid Mysteries’, the first series in The Otherworlds Chronicles.  Expected publication dates are April 30th for e-books, and May 14th for physical copies.  This is still in flux, but she is 90% sure of making these dates.  Also, be aware that she will be offering a coupon for the first two weeks of the e-book reducing its price from $2.99 to .99 USD on SmashWords, so before you order, visit her webpage, https://karenjcarlisle.com/, to take home this bargain on a new book by an excellent writer.